B1.S1. Good Morning
"Agatha," I say to the black-haired woman behind the counter, "coffee."
"Hm? Yes? What kind today?" Agatha is 40-going-on-80. Her hair has become more gray and face more wrinkled in the year I've known her. Combined with her ghastly complexion, she looks like death, but shows no signs of frailty.
"Something interesting," I say with a shrug as I put my mug on the counter. It wobbles on its uneven bottom, but remains standing.
She takes it and soon returns with something hot and heavenly inside. The cream on top forms a skull. I wrap both hands around the misshapen ceramic and bring it with me to my usual seat: a booth in a dark corner with a view of the front door. With the shop entrance hidden in an alleyway, it's an easy matter to watch who enters. It only becomes tricky around Samhain, when the locals get renewed interest in the ghost stories Agatha tells.
On this morning, it's just me, Agatha, and her cat. I relax into the booth's worn cushioning and inhale the steam from whatever ambrosia Agatha gifted me with. The first scalding sip is the first moment of bliss in my day. Usually also the last, but still one of the best parts of living ironside.
I barely have time to enjoy it before the bell above the door jingles and a dark-haired main with brown skin walks in.
"Hello and welc--" Agatha starts and stops as she sees the newcomer. "Oh, Clint. Hi. What brings you here?"
"I needed to talk to you," Clint responds. "You didn't respond to my calls or texts, so I figured I'd come in person." Clint was the first human I interacted with after I left the Court. He introduced me to Agatha and her cafe soon after. He works for the Fantasy Bureau of Investigation, though that's not general knowledge, and I've only ever seen him wear a suit. Unlike the first time I met him, he's currently carrying no weapons.
"Well, you know how it is," Agatha says with a nervous laugh. She taps her finger on the counter to signal her cat to jump up and hiss. The gimmick works well on the average patron - Agatha tells a spooky story of some haunting or another, and has the cat intervene at the best time to get a jump from her audience. Clint, however, doesn't flinch and Agatha hoists Samanthacarlablue away with fake admonishments. "I don't know what got into her," she says as she returns cat-free. "Anyway, what can I get for the two of you?"
A second figure peers from beside Clint and I sink deeper into my seat in hopes he doesn't notice me. I nearly change my glamour to a different disguise, but it's too late. Pierre sees me and heads straight over. His gray robes would make him look austere, were a goofy grin not cutting a white crescent into his dark face.
"Hello, friend! Can I sit here?" he asks.
"I'd rather you didn't." Yet I'm defeated and he's already plopping himself into the seat opposite me.
"Do you come here often?" he continues, oblivious to my irritation. "I've never been here before. Clint - do you know Clint? - he brought me here. He says it's normal for people to come to coffee shops to get coffee and talk. I see you already got coffee, though um, is it normal to serve it in a broken cup?"
I look down at the worn edges where the handle used to be, then glare back up at him. "It's my mug."
"Oh, did you make it?" At my lack of response, he changes the topic. "Have I told you about Khorifax, our Lord and Savior?"
I take another long sip and try to eavesdrop on Clint and Agatha, to no avail. Pierre's chatter drowns it out. He has told me about Khorifax, at great length and despite requests to stop. A few months ago, I got fed up with it and dangled him off an overpass, expecting it'd shut him up. He'd instead asked to be my friend. I'd nearly let him drop, silenced him for good. I don't know why I didn't. Now he makes me regret it every time he sees me when he continues to do the very thing I'd nearly killed him for.
I'm so intent on not listening to him, I don't hear the bell of another person entering until Agatha says, loud and cheerfully:
I bolt upright. Speaking of hot and heavenly. Dimitri's form is visible on the other side of Clint, tall and... built. Well-used muscles give him a broad and imposing figure. He removes his flatcap and greets Agatha with similar cheer, then clasps hands with Clint. I've known of Dima's friendship with Agatha, but that he also knows Clint is news to me. Overhearing this conversation stops being a curiosity and becomes a need.
"...and that's what's on the first page of His gospel," Pierre continues to preach. "I haven't found the second page yet, but-- where are you going?"
Ignoring him, I take silent steps toward a table closer to where the others are still talking. As involved in their conversation as they are, they shouldn't notice me.
"Naoise?" Clint calls to me and I freeze.
From my prior table, Pierre asks, "That's your name? Nee-sha?"
A quiet growl finds its home in my throat. I suppress it and turn to the group, my face a mask of calm.
"What?" I ask of Clint.
"I'm glad to have caught you," he says, "I have a job for you."
A job means a hunt, and a hunt means using my skills instead of pretending to be human. I don't have to hold back when it's a monster that needs to die, with nobody else around to see it happen. And this, brings a smile to my face.
The door bursts open before I can answer and a woman stumbles in, nearly dropping the binoculars strapped to her neck. The dark circles under eyes are obvious against her general paleness.
"This is about Starr island, isn't it?" she exclaims. She rummages through a rucksack and pulls out a worn notebook. "I've been watching. A dozen workers ferried there last week but only eleven came back. Then ten went the next day, but only eight came back and just a few hours later. People are going missing, aren't they?"
"Hi, Margo," Clint says. "I was wondering when you'd stop listening at the door. We all saw you arrive with your cousin." He gestures to Dima.
Margo flushes and pushes blond strands from her face. "I'm right, aren't I? The island's been closed to visitors ever since the Starrs' deaths. Whatever you're doing, I'm going with you. Missing people and a century-old unsolved murder? This is big!"
I scowl. Margo's nosiness has always been a problem for me, and a risk. "You're not going. You're-" human, I think. Obnoxious, I also think. "-not trained for this. Are you going to throw a book at whatever's taken these people?"
"And what training do you have?" She jabs a finger into my arm. "Wearing a hoodie and drinking coffee? Or is there something you're not telling us?"
I grip my mug tighter, the last sips surely cold by now.
"Margo's in the cryptozoology club with me," Agatha says. "She knows a lot of stuff."
"This does sound dangerous, cousin," Dima says in an accent I've been told is Russian. I'm hopeful he's about to talk Margo out of this escapade, then he continues: "I should go with, make sure everyone gets back safe."
"No!" I say with more force than intended.
"What do you have against my cousin?" Margo asks.
"Enough," Clint interrupts with the force of authority. "I make the hiring decisions, Naoise, not you. Margo is knowledgeable on relevant topics, and as a member of the coast guard, Dimitri can transport us to and from the island. People can always wait at the boat if needed."
"There are still problems," I say, certain he can't be ignorant to them.
"We can talk about them on the boat," Clint says. "Meet at the ferry station in two hours."
With that, he grabs the to-go cup off the counter and leaves. Margo runs after him. Dima grabs his own cup and raises it to me on his way out.
"Unexpected way to spend a day off, eh?" he says. I stare back, thinking of something - anything - the say in return, but I take too long and he leaves me in silence. The bell above the door signals his departure.
With Agatha gone from the counter and Pierre thankfully missing, I'm left alone to dread the rest of my day.
And I haven't even finished my coffee.