Halloween night came to Scryer's Gulch, and many a party was planned. For most of the camp, they were not so much for celebrating; they were more about not being alone. Always tatty at best on top of the hermetauxite deposit, the veil between worlds got even thinner on Halloween.
In the hours after Miss Duniway's discovery of his perfidy, Simon suffered much and slept little. He longed for the chance to express the fullness of his regrets, but none came. It was left to him to make his own chance, and he took it the day after the horrible scene at the jail. He saw her on the street after school, threw on his coat, closed his office and hurried after her. "Miss Duniway!" he called, and she halted.
"Mr Prake, how can I be of assistance?" she replied, in tones warmer than he felt he deserved but cooler than he wished.
"I wonder if we might speak for a moment in my office? There are one or two things I wish to convey to you that I'd rather not say in the street."
Miss Duniway paused, and for a sickening moment Simon thought she might refuse. "Very well, Mr Prake, I have a short moment to give you, as long as it can be supposed I have business at your office," she added in a low tone. Simon gave her his humble thanks, and she followed him through his door and into his back office.
Julian Hopewell wasn't in the habit of visiting Mamzelle's Palace, at least not while the goodtime girls had been in residence at his place. But they were gone, all but Emmy. For a price, Emmy would do anything a man might want, from dishes to more personal services. But Julian preferred that girls at least pretend they liked him, and Emmy wouldn't do that for any amount. The occasional splurge on a visit to Mamzelle's became necessary.
The problem was affording it.
Luckily for Julian's libido, a hotel tenant with a big back bill and not much sense struck it rich on a claim everyone else had given up on. The greenhorn came back to town with one nugget the size of his fist and another the size of a hen's egg; he paid Julian with the smaller one, told him to keep his room open and keep the change--"Call it six months' interest and six more in advance"--and hightailed it back to his suddenly valuable claim.
As a result, tonight Julian was in funds. The first thing he did after hitting the assayer's office to cash in the nugget was to bespeak a dinner at the Palace, featuring a beefsteak the size of the table top.
"All right," said John once he'd recovered from his shock, "you've convinced me you're a great shot and a great wielder with access to some pretty fancy hardware. Now convince me you're Treasury and tell me why you're here."
"Only Treasury would care about the reason," she answered as she stowed her etheric pistols in their case. "Someone is corrupting ore coming out of Scryer's Gulch."
Icy prickles came over John's skin. "Corrupting--you mean like that nugget you found on Jamie? Someone did that on purpose? It's not natural?"
Annabelle shook her head. "Engineered. The best, our men tell me. Like nothing they've ever seen before."
John's temper rose hand in hand with fear for his son. "And you didn't see fit to take this to local authorities why, exactly?"
"I didn't know who was involved. I still don't. I don't know who the spellcaster is, and I don't know who if anyone is running him."
"Meaning," she said as if explaining to one of her slower students, "that you could have been in on it for all I knew. I'm taking a risk as it is that you don't turn that rifle on me and leave me in some gully for the coyotes."
"Oh, no! No, no, no, Annie, what have you done?" said Misi, pacing atop the bed. "Why did you tell him? Oh, Dark One help me, this is not good."
Annabelle was bending over an open trunk on the floor of her bedroom, carefully removing a panel to reveal a hidden compartment. "You worry too much, kitty." She pulled out a case containing a set of oddly delicate pearl-handled revolvers, and their gun belt. She removed the guns from their case, cleared their chambers, and methodically went through her routine.
"You just cleaned those."
"Can't be too safe," she said, finally loading the cylinders. Annabelle buckled the belt around her waist and placed the guns in their holsters; she practiced a quick cross-draw, and pulled her least-tailored traveling coat on.
"I suppose we'd better sit down if I'm going to tell you why I'm really here," said Annabelle, taking the chair in front of John's desk. "Where do you want me to start?"
John kept his seat on the corner of his desk, bracing himself on the desk edge with both hands. "Well, we've squared away your fatherless childhood."
Motherless, too, if it matters, she said to herself; aloud, she said, "I was thinking of a more recent beginning to my life, if it's all the same, though I'm expecting you won't believe me."
She straightened in her seat, raising her chin to a proud angle. "I'm a Treasury Agent." John's already intent gaze sharpened further, finally resolving into the incredulity she'd anticipated. "I said you wouldn't believe me."
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."
When John returned to his own back parlor, Rabbit was gone, off to make a final round before bed; Mrs Smith dozed in her chair, her darning still in her lap; and Jamie fidgeted anxiously on the hearth rug with his soldiers. John woke Mrs Smith with a gentle, "Now, Minnie, it's past your bedtime, go on up, I'm home now."
Once alone, Jamie and his father avoided looking at one another, John preferring the flicker of the lamp flame, Jamie the pile of deceased tin men he stirred with one finger. "I hear," John began, "that you picked up something maybe you shouldn't have, son."
"Like what?" said Jamie, giving him a brief sideways glance.
"Like a nugget of hermetauxite."
When Annabelle returned to her rooms, Misi got up from a patch of sunlight in the bedroom window and stretched. "What's up, cutie? Where you been?" he said. "Good Joyful Noise this Sunday, or did stage fright get the better of you?"
"It's not a performance, kitty, it's a worship service," snapped Annabelle, throwing her best straw on the bed long enough to fetch her hatbox down from the wardrobe. She stopped abruptly; several small traps she'd left had been triggered. The small clean streak in the dust on the nightstand was gone, for one. "Someone's been in here, Misi."
John held open the jailhouse door for her, and laughed in spite of himself. "That ghost knows what's good for him. Coffee, Miss Duniway?"
"I wouldn't," said Aloysius.
"Put a cork in it, spook."
"I think I shall follow his advice, Sheriff. Too much coffee is overly stimulating to the nerves," said Annabelle.
John offered her a seat and started to take his own, then changed his mind, pulled it out from behind his desk, and sat down. "I shouldn't think you have much in the way of nerves no matter how much coffee you drink, ma'am."
Annabelle sat up straighter. Her eyes flicked up to his own, and held him in a piercing cornflower glare; he met it, with outward calm and an inward shiver. "I do wish you'd say what you mean, sir," she said. "You have been suspicious of me almost from the day I arrived. You wonder about my income, you wonder about my character, you hint at this and that. It is past time I took offense. What is it about me you find so dubious?"