Bed, Breakfast, and Beyond Short – Marcus and the Mystery Guy
I wanted to share a story I previewed to my newsletter readers last month with more of us who love Griffon’s Elbow, Lucky, Kreed, and all their friends. This one is about Tris’ best friend, Marcus, and a man he met before the events of the the B,B,&B book three, Brother’s Keeper. It offers a small insight to Marcus’ mixed feelings about his aunt’s diner, and his role there. I am now working on book four of the series, which is Marcus and Eli’s story. If you haven’t already, you will meet them both when you read book three.
Marcus hadn’t noticed him come in today, but when he glanced through the open passthrough from kitchen to dining room, there he was. Mystery Guy at booth number six in the corner of the Egg Basket.
He smiled and gave Marcus a tiny wave before turning back to his menu.
Marcus’s face heated. Because the grill he stood over was hot, obviously.
He focused back on his task, watching the eggs fry.
That booth was the only place the man ever sat. Like he waited outside and watched until it was free. It was also the only seat from which customers could look into the kitchen and see who was standing at the grill.
Lately, that had been Marcus. Lately everything had been Marcus.
And there was Mystery Guy, keeping careful tabs while he held the menu like he was deciding on his meal.
“I know what you’re going to order,” Marcus muttered to himself as he put the last touches on another table’s plates in the window. Just like he would if there was an actual server out there to deliver them.
But there wasn’t, so Marcus set up the next ticket before pushing through the swinging door to the dining room.
Cousin Johnathan could have been doing this part, but he was who knew where. Probably in the second-floor office pretending to do paperwork, but actually watching porn on Aunt Iris’s ancient computer. What was it he’d remarked the other day? Marcus was in the wrong service industry. With his face and body, he’d make way more taking it up the ass on camera than working his ass off in the diner.
The guy was a real charmer. He hadn’t much liked it when Marcus speculated loudly if Johnathan had really been watching the kind of guy-on-guy porn Marcus would be likely to star in.
Mystery guy had frowned at the exchange. He’d scowled at Marcus, making him squirm.
By then the entire diner had gone quiet. Marcus hadn’t dared look out the window to see what was going on, but a moment later, Johnathan growled he was leaving. He didn’t return for the rest of that day, which had been fine with Marcus. He’d had help that day.
Unlike this day.
Today, Tris had flaked out again and not even called that he wasn’t coming in. And to top it off, this week’s bus boy had cut his hand open on a broken glass yesterday and gone to emerge, only to come out with ten stitches and an order to keep the cut clean and dry.
Marcus hadn’t had time to look through resumes to find a replacement. Johnathan hadn’t bothered. Aunt Iris was still home recovering from her stroke. It had been a mild one, and she would be back, but not today. Not this week, or probably even this month.
In the meantime, Marcus did everything. Before the meal had any more time to cool, he hurried it out to the table, then went back to the bar for the coffee pot. He took it around the room, stopping at each table to offer refills.
Poncho Lady sat in her usual table by the window nursing her coffee and nibbling toast while she doodled in her sketchbook. She waved at Marcus, then went back to her breakfast ritual. Other regulars, Bike Courier, Tea Duchess—she was a connoisseur of teas and took care of herself, since there was a hot water dispenser at the end of the bar—even Grumpyass Old Guy, all waved him on. Most of them were nice that way when he was on his own.
With nothing else to stall him, he swung around to the booth in the corner.
“Good morning.” Mystery Guy smiled up at Marcus as he approached the table. “Busy morning.”
As it was every morning when he came in, but Marcus agreed anyway. Customers loved small talk. He’d already remarked on the sunny weather, the busy café and the road construction at least a dozen times each today. He would again tomorrow, because people loved to feel like they’d been noticed. They wanted it known this was ‘their place’ and Marcus was a friend they made regular chit-chat with.
Even if reality said he was the diner guy they wouldn’t recognize outside his apron.
“Ready to order?” Marcus asked, hoping the guy asked for eggs over easy or a mushroom scramble. Something simple that didn’t require much prep.
“I am.” His smile dazzled more than usual, and Marcus braced himself. The flirt was coming. He’d almost convinced himself this guy would be different. Almost.
Some days, the man barely spoke at all. Some days he chatted endlessly. Today was somewhere in the middle. Marcus never knew what to expect from him. He might be in a suit, or jeans. Once, he’d had on cowboy boots and an enormous buckle. His outfits, like his food choices, seemed to ride his whims.
