The run had been a success, but rarely had the successful completion of a job been received with such a lack of enthusiasm.
It was after midnight. The battered Gaz-Willys Nomad rumbled along the sparsely-populated Interstate 5, meticulously maintaining the posted speed limit. If anyone (such as a curious Lone Star patrol) had taken the time to look inside the Nomad's blacked-out windows, they might have discovered something that would have interested them greatly. As it was, no one seemed inclined to bother the truck as it made its way back toward Seattle. At least one thing was going right. That, along with the fact that the object of the run had been obtained, made exactly two.
The four occupants of the truck were all slumped in their seats in various attitudes of exhaustion, injury, introspection, or some combination of the above. In the rear compartment, taking up the majority of the wide bench seat, the young Amerind troll, Joe, was uncharacteristically silent. His armored jacket was torn and stained with blood from where he had, as usual, taken the brunt of the opposition's attacks. Most of his wounds had already been healed, but those that remained at this moment were claiming most of his attention.
Next to him, perched on the edge of the seat, was Ocelot. He looked worse than he felt, since his wounds had mostly been healed as well. However, healing could do nothing about the aching muscles and bone-weary exhaustion he was currently experiencing. He sat with his hands jammed in the pockets of his jacket, even now scanning the area in front of them for potential threats. Right now, he was thinking, anybody who decided to tangle with them in their current state of mind had better have his affairs in order. Patience and restraint were two words that didn't exist in Ocelot's vocabulary at the moment.
In the driver's seat was ShadoWraith. The tall elf's eerie white eyes never stayed still, the pinprick pupils roving constantly over the view out the windshield, the side windows, and the truck's three mirrors. Other than the movement of his eyes, though, `Wraith remained almost completely still, his hands gripping the steering wheel tightly, his features set in an expression of intense resolve.
Finally, in his usual position in the shotgun seat, was Winterhawk. Slumped into the corner of the seat next to the door, the mage had his hands in the pockets of his longcoat much like Ocelot did, but his morose scrutiny was confined to the view directly in front of him. His formerly stylish suit torn and dirty, his hair disheveled, and his left arm wrapped with a makeshift bandage to hold over the bullet wound until he could heal it, `Hawk's appearance was a far cry from its usual sartorial elegance.
"Well," Ocelot said, breaking the silence. "That was fun."
"You have a very strange idea of fun, my friend," Winterhawk muttered without moving.
"Not fun. But successful," ShadoWraith said. As was always the case, `Wraith's terse comment seemed to have been run through a filter designed to remove any extraneous verbiage.
Winterhawk sighed, pulling a tiny sealed vial from his inner coat pocket. "Seems a great lot of work for this little thing." He held it up, staring at the ruby-colored liquid inside like it held the secret of the universe. "Wonder who it is."
"I don't care," Joe said in his rumbling bass from the back seat. "As long as it isn't me."
"Can't imagine why a secret medical research lab would have a blood sample on you," Winterhawk said. "No offense."
"I'm just as happy not knowing who it is," Ocelot said. "The less we know, the less likely somebody's going to come after us after this is all over."
"Agreed," ShadoWraith said.
"I just want to hand it over to Johnson, get the rest of our payment, and get ourselves the hell away from this run," Ocelot continued.
"I'm with you there," Winterhawk agreed. "Easy job, indeed. I'd hate to see what he considers to be a difficult one."
They had met with Mr. Johnson in a nondescript bar two days ago and accepted the assignment, which ostensibly had been to gain entry to a medical research facility some distance outside Seattle and obtain a particular blood sample. The run had been set up through their usual fixer, Harry, and had seemed to be a fairly cut-and-dried affair. Johnson had even provided them with the codes to get them into the building, and a crude map of the facility that he had obtained from someone inside, whom Johnson had claimed was on the payroll of the people he represented.
What Johnson had not told them about, however, was how well guarded the facility had been. They had gotten in all right using the codes Johnson had given them, but beyond that the run had been a seemingly endless progression of automated defenses, traps, and security forces. They had been kept constantly on the run, barely able to stop and reassess their plans to fit with the new situation. By they time they had found the sample they were seeking and gotten out of the building, all four of them had been wounded, barely standing from exhaustion, and low on ammunition. Their escape had been covered by ShadoWraith's sniper rifle and `Hawk's area effect magic while Ocelot had gone off with the profusely bleeding Joe to bring back the truck. They had gotten away, but not by much. A reluctant but necessary stop far off the road to wait for `Hawk's spell drain to abate to the point where he could provide some healing had gotten them where they were now, heading back for home where they could share some choice sentiments with both Mr. Johnson and Harry.
"You think Johnson set us up?" Joe said.
Ocelot shrugged. "Who knows? Could be, but what would he gain by doing it?"
"The associate," Wraith said.
"What?" Ocelot turned to look at him.
"Yes," Winterhawk said, nodding. "P'raps you're right. The inside contact who obtained the map."
"Could have been bought off," Ocelot said. "That never happens in this line of work."
"They were sure as hell expecting us," Joe said. "Think they'll come after us now?"
"I think we'd better hand this thing over to Johnson as soon as we can," Ocelot said. "As long as we've got it, this isn't over."
"I suggest we get cleaned up a bit before we do that," Winterhawk said.
"And healed," Joe added, wincing for effect as he shifted position.
"Your place?" `Wraith said to Ocelot.
"Yeah, good as any."
It took them another half an hour, continuing to drive at the speed limit so as not to attract unwelcome attention, to reach Ocelot's place in Tacoma. It was a tiny cinder-block house of a type that had been used in the previous century as free-standing motel rooms or short-term rentals. There had once been quite a number of the small structures in the vicinity; now, though, most of them had been knocked down to provide more privacy for the others (or more likely had fallen down from lack of maintenance). Ocelot's had been quite a find for him: a free-standing house with an attached garage. It wasn't a large place, but he didn't need a large place. Opening the garage door from the back seat, he waited while `Wraith drove the truck in next to his BMW Blitzen and Honda Viking and then closed it again behind him.
