“Mr. Bruce, Ravenswood is here to see you.”
Michael looked up from his computer, clicking off his email. “Thank you, Grace. Send him in.”
Since starting to work with Melody at Stan’s Coffee House, Ravenswood only came into the office twice a week. As Chief Security Officer, those days were packed with background checks, telephone calls, vulnerability tests, and every other sort of thing to keep the company safe. Michael was far more likely to see the man on the rooftops of Gale than he was at the office.
Ravenswood Cadavre walked in, dressed in a button down shirt and slacks. Even when on the job, the man rarely wore a tie.
“I thought you only worked on Tuesdays and Thursdays?” Michael asked, knowing full well that was the man’s schedule.
“I had to drop off some paperwork. Plus, I wanted to see how your meeting with Bling went.”
Against his better judgment, Michael had agreed to meet his rival to discuss a building they both had an interest in. As usual, Bling had monopolized the conversation, dismissed everything Michael suggested, and tied things up by abruptly telling him to leave. “About as well as I expected. There was one interesting thing, though. When I left, I saw a man who resembled Rufus Thorn enter the building.”
“So Dark Flame was right.”
Michael nodded. “But the question is, what is Bling doing with Thorn? Bling’s the last person in the world who would have sympathy for those anti-government types.”
“Maybe domestic terrorists need rental space, too?”
The CEO shrugged. “So why else did you come here?”
“I finally found out where I’d heard of Sara Wolff before.”
“Oh?” Michael leaned in, suddenly interested.
Ravenswood pulled an envelope from his pocket and tossed it to his friend. “When I was investigating if Yule was your father, I was doing all kinds of genealogy checks. I wanted to see if there was some kind of long-lost relative that I could contact that might have information on your dad. I also did a bunch of veteran searches, since your family was connected to the military. Most of those documents are kept in archives where you have to sign them out. Thing is, in both places, I ran into the name Sara Wolff. Not everywhere, but often enough that I realized she might be trying to find out about your family, too. I put her on my list of people to follow-up with, but the investigation ended up going in another direction and I never got around to it.”
Michael opened the envelope. There were photocopies of log books and ledgers from libraries and historical archives. Each listed a series of names, including Sara Wolff. “So what are you saying? Do you think she’s a distant relative or something?”
“I’m saying that I think she may have a connection to your family. Or at the very least, she was digging around trying to find information about them.” The private eye leaned forward in his chair. “I think it’s something we should at least look into.”
“That’s going to be difficult since we’re not really sure what we’re looking for.”
“What about asking your dad? Maybe he knows something.”
“No, I don’t want him involved. To this day he’s still evasive about certain things, and he’s never fully told me what happened in Switzerland. I’d prefer to keep him out of this until we know a bit more.”
“All right, your call. But that brings us back to square one.”
“Not exactly.” Michael picked up the phone, hitting a button.
“Who are you calling?”
He held up a finger, signalling Ravenswood to be quiet. “Grace, could you tell Christine to come in? I need to talk to her.”
Christine Cunningham was the Chief Financial Officer of Bruce Development. For nearly twenty years after the death of Matthew Bruce, she had helmed the company, keeping it safe until Michael was old enough to take over. After the death of his parents, Christine had been named his legal guardian, despite the fact that Rick Frank was still alive and Michael’s next-of-kin. But the woman had been far from a mother. She had taken her duty to care for him seriously, but instead of doing the job herself, she had passed off the task to a string of others.
When they were alive, Michael’s family had lived in a small mansion on the outskirts of Gale City. Though he only had faded memories of living in the house, he felt haunted every time he walked through its halls. The emotions it stirred were so intense, he avoided going there often. But despite his apprehensions, he still couldn’t bring himself to sell the home and continued to have it maintained.
When Michael had asked Christine if she knew of any documents which might help him figure out his family history, she suggested they visit the large estate. The drive there took forty-five minutes, ten minutes of which was driving through the lush greenery and backwoods to get to the front door of the house.
