by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2008 Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers

Home -=- #21 -=- ANTHRO #21 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   You spent a lot of time waiting, in Sam’s line of work. Once, he’d waited to fulfill a mission in a jungle in the tropical rain. Then there was that time in Magyar, when he’d waited out the bitter cold of midnight on the dreary Eastern European streets. Or that sunny Saturday morning on a beautiful island in the Mediterranean, with the sun on the bright beach umbrellas, sipping a fruity rum drink among the elite businessmen who had no idea what was about to happen…
   But for all the waiting he’d done on these jobs, in all the different cities and countries, this was the first time he’d ever waited to deliver a warning—or a bullet—in an actual waiting room. The irony of it made him smile, but only on the inside.
   It was nice enough, as waiting rooms go. And although Crane had left him here to cool his heels long after the appointed time, Sam wouldn’t get angry.
   He never let irritation or impatience put him off his guard; he was too professional for that. More, he was a badger. His species character included patience and more than a little of what might be politely termed persistence. But the attempt to bother him was a hostile move. It did put him on his guard.
   On the other hand, maybe Crane was just stupid. Sam couldn’t see any other reason why Crane wasn’t alone, when it would have been so easy for him to be alone. Whatever happened, this meeting shouldn’t have witnesses. Crane should know that.
   Sam sat in a modernistic leather chair, facing the overly-high desk where a huge, overly ornamental hunk of horsemeat sat. The receptionist was a Scottish drafthorse, a Clydesbank. Nobody could have mistaken the massive frame, the chestnut color, the dark mane, the white ‘feathers’ at the wrists. He was impressive and showy, just like everything else in his office. He could break you in half—but he never would, thanks to his hereditary placidity. He was also probably dumber than a gray brick.
   The horse had caught him looking! Damn their peripheral vision! “I apologize again for the delay, sir. Might I get you a cup of tea while you wait?”
   “That’s all right. I’m fine.”
   The horse smiled. His ears were perked; he had that near-puppyish look of eagerness to please that was so typical of the drafthorse breeds. “Really, it’s no trouble, sir! I was about to get some for myself. You wouldn’t regret it; I keep a supply of most excellent tea.”
   Sam sighed. “All right, then.”
   The horse picked up the file folders from his desktop, put them in the locking drawer of his desk, and pushed it closed. He seemed not to notice that the drawer hadn’t latched, had even recoiled to rest open a fraction of an inch. He stood up, up and up, and smiled the tiniest hint of a smile. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
   Sam shrugged and returned to reading the copy of Progressive Realtor he’d taken from the glass-and chrome coffee table. The photos of stylish interiors in the magazine reminded him of the office where he now sat.
   The office was almost silent. He heard the faint stirring of air which was the heartbeat of any large office building, and a clinking of china cups somewhere down the hallway. There was an island of light containing the waiting area and that oversized reception desk. Other than that, the place was dark.
   The big horse came back in due time. He carried a silver tray with a china teapot, a big mug, a proper teacup with saucer, and some by-God English biscuits. He set the tray down on the coffee table, filled the mug for himself and the cup for Sam, took the mug, and retreated to his desk, where he pulled the file folders from his desk drawer, opened one of them, and went back to work.
   There was something vaguely unsettling about the big horse, and it wasn’t just that like so many of his breed he chose to wear a leather collar and a ceremonial hauling harness around his torso, over his shirt and beneath his sportscoat, instead of the necktie other bloodlines might wear. Sam sipped his tea. It was indeed excellent: He hadn’t enjoyed a cup of tea this good since the last time he was in London. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
   The big horse smiled. “I doubt it, sir. You’re probably thinking of another like me—I’m as typical a Clydesbank as there is. In fact, I’m of the direct Clydesbank line and family itself. My given name is Derrick.”
   “Pleased to meet you, Derrick Clydesbank.”
   “Likewise, I’m sure.” Something on his desk buzzed. “Mr. Crane will see you now, sir. May I show you to his office?”
   “I only see one hallway. His office is down there somewhere?”
   “Yes, sir. It’s the office at the end of the hallway, the corner office.”
   “I can find my own way, then.”
   “Very well, sir.”
   He nodded thanks, stood, and walked into the darkness of the hallway. Light shone beneath the door at the end of the hall.
   Someone else was walking toward him. She was a whitetail doe, with her ears back, looking ashamed. He nodded to her. She nodded back. Her lips moved, but he couldn’t hear what she said as she eased past him and headed on toward the exit.
   Sam sniffed the air as she passed. He frowned.
   Crane’s office door was oak, with a gleaming bronze doorknob. Sam opened it without knocking, silently. He stepped inside, his eyes taking in all the details of the office and its occupant in quick glances that took only seconds.
   Elias Crane was a wolf with a body-builder’s physique. He looked formidable enough at first glance, but that kind of toning spoke more of the gym and vanity than combat ability. His suit was too well-fitted to hide a weapon.
   The room reeked of cedar incense. It overpowered Sam’s nose, numbing it to any other scents.
