* * *
"Trish? A word?"
You know, it's not like I had anything against the guy. I mean, we'd traded maybe fifty sentences, ever, and he was one of those washed-out types who drop out of your field of vision whenever you're not looking straight at them. And I knew he had his own problems, what with landing the Missy-Bubbles power combo on his regular shift. But dammit if that snippy little accent didn't make my fists automatically ball up. Every time. It's probably because he only ever talked to me when he had something to complain about and couldn't find anybody who might care. Actually, he never seemed to say anything to anyone unless he was bitching. Maybe he had friends on his own shift, but it was hard to picture that.
"I'm kinda on my way out, Cal--"
"Stu told me his desk was in some disarray this morning."
Well, shit. Nice work, Ninja Master Dorian. "Did you tell him it was me?"
"No. At present, he blames the cleaning crew. Trish, you didn't say a word about rifling around in Stu's office. If you've done anything to jeopardize--"
I switched on the steamer, which seemed like the kind of clever drowning-out-the-conversation thing a really slick spy-type person would do. Thing is, the steamer takes about ten minutes to get really chugging and groaning, so all I actually did was add a low, annoying hum to the rest of the kitchen noise. "Look," I hissed. "It's totally innocent, okay? I just needed to find someone. This guy who comes in sometimes."
Cal frowned in a totally prissy British way, and then a light switch clicked somewhere in the back of his head. "Some bloke you have, what's the word, a crush on?"
"No! I--" Shut up, Trish, said a voice, not Pity or the Bitch but one of the new voices that had started whispering helpful suggestions ever since the whole thing started, and who I didn't like very much because I was pretty sure they were smarter than me. Shut up, said the voice. This is perfect. Go ahead and be a pathetic airhead who broke into the boss's office to get the name of some guy you've got a seventh-grade crush on. He'll buy it. He'll probably think it's cute. Men do.
"Yes," I said. "A bloke. A, um, chappie? I know it was dumb, but..."
"No, that's not right." Cal glared at his shoes, muttering more to himself than me. "I can believe that of quite a few of the women here, if you can call them that, but not you. And why would you have a phalanx of young men along to help, especially when the heterosexual one clearly wants to sleep with you himself?"
Cal looked up, his eyes burning with red-hot annoyance. "I'm going to have to report this, aren't I? I hate reporting things."
"You don't have to report it! I really was just looking for a guy, okay? It's... it's a guy I need to talk to."
He raised one eyebrow, which is something I totally did not think people actually, physically, did. "What's his name?"
"Garuda," I said without thinking. "Okay, duh, that's not his real name, obviously, but that's why I snuck into Stu's office, to look it up..."
"Garu-- Oh, you mean the vassal of Garuda who comes in sometimes?"
I don't know what kind of response I thought the truth would get, but this wasn't it. "Guh?"
"Little grey businessman type, very uppity, always orders the same thing?"
"Yes! Yes! You know him?"
"No, sorry. I just served him a few times. What do you want with him?"
"It's way too complicated..." I started to catch up to the conversation. "Wait a sec. How'd you know that stuff about him?"
"How do you know he's a whatever-thingy of Garuda?"
Cal stared at me, his face blank. You could almost see the little gears turning around back there, real slow. After a while he said, very evenly, "How did *you* know?"
"He told me."
"Well, then." Cal's face stretched into a thin-lipped, toothy British smile. It was kind of horrible. "I imagine that's how I knew, too."
"You just said you didn't know him."
"He's probably chatty with all the baristas." Cal spun around and made a sudden lunge for the storage room. "Well, that's my curiosity sated. Best get to work, eh, they'll be running low on Italian syrups out front--"
"Oh, no no no." I sprinted after him, elbowing aside Missy on her way to her twenty millionth restroom break of the day. "If you don't know Garuda, how do you know he's Garuda?"
"He's not Garuda," Cal snapped over his shoulder. "Garuda's a bloody demigod. The man you're looking for is a vassal of Garuda. Garuda is his divine patron. Do you understand?"
No, of course I didn't understand. Sheesh. I didn't know whether to believe him, anyway. This was starting to sound like more basement-nerd talk. Plus, this was the first time I'd talked to Cal for more than twenty seconds straight, and I was getting the feeling there was something, I dunno, off about him. Something not real. I tried to figure out what it was, and the best I could work out was that he looked too perfect. Not that he was stunningly handsome, though I guess he'd win a beauty contest against most of the guys I'd found myself hanging around. It was like, you know how they say everybody's face is a little lopsided, which is why it looks weird when you do the stick-your-face-half-behind-a-mirror trick and make a perfect mirror face for yourself? Cal didn't have the lopsided thing. He looked, like, airbrushed. Also, his accent sounded wrong. At least, it didn't sound like David Bowie on "Behind the Music," which, okay, was my main reference for what British people are supposed to sound like. Cal sounded sort of wobbly and Scottishy, and I wondered if maybe he was just a regular guy putting on a fake British accent, which is pretty much the most disgusting thing imaginable.
"It's not particularly uncommon," Cal was saying in his possibly fake but still snarky British voice. We ducked into the storage room. He started pulling down big plastic bottles of vanilla and hazelnut syrup. "I imagine he's under some geas or other. Really, why are you interested in him?"
"Cal, where are you getting this stuff? Why can't anyone just explain anything to me up front and in English?"
Cal blinked at me. He set the bottles down, leaned against a shelf, and took a big overdramatic breath. "Look here," he said, "it's perfectly obvious he's a vassal of Garuda. Deities put their mark on the mortals they've chosen as their own. It used to be important to my work to recognize such marks, so it's rather second nature now."
"To your work? Serving coffee?"
"I'd think you'd know that much, inasmuch as you're marked as well. Weren't you contacted by your patron?"
And there I was, a slack-jawed idiot again. I was getting to really hate that part of the conversations I was having lately. "Marked? Me? Marked how?"
Cal made a vague, fussy gesture that took in non-specific parts of my face and chest. "It's hard to explain to... to people. One knows it when one sees it."
"This is totally not the kind of thing I enjoy hearing, Cal."
Cal shrugged and started collecting the bottles again. I got the definite idea the conversation was over.
"No, wait," I said. "What was this job you had?"
Cal looked at me over an armload of syrup. I remembered the feeling I'd had last time about his eyes, and I flinched a little before looking him in the face. But they were just regular eyes this time. They were bluish-green, and very tired.
"I dealt," said Cal, "in the acquisition and trade of nonperishable mortal elements."
"I bought souls."
O...kay. "What were you, like an evil wizard or something?"
"No." Cal headed out of the storage room.
I followed him. "Caliban?"
"Has the world always been this weird?"
Cal didn't say anything for a minute. A little thinking crease appeared on his forehead. Eventually he said, "No, not really."
"It was all organized enough until the humans showed up."
Believe it or not, that might've been the moment I actually went 100% Twilight Zone. Because if you can't trust your fellow baristas to be basically boring people, who *can* you trust?