“I hate funeral homes.” Annie trudged behind Gibson up the walk to Barash and Sons Mortuary. In the way of all its kind, the building imposed serenity through artifice. The tastefully understated one-story brick structure almost looked like it could be a real home, one landscaped by an obsessive-compulsive gardener: every hedge squared off in just this manner, each flowering bush trimmed to precisely this height. She suspected they cut the lawn twice daily.
“I hope you haven’t had reason to be at them often enough to develop an aversion.”
“Three times in my life.”
“Well, this time at least no one you know died, right?” He readjusted his tie. “Do I look the part? You look the part.”
“You’re well-dressed but I’m not sure you could do somber to save your life.”
“I’ll try to look more depressed.”
“What if someone here recognizes us?”
“You’ve asked that already.” He walked up the front steps.
“You never gave me a good answer beyond saying ‘they won’t.’”
“They won’t.” He rang the door bell. “Grieving daughter-in-law time.”
The door opened. A tall, long-faced badger dressed in a perfectly-tailored grey suit stood before them. Mustels were one of the least common races in Ranea—all the evidence suggested they weren’t native to the world, although current theories held that only humans and Melifen had supportable claims to be native—and badgers were uncommon even among Mustels. She wondered what brought him here, not just to Raneadhros but here, working in the funeral industry, party to such a bizarre crime ring.
“Good morning, sir, madam.” The badger bowed slightly. “Bernard Barash at your service. How may I help you?”
“I’m here to talk to you about arrangements for my father,” Gibson said. He kept his voice admirably subdued, with just a touch of tremor in it. “He hasn’t passed yet, but the doctors say he’s not got much longer. Weeks. Maybe even days.”
“My condolences.” Barash looked credibly mournful. “I must ask if you have an appointment, Mister…?”
“Tern. Gary Tern.” He gestured at Annie. “This is my wife Danielle.”
The badger nodded his head respectfully.
“And no, I’m sorry. We really should have thought to make an appointment, shouldn’t we? It’s just that this has all been—unexpectedly sudden. The illness, the decline.” He sighed theatrically, looking at the floor. “We should have made preparations before this, but we can’t wait any longer.”
“No, no, I understand. It’s a most trying time for you and your loved ones.” He turned and walked in, motioning them to follow him through the foyer. “It’s simply that this isn’t a business that gets many walk-ins.”
He led them to a small, well-appointed office, wood paneled walls and a dark burgundy rug, overstuffed leather chairs facing an imposing mahogany desk, which he moved to sit behind. He withdrew a ledger, equally oversized, from a desk drawer, opened it to a middle page, and produced a quill pen. “Now, then, Mr. Tern. May I have your father’s name?”
Barash nodded, writing as he spoke. “Lan Tern.” He paused.
“Grandpa always did have an odd sense of humor.”
Annie surreptitiously drove her claws into Gibson’s hip. He winced and flashed her an apologetic expression.
Barash smiled perfunctorily, with the air of someone who’d heard stupider things said in perfect sincerity, and finished writing. “And have you discussed with your father whether he’d like to be interred, or cremated? Or do you have a family plot reserved in a local cemetery?”
“Well.” Gibson leaned back. “There’s a long story there that I think you’ll have to help me with.”
Barash raised his brows, then steepled his hands in front of him on the desk, nodding. “Go on, sir.”
“It goes back to my great-grandfather’s day and his fear of being underground, which came about when his sister was trapped by a cave-in for three days. She was a miner, you see. Now, there weren’t many women miners back then, so maybe I need to back up some…”
After about two minutes of this tale, Annie rose. “Excuse me, but could you tell me where your rest room is?”
“Of course, madam.” Barash gestured toward his right. “Leave my office and go down the short hallway there. It’s three doors down, clearly marked.”
The badger nodded gravely, and turned back to Gibson, managing to look sincerely interested.
Annie stepped out of the room, closing the solid office door behind her, and headed down the hall. Instead of making her way to the rest room she opened the other doors, seeing what lay behind each.
The doors before the rest room led to empty offices almost identical to the one she’d left Gibson in; the first door past the rest room, though, revealed itself to be a larger office with smaller, more utilitarian chairs and Barash’s actual work desk—so the nameplate proclaimed—and filing cabinets. This was where the real work got done, and fortunately, it was empty. There had to be other workers here on occasion, and she couldn’t even be sure that the badger was in on the job with Union, but the place seemed as deserted as—well.