   Crane’s desk was stark, light-colored, and heavily built. There were no heavy objects on the desk; only a phone, a light, a glass with traces of some liquid in its bottom, and a few papers.
   Crane stood behind the desk with his back to the floor-to-ceiling windows. He was out of reach of anything that might be hidden in the drawers. Outside the glass was nothing much; a darkening sky with the lights of the parking lot coming on below. If Crane made a habit of standing that close to the window, it might be possible to pick him off from the parking lot, but that was far from a sure thing. There were no higher hiding places out there within practical rifle range.
   The room was stylishly bare. Behind the desk was a genuine Eames Lounge Chair. In front was a considerably lower, considerably cheaper guest chair. An abstract sculpture, far too big to use as a weapon, stood in the corner where the two glass walls met. The sculpture looked rather like a vine vomiting out corroded bronze intestines. It was utterly hideous, and therefore it must be in whatever was the best of taste this season, and also terribly expensive.
   There was no exit other than the door through which he’d entered. The carpet was very deep. It gave excellent footing and deadened the sound of any footsteps.
   The office reminded him of that Brice kid. Why? Ah—of course—if Brice had lived, this was the office of the kind of businessman he would have wanted to be. It was best not to think about that, though. One of Sam’s rules was ‘One job at a time’, and he never violated his own rules.
   Crane frowned. “I was expecting Mr. Dighton, or Sean.”
   “I handle some business for them, from time to time.”
   “What—I’m not good enough for Ernie Dighton any more? As if we haven’t been the best of business partners for years!”
   “You seem to have forgotten just why you became Mr. Dighton’s business associate in the first place.”
   “What do you mean?”
   “Mr. Dighton is a legitimate businessman with a reputation to consider. He has to keep a careful eye on the people around him to make sure none of them are involved in anything that might prove embarrassing. Should reckless actions by an associate have the potential to cause embarrassment, Mr. Dighton would act to remove that threat. By whatever means necessary.”
   “Ernie Dighton thinks he can threaten me? He thinks he has to?”
   “This is just a word to the wise. Mr. Dighton values your business, and would prefer not to have to cut you off.”
   “Mr. Dighton has no reason to worry.”
   “Who was leaving your office as I came in?”
   Crane’s hackles rose. “Nobody. It’s none of your business. I was alone in here!”
   “That doe smelled of sex. She’s of a prey species. In that way, at least, your old tastes haven’t changed. Have they changed in other areas, I wonder? With whitetail does it’s so hard to tell. They all look so young. And of course, they’re delicate, and prone to accidents.”
   The wolf was putting a good face on it, but his twitching ears and tail betrayed his fear. His hand stole toward the glass on his desk, but he didn’t pick it up. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
   “Of course not.”
   “And if accidents happen to the common herd—the deer, the sheep, the horses—so what? That’s not my fault! The Creator made people like that to be prey for the likes of us. Even if we can’t hunt them, they’re still stupid, just walking meat, all of them. They never look for danger. One wanders off a cliff in the dark here, another gets confused by the headlights of a truck and steps into the road at the wrong time there. I can’t be responsible for that.”
   “Mr. Dighton certainly hopes you aren’t.” Sam reached beneath his rumpled jacket—Crane didn’t even know enough to look scared when Sam did that!—and pulled out an envelope. “It would just be good for you to take steps, to take all possible steps, to make sure that nobody has any accidents near you for a good long while. Mr. Dighton was able to help you with an accident once, but it might not be good for business to help you again. I might add, as a personal observation, that while your sentiments about prey species might be acceptable in certain… circles… in the Coal Region of your youth, it would be better not to say anything like that here in the city.”
   “Of course, of course.” Crane waved his hand dismissively and reached for the envelope. “Dighton found out where the new freeway interchange—”
   Sam cut the idiot off before he could say more. “This is a personal communication from Mr. Dighton. I did not ask about its contents.”
   Crane took the envelope. “Ah. Very wise. Thank you. You can find your way out?”
   “If not, I’ll just call for your receptionist. Handsome mountain of horse, isn’t he? As I said, your tastes don’t seem to have changed.”
   “Um, Derrick is a most talented and efficient personal assistant.”
   “I’m sure he is.”
   “Goodnight, Mr..?”
   Sam smiled. “Goodnight, Mr. Crane.”

   Crane tipped the bottle. His hand shook so much he almost spilled the Scotch. He picked up the glass in his other hand, gulped the contents, and carefully poured another drink.
   He took the time to savor the smoky taste of the expensive Scotch this time. Whiskey like this was for sipping and savoring, not for gulping down in a panic. He’d more or less wasted a glass of the finest Scotch he’d ever found. Who did that damned badger think he was? He’d take the wasted Scotch out of that badger’s hide. Or he’d take it out of somebody’s hide, anyway.
   The familiar, comforting fire of the alcohol spread from his stomach to his very fingertips. He smiled. It was a shaky smile at first, but it steadied down as his nerves did. He drank more of his Scotch.
