Flashing a smile, Angie remembered to involve the muscles under her eyes to make it look genuine. She replaced the empty carafe with a full one after refilling the board member’s cups and fading out of the room. Comfortably out of sight behind the door, her shoulders fell and she tugged at the uncomfortable uniform collar that always felt like it was choking her.
Angie took a pocket watch out of her apron and checked the time. The dinner mess was gone, wheeled away by the rest of the staff to the dish room and compost bins before they left for home. It was just her, the percolator, airpot and icebox until the meeting finished up. From the after-dinner coffee onward it was a closed meeting, but she had to hang around in case there was any dire drinks emergency. Angie killed a little time straightening the catering nook, then peered through the little panel of one-way glass. They were still at it, hunched over papers, toying with delicate cups on matching saucers. Pre-Five Cities china, actually from China, as indicated by faded blue marks on the underside.
Loosening the hateful collar, Angie moved on quiet waiter feet to the percolator and poured herself a cup. However draining and often degrading serving the powerhouse minds that ran the Five Cities was, there were perks. Coffee instead of tea. Sugar from the east instead of honey. Leftovers smuggled home, buffalo and salmon from the coast.
In the flickering light of the candles and alcohol lamp turned low, Angie let the first sip run over her tongue, all grassy and heavy, with berry tones. The roaster’s guild, despite the small amount of stock they had to work with, were masters.
Halfway through her nursed cup, Angie checked the meeting again. Squinting against the uneven light of the single solar and half-lit chandelier, she tried to judge the status of the cream. It could go either way. With a sigh, she set a cream and sugar service in the lazy susan cabinet, adding carafes of coffee and water as an afterthought. Even if they weren’t quite ready to refresh, things would stay warm and cold long enough to satisfy them.
Aimless, Angie picked up her cup and wandered out of the nook to the dish-room. Everything seemed put away well enough, what needed to soak was soaking and Angie felt lost in an itching need to be doing something. Years ago she would have passed her time eavesdropping, gathering words and ideas to drop in the pockets of the people she used to run with. After a time, listening to policy made with handshakes and winks was a chafing thing that left you calloused, so Angie drifted instead to the employees’ balcony.
She finished her cup before the breeze cooled it. Far below, pleasure boats strung with fairy lights milled, calling at each other. The bustle of the Bridge hummed and scratched in the inns to each side and the shops a level below. Angie was a bubble of silence in the governance building, matched only by the Steel and its guard tower to the south.
Stretching, back grating to a pop, Angie listened to the hum a moment more and drew back into the flickering quiet.
The cabinet disgorged empty creamers and carafes. Checked through the glass, Angie saw that the board members had not moved. All sat, still hunched and toying. Looking at her watch, Angie gave up hope in getting home in a timely manner. She refilled the services, wiped the lazy susan clean of sugar spill and honey drip, set everything neatly in and spun the door closed. This was their last carafe from the giant airpot. After this they’d get tea, like everyone else.
Knowing from experience that this third round of coffee would go slower, she pulled out her needlework and started stitching.
Angie got up when the serving cabinet clunked faintly some time later. She gathered the empty creamer and carafe and was reaching into the icebox when the door to the conference room shushed open.
“Can I help you?” she asked, hoping her coffee cup was well out of sight. At least she’d been stitching instead of reading, needlework looked less like a waste of time.
“Yes dear, we were wondering—” the round little man stood, half in-half out of the catering nook, as though he dared not lose ties to the conference room. “Ah, we were realising that this meeting will continue for some time yet and we really felt—” Angie, tired and wanting the point, cut in, flashing a smile.
“I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to give you more coffee, it’s company policy.” The little man blinked and shook his head, reminding Angie of a bird looking for a worm.
“Ah, no. That’s—it’s not precisely what we were wondering.” Angie politely arched her eyebrow and waited. The man continued to dither, finally blurting, “If you could come in here a moment, please?” Angie followed him into the conference room, holding back a sigh.
The arrangement of board members had changed drastically since she’d last looked in. Except for one man at the table, all were scattered around the room, clustering at the windows and the now empty sideboard. The one sitting was still hunched over papers, grey head resting on his hand. The board member who’d called Angie in fluttered at her elbow.
“We thought he’d fallen asleep, but we noticed after a while that he wasn’t breathing and—” He flapped his hands helplessly. Angie wondered if the man ever finished a sentence. She felt very tired.
“What is it, exactly, that you want me to do?” Angie turned to face the man. “I can go get the night security guard and he can find a doctor, maybe?” That was, she could tell by his expression, exactly not what they wanted. She kept her face emotionless, blank, waiting for his reply.
Angie had a pretty good idea what they wanted, but the bastards were going to have to man up and ask. Their silence was stretching into fidgeting awkwardness when a woman at the back of the room spoke up.
“He died in his sleep, so we figure he might as well have died at home. And really, it might be best if that is what appears to have happened. We want you to get him out of here and to his flat.” Angie nodded, looked the woman square in the eyes and said,
“You absolutely do not pay me enough to do that. What you do pay me enough to do I am going to do. Then, I am going home.” Moving to the sideboard, Angie collected a bus tub from the lower cabinet. With silent grace she cleared the cups and glasses, including those of the dead man. The board members stood frozen, watching her. Angie swept back to the catering nook, hearing a rumble of arguments start up as the door closed.
Bus tub balanced on hip, Angie added her own dishes, hooked her bag across her shoulder and snuffled the candles. With the alcohol lamp in one hand she pushed through to the dish-room and set everything into the sink with a clatter. There was an exhausted giddiness to her movements, so she navigated downstairs carefully. Straightening the giggles from her face, Angie set the lamp on the guard’s desk and addressed the man in her most serious voice.
“Sir, I believe the board needs you upstairs, in the conference room. It seemed to be a bit of an emergency.” The guard looked up, startled, took the lamp and rushed off. Angie called at his back, “I’m done for the night, you can lock up!” Slinging the bag more comfortably across her shoulders, she went out the door.
Probably she would be looking for another job come morning. The bustle of nightlife closed around her and she decided to take it in stride. Someone was always hiring on the Bridge. She could live without coffee.