Every Saturday, there is a string-bean of a man who sits in the corner of the cafe, just inside the cruddy door. He wears his sunglasses inside, a completely unnecessary accessory, and proceeds to arrange his iPad on his lap, pink case and everything, and wait. He sets up to wait. He keeps his back to the wall and watches the other customers slyly, without a nod or smile in anyone’s direction in particular. The screen blurs under his rapid fingers as he types, arranges, and flitters over odd facts and figures, images foreign to most human eyes.
And every half-hour, something odd occurs.
At the thirty minute mark, a group of nine people, men and women of all ages, sizes, shapes, and types, enters the cafe, searching and on the hunt for a man they call “Paris.” Inevitably, after twenty seconds of searching with questioning gazes, the man with the pink iPad looks up and, with the slightest lisp, cries out that, “yes, I am Paris, and welcome!”
From across the room, I can’t tell what their meetings are about. Fifteen minutes after they begin speaking — no one purchasing a drink or a cookie or a pastry — the group disperses — “Paris” remaining behind, already hard at work on his iPad once more. I’ve often thought of sitting closer just to hear the plan of action, but I somehow think this “Paris” would know I’m eavesdropping. He would call me out on this, and some shit would hit the fan. Inevitably.
Then one day, I decided to take the leap and approach “Paris”. He had removed his sunglasses, amazingly enough, and appeared to have completed his day of doling out marching orders to various groups of people, each of whom left the meeting with an envelope containing who-knows-what, perhaps a list unreadable names, or words and locations for an elaborate scavenger hunt. No two groups are ever the same, nor seen or heard from again. I didn’t stop to wonder where “Paris” was hiding these envelopes. The mystery was irrelevant enough to have not entered my radar.
“Your name is Paris?” I was using my so-soft-you-have-to-ask-me-to-repeat-myself voice. I use this sometimes when I want to take the upper hand. You know, speak softly, then when you’re forced to repeat yourself, act annoyed that the other person isn’t paying attention.
But “Paris” was always paying attention.
“Yes it is, Lawrence. Have a seat.”
Stop the digital uploads for a minute and decompress your files. He knew my name. And said it without looking up at me — barely, I’m sure, having heard my footsteps in his direction.
I sat down. What else could I do? Behind me, I heard the barista yell into the kitchen for a tomato basil soup and half-sandwich. A cafe with tomato soup. What happened to the good days of simply serving coffee with a fresh soft croissant, maybe a cookie in the afternoons?
“I know, it’s tacky isn’t it? Tomato soup in a cafe.” He’d read my mind. “I’m reading your mind. It’s okay I do it to everyone I want to know.”
“How the hell –”
“It’s a gift. There’s nothing more to tell. It’s not a secret, or a blessing, just a gift. I chose to unwrap it. What is your gift, Lawrence?”
“Excuse me?” He was testing me. I was sure of it. The only thing his test didn’t come with was an application and a urine test. But what kind of test would this be?
“This is not the test, Lawrence. You already passed that when you walked over to me and said hello. Anyone who ever finds me has already passed the test. How else do you think they find me?”
“You run a pretty good computer program that SPAMs them into some kind of scavenger hunt?” Paris blinked. Was he shocked, impressed, or just drawing out the moment? I couldn’t tell, but something about what I said took him by surprise.
“It’s not a simple computer program. It’s a program that invades the mind, infects it in a way, until the drive to quench an unknowable thirst becomes to great. Then, you find me, I tell you the tasks, and you go on your merry way. But you are right about one thing.”
“Tasks? I’ve never seen anyone come back to you after a completed task.”
“You’re right that it’s a hunt, a scavenger hunt. And yes, no one has ever completed the tasks I set forth. At least, not yet. I’ve been doing this quite a long time, Lawrence. Welcome to the Hunt.”
I sat back and waited for more, but Paris inexplicably turned his attention to his iPad again, bending over so his nose almost pierced the screen. I could see the faint outlines of a program, a game, perhaps, or some kind of exotic map. I was about to ask about it when he looked up, just above the rim of his sunglasses. His eyes were lined red, bloodshot, and for a moment I caught a hint of caution, a dash of unease.
“Lawrence, you’re hesitation will get you nowhere closer to your goal.”
“I have no idea what I’m after.”
“Isn’t that the truth.” Paris folded over his iPad case and walked out of the cafe in two quick breaths. I stared after him until Audrey, the cafe owner, elbowed me aside, her arms full of dirty dishes.
“Dammit, Larry, either go home or sit the hell down.”
“Audrey, wait a minute -”
“No, Larry. How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t want to get a drink, I don’t want to snag a bite of dinner, and I definitely — absolutely — don’t want to grab another cup of coffee when I’m off my shift here.”
“This isn’t about that. Although, thanks for the advanced warning. Listen, who was that guy? Paris?”
“Paris? Oh, the hipster dude with the pink iPad case? Yeah, he’s been a regular since before I bought the place. I think he started coming in as soon as we opened, way back when. Never seems to order a drink these days, but I don’t mind. He’s quiet and whenever we’re crowded, he just leaves his seat. He’s harmless.”
“He’s a creep. Told me I had to hunt…something…didn’t say what though.”
“Hunt something? Larry, a word of advice: you’re a grown man. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.” She started to turn.
“I let you boss me around.”
“Only because I can’t stand you.” She looked at me with her kind eyes at that moment, and I fell in love all over again. “Larry, really, you look tired, stressed out. Go home and take a nap.”
I let her get back to work. Who was I kidding? Audrey would always be the manager and owner of her own cafe, a success beyond reason, and me, I’d be an unlucky shmoe who spent his pocket change in her establishment without seeing a return. I felt ashamed for feeling creeped out by Paris. The guy was harmless. He had a “gift” he’d unwrapped, read my mind, that was it. Besides, there was no real danger in even trying to find whatever it is he wanted me to find. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people had sought out different things for him before, and no one ever turned up dead, right? I would’ve read about serial deaths happening if it was that common.
As soon as I stepped onto the sidewalk, I realized how wrong I’d been.