The back of Stubb’s Coffee looked out on what passed for a back alley in Deerton. There was the tail end of the Spin Cycle, where lost laundry and bad quarters went to die. Once upon a time, it had been possible to score bags of edible bread and boxed treats from Wilbur’s Bake Shop, but the building had been shuttered for two years. In fact, half of the block was vacant, now, and after dark they were pools of dark failure against the city lights and the distant blinkers of the ammonia towers at The Plant.

Ruby sighed, her exultation turning to mist in the late-night chill. She lit a cigarette, leaving it to hang on her lip as the ash grew, and pulled a small notebook from her pocket. The Rubymaximum Chronofile, or at least Volume 271b thereof, needed updating with everything that had happened across the countertop at Stubb’s. Ruby scribbled hurriedly, trying to get the information down while it was still fresh, pausing only to breathe out minor dragon-clouds or tap the ashes from her coffin nail onto the sluggish winter mud.

The fate of Rubymaximum Chronofile Volume 271a was warning enough about what happened when hot ash came up against cardboard and paper.

“Theresa Vandermeer in again, third time today. She only gets a water each time, but then uses the wireless for the maximum amount of time. I bet she lost her internet again, and is coming in to do business. The last time her boy Carlos lost his job, they were unplugged for six weeks, and made ends meet through coffee shop wi-fi and eBay.”

Ruby paused, tapping the Stubb’s-branded ballpoint on her chin.

“I think the store is going under,” she continued. “Inez cut everyone’s hours again. I’m the only one with a decent number, since I know how to fix the espresso machine. We only get about ten people during the morning rush. At school there’d be ten people per minute. The cost of internet alone probably isn’t being made up by the mud we’re slinging. Better start looking for opportunities elsewhere. No more saying ‘Deerton may be tiny but at least it has a Stubb’s!’ It’s gonna hit the library hard, too, all the internet-seekers are gonna go there and blow out their data limits. With the reduced hours and no money for computers, the city’s headed back to 1990 in more ways than one.”

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