Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The wind off the Pacific Ocean is cold, even in Malibu. A group of fifteen young men huddle close to the celebratory bonfire they have built on a secluded stretch of beach. A short distance away, the cars wait like obedient children. Inside one, a cellular phone rings for the fifth time in an hour.
The sand is still warm from the day’s sun. A tapped keg topples like a drunken soldier, but few of the men are drinking any more. They have been talking since noon, catching up on the years since they graduated from Cal Tech and went on their separate ways.
The conversation has deteriorated from highly placed and sometimes top secret research, grant applications, and the possibility of full professorships (as opposed to careers in government science labs) to the kinds of conversations they used to have in the dorm lounges late at night.
Desmond brought up his most embarrassing moment—something to do with toilet paper and the girl’s locker room when he was in Middle School—and Benjamin followed with his, Scott with his, and Michael with his.
But the conversation has stopped, for Reuben has taken the stage. Reuben, who took a mysterious trip to London in his senior year, and has refused to talk about it ever since. Reuben is a kind of hero to them all because he crammed two semesters into one that last year, and still managed to graduate with honors.
“Toilet paper on your shoes?” he says as he settles in the center of the circle, legs crossed. He looks like the before picture in a body-building ad, but his skin has cleared in the intervening years, giving him a handsomeness he never possessed before. His hair is longer too, just touching the tips of his tiny ears. “Getting caught peeing on your coach’s Volvo? Throwing up all over the Homecoming Queen at the dance? Come on, men, that’s kid stuff.”
“Kid stuff?” says Scott. His tone is a bit defensive. His Homecoming Queen story did get a lot of laughs.
“Yeah,” Reuben says. “Kid stuff. My most embarrassing moment happened at a state dinner when I was in England.” And then, because the group does not gasp or do anything else to show that it is impressed, he adds, “In front of Princess Di.”
“Princess Di?” asks Benjamin. “The Princess Di?”
“Man,” says a voice in the blackness. “She’s hot. Old, but hot.”
“You didn’t get sick on her, did you?” asks Scott.
“Not quite,” says Reuben, “but it might have been better if I did.”
When Lester asked me if I wanted to meet Princess Di (Reuben says, settling into the story-telling cadence he is known for within the group), I never thought it through. I knew Lester had connections—his father was an MP (that’s Member of Parliament for you non-anglophiles)—and Lester himself had spent summers with the Royal Family. So I spent my last thousand bucks and skipped the first semester of my final year at Cal Tech to winter in London.
I had brought a tux and my best hair cream. I even thought of getting my nose pierced, but then a friend told me that Di was not an Xer and might find the entire idea a bit gross. (I was a bit relieved; I am prone to sinus infections.)
That same friend sniffed at me for even imagining that anything would come of my meeting with Di. After all, she was a princess and I was a scrawny physics student who knew his way around quarks and computer languages—not the elegant dining rooms of Europe. But I had watched Pretty Woman enough to learn about place settings—
(“Pretty Woman?” Scott says. “You watched Pretty Woman more than once?”
(“Leave him alone,” says Benjamin. “It was a date movie. You did see it on dates, didn’t you?”)
—and I figured what I didn’t know, Lester would teach me.
And teach me he did. Place settings, Waterford crystal, the order of all seven courses. Seems Di had cut back on her social engagements. Lester’s family was one of the few receiving her, and while I stayed at the house, I learned not to answer the phone which rang incessantly, particularly in the middle of the night.
This was before the press learned that one of Di’s quirks was her penchant for phone harassment. Before the world learned that Di slept with her riding instructor and Charles never loved her. But it was after the bulimia stories, Squidgygate, and the public separation.
Di was lonely.
I hoped to take advantage of that.
Until Lester told me the real reason he had asked me to spend September with his family. They had to host a minor state dinner with the head of state of a small country in the middle of Europe. The Head of State, like the rest of us mortals, was fascinated with Shy Di, and refused to meet with John Major unless he could also meet with Diana. A ticklish thing at best, since at that point, Di was on the farthest outs she could be with the Royals. They refused to socialize with her, and so Lester’s father offered, in June, to host the dinner privately.
No one could have known how difficult private had become.
