Chapter 1, part ii
It was about an hour after Stone had retired to his work that the vidphone buzzed. Aubrey was in the kitchen, preparing a plate of biscuits to go with the pot of tea brewing lustily away on the stove. Odd to get a call at this hour, he thought, hurrying to answer it.
The image that appeared on the little vid-screen was that of a man in his mid-fifties, balding, paunchy and rough-edged, with shrewd hazel eyes and a deceptively relaxed manner. “Stone Manor,” Aubrey said formally. “May I help you?” He had never seen this man before, he was sure.
For a moment, the caller looked uncertain. He consulted something off-screen, then looked back at Aubrey. “I think I’ve got the wrong number,” he said. “Who’s this?”
“I am Aubrey,” the caretaker said. “This is the home of Dr. Alastair Stone.”
The man scowled. “Okay, I am in the wrong place. I’m looking for a guy named Winterhawk.” Under his breath, he muttered something about “...damn these people...can’t get anything right these days...”
Aubrey froze at the name. That was a name he hadn’t heard in a long time, and one that he hoped never to have to hear again. “I’m sorry, sir--could you repeat that, please?” Perhaps he had heard it incorrectly. He could certainly hope--
“Winterhawk.” The caller enunciated the name carefully, as though speaking to a small child. “Hey, I’m sorry. Sorry to bother you. I know I’ve got the wrong number. I’ll--”
“Just--a moment, sir. Please hold on.” Aubrey jabbed the hold button with a shaking finger and sighed. He knew he had to do it, but he didn’t like it one bit. With another sigh, he went over and knocked on the door to Stone’s study.
“Yes?” came the voice from behind the closed doors.
Slowly, Aubrey opened the door and looked in. Stone sat at his old wooden desk, tapping something into a computer. He looked up as Aubrey entered. “What is it, Aubrey?”
“Sir--” the caretaker said almost painfully, “There is a large and boorish man on the phone for you.”
Stone looked perplexed. “Large and--? Aubrey, what are you talking about? Who is it?”
“I don’t know, sir. I didn’t ask his name. But--”
“He--asked for Winterhawk, sir.”
For a moment, Stone stared at Aubrey. “You’re sure?” he asked carefully.
“Yes, sir. He repeated it twice. A most unpleasant fellow, if I might venture an opinion.”
Stone closed his computer, staring silently at the far wall of the study for a long moment. Then he turned back to Aubrey. “All right,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll take it.”
He shook his head. “No, I’ll take it, Aubrey. Don’t worry. I’ll get rid of him, whoever he is.” Without waiting for an answer, he stabbed the button on his own vidphone.
The caller had turned away from the screen, but swiveled back around when Stone came on. He looked surprised. “So it is you,” he said. “I was wonderin’. Took your time, you know.”
Stone fixed the man with a stern stare. “Harry,” he said in greeting, but didn’t smile. “I thought it might be you. I don’t know too many other large and boorish men who ask for me by that name.”
“Is that what the old fossil said about me?” the caller protested. “What is he, your grandfather or somethin’?”
“He’s my caretaker, if you must know,” Stone said evenly.
“Caretaker? You mean, like he makes sure you get your medication?”
“No, I mean like he tries to make sure I’m not bothered by annoying phone calls, among other things.”
The man ignored that, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet up on his desk, so Stone got a view of his face far off and the bottoms of his shoes right up at the front of the shot. “Doctor?” he said. “You’re movin’ up in the world. And a Manor...” Clumping his feet back down on the floor, he picked up a cigar and held it with his pinky up. “You’re gettin’ too good for us mere mortals, huh, ‘Hawk?”
Stone sighed. Harry was a ghost from his past that he would have just as soon kept buried. “What do you want, Harry? I haven’t time to chat with you right now.”
“I have a job for you,” Harry said, suddenly all business.
“Forget it,” Stone said immediately. “Harry, I’m retired, remember? You know I’ve given this up. I told you not to call me anymore.” He moved as if to cut off the connection.
“‘Hawk, wait,” Harry said hastily. “Hear me out, at least. You know I wouldn’t call you for just anything.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is. I’m out of the business.” Stone kept up the cold gaze, but in the back of his mind, something stirred. Quickly, he tried to submerge it, but it wouldn’t go away. What if this were--? But no, he’d given it up, and with good reason. Bringing it back now would just lead to trouble...wouldn’t it?
