He was twenty-three when the first invitation came. Flush with the vibrancy of youth, dressed in stiff suit jackets and wrapped in the kind of confidence that only comes with academic achievement. The ink on his bachelor degree—hanging proudly on the wall of his office at home—was practically still wet.
The invitation was printed on linen paper, the kind that usually proclaims that “Mr. and Mrs. So and So would like to cordially invite you to the wedding of their beloved daughter…” but this had nothing to do with weddings, which he disliked on general principle. This was an invitation that he’d been convinced he might never receive, and if he’d dared to dream, in his daydreams he’d been old and grey, stooped, wearing a tweed jacket with worn elbows, nursing a bad smoker’s cough perhaps. He could never kick the smoking habit, even now that it was no longer fashionable.
But here was the invitation, just shy of his twenty-fourth birthday. It set his hands trembling and his heart drumming furiously against his ribcage. The crisp linen paper had only six words on the front.
You are cordially invited to dinner.
He could only imagine the reactions of his friends. The jealousy disguised as admiration. They’d laughed at him once, when he’d mentioned the society. That a man of his age would believe an urban legend. There was no Midnight Dinner Society, they told him. There was no secret meetings where the greatest scholars and scientists shared their secrets in the flickering candlelight. What a ridiculous idea.
Their laughter had crept into the back of his skull and stayed there, keeping him awake at night, body stiff with fury, fingers knotted in the covers. But now they would have to shake his hand and slap him on the back like they were happy for him. When they get home they’d complain to their wives and girlfriends.
That Harvey, they’d complain, Lucky bastard got an invitation. Got THE invitation. Haven’t I worked just as hard as he has? Haven’t I got the same degree?
They’d be right to be jealous.
His hands shook and the invitation trembled, fluttered like dove wings. He knew what was on the back, but turned it over anyways. The address blazed across the centre in black ink.
1116 Pickard Place.
It would be this Friday. It was always Friday, at least, if the rumours were to be believed. He checked his day planner, smoothing his fingers over the glossy leather cover, fidgeting as he took in the dates. Wednesday. It was Wednesday now, and that gave him two days to plan. Two days to think out what to wear, what to say, how to act. His mind worked out the hours, minutes, seconds, tallying up the numbers. He was always thinking in numbers. Two days gave him endless time.
His nerves were jangling already, raw and buzzing. The office seemed suddenly small as he paced back and forth. He couldn’t tell his friends, he remembered that now. If you told anyone, the invitation would be revoked. If just he had a wife, a girlfriend, even a roommate. Someone to talk to. Even if he couldn’t tell them exactly what he’d been invited to, he could tell them how prestigious it was. Women didn’t need to have things explained to them in detail, particularly not when it was something academic. His girlfriends in the past, the good ones, had just been happy for him, even when he’d said they wouldn’t understand exactly what he’d achieved, but that it was good. They’d been happy to celebrate with him.
The apartment seemed quieter than usual.
Friday stretched out forever, long and lazy and reluctant to be over. Every second seemed like forever. At eleven he put on his very best suite, the one with ascot instead of the tie. A bit pretentious if he was going anywhere else but this. In silence he stood before the mirror, worrying at his cuff links, then his hair, making sure every bit had been jelled into place. He cut a heroic figure, the type of man who could recite entire text books, but capture a woman forever with one promising look. It occurred to him that there could be women at tonight’s dinner. That the Midnight Society might have given in to that way of thinking. Everything was political correctness and kowtowing these days, wasn’t it? It didn’t have to be right, it just had to be equal. A nonsensical, feel-good way of thinking of things.
It hardly mattered though. The highest rewards were still reserved for those who earned them. If there were women there, there wouldn’t be many. He straightened his ascot again and looked at the clock.
At eleven-thirty he walked slowly down the hall, past the kitchen, into the foyer. He slid into his jacket and buttoned it slowly, all the way up to his chin. The house was dark and silent. It was good to be leaving it behind. For brighter things, for better things.
On the doorstep he paused, winter air burning his lungs. There was a map in the car, in the compartment beside his seat, and it would be easy to find the place. In fact, he was pretty sure he’d heard of Pickard Place before. It was an industrial area, nothing there.
The address lead him to a warehouse, a nothing place in the middle of nowhere, a building that crouched on its patch of land like a hungry dragon, algae-stained walls bowing inwards like fleshless ribs. He parked on the street beneath the “no parking” sign, standing before the warehouse for a few seconds, letting the cold air and the smell of garbage assault his senses.
This place didn’t seem right. It was supposed to be the most prestigious of meeting places, hallowed ground of the greatest scholars from all over the world, not a place where drug pushers and whores might meet.
