Blaise backed away until he bumped the back counter. Aja dropped the paper and turned on her stool, one hand on the shotgun which she’d laid across the counter longways.
Bracken took a deep breath and pressed shaking hands down on top of the counter to steady himself. “Hello again. Shaz. How…ah…how are you today?” He tried his best to smile politely, despite his trembling lips.
Shaz stopped before Bracken and stared down at him. His whiskers twitched; the rest of his face remained frozen. “Who are you? Not that it matters. Jaz owes me a shipment of explosives and I’m taking this place as collateral until I get it.”
“I paid you with this.” Aja tapped the shotgun with a gloved finger. “Or did you need more?”
“Try it,” Shaz growled at her, ears flattening. “My associates and I will turn you into tiger meat.”
“Don’t you mean human meat?” Aja said with a mean grin.
Shaz froze for a moment, thinking this over. “…I mean what I said.”
Bracken jumped in before the retort building behind Aja’s lips could shoot out and start another massacre. “You can have The Defiant. You can take over right now. You can use a syphon brewer, right?”
Shaz looked at Bracken, then past him into the workspace, scanning the counters and shelves but not settling on any item in particular. “…yes. Obviously I can…use one of those.”
“Great. So, I’ll get out of your way and—”
“Excuse me,” a soft voice nuzzled into the conversation. The silver female tiger was standing at the counter beside Shaz. “Could I have another?” She pushed an empty mug toward Bracken, adding a purred, “Hello, Shaz.”
An answering purr erupted in Shaz’s chest automatically. “Sheila. It’s…good to see you.”
Bracken stared. Behind him, Blaise gawked, open-mouthed. In Sheila’s presence, Shaz’s temper dropped from blazing hot wrath to pleasant golden felicity.
Bracken seized the moment, and Sheila’s coffee mug. “Sure. How would you like it? Pourover? Press pot? Syphon? Espresso? Cortado? Pourtado?”
“Whatever I had last was good. Do you have any flavors?”
“We have vanilla, caramel, chocolate…” Bracken glanced at Shaz and continued, “…pomegranate, clorentine, cherry, fruit punch, lemonade, peppermint, spearmint, buttermint, melon, walnut, peanut, pistachio, almond, chocolate and….vanilla…bean.” Bracken watched Shaz at the edge of his vision. The tiger’s eyes seemed to glass over slightly. Bracken hoped it was due to the complexity of the improved syrup list rather than pure twitterpation.
“I’ll have vanilla, please,” purred Sheila.
“Coming up.” Bracken turned to Blaise, who was doing a fine impression of a lizard hiding under a rock, but without the rock.
Blaise gulped and held out his hand for the cup, but Bracken spun back to Shaz with a new inspiration. He felt under the counter for the the coffee manual, pulled it out and opened it to the most incoherent page of instructions he could find. It had drawings, formulas, a messy table of various numbers, and even several equations in the margins. He pushed the manual across the counter. “Here, you’ll need to memorize all this. If you need help with the translation let me know. Coffee language can be pretty tricky. It’s organic, really. Always evolving and changing. Next week it’ll probably be totally different.”
Blinking, Shaz took the notebook. It looked quite small in his paws. “Oh…yes. Right.”
Bracken turned back to Blaise, holding up the cup, eyebrows lifted. Blaise stared blankly for a moment, then the unspoken question registered. He pointed from his waist to the grinder where several small containers of premeasured beans waited. Bracken went over, took one and dumped the beans in the hopper. The grinder obligingly chewed the beans to the consistency of coarse salt. Bracken deposited this into a press pot, filled the pot with water and agitated the slurry with a long spoon while Blaise stood beside him, murmuring instructions from the corner of his mouth.
“I like his coat,” said Sheila, resting her elbows on the counter. “So blue.”
“Oh, yes,” said Shaz. “Me too. Very nice.”
“He oozes gentility from every whisker,” Bracken muttered to Blaise as they stood shoulder to shoulder facing the press pot.
“Must keep it in special reserve. Only to be used in emergencies, or to court female tigers,” Blaise murmured back.
When the brew was ready, Bracken filled the cup and passed it to Sheila, who thanked him and returned to her table.
Bracken returned to Shaz. “Any questions before I get out of your way, Shaz?”
“I don’t—” Shaz had prepared for a fight, but not willing surrender. Certainly not the surrender of an entire coffee shop, the running of which he’d just realized he knew nothing about.
His tiger posse shuffled and muttered behind him, beginning to feel disappointed at the lack of violence. Aja set her chin in her hand, also disappointed. Blaise stood in the background, cracking his knuckles nervously.
“The grinder can be tricky, right Blaise?” Bracken glanced back toward Blaise, then faced Shaz again. “If you turn it too many clicks the gears dislocate and the rotors will freeze up, but as long as you keep the sprockets oiled and the turners tuned and don’t use too many beans at one time you won’t have any problems.”
“Yes…look here—” Shaz began.
