There were only three Proprietors on duty that morning when Carter Griffin strolled into the Six Sentence Café & Bistro to ask far too many questions. Chris, the Raconteuse, was at a far table in the shadows, working on an edit for her current serial story. Ford, the Supplier, was sat on the edge of the stage reading the final chapters of some Stephen King novel. And Nick, the Gatekeeper, was on door duty, no doubt reclining in his chair to take in the rays of the morning sun, which was sauntering over the district of Wordsworth with all the promise of a fine day.
A fine day it would not be.
“Good morning,” Ford said, as Carter Griffin approached the stage. “We’re closed.”
“I’m not buying,” said Griffin. “I’m looking.”
“Looking for what?”
“Information. There’s a rumor you had a recent break-in.”
“I’d be careful about rumors, ay?”
Griffin took two steps forward and cast his shadow across the Supplier. He was a big man, tall, stout, broad-shouldered, a mop of red hair perched on a bullish head with a ruddy complexion. He had several chins, each competing with one another for dominion above a stiffly-buttoned shirt, and a tie sporting an egg stain. A tan raincoat with a torn pocket completed his look of general shabbiness. Only his shoes could be said to be pristine. Italian. Expensive. Carefully polished. Carter Griffin, twice divorced, with three grown-up kids he rarely saw, a drinking habit and predilection for spicy takeaway food, cleared his throat and stared at the Supplier, who by now had closed his book and was staring straight back.
“I love your accent,” Griffin said. “You’re British?”
“Yes. And you? You a cop?”
Carter Griffin always wanted to be a cop. Or a private detective. Instead, to him, he was the next best thing.
“I’m an investigative journalist. Carter Griffin’s the name.” He flashed a press badge from one of his pockets and adjusted his face into an expression of gravity. “I work for the Wordsworth Gazette. And I’d like to ask you a few questions about your recent break-in.”
“Still chasing rumors?”
“Okay. Fine. Let’s drop the break-in business for now shall we. What do you know about a kid then? Sophomore type. Tall, skinny, looks like he could use a good meal. Know who I’m talking about?”
Ford shrugged. “We get a lot people walk through these doors.”
“I’ll bet. But rumor says this kid is a regular now.”
“You really like your rumors, ay?”
“In my line of profession, rumors can mean everything, or nothing. May I ask your name, for the record?”
“Yes. I’m Stephen King.”
Griffin threw a sour glance at the book in Ford’s hand, then his eyes met the stare of the Supplier. Not an eyelid blinked between them.
“This kid,” said Griffin. “Seems he’s been freaking out a few of the Wordsworth residents ever since his arrival. Some of the older folks here swear they remember him from some time before.”
Ford shrugged. “So?”
“When I say remember him from some time before… I’m talking about nineteen-seventy-freakin-two. Only… the kid ain’t changed one iota. He’s still the same kid. Like time’s stood still for him or something.”
Again, Ford shrugged, though inside, he felt an ice-cold dagger score along his spine. He gave an inward shudder.
“You don’t find that… odd,” said Griffin, “Strange? Some spooky shit? I got an old lady who’s worked the market since Kennedy was President* (*editor’s note: check Kennedy tallies with Sophomore timeline), who swears that kid is the same kid who used to live in Wordsworth all those years ago. I got an old feller who runs a barbershop, and swears that kid used to come in for a haircut back before we were watchin’ Neil Armstrong walking on the freakin’ moon. So, tell me, who’s this kid?”
“Is there a problem?” said Chris, who had emerged from the shadows to join Ford at the stage. She looked up at Carter Griffin. He absolutely towered over her. “I’m trying to edit a chapter about how a once fully-functioning Ronson cigarette lighter ended up making it’s way from a police station in Egypt all the way to the set of a Liverpudlian TV series as a non-functioning prop. And all I can hear is you, Mister-whoever-you-are, ruining my thought-process with your questions.”
Thank fuck for that, thought Ford, the cavalry has arrived.
“Ah, another Brit,” Griffin said to Chris. “Two in one day. I must be blessed.”
Good job Jenne isn’t around, thought Ford, otherwise Inspector Gadget here would have three stubborn Brits to deal with.
Good job Jenne isn’t around, thought Chris, otherwise Columbo here would be being chased out with a tomahawk right now.
Chris stepped closer to the journalist. She looked up and fixed him with a stare. Bam. In one second his smile was wiped clean away. “What do you want? Spit it out before we throw you out.” And she thought then: Where’s Nick? And what was Nick thinking letting this man in? Perhaps Nick had popped across the street to buy smokes and a paper… even Gatekeeper’s need a cigar and a daily cryptic crossword puzzle to get their wizard-y minds ticking from time to time.
Perhaps Nick has popped out to the local drugstore, thought Ford, to buy some beard moisturizing products.
“I’m here about the break-in,” said Griffin.
“There was no break-in,” said Chris.
“Did you call the cops?”
“Why would we, if I just said there was no break-in?”
“Jeez. You Brits, huh? Okay, like I just said to Benedict Cumberbatch here, let’s drop the break-in business for now. Tell me about that sophomore type who’s been coming here lately.”
“I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
“Come on. I’ve seen him walk in here with my own two eyes. Only, I ain’t ever seen him walk back out. It’s like I’m looking for a ghost! Mind if I take a look around your premises? You got a nice club here, or whatever it is you call it.”
“It’s called the Six Sentence Café & Bistro,” said Ford, jumping down from the stage to stand next to Chris.
“And right this moment,” said Chris. “You’re barred. Now, get out, before I have the Gatekeeper throw you out.”
Thought Ford: Where is Nick?
