“They did a good job cleaning up.” Scava had dropped into a crouch to examine the floor right after entering Annie’s apartment, just three steps ahead of her. She managed not to trip over him, but made a point of walking around him with exaggerated steps, which he stayed pointedly oblivious to. “If I hadn’t known there’d been a lot of blood here twenty-four hours ago I wouldn’t be able to pick out the remaining spots.”
She paused, looking back at the floor blearily. “What remaining spots?”
He rose to his feet, picking up a little bag of supplies he’d insisted on buying on the way here and setting it down on the dining table. “Don’t worry. Almost nothing. And it blends in with the wood and the dirt nicely.”
Annie closed her eyes, feeling her temples throb. “I’ll get a blanket and pillow for the sofa for you.”
“Excellent.” Scava headed over to the couch and seemed to examine it as critically as he had the floor, touching it in several places as if checking for bad springs.
She shook her head, going to the closet for the pillow and blanket as well as sleeping wear. Rather than her nightshirt, though, this time she selected a terrycloth bathrobe. After dropping the bed furnishings on one end of the couch, she headed into the bathroom.
When she came back out, Gibson was sitting on the couch reading one of her novels. “I’m surprised you have this.”
“Why?” She couldn’t keep bitterness out of her voice, anticipating the snark to follow. At least he hadn’t grabbed one of the ones with the torrid covers.
The Melifen looked up and smiled, expression and tone unexpectedly gentle. “I don’t know. I thought…I suppose I thought that this seems too dreamy for you. You just come across as so relentlessly down to earth.”
She sat down on the couch, closer to the pillow and blanket than to the cat. “That’s what accountants are. We have to be practical. So we dream in books, I guess.”
“It’s a mystery.”
“I thought it was a pretty well-established stereotype.”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t mean that. I mean the book is a mystery.” He held it up. “I know they’re selling it as a romance, going for a female audience. But it’s clearly a mystery with Callie Stone as the detective. She’s trying to figure out what the handsome and dashing Johnson Helm’s game really is and she’s doing classic sleuth work to find out.”
“I like stories where the heroine’s got some smarts to her.” Annie shrugged and smiled wryly. “Although I think by now Callie’s on her fifth book of getting dragged into a dire mystery through a mismatched romance.”
“Of course. If she finally found a matched one, there wouldn’t be another book.” He grinned. “Maybe she should settle down with a practical accountant?”
She gave him a look, but he seemed to be sincere, not mocking. She let out a quiet laugh, leaning back against the sofa. “Maybe.”
Gibson set the book down and leaned forward. “Have you ever thought about being a detective? Professionally, I mean.”
“I’ve done security work, but I’d much rather be an accountant. It pays better and it’s—”
“I didn’t say security work. Security work is being a guard or a night watchman like that old fellow you stole the baton from.”
“You mean joining the Guard.”
“That would be one route. But no. I don’t think so. I see you more as a private investigator.”
“I see you as more a private investigator. But no.” She shook her head. “I haven’t seriously thought about it.”
“Ah ha. You’ve amusingly thought about it, then.”
She crossed her arms. “It’s…” She trailed off, unsure she wanted to complete the thought. It’s not something serious people do. Scava might as well be Exhibit A. “When I was young—barely more than a pup—I loved detective stories. Nonni Dan. I bet you don’t know those stories, do you? They were aimed at girls.”
“Sure I do! The girls’ version of the Harlan Gamma series. I read a few of both growing up. You know, I always thought she was more interesting than Harlan was.”
Annie laughed. “I thought she was, too, although looking back I see how many stereotypes she suffered with. So did Harlan, I suppose. But I read all the Nonni Dan books. I wanted to be her for a few years.”
“And then you read the series about the young girl accountant, and decide to be her instead.”
“No.” She couldn’t keep a hint of frustrated defensiveness from slipping into her tone. “I just…I just grew up.”
“Grew up, or gave up?” He tilted his head. “Yes, I know you’re about to tell me that’s a crazy question. But look. Right now, you’re not employed. You’ve confirmed my suspicion that you like being an investigator. And you know you’re pretty good at it, don’t you?”
“It’s not getting me anywhere other than deeper into trouble.”
“Temporarily. After tomorrow you should be back out of this trouble.” He touched her shoulder. “But you’ll still be looking for work.”
“Thanks for the pep talk.”
