It surprised the hell out of me, when the old cargo ship finally docked in London, to see that the sky was blue and the sun was out. Unless my memory was faulty, that had never happened before while I was anywhere near England. I had just figured that they never got sun around here, which was why Winterhawk never had a tan. Not that Seattle was much better: none of us were exactly glowing with sun-drenched health. But at least in Seattle there was the occasional day of sunshine and, outside town, greenery. It wasn't much, but it was something.
This was the beginning of my fourth day traveling, and my fifth means of conveyance since leaving Seattle. That wasn't unexpected either: when you traveled with as many dangerous toys as I did, you didn't fly commercial. Furthermore, when you traveled with dangerous toys and didn't have an identity, you stayed as far away from anything commercial as you could. The route may have been a bit off the beaten track and taken three times as long to get me to my destination, but at least I had been safe from prying eyes. That was the way I liked it.
I'd ridden my bike down to San Francisco in the California Free State, where I'd left it with a trusted friend until I got back, and bribed my way onto a military cargo plane bound for New York. The accommodations hadn't been pleasant, but at least they were dry. I was used to sleeping with a duffel bag full of guns as a pillow. I didn't like it, but I was used to it. From New York, I'd stowed away on a private courier jet on its way to France (the pilot had discovered me, but a liberal application of nuyen had convinced him to keep quiet; he'd actually turned out to be a decent guy, though I had carefully not trusted him too far). When we'd landed in France, I'd rented a little room and slept for a few hours, then hitchhiked my way to the docks and paid a crewman on the cargo ship to let me hide out in the hold. The ship was cold, leaky, and drafty, so I wasn't in a very good mood when the crewman had come down to tell me we'd arrived. Even the realization that I was a day early did not improve my outlook. Paying the crewman a little extra for his trouble, I sneaked off the ship, found a place to sit tight for awhile, and examined my options.
I'd come to London at Winterhawk's invitation, after I and the other members of our shadowrunner team had finally managed to convince him that he really should spend some time learning how to shoot better. As a mage (and a damn good one), Winterhawk tended to be a bit snobbish about using more conventional ("mundane," as he called them) means of accomplishing his objectives, preferring instead to employ a showy manabolt or subtle sleep spell. But there were times when it wasn't in our best interests to let the opposition know we had magical ability on our side, and the team had been trying (until recently without success) to convince 'Hawk that it might be worthwhile to be able to pass as a mundane with a gun. He had finally agreed when, during our last run, he had taken some hard drain from one of his more powerful spells and had to resort to firing his sub-machine gun, an endeavor that had been totally without positive results. If I hadn't been there to pick off the guy who'd snuck up behind him and tried to rearrange his head, he would have bought it. After we got out of there, we used the opportunity to restate our position, and he had responded by inviting me to England to show him a few tricks in between runs.
I still wasn't certain what it was about shadowrunning that appealed to Winterhawk, though after my last visit to England I had my suspicions. The only one of the team who had a real identity (at least over here), 'Hawk doubled as Dr. Alastair Stone, local eccentric and eligible bachelor, occasional professor of thaumaturgy at London University, and lord of the rambling old Stone Manor, which was located some twenty minutes outside London on a large parcel of tree-covered land. It had seemed to me last time I had been here to visit him that he had had everything that a sane person might want, and that he was using shadowrunning as nothing more than a way to have some good sport. We'd fought over that at the time, but after he had come back to Seattle with me and experienced life from my side, in the Barrens, I'd gradually realized that he wasn't in it for the sport, but for the chance to test himself against something that wasn't safe. Over here, his life was quiet and safe and boring. A bit of it was restful; a lifetime of it, for men like me and 'Hawk, would have been hell. Those weren't my reasons, but at least now I understood.
