Perhaps it was because the mild-weathered day had been particularly uneventful; perhaps it was because my mind had been adrift as I peered into the painted Caffeine Addict window; maybe it was simply due to how foreign and intangible the object felt; but as the cold metal of the gun barrel came into contact with my back, I struggled to process the situation I found myself in, even as shivers of fright crept up my spine. The words he spoke felt distant and muted, as if they were echoes from another reality.
“Listen carefully and keep quiet,” the Assailant whispered to my ear. “Your name is Karen.”
“My name is Sylvia,” I answered through gritted teeth, desperate to convince myself he simply had the wrong person.
“You don’t understand,” he replied, unbothered. “Your name is Karen. That’s what you’ll tell them when you walk into this shop.”
After a rough day at the office, I figured venturing into a coffee shop to try out their new October specials would bring me well-deserved peace and serenity – not this. Gretchen at reception had raved all day to anyone who would listen about Caffeine Addict’s October lineup, supposedly launched to celebrate the shop’s 30th anniversary. Quite frankly, coffee was never my thing. I was more into tea, to the point where all my coworkers called me ‘the Brit’ during breaks. In the end however, the incessant emergency calls with clients and providers all afternoon did convince the Brit to let herself be tempted by an evening dose of psychoactive beverage. What a mistake that was.
The Assailant sneaked up on me as I was reading the menu painted in acrylic on the surface of the outside window. He pressed himself so tightly against my back that no one around could have noticed the gun. For someone who did not know better, he easily could have been my husband. The man certainly knew how to blend in. His threatening words and the weapon pointed at me told one story, but the kind and benevolent face I saw reflected in the coffee shop window told another. Clearly, he had mastered the art of dissociating one’s expression from one’s purpose, a skillful technique for your bad deeds to go unnoticed. Quite the actor, he was.
“You will go inside and ask for an Okto Mocha,” he softly commanded.
I glanced at the acrylic menu again. There was the Okto Cappuccino, the Okto Americano, the Okto Espresso… but no Okto Mocha to be seen.
“It’s not on the menu,” I said with as much composure as I could muster.
“Precisely. When they tell you the drink doesn’t exist, you’ll get angry and ask to speak to the Manager. Then you’ll ask her for the Okto Mocha. Say it’s for your dear friend Faustus.”
“What is this about?”
“Action now. Questions later. You must obey every step of the way if you want to get out of here alive. Meet me in the men’s bathroom when you have it.”
The gun sank deeper into my back, and I lost any sense of fight left in me. From then on, I was his puppet, forced by the circumstances to comply to every order. My body mindlessly walked into the coffee shop, and the Assailant followed. He went to sit at a corner table as I stood in line in front of the counter, petrified. The man was probably a drug lord, forcing me into a sketchy transaction.
The place was a sight to behold, a hybrid between a cozy wooden cottage and a dusty old library. All around, gleeful customers chit-chatted with the utmost carelessness, completely oblivious to my plight, and I resented them for it. The sweet scent of chocolate and coffee kept rising from behind the barista’s workstation, an inebriating aroma for many but a nauseating smell to my nose. Why didn’t I stick to tea?
My turn finally came.
“Hello!” the barista nearly shouted. “What can I get you?”
Hesitation followed. A subtle peek at the Assailant’s eyes quickly set me back on track.
“I would like to try the new Okto Mocha please,” I requested with fake confidence in abundance.
“The new Okto Mocha?” she repeated. Visibly confused, she looked at her menu to make sure her mind wasn’t acting up. “I’m afraid we don’t have that. How about an Okto Macchiato instead?”
Her suggestion was perfectly reasonable, and the customer service representative in me internally commanded her for maintaining her professionalism and offering a suitable alternative. Sadly, it was not praise I was meant to shower on her.
“Pardon? I asked for an Okto Mocha, and this is what I expect to get.”
“I’m very sorry Madam, but we don’t have that on the menu. Perhaps if I add chocolate powder…”
“That’s not what I asked for.”
The barista’s face appeared puzzled as can be. As a young woman who seemed to always provide impeccable service, she must not have been used to dealing with a customer she could not satisfy in any way, and that was precisely the case: nothing could have satisfied me, as my life depended on my dissatisfaction. It didn’t matter how unnatural this felt for me. My usual self was always peaceful, non-confrontational, yet in that moment I had no choice but to be vile and unfathomably vindictive. She scrambled for a piece of paper.
“I can always write it down as a suggestion for your next visit, my manager reviews requests every…”
“Actually, could I speak to your manager directly? Tell her Karen wants to have a word.”
