The team decided to try Harry first for the information they wanted before going to T. C. They met with the fixer in person the next day and gave him all the data they had: the story of the meet with Jenner and Magnum, the aborted meet with Mortenson, and Mortenson's affiliation with APS. They also handed over the briefcase and its contents, although they didn't think they were going to be helpful in the investigation and neither did Harry.

"Sheesh," he said, shaking his head in disbelief when they had finished their story. "You guys got a live one this time. I'll see what I can do."

"Yeah," Ocelot said. He was leaning back in his chair, precariously but precisely balanced on its back two legs. "That island in Tahiti is lookin' better by the day."

Harry promised to get back to them with any information that he found, and they agreed to meet back at the Glass Spider rather than allowing Harry to choose the place and taking a risk on another impersonator. When the meeting was complete, the runners parted company after promising to get in touch quickly should anything odd or unexpected occur.

Ocelot decided to try giving Kestrel a call to see if she was free for lunch. It happened that she was, so they met at a small casual seafood restaurant on the outer fringes of Downtown. "So," she said as she sat down. "How have things been? I've missed you the past couple of days." She was back in her black leather jacket and jeans, but the effect was softened a bit by a blue silk blouse under the jacket. "Any more leads on the weird stuff?"

He shook his head. "No, not really." He had decided that he still wasn't going to tell her any more about the things the team had discovered, because he was not yet convinced that they had anything to do with the strange hallucinations. "How are things with you? Got your new team straightened out yet?"

She smiled fondly, amusement evident in her eyes. "They're getting there. They're a good group—just so new at this. I can't ever remember being that new, it was so long ago."

"Yeah—you're an old lady, right?" Ocelot grinned.

"Sometimes I feel like I am," she said, grinning back. "But no, I think they'll do fine, once they file off their rough edges and get used to working with each other. Gabriel has a lot of confidence in them. He says he's expecting great things."

"You two settling into the fixer business?" Ocelot was determined that he wasn't going to yield to the irrational twinge of jealousy he felt every time Kestrel mentioned Gabriel's name.

Kestrel nodded. "Getting there. For me, it's a lot different than being a runner. But we're turning out to be a pretty good team. I've got the experience as a runner, and Gabriel has some incredible contacts. I was never much on dealing with people—just never felt comfortable with it, you know? So I take care of finding them weapons and supplies and vehicles and that kind of thing, and Gabriel takes care of setting up the runs and dealing with the Johnsons."

"Are you lookin' for any more teams, or just sticking with the one for now?"

Again, she grinned. "Are you volunteering?"

"Nah. I think I'll put up with Harry for awhile longer." He couldn't help but return her smile. It was infectious. "He ain't much to look at, but he gets us the big nuyen."

"Well, that's what's important, isn't it?" Kestrel paused to sample her seafood plate and take a sip of beer, looking around at the restaurant's midday crowd. "But to answer your question, no, he's not looking for any other teams right now. Maybe later on, when this one gets used to each other."

"He said they were same as us—cats that need herding." The image amused Ocelot, especially since it was such an accurate one. He sometimes wondered how his own team of eccentric individuals managed to not only stay together, but excel at what they did for all these years. Between his own short temper, `Wraith's moodiness, Winterhawk's sarcasm, and Joe's lack of tact, the team sometimes got seriously on each other's nerves. Despite that, though, they always managed to get it together and get the job done when it was necessary. In that respect, they were somewhat similar to a bickering family, who drove each other crazy but maintained a unified front when facing the rest of the world.

"Yeah, they are kind of an unlikely bunch. We've got a sam who's an ex-military type: he has no sense of humor and as near as I can tell he's scared to death of women." She smiled. "And an elf rigger—he seems the most normal of the bunch. Then there's the snake shaman adept who looks like an elf...good shaman, but no social skills whatsoever. We also have a dwarf: he's ex-military too, with a mouth about three meters bigger than he is."

Ocelot smiled. "Sounds like an interesting bunch."

She nodded. "They are. I like them a lot. They've all got good hearts—that's what Gabriel was looking for, primarily." Her grin got a little wider. "A hardened, cynical bunch like you and your team wouldn't be what he's after."

"Good hearts are great, but they can get you killed," Ocelot said seriously. "Especially if you're too trusting along with `em."

"I wouldn't worry about them," Kestrel said. "I think they're going to be fine."

They finished lunch while talking about various neutral topics. When they were done, Ocelot followed Kestrel out to her green Westwind. "No more weird driving maneuvers, I'm glad to report," she said, smiling.

"Glad to hear it," Ocelot replied, and he meant it. He was happy to see that she seemed to be back to normal again. "Mind if I come by tonight?"

"Wish you would. I should be busy until this evening, but I'll be home."

He kissed her, and she lowered herself down into the small car and drove off with a jaunty wave. He watched the car until it disappeared around a corner and then headed off to where he'd left his bike. In spite of all the things that had been happening lately, he felt pretty good about life in general at that moment.

Harry didn't call back until early that evening, but once he did it didn't take very long to get everyone convened in the back room of the Spider.

"You guys are runnin' up quite a tab," Harry said as he settled himself in his customary chair. "Information don't come free, ya know."

"Keep a list," `Wraith said.

"Oh, I am." Harry grinned. "Maybe ya better look at it one o' these days before ya find yerselves in fer a rude awakenin'."

"What did you find out, Harry?" Winterhawk asked with some impatience. "You have found something, I trust?"

"Yeah, I found somethin'. You guys'll either love this or hate it, I'm not sure which." He pulled out his pocket secretary and consulted it. Shifting his cigar to the far side of his mouth, he said, "Remember yer last job?"

