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Authors: Linwood Barclay

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense

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BOOK: Lone Wolf
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“Are you okay?” the chief asked.

I definitely was not. I said, “Yeah.”

Chief Thorne approached one end of the tarp, gingerly grabbed the corner, and lifted it up, revealing a body, as best as I could tell, from head to waist.

Like they say, nothing prepares you.

What I saw under that tarp looked like something that had been dropped to the ground through the blades of a helicopter. Flesh ripped away, bone exposed, blood everywhere.

Some flies buzzed.

I turned away. I wondered if maybe I was going to be sick. For anyone to die that way, it was unimaginable. But for my own father…

“I know it’s pretty impossible to tell,” Thorne said. “But did you notice anything, clothing, anything at all, that would tell you whether that’s your father?”

The surrounding pines seemed to be waving back and forth, as if in a high wind, but there wasn’t even a slight breeze. The blue sky was below me, the grass above, and then, seconds later, everything was back where it was supposed to be.

“No,” I said.

“We couldn’t find any sort of ID on him, so I was wondering…”

I came out of the woods like a man stumbling out of a burning building, desperate for air. I went to my car, threw my hands out and leaned over the hood, trying to catch my breath. One of the ambulance attendants was saying something to me, but I couldn’t seem to hear it.

There was the sound of a vehicle approaching, of rubber crunching gravel, and I looked up the hill I’d driven down moments earlier, and saw a blue sedan with a sign attached to the roof. I blinked, saw that it said “Braynor Taxi.”

It came to a stop behind my car, and a man I recognized got out of the back, came around to the driver, who had his window down, and handed him a couple of bills.

“Thanks,” he said, then turned and took in all the activity. The ambulance and police car, all the people standing around.

“What the hell’s all this?” he asked as the cab started backing up the lane. Then his eyes landed on me. “Zachary?”

I looked at him, stunned. “Hi, Dad,” I said.

“That a new car?” he said, pointing at the Virtue that was still holding me up.

“Fairly,” I said, just now taking my hands off the hood.

“Don’t tell me,” he said. “You didn’t bother to rust-proof it.”

“It’s got lots of plastic panels,” I said. “You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see.” Now he’d noticed Chief Thorne. “Christ, Orville, what’s all the commotion?”

“Hi, Arlen. Jesus. Have to say, it’s a pleasure to see you today. Where the hell have you been?”

Dad bristled. “Uh, just in town, Orville.” He sounded defensive.

“How early did you go in? We been here some time now.” Orville Thorne was sounding a bit defensive himself. “Did you, were you in town overnight?”

Dad sighed with annoyance. “Orville, I have to paint you a picture, for Christ’s sake? What the hell’s going on here?”

The others—the ambulance attendants and the doctor for sure—were looking at Orville with some disapproval, like maybe he’d missed something he should have thought of. He must have sensed it, because he coughed nervously.

“Well, shit, Arlen, there’s something here in the woods you should have a look at,” he said tentatively.

As Dad glanced toward them, Orville took his arm to lead him that way, but instead, led Dad right over his foot, and Dad tripped, one of those fluky kind of things, and went down.

He yelped, and when he tried to get back up, couldn’t.

“Jesus,” he said. “My goddamn ankle. I think I must have twisted my goddamn ankle.”

People shook their heads, rolled their eyes. “Nice one, Orville,” one of the ambulance attendants said.

3

I
RUSHED FORWARD,
but moved aside for the older gentleman in the suit and tie, who creaked like an old door as he bent down to assist my father. Dad was on his side, his craggy face twisted in pain, raising himself up with one arm and reaching back with the other toward his foot, even though he couldn’t get anywhere close to it. “Shit,” Arlen Walker said. “Jesus, that hurts.”

“Don’t try to get up,” I said.

“No chance of that,” Dad said. “How ya doin’, Doc?” he said to the man in the suit.

“Just take it easy, Arlen,” he said. He glanced up at me. “I’m Dr. Heath. I’m your father’s regular doctor.”

“Hi,” I said, moving farther back so Heath and the ambulance guys could do their thing. I drew back up next to Chief Thorne, who was looking uncomfortable and embarrassed.

“I’m really sorry, Arlen,” he said. “It was an accident.”

