Identity Crisis

by Boondocker

Judge's Note: I was grinning like an idiot as I read this story. The author has so nicely captured the essence of Winterhawk, his mannerisms, his way of speaking and of handling situations, his sense of humor was a true joy to read. I also quite liked the way the author managed to work it so 'Hawk didn't have his full powers at his disposal. A first-rate (and first-place) story!

The worst thing about being ill, Alastair Stone had decided, was the way it sapped your energy. Or perhaps it was the way it made magic so bloody difficult to work. Or was it the relentlessly dripping nose? Regardless of which facet of his flu was most detrimental, their combined effects were making him miserable. And last night’s events interrupting his sleep didn’t help at all. All in all, Stone simply didn’t feel himself. Which is rather unfortunate, he mused grumpily, as I was quite comfortable in that role.

Sighing heavily for what must have been the hundredth time since he became sick, Stone tapped the remote that rested in his lap. His telecom was instantly alive, displaying myriad options. Making a half-hearted attempt to arrange himself presentably, Stone sat up straight in his high-backed chair and activated one of the presets on the phone.

There was a brief delay that tried his patience, but almost immediately the telecom made the connection. Instead of an image of the receiving party, however, he was greeted with the standard British Telecom splash screen, and a mellow, female voice attempting to coerce him into leaving a message.

“Yes, yes, for god’s sake get on with it,” Stone growled miserably. As soon as the automated message was finished, Stone started in with his own. “Doctor Wells, this is Alistair Stone. I was just, er, wondering how you’ve been faring...I haven’t seen you since you left the University back in 2058.” To his exasperation, he was forced to pause as he cleared his throat as unobtrusively as possible. “P’raps you’d give me a ring back. Cheers.” Jabbing the disconnect button on the remote, Stone sniffled heavily and cursed the evasive nature of his message. But as he blew his nose he reassured himself that it was probably the most tactful way to approach the situation. After all, he thought, one can’t very well phone up a colleague and say, “Hello there old chap...saw your ghost the other night and wondered if you were dead, by any chance. Terribly sorry if that’s the case, give my regrets to the family.”

Not that Wells had any family... no, the old curmudgeon kept to himself, and most of his colleagues preferred him at that self-imposed distance. He’d probably ring back just to have the pleasure of hanging up on his junior contemporary. Well, thought Stone, good for him if he does. He can do whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t wake me up tonight.

Unfortunately, he feared that last night’s visiting spectre meant Doctor Wells wouldn’t be receiving any more calls in this lifetime.

* * *

Alastair Stone found himself inexplicably sitting up in his rumpled bed, the makings of an astral barrier ready in his mind. Though the window was locked and curtained, the room had acquired a dreadful chill and Stone reflexively drew the blankets up around him as he scanned his darkened bedroom, seeing nothing even as his cybereyes automatically switched spectrums to counter the blackness.

Nothing there... but Stone knew why; after all, it felt exactly as it had last night. He steeled himself and closed his eyes. He would shift his perceptions to the astral plane, then calmly interrogate the apparition that had undoubtedly returned to his chambers. He would do that in just a moment, after his heart rate had regulated itself. After he stopped sweating.

His fear denied, if not truly unabated, Stone snapped his mental ‘eyes’ open and let out an involuntary shout. The image of Doctor Wells clawing at the gaping wound in his neck was horrific enough, but the look in the appatition’s eyes... it was the sheer terror of a man whose brain has been branded with his killer’s image, who can’t force it from his gaze. As the ghost twisted and jerked in agony above his bed, Stone nimbly slipped off the side of the mattress, pulling sheets and blanket off in his haste.

“Doctor...” Stone found his voice and started over. “Doctor Wells, is that you?” He’d dealt with ghosts before in his shadowrunning work as Winterhawk and was becoming surer and surer that that was what he saw now. Stray thoughts flitted through his mind: how had the spirit gotten past the manor’s wards, was it a danger to him, where were his watcher spirits... he forced the questions away and concentrated on the spirit in front of him, ignoring also the increased frigidness of the air.

“What happened? Doctor, what...” The ghost ignored him, reproducing its grisly pantomine. Stone felt suddenly angry. His throat was raw and irritated, his head felt like someone had filled it with carbonated syrup, and he was standing in his nightclothes talking to the repetitive, non-responsive phantom of a man who evidently was as irksome in death as he had been in life.

