Endings

(This story takes place about six months before the beginning of Dreaming Death) 

If there was anything that Jon Cerradine hated, it was not being able to fix things.

Jaw clenched, he stared down at the blanket-wrapped body in the wagon. It seemed cruel for a soldier to die in such a senseless accident. And it seemed personal because the woman whose body lay carefully swaddled in that wagon had been one of his handpicked people. Cerradine’s children, as the general liked to call them.

Now he would have to tell her husband, one of his closest friends. Now the workers in his office would all grieve together. Many lived in the same building that she and her husband had. Her death was personal for all of them.

The sun was slow to rise this early in the spring, but it now illuminated the scene of the accident that had taken her life. Soot marks coated the alleyway, and an acrid stench clung in the air, dryness irritating Cerradine’s eyes. The nearer wall of a cotton mill’s granite façade had blown outward when a gas line exploded. One side wall still bowed outward dangerously, shored up by hastily constructed supports. The alleyway was almost impassable. A pair of police officers stood inside the building’s remains questioning the mill’s owner, a barrel-chested man in fine garb with an ashen look to his brown skin.

Lieutenant Aldassa strode from that direction toward the wagon, his boots crunching on bits of broken stone. He looked grim. “Owner got lucky,” he said, his head tilting back that man’s direction. “Gas valve inside the mill was shut off. Would have blown down the entire building otherwise. Fire never even caught. Ready to go back, Colonel?

Cerradine nodded and began picking his way back to his carriage. Lieutenant Hanna Kassannan had simply been in the wrong place last night.

leaf_dingbat

It didn’t seem fair to Shironne that she had to share other people’s dreams, particularly the distressing ones. She trudged up the steps of the Army’s administration building. Her slippers dragged on the stone steps, the sound betraying her weariness. She’d barely slept at all, troubled by her dream. She clutched at the crystal focus in her tunic pocket, sensing its clean lines even through several layers of fabric. Concentrating on its clean straight lines helped her clear away the tatters of the dream that still clouded her waking mind.

These dreams had gone on for years now, some more urgent that others. This one seemed almost personal to her, impelling her to report in even though this wasn’t one of her usual days to be here. The colonel’s workers loved schedules, but there were times when schedules should be ignored.

Her mother leaned nearer and slid a hand under Shironne’s elbow, her bracelet tinkling and the scent of vanilla drifting with her. “Stop now,” she said in her soft voice. “The door is right in front of you.”

She should have known that, but concentrating on the focus had kept her from counting steps. Shironne raised one gloved hand to feel for the latch, opened the door, stepped inside, and turned right. People passed in the hallway, minds busy. She walked along the hallway, her fingers brushing the wall as she counted the doorways. She didn’t need her mother’s prompt to recognize the one she sought.

The army’s Office for Intelligence and Investigation bustled, not with its usual efficient air, but with an angry, throbbing kind of busyness, as if they’d all stubbed their toes and danced to mute the throbbing. The air of pain tore at Shironne’s overwrought senses. She clenched her jaw to force down sudden tears. The hurt isn’t mine, she reminded herself, gripping the crystal again.

“Madam Anjir?”

Shironne recognized Lieutenant Aldassa, the colonel’s aide. Aldassa wasn’t ignoring her, as many people did when they realized she was blind. He was simply trying to set her mother at ease.

“We’d like to speak to Colonel Cerradine, if that’s possible,” her mother began.

The colonel always made time to speak with her mother. It was more than mere courtesy on the colonel’s part. Over the last few years, he’d developed a strong interest in her mother’s well-being, although he’d never done or said anything overly familiar. Yet somehow he’d convinced Shironne’s father to move out of the family house a couple of years ago. Shironne certainly appreciated her father’s absence. Her mother did, too, even if she never said so aloud.

“If the two of you would follow me,” Aldassa replied, “I’ll notify the colonel that you’re here.”

There was a small waiting area in the back of the office where soldiers or visitors passing through wouldn’t see them. They always took her mother there to prevent her presence in the office from being noted. Mama worried that people would talk and, as a politician’s wife, she naturally garnered attention. She abhorred the idea of scandal.

Mama led her down the short hallway in the lieutenant’s wake. Once they’d reached their destination, she placed Shironne’s hand on the back of a wooden chair. Shironne flipped her braid out of the way and settled on the hard seat. She heard her mother sitting a second later, the tinkling of her bracelet’s bells accompanied by the faint rustle of silk as she adjusted her layers of petticoats and tunic, likely gracefully. Her mother did everything gracefully.

Shironne tugged her scarf away from her face. She suspected her mother went veiled as well, although she hadn’t asked.

“May I ask what this is about, madam?” Aldassa was all efficient attention now, his distress pushed to the back of his mind. “Miss Anjir wasn’t scheduled to come in today.”

Shironne answered instead. “Um, I had a dream last night, Lieutenant.”

She sensed Aldassa’s emotional retreat, the warmth of his attention ebbing from her senses like a blanket pulling away. “One of those dreams?” he asked in a guarded tone.

“Yes,” she said, “someone died.”

For a second his thoughts spun, barely tangible at the edge of her awareness. “I’ll let the colonel know immediately,” was all he said before he took himself away.

Shironne had her suspicions about Aldassa’s reaction. She’d worked with him long enough to know that the lieutenant wanted evidence, not suppositions. No matter how agitated he was, he wouldn’t jump to conclusions about the dream or its meaning.

A moment later, Colonel Cerradine himself came to fetch them, easily identifiable by the smell of his cologne and his long stride. “Madam Anjir, Miss Anjir. Would you come with me back to my office?”

Her mother rose and didn’t answer his query for a second, likely gathering her thoughts. The colonel pushed reassurance at them then, as if mentally repeating that they were safe. He was skilled at that, holding his emotions out so that they could sense them.

“Colonel,” her mother began, “I don’t think I should be gone from home too long. I wondered if…if I might leave her with you?”

Irritation suddenly flared around him.

“I have many things I need to do today,” her mother added.

Shironne suspected her mother’s hands were held tight together, a beseeching pose. If she stayed away from the house too long, Father would hear about it. He might come around then, demanding to know where his wife had been. Even if he no longer lived with them, he still controlled the family’s tight purse strings and could make their lives uncomfortable.

“I understand, Madam Anjir,” the colonel said in a cool tone.

And he did understand. Shironne knew the colonel didn’t approve. Not of her father. Not of how he treated Mama.

“If you could send her home later,” Mama said, “then I can hire a cab…”

“My driver will take you home, Madam Anjir,” the colonel said firmly. They had this discussion every time her mother accompanied her. “If you’ll wait here, Miss Anjir,” the colonel added, speaking to Shironne now, “I’ll escort your mother out to the carriage and come right back.”

“Yes, sir.”

The colonel moved away with her mother, down the hallway and beyond the range where Shironne could easily pick up his feelings. She occupied herself instead by puzzling at the emotions running like a common thread through the office. Had her fears been correct?

Before she could settle on an answer, the colonel returned, his mind plotting and locked away from her. “What about your dream, Miss Anjir?”

“It was one of those dreams.” Everyone in this office knew what she meant by that.

