15. Plan ‘C’

Red and the balding bloke were standing in the alcove outside the basement door, conversing quietly with their heads together. They looked at Bracken when he emerged and the three of them shared a silent, knowing look. Bracken walked past them into the workspace. He stared down at the broken glass and blood left from Shaz’s visit.

“Time won’t clean this up,” he murmured. He went back into the basement, hunted down a mop and bucket, brought them out, set the bucket in the sink to fill with water. Then he realized he had to go back into the basement to find a broom.

“We’ll help you.” The bloke picked a rag from a pile that had fallen on the floor and started scrubbing at some blood on the cabinets. “I’m Blaise, by the way. This is my bodyguard, Aja.”

“I’m Bracken.” Bracken paused sweeping up shards of glass and gave Blaise a closer look. “Jaz mentioned you.”

“I come here a lot,” said Blaise. “She has the best coffee around. Er, had.”

Bracken nodded. The world—worlds—would have to do without Jaz and her coffee from now on.

“She’s recovered from some pretty bad wounds before,” said Aja, going around the counter to pick up syphon remains. “Guess you can’t come back from them all, though.”

“I guess that’s the end of our grand scheme too,” Blaise sighed, starting to mop up a puddle of blood.

“Not now, Blaise,” Aja said, out of sight on the other side of the counter.

“You mean the formula?” Bracken asked, finishing with the broom and dumping the contents in the trash can.

Blaise snapped around to face him, the mop clenched in white fists. “She told you about it? What did she tell you? Did she find it?”

“Shaz has it.”

Aja’s head and shoulders rose into view across the counter. “Shaz?”

“Yeah. She was trying to get it back.”

“That’s what she meant by saying he stole her recipe!” Blaise interrupted, abandoning the mop and cutting across the workspace toward Bracken. His foot skidded in some blood collected between two rubber mats on the floor. Bracken grabbed his arm, stopping his fall before it started.

“Careful.”

“Thank you.”

Aja set a cracked siphon vessel on the counter. “Wish I’d known that before I blasted him with repellent. I’d have grabbed it first.”

Blaise turned toward her, moving a bit more carefully. “You said he’ll come back.”

The smirk Aja wore during Shaz’s mad escape resurfaced. “I don’t mind shootin’ him twice. I’d shoot him all day if I could.”

With their help, Bracken cleaned away the blood and glass and set unbroken items back on the shelves. The workspace remained disheveled, the counter was permanently scratched, and a spot in the row of syphons was conspicuously empty, but the shop no longer looked like a crime scene.

“I could use some coffee when you get a chance, Bracken,” said Aja, settling on a stool and smoothing open a crinkled newspaper that had been abandoned by another guest. “About a gallon will do.”

“Make it five,” said Blaise. “She’s a bottomless pit.”

“Oh, uh…” Bracken looked around the workspace for something inspirational. Coffee involved beans and water and a cup, but beyond that he suddenly couldn’t remember a thing. He was not so much an employee as an interloper, a customer standing on the wrong side of the counter.

He grabbed the coffee manual, but before he could search the pages, the doors opened and three tigers came in. In the lead was a large male, wearing a brown Stetson with holes cut on either side for his ears. His stripes were somewhat faded, and he ambled rather than stalked, giving Bracken the impression of advanced age. The other two were smaller, but also younger, and instead of hats each wore a ribbon around their neck, tied in a neat bow above the shoulder.

The older tiger in the Stetson stopped in front of the register and looked down at Bracken, expectant.

Bracken stared back.

After a long moment, the tiger made a sound in his throat, something between a growl and a cough.

Bracken jumped. “Hi! Hi. Hi. …hi. Um…what..what can I get you?”

The tiger’s ears flicked back, then forward, though his eyes remained fixed on Bracken. “I’ll have a cappuccino.”

“Really? That has…coffee in it…” Bracken couldn’t imagine a tiger drinking coffee, even now. And how did they drink it? Lap it up from the cup? Could they even hold a cup?

“Yes, I know.” The tiger’s ears came forward, but not in a way that exuded happiness. He seemed…tense.

“Right. Right, sure. No problem. No problem…” Bracken hurried to the espresso machine and stared at it. Cappuccino. That meant espresso and milk and some foam. Bracken opened the coffee manual, turning to a diagram that matched the espresso machine. Trying to go by the drawings, he filled a pitcher with milk and turned a knob on the front of the machine to activate the steam wand as he had seen Jaz do before. The wand screamed, agitating the milk until it boiled over and burned Bracken’s hand. He dropped the pitcher, sending a cascade of milk onto the counter and floor.

Now all three tigers were staring, ears forward.

“Ow! Ow. It’s okay. I’m fine…” Bracken tried to smile casually. It was hard to be casual with his hand burning and milk pooling under his foot. “Just a little new at this.”

