~ * ~
The sign read “Vince Noir’s Moonlight Café.”
Howard shook his head at it. He’d heard of this café from Lester. He hadn’t believed it though. A Rock-N-Roll star behind a counter refusing to make mochas and always nipping off to get some milk.
Howard opened the door, sauntering in—well, really kind of slinking in anyway. He was so used to people telling him to get out, to leave their sight, and to stop jazzing about the place that he half-expected the man behind the counter to tell him to take himself right out, like a refuse bag.
Instead, he got a harried, “Just a minute,” as the clerk turned to a group of doddering old men. “Now, that was six darjeelings, two Earl Greys, a peppermint, two lattes, a cappuccino, and one mocha. Anything else?”
“Oh, you are doing mochas now, are you?” one of the men, an old soldier wrapped in a bright red jacket, sitting in a wheelchair, no legs to speak of, and a sinister if grandfatherly—surely evil grandfathers existed, right?—smile, said.
The clerk rolled his eyes. “Today only,” he said pointing at a sign that declared today “Mocha Day!!”
Underneath it, someone had written: “Today is Today ONLY. NOT TOMORROW.”
“Fine, then,” the man said, his sneer growing ever more cruel, “we’ll all have mochas.”
“But I want peppermint,” one of the geriatric bastards protested. “Colonel, you can’t punish the nice lady like that. She hasn’t done anything to earn your ire.”
“I’m not a lady,” the clerk said, tiredly, like he’d had to protest this fact several times already and was just about ready to let it be.
“Of course not,” the Colonel said. “But you shouldn’t let them get lazy. Did I ever tell you about Squeaky and his wife? Beautiful woman that, lazier than a broken bayonet.”
The peppermint-seeking elder grabbed the Colonel by his lapels and half-lifted him out of his chair. “I’ve heard enough of your bullshit stories, Colonel. If you don’t want to return to the ward, you’ll be quiet and let this lovely young lady get us our drinks.”
The Colonel muttered under his breath but allowed himself to be wheeled to a table in the center of the floor.
Howard stepped up to the counter and waited while the clerk slapped the order onto the back counter with all his carafes and turned back to Howard with a forced smile.
“Welcome to Vince Noir’s Moonlight Café. What can I get you?”
Howard stroked his mustache, studying the hand-written board behind the clerk’s frankly ridiculous hair. No wonder the old men, with their failing eyesight and old-fashioned ideals kept mistaking him for a woman. A haircut would do wonders. The clerk’s face was also visually noisy, a sharp nose that looked like it had been broken a few times, bright blue eyes, painted red lips. If he didn’t know any better, Howard would think him beautiful. He swallowed hard. “I’ll just have a normal tea, please.”
The clerk—Vince Noir himself by his name tag—sagged in relief. “Coming right up,” he said. “Oh, to-go cup or mug?”
“Mug if you’ve got it.”
“Mug it is,” Vince said. He spun away again and started pulling levers and pumping shots. By the time Howard’s tea was ready, so was nearly all of the visiting geriatric ward’s giant order.
“Need help carrying it?” Howard asked as Vince settled the mugs carefully onto a tray.
“No,” Vince said, but he could hear the regret in it. “I’m supposed to have help today, but did Naboo show up? Of course not. It’s a bank holiday today.”
Vince managed to set the cups down on the elderly gentlemen’s table without spilling a single drop. As he pulled back, a brilliant smile aimed at two of the men, the one who had threatened the colonel and the fellow next to him, the Colonel reached out and tugged on his apron string.
He did something else too if the way Vince spun around and smacked his hand meant anything.
“No touching,” Vince snapped. He stalked back to his counter and set the tray down. He leaned his hands on the counter and let his head fall forwards, his fringe covering his eyes.
“All right there, little man?” Howard asked. Vince shook his head. “If you want help at all, I’d be glad to offer my services.”
Vince’s shoulders rose up to his ears before dropping sharply. Then, he lifted his head. “Yeah, sure. Why not? It’s not like Naboo can get mad at me. I mean, it’s right busy now and I haven’t had a break in ages.” He sighed, retying his apron. He handed another one to Howard. “Can you watch the register? Prices are listed on the sheet next to it. Extra pumps cost an extra bit.”
