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Frank Zafiro
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walter.jpg
Art by Jeff Karnick 2010

Walter’s Night

 

Frank Zafiro

 

“A triple espresso?” the fat barista asked me.  He was new, and unpleasant.

“No,” I said, trying to stay patient.  “A double on the espresso. Triple-shot on the flavor.”

He squinted at me while I wondered what was so hard about that order.  I hoped he didn’t screw it up, because I knew I would end up just drinking it anyway.

“You know I gotta charge you extra for all that?” he said.

I nodded. 

“It’ll be damn near a seven dollar coffee,” he said, looking me up and down.

“Six-seventy-five,” I corrected him, without thinking.  He glowered at me and I shrunk backward.

“Whatever,” he finally grunted.

I wondered how he’d grunt if my favorite detective Mike Hammer were here to whack him upside his head with a revolver.  I imagined it would be him pulling away in fear.  Hammer wouldn’t need to use the gun, though.  His look would be enough.

The barista kept staring at me, so I pulled out my wallet, ripped open the Velcro strip and laid a five and two ones on the counter.  He eyed them suspiciously, then set about making my coffee.  The espresso machine gurgled and hissed under his quick hands.  I had to admit that even though he was a fat, rude, suspicious bully, he was pretty skilled at schlepping espressos.

He finished the brew and crimped the lid down, then slid it across the counter toward me.  “Double-Mocha with triple caramel flavor.  Six-seventy-five.”

He took the seven dollars and made change.  I waved off the quarter.

Instead of saying thanks, he glared at me and slipped the coin into his pocket.

 I ignored him and made my way to the corner of the little coffee shop.  I’d been coming in regularly for the last couple of months.  I worked the midnight shift as a system operator for a mainframe system that serviced a local bank.  Most of the work on the system was done by the daytime techs, the ones with Master’s Degrees.  I was more of a baby sitter, hired to watch over the system during the night while more important people slept.  The fact that my computer degree was from a two-year community college meant that I came cheap but knew enough about computers to know when to call in the big guns.

I’d been working for the bank for three years now.  It was a crappy job, but it paid my rent, put mac and cheese on the table and made sure my Internet connection was up.  And it kept me in my coffee.

For a while, I got my Internet fix at work.  While the computers as big as closets hummed and the air-conditioner blew air, I sat at a desk and surfed the ‘net.  I started out just reading news articles and checking out gaming sites, but after a while I accidentally came across a porn site.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t an accident but either way, it filled the time.

Then, after about a year, I heard they were going to do a computer use audit and I spent a whole shift frantically erasing my Web history and all traces of where I’d been.  Afterward, I got a couple of strange glances from the daytime techs, but no one ever said anything to me directly so I figured that I got rid of all the evidence.  They may have been suspicious, but they didn’t have any proof.  Or they didn’t want to invest the time and effort into ferreting it out.

After that, I only used the computer at work to monitor the mainframe.  I didn’t even check my email there. 

Instead, in my backpack with my lunch, I brought paperbacks and spent the night reading.  That was okay for a long time, but I eventually ran out of books.  I mean, how many Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald and Mickey Spillane books can a guy read?  It got to the point where I was bringing my computer game manuals to work with me.  That’s when I knew I had to get out of the office.

Sitting in the corner of the coffee shop, I patted the PDA on my hip.  It was connected right into the mainframe and I could monitor the system from anywhere, as long as I was within 300 yards of a Wi-Fi site.  Lucky for me, the coffee shop was wired in.

I sipped the coffee.  It was deliciously warm, but not scalding.  The new barista was good.

Across the shop sat three women.  I thought they were probably hookers, wearing too much makeup and easy access clothing.  One had a head shaped like a horse’s and she was the loudest of the three.  The other two were subdued.  One with short dark hair stared down into her coffee.  The redhead next to her was listening to loud woman, her lips parted and forming a seductive little oh.

“So he says, ‘Paula, you gotta do that again,’” said the loud woman.  “And I told him, ‘I will, baby, but you gotta pay again first!”

