Noah’s Boy – Snippet 23

Chapter 14

When they returned to the diner’s dining room, Conan was standing up, in the little circle they had cleared for his performance.  Somehow it had got much smaller, with various people crowding around, all trying to talk to him.

He had his guitar in one hand, and was bowing, seemingly in response to everything addressed to him.  Tom patted Kyrie on the shoulder.  “I go rescue the poor man, you make sure people have food and stuff, if they linger, and that no one leaves without paying.”

It was easier said than done, but on the other hand, the diner seemed to have a acquired several volunteer servers.  “They said they’re regulars,” Jason said.  He was red-faced and looked beat, but was grinning.  “And Anthony confirmed it.  Some guy called James Stephens who said he’s half a horse, and a big man who goes by Professor Squeak.”

“Oh, Professor Roberts.”

“Is he really?” Jason asked, as he and Kyrie crossed back and forth giving warm-ups and bussing tables.

“A professor?  Yeah. Pharmacology.  CUG school of medicine.”

“Oh, wow.  I thought he was just nuts.  He started telling me how he had all these names, including Speaker To Lab Animals and Professor Squeak.”

Kyrie hesitated, but in the press of people it wasn’t a good time to mention shape shifting, so she just said, “He’s eccentric, but a very nice man.”

“Yeah, well, he was taking orders and stuff, and didn’t know what to do with tips.”

“Well, no,” Kyrie said, when their paths crossed again.

Their desultory conversation wound down as the diner returned to normal activity for that time of night — almost empty with only three tables still occupied by large groups.  Three or four people remained near Conan too, one of them the fiercely protective Rya who was standing between him and a large, well dressed man, who was trying to talk to Conan about something.

Kyrie looked over at Tom, who leaned over one of the tables, talking to regulars, a smile on his face as he traded jokes with the man they’d long known as The Poet, who turned out to be Rya Simmons’ father, Mike.

He looked… natural, Kyrie thought.  Or at least, if she hadn’t known that something was very wrong, she would have thought that he looked perfectly natural.  He seemed tired, of course, and moving in a slightly forced way, like someone valiantly dragging himself past his last ounce of strength and will power.  But there was nothing unusual, no odd movements, as he picked up the tray with the used plates, and laid down the accounting for the table of seven people.

“So, do you think he’ll make enough to marry my daughter?” Rya’s father asked Tom with a wink, as Kyrie approached them.

“He has asked?” Tom said.  “Braver than I thought.”

“She’s probably asked him,” Mike conceded with a smile.  A retired TV weatherman, he was writing a novel in his sleepless nights, to stay conscious and not turn into a were fox.  He’d left his daughter at five, trying to avoid tainting his family with his weirdness.  But when his daughter had started shifting herself, she had found him.  “But I’ve heard a lot of talk about it.”

“Well!  I’d be happy about it,” Tom said, and for just a moment his voice reverberated oddly, seeming to echo off the walls of the diner, and seemed to be imbued with authority and knowledge that had never been Tom’s. He must have noticed it too, and the people at the table all stared up at him, but then Tom cleared his throat, “Anyway, at least he didn’t completely tank and chase our customers away.  I’m not sure how much we made, but it was a lot.”

“Well, then, maybe you should give my future son in law a cut?” Mike said only half joking.

Tom assured him he intended to do just that, then went back to the counter, with Kyrie trailing him anxiously.

Behind the counter, Anthony was removing his apron, with an air of grim determination, “I have to go Tom, now, really.  My wife is threatening to change the locks.”

Tom nodded to him, as he set down the tray loaded with dirty dishes, and put them in an holding area, waiting for the washing machine to finish its cycle.  “We’ll see how much we made, and make sure you get a cut, too,” Tom said.

“Well, that might help.  We need to move to a bigger apartment.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, you know.  There will be a kid, sometime in fall.”

Was Tom’s smile a little forced as he said “Congratulations”?  And even Kyrie couldn’t avoid a pang as Anthony beamed at them, “About time you two had some, but you got to get married first!  And think about it.  Our kids could play together.”

