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Short Story 32

Repaying a Debt



Every store around her seemed to have retail space for lease, but was it really that surprising in this economy. She hated to admit it and yet she couldn’t deny that it was more of a shock that she had managed to stay open during the closures. Maybe it was because they sold food or maybe it was because her grandparents had established the place over sixty years ago.


Even so, business wasn’t doing quite as hot without more businesses to attract people, and with the cost of rent going up it was becoming more and more difficult to keep things going. Already she had to take some of her staff off of full time, which wasn’t ideal in the least. Gloria ran her fingers through her hair going over the books for the fourth time. By the skin of their teeth they had made it through this month.


They would have to give on menu options at this rate. Make a few small things and emphasize their artisan quality. Destroying her clips hold on her already precarious hair style she ran her fingers through the brown strands frustrated.


It was always easy for politicians. During inflation and a bad economy they could just give themselves a raise on the people. What could she do? If she charged more she would just lose customers. Change the shape of the product too much and people would notice they were paying more for less, which made shrinkflation a dangerous option. She wasn’t some big chain that could handle messing with people and just swearing it was some kind of extra dimensional effect that they were just too stupid to be aware of.


No, they would raise taxes to cover their poor spending habits and people like her would struggle to survive, hoping they wouldn’t live in a time period where it was better to use money as wallpaper than spend it. She wished she could go back to the world where she didn’t have to question things. Where life was just life and you could enjoy yourself without feeling as if everyone was trying to strangle you to death. Oh, the days of turning over an open sign and feeling happy even when only a few customers walked through the door.


Removing the clip she attempted to reset her hair, for some reason it kept falling into her face that morning, a several minute struggle ensued before finally she was able to pin it well enough to call the battle won for the moment.


The bell above the door rang. It was still early for her usual customers, there was a sick hearts flutter at the idea that it might be someone new. Was it possible? Did she dare to dream that her business wasn’t being squeezed to death.


Going to the front she found the charming little reception area empty. It was a blow. Going around the counter, which was still only half full of pastries, she checked the door, opening it and closing it. The electric bell sound ran out with an old-world charm. She stood staring up at the two white boxes, one on the door itself and the other on the jam, as if waiting to see if it would miss fire. The idea that the batteries were running low jogged through her mind, and at once she decided she would change them when they closed that night.


“It is so annoying when things like that happen.”


Behind her she found a man, he was very thin, a mere whisp of a person, and yet, it looked natural on him. He was quite tall and had a very serious set of dark eyes and a posture to match. The hair on top of his head was decidedly golden, which looked rather shimmery beneath the warm recessed lighting.


“Excuse me?”


“The bell,” The man retorted casually putting a slender hand into the pocket of his slacks, “It’s not working correctly, it rang a whole three minutes after I entered.”


“Oh yes. I’m sorry I didn’t notice you sooner, Sir,” Moving back around the counter, she put what felt a barrier of protection between the two of them, “I don’t know how I didn’t see you.”


“I was in the restroom.” He gestured with his other hand to the open door exposing a quaint and tastefully decorated powder room for a single occupant.


“Well, that explains it. Is there something I can do for you, Sir?”


“Do you serve coffee?”


“Yes, we do. Is there one from the sign that you would like?” She directed him with a simple gesture to the chalkboard sign near the counter.


“Yes, French press would be nice. Oh, and make it strong if you would be so kind.”


“Yes Sir, of course. Feel free to take a seat while you wait.”


He stalked around behind her as she worked like a shadow the light just couldn’t cast away, hovering there just behind the counter. It was only when she was pouring the first offering into a quaint white cup on a matching saucer that he seated himself on the edge of one of the romantic metal chairs.


She set the cup in front of him, “Can I interest you in a pastry to go with your coffee?”


“Not for the moment.”


“If you change your mind all pastries purchased with a drink, come with a twenty-five percent discount.”


“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.”


Moving back to the counter she stowed the tray, it was such a pain to admit she was disappointed he had refused to purchase anything else. In the backroom the bread was just ready to go in the oven, the two bakers who helped her with the morning rush were there now seeing to everything. It was a wonder how she managed to keep them, her imagination had already negotiated an image of her nearing a lonely and overtaxed pursuit to stay afloat.


