Ice Castles:  Episodes - Shadow Assassin, Redemption

ceastles, Part 1

by MJ Mink

PROLOGUE (Shadow Assassin)


My name is Peter Caine.

I'm a cop.  It's what I do.

It's who I am.

Water runs down my nose and drips into the basin.  I grab one of Lo Si's small towels off the rack next to the sink and wipe my face.  The cold water has done some good.  I'm calm.  Calmer.  I can focus on what I need to do.

I need to be a cop, not a son.

I lift my head and look in the mirror.  Under the dull yellow light, my face has a sallow tinge -- I immediately think of my Chinese heritage.  I don't look Chinese, but it's there, running under the surface of my thoughts like an underground river.  Sometimes that river is storm-tossed and turbulent; other times it runs smoothly, full of tranquility -- but those moments are rare and short-lived.  If that's the Chinese part, I could sure use a lot more of it.

I re-hang the towel and turn my back on the mirror, leaning against the small vanity.  My dad oozes tranquility, but what has it cost him?  Nothing seems to disturb Kwai Chang Caine anymore; everything slides off him like raindrops.  When we were reunited, Pop smiled, and that expression disturbed the serious set of his features.  It told me that my father has become a man of little happiness.  That insight saddens me, because my memories of him at the temple are strong.  I remember his frequent, brilliant smiles.  I remember that he laughed and played and fought -- even got angry.  In those days, he did everything to his fullest capacity.  He was the king of our world.

Now he speaks in a soft voice.  He is humble, and his eyes are frequently downcast like those of a beaten man.  Did losing his temple create this change in him, this terrible void that I can sense but not name?

The longer I know my father, the less I understand the man he is today.  For so many years, I wanted him resurrected.  I had endless dreams for us: I'd show him the new world I'd found outside the temple, I'd be his guide into the twentieth century...and in return, I'd be loved again.

But I haven't done those things yet, and now our time is running out.  Lo Si says my dad is going to die tonight, facing someone he believes is a Chi'Ru master, a man I know is a serial killer.  A ruthless murderer who will have no qualms about slaughtering a priest.

My father is going to die and take my dreams with him.  We'll never know each other, and I'll never have his love again.

It won't be like the temple; there'll be no resurrection.  This time he's really going to die, but this time I won't be left behind.  Either I stop him...or I go with him.

I turn around and look at myself in the mirror.  For a moment, I'm a stranger with wild, desperate eyes.  A stranger who can pull a gun on a man he loves.

I look down into the clean white basin and concentrate.  I can do this.  I can threaten him -- if necessary, I can wound my father to save both our lives.

I can do this.  I'm a cop.

It's who I am.

PROLOGUE (Shadow Assassin)


I feel that he is coming.

He is terrified. terrified.

Again I remind myself that this young stranger truly is my child.  There are moments when I see Peter in this man's troubled eyes, brief interludes when I can sense his spirit, strong and fiercely independent.  Occasionally, his defiance brings a smile to my lips, for I remember his childish mutinies against the temple regime and my rules.

But he is also a stranger.

I have spent fifteen years among strangers.  I have worked alongside them, helped some of them, left all of them.  Some I called friends, a few I called lovers.  Until now, there was no one I called son, though I searched for Peter's essence the length and breadth of this country.

Then he appeared, in this city, leaping upon me like the unexpected gift of a tiger cub.  He is all claws and snarls; rarely do I perceive the mewling kitten beneath his feral surface.

There was no warning that I would find him, no premonition.  It disturbs me that I could not sense him until he stood in the hospital room, and then it was not so much a sensing as it was a seeing.  His eyes....  He said mine have changed, but surely not as much as his.  His eyes are still wide and dark and familiar, but the artless curiosity is destroyed; in its place are fury and disillusionment and years of living with ghosts.  I wonder, did the destruction of our temple do this to him?  To lose his safe harbor, the only security he had ever known, to be thrust into a cold world that is not kind to lonely, wandering souls....

I feel grief and rage over the loss of my boy-child, for his replacement by this sad, damaged man.  I do not allow these feelings to overcome me.  I cannot, especially tonight.  Tonight I almost certainly face my death.

