2. Two Years Previously
It was nearly midnight. This was taking too long.
Ocelot glanced down at his chrono again, then checked out the empty hallway at the end of which he was currently hidden, pressed back against the wall behind a tall supply cabinet. Nobody coming. The guards had already made their circuit, and Johnson had assured him that if he watched the patterns carefully, he could avoid the security cameras mounted at both ends of each hallway. They certainly weren't making any effort to hide them: the small boxes stuck out on ball mounts, protruding several centimeters from the walls. As long as he stayed out of the path of the cameras, the meat guards should be easy for him to stay away from.
He sighed softly to himself, beginning to regret taking this job. He almost never worked alone, but the job had sounded interesting, fairly easy, and lucrative: just get into the building, grab some hardcopy files out of one of the offices, and get back out. Probably a job that would be better suited for one person than for the whole team. Still, though, he missed his teammates' support. Especially Winterhawk's, since he'd worked with the mage the longest. The Brit might be the world's biggest smartass, but he was handy to have around when you needed things scouted or large numbers of opposition taken down quickly and quietly. But, like the rest of the group, `Hawk wasn't here, so Ocelot was just going to have to deal with things alone.
It was shaping up to be a long break between runs. Mostly, the team tried to take a job once every couple of months or so, leaving sufficient time in between to heal up, sell off any items they had acquired, work on their training, upgrade their cyberware, design spells, and do whatever else they did when they all went their separate ways after wrapping up the run-related details. This time, though, they were looking at nearly double that time.
The run into the Chicago Containment Zone hadn't been kind to any of them mentally, physically, or financially. They'd succeeded in what they'd been sent in to do, but not without cost. ShadoWraith had experienced some fairly severe psychological setbacks brought on by his inability to cope with being confined; Joe and Ocelot were both going through separate moral crises after discovering that the ghouls that they routinely used as target practice in their respective gang territories actually numbered among them a few that could be classed as not only sentient, but compassionate; and Winterhawk was currently fighting off a nasty case of magical malaria that he'd contracted from a Mosquito spirit in the sewers under Chicago. Joe and `Wraith hadn't stuck around in town long after they and Ocelot had put `Hawk on a plane for England with his house's caretaker, Aubrey—once they were all gone, Ocelot had been left on his own. After a few weeks of that, he would have done just about anything within reason to avoid the boredom.
Mistake number two, he was beginning to think, was not going through Harry for the job. The team worked almost exclusively with the gruff, balding fixer, who was known throughout the Seattle shadow community (and probably further away than that) as one of the best in the business. Part of that reputation came from the fact that he didn't work with just anybody, and those he did work with could count on him to screen jobs carefully and try to weed out the freaks, the doublecrossers, and the nutcases. He didn't always succeed, naturally, but he was better at it than almost anybody else around. And, more importantly, when he did screw up, he did his best to make things right. Harry wasn't above sending some of his own people out to deliver a "message" to an errant Mr. Johnson or corporate contact who tried to play him and his teams for suckers. But Harry hadn't had anything available—at least not anything that could be handled by one guy. Ocelot had therefore been forced to choose between looking elsewhere or spending the next three months in essentially useless pursuits. He'd chosen to look elsewhere.
Fortunately for him, it didn't take him long to find a job. The fixer was unfamiliar, but a quick check with Harry had assured Ocelot that there hadn't been any serious negative feedback about him. The new fixer, an ork named Lancer, had set him up with a meet the next day, and after hearing the Johnson's pitch and considering his offer, Ocelot had accepted both.
So here he was now, deep in the bowels of a multi-story office building, trying to locate the particular office that contained the files he was seeking. Johnson had been right about one thing: the security here (at least so far) had been fairly lax. He had said that the building was not particularly well guarded, because most of their sensitive information was not at this location. The files belonged to one of the corp's researchers who had an aversion to putting his work on the Matrix, or even on the company's internal computer system, so he used old-fashioned paper files on which to keep his notes. Supposedly, one of the administrative aides who worked with the scientist was on Johnson's payroll, and he had promised to "forget" to lock up the files before leaving for the night. Ocelot had a map of the building marked with the office location; all he had to do was get there, grab the files, and go out the way he'd come, using the maglock key provided by the spy.
All he had to do. Yeah, right. It had been an hour since he'd found the office where the files were supposed to be located. The door had even been unlocked. This is too easy, he had thought, and the thought started to set off warning bells in his head. They were still dim and distant—after all, it was theoretically possible that this run was as easy as it was presented to him—but they were there and they weren't shutting up.
