10. Don’t Blame Me

Jaz stood at the doors watching Aton go and chewing the inside of her cheek. Then she shifted her eyes toward Bracken.

He shuffled his feet under the table. “So…what just happened?”

Jaz marched over, white-faced, and grabbed the camera out of his hands. “What were you doing?”

“I just took a couple pictures…”

“He thinks you’re a corporate spy!” She lobbed the camera back at him.

He fumbled to catch it. “Hey, be careful—!”

“Do you know how hard it was to gain Aton’s trust? How much bloody espresso I’ve donated to his caffeine habit? How hard it was to get those stinking slugs for him?!”

Clutching the camera to his chest, Bracken ventured a guess. “…really hard?”

Jaz slapped both palms on the table and leaned toward him. “You just killed two goddamn months of planning!”

Two Jingans near them looked over, ceasing their conversations. Jaz straightened, breathing heavily through her nose.

“I’m sorry, Jaz.” Bracken stowed the camera safely in his backpack. “I didn’t realize it would spook him. He’s walking around in public, I thought—”

Mouth tight, Jaz turned and stalked back to her workspace. After a moment, Bracken followed. Jaz slumped over the condiment counter and banged her forehead down several times on the marble. Then she clenched her head in both hands and pulled at her hair, dry sobbing through clenched teeth. “Sucking milk burning son of a cakeater…”

Bracken stood in the gap between the tea counter and the wall, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

Jaz sighed deeply and lowered her hands from disheveled hair. “Should have locked him in the frothing basement. I should have.”

“Can’t we explain it was a misunderstanding?”

“I tried, but I can’t tell him who you are and he knew I was being evasive.”

“We can tell him the camera film got destroyed.”

“I don’t know when he’s coming back. Might be tomorrow, might be next month.” Jaz crossed to the grinder. She grabbed a thick paintbrush from a basket beneath the counter and began vigorously cleaning grounds from the chute. “There goes that brilliant plan.”

Bracken did some mental math and came to a sobering realization. “By next month, do you mean by our time? Or his?”

Jaz’s jaw tightened. She slapped at stray grounds on the counter, sweeping them onto the floor.

Bracken swallowed. If seven days in Pucheon were seven weeks in The Defiant, then thirty days equaled over six months… “Couldn’t Joli build her garden somewhere else?”

“Yeah, but I needed Aton’s explosives for tomorrow.” She threw the brush back into its basket.

“Explosives?”

“My reward for fixing them up and keeping quiet about it.” She shot a narrow look at Bracken.

“Oh…”

“Well that’s taken care of!” Joli’s voice on the other side of the counter made them both jump. Her head and shoulders rose into view as she mounted a stool, grinning.

Jaz’s return smile was her briefest yet. “You’re back…”

“Yep.” Joli was flushed, her cheeks and forehead purple. “We don’t have to worry about my father anymore. I took care of it.”

“Uh-huh. Um…”

“It was brilliant. I pretended to be waiting for a train, and we went for brunch, away from all the dust and noise. He started to tell me his plans for buying the property and putting up one of his horrible pie shops. I feigned interest, enough to keep him going on so much that he didn’t notice I slipped trowtov in his tea. By the time we finished our frittatas, he couldn’t remember ever drinking tea, much less his plans for extending his franchise onto our turf.” Joli chortled in her throat, like a purple chipmunk villain, rubbing her hands together.

Jaz stood very still, both hands clutching the edge of the counter. “How much did you give him?”

“All of it! I wasn’t taking any chances. He’ll take a few days to recover and by then we’ll have our deal all wrapped up!” Joli looked into Jaz’s graying face an ceased her hand-rubbing. “Of course, I have more at home. I’ll bring it for you tomorrow.”

Jaz’s knuckles turned white. “Tomorrow will be too late.”

“Too late for what?”

Jaz made a slight choking noise. “Never mind.”

Joli shifted on her stool and inquired about Aton.

“…he didn’t make it,” Jaz said after a moment.

Joli gaped. “What? Why not? Was he captured? Murdered?”

“No. He stopped in for a minute but couldn’t stay.”

“But…I can’t support this venture on my own. His finances are the key. And if my father talks to the Realtor and finds out I haven’t bought the property yet he’ll snap it up like the business thief he is.”

“Give me until tomorrow,” Jaz said after another pause. “I’ll get him back.”

Joli’s face returned to a more serene blue, and she nodded. “Call me the moment he comes in.”

“I will.”

Joli looked at Bracken and smiled consolingly. “Hope you recover those memories. I’ll bring more votwort tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Bracken murmured.

Joli took her leave. Bracken and Jaz retreated to the back counter where they stood side by side, leaning against it.

“And there goes my plan for Friday,” Jaz muttered, shaking her head. “Super.”

“How will you get ahold of Aton by tomorrow?” Bracken asked.

“Tomorrow for Pucheon is a week for me. I have some time to think about it.” Jaz turned and slumped facedown on the counter. “There goes that plan. Shaz is going to kill me when he finds out I don’t have the explosives.”

“Who’s Shaz?”

“I’ll tell you later.” She picked herself up and wandered over to the espresso machine.

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9. Clandestine Photography

Bracken pushed the mug of tea toward Jaz. “What does votwort do again?”

Jaz took it automatically, staring at the street through the windows.

“Jaz?”

She blinked and refocused on him, leaning close again. “Listen. I need your help with this. Aton will be here soon and I need to keep him here until Joli gets back.”

Bracken sighed. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just take orders for me.”

The two new customers, both female, approached the register. They wore hard hats and a light coating of concrete dust. One stared down at the little chalkboard menu beside the register and the other gazed into the pastry case.

“I need espresso,” said the first one in a voice like a tired squirrel, still looking past Bracken. “A latte. Four shots. What flavors do you have?”

Bracken tried not to stare at their eyes. “You mean syrups?”

“Yes.”

“We have…” Bracken consulted the coffee manual. “Vanilla, caramel, and chocolate.”

She lowered her eyes slowly to focus on him. The white stars shrank to pinpoints. “Do you have pomegranate?”

“Uh…” Bracken looked to Jaz, who pressed her lips together and shook her head. “No. Sorry.”

“Vanilla then, I suppose.” She paid and dragged herself to a stool to wait. Jaz began steaming milk.

Customers entered in small groups, and Bracken did his best to parrot their orders to Jaz. The language was confusing. Certain words had several meanings, and most drinks had variations that didn’t make much sense to Bracken. ‘Black coffee’ meant either coffee brewed in a brewing vessel or coffee extracted as espresso from the espresso machine. Some customers said coffee when they meant espresso, and some said espresso but meant anything else. A few customers who initially ordered espresso left with herbal tea. Bracken learned by trial (the drink he thought was being ordered) and error (the drink that Jaz had to make after the first drink was returned in dissatisfaction) that cappuccinos could be made hot but not cold, and that iced coffee could not be made hot again by adding hot water.

