Lost in the Crowd — Part 2

Part 2***

Troy left Lock’s Book & Print for Hospitality Row.  He tipped his hat and smiled at a pair of ladies passing him on the sidewalk—one quite fetching with rosy cheeks and curly auburn hair. The older woman favored him with a dour expression, as if she’d eaten something unpleasant.

As they passed, Troy kept eye contact with the young lady. She gave a little wave over her shoulder, nothing more than a twiddle of the fingers.

She was lovely, indeed. But Troy found the Peace Branch officer standing down other end of Joyce Lane more worth his attention at that moment.

He was tall, slender and clean shaven. He did not look at Troy; rather, he stood reading the Consolidated Register. Why anyone would bother with that rag of a company paper was beyond Troy, unless they were fond of company fodder.

Troy knew where to go to conceal himself. He daren’t return to his apartment—doubtless they’d have someone waiting for him there. Back on Hospitality Row, amidst the noise and bustle and people, he felt safe. He could blend—as long as he found the right place. Those of Tirodani descent were barely tolerated in Trestleway, and learned to seek safety in greater numbers.

This is what led Troy to the Silver Spoon.

It was a tea house of high repute, with a penchant for alluring brews. The smell enticed customers of all classes regardless of ethnicity. From two blocks down Troy could see the sign posted high above the roofs. The silver spoon itself was hammered out of a bar of metal as long as a man was tall. It was anchored high atop the building, a beacon for all Tirodani.

Troy kept to the crowds on the sidewalk. Street traffic was heavy today, mercifully. He counted on it to block the view of the man following his footsteps.

Troy bumped elbows with a squat, wide man in an impeccably tailored suit whose moustache—big, bushy and white—concealed most of his lower face. “Beg pardon, sir.”

“I should say so!” The man harrumphed and continued along.

It gave Troy the pretext to glance sideways across the street—and reassured him the pursuer was still keeping tabs on him. The officer strolled along the opposite side of Haupt Street, a building back. His hands were tucked in his trouser pockets, and he had the newspaper folded under one arm. He appeared to be whistling.

The morning crowd at the Silver Spoon was full of chatter. Men and women sat segregated at the four-top tables that filled most of the salon—men on the right, women on the left. The floor was black and white checked tile. The walls were white, and decorated tastefully with pinstripes. The owner had hung portraits of prominent local Tirodani here and there.

The ladies talked quite happily, Troy thought, about children and literature and Telru meetinghouse gossip. The men spoke politics and trade at the Telru religion, in far less jovial tones. There had to be forty people in all. Only a handful were not Tirodani—red and orange hair prevailed.

Troy stepped in line behind an older couple whose hair was as white as the floor tile. The scones and pastries lined up in the glass counter tempted him with both their appearance and aroma. Troy scanned the tins of tea in the huge wooden display rack behind the clerk for his favorite—Western Pallus Blend.

“Good morning, Mister Keysor. Haven’t seen you in a spell.” The counter clerk, Jeremiah, was a gangly lad with a bright red goatee and so man freckles on his face it was near impossible to see the skin beneath.  “Your typical?”

“Yes, please. I’m impressed you remember.”

“Western Pallus Blend, no sugar, drop of lemon, raspberry and cinnamon scone. Buttered.”  Jeremiah grinned. “It’s how I keep the customers happy.”

He retrieved the tea from the proper tin and dumped it into a mug. He worked the levers of the of the tea pump behind him. Steaming water filled the mug.

Troy paid for his tea and scone. He made sure to leave a sizeable tip for Jeremiah. There were a few two-top seats in the back corner, so Troy selected one that gave him a fine view of the salon windows facing out to Haupt Avenue.

No sign of the Peace Branch officer. But that did not mean he’d gone.

Never mind. There would be time to worry over that later. Troy opened the model railroading book to the index. He slipped his notebook from his pocket and dug for a pencil. On the last page was a grid of letters, baffling to the untrained eye but a lexicon for Troy. He decoded the message from Jesca using their mutual keyword for the month—CRIMS.

He smiled. Most fitting.

His pencil scratched across the paper. He took a sip of tea but did not pause his writing. All around him conversation flowed, insulating him from any unwanted attention.

The message was simple:

MEET AT SCHULTHEISS NOON SUN.

“Schultheiss,” he whispered. Today, at noon? It must be important if Jesca wanted him to rendezvous immediately. He’d only gotten the note delivered about the book late last night.

Jeremiah approached the table. Troy hadn’t heard him; rather, the movement out of the corner of his eye was enough of an alert. Troy pocketed the notebook and made as if he were reading the book.

“Mister Keysor?”

“Yes, Jeremiah?”

“There’s a man come ‘round to the back door, sir. The alley entrance.” Jeremiah twisted his fingers. “He’s asked the manager to send you out, quiet like.”

“I see.” Troy set the tea cup down. It rattled enough to slosh tea on the saucer. “I appreciate your telling me.”

“Yes, sir. He’s—well, he’s Peace Branch, Mister Keysor.” Jeremiah kept his tone even and conversational, soft enough that it would be lost to others in the din. Troy was grateful the young man had the wit to do so—it’d served them both well before.

“That is unsurprising. Yes, well—I’d best be going.” Troy took a final sip of tea—he hadn’t touched a crumb of scone, having long since lost his appetite. He grabbed the book and turned from his chair.

On second thought, perhaps he’d want the scone later. Troy shoved it into a pocket. He didn’t care one whit about crumbs.

“Mister Keysor?”

“Yes, Jeremiah?”

“If that fellow’s waiting on you in the back, perhaps you’d best exit out the front. So you don’t have to get your suit mussed in the alley.” Jeremiah smiled. “It’s filthy back there.”

“Ah. I see. Yes, thanks.” Troy grinned back. “Could you tell him to meet me around front?”

Jeremiah glanced at the counter. A handful of people had lined up, and they looked none to patient. “Oh, I’ll do that, but it may take me a mite longer to get him the message than he’d like.”

“Whenever you can manage.” Troy tipped his hat.

Escape.

He slipped out the front door. There was enough a gap in traffic for him to walk swiftly across—it wouldn’t do to jog. He made it with room to spare as a huge double-wagon loaded with grain came trundling along, a pair of surly diprotodon baying and moaning as they pulled. A line of motor-wagons honked their horns from behind.

“I suppose I’ll miss that appointment with Peace Branch,” Troy murmured. “So busy on these streets, it’s difficult to find a fellow.”

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