For the first time a flash of cold doubt seized his heart. Had he been played for a fool? Was the invitation in his pocket someone’s idea of a joke? He thought about turning around to leave, climbing back into the safety of his car and driving home. But then he would never know if he was the victim of a cruel prank, or if he really had been invited by the society.
He approached the building as if it really were a sleeping monster, treading softly down the sidewalk to the cavernous mouth of the warehouse, a door that hung crooked on its hinges like a broken tooth. Once over the threshold the sound of broken glass under foot made his teeth grit together, and he paused, letting his eyes slowly adjust to the darkness inside. It was empty, filled with dust and garbage. Piles of scrap metal collected in drifts over the floor. Cobwebs draped from the corners and dangled from the beams of the ceiling.
Anger slowly grew in the pit of his stomach. He’d been invited to an abandoned warehouse full of garbage. Was that what these people, these pranksters, thought he was…garbage?
An orange light at the very back of the warehouse flared, making him stiffen and raise one hand to shield his eyes. The light faded, then brightened once more.
There was a doorway at the back. He moved as if in a dream, ignoring the foolishness of it, lured toward the beacon. Though piles of broken glass and metal littered the floor, his feet seemed to find a clear path.
The second doorway lead into a wide room, a room so big that the orange light was swallowed before it could reach the walls or ceiling. The light itself was coming from a wrought-iron lantern sitting at the center of a very long table. There was a strange, low whirring noise from the table that made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.
A whisper of fabric, and a second light flickered into existence, revealing its bearer as he walked toward Harvey, a heavy-set man in an immaculately pressed suite and a silver tie. Harvey stared, taken aback by the presence of a gentleman in this place.
“Ah…hello. Is this the place…er, you know…where they meet?” He wasn’t sure how much he was supposed to say.
The man’s face was absent of all expression as he gestured to the table, sweeping one gloved hand outwards. He said nothing, but the meaning was clear enough. Sit.
Harvey turned to look, about to protest, but something had changed with the lighting of the second lantern. The table was set for a dinner party, draped in a white linen table cloth. There were seven spots, each set with glistening silver placeware. Ivy had been arranged artfully down the center of the table, curling around several large candelabras. But the most impressive thing of all, the thing that made Harvey’s protests die away before he could voice them, was the centerpiece in the middle of it all.
It was a giant, clockwork timepiece, something made of gears and wheels that spun and ticked a whirred, creating that low hum he’d heard when he first came in. Brass, needle-like hands crept over a clock-face made of glossy stone, and wisps of steam hissed out with each tick of the second hand.
11:45. It had been less than five minutes since he’d stood at the entrance of this building and wondered if someone was playing a joke on him.
The butler – that’s what he had to be, Harvey decided – was leaning over the table, lighting each candle from the candelabras now, slowly and ponderously, a job that was surely going to take an eternity at the pace he was going. Gradually the room grew lighter as he did, revealing a high, vaulted ceiling and a fireplace at the back, one made of black marble that glistened wetly in the orange light of the flames. There were stone lion statues on either side of the sooty grate. One sat regally upright, still and watching. The other crouched low and feral, mouth forever open in a silent roar.
Nervous, Harvey shifted, taking in the rest of the room. Above the table hung a giant chandelier, tear-shaped drops of crystal glittering as they swung ever so slightly. There was a second door at the back of the room, beside the fireplace. Perhaps that’s where the butler had come from. Clearly the man had been waiting here for him to arrive. For the others to arrive.
He ran his hands over his suite jacket, licking his lips. Where were the others? He was eager to meet the regulars, and it was nearly midnight.
The butler finished lighting the candles. He turned away from the table and stooped over the fireplace, moving the grate aside. Harvey was just making to stand, to demand the silent man speak up and tell him what was going on. But there was a sound that froze his voice in his throat.
The tell-tale click, click of high heels on cement.
And then the second guest was in the doorway, and she was a woman. A very beautiful woman in a green evening gown, with dark glossy hair piled on top of her head and large expressive eyes. She belonged in magazines and movies, but not here. Not at a secret midnight dinner.
The woman smiled at him with red, red lips, and made her way silently over to the chair across from him. When she came closer her features triggered a memory of something unpleasant. He had seen her on the front of magazines. No, not magazines, newspapers. He hadn’t bothered to learn her name, but he knew she was famous. A woman scholar, someone specializing in languages.
He could feel his own face tighten in response, forcing a smile, masking the disapproval. He was a guest here, and no matter what he thought, he had to be polite. A display of manners in the face of something you found unpleasant was the mark of a true gentleman.