She scanned the desk. He kept it almost neurotically clean, even the ink blotter remaining nearly pristine; no framed photos of family or any personal items at all could be seen. She rifled through the drawer. Again, very little interesting: pens, paperclips, a matchbook from a stagecoach office, a half-used roll of stamps.
The file cabinets were locked, but easy to jimmy. It would help if she had any idea what she was looking for, though. Receipts from Union? Receipts from Eastern Shore? Records of any furred “customers”–particularly those with more exotic coats—who’d been cremated?
Yes, all of the above. Easy to locate, if she had a couple hours instead of at most a couple more minutes.
The first drawer—and second and third—held customer records. The next one looked like it had receipts. She rifled through it. Nothing under U. A competent criminal accountant wouldn’t be naive enough to leave an obvious paper trail, of course, but mortuaries were often very small operations and she suspected Barash kept his own ledgers. Nothing under E—
Wait. Check receipts from the Eastern Shore Caravan Company.
She pulled one out. A payment—of five thousand vars—for “services rendered.”
She pulled out another one. A payment of six thousand vars, also for “services rendered,” drawn on a different bank.
“Maybe evil is stupid after all,” she breathed, tail wagging reflexively. She took the check stubs, slipped them into her purse, and wiggled the file cabinet lock back into place.
Cracking the office door, she glanced furtively in both directions down the hallway, then stepped out, closing it behind her, and made her way back to the office.
”–why it might be better to go with a funeral at sea, although since we’re on a small budget as I mentioned before because of the family avocado farm failing, we might have to make it a lake. Or a pond.” Gibson’s hands moved about animatedly as he spoke. “Burial at pond. Is that something we can do? Do they have ponds set aside for that?”
Barash looked up at Annie with an ever-so-slightly pleading expression, then leaned forward, steepling his hands on the desk once more. “Mr. Tern, as I’d suggested earlier, I think a basic burial plan is your best option.”
Gibson nodded, sighing his melodramatic sigh once more. “If that’s the best we can manage. Papa does like a show, but he’s not going to be there to complain if we cut a few corners, right?”
The badger flashed a small, pained smile. “Now, there are several payment options we can—”
Gibson stood up. “Oh, I can’t talk about that. Not yet. I’ll head back home and talk to Agatha about all this.”
Barash blinked. “Agatha?”
“My mother. She’s the one with all the purse strings. But she never leaves Dad’s side. Not for the last thirty-seven years.”
“I…I see, sir.” He took a deep, steadying breath.
Gibson took Annie’s hand, and smiled jauntily to Barash. “We’ll be back soon. Oh! I almost forgot to ask. Do we bring dad here, or do you do pickup?”
She squeezed the cat’s hand hard enough to make him suck in his breath sharply. “Let’s be on our way, dear. There’s a lot of preparations to make. Thank you for all your help, Mr. Barash.”
“Of course, Mrs. Tern. Let me show both of you out.”
As they made their way out of the office back through the funeral home’s lobby, they passed by another man pacing in agitation. He headed directly to Barash’s office as soon as they were clear.
She turned to glance at the man—a Rilima, a black-furred squirrel—after he passed by, frowning. Then she murmured to Gibson, “Walk fast.”
His ears skewed, but he did as commanded.
She heard a cry of surprise from behind her a second later. “Swift!”
“Who?” Barash turned to the squirrel, puzzled.
“Run,” Annie hissed.
Barash seemed more puzzled than ever, but started to hurry after the two.
Gibson and Annie bolted for the door. Barash made an awkward—but successful—grab at the wolf’s tail, and she stumbled, losing her balance and toppling to the marble floor.
As Gibson scrambled to help her, Barash moved forward to grapple with the Melifen. The badger fought about as well as one might expect a middle-aged funeral director to do, but it was enough to keep the cat occupied for a few seconds.
Annie sat up, clutching her purse, and started to stand.
“Look out!” Gibson yelled.
Something hit her in the back of the head, hard. The world turned bright for a moment, then went black.
“Ann, Ann, Ann. You could never leave well enough alone.”
Annie heard the voice before her vision cleared. Then a sharp, throbbing pain lanced from the back of her head. She lifted her hand reflexively to rub at it—or tried to. Her hand only moved a fraction of an inch. She tugged both hands, but they remained immobile, something holding them together at the wrists.
