Dr. Alastair Stone had arrived home in an exceptionally bad mood.
That had been a bit over two hours ago, and I had not seen him since. I had made it a point to stay out of his way until he was ready to be civilised, deciding that, given time, he would come 'round. I didn't hold it against him; to do so would have been somewhat akin to holding a growl against a normally-well-behaved dog who had been teased one too many times. One simply had to make do and leave him alone until he had gotten over it.
He'd arrived at Stone Manor about 8:00 on a dark and extremely blustery evening. The rain and wind were whipping themselves into a frenzy outside, making me glad that I had elected to stay here at the house tonight instead of spending the night in my large apartment over the garage. I hadn't expected him then; he wasn't due in until tomorrow morning, or so he said when he'd called me from America a week ago and asked me to get the place in order for him. I hadn't known quite what to do when I heard the pounding at the door, since no one else was expected either. Who could be out on a night like this? "Who is it?" I'd asked, yelling so I could be heard over the wind and through the heavy front door.
"Open up, Aubrey!" the answering call had come. I'd immediately recognised the voice and thrown open the door, whereupon he had shoved his way in and stood, seething, in the entryway.
From the look of him, he'd certainly had reason to be unhappy: although he wore an overcoat, it had not really succeeded in keeping the torrential rain from soaking him to the skin. The umbrella in his right hand was closed and useless; the wind had blown it to ribbons. His hair, still black with the two white stripes, was also soaked, hanging down in his face, limply dripping. For a moment, he'd just stood there, breathing hard, teeth clenched. Then, without warning, he'd flung the ruined umbrella across the main hall, where it had crashed into the wall with a loud crack. "Bloody hell!" he'd yelled, his voice echoing around the large hall, his blue eyes flashing with rage. "If one more thing happens to me tonight, I swear I'm going to kill something!"
"Shall I take your bags upstairs, sir?" I'd asked mildly, retreating into my caretaker persona. I knew from experience that very little else would work when he was like this.
He wheeled around to face me, ignoring what I'd said. "Do you want to hear about my trip, Aubrey?" he had demanded, whipping off his sodden overcoat and tossing it over the nearest piece of furniture. Underneath, his suit was only slightly less wet.
Unobtrusively retrieving the overcoat, I'd said, "If you want to tell me about it, sir. Perhaps a cup of hot tea might—"
"I don't want tea, Aubrey," he had snapped. "I have just had the worst trip imaginable." He began pacing around the hall, his shoes making little sloshing noises. "First, they tell me that there's a problem with my flight, but if I like, I can take an earlier flight. So I took care of that, no problem, yes?" He spread his arms wide as he stalked around. "What they didn't tell me was that the seat on the earlier flight was in coach, right next to a whole nest of small children!"
I'd had to smile a bit at his description, though I had been careful to hide it from him. Dr. Stone's dislike of young children was legendary among those who knew him. "A...nest, sir?"
"That's what I said, Aubrey: a nest! Three of the little buggers with their mother. There was a baby that I don't think shut up for ten minutes on the entire flight, and another one that was about two and kept crawling around on the floor and bumping into me, when it wasn't busy picking its nose or sucking on its feet." He turned to glare at me again. "And the third one? Oh, yes, mustn't forget the third one. She was around six or so. That one had the airsickness problem. It was only by a judicious trip to stretch my legs a bit that I managed to avoid getting my suit decorated."
"Sounds...like you had a bad time of it, sir," I had said, endeavouring to keep my voice diplomatic and soothing. In truth, I had been somewhat amused.
"Bad?" he'd demanded, resuming his angry pacing. "Bad? That's all you can say? Well, you haven't heard the end of it yet. The plane finally lands, thank God, and not a moment too soon. If I had to spend one more minute with those pestilent little sprogs, I was seriously contemplating hijacking the plane just to get some peace. We get to the airport and I catch a cab out here. I finally think I'm going to get some quiet when the bloody cab breaks down about a kilometer from here. The driver offers to call another cab, but I tell him no, I'll just go on. It's not far from here. So that's what I do. It wasn't until I'd walked for about ten minutes that I realised that I may have been a bit hasty, but by then, it was too late to turn back. My umbrella gave out about five minutes after that. It has not been a good evening."
"And...your bags, sir?" I'd asked, as it at last occurred to me he wasn't carrying any luggage.
"Bugger my bloody bags!" he'd yelled, his voice pitching higher. I hadn't seen him this upset in a long time. With effort, he'd pulled himself together and taken several deep breaths, his shoulders rising and falling quickly. In a calmer tone that still held a ragged edge, he had said, "My bags...are in the cab. I...gave the driver a bit extra and told him to drop them off when he got the car fixed. I let him know...that he'd best do it or one of my astral friends might come calling in the night. I think that did it. Not that there's anything irreplaceable in them." Another deep breath. "Aubrey, I'm not fit for human company right now. I think...I just need to be alone for awhile, and get out of these wet clothes. I'll see you in a bit, all right?" And without another word, he'd headed off up the stairs toward his rooms.
That had been, as I said, nearly two hours ago. I had spent the intervening time hanging up his coat to dry, cleaning up the puddles of water in the entryway, and then retiring to the kitchen to prepare a light meal. I didn't know whether he would be hungry later, but it was my experience that if I placed something in front of him, he'd eat it, often in a state of preoccupation.
I spent quite a bit of the time while I cooked thinking about Dr. Stone. He was without a doubt one of the most unusual men I had ever met, and, while I would never tell him this (because he would tease me about it unmercifully if he knew), I was proud to be in his employ. Stone Manor, his ancestral home, was quite a handful for one person: a large, rambling old two-storey mansion, sound in structure but badly in need of many small repairs, surrounded by a sizeable tract of mostly wild land extending in a doglegged ellipsoid out from either side of the Manor, which was located close to the center. My job, as it had been since I had been in the employ of Dr. Stone's father in my young manhood, was to tend the grounds, make the repairs, and manage what household tasks were required. A trust fund, set up by a distant ancestor, guaranteed that there was enough money to keep the house, pay the property taxes, and provide me with a modest but eminently decent living, but there was little money left over for improvements. I did the best I could, and we got on quite nicely, all things considered.