The arrival of a second guest became a merciful distraction, a pair of them, two men in neat pin-striped suites. They tipped their hats to the lady and gave Harvey a careful nod before seating themselves, one on either side of him. The brothers had been featured in one of his favourite science magazines last year. Harvey’s face grew warm, his cheeks burning slightly.
He felt small, an unpleasant thing to feel.
Third to arrive was a tall, spindly man whose suite looked as though it had shrunk, revealing his thin wrists and ankles. The way he scuttled across the floor and settled into his seat reminded Harvey of a spider, and he barely looked around at the others at the table.
A pale, twitchy man. Decidedly a beta type.
Harvey disliked him immediately.
The fifth and last guest, was another woman, and one that set Harvey’s teeth on edge even more than the first one had. She was solid and firm and dressed in a pant-suit. She squared her shoulders like a man after she sat down, and kept shoving her glasses up her nose aggressively while she looked around the table.
The twitchy man broke the silence. “Wh-where’s the…there’s only six of us.”
A smooth voice spoke up from beside the fireplace. “Yes, and Mr. Taylor apparently thought it acceptable not to show up.”
“But the…num-number seven—”
“It will still work.” The butler stepped out of the shadows, folding his hands in front of him, smiling around at the dinner guests. “Do not fear. Mr. Taylor is being dealt with.”
The twitchy man shuddered, and Harvey sat back in his seat. Was this Mr. Taylor being kicked out of the society? So they didn’t forgive absences, that was something to note for the future.
The butler cleared his throat and then drifted back into the shadows. It seemed to be a signal that only the others understood, because they all sat up a little straighter. The woman in the pant-suite straightened her shoulders again, her thin lips pressed together. The brother leaned forward slightly and exchanged a look across Harvey’s line of vision, making him feel like he was intruding on something.
Then the twitchy man gave one sharp jerk of his shoulders, as if he’d been shocked by something, and scrambled to his feet. He began to speak haltingly, clearing his throat and smacking his lips between every sentence.
“Uh, this year I tra-travelled to Berlin. They’re making great leaps and b-bounds in heart transplant technology. I learned from one of the top surgeons there, a new t-t-technique…” He stammered to a halt, and for several painful seconds, simply moved his lips helplessly, while nothing came out. Finally he appeared to catch his breath. “Also, I attended a conference while I was there, three days of in-intense lecturing.”
He fell silent, and Harvey’s shoulders slumped as the twitchy man sat down. Just watching him stumble over his words like a buffoon had been painful. He blinked as the brothers on either side of him stood. “We discovered a new ship wreck this year,” said the first brother. His face was eager, cheeks flushed as he gestured with his hands. “We’ve documented it extensively.”
The other brother added, “It appears it was another ship full of immigrants much like the Mayflower, only this one never made it. We’ve uncovered records of the families that were on the ship, and we’re putting together an extensive history.”
Next up was the woman in the green dress. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes glittering. There was something about her that vibrated beneath the surface, though her face looked outwardly calm. “I travelled to Egypt, Cairo this year, and we think we’ve uncovered the roots of a new language, one that was use by the Enocians there. I’ve begun to learn as much as I can of it.”
There was silence after this statement, brief, and loaded with something that Harvey couldn’t interoperate. The woman in the green dress sat down so suddenly that she nearly knocked her wine glass over, and the brothers exchanged another long look across Harvey, who crossed his arms and frowned at the table top.
Perhaps the others were uncomfortable with the idea of a woman making discoveries like that. What if she missed something? Emotions so often caused distraction in women. To trust something as vital as the discovery of a new language to this woman, with her pouty lips and smokey eye-makeup…it didn’t make sense.
He barely heard the man-like woman speaking. He thought it was something about teaching a writing class, nothing impressive. It was hard to look away from the woman in the green dress. She was no longer flushed, in fact, the blood seemed to have drained out of her face, and she refused to look at anyone, staring only at the table top, fastening her eyes on the ticking clock at the center of the table.
Eleven minutes to midnight, the clock said.
Then it was his turn, at least, everyone was looking at him, so he assumed it was his turn. Heart racing, he stood up, feeling his knees threaten to give way beneath him.
“I, um…” he hated himself for the hesitation. He wasn’t like the twitchy man. He was a man. He was assertive, sure of himself. He pressed forward. “This year I achieved a PHD in history.” He hesitated, unsure if he was meant to go on. But the others shifted their eyes to the shadows behind him, so he sat, taking a deep breath to calm himself. It seemed that was all that was expected of him this time around.
Flames were crackling in the grate now, and the butler, who had been warming himself with his back to the guests, turned around. A silver tray was balanced on one hand, and as he moved closer Harvey could see a circular ring of leaves rested on the tray, deep green and glossy.