There was a man up at the palace who actually dreamed his way into others’ deaths. He was their private guardian in those last moments, their Angel of Death. Since Shironne’s ability to sense emotions was far stronger than others’, she also shared his dreams. On and off since she was eleven, she would fall into a dream about someone’s death, always a bad end. But she came out of the dreams with memories that helped her—and the colonel’s people—find the killers. That was worth putting up with all the vagaries of her gift. She could get justice for the victims.

The colonel’s attention sharpened. “Tell me about it.”

She took a deep breath, forcing away the surge of tension that had accompanied this dream, and started from the beginning. “I was following someone. Hunting them. Then I was waiting, watching. Someone came up behind me and I turned to…confront them. I remember hearing a loud sound…a gunshot. And then another. I remember falling to my knees. I was shot, sir, but then I woke up.”

The recitation troubled him. “Do you know who you were? In the dream?”

She touched her focus in her pocket, and quickly moved her hand away. The colonel had said before that she could do without it, that it was a crutch. “No, sir…but I do think I was wearing trousers.”

“Trousers?”

“Not like mine,” she clarified. Most women wore trousers under their petticoats to stave off the cold. Hers were loose save around the ankles, while the ones in the dream had fit….well, like the trousers she’d seen soldiers wearing before she’d lost her sight. “I walked differently. And I had different boots on…um, polished boots, not slippers. I saw a streetlight reflect off them.”

In these dreams she could see, a regular reminder of what she’d lost.

“Were you a man or a woman?”

“A woman, I think,” she said. “And the only women I know who wear trousers like that are your people here, sir.” The furious mood in these halls today made her suspect she’d guessed correctly.

The colonel sighed and she heard him rise. He came closer, until she could smell the wool of his uniform, the faint tang of gun oil, and the hint of cologne. “I’m going to ask you to do something very difficult. We have a body in our morgue. I’d like you to go over to the hospital with me, because I’d like to know the truth of what happened to her.”

Cold spread through her body. If the body was here, in the army’s morgue, then it had to be one of the colonel’s workers. She’d been right, when she had very much wanted not to be.

“Lieutenant Kassannan?” she whispered.

leaf_dingbat

If Shironne was correct, they’d been lied to.

One thing Cerradine knew for certain, every time—every single time—Mikael Lee dreamed his way into someone’s death, it was murder. The young man, an aide to the prince who worked up at the palace, had been inflicting his dreams on Shironne for years now. Sometimes he would come out and help them track down a killer, but usually when it involved army personnel, Shironne was the one who felt compelled to help, no matter how hard on her it was.

Her brown eyes glittered with tears now, her expressive face displaying the emotion he’d been trained not to show. She twisted her gold silk scarf in her lap, wrinkling it. “I’m so sorry. How is the captain?”

That was the worst part—his attached medical examiner, Captain Aron Kassannan, had lost his wife last night.

“Hard to tell.” Cerradine suspected Aron was still in shock over the news. It was about to get worse. “But if we can find the truth, that will help.”

Shironne had worked with both of the Kassannans. Hanna had saved her life once when a madwoman had taken Shironne hostage, and had taken it on herself to teach Shironne several ways to defend herself should she be caught in a similar situation again. Aron Kassannan had instructed Shironne in both anatomy and chemistry, helping her to shape her abilities into a tool for finding murderers. She didn’t know Hanna as well as the rest of his workers had, but that didn’t mean Hanna’s death wouldn’t pain her.

Once Shironne had gathered herself, he escorted her across the green from the administrative offices to the military hospital where the morgue lay tucked away in the basement. He drew her down the back stairs and opened the door to the morgue. It smelled unpleasant, the scents of stale blood and decay never quite eradicated by the carbolic acid used to clean the place.

When the door shut behind them, the surgeon turned about to survey them. Cerradine wasn’t actually surprised at who stood there, even though he’d ordered Kassannan to go home.

Shironne clapped a gloved hand over her mouth, her eyes welling with tears again. She must be reflecting Kassannan’s anguish. Cerradine put a hand on her shoulder to reassure her, wishing calmness at her as she grasped at that crystal she kept in her pocket.

“Aron,” he told the surgeon, “you can’t be objective about this.”

“This is just a body now. Hanna’s gone,” Kassannan said softly.

Cerradine had to clamp down his own worry at that flat response. No, Aron isn’t doing well.

Nearly as tall as he was but with a heavier build, Aron Kassannan could pass for Cerradine’s younger brother. They had similar features and coloring, save for the hair. Kassannan’s was still dark, while Cerradine’s prematurely white hair had come from his late father. And Aron’s face was lined with exhaustion this morning. He’d been up most of the night. He turned halfway to face Cerradine and caught sight Shironne for the first time. His head lifted. “What is Miss Anjir doing here?”

“I want her to look at Hanna’s body.”

Kassannan stared at him dully for a moment. “Why?”

“She might be able to tell us exactly how or why Hanna died.”

“Damnation, a building fell on her,” Kassannan snapped, tossing the blood-stained towel he held into a basin set on the floor. “That’s it, Jon.”

Shironne cringed at his angry outburst and then shook her head as if trying to dash the emotion away. It was one of the most important rules a sensitive ever learned; protect yourself from others’ emotions.

Kassannan frowned and rubbed at his temples. “I apologize, Miss Anjir.”

Kassannan had worked with Miss Anjir from almost the beginning. He knew what bothered her and what didn’t, likely better than anyone else among the office’s personnel.

Surely he realizes why she’s here.

“Just let us do this, Aron,” Cerradine said. “Please.”

Kassannan’s eyes moved between him and Shironne, and Cerradine could see the comprehension flare in his eyes. Jaw clenched, Kassannan strode to the door and threw himself onto the wooden chair that waited there. He dropped his head into his hands.

Cerradine set one hand under Shironne’s elbow. “Sure about this?” he whispered.

She nodded, and he led her forward to the table. He drew back the sheet that covered Hanna’s face. Kassannan had been cleaning his wife’s body, the broken features washed free of blood. Cerradine still cringed at the sight.

“Um, does she look bad?” Shironne asked in a small voice.

“Yes,” Cerradine pitched his voice so that Kassannan wouldn’t overhear. He guessed that she must have picked up his reaction to the sight.

“Oh,” she said ruefully, eyes glittering again. Her gloved hand touched the pocket that held her focus again, a sure sign she was struggling to calm herself.

For her sake, Cerradine quietly explained where and how the body was found. The sheet still covered Hanna’s body, but her face gave some clue as to the violence of the explosion. The blast had sent stones flying in all directions with enough force behind them to break bones and tear away skin. Battered flesh stretched across a shattered visage. A jagged edge of bone protruded above the hollow of her left cheek.

Undeterred, Shironne frowned, stripped off her gloves, and tucked them into a pocket on the seam of her blue tunic. She drew a careful breath and extended her arm.

Usually Kassannan was the one to direct her during her visits to the morgue, but Cerradine had done this once or twice when the captain wasn’t available. He grasped her sleeve to lift her arm. “Where?”

“Um, her face?” Her voice trembled a bit.

“Bad,” he warned.

Shironne drew a shuddering breath and squared her narrow shoulders. “Go ahead.”

He placed her naked hand on the unbroken side of Hanna’s face, but Shironne lifted her fingers immediately. “Enough?” he asked.

After taking a deep breath, the girl shook her head. “No, sir. I can do this. I need to.”

Cerradine stepped back. He understood that need. It was why most of his staff had risen in the early hours to investigate a death. It was why Aron Kassannan was here, ever though he’d been ordered to go home.