I am ready for it, readier than I have been before in my life.  For now I know that Peter Caine lives, he is safe, he is grown into manhood, he has a life and a family.  The Caine line will continue.  Yet if I die tonight, the only gift I could have given my son, the restoration of our family honor, will not come to pass.  I will have failed Peter and his children and his children's children.

I slap my hands on the leather blocks, focusing my concentration. I will use these hands on the Chi'Ru; I will use all my skills. I do not wish to die, but if it is my destiny, I will be ready.

Peter arrives.

I cannot allow this distraction.  I do not have the energy to spare.  I cannot deal with his despair and fear, I cannot lose my concentration, I cannot take the time, I cannot--

I can do no less.  Though he is a stranger, he is also my son.

I turn when I hear a noise that has become familiar of late.  Peter, drawing his weapon of death.  He points it at me.  His hand shakes; he cannot hold it steady.  He cannot meet my gaze.  His emotions wash over me.  Besides the fear, I feel something I...cannot believe.


But he cannot love me; he does not know me.  He has only a memory.

That is what he loves -- the memory of the father I once was... I love the memory I have carried within me for fifteen years, of the boy with shining eyes.

The warmth of compassion fills my heart and heats my body.  Precious child, I wish to say to him.  I wish I could hold him and comfort him as I did when he was small and tearful.  I wish that again I could cure his miseries by singing a song, tucking the blanket under his chin, and laying the worn teddy bear alongside his face.  I wish I could be the father he remembers.  But I have changed, and he is a man now, with a man's ways and a man's pride.  He does not want or need
such comfort from me.  I am as much a stranger to him as he is to me.

He has said it.  I have felt it.

I take the pistol from his loose grip; he does not resist.  His fear is clear; his body trembles, tears are hiding behind his lashes.  I cannot resist touching his sweet face and pressing my lips against his cool cheek.  He is my innocent, my child, my creation.  But I do not understand.

Who is Peter now, that he could contemplate using violence to stop me from facing my destiny?

He has lost his Shaolin ways and abandoned his heritage.

He is a stranger.  He does not hear my words, he does not want my direction, he refuses to heed my teachings.  If I live through this night--

Where can I fit into his life?



"Got a minute, Captain?"  I sidle into Paul Blaisdell's office.  He glances up, then returns to his paperwork.

"Whatever you want -- no."

I grimace.  "You haven't heard the quest--  Well, actually, it's not a question."

"You want to do something I'll disapprove of.  You don't need my permission, but you'll ask for it.  You won't get it, and you'll go ahead anyway."

Shit.  I stuff in my hands in my jeans pockets and look up at the ceiling, considering how to present my case.

Paul sighs and puts down his pen.  He leans back in the chair and rubs his eyes.  "What is it?" he asks wearily.

I must be a royal pain.  If my foster father can't put up with me, how the hell will Kwai Chang Caine cope?  "It's about Christmas."

"Oh?"  Paul is plainly surprised.  I know he expected something else, like a request for a dangerous undercover assignment or to follow up some outrageous, fully unsupportable lead on a dead-end case.

"I know I, uh, usually spend it with you, father, you know, he...we don't celebrate Christmas, so I thought we'd...that is, my father and I...thought we'd spend the holidays together.  I've got some days off coming, you know, so....  I mean, thanks for the invitation -- and thank Annie, too, but, uh...."

"You want to spend Christmas with your father."  Paul easily sums my stammering into a simple statement.  "I'm disappointed, but I understand.  Are you planning anything special?  Going somewhere?"

"I'm not sure."  The announcement over, I'm eager to leave the office.  Paul has a way of making me feel guilty for wanting to be with my pop.  I resent feeling guilty, which makes me feel guiltier.  "Whatever.  So, I'll....  You have a good Christmas -- give my love to Annie and the girls," I finish in a rush.  Behind my back, I'm fumbling for the doorknob.  I find it and open the door, giving Paul an awkward smile.

"You, too."  Paul returns his attention to the file on his desk.

