Not having much of a green thumb, Annie had never been to a garden shop, but she imagined them as bright, sunlit spaces full of colorful flowers. Maybe in some room on the inside, the inventively named Charin Street Garden Supply House matched that image. From the alley behind it, though, it looked like a giant dilapidated toolshed full of sawhorse tables and potted plants, and smelled like insecticide and horse poop.
She held a hand over her nose. “I don’t see anyone else back here.”
“We’ve got a few minutes to go. Have some patience.”
“Do you have any idea what your informant looks like?”
He shook his head. “Not a clue.”
“So how are we supposed to know who it is?”
Scava gestured around the empty alley. “The next one back here who doesn’t look like he’s here to buy a plant, I suppose.”
“I suppose.” She thrust her hands in her pockets, then grimaced at her first breath and put her hand over her nose again.
“I’m guessing running a farm is out for you as a future career choice.”
“I think that’s a safe bet.”
They waited another several minutes before footsteps approached from the other side of the alley. A Vraini—middle-aged, rather stout, at least a head shorter than Annie—walked toward them, looking wary but not as furtive as Annie imagined an informant would be. He’d hidden most recognizable features behind a hat, dark glasses, coat and scarf. Given the weather it had to be uncomfortably hot already.
“Are you with the Guard?” He looked from side to side, then back at Gibson and Annie. “You don’t look like you’re with the Guard.”
“We are,” Gibson said. “Well, I am. She’s a consultant working with me. And I’m guessing you and I have communicated before.”
“I’m guessing,” the fox said, sizing Annie up before he turned to the cat. “So you found out more about what’s going on at Union than what you heard from me, didn’t you?”
The Melifen nodded. “You got us pointed in the right direction, and we connected things back with what we knew about what was going on in Garanelt at that branch.”
“I didn’t tell you that much about that.”
“No, but Miss Swift was able to fill in some details you couldn’t.”
He looked back at her. “Miss Swift. Right! From the Garanelt office. But she—you—you didn’t know about the smuggling, either.”
“No, I didn’t. But I think you can fill in some of those details for us.”
“Sure. What do you want to know?”
“Where the furs are coming from, for a start.”
The fox grinned. Being unable to see his eyes made it a decidely humorless look. “Like, are we killing people and skinning them, right? No. They’re from a mortuary.”
Annie shuddered. “Who would buy anything that…that awful?”
He shrugged. “People who don’t know where they come from, or don’t care, or think that makes it even more valuable. None of them stay in Ranea. A lot end up making a big circuit back to Raneadhros and out through the Great Gate to entirely different worlds.”
“That’s still terrible!”
“Yeah. Terrible. That’s why I came to you in the first place.”
Gibson stroked his chin. “Why didn’t you tell us more details?”
“Details about what? I gave you what I knew.”
“You’re an accountant, too, aren’t you?” Annie said. “You talked about the double checks, the same things that I noticed.”
“The checks. Right.” He lifted his brows. “Yeah. The checks were the first things I noticed. I kept digging around when his investigation didn’t go anywhere, though.” He gestured at Gibson.
Annie nodded. “What else can you tell us now?”
Gibson cut in. “Start with who you really are.” Annie looked back at him in surprise, puzzled.
The fox stepped backward. “I don’t give out names.”
“I know, I know.” Gibson stepped forward. “But you’re not my original informant, are you?”
His ears flattened, making the hat shift slightly. “Hey.” He raised one hand. “I don’t have to be here.”
“No, but since you are here, the truth would be ever so helpful.” Gibson moved to grab him and motioned for Annie to grab his other side.
Before they got there, the fox’s other hand came out of his coat holding a little red ball, much the same size as the gremlin light.
She stopped mid-stride. “What is it?” she hissed to Gibson.
The fox grinned, walking backward quickly. “Thanks for the help, Miss Swift. Only a couple people handle checks in the office—I’ll find our snitch now.”
“Run!” Gibson barked, vaulting for the greenhouse just as the Vraini threw the ball at the ground in front of them. Annie launched herself after the cat before the ball hit.