“Have you ever been here?” Michael asked, pulling his car past the iron gates onto the long driveway.
“Yeah, during the lion incident, remember?”
“Oh, yes. How could I forget that.”
Christine was already there when the men arrived and guided the two upstairs. The third floor was much smaller than the rest of the house. It held his father’s office, his mother’s sewing room, and a moderate sized area filled with craft supplies, storage boxes, and three filing cabinets.
“This is where Sally kept all the personal papers.” Christine moved to a stack of boxes, removing the lid off the top one. “She kept everything. Birthday cards, notes, letters. I believe that one is filled with every scribble and drawing you and your brother ever made.”
Michael smiled to himself. He didn’t recall much about his mother, but he did remember how nostalgic and sentimental she was; it didn’t surprise him that she would want to keep everything possible that would have a significant memory attached to it.
“This is great,” Ravenswood said, pulling out a handful of Christmas cards. “This is where you find the good stuff. These are the kinds of things that tell you the real story behind families and their connections.”
Christine seemed disinterested. “There’s a few pictures here which she was using for her scrapbooking. The rest are up in the attic. There’s got to be a half dozen boxes filled with portraits, if you need to see that kind of stuff.”
“No, this is fine,” Michael said, relief in his voice. He hadn’t relished the possibility of going through a bunch of old polaroids, or dealing with the emotions they might stir up. He was happy they were tucked out of sight. .
“I’m more interested in this stuff, anyhow.” Ravenswood pulled out a small day-planner and flipped through the pages. “Wow, your mom was amazing. She kept a log of everything she did, every day.”
The two men spent the next two hours going through the piles of papers. Michael had decided to stick with the filing cabinets, sifting through the myriad of birth certificates, deeds, and other important documents. Ravenswood took the boxes, reading notes, cards and letters.
Michael was almost through the first drawer of the second filing cabinet when he pulled out a manila folder. On the top, in his mother’s handwriting, were the words Christmas Trip. Inside, along with brochures and airline quotations, were passport applications for him and his brother. Grabbing the portrait of a dark-haired child, Michael stared at it, his heart starting to race.
<<< “Stephen.” Michael tried to call the name, but his mouth didn’t seem to work. The boy had tried to wake up before, but every time he did, he felt so tired that he quickly fell back asleep. This time was different. His eyes were closed, but he could hear things around him. He could feel things, too. His upper arm hurt, more than it had hurt before. His leg hurt too. He tried to move it, wiggle it a little bit, but there was something holding it down.
“Stephen,” he screamed in his head. Stephen was his brother, his big brother. Sometimes he hated the boy, especially when he tried to take his toys. Most of the time, though, he was his best friend. His older brother always took care of him, made sure he was okay. When Michael had gotten stuck in a tree, Stephen had come with a ladder and helped him down. He didn’t even tell their mom, which was good, because she would have been mad. Stephen was always there for him.
Where was he now?
“Stephen.” This time he felt his mouth open a little and a tiny bubbling sound came out. But doing it made him tired. Really tired. He wanted to fall asleep, but he tried not to. Then he heard the sounds. There were people talking. There was a lady. He wasn’t sure who it was. There was also a man. This one he knew. Grampa Rick. His grandfather was saying something and he sounded mad.
“I’m a military man. It’s my life and my career. I don’t have a trust fund or multi-million dollar business to fall back on if I leave. I can’t have a small child with me.”
The woman started talking and she didn’t sound happy either. “I never planned to have children. This is a total disruption for me, too. I can’t preserve a business for his future if I spend all my time babysitting him.”
“We’ve gone around and around on this, Christine. The doctors say he’ll be coming out of the coma soon. We have to make a decision.” Michael’s grandfather was quiet for a moment. “We discussed a permanent caretaker.”
“A nanny, yes.”
“Then private schooling.”
