"Order up, table two," bellowed the gruff voice of the owner and chef of Meg's Café, in his thick Ukrainian accent.
"I said, Order up. Are you deaf or mentally retarded!" He yelled at the waitress who was scurrying between tables, balancing plates of half eaten food and cups of barely touched cold coffee.
Orlof may have been the owner of Meg's but he was certainly no chef. So long as customers paid their bill, he didn't care that the food he served was inedible. The café survived on the night trade, mostly night clubbers who, in their more than slightly inebriated state, didn't notice how bad the food was. Most never returned a second time to tempt their luck at a decent meal, but there were always more than enough first timers to keep the café alive.
"This isn't what the customer ordered. He ordered the focaccia, not a roll," Cassie stated curtly, poking repeatedly at the word focaccia clearly written on the docket.
Orlof's eyes began to bulge and the colour in his face darkened as his blood pressure rose. If there was one thing he hated more than incompetent waitresses, it was losing money because of wrong orders. Ordinarily, he would find an excuse to blame mistakes on a waitress and deduct the cost of the meal from her wage. In this case however, it was clearly his error and he had to wear the cost.
He stormed back into the kitchen carrying the roll, muttering curses under his breath as he went, his short and heavyset frame barely squeezing through the doorway. It was obvious that he enjoyed the food he served, even if no one else did.
The bell on the door rang, announcing the arrival of more unsuspecting victims of Orlof's cooking.
As the door was closing, Cassie noticed a homeless woman nervously hovering around the front of the café. She'd seen her there before and couldn't help wondering what had happened in her life to bring her to such desperate circumstances.
Her eyes betrayed her shame and desperation. This was not a lifestyle she enjoyed but obviously one she felt unable to change.
Cassie felt a knot in her stomach. She was a sucker for a sad face, whether it was another human or a stray puppy.
It was hard to guess her age. Maybe she was in her early forties, maybe younger. Beneath her heavy, well worn and tattered brown woollen coat, at least two sizes too large for her, she was wearing several layers of equally tattered and dirty clothing. Her hair was most likely blonde but it was too hard to know for sure, possibly shoulder length by the wisps of hair falling from under a multi coloured crocheted beanie, matting together to form dread locked clumps below her ears. Her face had soft skin, grubby but still smooth. Cassie assumed she hadn't spent a lot of time in the sun over the years. Her cheeks were slightly hollow and her eyes had a sunken-in appearance with dark rings beneath them which only seemed to highlight her fine boned facial structure all the more. Under better circumstances, she may have been quite attractive.
Ten minutes until her break. Cassie wanted to offer the homeless woman some help, although she couldn't afford to give her any money, she was a struggling Uni student who barely made enough to get by herself. The roll Orlof had taken back to the kitchen sprung to mind. It was destined for the bin anyway. Who would appreciate it more than a homeless woman?
Over the next few minutes she mulled over the pros and cons of giving the roll to the woman. On one hand the woman was obviously hungry. On the other, Orlof was likely to have kittens if she took it. But then again, if she didn't help this woman, was anyone else going to? Probably not. That settled it, she would give the woman the roll.
Outside the night air was crisp, with just a whisper of drizzle leaving a light film of moisture over everything it touched. The black asphalt of the road glistened under the street lamps and reflected off the shop windows on the opposite side of the street.
It was just past 9pm on Friday night so the café was still fairly quiet. The nightclub scene wouldn't kick off properly for a couple of hours yet.
A new nightclub, Phoenix, had opened recently only a block from Meg's and was proving to be extremely popular. Already there was a cue of hopeful patrons lined up, extending along the footpath. The club was very selective about who was granted entry and more than half the crowd of hopefuls were destined to be turned away, rejected.
Since their opening, business at the café was booming. The propitious night clubbers from Phoenix all came in looking totally wasted, eating and drinking anything on the menu. They probably had enough alcohol in their system to counter the salmonella Orlof was cultivating in the kitchen. In fact, the deadly bacteria was probably more palatable than the food.
