by Laurel Saville
1781 Words

Sunny glanced up from the counter, noting Pete’s lips worming and wiggling over his unnaturally white, obviously capped teeth, his man-scaped eyebrows lifting and lowering, the occasional shrug of his gym-toned shoulders, and the shifting tilt of his coiffed head. She nodded and smiled, let loose a short, barking laugh, and furrowed her eyebrows at all the correct junctures in his monologue. She knew she was getting it right because his lips kept moving.

He had no idea that she could not hear a word he said.

It wasn’t just that the wet hissing and aggressive grinding of the machines she was gracefully moving between made a wall of sound between them. She simply was not listening. Not only then. Not just with Pete. The truth was, she rarely listened to any of her customers. Not that they noticed. The less actual attention she paid, the more they went on. And the irony of all ironies was how often they complimented her on being a wonderful, sympathetic, empathetic listener. All she really had to do was just let them talk. And talk. And talk. She could nod and smile and keep them happy and her mind free for other things.

When she first started pulling coffee drinks, her customers’ self-absorption infuriated her. She’d take out her frustration on the physical mechanics of making hot beverages, packing the coffee extra hard into the portafilter, slamming the used ground extra hard in the garbage can, smacking the milk pitcher a little too heavily onto the counter. She found the clashing metal comforting, even as her customers droned on and on. To Sunny, they were the lost souls in Plato’s Cave, thinking, when they looked at her, that they saw a real person, with no idea that all she gave them was her shadow self.

She liked this funny little city in the Upper Left, even as she knew that her completely conventional customers, with their first-world, self-inflicted woes and their lifestyle-in-a-cup drinks saw her as nothing more than another young, extravagantly-haired, multiply-pierced woman with little ambition beyond earning extra tips she could spend in one of the many microbreweries and mountain bike shops. Never mind that she didn’t drink alcohol or have a knobby tired steed. They never asked and wouldn’t have believed her anyway, so she didn’t bring up her engineering degree from MIT, her expertise in AI, fluency in multiple software languages, lucrative side gig as a cyber security consultant, and high-ranking hacking skills. She worked as a barista because it got her away from her screens doing something that didn’t tax her mental capacity so she could let her mind wander around in search of new solutions to the problems her clients and colleagues gave her.

One of her best cybersecurity skills was seeing the things that others missed about themselves, noticing the contrails they did not realize they left behind as they moved through the world. So even though Sunny was not listening, she was paying attention. She saw how Toni assessed everything and everyone as a means to the end of making money. She noted that Pete was feeling castrated by his wife’s single-minded success and teetering on the edge of exerting his ego in some Porsche-fueled, self-destructive, extra-marital way. She felt Claudia’s moodiness about her mother’s disease, her unstated worry that her own life would begin only when her mother’s ended. Her photographic memory couldn’t help but record some on the contents on the coffee-stained piles of paper Professor McNair, with his cheap-scotch-and-stale-tobacco-from-the-night-before breath left scattered around the table.

These fragments, scattered pieces of a discarded jigsaw puzzle, started to clutter her mind. Tidying them up was how she found herself, in spite of herself, interested. Interested in the logging industry and the spiritual traditions of the native peoples, the extravagances in turn of the century architecture and the mystique and messages contained in totem poles. The strange habits of Victorian collectors. Pacific northwest myths and legends, ghost stories, and tall tales. The natural history of trees and scientific research showing they were connected communities that communicated with pheromones. She began to see it, all these invisible connections, the underground mycelium, undervalued, underappreciated, and yet doing so much work of both growing and decaying, living and dying.

So, Sunny knew about the secret basement in the museum months before she overhead Lindsay and Catherine whispering about it over their mugs of fat-free, sugar-free, denuded-of-all-physical-pleasure drinks, because she had found a hand-drawn, much scribbled over original building plan archived in the bowels of the planning and permitting offices. She knew about the shame pole long before she saw the scrawled notes on the Professor’s legal pad because she’d listened to a scratchy, oral history recording of an ancient native woman, her voice as rough and wild as a winter sea, the translation from a now dead language as stripped of its original life and beauty as a piece of driftwood. She knew about Josiah’s fortunes, both good and bad, before she heard Toni and Pete whisper fighting over the fate of the museum, having found in the far corner of a cluttered used bookstore a dusty, moth-eaten, self-published, gossipy history of the family, written by a lonely spinster looking for occupation for her formidable and unutilized brain.

