The little black sportscar screamed around a rain-slick corner, tires squealing and back end fishtailing. "Faster!" Ocelot urged from the passenger seat. He could barely sit still.
"I'm going as fast as I can," Winterhawk replied grimly. "Unless you want to smash into a streetlight."
As soon as Ocelot had made the connection between the motel key and Kestrel's keychain, he had been out the door of Winterhawk's apartment at full speed. With effort, `Hawk had gotten him to stop long enough to allow him to catch up, insisting that he was going along too. "You don't know what's waiting for you there," he pointed out as he hurriedly threw on his armored coat. "Best to have some backup."
"Then get your ass movin'," Ocelot had urged impatiently. "This is the first clue we've had for two days—I'm not gonna let it get away from me."
They had opted to take Winterhawk's little Honda-GM 3220 sportscar rather than Ocelot's Blitzen or `Hawk's other vehicle, a beat-up Ford Americar. Ocelot had been ready to leap onto the Blitzen and go roaring off until Winterhawk pointed out that, with any luck at all, they would have a third passenger when they returned. The choice of the 3220 over the Americar was due to its greater speed and handling capabilities.
Ocelot fidgeted in the passenger seat, tightly gripping the two keychains and trying to keep quiet and calm. Winterhawk was right: he was driving as fast as he could, and probably far too fast for conditions. Having an accident right now, or getting pulled over by a Lone Star cruiser, wouldn't serve their purpose at all. As tightly wound as Ocelot was at the moment, he didn't hold out much hope for the life expectancy of any Lone Star officer who tried to hinder their progress.
The Knight's Rest Motel was down in the south end of Puyallup, which turned out to be about as far away from Winterhawk's apartment that they could get and still be in the Greater Seattle area. Ocelot wondered if their unseen messenger had planned it that way.
He also wondered what they were going to find when they got there. Would Kestrel be there? Would she be alive? Or would the room be empty—just another in a continuing series of maddening taunts from whoever was pulling this puppet show's strings? Ocelot's fists clenched around the keychains; he hoped that there would be someone else there, perhaps someone guarding Kestrel. Right now he would take great pleasure (not to mention great catharsis) from making mincemeat out of anyone remotely connected with this sick little drama.
The Knight's Rest proved to be a seedy, shabby-looking motel along one of south Puyallup's side streets. Ocelot had the door open and was leaping out of the car before Winterhawk had even completely stopped it in the parking lot. "Wait!" the mage called.
Ocelot, with effort, skidded to a stop. "What?"
Winterhawk got out of the car. "Shouldn't we assense the place first? What if—?"
"Screw it! I'm goin'! Enough plans!" Ocelot took off running without a backward glance. Part of his mind knew that `Hawk was right—it was probably a trap. But he couldn't shake visions of finding something horrible, like Kestrel's dismembered body, inside the room. He had to know. He was tired of waiting. He was going to know what was going on now.
Winterhawk caught up with him just as he discovered room 111, which was near the end of a row on the bottom of two levels. Ignoring the key he held in his hand, Ocelot aimed a savage kick at the door, putting all his frustration-laden strength into the blow. Constructed of flimsy material, it couldn't stand up to the assault: it splintered and flung inward. Ocelot followed it in, crossing the threshold before the door hit the wall.
What he saw made him gasp in horror. "Oh my God..."
Kestrel lay on the room's threadbare bed, her hands tied to the headboard with heavy cord. She still wore the same jeans and T-shirt she had been wearing when Ocelot had last seen her, but now they were torn, dirty, and bloodstained. Her short blonde hair was matted with blood, her face puffed and swollen. Every part of her body that could be seen was covered with cuts and bruises. Her eyes were closed; she appeared to be asleep or unconscious. Or—
Ocelot rushed into the room and knelt down by her side. Popping his cyberspur, he used it to cut through the rope on one side, while Winterhawk hurried to cut the other side with his mageblade. Ocelot took her hand in both of his, dropping the keychains, forgotten, to the floor. "Kestrel..." he whispered. "Come on...wake up—"
"Kestrel!" A shadow appeared in the doorway, then swiftly entered the room. Ocelot, moving at full speed, was up and between the newcomer and Kestrel before he realized who it was. Gabriel, heedless of the danger he was in, shoved past Ocelot to the bed and dropped down next to it. "What are you doing here?" he asked without raising his eyes from her face.
