Lunar Dreamscape had not been open long—only a few months—but already it was developing the reputation as one of the hottest nightspots for Seattle's glitterati who were tiring of the same old haunts like Club Penumbra and Dante's Inferno.
Situated on the top three floors of Downtown's Kurusawa Building, the remainder of which housed corporate offices, residences, and restaurants, the club featured multiple, multi-leveled dance floors, three stages, some of the finest in food and drink to be had in the city, and its pride and joy, a lightshow that encompassed not only the walls and windows of the club's main room, but also the floor and the ceiling, delivering the highly convincing illusion that the club's patrons were suspended in space, thus allowing them to experience everything from interstellar battles to the Big Bang in a surreal glory not usually found outside the Matrix. Rumors abounded that the lightshow alone had cost the owners of the club millions of nuyen, most of it paid to the deckers who had been commissioned to create it. Other rumors about the Dreamscape's mysterious owners—none of which had ever been proven true or false—ran the gamut from speculation that they were connected with one or more of the local organized crime syndicates, to stories that the place was actually owned by a consortium of simsense stars and trid studios, to reports that it was run by a team of retired shadowrunners. More than one local wag had commented that, whoever the owners were, they must have had more than a passing admiration for the works of 20th-century author Douglas Adams. The only thing that could be proven to be true, though, was that the trail leading through the red tape to the owners' identities was a difficult and convoluted one, and one which no decker had yet been able to crack. Even Lucius Kellraven, the elegant elven manager of the place and its face to the public, claimed to not know who it was he worked for.
Tonight's party was one of the most exclusive seen in quite some time; it was not since the premiere bash for Maria Mercurial's latest recording, held at Club Penumbra two months previously, that guest lists had been so carefully checked against invitations before entry was permitted. The bouncers, two burly trolls in stylish, perfectly-tailored threads, presided over the door as a suave elf with a datajack and a human with fetishes up and down the lapels of her jacket gave each guest the once-over before allowing them to continue through the portal and into the neon-clad archway that led to the club itself. Those foolish enough to attempt entry with weapons or obvious armor were politely and efficiently told that such items would have to be checked, and that they could reclaim them upon leaving the party.
Ocelot stepped off the elevator, feeling stiff and uncomfortable as always in his freshly-cleaned gray suit, which he had purchased more than a year ago for a team meet with some corporate bigwigs. Since he didn't trust his fashion sense enough to go out and buy another suit (his usual wardrobe consisted of T-shirts, armored leather jackets, and snug-fitting pants that didn't bind up in a fight), he'd decided to just go with the devil he knew and look drab. That was okay with him anyway: Ocelot wasn't the kind of guy who liked to stand out in crowds. If somebody mistook him for a member of the security force, all the better. At least that way nobody would expect him to schmooze.
He wished Kestrel was with him; the other team members were nowhere in sight, and at least then he'd have someone to talk to. However, he had consciously decided not to ask her to accompany him, since he considered this to be a "working" occasion and he was determined to keep his work separate from his so-called personal life. That was okay, because she had mentioned in passing that she was busy tonight anyway. He'd said he would call her later that night if he got the chance, and they had left it at that. He suspected that it was going to be a long night.
Hanging back to let a knot of chattering tres chic-attired young party animals sweep by, Ocelot watched the entry procedure closely and determined that, with the possible exception of his monowhip, he wasn't going to get any of his other weapons through the security check. Thus forewarned, he joined the line and when he reached the elf, he voluntarily surrendered his armored longcoat, stun baton, and Browning Max-Power. He didn't reveal the existence of the monowhip up his sleeve, and they didn't seem to notice. Just like (almost) always. Oddly, they didn't say anything about his cyberware, either. Ocelot gave his name to the troll with the master guest list, still half expecting to be kicked out on his ear because he wasn't one of "the right people." The troll, however, just waved him in with a nearly-sincere "Have a good time" before turning his attention to the next candidate for admission.
Ocelot had never been to Lunar Dreamscape before. He wasn't the sort to go clubbing, preferring instead the quiet intimacy of a corner bar or perhaps a small blues joint. Still, though, he was impressed as he emerged from the other end of the short tunnel leading into the main room and saw the place laid out in all its glory. Even with the trademark lightshow not running yet, the view out the massive floor-to-ceiling windows was incredible. The whole of Seattle was laid out before him; on one of the city's rare clear nights, the sight was breathtaking.
He stood just to one side of the tunnel, his gaze roving over the room. Music pulsed from the large stage that dominated one side; Ocelot recognized the sound if not the band members: Selective Oblivion, the novahot young group whose debut album had recently topped the charts and whose tour was selling out in every city in which it stopped. Below the stage, crowds of cutting-edge club habitues writhed in rhythm on the dance floor as others danced around the edges while waiting for a spot in the limelight.
