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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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“Because they’re an inferior race,” he said innocently. He added, with the utmost politeness, “I don’t mean that personally.”

“Of course not,” Lawrence said.

“I mean, you might be the exception,” Jeffrey said.

“You never know,” Lawrence said.

“I’m really lucky,” Jeffrey said, shifting gears, “because I don’t have to go to school. I go to school at home. I’m kind of on a recess break now, but I have to go back soon. I love to skip stones.”

“Do you learn about these things at home?” Lawrence asked. “About which races are inferior, and which ones are superior?”

Jeffrey nodded. “My grandpa helps my mom figure out what to teach. My mom mostly does the spelling and arithmetic and geography, and my grandpa does a lot of the other stuff. Like how a lot of stuff they teach in history class in regular schools is wrong or never even happened. He gets really upset about that. One time I was telling him about my friend Richard? When I still went to regular school? And Richard’s grandfather, or his great-grandfather, I don’t remember, but when he was a kid he was in this huge prison camp where they put people in ovens and burned them all up. It was called Awwshits.”

“Close enough,” Lawrence said.

“So I told my grandpa, and he made me go to bed without any supper and when I snuck down later? To the kitchen to make a sandwich? He caught me and gave me a whooping.”

He said this without an ounce of malice or sorrow. He was just making conversation.

“So that’s why he helps me with history, because he knows that a lot of stuff that some people say happened never did.”

“Well,” Lawrence said, glancing at me. “Aren’t you lucky that he takes such an interest. So, Jeffrey, you got any friends up here?”

“Not so much,” he said. “I used to, before Mom and I moved up here, when I went to that real school. But up here, there aren’t even any neighbors. But Grandpa says that’s okay, because it reduces the number of bad influences.” As he said it, he blinked, suddenly realizing that he might be talking to one. “There are bad influences all over the place, even in Braynor.”

Lawrence reached down and ran his fingers through the wet stones. He found a smooth, flat one. “Try this,” he said, handing it to Jeffrey. “But when you throw it, try to tip it up a bit, so you can skip it right over the waves.”

Jeffrey took the stone and looked back out to the lake. He took a moment to get his grasp right, leaned into it, then snapped his arm.

The stone hit the water, skipped once, skipped twice, then disappeared under the water.

“Not bad,” Lawrence said. “Not bad at all.”

“Thanks,” Jeffrey said. He looked at me. “I didn’t know you had any Negro friends.”

“I got all kinds of friends,” I said.

“Well,” he said, stepping out of the water and finding a pair of shoes that he’d left behind a tree, “I better get back. Mom’ll get mad if I’m late for my lesson. If I’m late, Grandpa might take the strap to both of us, and I always feel bad if Mom gets it because of me.”

I thought of the red welt I’d seen on May Wickens’s arm as she was leaving the coffee shop. “Sure,” I said.

“Nice to meet you,” Lawrence said.

Jeffrey slipped on his shoes. “Bye!” he said, and ran back up the road to the Wickens place.

Lawrence watched him run off, and I looked for a trace of anger in his eyes, but all I saw was sadness.

25

O
UR PREVIOUS SURVEILLANCE WORK TOGETHER,
when I was doing a feature for
The Metropolitan
on what it was like to be a detective and was hanging out with Lawrence waiting for some bad guys to rob a high-end men’s store, did not go particularly well. Lawrence would be the first to admit this. But at least attempting surveillance in the city has its advantages. It’s a lot easier to spy on people when you have side streets and alleys to hide in, and plenty of other cars on the road to blend in with.

But up here in the country, well, that was an altogether different thing. “You try to follow somebody on these roads,” Lawrence said, “it’s not going to take your subject long to figure out what you’re up to. You’re the only two out there.” And as far as sneaking up on the Wickenses’ farmhouse went, well, that presented a host of difficulties, it struck me, night or day. You couldn’t get inside the fence without being seen or running into the dogs. We could probably stay hidden on the other side of the fence, in the woods, where all we had to worry about now, evidently, was the bear.

“No, we’ll be better off watching them at night,” Lawrence said. “We’ll go through the woods, come around the back way.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can see a whole bunch of problems.”

“And your idea would be?” Lawrence asked.

“You know, there’s a lot less chance of being spotted if there’s one of us instead of two,” I said. “You could head off into the forest, and I could hang in back here, with the cell phone, and you could call me if you needed backup.” As soon as I’d said it, I recalled you could barely get a cell signal up here, but I didn’t want to confuse Lawrence with useless details.

“Backup,” Lawrence said. “That’s what you are.”

“Hey, I can do backup. I was born to do backup.”

Lawrence gave that some thought, but not for long. “It’s not that I don’t see merit in your idea. Taking you along is a bit like having to take your little sister on a date because your mom feels sorry for her.”

I didn’t much like the comparison, but felt this was not the time to take offense. Enduring some insults seemed a small price to pay if it meant I wouldn’t have to go anywhere near the Wickens place. “You see?” I said. “I knew you’d agree.”

“But seeing as how I’ve taken this project on for somewhat less than my usual fee, and by somewhat less I mean sweet fuck all, I think I’m entitled to a bit of assistance.”

