Not even ten minutes had passed since the last spill, and Will was on his hands

and knees again. Coffee this time, complete with broken glass that had once been a mug. This one was courtesy of Harold Greenbough, who sat not three feet away on one of the stools. He was laughing, watching the television mounted above the counter. -HA! This show! This is a good show. Will, you ever watch this show? -What is it? -Hm? What’s that now? -The show, Harold. What’s it called? -What, kid? He swirled around on the stool, so as to hear better. He took his plate with him. There was no shattering glass this time, but his eggs splattered all over the ground, yolks flying everywhere like yellow blood from a bleach-white body. Tater-tot brains squished into the puddle of coffee. -Damn it, Harold. -Ah hell, I’m sorry kid. This damned body, well... -It’s fine. Fine. Will went back to cleaning. To his relief, he was joined by Evie, one of his waitresses. She took to wiping up the eggs, and scooped the potato remains into a dustpan. Not the best method, but it got the job done. When it was all done, Will grabbed the mop to deliver the coupde-gras. The mess was in its death throes, and things returned to normal. Until the next one, and the next. Such was life, especially life in the Grand Slam. Will opened the diner eight years before, and he knew the cycle very well. It began with preparation, then service, then disaster, then clean-up, and repeated ad nauseum from night to night. Harold was a repeat contributor to the cycle. His old body was a constant source of tremors and resultant destruction. No less than $75 had been spent on mugs and plates since he began frequenting the place. -Hey kid, how about I just bring m’own mugs from now on? That way, if it breaks, it ain’t a loss for you. -Harold, please. He wiped his face. What about the show? -Hm? The what?

-The show, Harold. The one you were watching. What’s it called? -Oh. Don’t recall, kid. Changed the channel while you were down there. Did you want to watch? -...No. Nevermind. He settled into into his perch by the muffins. Three left: blueberry, cranberry, and bran. Harold would take the bran before he left, Will would take the blueberry if no one bought it. The cranberry would spent its twilight hours in the garbage, but until then wait in vain for the one. He still made a single cranberry every day for that very reason. He wanted to meet that person. His ex-wife would say that it was all about his connection to the lost cause. That was her name for the diner, in fact, before she left him. In the middle of the night. Will woke up to find her clothes gone, and a note that simply read: No more games. You’ll never accomplish anything. Stop living the dream, and stop living in the past. Goodbye, Will. I hope you find what you’re looking for. He had, in a way. Sort of. That was six years ago, and he still had the diner, and that made him happy. But there were the little things. The little things could kill a man if they were careless. The packs of college kids that came in at all hours of the morning, for one. Like the ones that had come in two hours ago, had ordered only coffee, and decided that it would be a great idea to camp in their booth telling stories in loud, loud voices. Thankfully, Evie had kept her composure, politely asking them if they wanted more coffee, even though it was clear that they wanted nothing but to occupy space. This had happened before, and it ended with Evie pouring piping hot brew onto a former prom queen’s lap, in a spectacular “accident”. She slipped, she said, still twitching with anger. He looked over to the hostess. She was snoring, and loudly. It could have belonged to an old man if you weren’t looking. -Becky, either wake up or find other work. -Huh? Yeah...what? I’m wake. Awake. I’m awake. -C’mon, you can’t be sleeping when you’re here. I know it’s dead, but... -Sorry, Will. It was dead, though. Aside from Harold and the college bunch, the regulars were absent. Probably the snow, Will thought. It was heavy that night, and the roads were a mess. That’s a

New England winter for you; either quits in the middle of January, or you get snow in April. April. This time last year, it’d been 70 degrees, this year a blizzard. -Just, y’know. Don’t snore too loudly, I guess. He went back to his perch. Harold had changed the channel again. Something about hockey. He would have paid attention, but it was highlights or something. Nothing important. -Nothing on, Harold? -Ever anything on? -True. -Never should have cancelled M.A.S.H. -That...was a while ago, Harold. -I stick by my statement, kid. Captured military life, y’know. Show was smart. -I know. -Oh you might think y’know, kid, but ‘less you been in the serivce, y’don’t get it. -Harold, I was in the army. You know this, we’ve talked about it. Afghanistan? -Have we? -Yes, and you told me all about Korea. -Oh! I ever tell you ‘bout that day in ‘51? -Yep. -October the seventeenth, 1951 ‘s when it was. Me ‘n the boys’d been pinned down for three days takin’ heavy fire. Fifty Koreans, I tell ya, fifty of ‘em were practically starin’ us down, firin’ off again and again, and they were gettin’ re-supplied, too. Unlimited bullets, I tell ya, unlimited, it seemed. Firin’ at us, takin’ out our boys. Well, we’d had enough by then. We looked at each other, me’n Jackie Forrest, said our goodbyes and grabbed our rifles. Then us’n the rest of ‘em charged straight forward. Looked Death square in his face. Like he was right there’n all his shrouded infamy, pointin’ his edge at us and sayin’ it’s your time, my sons, come come to

