Contemporary Fiction Mystery

“I don’t get why you have this place,” said Kelly as she took the order for an Americano. “You don’t even like people.”

Taking a stack of books from the counter and setting them on the trolley, I answered. “What? That’s not true. I like people fine; I don’t understand most of them, but I like trying to figure it out. Besides, it’s research.”

“Uh-huh. For your novel.”

I didn’t have to look at Kelly to see the dubious expression on her face. My “novel” was a stack of folders in my desk drawer stuffed with notes, anecdotes, plot lines, and story arcs. Clearly, at only twenty, Kelly was too young to understand; great writing requires expansive research.

The fact it was four years since I began the novel meant nothing. I’d write it when my writing was ready.

“Please check on Cara when you’re done and see if she’d like a fresh tea.” I grabbed the small cart loaded with the week’s selections of new-old books and came around the counter. “I’ll be in the back rotating these into the pods.”

“Right. It’s ‘Shadow Saturday,’” Kelly answered.

Pressing my brow together, I looked at Kelly, asking for elaboration on her remark.

“She’s here,” Kelly answered, glancing at me with the confidence of someone who’s won a game I didn’t know we were playing.

“Who is here?”

“Her. Shadow Woman. Miss Long Legs, Chai Latte, with chocolate shavings, the funny accent, and the restless feet.” Kelly answered with a smile raising at the corner of her mouth, “The one you like.”

“Hmph. Please see to Cara and take a quilt. The sun is off the east side now.”

“Okay, Boss. Good luck!” Kelly said with an assured grin before spinning on her heels, her ponytail swaying full of the bounce and charm of youth, waving me off, declaring she’d scored another point.

My café-slash-bookstore, The Bean Pod, was a quietly busy place. Spread out across the expanse of a historic building, once a general store and later a saloon, I transformed it into cozy rooms with individual pods. Spaced over the original timbered floors were loungers shaped like a coffee bean.

In each “bean,” ambient lighting could be changed to suit the occupant’s pleasure and Bluetooth-enabled speakers for those wanting music or an audiobook to carry their worries away. Pockets holding books from fiction to autobiographies, art to historical texts were affixed inside the shells of each pod.

We offered coffee, tea, and a small assortment of pastries. Three times a week, homemade soup and fresh sourdough loaves joined the menu. The food and drink were overpriced, but the books were free.

The Bean Pod was a place to come in and check out, a bring-a-book, take-a-book exchange, where customers were encouraged to curl into a lounger and escape a too-busy and stressful life. For those seeking a quiet place to hide, a cloth curtain could be pulled from behind each bean, arcing around and closing off the space like a protective leaf sheltering its fruit.

It was slow to get going, but now I had a clientele of regulars. Some came in, happy to pay five bucks for a cup of joe, grab a handful of books and go.

Others, harried mothers, students of all ages, men in suits, and seniors would come in, claim a pod, curl in, and read in privacy without pressure to make a purchase.

On my quiet rounds to clear plates and collect cups, I found many customers asleep with a book held against their chest or tummy, their eyes shut and dreaming peacefully.

Along one side of the room was a recessed space I suspected previous proprietors may have used for a stock room or pantry. I repurposed it into my writing and viewing den. With the addition of strategically placed mirrors, I could sit, read, or write while having a fishbowl reflection of the pods. It was as close to a perfect setup as I could imagine.

Until a month ago when she arrived.

The woman had slipped into a pod as suddenly and subtly as the afternoon sunlight obscured by a cloud. One moment, the pod was vacant, then in the blink of a passing shadow, she was there, one high-heel, laying on its side, abandoned on the floor beside the lounger. The toes of a bare foot sheathed in a sheer stocking toyed with the heel of the other pushing the shoe halfway down, dangling below a marvellously high arch.

 As though she’d suddenly sensed her exposure to my gaze, her legs, shaped in the feminine perfection of lily petals, raised her feet, and retracted behind the protective cover of the pod.

The dislodged shoe remained on the floor, beckoning like Cinderella’s lost slipper.

The woman was elusive in revealing details. Neither Kelly nor I knew much about her, and when slyly provoked to provide a name, the answer was always the heroine of the day’s book.

She declared being Elizabeth Bennet one day: Catherine Earnshaw the next. If she arrived with her cinnamon and ginger-flecked hair pulled tight and twisted into a bun, she declared herself feeling very “Jo March-like.” or would say, “I think Karen Blixen will serve me well today.”