The next noise didn’t sound like an explosion as much as someone popping the largest paper bag ever made. They could see the rush of air whip past. Annie thought about throwing herself to the ground, but she hit it before she could complete the thought, foliage and dirt crashing down around her.
In just a few seconds it was over, the alley returned to a state of quiet, although she could hear alarmed voices far away but getting closer.
She knocked plants off her and started to take a deep breath, then gagged. The poop smell had become many times stronger; she realized she and Gibson—the cat lay next to her, groaning—were covered in aerosolized fertilizer.
She sat up, then winced at a sharp pain in her leg. She looked down; it was bleeding, but it wasn’t serious, just painful. Other cuts started announcing themselves to her, too.
Gibson pushed himself up, looking woozy. “Are…are you all right?”
“I think so. Nothing hurt. I just need to shower for the rest of the day.”
Gibson laughed weakly. “Yes, we both do.” He brushed off a few clumps of dirt—or worse—and looked up at her. “But we were very lucky. The plants took the brunt of the damage for us.”
“It must not have been a very powerful grenade.”
He shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t want to risk hurting himself, too.”
She nodded, then looked at him curiously. “How did you know? That he wasn’t your real informant?”
Gibson sighed. “The slight surprise when you mentioned the checks to him. He didn’t know about them.”
She folded her ears down. “I messed that up, didn’t I? Your real informant’s in a lot of danger because of me.”
“You couldn’t have known. I might have done the same thing. I wouldn’t have thought they’d have managed to get there—”
“Stop! Sir! Ma’am! Stop!” a voice called from ahead. They turned to see two uniformed Guardsmen running toward them, both Vraini but neither one that Annie recognized.
“We’re not even moving,” Gibson called toward them.
“Keep your hands out and away from your bodies,” the other one said, brandishing a baton threateningly. “Stand up slowly.”
Annie did so, eyes widening.
Gibson complied more half-heartedly. “Check my identification, left hip pocket, please.”
The first Guard did so, then raised his brows, showing Gibson’s badge to his companion. Both of them relaxed. “What happened here, Officer Scava?”
Annie lowered her arms. “The Vraini who you apparently didn’t see running madly out of this alley set off an explosive charge, that’s what happened.”
Both officers looked at her. “And you are?”
“She’s with me,” Scava said. “This is Miss Swift. She’s a consultant on my current case.”
The officers looked at each other at that, then back again. “I think you’d both better come with us.”
Scava’s smile was too resigned to look sincere. “Of course, of course.”
As they trudged out of the alley, Annie gave Scava a doleful glance. “I didn’t spend nearly as much time in Guard stations before I met you.”
“I always did know how to show a girl a good time.”
The time spent giving statements at the Charin Guard station proved both uneventful and blessedly short. The escort back to Gibson’s home station proved less so; Captain Snow waited at the entrance door, with a look in her eyes that made Annie reflexively tuck her tail against her legs.
Before either she or Gibson could speak, Snow pointed, arm outstretched. “In my office.”
Both sets of ears flattened. They shuffled ahead of her.
Closing the door with barely restrained force, the human stalked to stand in front of her desk, facing both of them. Despite her visible anger, her voice remained quiet, which somehow made her all the more intimidating. “I’d like either one of you to explain what the hell you were thinking, let alone doing.”
Gibson began with strained casualness. “Well, ma’am. It’s quite simple.”
She fixed her gaze on him.
He shifted from foot to foot, tail swatting behind him. “We had an opportunity to, ah, meet our former informant and get—”
“Would this be the informant who had us raiding a warehouse without finding any evidence of smuggling yesterday, or the informant who had us scanning accounting ledgers last month without finding any evidence of conclusive wrongdoing?”
He took a deep breath. “The former. Not that we don’t know that they aren’t the same, of course, but—”
“I don’t know that, but if you know, Officer Scava, I’d very much appreciate it if you see fit to share.”
“I, uh, don’t. Ma’am.”
