The bar was a cozy set-up with a few bar stools, tables and chairs, some paintings on the wall and a light haze of cigarette smoke wafting about. The shelves were well-stocked with various wines, spirits and liquors (including some casks of Hudson Valley and Amontillado) along with the usual assortment of beers and ales. A bartender and a barmaid were visiting with patrons while they poured and distributed drinks.
Richard subtlety admired his reflection in the bar’s large mirror. Not a hair was out of place; the dark blue eye mask fit smoothly. The suit was well-tailored, the shirt was crisp, and the knot in his tie was perfect. He reflectively shrugged his shoulders and shot his cuffs. The music was in full swing, and it was time to meet the ladies. He took a deep breath and anticipated the sweet scent of the ultimate aphrodisiac--female pheromones. He smirked as he turned to the ballroom; the night was young, his bar tab was well in the black, tips had been distributed, and there were women waiting: it would be a perfect night.
Across dance floor a small band was performing in bright light on the stage. Richard thought he recognized the blond-haired singer in the light blue suit—his voice sounded very familiar—but he didn’t give another thought about the man. There were sofas and love seats around the perimeter of the floor; he wondered how long it would be before he and some lucky lass would be sharing one.
He looked around at his future competition and conquests. There seemed to be some casual pairing, one or two couples, but otherwise, it looked as if the ladies were approachable. The dancing had already begun, and there were a number of couples on the floor. “We’ll have this night for romance, so dance, dance, dance!” the singer cheerfully sang.
He wandered through the perimeter crowd, looking about him like a shopper at a market, and enjoyed the views that the evening gowns offered: Bare shoulders, bare backs, swan-like necks and low fronts. He discovered it was a bit difficult to make eye contact when every one was wearing a mask, so he went on his way single for the time being as he thought about how to make a selection.
He fought a small peach-flavored belch. He suddenly felt awkward, and decided to go back to the bar, traveling through the other half of the ballroom, looking for familiar faces and finding none. How did I get in here? What happens when the dance is over?
He returned to the bar, put in his order, and then sat at a table. At the base of the small lamp, he puzzled while he toyed with a cigarette lighter and ashtray, both stamped with “The Crystal Ballroom.” The barmaid brought over a plate of appetizers and a small glass of wine. He nodded his thanks, and then ignored both while he stared at the large landscape painting that hung a few feet away from him. What is this place? Shouldn’t I be someplace else? he wondered. He looked critically at the appetizers. Can't smell them; they must be stone cold.
The music shifted again. “Stilettos and silk; be with me tonight,” the voice crooned. “Crinoline and satin….”
Richard stopped worrying for the moment. He studied the women sitting at the next table, and decided to ask one of them for the next dance. He stood up from the table, his wine and food forgotten.
Which one, which one? he wondered. The women were looking back at him, subtlety preening. One wore a mask made of peacock feathers and a strapless dress. She turned to him when he came over to the table, as if she was ready to join him. He decided to ask her.
The music shifted as he put his arm around her and began to skillfully lead her through the steps. “You dance divinely,” she said. “I haven’t seen you here before; where do you usually go?”
He tasted peach in his mouth again, and swallowed it back down. That is not romantic, he chided himself. “At Dinty’s,” he answered. “Every Thursday night there’s a dance there. It’s rather casual, though. And it’s not as fancy as this,” he said, frowning slightly as he tried to remember. She's not wearing any perfume; that's different, he thought. No pheromones. Odd
“Satin and silk, sweet fabric of love,” the singer’s voice reached out to him. “Be mine tonight.”
“So where is this Dinty’s?” she asked, tilting her head back.
He forgot the question as his thought shifted to the woman in front of him. “Hm?” he asked, pulling her closer to him.
She didn’t ask him any more questions.
