by MJ Mink
The smell is acrid; I choke on it, swallowing smoke deep into my lungs. I wave my arms to part the dark clouds. I must find my son. I can barely sense him through the chaos of thoughts and fear. He is close, but I cannot see him, cannot find him, cannot save him--
PETER! I roar, but he does not answer. I search farther into the bowels of the temple, fending off attackers, brutally hurling them aside. Get out of my way! I must find my son! I must find Peter!
And then...I see him! He is crumpled to the floor, surrounded by darkness and bright flames, but his head raises when he senses my presence. Peter! I thrust the clouds away to see him better. Father! he cries. My mind races as I plan how I will climb through the broken wall and lift him into my arms, but there is a loud crack and an explosive whoosh of heat and wind, and the ceiling hurls toward us, it will crush my Peter's little skull, it will kill me and then who will know where Peter is, who will rescue my child?
Who will rescue Peter? Peter! Peter!
I regain consciousness. There is no temple, no lingering stench of smoke. My robes are gone. There are white clouds above me, floating in a sky of azure. My face is wet.
I sit up. I wipe the heels of my hands across my cheeks. Through the Fifteen Years, I have been haunted, waking and sleeping, by the scars of that night, yet I would not trade the memory of my last sight of Peter for all the inner peace that I might achieve. I push open the bedroll and rise. Nude, I walk to the river that I had camped beside last night. I wash myself in its icy waters, wishing I could cleanse my soul as easily as I do my body.
Afterward, I shoulder my belongings and begin my journey again. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But I ask myself: I have journeyed many miles and taken many steps; why have I not found my true journey? I have no purpose, no destination. I have no family, no son to teach and watch as he grows. This city that rises in the distance--perhaps it truly is the hiding place of the young Heir to the Imperial throne. Perhaps it is not. If it is, I will die in the protection of him, and thus redeem the honor of my ancestor. If it is not...then I will walk again tomorrow, for dying for the Heir is the only destination I can see.
But...ah, if this is the city where he lives! With our ancestor's honor redeemed, will Peter's soul finally be at rest? He is not quiet now; he has not been quiet over the Fifteen Years. After the Fire, I did not realize his body had been crushed. I was so certain that my son lived; I could still feel him in the depths of my being. Yet it was apparently an illusion, nothing more, for days later, when I regained consciousness in the abandoned house where Ping Hai sheltered me, he told me he brought out my son's body himself...and buried him. With those words, I acknowledged the truth and grieved. They had tried to save Peter, but had been too late.
As I had been too late. If I had been a few seconds quicker, if I had been alert instead of deep in meditation, if I had not stopped to fight Dao-- But I did those things, I made those choices, and so I did not save my son. He must be very angry with me; that is why his essence swirls around me, growing stronger every day. It is rage, betrayal, disappointment. Somehow I must give peace to his soul. I must redeem the honor of our ancestor...and the honor of myself and my son.
And so I journey on until the sounds of traffic and horns assault my ears, and the smells of a city fill my nostrils. So many people, so many lives, so many destinies.
Perhaps I will find my destiny here. Perhaps I will finally discover the lesson I was meant to learn when my life was spared from the Fire.
* * *
Paul's looking at me funny. That's nothing new; it's been happening ever since I met him in the orphanage. From time to time, I've glanced up when he wasn't expecting it, and there would be that look, like I'm some strange insect he captured and put under glass. He can't figure out what I am or what the hell to do with me.
Sometimes I feel that way myself. I don't know who I am or what I'm supposed to do with my life. My father would say that I haven't found my path. I thought it was to be a cop. I mean, when I was a kid sneaking off to watch Starsky and Hutch do their thing, it seemed like an exciting, noble career--help people, kick ass, and bust bad guys. I guess I didn't watch enough episodes. Now that I'm a cop, doing something that I thought would make my father proud--wherever he is--I've found there's a lot more to it, a lot of ugliness. People who need help and don't get it, people who refuse help, people who would rather die than ask for help. People who want to kill me for drugs or status or just for the hell of it. People who hurt each other, people who hurt kids.
I hate it.
But I can't stop. I've made a commitment, so it's about honor. My father would say that a man's honor is all he has. And I don't really want to stop. I love the sheer adrenaline that kicks in when I catch a creep, when I lay him out or blow him away. I love using my gun. There are moments--that shame me later, if I let myself think about them--when all the blood surges in my veins and I'm nearly euphoric as I blast holes in killers and pushers and the rest of the scum.
My father would be disappointed in me.
Christ! I shake my head and gulp my beer. What the hell is wrong with me? The last couple days, I haven't been able to get my father out of my mind. I try not to turn around and look over my shoulder. I've been doing that too often lately. It's this feeling. If I didn't know better--
But I do. I've got to quit this fuckin' dreaming shit. I am what I am, my life is what it is. It's not a bad life. I'm good at what I do.