“Sure, Orville,” Dad said, wincing. “I know. These things happen.”

“I was just trying to help,” the chief said. He suddenly looked very young to me, with soft white skin, a few freckles around his eyes.

The rest of the crowd was taking in the show. There was the sixtyish woman in the kerchief and hunting jacket, a guest I figured, her arm linked with a man of similar age, both of them on the short side. Her doughy face was clouded with worry, but he was a bit harder to read. Just watching. Next to him, only slightly taller, stood a man in a dark green felt baseball cap, with what looked like a basketball hidden under his unzipped windbreaker and striped pullover shirt. His clothes must have cost a bundle to make someone his shape look so good. Even in casual garb, he was the best dressed of all of us. I glanced back at the cabins, spotted a Cadillac STS parked at one of them, and knew that one had to be his.

Next to him, an old-man-of-the-sea. Tall, his face lined with deep creases, a toothpick dancing back and forth between his lips. He was dressed in olive pants and a plaid flannel shirt, and he smiled at me when our eyes met.

“Bob Spooner,” he said, extending a hand. I took it. “I’m glad your dad’s okay,” he said.

“Me too,” I said.

I turned to Chief Thorne and said quietly, “Didn’t anyone call around to see if my dad might be in town? You two spoke to each other by first names, like you know each other pretty well. I had a two-hour-long heart attack driving up here, expecting the worst. You couldn’t have asked around?”

Thorne’s tongue poked around the inside of his cheek. He was taking his time to come up with an answer, like maybe he hadn’t expected this to be on the final. After a few seconds, he said, “We’re basically in the middle of our investigation here, Mr. Walker. Our first concern was finding out who this man over here is, and when we couldn’t immediately locate your father, well, you can understand why we were concerned.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” I said. “Couldn’t you have made some calls?”

Thorne said, “We saw his vehicle over there, the boats were in, there was no reason to think he might be in town.”

“And why would he have taken a cab back?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t he have taken his truck into town?”

Thorne ignored that. A few steps away, on the ground, my dad said, “Christ on a cracker, that hurts!”

Thorne tipped his hat back a fraction of an inch and said to me, “I’m sorry if you’ve been inconvenienced, Mr. Walker.”

“Inconvenienced?” I said. “Inconvenienced? Is that what you call dragging me into the woods to show me a corpse I had every reason to believe was my father?”

The chubby guy in the nice threads said, “Orville, didn’t you call your aunt, see if she might know where Arlen was?”

Thorne coughed again. I said, “Your aunt? Why would your aunt know where my father was?”

I suppose it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to be as angry as I was. I mean, I’d just learned that my father was alive. I should have been relieved, perhaps even joyous. Leaping about, even. But instead I felt enraged at being made to look at that body hidden under the tarp, to have been led to believe by this incompetent rube, for however briefly, that it was my father, looking like he’d been fed through a meat grinder. Maybe, too, I was reeling from the shock of it all. Losing a parent and getting him back all within a matter of minutes. How often did that happen?

Whatever it was, I was losing my cool.

“Mr. Walker,” Chief Thorne said, trying to put some authority in his voice and placing a hand on my arm, “I think maybe you need to calm down and—”

“Get your hand off me,” I said, shaking it loose and—I honestly don’t know how the hell this happened—shoving Thorne away from me at the same time as he actually grabbed on to my arm, and his foot caught on a small rock, and then he was going down and taking me with him. The guy was a one-man tripping industry.

I was just going along for the ride at this point, but from Thorne’s point of view, I was attacking him, so he scrambled wildly to get out from under me, scurrying sideways like a crab, looking wild-eyed, his hat gone, and then, suddenly, there was a gun in his hand and he was shouting at me, his voice squeaking a bit, “Freeze!”

Well, I froze. Except for the parts of me that were shaking. I may not have actually appeared to be quivering, but I sure felt that way inside.

Thorne’s gun was visibly shaking. He put a second hand on the gun to help steady it, both arms outstretched, and there was something very Barney Fife about him at that moment. Not as thin and spindly, but equally erratic. He might not intend to shoot me but end up doing it anyway.

“You just hold it right there!” he shouted, glancing at me and then over to his hat and then back to me.

