The faces of the Dentons, father and son, greeted Alys with nearly identical expressions of fierce satisfaction upon her return to Termi.
"I hear you were successful," the Chief Marshal said. Since she'd stopped off at the undertaker to leave Val's corpse behind before reporting in, the news had had time to reach him. She swung up a heavy pack and dropped it on his desk with a thump.
"Here's his cache. There's a fair amount there, both valuables and meseta. You'll find whatever he stole from Ms. Jenson, and probably some things from other victims, too."
"That's something at least. I'm surprised, though, that you took the time to haul his body back to town."
"So am I. But it's proof that he really is dead, not that you'd doubt me but it looks good in an official record. And I guess I must be going soft, besides, because I thought he ought to get a decent burial."
"What?" burst incredulously from Ivor's lips. "A murdering sneak thief who cut down a defenseless girl who just happened to be in his way? The only thing he deserved was to be left for dead in the dust. I just wish you could have brought him back so I could have seen him dance on air."
"I wish I could have brought him back, too. Then I could have testified for him at the trial. Val might have been a sneak thief, and I'm pretty sure he's killed someone before somewhere since anyone that good with a knife has had experience using it, but he didn't kill Ms. Jenson. I knew it right away once the fight got going."
Ivor looked at Alys like she was a madwoman.
"I told you, I saw him there. I was as close as I am to you right now."
"I know. That's half of the reason why I know he's innocent. So should you, for that matter. I'm kicking myself for not guessing it before I left this building."
Ivor was about to say something, but his father held up a thick-fingered hand like a Native Motavian's paw without the fur to cut him off.
"What do you mean, Alys?"
"Ivor, you told me that Barrett said he'd been waiting half an hour, right?"
"And that Mita said she was hit right after Barret gave her the message for Rilah?"
He nodded again.
"Well, there you have it. If Val had hit the housekeeper, why was he still there for you to find? Why wasn't he long gone? He'd searched the bedroom, yes, but that wouldn't take a skilled thief half an hour, and you didn't notice any damage in the front areas to indicate a more extensive search--unless you just didn't mention it."
Ivor shook his head.
"No, no, there weren't any signs of a search."
"There you go, then. If he'd knocked out Mita, then he shouldn't have been there a half-hour later, and if he didn't knock her out then I'd say that whomever did is more likely to be the killer."
The elder Denton nodded ponderously.
"It's suggestive, but not proof. Val might have stayed the whole time to make a careful search of the bedroom, or some other reason. He could even have been shaken by the murder and needed a few minutes to compose himself; people sometimes do. For that matter, Mita might have slipped, hit her head, and knocked herself out and that would have nothing to do with the killing at all, which would throw off your whole time analysis."
"Those are good points," Alys agreed. "Like I said, that's only half of the reason I know he didn't do it. By itself, it's just fishy."
"So what's the other half?" Ivor challenged.
"The death wound was one stab down into the heart, right? That means an overhand strike, like this." She picked up a pen off Denton's desk and mimed plunging it down into Ivor's chest. "Right?"
"Exactly right," said the Chief Marshal.
Alys flipped the pen back onto his desk.
"You've been keeping the peace here pretty long," she said to him, "so I'm sure you've seen plenty of knife fights and stabbings. Did you ever see anyone who knew how to use a knife stab somebody that way?"
"No," Denton said, comprehension dawning. "No, I haven't."
"Right. It's a natural move, but a bad one. A knife-fighter stabs low; it's harder to block and there aren't any of those pesky ribs to get in the way of the blade. Only someone who doesn't train with a knife, doesn't use one regularly in fighting, stabs overhand. Val ran from you, Ivor, so you didn't get a chance to fight him, but I did, and he definitely knew what he was doing with a knife, enough to give me trouble. That's why he's dead now, because he was good enough that I couldn't just disarm and capture him but not good enough to actually beat me."
"Maybe he wanted it to look like someone else had done it, someone unskilled," suggested Ivor.
Alys snorted, expressing her opinion of that idea.
"Why on Motavia would he have done that? Nobody thinks that way if they have to quickly kill someone who's discovered them robbing their house."
