Snow dusted down in a steady fall that brought to mind he was walking under a flour sifter as large as the horizon. Kitchen and cooking thoughts, however, did nothing to shake off the chill of the wet streets. And for irony, those thoughts encouraged his stomach to remind him that he was somewhat off his regular schedule.
But he knew he was close now.
He stopped and studied the warm lights across the way tucked between two gray-as-rain shopfronts. People moved about inside cheerily. Probably time for a rest.
Aaah. He spotted the telltale wisps of heated drinks being served under the intense lights beyond the glass sheeting and made his decision. A stop was in order. He turned about and retraced his steps down the gray walking path.
"Er lost again, Eld Whiskers," came the exasperated sigh from inside his heavy coat. "We jus' came hiss way not a ticking ago."
"Well, I may not have your sense of direction, but I do have my methods." He smiled. He thought it might show in his words, even if the young fellow could not see his face, "I see a hostel with provisions, youngster. I am not used to long pilgrimage. Haven't done it in years. I think we will stop and perhaps get some advice on the lay of the land from a local. Have a meal. Rest my feet."
He felt the hidden form move an elegant shrug against his chest in answer. The next words were much too low for a normal man's hearing, "Jus' let m'go. Hy tired of bein' carry, Eld Ratcatcher."
His grin widened and melting snowflakes tickled through his beard. His passenger muttered to himself more and more as the days laid upon one another. But Clycinedes knew for certain that the little fellow was no more sure of where they really were than he was himself. No mind. It was not where they were that was important. It was who they were looking for.
Clycinedes had strolled the gray paths for over two hours, and he had quickly picked up the local ritual. He backed his trail to the last intersection of streets and waited facing across the way. Some moments passed. There were hardly any people left on the paths, but the metal covered wagons still trundled by with regularity. Then came the change. Ruby lanterns flicked off. The emerald set lit. He stepped off the path and onto the blackened area of the street and proceeded straight-away across it. Without incident he reached the gray path on the same side as the well lit hostel he had seen and turned that way. The snow increased its rhythm.
With genuine anticipation, Clycinedes pushed open the hostel door. Beyond that door was another door acting, he judged, as shield against the local weather. Quite an extravagance. The craftsmanship of the glasswork was excellent and he ran his hand down the surface as he stepped through this second doorway. Quite marvelous. Were they good with detailed glasswork as well?, he wondered.
After he was seated, and the young server had given him a small stiff page of fare, he asked. "Do you get your glass locally?" He smiled with his eyes, "It's quite good work. I was admiring it as I came in."
The young server paused as if she had anticipated another question entirely and had no ready reply to this one. She looked at the old man. Her observation skills prompted by his odd question, she took in his wet white beard, the sparkle of transforming snow on the shoulders of his coat and his gentle eyes, "Our glass? Sure, I guess it's made locally. Who knows these days. So many things are shipped in from somewheres else." And then she just saw his coat wriggle and realized that he had some sort of animal there.
She turned away. With no particular hurry, she returned to her routine of movement prompted by the needs of her customers. But the old man was foremost in her thoughts. What was it he was carrying? Monkey? Rabbit? One of those tiny dogs that always tried to scare you with how much noise they could make? Sid, the night boss, would kick his ass out on the street in a heartbeat for bringing some dirty animal in here and endangering the health cert of the shop. She looked over to where Sid was talking up the local team with a conventioneer. He did not seem to have even noticed the old guy. She headed down the counter and topped off two coffees on her way back to the white haired gent. She took out her pad and pencil and stepped closer to him so her voice would not carry far.
"Made up your mind?" She tried to angle her observation to the inside of his open coat.
"Certainly. Long ago." He did not press the humor of the question and his answer. He had not traveled this way before and irony had different rules in the many reflections of reality. "But right now I'll have some hot drink and porridge." He rubbed his hands together. "And a bowl of milk with the porridge, if you please."
Accent. Just a bit but she heard it now. And his words were put together wrong somehow. She gestured at the menu. "We have oatmeal and cream of wheat. Which would you like? We have hot chocolate and coffee, of course."
"Hmmmm. Well, oatmeal will be fine. Large bowl. And melted chocolate is too rich for me, I'll have the coffeeofcourse."
She wrote it down without looking, still trying to see something she was sure was in his coat. "And a bowl of milk?"
"Yes," he nodded, "I have a hungry Kit with me."