Mistakenly thinking I was invited to participate in her stage play, I jumped in with a guess in my greeting the day she entered the cafe, wearing a full-length dress, her hair in Dutch braids and the rest curled with the turn radius of coiled springs, gleaming like polished copper. “Ah, Merida from Brave today?”

She paused, and our eyes met. She regarded me for a moment with her chocolate browns, and I felt the weight of being measured. A smile and a slow shake of her head. “How quaint, but no. Today it’s Claire Fraser.” She answered. “But I appreciate the effort — Jamie.”

I hadn’t been called “Jamie” by anyone other than my mother. My father often reiterated, “James was my name, and it’s how I was to be addressed. It was stitched into my shirt.

That was the night I began binge-watching, “Outlander.”

I always seemed to have luck with money and timing, and four years earlier, I cashed in big. I was operating a small consulting firm at the time, troubleshooting industrial controls for large-scale water filtration systems when a major entity offered a buy-out. The corporation wanted ownership and distribution rights for my new instrumentation assembly. The money was outrageous, and I was bored.

I accepted the deal they offered and, at forty-five, had effectively retired. If I was careful, I could live out the rest of my days without ever needing to work again.

After a solid year of travel, I returned and fell into months of reading and writing. For as long as I could remember, I had wanted to pen the next great American novel. To do so, I wanted to immerse myself as an observer of the human condition in a setting reflective of what I saw as a gaping hole in our culture — people reading books and taking proper rest; it was the impetus for The Bean Pod.

As a business, it was a disaster. But I owned the building and the land beneath it. Still, when my accountant looked over the books every three months, he would shake his head and encourage me to change the business classification to a non-profit.

The value I looked at wasn’t in dollars. It was in the faces of the patrons, who, after an hour or more, of undisturbed rest and reading, walked out looking refreshed and re-invigorated enough to face their lives with the courage of literary heroes in their thoughts.

I engaged with most of my customers on a first-name basis, and I had a few favourites, like Julie, a social studies teacher from the high school. Each Saturday, she would come into the cafe in her workout clothes and a gym bag slung over her shoulder, order a large French Roast, black with a half-teaspoon of sugar, and retire to a pod near the back. Two and a half hours later, she emerged, placing the barely touched coffee on the counter with a sheepish grin. “It’s the smell I like most,” she explained, “And I burn calories in my sleep.” Her husband had no idea her workout was turning pages.

“See you next week, James.”

Over a short period, I pieced together a picture puzzle of the lives of those who frequently came. Each person’s story was unique, but all the people were alike. They all worked too hard, needed rest, and wanted to believe in worlds more exciting than their own.

I had a good peg on my patrons; everyone but her.

It was more than dodging, giving up her real name; the woman was like a mirage. She’d sail through the door on a breeze, blow right by the front desk, and I’d see her perusing the geometric-shaped bookshelves, dropped between pods like a Tetris game, catching a flip of her long hair over a shoulder, or seeing and listening to her fingertips tracking over book spines, moving slowly over rows, searching for a volume worth of her attention.

I’d move slightly, hoping to spy on her from a better angle, but she’d be gone. By the time I’d found the mirror, angled to show her pod, she’d tucked herself against the oversized pillows with a book in hand and her feet covered with a blanket. She moved like a summer breeze, warming my skin one moment, gone the next.

Her accent threw me off. I couldn’t place it; when I thought I finally had her figured out, a nuance would send me back to square one. Early on, I had thought Afrikaner or Dutch, but she eluded firm categorization.

Her height and facial structure implied a Swede, but her skin tone and intonations suggested an Arab heritage. Her words poured from her full lips with the slow Kentucky esh for an ess, but her ays pulled into long ahs.

I couldn’t be more lost. She was an enigma, and she was beautiful.

Shadow Woman paid with cash, spoiling the opportunity to glimpse her name on a plastic card. She wore no rings, but a dainty Bulova rose-gold watch adorned a narrow wrist. Once or twice, I ambled to the window, hoping to see what sort of vehicle she climbed into and possibly a clue. Even here, she thwarted my sleuth-like attempts, walking across the street and down the block until she disappeared around a corner.

Conversations with her were no less bewildering. Her words were always cordial but brief, warm but carrying the undertones of firm boundaries. Yet, she looked at me with delight as though I were a bonbon ready to snatch up and pop into her mouth with guilty pleasure.

I wanted to observe her with more time and attention, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without seeming intrusive and offending. I had learned a few things, though, like how Shadow Woman was persistent in keeping her hair from ever covering her ears.