He was relieved when the last customers walked away with their orders and he had a moment to breathe. He opened the notebook to the middle and began to read what the various combinations of espresso, water or steamed milk were named, paying attention this time.

“Jaz,” he said after a few minutes, carrying the notebook over to where she stood at the espresso machine, “Whose handwriting is this? It looks familiar.”

She looked up from watching espresso drip into a shotglass, glanced at the page held out to her, and then at him with the same forehead-crinkled expression she’d given his coat earlier. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Bracken didn’t believe her. “Jaz, c’mon—”

At that moment, the doors opened and Jaz looked eagerly over the espresso machine to see who it was. “Oh.” She gave a little gasp and pressed her hands to her hips. “That’s Aton. Watch the register. I need to talk to him and make sure he stays until Joli gets back.”

Bracken looked at the person who had just entered. His jaw slackened. “That’s him?”

The person weaving through the scattered tables as as effeminate as Joli, though his hair was gathered at his neck in a neat tail and he wore short pants instead of a skirt, and black leather loafers.

“Yeah,” said Jaz. “Don’t make a scene.”

“He looks like a girl!”

“That’s the kind scene I’m talking about.” She lowered her voice as Aton secured the stool recently vacated by Joli.

He waved three fingers toward Jaz, requesting four shots in a voice that could have belonged to a grandfather chipmunk.

Jaz started the grinder.

Aton met Bracken’s stare with eyes identical to Joli’s. “Who’s this?”

“Oh…” Jaz looked up from tamping grounds in a portafilter. “My cousin, Bracken. He’s helping out today.”

“Are you sure he’s not a corporate spy?”

“I interrogated him thoroughly,” Jaz assured him.

“At gunpoint,” Bracken added.

Jaz set a white cappuccino cup half-full of espresso and a small glass of sparkling water before Aton, waving aside his money.

“For the tip jar then.” He pushed it toward her and took a sip of coffee. “Interesting. Nutty, yet floral…”

Jaz nodded. “I’m working on a backwoods theme for autumn.”

Bracken scoffed quietly.

“What?” Jaz set a fist on her hip and shot him a narrow look.

“Autumn-themed coffee. It’s…you know…”

“He’s not a very good employee, Jaz,” Aton observed.

Bracken shrugged. “I’m not really an employee. I’m just visiting.”

Aton leaned toward him, squinting. “From where?”

“Ah…” Bracken turned to Jaz, who looked like he’d just poured iced coffee over her head. “…home?”

“And home is?” Aton’s squint deepened.

“Bracken.” Jaz thrust the tip money at him. “Put this over there.”

She didn’t specify where ‘there’ was and Bracken didn’t ask. He took the money and slunk away, taking self and backpack to a table by the windows.

As he sat, his vision flickered.

The shop became a living room with a red armchair beside an open window. The scene through the window was half blue sky, half blooming flowers. It was the garden in his backyard at home—

Bracken blinked hard and rubbed his eyes. Customers sat at the tables nearby, sipping from coffee cups, talking, or staring out the windows. All of them were petite, blue Jingians…except for a tall human with gray-streaked black hair, who sat alone at a table, gazing out the windows.

Bracken nodded to himself. He was definitely in The Defiant—

The room flickered again and was replaced with another memory.

Two slippered feet rested on the coarse red and brown rug in front of the same red armchair. He lay on his stomach near those feet, his cheek pressed against the rug. A smaller, younger Kajaani lay on her back beside him. Her dark eyes reflected two spots of yellow lamplight, her hair spread in flat waves around her head, listening to the story being told to them.

“Once, there was a brown bird who loved to fly. She decided to leave home and fly to a new land she had never seen, beyond the great Snowy Mountains…”

He lifted his cheek, imprinted by the frayed rug fibers, and turned his head to look at his younger sister, Riva, who sat cross-legged against the couch with a potted purple plant corralled in her lap, brushing the umbrella-like leaves with her fingertips…

…Then a brief snapshot of a lazy, bright summer morning; sitting around the dining table; a knock at the front door; a scraping, scrambling race to be the first to answer it…

…He was sitting on his aunt’s warm lap, resting against her shoulder and watching her face as she looked out the window. She was telling him more about the king of tricksters, her voice and eyes unusually serious.

“Fae hides behind many masks. That’s why the bird didn’t recognize him at first. Once she did, of course, it was too late. She was already caught.”

“But she escapes in the end, right?” He asked in his high child’s voice.

Sadie stared thoughtfully out the window. But instead of answering, she looked down at him with a grin and said, “I almost forgot your presents. Go get your sisters…”

…He was looking at Kajaani’s forehead and ears sticking out around the boxy black camera as she pressed the viewfinder to her eye; she snapped the shutter as fast as she could at Bracken and Riva while they chased each other in circles around the rosemary bushes…

..He was lifted by Sadie into the umbrella-shaped leaves of a tall purple plant; pulling white pods loose with his own small hands, then standing in the shade munching the sugary pods with Kajaani; crunching granules between their molars and showing each other their purple-stained tongues…

…He was standing at the end of the driveway in a cold downpour, waiting and watching for Sadie to arrive; Kajaani’s arm settling around his shoulders, muttering angrily about Sadie’s unreliability; shadows obscuring the empty road; stars glimmering in a cool night sky and her arm still around him…

After that the memories seemed to lose power, fading back into their usual place in his mind’s eye and letting him become aware of where he was at present. A few more recent memories resurfaced, but a line had been drawn between the colorful memories before the driveway and the dull, ordinary ones after, when childhood ended and life ceased to be interesting.

Bracken blinked and looked around the cafe.

Effeminate Jingians were still scattered around the spacious cafe, seated at tables with cups, books or newspapers. The tall human was gone. A few patrons stared blankly out the windows: the dust outside had thinned, diminishing into a dirty haze through which policemen, firemen and other concerned citizens could be seen hurrying around, inspecting the damage.

A smile slowly grew on Bracken’s face. Unzipping his backpack, he retrieved the camera and snapped a few pictures of the demolished bank across the plaza, some of the other customers, and then a couple of Jaz and Aton talking across the counter. Aton glanced Bracken’s way as the shutter clicked.

In another moment, as Bracken lowered the camera, Aton was off his stool and halfway to the doors. Jaz followed after, delayed by having to come around the counter. “He’s no one, Aton, I promise.”

“He’s most likely been bribed. I know when I’m being stalled.”

“Jolie is going to be here any minute, she’s just running late.”

“If she still wants to make a deal she can meet me here at a time of my choosing. And please tell her to abandon any attempt at clandestine photography in the future. If my picture ends up in the paper it’ll be impossible to get anything done.”

And then Aton was gone, his head bobbing just above table height outside the windows as he walked quickly to the corner and out of sight.