The increase in business fuelled Orlof's ego. He honestly believed it was his cooking they were coming in for. If he hadn't been a big enough arsehole already, his newly inflated ego made him twice as obnoxious.
Cassie suspected it was something else. It crossed her mind that there may be a new drug on the streets that was being pedalled at the nightclub. It didn't seem natural that so many people coming from that nightclub all appeared so high, almost euphoric and at the same time physically… drained. They were ravenously hungry and had all the signs of dehydration.
…And then came that voice again, interrupting her thoughts of intrigue and conspiracies. "Order up, table two."
Cassie sighed and hustled back to the kitchen to collect the correct order - hopefully, this time, she didn't want to tell the customer that the chef got his order wrong, again - although it wouldn't be the first time. Secretly she hoped the customer would get tired of waiting and go somewhere else that served real food.
Cassie had one eye on the clock and the other on the homeless woman outside. Five minutes to go until her break. Just enough time to deliver the focaccia to table two and take an order from the newcomers.
Orlof glared at Cassie with disdain as she collected the plate and examined it carefully to make sure the focaccia had all the correct ingredients. She knew it would rile him further, but she couldn't help herself. Maybe it was PMS.
The temptation to antagonise him just got the better of her.
She barely contained the smirk on her face as she pushed open the kitchen door back into the dining area.
After handing Orlof the docket for his next order, Cassie put on her jacket and picked up the roll.
"I'm taking my break," she announced. "Try not to miss me" the sarcasm dripped from her tongue contemptuously.
Orlof looked up from his grill. "You be back in ten minutes. I'm watching you." He said in an insidious tone, shaking his spatula at her. The last part trailed off under his breath as he noticed her carrying the contraband out the door. A menacing smile crept across his face as he realised he just spied the way to recoup the cost of his earlier stuff-up.
Tegan, the only other waitress rostered on, and yet another student, caught Cassie by the elbow as she passed her on the way towards the door. "Ooh, you're really pushing your luck tonight," she whispered anxiously.
Orlof only hired the young, inexperienced and broke Uni students, as they were easy to manipulate and coerce, working long hours for minimal pay and of course, no paid over-time.
"I don't care. I've had enough of the way he treats people. I'm not going to just roll-over and take it anymore." She replied, glancing quickly at the contents of her hand, no longer containing her smirk, she closed the door behind her.
Tegan shook her head and sighed, and went back to clearing her table.
Outside the cool night air whipped at her face and neck sending shivers down her spine. The breeze pulled a slip of hair free from her neatly tied ponytail falling into her eyes and threatening to obscure her view of the path ahead. The drizzle tickled her nose and cheeks as it settled on her warm skin, the accumulating droplets dripping from the end of her nose.
Suddenly she felt nervous. Maybe it was because she was doing something out of character by offering the homeless woman the food, or maybe because she knew she was really pushing her luck with Orlof. But, what the hell, he's an arsehole, a fact that wasn't going to change unless someone has the guts to stand up to him. She was sick of tip-toeing around him, even if he was intimidating.
Maybe antagonising him wasn't the best way to achieve her goal, but it felt so good.
The homeless woman stood down by the corner, leaning up against the wall of the second hand book store. Under the shade of the eaves she was barely noticeable.
Cassie sucked in her breath and wiped away the light film of moisture settling on her face as she forced her first foot forward, determined not to be disparaged by her insecurities.
Each step became easier to take as her resolve in helping this woman became more tangible.
The woman stood very still with her arms crossed and her head tilted downward. Cassie could see by her faint outline, her face was turned, watching her approach.
Too late to turn back now.
Cassie could feel the woman's curiosity regarding her intentions burning into her.
She was usually very good at reading people's personalities and moods. She had no trouble understanding what made other people tick, but no one seemed to really understand her, except her cousin, Alex, who was also her best friend. The two of them had always been outsiders, never quite fitted into the mainstream.