"I was gonna ask you the same question," Ocelot growled. "How did you know she was here?"
"I got a message that led me here," Gabriel said. He put a hand on Kestrel's forehead, then checked her pulse at the neck. His smooth brow furrowed with worry.
"So did I." Ocelot regarded Gabriel with suspicion for a moment, then turned his attention back to Kestrel. Winterhawk, ignored by both Ocelot and Gabriel, hung back and kept watch to make sure no one else came in through the door.
Kestrel appeared to be waking up. She moaned softly, rolling her shoulders, and then opened her swollen eyes just a crack.
"You're all right now, Kestrel," Ocelot said, his voice shaking.
Gabriel nodded, squeezing her other hand. If Ocelot had been looking at his eyes at that moment, he would have been very disturbed by the veiled rage he saw in them. Still, though, the young man's voice was soothing and steady. "Yes. You're safe now."
Kestrel's face showed pain as she attempted to speak, but she nonetheless seemed determined to do so. "O—Ocelot..."
"Yeah, I'm here. Right here." He reached up and brushed her matted hair off her forehead.
She nodded, then winced. Ocelot gripped her hand. "Kestrel—you have to tell us. Who did this to you?"
For a long moment she didn't answer; Ocelot was afraid that she had passed out again. Then her eyes opened a bit wider and fear crossed her battered features. "Gabriel..." Her voice was fading, but she fought on. "Gabriel...it was..."
"Who, Kestrel?" Gabriel's tone was tightly controlled as he leaned forward.
She tightened her grip on the fixer's hand. "Stefan," she whispered. Weakly, she pointed toward the other side of the room, and then her eyes closed again as she went limp.
The effect of the single word on Gabriel was galvanizing. He stiffened, returning Kestrel's hand to her side with utmost care. Then, very slowly, he rose.
"What's going on?" Ocelot demanded. "Who the hell is Stefan?"
Gabriel ignored him, moving across the room with single-minded purpose. As Ocelot and Winterhawk watched, he picked something up from the dresser.
Intent as they had been on Kestrel, neither runner had noticed the object, but they stared at it now in Gabriel's hands. It was a stone box, roughly square in shape and approximately fifteen centimeters on a side. The box was a deep green-gray color, its sides carved in impossibly intricate patterns. The young man held the box so tightly in his hands that they shook, his violet eyes burning with rigidly controlled rage.
Ocelot wasn't controlling his nearly as well. "I asked you a question, kid. Who's Stefan?" He stalked across the room and stood centimeters from Gabriel, his eyes flashing.
With visible effort, Gabriel slowly relaxed his stiff muscles and met Ocelot's gaze. "I must go now," he said carefully, as if he had to keep a rein on every word. "I have something I must attend to." He turned toward the door.
Ocelot reached out and grabbed him by the lapels. "You ain't goin' anywhere until you tell me who this Stefan is. You know, and you're gonna tell me."
A hint of something dangerous appeared in Gabriel's eyes. "Put me down, Ocelot," he said softly.
"Ocelot—" Winterhawk approached, speaking quietly so as not to startle anyone further. "Put the man down. Let's discuss this."
Ocelot hesitated a moment, then roughly loosened his grasp on Gabriel. "Okay," he said, his tone harsh and impatient. "Talk. Tell me who Stefan is so I can go rip his head off."
Gabriel paused to straighten his jacket, but it was clear to all concerned that he was doing it not out of vanity, but rather to give himself a few seconds to get control again. "It isn't as simple as that," he said in the same quiet voice. "Ocelot, I'm sorry. This is not your fight."
"Damn straight it is!" Ocelot yelled. He'd lost all semblance of sanity now, as the red haze of rage washed over him. With a savage gesture, he indicated the bed where Kestrel lay. "He did this to her, and I'm gonna kill him!"
"Ocelot—" Winterhawk began.
Gabriel shook his head. "You don't understand. This is something that you can't do. It's out of your hands now. Please. Stay with Kestrel—"
"Like hell!" Ocelot's voice grew louder. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Listen, kid, I've put up with you and your crap so far, actin' all high and mighty, but this is where I call it quits. I've been in this business a hell of a lot longer than you have, and there's no fuckin' way you're gonna tell me to just back off and stay out of this while you go off and handle it!"