Arrayed around the dance floor were small tables at different elevations, with gently sloping catwalks leading between them so the guests could socialize. Wait staff, both men and women dressed in the club's purple-jacketed tuxedos, circulated among the throng, efficiently gathering plates, glasses, and tableware and whisking it away.
This party was apparently the place to be: just on a cursory glance, Ocelot spotted several luminaries he recognized, and he did not pride himself on recognizing famous people. Off to the far side of the room near the window, Maria Mercurial chatted with her manager/husband Armando Fernandez—Ocelot smiled a bit to himself, remembering one of his team's first runs that had involved helping those two out of a problem situation. Near them, he recognized two members of The Shadows band: the band's fortunes had fallen a bit since the team had last encountered them, but they were still a solid performer on the charts and definitely a hot ticket. Others were there, too, whom Ocelot recognized but had never met: simsense stars, politicians, media producers—even a group that he identified as another of Seattle's A-list shadowrunner teams. A little bit of everything at this thing, he thought. Wonder where the main man is?
"Great party, huh?" A voice spoke from above him and to his left. Ocelot wheeled around and came face to face with a plate of food piled nearly a quarter-meter high. Above the plate was the face of a very satisfied- looking Joe.
"Hey, Joe. Uh...yeah. Whatever you say." Ocelot couldn't help being amused: the young troll unabashedly wore a Western-style suit adorned with Native American finery, including a wide beaded belt with a silver buckle, string tie, and feathers braided into his tall black Mohawk hairstyle. On anyone else, it would have looked ridiculous; on Joe, it succeeded in being merely eccentric in a vaguely daffy sort of way.
"You gotta check out the eats in there," Joe said, grinning through a mouthful of something. He pointed back toward one of the side rooms. "The spread is incredible. They got everything. And it's all you can eat. Guess they didn't invite too many trolls, or else they got more food stashed somewhere."
Ocelot didn't quite know what to say to that, so he just nodded. "Yeah."
"I'll see ya around," Joe said. "Gotta go find a table so I can get started on this stuff."
"Have you seen any of the other guys?" Ocelot asked quickly before Joe could leave.
"Yeah—I saw Winterhawk a few minutes ago, talkin' to some lady dressed all in blue. He didn't look like he wanted to be bothered, so I left him alone." Joe looked pleased with himself—normally, he would have prided himself on walking right up and expecting an introduction, much to `Hawk's annoyance.
"What about `Wraith or Harry?"
"Nope. Not yet. But I haven't looked too hard. I was tryin' to find the food first." the troll grinned, showing huge white tusks. "I'll get us a table."
"You do that," Ocelot said, with a sigh and a grin of his own. Some things never changed.
When Joe had disappeared into the crowd (well, as much as he could, towering as he did over most of the other guests), Ocelot abandoned his place near the wall and began a circuit around the room, doing his best to remain as unobtrusive as possible. As he made his way through the little knots of socializing guests, he remembered why he didn't like parties, and especially why he didn't like parties of this size or this level of exclusivity. Everywhere he looked, he saw the beautiful people, dressed in the height of current trendy fashion. To Ocelot, it looked as if they were all trying to outdo each other for how pretentious they could look.
Oddly, though, as he continued through the huge room, his gaze picked out some other people who looked a bit out of place among the crowd of glittering socialites. People who weren't beautiful. People who weren't dressed on the cutting edge of fashion. People who looked like they were having the time of their lives, but who on careful observation exhibited a bewilderment that looked incongruous when superimposed with the exuberant insincerity of the rest of the party. There weren't many of them, but there were enough that Ocelot began to take notice of them and file their presence away for future reference.
He continued, making a quick detour through the large room off the side of the main club which contained the bar and the buffet table. Joe had been right: the table stretched the entire length of the room, every centimeter covered over with delicacies ranging from meats to seafood to vegetables and fruits to pastas to steaming serving trays full of human and metahuman dishes of every culture and variety. Behind the table stood a cadre of purple-jacketed staff members, ready to replace a dish the minute it became empty. Whoever this guy is, he must be payin' a fortune for this bash, Ocelot thought idly.
The bar was equally impressive, taking up nearly the entire side of the room opposite the food table. Ocelot ordered a beer and carried it around as he left to head back into the main room. Spotting Winterhawk from the top of the steps leading downward, he made his way through the crowd toward the window where the mage stood. "Some party."
Winterhawk turned from where he had been watching a woman lose herself in the crowd. The mage was in his element, no doubt about it: he looked right at home, champagne glass in hand, dressed in a finely tailored, fashionably loose-fitting suit of charcoal gray with a faint overlay of blue. Unlike Ocelot, who wore his own suit like an unfamiliar uniform, Winterhawk was casually at ease. No surprise there, really—the Brit was probably happy to have an opportunity to spend time somewhere like this, instead of following the team's usual predilection toward bad neighborhoods, abandoned buildings, and sewers. "Good evening," he said, smiling. "Yes, quite. You just missed Cynthia." He indicated the crowd behind him with a brief head movement.
