Annie couldn’t remember when she’d managed to get to sleep. It was before sunrise, at least. Betteridge and Ayalin hadn’t asked too many questions of her, and had asked even fewer questions that hadn’t already been asked—and answered—with their commanding officer. They both agreed that no, it didn’t look like a burglary attempt, and that yes, he’d likely intended to kill her in her sleep. Officer Ayalin had seemed receptive to the idea that maybe she did need a guard posted at her place and maybe he could see if he could volunteer, although they’d have to get the body off to the morgue and then consult with Snow on what the next steps on their side would be. For her part, the next step was re-locking her door, undressing again and collapsing on the bed.
When she’d woken up it was already past breakfast time. She cleaned herself up and got out to a small cafe just a block away from the flat. She knew she shouldn’t go out to eat, but damn it all, she’d earned treating herself to a meat pie, cinnamon cookie and a big glass of iced tea. With any luck, the cookie would be the most exciting thing about her day.
She’d just taken a bite of the cookie—and it was, as far as cookies went, truly glorious—when she heard Scava’s voice behind her. “Good morning, Annie!”
In the time it took her to swallow and set her ears back, he’d already dropped into the seat opposite her, holding up his hands. “Miss Swift. Right. Sorry. How did things go last night?”
“As well as I could have expected. I don’t honestly know if I’m a suspect in anything, despite what your commanding officer said. And I don’t know if I’m going to get a guard posted at my place. Or even hear back about this. Ever. And I’d be fine with that if I wasn’t still concerned.”
He sighed, nodding, and leaned forward in his chair, lowering his voice. “So are you ready for tonight?”
“Tonight? Tonight what?”
“Tonight, taking a look around Union’s warehouse.”
She lifted her brows. “You’ve gotten clearance to go ahead with the investigation from Captain Snow?”
“You heard her say that we needed to bring her evidence, not suspicions.”
Annie set down the half-eaten cookie and regarded the Melifen. “She said she needed to be brought evidence, but she didn’t give us—I should say you, since legally I shouldn’t even be involved—a charge to go do it.”
Gibson spread his hands. “Come on, now. She knew full well what she was saying, she just couldn’t say it officially. Sometimes you have to look the other way. Maintain plausible deniability.”
“Does that sort of thing happen often with the Guard?”
“I…well.” He cleared his throat. “No, not very often at all.”
“And wouldn’t the evidence you get this way be inadmiss…” She trailed off as she completed the thought. “Anonymous tip, from me.”
“Anonymous tip, from you!” He grinned, looking impossibly pleased with himself. “It’s brilliant, isn’t it?”
She leaned forward, reaching across the table and yanking his collar down so he was brought nose to nose with her. “If we get caught doing this we both go to prison.” Her voice was a low, gravelly hiss, but started rising in indignation. “How exactly is going to prison brilliant?”
He spluttered. “We’re going to stop a crime. Multiple crimes! One of which might well be your own murder. Don’t you think that’s worth a little risk?”
“You don’t seem to have been able to convince Captain Snow of that.”
He extracted his collar from her grip. “Snow and I have a somewhat…strained working relationship.”
“Meaning that she doesn’t trust your instincts enough to follow one of your hunches?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.” He crossed his arms, looking off to the side. “Well. All right, I’d put it exactly that way, I suppose. She’s not against getting me a writ of entry but she doesn’t seem inclined to act on it with the speed we need, given when the next shipment’s going out.”
Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward and looked into her eyes, tone shifting to the unexpectedly pleading. “And yes. You’re right, I’m taking a huge risk and asking you to do so with me, and yes, I am trying to use you as partial cover. But I don’t see any other choice. I know there’s a smuggling operation, I know they’re good at covering their tracks, and I know they’re ruthless. And I know you’re the best person I can ask to help.”
