13. Grayson’s Gulch

Bracken woke on his cot several hours later. He vaguely remembered finishing his drink alone—staring at Wednesday’s binder but not really paying attention to it anymore—before finally going to bed.

It had taken a while to fall asleep. His body was vibrating from caffeine, his mind refusing to quiet. It felt as if he had lain in the dark, staring at the ceiling for hours, before finally drifting off.

Bracken stretched both arms overhead, yawning deeply. He could hear Jaz moving around in the next room. He sat up on the edge of his bed, rubbing his eyes, then went out. Jaz’s door was open. She stood at her desk, her back to him, staring at a thick, aged book open on the top of a heap of binders, tapping the barrel of the shotgun against her shoulder.

“Do you ever sleep?”

Jaz turned, startled. “You’re up…”

Bracken’s vision kept going fuzzy. He rubbed his eyes again. “What time is it?”

“Five.” Jaz looked back at the book. “We’ll open in about an hour.”

Bracken went in and looked over her shoulder at the tome. Crisscrossing black lines formed a pattern like badly woven cloth on the yellowed pages. The gaps between the lines widened and narrowed at random, marked here and there by occasional squiggles.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a history book.”

Bracken squinted at the page. “It looks like…scribbles.”

“That’s Sassacus script. It’s written with both hands. Apparently, the technique takes about ten years to master but it’s also the most accurate way to record something you want to remember. If it were a video recording, it would also have historical notations embedded in the picture, and notations on the mental states and personalities of anyone present.”

“You can read that?”

“No. You have to have a Sassacus scribe read it. And they don’t often come here.”

“How did you get it?”

“I borrowed it from an elf.”

“With permission?” He wiggled his eyebrows.

She smirked. “Yes.”

“What for?”

“You remember that guy with the white hair I told you about, who trapped me here? I tracked him down to Thursday’s world, and I think this book can tell me where he is, exactly.”

“And if you can find him maybe he’ll let you out.”

“Yeah. Well, first I have to translate the book and get his location, but that’s the bottom line. Yeah.” She closed it gently and led the way upstairs.

The windows of the cafe had gained translucency with the dawn, revealing a long, gray, grassless gulch, pebbly on the bottom, with long, irregular stripes of shale up the sides. The rim made a dark line across the whitening sky. Some buildings—glorified plank shacks—stood along the base of the ragged incline. A few brightly painted wood signs hanging above the weathered doors indicated the presence of a general store, a drug store, a shoemaker and a butcher shop.

Bracken was drawn to the windows, staring up at small flames hovering in the gray sky. They blinked on, then off, then back on again, like fireflies. The sky continued to lighten, revealing that the flames belonged to giant balloons with baskets hanging beneath. The balloons themselves were various colors: bright yellow, crimson, muted green. A few were striped or checkered. They glowed faintly when the flames flickered on, the colors seeming to pulse with light.

“What are those?”

The windows vaguely reflected Jaz in the workspace, stowing the shotgun below the register and opening a bag of coffee beans. “What do they look like?”

“Giant balloons.”

“There you go.”

Bracken pressed closer to one of the windows. “What are they doing out there?”

“Traveling.” Jaz measured some beans and ran them through the grinder. “Humans get around here by balloon or bi-plane. It’s safer than traveling on land when you have to go more than a few miles.”

“Do the tigers sell those things too?”

“Some of them.” Jaz deposited the grounds in a brewing vessel and watered them with a slow, thin stream from the kettle. She went into the kitchen, came out with a pastry box containing blueberry scones, set it on the counter and then finished brewing the coffee.

Bracken came to the counter and hopped onto a stool. “Is this Grayson’s Gulch?”

“Yep.”

“It’s just some shanties and a gravel road.”

“Yep.” Jaz poured the coffee into a cafe mug for Bracken and her own cracked one, opened the pastry box and lifted a scone to her mouth. “Wait till you see the townsfolk.”

