Samantha Serpentini is an insufferable little warthog. Associate editor of the school’s monthly newsletter, vice president of the Youth Leadership Council, quintessential overachiever, class snitch, she sits, arms crossed, high in the bleachers and slowly shakes her head so everyone knows just how displeased she is to be here. From beneath the bangs of her severe black bob, she glares at her teachers and in her most truculent voice tells them that the phony jousts at Camelot’s Court are “a sickening display of savagery.” Her carefully articulated outrage surprises no one. Fond of using modish words, Samantha seems to believe existence itself is a kind of affront to moral decency.
She points a pudgy finger at the armored men on horseback and accuses them of engaging in horrific acts of animal cruelty. Since she was not permitted to bring a phone on this class trip, Samantha insists on borrowing one so she can document all of the gory details for the May newsletter. Her chaperones flatly deny her request. After trudging all day through the mist and rain to the museums and monuments, their patience is starting to wear thin, and they ask Samantha to relax and enjoy the show. This only agitates her all the more. She doesn’t like anyone telling her what to do. How can she possibly bring herself to watch a group of grown men, posing as gallant knights in shining armor, beating each other over the head with swords? What comes after the hand-to-hand combat? A witch burning? An inquisition? Samantha, who seems to know about these things, rattles off a long list of torture devices—the Heretic’s Fork, the Foot Screw, the Foot Press, the Spanish Boot, the Drunkard’s Cloak. She throws her paper crown to the floor, stomping it underfoot. To console herself, she crams a second hotdog into her mouth and doesn’t bother wiping away the brown mustard dribbling down her double chin.
Now, in violation of every rule in the faculty handbook, Jessica Mayfield sneaks away from Samantha and the rest of her pupils and sits alone in Ye Olde Tavern where she nurses a gin rickey and unburdens herself to the cute bartender. She badly craves a cigarette but has promised her daughters that she has given them up, this time for good. In the arena behind her, trumpets blast a recorded fanfare, and all at once the students in the eighth-grade class of Thomas à Beckett Academy erupt in wild cheers. It’s their final night in Washington, D.C., and after three days of enduring interminable lectures about the Civil War delivered in raspy monotones by half-blind septuagenarians wearing the baggy blue fatigues of Union privates, everyone is eager to have a little bit of fun. Everyone, that is, except Samantha.
Chosen because of its proximity to their hotel, Camelot’s Court looks like it has seen better days. The place reeks of manure and stale popcorn, and the long shadows and flickering faux torchlight threaten to give Jessica a headache. Desperate for a moment of peace, she glances again at the Bill of Fare, but the various meads and grogs, as well as the small selection of specialty drinks (the Executioner’s Song, the Wench’s Day Off), don’t sound particularly appealing. She rests her elbows on the bar and sizes up the young man polishing the pint glasses. In his red tunic, blue tights and imitation leather boots, he looks like an overgrown frat boy at a Dungeons & Dragons convention. Clearly, he doesn’t want to hear any more about this class trip or Samantha Serpentini.
Jessica beams at the bartender and points to her empty glass. “I believe I’ll have another. I read somewhere that the gin rickey is the official drink of Washington, D.C.”
The bartender gives her a blank stare. “Indeed, it is, m’lady.”
He twists open a bottle and grabs a clean tumbler from the shelf. His hands, Jessica notices, are unusually big and strong. An athlete during his college days, no doubt. He mixes the gin and seltzer and then drops two lime wheels into the fizzing glass. He tips his felt hat and places the cocktail on a fresh napkin imprinted with a red dragon.
“Your magic potion, m’lady.”
“Tell me, Abelard,” she says, reading his name tag, “what are you doing serving drinks to an exasperated schoolteachers? Shouldn’t you be out there rustling the ponies?”
The bartender purses his lips and frowns. “The secrets of this castle are well kept, m’lady.”
She laughs. “You’re a true professional, Abelard. How do you manage to stay in character for so long?”
Jessica takes a sip of her drink and nods. “You know, acting the role of a tavern keeper. It must get pretty exhausting after a long shift.”
“You’re referring perhaps to my skills as a player.” He wipes his hands on the towel tucked into his waistband and with his eyelids lowered says, “I am, as it happens, a trained thespian. I studied at university where I performed many of the bard’s problem plays. This trade gives me an opportunity to practice my craft.”