As the fog lifted—even though it left the splitting headache behind—she focused, glancing from side to side quickly. Tied to a chair. A metal chair in an office. No, in a medical examining room? With a patient lying down on a table nearby. No, with a corpse. An elderly Vraini woman, being prepped for burial. She bit back a scream.
Walbin, the squirrel, sat in another chair facing her. “Go ahead, scream if you’d like. I don’t think Barash has an appointment for another 90 minutes, so get it out of your system.”
She glared at him. “You? You’re the one behind this all?”
He shrugged. “Runford and I are, yes. I suppose I should thank you, in a way. I’d thought it would be harder to detect if we were working in separate offices, but that just creates more of a paper trail for nosy L’rovri accountants to pick up on. We’ve done a lot better now that we’re working at the same place.”
“You tried to kill me!”
The squirrel lifted his brows. “That’s all you’ve got to say? You’re supposed to be squeezing me for my plans so when you make your heroic escape you know them all.”
“I already know them.”
He tilted his head, then shrugged. “I suppose you do, yes. You don’t have any proof, though. That’s what you were here to get.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the check stubs that had been in her purse. “These.”
Walbin shook his head, standing up and walking over to a counter. “I have absolutely no idea why Barash is keeping these. I told him to be careful. But you know how amateurs are.” He dropped the check stubs in a glass beaker, then struck a match and dropped it in with them. “There. That’s much more secure storage.” The paper smoldered only a second before catching aflame.
Walbin walked over to her again, and put his hands on his hips. “So, yes, I did try to kill you, multiple times. I knew you were too honest to bring into this, so I tried to keep you out of it. But you just. Wouldn’t. Go. Away.”
“I moved to Raneadhros to get away.”
He rolled his eyes. “I had someone watching you since we found out you moved here, and I wouldn’t have gone after you again if you hadn’t gone to the Guard.”
“I didn’t go to the Guard, they came to me, you idiot!”
He shrugged again. “The order doesn’t matter. You hooked up with that cat we have tied up in the next room—he’s as infuriatingly obstinate as you are—and at that point it was only a matter of time before you started putting pieces together.” He grinned. “That’s the reason I had the good fortune to catch you here, you know—I had to visit Barash. Because of all the trouble you’ve caused I need to keep reworking plans. We might not be able to send out any more furs for months.”
“So sad to hear that.”
The badger walked into the room, looking even more somber—funereal, she couldn’t help thinking—than when they’d met this morning. “Our other…prisoner is secure.” He regarded Walbin sadly. “Do you really think this is necessary?”
“Well, Bernard, I suppose we could just ask Miss Swift and Officer Scava nicely to stop investigating us and trying to destroy our joint operation, both our businesses and put us in jail for the rest of our lives.”
Barash sighed heavily.
Walbin waved a hand. “And why get squeamish now? You work with dead bodies all the time.”
The badger’s voice became sharp. “I don’t create them.”
“And you still won’t. To you they’ll just be two new customers.” He patted Annie’s shoulder.
She snarled, then looked up at Barash desperately. “Don’t let him do this. And don’t help him. Even if he’s the one who drives the knife in, that still puts you in a conspiracy to commit murder. Two murders, including one Guard. There’s still time to back out!”
The badger dropped his gaze to the floor, looking as if he were about to cry. “No, Miss Swift, there isn’t.”
Walbin snorted. “Bernard here is in this up past his ears, and needs to start finding us better…product as it is.”
Barash summoned the courage to glare back. “There’s a limit to how many of my clients can be talked into cremation, and I hardly choose who ends up there.” He pointed at the corpse.
“We are today. Maybe we should more often. And you needn’t worry about being stabbed, dear Ann.” Walbin cupped a hand under her chin and tilted her head up. “You have such lovely fur. We wouldn’t want to damage it.”
Her eyes widened, and she couldn’t stop a whimper from escaping.
Barash grimaced. “You know where the…appropriate supplies are. I’ll be in my office.” He shuffled out of the room.
“Please.” Annie hated that her voice had risen in pitch, but she couldn’t force it back down. “You can’t do this.”
“That’s such a tired line. Can’t you come up with something more creative? I’m disappointed.” Walbin started looking through drawers. “Hmm. I’m not sure I do know where the appropriate supplies are. I’ll be back in a moment.” He walked out of the room.