“Yes.” Christine’s voice sounded happier. “Off-seasons there are camps and such. I have no problem taking him on holidays, but I can’t have a six-year old ward, Rick.”
The words were making his head hurt. Michael opened his mouth again and was surprised when a word came out. “Mommy.”
“Oh, my God, he’s awake.”
Michael’s eyes fluttered open. Above him was his grandfather. The man looked the same like he always did, but his eyes were red, really red. “Mikey.”
“Where’s Mommy? Where’s Daddy?”
“They’re not here.” The man wiped his fingers across his eyes.
Michael felt scared. Very scared. Where was Stephen? Why was his grampa crying? Where was his mom? Where was his dad? He was hurting a lot and he wanted his mom. “Mommy!” He started to cry, harder than he had ever cried before. “Mommmmyyyyyy!”
His grandfather squeezed his hand, stroking the boy’s head. “Mikey. Shh. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
The boy cried for a long time. His grampa let him, pulling him close and holding him. But the crying made him tired. Soon he was too tired to cry and his voice trailed off. “I want to see my Mommy,” he whispered to his grandfather.
“Later,” his grampa said. “Later.”
Michael’s eyes sagged. This time he wanted to fall back asleep. “Promise?”
“Promise.” Grampa Rick smiled as the boy slipped back into unconsciousness.
* * * * *
Michael walked into the common room. There were three small booths in the corner, each with a phone inside. The first booth was open, the phone placed on the small table. The boy went it and grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”
“I wanted to see how you were settling in.” The woman tried to sound happy, but he knew talking to him always made her nervous.
Michael had been at the boarding school for a little over a week. Situated in France, he had already picked up a good deal of the language—but it was hardly an issue as most of the students were from England and America. His room was clean, his teachers nice, and he had plenty to do to keep him occupied. The only thing was that, despite having settled in, he hadn’t managed to make any friends yet.
All of this went through his mind in an instant, but Michael didn’t bother to tell the woman. Christine was never interested in his life. It was her duty to make sure he was cared for, not to actually care.
“I’m doing okay,” he answered simply. “And it’s Michael now.”
“Mikey sounds like a baby name. I’m twelve years old. Everyone calls me Michael now.”
“Michael it is,” she said matter-of-factly. “I plan to come out over Thanksgiving weekend to check on you. Until then, do you need anything in the way of clothes or toiletries or anything like that?”
“No. They pretty much have everything here. My shoes are getting a little tight, but that can wait until November.”
“Good enough. If there’s anything, I’ve instructed Monsieur Phillipe to contact me. Be safe, Michael.”
“Goodbye.” Michael hung up the phone. He glanced up at the woman who had come to stand beside him.
“All done?” she asked.
“Okay, why don’t you go out in the courtyard and play with some of the other kids.”
Michael didn’t want to go out, but he did anyway. He’d learned long ago that obeying orders was the best way to avoid trouble. And being on his own, the last thing he wanted was trouble.
He headed into the courtyard. A group of students were playing basketball nearby and Michael decided he would go over and try to join them. As he headed in their direction, he caught sight of the boy. The kid was much shorter than him—half a head or so. He had bright red hair, pale skin, and his face was covered with freckles. The kid was pretty ordinary, and Michael probably wouldn’t have noticed him at all had it not been for the two much bigger kids beating the snuff out of him.
“Hey,” Michael yelled, running over. “Stop that.”
The two bullies were about the same size as Michael, though one was much skinnier and the other much fatter. Their faces were both full of pock holes, cuts, and bruises.
“Who the heck are you?” the portly boy asked, his eyebrows furrowing.
“That doesn’t matter,” he answered, trying to sound tough. “You shouldn’t be picking on that kid.”
The skinny one poked his finger at Michael’s chest. “Listen, we beat up whoever we want, whenever we want. You have a problem with that?”