“Fine.” He trudged over to his desk to retrieve a tissue, keeping a wary eye on Wells’ shade as he moved. “You’ve gotten your point across. Go away.”

Miraculously, it did.

Stone grimaced in disbelief and blew his nose. He gathered his robe and prepared to receive Aubrey in the hallway; the old caretaker would undoubtedly be on his way to determine whether or not Alastair was all right. Well, Stone thought, I’m not. Bloody hell, coming home is supposed to be relaxing! Now I’m sick and bedeviled by ghosts. I’ll be lucky to get back to Seattle at all at this rate.

Immediately Stone felt ashamed. He was no friend of mine, but he deserved better than having his throat cut. Poor bugger. I’ll see if I can’t find out what happened to him tomorrow.

* * *

Doctor Douglas Wells’s two-level brownstone was the only one remaining on the street, and testified to the more-than-decent living the doctor had made while he taught at London University. All the buildings around him had been torn down and rebuilt, or gutted in fires, or transformed into parking lots and mini-malls. Wells’s reluctance to sell his own property at a huge profit was probably, Stone mused, more because he wanted to stick it to the developers than out of any desire to preserve London’s heritage.

Stone chided himself for being so uncharitable to the dead, and stepped through the small garden to the front door, wondering who’d receive him, indeed if anyone had yet discovered the body. He mentally rehearsed a couple of opening lines that might serve to explain his presence without disturbing whoever answered with stories of ghosts, and knocked hard on the door.

Two minutes later he knocked again, harder. Sighing, he wiped his nose on his handkerchief and deliberated how to proceed. If in fact no-one had yet found the body (and he was certain there was a corpse to be found), then he’d have to gain entry. And what would the police have to say to that? Sod the police. I’m going inside.

The door opened freely, and Stone entered as silently as possible, his shadowrunning instincts quietly slipping to the forefront. Winterhawk looked around, taking in the undisturbed nature of the entryway, the presence of antique furniture and delicate vases abolishing the idea that Wells might have interrupted a robbery.

“Hello? Would anyone be there?” ‘Hawk advanced through the hallway, looking into first a austere dining room, then an immaculate sitting room. He moved past the stairs toward the kitchen, intending to inspect the bottom floor before he moved upstairs. His instincts were positively screaming now, a feeling of anxious foreboding racing back and forth in his mind. There was little sense in being this cautious; after all, if Wells had been attacked, there was no reason to think his attacker would linger for two days. Still, ‘Hawk moved silently, passing an observant glance over the kitchen counter-top, noting the door that presumably led to the basement (he’d have to go down there as well, he mentally recorded). Finding nothing there, he turned and moved back into the hallway, almost walking straight into Doctor Wells.

“Bloody—Doctor, I’m surprised to--,” Stone started. He took in the Doctor’s drooping, lined skin and limp, grey hair, seeing in the old man’s features the same face he’d witnessed twice already in the astral plane. A sudden suspicion prompted him to alter his vision to take in the astral; doing so, he found nothing but the aura of an old human, vaguely fearful and extremely curious. Stone felt foolish.

“What are you doing here?” Well’s voice seemed roughened by age, but it was the same as Stone remembered from the time they’d worked as contemporaries at London University, coarse but commanding, a voice students might dread, but also heed.

“I feel quite silly, Doctor...I...I was under the impression you might be ill.” Stone couldn’t bring himself to say ‘dead;’ the whole idea appeared idiotic, as a mediocre student’s half-formed thesis might sag under more than casual scrutiny. Wells didn’t speak; indeed, he looked a bit vacant, as if thinking idly about what to do next. His wet eyes stared at Stone, demanding more.

“I’m...I do apologise, I’ve obviously invaded your privacy for no reason.” As he attempted to regain his composure by straightening his back and adjusting his coat, Stone’s mind worked furiously. I could have sworn it was a ghost I’d seen last night...if not that, it must be one hell of an illusion. Although I can’t fathom what purpose anyone would have in wanting to fool me, especially with regard to Wells. Better they alarm me by faking Aubrey’s spirit, or Terry’s... “Look, I’ll be going, if you don’t mind...again, I’d like to apologise, I feel a damned fool.” And for good reason. Next time, you’ll snoop astrally, you bloody wanker. “If you’ll excuse me.” With this last meaningless phrase, Stone slipped nimbly by the still oddly vacuous Wells, heading towards the door. As he reached it, Wells spoke again.

