It was at about the halfway point between Islip’s Books and her second-story flat in the East Garden district of Raneadhros—as she’d never seen a garden there, she had yet to understand the name—that Annie began to suspect she was being followed.
The day had already been soured. She’d had her first job interview in several weeks, and she’d done her best to look not only fully professional but demure for a L’rovri: putting her shoulder length black mane up in a bun, dressing in a conservatively cut white blouse and gray skirt. Her blue jacket nicely complemented her eyes, she’d thought. But no outfit could mask two basic facts: she was a wolf woman, and she stood six foot six. When she’d met her prospective employer, a middle-aged human not even a full six feet high, she’d been able to predict exactly how the interview would go, through the subtly pointed questions about her background (“I’m curious that you have security and investigative positions as well as accounting ones, Miss Swift”) to his closing line (“We have some other applicants to review, but we’ll be in touch”) almost word for word.
She had no other interviews on the horizon. And no income. At home she’d gotten down to just noodles and cheese sauce, and until—unless—the meager pay for the last freelance job she’d taken came in, her bank account barely had enough to cover rent. She shouldn’t have bought the romance novel that she’d picked up at Islip’s; one of the downsides of being a professional accountant was knowing not only when she was lying to herself about her finances, but precisely to what degree she was lying. But after her day she’d felt like she needed to splurge on something.
And now this. From sour to scary.
Maybe it was her imagination. If the raccoon was tailing her, he was good at making it look casual. She hadn’t caught him looking directly at her yet. Every time she made a careful half-glance toward him, she found him looking across the street, studying his watch, stopped to admire a shop window. But he’d been back there every time.
Time to do something unexpected. She looked across the street and waved, as if to someone she’d just recognized. Like most streets in this part of Raneadhros, there were far more pedestrians then vehicles. But bicyclists and carriages—both horse-drawn and steam-powered—were common, and if you wanted to cross an avenue this wide and this busy, you didn’t just recklessly charge across it.
Annie sprinted into traffic just as a trackless trolley rolled toward her. The driver yanked on the horn indignantly as she cleared the bumper, closer than she’d intended but still barely safely. She hadn’t counted on the Vraini bicyclist speeding in the other direction swerving by so close her tail nearly got caught in the spokes. “Hey!” the fox barked, giving her a venomous glance.
“Sorry,” she muttered, hurrying to the other side of the street, weaving through thankfully slower-moving pedestrians and ducking into a shop’s entranceway. She hurriedly undid the hair bun, shaking her mane out, and took off the jacket, then started walking quickly along the sidewalk, hunched down to no longer be visibly taller than the crowd.
She risked a glance back after another half-block. Sure enough, the raccoon was on this side of the street now, looking around in clear irritation. She turned away and picked up her pace, quickly heading down a side street. This took her in the opposite direction of her flat, but she could afford the delay; it wasn’t as if she had a schedule to keep.
Who would want to follow her? She could only think of one group—her former employer, Union Shipping. To say that they’d parted on poor terms would be an understatement; she’d accused them of not only cooking their books but of committing murder to cover it up. That’s why she’d moved halfway across the Empire when the Guard back in Garanelt had failed to bring up charges.
But just because she’d dropped the whole matter didn’t mean they had.
The occasional nervous glance in her direction told her that she’d started to look angry. Annie tried to quell that, but suspected she’d just turned her expression from nervous fury to sulkiness. No matter. She was an accountant, dammit, not someone who should be caught up in intrigue. She didn’t solve crimes. She solved equations. It was frustrating to keep being reminded, as she had been earlier today, that she’d have an easier time getting more security work than accounting positions—she’d earned a couple genuine accolades for playing guard. But that work paid less, was more dangerous, and relied less on who she was than simply what she was. She’d foiled a bank robbery once mostly by making a best guess on which direction to stumble in when the flash grenades went off; the thief literally ran into her as he tried to charge out of the building. A five foot high mouse smacking into a six and a half foot high wolf comes to an abrupt and complete stop.
After rounding yet another corner, her direction now taking her parallel to the avenue she’d been on, she stopped to look around more fully. At this point the raccoon had to know he’d been made, so there was little point in making her counter-surveillance furtive. Several seconds of searching, though, revealed no sign of him.
All right, she’d lost him for now, but she needed to get to the other side of that avenue to get home, and she didn’t want to be spotted again.
