By now, Bea judged it to be a quarter to nine in the morning, based on two things: the number of grumpy faces in the line that had begun to break down into a loose group by the door, and the way the sunlight slanted through the front windows, creaming over floor tiles and polished wood before smacking in blinding flashes against chrome and copper surfaces. The reason for the line’s degeneration was the table that offered free coffee to those who waited, known informally as the Wake-the-Fuck-Up table.
The huge silver urn and small paper cups had been an insistence on Bea’s part, largely because neither she nor anyone else had the patience to cope with the vagaries of half-conscious, bitchy people who couldn’t decide what they wanted. It was a polite way to introduce new customers to the house laws, printed on a large chalk board and hung next to the announcement board. A few laminated copies of the drink menu were also on the table, so people could study their options before getting into line. Or, in this case, after Janette banished them from the counter. Some left in a snit, but most stayed.
Bea watched Janette point imperiously in the direction of the table where she stood, hoisting a full urn to replace the empty one and clearing away a few bits of trash. For the most part, people were pretty good about throwing away their own garbage, but that might have something to do with the Coffee Commandments staring them in the face from behind the table:
1) Do not argue. You will not win. All employees are permitted to tell you “No” with just cause.
2) Clean up after yourself. Neither your Mommy nor your maid work here. Repeat offenders face exile.
3) This is not one of many locations. The standard is what we say it is. Please refer to rule #1.
4) Do not harass any employee for any reason. We are not your whores and your money cannot buy us.
5) This is not your office. Regulars get first dibs on everything. It pays to be sweet.
6) Yes, smoking is permitted on the patio, but keep it clean and respectful.
7) Everything is gluten-free here. Everything. If you bring your own snacks, please enjoy them on our patio and tidy up afterwards.
8) Your ravaged sensibilities are not our problem. If you have a problem with cussing, body art, piercing, or dyed hair, please—for all our sakes—go find the nearest GenericMegaCoffee location.
9) No fighting, loud arguments, or other shenanigans. We don’t care about your Canon differences of opinion or how very maligned your character was in the last campaign. We will kick you out.
10) Don’t feed the store guardians. Trust us. It’s for your own good.
Bea watched two bewildered customers wander over to the table. They were elderly and something in their bearing told her they were far from local. The gentleman wore a tan jacket cut like one she remembered her grandfather wearing several decades ago. Beneath it was a neatly pressed blue Oxford button-down shirt. Gray flannel trousers and polished black leather shoes completed the nostalgic impact. His eyes were a watery blue, distored by thick wire-rimmed glasses, and it seemed quite possible from where Bea stood that there was more hair sprouting from his ears and nose than the top of his head. This sported a very careful comb-over job.
The other half of this dynamic duo stood several inches taller than her companion in a passable imitation of a ramrod. Her abundant white hair was flawlessly arranged in an old-fashioned chignon and her cream colored blouse sported a sapphire broach the size of a robin’s egg, embellished with enamel and silver filigree. She wore an elegant ankle-length skirt of lightweight herringbone-pattern silk and stylish, low-heeled court shoes. The two could not have been more different. Her dark eyes were gimlet sharp and bright in a relatively unlined face just the color of a fresh brown egg. She did not look like someone used to being dismissed.
Bea set the empty urn down hastily and wiped her hands on a cloth tucked into the sash of her apron. She waited as they approached.
“I would like to see a manager.” The woman said without preamble.
“What can I do for you, ma’am?” Be asked. “May I offer you some coffee?”
“Are you a manager?” The woman asked. She wasn’t rude, Bea noted, simply very direct.
“I’m the owner, Beatrice Addler.” She held out her hand, which the man shook, smiling. The lady remained unmoved. “How would you like your coffee?” Bea pressed on.
“With cream and sugar, please.” The man offered, still smiling.
“Black.” The woman answered. “Your employees are rude, Miss Addler.”
Still no wiser as to their names, Bea poured two coffees from the fresh urn. Catching the eye of Martin, a regular sitting at a nearby table alone, she tried to beg him silently to relinquish his seat temporarily.
He seemed to understand, because he stood, closing his book and tucking it quickly into his messenger bag, before approaching them. “Excuse me.” He said. “I was wondering if you would like to take my table?” He addressed the woman in his precise Northeastern accent.
