Sinvy had reached the hotel room before they did; as they walked down the hallway toward him, he had his own pocketwatch out. “There you are!” he exclaimed. “You’re five minutes late!”
“That’s it?” Gibson sounded surprised. “We made better time than I expected.”
The mouse glowered. “I thought you ran into trouble.”
“I do apologize. We got tied up.”
“Tied up? What could have been more important—”
Annie sighed. “We were literally tied up, Mr. Sinvy. Please tell me you found something.”
The mouse’s ears flagged, and he held up the briefcase he was holding. “Yes. I found something, by which I mean just what you asked for. Everything.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “It’s the real ledger. The one that won’t match up with what Union’s been telling the Guard, showing different transactions with ESC.”
“Hello? Eastern Shore Caravan.” He glanced down the hallway in both directions. “There are probably alarms going off everywhere already.”
“Then we won’t waste any time.” Gibson motioned them toward the elevator. “Time to go to my boss and hope she’s in a good mood.”
Sinvy’s ears and tail twitched. “In a good mood?”
“As they say, there’s a first time for everything.” The Melifen punched the first floor button.
“Why wouldn’t she be in a good mood? I hand her this and I lie low until you take down Union. Which I hope is today. In fact, why don’t Miss Swift and I stay here?”
“Because Captain Snow might have questions for you, and if we run into any villains on the way I want Miss Swift with us to snarl at them and make them faint. For such a reserved woman she’s got a fantastic snarl.”
As the elevator doors opened on the first floor, she tensed up, but no one stood there—at least no one that she recognized, or anyone unduly suspicious. She kept looking around the lobby, though, and kept looking out of the cab window after they’d gotten into the carriage the concierge called for them.
After five minutes of this Scava laughed. “You know, you’re going to attract more attention by doing that than you will be acting normally. And George, stop clutching your briefcase to you like it’s a long-lost lover.”
“It’s easy for you to be relaxed,” the mouse snapped. “You don’t have a huge criminal organization after you.”
“Huge? There’s Walbin, Runford, Barash, at least one person at Eastern Shore, and…anyone else?”
“I think there’s at least one more. And that’s huge enough, isn’t it?”
“We’ll manage somehow.”
The carriage stopped in front of the Guard station. Gibson hopped out and held the door open for Annie and Sinvy.
When they walked into the office, both Rowell and Ayalin stood behind the counter. Ayalin’s ears immediately perked up as he stood to face them—eyes entirely on Annie, even though he addressed Gibson. “Officer Scava. What’s going on?”
“We—Miss Swift, Mr. Sinvy here and myself—need to talk to Captain Snow about the Union Shipping case.”
Rowell cleared his throat. “The one you’re not on?”
“What’s he mean by that?” Sinvy looked alarmed.
“The one we’ve just cracked, thanks to the hard work and bravery of both Miss Swift and our original informant.” He patted Sinvy’s shoulder reassuringly.
Captain Snow opened the door to her office and stepped out.
Gibson immediately raised his hands. “Before you say anything, Captain, please look at Mr. Sinvy’s evidence.” He reached for the briefcase.
“Let me,” Sinvy snapped, swinging the case up onto the counter and opening it.
Snow glowered at Scava, but flipped through the ledger. “How did you get this?” she asked Sinvy.
“I work there. Uh, worked there. At Union. I’m an accountant.”
“And you’re our original informant.”
“Why didn’t you bring this to us earlier?”
“Because I expected what I gave you originally would be enough and that I wouldn’t have to be doing your jobs for you.”
Snow looked askance at him.
“Ma’am,” he added in a subdued voice.
“You weren’t coerced in any way into obtaining this.” She looked directly at Scava as she said that.
Sinvy shook his head decisively. “No. I mean, other than by the raid you guys did. I knew my identity as the leak wasn’t going to stay secret and it was pretty much either go to you and get you to put me in a damn safehouse like I keep asking for or die.”
She glanced back at him. “I don’t recall you asking for a safehouse.”
He jerked a thumb angrily at Scava. “I’ve been asking him since we met yesterday. The hotel room was great and all but I want official protection and that wasn’t it.”
“The hotel room,” she repeated slowly, looking back at Scava.
“So, Captain.” The cat gestured emphatically with his hands. “We’ve identified the actual people involved with this. Runford and Walbin are the masterminds at Union and a funeral home director named Barash is the source of the furs. Miss Swift and I have Walbin tied to a chair at Barash’s funeral home—”
Gibson lifted his brows. “Well, it was only fair. He had us tied up a few minutes before that.”
Her stare became more disbelieving.
“We don’t know where Barash is, though. You should probably start a search for him. He’s had about a half-hour. Well, forty minutes, now.”
Snow picked up the ledger and closed her eyes as if in pain. “Rowell, get this to evidence. Ayalin, coordinate with other Guard stations to start canvassing the area around both Mr. Barash’s funeral home and his own house.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said, almost in unison. Rowell took the ledger and headed toward the back of the station.
