B009.b Strange Fish

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‘Café Rosso’, New Jersey

“Two chocolate pancakes and two coffee for table six!”

Elsbeth – Elsi to her friends – hurried over to the counter to pick up the order, balancing it on a tray which she held with one hand up next to her shoulder, and walked towards the table – two guys were sitting there, so she put some extra swing into her walk, hoping for a generous tip later on. They’d certainly stared at her enough already to warrant it.

Once more, she doubted her decision to work in this place, as her movements to put the food and drinks on the table showed off more cleavage than she was really comfortable with. This place was known for its rather provocative waitress uniforms – cut to emphasise the best parts of the wearer – and for only hiring pretty girls for the job. It paid well, and Elsi was trying to pay her way through college, so she’d taken the job. And honestly, I shouldn’t complain so much – it really does pay well.

Elsi was pretty, but not pretty enough for a job in one of the really expensive places, or as a model or anything – it was nearly impossible to compete with the metahumans there, or the girls who’d been able to afford plastic surgery by Doctor Beauty (be it with money or for ‘favours’). Working in this place had been the only job she’d been able to find that didn’t involve sleezy work, at least at a reasonable distance to the flat she shared with three other girls her age.

So she brushed a blonde strand of hair behind her ear, flirted a little with the guys and then went to pick up the next order. The next one certainly wouldn’t make her feel so… on edge. Her favourite customer had ordered his usual breakfast earlier, and she saw Waldo, the cook, put the eclectic menu on the counter for her to pick up – no need to call out, there was really only one person who bought that combination, and it was always her who served him.

Quickly, Elsi picked it all up – extra-thin pancakes, a cup of honey, a cup of strawberry jam, fried bacon, canned pineapple and hot milk – and took them to the rearmost table, which stood in the corner and allowed one to see most of the place without being seen all that well in return.

A week and a half ago, a new customer had sat down there, and Elsi had been the first to serve him. At first, she’d thought he was some kind of pervert, come here to watch all the pretty girls and eat cheap food. But no, he hadn’t looked at her cleavage once, and she was pretty sure he’d never bothered to watch her ass, either! In fact, he barely flirted with her, unless she initiated, and even then, only to humor her, she was sure.

Honestly, he seemed a little shy, which was just crazy, considering how good-looking he was. Not superhero-stuff, no, but definitely above the average. His name was Cedric, he was a travelling artist who was spending a few weeks in New Jersey to search for ‘inspiration’, and he was the nicest guy she’d ever met. It helped that he was too old to be interesting for her, so no crush to screw things up (Elsi was very awkward around people she crushed on).

“Hey Cedric!” she greeted him with a genuine smile.

He looked up from the book he’d been reading (one of Shakespeare’s plays, though she didn’t know which one) and smiled back, making dimples appear on his cleanly shaven face. His messy red-blonde hair had been washed and combed into a semblance of order, his teeth were white as new tableware and his warm brown eyes made her think of molten chocolate, the overall look complemented by lots of laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. He looked a lot like her father – or at least, how she’d always imagined her father would look like, if she ever met him. A little too short, but otherwise just right.

“Hello Elsi honey,” he greeted her, voice as warm as his eyes. “Ah, you know how to make a man happy!” he added when she put his breakfast down, and he immediately went to work – half the honey into the steaming hot milk, the rest onto the bacon. Jam and pineapples spread over the three pancakes, followed by bacon for each, and then he rolled them up.

The first time she’d seen him do this, she’d felt like hurling, but by now, she’d just accepted it as one of his quirks (God knew he had enough of them).

“And how is your day treating you so far?” he asked, waiting a little for his milk to cool while he used a spoon to stir it up and dissolve the honey.

Looking quickly around, she saw that no one was paying attention right now – people rarely did, when she was this far back (in fact, the other waitresses barely noticed Cedric – it was always Elsi who picked him out and served him) – so she had a minute or two to chat. “Same as ever, really. You’d think with the winter weather we’d have less tourists, but they still pour in in droves. Lots of legwork.” She tapped the side of her bare leg (these skirts were seriously tiny), winking at him.

“Eh, something tells me there’s gonna be less work for you in the near future,” he said, still stirring his milk. “And how’s college? You had an exam yesterday, right? Introduction to Metahuman Legal History, if I remember it right? How did it go?”

“Like you ever forget anything, Cedric,” she replied merrily. “Thanks for asking, and it went great – your help with my prepwork really paid out, thank you!” He’d been reviewing her practice exams, and discussing the subject with her during her breaks. It was almost a shame he was an artist, because he’d have made an awesome teacher – somehow, he could just get you to pay attention and focus, something she’d always had trouble with before. “And now that I got that out of the way, it’s smooth sailing until the end of semester exams…”

And that was another great thing about Cedric – he listened. He was perfectly content slowly sipping his milk and taking small bites out of his rolled-up pancakes while she told him about her day at the university, about her problems with her flatmates (Jenny and Jessy had broken up – again – and were on the warpath with each other – again – until the inevitable make-up-sex – again), about that one teacher who seemed to have it in for her, the other one who was always looking at her ass, her bitchy boss here at work…

Speaking of which, the nearby door into the kitchen had swung open when one of her colleagues rushed through, and she saw that that fat bitch Clarice had just started chewing out one of the new girls again – a mousy little thing named Marcy, who’d just barely made the cut, but they needed more waitresses to deal with all the customers they were having lately. Apparently, the girl had messed up two orders, and one customer had complained about it, which of course meant that Clarice was now in the process of humiliating the girl in front of half the staff – like a small mistake like that couldn’t happen to anyone here!

“I’m sorry, Cedric, but I gotta help Marcy,” she told him regretfully. They had little enough time to chat as it was, without her being distracted.

