Authors: Mackenzie Morgan
After Mrs. O’Reilly went back inside the house, the two men sat silently for a few minutes, and then Pallor said, “I was serious when I said you had nothing to worry about as far as I’m concerned.”
Mr. O’Reilly nodded stiffly. “Thank you.” Then he stood, too, and said, “Mr. Stewart, we’re running out of time. If we adopt your friend’s child, we’ll abide by the terms of the contract, even to the point of allowing you limited access to the boy, but I will insist on a confidentiality clause. We can’t take any chances on anyone, not even the child himself, finding out that he is not our child biologically. But whether we adopt the child you represent or another, we really do have to find a baby. How soon do you expect to know something?”
“I hope that the mother will make her decision in about a month. I’ll let you know when she does.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Wednesday afternoon, Pallor was on a flight from Memphis to Los Angeles. He had a window seat and gazed out as the plane began its descent. It looked like there was a gray dome sitting over the city. He hated the idea of sinking into that mess. He shook his head. Poor Earth. The humans were slowly ruining the whole planet. At least they wouldn’t be able to do that to Terah. The other races would never stand still for it.
After he checked into his motel and ordered room service, he pulled out the final folder from his stack. The Livingstons. Phillip Livingston was forty-seven years old and worked as an engineer for the city. Amanda Livingston was twenty years younger than her husband and worked as a bank teller. Although he made pretty good money, and their combined income would be considered comfortable, they lived up to their income and had very little set aside for emergencies. They liked to socialize, especially on the weekends, and mainly in out-of-town places. No household employees were listed on the financial statement, so either they were paying someone under the table, or Mrs. Livingston took care of the house herself.
Pallor pulled up in their driveway a few minutes before seven the next night. Their house was a white ranch with large doors and wide windows. A young woman in a white uniform opened the front door and led him through the house to the deck out back. Mr. and Mrs. Livingston were relaxing on lounge chairs sipping tall drinks with bits of fruit floating in them. The maid indicated the third lounge chair and asked Pallor if he’d like a drink. He said he was fine and sat down on the side of the chair, facing the Livingstons.
“Nice night, isn’t it?” Mr. Livingston asked. “We like to relax for a bit before dinner. Helps the digestion.”
Pallor nodded. “I won’t keep you long, but I would like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
“Fire away,” Mr. Livingston answered.
“First of all, why are you going through a private adoption? Wouldn’t it be easier for you to go through the state?”
Mr. Livingston shook his head. “Not really. They insist on interviews, physicals, psychological tests, parenting classes, and the list just goes on and on. We really don’t have the patience for all that hoopla.”
“Plus the fact that I absolutely refuse to get involved in any of this,” Mrs. Livingston mumbled.
“I’m sorry,” Pallor said, facing her. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
She shook her head. “Never mind.”
“So, you’re trying to expedite the process?” Pallor asked.
Mr. Livingston nodded. “If you’ve got enough money to grease the bureaucratic wheels, why not use it?”
“I see. Okay. Let me ask Mrs. Livingston a couple of questions,” Pallor said, again turning to face her. “I understand that you work at a bank. Are you planning to quit your job? Or are you just going to take a temporary leave of absence?”
“Neither one,” she answered. “I have absolutely no intention of getting involved in any of this in any way. This is something he wants. Not me. I have never had any interest in having or raising a child, and I don’t intend to be saddled with one now. If he wants a son, he can have one, but he’s going to have to take all the responsibility for it. I don’t plan to alter my life one bit.”
Mr. Livingston’s face turned slightly pink, but he managed a little chuckle and said, “She’s just kidding. She’s as up for this as I am.”
“You keep saying that, and I keep telling you you’re wrong. Guess you’re going to find out just how wrong once that kid gets here and you find yourself knee deep in dirty diapers”
Mr. Livingston looked at Pallor. “She’ll come around. You’ll see. She’ll fall in love with him and it’ll all work out great. She just hates change. You should have seen her when I bought this house and we were going to have to move. You’d have thought the end of the world was coming the way she carried on, but now that we’re here, she loves it.”
“Adopting a child is a bit more of a commitment than buying a house,” Pallor said.
“Not really,” Mr. Livingston said. “Both involve change, but once the change is made, everything will work out. You’ll see.”
Pallor nodded. “Have you given any thought to schools?”
Mrs. Livingston laughed. “With all the taxes we pay, he can go to public school, just like we did.”
Mr. Livingston pursed his lips for a moment, like he was trying to keep the words from coming out, but he lost the battle. “I’ve been thinking about that, honey. Public schools aren’t quite the same today as when you were there, and I’m not sure I want any son of mine in one. We’ll just have to wait until it’s time for him to go and see, but I’m thinking private school.”