I was looking forward to spending some time at Winterhawk's place. The old mansion was quite large, and though a lot of it was blocked off because it had not yet been restored (and was expensive to heat), there were plenty of places you could go to be by yourself. If you couldn't find something in the house itself, the large tract of forested, untouched land that surrounded it allowed for all the solitude you could ask for. For a guy like me who grew up in the overcrowded bad part of Seattle, it was a rare pleasure to be able to go off by yourself and just spend some time thinking. Winterhawk was a private kind of person too, so it didn't bother him that I wanted to spend a significant amount of time alone. In fact, I think it would have annoyed him if I had been the type of guest who needed to be constantly entertained.
Right now, I was leaning against the wall of a ramshackle building near the dock where the cargo ship had come in, trying to decide what to do. Several large men, mostly Orks and Trolls, were busily unloading the ship's hold; I watched them work for awhile, noticing that they all seemed to know each other and had developed a fluid, efficient rhythm for getting the cargo off the ship in the least amount of time. I enjoyed watching well-matched teams work together, including our own four-man shadowrunning group back home. I didn't think it was any surprise that we were in great demand and were lately getting our pick of the high-nuyen, high-risk jobs that required not only brute force, but finesse and brains to boot. The four of us worked well together (once we had ironed out the kinks that always came with changing team members), and our skills complemented each other perfectly: I was the hand-to-hand fighter, quick, fast and strong; ShadoWraith, the taciturn Elven assassin, was silent and deadly with his sniper rifle; Joe, the huge young Troll, was our heavy-weapons expert and a frightening force with his giant axe; Winterhawk, the combat mage and along with me the longest-running member of the team, was also our spokesman/negotiator. Each of us had our strengths and our weaknesses, but for the most part each person's weak points were supplemented by someone else's strong ones. We had not yet failed in an assignment.
Still, though, it felt good to get away from it for awhile, even if the purpose of my visit was to help 'Hawk get more deadly with his guns. Around here, I didn't have to be constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure someone wasn't sneaking up on me. I'd never really get rid of my healthy paranoia (it went with the territory) but things seemed a bit slower, less frenetic, around here. I liked it.
I pushed myself off the wall, picked up my two bags, and started off down the docks toward the main road. I was running a little earlier than I'd expected, and wondered if I should show up at Winterhawk's place unannounced, or give him a call first. Finally, I decided to just go there; that way, I wouldn't be giving them enough time to make a fuss over getting ready for my arrival. Winterhawk's old friend and the caretaker of the Manor, Aubrey, tended to do that. Winterhawk, having grown up with that lifestyle, took it in stride; I, on the other hand, got nervous when people spent too much time paying attention to me. Better to just show up and see what happened.
That decided, I hailed a cab (I'd almost forgotten: around here, you could actually get a cab at the docks, unlike in Seattle) and was soon on my way, watching the scenery change from the drab gray and brown of dingy old buildings to the more modern, upscale buildings in the middle of town to the green of the countryside as we left the city. I had given the cabbie, an older female Dwarf, the address of Stone Manor and just settled back to look at the view, finally feeling relaxed. She drove expertly, negotiating her way through the snarl of traffic in downtown London like a pro and then settling into a decent rate of speed as we got out of town and the traffic grew more sparse. When I looked more closely, I saw the thin wire snaking from the cab's console into a hole in the side of her head and understood. The steering wheel was just for show; all the real action was going on in the head of this rigger cabbie and the brains of her machine. I smiled.
Before too long, we pulled up in front of the iron gates at Stone Manor. They were open. "Want me to go inside?" the driver asked.
I shook my head. "No, this is fine. Thanks." Gathering my stuff, I paid her (along with a decent tip) and trudged up the quarter-mile graveled driveway to the house.
It hadn't changed since I'd last seen it: a two-story, old-fashioned mansion, stately and elegant but more than a bit in need of an overhaul. I noticed the peeling paint, the places where the brickwork was cracked, and where the shingles on the roof were falling off. The overall effect, though, was not an unpleasant one: the place looked comfortable, strong and protective, like an ancient warrior clothed in garments that were beginning to go threadbare. I suspected that returning it to its former elegance would take more money than Winterhawk currently had, if he was even interested in doing so.
