A foggy white double crystal in the approximate shape of a heart

Story 6: The Ghost and the Espresso Machine

I had to go back to the Lovegood Café. I didn’t want to, but I had to retrieve the Soulmate Stone before I could rage quit—preferably on a busy Friday or Saturday night—and they could all kiss my ass. The only question was, could I act normally now, knowing what I knew?

The video I’d taken had surprised me. Without any proof, I’d always kind of assumed it was either Chef or his sous-chef. They had the easiest access to all the food, and Chef legit went ballistic if anyone went near his precious romance risotto.

My surprise came from being right.

In spite of a few weird, wispy smudges on the video, there was no mistaking Chef’s gleaming white coat and broad shoulders rummaging about and emerging with the packet of magical goodies. He even looked directly at the camera. Like the asshole knew it was there and was daring me to do something about it.

But that wasn’t my job.

All I was supposed to do was identify the thief, try to retrieve the stolen item, and report back to the Order of the Soul.

But damn, I wanted to smack him with a spell that would make him repulsive to anyone he found attractive, and that was a wide range of people. I pushed the urge back. I hadn’t graduated to that kind of spellwork yet, and with my track record, I’d only hex myself. Not that it would change my life much, but still.

I loaded the clip of Chef rummaging around with the precious, stolen gemstone onto my phone and made sure it played properly. I watched it a few more times, but the small screen certainly didn’t reveal any more answers.

I paced. I ate. I went to bed. But sleep wouldn’t come. The scene played over and over in my mind. I lay awake, staring at the ceiling until I gave up and turned on the TV. Even as I flipped from one dumb middle-of-the-night show to the next, my options weighed on me. I knew I had to work my shift tonight, if for no other reason than to get the Soulmate Stone and any magically enhanced herbs back to my sisters of the Order.

Without getting caught. In place I wasn’t really supposed to be. No biggie.

All I needed now was a miracle.

*****

They came.

They dined.

They laughed.

They left.

They always left.

And I was stuck here. Watching. Alone. Always alone.

They walked past me. Through me. Some shivered and commented on the weird cold spot. Others didn’t react, too busy in their own lives to notice the involuntary remnant of mine. Or perhaps it was because they were mostly supernatural beings and a spectral presence didn’t register.

Even though I was invisible to everyone, it was still nice to be around others.

Once I’d made my peace with being dead, and realized I couldn’t go further than a few feet past the front door, I pretended I was watching TV. If I got bored with a station, I could switch channels, move on to a different table. I floated around, taking in each night’s customers, eavesdropping as I drifted from table to table, from the front of the restaurant to the kitchen and back. Their voices—those of the living—were tinny to my spectral ears, but I made do.

My favorite location to hover was near the espresso machine. It was in a cozy corner at the far end of the bar and the gossip was top-notch, particularly on Sunday mornings, after the café began serving brunch in addition to their nightly dinner service. The regulars talked as they waited for their coffee and pastries, and the barista, Charlie, would smile and nod as they chatted with her.

Sometimes I talked to her, too—out loud and as clearly as I could—and pretended her smiles and nods were in response to my presence. It pushed the loneliness away. For a few minutes anyway. She had a really nice smile.

I didn’t know why I was trapped in this specific place, but at least my afterlife held variety. I watched birthdays and anniversaries. Celebrations. First dates. So many first dates. Though I preferred romance to drama, the inevitable break ups and broken hearts provided a nice change of pace.

Those happened less frequently when the café began selling a dish they promoted as helping new couples get lucky in love, the famous “romance risotto.”

The arrival of magic to the menu had been a fascinating twist to my on-going show. Sure, there were occasionally witches and warlocks dining in the café, but the food had always been nothing more than regular food. Even most non-human beings liked mac ‘n cheese and fried chicken, after all.

Nothing changed immediately, but word spread among the supernatural community and more couples flocked to the café to give their bourgeoning romance a helping hand. Most of conversations were still typical first date fodder: the trading of career info and favorite foods, movies and television.

After a while—even with the assistance of the magic risotto—it became easy to figure out which couples had a chance and which were dead on arrival. It became predictable. Boring. I stopped caring for a while. It wasn’t even fun to pull the occasional prank.

Then the witch arrived.

