Greg’s one word eclipsed anything I might have said. That is, if I could have even found my voice.
We’d seen the sign, “Under New Management,” displayed on the door of our local eatery. I can’t say that it had been our “favorite,” but when there’s only one in town, there isn’t much choice.
The doors had been closed for some time, which had meant scrambled eggs and toast for dinner on my part. We’d grown used to eating in the old diner, even if it wasn’t really great. Laziness makes for a lot less pickiness.
The old “Charlie’s” sign, with its neon tubes that were dark in more places than they had been lit, was now replaced by a single back-lit rectangle:
Now there was a stretch of the imagination. Greg and I had rolled our eyes at the stupidity of the new name, and had agreed that the inside of the place would probably be just as insipid.
Wow–had we been wrong! In fact, if wrongness was an Olympic event, we would have won gold. And I could tell from the other customers surrounding us that we were not the only ones.
The décor was so very different from what we had seen on closing day for “Charlie’s.” That bastion of dining had been styled in what could be termed as classic-diner-turned-squalid. Those roadside places along Route 66, all spiffed up for the tourists? Well, our little restaurant had tried for that look, but had frayed at the ends so bad that it was irreparable. Moreover, the owner, Charlie Haven, had grown too old to care for, or about, it anymore. He sold it, then he had died not too long ago; hence the name and ownership change.
The new “Chuckie’s” was, to say the least, incredible. I could think of other descriptions as well, but this was a good umbrella term for it.
Gone were the red vinyl seats and 50s-era table tops. The shabby jukebox that never worked in my lifetime was also missing. Even the walls, which had been white for, like, ever, were now a thing of the past.
In their place was what looked like the cabin of one very disturbed individual. Wood paneling lined every wall, upon which hung not only deer heads but the taxidermized remains of various other animals. I couldn’t help but notice that the decorator had also pinned mannequin heads to the walls. That made me shudder a bit.
Balconies above us were arrayed with mannequins and carousel horses, Hollywood movie posters, and old appliances. It looked as if the owners had simply gone out to the dump and picked up a score of craziness. I was especially creeped out by the sight of a hand hanging over one edge of the balcony a couple of feet away from where we stood. There was an arm attached, but I didn’t want to think about where the rest of the body was–if there was one.
I was so involved in looking up that I forgot to look ahead–and almost bumped into a life-sized sculpture of a vaquero, which stood a few feet from the door.
“Oh!” I peered at the face and laughed. “Greg, I almost smacked right into this guy!”
Then I took a closer look, and nudged my friend. “Greg, check this one out.”
“What?” Greg had been goggling like the rest of us, and it took some time to bring him down to earth.
“What about him?” He joined me in giving the thing the once-over–a couple of times.
“Doesn’t he look like Manny?”
I rolled my eyes. “You are so thick. Remember Manny? The guy who used to run the floor here?”
“Oh–right. The maître-d’.”
“Yes. Doesn’t this guy look like him?”
Greg looked closer. “Oh yeah. I see what you meant.” He then took off his glasses and wiped them. After putting them on again, he squinted at the model’s face.
“What?” I looked from Greg to the model.
“There’s a bit of moisture in the corner of the eye. Like it’s…crying. Weird.”
“That’s simply because it’s just been finished,” said a voice behind us. We turned to see a mousy-looking little man standing in the aisle. He tried his best to look down his nose at us, but since we both had a good twelve inches on him, the effect was comical to some degree. Having to look up his nostrils was not so great.
“And you are…” I started.
“Maximus Whelk.” He bowed stiffly, the way one would imagine butlers did. It didn’t add to our estimation of the man; in fact, we had to stifle a giggle. “I am the assistant manager of this restaurant. May I be of assistance for anything else?”
I was about to answer in the negative when I heard a voice from near the rafters.
“Whelk! Up here! Now!”
Greg and I turned to where the voice had come from, as did anybody else in the room with capable hearing. We saw a silhouette framed in the doorway of the manager’s office at the top of a flight of stairs, at the same time we heard Whelk’s sigh of resignation.