As Cassie approached, she discerned a cocktail of emotions from her posture, broadcasting a mixture of sadness and confusion on the woman's face, with a hint of fear and distrust in her closed body language.
How curious she thought, had this woman been a homeless dog, there would be no lack of people willing to take her in and care of her. Sadly, the same didn't apply to homeless people, in fact it was the opposite.
Cassie stopped a few feet away from the woman. "I'm sorry to bother you," she began hesitantly "I noticed you outside the café."
The woman didn't move. Her eyes dropped to the ground, awkwardly fidgeting her hands in front of her. She was embarrassed by Cassie's attention and suspicious of her motives.
"I'm Cassie. I work at Meg's. We, um, well we often have food left over and I thought you um, m-might like something to eat." she stammered slightly, abruptly extending her hand and offering her the roll in the hope of negating the need for further awkward speech. It was a good thing it was dark, her cheeks burned with embarrassment and her palms were beginning to sweat despite the chilled air. Again, she wasn't so sure that this was such a good idea.
"I'm very pleased to meet you. Cassie. I'm Abigail." She spoke with more eloquence than Cassie expected. That was a shock.
Cassie's anxiety toned down a notch.
Abigail looked up and smiled shyly, but her eyes betrayed her voracious hunger, looking quickly back to the roll. She needed no encouragement, gratefully accepting it and taking a huge bite, promptly followed by a second before she'd swallowed the first. Her mouth was so full that Cassie thought her cheeks might burst at any moment. In no more than a minute she'd managed to eat half the roll.
Both women relaxed slightly, feeling more at ease with each other.
"Thank you for your kindness. Most people do their best not to notice me at all, let alone offer any sort of generosity," she muttered, almost inaudible as she gulped down another mouthful of food. Funny, hadn't she just been thinking the same thing, Cassie thought.
Cassie half expected to see the woman's eyeballs roll up into her head she was eating with such a ferocious feeding frenzy.
"Thank you so much. I was famished," swallowing the last of the roll as she spoke.
Cassie didn't want to seem intrusive by asking Abigail how she ended up living on the streets, but the question was foremost in her mind, prickling her curiosity. It was quite obvious that Abigail was highly intelligent, which only heightened Cassie's interest to know about her decline to the lower end of the social scale.
Fearing that any question she voiced regarding her personal life would be construed as insensitive and most likely insulting, she managed to hold her tongue. A great accomplishment considering how freely Cassie normally shared her thoughts. It was none of her business after all, she reminded herself over and over again.
Following a couple of benign comments about the weather, their conversation lapsed into an awkward silence. Abigail looked down again, her cheeks becoming flushed as her discomfort returned.
Cassie was sure her questions, although unasked verbally, must have shown on her face causing Abigail's embarrassment. The last thing she wanted was for Abigail to think she pitied her. Her self esteem had clearly already taken a battering, what she needed was to feel …respected.
Abigail stood up taller, straightening her spine with the grace of someone who had attended Finishing School. This combined with her perfect elocution, left Cassie convinced that it must have been circumstances in her life that had led to this destitute situation she now found herself in, not poor choices, as was the case for many of the homeless in this area.
"I know it wasn't much, only a roll, but I wanted to offer you what I could." Abigail's agitation overflowed onto Cassie, her hands fidgeted nervously in front of her. "I'm sorry if I've made you feel uncomfortable, it wasn't my intention. I just couldn't live with myself if I didn't offer you something. You looked so hungry." blurting out her sincerest apology. Her clumsy attempt at being a good Samaritan appeared to have back fired.
"You haven't offended me. It's him," pointing to her right, toward the café. Her voice suddenly hard, obviously repulsed by the object in her sight.
Cassie followed the direction of her finger, inconveniently pointing at Orlof standing in the doorway, hands on hips, wearing his customary smarmy grin, more typical of a cat cornering a mouse.
