By S. Mubashir Noor
“Sir, could you repeat that?” The female voice on the phone asked.
“Are you deaf?” Mr. Holliday said. Without caffeine his patience wore thin every passing second.
“I said there’s a huge fire. F-I-R-E. The old warehouse downtown. There was enough fabric here to burn Ipoh twice over.”
“Okay, okay, got it. First responders will be there in ten minutes. Tell everyone to stay calm. And you are?”
Mr. Holliday considered the question.
“I am a champion. The Chinpo Coffee champion.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. Holliday sat in an open-air eatery tapping a Morse code on his temple. He wanted to tear out the throbbing vein and chop it into pieces so his head would stop pounding. His body spasmed and ached from the lack of coffee — Chinpo Coffee. There was none at home. None at the supermarket. And now he was at his third cafe of the morning hoping someone, anyone still had a spoonful of the magic powder left.
Should he start invading nearby houses next? Some paranoid old lady must have a pack or two stashed about. Why did bad luck have to follow him around like a tomcat in heat?
It was a miracle he had managed to pull up his pants the right way in the morning without coffee. But miracles by definition are one-offs. Any more waiting and he was liable to go on a mass shooting spree. He shaped his lips into a sucked-out mango and whistled as was customary in such places. A bored-looking server with a hanging jaw strode toward him in slow motion.
The server shook his head.
He shrugged, “Out of stock, boss.”
Mr. Holliday glared at him. “Why aren’t you out of stock?”
The server stared back as if waiting for some profound answer.
“Warm lime water then, on the double.” The forty-something crossing guard ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. The world was all wrong today. Wish it would burn.
He suddenly felt uneasy. Was someone watching him? Looking around, he spotted his sometime lawyer. A real weasel. Would sell his own mother to a pimp if the price was right.
The lawyer sat a few rows away wearing a pleasant smile. He waved and walked over.
“How’s it going, bro?”
“To hell in a rickshaw.”
“I need my Chinpo. They don’t have it. Nobody has it. It’s like the earth swallowed the whole damn company!” Mr. Holliday’s voice shook like a leaf tacked to a jetliner.
The lawyer nodded with a masterful command of fake concern. “Relax, relax,” he said. “Tell you what, I was planning to cancel on a fun little meeting where I know there will be tanks full of Chinpo. You want to go instead?”
The clouds parted from Mr. Holliday face. “No kidding?”
“Of course, what are friends for?”
Desperate, his mind blanked out the last time this man had turned him into a laughing stock across town. An hour later, Mr. Holliday wore the ragged look of a man waiting to hear his death sentence. Or about to pronounce it for someone else.
An eerie silence cloaked the dark hall. The packed crowd sat motionless and each held a thin black candle. They all wore dark hooded robes. He wasn’t sure if the satanic vibe was by accident or design. They also wore a silly plastic mask with the thin curling mustache and creepy smile. The one that was all the rage with aspiring felons. People seemed to cherish it like the membership of an exclusive club — the kind that lands you in jail without parole.
His own mask made his face itch every few minutes. Given how it looked fifth-hand, the filthy thing could be housing enough germs to spawn a new killer bug.
There was an uptick in murmurs. He saw a white-robed man holding a wireless microphone limp up on stage as if he were scaling the Twin Towers.
“Friends and countrymen, we all know why we’re here today. We tire of the corporate elites that fleece us year after year. No more, I say! It’s time to reclaim our dignity!” He pumped his fists with all the vigor of a retired librarian. The audience let out a huge cheer. This was without a doubt an angry blue-collar bunch. After a few very long minutes of Social Justice 101, he asked the crowd to welcome their savior.
The hall began bouncing with loud rock music and colorful spotlights. They reminded him of professional wrestling on TV. Any second now, a seven-foot tall giant would emerge, strike a fearsome pose and toss the white-robed windbag off the stage. Fingers crossed.
Instead, to his great disappointment, a dwarf in a pink suit with hair gelled high like a surf wave crawled up. He raised his arms in a V, grabbed the microphone and strutted to the center.
“Friends, congratulations! Without you, we could not have ruined the evil corporation that is Chinpo Coffee.” Cue more mindless cheering.
Wait, what?! Was this the lawyer’s idea of a cruel joke? Goddamn it, no wonder the weasel was sniggering on his way out.
“I am also here to offer you a new deal. A reason to love your new jobs. Once we kick Chinpo out of town, I promise you will all get joining bonuses!”
Who are these people? Sour Chinpo employees? Should he call the cops? He slipped to the back exit but found it locked. He would have to wait.
