“Tomorrow?!” The pooka’s rabbit ears twitched in annoyance. She was fuzzy and short and had to stand on a chair to yell at him. “I came all the way from the Circle for this and you expect me to come back TOMMOROW?!”
Theodore tried to keep himself from slumping onto the desk in exhaustion. His work day dragged on into evening and now he was working by candlelight. “I can’t renew a work permit without your visa and a proof of residency. You’ll have to come back.”
“I can’t wait that long! My boss wanted this done yesterday!”
Theodore chose not to ask why she hadn’t come sooner. “It will take the Bureaucracy Dome at least a week to mail the permit. Bring the forms first thing in the morning and I can give you an extension.”
“That won’t work!” She said, huffing. “If you aren’t going to help me then I’m just going to have to tell them you refused to do your job!”
He groaned to himself. “Do whatever you have to.” He got up to open the door to let her out. Outside there was one more creature waiting for help. A small frog who showed up late.
“Hey,” the frog said. “You open?”
Theodore looked at the moon. “No.”
“Okay, but real quick: I’ve been falsely accused of a murder. Can you help me?”
He stared. “Tomorrow.” He locked the door shut and sighed. The endless work day left him miserable, and tomorrow he’d have to do it all over again. He climbed the stairs up to his room, changed clothes, and collapsed into bed.
He woke with a start. It was sometime later, and there was a noise downstairs. A hammering wooden thump, loud and fast. Someone was pounding on the door. Theodore stumbled out of bed, dizzy from sleep, and climbed down the stairs to answer it.
It was pitch dark, but he managed to find his spectacles and affix his Ranger Deputy badge to the front of his bed clothes. When he was ready to answer the door, the knock moved to the second-floor window.
Theodore groped his way back up the stairs and discovered a woodpecker pounding at the glass. He unlatched the lock. Before he could deliver a stern lecture on the importance of respecting business hours, the window burst open. The bird thrashed its way inside and, with a pop, changed into a goat woman that tumbled onto the floor.
“Oof!” She said.
“Oboe?” Theodore was alarmed to see his assistant at this hour. “Where have you been? You didn’t show up for work today. Why are you making all this noise?”
“You wouldn’t answer the door, sleepy head!” She moved past him to stampede down the stairs.
Theodore followed to find her undoing the door locks. “What’s going on?” he said.
She flung open the door to reveal a wide-eyed youth in a muddied cloak. She ushered him in before locking the door tight again.
“A bunch of humans were chasing this younger one through the Whirlwood.” She peeked through the curtains. “He was crying out for help, so I jumped in to save him! The humans were chasing us all day! We need to hide him!”
“You don’t know what this means to me.” The young man was breathless and sweaty. He appeared around sixteen years old and was slight of build. His face was obscured by his hood and long curly black hair. He wore an expensive silk doublet under his cloak that was all but ruined by traipsing through the woods. “Thank you so much.”
Theodore thought it was premature to thank him. There was more to this story. “Why were you being chased?”
The boy hesitated. Oboe stepped in to answer. “He wants to leave the city to start fresh! If we don’t help him, they’re gonna force him to work a job he hates the rest of his life!!”
Someone pounded on a heavy fist on the front door and the young man jumped in fright. Oboe flicked her doe ears, feet apart, ready to brawl.
Theodore gestured for them to hide in the kitchen. He waited or a second round of knocking before answering the door.
Outside he found a dozen royal knights in full plate mail uniform standing in his yard. These were bodyguards of the king, men trusted to speak on his behalf. It would take a catastrophe to bring them this far out this late at night.
Theodore did not recognize the uniform of the man in front. He wore no armor, just a drake-skin leather coat. Strange tools and measuring instruments were strapped across his chest. His eyes were hidden beneath the brim of a cavalier’s hat until he looked up with a piercing stare.
“Ranger Deputy. Pardon us for waking you at this deviled hour. We’ve an emergency.”
“What’s going on?” Theodore shut the door behind him. “What are palace guardsmen doing out here?”
He pointed a badge. “Knight Detective Conrad Whitechain. There’s no time for pleasantries. The King’s son is missing.”