Oboe was worried. When the Tall Man escaped, Theo told her they were going to the city. He didn’t say anything else. They left the Hollows, hiked to the capital, and rode the trolley toward the big buildings without saying a word. He sat in the seat ahead of her, sullen and silent.
She needed to do something but she knew Theo wasn’t the huggy type. There had to be something else should could do to cheer him up.
“So, uh. Want to hear a joke?” She got no reaction. “Okay. A human, a fairy, and a gryphon are all going to a party, but they get there late. The host, who’s a donkey with a lisp, asks why they’re all covered in paint, so the fairy, who can only speak in rhyming couplets, says—”
Theo glare was cold and sharp. Oboe shrank back and choked on the rest of the story. With that settled, he resumed sulking.
“Listen.” She tried again. “I know you’re upset that bogeyman got away. I’m mad too. You shouldn’t worry, though. We’ll get him next time!”
Theo sighed. “It’s my fault a wicked ghast is loose.” He did not turn to look at her. “I let the Red Caps go. Now a man is dead and the Hollows will be blamed for it. If I don’t close this case soon, creatures are going to get hurt.”
Oboe leaned over the seat. “You let the Red Caps go because it was the right thing to do. Everyone should have an extra chance. If this guy wants to throw that away then he’d probably be bad no matter what.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Theo said.
“So what??” Oboe said. “Does it matter how complicated? Or how hard? We have something to do and all we can do is try our best! That’s all that matters!”
Theo lowered his head. He let out a soft laugh and pressed his hands into his face. A hint of a smile slipped out and made Oboe feel like she’d done something good.
“You’re right,” he said. “Thanks.”
A bell rang and the trolley slowed to a halt. They stepped off into the street where they stood under the shadow of a big domed building somewhere in the deepest and most mysterious part of the human city. The word ‘BUREAUCRACY’ was emblazoned over the entrance.
“What are we doing at this spooky place?” Oboe said.
Theo mounted the stairs and pushed the entrance wide. “Our suspect would like to think he’s escaped without a trace, but there’s one thing you can’t run from: Your paper trail.”
They hurried through boxy rooms and up flight after flight of stairs. Theo burst into an office and startled a clerk out of his nap.
“Theodore?!” The clerk said, jerking upright. “Is that you?? Are you back?”
Theo shook his head. “No.” He aimed his badge. “I’m here as the Ranger Deputy, and I am invoking royal ordinance seven article nine dash B!” He presented the permission form with a flourish. “To review private documents!”
The clerk stared a moment. “Oh. Okay.” He slumped back onto the nest of papers on his desk to resume napping. “Go right ahead.”
Theo replaced his badge, looking disappointed.
“What’s wrong?” Oboe said.
“He was supposed verify my credentials.” He stepped over a stack of unfiled folders. “Look at the state of this place. Disgraceful.”
Oboe followed him through a maze of filing cabinets. “Is there some sort of clue here?”
“If the Tall Man wants to haunt without attracting the attention of the city guards, he’ll need to stay within his licensed territory.” Theo pulled open a filing cabinet and retrieved a binder. He opened it to reveal a map of approved haunting zones and traced his finger down a list of names “Here.” He dropped the map onto a table and pointed at the Tall Man’s territory. “We’ll do a stakeout here!”
“That’s perfect!” Oboe said. “We’ll corner him, but this time we’ll nab him for sure!”
Theo was quiet.
“Right?” Oboe said.
“It can’t be like last time,” Theo said. “He could’ve killed us. If we’re going to do this, we can’t afford to make a mistake like that again. We need to be ready.”
Oboe furrowed her brow. She couldn’t think of a better plan than running in arms swinging. “Did you have something in mind?”
He was reluctant. “There’s an errand I want to run before we start,” he said. “I need you to take me to the valley ruins.”