“And what are you planning to use to pay for that?” she asked.
“We can cut down on some of our spending. It’s not like we really need three cars.”
Mrs. Livingston rolled her eyes. “I’m not giving up anything. If you want to spend good money on a private school, you can take it out of your check.”
“Well, we have time to work that out,” Mr. Livingston said. “But in answer to your question, Mr. Stewart, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to find an acceptable private school in the area so that he can live at home. I really do hate the idea of boarding school.”
Pallor nodded. “I’m sure your lawyer told you that the adoption contract would contain a clause giving me access to the child at least twice a year, to his school records, and to his medical records. Right?”
Mr. Livingston nodded. Mrs. Livingston had picked up a magazine and was thumbing through it.
“Well, I’ll need to be involved in any decisions regarding the school he attends.”
Mrs. Livingston slapped the magazine down on her legs. “I don’t think so, not unless you’re planning to pick up the tab. Phillip, if you go along with that, he can say that that kid has to go to the most expensive school around, even if it bankrupts you. No. Do not go along with that. You can find some other kid to adopt.”
“She does have a point,” Mr. Livingston said.
Pallor nodded. He was tempted to say that he’d pay for the school himself, but he remembered Mr. Blalock’s advice and kept his mouth shut. “Well, we can work on some kind of agreement along those lines at a later date.” Then he stood up and thanked them for taking the time to talk to him.
Mr. Livingston escorted him to the front door, and as Pallor was leaving, he asked, “Do you have any idea when you can let us know something? It’ll take me a while to get Mandy acclimated to the idea of giving up her exercise room for a nursery, but I don’t want to get into that argument unless it’s a sure thing.”
“Sometime next month someone will let you know one way or the other,” Pallor said, although he was tempted to tell the man that he wasn’t going to have to get into any arguments with his wife, at least not over Badec’s son.
~ ~ ~ ~
On Friday morning, September 12, Pallor caught a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, and by late afternoon, was back in his office. He had planned to spend the rest of the day going through his notes and writing up a coherent report on each of the six couples, but he was just too tired and depressed.
He decided to take a nap and tackle the reports later. After all, he didn’t have to be at Kalen’s until dinnertime on Saturday, and that was twenty-four hours away.
Plans and Preparation
Kalen spent Saturday morning cleaning and freshening three of the guest rooms at the Gate House. While he worked, he reminisced about his three hundred years as Keeper of the Gate and the changes he’d seen, as well as the changes his father had seen before him.
The Gate House was probably the oldest building on Terah, and as far as Kalen knew, it had always been run by a dwarf. It had been built by the same group of sorcerers, elves, dwarves, and dragons who had designed and built the two Gates Between the Worlds.
Both gates consisted of an inner circle of bluestones and an outer ring of sarsen stones. After all of the stones were set in place, the dragons fired the rings, creating an intense field of magical energy. Any sorcerer or magical being who entered the circle of stones could tap into that power to gain access to the stream of energy that flows between Earth and Terah, and use that stream to travel from one world to the other. On Earth the gate was known as Stonehenge.
For centuries, magical beings traveled freely between the two worlds and the Gate House on Terah was like a busy passport control office, and the Gate Keeper was primarily responsible for registering arrivals and departures and playing host to any overnight guests. The Gate House itself was a grand mansion surrounded by beautiful gardens with a full staff of housekeepers, cooks, grooms, and groundskeepers to see to the comfort of the guests.
But eventually magic became synonymous with evil on Earth and magical creatures as well as sorcerers were hunted and killed. The gate became an avenue of escape, and the Gate House became a temporary refuge for those seeking asylum on Terah. More and more magic was erased from Earth and the existence of the magical creatures became the substance of legends and fairy tales.
Although the gate on Terah was maintained in good working order, the gate on Earth quickly deteriorated after the exodus of magical creatures, so the Council of Sorcerers, in conjunction with the dragons, elves, and dwarves, made four keys that would open the energy flow from anywhere on either world. All the key holder had to do was concentrate on his destination and turn the key. One of the keys was given to the Master Sorcerer, a second to the dragons, a third to the dwarves, and the elves had the fourth key. Years later, as a safety measure, the keys were altered so that intense feelings of fear would automatically activate them, transferring the holder and, unfortunately, anyone near him to the gate on Terah.
Over the years, the responsibility of the Gate Keeper gradually shifted from welcoming visitors from Earth to protecting the secret of Terah’s existence, and with the changing function of the Gate Keeper, the outward appearance of the Gate House had been altered.