   That badger couldn’t be important. Besides, Sylvie was of age, probably. If Crane chose to give a new secretary an easier way to advance up the company ladder, that wasn’t anyone’s business but his own. And if something happened later, well, he could handle it.
   There wouldn’t be any proof. He’d learned a lot since the little incident that let Ernie Dighton get his hooks into him. It had been twelve years since then, and he hadn’t made one mistake.
   And the prey, the stupid leaf-eaters who the Creator said were food, not people? They made it all so easy! Crane set down his glass and topped it up again; his hand was steady now. With the prey participating in their own destiny, what did he have to worry about?
   That reminded him. With a smile and only a slight wobble, he got up out of his very comfortable $3500 chair and walked out of the office.
   The lights were still on in the reception area, and he could see Derrick’s back and shoulders even from here. Trusting and devoted, Derrick was. The big horse almost worshiped his boss. Derrick was prey, all the way down to the bone.
   Crane made his way down the hallway, bumping into the wall only once as he went. He smiled, all warmth and candor, and put his hand on Derrick’s shoulder. Derrick was so big that Crane had to reach up to do it, even though the horse was sitting and Crane was not. “I’m impressed that you’re still working so late,” Crane said.
   “You’re still working, sir. You might need something, and I am your personal assistant, after all.”
   “But your devotion is unusual. I’m pleased. I hate to think I’m keeping you from your family, though.”
   Derrick’s eyes were full of gentle adoration. He smiled. “I’ve never wanted—I mean, I haven’t met the right… girl… to settle down and marry. There’s nobody else. I lost my parents many years ago.”
   “Your accent sounds like you’re from the Coal Regions. You didn’t lose them in the Troubles up there, did you?”
   “Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid. We left the State of Crockett when I was a teenager. My parents died some years later when they went back to Wiltonsburg on vacation and their car went over a cliff, in the rain, in the middle of the night. I should have been on that trip too, but I was in college and I was too rebellious to want to go with them. Believe it or not, even among Clydesbanks you get youthful rebellion and other antisocial behavior.”
   “How horrible about your parents.”
   “Yes, it was horrible. I was devastated, but at least I didn’t feel guilty. After all, my being there would only have added another to the body count. I came to terms with it and went on with my life. The insurance money let me finish my degree. But surely, you have more interesting things to think about than me?”
   Crane hid a smile. “No, not at all. You’re fascinating, Derrick. For one thing, I’ve always wondered about this.” He touched the sturdy leather collar the horse wore.
   “That?” Derrick shrugged. “The traditional Clydesbank outfit includes a collar. In the old days, it would have borne a brass plate with our laird’s clan-name engraved on it. Then there’s the hauling and utility harness, and a kilt. There’s usually a small dagger or utility knife, too, slung on the left hip and angled for a cross-draw. Those things are in memory of our centuries as heavy haulers, back before the Industrial Revolution. And in memory of our warrior heritage, before that. The lairds bred us as warriors in the Dark Ages. We fought for them against the English, and in hundreds of years of blood-feuds throughout the Highlands. Did you know that?”
   “I think I’d heard it. You gave up the kilt, though?”
   “It’s impractical, sir. And, I think, undignified. Although if the old traditions were followed correctly, I would wear short trousers beneath it. That bit about wearing kilts ‘regimental style’ is just something they made up in the Vixtorian Age, because our true traditions had been lost.”
   Crane smiled and made his eyes go unfocused. He manufactured a slight lurch. “The collar and harness seem sturdier than mere decoration, though.”
   Derrick laid his ears back. Were they blushing inside? “My leather gear is top-quality. It’s… not unusual for one of us to enjoy wearing harnesses…” he said. For once he didn’t have that irritating little smile on his lips.
   “Really? How interesting. Do you like wearing leather harnesses, Derrick?”
   He’d never seen Derrick this uncomfortable. The Clydesbank was actually squirming! “I do… I have done that sort of thing, when… the right man…”
   “I would truly enjoy seeing you wearing a nice, sturdy harness.”
   Derrick swallowed hard. He nodded. “I would like to… think about that, sir.”
   “Can we talk about it some other time? Somewhere away from work, perhaps? You know about the old Gatwick place, don’t you?”
   “Yes, sir. I’ve wondered why you bought that. It’s 160 acres in the middle of wooded, swampy nothing. I would think it had little investment value.”
   “I bought it because I thought I’d like a place for private getaways. The hunting lodge fell down years ago, so right now it only has an old travel trailer on it. The Gatwicks only used it to hunt… um, for weekend getaways themselves. It’s rough, but comfortable enough. Do you think you could stock it for me, with some basic supplies in the cabinets? And some of my favorite whiskey and cigars? Perhaps some prime apples and sweet grain too. And then you could come out and we could have dinner and talk about harnesses. Maybe Friday of next week, eight o’clock in the evening?”
   Derrick’s smile was huge this time. “Please. I’d enjoy that.”
