An extract from the story Potomac Ripper commissioned.

The second his knuckles made contact with the wood of the apartment door, Potomac Ripper was already regretting it, though it was too late by then. He heard a voice from inside and then the door was opening.

“Ripper!” The girl  in the doorway gaped at him for a moment, a hand going to her curly hair and brushing it back. “What are you doing here?”

He gave her an awkward half-smile. “Just wanted to catch up. Are you busy?”

“No, come in!” She stepped back into the apartment, nearly tripping over a shoebox full of books as she retied her dressing gown over her pajamas. Same old Scarlet.

Picking his path through the crates of books that lined the narrow hallway, he felt a pang of nostalgia but crushed it and let Scarlet lead him to a battered leather armchair.

“Did you want a drink? I ran out of coffee but I have a few herbal teas knocking around. Peppermint and raspberry, I think.”

“Peppermint would be nice,” Ripper said, and she hurried to prepare it.

While she was in the kitchen, Ripper did a quick scan of the room, noting that Scarlet’s bookshelf was arranged in order of colour, running from black, through the spectrum of blues, greens, reds and yellows, until it reached white. It was a bad sign. Scarlet didn’t clean unless she was anxious.

“Here we are.” Scarlett returned and laid a tray on the coffee table, passing him a cup of steaming tea. “There’s sugar, if you want.”

“This is fine.” He blew at the steam, watching her take her own cup and sip from it. “How are things with you?”

“Good, just hectic.” Her smile seemed the tiniest bit strained, but maybe he was trying to see something that wasn’t there. “How are the Rollers?”

“We’re doing well. Just finished a big tournament.” Ripper was relieved that she had brought up derby, so his questioning would seem more natural. “How about you? Got your new league set up?”

“Not yet.” Scarlett shrugged. “There’s so much to organise, it might be months before I manage to get anything solid. I haven’t skated in ages.”

“That’s too bad,” Ripper said mildly. “I wanted to know if I could do anything to help. I could come and referee some time.”

“We’re not at that stage yet,” Scarlett said, “but thanks for the offer.”

They chatted for a while as they drank their tea. The conversation was polite and superficial; Ripper didn’t want to press too hard and alarm her, though the gentle approach didn’t seem to be yielding results. Time for something sneakier.

“The tea was lovely,” Ripper said, replacing his cup on the tray. “Do you mind if I use the restroom?”

Of course Scarlet gave her permission and thanking her, Ripper walked to the bathroom. He needed something to either verify that Scarlet was nothing to do with the case, or invalidate her defence. He glanced through her bathroom cabinet, feeling guilty, but turned up nothing.

Leaving the bathroom, he heard running water: Scarlet was in the kitchen. He glanced towards the bedroom door which was closed. There could be something in there, but if Scarlet found him, what excuse could he give?

Still, he was getting nowhere, so he inched the door open and peered inside.

It was dark and he couldn’t make out all the shapes. There was the bed and wardrobe, and then some lumps on the floor that could have been clothes or maybe books… He took a breath, trying to scan for anything interesting and paused.

Beneath the normal smells of shampoo and laundry detergent, he noticed something else… something distinctive, that he would recognise anywhere.

Before he could analyse his discovery properly, the sound of water stopped so he retreated into the hallway, shutting the bedroom door as quietly as possible.

“I think I’m gonna head off,” Ripper said as he reentered the lounge to see Scarlet waiting for him. Her brow furrowed, but she nodded.

“Alright. It was nice to catch up.”

Ripper managed to roll out some generic niceties as he walked out of the apartment, but his mind was reeling. He realised what the odour he had detected was - padstink.

And that could only mean one thing. Scarlet was lying to him, and he had a horrible feeling that he knew why.