Whatever else she thought of Gibson, Annie couldn’t accuse him of coming unprepared. He’d brought a better lockpick set than she owned—well, than the one she had owned, before she’d had to sell it—and had let both of them into Union’s office so silently she doubted anyone on the other side of the room would have heard the door open. Realizing he’d brought the lockpicks to the “stakeout,” as if he knew he’d be able to talk her into coming with him, would have made her angry again if she hadn’t started to believe that he was right. That also made her angry, but not just with him.
The Raneadhros branch did the most business of any of Union’s offices, but the main office was the one back in Garanton. This led them to have a huge warehouse—the largest one Union owned—and a tiny office, which smelled of unpleasant carpet shampoo. Several desks for clerks and accountants and three closet-like private offices filled most of the space. Annie pointed at the filing cabinets along one wall. “Over there,” she whispered.
“I can’t imagine that anything secret’s going to be kept out in the open unless all the employees are in on it.”
“We want to check shipping schedules first, to see if there’s anything going to Boran. If there is something going on here and it is connected to what was happening in Garanton, that’ll point us at what we need to be looking at.”
“Right.” Gibson reached into his pocket and pulled out a gremlin light, a hand-sized ball that glowed a dim amber when squeezed—not enough to attract attention from anyone who wasn’t looking directly at it, but just enough to read something a foot away. “Do you know how they’re organized?”
“By date. We want…” She kept scanning the drawer labels. “This one.” Annie held out her hand for his lockpick set, and slipped it into the cabinet’s lock. After a few seconds it clicked. She pulled open the drawer she was interested in and started flipping through files.
After about a minute—during which Gibson’s attention drifted once, causing Annie to hiss at him to hold the light closer—he cleared his throat. “Anything interesting?”
“They’re shipping schedules, not adventure novels. I’ve found five shipments to customers in Boran in the last month but nothing to Eastern Shore Caravan.” She kept rifling through folders. “Wait. Here’s one.” She pulled it out, and pulled the hand he held the light with closer to her as she scanned it.
“And is that interesting?”
“I don’t know,” she murmured. “Nothing looks out of place. But now we have an account number and a manifest number.” She put it back and sighed, running a hand through her hair. “What we need to do is audit all of the Boran shipments in the last year, correlate the schedules with both the sending and receiving manifests, port records and cashier records. See if there’s any anomalies.”
“That’s not what you did when you stumbled on this, was it?”
“No, but what I stumbled on was an accident, and I doubt they’ll make the same mistake again.” She pushed the drawer to and frowned, thinking. “What you stumbled onto was different weights of shipments, wasn’t it?”
“Then I may have gotten things very wrong. What I saw might not have been embezzling, it might have been laundering. The main office in Garanton does all the final reconciliation for the satellite offices.”
“So it’s a smuggling operation!” Gibson’s voice bubbled with childlike excitement.
“Maybe. Keep your voice down.”
“It’s a shipping company. Of course.” He grinned so happily she wanted to shake him. “So we do need to break into the warehouse.”
“No, we need to know what we’re looking…” Annie perked her ears. Was that a noise? She raised a hand.
“Shhhh.” She looked back and forth, ears swiveling. “Put away your light.”
He did so, then folded his ears back as he heard it, too. “Time to go.” He headed toward the door.
“Too late. Get down.” She pointed at the closest desk and hurried to crouch behind it; it had a back that went down almost to the floor, rather than having open legs, so it was the best cover they’d find.
The Melifen followed, squatting by her awkwardly. “You’re bigger than the furniture,” he muttered under his breath. The wolf glared down at him.
The door opened, and an elderly fox in a drab grey uniform sauntered in, a lantern held aloft. He headed toward the file cabinet, and Annie realized she hadn’t pushed the drawer completely shut. She held her breath.
The fox stopped and pushed the drawer closed, then held the lantern higher and turned around in a slow half-circle, expression suspicious. He paused, staring straight at the desk they’d chosen to hide behind, and raised the lantern higher. If he’d lowered it, the light might well have hit Gibson’s legs, but instead, they were thrown deeper into shadow. After another few seconds, he turned around and headed back out the way he’d come in.
