“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.
“It’ll be damn
near a seven dollar coffee,” he said, looking me up and down.
I corrected him, without thinking. He
glowered at me and I shrunk backward.
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.
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
the brew and crimped the lid down, then slid it across the counter toward
me. “Double-Mocha with triple caramel
He took the
seven dollars and made change. I waved
off the quarter.
saying thanks, he glared at me and slipped the coin into his pocket.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!”
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.
she says, her voice husky.
“Hey back,” I
say. My voice brims with confidence.
lonely,” she says.
answer. She stands up and sashays toward
my table. Her hips swivel with each step
and she oozes sexuality.
taken?” she asks me, pointing to the bench right next to me.
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
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—”
Paula yelled. “Look at that! He’s
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.
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
charge you for that,” Paula said. “You
looking at you, I thought.
Instead, I said, “I wasn’t doing anything.”
sounded squeaky and guilty. Paula
laughed at me.
“I know when a
man is jerking off,” she said. “Don’t
try to bullshit me.”
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.
Janice,” the red-head said to her, “I’ll
go with you. I’ve got one of my regulars
to meet anyway.”
hurried from the coffee shop.
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
and left the shop. I breathed a sigh of
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
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.
Officer Mustache asked the barista.
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.
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
“I just want
regular coffee, Jack,” The Hulk said.
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.
have cappuccino there,” Jack the Stache said.
paying, so shut up.”
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.
barista said, “Those drinks are five-fifty.
look back. “Just put it on my tab.
Officer Jack Harper, San Francisco Pee Dee.”
broke out in a sweat. “I, uh, I don’t
know nothing about tabs here…” he started, his voice shaky.
his gaze back to the barista and glared at him.
The barista swallowed.
“I just…I’ve never heard of a tab here. The manager
didn’t say anything…”
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.
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.
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
This guy is
tough, I thought. I watched him
sit down. I watched him, I watched him, watched…watched…watched…
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.”
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.”
back to me. “What’s your name?”
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?”
Jack said and stood up. “You’ve been
eyeballing me for the last five minutes.
You some kind of queer?”
and shook my head.
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.
stare at people,” Jack said.
“Yes, sir,” I
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
“Yes, sir,” I
squeaked, sounding a lot like the barista, only worse.
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
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.
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.
quietly, but most of them spoke in loud outbursts, laced with profanity.
just about knocked him into next week, man,” the white kid said to a black kid
in a San Francisco Giants baseball cap.
the black kid said. “Damn, cuz, I hit
that motherfucker so hard, I knocked him back around to last week!”
and the two of them exchanged a ritualized handshake that I couldn’t quite
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
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.
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
want in,” I say.
looking up and down my small frame, appraising me. Then he asks, “Can
you handle yourself?”
shit,” I tell him.
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
huh?” he asks, making a sucking noise with his lips and teeth.
money,” I say. “The Green Dream.”
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.
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—”
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
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.
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.
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
goin’, anyway,” the one in Giants ball cap asked, “you Yoda-lookin’
This brought a
fresh round of laughter from the gang.
“He even got
his theme music,” said one of them.
Yoda man, ain’t you supposed to be in
the jungle or some shit?” said another.
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
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.
goin’ nowheres, Yoda!” I heard from
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.
blows. An icy bite in my side that
turned to fire. Some laughter. Then
hands patted me and removed my wallet.
I heard, though the sound was muffled.
he’s bleeding like a stuck pig,” came a worried voice.
bucks is all he got? Stab that motherfucker
“Just take his
computer thingy,” some girl’s voice said.
said another. “They can trace that
shit. Cops got satellites just for
came another voice, this one more authoritative. “Take the money and let’s
thudded into my side.
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 tried to get
my mind around what had happened, but it was too quiet except for my wheezing
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
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
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