You see, Di was a darling of the international press, and the center of tabloid attention at home. If she wasn’t so frail, she probably would have killed a reporter or two by then. The family learned, in July, that hiring a catering staff was out of the question. Half the reporters on Fleet Street now moonlighted for the bigger name restaurants in hopes of a story. So the family had to rely on people they trusted, and when they came up one waiter short, Lester thought of me.
And all those posters of Di in my dorm room.
He figured I was an easy mark. He was right.
(Except for the screaming match the morning I found out. I slammed out of the house, stopped on that quiet English street, with its lovely row of trees, and realized that it was my pride or a chance to gaze on Di in person. I, of course, turned around.)
So, on the night in question, when I should have been wearing my silver tux with my grandfather’s diamond cufflinks, I was, instead, wearing a borrowed black tux stained with gravy. The tastefully tight cummerbund covered the gravy stain, but not the feeling of shoddiness it imparted in me. And I still couldn’t learn when to serve from the left, and when to serve from the right.
Lester, in exasperation, finally gave up, told me to watch the other waiters—most of whom were as pimply, scrawny and underfed as myself—then retired to his own room to dress for dinner.
Lester would get to eat with the family.
The chef was really the gardener, a middle-aged Idahonian named (I kid you not) Bubba. Bubba was big, Bubba was strong, and Bubba could protect a princess. But Bubba had only one seven course meal in his rather limited repertoire—a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. The Americans among the wait staff recognized it and tittered when they realized they were serving a colonial meal to the imperialists. But Bubba took offense at that.
“Them pilgrim guys,” he said more than once, “was Brits when they landed on that Rock.”
We all agreed, but took a vow of silence anyway. To us, a turkey dinner could never be elegant, not even when it was served on the family’s highly polished serving set. And all of us worried, in one way or another, what that infatuated Head of State would think when faced with drumsticks, yams and pumpkin pie.
“Not our problem,” said Cletus, the blond All-American hunk who had gone to MIT with Lester during his one summer in Boston. If Di noticed anyone on the wait staff, it would be Cletus.
“Nope. We just gotta make sure we serve this stuff in the best possible way,” said Finigan, the tall skinny redhead who had met Lester during that infamous year at the University of Chicago.
“I hope you guys know what goes left and what goes right,” I said. I was so nervous my face had broken out in four different places.
“Pay it no never mind,” said Bobby Ray, the short, square Louisiana boy who had introduced Lester to Bourbon Street during his brief (and no longer recorded on his transcript) stay at Tulane. “If one of us messes up, all of us mess up. It might be an ice breaker.”
“Lester’s mother said we weren’t to speak to the guests,” said Percival, the pasty twenty-five-year old who had yet to reach his adult growth. He had been the class goat, and Lester’s bunkmate at Eton during the period Lester called “the hell years.”
“Lester’s mother,” said Georgia, the only girl in the group, with a decided sneer. Georgia was a gum-chewing Angelino of Puerto Rican descent whose black hair was so short, and body was so thin she looked better dressed as a man than all of us except Cletus. “Lester’s mother’s spine is so straight that she can’t bend over to save her life.”
Did I say that Georgia predates Lester’s Cal Tech period by a wild twenty-four hours that ended in a fight outside the Viper Room? And this time, Lester was not the one caught fighting.
“First course,” Bubba said.
We all turned and froze in horror. Dozens of deviled eggs stared up from the shiny silver serving trays like glow-in-the-dark eyeballs.
“These are the appetizers?” Percival asked, his voice small.
“You gotta problem with that?” Bubba crossed his thick arms—his wrists alone were the size of Percival’s skull—and frowned.
“Absolutely not,” Percival said with more pluck than I had given him credit for. He picked up the first tray, balanced it on his shoulder like a good waiter, and backed out of the swinging door.
As he backed out of the door, Lester’s neutered tom, Pudge, sauntered in. Pudge was square as a linebacker, white with a touch of red, and had blue eyes from a roaming Siamese in his family’s past. He was also the most focused cat on the planet.
None of us thought much about him, though, since he had never focused on any of us.
Until the salad course.
Those of you who know Lester should be aware that this was happening in the London Townhouse, not in the 18th century manse in Cheswick or the family estate outside of Kent. For those of you who don’t know Lester—well, bear with me a moment while I set the scene.
The brownstone had been remodeled in the recent past by an architect with Vision. The kitchen—which was large enough to seat all of Parliament and still allow someone to cook a meal—was now off the formal dining room. Family dining was down the hall.
