The restaurateur, Mr Herbert Douglas, a portly gentleman in his late fifties, watched with great irritation the six rowdy young people who were making a racket in his restaurant by talking and giggling loudly. Normally those who dined at his restaurant were not only of maturer age group, but were also of a more genteel class of people. After all, his restaurant was noted for being classy and was situated in a classy area too. He wondered how they got in. They did not at all observe the proper dress code required for entering such an establishment as his. Casual clothes were not permitted and these six people wore nothing but singlets and jeans.
‘How could you let this mob in?’ Herbert said to the receptionist, through clenched teeth, pointing at the group.
‘I didn’t,’ cried the nervous receptionist, ‘I never saw them enter.’
And none of the waiters seemed to have seen them enter either. It was as if they just popped out of thin air.
For a few long moments he debated with himself whether he should do something to remove them, but the problem was that he didn’t want a scene. And by the look of those young people, he was certain that they were not going to leave without causing a scene. He was about to let go of the matter, when suddenly the restaurant shook with the sound of their laughter. It was the most unpleasant laughter he had ever heard. He glanced at the other diners and could see from their expressions that they were as displeased as he was. It was time to take action. Squaring his shoulders, he went to their table.
‘Please leave,’ he said as composedly and as quietly as he could.
A girl, sitting at a corner of the far end of the table, looked up at him. She had long wavy dark hair and a relatively attractive face. She wiggled a finger and beckoned Herbert to approach her. And he did.
‘How old do you think I am?’ she asked, trying to hold her laughter in check.
Confused, Herbert lifted his brow. This was certainly not a question he had expected to hear.
‘C’mon, tell me! How old?’
‘Twenty, I guess,’ Herbert answered, looking irritated.
‘Twenty,’ she said slowly, drawing out the word. She then smiled.
Herbert shook his head at the absurdity of the question and was about to repeat his earlier demand, when the lights flickered and his eyes diverted their attention from the girl to the lights. It had to be the result of the work that was being done in the basement. He was turning his basement into a proper wine cellar.
The flickering of the lights disturbed the other diners too and they began to murmur about it, which made Herbert even more irritated. It was bad enough with this rowdy bunch at his restaurant, he did not need the lights playing up too. An angry frown appeared between his bushy eyebrows as he looked back at the girl.
‘So, your guess is that I’m twenty,’ the girl said, giggling.
‘I’m sorry, what?’ Herbert snapped.
‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ she breathed, playing with a lock of her hair.
Herbert heaved a sigh. He was not about to let himself be dragged into a silly game with a silly girl. ‘Look, I must ask you all to leave, because I can assure you that you won’t be served here tonight or any other night.’
‘Are you sure you want us to leave?’ said the girl, pouting.
‘Yes, I am very sure.’
‘Ooookay, if you say soooo…’
‘So!’ Herbert exclaimed, waiting for the group to get up and leave.
‘So!’ She leaned her elbow on the table and propped her chin on her hand, looking up at Herbert. ‘You’ll be sorry if we go.’
‘I am sure I won’t be.’
He was about to say yes, when suddenly the girl gripped his arm. ‘Tell you what, I’ll give you a large tip.’
‘I don’t want a tip,’ Herbert retorted furiously as he tried to take her hands off his arm, though in vain. Her grip was stronger than any man Herbert had ever encountered.
‘What if’ —she licked her lips— ‘what if I were to tell you that I’m going to give you … to give you one hundred dollars?’
‘That won’t be necessary. And please take your hands off me.’
‘What’s your name?’ she asked, releasing his arm.
‘Is that your first or last name?’
‘Last name,’ Herbert answered, looking angry.
‘What’s your first name?’
‘Herbert’ —she said the name slowly— ‘my name is Melinda. Come, let me introduce my friends to you.’
‘Sorry, but I’m really not interested,’ he refused sharply.
‘Don’t speak in haste now, Herbert. Come, let me introduce them to you,’ Melinda insisted.
