01. With Bells On!

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The death knell rang out with resounding finality. I raced forward, my heart pounding, my hands clenched into fists. Please! It couldn't happen like this! It just couldn't! I had to reach it in time, before—

Ba-dum ba-dum-ba-dum!

With deafening drums and brass, the black-clad marching band rounded the corner and blocked the street.

Crap!

Screeching to an abrupt halt, I bent over, panting. On either side of me, everyone trying to cross the street stopped and respectfully stepped back, removing their hats in sympathy, as the bearers of the coffin appeared. I, for my part, snatched my hat off my head and hurled it to the ground in frustration. Bloody hell! Now the street was blocked! I was going to be late for work!

Everyone said death waits for no man. But I knew better. Mr Rikkard Ambrose waits for no man, and would demand I postpone my appointment with death till the weekend and take care of it in my free time.

Hm... I eyed the funeral procession thoughtfully. I wonder, is it socially acceptable to practice pole vaulting over coffins?

Probably not.

Fishing out my watch, I tapped my foot in time to the sombre music as the funeral procession passed by at a brain-meltingly slow pace. Two minutes...three...drat! Couldn't they move any faster? And why was that weeping woman at the front insisting on collapsing every few feet and sobbing onto her fellow mourners' shoulders?

'He's deahahahaaad!' Stumbling, she clutched one of the innocent bystanders. 'Deeaad!'

'Ehem...yes ma'am.' The elderly gentleman cleared his throat. 'I can see that.'

'Where will I ever f-find someone like h-him again?'

'Um...the graveyard?'

The woman abruptly stopped weeping, whacked him with her fan and strode on. Mentally, I gave the gentleman a high five. Unfortunately, even though the woman in the lead was moving slightly faster now, the coffin in the middle of the procession was only just passing by me.

Shielding my eyes from the sun, I peered down the street, trying to make out how popular Mr Six Feet Under had been. To judge by the mellifluous multitudes marching after the coffin, including everything from musicians over funeral guests to several black, plumed carriages, I was going to be stuck here for quite a while. Unless...

''scuse me.'

Before anyone could shriek, I smiled at the coffin bearers, ducked underneath their load and dashed across the street. Behind me, I heard a yelp, but I was already around the nearest corner. Yay! Coffin parkour number one finished!

Not slowing down for a minute, I took another turn, and another—and finally, there it was! The huge building towered right in front of me, on the other side of the street: Empire House. Tallest building in this part of the city, place of employment for hundreds of unfortunate, oppressed, underpaid souls, home to a multinational financial and industrial empire, and headquarters of my husband-to-be.

Who, by the way, still hadn't given me a raise.

Suppressing the eager leap of my heart in my chest at the thought of him (or possibly at the thought of a raise), I dashed across the street and pushed open the front door. The patter of hundreds of busy little feet greeted me the moment I stepped inside. As always, people were rushing about, carrying cartons full of sample goods and stacks of documents. In the centre of the hall, like a particularly sallow-faced idol on the altar of overwork, sat Mr Pearson, the front desk clerk. Everything was just as always.

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