Stay afloat? In what? It was a difficult question to answer without hurting her pride, but the reality is she could hardly do so. If she was in fact in a figurative boat then it had a gigantic hole in the center that was constantly gulping water in and around her feet. There was no way that the insurgent flow was anywhere lower than her ankles at this point and that was quite an optimistic thought in her own mind for she was sure it was a deal worse than what she dare let her mind capitulate.


She knew as she brought a tray of freshly dressed tarts out to be stowed in their refrigerated show box that she should consider just closing. Have a big sale and get rid of everything, pay out her lease and give her life a hard look and call this chapter good. It’s not that it wouldn’t be sad. She was the third generation. They had occupied this spot since before she could remember and the idea that it was all falling apart just a few years after she had taken over was rather bitter. But, there was nothing she could do she was powerless to combat the evil that had been allowed to take over and ruin the little people.


The man who had entered so abruptly, sat stalwart, a ridged pole of serenity as he sipped from the white ceramic. His eyes were playing across the wallpaper, though no part of him moved save his one arm used to lead the cup up and down, up, and down again.


With careful attention she loaded the display refrigerator with the tender crusted tarts, their glistening strawberries, blueberries, and mint leaves resoundingly gourmet and delicious to the eye. Their appearance leaked a terrible idea. How many would she have left at the end of the day? It was a horrifying suggestion. It made her stomach twitch with horror.


“Those tarts are very lovely.” The man’s voice projected melodious in the stillness of the shop.


“Thank you, Sir,” She found he wasn’t even looking at them.


“I should like to have one if you wouldn’t mind, and a refill if permissible.”


“Of course, Sir.”


Diverging her attention, she set the tray half empty on a back table and getting a delicate porcelain plate served one of the tarts. This on the tray she retrieved the French press still half full of coffee and did as the man had asked.


“If there is anything else you need Sir, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”


To this he said nothing, instead he took up the small fork that came with the treat and penetrated the creamy custard filling and the tart shell. Going back, she began once again to stock what remained of the little sacrifice’s brethren within the cool interior of the refrigerated display, a touch of optimism ponging the pool that had been so leeched with cynicism there was a boundless sea of it to fall into. This small drop didn’t change the tide or it would be more appropriate to say it couldn’t.


It was what was best. There was no two ways about it. It was time to put away pride and admit the truth to herself. Her business was failing, soon she wouldn’t be able to afford to keep the lights on, it was better just to cut now while she still had savings enough to live on. She couldn’t permit herself to live in a dreamland, it wasn’t healthy to stay there. She had to let it go. Put the idea to bed. She didn’t have it in her to change anything. She had already done everything that was within her power and in more than one way was at the end of her rope.


The bell near the register tinkled, another summoning call to return to the front of house. The dreary idea that this would be one of very few times she would have to do this stole some of the pleasure from the moment. It was with a large tray of fresh croissants that she returned to the front. The gentlemen who had enjoyed soul occupancy of the bistro area now stood before the register looking taller than he had a moment before. There was an added crispness to his general appearance as if he had refreshed himself before summoning an attendant.


“Can I offer you something else Sir? Are you ready to pay?”


“Actually, I was curious to know who was responsible for making that lovely tart.”


A smile, it had been quite a long time since she had received such a complement or at least she hoped it would be a compliment, “That would be me, I make all the pastries in this shop. All the breads are made by my baking staff, I’m lucky to have them.”


“You’re saying you made that tart on your own? Did you use your own recipe?”


“Well, yes, it is my own, but it’s based off of an old recipe that had belonged to my grandmother.”


“Your grandmother you say, how astounding. I could never have imagined I would have such luck. Was your grandmother perchance named Claudia De La Cour?”


“Yes, she was.”


“What magic is that that has led me to you. Is she still with us?”


Astounded the answer took a moment to draw from the end of her tongue, “Yes, she is. Though she is very old now, very old. Excuse me sir, how exactly do you know her?”


A smile, it cut through all his sharpness and strange velum of old fashion social civility and transformed him into something close to handsome. “That is a question better asked to her, I assure you, she would explain it better,” And here the hardness returned, “Forgive me madam if I change the subject, you see your grandmother Madam De La Cour owes a debt, that is what brought me to you today.”


“A debt?” The idea was shocking, she wasn’t sure quite why, but it lingered like a bad taste, “In debt for what? To whom?”


“To me, as I have just stated, it is a very old debt, and it has been rather unpleasant finding her, it was very much by chance that I took the risk in coming to you today to seek restitution and repayment. If you could please provide me with an address or even a phone number that would be most appreciated.”


