The color photograph of the house on the Internet was truly an invitation to step back in time. It was a cheery white, gingerbread Victorian in a Chesapeake Bay setting, reminiscent of Charles Wysocki. Romantics that we are, we could just imagine the century of stories awaiting to be discovered behind its magnificent doors with the stained glass transom.
It wasn’t until we actually arrived in this quaint New England village, however, that we discovered two things that the innkeeper had left out of the conversation. The first was that the picture had been taken prior to the facade being completely repainted… black. The second was that its new look had been the brainchild of her two spiritual advisors, where were a pair of petulant cats named Ezekial and Murray.
“It doesn’t look anything like it did at the website,” my husband remarked, certain that we’d copied down the wrong address. As we rang the bell, I half-expected to look up and see the Addams Family mirthfully poised on the gabled roof to pour a cauldron of hot oil on us.
“Maybe they just painted it this way for Halloween,” I suggested.
“You don’t think that’s a tad extreme?”
I pointed out that the town at large seemed to have a lot of free time on its hands. In California, where I live, we’re content to settle for a couple of Hallmark pumpkins and whimsical scarecrows. Back here, they had life-size crones on broomsticks dangling from trees and skeletons lolling around on patio furniture wearing dark glasses and drinking Diet Pepsi.
“They probably pick a Corn King, too,” I quipped, certain that my handsome, broad-shouldered hubby would be perceived by locals as a prime candidate for sacrifice to ensure next year’s bountiful harvest.
Adding to this suspicion, of course, was that the room the innkeeper had waiting for us was the only one whose door was graced by a mini-wreath of Indian maize. It was obviously a sign of something.
When we returned from our sightseeing later that afternoon, the remaining guests had apparently all checked in, the doors of their rooms firmly shut. Likewise, they were still shut when we came back from dinner.
“I guess we’ll just have to meet them at breakfast,” Mark said, curious to query, I think, as to whether we all shared the same reaction to the B&B’s peculiar paint job and the even more peculiar owner. We chose 8 a.m. to dine ? early enough to get a good jump on things but not so late as to miss a communal breakfast with our fellow boarders. It is, after all, one of the joys of staying in such a place.
When we emerged on Saturday morning, however, the doors of the other rooms were flung wide open, the beds rumpled and the guests already long departed. It didn’t occur to me until a repeat of the same scenario on Sunday that the entire time we had been there we hadn’t heard a single footfall, cough or toilet-flush.
“Maybe she had a bunch of no-shows at the last minute and was embarrassed about it,” Mark opined.
“Why would we even care?” I asked, wondering further why she’d make so much extra work for herself by throwing the bedclothes into disarray as if they’d been used.
“Maybe it was the cats,” he joked.
Mark or I are not “cat people.” While we would certainly never harm one, we would likewise not go out of our way to purposely seek one out and feign any kind of affection for it. The uncanny thing about cats, of course, is that they can always discern people who prefer dogs and, accordingly, go out of their way to get in your way.
In the case of Ezekial and Murray, they kept letting themselves into our room and rolling all over our sweaters. By Sunday night, we were pretty convinced that they had also gone through our luggage and were reporting back to their mistress everything we were doing.
We had added reason to worry when Mark discovered a recent issue of The New Yorker in the wicker basket of bathroom reading fare. “I think I just found the plot for your next book,” he announced.
I assumed he meant a specific article and started to flip through the pages.
“No,” he said, “start from the beginning.”
With the precision of a surgeon, someone had meticulously clipped individual letters from the centers of various pages of advertising. “Maybe they were making a collage,” I remarked.
“Or a ransom note?” he hinted.
Both our voices by now had dropped to a giggled hush. I was reminded of the Hart to Hart TV series in which the glamorous Stefanie Powers and suave Robert Wagner were plunged into weekly amateur sleuthing adventures.
“I’m game if you are,” I replied, rummaging in my purse for a pen. We would write down the missing letters and decipher the mysterious message.
As we adjourned to the Jacuzzi-tub with our champagne to contemplate the mysterious message we had decoded ? I BE DEATH ? we were almost convinced we’d been unwitting victims of a Halloween joke.
Almost, but not quite.
My suggestion that we tell the innkeeper was countered by Mark’s belief that it was probably her magazine. Maybe even her scissors that had done the clipping.
“What if she left it here by mistake?”
“Yes, darling, and what if she’s standing outside our room with a bloody scythe?”
“Did you just hear a cat?” he said, inclining his head to listen.
“Oh, stop it.”
“We could go to the sheriff….”
“Don’t you watch old movies?” I interrupted. “That’s the last place we should go.”
“So now what?”
I recommended that we start stacking heavy furniture against the door and hope the room didn’t have a secret entrance.
“Fat chance. The cats have probably already told her. They’re probably downstairs meowing, ‘You have to kill them. Kill them now.’”
“I’m serious. Have you seen how Murray keeps looking at me?”
Suffice it to say, we were Sleepless in Chesapeake and more than a little anxious for daylight to come. In retrospect, I’m convinced that the only thing that saved us was that I wear contact lenses and wore a different pair down to breakfast every morning. Certainly someone whose eyes could arbitrarily change to such vibrant colors must have magical powers that ought not to be trifled with. At least, I was hoping that’s what our quirky hostess thought.
Then again, maybe she was just preoccupied trying to decide what kind of treats to make for her monthly coven meeting and deemed that killing us in the meantime wasn’t worth the trouble.
“I’m sorry you’ll miss Halloween,” she remarked the next day as we were checking out,
“The party this year will really be one to die for.”
I have no doubt but that she truly meant it.