It was Annie’s turn to look away. She closed her eyes, rubbing at them. “All right. I’ll help. But just one more time. If we don’t find anything, we—by which I mean you–wait on your writ of entry while I try to get a guard detail.” Or move to a cabin somewhere in the wildlands of eastern Rionar. That sounded increasingly appealing.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. And we’ll be in and out in no time, I’m sure.”
Annie sighed heavily and picked up her cookie.
“This is the second time in two nights I’ve been here to break in,” Annie muttered as she walked up to the Union office.
“And you keep saying you want a desk job.”
“One sounds lovely right now.”
While the warehouse was adjacent, it shared no entrances with the small office. The rear of the building came right up to the edge of the bay, and a cool breeze carrying the tang of salt and seaweed blew across them as they walked down the wide alley toward the cargo dock. A small ship—possibly the one heading to Boran tomorrow—had docked there for the night, rocking gently against its moorings with the water’s motion.
The heavy oversized doors for the carriage loading area had been padlocked, but they weren’t the target. Annie hurried up to the smaller, regular-sized door and worked the picks into its lock.
“Would you like me to do that?” Gibson murmured.
“No,” she hissed. “Keep your eyes out for the night watchman.”
“Please. You made us stand across the street for a full hour while you watched him go around his route.”
“We don’t know that he keeps to the same route every pass.”
“You made us watch two passes!”
He crossed his arms, making an exaggerated show of peering back and forth down the alley.
Annie wiggled the picks back and forth, biting her lip as she pulled one out and reinserted it. It didn’t look like there was an additional deadbolt—if it was designed the way the warehouse back in Garanelt had been, there wouldn’t be, but there’d be a cheap one on the interior door. She knew how to deal with that one, too.
“There we go.” She turned the knob the rest of the way and swung the door open, motioning Gibson inside and shutting the door behind him.
He got out his gremlin light to illuminate the next door, just five feet ahead. This one looked considerably heavier, and had no doorknob or conventional keyhole—just a slot in a metal disc in the door. The style wasn’t uncommon for medium-security doors—they were meant to open only from the inside and designed to be pick-proof. “And you have a plan for this?”
She nodded, reaching into her jacket pocket and pulling out a six inch steel rod with a right-angled flange at the end. She jammed that into the slot. “This is for an emergency key it recognizes with a little bit of magic. But the rest of the system’s all mechanical, and if this is the same brand as they used at the other office, the gearing’s terrible. You just have to know how to brute force it.”
The Melifen’s eyebrows went up. “Really.” He put a hand on the rod and pressed; it didn’t budge. He gripped it more tightly and tried again, grunting. Then he tried it with both hands, making a noise that sounded painful. “This may not be that brand,” he wheezed.
“You don’t know how.” Annie gently pushed him aside and put both of her hands on the bar. “Push down until it clicks once.” It barely moved, but made a dull click. “Then pull up.” Another click. “Then push down again.” This time it didn’t move at all. She gritted her teeth, taking a deep breath, then straightened her arms and pushed down with all her strength, growling. The gears in the lock protested with an unpleasant ratcheting noise, and the rod jerked downward a quarter of a turn. The door swung open.
She took a second or two to catch her breath, then pulled the metal bar back out and slipped it back into her pocket. Gibson stared at her with wide eyes. “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t say it,” she warned.
“Just remind me not to arm-wrestle you. Do you know where…” He pulled out his little notebook and flipped through it as they walked into the huge, dark expanse of the warehouse. “Shipments 11-5362 and 11-5374 will be?”
Annie’s ears flattened at the sounds of his voice—and footsteps—echoing between the high, hard walls. “Shhh,” she said again. “The first number’s probably a shelf number. Look for signs.”
“Come on, the watchman’s in the office building now.” He lowered his voice and walked more slowly, though. “All right. Shelf numbers.” He shined the light around. The warehouse’s shelves were long, wide, high metal structures lined with wooden crates, just as she remembered Garanelt’s—simply at a much larger scale. “This is… shelf forty-four. We have a walk ahead of us.” The cat headed straight down the wide aisle between the rows of shelving.
