March Madness — New Short Story

The-Madness-Cafe

March Madness

“Do you come here often?”

I looked at the man sitting next to me. He had black hair and hazel eyes that had something of the wolf about them. I was about to give him a hard time about using such an old line on me, but something in his expression made me stop.

His eyes were serious—and concerned. He seemed to genuinely mean the question.

He also wasn’t bad-looking.

I had a sudden urge to check my lipstick in the metal napkin dispenser that sat next to me on the counter. I checked the impulse, however—there was no way I was going to be able to do that without his noticing—and I glanced down at my coffee cup instead. I could see a red half-circle on the white china cup. I pressed my lips together and hoped I hadn’t smudged my lipstick too badly.

“I’ve never been here before,” I said seriously, matching my tone to the look in his eyes.

The man nodded and glanced over his shoulder. “I thought not. Which begs the
question—”

“What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?” I supplied.

“Something like that.” The man smiled a little, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“A place like this,” I murmured to myself. What kind of place was it? I glanced around. There was a counter, where customers sat eating, there were booths around the perimeter, where people also sat eating, and there were big windows all around us that gave us a good view of the dark, snowy March night outside. In short, it was a perfectly normal diner—I didn’t see anything that should have been cause for concern to the man sitting next to me.

And yet, he was worried—of that I was certain.

I gave one last look around, and as I did so, I glanced as surreptitiously as I could at the metal napkin holder next to me. I could just make out my reflection, and my red lipstick didn’t seem to have been too badly smudged by the apple pie and coffee I’d had. I sneaked another peek and saw that my dark hair didn’t seem to be too badly mussed, despite the high winds outside.

I turned back to my new friend.

He was staring at me steadily. It was starting to unnerve me.

“So do you come here often?” I asked.

“Yes,” the man said. “Unfortunately, I do.”

He glanced around. “I’m Nate Devereaux, by the way. May I ask your name?”

Having a stranger ask for my name felt a little funny, but I instinctively felt like I could trust him.

“Rebecca Marbury,” I said.

“Well, Rebecca, may I ask further how you got here?”

Again, it was the kind of question that I wouldn’t usually have answered when asked by a stranger, but Nate somehow inspired confidence in me.

“I took the interstate,” I said. “Then I took my usual exit. I kept going till I hit this little country road here, and then I stopped at this place—I’ve always been curious about it.”

Nate’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Do you live around here?”

“No,” I said. “I was visiting my—”

I stopped.

“I’m visiting,” I finished.

Though I wasn’t wary of Nate, it did occur to me that it was a little strange to ask about my route.

“Why do you want to know? Are you concerned about the roads?”

Nate glanced around again, and I noticed that his eyes were fringed by dark lashes—they were very nice eyes.

“No,” he said. “I’m not actually interested in the roads. I mean, how did you get in here—in the diner?”

I was even more puzzled. “How did I get in? I just walked through the door.”

“So you can see it?” Nate said.

“Of course I can.”

“What’s the name you see on the outside?”

“The Madness Café,” I said.

“That’s the name, all right,” he said. “It’s been earned, too.”

I glanced around. “Nobody in here looks that crazy to me.”

“That’s because you don’t know them,” Nate replied. “And with any luck, you won’t get a chance to.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” he said, “that you should really get out of here right now.”

I looked down at the remains of my late-night snack. “But I haven’t paid my bill yet.”

“That’s all right. They don’t take regular money in here anyway.”

“They don’t take—” I began. “What are you talking about?”

I began to look around for the stunningly beautiful waitress who had served me. I spotted her on the far side of the diner, and I held up my hand. I thought, as I had when I’d first seen her, that there seemed to be a slight greenish tint to her hair and skin—a trick of the light, probably.

I wanted to pay my bill—not so much because I believed that Nate was right that I needed to leave the diner—but because I thought it might not be a bad idea to get away from him.

He’d seemed nice at first, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“Oh no,” Nate said, following my gaze. “No, no, no. You’re lucky you got past her this long. If she sees you take out human money, they’ll all be after you.”