The redhead gave her a hint of a smile.  Then her lips returned to that oh-shape.  I stared at those lips.  They were full, and red.  The oh-shape had an endearing quality to it, as if an unexpected orgasm had rushed up and washed over her.  I stared at them, stared at them, stared…stared…stared…

She sees me looking at her, and her expression shifts to a half-smile.  Her tongue slides out between her lips and wets them.  I am instantly hard.

“Hey, Lover,” she says, her voice husky.

“Hey back,” I say.  My voice brims with confidence.

“You look lonely,” she says.

I don’t answer.  She stands up and sashays toward my table.  Her hips swivel with each step and she oozes sexuality.

“This seat taken?” she asks me, pointing to the bench right next to me.

“No,” I answer.  Then I give her a rakish grin and say, “Well, it is now.”

She smiles and settles in next to me.  Her perfume drifts past me and I bask in her smell.  It’s something classy, I can tell.  There’s perfume there and a hint of woman, too.  Just raw woman.  I draw it in like smoke.

Her hands are on me, quick but graceful.  One is behind my neck, caressing me with her nails.  The other one strokes my thigh.

“You do look lonely,” she breathes in my ear.  I can smell the coffee and chocolate on her breath.  I think about tasting it on her lips.

“I was,” I say, “a little.”

She shakes her head and clucks her tongue.  “How can a big man like you ever get lonely?”

“I’m not big,” I say.  “I’m five-foot-two.”

“Oh, I know,” she coos lightly and drops her hand between my legs to feel my hardness there.  “But that’s not what I meant.” 

I smile involuntarily.  She had a point.

“In fact,” she says, her voice a hot whisper, “what I’d like to do is slide under this table to my knees and undo your—”

“Oh, shit!” Paula yelled.  “Look at that!  He’s jerking off!”

She pointed at me.  The red head followed her finger.  The perfect oh was gone and her mouth drew downward in disgust.  The dark-haired girl didn’t bother to look up from her coffee.

I put both hands back on the table.  My erection, which had been straining against my slacks, started to fade in panic.

“You fucking pervert!” Paula said.

I snapped a frantic look toward the counter, but the fat barista wasn’t there.  He must have gone into the back for something.

“I should charge you for that,” Paula said.  “You little freak.”

I wasn’t looking at you, I thought.  Instead, I said, “I wasn’t doing anything.” 

My voice sounded squeaky and guilty.  Paula laughed at me.

“I know when a man is jerking off,” she said.  “Don’t try to bullshit me.”

“But I wasn’t—”

“You didn’t manage to finish, pal, but you were definitely jerking it.”

There was a moment of silence.  Paula looked at me with an expression of superiority.  The redhead with the full lips wrinkled her nose.  The dark-haired girl pushed away her cup and got up to leave.

“Wait, Janice,” the red-head said to her,  “I’ll go with you.  I’ve got one of my regulars to meet anyway.”

They both hurried from the coffee shop.

Paula kept eyeing me with her haughty gaze, then stood herself.  “I oughta tell the manager he’s got a freak for a customer,” she said.

I’m not a freak! I wanted to yell.  But all I could manage to do was look at her and hope she wouldn’t do anything.

She stared at me for a few seconds more, then snorted in disgust and left the shop.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

The barista returned to the counter a few minutes later.  He noticed the empty table, sighed and cleared it away.  If he’d heard any of the exchange, he gave no indication of it.

I checked my PDA.  The system showed normal.  I only checked it out of habit.  The mainframe ran on a triple-redundancy system, so it wasn’t like there was a lot of danger of a system-wide failure.

The shop was quiet for about ten minutes.  I sipped my coffee and played solitaire on my PDA.  I tried not to think about the redhead’s lips or Paula’s jibe.

Then the cops came in.

There were two of them.  Probably partners, I guessed.  One was tall and broad and looked like he might be ten or fifteen pounds overweight.  For a guy that size, though, ten or fifteen pounds didn’t amount to much.

