When the door opened, the musk of the man’s damp clothing mingled with the aromas of Jimny’s cooking.
He greeted the man and indicated a table, by his new pot plant. Apparently it would grow quickly, and would make a good screen.
The man sneered, but he sat. “Coffee. Make it good.”
“Of course, my friend.” Jimny retreated to his kitchen and poured the black roast into a cup, then decanted a little milk into a jug. Last time, the man had added the milk slowly and watched the swirls.
The man—Jimny recalled his name as Lan—had removed his coat, and Jimny saw that it was old, and water had run through to darken his shirt. Or maybe the rain was heavy. Jimny couldn’t see through the tinted windows. He’d once considered fitting clear glass, but his patrons would complain. They appreciated privacy.
The man sniffed. “This good?”
“It is the best I can brew, and I hope it meets your requirements.”
“No bitter aftertaste?”
Jimny didn’t answer straight away, but he thought back to last time, when Lan had seemingly enjoyed his coffee and cake. And so Jimny knew he was speaking of what had happened later.
“I apologise if there was something that disagreed with you. Maybe there is some way I can rectify matters?”
Lan sat back, and Jimny saw the sheathed blade, a similar size to some of the cleavers in his kitchen. He glanced round his cafe; a couple deep in discussion by the door, and a party of three nearer his kitchen. They would all be aware of Lan. The man would not try anything here.
At least, nobody had done so before. But maybe Jimny was in error this time.
Lan snorted, and held up his coffee. “Let me drink.”
Jimny retreated. One of the group by the kitchen met his eye, and Jimny approached, ready to take their order.
“Everything is okay, yes?” he asked with a smile. The man who had summoned him raised a scarred eyebrow.
“You tell me. That guy giving you problems, friend?”
Jimny didn’t turn. He shrugged. “Sometimes people bring their problems in with them. Hopefully a drink will help.”
“He causes you grief, let us know.”
Jimny quickly shook his head. “Thank you, but please don’t trouble yourselves. I wouldn’t like your drinks to be ruined on account of … of another man’s business difficulties.” He was saying too much. “Do you want anything else? Maybe something to eat? I have those rolls you like.”
“Tempting, but we’re fine.”
Jimny nodded and returned to the kitchen, where he tended a pot on the stove, letting his mind wander. The man had been angry last time, talking carelessly, and Jimny had listened. He’d stored the information—because, as his father had always said, information was the real currency of the world. Information was power.
Yet his father had practically run this cafe to the ground, struggling to broker his information. Far better, Jimny knew, to do only what you could, and leave the rest up to others.
But Jimny gathered information, and sometimes, to his shame, he used it inadvisedly. When The Earl came in, Jimny wanted to please the man. The Earl could do much for Jimny, so he’d provided more than food and drink. And Lan had suffered.
Information might be a potent currency, but exchange rates were a law unto themselves.
Jimny watched Lan stir his coffee, noting the anger in his tight frame. If that aggression overflowed, the three at the table would step in. The couple by the door would either leave or engage. And word would get out—Jimny’s cafe was no longer safe. Animosity had been allowed in.
Jimny could not allow that. Rivalries were for the streets.
Lan placed his mug down on the table with an empty clunk.
Jimny approached. “Was your coffee okay?”
“Coffee was.” He sniffed. “Atmosphere stinks.”
The man’s words carried across the room, and Jimny felt his other customers tensing. He knew hands would be curling round handles of blades.
But Jimny saw an opening.
“Maybe a little air would help. I have heard that there is a pleasant atmosphere in Heron Park, especially by the warehouses.”
Jimny persisted. “Yes, three people have mentioned this, and so they must be right.” He stressed the last word, and the number of people. “They talked of how unguarded they felt in such a place.” He stressed the important word.
Lan’s brow furrowed, then his features softened as understanding came.
Jimny was not betraying anyone. The warehouses were known to many, as was the lack of security where they bordered the park. Especially the third from the right.
Lan nodded. “How much for the drink?”
No regular would need to ask. “Whatever you wish to pay.”
Lan reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a handful of notes. He separated one and placed it down, across a patch of spilt coffee that instantly started to soak into the paper.
Then he was gone, taking the rain-soaked coat with him. For a moment a chill entered the cafe, but the door swung shut, and all was warm again.
One of the trio beckoned Jimny over again. “Want us to follow him, have a word?”
“Thank you, but no.” Jimny smiled. “I value all my customers. You understand.”
The man nodded.
Jimny returned to his bubbling pot, lowering the heat. The aromas were good, and he dipped a spoon and brought it up to his lips, taking a sip. Others would be scalded, but he was accustomed to the heat. He had trained himself to taste food, and he could detect each individual flavour in the dish. This was nearly perfect—a sharp dart of spice, a smooth texture, the tenderness of the meat. Everything as it should be.
It was important to get the balance just right.
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