8. Memory Tea

After a few minutes, Bracken emerged from the basement ‘clothed’ in a muted green shirt and reddish pants, cotton in texture. He had also taken the blue coat from the clothing rack in his room and donned that. After he reshaped his proportions slightly smaller, it fit rather well. He walked into the workspace on shoe-shaped feet and stood beside Jaz, who was preparing a pourover vessel for brewing. When she glanced up he gestured at himself with a snarky grin.

She pointed at her own eyes, then at his which were still wholly black.

“Oh.” He concentrated briefly. Whites appeared around the edges of his eyes, then dark brown irises around black pupils.

“That’s great. Thanks.” She meditated on the coat a moment, forehead crinkling. “You look like…some kind of art deco portrait.”

Bracken was sure she’d been about to say something else, but she turned away and started the coffee grinder before he could ask her about it, or what art deco was.

A star-eyed, cerulean female swaggered into the shop, a white grin splitting her lower face. She wore a bright green blazer and matching skirt, and a gold watch chain made a curved line from a buttonhole to a small pocket at her waist. Her black ankle boots tapped smartly on the floor and her leather purse swung jauntily from one hand.

“Well,” she said brightly as the grinder’s ecstatic scream ended. “Well, well, well, eh?”

Jaz dumped the grounds into a waiting cone filter. “I told you he’d do it.”

“Did he ever,” Joli chortled. She climbed onto a stool across from where Jaz was pouring, hooking her heels over the crossbar. “I’d like to give him a medal. Between the bank managers scrambling to reassure the account holders, the employees tied in knots about the future of their careers, and all the trains delayed, the city doesn’t know what to do with itself.”

Jaz poured water over the grounds until they were well saturated. Chocolate-colored liquid dripped from the cone and smeared the bottom of the clear vessel. “He’s dropping in later. You can shake his hand.”

“I will.” Brimming with goodwill toward all, Joli turned her grin on Bracken, who was pressing a fist to his mouth to suppress his laughter. “Hello. You must be another relative of Jaz’s.”

“Another relative?” Bracken lowered his fist and glanced at Jaz, who was watching the water level in the cone go down.

“I don’t know what else you’d be. Not many humans in this part of the country.”

“Oh,” said Bracken, “Right, sure. So you knew about the bombing too?”

“Jaz notified me.” Joli beamed at her again, swiveling on her stool like a searchlight.

“Right.” Bracken nodded. “And why is this guy…”

“Aton Vidersnak,” Joli supplied with reverence.

“Why is he blowing up banks?”

“So I can build my garden.” Joli turned up the volume again, her voice reaching the highest register yet. Bracken winced; Jaz just nodded and poured.

“Anyway, that’s what it will come to once he hears my proposal,” Joli continued. “I don’t know what attracted him to this particular bank. Possibly the location, but then again possibly nothing besides its existence. You can never tell with anarchists. When I heard about his scheme I was simply thrilled.”

“Thrilled,” Bracken said, wincing, “About a bombing.”

Joli waved a small hand. “The bank was empty, of course. I had been telling Jaz what I wanted to use the space for, and she set me up with Aton, and now here we are.”

“Aton is a regular here,” Jaz said. “I just suggested they talk.”

“The wonderful thing is that my father is looking for a place to build one of his horrid cafes,” Joli chuckled, “and when he finds out he missed this prime location he’ll simply weep.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” Bracken said, taken aback. Morphas never openly rejoiced in misfortune, deserved or not.

“Of course it is,” said Joli. “He hasn’t missed a business opportunity like this since I was seven years old. Some misfortune would do him good.”

Bracken leaned to Jaz. “Isn’t she a little young for all this subterfuge?”

Jaz made a derogatory noise in her throat. “They’re not as young as they look.”

Joli heard this and drew herself up, gaining nearly a half-inch. “How old do you think I am?”

“Uh…” Bracken thought she looked about twelve, but he tried to guess high. “Fifteen?”

Joli’s cheeks took on a bruised look as she blushed, smiling. “Fifteen was a long time ago. I’m so flattered.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sixteen,” Bracken said.

“He’s adorable, Jaz.”

“Take him with you,” Jaz said.

“So you want to plant a garden in the middle of…what town is this again?” Bracken asked.

Joli blinked. “You must be from the sticks, not to know Pucheon.”

“I live pretty far away,” he agreed.

“Where?”

He tried to say ‘Cavicea’ but could not push a sound out past the first letter. “C—c—c—c—”

Jaz set down the kettle and watched him, openly amused.

He tried again, only managing to stutter and click like a typewriter.

“What’s wrong with him?” Joli asked Jaz, keeping her eyes on Bracken.

“He fell,” Jaz answered smoothly. “On his head.”

Joli tskd sympathetically.

“His brain might be damaged. It’s too early to tell. If he talks nonsense just ignore him. I’m just looking out for him until his family can find him and take him home,” Jaz said.

“No,” said Bracken, trying to correct Jaz’s story, “I’m tr-t-t—” He couldn’t say ‘trapped’. He tried a few other sentences. He tried saying he didn’t belong to this world, that Jaz had pulled him into another dimension or whatever she had called it, and that he wanted to go back home immediately. “I don’t b-b— She—she-t-t— I want to go—I-I-I-AHH!” He pointed desperately at the windows. “That’s not Main street and everything is wrong!”

Some nearby customers looked over, their star-eyes staring.

Joli shook her head sadly. “Poor thing.”

“Poor me,” said Jaz, “I’m stuck with him.”

Bracken clenched both fits and turned on her. “Jaz! What happened?”

“He has some memory loss too,” Jaz continued, blandly absorbing his look and passing a full coffee mug to Joli.

“Memory loss,” Joli echoed with sympathy, as if hearing the story of an abused kitten. Her smile reappeared abruptly. “Lucky you, I have votwort stashed nearby.” She jumped down from the stool hurried away across the shop, leaving Bracken stuttering a protest. The table of onlookers went back to their conversation.

Jaz took his arm and pulled him close. “You can’t talk about the Defiant to these people. They don’t know.”

“What, I can’t say I’ve been kidnapped into another dimension?” He could say it alright now, when no one was listening.

“Who we are. What this is. You can’t say it. But I guess you figured that out.”

Bracken pushed his face closer to hers. “What are you doing to me? Why are you doing this?”

“I’m not doing anything. I told you, I’m trapped here too.”

Bracken wasn’t sure he believed her. She had been so amusedly watching him stutter and panic a moment ago. But then, last night she had said she was also trapped, and she seemed somewhat relieved to say it. In fact, she’d called The Defiant purgatory, but Bracken hoped that was an exaggeration.

“This should be enough for a cupful,” Joli’s siren-like voice was heard before she was seen climbing back onto the stool. “It’s not much but it should bring something back for you.” She produced a long, clear tube topped with a cork that contained several crimson, fernlike leaves floating in vermilion liquid.

Jaz procured an empty mug and Joli uncorked the tube, pouring the liquid into the mug.

“Joli is a horticulturist. She works with plants,” Jaz explained to Bracken. “She’s the best in the country.”

