Chapter Three – Welcome

12 Jul

As the old man fumbled with boxes of loose tea, I wondered why everyone was so shocked. Maybe they did this to all newcomers to the cafe? Maybe it was a running joke of some kind? But, looking around again, everyone seemed more scared than amused.

He finally returned with a large mug of pale green liquid and rattled it onto the counter. I thought about asking why everyone was so shocked, but I got the sense that this would just make things three times more awkward than they already were. In the end, I just muttered a few words of thanks and dropped the change into the tip jar, avoiding the stern gaze of the blue plastic chameleon again.

I found a small table facing the wall and just sat there, gazing into the mug like an old scrying mirror. If I’d been hired to find a cup of tea, then it was worth the money. But it was probably something more than this. After all, couldn’t Mr. Mysterious just come in here and buy a cup for himself – from the fifty seconds I’d seen him for, he looked like the kind of guy who people wouldn’t dare stare at for too long.

As I took my first sip of the tea, I heard a few murmurs behind me. Within seconds, everything was back to normal. The tea tasted unusually bitter, like burnt tree bark with a hint of jasmine. Like it had been stirred by a gnarled and twisted root from the most stubborn tree on the planet. Still, after a while, it actually tasted kind of nice.

By now, I heard the crackling of a radio behind the counter and the opening bass notes of Suzanne Vega’s “My Favourite Plum” plunked their way through the cafe. For some reason, this made me feel uneasy. It wasn’t one of her more well-known songs and I’d already heard it on TV earlier today. The chances of hearing it again within the same week, let alone the same day, were slim at best.

I returned to the tea. As I got closer to the bottom of the mug, it started to taste bitter again. The music went silent. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that everyone was staring at me again. Their eyes were wide and their shoulders were hunched, like a pack of wolves ready to pounce. Finally, the woman in the floral dress smiled for a second. It wasn’t a normal smile.

It was a smile which, for a second, revealed huge bloodied fangs. They vanished as soon as I blinked. I turned to the guy in the yellow suit and his face suddenly dried out like an old Egyptian mummy. He smiled and his lower jaw collapsed in a shower of fine bone dust. I blinked again and he returned to normal.

Finally, I looked at the man behind the counter. For a split-second, his eyes went camera flash red and then returned to normal. I got to my feet. Whatever was in that tea wasn’t jasmine. It had to be something else entirely, something hallucinogenic. Maybe “jasmine” was slang for ibogaine, damiana or ayahuasca or some relatively unknown spiritual plant like that? Perhaps it was only a matter of time before I turned into a gibbering paranoid wreck.

But, saying all of that, I felt fine. I didn’t feel high or anything like that.

It was just that, for a few seconds, reality seemed to break and the dark menacing undercurrent beneath it came to the surface. But, apart from that, everything was ok. I knocked back the dregs of my tea and got to my feet. I was perfectly steady, that’s always a good sign.

Looking at the checkerboard floor, I walked to the door and gave it a hard pull. To my surprise, it swung open easily. There was another crackle of static behind me and “Hotel California” started playing inside the cafe.

As I closed the cafe door, I heard a voice over the jangly guitars. It was a whisper and it simply said ‘Welcome’.

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