11-11

Al’s work continued over the next two weeks, but it was much easier for him. If anyone managed to catch him roaming around, he did their tasks, but he put little thought into it. Folio deliveries were done while he kept his eye out for suspicious activities. Tea was made while he listened to gossip from the other secretaries. And he rarely ran errands outside of work, but if he did, he made sure to take notes on where people ate and if that seemed above their pay grade.

Anla was looking over his notes when he returned from dinner. “Who’s Marchen?” she asked.

“He’s the president’s son. I like him; he’s pleasant and nice to me. Why?”

“You have notes on him.”

“I have notes on a lot of people,” he pointed out.

“Yes, but he’s fitting that pattern I mentioned.”

He blinked a few times. “He’s the president’s son. He makes good money, so he’s going to eat well and have a nice pocket watch.”

“He still matches, Al. I think you should look into Marchen.”

“He’s not a mole and he’s not embezzling. Why would he? If he works at WSI for another ten years, he’ll become a partner. He’ll likely take over for his father some day.”

“Maybe he needs the money now. I know, you like him, but you need to set aside how you feel about him and look at the facts.”

He threw up his hands. “All right, all right. Let’s give his name to Raulin and have him investigate him. But, I’m only doing it to cross him off the list.”

“Okay, Al. That’s fine. Let’s go tell him.”

“Tell him what?” Raulin said, standing in the doorway.

“Why were you spying on us?” Al snapped.

“I wasn’t. You two were a little loud; I heard you through my bedroom wall. I just walked over to ask what was going on.”

“Al has another name for your list.”

“He’s innocent,” he said, “but we have to be diligent.”

“Okay, I’ll take a look into his office tonight. Mezzem? I was wondering if you wanted to up your dining education tonight. I have two tickets to dine at Vedroir for tonight.”

“Vedroir?” Al asked, his eyebrows shooting up. “The Vedroir? Seating is very hard to get.”

“Yes. I happened to have won two places in a game today.”

“Yeah,” Al said, the wistfulness in his voice very apparent.

Raulin met his gaze with Anla, took a deep breath, and let it out with a resigned sigh. “Would you like to go with Anla?”

“Yes!” he said quickly, then, “but, I can’t go wearing this.” He picked at the plain vest, shirt, and slacks he wore with his leather shoes, worn from miles of traveling. “And…and I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d make a fool of myself.”

“Well, as they say, you have plenty of chances to make a fool of yourself, but only one chance to try something new. Why not do both?”

“Well, I won’t care if people see me using the wrong fork or that I forgot to put my napkin in my lap,” Anla said. “I’m going to enjoy a great meal tonight.”

“Even if I decided not to worry about other people, I still have rags to wear.”

“Well, Wizard, that’s why I’m going to introduce you to an ember man.”

“A what?” he asked.

* * *

“Oh, finally!” Anla said as Al walked out from the back. She wasn’t referring to the time it took, since she was hoping it was going to be a while, since she suspected a lot needed to be done. And a lot had been. Al met her with his wild hair trimmed, parted, and oiled into something fashionable. His scruffy beard had been shaved down to a mustache, his nails cleaned and trimmed, and the black and gray outfit he wore fitting well over his lanky frame. He looked decent, and she knew that he knew knew that by his pleased, almost shy smile.

“You look really nice, Anla.”

“Thank you,” she said, smoothing out the skirts to her dress. It was a beautiful cream with gold and green Jacobean brocade, leaves, stems, and flowers curling on the fabric in a rich pattern popular around Ap Riszel’s Day. The sleeves puffed slightly at the shoulders and ended at her elbows, her hair curling onto her upper arms. She had a cream drawstring bag and a fan draped over her arm. “Shall we?”

They linked arms and were going to walk the thirteen or so blocks to Vedroir when a hansom driver waved them over. “You’re going to Vedroir?” he asked.

“Yes, but we don’t have enough money to…” Al began.

“Already paid for,” he said, stepping down from his seat to help them into the carriage.

“Good thing,” Al said. “These shoes pinch and the collar’s tight.”

