17. Cafe Ghost

It was not hard to close early. In fact, the shop was empty by early evening. All of the human patrons left the cafe by late afternoon, intent on reaching their homes before dark. After flirting with Sheila for a while, Shaz took his posse to report to his boss Grayson, and the last remaining feline patrons left to find their evening meals—something Bracken did not dwell on as he locked the doors and flipped the hanging sign in the window beside them to ‘closed.’

Walking with rare purpose and determination, he crossed the cafe and went downstairs into Sadie’s room. Jaz’s body was still there on the cot, covered by the blanket, which was now spotted with blood. Bracken swallowed hard and looked away from her. He conducted a thorough search of the room, seeking clues to Sadie’s whereabouts. He searched underneath the cot, rummaged through dresser drawers, desk drawers, and even searched in the pockets of clothes on the rack. He found interesting trinkets, pens, bottles of colored ink, blank paper, and rolls of undeveloped film, but nothing to indicate where Sadie had gone after leaving The Defiant. He had thought for sure there would be an address, or name of a hotel in Homburg, or one of the nearby cities. But there was no such thing.

He moved on to Jaz’s room. He flipped through each of the daily binders on her desk, proceeding from Monday to Sunday. There were faces, names, newspaper clippings, calendars, columns of dates with short notations about important events in each binder—about five years’ worth of dates. Sadie was not mentioned in any of them. Bracken dropped the last binder on the floor, letting it fall as it would on top of the others, and then began searching the desk drawers. Nothing.

In the dresser, nothing.

Nothing of interest in the closet.

Nothing beneath the rug.

Aside from the bedroom where he’d found Sadie’s jacket, the papers with the sketches and scraps of her stories, and the notations in the coffee manual that he was pretty sure were in her handwriting, there was no physical evidence she had ever been in The Defiant at all, much less where she had gone from there. But she had traveled in The Defiant with Jaz. Jaz must have known where Sadie had gone.

After hours of searching, Bracken found himself standing in the doorway to his—Sadie’s–room, staring at Jaz’s body, resisting the pointless urge to shake her.

His father’s arguments with Sadie rose up in his mind. The voice filled his head, as if his father were speaking right beside him.

Why do you always run away? Your family is here, right here! Do we mean that little to you?

Bracken put his hands over his ears to shut out the echo of the memory and ran upstairs, into the now darkened shop. Night had fallen while he had been in the basement. He turned on the overhead lights and began searching the workspace. Maybe there was some clue to be found beneath the piles of paper and receipts beneath the register—

No.

Maybe on another shelf, behind the syrup bottles and condiments—

No.

Nothing. There was nothing. Sadie had just vanished.

Like she always does, said a small voice in the back of his mind.

“No! I can find her! I will find her!” Bracken shouted at the empty shop.

“Perhaps I can help?” A sudden voice spoke behind him.

Bracken jumped and spun around to face the man in the red shirt.

The man raised his hands in a non-threatening gesture. “I’m sorry to startle you—”

“Th…the shop is closed,” Bracken stammered, glancing at the doors to ensure he had indeed locked them.

“Yes, I know. I was sitting right there at the bar when you locked the doors.”

“But the—”

“Shop was empty. I know.” The man dropped his hands to his sides. “It happens a lot. People don’t usually notice me unless I want them to. Or unless they’re a passenger in The Defiant, of course, or have traveled in it before.”

Bracken backed further into the workspace as the man stepped toward him. “Who are you?”

“My name is Janus. I am also trapped here. I have been here nearly as long as Jaz, in fact.”

“She never mentioned you.”

“There’s a lot she doesn’t mention.”

Bracken had to agree with this. He studied the man, recognizing the gray-streaked black hair, the square shoulders, and spotless red collared shirt. One thing he hadn’t noticed before was the man’s eyes. They were quite…odd.

“You have seen me before,” Janus confirmed, nodding. “You just didn’t notice.”

He walked to the pourover station, stepping over syrup bottles and boxes of condiments Bracken had left on the floor during his frantic search. Brushing aside loose stacks of napkins, he began making himself coffee. He picked up a tin full of pre-ground coffee that Bracken had prepared earlier in the day and forgotten about, frowned slightly and opened a bag of whole beans.

Bracken swallowed. “You were here when…Jaz…died?”

Janus measured and ground the beans before answering. “Yes. Well, I was around. There was nothing I could have done, any more than you could have if you’d tried.” He glanced over at Bracken when he said this. His eyes were gray in color, textured like cut stone, rather than smooth and glasslike. But that was not the really strange thing about them. His cornea and pupils were square. In fact, they were a series of squares, which grew smaller and smaller toward the center, like a tunnel. They made Bracken feel off balance. He looked away. When he looked at Janus again, the man was taking a steaming kettle from a heating element.

“So, you’re looking for Sadie,” Janus mused, watching water stream from the kettle’s spout to the bed of coffee grounds in the vessel. When viewed from the side, his eyes were even more disconcerting. They were concave in the center. Instead of rounding outward like a normal human eye, they dipped inward. Bracken wondered if they were actual tunnels, going into the depths of the man’s head. The thought made his skin prickle.

