Friday, 28 December 2012

The assassin and the tea-master

Janet O’Steen, Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian, sat down on the only free table in the small café.  She put her handbag down on the table, knocking the laminated menu to the floor, and looked around her.
The café was full, but not quite crowded; the management had laid the tables out with a little space between them, foregoing the opportunity to cram as many people in as possible in favour of giving their customers a pleasant enough experience that they would want to come back.  The counter was against the back wall of the room and had the usual glass display cases housing pastries, pre-sliced cakes, and baguette-style sandwiches that hadn’t been there long enough to start looking wilted yet.  A huge chrome coffee machine took up about two-thirds of the space, and the baristas were constantly dancing around trying to tend to both it and the customers without collision.  The smell of roasted coffee beans was a permanent, mingled with a smell of damp (it was raining outside), and an occasional gust of baking bread from the ovens in the back room.  Janet inhaled deeply, hoping for bread and getting only damp.
Most of the tables were fully occupied, though perhaps ten percent of them, like hers, had a single chair free.  One or two had two chairs free, and Janet couldn’t help but give their occupants a reproving look that they were wasting space like that.  The occupants stoically ignored her, in most cases not even realising that the pinch-faced woman with the glare was looking at them.
“What will you be having then?”  A waitress had appeared at her elbow while she was glaring at the other customers, and was standing, poised alertly with her notepad at the ready and her pen aimed dagger-like at the page.
“Tea,” said Janet clearly.  “As black as a mother’s heart, with a small jug of sweet milk on the side to temper her wrath.”
“Yes, thank-you,” said Janet a little bit put-out that the waitress had ignored the way she’d phrased her request.
“And for your guest?”
Janet narrowed her eyes at the waitress, wondering what mysterious slight this was intended to be, and started to gesture at the empty seat across from her.  Only it wasn’t empty any more.  Sat there was a man with long chestnut-brown hair, a hook-nose, and gimlet-like eyes that might have been yellow.
“Ask him yourself,” said Janet, faintly surprising herself that that was the response she’d intended to give all along.  She toned the sarcasm down a little though.  The waitress turned to the intruder and raised an eyebrow.
“Tea,” he said in a deep voice that made Janet think of chocolate.  “Served in bone china, with a slice of lemon on the side.  Do you have hibiscus-tea?”
“Sure,” said the waitress, making a couple of notes on her pad.  She turned away to place the orders, and Janet glared at the man who had sat opposite her.
“It’s considered polite to ask before you sit down,” she said stiffly.
“It would be polite of you to clear the table before the waitress returns with our drinks,” said the man.  He put a hand on her handbag, and Janet immediately slapped it.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I’m an assassin,” he replied.
Janet picked her handbag up and placed it down beside her chair, making sure it leaned against her leg so that any bag-thief would have to alert her to his intentions.  She didn’t take her eyes from the self-proclaimed assassin while she did this, relying on the comforting weight of the handbag to know that she was leaning it against the right leg.  For a moment she was distracted, thinking that she should create a character for her next novel that had a false leg and so had to constantly look at what they were doing with it.  Perhaps they could have an elderly mother in a wheelchair who was attempting to dominate their life still, until there was an accident… no, wait, her critics were still harping on about matricidal storylines, so perhaps the mother could be sent on a Saga holiday to get her out of the way while the protagonist found romance.  With… with a man who’d lost both of his legs to a landmine accident while on holiday with his sister, who’d lost both of her arms in the same accident and couldn’t hug her only child….
“What were you thinking?” asked the assassin.  The waitress laid a bone-china cup containing a fragrant orange liquid in front of him.  “Your eyes were slightly glazed and your heart-rate increased.”
“I was planning a new novel,” said Janet.  The waitress placed a mug of thick black tea in front of her, and banged a little white ceramic jug on milk next to it.  “Why are you sitting at my table?  Why have you not left when I pointed out how rude you have been?  I have cleared the table when you pointed out how rude I was being.”
“I am here to kill a woman,” said the assassin.  He sipped his tea, and smiled thinly.
“I see,” said Janet.  “Do you need some suggestions?  I have a list.”  The assassin paused, his cup halfway to his lips again, and lowered it.
“You have a list?”
“Well yes,” said Janet.  “I have been wronged, slightly, and improperly criticised.  I should think all authors have lists they’d be happy to have someone take care of for them.”
“I’m not here for you to hire,” said the assassin.  He removed a tiny knife from somewhere beneath his coat and laid it on the table.  The blade was as long as a finger, and the handle was barely long enough to grip in two fingers.  It gleamed.
Janet sipped her tea and sighed with pleasure as the hot liquid warmed her throat and stomach.  “Then why are you still at my table?” she asked.
“You are a very single-minded woman,” said the assassin.  He tilted his head, looking intently at Janet.  “I am impressed.  I – what are you doing?”
Janet pursed her lips.  “Stirring my tea,” she said.  She had picked the assassin’s knife up and was stirring a few drops of milk into her tea with it.  Then she skewered a sugar cube from a bowl on a neighbouring table, ignoring a soft gasp from the man at the table, and stirred that in too.  “I shall clean your knife, don’t worry.  But that slattern of a waitress has forgotten both my sugar and any spoons.”
The assassin stared at the knife, still whirling away in the mug of tea, his eyes large and shocked.  “How will you clean it?”
“There’s a ladies’ room over there,” said Janet, gesturing with the knife.  A few hot drops of tea flew from the blade and landed in a cup on the adjacent table.  The assassin’s face turned ashy-grey.
“That’s quite alright,” he said, tossing back the rest of his tea in one gulp and standing.  “You may keep it.”
Janet looked down at the knife, whose blade was no longer gleaming but jet-black and spotted, as though something coating it had reacted with the tea.  When she looked up, the assassin was gone.  She put the knife down, and picked her mug up, and then paused and laid down again.  The man at the adjacent table had just sipped his drink again and was now coughing in a most alarming manner.

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