When approached from the gate, it appeared to be an old cabin, made of logs and thatch, with a stone chimney held together by mud. There were no windows, only a couple of small holes in the wall covered by scraps of cloth, and there were no lawns or gardens, only forest.
That cabin was all that people from Earth ever saw. As soon as they arrived, they were escorted back to the gate and sent back to Earth. Returning them was never a problem; they were more than willing to go, and they were very willing to attribute any memories they had to dreams or hallucinations once they woke up back on Earth.
However, once someone actually entered the house, the illusion vanished. The front room was larger than most houses on Terah, with wide bay windows overlooking well-kept lawns and gardens. The huge kitchen could be used to prepare meals for one or banquets for hundreds. There was a small table for four in the kitchen, an elegant table for twenty in the dining room, and a separate banquet hall that could seat several hundred. There were a dozen guest rooms in the main house and several guest cottages nearby. The stable had thirty horse stalls and eight large open stalls for visiting pegassi and unicorns. A large wagon, several small wagons, and a few carriages were stored in a nearby shed for the convenience of the guests.
Looking after all of this was too much for one dwarf, and since there was no longer a housekeeping staff, the local brownies helped out, especially when Kalen was expecting guests, but this time Kalen had quietly prepared everything himself. He didn’t want anyone else to know about this meeting.
Kalen was in the kitchen fixing dinner when Pallor suddenly materialized at his elbow.
“Why can’t you use the door like everyone else?” Kalen fussed as he wiped up the stew he had sloshed out of the pot at Pallor’s abrupt appearance.
“Sorry,” Pallor answered as he swallowed a chuckle. “The stew looks good.”
“Well, have you found someone to take the child?”
Pallor laid a stack of folders on the counter and tapped them. “I’m not sure. I’ve interviewed six couples, but after you read these reports, you may want me to keep looking.”
“I hope not. I want this thing settled. And I’m sure Badec does too,” Kalen said as he turned back to the pot. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I don’t think it would be a good idea for any of us to know the names of any of these people or where they live. You have to, but we don’t, and anything we don’t know, we can’t tell.”
“I understand what you mean, but it’s too risky for only one person to know where the child is. Something could happen to me. I could get killed.”
“I still think it’s best if none of us knows anything. I’m sure our meeting with Badec didn’t go unnoticed, and when Yvonne dies and the child disappears, it won’t take very long for someone to put it all together. I don’t want the information in my head.”
Pallor thought about it for a few minutes and then shook his head. “This is Badec’s son we’re talking about, the future Master Sorcerer. Someone on Terah has got to know where he is. Who, if not one of you? Badec?”
“I doubt he’ll want it in his head either, but I may have a solution. We’ll talk about that later. What I’d like for you to do right now is go through your folders and mark out anything that could be used to identify these people.” Kalen poured a big mug of scog and handed it to Pallor. “You’ve got a couple of hours. Use my desk.”
~ ~ ~ ~
After dinner, Kalen cleared the dining room table and set out a fresh pitcher of scog and four clean mugs. Once everyone was settled, Pallor took over. “I hired a lawyer who has some experience dealing with the type of adoption that we’re interested in. We need couples who for one reason or another don’t want to go through the regular procedure.”
“Why?” Duane asked.
“Because I need to keep a close eye on the child, and with regular adoptions, that would never be allowed. Everything would be kept secret. I wouldn’t even be able to find out who had him.”
“Oh,” Duane said quietly.
Pallor waited to see if there was anything else, and then continued. “Our lawyer contacted some of the lawyers who specialize in private adoptions and found six couples who were willing to agree to let me visit the child a couple times a year. I just spent the past two weeks interviewing them.”
“Have you decided which one you want to go with?” Laryn asked.
Pallor shook his head. “I’m not willing to make that decision by myself. I want all of us to be in agreement about which couple takes this child. If I need to, I can go back and try to find some others, but frankly, we need to get this settled as soon as possible.” The others nodded, so Pallor continued, “Kalen has suggested that it would be best if none of you actually know the name or location of any of the foster parents. I understand his concerns, so I’ve gone through the folders and marked out all identifying information. I have a financial statement and a background search as well as my own report on each of the couples, and each of you will have a chance to go through those before we make a final decision, but I thought I’d give you a brief summary first.” Pallor paused, looked around the table, and began.
“First, couple A,” and Pallor described his reaction to the Haverstons, their reasons for wanting to adopt a child, and their dependence on his mother’s good graces for their income.