Joli smiled. “Oh, now…”

“She supplies me with sweet herbs and spices for specialty drinks. Mint, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, ginger—”

“Actually, ginger is a root.” Joli pushed the mug toward Bracken, stretching her short arm as far as it would go across the countertop. “Drink this.”

Bracken stepped back. “Oh, I don’t—”

“Drink,” said Jaz, like a mother enforcing manners on an unruly child.

Bracken sipped and tasted hot peppers. His tongue burned though the liquid was cool. Rather than spit the brew over the counter, he swallowed quickly. The tincture seared his throat as it went down.

“I have trowtov for you, Jaz,” Joli said, dropping the empty tube in her purse.

“Don’t get them mixed up,” said Jaz. “I need the anti-memory stuff.” Her gaze went past Joli’s shoulder, habitually checking for new customers. “Uh-oh. Joli, your father…”

Joli spun to look and gave a little shriek, like helium escaping a balloon. Bracken stifled another giggle, his eyes watering from the strain and from the spicy tea.

“He’s already scoping out the property. I’d bet on it. He’ll do almost anything to get a space on the plaza for one of his horrid pie shops.” She twisted back to Jaz. “You didn’t mention to him I was coming here, did you?”

“Of course not!” Jaz looked offended. “I only order from his bakery, and I don’t even talk to him directly. I want you and Aton to make your deal. I wouldn’t sabotage that.”

Bracken tried to follow their looks to spot the father, but he was hidden among groups of females clustered on the sidewalk.

“Aton can be fickle. If he sees a business mogul like your father hanging around he may split. Or start a fight. You never know with him. You need to get rid of him before Aton shows up,” urged Jaz.

“I know.” Joli gathered her purse and hopped off the stool. Bracken and Jaz had to lean over the counter to see her. Joli waved and hurried to the doors, heels tapping double-time. She squeezed out past two customers coming in, muttering a scant apology as she passed.

7. Welcome to Pucheon (Please Wear Pants)

“What happened?” Bracken emerged from the basement into the cafe, backpack hurriedly slung over one bare shoulder, blinking sleepy eyes at the grit swirling against the windows. He was used to seeing Main street stretching to the edge of town, lined by two-story buildings. Instead, there was a brick plaza surrounded by the bases of much taller buildings, one of them recently collapsed into rubble.

“Anarchist attack,” Jaz reported, settling casually against the wall and lifting the half-empty box of cobbler with her non-mug hand. “Aton Vidersnak just blew up a bank.”

“Oh. And…where are we?” He felt sluggish and disoriented, like someone jolted awake on a train to find they’d arrived earlier than expected. Questions about Sadie evacuated his mind, replaced with new questions about the world he was now in.

“Tuesday. Pucheon,” Jaz answered, eying him with a smirk. “Nice outfit.”

Bracken glanced down at himself. In his hometown it was common to ‘block,’ with large areas of the body covered in contrasting colors and textures. Bracken’s version of blocking was to divide his upper and lower hemispheres into dark and light earth tones, sometimes throwing in aqua if he felt festive. Currently, his arms and torso were his natural, gray-blue skin tone while his hips and legs were dark brown. He looked like a boy wearing only his pajama bottoms, which he more or less was.

Bracken shrugged and made his way to the nearest stool. “Get a lot of bombings in Pucheon?”

Jaz shrugged. She hopped off the counter and dropped the box of cobbler on the counter in front of him. “I have to open the shop in a minute. You should go back downstairs.”

“Why?”

“Things are going to get weird.”

“Weird? How?”

Jaz sighed impatiently. “They just will. I don’t have time to explain.”

“Is there going to be another attack?”

“That’s the only one, as far as I know.”

Bracken raised his eyebrows. “As far as you know?”

Jaz became irritated. “I said I don’t have time to explain. Just, go downstairs for now. It’ll be…better.”

Bracken reached over the counter and picked up a fork from a basket of spare cutlery. “Is that what you tell everyone who gets trapped here?”

“No, I put them to work,” she snapped.

Bracken helped himself to some cobbler from the box. “I can work.”

Jaz glanced at the clock above the doors, shaking her head.

“By the way,” Bracken said after swallowing, “who stayed in that room last? I found some clothes and drawings…”

Jaz froze for a moment, a strange muddle of emotions crossing her face. Bracken took another bite and smiled innocently, his cheeks bunching.

Jaz spun on her heels and went to the register. Reaching beneath the counter, she retrieved a stained, battered notebook and tossed it at him. Bracken caught it just before it slid into his lap and thumbed it open, adding a smear of peach to the coffee stains on the first page.

“S-this?” He asked around a mouthful of cobbler.

“It’s notes on how to make coffee. You’ll want to keep it on you while you’re working.” Jaz opened the cash drawer as she talked, needlessly counting the bills.

Bracken skimmed the notebook while he ate. The first several pages were handwritten in black, sketchy cursive and made no sense to him (24 oz, 48 g. Add 720 g water. 96 C. #7 gr? Spro dissolved solids 1:2 ratio?), while the pages toward the middle were neatly written in pink and blue: instructions and notes surrounding diagrams of brewing vessels and other coffee implements.

Some pages seemed to be collections of miscellaneous notes. The first few were written in neat, loopy cursive:

Even though a certain coffee contains the same flavors, your palate will interpret them differently at varying strengths.

——

If Pucheon’s citizens do one thing well, it’s commenting on current events. With the exception of emergency workers and bank shareholders, Pucheon’s citizens love individuals like Aton Vidersnak who, every time a building goes up, will knock a few down in the name of chaos. Without these destructive types, life would perpetually be Business as Usual, and there are only so many topics to cover when nothing goes wrong. Train schedules, childbearing, expense reports, the boss’s incompetence and the overpricedness of coffee can only carry a conversation along so far before it expires into silence, forcing one to return to the work they had hoped to postpone.

The style and penmanship varied from page to page, sometimes a page long, others just an abrupt sentence or two:

The concept of alternates isn’t relevant to Jaz except to note that they exist and she happens to not have one.

——

The deck outside is a landing pad. You get hourly rushes and everything must happen fast.

These ones didn’t make much sense. Further back in the notebook, the notes gained headings that seemed to have nothing to do with coffee, like ‘Ninjas’ and ‘Tigers’. Some were written in a different language. Bracken flipped back to the middle pages, which at least had friendly illustrations. He lingered over a page titled ‘Brewing Methods’. A small headache quickly formed between his eyes.

Jaz took his sudden quiet as nervous shock. “Just do your best. I don’t expect you to learn everything in a week.”

“Okay.” Bracken closed the notebook, deciding to come back to it later.

“And while we’re at it, come learn the register,” said Jaz. “You’ll take orders and I’ll make the drinks.”

Bracken carried the notebook to the cash register. It was an old machine with wood sides and rows of gold buttons standing across its wide face. Jaz tapped a button at the bottom of the right corner and a drawer sprang open under the counter. Bracken picked up a stack of bills from the tray. “What kind of money is this?”

