[Word count: 3992]
Fi had discovered coffee in her teenage years and it was love at first sip.
For love of coffee she had dragged herself through four unsatisfying jobs at popular cafes, enduring the rage of chefs and of those headed to work alike. People were tetchy before their coffee.
She had learnt the trade and learnt to hate it, and quit her last job with relish. Ready to swear off the industry over a bottle of wine with friends, one of the noisy sods had piped up, interrupting her before she could promise it to the winds.
“Why not just open your own cafe?”
“Huh?” she’d stared like a fool, confused instead of terrified as she ought to have been by the sudden proposition.
“You always say you’d like to see an all night cafe, that you’d go there.”
“You do complain about conventional opening hours a lot,” another of her friends had contributed and at that point the discussion had gotten away from her.
Good sense took a heavy loss that day.
She watched the rain trickle from the small awning over her doors, falling in heavy drops into the alleyway beyond. The sound of it hitting the tarp, the soft slap of a half-hearted drum beat, grew louder as the downpour increased, drowning out the small speaker on the counter beside her. She had to admit it sounded better than the late night talk radio, and leaned over to turn off the machine. No one else was there to listen to any of it anyway.
Sighing heavily she leant on the wall behind her which separated the service area from the tiny kitchen and zoned out, listening to the rain.
There were three months left on her lease here, the rent for which she could cover from her carefully managed savings. Then she’d get a proper job. A normal, adult job. Whose idea had it been to run her own cafe? In a dark alleyway, open at odd hours of the night? No, she’d stay open till the end of the contract then find a sensible job, like a librarian or a secretary. She could work with books and do paperwork.
Dreaming of dusty halls smelling of ink she didn’t notice movement in the alleyway until the person walked through the open doors. Drenched by the summer rains and dressed in an unseasonably large coat the new arrival stood, dripping on the floor as she looked at the menu board on the wall.
“Do you make the croissants yourself?”
“Do you have a good baker?”
“I like them.”
“One then, and a latte,” the stranger dropped some coins on the counter before sitting at a table by the small window at the front of the shop.
Heating the water for coffee with her magic rather than waste electricity she frothed the milk in a daze and pulled the pastry from the warming oven. Imagine if she did make the pastries herself, then she’d be exhausted as well as bored. Returning to her seat once she’d served the customer Fi took a sip of her own, over sized, cup. Aside from a few visits from friends and family this was the first customer she’d had, and she tried not to stare too obviously. Getting a novel from beneath the counter she started to read to distract herself, then got so caught by the story that she didn’t notice when the stranger left.
Well, at least I satisfied one person’s desire for late night lattes, she thought as she collected the neatly ordered plate, saucer, and cup they’d left stacked for her.
Picking up the newspaper on the walk back to her apartment in the morning sun she pulled a face at the cover story. Some super hero had taken issue with the shape of Green Street, part of the main entertainment district, and destroyed a good portion. And something about an evil villain plotting to overtake the city. Which just seemed like a dumb ambition to her, but what can you do, some people want what they want.
Her apartment was small, one bedroom, but it had a garden area built into the balcony where she could grow herbs for teas. Her healing teas had a kick from her magic, and her neighbours bought them, dried, directly from her.
A large glass terrarium took up a good portion of her small living room, home to Herman, her pet skink. The newspaper was more to line the reptile enclosure than to read, but she skimmed it anyway as she nibbled some fruit, before finally going to bed.
The rains in summer were always torrential, but Fi preferred the freshness they gave the air to the heavy humidity of the hours between the showers. She’d woken earlier than usual so that she’d have time to visit the markets before everything closed, and the sun was still high and hot, making her sweat into her thin shirt. Thick threads of cloud stretched across the sky as the afternoon rains gathered.
No more customers had visited her cafe since the stranger several weeks before, but left to her own devices she wound up drinking her coffee stores herself.
Her favourite coffee merchant, a short man with a thick accent and a face like a wizened apple, greeted her by name as she entered his stall.
“Fi, you’ve come back to me,” he crowed, grinning broadly at her through his short trimmed beard, “I knew you couldn’t stay away much longer.”
“You have the best beans Papa,” she told him, as she did every visit.
He did up her order with a wink and took her coin without looking.
“I’ll come visit your coffee house some day,” he called after her as she merged with the crowd.
You say that every time old man, she thought, but there was no bitterness. His hours were opposite to hers.
A neighbourhood cat waited for her on the doorstep as she entered the alleyway, meowing urgently as she approached.