“She’s my aunt.” Bracken couldn’t look at the man’s eyes anymore. He fixed his eyes on Janus’s chin instead.

“I know. She talked about you often.”
“You knew her?”

“Quite well. She lived with us for many years.”

“Do you know where she is now?”

Janus set the kettle down. “Not exactly. But that’s not the question you should be asking. What you should be asking is why.”

Bracken blinked. “Why?”

“Why did Sadie leave The Defiant. Why would she leave it? If you can answer that question, you’ll probably find the answer to the other.”

Bracken clenched the edge of the counter with both hands. “Please, if you know something, tell me.”

Janus tossed the filter and spent grounds in the wastebin and poured coffee into a cracked mug. “I can help you find your aunt, if you’ll help me with something.”

“What?” Bracken watched Janus sip from the mug, and realized after a moment that it was the same one Jaz had been drinking from that morning.

Janus leaned against the counter facing him. “I want what Jaz wants.”

“Wanted…”

“I want freedom. Help me get that and I will help you find the answer to your question.”

“How do I do that?”

“Start by translating of the Sassacus book in Jaz’s room. It will tell you what you need to know. And also, staying alive would help.” He took a sip of coffee. “Speaking of which, you really ought to study that manual. It’s a trove of information.”

Bracken hurried around the counter and retrieved the manual, shaking a layer of coffee grounds off of the cover. He was returning to his seat when the shop reset.

Chairs banged upside-down onto tables. Items jumped from the floor where Bracken had left them, back to their proper places. Only a few things, like Wednesday’s binder and the forgotten tin of coffee grounds, remained where they were. The bucket reappeared under the faucet, which suddenly was running again, and the dishwasher door fell open, emitting a cloud of steam. The countertops smoothed themselves, the gouges left by Shaz’s claws vanishing.

“Everything returns to its original position at midnight,” Janus reminded him. He was sitting at the counter now, cracked mug in hand. Bracken didn’t remember seeing him move to a stool. He was just…suddenly there.

“Oh, right.” Bracken shut off the faucet and then joined him at the counter. He opened the manual and found a list of coffees, written in the sophisticated, loopy handwriting:

DEFIANT COFFEES
Cinnamon Toast – Cinnamon, vanilla, butter, honey (light roast)
Eden (blueberry roast) – blueberry, floral, almond (light roast)
Sugar ’n’ Spice – cloves, pastry, baked apple (light roast)
Breakfast Blend – maple, roasted hazelnut, cherry (medium, but call it dark*)
Black Ivory – citrus, walnut, tobacco (medium)

*Most people, when requesting a dark roast, really mean ‘something that does not taste of dirt or cardboard but with a strong burst of smokiness akin to the taste of a charred log’. That, to them, means properly roasted beans. Jaz holds no such belief. She says she roasts for flavor, not for showcasing her ability to produce oily bits of charcoal.

But for customers expecting the ‘dark’ element, we have the benignly named Breakfast Blend, which has that coveted charcoal note, but stops short of obliterating the equally valid notes of maple, toasted hazelnut and cherry the beans have to offer. More discerning drinkers describe the taste of Jaz’s Breakfast Blend as ‘cherry preserves and maple syrup spread over burnt toast.’ Everyone else describes it as ‘pretty good.’

Bracken felt pretty sure he would not like whoever had written this. They sounded like one of his teachers back home, who was always trying to make herself seem important.

He turned to another page and found a note written by Sadie which was much more helpful:

– REMEMBER TO SHUT THE DISHWASHER!

– The paper cups in the cupboard will always fall out when you open the door, no matter how carefully you put them away. Just, don’t open that cupboard.

– That bottle of vanilla syrup that resets with the shop WILL displace anything you put in its spot, even cash or napkins, or another syrup bottle—which will explode if it’s displaced, and will cover the whole workspace in stickiness. You’ve been warned.

– There is a ‘vanilla’ glitch in The Defiant. Every customer, from any world, will always order vanilla. We don’t know why. I’ve even asked Janus about it and he doesn’t know. Jaz always gives customers three flavor choices, anyway. She says if she doesn’t, people get irritated for some reason, and they complain about it and demand she get more flavors, and it’s a huge waste of time. They seem to know this is happening, but they want to think they have choices, even if they can’t help always getting vanilla anyway.

Bracken was trying to absorb this, rubbing his temples with his fingers, when the basement door suddenly banged open and Jaz stomped out.

“What did you do to my room? It looks like a tornado went through it.”

Bracken looked up, startled. Then he gaped. Then he tried to stand, got tangled in the barstool and fell over backward. “Ja—aah!”

Jaz strode into the workspace and stared around her. She frowned and picked up the tin of coffee grounds that Janus had shunned, opened it, and frowned even more. “And what happened to these beans? They’re ruined!”

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