AZOTUSLAND chapter One
Jim rolled off the bed as the clock blinked 5:30. Rubbing his eyes, he clipped the bookshelf with his shoulder as he shuffled around the bed in his small bunkhouse slogging into the tiny kitchen. He grabbed a Hornsby Cider from the fridge, twisted the cap, took a swig and lazily headed back towards the bathroom.
Turning the hot water knob, he then sat on the can and took another swig, waiting for the hot water to snake up to the top of the old converted mansion. The steam billowed in a few minutes and he stripped off his shorts and lumbered into the shower.
God, it felt good. Soap and rough tugging and raking with shampoo on his tall head was even better. After toweling off he looked in the mirror. The face that stared back was older now and it did not make him happy.
Fifteen minutes later, the doors of the Azotus Café would open and Frank, Ted and Melinda would be there waiting if he didn’t hurry. He slipped on some shorts, ran his hand through his hair and slung on a dark flannel shirt. Taking a last slug from the Hornsby, he headed damply out the door.
The main door to the upper cafe was only 20 feet down the walkway. He stopped in just short at a small door to the left, punched in the code, and entered “Ops” to revive the computers and check his emails.
The usual spam had gotten through. Seven emails about fake Rolex watches, six from anonymous women in their 20s who supposedly wanted to meet him, and four advertising Viagra in soft-gel form. As he was checking ones to be deleted, one email looked different. There were no contents but the tag line simply said “I will see you”. The return address was Rnonymous@azotuscafe.com.
“Whatever,” he said to the cold room then left for cafe next door.
Roo had been in the cafe since 5 a.m., and was on beam as usual. Out in the main area, the room was awakening with Frank, Ted and Melinda already in their usual places. In the far corner was a couple Jim had never seen before. When Jim had settled in behind the counter, Roo would go downstairs to prepare the big room, known as “The Doghouse” for it’s opening at 7 a.m.
Maugham Malraux woke up early that day, walked down from the top floor, past the grotto, to the bottom patio after stopping and asking Roo for an espresso and some thin stacks of cheese.
“There’s some leftovers in the IC” Roo said. “And hit Andy for your course and grift” she said not unkindly.
Maugham tried to clear his eyes. The light fog was lifting over Red Hill and the crows were braying and the sun hit the rooftop of the Azotus Café and spilled down below. An intensely yellow sun flooded the whole eastern side of the complex and splayed North and South. He made his way down to the lower level and ducked into the IC, which was blandly labeled “Internet Café”.
“Andy!” Maugham called out as he hit one of the keyboards to awaken it. Then he walked around behind the small espresso bar and started to pack a load into the machine when Andy came around the corner.
Andy shook his head, not fond of Maugham’s various nicknames for folk. “Roo says there’s food.”
“Yeah, down at the end in the last fridge.”
Maugham picked through and found some Muenster slices in a tray, grabbed some old bread and finished making his Americano.
He started the usual web searches and jotted down some easy notes.
Upstairs Ted had managed to hit on a new victim, actually two of them. After eavesdropping, he managed to interject an irrelevant notion about “Intelligent Design” into the young couple’s conversation about the window shopping they wanted to do in Sausalito. Within minutes it was a three-way debate and temperatures were rising.
Renata had arrived a few minutes after Jim, and Hans was right behind her. She spied Ted and came over. “Are you harassing this lovely couple Ted?”
“No, we are just discussing…”
“Yes,” she said then turned to the couple, “if you ignore him eventually he moves off for other prey” she said smiling. “Would you like some more coffee?”
“No, were fine,” offered the woman, “we have to be going in about five minutes anyway.”
With that, Ted turned his chair back around and muttered “nice talking”.
Some of the other usuals came in at 6:30 before the larger rush at 7 a.m. where Jim, Manfred and Renata ran the morning rush. Roo, Martine and Hans took care of the The Doghouse one floor down. Andy watched over the IC, but only used the small espresso bar for folks in the afternoons so they did not have to go up two more flights. Later, around 11 a.m., Hans, Roo and Martine would close up the The Doghouse, but leave the doors open to the library on the South side. Hans would then go and open the Gallery and Studio on the North side of the old complex. Roo had classes mid-day and Martine used the time to do bookkeeping and also to prepare for whatever performances were scheduled for either the library, The Doghouse, or both.