“Just—consider the possibility, that’s all.” He made a shooing motion toward the bed. “And get some sleep.”
She sighed, rising and heading over to the bed herself. “Are you going to stay awake?”
“It’s my plan. But I’m a pretty light sleeper.”
“If you get tired, wake me up and I can watch.”
“It won’t be necessary. Sleep.”
Annie woke up the next morning to an unfamiliar noise. She sat up in bed, ears swiveling, until she identified it. Scava was snoring.
Sighing, she pushed herself onto her feet. The cat made a startled noise, eyes snapping open. “I’m awake.”
“Yes, now.” She headed into the bathroom.
“I told you I was a light sleeper!” he called.
When she stepped back out after a quick shower and forced air dry—it was supposed to be warm air, but the heating crystals hadn’t worked since a week after she’d moved in and the landlord still hadn’t replaced them—the scent of coffee hit her nose with startling strength. At first she thought Scava must have stepped out to get a cup, but no, that had to be…
“Cream, sugar, or both?” he said, pouring fresh-brewed coffee into two mugs.
“Just black, thank you. You ran out to buy coffee?”
“No. We bought it last night.”
“You said we were stopping to buy critical supplies!”
“We were.” He handed her one of the mugs. “You never asked what I considered critical.”
She laughed, taking a sip.
“So. Do you have anywhere to be today, somewhere that’s not right here? I’m going to have to head back to the station with my new case-shattering anonymous tip, and while I’m hoping that’ll be enough in and of itself to get a guard posted here, there’s a good chance it won’t. I’ll come back here tonight to do guard duty if no one else does, otherwise I’ll try to see you tomorrow morning and give you a status report.”
Annie considered. “I don’t have any work, but I can go back to Islip’s. They might have some new-to-me used books and they don’t seem to mind if I just sit there and read once in a while.”
He patted her shoulder. “If you find a great book, let me know and I’ll buy you it as a gift.”
“Coffee, and now books? Can you afford all this on a Guard salary?” She grinned.
“No, but I don’t need to. I have an inheritance I came into a few years ago.” He shrugged. “While it wasn’t enough to just stop working and retire, it’s enough that I don’t worry much about money.”
“And enough that you don’t worry about risking your job constantly?”
“Oh, I was doing that long before the money came in.” He grinned and raised his mug to her in a mock salute, then headed on out.
Annie looked up from her book, startled. She’d ensconsced herself in a small nook in the back of Islip’s, with two overstuffed chairs and a too-dim reading lamp. Rowell, the fox she’d met the first time she went to Scava’s Guard station, stood in front of her, dressed—as usual for every on-duty Guard she’d met save the Melifen—in the seemingly always-just-pressed dark red uniform. “Officer Rowell. Yes?”
He took the seat by her. “I’m sure Officer Scava would have come by to inform you of this—even though he shouldn’t, strictly speaking, and neither should I.” He glanced around, then leaned forward, speaking more softly. “We went to Union Shipping’s warehouse with a writ of entry based on an anonymous tip that Officer Scava received about smuggled goods there, down to the exact box we should be looking in.”
He shook his head. “Nothing. Whatever was supposed to be there wasn’t.”
She started. “That’s im—” She cut herself off and cleared her throat. “I see.”
Rowell lifted his brows. “Did Scava share any details of this tip with you, ma’am?”
Annie fidgeted. “No details, no.”
“But you knew about it.”
She nodded slightly. “So why isn’t he here?”
“He’s…busy with Captain Snow. She’s not very pleased. Again.”
“Why? Scava didn’t do anything wrong! It’s not his fault Union—that the tip didn’t work out.”
The Vraini raised his hands. “I know, but she’s concerned about…the appearances here. This tip came in right after he started working with you independently and without authorization. He is working with you, isn’t he?”
She sighed. “Sort of. And that’s probably not helping him any more than it’s helping me, is it?”
Rowell lowered his voice again. “I don’t think it hurts, ma’am. I agree with Officer Scava that there’s more to this than we know.” He gave another furtive glance around. “I wanted to let you know that we might be able to get the original informant—who I presume is the one who called in this second tip—to meet with us in person. And I’d like you to be there.”
“What? He got back in touch with you?”
He nodded. “With contacts I have, after our raid. He’s scared.”
“So am I! And taking me with you can’t possibly be within your rules.”