   “Good. Of course this is just between us, isn’t it, Derrick? Nobody else needs to know about it. I see a great future for you in this company.”
   “Oh, of course, Mr. Crane, sir. I will be there, and I will act with proper circumspection. Thank you, sir! Thank you so much!”
   Crane smiled as he walked out. He’d love to see the big horse in a harness, all right. He’d love to see the Clydesbank squirming in the straps, with the cuffs stretching him into a spread-eagle posture on the bed. To see the puzzlement in the stupid leaf-eater’s eyes as Crane slid the plastic sheeting beneath his trapped form. To see the comprehension, hear the first screams around the gag even before the real fun started.
   There was nothing like fresh meat.

   Sam turned the page of his newspaper and picked up his coffee cup to take a sip. He didn’t look up as the dignified, tastefully-dressed wolf walked in. The restaurant was nearly empty, but the wolf chose to sit at the counter. It had only two stools, so he had to sit right next to Sam. He picked up a grease-stained menu card. “What’s good?”
   “Here? Nothing.” Sam shrugged. “Ham and eggs is the best they’ve got.”
   “You spoke with our friend?”
   “On Wednesday.”
   “Did he take your advice?”
   “It appears not. He didn’t cancel his date with that secretary. By the way, did you know that the local cops found some bones and scraps of hide in the woods along the river?” Sam turned to another section of the paper, opened it toward the back, and put his clawtip on a small article near the bottom corner of the page. “Tragic, isn’t it? They think it might be what’s left of a hooker who worked near Angell Park and was last seen there four, five months ago. Just a hooker, but with the others who’ve gone missing lately, well, it looks bad. The police are concerned. There are questions.”
   “And she was killed by..?”
   “Hard to say. What was left was pretty well chewed up by coyotes and ravens. Being in the river didn’t help either. My source said something about a word or just a letter carved on her thigh with a knife, but she was too chewed up to be certain. More important is that some of the marks on the bones might be from a knife taking the ears and tail as trophies. The City Boys aren’t sure of that at all; my source himself thought it was unlikely. But if someone did take those trophies, that’s an MO we’ve seen before.”
   “Damn. Yes, we’ve seen a case like that before.” The wolf paused as the waitress finally slouched over. He ordered ham and eggs with coffee. When the waitress was out of hearing range, he said “And the location is between our friend’s home and his office?”
   “Pretty much.”
   “What about the secretary our friend’s been seeing? She’s a whitetail doe, I believe? I hope her health is good.”
   “She’s very healthy. Something came up, she had to cancel her weekend plans and head to her old hometown to visit her parents for a week or two. The ticket cost four hundred.”
   “The four hundred will be repaid.”
   “Thank you.”
   “Do you think our friend has another party planned?”
   “This Friday, tonight, he has a luxury box at the game. Next Friday, there’s nothing on his calendar—nothing on any of his calendars.”
   “Interesting.” The wolf put his own newspaper on the counter just as the waitress dropped his breakfast in front of him. “I worry about him, you know. I don’t think his health is good at all.”
   Sam finished his coffee and stood up. He took the wolf’s newspaper, still neatly rolled, and left his own. The wolf opened the sports section of Sam’s paper and started reading it as he ate. He made no comment.
   Neither did Sam. He left a tip on the counter that was neither stingy nor generous. He took his check to the register—after making him wait five minutes for no reason, the waitress let him pay—and went home.

   The Friday Night traffic was heavy on Old Plank Road, but Crane’s German SUV was easy to follow. It was big as a tank.
   Once they got out of the city, Sam had to fall back so he wouldn’t be spotted. By that time, Sam was pretty sure Crane was heading for the old Gatwick place. As expected.
   They passed through Hancockstown, and Sam knew for certain. He let Crane go ahead out of sight. A few miles later, he turned down Seven Gables Road. It was a county road, and Sam knew it was nearly deserted after dark.
   He pulled off the road into a clearing where logging equipment slept, waiting for Monday. A screen of trees remained between his car and the road. He turned off the engine, rolled down the window so he could hear any sounds outside, and waited.
   Autumn was coming on. Sam snugged his overcoat around himself. It was cold out here! Dark, too. In the city there was never any real darkness any more. Even in the farmlands, there were enough pole lights and barn lights so you could always see something. But here in the woods, the darkness was absolute.
   Sam waited. One car came out and made a left turn, heading toward the city. After a half hour a pickup truck turned onto Seven Gables going the other way. It had a loud, rusted-out muffler and was blaring low-fidelity country music.
   Sam waited some more.
   Nobody else drove by. This was as good a time as any. Sam got out of the car, closed the door silently, and walked to the road. He walked south down the road, beneath the stars.
   His new black athletic shoes and gloves—he was wearing them for the first time, and would discard them after tonight—were stiff, but comfortable enough. He wore an old-fashioned gray suit, hat, and tweed overcoat; the dark gray with its pattern of lighter and darker threads hid him better in the woods than pure black would have. Nobody would see him, but if somebody did, it wasn’t unusual for a person to be wearing shoes and gloves on a night this cold.
