On the Prowl
“Boon?” Dodger whispered.
“Boon? Where are you?” he asked, not expecting a reply and not getting one.
Time passed slowly, as it tends to do when your gut roils with the worry of personal affairs. Dodger had never had worries like this before. Of course, life was so much simpler when you worked alone. You killed who needed killing, and damn everyone else. But now? Now he had something he’d never expected to end up with. He had friends. And friends brought complications. Not that Lelanea was a complication, no. But dealing with her, and his growing feelings for her, sure was. He didn’t have room in his life for … that sort of thing, much less the sort of thing that couldn’t be reciprocated because the target of his sort of thing felt her sort of thing for a dead man.
The sun began its ascent in the east, bringing light and the promise of a new day to the land. In those first few moments of dawn, Dodger began his search of the perimeter, seeking out those worrisome tracks. They were still there, and still enormous. By the light of day, he confirmed his initial assessment. The tracks appeared to be the prints of one animal. One enormous wolf circled the camp and came in close. After that, the prints were tamped out by a multitude of boots—Ched’s or Lelanea’s as they scared the thing off. He tried to trace its direction, to find out where it may have slipped off to, but all he found were more boot prints. Most likely made by Ched when he went after the thing.
A search from which the not-dead man had yet to return.
The professor’s snoring tapered off into a sigh, then a smacking of lips, followed by a healthy yawn. “Well, that was refreshing. I don’t believe I’ve ever slept so soundly.”
“Good morning, Uncle,” Lelanea said.
“Morning, Ludda. Can you help me up? I need to have a bit of a … you know what.”
“I’ll get a basin for you.”
“No, no. I want to go as nature intended.”
“I want to go in the grass. Like the other men.”
“Not at all. I think it will be rather fun.”
“You need to stay in bed.”
“Let me up!” There came a fair amount of grunting and fussing before the professor said, “Quit sulking, young lady. I promise I won’t stray far.”
Dodger chuckled at the exchange as he continued to search the tall grass for any signs of life—or in Ched’s case, signs of not-life. Behind him rose the sounds of the doc tending to his morning constitution. The heavy shuffle of his unsteady steps. Coughs and sighs and other bodily noises. More shuffling, then all settled down again.
“What’s for brekkies?” the doc asked. “I’m starving.”
“Oatmeal,” Lelanea said.
“Ugh. I hate oatmeal. Let’s have waffles!”
Lelanea clucked her tongue. “You can’t have waffles.”
“Why not? I’m a grown man. If I can wee in the grass, I can choose my own meals.”
“Because you didn’t make cans of waffles, Uncle. And until we have access to the kitchen, we are stuck with the Auto-Reheat Rations. Which, thanks to your infinite wisdom, come in either oatmeal or chicken soup. Remember?”
“Ah, yes. I remember now. I shall have to look into making a wider variety of choices when this is over. No wonder the ARRs didn’t become more popular. What was I thinking? And Mr. Dodger? What on earth are you doing over there?”
Dodger stood from his crouch over the myriad prints. “Just following up on something, sir.” He returned to the center of camp just as Lelanea was popping the top on another canister of oatmeal.
“Here,” she said, offering him the quickly warming can.
“You’ll eat it.” Lelanea all but shoved the can and a spoon at him.
Rather than start another argument, he accepted the canister and spoon. The oatmeal wasn’t too bad, and truth be told, he was a bit hungry.
“What sort of thing are you following up on?” the doc asked between spoonfuls.
Around a mouthful of oatmeal, the doc shouted, “Wolves!” He choked on the very word, coughing and sputtering and hocking great wads of oatmeal all over his cot as he struggled to catch his breath. Lelanea rushed to his side and began rubbing wide circles on the man’s back, all the while cutting her eyes at Dodger. Dodger shrugged. What could he do? His boss man asked him a question. He wasn’t going to lie to save the man the worry. This was a real problem, and everyone needed to prepare for it.
“W-w-wolves?” the doc asked.
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said. “Well, one wolf at the least. Maybe more.”