Sunny’s mental collection of facts and myths, history and rumor also turned up plenty it seemed no one currently connected to the museum knew. Most notably, how their stuffed wolf was the essential connective tissue between the fanciful edifice that housed the collection, the ascent and decline of the capitalist timber baron, his missing wife, the legacy of the shame pole, the cracks and crumbling foundation of the decaying building, and the mystery of a lost fortune.

Sunny heard about the discovery of the shame pole and its resemblance to Josiah Walker. Some seemed to think the disgrace it enshrined was his greedy destruction of so much old growth timber. No one seemed to notice the irony of cutting down a tree to shame a man for cutting down trees. Sunny had discovered a different outrage is what prompted the creation of the totem. Josiah had killed a wolf, a mature alpha female, a pack leader full of wisdom and experience hard-won through years of successful breeding and effective hunting. The natives held her in deep respect and regard, say how her skill helped feed other forest denizens and returned key nutrients to the soil and the trees. They saw how Josiah killed this wolf for nothing more than sport and vanity, a wild thing he could tame only through death and enjoy only as a stuffed object. Every chop of their axes and slide of their carving knives impregnated their totem pole with curses on Josiah and his creations. This was why his wife disappeared, his fortunes faltered, and his home was full of flaws.

Sunny also discovered that while the totem was full of curses, the wolf that started it all might be full of money. The rumors that Josiah had a fortune sewn into the belly of his stuffed wolf cropped up in many places. There was an interview in an obscure hunting journal with a taxidermist who mentioned a rich industrialist asking him to hide a large quantity of gold and cash in the belly of a she-wolf. The spinster’s history made passing mention of the legend. The native woman’s voice on the scratchy recording said something oblique about the wolf he’d killed one day saving his legacy.

But what made Sunny really perk up and take notice was the rainy morning Carmen and Andrew came in, separate and acting all surprised to see each other, like bumping into one another was a happy accident. Carmen had come in first, sat at a corner table, and fixed her eyes on the front door, even as the rest of her body twitched and jittered as if she’d already had a triple espresso. Andrew walked in a few minutes later, made a too obvious point of first ignoring and then suddenly noticing Carmen, and just so happening to have an unscheduled hour to catch up. After a couple of air kisses and fake how are yous, they bent their heads and lowered their voices. Sunny casually came and went near their table, bringing them unasked for glasses of water, wiping down the perfectly clean shelves a few steps away, rearranging the display of bagged coffees and mugs in the nearby window, and offering them “specials” that she made up on the spot.

Of course, they never noticed that she was listening in. That’s the way it was in this job—half the people thought you were paying attention when you weren’t and the other half assumed you were not listening when you were.

“He was drunk when he mentioned it,” Carmen told Andrew, her voice a stealthy hiss in the air. “But he’s a banker. He would know. He said he was looking in the archives, doing some research on Josiah’s finances, trying to help the museum. There was some irregularity. Some missing chunk of money. Like a lot of money.”

“So, what?” Andrew scoffed. “That was ages ago. The bills would be worthless now, even if we knew where they were.”

Carmen shook her head. “You don’t get it, Andrew. He didn’t mean paper money. He meant gold.”

Andrew stared at her, his face suddenly serious. “Gold?” he whispered, incredulous.

“Yeah,” Carmen nodded. “If we could get our hands on that, we could…”

“Yeah,” Andrew said, nodding along. “We could.”

Sunny didn’t know what they left unsaid, hanging there at the end of Carmen’s unfinished sentence. She didn’t care. All that mattered was this fantasy fortune wasn’t theirs and they had no right to it, but if there truly was a cache of gold in the taxidermized remains of a once noble wolf, it not only belonged to the museum, it could be enough to save the museum. That’s why, the next time Catherine came in and left her keys in her coat pocket when she went to the bathroom, Sunny “borrowed” them for a couple of hours, eventually dropping them at the museum saying she’d found them on the floor of the café while cleaning. That’s why Sunny started spending her insomniac hours sneaking into the museum, outfitting various inanimate objects with micro drones and tiny, remote control robots. Sunny wasn’t sure exactly what she was doing, but she did know this: if the money was in the belly of the beast, Carmen and Andrew weren’t going to find it, and no one would know that Sunny was going to make sure Catherine did.

To read the story in its entirety, click here.

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