The door slammed against the wall, causing Alex to nearly drop the spoon into the pot of thick, red sauce.
“I really need to get that fixed,” she muttered, laying the spoon on a plate next to the stove. Wiping her hands on a dishtowel, she ratcheted a smile onto her face and then pushed through the swinging doors which led to the dining room, grabbing a couple of menus as she approached the counter.
“Welcome to the Busmeat Cafe, home of the best..” the words died on her lips as she took in the couple standing in the doorway. Tall and statuesque, with platinum blonde hair best described as ‘geometric’ and nails tipped a vibrant pink rather than purple, a pink and tiger striped leotard clad woman rested her hand on the arm of a man who likely had to turn sideways to fit through doors. It was like seeing a ghost. Or two.
For a moment, Alex found herself gasping as though all the air had been sucked from the room. The overwhelming sense of loss nearly sent her back into the kitchen as tears threatened. She could suddenly recall the way Tommy’s laugh echoed as bright and bombastic as her neon personality. The way Kirk had quietly smiled at her antics with genuine fondness in his eyes. It was as though she had stepped back in time and was watching Tommy and Kirk walk through the door, as though she’d been given a second chance to-
“Sorry about the door, it opened easier than expected. And Shooter here doesn’t know his own strength, he’s so manly.” And just like that, the comparison ended. There was a certain grating quality to the woman’s voice with an underlying sharpness which suited her haircut. Alex wondered which came first. She definitely lacked the warmth and confidence that Tommy had exuded, which only made the sense of loss more readily felt. Alex took a deep breath and continued forward.
“Oh that’s alright, I’ve been meaning to get that fixed. Are you looking for some lunch? I’ve got some sauce on the stove all ready to go. Folks say we’ve got the best pulled pork in town, but to be fair, it’s the only pulled pork in town, so there’s that. Sit anywhere you like.”
The couple perused the cafe, taking in the red vinyl seats, the checkerboard floor, and the walls Alex had recently painted a shade called seafoam with eggplant trim. Gladys and the rest of the Townswomen’s Craft League had helped, mentioning frequently how nice it was to give the place a little shine. She could tell they were curious about her connection to Herb, how she had ended up here, but wisely kept the prying to a minimum, understanding that a person’s story is their own and best shared when the time is right.
She had been resistant to do much of anything at first, given that she didn’t know how long she’d be staying. But one day led into another and suddenly it was spring again and she’d settled into a routine that strangely suited her. Travellers came through infrequently during the darker months. Many that did had a narrowed focus, a determination to get from point a to point b stopping just long enough to get sustenance and a brief change of scenery.
And then there were the townsfolk. Doris came for takeout every Friday like clockwork. Two pulled pork sandwiches with extra slaw. Doris’ husband Bert loved his slaw. And when Gladys stopped by twice a week with a pie, she sometimes took some chili and cornbread to share with Lydia, who worked at the museum. Gladys used to bring three pies a week but Alex had to put a stop to that as there wasn’t enough custom, and the freezer was running out of space. She assured the woman it would almost certainly get busier as the weather got warmer, which pleased Gladys immensely. Since her husband died, she had thrown herself into projects and committees.
“Staying busy keeps the sadness at bay.” She was heard to say on more than one occasion. Alex knew just how she felt.
Alex had a feeling these two weren’t just passing through. They were far too interested to be casual travellers. Sure enough, she had barely set glasses of water on the table when the woman turned to her and said, “I was wondering if we might inquire about a place near here which has a certain reputation.” How Alex kept the smile on her face while internally rolling her eyes was a feat even scientists might never understand the mechanics of. The woman smiled at her muscular companion, and Alex had the sense that she was in embroiled in a theatrical production. He took up the reins, beaming at her with teeth so shiny and straight, she thought she might have been able to check her hair in them.
“I bet you get lots of people asking, being that people are always drawn to the strange and unusual. But we’re not like those weirdos, we’re professionals.” Alex raised one eyebrow.
“Professional weirdos? I didn’t realize there was a market for that.” Alex’s attempt at humour garnered a look from Angelié as frosty as her lipstick.
“We’re professional ghost hunters? The Ghost Getters, trademark pending. Maybe you’ve heard of us? Shooter and Angelié? We have nearly twenty thousand followers on our Paymetron and other social media accounts.”
“Well that does sound like an impressive number. I’m not on social media. The wifi out here is spotty at best so there’s not much point.”