“Alastair Stone. Of Stone Manor.” Wells had a strange smile on his face, and Stone was struck by the incredible, almost surreal nature of Wells’s response to the situation. He should be raging, Stone thought, cursing young people everywhere or threatening to call the police department. Or perhaps even laughing it off, but something, for god’s sake! He’s acting like a man who doesn’t know where he is.

“Yes, of course, Alastair Stone. Look, I’ll p’raps talk to you later...again, I’m quite sorry...” Stone trailed off, embarrassed, and shut the door, leaving Wells to his empty, opulent house and emerging once again into the real world of rushing lorries and shrieking families. Shaking his head, he discovered that his sinuses felt one hundred percent better, and silently thanked whatever powers were listening for that one bright spot in an otherwise dismal day.

* * *

The rest of that day and most of the next were uneventful, to Stone’s great relief. His flu had redoubled its strength the night of his visit to Wells’s home and he’d slept all that afternoon until Aubrey gently shook him awake to receive a warm stew-like dish and steaming scones. Stone had gone straight to bed following tea, and as he’d expected, been woken again by the “ghost.” Doing his best to ignore his illness, Stone had scrutinised the apparition as if preparing to buy a Rembrandt, looking for any signs that could betray the forgery. All the while the spirit continued its charade, leering and blubbering in apparent agony. Stone remained unconvinced, and did his best to disregard its performance while he pored over its astral form. Eventually it disappeared, leaving Stone to collapse gratefully in his bed. The next morning, he remembered the previous night only as disconnected stream of events, his memory fogged by the flu.

Waking late in the afternoon after a nap, Stone was sitting down and trying to sort out the situation when the telecom rang. He grumpily connected the call, sitting back in his chair in surprise when he saw the caller.

“Harry! I thought you knew I was home for a bit.” Stone found himself feeling mildly perturbed at his fixer’s call. He normally liked to keep his two lives as separate as possible: Winterhawk was the shadowrunner, all keen instincts and honed reflexes, while Alastair Stone was the unorthodox professor, relaxed and blissfully (if purposefully) ignorant of the world’s seamier side. Much like a corporate worker forced to take work home, Stone didn’t much care for those times when the lines blurred.

“I know, ‘Hawk, and I hate to bother you.” Harry’s gruff voice didn’t sound very contrite, but ‘Hawk took the apology at face value; he knew from experience it was all he was going to get. “Look kid, I wouldn’t call you normally, and this is probably nothing anyway, but I just wanted to let you know you’ve been attracting some attention.”

‘Hawk sniffled absently. “What exactly do you mean?”

“Someone’s been poking around your financial records in a pretty big way...real estate, income, even your taxes. They haven’t found any of the accounts I made up for the money you make from your,” Harry grinned a decidedly wicked grin, “hobby, but it’s still pretty strange. Reminds me of that time that pair of con artists tried to bilk you.”

‘Hawk remembered that incident, and sat up a bit straighter, giving the telecom a concerned look. “You think this is something similar? Bloody hell, it doesn’t rain but it pours...”

“Sorry?” Harry gave Winterhawk an odd glance.

“Nothing to worry about, it’s just things have been a bit extraordinary for me lately. Look Harry, as much as I want to care about this, p’raps I can ask you to take care of it? I’ve got something I’m looking into here. Maybe you could keep an eye on affairs from your side of the ocean.”

“Hey, that’s all right, I’ve got someone monitoring you now.” Harry caught ‘Hawk’s raised eyebrow and laughed. “Don’t worry kid, I don’t have spy satellites tracking you or was a smart frame that picked this up in the first place. Oh, don’t pout, your privacy is secure. I just want to keep an eye on my investments is all. You’re worth keeping track of.” Harry leaned forward, filling the screen as he tapped his telecom’s keyboard. “I tell you what. I know a couple of guys in London. I can give you their LTG if you want. They can give you some muscle if you need it.”

‘Hawk shook his head distastefully but slowly, mindful of the effect sudden gestures had on his wellbeing. “No Harry, that’s not necessary. I don’t need to be minded like a toddler. Just make sure my accounts are safe and let me handle things here. You’re right, it’s probably nothing to worry about.”