He grabbed my hand and hauled me to my feet. “Come on. You’ve got to go right now.”

I just had time to grab my purse before he dragged me off.

We were headed toward the exit very quickly.

“Now wait just a minute,” I said.

“Sorry, Rebecca,” Nate replied. “This is for the best.”

Just as we were nearing the door, the lights went out.

“Oh no,” Nate said. “No, no, no.”

There was a flash of light then, and I saw three people standing very close to me—a beautiful woman with brilliant sea-green eyes, a very handsome man whose eyes seemed to glow amber, and then another man, who made a vague, gray impression before disappearing.

The flash disappeared also, and the diner was plunged into darkness.

Nate tugged on my hand. “This way! The exit’s blocked now.”

“What was that flash?” I said.

“That was me,” Nate replied. “Come on!”

We ran through the dark, and I heard a sound as if Nate had pushed open a set of swinging doors. I heard the doors close behind us, and then I heard a loud, clattering sound as if a number of pots and pans had fallen to the floor. We ran on, and soon I felt myself being pulled down a short set of stairs.

“We’re almost there,” Nate said. “Hurry!”

Suddenly, a light turned on, and the beautiful woman with the sea-green eyes was standing before us—it was the same woman who had been my waitress. Now that I had a chance to really look at her, I could tell that the greenish cast to her hair and skin was really there—I wasn’t imagining it.

I also realized that she was standing in front of a door.

“Please let us go, Saskia,” Nate said. “She stumbled in here by accident. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Saskia’s eyes darted to me. “I know what she is now. She’s valuable.”

“My name is Rebecca,” I said.

Nate ignored me. “Please, Saskia. She’s a person—not a commodity.”

She stared at us for a moment, looking from one of us to the other.

“All right,” she said at last. “You know I have a soft spot for lost innocents—kittens and humans and the like.”

“Humans?” I said.

“Thanks,” Nate said. “I won’t forget it.”

But Saskia continued to stand in front of the door.

“You can’t go out this way,” she said. “There’s a whole crowd outside waiting to grab you as you go out.”

She began to run. “Follow me.”

She led us to another door and opened it. A staircase led down into darkness.

“Just follow the stairs down,” Saskia said. “And then run through the cellar—there’s another way out. It leads into the forest. Quickly now! More are coming—I’ll distract them.”

Once the door was closed, we were in total darkness—but Nate grabbed my hand, and somehow we made it down the stairs without stumbling.

Nate seemed to know the way.

As we reached the bottom, he struck up a lighter, and a tiny flame flared to life.

A vast, dark space stretched before us.

Nate was still holding my hand.

“Stay close to me,” he said. “This cellar stretches a long way, and there’s a lot of stuff down here. But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way. I’ll get us out safely.”

“What’s going on here?” I asked. “Why is everyone in the diner suddenly after us? And why did Saskia say she has a soft spot for humans?”

I could sense Nate smiling in the dark. “They’re not after us. They’re after you.”

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“You’re different, like me,” Nate replied. “Well, actually you’re different in a different way than I am. You’re much rarer.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I’m a seer,” Nate said, and I could see a him flash a grin in the light from the lighter. “I have second sight.”

“Second sight?” I echoed. “You mean you have visions? You can see into the future?”

“Something like that,” Nate replied. “But it’s not very reliable—I can’t summon it whenever I want to, and what I see is often hard to interpret. It does, however, make me more sensitive to the supernatural in general—I can sense things other people can’t.”

There was a clang then as Nate stumbled up against something in the dark.

“Except for that,” he said ruefully. “I didn’t sense that coming.”

He stepped around the object, and we moved on through the cellar.

“So are you the seventh son of a seventh son?” It seemed to me that I had heard a phrase like that once before.

Nate grinned once more in the dark. “No—I actually have two sisters, and no brothers at all. I don’t know how the ability came to me—I just know I have it.”

“So what does that make me? Do you think I’m a seer, too?”

Nate shot a glance over at me. “No. You’re definitely something different. I’m pretty sure you’re an immune. You don’t run across those very often.”

“An immune?” I said. “I’ve never heard of that before.”