Taking the steps up to the front door two at a time, I knocked loudly. There was a doorbell, but so far I'd never failed to be heard just by knocking, so I gave it a try again, dropping the duffel containing my clothes on the porch next to me and slinging the one with the weapons in it over my shoulder.
I didn't have to wait long. After about a minute, I heard the sound of a bolt being disengaged and then the heavy wooden door swung silently open to reveal Aubrey, the caretaker of the house. The old man hadn't changed any more than the house had: mid-height, slightly stooped figure, craggy but kindly features, sharp eyes, rumpled clothes of earthy hues. Gray-white hair peeked out from beneath his ancient cap. I thought he might have lost a bit of weight from his slightly portly frame, but I couldn't be sure. "Morning," I said.
He nodded, smiling. "Good morning, Terry. Good to see you again. We've been expecting you, though you're a bit early. Come in." He stood aside and motioned me into the house. I picked up my second bag and went in ahead of him.
"Sorry about being early," I said. "I got here a little sooner than I thought I would. Is it a problem?"
"Oh, no sir. Not at all. Your room's all ready. I'll show you where now, if you like—it's the same one you had last time."
I nodded. "Yeah, that'd be great. I need to clean up some. I've been on the road for almost four days now without a good shower. Last place I stayed had one, but all they had was cold water." I turned my head to face him as we mounted the stairs at the side of the enormous, beam-ceilinged main hall. "Where's 'Hawk? He around today?"
Aubrey stopped midway up the stairs, his expression turning somber. "Yes, sir. He's here. I feel I must warn you, though—we've been having a bit of a crisis in the past day or so."
"Crisis?" I frowned in concern. "He's okay, isn't he?"
He nodded. "Oh, yes sir. He is fine. It's just—well, we have a visitor. Another guest staying with us. I'm afraid he's put Dr. Stone in a bit of a mood."
"I don't get it."
"You will, sir. Soon enough." He started up the stairs again. "Perhaps you might finish your cleaning up and then come downstairs. I'll put lunch on and let Dr. Stone know you're here. You can find out all about it then."
There really wasn't much else I could do but nod and continue following him upstairs, where he pointed out my room and excused himself to go finish making lunch. I took my bags into the room, tossed them on the bed, grabbed a handful of clean clothes and immediatedly headed for the shower. As the hot water ran over me and I felt four days' worth of grime falling away, I thought about what Aubrey had said. What had I come into the middle of? Last I'd heard from Winterhawk, only a few days ago, he was expecting me to arrive so we could begin our practicing. He hadn't said anything about any other guests. Was this a surprise guest? Aubrey had said the guest had put him "in a bit of a mood," which with Winterhawk could range from mild annoyance all the way up to towering rage. However, Aubrey didn't seem terribly affected by the guest's presence; he didn't appear to be afraid, or acting odd in any significant way.
I finally determined that there was no way I was going to figure it out on my own, so I reluctantly stepped out of the hot shower, dried off, and dressed in a clean sleeveless T-shirt, snug-fitting pants, and boots, tying my long, dusty-blond hair back with a leather thong. Out in the room itself, I quickly unpacked the few belongings I'd brought along, leaving the guns in the duffel bag for now. I'd need to find a better place to stow them later, but it would do for now. Then I headed downstairs to find out what all the fuss was about.
Aubrey saw me coming down as he came through the main hall. "Terry, good. Just in time. Lunch is in the dining room. You remember where, right?"
I nodded. Even though it had been a year since I'd been here last, it came back to me quickly. I took a left turn off the main hall and found myself standing in the long, narrow dining room with the window that looked out over the land in back of the house.
Winterhawk sat at one end of the table, looking bored as he stared out the window. He looked up as I entered, and brightened. "Hello, Terry. Aubrey said you were here. Good trip?"
