They were still milling around, yellow police lines intact, at Toby's small, neat house when Stone arrived. He was immediately approached by a squat, middle-aged human in a suit as he pulled his little black convertible up across the street. "Move on, sir," the cop said gruffly. "We don't need any spectators. This is police business."
Stone got out of the car. "I'm Alastair Stone," he said. "I called earlier. Toby was a friend of mine."
This must have been the cop he'd spoken with earlier, because he nodded and the grumpy exterior softened somewhat. "Ah, yes, Dr. Stone. I'm sorry to have had to be the one to tell you."
"What happened? You said he was murdered--" Stone's practiced perceptions were already taking in the area, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing seemed wrong.
"Last night sometime. Not sure when yet, though. The forensics boys and the magic team are still examining the area. His eyes narrowed slightly. "Your call came only a few minutes after we discovered the body, Dr. Stone."
"Yes, well--I had some questions for him. You did know he was planning to leave the country for an extended time, didn't you? His plane was due to leave some time today."
The cop nodded. "We found packed suitcases inside. Do you know where he was going? We haven't done our checking yet." He paused. "I'm Inspector Perelli, by the way."
Quickly, Stone explained Toby's research trip, adding that he had called his friend to discuss a break-in that had occurred at his own home the previous evening. He felt a twinge of guilt about continuing to keep the apparent source of the intruders' search a secret, but not half as much guilt as he felt when he thought too hard about having located the box labeled "junk" in the second room (ironically, it had been right on top--if the thieves had entered through a second room, they probably would have found it immediately) and carefully hidden it away in the locked armoire he kept in his room as a gun-safe. Once more, upon finding the box, he had considered handing it over to the police, but once more a voice inside his head had told him that he should at least take a look at the mysterious staff first, to see if he could discern why the intruders might find it so interesting. Even Aubrey hadn't seen him put it away--he'd done it while the old caretaker was off preparing breakfast. "So," he finished to Inspector Perelli, "in light of the break-in at my home, and upon hearing about poor Toby this morning, I decided to see for myself if there was anything I could do to be of service."
Perelli looked at him strangely, but finally nodded. "Where were you last night, Dr. Stone?"
"Home, of course. I already told you that."
"Have you anyone who can vouch for your whereabouts?"
Stone drew breath to vent his frustration at Perelli's ridiculous line of reasoning, but stopped when he realized that the cop was just doing his job. "My caretaker, Aubrey, was home all night as well. And Maya, of course."
"A blackberry cat."
Perelli's gaze flicked upward. "A--cat can vouch for you?" Oh, bother--another nutter, his expression clearly read.
"A blackberry cat, Inspector. I assure you, she's quite capable of--"
At that moment, the front door to Toby's house opened and two policemen emerged, pushing a gurney slowly between them. On the gurney was a small form covered over with a white sheet. Bloodstains flowered red in various points around the sheet.
Stone stopped what he was saying and ignored Perelli. "Toby--?" he whispered. For a moment, he just stared at the gurney as it went by, unable to speak. As a shadowrunner he had done his share of killing when it was necessary and hadn't regretted it, but somehow the enormity of the situation represented by the small sheet-covered figure on the gurney washed over him with a wave of despair. This had been his friend. His fellow professor. A member of his circle of Friday-night pub-hoppers. And now he was dead. Just a figure on a gurney and a bunch of facts in some cop's computer.
Stone's expression hardened, his bright blue cybereyes turning to chips of ice. "Do you have any leads on who might have done this, Inspector?"
"As I said, Doctor, we've only just discovered the body a bit over an hour ago. We're still investigating possible methods and motives. If you want to help, you can answer a few questions for me."
Stone watched the gurney being rolled out to the coroner's van and wondered again if had made the correct choice to hide the box in his armoire. "I'll do what I can, Inspector," he said rather bleakly.