Unfortunately, what I do best is killing people. I close my eyes. Pop....
In the back of my mind, I hear words that I'll never hear again: Never call me that!
My eyes drift toward the stage as I wait for Tyler to show and begin her set. She's still pissed at me and hates that I come here and watch her, but I don't care. Maybe we'll get married. She doesn't love me, and I don't love her, but that doesn't seem to matter. The sex is good. I don't believe in anything more. Love is...love is crap.
I look at the door.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Frank Strenlich demands.
"Nothin'." Just like there's nothing behind me. I turn back to the table and drain the last of the beer. I wave to the bartender for another.
"Something is," Paul Blaisdell disagrees quietly.
I remain silent. What can I say that won't make me sound crazier than they already think I am? Maybe that's the answer. Maybe I really am crazy, gone off the deep end, a few cards short of a deck. Why else would I still be having nightmares about the fire? Why else would I keep looking around, hoping for a quick glimpse of saffron robes or a shiny head or a long bamboo flute? My father has been dead for fifteen years.
But God help me, I can't let him go.
"What's wrong, Peter?" Paul persists.
"Nothin'." But I can't stop myself from looking toward the entrance again.
"Are you expecting someone?"
"Tyler finally warming up?" Strenlich jokes.
I shake my head. "Nah. She's still mad. No, I...." My words drift off as I try to peer beyond the young couple who are entering the door. There's a man behind them--
Jesus! I've got to stop this!
"All this stimulating conversation makes me thirsty," Strenlich declares, rising. "Anybody else want another beer?"
I hand him a ten. "Get a pitcher." I plan to stay here until I can drown the image of my father. But when Strenlich leaves, my foster father starts in again.
"What's going on, Peter?" he demands, scowling.
I bite my lip, hesitating.
"Go ahead. You can tell me anything."
"I...." I lean forward, wondering if I should share this secret. Maybe if I say it aloud, it will sound so ridiculous that I'll forget it. But I don't know if I want to forget. "I can't stop-- Ah, you're not going to like it."
"Just say it, kid."
I stare at nothing, raising one hand as if I can capture the illusion. "I can't stop thinking about my father," I admit in a low voice.
"Your father?" Paul repeats neutrally. "Peter, I can count the number of times you've talked about him. What's going on? What are you thinking?"
I glance at the door, then silently curse myself. "I keep...looking for him. He feels...near. Like if I turned around really quick, I might see him." I grab my glass, wondering where my refill is. I feel Paul's eyes on me.
"How long have you felt this way?"
"I don't...." I shrug. "Since this Tan business started." I haven't met the man yet, but already I hate him. If I get the chance, I'll blow him away in the name of all the people he's hurt.
"You won't be working Chinatown," Paul decides. "I'm pulling you off the case as of now."
"No!" Unnamed alarm makes me shake my head fiercely. "I want to work Chinatown, I like Chinatown-- I like the people. I want to help them. It's just...."
"I don't know. It's just that...my father would've...."
"Your father?" Strenlich returns with the pitcher. "The real one? What about him? He died when you were a kid, right?"
"Yeah. But...I feel like he's near," I repeat. "I know he's dead, but he feels close."
Frank Strenlich looks at Blaisdell and grimaces. "So, what do you think that means, Caine?"
I fill my glass and stare in the beer. It's dark and golden, and in its depths, I see a ghost, the one ghost that has never released me. "I think," I whisper to myself, "it means I'm going to die soon. And he's waiting to help me across."
That's got to be the reason for these feelings; there's nothing else they could mean. I'm not surprised to discover that the nearness of death doesn't frighten me. Instead, I feel relief. I can finally rest. I'm certain that when I close my eyes for the final time, I'll see a bridge and my father standing on the other side, holding open his arms. All I have to do is cross that bridge--
"You're not going to die," Paul says automatically, as if he has some knowledge that no one else on earth has.
"We're all going to die," I murmur. "That's not what scares me."
"Then what the hell does scare you?" Strenlich asks with open fascination.
"That I'll die and he won't be there." It's my worst nightmare. "I've waited so long.... He has to be there."
"Jesus Christ, Peter," Paul Blaisdell mutters.
I look at him, distant and composed. I know he disapproves, but I can't feel his disapproval. Right this second, I can't feel anything.
"You're crazy." Strenlich clears his throat. "You believe in some kind of afterlife? The only afterlife I know about is the after-work afterlife."
"The afterlife I believe in is that he'll be waiting for me when I die," I say softly. Suddenly I have a lot to say. "He's very near. I can feel him. He's waiting for me. Did I ever tell you that he could walk through walls and read minds? And wipe the floor with any...almost any enemy. He could do everything except stay alive." My lashes drop to shield the sudden mist that rises in my eyes. "He was almost a god. And he was teaching me."