“Then what do you know? What I know is that you made a secret arrangement to meet an informant which resulted in significant property damage. You put members of the public at risk, including Miss Swift. You claimed Miss Swift is a ‘consultant’ on this investigation, and apparently both of you need reminding that she is not. Apparently both of you also need reminding that there is no investigation for her to be consulting on.”
The Melifen set his jaw. “There needs to be one, Captain.”
“Oh, we’re in agreement on that.”
Gibson clenched his teeth.
“Ma’am,” Annie cut in.
Captain Snow’s smoldering gaze turned full on the wolf.
Her tail tucked down again, but she kept her voice level. “Do you believe we set off that explosion ourselves?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then it was an apparent attempt on the lives of Officer Scava and myself, coming on the heels of a raid you executed based on a tip about a smuggling operation. With all due respect, you know those two things aren’t unrelated. The smugglers realized someone was on to them and have been trying to clean up their tracks.”
Snow narrowed her eyes at the wolf. “I’m aware of the chain of events, Miss Swift. I’m also aware you have no business being involved in this and that you may be putting both my officers and yourself at risk. And I’m also aware that Officer Scava’s most recent ‘anonymous tip’ about Union came right after he started dragging you into this.”
Gibson shrugged and smiled lopsidedly. “Some things are just coincidences, ma’am.”
“Some things aren’t.” Snow sighed, and walked behind her desk, leaning over to plant her hands on it, arms outstretched. She remained silent for the space of several long breaths, then looked up. “Yes, all the evidence—as circumstantial as it may be—points to criminal activity around Union Shipping. And yes, we’ll immediately launch a formal investigation.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Gibson looked relieved. “I’ll get right—”
“You’ll give me your badge.”
Gibson stopped in mid-sentence, mouth open.
“Scava, you’ve lied about Miss Swift’s role to other officers, put her at unnecessary risk, and repeatedly taken action without authorization.” She held out her hand. “You’re on suspension until further notice, and if you so much as make a peep of protest so help me I will hang you by your tail.”
The cat stared at her, expression slowly wilting, rendered uncharacteristically mute. He looked so forlorn that for the first time since they’d met Annie almost wanted to give him a reassuring hug.
He reached into his pocket and detached the badge, handing it to the captain silently.
“I’ll assign other officers to this case immediately. And you, Miss Swift, are not to so much as offer a single syllable of ‘consultation’ to those officers unless they clear your involvement with me first. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she mumbled.
“See that you do.” She marched to the office door and held it open. “See yourselves out the rest of the way.”
“I suppose that’s it, then,” Gibson said for at least the sixth time.
Annie stood in the doorway of his house, hands clasped in front of her, feeling awkward. A few moments ago she’d been feeling an uncomfortable touch of jealousy; the Melifen’s house was far from a mansion, but it was bigger than the house she’d grown up in with both her parents and a sister. It was more tasteful than she’d expected it to be, too, although the bachelor touch revealed itself in the profound lack of furniture. Her whole studio could probably fit in the living room, yet it had only a single sofa and coffee table.
Gibson had dropped onto that sofa, flopped backward bonelessly and taken up a position staring at the ceiling. “You really don’t need to be here.” That was at least the third time he’d said that.
“It just seemed like you could use company, at least for the walk back.”
“I could.” He sighed and lifted himself up enough to face her, flashing a wan smile. “And you could still use a guard, you know. They still don’t understand the danger you’re in.”
“I think Officer Rowell does.”
“Mmm. He’s far too by-the-numbers.”
“He helped us with the informant.”
“I’m not sure I’d call that much help.”
“You can still be my guard, then.”
He sighed. “Until there was any actual trouble, at which point I wouldn’t have the authority to do anything about it. Besides, you’re just saying that because you feel sorry for me.”
“That’s not true.” She shifted from foot to foot. “Not entirely.”
“It’s all right. I’ll take pity.” He smiled a little. “But if I keep guarding you I will keep working on this case, whether it’s official or not.”
