Drake stepped through the doorway with his satchel and looked around the clinic. It looked clean and very well ordered to Drake's eye. Given what he'd seen of the Zero Zone so far, this was an impressive change.
A woman passed in front of Drake carrying a pile of bandages. She was a kindly looking older lady. "Hello," she said. "Make yourself at home. I won't be long."
Drake decided she must be the woman Aaron described as Lydia. He looked around for a place to sit, feeling very self conscious of his own dirty, unshaven look. A night spent sleeping in puddles did not do much for his clothes, either.
Lydia seemed to notice, however. "The washroom is that way if you want to freshen up." Lydia hadn't stopped moving and had barely looked at him when she passed into a back room.
Drake smiled and politely nodded. "Thank you ma'am," he said gratefully as he headed over to clean up. As Drake moved away from the doorway a young boy who had been hidden in Drake's shadow was revealed to be lurking in there.
"You can come in, too!" Lydia called out.
Aaron looked around nervously. "Okay," he replied. He still seemed ill at ease as he continued to watch the street with a frightened look.
Drake soon finished with the washroom, having managed to get the worst of the grime off his hands and face. Walking back to the waiting area, Drake spoke to the boy, "Aaron, go ahead and wash up a little, why don't you?" The boy pried his attention away from the street and went to the washroom.
A woman carrying her bandaged arm in a sling walked past Drake as she headed to the door. The pretty young woman looked like she had a rough life. Her eye was blackened and it looked like she had been beaten up recently. She paused as she reached the door and looked over her shoulder at Drake. A shadow of surprise passed over face for just a moment as she looked at the tall, dark man and she seemed like she was about to say something. Thinking better of it, she pushed the door open instead and pulled her eyes from Drake's face as she disappeared onto the street.
"I'm sorry. I'm Doctor Lydia," said the lady he had come to meet as she returned from a back room.
"Not a problem, doctor. My name is Drake. Do you have a few minutes?"
"Of course. I can always spare a few minutes to a newcomer."
/Good heavens/, thought Drake. /Am I that obviously new around here?/ He continued smoothly, "I'm hoping you might be able to help me. I'm looking for someone here in the Zone. I was kind of hoping, and kind of not if you understand, that you might have run across her or heard of her. She's a girl of about five eleven, light brown hair and green eyes. She had a strong nose and jaw and is dark complected. She might have gone by the name, 'Athena'."
"Hmm... I seem to recall the young woman. She came here about a year ago, along with a most unsavory fellow."
Drake's eyes lit up with the news. "You did? Was she okay?" Used to dealing with corporate red tape, Drake reacted to the hint of news with an attempt to 'lubricate' the flow of information. "I brought some things for trade..."
Lydia waved the satchel Drake offered her away. "Later. As I was saying, your sister had ran afoul of a very unpleasant man. A slave trader."
"A... A what?" Lydia's words hit Drake like a slap in the face. /Sister?/ he thought. /She knows Athena is my sister!/ Drake decided Lydia was telling the truth. Athena looked so much like Drake, they were often mistaken for twins. So if Lydia had really seen Athena, then perhaps it wasn't such a stretch that she'd recognize her brother for what he was.
"A slaver. I don't know how she came to fall into his hands. He wanted me to give her a checkup. I did this, but not before mentioning the man to my ward, Raven." Lydia chuckled lightly. "She has VERY little patience with his sort."
"Shit!" Drake exclaimed, but he tried to calm down. "A slaver..." his mind still boggled at the idea that a Stone could be just enslaved. The idea made his skin crawl and his face flushed. "Your ward, you said?"
"My adopted daughter, really. You should meet her some time. I think you'd like each other."
Working his mind through the impact of the information he'd been hit with, Drake suddenly recalled where he'd heard Raven's name before. She was a Shiroko-Tsuhi's newest esper. The report he'd read said something about her appearing practically out of nowhere. Now Drake knew Raven was from the Zone. His mind, ever on the prowl to pick up on finding the best people he could—especially for hiring into SynTech, wondered if he might pick up on some of the attributes Raven might have learned from Lydia. "You mean Raven the esper? I think I would enjoy meeting her."