I slip out, pulling the door closed behind me.  Involuntarily, I heave a sigh of relief.

In the squadroom, Skalany grins.  "Safely out of the lion's den?  What were you in for -- disobedience, disrespect, or just general dissing?"

"Very funny."  I return to my computer.  A few more entries and this report will be history.

"So what are you doing for Christmas?"

"Isn't it time for you to leave?" I mumble under my breath.


"Spending it with my father," I reply at a normal level.

"Really?"  Skalany comes and sits on the edge of my desk.  She's wearing perfume today, and I find it distracting.  "Maybe I'll stop by with holiday...wishes.  And a batch of mistletoe."

Oh, great, that's just great.  "We don't celebrate Christmas.  My father's a priest, he wouldn't know what to do with the mistletoe."  I punch in the last line, save the file, and log off.

"I'll be happy to show him," Skalany says.

Her smile is nearly irresistible, but Peter Caine is immune to such feminine wiles.  I stand and grab the jacket from the back of my chair.  "Gotta go.  We're heading out of town -- sorry, Skalany.  Why don't you bring your mistletoe into the office and see if you have any luck."

"Thanks for the offer, Peter!" she calls as I stride away.

"That wasn't an offer," I mutter, but I'm already out the door and into the cold evening air, so I know she can't hear me.

Just as well.  She'd make me pay.  I have to hand it to Skalany, she's good in the revenge department.

I drive directly to the kwoon and park in front of the door.  Then I sit.  The wind is bitter; I can tell by the way the few pedestrians hug their collars around their necks and try to retract their heads like turtles.  But fear of the cold isn't the reason I stay in my warm car.

I haven't figured out how to extend the invitation so I won't be turned down.

Dad has been back from the dead for months now.  I've seen him teach and fight, I've seen him arrested for murder, I've seen him gamble and win -- both in pai gow and with his life.  My father is invincible, a role model for everyone.  Everything in his life is perfect, except for his flawed son.  And my dad is totally independent.  I have no place in my father's life.  I'm not needed.

It's taken me a long time to realize it.  There were a few times when I felt so close to my dad...especially during the struggle through Tan's hellish labyrinth.  I  shared a memory that was special to me -- and my father remembered; it meant something to him, too.  For a few minutes we connected, we were one again.  And then the moment was gone.

I've finally come to terms with the understanding that our brief, bright flashes of affinity happen when I act like a child, a twelve-year-old who is dependent on his father for guidance and deliverance.  When I act like an adult, he doesn't recognize me.

I was angry when I figured this out, but my anger has dulled.  Why should he know me?  We're strangers to each other.  We share a name and a distant history, nothing more.  We're different in every way:  in what we believe, the way we live, the futures we have planned.  Not that I have a clue about my father's future.  Does he have plans?  Is he anxious to be on the road again?  Does every sunset call his name, does he yearn to walk toward it?

"Why the hell do you stay here, Dad?" I wonder aloud.  "It can't be because of me.  It's something else."

I suppose that one day whatever my dad is waiting for will come or go or be born or die.  Then the waiting will be over, and Kwai Chang Caine will move on.

I wonder why I even try to make this work.  Why should I get to know my father when he'll only leave me again?  I should drive on right now and forget this holiday crap.  I put my fingers on the key that's still in the ignition.  I glance at the kwoon.

My father is standing outside the door, dressed only in light silks and sandals, hands folded, watching me.

"Christ!"  I pull out the key and jump from my car.  Frigid air is sucked into my lungs, and I gasp, half-running to the door.  "Dad, get inside!  You'll catch your death out here!"

I hustle my pop into the candlelit warmth of the kwoon, shoving the door closed behind us.  The wind rattles the glass as if determined not to let its potential victims escape unscathed.

"I never get sick," my father says smugly, and I have an almost irresistible urge to slug him.

"One of these times," I threaten, shaking my forefinger.

My dad cocks his head and gives me a questioning look.

I grin; I can't help it, even though there's nothing funny.  It's just that damned look, it tickles me and makes me furious, both at once.  "You're gonna drive me crazy," I declare.