The other staff only worked in spots. Jeremy ran the kid’s area, “The Batcave” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then again from 6 to 8 p.m. Jim was in charge of all movie events in the small theater next door at ground level, and Jonathan did a remarkable job of doing all the custodial work as well as entertaining people with his seemingly unending variety of impersonations and ad lib comedy bits.
Most of employees biked in from local neighborhoods except Jim who lived in the Bunkhouse, and Andy who lived in a small room off the IC (and was rumored to have not seen direct sunlight for over a decade). Maugham had a small section of the room called Ops, which essentially ran the whole complex, and was in charge of security. Jim liked to call him “Mogham P.I.” with no small amount of derision.
Oh, and of course, there was Manfred. No one was quite sure where Manfred came from, but he also resided in the Bunkhouse with his own small room off Jim’s.
Manfred just sort of “showed up” one day about 5 years earlier, some three years before Jim moved down to Marin and bought the old mansion on the hill and renovated it into the Gothic Azotus Café complex.
Maugham had met Jim 20 years earlier in 1988 at a thing called “Word Jam” at Café Paris in downtown Sacramento. Despite completely different world views they had became fast friends and started hanging together. Soon, they were like twins separated at birth.
In the Spring of 2003, Maugham showed up with a couple bottles of wine and a rotisserie chicken for their usual movie night with Jim when Manfred answered the door.
“Hellooo!” a small brown man exclaimed loudly.
“Hi, ummm…who are you?”
I am Manfred!” he said even louder with a big toothy grin.
Maugham shook his hand. He didn’t look harmful (only later would the real truth be known), in fact Maugham thought he looked a little bit like Ben Kingsley. Between that and his quasi-East Indian accent he had, upon first glance, a sort of Ghandi-esque quality to him.
Jim came down. “You two met?”
“Indeed Sahib! Mister Mogmanns has come with libation and a bird.”
Maugham looked at Jim like this was the start of a bad practical joke. Still, they had an enjoyable dinner and watched The Wind and the Lion on Jim’s big screen.
Manfred was silent throughout the evening, but Maugham noticed he ate more than his share of the chicken, kind of wolfing it down. Later, in the kitchen Manfred was helping himself to a huge bowl of ice cream and Maugham could hear him saying over and over again “perhaps the previous owner had nothing pleasant to say” and then giggling.
One week later Jim and Maugham went to an art opening in Del Paso Heights. When Maugham arrived, Manfred was there again. Jim turned to him and said “Manfred, will you bring the car around please?”
“Oh yes Sahib! I will!”
And with that he scampered away, and out the back to get the 2002 Mustang Shelby Cobra GT.
Maugham looked at Jim. Jim looked back intently. Maugham moved in closer and gave Jim his best Larry David “stare”, which only he could really do (both being very tall. Jim at 6’4” and Maugham at 6’6”)
Finally Jim relented. “He’s my ‘manservant’ Mog.”
“Really?” Maugham sneered, “and…”
Just then the black Mustang GT came roaring around the corner and screeched to a halt near the front walkway. Manfred leaped out of the car to attend the doors for Maugham and Jim.
As Jim lowered the top and prowled the engine, Maugham looked over towards Manfred, “Thanks Dude. Enjoy your evening” he sneered as Jim pulled out with a wave into the warm Sacramento evening.
“I’m not sure how it happened,” Jim said shaking his head. “He was working in a bank that was closing in a week and we started up a conversation in the bank. He told me about his family back in Spain…”
“What a minute” Maugham interrupted. “He’s from SPAIN?!”
“Well yes, but he is also half East Indian. To make matters worse he is Bi-Polar.”
“So in other words, heh, he is “Quad-Polar?” Maugham said smirking.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Jim said. “He just needed a place to stay for awhile. So he offered to be my manservant, um, for free.”
“For free? You have an indentured slave living at your place?”
“It’s not like that. In fact as things have shook out he basically eats most of my food, watches soap operas all day long and is alternately gleefully hyper or elusively glum.”
“What services does he provide? Does he cook and clean?”
“Nope. He has a rare skin disease that makes him allergic to dish soap. So he simply brings the car around.”
