This should be it from me for the month:
Mule skinner: I couldn’t explain it better: “A muleskinner is a professional mule driver whose sole purpose was to keep the mules moving. The term “skinner” is slang for someone who might “skin” or outsmart a mule” (more).
Skinners: Part Three
by Jane Fancher
copyright©2011 Jane S. Fancher
Twelve mules in all, strung out along the trail like beads on a string. Seamus led, his bump of direction being as reliable as any dash, and Fin brought up the rear leaving Sean free to sleep in the saddle.
Sleep, however, with the letter from Tomas pressed against his breast, was impossible, no matter he was out of his mind tired.
He downed the thermal of strong caff, and when he had succeeded in linking two neurons again, he dropped the reins on Toffee’s neck, trusting her to follow the line, and pulled out the letter.
At first, he couldn’t even look at it. It was the last link to the man who had been the only father he’d ever known. It smelled like Tomas. Tomas’ square fingers had sealed it, Tomas had pressed his ring into the wax–old fashioned, Tomas would say with a grin, but effective–and once Sean broke that seal, once he read the letter, his father would never again speak to him, except in memory.
He sighed and slipped his finger under the wax.
My dearest boy,
If you are reading this, my worst fears have been realized. Were I alive to hand you the papers in person, I’d have burned it and concealed my shame in doubting my brother-in-law.
Yes, William, as you have, I’m sure, already discovered has feet of the slipperiest clay. I have suspected for some time and finally had confirmed that he, with the help of his cronies in the City, has managed to transfer Sunrise, in all the important ways, into his name as well as mine. The fact that he didn’t, or rather couldn’t, take my name off speaks, I fear, toward my own near future.
I wish I could simply leave, take Winni to the City until this battle is over, but Winni won’t leave; I don’t have to ask her to know that–in her eyes, Willi can do no wrong. Besides, running would tip him off to the fact that I’m on to his game, and I’m quite certain I’d be dead before I reached the City. I still hope to find my way free of the net with which he is surrounding me, and have agents in five cities seeking ways to undo what he has done, but as surely as if Seamus were here warning me, I very much fear my time is up.
Those agents will continue to fight for your legal rights even if something should happen to me, and I enclose a list of their names and contact information, but use that information advisedly. I’ve sent Sandy, whom I trust only second to you, to inform them personally of my suspicions, things I don’t dare put into a letter or say over a phone . . . not with that bastard William watching my every move. You, dear boy, must lay low until they have untangled the web and are ready to confront him. If he can find you, he’ll kill you. I can’t say it any plainer than that.
In some ways, oh son of my heart, I wish I could advise you simply to leave. To take your savings–you’ve certainly earned them–and live a life free forever of what Sunrise will likely hold for you when I’m gone. Even if my lawyers manage to untangle William from the Farm, the fight will not be a pretty one. But for the sake of those same people and the gentle creatures you’ve embraced as fully as any Carter-born, I must do all I can to ensure their safe return to your control and ask you, when the time comes, to fight for your proper place at the head of the Farm.
In the packet you’ll find the papers I promised and what cash I can lay my hands on. I strongly advise you not to touch your savings. Your money, as well as Seamus’ and Fin’s, is safe, I’ve checked, but William will be watching those accounts and know the instant you tap them where you are.
He has annoyingly well-placed personnel.
Know, Sean, that I love you and thank God that you have your brothers-by-choice with you now. I could only wish that my precious Winni were as fortunate. I fear for her future as well, though for now he needs her alive: his semi-legal finagling depends on her inheriting , but she’s never seen her brother for what he truly is, and now she’s going to have to suffer the consequences of what has been, I must now admit, a willful blindness.
There was more, but Sean’s eyes were blurring too badly to make it out. He blinked them clear enough to peer down into the packet–
–and nearly dropped it as the denomination of the bills neatly tucked inside registered. What cash Tomas could lay his hands on . . . was a very great deal.
He realized, slowly, that they’d stopped and that Fin and Seamus were on either side of him.
“Are you all right?” Fin asked and Sean found a nod somewhere in his otherwise numb body.
“He knew, guys,” he said, with a voice equally hard to locate. “He knew and he’s . . . he’s taken care of us.”
“The papers?” Seamus asked eagerly.
“More than that. Money. Lots of it. And we’ll need it. We can’t touch our savings, at least for now. He says William will be gunning for us and to keep low, that he’ll be watching the accounts.”