For the next twenty minutes, Stone answered questions. Yes, he'd known Toby for a long time. No, the dwarf wasn't married. No, he had no children (as far as Stone knew). Yes, he worked at London University. Yes, he had had tickets to Amazonia for a flight that would leave today, and yes, he planned to remain there for two years. Yes, he had sent over a bunch of stuff to Stone's home for storage purposes. No, Stone didn't know what the thieves had been after.
The lie had come as easily as all the truths, surprisingly.
When Perelli had finished his questioning, Stone looked hard at him. "Will you answer a question for me, Inspector?"
"If I can."
"What was the cause of death?"
Perelli considered that briefly, as if trying to decide whether to hand out that particular bit of information. Finally, almost grudgingly, he said: "Multiple knife wounds. It appears that he was tortured prior to his death." Turning away, he clearly indicated that the this was all he would say on the subject. "If you'll excuse me now, Dr. Stone--"
"Of course," Stone said softly. Automatically.
Perelli turned back. "One more thing, Doctor..."
"Please try to be home this afternoon. I'll want to send a couple of men over to ask a few questions and go through the items Dr. Ryland left with you."
Stone nodded. "Of course," he said, his voice still numb and dead in his ears. "I'll--I should be home for the rest of the day, and Aubrey will know how to reach me in any case." Without waiting for Perelli to answer, he turned and began the trudge back toward his car.
Aubrey knew there was something wrong as soon as Stone came in the door. "Sir?" he began worriedly, tossing aside the dustrag he had been using on the bric-a-brac in the main hall and hurrying toward his employer.
"Aubrey." Stone did not stop his slow, tired progress toward his study.
"Sir, what did you find out?" The caretaker caught up with him just as he reached the door to the study.
Stone went in and threw himself into his chair, letting out a long, disconsolate sigh. "Aubrey, if you don't mind, I'd like to be alone for awhile."
Aubrey looked a bit hurt, but nodded. "Yes, sir. Of course. I'll see to lunch--"
"I don't think I'm hungry." He looked up, his expression softening. "Please, Aubrey. I'm sorry. I've just had a rather shocking morning, and I need some time to sort through some things."
Again the caretaker nodded, but the hurt look had left his eyes. He knew all about his employer's bouts of moodiness, and the murder of a friend would certainly be more than enough to bring one on. He also knew that if Stone wanted someone to talk to, he would come to him without his having to ask. Silently, he left the study.
Stone remained seated for only a few more minutes before his restlessness got the better of him and he rose, pacing around the office. Toby was dead. He hadn't really accepted it before, with only an unknown voice on the other end of a phone line to give him the news. It hadn't sunk in until he'd seen the small bloody figure being wheeled out of the house. The figure of the cheerful dwarf who'd gotten drunk with him many a time over the past few years--a dwarf who had been, if not a close friend, at least a valued one, and someone with whom he could discuss some of the odder aspects of his research, aspects which got him numerous strange looks from some of the more staid professors at the University. Toby was dead, and all because of this mysterious item that the dwarf probably had not even known was important. Stone sighed again, his shoulders slumping in despair. Why hadn't he just given the staff to the police? What had possessed him to keep it? They certainly had perfectly competent magical personnel who could analyze the item and figure out why someone would be willing to kill to obtain it--what did he think he was going to be able to do that they couldn't?
There was something in the back of his mind, though--his shadowrunner instincts making themselves heard. If someone was willing to kill to obtain this item, then they might also be willing to pay a high price for it. If the police had it in their custody, some clerk somewhere could be bribed, deckers used to make changes to records, and--
--and as far as the official channels were concerned, the item never existed. So Toby would have died for nothing, and the murderers would have what they'd killed him for. Neat as that, and no one would be the wiser.
Exactly, said a little voice in Stone's head. If they have it, they might be persuaded to give it up. But I won't be persuaded. I have a vested interest in finding out who killed Toby and seeing to it that they're brought to justice (one way or another), and the only way I can do that is to determine what it is about the staff that would make it so attractive to someone.
It wasn't a perfect line of reasoning, of course, but it was good enough for now. Besides, even if he was going to turn it over to the police, he had to at least have a look at the thing before he let it out of his hands. He knew that if he gave it to them, even if someone didn't get bribed or bullied out of it, that would be the last he would ever see of it.