"To do what?" Paul asks, his voice strained. "Be a god?"
"No, I wasn't good enough. But to be better. Stronger." I stare into the beer again, struggling with my thoughts. "I still miss him so much. Maybe that's why I think he's near."
Maybe that's the only reason. Maybe it's not my father's...soul...that I feel. Maybe he's not here, hovering around like some kind of angel. Maybe he's not watching me. Maybe he doesn't know anything about my life and what I've become. I slump lower in the chair. "Fifteen years," I whisper. "Next week, it will be fifteen years since he...died."
"Well, no wonder," Paul says awkwardly.
"Yeah, that's it," Strenlich agrees readily. "Every year I get depressed on the anniversary of my mother's death."
"That must be the reason," I reluctantly concede. "But...I really feel like.... I guess I'm a little drunk," I add in a louder tone, suddenly realizing how odd I must sound. I don't look at either of them as I swallow one mouthful of beer, then another.
"I think you've had enough beer," Strenlich declares flatly. "You gotta work tomorrow, and you're either drunk or crazy--which is it?"
I laugh shortly and rub one hand over my face. "Depends on who you're asking. Tyler says crazy. I say...." I force a smile. "Drunk, of course! I'll be fine tomorrow. Even I'm not this nuts unless I'm drunk, right?"
They both look at me and say nothing.
"Yeah. Fine. I'll be my old self by tomorrow." I toss the empty glass in the air. It somersaults a few times, and I easily catch it in my left hand. "Alcohol doesn't impair my reflexes," I boast, shoving aside the awareness that my talent is Shaolin-trained. "Let's see you guys try it. Ten bucks says you can't do it, Paul."
Fortunately, the music begins and Tyler slithers onto the stage. We're all distracted by her...though I'm not as distracted as I pretend to be.
Dad, Dad, I whisper into the vast, empty temple in my mind.
Where are you?
* * *
I am blinded by smoke; deep in my heart, I am terrified by the sight of flames. They leap, obscuring my vision, sending me back through the Fifteen Years. Peter! I call again and again. I wish to fall to the ground and weep, but as I lean against the wall, I am jolted into--
--awareness. This is not our temple, nor is it a dream. I quickly move forward, searching for the old apothecary. His small body is curled on the floor, surrounded by flames. In a moment it will be too late, so I do not hesitate. Fifteen Years ago I hesitated as I searched for the best way to save my son. But not tonight. Never again. Tonight I walk through the flames and scoop up the frail figure--finding, to my surprise, that the old man's form is as hard as steel. Though his years are many, he has lost none of his Shaolin strength.
With the apothecary in my arms, I hurry from his ruined home. The stairs are blocked by flames, so I turn down the smoke-filled corridor. Time catches me here, again, trying to thrust me backward, but I will not allow it. This is not our temple, I remind myself. Nor is it a dream.
I stagger down the stairs and into the alley alongside the building. I see people running toward us, and men in blue shirts relieve me of my burden. I walk a few steps, trying to reach the street and the people who stand there. Though smoke fills my lungs and my strength is nearly exhausted, something drives me, something urges me to walk on. Something important is there, someone....
The shouts, darkness, bright lights, and cascading water swirl around my head in a cosmic dance. My knees give way and I know no more.
I wake, coughing, deeply inhaling the goodness of air. I open my eyes. Fluorescent lights pass overhead. Something clear and hard covers my nose and mouth. I groggily make the connections. Hospital.
Feebly, I push the mask aside. "The...the old apothecary," I whisper, stunned by the weakness of my voice, "I must...see him."
"He's all right," a woman's voice says.
My movement comes to a stop.
"One, two, three," another voice says crisply, and I feel myself sliding and coming to another stop.
"You'll be just fine," a third voice tells me.
I close my eyes, making a brief internal examination. "Yes, I will." I struggle to sit up. "The apothecary...."
"He's fine. He's next door, and they're taking good care of him. I understand you pulled him from the fire. You're a hero."
A hero. It is the last thing that I am. I turn my head to look at the speaker. It is a young man with sandy hair and glasses, dressed in a plain blue tunic. "I am a man."
"You're who?" He glances at a clipboard that is being held by a woman who also wears blue. "Mr. Showlin? Is that right?"
I close my eyes again, too weary to correct him. He is Shaolin, I can hear people in the crowd repeating. Shaolin.
A Shaolin priest brings good luck to a neighborhood.
That does not seem to be the case.
In a burst of strength, I sit up, startling the young doctor. "I must see the apothecary," I croak. I slide my legs off the examination table and stand, clutching the cold steel as I unexpectedly sway.
"Sir--" a woman begins to protest, but the sandy-haired doctor cuts her off.
"He's not going to settle down until he gets his way, are you, sir?" He offers his arm, and I gratefully lean on it.
