It was a beautiful day at Stone Manor—for a change. The rain had stopped and the sun had broken through the clouds, bathing the area with welcome light. It was still a bit hazy, but it didn’t often get much better than this during this time of year.
Aubrey was determined to take advantage of the rare good weather to do some work on the grounds. He’d been putting off the job—mostly patrolling the outer edges of the Stone land looking for signs of illicit hunting or anyone attempting to take up residence out there—because as he got older it became less and less entertaining to trudge around the large amount of land surrounding the Manor, getting his feet wet and usually finding nothing of interest. Further, his old beagle, Mullins, was getting a bit too aged to accompany him in his errands, and he missed having someone to talk to, even if the dog didn’t share the conversation. He wondered if he should talk to Dr. Stone at some point about hiring him a young assistant to do this sort of thing. Perhaps someone who might even enjoy it.
Aubrey was worried about Dr. Stone. He hadn’t heard from him in a couple of days, and his overactive imagination was wasting no time in filling in all sorts of dire consequences that could have befallen his friend and employer following the tragic events surrounding Toby Ryland’s murder. Inspector Pirelli hadn’t been back since Stone had left, so at least Aubrey didn’t have to explain to the inspector where he had gone. He didn’t think the fact that Stone had decided to make a sudden trip to America would do anything to remove him from the list of people to be questioned.
The caretaker sighed, adjusting his old cap and continuing his progress toward the back part of the land. There was nothing to be gained by worrying: Dr. Stone was quite capable of taking care of himself, and at least in America he would have the help of his rather frightening group of friends. Aubrey most assuredly did not approve of Stone’s “other job,” but in this case he knew that the mage was probably in better hands with them than with him if there were a threat to be dealt with.
Off to his right, a dark figure moved silently through the trees, pacing his movements, never too far ahead or behind. Aubrey smiled, knowing that the only reason he saw the figure at all was because she was allowing him to. If Maya didn’t want to be seen, chances approached certainty that she wouldn’t. Her presence, though, was comforting: she had been inexplicably remaining very close to him ever since Stone had left, almost as if she worried about his well-being. Perhaps she does, Aubrey mused. He wasn’t sure whether he believed Stone when he said he could carry on conversations with Maya, but if the mage was kidding, he was a very good actor. Aubrey himself could not make much sense of her large vocabulary of meows, but he felt nonetheless that she was understanding him when he spoke to her. Although he considered the thought to be somewhat disloyal, he found it even better than talking to Mullins.
“What do you think, Maya?” he called cheerfully, pleased to be out and about after being stuck inside. “What say we give the place a once-over and then return home for some tea and salmon? Well, I’ll have the tea, and you can have the salmon. And perhaps a saucer of cream to go with it. Yes?”
The answering meow sounded equally cheerful. For a moment she stopped long enough for him to see her, her green eyes glittering from the shadows, and then she was gone again. Even among those she trusted implicitly (and Aubrey was fairly certain he was among the few) she did not like to be out in the open when they were outside the house. Dr. Stone had told him it was an instinctual thing: blackberry cats’ advantages in combat mostly derived from their phenomenal stealth and magical abilities, but their physical strength was minimal. Whenever possible, they tended to avoid direct confrontation. Aubrey smiled and moved on, glad she was enjoying her game of hide-and-seek.
When the two men stepped silently out from behind two large trees in front of Aubrey, he was so intent on his reverie that he almost didn’t notice them. However, it didn’t take him long after that to notice the pistols each of them held. He stopped, his eyes widening in surprise. “What—?”
The men were dressed nondescriptly, their caps pulled down low over their faces to make them difficult to recognize. “Please come with us,” one of them said. His voice was polite enough, but firm.
“What’s this about?” Aubrey asked indignantly. He regretted that he hadn’t brought along his shotgun. They did occasionally get poachers on the land, but usually they were long gone before anyone could find them. “What do you want?”
