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Driveabout

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Summary: When Gideon left everything behind to wander the country, he did not know what he sought: himself, an escape, a happy ending… But he never expected this.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Television > Criminal Minds
Television > Nightmare Café
etienneofthewestwindFR1316,336021,83326 Jun 1126 Jun 11Yes
Driveabout
by étienneofthewestwind


Disclaimer: I own neither Criminal Minds nor Nightmare Café. Just the for-entertainment-only adventure here.
Summary: When Gideon left everything behind to wander the country, he did not know what he sought: himself, an escape, a happy ending… But he never expected this.

Note: This is technically a crossover with Wes Craven’s Nightmare Café, but knowledge of that series in not necessary to read this fic.



Fort Weatherhill Museum of Martian Artifacts.

Jason Gideon blinked as he drove past the sign. Then he shrugged and flipped on his turn signal. A few seconds later, he turned onto the exit ramp for Fort Weatherhill. He needed to refill his Jeep and eat soon, and according to the exit signs Fort Weatherhill had both gas and dining. Along with this ‘Martian’ museum, which was the closest thing to entertainment he had seen among the myriad of small towns in this particular stretch of rural America.

He just hoped the cooking was decent. His cheap burrito lunch had left him with indigestion, and off and on heartburn.

Jason drove five miles before he reached the town itself. There were a few crossroads leading to other blocks of buildings, but the main stretch was obviously the series of buildings on either side of the road. The gas station—a BP of all things—sat on the edge of the town. The museum sat next to it. The dispenser lacked a card reader, but there did not appear to be a requirement to go inside and pre-pay. Unusual these days, but he doubted the franchise owner got many drive-offs. Everyone in Fort Weatherhill would know everyone else, and most travelers would choose stations closer to the highway.

After filling his tank, Jason went into the store. A teenager stood behind the register, a magazine lying open to her side. The blonde’s green eyes followed his entrance into the store, and Jason got the impression that she had watched him since he started filling up. “Good afternoon, sir,” she smiled widely.

“You too,” Jason gave her a small smile. Even after weeks of driving around and exploring the country, he still found himself unable to smile fully. Too much awareness of what humans could do to each other, even in small, friendly towns. He started wandering the aisles, looking for jerky and other snacks for the road. “So, this Martian Museum, is that props from old sci-fi movies?” he asked causally, gesturing in the direction of the neighboring museum.

The girl laughed. “God, no. That would be less embarrassing. About fifteen years ago, the town had trouble with cattle rustlers. Some tabloid reporter who thought small towns equal simple folk decided to fake a saucer crash for reaction shots. You know, ´Aliens Kidnapped My Bessie!´,” she said in feigned hysteria that brought the ghost of a smile to Jason’s mouth. “Or some rot like that. Some of the town idiots decided to feign ´invasion hysteria´ and chase the reporter and the midgets he paid to dress up like sparkly, antennaed leprechauns while firing shotguns at the ground. Somehow it collided with the sheriff’s pursuit of the rustlers. People nearly died, and nobody has a version of events that matches anyone else’s. Then my mom got the idea to hire the reporter to write a screenplay about the mess—with the twist that real aliens intervened to return the cows, punish the reporter and abduct the sheriff, who in the play-version lead an actually hysterical mob after the fake aliens.” Jason looked up from bags of flavored popcorn. The cashier shrugged before he could say anything. “The sheriff abruptly retired that night, and that didn’t sit well with most of the town.”

Jason winced at her words, thinking of his own abrupt departure from his career. Four months out of the BAU, he was no closer to reclaiming his understanding of the world—or in himself—but the way he had left his teammates weighed ever heavier. He felt he owed them a better explaination, but could not have beared to face them and give his resignation in person. And he had known that he would put them at risk on the next case if he remained. “Hollywood never bit,” the girl continued, unaware of Jason’s introspection, “but we’d all ready made the museum for publicity. And since it occasionally draws people off the road…" She shrugged as Jason finished his selections and moved to refill his travel mug. “Look, the whole thing’s incredibly cheesy, but if you’re looking for a good laugh or just a break from driving, you might as well see it. Admission’s a couple bucks, first-time visitors get a coupon for five dollars off a full meal at any of our diners. If you want to stick around for a real supper, the food is decent.”