“It basically means just what it sounds like. You’re immune from all magic—that’s why the illusion spell cast on this diner doesn’t work on you.”

“Wait. What spell?” I said.

“The diner is invisible to most people—they can’t see it at all. And if they do happen to stumble close to it, there are wards that will keep them away. But you just waltzed right in—that’s probably why the others didn’t notice you at first.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Why would anybody open an invisible diner? Besides, I saw a ton of people in there—so it could hardly be invisible.”

“People?” Nate said. “I suppose you could call them that. Ordinary folks have other names for them.”

“Like what?”

“Vampire, werewolf, fae—”

“Stop,” I said. “That’s crazy.”

“I know,” Nate replied. “I agree with you. They really are just people—no need for special terms. We could just call them ‘people with special characteristics.’ ”

Nate was clearly teasing me, but at the same time I had a terrible feeling he was serious.

“So wait,” I said. “You’re saying that all of those people upstairs are actually supernatural creatures?”

“Yes.” I could hear amusement in his tone. He was clearly enjoying my shock.

“And you’re saying further that this diner is some kind of magic diner and that only supernatural creatures can get in. And somehow I can get in because I’m immune to magic.”

“Yep.”

“And you can get in because you’re a seer?”

“Yep.”

“What is Saskia?” I asked. “Is she a seer or an immune?”

“Saskia is a siren,” Nate said.

“A siren?” I said. “As in she lures sailors to their doom?”

“That’s putting things a little bluntly,” Nate said. “But, yes. You can always tell by the greenish hair.”

“I’m having a hard time believing this,” I said.

“I can see that,” Nate replied. “Well, no matter. We’ve reached the door, and we’ll be on our way out. Then you can go back to your normal existence and forget all about the Madness Café.”

He held up his lighter, and I could just see the outline of a door in front of us.

“Ordinarily, I’d say ladies first,” he said. “But under the circumstances, I think it might be better if I go first—just in case.”

He eased the door open, and instead of the snowy outdoors, we were confronted by another black expanse.

Nate swore under his breath.

“I must have gotten turned around in the dark.” He glanced over his shoulder uneasily. “However, I don’t think it’s safe to go back the way we came. We’d better keep going—I know another way out.”

We walked out into the new darkness, and Nate reached for the door behind us.

I watched as the flame from the lighter flickered just a little as the door slipped from Nate’s grasp and shut with a heavy clang.

“Nothing to worry about,” he said reassuringly. “Just a little puff of air.”

He took my hand, and we began to walk. After a moment, he paused and glanced behind him.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

We hurried on through the dark.

“Why is this place so big?” I asked. “Why would a diner have such a huge cellar?”

“Some of it is storage,” Nate said with another of his firelit grins. “The Madness Café uses some unusual ingredients. And some of it is actually tunnels—so customers can travel in and out without being seen. It might look a little strange if customers were seen traveling to a certain spot and then disappearing. But some do simply drive.”

“So people travel down here?” I said.

“Yes, ‘people,’ ” Nate replied.

He glanced over his shoulder again.

He went on quickly. “I’ve been doing a lot of talking about myself. What about you? You said you were visiting someone?”

“Yes,” I said. “My grandfather.”

I hesitated to go on.

Nate looked over at me. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s just—my grandfather—he’s not doing well. He lives up here all alone, and my parents have been coming up every weekend to check on him. They couldn’t come up this weekend, so I decided I would come for a visit.”

“You’re worried about him?”

“Yes,” I said. “He’s not sick—not physically sick, that is. But his mind is going. He has delusions—he sees things.”

Nate drew in his breath sharply. “What kind of things?”

I sighed. “Monsters. He thinks they’re trying to get in his house.”

“Monsters?” Nate said. “Vampires? Werewolves? The fae?”

“Something like that,” I replied wryly. “He’s never been that specific, though. He just calls them ‘monsters’ or ‘creatures.’ He says he can see their faces looking in his window at night.”

“Where does your grandfather live?” Nate asked quickly. “I mean, what does his house look like?”

“It’s a blue house with white trim,” I said. “Why do you want to know?”