Sighing, she fingered one of her remaining one-var coins and walked to the nearest trolley stop.
The next day was too quiet. Despite having no interviews and no reason to be out of the apartment, by mid-afternoon Annie felt too stir crazy to stay inside reading. She spent the rest of the day at the riverfront park, jogging and then sitting under a tree with her book.
As she walked back home, she saw no signs of mysterious strangers intending to cause trouble. Could yesterday’s “tail” have been in her mind? She’d always had a suspicious streak and a lot of imagination. But she didn’t think so.
Her apartment building took the form of a three-story open rectangle surrounding a small courtyard, with entrances on the outside perimeter and patios or balconies on the inside. She walked up the second-story landing toward her front door, then stopped to look over the railing. She’d rented the studio sight unseen before making her move to Raneadhros. The price had been well within her budget, but the neighborhood was sketchier than she’d been led to believe and the “panoramic view” of the river the rental agent had rhapsodized over couldn’t have existed in the last fifty years. If she stood right by the edge of the front window and looked northwest, she could manage a lovely view of the sun setting over the smelting plant on the far bank.
She started to put her key in the lock—then froze, her hand still on the door latch. Something was out of place. An unfamiliar scent, a faint rustle, a drawn-out breath.
Behind the door.
If whoever was in there had a crossbow—or worse, a firearm—she could be in deep trouble. But she hadn’t been quiet in her approach; she had to assume they already knew she was here.
She could just back away and find the nearest Guard station. She should. This had to be someone from her recent past, someone from the whole Union affair.
But she’d already run once. That hadn’t worked. And this was her home, however modest it might be.
Hefting the heavy book in both hands, she drew back, then kicked the door open, charging in with a growl.
The Melifen sitting on her bed looked up in surprise. He looked older than Annie but not by much, just into his early thirties, with tiger-like fur in both color and markings. The cat’s head hair was shorn in a martial style, but he dressed like a tourist: loud, bright blue shorts and a pale yellow and red paisley short-sleeved shirt. He raised the book in his lap—one of her romance paperbacks—as if in defense. “Miss Swift—”
Annie had already started to swing the book at his head as she took this in. He fell backward on the bed with a squeal; her book connected with his hand, sending her paperback smashing into the wall.
“Stop!” He stared up at her, ears back. “I’m with the Guard!”
She held the book threateningly, growling low. “You’re not in uniform.”
“I’m a detective, not a patrolman.”
“Show me your badge.”
He twisted around and fished in one of his rear pockets, producing a cloth wallet. Folding it back open, he held it up. Pinned crookedly to the left side was a Ranean Guard medallion, with the lettering G SCAVA engraved in the middle.
Taking a deep breath, she straightened up.
He followed suit, putting away his wallet, then rubbing his wrist. “Well, that didn’t go the way I intended,” he muttered. “Not that I don’t appreciate having attractive women running toward me under other circumstances.”
“You should have just waited outside.” She tossed her book on the end table, the adrenaline rush fading into sullen irritation. “What are you here for?”
He stood up and backed away from her. “Let’s start over on a better footing, hmm? Gibson Scava.” He held out his hand for her.
She stared down at him, then walked into the kitchen. “Clearly you know who I am. So, Officer Scava. What are you here for?”
He dropped his hand, clearing his throat. “All right, I guess you’re not one for small talk, Miss Swift. I’m here because of a business you used to be with back in Garanelt. Union International Shipping?”
She sighed. “I’ve answered more questions about that whole affair than I can honestly remember.” Taking a pot out of a cabinet, she started filling it with water.
“Yes, I’ve seen the reports.”
“And you’ve thought of more questions?”
“Well.” He tilted his head. “There’s one that immediately came to mind, Miss Swift—may I call you Annie?”
“Why move to Raneadhros?”
“To look for work.” She set that pot on the stove and turned the burner on.
“There’s work back in Garanton and other cities across Garanelt, I’d think.”
“This is the capital of the Empire and the largest city on the continent. There’s more work here.” She set a second smaller pot on the burner, and pulled one of the cheese sauce jars out of a cupboard (“meat flavored,” it promised forebodingly). “Officer Scava, you haven’t shown me a writ of entry yet.”