Lydia smiled. "I think she would as well."
"Aaron, don't stand in front of the door, please. People are trying to come in." The boy scowled in irritation.
Drake turned his attention back to the question at hand. "Since you have seen Athena, was she okay?"
"She was fine physically, but I'm afraid she slipped away as soon as she was able. I think she was scared by the slaver and his friends, and when Raven met them, well... let's just say she really does not appreciate their trade."
"Are they still after her?"
"Well, those that Raven dealt with certainly aren't." Drake's opinion of Raven jumped about three notches. "He may have had friends," she continued, "but I am unsure whether they would risk recovering your sister after that demonstration." Lydia looked into Drake's face. "I'm sorry she ran away, Mr. Drake. I had hoped to take care of her but I was overloaded at the moment. Raven went looking for Athena after the confrontation, but didn't find her."
"Thank you for your sympathy. It's certainly nothing you could have been responsible for." He looked away, his face sorrowful.
"Are they persistent? I mean, do you think they'd come after valuable... property again?"
"Usually they would, but if they thought Raven was protecting her, that is doubtful. Of course, Raven was away for quite some time, so it is possible that they thought themselves safe."
"I'm going to need to make connections here. And I'm expecting to be here for a while." Drake looked at Lydia. "If there's anything, anywhere you could point me to begin. I... I just need to be honest with you." Drake lowered his voice, "Aside from Aaron, who's really only sticking around me because I scared off some gangers that were troubling him, I don't have a friend in the world here, and I'm not expecting any. But if I could do something for you or your clients, just name it. If Raven and you saved Athena from slavers, then I think you know how much I owe you."
Lydia seemed to brush it off. "Oh, think nothing of that."
"With that attitude, you might just get asked for help again," Drake grinned. It was clear that Lydia wasn't going to ask for help with anything.
"As for connections, I could have you meet the local gang boss, but things have been fairly calm around here so I don't know if he will need your help."
"Maybe Raven would be interested in hearing about Aaron over there."
"I don't know that I or Raven can give him any help that he will want."
"Maybe not. I'll take care of him as best I can until I can find some place safe for him and his abilities." So far, Lydia had been able to perceive far more about him and his quest here than he'd ever expected. Now he wondered if Lydia might already know of what abilities he spoke. He wasn't disappointed.
"I can keep him around if you wish. I do have some experience with esper children," Lydia smiled.
Drake smiled back. That was more than he expected. "I don't want to dump the kid on anybody. It's really not like that. But if it's okay, I would like to see him sleeping somewhere without mud and rain and cold. I can help with his needs, clothes, and maybe food. I should tell you that his temper can make him a handful, too. And there's a whiz gang out there really ticked at him. I'm working on that."
Lydia smiled gently, "Every child has a temper."
"Yeah, but this one blows things up."
"I've dealt with that."
"Okay then, it's a deal. I'll come back regularly and bring one of these with me each time." Drake patted the satchel.
"I'll put it to good use," Lydia smiled.
Drake looked up. "Aaron, would you like to come talk to us for a moment?"
Aaron gave Drake a sideways glance and walked over. "Yeah? Hello, Ms. Lydia." The boy stood staring at his feet looking uncomfortable and fidgety.
"Hello Aaron. No need to be shy now."
Aaron played at the tattered bits of cloth that was left of his sweat shirt, but looked up quickly as Lydia spoke and then looked around.
"If you like, I think I have apples in the kitchen."
"Go ahead, Aaron. I'll catch up to you later," Drake encouraged the boy.
"Thank you Ms. Lydia!" Aaron caught Drake's eye for a moment and then smiled for the first time in Drake's memory. He ran off to the kitchen.
Drake looked guilty. "Damn, I'm a clod. I forgot breakfast this morning. The kid must be starving."
"Feel free to have an apple if you want as well."