   A half-mile later, he found Crane’s trailer. The big SUV was parked alongside, silent and motionless, hulking in the starlight.
   The trailer had been a travel trailer by design, but it looked to have ended its traveling days about half a century ago. Its color was the streaky gray of corroded aluminum. It was still on tires, although they’d gone flat, cracked, and split. Jacks braced its corners. Two hundred-pound propane cylinders stood next to the door in a crude wooden rack.
   Beside them was a charcoal grill made out of half of a steel oil drum. The grating smelled of rancid grease and burned meat. Sam himself wouldn’t have put a grill, complete with rusted can of starter fluid and a covered metal pail with the corner of a charcoal briquette bag peeking out, so close to a couple of propane tanks. Then again, Sam tended to be very careful with things that went boom.
   There was the faintest of lights inside. Sam couldn’t see in; all the windows were covered with heavy condensation.
   He tested the door handle. It didn’t seem to be locked. He drew his commando dagger with his right hand and slowly opened the door with his left.
   Elias Crane lay on the worn gray linoleum floor. His right hand was at the door sill itself. His mouth was open, his eyes bulged. His face was frozen in an expression of shock. His tongue was cherry red.
   Sam stepped back, opening the door wide. Inside the trailer an oil lantern on the dinette table began to brighten. So did the gas heater inside, the flames behind its glass front brightening from faint blue to orange to a cheerful golden yellow. The heater was a household type from a farm supply store, cheap, two or three years old at the most. Its exhaust pipe looked cobbled together, disappearing into a crudely cut hole in the wall on its way to the roof. There seemed to be some black crumbly substance on and around the burner.
   There was no doubt, of course, but to be sure Sam touched Crane’s neck. There was no pulse.
   He left the door open, let the trailer air out as much as he could. On the dinette stood two bottles of expensive Scotch, with the bag that had carried them from the liquor store. One of them was unstoppered and more than half empty. A broken glass and a puddle of whiskey shared the floor with Crane.
   He’d probably waited long enough. The flames in the furnace and the oil lamp looked clean and bright now, although the flames in the furnace were still yellower than they should be. If he was quick, if he didn’t stay inside too long, he should be all right. He took a few deep breaths, then stepped quickly into the trailer, careful not to touch Crane or the spilled whiskey.
   The trailer had only one bed, in the back. Beside the bed was a steel box with its lid thrown open. There was nothing in it but some rock salt, a few of the crystals discolored reddish-brown. A wooden box half under the bed held only a few crumbs of what looked like black leather.
   Sam hurried. He didn’t want to breathe in here too much. Quickly he looked through the trailer. The cabinets held some cleaning supplies, some paper plates and cups, and a good supply of canned food, some of it suitable for carnivores and some for herbivores. A cooler on the floor beneath the dinette at the front of the trailer held bread, sandwich meat, cheeses, and some fruit. The little closet at the foot of the bed held nothing.
   Sam closed the steel and wooden boxes and slid them both beneath the bed. He still felt all right, but his heart was racing. Well, poison gas scared him, he knew that; it was probably just his fear. He quickly, but carefully, stepped to the door and out into the clean air again.
   The soil outside the door was scuffed up, showing no marks that Sam could identify. He checked the door handle. It worked perfectly. But the paint around the inside handle was scratched. There were some dents in the metal of the door too. There were a few scratches on the door at its bottom, where Crane’s dead, outstretched hand would be when the door was closed.
   Sam could almost hear it, almost see it happen. Crane had swallowed down whiskey after whiskey. Why? Because the things that had been in the salt-filled box and in the leather-gear box were missing? Was Crane one who drank when he was scared, and had he been scared tonight?
   At first, Crane might have thought that the dizziness he felt was from the whiskey. But something told him otherwise. The dimming of the flames in the lamp and the furnace, perhaps? Or a sound at the door? So he’d rushed to the door. There would have been the sound of the door handle rattling. The sound of fists pounding the door, of claws scratching, of screams. And after a while… silence.
   Why hadn’t the door opened? Had someone held it closed? What kind of person could stand there, hold the door closed, and listen to Crane struggle, beg, and die? Sam shivered. That surprised him. He’d seen worse than this in his career, much worse, hadn’t he?
   Of course, the dents and scratches in the door might have been made twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Neither Sam nor anyone else could ever know, he supposed. It could all be an accident.
   Yes, that was most likely. Sam shook his head and chuckled at himself. He’d lived in the world of shadows for so long that he saw shadows in everything. Accidents did happen, sometimes even convenient ones.
   But if Crane had meant to meet someone here—and Sam couldn’t think of any other reason why a style-mad, image-conscious wolf like Crane would have come out to a forsaken hunting camp like this—then what about the other person? Was he or she in the car Sam had seen leave? If so, they might panic and pretend they’d never been here. Or they might come to their senses and call the police. They might already have done so.