Liv was quiet, but I sensed the power wafting from her. A loner. Kind of surly, to be honest. She didn’t take crap from anyone. Not the staff. Not Chef. Not even the bubbly hostess. I liked her immediately, but I didn’t know how she fit into the plot…at first.

After a month, it became obvious that she was a spy, or something like a spy. She watched everyone. She was always observing, but rarely interacted with anyone. She certainly didn’t make friends with the staff. Almost like she was afraid to get too close to anyone. She went about her daily tasks, working harder than anyone else, clearly desperate to keep the coveted job at the now-famous Lovegood Café.

Last night she’d planted a camera high up in the kitchen. I floated about it a few times, but it wasn’t anything witchy. Just a regular camera. She was onto something, though, or she wouldn’t have taken this next step.

It was early afternoon when Liv shuffled in, biting her nails when she got stopped by the hostess. Evangeline laughed, telling about a date she and her girlfriend, Rosie, had gone on a couple nights earlier. I remembered Rosie. Shapeshifter. She often came in on the nights Evangeline worked, just as the café was closing, to hang out and help.

Liv smiled, and made small talk, but she wasn’t herself. She seemed distracted and kept looking toward the kitchen. I wasn’t close enough to understand what they said, but Liv mumbled something about going to her locker or clocking in. Evangeline laughed and tossed her magnificent ponytail over her shoulder, shooing Liv away.

Something was up.

I followed Liv to the back room. She’d pulled the camera down late last night and fled before anyone saw her. Had she seen something on the recording? I assumed she was here for a specific reason, but it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder what. Was she here about the magic stone that created the love spell for the famous risotto? I’d peeked into the bag once. It was well-hidden and I’d never caught anyone using it, but the magical stone was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, two crystals, naturally melded together to form a rough heart  Even in my spectral form, it sparked when I touched it, and for a moment I felt its solid form under my fingers.

Well, that was stupid, I thought. She’s a witch. It’s a spell. Of course she’s here about the magical food and the stone and all that.

Liv was almost to the shelf where the stone was hidden when Chef came out, his arms loaded with ingredients for the risotto. He scowled when he realized she was in his way, and they kept doing that awkward dance of stepping in front of each other until Chef elbowed Liv aside. She leaned against the row of shelves behind her, then slunk her hand along the wall into the nook hiding the stone.

She froze.

I drifted closer. She shuddered briefly and then, after glancing around, gave the area a thorough search.

“Fuck!” she hissed and scampered away before Chef returned.

I stuck my head into the space. The stone was gone.

This show was getting better and better.

I assumed Liv had headed back to the front, so I followed, sticking close so I could hear her as she readied the bar for tonight’s customers. “Oh, sorry,” she said when she bumped into the woman who usually worked the bar for Sunday brunch.

“It’s okay. I’m Charlie.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen you around. I’m Liv. Are you working tonight?”

“Mrs. Mallory called me to fill in.”

Liv sighed. “Can you mix drinks?”

Charlie shook her head. “Sorry. I tried to tell them that. I usually just make coffee on Sundays. And mimosas. The brunch menu is pretty restricted. But I can totally chop like a boss, take order and run credit cards, keep bar clean. Dishes. Anything to help. Just tell me what to do.” She smiled. I really did love that smile.

“Okay, okay. We’ll make it work. Looks like it’s gonna be a full house again tonight.”

With Charlie working the bar, I stuck around the corner with the espresso machine so I could watch. She followed Liv’s lead, keeping all the bins full of lemon and lime wedges, and making sure the orders were properly lined up. They actually made a good team. Charlie was a natural with the customers, making up for Liv’s snark. She took over most of the drink orders, chatting up anyone who would talk.

I pretended to be a part of several conversations, relishing in the faux attention when she happened to glance my way.

Before long, the café was empty of cheerful, lovey diners and the staff began to clean up. Charlie cleared the bar of dishes, stacking them near the espresso machine so she could wipe it down. “Hey Liv, I think it’s all cleaned up after I get this load to the kitchen. Do you need anything else before I head out?”

Liv shook her head. “No, but thank you. You were awesome tonight. I would have been under water without your help.”

“You heading out?” Charlie asked.

“Just need to do a couple more things,” Liv said.

“I can help. Or wait for you,” Charlie offered.

Liv smiled. One of the first genuine ones I’d ever seen from her. “Nah, go on home. I’ll see ya around.”