Shironne laid her hand against the side of Hanna’s face again and stood there a moment, her lower lip caught between her teeth. When she lifted her hand, Cerradine moved closer. Her head turned in his direction. “She is the person I dreamed about, sir. No doubt of that.”

That meant Hanna had indeed been murdered. “How can you tell?”

“Um, all the events line up with the dream. Her memories are all disordered and broken, though. Maybe because the skull is damaged. I don’t know. I can only find little bits, and what I’m finding doesn’t have any relevance. I…I don’t think it was a quick death.”

She didn’t know? Mikael Lee usually dreamed for hours when this happened, from the moment where the threat occurred until the death. They were not normal dreams. “Did you not dream the death? The whole thing?”

“I made myself wake up,” she said. “It was too…wrong.”

That would be worth a discussion with Mikael’s sponsors up at the palace. Usually no one escaped his broadcasted dreams. The fact that Shironne had managed to do so was interesting. Is she strong enough now to resist her Angel of Death’s ability to drag her into his dreams? He tucked that mental query away for later.

He glanced back at the door instead, hoping the captain hadn’t overheard. “Why do you say it wasn’t quick?”

“The memories I can find,” Shironne said quietly, “the ones that were the last, were all about her husband and things she wanted to remember. She knew she was dying.” She turned back to the table and asked, “Can you put my hand on her shoulder?”

He grasped Shironne’s sleeve, using it to lift her hand again. Standing on her toes, she reached across to the other side of the sheet-covered body, placing one hand on each shoulder. He knew the sheet only muted the impressions her skin picked up. “What are you doing now?”

After a long moment, she answered. “There’s lead. It’s flattened out, tangled in the vertebrae.” She lifted her hands and laid them farther down on the body but closer together, narrowing the window between her fingers. “Definitely a bullet, sir.”

“Bullet?” Kassannan asked, his mouth closing in a tight line. While Cerradine’s attention had fixed on Shironne, the captain had slipped closer.

“Shironne, step back,” Cerradine directed. She moved away a few steps, holding her hands out from her clothing. She would need to wash her hands now; she hated it when she had foreign matter on her skin.

Kassannan paused for a second, looking down at his wife’s broken face, and then carefully tucked the sheet around her body. He turned the stiffening form, exposing a mottled and torn back.

Cerradine made himself think of this as a corpse—not his trusted lieutenant. In places, her discolored skin gave way to exposed muscle.

“There’s so much damage I would never have thought to look for it,” Kassannan said in a strained voice. “Where did you say it was?”

Shironne spoke from behind them. “Between the fifth and sixth thoracic vertebrae, Captain.”

“Why don’t you sit down,” Cerradine suggested to her. “There’s a chair by the door, about twelve steps directly behind you.”

She tapped her way back toward the door, located the chair and sat, her hands still held away from her clothes.

Kassannan ran cautious fingers along the ruined curve of his wife’s back. “I think this is it,” Kassannan said, and then spun out a stream of curses. “There is a bullet in there. I can see it now.”

Kassannan crossed to where drawers on the wall hid his surgical implements, but Cerradine intercepted him. “Aron, this changes things. It’s a murder investigation now. I want you to hand this over to Farhana.”

For a second, Kassannan didn’t answer. “I can’t do that, sir.”

“It’s an order.” Cerradine met Kassannan’s eyes. “Get out of here. Send me Farhana, and get one of the orderlies to fetch Aldassa for me. Go home.”

Kassannan nodded, jerked off his work-apron, and headed toward the door of the morgue. He stopped near Shironne, though. “Who did this?”

Shironne turned her face halfway toward his. “I don’t know, sir. Not yet. But I’ll find out.”

leaf_dingbat

The colonel had gone to notify the proper authorities that his officer had been murdered. Since they had first marked it as an accident, the police had to be told that it was clearly not. That would be an awkward and delicate conversation. The colonel wouldn’t delegate that task to anyone else.

Not that the colonel was particularly diplomatic. But he wanted to see the police commissioner’s face when he asked his questions, he’d claimed, so he’d left Shironne in Aldassa’s charge. Fortunately, Aldassa was thoroughly familiar with her peculiar methods of investigation.

In turn, she was familiar with Aldassa’s orderly doggedness. Now that he knew Lieutenant Kassannan’s death wasn’t an accident, Aldassa would stay on the killer’s trail until there was justice. She wanted to help him do so, and so she agreed to go view the scene with him.

One Ensign Navinne had joined them in one of the army’s carriages. The young woman sat on the other side next to Aldassa. She’d sounded pleased to be given a task that would get her out from behind a desk but, like Aldassa, Navinne kept her mind carefully neutral. She said little as the carriage began to move.

Shironne had no idea what sort of duties Hanna Kassannan usually had beyond teaching visiting Larossan girls to defend themselves. “What was Lieutenant Kassannan doing last night?” she asked Aldassa. “When she died, I mean.”

“Hmmm. Not sure,” Aldassa said. “Supposed to have been with a partner, watching for a dealer near the Lower Town Bridge. Jonnada—the partner—reports in ’bout two hours later, saying she slipped off.”

The calm tone of his voice didn’t match the anger she felt seeping out of him. “You don’t believe that.”

“Can’t say I do. Not like her to slip off.”

“Do you think he’s the one who shot her?”

Navinne said nothing, but Shironne sensed mild distaste from the young woman, similar to her own reaction to leeks. Jonnada must have gotten onto her bad side.

“Don’t like to think that, either,” Aldassa finally answered. “But possible.”

“A dealer in what?” Shironne asked, trying to work out how that fit in with her dream. Aldassa’s amusement peeked out from behind his irritation. Inside, he was laughing at her question. “Am I supposed to know?” she asked him.

“Drugs, Miss Anjir. Illegal ones,” he said. “Opium, blue sky, hasheesh. That sort of dealer.”

“Oh, I see,” she said, trying to sound worldly. At least she’d managed to lighten his mood, even if it had come at her expense. “So who might have killed Lieutenant Kassannan?”

“Don’t know,” Aldassa said. “Always suspect the husband first…”

She couldn’t imagine anyone believing that. “Captain Kassannan?”

“Usually we would talk to him first,” Aldassa said, “but he has an alibi.”

“Of course he does,” she returned. “No one could seriously think he did it.”

“I could, Miss Anjir,” Aldassa said with complete sincerity. “I don’t let my emotions make that kind of decision for me. In this case, though, I know it’s not possible. He was at my flat, talking my ear off last night.”

“Captain Kassannan was at your flat?”

“We live in the same building,” Aldassa told her. “He had a fight with Hanna, came to brood over it, like always.”

Shironne pressed her lips together. “Did they fight a lot?”

“Yes,” Navinne answered in a laughing tone.

“Hmm. Just how they talked, Miss Anjir,” Aldassa added. “Liana and I never had a fight yet. She’s quiet, not like Hanna.”

Shironne had met Aldassa’s wife, Liana, a young seamstress of Larossan descent—not military. She could see why they never fought; they probably never even spoke in that household. That might be better than a house where people fought. She’d heard enough of that from her own parents.

The carriage groaned to a stop just then, saving her from admitting that. “Where are we?”

Aldassa moved past her to open the carriage door and stepped down. “Larossan New Quarter, near the rubber factory.”