He raises one eyebrow.  "Ah.  A risk I will take."

I study his face, but there's no smile to be seen.  I have my usual problem:  I can't tell if he's joking or not.  His expression is always so serious, there's no humor apparent in his eyes, but the things he says....  "Yeah, right."

Pop turns and walks away.  Through the rice paper wall, I see him mounting the stairs.  I assume I'm invited -- no, that's wrong.  My father doesn't issue invitations because he believes in allowing people free will.  Fine.  Peter Caine's free will is to follow his father.  "There'll be no escape for you this time, Your Highness," I mutter in my best Darth Vader impersonation.

I find Dad in the narrow strip that passes for a kitchen.  There's a pot on the stove that I suspect is rice and a wok in which my father is heating oil.  "Your Highness?" he asks.

He couldn't possibly have heard me!  "How did you -- ?  Oh, forget it.  You never answer me anyway."  I shrug off my jacket and drape it over a straightback chair.  "I didn't mean to interrupt your dinner."

"You will join me."

So much for free will.  "Okay," I agree without enthusiasm for what I suspect will be his usual menu.  I watch while my dad stirs sliced carrots into the wok.  I look closer and see broccoli and snow peas and some beige strips on a chopping block.  "Want me to run down to the grocery and pick up a pound of beef to throw in there?"

My father stops stirring and looks at me.  I try to keep my face expressionless.  Two can play this game, Pop, I think, and I'm satisfied when he shakes his head and returns his attention to the wok.  With great care, he adds the broccoli to the oil, then the beige things.

A rush of affection takes me by surprise.  I suddenly want nothing more from this moment than to go to my father, slip my arms around his waist, lean my face against his strong back, hold him and protect him and be loved in return.  I want the last fifteen years to disappear.

Quickly, I turn away and stare out the small window.  The city lights are blurring, and I swipe one hand across my eyes.  "Cold night," I observe casually.

There are a few heartbeats of silence.  "Not in here," my father says.  After a brief hesitation, he adds, "You are disturbed, my son?"

I turn around just as the snow peas go into the wok.  The mixture is stirred a few times, then my dad tips the wok and slides everything onto the platter.  I take it and carry it to the small wooden table.  Already on the table are two plates, two cups, and a pot of tea.

I shake my head.  "Are you expecting company?"

"Yes."  He arrives with a large bowl of rice.  "You are here."

"Yeah, I'm here," I acknowledge with a sigh.  This used to drive me crazy as a kid; I could never get away with anything.

My father pulls out a chair and sits.  I remain standing.  "You know...Christmas is in a couple days.  I have some time off.  I thought maybe we could...spend the holidays together.  If you're not doing anything."

He looks up.  "You have...become Christian?"

"What?"  I run my fingers through my hair.  "No.  I just -- I have time off now.  I thought....  But you're probably busy.  Sorry, I should have asked earlier."

My father raises one hand.  "I would be honored to spend time with my son."

"Okay.  Tomorrow morning?  I'll pick you up.  We'll go...uh, somewhere for a few days."  This is what I want, it should please me, but there's a bad taste in my mouth.  I stare at the second place setting.  It bothers me.  "If you knew I was coming, why'd you fix rice?  You know I hate it."

My father says nothing.  After a pause, he scoops rice onto his own plate, then covers it with a small serving of the vegetables.

I pace to the window.  Snow flurries are blowing along the street.  "I can't stay.  I got things to do, get ready.  I'll see you in the morning.  Early -- so be ready."

I don't look at my father again, just rabbit out of there.  A shock of icy air hits me in the face when I step onto the sidewalk, and I glance longingly over my shoulder, abruptly sorry to leave the warmth of the kwoon and my father.

And in the flash of a moment, I'm angry again.  He should have stopped me, should have asked me to stay, should have apologized for the fuckin' rice.

He should have said something.


I listen until I hear the engine of Peter's vehicle.  I hear him pull it away from the curb, too quickly, careless of the slick conditions of the street.  The tires spin, then the motor noise lessens and continues at a slower, steadier pace.

Its sound melds with the other sounds of the street and is gone.