He didn’t seem to mind, though. “Don’t mind me. Just bring me a slice of that strawberry chocolate cake on your way back!” he told her with a wink, putting the empty jam cups onto her tray, making the corner of her mouth twitch as she picked her tray up and walked towards the two women (thank God the cafe didn’t insist on high heels, like some places – it’d be hell!).

She knew that Clarice had all the attention span of a lemming – which made the insults she was throwing at Marcy over one confused order quite ironic – so she went for the direct, simple solution: walking straight through the space between the two with a whispered ‘excuse me’, she rattled the tray a little – distract the bitch.

And it worked. Cedric had been telling her this’d work since the third time he’d been there! Clarice turned after her, as if to fire off a reprimand, and Marcy took her chance to go out to the customer area, where she was safe. Elsi, on the other hand, put the dirty dishes away, grabbed a slice of the cake and went out the other exit before Clarice was finished thinking up something to say (no one ever accused her of being quick).

“Welcome back, brave hero,” Cedric said, having apparently finished an entire pancake roll during this short interlude. “And I see you even brought me spoils. Gimme.” That last word was pronounced the way a child would have, and she gave him the plate with a smile.

“You were right, she really doesn’t have a measurable attention span!” she told him, looking around to make sure no one was paying them any attention.

“I know all about attention, my dear. It’s my bread and butter,” he said as he polished off the second pancake. “Speaking of bread and butter, I’m sad to say that I’ll be moving on soon.”

Oh. She’d known that was coming, he was a wandering artist after all (when she’d asked him what kind of art he did, he’d replied ‘performance art’ and neglected further comment), but still, she’d miss him.

“Such a shame… When are you leaving?” she asked, feeling far less chipper than just a moment ago.

“Very soon, I’m afraid,” he said with a sympathetic smile on his face. He seemed just as sad as she was. “I got a message earlier this morning – a commission for a private performance up in New Lennston – and it’s too good an offer to pass up. I should be on the train already, but I wanted to say goodbye first.”

Suddenly, her eyes were wet, and she nodded. She’d really come to like this quiet, slightly crazy man with the disgusting eating habits and the ability to listen to a teenage girl bitch and moan about her life while still paying attention and without getting annoyed. “I’m sure you’ll knock’em dead.”

Laughing out loud, he took his fork and ate a piece of the cake she’d just brought him. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, and I promise I will! Now, be a dear and bring me… let’s say, two bananas, and something to pack the pancakes up for the way.”

She nodded and hurried off, drying her eyes with a napkin on her way to the counter, where a basket full of fresh fruit stood, and took a paper bag for takeout along, too.

Back at the table, she quickly packed everything up for Cedric while he finished his milk and his cake quietly.

“Will I see you again?” she asked in a subdued voice as soon as she finished and put the bag down on the table.

“On the television? Most likely. In person? I don’t want to make any promises there,” he said as he pulled his wallet out, giving her the money for his breakfast (if you could even call it that). She put it away. “Here, this is for you.”

Her eyes went wide when he handed her eight fifty dollar bills. “W-wha- I can’t accept this!” she gasped, looking at the bills on her hand. That’s three month’s worth of rent, and some extra!

Smiling, he took her hand with both of his, closing it around the bills. “You can use it better than I, and besides, I got plenty more where that came from.” Rising to his feet, he leaned forward to plant a gentle kiss on her forehead. “Be safe, Elsi. And be strong. I know you’ll be a great one.”

She was too choked up to reply, and just nodded through the tears. He pulled his brown coat on, took his bag and left with one last wink, leaving just after Clarice, who always took a break around this time.

Elsi already missed him.

* * *

Cedric pulled his collar up against the cold, stretching until something stiff popped in his neck. I’m getting old, he thought as he walked down the sidewalk, keeping a discrete distance from Clarice – that woman was just unpleasant. And the way she treated her waitresses was just appalling. He couldn’t imagine how Elsi and the others held themselves back from punching her in the face every time they saw her.

Ah, sweet Elsi. Such a good lass. So polite, so nice. Rare, nowadays, and besides, it had been quite a while since he’d had such a pleasant model to work with – the last nine before her had just annoyed him, eventually.

Speaking of annoyance, Clarice had just stopped at an intersection, looking impatiently at her watch as she waited for traffic to stop and let her pass. Her attention switched between the traffic light and the watch.

He looked down the street, quickly, and saw a garbage truck approach at quite the speed – the traffic lights had just switched to green, so the driver wouldn’t have to slow down – but he was focusing on the street. Reaching out, he plucked the man’s attention off the street, redirecting it to a passing group of sparsely clad schoolgirls (despite the winter weather!). At the same time, he took Clarice’s attention off the street and the lights, too, and made her focus more on her watch – she was always running late with her breaks, anyway, and this was just the right nudge to make her step carelessly out onto the street to cross it.

Thunk.

Soon, the screaming would begin, but he was already walking down an alley, peeling a banana as he made his way to the university, redirecting any strand of attention that he sensed attach itself to him.

Elsi had really endeared herself to him, and the rules were clear – if, after a week or two, his current model did not endear him- or herself to him (or at least amused him), he killed them. If they were annoying, or downright unpleasant, he killed their friends and family, too, at least the closest ones. But if they were alright, he went on his way. And if they grew on him the way Elsi had, he did them a few favours.

Because he was such a nice guy, after all.

Finishing his second banana, Cedric Cullen, better known to the world as Caliban, went on a stroll towards Elsi’s college. There was a lot one could do with two banana peels and some attention control. Besides, Elsi deserved better than those teachers.

I still have some time before the train leaves, anyway. College, then New Lennston. He began to hum the melody to the Beverly Hills Cop theme. One of his favourites.

No one paid him any attention.

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