We walk a few feet to the next cubicle. When the drape is pushed aside, I see the old Shaolin. I free myself from the doctor and bend over the ancient one. "Master?"
His head turns toward my voice. "Ah.... You have...stayed."
"Yes. But now I must leave."
"No!" His eyes fly open. "You cannot."
I shrug. I have no reason to stay. I have no reason to go, except...I feel so much pain. For whatever reason, this city has roused Peter's ghost to such an extent that I am barely aware of my surroundings.
Fingers tighten on my sleeve, and I look at the apothecary through eyes that are foggy with smoke and tears. "You cannot leave!" He tries to speak further, but chokes. I lean closer, so his whispered words brush my ear.
"He is here."
"That's enough," the doctor interrupts. "Both of you need rest. You're being admitted for observation. You can talk tomorrow."
I allow myself to be led away, my mind in turmoil. He. Could it be...the heir to the throne? Does the old one know of my vow to regain the honor of my family?
He is here.
If it is true, then my place is also here. Exhausted, I close my eyes as the medical people tend my body.
I will protect the Heir. I will die protecting him. Our honor will be redeemed. My son will finally be at peace.
As will I.
* * *
I dress in my best suit, partly to impress Tan, partly to...well, appear respectful when I visit the Shaolin priest.
My hands are clammy and my heart is pounding as I hesitate outside the door to his hospital room. It's not like there are thousands of Shaolin priests in the United States, so it's not inconceivable that he might have known my father. Maybe it's just pipe dreams, but I can't help hoping that he'll be able to tell me something about Kwai Chang Caine. I never got to know my father as a man; all I have is a child's perspective, and that's not enough, not anymore. I need to know everything about him. I need to make him real in my mind so he'll always be with me, so I don't wake up one morning and find that my memories of him are gone.
Right this second, there's no chance of that. Right now, my mind is swamped with memories, with sights and sounds of the temple, with my father's gentle voice. It's so overwhelming, it's almost as if--
No! I swore I'd stop thinking this way.
With a deep breath, I push the door open. I can see the shape of a man lying under the sheet, but I don't raise my eyes to look farther. I'm afraid to see his face--and I'm afraid to ask myself why. The door swings silently closed behind me, and I curl my hands around the footboard of the bed. My throat constricts and there's a tight knot in my chest. Deliberately, I unclench my fingers and make them rest lightly on the wood.
Please...oh please please please....
I lift my gaze, and I can barely see. My vision is dimmed with tears that I try to hold onto. I don't want them running down my face when I look at the priest, the man, the--
Like a cop, I inventory it. Lightly tanned skin, eyes closed, asleep, though small, involuntary jerks of the head tell me he's dreaming. I'm a cop, trained to identify and label. I'm a cop, I can handle anything. Anything. I'm a cop.
I'm a son.
The room spins and I sway, clinging again to the bed. I've forgotten to breathe, so I make myself inhale.
He says my name.
* * *
Heaviness fills my mind like clouds of dense smoke. I struggle to push it aside, knowing that I must wake. I force my eyes to open, though my body remains sluggish. Slowly, I turn my head toward the window. The sky is still light, but the sun no longer shines on the brick building across the way. It is late afternoon, then.
I remain still, fighting the effects of the drugs that were given to me without my consent. Modern medicine relies heavily on such remedies, and I suppose the people who treated me felt such potions were necessary. I do not agree, but I cannot regret the joyous dream that the drugs gave me. I close my eyes again, reluctant to relinquish the images that are impressed on my brain: a tall young man, with dark hair and Peter's inquisitive gaze. He seems so real that I reach up my hand to touch him. My eyes open and my hand falls. No one is here.
I have dreamed of my son many, many times during the Fifteen Years, but never as a grown man. In my dreams, he has always been a child. I have rescued him many times; I have failed and watched him die over and over. I have never had a dream in which he had the curly hair of his toddler days. I have never dreamed of his anger or his tears or of wild joy beating in my heart like the wings of a captive dove.
I push myself into a sitting position and cautiously swing my legs over the side of the bed. It is a short distance to the bathroom, but it seems very far when I finally put my feet on the cold tiles and try to move. With the assistance of the bedrail and the walls, eventually I manage to reach my goal, then slowly I return to the bed. I sit on the edge and look at the small table beside me. On it are a plastic cup, a plastic pitcher, and a folded sheet of white paper. I take the paper and open it. It has two phone numbers and it is signed: Peter.
I stare at the paper for a long time. I trace the handwriting with my fingertips. Peter. I look upward, searching for answers in the limitless sky, but find only a tiled ceiling with tiny holes sprinkled across its surface. Peter.
I pick up the telephone and dial the first number. It rings many times, then a man says, I'm not answering the phone right now, so leave a message. There is a beep. I wait, but no one else speaks, so I hang up. I dial the other number. It rings twice, then another man says, "Hundred-first precinct, Broderick." I hang up.