“Jingian currency. It’s not complicated. The bills on the right are highest, lowest on the left. Coins are in dimensions of marks and half marks. They mostly use paper here. I keep the prices as simple as possible because counting change wastes time. And we don’t take any denominations larger than 25.”

Bracken set the stack of bills back in its slot. “So does every day…place…have its own currency?”

“Yeah.” Jaz shut the drawer and ripped away the receipt that rose up from a thin slot near the top of the register, crumpled it and tossed it into a small trash can at their feet. “I keep a cash tray for each day and stick it in after midnight.”

“Why after midnight?”

“That’s when the shop resets.” Jaz glanced again at the clock above the front doors. “You don’t need to think about that right now. The important thing is that you learn the menu so you can seem like you know something when you’re taking orders. Customers are canny. They can sense ignorance and they’ll get squirrely if you don’t know what you’re about.”

Bracken smirked. “Squirrely?”

Jaz leaned against the counter and looked past him to the worn notebook he’d already forgotten about. “Keep that handy as well. It has just about everything you need to know. Most questions can be answered with it. If you get something that’s over your head, refer it to me.”

“Reference notebook and refer hard questions to you. Right. And what do we do about that building that just exploded?”

Jaz shrugged. “Pour the coffee. That’s all we do.”

“You don’t think the city will shut down or anything?”

“No city shuts down completely. The emergency workers running around out there now will need a caffeine break eventually. They’ll want somewhere to rest and recharge. The spectators will want to come inside and gawk more comfortably. Trust me, we’ll stay busy enough.”

“You sound like you’ve been through this before.”

“Wait until you see what’s coming on Friday. This is small beans compared to some of the stunts they pull in Langston.” Jaz crossed the room to the doors, unlocked them and flipped a laminate sign hanging on the right-hand door to ‘open.’ “Now, grow some pants. You look like an advertisement for spandex.”

“Spandex?” Bracken smirked, watching her.

“It’s something humans wear as clothing.”

“I know what clothing is…” Bracken’s voice thinned as two short, blue-skinned females wearing wool skirts and blazers materialized from the fog and entered the shop. Both had straight black hair to their shoulders, combed smartly back from their blue foreheads and powdered with gray dust.

“…they should have known he’d do it while the committees argued about fumigation bids,” one was saying.

The second coughed lightly. “The trains will be delayed. I’ll have to reschedule my lunch meeting.”

“Forming a committee about the cheapest way to get rid of slugs. I mean, really. They were just asking for it.”

Their voices were unusually high, like a record played at double speed. They clipped up to the counter, which was level with their foreheads.

Bracken giggled, and they both looked sharply up at him. Glowing stars shone in the center of their black irises. Bracken’s giggle snagged in his throat, changing to a surprised gurgle. The Jingians likewise took Bracken in, mouths limp and eyes staring.

Biting the inside of her cheek, Jaz snagged Bracken’s elbow and hurried to the basement door, dragging him along. “I’ll be with you in a moment,” she told the Jingians over her shoulder, opening the door and pulling Bracken through. She held it open a few inches to let light fall in across their faces.

“It’s like Blue Day out there,” Bracken said as they faced each other on the top step. “Did you see their eyes?” His own dark eyes stared glassily above his smirking mouth.

“It’s not Blue Day, it’s Tuesday and you have to wear clothes,” she said in a low, steely voice.

“They have stars in their eyes! Glowing stars!” Bracken’s smirk stretched into a grin. “With six points! I don’t think I could even do that!” He started to try.

Jaz gripped his shoulders. “Focus, kid. Pants. Shirt. Shoes. Don’t scare my customers away. There’s a lot happening today, if you didn’t notice.”

The white stars forming in Bracken’s eyes faded and he straightened his smirk. “Did you help blow up the bank?”

“No. Well. Only a little.”

“Why are you blowing up banks? Your shop could have been demolished if something went wrong.”

“No it wouldn’t. Now listen—”

“How could you help blow up a building if you can’t leave this one?”

“Well…there are these slugs in Langston—Friday. They thrive in dark quiet places like air ducts and they smell really bad. I got some to Aton and he used them to clear the building, then he just went in and did his stuff while the bank managers formed committees to haggle with pest control companies about fumigation. This city and its committees. Anyway—”

“You’re a smuggler. An inter-dimensional slug smuggler.” Bracken looked at Jaz with new respect. “That’s kind of amazing.”

“It’s not a side business or anything. I sometimes get people things they need by unusual means. It’s necessary to my own plans. Now—”

“You have plans?” Bracken folded his arms, narrowing his eyes shrewdly. “Are you plotting to rule the universe?”

Jaz shook her head. “No, just escape this purgatory at some point. Now listen. You need to make yourself look human so you don’t cause a panic.”

“Why do I have to look like a human? I want to try looking like the blue people.”

“After they just saw me drag you in here looking like you do? They’d never buy it. And you couldn’t behave like them anyway. You know nothing about their ways. Now—I’m going back out there. If you come out looking like anything other than a human wearing anything less than pants, shirt and shoes I’ll lock you in your room until closing time.”

“Fine,” Bracken conceded, figuring he could try out the star-eyed look later. “I can texturize.”

“Do linen or something. Right now you look like you’re wearing spandex pajamas. It’s disturbing.”

“Spandex is clothing,” Bracken quipped as Jaz stepped out.

“Only on Fridays,” she said over her shoulder.

 

6. Plan ‘A’

Bracken returned to his room and sat on the bed. For a long time he stared ahead at a rack of old clothes against the wall, occasionally sipping his tea. The room wavered in and out of focus, as thoughts raced through his mind. In his search for his missing aunt, an inter-dimensional coffee shop was certainly not what he’d expected to find. His emotions raced with his thoughts; fear and anger at the idea of being trapped here, when he could be in Homburg tracking down his lost relative; wonder and incredulity that he had been transported along with the shop to another world, if Jaz were to be believed.

Every so often his thoughts and emotions took a break from racing, allowing the room to come back into focus. Bracken found he was staring at the clothing rack, and at one blue jacket in particular. It had a wide collar and a patch of a brown bird sewn on the sleeve.

With a sudden realization, he stood and crossed to the rack, still holding the teacup in one hand. With the other hand he lifted the coat from the rack and held it up. A numb, breathless sensation came over him. The mingled scent of maple and coffee coalesced with the texture of the jacket between his fingers. A memory surged forward: sitting on Sadie’s lap, his cheek pressed against the wide lapel of her jacket, listening to her tell a story.

Bracken backed up until his calves bumped the edge of the bed, and sat down heavily, clenching the jacket in a tightening fist. The dust everywhere, and the stale air of the room told him Sadie hadn’t been here for a long time, but that wasn’t important right now. She had been here. How fortunate that Kajaani had showed up and caused him to seek refuge in the basement. Bracken felt a surge of affection and gratitude toward his older sibling. And Jaz! He’d never suspected that the barista who bought photos from him had also known his aunt.

