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It could have been worse, Ressa decided gratefully, smiling wryly down at the grayrag sprawled across the commonroom table. The front page articles were about Alikara's charity party, but they were focused on the embarrassing death of Dramanar. She had been mentioned in passing in one of the fashion articles, but Alikara's interest in her had not been shared by whatever grayrag writers had attended, and their concentration was on more prominent members of Society.Here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
Her smile faded as she stacked the gray rag with another, comparing Dramanar's death with the Railrage Murders. An etching of Yeff - and not a very accurate one - was on the cover of the second rag, and Ressa had to swallow back the unease that his face reminded her of. Murder! Blackmail! Her life had taken a terribly surreal turn somewhere. She picked up her lunch tray and left the grayrags on the table behind her, nodding at one her file clerks who was eating at the far end of the table. It sometimes seemed odd that business in the Licensing Office went on as usual, against the backdrop of the drama playing out in the rest of her life.
She was lost in thought as she pushed through the door to the staff kitchen, and nearly collided with Bai, who was carrying a tray stacked with a lunch even later than hers. They shared a quick smile and polite apologies before negotiating passage. The smile remained faintly at Ressa's mouth as she took her tray to the dirties pile. Things with Bai could have gone a lot worse, too, she decided.
She still remembered their kiss wistfully, and caught herself craving the touch of his fingers at wholly inappropriate moments, but the stolen confession in the music room had been a release. Bai seemed almost cheerful, and Ressa found that the uncomfortable tension that had chilled their friendship had vanished. They were adults, not puberty-driven adolescents, and they were professionals first. They were careful with each other - not standing too close, not smiling too long - but it was a secret they shared. Catching his eye across the room and exchanging a wry tilt at the edge of the lips was somehow a comfort.
Leaving her tray at the counter for dirties with a nod for the kitchenstaff, Ressa returned to the work at hand - managing staff conflicts, soothing an irate customer who elevated their complaint to her level, correcting a new file clerk who was doing sloppy work, and checking the status of a dozen important projects that somehow didn't fit into the usual routine of the office. It was late by the time she sent the last file clerk home, and she was looking forward to going home and slipping out of her shoes at last when she took the last armload of files to the Sensitive Files room. Only managers, herself, and maintenance had access to these rooms, where license paperwork for higher level officials, government classified projects and guild patents were kept.
It was quiet, after the hum of activity that always filled the licensing office, and the few gas lights that lit the tall room did only the bare minimum to illuminate it. There were no windows in this room, and Ressa found her way down the corridors of files more by memory than by sight, not needing to squint at the stack labels. She was tempted to simply leave the paperwork to be sorted in the morning, but sighed, knowing that leaving the task unfinished would nag at her, and that it was as easy now as it would be later. She edged a stepstool into place and climbed to the relevant drawers, holding folders into the light to read their tags and properly file the paperwork she'd come in with.
She was completely absorbed in her task when she heard the door to the Sensitive Files room creak, and she felt her nerves - already coiled tight from the events of the last tendays - escalate to genuine panic. It was careless of her to leave the door open behind her, and Ressa scolded herself silently. She looked around anxiously as she crept down the stepstool as quietly as she could, and picked up a heavy tome of filing procedure as her most likely weapon. Her heart thumped in her chest like the rhythmic pound of an oncoming railcar, and she struggled to keep her breath even and quiet, padding to the end of the aisle with the book ready to bring crashing into whomever had followed her into the files room.
Before her nerve could fail her, she strode out, flourishing the book, and she staggered back with a sigh of relief. "Urti! You scared the skirt off me! What are you doing here?"
Urti had shut the door behind him and was standing with his face in the shadows, a small bundle and a filefolder in his hands. "I was looking for you," he said.
Ressa was dizzy from adrenaline, and a little giddy. "You certainly found me," she said with a breathless laugh. "I almost hit you with a book," she added, putting the suddenly heavy volume down onto a low sorting table at the end of the aisle of files. Her knees felt rubbery with relief, and she felt chattery from nerves. "What's that you've got?" she asked. "Does it need filed?"
Urti handed her the file without comment, and Ressa stepped into a pool of gaslamp light to read it. There was no label, so she opened it, and her feeling of relief vanished.
It was a statement of suspicion from the Carnal Guild, and she was able to pick out the relevant information with the ease of familiarity, skipping immediately to the accused - her own name standing out like a flame - and the witness of activity.
"This is lies," she said faintly, after skimming through the information. "I didn't know any of these men. I... they never hired me. Not except for Yeff..."
"The Guild says you did," Urti said, with an odd undertone to his voice that Ressa couldn't identify. "It's a witness statement that you had been hired by each of the murdered railcar drivers. By itself that's a pretty... interesting coincidence..." He didn't have to complete the thought. By itself it was coincidence, but with the rest of the evidence against her, it was damning.
Ressa looked up from the file at Urti. "This is all madness," she said. "I hadn't been hired by anyone for several years before Yeff. This person - this blackmailer - he must have some kind of contact in the Carnal Guild." A sudden hope occurred to her. "Taleffi! Ask Madam Taleffi! We had an interview just a few months back and we talked about the fact that I hadn't done any work for the Guild. She ought to remember that, she could provide a statement on my behalf."
There was a flash of white teeth as Urti gently said, "Look who provided the statment."
Ressa flipped to the relevant page and froze. Taleffi's name was scrawled above the witness license tattoo mark.
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