“Inconvenience every day of the week except Sunday,” Lester liked to say.
Formal dining was a room as large as the kitchen, filled with heavy mahogany furniture, and two chandeliers that looked as if they had once been made for gaslight. A Chinese screen (from some aunt’s missionary days) hid the wet bar in the corner. Objets d’art lined the shelves on the walls—collectible plates (which Lester assured me were not limited editions from the Franklin Mint), antique vases (pronounced vaaaaazes), and chipped, ugly statutes from some uncle’s Egyptian salad days. (At the other formal meal I attended, the guy from the British Museum drooled over those damaged things and claimed that the family might want to do a public service and donate the statues, particularly the one of Horus which even I knew was worth something because it had rubies instead of eyes. Nothing more was said. Public service, apparently, is not Lester’s family’s forte.)
The guests mingled in the library which Lester’s parents had settled on after a heated debate (“The front parlor has your family’s hideous weapons collection,” snapped Lester’s mother, “which is not something a young woman in the middle of a marital crisis should see, or have access to, for that matter!”) and sipped expensive liquor while Bubba finished the first course.
We were to put the appetizers on the table, and then the butler would call the family into dinner. We tried to arrange the serving platters of eggs as far away from the lights as possible, but the butler (who had been with the family nearly fifty years) still blanched. Nonetheless, he went off to perform his duty, and we fled the room.
In the kitchen, Pudge sat in front of the hot stove, staring at the roasting turkey inside. Bubba was preparing the second course—the soup course—for which (it soon became apparent) he had special-ordered a case of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle from the States. The sound of the can opener didn’t arouse Pudge who was more intent on the sizzling bird than even the opportunity for cat food.
We had ten minutes to debate the best serving method for soup while Bubba zapped individual bowls in the microwave. (“Are you supposed to do that with fine china?” Georgia asked. “You seen anything else I should use?” Bubba countered.) He topped each boiling bowlful with a sprig of parsley then sent us on our way.
The soup course allowed us to get our first glimpse of the guests.
The foreign Head of State (whom we were to refer to as Your Honored and Respected Sir, if we were to refer at all) wore a dark gray tux that accented his silvering hair. His face, unlined thanks to some obvious plastic surgery, had all the warmth of the Tower of London. His wife, wearing a gown covered with tiny diamonds, looked like an aging Barbie doll. Lester’s family filled the gaps in the table. And Di, even though she was surrounded by a crowd of people, sat alone.
She wore a tiny tiara in her hair that matched the choker around her neck. Her dress was off the shoulder, revealing the slight rise of her breasts. She smiled as she flirted with the Head of State, but the smile never reached her eyes. Her voice had an airy, little girlish tone that I hadn’t noticed in her public speeches. She ate part of an egg, leaving a dainty half-moon on her plate.
I whisked the plate away. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, I had been assigned to Di’s chair. Lester winked at me as I whisked with one hand, and set with the other.
Di’s hair smelled of jasmine, and I bent so close to her I could feel the warmth of her skin.
I managed to place the soup bowl without spilling a drop.
Di didn’t even notice.
And then, all too soon, it was over. We carried the dirty dishes back to the kitchen (to be dealt with by the morning’s cleaning crew), and to await our next task.
Cletus went to the window to count the bodyguards the Princess had brought with her. Finigan went to the other window to see if he could tell the Princess’s guards from the foreign head’s of state. Georgia kibitzed from the back, betting they couldn’t tell the Lester’s family guards from the guest’s guards.
I sat on a chair near the stove, which put me right next to Pudge. He was still staring at the turkey, his big blue eyes shining with fascination.
He had been at the stare-down over an hour now, and showed no signs of moving.
Bubba, on the other hand, was circling the kitchen like a man possessed. He was finally in his element. The salad course featured greens from his garden, topped with all sorts of veggies Great and Small. The veggies were nurtured by Bubba’s large, but capable hands, and he treated them like precious children as he put the finishing touches on the plates.
For once, a dish I would be proud to serve to a Princess. The salad looked like something out of a restaurant, with onions sliced so thin they looked like tiny bracelets resting on top of the romaine.
The dressing boats were on the table (I had already checked when I saw Bubba and learned there was going to be a salad course), so we had nothing to worry about.
“Hey, Bubs,” Georgia said. “What comes next after the salad?”