“Thanks,” Jason said as he walked up to the counter, absently snagging a roll of antacids on the way. “I just might do that.”



If the screenplay told the same story as the “museum”—actually a small room in the town gift shop—it was no surprise that no one bothered to film it. Honestly, space ships spitting reporters out in giant hairballs for being too low on the food chain? Alien parakeets—which looked nothing like any species of parrot, much less the ones referred to as parakeet—secretly importing Holsteins to their native planet through the sheriff that tried to lynch them? And what the hell was that bit about an unknown cook and waitress? The missing cow photos on milk cartons lent the tale a sardonic touch, but Jason had worked too many child abductions to get any amusement from them. With a sigh, he collected his souvenir bag and left the building, ignoring the shop proprietor and her efforts to make sales. Jason did want dinner, so he fished the coupon booklet out of the small bag which also held a cheap pencil and eraser. The dining coupon was second, just after the one for ten percent off at the gift shop. Hopefully the local cuisine was worth wasting the last fifteen minutes of his life. He just needed to find the choices…

Jason glanced to where he had parked his Jeep in the lot between the museum and the BP. Then he blinked at the building on the other side of the BP. Grey with red trim, it had an old, weathered look to it. A neon sign had the word ‘ALL’ above the word ‘NIGHT’ in blue letters and ‘CAFÉ’ in larger red letters below that. Jason frowned. He could have sworn that was an empty lot.

I’ve been driving so much I´ve gotten places mixed up, he thought as he walked across the gas station’s lot. A sharp flare of heartburn hit him as he crossed the lot. Damn. I thought I was past that… He quickly popped a couple of antacids as he walked across the lot. Jason entered the café, eager to sit down. Hopefully some food would calm his stomach…

Walking in the café felt like stepping back in time. The walls, booths and stools were done in a burnt orange. White tiles covered the floor with lines of tan and dark brown tiles around the edges of the room. A wooden, fifties-era jukebox sat to the right of the door. Beyond that, booths lined the wall. To the left, before the counter was a small walkway that led to the kitchen. On the wall was an ancient, rotary-style pay phone that could not possibly work anymore. The far wall had a built-in television made in the seventies, at the latest. A sign to the left indicated the restrooms.

The waitress, a thirtyish blonde woman in a pink and white uniform, greeted Jason as he walked in. A brown-haired man of the same age stood back in the kitchen stirring the contents of a pot while wearing a cook’s jacket. The only other person, presumably a customer, was a man in his mid-forties with gray hair and beard. He sat at the far end of the counter reading a book and wore and old-fashioned black suit. Jason also took a seat at the counter, a few stools away from the door. “So what can I get for you?” the waitress asked.

“A large glass of milk. And a menu.”

“Trying to neutralize some stomach acid, there?” the other customer asked. Jason ignored him as the waitress set the milk in front of him. “Can’t say I blame you,” the man continued as Jason drank his milk. “That heartburn can be a killer.”

“Blackie…” the waitress warned as she set a menu on the counter next to Jason. He reached into his tan jacket and grabbed his reading glasses.

“I’m serious Fay,” Blackie protested.

There was a snort from the cook, who mumbled something that sounded like, “Yeah, right.”

“As a heart attack, Frankie. His.” Jason blinked and looked over as Blackie gestured out the window. Jason turned to look out the window. He watched the blond cashier from the BP run past the pumps to a collapsed figure in the middle of the parking lot. She held a cell phone to her ear as she knelt next to the figure, grabbing his tan jacket to roll him onto his back. The jacket flopped open, revealing the man’s dark green shirt. The cashier’s long hair obscured Jason’s view of the man’s face, though he noticed her free hand check for a pulse on his neck. She dropped the phone and breathed into the man’s mouth. Then she started chest compressions.

