• Ruth Banister

Three Hot Chocolates with Cream

In walked these guys in hoodies and tracksuit bottoms, nothing unusual but on these dudes, well, they stood out. I was on coffees so I didn’t see them strut in, as Mo put it, but Mo gave me a nudge, jogging my hand while I sprinkled chocolate powder so I looked round to be annoyed but he gave me the eye and a jerk of his head. I turned and saw these three guys browsing the food.

I say browsing, there’s a couple of chillers filled with sandwiches and salads, cold drinks and stuff, you know, and they stood in front of them making like a wall. Even their backpacks matched. They picked up stuff, talked about it and chucked it back before picking up more stuff.

I’d never seen them before and I’ve seen most customers before. I’ve a good memory for faces, and orders too.

All of them were over six foot, shoulders like scaffold, their hoods were up so I couldn’t see their faces. They wore black trainers. I raised my eyebrows at Mo, acknowledging them but not wanting to be judgemental, yet.

‘Skinny cap, extra shot,’ I called to the female customer I knew worked on a makeup counter in the department store. I felt annoyed the chocolate star wasn’t perfect as I handed over the mug but she smiled at me so prettily. Her lips were plump with a pink and sticky gloop. That gloop would be all over the rim of that mug and the thought made me lick my own lips for some reason. I wiped over my work station then joined Mo behind pastries. He was drumming his fingers. ‘What d’you reckon?’ he said.

‘Dunno.’ I leaned back and we watched the trio together.

The one in the middle sort of danced on his toes, back and forth he went, knocking into the other two who punched him playfully on the arm. Their hoods gave them menace.

The one in the middle, the dude, went still and pulled his mobile from his pocket. ‘Knock it off,’ I heard him say as he answered it. He drifted to the window that looked over the high street. He peered out as if looking for something particular and then slipped the phone back into his trousers.

Now quiet, the three chose their food and approached. I stepped sideways and let Mo take their order. I reckoned they were Americano types.

‘Three hot chocolates, whipped cream please mate,’ the dude said.

‘Do you think you could…’ Mo waggled a finger at the hoods.

Good on yer Mo, I thought.

‘Sure, sorry bud,’ the dude said and with a look, all three slipped them down then rolled their shoulders like the hoods were a burden.

I studied them in the shine of my coffee machine. They were all dark eyebrows and stubble, white teeth and covert eyes. The dude had an earring, a small hoop. He liked to sniff, like it was a habit.

I worked hard on those hot chocolates, squirted the cream just so, sprinkled the powder from high and called out the order. ‘Three chocolates,’ pause, ‘whipped cream.’ Bang, bang, bang, I placed them on the counter.

‘Cheers,’ the dude said with a nose contraction.

‘Have a nice day,’ I said with rising inflection, looking right at him but he just scooped those chocolates up and turned away, indifferent to my being.

They sat in a booth, not relaxed like you and I might, with cream to eat, but hunched forward, their calves tensed beneath them, their trainers bent at 90, their hands wrapped round their chocolate like they might need to spring up on the starter’s pistol. What was their starter’s pistol?

‘What d’you reckon?’ Mo said.

‘Dodgy,’ I said.

‘Two lattes and a flat white to go,’ Mo called out.

It was the Chemistry Set, that’s what we called the three from the dispensary. Dishing out drugs all day long. I bet they knew lots of stuff about a lot of people. I never went there, I went somewhere else, I mean, I couldn’t bear them knowing personal stuff about me. That’s the problem with this town, it’s too small to be anonymous and that’s all we want really, isn’t it, to be anonymous.

The coffee shop was quiet. My eyes swivelled back to the three guys. They were leaning forward, studying something on the table. They were animated in that way you have to be in public when disagreeing.

I picked up a tray and started roaming, gathering up stuff, but really my intention was to pass their table and learn more. I caught these snippets.

‘Daz, you’re gonna, hang on_’

‘Yeah, and all the time you’re gonna be where, huh?’

‘That’s not how it was gonna be.’

The dude suddenly looked up, right at me. His dark eyes under his dark brows drilled into me like he knew what I knew, and felt what I felt. He put his hand up to stop me.

