As Scarlett sat in the passenger seat of her sister’s roamer, she made sure she had everything packed into her flasher bag. It was her first day at Hub Publishing. She would be a fool to turn up unprepared.
Kat paid no notice of Scarlett’s fidgeting. Her tight brown coils frizzed with moisture and were barely held in place by a decorative metal clip fastened at the back of her head. She sat in the driver’s seat, hands gripping the wheel tightly as she peered over the rim like some kind of amateur spy. Across a busy road sat an enormous building with a large oval sign that read Hub Publishing in sweeping letters. Roamers whizzed past Kat’s door, honking occasionally at her idling. It was the busiest time of the morning, the time when people went to work in droves and drank themselves awake with coffee and tea.
Inhaling deeply, Kat repeated her sentiments for the umpteenth time that morning. “I don’t trust this.”
Scarlett slid the strap of her flasher bag over her shoulder. Convinced she had everything she needed for her first day of work, she finally turned her attention to her sister. Beyond Kat’s less-than-stealthy scrutiny laid a statue chiseled out of marble. The subject: a blindfolded young woman, half-naked and revealing a pert breast and erect nipple, held a globe up to the sky as if in offering. The building behind it was nearly as old as the statue and had been used for many things over its long lifespan. Originally, the fading beige building was a temple. Over time it was adapted to whatever the city needed. Once it had been a museum, then a music hall, but now it was one of the most reputable small publishing houses in all of Naiaca.
Scarlett liked knowing her place of work had a history. Things that withstood time held a special place within her heart.
Trying once more to placate Kat, Scarlett said, “Relax. Hub Publishing is one of the best.”
“They just hired you after one interview?” Kat asked for the umpteenth time, sounding just as incredulous as she had when Scarlett first told her the news. “No respectable company does that. No, no. I don’t trust this at all. Let me take you home.”
Kat started the roamer.
Quick as a flash of lightning, Scarlett propped the door open and exited the roamer to the sound of her sister’s indignant displeasure.
“It’s a legitimate job,” Scarlett assured.
Kat’s grip tightened around the steering wheel. She glared out the window at the publishing house. “I’ll wait right here in case this is all some ruse.”
“It’s not a–”
“You don’t know that!” exclaimed Kat. Already a highly-strung woman, birthing two children had only made her more overprotective.
Scarlett sighed. “I’m going inside, you deranged woman. Have a lovely day at work.”
Before Scarlett could shut the door, Kat yelled, “I’ll be here for twenty minutes! Do you hear? Twenty min–!”
Elektra Penzier, head editor of Hub Publishing, led Scarlett to a small desk shoved between gray-green metal filing cabinets and a squashed kitchenette area. Her skirt was tight and to her knees, her blouse white and billowy, and her feet balanced on high heels. She produced a distinct clicking noise as she walked past desks that were piled with cups of coffee and papers scribbled with notes. A pen filled with red ink was always in her hand.
“That’s Aleander,” said Elektra, waving her pen at a man with curly black hair and a hefty build.
Scarlett turned to look as if instructed to. Aleander had his face pressed so close to the page he was writing on that the tip of his nose skimmed the ink. He seemed to neither hear nor see what was going on around him. His only focus was writing down the thoughts pouring from his head.
“And this is your desk.” Elektra waved at a small wooden desk that looked ready to collapse. She appeared contrite. “We’re a tad cramped at the moment, but you’ll hardly be here and when you are, we expect you’ll be spending most of your time in the Red Room. Remember: you have your assigned station in there. Don’t use someone else’s equipment.”
The Red Room was located in the basement and spanned the length of the building. It had been the previous stop on Elektra’s little tour, leaving Scarlett’s clothes still smelling of chemicals. Elektra’s perfume of wildflowers, however, managed to buffer her own clothes from the fumes. Scarlett had been impressed with Hub Publishing’s Red Room. Her workstation alone was four times the size of her shed back in Scholarium. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“And if you need anything,” continued Elektra, “whether that be chemicals, caption paper, desk supplies, or anything you fancy you’ll need, fill out a request form and submit it to Melani.”
“Your assistant,” Scarlett answered firmly as if this were a test.
Elektra showed off stark white teeth. Her canines angled inwards and were the only crooked thing about her. She placed the end of her pen at the indentation in her chin. Delicate fingers – fingers that held her pen like a sword – rubbed the side of the shaft. “We expect great captions from you, Ms. Burn. Great captions for great articles. After a few years’ worth of commissioned assignments, you’ll be able to come up with your own ideas for articles. For now, we’d like you to begin with bridges.”
“Bridges.” The word dangled from Scarlett’s mouth.
