“So you’re saying you’re our original informant.” They guided him inside, Annie only letting go of his arm once he’d been guided to the couch and forcibly sat down between them.
The Rilima nodded, readjusting his shirt collar and glaring at Annie. It was a nice but nondescript business white shirt with faint gray pinstripes, matching the rest of his outfit perfectly: gray slacks, gray jacket, the requisite splash of color only in the tie (a subdued burgundy). He stood an inch or two shorter than Gibson, making him average height for his race. Well-trimmed fur, the build of a man who got exercise but still sat behind a desk, cute but not quite cute enough to turn heads. He was, in total, the near-canonical embodiment of an accountant. “Yeah.”
She glared back. “I’d like to see some proof of that.”
He snorted. “Let me just get my ‘verified snitch’ badge out for you. Why should I be showing you proof of anything? Who are you? Why are you even here?”
“This is Miss Swift,” Gibson said. “She’s a consultant working with—”
“Swift? You’re Ann Swift, aren’t you?” the mouse said, expression shifting from irritated fright to wary recognition. “They really hate you back at the office, you know that?”
“The way they keep trying to kill me made me suspicious, yes.”
“I’m next on the kill list thanks to you two! What were you thinking with that raid on the warehouse?”
Gibson crossed his arms, mug still in hand. “Stopping your employers from shipping off people’s skins to sordid buyers overseas or off-world?”
“I didn’t tell you about that!”
“I did,” Annie said.
“How? You don’t know anything!”
The Melifen cut in. “You’re not the only source we have. Can I get you some tea, Mr…?”
“No. And I’m not giving you my name.”
“I didn’t give you my address, and you’re here.”
“What does that have to do with it? Union’s carried packages for you and you’re in our customer records.”
“Ah.” Gibson frowned. “You know, I would imagine you’re here for our help, so you might consider being friendlier with us.”
“I don’t want to be friendly. I just don’t want to die.” The mouse buried his face in his hands. “Sinvy. I’m George Sinvy.” He looked up again with a sharp, accusing expression. “But you know that already, don’t you? You told them, or let it slip somehow—”
“No, we didn’t, George. We honestly didn’t know who you were.” He shook his head. “We had a clandestine meeting earlier today with someone who was supposed to be our informant—you—but since we didn’t know who you were we didn’t know we’d been set up.”
“Great. Whatever happened at that meeting, it’s made Runford start watching my group like a hawk. He knows one of us is the leak, I’m in a group of three, and I’m sure he’s already ruled out that suck-up Adams.”
Annie furrowed her brows. “Runford. I think I’ve seen the name back when I worked for Union. A Vraini?”
“Maybe our bomber in the overcoat. So he’s the one behind it?”
Sinvy nodded. “Him and Walbin.”
“Walbin?” The wolf looked aghast. “The squirrel? My old boss’s boss? He was the one in Garanton?”
“He was. Works here now.”
“He was—always so…nice.”
“Nice? Walbin? Yeah, if you get past the murdering to protect his side business in skinning people’s dead relatives part, I’m sure he’s a real treasure. Look, I need protection. You’ve got to get me to a safehouse or out of the country or something.” He looked askance at Annie. “Hell, you’ve got to get to a safehouse or out of the country or something. Why are you even still here?”
Gibson finished the last of his tea. “That’s almost an excellent question, George. None of us should be here. We’re going to all check into a hotel now.”
“What?” Sinvy and Annie said simultaneously.
The cat stood up. “Well, you’ve given us a rather clear warning.” He smiled brightly, and gestured around the house. “This address is in Union’s customer records. They know who I am, they know who Miss Swift is, they’ve seen her with me, and if they’re casing her apartment—which I have to imagine they are—they know she hasn’t been sleeping there. I think it’s an excellent time for a ‘holiday at home,’ and you’re our special guest, George. I’m going to pack a light bag, we’re going to go by your place and you’re going to pack a light bag, and we’re going to go by Miss Swift’s place and she’s going to pack one.”
