tags: retail is deadly, flower language, coffee shops, something wicked this way comes, a murder mystery
Stepping into the coffee shop always felt like coming home. A soothing blanket of dimmed lights, forest green walls and lo-fi music. The earthy smell of freshly brewed coffee, the sweet call of pastries and the under-current of pine wood hugging me like a heavy weighted blanket. The same type of blanket I used every night to help me sleep. An eclectic mix of cushioned chairs clustered around low round tables on one side, while in the front there were low long banks with a sort of community tables rounded out the homey atmosphere. A group of students had taken residence at one of them, while the rest had the usual mix of customers from different backgrounds. I nodded to a group of local lgtbqia+ supporters. I had helped them once, so they at least nodded politely back.
I stepped up to the counter, and looked into a new face.
I didn’t like new faces. New faces never knew what I liked and always seemed to get my order wrong, either out of negligence or because they perceived me as one of those customers who tried to make their retail life a living hell. Paul, the coffee shop’s owner, as well as his second, Babette, knew me, knew everything about me. They always got my coffee perfect, and the most important part, reserved me a slice of Paul’s famous apple pie, his grandma’s recipe. Fluffy and perfect, it melted in your mouth, and I craved it. It was a siren call, Paul called it an obsession, but he always smiled when he said it. Paul baked the pie on Thursday morning, and that was the day I would come in without fail. I’d come in all the other days as well, but my job held me back too often. But on Thursdays, there was always a slice of apple pie waiting for me; put to the side with a little note, to not give it to anyone else but me.
“Yes?” New-face said with a bright smile and sparkling big brown eyes. She had dark wavy hair she had piled atop her head in a messy up-do.
“I’m Victor,” I said, “I take the apple pie and a latte, with two espresso, one pump of pumpkin spice syrup and topped with oat milk.” I saw that certain retail-distance settling over her features as I got it all out in one rush. Her finger moved automatically to the register, typing in the order, and then pausing. Dread slowly settled in my stomach.
There was only one reason for such a pause.
Her smile turned apologetic, while her eyes went to the display cabinet.
“I’m sorry, hon, the last slice just went out.” Her eyes darted from the empty display cabinet to a woman at a table in the corner, dabbing up crumbs from a white plate. I looked at the woman, at the empty spot where my apple pie slice should have been, and then back at new-face.
“The last piece always goes to me. There should have been a note.” This had been part of today’s plan. I didn’t do well with a change of plan. It welled up inside me, the ugly monster baring its teeth, I swallowed it down.
New-face’s smile turned even more forced, a flash of annoyance. “There wasn’t a note. I’m sorry. Maybe you’ll have better luck next time.”
I could throw a tantrum. Or would Paul have forgotten the note? Truth is, he had left rather suddenly, taking a vacation for a week. Had he just forgotten the note?
I curled my hands inward and bowed my shoulders forward, I always did that when I tried to disappear. I hated to make a spectacle out of me. I hated confrontation—at least in my private life. This was precisely why I had fallen in love with this place. Paul had always accommodated me, without so much as a bad word or roll of his eye–those he reserved for customers who tried his patience.
I swallowed all the words down, while the hate trembled along all my cells. “Then please, only the latte.”
She ringed me up, a curl to her lips, while I moved over to the counter’s other side. Making the latte took her one minute longer than any other employee before her, and the color was too light. I took it without another word.
I walked to the small corner place with a satin green cushioned chair that could easily take my long frame, and a small dark wooden table. A bookshelf, one of various clustered throughout the shop, would be right in my back. A small metal place card stood in the middle of the table, proclaiming this area “Private.” I smiled at it and sat down. Three wild pansies had been put in a vase, their yellow and lilac heads angling in my direction.
All the other tables had a small flower vase holding a standard arrangement, bestowing health and good luck on the customers. A bigger vase on the side to the counter held a more specialized meaning. I eyed it but currently it only held a bouquet of red carnations.