The other cop was more average-sized, with a thick mustache that crept down from the corner of his mouth.  His eyes passed over me briefly, then to the barista.  His partner, The Hulk, didn’t even bother looking at me.

“New guy?” Officer Mustache asked the barista.

“Yes, sir,” the barista answered cheerfully.  I cringed at his servility, but I knew that if they were talking to me, my tone would be the same.

Officer Mustache didn’t miss a beat.  “I’ll have a double cappuccino, low fat milk and easy on the foam.”  He jerked his thumb toward his partner.  “And this brick wall here will have an Americano.”

“I just want regular coffee, Jack,” The Hulk said.

Jack the Mustache sighed.  “Christ, Pete, that is regular coffee.  Or the closest thing you’re going to get here, anyway.”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t go to the diner,” Pete said. 

“They don’t have cappuccino there,” Jack the Stache said.

“They have coffee.”

“Hey, I’m paying, so shut up.”

The barista laughed nervously, like he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to or not.  He whipped up their order and handed the cops their drinks.  Jack walked toward the table on the opposite side of the coffee shop from me.

“Uh…” the barista said, “Those drinks are five-fifty.  Sir.”

Jack didn’t look back.  “Just put it on my tab.  Officer Jack Harper, San Francisco Pee Dee.”

The barista broke out in a sweat.  “I, uh, I don’t know nothing about tabs here…” he started, his voice shaky.

Jack snapped his gaze back to the barista and glared at him.  “What?”

The barista swallowed.  “I just…I’ve never heard of a tab here.  The manager didn’t say anything…”

Jack continued to stare.

“You know what?” said the barista “It’s not a problem.”

Jack set his cup down across from Pete and strode back toward the counter.

“Jack…” Pete said.

Jack shot his open hand back toward Pete while he walked, shutting him down.

The barista watched the police officer approach and blinked stupidly.  I looked on, enjoying the show and glad it wasn’t me that had Jack’s attention.

Jack reached the counter and leaned in.  He crooked his finger and beckoned the barista to lean in as well.  The fat man hesitated but obeyed.  Then Jack whispered something.  I couldn’t hear the words, but the barista’s eyes widened slightly, then flared open even wider a moment later.  He began nodding frantically and didn’t stop until Jack had already turned around and walked back to the table where Pete was sitting.

This guy is tough, I thought.  I watched him sit down.  I watched him, I watched him, watched…watched…watched…

Jack settles into his seat and reaches for his cappuccino. I get up from my seat and walk over toward the two officers.  My stride is confident and purposeful.  He is in the middle of a sip when I reach the table.

He eyes me carefully before he asks, “What do you want?”

I shrug.  “I want to know what you told him.”

Jack smiles, but it is a hard smile without humor.  “Get a load of this one,” he says to Pete.  “He’s small but he’s got balls.”

Pete shrugs.

Jack turns back to me.  “What’s your name?”

“Walter,” I say.

“Well, Walter,” he says, motioning to an empty chair next to Pete, “sit down.  Let’s talk a bit.  You ever do any undercover work?  Because we could use someone like—”

“You got a fucking problem, pal?” Jack’s eyes bored into me from across the coffee shop.

I jumped in my seat.  “Huh?  Me?”

“Yeah, you,” Jack said and stood up.  “You’ve been eyeballing me for the last five minutes.  You some kind of queer?”

I swallowed and shook my head.

Jack walked toward my table.  When he reached it, he leaned in and stared at me, his eyes hard and flat.  Waves of panic washed over me.  There was foam in his mustache.  I avoided his eyes by looking at that. 

“Not too fun, is it?” he said in a low voice.

“No, sir,” I said and my voice cracked.

“You shouldn’t stare at people,” Jack said.

“Yes, sir,” I croaked.

“What’s your name?”

“Walter,” I answered.

“Walter what?”