Herbert glanced at the diners in his restaurant and saw that they had gone back to eating their meals and were chatting away softly. Perhaps it was not necessary to throw this mob out tonight. It might make matters worse and disturb the other diners if he insisted on throwing them out. Anyway, they would never again be allowed to enter his restaurant.
‘What do you say?’ Melinda prompted.
‘I wanna introduce my friends to you,’ she said playfully, nudging him.
‘If you must,’ he sighed.
‘I must,’ she said, then pointed to a young man opposite her and introduced him as Dan.
‘Hey,’ Dan grunted.
Herbert regarded Dan with distaste. He looked pasty with a bright green Mohawk hairstyle. The lights flickered again, but for a second, and in that second Herbert thought he saw something odd in Dan’s face. He did not at all look young. Must be the lights! casting strange shadows on his face.
‘And this is Jack,’ Melinda said, gesturing at a tall young man, with shaved head, sitting next to Dan, who acknowledged him with a curt nod. The lights flickered again and Herbert saw a most terrifying shadow pass across Jack’s face. He looked more like a demon than a human.
Disturbed by the sight, Herbert was not interested in knowing the rest of the gang. He wanted them out of his restaurant immediately. There was something about these young people that didn’t sit right with him, and it was not just their noisy behaviour or even their ghastly appearances.
‘Look, I have no interest in knowing you people. I want you all to leave,’ Herbert ordered sternly.
‘I don’t think that is what you want, not if you knew what we can do for you,’ Melinda pursued.
‘I’m sure there is nothing you can do for me … nothing that I’d be interested in, anyway,’ Herbert retorted, trying to disengage himself from this bizarre entanglement.
‘Let me introduce my friends to you first and then we go … quietly,’ Melinda said, smiling.
Puffing his cheeks out, Herbert agreed, but only to avoid a scene.
‘This is Sean.’ Melinda pointed to a scrawny young man sitting next to Jack.
‘Hey,’ Sean barked.
Herbert winced in disgust. Sean had spiky purple hair and lots of rings in his ears, nose and any other place that Herbert’s eyes alighted on, but as to his face, Herbert could not discern anything, for it was covered in tattoos.
‘And this is Kirsty,’ Melinda said, pointing her thumb at a girl next to her.
‘Hey,’ Kirsty rasped.
Kirsty had long blond hair and a reasonably pretty face. Once again the lights flickered, and Herbert thought he saw Kirsty as a hideous old hag. Herbert was fast losing his nerve, as he was losing his temper. He wanted them out. He was about to open his mouth and tell Melinda to stop playing games and start moving, when Melinda broke into his thoughts. ‘And this is Mira,’ Melinda said, nodding at a girl next to Kirsty. She had long silvery blond hair, which Herbert thought looked quite pretty on her. ‘Mira can be quite difficult at times,’ Melinda continued. ‘She fancies herself as our queen and likes to order us around.’
‘Be careful of them, Mr Douglas,’ Mira said.
A hair-raising hiss rose from Melinda’s mouth and Mira looked away.
‘Look, I want you all to leave and I never want you to come back here again,’ Herbert said, exasperated.
Suddenly Melinda grabbed his arm and pressed her face against it. ‘Don’t say that! Look, we like you. We want you.’
‘Want me? I don’t understand,’ Herbert said, grimacing. Then he began to smell something vile, but the smell lasted for such a brief moment that he could neither identify it nor could he say from where it was, except that it was very close, as if it was coming from Melinda.
‘Come and join us,’ Melinda said, then told Dan to bring a chair to make room for Herbert.
‘No,’ Herbert refused.
‘Hush now! You’re disturbing your customers,’ Melinda said. ‘Don’t argue with me so much. Dan, I told you to get a chair!’
‘From where?’ Dan objected gruffly. ‘There are no empty chairs about.’
‘Get off, Kirsty,’ Melinda barked.
Giving a sulky look, Kirsty got up, making room for Herbert.
‘Now come and sit next to me,’ Melinda said, patting the seat of the chair.
