It took another hour to get everybody together. They met at Winterhawk's place, because it was centrally located and actually had decent furniture, unlike `Wraith's spartan warehouse. Once again, Ocelot didn't tell the others about the strange happenings; he just said that he wanted to talk to them about something important.
ShadoWraith arrived first. "Check your messages?" he asked Winterhawk with a raised eyebrow as he came in.
Winterhawk looked at him oddly for a moment. "No. Should I have?"
"Left you one."
The mage glanced over at his machine, where, sure enough, the light was blinking. "Sorry. I was fortunate to remember my shoes this morning, let alone checking my messages. Should I do it now?"
`Wraith shook his head. "Talk later. After."
Winterhawk shrugged assent, perching on the edge of his black leather sofa to wait.
Joe showed up in another ten minutes. "What's this about?" he asked, taking his customary spot in Winterhawk's troll-reinforced chair.
Ocelot was pacing around as he often did when he was nervous or preoccupied. "Something weird happened last night. I wanted to tell you guys about it and see what you think." He then proceeded to tell `Wraith and Joe the same story he had told Winterhawk. He was so caught up in telling the story that he didn't notice the intense stares fixed on him by the elf and the troll as he did so, nor did he notice the way they stiffened in their seats.
Winterhawk, however, did. "Something's going on," he said slowly. "You two know about this."
"Not this," `Wraith said. "Something happened. Last night." He indicated Winterhawk's answering machine with a quick head gesture.
"Me too," Joe said, sounding troubled.
"Wait a second," Ocelot cut in. "You mean to tell me that you all had weird things happen to you last night?"
`Wraith looked at Winterhawk. "You too?"
"I'm beginning to think so..." Winterhawk said, his tone indicating that he was deep in thought. Suddenly his head snapped up. "What kind of things?" he asked.
Joe spoke first. "I saw something really weird on the way home from the party. There was a bear, and it was being attacked by two gargoyles. When I tried to run over to help it, all three of `em disappeared."
"You saw a bear in the Barrens?" Ocelot demanded incredulously.
"I thought so," Joe said. "But like I said, it disappeared. I thought it was pretty strange, so I went home and tried to see if I could talk to Bear. Then I got a vision."
"What kind of a vision?" Winterhawk asked. He was leaning forward, watching Joe intently.
"It was even weirder...not like the kind of thing I usually get—if I get anything at all. More vivid. It was like I was a bear, and I was in this canyon. At one end of the canyon was a flash flood, and at the other end was a huge fire."
"And you were stuck in the middle?" Ocelot said.
"Yeah. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I picked a direction and tried to make a run for it, but then the vision faded. I couldn't get it back after that."
"Interesting..." Winterhawk said in the same faraway tone he'd used before. It was the tone he used when large portions of his mental capacities were off doing something else, and only a small part of his awareness was in the current place and time. "What about you, `Wraith?"
"I had a dream," the elf said simply.
His friends stared at him. For anyone else to say that they had had a dream would be nothing special. For ShadoWraith, who claimed never to dream, it was an event.
"What was it about?" Ocelot asked. He was still pacing. This whole thing was getting a lot weirder than his wandering weapons.
"I was...being pursued," `Wraith said, choosing his words with even more care than he usually did. "Myself and...others."
"Do you know why?" Winterhawk leaned a bit more forward, drawing one knee up and clasping his hands around it.
"No. It was...somewhat like the Night of Rage. But different."
Winterhawk nodded. Most of ShadoWraith's past was still a mystery to his teammates, but he had at one point told them a few things about his experiences in New York City during the Night of Rage. He had been pursued there as well, and still apparently harbored deep and unpleasant memories of the time.
"Okay," Ocelot spoke up. "Now I'm getting real nervous. `Hawk, why don't you tell everybody about your happy little experience, then we'll go from there."
Winterhawk obligingly shared the story of his odd encounters. It was a bit easier to tell this time, in the light of day.
"You saw Harlequin?" Joe asked, his eyes widening.
"Or a reasonable facsimile," Winterhawk said. "I've utterly no idea what all this is supposed to mean, however. I'm still inclined to think that we all just had a bit too much to drink last night."
"Unlikely," `Wraith pointed out. "Didn't have much."
"Me neither," Joe agreed. "I ate a lot, but I only had a few beers."
"Okay," Ocelot said, dropping down on the couch with a loud sigh. "Let's say for a minute that we didn't all have too much to drink. Then what the hell's going on? Somebody plays musical weapons at my place without leaving a trace, Joe and `Hawk are seein' things that aren't there, and `Wraith is having dreams. All, coincidentally, on the same night."
"After the party," Joe added.
"Yeah," Ocelot continued. "After the party. So what's it all mean?"
There was silence as the four runners considered the question that hung in the air like a half-filled balloon.
"Maybe this has something to do with that Gabriel guy," Joe said suddenly.