“Huh.” Harry didn’t sound convinced. “Well, I’ll send the LTG anyway. You might have a change of heart.” Immediately, the telecom bleeped receipt of a small file and simultaneously displayed a short text message containing the promised LTG and two names. Winterhawk frowned at the screen facing him, but made no further complaint.

“Thanks, Harry. I’ll talk to you when I get back.”

“Yeah yeah. Get some sleep, ‘Hawk, you look like drek.” Harry disconnected the call before Winterhawk could retort.

Sighing heavily, ‘Hawk tried to organise his thoughts. There’s the ghost that’s not a ghost, there’s Wells acting bizarre, and now there’s someone peering into my finances. I’d bet this would all be easy to figure out if I wasn’t so damned miserable.

Lacking any instant revelations that would solve the case, Winterhawk decided to go back to Wells’s house, this time in a less intrusive state. Arranging himself comfortably in his chair, he let his mind drift free of his body, feeling a weight disappear as the physical symptoms of his flu retreated for the moment. ‘Lifting off’ into the brilliantly coloured astral plane always held some attraction for him, but now it was positively heartening as he zipped away towards Wells’s address, leaving his mucus-filled cavities behind.

The trip was short, and as uneventful as an astral jaunt through suburban and rural England can be. Moving more cautiously as he approached Wells’s home, he assessed the situation. Wells was no magician, so there really wasn’t any risk of astral security unless he’d contracted some outside party. And legally registered magical security firms were always required to be exclusively defensive, so he wasn’t worried about injury if something discovered him snooping. No, it was a more primitive feeling that kept him from rushing in, a foreboding that he quickly put down to paranoia.

Moving into the building, he went from the vibrancy of the astral plane outside into the comparative stillness of a lonely home. Sweeping slowly from unoccupied room to unoccupied room, ‘Hawk couldn’t help but feel a malaise sink over him. So this is what happens to old university professors. I doubt the picture’s any brighter for old shadowrunners.

Then he stumbled across Wells as the old man moved out of the washroom. Seeing the old man move down the hall, ‘Hawk watched him for a moment with the guilt that sometimes accompanied these bouts of voyeurism, then completed his tour of the top floor. Nothing here out of the ordinary. Guess it’s the basement or nothing. ‘Hawk left Wells to his affairs and dropped through the floor onto the main level, then further down into the basement.

Where ran into Wells unexpectedly for the third time in two days.

The body was hard to separate visually from the background, but the presence of astrally luminescent bacteria and insects made it easier. Wells lay slumped against the concrete foundation, head lolling in such a way that the decaying wound in his neck was appallingly visible. The corpse was undoubtedly Doctor Wells’s, and ‘Hawk felt his mind spinning. A short trip up to the bedroom located the mobile Doctor Wells, but no amount of scrutiny could prove to ‘Hawk that this man who sat at the room’s computer wasn’t the genuine article. If it weren’t for the ghost, I wouldn’t have a damned clue what was going on here, ‘Hawk thought. As it is, I’m not sure of much.

Further inspection did nothing to help, proving the corpse to be a corpse, and the man to be nothing more than an old man. Bothered and floundering for information, he stared intently at the computer screen the old man was working on, wishing desperately that he could make sense of its astrally blank screen. I just want one solid clue here...something to give a little meaning to this mess.

“Stone god, the acreage...looks a hell of a lot better than what I’ve got here. I think its time to trade up.” Stone was shocked into laughter by Wells’s soliloquy, amazed at his fortune in hearing the professor’s chance words. So he’s the inquiring mind Harry detected...I’ll be damned. It’s coming together now, isn’t it, Doctor Wells? ‘Hawk chuckled to himself as he sped back to his body. Will the real Doctor Wells please decompose in the basement?

Settling back into his body was like putting on wet clothes. Winterhawk reached for the tissues immediately to clear his nostrils, then activated the telecom. He was so buoyed up by his discovery at Wells’ home that he didn’t even get mad when Harry’s voicemail message came on.

“Harry, it’s Winterhawk. I think I’ve found our peeping Tom...check out Doctor Douglas Wells of South London.” ‘Hawk rattled off Doctor Wells’s LTG and address, then ended the call without bothering to explain the reason for his deduction. He’d worked with Harry long enough to know that the dishevelled American would trust him.

I think it’s time to visit the good Doctor again, he thought cheerily. He’s got more than a little explaining to do.