They had something in common. They both loathed Orlof, bringing another question to her mind. What had he done to this woman to make her feel such revulsion for him. Most likely he had just been his usual personable self.
"Oh, bollocks," checking her watch she groaned. "This isn't going to be pretty."
"I hope I haven't gotten you in any trouble, have I?" Abigail touched her on the arm lightly, unintentionally, troubled that her own misfortune was about to have a detrimental affect on this kind young woman.
That small incidental touch warmed Cassie's heart and steeled her resolve to deal with Orlof. She knew that in her own small way, she had made a difference to Abigail's life, even if it was for only one day, and that was worth standing up for.
Abigail held out her hand to Cassie who chose to disregard it and hugged the woman instead. "I hope we'll meet again. Take care." She genuinely hoped she'd see this well spoken woman again. There was something different about her that tugged at Cassie's curiosity and it wasn't just that she seemed so out of place living on the streets.
She wrapped her coat around her a little tighter, feeling the etheric cold draft coming from Orlof's direction, and plodded her way back to the café to an inevitable confrontation.
"You're late! Two minutes late," he began, still with that irritating smug grin plastered on his face. He was enjoying this. "I'll be deducting that from your wage, and the cost of that roll."
He really got off on belittling people, particularly in public.
"You were going to throw that roll in the bin and you know it," she stated flatly, trying to contain her annoyance which was beginning to create a knot in her stomach.
"Not the point. You took the roll for that, that street vermin, so you can pay for it," his face contorting in contempt.
"You're comparing a human being with a disease carrying rodent?" Cassie could feel her own blood pressure rise now. She wasn't upset that he wanted her to pay for the roll, she'd expected that. But his indignant and pompous attitude really got under her skin.
"Where's your sense of compassion for the more unfortunate members of your own community. They deserve some respect and some help to get their lives back on track, not derision and ridicule."
Without drawing breath, she continued "Are you really such a cold heartless bastard, or do you actually have a shred of humanity locked away in some dark corner of your soul." She already knew the answer to that question and instantly cringed waiting for his response.
"You're fired." He shrieked. His eyes bulging in their sockets in an unblinking mad glare, his face twisted into a feral snarl and spittle flew from his lips on exclaiming the word fired.
"Get out, get out now!" He yelled. Loud enough to be heard a block away and stunning the café patrons into silence, who until now had only pretended to carry on their own conversations while listening into their 'discussion'.
A calmness came over her as if a weight were being lifted from her shoulders.
"Thank you." She stated matter-of-factly. "Now I can tell you what I really think of you,
"You're an anal retentive, egotistical, arsehole with small man syndrome." It all started tumbling out of her mouth more easily than she'd ever imagined possible. She'd waited eight long months to tell him what she really thought.
"You're a shallow, insignificant man. Your life is empty of any value or meaning. The only time you're happy is when you're belittling others and making them as miserable as you are," She was on a roll, determined to get everything off her chest.
"I pity you and your wretched existence, your small minded attitude," the adrenaline surged through her veins, purging all her pent up frustration in a venomous torrent.
"I've tried to see things from your point of view but I couldn't get my head that far up my arse!" she blurted.
"You know what they say, 'what goes around, comes around'. And, I'd love to be around to see you get your comeuppance," she added as an after thought.
Wow, that felt good. No, that felt great, fantastic, amazing, liberating.
Time to go.
Before Orlof could pick his jaw up off the floor, Cassie grabbed her bag and disappeared out the door, almost running the first fifty meters down the road.
Reality started to set in. She'd just lost her job. She can't survive on thin air, her trust fund only covered her education, not general living expenses.
Thoughts of Abigail pushed their way into her mind. Such a well spoken and obviously sophisticated woman living on the streets.
No. She wasn't going to end up like her. First thing tomorrow morning she'd start looking for another job.
Tonight however, was another matter. It was only 9:30pm Friday night, too early to go home and brood in front of the TV. It had been ages since she had been out on Friday night, or Saturday night for that matter.
