When Winterhawk and Ocelot arrived at the Purple Haze, which was a runner bar about twenty minutes' drive from `Hawk's place, they found Kestrel sitting at a table near the door. She looked up quickly as they entered, as if she had been watching the door in anticipation of their arrival. "Thanks for coming so fast," she said. Her voice was tired. "I'm not quite sure what to make of this."
"Come on," Ocelot said, taking her elbow gently and steering her toward the back. "Let's go sit down, and you can tell us what happened. You remember `Hawk, right?"
She nodded a greeting to Winterhawk, which he returned. Together, the three went into the bar's back room, which was unoccupied at this early hour. The bartender, a balding elf, watched them curiously but said nothing.
"Okay," Ocelot said, putting his foot up on a nearby chair. "What's up?"
Kestrel took a deep breath and combed her fingers through her hair. "I'm not sure where to start. I'm still not convinced it really happened..."
"What really happened?" Winterhawk asked quietly.
Another deep breath. "I was—driving. Doing some errands. I'd gone by the Renraku Mall to pick up a couple of new sims, and then I was going to do some grocery shopping and go home." She paused. "I got in my car at the mall and started heading back toward the market, which isn't too far from my place. That's when it happened."
"What?" Ocelot asked, his attention focused fully on her.
"That's just it. I—I'm not sure. One minute I was driving, and then the next thing I realized, I was parked out front of this place. But I couldn't remember how I'd gotten here, or why I'd come."
"Had you ever been here before?" Winterhawk said.
She looked up at him and nodded reluctantly. "Yes. Many times, years ago." Her gaze switched over to Ocelot. "This is where the team and I used to meet, back when we were in Seattle. But I hadn't been back since—since I got back in town."
Ocelot nodded. Winterhawk looked at him questioningly, but he just shook his head as if to say, I'll tell you later. "Go on," he said to Kestrel.
"Here I was," she said slowly, "with no idea why I was here or how I'd gotten here. It scared me a little, because I'm not prone to memory lapses like that. In fact, I've never had one in my life. But I figured that if I was here, I might as well go inside. Maybe there was some reason I'd come, and somehow I'd just forgotten what it was." Getting up from her seat, she began pacing, catlike, around the room, pausing to inspect the threadbare old rock-and-roll concert posters that made up the room's decor. "So I went inside. And do you know what I saw when I came in?"
Ocelot and Winterhawk both shook their heads.
"I saw my team," she said raggedly. "All of them. Sitting in the booth all the way in the back. Sitting there like they were waiting for me." She looked up at Ocelot, the fear and confusion evident in her eyes.
Again, Winterhawk shot Ocelot a questioning look. This time he didn't brush it off. Quietly, he said, "Her team were all killed in an ambush more than a year ago."
The mage merely nodded; there was nothing he could say at that moment.
"What—what did you do then?" Ocelot asked.
"I was surprised," she said, dropping back down into a chair. "That's the understatement of the year, of course. Shocked. Floored. I just stood there for a minute, staring at them. A whole lot of things went through my mind then: I wondered if maybe I'd been mistaken—if they hadn't gotten out of that explosion after all. I wondered if I was dead or something. If somebody was playing a trick on me. Or if I was seeing things. And then Raptor spoke to me. Called me over."
"Did you go?" Ocelot turned another chair around and straddled it. He noticed that Winterhawk had stopped pacing and was now watching Kestrel intently.
She nodded. "Yeah. I went over there. They were all happy to see me. They asked me how I'd been, what I was doing now. It was like they were all right there," she added, a small note of desperation in her voice. "They were so real. Raptor was cleaning his nails with his switchblade like he always did...Indy was drinking that vile beer he liked so much, and Cabal was wearing his weird cologne—" She drew a deep, shuddering breath. "It was like they were there, that's all I can say. Then the bartender came over and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and he asked me if I was all right. I said of course I was, and turned back around."
"They were gone, weren't they?" Winterhawk said gently.
Again, she nodded. "Yeah," she whispered. "They were gone. Like they'd never even been there in the first place. Even the cologne scent was gone. The table was completely empty." Leaning forward, she propped her elbows on the table and stared at her hands. "What the hell is going on?"
Ocelot looked at Winterhawk, his expression one of concern and anger. "I don't know what's going on, Kestrel," he said after a pause. "But it sure as hell sounds like whatever it is that was messing with our heads has found you now."