Gabriel looked at him, then at Winterhawk. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I must go." Again he turned for the door.
Something snapped inside Ocelot. Moving at full speed, he spun the young fixer back around, lashing out with his other fist to connect with a crushing blow across Gabriel's jaw. Gabriel reeled back and slammed into the corner of the room next to the bed, nearly knocking the lamp off the night table. Somehow he managed to hang on to the stone box. Ocelot stood over him, glaring down. "Now—are you gonna tell me who Stefan is, or am I gonna have to beat it outta you?"
For a second or two, Gabriel closed his eyes, bringing the hand that wasn't holding the box up to his face. He looked at the blood on his hand from where Ocelot's blow had split his lip, then his gaze traveled up to Ocelot. With deadly calm, he made a quick gesture with the bloody hand, and Ocelot lifted up from the floor, flew across the room, and slammed into the opposite wall, stunned. Swiftly Gabriel rose. "Please take care of Kestrel," he said in a voice that was almost gentle, and then he was gone.
When Ocelot picked himself up off the floor a few seconds later, leaping to his feet and running over to the door, all he saw was a black Saab Dynamit disappearing into the distance at a high rate of speed.
"He's gone," Winterhawk said.
"Fuck!" Ocelot slammed both fists into the wall, putting two fist-shaped dents in the flimsy sheetrock. "Why didn't you stop him?"
"I'm not certain I could have," the mage said. "Hadn't we best attend to Kestrel?"
The reason they were here had almost been forgotten in all the commotion. Ocelot knelt down next to the bed again, his rage draining out as he took her hand. He looked up at Winterhawk. "Can you heal her?"
"Probably. Let me take a look." He sat down in the room's only chair and went astral, coming back only a few moments later. "I can heal most of it," he said. "It appears that she hasn't sustained any life-threatening injuries. No internal damage, broken bones, and so forth. Severe cuts and bruises, but it looks worse than it is."
Ocelot closed his eyes. "Thank God..."
Winterhawk dragged the chair over next to the bed and sat back down. "Give me a minute, and I'll see what I can do. It might take some time, though, since there are numerous injuries. I see some evidence of psychological trauma in her aura, as well."
"This Stefan, whoever the hell he is, worked her over good," Ocelot said, fighting to control his anger. "I want to kill him. I want to find him, and I want to kill him."
Winterhawk ignored him, concentrating on weaving his healing spell to take care of the worst of Kestrel's many injuries. When he'd finished, he settled back. "There," he said. "We'll have to wait a bit, but that's the biggest one."
Kestrel opened her eyes again and looked around in confusion.
"Hi," Ocelot said, forcing a smile. "You back?"
She nodded tiredly. "I...feel a little better now."
"That's `Hawk's doing," Ocelot told her. "He's healed you up some, and he'll take care of the rest of it in a little bit." His expression turned sober. "Kestrel, I know it's hard to talk about it, but you gotta tell us what happened."
She sat up a little bit, with effort; Ocelot quickly arranged the pillow under her head and shoulders. Looking around, fear crossed her face. "Where's Gabriel?"
Ocelot glanced curtly toward the door. "He left." Right now, he didn't feel like saying any more about the guy than he had to.
The fear increased. "Did he—say where he was going?"
"I think he's gone to talk to this Stefan chap," Winterhawk said.
Ocelot glared at him, then looked down at her. "Who's Stefan, Kestrel?"
"Oh, God—" Kestrel tried to swing her legs off the bed and sit fully up. "We have to go after him. He can't do this—"
"Wait a minute," Ocelot said firmly, taking her shoulders and gently pushing her back. "You're not ready for that yet. Whoever this guy was, he beat you up pretty good. Just tell us who Stefan is so we can go find him make sure he never does anything like this again."
She shook her head. "I can't," she said.
"What do you mean, you can't?" Ocelot demanded. "Gabriel knows who he is, doesn't he?"
"Then we gotta know too. Come on, Kestrel. Tell us so we can get you fixed up and then we can all go after this asshole."