your Father’s house. We didn’t listen. Nope! Kept runnin’, and good thing, too. Right then, tank division finally came ‘round’n blew those asshole’s straight t’Hades. Boom! -Yep. Except last time it was a hundred Koreans. -Nah. -And you were there for four days. -Well that’d be insane, kid. Evie brought the college crowd their check, and they began gathering their coats in unison. They were like a hive-mind of youthful energy, without a care in the world save what happened to their group. They even dressed the same; all their coats were shades of blue. They were an army unto themselves; the Apathy Corps. Where to sign up? Will could use a little apathy, he decided. Caring had got him in a bit of a hole. “Speaking of...,” he thought. He walked to the hostess’ post. -Becky. -Yeah, huh? -At least this time you weren’t snoring. Watch the place, will ya? I gotta go into the office. That crowd’s going to pay with five separate cards, I can feel it. So, y’know, be ready for that. -Mmhmm. He headed into the back office. It was a tiny space, originally a janitor’s closet or something. He figured if he was supposed to be professional, he should have an office, so he told the carpenter who refurbished the place to make it so. Of course, he could only just barely open the door. He had purchased a small desk, but it was still too big for the room. It was almost comical. Almost. Papers were strewn about, some on the floor, and collecting a fine layer of dust. He could have picked them up, but most of them were nothing: old orders, half-assed collections of things to improve the place, and so on. What he wanted, though, was not on paper, but on the answering machine. He hit the button, and his doom was spelled out in the sound of a banker’s voice: -Hello Mr. Trotter, this is Bruce Miller...again. Look, Mr. Trotter, I’m sorry to have to keep calling, but this is getting to be a bit much, wouldn’t you say? You’ve had more than enough time to make your payments, and quite frankly I can’t stick my neck out for you any

longer. If the remaining payments on the loan aren’t made by the end of this month, so...two weeks, just under two weeks, actually, then I’m afraid the bank will have no choice but to foreclose. Please, please contact me as soon as you get this message. Thank you. That had come several hours ago, and he had done his best to avoid it. Not the best strategy, but the only one that seemed doable given his current options. Which, if asked, he would have to admit consisted of two things: pull of a miracle, or find a new business. He sat at the desk, letting his head rest on his hands. This was the third such message he had listened to in as many weeks, and this was always the position he found himself in afterward. Curled up into a defensive position, cowering before the teeth of the debt hound, and its banker masters. The defense could only hold for so long before his shell cracked, and his insides were open and ready to be devoured. And to think, this year was going to be the year he finally saw the end of this. He had planned it all out, payment-wise, and as long as his regular clientele kept on coming, that would be all she wrote. Then, as if in contrary answer to his prayers, mother nature decided this was the year she would unleash a frozen hell on northeastern America. Night after night the roads were so bad that even his regulars decided they would rather stay at home. When they left, he was left with only Harold, and the occasional dinner crowd. Unless Harold’s pension was much more than Will imagined, things looked bleak. -Will? -Ugh...yes, Becky? What is it? -The card machine’s broken. -Jesus...okay, hold on. He pulled himself from the depths and went to see about this new development. This was at least the fifth time the card reader had decided to quit. He opened it up, to see if it was a loose wire again. No luck. Maybe... -Um, hey, excuse me? It was the tallest of the college crowd. Will guessed that that meant he was their leader. -Hey yourself. What’s up? -Is this thing totally busted, or...? -Looks like it. Don’t suppose you’ve got cash on you?

-No... -Well, we’ve got an ATM as well, so how ‘bout giving that a go? -I mean, I guess... -It’s just over there. -Yeah. I just- Well, I forgot the PIN. -….right. They all stood around in silent meditation. Maybe they were sending messages telepathically? At any rate, they all seemed to be on the same page, while Will just stood there, in disbelief that a check of less than ten dollars was too much for this crowd to handle. Becky was drifting back into unconsciousness. Finally, one of them, a blond girl, piped up: -Ugh, fine. Here. She pulled a ten out her pocket, and handed it to Becky. Will glared. -You’ve had that this entire time, and didn’t say anything? -Uh...that a problem or something? -Have a good night. -Whatever, this place sucks anyway. That was apparently the move out signal, because they all put on their hats and marched toward the door. Will let the card reader fall to the ground. Becky was startled for a moment, but shrugged it off. They both knew he would be back around in a few minutes to pick it up, but he needed to pretend like he didn’t give a shit for just a little while. Another cycle: storm off, cool off, fix whatever needs it, repeat. Back to the perch, and back to Harold’s quest for late-night television gold. Sit-com, Spanish channel, infomercial, infomercial, infomercial-Ah-ha! Here we go. News.