   He’d been here more than long enough. He took one last quick look around to see if he’d left any obvious traces. He couldn’t see anything.
   Sam closed the door of Elias Crane’s hunting camp trailer, Elias Crane’s tomb. Inside, the oil lamp still burned, the gas heater still made its cheerful and deadly warmth.
   He headed back toward his car. He met nobody, saw nothing unusual, on the way.

   “The food here is horrible.”
   “If it weren’t, the place would be packed, and we couldn’t use it.”
   “You have a point.” The wolf raised his cup to his lips. “The coffee isn’t bad, at least. Neither was your work. It was very neat. Very neat indeed.”
   “Yeah. About that.” Sam took a deep breath. “I didn’t do it.”
   “Of course not.”
   “No, really—I didn’t do it. You shouldn’t pay me the other fifteen. And I brought your fifteen here with me, to give you a refund.”
   “Indeed? It’s your lucky day; you get the money anyway. Whether you’re just being honest, or you’re such an excellent workman, I’m impressed either way. I’ll let Cooper know that.”
   “Thank you.”
   “Did the police find anything interesting at our friend’s place?”
   “No… specialty items?”
   “No, not really. There was a hunting knife. There were some traces of blood and hair, deer hair especially, but the place has been a hunting camp for at least sixty years, so nobody’s attaching any importance to that. No special knives, no ropes, no straps. The death itself they’re calling an accident, if not suicide. They find it hard to believe that an experienced real estate man wouldn’t know to check out a furnace before firing it up for the first time. But sometimes people make dumb mistakes.”
   “I’m always happy when there’s nothing to make the cops worry. By the way, there’s an extra five in the packet this time. There’s one more little job we’d like you to do.”
   “No promises. I’ve done everything I agreed to do, and I don’t like surprises.”
   “This shouldn’t be too bad, I hope. Nothing will be said if you turn us down. It’s just that Crane might have left some of our papers in his office files. We’d like to have them back, if they’re there.”
   “I’ll see if I can do something.” Sam picked up the wolf’s newspaper, left a tip which was neither stingy nor generous, and went to the register to wait for the waitress.

   Why was he sure he knew that big dumb horse? Everything he knew about Derrick Clydesbank told him this was just your typical drafter; calm, peaceful, hard-working. Yet something about him rang alarm bells. Crane’s fatal accident had doubled those alarm bells—and set off an air-raid siren, too. It drove Sam crazy, because he didn’t know why!
   He looked at the clock: Ten PM. Sam picked up the phone and punched buttons. He heard the phone ringing at the other end… and then somebody picked up. “Hello?”
   “Good evening, Memory.”
   “Ah, Strong Man. It’s been a while.” Sam heard ice tinkle in a glass. Ten PM, and his friend was having a glass of Barbados rum, sweetened lime juice, ice, and water. Memory was nothing if not predictable. Sam had tried to warn him about that.
   “I’d like to talk to you about the old days. Something that happened in your old company, not mine.”
   “Do you remember the troubles in Crockett, up in the Coal Region?”
   “With the Knights of the Shadow Empire of the Clan of the Creator’s Circle of Life? Of course I do. Wonderful people, the Clan of the Creator’s Circle. Came to bad ends, most of them. I’m not vindictive by nature, but I can’t say I was upset to see it.”
   “Your company investigated their bad luck, didn’t you?”
   “We did.” Ice tinkled. “President Hawthorne—that’s the old President Hawthorne, not his son—owed his election to the CCC. He didn’t like it when bad things happened to his friends, so he sent us in there to investigate. He didn’t send us when the CCC kept herbivores away from the polls and out of school, no. Nor did he care when the CCC’s enemies kept dying. He did nothing while the CCC was all but eating people alive at their midnight clambakes. But when the CCC itself went down? Then President Hawthorne wanted the person responsible caught and punished.”
   “And did you catch the perp?”
   “Near as I could tell, there wasn’t one. It’s as if the Creator himself did them in.”
   “Refresh my memory.”
   Laughter. “Of course. Don’t I always? As you’d expect, the Clan ate a lot of red meat. Given their beliefs, you’d think they ate it raw, wouldn’t you? But they made a barbecue of it, and served their steaks grilled. And in November, they cooked a delicious stew with venison and home-canned wild mushrooms in gravy. It was always a favorite with them. Now, you’d think those outdoorsy folks up in the mountains of the Great State of Crockett would know Death Cap Mushrooms when they saw them… but apparently not.”
   “Ouch, indeed. Funny thing, though: Those mushrooms weren’t known in Crockett before that. You used to find them further east, and in the mountains near the West Coast, but not in Crockett. It was strange. We finally decided the things had just recently spread into the region; we don’t know how, but nobody knows how they got to America at all, for that matter. If the mushrooms were new in the area, the local mushroom-pickers wouldn’t know them.”
   “And that was the end of the CCC.”