Briefly returning to his chair, Stone cast his astral form out to check on Aubrey's location. The old man was in the kitchen preparing some sort of food--no doubt hoping that his employer would change his mind about being hungry when confronted with something appetizing-looking. He looked like he wasn't very far along with it, which meant that Stone had about half an hour before he had to worry about being disturbed. Returning to his body, he hurried out of the study and up the stairs to his bedroom suite. I'm sneaking around like a thief in my own house, he thought with disgust. But it was necessary if he wanted to keep the existence of the staff as his own secret for the time being.
Stone's bedroom suite consisted of three rooms at the far end of the hall on the second story of the Manor's west wing. The largest was the bedroom itself, entered via heavy carved-oak double doors. Off to one side of the room was a large bathchamber, and off to the other side was a small sitting room. All of these rooms were decorated in dark, old-English style, with heavy wall hangings and stout wooden furniture. The armoire that housed Stone's gun collection blended in perfectly with this decor--he doubted that anyone other than his teammate Ocelot (and Aubrey, of course) would ever guess that it was more than it seemed.
The maglock that held it closed was well hidden amid the scrollwork on the front of the doors. Stone checked to see if the doors to his rooms were locked, then opened the armoire. Inside, it was lined with thick steel, almost like a safe. Ignoring the guns inside (he didn't have many here; most of them were back in Seattle, and he didn't even use those) he picked up the box labeled "Junk" from the shelf at the bottom and carried it over to the bed.
"Not much to look at, is it?" he muttered to himself. He was right: the box itself was unassuming, made of heavy cardboard and held shut with thick strapping tape. It was a little less than a meter long, about half a meter thick, and a third of a meter front to back. Feeling even more guilty about opening a box containing Toby's personal property, Stone withdrew a small knife from his pocket and slit the tape before he could lose his nerve.
"Report," the voice on the phone ordered. The voice was unnatural, electronic--its owner was taking no chances about being traced. It wasn't even clear whether it was male or female.
"We didn't get it," the elf said, frustrated. He and the human sat at a table in a hotel room in London, a small secured telecomm unit in front of them so they could both be seen in the video pickup.
"What do you mean, you didn't get it?" the voice demanded. The electronic scrambling did not allow much emotion to get through, but it nonetheless managed to convey anger quite nicely.
"Stone caught us in the house," the human said. "We're not sure how. We didn't make any noise, and Alpha assured us that the wards weren't a problem."
The voice sighed. "Were the items where they were supposed to be?"
"Yes," said the elf. "It looked like everything was there, but we had no idea where to begin looking. There were so many crates and boxes, and we didn't see anything labeled as our--informant--told us it would be."
"There was another room, though," said the human. "We can go back in--"
"No," the voice said. "The police will be watching the house now--and so will Stone. It was unfortunate that we had to terminate our informant to keep him from talking--I don't want any more such operations without absolute necessity. Stone is known for being a very curious man--if we tip him off that someone is after that box, there's no telling what he might do with it. Intelligence informs me that there may be more to him than it seems. We know he has cyberware, and there are rumors that he might be involved with the shadow community back in the UCAS. So tread lightly. If we wait awhile, perhaps this will die down and we can try again."
"Boss?" The human spoke with reluctance.
"One thing--there's a possibility that he might have heard us talking about which box we were looking for." The human looked away, shamefaced.
The voice's owner thought about that for a few seconds before speaking. "How much of a possibility?" it finally asked.
"We don't know how long he was in the area before Ghost spotted him on ultrasound," the elf said. "We were only whispering, though--not a high probability that he heard anything, but it is possible."
Again the voice was silent for a short time. "If there is any chance, then we must act quickly." Another pause, and then: "Remain where you are and wait for my call. I will put some other operatives on the task of trying to determine if Stone has discovered anything yet. If he hasn't, then we can wait. If he has, then I will contact you regarding your next assignment." The telecomm unit went dead.