“Like?”

Lawrence shrugged. “I might need you to take a bullet for me at some point.”

“Maybe if we just paid you.”

“Won’t hear of it,” Lawrence said. “Now that we’ve got that settled, we need to decide how to use our time most productively before it gets dark.”

“What’s the plan, Stan?”

“Okay, there are a number of things going on in this town that may or may not be related. Why don’t we assume, just for fun, that they are, which means if we make progress in one area, it might end up benefiting us in another.”

“Okay.”

“Why don’t you show me the co-op, where this Tiff Riley was killed, then the mayor, and then we can pay a visit to your local gay rights leader.”

“Fine. Just as soon as I bury the fish guts and make sure we’re not low on worms.”

         

I
returned to the cabin, with some trepidation, to tell Dad that Lawrence and I were heading off to do real live detective work, but he was in his study, on the phone, speaking in low tones. The mess on the floor had been cleaned up, the salt and pepper shakers put back on the kitchen table. I tried to get his attention, poking my head in, but he swiveled in his office chair so he wouldn’t have to look at me.

“I’ll catch you later,” I said to his back, and left.

We took Lawrence’s Jag, which was not exactly an undercover car. In Braynor, you saw a lot of Fords and Chevys and Dodges, often in the shape of pickups and SUVs, but not a great many Beemers, Saabs, or Jags. There was a small Ford dealer on the south side of town, heading in, with a one-bay service garage and barely half a dozen new vehicles out front, and the GM dealership on the north side wasn’t much grander.

At the co-op, we found the owner, a woman named Grace. I introduced myself as a reporter, and Lawrence identified himself as a private detective, but artfully declined to divulge on whose behalf he was working. We were, truth be known, just being nosy.

“This was where Tiff died,” Grace said, taking us out to the warehouse and leading us down an aisle where stacks of bagged goods—topsoil, feed, and fertilizer—were stored on pallets. There was nothing much to suggest that this had been a murder scene only a day and a half earlier. Traces of sawdust, presumably remnants of what was used to soak up Tiff’s blood, dusted the concrete floor. There wasn’t a lot to see.

“What have the police told you?” I asked Grace.

“Orville?” she said. “Are you kidding? He couldn’t find his ass in a snowstorm, let alone Tiff’s killer.”

“You got any ideas of your own?” Lawrence asked.

Grace shook her head sadly. “I don’t know. A few bags of fertilizer, a plastic drum, why the hell would you kill someone to get that?”

Lawrence cocked his head. “A plastic drum?”

Grace nodded. “Well, we noticed one missing. Can’t say for sure it was taken that night, but we had five of them out back, fifty-five-gallon ones, and now there’s only four.”

“Did you tell the police about that?” he asked.

“What would be the point? I mean, so we lost a drum. You think Orville’s really going to care about that?”

Back in the car, Lawrence asked me to direct him to the mayor’s house.

“What was that about the drum?” I asked.

“If you’re going to make a bomb out of fertilizer and diesel fuel, you need something to put it in,” Lawrence said.

I said nothing.

A few minutes later, we were sitting where I’d been the day before, Alice Holland on the couch, her black husband, George, leaning up against the wall. I thought George and Lawrence exchanged some sort of glance as we walked inside, a shared-history thing, I don’t know.

“I understand,” the mayor said, “that the fishing-resort proposal is no longer on the table.”

“You heard about Leonard Colebert,” I said.

“Another bear attack. I heard about it on the radio. It’s a terrible tragedy. It’s really quite astonishing. All the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never known anyone to be killed by a bear. And now, two in a week.”

“Technically speaking,” I said, “the bear didn’t kill him. But the fall running away from it did.”

George Holland said, “That resort would have been a terrible thing for that lake. And how long would it have taken, once it had been built, for that lake to have been totally fished out? Who’d come up to the resort then?”

Alice Holland said, “I would never have wished the man dead, and I think we could have somehow stopped that project, but Braynor’s certainly better off without it. What do you suppose it is, this bear? A grizzly?”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t really know my bears, but the man who saw it, Bob Spooner—he’s a friend of my father’s and a guest at his camp—didn’t give me the impression that it was as large as a grizzly. It looked to him like the bear that we’d heard about earlier. Similar markings.”

“I suppose I’ll have to speak to Chief Thorne. He may need to organize some hunters, go in and kill this bear before it strikes again.”

“He’s ahead of you there. He was out in the woods this morning, brought two men with him who looked like they’d just come from a casting call for
Elmer Fudd, the Movie
. They were looking for the bear when the incident happened, but they were in a different part of the woods.”

The mayor shook her head sadly, then studied us. “But that’s not why you’re here, is it?”

“No,” I said.

“This is the friend you mentioned yesterday.”

Lawrence said, “I used to be a cop. Now I’m private.”

Alice leaned forward on the couch. “Interesting.”

“Zack told me about your phone calls. They’re still coming?”

She nodded. “Another one last night, after you left”—she nodded toward me—“and one today. There’ll be at least one more before the day’s over, I’m sure. Especially with the parade being tomorrow.”

“We just hang up, soon as we know what it is,” her husband said.