He fell asleep wrapped in the jacket, compiling a list of questions to confront Jaz with in the morning.

***

Jaz woke grudgingly at 4 am, wincing at the desk lamp she’d left on. She scowled at it, blinking, then at the weekday calendar tacked at eye level on the side of the desk. Beneath Tuesday was written ‘Pucheon,’ in permanent marker. Below that in erasable marker was scribbled ‘Aton, bank. Jolie, trowtov.’ She relaxed the scowl and rolled out of bed. She retrieved a black vest from the floor and put it on over the mauve shirt she was already wearing. Black lace-up boots and blue jeans were also already on her, the same clothes she had been wearing since the beginning.

She went to the door, then had a thought and picked up the thin, white, hardback book that she’d brought downstairs the night before and left on top of the pile on her desk. She stared at it musingly for a moment, then tucked it under her mattress. Then she went out, locking the door behind her.

Glancing to her right, she saw no light coming from under Bracken’s door. She stood for a moment, debating whether she ought to wake him and explain as much as possible before the day began, or just lock him in his room until next Monday. She wasn’t good at explanations, and anyway, there wasn’t time. Hopefully, the shock of finding himself in another world would keep him quiet and out of her hair.

Turning left, she climbed the stairs and stepped into the darkened, sleeping shop.

Orange night lights mellowed here and there, splashing the counter and espresso machine with subdued color. Jaz turned up some white lights above the bar and the workspace brightened around her. It was a six-sided corral of counters and shelves, each counter being its own prep station. The longest counter facing the front of the shop had the espresso machine, grinders, register and a pastry case. To the left of the espresso counter was the drip coffee counter with pourovers, presses and siphons. To the left of that was the tea counter with its own kettles and clear glass teapots on the shelves underneath. Two counters to the far right were empty, and customers usually occupied the stools along both, though the other counters were lined with stools as well except in front of the register. One more counter along the back wall had extra condiments and brown bags of coffee beans. In the middle of the corral was a rectangular island with a small but mighty dishwasher beneath a ceramic sink.

In a routine that was part personal and part opening for business, Jaz left the mug beside the sink, nudged the trash bin into its crevice between two cabinets, turned on the faucet and shoved a kettle under the cold stream with one hand. When the kettle was full she set it on a heating element at the pourover station.

Five minutes later, with a cracked coffee mug filled with The Defiant’s signature Breakfast Blend roast beside her and a box of peach cobbler on her lap, Jaz sat on the condiment counter with her back against the wall, heels up on the adjoining counter.

Dawn’s purplish light grew steadily brighter, lightening the brick plaza outside. The plaza was situated in the business district of Pucheon. Five buildings surrounded it, facing each other: The Defiant, the city bank which was currently closed due to an unfortunate smelly slug infestation, a tall office building housing the law firm of Tingle, Shicktin and Vool, a train station, and a small second-hand shop that limped along, refusing to be converted into something more suited to a growing, self-conscious city. At this hour, no one stirred in the other buildings, and the brickwork plaza was empty of pedestrians.

Jaz forked pensive mouthfuls of cobbler, watching the bank across the plaza.

At three minutes to six, she leaned over to a small radio and clicked it on. Peaceful flute and xylophone flowed from speakers affixed to the walls.

At two minutes past six, the bank rumbled, shuddered and crumbled inward like a deflating souffle. Gray waves of dust rolled across the bricks. Bits of shrapnel plinked against The Defiant’s window panes, none large enough to cause any damage.

Sirens added whining, discordant notes to the flute and xylophone music as emergency vehicles sped toward the spreading dust cloud that choked the plaza.

Jaz refilled her coffee.

5. Now Leaving Monday

A series of vibrating notes shot through the room, waking Bracken.

—Twung-twung-twung-TWANG-TWANG-doom-dumm-toom—

He jumped to his feet. Light shone around the edges of the door, and a shadow moved across the gap underneath. Bracken’s breath stopped.

The base notes grew into a rousing song, coming from the room beside him. Steel guitar twanged, the sound shooting through his head like tiny rockets.

Blinking and still unsteady from being so recently asleep, he grabbed his backpack and hurried out the door. At the same time, Jaz stepped out of the door beside his, holding a shotgun. She saw Bracken and lurched, raising the gun. He raised his hand, not immediately registering what was in hers.

“Hey. I fell asl—”

Jaz let out a strangled yell. The shotgun boomed.

Bracken shrieked and dropped to a crouch, then threw his backpack up at Jaz’s head. She staggered aside, and he scrambled past, galloping up the stairs. He burst into the shop, mind blank, ears ringing. The cafe was dark, empty. Some chairs were stacked on the tables. Somewhere in the background, water was running.

Bracken sprinted around the tables, hit the doors and streaked into the night.

His feet tangled in something soft and he fell forward, skidding to a stop on a woven rug. He was now in a small, brightly lit room. Steel guitar and bass pounded around him.

—Boom-bum-boom-bum-toom-bum-bum-bum—

He struggled to his feet and spun in a circle, seeing walls covered in photographs, a large painting, a desk, a phonograph, a bed—and a door.

Bracken sprang for it and threw it open.

He was back in the basement.

Jaz stood in front of him, one hand raised to the doorknob.

They blinked, stiffened and yelled in sync.

“Fates!”

“Aagh!”

Bracken shoved past her and streaked up the stairs again, this time knocking over chairs and jumping over tables between himself and the front doors. He hurled himself into the dark—

And smacked into a wall. He fell back, dazed, then pushed himself up, blinking hard. Red spots flecked his vision. He was back in same the little room, with the now-rumpled rug. He gasped heavily and twisted toward the door.

Jaz stood in the doorway, framed by the overhead lights, her blue hair almost standing on end around her flushed face. She grimaced violently and stamped her foot. “Oh, you are kidding me!”

“What is happening?!” Bracken shouted back. “Why can’t I leave?”

“What—” Jaz pressed her lips together and held up her forefinger. Pushing past Bracken, she went to the phonograph and took the needle off the record.

…I know I can’t be free
but those people keep a’ movin’
And that’s what tortur—

“What is happening?” Bracken asked again, his voice cracking and ears ringing. Then, seeing the shotgun still in her hand, he bristled. “You shot at me!”

“You jumped out at me while I was holding a gun,” Jaz snapped. “What did you think would happen?”

“I didn’t think you’d try to kill me!”

She rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t going to kill you. It’s loaded with blanks anyway.”

“Blanks?” Bracken blinked. “What do you even have a shotgun for?”

“Security reasons.” Jaz closed her eyes and breathed deeply before turning back to face him. “Why are you still here?”

“I was waiting for Kajaani to leave.”

Her jaw sagged. “In the basement?”

“I–yes?”

Jaz hauled her jaw back up and pointed at the stairs. “There’s a sign! Employee only!”

“I didn’t mean to stay so long! I was tired and fell asleep.”

