The gravel beneath his feet protested with a crunch as Rufus T. Heckle exited the alleyway, face-first into the acrid street smoke. He was not a very well-dressed man, though he held a distinct noble air around him, one that sent flies spiralling over his head and rats scurrying under dumpsters in shame when he coughed, throat smarting at the smog. But it was not the rats and flies and smog that occupied Rufus's mind as he approached the corner of 3rd and King's. It was the words the youngster had said at their last meeting three days ago, the cryptic "final message before death" every detective inevitably faces once or twice in his career. The Other Side is always just around the corner.
It's a cafe, an inn, a safehouse, though not in the usual sense, the youngster had said. They say it's a very important place, the kind where the guy you're looking for might frequent. Rufus might have mentioned something about his job being very unlike the "usual sense", but let him continue. The youngster had nothing much left to say, though, and forty-six hours later his roommate found his set of clothes heaped over his shoes, at the start of a large bloody smear ending abruptly at the east window. It was the same window that, from two stories above, overlooked Rufus as he trod round the corner store, pausing only to scoop a handful of large pebbles from the sidewalk. "The Other Side is always just around the corner," he mouthed, like a forgotten nursery rhyme. "Just around the corner."
One, two. Three, four. As if in a dream, he dropped them almost ritualistically as he rounded the block into the back alley, two before the corner, two after the corner. Crunch the gravel. Cough at the smoke from the street. There seemed to be a certain rhythm to it. I am doing this. Why am I doing this? He didn't even know if he was thinking anymore, the second round around the block nothing but a deep revenant calling from an ancient OCD. Corner store, here come the pebbles. One, two. Tie my shoe. Like a forgotten nursery rhyme. Three, four, knock on the door, and sure enough there at the side of the building was a pair of clear glass doors, tucked in low like the one from Alice in Wonderland. It even seemed just as small, cowering from the world in its cosy brick cubbyhole, and Rufus subconsciously stooped as he went through it. Above him, "The Other Side Cafe" hung daintily in embossed italics from velvety rope.
It was an elegant affair, with glowing orbs keeping sentinel along the walls. Gas lamps? In this day and age? The checkerboard floor was odd too, shining like marble yet creaking like old wood when stepped on. Around him, patrons dined and drank, occasionally flickering (what?) like Chinese mask performers to reveal…something. Whatever it was, it left him with the strange mental image of a pale shell-less crab in the moonlight, grotesque yet familiar. The whole place was…how would he put it? Otherworldly.
There was a two-seater near the corner, below a warm orb-light, and a genteel middle-aged man was sitting at it. There seemed to be something innately different about him, something that stood out, yet did not stand out from the contours of his face to the shapes of his shoes. Rufus immediately made a mental note of his appearance, and to his suprise found that he couldn't. Sure, the gentleman was probably forty-ish, with the look of a chap one'd probably find on a park bench feeding pidgeons somewhere. His attire did not just reek of "drab", it utterly defined it. It kept in the quiet of its seams, like the one guy at the party, the diplomatic one who never talked too much to anybody, and it was perfectly boring, even indescribable in its inanity. That was it. The drab man in the chair, the boringly impossible, impossibly boring man, he defied description, and he expected Rufus to sit down with him. No words, no signals. Just an expectation.
"I suppose you know why I'm here?" said Rufus as he sidled in smoothly, though it was an empty assertion of power, a perfectly scripted line from an old noir movie.
You're dealing with events way over your head here, kiddo. Best you stay out of this. said the impossible man. Except he didn't say it like that, he said instead, "Yes."
Extending a hand (perfectly indescribable, thought Rufus), he greeted. "I'm the Proprietor." Even the way he said it sounded capital. "I hear about things from the patrons here and there, and I couldn't help but expect your arrival. Yves must have told you about the place."
Rufus took his hand. "I'm Ryan Gore." Carefully chosen alias here, though deep inside he knew it wouldn't hide a thing from this oddly dull man. "Yves, that was his name? The kid who got killed?"
"Killed? Hardly, though I can imagine he wish he were, Mister Rufus."
They were both silent for a moment, as a maid in a gas mask passed by with tea. Need a cup, sweetie? she breathed. "No milk, one sugar, Rosie," said the Proprietor. Rufus merely smiled and waved no, thanks. Rosie the gas mask maid might have smiled back, and she set down a steaming teacup from her tray before giving a curt nod to the Proprietor and moving on.
"So, what about the other cases? The gypsy woman on the twenty-second, the park vagrant on the twenty-fifth, what happened to them?" implored Rufus.
"Same as the kid. What did you expect?"
"Who killed…took them?"
"Can't say for sure. Lots of people come and go through the Other Side, and it gets hard to keep track of who entered where from here. This is where the lines get thin, after all. I built this establishment on a rift, Mister Rufus, and it bleeds onto people, leaves a stain. If you're looking for the guy who took those people, following those stains would be very helpful indeed. Given the nature of the crimes, wouldn't you say he'd continue hunting round the same neighbourhood?" Proprietor took a long sip of his coffee.
"Aha. Typical serial killer. How do you suppose I find this…stain?"
"Why, just look at the patrons around you, Mister Rufus. Hell, there's even one trailing down your neck as we speak."
Rufus glanced at his reflection on the immaculate checkerboard floor. Sure enough, a muddy streak was running from the end of his left ear down to the collarbone, looking more like a birthmark than anything now. He scratched at it almost instinctively.
"Well, there you go. It's been nice talking to you, Mister Rufus, but sadly that's all the help I can afford to give to a stranger. Goodbye." The Proprietor might have smiled a bit here.
"Thank you for the help."
"Oh, there's no reason to thank me," said Proprietor. "Trust me. There won't be any."
Rufus Heckle got up, tucked his chair in, and headed for the door before deciding to ignore the last bit. He was a detective, for what it was worth, and by God if he didn't do what he was paid to do. Good day to you, sir, breathed a maid as she held the door open for him.
He exited the Other Side Cafe, breathing in the last fumes of warmth from within.