“Tea with lemon,” Jansil said.
“Yes, sir,” Al replied as he walked down the hallway.
“Take these to Caprin, up one floor and in the northwest section,” Oubrey said, slamming a large folio of letters into Al’s arms.
“Yes, sir,” Al replied.
A man stuck his head out of his office and snapped his fingers at Al until he came over to hear what he had to say. “Ah, new guy. Stop by the Newshare Market by the end of the day and pick up a nice bouquet for my wife. It’s our anniversary, so something nice, classic. Whatever women like that makes it seem like I spent some time thinking about it.”
“Yes, sir,” Al replied, and headed upstairs to start his chores.
He’d spent two weeks at this and already he regretted setting up this job with the president. It wasn’t that he minded working. In fact, he had missed having a schedule, something to keep him occupied, and something to give him worth in the world. He didn’t mind having to get up early again and giving up time to read his books and walk the streets of New Wextif. He didn’t even mind working for Raulin, as surprising as that revelation had been.
What bothered him was the need for people to effect others negatively when there was no need to. Al had begun to get lost in the job, forgetting for long periods of the day that he was supposed to be researching these people, finding the criminals among them. He had approached his job with realism, a sense of fresh vigor and pride at doing menial tasks for the employees. That had ended when, a few days into the job, he was delivering several items to men working in an open work space for the low-level employees. Several more senior employees had gathered at the pinch point for the hallway and were overseeing the forty or so men. Perhaps that had been what they were supposed to do, but instead they were smoking cigars and chatting amongst themselves. Al hadn’t realized he had tapped into the Unease (that seemed to happen more frequently nowadays) until he heard the men’s conversation from fifty feet away, clear as a bell.
It hadn’t been the racial slurs. He had learned quickly as a child that crying home to madra about the kids calling you “vani-mir” or “dwakit” only made them add “crybaby” to their lists, so he had developed a thick skin about those terms. He hadn’t been bothered by the digs at his station, either. If they wanted to make themselves feel better by remarking that someone starting a job was beneath them, then so be it. No, what bothered him was the prejudice. Call a dark man dark and it’s mostly a detail. Call a Br’vani man a thief, lazy, and a pansy without even getting to know him and you’ve destroyed a chance at a meaningful relationship.
Al wasn’t asking for much. The president’s son, Marchen, had smiled, been polite, and asked instead of demanded. He was already Al’s favorite and he stuck his head into Marchen’s office frequently, to make sure he was all set for the time being. Had any of those men done one of the three, he would have cheerfully brought them their damn tea or bought their damn wife roses. Instead, he did his job stiffly and without mirth, because there were many of those type and few Marchen’s.
Their names had gone on the list first and that had been a mistake, since he had done it only out of spite. It had only wasted Raulin’s time and kept the real criminals from being investigated. And they weren’t even inconvenienced by it; Raulin had said he returned everything exactly where it had been, so they didn’t even realized they had been searched.
And so, he brought the papers, brewed the tea, and bought the flowers. He said nothing to them after their chores were done and he left before they could ask for something else. Because doing more would mean he sanctioned their cruelty and doing less would mean they had been right.
The men had gathered again, filling the work area with a sweet, acrid smell and bitter words. There were other targets for them, so they said nothing about Al, but it still incensed the wizard. He was so wrapped up in what they were saying that he didn’t even notice the woman yelling “Dear!” until the men commented on it.
Anla was holding a package wrapped in a cloth and walking towards him. When she reached him, she kissed him on the lips and wrapped her arms around him. “You forgot your lunch!”
“I’m your wife,” she whispered, then more loudly, “I missed you! I thought I’d bring your lunch to you at work. I’m sorry if you’ll get in trouble.”
He gently escorted her past the men, who narrowed their eyes at him. There was a small kitchen that he brought her to, which was blessedly empty. “What passes?” he asked.
“You’ve seemed down working this case. I thought maybe if you had some cheering up, things would go better.”
“So why did you kiss me?”
“Because every man looks good being kissed by a beautiful woman,” she said, scrunching her nose at him.
“It’s only going to make it worse,” he said, sighing.
“What’s going to get worse?”
So, he explained the situation. She listened patiently, then said, “Yes, it’s a ‘reaffirmation of status’. I asked my father once, when we were in some city, why all the rich men liked to treat their help worse than their horses. He said that some rich men feel scared that they’ll lose their money and that their money is all that was making them happy. So, happy poor people scare rich, secretly miserable people. Those guys need to keep telling each other that those people can’t be better than them because they are poor, or too dark skinned, or lazy. They walk away feeling better and less scared.
“So, I apologize. I was hoping to cheer you up, but I think I might have made it worse. But, Al, why do you care? You’re not here to make friends. You’re here to find criminals and you’re making more than they are doing it.”
“I shouldn’t let it bother me,” he said. “I think I normally don’t, but my magic’s been acting funny since Iascond. Normally I have to work to break into the Calm or Unease. Now, I’m slipping into it without any thought. Which means, I don’t know how long I’m using the Unease before I turn it off. And I think that’s effecting my mood.”
She put her hand on his arm. “Thank you for telling me. I’m going to check in with you more often.”
“I’m fine. I just need to get this contract finished and then I won’t have to think about them anymore.”
“How much have you been able to find out?”
“Not much. The actual job keeps me busy.”
She gave him an indulgent smile. “Al, you’re not hired to run errands. You’re hired to find out who’s involved with criminal activity.”
“Yes, but they always have stuff for me to do and I have to pretend I’m actually a secretary.”
“And the president has many other secretaries to do the actual work. Your job is just a cover. Do a few errands to make sure they believe you, but disappear as often as you can.”
She was right. He had buried himself too far into the job. He kept forgetting that he wasn’t a secretary, but a cross-switching wizard helping catch criminals with a trirec. He wasn’t here to make friends or impress anyone; he was here to save the business.
He ate his lunch outside with Anla and chatted, not caring that those men weren’t that far away. “You know what’s strange?” he asked. “I get why WSI wants to keep this quiet, but why don’t they know about the embezzlement? They know they’re being embezzled, but how? Wouldn’t their accounting department tell them?”
“Unless he had the department checked and they came up with the crime, but not the criminal.”
“Hmm. So, I’m not looking in the right spot. I need to be around accounting more. I’ll do that. The blackmailer, though, I’m stumped on.”
“I don’t think a blackmailer would advertise that he’s the blackmailer. Easier to look at the boons from it. Who has more money than they should?”
“Those guys,” he said, jerking his head towards
She sighed. “I mean, realistically. Who has more money, better clothes, nicer things? Who attends lots of parties or belongs to a lot of clubs?”
“I don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to know. Just pay attention in the future and make notes.”
“Any thoughts on the moles?”
She ran her finger over the nails of her other hand. “Pattern interruptions, like they should be in their office, but they can’t be found? I suppose if bad information is fed to them and WSI’s rival uses it, then they could narrow down who gave them the faulty information based on what the rival does.”
“That’s a lot of people to look into. They’ve done the faulty information three times this year and each time Brevic Brothers doesn’t take the bait.”
“Hmm. I’ll have to think about it more, then. Do you want me to stick around and help with anything?”
“No,” he said, staring off for a moment before meeting her eyes and smiling. “Thank you, though, for the help. I have a better focus on my tasks now.”
“Good.,” she said, rising. “Don’t let them get you down, Al. Remember that you can break their faces with one punch.”
“And lose my license, though I’d lose it anyway for not registering in New Wextif. Here, in particular, is a bad place to get caught doing that.”
“Then don’t get caught,” she said, hugging him before leaving.