“I never pegged you for a big coffee type,” Mr. Larkins says. “Especially not the type who wants to drink with your own boss.”
“You brought me here yourself, like, two months ago,” I tell him.
“But you do recollect how good an employee I am and want to pay for my drink, right?”
“Sure thing,” he says, “if you help me out with a really important decision.”
We enter the first floor coffee shop, so generic it doesn’t even have a name, and sit down at one of the open tables (all of the tables in the entire cafe are open because nobody else is here).
I’m here not really to help out Larkins. I’m here to find Tony, who works at Anime Attic but also this place. I figure if I can corner her here, I’ll get her to squeal way better than if I try to find her at the other place. The anime store is where the stashes of gold are hidden, after all. This place has got nothing (probably).
The barista at the counter is definitely not Tony, though. Instead of a thin white girl with pigtails, it’s a busty Black girl with really thick curls. She, like Tony, looks quite disgruntled with the existence of literally everything around her.
Larkins looks over at me looking at the barista. “You likey?”
“Please… no…” I could go an entire lifetime without anyone, ESPECIALLY Larkins, ever saying the world “likey” in any context whatsoever. “So, about the coffee…”
“Ah, yeah. So I’m in a tough pickle. Seriously.” Larkins darts his eyes around like he is being tracked by covert agents. “There’s two horses racing in Valdosta this weekend and I can’t decide which one’s got it. One’s a real bright green painted fellow named Merry Rick, and the other is a zebroid named Striped Racer who…”
I tune it out completely.
Instead, I go over to the counter and talk to the barista, whose nametag reads “Sandra.”
“Hey, how you doing?” I ask. “You work here?”
“I don’t know why I said it that way. I, uh, know you work here. Crap, I’m completely messing this entire thing up right now.”
“Do you want a coffee? Or, two with your friend over there?”
“Oh, him?” I shrug Mr. Larkins off. “He’s not my friend. He’s just my boss. Say, uh, do you know about coffee? Wait, I meant your coworkers.”
“How did you mix up the words coffee and coworkers?”
“They both start with C?”
This girl is pretty, but I don’t know why I’m completely blowing this entire questioning line. It’s as if there is a curse over this entire coffee shop where I cannot have a normal human interaction no matter how hard I try. The ghost of Tony lives on with great strength and power.
“Okay, I’m going to make two coffees, and you can think about what you are trying to say,” says Sandra. Then, after she turns around to start making the drinks, she mutters under her breath, just loud enough for my enhanced hearing to make out, “Please don’t be a creep… Not again…”
I shrug internally and externally.
Maybe I’ve lost my edge. It’s been so long since my last real, relevant investigation (the Dial-Up Demon certainly doesn’t count) that now I’ve been rendered completely unable to question even the most benign of random persons of interest. That or I just can’t talk to pretty girls anymore. But that one’s absolutely false, because I, Morgan Harding, am notorious for my womanizing skills and my ability to fulfill whatever misogynistic fantasies that you readers typically long for in stories like these. I’m basically with a new chick every time I tell a new story, which is clear evidence that I am not a lonely sadsack, but rather the coolest person who—
“Here’s your coffees.” The employee Sandra turns around and gives me a not-too-disgruntled look. Slightly gruntled, if I may say.
“I—uh, yeah, th-thank you,” I manage to sputter out like I’m some diesel-based robot that hasn’t been tuned up since the seventies.
When I don’t immediately leave her presence, this Sandra girl becomes significantly less gruntled. “And…?”
“Oh, yeah. Let me snap into being a less useless person.” I mime slapping my own face and shake off whatever temporary madness must have set upon me. “So you’ve worked here for a while, I’m sure.”
“This is my second week.”
“Close enough. Do you know a coworker named Tony? Tony with an ‘ah,’ not an ‘oh.’”
She nods slowly but surely, her mouth compressing into a flat fold that indicates this is far from the first time she’s heard something like this question. “Yeah, I know of her. Never worked with her, but you types come around here way too often. You’re like the fifth guy.”
“I’m not a guy.”
“Oh, sorry,” she says.
“And, wait, people come here looking for information on Tony? Not just me?”
A loud throat clearing sound scratches out, coming from behind me. Mr. Larkins taps on his watch with a disappointed glare. Oh yeah. I bring the coffees over to him in a mad dash, then go back to the counter before this Sandra girl manages to slip away.
“Okay, where was I?” I ask. “Oh yeah, what’s up with this Tony girl?”
“Y’all always coming around to mess with the poor girl. Please stop. It’s so weird and creepy.”
“Wait, I’m not—I’m not looking for her for creepy reasons. I wanted to ask her questions and wondered if she was around or something. That’s all. She knows me!”
“I’m sure she does,” Sandra says, becoming less and less gruntled with each passing moment. “Like I said, there’s been four dudes before you who’ve come around trying to confess their love and that kinda crap. They don’t even wanna buy coffee or nothing.”
“That’s despicable. Who goes to a coffee shop and doesn’t even buy coffee? At an independent, locally owned coffee shop, no less?”
I’m not sure if Larkins investing in this place makes it locally owned or not, but she doesn’t press the statement any further, fortunately.
“Y’all anime weirdos! That’s what I’m saying! Leave the poor girl alone.”
“Anime weirdos… Wait a minute, I’m not—I’m not trying to confess my love or talk about anime or whatever. I’m—well, I’m an investigator, but I didn’t want to, like, actually say that part out loud or anything. It’s usually supposed to be on the down-low.”
“Investigator…?” Sandra looks either incredulous or excited. It’s hard to tell
“Like a private eye,” I say.
“Yeah, like a sleuth-loving gumshoe.”
“So, a dick.”
“You could say it that way, I guess.”
“Okay, dick,” Sandra says, “do you got a warrant to be conducting this search? I know my rights.”
Yes, she clearly does.
“Yeah, I have a warrant, whatever that means. I’m just asking a nice barista about whether another, um, nice barista is around anywhere.”
“You swear you ain’t one of them Anime Attic stalkers?” Sandra asks.
“On my life,” I reply. “I don’t even know what anime is.”
“Good. Anime’s the worst shit.”
“If I knew what it was, I would certainly agree.”
“Well, I’m covering for Tony today,” she tells me. “She was supposed to do a shift here, then a shift at the geek store. But she had to bail in the AM. Something about her mother. That girl works real hard already, and her mom’s gone in the hospital all of a sudden… A real shame.”
“Yeah, a real shame indeed,” I say. “And she’s really strapped for cash? Enough to do desperate stuff?” Such as being involved in a scheme with Mighty Slammer to hide gold and such…
“I don’t know. Never talked to her much.”
“Anything else you might could tell me?” I ask.
Sandra shakes her head. “I think you oughta get to coffee with your boss. He looks pissed.”
I turn my head around. She’s right. Larkins is starting to steam from the top of his thinly haired head.
“Sorry about that,” I say when I arrive over at the table.
“Time is money here,” he says. “You can’t go holding me up all the time, Harding.”
“I’m very sorry about that. Should we get back to work?”
“What? No, I mean the bet. Who the hell should I pick? Striped Racer and Merry Rick are both real competitive in this bracket, and…”
I tune him out completely once again.
The coffee isn’t very good, either. But at least I’ve got the absolutely bare minimum amount of info from this trip that made it, uh, almost worth it.
I guess I’ll have to go back to that Anime Attic again pretty soon, huh…