I shrugged. "Not too bad." He looked, as he always seemed to in England, decidedly non-Winterhawkish in faded jeans and an oversized gray sweatshirt with a large seal of London University across the front of it. I was used to him in stylish suits and overcoats, especially since one of his good friends was the famous clothing designer Cynthia Cyan, whom we'd both met on a run many years ago. It took a bit of adjustment, but I got used to it quickly.
"Glad to hear it," he said, waving his arm in the direction of a chair at the table. "Sit down. We'll be eating in a few minutes. Has Aubrey told you about our guest yet?"
"No. He said I'd find out when we had lunch." I stared at him. "What's going on? All this secrecy—"
He shook his head impatiently. "It's not secrecy. It's just that Aubrey and I are having a little disagreement about what should be done with this guest. We haven't worked it out yet. I—" His gaze moved beyond me to the doorway of the dining room. "Hello, Nigel. Come in. Sit down. Terry doesn't bite. Not usually, anyway."
I turned in my chair to see who he was addressing, and was surprised to see a young boy of nine or ten, clad in slacks and white button-down shirt, standing there. For the moment, he was paused in the doorway, obviously unsure of what he should do.
"Well, come on," Winterhawk said, motioning him in. After a moment, he obeyed, coming in and taking a seat opposite me at the table. "Nigel," the mage continued, "This is my friend Terry. From America. Terry, this is Nigel. He—showed up at the house yesterday. He claims to be my son, and Aubrey believes him." He spoke in an even, unemotional tone that revealed nothing about what he was thinking.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," said the boy.
Stunned, I didn't say anything. I looked back and forth between Winterhawk and the boy, not sure I'd really heard what I thought I'd heard. I didn't know what I'd been expecting this mysterious guest to be all about, but this certainly wasn't it! After a few moments of silence, I got my voice back. "Your...son?"
"It's a long story, and I'd prefer not to go into it, if you don't mind. I don't believe it's true yet, but I promised Aubrey I'd check up on it before making any more decisions. Don't worry—it won't affect our practice sessions."
Aubrey came in at that moment bearing a tray full of sandwiches and tall glasses of iced tea. I sat back for a moment in silence, sneaking glances at Winterhawk and the boy who claimed to be his son. There was a resemblance...If this were true, it would change a lot of things, I knew. I wasn't sure what yet, but things would be different.
"So," Winterhawk was saying to me, changing the subject, "Tell us about your trip."
I shrugged. "The usual. You know." I would have said more, but I did not feel comfortable describing all my modes fo travel with the kid in the room. "Took a little less time than usual."
"And Aubrey's gotten you all settled in, I trust?"
"Yeah. Same room as last time."
"Good." He subsided into silence, settling back in his chair and sipping his iced tea distractedly.
I felt uneasy all of a sudden. I never knew how to relate to kids, so I usually avoided them at least until they became teenagers. I wanted to speak to Nigel, but I had no idea what to say to him, so I kept quiet. Eventually, when most of the sandwiches were finished, Aubrey came back in and asked Nigel if he would help him with something in the kitchen. It couldn't have been more obvious that he was trying to get the boy out of there so we could talk. Nigel picked it up immediately and excused himself from the table, following Aubrey out.
"Nice kid," I said after they'd left.
Winterhawk shrugged. "As children go, he's all right. But he's not mine, and I intend to prove it."
"How are you going to do that?"
"I'm not sure yet. Have his blood and DNA tested, for starters, I guess. I could check the records, but they can be faked."
"So you think somebody's planted him here to get at you somehow?"
"I have no idea. So far he's done nothing odd; he's acting like what he claims to be: a ten-year-old child who's had a lot of changes in his life lately. But he could just be a good actor. I have to find out."
"And what if he does turn out to be your kid?" I asked, leaning forward.
"I'll worry about that if it happens. I'm quite convinced it won't."
I considered that. "Who's the mother supposed to be?"