Annie waited a full ten seconds before unfolding herself from behind the desk. Gibson bounced to his feet as if he were spring-loaded. “So. Anonymous tip?”
“We haven’t found anything out of place, we’ve just found the next place to look.”
“Audit,” she hissed, gritting her teeth.
He waved a hand dismissively. “If we could get permission for that—which we can’t—that just guarantees the next shipment won’t happen. This all disappears for a while, then reappears somewhere else. Nothing changes.”
“Surely the Guard can send in someone undercover. That happens all the time.”
“Much less than those penny dreadfuls you read suggest.” He crossed his arms. “Our charter makes that very difficult, by design.”
“I’m pretty sure what we’re doing isn’t in your charter, either.” She scratched the back of her head. “We can’t just walk into the warehouse and start opening boxes at random. Shipments being held get stacked by manifest number. We need to find their upcoming schedule.” Annie looked around, then grabbed the gremlin light from Gibson and marched over to the private offices, looking through the window of each one.
“Here.” She waved him over. “Give me your pick set.”
“I can do it,” he muttered, sounding affronted. Hurrying over, he undid the lock. Annie pushed the door open, heading to a sheaf of papers pinned to the wall.
“All right. Write these down—do you have something to write with?”
“Of course.” He pulled a notebook out of his jacket pocket. “Go.”
“Shipments 11-5362 and 11-5374, both scheduled for two days from now.”
He scribbled, then nodded, putting the book away. “Shall we?”
She nodded curtly and headed toward the exit.
Once they were outside, door safely locked and night watchman avoided, Annie started back. She’d taken a full dozen steps before she realized Gibson wasn’t following.
She whirled around. Before he had a chance to speak she said, firmly, “No. No more tonight. We’re going to your Guard station.”
The Melifen’s ears skewed and his tail twitched. “I don’t think—”
“Someone tried to kill me and his body is in my apartment. There’s going to be enough questions about why we didn’t report that immediately, and unless you think that’s going to be eased by saying, ‘Oh, we just left it until after morning coffee,’ I’d like to address that!”
“All right, all right. Keep your voice down.” Gibson waved his hands in a lowering motion. “And we didn’t report it when it happened because…because I had to comfort you, yes? You were clearly hysterical.”
“I am not—” She caught herself and covered her face. “Fine. Fine, Mr. Scava. Do you understand what Union—what I think they’re doing?”
“Making legitimate shipments to Eastern Shore with illegal ones mixed in and keeping two sets of books. The checks for transporting the illegal goods are getting laundered through a satellite office, I’m guessing. Deposited but never entered into the real books, then withdrawn before…”
“Before reconciliation. Right. It gets withdrawn by a different branch. Maybe several.”
“So it’s being cashed through Union without showing on any balances.” He rubbed his chin. “That would require a lot of people to be in on it, though.”
Annie shook her head. “Just one per branch and only a few at the central office. You’d need to have all the books in front of you to catch the discrepancies.”
“And since the branches are in different countries across the empire, with different reporting requirements…”
She nodded. “In theory, independent auditors for the main branch should be able to catch that, but in practice that’s very tricky.”
“But you did.” He sounded impressed. She kept her tail from wagging, though. She didn’t want to encourage him.
After another ten minutes’ walk they’d reached the same station Annie had been at yesterday. “So we have our stories straight?” Gibson sounded hopeful. Or desperate.
“Other than leaving out the part about our detour through Union’s office, it’s all true.”
“Yes, quite so.” His tone remained cheerful but strained, and he paused on the front steps of the station.
Annie opened the door and held it for him.
“Thank you.” He smiled with visible trepidation. “I’d say let me do the talking, but you probably shouldn’t.”
“I’ve known that since we met, Mr. Scava.”
As Annie looked around the station on the second visit in as many days—well, in three days, as it was past midnight—she hoped this wouldn’t become a habit again. The interior matched the two she’d gone to in Garanelt with eerie precision: brick walls, wooden floors and ceiling, long granite counter, three austere sofas for the waiting room, two nondescript paintings and a small vase of colorful flowers on the clerk’s desk.
As she walked up to the counter, rehearsing what to say, Gibson hurried ahead and stepped around it. “Captain!”