As Marcus waited, he closed his menu. “I’ll have the Hash Brown Surprise, please.”
Marcus stifled a groan. Of course today, of all days, he’d order the meal that required the most work, just as Marcus had predicted to himself.
“Hash Brown Surprise it is.” Marcus managed to make it sound cheerful.
“And coffee and orange juice, please.
“Sure.” It was an easy enough order to remember. The coffee and orange juice never changed. The rest was never the same. Besides the drink order, the only thing predictable about the man was his unpredictability.
Like the fact he hadn’t flirted when Marcus had expected him to. Unpredictable. Except for—there. That smile he gave Marcus every time they spoke. It wasn’t quite flirtatious. But it wasn’t benign, either.
It lit up his almost-but-not-quite plain face and made Marcus’s heart stick to his ribs, which caused it to stutter out of its normal rhythm.
“That everything?” Marcus met his eyes and noticed the deep, navy blue of them. Not for the first time he wondered if that was genetics or contacts. It was unique, and Marcus had to blink and force himself not to stare. He pulled out his notepad to scribble the order.
Marcus nodded. “You say that every time, but you never order anything else.”
“Maybe I’m waiting for the right time.”
“And what time might that be?” He’d finished writing the order down and tucked his pad and pen back into his apron pocket as he picked up the man’s coffee cup and the carafe to fill it.
“I’ll know it when it happens.”
Marcus set the filled mug down. “I’m sure you will. Be back with your food in a few.” Was the guy trying to flirt?
But it didn’t matter. Marcus didn’t have the time for it, so he put it out of his head. Safer that way.
The rest of the morning passed, as most of them did, with Johnathan making a brief appearance to criticize Marcus’s table clearing—or lack of it—skim some tips out of the jar by the till, and announce he was going out to do errands. For the errands, he took a fistful of twenties form the cash drawer.
What errands he was running, Marcus had no idea. He never came back with supplies, or met with the bookkeeper, who needed the last two weeks of sales and receipts to do her job. He just hung around, took a paycheck for doing next to nothing, skimmed money he wasn’t entitled to, and bitched about how poorly Marcus did all the real work without ever acknowledging he was doing most of it alone.
Still. He managed. He served Mystery Guy his Hash Brown Special and kept them all as close to happy as he could, even while he realized a lot of them were cutting him some serious slack for the long waits.
By the time Marcus had scrubbed breakfast off all the kitchen surfaces and readied some of the food for the lunch rush, he was exhausted. But he grabbed a dish bin and pushed through the swinging door to the dining room to clear tables.
Only to find the job already done, and three full bins of dishes sitting on the bar.
Mystery man sat at the bar next to them sipping a coffee. “I know I’m only supposed to get one refill.” He lifted his mug in salute. “Hope this is okay.”
Marcus indicated the full dish bins. “Did you do this?”
He nodded and pushed a pile of small bills and change across the bar. “Tips.” He nodded at the tip jar. “And I’d empty that now, if I were you. Before he gets back.”
Marcus pocketed the money the man had collected from the tables and stuck it into his jeans pocket. “I’ll leave that. Wouldn’t want him to think he’s missing out.”
The man shook his head. “More than he deserves.”
“Well. You’re certainly not going to get an argument out of me about that.” He poured himself a cup of coffee but sniffed it before taking a sip. He didn’t remember the last time he’d made a fresh pot.
“Don’t worry. Alice has been keeping it going.”
“Thirties? Wears those funny poncho things? Always has her hair stuck up in a bun on top of her head with pencils or paintbrushes?”
“Oh. That’s Alice?”
“You didn’t know her name?”
Marcus shrugged. “I call her Poncho Lady.”
“In my head. Not to her face.” He sipped his coffee. “Obviously.”
“Obviously. Well. Her name is Alice.”
“Good to know.” He sipped more coffee and watched Mystery Guy, wondering if he was going to get a name from him, too.
“Well.” The man finished his coffee and stood. No name, then. “I should get back.”
“Back.” Marcus studied him, head to toe. Today, his hair was loose and soft, the curls allowed to riot on top of his head. He wore a sweater vest with a bow tie over top of a red-and-white-checked button down. His black jeans showed off his long legs, and his red sneakers matched his shirt. “Back to what, exactly?”
“Your job. Of course.” He sipped more coffee, watching the man over the rim, waiting, but no further information was forthcoming. “Alrighty then.” He stood and held out a hand. “Thank you.”