They had gotten quite a bit louder when he had found the note on the desk where the files were supposed to be. He'd almost just grabbed the file folder on the desk and left, but then he had noticed that it seemed far too thin to be useful. Inside was a single slip of paper. "Watched," it read in a hurried scrawl. "Files downstairs. Room 2B71. Basement. Sorry."
Ocelot had stood there for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Every instinct told him to just punt the job and get the hell away from here, but he hesitated. He hated to fail at a job, and the note could be on the level. People did get watched at places like this. And he did have a location. It wasn't on the map, which didn't show the basements, but it couldn't be too hard to find a labeled door, right? At last, Ocelot had made a decision: he'd go down there and try to find the room. If he wasn't able to do it quickly, he'd abort the run, get out, and tell Johnson that the plan had changed. He might take a little hit to his street cred, but his rep was not as a solo runner anyway.
He was now standing on the building's ground floor, watching the doorway to the stairs for his chance and trying to silence the bells in his head now that he'd made up his mind. He adjusted his armored coat, feeling the comforting weight of the Franchi-SPAS in its holster under his arm. That, along with the ninja sword strapped to his back and the monowhip in its sleeve compartment, reassured him that he could deal with this. Gathering himself, he darted silently toward the stairway doors when the cameras were pointed away from him, and was through it before they could swivel back around.
Quick glance for more cameras—none he could see. Down. The first landing was labeled `1B.' Good. Things were making sense. 2B should be the next one down. Down another flight, soft boots making no sound. Okay—2B. Open door carefully, peek out. Nothing. Quiet hallway. Duck out, avoid camera, sneak down hallway. Look for room 71.
The place was a maze, and not well labeled. It took him another ten minutes to find the room he was seeking. Check door. Unlocked. Okay, this is it. If it's not here, we go home, he told himself. No more jerking around.
He slowly opened the door.
His eyes darted around, his low-light vision taking in the room in snapshots. Small lab. Cluttered benches, metal stools. Desk off to one side. Computer.
The files were there. On the desk. Bingo!
Ocelot crossed the room, grabbed the files, and stuck them in his jacket.
All hell broke loose.
From outside, the sound of gunshots. Ocelot froze. Shit! They must be on to him. Must have been spotted by one of those damned cameras. Got to get out, and fast. He cursed himself for taking the job, but that wasn't going to help now.
Gunshots outside? Why outside? Wouldn't they be shooting at him? No time to think about that now. They didn't sound close yet, but they were getting closer. Ocelot flung open the door and ran down the hall toward the stairs. If they knew he was here, there was no point in trying to be stealthy. Not until there was someplace to hide, anyway.
It was a long way to the stairs. Run down hallway. Check around corner. Run down another hallway. The gunshots were getting closer. They seemed to be ahead of him now. Ocelot drew himself to a quick stop, adrenaline pumping through his wired reflexes. What now? If they were between him and the stairs, then he'd have to fight his way out—
He reached for his gun—
A figure hurtled around the corner and slammed into him, nearly knocking him down.
Ocelot bounced off the wall. Recovering quickly, his gun was in his hand and pointed at the figure.
The figure's gun was pointed at him as well.
For a split-second, the two just looked at each other. They were both wearing helmets, but neither was dressed in the uniform corp-security style. From down the hall, the pounding footsteps of several more people could be heard heading their direction.
"You don't work here," the figure said quickly. The voice was assured and female.
"No," Ocelot said.
"Then help me," she said, bringing her assault rifle around toward the approaching security guards.
"Yeah," Ocelot said, making a quick decision. Together, they poked from behind cover, their guns ready.
The guards, who had expected one fleeing opponent rather than two prepared ones, hesitated. That was all Ocelot and his new associate needed. Their guns spoke as one, dropping the four guards before they could get a shot off. "Okay," the woman said. "I'm trying to find the stairs. You?"
"Let's go, then." Without waiting for him to answer, she was off. She was as fast as he was, Ocelot noted.
Alarms were going off inside the complex now. Ocelot was beginning to wonder if he had not been discovered after all, but rather had been caught up in whatever was after this woman. The thought didn't sit well with him, but he didn't have time to think about it now. He'd have a few words for her when they got out.
If they got out.
They reached the door to the stairs as the alarms got louder. They could hear more guards approaching from two sides. Ocelot grabbed the door and prepared to fling it open.