Bubba set the last plate on a tray and then grabbed potholders. “Not sure,” he said. “Been thinking maybe the cranberries can be a course all by themselves.”
“You’re not certain?” Percival asked, his face going whiter than the butler’s had when he saw the eggs. “Good God, man, this is a state dinner!”
“What do you care?” Gently, with a booted foot, Bubba shoved Pudge aside, and opened the oven door. The rich smell of roast turkey filled the kitchen. Pudge stood and approached the open door.
“Why, sir,” Percival said, “I care because we, the wait staff, will have to suffer the displeasure of the guests should the meal not be, how should I say it, up to snuff.”
“He means if they don’t like it, we get all the flak,” Bobby Ray said.
“I know what he means.” Bubba pushed Pudge aside again. Then Bubba bent at the waist and hauled the turkey out of the oven. The bird was huge, golden brown, and the juices dripped from its sides into the pan below. Bubba might not know how to cook soup, but he sure knew his turkey.
He put the turkey on the counter near the sink, then grabbed the pots filled with potatoes, and placed them on the stovetop. Then he opened the refrigerator and pulled out six pies. The fillings were loose, but I recognized them anyway: pumpkin, mincemeat, and apple. He put those in the now-empty oven.
“You can bake them all at the same temperature?” I asked.
“What is everybody, a critic?” Bubba snapped. “You try cooking a meal for the Princess a Wales. At least you guys geta look at her.”
Georgia left her spot at the window and came into the kitchen. She took a piece of romaine off the nearest salad.
“Now, now, Bubba,” she said, sounding not at all reassuring. “We simply want this meal to go as well as you do.”
“I been working on this for the last week and—dang!” Bubba slapped a meaty hand against his own forehead. “Babe, can you open the cranberries? And kid —” he was looking at me “— I need you ta take the bread outta that fancy warming pan thing.”
It took me a moment to locate the fancy warming pan thing, which proved a nice distraction so that neither Bubba or Georgia saw me grin while she harangued him for calling her Babe. I took the bread out, and arranged the slices in the wicker baskets that Bubba had left near the warming pan thing (which looked, in case you’re wondering, like a giant metal bread box with a heater).
By the time I turned around, Georgia was opening large cans of imported cranberry jelly (the flat kind that takes the form of the can), Bubba was putting shredded Parmesan on the salad, and Pudge on the counter beside the turkey, happily nibbling the knobby end of a drumstick.
“Pudge!” I screamed from across the room. Bubba whirled, but Percival beat him to the cat’s side. Pudge got tossed halfway across the kitchen, and slid on the tiled floor before he could skid to a stop near the back door. Cletus opened the door and tried to toss Pudge out, but a burly guard blocked the way.
“So sorry,” the guard said. “No one leaves.”
“Not me,” Cletus said. “The cat.”
“Right-o,” the guard said, shrugging a bit. “Fraid I do have my orders. You never know what that cat could be concealing on his person.”
“Half the princess’s turkey,” Finigan said.
“What?” the guard said.
“Nothing.” Cletus slammed the door closed. Pudge hung from his arms, square body extended, all limbs pointing toward the turkey. His little jaw was still working its last bite and his pale blue eyes were still focused on the bird, now all the way across the room.
“Great,” Finigan said. “Now what do we do with him?”
“We must serve the salad,” Percival said. “It’s past time.”
“Yeah,” Georgia muttered. “We don’t want to leave them alone with that soup too long.”
Bubba glared at her, but she pretended not to notice. Bobby Ray peered at the gnawed drumstick. “He only took the skin off the edge. If we peel all the skin away from that part of the bone no one will notice.”
“Get out of here. You’re distracting me,” Bubba said.
“What about Pudge?” Cletus asked.
“Cat won’t get past me a second time.” Bubba literally snarled the words. He spoke with such force, I actually looked around to see if there was a cleaver handy, and sighed with relief when there wasn’t.
“Okay,” Cletus said. He put Pudge down. The cat zoomed like a smart missile for the turkey.
“You’re covered with hair!” Georgia said, and it was true. White cat hair coated the front of Cletus’s tux.
“We’re exceedingly late,” Percival said. “The butler just gave us A Look through the door.”
“No one’ll notice the hair in the dim lighting,” Finigan said. “Let’s go.”