Peace has returned to my home.  It is very quiet.

I pick up chopsticks and grasp a small amount of rice between them.  He does not understand that rice is all I have.  Perhaps one day I will continue my apothecary work and charge small fees to those who can afford them.

He does not understand.  He allows his burden of anger to weigh him down.  He does not know how to release it...and he will not listen.

He does not respect my ways.  He has become a modern Western man.  To him, I am...a relic, an anachronism.  I wonder that he is not embarrassed by me...but he is not.

I ponder that knowledge.  In front of others, he generally shows me respect and behaves properly.  It is when we are alone that he changes.  Things I do...or do not...upset him.  He hides so much; I wonder to what extent I have disrupted his life.  I try not to insinuate myself into his affairs, but sometimes...I cannot help my instincts.

Perhaps this time we will spend together will be beneficial.  Perhaps I will understand more of this mystery who is my son.  Soon, I know, our greatest challenge will come.  Soon we will be called upon to redeem our family honor.  He will assist me, of that I have no doubt.  His sense of honor is great.  The integrity of the Caine line will again be unsullied, and my path will be complete. Then I can withdraw from Peter's life, and he will remember me with respect and gratitude.

I stare at my chopsticks, then eat the rice.  I have no desire for food, but the body must be sustained.  My purpose must be fulfilled, and I require physical as well as spiritual strength to complete it.  So I eat half the rice and half the vegetables.  The rest belongs to my son, though he has said he does not want it.  I cover it and store it in the refrigerator.  It will stay there until he changes his mind or it is no longer edible.

Then I will throw it out.

Peter arrives the following morning at eight o'clock.  I have been ready for three hours.  I sit patiently in the kwoon, cross-legged with my satchel and flute case on the floor beside me.  I have not been idle; I have practiced tai ch'i and meditated.  My mood is serene, as it must be when I spend time with my son.

Winter enters the door with Peter.  It is crisp and fresh; I enjoy its cold embrace.

Peter is scowling.  "Ready?"

I rise and pull my duffel and case over my shoulder.  I place my hat on my head.

"Where's your winter coat?" Peter demands.

I know he will be annoyed to learn I have given away the heavier coat, so I say only, "My jacket provides adequate protection."

He sighs.  "That's okay, the car's warmed up."

I follow him outside.  He gives me an annoyed look and goes back to lock the door to the kwoon. I do not understand his need for such devices of protection.  My most precious possessions I carry with me, either in my heart or physically -- the journals, the talisman given to me by the Dalai Lama, our family ring, the pendant of my father.  There is nothing in the kwoon that I would not give to one who asked.

But I say nothing; I adjust to his peculiarity.  He goes around to his side of the vehicle while I stand on the sidewalk.  I see him lean over and unlock the door.  I open it and place my duffel and flute case on the back seat, then I sit on the front seat.  There are a few snowflakes on my sleeve, and I look closely at them, watching as they melt.

"Will you hurry up and shut the door, Dad?  That wind is freezing!"

I close the car door and look at him.  I do not know what he reads in my look, but he flushes slightly.  "Where do you want to go?" he asks as he begins driving.

I shrug.

"How about Florida?"

I nod, and he laughs and slaps the steering wheel with one palm.

"That was a joke."

I look at him again.  "Ah."

We pass through Chinatown into other parts of the city, into an area where buildings brush the clouds.  "Don't you have any ideas?" Peter asks.

"The desire for this journey comes from you," I observe carefully.  "At any rate, the destination is not important.  It is the journey from which we learn."

He sighs again.  "Dad, can you stop tryin' to teach me for a few days?  We're not going someplace to learn, we're just going to spend time together.  Okay?"

I see no difference.  If we are together, we will learn from each other.  I stare out the side window.  The snow is scouring the city clean.

"Fine.  Okay.  I'll just drive.  Jesus Christ, Pop, you can be a real pain in the ass sometimes."

I turn my head and stare at his profile.

After several seconds, he becomes uncomfortable.  "What?"

As he does not wish to hear my teachings, I am uncertain what I may say.  But I will not allow his language to go unchallenged.  "Your words are disrespectful."