I stare at the paper for awhile longer. I am afraid to think that the young man I saw was real, not a dream. I am afraid to believe that he is my son. That Peter is alive. I am happy, but....
I squeeze my eyes closed. I have known so much loss. I do not wish to face any more pain. Yet...if Peter is alive, if we are allowed to be together again in this life...I must take that risk.
But I do not know if I have such courage any longer. I am not the man of strength I was at the temple. I am the man who was not able to save his child.
Yet my child is given back to me.
I realize I have crumpled the paper against my chest. I smooth it out. I must keep it safe. I look across the room to the closet. I stand and begin another journey. My legs are slightly steadier this time. I find my pouch and place the paper into it. Then I hesitate. I bring the pouch back to the bed. I remove the note and carefully tear it in half. I find a pencil in the table drawer and copy the numbers onto the blank bottom portion of the paper. I take that paper back to the closet and slip it into the pocket of my jacket. I return to the bed, tired already, and lie down. I replace Peter's numbers in my pouch and clutch it against me. I do not wish to lose Peter again. I must guard these precious numbers until I see him, until I find his home, until I am certain that he is real.
I know I am going to fall asleep, so I pull the sheet over the pouch and turn until I lie across it. I close my eyes and smile. I am...happy.
I do not know what to do with this heart of mine, so long slumbering, numbed by pain. Now it rages and rejoices, it commands me to stay, to go, to act, to...lay claim to my child.
I stand and walk to the window, staring at the busy street below. This is my second time in the hospital in so many days, but this time I am not the patient. It is my son who lies in the bed, finally sleeping after a restless night. The bitter irony does not escape me that the evil Master Dao, the one who caused our separation, has also been the cause of our reunion. I try to meditate upon all that has happened during these last days, but my mind refuses to be disciplined. My eyes keep watching my Peter, my little boy fully grown, as he lies still, as pale as the white sheets that surround him. His wound is bad, though not as bad as it appeared when he slumped, bleeding, in front of a frantic father.
I've had worse, Peter said then, and my heart reacts as I remember those words, shrinking in terror, running from knowledge that I have yet to acquire. I missed the Fifteen Years of my son's life; I wish to know every moment, yet I wish to know none of it. Did he suffer such agonies as I did? I pray he did not, yet...I have heard the anger in his voice and have seen my pain mirrored in his beautiful eyes. I was not here to protect him. I close my eyes and consider the number of times I passed by this city, reluctant to enter, yet wishing to be near it.
If only I had come sooner....
The door to the room swings open. A man enters. He is bulky and dressed in a rumpled suit. His gait is awkward, but I sense a sort of power around him. I think he is a dangerous man...but not dangerous to my Peter. I draw back into the shadows and watch.
He sits in the chair where I have been sitting since last night. He looks over his shoulder in my direction, but he does not see me. I study his face. He appears weary and old. I know that I appear that way also, and I wonder if his path has been as difficult as mine.
Peter stirs, his head turning on the pillow. I smile tenderly, distracted for a moment from the stranger. My son's thick lashes flutter upward. He has Laura's eyes.
Peter gives the man a drowsy smile. "Hi," he whispers hoarsely.
"Hi, sleepyhead," the man answers. "How do you feel?"
"Awright." The lids lower, then fly open. "Did you see him?"
The man leans forward. "Can you identify the man who shot you?"
Ah. The stranger is a police officer. I wonder if this is the policeman Peter spoke of, the one who took my son into his home.
"Wha'? No...no...him. My father. Did you see him?"
The man frowns. "There's no one here but me--Paul Blaisdell," he adds clearly.
Paul Blaisdell. This, then, is the man Peter calls his...big brother.
I look aside, willing the jealous pain in my heart to subside. My feeling is unworthy. I owe this man, this...Paul Blaisdell...much for his care of my son.
Dark hair fans across the pillow as Peter's head shakes. "No--no! My father's here, he found me--I found him! He's here! He's not dead-- I'm not dying-- He's here!"
"Take it easy, Peter." Blaisdell lays one hand on my son's heaving chest. "I'll get a nurse. You need to sleep."
"No!" Peter's voice is high and thready with tension. "You don't understand! My father's here! He's alive!"
My heart reaches out for Peter, but my body will not obey my direction. I tell my feet to move, but they are rooted to the tile floor. I open my mouth to speak, but no words come out. I am paralyzed with grief and guilt and...love that I thought I could no longer feel. Love that has the power to alter my life.
Love so strong that it frightens me.
Blaisdell closes his eyes and sighs. "Peter...you've had a nightmare. There's no one here but me. I won't leave you."
"No!" Peter struggles to free himself from the restricting hand. "Listen to me--please! I know he's here. Dad? Pop! Where are you?"