Reluctantly, Herbert sat next to her.
‘Herbert, darling, are you sure that I’m twenty?’
‘Around twenty … I don’t know,’ Herbert said impatiently.
Melinda grinned, revealing a perfect set of pearly white teeth, and as Herbert gazed at the white teeth, they suddenly changed from white to black and a foul stench began to emit from her mouth. Disbelief made Herbert blink, and in that blink of an eye, both the stench and the vision of the badly decaying teeth vanished.
‘So you take us for six young people, eh?’ Melinda sniggered.
Herbert was trying to figure out what he had seen, when Melinda grabbed his arm again.
‘I’m one hundred and seventy-five years old,’ Melinda said, cackling and changing into a vile-looking creature, ridden with decay and wearing mouldy clothes.
Terrified, Herbert gasped and struggled to pull away, but Melinda’s strength seemed unequal. He now saw that all her friends, except for Mira, were nothing but decaying old corpses.
But zombies didn’t exist. They were fiction, products of Hollywood movies.
‘No, we are not zombies,’ Melinda said, cackling, reading his mind.
‘Who are you? What are you?’ Herbert asked, half in shock and half in bewilderment.
‘We are called the wild ones.’
‘We can make your wishes come true…’
‘No thanks,’ Herbert cried, trying to get up.
‘No, seriously,’ Melinda said, holding him firmly onto his seat. ‘You don’t believe me?’
‘Even if that were true, I am sure the price would be too high.’
‘Not that high … just the use of your restaurant.’
‘I think you are under the impression that we need your permission,’ Kirsty interposed.
‘I tried to warn you, Mr Douglas,’ Mira interjected.
‘Shut up, Mira,’ Kirsty hissed.
Herbert tried to get up, but then felt that the room was spinning out of control around his head.
‘Fire, fire,’ fire,’ shouted someone.
Herbert stood outside, in front of his restaurant, completely stupefied at what was happening. The flames were devouring his restaurant. Maybe there was a fault with electrical wiring. After all, the lights were flickering. But how did he get here? He could not remember the start of the fire, or him getting out of his restaurant, or seeing anyone else getting out either. His confusion turned into horror when he saw Melinda and her friends dancing in the flames. It was the stuff of nightmares.
‘Isn’t this great? Your restaurant is on fire,’ Melinda yelled out, cackling and dancing. ‘And all your customers are as crisp as bacon. Woo-hoo, woo-hoo.’
‘I warned you, Mr Douglas,’ Mira said. And she was the only one who was not dancing in the fire, as she stood next to him.
‘What is this?’ Herbert cried, looking horrified
‘This is the night of the wild,’ Melinda shouted excitedly, sticking her thick grey tongue out. ‘Woo-hoo, woo-hoo. We are free. We are free.’
‘I warned you, Mr Douglas,’ Mira said again.
‘Warned me? Warned me about what?’ Herbert finally acknowledged Mira’s presence.
‘None of this is real,’ Mira said under her breath, watching the flames.
‘What is not real? The fire?’
‘Melinda is the one doing it.’
‘Making you see things…’
‘I’ll explain everything to you in a minute, but first I need to know what happened to the old house that was here.’
‘I had it demolished ten years ago when I bought it to build my restaurant. How do you know about the old house?’
The conversation was interrupted by Melinda calling to him. ‘Herbert! Herbie! Herb! Look up!’
Herbert looked up to where Melinda was pointing – the name of his restaurant –Herbert’s.
‘Watch, Herbert! Watch! Eyes on your sign,’ Melinda sang out to him, while cackling and dancing.
Herbert was dumbstruck when he saw that the name changed from Herbert’s to The Wild Ones.
‘And no more fancy dress code, you hear, but only punk dress code,’ Melinda yelled out. ‘Woo-hoo, woo-hoo…’
‘What the hell!’ Herbert exclaimed, slapping his forehead.
‘She wants your restaurant,’ Mira said.
