10. Don’t Blame Me

Jaz stood at the doors watching Aton go and chewing the inside of her cheek. Then she shifted her eyes toward Bracken.

He shuffled his feet under the table. “So…what just happened?”

Jaz marched over, white-faced, and grabbed the camera out of his hands. “What were you doing?”

“I just took a couple pictures…”

“He thinks you’re a corporate spy!” She lobbed the camera back at him.

He fumbled to catch it. “Hey, be careful—!”

“Do you know how hard it was to gain Aton’s trust? How much bloody espresso I’ve donated to his caffeine habit? How hard it was to get those stinking slugs for him?!”

Clutching the camera to his chest, Bracken ventured a guess. “…really hard?”

Jaz slapped both palms on the table and leaned toward him. “You just killed two goddamn months of planning!”

Two Jingans near them looked over, ceasing their conversations. Jaz straightened, breathing heavily through her nose.

“I’m sorry, Jaz.” Bracken stowed the camera safely in his backpack. “I didn’t realize it would spook him. He’s walking around in public, I thought—”

Mouth tight, Jaz turned and stalked back to her workspace. After a moment, Bracken followed. Jaz slumped over the condiment counter and banged her forehead down several times on the marble. Then she clenched her head in both hands and pulled at her hair, dry sobbing through clenched teeth. “Sucking milk burning son of a cakeater…”

Bracken stood in the gap between the tea counter and the wall, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

Jaz sighed deeply and lowered her hands from disheveled hair. “Should have locked him in the frothing basement. I should have.”

“Can’t we explain it was a misunderstanding?”

“I tried, but I can’t tell him who you are and he knew I was being evasive.”

“We can tell him the camera film got destroyed.”

“I don’t know when he’s coming back. Might be tomorrow, might be next month.” Jaz crossed to the grinder. She grabbed a thick paintbrush from a basket beneath the counter and began vigorously cleaning grounds from the chute. “There goes that brilliant plan.”

Bracken did some mental math and came to a sobering realization. “By next month, do you mean by our time? Or his?”

Jaz’s jaw tightened. She slapped at stray grounds on the counter, sweeping them onto the floor.

Bracken swallowed. If seven days in Pucheon were seven weeks in The Defiant, then thirty days equaled over six months… “Couldn’t Joli build her garden somewhere else?”

“Yeah, but I needed Aton’s explosives for tomorrow.” She threw the brush back into its basket.

“Explosives?”

“My reward for fixing them up and keeping quiet about it.” She shot a narrow look at Bracken.

“Oh…”

“Well that’s taken care of!” Joli’s voice on the other side of the counter made them both jump. Her head and shoulders rose into view as she mounted a stool, grinning.

Jaz’s return smile was her briefest yet. “You’re back…”

“Yep.” Joli was flushed, her cheeks and forehead purple. “We don’t have to worry about my father anymore. I took care of it.”

“Uh-huh. Um…”

“It was brilliant. I pretended to be waiting for a train, and we went for brunch, away from all the dust and noise. He started to tell me his plans for buying the property and putting up one of his horrible pie shops. I feigned interest, enough to keep him going on so much that he didn’t notice I slipped trowtov in his tea. By the time we finished our frittatas, he couldn’t remember ever drinking tea, much less his plans for extending his franchise onto our turf.” Joli chortled in her throat, like a purple chipmunk villain, rubbing her hands together.

Jaz stood very still, both hands clutching the edge of the counter. “How much did you give him?”

“All of it! I wasn’t taking any chances. He’ll take a few days to recover and by then we’ll have our deal all wrapped up!” Joli looked into Jaz’s graying face and ceased her hand-rubbing. “Of course, I have more at home. I’ll bring it for you tomorrow.”

Jaz’s knuckles turned white. “Tomorrow will be too late.”

“Too late for what?”

Jaz made a slight choking noise. “Never mind.”

Joli shifted on her stool and inquired about Aton.

“…he didn’t make it,” Jaz said after a moment.

Joli gaped. “What? Why not? Was he captured? Murdered?”

“No. He stopped in for a minute but couldn’t stay.”

“But…I can’t support this venture on my own. His finances are the key. And if my father talks to the Realtor and finds out I haven’t bought the property yet he’ll snap it up like the business thief he is.”

“Give me until tomorrow,” Jaz said after another pause. “I’ll get him back.”

Joli’s face returned to a more serene blue, and she nodded. “Call me the moment he comes in.”

“I will.”

Joli looked at Bracken and smiled consolingly. “Hope you recover those memories. I’ll bring more votwort tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Bracken murmured.

Joli took her leave. Bracken and Jaz retreated to the back counter where they stood side by side, leaning against it.

“And there goes my plan for Friday,” Jaz muttered, shaking her head. “Super.”

“How will you get ahold of Aton by tomorrow?” Bracken asked.

“Tomorrow for Pucheon is a week for me. I have some time to think about it.” Jaz turned and slumped facedown on the counter. “There goes that plan. Shaz is going to kill me when he finds out I don’t have the explosives.”

“Who’s Shaz?”

“I’ll tell you later.” She picked herself up and wandered over to the espresso machine.

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