The songs drifted through what had once been Richard's brain. It was all he could do to stay on the dance floor. He had no idea how long he had been dancing; the music never stopped. He had had countless partners, each woman had seamlessly stepped in and taken a turn with him, each woman had been beautiful, and each made his blood run like quicksilver. His current partner wore black raven feathers in her hair, on her mask, and around her very low neckline.
He felt the reflux come up again, and it burned his throat on its journey into his mouth. I’ve had enough of this, he thought to himself. I’ve got to get rid of it, or it’ll ruin the rest of the night.
“I’m going to the bar for a moment, and I’ll be right back,” he promised as he led his partner to a sofa, where she gracefully sat and smiled up at him.
Richard kissed the back of her hand, and then, careful not to swallow, made his way through the crowd and the smoke to the bar. He picked up a napkin and discreetly spat into it, and then carefully folded it up. The air seemed to clear up around him, and he took a deep breath. He motioned the bartender over. “Do you have a bin where I can put this?” he asked. “And may I have a glass of water?”
“Water of Lethe?” he asked, while holding up an empty bin.
“Just water. And thanks, just what I needed,” he said as he got rid of the napkin.
The bartender eyed him as he started to fill a glass. “Half a glass,” Richard said. I need to rinse out my mouth and get this out; it tastes like Living Death, he thought to himself. I wish I knew what I ate that had peaches in it; I know better. He took the glass, and turned his back to the room. Carefully, he took a large sip of water, swished it around his tongue and teeth, and spit it back into the glass. No wonder I haven’t had any luck tonight, what with that on my breath, he thought with a bit of annoyance.
“Thank you, and sorry about that,” he said, handing back the glass with a grimace. “You know, if it wasn’t for the music, I should have stayed home tonight,” he said, seating himself at the bar.
“What do you mean, governor?” the bartender asked him as he handed him a fresh glass of water, a worried look on his face. A couple of bar stools over, another man smoked a cigarette, coloring the air blue.
“The music is very good, the singer is great, but coming here without a date was a big mistake. I’m surprised I haven’t run into Gwen and her latest boyfriend,” he complained. “I haven’t met anyone new tonight, and it’s getting rather tiresome watching everyone else have a good time. I should have already gone home, or maybe gone to Dinty’s for a round of darts." Frustrated, he inhaled deeply, expecting the scent of tobacco. That's odd he thought, as he watched the man stub out his cigarette. Why can't I smell that? Something's not right, but what?
He turned around on the stool and glared at the now familiar painting. “As it is, I’m getting a bit sick of love songs; it’s like rubbing salt into the wound.” He loosened his tie as he inhaled again, expecting to smell the usual aromas of a ballroom--perfumes, sweat, musk and pheromones--but sensed nothing. Am I getting sick? he wondered. Am I forgetting something?
He glanced back at the dance floor and saw a woman in a red dress, wearing a black mask standing out in the crowd, looking towards him, but some people passed between them, and she was gone. She's probably waiting for someone, he ruefully thought. I'm not going back out there again. He slid the knot further down the tie and unbuttoned his top button. Great, now I can breathe. He ran his hand through his hair as he spotted his reflection again. Back to my slovenly normal self; what else is new? He inhaled deeply, but still smelled nothing.
“Do you have any way to get to St. Mungo’s from here? I’d call Chaucer to come and get me, only he’s already with the....” Walnuts! No wonder I can't smell a thing! Richard’s face went ashen white and he tore off his mask. He stared around the room, and then ran through to the stage, pushing dancers and by-standers out of his way. People started screaming, but he kept running.
The music stopped. Richard jumped up on the stage and faced the goblin king. The king glared at him, his microphone in hand, while the other band members ran backstage.
“Where are the children?” Richard demanded. “Where are they?”
There was a rushing noise around him. Richard turned and saw the room imploding. His body was pulled off the stage, and he fell into nothingness.
The void became filled with smoky gray clouds. The air was lukewarm, and he had the oddly calming sensation of slowly falling. He looked below him to a gray sea and white foam, which reached up and swallowed him down into its briny depths.