The Melifen hailed a human woman, brown eyes and short-cropped hair of almost the same color. Her pristine Guard uniform sported two silver bars to each side of the collar. She looked like she might come up to Annie’s chest were they standing side by side, yet she looked quietly imposing, the air of someone with both authority and the confidence to use it. “Captain, we’re here to—”
She looked directly at Annie. “Is that Miss Swift?”
“Yes. You see—”
She pointed at a door. “In my office, please.”
Gibson smiled over at Annie. “This’ll just take a minute or two, I’m sure.”
The human looked over at the L’rovri without a trace of a smile, then followed the cat into her office, closing the door with exaggerated politeness.
Annie stared after them, then dropped down onto a sofa, burying her face in her hands. What now? As she’d already come to think of as usual for him, Scava had thrown her off-balance by doing something entirely unplanned.
“May I help you, ma’am?”
She opened her eyes, looking up. The desk clerk Gibson had all but vaulted over as he’d gone around the counter, a bright-eyed squirrel, had stepped out into the waiting area.
“I’m…not sure what to say that Officer Scava isn’t saying now.” She smiled wanly.
He looked back at the captain’s office, then back to Annie. “If it’s something you’re involved with we might want to get a statement from you, ma’am, so I could save you some time by starting it.”
Taking a deep breath, she nodded, and walked back to the counter with him.
“So what problem brought you in here, ma’am?”
“Someone tried to kill me earlier tonight.”
The Guard’s brows lifted. “You’re sure of this?”
He nodded, grabbing a clipboard and starting to write things down. After a few seconds, he asked, “Where did this take place?”
“In my apartment.”
“Where did the assailant go after he attacked you?”
“He’s still in my apartment.”
“You mean you left him there when you escaped? I’d imagine he’s fled by now.”
She shook her head. “No. I mean, yes, but I didn’t leave the apartment to escape. He’s dead.”
The Guard paused in his scribbling and looked up at her. “You…killed him, ma’am?”
“No.” She shook her head again. “Officer Scava did.”
“Oh.” He tapped the pen on the clipboard. “Captain Snow will want to talk to you, but I’m…” His ears flicked. “I’m sure Officer Scava is, uh, giving her the details now.”
“I’m sure.” She sighed. “At least I’m not hearing yelling.”
“From Captain Snow? She doesn’t do that often.” He looked over at the office. “Actually, she’s being extraordinarily quiet.” The squirrel sounded discomfited.
Annie’s ears went flat. “That’s worse than yelling, isn’t it?”
He cleared his throat. “Can I get you any coffee while you wait, ma’am?”
“Yes, please.” She tried not to sound miserable, although she suspected she was failing.
The squirrel nodded, and disappeared off to a corner of the station, fiddling with a brewer. Annie sat down again.
After another couple of minutes passed, the captain’s door opened and she headed toward the counter. “Miss Swift.”
The wolf looked up. “Yes? Uh, yes, ma’am?”
“Let’s talk.” She motioned toward her office.
Swallowing, Annie stood up and headed around the counter. As she followed Captain Snow to the office, the squirrel hurried up with her cup of coffee. “Here you go, ma’am.” Snow watched the exchange impassively.
“Thank you,” Annie mumbled.
“Good luck,” he said, earning him a disapproving glance from his commanding officer. His ears went flat and he bustled back to the counter.
Snow held the office door open. Two chairs sat facing her desk; Gibson sat in the one against the far wall, looking chastened. “Sit down, please.” The human indicated the open chair. As Annie sat, she closed the door behind them and walked behind the desk. “So take me through what happened tonight, Miss Swift.”
“I’d just gone to bed when I heard someone trying the door. I got up to investigate, and whoever it was outside kicked the door open. They already had a loaded crossbow out, ready to fire, I presume with the intent of shooting me while I was in bed. It was only luck that I wasn’t quite asleep yet.”
She paused to see what Snow’s expression was; it remained passive to the point of unreadability.
“So.” She took a deep breath. “He fired and missed, and I started to grapple with him, trying to disarm him.”
“You didn’t think that was dangerous?”
“Yes, of course. I knew it was dangerous, but waiting for him to reload was more dangerous. With all respect, I didn’t see any better option.”