“Nice.” Fin shrugged and gathered his reins. “But we’re skinners . . . as good as they come. We don’t need no stinkin’ savin’s. Hell, give us a month in Prosperity, one hire to prove ourselves, and we won’t need the Old Man’s money, either. So–let’s get going, shall we?”
Prosperity. Why Prosperity? Why now?
Sean had fallen asleep at last, his body tracking the mule’s movement in a way Fintan always admired. He could sleep in the saddle, but it was invariably a series of cat naps interrupted by imminent plunges to the ground. But even Sean had been known to sink too deeply, so he kept an eye to his friend’s slumped back ahead and an ear to the trail behind.
He’d been watching the valley from the aerie, had seen Sean disappear into the back of the house, and seen it come alive with activity. In the time he’d watched, he hadn’t seen any evidence of pursuit, but he hadn’t watched for long. He’d gone back to the camp, packed and waited for Sean, assuming, from the way a frantic Seamus had settled at last, that Sean was out of danger.
Even now, Seamus moved boldly down the trail without a backward glance, which meant Seamus believed they were safe, and while that confidence didn’t completely banish Fin’s own fears, it did let him ride just a degree more easily.
He only wished the trail ahead gave him as little concern.
Prosperity. Dammit. Why? Seamus had had nightmares about Prosperity for years, the details of which he’d never confided to anyone. In fact, the only reason Fin knew those dreams were about Prosperity was because that was the one recognizable sound to come out of Seamus’ frantic late-night mutterings.
Sean had no idea because Sean, at Tomas’ insistence, slept in his own room in the big house. Not so he and Seamus. There’d been separate rooms available, but Seamus had begged him, way back when they’d first come to Sunrise, not to leave him alone. Seamus was worried that someone would hear him screaming in the night and guess his secret. Privately, Tomas had accepted Seamus’ dreams, at least so far as the foaling season was concerned, but others wouldn’t be so charitable. Others might believe him mad, might try to institutionalize him, or so the Clan had believed back in the old days, and certainly there was talk enough of madness in the world, madness left over from the “days before” when technos had used humans as guinea pigs.
He didn’t know about that. Didn’t really give a damn. What he cared about, deeply, was Seamus, and he’d never let his vulnerable young friend be exposed to ridicule and persecution. Wasn’t going to happen. Not so long as he was around.
So despite the rumors that had begun to circulate in recent years, as Seamus began to mature, he and Seamus had shared not only a room, but a bed.
Which gave him a front row seat to Seamus’ worst nightmares.
And Prosperity had had Seamus in cold sweats and shakes at least once a month for the past year.
So why was he so set on going there now?
Sean stirred and straightened in his saddle, stretching a bit, then slowly slumped again, his slim body never losing the rhythm of the mule’s steady gait.
Seamus’ head turned, not really looking back, but aware of Sean, sensitive to every nuance, every emotional flux.
And sunlight glistened on his cheek.
“Why Prosperity, Seamus?”
That evening, as they shared a hearty dinner of groundhopper stew, in a camp near a stream high with spring runoff, Sean confronted Seamus directly on his choice of destinations. The stew went to sawdust in Fin’s mouth, but Seamus just tilted his head in confusion.
“Is something waiting for us there?” Sean pressed the issue. “Have you seen something?”
Seamus’ eyes flashed in the firelight, wide and scared, just before he looked down. He shrugged. “Seems as good a place as any. Lots of hires for skinners there.”
“And since when have you been so practical?”
Seamus’ eyes flashed again, this time in as much resentment as he ever showed to Sean. “I can be practical!”
Sean laughed aloud, and Seamus relaxed, visibly basking in Sean’s laughter. Fin wondered sometimes if Sean had ever realized how sensitive to him Seamus was. Shedding the tears Sean had hidden this afternoon, laughing now at himself, just because Sean was amused.
Fin wasn’t jealous, no. Never had been. But he ached for his friends. Sean would never willingly hurt Seamus and yet, just being human, he couldn’t help it. And Seamus . . . he was truly afraid that if anything ever did happen to Sean, it would kill him.
And without the two of them, Fintan Doyle might as well buy his own gravestone as well.
Loathe as he was to spoil the mood, he had to ask, because their lives might depend on it: “What about the dreams, Seamus?”