Dr. Stone did not come home to England often anymore. He had, several years ago, set off for America to seek his fortune and had taken up semi-permanent residence in Seattle, UCAS. I did not inquire too deeply about what he did there, but I knew it had something to do with his magical abilities, and it did provide him with the means to send me enough money on occasion to take care of some of the more pressing needs of the house that the trust did not extend far enough to cover. When he did come home, I took pleasure in making his stay pleasant and restful, since he always seemed to me lately to be under stress. I prided myself on keeping problems out of his way unless it was absolutely necessary that he deal with them, and I was usually successful.
I had made no secret, though, of my wish that he would give up whatever adventures he was seeking in America and return home permanently, perhaps taking a position as a full-time professor of Thaumaturgy at London University, where he had a standing invitation from the Head of that school to do just that. An accomplished hermetic mage and a born teacher, Dr. Stone had just recently obtained his doctorate in the discipline of Applied Thaumaturgy; I had been happy for him, not only because I was proud of his accomplishment, but also because I felt it might have indicated that he had finally grown tired of his dangerous American pursuits. I had, of course, been wrong. While he occasionally, while in London, had agreed to be a guest lecturer for this or that course, he had shown no inclination whatsoever that he was planning to settle down. As usual, I'd said nothing; it was not my place to comment on his choices unless I was asked.
He should have had other responsibilities, too, although I was careful never to mention them. One of the fastest and most reliable ways to annoy Alastair Stone was to remind him in some way that he could rightly be addressed as "Lord Stone." That was something that I could never fathom, having been of course brought up from childhood to respect the hereditary titles, however minor, as part of the rich heritage and history of Britain. To be sure, the title that went with Stone Manor was a very minor one, and even I had to admit that it would have been pretentious to use it in everyday affairs, but I did nonetheless regard it as an honour to which its possessor did not afford the proper respect. Dr. Stone's father, the previous Lord Stone, had been active in British politics up until his untimely death (some speculated that his political activities might have contributed to this untimely death) but the young Lord Alastair, from the time he had inherited the title along with Stone Manor two months short of his twentieth birthday, had made it clear from the beginning that he wanted nothing to do with it. He had forbidden me to refer to him in that manner, and had quickly disassociated himself from any attempts by his father's colleagues to draw him into the political arena. While he still maintained excellent relations with the British government, I suspected that there might be more to that than simply his father's affiliations. I had not asked, and he had not told me.
All in all, though, despite his odd quirks and his occasional moodiness, Dr. Stone was an exemplary employer. Unlike his father, who had made no attempt to interact with me in any role other than that of employer to servant, Dr. Stone unfailingly treated me more as a beloved older uncle who just happened to be in his employ. He never (well, almost never) ordered me to do anything, but rather dealt with me with respect, recognising that I knew my job and was able and willing to perform it satisfactorily. His outburst of earlier this evening had not been directed at me; he probably would have acted in much the same way had His Majesty been standing inside his entryway in my stead. There was nothing to do about it, really, but just to forgive him and move on. I stirred a pot of soup and smiled to myself, still guiltily amused at the thought of him in his fine suit and standoffish manner and odd striped hair (an American affectation that he usually got rid of upon arriving in Britain), sitting in an aeroplane seat surrounded by three misbehaving little children. It must have been dreadful for him. I chuckled sympathetically and put the lid back on the soup.
"What are you chuckling about, Aubrey?"
I glanced up, startled, nearly dropping my spoon. Dr. Stone stood there in the doorway, watching me with an arch little gleam in his alert eyes. "Nothing, sir," I said, smiling back at him. "Just thinking about something amusing." He looked so much better than he had two hours before that it was almost difficult to believe he was the same man: he'd shed his wet suit in favor of a loose-fitting tan sweater and slacks, trained his hair back into position, and traded his frazzled expression of earlier that evening for his usual look of cynical cheerfulness. As always, my gaze was drawn to his eyes, which were a shade of bright electric blue that did not occur in nature; I myself still found the idea of artificial body parts (cybereyes, in Dr. Stone's case) to be somewhat strange, but I had to admit that they worked for him, giving his sharp-featured, handsome face an oddly striking look. Along with the hair, dyed black with a wide, stark-white stripe on either side, they ensured that one didn't often miss him in a crowd if he didn't want to be missed.
"That wouldn't be me, would it?" he asked, moving easily over to the kitchen table and taking up a seat there, stretching his legs out languidly and crossing them at the ankles.
"I—won't say, sir." I made a show of taking the top off the soup kettle and looking down to check it, knowing he could hear the smile in my voice.
"Well, I'd deserve it if it was," he said. "I was quite an ass, wasn't I?"
"You had a bad day, sir. I didn't mind."
He laughed. "Yes, you've got that right. I did have a bad day. But there was no reason for me to take it out on you. You weren't even expecting me tonight, were you? I probably got you in the middle of something, coming in here blustering about. I'll make it up to you, though. Forgiven?"
"Of course, sir." I indicated the kettle. "Are you hungry? I've made soup, and some bread and vegetables. If you want more, I'll—"
He shook his head. "No, this is fine. Thank you, Aubrey." He leaned back, smiled. "It's good to be home. Say, did that cabbie ever show up with my bags?"
"Yes, sir. I left them in the hall. I'll take them up for you in a bit, if that's all right."
"Don't worry about it. I could use the exercise." He paused, then a look of consternation crossed his face. "Damn! I just remembered something."
"What's that, sir?" I asked, gathering the dishes together on a tray in preparation for taking them out to the dining room.
"I'm not going to be forgiven when I tell you this," he said ruefully. "I've invited Ocelot—I mean Terry—over for awhile. He's arriving in a few days. I just remembered that I forgot to mention it to you."
Terry? Who was Terry? I searched my mind for a face to put with that name, and then it came to me: tall young man, sandy hair. Strong. Fast. Eyes like a snake, literally. One of Dr. Stone's business associates from Seattle. He had been here once before, a couple of years ago. Quiet. Kept to himself. A little frightening. "Just—visiting, sir?"
He shrugged. "Mostly. My friends all feel that I'd be well served to learn a bit more about firearms, so he's agreed to teach me. We'll be spending a lot of time out in the back of the house shooting at targets, so you might want to stay away from there."