Michael swallowed. He had started playing football a few months earlier and was starting to get some muscle definition. Though he’d never been in a fistfight before, he’d brought down much bigger kids on the field. The two boys shouldn’t be that much trouble, right?
“Yeah. I do have a problem with that.”
“Ow, ow, stop it.” Michael lay on the ground, his arms covering his face. He wasn’t sure, but it had to be at least ten minutes since the boys had started kicking the snuff out of him. The red-headed kid had spent most of the time cowering in fear, apologizing before finally running off.
That’s what I get for helping someone, Michael thought, and then wondered where the heck any of the adults were.
Just as the biggest kid gave him a swift kick to the ribs, another boy rushed in, pulling them back. He was a bit shorter than the two, with dark brown hair and a bronze complexion. Next to him was the ginger-headed kid.
“What the heck?” The heavy-set bully glared. “Toronto? Stay out of this, will you?”
“C’mon, guys. No picking on the new kid, eh?”
“Screw you. You should be happy we’re not picking on Opie there anymore.”
Toronto snapped his fingers, then reached into his pocket. Michael wasn’t sure what the kid was doing, but he feared the worst. He closed his eyes and covered his face again.
“How much you want? Five dollars, ten dollars?”
Michael peeked open his eyes. The chubby kid was staring at the wad of bills. “Um, I dunno. Five for him, five for me?”
“Eustis, you’re a hard bargainer. Okay, here’s ten apiece. But you can’t pick on this kid anymore, or my friend—at least until after winter break. Got it?”
“Sure,” the boy answered with a smile. “There’s plenty of other kids to pick on until then. Okay, Derek, let’s get out of here.”
As the bullies left, the Italian boy reached out his hand, helping him up. “Are you hurt?”
Michael’s tongue flicked out, licking the blood on his lip. “I’ll be all right. Did you just bribe those kids?”
“Yeah, my uncle used to do it all the time to keep me and my cousin from fighting.”
Bribery wasn’t a good thing, but Michael didn’t care. He was happy the boy had come to help. “Well, thanks.”
“I’m Tony, this is Andy.”
“I’m Michael,” he said, rubbing his sore arm.
“C’mon, let’s go in. I have a box of band-aids in my room.”
Tony Toronto pulled out the band-aids, tucking them in his pocket.
“What are we going to need those for?” Andy asked, wringing his fingers.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you when we get there.”
“Michael,” Andy whined.
Michael smiled, grabbing his friend by the shoulder and pushing him ahead. “C’mon, twerp.”
It had been two months since the incident in the courtyard. During that time, Michael and the boys who had befriended him that day had been inseparable. Tony Toronto was the leader of the group. He was smart, funny, and had a charm Michael had never seen before; he could say just about anything and get away with it. The teachers liked him, the staff liked him, and Michael had to admit he liked him, too. Andy Lewis was far different. He was shy and nervous, and was always worrying. But he was a great listener and came up with the neatest ideas for fun things to do. And while he wasn’t so smart, Andy was clever and seemed to figure out things that Tony and Michael couldn’t. The three boys were quite different, but that’s what made them a great team.
The school was situated on five acres of woodland. Promoting fitness and health, hiking expeditions were encouraged. School policy held that when a student reached twelve, they were permitted to explore on their own. Since Andy had just celebrated a birthday, the boys were allowed to go out together for the first time.
Tony led them through the forested area, past a small creek and up a hill. There was a group of trees that had grown and twisted all around each other, forming a canopy. Underneath was the perfect hiding spot.
“This is great,” Andy said, forgetting his apprehension. “I bet we could build some furniture in here. Get some logs for chairs and tie some vines together to make a table.”
“Secret hideout,” Michael said, wagging his eyebrows.
Tony nodded. He moved to the corner of the enclosure, spreading the leaves apart. A stream of light flowed in. “Window.” Moving back to his bag, he reached in and pulled out something long, red, and shiny.
“Oh, my gosh, where did you get a Swiss Army knife?” Andy asked.
