Three days and two notebooks later, Wilom had to get away from the ledger to clear his head. He drew the line when he’d started to dream of black lines of legal text dancing of white pages, just too fast for him to read as he desperately tried to keep up.

The one-week deadline was getting closer and closer. Wilom didn’t know what had possessed him to be so confident in the last meeting, because the longer he looked at the ledgers, the more certain he was that he had no clue what he was going to do.

A different café this time, he thought. He needed a change of surroundings.

It might bring up the Ferryman’s Knowledge, but after going to see the ferryman last time, and what had happened to Peggy, he would welcome a chance to practice ignoring it. It would at least be something different to concentrate on.

Finding a new café, though, turned out to be easier said than done. Every one he passed was empty, cardboard signs in the doors proclaiming that they were closed until further notice, or just plain closed forever. The little that Wilom could see inside the buildings — around half-drawn curtains and despite the unlit rooms — was bare. Coffee machines had been taken away, the shelves stripped of glasses and mugs. Wilom suspected that the tables and chairs were only still stacked outside because the owners hadn’t yet organised to have them taken away. The cafés weren’t the only ones in trouble, though. Most places were displaying “please note” lists of things they weren’t able to stock anymore. Some stores — furniture stores, dry goods stores, anything that relied on imports — were going out of business entirely.

He tried walking through all the streets he was familiar with, gradually moving further and further into the more expensive parts of town. But mostly the story was the same … only here the cardboard closing signs in the windows were printed card, with borders and large, visible block letters, instead of plain boxcard scribbled on in pen.

At the first open café he’d come across, he spotted Mr Treene, deep in conversation with someone.

They’re having a business meeting. Mr Treene is happy with how it is going. The other man is not.

They weren’t arguing, but Wilom could tell they weren’t far off. As he was standing in the street, trying to shut out the Ferryman’s Knowledge, the other man stood up drained his cup, dropped some coins in front of the waiter behind the counter, and walked out without another word.

There had to be other cafés. Wilom turned to leave, but he was interrupted by the other — Teo — the other man putting a hand on Wilom’s shoulder and smiled sourly, though his bad mood wasn’t directed at Wilom.

“Looks like you’re up next,” he said. “He asked me to send you in on my way out.”

“Sorry,” Wilom said.

Teo waved his hand. “No, I should be the one apologising. I’m free — you’re the one who’s about to have to sit down and talk with that old snake oiler.”

Wilom chuckled. “Not a fan?”

“Is anyone?” With that, Teo left.

Wilom tried not to be obvious about taking a breath and steeling himself before he walked on in.

At least he’d be able to get something to wash out the sour taste the Ferryman’s Knowledge had left in his mouth.

Immediately, Mr Treene waved him down to the table.

Wilom took the seat and pushed Teo’s coffee cup aside. After just a moment, a waiter came to clear the table, and offer him a fresh cup. Wilom gratefully accepted, and went to dig some coins out of his pocket, but Mr Treene overruled him.

“Nonsense. I’m paying, and you look like a man in sore need of a cup of coffee. Refill mine, too.” He finished his cup and handed it to the waiter, who left to get their drinks.

Mr Treene folded his hands on the table in front of them. “Well, well, didn’t expect to see you here. Haven’t been having me followed, I hope? Or perhaps this is all just happenstance?”

The question cut, as if Mr Treene really did suspect Wilom of something. It seemed only fitting, in Wilom’s opinion, that the truth was the answer most likely to keep Mr Treene guessing.

“Mere happenstance, I’m afraid. My line of work is keeping me rather too busy to keep tabs on you. Sorry.”

The coffee arrived, and Wilom filled his cup to the brim with milk. Mr Treene took a sip – apparently he drank his coffee black.

“Shame. I wouldn’t have expected there to be that much to do, though. It’s been a long time since I got word you’d placed someone.”

Ah. Well, of course Mr Treene had been keeping tabs on Wilom. Wilom must have been more tired and distracted than he thought to have been even slightly surprised.