“Oh, I completely understand, Abelard.” Jessica tosses a handful of complimentary nuts into her mouth. “When I was your age, I had big dreams of becoming a novelist. In fact, I used to write fantasy stories about clairvoyant witches and extra-dimensional fairies and fearless young men who remain forever faithful to the peasant girls living beyond the castle walls. But these days I play the part of a parochial school English teacher. It turned out to be a very demanding role. I’m expected to stay in character all day long, just like you, but now I get the feeling some of the students are trying to pick off the teachers one by one. The sensitive darlings are quick to record anything that upsets them.”
“Indeed, m’lady, the king’s spies are everywhere.” He glances at a camera above the bar. “We must be brave, mustn’t we?”
In the arena the trumpets announce the second tournament of the night. Jessica reaches into her handbag and slaps a twenty-dollar bill on the bar.
“I know I shouldn’t do this,” she says, “but it’s Friday night, the time for merrymaking, and methinks I’ve earned a small reprieve from the cares of the day. Top me off, my handsome young swain. No need to be fancy about it. Just straight from the bottle.”
The bartender gives her a disapproving look and then adds a generous splash of gin to her glass.
“Goodness, I think I’m getting a little tipsy.” She giggles and leans forward. She can see now that the bartender’s eyes are light gray, not pale blue, and that he cut himself shaving this morning. “So, Abelard, is there a Heloise in your life?”
“Indeed, m’lady, I am spoken for. But his name is Richard, not Heloise.”
“Yes, he is my betrothed. We studied together at university. Next May we intend to wed.”
“College sweethearts, huh?” Jessica takes a long sip of her drink and catches an unfortunate glimpse of herself in the mirror behind the bar. There are dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes, and her skin has a sickly green tinge. Instead of a teacher, she looks like an exhausted, overworked, single of mother of two who lives in a rented apartment. She raises her glass and forces a smile. “Congratulations, Abelard, on your engagement to Prince Charming. May you have a long and happy life together.”
“Thank you, m’lady, for your kind wishes.”
“Just keep in mind what a wise man once said: marriage is an ordeal, not a romance.”
Jessica stirs her drink with a cocktail straw and tries to banish from her mind thoughts of her own failed marriage. In the arena the students are stomping their feet against the bleachers and having a wonderful time. By her tipsy reckoning they are all much better off than her own children who must make do with frozen dinners and clothes scavenged from cardboard boxes at a corner thrift store. Some of her students have a vague understanding of what it means to live in less fortunate circumstances, but they cannot possibly fathom just how desperate she has become.
Abelard seems to sympathize with her. He gives her a pitying look and steps forward.
“Beg your pardon, m’lady,” he says, lowering his voice, “but do you happen to know this urchin staring at us?”
He looks over her shoulder.
Jessica swivels around on her stool, drink in hand, and gasps. She’s been spotted in the proverbial green room, caught out of character by a demonic dwarf wielding a magic weapon. Dressed entirely in black, Samantha Serpentini emerges from the shadows of the adjacent Banquet Hall and stands like a plump reaper at the tavern’s gothic threshold. Instead of a scythe she holds a phone, and with an impish grin she quickly snaps several photos.
“Where in the hell did you get that, young lady?”
Samantha slips the phone into the pocket of her jumper and backs against an imposing wooden door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. She pulls on an iron ring that serves as a handle, and the door creaks loudly on its hinges. With a snort of derision, she disappears inside.
“Hey, you can’t go in there!” Abelard cries.
Jessica puts her drink down on the bar. For a moment she isn’t sure what to do. She slides awkwardly off the stool, twisting her right ankle in the process, and mutters a curse.
“Thank you, Abelard, for the lovely conversation, but now I must engage in mortal combat with a monster.”
“But it’s dangerous down there,” says the bartender. “I should get the manager.”
Jessica finishes her drink and then makes her painful way to the other end of the tavern. She opens the wooden door and finds a set of stairs that leads to the basement of the building. Here the flickering torchlight is replaced by blinding florescent lights that buzz like a swarm of insects. Leaning against the wall to keep her weight off her right ankle, she hobbles down the steep stairs. Behind her the door slams loudly shut.