“Will you at least listen to it?” Harry said. “For old times’ sake? No obligation. I promise. You don’t like it, you can just hang up and forget I called. I’ll wipe your number off my list and that’ll be the end of it. Deal?”
“You’d better wipe more than my number from your list, Harry.” Stone’s tone was soft but dangerous. “My name had best be gone as well, or you might not care for the results.”
“I wouldn’t try anything if I were you, ‘Hawk,” Harry said in what was obviously a token protest. “I got friends, you know.”
“Yes. I know. I’m one of them. Or at least I used to be.” Stone settled back in his chair, moving the vidscreen so he had a good view of Harry’s face. The fixer hadn’t changed much in the past couple of years; a few of the lines on his weathered face were a little deeper, and he had a little less hair, but that was about it. “All right,” he said with a sigh, “You’ve ten minutes. Tell me what’s going on. But don’t expect that I’ll go for it.”
Harry nodded. “I think you will, when you hear it.” He paused for a moment, then commenced his story. “The other day, I got a call from a Johnson. And get this--he asked for you by name. Says he’d heard your rep and you sounded like just what he was looking for. Of course I told him you were out of the biz...in fact, I told him I didn’t even know where you were, which was true at the time. Mostly, anyway. He said he could make it worth your while if I could find you. He’s putting together a team of top talent, and he wants you for the magical end of it.”
“What sort of a job is it?” Stone asked. He carefully kept any expression from his face.
“Don’t know. That’s all gonna be discussed at the meet. I checked this guy out, ‘Hawk--he’s on the level. He’s getting this four-person team together to do something, and he’s got the nuyen to finance it. Says he’s looking for the best.”
“That’s all very flattering,” Stone said, “But it doesn’t tell me much. Details, Harry.”
Harry spread his hands, shrugging. “I don’t know the details. What I do know is, like I said, I checked the guy out. He works for a rich little corp outside Seattle. He’s hired teams before, and nobody ever got screwed. No doubt he’s got money. Says he wants this handled with a lot of finesse, which is why he’s looking for talent.”
“And the other team members? Anybody I know? I don’t like to work blind, Harry,” Stone said, inwardly annoyed at himself that his resolve was slipping this soon.
The fixer sensed the change in Stone’s mood and pressed on. “That’s one of Johnson’s stipulations--nobody’s supposed to know who the other team members are until the meet. He’s trying to keep some pretty heavy--duty secrecy, sounds like.”
“Listen,” Harry said, “There’s no obligation. He knows you’re out of this and don’t really want to go back, so he’s willing to make it worth your while. Of course, all your expenses’ll be paid. All he wants is for you to show up at the meet and hear what he has to say.” He grinned. “If nothing else, you’ll get a free vacation out of it. You don’t like his pitch, you walk, no questions asked. What do you say?”
“You’ve checked this guy out thoroughly?” Stone asked. “Your kind of thoroughly?” While he didn’t care for Harry personally, the fixer was, or at least he used to be, 100% trustworthy, and he had connections all over Seattle. Maybe a lot further than that. When he checked somebody out, there wasn’t much he didn’t discover.
Harry nodded. “Yeah. You know I wouldn’t call you if I hadn’t,” he said, and for once he didn’t sound like a con man making a spiel.
“And he’s covering all the expenses.”
“Everything. You say the word, he’ll arrange for the plane ticket.”
Stone considered. The little thing stirring in the back of his mind was fully awake now, and he realized that his heart was beating faster than normal. Damn it, he was excited about this, and that disturbed him more than he wanted to admit. He’d hung up the persona of Winterhawk, dashing and deadly combat mage, in favor of plain old Alastair Stone, thaumaturgy professor, a bit over two years ago now. A bit reluctantly, true, but he’d thought at the time that he’d had his fill of the danger and the paranoia and the uncertainty of the shadowrunner’s existence. The team’s last run had been very successful and very lucrative; he and his partners had decided to quit while they were ahead, to give it up while they were still alive to enjoy the fruits of their labors. He still remembered their last meeting in that little bar in Seattle, where they’d had one last drink and then gone their separate ways. That had been the last he’d seen of any of them. The next day, he had called the movers to pack up his apartment there and ship everything back to England, where he planned to finally settle down. Aubrey had been pleased; the old man had been trying to get him to do just that for a long time before he finally decided on his own to come home and take old Rodney up on his offer. But if he was so ready to settle down, so happy with what he was doing, why was Harry’s offer having such an effect on him? He wasn’t sure. His gaze flicked back to the fixer’s image on the vidscreen; Harry was waiting patiently. “Make sure that ticket’s first-class,” Stone said, still expressionless. “I don’t fly coach anymore.”