“Don’t worry,” I said, a bit winded from the fall. I shook my head back and forth slowly, raised both my palms to suggest a truce.

“Christ, Orville, put that fucking gun away!” my father shouted from the ground. “That’s my goddamn son, for crying out loud!”

“He started it!” Orville Thorne whined.

Even with a twisted ankle, my father had the energy to roll his eyes. “Orville, for God’s sakes, put that thing away before you hurt yourself.”

Thorne got to his feet, lowered the gun slowly and slipped it back into his holster, brushed himself off. I went over and got his hat and handed it to him.

“Sorry,” I said.

Thorne snatched the hat away and put it back on, shielding his eyes, unwilling to look at me after being scolded by my father.

“Yeah, well,” he said.

“It’s just, I thought my dad was dead. And then he drove in. I guess I went a bit crazy, having just seen that body and all.”

“Sure,” he said.

I stuck out a hand. Without being able to see Thorne’s eyes, I wasn’t sure he saw it, so I took a step closer.

“Go on, Orville,” said Arlen Walker. “Shake his hand.”

He took my hand, half shook it, then withdrew. We both had reason to be embarrassed, I guess, but Thorne looked particularly red-faced.

“Okay,” said my father. “Now that that’s settled, could someone tell me what the hell is going on around here?”

Bob Spooner spoke up. “Arlen, there’s a body in the woods. A man’s body.”

“Jesus,” Dad said. “Who is it?”

“We don’t know,” Orville Thorne said. “It’s no one from here. Now that we’ve found you, everyone from the camp here’s been accounted for.”

“For a while,” I said, “everyone thought that it might be you.”

“I wasn’t here,” Dad said matter-of-factly. “I got a ride into town last night. I’d had a bit of wine with dinner so I didn’t want to drive.” That would be Dad. As long as I’d known him, if he had so much as a drop of wine, he wouldn’t get behind the wheel.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Where were you going? Who gave you a lift into town?”

He was up on one foot now, an ambulance attendant on either side of him, about to lead him in the direction of the ambulance. He winced instead of answering.

“I bet I can guess,” said Bob, a sly grin crossing his face.

“Bob.” My dad glared at the man, said his name like a warning.

Bob seemed unafraid. “I’m just saying.”

I noticed that the older woman and her husband had slipped back into the woods. I could just make them out, standing by the tarp. Then I noticed him holding up the tarp at one end so that his wife—I guessed she was his wife—could take a closer look.

Ghouls, I thought.

“Hey, Doc,” Dad said to Dr. Heath as the paramedics moved him closer to the ambulance, “couldn’t I just go lie down and put an ice pack on it?”

“Arlen, just come in to Emerg. We’ll get an X-ray, make sure nothing’s broken, confirm that it’s just a sprain.” There was a small hospital in Braynor, I remembered.

“But I gotta run this place,” Dad protested. “I’ve got boats to get ready, firewood to cut. Place like this doesn’t run itself, you know.”

“You’re not gonna be putting any weight on that ankle for a few days,” Dr. Heath said. “Longer, if it’s broke.”

Dad closed his eyes and grimaced. “That’s great,” he said. “That’s just great.”

The words were coming out of my mouth before I realized it. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll look after things. Until you’re better. I can get a few days off.”

His eyes settled on me, weighing this offer. “It’s a lot of work,” he said. “It’s not sitting around on your ass in front of a computer all day.”

Well. He likes my offer so much, he’s going to butter me up to make sure I don’t withdraw it.

I ignored the comment and instead returned his stare, waiting for an answer. He drew in air quickly, like the ankle was flaring with pain, and looked away.

“Fine, okay,” he said.

“And I’ll come to the hospital with you.”

“No, no, no, stay here. I’ll just be sitting around for hours down there. You look after things here, I’ll give you a call when I’m done, you can pick me up.”

I nodded my assent as they put Dad in the back of the ambulance. They said that once they had Dad admitted they’d come back for the body, which they’d now been cleared to remove, the coroner having had a chance to give it the once-over. The light on top was flashing, but the siren was off. We all watched as it went up the hill and went round the bend in the driveway.

“Well,” I said, standing next to my new friend Chief Thorne. “I guess that just leaves one thing.”

“What’s that?” said the chief.

