Aubrey Townes stood outside the door of the study and waited. There was no answer from inside, but the old caretaker hadn’t really expected one yet. He hadn’t knocked loudly enough to get over the cacophony coming from the other side of the door. He sighed, smiling indulgently: Dr. Stone was at his guitar-playing again. Unfortunately, at this point in Stone’s musical development, his enthusiasm still far outstripped his abilities, a fact which resulted in a sound very much like a cat being tortured by a herd of renegade electrical appliances. From the sound of things, Stone was trying out a new song, which meant that the cat was in worse shape than usual.
Aubrey knocked louder. “Sir?” he repeated.
The cacophony ground to an abrupt halt. “Is that you, Aubrey?” a voice called from inside.
“Yes, sir. I apologize for interrupting you, but—”
The door opened. Aubrey, well used to doors opening with no one behind them, took that as an invitation and came into the study.
As he suspected, Dr. Alastair Stone was slouched in his favorite moth-eaten leather chair next to the fireplace, his feet up and his guitar, an antique Fender electric with a black lacquer finish, in his lap. A cable snaked down and plugged into an impressive-looking amplifier on the floor next to the chair. In the background, a recording played quietly. Aubrey thought he recognized the band, if not the particular album: of all Dr. Stone’s beloved British rock bands from the previous century, Queen had one of the more identifiable sounds.
Stone glanced up as Aubrey entered. Smiling ruefully, he sighed. “Too loud?”
“No, sir. Not at all,” Aubrey lied smoothly. “Something new?”
Stone sat up straighter, putting the guitar in its stand next to the amp and running a hand through his dark hair. Dressed in jeans and an oversized sweater over a T-shirt, he looked like he had finally settled in to make the most of his holiday from his “other” job. “That bad, is it?” he asked, his smile getting a bit bigger. “Not surprising—that Brian May was bloody good. Better than I’ll ever be, that’s certain.” Looking up at the old caretaker, he added, “But you didn’t just come in here to ask me to turn down the racket, did you? You’ve put up with far worse without complaining.”
Aubrey returned his employer’s smile. “No, sir,” he said, the twinkle in his eyes belying his words. “I’m quite used to the din, I assure you. I’ve just come to tell you that the moving company has rung, and they’ll be here in less than half an hour with Dr. Ryland’s things.”
Stone sighed. “Ah, yes. Dr. Ryland.” Rising from the chair, he leaned down to switch off the amp. “You know, I envy him a bit, heading off to Amazonia for two years to study the local magically-active flora and fauna.”
“You could have had the chance, sir,” Aubrey reminded him, the tiniest hint of disapproval creeping into his voice.
“I know, I know.” Stone said impatiently, motioning for the caretaker to follow him out of the room. “But then I’d have had to give up—other things. You know I’m not ready to do that yet.”
Aubrey nodded with resignation as he accompanied his employer out into the vast main hall of the old house. He knew all about Stone’s other things. It was a source of a near-constant undercurrent of friction between the two of them, so they both tried not to bring it up. Just as they both tried not to bring up the fact that Stone would, in less than a month, be returning across the ocean to Seattle. It made life a lot smoother for both of them when the word shadowrunner didn’t come up in conversation.
“Besides,” Stone added, grinning, “I’ve already had malaria. Let’s give someone else a chance. I’ll just have to be content with playing storage locker for old Toby’s worldly goods until he decides to come back and rejoin civilization. I give him two months before he gets homesick and comes up with some excuse to come back.” He paused. “You’ve got the space ready, have you?”
“Yes, sir. I had James help me clear out the old furniture from a couple of the rooms in the east wing. Once Dr. Ryland’s things are in there, we’ll just close the doors and you won’t even know they’re here.”
“Right. Good man, Aubrey. I knew I could count on you to keep this out of my hair.” Stone sank down into a nearby chair and looked out the window toward the circular drive in front of the house. He hadn’t been thrilled when Toby Ryland, an old school chum and fellow thaumaturgy professor at London University, had called him up a few days ago and asked him if he would mind storing a few things away while he was off doing research in Amazonia, but there wasn’t really much else he could do but agree. The two of them had never been the best of friends; however, the good-natured dwarf was one of Stone’s frequent pub-hopping companions, someone he had known since he was a teenager. Keeping a few things safe while the dwarf, a mundane professor of magical theory, went off to pursue his dream seemed a small thing to ask. Since Toby lived alone in a small house in a little village a few miles south of Stone Manor, he didn’t feel safe leaving his possessions—including a fairly impressive collection of antiques—unguarded. Hence the request, and hence the old truck that was just now rumbling up the road toward the Manor.