Jim found out later that Manfred was a lot more shrewd than anyone could have dreamed. His first clue should have come a week after Maugham and he had gone down to the galleries. He had a woman named Susan over for a dinner date. She was a tall lanky woman with dark red hair and a yummy smile and Jim was smitten. While he was making dinner in the kitchen Susan was left with Manfred to talk.
When he walked out of the kitchen with dinner Susan was gone.
“Where’s Susan?” he asked Manfred.
“Oh indeed Sahib, Miss Susan has left us.” He said with a grin.
“She hadst to go Sahib” he gestured and said “Pooftah!”
Jim left messages but she never returned them. He had no idea why.
AZOTUSLAND chapter Two
Jim quickly took over behind the counter after watching Manfred give a customer an extra two dollars change. Renata was a barista goddess. She could handle 10 drink orders at once, never confuse them, while still having the presence of mind to banter with customers in line. Jim enjoyed working with her. Manfred was the gopher until things slowed then he would disappear until the evening shift where he would help out for about 20 minutes, then disappear again.
“Manfred!” Jim yelled over the steel, wood and glass counter, “check the condiment stations!” then gave the top a quick wipe.
“Yes, Sahib! And many good thank yous to you” he would say and a customer or two eyeballed Jim suspiciously.
“He calls me that to annoy me,” Jim would say. Usually a regular, also in line, would confirm.
“Uh Hon?” came a familiar voice. “Oh hi Alice, how are you?” asked Jim.
“Sweetie? You got some schmutz right there” she said as she reached across the counter and wiped off his chin.
“Yer a doll, Alice.”
“Yes, I know. Now darling, get me some of that pumpkin bread okay? And the usual.”
There was a line of about 15 people so they worked very fast. The upper cafe would fill up like this in the morning. When it got too bad, regulars would simply turn at the door and go down a level to The Doghouse. It lacked the ambiance, outside seating at the apex of the structure or view, but you could get your drinks and a table quicker. You could also access the library and it was quieter for laptop work.
“That was a great movie night the other time” came a voice from down the line. It was Jacob, a muscular native who had long flowing dark hair and bright eyes and smile. “Jah-cob-ee!” yelled Jim. “You wanna run the next one?”
“What is it?” Jacob yelled out.
“Go check the calendar on the site” Jim said. “They’ll hold your place in line, won’tcha folks?”
“Yes Jim” some of them droned.
Jacob went over to the Internet station, hit the home button to Azotuscafe.com and clicked on events. The next Azotus Movie Night was March 8th. The film was Wings of Desire. The following week it was The Shawshank Redemption.
Jacob got back in line. When he got to the counter he said “Ha! I’ll take Shawshank, sure. But you get the subtitled films Jim. Yer a dark soul you know that?”
“So I’m told,” he said ringing up another customer and wiping down the back of the glass case. “But I’m a big Bruno Ganz fan, plus I like the long coats and ponytails.”
“Is that about the angels?” a stout woman asked.
“Yes, it’s very good and worth seeing.” He said. Then to another “That’s $4.42”. Then back to her, “Come join us next Thursday night. You can sign up online, or have someone do it for you downstairs in the Internet Café. Seating is limited to 24.
“Does it cost anything?”
Jim yelled out “Manfred! C’mere!” as he saw Manfred talking away with the Rev. Tanka and his radio show producer Maurice. Once he had Manfred’s attention he pointed to the woman and yelled “Help this sweet woman with info about the theater, okay?”
“Yes Sahib!” he exclaimed and Jim’s head slumped down and he shook it.
“He’ll tell you all about it. Please come,” Jim said as he lent over to help Renata froth another latte.
Manfred walked over and once the woman had gotten her scone and double latte she walked with him to a table and dropped them off.
“Well?” she asked.
“Oh indeed there is a wonderfulness here every Thursday nights in the dark hole in the side of the hill.”
“I thought it was a movie, I’m confused,” blustered the woman.
Jim caught the action out of the corner of his eye and quickly pointed to the monitor with three quick finger thrusts.
Manfred shrugged, then took Alice to the screen and she started to relax and nod.
Renata looked up at Jim through light steam and said “So, will you throttle him today?”
“Bad karma,” Jim said and took payment for the next order.
