"I don't suppose it would do me any good to ask where you've been all day," Winterhawk said without greeting as he opened the door. His expression was somewhere between amusement and exasperation. "And by the way, you've got grass in your hair."

"Bugger off," Ocelot growled, but there wasn't much conviction behind it.

`Wraith and Joe were sitting in the living room, the former on the couch with this deck on the table, the latter in the heavy chair. The remains of Chinese takeout were spread out over the table, most of it in front of Joe.

"So what have you found?" Ocelot asked, coming over and dropping into an empty chair.

"P'raps nothing," Winterhawk said. "But it's possible that it might be significant. We figured we'd best keep an eye on it just in case." He glanced at `Wraith.

The elf tapped something into the deck, then looked up at Ocelot. "Programmed deck to search. Relevant parameters."

"Yeah." Ocelot nodded. "I remember you did that before. APS, Mortenson, Blake, yada yada yada. So did something turn up?"

"Possibly." He turned the screen around. "Might not be connected. Appeared for APS search parameter."

Ocelot leaned down to look at the small screen. It was another news story, this time from the Seattle Underground, an alternative datafax.

Hoenberg, Nuance veep, dead
Mikhail Hoenberg, vice president of magical operations for Nuance Cybertech, died unexpectedly in his office late this afternoon. He was 42. The Underground has so far been unable to obtain any details regarding Hoenberg's death, as Nuance is not issuing a statement at this time. Sources close to Hoenberg's office say that he was not known to be suffering from ill health. Foul play is not suspected, but has not been ruled out. The Underground will update this story as more details become available.

Hoenberg's death comes as a shock to the industry, especially following the recent death of Torval Blake, CEO of Advanced Protection Systems, one of Nuance's primary competitors.

When Ocelot finished reading, he regarded his teammates questioningly. "You think the two are related?"

"Don't know yet," Winterhawk said. "We've already got a call in to Harry, and he's checking into it for us. Possible that it's just a coincidence, but considering what's been happening lately, I wouldn't bet the family fortune on it."

"Not in the other datafaxes," `Wraith said. "Only the Underground."

Ocelot paced. "That's weird. When Blake died, it was in the business rag. Since then I've seen it mentioned in a couple other places, and it was on the trid news last night."

"Maybe they're covering it up," Joe said around a mouthful of chow mein.

"Why would they do that?" Ocelot asked. "Only reason I can think of is that it happened under some kind of mysterious circumstances—either somebody offed him, or else he died in an unusual way. Either way, they might want to keep it out of the papers until they figure out what's going on."

"Possible," `Wraith said, tapping. "Looking for more information. Nothing yet."

"Remember, though," Winterhawk pointed out, "this might have absolutely nothing to do with us, and we're just being paranoid. People do die suddenly on occasion. The only thing that makes me nervous is the proximity of Hoenberg's death to Blake's."

"Almost like somebody's bumping off anybody connected with the run we were on," Ocelot mused.

"There's a sobering thought," Winterhawk said, but his tone suggested that he had already come to the same conclusion.

Joe finished the last of his chow mein and dropped the empty container on the table. "Means this might not be over yet," he said. "If they're coming after these other guys, maybe they're saving us for last."

"Or perhaps they've forgotten about us altogether," Winterhawk pointed out as he absently levitated the empty chow mein carton into the trash.

"I guess we just have to wait for Harry to call back and find out if he's got anything," Ocelot said with a sigh. "Damn, I'm gettin' tired of waiting for things to happen." Already his tenseness, which had disappeared throughout the day, was coming back. Now it was bringing friends.

They had to wait another half an hour before the fixer called back; they spent it finishing up the Chinese food, clicking through trideo channels in search of news reports, and looking over `Wraith's shoulder as he continued his quest for more data about Hoenberg. When the phone rang, Winterhawk picked it up.

It was Harry, as expected. "I got some stuff for ya. Ya want it now, or should we meet? I'm on a secure line."

Everyone was getting tired of being paranoid about their fixer; Winterhawk could see that from looking around the room. "Just give it to us," he said. "We'll call you back later to confirm it."

"Got it," Harry said, satisfied. "Okay. There's some pretty good buzz on the street about Hoenberg. Nuance hasn't been very successful about keeping the story under wraps, though far as I can tell it hasn't reached the mainstream rags yet. Give it a couple hours and it will, I'll bet.