Putting on his overcoat, Winterhawk grabbed a handful of tissues and headed for the door.

* * *

He was just pulling into Wells’s street when he noticed the tail. Years of working with the enormously streetwise Ocelot had taught him more than a bit about following and being followed, lessons that repeatedly came in handy. Ocelot’s capabilities and habits sometimes bordered on the paranoid, but Winterhawk always felt safe when the samurai was striding warily by his side. He admitted to himself that he could probably use Ocelot’s expertise right now, as he kept a surreptitious eye on the ubiquitous British-made Sceptre that now drove lazily past the street’s entrance, disappearing from view.

Well, whoever it is stuffed it up by letting me see them. I’ll have to hope they’re just watching...I don’t think I could handle an assault in my condition. ‘Hawk had weighed the risks of going in unarmed against the risks that came with carrying a weapon while still at home, and decided that while Winterhawk could tote as many lethal instruments as he wanted, Alastair Stone had a good name, not to mention a good criminal record, to keep untarnished. Being home in England has its own disadvantages, he supposed. But I’ve got ways of evening the odds a touch without being too obvious.

Smiling to himself, ‘Hawk summoned the Earth elemental he’d had on retainer for quite some time, feeling its presence as it melted from the metaplanes into the astral. It was a taciturn, sullen being, and gave no indication that it wanted much to do with ‘Hawk, saying nothing. Protect me, ‘Hawk commanded. Trusting it to obey as myriad others had, he didn’t need to hear its assent. It was just as well; the spirit said nothing and gave no indication it had heard. Shrugging his shoulders, ‘Hawk brought the car to a halt along the roadside.

Wells’s house looked no different and Winterhawk quickly approached the door. Clearing his throat, he looked around furtively for the Sceptre but didn’t spot it. Wait, there it is, in that driveway. Damn. Muttering to himself, he rapped on the door, feeling a sickness and stress-induced headache coming on.

It opened almost immediately, and Wells appeared, or whoever was trying to dupe Stone into believing they were Wells. ‘Hawk gave the man a bright grin. “Doctor, I’m glad you’re home. I thought we could have another chat.”

Wells didn’t look impressed, indeed, he looked more like the Doctor Wells ‘Hawk remembered, which was disconcerting. He gave ‘Hawk an put upon glare, and brusquely motioned him inside. “You’ve got some explaining to do, I think. Sit down.” The old man waved toward a chair and huffed in annoyance when ‘Hawk didn’t move.

“No, I think I’d rather a tour, if it’s no too much bother. If there’s explaining to do, I hope to be the one on the receiving end.” ‘Hawk’s head began throbbing as he quickly scanned Wells’s frame for the tell-tale signs of hidden weaponry. He came up dry, and felt a little better about the imminent confrontation.

“You barge in here one day, and now you’re breaking my bollocks without so much as a how-do-you-do? I won’t stand for it. Get out.” Wells’s drew himself up to his full five-foot-three, and Winterhawk couldn’t help but grimace. He didn’t understand this situation yet, but he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to get some information out of this bloke, whoever he was.

“Dreadfully sorry.” ‘Hawk skipped past the man and headed for the kitchen. “I think I’ll be having that tour now. P’raps the basement would be a good place to—” He’d barely made it to the kitchen doorway before a rush of air and a smell of damp moss both waved over him, the scent preceding a high-pitched screech of animalistic rage. Heart accelerating like a hail pellet, ‘Hawk whipped around, crouching in a futile defensive maneuver.

What he saw made his jaw drop. His elemental’s bulky form, crumbling mud and green roots, was being ripped into by a silvery humanoid figure, a gangly, sharp-edged but blurry-featured creature that his eyes wanted to slide away from. Its fingers were elongated razors, lacing runnels into the spirit’s bulk, keeping it on the retreat. ‘Hawk cursed and gathered a spell in his mind, then nearly fell to the floor as his sinuses seemed to instantly pressurise. He opted for a much weaker enchantment and felt his head pulse as he channeled the energy into the creature.

It screamed again, high and strong, and gave ‘Hawk a look with an eyeless face that sent him scurrying back into the kitchen looking for the back door. My god, I don’t know what I expected, but I wasn’t ready for this! What is that thing?

Finding the way out, he wrestled it open, only to hear a loud, low groan even as he felt his connection to the elemental sever. ‘Hawk swore and flung himself through the door.