As if to prove her a liar, the behemoth held up his cellphone, a video already playing on the small screen. Alex gritted her teeth when she recognized a familiar blonde and brunette she’d encouraged to visit Jeff’s motel a few months before. The third must have been filming. It would appear as though they had disregarded her warning and-
“Is that..?” Alex sat down next to the giant, taking the phone from him to peer at the video. Sure enough, it showed one of the women on a bed in a motel, light from the television flickering in the background. Suddenly the bed started to move as the tv went to a static screen. The blonde woman on the bed tried to climb off, the brunette reaching to help, but was tossed about as the motion became more violent. Their screams were punctuated by incoherent murmuring somewhere behind the camera. The lights flashed and the screen suddenly went dark. There were scuffling noises and then the video stopped. They both looked expectantly at Alex.
“So, what was that, exactly?” Alex handed the phone back.
Angelié looked at Shooter, her lacquered nails tapping impatiently on the formica table top. He looked incredulous.
“Isn’t it obvious? It was a classic manifestation. It was shared with me about 3 months ago by someone who found the phone. Or maybe by someone who knew someone who found the phone. Either way, the women haven’t been seen since. The police didn’t come by to talk to you about it?”
Alex started to get a shivery feeling at the bottom of her feet, as though she was standing on glass and one wrong move would slice her to ribbons. She was saved by answering as the door slammed against the wall. She looked up to see a casually dressed stranger with short dark hair who looked as though they’d rather be anywhere else. Alex had the feeling this was not someone who sought to stand out, to draw attention the way the two at the table did.
“Sam! Over here!” Alex found the man’s boisterous greeting unusual, considering that even if there were others in the cafe Sam would have had no trouble finding the duo. Sam gingerly shut the door and started toward the table.
When Sam’s blue eyes met Alex’s, she felt a shock, as though Sam had somehow found a way to create static electricity on a tile floor. She would guess that Sam was not unaffected by it, but hid it much better. Perhaps had more practice. She stood quickly, to distract herself from the questions the sensation invoked.
“Sam, did you manage get in touch with your mom? We’ve just heard that connectivity is spotty out here.” Shooter’s consideration surprised Alex, but the question was cut off by Angelié.
“Sam, this nice lady was about to tell us what happened at the nearby motel where the women disappeared from.” Sam looked up at Alex, who dropped her raised eyebrow and repainted the smile on her face she saved for customers who were especially bothersome. She had a feeling she wasn’t fooling the newcomer even a little bit.
“Well, I’m sure that if something had happened at the motel here, I’d likely know about it. This is a small place and there isn’t much that goes on that I don’t hear about. I haven’t heard anything recently about people disappearing, and I can guarantee you that the police haven’t come by. Their station is 3 counties over so they only come out if it’s a real emergency.” And sometimes not even then, was the thought she kept to herself. “We get so many people passing through, it would be difficult to know who came through when and where they went next.” Angelié narrowed her eyes to slits and Alex felt like a butterfly against a board, watching someone approach with a pin.
“So you don’t remember seeing these women? They didn’t stop here?”
Shooter, perhaps sensing that Alex was about to shut them out, tried to alleviate the tension.
“Whether she did or didn’t doesn’t really matter, babe. Like she said, lots of people come through here.” He quickly glanced and the menu and turned to Alex with a smile on his face she knew was meant to ask for patience. “I, for one, would love to try the best and only pulled pork in town. What about you, Sam? Are you hungry? Our treat.” The newcomer nodded, eyes very pointedly focused on the menu. Alex could tell that Angelié wasn’t finished but had enough sense to exercise patience. Make no mistake, there would be questions later, but Alex was grateful for the respite to gather her thoughts before the interrogation.
Sam ordered pulled pork, the same as Shooter, and Angelié asked for a salad, with the tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, croutons, and dressing on the side, along with a steak, rare. Alex tried not to let her surprise show, but it was more difficult when she was tired, as was evidenced by Angelié’s response.
“I don’t like my textures mixing, and I have an iron deficiency, so I need the steak to be as bloody as possible, thank you.” It was kind of amazing how some people could make thank you sound like an insult.
As she gathered the menus, Shooter caught her attention. Any hope she had that he was going to ask for a refill were dashed by the hungry expectation in his eyes. Much to her relief, she was saved by the door slamming open a third time. A tall dark haired man paused to make sure there wasn’t any damage to the wall before turning toward the group at the table.
“You really need to get that fixed.”
Any relief she felt was immediately quashed as Alex’s heart, in imitation of the door, slammed against her ribs. She wondered if she looked as pale as she felt. There was only one reason why he might show up at the cafe without any warning. As though he could read her mind, Herb uttered the three words she least wanted to hear.
“We’ve got trouble.”