We went back Thursday morning to let them know what we found.
They were like a bunch of startled rabbits when we first came to the door. It felt like they were doing a stage production of relaxation, and we’d drawn the curtain a fraction early.
“I couldn’t sense any lies coming from Rick,” Neal said, once we’d gotten settled inside. “He’s as honest as criminals come. Didn’t have any idea of where the fur came from, but wasn’t sure they didn’t come through him. He said his assistant must have handled them, and she died weeks ago. It sounds like it went down the way you said.”
They all smiled, relieved. “There we go then,” Alec said. “Case closed. Everyone’s safe.”
I noticed Neal look up sharply, but he said nothing.
“Thank you,” Dennis said. “We hate to leave loose threads.”
It was really tense in the room again, and I wasn’t sure why. It felt like we were all about to fight.
“Yeah,” Julian said. “Anything for old friends.”
“Thanks for saying that, man,” Alec said. “I loved Nolan like he was my own brother.” He smiled. “And you know that’s true.”
“He always said he learned everything he needed to know on the road with you,” Julian said.
The goodbyes were cordial. Rosie didn’t say a single word. In fact, both of her and Dennis were strangely mute the whole time, only Alec said much of anything at all.
It wasn’t until we were walking away from their hotel room that Neal said, “They lied.”
“When?” Julian said.
“When Alec said, case closed, everyone’s safe.”
Julian made a face. “What?” he said. “Does that make any sense?”
“No,” Neal said. “Everything else has been true.” We got into the car, but Neal didn’t put the key in the ignition. “What did they say…” he said slowly. “When they were giving us the rundown of what happened, what exactly did they say?”
Julian ran through the story again: a trapper caught the creatures, brought them to a butcher, who skinned them and brought them to Rick. Rick’s assistant bought them, handled them and sold them forward.
“Yeah, but they’re all dead,” Neal said. “We have only Rick’s word to go on. And Alec, Rosie and Dennis’ investigation.” He pressed his hands to his face. “How did they present what happened, what exactly did they say?”
I was thinking of the wall, of all the pictures and newspaper clippings and yarn. “This is the story we’ve put together,” I said. “That’s what Alec said.”
“Based on the evidence we’ve gathered,” Julian added. “Dennis.”
“Rosie said, our guess.”
Neal took a long slow breath. “How much money,” he said. “How much do you think someone could make for furs like those?”
The quiet that followed suggested they could make quite a bit of money.
“But what do they need money for?” I said. I was still feeling pretty slick in my $800 jacket. “Don’t they have Scelerat credit cards? Like we do?”
Julian was already on the phone. “Hey, Bass?” he said after a few rings.
I head Bass’ voice, tinny through phone.
“I need a word with Veronica,” Julian said. “It’s urgent.”
There was a long pause. Neal’s leg began to tap. Julian put his phone on speaker.
“This is Veronica,” she said.
“Hey, it’s Julian Hawthorne. We’re just calling about Alec, Dennis and Rosie.”
There was a moment’s pause. “What about them?” I thought I could hear some tension in her voice.
Neal and Julian exchanged a glance. “Is there any reason they might need some cash?” Julian said. Veronica hesitated. “Any reason they might… be desperate?”
“Okay,” Veronica finally said. “I’m sure you know we keep an eye on where our artificial funds wind up. We’ve been noticing Scelerat money associated with some organizations that… we don’t approve of.”
“You cut them off,” Neal sighed.
“I know you have ties to that group,” Veronica said. “But we had no choice. The rules are very clear: no Scelerat money can be associated with organized crime. Our magic is enough to create and defend these funds only so long as it isn’t too closely scrutinized. You boys know we’re unscrupulous with how you spend our money, so long as you’re not gambling or funding criminal activity —”
“You don’t need to defend yourselves,” Neal said. “It was the right call.” He was already getting out of the car. A flood of adrenaline rushed through me.
Julian quickly said goodbye to Veronica and hung up the phone. “Shiloh, stay in the car,” he said, following Neal.
I did not stay in the car.
I half expected Neal to kick in their door, but he knocked. Rosie opened it, the strap of her dress falling off her shoulder, a glass of champagne in her hand. Her smile turned smug as a cat when she saw who it was.
“Did you forget something?” she asked, curving herself against the door frame.
“How much money did you make on those pelts?” Neal said.
Rosie’s smile vanished. “None,” she said.
I saw Neal shake his head, but had to infer his cold smile. He pushed past her into the hotel room. Julian and I ran across the parking lot.
When I made it to the door Neal had Alec pinned to the wall, Rosie was screaming and Dennis, already bleeding, was trying to drag Neal off.
“Did you know?” Neal snarled. “Did you know how many people were going to die?”
Alec scrabbled, but couldn’t answer with Neal’s elbow on his windpipe.
“Neal,” Julian said and Neal dropped him. Alec crumpled and Rose skidded down beside him, reaching for his face. His face was swollen, lip split.
Neal glanced around and saw us in the door way and seemed to take a deep breath.
“Why the fuck did you call us here?” he sighed.
“If you checked up on the case,” Alec said, slightly garbled, “we would have reliable, totally confident witnesses proving we had nothing to do with this. You’d believe us. You know when people lie.”
Neal rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand, smearing some blood there. I noticed his knuckles were split.
“Clever,” he said.
“We thought so,” Alec said, managing a lopsided smile. “I’ve gotta give you credit though man. We thought there was no way in hell you’d figure it out. Everyone knows Nolan was the brains of this operation —”
He stopped when Neal pulled the gun out of the waistband of his jeans. The room became very still.