Stone’s eyes widened when he saw the size of the truck. “What the hell is he sending over here?” he demanded. “He didn’t tell me he was cleaning out his entire bloody house!”
“Perhaps it isn’t full, sir,” Aubrey murmured, heading for the door.
But it was full. It took the driver, a burly ork, and his partner, a troll, nearly an hour and a half to cart all the crates in, roll them through the main hall and down to the hastily-unblocked east wing (normally not used because it was in need of major renovations), and arrange them in some semblance of order in the two rooms Aubrey indicated. Stone stayed out of the way, muttering darkly to himself in increasing annoyance as each crate rolled past. Aubrey, wisely, left him alone until the delivery was complete and the two drivers had left with their generous tip. “Well, then, sir,” the caretaker said at last, “I’ll be off to start dinner, and you can get back to your—practicing. Yes?”
Stone sighed, swinging the second of the two doors closed with a bit too much force. “What? Oh—yes, of course, Aubrey.” He smiled cynically. “Good thing we weren’t planning to do anything with those rooms for a while, eh? When old Toby gets back, I really must have a word with him about the meaning of a few things.” Without waiting for Aubrey to reply, he headed back off toward the study.
The remainder of the evening passed uneventfully: Stone soon lost interest (to Aubrey’s relief) in attempting any more musical efforts, deciding instead to retire to his bedroom suite after a late dinner to catch up on some reading. Aubrey, after finishing up with the after-dinner cleanup, returned to his spacious apartment above the garage after bidding his employer goodnight.
Upon entering his bedroom, Stone was greeted by a familiar voice. “Meow.”
He smiled. “Hello, Maya. How are you?” Smoothly, he cast the spell he had designed to allow him to communicate with her.
The large black cat was seated in the middle of Stone’s bed, her front paws primly together as she regarded him with bright green eyes. “Bored,” she said.
“Bored, are you?” He came over and sat down on the bed, where she immediately installed herself in his lap. “Well, we certainly can’t allow that. What can I do to make your life more interesting?” He looked fondly down at her as he stroked her ears in the way he knew she loved. Purring, she settled down contentedly.
He could scarcely remember a time anymore before she had come into his life. She had become so much a member of the family that it seemed like she had always been here, as much a fixture of the house as the antique suits of armor in the hallway or the threadbare old chairs in the dining room. If anyone had told him two years ago that he would be sharing his home with a blackberry cat (who considered the place hers and magnanimously allowed its other residents to stay), he would have laughed at them. Blackberry cats were, after all, highly magical—and highly dangerous—creatures.
Things had been a bit rocky for awhile, in the first few weeks after he had found her on the grounds, gravely wounded by a poacher’s bullet, and used his magical abilities to heal her. She had taken an instant liking to him, and he to her, but it had been more difficult going for Aubrey, and more difficult still for the caretaker’s aged beagle, Mullins. After a few near-misses involving Maya’s powers, she had eventually learned that she wasn’t allowed to “play” with the other members of the household, and things had settled down. Maya and Mullins were still not fond of each other (for that matter, Mullins also couldn’t stand Stone, a fact which caused Aubrey great embarrassment) but they mostly left each other alone now.
“So,” Stone said, gently rising and extricating himself from Maya’s affectionate snugglings, “are you going to stay here with me tonight, or will you be heading off to be about your secret rounds?”
Cats don’t normally shrug, but Maya managed. “Not sure,” she said. “Maybe I’ll stay.” She watched attentively as Stone finished his preparations, picked up his book (his preference for “real” bound books over the electronic variety was well known) and climbed into bed. Maya immediately curled up next to him, where she remained until he fell asleep scarcely half an hour later.
Stone blinked and opened his eyes, peering groggily around the dimly lit room. Blinking a couple more times, he realized that he must have fallen asleep over his book; the fact that it was perched on his chest lent further credence to this hypothesis, as did the clock on the nightstand which read 02:24. But what had awakened him? Was it the light, or—
“Meow!” The voice came again, more urgently this time, right in his ear.
“Maya?” Stone turned, and sure enough there was Maya on the pillow next to him, yowling in his ear. Casting the communication spell, he said, “What is it?” His voice still sounded gravelly and only half aware.
“Someone here,” the blackberry cat said. “Downstairs.” She glanced toward the door and then back at Stone.
That snapped him awake in an instant. “Inside? Where?”
“In the dusty place. Where the big men were.”
Sometimes Maya’s methods of description took a little getting used to, since, despite her intelligence, she still perceived the world as a cat would. “The dusty place?” Stone asked, already getting up.