‘Because it is a perfect place to attract others of our kind to join us to free the rest of us who are imprisoned, so that our kind can increase both in number and in mischief.’
‘And what is your kind?’ Herbert asked, with eyes as wide as saucers.
‘We are not human.’
‘What are you? Zombies?’
‘No. We are not zombies. We are called the wild ones.’
‘Where did you all come from?’
‘From your basement.’
‘My basement?’ Herbert could not believe anything that he was seeing or anything that Mira was telling him.
‘You are having some work done to the basement, right?’
‘Yes, that’s right. I am turning it into a wine cellar?’
‘The old house that was here belonged to a witch who built a prison beneath the floor of her basement to confine us forever, but this morning one of the workmen cracked a concrete tile and that is how Melinda got out with—’
‘Wait a minute! Wait a freaking minute!’ Herbert interrupted, putting up a hand. ‘Are you telling me that from a crack six people got out?’
‘Not people. We are not people. We are called the wild ones and we are shapeshifters. We can turn ourselves into anything we want … even dust. That is how we survived the years of imprisonment down below the basement where there was neither air nor food.’
‘What kind of creatures are you? And why are you called the wild ones?’
‘We are creatures of the night, lovers of the moon, one with the wild nature, and we are ancient. We used to be harmless, but that was eons ago. When humans arrived, we took a liking to them, but they didn’t like us, for they feared us, so they tried to harm us. We had no choice but to hide from them. We disappeared into the forests of the world and gradually our numbers went into decline, until there was only a few hundred of us left. It was then that we decided to come out and flourish as we once did.
‘But then witches learned about us and they wanted to use our powers and we let them. They could cast great spells on people and make wondrous things happen. Some of them showed themselves to the world as great magicians and put on extraordinary performances. While others used the magic of our powers to become great actors or singers to gain wealth and fame. In exchange for the use of our powers, they were supposed to share their wealth and their lives with us by making us their partners, but they betrayed us once they learned of all our secrets. They then imprisoned us and used our powers just the same…’
‘By cutting locks of our hair and keeping them for themselves,’ Mira said, as she transformed herself into her true form.
Herbert flinched at the sight. It was not that Mira was ugly, for she wasn’t. She was beautiful in respect to all her features. But at the same time, she looked terrifying, because of her chalky whiteness, her bright red eyes, red lips, and her long and curly red hair.
‘You see, Mr Douglas, our hair is not at all like human hair. Our hair is alive and life force courses through each strand and that is the reason that the color of our hair is crimson red. So by owning it, not only one can get access to our powers, but one can exercise power over us as well. It was in this way that they succeeded in imprisoning us.’
‘So, if I were to cut off Melinda’s hair—’
‘Don’t even think it! You’ll never succeed. All you’ll end up doing is getting yourself killed.’
‘Good grief!’ Herbert gasped. ‘So how did the witches manage to do it?’
‘We used to travel with a very special book, a book that told of our history. That book was highly treasured not only amongst ourselves, but also amongst the witches who learnt about us. Unbeknownst to us, they stole the book and made copies of it so one day they could use it against us. For in the book there were spells on how to control us, how to bind our powers and obtain our powers.’
‘Well then, why don’t you use the spell yourself to take control of Melinda and her demented friends?’
‘I don’t know the spell. By the time of my birth, the book was gone.’
Herbert looked at the nightmarish scene before him. Melinda and her friends dancing like mad demons in the fire, shouting repeatedly woo-hoo. ‘So, this is not real? I am just seeing things?’
‘Correct. You are still in the restaurant. Melinda has enchanted you into seeing this scene. And she has enchanted your customers too, so they won’t notice anything weird.’
‘Really? And she is not aware that we’re talking to each other?’
‘No, she is too busy creating this macabre scene,’ Mira said, pointing at the fire.
‘Why is she doing this?’
‘To show you that if you don’t agree to her terms, she will set your restaurant on fire. And she will do it, Mr Douglas. Have no doubt about it! Melinda is extremely dangerous. She has already been messing around with your electrical wiring.’