“He was,” Neal said. “Nolan was the one who knew better than to shoot up a motel room.”
A long, fraught pause.
“Hey, alright,” Alec said. “You’ve made your point. We get it.”
“Do you?” Neal said. “What exactly do you recommend we do now, hm?” No one said anything. “You think it’s responsible of Julian and I to leave you three just… out in the world? To do as you please?”
Alec looked over Neal’s shoulder at Julian. “Jude,” he said. “Come on. You’re not gonna —”
Julian was ice cold and blocking the door. I started to feel afraid.
Neal crouched down, gun slack in his hand. “I don’t like to kill people,” he said quietly. “And Nolan really did love you. But if I get a whiff, even so much as a whisper of you doing something Nolan wouldn’t approve of, I will make sure that ends, do you understand me?”
I watched the knob in Alec’s throat bob as he swallowed. He nodded.
“Alright then,” Neal said. “Goodness, you three are a mess. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Neal —” Alec began but Neal was already on the phone.
“No, no, it’s okay they’ll be here in a few minutes,” he said. “They’ll get you all sorted out. Unless there’s a reason you don’t want there to be a record of your last known location?”
“Fuck you Neal,” Rosie said. The three of them scrambled, grabbing whatever they could on the way out the door.
Neal hung up the phone. He took a long breath. He said, “Shall we clean this up?”
It didn’t take long. We scooped everything into a trash bin except the cash and the pelts. The pelts we brought out into the woods to bury.
“The bullshit thing,” Neal said as we dug, “is that poison minks… I mean when they’re alive, they’re completely harmless. They’re basically tame too, they’ll come right up to you. They’re just like… super friendly, pretty little creatures.”
We wore gloves and buried them under a log.
The money — thousands of dollars — we left in the trapper’s mailbox for those kids.
Then we drove.
There wasn’t much to say, so none of us said much. Julian drove, then Neal drove. They scrolled through the internet, made some phone calls. Looking for another case, same as always.
Neal took the first night driving shift, and Julian climbed into the back for some shut eye. It wasn’t awkward though until Julian began to snore softly back there and Neal and I were actually alone. It was so bad hahaha I knew one of us had to say something, but like… what was I supposed to say? Sorry I tell you a totally normal number of white lies? How dare you not tell me this super vital piece of information about yourself that like totally violates my ability to moderate what you know about me? How do you start that conversation?
Well, this is how Neal starts it: “So… you got a little crush on me, huh?”
“Fuck you Neal,” I said, and meant it.
After a moment he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“Why didn’t you?” I said.
He squirmed, which was reassuring. “Why didn’t I tell you that I have the supernatural ability to decipher truth from lies? How would you tell people?” he said.
“Hey Shiloh, don’t lie to me, I can always tell,” I suggested, expecting him to laugh but he didn’t.
“I have told you not to lie to me,” he said, and I started to argue, but then I remembered that he technically has. Once, a long time ago. He said, don’t lie to me, you can’t lie to me.
“You could have told me better,” I told him. “I’ve accepted witchcraft, I can probably handle the human lie detector, don’t you think?”
He didn’t say anything.
“I’m humiliated as hell,” I said.
He did laugh then. “Why, because you think you have a crush on me?”
“Well I mean a little!!!!” I said and he laughed.
“Girl you don’t have a crush, what you have is self destructive tendencies, daddy issues, and a lot of hormones,” he said.
Okay Neal, fucking just eviscerate me that’s fine.
But it wasn’t just that. I was humiliated because of all of it. Which me must have known because he went on.
“Listen,” Neal said. “Everyone’s a liar. Most people are much worse liars than you. The only lies you ever tell are like… I’m fine, I’m not having nightmares, I’m not scared. And to be honest, all anyone has to do is look at you to know that’s not true.”
I whacked his arm and he made a face at me.
We drove in silence for a while, then he said, “This thing I can do, it’s more nuanced than just lies and truth. So when you say, I slept okay when really you had nightmares, I know you’re lying to me, but I also know that you’re trying really hard to make that the truth. Do you understand?”
I hesitated. “So when I say I don’t forgive you and I’m furious with you —”
“I know that you’re not furious, and I know you’re forgiving me in spite of yourself.”
“I’m furious,” I said.
“You’re not,” he told me. “And you know it, or else you wouldn’t be lying.”
I sat with that for a minute. “How the fuck am I supposed to talk to you?”
“Same as always,” he said with a shrug.
We drove in quiet for a long time. Then I said, “You can’t ask me questions.”
He scoffed. “What do you mean I can’t ask you questions?”
“Like sensitive questions. Questions I might not want to answer.”
“Shiloh, you know I can’t promise that.”
“Why not?” I demanded.
“Because,” he said, with exaggerated patience like he was talking to a two year old, “when you care about people you sometimes have to ask them uncomfortable questions.”
And yet, despite his tone but I felt a warm little squirm when he said he cared about me. I’m not proud. Fucking Neal Hawthorne. “Fine, but I reserve the right not to answer.”
“That’s fair,” he said.
“And you can’t lie to me either,” I added. He hesitated. “It’s only fair!” I said. “If I can’t lie to you, why should you be able to lie to me?”
He took a long moment to answer, but when he did, it was appropriately grave. “I can’t promise to tell you everything,” he said. “But I swear I won’t lie to you.”
“Okay,” I said. “I forgive you.”
He smiled a bit ruefully. “You mostly forgive me,” he said, and I forgave him the rest of the way.