She could smell that. The air felt dirty against her face, steam and smoke from the factories bearing all manner of nasty things she didn’t want touching her overly-sensitive skin. She wrapped her scarf over her face, hoping the thin layer of silk would mute the feel of the wind’s dirty fingers touching her.

Once he’d helped her down from the carriage, Aldassa lifted one of her gloved hands and laid it on his arm. “This way.”

The footing was uneven and, as such, treacherous. At one point, Shironne stumbled on a loose piece of something. Aldassa helped get her back on her feet and then stood motionless as Navinne moved somewhere a few feet away. Reaching a hand into her pocket, Shironne wrapped her fingers around her focus to help clear her mind. She swallowed her nervousness at being in this unknown place. Aldassa would keep her safe. “What are we doing?”

He took a moment to reply. “Trying to look at this place with new eyes.”

“New eyes?” It would be handy if she could do that.

Aldassa sighed. “Change my preconceptions. I came here early this morning, but thought this was an accident. Now I’m trying to see this scene as if someone did it intentionally.”

He meant the explosion, she decided. “To hide shooting her?”

“Hmm.”

The humming sound meant he wanted her to stop talking. Aldassa didn’t radiate irritation as her father would have, but his mind spiraled in tight coils of thought. She would only be distracting him.

He made a clucking sound then. “Stupid. Not much blood.”

He meant that there wasn’t enough blood where Kassannan’s body had been found. That meant she’d been killed elsewhere. “What does it look like?”

“Lots of broken stone, sprayed out like a fan. Most of it here, but little bits spreading a long way away. Shifted out of the way where they dug Kassannan out.”

That explained the bad footing. The gritty-dusty feel of the wind touching her cheeks told of smoke—gas-smoke, not wood, burning hot against the air. “Did anything else burn?”

“No. Only the gas sitting in the pipes. Immediate explosion blew down the façade, but main gas valve to the building was shut off. Thought it was fortuitous, not intentional. Should have suspected it.”

He’d been looking at it with the wrong eyes. “You mean they came in, opened the gas main and let some gas build up, shut off the gas main, and then blew up the….whatever they blew up?”

“Precisely.” His hand touched hers. “You wait here.”

Shironne nodded, hoping he wouldn’t leave her for long. She heard him moving, the dry sound of stone shifting against stone, dry mortar crunching under his feet.

At the end of the alleyway, she could hear two men talking. Even from that distance, she could sense their avid interest in the soldiers’ actions. “Soldier,” one of the men called, “what are you doing here? I gave the police my statement already.”

“We’re expanding the investigation,” Aldassa called back.

Shironne heard the crunching sound of one of the men approaching. The other left; she couldn’t sense him any longer. The first man passed close to her, worry buzzing about him like flies. An odd scent followed him, one with sickly sweet and musky notes, barely detectable under the smell of hot rubber that clogged the alleyway. It wasn’t one of the chemicals Captain Kassannan had taught her to recognize.

“Investigation? I want to get a crew in to start cleaning up,” the man protested. “I’ll need you to clear out.”

“Pallav, isn’t it?” Aldassa continued in his most brusque tone, annoyance flaring about him. “We’re investigating the murder of an army officer. We’ll leave once we’re done.”

Pallav’s worry increased at those words. “Every hour this mill is closed, dozens of people lose their pay, soldier,” he argued. “I need to get this cleared out and some sort of a wall back up.”

“We’ll leave as soon as we’re done, sir,” Aldassa repeated.

The man stomped off, mumbling under his breath. His apparent anger seemed at odds with the edge of fear Shironne felt from him. She heard Aldassa crunching back in her direction and then caught the faint scent of his perspiration and warm wool.

“Talked to him this morning,” Aldassa said. “Let the police take his statement. Stupid. Just not enough blood. If she’d been killed by the blast, with that much damage, I’d expect she’d bleed out. Didn’t happen, though. Should have caught that.” Shironne decided that Aldassa must be talking to Navinne, but then he added words meant for her. “Let’s see, something they would have touched…”

“The gas valve,” Navinne said from a few feet away. “That had to have been turned off by someone involved.”

Shironne felt better knowing where all three of them stood.

“Well, the owner claimed he didn’t do it,” Aldassa said. “Said one of the shift managers must have. Let’s give it a try.”

Aldassa set Shironne’s hand on his arm again, and they slowly made their way around the side of the building, Navinne evidently ahead of them. The main valve to this part of the building was at the base of the inner wall destroyed by the blast, he explained. The air about them smelled odd, making the back of Shironne’s throat ache. “Are things burned in here?”

“Hardly touched. Lots of rubble on the floor, miss. They’ve cleared some of the parts of this wall that blew down, but not all of it,” Navinne observed. “So….someone let the gas build up in this room and then tossed in a match. The metal frame behind this stone wall would have deflected the explosion outward, taking out the outer wall, but leaving most of this one. Gas would have burned out before the beams had a chance to catch. How fortunate for the owner.”

Shironne couldn’t quite picture what Navinne was describing, but she caught the suspicion under the woman’s words. Those who did it would have had to know how the building was laid out.

“Too fortunate,” Aldassa said then. “If I were hiding a murder, I wouldn’t care if I burned down a few buildings. Unless I owned one of them.”

An interesting insight into how Aldassa’s mind worked, Shironne decided. “Could the owner be involved?”

“Hmm. Why damage his own factory?” He drew her away from the dry room and laid her gloved hand against something metal—a pipe. “Gas valve is here.”

Shironne felt along the metal pipe that lead to something far larger that smelled of old, dirty oil and over-warm rubber. “What is this attached to?”

“Engine—gas driven,” Aldassa said, a hint of uncertainty. “Big belt that goes up to the ceiling and drives…a bunch of gears…somewhere. No idea what it has to do with cotton.”

“Is this a fabric mill?” Now that she thought about it, she could smell fabric. The odor of the rubber factory overlaid everything, but she could just barely taste the fabric in the air.

“Yes,” Navinne said, the first time she’d spoken in a while. “It’s a loom, sir. I worked in a mill while I was trying to get on with the army.”

Shironne could sense Aldassa’s slow surprise. She heard footsteps as if he was turning in a circle, and he didn’t speak for a moment.

“Um, where is the valve again?” Shironne asked.

“Sorry,” he said, drawn back to her task. “It’s on the bottom of a pipe on the tank, near the ground.”

Shironne crouched down, using the side of the tank as a guide. At the base, she located a pipe, and on that, a small lever. “Is this it?”

“Yes.”

She stripped off one glove and carefully felt the lever. Many hands had touched it, oil and tiny bits of skin left behind, as well as a great deal of dirt. And then… “I feel blood.”

“Hers?” Aldassa asked.

She considered the blood, comparing it mentally with the body she’d touched earlier. “Um, no. A man. Not very old, I think. The blood, I mean, not the man. Maybe as recent as last night.”

“How do you know it’s a man’s blood?” Navinne asked. Aldassa had seen this before, so he didn’t question her verdict, but Navinne hadn’t worked with her before.

“Um, I can’t explain,” Shironne admitted. She simply didn’t have words that described what she felt. A man’s blood was subtly different from a woman’s. “There’s something about the blood that says man to me.”

Navinne made a soft hmm, her thoughts carefully neutral.

