Chapter 4:

On Smolinski’s payroll

Max Caliber

The café was so unassuming and ordinary-looking that it was almost impressive. The most vibrant and eye-catching part of the entire café was the sun-faded red canopy that hung over the front window. There were a few cars in the parking lot just across the street. But, we went around a bend and into an alleyway. Here behind the row of buildings that was the café and its neighbors, was the staff parking.

“Little presumptuous of us to be parking here, don’t you think?” asked Mikey as he shut his door and placed his fedora on his head. He was wearing an olive-green suit and dark oak shoes.

“I see it more as an act of confidence. We won’t leave until we get the jobs, besides. Albert told us last night we needed to meet the owner in the staff backroom,” I explained and threw my brown cloak over my shoulders, and made our way to the backdoor.

When we stepped inside, we were surprised to see that no one was manning the back door. Usually, they have someone to check when the employees arrive, but I guess this place is slightly different after all. We proceeded down the hallway, passing two bathroom doors before we stopped at the door with the words “Staff” written on it.

“Guess the next door over leads to the kitchen and the café itself,” noted Mikey as he nudged his head to the other two doors. I nodded and gripped the door of the staff room when I began to wonder. What would we do if the owner wasn’t inside this room? Wonder the café asking for him?

“Well, I guess in we go,” I said and opened the door. Inside was a row of lockers with a bench in the middle of the room. At the other end was a desk with a grumpy old man sitting at it. His hair had thinned beyond the point of salvation, and he wore a black tracksuit. The same ones the joggers would wear in the early mornings. His desk was a mess of papers, books, and empty lunchboxes.

“You two must be the ones Albert mentioned,” he noted as he glanced at us over his crooked nose. He spoke with a heavy accent; he must be from one of the northern block countries that helped us fight in the war.

“You’re late and overdressed.” The words were ice cold and cut through the silence. We stood there stunned and not knowing how to respond. But luckily, Mikey stepped forward.

“Apologies, Albert never told us what time to come in or what the dress code would be for our interview,” he explained and lowered his head. I did the same out of obligation. It felt like we were being scolded by a schoolteacher.

“Interview? I don’t do interviews. I only take those on recommendations. Now get dressed and help out poor Margarette. She’s been manning the storefront on her own,” he scolded and promptly went back to scribbling on a piece of paper.

“Margarette?” asked Mikey.

“Isn’t Albert working at this café as well?” I asked. Remembering the letter he sent me. The man looked up once more with raised eyebrows.

“He quit yesterday. Said he would send two replacements ten times better than he was. So far, I’m disappointed. Now go and work for your meager paychecks while I do my work for mine,” he concluded the discussion. I decided it would be best to drop the subject with those choice words and just get to work. We proceeded to the only two open lockers and suited up. There wasn’t much of a uniform other than the usual olive apron and paper folded hat. We put our coats into the lockers and left the backroom behind.


We expected many things from Albert’s sister Margarette. But what we didn’t expect was that he would undersell her in his letters to Mikey. She was an angelic level of beautiful. She had light brown hair, and her eyes were emerald green. She had the type of build that she would look good in it and her face no matter what she wore. Like a spell, I couldn’t keep my eyes from her. She gracefully chuckled and handed the old man at the counter his cup of coffee before finally seeing us.

We stood stupefied by her and stared awkwardly at her. I don’t know-how, but with her apron over her lavender, she looked adorable. But her kind and loving expression turned cold when she saw us. She glided over the tile flooring to us and came stopped a few steps away from us.

“Where have you two been? You can count yourselves lucky that we didn’t have a crazy rush hour this morning. How would I have coped alone?” she reprimanded us. Her voice was harsh and direct, yet somehow it didn’t carry. I instinctively grinned like an idiot and scratched my head without saying anything. Mikey, on the other hand, was beet red and frozen stiff.

“Well,” she urged us on with a puff of her cheeks. “So cute” was all I could think of. If I wasn’t a married man, I would definitely try something. Even though we shared a work placed.

“Sorry,” was all that Mikey could respond with. It was strange. We’ve survived the enemy’s bombardment and seeing our friends die. Yet, the scornful gaze of a pretty girl rocked us to our core.

“You better be. Now come on, we don’t have time to waste. In need to get you two trained before the lunch rush,” she explained and took both of us by the wrist and lead us to our respective stations. Mikey was placed as her assistant due to his thuggish looks. I was placed in charge of the till and snack bar.