“You said they were casing her place!”
Annie nodded at the mouse, folding her arms.
“If you’d like, you can stay in those clothes for the next day or two, or even week or two, but I think we can avoid any other surveillance.” He grinned at Annie. “After all, we’re both really good detectives, aren’t we?”
Sinvy folded his ears down.
It turned out that Annie lived closer to Gibson’s house than Sinvy did. The Rilima glanced around the neighborhood nervously as they approached her building, muttering in a dark tone. “This place doesn’t look safe at all.”
“Until people from Union started coming after me it was safe enough.”
“Can’t you afford to live somewhere else?”
“No.” She tried to say it with sufficient force to imply and this conversation is over. Sinvy fell silent as they walked up the staircase, so it must have worked.
Gibson led the group. He stopped at the top of the stairs, glancing in all directions. So did Annie.
“What are you looking for?” Sinvy whispered.
“Anything out of place.” They stopped again in front of Annie’s door, listening, then Gibson nodded for her to unlock it.
She put her key in and it turned without resistance. It hadn’t been locked.
Gibson grimaced, motioning for her to step back, and opened the door slowly, as silently as he could. It stayed silent for half the arc, then squeaked gratingly the rest of the way. Sinvy jumped, letting out his own squeak. Both wolf and cat glared at him.
After another moment of silence, Gibson exhaled. “There’s no one here. See if anything’s out of place.”
Annie stepped in past him, looking around the flat, then headed to the desk, opening the drawers. “I think they’ve been through this but there isn’t much here that’d be interesting. Or worth stealing.” She looked through her closet. “If there’s anything they’ve taken I can’t see it. Yet.”
The cat nodded, sighing. “Well, get that bag packed, and we’ll be on our way before they come back for a second round.”
Sinvy stood by—but not in front of—the door, hunched over fearfully. “How do you know they’re not watching right now?”
Gibson shrugged cheerfully. “We don’t. If they are we’ll know very shortly, though.”
Scanning the closet, Annie realized she didn’t have that much to take. And she didn’t own a true travel bag, nothing like the luggage she used to own—she’d sold it shortly after moving here. Sighing, she found the small backpack she’d had back in school, its once bright pink paisley pattern worn and faded to an unattractive pale red, and started unceremoniously shoving clothes into it. She put cursory effort into folding the blouses, but they barely fit into the remaining space and had to be tucked around the other contents in ways that would create untold creases. Maybe the hotel would have an ironing board.
“That’s your bag?” Sinvy’s tone hovered between skepticism and mockery. “You look older than secondary school.”
“Shut up.” She locked the door behind them, even though it felt like it’d be a futile gesture.
Sinvy’s place stood on the other side of the downtown area, well over an hour’s walk; instead, Scava paid for a carriage to take them there. The neighborhood was at least as nice as the one Scava’s house was in, but far more urban. Rather than individual homes, five- and six-story residential buildings lined the streets, most sporting a clean modern style, all sharp square angles and floor-to-ceiling windows. The hallways in his building were polished black stone, the walls—at least on the lobby level—polished white. And, of course, his building had a lobby. And elevators.
Annie couldn’t stop staring at the fixtures, even as the elevator doors closed. “Are these rentals?”
“They have to be, what, eight or nine hundred vars a month?”
“You can afford that on an accountant’s salary?”
“I get good bonuses.”
The doors opened.
“You mean bribes, don’t you?” Her voice rose in indignation.
Gibson held up a hand. “Quiet time,” he whispered. “Which apartment are you in?”
Sinvy pointed. “603.”
Nodding, the Melifen padded forward. Annie and Sinvy followed close behind.
Scava put his hand on the doorknob, then leaned toward Sinvy. “Did you lock it?”
“Of course I locked it,” the mouse snapped.
Gibson turned the knob and the door cracked open. “Two for two tonight, then.” As before, he pushed the door open gently.
The sound of something dropping—a soft thump, an object hurriedly set back on a table or desk—came from inside, followed by running. Gibson charged in. Annie nearly shoved Sinvy off his feet as she bolted afterward.