“Sure,” Howard said agreeably. “It seems easy enough. I’ve run a few shops in my time. That’s me, Howard T.J. Moon, most sales-worthy shopkeeper this side of Shoreditch.”
“Great.” Vince slapped a sticker onto Howard’s chest. He’d written Howard’s name and then drawn a quick sketch of the man in the moon. He looked a right start, and Howard wondered, for the first time, if Vince was quite as mad as the rest of the clientele.
Howard got the hang of the register quickly, making sales and calling orders to Vince.
Vince was a wizard on his machines and with his foam. He made dozens more mochas until finally, to his utter glee, he announced that they were out of ingredients for it. “You can take the sign down now, Howard. That ought to be good.”
The group of old men finally came up to pay, and Vince let Howard deal with them. They weren’t so bad, mostly just making comments about how charming Vince was and that Howard was a lucky man to have such a beautiful wife.
Vince sneered at them over the rim of a mug the size of his head. They each tipped a pence into a cup, except for the Colonel who gave Howard a leer as he told him to keep his boldness to himself.
“We don’t need another Squeaky,” he advised, waving at Vince. “Although,” he amended, “bold isn’t the word for it.”
He tapped the side of his nose and wheeled his way outside.
Vince set the mug down next to Howard’s elbow. “I hate him. He’s supposed to be brilliant at strategy but all he does is make me uncomfortable. But because he brings in nearly seventy euros per visit, Naboo won’t let me ban him. It’s my name on the sign. I ought to have banning rights. Instead, I’ve got to make teas and cappuccinos every day. I’m not even allowed any keys.”
“Is it always this busy?” Howard wondered, taking a sip from Vince’s mug and pretending that the amount of sugar in the drink didn’t burn his throat.
“No,” Vince admitted. “Just on bank holidays. That’s the only time we do mochas. And Naboo is never around for them.” Vince took his mug back, swallowing half of the remaining liquid in one go. “Hey, Howard,” he said, smacking his lips a bit. “Want to work here permanently?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I was thinking I’d do a bit of exploring before I settled down again. You know, spend time being Howard Moon-colon-explorer. Find a nice girl to marry, have a couple of kids.”
“I don’t know about the kids,” Vince said, “but I’ve just spent all afternoon having to hear about how I’m a nice lady. Come on, Howard. This could be your adventure. Imagine that, you and me working together for the rest of the week or year or however long you’ll stick around. It’d be genius.”
“I suppose it can’t be that bad,” Howard agreed. He’d rather liked running the register and stealing glances at Vince as he worked his carafes, pumps, and foams. He stole Vince’s mug and drained it, coughing at the dregs. “Well, what’s next?”
“I suppose I could close the shop to get more supplies for mochas.”
Vince shrugged. “I hate making mochas.” He grimaced. “It brings in more people, and I’d rather not have to deal with them. They’re always touching me when I don’t want it or mistaking me for a lady. I mean, I do have nice hair, but that doesn’t mean I want to be harassed for it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with having nice hair,” Howard pointed out.
Vince shrugged again. “Sure,” he agreed. “But I don’t like being felt up. I wish people could see that.”
“Well, I can’t say that me working here is going to disabuse them of the notion. Not after that afternoon.” He felt like blushing recalling the Colonel’s words and the implication that he and Vince were already intimate even though they’d just met.
Vince nodded. “But,” he said, “I think it’d be more bearable with you there. They can talk to you, and I won’t have to respond.”
“You’ll have to teach me how to carry that tray then,” Howard said. “If you don’t want to deliver teas anymore.”
Vince smiled, a cheeky grin that made the bottom of Howard’s stomach drop in a way that wasn’t exactly unpleasant. “That can be arranged.”
Howard clapped his hands together. “Well, that’s settled then. My next adventure shall be as a tea shop clerk with you.”
“Brilliant. Besides, Howard Moon, colon explorer just doesn’t seem to have the right ring to it, y’know?”
Howard wondered what he had just gotten himself into. A look at Vince doubled over laughing at his own joke, which, Howard had to admit, was slightly funny, and he decided it’d be worth it.
As Vince had said, it’d be genius.
~ The End ~