“And the espresso machine needs a tune-up,” Bracken continued quickly. “It can be dangerous so I suggest doing it after you close. Sometimes the bloom filter clogs the wand and then you have to shut the boiler down until it cools past eighty or it’ll explode.”
In the corner of his eye, Bracken saw the man in the red shirt chuckling behind his hand.
“Look, ah…” Shaz began.
“Name’s Bracken.” Bracken smiled politely.
“Bracken. Look. I own this place now, so you work for me. I have business to take care of elsewhere in town. You stay here and work. Got it?”
“Well…” Bracken hemmed, “I guess I could stay on.”
Shaz spun and pointed to a table by the window. “That’s my table. Don’t let anyone else sit there. I own this place.” He said it as if reinforcing the fact to himself.
“Sure. I’ll post a sign.” Bracken nodded.
Shaz nodded. His ears wobbled forward and back uncertainly, as a good thing was happening but he wasn’t sure how it had come about.
Shaz glanced around the room, his gaze lingering on Sheila, who was ogling Bracken’s coat.
Blaise edged forward and tugged on Bracken’s sleeve. “The formula. He still has the formula.”
“I bet he’d be willing to trade for it,” the man in the red shirt murmured, loud enough for them to hear.
Bracken shook his head. “I can’t…”
“For the sake of humanity, please!” Blaise hissed.
Shaz’s ears swiveled toward them, and he turned to face them.
“I’d like to propose a trade,” Bracken said, getting the words out with effort.
Shaz grunted. “Ehm?”
Bracken nodded toward Sheila. “Your, er, lady friend wants a jacket like mine. I could donate to your cause. You trade me for that recipe you’re holding onto—it’s still yours after all—and we all get what we want.”
Shaz mulled on this a while, absently touching the folded slip of paper in his hat band with one claw, letting the idea saturate his mind.
“It’s a good deal,” Bracken encouraged, his throat somewhat tight. “You give her what she wants, she’ll be yours for life.”
Shaz’s tail and ears went up, and he nodded. Bracken slipped off the coat with a faint sigh and handed it over. Shaz pushed the scrap of paper over the counter to Bracken, and went to Sheila’s table with his offering.
Bracken handed the paper to Blaise, who scanned the rumpled surface and looked back at Bracken, beaming. “This is it! Do you know what this piece of paper will do for us?”
Bracken shrugged, smiling faintly.
Blaise interpreted the gesture as modesty. “You’ve done a great thing, kid. Jaz would be proud of you.”
The praise was diminished in the wake of losing his aunt’s coat. Even though Blaise approved of his sacrifice, and Jaz would have approved of his completing her mission, Bracken had lost something of Sadie he could not recover.
Blaise patted his shoulder. “Hey, don’t worry. We’ll come back tomorrow and help out.”
“Thought we were getting out of town tonight,” said Aja. “Have to get back and water those petri dishes.”
“I have the formula. Home can wait a day or two,” Blaise reasoned, glancing briefly at the coffee manual. “At least we can help the kid find his feet.”
“I don’t think I’ll be here tomorrow,” Bracken said. “I just told Shaz I’d stay to keep him pacified for now.”
“Guess I don’t blame you,” Blaise said, after a moment. “It’s a shame though. People rely on this place. It’s a safe haven. With Shaz running things, us humans will likely have to find another place to relax and catch our breath.”
“Sorry,” said Bracken. “I’d stay if I could but I don’t really know anything about this place. I don’t belong here.”
“Where do you belong?”
The question caught Bracken off guard. “C—ah, I mean…”
Blaise watched him, unblinking.
Bracken stammered for what felt like minutes, but could think of nothing to say. His mind simply shut down. Dealing with tigers and death and more tigers had taken all of Bracken’s mental resources. He shrugged, apologetic, then sagged back against the counter, shaking his head.
“I…I just mean…I..don’t…It’s complicated…”
“Give the kid a break, Blaise. He’s tuckered, and I’m famished.” Aja dismounted her stool and picked up her shotgun, holding it barrel down at her side. “Let’s get some lunch.”
“But…just one second—”
“No more seconds. Tigers are gone, you got what you wanted. The only threat around here is me, if I don’t get some food in me right quick.”
“Fine… ” Blaise sighed. “We’ll be back later, Bracken.”
“Alright. Um. Thanks for your help.”
“Don’t mention it.” Aja touched the brim of her hat with a gloved finger and strode to the front doors.
Blaise lingered a moment, then followed her. At the doors he turned back suddenly and held up the paper, grinning. “And thanks for this!”
Bracken waved, waiting until they were gone and away before letting his smile fade. “…I’m definitely closing early tonight.”
A note about Aja — She is one of my oldest characters, and most consistent. I’ve been developing her character in a few different scenarios and side stories for a while. This is the first time she’s made a public appearance since I created her for a collab story, years ago. What do you think of her? Would you read a story that features her?
As always, thanks for reading!