Family Matters

(c) 2000, Rat

I've had this idea floating around for a couple of weeks now, but about 80% of the writing was done in about five hours today, 12/25/00. For some reason I couldn't get started before today. Maybe it's the Christmas spirit. Anyway, Happy Holidays to all the Magespace readers, and our wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year!

Aubrey wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. Not at all. But James was family and it was almost Christmas, which meant that he didn’t have much choice in the matter.

He entered the unfamiliar pub at midday, looking around the smoky interior with a small degree of trepidation which abated when he realized that it was just a pub like any other and not one of the disreputable sort of places he expected James to be frequenting.

James was already there, waiting for him at one of the tables. He didn’t look much different than the last time Aubrey had seen him—a little older, certainly, but still the same gangly youth with brown hair cut a little too long and hands and feet a little too big for the rest of his body. He was dressed in baggy clothes that accentuated his lanky frame. At least he’s shaved this time, Aubrey thought. By the time one was twenty-six, (at least in Aubrey’s mind) it wasn’t quite proper to go out in public without shaving.

“Hello, Uncle. I’m glad you’ve come.” James smiled a little nervously and motioned for Aubrey to sit, then waved toward the bartender for a couple of beers.

He’s buying? Perhaps things have changed. “It’s—good to see you, James. How have you been?” Things hadn’t been easy for James, Aubrey knew, since his mother had passed away two years ago. He’d always been something of a ne’er-do-well, but in the absence of the anchor provided by his mother’s mostly futile attempts at raising him properly, he had drifted into a life of odd jobs and an uncertain future. He had even been arrested a couple of times, both for minor offenses. Aubrey wondered what could possibly be bringing him to this part of the world.

James shrugged. “I’ve been—all right. Doing this and that.” He definitely seemed uncomfortable about something.

Aubrey regarded him rather sternly. “Let’s get right to it, shall we, James? What brings you here? Is there something I can do for you?”

The young man looked down into the rich amber depths of his beer. “You do get right to it, don’t you, Uncle Aubrey?”

“It was a bit unexpected, you must admit. Your call was rather—sudden. Can you blame me for being curious about why you wanted to meet?”

James’ gaze came up to meet his uncle’s. “I need a job. I thought you might be able to help me find one.”

Aubrey hesitated outside the door to Alastair Stone’s study a moment before knocking.

“Yes, what is it?” The voice from within sounded a little distracted, but no more than usual. Aubrey opened the door.

Stone looked up from his work and smiled. “Hello, Aubrey. Back already? Did you have a good day?”

Depends on what you call good, Aubrey thought, but didn’t say so. “Yes, sir. That—er, that is why I’m here. Do you have a moment?”

Stone tilted his head, intrigued. He motioned toward the old couch. “Sit down.” After a pause, he added, “Nothing’s wrong, is it?”

“No, sir. Not—wrong.” Aubrey regretted the nervousness he knew he must be showing, but forged ahead. “I’m wondering if I might—well, ask you a favor. Naturally I’ll understand if you don’t choose to—”

“Aubrey.” Stone smiled. “Come on—you know you can ask me anything. Out with it.”

“Yes, sir.” Aubrey looked down at his lap, then back up into his employer’s electric blue eyes. “I—The reason I requested the day to go into town, sir, is that I had a call. From a relative. Have I ever mentioned young James to you?”

Stone thought about that a moment and then shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

Aubrey nodded. “I thought not. James is—well, was, at any rate—rather the black sheep of the family. He’s a decent young man, but a bit of a ne’er-do-well, if you know what I mean.” When Stone didn’t answer, he went on. “James called me last night, and asked me to meet him in town.” He took a deep breath. “It seems that he’s decided he wants to try to make something of himself.”

Stone looked a little puzzled. “Well, that’s admirable, of course. But I don’t see—”

“He wants a job, sir. I was thinking—that is, I thought—well, perhaps if you didn’t mind, I have been rather thinking about taking on an assistant...” Aubrey looked as if, had he had a cap in his hands, he’d have been wringing it. He didn’t quite meet Stone’s eyes.