Cynthia Cyan was a top fashion designer whom Winterhawk and Ocelot had met years ago on a run; `Hawk still occasionally dated her when she was in town. "Maybe I'll see her later," Ocelot said.
`Hawk nodded. "Quite a turnout. Whoever our mystery man is, he seems to have a fair amount of credibility for a chap nobody seems to have met."
"Yeah, no kidding. Did you see Maria and Armando?"
"We chatted a bit awhile ago, but as you might expect, she's quite popular tonight." He smiled wryly. "I also saw Joe. I didn't think one could balance that much food on a single plate. Someone should let him know that he can go back for more."
Ocelot grinned. "I think he's afraid they'll run out before he gets back." He looked out over the crowd as he spoke, and pointed. "There's `Wraith, I think. He's coming over."
Winterhawk followed Ocelot's gesture to see the elf approaching. ShadoWraith moved easily through the crowd, slipping through spaces without ever seeming to touch anyone. He too wore a fine suit in the manner of a uniform, but rather than an unwelcome uniform, it was one in which he looked like he belonged. As always, `Wraith maintained his posture of calm readiness, like a taut spring that could come explosively uncoiled with no prior notice.
"Why don't we try to find Joe and see if he's got a table?" Ocelot said when `Wraith had arrived.
"You haven't seen our host yet, have you?" Winterhawk asked as the three of them made their way back through the crowd toward the tables.
"This is odd..." the mage said, but his voice was carried away by the music.
Joe had commandeered a largish table near one of the windows. He grinned at his teammates as they approached, gesturing with a chicken leg that was dwarfed in his massive hand. "Hi, guys. Have a seat." He'd apparently been back at least one more time to the buffet, because three plates were arrayed in front of him. Two of them were already empty, and he was working on the third. A pitcher of beer, two-thirds empty, sat before him. "Harry was by to say hi, but he's off schmoozing again. "
"What a surprise," Winterhawk commented, sitting down where he could watch the room. Partygoers continued to mill around, completing tracks between the dance floor, the tables, and the food and drink. Idly, the mage watched a group of men: a very tall, stiff-looking human with a military haircut, two elves, and a dwarf who was currently gesticulating wildly as he tried to make his point to his friends. Then his attention was drawn off by a pair of attractive young women, followed by a close scrutiny of the guitar technique of Selective Oblivion's lead axeman. Nothing seemed terribly out of the ordinary; at least not to the point that would set off warning bells in his head. Settling back, he sipped his champagne and continued people-watching.
Ocelot sighed, finishing his beer and glancing down at his chrono. It was already nearly 22:00. Even being fashionably late, he was starting to tire of the party and wondered how soon could make an excuse to get the hell out of here. Maybe Kestrel would be done with whatever it was she was doing that night, and they could still—
He froze, his gaze stopping in mid-skip over the various faces in the crowd.
Wait a minute—had that been—?
No...it couldn't have been. She was—
She was standing high up on one of the catwalks, where she wouldn't have been spotted by anyone who wasn't specifically looking for her. Ocelot couldn't get a good look at her because of all the flashing, shifting lights—he couldn't even be certain it was, in fact, she—but whoever she was, she seemed to be watching the throng below as if waiting for something. Then, as he watched, another figure—a male figure—came up to her, leaned in close as if whispering something to her (kissing her?) She nodded, and then the figure turned around and went back the way he'd come.
Ocelot `s fists knotted under the table as he clenched them. Winterhawk glanced at him, noting the change in his expression. "Problem?"
"No. Nothing." Ocelot stood up, forcing his hands to relax. "Just saw somebody I think I know. I'll be back in a minute." Without waiting for anyone to comment, he disappeared into the crowd, leaving Winterhawk to stare after him and then turn back to ShadoWraith, who had also noticed the exchange. The elf raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Ocelot pushed his way through the crowd, over toward the place where the catwalk reached the floor level. As he drew near, the woman was just arriving at the bottom. It was indeed Kestrel, dressed in a stylish pants-and-jacket outfit of glove-soft green leather complete with green boots. Ocelot stopped. "Hey," he said noncommittally.
She looked up, startled, but recovered quickly and smiled. "Ocelot! What are you doing here?" Completing her descent, she crossed the distance to him quickly. In addition to the green outfit, she wore a simple necklace of emeralds and onyx that brought out the color in her eyes.
"I was going to ask you the same question," he said, unable to keep a slight edge of accusation out of his voice.
"Business," she said. "I wish I'd known you were coming—we could have come together."