“I’m just…curious about the embezzling operation you alleged when you talked to the Guard there about your supervisor’s unfortunate demise.”
“Really? The Guard wasn’t curious back there.” She emptied the jar’s contents into the second pot.
“No, they very much were. But they couldn’t find enough evidence to back your claims up.”
“The best evidence I had was a single check that shouldn’t have existed, and it was lost in the fire. Why, it’s as if someone knew that paper burns.”
He sighed, putting his hands on his hips. “And there was no evidence that the fire was intended for you, Miss Swift.”
“I didn’t say it was intended for me. I said it was intended for both of us.”
He nodded. “And you moved here very soon after that. You were worried whoever tried to kill you was going to try again, weren’t you?”
“The Guard didn’t believe anyone was trying to kill me, so relying on your help wasn’t a very attractive option,” she snapped. “Officer Scava, I don’t think you have a writ of entry. Either give me one, or give me a reason why I shouldn’t be going to your commanding officer about you harrassing me.”
“I want you to help me arrest the people who tried to kill you, Annie.”
She stiffened, staring at him.
Scava took a deep breath. “We got an anonymous tip about…oddities…here, in Union’s Raneadhros branch office. When we went to them with it, they said it’s an honest mistake and we can’t prove it isn’t. But our source specifically mentioned it was connected back to the Garanton office. It’s hard not to think that’s connected with your case.”
By now the water in the first pot was boiling. Annie threw a handful of dry noodles into it. “Terrific,” she muttered. “I’ve moved to the city with the other end of the conspiracy.”
“Or the one they moved the conspiracy to.”
She began stirring the noodles. “Look. Whatever you’ve found doesn’t concern me. I’m not an employee and I’ve told you all I know anyway. You have my depositions, I’m sure. You’re the detective here. I’m an accountant.”
“You’re just as much of a detective as I am.”
“I saw what was going on because I’m an accountant, and I noticed discrepancies upper management was missing.”
He rested his elbows on the counter. “According to one of those depositions, you went on an evidence-collecting run late at night and broke into the comptroller’s office, which Union curiously declined to press charges on. You must have attended a pretty unusual accounting school.”
She gritted her teeth, ears folding back, and stirred even faster, as if she were trying to churn the noodles into submission.
“Of course, I suspect they didn’t press charges because they didn’t want you in our custody on the chance we’d start listening to you after all. I suspect you suspect that, too. And I’d bet you suspect that your management didn’t ‘miss’ those discrepancies, they ignored them.” He nodded toward the pot. “Also, won’t those cook better if you stop trying to spin them dry?”
Annie groaned, dropping the stirring spoon and resting her hands on the counter to either side of the stove. “Look. I’m not an investigator. I’ve only done that kind of work when I had to in order to pay the bills.”
“From the way I read the reports you got into that office with your own set of lockpicks. You’re good at being an investigator, aren’t you?”
“It’s what everyone expects from a L’rovri, isn’t it?” She growled. “She’s not going to sit at a desk. She’s a big scary wolf! She’s not intellectual. Have her go out and pummel people. That’s what she wants!”
Gibson raised his hands. “Annie, I—”
“Don’t call me Annie!” she shrieked.
The Melifen winced as she screamed, turning away, then half-turned back toward her, looking at her askance. “If I believed any of that about you, I wouldn’t be here.”
She ran a hand through her hair, closing her own eyes a moment. “I’ve had enough of this all. Double books and skimming executives and death threats. I’ve especially had enough of the death threats. And I’m not an investigator. I’m an accountant.” She said that firmly, defiantly. “My idea of a good evening is sitting by a fire reading a book. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Scava sighed. “No. No, there isn’t.” He scratched his ear, then folded his arms across his chest, seeming to brood.
Annie drained the noodles, arranged them on a plate and poured the chunk-filled, homely sauce over them. She walked past the cat to the small table—big enough for two people, although she had only one chair—and sat down. Scava continued to watch in silence.
She did her best to ignore him as she ate. That lasted maybe a minute. “Officer Scava, aren’t we done?”
“Well.” He cleared his throat and walked closer to her. “It hasn’t gone unnoticed that you left Garanelt after a problem at a Union office there, and then showed up here just before a problem at the Union office here.”
She paused with a fork full of noodles halfway to her muzzle, then set it down and narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you saying I’m a suspect? I don’t even work for them here. I live miles away from their office on the other side of the city.”