“Oh?” The doc flicked his glance to his niece, then back to Dodger. “Are you certain?”
“I found tracks circling the camp. Big prints, too. I’ll bet the beast is a good three hundred pounds or more.”
“But you didn’t actually see it?”
“No, sir. Just the tracks. But Lelanea claims that she and Ched saw it. And ran it off.”
“Really?” the doc asked of his niece.
“We did,” she said. “Ched took off after it to make sure it was gone.”
Dodger gave Lelanea a smug look.
“Well?” the doc asked. “Did he find anything?”
“He hasn’t returned,” Lelanea said.
“Well that can’t be good.”
Finally, Dodger thought. Someone with some sense!
“He shouldn’t be out in the night air like that,” the doc explained. “It’s not healthy for his skin. Or any other part of him.” The doc grimaced at Dodger. “He gets damp, you see. Sets up with mildew and the like.”
“Mildew?” Dodger asked. “Sir, he went after a wild animal and hasn’t returned. Doesn’t that seem a bit more important than mold?”
“Poppycock! Ched can handle himself. And I’m sure he took a weapon of some sort. He isn’t daft.” The professor chuckled. “Well, not completely daft.”
“What if he doesn’t return?”
“He will,” Lelanea said. “In his own time. He’s a free man, Mr. Dodger. He can come and go as he likes.”
Ah, he was back to Mr. Dodger now. Then she was still upset with him. “My point is anything could’ve happened to him. He could be out there dead in a ditch.” Dodger winced at the pair of smirks that met his words. “You know what I mean.”
“He’ll be fine.”
“I see his point,” the doc said, punctuating his agreement by waggling his spoon at Dodger. “Ched is capable of handling himself, but even he can get into trouble. We all know that well enough. What course of action do you suggest, Mr. Dodger?”
“We should go look for him,” Dodger said.
“I don’t think so,” Lelanea said. “Uncle isn’t going anywhere with that head wound. For that matter, you shouldn’t even be up and about.”
“Then I’ll go alone. You two should be safe enough-”
“Oh, no, no, no,” the doc said. “I’m afraid that is impossible. With Ched and Feng both indisposed and the Sleipnir unable to grace me with her shelter, I’m going to have to ask you to remain here and do what I hired you to do. I’m sorry, but I’m a sitting duck out here in the open. I need your protection.”
Dodger couldn’t argue with that. After all, the man did hire him to do a very specific job. “I understand, sir, but someone needs to go after him. Anything could have happened.”
“But who can go?”
“Mr. Torque?” Dodger recommended.
“I know it will be hard to get him to agree, but-”
“It’s not his attitude. It’s his function. He can’t wander more than a few meters from the line. His power source is dependant upon constant contact with the Sleipnir. He can depart for a limited time, but not long.”
“Oh. I suppose that’s out, then.”
“I’ll go,” Lelanea said.
Dodger stared hard at her. “You?”
“Yes, Mr. Dodger. I’m also perfectly capable of handling myself. I’m a fair tracker, though it’s been a few years since I’ve put my skills into employment. I’ll make a quick sweep of the area and be back before lunch.”
Lelanea, a tracker? Dodger remembered how she readily identified Betty Bolton’s plot as being freshly turned. How she always seemed to be aware of her surroundings. How he could never quite catch her off guard.
“I reckon you can handle yourself,” he said.
“Ludda?” the doc whispered. “You aren’t really going to go, are you?”
“I have to, Uncle,” she said. “Ched might be in danger. Who else can drag his sorry carcass back here for you to patch up?” She lowered her head to his shoulder and hugged him close. “I shan’t be long.”
“I’ll worry for you. I always worry so much for you.”
Dodger turned away, embarrassed by the touching moment between the family members. As he looked eastward to the horizon, he found another unexpected sight. Gee, but wasn’t today just full of ‘em? First the paw prints, now this. Though, to be fair, the paw prints were not quite as disturbing as what he narrowed his eyes at now. A lone wolf Dodger could deal with, no matter how big. This could prove a bit trickier.