“You said that in your dream, Kassannan fired her weapon?” Aldassa asked.

“Yes.” Shironne concentrated, trying to recall that moment of the dream. “I’m certain of it.”

Aldassa’s thoughts spun down, all quick calculation. “Kassannan never missed.”

leaf_dingbat

When Cerradine entered his office, Shironne sat in her usual chair. He felt inordinately relieved to see the girl in one piece. She had a talent for landing in trouble.

“I’ll go check on that paperwork,” Navinne said to Aldassa as she edged out the door.

Cerradine nodded to Aldassa and then turned back to Shironne “Are you all right?”

“Yes, sir.” She sat up straighter. “We were just…discussing.”

“Discussing?” he prompted when she didn’t finish the thought.

“The explosion had to be set up by someone familiar with the layout of the factory, sir,” Aldassa answered instead. “Likely someone aware that there was a danger it could happen.”

“Someone who worked there,” Cerradine said.

“Or the owner,” Aldassa supplied.

“We’ll start with him, then.” Cerradine trusted Aldassa’s instincts about people. “Anything else?”

“Miss Anjir found blood on the gas valve that had been shut off, not Hanna’s, she says, so someone else was bleeding at the scene.”

He was familiar with statements like that from Shironne. “Any idea whose?”

Shironne shifted. “I don’t know, sir, but it came from a man.”

He believed her, but her word could never be admitted in court. They would have to find better evidence. “You said that in your dream, Hanna fired her weapon?”

“Yes.” Shironne’s brow furrowed. “I’m certain of it.”

“And Hanna never missed,” Aldassa said.

It was something of an adage in the office. Hanna had been a marksman, one of the best. “So we’re positive that a man was involved, and at some point she probably shot him.”

“Yes, sir,” Aldassa said. “Also, Hanna herself was shot at a point farther down the alley and then moved to where the explosion took place. We found blood there that Miss Anjir verifies is hers.”

After examining Hanna’s body, Farhana had verified that the gunshot hadn’t killed her, although it was likely she’d hit her head falling. Farhana thought she might have been in shock by the time she was moved. Cerradine could only hope the blast had quickly ended her pain.

Aldassa shook his head. “She was shot about two buildings down. We thought it was an accident, sir. I don’t think any of us went down that far this morning.”

“How did you find it this time, then?”

Aldassa laughed shortly. “Miss Anjir remembered there was a streetlight in her dream. She told me the angle of the light relative to her shoes in the dream. I figured it out from there, sir.”

“Hmm.” Cerradine raised his eyebrows. Simple geometry. Aldassa’s grasp of detail always impressed him. “So we definitely have an attempt to hide a murder.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

Ensign Navinne reappeared in the doorway, a folder in her hands. “Sir.”

Cerradine glanced over at the young woman. One of his more recent recruits, Navinne was eager to prove herself here. So far she’d been quite efficient and impressed the lieutenants with her work. “What is it, Ensign?”

“No word on finding Lieutenant Jonnada, sir,” she began. “He didn’t report for duty this afternoon, but that wasn’t a surprise. I wanted to point this out, though.” She held out the folder to him. “If you take a look at the paperwork from the police, you’ll see that the same officer who filled out the mill owner’s statement around ten this morning is the one who first arrived on the scene late last night—about midnight, he said. That’s a very long duty shift.”

“Good job catching that.” Cerradine told her. It was possible for an officer to be on duty that long, but it was…unusual. “What are the chances of that being a coincidence?”

“Can’t give you odds on that, sir,” Navinne said with a shrug, handing over the folder.

Cerradine glanced at the two reports. “We need to concentrate on finding Lieutenant Jonnada, then, and this Officer….” He peered at the scribbled signatures. “Ranjan, I think?”

Aldassa suggested sending someone out to check at the City Hospital to see if anyone had gone there with a gunshot wound. “Hanna’s gun must still be buried in the rubble,” he added. “I’ll get a squad of men to start shifting it, sir. The mill’s owner is antsy to start cleaning up.”

“He can wait.” Cerradine looked over at Shironne, who seemed worn down. She’d sat silent through most of that discussion, a rarity for her. Recalling that her mother preferred that Shironne keep as normal a schedule as possible, he added, “Miss Anjir, you’ve been of tremendous help, but I don’t think we have anything else for you to do today. I’ll have Ensign Navinne escort you home. That should get you home in time for dinner.”

Shironne sighed. “Yes, sir. Will you send for me if you need anything else?”

“Yes, Miss Anjir, and please apologize to your mother for me for keeping you so long. Navinne, would you walk her down to the drivers’ pool?”

The young woman set a hand lightly on Shironne’s shoulder to let her know where she stood. “Miss Anjir?”

Cerradine watched her escort the girl out of the office, and then picked up his own hat. “So what do you really think, David?”

Aldassa shifted in his chair. “I think we need to step back, sir.”

Cerradine felt his brows rise. “Are you suggesting we drop the investigation?”

“No, sir,” Aldassa said, “but we’ve been looking at this as Lieutenant Kassannan’s murder. It’s personal for all of us, so we haven’t been looking at the whole scene, but focused on one player.”

Aldassa’s wife sometimes sewed costumes for a local theater, so the analogy made sense. It was an apt one. If he backed away from Hanna’s death, he had one officer slipping away from her partner, apparently so that she could trail him. Somehow that had ended in either Jonnada or the police officer shooting her and then hiding her murder by blowing up part of a building, possibly with the collusion of someone who worked there.

“So the question becomes why was Hanna following Jonnada?” Surely this had something to do with imports. A great deal of the country’s needs were imported, paid for in gold or traded in exchange for wool and mutton and beef and, on occasion, ice. Larossa imported spices by the wagon load, and tea and silk and cotton. And there was the trade in drugs…one of the generals had asked his office to look into it to reduce the number of soldiers entrapped by opium. “They were just looking into the illicit import-export issue, I thought.”

“Yes, sir. But why kill her? And why go so far to hide her murder?”

“If they’d simply left her lying in the street, there would have been an investigation. They wanted to avoid one.”

“Enough so to destroy part of a factory, sir?” Aldassa sat with his lips pressed together. “I just don’t think a drug dealer would go to that much trouble. Pay off a few people and he’d stay out of prison.”

“Then we’ll keep our eyes open for something bigger behind it,” Cerradine said. He decided to leave the pursuit in Aldassa’s capable hands for the evening. Aldassa would probably sit here for a few hours, his clever mind ticking away at every bit of evidence. “I’m going to go talk to Kassannan again,” he told Aldassa. “Maybe Hanna said something to him about Jonnada that will fill out our scene.”

Unfortunately, Cerradine didn’t find anyone at Aron Kassannan’s flat.

leaf_dingbatShironne woke in the middle of the night. Her heart beat fast, fear still prickling along her arms. Somewhere out in the city, someone lay newly dead. The Angel of Death had dreamed again and made her share that dream. It had been a fast death this time, a bullet and a sudden end.

The house remained silent, even the crickets quiet at this hour. She reached over to her nightstand, clutched her focus, and took a calming breath. Her mind clamored that she should get up and do something, but there was no chance her mother would let her report in at this hour, so she rolled over and tried to sleep again.