“Oh, one of those customers,” Fay said, her voice strained with some emotion Jason could not readily place as he pocketed his glasses and stood.

He took one step to the door before Blackie physically blocked his way. “That won’t be necessary.”

“I’m CPR certified.”

“So’s Kate. Not to mention the fact that her aunt’s the town doctor, and the first person she called when she saw a customer collapse with chest pains.” As Blackie finished, a purple Ford pickup screeched into the parking lot and stopped a few feet away from the collapsed man and cashier. A woman with short, brown hair and cowboy boots jumped out and raced over to the fallen man, an actual black bag in her hand. “Not that it will do any good. After all, the pain’s gone. Right?”

Jason blinked and turned to Blackie. “What?”

“The ‘heartburn’.” Blackie tapped on Jason’s chest with the end of an uncut cigar. “All cleared up, right? By the way, green’s a good color on you.” Blackie snipped the end off of his cigar and lit it.

“We should still help,” Jason said as the teenager moved aside for her aunt. “It´s—” As the doctor knelt next to her patient, Jason caught a glimpse of the man’s face. It was as familiar as his reflection.

No, it was his reflection.

And come to think of it, Jason was wearing a tan jacket and green shirt with jeans.

His knees suddenly refused to hold him, and Jason sank into the booth next to him. He absently wondered when he had moved so close to the booths as Blackie answered, “You wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t help. But we can’t save your life. Well, at least not that one.”

“Here.” The cook set a glass of amber liquid in front of him.

Jason threw back the drink as Blackie asked, “Is that my brandy?”

“He looked like he could use it,” Frankie retorted.

“It is a shock,” Fay said. “And you’re not exactly known for your bedside manner.”

“Soft selling it never does any good. You should both know that by now. You want to give him something, give him food. This is a café.” Blackie snatched the bottle from Frankie and took it behind the counter. Just as well, Jason realized. Getting smashed was not the best way to start the afterlife.

Wait. Why would the afterlife be a mostly-empty diner?

“Oh, God. I’m having a psychotic break.”

“Profilers,” Blackie scoffed. “They’re as bad as therapists.”

"Profilers?" Fay asked as she sat across from Jason in the booth. "As in the study and pursuit of serial killers?"

"That´s not all we do," Jason corrected automatically. "We study human behavior and interpret psychological clues to describe a subject’s personality traits and likely habits. Yes, we often investigate serial crime, but not always killers.”

“What we?” Blackie asked. “You retired four months ago. Sure you don’t want any food? Spaghetti perhaps? We’d even let you whip up a boscaiola or primavera sauce. Whichever you’d prefer.”

Jason glowered at the man in black while Frankie sighed. “Blackie, what’s he here for?”

“Beats the hell out of me.” Fay and Frankie both glared at Blackie. “Look, I’m not all-knowing. Whatever he’s been granted before moving on, it’s either a case of figure-it-out yourself.” Blackie brought the cigar up to his mouth and finally started smoking it. Jason absently noted the lack of fallen ash on the floor or tabletop and wondered where it had gone, as he waited for Blackie to continue. Blackie took another puff on his cigar.

Or?” Fay asked.

“Or what? Oh, him. Well, there’s the possibility of a wild card—a choose your own second chance, if you will—either as some sort of test or reward. Or both. In which case, it’s still up him to reach his own conclusions. So…” Blackie turned to face Jason. “Cheeseburger while you figure it out? With onion rings and a fountain malt, just like Daddy used to get after baseball?”

As memories of 1959, the White Sox and Chicago streets welled up in Jason’s mind, the jukebox started playing his father’s favorite jazz piece. Jason clenched his hands into fists as the anger hit him. Would the whole of his life be displayed for the amusement of these characters? He stood and stalked to the door. “I don´t want anything to do with you or this dump.”