The hall was hushed when he returned. The white-robed man wheeled onstage a cart holding some chunky contraption. The dwarf kept grinning like he’d won two first-class tickets to the moon. He pointed at the cart.
“Welcome to the future! This machine here will rid us of Chinpo once and for all. And one of you fine folk will come up and do the honors today!”
They all gasped as one anticipating a real blockbuster. The two men on stage conferred for what seemed forever. What’s the damn holdup? It’s not like they were naming a new space station.
The people seated nearby began clapping in his direction. Now what?
Someone whispered the dwarf had called out his seat number. He didn’t know there was a seat number until he checked the back. And then the dwarf shouted out the number again.
Mr. Holliday floated to the stage trailed by wild applause. He could get used to this. Best enjoy the few breaks life sends his way. The cops can wait.
Minutes later, the hall erupted in panic. The white-robed man caught fire and ran around screaming. A few brave souls tried to help him only to themselves fall prey to the flames.
Mr. Holliday and the dwarf stood speechless beside the machine. Or what remained. It went kaput as soon as he hit the switch. The wrong switch it appears, seeing how the dwarf had leapt with a loud cry to stop him. He had in fact been too busy soaking up the glory to focus on his instructions. Then again, why did the damn thing have a self-destruct mode?
What followed was both scary and beautiful. Arcs of lightning lit up the dark hall, but nature had nothing to do with it. The infernal contraption had short-circuited the entire compound.
Power outlets first sizzled and then leaked flames. They ate through anything dry and fibrous. And as they sped through the hall, so too did the stampeding crowd. Masked figures ran for dear life, but kept tripping up and falling on their faces. Their robes after all forbid any cardio workout besides gentle strolling.
Mr. Holliday was no fool. The first thing he did after the fire broke out was dump his mask and robes. But as he was about to escape, a series of high-pitched snarls cut through the chaotic soundscape.
The dwarf was rushing at him full-tilt with a demon’s face! Mr. Holliday tried dodging but got caught in his python grip. The dwarf then began shrieking that he had ruined everything.
Mr. Holliday tried shaking him off and then dragging him along without success. Pain shot up his leg as the dwarf bit him deep in the flesh. He started tearing up. How did this runt have the jaw strength of a gorilla?
As the blaze widened, Mr. Holliday wondered if this was the end. A sad, pathetic end to a life of woulda, coulda, shoulda. Well at least he was taking the pint-sized scourge with him. Would anyone remember this final act of heroism?
Mr. Holliday waited for his life to flash before his eyes and all pains past and present to vanish forever. And then waited some more. But all that tore through the commotion around him was a croaky voice that shouted.
“Boss! Your suit!”
This had a chilling effect on the dwarf. He jumped off and scurried away spitting choice swearwords.
Praise the heavens! Mr. Holliday’s first instinct was a mental high-five. Then the pessimist in him wondered if life hadn’t punished him enough yet. He flew to the back exit with a small coffee tank that lay rocking on the floor.
Battered door and broken lock? Must have been the terrified horde from earlier. Well done!
After calling the emergency services, Mr. Holliday found a quiet sidewalk and attended to the coffee tank. Being a good Samaritan was a real pain. No wonder so few cared.
He began gulping down its contents from the tap like holy nectar. In the distance, he could hear the strains of police sirens closing in. And then the dwarf appeared. The fancy suit was now charred in places and he smelled like a drag race of dying cars.
His surf wave hair had also parted right down the middle to reveal a giant bald spot. More a sad stray than a high-powered CEO, really.
Mr. Holliday gave him a cold stare and went back to his coffee. The dwarf sighed. “Hey, can I have some?” He hesitated but then passed the tank.
And with the other hand, he gripped a small pointy rock idling on the road. Better safe than sorry. The dwarf sipped long and hard. He then smacked his lips, satisfied.
Mr. Holliday gawked at him. “You like Chinpo?”
“Who doesn’t? I’m evil, not an idiot.”
“Then why the hell are you trying to destroy it? Either way the cops are here. Your little plan is poof.”
A stern-faced beat cop was marching toward them in long strides. The dwarf bit his lower lip.
“A year’s supply of Chinpo?”
Mr. Holliday was not one to let grudges get in the way of profit.
They sat cross-legged on the patch of green next to the sidewalk deep in conversation.
“So, what are you gents up to?”
Mr. Holliday lifted his head and beamed at the officer.
“Waiting to snare a monitor lizard so we can satay (barbecue) it. You want in, boss?”
S. Mubashir Noor is a media professional situated in Malaysia. He writes pithy summaries by day and cooks up satirical short fiction when the sun goes beddy bye.
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