Suddenly, the woman yelled, "Down!" Before he could react, she had launched herself at him, bowling him over. As he caught himself in a crouch and rolled back to his feet, Ocelot got a brief glance of the woman executing a perfect roll across the hallway. The rounds from the auto-defense gun that had come silently out from the wall tore uselessly into the floor.
The woman leaped gracefully back to her feet. "Come on," she said. "Didn't see any of that coming down, did you?" She ducked through the door and held it open for him.
All Ocelot could do was shake his head. He stowed his gun in its holster and followed her up the stairs. When they neared the top, he grabbed her arm. "Hang on," he said through his teeth. "They must be waiting for us."
She nodded. "You don't have any way to see what's going on out there, do you?"
"And there's no other way out."
"Not that I know of, unless you want to go back down and try the elevator. I don't."
She nodded in agreement. "No—bad idea." She seemed not to be terribly upset by what was taking place. "I'm Kestrel, by the way."
"A little bird and a little cat—good team," she said, chuckling.
Ocelot was still a bit keyed up to be amused by the situation. "What are you doing here?"
"Same as you, probably. I was hired to break in here and bring something back."
Ocelot looked at her suspiciously. "You got it?"
"Yep. But it wasn't as easy as it was supposed to be. You?"
"Yeah. Johnson said security would be light."
At the bottom of the stairs, there was a pounding at the door. Both runners quickly glanced down there, then back at the door in front of which they were standing. "We'd better do something," Kestrel said. "It won't take them long to break through that door."
Ocelot looked at the door in front of him, then down at the stairway below. He grabbed something off his belt, held it up so she could see it. "Got one of these?"
"Then hang on," he said, grabbing her around the waist with one arm and using the other one to fire his grapple gun straight up toward the stairs above.
"What are you doing?" Kestrel demanded, but she did hold on. "We need to get out."
"Yeah, but not the way they expect," he said. They reached the landing of the stairway four floors up. "Check the door while I reel this in. Trust me. I have an idea."
"I hope you do," she said a bit dubiously, cracking the door to the fourth floor hallway. "It's clear, at least for now."
"Good. C'mon." Together they broke out into the hallway. Ocelot looked back and forth, then started trying doors.
"Do you want to let me in on the secret here?" Kestrel asked.
"We're going out."
Ocelot found a door that was open and swept into the room. "There," he said, nodding toward the large window on the far side of the room.
"Aha," Kestrel said approvingly. "I like the way you think." Between them, it was not hard to use a chair to break through the window. Ocelot hooked his grapple gun to the window frame, checked it, and then motioned for her to grab hold again. They were out of the building and on their way before the guards figured out that their quarry wasn't cowering behind the ground-floor stairway door.
"How'd you get here?" Ocelot asked as they ran away.
"I have a bike nearby."
"I think we need to talk some more."
She nodded. "Me too. How about before we deliver this stuff? I have a nasty feeling we've both been set up."
They arranged a meeting for an hour later at a bar Ocelot knew Downtown, then parted company. It was only after they had gone their own ways that Ocelot realized that neither of them had seen the other's face. He went home, stowed his gear, and arrived at the bar a few minutes early, scanning the faces.
"Ocelot. Over here." A familiar voice cut through the din. Ocelot looked toward it, and his eyes widened.
A woman sat alone at a small table, smiling at him. Slim and wiry, she wore jeans, T-shirt, and black leather jacket. Her hair, white-blonde and cut shoulder-length, framed a strong, beautiful face dominated by glittering, intelligent green eyes. She was watching him with amusement as he made his way across the room. "Kestrel?"
"Who else?" She indicated the other chair at the table. "I ordered you a beer."
"...Thanks," he said slowly, sitting down. "How did you know it was me?"
Her smile grew a little wider. "I make it my business to watch the way people move," she said. "I would have known you anywhere." Looking him over appraisingly, she added, "But the face isn't bad either."
Not sure what to say to that, Ocelot retreated to business. "We need to figure out what to do about what happened," he said.
She chuckled. "I don't think there's much we can do. I made a few calls before I came here—the Johnson that hired me's skipped town, I think. The number I was supposed to reach him at is a Chinese takeout joint, and they've never heard of anybody named Mr. Johnson."
"What's the number?" Ocelot asked suspiciously, pulling out his pocket secretary. When she gave it to him, he sighed. "Same number."
"That doesn't surprise me. A setup, it looks like. If I had to guess, I'd say they were trying to test out their security system, and they hired us to try to get in and then see if we could make it out. I don't think they expected us to do that. Find the holes in their system and get rid of a couple of no-good shadowrunners in the bargain."