Nate went on in a hurry. “And you said it’s close by?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled. “It’s in the woods not far from here—probably two miles away. It’s a pretty lonely spot. This diner is the only building I pass on the way.”

“Is your grandfather’s name Mitchell?” Nate asked.

“Yes,” I said. “How did you know that?”

Nate suddenly stopped, and he held up his lighter.

Not far away, I saw two points of red light gleaming back at us in the dark.

I could feel Nate freeze, and he gripped my hand more tightly.

“Don’t move,” he hissed.

“What’s—”

Nate interrupted. “Whatever happens, do not run. Stay right here next to me. You’ll be safe as long as you stay close.”

The red points were suddenly right in front of us, and I could see that they were actually eyes. The eyes were in a pale face, fine-boned yet masculine, that was framed by sleek black hair. A pair of pallid lips parted to reveal gleaming white teeth.

“Out of the way, Vlad,” Nate said. “You know this is no ordinary lighter. I can turn this little thing into a flamethrower and convert you to ashes.”

“My name is Roger.” The man sounded injured. “And I wasn’t after you anyway.”

He leaned toward me just a fraction and sniffed. “An immune. I never touch their blood. It gives me the most appalling headaches.”

“Even if you don’t want to drink her blood,” Nate said, “you might want to sell it.”

“Not at all,” Roger replied. “I have money enough as it is.”

“Then why are you down here?” Nate demanded.

“I was just stopping into the diner for the evening,” Roger said with dignity. “I have no interest in you or your friend whatsoever.”

He glanced beyond us. “I can’t say the same for him, however. Ta!”

Roger suddenly zoomed past us and disappeared into the darkness.

I looked behind us. “Him? Who’s he talking about? Do you see anyone?”

Nate peered into the black expanse behind us. “No. We’d better keep moving.”

“So what did you mean,” I asked as we started walking again, “when you asked Roger if he wanted to sell my blood?”

“I meant exactly that,” Nate replied. “The hair and blood of an immune are valuable. They can be used in all kinds of potions and spells.”

He glanced at me. “Other stuff about you might be valuable, too. That’s why we have to get you out of here. Once you’re clear of the diner, I’m confident you’ll be safe.”

“And Roger?” I asked. “What was he?”

“You really have to ask?” Nate said.

“Are you trying to say that he was a vampire?”

“That’s exactly what he was.”

“Are you serious?” I said. “The red eyes, the sharp teeth—it wasn’t just a costume?”

“You saw how fast he disappeared,” Nate said. “No ordinary human being could do that.”

There was a growl behind us, and I turned quickly.

Suddenly the man I had glimpsed in the diner—the one with the handsome face and the amber eyes—had appeared right behind us.

“Ulf!” Nate said in a cheerful tone. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

Ulf growled again. “Give me the girl and no one gets hurt.”

“Just go home, Ulf,” Nate said. “We don’t need to do this tonight.”

“I’ll wolf out,” Ulf said. “You don’t want to see me do that.”

“I’ve seen it before,” Nate replied.

The man in front of us suddenly began to grow gray hair on his face. His nose and mouth became longer, and as I watched, his teeth began to grow longer and sharper.

I stepped back in alarm.

“Now, now,” Nate said. “You’re upsetting my new friend here.”

Ulf’s growls began to grow deeper and more wolf-like, and Nate stood before the rapidly transforming creature with only his lighter.

He swiftly pulled something out of his pocket and held it up in his other hand—it looked like a ballpoint pen.

Ulf suddenly stopped growling.

“That’s right,” Nate said. “This little thing is full of liquid silver. One little spritz, and you won’t be feeling very well.”

The half-wolf, half-man creature glared balefully at Nate for just a moment. Then he turned and loped away into the darkness.

Nate turned to me. “Now you’ve met a werewolf and a vampire—as well as a siren. This is turning out to be quite a night for you, Rebecca.”

“I’m having a little trouble accepting all of this,” I said.

Nate’s gaze softened. “Don’t worry. You aren’t going crazy. You’ve really seen what you’ve seen.”

“I’m not sure that helps,” I said.