He is silent for many moments.  We stop at a light that has turned red, and he glances at me. "Sorry, P--Dad.  It's just -- you bug me sometimes."

That is something I have noticed.  "I was referring," I say carefully, "to your use of the name of a deity of others in an irreverent manner."


The light changes colors again, becoming green, and Peter moves the vehicle.  Traffic signals have always fascinated me...small mechanical things that demand and receive obedience from millions of human beings, both on foot and in vehicles.  It is puzzling, this anonymous control over the natural flow of life.

We leave the city behind.  It has been many months since I have seen the gentle slopes of the countryside.  The snow from the sky has stopped, and it lies in a thin layer on the fields.  Clouds of deep blue rest low on mountains that trail long cloaks of white.

I am happy.

I study my son's profile again.  His mouth is tense.  I curl my left hand into a fist and rub its knuckles across his cheek.  He glances at me.  His face relaxes and he smiles.  I leave my hand there for several moments, then I return it to my lap.  Peter sighs, very softly, under his breath. He enjoys being touched by me, so I wonder if he has not been loved enough.  He has another family, the Blaisdells.  I have seen Paul Blaisdell touch my son's shoulders.  I have seen Annie kiss
his cheek.  I have seen Peter with young women, displaying the signs of intimacy.

He is touched, he is loved.  Why then does he wish to have displays of affection from me, a man he thinks of as a stranger?  I do not understand, and I know that should I ask, he will not tell me.

So I do not ask.

There are small animals in a pasture on our left.  "Look," I say to my son.

"Llamas," he guesses, shooting quick glances out the window.  "Or alpaca, something like that. Emus?"

"Emus are birds," I say sternly.

He laughs, and I see he is again teasing me.  He teases me into being a teacher, though he has said he does not wish to learn from me.

We drive for several hours.  We stop in a small restaurant.  Peter orders pancakes.  He shows me the picture on the menu; the pancakes have purple berries and syrup on them.  The waitress tells me they have no rice, so I request a cooked sandwich of cheese.  It is a delicacy that I occasionally enjoyed during my travels.

Peter orders two chocolate shakes.  He grins when I look at mine, and I know he thinks I do not know what it is, that I have never had one.  I have, but it has been a long time.  I remember that I liked it very much, though it seemed a foolish indulgence.  Still, to please him and to play a small game, I cautiously sip it.  It is very cool and frothy and sweet; it is as I remember.  I feel that some coolness remains above my upper lip, so I lick it off.  Peter laughs.

I watch him while he laughs.  The tension eases, and his eyes become very young.  I laugh with him, and suddenly we are together.

He stops laughing and bites his lower lip.  He watches me.  He is still smiling when the young waitress brings food to our table.

I think that Peter is beginning to love me.  Not the quixotic image he has held in his heart for so long, but me, the man I now am.

I am...pleased.

I am...confused.

I try to fathom his mind and heart, but he remains a stranger.  He is my son.  He is a blessing, he is a burden.  I love the idea of him, and I am striving to love the man of him.  But I do not know how to fit into his life, nor do I know how to fit him into mine.

We watch each other as we eat.

We speak only of small things.


I pick up the check.  While we wait for service at the cash register, my father reaches into his pouch and pulls out a wad of bills.  He holds them in his open palm and presents them for my inspection.

"Put that away," I hiss, glancing around.  There are few customers in the diner, and no one is paying attention to us.  I take a closer look at the money.  The bills are all ones, and I hide a smile.  "This trip is my idea, I'm paying for everything.  Put your money back in your piggy."

"Piggy?" my dad repeats.

"It's an expression."  Our waitress comes to the register and I hand her a twenty.  "Where you keep your money, a piggy bank."


From the change, I pull out two dollars and drop them on our table on the way out.  My father touches my sleeve and I stop.  "Buddha is my piggy," my dad says solemnly.

"What?" I ask, grinning.

"The money," he says, and I see he still holds it in his hand.  "Buddha is hollow.  He holds the money when I do not require it."