The woman nodded and seemed to soften a bit. “Thank you, Martin.” Bea said. “See me before you leave today.” She added, winking at him. “Now, if y’all will follow me, we can address your concern.”
Tucking a copy of the menu under her arm, she retrieved the coffees and led the way to the table. Once they were seated, Bea took a chair and set the menu down on the table.
“How can I help resolve the issue?” She asked, smiling at both of them.
“You can hire people who are capable of civility.” The woman said icily. “That girl told us to get out of her line until we were done wasting her time.”
Bea took a moment to measure her response. At last, she said, “I see. Janette can sometimes be very abrupt, but she ensures that a maximum number of customers receive their morning caffeine doses.” Bea paused, before changing tacks. “May I assume this is your first visit with us?”
“And last.” The woman sniffed.
“Then you’ll want to be certain to order the perfect drink.” Bea remarked as if the woman had not just snubbed her business. She proffered the menu, “We aren’t a chain coffee shop, so each of the 63 coffee beverages is unique, with its own special name. It can take some time to settle on just the right choice.”
Drawing a voucher from her apron pocket and taking the pen from where it stayed clipped to her bib, she scribbled “2 Pastries” and her initials with a smiley face. Then, she handed it to the woman.
“Whenever you’re ready, please enjoy whatever you’d like from the pastry case with my compliments. I’ll leave instructions with Janette.”
She stood and walked away from the table, leaving the woman gaping slightly, and her husband studying the menu with the same quiet smile he’d worn the entire time. He had apparently learned to choose his battles.
As she passed Janette on the way back to the kitchens with the empty urn, she put out her elbow and tapped her arm.
“Easy on the older folks, Slick.” She murmured. “No buts.” She cut off the purple-haired girl’s protests. “They get breakfast on the house if they want it.”
She moved on, shouldering her way through the door into the kitchens and walking back to the dish pit. Setting the urn gently on the stainless steel counter, she greeted the rotund woman perched on a stool by the sanitizer.
“Hey, Momma. Could you give this a quick wash, so I can brew more coffee?”
She turned to regard the unmoving bulk of ‘Momma’, clad in jeans and a black button-down short-sleeved shirt patterned with eye-hurting geometrics. Atop her tastefully unnatural marmalade curls was perched an Atlanta Braves baseball cap, and clinging for dear life to the tip of her freckled nose were a pair of gold rimmed reading classes.
“Uhuh, Sugar. Just give me two seconds.” She replied, her eyes never leaving the page of a worn paperback that Bea recognized from the Freebie shelf out front.
“You reading my porn, again, Momma?” Bea smiled.
Momma turned and looked at her over the rims of her glasses. “Child, you sure know how to spin a hot yarn.”
“Let’s keep that fact between us, okay, Bertha?” She employed Momma’s given name and made meaningful eye contact.
“Sure thing, honey.” She slapped a homemade burlap bookmark between the pages and set the book on a high shelf out of harm’s way. “Now, gimme this.” She slid from her stool and grasped the empty urn. In her dish pit, she made quick work of cleaning it, while avoiding the cord and the electric element. She rubbed the outside dry with a clean dish cloth. “There you go, Boss Lady.” She grinned and laughed comfortably as she settled back on her stool.
Bea knew she was waiting for her to leave again before taking the book down from its shelf, so she took the urn and beat a hasty retreat. On her way back to the counter, she watched Althea pull a parchment-lined pan from one of the ovens. It was covered with steaming drop scones, which, by the smell of them, were of the bitter chocolate and lemon curd persuasion.
She moved on to set up the urn for another batch of free coffee, gauging the crowd as she did. This could be the last one for the day, she decided. Then, she returned to the kitchen. Snagging a plate still warm from the washer, she plucked two scones from the cooling rack. She blew on her fingers to cool them.
“S’up, Snitch?” Althea greeted her, scraping batter from a giant steel bowl into the last of a series of loaf pans.
“They aren’t for me.” Bea answered. “Martin gave up his table so I could smooth some ruffled feathers.”
Al grunted, but forbore further comment, preferring to have as little to do with customers as she possibly could. “Give Lord Mercury my regards.” She said tersely as she dropped her spatula in the bowl and wiped her hands on a cloth.