I rouse my disobedient body and respond to his call. "I am here, my son." Released from my paralysis, I glide toward the bed, ignoring the man who begins to intercept me.
"Dad...." Peter mumbles with drowsy satisfaction. "You're here.... I'm not alone anymore."
I sit on the edge of the bed and lay my palm on Peter's cheek. Peter smiles. The expression in his eyes is extraordinary, defenseless and open, filled with joy.
And I know what it is that I see in his eyes.
I lean forward and kiss my son's forehead as he had kissed mine. "You will never be alone again, my son. Now...you must rest." My fingers sweep across his cheek and brush across his eyes. His smile lingers as his breathing deepens and his lashes lower.
I watch him a moment longer, my fingers stroking his pale face, unwilling to end this moment with my son. But I finally stand and face the man who sheltered my boy. "You are Peter's... guardian. I am Caine."
Blaisdell appears to search for words. "I'm...I'm Captain Paul Blaisdell. Who are you?"
He does not see the truth. Why should he? "I am Peter's father." Saying the words fills me with a strange sensation, as though raw power is warming my soul and flooding my body.
"Peter's father is dead," Blaisdell says gruffly.
"As I was told that Peter died," I whisper the terrible words. "However...we are here."
Blaisdell frowns. "Well, Mr. Caine, if you have--"
"Caine." Paul Blaisdell studies me silently. I am uncertain what he sees, but I believe he does not approve. Or...perhaps I frighten him for the same reason that his existence unsettles me. "Do you have some identification?"
I tilt my head questioningly.
"A driver's license?"
I shake my head. "I do not drive."
"Everyone drives," he says, too quickly.
"Anyone who can identify you?" he persists. "Friends?"
"Friends are found everywhere."
"Friends here," he retorts with emphasis. "Maybe someone you walked with?"
"I am Shaolin. I walk alone."
The man runs his hand through his gray hair. "Look, I don't know whether you're Peter's father or not--"
"I have said that I am."
"You could be lying," he states flatly.
"I do not lie."
He hesitates, finally saying, "Why don't we take this outside? Peter needs to rest. We can have coffee in the cafeteria."
I bow. He stalks to the door and holds it open, waiting while I turn back to the bed and brush my knuckles across Peter's cheek in a parting gesture. My son's sleep is peaceful; it is safe to leave him...but only for a short while.
I will not be parted from him again.
* * *
A lot can happen in a week. A guy can go undercover, be kidnapped, get shot...find a father.
I guess I'm still a little numb. It's hard to accept that my father is alive, even when he's sitting in the passenger seat of my car, watching while I drive with one arm in a sling.
"I've done it before," I assure him.
He says nothing, but his fingers smooth a fold on the spotless white cotton, a thoroughly non-hospital-issue, father-made sling. I smile, not even getting pissed at the driver who cuts us off and grabs the parking space I wanted. Either I'm giddy with the excitement of having him back or a little looped from those herbs he keeps feeding me...but I don't care. I like this feeling. I like not having the anger, not having to deal with it every day, not having it keep me awake every night.
I find another parking slot a block from the Agrippa. "You're getting to be a real nightclubber, P--Dad," I say happily as we stride through the cool evening air toward the club. "Your second visit here in a week."
He doesn't comment. I'm not sure what's going on. Unless my memories are wrong, my father used to talk a lot at the temple. And he used to smile. I steal a glance at the sad-faced man beside me. "I'm glad we found each other," I say in an awkward attempt to cheer him up.
He stops. I stop. He stares at me, and I don't blink. Eventually his face softens and a tiny smile hovers at the corners of his mouth. He nods, and we finish the walk to the club. I'm anxious to show off my dad to the gang, so I charge through the door first, catching the edge of his sleeve so he can't disappear.
I spot the three B's--Blaisdell, Blake, and Broderick, an unlikely trio to be out drinking together--and head for their table. "This is my father," I proudly announce, pulling out an empty chair for him and plunking myself down beside it before finishing the introductions.
My father bows, the other three mutter greetings, and my dad sits. Casually, I wind my fingers around the edge of his sleeve. He looks at me, but I pretend not to notice. I squirm in my chair. "How about a beer? Dad?"
"Water," he says and gives me a look that I'm positive says: Alcohol impairs the mind and the reflexes.
I grin and wave to the bartender. "Beer for me and a water for my father!"
I like the sound of those last two words.
"How's the shoulder?" Paul asks.
I glance at my dad. He looks at Paul, then back at me. Which is good, because I deserve his full attention. I grin again. "Great! My father made an herb poultice to put on it, and it's healing really fast. He says I won't even have scars."
"Really," Paul comments with a raised eyebrow.
"Yeah." Our drinks arrive and I take a small sip of beer, then slide my father a contrite glance. "Sure you don't want a beer, Dad?"
He doesn't reply, but I can read volumes in his silence.
