Sweet Cream Pancakes
rating: +14+x

Grimy. If there was one word to describe the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in front of him, it was grimy. It looked like it had once been decorated in a kind of kitschy Diner chic, but age and poor maintenance made it look like a post-apocalyptic reimagining of a café.

The front of the shop looked like it hadn’t been washed in years. It had two filthy broken windows, both held together with brown duct tape, with a carpet of fall leaves littering the pavement in front of them. Two plastic tables took up space on the sidewalk, the cheap sort that most people only took camping. Neither had chairs beside them. The glass door that should have led inside had been replaced with a screen door at some point. The sign above the restaurant, which had once spelt out its name in candy red lettering on a white background, had faded to a dull mauve and an unwashed grey. There were streaks of a darker grey where rainwater had flowed into tracks between the slightly raised letters of the three words.

Malcolm William Harrison III regarded the restaurant with a mix of horror and disgust, clutching his Brunello Cucinelli leather portfolio to the front of his bespoke Desmond Merrion suit. The thought of actually entering the shop in front of him was almost as terrifying as being seen entering the shop, although the latter took on a special kind of horror if it was his benefactors who saw him enter.

He stood outside the rundown diner for a while, trying to work up the courage to go inside or the ruthlessness to turn and leave. It wasn’t just the grime that frightened him. To call his employers powerful beyond imagination was almost an understatement. They were networked with the most influential men and women the world over. They stood astride the Earth like gods, no nation, no person beyond their reach. To them, a billion dollars was the sort of change they would lose behind the couch, the sort of thing they might slip into their grandchildren’s birthday cards.

And they didn’t tolerate traitors. By god they didn’t tolerate traitors. He’d seen what happened to those who were even suspected of betrayal, even by inaction. Fates almost too terrible to imagine. They flitted across his minds eye like half-remembered memories of a twilight nightmare. A roasted woman, trussed up like a pig, in the centre of a luxuriously overloaded banquet table. Four men and women, screaming in harmony, their naked bodies fused together like a modern art piece.

Watery eyes, pleading with him, from the back of a wheelchair.

Damned was the only good word for such hellish fates. If his bosses knew he was here, he was damned. If they checked the search history on the burner SIM card he had secretly bought, he was damned. If they even knew he had stood here, considering this betrayal, he was damned.

That last thought, more than any, was what pushed Malcolm to action. He was damned either way, so he may as well try to save some other unfortunate souls on the way down. Steeling himself, he stepped forward, and pushed through the door leading into the shop.

The rusted hinges creaked as they swung open, and instead of the pealing chime of a shopkeeper’s bell announcing his entrance he was met with the dull clatter of a cow bell. His first step inside the café slid out from under him as his foot landed a puddle of something, and Malcolm windmilled his arms desperately. He staggered and fell against the shop doorway, catching himself before a tumble caused whatever liquid had befouled his Testoni dress shoes to do so to the rest of his suit as well. He righted himself and crossed fully into the restaurant, not brave enough to look down and see exactly what he had stepped in.

The interior was as appalling as the exterior. The pungent aroma of mildew hung in the air. The linoleum floor had several long, sweeping dirty streaks that showed whoever mopped last hadn’t bothered to sweep first. A half-dozen dining booths sat beneath the cracked windows, though none had cushioned seats that weren’t torn, and several of them still had plates leftover from previous diners – although god only knew how long it had been since people had actually eaten there.

At the opposite end of the diner to the entrance was an old jukebox. It was just as unwashed as the rest of the diner, and it stood unplugged and silent. Its front window was smashed and even from across the diner he could see the glass shards resting inside on the vinyl.

There were no stools in front of the counter. There was a row of steel poles poking out of the linoleum floor, each of them ending awkwardly at less than a foot in length, showing a row of swivel stools had sat there once upon a time. Their ends were twisted and buckled, as though the solid steel had been torn away.

