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The hiss of steam hitting milk inside a pitcher echoed. The smell of strong coffee permeated the air. Beyond the bar where Cassandra Allen worked creating espresso concoctions, she surveyed the coffeehouse. Overstuffed chairs. Coffee tables littered with books and magazines. A few straggler customers taking in that last bit of caffeine, hoping that it wouldn't keep them up all night or maybe hoping that it would.
A tingle on the back of her neck told her it was coming. But from who? One of the customers? She turned to her colleague, who was wiping down the pastry counter in preparation for closing. The sensation grew stronger.
In her mind another familiar sight took shape. A square, white room. Empty except for her. She stood in the center, looking at a lone closed door.
The door opened and a rush of energy blew at her, causing her body to jolt. Cass smothered a gasp. A woman stood on the other side of the threshold. Her features were blurred by the hazy fog that enveloped her, but Cass could sense she was older, plump, and her hair was the color of faded brick. The woman's voice was faint when she spoke, but her words were clear.
She has to talk to him. He's so upset. She's so angry. I can't go until I know they're okay.
The door closed suddenly, and, just as quickly as it had formed, the image of the white room was gone.
Her mind clear, Cass cursed as the hot froth foamed over the top of the pitcher and down her hand. Shutting off the steam, she set the heated milk aside and rinsed her hand under a stream of cold water in the sink. It helped to take the sting out of the burn, but the remnant pain of contact still lingered.
The song of a cell phone muffled by a large purse broke through the sound of running water.
Cass sighed, shut off the tap and did what she had to do. "That's going to be your dad."
Her fellow barista, Susie, continued to wipe down the counter and ignored the chirping phone under the counter. Her hair was a bright red, probably enhanced by chemicals, but the resemblance was there.
Cass shrugged at the nonresponse. She took the settled milk and poured it over two shots of black espresso into a massive mug, making sure to keep it light on the foam per the customer's request, then called out, "Large latte, light foam."
She placed the mug on the counter for the customer, who was on his second drink, to come and collect it. With a silent nod he took his order and returned to his table with his book.
"You're going to have to talk to him eventually," Cass said after the ringing stopped.
Susie stared at the purse under the cash register and scrunched her face in denial as she continued to wipe the now perfectly clean counter in front of her. "You don't know who that was."
"Call it a hunch," Cass said.
Susie paused in her task and looked at Cass with a mix of skepticism, suspicion and maybe a hint of fear.
"You are so freakin' weird," she accused.
Cass shrugged. It wasn't like Susie was wrong. The girl let out a huff. "It doesn't matter if it was him. I don't want to talk to him."
"It's not about what you want. It's about what your mother wants," Cass said calmly.
Although the contact had been brief, the message had been plain. Cass was able to fill in the rest from what Susie had told her.
There had been an accident. Four months ago. Her dad was driving. Her mom didn't make it, but he did. It was no one's fault. Just a slick road and fate. Susie was having a hard time coping with the loss. What girl who had lost her mother wouldn't? But Susie's mom knew that the only thing that would help both her husband and her daughter was for Susie to find a way to forgive her father.
"Whatever." A typical response from an eighteen-year-old.
Cass decided she couldn't, wouldn't, push it. After all, it really wasn't her business. It never was.
Rubbing a hand over her face, she suddenly realized how tired she was. It was almost ten—closing time. They still had a couple milling over cappuccinos in one corner, and the man with his recently poured latte and a thick book in another. Cass hated to shoo people out of the establishment. Shooing, in her opinion, was not good for business. But the manager of the coffeehouse had strict rules about keeping the place open beyond operating hours and, besides that, she needed to get home. At this hour, her neighborhood in Philadelphia became slightly more threatening as the denizens of the night came out to do business.
Then the cell phone started singing again.
Okay, so maybe it wasn't any of Cass's business, but the high-pitched digital song was starting to give her a headache. "Really, Susie, he's not going to stop until you pick up the phone."
"Stop saying that. You don't even know if it's him," she snapped.
"Yes, I do," Cass said simply.
As if she were hoping to prove Cass wrong, Susie reached into her bag and extracted the phone. Her face gave away everything when she spotted the incoming number. With a muttered "Hello," she waited for the other person to speak. "No, I'm not coming home tonight, Dad...I'm staying with Peter."
Trying to give the girl some privacy, Cass turned her back on the conversation. She knew Susie's father didn't like her choice of boyfriend. Susie had said as much. Staying with him certainly wasn't going to help the situation between her and her father.
Again, none of her business. It was just an unfortunate side effect of her unique gift that made her privy to people's secrets.