Or tried. He was jerked back by his collar, smashing to the floor in a daze of concussive lights. The creature stood over him and seemed to smile with its mouthless visage. It slowly pointed a long finger at him, its mercury skin swimming and flailing against the light of the room’s lamps. ‘Hawk gathered his will for a monster spell, sickness-impaired skull humming thick and loud. You won’t leave me buried in a basement to rot.

Then there was gunfire, and the creature jerked and fell through the open door. ‘Hawk gladly released the spell before realising he wasn’t out of the woods by a long shot. Glancing toward the now gaping front door, he saw two roughly dressed men charging toward him, pistols drawn.

“Stop right there!” Winterhawk attempted to make good his threat by pointing a suitably magical finger at the pair, but he doubted he could manage a spell after the knock that thing had given him. Hopefully the bluff would work.

It seemed to. Both men pulled up short, one skidding slightly in the mud splattered hallway, the other looking wistfully out the back door from which their target had fled.

The man who’d almost slipped, a shortish, dark-skinned, ork fellow dressed in jumper and driver’s cap, gave ‘Hawk an uneven grin. “You’ve no need to threaten us, sir. We’ve just saved your ‘ash. I’m Deacon.” He gave a nod to the other man, a similarly dressed human who looked like he’d been cultivating a five o’clock shadow for a few days now. “That’s Bull.”

‘Hawk, from his undignified position on the ground, made a gesture at Deacon’s gun. “Put it away.” Deacon. Bull. You bastard, Harry, you’ve hired a couple sitters for me anyway. God bless you.

Deacon complied, and treated ‘Hawk to a confused look. “You don’t seem too grateful. If you’d rather, we can be off.” He drew himself up and looked across at Bull. “Should we go, Bully-boy?”

The human shook his head. “I don’t know. ‘Ow do you feel about lettin’ our mate ‘arry down?” Both men turned sad eyes on Winterhawk, who groaned in disgust.

“God. You blokes have got my appreciation, there’s no denying that. P’raps you could watch me for a moment...I’m going to see about tracking that thing.” With that, ‘Hawk put his trust in Harry and sped out into the astral night, hoping to find his, and evidentally Doctor Wells’s, attacker before he got too far.

It was a useless hope, however. After searching for a good half-hour, ‘Hawk dejectedly returned, having found nothing but drivers and a scattering of pedestrians, none of whom betrayed any signs of being his quarry. He found Wells’s residence the target of police interest, and cursed himself for being so stupid as to charge off after such a commotion without even thinking of the attention such a display would bring. Thankfully, his body was elsewhere. It was a small matter to trace its whereabouts to the Spectre he’d seen before, now cruising slowly a couple of streets away.

Deacon and Bull sat comfortably in the front seats of the car as he came to sprawled across the back bench. Street lamps gave the car interior a strobing, dance-club look as they sped along. Bull craned his neck back from the passenger side to look at Winterhawk. “Off for an astral ‘oliday, were we? I’ve got a mate who can do that sort of thing. ‘e’s always poppin’ off without warnin’. Gets bloody tiresome, doesn’t it Deac?” Deacon nodded amiably, then grinned at ‘Hawk before returning his eyes to the road.

“We thought you’d be a right boring old bugger! ‘arry never said you were gone fishin’.” ‘Hawk rubbed his aching forehead and favoured the earthy ork with an inquiring gaze. “Ah, you’re not up on your Cockney. Gone fishin’: you’re a magician. Get it?”

‘Hawk scowled. “Certainly. Gentlemen, where are we headed?” ‘Hawk felt ungrateful, but the fact remained he was shaken and in no mood for banter. He made a concerted effort to collect his thoughts and sort out what had just happened.

“I’ve a flat by the Manley Shopping Centre. We can ‘ide out there while we ring ‘arry and let ‘im know what’s up.” ‘Hawk barely paid attention. This thing, whatever it is, killed Douglas Wells. For what? ‘Hawk recalled what he’d heard it say in Wells’s bedroom. Trade up? What the hell does that mean? And it likes Stone Manor for some was getting into my financial records...

“God!” Winterhawk sat straight up, and winced as his headache reminded him of its presence. He slapped at Deacon’s shoulder and the ork twisted his head around.

“What? You okay?”

