The exchange took place in a dark alley.
The woman watched from the tinted windows of her stretch limousine, licking her lips involuntarily as the package passed from the hands of the dealer to those of her driver. Once it was in his possession, he walked backwards to the limo, in case the man might try something underhanded. The woman willed her driver to walk faster, impatience tugging at her. She’d waited long enough already, bribing and blackmailing and spending a fortune, all to get her hands on that package. Her mouth watered just thinking of it.
She didn’t even make it home before prying open the package with carefully manicured nails. The instant the vacuum seal released, the stretch limousine was filled with the heady, earthy flavor that no one had smelled in nearly six months. The woman breathed in deeply, wondering at the way that even the scent made her feel more awake, more alert, more alive, in a way that synthetic stuff they tried to replace it with never could. Then she carefully resealed the package and tucked it away in her handbag. She clutched it close to her, fighting the urge to bury her nose in it so that she could once again experience the delightful pleasure of the world’s last bag of coffee.
The alarm clock shrieked in Officer Malone’s ear. He groaned and rolled over, flailing at it in the dark. Beside him, his wife rolled away from the sound, letting out a tiny moan.
“Can’t they get anyone else to work the early shift?” she muttered. “Ever?”
“Sorry, hon,” Malone whispered. “Go back to sleep.”
Groggily, he showered and dressed in his uniform. Out of long-engrained habit, he grabbed an insulated travel mug out of the cupboard and turned to the corner of the kitchen. Beside the microwave, his trusty coffee pot – a gift from his mother upon his wedding day – stood empty. He stared at it, trying to remember what it smelled like back then. The kitchen seemed so sterile, so un-home-like without the pleasant scent that used to greet him each morning. He placed the mug back in the cupboard.
His eyelids were heavy on the way to work, but he kept an ice-cold bottle of water beside him for those moments when he needed to shock himself awake. He pulled up to the tan, two-story home where his partner lived and gently pressed on the horn. Officer Bountiful trudged down the steps, rubbing the top of his head as if trying to shake his brain awake. Malone knew the feeling.
“We have time to stop at the shop?” Bountiful asked as he slid into the car. “I need something, man. My wife made me some tea, but that’s not cutting it today.”
“Should be all right. Haven’t had any calls yet this morning.”
“That’s surprising. It’s almost five.”
“I know. Looks like it might be a good day after all.” A good day being one that had only one or two early-morning traffic accidents: people falling asleep at the wheel and driving off the road or rear-ending the car in front of them because their reflexes were not what they ought to be. A good day being one that had only one or two cases of road rage, one or two employees going postal, one or two idiot parents calling 9-1-1 to try to get the cops to come over and force their grown children out of bed to go to college classes or part-time jobs.
They pulled up to the shop, which used to buzz with activity at this time of the morning, but now looked so quiet and still that Malone wondered if it was even still open. The lights were on, though the glow coming from them seemed more like a front porch light, left on just in case, rather than a glowing beacon.
Inside, the shop was empty. The barista leaned against the counter, reading a newspaper and snapping her gum. Malone hated how gum had come back en vogue. Everyone chewed it nowadays, trying to occupy their mouths and keep themselves alert. Wrigley for the old-timers, Orbit for the young folks. Their stockholders were likely the only people who had anything to be happy about nowadays.
Malone stared at the menu. Half of its items were blacked out in permanent marker and the other half contained new items and new prices pasted up over the old ones, prices that were much higher than anyone would have ever expected to pay for something like tea or energy drinks or caffeinated soda.
Malone rubbed his eyes and pulled out his wallet. His fingers wavered as he pulled out the bill. Maybe he ought to just stick with the water, try to make it through the morning without spending the cash he’d have normally spent on a nice dinner out with his wife. He hesitated.
Then his phone buzzed.
“Hey, Mel,” Tito hissed from the back room.
Melissa snapped her gum and turned away from two cops who’d just darted out of the shop.
“And here I thought they’d actually buy something,” she muttered.
“What does it matter?” Tito said. “You used to complain all the time about how busy it was here every morning.”
