Tony glanced at the words printed with permanent ink on the cup of coffee he had ordered. He casually took it from the barista on the other side of the counter with a polite nod and headed back to his table, where Jessie was waiting for him.

Her coffee had the same words written on them, but with slightly worse handwriting. Must have been the male barista who not-so-discreetly texted his significant other in-between orders. His hands were too jittery to text, let alone write with a fat pen.

Of course, he couldn’t say that to Jessie, or to anyone else. The store’s audio recording devices would pick it up, even if it were a whisper. He’d hardly have the last syllable on his lips before one of the employees would come over and lecture him in a matter-of-fact way about the importance of politeness and kindness, concluding with the line written on his cup: “Think, then speak.”

Think, then speak.

The last part felt like more of an order than a suggestion.

“How’s your day?” Jessie asked.

He grinned for a moment, then took a sip. The coffee was alright; a little burnt, but just enough to keep him content until they relocated.

But he couldn’t talk about that, either—for more important reasons.

They continued sipping their coffee for a minute, trying to hold onto their thoughts for later. They both worked for the same tech firm with a company-wide policy: all workers received a “no pressure whatsoever” forty-minute coffee break at noon, but it only applied if they went to the local Moonlight’s Delight, a national coffee chain that had recently formed a corporate partnership with tech firms.

Technically, Tony and the rest of his coworkers didn’t “have” to take the break. The more productive among them felt it distracted from their work. However, unofficially, it was the only real way to get promoted within the company, and their GPS-tracked work cell phones would show if they were at the coffee shop or not during that time.

Tony wasn’t ambitious, but he liked to keep his career options open. As for Jessie, she was content to follow his lead.

To break the silence, they spoke of their latest work project; in glowing terms, of course. Then they mentioned some political controversy in the news, offering as much faux moral outrage as they could muster that matched the rhetoric used in the recent press release offering the company’s take on the matter.

What underground dogfighting had to do with the software program they were working on, he hadn’t the slightest clue. Perhaps the top execs felt they were compelled to speak, an attitude they also held toward their employees.

From there, they rambled on whatever mundane topics they could think of. Like all coffee shops, the patrons were expected to engage in civil discourse, but anything Tony or Jessie said could get flagged by Moonlight’s Delight’s invisible recording devices and then passed along to their respective tech firm supervisors for prompt disciplinary action, “including and up to termination of employment,” to quote the latest version of the employee handbook.

The trouble was that they couldn’t keep up with all the updates to the list of statements, terms, phrases, or comments that could give them the pink slip.

Jessie checked the clock on the wall. Enough time had passed.

“You ready?” she asked.


Tony went first. He slipped his phone behind his back, pressing it against the seat. There, he had spent three days prior working on a hidden compartment to protect it from someone either crushing it or finding it. A minute later. as he got up to retrieve some napkins, Jessie did the same, safely placing the phone within an empty section of her seat lining. He was certain their cell phones also recorded their voices, but it was easy to explain away why anyone listening it couldn’t understand them.

“I’m going to use the restroom,” Tony said, trying to keep his voice so it was sufficiently clear, but not too loud.

“Me, too,” Jessie said.

They both walked in the direction of the bathrooms but turned once they came to the hallway. They exited the coffee shop, keeping their faces concealed as best they could. Their cell phones were still there, but the coffee shop’s security cameras worked just fine.

“Let’s hurry,” he said. “I want to make as much of our time as we can.”

With a toss of her chin, she smiled in a way she wouldn’t have dared to back in the coffee shop. Company policy was strict on romantic relationships between coworkers; they were forbidden, unless their supervisor happened to quietly approve.

Both knew that their manager wouldn’t.

Strolling along the sidewalk, they came to a paint store. They went inside and discreetly approached the employee behind the counter.

“We’re working on a house project,” Tony said.

“What kind of paint you want?”

“The paint that doesn’t spill,” Jessie answered.

The employee nodded and led them over to a shelf filled with paint. Taking a quick glance at the front entrance, he then pushed the shelf to the side, revealing a narrow corridor. He ushered the two inside and then closed it shut.

Jessie suddenly embraced Tony, giving him a quick kiss before sighing deeply.

“I could hardly wait ’til noon,” she said. “I needed this break.”

“Me too,” Tony said.

Her arm wrapped around his elbow, they entered a large room that resembled a cigar lounge. Instead of smoke, the air was filled with the sound of conversation from every corner. A dozen tables dotted the room, where people sat in leather sofa chairs with a cup of coffee in hand and spoke in a lively manner.

Tony couldn’t make out their words or the topics they were discussing, but the sincerity in their eyes was unmistakable.

At the counter, the man noticed Jessie’s affectionate gaze toward Tony and winked at them. “What’ll it be?”

“Two regulars, cream and no sugar.”

“You got it.”

He paid with his credit card, knowing that payment would show up under the paint store’s name, should his company somehow demand access to his payment history. The man handed them their coffees, both of which had the words #SpeakEasy written on them.

Jessie kissed him again. “I’m so glad you told me about this place.”

“I gotta say, I was worried how you’d react at first.”

“You kidding? I hated taking those breaks.”

“You did a good job of hiding it.”

“Well, you know what happens when you don’t.”

Her remark was in reference to Corey, a coworker of theirs who shared the same view on their de facto obligatory coffee breaks and the ever-changing corporate policy. He had tried to keep his mouth shut, but it was clear to Tony early on that Corey would snap eventually.

