“The Stranger Outside the Shop” by Aaron Fox-Lerner
Mondays Are Murder features brand-new noir fiction modeled after our award-winning Noir Series. Each story is an original one, and each takes place in a distinct location. Our web model for the series has one more restraint: a 750-word limit. Sound like murder? It is. But so are Mondays.
This week, Aaron Fox-Lerner takes us to Saint-Henri, Montreal, where a changing population brings tension with it.
Right when I thought things were getting better, the stranger showed up. Every day, I could see him across the street, staring into the shop. And with the stranger came a series of incidents that grew increasingly serious.
I’d opened my cafe in Saint-Henri a year earlier, taking over the storefront from one of the many cheap Montreal diners that used to be there—the kind of place that served poutine, hot dogs, and beer (all of which had the same sad, yellowish-gray color) to a small, familiar crowd of old neighborhood guys (all of whom also had the same sad, yellowish-gray color).
I was betting on the neighborhood’s burgeoning hipster population to keep my place afloat, but business didn’t go well. We got some customers, but we were far from making a profit.
So I retooled. I added a prominent à voler/to go sign out front, expanded our hours, made a direct line to the counter. Miraculously, it seemed to work. Guys in work uniforms rushing to the bus in the morning would now come in, and all the punk rockers in the neighborhood decided that my cafe was no longer too twee to patronize.
Then the problems started. At first they were small: disgusting trash left outside our door, deliveries in the back alley knocked over and smashed. I didn’t think these things were deliberate until one morning I discovered that someone had carved up my entire front window with a glass cutter—long gashes crossed over one another. It clearly took a lot of work. Someone had done this to the window very deliberately.
It didn’t take me long to connect this to the other stuff, but I had no idea who was behind it, or why. This was followed by more problems. Feces tossed in the back door. A fire set in front of the store overnight. A fake bomb threat called in. The bathroom sink blocked up with some kind of glue. The words fuck you fuck you fuck you sprayed on my shop and the apartment building next door. Just some teenager, my neighbor said about the graffiti. I thought otherwise.
I’d already noticed the stranger by this point. Every day, I’d look outside and see this scrawny older man standing across the street, always in the same spot. I’d dismissed him as some neighborhood kook, but the incidents made me reconsider. It was weird, the way he was always there, looking in.
One night, I placed him. I thought I recognized him as a regular from the old diner. It had probably been the one place where he could always go, and then I took it away from him. This was his revenge. I was sure of it. Every time I saw him standing there, I could tell he was plotting against me.
It wasn’t even anything terrible that broke me. It was just another morning, busier than usual. I needed more disposable cups. They hadn’t been delivered on time. I called the distributor. They said they’d already delivered them. Customers kept coming in. Even with more business, I felt like I was failing. And then I looked outside and saw the stranger, and I could have sworn he looked me in the eye and smiled.
I came out of the store like a pitbull off its leash. He saw me and panicked. He started running. I followed. We turned into an alleyway, and he tripped and fell. I came at him before he could get up, falling onto him.
“Why are you doing this to me? Why me?”
He didn’t say anything. I brought my fists down on his face.
“Why me? Why me?”
I kept hitting him and realized how weak my punches were. He just kept looking at me. I lifted his head. Kthunk. It skidded on the ground. I did it again. He stopped moving. I stopped hitting him.
I staggered back to the shop. The delivery truck was outside.
I can make it, I thought. He’s gone. I’m still here. I don’t have to fail. I can do this.
The next day there was a new stranger outside the shop.
AARON FOX-LERNER was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in Beijing. His fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Crime Factory, Grimdark Magazine, The Puritan, Bound Off, and other publications.
Posted: Dec 21, 2015
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