Before I could answer, his radio crackled.  Back at the table, I heard Pete’s crackle at the same time.  I couldn’t understand the transmission.  It was just a garbled female voice and some number codes to my ears.  But Pete answered, “copy” into his radio and then said, “Jack, we gotta go.  Rowan and Adler are fighting with that guy on their domestic.”

I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but Jack nodded his head without turning away from me.  He pointed his finger at me.  “Don’t stare, freak.”

“Yes, sir,” I squeaked, sounding a lot like the barista, only worse.

Jack turned and followed Pete out the door.

I looked over at the barista.  He looked back at me.  Then he shrugged and went into the back room again.

I wiped my brow and was surprised at how much sweat was there.  I took a drink of my mocha and caught my breath.  Then I checked my PDA.  There were a few error messages on the mainframe, but all of them were yellow so they weren’t critical.  I’d look up the codes when I went back to the shop in a few hours.  I liked to be there for at least the last hour of my shift, just in case some of the big gun day techs came in early.

I wiped away some more sweat.  Then I took a deep breath, minimized the system monitor and brought my solitaire game back up.  Jack’s words rang in my ears, but I ignored them and concentrated on the pixilated cards.

It was twenty minutes later when the gang came in.

I figured they were a gang, anyway.  There were seven or eight of them.  Most were black or Hispanic, with one white kid and a couple of white girls.  I didn’t see any handkerchiefs that were red or blue like in the movies, but they wore the baggy clothes and talked too loud and swore a lot.  From the pinched look on the barista’s face, he wasn’t happy to see them, either.  But they ordered like a bunch of prep school kids at a Starbucks and they had money, so he took their orders and their money and set about making coffee.

The group settled into the table next to where the hookers and the cops had sat.  A few of them turned the chairs backward and draped their arms across the back of them.

Some spoke quietly, but most of them spoke in loud outbursts, laced with profanity.

“Shit, you just about knocked him into next week, man,” the white kid said to a black kid in a San Francisco Giants baseball cap.

“Next week?” the black kid said.  “Damn, cuz, I hit that motherfucker so hard, I knocked him back around to last week!”

They laughed and the two of them exchanged a ritualized handshake that I couldn’t quite follow.

The barista brought their coffee out to them.  As he walked away, someone whispered something that got the whole group laughing loudly.  The barista pretended he didn’t notice, but I saw his ears turn red as he went into the back room.  I watched him go, glad it was him and not me. Then I turned back to the gang.  I watched them, I stared at them, watched…and stared…stared…and watched…

I get up and walk over to the table, past where the cops were sitting earlier, and I stop at the edge of the gang’s table.  The chuckling and whispering tapers off and they all stare at me with hard eyes.

“Whachoo want?” says the one in the Giants cap.

I ignore him and focus on the one I know is the leader.  He’s wearing an Oakland Raiders football jersey with the silver numbers zero-five on the front.  I know he’s the leader.

 “I want in,” I say.

He considers, looking up and down my small frame, appraising me.  Then he asks, “Can you handle yourself?”

“Sure as shit,” I tell him.

He nods, believing me.  “But what else you got?”

I think about it for a minute, then I say, “I’m smart.  I know business.  I know computers.  I can help you revolutionize your organization.”

“Revolutionize, huh?” he asks, making a sucking noise with his lips and teeth.

“Tons of money,” I say.  “The Green Dream.”

He thinks about it for what seems like a long while.  His gang watches me.  I know that if he turns me down, the one in the Giants ball cap will be on me in a second, followed by the rest.  I prepare my mind and body to release my kung fu.

Finally he says, “A’right, a’right.  You in, nigga.  You in.”  He points to the chair opposite him.  “Sit yo’ ass down.”

I sit down and the one in the Giants ball cap smiles at me.  The white kid gives me a comradely slap on the shoulder.  The white girl next to me slides her hand onto my thigh.

“Can we break him in, Nate?” she asks the leader coyly.  “Because I want to ride him like—”

The Star Wars theme exploded from my hip.  The entire gang looked over at me and caught me staring at them.  I glanced at the one in the Oakland jersey.  His eyes narrowed.

