‘Cannibals again? That’s not very novel, Frank,’ Cassandra said with a frown.
‘You underestimate me, my dear,’ Frank replied as he stepped from his black sedan.
‘We’ll see about that. Where’s John and Anna?’
The deep thrumming of rotor blades heralded their imminent arrival. A UH-60 Black Hawk appeared over the horizon, skimming a thick grove of dark pines. Frank waved to his driver to make room for the aircraft. His midnight motorcade dispersed, forming an impromptu landing field. It wasn’t their first time escorting the quartet to their clandestine appointments.
Behind them stood the roadside diner, its flickering neon sign struggling to life as the last rays of sunshine disappeared over the tall trees surrounding it. The lights were on inside, but save for an old man drinking coffee and reading a newspaper, no other customer was in sight.
‘So, if not cannibals, what are we having tonight? Bigfoot?’
‘I know a place that serves them. Sous vide, confit, marinated, it always tastes the same. Quite delectable, but a bit boring by the fifth dish.’
‘Sounds delightful,’ Cassandra sighed and glanced over her shoulder at the antiquated facade of the diner. Faded posters announced events that had taken place in ages past. One advertised the release of Double Fantasy by John Lennon in 1980. Another was an invitation to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address. She even spied a scrap of papyrus with the likeness of Caesar on it.
Her ancestors had amassed unrivalled wealth by finding patterns where others could not. She knew she was looking at one, but prophecy and divination required focus.
The crack of asphalt and the ferocious winds ripping at her haute couture evening dress announced the arrival of their late dining partners. Men in black fanned out from the Black Hawk, forming a perimeter as the chopper’s rotors slowly spooled down and came to a standstill. John and Anna disembarked when the downdraft was gone and there was nothing to ruin their evening attire. Anna was wearing a dazzling crimson dress lined with diamonds, while John went for classic elegance, sporting a black tuxedo with a bowtie to match Anna’s dress. Cassandra had to admit their friends never lacked in style.
‘John! Anna! So glad you could make it!’ Frank said. Cassandra slipped an arm into Frank’s elbow as they stepped forward with dazzling smiles that had made a dozen plastic surgeons rich beyond their wildest dreams.
‘And miss your dinner invitation? Never,’ John laughed and shook hands with Frank. Cassandra and Anna kissed each other lightly on the cheek and beamed at their husbands.
‘Such a dreadful place, but I look forward to eating a serial killer,’ Anna said.
‘My guess was cannibals again,’ Cassandra huffed.
‘But we had cannibals just last year,’ John looked surprised. Frank held up his hands.
‘Please, please! Have a little faith in me. I’d never be so droll as to invite you to a dinner with the same main course. No, I have booked us something absolutely unique this time!’ Frank said. His excitement was contagious.
‘Shall we go in then?’
The diner was reminiscent of every diner in America. The similarities were uncanny. Red faux leather booths with white pleats, chrome edged tables. A chromed counter spanned nearly the full width of the room. A jukebox in the corner played an Elvis song. The smell of coffee, cigarettes and frying oil. Even the old man felt like a part of the decor.
As the doorbell tinkled its last, a portly woman appeared behind the counter with a cigarette between her lips, looking for her order pad. She wore a faded pink dress with a white apron and a small hat that recalled the 1950s. Her name tag identified her as Darcy.
‘Hey there, welcome to Doe’s Diner! Grab a seat and I’ll be right with you,’ she said without looking up, her voice roughened by heavy smoking and long hours.
‘Good evening. We are here for the private event,’ Frank said, stepping to the counter.
The waitress found what she was searching for and looked up at the diner’s new guests. They had rich and powerful written all over them. And not the type who engaged in philanthropy.
‘Ahh, you’re the special guests. Sorry, didn’t see you there first,’ Darcy said, slipping the order pad into her apron’s pocket. The men and women on the other side of the counter looked at her with empty, hungry eyes. They were special alright.
‘Which one is our table, Darcy?’ John asked, a wolfish smile pulling at his lips, perfect white teeth glistening with saliva.
‘It’s right this way, sir,’ Darcy replied. She quickly finished her cigarette and stubbed it out, before dusting off her apron. She came bustling from behind the counter and led them past the booths to a nondescript door beyond the toilets. ‘In here.’