Jaz threw the gun onto her bed and folded her arms. “Sure. You happened to find your way into her room and conveniently fall asleep until after midnight.”

“…what?”

“You didn’t even mention—” She spun away and yelled at the ceiling. “You could have said something, you know!”

“I told you about Kajaani when you asked!”

She snapped back around. “I’m not talking about Kajaani!”

“Look, I’m sorry! I just needed a place to stay…”

Jaz breathed in sharply, then closed her mouth and pivoted toward the stairs.

Bracken followed. She went behind the bar and he stood just outside it, watching her. The sound of water he’d heard earlier was from the the faucet at the sink. It gushed into a nearly full bucket beneath it. Jaz stuck a silver kettle under the stream. While it filled, she unloaded the dishwasher with her other hand. When the kettle was full she set it on a heating element, shut off the faucet and put the rest of the dishes away. While the kettle rumbled, getting on to boil, she set the bucket in a space beneath the sink.

A steaming pitcher of milk sat in front of the espresso machine. She emptied it in the sink, rinsed the pitcher and set it with its mates on a shelf below the machine. She glanced at Bracken, rubbing her hand distractedly through her hair, and wandered over to a counter lined with tins of tea. She pulled a clear teapot from a lower shelf and measured leaves into it, muttering softly.

Bracken watched her, trying to ignore the tremble in his legs.

“I haven’t had to explain this for a while,” she said pensively, shaking the leaves in the bottom of the pot.

Bracken sat on the nearest stool before his legs could give out altogether. “Did you make that loopy thing happen?” He gestured in a circle with his hand.

Jaz chuckled briefly. “No. That’s the shop. It does that when it resets.” She saw his mouth form a question and added, “Moves to another world.”

“Moves to…”

Jaz opened a tin and scooped yellowish leaves out with a silver measuring spoon, dumping it into the teapot. “You know what a carousel is, right?”

He nodded.

“The Defiant is like a carousel. Except instead of it turning and everything else staying put, it stays still and everything outside moves around it.”

While Bracken processed this, Jaz lifted the steaming kettle and filled the teapot, then started a small brass stopwatch that was sitting nearby.

Three minutes of silence later, she strained tea into the mug and brought it to Bracken.

He took it, still trying to work up an intelligent response, but only managed: “That doesn’t make sense.”

Jaz poured some tea into her own cracked mug which she took from atop the espresso machine. “Okay—The Defiant is like a train. It goes along a sort of circular track, stopping at seven points along the route, like a train at stations. Only instead of stations, The Defiant stops at different worlds. We left yours at midnight.”

Bracken turned to the windows. The panes were black, as if they had been painted over, giving the impression that The Defiant floated in limbo. Bracken shivered and turned back to his tea. He looked up from the mug cradled in his hands to find Jaz watching him.

“…train stations,” he said, regurgitating the last thing he remembered her saying.

She nodded. “Yeah. Seven. The Defiant stays in each place for twenty-four hours and then goes to the next. So the good news is, we’ll come back around to your world in a few days.”

“So I’m only trapped temporarily.”

She nodded again and sipped at her tea. “Yeah. Just a week. When we come back to your world you can leave the shop like normal and go back to your life of crime and photography.”

“…right.”

“Looking on the bright side, you get a reprieve from your sister for a week.” Jaz yawned and set her cup down. “I need to rest for a couple hours before we open. You can stay in the spare room while you’re here.”

“Thanks.” Bracken tried the tea and found it quite good. “Whose room was it, by the way?”

Jaz didn’t seem to hear him. She rinsed the teapot, returned it to its shelf below the counter, then crossed the workspace and turned off all but the small lights over the counters. “You’ll like where we’re going tomorrow. Tuesdays are fun.”

“Tomorrow is Friday.”

“In your world it is. The Defiant runs on a separate time schedule. Your world is Monday. Tomorrow’s is Tuesday.” She saluted him with her raised mug. “Welcome aboard.”

4. The Oncoming Sister

The morpha in question—a smaller, female, striped, angry version of Bracken—stood in the doorway, scanning the busy room.

Bracken twisted to look and turned back with a strangled yelp. “Kajaani! I have to hide.”

Jaz raised her palms and took a step back. “Hey, it’s your crime. Don’t get me involved.”

“I was never here. You never saw me, okay?” Bracken grabbed his backpack and scrambled between full tables to an alcove at the back of the cafe that sheltered three doors. The center door was padlocked, the right door led to the restroom, and the left door had a sign that said ‘Employees Only.’ The S in Employees had been scratched out with some sharp implement.

Bracken opened this door and slid through into darkness. He closed his eyes and waited, pressed against the wall, for the door to open. He braced for his sister’s hands grabbing him, dragging him out of the shop and back to Cavicea. His grip tightened on the backpack, and the camera inside. Despite his complaint to Jaz about losing his things and needing shelter, he didn’t care about either. Tents and sleeping bags were replaceable. The camera, like the aunt who had given it, was not.

Silent moments passed. The door did not open.

Bracken opened his eyes. Perhaps Kajaani had not spotted him after all. Still, just to be safe, he ventured down the stairs to find a more secure hiding place.

The stairs led to a pale brick hallway that turned sharply left. Bracken walked the length of it, passing two doors that were barely visible in the weak light filtering down from the top of the stairs. Further along, the hallway opened into a large, dark basement. Bracken paused to dig into his backpack for his flashlight. The sweeping beam of light revealed the ends of tall metal shelves that stretched toward the back of the basement. Burlap sacks of coffee beans filled the nearest shelves. Bracken took a step toward them, but stopped suddenly. A shadow moved in the corner of his eyes, accompanied by the sense of a presence. Someone else was in the basement.

Bracken flicked off the light and quick-walked backward, feeling along the hallway until his hand bumped a doorknob. He turned it instinctively and found it unlocked. Quickly, he stepped through the doorway— wincing as the hinges squeaked—and closed the door behind him, holding the door and his breath.

Anyone would have heard the door, even if they somehow hadn’t seen his flashlight beam. Bracken sensed someone was at the door now, standing on the other side, about to push in or call out.

Nothing happened.

After several long minutes, Bracken decided his mind had played a trick on him. Probably the flashlight throwing shadows on the walls and his anxiety about Kajaani finding him had riled his imagination. Bracken released the doorknob and turned the flashlight on again. The white beam illuminated a small cot, a full clothing rack, and a desk. Loose papers covering the desk turned out to be the makings of a book of some kind. There were sketches of birds, and boxy shapes, and a humanoid figure wearing a crown. Several pages were full of neat writing, with sentences crossed out and rewritten, and notes scribbled in the margins. Bracken leaned over one of the pages, lips moving as he read to himself:

The brown bird flew into the sky with her new wings, with Fae’s instructions ringing in her ears—

A chill crept over him, and he stepped away from the desk, sweeping the light around the room until it landed on the cot. The blanket was rumpled and the pillow slightly askew, as if whoever had slept in it last hadn’t bothered to make their bed. Dust rose from the blanket when Bracken sat down. Essences of maple and coffee mingled with the musty smell of neglect. Bracken lay back, turned off the flashlight and stared at the ceiling with heavy eyes. Between the rain pounding on his tent all night and the early morning flood, he had hardly slept. Adrenaline ebbed and the darkness relaxed him, making his body feel heavy. His eyes soon closed.