He looked uncomfortable. “No, it isn’t. But from what I’m picking up, you and Officer Scava work very well together as an investigative team. Maybe we can get you a provisional investigation license, make it retroactive. Or maybe we can just keep Captain Snow from knowing about it.”
“I don’t see any need for me to stay involved—”
“You know Union better than any of us do. You can not only fact-check his story, you might be able to fill in missing details.”
She scratched the back of her ear, then reluctantly nodded. “I’ll consider it.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Rowell rose to his feet. “Scava should be, ah, free soon.”
“Wonderful.” She stifled her sigh, realizing she’d been doing an awful lot more of it since she’d met the Melifen.
Annie had gotten through another hundred pages in the book when Scava made his appearance. He didn’t say anything to her. He just dropped into the other seat in the nook, leaned back, and slapped his hands on the overstuffed armrests, closing his eyes.
“So they moved the incriminating crate.”
“So it would seem.”
She sighed. “So we’re back to square one. No, we’re before square one, because now they know they’re onto us and they’re cleaning up.”
“Well, yes, but we still have a break thanks to that original informant getting back in touch with Rowell.”
“So Rowell’s the one that the source talked to originally, not you?”
Scava shook his head. “No. He didn’t talk to any of us. It was a written anonymous tip. He might not be a he, even.”
“So how do you even know this is the same guy?”
“Rowell has better street contacts than we do.”
“You know, street contacts. People on the street, on the ground, mixed in with the seedier elements.”
“You could call them that.”
She crossed her arms. “Your original source had to be someone on the inside. Why would someone working for a shipping company be running with a street gang?”
“You’re thinking accountant. He might be a driver or a warehouse worker. Or he might know somebody in a gang. Family, friend, it doesn’t matter. Look, we got good evidence from him before—”
“That didn’t go anywhere—”
”–and you’ve just got to learn to be a little more trusting, Miss Swift.”
“The way my life has been going I’m pretty sure I need to learn to be less trusting.”
He laughed and stood up. “Should we get dinner together? It’s getting close to the right hour.”
“Are you going to be a guard at my place again tonight?”
“That was my plan, yes.”
“Then why don’t we just meet back there at seven-chime?”
He grinned. “You can’t stand my company for any longer than necessary?”
“That’s not what I meant. I just like to be solitary.”
“You’ve been solitary all day.”
She kept her voice polite, but firm. “I’ll see you at seven-chime, Mr. Scava.”
He sighed. “Fine.”
The night again passed without incident, until the knock on the door.
Annie had never thought of herself as that light a sleeper, but she sat bolt upright in bed, ears folded back reflexively as she rubbed her eyes. Scava hadn’t fallen asleep this time; he’d already leapt to his feet, holding a hand toward her warningly.
After several seconds of silence, the knock came again, this time three quiet raps, followed by a soft voice. “Gibson, are you there?”
“Dudney?” The cat hesitated, then unlocked the door, cracking it just a few inches and keeping his body behind it, ready to slam it shut again if necessary.
“Yes.” This time Annie could clearly identify the voice as Rowell’s. “We’ve heard back.”
“Really? That quickly?” The Melifen let the door open further; the Vraini stepped in and shut the door behind him.
“Yes. It seems—oh.” Rowell had turned and caught sight of Annie, with the sheet pulled up over her chest. The fox cleared his throat and looked away, focusing on his fellow Guard. “It seems he’s gotten scared by recent events.”
“I’m a bit unsettled by them myself.”
“He wants to meet at three-chime behind the garden shop on Charin.”
Annie blinked blearily. Given the utter lack of sunlight outside that had to be at least four hours in the future. “The what?”
“Garden shop,” Rowell repeated.
“So an in-person meeting for the first time, but he doesn’t want to meet in a public place?” Gibson lifted his brows.
The fox shrugged. “He doesn’t want to be seen, I suppose.”
“I suppose. All right. I’ll meet you there.”
“I was thinking that you two should meet with him, and I should keep Captain Snow a bit…” He waved a hand. “…occupied with something other than wondering what you’re up to.”
Scava grunted. “Excellent thinking.”
Rowell stepped to the door. “I’ll let you get back to sleep, ma’am. Or give you privacy to get dressed if you’re going to stay up.” He nodded politely as he headed out.
The cat locked the door again behind him. “So sleep or stay up?”