“What about the place where they live? Is it suitable for a child?” Kalen asked.
“I can’t speak for all the houses, but the one I visited was lavish, with white furniture, white rugs, expensive glass vases everywhere, and high-priced paintings on the wall. Not at all the kind of a place where you picture a young boy running around. They seemed to be the type who likes to flaunt their wealth, even though they had nothing to do with earning it.”
“I don’t know about anyone else,” Duane said, looking around, “but I don’t like the sound of this couple. I hope they aren’t all like that.”
“They aren’t, but none of these situations is really ideal. We can’t tell them anything about him, about his parents, about his powers, or about the role he’ll have to play on Terah. For all they know, he’s just some child whose mother can’t be bothered to raise him. Under those conditions, the type of parents we’d normally pick would never consider having an outsider oversee the way they raise their son.”
“I guess you’re right, but I still don’t like them, even if they are willing to let you keep an eye on things,” Duane said as the others nodded.
“Our second couple, couple B, live on a farm,” Pallor said, and then he described the Peters, their farm, and their views on school. He also pointed out that although on paper they looked well off, their money was so tied up in the farm that they were living one season to the next, and one bad year could wipe them out. “They want a son so that he can help out while he’s growing up and take over the operation of the farm once he’s grown. They fully expect him to support them in their old age.”
“A farm’s not a bad place to grow up. In fact, considering that life on a farm is the closest thing Earth has to life on Terah, it might have some definite advantages,” Laryn said. “But it sounds to me like this couple is more interested in cheap labor than a child.”
“That may be true, but even so, they’d feed him and clothe him, and they’d teach him what he needs to know to run the farm. Would it be fair to them to let Badec’s son grow up there?” Kalen asked. “He won’t be there to take over when they get old.”
“True enough,” Duane agreed.
“Couple C lives in one of the largest cities on Earth. They are quite wealthy, but they don’t flash it around. Their living room is comfortable, a place where a child could play without causing a lot of damage, and both of them are down to earth. No pretentiousness, no arrogance, just plain simple people who happen to be incredibly well off,” Pallor said as he began to describe the Johanssons, their work, their travels, and their housekeeper, who would probably end up raising the child.
“Their lives sound so full already,” Laryn said thoughtfully. “Wonder why they decided to get a child?”
Pallor hesitated and then said, “I’m not sure, but I think they’re doing it for the housekeeper.”
“Why?” Kalen asked, frowning.
“I think she pretty much raised the wife, and it was obvious that she’s more a member of the family than anything else. The man and his wife were looking forward to specifics, like places they could take him, things they could show him, experiences they could give him, almost like a favorite aunt and uncle, but the housekeeper talked about everyday things, like milk and cookies, like a mother.”
Duane frowned. “That could be a problem when the time comes for him to return to Terah.”
Pallor nodded and then continued, “Couple D was a bit strange.” He described his first reaction to Tracy Troxler and the way she was dressed. “When I got there, the wife all but pushed me off the porch in her hurry to get rid of me and told me to meet her at a small tavern a few miles away. She didn’t want her husband to see me.”
“So her husband doesn’t know she’s thinking about adopting a child?” Laryn asked with a frown.
Pallor shook his head. “She’s in her twenties, he’s in his seventies. He already has three grown sons, a bunch of grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren.”
“So why bother?” Kalen asked.
“Money,” Pallor answered and proceeded to describe Tracy’s motives and her plans to deceive her husband.
“And she thinks he won’t know she’s lying?” Duane’s eyebrows were arched almost to his hairline.
“That’s what she thinks,” Pallor answered, “She said that she plans to use padding and insist that he sleep in another room while she’s pregnant, but I have my doubts that a man smart enough to have made the fortune he’s made is going to be foolish enough to fall for this one.”
“I think we can rule her out right now,” Laryn said, shaking her head.
“The next couple, couple E, has tried and tried to have a baby of their own, but it just hasn’t happened, and they’re running out of time,” Pallor said.
“Out of time?” Laryn asked. “Is she that old?”
Pallor shook his head. “They’re in their mid-thirties. The time issue has to do with his job,” Pallor began as he described the O’Reillys, their home, his job, her social life, and the fact that his becoming a partner in his law firm hinged on their having a child.
“I’m not sure I like the idea of my nephew being used to secure a promotion, but at least they’d have a good reason for not letting him or anyone else know he’s adopted,” Laryn said. “Do you think she’ll take care of him herself?”
Pallor shook his head. “I asked. They’re planning to hire someone to do that.”
Laryn nodded and waited for Pallor to move on to the last couple.