He looked at me sharply. "Someone I knew a long time ago. Someone I'd rather not talk about, if you don't mind."
I raised my hands in a gesture of mock surrender. "Okay, okay. I'm not gonna pry into your history. I'm here to teach you how to shoot better, and that's it. You can deal with the rest of this yourself."
He nodded once, with finality. "Good. If you don't mind, though, can we wait until tomorrow to start? You probably want to get settled in for the day, and I've a few things to finish. Nigel's arrival played hell with my spell research, plus I'd like to get started looking into whether he really is who he says he is. I've one more spell to finish up, a few calls, and then we can get started. Yes?"
"Sure," I said. It sounded fine to me; it would give me a chance to spend some time on the grounds by myself, unwinding from the pressures of the sprawl, and to look for good places to practice. I stood. "Mind if I just wander around on my own?"
"Not at all." He waved his arm to indicate the area around him. "Make yourself at home." He, also, stood up. "I need to get back to my research."
I spent the next hour or so on a tour of part of the grounds, taking my time at a slow jog, enjoying the feeling of being outdoors and not surrounded by buildings. The air in England was not great, but that didn't matter: the trees were green, the sky was (surprisingly) still blue, and the sun was out. I felt invigorated by it, which was part of the reason I enjoyed coming here.
Most of the acreage was still in its wild state, tended rarely if at all by Aubrey. I supposed that on a piece of land this big, it would have been too much for him to do it by himself, and besides, maybe he liked it wild. I knew I did. The area directly around the house was landscaped, mowed, and carefully looked after by the old man's ministrations, but once you got about fifty meters out from the buildings, the grass grew taller, the trees weren't pruned, and the wildlife (mainly consisting of small birds and rodents, though I thought I saw a deer once, far in the distance) grew bolder. Most of the land this wild back home was controlled by either the NAN lands or the Tir, two places I tried to avoid when possible. I found this little piece of it very restful.
After a time I finished my run and headed back toward the house, thinking about Nigel. I'd tried consciously not to think about anything but how beautiful the land was while I was out running, but now that I was on my way back, I let my mind wander. Could this kid really be Winterhawk's son? The mage had always showed a marked aversion to children; he stayed as far away from them as he could on purpose because he found them annoying. I don't think it was an act, either. Not that I was crazy about kids myself, but 'Hawk made me look like a candidate for daycare center manager. And now here was this boy...he seemed like a nice enough kid, on first meeting, but still—I couldn't help thinking about how this could impact the team back in Seattle. If the kid was 'Hawk's, even if he didn't care, there was still that liability, that trail that someone could trace. As far as I knew, none of the other guys had any children in their pasts, or even close relatives. I sure as hell didn't. I didn't see how this wasn't going to cause problems in the future.
Coming around the corner of the house nearest the garage (which had been an old carriage-house, now converted into a three-car garage, tool shed, and a large apartment on top), I heard the sound of something smacking into a piece of wood with a satisfying thunk, and saw Aubrey backing up from the split pieces of wood holding a long-handled ax in one hand and mopping his brow with the other. He looked up as he heard my feet crunching on the gravel. "Hello," he said. "Did you have a nice trip 'round the grounds? I saw you running out there."
I came over to where he was, noting that he had several logs yet to split. "Yeah, thanks. It's nice out here. Uncrowded." Casually indicating the pile of wood, I said, "Hey, you mind if I try that?"
Aubrey looked uncertainly at the ax and back at me, weighing my request. "Why do you want to?" he finally asked.
I shrugged. "Dunno. Never done it before. It looks like a good workout."
He looked back and forth again, then slowly handed me the ax, handle first. "If you like," he said. "But I really should be doing it myself."
"Indulge me." I grinned at him, hefting the ax. It felt good in my hands. Aubrey shrugged, smiled a little, and stepped back as I set up the next piece of wood on the chopping block. With a mighty blow, I cleaved the wood in half, each piece falling to one side of the block.