Jason flung open the door, ignoring Frankie´s "Don´t—" and stepped onto a familiar campus with students walking about. He whirled around and stared at Mizzou’s Memorial Union. What the hell?



"—Insult the café and leave," Frank Nolan finished. "Now what?" he asked Blackie.

"Now we wait." Blackie waved his hand at the television, which turned on. "And see." On the screen, Jason stood in front a building that was a beautiful work of gothic architecture. Several people walked along, most in their twenties and carrying backpacks.

“That’s not Fort Weatherhill, is it?” Fay asked.

Blackie scoffed. "That´s not even this state."

"So where is he?" Fay asked as Jason walked through the archway of the tower, and turned to enter the wing on his left. He bumped into a girl leaving.

"Watch it, buddy."

Jason silently continued on his way.

"A college. Well, university, technically."

"We can see that for ourselves." Fay folded her arms in front of her and glared at Blackie.

Blackie shrugged. "You asked."

"What´s going to happen to him?" Frank asked. "When I insulted the café, at least I was in the same city and could make my way back. His Jeep´s still here."

"His body´s here," Blackie pointed out, pulling a brown leather wallet out of his coat. “Good thing he doesn’t have his credit cards, or he could be mistaken for a thief.” Blackie opened the wallet and pulled out all the bills before placing the wallet back in his coat.

“Blackie!” Fay protested as Frank asked: "Why did the café decide to drop him so far away?"

"Besides needing to teach him a lesson? It ties into what he came in for."

"I knew it!" Frank exclaimed, pointing a finger at Blackie. "That line about not knowing why he walked in was just that, wasn´t it?"

"Frankie my boy, haven´t you realized yet that the café always knows its customers better than they know themselves? It´s just not always in the customers´ interest for the café to share. You and Fay, for example, would not have done so well if I had told you the score up front."

"You bet against us up front," Frank reminded him.

"But telling you would have guaranteed the odds."

"Whatever." Fay crossed her arms over her chest as she walked closer to the television screen. "The matter now is Jason. I wish I could be there to help him."

Fay vanished from the room.

"I wish I could be there to help Fay help him." Frank stayed put. "Oh, come on!" he protested.

"Well, fascinating as this show is, I´m running out for a paper. Mind the store while I´m gone." Blackie waltzed over to the door and walked out.

Frank glanced out the window at Kate and her aunt, who were loading Jason´s body into the back of her truck. Even from the café Frank could see the tears streaming down Kate´s face. Neither mortal noticed as Blackie strolled past them. Frank frowned at that. Usually when Blackie left, he just disappeared off into parts unknown. Instead, Blackie walked straight to a mud-splattered Jeep. “What are you up to?” Frank muttered as Blackie drove off.



"It can´t be a dissociative fugue," Jason muttered softly as students passed by. Some to class or study, though this time of evening, most were likely on their way to various activities, or hang out with friends. "I remember who I am." Just not how I got here, Jason thought as he sipped his rapidly cooling coffee. Missouri might be having one of her milder winter days, but the air was still chilly and metal still acted as a heat sink. The bronze table leeched the warmth from his coffee as thoroughly as the bench did the same to his seat and legs. "I could be coming out of a fugue, but the associated amnesia occurs during the fugue. Besides, it’s not been that long; I kept all the cash I had." Which begged the question of what happened to his wallet and car keys. He´d ordered the coffee by reflex, still disoriented by suddenly finding himself in Columbia, Missouri. Yet when he reached for his wallet, he found all his cash folded into a money clip with the logo for that damned Martian Museum. And it was the cash he had been carrying, not the same amount: he instantly recognized the new one dollar bill that annoying waitress in Redston had written her number on, and the tear in one of the twenties. The bills had been stacked in the same order he had put them in the last time he paid cash. He had nothing else in his pockets.