Harry smiled, satisfied. “You got it, ‘Hawk.”
“And I’ll need a couple of days. I’ve some matters to attend to before I can leave here.”
“No problem. What name should I put the ticket under?”
Stone thought about that. “Just put it under Michael Stone. That’s a common enough name.”
Harry jotted that down. “Okay. See you in a few days, then.”
“I’m counting the hours, Harry,” Stone said mockingly, then punched the button to break the connection before Harry could do so. Sighing again, he leaned back in his chair and stared out across the study.
Aubrey stood there in the doorway, looking at him with a mixture of fear, disapproval, and sadness.
“Aubrey--” Stone said, half-rising as the old man turned to leave. How much had he heard? “Wait. Come back.”
The caretaker stopped and slowly turned around. For a long moment, he didn’t say anything, but merely watched Stone. “You’re going back, aren’t you, sir?” In his voice was a quiet dimming of hope.
Stone nodded. “Yes, Aubrey,” he said gently. “You heard?”
“Yes, sir.” A pause, and then, “I thought you had given that up when you returned the last time.”
“So did I,” Stone said, getting up and beginning to pace around the room, not looking at Aubrey. For a long time, he said nothing else, but then he stopped his wanderings and turned back to the old man. “It’s just this one run, Aubrey. Just one. Doesn’t even sound like much. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Yes, sir.” Aubrey’s retreat behind his servant’s mask was almost consciously visible.
Stone looked down at the floor and sighed. “I know you don’t like it, Aubrey, but--”
“What I like or dislike doesn’t matter, sir,” Aubrey said formally. “I am merely--concerned about your welfare. It has been two years since you’ve done this sort of thing.”
“Two years isn’t that long,” Stone said.
“No, sir.” Aubrey stood rather stiffly in the doorway, trying to hide the fear in his eyes.
Stone knew all too well how much Aubrey worried about him, and how happy his old friend had been when he’d decided to give up shadowrunning. He knew what this was doing to the caretaker; it made his heart ache to think that he was bringing pain to this loyal man whose only concern was his own welfare and happiness. He knew that Aubrey considered him almost to be the son he never had, just as he himself looked to Aubrey as a son might look to a father. He was closer to Aubrey than he was to any other living soul. But still--he remembered the feeling he’d had when he first saw it was Harry on the line: a combination of exasperation, annoyance, and--yes, he had to admit it--anticipation. He hoped that this one last run might finally work this out of his system, so he could come home to his Manor and his students and stay there. Who knows, he might even finally decide to do something with that ridiculous little title that he hated so much. Perhaps politics would be a change of pace. “Aubrey,” he said, “Please don’t worry about me. I’ll be back soon, and I promise, no more after that. I’ll stay home and be as respectable as you’ve always wanted me to be. All right?”
Aubrey nodded sadly, knowing that nothing he could say would change Stone’s mind. He looked up into his employer’s sharp, unnaturally-blue eyes. “Will you at least take Roger with you, sir?”
Stone sighed, shaking his head. “I can’t do that. I don’t want him involved in this, and besides, I need someone to take my classes for a few days. He knows the subject as well as I do, so he shouldn’t have any difficulty.”
Roger had been Aubrey’s last hope, and now that was gone too. “As you say, sir.”
“Aubrey!” Stone came over and gripped the old man by the shoulders, smiling encouragingly at him. “You sound like I’m going off to my execution! Come on--it’s just a few days, and I’ll be back. And if it sounds too dangerous, I won’t take it. Will that make you feel better?”
Of course it wouldn’t, but Aubrey couldn’t say that. “Yes, sir. I suppose so.”
“Good,” Stone said briskly. “Then let’s have no more of this, shall we? I need to see to a few things before I go--will you pack up for me?”
Aubrey nodded, not meeting Stone’s gaze. “Yes, sir. Of course.” Turning, he slowly walked from the room, leaving Stone to his thoughts and his plans.
Copyright ©1996 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.