"Righto. Won't take a minute." And she stopped before she had done more than prepare to step away. "A kitten?" made bolder by the admission she leaned across the counter to get a look at it. She loved cats. And kittens were so dear for such a short time. Then she saw the amber eyes looking back at her out of the rich folds of the silk lined coat.
He thought about the word patterns he had heard so far and made a snap judgment. "Yes, a little one. A bit more than seven. He's probably hungrier than I am," he gave her a wink and his best lopsided grin.
She smiled back while taking in the little thing's handsome salt and pepper coat, large eyes and fine features. "Isn't he a darling? What's his name?"
She looked over her shoulder to check on Sid, "I'm sure it will be all right. I'll check and be back in a minute." And so saying, she put the old fellow's order in with the cook and came up behind Sid. Sid was much occupied in debate with the conventioneer. He and Sid turned over the merits of traditional rules being updated and modernized by guys that didn't understand the game. A few quick words with her boss and she was finding her way back to the dapper gent with the kitten. One stop by the dish hutch. One at the milk cooler. Then placing the bowl smartly down in front of him.
"Sid, he's the manager, says its jake to have the little kitten drinking milk. Even on the counter, if you want. I'll clean up any mess he makes. My name's Betty."
"Clycinedes is my name. Thank you for your welcome kindness." And he slid his slender hand inside the folds of his earth colored coat and extracted his travel companion, placing him neatly on the counter next to the bowl. The Kit's face whiskers swung forward, then back again. Betty admired the kitten's form. A little thin, she thought, but he was certainly good looking. And when he started right in on the bowl of milk, she knew the old gent was right. The little guy was more than hungry. Maybe he hadn't seen a bowl of milk in a while.
As if he had heard her thoughts, the white haired old man said, "We have just arrived in your city. Perhaps you know the whereabouts of someone we are looking for. She is probably in your business. Maybe owner of a nice place like this. Or larger. Might be you would have heard of her. Her name is Bhangbadea." He nodded at the kitten, "I need to do her a favor."
The drinking Kit stopped and turned to look at the old man. Clycinedes kept eye contact with the young waitress. With a whip of his tail, the Kit returned to his milk bowl. Betty tried petting the kitten, and it responded instantly with purring and without slowing its intake of the milk.
"Wow," she shook her head a little and smiled, "is that a first name or a last name? If she's the owner of a restaurant in this town, I haven't heard of her. Not that I hang out with owners and such."
"A hostel, then" he said. "An inn or travel rest."
She had to grin, "Must be a dozen places in this town that might fit that description. And a handful more that are pretty swank. What was her name again, Bangba.....?"
"Bhangbadea. Small woman, red hair, green eyes. Good cook. Sings. I'm sure she is living hereabouts. Perhaps she is not following her old ways." He mused then went on, "How would you suggest I find her, Betty? I'd like your advice."
She wondered at that. But felt somehow that he was serious. And she felt a corresponding desire to help him out. He was odd. But she thought he was jake. She knew that he wasn't from anywhere around here and she saw his problem. Sort of. Some things didn't quite jive. She tried, "Cly, you could take an advertisement in the local rag. She'd see it. And get in touch with you." She almost ran on and asked if he had a place to stay. Come on, girl, she thought, let's not get silly on the old duffer.
Clycinedes considered. He felt his way through the word patterns and structure. "There is a distribution of news and postings," he watched her stroke the Kit, "and most people have access to it. How long would that take, Betty?" He raised his eyebrows as he finished.
"Sure if she's around, I bet a week would get you an answer. Even if she doesn't buy a paper every day, she'll probably get the Sevenday paper. And if she is at a restaurant. She probably sees the paper more often."
"Royal, Betty. Just royal. That is just what I will do. You have been very helpful." He gestured to the young Kit that was licking his nose of milk, "We really appreciate it."
She knew she had to get to other customers. No point in ruffling Sid's feathers. So she nodded, pleased the old gent was satisfied with her small idea and moved back into her routine.
She made time to admire the kitten. A couple of the other girls did likewise. She did notice several other things that didn't seem right. A seven week old kitten was not so well behaved. A couple of the other girls got the little guy to play with a napkin to everyone's amusement. But he lost interest quickly. Very aloof. Or maybe he wasn't very well after all.
The old gent ate his oatmeal with economy and manners. His coffee cup he emptied five times before he refused any more.
She stopped poised over the counter at his refusal of fresh brew. "Sure you won't have another?"
