by Brat Farrar
It wasn’t all that unusual for people to swear upon entering the building, so Sally didn’t look up from her crossword at the man’s incredulous curse. Although she did note it down in the margin–it wasn’t often she heard a new one.
“This is a front?” He sounded almost indignant.
“No, this is a postmark service. Can I help you?” She flashed him her most insincere smile, and put down her pencil. At least he wasn’t terribly good looking–she always had trouble making herself run those off.
He studied her, frowning slightly.
“I hope so.” After rummaging around in his pocket for a moment, he produced a badge, which he flipped open and waved at her. “I’m Special Agent Forsythe, here in connection with the investigation into the recent attack on Assistant District Attorney Winegar. Yesterday, the assistant district attorney received a letter, which, when opened, burst into flames. Nothing in his office was affected, but he was severely burned. He only survived because his secretary was able to put a damping spell on the fire–otherwise, he would be dead now, just a pile of ashes.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why you’re telling me this.” Had he not been an officer of the law, she would’ve succumbed to the temptation to blowing him off in favor of going back to her crossword. She settled for tapping her pencil impatiently against the paper.
“Enough of the envelope survived for our forensics department to trace back to this location. I need to see any file you have in connection with this.” He pulled out a wad of photocopies, which he unfolded and placed on the desk in front of her, covering up her crossword in the process. Frowning a little in annoyance, she glanced through them, and was surprised to see that they weren’t only of the envelope.
“I thought you said the letter caught on fire,” she said, holding up a photocopy of a torn sheet of paper covered in some kind of code.
“Only what came in contact the assistant district attorney’s skin.” His frown deepened. “If I might see your files? I need the original postmark.” Ah. Even though the request was usually made under rather less dramatic circumstances, it was one she was used to fielding.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.” Without looking at him, she refolded the photocopies, and held them out. As he grabbed them back from her, his fingers brushed hers, and she noticed that the nails had been bitten down to the quick.
“I don’t think you understand.” The good-humor of his voice and expression couldn’t mask the tension in his spine and across his shoulders, or the way one of his hands had curled into a fist. “I need to know.”
“And I don’t think you understand.” She tried not to sound as bored and irritated as she was, but didn’t succeed. “I can’t tell you.” Why wouldn’t he accept it and let her go back to her crossword? Four more words, and she’d be finished.
“And I don’t care!” Both hands were fists now, and planted on her desk as he leaned toward her. “The lawyer who was almost killed? Is my cousin, and he was–” He seemed to realize that he was about three inches from her face and all but yelling, and straightened, awkwardly jamming his hands into his pockets. “He was just doing his job,” he finished, sounding very tired and almost sick with frustration. “Please. I just need to know where to look.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again, this time almost meaning it. “But I can’t give you our files–we don’t have any. And we burn everything as soon as we’re finished with it. That’s part of the service. There’s nothing I can give you.”
He looked at her for a minute, as if trying to gauge the truth of what she was saying, then sighed. “Well, thank you for your time, then.” The lack of bitterness in his voice was more striking then his earlier fury.
“I am sorry,” she called after him, but he didn’t seem to hear, shutting the door behind him without a backward glance.
After he left, she stared for a while at her crossword, seeing only the blank squares. Without the clues, she wouldn’t be able to fill them in, even with the help of the surrounding words. If she didn’t have even those–
Abruptly, she shoved the crossword away, and dug out a piece of paper. With the pencil she’d be using on the puzzle, she began writing quickly, and without hesitation.
She hadn’t lied: they didn’t keep records–were in fact very particular about not keeping records, besides those of cash and supply flow–but then, they didn’t need to. Business envelope to a lawyer’s office in Old New Holland, thirty-two cent stamp, two and half pages (which was unusual), postmarked five days ago? That one was from a very small town in Pennsylvania–Pit Stop, probably, but the ink had smeared. The address had been written in pencil (smart, because it was so impermanent and held scarcely any impression of the writer), in bold, evenly-formed block letters. There hadn’t been any return address, but there rarely was.
They didn’t need records–Sally remembered every piece of paper that passed through her fingers. And they didn’t let anyone in on the fact–if they let it slip, the next thing they knew, every investigative force would be expecting handouts, and their clients’ anonymity would be gone out the window. No, they didn’t give out information, but the next morning Agent Forsythe would receive an unsigned letter–delivered by messenger service, of course. Postmarks were so easy to trace.
Told you it was likely to be strange....