“Well, if business keeps up like this, Marcy won’t be able to afford to pay us. That’s what it matters.”
“I know, Mel,” Tito said. “But hey, I’ve got something to show you that might cheer you up.”
Melissa furrowed her brow and checked over her shoulder at the empty shop, then ducked into the back room. Tito had his hands cupped together, carefully cradling something in them too small for Melissa to see.
“What is it?” She leaned in.
He carefully opened his hands, peeling them apart like a flower bud opening. In his palm, he held a tiny, brown item that took a moment for Melissa to recognize.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Tito smiled and picked up the object between a finger and thumb. “One genuine, honest-to-goodness chocolate-covered espresso bean.”
“Where did you get that, Tito?” Melissa asked, her mind racing. He certainly wouldn’t be able to afford such a precious commodity, not with the wages Marcy paid them.
Tito chuckled. “Don’t worry, Mel. I found it. Marcy asked me to clean out the back room and, well, apparently no one’s moved the fridge in the last six months. This was just sitting there under it, covered in dust.”
Melissa’s eyes widened. She’d have never even thought to go scrounging around looking for random, discarded beans. By the time the public had found out about the invasive species of beetle that managed to destroy all the world’s coffee crops, it had been too late to start rationing or hoarding. Within weeks, the world’s supply was just… gone.
“You ought to tell Marcy,” Melissa said. “Technically, it’s her bean.”
“Well then what are you going to do? Sell it? I’ll bet you could get enough to buy a new car, or pay for a semester or two of college with a bean like that.”
Tito turned it over in his hand, and then raised his eyes to meet hers. She’d never noticed how they were precisely the color of espresso. “No. We’re going to eat it.”
“What? Come on, Tito. Don’t kid like that.”
“We can’t eat it.”
“Sure we can. We did it all the time before. You remember the little sample jar we used to have out on the counter, just free for the taking. Come on. Split it with me?”
Melissa bit her lip. She looked around the back room, checking to make sure no one was watching. Her mouth watered at the thought of the bean in Tito’s hand.
“All right. Let’s eat it.”
Miss Innes used to be a nice teacher.
She used to sing songs to her students and read stories and laugh. They used to draw pictures for her to hang on her desk, on the door, on the walls. They used to tell their younger siblings, “When you get to second grade, you’ll be lucky to get in Miss Innes’s classroom. She’s the best teacher in the world.”
Miss Innes knew when the problem started. It was about six months ago, the day she arrived at school to find the teacher’s lounge strangely silent. It’d taken her a moment to figure out what was missing: the crisp sound of coffee dripping from the coffeemaker. She’d torn her pantyhose crawling deep into the storage cupboard, trying to find one final tub of coffee, but came up empty-handed.
That day she refused to read aloud to her class, blaming her irritable response on the splitting headache that hammered on her brain. After lunch, she’d torn through her desk, finally coming up with enough change for a soda from the vending machine, only to find that they’d raised the prices overnight. Desperate, she’d had to borrow another quarter from Mr. Pruitt, who took her request as an attempt at flirtation and hadn’t left her alone since.
Spending more money on caffeinated beverages to make it through the morning didn’t bode well for her small, teacher’s-salary budget. Money that ought to have gone to getting a new haircut, new clothes, new shoes now was spent on overpriced carbonated beverages that had a tendency to make her sick if she drank them on an empty stomach. She gained twenty-five pounds and none of her clothes fit, but she didn’t have the money to buy new ones.
In short, she was miserable.
She listlessly took attendance and recited the spelling words for the day. She should have spent more time on lesson planning, coming up with some fun, interactive games for the students to use while practicing their words, but even if she had, her energy was so low that the effort it’d take to teach them a new game just seemed impossibly exhausting. How was it that she used to be able to do these things with a smile and a bounce in her step? She must be getting old.
The students filed out for recess, eager to escape the dull, gray classroom, where even the brightly painted art projects were now faded and falling down, one corner at a time, as the adhesive lost its hold on the wall. Miss Innes sighed and placed her head on her desk.