"I...see." I took a deep breath, determined not to let my opinions show. If Terry was to be a guest, then it was my duty to make him feel at home. "I'll prepare a room, sir. Same as last time?"
He nodded. "That will be fine. I am sorry I didn't tell you sooner. If there's anything I can do to help—"
That was what I admired about him: he looked genuinely concerned. I had no doubt that if I had indicated I needed help, he would have cheerfully assisted me in airing out the room, changing the bed linen, and performing the other tasks necessary to prepare a room for guests. But that was not his job, and that was the way it was meant to be. "No, sir. It'll be no trouble at all. A few days, you said?" I continued gathering the elements of the meal together on the tray.
"Yes, that's right. He didn't say exactly when. He never does, since he always gets here by a rather...circuitous...route. He'll be—Stop that, Aubrey! Just put it down here, and get another plate. You're not going to pull that servant rubbish on me and leave me in the dining room to eat by myself, are you?"
"Of course not, sir," I said with a little smile, although that had been my intent. As usual, he had invited me to eat with him, but I never took that for granted.
"Well, good. I'd like some decent company after those little brats on the plane." He shook his head quickly as if to remove that memory from it forever. "So, what have you been doing?"
We spent the next hour over a slow meal and a great deal of conversation. I told him about the house, its little problems, the repairs I'd made and the hunting I'd been doing occasionally out at the far end of the property; he told me about Seattle, a bit about his friends there, and about a woman whose company he enjoyed although he knew that nothing would ever come of it. It felt good having him back again; the house seemed empty and echoing without his presence and his wit. By the time I gathered the dishes and cleared them from the table, I felt again like he had been back for weeks. It was a pleasant, comfortable feeling.
"Well," he said at last, lingering over a last cup of coffee, "I think I'm going to turn in. I didn't get much sleep on the plane, and I've a few things I want to do tomorrow before Terry arrives. Spell research, you know."
"Yes, sir. Good night, then." I watched him go and finished picking up the dishes, rinsing them and putting them in the sink. I'd load them up to wash tomorrow. Suddenly, I too was feeling tired. It was a good sort of tired, though. The house felt complete again. I was looking forward to a quiet, uneventful couple of weeks.
The next day was as beautiful as its predecessor had been horrific. I awoke early to the sight of the sun shining in through my eastward-facing window; looking out, I saw that the rain had stopped some time ago, leaving the Manor and the many trees surrounding it with a kind of healthy glow over them. There were still puddles standing on the drive leading up to the house, but I had no doubt that they would be dried up by noon. The light mist and few clouds in the blue sky did not daunt my good mood in the slightest.
Dr. Stone was already up when I arrived at the Manor. He was in his study, several books open on his old wooden desk, one of his favourite old late-20th-century musical bands (I believe the name of this one was 'Pink Floyd'—I had heard many of his antique recordings enough times before that I was getting rather good at identifying them) playing in the background. He looked hard at work with his research, so I turned away so as not to bother him. He didn't miss me, though. Looking up from his book, he smiled. "Oh, hello, Aubrey. Didn't see you there. Were you standing long?" He hit a control on the desk and the sound of the music muted down.
"No, sir. Just seeing if you were up yet. Shall I make breakfast?"
He shook his head. "No, thanks, not for me. I'm on the trail of something here, and I'd really rather not take the time. I'd appreciate it if you'd bring me a muffin or something, but I'd rather not be disturbed for most of today, if you don't mind. We'll talk tonight at dinner, all right?"
"Yes, sir," I said, nodding with a little smile. This was nothing new. He generally used his time in England to develop at least one new spell that he could use in his adventures in Seattle. "What is it this time, if I might ask?"
He got a devilish glint in his eyes. "Something nasty."
I chuckled, which was my way of covering up the fact that I didn't entirely approve. It was always 'something nasty.' "Yes, sir. I'll bring you something in a bit."
When I returned with a plate of muffins and a large pitcher of orange juice, he barely acknowledged my presence except with a brief "Thanks" without looking up. He had two books open, and his gaze was darting back and forth between the two as he dashed off unintelligible notes on a datapad. I set the plate and the pitcher on the corner of the desk and quickly made my exit, unnoticed.
The rest of the morning was uneventful. I ate a light breakfast in the kitchen and then set about my usual household chores, attempting once again to keep the Manor's vast quantity of dust down to manageable levels. As usual, the dust was winning. Fortunately, Dr. Stone didn't seem to mind; in fact, he hardly seemed to notice. Unfortunately, I did. It was a subject of endless consternation to me that I couldn't keep the house in the state of cleanliness that I considered acceptable; even with the entire east wing of the house blocked off and unused, it was still too large a task for one person. In its days of glory, I knew from the historical records stored in the attic, Stone Manor had supported a staff of twenty servants. That had been during the 1800s, when the Stone family holdings and political power had been at their highest. Many of the rooms that were now blocked off had been quarters for cooks, maids, and other house servants. Now, though, there was only me. Not that I was complaining: I actually rather enjoyed having the place to myself when Dr. Stone wasn't in residence. It was a peaceful old place. I had, in fact, had it to myself for a long time, since Dr. Stone's parents did not care for the old mansion and had chosen to live instead in a large, posh apartment in the heart of London. The only time they ever cared about the Manor was when they had held very infrequent social gatherings here; I think they would have sold it had there not been a very stringent stipulation in the terms of ownership that it was never to be sold, and when there was no longer a Stone to own it, it would revert to the British government, probably to convert into some kind of historical site. I don't think they had tried to challenge that stipulation, since it had been in place for more than ten generations.
It was about noon when the knock came. I had just finished polishing one of the big wooden tables in the main hall when I heard it: someone was knocking on the front door. I swore quietly under my breath, then immediately felt guilty. Terry may have been at least a day earlier than he'd been expected, but he was Dr. Stone's guest nonetheless. I thought about calling Dr. Stone from his study, but decided against it: let the visit be a surprise to him as well.
I hid my polishing rag behind a nearby vase and straightened my sweater, hurrying over as the knock sounded again. It was a quiet, tentative knock, which seemed a little odd for the large, physical Terry. "Just a moment, just a moment," I muttered to myself. I opened the door.