Behind the grimy counter stood an equally grimy woman. She was dressed like a stereotype of a diner waitress, though she looked thirty years too old. Her obviously dyed blonde beehive of a hairdo had a hot pink headband running through it, the same color as her talon-like fake nails. She was dressed in a faded pink flared skirt and button-up blouse with an off-white collar and off-white peak-trim on the sleeves, with a torn, frilly apron worn over her clothes. Her leathery face and neck hung from her skull like a vulture’s, her eyes and lips caked in a truly egregious amount of makeup. She regarded Malcolm with pursed lips as he approached the counter, the way a homeowner might regard dogshit on new carpet. A small badge pinned to her uniform spelled out the name ‘Barb’.

“Hello!” Malcolm started with a faltering smile “Lovely… lovely place you’ve got here. Its certainly very… quaint-”

“What do you want?” ‘Barb’ interrupted in a humourless nasally drone.

Malcolm paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, not used to being addressed in such an abrupt way by servers “I- well, I would… like some pancakes, please.”

There was a moment of silence. “Pancakes.” Barb stared at him flatly. She gave him a once over, as if she couldn’t believe someone like him was standing in front of her. Malcolm didn’t blame her, he couldn’t believe it either.

“Ah, yes, pancakes.” He replied, reaching into his pocket and dropping a ten dollar note on the counter without touching it or the woman in front of him.

‘Barb’ looked down at the money, then up at him with raised eyebrows. Malcolm tried to summon up his easy-going smile again and failed, managing only a wonky grin. He’d smooth-talked things more terrible than most men would ever know but this leathery crone had him on the backfoot with her mere presence.

Barb rolled her eyes and snatched the money off the counter, stuffing it down the front of her shirt rather than take it to any register. “HUGH! GET OFF YOUR LAZY ASS! WE’VE GOT AN ORDER FOR TWO PANCAKES!” she shrieked over her shoulder, startling Malcolm. She turned back to him “You want change hun?”

For a moment, Malcolm’s eyes flickered to where the money was kept. “No, no, no, that’s quite alright.” He said quickly, his nose detecting the tangy scent of days’ old dried sweat wafting from the woman.

Barb grunted. “Well, take a seat. Food’ll be out in a minute.” She then turned and disappeared through a swinging door behind the counter into what was presumably the kitchen, leaving Malcolm alone in the front of shop.

Malcolm turned to the booths running beneath the shop window and felt bile rise in his throat. None of the six booths looked especially safe or clean to sit at. Ruling out any of the seats that had worrying brown stains or foul-smelling puddles on them, he narrowed it down to one seat that merely had a large, sharp spring jutting out of its stuffing and one with several furry green plates in front of it. Deciding that he could push the plates away but a torn suit was ruined forever, he stepped forward and slid into the booth.

As his knees brushed up against the underneath of the table, he felt them smear against something squishy. They came away feeling wet.

Malcolm screamed silently. He felt whatever it was soak through his trousers to touch his bare skin and his entire being shuddered, as though his soul was trying to crawl up and out of his own mouth. He quietly mourned his poor suit and resolved to give it a viking funeral in his basement incinerator when he returned home. Right after he had a succession of searing-hot showers, where he scrubbed himself raw. Possibly using steel wool.

As he sat in the booth, he noticed how quiet it was. If there was activity in the kitchen it couldn’t be heard from where he was sitting. The street outside saw little traffic, only one car every few minutes. Sweet Cream Pancakes’s neighbours shared its state of disrepair and foot-traffic was none-existent. The area wasn’t exactly known for having a lot of window-shoppers and only fools and muggers lingered after the sun went down.

Malcolm rolled up one of his sleeves and carefully pushed the furry green plates to the other end of the table so as to clear a space to set down his leather portfolio. He didn’t trust the floor and wanted to make sure he could see any surfaces his bag was in contact with. When he went to move one of the glasses the same way, he failed to notice that it's base had been partially stuck to the tabletop by whatever foul liquid it contained. Instead of sliding, it toppled, and Malcolm felt his heart stop. Fortunately the liquid inside had been rendered somewhat gelatinous by the passage of time, and by some miracle the sludgy substance only spread towards the seat opposite him.