Later, she sat in the kitchens after breakfast, listening to her youngest sister read while she waited, rather impatiently. Her head hurt a bit, likely from a poor night’s sleep. The appearance of Ensign Navinne at the servant’s door relieved her. Finally! With her mother’s reluctant permission, Shironne accompanied the ensign out to a coach waiting out in the alleyway behind the house’s mews.

The colonel waited within, his impatience more marked than her own. “I’m not sure what you can do, Miss Anjir, but I need any help you can give us, and quickly.”

He was far more agitated than Shironne had seen him before. “Someone did die last night, didn’t they?”

“Yes. Our missing Lieutenant Jonnada.”

The guarded sound to Cerradine’s voice made Shironne expect more, though. “And?”

“The police have arrested Captain Kassannan for his murder.”

Surprise made her mouth fall open. “What? You don’t think he did it, do you?”

“No, of course not,” Cerradine said, his mind scoffing at the idea. “Jonnada was found dead at his brother’s flat this morning, and Kassannan was there. Only circumstantial. I went down to the jail to talk to Kassannan myself. He wanted to question Jonnada, so he trailed the man to his brother’s flat. But after Jonnada went inside, Kassannan heard a gunshot. He went in to look and found Jonnada dead. The police showed up just then. Poor timing. They consider Kassannan’s presence at the scene just cause to hold him for both the murder of Jonnada and his wife.”

That was all wrong. She could feel the colonel’s anger, echoing her own frustration. “But Lieutenant Aldassa told me the captain was at his flat the night his wife was killed.”

“I know. The police say they have a credible witness who claims to have seen Kassannan at the scene of his wife’s murder. Aldassa’s word against another man’s. They haven’t divulged whose, though.”

“What about Aldassa’s wife?” Shironne asked. “Surely she must have seen the captain there.”

The colonel’s irritation flared about him. “The authorities claim that a wife’s not a credible witness. She would say whatever her husband told her to.”

Shironne realized she was grinding her teeth together, and forced herself to stop. That was her own frustration, not the colonel’s. “That’s not fair,” she protested. She could sense Navinne’s silent agreement.

Cerradine seemed resigned. “It doesn’t actually matter whether or not it’s fair. We’re fighting to get Aron released to the army, but that might take a few days. So we need to figure out what’s truly going on. You’d better tell me about your dream.”

As they drove to the army’s headquarters, Shironne told him the scattered bits of the dream. It had been a flash of fear, and then a quick end—the shortest dream she’d ever shared with the Angel of Death. There hadn’t been much time to form impressions of the situation.

She felt the colonel’s frustration spreading about him like a pool of water. “Very well,” the colonel said when she’d reached the end. “Are you up to viewing the body?”

Shironne nodded. “I want to find out who killed Lieutenant Kassannan, sir. Even if Lieutenant Jonnada didn’t do it, he might have known who did.”

“And I suspect he’s dead because of it.”                                                           leaf_dingbat

Lieutenant Farhana hadn’t met Shironne before, and Cerradine decided it would be best to keep it that way. Farhana would complain to everyone who’d listen about her presence in the morgue. She walked down the steps to the morgue, her scarf pulled over her face, and waited for him at the bottom of the steps.

Farhana scowled when they entered, even without seeing her face. Shironne was wearing a pink tunic today, with orange petticoats and a gold scarf that matched the embroidery on her clothes. Although the garments were slightly worn with age, the embroidery on them had once been fine. It was easy to guess that she was of the upper class, and clearly not one of his staff.

Cerradine gestured at the door. “Lieutenant, you can leave now.”

“A lady should not be unchaperoned down here, sir,” Farhana said, eyes flicking between them.

“In the morgue? Are you concerned that our dead lieutenant might accost her? Or perhaps you’re implying that I would?”

“No, sir. Of course not, sir,” Farhana backpedaled, dark face flushing. “Sorry, sir.”

“Just go, Lieutenant.”

Farhana bustled past them and out to the stairwell that led up from the morgue to the ground floor of the hospital.

“He’s usually more concerned about the rules than his patients,” Cerradine admitted after the door swung shut. He went to her side and raised her hand to his arm. “Come with me.”

The mortuary service had already taken Hanna Kassannan’s body away to prepare it for burial. A new body lay on the table, though. Cerradine pulled back the sheets, revealing the body of a young man whose brown skin had faded to a sickly greenish hue in death.

Shironne stripped off her glove, tucked it into her pocket, and reached out. Her hand came to rest on a linen-covered arm. She lifted her hand and moved it upward, tapping gingerly until she located his face. Then she pressed her hand against his skin, as if trying to reach further than skin-deep.

Cerradine waited for a moment, expecting her to tell him what she’d found. Only she didn’t. She simply stood there unmoving, her hand on Lieutenant Jonnada’s cold temple.

leaf_dingbat

Shironne pressed her skin against the dead man’s, feeling the blood separating, the cooling—all the imbalances that lead to putrefaction building in the body.

Thoughts still resided there. Unlike Hanna Kassannan’s disordered and broken mind, this one had things where they should be, far easier for Shironne to understand, lying like dead leaves in piles. She began to shift them, hunting the right thoughts, the ones that would tell her who had killed this man, and why Hanna Kassannan had died.

Many of the leaves told her of shame. He’d made a terrible mistake and couldn’t think of any way to right it. She found a leaf that told her he’d felt he deserved to die, the saddest thing. That, at the end, he deserved to have a bullet in him. He’d gone too far and cost Hanna’s life. Guilt.

She dug further, seeking the night of the hunt in Jonnada’s memories. She almost missed it, for when she did find it, the perspective was all wrong. He hadn’t been next to Kassannan, he’d been at the end of that alleyway. She had been following him, only he’d believed he’d evaded her. Shironne dug into those memories, seeking names and relationships.

Once she’d found enough, she pulled her hand away

She immediately felt the colonel’s concern all about her like a warm blanket. The strength of her physical contact with the body had drowned it out before. She couldn’t touch her focus in her pocket to help push it away—her hands were too dirty. “Um, sir…I think I’ve found what you need.”

His worry subsided into relief, an emotion much easier for her to bear. “Do you realize how long that took? I was thinking about pulling you away.”

Ah, that was what troubled him. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“You were at it for almost half an hour.”

Still holding her hand away from her clothes, Shironne tried to decide if that sounded right. Sometimes it took longer, particularly if a body was fresh, the memories still clear in the victim’s mind. “There was a lot to sort through, sir.”

The colonel made a dry laughing sound, or perhaps it was a choking sound. He reined in his worry, though. “So what did you learn?”

“There was a policeman, and the mill owner.”

His attention fixed on her fiercely. “Names?”

She picked through the box of Jonnada’s memories she held in her mind. “Um, the policeman is named Ranjan and the mill owner is Pallav, the smelly man who was in the alley yesterday. Jonnada was supposed to meet Pallav and Ranjan behind the mill to make some arrangement about a schedule. There was a shipment coming in, and Pallav wanted to assure that his buyers would be safe coming to look it over. Ranjan and Jonnada were meeting there to reassure Pallav that the police and the army wouldn’t find out when the meeting was planned.”

The colonel seemed concerned, but he kept his voice level. “And what happened?”