I pointed back into the woods at the body. “Who the hell is that?”

4

A
S IF TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION,
we all decided, like some collective alien intelligence, to return to the woods for another look. The one Denny’s Cabins guest who’d introduced himself, Bob Spooner, Tracy the reporter, the seemingly inept Chief Orville Thorne, Dr. Heath, who’d chosen to stay here rather than accompany Dad to the Braynor hospital, and the portly but well-dressed guy with the Caddy.

The older couple were still in the woods, standing by the once-again-covered corpse, watching us approach. We were walking all over the place, matting down grass under our feet, making a mess of what might, under other circumstances, be considered a crime scene, but Thorne didn’t seem all that concerned. How much evidence did you really need to convict a bear, if it was, in fact, a bear that had done this, and not a band of rabid chipmunks?

I felt more up to it this time, since I now knew that the dead man under the tarp was not my father. Thorne gingerly took hold of the corner of the tarp and pulled it back, much farther than before, revealing all of the body this time, instead of from head to waist.

The woman in the kerchief glanced down again, not as repulsed as I would have expected, as if she was not unaccustomed to death.

“Tell them,” I heard her husband whisper to her.

“Not my place,” she whispered back, turning away. If anyone else heard their brief conversation, they gave no indication.

“I’m going back to the cabin,” she said, loud enough now that anyone could hear.

“I’ll go with you, lovey,” the man said, and they slipped away quietly.

A second look didn’t offer much more in the way of information. The man—as torn to shreds as the body was, its size and form did seem to indicate it was a male—looked about six feet tall. Much of his face was chewed away, as well as his neck, and his torso had been chewed at by something with considerable enthusiasm. Only his legs, below the knees, seemed largely untouched. The corpse wore a pair of black lace-up boots and camouflage-pattern pants. That didn’t necessarily make this some military guy, considering that kids were buying camo-style pants off the rack these days.

“I don’t know, Orville,” said Bob Spooner. “There’s not much there to look at, is there?”

Thorne said, “You come up here a lot, Bob. Doesn’t look like anyone you’ve ever seen?”

“Don’t think so.”

“And it’s nobody from here, we’re sure about that?”

Bob nodded. “I’m in two, cabin three’s unrented right now, the Wrigleys,” and he nodded his head in the direction of the couple who’d walked away, “are in four, this gentleman here,” and he pointed to the well-dressed heavy guy, “you’re in five, right?”

“Yes,” he said, agreeably. “I’m up here alone,” he said to Thorne. “Fishing, and checking out some property for a project I have planned. I’ve got my eye on thirty acres just up the shore a bit, planning to put in a big resort for sport fishermen that will—”

“Yeah, whatever,” Thorne said, holding up his hand as if he were halting a car in traffic. “So, that’s everyone.”

“Yup,” said Bob. “I’ve been up here for three weeks now, gotten to know everyone who’s up.”

“And no one was expecting any visitors?”

Everyone muttered no under their breath. “Well, that’s a puzzler,” said the chief.

“What about up there?” I said, pointing up the road, where the farmhouse, hidden by trees from where we stood, sat beyond the gate with all the warning signs.

“I don’t think it would be anyone from up there,” said Thorne.

I thought,
Huh?
But I said, “How can you know that? Twenty minutes ago, we thought this was my father.”

“I’m just saying, I don’t think it’s anyone from up there,” said Thorne. “Doesn’t look like it to me.”

This was a baffler. A cop who didn’t want to make every effort, consider every possibility to learn the identity of a guy who’d been mauled to death? I kept pressing. “At least you should go up there and talk to whoever lives there.”

“Orville,” Bob said softly, “you’re going to at least have to ask them a few questions.”

“What’s the deal?” I asked. “I don’t understand. Why can’t you go up there and talk to them?”

Bob smiled sympathetically. “Last time Orville talked to those folks, they hid his hat on him.”

“They did not!” Chief Thorne said, putting his hand up to the top of his hat and shoving it down more firmly onto his head. “We were just horsing around, that’s all, no harm done.”

“Orville, no one blames you. They’re a weird crew. Listen, I find them kind of intimidating, too. We can go up there with you. They won’t take your hat if there’s a bunch of us there.” Bob tried to say this without a hint of condescension, but it still came off as a bit patronizing.