Roo was running things smoothly downstairs. Jim had nicknamed her “Namaste-Roo” and claimed that she had magical powers over all who came into her domain. She flirted with the men, and the women, and her earthy charm and easy smile never fooled anyone that she was not the “boss of everyone”. If a customer was belligerent it was always Roo who would quickly eviscerate them verbally with an innocent little girl laugh and her beatific smile making it impossible to retort. It was simply game over when Roo said it was. No child ever came into the Big Room but Roo did not crouch down and greet them and make them giggle. She was pure magic and that is why Jim had her as his “consigliere”. If he was 15 years younger he would have done all he could to woo Roo, but he had put that out of his mind two years earlier. She was now like a special sister that he adored.
She and Martine were opposites in many ways but got along. They respected each other. As for Hans? Well no one really understood his deal with Jim. He was anti-social, snobbish, spoke with a thick German accent and was obviously sexually conflicted. He also ran the Azotus Art Gallery and Studio and drove the local artists nuts with his perfectionism and dogged devotion to Cubism.
Hans was the “gopher” in the Big Room, as The Doghouse was at least twice the width of the upstairs cafe, not counting the library. It took Hans extra long to make the condiment stations “perfuct”, then he would scowl as a businessman spilled his coffee on the station, left packet droppings or a stir stick on the counter next to the trash.
Down in the IC, Andy was updating the websites for upcoming events, checking blogs for both “Foulage and Spammage”. Andy was good at keeping the contents a clear stream.
At 11:11 that morning Maugham got a curious email from a poster named Rnonymous@azotuscafe.com. It wasn’t until later when he conferred with Jim that he started to piece things together.
Security alert. I am watching him.
He did the usual IP checks and traces. Nothing. The IP addresses the person had used to sign up with Azotuscafe.com’s public site shifted all over the globe within minutes. Whoever it was, was masking their address. Maugham had warned Jim that he was leaving a door open, but Jim had insisted that users signing into the cafe site would have severe protections.
Just then Jonathan peeked in, grabbed the trash from behind the small barista bar and started to leave. Then he stopped.
“Here it comes” Maugham thought.
“Whatcha working on Mog?” he asked enthusiastically.
“Well, I just got a security alert Jonathan. Thanks for asking”
He dropped the garbage, reached behind the bar and grabbed two big oven mitts. Andy started to object but Jonathan put them on and started waving his arms wildly around loudly saying “Danger Danger Will Robinson…Danger Danger!” in a 60’s robotic voice. Maugham grabbed at the imaginary clip on his side and he slumped over silent, the mitts falling to the floor.
Then Jonathan broke character, looked up, laughed and threw the mitts behind the bar and left with the bag.
“Fucking nuthouse” Maugham said quietly.
“He shouldn’t do that” Andy said in a trollish way.
Around 10:30 each morning Roo, Martine and Hans did the hard work of shutting down the The Doghouse at 11. All business was now happening above. Jim would leave when Martine came up. This was his time off and he usually went back to the Bunkhouse for a quick nap.
Hans would be opening up the Azotus Arts Gallery and Studio and Jonathan would sweep the grounds and take care of the hard job of loading up the elevator with seven loads of bagged trash from the day’s first big hit. Each day, after he finished the trash, Jonathan would make a sandwich in the kitchen just off the Big Room then slump into a sweaty lump. It was hard work and he needed to recharge.
He would think about his children and how much he missed them. He didn’t like where he had landed, but tried to use humor as a way of staying sane.
Most days he would get up on the small stage in the Big Room and do a new monologue to the empty space. At least that is how it started. One day Martine caught his act when in the kitchen. It made her laugh. She asked if it was okay if she sometimes sat in for it. Then word leaked out and others started dropping in at 10:50 for the 10 minute show. The usual group became Roo, Martine (but not Hans) , Jeremy, often Maugham, occasionally Jim and Renata, and occasionally some of the locals like Sex, Cara and Jacob. Andy got wind of it and had Maugham rig up a video camera to stream into the IC. In some ways it was what connected most of them on a daily basis.
“What would Jonathan do today?”
It was always different, which was the amazing part. Some days the staff would shout out a topic and watch his brain whir and tumble and he would always look down sadly and say in a thick voice “Sorry folks, barns empty! Boo-weevils and Republicans got here first!” Then he would launch out for eight minutes.
No one was safe, not even customers.