“I brought some equipment along,” Lawrence said. “In my trunk. It may help in a number of ways. We might be able to trace the call, get a number, maybe determine whether it’s a pay phone, but best of all, we’ll have a recording of the caller’s voice. You get a chance to listen to it a few times, you might figure out who it is, if it’s someone you already know.”

George’s eyebrows went up. “So you want to hook this up to our phone? Don’t you need a warrant for something like that?”

“Well, first of all, I’m not the police, and second, it’s your phone, and you know about it.”

George looked at Alice who said, “What do you think?”

He nodded. “Sure, if you think it will do some good.”

“Don’t know, yet, for sure,” said Lawrence. “The main thing is, keep him on the phone this time instead of hanging up on him. Keep him talking awhile. It might even be better”—he was talking specifically to George now—“if you let your wife take the call, even though I can understand you wanting to take it instead, spare her the abuse.”

“It’s okay, George,” Alice said. “If it helps.”

He nodded regretfully. “I guess.”

“I’ll get the stuff,” Lawrence said. Then, to me, “Maybe you can find out the other thing while I’m doing that.” Lawrence left.

“Ms. Holland, do you know where I can find the head of the Fifty Lakes Gay and Lesbian Coalition?”

“Stuart Lethbridge?”

“That’s the guy.”

“He doesn’t live in Braynor. He’s over in Red Lake, about ten miles west. I think he runs a comic book store just off the main street.”

“A comics store?”

I must have looked more than just surprised. I guess I looked interested, because Alice nodded and asked, “You like comic books?”

I smiled. “Sort of.”

Lawrence was back with a couple of hard plastic, high-tech-looking cases. He opened them up on the kitchen counter and I went over to peek inside. There were headphones and mini tape recorders and larger tape recorders, and something that looked like a gun with a furry barrel. I saw some small black things that looked like buttons.

“What are these?” I asked.

“Microphones,” Lawrence said. “You plant them, you listen in from afar. But I don’t need those right now.”

He gently lifted out some other devices, packed into the case in gray foam, and put them on the counter by the phone. To Alice and George, he said, “I’ll get this set up, then show you what to do. And I’ll leave you my cell number, and Zack’s, and his dad’s, so you can get in touch when you’ve got something for us to listen to. When he’s called before, have you recognized the voice?”

“I don’t think so,” Alice said, “but I think he’s disguising it, going really low.”

“I’d like to get my hands on this bastard,” George Holland said. “I’d like five minutes alone with him.”

“If it’s up to me,” Lawrence said, “I’ll give you ten.”

         

“S
o why do you want to see Lethbridge?” I asked once we were back in the Jag and on our way to Red Lake.

“Just nice to get to know all the players,” he said. “If he weren’t pushing to be included in the parade, a lot of this other shit wouldn’t even be happening.”

“But does this have anything to do with the Wickenses?”

Lawrence took the Jag through a tight turn, barely slowing down. “I dunno. If we knew all that, I could go home.”

Red Lake, even though it sounded like nothing more than a hunting lodge, was actually a slightly larger town than Braynor, maybe a couple of thousand people or so. The main street was lined with small, independent stores. No Gap here. No American Eagle. No Home Depot. But there was Onley’s Men’s Wear, and Katie’s Wool Bin, and Red Lake Hardware with a display of snowblowers on the sidewalk out front.

“There,” I said, pointing.

Just in from the corner at the second cross street, a small shop with one big sign in the window: “Comics.”

“Think a town like this could support two comic stores?” Lawrence asked.

“I’m kind of surprised it can support one.”

Lawrence parked out front. It was a pretty dingy storefront, the paint peeling, the “Comics” sign slightly askew. There were bits of what looked like eggshell stuck to the window and the frame, dried yolk cemented on.

“Looks like someone doesn’t like this place,” said Lawrence, picking at the egg with his finger.

Behind the dirty window a few comics in plastic sleeves were displayed. A Flash comic that must have come out when I was a kid caught my eye.

“DC or Marvel?” Lawrence asked.

“When I was a kid, DC,” I said. “Superman, Batman, Justice League. Actually, that’s still my thing. You?”

“Marvel. When I was a kid. Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk.”

“It’s amazing we can be friends,” I said.

Lawrence opened the door and I followed him inside. Two narrow aisles surrounded on all sides by boxes jammed with used comic books. The walls were covered with movie posters, collectible toys hanging from hooks, more comics.

From the back of the store, a voice: “Help you?”

He appeared from behind a display case filled with little statuettes of superheroes like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and some newer SF characters, like Hellboy and the characters from the animated movie
The Incredibles
. I guessed he was in his late twenties, about six feet, and not much more than 140 pounds. Wispy. His black hair hung down to his shoulders, and he eyed us through a pair of glasses with thick black frames. This was the guy who’d stirred up so much trouble?

“Are you Stuart Lethbridge?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

We introduced ourselves.

“So what do you guys want?” Stuart asked.

“You’re the head of the Fifty Lakes Gay and Lesbian Coalition, right?” I asked.

“Yeah. So?”

“We just came from Mayor Holland’s place,” Lawrence said. “You know Alice Holland?”

BOOK: Lone Wolf
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