Annie bit back a growl, and tugged on her hands frantically. The bindings only got tighter, but they felt strangely soft. What the hell were they? Gauze strips? She should be able to rip gauze. But she didn’t have the leverage—or brute force—she’d need, and she couldn’t dig her claws into it.
She closed her eyes. Think, dammit. There’s got to be some way to either fight or talk your way out of this. No way to start either course of action came to mind. Her terror coalesced into a dark, furious anger.
“Ah, here we are,” Walbin’s voice came.
Annie opened her eyes to see him re-entering the room carrying an all-metal syringe that looked far more appropriate for sucking out organs than injecting anything. “They use formaldehyde for a lot of things in mortuaries as a preservative. And in hospitals, too, you know, for preserving medicines. It turns out that in small amounts—tiny, tiny drops mixed in with other things—it’s not dangerous at all.” He looked at the needle’s huge chromed body. “Now this amount, this is enough to kill a dozen people. Or more. I’m not quite sure, but it only has to be more than one, right?” He laughed.
“If I get free I’m going to rip your throat out with my teeth,” she snarled.
“Why, Miss Swift. Weren’t you the one always fighting against that old L’rovri stereotype?” He lifted the syringe up and walked toward her slowly. “Die with your prized dignity intact.”
She heard the running footsteps a moment before Walbin did. He’d started to turn around when the instrument tray cracked into his head. He staggered backward, falling across Annie’s lap. Gibson smacked the back of his head with the tray again; the squirrel screamed, rolling onto the floor and dropping the syringe.
Walbin tried to push himself up again, using her foot as leverage. She narrowed her eyes, kicking him in the face with all the strength she could muster. He skidded backward with another scream, one of his flat front teeth flying in the other direction.
Gibson had already hurried behind the wolf to untie her hands. “I was awake enough to hold my wrists together at the sides when Barash was tying my wrists, so I could rotate them and get them free when he left. Are you all right?”
“Other than the headache, yes. You got that from a Nonni Dan story, didn’t you?” She pulled her arms free and got to her feet.
“Learn from the best, hmm? Speaking of Barash, I’d better grab him. Can you take care of Walbin?”
The wolf dropped her voice a full octave. “Oh, absolutely.” The squirrel had just made it to his feet, hand to his bloody mouth, but Annie stood between him and the door. She strode toward him, raising her hands to aim her claws at him, lips pulling back and a growl forming in the back of her throat.
His expression went through the reverse of the transformation Annie’s had a few moments earlier: anger shifted to sheer terror. “Stay back!” He raisd his hands, scrambling backward toward the wall. “Stay away from me!”
She backed him against the wall, then grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and lifted him several inches off the ground with only one hand. She bared her teeth—not just the canines nearly as long as Walbin’s pinkies, but all of them—and snarled, a bass, bone-rattling promise of impending wounds.
The sharp scent of urine filled the air. Walbin’s eyes rolled back and he abruptly went limp.
She dragged him over to the chair she’d been in—still with one hand—and began tying him up. Gibson blinked three times rapidly. “I’m terrified yet strangely excited.”
Annie shook her head, but couldn’t keep a slight smile off her face.
The moment was cut short by the sound of the front door slamming. “Barash.” Gibson sprinted out of the room. Annie took a moment to grab her purse—and give the ashes of the check stubs a spiteful glare—and ran after.
By the time they reached the front walk, the badger was nowhere to be seen. “Come on,” Gibson groaned. “He wasn’t an old man but he wasn’t a world-class athlete.”
Annie shook her head, growling again. “Misdirection. He’s run out the back while we were running out the front.”
“Do they even have a back?”
“There’s always a back.”
Gibson spun around, then paused in mid-step and pulled out a pocketwatch. “Dammit.”
“We need to go meet Sinvy. Now. I don’t think he’s going to be the type to wait around if we miss our appointment.”
“What about Walbin?”
Gibson grinned. “Did you tie him up better than they tied me up?”
“I may have cut off his circulation.”
“Excellent. We’ll be back for him soon.”
“What if Barash comes back to rescue him?”
The cat was hurrying along the street already. “I’m fairly confident Mr. Barash is more interested in saving his own skin than Walbin’s. If you’ll pardon the expression.”