Stopping under a street light, she opened her bag and retrieved her phone. Out the corner of her eye she noticed something pass under a light, into the shadows of the car park across the road.
Not something, someone.
Obviously a male by his build, and tall, over 6 feet from what she could tell. He'd moved too fast to get anything but a brief glance, not enough to make out his identity. Nevertheless, she could still see a vague outline of his large form, hovering in the shadows at the back of the car park, which at this time of night was sparsely occupied. Although, not for much longer.
The city's night life was about to awaken, enticing out all its most colourful inhabitants. The city by day and the city by night were so divergent. It would be easy to imagine it as two totally different towns occupying the same space. By day it was inhabited by people focused on habitual routine, wearing tailored suites and pin pleat skirts, buttoned blouses in dull office friendly colours, all rushing about their business. By night, the city became as dark as the sky that enveloped it. Emo's, goth's and night club and pub devotees saturated the streets, hell bent on killing as many brain cells as possible with alcohol and in some cases, drugs, wearing their stereotypical styled clothes, heavy make-up and dramatically styled hair.
A vague momentary thought flitted through her mind that his presence should concern her since she was alone on a city street at night, but it didn't. Her mind was more agreeably preoccupied with her spirited exodus from Meg's. She was still on a high, buzzing with adrenaline.
She looked down for just a moment to switch on her phone. In the second that she looked away, the man disappeared.
How could he vanish like that, she thought, amazed he could seemingly evaporate into thin air. Building walls occupied three sides of the car park leaving the only way out, in front of her. She couldn't have missed seeing him.
Yet another intrigue to ponder over. Speaking of intrigues, she now had the night off to explore an earlier one that had been bugging her. The Phoenix night club.
She hit speed dial and put the phone to her ear.
"Yeah kid," Alex's voice cheerfully answered.
"Don't call me kid, you know I hate it."
"Whatever, what's up? To what do I owe this pleasure?" toning down his enthusiasm.
"I have some good news and some bad news." She stated, trying to keep her voice even to hide her delight at the evening's turn of events.
"Well, out with it. Give me the good news first."
"I've got the night off work," matching Alex's earlier cheer.
"And, what's the bad news," uncertain whether he really wanted to hear what she had to say.
"I was fired!"
"You were what? Say again."
"I was fired!"
"That's what I thought you said. That's great! What happened?"
She knew Alex didn't like Orlof, no one did. But still, that wasn't the response she'd expected. Although, being honest, she didn't really know how he'd react, maybe annoyed or disappointed that she's left herself without any income. Then again, this was Alex, who was notable for his unpredictability at times.
"I gave Orlof a piece of my mind," giggling, pleased with her own tenacity.
Alex laughed heartily along with her, "About bloody time too. You should've quit ages ago. That arsehole doesn't deserve someone like you working for him." His jubilation giving the impression that he himself had achieved some sort of victory.
"That's sounds like a good reason to celebrate. What do you say? Why don't we get our party shoes on and hit the town." He suggested, although he knew that's really why she rang him. As unpredictable as he was, Cassie was the opposite, predictable to a fault.
"Actually, I already have a place in mind." She answered. "You know that new nightclub near Meg's, the one that I told you about. I want to check it out. You know, see what's really going on in there. You in?"
"Only if it's dangerous." He laughed, glad for a change to his own boring routine of researching his thesis and listening to his roommates bantering about their latest exploits. And, if there really was any trouble to be found at the Phoenix nightclub, chances are, he would be in the middle of it. He just seemed to have a knack for finding strife, or maybe it just managed to find him. Either way the end result was the same.
"Great. Pick me up in an hour. I want to go home and change first." She said.
"Oh, and you'll need to dress neat with just a little grunge."
"What in Hell is grunge?"
"The mildly rebellious rich kid look." Which was pretty much how Alex dressed anyway, minus the money.
She'd paid enough attention to the customer's at Meg's who were recent patrons at that nightclub to know what kind of people they let in. She hoped.