“Jonnada thought he’d lost Kassannan. Intentionally, I mean. He came all the way back to the office here to make it seem the other way, like she’d slipped away from him, and then he went out to his meeting. Kassannan must have been following him the whole time. Jonnada met with Pallav to tell him the army didn’t know anything, but Ranjan came up the alley late, and surprised Kassannan. She shot him—just in the arm. Jonnada remembered pointing at her, that’s all, and Pallav shot her in the back. Jonnada was horribly upset about Kassannan, and afraid for his brother. It had all gone wrong.”

“His brother? Whose brother?”

She’d failed to explain that part. “Jonnada’s. That was the beginning. Pallav knew Jonnada’s brother; he was his supplier. Pallav told Jonnada he had to help with the meeting, or he would hurt his brother. That’s why Jonnada did all of this. To protect his younger brother.”

The colonel’s anger and disappointment seeped past his control for a moment, but then he carefully drew them back in. “If there was a problem, he should have brought it to me, but we’ve had…difficulties in the past. Did Jonnada see who ambushed him?”

“Yes, sir. It was the policeman, Ranjan.”

“And that explains why the police arrived so quickly. I wonder if Ranjan might be our so-called credible witness, as well.”

She had no way to verify that from Jonnada’s memories, not when it happened after his death.

The colonel’s mind spun down into thought, hiding away from her. Then his attention returned to her, sharp and determined. “What meeting was so important that Pallav was paying a police officer and blackmailing an army officer to protect it? Did Jonnada know?”

“Jonnada wasn’t sure. He was…very unhappy about being trapped into helping, and he was telling himself he didn’t want to know. That he just had to get through the deal and then get his brother out of the city. He wanted to run away, never to hurt anyone.”

Grim anger settled around the colonel. She thought he’d been angry with Jonnada before, but now he felt sympathy for the man. “Where was Jonnada’s brother all this time?” he asked.

“Jonnada couldn’t find him. He went to check his brother’s flat one last time before he fled the city.”

“And that’s where the policeman ambushed him.” Cerradine’s mind clicked away like a clock as he plotted and weighed possibilities. Then he said, “I have a plan. Are you willing to play along?”                                                          leaf_dingbat

It took some time to have everything ready. “Do you understand what we want?” Cerradine asked Shironne again.

She nodded her head. “Yes, sir. I’m here to listen.”

“You are to keep your face covered at all times,” he added. If Pallav had the nerve to threaten an army lieutenant’s brother, then he didn’t want the man to have any idea of Shironne’s identity. That was the main flaw in this plan—it put Shironne at risk.

“Yes, sir.” Her tone sounded aggrieved, as if his worry had started to annoy her.

Navinne sat next to Shironne, assigned to record the interview. After a moment, Lieutenant Aldassa opened the door, the mill owner with him. Cerradine caught a whiff of smoke on the man, a sickly-sweet scent he recognized, making him suspect that Pallav had taken refuge in some of his wares.

Aldassa made the man sit down at the table facing Cerradine, while Shironne and Navinne sat on the end. Cerradine waited until the man had settled. “Jonnada told us everything,” he said calmly.

Pallav’s sallow face took on a disbelieving look. “Who?”

“Now, the way I see it,” Cerradine continued, “you’re importing more than cotton thread from the coast. You need contacts to keep you out of trouble, the police, the military.”

“More than cotton?”

“I can smell the opium on you,” Cerradine said. “Not a serious offense in itself, but if the police were to determine that you were bringing in large quantities, they would have to pay attention. So, I need to know who brings it in, where you keep your supply and who sells it for you.”

Pallav shifted in his seat, trying to make himself more of a presence, the attempt already spoiled by his slouching entry.

Cerradine gestured in Shironne’s direction. “Madam, would you come sit across from this man?”

Navinne tapped Shironne on the back of her gloved hand. Shironne rose and, feeling the edge of the table, made her way to the empty chair. Cerradine placed her hand on the back of it. Shironne settled there gracefully, not giving a single hint that she was blind.

“This lady was able to find out what Jonnada knew,” Cerradine said, “and now it’s your turn.”

Pallav’s shrugged. “That’s not possible. He’s dead.”

Cerradine noted that he no longer denied knowing who Jonnada was. Perhaps the man was still under opium’s cloud.

“He believes that,” Shironne said.

Pallav gaped at her.

“Now,” Cerradine said, “one question at a time. Did you shoot Lieutenant Kassannan? Yes or no?”

The man took a second to reply. “No, of course not.”

“He’s lying,” Shironne said, no hint of doubt in her voice. Pallav’s eyes jerked toward her veiled face, fear unmistakable in his eyes this time.

“Did you shoot Lieutenant Jonnada?” Cerradine asked.

“No,” Pallav protested.

“That’s the truth,” Shironne said. Her head tilted as if she wanted to hear him better.

Pallav hissed, his face growing paler. “Is she a priest?”

Apparently the man feared the church more than the army. Cerradine ignored that. “Did you instruct Officer Ranjan to shoot Lieutenant Jonnada?”

“No,” the man said slowly.

Shironne shook her veiled head. “I couldn’t tell that time, sir.”

“Did you instruct Ranjan to kill Lieutenant Jonnada?” Cerradine repeated.

“No!” Pallav tried to rise, but Aldassa put a hand on the man’s shoulder and slammed him back into his seat.

“A lie, sir.” Shironne held up her gloved hand for a moment. “He’s trying to think his way around it because he knows I’m a senstive. It was the word shoot. He probably never used exactly that word, but when you changed it to kill, then it became an outright lie.”

“I want out of here!” Pallav yelled.

“Not until we have the answers to our questions,” Cerradine said.

Shironne spoke before he got to the next one. “Sir, if I were to touch him, you wouldn’t have to ask. I could just find the answers in his mind. It would be easier if he were dead, though,” she added.

Whatever the man thought she meant by that, it provoked a profound reaction in him. He began shaking. Surprising them all, Pallav jumped up and grabbed at her, whether to hurt her or beg her for mercy, Cerradine didn’t know. He yanked Shironne out of the man’s reach as Aldassa and Navinne wrestled Pallav down to the table. Aldassa held the man down, his weight pinning the man. Pallav cried out in pain.

Navinne had used the closest weapon at hand; she’d jammed her pen into the back of the man’s hand.

Shironne stood with her back against wall, her scarf fortunately still veiling her face. Her breath came fast, whether in reaction to their agitation or her own, Cerradine didn’t know. She had her focus in one gloved hand.

“Don’t try that again,” Navinne told the prisoner in a cold voice.

Cerradine tried to dampen his fury, not wanting to bother Shironne. “He lays a hand on her again, lieutenant, I want you to put that pen into his eyeball, not his hand. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Navinne said angrily. “Absolutely, sir.”

The mill owner whimpered. Aldassa got him back in his chair, this time securing his arms behind him. No more pretense of a friendly discussion.

“Sir,” Shironne said softly. “I know why he’s so afraid.”

Cerradine glanced at her, chilled. The man had gotten a hand on her. Even though fabric, Shironne could pick things up. “What is it?”

“Can I…can I speak to you in the hallway?”

Cerradine put a hand under her elbow and led her out of the interrogation room. When he’d closed the door, he turned back to her. “What is it, Miss Anjir? He touched you, didn’t he?”

She pulled off her scarf held it crumpled to her chest. With one hand she fumbled for the focus in her pocket, probably using the thing to calm herself. Her face looked nearly as pale as the mill owner’s. “He wanted to beg me, sir, not to tell.”

“You could tell that when he touched you?”