Well, a few coins now, but nothing else, much less something to indicate how he had traveled several hundred miles without spending any cash.

"And if I just pitched my wallet and keys, I would most likely have done it sooner than the end of a fugue. I suppose I could have been mugged, but what kind of mugger leaves cash behind?" Jason reached out and ran his fingers over the names etched into the table. "And there´s still that the odd café. Delusions aren´t usually part of a fugue... I could have been drugged, something that made me hallucinate before I blacked out. But again, why take everything but the untraceable cash? And how did I come to myself in the middle of campus without anybody noticing?" Jason sighed and turned right to at the figure sitting next to him: one foot up on the bench and left forearm on the table, head resting on his right hand, with its elbow braced against the table. "How about it, Beetle? You have any ideas?"

As a bronze statue, Beetle Bailey naturally reminded silent.

"Didn´t think so." Jason turned back to stare at his coffee. "Really being dead actually seems plausible."

"Believe me, pal, it´s more than plausible." Jason looked up to see the blond waitress from the café standing on the other side of the table. Instead of the pink dress, she wore blue jeans and a bright red coat. She held out a hand across the interactive sculpture’s table. “Fay Peronivic.”

Jason scowled up at her. "I can interact with people and touch the physical world. Those are traits of the living, not the dead."

"Well, you´re caught in between. The café sometimes serves as a way station of sorts between this realm and the next."

Jason scoffed. "You have any idea how many people die every minute in this world? A way station would not be anywhere near so deserted."

"Most people who die move on automatically. Rarely, they stick around to finish or accept something before they can continue. Sometimes those souls are drawn to the café."

"So if I entered the café because I died, how´d I get here?" Jason waved an arm to gesture at the campus.

"The café sent you. It doesn´t exist in one fixed location. It can send people to any location it chooses."

"Any location it chooses?" Jason repeated skeptically.

"It has an intelligence and will of its own. And it doesn´t like being insulted," Fay added. "You should apologize for calling it a dump."

"Apologize? To a building?"

"To an entity that´s hard to conceive of, but has feelings. Trust me, you don´t want to antagonize the café."

Jason sighed and stared at Beetle´s beer mug. "What´s the point?" he asked, suddenly feeling exhausted. "I´m dead. I spent the last four months of my life driving randomly across the country in a futile search to reclaim myself. And now, I can never go back and mend bridges with my son or teammates. There’s so much I suddenly want to tell them—So much I should have told them, and I just…" Jason clenched his fists and turned back to glare at the woman. "What the hell is the point of my hanging around!? I can´t waltz back and say ´sorry for dropping out of your life; I´m dead and have to drop out of your life´! THEY´D HAVE ME COMMITTED!" Jason paused to catch his breath, and realized that a few students had stopped to stare.

"Wow, you sure plow through those five stages."

"What?" Jason snapped.

The woman sat on the edge of the bench, pushing Jason up against Beetle. "The café can facilitate messages," she said softly, pity in her voice. The last thing he wanted. Jason gritted his teeth. "You just need to decide if that´s what you really want."

"You think it´s better if I left it alone?" Jason could taste the bitterness in his throat.

"I don´t know. Blackie might, but he’s firm that you need to figure it out yourself."

Jason nodded as he recalled the man´s words. He frowned at the table. Whatever he did or did not know about why Jason wound up in that café, it was obvious that the man had held something back. With no better leads, he might as well return to the café to discover what. If only he could figure out how to get him to answer questions. The man had more of Jason´s profile than he had of Blackie’s.

Wait, do we have to travel all the way back to Fort Weatherhill? Or does Fay´s presence mean the café´s in Columbia?

"So why here?" Fay´s question drew Jason out of his thoughts.

"What?"

"Blackie said the café had a reason for dumping you across a few state lines besides getting even for the dump comment. And I don´t think it´s because you´re a fan of Mort Walker."