I settled in and took a sip. As suspected the latte was wrong, too much oat milk and two pumps of syrup. I looked down at the drink and sighed. I let it slide. I had come from the office. The week had been long and tiring, and would continue so. I exhaled, then turned and plucked a book from the shelf. Just as I was about to start reading a shadow fell over me. I looked up. New-face stared down at me, eyebrows raised, a glint in her eyes.
“Yes?” Did she come to apologize for messing up the drink, and giving away my apple pie slice?
“This place is marked private.” A foreboding finger pointed at the place marker.
“Yes.” I curled my fingers around the book, I was unsure where she was going with this.
“You need to move, sir.” There was a pause before ‘sir’. She stepped closer, almost breathing down my neck. I hoped she wouldn’t be touching me, I hated being touched. There had been that one cashier down at the supermarket who had always touched me.
“I don’t.” I blinked rapidly, trying to keep my thoughts together.
“Yes, you do.” New-face now crossed her arms.
“This place is marked for me.” I darted my eyes around, trying to find another regular, but the support group had already left, and there was no one else to backup my claim that Paul had specifically reserved this place for me, so I always had a place I could just be. My heart sped up, the pulse thundering through my body.
“I doubt that.”
“I know the owner.” It was a last ditch effort. Eyes had turned to us, their gazes making me sweat. I hated sweating out of embarrassment.
“As if I haven’t heard that excuse before. Look, the owner is out, so I won’t sic him on you, but I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Now.” More eyes on us, on me.
Had she really dared…?
Darkness crawled into my thoughts, whispering sweet words of how to proceed, of how to do it, how to end it all. I hid my shaking hands by gathering my things. I contemplated asking to pour my drink into a to-go cup, but it had been wrong in the first place, and two pumps were just too much sugar.
Paul was away. A week. I could out-wait her.
Without another word, I left.
“And now the 6 AM news reports. Early in the morning, the police found the body of a young man, between twenty and twenty-five, already decomposing on 2nd street. According to the report, the man is the victim of yet another violent mugging, totaling the over-all victims…”
Coming to the coffee shop had always felt like home, at least until New-face, Marie , the name card on her apron proclaimed, had taken over the reign. She got my coffee wrong, didn’t allow me to sit down in my place, and had denied me the last slice of apple pie. All week had been excruciating hell. I came in every day, sometimes twice, the nights had been long, so long, hoping against hope that another employee or even Babette would man the register. But it was always only Marie.
“Sickness, and holidays,” she told the person in front of me, who had inquired about the same thing I was wondering about. When I moved up, she stopped talking, only smiling sharply.
This Thursday there would be no apple pie, Paul would be in again on Saturday. Yet I went, as I always did, it was part of my routine, an important part of my life. Marie smiled and got my coffee wrong again, as she had the whole week.
Soon. Paul would return soon, and right this wrong.
I had put a sprig of gorse into the big vase next to the counter, the yellow flowers almost disappearing between a gigantic arrangement that told me nothing. All the flowers on the tables said nothing. Marie must have changed them. I sucked at my thumb, where the gorse’s thorns had penetrated the skin, but it was a small price.
I trusted Paul, he had never disappointed me, never betrayed me. He had been there for me, as I had been for him and yet, he had been distant before he went suddenly away. I was not used to him being distant.
Maybe he really had forgotten the note?
But the wild pansies?
Funny how things changed over time. First I hadn’t been used to him at all, always smiling at me when I ordered, always talking, always loud and laughing and there, and now I couldn’t imagine a life without him.
I should have told him.
I took my to-go coffee, not wanting to linger in a place that was rejecting me, and stepped out into the cold November rain. I took a sip. Marie had forgotten the syrup and put in almond milk. I sighed. People hustled around me, jostling me then and now.
And I felt utterly alone.
Both the monster and the night were calling.
“On main street, passersby made a gruesome discovery of a severed hand. A preliminary report states that this could be the hand of thirty-year old Don Dale, a local cashier, whose body was found a month ago in the woods.”