She nodded her head jerkily. “But there was more. He’s not just selling drugs, sir. Um, he brings them in from the countryside and sells them.”

He had never seen her quite so upset. “Sells what?”

Her lips quivered. “Um, girls, sir. Like me, younger. Sometimes boys,” she finished on a whisper.

He regretted letting Pallav get anywhere near her now. He’d rather not have had her know that such a trade occurred in a civilized city. “So that’s what he was afraid you would find out.”

“Not that, sir.” She took a deep breath, and then seemed calmer. “It’s who he works for, sir, not that he sells…things. He works for important people, and he thinks they’ll kill him to keep him quiet.”

That explained bringing in a police officer and a soldier. “Important people?”

“Like in the police….and um, politicians.”

Politicians. She hadn’t said it aloud, as if keeping it inside her had would keep it from being true.

His stomach felt hollow. He’d always been aware this might happen, that she would be involved in an investigation that touched on her father’s less savory dealings. He’d hoped not, though. And he hadn’t known her father was involved in something as low as the trade in human flesh. “I’m so sorry, Shironne.”

“He’s very afraid of my father,” she whispered. “And my father’s friends.”

For a full minute, Cerradine actually contemplated asking her if she would try to get more information out of the man. She could do that. She could give them all the details Pallav knew.

He looked down at her delicate face. A tear ran down one cheek. He leaned back toward the interrogation room, opened the door a crack and called for Navinne. The ensign emerged a second later. “Will you take Miss Anjir to my office, Ensign? Perhaps get her something to drink as well?”

Navinne shot a glance at Shironne’s distraught face and nodded briskly. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

She led Shironne away.

leaf_dingbat

Shironne looked calmer when Cerradine joined her a short while later. “I knew,” she said quietly as he entered. “I mean, I know my father’s not a good man.”

He’d known that too, but he hadn’t known about her father’s more objectionable business ventures. He couldn’t forget that knowledge now, nor could he make her do so. He sat down on the edge of the desk and considered her gravely for a moment. “Because the deaths of two army personnel are involved, we can prosecute Pallav and Ranjan. The army doesn’t have the authority to prosecute anything else, though. Anything not directly pertaining to the deaths of our officers will have to be turned over to the police to handle.”

“Oh,” she said softly.

Her father was a crony of the police commissioner, and it was likely that if Anjir was involved in this business, Commissioner Faralis would ignore the charges. Cerradine didn’t have the leverage to force the man do his job.

Shironne bit at her lip, likely catching his frustration. “At least now we know why Lieutenant Kassannan died.”

“She must have suspected Jonnada’s involvement,” he said. “I wish she had brought her suspicions to me. Or that Jonnada would have come to us to try to protect his brother.”

“But you can’t change the past, sir,” she said. “But they will let Captain Kassannan out of jail now, won’t they?”

That was something he could fix. “As soon as I get you home, Miss Anjir, I’m going to the jail myself. I’ll pry him out if I have to.”

That brought a fleeting smile to her face. “Good.”

leaf_dingbat

Hours later, he stood in the kitchen in the Anjir house, waiting with Shironne for her mother to come down. She was avoiding her own butler, he knew. The man regularly reported her movements back to her husband.

Aron Kassannan was back at his own flat, the other inhabitants of that building keeping an eye on him. They didn’t want to leave him alone again. They’d run down Officer Ranjan, and he and Pallav now waiting in cells for the military lawyers to question them further about the murders.

Now there was one last tricky bit to handle–breaking the news of impending scandal to Shironne’s mother, who would not be pleased. Savelle Anjir hated scandal more than anything.

When she came down the steps into the kitchen, Savelle Anjir glanced between her daughter and him, eyes worried. “Why are you in my house? He’s sure to hear of this.”

The cook moved to block the servant’s stair, her eyes turned upward as she kept watch.

“It’s necessary this time,” he told her. “I’ve passed the information we had to the police, and you need to know that one of the culprits implicated your husband.”

Savelle Anjir nodded slowly. “Shironne told me. The police will simply bury this, Colonel, as they do every hint of my husband’s deeds.”

“Not this time,” he warned. “Not completely.”

She glanced to the cook for reassurance and turned back to him. “What do you mean?”

“There’s a third party involved now,” he said, “a writer for one of the newspapers. They have promised to publish the things that I cannot prosecute. And a priest came to witness the handoff.”

Shironne’s head turned in his direction, her mouth dropping open. He’d actually managed to surprise her. The priest would be safe in his temple, but Cerradine had needed to pull strings to guarantee the writer’s safety and his publisher’s. He was willing to hire bodyguards out of his own pocket if he must.

Savelle Anjir gripped the edge of the table with one slender hand, her bracelet tinkling. “They will…”

Once it hit the newspapers, the church would pursue this doggedly. Even though they had no power to prosecute crimes, they had influence. They had the will of the people behind them, and could darken the reputation of anyone who crossed them.

“My husband will…” She took a shallow breath and tried again. “You said you wouldn’t…interfere in our family. You promised.”

He had, more or less. When Shironne had come to work for him, Cerradine had told Savelle he would do his best not to expose her to gossip by exposing her husband’s misdeeds. But then he’d thought it merely blackmail, keeping mistresses, and gambling–the sort of thing one expected of politicians. “This is about children being sold into slavery,” he said softly, “even if it’s not being called that. Do you truly believe that should be allowed to go on?”

“No, of course not,” she said.

“May I suggest again that you go to your brothers, Madam? They will protect you.”

The look she gave him suggested dry exasperation, Not for the first time, Cerradine wished he was a sensitive so that he could tell what she was feeling.

“I do not need their interference either, Colonel.” She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. “What will happen to him?”
“That I cannot guarantee.  He will be put under a great deal of pressure, and I suspect that the police will find someone to blame once the extent of this comes out.”

“They will all turn on each other,” she said softly.

“Yes,” Cerradine said. “I’d like to place a couple of officers in your household. They will be here primarily to protect you and the girls. They will have orders to keep your husband out of this house.”

Legally, he had no right to do that. Legally, her husband could do whatever he wanted to her and her daughters. But in truth, Cerradine could protect her and her family.

“People will talk,” she said in half a whisper.

“Shironne has told me you no longer have a maid,” he said, “so one of the women in the office has volunteered to take that job. And Messine has said he’ll take over your mews. You’ll simply appear to have hired a couple of new servants.”

“Mama,” Shironne said, “you should agree.”

The cook added her gruff agreement. Cerradine held his mouth grimly shut. Even Savelle Anjir couldn’t turn his offer down gracefully now.

She lifted her chin. “I will not say no, then, Colonel.”

“Good.” Cerradine couldn’t stop the firestorm of gossip that would soon descend on Madam Anjir’s head, but he could protect her from her husband’s possible reprisals once the man learned that Shironne had a part in his downfall. This was one of the things he could fix. “Now, I had best leave before my coming is noticed.”

Savelle Anjir reached over and laid her slender hand atop his, something he didn’t think she’d ever done before. “Thank you, Colonel. I am grateful for your consideration.”

He wasn’t sure whether she meant his arranging for guards, or his quick departure, but he wasn’t going to question it. “You’re most welcome, Madam. Good night, Shironne.”

It was the beginning of the end for that family. He could only hope there would be a new beginning for them once the smoke cleared. He would do his best to see that it was so.