“I should never have been kind to you,” she muttered to it as she unlocked the shop, opening the double doors to try to entice a cooling breeze as the humidity grew.
The cat followed her into the shop front, waiting with its tail curled around its feet as she prepared a small plate of raw meat and a water dish.
“By eating this you promise to leave the lizards and snakes alone,” she told it as she set the dishes down in the alleyway, “they’re trying to survive here, same as you.”
Feeding the cat was her only actual task at work most days, so she sat down on her chair with her novel, only rising to light the lamps once the sun finally set.
The soft voice startled her, and she jumped. The largest man she had ever seen was standing in front of her. His pale skin was raw from the sub-tropical sun.
“Sorry to scare you,” the hulking behemoth apologised, “I’m just after a pot of tea, black, maybe a cake?”
“Of course,” she jumped to her feet, “Sorry, uh, quiet night.”
He left the money on the counter as she prepared his drink, sneaking glances at him as she worked. He sat facing the door, dwarfing the small wooden table before him, his eyes on the cat that was still lurking, probably in hopes of a second feed.
“Your cat?” he asked as she brought his purchases.
“Stray, but I feed it.”
Returning to her seat she peeked at him around the edges of her book, wondering if she’d seen him before somewhere, or a photo of him because she’d surely remember that height in person. Exhaustion seemed to lurk in his eyes.
Putting him from her mind, glad only that he was a paying customer, she kept reading.
How these people were finding her shop she had no idea. They’d been few at first, but after those first two the rate of visits increased, mostly late at night, or was it early morning, when little else was open. They moved quietly and frequently startled her, but they never argued on price and didn’t leave a mess. Except when they bled all over the place, but those times were blessedly few.
She’d started to suspect something was a bit odd about her clientele, a high propensity for bruises and damaged clothing, suspicious rucksacks held between the feet as they ate and drank, eyes far more alert and attentive than your regular insomniac, small things that she could easily ignore or brush off as weird. But when the gigantic human who had been her second real customer returned with a large gash in his arm, dripping blood in a heavy stream onto the tiled floor, she’d had to face some facts.
In between his explanations about being nearby and it being three am and him having nowhere else to go she patched him up and asked a few choice questions. She didn’t want to know everything, barely anything in the scheme of things. As much as she may sneer at the news articles she respected the danger that followed these people around, and clung to those who got too personal. She wanted none of that, just to know why super heroes were frequenting her coffee house.
“It’s three am, you’re the only place open,” he repeated his previous reasoning.
She’d bandaged him and apologised to the only other customer there at the time, a muscular guy who was dwarfed next to the giant.
“By the way,” he’d mentioned as he’d left, stopping by the counter and pausing her reading, “Not just heroes.”
A thrill had run down her spine at his words, and she’d made another coffee to distract herself. Villains. Super powered ones, in her shop, drinking tea and enjoying pastries. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, so she played with the idea. Were they really worse than super heroes? She asked herself, ignoring the immediate reflexive “yes” that the part of her brain which read the newspaper supplied. Their motives were worse, but only just barely in a lot of cases, taking over the world was a dick move, but was trying to save it any less narcissistic? What if other people didn’t like your version of saved? What if by stopping the disruption of super villains the heroes were just preserving a flawed status quo?
Stopping that line of thinking before she dug herself into a moral black hole she glanced at the customer still sitting, leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. Was he asleep? No he scratched his nose way too well to be asleep.
With a sigh she searched under the counter for a pen and paper. A thick black marker suited her needs, and she wrote in large letters on the paper:
I DON’T WANNA KNOW ABOUT YOUR WORK
Sticking the new sign next to the menu on the wall she returned to her chair, satisfied that solved that.
More business meant less time to read. She pondered this unfortunate fact as she made a tray of drinks for three customers. They seemed like a team of some sort, and to be celebrating something but she had no idea what. Nor was she asking.
She had gotten rather careful with the questions she asked her customers after one person had accidentally confessed to robbery when she’d asked how their day was going. The resulting discussion had covered who had tricked who and what information was inadmissible in a court of law, and had culminated in her pointing to her handwritten sign and yelling, “Read the damn rules!”
“Doesn’t say they’re rules, just looks like a suggestion.”
That day the words “Rules” and “not a fucking suggestion” were added to the notice in a far messier scrawl than the original text.
She had also stopped reading the paper, or at least the Super News section. No way was she dobbing in a customer if she recognised one of the villains on the wanted page, but she still wouldn’t feel comfortable making a flat white for someone while knowing that they’d tried to poison the harbour or whatever bullshit villains did.
