“Good morning, Jaz.” Shaz rumbled, his voice seeming to come from a quarry inside his chest.
Bracken flinched, awed more than scared. Shaz was easily eight feet tall.
Jaz ignored him, studying the last drops of espresso falling into the shotglass.
Shaz breathed in and snorted out, twitching an ear back. He leaned over the top of the espresso machine to look down at Jaz, like a fox looks into a chicken coop for his next meal. “Guess what day it is.”
Jaz lifted the shot glass and sipped. “Wednesday?”
“Mmm,” he rumbled. “Funny. It’s Saturday. ”
“If you say so.” Jaz took another sip of espresso, as if consuming her coffee might not happen if she didn’t down it right now. “I don’t have your goods.”
“Not as funny.” His ears twitched stiffly.
“Good. I wasn’t joking. The deal is off. I don’t trade with people who steal from me.”
The fur along Shaz’s neck shifted, subtly rising. “Steal from you? What have I stolen?”
“A recipe. I dropped it on the floor yesterday and you took it.” Jaz pointed at his head. “And for some reason, put it on your hat.”
Shaz touched a claw to a small, folded piece of paper tucked into a silk band above the broad brim. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is mine. I wrote a…note. To myself. If you were careless and lost something though, it’s not my fault.”
“Fine.” Jaz drained the shotglass, thumped it on the counter and strode to the register. “I’ll keep the goods, you keep the recipe and get out of my shop.”
Shaz placed both paws on the counter, leaning forward. His fur now stood up all along his back and shoulders, and his tail snapped side to side like a whip. “You’re pressing your luck, female.”
Bracken tried not to stare at Shaz’s paws, but he couldn’t help it. They took up most of the space between the register and espresso machine.
“Maybe. But I prefer this to luck.” She hefted the shotgun and pumped it once. “Now git.”
She hadn’t included the human patrons in the command, but they took the hint and, except for the redhead and her companion at their corner table, trickled out, leaving Bracken and Jaz alone with the growling tiger.
Bracken had never been in a fight before. Cavicea was a relatively safe town with low crime. A family friendly town. Even in school he had avoided bullies with relative ease, thanks in part to his older sister who had a protective streak and a solid right cross. Bracken’s personal strategy was to avoid confrontations before they started.
They were way past the confrontation stage now.
Prickles of alarm sparked over Bracken’s skin, warning—demanding—that he move away. Quickly. To anywhere. Bracken reached out and caught Jaz’s elbow, pulling it as he stepped back. Her head flicked toward him, eyes crinkled in brief surprise. “Bracken, get—”
Shaz uncoiled while she was distracted and sprang onto the counter, landing on three paws and swiping at the shotgun with a fourth. Jaz shrieked. The gun flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor. Shaz launched over the counter, cutting deep scratches across the countertop with his hind feet.
Jaz just managed to shove Bracken aside before she went down beneath the full weight of the tiger. He pinned her down with one paw on her chest and swiped across her face with the other. Her cheek shredded, deep lines of red splitting her skin. She struggled to move, kicking beneath him. He stamped down with a back paw, digging into her thigh. She screamed hoarsely and punched, hitting his lower jaw. He swept her arm away with one paw and slashed at her throat with the other.
A shotgun barrel slammed into Shaz’s open jaws and he rocked back, smashing against the condiment counter. He dropped onto all fours, facing the redheaded woman. Jaz had gone still, sprawled on her back on the floor, blue hair across her face stained dark purple with blood. One of her arms was trapped under Shaz’s paw, pierced by his claws.
Bracken had staggered clear and now crouched against a row of shelves beneath the espresso counter, staring at the scene, unable to move or shout or even think.
The redhead thrust the shotgun barrel toward Shaz, gloved finger ready on the trigger. “Fun’s over, fuzzy.”
Leather covered her body like armor: brown leather gloves, a long leather duster with reinforced elbows, leather chaps around her legs, and thick boots that laced to her knees.
Shaz snarled, baring his long teeth.
The redhead narrowed her eyes, aiming the shotgun between his.
“If you kill me, Grayson will have you dragged in and chew your throat himself,” Shaz snarled.
