12. ‘Round Midnight

Chairs all around the room flipped upside down and landed loudly on the tables. Cups shifted on the shelves. The brewing vessels quivered. The dishwasher door fell open. The rag bucket that usually sat on the floor under the espresso machine was now in the sink, about to overflow beneath the abruptly gushing faucet.

Bracken swiveled left and right, looking tensely around. “Jaz?”

He leaned forward, peering over the counter, but saw only the floor. Nothing moved besides a haze of steam rising out of the dishwasher, and water overflowing the edge of the bucket, splashing into the sink.

Bracken turned a circle, searching the room. “Jaz?”

The basement door opened and Jaz stepped out. She glanced around, frowned and went to the sink, turning off the faucet while shutting the dishwasher door with her foot.

“Where did you go?” Bracken asked.

“I told you the shop resets at midnight.” Jaz nodded behind him at the clock above the door. The hands pointed up at twelve. “That includes me. At least, physically.”

“You didn’t say how.”

Jaz shrugged. “That’s how.”

Bracken folded his arms. “You really need to work on your explanations.”

Jaz moved to the counter where the espresso machine sat and picked up a silver pitcher of steaming hot milk that hadn’t been there before the shop reset itself. She pulled a shot of espresso into a mug, poured in the milk, stirred in some chocolate syrup and handed the mug to him. “Fine. At midnight everything in the shop reverts to its physical location at the moment it became…whatever it is now. I ‘restart’ downstairs in my office.”

“Why in the office?”

“Well, there wasn’t always an office. I built that part later. And added a bed. I got tired of landing on concrete. Right, so that’s what happens at midnight. Let’s move on to tomorrow.”

She tapped the front page of the open binder. Bracken stared at her a moment. He started to ask another question, but then shrugged and began reading aloud.

“Grayson’s Gulch. Country: Zunghar. World: …X-I-O. Exio. Exo.”

“It’s pronounced Zhow.”

“Huh. I guess they wouldn’t call it Wednesday, would they?” Bracken sipped the drink she’d handed him. It was chocolatey and warm, with an underlying bite from the espresso. “Mmm. This is good.”

“Glad you approve. Xio has weeks just like everyone else. Seven days long. Twelve months in a year. Today is Saturday, for them.” Jaz pulled a monthly calendar from a pocket in the front flap of the binder and set it on the counter, tapping the appropriate date. Then she went into the dining area and began turning the chairs down onto the floor.

Bracken read a note taped to the calendar. “Blaise, formula, high noon. What’s high noon?”

“It’s an expression they use for midday. Blaise is coming in to pick up his formula around then,” Jaz said, from across the room.

“Why do you have it?”

“I don’t, yet. Shaz does.”

“Who’s Shaz?”

“Shaz Shef—it’s all in the manual. Just read.”

Bracken found a page titled ‘People of Interest’ and then located Shaz’s name, which had this notation:

Unofficial sheriff of Grayson’s Gulch. Works for Mei Grayson. Runs mining enterprise in the quarry. Blight on face of civilization. Tiger.

Bracken twisted around toward Jaz. “Shaz is a tiger?”

“Yeah. Xio has talking tigers. I was going to trade with him for the formula but since I don’t have the explosives from Aton I’m going with plan B.”

“Which is?”

“Accuse him of stealing the formula and threaten to ban him from the shop unless he gives it back.”

“Oh. What is this formula for, exactly?”

“Tiger repellent.”

“What?”

“Tiger—”

“No, I heard what you said. What is it?”

“It’s a smell tigers can’t stand. Right now you have to wear it in a diffuser. Most people keep them around their necks or attached to a watch chain or belt. The diffusers can break or fall off though. A guy named Blaise invented a formula that’s injectable and permanent, which would be a huge boost for humans. Repellent is expensive, and it’s also a good business. Tigers aren’t exactly brilliant but they’re born for extortion and intimidation. Shaz’s boss, Grayson, owns the nearest repellent factory. And the quarry. And the whole town, basically.”

“So…the tigers sell a smell that repels them.”

“Not just sell it—they control it. They decide who gets repellent, and when, and for how much.”

“Sounds like a racket.”

“It is. The humans have to go along with it because it’s the best defense available against becoming tiger food.”

Bracken cast a glance at the doors. “What happens if the tigers get in here?”

“Oh, they come in all the time. They usually behave in here. Usually.”

“Tigers come to a cafe? For what, milk?”

“Milk, tea, coffee… Shaz is a steady customer. Gets a heavy cream latte.”

“They don’t attack you?” Bracken turned a page and found several photographs tacked to the paper. A few were of humans. The others…

“No. Well, occasionally if they get angry enough. But it doesn’t happen a lot. They need someone to make their coffee. Even if a tiger could comprehend the science behind coffee they couldn’t make it like I do.”

Bracken touched one of the photos that did not contain humans. “Right…but according to this picture they do wear clothes.”

“Mostly hats, sometimes waistcoats. They don’t dig pants.”

“Can’t blame them.” Bracken yawned, resisting the fatigue of a long day. “So you’re aiding the human revolution by getting this formula back from Shaz and giving it to Blaise without Shaz finding out what it really is.”

“Exactly.”

“And you’re going to do this by intimidating Shaz—a tiger—into handing it over.”

“Hence the shotgun, yes.”

Bracken smirked as he raised the cup to his mouth. “Sounds like dangerous fun.”

“More dangerous than fun.” Jaz set the last chair down and came over to him. “I’m used to them, and it’s true that they don’t usually attack humans inside the shop. But they’re still tigers. They can and will kill you if you make them angry enough. So be careful not to make them angry.”

“Got it.”

“I’m taking a risk confronting Shaz. He likes my coffee, but…you know. He’s a tiger.”

“Has he attacked you before?”

“Not in a long time. It should be okay. It’ll be okay. If something goes wrong though, run downstairs and stay there until midnight. You should be okay if you lock yourself in my office.”

Bracken set his mug of hot chocolate down on the counter. “You’re saying ‘okay’ a lot. It’s not as reassuring as you might think.”

“I just want you to understand that you need to be careful not to tick him off.”

“I get it. Don’t tick off the tigers.” He raised the mug nonchalantly and took a sip, raising his eyebrows at her.

Jaz nodded. “Great. I’m going to bed. Wash your cup when you’re done.”

“Jaz?”

She glanced over at him as she moved to the basement door.

Bracken unconsciously tightened his fingers around the mug’s handle. “Why did Sadie travel with you? Was it an accident, like with me?”

Jaz’s forehead crinkled, and she scratched at the back of her neck while considering her answer. “She was…sorta hiding from her brother. Your dad. Apparently, they didn’t get along.”

If Bracken had had a human heart, it would have sunk at these words. Instead he felt just a tightness forming in his center. “It wasn’t that they didn’t get along, he just…didn’t understand. He wanted her to be with the family, and make a life in one place. Like most of us…most of my kind do.”

Jaz shrugged and continued to the basement door. “You and she are kind of alike.”

Bracken perked up at this. “We are?”

“Yeah.” She pushed the door open and started through it. “You think The Defiant is some kind of escape hatch.”

“What is it really, then?” Bracken called after her.

Jaz’s voice floated back through the closing door. “A trap.”

 

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