Seamus stared down into his stew, stirring it with his spoon, lifting spoonfuls only to drop them back into the cup.
“Dreams,” Sean repeated. “What dreams, Fin?”
“He’s been having them for about a year now. Bad–”
“Shut up!” Seamus jumped to his feet, dropping his bowl, and headed for the mules. Escaping to their simple, nonjudgmental affection as his barely touched dinner spread across the ground.
“Why haven’t you told me?” Sean hissed, and Fin shrugged.
“It’s his business, Sean. He never mentioned them to me. Not specifically. But he’s had them. Several of them. Only thing I know is that he keeps muttering something about Prosperity. Not in a good way. Figured it was time to say something.”
Sean’s blue eyes flickered to Seamus’ shadowy figure. “And now he’s taking us there.”
That bright blue gaze flashed his way. “You figured right.” Sean pushed himself wearily to his feet and followed Seamus into the shadows. For a time, they just moved down the line, talking to the mules. Fin rescued Seamus’ bowl and spoon, rinsed it in the stream and set it beside the fire for a hot refill, as soon as he could get it down him. Eventually Seamus and Sean returned together to the fire, where Seamus settled in the circle of Sean’s arm and stared blankly into the fire.
“I don’t remember,” he whispered at last. “I think I didn’t want to remember. I was happy in Sunrise. I didn’t want to leave, so the dreams just faded away after I woke up. And now I don’t remember anything even though I’ve tried, and I don’t know what’s waiting for us, but I know we have to go there.” His whole head ducked with his hard swallow and he pressed in hard against Sean’s side. “I’m scared, guys, really, really scared.”
“We’ll manage. After all, we’ve got our early warning system, right?” Sean hugged him close. “Don’t hold back on us, Seamus. Not now. You have a dream, you tell us right away. While it’s fresh.”
Seamus nodded wearily and his eyes drifted shut.
“Dammit,” Fin hissed. “He didn’t eat. He’s got to eat or he’ll fall out of the saddle tomorrow. Worse, a nightmare in this condition will completely debilitate him.” He rolled to his knees and ladled more stew into Seamus’ bowl. “Wake him up, Sean.”
“I can’t. He’s–”
“I can.” He gripped Seamus’ arm hard. “Seamus, wake up. Now.”
Seamus whimpered and turned into Sean’s chest.
Fin frowned at Sean, who sighed, “You’re right,” and pushed Seamus away. Only after Seamus had finished, under protest, the entire bowl, did Fin allow him to crawl into his sleeping bag and fall asleep in Sean’s lap.
“So,” Fin said softly, “What do we do now? You really giving up Sunrise? It’s yours. You’re a rich man.”
“Or a dead one.” Sean stroked Seamus’s head, fingercombing the tangles out of his red hair. “I don’t want it.”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“Don’t push me, Fin. I really don’t want to talk about it. Tomas said to lie low and let his lawyers take care of it, and that’s fine by me. I can’t take on William alone. Not right now. I don’t even want to try. Take the mules, get a hire. Find a way to survive on our own. That’s what we need to do right now.”
“And you’re really okay with that?”
“More than okay. I . . . truly don’t want it. I know Tomas wants me to run Sunrise, to take care of the people who depend on it for their lives, but . . . the price was just too high. At least for now. I need time. Time to think. William isn’t stupid. Greedy. Ambitious. Yeah. But he wants to make money and he’s got people there who know what they’re doing. If I’m not there to fight him, if I’m not making them take sides . . . he’ll just use them. Let them run the place. Which is all I’d do anyway.”
“That’s all I needed to hear. We’re going to need your head on the job. Don’t want you regretting your decision.” Fin stood up and bent to pick Seamus up and headed for the tent. “Get yourself to bed. Keep the little idiot here quiet. I’ll take first watch.”
When Sean woke up, Seamus was curled next to him and sunlight streamed in past the tent flap.
“What the–” He eased his arm free of Seamus and wiggled out of the sleeping bag. “Dammit, Fin,” he said on a yawn as he ducked out of the tent. “You were supposed to wake me up.”
Fin, kneeling beside the fire, stirring a pan of bacon, reconstituted eggs and cheese glanced up, his face beyond weary and all the way over to haggard. “You needed the sleep. So did he. I’ll sleep in the saddle today.” He lifted the pan off the fire. “Go wake up sleeping beauty, will you? Eggs are ready.”