It was surprisingly grueling work being a barista, especially under the tutelage of Margarette. She was very demanding and scrupulous with her quick-fire training. Just after we’ve been taught the basics, the lunch hour rush started. We were swamped with customers. Every booth was constantly packed, and the tables outside never quiet. Only after the rush hour had passed did our trial by fire end. Completely exhausted and overwork, I slid down one of the cupboards to sit on the floor. Clearly, the leftover remnants of last night’s party had taken a significant toll.

But with what I had expected to be our break time before the after-work rush. The dreaded ding of the front desk bell rang. My shoulders slumped, and I felt defeated. Even with all that effort, there were still customers to please. But while I was sulking on the floor behind the counter. Margarette floated past and took the order without showing any sign of fatigue. What was she, some kind of woman of steel?

“Hey, Reinhard. Could you please take the last toasted sandwich to table three, please?” she asked. She went down on her haunches and gave me the kindest smile I had ever seen. “Oh, and don’t let them scare you,” she warned and moved on. Scare me?

I got the sandwich, and when I made my way to the table, I understood the warning. At the booth sat three men. No, that was the wrong word. Walking corpses would be better. They were clearly not stable nor well-off people. They wore clothes with holes in them and stank to high heavens. Their hair wild and beards scraggly. Underneath all that dirt and grim, I could see it. The tell-tale signs of self-abuse and people on the verge of death.

“Here you go, enjoy,” I said and placed the singular sandwich down at the table. Without hesitation, the three of them clawed at like wild animals. Driving their mud-encrusted fingers into the toasted shell, tearing it to bits. They forced the part down their gullets without even wasting a second. I stumbled back from shock and watched as they struggled against each other to see who could lick the plate.

“Don’t give them any mind. I know I need to chase away these ash heads, but I can’t. I mean, look at them. They’re just lost people,” said Margarette from behind the counter as she was making them coffees to go.

“I see,” was all I could respond with as I watched a drug-addled man run his tongue over a clean plate.

“I know what you’re thinking. No, I wouldn’t give them this for free. They somehow scrounge up the money and buy this every day. The deal is they come this time because it’s the quietest time,” she explained and put the lids on the three coffees before placing them on the tray.

“You’re a saint Margarette, really. I wouldn’t have the kindness to look after these people like you do,” I confessed as I turn my attention back to her. A much more pleasant sight.

“I’m no saint. I only think that if I open up the store to them. They’ll at least save a little bit of their money for food instead of wasting it all on Red Ash. But enough about all that, could you tell Mikey he needs to get on making some more toasted sandwiches?” she asked and made her way around the counter to bring them their order. I wanted to ask her what good it would do to save a little for food if they kept spending the rest on Red Ash. It’ll only prolong the addiction and suffering.

But I decided it was none of my business and sauntered to the door leading to the back room. I winked at Margarette when we passed each other, and she gave me a smile. I could get used to this life. Even though it was surprisingly hard work, it was a lot more calming than what I’ve ever done. Some kind of good feeling coming from working in a café. Seeing people smile and enjoy their time here.

It was Margarette’s shriek that tore me from my dreamy Pondering. I spun around in an instant and what I saw made me act without thinking. One of the men had lunged at her, knocking the coffee all over the floor. He was on top of her and clawing at her as she frantically tried to fight him off. His two friends seemed to be riled up by what they saw and prepared to join in.

My boot struck the man that gripping her throat firmly against the head. His arms went stiff, and his grip lose. He collapsed to the side, and before I could do more. The two from the booth tackled me back into the counter. I held the one on the right back with my right arm while struggling against the other with my left. But I was overwhelmed, and the one on the left bit down on my forearm, making me grind my teeth in pain.

I gave an almighty push, sending the one on the right tumbling and sliding over the coffer. Then I hit the other one and pried my arm free from his mouth. My hand, now free, took hold of one of the cookie jars. I shattered it across his face before taking hold of the now stunned man. Mikey came bursting through the door with a panicked look on his face.

“Mikey, help me take out the trash,” was all I could say before my rage consumed me. The rest of the affair was a blank in my memory. When my recollection finally returned, I was standing over three brutely beaten men in the parking lot. My knuckles crimson. Only one singular thought went through my mind.

I need to snuff this problem out. I need to find out if they’re involved. I need to call Yusuke.
Real Aire