"That would have been a problem," he said bitterly. "I saw you up there with your—friend."
She looked genuinely confused. Then the light dawned. She pointed upward. "Up there?" At his nod, she laughed. "Oh, no, no! You don't understand. It's—" Suddenly, she touched her ear, which Ocelot now noticed contained a tiny bud earpiece. Her vision zoned out for a moment, then she returned her attention to Ocelot. "Listen," she said, "I need to go now—something I have to take care of. But I'll find you in a bit and explain this to you. You've got it all wrong. Okay?"
Ocelot took a deep breath, shrugged. "Yeah, sure." He pointed in the vague direction of his table. "I'm over there. Not hard to find—I'm sitting with a troll, an elf, and a guy with white stripes in his hair."
She smiled, leaning over to brush a kiss across his lips. "Okay. See you in a bit." And she was gone, off into the crowd.
Winterhawk looked up as Ocelot came back to the table. The mage's expression was quizzical. "Everything all right?"
"Fine," Ocelot said, resuming his seat. He motioned for a waiter and ordered another beer.
The team spent the next half hour watching the crowds, chatting with occasional passersby, and drinking. Winterhawk and Joe at different times were lured out on the dance floor, the former by Cynthia Cyan and the latter by a feather-and-fetish-clad young ork shaman. Ocelot wasn't much in the mood for dancing, and `Wraith—well, `Wraith was almost never in the mood for dancing. Both seemed content to concentrate on their drinks and on remaining aware of their surroundings.
"So you guys made it." Ocelot looked up to see Harry, a smiling young woman in a slinky dress on his arm, coming up to the table. He was actually wearing a nice suit this time—nice being defined as not looking as if it had been slept in. "Hell of a party." He looked at the woman, then at `Wraith, Ocelot, and Joe, the latter of whom had just returned to the table. "Oh. Guys, this is Cherisse. Cherisse...these are the guys." Cherisse, apparently well aware of the fact that she was being paid to be decorative, merely flashed a dazzling smile at the runners. She didn't seem at all perturbed that she hadn't been given the names of "the guys."
"Mind if we sit down a minute?" Harry asked. When Ocelot waved him to a chair, he pulled one up for Cherisse, then plopped down on a second. "So—anybody seen him yet?"
"The guy who's runnin' the show," Harry said as if it was obvious. "I been hearin' a lot of buzz about him. He's around, but I ain't seen him yet. This is the weirdest damned thing I ever saw."
Winterhawk picked that moment to return from the dance floor. Noting that his chair had been claimed by Cherisse, he shot Harry an odd look and grabbed one from an adjacent table. Harry just grinned back.
Ocelot wasn't paying much attention to the back-and-forth between `Hawk and Harry. He was too busy scanning the crowds, looking for Kestrel. He didn't want to admit it to himself, but the incident he had seen had shaken him a bit. Reluctant to think that he was the jealous type, he nonetheless wanted an explanation for not only Kestrel's odd behavior up above the dance floor, but also for her very presence here. What kind of "business" could she be doing at this party? Was she trying to meet up with a new fixer? But she had said that she was out of the business now. Maybe she was thinking about getting started again. He just couldn't figure it out, and that bothered him.
Since he was looking for her, though, he was the first person at the table to see her as she broke through the crowd and glanced left and right, finally spotting Ocelot's table. Smiling, she hurried over, speaking into her hand (or at least that was what it looked like) as she came. She looked a bit breathless, like she had been running around a lot (dancing?) but her smile looked genuine. "Sorry I took so long," she said. "I kept getting sidetracked."
Ocelot nodded, well aware that his companions were all looking at her. "It's okay," he said. Taking a deep breath, he quickly introduced her to everyone, merely as "Kestrel."
"Pleasure to meet you," Winterhawk said. He cast Ocelot another odd look, but didn't comment further.
She nodded. To Ocelot, she said, "Okay, now I can explain this to you." She pointed off toward the opposite direction from the one in which she had come. "I want you to meet somebody."
A man was approaching the table. As he drew closer, everyone stared at him, not even trying to hide the fact that they were doing so. "Everyone," Kestrel said, "I'd like you to meet Gabriel."
The man was young—very young. He could not have been more than twenty, his face smooth and unlined. He came up next to Kestrel, his movements eerily graceful. His hair was so black that it shone in the overhead light, but his skin was fair. Ocelot's eyes widened a bit; he had never seen anyone possessed of that level of sheer physical beauty before. "Beauty" was the right word, too. Not in a feminine sense, but in the sense of something that was perfect, without flaw. He wore an impeccably tailored, fine silk suit of pale gray with an air of casual indifference; his tie matched the deep purple hue of his eyes.
