26. A Company of Thieves

The man reached the counter and rested an elbow on it, leaning forward with a proud smile that Bracken thought was slightly familiar.

“Hi,” he proclaimed over the music. “We just robbed a bank.”

Jaz maintained her scowl. “Super.”

“Yes we did,” beamed the man, pointing at his comrades in turn. “Mose, Margo, the Jolly Pyro and yours truly.”

Jaz’s eyelids lowered in a very long blink. “Do we have to call you Yours Truly or is there an abbreviation?”

“The name is Sean, but you can call me whatever you like.” Sean directed his smile at her.

Jaz raised an eyebrow, as if contemplating her options. She did not smile back.

“Who is the Jolly Pyro?” Bracken asked.

Sean widened his grin and pointed back at Flowered Shirt who, still leaning on the hi-fi, lifted a bony hand in greeting.

“We call him J.P.” Sean faced Jaz again, leaning both hands on the counter and swelling his chest. If he were a rooster he would have been crowing, not that anyone would have been able to hear it over the music. “We won’t cause you any trouble, I promise. Just came to enjoy some good coffee.”

“We’re fresh out,” said Jaz, contemplating the inside of her coffee mug.

Bracken suddenly realized why Sean’s smile was familiar. He was the one in the photos with his arm around Jaz. Bracken quickly glanced at Jaz, but she remained as stoic as she had been with the Beetler. She gave no indication of knowing Sean, much less being as close as they had seemed in the photos.

Sean continued to smile, settling onto a barstool. He raised a hand and gestured over his shoulder. J.P. turned down the volume to background level. “And we’ll take four scones if you have them,” he continued. “We’re celebrating.”

Jaz rolled her eyes and began brewing coffee for five.

Bracken opened the pastry case and took out some blueberry scones. “Congratulations, I guess.”

“Thanks. Couldn’t have done it without my team.” Sean helped Mose and Margo mount stools on either side of him. They watched Bracken with identical stares, like two guard dogs heeled beside their master. Bracken half expected Sean to start scratching them behind the ears. J.P. came to the counter and sat beside Mose, setting the hi-fi on the counter top.

Sean produced several large bills from his pocket and slid them across the counter. “Thank you. We just need to lay low for a few hours until the hubub dies down at the bank and then get out of town.”

Bracken passed scones on plates to them. “You’re not worried they’ll come looking for you in here?”

Sean shook his head. “This isn’t in the vicinity. They’ll be checking hideouts of their enemies, none of whom live here. In about two hours someone else will stage a holdup and by tonight we’ll be old news. This kind of stuff keeps bank owners in business. Insurance payouts pay the bills.”

Jaz resumed leaning against the island while the coffee brewed, ignoring everyone. Bracken felt slightly sorry for Sean. Rudeness was was part of Jaz’s strange charm, but now it seemed she was just being mean for meanness’ sake.

“I didn’t know robbery was a career track,” said Bracken.

“Live here a few weeks and you’ll be doing it too, or something similar. Only jobs around here are crime or punishing it.” Sean nodded to Jaz. “Or, making coffee, of course.”

“What about anarchy?” Bracken asked, remembering Aton’s bank demolitions and thinking he and Sean might have come to some mutually beneficial arrangement if they knew each other.

“This town thrives on corruption. Anarchy is probably not too far around the corner, if certain kingpins go down,” Sean said. “Personally, I like banks. They’re a challenge, but predictable. I guess you could even say we work for them. They get back everything they lose and more from insurance.”

“So you’re kept entertained and well paid, and the banks don’t lose any money, so things don’t get too sticky for anyone,” said Bracken.

Jaz filled four mugs and passed them across in silence.

“It’s a living.” Sean gave the grin a rest, relaxing like a rooster settling own to enjoy his domain. “Personally, I don’t need all the fanfare stuff, but since we don’t wear costumes it’s necessary. Nobody takes you serious in Langston if you don’t stand out.” He tasted the coffee. “Ah. That’s the stuff.”

“Glad you approve,” Jaz said dryly, pouring the last of the coffee she’d made them into her own mug.

Sean jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “We’ve been going to Scarro’s, across the tracks. Their stuff tastes like wood.”

“I only make coffee that I’d drink,” Jaz said. “Wood is not my favorite flavor profile.”

Sean nodded. “Who roasts it?”

“I do. I call it Black Ivory. Full city minus. I’m trying it out.”

Bracken blinked. “Full city what?”

“It’s a roasting term,” Sean told him. He brought the cup beneath his nose and sniffed. “Nice nutty aroma.” He took a sip, more deliberate than the first. “Mild acidity. Roasted hazelnut…” Sip. “Creamy body.” Sip. Swallow. “Lingering spice in the finish. Well done.”

Jaz blinked at first, surprised. Then as he continued his assessment, she brightened, almost smiling. “Thank you.”

Now that she was acknowledging Sean as a sentient being, the atmosphere of the shop became considerably friendlier. Jaz mentioned something about her roast method, which Sean comprehended to her pleasant surprise. He praised the flavor profile, and Jaz actually smiled, brushing an escaped strand of hair behind her ear. Bracken watched, fascinated and somewhat confused. Confused, because Sean was definitely the man in the photo, yet Jaz didn’t seem to know him, and he seemed to be playing along. Fascinated, because this—coffee appreciation—seemed to be one of the few ways to win Jaz’s approval. Bracken wondered if his aunt had hit it off with Jaz through photos, as he had, or through coffee. Sadie had never talked coffee like this on her visits to his family, but the nuances of coffee were not something one could slap on the unschooled mind.

The coffee-centered courtship would have gone on, backed by quiet acoustic music straining through the hi-fi’s speaker—a lighted window on the side read ‘L’Appuntamento’—but it was interrupted by the midget Margo, who was watching the street. “We have incoming, boss.”

Jaz smirked. “Boss, huh.”

“Got an image to keep up.” Sean twisted toward the windows. A group of men in double-breasted suits and bowler hats were crossing the street, coming toward the shop.

Several carried automatic weapons at their sides.

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