I returned on Friday. Paul would have returned, but he wouldn’t be in before Saturday proper, he had said, when we last saw each other, handing over my coffee. He told me that I should make myself at home, but the space of the shop felt empty without him, as if the world had been sucked out of it, and only the sad tendril of what had once been remained, flapping perilously at the surroundings. I hated feeling like that.
Should I have done what he had said?
Marie was still at the till. Where was Babette? Or that other barista with the baby blue eyes, who had always smiled–ah, I remember now. The memory made me warm and fuzzy around the edges, until my gaze shifted to Marie. There was a smug tilt to her lips, a satisfied twinkle in her eyes. She wore a tiny sunflower, bound with two yellow carnations, tucked into the upper pocket of her apron. Paul grew those flowers. My eyes flicked to the big vase, the gorse was gone.
Marie, having caught my gaze, tilted her head. “I found your ridiculous flower, it almost pricked my hands. I showed it to Paul and threw it away. He then gave me this.” She flicked her fingers against the small bouquet.
My pulse fluttered. As it had done all week, dancing, signing, wanting, waiting. The darkness inside baring its teeth every night when nothing remained but whispering shadows.
I tamed it once more, just giving Marie my order, while all the other words itched under my skin, trembled along my nerve lines, and resonated in my bones. I chided myself, there would be time later.
All would be well.
“The City Police issued a statement last night reassuring the population that all is handled. Leading Detective Baronski…”
They called me out at three AM. It was always at night. The one thing I cursed. The death had been down the block, not the other side of the city. A young lady in an alley, broken and twisted, the blood already cold, dried and crusted. I looked at her wavy dark hair once in a messy up-do, now a tangled mess, her dark eyes closed already. Her fingers curled around a bouquet of a sunflower and yellow carnations, now crushed. I licked my lips.
Everything collected deep in my belly.
“Detective Baronski, what do you make of it?” The officer asked me, his eyes solemn.
I rolled my shoulders, my part now starting. “She was a barista at a local coffee shop, her name is…Marie, I think. Do we have a wallet?”
“No, everything is gone.” We looked at the dark patch directly over her heart. A blooming red rose lay next to the crushed yellow flowers. My heart trembled at the sight.
“Best guess? Robbery gone ugly.”
“Aye.” Another officer nodded gravely.
“Ask around if anyone has seen anything and leave the report on my desk.”
They both confirmed, and I turned around, walking out into the streets, ducking under the yellow tape and shouldering through the small crowd. There was always a crowd, it didn’t matter what time it was.
I turned to the direction of my apartment, barren and lonely and stopped.
A wild pansy, a red rose, ‘Make yourself at home’, a gift pressed into my hand.
A bouquet of yellow flowers.
No, Paul hadn’t forgotten to write that note.
I turned and walked in the opposite direction. I slipped in the small alley, between the coffee shop and the bookstore next door, searching out the back door, the small lamp over the door flickering. I took out my keyring, the new key gleaming in the lamp’s yellow light. I exhaled. Stilling my nerves and trembling hands.
He had done…
I turned the key, the door swung inward.
Paul was already waiting, watching me with unreadable eyes.
Coming into the coffee shop always felt like coming home. A soothing blanket of dimmed lights, forest green walls and lo-fi music. The earthy smell of freshly brewed coffee, the sweet call of pastries and the under-current of pine wood hugged me like a heavy weighted blanket. The same sort of blanket I used every night to be able to sleep.
I stepped up to the counter, Paul turned to me, a plate with an apple pie slice in his hands. His eyes gleamed in the low light as his other hand touched mine and the ring around my finger.
wild pansies – you occupy my thoughts
sunflower – delusion of grandeur / false riches
yellow carnations – disappointment
red carnations – my heart aches for you
red rose (single full bloom) – I still love you
gorse (whin) – anger
On flower languages: The meaning of flowers or the association with certain types, colors or parts of a flower change with time and culture. I took most of the meaning from the Victorian time period, because there are many books (now part of the public domain) for easy research access.