More than eggs. Biscuits and caff were waiting for them as well, and they finished it all, their appetites normal for the first time in three days.
They traveled west. West and up, over the Devil’s Backbone. Farther west than any of them had ever come. There was a road below. A big one that the big rigs used, carrying loads of food west and loads of processed metals and plastics east. Following Seamus’ lead, they stuck to the trails, avoiding contact with those rigs. A shorter route, he insisted as they began to climb away from the road, more direct than the road which followed the lowest pass, a route that would get them to Prosperity at least a day sooner than the road.
Which was a good thing. The mules could live off the native grasses, but it took a lot of it, which meant grazing time. They had grain, following standard Sunrise procedure, they’d packed twice what they’d expected to need for the trip home to Sunrise, but that was running short. A day could make the difference, even a day of high-country travel.
Sean had his own reasons for avoiding the road. He’d met, thanks to his association with Tomas, no few skinners. Some of those driving the rigs below might well recognize him. And skinners talked. Let one of them mention seeing him on this road, and that information might well make it back to Sunrise. Once in Prosperity, the chances of being recognized were far lower, particularly if they stuck to the Linemen who scoured the Pans for metal.
Lower chances, but still there.
They were over the crest and on the way down, a day out of Prosperity when that simple fact finally struck home.
“I’ve got to change,” he said, sitting crosslegged beside the fire, leaning his elbows on his knees.
Fin and Seamus stared at him blankly.
“Too much chance someone will recognize me.”
Fin nodded slowly; Seamus said, wide-eyed, “What will you do? Grow a beard?”
That made him laugh. “Overnight?”
Fin grunted. “A month wouldn’t be long enough.”
Another grunt. “Am I wrong?” And a raised brow. “Remember, I’ve seen your beard.”
“A year ago!”
“But . . . I was thinking . . .” He jerked the tie from his pony tail and pulled his long hair forward. “If I cut it–”
“No!” Seamus objected.
“It’s quick, it’s easy,” Sean said calmly, “And it’s the last thing William will expect.”
“But–” Seamus bit his lip, silencing his own protest, but it wasn’t one of his gut feelings, not a sense of danger that prompted that objection. Their hair was the last tangible remnant of the Clan, that family they’d had in Shadow Falls. William tried periodically to argue him into cutting it, saying he represented Sunshine, not some street gang, and that he was an embarrassment to his adopted family.
Sean would tell him to go to hell, that he’d cut it when Tomas asked him to and not before.
Tomas just laughed.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Fin said quietly. “I think we all should.”
“That’s not necessary. You two are–”
“Not as likely to be recognized, but the tails themselves are too distinctive. If he wants to put a warrant out on us, it will likely include the hair. The mules already make us stand out. No reason to draw more attention to ourselves than we can help. We should just go in, get a hire, and get out.”
“I can go in alone,” Sean said. “You and Seamus can stay with the mules.”
Fin shook his head. “I think we have to take them in. Too many jumpers, this side of the mountains and this close to a major crossroads. We need someplace secure to keep them until we get a hire. We’ve got our rifles, but personally, I’d as soon not use them on another human being.”
Jumpers. Men just waiting to snatch a team–or anything else left under-attended. It was a different world they were entering. A world that had far more in common with the streets of Shadow Falls than Sunrise Valley, and old instincts flared.
Or perhaps, not so different. Sunrise had its own class of jumpers.
“Good enough,” Sean said, and stood up. “Who wants to go first?”
Seamus was last. He sat on their chosen “barber’s” rock with his eyes closed and Sean’s tail clenched in his right hand, Fin’s in his left.
“It’s okay,” Sean said, trying not to laugh. “It’s a renewable resource.”
Tear-filled eyes lifted. “I know. It’s just . . . it’s from before, y’know? When it was just th’ three of us.”
Funny, he’d never thought of it that way. There’d been a dozen and more in the Clan, but from the time Seamus had shown up in their alley and he and Fin had taken over the responsibility of raising a toddler, the three of them had been a team, a clan within the Clan.
“Idiot.” Fin, standing behind Seamus, his freshly honed knife in hand, hit Seamus lightly in the head. “And what is it now, but the three of us, eh?”
Seamus ducked away, but when he twisted around to retaliate, his eyes were alight with laughter. “It is, isn’t it?”
“So,” Fin said, brandishing the knife. “Cut?”