“Just come along,” the other man said. The gun he held was a little different looking than the first one; Aubrey couldn’t identify the difference. “You come with us, and nobody gets hurt.”
Aubrey glared at him. “I’m going nowhere with anyone. I have work to do here and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll move along.”
“Sorry, sir,” the first man waved his gun. “Afraid you don’t have a choice. It’ll only be for a short time, and we’ve no plans to hurt you.”
“Then why do you want me?” Aubrey looked around, trying to determine if there were any other men lurking in the shadows. It didn’t look like it, but then again, it really didn’t make any difference. It wasn’t as if he was planning to make a run for it. A thought popped into his mind involuntarily: I wonder if this has anything to do with the business with Dr. Stone?
“To make your boss a bit more...cooperative.” The second man smiled a rather nasty smile.
Aubrey took a deep breath. “I...see,” he said slowly, still trying to buy time. For what, he wasn’t sure.
“Come on,” the first man said, waving the gun again. “Quit stalling and let’s go. If you give us any trouble...” He looked ominously at his weapon. “We’re not supposed to hurt you, but you know how these things can go...”
Thoughts racing, Aubrey took one last look around, then sighed and nodded with resignation. They had him, and he wouldn’t do Dr. Stone any good dead. Maybe if he—
One of the men turned at the sound of the loud cry echoing through the trees. “What the hell was that?”
The second man chuckled. “Just a cat, dummy. C’mon. Let’s get him back to the truck before somebody else shows up.” He gestured with the gun for Aubrey to move.
“Meooowww...” the voice called again. It seemed closer this time.
The man who had first commented on the sound seemed more nervous. “You sure that’s just a cat? It sounds like—” He suddenly cried out and clamped his hands over his eyes. “Aauuugh! I can’t see! I can’t see!”
The second man’s eyes got big; he seemed to be looking everywhere at once. “What the hell is going on? Who’s out there? Show yourself!”
Aubrey decided this was the only chance he was going to get. Moving forward with speed borne of fear, he grabbed the man’s gun arm and tried to wrench it sideways.
The only problem was, the man was a lot stronger than Aubrey and the maneuver only succeeded in making him angry. Aubrey got a brief impression of the gunman’s face beneath his cap, followed by a loud meow and the muffled whump of a gun going off.
“So now what do we do?”
Winterhawk looked over at Ocelot in some surprise. This was the first he had spoken since they had left Trixy’s place almost fifteen minutes ago. They were once again back in their sedan; Ocelot was driving, while ‘Hawk was in the shotgun seat with the duffel back in its customary place wedged between his ankles.
Before ‘Hawk could answer his question, Ocelot continued. “So here we are, stuck with this magic item that’s insanely evil, and it’s got a twin that it wants to get back together with. And if they do get back together, then something very, very bad is going to happen. What the hell are we supposed to do about this?” All the calm he had gathered together while sitting at Trixy’s place seemed to have melted away, leaving him back in his usual state of paranoia. Perhaps even a bit worse than before.
‘Hawk shrugged. He wasn’t feeling much better about the situation. “Well...” he said slowly, “we should probably wait until we hear back from Harry, to see if he’s got any leads on the people who are after the thing...and after that, I’m wondering if we oughtn’t consider leaving town for awhile.”
Ocelot looked at him funny. “Leave town? You mean, like go to Tahiti and soak up the sun until this whole thing blows over?”
“Not exactly. But if Trixy is right and this thing’s brother is close by, then it might not be in our best interests to remain ‘round here. Especially if she’s right about their tendency to search each other out.”
Ocelot sighed. “But that’ll just prolong the problem, won’t it?”
“Yes,” ‘Hawk said, nodding, “but at least it will give us some time to consider the matter. And perhaps if we can go somewhere with some better research facilities, I might be able to find out more information on this thing so we can fight it.”
“I guess destroying it is out of the question, huh?” Ocelot shrugged. “You know, like dropping it into a live volcano or something?”