I could hear a few giggles from the surrounding customers. Of course her name is Karen, they must have thought. To all of them, I was a farcical walking stereotype. There was only one person in the room who knew why I was behaving this way, and his finger had the trigger ready. The poor barista walked towards the backroom, tears visible at the corners of her eyes, then walked back out in an instant. The manager soon followed: a tall, high-heeled platinum blonde woman, ready to take on the dragon lady her employee probably warned her about.
“May I help you?” she coldly asked. The woman obviously expected another run-of-the-mill unsatisfied customer.
“Yes, you may. I asked for an Okto Mocha, and your employee refused to serve me one.”
“An Okto Mocha?”
The manager’s facial expression shifted. Her tough-as-nails demeanour now betrayed surprise, bafflement even. She knew what the code name meant, but I had doubts she wasn’t expecting it from someone like me.
“Yes, exactly. An Okto Mocha. It’s for my dear friend Faustus.”
“I see. Follow me, please.”
She opened the counter side door to let me in. The barista looked on as I made my way to the back door, more baffled than ever. A minute later, I found myself alone with the manager in her small, suffocating office.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting someone of your appearance,” she said, emotionless. “You look like any of the other office workers who walk into this shop everyday.”
“You know what they say. Looks can be deceiving.”
I had no idea who I was dealing with, so I chose to act like I did. Was she going to withhold the item if I admitted I was only a pawn in some criminal mastermind’s sick game of chess? I couldn’t take that chance; my life was on the line.
“Very well,” the manager continued. “I only have one question for you then: how old is Faustus?”
How old is Faustus? The Assailant had not prepared me for this question. I could not remember him mentioning this at all. Improvisation could not save me on this one. This woman was for sure some form of drug dealer or organ trafficker. She would see right through me and have me killed. My body would sink into the ocean tied to a concrete block, I could see it right in front of my eyes. Dear lord, why didn’t I stick to tea?
“I… well… his age…”
“Yes, his age. It’s his birthday, after all.”
Panic was about to kick in. I had to think quick. That’s when a voice seemed to rise inside my mind. It started as a murmur, a faded noise, but it didn’t take long for me to recognize to whom it belonged. It was Gretchen’s, of course. I was reminded of the words she had repeated all day to anyone who would listen. Something about the October lineup, about the 30th anniversary…
“Thirty,” I answered defiantly. “He’s thirty, of course.”
This seemed to please the manager.
“Well done,” she declared. “There you go.”
She pulled out a small golden box tied with an orange ribbon from underneath her desk and handed it over to me.
“I’m sure Faustus will be over the moon,” she said. “You may go now.”
The manager sat back down as if nothing had happened and found herself absorbed in paperwork within mere seconds, leaving me speechless with disbelief. I slowly but surely backed away from her desk, sliding through the door opening leading back to the back-store corridor. The box hardly looked like it could contain drugs or organs. If anything, it almost felt like a Christmas present. This was none of my business, I figured. The sooner the Assailant had the box in his hands, the sooner I could go back to freedom. I walked resolutely towards the door at the end of the hall, unprepared for what was waiting for me on the other side.
A chorus of baristas and employees chanted the word on the other side as I found myself in the coffee shop again. Balloons and confetti fell from the ceiling. The Assailant was there right in front of me, beaming, holding up a gun that was obviously fake. The customers who made fun of the vicious Karen earlier were applauding. I could not understand for the life of me what was going on, until the manager sneaked out from behind the back door and put her hand on my shoulder.
“You won!” she exclaimed. A photographer took a picture of the two of us.
“Our grand prize, for our 30th anniversary! The whole thing was a prank to see if you would pass the test. Faustus was the original name of our shop before our rebranding ten years ago. Only a true fan would know. You provided the right answer, so you won! Open the box.”
The crowd cheered some more. Reluctantly, I undid the ribbon and found no drug, no organ: the only thing inside was a gift card.
“It’s a season-long supply of our brand new October line,” she explained. “You can get any drink in the line at any time for no cost until November 1st.”
The customers around me went berserk with excitement, their coffee aficionado’s eyes staring at me with overflowing envy.
“So you’re telling me this man pretended to hold a gun against me and threatened my life so that I could go through this elaborate prank to win a coffee shop gift card?”
“Exactly. There were cameras everywhere, the prank will be featured on our website. I’m sure you’ll get tons of views.”
My usual self was always peaceful, non-confrontational, yet in that moment I had no choice but to be vile and unfathomably vindictive. My right hand curled into a fist: I punched the manager with all my might. The crowd went quiet. I tossed the gift card into the mass of coffee addicts and promptly went out the door as they fought over it. From now on, the Brit would stick to tea.