Seamus twisted around. “Just don’t blow it, here?”
“Hey, I did a good job on Sean, didn’t I?”
Seamus giggled. “Better then he did on you.”
“Don’t rub it in.”
“But mine’s curly, so it’s harder.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Okay.” Seamus squeezed his eyes shut again. “Do it.”
When Fin was done, Seamus looked, if anything, even younger than before with his hair curling about his face. He scowled at himself in the shaving mirror only Fin used regularly and declared, “I look stupid.”
“Quit pouting,” Fin said, as he slid a small sanding stone across his knife, repairing the edge. “And you stand a remote chance of looking like a stable boy.”
Seamus growled and leaned over, scrubbing his head with both hands.
Sean stifled laughter and dug after the envelope from Tomas. “Here,” he said, pulling out the bills and holding the rest of the packet out to Seamus. “This should help your self image.”
The sun burst through the clouds and Seamus wiped his palms on his jeans before reaching out to take the packet in reverent hands.
As Seamus oo’ed and ah’ed and studied each word of the legalese that gave him ownership of the team, Sean counted out four piles, one substantially thicker than the other three. Crisp bills: rare tender even without the denomination. They were going to have to get a bunch changed and fast. The last thing they wanted to do was flash more cash than a skinner saw in five years around a potential hire. He handed one small stack to Fin, tucked one into his own billfold, and pulled his shirt free to undo the security belt around his middle.
Wide and flat, it was specially designed to hold a skinner’s necessary papers. Thanks to Tomas, he had an ident chip, but most skinners lived, died . . . and worked . . . based on those papers. Letters of rec from former employers. Title to their mules: copies, as those papers of Seamus’ would need to be copied . . . Next of kin information. . . . And in this case, a fair stash of cash, distributed among the several pockets to make it as flat as possible.
“Hey!” Seamus had worked his way through the first half of the stack of papers. “He’s given half of them to you, Fin!”
“Probably figured you’d lose them,” Fin said, tucking the stone into his saddle bag and slipping the knife into its sheath. “So it’s official, brat. We’re partners. You’re stuck with me for the next twenty years at least.”
Seamus grinned. “Good.” And went on paging through the stack.
“Here.” Sean tossed the stuffed belt across to Fin, who snagged it out of the air. “Best you keep that.”
“And why would that be?”
“When we get into town, I’m going to the bank to change some bills, get us some actual negotiable cash. These are way too large to be generally useful. I’ll need you and Seamus to stay with the mules, and I don’t want to walk around a strange place alone carrying it.”
Fin thought about it a long moment, then nodded. “Okay.” He pulled off his own belt and handed it over to Sean. “Speaking of which,” he said, tightening Sean’s belt around his flat middle, “We’ll need to pay at least a day ahead on the mules. I’ve got–” He pulled his wallet out and checked inside: a ten and three fives. –Seamus?”
But Seamus was still lost in his papers.
“We’ll manage,” Sean said, and dug out his wallet again to hand his smaller bills over to Fin. “I’ll leave negotiations with the muleyard owner to you.”
The paddocks were filling fast. Storm season, the harried proprietor of Skinner Haven Stables explained, looking at them oddly, as if, Sean thought uneasily, they should have known.
There was a lot they didn’t know. They knew mules. They knew how to care for them and how to get the most out of them, but they didn’t know this country. Didn’t know the weather, other than it was extreme. Didn’t know the kinds of loads they’d be required to haul.
But they’d learn. And whoever hired them would do the routing, not them.
Fortunately, their team was well-mannered and didn’t mind close quarters. Two paddocks, two good-sized stalls to get out of the sand storms, were all they needed. The proprietor was dubious, when they said that’s all they needed, but relaxed when he saw the team in action.
Sean left Seamus and Fin to care for the mules and headed into town, following the Haven’s proprietor’s directions to the “safest bank in town.”
It was, Sean thought as he worked his way through the crowded streets, likely the only bank in town.
Prosperity was a curious place. Lying on the edge of the pan, backed up against the cliff forming the edge of the rift, the gateway to the northern passes through the Backbone, it was sprawling rather than populous. E-trams trolled the streets, carrying passengers slowly but steadily from the refineries and recyclers on the pan-side to the housing district on the protected, cliff-side.