   “More like the beginning of the end. That, alone, might not have broken their power, but afterward the survivors found that a lot of the Clan’s bank accounts and property deeds were gone, or legally compromised, or… well, they’d always been more than just a racist club. They had wealth, land, resources. But a lot of their funds vanished, and they couldn’t touch much of the rest for years. A couple of the survivors committed suicide; we thought they’d been embezzling, and killed themselves when the money turned up missing. Because if you embezzled from the Clan, you might better kill yourself than let them catch you.
   “Then a few other key members just… vanished. Others died in accidents. They had the most remarkable string of bad luck, you know. The Clan still exists up there even now, but these days, the Shadow Empire really is just a shadow.”
   Sam nodded in the darkness. “And the accidents really were accidents.”
   “We never found any evidence to indicate otherwise. Of course, considering the victims were Clansmen, perhaps some of us didn’t look all that hard.”
   “Was there anyone involved named Derrick Clydesbank?
   “No, no… there was a Clydesbank horse named Thomas Derrick, as I recall. A young fellow. He was involved in events up there, but only peripherally.”
   “Tell me about him.”
   “Nothing much to tell, really. Typical Clydesbank, not remarkable in any way. He was an orphan. His parents both died when Old Number Twenty-Seven collapsed. They were miners, so it makes sense they might be caught in an accident like that. But a lot of people died in that mine. A surprising percentage of them were people the Clan didn’t much care for.”
   “That’s all?”
   “Not quite. He was raised in the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage in Wiltonsburg, and well-educated. I think he was headed for the priesthood at one point. But he left that path, and when we next see him, he’s a business major at one of the best schools in the country—on a full scholarship, no less. He comes back to the mountains on his summer vacations, though, and he picks up some extra money by tending bar at the Knob Pass Inn.
   “He got in an altercation with one James Roy Austin, who had been Exalted Gatekeeper—that’s the Clansman who was second in command to the Grand Wizard. In spite of his liver damage from the mushroom stew, Austin was still a heavy drinker. Where he got the money for booze, nobody knows. He didn’t have money for anything else.
   “One dark, rainy night, our Thomas Derrick ejected Austin from the Knob Pass Inn. According to witnesses, Austin threatened to barbecue Derrick’s liver. Austin then jumped into his pickup truck while visibly drunk and roared off down the road toward home.
   “He was seen going down a section of road named Five Mile Straight at a high rate of speed, the brakes on his pickup squealing and the truck’s driveshaft dragging on the pavement beneath. There's a sharp curve at the end of that straightaway, and outside the curve it's a long drop to Iron Creek. Austin didn't make the curve.”
   “Most tragic.”
   Ice tinkled. “Indeed.”
   “Thomas Derrick… That name is familiar from somewhere else, I think.”
   “Perhaps because it’s also the name of a fellow who invented a block-and-tackle lift that was named the derrick, in his honor. Originally a very specialized type of lift, but the name later was applied to block-and-tackle lifts of all kinds.”
   “And now you’re going to tell me the real significance of the name.”
   “Of course, Strong Man. I don’t want to rush a punch line! Thomas Derrick was the Tyburn Hangman. He executed over three thousand criminals in his career.”
   “Really? Given the circumstances, that’s almost fascinating.”
   “But we’ve gone beyond that kind of justice these days.”
   “Of course we have. Thanks for the information. Goodnight, Memory.”

   Sam wasn’t surprised to see the lights on in the reception area of Crane’s offices. Derrick Clydesbank had been there Monday and Tuesday nights; he was there now. Soon the executors would come, and it didn’t look like Derrick meant to leave the place until they did.
   He opened the glass door from the atrium and stepped inside. The big horse looked up at him and smiled.
   “Good evening, Derrick. Is Mr. Crane in?”
   The horse’s smile disappeared. “Oh, no, sir. Haven’t you heard the news? Mr. Crane met with an unfortunate accident.”
   “He’s not hurt badly, I hope?”
   The horse laid his ears back. His eyes were mournful. “It couldn’t be worse, sir. It was fatal.”
   “My God! I thought I heard something on the news, but I was sure it couldn’t be him. He was so young and so alive. What happened?”
   “He’d just purchased an old hunting camp. The trailer parked there had a gas heater. It seems that somebody put a flat stone over the top of the heater’s chimney. It was a cold night, one of the first cold nights of the year, and Mr. Crane started the heater. He didn’t know about the stone, and, well, the carbon monoxide killed him. We were all shocked to hear about it.”
   “Why would someone block a chimney like that?”
   “The police don’t know. You’d have to ask the Gatwicks, the former owners; but the old man who used to hunt from that trailer has died, so I don’t know if even the surviving Gatwicks could tell you. If I had to guess, I’d say it was to keep bats and birds out of the chimney during the summer. I gather the heater’s installation wasn’t very professional, so maybe it had nothing to guard against that problem.”
   As before, Derrick had files on the desk before him. He waved a hand over them. “The business files were in fine shape, but I’ve spent all week trying to get Mr. Crane’s personal files straightened out before we close our doors forever this Friday. I guess I owe him that much.”