"Hey, everybody." Strenlich arrives and joins us. He sits down and nods to my father. "I'm Frank Strenlich. So you're Peter's god. Where the hell have you been for the last fifteen years?"
My father watches me for a moment longer before turning his attention to Strenlich. "Searching," he says slowly, as though the answer requires much thought. "Learning."
"Searching for what?"
Another long pause. "For...my son. Or...for his essence."
Broderick chokes and spits beer onto the table. "Sorry," he says weakly, coughing. "For his what?"
We ignore him.
"Learning what?" Frank demands.
"Learning the secrets of the universe," I answer lightly, though my heart pounds with rising anger. "There's no reason to cross-examine my--"
My father raises a hand, and I stop talking, looking expectantly at him. He looks at Frank.
"You are in pain," Dad states as he rises.
Suddenly my hand is suspended in mid-air for a long moment before I lower it. I stare at my father's silk sleeve; the fabric is badly creased and sweat-stained from my grip.
Jesus, he must think I'm nuts!
I grab my beer and quickly down the remainder.
Strenlich twists in his chair as my father approaches him. "What?"
My dad lays his hand on the thick shoulder, and Strenlich freezes as fingers poke and twist his shoulder. "Yeah, I, uh...pinched a nerve, I guess. What're you...?" He stops when he's released. He moves his shoulder tentatively, then in circles. "How'd you do that? It doesn't hurt anymore," he mutters more to himself than to us.
My father shrugs and returns to his seat beside me. "A simple manipulation."
I pat his arm proudly, and my fingers regain their grip on the sleeve. "That's my pop--he's a healer, too."
He sends me a stern glance.
"Dad," I correct with a sassy grin. I think I see the hint of an answering smile in his eyes, but I'm not positive so I don't tease further.
Strenlich clears his throat. "Pete told us some cockamamie story about this 'temple' of...that you were at. Men with guns...?"
"Yeah, blowing up the place," Broderick adds awkwardly. "Never heard of anything like it. What really happened?"
Slowly, my father's head turns toward the two men. "My son does not lie," he murmurs simply.
I feel my cheeks heat with surprise, then pride. I clear my throat, pleased and embarrassed, my free hand turning my empty glass around. "I'm going to get a refill. Anybody else?" I leap to my feet and bound toward the bar before anyone can reply, but I keep one ear tuned into the conversation at the table, ready to rush over if my dad needs backup.
"Peter's a good cop," Blake tells my father with all the authority in the world. "What?" he demands after a pause. "Just because I spend most of my time behind a desk, doesn't mean I don't know a good cop when I see one."
"Peter is good," Paul confirms quietly. "He's compassionate and intuitive."
"Yeah, when he's not shooting up nightclubs," Broderick blurts. "Or acting totally insane."
I watch my father's gaze drift over Broderick, then lift to me as I return to the table with a glass of water and no beer.
"I heard that," I say. I put the glass of clear liquid in front of my father. "Brought you another water, Dad. Looks like you still got some, though. Guess...uh, you don't need this."
He stares at me, and I know he's critical of what he just heard.
"Yeah, weapons are the tools of fear," I snap before I can stop myself. "I know. But I'm a cop. A gun is necessary. And before you ask--yeah, I've killed men with it. I had no choice." He doesn't respond, and that damn anger that I thought was gone is back in the flash of a moment. "I don't believe all that crap you preached, not anymore. It's all lies, all bullshit, and if you think I'm gonna--"
"Peter," Paul interrupts, "don't talk that way to--"
My father send him a stern look. His hand rises, palm outward, the rebuke unmistakable. Paul subsides, his chagrin obvious.
I don't know what to think. I send Paul a troubled glance, then turn back to my dad, my voice softer. "I don't know how to believe any of it anymore. Not after what I've seen on the streets and after what happened at the temple. You should have taught us how to kill."
My father's placid expression doesn't change. He gazes steadily into my eyes and lays his hand on my forearm. Slowly, I feel the tension drain from my limbs.
"I've changed, Father," I murmur after a long pause. "I've seen too much. I can't go back to who I was, so don't expect me to. It's not possible."
"A journey of a thousand miles--"
"Begins with a single step," I finish, bowing my head. "I remember...some of what you taught me. But I can't take that single step. I can't walk your path anymore. I can't be who you want."
"A teacher simply reminds people of who they have always been," my father responds. "You have not changed, my son. You have only lost your balance."
"And you think you can steady me?" I duck my head and smile at him, ripples of tenderness and defiance running through me.
His hand lifts. It caresses my cheek and lingers there, warming and calming me.
My father inclines his head. "If you wish. And..."
I find myself leaning forward, trying to anticipate his words.
"...water is the source of all life. One," he shrugs, "can always use a...'backup'?"
I laugh, happy beyond the moment. "Yeah!" I nudge my father's arm with my elbow, grinning as though I've just heard the funniest story in the world.