“Doing nothing can sometimes make you busiest of all,” Wilom said, with a slight grin. There. Let Mr Treene take that one as he would – joke at his expense, blatant avoidance of the topic – Wilom didn’t care.

Or did the Ferryman’s Knowledge tell him to say that, and he hadn’t noticed.

No. He couldn’t second-guess everything like that. He didn’t have the time or the energy.

Thankfully, Mr Treene replied, giving him something else to concentrate on and preventing his mind from twisting itself into knots again.

“Well, that is true, I suppose. How are you going with all that, by the way?”

“Just as you say,” Wilom said. “No placements, and dwindling contacts. If you’ve got anything else for me, now would be the perfect time to let me know.”

“No, unfortunately, as much as I would appreciate the opportunity,” Mr Treene said. “Times like these, people are so unwilling to sell their houses. Besides, you and your … employers aren’t the only ones to have your idea. Only the others are families of means, and they tend to stick to moving family members and close friends.”

It was obviously intended as a joke, but Wilom couldn’t quite see where the punchline was, or who the butt the joke was.

Wilom sighed, and put the cup down. “And much good may it do them. Though it can’t be doing good things for your income.”

Mr Treene waved his hand. “When people want to keep their houses, they tend to pay my rent on time. As for buying and selling, that’s never been the main focus. I’ve seen the people who rely on that, and it never ends well for them. Besides, do I seem to you like a man who doesn’t put money by for a rainy day? Rainy year, though, at it’s turning out.”

The waiter came by again, on his way to another table, and Mr Treene reached out to tug gently on the man’s sleeve. “Get us a couple of menus?” he asked. “We’re having lunch.”

The waiter nodded and walked away, apparently either used to or unbothered by Mr Treene’s behaviour. Wilom rather envied the man his poise – with a café full of customers like Mr Treene, Wilom was sure he’d have disappointed the ferryman inside the shift.

“We’re staying for lunch, are we?” Wilom asked.

“Yes, we are. I took the liberty of deciding for you. I hope that’s alright.”

“I can’t really say no, can I? I’ve as much as admitted I have nowhere else to be. I assume if I plead my lower income, you’ll just tell me you’re paying.”

“Precisely.” Mr Treene passed Wilom a menu, opening his own. He frowned. “Excuse me,” he said suddenly, before the waiter had a chance to walk away. “You’ve removed some items from this menu.”

“Yes, sir,” the waiter nodded.

“A shame. I rather enjoyed your stuffed peppers.”

“Yes – unfortunately, we can’t get hold of Ahgetian peppers at the moment, nor the spice mix. That’s also why we’ve removed some of the options for our house omelette and the spice-rubbed lamb.”

“Pity,” Mr Treene said. “But I expect it can’t be helped.”

Wilom glanced over the menu, trying to ignore the prices as he decided, but it was difficult. He’d never even considered paying this much for a meal in his life!

Mr Treene put the menu down after a moment with an aggrieved sigh. “I do hope you and your employers are doing good work. It would be nice if these trade issues were resolved soon.”

Wilom couldn’t help but comment. “And it would also be nice if people stopped living in fear of being arrested for travelling within their own country, too. I’m afraid trade will have to take care of itself without us.”

“Of course,” Mr Treene said, with a twitch of his lips. Wilom realised he’d just been tested, but he didn’t know whether he’d passed or failed. He pushed away the Ferryman’s Knowledge before he could find out.

“Am I not,” Mr Treene continued, “Allowed to  have misgivings about the small problems as well as the large ones?”

“I won’t begrudge you,” Wilom said. “Variety is the  spice of life. And you seem to resent the absence of spice.” It was petty, but Wilom was heartily sick of tests, no matter who they were from.

Mr Treene squinted at him. “Have some more coffee,” he suggested. “And get yourself something hearty off the menu. You look a little peaky.”

“I’m fine,” Wilom said, finally deciding on a soup and putting the menu down. And then, because he knew Mr Treene would not take that for an answer, he clarified, “Late night last night.”

“I see.”