"Dad, isn't that sacrilege?"  I unlock the car door and hold it open for him.

"I do not think so," my father says, but looks worried.

I slam the door and run around the car.  This trip didn't start auspiciously, but I feel better about it already.  My dad is here, wants to be with me, is being a good sport about eating strange food -- yeah, this trip is a good idea.  My dad has been back for half a year, but he's still an enigma to me. Maybe if we spend more time together, I'll figure him out.

I get in the car and start the engine.  My father raises one finger and points at the diner.

"What?"  I squint at a poster propped in the window.  "A Christmas ice festival in Manchester -- you want to go there, Dad?"

He nods once.

Well, why the hell not?  "Okay," I say agreeably.  "It's only a hour or so from here."

My father smiles and settles back in the seat.  We travel in silence, but it's not awkward.  I feel comfortable with my dad, something I don't always feel.  I like it.  I like the way my dad stares out the window in fascination, sometimes craning his neck backward to get another look at a wonder we've sped past.

"Anytime you want to stop, let me know," I state expansively.  He nods but doesn't tell me to stop, not even when we pass the giant chicken.

I'm disappointed.  I want to tell my father the story of the giant chicken, who built it and why, but he doesn't give it a second glance.  Maybe in fifteen years of traveling, Dad's seen a lot of giant chickens.  I've heard rumors of a giant Babe-the-Blue-Ox in Minnesota and an oversized shrub trimmed in the shape of Mr. Potato Head somewhere in the Northwest, so a giant chicken is probably insignificant to a seasoned traveler. I decide to skip the story and say nothing.

But it's a good story.

Manchester grows suddenly out of farmland, a cluster of low buildings and a surprising amount of cars and pickups.  "A regular metropolis they've got here," I observe.

There is a traffic jam in the few blocks that seem to be the downtown core.  Cars are backing out of parking places, more cars are waiting for the spaces, pedestrians are chatting with the drivers and passengers, refrigerated panel trucks are blocking the main intersection.  "Jes-- uh, gosh," I say.  "What a mess."

I roll down the car window and lean my head out.  I can see two motels with red blinking 'no vacancy' signs.  "I don't believe this!  Dad, we're never going to find a place to stay here -- and it's hours to civilization!  Maybe we should go back to the city."

"Turn right," my father says.

I pull my head back in the car.  "Why?"  I raise the window.  It's damn cold out there.

My father says nothing.

"All right."  With a sigh, I pull out of traffic and into a street that's really an alley.  "Have you been here before?"

"I have not."

I like the way my father says some things.  Not a common, simple 'no'.  My dad's words are very precise and proper and certain times.  "Then how do you know where we're going? Is it a Shaolin thing?"

My father swivels his head and looks at me.  "It is a sign."

"A sign?  You mean like a divine sign?"  I lean forward and look at the sky.

"A window."

"A window?  You mean the poster in the restaurant," I interpret.


"Yarn?" I echo.  "You know, you weren't always this obscure, Pop -- sorry, Dad.  I used to be able to understand least some of the time.  Now you're always cryptic."

"Now, you do not listen," my father states.

I check the rearview mirror.  No one is behind us -- well, why would anyone in their right mind drive down this narrow, grim little street lined with dumpsters and empty boxes?  I brake the car and face my dad.  "Are you pis-- um, annoyed with me?"

He gazes at me.  The hazel eyes hold no expression.  Their empty serenity makes me fidget. "No," my dad eventually decides.  "Drive.  Turn there."  One finger points to the left.

With another sigh, I put the car in gear and continue.  I turn at the appointed corner.  We're a block, maybe two, from downtown.  The houses are small and storybook pretty, Victorian Queen Anne style if I remember correctly from my brief enthusiasm about architecture.

"Stop here."

I obey and find we're in front of a small, two-story white house.  I get out of the car.  By the time I reach the passenger side, my dad is already out and has his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. "Is this somebody you know?"

My father opens the short white gate and walks up to the house.  The sidewalk has been shoveled clean, the house looks neat and well-kept, but--  "Dad...?"

He doesn't respond, so with a grumble under my breath, I follow.  When my pop reaches the front porch, the door opens.