“I’m wearing a bustier and high heels,” Anla replied through clenched teeth. “Would you like to start a contest on discomfort?”

The carriage ride was quiet, though Anla was amused by Al’s appreciation of their temporary station. He would occasionally wave to the people in the streets, never appearing disappointed when people just stared back or spit.

They arrived twenty minutes early to Vedroir, a black brick, one-story building with the name in copper lettering on the main wall. They stepped inside, handed their tickets to the maitre d’, and were asked if they wanted red, green, or blue seating.

Anladet was puzzled by this. Raulin had never mentioned colors when he spoke about fine dining, not for tiers or any other reason. Al looked confused as well. “I’ll take…blue?”

“Excellent, ma’am. And you, sir? Blue as well?”

“No, I’ll go with red,” he said.

The maitre d’ left and returned with two scarves of according color. Others waiting in the room had draped it over their shoulders, so she did likewise. “Al, why didn’t you pick blue? We’re going to be alone.”

“I wanted red,” he said with a shrug. “I’m feeling like red tonight.”

“But you don’t even know what it means.”

“You don’t know what ‘blue’ means,” he pointed out.

“Yes, but isn’t the whole point of this dining together?” She went back to speak to the maitre d’. “Goodman, I believe there’s been a mistake. I’m going to be separated from my husband if I go in the blue room.”

“We can accommodate single eaters, if that’s what’s concerning you, ma’am.”

She thought about this for a few moments. “Oh,” she said. “Yes, of course.” She supposed if the restaurant had no problem with her sitting alone, then she should enjoy her meal by herself.

The smells were intoxicating; rich spices tingled her nose while briny fish and earthy starches made her mouth water. Finally, the maitre d’ called for the blue guests to follow him. They passed by two other rooms with translucent red and green curtains covering the wide entrances. The blue curtains of the last room were pulled open to reveal a square table with blue-tinged sconces and a large, round tank with water that held fish and plants. They were invited to choose a seat. To appear conspicuous, Anla chose a seat in the corner across from the opening, blocked from the view of most of the doorway by the fish tank.

She sat alone, the seat to her right and left empty. Unsure of what to do, she waited quietly, looking at the fish and watching the other diners speak with each other. The place setting in front of her looked complicated with several forks, knives, plates, and glasses, some which only barely looked like the utensils she was used to eating with.

As the remaining guests were being seated, waiters moved around the front and behind the settings, and placed small dishes of salted butter and sesame seed bread on the small plate in the left corner. She nibbled on it, then mimicked one of the women who smeared butter on the outside and daintily ate hers.

“There are no seats together?” a man asked. He and another man stood at the doorway, their bowler hats and coats being taken by the waitstaff. “What about those two over there?”

“Let me ask the young lady if she wouldn’t mind moving,” the maitre d’ said.

He hustled over and very gently asked if she wouldn’t mind moving over one place to accommodate those two gentleman. She agreed and was seated one place over to the left, her plates whisked away and replaced by fresh ones. The two men barely acknowledged her and began speaking to each other.

The first course was served. She forgot the description beyond the word “octopus”. She’d seen one in a market once, a bulbous head with long arms that flailed and sucked onto things. She was supposed to eat that? Everyone else seemed to be tucking in with zeal, so Anla told herself she’d just try one bite.

But, it was better than one bite. The texture, a little chewy, was interesting, but the taste of the rest of the dish was amazing. There was a briny foam served with peas and a dusting of what might be cheese. It reminded her of that day at the beach with her family so strongly she felt a lump in her throat.

She was still savoring the dish when waiters came by to remove the plates and forks. Raulin had said that fine dining was orchestrated, and that if you liked a dish, you needed to scarf it down. The octopus was replaced by a soup that may have been pork with seafood dumplings and a garnish of bitter herbs. She watched as the man next to her picked up the wide spoon and began sipping on the soup, which she copied with as much confidence as possible.