“My dad sent it to me a couple of months ago.”
Michael knew Tony well enough to know the boy had a plan. Though he was usually game for anything his friend wanted to do, he started to get nervous. “Headmaster’s gonna kill us if he finds out we have a weapon.”
“Don’t worry. He already knows about it. Tom Donnelly ratted me out. It’s okay, though, I told him I use it for the can opener and he said I could keep it.”
Andy looked around. “But we don’t have any cans.”
“I know.” Tony opened the knife, holding the blade so it caught the sunlight. “I saw this in a movie once. These kids were best friends, so they became blood brothers.”
“What the heck is that?” Andy asked with a wrinkle of his nose.
“You cut your finger, then your friend cuts his finger, and then you rub them together so your blood mixes.”
“That’s gross,” Andy gagged. “Can’t you catch some disease or something from that?”
“Only your cooties.” Tony snickered and turned to Michael. “C’mon, wanna try it?”
As much as Andy was unnecessarily paranoid, this time Michael had to agree. “I don’t know. It does sound unsanitary.”
“C’mon. I never had a brother, so I thought we could be. The three of us. The Three Musketeers, just like Mr. Maddox calls us.”
“I wish I had a brother,” Andy said, drawing a random shape in the dirt. “My sister’s a dork.”
“My brother was great.” Standing up, Michael grabbed the knife from his friend. “All right, I’ll do it.”
“Yes,” Tony cheered. “You just need to make a small cut. Only a few drops.”
Michael slid the blade across his fingertip, wincing at the pain.
Tony followed. “C’mon Andy.”
“I can’t,” the boy said, swallowing hard.
“Why not?” Michael held up his bloodied fingertip. “You just saw us. It’s easy.”
“No, you don’t understand. If I see my own blood, I’ll pass out. I swear.”
“You’re a wimp.” Tony jeered.
“No, I’m not.”
“Then do it. We’re brothers, right?”
Andy hesitated, grimacing at the carnage before him. He stepped towards Tony, cringing. “You do it. But quick. And I can’t look at it.”
Michael grabbed the boy’s hand. “I’ll do it. It won’t hurt.”
“Ahhhhhh!” Andy screamed as his friend poked him with the tip of the knife. It was barely a nick and Michael had to squeeze the boy’s finger to get a single drop out.
“Oh, my God,” Andy moaned, starting to hyperventilate.
Tony’s eyes got wide. “I don’t think he was kidding about fainting.”
“You thought I was kidding?” Andy glanced at his finger. His pupils rolled back into his head as he sank to the ground.
The two boys stared at their friend, their mouths gaping.
“Man, I think we’re gonna have to carry him back,” said Tony.
Michael squared his shoulders, his face serious. “What about blood brothers?”
“You still want to do it?”
Tony held up his finger. “What about Andy?”
“We’ll get him next time.”
The boys rubbed their fingers together.
“No next time,” Andy moaned. “No more blood.”
Michael laughed, helping the boy to his feet. “C’mon, Mr. Dangerous. Let’s get you back to the house.”
* * * * *
Michael looked at his watch. It was 4:30, an hour and a half before dinner. He considered going back to his room, but decided against it. Most of the other kids were getting ready to leave for the winter holiday, to fly home to spend Christmas with their families. He didn’t want to hear them talking about what was on their wishlists and how it would be great to be out of school for three weeks.
Andy had left a few days earlier since his family celebrated Hanukkah. Tony was being picked up that night by his Mom. Michael sighed and wondered what he would do for the three days he’d be alone before he left.
“I hate the holidays,” he grumbled.
“Hey. All packed?”
Michael hadn’t seen Tony enter the common room, but he was glad he was there. “Yeah. How ‘bout you?”
“Uh huh. Though I pack light. My uncle always told me to pack light, in case you have to leave in a hurry.” Tony glanced around the room. “So, where are you going for Christmas?”