She processed the scene as she moved. Nice living room. Overturned desk drawer. Open window. Hooded figure scrambling out. Crossbow—
“Watch out!” Annie tackled Gibson, throwing him to the ground just as the bolt flew overhead. She heard Sinvy shriek behind her and hoped it was fear, not pain.
Gibson clawed his way back to his feet as the figure disappeared. He stuck his head out the window, then cursed, running out the front door.
“Are you crazy?” Annie yelled after him. “You’re unarmed!”
She cursed, too, then turned toward Sinvy. He hadn’t been hit; the bolt had buried itself in the wall over the door, meaning it’d missed him by over a yard. Even so, he’d curled into a ball on the floor, hyperventilating.
Annie crouched down. “You’re all right. He’s gone.”
“Mother mother mother—”
“He missed you. He wasn’t aiming at you. It’s all right.”
“He could have hit me.” Sinvy uncurled, sitting up and sniffling. “This isn’t supposed to happen to accountants. It’s not like I work for a criminal guild. I’m just in shipping!”
“Mr. Sinvy, it’s exactly like you work for a criminal guild.”
He looked down at the floor.
“Come on.” She took his hand and hauled him back to his feet.
Gibson walked back in, breathing hard and looking dejected. “Gone. I didn’t think I had much chance of catching him, but it was worth a try.”
She growled. “No, it wasn’t. You had a better chance of catching a bolt in your chest.”
“Why, Miss Swift, is that a growl of concern?”
“It’s a growl of exasperation.”
“I’ll take it for now. All right. Sinvy, pack your bag and let’s be on our way before they send in reinforcements.”
Gibson had the building’s concierge—the building had a concierge–call another taxi carriage for them, and asked the driver to drop them off a good five blocks away from the hotel.
“The Hotel Carmen,” Sinvy said, looking up at its eight-story brick front as they approached the lobby. Doormen held the oversized glass doors open for them as they passed. “This is pretty swank for the Guard to be using as a safehouse.”
“Nothing but the best for our favorite accountants.” Gibson led them to the front desk. “We’re going to need a suite with sleeping arrangements for three people. The smallest one that we can do that in, though.”
The vixen behind the counter nodded. “Very good, sir. For how many nights?”
He considered briefly. “Three, but with any luck we’ll check out earlier.”
She arched her brows but nodded again. “Sign here, please, sir. And here.”
As he went through the paperwork, Annie glanced around nervously. She didn’t think they’d been followed—she’d been keeping her eyes open through the carriage ride and along the walk here as well—but at this point she refused to take anything for granted.
“Relax,” Sinvy said. “They’re going to have guards posted at the door and stuff, right?”
“One,” she said dryly, nodding toward Gibson.
Scava headed back toward them a moment later. “All right, everything’s set. Shall we?”
As they went up in the elevator, Sinvy looked up at Scava suspiciously. “You’re the only Guard?”
“The only one here.”
“That doesn’t make any sense for a safehouse.”
“Technically, I haven’t called this a ‘safehouse,’ I just haven’t corrected you yet.” He stepped off the elevator and motioned them to follow.
Sinvy stayed stock still, eyes widening. “What—”
Annie put her hand on the mouse’s shoulder and nudged him forward. He permitted himself to be pushed along but set his ears back.
Scava turned around and spread his hands, smiling his cheerful smile as he walked backwards. “You really need to be more trusting, George. We can’t be sure my house is safe and we know that neither of your houses are. Ergo, this is a safehouse.” He stopped at the suite’s door and unlocked it.
“I’m fairly sure Miss Swift thinks that, too. But there’s a method to my madness. That’s what you’re supposed to say, isn’t it?” He laughed in an exaggerated, bad-actor villain style.
Sinvy looked up at the wolf. “Is he always like this?”
“You kind of get used to it.” She followed him in and shut the door behind her, making sure it had locked and pulling the deadbolt to.