"Well done," Aubrey said approvingly.
"Nothing to it. 'Hawk doesn't make you do this by hand, does he?"
He chuckled. "No, sir. In fact, he's trying to get me to buy one of those contraptions to do it automatically, but I told him to forget it. I like doing things by hand. Machines have their place, of course, but this isn't one of them. There's something—primal—about chopping wood. You understand that, don't you?" he added, looking at me intently from under his cap-brim.
I nodded. "Yeah, I do. I don't think 'Hawk does, though." I had to grin as I got a mental picture of Winterhawk trying to chop a log in two. I wondered if he could even swing the ax, or if he would want to try. He may be a hell of a mage, but in the physical strength department, he could use a lot of help. I sobered. "He says you think that kid's really his son."
"Yes, sir," Aubrey said in the same tone. "I do."
"But he doesn't."
"I'm not so sure I believe that, sir. I don't think he wants to admit it."
I picked up another log, put it on the block, and split it. "It sounds a little fishy to me, too—the kid just shows up on the doorstep one day without any advance warning? You don't believe that it's a setup?"
"A setup, sir? For what purpose?"
"Maybe somebody traced 'Hawk over here. There's a lot of people back in Seattle who don't like him...who don't like any of us...Maybe somebody took the trouble to figure out who he was."
"But why send a child, sir?" Aubrey looked perplexed. "If someone found out about his other life, would it not be easier to simply—" he swallowed "—send someone after him?"
I sighed. "I don't get it either. It doesn't make sense." I turned to face him. "What about the kid's mother? You know anything about her?"
Aubrey nodded. "Yes, sir. She's a woman Dr. Stone was very close to many years ago. But if you'll forgive me...he's asked me not to discuss the details with anyone, so I must honor his wishes."
"Yeah, okay." I split another log, noticing with a bit of amusement that the old man seemed in no hurry to reclaim his task. "So what's he gonna do?"
"I don't think he knows yet, sir."
Something in his voice made me look up. "You're not very happy about this situation, are you?"
For a long moment, he didn't answer. Then: "I don't think 'unhappy' is the proper word for it. I am...dismayed...at the way Dr. Stone is handling the situation."
"What do you mean?"
He began picking up split pieces of firewood and piliing them in a nearby cart he'd brought out for that purpose. "He is not taking well to fatherhood. I am trying to impress upon him the responsibility inherent in being a father, and he wants nothing to do with it. He's told me that if Nigel does turn out to be his son, he will look into a good school to send him to, then go back to America."
"And...you think he should stay here and be a father."
"Yes, sir. I suppose I shouldn't be discussing this with you, but you are his friend. I keep hoping that he will outgrow whatever it is that makes him risk his life like this."
I shrugged. "That's the way he is. You know how he feels about kids, right?"
"Yes, of course I do. But this is his own son. Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, he was partly responsible for the child's existence. This is his heir, the next Lord Stone."
I didn't see what he was getting all worked up about, but it was obviously important to him so I didn't comment on it. "So what are you going to do?"
"There isn't anything I can do, sir," he said in a rueful tone. "Dr. Stone is my employer. It isn't my place to make judgments about him. I feel that he is acting very immaturely about this. I think it is time for him to stop acting like a young man and grow up to accept his responsibilities. But until he's ready to make that decision, all I can do is concentrate on my duties and let him know I don't approve."
I nodded, finishing up with the last log and chucking it onto the pile in Aubrey's cart. "I guess I know a different side of him than you do. Maybe he'll settle down someday. Maybe he'll even be okay with having a kid. But I don't think he's ever gonna lose whatever it is that makes him look for danger." I shrugged. "Hell, even I'll probably settle down someday, if I live that long. Anything's possible. But I don't think either of us is ever gonna really give it up. It's too much a part of us. You don't see that, do you?"