There was no one there.
At least, there was no one there at Terry's level. Then I looked down.
A boy stood there, looking up at me. He looked to be about nine or ten, with neatly-combed dark brown hair and earnest gray eyes. His thin face, handsome in a bookish sort of way, had a mien of seriousness. Dressed in a blue blazer of a school-uniform style and gray slacks, he held a small brown leather suitcase tightly in one hand.
"Hello," I said. It was almost a question. "May I—help you with something, young sir?"
The boy looked uncertain, doubt flashing across his face as his gaze roamed across me. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a scrap of paper, and consulted. it. "Is this—is this where Dr. Alastair Stone lives?"
I raised my eyebrows. "Yes..." I told him slowly. "I'm Aubrey Townes, the caretaker of Stone Manor. May I help you?"
The boy set the suitcase down next to him. "I'd like to—see him, if that's all right."
"I'm afraid Dr. Stone is very busy right now," I said, thinking after last night, the last person he'd want to see would be a child, unfortunately. "He doesn't wish to be disturbed. If you can tell me the nature of your visit, perhaps I can help."
"Well...I think I'd better see him anyway." He took a deep breath. "My name's Nigel Barton. I think...uh...that is—Dr. Stone is my father."
It was a few seconds before I realised that my mouth was hanging open and closed it with a sound thump. I stared at him dumbly for a long moment more. Then I got myself together again, embarrassed. This was, of course, preposterous. Dr. Stone didn't have any children; certainly not a ten-year-old son. But still...I looked at the boy again, noting the similarity in facial structure, in body shape (the boy, though not tall, was quite thin), in hair colour. If someone was trying to pass this child off as something he was not, at least they had taken care to find a child whose physical resemblance to his alleged father was marked. "I'm...I'm sorry, lad," I stammered, "But you must have the wrong Dr. Stone. You see, the one who lives here has no children."
"Yes, he does, sir," the boy said earnestly. "My mother is Ann Barton. If you'll tell him, I'm sure he'll remember. Mother said he would."
My breath caught in my throat. Ann Barton? That was a name I hadn't heard in years. "Ann...Barton is your mother?" I stepped aside, motioning for him to enter. "Come in and sit down; I'd like to hear a bit more of this before I bother Dr. Stone, if you don't mind."
Nigel came in readily enough, taking a seat on one of the sofas in one of the small wing rooms off the entry. I sat down opposite him. "Yes, sir," he said. "She told me she was engaged to my father several years ago, but he broke it off."
I didn't answer; there was more to that story, but I wasn't going to tell it to this boy. I didn't even like to think about it anymore myself. "Well," I said, "If she's your mother, then where is she now? Is she waiting outside?" I shuddered to think what a confrontation between Ann Barton and Alastair Stone would look like.
He shook his head. "No, sir. She sent me here in a cab. She told me that it was time I spent some time with my father and got to know him. She's gone off somewhere in Europe. She didn't tell me where." He looked not a little worried as he said this. In fact, he looked as if he might cry.
I was outraged. "You mean, she just sent you here? And took off? Without checking to make sure you arrived safely?" I didn't even think Ann Barton, as vindictive as she was capable of being, could be that cruel to her own child.
He nodded. "She said she would call me when she arrived. She said she's not sure when she's coming back. She wants me to get to know Dad, that's what she said." He didn't look too happy about the prospect. "May I see him?"
I didn't have the heart to tell him what kind of reception he was most likely going to receive. Rising, I looked down at him. "Do you have any kind of identification on you, to prove you're who you say you are?"
"Yes, sir." Nigel fished in the pocket of his blazer and withdrew a small leather case. Inside was a holographic identification card with his name, Nigel Philip Barton, his date of birth (my guess had been correct: he was just over ten years old), SIN, and other pertinent information. I noted a lack of address. "Where do you live?"
He shrugged. "Nowhere, now. Mum gave up the house we were renting. I was away at school for awhile, but she pulled me out about a month ago." He was looking anxious now. "You're not going to send me away, are you?"
"No, no," I told him reassuringly, although I was by no means certain it was true. "You stay right here, and I'll go get Dr. Stone. All right?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you." Nigel settled back on the couch, drew his suitcase up next to him, and looked out the window at the front part of the grounds.
I hurried to the door of the study, not wanting to leave the child alone for too long. Knocking gently, I pressed my ear close to the door. "Sir?"
There was no answer. Louder: "Sir, may I come in?"
I heard a book close with rather a sharp crack. "Yes, come in." The voice was rather sharp, too.
I opened the door and entered the room. He was sitting at his desk, trying to hide the glimmer of annoyance in his eyes. "Aubrey, I'm sorry to be so abrupt, but I did ask—"
"Yes, sir, I know," I cut him off, nodding. "And I would not have disturbed you if it wasn't important. There's—someone here to see you."
He shrugged. "Terry's here early? Well, that's fine. Just set him up in his room, and tell him I'll see him in a bit." He made as if to return to his work.
"No, sir. It's not Terry." I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. How to tell him? "It's—someone else. I think you'd best come see him."
"Can't this wait?" he asked, scowling at me. He indicated his book with an impatient wave of his hand. "I'm at a crucial point in the formula design right now, and I'd rather not—"
"Sir," I said, my voice strained, "I think you'd better come with me."
Looking up, he seemed to finally catch the urgency in my eyes. His expression softened a bit. "All right, Aubrey," he said, rising. "I'll come with you." This had better be worth it was unsaid but evident.
He followed me out of the room and out through the main hall. "Who is this mysterious visitor?" he asked. "Somebody I know?"
"Not...specifically, sir. I think it would be best if you just saw him."
He sighed, but followed without further protest.
Nigel was still sitting on the couch, clutching his suitcase and staring out the window. He jumped up as we approached, standing straight and attentive. His eyes were fixed on Dr. Stone, who stopped cold as soon as he saw the boy.
Turning, he looked at me with his old annoyance returned. "Aubrey, is this some kind of joke? You disturbed my studies to show me a child? What, is he selling something for his school?" He glanced at Nigel and back at me. Under his breath, he murmured, "Just buy one of whatever he's selling and get rid of him, will you?"
