FIFTEEN minutes later, I was back inside the Blend.
“Where’s Matt?” I asked, approaching the espresso bar.
Gardner Evans glanced up, jerked his thumb toward the ceiling, and went back to crowning a hazelnut-toffee latte with spoonfuls of frothy foam.
I looked around the Blend’s first floor and realized I was witnessing an unheard-of customer pattern for a Monday at midnight. The place was packed, and I didn’t need a beverage-service management spreadsheet to analyze why.
Sitting around our marble-topped caf'e tables was a base of neighborhood regulars, a handful of NYU undergrads, and a sprinkling of FDNY and police personnel. All of them had come here as a result of the bad business a block away. Murder and coffee, it appeared, were a profitable mix.
“You okay here?” I asked Gardner, scanning the work area. I was unhappy to see him alone. “Where’s Dante?”
“Downstairs, getting stuff from the big fridge.” Gardner drizzled the finished latte with toffee syrup, dusted it with a fine hazelnut powder, and placed the tall glass mug on the counter for the waiting customer. Three more were still in line.
“Things were dead in here an hour ago,” he told me, “and we were going to start restocking and cleaning when we got this rush-”
“Hey, boss!” Dante walked out from the back, each tattooed arm lugging a gallon of milk product. He stashed the jugs in our espresso bar fridge and moved up to the counter. “What the heck’s going on outside?”
“Yeah, we heard the sirens,” Gardner said. “A couple of customers said someone got whacked?”
“A young woman.” I rubbed my eyes. On a good day, they were emerald green, but between the beers and the tears, I figured they were massively shot with red. “Listen, I have to go upstairs and talk to Matt right now, but I’ll be back down shortly to help.”
“Do you want to open the second floor for this mob?” Gardner asked.
The Blend’s upstairs lounge often caught the spillover on busy weekends. But my guys were already into overtime. “Morning comes too soon around here,” I told Gardner. “Let’s keep the customers on the first floor. No more dining room service, either. Give everything wings-and you can start with two doppio macchiatos for Matt and me.”
“No problem, Clare…”
Gardner pulled a pair of double espressos into paper cups then spotted each of the dark pools with a dollop of foamed milk. (That’s what macchiato basically translates to, by the way: to mark with a spot or stain. Some coffeehouses reverse this recipe, marking a cup of steamed or foamed milk with a bit of espresso instead. At the Blend, however, tradition still ruled.)
I picked up my two steaming paper cups, snapped on flat lids, and pointed to the door. “Anyone who comes in here from the police or fire departments gets free drinks tonight. And start brewing up a thermal urn of the Breakfast Blend. When I come down, I’ll bring the coffee out to them.”
“Thanks, guys.” I left the espresso bar and began to cut a serpentine path through the crowded caf'e tables. I’d been in a pretty big hurry to get to Matt-until I realized the conversations taking place around me were about tonight’s shooting. My pace instantly slowed.
At a table to my right, a group of NYU guys in ripped jeans, T-shirts, and day-old chin scruff were all agreeing that they hadn’t seen or heard a thing and they didn’t know the woman.
Right. I moved on.
At the next table, a twenty-something girl in vintage seventies fringe leather was speaking excitedly about seeing the New York 1 news van. Her redheaded girlfriend in a neon pink cashmere sweater confessed to a crush on Pat Kiernan, the station’s morning anchor.
O-kay. I kept walking.
Three more tables turned out to be a bust: conversations about rent hikes, a lousy love life, and an HBO miniseries. But at the very next table, a couple of guys were talking about the shooting. It sounded to me like they were comparing notes on their separate questioning by canvassing cops.
I slowed to a complete stop.
“Did you hear anything? ’Cause I sure didn’t,” the first man said. He appeared to be in his early thirties, had a fresh-faced, midwestern look about him with thick blond hair and a J. Crew outfit of pressed khakis, a pale-yellow button-down, and a matching sweater draped over his shoulders.
“You didn’t hear anything because your apartment window doesn’t face Hudson,” the second man replied. “Mine does.”
I recognized the second man as a regular Blend customer named Barry. He was a very nice, soft-spoken but brilliant Web designer in his early forties. His brown hair was thinning, and his once-trim figure was spreading a bit, but he had a warm, genuine smile and always took the trouble to compliment our coffee. Like many of my regular Village customers, Barry also happened to be gay, and the man he was sitting with looked about ten years younger and a whole lot cuter than Barry’s current boyfriend.
“I actually heard the shot,” Barry announced.
“Really?” the other man replied. “You heard it? What about Martin?”
Barry frowned and shook his head. “Martin left.”
The cute guy leaned forward slightly. I smiled, seeing the obvious. Barry, however, remained glum.
“He packed up three days ago,” Barry said with a sigh. “So I was alone tonight. This is actually the first time I’ve come out since he dumped me. Anyway, I didn’t know what I heard was a gunshot. Not at the time. I thought it was something harmless, you know? Then I hear sirens and forty minutes later, the cops are pounding on my door-”
“Excuse me,” I said.
Both men looked up. Barry smiled. “Oh, hi, Clare. What do you need?”
“Did you just say that you heard the gunshot in the street?”
Barry nodded. “Sure did. It was right under my window, too.”
“And where do you live exactly?”
“Two and a half blocks away, on the same side of the street as the Blend.” Barry gestured in that direction. “I’m in a second-floor apartment.”
“You heard the shot right below you?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“And what did you see?”
“Not a thing. That’s what I told the police. I went to my window and looked down-I thought it might have been a kid with fireworks or a car tire popping, something like that-but there was nothing. Not a soul.”
Barry’s story fit with what I’d experienced, too. By the time I’d turned around to look for the shooter, the person was out of view.
“Did you tell the police anything else?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, I mean… You didn’t see anything, but did you hear anything after the shot? Say, like, footsteps running, something like that?”
“Well, actually, now that you mention it…” Barry scratched his chin. “I did hear some footsteps really close, but they weren’t running. They were walking.”
“What?” I’m pretty sure my bloodshot eyes bugged at that.
“I heard some footsteps, like you said. But I didn’t see anyone there, so I didn’t mention it to the cops, you know? I mean, why would that matter?”
“Well, if you heard footsteps walking, yet you couldn’t see who was walking, don’t you think this person could have been the shooter, maybe moving out of sight, say around the side of your building?”
Barry stared at me for a few dumbfounded seconds. “Oh my God, Clare. I didn’t think of that. The footsteps must have been the shooter ducking into my alley. Oh my God, I should have told the police-”
“It’s okay. Listen… Why don’t you write down this number?” I put down my cups and reached for Lori Soles’s business card in the back pocket of my jeans. “This is one of the detectives investigating the shooting. Just call her cell and tell her what you just told me. All right?”
“Okay, Clare. Oh my God…” He wrote the number on his Village Blend napkin.
“Don’t worry, Barry. You didn’t do anything wrong. Enjoy your coffee.”
Juggling the two lidded paper cups, I moved to the base of the spiral stairs in the center of the dining room, unhooked the thin velvet rope with the dangling Second Floor Closed sign, and rehooked it behind me. As I clanged up the wrought iron steps, the crowd’s raucous chattering slowly dissipated, and my mind started working.
Something isn’t adding up…
By the time I reached the quiet of the upstairs lounge, I was fairly certain of one thing where the shooter was concerned. I looked around for Matt to see what he thought, but it wasn’t easy to locate the man. Most of the room was shrouded in darkness.