-News? So that’s it, huh? -Shh! It’s about the kidnappings! The clean-cut anchor delivered the story in the usual unattached news voice: -...sixth in what is being called the largest string of kidnappings in the last century in that area. What has confounded law enforcement throughout the investigation is the large range of the crimes, seemingly random locations, and that they seem to occur at equally random times. No contact has been made with any relatives, either. None have been asked for ransom, or any demands at all. One police officer is quoted as saying: “It’s as though they simply evaporated.” -Harold, can we change this, please? -This is important stuff, kid! -I’m serious, Harold. Go home if want to watch this. -This is my home! And without me, you’d have no business. -I’d have more mugs, though. -We must roll with life’s punches, kid. He could have remedied this whole thing by not giving Harold the remote, but then again, what he said was pretty much true. He was in the Grand Slam so much, Will had begun to wonder if he even had a home to go back to. He claimed to have a wife, and a husky named Blinky, but then again, it could have been the same situation as the fifty to one hundred Koreans he fought. And he did bring in constant business. -Least you could do is order some more food, then. Y’know, give me some more business. -I ordered eggs, but they fled me! -What about your muffin? -You know that comes last. There’s ritual to be considered here, William. I get the muffin last, save it for morning so I can stay regular. You know this. -How ‘bout some more coffee at least? -Well if you’re gonna twist my arm, kid. Evie, honey, more coffee.

Evie poured some fresh coffee and he resumed his search. Will decided the time was right, and grabbed the muffin from the case. He cut it into halves and put it in the little toaster oven. He grabbed some butter and prepared himself for the excitement. He indulged himself in the symphony created by sounds from every direction. Television changes mingled with a snoring hostess mixed with Evie mumbling under her breath that she should have worked a day shift and that her boyfriend was an idiot for getting sick so she had to switch. Will would have danced, but the moment wasn’t right, and there was now a muffin ready and willing to be buttered. Right when he bit in, door opened. The new arrival blew in on the winter wind, sporting little bits of frost in his long, brown beard. The clothes he wore mad him look like he stepped out of a picture of old-time arctic explorers. He lifted a pair of think goggles and revealed eyes that were squinted like a hawk’s. He wore a large pack, and a...what? He called to the man. -Uh...sir? -Hm? Yes, me? -Yes. You can’t really bring a sword in here. -Oh surely you could make an exception, sonny? His accent marked him as being an Englishman. Maybe that’s how they walked around in the winter in England? Will was never up on fads, but no matter how popular it was, he was uncomfortable none the less. -Don’t think so, sir. -How about I leave it here with the hostess? -I...fine. Just, y’know, make sure it’s sheathed. -O’course, o’course. Safety first. He propped the sword up against the stand next to a flabbergasted Becky. It was a big sword, too. The blade looked at least four feet long. A claymore, Will thought that’s what it was called. He walked over to the counter, and sat a seat away from Harold, who eyed him strangely. Rightfully so; it wasn’t often that real live mountain men walked into the Grand Slam. Will thought maybe he should mark the occasion with a fine wine. A thin layer of snow fell to the ground as the newcomer adjusted himself. He put his big pack by his feet, and removed his fur gloves to his coat pocket. He left the coat on.

-I’d appreciate a hot cup a’ coffee, sonny. It’s a cold one out there. -Sure. Evie, another cup over here, please. -I thank ya, miss. First time I come around here. Nice place, nice place. Been in business long? -Seven years. -Certainly seen your share a’ winters, then, I’d wager. -Nothing like this one. This late in the year it’s usually time for spring. -Aye, there’s truth for ya. Been hurtin’ fa’ business? Will didn’t answer this one. He just gave the man a polite nod, and went back to his muffin. Normally he would never eat in front of costumers, but this was no normal newcomer, that much he new. When swords were brought into the equation, all bets were off and all custom went out the window. Harold was not about to silenced, though. He turned to the newcomer: -So what’s with the get-up there? -Beg pardon? -Well, y’know. Ya look like ya just stepped out of an old adventure serial or something, Mr...? -Terrance Chillingworth. -Quite a moniker ya got there, Chillingworth. Now where’ve I heard that before? -You read the Scarlet Letter? -Yessir. Not really a fan. -Me either, friend. But I assure you, we were around before dear Mr. Hawthorne wrote that character. -Hell, I believe ya, chap. Well Terrance, I’m Harold Weiss. And now standing aside is the owner-operator of this place, Will Trotter.

