Zach didn’t return to Starbucks for nearly two weeks. It wasn’t deliberate, although he had sort of talked himself out of seeing her due to his subconscious belief that he would never find a life partner. On the surface, it was because he was frugal, and certainly didn’t need to be buying overpriced coffee from a shop. But it didn’t mean he didn’t think of Zoe often.
When he did go back, Zoe was decidedly more morose than on his first visit. The cheerful, bubbly girl he had been attracted to was gone, it seemed. She didn’t even recognize him at first – a fairly crushing blow to his delicate ego. Worst of all, she clearly had a black eye. If the dark glasses didn’t make it obvious enough, she had applied a lot of concealer, foundation, whatever… but the the deep purple-blue blotch showed through it all despite her efforts.
Zach was immediately concerned, whether she remembered him or not. At the front of the line he asked, “Zoe, are you alright?” before she could even ask for his order.
“Mr. Zen!” she exclaimed, her mood brightening considerably. “What can I get started for you?”
“Are you okay?” he asked again, more politely.
“What?” she answered, embarrassed. “Sure. Walked into a door.”
He stared at her.
“I’m kidding! I guess I sort of made daddy mad. It happens. No big deal.”
She turned away from him red-faced, and began to prepare his order from memory. So he wasn’t totally forgotten at least, he thought. He pulled out his card to pay and she said, “It’s on me.”
Zach wasn’t sure how to respond, so he just said “Thank you.” But he sensed she wanted him to leave. Before he did, he gave her his card. “If you ever need help, please call me. Okay?”
The smile was long gone from her face, her dimples nowhere to be found. She accepted the card with downturned eyes, and quietly said “I’m fine.”
Zach was dismissed.
He took his cup and left, slightly shaken by the encounter. He barely knew her, yet already felt a profound sadness for her. Even the coffee tasted nowhere nearly as good as he’d remembered it. But the more he thought about it, his melancholy quickly turned to anger. What sort of piece of human fucking shit would hit a woman in anger? He’d done worse in consensual situations, to be sure. But that was entirely different.
He Googled the number of the Starbucks and dialed. Zoe answered. He hoped she wouldn’t recognize his voice.
“Manager, please”, he said in a high-pitched voice, minimizing his words as well.
“Hold, please”, she said glumly.
He got even more angry. The sweetness was being beaten out of her. His paternal instinct was in high gear.
“Hi. This is Deborah. How can I help you?”
“I wanted to tell you that Zoe… uh… trying to remember her last name…”
A hint of amusement crept into her voice. “Auslander. But there’s only one Zoe.”
“Right. Auslander. Sorry. I just wanted to tell you, she’s very helpful.”
“I appreciate you saying that, sir. Confidentially, her troubles at home are starting to affect her job. I’d hate to have to let her go.”
“Me too. Anyway, sorry to hear that. She’s always given me excellent service.”
“Thanks again. We hope you come back.”
“I will. Goodbye.”
Zach drove to work. Instead of heading to the field however, he found Paige – a former detective now working in safety – in the field office she shared with Jean, a planner and estimator. The two worked out of their home on site, a four-bedroom double wide that housed their offices along with their Great Dane, Sebastian, and daughter, Maxxy. He never bothered to ask why their daughter was black. Zach assumed it was because she was adopted. Something he understood well. Anyway, it was none of his business.
“Unca Zach!!” she squealed, running toward him at full speed. He caught her and swung her around, then placed her back on her feet. She wobbled a bit from dizziness.
“Once regaining her composure, Maxxy immediately asked, “Can I have some canny?”
“I don’t know. You have to ask. If I make her mad, your mommy will bust my ass in the field. Uh, butt, I mean… er, hiney.”
“Ha ha. Mama bus yo’ ass!”
“Can you go get her for me?”
She toddled off and banged on the bedroom door.
“Mama! Daddy! Unca Zach is here!”
She scampered back and climbed into his lap.
“Pay me”, she ordered, smiling confidently.
“You are so your mother’s daughter.”
Caught short, he dug into his pockets finding only Altoids and some raw sugar packets.
“Pick a hand,” he told her.
“This one,” she said, selecting his left.
He opened it to reveal the mints, which she quickly grabbed.
“And this one.”
He opened his other hand.
“Ooh! Sugar! Thank you, Unca Zach! I love you…”
“I love you too, punkin. Better eat the sugar before mommy gets up…”
She was way ahead of him.
Zach watched her struggle with the brown packet until he was just about to offer to open it for her. Then it ripped, and sugar granules flew everywhere.