Tony had never seen a man rant like that: forty minutes without pausing for a breath. Even the security staff, baristas, and tech firm manager come to fire him were left in a state of awe at his unfiltered mouth. They actually let him finish before confiscating his door badge and cell phone, then escorting him out the door.

To his left, Tony saw a recognizable face: someone who also worked in their tech company; something to do with quality assurance, or something.

The young man caught a glimpse of Tony, then turned his head away worriedly.

Tony understood. For them to be caught there was more than a massive breach of company policy. Somewhere, somehow, they were violating some law, according to some lawyer and friendly judge’s interpretation of text.

Nestling in a secluded spot in the back, Tony finally allowed himself a sigh. He then delivered an extended critique of their supervisor’s micromanaging habits; how he checked their cubicles twice a day at the same time, asked the same idiotic questions, gave the same monosyllablic reply no matter how they answered, and then insisted they update him whether anything had changed.

The brownnosing halfwit didn’t seem to understand that his vigilance wasted their time and made them less interested about finishing a project by deadline than keeping him happy. It was all about incentives, and plenty of employees had got promoted even though their projects had come in late. However, just as many had either got a demotion or transfer to another team because they had failed to placate the manager by going along with his peculiar rituals.

Jessie listened intently to him speak, giggling when he became so angry he could hardly finish a sentence.

“You know why I agreed to come here with you?” she asked.

His head turned to the ceiling, he shifted his gaze toward her.

“Why?” he asked.

“Just to see you upset. I’ve never seen you this way before.”

“I wouldn’t be this upset if I could say something, but you can’t say anything anymore! You have no idea unless you check every morning to see if HR has updated our employee manual to include some new word or phrase. Even then, it’s all about how it’s interpreted. I could say ‘good morning’ and they might construe that to be some sort of sarcastic remark ‘evincing a belief in one’s superior mindset.’”

“Is that really in the employee manual?” Jessie asked in disbelief.

“Go check and let me know. If it isn’t right now, it might be later today.”

Jessie sat on the arm of his chair, resting her head against his. “Why don’t you just find another job?”

“Like where? They’re all the same.” He waved his hand theatrically. “Why do you think this place even exists? Other companies have the same policies as ours. They impose the same rules. That’s why they can be such jackasses. It’s like they’re all in cahoots.”

“So, what do we do?” she asked.

“Who knows? Maybe it might take off: this whole idea of having a place where people can just sit, relax, enjoy a drink or coffee or whatever, and speak their mind without having to worry about what anyone thinks. I hope it does.”

Jessie didn’t reply right away. Tony glanced at her.

“You don’t agree?” he asked.

“Kind of. I just wonder if it would be best for us to wait until we’re done with work and then go back to your place and talk. That way, we wouldn’t have to sneak around like this and be worried all the time about getting caught here.”

“No. I’m tired of the company owning us. I’m tired of them pushing us around. If they don’t want us to say stuff at work, fine. But now they want to take these damn ‘coffee breaks.’ And worse, they pressure us to talk, to say what they want us to say. They can’t just let us remain silent. Back in the day, they’d cut out people’s tongues to keep them from speaking. Now, they’d reattach it, just so they could force you to talk!”

“You couldn’t just go along with it for now?”

“No, or I’d lose it. Just like Corey did.”

“Isn’t it kind of funny that we’re talking this way about our company? I mean, they do pay us, don’t they?”

“At what point is a salary not worth what they want from you? Wherever it is, they crossed that point. It’s not right or fair of them to do this. But what’s worst of all is how they pretend otherwise. Like the whole ‘voluntary’ coffee break. Why not just say ‘Get coffee from this place and stay there for forty minutes and say what we want to hear, or you’re not getting promoted?’ It’s the lying I can’t stand, really. They lie, and they want us to lie. We can’t just quietly deal with it.”

Jessie laughed. “So, you wouldn’t mind working for our manager if he was honest about how stupid his rules are?”

“I’d mind it, but not as much as I do now.”

A would-be kiss between them was interrupted by a small explosion that came from the corridor. A cloud of dust and debris was followed by a wave of militarized cops behind riot shields. An officer tossed a flashbang grenade near the barista and kept moving as it went off and blinded half the people in the room.

Tony reacted immediately. He had prepared for this to happen; he hadn’t chosen the back of the room for nothing.

“Quick!” he said as he grabbed Jessie and brought her to a large oil painting. He lifted the bottom, exposing a small crawl space.

“Get in!” he yelled above the screams. “It will lead to the street! Get back to the coffee shop. Just say you somehow lost your phone.”

“You’re coming, right?” Jessie asked.

Tony smiled weakly, then gave her a short kiss before shoving her inside.

“Sorry, but I can’t do this anymore,” he said as he lowered the painting.

He then called to her one last time. “I won’t tell them anything, I promise!”

He let go of the painting and stared at it, taking a deep breath. He then turned around to see an officer charging at him. A moment later, he was on the ground, flipped onto his back. The officer kept a knee pinned to his neck as a pair of handcuffs were fastened to his wrists.

Above the fray, he heard the officer speak in a perfunctory voice.

Even with his face shoved into the floor, Tony managed a grin. He didn’t bother listening to the rest of the officer’s words. He just kept repeating the initial part.

“You have the right to remain silent.”

About damn time, he thought to himself.