Inside, the four runners arrayed themselves around the house's front room, which served as the living room, dining area, kitchen, and bedroom. The place had an actual bedroom, but Ocelot had turned it into a workout studio and moved his bed out into the front to make more space for his mats and weapons. Joe lowered his massive bulk into the large reinforced chair that Ocelot had bought for just that purpose, while Winterhawk leaned on the edge of the kitchen counter and Ocelot paced restlessly around the room. ShadoWraith, after a few moments, sat down at the dining table, pulled out his Browning pistol, and began stripping and cleaning it.
It was a bit over an hour before everyone was healed up and feeling mostly human (or elven or troll) again. Winterhawk finished up the healing duties after waiting for most of his drain from previous spells to dissipate. After that, he had insisted that he could not function for another minute without a shower, so he had retrieved a change of clothes from the truck (after several unfortunate incidents on previous runs had resulted in similar situations, all four of the team members had taken to keeping spare clothing in one of the truck's storage bins) and disappeared into Ocelot's bathroom. By the time he had finished and the other three runners had followed suit, it was well past midnight.
"Okay," Ocelot said, popping open his second beer of the evening. "Who's gonna call Johnson?"
Everyone looked immediately at Winterhawk. Except for Joe, who started to say something but then decided not to.
"Right," Winterhawk said. "As soon as possible, I take it? I, for one, don't have any objection to summoning Mr. Johnson from his nice warm bed after what we've been through this evening."
"Tonight," `Wraith said. Joe and Ocelot nodded in agreement.
The meeting with Johnson went as well as could be expected, given the circumstances. They met at the Glass Spider, a bar that the team often used for meets; Johnson, anxious to get his hands on the vial, had proposed meeting at the same place where they had originally gotten their assignment, but `Hawk had nixed that after observing the vehemently shaking heads of his partners when the suggestion had been made.
The runners were not in the best of moods considering their experiences, which gave the meet a certain edgy quality; however, Johnson, for his part, seemed as surprised as they were to find out that they had apparently been set up. Surprised enough, in fact, that when Winterhawk put the group's request for supplemental recompense on the table before agreeing to surrender the vial of blood, Johnson had only offered a token protest before handing over the requested payment.
The runners sat watching as Johnson, now in possession of his precious vial, made his way out of the bar. "I see unpleasantness in someone's future," Winterhawk commented, pocketing the credstick containing his cut of the payment.
"Yeah, maybe," Ocelot said. "Right now, though, all I see in my future is a good long sleep. Maybe a few drinks and a little rented affection."
Winterhawk sighed. "Still buying your dates?"
"I'm not payin' `em to spend the night," Ocelot said patiently. "I'm payin' em to leave in the morning."
Joe rose, his huge three-plus-meter form dwarfing the rest of the table's occupants. "You guys wanta take me home first?"
"Yeah, yeah," Ocelot said, grinning. "C'mon, guys. Let's go. I think it's past somebody's bedtime."
"Nah," Joe said good-naturedly. "It's past my mealtime. Gotta keep your priorities straight, you know. This bar stuff isn't enough to get me started."
Ocelot's grin grew a bit wider, while Winterhawk smiled with an exasperated shake of his head and `Wraith raised an eyebrow. Leave it to Joe to think about food. There weren't many times when Joe wasn't thinking about food, they were pretty sure.
It was another hour before everyone had been dropped off at their respective residences: Joe to the ramshackle Redmond building that he shared with the rest of his gang, and Winterhawk and ShadoWraith to their downtown Seattle apartments. Ocelot drove the truck through the streets that were now nearly deserted, back toward Tacoma. He was glad he had finally learned how to drive a four-wheeled vehicle, because it made it a lot easier to get the truck back to his garage where it was stored. It was an uneventful drive back to his place; a light rain was falling, coating the streets, while the streetlamps and infrequent headlights cast eerie shifting reflections into the puddles.
Ocelot liked this time of night. Even though he was tired from the run, now that he was headed home he didn't feel particularly like sleeping. Pulling the truck into the garage, he locked its doors, leaving the unloading for the morning, and entered the house through the door from the garage. He shrugged out of his armored jacket and tossed it over the back of a nearby chair (failing to notice—or at least care—that it immediately fell off and dropped to the floor), grabbed another beer from the fridge, and sat down to decompress for a bit. It always took awhile after the run was over for him to come down off his adrenaline rush.
It was only when he grabbed the remote to flip on the trid did he notice that the light was flashing on his telecomm unit. Hmm, he thought idly. Message? Wonder who that could be... All the people who tended to call him had been with him up until an hour ago, and calls from the team would have come from his wristphone anyway. When he was on a run, he didn't forward messages from his home comm to his wrist unit; if it was important, they'd have his personal number, and if it wasn't, it could wait.
Curiously, he got up and punched the button to replay the message. Only one, and it had come earlier the same day. He hadn't noticed it before when the guys were over. Too much on his mind, he supposed.
The machine spoke. Ocelot froze in the act of reaching for his beer as he recognized the voice. No vid, but the voice was definitely familiar. Female.
"Ocelot? It's me—Kestrel. I'm in Seattle, and I thought you might want to get together. I'd like to see you again. Let me know, all right?" A Seattle-based LTG number flashed across the darkened screen, then there was a click as the connection was broken.
Ocelot took a deep breath. He didn't even notice that he'd crushed the beer can in his fist.
Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation. No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.