“I must go. Deirdre here will seat you.”
A young lady appeared at his side almost immediately. With a big, beaming smile she showed us to a table.
“Yep, this is sure different,” Greg commented as he looked around. “Even got some different stuff going on with the floor.”
Indeed, the surface we had been walking on was sawdust, which I had a hard time believing would have passed muster with the sanitation department. But I had little time to remark on it, because our attention was suddenly taken up by the “new-and-improved” menu.
So much variety! I won’t go into it here–suffice to say it was incredible.
I decided rather quickly, and as Greg perused the pages I looked around. The quiet moment gave me time to think. Who knew that this short interlude would cause such trouble later on?
“I wonder…” I said out loud, as my eyes roved from stuffed bats to accordions to an ad for Beeman’s Gum.
“What?” Greg mumbled, only paying partial attention to what I was saying.
“Hehm?” Greg looked up for a moment and eyed me, an eyebrow raised.
“I wonder if Marley still works here?”
“Oh.” He nodded once. “Yeah.” Then he dove back into the menu.
Clearly he didn’t really care. But I did. Marley had been one of our favorite wait staffers at Charlie’s. She’d worked here for years, and I hated to think that they had let her, go along with the old décor.
A young lady with a lovely smile and a pad of paper stopped at our table.
“Hi. I’m Wendy, and I will be bringing your dinner tonight.”
“Hi.” I smiled at the woman, who was not much more than a girl. Her eyes shone brightly, but there was something about her that made me think she wasn’t showing her real side. Not unknown in the restaurant trade; being cheerful was a requirement when dealing with customers. But this girl…
Perhaps it was just opening night jitters. Maybe…
“Have you decided?” She looked back and forth at us, her smile never wavering. I did notice her glancing at that second-floor manager door a few times. It was closed now, but I could see shadows moving across the frosted glass window.
“Um…” I looked across at Greg, who was still immersed in the glorious land of food possibilities. “Give us a few more minutes, okay?”
“Sure.” She started off, but I stopped her.
“Wendy?” I just had to know.
She turned back, and I noticed that her bright smile had been replaced by a look that could only be described as terror, albeit a fleeting one.
“Yes?” The smile was back so fast that I could have chalked up what I had seen to the dim lights of the place.
“Does Marley still work here? We used to see her a lot and…”
My words were cut off by Wendy’s sharp glance toward the upstairs balcony. I followed her look, and saw Whelk standing halfway down the stairs. He had his glare fixed firmly on our waitress. The manager’s office was open, and that same silhouette was blocking the light from inside.
“Um…Marley…” She appeared to be thinking, but I could see her starting to shake. “Let me ask…”
She hurried away, throwing a look up to the balcony as she did so. Whelk nodded as if to say “well done.” I blinked a couple of times, looked toward the kitchen, then back to the stairs.
Whelk was gone. And the door was closed.
Wendy was back within five minutes, two coffee cups and an urn in hand. She put the cups in front of us and poured.
“Wait,” I objected. “We didn’t order…”
“Remember me,” she whispered, on the edge of panic.
“What?” Her comment made me shake my head, wondering if I’d heard right.
“Wendy, the manager wants to see you,” came a voice behind her. A young man materialized from the gloom, a smile pasted across his face.
“But…” Wendy gestured toward us.
“I’ll take care of their order,” he told her. Then he pointed toward the office. “Go.”
Wendy nodded, and I swear I heard her whimper.
Her replacement pulled out an order pad and, with pen in hand, asked, “Now, what would you like to order?” His smile could have lit up the room, but his eyes were telling me a different story. One that would not be suitable for those prone to nightmares.
Greg looked up, and his face told me that he had been paying attention to what had transpired for the last few minutes after all. His look was guarded; to me, it seemed that he would have liked to have just gotten up and bolted out of there. I was right there with him.
But we swallowed our – can’t say fright, because there was nothing to be frightened of – let’s say consternation. The two of us acted the hungry customer, and dutifully ordered a full dinner.