“And you’d like me to give young James a try at the job.” Stone’s tone was neutral.

“Yes, sir.”

When Aubrey looked up again, his employer was smiling. “Of course, Aubrey. I can’t remember the last time you’ve ever asked me for anything. I’d be pleased to do it. You know it’s been bothering me lately, your doing all that heavy work by yourself. If you want to take James on, it’s fine with me.”

Aubrey could hardly believe what he’d just heard. Quickly, he said, “I’m very grateful, sir. I—I just want you to know—James has had a few brushes with the law. Nothing serious, but—”

“—but he wants to move on and make something of himself. If you’re willing to trust him, Aubrey, then so am I. You know I trust your judgment.”

The old man’s face broke into a gentle smile. “Thank you, sir. Thank you. I’ll let James know.”

“Good, good.” Stone looked up. “Say, you haven’t seen Maya recently, have you? I’ve just realized it’s been a couple of days.”

“I saw her briefly yesterday, but she seemed to be about some errand so I didn’t disturb her.”

Stone nodded. “All right, then. Give James a call and we’ll give it a go.”

James couldn’t believe his good fortune when Uncle Aubrey called him back and told him his employer had agreed to take him on. “You’re going to have to work, and work hard,” Aubrey warned him. “There’ll be no slacking off. But if you’re willing to do that, you’ll have room and board and an honest living.”

“Thank you, Uncle. I appreciate it.”

“Thank Dr. Stone. You’ll meet him when you start. Be here first thing tomorrow morning.”

James did as he was told, hitching a ride out to Stone Manor with an early-morning truck driver heading in that direction. He stared up at the tall wrought-iron gates that marked the entrance to the Manor with a certain awe—he had no idea Uncle Aubrey had such fine circumstances.

He didn’t get much chance to look at anything else because at that moment Aubrey arrived at the gates, driving a small four-wheeled gardening cart. James got in next to him and they were off.

The next few hours were a flurry of activity. Aubrey showed him the house (which duly impressed him), some of the land, the garage, and his quarters—a small apartment over the garage next to Aubrey’s larger one. “It’s not fancy,” Aubrey told him, “but it’s clean and warm and you can do it up as you like. You can drop your things here and then we’ll go back up to the house to meet Dr. Stone. You can settle in today and get started tomorrow.”

James followed Aubrey back to the imposing two-story manor house, wondering what Dr. Stone was like. Probably an older man, he surmised—a stuffy academic type who spent his life with his nose in a book. Ah, well, it didn’t really matter. He’d be essentially working for his uncle, and despite Aubrey’s eccentricities, James grudgingly had to admit that he liked the old man. This was going to work out fine.

Aubrey led him in through the back door, across the main hall to a door down a short hallway in the back part of the house. Motioning for James to wait, he knocked on the door. “Dr. Stone? James is here. Would you like to meet him now?”

The door opened after a few moments, and James’ eyes widened. The man who stood there was neither old nor stuffy-looking—instead, he found himself facing a tall, thin, sharp-featured man only about ten years older than himself, dressed in faded jeans and a ratty oversized fisherman’s sweater over a black T-shirt. He carried an old-fashioned book in one hand and regarded James with bright electric blue eyes that couldn’t possibly have been natural. He has cybereyes...was James’ first thought. I’ve never known anybody with cybereyes.

“Hello, James,” the man said, offering his hand. His accent was upper-crust London with just a hint of the south, the kind of accent you got from having the right parents and going to the right schools, but his expression was cheerful and utterly without pretension. “Alastair Stone. So you’re throwing your lot in with this bunch of misfits here at Stone Manor, are you? Good to have you. I hope Aubrey hasn’t worked you too hard already.”

James shook his hand. “, sir. Thank you, sir. It’s good to meet you, too. I’m glad to be here.”

Stone grinned and looked conspiratorially at Aubrey. “You haven’t told him about the rock-breaking and the railroad we’ll need built out on the south part of the land yet, have you?”

“No, sir, not yet,” Aubrey replied, shaking his head.