“The laurel crown.” The butler drew his thin lips back, showing receding gums and crooked teeth. The first time he’d actually smiled, Harvey realized. It wasn’t pretty.
“I think we all know who has earned the crown this year.”
The woman in the green dress sat up straight in her chair, and Harvey felt a flash of envy and hatred so intense that his mask nearly broke down. His polite smile nearly slipped. Everyone was looking at her, the smug little bitch. She just expected this, and clearly everyone else did too.
The butler glided around the table, placing the silver tray directly in front of the woman, as if he were serving her dinner. Carefully he reached down and picked up the laurel leaves. The woman in the green dress closed her eyes as he placed the crown on her head.
Then the butler was gone, replaced by a pair of heavy set men in black pin-stripe suites that Harvey hadn’t even noticed up until then. But they had been leaning against the wall behind the woman while the butler had put the crown on her head. He knew that, he’d just been distracted, wallowing in irritation and jealousy.
The men stood on either side of the woman in the green dress, who finally opened her eyes, and slowly stood. They pulled her chair back, moving in perfect synchronicity, the one on the left offering his elbow. She took it delicately, eyes wide, lashes fluttering. Something in her pale throat moved as she swallowed once, twice. A muscle in her jaw ticked and fluttered. Then they were leading her away from the table, towards the door at the back of the room. Harvey fixed his eyes on the tumble of curls that fell between her shoulder blades, and the sharp green of the laurel crown against her black hair.
Moments later she was gone, vanishing behind the closed door. The only indication she’d ever been there was her empty chair.
The brothers on either side of him and the woman in the pant-suit struck up a conversation about politics. Even the twitchy man coughed into his hand a few times before joining in, his voice growing less shaky as the minutes went by.
Harvey should have been listening to them talking. He should have been joining in, even. He often complained to anyone who would listen that there was a shortage of intellectually stimulating conversation in the world. But he seemed to be entranced by the sight of the closed door, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from it.
Twenty minutes went by, then thirty. The others kept the discussion going, and occasionally they would try to draw him into it. The woman in the pant-suit even directed an encouraging, motherly smile at him, as if she thought he were merely shy. Harvey bared his teeth back at her in what he thought was a smile, and she leaned back in her chair, brows raised.
One of the brothers spoke up hastily. “It’s strange at first, we know.”
“You get used to it,” his brother added.
“It’s even worth it,” the twitchy man said. He was far less twitchy now. His stammer seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. “The knowledge is worth it.”
At last the door in the back opened, and the butler entered, pushing a silver dinner cart before him. “Dinner is served.”
A silver domed platter was set in front of each dinner guest, the butler moving fluidly between them, silent as he laid dinner on the table. The other guests no longer spoke, nor did they make eye contact with one another. The woman in the pant-suit no longer smiled. Harvey wondered if he was expected to lift the dome from the platter, or if the butler did it for them. Nobody was touching it, so he sat back in his chair and waited.
At last the butler stood at the end of the table and clasped his hands together. The orange candlelight flickered over his face, painting his features in fire. “We give thanks to for this meal, not to any god, created by man, not to the earth, plowed and tilled by man’s hand, but to knowledge itself, which is so vigorously searched for and so rarely found.”
The others chorused back as one, “To knowledge,” which made Harvey jump. He saw that they were all reaching for the silver handle on the platter, and quickly moved to do the same.
As he pulled the lid away, steam wafted up, bathing his cheeks and forehead. The scent, that of a rich and hearty stew, immediately set his mouth to watering. The broth was thick and light brown, chunks of vegetables and perfectly cooked meet showing just beneath the surface. It reminded him of the stew him mother used to make, before she left.
The broth was seasoned thickly with herbs, several of them whole leaves floating on the surface. Sharp green against the darkness. Laurel leaves.
Harvey braced his hands against the table, stomach turning.
“We imbibe the knowledge of the past to show us the discoveries of the future.” It seemed like voice was coming from somewhere else. His own head maybe. The butler had vanished, but it was his voice, deep and velvety, soothing.
“We become great scholars, gods and goddesses. Tasting the fruit of knowledge that the world has declared forbidden. Only this way can we achieve more than anyone else. You can drink now, and be one of us. Achieve more, become more. Be the best in your field. You will receive fame and money, you will be lauded by your peers. Or you can walk away now and never come back.”
Harvey picked up his spoon. It vibrated in his hand, clunking against the table. Around him, there was only the gentle scrape of cutlery on china.
“Drink and become more.”
He dipped his spoon in, just the tip of it. Letting the liquid slide on, thick and steaming, impossibly dark against the silver spoon. In the darkness the voice whispered.
Harvey lifted the spoon to his lips and closed his eyes.