"Anyway, as you guys might have expected, this whole thing's weird. Word has it that Hoenberg just dropped dead all of a sudden, in the space of less than five minutes. If my source is believable, his secretary was talkin' to him about somethin' in his office. The secretary left, then came back in about five minutes later because he forgot to ask Hoenberg a question. When he got back inside, Hoenberg was dead. Just like that."

"Just like Mortenson," Ocelot muttered.

"They had people in there right away," Harry continued. "Medical, magical, cops, the whole works. But Nuance is tryin' to keep this hush-hush until they figure out what the hell's going on. I don't think they've found anything yet, though."

"And they probably won't," Winterhawk commented.

"Any idea who's behind it?" Ocelot asked. "Rumors, even?"

Harry consulted something offscreen. "Number one rumor right now is that somebody at APS ordered the hit, although nobody can figure out how they accomplished it. Nobody's got any concrete evidence of that, either. Wouldn't be surprised, though—those two corps got a pretty fierce rivalry goin'. They have for a long time."

"So the odds are reasonable that Nuance was behind the ritual sending that killed Blake, then," Winterhawk said.

Harry nodded. "Almost certain. That's the other reason why it's a pretty fair bet that APS is responsible for Hoenberg's death—Hoenberg was the vice president in charge of magical stuff. He was a pretty good mage himself, and had some decent talent workin' for him. Don't have it for sure yet, but I'll bet a year's pay that he was the one who ordered the ritual that took out Blake. Another year's pay says he was leadin' the ritual. Word is that he was climbin' the corporate ladder, and there was an executive veep spot gettin' ready to open up. No secret that he was after it."

"I'm not going to take you up on those bets, Harry," Winterhawk said. "Everything's beginning to fall together, for a change."

"So then Nuance hired us to grab that blood sample?" Ocelot asked.

"Looks that way," Harry said. "I'm still checkin' into that—don't have anything conclusive yet. I'll let ya know when I do."

"Are they still after us?" Joe said from the other side of the room.

"Hard to say," Harry said. "If I had to give ya a gut feeling, I'd say that right now they don't give a damn about you guys. Look at it from their point o' view: here's two corps that are major competitors. One of `em just bumped off the other one's head o' security and their CEO, and now that one maybe retaliates by offing their VP of magical doodah in what sounds like a damned mysterious way. If you were them, would you be worried about the some group o' shadowrunners?"

"Depends," `Wraith said. "We did start this."

"He's right," Ocelot agreed. "I mean, we grabbed the blood sample that set all this in motion."

"Yeah," Harry said, "but that's what runners do. If corps went around cackin' runner teams every time they did somethin' like that, pretty soon there'd be no runners left to hire. You guys gotta remember that corps usually only do things to support the bottom line. You already did yer job. Comin' after ya now would just be throwin' good money after bad."

"Then why did they?" Winterhawk asked. "We've been over all this among ourselves, Harry, and the unanswered question remains: if it isn't in their best interest to come after us, then why did they hire assassins—and rather blundering assassins, to add insult to injury—to try to kill us? And why did they set up these bizarre illusions or hallucinations or whatever they were, seemingly designed to do nothing more than disturb us?"

"I don't know the answer to that, `Hawk," Harry said frankly. "We can't overlook loose cannons—maybe somebody was workin' on his own. Maybe Mortenson was. I dunno. All I know is what I hear on the street, and so far nothin's come up."

"Is it possible," Winterhawk said, almost as if talking to himself, "that APS isn't behind Hoenberg's death?"

"Huh?" Ocelot and Harry spoke in unison, both staring at the mage.

"Just a thought," he said, shrugging. "You said you've no proof that they were. What if it was someone else?"

"Who else would it be?" Joe asked.

"And why?" `Wraith added.

Winterhawk shook his head. "I don't know. I'm just throwing things up in the air to see if any of them might take wing."

"What about the place we took the sample from?" Joe asked suddenly.

Harry tapped something into his computer. "Medical Arts Laboratories."

"Yeah, that's the one," Ocelot said. "Maybe Joe's got something there. We made them look bad when we managed to get in there and take off with one of their samples. Maybe they still got a score to settle with us."