"She's right, Ivor," his father agreed. "In the case of a premeditated killing that would be one thing, but Val wouldn't have played fancy games with the murder. He'd have struck fast and been done with it."
"But he was there," Ivor protested again.
"A coincidence," Alys said with a shrug. "He was a thief and Rilah Jenson was a working woman. The best time to rob her would be the daytime, when she would be expected to be at her shop. It was just Val's bad luck that he picked a day she wasn't at work, and his worse luck that he blundered into a murder scene just in time to be mistaken for the killer."
She shook her head.
"He was a thief and probably worse, but he died for this crime and he didn't commit it."
Ivor still looked as if he couldn't believe what she was saying, but his father was another story. Denton's mouth had curved into a thoughtful frown and he drummed his thick, blunt fingertips on the desk.
"Granting your point, Alys," he said, "then what's your explanation of what did happen?"
She looked over at Ivor, holding his gaze.
"Don't you know?"
"You can't be accusing me?"
She shook her head.
"No, I'm accusing your rival, Gart Barrett."
"You can't be serious."
"Why not? You told me the motive yourself, a lover's quarrel between Barrett and Rilah. Barrett hinted at it, too, when he talked about whether or not he'd have to apologize. He was laying the groundwork for if you found out about it; better by far if he'd told you himself in the ordinary course of conversation."
"But it doesn't make sense. Why would he stand there and wait around after he'd committed a murder?"
"To discover it with you and present an alibi for the crime."
Ivor had nothing more to say; bewilderment had completely replaced his earlier relief at Alys's apparent success. His father, again, was a different case.
"Can you prove it?" he asked simply. "I can't arrest a man on motive alone, particularly where there's another suspect who'd look better to a jury."
"That's fair enough. He told Ivor outright that he knew Ivor was coming. Remember?" she prompted the young man.
"No, I...no, wait, that's right. He said that he was waiting to see if I got the same treatment he did."
"So how did he know you were going to come along? You didn't tell him, did you?"
"Of course not."
"So obviously Rilah had to."
"Right, and..." It started to sink in. "But he didn't talk with her. She never saw him."
"Didn't she?" Alys folded her arms across her chest. "Try this out. Barrett tells Mita that he's there, she goes back to tell Rilah, and he follows her into the house and hits her. Then he confronts Rilah personally. They argue, and he does what he intended from the start: he stabs her dead. Then, after setting the stage, he goes outside and waits. By the way, Ivor, you can congratulate yourself. Your date with Rilah probably saved Mita's life. She knew that he'd been there, but Barrett's plan to wait for you made that evidence in his favor, corroborating the tiniest part of the story but making the whole look accurate."
The Chief Marshal folded his hands.
"I don't doubt you, Alys, but we need some kind of proof. Unless Barrett gets scared and confesses, there's no way to prove he's guilty."
Alys smiled wryly.
"Try that," she said and pointed to Val's pack.
"I thought you said Val's presence was a coincidence?"
"Of course it was. That's the point. Barrett set the stage so he and your son would 'find' the result of someone breaking in from the back of the house, presumably a thief. He couldn't count on a real thief showing up to help him lay a false trail. He must have been dancing for joy when you saw Val. He was wrong, of course. An imaginary thief couldn't be caught, couldn't have his fighting skills tested, and couldn't have his loot recovered. He'd left town on the run, so he didn't have time to fence anything. Whatever he stole from Rilah Jenson, it's in there."
Denton caught on to what she was driving at, and a broad smile began to spread across his features.
"Mita?" he asked.
"Right. As the housekeeper, I'm sure she can identify several of Rilah's most significant valuables. If Barrett wanted to show that a thief was there, he'd have taken a few things, which means they wouldn't have been there for Val to snag. I agree that a jury might not believe a complex plot happened when a thief was caught in the act on the scene, but I strongly doubt they'll buy that two random thieves robbed the same house within half an hour of each other."
"Particularly," Denton agreed, "if we should happen to find out where Barrett stashed the items he stole. In fact, if we drop a few hints in that direction, he might try to hide the stuff and we could catch him at it."
"And this time," Ivor said grimly, "we won't have to hire you to chase him down for us."