When everyone turned to look at him, he shrugged. "Maybe it's dumb," he continued, "but it sort of makes sense that if weird things start happening after we go to his party, then maybe he's got something to do with it, right?"
"But why?" Winterhawk asked. "What possible reason could he have to want to do something like this? For that matter, how could he do it?"
"Magic?" `Wraith asked.
Winterhawk shrugged. "I don't know. Possibly. But he'd have to be a mage of someone like Harlequin's caliber to even have a chance at some of the things that happened. That hardly seems likely, does it? And that still leaves the question of motive."
"Maybe it's not him," Ocelot put in. "Remember we were discussing before that he's probably a front for some big corp money. Maybe we pissed somebody off bad enough that they want to play with our heads."
"We've sure pissed off enough corps for that," Joe agreed.
`Wraith shook his head. "Doesn't make sense. No bottom line."
"I tend to agree," Winterhawk said. "Corporations wouldn't waste the kind of money it would take to create an elaborate setup like this on creating an elaborate setup like this. If we were worth that much to them, they'd simply hire a team to kill us."
"That still doesn't explain who's behind this," Ocelot said. "I'm starting to think that whoever moved my stuff around didn't leave anything nasty behind, although I still want to check that out. It sounds like everybody's experiences were harmless, right? Like somebody wants to mess with us, but not hurt us."
"Assuming that they are, in fact, related," Winterhawk pointed out. "Mine could, after all, be explained without too much difficulty, as could `Wraith's. Granted he isn't prone to dreaming, but that doesn't preclude the possibility that it might occur at some point. Even Joe's vision could be explained away."
"How?" Joe demanded.
"Illusions," Winterhawk said. "P'raps someone was lurking in your neighborhood, just having a bit of fun, and you were the first to happen by."
"Come on, Winterhawk," Joe said contemptuously. "You don't really believe that, do you?"
"No," the mage admitted. "I don't. But I'm trying to come up with a way to explain this that doesn't involve one or more powerful and unknown entities having their way with us."
"And even if you do explain those three," Ocelot put in, "that still doesn't come up with any way they could have gotten into my safe."
"I suggest that before we go much further with this," Winterhawk said, "that we adjourn to Ocelot's place. It appears that it contains the only tangible evidence that anything was done, so perhaps we can examine it, both in the astral and the mundane realms, to determine whether anything else is amiss."
The others nodded agreement, so they gathered their equipment together and drove the truck over to Ocelot's house. No one said much on the trip over, each alone with his thoughts. They parked the truck outside this time rather than pulling it into the garage. "Let me have a look first," Winterhawk said. "Before we go in, I mean." He leaned back in his seat and slumped, his astral form separating from his body.
While he performed his astral scan, Joe readied his bug scanner and his chemsniffer for detecting explosives, while `Wraith and Ocelot drew their guns and kept them ready should anything come out of the house unexpectedly.
Winterhawk was gone for about ten minutes. When he returned, he looked disappointed. "Nothing," he said. "I couldn't find a trace of any magical residue in there. Naturally after all this time there wouldn't be much, but I'd think if that much magic was used, there would at least be trace amounts remaining."
"Maybe it wasn't magic," Ocelot said. "Can we go in now?"
"Magically speaking, the place is clean," Winterhawk said. "I can't speak for more mundane threats, however."
The four runners, all a bit paranoid now, entered the house wearing their armored jackets. Ocelot insisted on going in first. He shoved open the door, aiming his pistol around to catch any visible threats. There were none. "Looks clear," he said. Then his eyes widened as he stopped cold in the doorway, preventing the others from entering. "Shit!"
"What?" Joe demanded, ready to burst in and deal with whatever it was.
Ocelot stepped aside, indicating the room. "I'm going crazy. That's gotta be it. I'm going crazy."
The other runners moved in around him, looking around. "What?" Winterhawk said, perplexed. Nothing looked wrong to him. The room was just as he remembered it.
`Wraith caught on first. "Nothing's moved."
Ocelot nodded, dropping into a chair with a loud flump. "This is fucking insane..." he mumbled.
Around the room, every weapon was in its proper place, as if they had never been moved. Even the troll-sized chair was back where it belonged. Not content to remain still for long, Ocelot got up and began pacing. "This cannot be happening. I'm telling you, everything was moved around when I left last night."
Winterhawk nodded, but his expression showed he was dubious.
`Wraith and Joe set about checking the place for anything out of the ordinary. After half an hour passed, the place was pronounced threat-free by Joe, using his scanners to detect any listening devices and his chemsniffer to find any hidden bombs. `Wraith, meanwhile, performed a detailed and meticulous visual scan of the entire house and also came up empty. "Are you sure you couldn't have been seeing things?" Joe asked as he packed away his gear.