“Our kid would totally beat up your kid,” Tom said, but it was automatic.

From the other side of the counter, leaning on it, Rya said, “Mr. Ormson!”  She’d been introduced to Tom as Tom, and to Kyrie as Kyrie, but she insisted on calling them Mr. Ormson and Ms. Smith.  Which was funny, since she was probably only two years or so younger than Kyrie.  “Mr. Ormson.  You’ll let Conan sing on Wednesdays, right?  Here?”  Conan, standing behind her, looked hopeful.  Behind him were two men, also looking hopeful.

Tom turned around.  There were dark circles around his eyes, but his gaze had a strange brilliance.  “I’d rather he sings Saturdays, though we might need to come up with some new table arrangement to get more people in, why?”

“They,” Rya gestured to the two men nearby.  “Want to hire Conan to sing at their bars, and I was saying he shouldn’t do that, when he has worked for you all this time, and you’re friends and –”

The two men started up with a babble of explanations from which the word “non exclusive” emerged.  Tom nodded.  “I don’t see why he can’t sing for them other nights.  I’ll take the night he can give us.  It’s a small venue here, anyway, but, Conan, don’t sign anything without getting it looked at by a lawyer.”  And on those words, the reverberation was back, the sound of authority.  Conan raised his eyes at it, staring at Tom with wide open eyes, as Tom went on, “My dad will help you out, when he comes to visit.  Just don’t sign anything till he tells you it’s okay.”

Conan didn’t answer.  He was still staring at Tom.  He pushed Rya gently aside.  He tried to get under the pass through, but the hat caught.  He looked as if he would speak, but then realized there were non-shifters nearby.  He swallowed hard.

“Tom,” he said.  “I must talk to you.”

* * *

“No, Mother,” Rafiel said.  “No, I’m not lying to you.  Yes, I’m quite sure I’m all right.  Well, I wasn’t there for a while.  No.  It was a fight that… well, it doesn’t matter.  Yes, a fight with a creature.  You could say that.  Yes, very much like the saber tooth last winter, but this one is female.  No, not that type of female.”

There was a pause.  Bea watched his face, attentive, patient and more than a little bit embarrassed.  “Well,” he said.  “No.  I hope not.  She almost killed me.  No.  I’m fine now.  You know how quickly I heal.”

“Beg your pardon?  No, I’m fairly sure I didn’t break Stephanie’s heart!  I never even met her.  Mother!  When I was five doesn’t count.  And I’m sure she’s forgiven me for breaking her doll by now.  No, I don’t think I need to marry her to repair that particular sin.”

There was a long interval in which he answered her questions, and slowly, Bea started to realize what they had in common and why he had felt so familiar to her.

He finished, hesitantly with, “Mom, could you call this number?” he took the number Bea had earlier scrawled on a paper napkin.  “Tell them their daughter is all right, that you don’t have any details, but she’s safe and will come home as soon as possible.  I… Don’t mention any names, certainly not my name.”

There was a silence, and red climbed up his cheeks.  “No.  I… no.  It’s related to that attack.  Besides, the Dragon Triad is after her.  Uh?  No.  Not involved.”  And suddenly he was looking up at Bea, and she realized for the first time that while the eye that had been injured looked somewhat blood-shot it wasn’t missing anymore — no longer a mass of dried, black blood.  Instead, it was a normal eye which, like the other eye, was the color of dark, aged brandy.  And both of them twinkled with amusement.  “She’s very nice.  No.  Well, we’ll see.  Maybe you’ll get to meet her.”

Rafiel hung up, and Bea had time to control the heat on her cheeks.  She said, slowly, “Your parents… are very protective.”

And now he turned around, and now his cheeks were red, and he was trying to explain, stammering, “No, this is the thing, see, they found out I could shift at 13, and Kyrie and Tom think I’m some sort of wimp because I still live at home, but the thing is, it’s not that I’m afraid of going out, it’s –”