The redhead snorted. “I’m not gonna kill you.”
She pulled the trigger. The gun boomed, quieter than before. A cloud of moisture puffed around Shaz’s face. The air sprang to life with the strong scent of spearmint and vinegar.
Shaz yowled. He recoiled, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes with the back of a paw. He staggered around the workspace, yelping and clawing at the countertop, blindly trying to climb over. He failed several attempts, smashing mugs and plates, leaving deep gouges in the counter and shelves beneath.
Red watched with a growing smirk on her pale face as Shaz finally grappled his way over and streaked for the doors, going over or through any chairs or tables in his way.
When he was gone, Bracken found he could move again. He hurried to Jaz and knelt beside her, brushing her hair away from her face. It was a mask of red, blood oozing freely from the gouges across her cheek. Red’s companion, a balding, perspiring bloke also wearing a leather duster but without the gloves and chaps, was already there, pressing his hands over a deep cut across Jaz’s thigh. Blood pulsed through his fingers, streaming onto the floor in a spreading pool. Jaz’s eyes were unfocused, and she breathed in short gasps.
“It’s not good,” Red murmured, standing over them.
“Call a doctor,” said the balding bloke.
Red shook her head. “Too late.”
Bracken clutched Jaz’s hand. It was cold and gray and her fingertips were blue. “Jaz? Jaz, don’t die…”
Jaz coughed once and did just that.
Bracken released her limp hand and fell back against the cupboard, feet pulled close, staring at her body and chewing his thumbnail.
There was a long, long silence.
“Sorry for your loss,” Red offered quietly. “She was a good sort.”
“Thanks,” Bracken said dully. One thought kept running through his head on repeat: Jaz was gone, before he could get her to tell him where Sadie was. How could he find her now?
“This your first day?” Red asked, after another silent minute.
She made a sympathetic sound. “I’ll go find the undertaker.”
Bracken shook his head. “Not yet.” He wasn’t sure if Jaz could leave the shop even as a corpse. If she couldn’t, there would be questions and investigating, and having a bunch of people poking around downstairs among the otherworldly items on the shelves and in Jaz’s office seemed like a bad situation for someone like himself to be in, who couldn’t answer questions anyhow. Packing the shop with tigers and townspeople and carrying them along with him, through the days back to his homeworld, was the only way to show them what was going on, and Bracken didn’t want to unleash something like Shaz Shef on the unsuspecting town of Homburg—or any other town, for that matter. “I should clean up first and…and keep the shop open like normal. She’d want that. This place was her life.”
Red and her companion helped Bracken carry Jaz downstairs into Bracken’s room—he didn’t want to risk them seeing the stack of weekday binders and the Sassacus history book on her desk—where they arranged her on the narrow cot and covered her with a blanket.
Red nudged the balding bloke’s arm after standing a moment in silence. “Let’s give him a minute.” They went upstairs.
Bracken had only seen death once before. It had come to his grandmother, while she sat resting in the armchair by the open window that looked out over the garden, holding Bracken in her thin lap. But that had been a bloodless death, with only a stirring in her sleep and a breathless incoherent murmur— “What are you doing here?” —a quiet exit. The only similarity between that death and this one was the suddenness of it.
With Jaz’s death also came screaming and blood, and the guilt of knowing it was mostly his fault. Not to mention the horrid sense of being abandoned. Abandoned, in an interdimensional coffee shop, in a world full of tigers.
Bracken fell back against the wall opposite the cot, rubbing his face with both hands, barking short laughs of hysteria. Being trapped in this wacky cafe was one thing, but being trapped here alone was something else entirely. Jaz was the only person who knew what to do, and he couldn’t ask for help now. And what if he died next?
At least his end would be interesting. At least Jaz had left him with something different than Cavicea.
At least he would have died trying to find Sadie, which was all that really mattered anyway.
Bracken straightened and lowered his hands. He studied Jaz’s form, covered with the blanket. Time hadn’t stopped, he reminded himself. He’d have plenty of time later to search The Defiant for clues to Sadie’s whereabouts, which was all that really mattered now.
All he had to do was survive today.
He went out, closing the door behind him, and walked upstairs to see what else could go wrong.