Jason chuckled at the reference to Beetle´s creator. "I went to MU longer ago than I´d like to admit. Not as long ago as Walker, but…"

"Ah. Nostalgia?"

Jason shrugged. "After getting dumped here and seeing all the changes firsthand, perhaps. I haven´t really thought about those days lately." Except for when I thought about Sarah... Jason shoved that thought away.

"I never got the chance to go to college during my life," Fay remarked wistfully. "What´s the part you miss most?"

"Friends." Jason knew that answer without a thought. "I made some great friendships while I was here, though I fell out of touch with most of them, except…"

"Except?" Fay prodded.

"A dear, dear friend. She died recently."

"Oh. I´m sorry."

Jason scoffed. He had received so many condolences by people who never understood him and Sarah, he found himself unable to appreciate socially correct ´sympathy´. Not that I deserve it, he thought as images of his blood-spattered apartment came to mind. Of Sarah´s mutilated body left for him in his bed. My failure to outthink Frank Breitkopf the first time allowed him to target her. If I´d been on time, I´d have beaten him to my apartment. And again, I couldn´t even bring him to justice… "I wish I could get my hands on him."

"On who?"

Jason had not realized he had spoken out loud. Before he could reply, he found himself falling backwards through the bronze booth seat…



"Welcome back," Frank greeted as Fay materialized, sitting in one of the booths in her waitress uniform.

Fay blinked and looked around. "Jason?"

"He´s where his wish sent him."

"Oh?" Frank asked curiously as he turned to Blackie. The café manager sat perched on his usual stool, sipping a cup of espresso as he read a newspaper, The Columbia Missourian. "And when did you get back?" Frank asked. After sixteen years in the café dealing with Frank and Blackie, Fay knew the question came more from habit than any expectation of an answer.

"Sorry to yank you back here, Faysie," Blackie said as he folded the paper and set it down on the counter. But we´re expecting customers. Jason will have to find his own way."

"Two moves in one day," Fay commented as she glanced out the window. "That´s unusual."

“We go where the customers call,” Blackie said as the door opened. A late middle-aged woman walked in. She had stringy blonde hair laying limply about her shoulders. Despite the faded gray sweater she wore, she hugged her arms as if cold. Her brown eyes looked blankly about the room.

“Hello, can we get you anything?” Frank asked.

The woman blinked a moment before turning to him. “Coffee,” she said. She fumbled through her pockets. “I should have enough…”

“First cup’s on the house,” Frank smiled at her as he filled a mug. “Name’s Frank.” He slid the cup across the counter to her.

“Frank? I know a Frank. I lost him and need to find him, so he doesn’t…” the woman trailed off and wrapped her hands around the coffee.



“What now?” Jason grumbled as he picked himself up off the ground. He stood on a hiking trail in the woods. The surrounding land was hilly, and overlooked a large body of water.

“Good question, Jason.”

Jason whipped around at the familiar voice. He stared the man standing behind him. “Impossible…” he whispered. “You’re—”

“Dead?” the older man asked. “That was the intent when I talked Jane into leaping from that platform, yet here we are.”

Frank Breitkopf and Jane Hanratty had not survived the train they hurled themselves under. Jason had seen their mangled bodies for himself.

"It was quite careless of you to write us off so easily," Frank taunted. "Though I suppose I must thank you, the chance to reunite with my Jane… truly a miracle of life."

Jason´s hands balled themselves into fists as he stared at the man. He never claimed to be a saint. The way he saw it, all people were flawed and deserved some form of accounting. But to find his post-death self on the same ground as the most prolific serial killer he had ever dealt with tore apart what little faith he still had in the world.

Frank took a few steps down the trail, to where the ground dropped off sharply giving a clear view of the lake below.

And nearly a clear drop as well. "Now that is a breathtaking sight." Frank said as he gestured at the hills, trees and cove below—and a group of people hiking on the opposite hill. “It is truly a wondrous world we live in, full of ripe bounty.”