Annie put a hand on his shoulder and steered him to walk down the edge of the aisle, and took the gremlin light away, putting it out. It made the place near pitch black, but their eyes would adjust quickly; they’d only need the light if they needed to read or examine something closely. “Do you have a stealthy bone in your body?” She kept her voice barely above a whisper.
He grinned. “Sorry. Breaking into places with you is just a lot of fun.”
Suppressing a sigh, she pointed at a shelf unit about fifty feet ahead on the right. The cat nodded and sprinted ahead—loudly—to be halfway down the row before she’d even turned the corner.
By the time she caught up with him he was laboriously lugging a crate off the bottom row. “This is 5362. It looks like 5374 is up there.” He pointed. “If we need to look at that one, I’d like you to lift it.” He smiled apologetically, then started carefully levering the crate’s top open. “I think we can do this without damaging anything.”
“I’m more worried about us being damaged. And I’m worried I might have damaged the deadbolt opening it.”
“Oh, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t.” He lifted the lid up and set it aside, and looked in. “Is that…what is that?”
She leaned over and her ears wilted. “Cereal.” Cereal of all sorts, some packed in burlap sacks, some in brand-name tins. “You’ve got to be kidding. We’ve gone through all this to find bran flakes.”
Scava shook his head and began lifting out the bags. “They’re smuggling something in the cereal.” He opened one bag and started rifling through it.
He stuck his head in the bag and dug in more enthusiastically, then came out with a handful of something he popped in his mouth. “Sugar Tasty-Os,” he said around the mouthful. “Mmf. Used to love these as a kid.”
Annie groaned and pulled out another bag, then another. “They have to be marked. Something that’s going to show what the bag with the contraband is. Unless there isn’t any and we’re all wrong.”
“We’re not wrong. It might not be in this crate.” He put the first bag of cereal back in the box, then paused, squinting into it. Then he got down on the floor and looked straight at the box’s underside. “Or it might be under this crate’s…false…bottom. Ha!” He leapt back up and started pulling everything out.
“All right. Let’s see what we have now.” He carefully levered a thin square of wood free, revealing an inch between it and the crate’s real bottom. A whiff of something unpleasantly chemical wafted out. “Fur?”
She leaned over. “It’s a fur coat, I think.”
He lifted it out. “So it is. I’ve always found these rather unsettling.” He wrinkled his nose at the scent. “The odor doesn’t help.”
She shrugged. “No more than leather. They’re common for fashion in some parts, although I usually see it used as trim or capes. I’ve heard of coats in extremely cold areas.”
“Mmm. And they’re luxury goods, aren’t they? I suppose this could be all about avoiding tariffs on exports.” He kept turning the coat around in his hands.
She sighed. “I guess that’s what we came for. We’re running out of time, so—”
“Annie.” His voice suddenly had a quiet seriousness to it that made her hold her tongue about using her first name. “This is ermine, isn’t it? Ermines are small animals, aren’t they?”
“Yes. One or two pounds.”
“This coat is my size, but there are no seams. It’s just one piece.”
“I don’t…see…” Then she started trembling violently. “I—I—Oh my—”
Gibson dropped the fur and grabbed her shoulders. “Don’t scream. It’s okay.”
“It is not–” She bit down on her wrist, whimpering, feeling her eyes getting wider as she stared at the coat. “That was a person, Gibson!”
He abruptly gave her a hug, turning her so she couldn’t look directly at it. “Hold yourself together. We’ll stop them. We will.”
She clenched her jaws, squeezing her eyes shut and trying to get her breathing back under control. She felt like she’d throw up if she took a step.
The cat kept holding her another few seconds, and she held him back, steadying herself. Then she heard the door open on the far side of the warehouse.
Gibson sucked in his breath and let go of her, then hurriedly put the crate back together—haphazardly, but she was too busy following his advice not to scream to correct him—and shoved it back on the shelf.