He filled a clean pitcher and restarted the steaming process, this time turning off the steam wand before the milk started to boil. Accomplishing this task without further injury, he set the steaming pitcher down and began the process of pulling espresso. He didn’t know why it was called ‘pulling’, because there was nothing to pull. One unlocked the portafilter from the grouphead under the top lip of the machine, placed the portafilter under the nearby grinder, filled the basket with coffee grounds, pushed them down with a tamper and replaced the portafilter in the grouphead. If anything, the espresso was pushed out by the force of hot water from the boilers, not pulled.

Bracken followed this procedure without incident, then had to decide which button to push to produce the espresso. There was one button above each of the three groupheads, so he chose the most likely candidate, the one above the filled portafilter. The machine rumbled, grumbled, and for a few anxious moments nothing else happened. Bracken’s finger hovered in front of the button, about to turn it off and start over, when a dark brown liquid slowly dripped from the portafilter into the shotglass beneath. It moved much slower than Jaz’s espresso did, dripping sluggishly for a while before turning into a weak, wobbly stream. Bracken waited, unsure when it would be ‘done’. Jaz always seemed to know when to stop the shot, but there was no line on the shotglass, and no indication in the manual about when this should happen.

Bracken shifted from one foot to another, trying to keep from showing concern. The tigers watched him, unblinking. Aja and Blaise also watched, though Aja quickly lost interest and returned to her newspaper. Bracken waited until the shotglass was nearly full and then pushed the button again to stop the shot. It was done enough.

He poured the espresso into a cappuccino cup, then poured the milk on top. An island of solid foam floated on top of the milk, and splashed down in a sort of lump on top of the drink.

Feeling elated—he’d made his first drink!—Bracken carried the cup over to the register counter and set it down in front of the tiger with a smile.

All three tigers looked down at the drink. There was an extended silence, after which the older tiger sniffed and said, “It’s burned.”

Bracken blinked. “It’s what?”

“You burned it. Burned the milk, burned the coffee. Burned. I can’t drink it.”

“Oh.” Bracken glanced at the drink, then at Blaise, at a loss. “I…I didn’t realize…I mean, I can make it again?”

The tiger breathed out heavily, and his ears flicked backward.

“Or…or I can make you something else?” Bracken edged back from the counter, glancing desperately at Blaise.

The tiger’s tail whipped to one side. “Where is Jaz?”

Blaise looked at Bracken, then at Aja, chewing his lip. For a moment it seemed he was about to remain with her, but instead he swallowed and came around the counter with Bracken.

“Jaz got attacked by Shaz Shef,” Aja said, talking to the tigers without looking at them, “So it’s just Blaise and the kid here. Don’t expect anything fancy.”

The tiger’s tail relaxed. He stared at the cappuccino and nudged it away with one claw. “What…else do you have?”

Blaise took the open manual from Bracken as Bracken washed milk from his arms and dabbed a towel over his front.

“Press pot,” said Blaise after scanning the page. “I’m quite familiar with that method…” He trailed off as he turned a page. His brow furrowed as he read silently.

“Is it coffee?” Asked one of the smaller, female tigers, the one wearing a green ribbon. The other female, whose ribbon was dark purple, fixed inquiring golden eyes on Bracken.

“I think so.”

“You think so?”

“Yes. It’s coffee.” Bracken nodded.

“We’ll take that,” the older tiger said, slapping coins on the counter with a directive to keep the change.

“What kind of syrups do you have?” Asked the female with the green ribbon.

“We have…” Bracken glanced to Blaise for the manual, but the man was absorbed in whatever he was reading. “Blaise?”

Blaise looked up at him. “What is an alternate?”

Bracken’s breath caught. He snatched the manual from Blaise’s hands. “Uh, nothing. It means alternate…beans. Kinds of beans.” Turning back to the tiger, he said, “We have…vanilla, caramel and chocolate.”

“Do you have clorentine?” She asked.

Bracken’s forehead crinkled. Clorentine? “I don’t think so.”

“Cherry?”

“No, sorry.” Bracken stowed the manual beneath the register, pushing it far back on the shelf.

“That’s too bad. You really ought to have them. Very common flavors.” She joined her companions at a table.

“What is clorentine?” Bracken asked Blaise as she left.

“You’ve never had a clorentine?” Blaise looked skeptical.

Bracken shrugged weakly.

“It’s a type of fruit,” Blaise answered, measuring out coffee beans with an air of concentration. “Tastes like a cross between citrus and cactus.”

“Cactus? I mean, cactus. Right. I remember now. Where I’m from we call them…citrons.”

Blaise shook his head. “To each their own. Hand me that press pot.”

A press pot, Bracken learned, was very simple to use. One measured grounds into the cylindrical vessel, poured hot water over those, stirred and let it rest for several minutes before pressing the grounds to the bottom with the plunger. Blaise fussed with the grinder, concerned about achieving the proper coarseness. Bracken watched unhelpfully over his shoulder.