"Oh, I think not. No, I'm pretty certain that I should be moving along presently. One thing we should discuss though, what may I do for you?" He looked at her expectantly but at ease.
She mistook his meaning, "Well, let me total your tab. I'll be right back."
"No, Betty. I was not speaking of the fare. I'll attend to that in good time." He smiled, "I think your idea will make my next few days fruitful. Where I come from, that suggests that I do you a favor in return. In case I don't get through this way in the near future I'd like to take care of that now."
Betty shifted her weight and rubbed the back of her right calf with her left shoe tip in puzzlement. "I'll tell you what, Cly, I don't know what you mean. You're a nice old guy, I'm sure, and the cat makes you twice as cute as far as I'm concerned. Tell you what, leave me a nice tip and we'll call it square." She sensed she was not doing the right thing by him. So she winked to tell him there were no hard feelings. Then she realized that her own thoughts were beyond her understanding at this moment. Am I flirting with this duffer? Betty, dear, you are not that desperate.
She dived back into routine to cover for the awkward moment. A minute later, she was grinning to herself that he could have flustered her with such a simple bit of conversation. Do me a favor, huh?
She glanced in his direction. He was fooling around with the cubes of sugar in the bowl on his counter. Sid wouldn't like that. She watched a moment as he lined cubes up on the counter like taxis waiting for fares outside the Regency. What was so different about this fellow?
Thoughtfully, she looked around the familiar coffee shop. Clean. Bright. A soft hum of customers and the quick shorthand of the girls' voices. She looked back at Cly again. He toyed with the sugar and sat at the counter for all the world liked he owned the shop. Was that it? No. But he seemed to belong there more than any regular patron she could think of at the moment. There. That was it. She kept thinking about him. Her thoughts tugging back to him. Why was he so interesting to her? Jeez, he must be over 60.
She swept back through her stations checking on each patron until she got to him again. She liked the sound of his voice too. She glanced at the sugar bowl, thinking she should have brought some. It was still full.
His voice interrupted her thoughts, "You notice things, Betty. An unusual trait in one so young."
She laughed, "I've been serving this counter longer than your kitten has been around. I'm not as young as I might look, Cly."
He looked at her, just that, and she wondered in that moment if anyone had ever looked at her before. Wondered if she was real. As real as he was.
He spoke, "I must move along. Since I have been unable to repay your service to me, I will come back this way when you need me. It is not as I might wish," his easy smile made his face wrinkle from cheek to forehead, "but I have seen that it must be. So I leave only my promise of return."
She turned away. The illusion that he was the only real thing she had ever seen faded as she retreated to her till and totaled his check. She took a steadying breath and then another. She went back and put down his tab on the counter. "Three fifty, Cly." He nodded. She didn't know anything else to say, and might not have said it if she knew what it was. Then she spoke and was surprised to hear, "I hope you find her. Tell Miss Bhangbadea thanks for having a friend like you, Cly." It sounded so absurd, she immediately said something ordinary to cover the strangeness, "You can just leave it on the counter if you want."
He nodded again. And adroitly slipped the kitten back inside his coat. She wondered that the little guy didn't cry or protest at all. But, as always, orders came up. And when she got back to Cly's section of the counter he had gone. Some bills were under the check, and on it he had written 'thanks' in flowery script. She picked it up thinking a fifty cent tip was pretty special and saw the bills more closely. Her eyes widened and she didn't realize that she had made a silly noise until everyone turned to look at her.
Impossible! Cly had left her three hundreds and a fifty dollar bill!
Sid was next to her quickly. "What's wrong, he stiff you with funny money? It comes out of your pay, Betty. How many times....."
She twitched the bills at him. She still didn't know what to say. She couldn't speak or move just yet. No one made a mistake like this. He had done this on purpose.
Sid looked at the money and scrunched up his face. He looked like he might sneeze or cry. Betty didn't know which, but it brought up a giggle from her. And that giggle let out the trapped emotions of surprise and joy. "Comes out of my pay, huh, Sid?" she was laughing, "Fine, dun me three fifty. I guess I'll keep this funny money." And she stuck it in her apron.
"That ain't real." Sid still looked like he had lost his best friend.
"Bet me," she shot back. She was sure everything about Cly was real.
She hummed to herself and went back to her routine with an uncontrolled grin. Her nose twitched as a giddy thought tumbled to the front of her mind, maybe next time I'll ask him if he has a place to stay?