We grabbed our salad trays and hurried into the dining room. The soup bowls were empty. As I whisked Di’s away, and replaced it with her salad plate (another lovely, deft, almost professional maneuver which she didn’t notice), I overheard the Head of State’s wife ask if she could get the chef’s soup recipe.
Georgia snorted and Lester glared at her. “Sorry, ma’am,” said Bobby Ray, who was responsible for the wife’s eating enjoyment. “Closely guarded family secret.”
And we all managed to stumble into the kitchen before collapsing with the giggles.
In the kitchen, Bubba was making gravy. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he bit his lower lip with the concentration of a man taking the SAT test. He was swaying back and forth as if stirring made him dizzy.
The turkey cooled on the counter, Pudge-less.
It wasn’t until I got all the way inside the room that I understood.
Bubba was standing on one booted foot. With the other, he was blocking Pudge who was trying to get into proper position to jump onto the counter. Much of the floor was spattered with gravy, and Pudge’s whiskers had some suspicious smudges.
“Someone get that cat,” Bubba said. “He don’t even want no gravy. Not while that turkey’s in the room.”
“Give him the heart,” Georgia said. “That should keep him busy for a while.”
“Good idea,” Cletus said.
“You do it,” Bubba said. “If I stop now, we’re gonna get lumps.”
Cletus pulled the heart, neck, and liver from their places on the turkey’s side. Each movement he made left little white cat hairs all over the counter.
“Yuck,” Finigan said. “Did you do that to Lester’s mother’s salad?”
“Sure hope so,” Cletus said with a grin.
Percival had taken over blocking duties from Bubba. For each move that Percival made, Pudge made a new one, never taking his steely-eyed gaze from the turkey. From my perspective, it looked as if Pudge and Percival were involved in a ritual dance.
Finally Cletus finished carving Pudge’s meal. He waved the plate under the cat’s nose —
(“Hey!” Bubba shouted. “That was one of my dessert plates!”)
— and then carried the plate to the back door. Pudge followed, tail high, looking as proud as if he had bagged the bird himself.
“I’ve been thinking,” Georgia said, “that we should serve the turkey and fixings as one course, and dessert as the final course.”
“That’s only five,” Bubba said, still stirring. “I was supposed ta do seven.”
“I don’t think anyone will miss the other two,” Georgia said.
“What were you planning to serve after the, ah, cranberry course?” Percival asked.
“The bread course, what else?” Bubba wiped his forehead with the back of his left hand, revealing a sweat stain the size of California in his armpit.
“What else?” Georgia mouthed behind his back.
“Sounds good,” Cletus said as he walked away from Pudge. The cat was gobbling his food so fast we could hear the sucking sounds across the room. “But I wanna go home sometime tonight. How about we just do what Georgia said. I’m sure they’re not gonna mind either. I mean, how long would you want to spend with Lester’s mom?”
“Good point,” Bubba said. He pulled the gravy off the burner. “Don’t make no difference to me. If anyone asks, I’ll just say you guys dropped the other two courses.”
“Should we break some plates as a cover?” Bobby Ray asked.
“Lord, no!” Percival said. “Do you know how much these dishes are worth?”
“It was a joke, Percy,” I said, unable to take the strain any longer. In two contacts, Di hadn’t even looked at me. I didn’t know how to get her attention without making a fool of myself. And I was getting tired of standing in this kitchen.
“Okay,” Bubba said. “You guys go clear the salad and put out dinner plates. By the time you get back, I’ll have everything in their proper serving stuff.”
We did as we were told. Out in the formal dining room, the conversation had turned to future of the monarchy, and Lester’s father was desperately trying to turn it to something else. Di looked as if she were going to cry at any moment.
She hadn’t touched her salad.
I whisked the plate away and replaced it with a larger piece of the family china.
“What is this?” Lester’s mother whispered loudly to Cletus. “The invisible course?”
The butler, who was pretending to supervise, placed his hands behind his back and walked toward the table. Percival glanced in the butler’s direction, and stammered, “Ah, we-we-we are br-br-bringing the main course now, ma’am.”
I didn’t have long to ponder what childhood memories the butler’s approach raised in Percival because Di put her cool fingers on my arm. I glanced down at her manicured hand, resting so softly on my naked wrist, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
“Would you be so kind as to bring me a spot of tea? I do know it’s out of order, but I would be ever so grateful.”
Ah, gratitude. A man always likes that in a woman. It might lead her to…express it. “Certainly, your Highness,” I said, and cringed as I mimicked her accent.