Still no one at the table spoke. Not even Joe could come up with something to say. Finally, the young man smiled a smile that made Ocelot think of the pictures of saints you sometimes saw in churches on the trid. "I'm pleased to meet you all," he said, his voice soft and pleasant. "I've heard good things about you."
Winterhawk was the first to get his jaw unstuck. "May I take it," he said slowly, "that you're the host of this little soiree?"
Gabriel nodded. "I am. May we?" he asked, indicating two more empty chairs at the next table. At quick nods from Winterhawk and Harry, he and Kestrel both pulled the chairs over. Kestrel situated hers next to Ocelot.
"Nice shindig," Harry said. "Good way to get started in the biz."
"I thought so," Gabriel agreed. "Everyone seems to be having a good time, and it's an excellent opportunity to meet people." He was leaning back casually in his chair, an amused twinkle in his violet eyes.
"I take it you haven't been in town long," Harry said. No one seemed inclined to take control of the conversation; the runners were content to let the fixer pump the young man for whatever information he'd provide.
"Not long," he said, but didn't elaborate. "I plan to stay awhile, though. I like Seattle—I always have."
Ocelot looked back and forth between Kestrel and Gabriel. The young fixer settled his amused, oddly comforting gaze on Ocelot for a moment, then smiled again. "Since no one has introduced anyone to me yet, let me see how well my sources are functioning. You," he said to Ocelot, "must be Ocelot. There's no doubt of that. So that would make you ShadoWraith, you Winterhawk, and you Joe." With each name, he nodded toward the appropriate person. "That leaves you, sir," he said to Harry. "You can only be Harry—soon to be a professional associate, I hope." Turning to Cherisse, an apologetic half-frown crossed his features. "Forgive me, miss, but my sources have revealed nothing to me about you."
She giggled, flashing her dazzling smile again. "That could change," she said. "I'm Cherisse." She hadn't taken her eyes off him since he had arrived. Harry glared at her, nudging her rather ungently out of her reverie.
The amusement in Gabriel's eyes stepped up a notch, but he otherwise didn't reply.
"Your sources ain't bad," Harry said. "But that info ain't hard to come by. Info on you, though—that seems to be scarcer'n smooth spots on a troll. No offense," he added as an aside to Joe.
Gabriel shrugged, smiled. "Forgive me," he said. "An unfortunate flair for the dramatic, sadly. With any success at all, you'll likely be hearing more about my enterprises in the months to come. We're still just getting started, you see."
"We?" Ocelot asked quickly.
"Yes," Kestrel spoke up. "That's what I was trying to tell you. I'm working with Gabriel. Helping him out with day-to-day operations."
"Yes," the young man agreed. "Kestrel has been a godsend—not only has she helped me begin searching for the people I'm seeking, but she's been my face to the world. Fortunately," he said, regarding her with affection, "that won't be necessary now. That is part of the reason I am hosting this affair—to allow me to meet with potential clients, team members, and contacts all at once, rather than one at a time."
"So," Harry said jokingly, "you wouldn't be thinkin' of tryin' to lure any o' my teams off, are ya, kid?"
Gabriel immediately shook his head, looking serious. "No. Not at all. You have nothing to worry about in that regard, I assure you."
"Not that they'd go anyway," Harry continued, still keeping up the joke. "You musta heard how much they all love me. Right, guys?"
"Of course, Harry," Winterhawk said, but it didn't sound like his heart was in the usual banter.
"Well, good," Harry said, then stood up, dragging a reluctant Cherisse with him. "Listen, I gotta get goin'. Still got some people to talk to tonight. Like you said—nice ta have everybody together in one place. Thanks a lot for the invite—you throw a damn fine party, kid. It was great to meet you."
Gabriel stood as well, reaching across the table to offer his hand. "And for me as well. Undoubtedly we'll meet again. If I don't see you again tonight, thank you for coming." He made a little bow—just a slight incline of his head—to Cherisse.
When Harry had left, he settled back down in his chair, casually crossing his ankle over his knee. "He doesn't like me," he commented to the group at large, his eyes twinkling with merriment.
"He—ah—has trouble with change, sometimes," Winterhawk said, smiling wryly in spite of himself. The young man's good humor was infectious. "I imagine he'll come `round eventually."
"Yes, you're probably correct," Gabriel said. "You don't stay at the top of this business for as long as he has without being adaptable." He paused to take a sip of champagne, then regarded the team. "I was serious when I said I've heard some good things about your team. It seems that you've done just about everything."
"Really?" Kestrel asked teasingly. "You haven't told me about any of that, Gabriel."
"I didn't think you wanted to know," he said in the same tone. He turned back to the other runners. "I've been doing a bit of research on your careers since I decided to come to Seattle."
"Why?" ShadoWraith asked, a bit suspiciously.