She didn’t even notice when the principal walked through the door.
She shot up. “Sorry. Sorry, Mr. Chee. What’s the problem?”
“The problem,” he said, “is that the bell rang ten minutes ago. Your students were all lined up outside to come back into their classroom, and you’re in here napping.”
“I’m sorry… I was… I was just…” No excuse would work. She could feel the lines on her face from where her cheek had been pressed against her sleeve and the wetness of drool on her chin. She wiped it away. “I’m sorry.”
“Go home, Miss Innes.” Mr. Chee frowned. “This is the third time this has happened, and I’m afraid it’ll be the last. I’ll call in a substitute to finish off the school year.”
“What?” Miss Innes jumped up. “You can’t!”
“I most certainly can. Now go home, and…” He shook his head, walked away.
Stu walked down the street, yanking at his waistband every few steps to keep his pants from falling to his ankles. He was antsy, itchy. It’d been hours now since his last bean. He jogged across the street to the corner where he was supposed to meet his contact. It’d been getting tougher and tougher to find someone to hook him up. Supply and demand.
He was halfway across the intersection when a junky little Ford pulled a left-hand turn, screaming on the brakes and stopping mere inches from his backside.
He cursed and kicked at the bumper. The woman inside flinched. She looked like a schoolteacher, with her hair all done up in a bun and one of those lady business suits, though even from where he stood, Stu could see that it looked too tight. Her eyes were all red, her face puffy like she’d been crying.
Their eyes met.
Then in a burst of speed and sound, something crashed into the Ford.
Stu jumped back, shielding his eyes against the debris that flew out from the Ford and the car that hit it – a slinky black limo, its hood crushed in like an accordion, now un-stretched to the size of a normal vehicle. One of the back door opened and out stumbled a woman in a red dress, clutching her handbag. She fell to the ground – unconscious? or dead?
Stu eyed the gems in her earrings, her necklace, her rings… and then saw the corner of the bag sticking out of her handbag.
Two kids, wearing aprons from the coffee shop next door, rushed out to the curb.
“What happened?” the girl asked.
“Is everyone okay?”
Sirens screamed in the distance, coming closer and closer by the second.
The woman from the Ford stumbled over. “I’m so sorry. I called 9-1-1. Does anyone know if the other–?”
All pairs of eyes – Stu’s, the teacher’s, the two coffee shop kids – fell on the scene before them. They passed over the woman’s jewelry, her designer bag, her watch, and all four sets of eyes focused on the tiny, brown contents spilling out of her handbag. Four sets of lungs inhaled. Four hearts beat faster. The sirens blared. The witnesses looked at one another.
Officer Malone pulled up at the scene and immediately called for an ambulance. The woman would probably make it, the medics said when they assessed her injuries.
“Another hit and run.” Malone shook his head. “We’ll have to put out a bulletin, but there’s not much to go on. No witnesses. Funny thing is, with the way it’s crumpled, seems the limo driver was probably at fault.”
“Probably just afraid that someone who owns a limo can afford a better lawyer than they could,” Bountiful said. “Did you see the rocks on her?” He let out a low whistle.
“That reminds me,” Malone said, “We ought to look over the debris before they sweep it up, make sure there’s no other valuables that got overlooked in the inventory. Better believe a woman like that will be making sure everything is accounted for.”
Together, they nudged their shoes through the debris. It was mostly chunks of metal, bits of asphalt, and fragments of shattered glass. If a diamond had broken loose from a piece of jewelry, there’d be no way he’d be able to tell it apart from the glimmering pieces of glass, but Malone at least had to try.
Then something caught his eye, something that definitely was not glass. He pinched the tiny bean between his fingers and brought it up to his nose, disbelieving what he was touching. He must have been crouched there, transfixed, for at least a minute before Bountiful called to him.
Malone tore his eyes from the bean. He stood up, carefully brushing the dust from his pants.
“Nope.” His hand rested on the bean buried deep in his pocket. “Didn’t find a thing.”
by Wendy Nikel