Gibson beamed. “What should I do, Captain?”
“Officer Scava, you seem to have a grave misunderstanding of what ‘suspended’ means.” She kept her voice admirably level given how tightly she’d clenched her teeth. “Stay put and try not to do anything else that requires disciplinary action.”
He deflated. “I’ll do my best, ma’am.”
She pointed at a bench. “You—and you, and you—sit.” She pointed at Annie and Sinvy in turn, then stalked after Ayalin.
Annie and Gibson both sat down. Sinvy followed slowly, looking horrified. “Suspended? What does she mean, suspended?”
“She means I’m suspended.”
Sinvy sat down between them. “Just now?”
“Yesterday. No, two days ago, I think.” Gibson smiled apologetically. “The last few days have been a bit of a blur.”
“What?” The mouse’s voice rose to a near shriek. “Then you haven’t had any authority to offer me any help at all!”
“That’s not true.” The cat looked hurt. “I had every authority to come to you as a private citizen and offer help, and to put you up in a hotel at my own expense.”
“And you!” Sinvy turned on Annie. “You’re helping him—helping him commit—commit fraud. Or whatever this is. You’re putting my life in danger because you want to go around playing detective and—”
Annie dropped an arm heavily around his shoulders, cupping her hand under his chin and tilting his head back so he had to look straight up at her face. “Mr. Sinvy,” she said quietly, readjusting her glasses with her free hand. “I’m having a very bad day and it’s not even noon yet. Would you kindly refrain from making it any worse?”
His pupils dilated. “Yes, ma’am.”
She dropped her arm. “Thank you.”
He hunched over, looking sullen, but remained quiet.
After several minutes of blessed silence, Rowell hurried back out from behind the counter, addressing Annie and Sinvy. “Sir, ma’am, let’s get you both to a safehouse.”
Gibson lifted his brows. “Whatever for? They’re not in any danger now.”
Annie glanced at Gibson, then back at Rowell. “Officer Scava is right. We don’t—”
Sinvy leapt to his feet. “Let’s go!”
Rowell nodded toward the mouse, then leaned toward Gibson and Annie, speaking sotto voce. “I know it’ll likely only be for a few hours, but it’ll make Mr. Sinvy very happy.”
Annie sighed and stood up. “Fine.”
The safehouse wasn’t quite adjacent to the Guard house but it stood as close as it could get while still being in a residential area, a mere five minutes’ walk from the station. It was small, well-kept, and entirely nondescript.
Rowell unlocked the door, the tumblers turning so quietly Annie couldn’t even hear them, and held the door open for them. “Jirge?” he called as he walked in. “Hmm. Not here yet but he must be on his way. You’ll both stay out of trouble for the next few minutes, right?”
“I think we can manage.”
He smiled. “Thank you for all your help, ma’am.” He gave her a casual salute and headed back out.
Sinvy looked after him suspiciously. “Why’s he leaving us alone?”
“Someone else is coming on duty instead, he said.” She looked around the house’s living room. Well-stocked bookshelves, several couches and overstuffed chairs, a table with an inlaid karimi game board. It all looked…preserved, the way a house that might only be used a few weeks out of the year might be.
“Great. Just great.” Sinvy threw himself down into one of the chairs and covered his face in his hands. “What am I going to do?”
“Try and relax.”
“I don’t mean right now, I mean with the rest of my life. My job’s over. My career in the field’s probably ruined.”
“They’ll see you as having helped uncover a horrible smuggling ring. You’ll be a hero.”
“Where are you working now?”
She flicked her ears, not appreciating the mouse’s redirect. “I’m unemployed.”
“That’s what I thought. You know why you’re unemployed? Because nobody wants a heroic accountant.”
Grinding her teeth, she crossed over to a bookshelf and pulled a volume down at random. “No, I suppose they don’t.” The book turned out to be the autobiography of an Orinthean poet and political leader. She found the combination charming, but as she flipped through it, she hoped the man’s leadership had proved better than his poetry. “Fortunately, you’re not really one, are you? You went along with their twisted, horrible plot for a few extra vars and you’ve only turned on them to save your own skin.” She shoved the book back on the shelf.
He sank down in his seat, glaring at her. “Well, aren’t you Miss Morality. It wasn’t a few extra vars. It was a lot. More than I’m going to make being an honest accountant.”
“And did that help you sleep better at night?”
“Yes, in fact it did, because I could afford a top of the line mattress. Where’s that other Guard?”
She frowned. “That’s a good question.” She looked over at the door and narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. Then her eyes widened as things suddenly fell into place. “Divine Mother,” she swore, sprinting back to the sitting area and pushing one of the overstuffed chairs toward the door.
Sinvy rose to his feet. “What the hell are you doing?”
“You were right. There is at least one more.”
“What—what are you saying?”
Annie ran back to the couch and grabbed the mouse’s hand. “Let’s go.”
“Go where? Wait! This is the safehouse! Stop dragging me!” He dug in his heels.
