Fear lends a spring to my step, and I make it to By the Beans in less than 12 minutes. Despite the post-midnight hour, there are still four occupied tables, mostly with people clicking away on their laptops. A TV in the corner has the captions on, so that if people happen to look up from their laptops, they’ll still have a screen that they can focus their attention on. Brian sits alone at a tall table by the window away from the other patrons, hands wrapped around a cup of coffee for its warmth.
“You seriously stand out in short sleeves at this time of year, dude,” he greets me as I pull out the stool across from him.
“Sorry, it’s hard to think about blending in when someone’s trying to kill me. Hang on, I’m gonna go grab a coffee.”
“Dramatic cliffhanger!” says Brian flippantly, but he looks concerned despite that. “I’d think that if someone was trying to kill me, that would be exactly when I would try to blend in, you know?”
“Then the first step would be getting a coffee while I’m in a coffeehouse. I’ll be back in a sec.”
The ordering process at Beans is pretty simple: you say “coffee” to the person at the counter, and they fill a cup for you while you’re swiping your card. There’s a whole menu posted on the wall behind them of different syrups and types of drinks, scones and cookies, but I appreciate that you can skip all that and just order with one word. Free refills, too.
I bring my coffee back to Brian and set it down on the table.
“Okay, Homefries,” he says. “You ready to do the big reveal now?”
I stare at my coffee for a second. “Yeah, um. So you know the hit-and-run I was in a couple of weeks ago?”
“Yeah? Is he coming back for you? Think he’s your nemesis?”
“Not, um, not exactly. I, ah, that guy, it wasn’t exactly a hit-and-run. I mean, he hit me, but he didn’t run. He stuck around and tried to hit me again, to kill me, and I, um, burned him. Dead.” That’s some pretty lousy sentence construction, but you try admitting that you murdered someone. It’s not an easy thing to say out loud.
“On purpose?” Brian asks, sounding shocked.
“No! No, it was an accident. I was trying to get away and I panicked. I swear I didn’t mean to.”
“Geez, man. So what, you think someone who knows him is coming after you?”
“Yeah, I’m sure of it. He’s one of the guys who tried to rob Børger. One of the other robbers showed up, a guy named Vince, and sort of threatened me. Only I didn’t know it at the time. And now I think he might just be waiting for the right chance to come after me. And pyrokinesis isn’t really designed for stopping people without killing them.”
“Yup,” says Brian after a minute. “Sucks to be you.”
“Thanks, very helpful.”
“So why aren’t you telling the police about this? Seems like the sort of thing they’re for, you know?”
“I sort of did! I talked to that one guy, Officer Peterson. But I…I killed a guy, man. That’s hard to explain.”
“They didn’t haul you in over those sasquatch mutants a few months back. It was self-defense. They’re not gonna lock you up for defending yourself.”
“Okay, A: thank you very much for bringing that back up. B: the fact that I’ve killed people before is probably not actually going to be a point in my favor here.”
Brian snorts. “Yeah, all right.”
“I mean, the guy was no saint. He was in on that string of robberies that was going on. So maybe they’d buy that I was afraid for my life. But it’s pretty hard to set a car on fire in self-defense.”
“Not for you, man!”
“Yeah, but I’m not exactly going to admit that, am I? ‘Yes, officer, when the hoodlum revved his engine at me, I was so startled that I lit his car on fire with my mind! Oh, no thank you, I’m quite warm and don’t need a jacket, and why do the sleeves on this one tie in the back, anyway?'”
Brian laughs, then says, “But still, you should be able to report the other one, the one who threatened you, to the police. Especially if they know he was in on those robberies, they should be pretty willing to believe you. You don’t even have to tell them why.”
“Yeah, I tried that with Peterson, but he connected the dots pretty quickly. Anyway, they don’t know that this guy was involved in all of the robberies; they’ve only got prints for the one at Børger, since they dropped their weapons there. I only know because the dude who was trying to run me over told me about it. So I can’t explain my source without telling them the whole thing.”
Brian’s looking past me, over my right shoulder. “You might wanna consider just coming clean, dude. If you’re right about this guy being involved in the robberies, looks like he’s escalating.”
For a moment, I think that maybe Vince has followed me here and is making his move, but Brian seems way too calm for that, so I turn to see what he’s talking about. The TV in the corner is showing the local news heads, and the closed captions scrolling past read, “fifth in the area. As you saw, these five men are well-coordinated and determined.”
The screen cuts to a shot from a security camera showing five men, wearing ski masks and wielding pipes, bursting into an office or small bank of some sort. They fan out immediately, three of them advancing on the people behind the counter while the other two begin clubbing the security guard next to the door before he can even get out of his chair.
Cowed, the workers behind the counter begin putting money into bags that the robbers tossed them. The whole thing looks very familiar; it’s what easily could have happened to me and Matt at Børger. This is clearly Vince and his team.
The TV switches to a still picture of a man in his 60s smiling broadly, while the captions read, “Charles Rodriguez remains in critical condition after this assault. Police are seeking any information on the identities of the attackers.”
The captions are partially covering up the banner at the bottom of the screen, but it’s a familiar one: it’s the Crime Stoppers name and number, assuring people that they can remain anonymous but still help the police bring criminals to justice.
“Man, if you know he’s involved, you’ve got to tell the police,” says Brian. “They just about beat that guy at the Cash4All to death earlier tonight. You can’t let this go on.”
He’s right, and I know it. “All right. I’ll do the Crime Stoppers thing. Then I can say everything without having to try to lie to Peterson anymore.”
“Ooh, plus you could be eligible for up to a thousand dollar cash reward!” says Brian, widening his eyes and mocking the Crime Stoppers commercial. “Coffee’s on you if you get that.”
“Coffee’s gonna be on you if you don’t keep your voice down,” I say, pretending to shove his coffee cup. “I’m not sure if you know how anonymity works, but generally speaking, shouting in a public place about how someone plans to be anonymous is not it.”
“Maybe they’ll put you in the witness protection program!” Brian goes on, ignoring me.
“Maybe they’ll put you in the WITLESS protection program,” I retort, grinning.
Crime Stoppers, it turns out, has a website. This shouldn’t surprise me, but somehow it does. I fill out their form on my phone, reporting all of the details I can remember about Vince, then write down the conversation where his partner admitted to robbing the gas station and beating the cashier. At the bottom, a dropdown menu asks me where I heard about their site, and one of the options is “playing cards,” so I pick that.
“Playing cards?” asks Brian, reading over my shoulder.
“Yeah, I figure I’m gonna make some guy’s day with that one. This comes in, and he goes, ‘I TOLD you! I told you making Crime Stoppers playing cards was gonna work out!’ And the rest of the department probably ignores him, but he feels vindicated.”
“You live a weird internal fantasy life, man,” says Brian.
“Dude, I’m pyrokinetic and robbers are plotting to kill me. I live a weird external fantasy life,” I say, hitting “submit.” Brian just laughs.
I feel a thousand times better than I did before coming out to Beans. Vince may be expanding his team and planning to come after me, but I’m making moves of my own now, not just waiting for things to happen. It feels good to be ahead of the curve for a little while.
I’m still paranoid on the walk home, though. Last time I was relaxing on a walk after a night of high tension, Vince’s friend hit me with his car. I try not to fall for the exact same trick twice.
As it turns out, though, the only cars I see are ones driven normally by non-psychopaths, and so it is a pleasant walk home. I text Brian with “Home and not dead,” just in case he was wondering, but then head to bed without waiting for a response.