Everyone stared at him for a moment. Joe spoke first, after a pause. "Sure. The one with the blood sample."

"Gold star fer the guy with the big teeth," Harry said. "Any idea who that blood sample belonged to?"

"Of course not," Winterhawk said. "We didn't want to know even if we could. Safer that way, y'know."

Harry nodded. "Normally I'd agree with ya. But this time ya might want to know."

"Who?" Ocelot asked, still not sure he wanted to hear the answer.

The fixer was savoring the moment. "I did a little snoopin' around, and found out the sample belongs to a gent name o' Torval Blake."

The runners looked at each other in confusion. "Never heard of him," Ocelot finally said. "How `bout you guys?"

The others shook their heads.

"So who's Torval Blake?" Ocelot asked, turning back to Harry.

Harry tucked the pocket secretary away in his jacket. "He's the CEO of a company called Advanced Protection Systems."

To the runners' credit, it only took them about two seconds to make the connection. "That's where Mortenson worked," Winterhawk said, even though he could see from the look on his teammates' faces that they had all come to the same conclusion.

"Right on," Harry agreed. "I ain't got anything else, but I figured you guys could do somethin' with that." He stood up. "Now, if you guys'll excuse me, I got some other biz to take care of."

The runners remained seated as the door closed behind the retreating fixer. They stared at each other. "Let me get this straight," Ocelot said slowly. "Somebody hires us to grab a blood sample from a medical lab. The blood sample turns out to belong to the CEO of another company."

"Or perhaps the same one," Winterhawk pointed out. "We don't know who hired us in the first place, remember."

"True," Ocelot admitted. "Okay, so it belongs to the CEO of some company. More than a week after this happens, the security chief of the CEO's company hires Jenner and Magnum to take out the runner team who grabbed the sample."

"Odd," `Wraith said.


"Amateurs. Fools. Why not professionals?"

Winterhawk nodded. "Those two poor sods struck me as not consistently being able to put their shoes on the correct feet, let alone carry out a hit against a team of our not insignificant reputation."

"Maybe they were low on money," Joe suggested.

"Possible," `Wraith said.

Ocelot dropped his chair back down on all four legs. "Or maybe Mortenson was acting on his own. You know, without authorization."

"P'raps wangling for a promotion." Winterhawk nodded. "If he was using his own funds, then he would be by necessity limited in the level of talent he could procure."

"But how do you get a promotion by bumping off the guys who grabbed the sample?" Joe asked. "Wouldn't it make more sense to hire somebody to get it back?"

"Maybe they don't know who had it taken in the first place," Ocelot said.

Joe nodded. "Or maybe they think we still have it. That doesn't make much sense, though. Why would we hold on to it for this long? They probably wanted it for some kind of ritual, right?" He addressed this last question toward Winterhawk.

"Don't know," the mage said, shrugging. "It certainly makes sense. But then, it's always possible that there was something amiss with Mr. Blake's blood sample; something that another company—or someone else in his own company—wanted in their possession."

"Blackmail, you mean?" Ocelot asked. "Yeah, that could be true too. Maybe the sample proved that he had some kind of disease or something."

"Ritual?" `Wraith asked, looking at Winterhawk with a raised eyebrow. "Already done? Preservation?"

Winterhawk shook his head. "Not necessarily. There are spells that can preserve ritual samples for quite some time—especially those given voluntarily. I'm not sure a blood test would qualify as quite so `voluntary' as consent to a ritual, but it certainly applies better than blood taken by force. So the short answer is: it's quite possible that the ritual has already occurred, and it's also possible that it hasn't. Assuming, of course, that a ritual is what they had in mind at all."

"So our answers are givin' us nothin' but more questions," Ocelot said disgustedly. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm gettin' sick of this whole thing. Somebody's jerkin' us around, and I'm gettin' fuckin' tired of it." His voice rose with his anger. "I say we go find this Blake asshole and beat the shit out of him. Nobody screws with us like this."

"Calm down," Winterhawk said, his tone soothing but his eyes serious. "Remember, that may be exactly what they want us to do. And as yet we've no proof that Blake is behind this. We don't want to tip our hand just yet, especially if they aren't aware that we know of Mr. Mortenson's affiliations."

"Yes," `Wraith said. "Not yet. Plans first."

Ocelot sighed loudly, getting up so fast that he knocked his chair over. "I gotta get the hell outta here for awhile," he said. "If it can wait, then it can wait `til tomorrow. I'm just sick of sittin' around here talking about it. I'll see you guys tomorrow."

Joe watched him go. "Maybe he's right," he said. "Wouldn't hurt to get away from this for a night."

"I suppose not," Winterhawk said. He didn't sound pleased about it, though.

ShadoWraith raised the wrist on which he wore his phone. "T.C. Need info."

"Wouldn't hurt to get someone working on it," `Hawk said. "Other than that, though, I think Ocelot and Joe might be right. We could all use a night off from this."

`Wraith didn't answer that. "I'll make the call," he said.

The three runners parted company at the door of the Glass Spider, each of them half-convinced that they were going to experience another version of the strange hallucinations, or else be plagued by another team (perhaps a better one this time) hired to kill them.

Winterhawk was quite surprised to discover that he actually had a pleasant evening. Trying to take his friends' advice, he put the entire matter behind him and called a young woman he had met a few weeks ago at one of the upscale mage bars he occasionally frequented. They had an enjoyable time over dinner at a fine restaurant and then caught a lighthearted play; by the time he arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, Winterhawk had almost managed to forget about all the events in which the team was currently embroiled.

He got almost four hours' sleep before being awakened by `Wraith's call, delivering the latest news in a clipped, two-word sentence:

"Blake's dead."

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