‘The flickering of the lights was her doing?’
‘It was,’ Mira confirmed.
‘Why are you telling me these things? You are one of them, aren’t you? So why are you betraying your own kind?’
‘I come from a long line of kings and queens who taught our kind, even in adversity, to show kindness to every living creature and that included humans too, and they said this for a reason. Because when we do nasty things, it affects the way we look—’
‘Ah!’ Herbert interrupted. ‘Is that the reason why you all appear as decaying corpses?’
‘The worse we appear the worse we are. But because we are shapeshifters, we can change into more pleasing forms. However, we can’t maintain them for too long if we have thoroughly corrupted ourselves—’
‘Hang on,’ Herbert interrupted again, ‘at the restaurant when the lights were flickering I thought I saw something nasty moving across the faces of your friends.’
‘Please, Mr Douglas, they are not my friends, but what you saw was the result of their inability to hold on to their human forms.’
‘So, you are really their queen?’
‘I am, but Melinda and her friends won’t acknowledge me as their queen. However, that is not important. The important thing is that Melinda and her friends must be neutralised, for she and her friends are like an infectious disease that can make everyone and everything sick if they are not stopped.’
Herbert sighed. ‘So, what must we do to stop her?’
‘Not we. You. You must find the witch,’ Mira said.
‘The witch!’ Herbert echoed, not understanding.
‘The witch who owned the house that you bought.’
‘But she is dead. I bought the house from her daughter. She put it up for sale right after her mother’s death.’
‘Her daughter then would be in possession of the book. Find her and get the book, and then we can put a stop to Melinda and her friends and save both humankind and our kind.’
‘But I don’t know where she is. What about other witches or magicians or actors or singers? Perhaps, we could contact—’
‘Mr Douglas,’ Mira interrupted, ‘none of them would acknowledge the existence of such a book, let alone part with it. The book is a closely guarded secret, for it is filled with priceless mysteries and magical spells.’
Herbert grunted and stroked his chin. He had no idea of what to do.
‘Look, the easiest way is for you to locate the witch’s daughter…’
‘But I don’t know where she is,’ Herbert persisted, throwing his hands up in the air.
‘Herbert, you are the only one who can do this. You have to find a way of locating the witch’s daughter. Otherwise, you and everybody else will be stuck forever in a never-ending nightmare. Look, I would’ve done this myself … go out there and look for her, but I can’t afford to take my eyes off this group. It would be dangerous if I leave—’
‘But if this book is as important as you say it is, then she might not want to part with it. And for all we know she probably has read it. So she knows its value.’
‘True,’ Mira admitted, ‘but I am relying on her good sense. Her mother was not interested in fame or wealth. She imprisoned us because she knew that we were wicked—’
‘But you were not!’
‘She didn’t know that. Well, actually I didn’t let her know that. I had to hang around this group to keep an eye on them.’
‘Mira! Mira! Don’t you take me for a fool, Mira! I know you are talking to Herbie Berbie. I’ll get you for that,’ Melinda threatened.
‘I have to go, Mr Douglas. Find the daughter,’ Mira said in a hurry, before fleeing into the burning restaurant.
Herbert heaved a deep sigh and looked apprehensively at the flames. Was this just a bad dream? How could any of this be real? Surely, witches didn’t exist, and surely magicians used only tricks as opposed to real magical powers of some mystical creatures. And surely actors and singers used their own talents to gain success. No, this had to be a bad dream and the best thing to do was to change it by thinking about something else, something really pleasant. And should it turn out that this not be a dream, then it would give Melinda pause, that he was not so easy to control. Thus, Herbert closed his eyes and thought about something really pleasant.
‘Herbert, Herbert! How long are you gonna be down there? You haven’t fallen asleep, have you? Humph! Always doing something in that basement! If he is not playing at being a restaurateur, he is fighting with his magical villains,’ grumbled Grandma Douglas as she ambled away to make a cake for Herbert’s tenth birthday.