James stared at them in shock until he realized they were kidding. At that moment they both burst out laughing. Stone chuckled. “Good luck, James. As I said, good to have you. We’ll talk later, at dinner. If you’ll excuse me—” He waved the book and disappeared back into the study, leaving James to continue staring after him.

Aubrey gently took his arm, still smiling. “If you’re going to live ‘round here, James, you’d best get used to Dr. Stone. He’s a bit eccentric, but he’s a powerful mage and a good chap to have on your side if you need help. Oh, and one more thing,” he added as they headed out, “—Stay out of his study. He doesn’t like anyone in there without his permission. Now come along, and I’ll show you what your duties will be.”

After a week, James had already settled into life at Stone Manor like he had always belonged there. He found that he enjoyed the hard work Aubrey gave him to do—it made him feel useful, like he was doing something that was important to someone. He could see that it was important, too—Aubrey was getting far too up in years to deal with chopping wood, repairing shingles on the treacherous old roof, and patrolling the outer reaches of the rather sizable lands that comprised Stone Manor’s grounds. He got to know Mullins, Aubrey’s dog (finding it amusing that the old beagle took an instant liking to him and had an abiding dislike of Stone) and even got occasional glimpses of Maya, the blackberry cat who considered the house and all its grounds as her own. Stone introduced them one evening during one of her very brief visits soon after James started, making a point to let Maya know that he was now part of the household and that it would be appreciated if she wouldn’t try any of her “tricks” on him. She had meowed primly and departed; James hadn’t seen her since.

As it drew closer to Christmas life at the Manor became even more hectic, as there was to be a lavish holiday party held there at the end of the week and Aubrey was spending most of his time on the telephone arranging caterers and transportation and other necessities. James was entrusted with increasingly more responsibility as Aubrey spent more of his time dealing with party issues, and by the time he returned to his little apartment late in the evening it was all he could do to fall into bed, exhausted. It was a good kind of exhausted, though—the kind you felt after a job well done. He was happy.

He almost didn’t notice the light on his little answering machine as he trudged into his bedroom one evening. He sat down heavily on the edge of his bed, kicked off his boots, and hit the button.

“James, how nice to find you here,” came a familiar voice. Too familiar. James froze. “We need to meet, I think. We’ve got something to talk about. How’s tomorrow sound?”

He remained sitting on the bed for a very long time, staring at the phone with an expression of shocked resignation on his face.

James took a last glance around before entering the darkened pub. His hand on the doorknob felt damp and jittery—in fact, most of him felt rather damp and jittery, truth be told.

They were already there, sitting far in the back. Watching for him. He knew they would be—Bobby and Kev were nothing if not prompt, especially when there was profit to be gained. He hadn’t seen them in months, but they didn’t look any different. They never seemed to change.

“Didn’t think you’d come,” Bobby said as James sat down across from him, facing away from the room.

James glared at him. “Let’s just get this over with, shall we? I have to get back before someone misses me. What do you want?”

Kev grinned. “Nice job you’ve got there. Moving up in the world, are ye?”

“I’m doing all right,” James said sullenly. “What’s that got to do with—”

Bobby patted his hand. “Stone Manor, is it? Out near Holmbury?”

“Yeah, so—?”

The two of them were beginning to resemble sharks now—friendly sharks, but sharks nonetheless. Kev spoke slowly, languidly: “I hear Stone’s having a party on Friday. A Christmas party, with lots of food and guests and Christmas cheer.”

James’ expression was wary. “And—?”

Instead of answering, Kev turned back to Bobby. “You know, I was just thinking the other day, it would be an awful shame if someone were to find out about James’ little—well—indiscretion up in Leeds last summer. Especially after he’s got himself such a nice job at such a nice posh place. I was thinking about how it would just crush his dear old uncle—”

“What do you want?” James demanded through clenched teeth. His hands were in his lap, where the two men couldn’t see them shaking.

Almost as if they were joined by the same wire, Kev’s and Bobby’s heads swiveled around to face James. “Well, you see, that’s the thing...”