Griffin threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, kiddies. I’m going. But maybe I’ll come back.” He was already making his way across the floor to the front entrance. His back to the two proprietors, like a tan hound ambling away, its belly full from whatever scraps and bones it had found tossed on the ground. “Maybe I’ll speak to whoever’s really in charge of this joint, huh? Get some real answers. What’s his name… the chief proprietor here… Clark or something?” He stopped then. Turned to face Ford and Chris. “Jeez. Still can’t get over I got to meet two Brits today. Lucky me. Why’d you move to the States, huh? Improvement on the weather? You like the look of the natives? Or was it to get your teeth fixed properly?”
“Get out,” hissed Chris.
Griffin flashed them a smile. Surprisingly, he had good teeth. Along with his shoes, it was the only decent thing about him. “Freakin’ crumpet munchers, the pair of ya,” was his parting words. In seconds he was gone. The door swinging after him.
“Said his name was Carter Griffin,” Ford said to Chris. “Investigative journalist.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of him,” said Chris. “A real nosey-parker. Denise and Mimi told me about him. He likes to scoop up dirty stuff. Never takes no for an answer. Apparently, he was here last year, trying to get some dirt on that cook we hired back then. You know, that time when our takings mysteriously disappeared.”
“Too true. Have you tried his fish fingers with beans on toast yet? Deeee-licious.”
“No. Lucky you. I did get to try one of his other signature Brit-dishes… he makes a mean Welsh Rarebit!”
“Stop it. I’m getting hungry. We need to let the others know about the visit of our Mister Griffin.”
“Agreed. Clark won’t be pleased when he discovers that word is out we’ve had a break-in.”
“And the Sophomore?”
“Looks like the Sophomore’s got some explaining to do.”
Chris nodded. “Come on, let’s see what Nick says. I still can’t believe he let that guy in.”
At the entrance of the Six Sentence Café & Bistro is attached a small booth, with a comfortable leather chair that sometimes stays inside the booth or comes out onto the sidewalk, depending on the weather. The chair is reserved for one person only, and today the chair is outside. Next to the chair is one of those chrome ashtrays standing on a tall and tapering plinth, you know… from the 1950s or ‘70s or so. Settled atop of the ashtray is a fat cigar, slowly smoldering down to a stub in the almost nonchalant breeze coming along the alleyways of Wordsworth. The smoker of that cigar is no longer there. Yet, he was there earlier that morning. Or was he? Who opened up? Was it was Ford, or Chris? Was Nick ever there that morning? And the smoldering cigar…
Where is he?
Where is Nick?
“I won’t be pleased?”
Extending his right arm to hold the door for Mimi, the tall, thin man spoke in a tone the other Proprietors had come to think of as “A relaxed good mood is so much better than the alternative, shall we strive to maintain it?” Stepping over the threshold from the landing at the bottom of the three granite steps, his companion smiled with the relaxed confidence of a long-ago lion tamer,
“Chris, Ford! There’s no problem too large nor puzzle too…. puzzling that it can change a body’s mood, unless we allow it. If young Tom is not in the kitchen, who would object to a nice cup of Café Brûlot?”
Ford moved in the direction of the kitchen, grinning like a school kid asked by a favorite teacher to help put away textbooks on the last day before summer vacation. Chris smiled fondly as the two pushed through the swinging doors at the far end of the bar and looked up at the man now, somehow, standing in front of her table on the far side of the Bistro.
“Isn’t Nick on door duty today? It’s not at all like him to be away from his post without letting one of us know.”
Chris tapped the well-worn eraser on the end of her editing pencil against her slightly misaligned front teeth. The unwelcome intruder, Carter Griffin, was at least right about one thing: straightening kids’ teeth hadn’t been a priority of the then free-of-charge British dental profession back in the 1970s.
She returned her thoughts to the main purpose of the impudent investigative reporter’s visit. What was all this about the Sophomore… and a break-in? So far as she was concerned, nothing of any note had actually gone missing from the SSC&B – not that she’d been around the whole time. Parts of her memory had also been a little hazy since the ladies’ Big Night Out. That aside, why was this Griffin guy poking around in the seemingly slim pickings of a non-story, grubbed from the gossip of a couple of questionable characters?
Meanwhile, there was the matter of the missing Gatekeeper. She glanced up at Ford whose focus on the burning cigar stub had been distracted by the sight of the two familiar figures advancing along the street towards them.
…sitting unnoticed in the alcove of the Six Sentence Café and Bistro, Jenne and Denise lifted their cups of coffee in a toast. Smiling, Denise quietly said, “no wonder you enjoy sitting in the alcove, Jenne. It is the best seat in the house…
Yes,’ said Jenne, ‘it certainly is the best seat for keeping an eye on all the comings and goings. And for slipping out unnoticed to check up on folk too. I know a thing or two about that Carter Griffin that he wouldn’t want broadcast. I don’t do it often because, well, you know how time travel works. It drains you, and I’m enjoying the here and now too much to waste time sleeping it off. For recovering from girls’ nights out, that’s different.’
She paused to rub her wrist and smile down at the reminder of that crazy night.
‘But every so often it takes me over and I’ve just got to get hold of my grandfather’s Time Travel Tomahawk and go have a look. Confidentially’ – she leaned in towards Denise – ‘I could tell you why he’s so interested in…’
Just at that moment there materialized over her the giant, glowering shape of a gap in her memory so vile that she was unable to remember what Griffin was interested in. Temporarily paralyzed by the horror, she tried in vain to find the necessary email and cowered back into an enigmatic silence.
Chris / Clark / Denise / Ford / Jenne / Nick / Mimi