“Go on,” Snow said after a moment.
“I grabbed him but he had a knife, and tried to stab me. While we were fighting, Officer Scava approached him from behind and commanded him to drop his weapon. When he refused to do so, he stabbed him.”
Snow’s brows lifted. “From behind.”
“He gave him warning and enough time to comply—”
“I thought Miss Swift was in mortal danger,” Scava cut in. “He had a knife out not only pointed at her but against her. She was already bleeding.”
Annie nodded, touching her fingers to where the wound was. “I can show if you’d—”
“That won’t be necessary.” Snow sounded tired. “I’ll have another officer go back with you to your apartment to verify the events from the scene as best as possible.” She folded her hands together on her desk. “My understanding is that you don’t believe this was a robbery gone wrong, but rather an assassination attempt?”
“Yes, ma’am. I believe he was the same man I saw following me two days ago.”
“Did you report that?”
“Yes. I talked to Officer Rowell.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. I couldn’t really be sure the raccoon was following me then, and there’s nothing I imagine you could have done regardless. And Officer Rowell wouldn’t tell me whether I was a person of interest myself.”
Snow lifted her brows again. “What made you think you might have been?”
“I’ve—it’s been suggested that my being in Raneadhros has caught the Guard’s attention.”
“Has it.” Snow gave Scava a stern look. “It’s something that we became aware of, Miss Swift, and it’s true that it only came to our attention because of the problems that Union experienced here recently. But nothing suggests that’s anything but coincidence.”
Annie hesitated, then sighed, nodding. “Good. Good. I admit I didn’t think you’d be very helpful regardless.”
“After your experience in Garanelt?” Snow spread her hands. “You should understand that we can’t act on suspicions alone.”
“I know.” She couldn’t stop herself from sounding agitated as she continued. “But he tried to kill me and isn’t that pretty damn substantive proof of what I was saying back in Garanelt? They tried to kill me then and failed and now they’re trying here.” She punctuated her words with hand gestures.
“You’ve got to go after Union and you’ve got to do it now.” She noticed that Gibson had folded his ears down and was shaking his head, which just made her talk faster. “Don’t give them a chance to destroy the evidence—”
“Miss Swift!” The human’s voice became quite sharp.
Annie’s ears folded back, too, and she dropped her hands.
“Can you or Officer Scava show me anything that ties your attacker to Union?”
They looked at one another. “He didn’t have any identification on him,” Scava said. “But her story makes sense.”
“It’s hardly the only story that would.”
Annie groaned. “The circumstantial evidence—”
“Is circumstantial,” Snow said firmly.
“Then go out and find some non-circumstantial evidence!”
“By doing what?” The human didn’t hide her exasperation now. “I’m sure if we had our investigators watching everyone looking for anything suspicious we’d find a great deal of criminal activity that we miss. But even if we had those resources—which we do not—would you want us to? I don’t think most Raneans would. I certainly wouldn’t.”
Annie crossed her arms, looking away sullenly. That Snow was right didn’t make her less angry. “Am I a suspect, ma’am?”
“A suspect in your own alleged assault?”
“A suspect in anything.”
“No. You are not a suspect in any investigation.”
Annie sighed heavily and nodded, just once.
“Now, do you have any other advice for me on how to do my job, or can we conclude this?” She waited for a second, then continued when Annie remained silent. “The officers who go back with you to examine the scene—and remove the body—will assess whether there’s a threat to you.”
“The best way to remove the threat to me is to stop what’s going on at Union.”
Snow stood up. “We need to be brought evidence, Miss Swift, not suspicions. Officer Betteridge will take you home.”
“I can do that, Chief,” Scava said, standing up as well.
“Sit down, Officer Scava. We’re not finished.” She opened the door for Annie, and called to the squirrel. “Officer Betteridge, take Miss Swift back to her apartment. Bring Officer Ayalin with you.”
The squirrel nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Another L’rovri—an inch shorter than Annie, although she knew she was tall for a woman even by her race’s standards—walked up, presumably Ayalin. His ears perked up when he saw her, and she smiled tiredly. He was pretty cute, and the uniform didn’t hurt.
Betteridge addressed Annie. “Shall we go, ma’am?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Lead the way.”