“Aubrey, help me with this blasted thing, will you?” Alastair Stone stalked across the main room of his bedchamber, ripping off the offending black bow tie and and flinging it onto the bed.

Aubrey smoothly picked it up and steered his employer over to the full-length mirror, where he knotted it around his neck with deft fingers. “There, sir,” he murmured soothingly. “That’s got it.”

Stone tugged at it, glaring at his reflection. “If God had meant man to wear these things, He’d have had us born with more fingers,” he muttered. Then, tie forgotten, he crossed the room again and poked blue gem cufflinks—they matched his shirt-studs—through his starched white cuffs. “Remind me again why I’m doing this, Aubrey.”

“Because you wanted to have a big Christmas party for the faculty, sir.” Aubrey followed along behind Stone, gathering up discarded bits of clothing and returning them to their places. “I believe your exact words were, ‘If it’s my turn to have the bloody thing, I’m going to make such a good job of it that they’ll be talking about it for months.’”

Stone stopped, cufflink in midair. “I said that?”

“Just last month, sir.”

“Oh. Bugger.” He looked around. “Where’s Maya, anyway? If I didn’t know better I’d say she’s avoiding me.”

“Probably didn’t want to be near all this activity, sir.”

Stone sank down on the bed, careful not to disturb the razor creases in his tuxedo pants. “She’s smarter than I am. I don’t want to be near all this activity either, but I haven’t a choice. Is everything taken care of?”

“Yes, sir.” Aubrey picked up Stone’s jacket from the valet and shook it out. “Don’t you worry—the caterers are here, the food is ready, the band is tuning up down in the main hall, the magical entertainers are getting tipsy in the kitchen, and the guests will be arriving in half an hour or so. Everything is fine.” He smiled at his frazzled employer. “Don’t worry, sir. Just have a good time and enjoy yourself.”

Again Stone sighed, and resignedly stood up, shrugging into the jacket Aubrey held for him. “What about James? Did he manage to get out of this?”

“No, sir. He’ll be helping out the caterers with serving.”

“Well, good. That ought to keep him busy. And he can make sure they don’t make off with half the liquor cabinet.” Taking one last look around the room, he squared his shoulders, straightened his tie, and affected a look of rather manic cheer. “All right, Aubrey—showtime.”

James stood off to the side of the dining room door and watched as the guests filtered in. He was uncomfortable, and was sure that the unfamiliar suit was probably not the primary cause for his discomfort. He ran a hand back through his hair and hoped nobody noticed that he was sweating. Glancing down at his chrono, he saw that it was a little after eight o’clock. Almost two hours before he’d have to sneak out and unlock one of the back doors. He knew those two hours would pass like an eternity for him.

The place had been transformed—the main hall, normally rather somber and gloomy, was dominated now by a gigantic Christmas tree that rose nearly to the rafters, decorated with twinkling lights and tinsel and holographic birds flitting around the branches. In the far corner a five-piece chamber orchestra played Christmas carols (James had heard the “discussion” where Alastair Stone had gracefully conceded to Aubrey that his first choice—a rock band—was probably not appropriate for the situation) and in the opposite corner a sumptuous buffet table and bar had been set up, manned by some of the small army of caterers hired to take care of the guests. The place was warm and festive and for the first time in many years, James felt like perhaps he had finally found a place he could call home.

Until you stuff it up in two hours, a little voice in his head put in contemptuously.

He turned away from the scene in disgust and almost ran into Aubrey, who was coming out of the dining room carrying a tray of fresh-baked Christmas cookies. The older man shoved the tray into his hands. “Here, make yourself useful,” he said cheerfully. “Take these over to the buffet table, there’s a good lad.” He was past and gone before James could answer.

James sighed, looked down at the tray, and did as he was told. Useful. Right.