“No. We’ve got to go home. Stone Manor,” ‘Hawk added, probably unnecessarily. “I think this thing is some sort of shapeshifter, and I think he’s trying to...I don’t know, replace me? I s’pose that sounds daft.” ‘Hawk sat back, thinking about Aubrey alone in the house. There were watchers around, but the ghost had somehow slipped past them and the wards and he doubted this creature would have much trouble with them anyway. God, Aubrey, please be home in bed, or having tea, or away doing some damn thing. It’s half-seven...where would he be?

“You want to go ‘ome, I guess that’s what we’ll do. Can’t argue with a bloody spell-worm, can we, Bully-boy?” Bully-boy enthusiastically announced his agreement and Deacon soon had the car’s new route programmed into the autopilot.

‘Hawk hardly paid attention to the route, already waiting for his phone to connect to Aubrey’s LTG. It rang, and rang, and rang. ‘Hawk strained uselessly against the seatbelt as he waited to hear Aubrey’s voice. The phone rang, and rang.

Suddenly a feeling hit him like lights going out, and he realized the watchers who he had on constant patrol were gone. Please, Aubrey, be home. Be safe out of the way.

The phone rang.

* * *

As Winterhawk stumbled out of the car, still reeling from the combination of fall and flu, Bull was already heading towards the manor grounds. As the human disappeared into the ever-darkening night, Deacon put a steadying arm under ‘Hawk’s own. ‘Hawk was too worried to object.

“Don’t worry, Doctor Stone. Bull’s an ace tracker. If ‘e’s on the grounds, Bull’ll find ‘im. And if ‘e’s in your ‘ouse, we’ll find ‘im too.” Deacon left ‘Hawk standing alone as they neared the door, and drew his pistol, a heavy, blockish affair the make of which ‘Hawk didn’t recognize. As ‘Hawk unlocked and opened the door, the scruffy ork took a professional two-handed stance to cover him.

It wasn’t necessary. The foyer stood empty and undisturbed. Winterhawk couldn’t help himself and stormed in, yelling at the top of his lungs, “AUBREY!” As he moved past doorways and alcoves, Deacon swept along behind in a graceful manner that ill-fit the shabby man.

‘Hawk stopped. “Deacon. I’m going to scout astrally. If something happens, give me a kick, I’ll feel it.” ‘Hawk dropped heavily to the floor and leaned against the wood-paneled wall. We’ll see who’s in my home.

“Doctor Stone, I’m not sure that’s such a wiz idea. Might be best to ‘ang on ‘til Bull gets back.” Deacon looked uncomfortable as he glanced back and forth down the long hallway. Then his gaze hardened and he whipped his gun up, aiming at something ‘Hawk could barely hear.

It was Aubrey. The caretaker was moving slowly down the hallway from the direction of ‘Hawk’s quarters, carrying the heavy doorstop from the library, a bronze nymph curled in a ball. It looked an odd weapon in the old man’s hands.

“Aubrey!” ‘Hawk scrambled to his feet and snapped at Deacon, “Put that down!” He turned back to the still slow moving Aubrey, who was now only ten or so feet away, and leaning heavily against the wall. “Aubrey, are you all right?”

The caretaker didn’t answer. ‘Hawk took in his dishevelled hair and oddly hanging clothes and his heart sank. “You’re hurt...”

“Bull! What did you find?” ‘Hawk looked down the opposite end of the hallway and saw Deacon’s companion striding down toward the trio. He felt a sudden fear in his gut and wondered where the ruffian had been. He looked fine, but the grounds were so big that he couldn’t possibly have searched all over...

“There’s nothin’ out of place outside, and no forced windows that I can see. But you’ve got more footprints then ours in your driveway, Doctor, and leading up the path. I only did a quick check round, but I’m thinkin’ if ‘e’s ‘ere, ‘e came in through the front door.” He then stopped and looked at Aubrey, bringing his pistol into both hands. “'Oo’s this then?”

“My caretaker. He’s hurt.” ‘Hawk turned his attention to Aubrey, but kept a wary eye on Bull. “What happened?”

Aubrey remained silent and abruptly slumped to the floor. ‘Hawk let out a cry, and moved toward his friend. Then something caught his eye, and he stopped suddenly. Aubrey wasn’t quite...right. He’d been wearing slippers when he emerged into the hallway, and now he seemed to be barefoot...