Jason’s heart pounded in his ears, and he found himself tackling Frank before he realized that he had moved. His momentum knocked both of them over the edge of the hill…

…And they landed solidly on the floor of the café. The floor hammered Jason’s kneecaps and his chin collided with the other man’s sternum. Jason rolled to the side, jarring his right hip against the floor. He pushed himself up off the floor, and balled his fist to deck the other man as he also stood.

“FRANK!” Jane Hanratty forced herself between them and threw her arms around Frank. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Jason reluctantly took a step back. He was outnumbered, so he couldn’t just pound Frank without explanation. Of course, the way that Blackie spoke earlier, he might not need one.

“Jane.” Frank smiled widely, wrapping his arms around her.

“Jane, step away from him,” Jason instructed.

“No.” Frank’s arms tightened around Jane. “I will never let anything separate us again.”

“It’s okay, Agent Gideon.”

“Jane, he will eventually…” Jason faltered. Repeating his old warning that Frank would kill her was useless. “Turn on you. Neither of you can change him or get him to feel love. You told Agent Hotchner yourself that he tried to kill you.”

Jane smiled at him. “It’s good to see you again, Agent Gideon, but I know what I’m doing now.”

“Jane belongs with me, Jason.”

As Jason clenched his fists at the smugness in Frank’s tone, Jane looked up at the ceiling. “I wish that my Frank and I will never be separated again, not even by death.” She turned to the waitress. “That’s it, right? You wish it, and the café does it, like when you wished my Frank and Agent Gideon here?”

“Well, the café does grant wishes,” Fay said slowly. “But—”

“See, Agent Gideon. Everything’s fine now. Frank’ll never kill again, since thanks to this wonderful place, we can never be separated. So you don’t have to worry about catching him.”

“That isn’t how law enforcement works,” Jason told her sternly. “And you’re…” We’re all ready dead, Jason thought. What the hell was he supposed to do?

“Well, now that that’s settled, you two should be on your way,” Blackie said cheerfully. “It was nice having your business.”

“Oh yes, thank you for all your help,” Jane said happily. “Bye, Agent Gideon.”

“Yes, Jane and I do need to get reacquainted. But—”

“One strawberry milkshake to go. On the house.” Blackie handed him a capped paper cup with a blue straw sticking out.

“Now, wait—”

Jason attempted to follow the pair, but Blackie seized the collar of his shirt and jacket. “Just watch,” he instructed Jason.

Neither Frank nor Jane gave an indication of hearing them as they reached the doors. Frank took a large sip of his shake. “Just like Fat Sam’s,” he commented as he opened the door. Then his shake dropped to the floor as Jane let out a squawk.

Jason frowned at the door, curious about what they could have seen. Unfortunately, he could not see anything—no, darkness, no light, nothing. Tendrils emerged from the door, perceivable only because one could see nothing wherever they passed. Before Jason could speak the tendrils wrapped around Frank and Jane’s arms and yanked them through the door. The door closed firmly after them.

The door opened again and a pair of teenage girls wearing hiking gear walked in. Behind them, Jason could see a lakeside marina with the setting sun reflected off the water. As the door closed behind them, Fay carried menus to the booth they selected. Jason absently noticed that the dropped shake had also vanished into the nothingness that claimed Frank and Jane.

“When they found each other, they became ready to pass on,” Blackie said, releasing his hold on Jason.

“They didn’t seem that happy about it,” Jason said.

“Did you think after a triple-digit murder count, he would be walking into a bed of roses?”

“Jane was innocent.”

“No, Jason.” Blackie pulled a cigar out of his suit and snipped the end off of it. “Disturbed, yes. Not nearly as guilty as Frank—her Frank not you,” Blackie glanced at the cook standing across the counter from them.

“I figured,” the cook said dryly.