Will gave a half smile as he chewed a particularly large blueberry. Harold continued the interview. -Now, if ya don’t mind my askin’, Terry, what is it you do that ya gotta dress in duds like that? -Ah, yes. Well, actually, I’m a hunter. -A hunter! Well lookit that. There’s a man’s game there. Will swallowed his bite. He’d met plenty of hunters in his life, that’s for sure. During his time in the middle east, half the men in his outfit bragged about their kills. It was a sign of masculinity unlike any other when you’re able to score one big enough. Ten-point, twelve-point, and bigger numbers were thrown around. But in this weather? He decided he did want in on this conversation. -Just a hunter? -What’s that, Mr. Trotter? -Just Will is fine. I asked if you’re just a hunter. I mean, you can make a living doing that? -I see, I see. In my younger years, I had a business all my own. Years ago, this was. I was in book binding and publishing. Made quite a nice living, if I do say so m’self. -That’s interesting. -Yessah. Lot a’ writers dreams in my hands in those days. Like I was handlin’ their babies. But I was proud a’ the work I did. Did it for a while, too. Thirty-five years, in fact. Then I took the money I made and came across the pond. -Traded old England for the new one, I guess. -Ha! Yes, I suppose. It was in between I became a hunter. Got pretty good at that, too. In my blood, it is. -Hey, we gotta do what we love, right? -And what we must, sonny.

-Know that all too well. Harold shuffled about, gathering his own belongings. He slipped on his coat, affixed his hat- an old, weathered piece he called a Gentleman’s Cap- and bade their new-found friend a good evening. -I’ll take my bran muffin now, kid. Will took the muffin and placed it in a paper bag for the old man, and with a wave he walked over to Becky to pay his bill, then walked into the whiteout. Terrance said nothing else for a while. He just sipped his coffee in conservative sips. He seemed to enjoy it, at least, as every time he took a sip, he smiled a bit. This made Will happy, because it was a cup of the new roast he had delivered just the day before. -Good, good coffee. -New stuff. -Keep it. That’s my opinion. -Well good. Hopefully it’ll be a big hit. -Could you use one? -Use one what? -A hit. -I...yeah, I guess you could say that. -Sonny, you look like a man weighed down by somethin’. -Guess you could say that, too. -Not a big talker, are ya? Least not about your problems? -Guess I don’t want to burden anyone else. -Even if they can lend a hand? C’mon, out with it! Is it money, boy? It’s money, isn’t it? -Let’s talk about something else. Please?

-Fine, fine. Like what? -I don’t know. You live here now? You said that before. Where? -Just outside of town. Big house, top of a hill. Will knew the place, he realized as Terrance went on to describe it in detail. He had passed it quite a bit on drives. It was a big place indeed, one of those New England mansions that usually belonged to families for generations. Old Money, most people called it. Old house, old money is how those things usually went. In this case, that had been the way until the last surviving member of a long line of residents- back to the Mayflower old- had reached a point where he simply didn’t care about the place anymore. Terrance took that as the opportunity he had been waiting for, and went for the property like a predator. He had bought it for what amounted to a steal considering the age and history of the place. It had been his home for the last couple of years, and he enjoyed it very much. Of course, it wasn’t just the history or size of the place that made it familiar for Will. Rumors had sprung up around the area that whoever lived in that house had been the one responsible for the recent kidnappings. How those rumors got started, no one knew. It might have just been the eerie vibe the place gave off, like it was ripped right out of an old Gothic novel, and was inhabited by a shadowy-robed figure plotting some unpleasantness for the townspeople. Will hadn’t believed the rumors when they first popped up, but now he couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy. A silly, knee-jerk reaction, he knew, but there all the same. The sheer oddity of the man before him only served to add to the feeling that something was a bit off about the whole state of affairs. But then again, it could have just been the winter air playing tricks on his mind. At any rate, he reserved real judgement. -You keep your kills there? -Hm? He wasn’t sure what he was talking about when he asked this question. Did he mean the animals? Or was he actually coming out and asking this man if he was the kidnapper, and more? When he had been a soldier, it was said that he could sniff out a weird situation wherever it was, even those hidden from plain sight. It was like this extra sense was on auto-pilot, and it wanted to know more, even if it revealed something ugly. -From when you go hunting? You get them stuffed? -Ah. No, no, I’m afraid m’usual game’s a bit too big for taxidermy. At least under normal circumstances.

-I thought big-game hunting was pretty much dead? -Depends on the hunter, and on what you consider ‘big’. -Alright, so you hunt, what? Moose? -Dragons.

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