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "No, sir. He's not selling anything." I indicated the child. "This is Nigel Barton. He—claims to be your son."
Dr. Stone had been drawing himself up to cut me off, but at that he just stopped in mid-breath, staring at me. His expression darkened. "My what?" His glance darted back and forth again between me and Nigel, and he shook his head quickly. "This is preposterous, Aubrey. I'm surprised at you for disturbing me for what's obviously some kind of bad joke."
He turned away to leave, but I touched his arm. "Sir, please. Don't go. There is more. Nigel's mother is Ann Barton."
He froze, slowly turning back around. His eyes looked as if someone had just struck him. "What?" he whispered harshly.
"It's true, sir," Nigel spoke up in a quiet but surprisingly steady voice. "She's my mother. And you're my father, or at least that's what Mum says." He looked down. "I don't want to be any trouble—"
Dr. Stone moved over and sank down in a nearby chair. He still looked angry, but the anger was tempered by confusion. Quickly, I filled him in on what the boy had told me, and asked Nigel to show him his identification. When we had finished, Dr. Stone was looking even more angry and confused than before. "Then—" he started, at a loss for words, "—then she's just left you here. Without a call, or any kind of notice. That's assuming, of course, that you really are my son, which I do not believe." He sighed, a sharp harsh sound forced through clenched teeth, and stood up like an uncoiling spring. "I can't deal with this right now, Aubrey. He can stay here until we figure out what's going on, but I have work to do. See to it he's got what he needs." Without further comment, he stalked out of the room. In a few seconds, I heard the door to the study slam.
Nigel looked up at me, the worry apparent in his eyes. "Is he...always like that, sir?"
I put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I'm afraid he's not too fond of children," I admitted reluctantly. "But he'll come 'round. I'll talk to him in a bit. He did say you could stay, though, so let's take your things up and get you settled into a room." I smiled at him. "I promise, I'll talk to him. Of course we'll need to find some proof that you really are his son, but I believe you. Once he does too, I'm sure you two can work something out."
"I...I always wanted to see my father. Mum says this way is the best—that he'd need some time to get to know me. I just don't want to cause anyone any trouble." Again, he looked like he might burst into tears, but he controlled it with effort.
"Now, now," I murmured, picking up his suitcase and steering him across the main hall toward the staircase, "It'll all work out. You seem like a fine lad. He'll come 'round. Just give him some time. You were quite a surprise to him."
Nigel nodded, but didn't speak. He allowed me to escort him upstairs into one of the Manor's many bedrooms, this one several doors down from Dr. Stone's rooms and down the hall from where Terry would be staying when he arrived. "I'm afraid this room isn't ready for visitors," I apologised. "I'll put it together in a jiffy, though. You wait here."
When I returned with an armload of bed linens, the child immediately grabbed a sheet and started toward the bed. At my protest, he said, "We did this all the time in school—we have to make our own beds. Please don't let me be any trouble." I smiled at him and picked up the other corner of the sheet. Together, we quickly put the room in order. "I need to get back to my work," I told him. "There are some old books in here, and I'll bring you up a trideo and a chip reader, if you like. Feel free to wander around the grounds, but don't stray too far from the house, and it would probably be best if you didn't disturb Dr. Stone in his study downstairs until after I've had a chance to speak with him. Is there anything else you require?"
Nigel shook his head. "No, sir. You've been very kind. Thank you. I think I'll just rest for a bit." Kicking off his shoes, he climbed up on the bed and lay down. With one last quick glance at him, I left the room and closed the door.
Standing in the hall outside the room, I felt uncharacteristic anger welling up inside me. The last time I had been angry with Dr. Stone had also concerned Ann Barton. I hadn't approved then, and I still didn't. Scowling to myself, I debated whether to bother him again and risk his wrath. The decision only took a few seconds and then I was on my way downstairs.
I knocked on the study door, more loudly than last time. "Sir, please let me in. We need to talk."
There was a long pause, and then the door was flung open. He was already moving back across the room; he threw himself down into his favourite old leather chair and stared morosely out the window. The view showed a a tree-lined courtyard. He didn't speak.
"I've done what you asked, sir," I told him. "He's staying upstairs, second room on the left."
He shrugged, still staring out the window. "Fine."
I looked at him. His eyes were hard, his face set in the stubborn air of a child who refused to acknowledge truth. His arms were crossed resolutely across his chest.
I drew up another chair next to him. "Sir, I...I don't think you treated that child very well."
He shrugged. "Why should I? He's not my son. I don't have a son. He's some kind of fake. He's after something."
"What makes you so sure of that, if I may ask?"
He swiveled around in the chair until he was facing me, but said nothing.
"Sir, you know my feelings on the Ann Barton matter, and I shan't bring them up again. But—well... Is it possible? The boy is about the right age..."
Again, he shrugged. "Of course it's possible," he snapped. "But it doesn't make any sense that she wouldn't have told me."
"She wasn't particularly fond of you at that point, sir..."
"That's all the more reason!" he said, his voice rising in annoyance. "Listen, Aubrey: I know you don't approve of what I did to Ann. I admit it—I wasn't terribly kind about breaking it off with her—"
"You dumped her, sir, as the Americans so eloquently put it," I said.
"All right, then, I dumped her!" He rose a bit in his chair. "But I didn't want to marry her. She didn't understand about anything—about magic, about me...You know how she got, there toward the end. She never wanted to let me out of her sight! I wasn't going to live with that, no matter how cruel I had to be to get out of it." He sighed. "But we've been through all this before, Aubrey. Talking about it now isn't going to change anything. I just can't believe that even Ann would wait ten years before letting me know we had a child. It's got to be some sort of trick."
"But what if it isn't, sir?" I asked, leaning forward a bit in my chair. "What if he really is your son?"
"I don't know. I suppose we'll have to find his mother and get him back to her. He can't stay here."
He still wasn't looking at me, so he didn't see me take a deep breath and silently count to ten before answering. "Why...can't he?"