Anla grew comfortable by the third course, a plate of thinly sliced, raw fish with different sauces. She began to work on her isolation trick, listening in on conversations even from across the table. A man and his mistress had some interesting ideas for the evening ahead while another couple spent their meal nitpicking each other. Some were having scintillating conversations about their day or facts they knew about the food served in the meal. Others were poor conversationalists.

And the men sitting next to her were discussing something very interesting indeed. At first she it sounded like normal, boring work talk. They discussed accounts they were handling, co-workers, business transactions, policies they didn’t particularly like. Then, as the main course of steamed muscles with tomatoes in a cream sauce was served, they changed their focus.

“How much longer do you think we can keep this up?” the man with thick sideburns asked.

“A little while more. They are aware that they are being embezzled, but we’re funneling the funds well enough.”

“What do you plan on doing once it’s finished?”

“If I’ve covered our trail well enough, then I can stay if I wish. I feel moving on to the west might be a good idea, a fresh start with a good amount of money to build my own business. Things are cheaper out there. How about yourself?”

“I hadn’t given it much thought,” he said. “Maybe I’ll go out west as well.”

The man with the beard paused as he chewed his food. “You don’t trust me. Good. At least you’ve learned that this world is wild and that you could be prey at any moment.”

“You’re going to betray me.”

Anla held her breath waiting to hear his reply. The bearded man smiled as he sipped the broth. “Wouldn’t be wise for two reasons. The first being I still need your signatures for the double authorization on all our little schemes. The second being your silence. If I left with your cut or reported you, it would be extremely difficult for me to leave for Breachil if you, in turn, told the police everything. No, you and I have a pact of silence. We will go our separate ways with half of our money and never speak of it again.”

“I have your word?”

“You’ve always had my word,” he said, Anla hearing that rock-grinding sound tinging his words. He was definitely going to betray his partner.

The man with the sideburns relaxed a little and returned to eating his dinner, as did the man with the beard. Anla was still savoring the sauce when the plates were switched for a salad of seaweed. The food thus far had been beautiful and delicious, the best she had ever eaten, but that conversation had been quite entertaining. Whoever they worked for was going to hurting in a few months time.

By the time Anla was feeling full but daring to at least try the dark chocolate mousse, the thought that maybe, perhaps, those two men worked for West Schoolinghouse had taken form in her mind. It was unlikely, but it couldn’t hurt to ask Al to check on their identities.

After dinner, she found him already waiting for her in the bar area. He was sweating profusely and guzzling glasses of iced water like he was one of the fish she had just eaten. “I should have chosen blue,” he admitted. “Red was very spicy and hot foods. I thought I was going to die.”

“Is everything all right?” the maitre d’ asked.

“My husband just needs a few minutes to recover from your wonderful food,” Anla said.

“No, I’m fine. We can go…”

She pinched him hard on the back of the arm. “Just a few minutes, please. Thank you.”

“Ow. What gives?” he asked when the man had left, rubbing his arm.

“Two men are going to walk out from the blue room. One has sideburns and the other a beard. I want you to tell me if they look familiar.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you if they do.”

They waited, watching the diners leave in their own time. Finally, the men left and walked by the bar. “Them,” she whispered.

“No,” he said. “They don’t…wait. The man with the scruff on his cheeks…that’s Corbritz. He works in accounting at WSI.”

She sucked in a huge gulp of air. “They sat next to me at dinner and spoke about how they had been embezzling their employer for some time. They plan to cash in soon and leave town.”

“Wow,” he said, his palm touching his forehead. “Of course. Who best to swindle a company but the men in charge of the money. I thought the president had said he’d scrutinized all his accountants, though.”

“The one with the beard said he still needed the other man for his signature.”

“Ah. They must have a double sign-off for accounts. If one is the others supervisor, it would make a lot of sense.” He sat up once the two men had left. “I’ll let Raulin know you cracked that case.”

“It’s all right, Al. You’re in charge. You can have it.”

“No, Anla. What’s fair is fair. If you caught them using your…skills…then you should get credit.”

“You know, you really should thank Raulin,” she said. “He’s trying to be friendly with you.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said and she knew that was as much as she was going to get out of him.

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