The Forever Inn is a magical establishment that travels throughout the multiverse, staying in each milieu for a few days or a week before moving on. The Forever Inn allows individuals from different times and places, even entirely different realities, to interact with each other, exchange ideas, and learn from each other. And, sometimes, to have adventures…In Hunting Expedition, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, better known as Nellie Bly, ends up visiting the inn during a dream. Of course, she gets far more than she expected during her time there.
This story will be appearing in the anthology The Forever Inn, coming out in early 2024.
— Horace P. Beam
At first glance, the tavern reminded Elizabeth of a Five Points drinking establishment where she’d once met an informant.
But only for a moment, and then the oddities began piling up.
Certainly, that comfortable, if rather rough and tumble, dive had never had bookshelves lining the walls, or anything resembling the two massive chandeliers studded with hundreds of candles casting their flickering light over the common room. And the way the clientele was dressed, well, Five Points was no bastion of stylish dress, but even the Theater District was unlikely to boast the outfits these folks were wearing out in public.
The bar wasn’t the strangest thing, though.
She had not the slightest idea how she’d gotten here. The last thing she remembered was climbing into bed in her tiny room at Mrs. Guilford’s boarding house. While her journalistic exploits had occasionally taken her to some rather unusual places, she generally remembered how she’d gotten there. And she’d have certainly remembered getting into her favorite green taffeta dress. She was decidedly overdressed for this sort of establishment.
“First time, eh?” said a male voice behind her.
Elizabeth turned to look at the speaker, who turned out to be a man about twice her age, with mostly gray hair, a trim mustache, and a friendly smile. “If you mean, my first time here, then yes.”
“Becks,” he boomed out. “Fresh meat at table one!”
Elizabeth frowned. As a woman in what most respectable folks considered a man’s field, she’d been ridiculed by men in one way or another most of her life. She wasn’t quite sure whether she should feel offended.
“Oh, I wish I had a camera to capture the look on your face,” he said, chuckling. “It’s ironic. We finally settle in a place where tech works, and we don’t even have a camera around.” She gave him a puzzled look. “Don’t worry about it. Everybody’s confused the first time they come here.”
“What is this place?”
“It’s called the Forever Inn,” he answered. “My name’s Horace, by the way. Horace P. Beam, at your service.” He held out his hand and she shook it, giving him a more thorough once-over as she did so. He was fit and trim, wearing khaki pants of a style she’d never seen before and a utilitarian shirt with large pockets on both sides of his chest. She added ten years to her original estimate of his age when she spotted the crow’s feet around his eyes. She’d bet he was in his late fifties, or maybe early sixties.
“Elizabeth Cochrane,” she responded.
She started as a voice right next to her said, “You want a beer?” There was a slim woman standing beside her, wearing a truly scandalous outfit. Not only was she wearing pants, but they were narrow, form-fitting jeans that left nothing of her feminine shape to the imagination, and a black top of some thin material that shamelessly molded itself to her rather robust chest. The shirt had printing on the front which, come to think of it, defined her own circumstances reasonably well:
I am Awake
Strange, she hadn’t noticed her walk up. The woman was perhaps a few years older than her, with strange, branching tattoos running up her arms, the left side of her neck, and even the left side of her face. Elizabeth had never seen a woman with tattoos before.
“I haven’t got all day,” the woman said. “You want a beer or not?”
“All right, I guess.”
The woman turned and fixed her gaze on Horace. “And you. Call me Becks again and I’ll have to kill you.”
Horace grinned. “Yes, Becca, darling.”
And then the serving girl was gone. Not like she’d disappeared, but more like she’d stepped away and Elizabeth just hadn’t noticed.
“Hey, where’d she go?”
“She does that,” Horace said. “It’s very hard to notice her unless she wants to be noticed.”
“How is that even—”
“Possible?” Horace said. “I think her tattoos are spells. My guess is that it’s a permanent defensive spell, what I’ve heard other folks refer to as a ‘look away’ spell.”
She snorted. “Spells? Right. I don’t think so.”
Elizabeth flinched as Becca said, “Here’s your beer.” Leaning over Elizabeth’s shoulder, Becca set a beer mug on the table. As Becca straightened up, she whispered next to her ear, “It is a spell. Get over it.” And then was gone again.
Elizabeth couldn’t help but think that someone was playing an elaborate practical joke on her. Magic, indeed.
She picked up the mug, took a sip, grimaced, and spit the mouthful back into the mug.
“My God,” she said, “I had better swill in Mexico when I was covering the revolution.” She saw that Horace was grinning at her. “You knew, didn’t you?”
“It’s a running joke,” he answered, holding his hands up placatingly. “If you ask for a beer, you get the bar’s worst beer, the stuff they’re desperately trying to get rid of. You’ve got to ask for the good stuff by name. Usually, though, Becca doesn’t pull that trick on newcomers. I think she’s in a bad mood.” He stood. “I’ll be right back.”
He returned a moment later with a small wooden bowl that he’d retrieved from the bar. Placing the bowl on the floor, he poured the mug into it. Seconds later, Elizabeth heard the skittering of claws as what looked like a furry turtle scurried into view and started lapping the beer up with a long, black tongue.