The guest list numbered somewhere between sixty and eighty, mostly couples. Aubrey had told James that Stone had invited the entire Thaumaturgy department staff and their spouses, along with various other friends, and it looked like most of them had shown up. Earlier he had taken Aubrey aside for a moment and asked about the charismatic and lovely woman dressed all in blue who had arrived unexpectedly and singlehandedly changed Stone’s demeanor from “good actor playing cheerful host” to “genuinely happy to the point of glowing” and had been informed that she was the internationally famous fashion designer Cynthia Cyan—who had been invited but not been expected to show. Aubrey told him that Stone and Cynthia had dated off and on for years—James could see he was thoroughly smitten with her—but that her schedule was so hectic that she could rarely count on being anywhere in particular too far in advance. “I’m so glad she was able to come,” Aubrey said fondly, looking at the two of them together. “It’s just the thing to top off Dr. Stone’s evening.”

I’ll bet not, James thought, but again squelched the thought. He had two more hours and he was determined he was going to enjoy them.

Stone himself stopped him as he set the cookies down and was turning back toward the kitchen. The mage grinned. “Evening, James. Having fun?”

James nodded. “Yes, sir. The party’s going well.”

“Isn’t it?” Stone agreed, clapping the younger man on the shoulder. “Listen—don’t work too hard. Find some time to enjoy yourself. I appreciate your and Aubrey’s helping out, but I want you to have a good time. Let the caterers do what they’re being paid for.”

James studied Stone’s face for a moment and saw only genuine pleasure there. He’s not just saying it because he thinks he has to. “I—I will, sir. Thank you.”

“Good man.” He raised his wineglass and then he was gone, called off by more of his guests who needed attention.

James watched him, trying to keep the expression of misery off his face. He looked at his chrono again and sighed.

The party continued, moving into full swing. More guests arrived, making even the normally cavernous great hall look cozy and intimate. Music played, guests mingled and danced and ate and drank, and the magical entertainers circulated around performing amusing holiday-related illusions to the delight of all who saw them. All of this was presided over by a slightly tipsy but very pleased Alastair Stone, who cut quite a dashing figure in his black tuxedo, escorting the blue-clad, bejewelled, and beautiful Cynthia Cyan.

From the sidelines James watched the festivities with a growing sense of misery and a feeling of impending doom. He set down another plate of hors-d’oeuvres from the kitchen and looked at his chrono again.

Ten o’clock.

It was time.

He rubbed his hands on his pants and tried to think of a way out—but he had been doing that all night and nothing had presented itself so far. He had to do it. After all, it was possible that nobody would find out, whereas if he refused—

—no, he had to take his chances.

He glanced at the partygoers again, spotting Stone on the far side of the room talking to a distinguished-looking gentleman in his fifties and Aubrey near the stairway conferring with one of the caterers. The way was clear.

James slipped away, past the buffet table and across the room. He avoided the kitchen, which was currently a beehive of activity, and instead ducked down the hall toward the east wing. Once out of sight he cut right and hurried down another smaller hallway and slipped into one of the rooms. One quick glance confirmed that no one had seen him, and he pulled the door shut behind him.

He could see them there already, shadowy figures crouched down near the window as agreed. As silently as possible he slid the window open.

“You’re late,” Kev said accusingly as he swung his leg over the sill and climbed into the room. He was dressed in a suit which, from a distance, would blend in with those of the partygoers.

“Shh! I got held up,” James told him with a glance back toward the door.

Bobby, similarly dressed, climbed in behind Kev. He grinned and patted James’ arm. “Nice work, mate. We’ll take it from here.”

James closed his eyes for a moment, then regarded them. “Listen—I wish you wouldn’t do this. There’s really nothing here—”

Kev’s laugh was harsh. “Nothing here, he says. Our boy’s becoming a right proper gentleman, it looks like. Nothing here!” He too patted James, none too gently. “Listen here, James old boy. You just keep your gob shut and be a good lad and we’ll be out of here in no time with no one the wiser.”

“We’ll be a bit richer, that’s all,” Bobby added, nodding.

“They’re all mages, you know. They’ll catch you for sure.” James could hear the tone of defeat in his voice, but he had to try.

“Not bloody likely. Half of ‘em are pissed off their arses, and the others are too busy tryin’ to impress each other to notice anything. You just stay out of our way, you hear?”