“It looks like a nice enough room, doesn’t it?” Gibson reached the center of it, dropping his bag and spinning around. The suite was actually two rooms and both did indeed look quite nice: wall-to-wall carpeting, this room featuring a plush sofa-bed, a table and chair set, a writing desk and even a kitchenette with a modern icebox. The other room had two beds—no, Annie saw, just one bed, albeit sufficiently large that two people could sleep in it without feeling like they were sleeping together. She gritted her teeth.
The mouse crossed his arms. “You’re sure the Guard’s gonna pay for this.”
“The Guard isn’t paying for it, I am.” Scava dropped to sit on the sofa. “We’re keeping this one off the books for now. You should know all about that.” He grinned. “It’s a…clandestine operation.”
Yes, so clandestine that we’re keeping it secret from the Guard. Annie rolled her eyes but managed to keep the snark in her head this time.
“Oh.” Sinvy’s voice was doubtful. “So what now?”
“You give us more information.”
“What more information do you need?”
Annie sat down on the other side of the mouse. “Everything, Mr. Sinvy. We need everything.”
He whined. “I don’t know what else to tell you. You know everything I didn’t tell you by now, don’t you? They’re smuggling—uh—exotic furs out of the Empire and laundering the profits through the shipping company.” The mouse thought. “They’re winding it down now because of all of your nosing around, but that’s only temporary. They’ll be doing it again when the heat dies down.”
Gibson made a soft hmm noise, tail lashing. “They’re working with a mortuary, right?”
“That’s where we need to go to sew this all up, then.”
Annie looked uncomfortable. “We need to go to a mortuary?”
“Maybe just George needs to go to the mortuary. Be undercover for us.”
“What? I’m an accountant. I’ve never been there and I don’t have any reason to go there! Just save time and put up flyers saying ‘Sinvy is your leak! Open season!’”
“You’re right.” Gibson stroked his chin. “You need to go back to work tomorrow like nothing’s wrong—you can’t let them suspect you suspect they suspect.”
“What if they already suspect I suspect they suspect?”
“Don’t let on you suspect that. You need to get us papers about the mortuary. Anything that ties them together in a way that’s unusual.”
“Oh, right, I’ll just ask my boss for documentation on the illegal smuggling operation and he’ll say, ‘Sure, George, it’s in the file cabinet on the left. Top drawer.’”
“You’re smart. You’ll figure out something.”
Annie looked at Gibson. “What do we do?”
“We go to the mortuary.”
She groaned, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. “Terrific.”
“Yes! Documentation from both ends, proof that even our recalcitrant Captain can’t dismiss. You and I will head to the funeral home in the morning, and George will go to work, and we’ll meet at lunchtime. Early lunch. Eleven o’clock.”
Sinvy’s whiskers drooped. “That’s not much time.”
“You’ll only need a few minutes, and once you’ve got the papers you want to be out of the building as soon as you can, won’t you? We’ll meet—well, right back here.”
“Nothing can go wrong with this, I’m sure,” the mouse muttered.
“It’s great to finally have a plan of action, isn’t it?” Gibson slapped the armrest for emphasis and stood up. “All things considered, I think we should order room service rather than go down to the hotel restaurant. It’s a lovely place, but most of its appeal are those huge plate glass windows facing Numlinnea Avenue.” He headed over to the writing desk, finding the menu in a drawer and brought it over to them.
As Annie flipped through it, Gibson went on. “Oh. And we can work out sleeping arrangements. George, do you want to share the bed with Miss Swift, or should I?”
She snapped her head up. “You—”
He was already grinning. “George and I will take the bed and you’ll take the sofa. If that’s all right.”
She glanced over at Sinvy, who looked extraordinarily uncomfortable. “That’s what I would have suggested.”
The mouse nodded quickly. “So would I.”
“Well.” The Melifen took the menu from her and flipped through it himself. “Let’s get a good dinner and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow will be an adventure.”
Annie and Sinvy exchanged glances with one another.