‘Yes?’ I asked, alarmed.

He gathered up the three mugs with a thumb and two fingers and placed them on my tray.

‘Oh thanks,’ I said.

‘They was nice, very nice, ta,’ he said, a soft smile on his face.

‘We aim to please,’ I said, discordantly, I’d meant to sound ironic. We aim to please! God I wanted to slap my own forehead as I walked away. But I’d clocked they were looking at an iPad on the table and it had a map on it, maybe of the town or somewhere else I couldn’t tell.

‘What d’you reckon?’ Mo asked when I got back.

‘Looks like they’re planning something,’ I said.

Mo pulled a face, he wanted more intel.

‘They’re looking at a map of the town, maybe they’re planning a robbery, a heist. They said the chocolates were nice.’

‘Two caps to go, one skinny latte and one tea in,’ Mo called out.

What if they were terrorists? That had been my first, instinctive thought. But that was ridiculous. Or was it? Terrorists drank hot chocolates and walked about in plain sight. I glanced at our cameras. Of course, they had chosen to sit somewhere not covered. Clever.

I decided to tell the manager and that would be the end of our responsibility. I mean, she made the big decisions.

‘Two cappuccinos to go! One skinny latte! One tea! Thank you!’ I put the order down on the counter.

Then I saw the dude approaching.

‘Alright?’ I asked.

‘Mate, you gotta pen I could use?’

‘Er, sure.’ I tapped my person, like I was looking.

‘You visiting here?’ I asked, bravely I thought.

He sniffed long, one nostril lifted. ‘Yeah, for the day,’ he said. His voice was fat with the north.

I found a pen in my pocket so I handed it over and he clicked the end multiple times. I saw one of those old Casio watches on his wrist, nestled in the thick, thick hair on his arm.

‘I’ll give it yer back,’ he said.

He walked like a boxer, tilted forward, upright. He was an impressive human being.

‘What d’you reckon?’ Mo asked, sidling into my zone.

I blew out my cheeks and folded my arms.

‘Terrorists. Robbers. Shoppers. Who knows?’

Just then another guy wearing the same outfit entered and walked over to their table. The three stood up and there were hugs all round with back slapping and bro this and bro that before they all sat back down again.

Mo and I looked at each other and raised our eyebrows.

I squatted down and pulled my phone out of my jacket on the floor, turned it on and waited for it to come to life. This was a no no, company policy, no phones visible at any time but I wanted to get some shots of them.

A scroll of messages appeared on the screen. I felt a strong urge to look at them, overwhelming it was. I checked around, Mo was stocking the chillers, the Manager was in the office. I hunkered over my phone and swiped through the messages, the important ones.

I glanced up, what, 30 seconds, a minute later. I stared incredulously at the booth. It was empty.

I walked round the counter and peered out of the window, into the high street and precinct. Nothing.

Then I noticed to my horror that their backpacks were still in the booth, on the floor, and I immediately thought, oh my God, there are bombs in them, they could blow any minute. And my mind was benumbed.

People were eating, drinking, laughing all around but only I knew the danger right there in our presence, this deathly situation.

My brain wouldn’t process sensibility. Remove the people, it said, but I couldn’t press that button, begin shouting and hollering for people to evacuate. So my brain delivered that scene from the movie where the hero picks up the bomb and runs with it, at great risk to himself.

I grabbed the backpacks, pulled open the door and ran with them to a safe spot and dumped them. And then what? Back at the coffee shop I’d call the police.

Walking purposefully to the counter, out of the corner of my eye the toilet door opened and the dudes came out. I couldn’t believe it. They were jolly, wiping their damp hands down their tracksuits, jostling each other. They had on red charity bibs.

I felt my knees go funny, like they might give way. They were heading to the booth.

I galvanised myself. I dashed out the front, ran to the dumped place, grabbed the backpacks and ran back. At the door I slowed right down, walked calmly towards where they stood, searching the booth, and handed them their backpacks with some BS that they’d been put in a cupboard because we thought they’d gone, blah, blah.

They called me bro, said no worries and left.

I just stood there dazed, my hands on my hips, watching them.

That had been tough, but you couldn’t tell these days, you just couldn’t tell.

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