Gabriel shrugged. "Standard procedure, isn't it? Yours is one of the more successful shadow teams in town, and has been for several years now. Since I knew I was going to be building one or two teams of my own, I wanted to see what it was that made yours, and some of the other ones who had already reached your level, successful."
"What, if I may ask, did you discover?" Winterhawk asked with a cynical half-smile. "I've been wondering the same thing about us for quite some time now."
The young man looked serious again. "With your team, I would say a number of factors. Harry has an excellent reputation as a fixer—both for procuring runs and for making sure that steps are taken if they get out of control. But it's more than that. Harry has a number of teams, and they're not all as successful as yours. I think at the heart of your success is your versatility. There aren't many eventualities you can't deal with. Also, believe it or not, your individuality." He smiled. "From other sources who know you in one way or another, I've heard you compared to a herd of cats."
Winterhawk chuckled. "Colorful, but accurate."
"Who you callin' a cat?" Joe asked, grinning.
"All right, then: three cats and a bear, if you will," Gabriel said, his violet gaze locking for a moment on Joe before returning to its previous scan of the runners and the surrounding area.
Joe stiffened a bit at that, but said nothing.
"So," Ocelot asked, "You got a team yet?"
Gabriel nodded. "I've put one together, and expect to send them on their first run soon, after I give them a bit more time to get used to each other." Laughing a little, he added, "Remarkably, they're showing very similar catlike tendencies." He finished off his champagne and set the glass on the table. "I'm quite pleased with the turnout tonight. The band is excellent, don't you think?"
"How'd you get Selective Oblivion?" Joe asked. "They're right in the middle of a tour, aren't they?"
The young man shrugged. "I did them a favor once. They had the next couple of days off, so they were happy to come."
"Did you do favors for Maria Mercurial and those guys from The Shadows, too?" Ocelot asked.
"And didn't I see the drummer from Concrete Dreams talking to Paulina Nouveau over by the bar earlier?" Winterhawk added.
Gabriel smiled. "You did, and I didn't. If you position the occasion correctly, you'd be surprised at whom you can get to show up. It's all in the marketing." His eyes said he was kidding, but his tone was deadly serious.
"He's right," Kestrel put in. "A little mystery, combined with the fact that it's being held here at the Dreamscape and that only certain people are being invited does wonders—people were asking to be put on the guest list. Of course, what we didn't tell them was that `only certain people' didn't necessarily mean what they thought it did."
"What do you mean by that?" Winterhawk asked.
Kestrel grinned. "Gabriel has a lot of friends, and not all of them are—shall we say—at the top of Seattle society."
Light dawned in Ocelot's mind. "I think I've seen some of them."
"Probably. There are quite a few of them here. They're having a great time. He's doing his best to make sure they don't feel overwhelmed by it all."
"I thought you haven't been in Seattle very long," Joe said, his brow furrowing.
Gabriel smiled his beatific smile and shrugged. "I make friends easily."
At that moment, two attractive young elf women came up to the table, smiling at ShadoWraith and Winterhawk. "You guys want to dance?" one of them asked.
Winterhawk smiled back at them. "P'raps a bit later," he said.
`Wraith shook his head. "Thank you, but—I don't dance."
"Too bad," one of the women said good-naturedly. The other one smiled back at Winterhawk, and then they moved off in search of other conquests.
"You should have gone," Gabriel said. "They were quite lovely."
"Oh, I do intend to find her again later," Winterhawk said, looking back over his shoulder at the retreating figures.
"And what's your excuse?" The young man smiled at `Wraith.
"I don't dance," the elf repeated in a that's all there is to it tone.
Gabriel shook his head ruefully. "That's a shame. Dancing can be a pleasant desire when you have the right partner." Again, he stared straight at `Wraith as he spoke, then broke the gaze and waved to a passing waiter for another glass of champagne.
Wraith's taut posture became ramrod straight as he locked his gaze on Gabriel, his eyes boring into the young fixer's. "What—did you say?" he asked in a quiet tone with just a hint of strain. Around the table, Winterhawk, Ocelot, and Joe were doing double-takes. Kestrel looked confused.
Gabriel waved it off. "Oh, nothing. Of course, no one is required to dance if they don't want to. It's just that the music is so infectious." He stood. "Well, I'd best get back to playing host. It was good meeting you all. I'm sure we'll encounter each other again. Coming, Kestrel?"
She shook her head. "I'll catch you in a bit. I want to dance with Ocelot first, if he wants to." Smiling at Ocelot, she stood and held out her hand to him as the rest of the runners looked on wondering what was going on that they had missed.
Once they were away from the table, Kestrel took Ocelot's hand and began leading him away from the dance floor. "I didn't really want to dance," she said. "I just thought you might want to talk, just the two of us."
"You got that right," Ocelot growled. He followed as she led him across the room and into a corner near the opposite window. "Okay—what's going on? Why didn't you tell me about this?"