"What do you mean, why can't he?" He finally turned, his blue eyes locking on me like a snake, and made a short, sharp sound that might have been a derisive laugh. "Don't be absurd, Aubrey! Even if he is my son, which he isn't, we're not exactly set up for children here. D'you want me to open up a bloody day care center while we're about it?"
I rose, closing my eyes. "Sir," I said formally, "I don't think you're in any state to discuss this right now. I have some duties to perform this morning, and you've your research to get back to. Perhaps we can resume this at a later hour." Without waiting for him to answer, I turned and walked stiffly from the room, closing the door with a soft little click behind me. Walking out on him was something I'd never done before. Perhaps it would make an impression on him.
I half-expected him to come storming out after me, given the temper into which he had worked himself, but he did not. The room remained silent. After a few moments, during which I got my breathing under control, I left the house and went outside, where some of the garden chores were waiting for my attention. I took to them quickly, hoping the physical activity would calm my anger.
It wasn't, of course, my place to be angry at Dr. Stone. He was my employer, nothing more, and the decisions he chose to make regarding his family (or alleged family) should have been none of my concern. Despite that, I could not get the situation out of my mind as I mowed the large lawn in front of the house and gathered some wood for the old fireplaces in the kitchen and the hall. Much to my regret, I had never married; it wasn't as if I had not had a few opportunities, but for one reason or another, they had not worked out. By the time I had reached my forties, I was too set in my ways to care too much anymore, but I did occasionally think about what my children (and even grandchildren, now) might have been like. Now, at sixty-three, I had accepted my lot but still had rare spells of remorse that I had not pursued it with greater ardour.
Dr. Stone, in some ways, was like me. He was attractive (far more than I myself had been at his age) and never had difficulty charming the ladies with his wit, but he seemed to show no interest in a long-term relationship. During the times he was in residence at the Manor, I had seen him bring home various young women, all of them quite lovely and highly intelligent. He never bothered with women who weren't at least close to his intellectual equals; often, but not always, they were practitioners of the magical arts. Still, though, the relationships never grew serious. As far as I know, he had remained friends with most of the women he had dated, but no more.
The one exception to that had been Ann Barton. Could it already have been nearly eleven years? It didn't seem so long to me, but there was, I was slowly and reluctantly realising, truth to the feeling that time passes faster as one grows older. Dr. Stone had been a young man of twenty-five then, doing some work at London University when he wasn't in America building the beginnings of his secret life over there. Ann had been a graduate student (I do not, at this point, remember the discipline, except that she was not a magician of any kind) and had met him at one of the little pubs that surrounded the campus. They had begun dating, and he had spoken to me on occasion of the fact that he may have at long last found someone with whom he could relate enough to become serious about. I was happy to hear it, since it seemed to me that he (consciously or unconsciously) used his caustic wit and biting sarcasm to keep people away from him. I was glad he had finally allowed someone to get around that.
He brought her to the Manor a number of times, and I recall that she seemed like a nice enough young lady, if a bit immature (I did not, of course, tell him this). All in all, though, I felt he had chosen wisely. When he announced that he had asked her to marry him, I felt like a proud father.
Soon after that, though, things had begun to go sour. He did not spend much time at the Manor so he did not confide in me at length, but from what little I could gather from him, he had begun to tire of the fact that she desired his company constantly, and became upset when he would not spend all his free time with her. He is now, and was then, the kind of person who requires a large amount of variety and mental stimulation in his life; he bores more easily than any person I have ever known with anything except magic, over which he can spend days at a time. Over the next month, he had become more and more agitated and frustrated with Ann, to the point where he began to dread being around her at all. The whole thing had blown up one night at the Manor, where he had invited her to dinner. I had served the meal and then retired to my apartment above the garage, hoping that they could work out their differences, but it was not to be. Only about half an hour later, I had heard the loud, angry sound of a car engine being revved, the screech of tires being whipped around on gravel, and the sound of a vehicle leaving at a high rate of speed. As I stood there in my living room debating whether I should go over to the house, Dr. Stone (he hadn't, of course, been Dr. Stone then) had come to me: dinner had started out well, but when he had told her of a short trip to America he planned to take without her, she had accused him of not loving her. He had then told her that she was right, he didn't love her, and perhaps it would be best if she just left. The engagement was off, she could keep the ring, but she should get out of his life. She had pulled off the ring, thrown it in his face, and left the house. Neither of us ever saw her again.
That was the last time, as far as I knew, that Dr. Stone had had a serious relationship with any woman. I had been angry at him for not being more gentle with her, though I empathised with his unwillingness to spend the rest of his life with a woman that clinging. I had given him quite a lecture at the time about tact and gentlemanliness and other such things; he had told me to mind my own business and left for America for a year. When he returned, neither of us spoke of the matter and life went on as before.
Now, though, things were different. If Nigel really was his son by Ann Barton, then something had to be done. I wasn't sure what yet, or even if I should have any part in the matter, but something needed to be done.
Finishing my yard chores, I washed up and went back to the house to start on dinner. I detoured through the main hall to glance at the door to Dr. Stone's study: it was still closed. There was no sign of Nigel, so I assumed he was still upstairs. My mind still on the situation and not on cooking, I made a simple dinner, one I could do by instinct, leaving my mind free. I wondered what Terry would think about all of this; he was arriving into a situation quite unlike what he expected, I imagined. Would his presence make things better, worse, or would he not be a factor at all? I had no way to know.
When everything was laid out on the dining room table, I went upstairs and knocked on Nigel's door. "Are you awake in there, lad?"
I heard quick footsteps on the floor, and the door opened. The boy stood there in his stocking feet, attentive. "Yes, sir."
I smiled at him, feeling an instant liking for him. He was so earnest and curious, but somehow sad; he reminded me a great deal of a certain other young man at the same age. "Are you hungry? Dinner's ready downstairs."
He nodded. "Oh, yes sir. Thank you. I'll just put my shoes on and be down in a minute, if that's okay." He paused. "Will my father be there?"
He'll be there if I have to drag him out by his hair, I thought somewhat crankily, but aloud I only said, "Yes, he will. I'll see to it. I'm sure he's hungry too."
"Good," Nigel said, nodding. "I'd like to talk to him. Mum's told me a lot about him."