“But not as innocent as you took her for.” Blackie lit the cigar. “Jane Hanratty spent her entire life before your Golconda case living on the same farm. She used to help her parents slaughter their own meat. She knows rib bones when she sees them, and knew damn well those wind chimes were not made of cows or chickens. She may feared becoming part of them before she heard Frank’s professions of love and protection, but she kept them. Played with them and that whistle Frank made her—and eagerly left with him when Frank asked her to be his companion. And after fleeing from him, turned around and decided to commit suicide with him.”

“And that earned her the same fate as Frank?”

“She knew what he was when she made her wish, though nobody said the café granted it. What happens to her now… That’s in hands over my head.”

Fay walked away from the table and handed the order to Frank the cook as he entered the kitchen. “And them?” Jason nodded his head at the teenagers. “Are they deserving of some dark fate?”

“Don’t you think we should let them finish out their lives before that’s determined?”

Jason blinked. “They’re not…?”

“The café gets all kinds of customers. Sit.” Blackie gestured at the counter’s end stool before sitting on the one next to it. He pulled a stack of cards out of a pocket and started shuffling them. “So figured out what drew you here? Somehow I doubt you wanted to help Jane find her happy ending.”

“Happy?”

Blackie shrugged. “She reunited with the ‘love of her life’ and accompanied him to the hereafter. I think we all ready established that she plays with a different deck.” He started laying out the cards in a solitaire spread. “So what do you think you’re here for?”

“Same thing as all along. To figure out the world.”

“You sure about that?” Blackie asked as he placed the Ten of Diamonds on the Jack of Spades. “Well,” he added casually, “we´ve had an open spot for a while. If you want to stick around, you might learn some things.”

"Really?"

"Didn´t your little jaunt open your mind to the possibilities?" Blackie placed the Ace of Hearts off to the side. "Look, give it a chance. You can always move on later if this isn´t to your taste."

"Move on to what?"

"Whatever´s next," Blackie answered.

"You don´t know?"

"I´m just the manager here." Blackie looked up from his cards. "Besides, you said it was this world you wanted to understand. You have plenty of time to worry about the next."

Truthfully, Jason was in no hurry to face the weight of his failures. "All right."

Blackie stood and clapped Jason on the shoulder. "Glad to have you on board. Hey Frank," he called as the cook placed the girls´ burgers and fries on the ledge in front of him. "Get a uniform for our new busboy, would you."

Blackie started to walk off, and then turned back to Jason. "Oh, I would make nice with the café if I were you. It seems to have let the dump comment slide because you were in shock, but you won´t be so lucky again."

Jason stared at the man´s back as he walked toward the restrooms. A sudden thousand-mile trip is letting something slide?

Oh boy…




Sherriff Joe Blackett sighed as he grabbed his coat and left his office. In a small town, his job was usually… well, not quiet, but simple enough as he knew all the local troublemakers. There were periodic problems with drive-offs at Les’ station, but they just were not close enough to the highway to justify the cost of replacing their pump system until it broke. And until today, his surveillance cameras had always managed to catch license numbers of all vehicles that filled up, anyway.

Today, the same power surge that had fried the station’s modem also knocked out the station’s hard drive during the block of time that their John Doe’s Jeep had been there. With no recordings and the guy’s wallet and vehicle missing—and the usual suspects in holding for arson at the time—fingerprints and dental records were the only shot they had of identifying the poor sod who keeled over on Kate Elbow’s shift. “‘Night,” he called to Marge, who manned the phones overnight. Marge absently waved at him, not looking up from her latest romance novel. Joe stepped out of the station into the chilly night air. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of a figure pulling a cart into his office, a ball cap obscuring his face. It was a little early for Tom to start cleaning, but Joe did not think much of it and continued home.

As a result, he did not see a bearded stranger open the file on the John Doe, and replace the x-rays of the man’s skull and the fingerprint card as he gnawed on the end of an unlit cigar…

The End

You have reached the end of "Driveabout". This story is complete.

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