Even so, Thorne was mulling it over. It was clear that he didn’t want to go up there alone.

“Okay, Bob,” he said. “Why don’t you come along, too.”

“I want to come,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s really necessary, Mr. Walker,” Thorne said, glancing at me, and there was something in his eyes then, just for a second, that looked familiar to me. It was the second time since I’d arrived that I felt I knew him from someplace.

I wanted to ask him if, by some chance, we’d met before, maybe when I’d been up to see Dad here before, but instead said, “This body’s on my father’s property, and in his absence, I think it’s appropriate for me to know what’s going on.”

This was, of course, bullshit. Thorne was the law, and he could take, and leave behind, anyone he damn well pleased. But, evidently, he wasn’t aware of that.

“Okay, fine then,” he said. The three of us started walking up the lane. No one spoke for a while, until Thorne said to me, in a tone that bordered on the accusatory. “So, you’re from the city.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Thorne made a snorting noise, as if that explained everything. Bob Spooner gently laid a hand on my back, then took it away. “Your father’s told me a lot about you,” he said.

“Really?” I said.

“Says you’ve written some books, whaddya call it, that science fiction stuff. Spacemen, that kind of thing.”

“Some,” I said. “But not so much these days; I’m a feature writer for
The Metropolitan.

Bob nodded. “Yeah, he told me that, too. Good paper. Don’t see it all the time, but when I do, there’s lots to read in there.”

We were coming round the bend now, approaching the gate decorated with its numerous warnings for trespassers.

“I guess they don’t like visitors,” I said.

“They don’t like much of anything,” Thorne said.

The three of us stood at the gate, Bob resting his arms atop it. About fifty yards away stood the two-story farmhouse, and it didn’t look much the way I’d remembered it from when my father first purchased the property. Back then, the shutters hung straight, there wasn’t litter scattered about the front porch, there weren’t half a dozen old cars in various states of disrepair, the lawn out front of the house was cut, the garden maintained. Now, none of that was the case. There was an old white van up near the barn, a couple of run-down pickups and a rusting compact out front of the house. There was an abandoned refrigerator shoved up against one side of the building, a rusted metal spring bed leaned up against it, a collection of hubcaps hanging on nails that had been driven into the wall, half a dozen five-gallon red metal gas cans scattered about.

“Has my dad seen all this?” I asked of either Thorne or Bob. “The place is a dump.”

“It is a bit of a concern to him,” Bob said. “And by ‘a bit’ I mean huge. But he doesn’t exactly know what to do about it.”

“How many live here?” I asked.

Thorne said, “It depends on the day, I think. But right now, I think there’s the old man, well, he’s not that old, but he runs the family. Timmy Wickens.”

“Timmy?” I said.

“And Timmy’s wife, Charlene, and they’ve got a couple of boys, early twenties. Arlen tells me they’re her boys, from some other marriage. I think their last name is Dunbar. And there’s a daughter, Timmy’s actual daughter, she must be about thirty, thirty-two or so. Her name’s May. She’s got a boy of her own, he must be about ten, he lives here, too. I think she’s got a boyfriend, lives here with the bunch of them, but I’m not sure. And they all got their like-minded friends, dropping in now and then.”

“What do you mean, like-minded?” I asked.

Thorne shrugged. “They just don’t like mixing with everybody else. I mean, look at the signs.” He pointed to the ones we were leaning up against. “They think the world’s out to get ’em, I guess. And they’re not what you’d call fans of the government, large or small. They’ve had a few run-ins with other locals over things. Pissed so many people off the last place they moved that they had to come here. Sometimes, it’s just easier to leave them alone out here than have to deal with them.”

“Why would my father have rented to them if they’re a bunch of whackos?”

Bob said, “I don’t think he had any idea. Timmy came to see him when he saw the house was up for rent, all cleaned up, looking respectable. Wasn’t till afterwards that your dad saw what he’d got himself into.”

“Oh man,” I said, still surveying the landscape. I spotted an old washing machine beyond the fridge. “So, are we going in?”

“Why don’t we just try calling them,” Thorne said. He straightened up, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Hello!” He waited a few seconds, then again, at the top of his voice: “Hello? Mr. Wickens? Hello?”

