As the three walked in—Annie and Rowell both soaked, the fox bound and bedraggled—Captain Snow dropped the clipboard she held with a clatter. Annie felt a momentary burst of smugness at making the human genuinely surprised, even though she knew it was far from an expression of joy. Officer Ayalin hurried over to them as well.
Scava stood up. “Good lords,” he started, but Snow held up a hand.
“Officer Rowell—Miss Swift—what in all the worlds is happening?”
Sinvy answered. “This guy took us somewhere he said was a safehouse and then circled back to get a weapon to kill us. After destroying all the evidence I’d risked my neck getting earlier today.” The mouse kicked Rowell in the shin.
“C-Captain,” Rowell interjected, ears back. “This isn’t—it isn’t what it looks like, I swear.”
She stared. “Oh? It looks like you took these two out of the station, which you had no authorization to do, and between the time you left and now you gave Miss Swift cause to tie you up and bring you back here as a prisoner.”
“Then it’s exactly what it looks like.” Annie straightened up, trying to look dignified, a difficult task with dripping hair and about half her fur—and blouse—plastered to her body. “You’ll find the crossbow still there. Did you get Walbin and Runford?”
Snow continued to stare without speaking.
“Ma’am,” Annie added after a moment.
“I’m not your superior officer, Miss Swift, so that’s not necessary. Furthermore, the details of an investigation…” She trailed off, then put her hands to her temples. “Yes, we have both of them. They’re being questioned separately now.” She looked around with a pained expression. “Where did Officer Scava just go?”
“I—” Annie looked around as well. “He was just here, wasn’t he?”
Snow rubbed her temples. “Officer Ayalin, please take Mr. Rowell to a holding cell.”
The wolf grabbed the fox by the shoulder and led him away.
“Miss Swift, are you aware of anyone else being involved with this conspiracy that we don’t know of?”
“No. Other than Mr. Barash.”
Snow sighed. “Who we still haven’t located.” She waved toward the bench with both hands. “Sit. Please.”
“I’d really like to be able to change out of my clothes—”
They all turned to see Gibson as he ran toward them, although they smelled him at nearly the same time. Sinvy made a rudely exaggerated gagging noise. “What did you just do, dive into a garbage pile?”
“Yes. But for a good cause.” Gibson held up the ledger that Sinvy had brought in earlier.
Snow waved a hand in front of her face. “Excellent work. Take that to—somewhere we can’t smell it, please. Then both you and Miss Swift go shower.”
“She looks like she’s already had hers.” Gibson looked up and down at the wolf. “And it looks excellent on you, Miss Swift.”
Annie narrowed her eyes.
Snow’s voice was a low warning. “Officer Scava.”
He cleared his throat, straightening up quickly. “Right. Shower, then come back here?”
The human sighed heavily. “Yes.”
Ayalin strode up to the human’s side, wrinkling his nose at Scava as he approached. “We’ve got a problem, Captain.”
She lifted her brows.
“Walbin and Runford—I think they’ve rehearsed their stories. They’re very similar, and they both paint Mr. Sinvy as the mastermind.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Sinvy spluttered.
“They say you were the one working with Mr. Barash. They’re going to try and deflect it all on both of you.”
“I’m sure the evidence I dug out of the trash will show otherwise,” Gibson said reassuringly.
Sinvy gritted his teeth. “It’d better. They’ll be able to afford very good lawyers.”
Annie patted the mouse’s shoulder and headed off with the cat.
They both went back to the hotel room; both of them had their clothes there already, and truthfully only Gibson needed to shower. Annie dried herself off and put on a new set of clothes, then waited for the cat to emerge before they caught a carriage back to the station.
“Well,” he said.
“You know, we make a good team.”
“Sometimes. Maybe.” She sighed. “But we’re just lucky that Rowell just threw the evidence out rather than destroying it.”
“You can’t very well set a fire in a Guard station without being noticed, and the trash is hauled away daily. It wasn’t that unreasonable of him to do.” He shook his head. “I’d never have suspected him.”
She snorted. “I should have seen Rowell was in on it from the start. Sinvy’s right—I’m too trusting.”
“I disagree. You’ve been smart enough to barely trust me from the day we met.”
“But we still have a loose end, and one that would help to sew up the case.”
“Mr. Barash.” She brooded, rubbing her chin. Then her eyes widened. “I know where he might be. At least if we’re not too late.”
Annie sat up and rapped on the front of the carriage to get the driver’s attention. “Do you know where the Tropical Dreams Stagecoach Agency is?”
The young human man driving turned toward her. “Yes’m.”
“Go there, please.”
Gibson looked at her curiously. “A hunch?”
They hopped out of the carriage a few minutes later in a part of the capital city Annie hadn’t been to before; with few buildings taller than a single story, most of them painted in once-bright but now faded pastels, it looked like some kind of tropical dream itself, possibly one involving parasites. The agency’s office couldn’t have been more than half the size of Annie’s flat, with a wide glass window papered almost completely over with unfolded brochures. The glass door remained free of anything but the business’s painted name, and they could see Barash inside, sitting disconsolately alone in a chair against one wall rather than talking to the single agent inside, staring at a huge suitcase he’d presumably brought with him.
He looked up as the two entered, but didn’t run. He didn’t even move. He just looked even more sad, and sighed deeply.