   “I’m sure Mr. Crane appreciated your loyalty.” One of the folders on Derrick’s desk was edged in red and marked CONFIDENTIAL. Sam really wanted to see what was in that one. “Did he ever tell you about any of his personal affairs? Did he ever try to do anything with you socially?”
   “Oh, no, sir. He was always perfectly correct, and never discussed anything with me except business. May I get you some tea, sir? I keep most excellent tea.”
   Sam smiled. “I remember your tea. I’d really enjoy a cup.”
   “Just a few minutes then, sir.” Derrick gathered up his file folders, put them in the file drawer of his desk, and slid it closed. The drawer didn’t lock; in fact, it recoiled to remain open a fraction of an inch.
   The big horse walked off down the hall to make tea. Sam waited until he was out of sight, then hurried to the desk, opened the drawer, and began leafing through the CONFIDENTIAL folder. Most of it wasn’t important. There were statements from a tailor and a shoemaker, notes about sales prospects, even a few postcards. But damn—the idiot really had kept the insider information Dighton had passed him from the Building and Highways Department at City Hall! Those provisional highway plans, location studies for public buildings, all of it, seemed to be collected in the back end of the CONFIDENTIAL folder.
   Sam took them all, folded them, and slipped them into the inside pocket of his jacket. He closed the drawer just as it had been, returned to his chair, and picked up Progressive Realtor from the coffee table.
   After a while, the big horse returned with his silver tray. He poured tea into his mug and Sam’s cup, offered the biscuits, returned to his desk, and returned to work.
   “I’m terribly sorry to hear about Mr. Crane,” Sam said. “I came here for nothing, I guess. I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
   “Oh, it’s no trouble, sir; no trouble at all.”
   “Did you ever read any of Mr. Crane’s more sensitive personal files?”
   “Of course not, sir. That would be a breach of his confidence in me. And as it might make somebody angry, it would also be a risk. I never take risks. Never.”
   “I see.” Sam sipped his tea. “But if you had read them…”
   “Well, I suppose in that case, I would have to take precautions to be sure that it was in the interest of all parties that nothing unexpected should happen to me.”
   “So you could threaten people with exposure if…”
   Derrick looked shocked. “Threaten? Oh, no, sir! In the unfortunate event that you find you have an enemy, you should strike him down before he knows you’re there. Or you should do nothing, and hope he doesn’t notice you. But never, ever threaten. Only fools make threats.”
   Sam smiled quietly and nodded. “That’s good advice. I’ll remember it. Might I give you some advice in return?”
   “Certainly, sir.”
   “I’d like you to know that the quality of your work impresses me more than I can say. Now I think you need, and deserve, a job where unfortunate things like Mr. Crane’s accident won’t trouble you. Live in quiet security for, oh, if a lifetime is too long for you, a few years at least.”
   “That is excellent advice, sir. Might I say that I had already come to the same conclusion? The events here have been most unsettling, most disturbing to me. I desire nothing more than quiet work where I will disturb nobody’s peace, and nobody will disturb mine.”
   “Do you have something lined up? I might be able to help.”
   “I would appreciate any hints you might give me, sir.”
   “In that case, I think you should apply for work at Fairweather and Company. Art Fairweather is a charming old goat. He loves his employees almost as much as he loves his daughter. He’s a joy to work for.”
   “I know of him. But why should he hire me, sir?”
   “Two reasons: First, his daughter was kidnapped a few years ago. That turned out as well as those things ever can, but even so, I think Art would appreciate a receptionist and personal assistant who would also be able to fight, if necessary. And frankly, I think there’s a bit of the Clydesbank warrior beneath that polished exterior of yours. Second, you should apply because I’ll put in a good word for you. Art owes me a favor or two.”
   Derrick smiled and nodded. “Good advice is a gift beyond price. I will do exactly as you say.”
   Sam finished his tea and set down the cup. “A pity, in a way, that I could never complete my business with Crane… But I suppose everything works out for the best in the end.” He stood and walked to the door. “Thanks for the tea. Good night, Mr. Clydesbank.”
   “Good night, sir.”

   Three days later, well after dark, Sam heard the doorbell ring. When he reached his front door nobody was there, but a plain brown envelope lay on the entryway floor.
   It contained the Pay to Bearer certified check he’d requested, for thirty thousand dollars.
   He put it in an envelope, addressed that, put on the proper postage, and went for a long walk in the night.
   At a streetcorner far from his house, he checked the envelope one last time. The return address was nonsense, of course; no such address existed. But the main address was clear enough:
   Sam slipped the envelope into the mailbox, closing its door slowly so it would make no noise. He walked away into the darkness, heading for home, whistling a mournful little song.

Author’s note: This story is set in the world of Slop, a web comic by Mulefoot. Warning: Slop is ‘adult rated’, due to extreme violence and extreme sexual content. The characters of Sam, Sean (the gentleman Sam met in the diner) and Mr. Dighton are © Mulefoot and used with his permission.

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