I had never noticed how lovely an ear could be until hers; petite and pretty, always wearing small but dangling earrings. In the end, I was only sure she knew something I didn’t and was waiting for me to figure it out.

That’s why the note was so alarming.

An hour earlier, Kelly had escorted our last lingering customer out the door, locking it behind her. Per my routine, I sat at my writing desk, scribbling notes on the people who had entered the shop.

I recorded what books they read and left behind, those they took, and those they brought. I noted what type of person ordered which beverage, who ate, who never did, and who slept. I noted patterns by age group; those who laughed readily, wept freely, or coughed to hide their emotions.

My data was forming patterns. When reading, men were most often teary-eyed, while women laughed often and loudly. The young ones seemed consistently worried, and the older women, like Cara, always thanked me on the way out, telling me each time they thought The Bean Pod was a slice of heaven.

Fancy coffees sold better than straight brews. Tea was preferred by men and women over 60, and everyone loved flaky pastries.

Also, as a matter of routine, after putting away my notebook, I went to double-check the front was locked up, even though I did so after Kelly closed up. As I passed the front counter on my way to the back of the shop to leave for home, a piece of beige paper, folded and sitting up like a tent in the center of the glass display case, stopped me.

I hadn’t seen it there earlier and recalled seeing it bare when I set my mug in the dishwasher and turned it on after Kelly left.

Yet, there it was.

The room was silent, and the lights dimmed. I stood still and listened. The only sound was the soft, whap-whap-whap of the overhead fans. I was alone.

I raised the note and opened it to see intricate cursive written with a feminine touch.

"Al Tavino.

Tuesday, Eight P.M.

715 South River Road

Yes, it's me.

Don't be late!"

“Il Tavino?” I wondered aloud. Knowing Italian well enough to be passable, I understood it to say, “the little table.” It wasn’t a big town and only had a handful of decent eateries. I had never heard of Il Tavino, and as far as I knew, there were no restaurants on South River Road. Had Shadow Woman invited me to her home?

A quick check on Google Maps answered my question.

It was 7:55 Tuesday night, and I stood at the door of 715 South River Road with a bouquet in one hand and a vibrant Pinot Grigio in the other.

The door opened before I touched the bell.

I stood staring at Shadow Woman, who wore a knowing smirk and a killer cocktail dress, a grape silk ending at mid thigh. Her long auburn hair flowed with a side braid thick and luminous.

Taking the flowers, she dipped a narrow nose and inhaled. “White orchids and tiger lilies. Thank you, they’re lovely, and a Grigio! Well done, Jamie. You guessed correctly; I’m not a red wine drinker.”

Before I could utter a “You’re welcome,” she ran two fingers behind her ear and spoke again. “What about the rest? Did you figure it out? The answer to your question—who am I?”

I was off balance and awestruck. She was a vision, and I was at a loss for clever words. I answered on instinct alone.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea.”

“I’m what’s missing in your novel, Jamie,” she answered, taking the flowers and wine, turning, and walking away.

I stepped inside and closed the door. The furnishing was an eclectic gathering of pieces and none of them purchased from a big box retailer. Near the fireplace sat a Louis XV Tête-À-Tête sofa, upholstered in ivory linen with gold stitching. Between the windows stood an antique hutch made of walnut, or some such dark grain.

I turned back and caught her glancing back over a delicate shoulder, hitting me with those heavy chocolate eyes. “Why, Jamie, I’m your main character!” She announced. “I’m your hero and your muse.”

I heard the click of her heels on the hardwood floor, yet she seemed to float across the room.

She set the Pinot Grigio on a white cloth napkin atop a small table with legs of rich mahogany and disappeared around a corner. A moment later, she reappeared, a blush in her cheeks and eyes sparking with mischief, looking even more beautiful. The flowers were in a slim vase of blown glass, a mosaic of colours frozen in flow. She placed the lilies and orchids next to the wine, then walked toward me with two glasses hanging between her fingers.

I remained anchored in the spot where she’d left me. Unwilling to move and break the spell she’d cast. I knew whatever was about to happen would be at her pace, and my mind was recording every second.

I blinked, and she stood in front of me. Close enough to smell vanilla and almond on her skin. A hand curled over my shoulder, French-tipped nails danced on my neck and her lips brushed my cheek; the softest voice I’d ever heard puffed words against my earlobe.

“Shall we get started?”

September 22, 2023 07:50

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