“Being official hasn’t been one of your big concerns.” She closed the door and stepped in, joining him on the couch. “But if you keep at this you’re going to lose your badge for good. You have to trust the other officers to do their job.”
“I can’t. I mean, I do, but it’s not a matter of trust. It’s—this is in my blood. This is what I do. Anyone can be a detective, but the really good ones can’t choose not to be.”
“And you’re a really good one?”
“I’d like to think I’m not bad.”
“Do you think I’m a really good one?”
“You’re a really good one.”
She pursed her lips. Part of her undeniably felt flattered. The rest of her didn’t want to keep thinking about being a detective. Accounting might be boring but it was safe. Predictable. You left your work at the office. It didn’t follow you home. And it sure didn’t try to shoot you with a crossbow or blow you up.
At length she leaned forward, folding her hands on her lap. “So what now?”
“We…” He spread his hands helplessly. “We wait. I offer you some tea and send you on your way. There’s nothing else to do.”
“There’s nothing we’re supposed to do, no.”
He furrowed his brow. “Did I just hear you say that?”
“I did, didn’t I? That’s exactly the kind of distinction you’d get all adorably huffy at me for making. Don’t deny it.” He laughed, standing up, and headed toward the kitchen. “Let me work on that tea.”
She stood and followed him. “I’m frustrated. I’m just trying to think of what we missed.”
“If we knew that, wouldn’t it mean we hadn’t missed it?”
She sighed, leaning against the wall. “You know what I mean. We know that they’re smuggling furs—furs harvested from people, regardless of how they got them—out through Eastern Shore Caravan, laundering the profits through their own legitimate accounting operations and keeping double books. But we can’t prove any of it.”
“Not yet. Investigations are sometimes a long game.”
“They’ve tried to kill me three times. I’d like this game to end quickly.”
He nodded, heading out of the kitchen with two mugs of tea. “That’s quite understandable.” He waited until Annie took her mug and then sat down by her.
“What’s Captain Snow doing to move forward on this?”
“Mmm. As you know she didn’t see fit to share that with me. But I imagine she’ll interview everyone at Union’s office, offer a reward. They should call us back in to see if we can identify our assailant, but we didn’t give them much to go on. Just a fox in dark glasses, hat and overcoat.”
She sat up straight, snapping her fingers. “And who works at that office.”
“We don’t know that. Do we?”
“Yes. We do.” Annie set down the mug, looking at him in excitement. “A hired gun wouldn’t know—or care—that the double checks were what the informant tipped off the Guard about. And he certainly wouldn’t have known that ‘only a couple people’ in the office handle checks.”
“You’re right.” He stroked his chin. “Snow probably has enough information to put that together, but maybe we can find a…safe way to get word to her.”
“The information’s going to be spread between her squad and the one that nearly arrested us, and there’s no guarantee they’re going to coordinate well enough to put it together in time to save your informant—or before they make all the evidence of the operation disppear.” She got up.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to Captain Snow. She doesn’t hate me as much as she hates you, so we have a better chance of her listening if you stay here.”
He grunted. “I’d love to object to that, but I don’t think I can. Even so, I should go with you.”
“I’ll be quick.” Annie opened the door and strode through. “I’ll be back in—oh!” She collided with a Rilima who’d been standing by the door, hitting him with enough force to stagger him.
By the time she’d processed what had just happened he’d turned to start running, but she moved faster, grabbing him and slamming him against the wall. He squealed.
“Who are you? What are you doing listening at the door?” She wrenched his arm behind his back, earning another more pained squeak.
“I wasn’t listening at the door, I was trying to work up enough courage to knock on it. Mother of devils, lady, let go of me!”
Gibson stepped out. “What in the world—who in the world is that?”
Annie tugged on the mouse’s arm again. “Who are you?” she repeated.
“Ow! I don’t have to say anything to you! I wanna talk to Scava.”
“I’m Scava. And I think you’d better tell her who you are.”
“I’m your informant. Make her let go of me!”
Annie and Gibson looked at each other, then back at the mouse.