Before last year, Annie had been in Guard stations perhaps once before in her life. After last year, she’d hoped to never be in one again. They’d been unfailingly polite throughout that investigation, which she’d started out appreciating but ended up feeling condescended to by. Today? She wasn’t sure which of those feelings was stronger right now.
“I’m sorry, Miss Swift.” The fox behind the desk, his red Guard uniform pressed and creased just so, looked up at her with an apologetic frown. “That’s not information we can share with you.”
“Officer—Rowell, was it?”
“I understand,” she repeated. “But I’ve already had one attempt on my life back in Garanelt, and in light of what Officer Scava was telling me last night, it’s hard to think the raccoon following me was just an unrelated coincidence.”
Rowell’s ears twitched. “Officer Scava is—ah—he’s a good detective, don’t misunderstand me, and always has the best of intentions. But he…”
He’s a tiny little loon, Annie thought.
“He’s sometimes chasing things up the wrong tree. Don’t let his imagination about a trading company conspiracy fuel your imagination about this Procya. You’ve already expressed your own reservations about what you thought you saw.”
She noted his switch to the formal race name, Procya rather than raccoon. Keeping things professional, as always. “I said I can’t prove he was following me, but I don’t have any real doubt that he was, sir. And I didn’t have any reservations about what I saw back in Garanelt. You did.”
The Vraini flashed his apologetic look once more. “I’m sorry that you weren’t happy with that investigation’s outcome, Miss Swift, but it’s our duty to require a preponderance—”
“Of evidence to arraign on such a charge. I know.”
“Yes. And to be honest I’m not familiar with that investigation in any detail. While it came up due to the tip about Union we received, there wasn’t any relevance to our case that we could determine.”
“I think you’ve just confirmed there isn’t an investigation into Union here.” She sighed.
Rowell tilted his head in silent assent.
“That’s good, in that if there’s no investigation there’s no way I can be caught up it in again. Even so, this doesn’t help me with the problem I came in with.”
Rowell leaned back and spread his hands apart in a what can you do? gesture. “Miss Swift, you have to admit there’s nothing you’ve given me to go on about this. We all have the feeling we’re being followed every once in a while but it’s nearly always our imagination, just a matter of a stranger happening to share our course for a while. This morning I’m sure it would have seemed a silly fancy on your part if the notion hadn’t been, ah, reinforced by Officer Scava’s visit with you last night.”
“I don’t think that’s the case.” She’d had some doubts even when she was being followed, yes, but not after crossing the street, not after watching him look around in frustration after losing her. She liked to think that she wasn’t given to unfounded paranoia.
Scava had unsettled her, though.
“If you see anything else out of the ordinary in the next few days, then, let us know immediately.”
Sighing, she nodded, and rose to her feet. “Thank you. I’m sorry this seems to have been something of a waste of time.”
He shook his head, rising to his own feet. “It’s no problem at all. We’re here for you, after all.” The fox held out his hand for her.
Annie shook it, smiling wanly, then headed out of the Guard station.
Back on the street, she started to reach for her daybook out of habit, then stopped herself. Unless ghosts had been writing in it, it would still be empty.
She hadn’t brought a book with her, so no reading in a park or cafe after lunch. But today was this month’s free admission day at the Raneadhros Art Museum, wasn’t it? She’d visited four times before and she doubted she’d seen more than half of the permanent collection.
Readjusting her glasses and smoothing down her skirt, she headed toward midtown and the edge of the capitol district. The nine-block walk from here wouldn’t be too bad, although the fifteen-block walk back home in the early evening—when it would be hotter than now—would be unpleasant. But she knew another sandwich cart on the way at least as good as the one she’d passed up yesterday and cheaper to boot. And, like most of the midtown buildings, the museum would have air conditioning.
The day out had been pleasant enough to almost take her mind off the dinner waiting for her at home: more noodles and sauce. This time, she made the sauce herself, at least most of it, using a tin of tomatoes with some fresh ground meat and spices. Back in Garanelt she’d stuck with fresh food. When she moved to Raneadhros she’d become enamored of the huge selection of preserved goods available at even the smallest general stores. Now she used them because she lacked the enthusiasm to cook well.
After dinner she put on a lamp, curled up on her threadbare couch and read from her romance novel. It hadn’t turned out to be as good as she’d hoped for, but it was passable enough to fill a good hour and a half. She missed the good sofa she’d sold before moving here; this one had come from a thrift shop. But moving it would have been expensive, and she’d figured she could replace it with something nicer, rather than this.
Someday maybe she still could.
Sighing, she set the book down, then undressed, pulling on a loose, long nightshirt and heading into the bathroom to wash up for bed. The cramped space had no tub, only a shower along with a water closet, a cloudy mirror and a pedestal sink of cracked, graying ceramic.