“And don’t forget,” Bobby added, “if you should get it into that head of yours to tell anyone we was here—well, we’ve got a few stories to tell and you know they’re true.”

James nodded, miserable. “Just get on with it,” he said harshly. “Do it and get out. And I don’t want to see you lot ever again.”

“We’ll just see about that,” Kev said.

The two of them crossed the room and slipped out through the door, leaving James alone in the room. He leaned his head against the wall, clenched his fists, and forced himself not to pound the wall in frustration.

Twenty minutes later James was back out in the main hall, getting together a small refreshment tray for the band, who were taking a break. The party was showing no signs of slowing down. Suddenly he heard a voice behind him: “Everything all right, James?”

It was Dr. Stone. His eyes were a little brighter than before and he looked as if he might have had one or two too many glasses of champagne, but his usual expression of shrewd, cheerful curiosity was as strong as ever. “Uh—yes, sir,” James stammered. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Stone smiled. “No reason. Just want to make sure you’re not working too hard. I’ve seen you running about all night. Why not take a break? I think Aubrey’s mixing up some eggnog in the kitchen.”

“Uh...yes, sir. I’ll see about that.” James wanted nothing better than to get away from Stone’s unnerving presence.

“Good.” Stone paused a moment, turning away, then turned back. “James?”

Oh, no... “Yes, sir?”

Stone gave him an odd smile, wistful and gentle and most unlike him. “I’m glad you’ve come, James. I just wanted you to know that. You’ve been a tremendous help to Aubrey, and I’m happy he’s got some family, not just to help, but just to be here with him. I know he’s pleased too.”

James swallowed hard. “Th—thank you, sir. I appreciate it.”

Stone nodded. “Thank you, James. For everything.” Again, he started to turn away.


He stopped. “Yes?”

“Uh—nothing, sir. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, James.” Stone topped off his champagne glass and then hurried off once again.

James watched him go, a lump forming in his throat. He looked at Stone, and he looked at the hall bedecked with its Christmas finery, and he looked at Aubrey across the room.

Then he made a decision.

Looking more determined than ever, he started off across the room.

He found Kev and Bobby in one of the out-of-town guests’ bedrooms, going through some luggage. They looked up in startlement at the sound of the opening door, only to grin when they saw James standing there. Bobby paused his pawing through a jewelry case. “Oh, it’s just you. What do you want? Thought we told you to get out of the—”

James raised the gun and pointed it at them. “Put that down. Now.”

Contempt suffused Kev’s features. “Come off it, James. You haven’t got the bollocks to shoot anybody. I doubt that thing’s even loaded.” He picked up another suitcase, flung it across the bed, and nudged it open.

“I’m warning you, put it down.” James, his hand shaking, slipped the safety off the gun. “I don’t want to shoot anybody, but I’m not going to let you do this.”

“What’cha gonna do, then? Shoot us? Your mates? You’re gonna kill us over a few trinkets? These rich bastards won’t even miss ‘em.”

“Put it down, Bobby. I mean it.” James’ tone wavered as much as the gun did. “Nobody’s killing anybody, but you’re not going to—”

“What’s going on here?” demanded a voice from the hallway.

Before James could react, Bobby snatched up the suitcase from the bed and flung it at him. He fumbled with it, dropping the gun and staggering back into the doorframe.

Bobby and Kev lunged forward, diving for the fallen gun a split-second before James did. Kev got it, raising it triumphantly as James scrambled to his feet, tossing the suitcase aside in a spray of negligees and lace panties.

Behind them, Aubrey glared at them until he saw the gun. “What in the devil—?”

“Out of our way, old man!” Kev yelled. Shouldering James aside, he swung the gun around and trained it on Aubrey.

“Come on!” Bobby cried. He carried a small bag, presumably filled with the booty they had already managed to grab. “Let’s get out of here, Kev! Forget the old man!”

The two of them bolted down the hallway past Aubrey, heading for the stairway down. Suddenly their feet left the ground and they floated, legs pistoning like cartoon characters. A moment later, Alastair Stone ascended the rest of the way to the second floor, a dark expression on his face.