Kestrel stared out over the brilliant Seattle skyline. "We weren't going to mix business and pleasure, remember?"
"If you don't mind my sayin' so, it doesn't look much like business to me."
Her gaze came around to meet his. "What do you mean by that?"
Ocelot met her eyes. "Are you sleeping with him?" he asked bluntly.
For a split-second she looked perplexed, then her eyes widened in surprise. "Gabriel? No, of course not. What gave you that idea? I told you, I'm working with him."
"What gave me that idea?" Ocelot sighed. "Come on, Kestrel—look at him. And I saw him up there with you before. What I can't figure out is why you called me back, if you—"
Kestrel reached out and gripped his upper arms, bringing her face in close to his. "Listen to me, Ocelot," she said quietly. "I give you my word. I'm not sleeping with him. I'm not having a romantic relationship with him at all. He's a dear friend, that's all."
"Then how come you never mentioned him before?"
"I didn't think it was important," she said, just a little bit defensively. "I didn't think you'd get like this."
"No," he said, impatient. "I mean before. Before you left the first time."
Kestrel leaned against the window, waiting for a group of chatting young women to pass before speaking. Then she shook her head. "Because I didn't know him then."
Ocelot spread his hands in resignation. "I don't get it, Kestrel. I believe you if you say you're not sleeping with him. But this still doesn't make any sense." He sighed. "Is this part of what you don't want to talk about? With what happened while you were gone?"
She paused. "Sort of," she admitted.
"And you still don't want to talk about it?"
"No. None of it is relevant to us. It's all in the past now."
"Except for him."
"Ocelot," she said, exasperated. "Come on—this isn't like you at all. I'm telling you, there isn't anything there. There isn't, and there won't be. I called you because I wanted to get back together with you. Gabriel's not even my type. Okay?"
He nodded slowly, trying to decide if the wistful note he heard in her voice was really there, or if he had just manufactured it. Inwardly, he was a little disgusted with himself. She hadn't even given him anything to be jealous about. Hell, Gabriel was almost young enough to be her son. Not that that mattered, of course. There was something weird about the guy, that was for sure. "Okay," he finally said. Teasingly, with a clearly affected hopeful tone, he added, "I don't suppose he's gay, is he?"
She laughed. "No, I don't think so. Sorry. You'll just have to trust me."
Taking a deep breath, he became serious again. "Will you at least tell me one thing?"
"If I can," she said.
"How did you meet him? And what made you decide to work with him?"
"That's two things," she said, smiling. "But I'll answer them anyway. I met him on a run. And I decided to work with him because I talked with him for a long time, and I liked what he wanted to do. I'd been thinking for awhile about getting into the fixer business myself; this was a good way for me to do it. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met, and he's got a lot of plans and ideas about what he wants to do and where he wants to go. He handles the connections, and I handle the nuts and bolts."
"Some kind of kid prodigy, huh?"
She smiled an odd smile. "Yeah—something like that. Now can we stop talking about all this serious stuff? This is supposed to be a party, remember? What are my chances of actually getting you to dance with me?"
"Not too bad," he said, taking her arm.
Back at the table, the remaining three members of the team were deep in speculation about the events that had just transpired. "Is it just me, guys," Joe said hesitantly, "—or is there something weird about that guy?"
"I don't think it's just you this time, Joe," Winterhawk said.
"No," `Wraith agreed. "Did you hear what he said?"
Winterhawk nodded soberly. "You mean about dancing, and desire?"
The elf looked at him like he couldn't have meant anything else.
"Maybe it's a coincidence," Joe said. He poured the last of the beer from his pitcher into his glass and swirled it around speculatively.
"Possibly," Winterhawk admitted. "But it hardly seems likely, especially considering the way he looked at `Wraith when he said it."
"Yeah..." Joe was still speaking slowly, as if he was turning things around in his mind before voicing them. "And then he also said that thing about three cats and a bear. I thought that was weird too, but I just let it go—I figured somebody must've told him."
"He did seem to have good information about us—" Winterhawk mused.
"Not that good," `Wraith said. He had not relaxed his guarded posture since Gabriel had left the table. "No one knew. Only the four of us."
"And Harlequin," Winterhawk reminded him.
"You think he's Harlequin?" Joe said, surprised.
"I don't know what to think," Winterhawk said tightly. "I'd give a great deal right now to have the chance to assense him."
"Why don't you?" Joe asked. "We'll keep an eye on your body."
The mage shook his head. "Not here. The astral security `round this place, especially tonight, has to be phenomenal. Not to mention the fact that if he is Harlequin, or someone similar, then he'd notice me before I could discover anything."
Joe sighed. "This is just too strange," he said. "Why would he pretend to be this guy? He didn't even know we'd be here tonight. And Harlequin didn't seem like the type who liked to pretend to be other people."