Sincerely thanking god for the first time since his Confirmation at thirteen, Malcolm decided to simply clutch his portfolio to his chest. He doubted he would be eating much of the food anyway, if it was anything like the rest of the diner.

Thinking about that turned Malcolm’s thoughts to what was going to happen next. Would they actually bring him pancakes? ‘Barb’ had been gone for some minutes now. What was happening in the kitchen? Were pancakes being made? She’d called out to a ‘Hugh’, but he hadn’t heard or seen anyone else in the restaurant. Was ‘Hugh’ even a man, or was he a tac-team? A code phrase?

He had no idea how this sort of thing was done. He’d simply bought a burner phone and went looking for a place with the right initials. Sweet Cream Pancakes had been the first one to come up. He’d done his research before coming here. It was one of two pancake places in town. The other was a 5-star all-day breakfast place that received rave reviews from food critics and was located next to a highway exit, beside a petrol station that could accommodate semi-trailers. It had made Buzzfeed’s “20 Best Independent Restaurants You’ve Never Heard of” list, had recently hired on delivery drivers and was currently undergoing major renovations so they could accommodate more customers at one time.

Sweet Cream Pancakes, meanwhile, only had one-star reviews online because reviewers couldn’t give it anything lower, had escaped the righteous fury of the health inspector because no-one from civilisation knew it existed, and the one critic who had ever mentioned it was a foodie youtuber who gave it second place in his “Top 5 WORST Restaurants I’ve Ever Been To” video. But – SOMEHOW – it still remained open and in business in a town where almost everything else was closing down.

It was all too much of a coincidence. The name, the lack of customers, the fact it was so low-profile but findable by those who went looking - they were practically advertising they were here. It being a walk-in business sealed the deal. The initials were such a well-known joke in the community at this point there was no way they'd do it unless they wanted to get noticed. He just worried he might not have been the only person to put the pieces together.

To get here, Malcolm had taken a short detour as part of one of his cross-country business trips. His employers knew he liked to drive to save on air fares – it was one of the “quirks” they attributed to his Bible Belt upbringing. While normally they disproved of employees choosing anything but the most luxurious travel options because they felt it reflected poorly on their brand, the old timers still had a soft spot for the idea of a hard-working boots-on-the-pavement door-to-door salesman. A man with his suit jacket lying folded on the backseat of his car and the air-con going full blast, going town-to-town with nothing but a briefcase full of gew-gaws and a winning smile. It wasn’t too hard to fudge the timeline between departure and arrival. And if anyone noticed, he could simply spin a tale about chasing a talented recluse or visiting a favoured prostitute.

Unless they had put the clues together too, and had someone watching this place.

The thought of the retribution his employers would wreak if they discovered the real purpose of this detour still sent shivers down his spine. But he had to. He was no bleeding heart, he’d seen and done things more monstrous than most could imagine. But everyone has their limit. He’d found his in a darkened warehouse, the glassy eyes of silent children reflected in the beam of a flashlight.

Malcolm looked up a clock hanging from the wall above the counter and realised it was broken. What the hell was going on? It shouldn’t take this long to… do whatever it is they needed to do. Was ‘Barb’ calling someone? Was a squad of black-suited g-men being summoned to his location? They weren’t actually making pancakes, were they? When was the illusion supposed to drop so they could get down to the actual business of his visit?

Malcolm’s train of thought suddenly halted, the memory of the dull, staring eyes of the waitress in filling him with a rising dread. If Sweet Cream Pancakes was the sort of establishment he had been hoping it was, shouldn’t there have been some sign of it before now? A sign, codephrase, a wink from ‘Barb’, something?