After she slipped under the sheet and extinguished the little lamp on the nightstand, it took her at least a half hour of staring at the ceiling—the mottled fabric window shades barely even made the effort at keeping out ambient light—to start drifting to sleep.
She’d almost made it when she heard a soft sound at the door.
Blinking groggily, Annie sat up, cocking an ear toward the entrance and making sure it wasn’t her imagination. It wasn’t. She fired the lamp’s starting crystal with the touch of a finger; it glowed a moment, then sparked the kerosene wick back into life.
She focused on the door, rubbing her eyes. The doorknob had just jiggled.
Annie frowned, biting back the “Who’s there?” she’d been about to call. She got to her feet and padded toward the door. If this was Scava trying to slip in again, she swore to the Three Lords she’d come up with a good self-defense claim before they came for her.
The door exploded open. She barked in surprise, raising an arm out of reflex. The door slammed into her with a crack, spinning her onto her rump.
An inner voice of the kind you obey first and question later told her to start rolling as soon as she hit the floor. She rolled. A half-second later a crossbow bolt buried itself in the rug where her chest had been.
It would take whoever had fired a good two seconds to reload. Still on the ground, she pushed herself toward the door and kicked upward, connecting with something soft. The attacker stumbled backward into the door frame. She slid forward again and pounded both feet into the figure’s chest. It snarled and doubled over, dropping both its crossbow and the bolt it had been trying to load.
She scrambled to her feet and charged forward, grabbing the man by the neck. A raccoon, now a panicked-looking one. “You!” she hissed.
His expression flickered, almost too subtly to notice. Annie reacted to it just in time to catch the dagger thrust, grabbing his wrist as the thin, bright blade pierced her nightshirt and fur.
The assassin brought his other hand around onto the dagger’s pommel and shoved it forward. She shrieked as it jabbed into her, but she had enough strength to twist his hand, making it a painful graze rather than a death blow. She squeezed his neck harder with her other hand. His eyes widened and he struggled more.
She heard footsteps running up behind him. “Drop your weapon!” a voice yelled. “Now!”
The raccoon snarled, kicking, and pushed forward with the knife again, trying to twist it against her. Then abruptly his eyes rolled back, and he fell limp. In shock, Annie let go. He slid down the door jamb to the floorboards.
Scava stood behind him, dressed just as garishly as he had been yesterday but now with the addition of a brown tweed jacket, breathing hard. He held a handkerchief in one hand, giving a stiletto a perfunctory wipe to clean off the blood.
He put the stiletto away. “Does this count as enough evidence yet? I mean, this could be a coincidence, but I’d think even you might have a few doubts by now.” Then he frowned. “You’re bleeding.”
She looked down at the gash in her nightshirt. “I…oh.”
He walked past her, then dragged the raccoon inside. “I’m afraid he’s quite dead, but I didn’t have a lot of time to improvise. Shut the door, will you?”
Annie stared at the body.
Gibson sighed, dropping the raccoon’s feet, and walked over to the door himself. “Honestly. Do you want your neighbors to see you standing over a corpse dressed only in a nightshirt? People will talk.” He pushed the door shut. “Looks like the lock will still work, but you should invest in a deadbolt.”
“Why were you even here?”
“I was trying to find an excuse to talk to you again and try to convince you to help me. I really think you should, although you know that. I staked your place out while I tried to come up with one because I was worried that someone might come by to do something just like this. And no, I didn’t have permission. I apologize pre-emptively.”
Taking a deep breath, she knelt by the raccoon, and began running her hands along his pockets. A moment later, she stopped, realizing the Melifen was grinning at her. She stopped and looked up. “What?”
“You’re searching him.”
“That’s standard procedure.”
He knelt by the body, too. “For accountants?”
She growled, and produced a wallet from one of the raccoon’s pockets, flipping through it. “Nothing in here useful.”
“That’s too bad. It would have been much simpler if he’d been a complete idiot.”
Annie sighed, standing up and heading into the bathroom; the wound on her chest hurt more now. She pulled the door to, took off the nightshirt and examined the gash. It wasn’t too long, just a surface scrape—but it was deep and long enough to be a painful nuisance for the next few days. She splashed water on it and began dabbing soap against it, grumbling.
“Well, I guess—” Gibson began, the bathroom door starting to swing open.
Annie yelped, slamming the door shut.
“Are you mad? You can’t just walk into my bathroom! I’m not wearing anything!”
“That sounds lovely. But put something on, then.”
“Ohhh—” She bit back several curses that came to mind and threw the bloodstained nightshirt in the sink, filling the basin with cold water. She wrapped the biggest towel she could find around herself before opening the door again.