A massive river ran through its northeastern corner, originating from a lake at the cliff edge, the views of which were Prosperity’s prime real estate. The towering falls that fed that lake could be seen throughout the city, a beautiful jewel within a town known primarily for its rough and tumble clientele.
Electricity, with the steady wind off the Pans and the falls, was never an issue here. They’d always produced far more than they needed, tho the powerlines that had fed other cities, now virtual ghost towns, had gone down in the Great Quake of ’59. The river had gained two more falls downstream that year.
And cities had turned to ghost towns virtually overnight.
But not this one. Especially not this time of year. The storms drove everyone, even the most foolhardy, to shelter, and this was the best place to drink, gamble and otherwise waste hard-earned cash. He walked purposefully along the streets, striving to appear ‘local.’
He found the bank . . . and a substantial line. Evidently he wasn’t the only one coming into town needing some funds adjustments. Linemen–there were two Rigs in town–hires, guides, riggers and skinners taking money out, putting money in . . .
It was, in short, a madhouse, with every teller looking more than a bit harried.
Just as well, he thought, taking a number, 279, from the bored woman with a role of tickets, and retreating to a seat on the floor next to a snoring man who smelled of mule-sweat. The more people, the less likely anyone was to remember him.
Not that he was, in himself, remarkable, but those bills he had to offer . . . that might. And if Willi’s men had found their campsite and found those tracks bearing westward . . . he might easily extrapolate their intended destination and have sent the local authorities their descriptions.
On what grounds didn’t matter. Let them be taken in for any reason and Willi would know.
“Two hundred sixty-five!” Rang out over the speakers and someone pushed through the crowd to the window with the light above it.
Only twelve more to go.
He pulled his knees up, rested his elbows on them and rubbed his temples, trying to ease a growing headache. Tension or perhaps just the air here. Between the refineries and the stifling, dust laden wind coming off the Pans, it was like nothing he’d ever encountered.
And likely something he’d have to live with for some time to come.
His eyes drifted shut. His head fell back.
If only he could close his nose off to the man on his left. He wondered, a bit horrified at the thought, it that was the result of a trip through the Pans. Water, he knew, would be in short supply. Was there no option but to end up . . . like that?
His mind drifted, imagining the scenarios in which one would end up smelling like that, conjuring ways to avoid such a fate–
“Two hundred and ninety three!” The voice rang over the speakers. He jerked awake. . . .
To a nearly empty room. Even his smelly companion was gone. When had that happened?
“Here!” He lifted an arm gone numb and pushed himself to his feet, stumbling a bit as feeling returned to them as well. He headed for the lit window, pulling his wallet from his pocket.
“What can I do for you?” the woman asked, without ever looking up, her voice bored and exhausted.
“Change.” He pulled out three hundreds–the smallest of the bills–and pushed them through the window.
Still without looking, her fingers caught the bills and pulled them into place in front of her.
A single finger spread the bills. She began pulling other bills out of her till, counted them out in front of her. Then picked up the three hundreds.
Her hand slowed, stopped altogether and for a moment, her fingers just stroked the bills.
Her eyes lifted, no longer quite so bored, no longer quite so tired. She smiled pleasantly and said, “Excuse me, but have you an account with us?”
“I . . . no.” Don’t explain. Minimal information, minimal questions raised.
“Might I see your identification papers, please?”
“You’re a skinner, aren’t you?”
He winced. Possibly it was his smell. He reached for the belt beneath his shirt . . . and froze. It wasn’t his belt. It was Fin’s. What the hell had he been thinking? He had his ident, but that would be the surest way to turn Willi’s attention toward Prosperity.
“I–I’m afraid I don’t have them. It’s just change. I don’t understand–”
“Procedure, Mr. . .?”
“C–Riley,” he amended quickly, the name he’d been born with, not Tomas’, and amendment, he very much feared, the now sharp-eyed clerk had caught.
He cursed silently as her hand disappeared beneath the counter. Cursed again, not silently, as two uniformed men closed in behind him.
“Just a minute please. I need a few more fives.”
A patent lie. She’d already counted out the change.
“I–” He swallowed the rest. Play it cool. Don’t draw attention. Above all, don’t look guilty.
“Of course. Thanks. That will be useful.”
She nodded, and disappeared through a doorway.
“Excuse me, Mr. Riley,” a voice said from behind and to his left, and hands closed on both his elbows. “But I’m going to have to ask you to come with us.”