Drake chuckled and shook his head. "You mentioned you have an arrangement with the local gang. Do you think they'll keep the guys after him out of here, at least until their temper blows over and they find something better to do?"
"They might not be able to, but I will call Raven if I must."
"You can call this number, too." Drake pulled out a soggy piece of paper from his coat pocket and scribbled something on it. He handed it to Lydia. "Someone on the other end can contact me. ANY time. And please don't hesitate."
Lydia examined the piece of paper, nodded quietly and pocketed the piece of paper. Drake made a mental note to let Hobbs know that if Lydia ever called, he was to inform Drake immediately through the coded transmitter Drake carried in his skull.
"Well you've been very nice, Lydia. I appreciate your help and your kindness, especially with respect to Aaron."
"Think nothing of it," replied Lydia.
Drake stood up and extended his hand. Standing, Lydia took his, expecting to shake it, but Drake had a slightly different idea. In a smooth, quick move, his eyes never leaving Lydia's face, Drake shifted her hand in his and lifted it a little. Bending forward just a bit, Drake kissed her hand. Releasing her hand just as quickly and smoothly, he stepped back slightly. It was best way he knew to thank this woman, this stranger, who would so easily help him without knowing anything really about him.
"I *do* think something of it. Good bye Lydia."
Drake left the Clark Street clinic and walked outside into the bright, late morning sun. Squinting for a few moments, Drake focused on the young lady standing near his bike. At first, he was concerned someone was about to make off with it, but then he realized it was the woman who'd left the clinic earlier. She obviously was nursing a broken arm and wasn't intending anything with his Kawasaki.
As he approached, she looked up and said in a serious voice, "Hey Mister, I heard you talking about that girl, Athena." Drake was a little irritated at the stranger's eavesdropping, but decided it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for word to get out he was looking for someone. She put a cigarette in her mouth with her good hand and then managed to light it up.
Tossing her tousled, unruly hair back, she continued. "I was resting there on the curb in front of the door. Sorry. But, look, I used to know someone named Athena."
"How did you know her?"
The woman put out a hand expectantly and Drake dug in his pocket for some old style money. Hiding a money clip in his hand, he pulled a couple hundreds out and handed them to the girl. It was probably a mistake. The girl looked a lot more surprised than he'd have expected and it occurred to him that money goes a bit farther out in the Zone. Next time it would be wiser to try half that amount. At any rate it seemed to loosen her tongue enough. She stuffed the bills in her pocket quickly.
"Shit, did you just hit payday or somethin'? Anyway, yeah, about a year and a half ago, I ran into Athena. She was new to the streets here. Hell, I was new, too, so we kinda got together. She never talked about how she came to be here, but it wasn't my business and I never asked.
"Anyway, we ran into that guy Lydia talked about. He used to 'collect' street people, especially young women. He broke into our place and nabbed us one night. I guess he figured he could sell us to some out of country corporate types. He never got that far, though. He took us down to this clinic for a check. Said something about his regular street doc having taken a long swim with a cement life preserver for over charging some clients.
"He took Athena in first. Then I heard a bunch of shooting and something like rumbling sounds. Next thing I new, the thugs who were holding me took off running toward the clinic door. I got the hell out of here first chance I got until the dust settled. I found out later that the little crippled kid who used to live here was some kinda teek and had pretty much put an end to the slaver's career."
Drake replied, "Thanks for the story, but how is that going to help me?"
"That slaver guy had a contact. I overheard him talking to his goons about taking me to see some guy named Salvo. Apparently, this guy shows up from time to time at 93 Underground. That was a good while ago, though, and maybe he's not even around anymore. But at least you have a name."
Drake nodded. "I appreciate the help, kid. And uh, if you run across some more recent information, I'll make it worth your while to send it my way."
The young woman flicked a half-smile at him and then turned to go. He couldn't help but wonder why she was in the Zone. She didn't seem like a bad sort, just maybe out of luck right now. That broken arm and her black eye didn't set too well with him, either. There were a lot of questions in his mind that weren't going to have an answer.
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