"I don't think they expected us to hook up," Ocelot said. "What were you hired to grab?"
"Some chips from a safe in one of the offices. They said they'd `accidentally' leave the safe unlocked."
Ocelot sighed, anger flashing across his face. "With me it was files. Hardcopy. They were gonna leave the cabinet unlocked."
Kestrel shook her head, removing a small chip case from the inner pocket of her leather jacket. "I'll bet you anything that if we look at these chips, they'll be blank, or else they'll be full of gibberish."
Ocelot tossed his files on the table. "Yeah, same here." He slammed his fist down on the table, causing his beer glass to jump and slosh its contents over the edge. There weren't many things he hated worse than being screwed over and played for a sucker.
Kestrel shrugged. "It happens. If you don't learn to live with it, it can eat you alive." Her eyes lit up as a sly smile played across her lips. "We could salvage this night, though..." she said speculatively.
Ocelot glanced up at her. She was watching him intently. For the first time in a long while, he felt the stirrings of real desire. A series of emotions ran quickly through his mind. She was beautiful, no doubt. And interested in him—there was no mistaking that expression. He hesitated, though, reluctant to break his self-imposed code against getting involved with a woman with whom he hadn't contracted for a night's activities. Winterhawk teased him often about his "rented affection"—the mage prided himself on being able to attract women in what he called "the old-fashioned way," and he was very successful at it. Ocelot, however, was more of the opinion that in his line of work, it didn't pay to have many ties. Every person he became attached to could prove a potential liability in the future—a hook by which he could be reached. With what he paid his companions for the evening, he could get what he wanted without the connections that could cause problems. It had worked out fine for him so far, but...
She was looking at him, waiting for his answer.
He took a deep breath. The attraction was unignorable. He wanted her as much as she seemed to want him. He'd never had this reaction to a woman this quickly before. And then he realized why: This was not just any woman. Kestrel was a samurai. She was as fast and as athletic as he was; maybe more so. She'd obviously been running for a long time, and her confidence in her abilities was clearly evident. She wouldn't be a liability for him, any more than he would be one for her—
And those eyes—
"Yeah," he said, smiling. "I'd like that."
The relationship was intense and incredible. Ocelot wasn't certain, but he thought he was in love. Kestrel was everything he thought he would never find in a woman: beautiful, smart, tough, caring—his equal (or maybe even his superior, he decided) mentally and physically. She was a fantastic and creative lover, and someone he could talk to about almost anything. By unspoken agreement, they kept their real names and their shadowrunning affiliations from each other, except the fact that both of them were part of teams, but everything else was fair game. He talked about his childhood and early manhood in the Predators; she talked about her stifling corporate upbringing and how she'd been long ago disowned by her family. They saw each other several times a week for nearly three months, but always at her place or his. Though they never discussed it out in the open, both of them seemed to feel that the relationship was more exciting if kept only between them.
Then, one evening, Kestrel came over to Ocelot's place and he knew something was wrong. Her twinkling green eyes were clouded, as if she had an unpleasant secret. "What is it?" he asked immediately. "What's wrong?"
"I have to leave," she said, her voice quiet and sad.
"Leave?" he closed the door behind her, staring at her in shock. "Why? What do you mean?"
She took a deep breath. "It's the team. We're moving out of Seattle. Back East. I have to go with them."
He continued to stare at her, unsure of what to say.
Kestrel took his face in her hands and kissed him. "Ocelot, I don't want to do it either. But I can't just quit the team. We've got too much history together. They're like my family. We can still see each other—"
Ocelot sighed, shook his head. "No we can't. You know that as well as I do. If you leave, it's over."
And she did know it. She didn't answer; instead, she stood there with his face still cradled in her hands. "Ocelot—"
"No," he said quietly. "No. Don't say anything. Let's just have one last night before you go, okay? To remember."
She nodded, slowly dropping her hands.
They made love for most of the night, in silence. When the sun came up and Ocelot awakened, she was gone. There was no note, no memento left on the nightstand. Just the impression on the other side of the bed where she had lain next to him.
It was one of the hardest things Ocelot had ever done to put this behind him. But the team was due back in town any day now, and there were things that had to be done. He would do what he had to do: file this away in his memory, far back in the corner where he didn't go very often, and get on with his life. Connections could be liabilities in more ways than one.
It was the only decision that made any sense, after all.
He never even mentioned her to the team.
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.