And you still want to see him? I was surprised, and gave Ann Barton credit for more maturity than I'd originally thought. "I'm sure she has," I said. "Go on, then: put your shoes on. The dining room's off the main hall, on your left, near the study."
I continued smiling to myself as I went back downstairs, but the smile faded with each step closer to the closed study door. I squared my shoulders and took a deep breath, then rapped smartly on the door. "Sir, dinner is served," I said in a brisk tone.
"I'm not hungry," came his voice from inside.
I opened the door, noting that this day was certainly one for my doing things I'd never done before (add opening doors uninvited to the list), and looked in. He was still sitting in his chair, one leg hooked over the arm, slumped into the tall soft leather back. As I watched him, he tore a corner off a piece of paper, wadded it up between his fingers, and tossed it lazily into the roaring fire in the fireplace. He'd stoked it up since I'd been in there last, obviously. The little piece of paper flared up in a tiny spark and disappeared. In the background, a recording played quietly: one of the more depressing of Pink Floyd's repertoire, if I didn't miss my guess. "I thought you were doing research," I said.
He shrugged, tossing another wad of paper into the fire. "I've finished."
"So then, I'm not bothering you."
Again, he shrugged. "I don't recall inviting you in, but that's all right."
I went over and stood next to him. Two more paper balls went into the fire. He had not once looked in my direction. "Sir, I think you should come to dinner."
"Because you haven't eaten all day, and because Nigel wants to see you."
He turned his head to look up to me, but the rest of him didn't move. "Well, I don't want to see him."
Another deep breath. "Sir, I think you're acting quite badly about this, if you'll forgive my saying so."
A tiny, mirthless smile quirked one corner of his mouth. "And what if I won't?"
"Won't what, sir?"
"Forgive your saying so?"
"Sir—" I paused a long moment, sighed, and stood. "I'm sorry to have bothered you. I'll leave you alone now." Turning, I started for the door.
I stopped and slowly turned back. He had swiveled around on the chair so he was sitting in it properly, looking at me with a carefully neutral expression. "Come back. I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry. Please come back and sit down."
"I...can't, sir. I need to finish serving dinner. Nigel will be down soon, and he's quite hungry. He's had a rather difficult day." My look at him was just a bit accusing.
He didn't answer for a moment, then said, "I suppose we all have, haven't we?" He met my eyes. "I haven't accepted this. I just want you to know that. Let's have no false illusions: I think the boy is a fake, and he's here for some purpose. But I'll come to dinner, and I'll talk to him. Will that make you happy?"
"For now, sir," I told him quietly. "It is a beginning."
He stood. "He's got you snookered, I see. Next thing you know, you'll be taking in stray cats." His tone, though cynical, was not unkind.
"Probably, sir." I indicated for him to precede me with a nod in the direction of the door. He reached over the desk and flipped off the music, then headed out.
Nigel was waiting for us in the dining room, hovering near the window. He had put his shoes back on and also his blue blazer. Next to me in my work clothes and Dr. Stone in his rumpled sweater, he looked quite elegant, if a bit stressed. His whole face brightened when he saw Dr. Stone was with me. "Dad. You did come."
I could almost feel my employer wince next to me at the name, but he said nothing. He went immediately to his place at the end of the table and sat down. When he saw that I had only set two places, he looked at me with flashing eyes. "Join us, Aubrey," he said through his teeth. "Please." Under the forced courtesy was the tone of an order.
I thought about protesting that I had already made plans for the evening, but decided not to push my luck for the day. "Yes, sir," I said, and left to get another place setting and return with the trays. When I came back a few minutes later, Dr. Stone had not moved, and Nigel was sitting at the place to his right. Neither spoke as I came in: Dr. Stone looked annoyed, Nigel uncomfortable. Silently, I put down another place to Dr. Stone's left and laid out the dishes. "It isn't much," I said apologetically into the silence. "I'll be glad to make something more complicated if anyone wants it."
"No, thank you, Aubrey, this looks quite good," Dr. Stone said. He turned to Nigel. "Eat up, Nigel. Aubrey gets grumpy when we don't clean our plates."
Not sure how to take that (it sounded like a joke, but there was no smile), Nigel began dishing up, hesitantly. I noticed he took very little. "Have more, child," I said gently. "I know how hungry growing boys get."
The boy shook his head, looking up at me. "No thank you, sir. Maybe in a bit. I'm hungry, but I don't feel too well right now."
I took a closer look at him, noting that he had a slightly pinched, pale look about him that I had not paid much attention to before. I had attributed it to stress, and wasn't sure yet that that wasn't exactly what it was. "Are you ill?"
"No, sir. I think I'm just tired."
I shot another accusing glance at Dr. Stone, who was staring moodily into his wineglass. "Well, perhaps you should go right to bed after dinner. I think a good meal and a good night's rest will do you good. Don't you think so, Dr. Stone?"
His gaze jumped up from the depths of the wineglass. "What?"
Slowly and with exaggerated patience, I repeated, "Don't you think a good night's sleep will do the boy good?"
"Oh. Yes, of course." To Nigel, he said abruptly, "You've no idea where your mother is?"
The boy looked surprised at this sudden change of subject, but nodded. "Yes, sir. That's right. She said she was going to Europe somewhere, and that you'd take care of me. She told me she'd arranged it."
"She lied, you know."
"Lied, sir?" Perplexity showed in Nigel's eyes.
Dr. Stone nodded. "She never made any arrangements. I haven't heard from your mother, assuming of course that she is your mother, in over ten years."
If he had not been my employer, I think I may well have struck Dr. Stone at that moment, I was so angry with him. He was making no effort whatsoever to make the child feel comfortable in this strange situation; in fact, he seemed determined to make things more difficult than they were. I busied myself in putting potatoes on my plate and clenched my teeth to avoid saying anything I would later regret.
Nigel looked down at the table. "I think I figured that our earlier, sir. When Mr. Townes was surprised to see me. Mum told me she'd worked it all out with you and that you wanted to see me." Slowly, he pushed his chair out from the table. "I think I'd just like to go to bed, if that's all right. I guess I wasn't really hungry after all." He made as if to stand.