“As I was saying,” Gibson resumed, then stopped, blinking at her.
“And I thought the nightshirt was distracting.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Why are you looking for jobs as an accountant instead of a fashion model?”
“I’m not built like a fashion model.” She headed to the closet.
“No, you’re built like—I can’t say that without getting into trouble. You’re built very nicely. Is that rude? I’m being sincere, but—”
“Stop talking now.”
She grabbed a skirt and blouse and headed back into the bathroom, making sure the door was quite shut before letting the towel drop.
“Ah. Anyway.” Gibson resumed speaking on the other side of the door. “This looks like a pretty clear confirmation that Union knows you’re here, is up to no good, and doesn’t want you helping me.”
“As much as I don’t want you to be, I’m afraid you’re right.”
When she finished dressing, she stepped back out to find Gibson poking through her kitchen cabinets. He turned toward her, holding up a ceramic teapot. “Do you have any tea for this?”
Annie put her hands to the side of her head. “There’s a dead body in my living room and you want tea?”
He set down the pot and lifted his brows. “Do you want to face that sort of thing without caffeine?”
“No. I don’t have any tea. I ran out last week. Don’t you think we should be calling the Guard?”
“I am the Guard.”
She dropped down on the couch, folding her arms across her chest, ears flat. “For some reason I keep forgetting that.”
He walked out of the kitchen, and sat down on the sofa’s armrest. “Oh, come now, Miss Swift. I’ll admit I’m somewhat unorthodox, but I’d like to think that makes me a better Guard. And they encourage creativity. That’s what I keep telling Captain Snow, at least.”
“I’m too tired to argue, Mr. Scava. You—”
“Please. Call me Gibson.”
“No,” she said, voice rising. “You keep saying ‘Miss Swift’ and I’ll keep saying ‘Mr. Scava.’ All right?”
He crossed his arms, sighing and nodding once.
“This isn’t a question about your…orthodoxy. I want more Guards. I’d like to have people stop whoever it is trying to kill me. And at this point it’ll be obvious to other Guards that that’s what’s going on.”
“Yes. I mean, possibly. But it doesn’t clear you.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t clear me?” She knew she’d begun to sound hysterical, but she couldn’t get her voice to drop down a register.
“Criminals are the most common target of violent crimes. It’s the nature of their business, you could say. What you—we—need is to have evidence of wrong-doing at Union that’s both unassailable and clearly doesn’t involve you.”
She took several deep breaths and unclenched her fists. “And do you have a suggestion on how to do that?”
He grinned. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Given the hour, my plan was sleeping.”
“But you’re already dressed for going out.”
“I am now.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You want to break into Union’s offices, don’t you?”
“No, no.” He shook his head. “I want to break into the warehouse.”
Annie groaned, covering her face in her hands a moment. “You can’t just wander around looking at cargo boxes hoping you stumble across something interesting.”
“Well, it’s not a good plan, but…” He shrugged. “I’d want to be as targeted as possible, and I wouldn’t know what I was looking at if I was looking through their paper records. I’d need to have…why, I’d need to have a trained auditor with me.” He clasped his hands in front him. “I don’t suppose you know one, do you?”
She rubbed her temples. “Oh, Three Mothers. Fine. I’ll go with you.”
“That’s right, you’re one! For some reason I keep forgetting that.”
Annie glared, narrowly restraining herself from baring her teeth like a wild, non-sapient wolf.
Gibson’s ears twitched and he raised his hands. “You’re right, though. We need to look through their records to see if there are any red flags the Guard didn’t catch because we didn’t know what we needed to be looking for.”
“What makes you think there are going to be any?”
“It’s Scava’s Maxim of Moral Triumph. Good eventually wins in the end because evil is stupid.”
She rolled her eyes, feeling defeated. His logic was dubious and his methods were absolutely mad, but she was too tired to come up with a better plan. Maybe in the morning. “I suppose it’s all we can do.”
“Excellent!” He stood up. “Shall we?”
“Now? No!” Annie gestured angrily at the raccoon’s corpse. “Body. Here. My living room.”
He glanced down at the body for a second, then shrugged. “It’s not as if he’ll be going somewhere while we’re out.”
Annie clenched her fists.
“Look, this is part of my investigation, and it’s an essential part. We don’t have grounds to get a writ of entry to Union’s offices yet, but we might not get one without the kind of evidence we can only get from inside the office.”
“Which we wouldn’t be able to use because it was obtained without a writ of entry.”
“We might find something that someone can give the Guard an anonymous tip about, and then we can get a writ of entry.”
“You want to give yourself an anonymous tip?”
“No, I want you to give me one.”
She groaned again, then stomped toward the door.
“Get your coat,” Gibson advised. “It’s a bit nippy out.”