The table in question was located in a backroom that was part gambling den, part storage closet. Cardboard boxes and shelves lined walls covered in grease and suspicious stains. The godswood table in the middle stood on crooked legs, its surface polished to a mirror sheen. Four chairs were set around it, each made from a different sacred wood and carved with glyphs and arcane symbols.
‘Finally, some sign of sophistication,’ Cassandra said.
‘Indeed. And if I’m not mistaken, this is my chair,’ Anna said, running her slender fingers down the ancient druidic oghma of Albion.
‘Nice touch, preparing individual seats for us. What did you tell them about us, Frank?’ John asked, sounding both enthusiastic and cautiously paranoid at the same time. He hadn’t ascended to his position by being reckless.
‘Nothing specific. I just told them to expect us,’ Frank shrugged, taking his seat without much ceremony. Cassandra took the chair engraved with Hellenic scripture and the heraldry of the oracles of Delphi. She watched enviously as John helped Anna get seated before sitting himself. The man had manners.
‘Everyone seated?’ Darcy asked, lighting another cigarette. Its smoke curled around the naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, casting liquid shadows across the entire room. The bulb put Cassandra in mind of the sun, albeit darker, fainter. On death’s door, she thought.
‘Let’s get started then, shall we?’ Frank said.
‘Patience, Frank. They need to set the table first,’ John said with a wink.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ the waitress said, fishing around in the front pocket of her apron. ‘Just tilt your heads back and look up at the ceiling.’
Cassandra and the others did as they were instructed, knowing well that their irregular gourmet experiences required a certain level of flexibility. The waitress finally pulled a dropper from her pocket and unscrewed the top.
‘The hors d’oeuvre shall be the last tears of Atlantis. Distilled, thus very potent, with a salty aftertaste and a tang of existential dread,’ Darcy said, stepping behind Frank and dropping crystal clear liquid into each eye. She went around and repeated the process with each of her guests. ‘Now, look into the light.’
They did as instructed, their eyes stinging and their vision hazy. The orange light bulb seemed to shine brighter, like the midday sun over a vast ocean, seen from beneath the rising tide. Cassandra could hear waves crashing over slender spires of marble and gold. An entire civilisation cried Flee! in her ears as they went extinct in mere minutes. Sorrow filled her heart and her own tears mixed with those of dead Atlantians.
‘Exquisite,’ breathed Anna huskily. Cassandra suspected her ancestors had something to do with the disaster they had just experienced, but it would have been impolite to ask.
‘Quite extraordinary,’ John agreed, wiping the tears streaming down his face with the back of his hand.
‘I promised you, didn’t I? That we’d have something really special this time,’ Frank said.
‘Let’s not judge by a single dish, shall we?’ Cassandra reminded them. She licked at her own tears. ‘This reminds me of the time we went to that seafood place down by Innsmouth. Their mermaid gravlax was absolutely splendid.’
‘I remember that place. The odours were beyond appalling, but the cooking made up for the discomfort,’ Anna said.
‘Where’s the waitress?’ Cassandra asked, looking around. They were alone in the room.
‘I hope she went to get the next dish. I admit my expectations have risen,’ John said. His fingers gently stroked the all-seeing eye carved into the mahogany arm of his chair.
Frank coughed. They all looked at him, not in fear of a deadly, contagious virus, but because their ilk had never gotten sick. Some even struggled to age.
‘Apologies. It’s just an allergic reaction, I assume,’ Frank said. He looked a bit nervous, clearly upset that he lost his composure in front of his closest friends and spouse.
‘It’s alright, dear. Remember when that pulled chupacabra taco gave John that vile rash?’ Cassandra quipped and they all laughed. That was indeed hilarious. Not so much for the villagers, who paid a steep price for the affront. A proper restaurant should have impeccable food safety standards.
The opening door interrupted their reminiscing and in came the waitress. Sounds of merriment drifted in her wake and Cassandra glimpsed a lively evening in the diner.
‘I hope you enjoyed the first dish.’
When they all nodded, she closed the door behind herself and continued.
‘The next course will be the Ashes of Pompeii. You may have come across other places that serve the same dish, but let me tell you, this is the real deal. None of the knock off stuff, it’s a hundred percent pure. You can tell by the hint of grapes and nuts beneath the complicated layers of smoked flavours. Upon inhaling it, it will settle across your palate and gently choke you. Try not to swallow it, let its sulphuric taste linger at the back of your throat.’