Hoping to see a squat shadow flitting across the ceiling, Jessica pauses at the bottom of the stairwell and listens for the clip-clop of Samantha’s mary janes. Instead she hears the low rumble of a boiler and the sharp clank and groan of cast iron pipes. Although she knows her quest is a futile one, she limps along a lunatic maze of long gray corridors that seem to twist and turn and double back on themselves.
At the end of the corridor, she comes to another door, and with as much sobriety as she can muster, she says, “I know you’re in there, Samantha.”
She opens the door, and for a moment she thinks she has stumbled upon a medieval torture chamber. On the cinderblock walls she sees a great wooden wheel, a saw, a hatchet, a pair of rusty plyers, the essential hammer and nails. Beneath a rope and pulley, she discovers a skull staring blankly at the ceiling. With a shudder, she runs her fingers along a chain dangling from a post. It takes her a minute before she realizes this is a carpentry workshop where the sets are built and repaired. The skulls and chains are plastic props, and the man sitting in the corner smoking a cigarette is merely a performer, not an aging knight with a battle ax resting across his knees.
With a gloved hand he scratches his graying beard and says, “Can I help you, miss?”
Jessica hesitates before answering. “Have you seen a girl? About this tall? Round? Almost spherical? With short dark hair?”
“Afraid not.” He takes another drag on his cigarette, and she notices how his chainmail is tarnished and covered in dirt. “Your daughter?”
Jessica nearly chokes. “No, a student of mine. But I don’t think she learned anything from me.”
She walks to the center of the shop and recalls how, when she was Samantha’s age, she wrote a story about a girl who on a dare entered an abandoned cottage where there once lived a reclusive old man. A magician, some said. A dangerous maniac, said others. The girl, a thinly disguised version of herself, entered the cottage through a shattered window and searched the empty rooms hoping to find something interesting to show her friends, a creepy photograph maybe, or a deck of trick cards, but all the rooms were dusty and bare. Determined not to leave empty-handed, she crept into the basement and heard mice scuttling across the floor. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the dark, and as she stepped forward, past the hot water heater and utility tub, she detected an ethereal light glowing from behind a closed door. Trembling with equal measures or terror and excitement, she opened the door and discovered that it was a portal to an enchanted realm of mountains and lush green forests where the trees and plants and flowers communicated telepathically with her. She did not tell her friends about the portal, but every day after school she returned to the basement and traveled along wooded paths transformed by warm summer sunlight into dazzling cathedrals.
For weeks Jessica lost herself in this story, adding more details, building a world of endless adventure and excitement. Now she finds herself in the basement of Camelot’s Court, but instead of a magical realm, she finds herself in a cluttered little room where the cement walls seem to converge, and the cloying smell of sawdust nauseates her. Surely by now Samantha has texted the incriminating photos to friends and family and has posted the pictures to a dozen social media cites. The evidence is damning, and if more corroborating evidence if required there is always the camera in the tavern. Thomas à Beckett Academy, while nominally a Christian school, has a zero-tolerance policy for faculty misconduct. Tomorrow morning there will be an inquiry, and the headmaster will be left with no choice but to sack Jessica for her negligence and irresponsibility. Like Samantha, the headmaster believes in justice for precocious children, not mercy for fallible adults.
“Too old,” the knight says.
“I beg your pardon?”
The knight lifts the ax from his knees and stands up with a groan. “I said, I’m getting too old for this shit.”
“Been working here long?”
Jessica slumps down in a folding chair in the corner next to a crate filled with banners and flags. She has no idea what she’s going to do next, but tries to convince herself that this, too, is a part of her life’s grand adventure. It’s an opportunity to reinvent herself, to make a fresh start of things. Maybe she can find a new career, move to a different city, meet interesting people like this heroic knight.
She turns to him and asks, “They’re not looking for writers here, are they? Someone to develop new storylines?”
“Storylines?” He gives her an incredulous look. “No, I don’t think we need any writers.”
“Guess I’m out of luck,” says Jessica. “Well, then, may I bum one of your cigarettes?”
The knight takes a final drag and then crushes the smoldering butt under a heavy boot. He strides across the room, his armor clanking loudly in the dusty workshop, and says, “Sorry, lady, but that was my last one.”
Kevin P. Keating’s first novel The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. His second novel The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015) was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.