The three celebrating team mates ordered a second round of drinks and savoury tarts before stacking their dishes neatly and leaving. In the hush after they’d left she wandered to the door and lingered there, smelling the breeze. The promise of rain hung heavy with the scents of wet stone and rotting vegetation from the green waste bins at the end of the alley. A dog howled into the night, probably some apartment kept soft-furred pet dog who’d never left the city or hunted a day in its life, spying the moon and seized with the ancient desire to sing.
“Are you closing?”
Quiet as a cat someone had crept up next to her, making her jump.
“No, open till dawn,” Fi said, leading the way to the counter.
By the time she was behind the wooden desk she’d recognised the young woman, not as a hero or villain, but as her first ever customer.
Dressed in the same long coat as the last time she smirked at the new sign, eyes sparkling as they read the additions.
“Bet you get some weirdos late at night huh?” she said as she paid her money, walking to the window seat without waiting for a reply.
Making the coffee, Fi thought over the last two weeks of relatively steady business. She’d actually started making money, something she’d given up on long ago. Somehow this customer had broken her dry spell, but when she tried to tell the young woman while delivering her order, her tongue stopped and she swallowed instead. It didn’t seem like the customer was there for a conversation, so intently did she stare out the window, so Fi just left her food on the table without a word.
Returning to her book at last she read half a paragraph before a soft cough alerted her to someone waiting service.
“What teas do you have for headaches?” the man in front of her asked softly.
“Do you know what caused the headache?”
He paused, thinking, “I, hit it.”
“Uh huh, can I have a look?” she had learnt the hard way that some of her customers were adverse to medical professionals, occasionally dropping over their tea because they had played down their injuries and gotten tea instead of a bandage.
Reassuring herself that the man wasn’t bleeding she checked his eyes for concussion, then let him sit down.
“I’ll have your tea for you in a moment, is there something I can get you to wash the taste from your mouth? Unfortunately the main herb in the strong headache tea is super gross, so you’ll want to gulp it.”
He blanched but ordered coffee, black.
Heating the water she heard someone else tapping their hands on the counter.
“I’ll be there in a moment, please take a seat,” she called, using her spare hand to blend herbs in a pot.
The loud scrape of furniture on the floor rang through the small space and she frowned as she dried her hand, hurrying to investigate as the sounds of scuffling feet followed it.
Two figures grappled in the middle of the shop, tables and chairs thrust aside to make space for their violent contest. The man she had been making tea for had dashed behind the counter, the most solid thing in the room, and watched the battle with his mouth open.
As one of the fighters swept the others feet from beneath them, throwing them bodily to the ground and landing awkwardly atop them, Fi realised that the quiet young woman was one of the fighters. The other must be the person who’d arrived while she was in the kitchen.
They bucked and rolled across the floor, coming up against the line of furniture. At once aware of the danger to her property Fi rushed back to the kitchen, grabbing the first water pot she could. Sticking a hand into the water she drew the heat from it, chilling the liquid before tossing it over the fighters.
“Stop it you damned children before I’m forced to do something drastic,” she yelled at them, but like fighting dogs they ignored the water and her words.
“Fine,” she growled, placing the empty pot on the counter.
The sweat on her top lip thickened as she concentrated, eyes fixed on the wrestlers. She sent a quick prayer to whoever was listening that no more customers arrived as she did this, because she couldn’t handle the distraction.
With her index finger she pointed at the wrestlers, and gripped them with her magic. She strengthened her hold before lifting them from the ground, but almost dropped them anyway, and the moment of free fall as she fumbled with her spell effectively stopped the fight.
“Put us down.”
“You’ve no right to cast magics on us.”
They yelled at her as she slowly made her way to the door, hand held before her, directing their flight. Part of her mind wanted to make a smart retort but breathing and maintaining the magic were already almost too many tasks for her to manage.
Reaching the alley she dropped them heavily on the wet stone, gasping for air as her body relaxed its tense grip.
“The casting of magics on people without their consent,” the unknown fighter began, but Fi held up a hand.
“I know the law, but you fucks were going to bust up my shop, water didn’t work, and the penalty for public brawling is pretty heavy as well so let’s not quibble,” she said in a rush, still out of breath, “Besides it’s not like I cast a compulsion on you or anything.”
“No, I wouldn’t. That wasn’t a damn threat, just a comment, I’m a bit shaken up so I said everything that came to mind,” she said, glaring at them, “Look, you’re welcome back if you can behave but not tonight, just go away.”
