Chapter 43: Bandaged Pride
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My face was struck with a dire mien as Esmeralda left. As she drifted through the crowd of people, with cadenced footsteps seeming to fall with the consistency of a ticking clock, she seemed to dissolve amid the thralls - each of them busily shambling toward destinations that none seemed to keen to reach. I felt, frankly, that I had betrayed a piece of myself in that moment. I couldn't help but believe that this series of events was undermining the moral person that I had tried to become: the one who'd sought to rise above a past of suffering and pain. This deal may help me to win my freedom, but in exchange, I felt as if I'd lost my principles.

Still, I was here to help people - first and foremost. If I could save Vincent, myself, and one of Dalton's clients from reincarnation: I could help more than enough people to bandage my wounded pride. Staring across the office space, I steeled myself for what had to be done. 

Slap!

I brought both of my hands against my cheeks as I shocked myself back into reality, tearing myself from my own destructive thoughts as I stared across the hall. I could sit here, wallowing in my own predicament, or I could help the people who actually needed me - the person who'd found themselves caught in the purgatory of Dalton's desk, and the person whose case file  had been tossed aside - now sitting atop my own desk. I wouldn't leave either of them behind. I had two clients, and I was going to help both of them to lead better lives. 

As I carried the file that I'd picked up from the case room, I grabbed a biro, before wandering through the lifeless corridors toward Dalton's desk. He sat there staring at the screen, his fingers dancing across the keyboard like some pianist playing a melody of human misery, quickly writing up some filing that'd probably mean doom for some innocent soul lingering upon his puppeteer's finger. After a moment, he stared up at me.

"Malarie," he said, averting his gaze from the computer with a smile. "What brings you over my way?"

"What do you think?" I replied. "I want to ask you about what you said before. Did you intervene with the boss?"

"Does it matter?" He stated.

"Yes, yes it matters," I snapped. "My future's on the line, and I want to know who to blame."

In reality, I couldn't care less about who was to blame, and as I held my hands behind my back - my eyes darted between Dalton's eyeline and his client file. Stroking the pen across my skin, I tried to write down the client ID on the back of my hand. Though I was sure that the writing would be less than immaculate - it didn't matter too much if it wasn't perfect. As long as it was readable and I kept enough of the ID in my head, I could rewrite it later.

'254...'

Dalton didn't seem to focus too much on me as he continued to input information from the file into the system, and so he didn't seem to notice my darting eyes for now. As he punched in details, he occasionally glanced up at me as he spoke, seeming wholly concentrated upon his duties.

"Well, I'll tell you. I couldn't care less if you get reincarnated or not," Dalton answered. "You may have messed up one of my prize cases, but at the end of the day, I'm not going to lose my top spot. There's no reason for me to act. I could probably swat you out with ease, Malarie, but in my eyes - you're not worth the effort."

I was angered by his nonchalance, but nonetheless, I remained still - covertly recording the numbers I needed from the file onto my hand. However, it did make me pause for a moment in thought as I wrote the numbers down. 

'181...'

As I stood there, still and silent, Dalton went on.

"You want to find out who really arranged this whole thing, well, look at who stands to gain from it," Dalton continued. "Look at who might be getting you to do their dirty work: hell, look at who already got you to do it for them. I have no interest in pressuring you. She might, though."

Really, Dalton was only confirming what I'd already assumed, but frankly - I wasn't too interested in his words anyway. I already knew that Esmeralda had put in the word to the boss, but luckily for me, Dalton had no idea what I knew. The conversation simply gave me the chance to stand here and read the numbers on his file. That was, in my view, what mattered. 

'056...'

As I took a glance for a second too long, Dalton looked up at me, seeing me take a peek at the folder. He suspiciously raised his eyebrow after a moment. I brought my attention back to him, but it was evidently a little peculiar to him. Nonetheless, he seemed to ignore his better instincts, as he sighed - returning his attention to the file.

"Tell me, Malarie, is she pressuring you?" Dalton asked.

"That's none of your business," I answered. "I came here to ask you questions, not the other way around."

"For someone who refuses to answer, why, that's a rather telling response," Dalton stated.

He stared up at me, with a flippant smirk, and I felt that smug self-aggrandisement of his - permeating the cubicle with the foul stench of malignant, unabashed narcissism. I turned my gaze away from his conceited countenance out of habit, as I recalled the last few digits in my head, writing them down upon my hand. 

'492-3...'

I barely managed to squeeze the last few digits onto my hand as my writing pushed up against the edge of my hand - the last four digits written on my fingers rather than my palm. I may have had the impossible dexterity of an archer, but even I struggled to write such information on such a small space without even being able to glance at what I had written. 

As Dalton nodded, he turned his head back to his computer. His fingers continued their sonata of suffering across the keyboard, darting, flitting across the keys. 

"You know, Malarie, if you want me to stay out of your business - you'd better steer clear of her," Dalton replied. "If I fall down to second in the rankings, I'll be coming for your head first..."

Turning his head toward me, I could see his expression change as gloating malice tinted his irises, and as he furrowed his eyebrows - his gloomy gaze reeked of ill will. 

"...That is, if you're lucky enough to keep your head for that long," he added.

I felt uneasy as Dalton spoke, those foreboding words making me shiver - like a cold chill against the nape of my neck. I didn't like the depths of the office politics that I'd been foisted into. However, as I wrote down the final digits and kept the client's important details inside my head, I cast those thoughts from my mind. I simply needed to help a client. It was just like usual, and though this might be a slightly more clandestine affair - I tried to tell myself that it was the same as any other case.

However, I wasn't very good at lying to myself.

I could try to deceive myself as much as I wanted to, but for all the talk I'd given about being better, a part of me could see what was happening. It was a part of me that I had ignored, perhaps to my own detriment. I could see myself sliding down that dark path, pursuing self-preservation over principles. That warrior's instinct, to preserve oneself amid the chaos, had clutched my heart once more. Wandering down the halls, with that number against my hand and my back against the wall, I'd surrendered myself wholeheartedly to the first escape opportunity that had been thrown my way. 

Was I really any better than this place, or had it just taken a little longer to whittle away at my soul?

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