Nate took my hand, and we started walking again.

“You know,” he said, “I think it’s good you got to see this. As I was saying, I think I know your grandfather. You did say his name was Mitchell, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“Mitchell Marbury,” Nate said musingly. “That’s a good name. I’ve never heard his last name before—he just told me to call him Mitchell. And there’s a mailbox outside his house, but it doesn’t have a name on it—just a number.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’ve been hanging out with my grandfather?”

“Blue house, white trim, right?” Nate said. “In the middle of the forest with no one else around? Yes—I’ve stopped by his place on a few occasions and chatted with him. Mostly when the regulars at the Madness Café get a little too rowdy and start prowling around his house.”

“What?” I said, startled. “These people—like Roger and Ulf—have been bothering him?”

“Unfortunately, yes. But luckily your grandfather’s a tough old bird. He can take care of most of these guys on his own. But every once in a while he needs me to step in, and I do.”

Nate stopped walking and looked at me by the light of the lighter flame.

“Your grandfather’s not going crazy,” he said quietly. “He says he’s seen monsters, and he’s right. I can’t promise that his health will be good forever, but at the moment, at least, he’s not seeing things. Everything he’s reporting is real.”

I was alarmed. “So then, he’s in danger?”

“No,” Nate said. “Like I said, I can take care of these guys—they’re no problem. In fact, there’s only one denizen of the diner that I’m not sure of, since I haven’t really encountered him yet—though I did think I spotted him tonight.”

“Who is it?” I asked. “Is it another supernatural creature?”

Nate frowned. “I’m not sure exactly. He’s sort of gray and nondescript—he’s known as the Philosopher. He collects people and creatures, and he’s said to have great power.”

“He collects them?” I shivered. “How does he do that?”

“I don’t know,” Nate replied. “But luckily, I don’t think we’ll have to find out.”

He stopped walking and put out a hand in front of him, and I could see we’d reached a door.

Nate grinned. “We’re almost out. We just have one more storeroom to go through, and then we’re free of this place.”

He opened the door, and we both walked through.

Inside was darkness once again.

Suddenly, the lights came on, and I found myself blinking in the brightness.

When my eyes adjusted to the glare, I saw a man standing before us, and floating around him were three glowing spheres that were giving off a bright, golden light.

Despite the light show, the man himself was unremarkable. He was middle-aged, about average height, and his hairline was receding. He was wearing a plain, gray suit that seemed to be designed to disguise the fact that he was gaining weight around the middle. All in all, he was rather gray and ordinary, and it seemed to me that his were the final pair of eyes I had seen staring at me back in the diner.

I glanced over at Nate, who was eyeing the newcomer warily.

“Is this the Philosopher?” I said.

“I’m afraid it probably is,” Nate replied.

The man before us chortled. “Yes, yes—I am the Philosopher. How kind of you to recognize me, children. And, young man, thank you very much. I knew you would bring this charming young lady down here, and you did exactly what I’d hoped. I’ve headed you off at the pass, as it were.”

The Philosopher beamed.

“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Nate said. “Rebecca isn’t going with you.”

“Oh, but she most definitely is,” the Philosopher said.

“If it’s a fight you want, you’ll get it.” Nate moved to stand in front of me.

“Oh my, no,” the Philosopher said. “I never engage in fisticuffs. I have a bad back, you see. I dare say that if you knocked me down that I wouldn’t be able to get up again. I have my friends to fight for me instead.”

He reached into a small, gray bag he was carrying and rolled three more spheres out onto the floor. They were also gray in color, and they made a sharp, clear noise as they rolled that made them sound as if they were made of glass.

The Philosopher smiled malevolently. “My beauties will take care of you.”

The spheres stopped rolling, and I thought I could see something moving inside them—something with fur and sharp teeth.

“Wolves,” the Philosopher said by way of explanation. “Red wolves from my collection. All I have to do is break the glass to release them, and they will do my bidding.”

He lifted a hand and gestured up at the glowing spheres above us. “Just as I have harnessed the power of sunlight to follow my whims, all of the beasties in my menagerie have been ensorcelled to follow my commands.”

