Written in Red Page 30

Looking thoughtful in a scary kind of way, Tess picked up the insulated mug and handed it to Meg. “It won’t be hot, but it should still be warm. By the way, that mug isn’t something you should put in the wave-cooker.”

“Okay.” Meg took the mug, removed the lid, and obediently took a sip of coffee.

“As for doing laundry, we send out some things to a laundry service—like bedspreads, curtains, and . . . other things we don’t want to handle. There is also a coin-operated washing machine and dryer in the social center that employees are allowed to use. And each residential complex has a laundry room.”

“Are there instructions for using the coin-operated machines?”

Training image. A commercial laundry, its walls spattered with blood, and two people dead on the floor.

Meg shivered.

“Tell you what,” Tess said. “I’ll come by around four thirty. That’s long enough past the office’s usual closing for any delivery trucks that are still slowed down by the snow. We’ll go to the clothing store and pick up whatever you need to get you through a few more days. Then I’ll take you over to the laundry room at the Green Complex. Did anyone give you your Market Square card?”

“Jester dropped it off with my pass, but he didn’t explain what it did.”

“Typical,” Tess muttered. “Do just enough to stir things up. It goes like this. Everyone who works at any of our stores is paid in human currency and also receives credit that can be used at any store in the Courtyard. So while your pay may not seem like much in terms of the money you get, you’re also getting double that amount credited on your card each week. At the end of each month, you can stop in at our bank and receive a slip telling you what you have left on the card.”

Since she didn’t have to pay for her apartment, the wages were more generous than she’d thought.

“I don’t pretend to understand humans,” Tess said. “Giving both sides a chance to understand each other is the reason the Business Association decided to open up some of the stores to human customers. So I’ll talk to Simon about letting Asia Crane drop by to chat—as long as you and she understand that Simon will kill her if he catches her scent where it doesn’t belong. But if you have questions about being in the Courtyard, you can ask me. All right?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Tess smiled and glanced at the clock on the wall. “Then I’ll let you get back to work. The ponies will be coming soon. Don’t forget to come by on your lunch break. A Little Bite is providing the midday meal.”

“I’ll remember.”

She waited until Tess left, then put the Back in Five Minutes sign on the counter, locked the Private door, and went into the bathroom to wash her face. Nothing she could do about the puffy eyes, but dust could cause puffy eyes too, couldn’t it? And that corner that held the older mailbags and packages was dusty.

She unlocked the Private door and tucked the sign under the counter just in time for another delivery truck to drive up.

It looked like she’d get to try out the dust excuse and see if anyone actually believed it.

* * *

“SIMON!”

Hearing Tess’s voice, Simon vaulted over the checkout counter, an instinctive response to some knowledge embedded into the essence of his kind. When she strode from the back of the store, he knew why he wanted to give himself room to fight.

Her hair was completely red and coiling as she walked toward him.

Not black. Not the death color. But close enough.

Tess looked around. Her voice thundered through HGR. “Howling Good Reads is closed for the day. Anyone who is still in the store sixty seconds from now will never be seen again.”

Others and humans ran for the nearest door, whether it was HGR’s street door or the archway to A Little Bite.

“Tess?” Julia Hawkgard called from the archway. “Are we closing too?”

“Customers go. You and Merri Lee stay to close up.”

When Simon turned toward the street door to lock it and flip the sign to CLOSED, Tess snarled, “Not you, Wolfgard.”

He walked up to her. “I’m the leader of this Courtyard. You live here because of my invitation. Remember that.”

Threads of black appeared in her red hair.

“If I have to make friends with a monkey in order to clean up your mess, you’re going to make some concessions,” she said.

“You don’t have to make friends with anyone.” He wasn’t sure she was capable of making friends. And despite the efforts he and Henry had made over the years, they still didn’t know what kind of terra indigene Tess was. But they knew she could kill. They did know that.

“Well, I have. For the sake of the Courtyard, I have made friends with our Human Liaison. Now it’s your turn.”

“What do you expect me to do? Asia Crane would have pushed where she didn’t belong, and she’ll keep pushing.”

Tess tipped her head. “Even now?”

“Even now. And Meg isn’t strong enough to hold her ground.” But she had been strong enough to run from something—or someone—and had enough spine to ask him for a job.

“You’ve turned Asia into forbidden fruit,” Tess said.

“What?”

“You’ve read enough human stories to know the lure of forbidden fruit.”

Yes, he had. And if Meg smelled like prey the way she was supposed to, he wouldn’t have responded in a way that was closer to protecting one of his own. Oh, he still would have forced Asia to back down, but he would have done it the same way he dealt with a customer in the store who wanted access to places that were private.

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