After they ate, Jaz unlocked the doors and continued opening preparations—writing the coffee of the day on the menu board with chalk, filling gas burners beneath a row of brewing vessels that looked like hourglasses on brass stands, restocking paper filters for the vase-shaped pourover vessels, stocking milk and cream in the little refrigerator beneath the espresso bar. Meanwhile, Bracken slouched over the counter by the register, his attention more on the windows than the menu he was supposed to be memorizing.

The first few hours of the morning were fairly sedate. Every few minutes a balloon bumped gently on the rocky ground between the barren hill and The Defiant, released two or more passengers, and silently drifted upward again while the former occupants strode with purpose to the doors. Once inside, each group paused, glancing at each other and letting out the breath they’d been holding during the trek across the road. The sun’s hazy light behind the travelers made their faded, long-worn clothes seem shabbier than they really were. The men straightened the long lapels of their suit jackets and brushed dust from their trousers. The women shook out their floor-length skirts and checked their hair with tiny round mirrors produced from some fold in their gown ensemble. Each traveler wore a silver pendant around his or her neck that gave off a pungent, minty-smelling perfume.

Bracken quickly learned that Black Coffee was the drink of choice in Grayson’s Gulch, which the travelers and townsfolk camped at tables around the room ordered by the potful. They preferred the syphon brewing method, a blend of science and art that was flashy, produced a bright, clean taste, and like their trusty hot-air balloons, its heat source was an open flame.

In most of the other worlds, the syphon was an on-again, off-again attraction, conceding center stage to the classy but sensible pourover vessels and press pots, which made up for their relative plainness with comforting simplicity, but in Grayson’s Gulch the syphon dominated.

“It’s simple,” said Jaz, showing the process to Bracken as she brewed a pot for a customer. “Pour boiling water in the bottom vessel, place it over its burner, fit the top vessel over the bottom to create a seal. The water gets pushed up by steam. When it reaches 198 degrees, grind the beans, add the grounds to the water, stir, saturate, let the grounds rest half a minute, stir again, let it sit another minute, remove from the heat source. The coffee filters out as the liquid is sucked back down. See?”

“The…coffee goes in the water on top and gets sucked back down,” Bracken repeated, remembering little and understanding less.

“Yeah, you got it. Easy stuff.”

“So, where are the tigers?” Bracken asked as Jaz began grinding beans for another pot.

Jaz silenced the grinder and paused to glare at him. The rest of the shop seemed to stop with her and, if they didn’t glare outright, hardened their somber gazes.

“Sleeping,” Jaz said, clipping past him to a waiting syphon and pouring grounds in the simmering water in the top glass. “Tigers aren’t morning people.”

“Thank the fates,” muttered a redheaded woman to her male companion. They hunched together at the counter over a half-full syphon pot between them, coffee mugs cradled in their hands.

Jaz pulled Bracken’s elbow, tugging him behind the espresso machine which hid them from most of the dining area. “Don’t mention tigers here before noon. The morning crowd is all human. They’re trying to relax before the other half of the town wakes up.”

She spoke low, so the folks at the counters couldn’t hear her discussing the unpleasant topic, tamping espresso grounds into a portafilter and locking the basket under the top lip of the espresso machine.

“Aren’t you waiting for one to come in though?” Bracken asked, watching creamy brown espresso drip into a shotglass.

“Yeah, but they don’t need to know about it.” Jaz glanced up at the doors and tensed. “Speak of the devil…”

A tiger swaggered in, walking on his hind feet, pushing both doors open with massive front paws. His long, striped tail swayed casually behind him. He wore nothing but a top hat, through which his ears poked up, swiveling and twitching as he scanned the room with golden eyes.

Bracken recognized him from a photo in Wednesday’s binder. “Hey, that’s—”

“Shaz Shef!” The small man at the counter hissed to his red-haired companion. She grabbed the coffee pot and they abandoned their stools, seeking safe haven at a corner table.

Shaz Shef, the menace of Grayson’s Gulch, silenced the room as he crossed it.

“Good morning, Jaz.”

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