I stared at the snarling wolves in their little globes. Then I looked up at the strange, gray man.

“Is that what you’re planning to do to me? Put me in one of those things?”

“No, my dear.” The Philosopher smiled. “That magic won’t work on you. I really don’t know what I’m going to do with you yet. But there are so many possibilities with an immune—this really is exciting.”

I glanced beyond him. I could see a door not too far away.

I looked over at Nate. He was eyeing the door also.

The Philosopher turned to glance at the door himself.

“You are quite right, my lovelies,” he said. “That is the way out—the door to freedom as it were. But you’ll never make it. All I have to do is crack open my spheres like eggs, and the wolves will be on you in seconds.”

“You have a bad back, you say?” Nate said musingly.

“Yes, I do. It bothers me terribly. Sometimes I can barely even move.”

Nate nodded and then suddenly lunged forward. He held his forearm out in front of him, and he struck the gray man squarely in the chest.

The Philosopher fell down heavily, landing flat on his back.

“Rebecca, run!” Nate shouted.

We both ran toward the door.

Nate kicked it open, and I glanced back quickly.

The Philosopher was lying on his back, rocking from side to side like a turtle, unable to get up. The three spheres of light were swirling around overhead, and the three spheres with wolves were lying quietly on the floor.

I ran out through the door, and Nate ran after me.

“You come back here!” The Philosopher shouted after us. “You’d better not—”

Nate pulled the door shut.

The two of us were standing out in the snowy night. We had traveled pretty far from the diner, but I could see it off in the distance.

I glanced around. We were in amongst the trees, and a metal door stood behind us. It was set into a large, square building, and the building itself eventually tapered off and turned into a tunnel that led into the ground.

“That’s funny,” I said. “I never noticed that we were walking back up from the cellar.”

“Well, the ascent was pretty gradual at first,” Nate said. “And of course, you were occupied with other things.”

I looked at the closed door. “Should we run or something?”

“We don’t need to run,” Nate said. “But we should probably head back to our cars.”

“But won’t he come after us? Aren’t we in danger?”

“No, we’re good now. The Philosopher’s not going to follow us. Anything goes, pretty much, inside the diner, but outside of it, everybody has to be more careful. And someone theatrical like this guy has to be really careful. If anybody sees him and his floating spheres, an angry mob would be on him in a flash. And a group of regular people could take on him and his wolves any day. All the police would have to do is get some tranquilizer darts.”

“But what about my grandfather?” I said. “Didn’t you say supernatural creatures have been bothering him? They aren’t being careful outside the diner.”

“Yes—but they should be,” Nate replied. “And if word got out about what some individuals are doing—those same individuals might disappear in the night. They’re lucky they have me to scare them off.”

He grinned. “Besides, the Philosopher himself told us what he would do—he said there was freedom on the other side of this door. He’s the kind that follows the rules. He won’t be after us tonight.”

I took a deep breath. “We’re safe?”

“Yes.”

“That was weirdly easy—at least at the end.”

Nate grinned again. “Sometimes the direct route is the best.”

The two of us turned and began to walk back toward the diner—and our cars.

“So would you like to stop in and visit with me and my grandfather?” I said. “I know it’s late, but you could come by in the morning—maybe have breakfast with us?”

Nate glanced at me. “You don’t have to do that, you know. I help out anybody who’s in trouble. You don’t owe me anything.”

“That’s sweet of you to say,” I said. “And I have to admit, I have an ulterior motive—I’d like to see you again. And it sounds like you’re already friends with my grandfather.”

Nate chuckled. “Well, if your grandfather doesn’t mind, I’d be happy to.”

We walked on through the snow and the trees, and I suddenly had something I needed to do.

I stood up on tiptoe and kissed Nate on the cheek.

He looked startled—and pleased.

“What was that for?” he said.

“That was for looking out for my grandfather,” I said.

We continued walking, and a moment later, I kissed him again.

“And what was that for?” he said.

“That was for looking out for me.”

Nate grinned. “Here’s hoping I get a chance to look out for you again.”

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

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