"Point," `Wraith conceded.
"Yes, true," Winterhawk agreed. He leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his hair. "His sources are very good, apparently—p'raps he's talked to that woman Harlequin had with him...what was her name?"
"Jane Foster," `Wraith said.
"I just don't get it," Joe said, frowning. "Maybe he's just playing with our heads." His eyes widened. "Hey, I got it! Maybe he's got somebody who used magic on us. You know, read our minds!"
`Wraith stiffened. "Can that be done?" he asked Winterhawk.
"Anything's possible," `Hawk said, shrugging. "Spells do exist that allow a magician to read a target's mind, but the ones I'm familiar with are touch-only. He didn't touch any of us, other than shaking Harry's hand, and Harry doesn't know anything about this."
Again, the mage shrugged. "I don't see why not. It would be an extremely difficult spell, but if he—or someone he's got working for him, more likely—is that powerful a magician, I suppose it could be done. The drain would be hellish, though."
"He sure seems to have the nuyen to hire somebody like that," Joe said. "A spread like this ain't cheap."
Ocelot chose that moment to return to the table. He and Kestrel had finished their dance, and she had told him that she had to go off and take care of some official duties having to do with the party. He pulled up his chair and waved for another beer. "Did I miss anything?"
"New girlfriend?" Joe, ever the soul of tact, queried with a grin.
"Yeah," Ocelot said shortly. "But that ain't what you were talkin' about, I hope. If so, you guys need to get out more."
"Actually," Winterhawk said, "we weren't discussing your new friend at all, but rather speculating about this Gabriel chap and how he knew so much about us."
"Yeah," Ocelot said, his expression growing much more serious as he leaned forward. "Doesn't make me too comfortable either."
"So what's your speculation?" `Hawk asked. "So far we've been batting around the possibility that he's either Harlequin in disguise, someone associated with him, or someone who's hired some very high powered magical talent to probe our minds clandestinely so he can dazzle us with the depths of his connections."
Ocelot shrugged. "I think it's not smart to read too much into this without very many facts. Let's look at the simple things first: maybe he's just a kid with some really heavy corp money backing him up. He might not even be as good as he looks—he could just be the face in front of a much bigger organization." That wasn't what Kestrel had said, but it certainly didn't contradict what little she had told him. It was entirely possible that she was as in the dark as they were about Gabriel's real connections.
"Never thought about that," Winterhawk admitted. "It rather makes sense, though."
`Wraith mulled that over. "Headware. Getting messages."
"Yeah," Joe said. "It'd be easy to do. Somebody could watch the party from somewhere else nearby, then use that spell Winterhawk was talking about to get info from people. Then they could just send it to him with a scrambled signal or something, so nobody'd catch on—and suddenly he looks like he knows everything."
"The Great and Powerful Oz," ShadoWraith said suddenly.
All three teammates initially stared blankly at him, but then a slow smile spread across Winterhawk's face. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," he murmured.
The elf, apparently pleased that someone had gotten one of his obscure 20th-century references, nodded.
"Huh?" Ocelot asked, looking confused.
"It's a reference from a rather famous movie of the last century," Winterhawk said, "And I believe from a book from the one before that. Oz was essentially an average little man who used a lot of smoke and mirrors to fool people into believing that he had great power."
Ocelot nodded. "That makes sense. But there's nothin' average about this guy. I've never seen anybody who looks like that, outside of models and sim stars. But even they don't look like that in real life. And why pick a kid?"
"Maybe they wanted somebody who looked trustworthy," Joe said. "When he was sittin' here, I kind of felt like I trusted him. Didn't you?"
"Yeah..." Ocelot nodded again. "Yeah, I did. He's sure as hell got a way with people."
"Maybe he's got one of those spells like you have, Winterhawk," Joe said. "That makes him more charismatic."
Winterhawk considered that. "Possibly. At any rate, I'd love to get a look at him on the astral plane. But I doubt I'll get the chance. I don't expect to have any reason to have much more to do with him once we've left here."
Ocelot finished his beer. "Yeah, true. Guess there's really not much point in speculatin' about it." His gaze swept over the dance floor, where he spotted Gabriel dancing with another famous simsense starlet whose name he couldn't remember but whose face was instantly recognizable. "He's sure makin' himself popular, though." Standing up, he said, "You know, I've had about enough of this place. I think I'm gonna take off. I'll catch you guys later, okay?"
ShadoWraith stood as well. "Yes," he said. "I agree."
"Good night, then, gentlemen," Winterhawk said. "I think I'll stay `round for a bit longer and try to find that lovely young elf woman who asked me to dance before. If you'll excuse me, Joe—" With a nod, he got up and started off into the crowd as Ocelot and ShadoWraith headed for the exit.