"I want to know what it is," she said, raising her head. Her eyes blazed. "Nobody plays with my head like that. I want to figure out what's causing this and show it what I think of it." Looking first at Winterhawk, then at Ocelot, she added, "Will you help me?"
`Hawk and Ocelot exchanged glances again. Ocelot spoke first. "Have you told Gabriel about this?"
She looked at him as if trying to gauge why he had asked, then shook her head. "No. He's been busy lately, getting his team set up. I don't want to bother him with this. Besides, I've been starting to feel a little lately like I've been getting dependent on him. I want to do this on my own." Her gaze challenged them, but also pleaded with them. "Will you help me?"
Ocelot sighed. "I'll do what I can. But remember, we weren't able to find out anything when this happened to us. `Hawk?" He turned to the mage.
Winterhawk didn't answer for several seconds; his face was unreadable. Then he said carefully, "I'm not certain how much we can do to help, Kestrel. But I'm certainly curious about what's responsible for these events, and why."
"Yeah," Ocelot said. "But where do we start? You said you wanted to look at the astral plane..."
"Right. I'll do that straight away. With any luck, it will give us some more data to go on." He addressed Kestrel. "Show me the booth where you saw them, please."
She did so, opening the door out to the main bar and pointing it out to him. He settled himself in a chair. "Back shortly," he announced to no one in particular, then slumped.
Kestrel looked at Ocelot. "I'm sorry to get you two involved in this," she said ruefully. "But I was spooked, and since you said you'd had something similar—"
"Don't worry about it," he said. He squeezed her upper arm reassuringly, but his eyes were as hard as hers. "We want to know who's been doing this too. We were gonna forget about it since it didn't look like it was gonna happen again, but if they're messin' with you too now, we need to figure out what the hell's going on."
Briefly, she closed her eyes. "It was so hard seeing them again, Ocelot," she said in a voice barely above a whisper. "I'd just started getting over losing them, and now this—" Shrugging, she added, "I guess I just lost it a little."
"It's okay," he said. "Don't tear yourself up about it. It would have spooked me too. It's normal. Maybe `Hawk will find something, then we can see about finding this bastard."
Winterhawk returned five minutes later. At his friends' inquiring looks, he shook his head. "Nothing," he said in disgust. "There's nothing at all amiss on the astral anywhere near that booth. I checked the entire bar, paying particular attention to that area, and came up with bugger all."
"What about the bartender?" Ocelot asked, grasping at straws.
Again Winterhawk shook his head. "There's nothing special about him. He's a mundane with no cyberware. His aura says he's vaguely curious about what we're doing back here, but other than that he seems rather a dull chap." He leaned back in his chair and jammed his hands into the pockets of his overcoat in frustration. "Assuming that your experience was magical in origin," he told Kestrel, "then whoever's behind it is good enough to mask him- or herself well enough as to leave no traces."
"How hard would that be?" Ocelot resumed his place straddling a chair on the other side of Kestrel.
`Hawk shrugged. "I'm fairly decent at punching through masking. I've missed it before, but not often. And it's harder to fully mask astral traces than it is for a decent mage to mask his presence—think of it like a murderer trying to clean up all the evidence at a crime scene. Often he leaves something behind because he didn't even think to look for it."
"So what are you saying?" Kestrel asked.
"What I'm saying," Winterhawk told her, "is that either your experiences—and probably ours as well—are not magical in origin, or else we're dealing with a magician of tremendous skill here. Do you have any enemies that might fit that profile?"
She thought about that for several moments. "No...not that I can think of. I mean, the team went up against magical threats before, but nothing of that magnitude. And besides, why would one of my enemies want to mess with you guys? I hadn't even met most of you before the party."
Ocelot nodded. "You got a point there. I don't suppose it's possible that the two aren't related."
"The way you described what happened to you, it doesn't sound like it," Kestrel said.
"You've never had any dealings with an odd elf wearing clown makeup, have you?" Winterhawk asked Kestrel suddenly.
She stared at him like he had just gone crazy. "What?"
"Have you?" he pressed.
"No," she said, still staring. "I think I'd remember somebody like that. Why?"
Winterhawk shook his head. "Just one of the few people I know who might be capable of this. Hardly seems his style, but then again, we really don't know much about him."