“Where the big men were,” she repeated. “With the boxes.”
That did it. Stone stiffened. Surely she must mean the rooms in the east wing (which certainly numbered “dusty” among their most descriptive adjectives) where Toby Ryland’s boxes had been delivered. “How many, Maya?”
“Two.Very sneaky. Looking at boxes.”
Already Stone’s shadowrunner instincts were overriding his usual casualness when he was in his own home. Crossing the big room in quick steps, he plunged into his walk-in closet and emerged shrugging on his armored longcoat over the shorts in which he’d been sleeping. No time for the rest of it now. He decided against looking at the area on the astral plane; if the intruders were magically active, he would give away his presence that way. Better (and possibly safer) to do the job the old-fashioned way.
What could intruders want with old Toby’s stuff? Surely that collection of useless antiques and bric-a-brac wouldn’t be the sort of thing that a thief would be interested in...and furthermore, why now? Stone Manor had a simple but effective security system, including the best magical defenses Stone could put into place, but somehow intruders had still managed to bypass all that and get into the house. If they’d wanted the stuff, why had they not simply broken into Toby’s place and grabbed it? It would have been a lot easier—
—or maybe it wouldn’t, considering that they were here now. “Stay here,” he told Maya quietly, and dropped the communication spell before she had a chance to answer. Cloaking himself in invisibility and activating his levitation spell lock, he moved noiselessly from the room. Bugger Toby and his junk anyway, he thought rather ungraciously. It’s already turning out to be more trouble than it’s worth, and it’s not even been here a day yet!
As he floated down the wide staircase toward the main hall, Stone knew that if Aubrey had been aware of the chance he was taking, the old caretaker would have given him quite a talking-to. Unfortunately, though, there weren’t many other options available. He didn’t want Aubrey involved, and by the time the police made it all the way out here in the country, the intruders would be long gone with whatever it was they were so desperate to grab. No, he was going to have to handle this one on his own.
At the bottom of the stairway, he floated over near the entrance to the east hallway and touched down. Dropping the invisibility spell, he hid himself around the corner and cast another spell, clairaudience this time. Maybe if the intruders didn’t think they were being observed, they might let something slip about what they were looking for. Watching carefully for anyone approaching, he began casting about with the spell, trying to pick up any muffled conversations.
For a moment there was nothing, but then—there! The voices were very quiet, but with concentration Stone could follow the conversation:
“Look at all these boxes! How will we find the staff in all this drek?”
“The dwarf said it was in a small crate marked ‘junk’. Imagine that! The fool didn’t even know what he had! Hey, shine the light over here!”
“Quiet! Someone will hear us! Stone’s a mage—don’t want him down here.”
“Relax. He’s all the way at the other end of the house. Just keep it down and hurry up.”
After that there wasn’t any more conversation, just the soft sounds of the intruders scrabbling around apparently trying to find the box they were seeking.
Stone waited a moment in his hiding place, sorting through what he’d heard. Obviously the intruders were after a particular item—a staff, they’d said—that was among Toby’s belongings. And worse, they’d apparently gotten the information about its whereabouts from Toby himself! Had the dwarf sent them over here? That didn’t seem too likely: why would his friend send thieves to his home to plunder his very own stuff? Stone sighed. It was clear that the only way he was going to get his answers was to question the intruders, which meant he was going to have to confront them.
In truth, he wasn’t terribly worried. From their conversation he was reasonably sure that neither of them was a magician (of course he could be wrong, but he was willing to take the chance). The thing that concerned him the most was that they’d managed to get into the house without tripping any of the security systems. If it hadn’t been for Maya, they probably would have gotten what they’d come for and gotten out. If they were careful enough, chances were that no one would even know that anything was missing.
Re-casting his invisibility spell, Stone rose up and levitated down the hallway, staying on the same side as the doors containing the crates. He made no sound as he floated to a spot between the two doors, where he stopped and re-assessed his options. If they came out the door, he could nail them with a sleep spell before they knew what had hit them. But the room also had a window, and there was a greater chance that they’d go out that way. From the sound of things, they were still hunting for the item.
Then, suddenly, the doorknob turned and the door slowly began to push open. Stone stiffened, pressing himself back against the wall. As he watched, two shadowy forms came out into the hallway, moving in utter silence. One was tall and thin in the classic elven form; the other one was clearly human. The elf, who was in the lead, pointed at the door to the second of the two rooms containing Toby’s crates, and the human nodded, moving ahead to grasp the knob and slowly open the door.