Ocelot shrugged, spreading his hands in a gesture of defeat. "I dunno. I thought I was sure. It sure as hell seemed like it was real. If it wasn't, it was the best illusion I've ever seen in my life."
"But it would explain how they got into your gun safe," Winterhawk said. "That is to say, they didn't." He sat down at one of the chairs at the tiny dining table. "But that still leaves us with the big question: how was this accomplished?"
"And the other big question," Joe said. "Who did it?"
"Three," `Wraith added. "Why?"
Ocelot sighed. "Okay. Let's see if we can look at this with some kind of order. Let's start with who did it. Ideas?"
"Gabriel," Joe said immediately. "Or somebody connected with him."
"Someone we've annoyed on a previous run," Winterhawk said.
"Harlequin," `Wraith said.
"Coincidence," Winterhawk said. "Or doctored liquor."
"Or somebody we don't even know anything about," Joe added.
"Okay," Ocelot said. "So let's assume that whoever's behind it is one of our suggestions, except that last one. Why?"
"If it's a corporation we've annoyed," Winterhawk said, "then the answer's obvious. Some of them—I'm thinking of Aztechnology in particular—have extremely long memories."
"If it's Harlequin, maybe he's just playing around with us," Joe said. "You know, like a joke."
"Gabriel and corp could be the same." `Wraith took a seat at the table opposite Winterhawk.
"Right," the mage said. "Or he could be acting on his own. Possibly a joke there as well, similar to what Joe said about Harlequin."
"Somebody could have slipped something into our booze," Ocelot said. "Maybe testing out some new hallucinogenic drug." His fist hit his open palm with a loud slap. "Whatever the hell it is, though, when we find out I want to get my hands on whoever did it. I'd like to show `em how well I take a joke."
"What about Kestrel?" Winterhawk asked suddenly.
"What about her?" Ocelot's suspicious gaze settled on him.
"Could she be involved?"
Ocelot started to make an angry reply, but caught himself. No, of course she isn't involved, he was going to say. But how did he know that? What did he really know about her, when he got right down to it? "I don't know," he said at last, reluctantly.
`Hawk's expression softened a bit. "I do hate to pry, but it might be important to figuring out this little puzzle. If you don't mind my asking, how long have you known her? How much do you know about her?"
Ocelot looked down at his hands in his lap. For a long moment he didn't answer; none of his friends spoke. Finally, he took a deep breath. "I knew her a couple of years ago. We saw each other for two or three months, and then she and her team moved back east. I didn't see her again until a few days ago, when she called to let me know she was back in town."
"She didn't mention Gabriel," ShadoWraith said. It was not a question.
"No." Ocelot shook his head. "I was as surprised to see him as you guys were. She told me she's working with him, helping him set up as a fixer in town."
"But she never said anything about him before?" Joe asked. "Two years ago?"
"No," Ocelot said again. "She said she didn't know him then. She claims to be semi-retired now, and not with her team anymore. Said she met Gabriel on a run."
"He ain't a runner," Joe stated.
Ocelot shrugged. "That was all she said. She met him, they talked for a while, and decided to go into business together. She said she'd been wanting to set herself up as a fixer for awhile, but she decided to work with him because he had connections and good ideas. She's handling what she calls the `nuts and bolts' of the biz."
"What happened to her team?" Winterhawk asked. "Did they all just part company?"
"It happens," Ocelot said. "She didn't say exactly." He sighed. "Dammit, I don't like it, but maybe I should give Harry a call and ask him to look into what she's been doing for the past couple years." He hated this: his good sense as a runner was warring with the fact that he wanted to trust Kestrel to tell him the truth. Unfortunately, he had been a runner too long to let trust win out over good sense. He thought he was a pretty good judge of character, and if that was true, then everything would come up fine and he could quit worrying. If everything didn't come up fine, it was probably better to know about it sooner rather than later. Even if he didn't like it.
"Good idea," `Wraith said.
"Yes," Winterhawk agreed. "P'raps she and Gabriel have nothing to do with this; at least that way, you'll have moved Kestrel down on the list of suspects if she checks out."
"Yeah, yeah," Ocelot said. He stood in a single restless motion. "Maybe you guys oughta go on home. This isn't the kind of call I want to make with a bunch of people around, y'know? Thanks a lot for comin' over to take a look at the place. Hopefully nothing else like this will happen."
Winterhawk stood as well. "Well, if anything does happen, please call me. I'd like to have a look at the area where it occurred a bit sooner than several hours after the incident."
Slowly, the runners filtered out of the house. Ocelot stood in the doorway and watched them go, heading off in the truck with `Wraith driving. When the truck had disappeared around a corner, he reluctantly went back inside to make the call. He wasn't sure which he was more afraid of: that Harry would find out nothing useful and Kestrel would discover he'd been checking up on her, or that Harry would find out something.
Either way, though, it had to be done.