Now it was Ocelot's turn to stare, as another thought came to him. "`Hawk...?" he said slowly, tentatively. There was a strange edge to his voice.
"You don't think—" He paused, choosing his words carefully. "You don't think that somebody else connected with him could be behind this, do you?"
For a moment, Winterhawk looked perplexed, but then his expression turned grim. "I hadn't thought of that," he admitted. "I rather wish you hadn't either."
"What?" Kestrel demanded, watching the tennis match.
"Odd that Gabriel should mention it, too..." Winterhawk went on without acknowledging that she had spoken.
"But why would they wait this long?" Ocelot asked. "Why now? And why Kestrel?"
"You guys want to let me in on this?" Kestrel said, annoyed.
"Can't," Winterhawk said apologetically. "It's one of those things we can't talk about. Suffice it to say that Ocelot just reminded me that we do have an enemy—more than one, actually—who would be capable of this. But it would be difficult for them to be in a position to do so, and that still doesn't explain why they would target you."
"Unless they know Kestrel and I are—" Ocelot trailed off, his meaning obvious. He looked at Kestrel, then at Winterhawk. "`Hawk, I know you. When you were astral, did you check out Kestrel too?"
Winterhawk nodded. "Of course."
She looked annoyed, but it faded quickly. "I did say he could before, didn't I?"
"What did you see?" Ocelot asked the mage.
He shrugged. "Nothing out of the ordinary. She's got quite a lot of cyberware, most of it inobvious. Her aura suggests that she's fearful and determined."
"You need to look at auras to tell that?" Kestrel asked sarcastically, her smile indicated that it wasn't meant as an insult.
"I do if I want to verify that it's the truth," he replied, unruffled.
"Nothing out of the ordinary?" Ocelot asked. "No mind control or influence or anything?"
"Not that I could see. Why? Should I have expected some, at this point?"
"I dunno. I don't know what to expect. I'm grabbin' straws right now."
Kestrel sighed. "If you don't mind, guys, I think I'm going to head home. This place isn't doing anything for my state of mind right now. I'm going to hope that since this only happened once to each of you, maybe it'll only happen once to me. And that whatever it is, it doesn't seem dangerous, just creepy."
Ocelot nodded. "Okay. Call if anything else happens, okay? See you tonight if I can?"
"Sure. I'll be home." She took a deep breath. "Thanks. To both of you. If nothing else, at least it was good to have somebody to talk to who doesn't think I'm crazy." Nodding to Winterhawk and gripping Ocelot briefly on the shoulder, she left the back room.
Ocelot fell back into his chair with a loud sigh. "What the hell's going on, `Hawk? Do you think it could be the Horrors? After all this time?"
Winterhawk took up pacing again. "I don't know. Something tells me that it isn't, but I don't know what, exactly. It still seems odd to me that all of this appears to have corresponded to our attendance at that party. How much do you trust this Gabriel chap?"
"Not as far as I can throw him," Ocelot said frankly. "Kestrel does, though. That's what I meant about the mind control. We talked awhile ago, and I got her to agree to let you assense her for any sign of influence." He told Winterhawk the story that Kestrel had told him about her team's death and its aftermath. "It just sounded weird to me that he'd show up right then, at the right place to talk to her when she was in that kind of state."
"True," Winterhawk agreed. "Quite a coincidence, I'd say. But I did notice that she's got quite a strong mind. As strong as yours, to be sure. It would be difficult to influence her."
"Even when she'd just lost her whole team like that?"
"A powerful enough mage could do it, certainly. But without her knowledge—" He shrugged. "Possible, but difficult. Without knowing if he's a mage—"
"He isn't, according to Harry," Ocelot said. "I forgot to tell you. Harry had one of his best mages wait outside the party and check him out when he left. Said he assenses just like a mundane guy."
Winterhawk nodded. "That surprises me, but if Harry used who I think he did, we can be reasonably sure that it's accurate. So that means he's either got magical backup, he's doing it in a mundane way, or he isn't doing it at all and the whole thing's just a coincidence. P'raps we should try talking to him directly."
"Not yet," Ocelot said. "Let's see what else we can come up with first. Eliminate all the other possibilities."
"You sound very confident of our ability to do that," Winterhawk said dubiously. "I'm wondering if we should intercept `Wraith before he leaves town, and call Joe back from his retreat. I think we'll be needing all the help we can get for this one."