Chapter Six – The Usual

15 Jul

Standing outside of The Caffe Noire, I took a deep breath and looked around the street – apart from the cathedral spires in the distance, everything still looked normal. The streets were just as post-apocalyptically empty as they had been earlier and the town was just as quiet. Once again, the door to The Caffe Noire refused to budge and I really had to give it a good push before it reluctantly creaked open.

As I stepped into the gloom, I noticed that the same people were still there and “Hotel California” was playing again on the radio. The old man in the yellow suit was sipping an espresso and nonchalantly flipping a coin and the woman in the floral dress was poking at a cup of herbal tea with a teaspoon. Everyone else was drinking and talking. None of them even glanced at me and, for the first time since I saw this place, I felt slightly more relaxed.

The shopkeeper stroked the corner of his moustache and smiled at me before saying ‘The usual?’

I shook my head and said ‘Don’t tell me that it’s made from jasmine – what did you put in it? I’ve been seeing things ever since I drank it.’

He just smiled and turned away from me. I tensed my shoulders. I was ready to run at a moment’s notice, This could easily be a trap.

This place could be set up like Sweeney Todd’s – a seemingly innocent and vaguely trendy cafe designed purely to lure in unsuspecting hipsters for the sole purpose of bludgeoning them to death with an oversized synthesiser and stealing their vintage trainers and designer frames. Although most of my past cases had involved finding out-of-print books and lost phones, I reckoned that it was only a matter of time before I got sucked into an actual murder case.

Maybe all of the regulars were in on it too? It made a grim kind of sense. The shopkeeper kept them coming here with free coffee and a share of the spoils and they helped him out by looking “quirky” – in air quotes and an American accent – enough to lure in identical student posers who thought that they were ‘alternative’. Maybe by asking for Jasmine Tea, I’d accidentally used a code word which made me out to be one of them? Perhaps there were other trendy coffee shops involved in this? Perhaps it was all a conspiracy? I mean, it explained why so many things were going out of fashion so quickly.

When the shopkeeper turned around again, I had started sweating and shivering slightly. He held a scroll of paper. I let out a long sigh of relief – hopefully it had some answers on it. But, he just unrolled the scroll and handed it to me.

It was a map of the town, or at least it had started out as a map of the town. It was covered with strange squiggles, illegible notes and even a badly-drawn sketch of the crooked cathedral at the end of what used to be the high street. The Caffe Noire was circled with red marker pen and about four arrows pointed to it, with the words “YOU ARE HERE!” covering up the row of shops behind it. In the corner of the map, instead of a compass, there was a pencil sketch of a tea cup with a key floating in it.

Without even thinking about it, I pulled out my phone and started taking photos of the map – they could come in handy later in the case. The shopkeeper just smiled to himself as I covered every inch of the map with my phone. When I double-checked the photos, all I saw was an ordinary map of the town. I heard quiet laughter around me and put my phone back into my jacket pocket.

Finally, the shopkeeper rolled up the map again and said: ‘Not that many people ask for the key to the other town. I hope that you had a reason for coming here.’

‘I’m looking for something, I’m not sure what though. Some guy just showed up and gave me a load of cash and the address of this place before telling me to look for something which I’ll know when I see it. Whatever that means.’

‘It can mean a lot of things. But it probably means something here.’ He put the scroll under the counter and

‘What did you mean by ‘The Other Town’ anyway?’ I regretted saying this as soon as the words had left my mouth. The whole cafe was filled with a snorting murmur of barely-suppressed laughter. Even the shopkeeper raised an eyebrow and chuckled to himself. Seriously, this place needed to work on its customer service. Then again, this exclusive and elitist atmosphere probably attracted many a naive young hipster. Perhaps I shouldn’t have abandoned my original theory so readily.

After what felt like two minutes of giggling and snorting, I decided that it would be best to just order a coffee, drink it in silence and leave. So, I did just that. I dropped two-pounds-thirty on the counter and asked for a black coffee. The shopkeeper made me one and I sat at the same table where I’d drunk the jasmine tea earlier today. I stared at the wall and drank my bitter coffee in silence.

Just as I’d got to the dregs, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. Tensing up again, I turned around and found myself face to face with the woman in the floral dress. The ghost of a smile played across her face and she just said: ‘Come over to my table, I think I know a few things which might help you.’

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