“This is Rommel,” Horace said. “He’s the only one that can stand that stuff.”
“He’s sort of a mascot.” Horace leaned over and scratched the long fur on Rommel’s shell. “Wandered in a while ago, and we’ve just kept him. Somebody thought he looked kind of like a tank. Named him after Rommel, the famous World War II tank commander.”
All right. So now the questions in her mind were multiplying like rabbits. What kind of creature was Rommel? She’d never seen anything like him in New York. Was a tank some sort of military vehicle? Who was this commander he was named after? And what the hell was World War II?
Before she could formulate her questions in a coherent order, Horace leaned back and said, “Ah, here he is, Elizabeth. This is Svendeep.” He stood, gestured at a thin, sallow-faced man in a gray robe approaching their table. The man matched her mental impression of a monk, except for the black leather belt with its sheathed knife. “I’ve kept her occupied for you,” he said, and grinned at Elizabeth conspiratorially, “but you best answer all of her questions before she explodes.”
“Greetings,” the newcomer said. “I guess you could say that one of my roles here is to give our new guests a standard orientation.”
“Watch out for Becks,” Horace said. “She’s seriously grumpy today. Did you two have a fight or something?”
“Yeah,” Svendeep admitted glumly. “It was either something I said, or something I did. I haven’t figured out which, yet.”
“So, I’m a day tripper,” Elizabeth said, as she walked up to a table near the door where Horace was sitting opposite an elderly man in a dark business suit and dark-rimmed glasses. Not unexpectedly, the suit was cut in a style she’d never seen before.
Exterior wooden shutters had been opened, revealing a glass window that looked out on a plain of high grass dotted with trees and occasional granite outcrops. Rocky hills were visible in the distance, backed by taller mountains fading to purple. Wherever they were, it certainly wasn’t New York.
Svendeep’s orientation had been enlightening. Unbelievable, but informative. Apparently, she’d be here for an entire day, in this dream that was really another reality. Twenty-four entire hours, while her body was safely sleeping in bed back at her boarding house.
And just when she’d been about to deny everything Svendeep had told her, she’d witnessed another visitor phase into existence, a doctor in his mid-thirties who’d been just as confused as she’d been. It had been hard to deny the evidence of her own eyes. Now the poor, flustered doctor was getting his own orientation.
She felt like she’d fallen into a Jules Verne novel.
“We all are, miss,” said the older gentleman. “Everybody here right now is either staff or a day tripper.”
“Not a lot of people walking in the front door,” Horace said, smiling as he moved into the chair next to the window. “According to the scouts, we’ve settled in a Cretaceous analogue.”
Elizabeth raised a questioning eyebrow, as she sat in the chair he’d just vacated.
“Dinosaurs, miss,” the older gentleman said.
Horace gestured at his older companion. “Elizabeth, this is Menckon, the famed Oracle of Baltimore.”
“Just a journalist,” Menckon said, “and an essayist with lots of opinions.”
“And this lovely lady is Elizabeth Cochrane.” As irritating as Horace could be, Elizabeth decided that his “lovely” comment made up for a lot.
Menckon looked up at her over the rim of his glasses. “Elizabeth Jane Cochrane?”
The elderly journalist looked at Horace and shook his head sadly. “You’re a dolt, Horace. She’s a more famous writer than both of us.”
“What?” said Elizabeth and Horace almost simultaneously.
“Nellie Bly, the first major female reporter. Famously got herself checked into an asylum so she could report on conditions from the inside. Then a couple years later, she traveled around the world in less than eighty days.”
Well, she’d done the asylum thing, almost a year ago, in 1887. But not traveling the world. It sounded like a capital idea, though. She’d be sure to mention it to her publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, once she woke up from this waking dream. Imagine being the first woman to try and duplicate the wonderful journey Verne had written about in his best-selling book.
Elizabeth cocked her head in Horace’s direction. “You’re a writer?”
“Lurid science fiction tales,” Menckon interjected.
“Fiction, with as much actual science as I can fit into them,” Horace replied, “and with realistic world-building. I even based one of them on one of his—” He pointed a thumb at Menckon. “—scholarly economics articles.”
Despite Menckon’s mild-mannered mocking of Horace, she got the impression that they were friends. “Like Jules Verne and H. G Wells, then?”
“Exactly,” Horace said, exhibiting a certain smugness at her comparison.
“Splendid,” she said. “I always liked those types of imaginative stories. By the way, do we get to see any dinosaurs?” Perhaps she couldn’t publish anything about a dream experience, but if this was real, well, there couldn’t be that many people who’d actually seen a live dinosaur.
“Seen one, seen ’em all,” Menckon said.
Horace rolled his eyes. “You saw a wooly mammoth during an ice age. That doesn’t count.” He smoothed his mustache, then turned toward Elizabeth. “We’re waiting for the scout team to get back. Once they report in, Jolly—he’s in charge of Supply Team, which includes the scouts—he’ll make a decision about any excursions.”