(“Is that the embarrassing moment?” Scott asks, his sneer ready.
(“No,” Reuben says crossly.
(“Good,” Scott says. “Because if it is, make up something better, okay?”)
She didn’t even notice. She returned to the discussion of the monarchy by saying that she was concerned for William and Harry’s future. I didn’t get to hear the rest of the thought as we carried the dirty dishes into the kitchen. A huge stack of expensive but filthy china stood on the counter above the family’s American-style dishwasher.
“Ain’t none of them ate their salad?” Bubba asked with obvious disappointment.
“Too pretty to touch,” I said, taking pity.
No one could say that about the rest of the meal. The turkey was piled haphazardly on the platters (“Didn’t anyone ever show you the old one platter for white, one platter for dark routine?” Georgia asked). The potatoes looked like the snow cap on Mount Shasta. The cranberries were standing in perfect, wiggly can-shaped circles on their plates (“My mom used to at least slice it,” Finigan said as he picked up the cranberry dishes and put them on the tray). And the yams looked like wizened overcooked tubers in the center of perfectly white bowls (but then they always looked like that to me). There were no garden veggies because Bubba had used them all for the salads.
And to make matters worse, no one had remembered to put on water for tea.
Bubba promised to do so while we delivered the food. I hoped he would remember. He had to deal with the turkey carcass first. Pudge was done with his little dinner and it obviously had not been enough.
“Land Shark,” Cletus said, looking at the white cat circling Bubba’s legs.
“Food’s getting cold,” Bubba said.
“The tea’s for the Princess,” I said again, just in case he forgot.
“Ain’t it always?” Bubba muttered.
I got the turkey platters on my large server’s tray and led the charge into the dining room. “Your tea is coming, Your Highness,” I said as I set a platter next to Di.
She smiled at me and I felt the look all the way to my toes. I didn’t even notice when the lights went out, thinking in my dazed state that the world had simply gone dark with the force of my joy.
Lester’s mother screamed. His father shouted something about getting the torch (I sure hoped that was a flashlight), and the Head of State whistled for his personal body guard. Behind me came the sound of breaking glass. Bubba was yelling in the kitchen, and the swinging door slammed into the wall. I felt a rush of wind as something flew past me. I set the platter down quickly so I wouldn’t drop it on Di. She had made not a sound.
“Get it off me! Get it off, I say!” quavered a querulous male voice that I didn’t recognize.
The thin beam of a flashlight revealed a mess at the table. The Head of State and his wife were quivering at the far wall. Di was sitting rigidly. Lester was running out of the room—for the bodyguards I hoped—and the wait staff was frozen in mid-service.
The butler was screaming and groping with his right hand at a furry white thing braced on his shoulder. Pudge whipped his little head around. He had overshot his target, but now, with the aid of the light, he saw his quarry.
The turkey platters.
He launched himself at the table.
Lester’s father brought his hand up to protect his face, lost his grip on the light, and it crashed to floor, placing us in darkness again.
Part of my brain registered the oddness of the butler’s movements. Why fight a determined cat with one hand? Then the breaking glass registered.
“The butler did it!” I shouted, and ran for him. Amazingly, I reached him, grabbed him, and held him long enough for Lester’s father to recover the light.
The circle of light waved around the room. In the front of the house, the bodyguards pounded on the door. Bubba was still shouting in the kitchen, accompanied by more breaking glass. The butler was struggling, and I could barely hold him. Cletus and Bobby Ray hurried to my side as the beam of light caught the butler’s left hand.
He was holding the statue of Horus, the one with the ruby eyes.
“Cedric!” said Lester’s father. “Whatever are you doing?”
“It fell, sir,” the butler said.
Cletus and Bobby Ray grabbed the butler’s arms.
“Yeah,” I said. “It fell after he broke the glass.”
“Good heavens,” said Lester’s mother as the flashlight beam wavered and went out.
“Lester!” said his father. “Didn’t you replace the batteries?”
They argued for a few minutes, the front and back doors crashed in simultaneously, and then the chandeliers came back on. “The pies!” Bubba wailed.
The Head of State and his wife were still cowering in the corner. Lester was standing beside the butler, holding the man’s collar like a bounty hunter, Cletus and Bobby Ray holding him for real. The rest of the wait staff still retained their various positions.