Someone tried to push the door open from outside, then started pounding on it. Annie pulled harder. “Come on! I should have seen this—”
Two loud bangs! sounded from the front door and the wall to their right almost simultaneously. The back of the stuffed chair blocking the door exploded in a cloud of stuffing and a crossbow bolt buried itself in the wall about at Annie’s head level. Sinvy screamed.
The wolf dashed out of the living room, looking around frantically, then sprinted into the laundry room, still holding the mouse’s hand.
“We need to run!” he hissed. “There’s got to be a back door—”
“We have a better chance against someone with a crossbow if we keep him close.” She looked around the room, eyes settling on the shelf of cleaners. “Do you see any buckets?”
He looked baffled, but pointed under the sink. Another bang! came from the living room, followed by splintering noises. Sinvy stifled his shriek.
“Okay.” She put it in the sink and turned the water on full, then started throwing the powdered laundry soap across the floor between herself and the entrance.
Rowell’s voice came from the living room, sounding winded and irritated. “The back entrance is padlocked, Miss Swift. There’s only so many places you can go in here.”
As his footsteps slowly approached, she emptied the bucket on the floor. She motioned for Sinvy to stand against the inside wall, in a position where Rowell wouldn’t see him until he entered the laundry room. Then she picked up a washing board and moved to stand within arm’s length of the room’s entrance, against the wall.
“We’re going to suds him to death?” the mouse hissed urgently. She just made a shhh motion in response.
“I’d ask what gave it away, but it doesn’t matter,” the fox’s voice came. “I do want to thank Mr. Sinvy for giving me the last remaining evidence to destroy, though. At this point it’s just his testimony that would do in the operation, and we won’t have to worry about that much longer, will we?” She could hear a bolt sliding into place.
Rowell walked in slowly, crossbow held in front of him. Just before he turned Annie spun and swung the washing board at his head.
He reacted in time to avoid it, jerking his whole body backward—but that tipped him off-balance just as he stepped into the soapy puddle. Just as she’d hoped, his sprawl became an out of control slide, his body careening along the floor until he collided with the sink basin.
Annie raised the washboard again and stepped forward quickly—too quickly. She didn’t lose her balance but she skated past him on the slippery floor, legs akimbo, the washing board slamming into the crossbow rather than his head. The weapon went off, firing into the metal sink. All three of them yelled—Sinvy the loudest—and water rushed out of the sink over Rowell. He cursed and spluttered, putting a hand up in front of his face. His other hand darted toward his belt and the knife hanging there.
The wolf dropped the washing board and reached down to grab him. She moved too fast for her own trap again, though, slipping and falling on top of him and the now-unloaded crossbow.
“Get off me!” Rowell kicked underneath her, pushing back from the sink and clawing at her shoulders. She got her hands around his wrists, keeping him from being able to go for the blade. “Why couldn’t you just leave things alone, or at least just stay put and die?”
“Because I’m a really good detective,” she gasped, kneeing him in the stomach.
He wheezed, twisting his arm free.
She slapped her hand over the knife hilt, and he grappled with her. “Let go, dammit!”
“And sometimes?” She bared her teeth, grabbing his throat with her other hand. His eyes widened and he moved both hands to her arm. “I’m a big. Scary. Wolf.” She lifted his head and banged it hard against the floor. Rowell whined, his eyes rolling back in his head, and went limp.
She threw the crossbow off to the side and rolled the fox over onto his back, still straddling him. “Mr. Sinvy, get some rope.”
“Rope? Where am I going to get—”
“Just find something I can f—-ing tie him up with!”
The mouse pinned his ears back, but looked around quickly, then walked over—gingerly—through the puddle to bring her a ball of laundry line cord.
“Thank you.” She got the fox’s arms behind him and started binding his wrists together.
By this time Rowell had recovered enough to struggle, but he had no leverage. “Look. Look. We’ll cut you in on it,” he groaned. “It’s a lot of money. Ask Sinvy. He knows.”
“It is a lot of money.” Sinvy sounded wistful.
She tied an ugly but sturdy knot, then another loop and knot just to be sure. “You’ll understand if I don’t find you very trustworthy,” she grunted, then got to her feet, using the sink to steady herself. “And I don’t need the money.”
“What are you talking about?” Sinvy crossed his arms. “You’re unemployed.”
“I don’t want their money.” She gave him a stern look. “And neither do you.”
The mouse sighed. “Of course I want their money.”
Rowell’s ears perked up. “Sinvy! You can still help us! And if you trust her, you’re just going to end up—”
“In jail?” The mouse leaned over toward the captive fox. “Yeah, I know that, but I wouldn’t trust you to tell me the color of the sky at this point, and Miss Swift might be the most honest person I’ve ever met. I may like money, but I’m not an idiot.”
Her ears lifted. “Thank you.”
He shrugged. “Your honesty is why you’re always going to be broke. So do we carry him back to the Guard station?”