Deacon moved past ‘Hawk as he hesitated, and knelt at Aubrey’s side. “I’ll get ‘im up—” As Deacon reached out, Aubrey’s features seemed to jitter and slide...

“GET BACK!” ‘Hawk yelled, grabbing at magical energies even as his head pounded with new force. Deacon reflexively tried to lurch up and away from the old man, but was off balance and confused. Aubrey’s features blurred as his hand lashed out and caught the ork in the face, spraying blood across the thick carpet.

Deacon made a strange barking noise and keeled over onto the floor, hands slapped to his mangled face. ‘Hawk stole a quick glance at Bull and found him standing still, mouth-gaping in shock, caught totally by surprise. ‘Hawk looked back at the creature as it stood, watching as Aubrey’s characteristics fell from it like oil. It laughed, a low, human sound that froze ‘Hawk’s heart.

Then it leaped.

‘Hawk was ready. Though it brought fresh pain to his head, he quickly cast a low-powered invisibility spell as he dove to the side. He hit the ground and rolled as the creature’s claws whisked the air beside him. Then Bull’s gun coughed twice, sending chunks of wood spinning from the wall. ‘Hawk reflexively kept rolling, and sat up woozily to see the creature, obviously bleeding heavily, whip the human hard into the panelling, Bull’s head bouncing unnaturally. Bull fell violently to his knees and toppled onto his back, his gun thudding onto the floor; the creature then turned and lurched toward Winterhawk, laughing as it came. ‘Hawk raised a hand and began to chant.

The strange silvery doppleganger stopped and pointed at ‘Hawk with a long, blade-like finger. “All that’s yours,” it panted, “will be mine!” Then it laughed mercilessly and advanced, one arm hanging bleeding by its side, limping as it came from a wounded thigh.

‘Hawk finished his recitation and gathered the spell’s energies. The creature seemed to glimpse its peril and dashed forward with a scream, but ‘Hawk waited no further. Howling, he released the spell and watched as the shapechanger was brutally rent by the powerbolt. It smashed to the floor in agony just as ‘Hawk fell over himself, blood gushing from his nose and ears. As he hit, ‘Hawk saw Doctor Wells standing over the doppleganger’s body. The ghost stared coldly down, no hint of a wound on its neck. Chest squeezing inexorably, ‘Hawk’s vision faded.

* * *

‘Hawk came to in a hospital bed, Aubrey looking down at him with brimming eyes. The old caretaker grasped his friend’s hand, head shaking slowly as the muted sounds of a busy medical centre buzzed in the background.

“You certainly came rather close that time, sir. I do hope you won’t make that a habit.” Aubrey blinked back his tears and regained his composure, leaving ‘Hawk to respond.

‘Hawk could barely move, but he chuckled softly. “Bloody hell, Aubrey, I was sure that thing had murdered you. Thank God.” He struggled to sit up, feeling his chest and head complain loudly at the effort.

“It tried, sir. It barged in when I answered the door and made to decapitate me,” Aubrey laughed as if he were discussing the hijinxs of an errant schoolboy, “but thankfully Maya had deigned to keep me company that night, and performed some odd miracle that distracted the brute.” The caretaker smiled. “We made our escape and bravely defended the wine cellar from within. If you can truly talk to that cat, Alastair, you’ll have to give her my warmest thanks. As it is, I’ll be at her beck and call for years.”

‘Hawk grinned weakly. “Sounds lke she deserves it.”

Aubrey chuckled again. “She does.”

“And those other blokes...Lord, I don’t know their real names...”

“Not to worry, sir. They’re alive, though quite the worse for wear.” Aubrey frowned. “Rough types like that can take a beating, I suppose.” He brightened up. “And as for that monster, it’s quite dead. The police have kindly spirited its body away.”

‘Hawk sighed and let his head sink back into the pillow. “I feel terrible, Aubrey. This damned flu won’t go away, and now I’m bruised and battered to boot. I think you should pull the plug.”

Aubrey clicked his tongue and stood. “Nonsense, sir. You’ll be back and moping about the manor in no time. If it makes you feel better, the hospital has told me the on-call magician will be dropping by. You’ll soon be feeling yourself again.”

Winterhawk grimaced and closed his eyes. “That would be quite pleasant indeed.”

(c) 2000 Boondocker. Used with permission.