“Stay up, I suppose.” She sighed. “I don’t think trying to sleep another hour or two is worth it.”
“We can get breakfast at a little cafe I know not too far from Charin.”
She shook her head. “I’ve been eating out too much as it is.”
Annie sighed again. “All right. I’ll get dressed.”
They stared at one another a few seconds, until she cleared her throat meaningfully.
“Oh.” He headed to the closet. “Would you like me to pick something out for you? This purple blouse looks lovely.”
“Mr. Scava,” she said warningly.
He raised his hands in surrender. “I’ll go stand in the corner, and you can tell me when it’s safe to turn around.” The cat moved to the far corner of the studio’s main room and faced the wall.
Sliding out of the bed, she stalked over to the closet. “Could you stop being deliberately insufferable?”
“I’m not! I think I’m one of the more sufferable people you could meet.”
Rolling her eyes, she grabbed her clothes and slipped into the bathroom.
“Feel better?” he said when she stepped out again.
“No, and I probably won’t until this is all over and we’re not tangled in one another’s fur.” She grabbed her purse and reached for the door handle. “I’d appreciate it if—”
He hurriedly grabbed the door and unlocked it himself. “Let me lead.”
She made an exasperated noise.
“Guarding you is why I’m stationed here.” He opened the door and motioned her through, then pulled it to.
“You’re not stationed here. You’re doing this on your own.”
“Is that what you were going to say you appreciate?” He let her lock the door, then led her down the hallway.
“No. I do appreciate that, but I’d appreciate it if you’d stop—stop teasing me.”
“About being a beautiful woman?”
“Yes, about being a beautiful woman.”
“I’d have thought most women would like that. Or do you not think you’re beautiful?” He turned around, facing her as he walked backwards. “You know I’m a man of the world—”
“Have you ever been out of Raneadhros?”
“The world comes to Raneadhros. Other worlds come to Raneadhros.” He gestured with his hands for emphasis. “I’ve seen a lot of women, of a lot of different races, and I can assure you that you are, most definitely, a beautiful woman.”
Her inner ears colored, but she didn’t say anything. She walked faster.
Gibson walked faster, too, still moving backwards. Somehow he knew to pivot around a lamp post rather than smack into it. “I’m not teasing you. I mean, I know I have been, a little, but I’m quite serious.”
“Out of all the things I’ve seen you be, ‘quite serious’ isn’t one of them.”
He raised his hands, looking genuinely affronted. “I’ve meant everything I’ve said to you, about the case, the danger you’re in, and how good an investigator you are as well.” He spun around to walk normally, and fell into step beside her once again.
“You’re welcome.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and walked on in silence, looking subdued.
It didn’t last for more than a few minutes, of course. He pointed ahead as they turned a corner. “There we are. As I said, breakfast’s on me, unless you want to keep being grumpy about it.”
“I’m not grumpy.”
He held the cafe’s door open for her. “Well, not all the time.”
She sighed, heading to a table. “I’ll try to be bright and cheerful during breakfast.”
As he took the seat opposite her, he grinned wryly. “If you’d just stop looking like you’d rather have your tail sawed off than be around me, that would help.”
“I’m not that bad.” Her ears lowered. “Am I?”
“Well.” He leaned back. “Every time I try to make you smile, I think I’m only succeeding in making you want to punch me.”
“You’re trying to make me smile by flirting.”
“And you want to punch people who flirt with you?”
“No, but this—I mean—” She waved her hands in exasperation. “There haven’t been any circumstances we’ve been together in so far when flirting would be appropriate. Do you understand?”
“I do.” He sighed and looked off to the side. “And…I’m sorry. I suppose I’m just trying to break the tension. There’s a lot of it between us.”
“You think there’s tension between us?”
He raised his hands hastily. “I don’t mean between us like that, I mean because of the investigation.”
“So you wouldn’t be flirting with me if it wasn’t for the investigation.”
“I didn’t say that. But you’re right. I just think you need to smile more.”
“We haven’t met under the best of circumstances for smiling, you know.” Annie frowned.
“That’s close. It’s just the wrong way.”
She rolled her eyes, then laughed. “I’m really not a dour person. I’m just…”
Gibson looked up to wave at the approaching waitress, a squirrel woman who clearly recognized him. “Emma, Miss Swift and I would like some serious pancakes.”