Stone remained where he was, watching the two men as they worked. He probably would have gone completely ignored if the human hadn’t chosen that moment to look intently back down the hallway as if checking for potential lurkers. His gaze, covered over by slim darkish goggles, raked across Stone without seeming to notice him, but suddenly he started, his eyes going unfocused for a moment. “Hey!” he exclaimed, his hand flying to the inside of his vest.
Stone was already moving. Dropping the invisibility spell (he didn’t want to contend with more than one spell at a time, and they’d already seen him) he zipped past the startled human back toward the hallway entrance. Preparing a sleep spell, he threw it at the two men.
Unfortunately for him, the spell wasn’t as effective as he’d hoped. Both the human and the elf grunted in pain as the magical energy contacted them, but it didn’t take them down as Stone had hoped. The human had a heavy pistol out now, which he aimed and fired at Stone.
The bullet slammed hard into him, driving him backward down the hall. Stone had a brief moment to be thankful that he’d been smart enough to put his armored coat on before coming down here (the bullet would leave a nasty bruise, but no permanent harm) before he noticed that the elf, too, now had a gun. Silenced, he thought idly.
The elf fired at him as well, but this time the shot went wide. Both he and the human moved faster than normal thieves might be expected to move—Wired reflexes? Physads? Whatever they were, these were not the normal garden-variety housebreakers. Stone quickly adjusted his strategy. He didn’t want to have to kill them because then he wouldn’t get his answers, but since his most powerful spells were of the deadly variety, if it came down to him versus them, he knew which way he wanted that equation to end up. Sighting on the human, he flung a manabolt at him. If it didn’t kill him, at least it would screw up his aim.
The human uttered a strangled cry and staggered back against the wall, clutching his head with one hand while trying to keep the gun steady with the other. He squeezed off another shot, this one going wider than the elf’s. The bullet tore into the wall on the opposite side of the hall as the human sagged against the door.
The elf made a decision. “Abort!” he called, and took another shot at Stone. This one hit its mark: Stone gasped as the round tore through his armor and sliced a furrow along the upper part of his right arm. “Abort mission!” the elf snapped again, motioning for the human to precede him.
Immediately (albeit shakily) the human dived for the door to the first room; the elf brought up the rear, providing covering fire with his pistol. Despite their injuries from Stone’s spells, the two moved with frightening speed. Before Stone could get his bearings they had disappeared inside the room and slammed the door closed. Another moment later he heard the sound of the room’s window being opened, then closed.
“Bugger!” he snapped disgustedly. They had gotten away, and he hadn’t even been able to grab one for questioning. Still, though, wisdom argued against his first instinct, which was to go after them. They could be anywhere on the grounds now, and with his injured arm he would be vulnerable—especially if there were more outside. At least they hadn’t gotten what they had come for. Frustrated, he headed back off toward the main hall.
Half an hour later the east wing of Stone Manor was seeing more activity than it had in many years. As Stone sat in one of the musty old chairs in the hallway (he’d changed clothes—one simply didn’t greet the police dressed in nothing but a bloody armored coat and a pair of shorts), Aubrey hovered worriedly over him. Both of them watched as the two policemen from the nearby village went about their business, looking for bullet holes, bloodstains, fingerprints, and other evidence.
“Are you sure you’re all right, sir?” Aubrey asked again. His face was pale, his expression frightened. “Can I get you anything?”
Stone shook his head impatiently. “No, Aubrey. I’m fine. I told you—no harm done. Please stop hovering.” He’d already healed up the arm wound, which hadn’t been terribly serious thanks to the longcoat. He hadn’t really meant for Aubrey to get involved in this, but it was difficult to hide two police cars at three o’clock in the morning. The caretaker had come bustling over shortly after they’d arrived, half-convinced that his employer had been horribly murdered in his bed. Maya, of course, was nowhere to be found. She didn’t like strangers.
Stone watched with interest as the cops finished their investigation, recovering the bullets that had been fired and carefully stowing them away in plastic baggies. While one went off to check the storage room, the other came over to Stone, pulling out a pocket secretary. “So, Dr. Stone,” he began. He was a young human who looked like he hadn’t been on the force for more than a year or two. “You say that there were two of them, and that they were in this room here.” He pointed at the room into which his partner had disappeared.
“Right,” Stone said. “I think they got in through the window.”
“Yes, sir. We found evidence of that. Do you have any idea how they circumvented your security system?”
“No. They were both quite fast, and seemed quite competent. No doubt they were professionals. We don’t have heavy-duty security ‘round here, since there’s not much need for it. We’ll need to have someone over to check it tomorrow, probably.” Aubrey nodded vigorously at this.