"You saw my sign!"

I swear I've seen this woman before, maybe on a box of cake mix.  She's plump and white-haired, with little round glasses that rest near the tip of her nose.  She's wearing a blue floral dress, bulky shoes, and is wiping her hands on a ruffled white apron.

"I'm Bea Westmore," she exclaims, beaming at us.

"I am Caine."  My dad bows to her, then gestures to me.  "This is my son, Peter."

Mysonpeter, that's my name.  I'm not complaining though, because I was nobody's son for a very long time.  "Ma'am," I acknowledge, feeling my face heat.  "Uh...what sign?"

"The sign in my yarn shop.  Oh, I know, this house isn't big enough for a bed-and-breakfast, but I did so want to give it a try!  You're my first visitors!  Welcome, please come in, don't stand out there and freeze."

"I'll get my stuff," I say, backing away a few steps.  I lower my voice and mutter, "You could've told me you saw a sign, Dad."

He raises an eyebrow, then turns back to Bea.  They go inside and shut the door.

I dash down the steps, snatch my bag from the trunk, grab my dad's flute case from the back seat, and hurry to join them.

The front door has been left unlocked.  I bolt it behind me, stamp my boots on the mat, then rush to find my pop.  "Did I miss anything?" I demand anxiously when I locate them in a warm, cozy living room that is far too small for the huge Christmas tree it holds.  I drop onto the sofa next to my father.

"No, dear."  Bea smiles at me then turns back to Pop.  "My, what a fine, tall son you have."

My dad gives her a nod.  They both look at me.

"Uh...I'm a cop," I blurt.  This woman makes me feel ten years old.

"It's what you do," my father says, and I stare at him.

"And what do *you* do?" Bea inquires pleasantly.

My dad bows again, and I begin to wonder if he has to bow every time he's asked a question or given a compliment.  "I am a Shaolin priest."

"It's who you are," I say smartly.

Dad looks at me, then cuffs my chin.  I rub it and grin.

"Oh, aren't you two sweet," Bea exclaims.  "You remind me of my dear Fred.  He and our son used to tease each other all the time."

"The love between a father and a son," Pop says slowly, "is a very fragile thing."

I flush, but this time my dad isn't looking at me.  He's focused on Bea, and he takes her hand.

"They have both moved on?" he asks her gently.

She blinks a few times, and I hope she isn't going to cry.

"Yes.  Fred, six years ago, and Davey...he was our surprise, a late baby, you know.  We lost him in Viet Nam."

I look around the room.  There are photographs on the mantel above the fireplace -- an old-fashioned wedding portrait of a serious couple, a gray-haired man and a grinning boy, a young man in uniform --

Christ.  Sometimes I just want to stay away from people, don't want to get close to anyone.  It all hurts, every fuckin' thing hurts, nobody's happy, nobody has any peace!  My dad was right to take me to a monastery, we should've stayed there, locked away, kept the world out.

We *could* have stayed there if he hadn't let Tan destroy it.

"Let me show you to your room.  You'll want to freshen up before you walk down to the festival. It's just beginning, you know.  Tomorrow morning they start carving."

"Room?" I mumble, trying to focus on Bea's words.  "Just one?"

"Oh, I hope that won't be a problem!"  Her blue eyes land on me; they're full of worry.  "I know the house is too small for a B and B, but I'd hoped--"

"One room will be fine," my father says, shooting me a warning look.

"Just fine," I agree, forcing a smile.  Christ, I want to get close to my dad, but not that close.  Pop will probably burn incense and chant all night, or tell me not to snore, or sit on the floor by my--

--cot.  I remember it very clearly.  Moonlight slanting through the narrow windows of my room when I'd be pulled from sleep by nightmares.  My father would be there, in lotus on the floor, radiating safety and comfort.  I could go back to sleep because my dad would protect me, keep
my world safe, always be there for me....

What happened, Pop?  You failed and we lost everything....

Now you're back, and you're nothing like you were.  Whoever you are, you don't love me the
way my father did.

Father, where are you?

Continued in Part Two