"All extremes of feeling are allied with madness."
IF THE CUTE barista turned out to be stronger than she looked, it wouldn’t matter. That’s the wonderful thing about fate. What was supposed to happen, was about to happen. Gage could feel it. His sweaty fingers twiddled the keys in his pocket as he leaned against the window inside Hot Perks. Sunlight poured into the crowded coffee shop, and patron conversations competed with the sounds of hissing steamers and gurgling coffee machines.
He watched her make thirteen drinks in a row before she looked up once—a record for her. He loved the ponytail. It flitted and flopped so playfully when she tilted her head to pour milk or leaned to scoop ice. She did most of her work framed under the Pick Up sign. The irony made Gage smile. What a treat she’d be.
He wore a new brown parka, blue jeans and year-old work boots that looked as though he had purchased them yesterday. Well-groomed hair and refined facial features complemented his outfit to make him look like an executive on his first day of a blue-collar job.
“Have you ordered, friend?” An elderly man nudged him from behind. Gage shook his head and pointed to the rear of the line, keeping his eyes locked on the barista. Today she must have forgotten her nametag, but Gage knew her name. He had gathered more trivia about her than he needed. In less than a week he had learned that she was 20 years old, left-handed, worked 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM weekdays, respected authority, lived alone, quit college, went to more concerts than she could afford, had a growing affinity for alcohol and had rejected three customer date requests in two days. And he also knew her missing name tag had Marissa engraved on it. All these facts were useless. Only three things mattered today—Marissa had short-trimmed fingernails, she would ride her bicycle home after dark, and her route included a road with sparse traffic.
His best estimate from a distance was that she stood about shoulder height to him. Her breasts were difficult to assess under the stained bib apron, but it was a safe bet they’d turn out to be acceptable. The skin on her face was a little pasty, but nothing that putting her face-up in the sun for a couple of hours couldn’t fix. Although she wasn’t a perfect specimen right off the shelf, she’d more than suit his needs after a few adjustments.
He got in line and inched his way to the Order Here sign where he paid for a medium, half-caf, no-foam, non-fat, vanilla soy latte. He dropped his change from high above the tip jar. The piercing coin crash failed to make her look his way. He moved along the display of cupcakes, croissants and gift cards to a chocolate bar rack beside the worn countertop where Marissa placed her finished drinks. He pulled an oversized chocolate bar from the rack and pretended to read its label. Then he put the candy bar back, slipped his hand behind the rack and removed a magnetic bug the size of a bottle cap from the backside. He had only needed four days of its seven-day battery.
“I have a large chai latte for Jim,” Marissa called out, sliding the drink to the edge of the counter. Her voice, in person, was always richer than it sounded in the tinny recordings.
As she scooped vanilla powder into a large cup, Gage stepped closer and said, “Pardon...”
Marissa looked at him and raised her eyebrows, inviting his question. Her inquisitive expression made him smile.
“Has anyone ever told you that you favor Hailey Vaughan?” he asked.
Color flowed into Marissa’s cheeks. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who that is.”
Gage winked at her. “That’s okay, Darling. She comes in here every day without fail. Dresses impeccably. She has auburn hair like yours and lights up a room like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I still don’t know her, but she seems like a great person to look like!”
“Trust me, you do. And the two of you have something else in common…” Gage threw his hands up in surrender. “Let’s just say that when God created your smiles, he was just showing off!”
Marissa’s blush deepened. “Thank you.” She stepped away, wiped a steamer nozzle with a damp cloth and then pulled an empty cup for a new order. When she served the next drink, she noticed Gage, still waiting and watching her.
“Does she wear business suits and carry a shoulder satchel?” Marissa asked.
“I think I know who you’re talking about. She orders a medium half-caf, no-foam, non-fat, vanilla soy latte. I know my customers by their drinks!”
Gage pointed to a monitor above Marissa’s head that displayed the drink queue. The next order was for a medium, half-caf, no-foam, non-fat, vanilla soy latte. She laughed and said, “I always joke with her that it must taste good because it’s as hard to say as it is to make. Looks like she’s gotten you hooked on it, too.”
Gage rubbed his chin. “Oh, yes. I’m hooked.”