“Watch out, sir, he’s got a—” Aubrey cried as Kev brought the firearm around toward his employer.

“It’s not loaded!” James yelled. He’d managed to extricate himself from the underthings and was now pounding down the hallway toward the action.

“Indeed,” Stone said coldly. He glared at the two floating robbers and made a dismissive gesture.

Kevin instantly screamed “Hot!” and dropped the gun.

Stone picked it up with no discomfort, verified that it wasn’t loaded, and handed it off to Aubrey. “Now,” he said, his voice every bit as chill as before and with no sign of inebriation, “I think we’d best have an explanation. Aubrey, please call the police and tell them to come quietly, so we won’t disturb our guests.”

“It’s all James’ fault!” Bobby protested. “He let us in. He told us where the stuff was!”

Stone’s gaze swiveled around on James. “Is this true, James?”

James bowed his head in misery. “I let them in,” he confirmed.

“I see,” Stone said. At the end of the hallway, turned away from them, Aubrey’s expression fell and he shook his head in shame.

“It was all his idea!” Kev put in. “He put us up to it! He said there’d be rich guests here and we could find good pickings!”

“That’s not true!” James cried, glaring. He looked like he was about to cry or kill something and couldn’t decide which.

Stone’s cold blue gaze settled on the floating pair. “I’ll get the true story, you know,” he said evenly. He raised his hand and crackling energy surrounded it. “One way or another.”

Kev’s eyes were as big as saucers, fixed on that magical energy. “Oh, no...” he moaned. “He’s got one o’ those truth spells...”

“Shut up, Kev!” Bobby snapped.

“Yeah!” James shouted. “He’s got one, and he’ll get the truth out of you, so you might as well give it up!” He looked at Stone. “Those things hurt, don’t they, Dr. Stone?”

“Oh, frightfully,” Stone agreed. “I’d hate to do it this close to Christmas, but—”

“No!” Kev yelled, writhing in the grip of the levitation spell. “No! Don’t truth-spell me! Please! It was my idea! Mine and Bobby’s! We weren’t gonna hurt anyone. Just get in here and nick a few things, that’s all! Honest!”

Stone crossed his arms over his chest implacably. “And James?”

“We made him let us in! We said we’d tell about the car he stole last year and get him sacked if he didn’t help us! Come on, mate! Let us down, willya?”

“In due time,” Stone said. He looked at James. “Is this right?”

James nodded without looking up. “Yes, sir. I know these two. We used to be mates, up until a year or so ago. I thought maybe I could get away from the whole thing, but it looks like I can’t.” He sighed. “I didn’t want to get sacked, and I was afraid if you and Uncle Aubrey found out what I did, that’s what you’d do.”

“So then what are you doing here now? And where did you get the gun? It looks like one of mine.”

“It is one of yours, sir. I’m sorry. I found it in your study. I know I’m not to go in there, but I had to do something. I thought maybe I could scare them away and make them leave the stuff they took.”

“So you came up here to stop them after you let them in?”

“Yes, sir.” James still hadn’t looked up. “I’m sorry...for everything. I’ll pack up and be out of here tomorrow.”

“You just stay where you are,” Stone ordered. Kev and Bobby were still flailing and yelling, but Stone ignored them except to keep the spell up. “We’ll just stay here until the police arrive and then we’ll go from there.”

It was after midnight, and the party was over. Stone, Aubrey, and James sat in various sprawled and exhausted attitudes in some of the cushioned chairs around the Christmas tree, watching the caterers clearing the last of the party clutter from the hall.

“Well, that’s over,” Stone said with a sigh, running his hand back through his hair. He’d lost his jacket somewhere, his tie hung loosely around the open neck of his no-longer-starched shirt, and his sleeves were rolled back. “It’ll be at least another ten years before it’ll be my turn again—and that’s far too soon.”

“Mrs. Kensington was very understanding about her underthings,” Aubrey murmured.

“Good thing it wasn’t Mrs. Dale’s bag,” Stone chuckled. “They could have used her pants for parachutes and left through the second-story window.”