I glared at Dr. Stone, my anger unhidden from him. He caught my look and hastily rose himself. "No, Nigel, sit down," he said. "Whoever you are, you still need to eat. Nobody's going to say that I drove a child away from his dinner. I'll go." Dropping his napkin on the table and picking up his still-full wineglass, he swiftly left the room. I did not try to stop him, but instead turned back to the boy. "Please eat, Nigel," I said kindly to him. "I don't know what's gotten into Dr. Stone; he's not normally like this, believe me. I think he's just overwhelmed."
Nigel nodded despondently. "Yes, sir." Together, we finished dinner. I attempted to start a conversation, but in each case the boy merely replied politely and did not volunteer any further information. Eventually I gave up. I ate only a bit more, waited for him to finish, and left the dishes on the table. "Would you like me to accompany you upstairs?"
"No, thank you. I'll be fine." He smiled at me, a tired little smile. "Thank you for everything. I'm sure Dad will come 'round, if you say he will." Slowly he left the room. In a moment, I heard the sound of his footsteps going up the stairs. I remained sitting at the big table, my head in my hands, for a few more moments, then began to methodically gather up the dishes and carry them to the kitchen.
I had finished loading most of the dinner dishes into the dishwasher and was beginning on the items that needed to be hand-washed when Dr. Stone appeared in the kitchen doorway. He did not speak right away, but came over to the counter and set his wineglass, now empty, in front of me. Leaning on his elbows on the counter, he said, "Go ahead: say it."
I didn't even attempt to ask him what he meant. "What difference does my opinion make, sir?"
He shrugged. "I want to hear it."
I finished washing the glass I had in my hand and set it down. "All right, then: I was ashamed of your behaviour tonight, sir." I met his eyes levelly when I said it.
"You were." It wasn't a question. He raised up, ran a hand through his hair, and began pacing slowly around the kitchen.
I nodded. "Yes, sir. That boy may well be your son. Your only son. And you're treating him like—" I sighed and trailed off.
"What if he is my son?" he asked quietly. "What of it? She doesn't mention him for ten years, and then she thinks that I'm just going to take over for her because she needs to go to Europe and find herself, or something?" He glared at me. "I don't like children, Aubrey. I didn't like them when I was a child. I didn't like myself when I was a child. It's not as if I ever made any secret of that. I've no desire to be a father."
Very softly, I said, "Sir, you may not have a choice about it. If he is your son, then you are a father. What you choose to do about it is your choice, of course. But as far as your desire to be a father or not goes, you may not have a choice any longer."
He came back over and resumed his place leaning over the counter. "So I've no choice," he repeated. "I still don't believe it, and I plan to check up on it tomorrow. But should it turn out that he really is mine, I just have to take him because she decided she doesn't want him anymore? If he's my son, you know she's dumped him on me. Proper mothers don't go off God knows where and leave their children with their fathers without a forwarding address, especially without checking with them first. So I just have to take him, no questions asked?"
Closing my eyes, I gripped the counter with both hands. "Sir, I know that family doesn't mean much to you, and there's really no reason why it should, given your experiences. But there's a certain amount of responsibility that goes with a relationship. If Nigel is your son, you contributed to his creation as much as Ann Barton did. That makes him your responsibility as well."
Dr. Stone laughed, a cold, unhappy sound. "You're lecturing me on sex?" he demanded incredulously. "Aren't you about twenty years too late for that, Aubrey?"
"Apparently not, sir."
He shook his head. "I don't believe this. So what you're saying is that I should just give up everything because someone leaves a child on my doorstep? A child who might not even be mine?"
"If he isn't yours, sir, then he isn't your responsibility. But I think we both suspect that he is. You must admit, he looks like you."
"So what? That doesn't prove anything."
"Perhaps, perhaps not," I said, picking up his wineglass and putting it in the sink to wash. "But you're forgetting something else, if he is yours."
"What am I forgetting?"
I looked at him. "He is the next Lord Stone," I said quietly.
Again the cold laugh. "What difference does that make to me? You know how I feel about that whole business."
"Yes, Lord Alastair. I know how you feel about it," I told him with a sigh. "But perhaps the boy will not feel that way about it. You've a responsibility to make sure he's allowed to know his birthright."
"Damn it, Aubrey, don't call me that," he said irritably.
"I think it's time you accepted it, sir." My voice was soft and resolute. "You are the last of the Stone line, if Nigel is not your son. May I speak frankly, sir?"
"Isn't that what you've been doing?"
I took that as an affirmative and continued: "I think, sir, that it may be time for you to take on your responsibilities here at home. You're in your mid-thirties now; you've had many years to pursue your adventures in America, to put yourself in danger and at risk. Isn't it time you thought about coming home and accepting the duties you've got here? Especially if you have a son—someone has to train him in the proper ways."
"The proper ways," he said contemptuously, resuming his pacing. "How can I train him in something I don't even know myself? If he does turn out to be my son, I'll support him—that's my obligation, though I'll try very hard to track down his mother and talk a bit of sense into her. But I'll be off to America soon again. He can stay here—we can look into a school to send him to, where he'll get the best education."
"Just like you did, sir." I said, looking at him.
"What?" He stopped and turned back to me.
"The best education. The best schools. Money is no object."
"Sure, why not? I've got money. I'll send some of it home."
"And you'll never see him, except on holidays. If even then."
He shrugged. "I turned out all right, didn't I?"
Abandoning my pretense of washing dishes, I said gently, "I remember a boy of about Nigel's age, crushed with disappointment because his father decided to take a business trip over the holidays and leave him in school for the vacation. Do you remember that?"
He nodded, sinking down in one of the kitchen chairs. "That was the year I found out I was a mage." Glaring up at me, he added, "But that was a long time ago. Things are different now. Aubrey, I'm not going to come home and become a babysitter to a child. If he is my son and she's abandoned him, I'm responsible for his support. I'll see to that. But don't ask me to be something I'm not, because I won't do it."
I stood up straighter, stiffly. "Yes, Lord Alastair. It is, of course, your decision."
He stood there in the middle of the floor for a moment, casting a glacial glance at me and clenching his fists, but said nothing for several seconds. Then he sighed. "I'm going to bed, Aubrey. I'm tired. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night, sir," I said, but I do not think he heard me.