Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Curse of Alexander Braker, Chapter 4

     After all this time Sam should have been prepared. He thought as much. Despite all that, he was caught short by the vision that Rachel presented in her party dress. Her dress was modest, but it was beautiful in how she wore it. It was thin strapped and swept to the ground with a slit on the side that was perhaps a shade too high. The pearl white highlighted the Mediterranean color to her skin. A stole added to the modesty of the dress. Sam knew that she could have chosen to wear a potato sack and make it the envy of the strictest social critic.

     Sam was decked in his tuxedo, a reminder of days that were more reliably flush than his current stretch. Fortunately, high fashion for men changed very little over the years.

     The party was at the Braker estate just outside of Tarrytown. The trip required the crossing of a pair of checkpoints. Fortunately, there was nothing happening to put the soldiers on alert. They waved Sam’s 1928 Chrysler through with barely a look at Sam’s papers.

     The drive gave Sam the chance to pass on the plans he had come up with. Rachel listened with half and ear. Sam knew that he might as well be whistling into the wind. Rachel had yet to fully stick to a plan he had laid out. From her point of view, a plan was just another thing to remember and get in the way of her winging it.

     Their trip came to a conclusion at the far end of a curved driveway leading up to a large colonial style mansion. Sam’s old beater, being well cared for, didn’t look too terribly out of place. Being his own driver, however, left Sam and Rachel walking back up the drive.

     Other guests were arriving in a steady stream. Ladies and gentlemen, both in the new status system and in the old vernacular were ushered up to the door by black liveried servants. Meanwhile, their drivers would park their cars and then headed for a waiting room set in the garage.

     Sam and Rachel joined the queue forming in the foyer. A grand staircase rose to the upper levels of the house. The line led to the left of the foyer. Every so often a nobler personage would be cut into line ahead of Sam and Rachel. In some cases the entire line appeared to be bypassed.

     “I wonder what the hold up is,” said Sam.

     “You’re not used to these grand soirees, are you?” replied Rachel. “Well then, you get to experience your first receiving line. We’ll be introduced to the Baron and presumably his family. Just smile and say polite things.”

     Eventually they made their way into the ballroom. Dozens of people already filled the space. The dance floor had just enough room to show a parquet wood floor. The three sides around the dance floor were carpeted and filled with tables. A temporary stage bore a piano with enough room for a string quartet. The strings were playing a waltz for the dancing couples. The far end of the room was mostly tall glass doors and windows. Sam couldn’t make out what was beyond them; the reflections from the room were too strong.

     The line moved forward steadily until Sam and Rachel came upon a man in a tailed suit and white gloves.

     “May I have your invitation, please?”

     Sam dug into his coat pocket and retrieved the engraved invitation. The Baroness had it delivered to his office the previous day.

     “Thank you, sir.” The butler then turned to the room and raised his voice to be audible over the quartet, “Mr. Samuel Watson, and guest.”

     Sam escorted Rachel down the three steps to the sunken floor of the ballroom. At the foot of the steps they were greeted by a plump woman of middle age. Sam recognized her from his research into the Society Pages; this was the elder Baroness Braker, wife to the deceased original Baron and the mother of the current Baron. Her hair had completed its turn to grey, and the lines on her face showed that her life had been far from care free.

     “Mr. Watson, it is a pleasure to meet you.” She put on a brave face, but something painful was happening behind her eyes. The maid standing behind the Widow Braker pressed a handkerchief into Mildred’s hand. Sam guessed that it had to do with his name. This night was also the anniversary of the death of her eldest son, also named Samuel, under mysterious circumstances.

     “The pleasure is mine, Lady Braker. May I introduce my associate, Miss Rachel Evans.”

     The two women clasped hands for a moment and exchanged pleasantries. Sam and Rachel then moved down the line and met with the current Baroness Braker. Sam introduced Rachel to her. With that done, Amelia Braker turned to her husband.

     “Jonathon, allow me to do this introduction personally. This is Mr. Watson, the private investigator I hired for this evening. He comes very highly recommended and is experienced with matters supernatural.”

     The Baron seemed to be barely into his thirties. He had sandy hair and a round, almost boyish face. He wore a pair of pince-nez glasses. The handshake he gave Sam was firm and he looked him square in the eye.

     “It is a pleasure to meet you Mr. Watson, although I regret that you came here in an official capacity.”

     “You don’t believe that protection is necessary tonight?”

     “No I don’t. I don’t believe in this whole curse hogwash. I presume that the emphasis on your supernatural expertise means that you are here in that capacity.”

     “Your wife brought me here to be of whatever service might prove necessary. I certainly hope that that would be none.”

     “Well, if it puts Amelia’s mind to ease, I suppose you will earn your fee, Mr. Watson. In the meantime, please, enjoy yourself.”

     With that, Baron Braker turned his attention to the next person in line. Sam took the hint and moved with Rachel into the ballroom proper. A young man dressed as a waiter escorted them to a table where place cards awaited them.

     “Mr. Samuel Watson’s guest,” read Rachel.

     “Sorry,” said Sam, “I suppose that I could have gotten your name engraved had I made arrangements with the Baroness.”

     “No, actually it worked out better. I recognize a few people from the clubs. It would have been awkward trying to explain the various names I work under.”

     “Have you seen anything interesting?”

     “You mean on the Other Side? Yes, I’ve seen that Lamar Steele is here. That one is right on my list of club habitu├ęs that I recognize. Better yet, however, is Mildred Braker’s maid has a touch of magic about her.”

     “Interesting. I suppose I should look into that part. Let’s get a feel for the rest of the party before we go chasing leads.”

     “Great, let’s start with the dance floor. Maybe they’ll do a tango next.”

     Sam groaned at the thought.