She left them in the alleyway, walking slowly back to her chair. Tension at her temples marked the beginnings of a migraine that she knew from experience would last for days and be resistant to her best teas. Slumping into her chair she looked up at the man standing behind her counter in confusion.
“What are you, oh crap your drink,” she said, remembering and getting to her feet with a groan.
Exhausted, she set the water to boil on the stove as she set the shop back to rights, and once it was hot she made herself a cup too, to settle her nerves.
Seated in her chair she brought her legs up to her chest and held her tea beneath her nose, inhaling the steam. A soft rain started to fall, dribbling from the awning at the front of the shop and making fresh puddles in the alley way.
Finishing the tea she set down the mug and pulled a fresh piece of paper from beneath the counter.
Rule breakers may be subject to magic
She added it to the “Rules” page.
Herman the skink had decided to redesign his terrarium while she slept. The small potted plant she had convinced to stay alive despite her terrible luck with container gardening, had been uprooted. His water dish hadn’t survived the home decor episode and been spilt in transit across his digging substrate, resulting in a muddy terrarium and muddier lizard.
Cleaning both to her satisfaction had made her late, which wouldn’t have been a problem not so long ago but now she didn’t know when a customer would show up for a drink or medical advice, and oddly enough she didn’t want to disappoint them. The sun had been down for a while as she approached the alleys entrance, finding the way by memory more than sight.
Rounding the corner she heard a meow and scowled. The cat. Of course it was impatient.
“I’m coming I’m coming you cursed lizard eater,” she muttered, fumbling for her keys in her pockets.
“Are you talking to the cat?”
A voice spoke from the darkness and her heart stopped for a beat. A shadow moved by the door and she squinted to see who it was.
“One second, I’ll let us in,” she murmured.
Lamps lit she turned to the person who had waited in the dark for her.
“Were you desperate for coffee?” she asked the man, who she now noticed wore a three-piece suit.
“No, actually I am from Edmond and Lequett, the real estate agency you rent this property through,” he said, holding up a briefcase as some sort of proof to his tale.
“Yes?” she asked, trying to keep her sudden suspicion from her voice.
Had they seen her business improve and wanted to up the rent? She’d heard horror stories from her old bosses about greedy estate agents.
“I have your new lease,” he said, opening the case and pulling out a file, “Your old one is almost up and you haven’t contacted us about continuing or leaving, so we drew this up in case you decide to stay. No pressure of course.”
He smiled as he offered her the file. She took it with numb fingers. How could she have forgotten the lease date was nearly up? She’d gotten so caught up breaking up fights in her shop. Was it still her shop?
“Are there any changes?” she asked, taking the file.
“The owners have offered a two year term,” he said, “But rent’s the same.”
Looking at the form, completed except for her signature, she briefly debated whether she should keep the shop. Two years was a long time.
The sound of the rain falling on the awning drowned out the insistent meowing of the cat as she brought it its dinner. She set the bowls inside tonight.
Leaning on the counter she watched the cat eat, taking bites then looking up while it chewed, as if someone was about to sneak up and take the small pile of chicken meat. She wanted to reassure it that it had a free meal here for a while yet, but she didn’t speak cat and didn’t fancy her chances at happening on the right noise for the purpose.
“Cat still here hey?” the big man stood in the doorway, hunched over to fit under the lintel.
“I think it may stay a while,” she said, walking behind the counter to serve him.
Looking over her short list of rules he grinned broadly. “Good,” was all he said, before turning to order.
Stacking his plates neatly at the end of his meal the giant looked over at her thoughtfully. No one else had come in while he was there, the rain keeping everyone indoors perhaps, and he spoke loudly enough for her to hear over its clamour.
“Your rules, I have one question.”
She raised a brow.
“Can we tell you our names? Not our work names,” he hurried to clarify as she pulled a face, “but our actual names?”
She thought it over for a moment. The whole secret identity business had always seemed like bunk to her, but maybe this was where it could work. And the big man didn’t seem so bad.
“I’m Okl,” He introduced himself with a word that meant “small child” in one of the far southern tongues, laughing at her surprise, “No one ever expects it.”
“Well, I’m Fi,” she said, raising a hand in greeting even though he was about to leave.
“Fi,” he repeated, then left.
The cat mewed at her once she’d cleared his dishes, but she ignored it and returned to her book. She was nearing the conclusion and she didn’t know when another customer would come in and disturb her.