It had been a long and rainy Sunday at Floggin’ Brews – one of those days when people wanted to hunker down and watch the football game, or go somewhere that served hot food. The guests who made an appearance ordered more than usual from the Thai restaurant around the block, and most of them believed me when I recommended a Russian River Sanctification ale with their curry.
The air still smelled of coriander and lemongrass when Brita showed up for work. I put her to work sweeping the bar. She’s almost finished when I heard an odd “clack.” I looked up to see Brita bending over and picking up a small white stone. She dusted it off and placed it on the bar. “Do you know what this is?”
I took a look at it. It was small, round, shaped like a lens, and had some irregular stripes on it.
Mikhel said, “It’s a go stone.” He picked it up. “An old one, by the look of it. I wonder who lost it?”
“Go?” I remembered his comment during his chess game. “You mean the game?”
“Yes. We had a few players here this morning.” That explained the lingering smell of coffee when I arrived this morning.
“What’s go?” asked Brita.
“The game of kings,” Mikhel and I said at the same time.
I looked at Brita and winked. “You know, the ancient patriarchy.” Mikhel snorted and Brita giggled.
Mikhel put the stone back on the bar. “You play it with black and white stones. This one is made of clamshell.”
Brita picked up the stone and looked at it. “Cool. I’ll keep an eye out for more of them.” She put the stone down and went back to sweeping. Boss walked across the floor, making sure to stay well out of the way, and jumped up onto a window ledge.
When Brita finished sweeping the floor, she took me up on my offer of a cream soda. She sat with it at the bar and watched me doing the restocking. “Something kinda weird happened.”
“Oh? You okay?”
“Oh, yeah, nothing like that. I have a case worker, you know?” I nodded. She was a juvenile and had been kicked out of her parents’ house, it wasn’t surprising the county was involved. “He asked me a lot of questions about this job. What kind of place it was, what kind of work I’d be doing. I, uh, told him it was just this place, I didn’t know what the name meant, and I gave him the address. Only he couldn’t find it.”
“Couldn’t find it?” I asked. “What, you mean on a map?” Mikhel had stepped over to listen.
“No.” Brita shook her head. “He said he drove around looking for it but couldn’t find it. I gave him the right address, I checked.”
Boss had left the window and made an uncharacteristic leap onto the bar. Brita reached out a hand tentatively, and Boss bowed Her consent to be petted (just a little).
“Give him this,” Mikhel said, and handed Brita a card. “Have him give me a call.”
Brita looked at the card. “Mikhel Kiwi. Oops – Kivi. Phosphor Enterprises?”
“It’s the name of the organization that owns Floggin’ Brews. And it’s the name that will be on your paychecks.” Boss jumped off the bar and headed back toward Her domain in the office.
Brita looked visibly relieved. “Great! Thanks. He thinks I’m making this place up, I think. Or that it’s some kind of whorehouse.”
“I think you call those ‘brothels.’” Mikhel said mildly. Brita gave him a blank look. “My friend Sally owns one. Very particular about the name.”
Brita didn’t even blink at that. “Whatever. I was afraid he wasn’t going to let me work here.”
“It’ll be fine. Have him give me a call. Has Ret shown you where the mop is?” I had, and Brita got back to work. She clearly wasn’t very experienced with a mop, but she was trying hard.
“I wonder what the deal was with her case worker,” I puzzled. “We’re not hard to find.”
“For some people we are.” Mikhel seemed entirely serious.
“What do you mean?”
“He wasn’t the first person to have trouble finding us. Remember the woman who thought we were enslaving Boss?”
I smiled. “How could I forget her? That letter is still pinned to the bulletin board in the office.”
Mikhel nodded. “She tried to come back to picket us. Couldn’t find the place.”
“She came here once, you’d think she could find the place again.” Then it hit me. “Oh. She came with your aunt.” I looked hard at Mikhel, who just looked back at me from behind his glasses. “How do you do that? How does stuff like that happen? This place always seems. . . I don’t know. The opposite of cursed. Enchanted.”
“Something like that,” Mikhel smiled. “I actually can’t say I understand it. Well, not all of it.” He picked up the clamshell go stone, which was sitting on the bar where Brita left it.
This is kind of creepy. And kind of cool.
“Boss? Is She. . .” I really didn’t know what I was going to guess about Boss.
“Oh, She’s part of it. But She’s a real cat. Always has been.”
I was surprisingly relieved to hear that. “So it’s kind of like we’re invisible to the bad guys?”
Mikhel’s squinted a bit. “No, it’s more like we’re visible to the people who need to be here. The others?” He shrugged. “They’re looking for something that they can’t find here.”
I suddenly felt the need to do something ordinary, so I loaded the last few glasses into the dishwasher. “I’m not sure I believe that. At least not if I think about it too much . . . so maybe I’ll just not think about it too much,” I admitted. “It does explain why people feel safe here.”
“Exactly,” said Mikhel. “I was wondering when you’d notice.”
“The first day, actually. I thought the place was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside.”
“It is,” said Mikhel. “Oh, hi, Shen. I think this is yours.”
I turned around and there was a small, slight Asian man with a shaved head. I swear I didn’t hear him come in; he was just there. He reached out to Mikhel’s outstretched hand. “Yes, I thought the white bowl felt light when I got home. Thank you so much; I am very much relieved.”
Mikhel motioned to a bar stool. “Time for a cup of Golden Moon black?”
“No, thank you, I must go. Please thank the young one for finding it.” Stone firmly in his hand, he silently padded out the door. The door didn’t make a sound when he went through it.
How did he know that Brita had found it?
Mikhel smiled in satisfaction. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go tidy up the back of the house.” He left to give the Theatre its regular scrub.
I suddenly realized that Boss was staring at me from Her perch over the office door. She had that inscrutable look cats often give you. I stood there for a moment, knowing I had just seen something very odd.
And then I decided to take pity on Brita and show her how to use that mop.