“Uh-oh!” she said.
“Uh-oh is right, sugar britches.”
He lifted her under her arms, shook her gently, put her down and then dusted them both off. Just in time, too, as he heard Paige open her bedroom door.
“The perfect crime,” he whispered to Maxxy.
“Tee hee,” she giggled.
A disheveled Paige walked in, in a translucent silk shirt that barely extended past her crotch and nothing more, basted in a light sweat, nipples still erect.
“This had better be good, analface,” she snapped at Zach.
Most of Zen had stopped calling each other `asshole’ due to the confusion it created about Asshole, the Efficiency Expert.
“Sorry to interrupt…”
“Meh. We’re on the clock. What’s the safety emergency?”
“Mommy was screaming!” Maxxy blurted.
“Shhhhhh,” Paige corrected. “Work stuff.”
At this Maxxy went silent. But not for long.
“You’ve come to the right place…”
Maxxy was now walking across the breakfast bar as if she were on a tightrope.
“Seriously,” Zach said. “I think some girl’s dad is beating her. I need his name, address, photo, description, and arrest record.”
“Ha! You sound like a cop!”
“What would you know about that?” he asked, smiling.
“How soon do you need it?”
She looked at him directly.
“I’ll pay you. Take the day off. A day’s pay, plus five hundred.”
“Not necessary. I hate garbage people like that too. Really wish we’d killed them all.”
Zach looked at her quizzically, but she offered no explanation.
“Plus,” she continued, “I’m always working…”
Paige used a remote to turn on a TV that covered most of a wall, and Zach saw a live shot of the jobsite. She thumbed a button and cycled through seven other perspectives at different elevations.
“Holy shit!” Zach exclaimed, earnestly surprised.
“Drones’” she explained. “Big brother is always watching you.”
“Just wow. Why haven’t I ever noticed…”
She walked over to her desk, bent over, and opened a drawer. He couldn’t help but stare at the sight of her bare ass. Maxxy appeared and put her tiny hands over his eyes. When Paige turned back around, she released them again. She was an amazing little girl, somehow both younger and older than her years. Paige walked over to him, palm closed, and put her hand out. Zach opened his own and she dropped a lightweight object the size of a quarter into it.
A metallic dragonfly.
“Mama says people who say bad words are shit brains,” Maxxy chided him.
“Cool, eh? Dr. Frankenstein’s side project of late.”
Paige’s husband Jean was a former genetic researcher who supposedly changed careers after some sort of scandal involving a virus. But it wasn’t a topic of discussion, per Renee, and the couple never mentioned it.
“He has eight, right now. But they’re not that rugged, obviously. He’s working on birds, bees, and butterflies.”
“How is he, lately?”
“Pussy boy? He’s great. As long as he has me, free time, and an unlimited research budget, he’s like a pig in clam chowder. I think he made these as much for him as much as for me. Saves him from having to visit the site too often.”
“He’s the best planner I’ve ever worked with, you know. He makes these jobs shit.”
“Doody,” Maxxy corrected. “He makes these jobs doody.”
“Heh. Knowing him, he probably just asks you guys when you’ll be done with something and adds a week.”
They both laughed, knowing that Jean obsessively compiled statistical data and wrote custom planning modules. He was one of the reasons for Zen Construction’s continued success, and he made it look easy.
“Any injuries lately?” Zach asked her.
“Some butthurt, bad feelings. Blackie has a bad heart. I just got his test results back. We need to move him to light duty.”
“That will kill him.”
“So don’t tell him. Figure it out.”
“I’ll make him foreman of a limited area, and give him an assistant.”
“Brilliant. Also, Wild Bill is on meth.”
“So is twenty percent of the job.”
“Yeah, but it’s affecting his health. He’s smoking it.”
“Ew,” Zach said.
“So he’s going to need new teeth soon. And a new heart if he keeps at it.”
“So, intervention? Rehab?”
“Do you really think that would work with him?”
“A dentist and a better supplier, then?”
“A dentist and a better supplier, then?”
“Now you’re talking. And gut bombing or snorting it.”
“Worse case scenario I’ll fire him.”
“To save his life?”
“I hear you.”
“A comfort girl got the clap. Treated.”
“She know who from?”
“She won’t say. I told her to tell him, whoever he is. Said she would. Anyway, I’ll call you tonight with your info. I like to be thorough.”
Zach handed her the drone back.
“That’s what Jean says…”
“Stop! Hook monkey.”
“Haha! Mommy wins!” Maxxy said.