“Is someone there?” a voice called.
The cat scowled, taking Annie’s hand and hurrying back the way they came.
A beam of light played across the stone floor as the guard raised his lantern. “Hey!”
They sprinted for the exit.
“Stop!” They could hear the guard’s footsteps behind them.
“Play along,” Gibson hissed. He stopped and turned around.
Annie almost skidded to a halt, hoping her eyes weren’t as wide and terrified as she thought they were as she turned.
The guard ran up, wheezing but holding up his baton threateningly. She recognized him as the fox from the previous night.
Scava beamed. “Excellent work.”
“Work?” The Vraini narrowed his eyes.
“Yes. You’re quite alert. Quite on top of things.” Gibson waved around. “You’d be surprised how often my partner and I do this and don’t see any sign of the watchman at all.”
The guard lowered his baton partway, looking confused now.
Gibson gave him a what, don’t you get it? look. “From the agency. Surprise inspection.” He held up his badge quickly; Annie noticed he’d strategically placed his thumb over his name, and didn’t give the fox enough time to verify what the badge was beyond something official-looking.
“I’ve been here four years and they’ve never done an ‘inspection.’”
“Well, you know Union’s been having some issues with the Guard poking around, and you know how they are.” He rolled his eyes.
“Who’s she?” The guard gestured with his baton at Annie.
The wolf straightened up hurriedly, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Every time she tried to form words she saw the fur again and a shriek threatened to burst out.
Straightening up was enough to have an effect, though. The fox stepped back reflexively.
Gibson gestured at her. “You’ve read crime stories before, right? She’s the muscle.”
The fox’s eyes narrowed again. “You’d better come with me.”
“Of course, although we’re on a tight schedule, so—”
Annie reached forward and grabbed the baton, yanking it out of the fox’s hand.
The guard yelped and made a grab for it. “Give that back!”
She raised it. Despite her hands trembling, she could read in his eyes that she still looked intimidating. “Leave.”
He took two steps back, then turned and ran.
“I told him you were the muscle,” Gibson muttered, hurrying toward the exit. Annie dropped the baton and followed.
Once outside, they both broke into a run, heading along the waterfront and then down an alley a block away. They’d made it halfway back to the street before Annie collapsed against a wall with a sobbing shriek.
“I thought they were just—just—laundering money. Just smuggling. They’re killing people!”
“Annie.” He took both her hands in his. “Look at me.”
She did, taking a deep breath.
“There haven’t been any strings of unsolved murders in the area, and certainly no cases of mutilated bodies. And didn’t you recognize the scent?”
She shook her head quickly.
“Formaldehyde. They’re probably from a funeral home.”
The wolf clenched her fists. “So you’re saying instead of killing people they’re just desecrating their bodies. Who would buy something like that?”
“You’d be surprised what there’s a market for.” He ran a hand through his hair. “All right, I’ll return to the station tomorrow morning with my ‘anonymous tip.’ I can come up with something plausible that doesn’t point back at you as being the source.”
She nodded. “I’ll…” She shook her head after a moment, feeling her eyes glaze over. “Lie in bed and fruitlessly try to fall asleep for a few hours.”
After about five minutes of walking in silence, Annie half-smiled. “The woman’s never the muscle in a crime story.”
“The woman’s never six and a half feet tall. And if I’d said you were the femme fatale you’d have kicked my shin.”
“You’d have deserved it.”
She laughed, then gave the cat a puzzled look. “You don’t live in the same neighborhood I do, do you?”
“I’m going home with you.”
She stared at him. Was he flirting with her—again—at this, of all times? “I’m not in the mood for—for anything.”
He spread his hands. “Annie—Miss Swift, if you’d prefer to go back to that—you need a guard. You’ve said so yourself. Maybe we’ll finally get you an official one in a day or two, but please—please–let me help in the interim.”
Annie bit her lip, then nodded.