I looked away and grabbed my PDA off my hip.  The Star Wars music was an alert tone I’d set up if one of the servers ever went down.  I called up the status window and saw right away that was exactly what had happened.  There were several red error messages and then it had shut down.

I muttered a curse.  At least there were still two servers up.  I’d have to go back to the shop and try to get the other server back up, but even if I didn’t before the day techs came in, it was not a big deal.  They didn’t expect miracles from me.

I swallowed the last of my mocha and headed for the door, avoiding the gaze of the gang.  At the door, I threw my cup into the garbage and reached for the door handle.

“Hey!”

I looked up sharply at the leader in the Oakland Raiders jersey.

“Why the fuck was you lookin’ at us, bitch?” he asked.

I felt sweat pop up on my brow.  I couldn’t think of an answer.

“Where you goin’, anyway,” the one in Giants ball cap asked, “you Yoda-lookin’ motherfucker?”

This brought a fresh round of laughter from the gang.

“He even got his theme music,” said one of them.

 “Hey, Yoda man, ain’t you supposed to be in the jungle or some shit?” said another.

I didn’t answer.  Then I turned away and hurried out the door.

The cold, wet air on my sweaty skin made me shiver.  Then music blared again from my PDA.  More Star Wars, but this time it was the Imperial Death March.  Darth Vader’s theme.  That meant that a second server had gone down.  It also meant that an automated telephone call was going to my boss.  He’d be at the shop in no time flat, followed by the big guns, and they’d all want to know how in the hell two servers went down on my watch.  I was in big trouble.

I scurried up the sidewalk.  I made it about twenty paces before I heard the door to the coffee shop swing open again and the pounding of feet.  My stomach lurched in fear, but I didn’t have time to react, other than to start to turn toward them.  I thought maybe I could reason with them.

My vision exploded into stars and there was a sharp pain and then a heavy push on the side of my head.  I thudded to the ground, striking first my shoulder, then my head against the pavement.

“You ain’t goin’ nowheres, Yoda!” I heard from far away.

A medley of blows landed on my back and chest.  I tried to scream, but someone kicked me in the groin.  My yell dissolved into a tortured groan.

More blows.  An icy bite in my side that turned to fire.  Some laughter.  Then hands patted me and removed my wallet.

“Forty bucks?” I heard, though the sound was muffled.

“Damn, man, he’s bleeding like a stuck pig,” came a worried voice.

“Forty fucking bucks is all he got?  Stab that motherfucker again.”

“Just take his computer thingy,” some girl’s voice said.

“Fuck that,” said another.  “They can trace that shit.  Cops got satellites just for that.”

“Leave it,” came another voice, this one more authoritative.  “Take the money and let’s go.”

Another foot thudded into my side.

Laughter.  Thudding footsteps moving away.  Then it was silent.

I tried to groan, but all that came out was a wet wheezing sound.  I reached for my side.  Felt warmth flowing from it.

I wheezed again.

I tried to get my mind around what had happened, but it was too quiet except for my wheezing breaths.

Dum-dum-dum-daw-da-dum-daw-da-dum.

The music washed over me.

I opened my eyes and stared out into the street.  The redhead was walking toward me.  Her hips swayed.  Then she shimmered and faded to nothing.

I tried harder.

Officer Jack Harper came sprinting down the sidewalk, shouting into his radio.  The Hulk lumbered behind him.  I blinked and they were both gone.

I ground my eyes shut and let out a gurgling moan.

When I opened them, there was a flash of the white girl that had been with the gang.  Concern was splashed across her face. She reached a tentative hand to my face, then disappeared, too.

My PDA chimed again.

Dum-dum-dum-daw-da-dum-daw-da-dum.

Shit. 

The final server...down.

Not...good.  I was...in...deep shi—

 

Over fifty of Frank’s short stories have been published in a variety of venues. His story "Cassie" appeared in Issue # 4 of YELLOW MAMA in Fall 2007.

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