Again she shook her head, this time pushing Ocelot aside as she sat up. "You don't understand what's going on here, Ocelot. I didn't either until two days ago. You have to help me. We have to go find and catch Gabriel before he goes after Stefan." She looked up at him pleadingly. "Please, Ocelot. He'll never make it in the state he's in. I don't want him to go off and get himself killed over this."
Ocelot sighed, looked up at Winterhawk. "You have to tell us more, Kestrel. What are you afraid of? Why is he gonna get himself killed?"
Kestrel shoved her hair back out of her eyes. She still looked terrible, but Winterhawk's healing spell must have done at least part of its job, because she looked much more steady than she had before. "I can't tell you that," she said. "I gave my word, and I won't break it. It's not mine to tell. But if you'll help, I'll take you to Gabriel. I know where he is. I'll talk to him. He'll listen to me. Maybe between us we can get through this." Absently, she picked at the knots in the cords that were still tied around her wrists as she spoke. "Please," she said again. "You've come here to find me, and I'm grateful that you did. But if we don't stop Gabriel, we may all be in danger."
Ocelot looked at Winterhawk again, and then back down at the battered form of the woman he feared he would never see alive again. "Okay," he said reluctantly. "I'll help. I don't like it, but I'll do it. What do I need to do?"
Kestrel squeezed his hand, then looked up at Winterhawk. "Will you help too?"
The mage shrugged. "I'm intrigued, so I suppose I can't refuse."
"We should call the others before we go," Ocelot said. "If this is gonna be dangerous, I'd like to have their firepower along."
Kestrel nodded. "Good idea. Can you make the calls on the way?" Painfully she rose from the bed.
"Yeah. I'll have `em meet us with the truck. We ain't all gonna fit in `Hawk's car." Ocelot pulled off his jacket and draped it over Kestrel's shoulders. She started to protest, but then smiled faintly and pulled it around her.
As Winterhawk drove back toward Seattle and made the calls to `Wraith and Joe, Ocelot leaned forward from where he was scrunched in the tiny back seat of the 3220. "Where are we goin'?" he asked. "How do you know where Gabriel is?"
"I know where he lives," she said. "I think he'll be there for at least a little while before he goes. That's why we have to hurry." She was looking a bit better after another of Winterhawk's healing sessions right before they had left the motel. "How did you find me?"
"Somebody left your car keys on `Hawk's doorstep when I was over there, along with the key to the room."
She nodded. "He wanted you to find me. You and Gabriel both. That's why he grabbed me in the first place." Disgusted, she added, "I can't believe he got away with it so easily. But I suppose I shouldn't be ashamed. I'm no match for him. It would be silly to assume anything else. I'm just glad he didn't kill me, but then I guess that wouldn't have served his purposes."
"You know this guy," Ocelot said. It wasn't a question.
She shook her head. "I know of him. I'd never actually met him before this. But that's really all I can tell you right now. Trust me—we'll find Gabriel, and he'll tell you the whole story. I think he owes you that, after all you've been through." She pulled Ocelot's coat around her and settled back into the seat, obviously still tired and frightened from her ordeal. Ocelot didn't push it any further.
They drove in silence the rest of the way back to the rendezvous point, which was the underground garage beneath Winterhawk's apartment building. As they drove inside, they could see that the Nomad was parked in the 3220's normal space. Winterhawk pulled in next to it and the three of them got out.
Joe and ShadoWraith got out of the truck. `Wraith regarded Kestrel with a raised eyebrow, while Joe grinned. "You found her!" As he got a better look, though, his grin faded and he made no further comment.
Quickly, Ocelot and Winterhawk, with a little help from Kestrel, filled in `Wraith and Joe on the evening's developments. When they got to the part about Gabriel's abrupt departure, Joe spoke up. "I thought you said he wasn't a mage."
"That's what Harry said," Ocelot told him, as it dawned on him that the young fixer must have indeed used magic to fling him across the room. "I wonder what else he was wrong about."
"Come on," Kestrel said urgently. "We have to hurry, or we'll miss him."
Everyone got back into the truck."Where?" `Wraith, who was driving, asked.
"It's not far from here," Kestrel said. She gave him an address, and he began driving. Ocelot leaned back in his seat as they drove, alternately keeping an eye on the scenery and Kestrel. He wondered what the hell they were getting themselves into, but knew that, whatever it was, there was no stopping now.