“Pudge!” Lester’s mother said, her tone revealing her shock at this newest horror.
We all looked at the cat. He was standing in the potatoes, and leaning over the turkey platter. A piece of white meat dangled from his dainty, overworked mouth.
Tears rolled down Diana’s face, and she was shaking. I wanted to put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, but couldn’t.
“Your Highness, are you all right?” Lester’s father asked.
Diana nodded, then burst into a gale of laughter. “I haven’t had this much fun,” she managed between chuckles, “since I quit teaching kindergarten.”
The fire is burning low. The ocean rumbles behind them. Benjamin throws the last log onto the pyre.
“I don’t get it,” Michael says. “The butler did what?”
“He was trying to steal the Egyptian art,” Scott says.
“But why?” Michael says. “He had plenty of time to do that during the day.”
Reuben shakes his head. “That’s what we all thought, but it actually makes a curious kind of sense. You see, any theft would be traced back to him. But he figured on that night any disturbance would be credited to the press following Princess Di. He had drugged the coffee for the guards in the sitting room and library, and had already lifted some small items from those rooms. He also did some damage to the furniture to make it look like the losses were breakage. By the time the thefts were discovered, he planned to have sold the pieces to some black marketeers, and to be long gone.”
“I thought you said only trusted servants were on that night,” someone says from the darkness in the back.
“Well,” Reuben says, “he had been with the family for decades. How much more trusted can you get?”
“What, did he just snap?” Scott asks.
“Naw,” Reuben says. “I think he saw it as his last chance to get rich before he died.”
Wood crackles in the bonfire. A big wave crashes against the shore. Small white clouds look like cotton against the blackness of the sky.
“I still don’t get it,” Scott says. “I mean, mimicking Di’s accent is nowhere near as embarrassing as losing your lunch on the Homecoming Queen.”
“That wasn’t the embarrassing moment,” Reuben says, looking down at his hands.
“That’s the only one that comes close as far as I can tell,” Scott says.
“Yeah, right now you kinda sound like a hero,” Michael adds.
“Well, actually,” Reuben says, “I left out the embarrassing part. When the flashlight went out the second time, I kissed Di.”
“So what’s wrong with that? I woulda done it,” Benjamin says.
The rest of the group choruses their agreement. Reuben has not looked up from his hands. He clenches them into fists.
“And she said, in a very calm, mannered voice, ‘Lester, I do believe one of your friends has just committed a crime against the state.’”
Someone chokes back a laugh.
“Shows she’s got a sense of humor,” Benjamin says at last.
“A vicious one,” Reuben says. He turns his head away from the bonfire so that the group can’t see his expression. “‘You should tell him,’ she continued, ‘that the next time he plans to kiss a Princess, he should brush his teeth first.’”
“Jeez,” someone says.
“And then she started laughing, only she wasn’t making a sound, so I thought she was crying.”
The group is silent, all imagining themselves at the side of the Princess of Wales who, although she is old, is hot. Then they all imagine she is so grossed out by their kiss that she says something about it. They shudder in unison.
Finally Scott, who feels responsible for prying this story out of Reuben says, “Hey, man, I bet no one knew it was you. All the waiters were Lester’s friends.”
Reuben shakes his head. “At that very moment, the lights came up. The only waiter who was blushing was me.”
Silence again. Unlike the homecoming story which has, for these men, a slight undertone of an ice goddess getting her just desserts, Reuben’s story carries its own level of pity. After all, the embarrassment is on an international scale.
“Then what?” Michael asks softly.
“What do you mean ‘then what’?” Reuben says.
“What did you do then?”
Reuben licks his lips and glances at a faraway place none of them can see. “She took my hand and, wiping the tears from her eyes, said, ‘If you are a love and bring me my tea, I’ll give you a right proper kiss.’”
“And did you get her tea?” Scott asks.
For the first time since dark, Reuben grins. “After I brushed my teeth,” he says.
He looks at the cars parked in a line against the side of the road. Almost as if on cue, a cellular phone inside one car rings for the sixth time in the last hour.
“Aren’t you ever going to answer that?” Scott asks.
Reuben shakes his head. “She’ll call back,” he says. “She always does.”
Copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published published in Cat Crimes Takes A Vacation, edited by Ed Gorman & Martin H. Greenberg, Donald I Fine, 1995.
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2012 by WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Ateliersommerland/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.