Aubrey looked away. "I think I do, sir," he said, picking up the handles of the cart. "That's what worries me." Starting off toward the woodpile with his burden, he said over his shoulder, "If you'll excuse me, though, I must be about the rest of my duties."
I nodded, watching him go. I thought about Winterhawk, the link that made possible a conversation between an ex-gang kid from the Barrens and a crusty, kindly old London caretaker. It was weird how 'Hawk fit so well into both of those worlds, without ever seeming to change his personality at all. Regardless of whether he was being a reluctant British nobleman and occasional college professor or a skilled shadowrunner, Winterhawk was basically the same guy: a little strange, a little nasty, a lot moody, and almost totally unwilling to get any closer to anyone than a brisk, cheerful friendship that appeared far less superficial than it actually was. I guessed that with the exception of Aubrey and myself, the mage had few if any close friends. I could well see how the thought of suddenly discovering a long-lost son might scare him to death. It would have scared me, that was sure.
Slowly, I walked back to the house, still accompanied by my thoughts. I showered to get rid of the sweat from my run, put on clean clothes, and drifted back downstairs. The door to Winterhawk's study was open, so I knocked on the jamb. "You in there?"
He was standing over by the window, staring out into the trees. He turned at my voice. "Come on in."
I entered the room and sat down on the sofa in the middle of the floor. "How's the research coming?"
He shrugged. "I can't really get into it, for some reason. Concentration's shot." Turning from the window, he perched on the corner of his desk, legs dangling off the side. "I saw you talking to Aubrey before, out in the yard."
"Is he trying to recruit you into helping me see the error of my ways?" He smiled a bit, but the gleam in his eyes was not at all happy or playful.
"Kinda," I admitted.
"Was he successful?"
I leaned back on the sofa. "No, not really. You do have to admit, though, that if he's your kid, you owe him something..."
His intent gaze met my eyes. "What do I owe him, Terry?" he asked softly. "What do I owe a child I haven't seen for the first ten years of his life, who suddenly appears at my door?" He drew his legs up until he was sitting cross-legged, precariously close to the edge of the desk. "That's assuming he really is my child. As I keep telling Aubrey but he refuses to listen, I don't believe that he is."
"Have you found anything out yet?"
"I found out that whoever's pulling this did his or her homework. There's a birth certificate, and its information matches what's on Nigel's ID card, including the SIN. Born in a little suburb of London ten years and two months ago. But all that can be faked. I need more proof than that. I'll take him for a blood test tomorrow. Maybe even a good astral scan. Need to find another mage to do that, though, so the auras can be compared."
"You want me to talk to him?" I asked, surprised at myself for offering. "I could take him outside, maybe teach him some martial arts moves or something, and see if he'll tell me anything. All kids like martial arts, right?"
Winterhawk shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't. But it's worth a try, I guess. Maybe he'll talk to you. I'm having trouble getting 'round my dislike of children, and I'm sure he senses that. I can't deal with any of this right now. I know I'm acting quite childish myself, but I can't handle all this." His head lowered until he was staring down at the floor in front of the desk.
I stood up. "Yeah, sure. I'll talk to him. I'll let you know if I find out anything."
"Thank you, Terry," he said quietly, without looking up. "Sorry to get you involved in this."
"Don't worry about it. Let's get it handled so you can start your practicing tomorrow." I nodded a farewell and left the study, wondering what in the hell I'd signed myself up for. Trying to get information out of a kid? What kind of job was that for me? I didn't dislike kids, exactly, but they did make me uncomfortable. Like Winterhawk, I had trouble relating to them. But I'd agreed, in fact I'd suggested it, so I was determined to give it my best shot.
Aubrey had shown me earlier where Nigel's room was, so I tried that first. The door was open. When I glanced in, I saw the boy sitting in a chair by the window with a chip reader. "Hey," I said.
Nigel looked up. "Hello, sir," he said, smiling. "Terry, isn't it?"
"Yeah. And you don't need to call me 'sir', okay?"
He nodded. "All right. Did you—need me for something?"