The waiter came back, and Mr Treene ordered an omelette, dictating his toppings clearly and precisely. Wilom ordered his soup, with no alterations. Mr Treene gave him a displeased look.

“I told you to get something hearty.” He turned to the waiter. “He’ll have extra bread on the side. Buttered. Real butter.”

“We always use real butter, sir,” the waiter said calmly.

Wilom winced, and gave the waiter an apologetic smile. The waiter didn’t seem to notice.

As the waiter left, Mr Treene looked hard at Wilom. “Well, I am glad you made it here today – I had a few things to say. But let’s eat first.”

Wilom touched a finger to his lower eyelid. “What? Is it that bad?”

“I meant it when I said you looked like a man in desperate need of a coffee. At the risk of sounding overbearing, when was the last time you had a full night’s sleep?”

Not since he’d been given the ledger, that was for sure. “I’ve been getting a rather typical amount of sleep.”

Mr Treene sighed. “Oh dear. What are they getting you to do now?”

“Nothing. That’s the problem,” Wilom lied quickly.

Mr Treene nodded slowly. “Ah. I do apologise for assuming. It’s just that in your situation … well, we’ll save that conversation for after lunch.”

Mr Treene changed the topic after that, talking about mostly irrelevant things until he’d decided Wilom had eaten enough of his soup and bread to be capable of holding a more in-depth conversation. Then, he said. “Well, Wilom. Unless you’re hiding something from me, inactivity does not become you.”

Asking about the comment about hiding something would be suspicious.

Wilom wrestled his mind back to the present with a deep intake of breath. “No,” he said. “Not in these circumstances.”

Mr Treene gave him a slightly stunned look. “My, my. I do believe this is the first time I’ve seen you actually show frustration.”

Oh, let him think it was about the Heads if he wanted to. Wilom didn’t care anymore.

“You once told me I’m an idealist,” Wilom pointed out. “And attached to the people I’m placing.”

Mr Treene nodded. “I also told you that you were a pragmatist with the mind of a businessman. Forgive me for being still being a little surprised when you switch roles on me suddenly.”

Careful,” Wilom said. “You know I remember everything you say in case it’s useful later.”

Mr Treene grinned. “I am glad you aren’t so out of sorts that you’ve lost your sense of humour. Now, a little while ago I was about to say something.”

“Yes. You were saying you’d assumed something about my mood?”

“I was. Well, I suppose we’ve cleared that up a little bit.”

Mr Treene left the sentence hanging. There was more he wanted to say.

He doesn’t believe that the Heads haven’t given you anything to do.

Alright, fine. If he couldn’t stop it being there, at least he could make it useful. “So, what have you heard that my employers are doing?” Wilom asked.

The pleasure of watching Mr Treene drop his fork in surprise nearly made up for the frustration of fighting back the Ferryman’s Knowledge all day.

“I’m only wondering,” Wilom said. “You tipped your hand a little there.”

Mr Treene laughed, and shook his head. “And there’s the pragmatic Wilom again. Well, you’re right. No specifics, but I’ve heard they’re asking around about lawyers. It’s nothing dramatic, of course, but it is a change in tactics.”

Wilom nodded slowly. “Thank you,” he said. “That’s useful to know.”

Mr Treene eyed him, clearly suspicious. However, Wilom had training from the best poker face in the business, and was in a slightly vicious mood.

“Well,” Mr Treene said, after a moment. “I’m glad to be of use. But if they’re not telling you anything, then that’s worrying, too.”

“Yes,” Wilom agreed. “It is.”

“Mind you look after yourself.”

Wilom nodded. “Of course.”

Mr Treene shook his fork at Wilom. “I have no doubt you’ll try. But worrying about my investments has been my business for a while now, and it’s a hard habit to break. You’ll forgive me if I won’t just take your word for it.”

So Wilom was an investment, then? Or just the group in general? “I wouldn’t expect you to.”

On his way out of the café, after Mr Treene paid for them and left, Wilom found their waiter and offered him an extra tip and an apology. Anyone who had to deal with Mr Treene deserved no less.




2 thoughts on “An Expensive Café

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