"That's true," Paul says, "all of us need backup."
I gaze blankly at him
"Right," I agree after a pause, and my father looks sharply at me.
He twists in his chair and reaches into the suede pouch he wears strapped across his chest and brings out a small square of fabric. He unfolds it. I squint, but can only see a brown and green mixture of what looks like grass and tiny seeds.
Great. More herbs.
"What is that?" Paul asks tightly. "Marijuana?"
Caine ignores his questions and pinches a small amount of the grasses between his thumb and forefinger. I open my mouth, pleased and embarrassed again, knowing I must look like a hungry bird, and my dad lays the mixture on my tongue. Then he holds his water glass to my lips, and I gulp the mixture, grimacing.
"Whoa!" I lick my lips and grab the glass for another swallow. "That's awful!"
"It will ease your discomfort."
"I know it will, Dad." I settle back in my chair with a sigh.
His gaze slides toward Paul. "It is an herbal mixture," he belatedly replies.
"Narcotic?" Paul challenges, and I straighten in my chair.
"My father's an apothecary," I intervene quickly. "He knows about ancient Chinese remedies and stuff."
"And not so ancient ones," my dad murmurs, looking at me again.
"Apothecary?" Blake comments. "Sounds ancient...old-fashioned, like something from the nineteenth century."
"Not at all," I declare. "My father's a terrific apothecary. At the temple, the only time anyone got very sick was when he was...when he went away." I falter on the last few words.
"So you've gone away before?" Paul asks with a mildness in his voice that doesn't disguise his disapproval.
"Yes. To restock my supply of herbs. And...for other reasons," my father responds softly.
"Yeah, herbs don't go on trees, you know," I proclaim, hoping my cleverness changes the course of this conversation.
"We must leave now," my father states. "You have a fever."
"No, I don't," I protest automatically, ignoring the fact that my lightweight cotton shirt now seems to be made of thick wool.
"You do." He rises and bows. "It is an honor to meet my son's friends."
"Dad, I don't have a fever," I interrupt. "I don't want to leave."
"Thanks for, uh, whatever you did to my, uh...." Strenlich says, tilting his head to his right.
My father shrugs one shoulder.
"I feel fine. I'm not leaving," I grumble.
"It was good seeing you again, Caine," Paul says politely.
I frown. "Okay, maybe a little fever, but it's not worth leaving over. C'mon, Dad, I've been stuck inside for a week. I don't want to go home."
"And you, Captain Blaisdell. Again, I thank you for your care and shelter of my son when I could not be here for him. He is truly blessed by your generosity."
Paul nods stiffly. "It's not generosity. Peter is part of my family."
"You honor Peter with your friendship," my dad says, and for some reason, I'm reminded of that dueling banjos song. It's like they're killing each other with courtesy, or fighting over the right to claim me...but I guess my ego is getting carried away.
"And my son's honor reflects upon me," my dad adds, getting the last word. "I thank all of you."
"I'm sure we'll see you again," Blake says, sounding doubtful.
My father nods once, then simply walks away.
"Dad! Hey, Dad, wait up!" I jump from my chair and grab my keys. I take two steps then whirl back toward the group. "Good seein' you guys. I'll be back to work soon." I grin. "Isn't he great?" I blurt before I hurry to catch up with my father.
Oh, shit. I stop in the doorway, torn between Paul's command and the need to go after my pop before he disappears again. "What?"
Paul stops close to me, his face grave and his voice solemn. "I just wanted...just be careful, kid."
My eyes narrow. "Of what?" I ask icily, alert for any slap at my father.
Paul sighs, looks to the side, then back at me. "Be careful he doesn't break your heart."
Stunned, I watch him walk away. I can't think of a smart retort. I don't know what the hell he means, and I don't really want to think much about it. I hurry outside, running to the corner where my father is patiently waiting.
He looks at me, and I look at him. His head tilts questioningly. I know he knows that something is wrong.
"Paul said that I should be careful that you don't break my heart." I bite my lower lip and look at the sidewalk. "He doesn't understand that my heart was broken when I lost you."
My father's hand cups my chin. I close my eyes and stubbornly keep them that way as he lifts my face toward him. But I can't outlast him, so I open my eyes and look straight into the hazel pools that are so familiar and so welcoming. I feel like I've finally found my way home after years of wandering, and I wonder if this is how my dad feels. After all, he was the one who was lost.
His thumb rubs my chin. "With love comes pain," he whispers. "But without pain, there is no chance of love." He stares for a moment longer, then releases me.
I run out of air and have to take a breath. Take the risk, he just told me. But, hell, I made up my mind to do that the moment I saw him in the hospital.
He has my heart in his hands, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I sling my arm around his shoulders. "Let's go to my place and talk," I say happily. "We have a lot of catching up to do."
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