I leaned in the doorway. "No, not really. I just thought you might want to go out and get some exercise. I need to do my martial arts workout, and I thought you might want to learn a few moves."
For a few seconds, he didn't answer. Then he nodded again. "I'll try it. But I'm not very good at fighting."
"That's okay," I assured him. "Everybody has to start somewhere. C'mon." I indicated for him to follow me, and after a moment he did. I took him outside behind the house, in an area covered with grass but cleared of trees. "Do you know anything about martial arts?"
"No, s—No. Not really." He smiled at his slip. "I never learned anything about it."
I looked him over: he was about medium height, and thin and angular like the man who might be his father. "Do you play any sports? You know, at school?" I began doing stretches, and indicated for him to copy my movements.
"I did, back when I went to school. I played a little tennis, and ran track, but it was just for fun. Mostly there were my studies."
"Where did you go to school?"
"All over. Mum travelled a lot." At the mention of his mother, his expression saddened.
"So there were just the two of you."
He nodded. "Just Mum and me." Completing a stretch just a bit awkwardly, he looked up at me. "Have you talked to my father about me?"
Uh-oh. How to handle this? "Uh...yeah. A little. Why?"
"Is he going to send me away?"
I swallowed, remembering why I got uncomfortable around kids: they asked you straightforward questions that were hard to answer. "He—uh—he wants to make sure you're really his. You know, when you live in a place like this, sometimes people want to pull scams on you. See?" I wasn't about to go into what people wanted to do to you when you were a shadowrunner.
"Yeah...I guess so. So it isn't that he doesn't like me?"
Damn it, this was getting harder. I cursed myself for volunteering for this duty. "I don't think he knows you well enough to really like you or dislike you. But I guess he doesn't want to find out until he's sure you're his son."
"Oh..." He accepted that with a little nod. "That makes sense, I suppose."
Good...he hadn't grown a bullshit filter yet. I decided not to press my luck by asking further questions, but instead devoted myself to showing him a few simple fighting moves. He was a willing student; though not terribly athletic, he wasn't a klutz, either. By the time we finished an hour later, I'd thoroughly tired him out, but managed to teach him some of the basic punches, kicks, and blocks.
He smiled up at me, panting. "That was fun. Thank you for showing me."
I grinned back at him—he wasn't a half-bad kid when he wasn't asking uncomfortable questions. "No problem. You'd better go clean up now, though. Aubrey'll get mad if we miss dinner."
I waited until he had left and then sought out Winterhawk, still in his study. "Did you find out anything?" he asked. "I was watching you for awhile...you tired him out nicely."
"Not too much," I admitted. "I'm no good at that kind of thing. He wanted to know if you were going to send him away."
"What did you tell him?"
"That you had to make sure he wasn't a fake. I was dancing like crazy to get around his questions. He's a smart kid. Learns fast. All I got was that he and his mother moved around a lot, didn't stay in one place too long. And that's all I'm going to get, too, because I'm not going to do that again."
"All right, all right," he said with a cynical half-smile. "I'll have to find out the old-fashioned way. You'd better get ready for dinner, though, unless you want to come to the table dressed like that. In which case, I'll eat in here."
"All right, I get the hint. I'm leaving."
Dinner was pretty quiet. Aubrey, whom Winterhawk invited to stay (invited wasn't really a strong enough word, though), tried to make small talk, but it didn't go anywhere. Some of the tension that had been present at the previous meal wasn't there, but everyone was still a bit on edge with everyone else. Winterhawk excused himself halfway through, saying that he had to finish up his last spell, and Nigel left shortly thereafter with the excuse that he was tired and wanted to go to bed early. I got a bit further and decided to make it three, figuring that it would be a long day tomorrow trying to improve Winterhawk's aim, so I bid Aubrey goodnight and went up to my room, my mind racing over all that had occurred. Today had been a much longer day than tomorrow would be, I was almost certain.