The house remained quiet.

“Can’t you just go up to the door?” I suggested to Thorne.

He pointed to the “Beware of Dogs” sign. “Can you read?”

“I don’t see any dogs,” I said. “And I know you’ve got a gun. Can’t you defend yourself against some puppies?”

Thorne said, “Let me try calling again.” He took a breath. “Hello!”

Still no sign of action at the house. No one at a window peeking out. Nothing.

“If you’re not going to go, I guess I will,” I said. I had my foot on the bottom board of the gate, the other foot on the board above it, then a leg over the top in a couple of seconds. “I’ll go knock on the door,” I said. I was feeling a bit wired still. The discovery of the body, the drive up, the mistaken identity, it all had me a bit rattled, and I was eager to get some answers. Also, there was a part of me that was enjoying showing up Chief Thorne in a way I found hard to explain.

“Mr. Walker, I think you’re making a mistake,” Thorne said. But I had both legs over now, and had hopped down to the other side.

I had taken maybe a dozen steps in the direction of the house when, up by the barn, I saw two brownish-gray blurry things heading toward me. Blurry, because they were moving so quickly. They were low to the ground, galloping, coming at me like a couple of torpedoes, and as they closed the gap between us, I could hear their rapid, shallow breathing and deep-throated growling.

The sign was right. These were dogs.

“Yikes,” I said, stopping for maybe a hundredth of a second, then turning back and bolting for the gate. Never did such a few steps feel like such a great distance.

“Hurry!” Bob shouted. “Don’t look back!”

I leapt at the gate, had my arms over the top, my legs looking for a purchase. My chest was over the top as the two dogs threw themselves at the gate, a combined frenzy of snarling and barking. I looked down, only for a second, saw one brown beast, one black, a bristly ridge of fur raised along each of their spines.

My leg jerked back as one of the dogs grabbed my pant leg, down by the cuff. The dog must have been in midair as he bit into it, and his own weight dragged my leg back down. I kicked wildly, heard the sound of fabric tearing, and now Bob and Thorne had grabbed hold of my upper body and were pulling me to safety. I fell into their arms, didn’t even try to find my footing on the other side of the gate, then fell out of them and onto the gravel.

The dogs were going nuts on the other side, barking, biting at the wood, slobber flying in all directions as they tried to eat their way through the gate to get at me.

They weren’t even particularly huge dogs—they wouldn’t have come up much past my knee if I’d been standing next to them, which I had no intention of doing. But their boxy heads and ragged teeth seemed disproportionately large compared to the rest of their sinewy bodies. Their ears were short, their eyes large and menacing.

They were jaws on legs.

Thorne offered a hand to help me up, then pointed to the relevant sign again. “I told you not to go over,” he said smugly.

The dogs had accomplished what Thorne’s shouts had not. The front door of the house was open now, and there was a man approaching, followed by another, younger one, stocky with black hair, and then a young woman. She had dirty blonde hair, and the down-filled hunter’s vest she wore over a plain blouse and jeans failed to hide her nice figure.

The man in the lead, late fifties I figured, was about six foot, broad shouldered, nearly bald with a glistening scalp, thick through the middle, 230 pounds, easy. He had the look of a football hero gone to seed. Not quite in the same shape he was thirty years ago, but still capable of doing a bit of damage. He trotted down in black military-style boots, and while not in camo pants like our dead friend in the woods, his pants and jacket were olive green.

“Wickens,” Thorne said quietly.

“Gristle!” he shouted. “Bone! Halt!”

The dogs kept barking, oblivious. As Timmy Wickens got closer, he shouted the names again, and the dogs, hearing him this time, stopped their yapping and looked behind to see where the voice was coming from. At the sight of their master, they became docile and stood, patiently, awaiting instructions.

“Barn!” Wickens said, pointing back to the structure, and the dogs immediately took off, charging back to where they’d come from. “Dougie,” Wickens said, speaking to the young dark-haired man who’d come loping along behind him, “make sure they stay in there. Did you not close that door like I told you?”

Dougie looked down. His arms hung heavy and straight at his sides. “It might have slipped my mind. I was doing some other stuff.”

Wickens sighed. “Go do it now,” he said, and Dougie turned and walked off as obediently as Gristle and Bone.

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