Struggling against the physical weariness that seemed to flood her system, Cass rubbed her jaw, twisting it gently from side to side. Her back ached, and her feet, despite being encased in very practical black sneakers, started to communicate to her how long she'd been on them.
The jingle of the bell over the front door chimed and captured her attention. Glancing down at her watch, she saw that there were only ten minutes to closing. Yeah, she was going to have to make sure this coffee was to go. Good business habits or not, she was ready to call it a night.
"You! Are you her?"
Cass lifted her head at the sudden barking. The first thing that registered was the man's wild, red-rimmed eyes. The second was the gun in his hand.
"Oh, my God! He's got a gun!" This from one of the lovebirds in the corner.
"Shut up! Shut up, all of you. I just want her." Cass had no doubt who he was referring to. She heard Susie drop the phone on the floor. She saw the man in the chair who had been reading his book preparing to stand, and she immediately held up her hands to prevent anyone from doing anything rash.
"I'm right here."
"I have to talk to you," he said, the gun shaking in his unsteady hand. He wore a pair of jeans topped with a white, long-sleeved shirt and nothing else, but she doubted he felt the late October freeze that had recently descended upon the city.
"Okay," Cass said calmly. "We can talk."
Susie burst into tears, but everyone else in the coffeeshop was deathly silent.
"You have to tell her how much I miss her. I know you can do that. I heard from someone...about you. About what you do. I need you to talk to her."
Surreptitiously, Cass reached under the coffee bar for her oversize handbag even as she answered him. "Yes, I can tell her."
"Prove it!" He moved closer to her, the gun in line with her face.
"I'm just going to come out from around the bar." Adjusting her apron carefully over her black trousers and black sweater, Cass emerged from behind the bar, ducking under the opening rather than lifting the partition. She moved slowly so as not to alarm him until she was standing directly in front of him.
"How do you want me to prove it?"
"Tell me her name."
"I don't know her name."
"You're supposed to. You're supposed to know her name or the first letter or something. Like they do on TV."
Cass shook her head. "Maybe if you put the gun down. You're scaring these people."
"I don't care," he whispered. He ran his free hand over his scruffy face, then rubbed one of his eyes with his fist. "I need to talk to her, and he told me that you could make that happen, but I want proof."
Cass closed her eyes and tried to concentrate. The white room started to take shape in her mind, and as soon as it did, the door flew open, slamming back against the white wall. A stinging sensation lanced her brain as the rush of energy hit her. When she opened her eyes, a woman stood on the other side of the door. She was younger. Dark and pretty and dressed in a silk purple teddy. She cried as she spoke.
Cass focused her attention on the desperate man in front of her as she listened to the voice in her head.
"She bought a purple teddy," Cass relayed. "Your birthday was last month, wasn't it? The tenth?"
His hand clenched more tightly around the gun and he wet his lips. He nodded. "Yes. It was a Monday."
"She wanted to surprise you. Shock you a little, I think. But every time she put it on, she always took it off right after. She thought it made her hips look fat. She was very self-conscious."
His lips wobbled into a distracted smile. "She hated her hips."
"I know," Cass said gently. "She wants you to put the gun down, Jess."
"How do you know my name?"
"She told me."
"She can't," he whimpered. "She can't talk anymore."
"Yes, she can," Cass countered softly as she moved a step closer toward him. The gun practically touched her nose. "And she wants you to give me the gun. She says it's for the best."
"Don't..." Jess muttered.
The man in the chair started to move again, and his actions startled Jess. Predictably, Jess panicked at the sudden movement and in retaliation pushed the end of the revolver against the center of Cass's forehead.
"Don't move, man—I'll kill her. You don't know. I'll do it. I have nothing to live for. Nothing."
Cass shuddered at the feel of the cold steel pressed between her eyes. Trembling slightly, she still managed to lift her hand to signal to Large Latte Light Foam to stay back.
"It's okay. Sit down." She turned her head and felt the tip of the gun graze her brow as she made eye contact with the wannabe hero. He was shaking, and she could see that he wanted to act. Not that it would have been an easy task considering he still held a book in one hand and a coffee mug in the other.
Mentally, she commended him for the effort. However, if he moved, she had no doubt she would be dead before he overtook Jess. Cass wasn't overly concerned about the prospect, but she knew it didn't have to end this way.
"You're not going to kill me, Jess," she told him, turning back slowly so that she once again made eye contact. "You're going to give me the gun. She wants me to remind you about what you said on your wedding day. You said you would never hurt her. You said you wouldn't hurt a bug if that's what she wanted. That's how much you loved her. She doesn't want you to hurt me."