Written in Red Page 10

“Hat, gloves, and scarf,” he said, looking around the room as if checking for differences between what he’d seen last night and now.

She found those items on the stacked shelves built into one side of the closet. She wrapped the scarf around her neck and pulled on the hat as she hurried toward him.

“Keys,” he said.

She spotted the keys on the table. She looked around much as he had and wondered if there was anything else a normal person would remember to do before leaving their domicile.

“Ready?” he asked.

Was that a trick question? She had so many questions. There were so many things she didn’t know. But he was her employer, so it didn’t seem smart to ask him about anything that didn’t involve her job.

He stepped into the hallway and watched her fumble through locking her door. She put the ring of keys in the coat pocket, relieved when she realized the pocket had a zipper. People were always losing keys. She had scars on her toes to prove it.

Just a few steps away from her door was another hallway that went to the back of the building and ended at a glass and wood door.

Simon turned the lock. “This is the third key on the ring. You don’t need a key to get out, but you do need one to get back in.”

“Third key,” she repeated. She followed him outside and felt her lungs freeze. “It’s cold.”

“You’re in the northeast and it’s winter. It’s supposed to be cold. Be careful on these steps. They were swept this morning, but they can be slippery.”

In contrast to his own warning, he bounded down the stairs. Meg kept a firm grip on the handrail with one hand while she clutched the zippered bag in the other.

Simon pointed to a building catercorner from where they stood. “That’s the back of the Liaison’s Office. We’ll go there in a minute. First . . .” He strode past a one-story building with large doors. “Garages. A couple of them hold vehicles; the others are used for storage.”

“Garages,” she muttered, struggling to keep up with his longer stride.

He turned left, and they walked past an empty space enclosed by walls on three sides.

“Employee parking lot,” he said. He paused a moment and pointed to a door in the back wall. “That leads to the customer parking lot. It’s locked and used only when we’re doing maintenance.” He passed the parking lot and went through an archway.

Meg looked at the buildings that surrounded an open space. The buildings on three sides were three stories tall. The side that had two larger archways was two stories.

“This is the Market Square,” Simon said. “There are steps leading down to the open area, but you can’t see them now, so stick close to the buildings.” He pointed at various doorways. “The Courtyard library. You can borrow books there or buy them at Howling Good Reads if there is something you want to keep. Music and Movies both loans and sells. We have a grocery store, a butcher shop, an office for the terra indigene bodywalkers—what you would call doctors—a toother, a drugstore, general store, clothing . . .”

“Sparkles and Junk?” she asked, catching sight of a sign next to a shop door.

“Five of the Crows run that one. You can find fake diamonds, real diamonds, or a one-armed doll. The humans who are allowed to shop at the Market Square say the Crows’ store is a cross between a stall market and a jewelry store. Mostly it’s other Crows who find it appealing, but I’m told humans find good stuff if they know what they’re looking for.”

Sparkles and Junk sounded like an interesting place, and she caught sight of other simple signs that intrigued her, including a store that sold ice cream and chocolate. But Simon was already retracing his steps, so she hurried to catch up.

He stopped at the back of the Liaison’s Office and pointed again. “Those are the back entrances for Howling Good Reads and A Little Bite. Tess is providing the midday meal as part of your pay, so you can go in through that door when you take your meal break.”

Her head was spinning. So many images in such a short time. So many things to remember! But she recognized the back stairs they had come down a few minutes ago, and felt easier for it. Now if she could just figure out why he was annoyed with her. It wasn’t like she had asked for a tour. He was the one who had kept them out in the cold, despite sniffing frequently as if he had a runny nose.

“The fourth key on the ring opens the back door,” Simon said, sounding even less friendly than he had a moment ago.

Meg felt him bristling, taking up too much space and air as she fumbled to get the keys out of her coat pocket.

“Whatever you did to your hair, don’t do it again,” he growled.

His face was suddenly so close to hers, she dropped the keys. The area in front of the door had been shoveled, but she still had to use a glove to wipe off the keys after picking them up.

“What’s wrong with my hair?” she said, hating that her voice sounded small and defensive.

“It stinks.” Nothing small or defensive about his voice.

“I used the shampoo that was in the apartment. It’s all I had.” And even more than hating the way her voice sounded defensive, she hated the thought that she might have to act submissive to someone else who assumed he had the right to control her life.

“And it’s all you will use. The terra indigene make those products and sell them at our stores because they don’t stink up the air. But I wasn’t talking about the soap or shampoo. Whatever you did to make your hair look like old blood and orange peels also makes it stink, and you’re not going to do it again!”

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