It was doubtful that we would stay to finish it. The place was beginning to creep me out. The statue that looked like Manny, with a tear in its eye, and Wendy’s cryptic message, were just the tip of the iceberg.
I took a closer look at the décor as we waited for our order. Chills started to run down my spine as I perused the mannequins and animals; there were some that somehow looked familiar, and not in a comfortable way.
In one corner, I saw a dog that looked a lot like the old owner’s Golden Retriever, Buggsy. Near it was a leg, its foot encased in a brown loafer that looked suspiciously like what Charlie used to wear every day to work. Unwillingly, I followed the leg up to the torso, and then to the face.
This is where the fun ended, if there had ever been any. I was looking directly at old Charlie!
My gasp got Greg’s attention, and he followed my shocked stare up into the rafters. I knew he saw the resemblance when he stiffened at the sight.
This was too bizarre. Not to mention disrespectful of the dead.
I wanted to leave right then and there, but just then our waiter brought our order. He set it down, asked the usual questions, and left for another table. With a shudder, I decided to make the best of it, but then never to set foot in here again.
Greg and I tucked in. The food was great, but it didn’t settle the tension we had started to feel in that place. We just wanted to pay and leave at that point.
Suddenly there was a movement in the balcony. My imagination went wild, and I had to suppress a scream as I looked up.
It was simply Whelk and our waiter, adjusting the scenario above our heads in order to add another mannequin. This one looked like Red Riding Hood, complete with cape. I wondered when they were going to bring in the wolves, but then my imagination made me regret having thought it.
“Okay, I’m done,” I said as I tossed my napkin onto my plate. “Let’s pay up and get out.”
“Agreed.” Greg signaled for the maître-d’, who billed us since our waiter was up in the balcony.
I was putting on my coat when I heard what I thought was a scream, and I whipped my head up to look into the balcony.
Nothing moved, but I could swear I heard someone crying. As I looked over at Greg, who looked equally nonplussed, a drop of something fell on my head. I frowned, and put my hand on my scalp.
This time I did let out a yelp; the drop was blood! And it was coming from the balcony! I glanced at the room up at the top of the stairs; the door was closed again, but Whelk was standing beside it. And he was looking directly at me!
Okay, I was now officially scared for my life. Whelk’s expression was one of “make one noise out of order and you’re dead.”
Plop! Another one–this time onto the floor. It sank right into the sawdust and disappeared.
“Greg, we have to go,” I whispered hoarsely. “Just leave a couple of twenties, and let’s get out of here!”
We got up as casually as we could under the circumstances, and Greg dropped some money on the table. As we were leaving, I noticed some of the customers following us with their eyes. Some smiled, and I could swear that their teeth were a lot longer and pointier than I would have expected.
As the door closed behind us, we heard the manager’s voice once again.
Hearts banging, we swept out of the place and straight to my car, where we made sure to look inside before getting in ourselves. From there, we went straight to the police. We didn’t know how we would get them to believe us, but we had to try.
Sergeant Stover wiped his forehead as he stood in the now-closed restaurant. What he and his colleagues had found was the stuff of nightmares.
All of the bodies, mannequins, taxidermized animals, and sculptures were broken into on the advice of a couple of patrons of the place just two days previous. Every one of them had been simply a covering for bodies in various states of decomposition. They all had one thing in common…all had been drained of blood through one or two insertions in their arms or necks.
More than one brave man or woman on the force had had to find a toilet in order to revisit their lunch that day. He himself was having a hard time holding it in. Especially after having seen what was inside Red Riding Hood.
His own niece, Wendy.
The owners and managers had left without a trace, seemingly overnight. He was having the CSI experts go over the restaurant, and he hoped to get a clue as to who they had been and where they had gone. He wasn’t counting on it much though.
TEN YEARS LATER
The doors opened “under new management” on a restaurant on the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland, and so many people flocked to the place that a line led out the building and around the corner for weeks on end.
At the same time, the local police began to get more and more complaints about missing dogs and cats, along with small ponies and sheep.
Then the children started disappearing…