It was nearly an hour later when Winterhawk returned to the table and found it occupied by another group. He wasn't surprised; Joe was probably either out dancing somewhere or raiding the buffet table for yet another time, or perhaps he'd left already. He hadn't seen Harry for awhile, either. It was after midnight now, and the party was still in full swing.
He had found the elf woman and had a rather nice dance with her (and one with her friend, after apologetically explaining to her that `Wraith had left, but that he would be happy to stand in his teammate's stead), but that had only taken about ten minutes of the hour in which he had remained. Both of them had been, unfortunately, a bit too young and flighty to interest him in pursuing further conversation. He had spent the remaining time wandering around, drink in hand, picking up snatches of conversation here and there. He was by nature a curious man—in fact, it was not only one of his greatest strengths, but also one of his worst failings—and he could not get the mysterious young fixer out of his mind. There were just too many things that didn't make sense about him, the most puzzling of which being his cryptic comments making reference to an experience that, as far as Winterhawk knew, only six people in the world even knew about. Gabriel was most certainly not supposed to be one of them.
Winterhawk continued his meanderings, letting his mind wander back over that strange run two years ago, and especially to the even stranger party that had taken place near the end of it. ShadoWraith, who had not had a date in any of his friends' memories, had indeed danced with Desire—just as Joe had apparently had deep conversations with Bear, and `Hawk himself had chatted with various other shamanic totems such as Raven and Dog. The whole event was the kind of thing that none of them to this day was certain had actually occurred; even Winterhawk, who was more than passingly familiar with concepts like metaplanar quests and such, still occasionally managed to convince himself for awhile that the whole thing had just been some kind of mass hallucination. The belief never lasted longer than an hour or two, though.
He sighed, stopping to take in the view out the window for a moment while gathering his thoughts. He didn't really know why he was still here; the party was just beginning to degenerate into just the sort of affair that he didn't care for anymore (actually, that he never had cared for): less interesting conversations, more dancing, schmoozing, and lowering of inhibitions brought on by the free-flowing alcohol. Most of the people `Hawk was interested in seeing had already left, anyway: he'd noticed Maria and Armando making their excuses some time ago, and Cynthia had sought him out to say goodbye, saying that she had to catch an early plane for Milan tomorrow so she had to get her sleep. Now that the rest of the team, and even Harry, seemed to have disappeared, that left only Gabriel and Ocelot's mysterious new girlfriend, the former of whom was almost constantly surrounded by various groups of people, and the latter of whom looked like she was more concerned with maintaining the logistics of the party that she was with talking or dancing.
`Hawk left the party without saying goodbye to anyone, retrieving his coat (he hadn't bothered bringing any weapons; he rarely carried any except his mageblade anyway, and since he refused to check that, he'd just left it home) and stepping into the elevator to take the long ride downstairs.
He was alone in the elevator car, feeling just a bit pleasantly tipsy from the champagne. He hadn't had much to eat, which had probably been a mistake; fortunately, he had decided to take a cab to the party rather than try to drive in the snarled Downtown traffic. They'd been having sporadic problems with the grid around this area lately, and he didn't relish the idea of trying to explain to a Lone Star cop what he was doing out at one in the morning, driving under the influence and without a SIN. The only thing less appealing than spending a night (or more) at a Lone Star precinct house jail until Harry could pull enough strings to get him out was the possibility that he'd have to pull some of his own strings—from back home in England, where he did really exist—to get himself out of a mess. No, better to just take a cab.
The elevator stopped. It was only about halfway down, so it must be one of the residents, `Hawk thought idly. He glanced up as the doors slid open, then froze.
There was a figure there, leering at him. Grinning face. Pointed ears. Clown makeup. Winterhawk gasped involuntarily. "What—?"
Then it was gone, replaced by the perfectly ordinary features of a young elf man, looking confused. "You all right, man?" he asked nervously, backing up.
Slowly, the mage relaxed a bit. He took a long, deep breath. "Yes—yes, I'm fine," he said, but his tone was not certain. "Sorry. Thought you were—someone else."
"`S'okay," the elf said. He turned quickly around to look behind him. "Hey, I just realized I forgot something. I'll catch the next one. Sorry, chummer." He hit the button again and the elevator door slid shut.
Winterhawk leaned back against the wall of the car, swiping a hand through his hair. I must have had a bit more champagne than I thought, he mused ruefully. Now I'm seeing things that aren't there.
The elevator reached the ground floor without further incident, and `Hawk hailed one of the numerous cabs that were circling the block like vultures waiting to move in on a kill. Giving the ork driver his address, he settled back to watch the scenery.
"You at that big party tonight?" the ork asked.
Winterhawk nodded. "Yes."
"Heard it was some party. I took a fare home awhile ago who said that Maria Mercurial and Selective Oblivion were there. That musta been a gig to see."
The mage shrugged. "Maria didn't perform. But yes, it was quite an event."
"You're all doomed, you know," the ork said in the same cheerfully conversational tone.
