Episode 44: Friendship | Scryer's Gulch
Mrs Smith was some cook all right. Annabelle had tried to be ladylike, but sitting through services on an unusually empty tummy had taken the restraint right out of her; she'd eaten herself to within a pinch of her stays.
After dinner Mrs Smith retired to the washing-up, Jamie was sent in to help her, and Rabbit excused himself to the jail: "My, uh, my monthly troubles are coming due. Time I got ready for 'em."
"Going up into the mountains, brother?" said John.
"No," said Rabbit reluctantly. "No, I'm stayin in town. Maybe next month."
His departure left Annabelle and John alone before the front parlor stove. "He goes up into the mountains when he changes? Is that safe?" she whispered.
"No need to whisper, everyone here already knows. Yes. Uh, sometimes he goes hunting then."
Annabelle crinkled her nose. "I am uncertain as to how that might work, I fear. A werewolf, or a mountain lion, yes, but a hare?"
John sighed. "It's neither straightforward nor mine to tell. Now, what's yours to tell about Simon Prake?" Annabelle recounted all she knew about the young ethergraph operator, and showed him her still-healing wrist. He took her by the arm and turned her wrist this way and that, examining the wounds. He grazed them with gentle fingers for such hard hands; his touch came close to intimate. Annabelle knew she shouldn't allow it, but did. He looked up, the raw concern on his face taking her by surprise. "Has Doc Horridge seen this? Oughtn't you have it tended to? It must pain you."
"No, no, it doesn't hurt," she lied as she extricated herself from his grasp. "Besides, I have no ready explanation as to what caused such an injury. It's healing. It was much worse than this, I assure you." She grimaced, gingerly massaging her wrist. "In any event, I'm ethergramming Chief Howman tomorrow as to how I should proceed. I don't even know what I'm looking for at this point--I need more information from DC. Prake hasn't done anything wrong, at least anything I might arrest him for. Without knowing what the hermetauxite is capable of..." She shook herself, her awareness of John as confusing as Chief Howman's behavior.
"It would be imprudent to arrest him, I agree," said John. "Though it looks very bad." He leaned forward. "What puzzles me is what Prake aims to do with this ore. If we take Jamie as our example, all it does is make people do things they might want to do deep down, things they know they oughtn't. It gives them more than average strength. But I don't see how someone might turn a random impulse to advantage, nor what that advantage might be. Is there a way, do you suppose, of forcing his hand?"
Annabelle kept her mien calm but inwardly she cringed, thinking of that love letter to Daniel Howman. Thank the Mother she'd destroyed it in time. "We've seen how very dangerous this ore is, Sheriff. I'm not sure how we can force his hand without someone getting hurt."
"Well, then, we fall back on basics. What comes in, what goes out, what happens next."
Annabelle shook her head. "This is where my choice of cover--or lack thereof--has hindered me. Few choices were available to me, and this was the only palatable one. But a schoolteacher can only do so much without attracting suspicion."
"Well then, this is where your choice of friends may help you," he grinned.
Friends. She supposed they were friends at that. Perhaps more? Be quiet, you, she scolded herself. "What do you have in mind, friend Runnels?"
A tiny, unprofessional flush crossed his face before he said, "I can keep an eye on Prake for you."
"I have an eye on Prake, actually. A confederate, if you will." Not time yet to tell him everything.
John leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "And just who might that confederate be, friend Duniway?"
"No one you know. Listen, what I need to know now is where the ore is getting contaminated. I've noted traces at the assayer's office, but nothing like the deposit at the ethergraph office--Prake's office has far and away the greatest amount of contamination in town. I need to know if the ore is coming from the assayer already contaminated and is just ending up in a large concentration with Prake, or if he's doing the contaminating and some of it's just found its way back to the assayer. Or if he's getting it somewhere else entirely."
John nodded. "I can handle the assayer. If you want to go back further than that, to the mines--Rabbit's your man for that. He has a nose for hermetauxite now, you know. Especially close to...to his time. He's never said anything about any contamination. Maybe he can't sense it."
"My feeling is that he might. So with the full arriving soon, now would be a good time."
"He's got another couple of days. I'll send him out poking 'round the mines."
"You'll need this." She slipped the detector bracelet off her wrist.
"I'm not sure I want to have something on me that left marks like that on you," he said, fingering the jewelry. "Besides, I'm not altogether sure it's the fashion for sheriffs this year."
"Carry it in your pocket or something," she chuckled. "Just touch it when you need to. You'll feel it, like pinpricks. The stronger the pricks, the bigger the source. I'm not sure about bringing Rabbit in on this. How discreet is he?"
"He's a werecritter. Discretion is their middle name if they live past their first moon. I didn't know about Rab for months--he hid up in the mountains to change every moon until I caught him at it. Sneaky fellow, my brother, for such a tall gawk especially."
"All right, then, tell him what he needs to know. I trust you on that. And tell him not to worry about the Big Blavatsky. I think I can arrange a personal tour."
"How will you know if there's contamination without your pretty bauble here?"
"My confederate will know. I'll take him with me. I should've sent him out that way a while ago, but we were narrowing things down."
"I surely would appreciate knowing who your confederate is. I'd hate to arrest someone for something not knowing he was performing federal duties."
Misi in tiny cat handcuffs glowered in her imagination; she stifled a giggle. "I don't think that will be an issue, Sheriff."