“It was my pleasure.”
The handshake was a tad too long, and firm, but also…curious. If a handshake could be curious. Like the man was trying to suss out something about Marcus from the contact.
Marcus gave him a pursed lip smile. “I should be getting back, too. Lunch rush is not going to prep itself.”
“You need help.”
“You think?” But he flashed a grin to knock the point off the sharp words. “No worries. The lunch server is actually reliable. They’ll be here. Probably early to help, and I won’t be able to pay them extra, because Johnathan does payroll and doesn’t believe in paying people extra for just doing the right thing.”
“But he gets paid extra for doing everything wrong?”
“That’s Johnathan.” Marcus patted his pocket where he’d secreted the lion’s share of the morning’s tips. “No worries. I’ll cover their extra hour.”
“You earned that.”
“And so will they.” He shrugged. “Just because Johnathan is an asshole doesn’t mean I have to be. That doesn’t make anything better.”
There was a pause while the man tilted his head to one side and contemplated Marcus. “You are a remarkable young man, Marcus.” He lifted a hand, like he’d almost thought about touching Marcus, but then let it drop.
Once more, Marcus’s heart jammed in his ribs and he didn’t know why. Guys flirted with him all the time. It didn’t matter. They did it because they wanted to see if it would work. He got it. He had looked in a mirror or two in his life. He knew what he looked like. Too bad it was all most people cared about.
He shrugged and collected the two empty mugs. “I’m just a guy doing my job and paying things forward.”
“You have so little to pay forward.”
“More than some.” He set the mugs into the emptiest of the dish bins. “See you tomorrow.”
“I will see you tomorrow.”
Hey,” Marcus called as the man reached the door. “Any chance you know what you’re going to order? So I can get a head start?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t. But I’ll know when—”
“When the time comes.” Marcus nodded. “Got ya. Have a good one.”
“And you, Marcus. Have a ‘good one’.”
The next day, miraculously, Tris showed up for his shift. Which was good, because it meant Marcus didn’t have to murder his best friend for being the same irresponsible asshat he’d been the day before. But bad, because it meant he didn’t get a chance to do more than nod at Mystery Guy from the kitchen window as he put up his meal. Over easy eggs today. With toast and bacon. Easy. Because of course.
He didn’t linger after the rush, either. But he left a note with his tip, addressed to Marcus.
Tris handed it to him.
“Did you read it?”
“Why would I read a note addressed to you?” Tris flipped a hank of overlong floppy, powder-pink mohawk out of his eyes.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
Tris shrugged. “Because he gave me a look when he left it on the table.
“A look like…?”
“Like if I did, he would know, and might hurt me.”
“Nah.” Marcus waved that thought off. “He’s not like that.”
“You didn’t see the look.”
Marcus studied Tris. It wasn’t usual for him to exaggerate things like that. He’d had enough experiences with actual bullies in his life to know one when he saw one. Marcus combed the bit of Tris’s hair off to the side that kept falling in his face. “You sure?”
“Pretty sure. Would you just open it? I want to know what it says.”
“You need a haircut.”
“I need a lot of things. Open the damn note.”
As curious as Tris, Marcus unfolded the piece of paper. In carful. Slanted script were the words:
Tomorrow” Eggs Benedict. Sausage. Juice. Coffee.
“Seriously?” Tris muttered. “He ordered ahead? Who does that?”
“People do you know,” Marcus pointed out. “Things like call ahead. When they know something’s going to come up. Say that’s going to keep them form going to work. They call. And let a guy know.”
“Phone wouldn’t turn on. You’ve seen it.”
“Get a new phone.”
“You don’t pay me enough.”
“I don’t pay you anything.” Marcus pocketed the note and washed his hands. “Go clear the tables.” He chose a knife to start slicing vegetables. Maybe his least favourite job of all the undesirable jobs in a restaurant.
“Hire a busboy,” Tris grumbled.
“Tell Johnathan. That’s his area. Apparently.”
“Imma go clear tables. Then I’ll help you prep.”
“You don’t have to, you know.”
“I would so much rather prep than clear tables.”
“Thank fuck.” Marcus handed Tris the knife. “Prep away.” And he grabbed the dish bin before bolting for the deserted dining room.
The next day, the hollandaise sauce for the eggs benedict grew a skin waiting for Mystery Guy to come order his breakfast. He never did. In fact, it was a long time before Marcus saw the guy again, and when he did, it was in the last place he expected.