“If you’re sure, then good night. See ya.”

I followed Charlie to the back door, but stayed out of her way. No reason to give her an unnecessary chill when it was already a cold night. “Thank you,” I whispered as loudly as I could before she was all the way outside. “For making me feel like I’m part of the conversation, even though I know you can’t hear me.”

She paused and shivered. “I do hear you,” she said quietly, and smiled directly at me. “I see you too. Good night to you, my ghostly friend.”

I shivered. I wasn’t alone. I had a friend.

I floated by the back door, lost in happiness until a growl came from the other end of the kitchen. Seemed my evening’s entertainment wasn’t over yet.

*****

In spite of how well the night had gone, I fumed. How had I lost the Soulmate Stone? I should have just grabbed it last night. But oh no. I had to leave it as bait. It wouldn’t even have mattered. I still would have seen Chef searching for it. But then I wouldn’t have seen him take it to the back room. Not that I knew what he did with it back there. But then he would have brought it back out and I …

Wait a minute. Wait a freaking minute!

Chef had gone into the backroom, but he hadn’t come out. And it’s not like there was another door. I pulled up the video I’d loaded onto my phone. There he was, entering the backroom after hiding the stone again…

The video cut off before I got a clear look at who came out.

But that long swinging ponytail was a dead giveaway.

Evangeline.

What the actual fuck?

I liked Evangeline. At least as much as I liked anyone. It was a hazard of being alive for a couple hundred years. It was hard to see the point in getting to know anyone when I’d outlive them by millennia.

But she was one of the few people around here who’d legitimately been nice to me, from the start and in spite of my prickly response to her kindness.

Was she the actual thief? Or had she just bought the SoulStone  to use it…to use it for making people fall in love?

Her motives weren’t of concern. The back room was the last place I’d seen her take the stone, so it was probably still there. It was now or never.

Almost everyone else was gone except for the guy washing dishes and Mrs. Mallory, but she was in her office, probably finishing off a couple bottles of wine that had been opened in the past day or so. No sense in letting it go bad, she always used as her excuse.

I gathered all my stuff, keeping the protective sack handy, and decided to go for it. I pushed the door open, but before I could go in, Evangeline stepped out of the shadows. “I knew they’d eventually send someone to retrieve it,” she said. “I didn’t ever suspect it was you though, all these months. Well played, Liv.”

“Why?” I sputtered, deciding to blame surprise for my lack of coherence. It wasn’t true, but that’s how my side of it would go.

“Why did I take it?” She shrugged and pulled the Soulmate Stone from its burlap wrappings. The twin crystals shone pale white in the low lights, pulsing with energy. That she held it with bare hands was an affront to the magnificence of the stone that I growled, low and instinctively. “Easy does it,” she said, smiling.

Evangeline set the Soulmate Stone on the nearest counter, then slid it toward me.

I hesitated, waiting for the trick. For the other shoe. For the gotcha. For something.

“Go on, take it. I’ve had my fun.” Her grin widened.

Not waiting for her to change her mind, I slipped the protective sack over the stone, making sure not to touch it, cinched the drawstrings, and sealed the top with a quick spell. “But why?” I asked again. Now that the stone was in my possession, I had slightly more control over my words.

“I was bored. I mean, have you seen what’s on television these days? It’s the same thing, over and over again. Figured I’d mix it up a bit. See what happened. And there is nothing more dramatic than love.”

“So that’s it? That’s the only reason you stole the stone? For your entertainment? Is this some kind of joke?”

Evangeline leaned in closer. “A joke? No my dear, no. But it was a very fun trick.”

And she disappeared. Not back into the shadows. Not running away really fast, in her four-inch heels.

Nope. She vanished before my eyes.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. Goddamn tricksters, always meddling in our affairs for their own damn amusement.

My sisters in the Order were not going to be happy if they couldn’t arrest someone this time.

But that wasn’t my concern. My part of the job was done. “Anyone there?” I called out toward Mrs. Mallory’s office.

“Yeah, Liv? What’s up?”

“I fucking hate this job. I quit.”

The End

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Image by: uhi_noko812

Here are links to the rest of the connected short stories:

Story 1: How the Rumor Spills

Story 2: Dodging a Silver Bullet

Story 3: A Rosie By Any Other Name

Story 4: Love on the Rocks

Story 5: Silver Lining