***

“I was never here. You never saw me, okay?”

Jaz watched Bracken scoot away, then turned to face the oncoming sister. She stalked, rather than walked, to where Jaz stood behind the counter, leaned both hands on the marbled surface and announced, “I’m looking for my brother. His name is Bracken and he stole my camera.”

Jaz straightened a small chalkboard menu that Kajaani’s hand had knocked aside. “Sorry to hear that. I’ll keep an eye out.”

“I saw him in here a minute ago,” Kajaani insisted. “I’m sure I did. Kid with black hair like mine, with a backpack?”

Jaz shook her head and began to rewrite the menu with a stick of white chalk.

Kajaani took a step back and turned to scan the room again. “Someone here must have seen him…”

Jaz knew this was very likely. If Kajaani started asking customers if they’d seen a disheveled young morpha with a backpack and a camera, they would most likely report that he had been talking to Jaz for the past half-hour. Not that she cared either way if Bracken escaped his sister, but he had brought her pictures, and he was amusing enough, so Jaz felt more on his side than not. “Ah…what did the camera look like?”

Kajaani turned back to her. “It’s kind of unusual. Brown and box-like, with a leather case with a strap. My aunt gave it to me, the last time she visited.” She frowned, the anger rising again. “He’s probably looking for her. The only address she ever gave us was in Homburg. My dad even tried to come see her once, but of course the person living there wasn’t her. The man who actually lived in that house knew of her, but said she lived in another part of town. The address he gave turned out to be here.”

Jaz stopped writing on the chalkboard and looked up at Kajaani, mouth partly open. “Your aunt…lived here.”

“Well, obviously not. People don’t live in coffee shops. I told him this would happen!” Kajaani banged her fists on the counter top. “He knew what she was like—when we were kids she’d come around on our birthdays and bring presents and tell us these crazy stories, but it wasn’t going to last. She never stayed in one place for long. We haven’t heard from her the past year. Now he’s on some mission to find her, without any idea where he’s going or how he’s going to get there. Even if by some miracle he does find her, he’ll be disappointed. She’s not the kind of person you can rely on, and she certainly doesn’t care about what happens to him.”

The chalk fell from Jaz’s fingers, bounced off the counter and did gymnastics on the floor before rolling underneath a refrigerator. Jaz bent to look for it, but her mind was no longer on the menu. “Does your brother know, about the address?”

“My dad didn’t tell him, fortunately.”

Jaz straightened abruptly. “You know what, I think I did see him here earlier. He sold me some pictures. Probably needed money for a place to stay.”

Kajaani leaned forward. “Did you see where he went?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be back. I’d check the hotels nearby, if I were you.” Homburg was not large. Jaz figured it wouldn’t take long for Kajaani to track him down out there, but just in case… “If you don’t find him tonight, check back here in the morning. He’ll probably wander back in.”

***

Homburg was a town that turned in early. By 10 pm, all of the surrounding businesses were closed, their windows dark. Jaz ate dinner—curly noodles in a sticky fish-based sauce delivered from a nearby restaurant—sitting crosslegged on the counter, the white takeout carton balanced on her knee while she read from a newspaper beside her.

“Quite extraordinary, don’t you think? Both of them showing up here.”

Jaz shot a dry look at the speaker, a square-shouldered man with handsome human features, sitting on a stool at the counter. He gazed pensively at the wall behind the bar, cheek resting on his raised fist. Black hair streaked with gray slanted across his forehead. “Almost feels planned, doesn’t it?”

“Not by me,” Jaz said pointedly.

The man looked at first inquisitive, then mildly offended. “I had nothing to do with it. Trust.”

“Excuse me for not taking you at your word. Anyway, Kajaani will find him, or if he comes back before she does I’ll tie him to a chair until I can hand him off to her. Either way, he’s going back where he came from.”

The man’s mouth quirked. “Do you think so?”

“Positive.”

“I thought you might want to see more of them. The boy seems to take after her, at least…”

“I don’t.” Jaz folded the newspaper and tossed it in a nearby trash can. She hopped down from the counter and searched the shelves below it, coming up with a thin, hardback book and a sawed-off shotgun.

The man shrugged. He leaned back, stretching long arms over his head. “You ought to use the live rounds this time.”

“The blanks work fine.” Jaz opened the barrel and saw the chambers were empty. “Just pumping it once stops most people in their tracks.”

“It’s your life.” The man chuckled as he said this, as if reminded of something funny.

Jaz scowled, shouldered the shotgun and left him, going through the door marked ‘Employees Only’. The silence downstairs was heavy, the air cold. She flicked a switch at the bottom of the stairs, flooding the basement with bluish-white light. Jaz paused at the first door in the brick hallway, glancing at the second door, before entering the first room. It was minimally furnished with a dark wood desk, a bed, a woven rug and a phonograph on a narrow side table. A record with a worn label sat on the turntable. A stack of binders labeled by the days of the week stood on the desk. A thick tome, pages covered in foreign writing, was open on top of the binders. Jaz stared at the top page a moment, reconfirming that she had no idea what the writing said. She dropped the thin hardcover on top of the tome and leaned the shotgun against the wall beside the door.

A large framed painting, a gift from a regular customer, hung there at eye level, a depiction of a cliff overlooking a vivid blue ocean. A man stood at the cliff’s edge, facing the horizon. His features were somewhat vague, but Jaz recognized him nonetheless: Athamas. He was the closest friend she had, and also the oldest. He was not a morpha or a human, or any race that she knew of. He was just Athamas. He was tall and lean and dark-eyed, always wearing a long dark jacket with a wide collar over a white shirt. He liked black coffee and blueberry cobbler, and tended to show up whenever both were on the counter. Jaz had often joked that the cobbler was like a reverse calling card that she used when she wanted to see him.

Jaz broke off studying the painting and checked her watch. It was nearly midnight. She went to the bed and fell on it with a sigh, closing her eyes. It was only an imitation of sleep, however. She listened to the silence and counted the minutes passing.

Midnight came, and went.

Jaz opened her eyes. Athamas kept odd hours, and there was cobbler in the upstairs refrigerator. She rolled off the bed and, stepping to the phonograph, set the needle and turned up the volume. Notes of acoustic base and twanging steel guitar filled the room.

I hear the train a’comin
It’s rollin’ round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since
I don’t know when…

Singing along to the music, Jaz found a box of shotgun shells in the corner and slipped a shell into each chamber. Then she threw open the door and stepped out. At the same time, the door to the room beside hers opened. Jaz lurched around, raising the gun.