“Can I help you?” The agent, a perky-looking vixen with blonde hair threaded through colorful beads, smiled at them.
“No,” the badger said. “I believe they’re here for me.”
“Oh.” She looked puzzled. “Your coach is only eighty minutes away, sir.”
“I’m afraid he’ll have to catch a later run. Five to twenty years, I imagine.” Gibson picked up the suitcase, and motioned to Annie. “If you’d be so kind as to keep our friend here from running again?”
The badger shuffled out between them, looking down at the ground.
Gibson turned around, walking backwards as he spoke. “It sounds like your friends Runford and Walbin are trying to pin this operation all on you. Well, you and George, our informant.”
“Friends?” Barash drew himself up. “They’re hardly friends. Walbin supposedly did me a favor of auditing the firm after my partner retired and said he found all sorts of irregularities. He said he didn’t think the home would survive. ‘Doubts about your ability to continue as a going concern,’ he said.” He looked down at the ground again. “And once I said yes, I couldn’t back out.”
“If you’ll testify against them, it’ll help the Guard cement their case, and it’ll certainly help you, too.”
“I never wanted to see anyone be hurt.” His voice broke. “Please believe me, Miss Swift.”
“I’d like to, Mr. Barash.” Annie patted his shoulder. “And if you tell the Guard the truth, and do it again at the trial, I will.”
Annie and Gibson sat opposite one another at the Hotel Carmen’s restaurant. The opulence reminded her uncomfortably of how low her bank account remained after all this; she’d received Captain Snow’s sincere thanks, but no monetary reward. Gibson’s lunch at least took the edge off; a roast beef sandwich was a roast beef sandwich, even presented on fine porcelain.
“So that’s it.”
He nodded in reply. “That’s it.”
“All taken care of.”
“At least on this end. I haven’t heard word on what’s happened in Boran yet, but Sinvy’s testimony—not to mention his records—is enough to arrest two people at Eastern Shore, I believe. And if there are any buyers we get records of in Ranea, they’ll at least be questioned. I suspect most of the furs didn’t stay in country, though. We’d ask too many questions. Overseas, or better yet through the Gate.”
“I thought they checked everything that went through that in either direction.”
“They do, but you can’t very well go rifling through everyone’s cargo looking for contraband. That’s always been the Guard’s dilemma, right?” He took a big bite of the sandwich. “If you trust people not to be criminals you’re going to be disappointed a lot, but if you treat everyone like potential criminals they’re never going to trust you.”
“And you always take the first side.”
“We always try. I mean, really, what kind of place would take the second?”
She nodded, taking a bite of her own meal, a small—at least to her—steak, albeit a perfectly-cooked one, crisped on the outside but barely over room temperature at its center. “How much time will Sinvy and Barash serve?”
“I don’t know, but I doubt even a year in Sinvy’s case. Mr. Barash, maybe just two years. Far less than Walbin and Runford, happily.”
“And your suspension is over?”
He took another bite of sandwich, then cleared his throat, leaning back. “Yes and no.”
“What does that mean? Either it’s over or it isn’t.”
“It means it’s over, but I’m leaving.”
“You’re leaving the Guard?”
“Leaving the Guard.”
“By choice. Although I confess Captain Snow didn’t go out of her way to discourage me.”
“But isn’t this what you always wanted to do?”
“Being a detective?”
“It is, but I don’t have to be with the Guard to do that, do I?” He leaned forward. “I’ll let you in on a little secret, Miss Swift. I’m not very good with authority.”
“I’d never have guessed.”
“So I’ve been thinking of starting a private investigation service. I’ve thought about it before this, even before I had the inheritance as a cushion, but I think the time might be right.”
“Hmm. Not very catchy. I’ll come up with something. What about you? Any job leads right now?”
“No, but I haven’t had very much time to look recently.”
“And you’re still sticking just to accounting jobs?”
“You wouldn’t consider something in another field you might have proven a very high aptitude for?”
She slowly set down her fork. “Are you offering me a job as an investigator?”
“I’m suggesting we could explore the possibility.”
“I’ve told you that what I like about accounting is that it’s very safe.”
“It hasn’t been for you, from what I’ve seen.”
“It usually is.”
“But is it usually exciting?”
“No. That’s one of its virtues.”
He grinned. “You can say that all you want, but you don’t believe it.”
She took another bite of the steak. “How much business background do you have?”
“None whatsoever. I have less business sense than this steak sandwich does, and you can see what trouble it’s gotten into.”
“So…you might need a business partner. Someone who does have that sense.”
He nodded. “Someone with a head for numbers.”
She brooded, then waved her fork at him. “And I mean partner. Not employee.”
Gibson’s ears came forward and he nodded slowly. “Of course.”
“And business partner. Nothing more.”
He grinned rakishly. “What else are you suggesting I’d want?”
“Could you stop flirting with me so much?”
“Could you stop being so attractive?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. Fortunately, she didn’t think he’d noticed her tail wag.
“Silly question.” He raised his hands in mock apology. “You can’t, of course. But I’ll try to behave.”
“There is one very important thing we need to settle, though.” He leaned forward.
He smiled up, eyes meeting hers directly. “Can I call you Annie yet?”
She tilted her head down with a slight smile, looking at him over the top of her glasses. “We can explore the possibility.”