“Yes, sir,” the young cop said, sounding like he didn’t believe it. “All right, then—you’ve already given us a description—such as it is—”
“Sorry. Didn’t get a good look at them. They were fairly well covered up.”
The cop nodded. “All right. Is there anything else?” He watched Stone, stylus poised over the pocket secretary.
“Look,” Stone said with more than a bit of impatience. “I’ve already told your partner everything I saw. It’s almost four a.m. Do you think we could wrap this up so we can get back to bed before the sun comes up?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the cop said contritely. “I’m just doing my job.”
“Yes, of course you are,” Aubrey said, trying to intercede. “I’m sure Dr. Stone doesn’t mean to be cross with you, but he’s had a hard night. Perhaps you could finish up and come back tomorrow? We won’t disturb anything here—”
“No need for that,” came the voice of the other cop, coming out. This one was much older, also human, with graying hair and a large moustache. “I think we’ve got everything we need. Unfortunately it isn’t much. These two obviously knew exactly what they were doing.” He glanced up at Stone. “Dr. Stone, do you have any idea what they might have been after?”
Stone paused. The conversation between the two intruders was the only thing he hadn’t shared with the policemen. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, except that his curiosity about the nature of the mysterious “staff” that they had been looking for was eating away at him. If he told the police about it, they might want to locate it and take it away as evidence, which meant that he wouldn’t be able to find out anything about it. He hadn’t even mentioned the second room, where the item supposedly was. “No,” he said decisively. “No, no idea. Sorry.” Later on, at a reasonable hour of the morning, he would call Toby and see if he couldn’t get some answers. Then he’d “remember” the conversation and turn the staff over to the police. After he’d had a chance to examine it, of course.
The cops nodded. The younger one looked at him suspiciously, but Stone just shrugged. Occasionally (damned occasionally) there was something useful about being Lord Stone of Stone Manor. One of those things was that policemen tended not to argue with you without a much better reason than the suspicion of a rookie cop. “All right, sir,” the older one said, gathering up his gear and motioning for his partner to do the same. “I think that’s all we need for now. I wouldn’t worry about their coming back tonight—if you like, we can post a couple of officers to keep a lookout until the morning.”
Stone shook his head. “No, I don’t think that’s necessary.” He smiled ruefully. “No doubt if they come back, Maya will notice them again.”
“Uh...yes, sir,” the cop said. His face clearly showed his thoughts: these mages are all loopy as loons—I’ll be glad to get away from here and back to the real world, where people don’t talk to cats. “You’ll be here tomorrow if we need to come by again?”
“Of course,” Stone said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“All right, then. Good night, sir.”
After the cops had left, Aubrey turned to his employer. “You’re hiding something, sir.”
Stone’s eyes widened. “What makes you think so, Aubrey?”
“I’ve known you since you were born, sir,” the caretaker said with a hint of amusement and a hint of worry. “I can usually tell when you’re not being truthful. You didn’t tell those policemen everything. This doesn’t have anything to do with your other life, does it?”
Stone shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. There’s just something I want to check into before I tell them the rest. Best if you just didn’t worry about it, all right?”
Aubrey nodded reluctantly. “Yes, sir. But if you don’t mind, I think I’ll sleep at the house tonight—with my rifle.”
The intruders didn’t come back that night, not that Stone got much sleep. Maya didn’t return to his bedchamber, leading him to believe that she was out patrolling the grounds for intruders. He didn’t worry about her, since he knew how hard it was to spot a blackberry cat who didn’t want to be seen. If anybody was around, she’d find them. Better than a security system—and apparently more effective.
The next morning, Stone forced himself to wait until eight o’clock, the earliest he could justify calling Toby without being utterly rude. He planned to set up a meeting with the dwarf before he caught his flight later in the day and ask him if there was any reason he thought thieves might be particularly interested in his things.
The telecom beeped only once before it was snapped up. “Yes? Who is this?”
Stone frowned. The voice was unfamiliar—certainly not Toby’s nasal mumble. “Toby?”
“Who is this?” the unfamiliar voice demanded again.
“Who is this?” Stone demanded back. “Where’s Toby Ryland?”
“Please identify yourself,” the voice ordered. “This is the police.”
Stone paused, shocked. Finally after a moment he got out, “This is—Dr. Alastair Stone. I’m a friend of Toby’s. I—work with him. Is something wrong?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. When the voice spoke again, it was less crisp, more gentle. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Dr. Stone,” it said. “But Dr. Toby Ryland was murdered last night.”
Read Chapter 3 soon on Shapcano's Site!