Sweet music flooded in through the windows of the nearly deserted coffee shop. The smells of exotic meats and fruits wafted in with it, and the laughter of dancing children accentuated it all. It was a festive night, a wonderful night. It was the night which celebrated the coming of the new year: the Sun Festival.
Detective Sherman Wentworth glared out the window and hated it all. Lantern light flooded the small main room of the shop, leaving Wentworth upset and uncomfortable. The best part of the place had always been its consistently dim atmosphere and its silence, and tonight he could have neither.
He took a sip of his coffee and stared into the dying fire in the middle of the room. His webbed hands subconsciously slid over the newspaper clippings bound tightly before him. They were all he had left, really. The titles "PRINCE FOUND IN DESERT" and "TIGERMELON PRICES RISING" stood out to him, but the ends of the articles were so charred that most of it could barely be made out.
Those articles were the start of his life, and the end of his career.
Wentworth recalled when he was young, and his mother had told him that yellow Quiggles were the most intelligent type of person, because he was one and he was so smart. He scoffed at himself, just thinking about it. How bad he'd messed up this time was unforgivable. He'd never forget the look on his mother's face when he returned to her doorstep, charred and holding onto his very last possession, and having to explain how he was a complete and utter failure without even a home now.
He would have had his home if it weren't for Audley. How he'd like to destroy Audley the way Audley had destroyed him.
"Detective?" a meek voice asked from behind. The sound of the voice was so unexpected that it made Wentworth jump. He scowled at the young blue Xweetok shopkeeper. Though he'd been a regular at this coffee shop for years, he figured the staff would have more than enough sense to know when he fell from grace and no longer deserved his titles. "I hope you don't mind me saying so, sir," the Xweetok continued, "but my boss said if there weren't any customers at seven, I could go home and celebrate with my family."
The Quiggle lifted his eyes and used them to bore holes into the Xweetok, who squirmed under his gaze. Wentworth remembered a time where he would have been more than happy to send the Xweetok home earlier, and with a huge tip. This was not that time. He had no home; he had been kicked out of it. He would not also surrender his second sanctuary within the coffee shop.
"It would appear, ma'am, that it is nearing 7:15, and you still have a customer," Wentworth challenged coolly. The Xweetok opened and closed her mouth, as if to protest, and then slunk back to the counter.
It no longer surprised Wentworth that he didn't feel the least bit guilty about his actions. He figured now that the world had done him wrong, he could do the world wrong.
A small bell chimed above the door, and a tropical wind rushed over Wentworth's clammy skin. The fire finally gave in to death with the coming of the wind, and in spite of the heat, an intense chill came over Wentworth.
He didn't have to turn around to know who it was. Stiffening in his seat, Wentworth braced himself for the oncoming storm.
The new customer bumped into him, nearly sending Wentworth flying off his stool.
"Ah, sorry, mate! Seems I'm a bit clumsy," the voice said, and it grated on Wentworth like no other could. He quickly brushed himself off and turned to face the brown Lutari.
Recognition clicked in the Lutari's eyes, and a fury crawled through the detective's stomach. "Shermie! Shermie Wentworth!" The Lutari patted him roughly on the back, then dragged a stool over to the clearly-designated-for-a-singular-customer table. "Fancy seeing you here on this lovely evening."
An irritated muscle worked in Wentworth's jaw. "Audley, you are the scum of the universe."
Audley put his paws to his heart and gasped. "Shermie, you're too blunt for me."
"I'm a broken man," Wentworth said, his voice even. "Whatever you want from me, you can't have it. There's nothing left."
Audley grinned, which Wentworth found repulsive. "C'mon, now," Audley said, nudging Wentworth's hand with his arm. "It's the night of the Sun Festival. Surely we can call a truce, just this once?"
"I don't believe in truces between enemies." Wentworth leaned back in his stool and called, "Serving girl! Please go fetch the detective agency! I've got their most wanted right here!"
The Xweetok stopped mopping up her counter and narrowed her eyes at him. "Get them yourself," she spat, shedding her apron. She stormed toward the door. "I'm out of here. Fight your own battles, detective."
Heart pounding heavily in his chest, Wentworth realized that he had ruined his only chance for catching Audley. The thought of sitting alone in a room with him made Wentworth nauseous. He turned on Audley. "You knew I'd be here," he accused.
"Wrong," Audley said. "I went to your mother's house first, and when she said you weren't there—oh, she was making cookies, they were quite delicious—she told me to maybe check out the only other place you'd be. And I knew you wouldn't be out celebrating, because you're a bitter old coot, and you don't like to have fun."
Wentworth's face grew hot. It was just like his mother to give his whereabouts to a stranger.
Audley went on while the detective contemplated the means of acquiring a new mother. "What's that you've got?" He reached for the newspaper clippings without invitation and cut open the binding with his claw, allowing the clippings to fall like feathers down over the table and the floor.
Wentworth cursed under his breath as Audley went through the articles.
"You really shouldn't have, Shermie," Audley said. If possible, his grin had grown bigger. "These are all about me."
"It took a lot of fine detective work to acquire those and trace them back to you," Wentworth said with disgust. "And now they don't mean anything."
Audley pommeled the table with his fist, sending the rest of the clippings to the floor. "Case solved, that's why."
"Case not solved," Wentworth insisted. "You just burned down my house, along with most of the other evidence." He couldn't help the slight tremor in his voice, and he hated how weak it made him sound.
Ever so gently, Audley brushed over Wentworth's hand with his paw. "I'm so sorry about that," he whispered, but when Wentworth looked into his eyes, there was laughter in place of sympathy.
A good actor, but not good enough to fool a detective of ten years.
"I would offer you my crib, but it seems you would probably just turn me in. Or try to. If you could come up with any reason that I could be guilty of something." The way Audley batted his eyelashes made Wentworth clench the sides of his stool. If he acted now, without any witnesses, who knew what would happen?
Instead, Wentworth leaned forward in challenge. "The fact that you're here means you're planning something. And whatever you're planning, I'm going to be at the other end of it, tracking you down the whole way. You know I can. I will hurt you the way you've hurt me, Audley, if it is the very last accomplishment I ever make." His voice was low and dangerous, and yet it reverberated off the walls.
Audley clapped, and a laugh escaped through his horrible smile. "Those are pretty words, dear Shermie, and some of them may even be true."
Audley was always amused around Wentworth, and it was just another of the things that made him the most irritating person in the entire universe.
"All of it is true. I've had you put in the dungeons before, and I can have you put in there again. Don't think that just because my name is disgraced, my words will not be taken seriously when you step on the wrong toes. You can only play around for so long before you trip up and then spend the rest of your life in prison," Wentworth warned.
"Didn't you know, Shermie? I've always wanted a long life." Audley flashed him his teeth one last time, and then slowly slid from his stool. "Have a lovely Sun Festival, my friend. May it be more fruitful than years past."
Anger reached a boiling point in Wentworth as Audley swaggered slyly out the door. It took all his strength not to get up and chase after him, to bring him screaming back to the dungeon guards.
The dungeon guards wouldn't take him seriously, he knew, regardless of what he said to them or whose toes Audley danced on.
Wentworth would clear his name soon, and he would do anything to make that happen.
He took a last, long sip of the coffee. It was cold now, and bitterer than he remembered. It occurred to him that he could get up and leave without paying, since there were no witnesses, but Detective Sherman Wentworth was not the sort of dishonorable man to do that. He reminded himself of that a few times, and then reached into his borrowed cloak for his mother's purse.
His hand grasped at nothing. Audley strikes again.