The only evidence he had that it was what he had been searching for were its initials and the fact it had no obvious revenue stream. What if Sweet Cream Pancakes was really just… Sweet Cream Pancakes? Just a terrible restaurant in a dying town that happened to have a certain name?

That couldn’t be the case. Why would the true owners of the initials allow a business like this to exist? Something that so obviously appeared to be one of their subsidiaries, one of their masks, if it was actually wholly unrelated? It was not as if they would have trouble removing this particular stain on their reputation. An actual visit from the health inspector, the severing of whatever tentative revenue stream allowed this place to hang on by its fingernails, the quiet removal of ‘Barb’ in the dead of night – they would have no issue.

What if they didn’t know it existed? It was a rundown store in a dead town with nothing but a Yelp page and one youtube video to let the rest of the world know it existed. Their reach was huge and their eyes everywhere, but they were never not busy. What if they had simply… missed this place, while dealing with their bigger problems?

If that was true, it would mean he had risked his life and ruined his suit for nothing. The proprietors of this place might not have realised the significance of their nom de la boutique but his employers certainly would. Men in razor-sharp suits with razor-sharp knives and worse things would be dispatched to hunt him down, men with experience finding things that could avoid being found simply by willing it. They would stake him down like a butterfly impaled by a collector, and drag him down into dark places, where things made of nightmares would cut pieces off him and eat them.

An even more terrifying thought arose: what if it wasn't operated by 'them', but by someone else who knew the initials? By his employers? A trap, meant to catch the disloyal when they attempted to flee or betray them? What if 'Barb' was contacting them right now? Was his execution being arranged at this very moment? Was Barb preparing to silence him?

He heard footsteps. The click-clack of heels, coming from the kitchen.

The door behind the counter swung open. Malcolm affixed his eyes on the table in front of him, on the putrid spilled liquid that had congealed into jelly. He clutched his portfolio to his chest.

The sound of the heels got closer. Out of the corner of his eyes he recognised the pink of Barb’s uniform and talons. He smelt the sweaty aura that hung around her like a shroud.

She arrived next to his table, looming over him. He didn’t look up. She placed a blue plate down in front of him.

Pancakes. Burned dark brown, oozy at the edges, with little black hairs baked in.

Pancakes.

Barb popped the cap off an aerosol can. “Here you go hun. Have some of our famous cream.” She held out a can of cheap supermarket cream and depressed the trigger. For long seconds, the only sound was the hiss of propellant as a blob of white cream slowly swelled next to his ‘pancakes’. It cut off with a “schlurp”, and Barb popped the cap back on the can with a click. There was a moment of silence. The cream smelt sour. “Would you like some syrup?”

“I…” Malcolm sighed and shook his head, looking up at the waitress. “No. I came here, looking for something… else. Not pancakes.”

Barb raised her eyebrows, chewing on something. “Oh. You here for cocaine?”

“Cocaine?”

“Yeah. Hugh sells cocaine out the back. That’s where the real business happens.”

Malcolm felt something heavy settle in the pit of his stomach. Cocaine. Of course.

He straightened, trying to shake off his mingled disappointment and relief. He needed to get out of here as quickly as possible. He could not be caught here and he had lingered for too long already. “No, I think I should just leave. Sorry for wasting your time.” Malcolm started to rise.

He was stopped as one of Barb’s taloned hands clamps down on his shoulder, arresting his movement. “No, Hun, you don’t understand.” He looked up and Barb met his gaze steadily, eyes locked on his. “The real business. Happens. Out the back.”

Malcolm blinked, and then returned to his seat. He thought for a moment.

“Yes, actually. I think I will have some… cocaine.” Barb nodded and then stepped out of his way.

Malcolm rose slowly and walked past her. The sound of his footsteps echoed in the silent diner. He stepped around the counter and towards the swinging door.

He hesitated, looking back at Barb. She gestured for him to go inside. He nodded, took a deep breath, and crossed the threshold.

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