Elektra stared down her pointed nose. “Yes. Bridges. Stone, metal, small or large, we want to see them in all their glory. People like them. People like seeing them. We want to explore why that is and sell as many copies as we can in the process. I’m assuming you are aware of our style. Each month’s publication focuses on a theme. You’ve joined us for our interest in architecture and the beauty and science behind it. The captions we have for the articles on bridges are…not up to par. We need the right ones to gather attention.”
“Right.” Scarlett set her bag on her chair. “Artistic shots of bridges it is.”
“Excellent. We hit the printers in three weeks. I realize that’s not much time for you, but do try. Here is a list of the bridges the articles cover.” Elektra handed over a slip of paper with dozens of locations written on it. “Get as many as you can.”
Scarlett skimmed the list. “These are in cities hours away and in towns I’ve never heard of.”
“You have a roamer, yes?”
Nibbling at the skin on the side of her thumb’s nail, Scarlett contemplated on what to do. She knew without having to ask that Kat would never lend her the roamer. “I’ll work something out.”
“Good,” said Elektra. “We’re counting on you.” Elektra turned and left, but not before saying, “Remember–three weeks!” It wasn’t long before her clicking heels were drowned beneath the busy, bustling noise of pushpens.
Scarlett expelled a long breath.
“Ov-v-verwhelmed yet?” stuttered a deep, friendly voice.
Aleander was a man who spilled out of his chair. His beige shirt was wrinkled, the front stained with splotches of coffee and wayward ink. A button was missing near his belly button. He had rolled his sleeves up to his elbows for comfort, exposing curly hair that grew up his arms and matched the hair on his head. Although he came off as someone who preferred to work in solitude, Aleander’s smile effused sincerity.
“Not yet.” Scarlett tapped her cheekbone. “You’ve got some ink. Just a smudge.”
Aleander chuckled shyly and wiped his stained face on his sleeve before showing Scarlett his chipped coffee mug. “Kitchen-n-nette is always open. There are only t-t-two types of coffee; brown sludge or bitter dirt. Any pastries stale within h-hours.”
“Useful information, thank you. Say, Aleander. Do you know anyone who’s selling a roamer? I’m extremely cheap but desperately in need of one.”
Aleander shook his head slowly, and then paused mid-swish. “Cruisers are ch-cheaper.”
“I never would have thought of–Aleander!” said Scarlett, emanating delight. “I owe you a fresh pastry and a decent cup of brown sludge.”
Kat bore an expression of constipation. “What kind of infernal contraption is that?”
Scarlett massaged her palms over the handles. Her foot barely touched the ground. She had to lean sideways, resting all her weight and the weight of the cruiser on her toes. Bowed as her legs were–with bobbles for knees–they managed to wrap around the two-wheeled vehicle as if they were made for it.
She ran a hand down the steel body. Her fingers rubbed against the scratches and dents incurred from the previous owner’s crash. The black leather seat also had damage, but that was fine with Scarlett. She needed something cheap, not a fresh-off-the-boat Noire roamer that was wickedly expensive.
The seller of the cruiser had been a middle-aged man with graying hair and a potbelly. He was not a very nice fellow, but he added new tires as part of the sale.
“It’s called a cruiser,” Scarlett said. “Isn’t it great?”
“Is it dangerous?” Kat moved her hands from her hips to her lower back, a sign that spoke volumes about her opinion of the cruiser. “It looks dangerous.”
“Only if you don’t know how to ride it.”
“And do you?” pestered Kat. “Know how to ride it?”
Scarlett pulled her bottom lip between her teeth. She had known Kat wouldn’t approve of the cruiser, but then again, her sister didn’t approve of much when it came to Scarlett’s choices. Kat liked things her way. Everyone else was either wrong or incompetent.
Kat’s tall stone house was built on the steepest and most slanted street in Quinvillu. Deep green ivy grew from one side to the other, but it was kept immaculate compared to the others on the street. Inside, Byrony let out an ear-piercing screech only a six-year-old could muster. Her little feet made light pattering sounds as she ran from one end of the house to the other. The top of her head could be seen darting across a window, followed shortly by an even smaller figure with blonde ringlets.
Owen was four, and the naughtiest of Kat’s children. That made him Scarlett’s favorite.
Knowing nothing she said would appease her sister, Scarlett shrugged while astride her newly purchased cruiser. “I sure hope so, or I’ll have wasted all the money Ma gave me on rubber and metal.”
Kat’s face creased. She turned to go back inside, intent on instilling more discipline on her children, but not before solemnly imparting, “Sometimes I think you want to die.”
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