Episode 26: Private Matters | Scryer's Gulch
John met Annabelle's eyes over Simon's dark head; at first, he looked shocked and appalled, but his mien hardened quickly. "Miss Duniway," Simon began, taking a step toward her.
"We're discussing a private matter, Miss Duniway," interrupted John.
"I should say it's a private matter," said Simon. "It's her privacy. She deserves to know. She deserves my apology."
Annabelle folded her arms and studied them both: John's guarded expression, his arms crossed like her own; Simon's remorseful one, hands open before him. "I think I might know the matter in question," she said. "Sheriff Runnels, I cannot guess at a reason why you might feel compelled to read my private correspondence." Simon's shoulders crumpled minutely, and she knew she'd guessed correctly. "And Mr Prake, I confess I am beyond surprised. I thought better of you."
Simon wilted further. "I thought better of me, too, miss. The whole thing has me wretched."
"An explanation, please," she said.
"The Sheriff asked me to--"
Annabelle exhaled in exasperation. "Not from you, Mr Prake, from Mr Runnels!" Simon straightened in embarrassment and blushed.
"Perhaps we had best discuss this just between us, Miss Duniway," said John. He raised his chin slightly, his mouth set in a careful line, his eyes full of questions and a smidgeon of regret.
Annabelle glanced over at the still-wincing Simon; he looked so much like a guilty schoolboy that in a less dangerous situation she would have laughed. "Perhaps we should, Mr Runnels. Mr Prake, I will come by the ethergraph office another time."
"Oh, Miss Duniway, I am so very sorry--"
"Another time, Mr Prake," she said. "I'm fairly convinced the Sheriff had more of a hand in it than you, and I should like a few moments alone with him."
"It's all right, Simon," said John with a half-smile. "She's small. I'm fairly convinced I can do without your protection." He nodded toward the door.
"Oh, but I didn't think--I mean..." The younger man's hands grasped at an invisible support for a moment. "I'll take my leave. Miss Duniway, do please come to my office so that I might express my regret in person."
The bell over the door rang as Simon left. Annabelle let the sound fade into silence and waited. John seemed to be content to wait himself, meeting her gaze without flinching until she raised one blonde brow minutely. He dropped his eyes. "I am sorry you had to find out about it that way," he said to the floor.
"You're sorry I had to find out about it at all."
"True," he said, nodding.
"What were you hoping to discover?"
"Why you're here."
"And what did you in fact discover?"
"That your grandfather's business is doing very well, and please to use the mail instead of expensive ethergrams."
Annabelle snorted. "And on this weighty evidence you have decided I am some sort of...I don't know, spy?"
"I thought you were a Brinkie girl, is what I thought," he said, bringing his eyes up from his boots.
Before she could stop herself, Annabelle gasped in fury. A Brinkerton? Her--a Brinkie girl? May as well call her a prostitute! Brinkerton's female agents did whatever they had to, up to and including sleeping with the agency's targets and clients. Annabelle Duniway, Treasury Agent, had done some morally dodgy things in her work, but always in the name of national security, and never in bed.
But Annabelle Duniway, Schoolteacher, wasn't supposed to know what a Brinkie girl was.
John smiled in satisfaction. "But obviously, you're not a Brinkie. What are you, Annabelle? Come clean with me, and I'll come clean with you."
"You're the Brinkie, then, are you?" she said, feeling her unfortunate temper crumple her forehead into deep, furious lines.
"Oh, far from it. I hate Brinkertons. They're lying, cheating, violent thugs. Even the girls. That's why I can't figure you. You're not a Brinkie, but you're head and shoulders above the average schoolteacher. You're investigating something no schoolteacher would stick her nose in. You're sending encoded ethergrams--put that fist down, we'll talk about that, I promise. But first you have to tell me: what are you?"
"Why I should trust you with my hatbox let alone anything else is far from clear, sir!" she spat. "Are you reading my letters, too, or just my ethergrams?"
"I am this town's sheriff," he said. "If something looks like a threat to this town's peace and security, it is incumbent upon me to take whatever steps, however distasteful, to discover what they might be." He planted himself more firmly on the ground before her. "I am alone here, Miss Duniway. I have no one to fall back on but Rabbit, and he has his own challenges. If I have to read someone's correspondence to clear my mind, I will, though I admit yours was the first set of ethergrams I've ever requested. The last, too, unless we get a different operator."
Annabelle considered. In her own reading of John's character, she found much to recommend him. If she had to, she'd read someone else's ethergrams, too, though she would have cracked the code, she sniffed. "You first," she said.
"Me first, what?"
"You're the sheriff. You have a responsibility to the town. I understand that. My father did some questionable things in the course of his career, but always for the protection of his men and his city."
"So your father really was a cop?"
Annabelle had lied very little on this assignment, and she answered truthfully, "He really was. He died when I was ten, in a fight with one of the local gangs. Don't change the subject, Mr Runnels. We're talking about you, and why I should trust you."
"Very well." He abandoned his somewhat hostile, solid stance, and sat down on the corner of his desk; he kept his arms folded. "I can think of one big reason why you should trust me. You know about Rabbit." At her look of shock, he added, "Guess you hadn't thought about that."
"No, sir, I hadn't." She swallowed hard. If word got out about the deputy, there'd be a lynching. Werefolk, even werefolk who turned into nothing more frightening than big rabbits, were unwelcome anywhere; one bite, and you were one of them. They could not be allowed in civilization. She knew of murders to keep such secrets hidden. In fact, she should have turned in Rabbit herself.
It might be time to tell John after all. She could use an inside man, someone who knew the lay of things in Scryer's Gulch better than she did; she hadn't counted on her role as schoolteacher to be quite as limiting as it had turned out to be.
Into the heavy silence, a voice from the corner cell like a creaking hinge said, "I can vouch fer him, Miss Annie! He treated me fair right till the moment he stretched my neck!"
"Thank you, Aloysius," sighed John.