As she finished the introduction to the second course, Darcy opened a wooden snuff box inscribed with Latin script. Cassandra could make out part of a warning when the waitress took a deep breath and blew into the box. Dark ash exploded from it, enveloping the whole room in a terrible twilight. The light bulb above swung back and forth, like magma erupting from a volcano. Cassandra began to cough as the ash invaded her every orifice and she had to force herself to remain calm and enjoy the dish.
Shapes moved in the ash-choked darkness, trying to run away from certain death. Shrieks to Flee! fell from parched lips. The air burned hotter, stealing breaths from labouring chests. Blood boiled audibly in veins. There was no collective scream this time, just the crackle of roasting flesh and the snap of burnt bones. The scent of cooked marrow spiced the amalgam of experiences.
As the last oracle of Delphi, Cassandra could no longer ignore the pattern. What had emerged as an inkling outside the diner now morphed into a full fledged portent. A dread omen of inescapable death.
‘Frank?’ she said nervously, squeezing her husband’s hand. ‘I’m concerned about our wellbeing.’
‘Relax, my dear,’ Frank wheezed, looking deathly pale. The ashes of Pompeii settled on his skin like a grey veil.
‘The chef will now present the main course,’ the waitress announced and opened the door. Through it, the light of distant stars spilled into the backroom. Leviathans out of space and time swam between galaxies as they engaged in small talk. The door closed and in Darcy’s place stood the old man they’d seen earlier. He had a ladder under an arm and held a tiny hammer.
‘Good evening ladies and gents. You have tasted the fall of civilisations and the death of thousands. Rejoice, for few share this experience. As your chef, I will be presenting to you the final dish,’ he said as he proceeded to unfold the ladder and climb it.
‘Already? I thought there would be more,’ John complained, but he looked haggard to Cassandra. As if the experience had drained his very essence. Anna looked positively vibrant next to him, even though the empty look in her eyes was quite unlike her. Frank slumped back in his chair, drool spilling from slack lips.
‘It is important to prepare each dish with utmost care. Too much or too little can hurt the outcome in ways unimaginable. Some ingredients take millennia to mature to perfection. Seasoning has to be applied with a watchmaker’s precision. There can be no mistakes when attending gourmets of the highest order. Now, I bid you to listen. And listen carefully,’ the old man said and pinched the tiny hammer between index and thumb. Cassandra wanted to call out to stop him, but the ash in her mouth kept the words from escaping her lips.
The tiny hammer plinked against the deep orange of the light bulb and the light flickered. Cassandra strained her ears, waiting in terrified rapture like the others. On the very edge of perception, she heard something. A susurrus, like a distant wave lapping against an empty beach. Its volume grew, a tsunami of sound expanding exponentially. The noise became unbearable, yet it continued to escalate. Cassandra’s eyes bulged, and she beheld among the smoke and ash nine planets orbiting the flickering light bulb.
The bulb’s light became an angry red as it bloated, swallowing the planets like a ravenous god. The heat radiating from it burned Cassandra’s skin, adding fresh torment to her bruised and battered senses.
The tiny hammer hit the bulb again.
The glass shattered, the light was extinguished and a sudden darkness enveloped them. Cassandra’s eardrums burst, but she could still hear the noise. Felt it. It wasn’t just any sound. It was the death scream of the solar system as all life was extinguished. From viral quasi-life to the most complex of sentient organisms, all screamed in the terror of absolute annihilation.
Cassandra felt the cells in her body killing themselves in sympathetic harmony. She convulsed weakly, strength fleeing her with each moment. Through the soot, she glimpsed Anna eating John’s face. Frank was dead before the final dish’s full impact, yet his limbs still flailed violently.
The door opened.
‘Timeless the guests may be, but they are getting hungry, chef,’ the waitress said.
‘Tell them dinner will be served shortly,’ the old man replied, peering through the twilight at the dead or dying couples around the table. ‘Just need to assemble each plate.’
About the Author
Daniel was born on a sunny, peaceful spring morning in Budapest, Hungary. He preferred watching television over reading books. Like, a lot. That changed when his school took him to the public library and everyone was forced to pick a book to read. He chose The Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Despite his initial disdain, our hero devoured the book in a few days and hasn’t stopped reading since. If you got this far, please send help, his budget (and shelves) can’t handle more books! Oh, and he occasionally entertains the idea of being a writer. The fool.