PROLOGUE

Sloanville, December 9, 1998

Unlike San Francisco, a more northern Sloanville had not been spared the frosty goodness typical for this time of year, and when Peter Caine returned home the grey city landscape was lying hidden under a clean, white blanket and sub-zero temperatures.

It's common that most people get moody, affected by the short days and rare sunlight, but Peter's grave expression had nothing to do with it; he couldn't care less about the weather. He only took note of the altered panorama and sunken back into his thoughts entered the building he had been calling home for the last year and a half, the Academy.

His most recent post card arrived only three days before him, consequently leaving Master Khan with very little time to prepare. He had lots of news but the dose had been justly divided – he was in charge of the China Town affairs, Kermit was to take care of the material side. Relieved that he no longer had to be the sole responsible for the huge Chinatown and 30 kids from the street on top of that, the senior Shaolin was genuinely happy when Peter's powerful chi filled the ground floor room. The two brothers in order greeted cordially; for his old friend's sake Peter even smiled.

The young Master took his luggage, a travelling bag and a bag-pack, and left it behind the little Dao garden, and immediately went to check the pack of practice weapons he had personally shipped from China. He discussed briefly with Master Khan what was to be done with them and just then Jake Hudson appeared. His face beamed with enthusiasm when he saw Peter.

'Pete, you're back! Hey…'

'Jake… How are you doin' ?' he patted Jake on the shoulder, still retaining his sombre expression. Jake couldn't help but feel intimidated.

Peter went to the other end of the room where Master Khan showed him a leak that needed urgent repair. The young Master only looked at Jake once and generally his attitude was as if the younger man had always been there.

Checking on the stained wall and without turning, Peter spoke.

'Are you settled OK, Jake?'

'Yes, everything's fine.'

'He's been assisting with the classes; I put him in charge of the self-defence class on Thursday…'

'Good, that's good,' nodded Peter.

'We had to make small shift to the schedule. I made a draft for a new schedule now that you've returned.'

Peter smiled.

'The guys will be ecstatic to have you back. Just check it…'

'It's OK, Mike, whatever you've done should be fine,' said Peter calmly. Impressed, Master Kahn preferred not to say anything else.

In that moment the Ancient appeared from the other end of the room, the area behind the columns that were dividing the place in two equal halves. Silent, Peter gave him a deadly look, no words were spoken. The old man bowed. Jake had no idea why Peter treated the sweet, old man like that. Master Khan only shook head.

Like the wind his young student passed Lo Si and headed for the corner where he had left his luggage.

'Kermit was looking for you,' said Khan in a louder voice, desperately trying to avoid the disaster.

'If he calls again I'll be at the Centre.'

'OK…'

'Have you been at the Centre, Jake?' asked Peter while going through the depths of his bag.

'Yes, I started volunteering there and….'

'Great.' Annoyed Peter simply grabbed the whole bag-pack and with it on his shoulder headed for the door. 'Mike… I… I'll resume classes in a day or two.'

'Sure, of course, no prob.'

Peter left. Not considering the bewildered men he left behind, he headed for the Youth Centre he had created several months after he took the brands. On the way there he had to stop and greet every adult citizen of Chinatown he met; people were actually coming specially to see him. The news that Young Master Caine had returned spread with the speed of light.

The old fire station was packed. At the entrance Ariel and Cheryl practically smothered the young priest with hugs. The whole welcome took almost an hour. No two straight sentences were spoken for a long time; instead there were tears and sobs, smiles, giggles, and hip-hip-hoorays. Young Rick Harding, the first kid Peter ever helped, had even made a diary with every event Peter needed to know about; it was an almost entirely filled A4 notepad.

The former cop slowly started recollecting all the problems he left behind when he journeyed to Mexico six months ago. He reproached himself for not asking Master Khan about the rent issue, but he remembered to ask Cheryl and all he got in return was a 'We're fine' sort of thing. In fact, both places that Peter Caine was in charge of, the Academy and the Centre, had had very good vibes to them so he never felt the need to worry. Just when he wondered what had happened in his absence, a black-clad figure appeared at the entrance.

Anxious, Peter freed himself from his kids' loud company. Kermit had left his hair grow again and as a whole family life seemed to agree very well with him. To the ex-mercenary it seemed that Peter had aged 10 years. Not so physically, but the shorter hair, revealing sombre face with an empty look, meant that the last months had not been easy for his young friend.

No words were necessary, no greetings were exchanged. Peter felt Kermit's anguish like it was his own.

Kermit took his glasses off.

'It's Paul.'

Automatically Peter stretched for his bag and on his way out he only managed to warn Cheryl that he'll be at the hospital. Back in June one father had told him off, but right now there was another one who needed him.

XXX

France, June 6, 1998

The beauty of the castles by the Loire was universally acknowledged. For one to see their melancholic-romantic situation and not even notice it, one needed to have some serious issues.

One such man was Kwai Chang Caine. He, the one who, according to his son, always had time to stop and smell the roses, was not the least taken by the romance in the air. Right now he was anxious, headed for an inn in a secluded village. It was one of those happy, little places, lucky to be close to a major touristic spot and even luckier not to be included in the tour guide.

The inn was not particularly full, yet the man at the reception, a chubby, bold monsieur, was anything but happy when he saw the stranger.

'Bon jour,' greeted Caine in French without accent.

'Bon jour.'

'I am passing from here… Do you have any spare rooms?'

'We have many spare rooms.'

'Excuse me, I am not using the right words… Is your inn very full these days?'

'Not really. Why?'

'I… am looking for someone… a friend.'

'I can't reveal anything about my guests. Company policy, you see.'

'Yes, I understand. Yet, I was told that this woman… this one, on the picture… has been here. Can you tell me when…?'

'Wait, I need my glasses… Hm… I don't know this woman.'

'Are you certain?'

'Of course I am certain! I'm running this place 25 years already. I may not be young but I am still with my wits! I've never seen this woman…. What is your name again?'

'Thank you, monsieur. That would be all.'

Annoyed Monsieur Boinne, manager and owner of The Three Swans, sneered while his eyes followed the funny dressed stranger. Something about this man made him stand out greatly from the others…

Having made certain that the stranger was on his way, Monsieur Boinne picked the phone.

'Yes… Put me through to Mrs DuJeanne, another one just came.'

XXXXX