“I’m going with my grandfather. He’s at a military base in Guam.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s not that bad.” Michael poked at the stray fibers on the couch. “The military actually has pretty good food. Christmas dinner is all right and I get to hang out with some of the soldiers.”
Tony blushed. It wasn’t often that Michael saw him nervous, but it was clear he was feeling uncomfortable. “What about going somewhere else?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I asked my mom if you could come with us for Christmas and she said yes.”
The idea was crazy and Michael didn’t know what to think. “Why’d you do that?”
“I dunno. Because maybe you should have a regular Christmas, like other kids.”
Michael found himself without words.
Tony continued. “My mom had the school call your grandfather. He said it was okay to come to my house as long as you wanted to go.” The dark-haired boy kicked at the ground. “So, what do you say?”
Something in Michael felt that maybe he should be angry, that maybe he should be upset that Tony had gone behind his back to do all this. He hated when people felt sorry for him and treated him differently just because his family had died. But Michael wasn’t mad. Part of him felt like crying. The other part of him was happy... and excited.
“That would be great,” he answered.
Tony smiled and let out a sigh. “Okay. I’ll call my mom. It’ll be great. I promise.” Turning, he darted towards the phones.
“Tony,” Michael called after his friend.
The boy stopped and turned. “Yeah?”
Tony smiled and held up his finger. “Blood brothers, remember?”
“Brothers...” Michael whispered. >>>
Michael snapped forward, glancing around the room. Ravenswood was next to him, pulling the folder from his hands. “Are you all right? Did you find something?”
“Sorry, I was just thinking about my brother.” He glanced down at the paperwork. “I found the passport information from before we went on the trip.”
Ravenswood scanned the documents and nodded. “I found something, too.” He held up a green card decorated with rainbows and flowers.
“A baby shower invitation?”
“You never told me your aunt was pregnant.”
“I don’t remember her being, but I was just a little kid. I don’t know if I’d have noticed.”
Ravenswood pointed to the party information. “There’s no year listed, but the shower was set for late October. That would coincide with a due date around December or January. Could your aunt have been pregnant, and could Sara have been that baby?”
“I don’t know.” Looking at the flowery writing on the card, Michael suddenly found himself irritated. “You know, I think we’re barking up the wrong tree here. I mean, if my aunt was pregnant, why wasn’t that mentioned in any of the news articles? If a baby was born, why wasn’t that mentioned? I mean, I survived, that was all over the news.”
“I can’t know for sure, but you were brought to a civilian hospital. The rest of your family was sent to the military hospital.”
Michael shook his head, trying to come up with something. “Sara. She said her family died when she was a kid. That means she knew them. It can’t have been my aunt.”
Ravenswood didn’t have an answer for that, but remained skeptical. “I just don’t think we can rule anything out right now.”
It was not the answer Michael wanted to hear. In fact, he didn’t want to hear anything anymore. “You know, I spent years dealing with the fact that I had no family, okay? I can’t believe out of the blue, some woman is gonna show up who’s my cousin or something. I mean, my dad’s a jerk, but I think he would have told me about this.”
“Not if he didn’t know about it. He was in a coma, Michael. By the time he came out of it, that baby would have been long gone.”
Michael stared at the man, then threw up his arms. “I’m not doing this anymore. We need to go. We need to stop this wild goose chase and get back to work. We should be worrying about what Bling and Thorn are up to, not worrying about some floozy Bling’s banging.”
Ravenswood sighed and looked at the stack of papers. “All right. Let me get this stuff back into the boxes and we can get out of here.”
“No, I need to get out of here, now. I’ll tell Christine to take you home.”
Rushing from the room, Michael hurried down the stairs. A part of him wished he’d never gone to that fundraiser, never heard the name Sara Wolff. Everything was fine before then. Now...
Christine was in the main dining area, her laptop on the table. She glanced up, peering at him over her reading glasses. “Finished?”
“I should have never started,” he sneered before he rushed out the door.