“With any luck they don’t know I’m here at all.” She put her hands to her head.
“Now, I didn’t—”
“I shouldn’t have stayed here after that first job fell through. I shouldn’t have even come here looking for it. I should have found some place they don’t have an office at all. What was I—”
“Miss Swift!” Scava said loudly. “I didn’t say you were a suspect. There’s no evidence that connects your case with this one, yet.”
She snapped her head toward him again.
“I just meant you’re…you’re going to be watched more closely than we usually would.”
“The Guard isn’t ‘usually’ supposed to watch people at all. So that makes you the one assigned to watch me?”
“Oh, no. Not at all.”
She frowned in puzzlement. “Then why—”
“I told you. I need you to help me to help you. I think—I know–there’s a case here. A big case. And you’re my best resource.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You said ‘my,’ not ‘our.’ Going to me was your idea, and you haven’t floated it by your supervisor, have you?”
“I told you were a good investigator,” he said, smiling awkwardly. “Look, they may have destroyed the evidence where you were, but they haven’t here. If we can get something that ties everything together and explains what they’re doing, I know we’ll get the Guard’s full support.”
“Full support for a completely unauthorized investigation using a witness the Guard didn’t find credible before and, if you’re right, is one step away from being a suspect now?” She threw her hands up in the air. “Either you’re trying to entrap me some way I haven’t figured out yet but I’m sure is illegal, or you’re—you’re—just a tiny little loon!”
Scava’s eyes widened, and his voice rose. “I came to you because you have important information even if the rest of the department’s too blind to use it. And because from what I can see you are a damn fine investigator, even if you’re too blind to use that.” He had begun punctuating words with agitated finger jabs. “And I am not a tiny little loon.”
She stood up, then moved less than a foot away from him and stared almost straight down, arms folded across her chest.
“If you’re speaking relatively.” He looked away with a pout. “All right.” He sighed melodramatically and walked toward the door. “Thank you for what little help you’ve given me.”
“I don’t think I’ve given you any help.”
“I don’t, either, but I was trying to be polite.” He looked back at her dolefully. “You realize, Ann—ah, Miss Swift—that if the Guard knows you’re here, Union might as well. And if you’re right and they were trying to kill you, and if I’m right and these two cases are actually the same…”
She gritted her teeth once more, looking up at the ceiling. “They might already.”
“What? Did something happen?”
“Never mind.” She shook her head.
“If you think you’re in danger, I need to know.”
“Why? It’s not as if you can offer me protection.”
“Not official Ranean Guard protection, no. But I can offer my personal protection.”
She took off her glasses, closing her eyes and rubbing her temples.
“Come on, that’s not that bad an offer. You can use my help and I could genuinely use yours.”
She sighed. “Tell me what ‘oddities’ at the Union office here are making you suspicious.”
“Well. After that tip, we had auditors check shipping dockets from Union to a trading company in Boran and in two cases there seemed to be different weights for boxes recorded at different points before loading.”
“That’s not in and of itself…” She put on her glasses and looked back at him sharply.
The cat grinned. “You’re about to ask if it was the Eastern Shore Caravan Company, and I’m about to say yes.”
She bit her lip. “The office here is smaller, though. It’d be harder to hide embezzlement, and I didn’t see a connection to actual shipments.”
“Maybe you didn’t get a chance to. And the ports in Raneadhros are much, much larger. Easier to write that sort of thing off as a casual mixup.”
“Maybe.” She shook her head. “This is still a very weak connection.”
“Come on. I don’t believe this can be a coincidence and neither do you.”
“Officer Scava, here’s what I suggest you do. Find something else. An unrecorded check, a ledger that’s out of sync, a box full of off-the-books cash. Then?”
“Then come back to you?”
“Then go back to your supervisor and leave me out of this.”
His expression fell, but he nodded, opening the door. “All right. I had to try. If you do feel like you need anything, give me a call, hmm?”
She nodded curtly.
Scava stepped through the door, then turned around. “By the way.”
“When you take off your glasses, you have lovely eyes, Annie.” He shut the door behind him quickly.
Annie’s ears flattened and she growled loudly. After stomping toward the door and sliding the bolt shut again, she sat back down in front of her now lukewarm dinner and picked disconsolately at the noodles.