"Listen," Harry said, "I ain't got time to stay on the phone speculatin' all day, but I'll make a note of that and put it on my list. I'll call ya back later on when I got more. You guys can speculate on yer own, okay?"

"Yeah. Great," Ocelot said with no conviction. "Thanks, Harry."

Winterhawk broke the connection and shoved the phone aside, putting his feet back up on the coffee table. "Well, we still certainly seem to be in `get an answer, raise two more questions' mode, don't we?"

"Yeah," Joe said. "I'm startin' to wonder if we're ever gonna get to the bottom of this."

"Let's look at what we got," Ocelot said. "It's gettin' so I can't tell all the players in this thing without a scorecard. How `bout we start with what we know for sure, or are at least certain enough of that we won't worry about it."

"Blood sample was Blake's," Wraith said.

"Someone killed Blake via a ritual sending," Winterhawk said. "Which strongly implies that it was whoever had the blood sample."

"Harry didn't set up that meet with Jenner and Magnum," Joe said.

"We all had odd hallucinations following our leaving Gabriel's party," Winterhawk said.

"Mortenson was alive when we saw him," Joe said. "Somebody killed him while we watched, with no traces."

"Someone hired Magnum and Jenner to set us up," `Wraith said.

"They died mysteriously right in front of us," Ocelot said. "Anything else?"

The others thought about it for a few moments, then shook their heads.

"Okay, then," Ocelot continued. "Now, what do we suspect but not know for sure?"

"Hoenberg was behind the ritual that killed Blake," Joe said.

"APS was responsible for Hoenberg's death," Winterhawk said.

"Mortenson hired Jenner and Magnum," `Wraith said.

"Nuance Cybertech is somehow responsible for Mortenson's death," Winterhawk said.

"Whoever's behind this is either a hell of a magician or has one working for him," Joe said.

"Nuance was responsible for hiring us to get the blood sample," Ocelot said.

"Kestrel claims to have had a similar hallucination to those we had," Winterhawk said. When Ocelot looked at him oddly, he shrugged. "All we have is her word. It's good enough for strong suspicion, but we can't take anything for granted at this point."

"Hallucinations and this situation aren't related," `Wraith said.

There was a pause. "Okay," Ocelot said, "Now how about wild-assed stabs in the dark?"

"Someone other than APS had Hoenberg killed, perhaps for a completely different reason," Winterhawk said

"Gabriel is either behind this or knows who is," Joe said. "Since everything started happening right after that party."

"No one is going to bother us anymore, since the principals are all dead now," Winterhawk said.

"Someone is setting Nuance and APS against each other," `Wraith said.

"And we're just caught in the middle?" Ocelot nodded slowly, rolling that over in his mind. "That actually sounds halfway plausible, you know."

"So this is all fine," Joe said, leaning back in his chair, "but how are we gonna find out for good? I don't really want this hanging over my head for the next who knows how long."

Ocelot sighed. "I guess we just have to wait for Harry to call back with any more info. I'll tell you, though, I agree with you. This whole thing is startin' to really get on my nerves. Nothing makes sense, and it seems like everything's goin' around in circles. The more we try to figure it out, the more confusing it gets. It's almost like somebody's tryin' to confuse us."

"It's worse," Joe added, "not knowing whether the whole thing's over or not. It seems like it is, and then something else happens to start it up again. I'm gettin' to where I'd be happy to just let the whole thing go if it would just leave us alone."

"P'raps we should all consider taking long vacations until it blows over," Winterhawk suggested.

`Wraith nodded. "Away from here."

"But what if it follows us?" Ocelot pointed out. "If it catches us alone somewhere, we might all end up dead. At least when we stay together most of the time, it seems like whoever it is isn't too anxious to go after us too hard."

"So you think we should stick around?" Joe asked.

Ocelot nodded. "Yeah, for awhile anyway. I sure want to believe Harry, that it's done now. Those corps are gonna have a lot more to worry about than us. Only thing I can think of that we can do that we haven't already done is check out Medical Arts. Once Harry gets back to us on that maybe we can do some snooping of our own." He slammed a fist into the sofa arm in frustration. "If somebody's tryin' to piss the hell out of us, though, he's sure doin' a damn good job."

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