Aubrey joined in the chuckle. He looked over at James. “And you, young man. What have you to say for yourself?”

The police had come and gone, taking Kev and Bobby discreetly out through one of the rear exits so as not to alarm the guests. As it was, only Mrs. Kensington knew that anyone had been inside the house, and she had been so tipsy that it was doubtful that she’d remember anything in the morning anyway.

James sighed. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I thought I was doing the right thing—or maybe I didn’t, but I didn’t want to get sacked. I—” He looked into his uncle’s eyes. “I like it here. It’s the first place I’ve ever felt like I belonged. I don’t want to leave.”

“Have you got any more skeletons in your closet that we should know about?” Stone asked. James had already revealed the details of the stolen car incident.

“No, sir. I think Uncle Aubrey knows about the rest of them.”

Stone shrugged. “Then as far as I’m concerned it’s over. Just don’t do it again—and stay out of my study. All right?”

James looked like he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. He looked to Aubrey for confirmation. “Sir? That’s—that’s all there is to it?”

Aubrey spread his hands. “Dr. Stone is the boss, James. If he says that’s all there is to it—then I guess that’s all there is to it.” His expression was severe but his eyes were crinkled with pleasure.

James was about to say something else when he noticed a movement off to one side of the room. “What—?”

Stone followed his gaze and grinned. “Maya! Where have you been? Avoiding all these people, have you?”

The big black cat strode primly up to Stone’s chair, looked up at him, and made a soft, insistent meow. “What’s that? You want to show me something?”

James looked at Aubrey, who shrugged.

Stone stood. “All right, then. If you two will excuse—”

Maya meowed again.

“Ah—you want to show all of us something. I see.” He turned to Aubrey and James. “Maya requests the honor of our presence. P’raps she’s got a Christmas gift for us.”

If it was a Christmas gift, she’d hidden it well. Maya padded through the house and back toward one of the most remote corners of the closed-down east wing, with her three bewildered followers trailing behind her. She stopped in front of a door that was partially open and meowed at Stone again.

“She wants us to be quiet,” he whispered, motioning toward the door.

Again Aubrey and James exchanged confused glances, but all three did as requested, tiptoeing into the darkened room.

At first they saw nothing out of the ordinary, but as they crossed the room Stone, who was in the lead and who had low-light cybereyes, turned back to the other two. His face wore a smile of pure wonder. “A Christmas present indeed,” he murmured. “But not for us.” He summoned a gentle light spell and motioned his two companions forward.

James and Aubrey moved around him and then stopped. There was Maya, curled up on a bedspread that she had dragged off the bed and arranged into a nest. And there with her were two tiny balls of fluff—one pure black like she was, the other radiant white. Three pairs of eyes—one proud and green, two round and blue and curious—looked up at the astonished visitors.

“Maya,” Stone whispered, crouching down to ruffle the fur on her head, careful not to touch the two tiny kittens. “Oh, Maya...” His eyes shone with happiness.

Maya, for her part, looked rather proud of herself. “Meow,” she said, leaning down to lick first one little head, then the other.

“What did she say?” Aubrey whispered, forgetting for the moment that he didn’t quite believe Stone could communicate with Maya.

Stone chuckled. “She said that Mullins had best watch out, because he’s going to have to contend with three blackberry cats instead of just one.”

“All that in one ‘meow’?” James asked skeptically.

“She’s a creature of few words,” Stone told him. He crouched down even lower and looked at Maya questioningly. When she backed off a little, he very gently stroked each kitten’s head. The white one batted at his hand, a determined look on its tiny face. “This has been quite a time,” he said, looking back up at the room’s other two human occupants.

“Indeed it has, sir,” Aubrey agreed.

Stone nodded. “It’s not every day we gain three new family members.”

Aubrey looked confused. “Three, sir? But Maya—”

“I wasn’t talking about Maya,” Stone said softly, looking up, not at Aubrey, but at James. “Merry Christmas, everyone.”

“Merry Christmas, sir,” James said, blinking rapidly so no one would see the tears.

Meow,” Maya agreed, cuddling up with her kittens.

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