“Perfectionist,” Aja muttered, turning the page of her newspaper.

“Coffee is an exact science,” Blaise told her, sticking his nose in the air and making his already receded jaw merge into one line with his throat, like a lizard stretching toward the sun. The grinder obligingly spit out several batches of coffee grounds before Blaise gave a satisfied nod and proceeded with the brewing and pressing, while Bracken gave instructions from the manual. When it was ready, Bracken volunteered to deliver the pot and three coffee mugs to the tigers. He set everything on the table and stepped back, lingering nearby so he could watch them drink. It was fascinating. Their paws, now that he saw them up close, were in fact four separate digits: three fingers and one opposable digit that could be considered a thumb. The digits wrapped around the coffee mugs like fingers—albeit, very thick, furry fingers with retracted claw tips just showing. They drank by lifting mug to mouth and lapping up the liquid with the tip of the tongue.

Bracken could have watched for hours, or at least until they finished the pot, but he happened to glance at the counter and see Blaise had found the manual and was absorbed in reading. Bracken hurried to intercept him, on the pretense that he needed to reference it. Blaise relinquished the manual, looking thoughtful, but didn’t say anything about it.

Whether by science, the heat, or just the essence of coffee, something drew customers by the dozens into The Defiant through the afternoon. Some were human; most were feline.

The tigers were haughty, aware of their superiority, but none were as deadly and aggressive as Shaz had been. One tiger even complimented Bracken’s coat.

“It’s new,” Bracken told her, then added casually, “I don’t usually wear clothes.”

This caused Aja to raise an eyebrow.

“Aside from hats and the occasional vest, tigers don’t wear clothes either,” purred the friendly feline. She was petite and silvery with wide blue eyes, and she purred constantly. “But I would make an exception for something as adorable as that coat.”

“If I find another I’ll let you know,” Bracken said obligingly, hoping that continued goodwill would help him to avoid another tiger attack. Fortunately, as a Morpha, acting overly polite came easily to him.

“I’d love it if you did,” was her response.

Bracken guessed she was pleased by the forward tilt of her ears; her face never changed expression. As she walked away, he turned to Blaise who was weighing beans with a look of intense concentration. “She’s happy, right? I didn’t insult her tigerness or anything, I hope.”

Blaised glanced over his half-spectacles at the petite tiger who was seating herself at a table. “Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Yes she is happy. It’s hard to read tigers, I know.”

“If you think their faces are hard to decipher, try their handwriting,” Aja put in. She was still looking through the newspaper, though Bracken suspected she was simply turning the pages over and over to pass the time.

“I don’t plan on reading any tiger literature in the near future,” said Bracken, who was still coming to terms with their walking, talking and wearing hats.

“If you did, I could help you,” said Blaise, going back to his measuring. “I invented a way to translate their language.”

“Not just theirs,” said Aja. “Don’t be so modest. He can translate anything,” she told Bracken. “He has long talks with beetles and lizards sometimes when we’re on the road.”

“I just wanted to see if I could,” Blaise muttered, then said to Bracken, “Tigers communicate by subtext. If you could hear all the things they can say with one ear and the tip of their tail, you’d be amazed. And probably live longer, too.” Their eyes met briefly and he reddened. “That is…in a general sense…”

Conversation stalled, trading places with anxious silence. Bracken had put the reason for Blaise and Aja’s extended visit out of his mind for a little while, but he couldn’t forget it completely. Shaz would return and there would be more bloodshed unless something could be worked out. Aja had hurt Shaz’s pride with a blast of repellent to the eyes, and Blaise’s formula, on which depended the emancipation of humankind in Xio, was still in Shaz’s possession. And Shaz was unlikely to chum up and hand it over.

As he took another order from another tiger, Bracken wondered if curling up in a cabinet would save him if it came to more shooting and mauling.

“It’s harder than it looks, isn’t it?” Said a man sitting at the counter, watching Bracken work.

Bracken had been in a hurry and, leaving the grinder running, had poured beans in the hopper without anything beneath the chute to catch the grounds. Now a layer of brown grit coated everything, including himself. “I don’t know how she does it all. Did it all…”

Bracken glanced at the man briefly. He didn’t remember seeing the man come in, although a few humans had ventured into the shop over the course of the afternoon. Bracken wasn’t surprised he couldn’t remember serving the man; it had been a hectic few hours, and he’d been more concerned about the tigers than the humans.

“Practice, and inherent perfectionism.” The man shrugged broad shoulders, fingering the cuffs of his collared red shirt. “The nice thing about such a complex activity as running a cafe is most people don’t know how it works either. They’ll believe you’re an expert at anything if you use enough jargon.”

Bracken mused on this as he brushed piles of coffee grounds onto the floor, where they mixed with the spilled milk that had by now been tracked all over the workspace. A seed of an idea was just starting to germinate when the front doors opened and an ambush of tigers swaggered in, with Shaz in his top hat leading the invasion.

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