Chapter 31


A Star Among Stars

… in which The Epicureans gather for the feast.


The Epicureans mustered for their 25th solstice in Nottingham. From there, in a single luxury jet courtesy of the Duke and Duchess, the travelers would soon fly by night across the Atlantic.

They would glow in the heavens, a star among the stars. A star falling on Alabama.

The Epicureans gathered for the long flight, as they had each year for a quarter century, at a carefully chosen site. This solstice and every solstice, they chose their annual staging area for its obscurity, a spot allowing them to secretly board a single aircraft for travel to their fabulous feast. The precaution mattered, of course. Twelve private jets, even with their stealth technology and the most exacting below-radar flight plans, would always be more trackable than one. 

The closer The Epicureans came to their plates and cups, the more care they took. 

No headlines could affect them, of course. But laws? Statutes and decrees could sometimes invade even the lofty altitudes of their plutocracy. Why tempt fate?

For that reason, the pilots of the dozen jets — many of them Epicureans themselves — used crafty evasive maneuvers as they followed glide paths from Japan, Brazil, Niger, Saudi Arabia, and other worldly compass points to their isolated English destination.

By day, the Nottingham landing strip posed as a common, a little patch of jeweled green gracing the estate of the Duke and Duchess. This night, it became a dark plank, flanked in a pearly fog by leaping gas torchlights. 

One after the next, like fireflies, the sleek private jets touched down in the night within minutes of one another. The prearranged choreography kept a tradition. The founding Epicureans landed first, followed in seniority by their fellows.

The lion-headed Duke and his fiercely rouged Duchess welcomed their peers, party by party. The dignified pair, he in tux and tails, she in sable, stood at the walkway leading to the hatch of their 30-seat, custom, luxury jet, the life project of a genius Indian astrophysicist who had grown frustrated with the European space program and quit one morning halfway through a cup of coffee.

The Duke and Duchess had kept Kakade busy for the next 11 years designing the aircraft and building it with his own hands in a lavish hangar they built for him on the estate grounds. The Duke had effusively described the aircraft in his coded communication to The Epicureans: It’s a flying Taj Mahal.

In fact, The Duke fondly referred to the aircraft simply as “Taj.”

From the fog, The Epicureans arrived at the plane on horse-drawn surreys. Harnesses jingled, horses nickered. Liverymen hoisted down traveling bags, and then silver trays holding crystal snifters that the travelers had already emptied of good brandy.

Welcome! Welcome to the solstice!

The Duke’s big bear paw enclosed other Epicurean hands, and friendly kisses passed cheek to fiercely rouged cheek.

All aboard! cried the Duke. Make haste! Next stop … Alabama!

Now, they were all aboard.

The seats shone in gold-threaded silk, and music flooded the cabin. The door glided shut without a sound.

The plane taxied in purring silence for a half-minute, then made a smooth half-turn and idled at the edge of a black pitch. The twin jet engines cleared throats and flexed steel muscles and poised in the mist like a sprinter in the blocks.

On board, standing before a real wood fire, the Duke raised a glass of champagne to his cohort. His voice thickened with emotion, and he nodded a broad silvered brow and spoke.

“Cheers! To The Epicureans!”

Twenty-three golden glasses rose, and a babble of languages lifted in a fond reply.

“To the feast!” announced the Duchess, who always insisted on the last word. Her mouth smiled, a ghastly gash.

They felt the plane roll. Then, the world dwindled away below the jet, the Duke and Duchess’s vast estate shrinking and shrinking. England became the size of a postage stamp. The mortal planet disappeared entirely when Taj entered the clouds of heaven.

The Epicureans now stepped back from the portal windows. Just as advertised, their takeoff went so smoothly in the supersonic vehicle that they hadn’t needed seat belts.

The Epicureans drank off their champagne, then another. They lived beyond seat belts, beyond G-forces. They lived beyond clouds. They lived beyond rules.

The great day of winter solstice would dawn as they flew. 

Mr. Wood had spread word – their solstice would be like no other, ever before.

Let the feast begin.