For a moment, the cabdriver's comment didn't register on Winterhawk. Then he stiffened and leaned forward, his fists clenching. "What did you say?" he asked softly, sounding strange and accusing. He stared hard at the ork's image in the rear-view mirror.
The ork turned his head to look quizzically at the well-dressed Englishman who'd suddenly gone weird in his back seat. "I said that's too bad," he replied slowly. "You know—that she didn't perform."
"That isn't what you said," Winterhawk said, eyes narrowing. "Now tell me the truth."
"Hey," the cabbie said, "Come on, mister. Make it easy on both of us. I know you've probably had a little too much—why don't you just sit back and be comfortable till I get you home, okay?"
Winterhawk closed his eyes for a moment, taking deep breaths as he leaned back on the seat again. This was getting a little frightening. He didn't normally react like this to alcohol: when he got drunk, depending on the mood he was in when he started, he either got morose or a little silly. But he didn't see things that didn't exist. He wondered if there had been something extra in the champagne. "All right," he said wearily. "Sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me tonight."
"Null persp," the ork said, grinning. "Just don't get sick in my cab, and all's forgiven." He turned another corner and returned his attention to his driving.
Winterhawk remained silent, watching the sights of downtown Seattle go by. Idly, he switched his vision over to the astral plane, curious if anything was amiss there that might have caused his odd hallucinations. Everything seemed fine, though: the ork's aura glowed brightly, the colors indicating that he was not terribly troubled by the incident. `Hawk assumed (correctly) that when one drove a cab in Seattle for any length of time, one learned not to let things get under one's skin. He shifted back to normal perception as the cab pulled up in front of his building. "You gonna be okay?" the ork asked. "Need help or anything?"
Winterhawk was so preoccupied that he didn't even notice the ork's obvious wangling for a bigger tip. "No thank you," he said distractedly. "I'm fine." Getting out, he paid the driver, tipped him, and headed into the building. Right now, the thing he wanted most was to get a good night's sleep and fight off the effects of the alcohol. He was sure he'd have a hangover in the morning, but he was willing to live with that.
He took the elevator up to his fourth-floor apartment, opening the door and tossing his overcoat over the nearest chair. Before going in any further, he switched on a light and paused to look around. Everything looked fine as far as he could tell, but he really didn't expect otherwise. The apartment was large and spacious, situated on the top floor of an older residential building. Winterhawk had rented it on a long-term basis, long ago persuading the owners of the building, a middle-aged couple who lived on the ground floor, to allow him to make "renovations" to the place in exchange for a significantly higher rent than they would have otherwise received. The "renovations" had included renting all four of the fourth-floor apartments and having extensive work done to knock out walls and make the whole thing into a huge open space where the only other rooms were a single bedroom and two baths, one off the bedroom and one off the main space. Freestanding walls and partitions divided other parts of the place off from the large main room, but it was nonetheless big enough to support a decent-sized hermetic circle. So was the roof, to which Winterhawk had access as part of his rental agreement. The apartment had cost him a small fortune to whip into a state in which he would consider inhabiting it, but it had been worth it. Now, the place was quite a showpiece. Winterhawk remained on good terms with his landlords (who would have been idiots to anger him and risk losing their substantially hiked monthly rent payments), but he had still felt it prudent to drop a few subtle hints at the beginning regarding what might befall the place should the owners get greedy and try to find a yet more lucrative tenant. All in all, they understood each other quite well, and the relationship had been a mutually beneficial one for many years.
Sighing, Winterhawk shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over his arm, crossing the large living area toward the bedroom. Once in the bedroom, he clicked on the small trid unit and tuned it to a late-night news show, which then droned on quietly just above his level of perception as he continued preparing for bed. The newscaster, a plastic-faced human man with perfect teeth and shiny blond hair, was discussing some joint venture between Renraku and Mitsuhama; Winterhawk wasn't really paying attention, but he thought it had something to do with dedicating a new park somewhere in the city. He got into bed and aimed the remote at the trid to turn it off when suddenly he heard his name. He sat bolt upright and stared at the small picture.
"—Winterhawk," the plastic-faced man was saying, his grin gone suddenly huge and slightly manic. "Sources close to him say that the mage, a member of one of Seattle's most successful shadowrunning teams, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Reports are that—"
"Bloody hell!" Winterhawk yelled, jamming his finger down on the button to turn the trideo unit off. The plastic-faced anchorman faded into nothingness. "This is not happening. I am simply drunk. This will be nothing but a bad memory in the morning." He sat there a moment, holding the remote and trying to convince himself that he spoke the truth. After a few moments, though, he couldn't resist clicking the trid back on.
A different anchor, this time a woman with a plastic-looking face, perfect teeth, and shiny brown hair, was reporting on the recently-announced recall of the 2055 Ford Americar because of potentially dangerous defects in the brake system.
Slowly, just now becoming aware that he had been holding it, Winterhawk let out his breath and clicked the trid back off. Sleep. That was what he needed. This would all look much better in the morning.