“You’ve been reading too many fantasy novels, my friend. But somehow, if this thing is as powerful as I fear it is, destroying it won’t be an option—at least not for us. The best we can hope for—maybe—is to inter it somewhere where it would be very difficult to get it back. But keep in mind that if powerful enough people know of its existence, and it can’t be destroyed, then they might be willing to go to a great deal of trouble indeed to get their hands on it.” He sighed, looking down at the duffel. “As much as I hate having this thing in our possession, I think I’d be quite a bit more nervous if it were out of our possession.”
Ocelot nodded slowly, turning a corner and heading for a freeway entrance. At least if they were going to be driving around for awhile, it might as well be in the anonymity of freeway traffic. “So...you think we should just leave town and hole up somewhere for awhile.”
‘Hawk shrugged. “I don’t know. It was just a suggestion. It—” He stopped speaking as his phone beeped. Pulling it out of his jacket, he mouthed Harry? to Ocelot, shrugged again, and hit the button. “Yes?”
He listened a moment, his expression becoming more grim. “Slow down, Aubrey...slow down...Now...start at the beginning and tell me...Yes... all right....” Again he was silent for several moments, and then he sighed and nodded. “Where are they now?... Yes. Good. Excellent. All right...here’s what I want you to do. Go back to the house, and stay there until I let you know otherwise. The wards and such should be safe enough...” He nodded again. “I’m glad, Aubrey...I’m glad it all worked out. I promise, I’ll call you back later and give you more details....Right. Goodbye.” He broke the connection and slowly put the phone back in his pocket. “Bugger. Things just got a lot more dangerous.”
Ocelot had been watching him throughout the phone conversation. “What’s going on?”
“Somebody just tried to grab Aubrey. From what I could get out of him, they planned to use him as some sort of lever to get something from me. And I’m sure we all know what that something is.” His voice sounded tired and angry.
Ocelot’s eyes narrowed. “Tried? How did he get away?” He knew as well as ‘Hawk did that Aubrey was in no shape to be fighting would-be kidnappers.
‘Hawk smiled, and it was a decidedly nasty smile. “The attackers didn’t take into account the fact that Aubrey has some powerful friends.”
“‘Hawk...just tell me, okay?”
Ocelot’s wicked smile mirrored Winterhawk’s. “Maya?”
“Apparently so. I couldn’t make much sense of Aubrey’s story—he’s still a bit overwrought, and I don’t blame him—but it seems that our little kitty was accompanying him as he tramped ‘round the grounds, and when the attackers struck, she used some of her powers to...dissuade them from their efforts.”
Ocelot grinned. “Good for her. So Aubrey’s okay?”
“Mostly. Sounds like at least one of them had a Narcoject pistol, and Aubrey got hit with a round when he tried to take advantage of the confusion. He says that when he awakened, Maya was sitting with him next to two bodies.”
“One was dead...the other one was in the same state Aubrey was in.” There was a gleam in ‘Hawk’s eyes. “If I know Maya, she used her paranormal abilities to make them shoot each other.”
Ocelot had to laugh at that. He shook his head. “I sure never want to be on the wrong side of that cat. So where’s the Narcojected one?”
“In police custody. Aubrey managed to truss him up and call the police. Of course, now they’ll probably want to know where I am, but we can worry about that later. “ He looked at Ocelot, his expression sobering. “I’m afraid, though, that this changes my recommendation. We haven’t the luxury of time anymore—if they’re attacking Aubrey, then they’ve made the connection between Alastair Stone and Winterhawk. That’s not something I want to leave out there for too long. I’m afraid we’re going to have to start going on the offensive.”
“You mean...look for the other one?”
“And who has it,” ‘Hawk said, nodding. “P’raps they won’t expect it, and we can get hold of the other one as well before they figure out that we’ve turned the tables on them.”
“And what the hell are we gonna do with ‘em when we have ‘em?” Ocelot looked at him like he’d gone crazy, although in his heart he knew it was probably the only way.
The mage shrugged. “Damned if I know. We’ll figure that out when the time comes.”