More from the Dinner Party…
The hart lingered at the far edge of an expanse of manicured lawn, its head down, front legs spread, shaking its head from side to side in a threat to the two men in the garden to keep their distance. Mr. Stiles walked along the cobblestone path, hands clasped behind his back, squinting against the afternoon sun.
His guest, Warren Eastman, was having a difficult time keeping up with him.
When he finally came to a stop, Mr. Stiles was neither winded nor sweating. Eastman was breathing so hard, his host feared he would hyperventilate. Drawing a linen kerchief from his inside breast pocket, Mr. Stiles held it by one corner at arm’s length. Eastman gratefully took the cloth square to mop his wet face.
Mr. Stiles gestured for the other man to keep the gift, not wanting to sully his fine suit with the sopping mess.
Jasper, Mr. Stiles concierge, seemed to materialize from nowhere with iced water. After gulping down a full glass, then refilling it from a pitcher on Jasper’s serving tray, Eastman was able to breathe normally.
The houseman left as suddenly as he appeared, taking the water and glasses with him.
Strolling at a slower pace, Mr. Stiles motioned for Eastman to walk with him.
“Mr. Eastman,” he began, flipping the other man’s wish card from his jacket sleeve in an unexpected demonstration of sleight of hand. “What precipitated this request? It seems rather pedestrian.”
“Maybe for someone of your means,” Eastman said grateful for the less demanding pace. “I’ve never been more than a day’s distance from the town where I was born.”
“I supposed that would be true,” Mr. Stiles conceded. “There is also great comfort in having somewhere to call, ‘home’.”
“That is if you have someone at home to come back to,” Eastman said. “I don’t.”
“Very well,” Mr. Stiles said.
“That’s it?” Eastman was suspicious of how easy the granting of his wish was.
“We will discuss your desired itinerary, then there is the matter of settling your current home.” Mr. Stiles started ticking off a few more details he needed to address before fulfilling Eastman’s request. “You’ll also need an expense account. Of course, it won’t be infinite, but you’ll have access to everything you need.”
Eastman spent the remainder of the afternoon with Jasper being measured for a new wardrobe. Dinner with the other guests was an impromptu Bon Voyage party. Two days later, Jasper drove Eastman to the airport. Taking possession of a folio of boarding passes, a passport, and a wallet filled with plastic and a cache of various foreign paper money, Eastman was left alone at the flight lounge waiting to board a transcontinental airbus to his first destination.
Settling into his mid-wing window seats, Eastman reclined his seat and closed his eyes. Having never flown before, he tapped his breast shirt pocket and a small case holding several doses of Dramamine. Half listening to the pre-takeoff spiel from the chief flight attendant, Eastman’s row mate sat down with a heavy sigh, lifting the armrest between them and spreading his legs to take up as much space as he could.
Eastman slid over and locked his seat belt in place. A baby began crying in the row behind him, and he heard the unmistakable sound of retching just as the wheels left the tarmac.
For the remainder of his virgin voyage, Eastman met with every cliché travel disaster. Lost luggage and reservations, food poisoning, pick-pockets and muggers. He got lost in Venice and detained by Interpol in Brussels. By the time he reached Brazil, he called Mr. Stiles asking to come home as soon as possible.
Arriving at Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo, Eastman was unceremoniously informed that his flight had been cancelled, but that there was a seat available on the red-eye, leaving at 1 a.m. for a ten-hour flight to Houston Intercontinental Airport.
Sitting on the plane waiting to disembark, Eastman’s phone chirped. A text from Jasper popped up on his locked screen, informing him construction on the 290 had snarled traffic. He would be late picking him up.
Eastman took his time making his way down to baggage claim, only to learn his luggage was still in South America. With just enough cash left to drown his misery in drink, Eastman went on a private pub crawl while he waited for Jasper’s curb call.
Well into his cups, Eastman didn’t notice the plain brown briefcase left at his last bar stop. The alcohol helped deaden the pain when shrapnel from the explosion tore through his flesh.
At his estate, Mr. Stiles was in the library when Jasper came in with the tragic news about the attack at the IAH terminal.
“It was a good thing you were unavailable to meet Mr. Eastman at the airport,” he said. “It would have been very inconvenient had you also been caught up in that dreadful situation. Was there anything else Jasper?”
“Yes, sir,” Jasper handed his employer a small, cream-colored envelope, embossed with an ornate monogram on the flap. “It is from Miss Hilde Pelaez.”
“She left us that first evening, yes?” Mr. Stiles opened the notecard, carefully perusing the message inside.
“Yes, sir,” Jasper said. “She was very gracious in declining your offer.”
“She has a lovely pen,” Mr. Stiles said. “She was pursuing a degree in special education, was she not?”
“Yes, sir.” Jasper also held a folded newspaper. “I believe she was hoping to attend the local university in the Spring. She was waiting to hear about her eligibility for a student loan.”
Mr. Stiles closed the card, returning it to its envelope.
“I think we can do better than that for her,” he said, holding the card out to Jasper. “Any other news of interest?”
“Yes, sir,” Jasper said, exchanging the newspaper for the notecard. “Above the fold, sir. Another of your former guests has come to an ugly end.”