Bea went in search of Martin and found him at last, his narrow frame perched uncomfortably on the stone hearth of the unlit fireplace. For a moment, she wondered why he was sitting there, seemingly absorbed by his book, then she turned and saw Vita, lolling in the overstuffed leather armchair across from him. Martin had a hopeless crush on Vita, and of course, she was oblivious to this.
“Hey there, Marty.” Bea wafted the plate beneath his nose. So intent was he on pretending to read, he actually followed the scent of the scones for a moment, starting guiltily when he realized what he’d done. “How about you try barking up some other tree?” She looked meaningfully at him, her thick eyebrows raised, as she handed him the plate. “Thanks for being such a good guy earlier.” She smiled down at him.
Abandoning her lolling posture, Vita sat up, inching closer to Martin and his plate of piping hot scones. “Hey, are you gonna share?” She asked, shamelessly batting her long dark lashes at him. She had a very ingenue beauty–all willowy, tanned limbs and softly curling brunette hair. Her eyes a deep shade of umber that made distinguishing the pupil from the iris difficult.
Before the young man could proffer up half of his hard-earned reward, Bea intercepted Vita’s acquisitive, delicately-boned hand. “Naahh-p.” She drew out the discouraging sound, as if scolding a small child. “Those are Martin’s scones. He earned them. If you want some, go buy them from Janette.” She released Vita’s fragile wrist, and grinned at her.
Vita, for her part, sat back in the chair and pretended to pout, flopping around dramatically. “But I need brain food!” She moaned, draping a forearm across her eyes. “This TA class is killing me!”
Vita was a graduate student at Georgia State, studying forensic anthropology, and had taken on the undesirable duty of TA-ing for Dr. Murtaugh’s Sociobiological Anthropology course. Bea stood over her, and turned her head to read the title of the textbook that had been abandoned on the floor next to the chair. “Biosocial Becomings: integrating Social and Biological Anthropology.” She said aloud. “Ooh, Ingold. He’s good.”
Vita was not taken in by this, and simply rolled her eyes at Bea from under her long-suffering forearm. “I guess so. But the kids are kinda stupid. And they ask the dumbest things! It’s only the third week of the semester!” Vita spoke emphatically. “One actually keeps calling me Vita, as in vitamin.”
“Patience, kid.” Bea laughed. “You were there not too long ago.” She walked over to the Freebie Shelf and scanned the titles for a moment before pulling a single book from the second shelf. Walking back, she presented it to Vita. “Try that on for size.” She laughed.
“The Love Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Wolfe.” Vita read aloud. “Huh. Sounds interesting.” She flipped through the pages, read a few lines, and looked up at Bea through her lashes. “So, Beatrice…” she murmured, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips.
“How goes your pursuit of the lovely Helena?” Bea threw cold water on Vita’s playful flirtation.
“Gah!” Vita flopped back in the chair, squeezing her eyes shut. “She doesn’t even know I’m alive!”
“That good, huh?” Bea commiserated. “I do believe I told you that you’d have to be a bit more direct with that Titian-haired vixen.”
“Yeah, but I prepped her for work on her back piece yesterday and she never even spoke to me.” Vita mourned.
She worked part-time in a tattoo and piercing parlor called the Three of Hearts and Helena was a voluptuous, saucy patron of the establishment. Over the past month, Bea had heard a great deal about the attributes of this particular pole dancer. Privately, she thought Vita was wasting her time, but that was a matter of opinion. Vita was still trying to branch out of her innate shyness.
“Did you ever find out if she was—“ Here, Bea paused, cutting her eyes at Martin. “of a Sapphic persuasion?”
“No.” Vita slumped further in the chair, frowning.
“Well, don’t be glum.” Bea made her voice cheerful. “There are plenty of lovely ladies in this city who are.” She jogged Vita’s elbow forcing her to look up, “And you, my dear, are a catch. We just have to figure out ways for you to shine, that’s all.”
When Vita continued to sulk beneath her forearm, curling her knees up to her chest in the chair. Bea changed her approach. “I hope you know that won’t get you free scones, so stop.” She said with mock severity. “Weren’t you going to show me the work you had done on your Harry Potter tattoo?”
“Oh, yeah!” Vita perked up. “Let’s go in the bathroom. I have to lift my shirt to show it.”
As they headed toward the restrooms by the stairs to the book loft, Bea could hear Martin quietly choking on his scone.