“I’m sorry Sir, but I would need to see something that actually proves she owes you something before I would dare give you such personal information.”


“Of course, you are only to right, here this is our contract, feel free to take your time in reading.”


What he handed her was a scroll. To her hands it felt nothing like paper and when rolled out, the words were written in striking black flowing letters that were otherworldly at this point in history. At the bottom in clear letters was in fact her grandmother’s signature scrolled in elegant swirling lines. She knew it was her grandmothers because her signature in particular was something she had always found so lovely.


“The document discusses a debt, but it doesn’t state the value or what is owed.”


“Yes, it does, right there. Here, direct it at me if you please. Ah yes, just there. The value of itself is considered priceless that is why under this section it states that the repayment of debt is to be what is determined by the creditor at the time of collection.”


“That a very unreasonable request to make.”


“Is it? Well, nonetheless it is the agreement Madam De La Cour signed.”


“But what could she have possibly gotten out of this?”


“Talent.”


“Excuse me?”


“She wanted talent so that she could follow her chosen path and so I gave it to her. It was something that was priceless, and I don’t want you to assume that it wasn’t a very difficult thing to give. However, I wasn’t expecting that she would be such a crafty minx and manage to avoid my detection for so long. You see at the moment she is in breach of contract, I do not wish to take this any further and would, if feasible, prefer settling up as quickly as possible.”


“I don’t see how this contact you have could be legally binding.”


“Oh really, maybe if you see it in your own local script.” Here he pulled out an identical contract that had all the sterility of the modern legal principle. It was word for word the same and signed just as the one before.


Stunned and hardly able to think she began to stammer, “My grandmother is very old… and not well to do, I’m not sure… I’m afraid, that she wouldn’t have the ability… or the strength to repay you.”


“If you prefer, you could assume her debt and settle things for her, if you’d like. If not, I would ask that you provide the requested address or phone number, so that way we could avoid any more unnecessary grievances.”


At a loss, she stood for a moment gawking at the contracts. It was an absurd thing. She couldn’t imagine it was legally binding, how could it be. But she was staring at it, she had both versions of the contract, and both were signed. If she didn’t go through with it and it was in fact a legal contract, which she now doubted very little that it wasn’t, then her mother would likely take on the debt herself. It wasn’t a lie to say her grandmother was very old, she was, but she was also ill, and such a shock would be impossible for her.


“Fine. I’d be happy to take over the debt, so long as you agree to an addendum to the contract.”


“An addendum? And what exactly would that entail?”


“Well, it would be unreasonable, and I believe illegal, for you to ask for any of my internal organs or force me to sleep with you.”


“My how forward. Yes, I can agree with that, nothing inhuman will be asked of you.” He snapped his fingers and reached into his jacket pulling out a contract just like the one he had presented to her a moment before, “You’ll find that all your stipulations are within this contract, you will be assuming Madam De La Cour’s debt, and in doing so you will not be asked to compromise your personal morality, or be coaxed or forced into parting with any member of your person for whatever reason. Here read over and let me know what you think. If you need anything explained to you, please don’t hesitate to ask.”


Feeling his eyes on her she did just as he recommended, reading every line five or six times. No matter what she wanted to feel, she was frightened of scribbling her name there on that formidable line. But the idea of her mother or grandmother having to ‘settle up’ with this man was enough to make her sick.


“I don’t have a pen.”


“Here you are.” He presented her with a lovely ballpoint pen, made of some kind of bone, that he pulled from the same pocket as the scroll, “Of course, you will have to sign one identical to this, that meets the local requirements.”


She said nothing to this, and with a deep inhale she wrote her name out, finding her own handwriting looking boorish next to the elegant script all across the contract. It didn’t matter if she plunged herself deeper into a pit, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone. The second document was signed in just the same way.


“Very nice, now I shall do the same.” And so, he placed his name there beside hers on the contract, “There, now this is for you.” He extended what appeared to be a lustrous gold business card, reaching out, she took it.


-


A bell rang near the register. Porter, the young man who helped with the baking went to the front. There were several customers waiting to be served, as well as a dish on the small metal bistro table near the window beside a coffee cup and saucer that looked as if they had been sitting there for hours.




End



Thank you so much for reading everyone!!



Prompt Sentence: Every store around her seemed to have retail space for lease


Word Count: 3054


©DecemberKnight 2023


Special thanks to Toby Do from Unsplash for the use of the image!


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