There was no doubt about it: the place was living up to its reputation.
Alastair Stone settled back against the soft pillows that made up the seating area at his table and smiled in satisfaction. Around him, the air swirled with incense, the delicate smoke moving around in the currents of air produced by the passing of the few other people who were up and around at the moment. The odors of the incense varied from subtle to pungent, from sweet to tart, and every once in awhile Stone could catch a whiff of something other than incense—cannabis, usually—added into the mix. The music issuing from subtly hidden speakers around the room was an odd but pleasant mix of old-fashioned rock and roll and a more modern Eastern-influenced sound, mellow and relaxing with enough of a beat to it to keep the patrons comfortably alert. No one was dancing, but then that was expected. Nobody came here to dance, after all.
Just another Wednesday night at Aquarius Rising.
“They’re starting soon. I guarantee you’ll like this.”
Stone smiled at the speaker, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman in her mid twenties, clad in a long velvet robe of deep red. Her name was Elspeth Wolfchild, and he had met her last week at a magic seminar at the University of Washington. She had readily told him at the time that her real name was Mary Ann Wollam, but since nobody took a mage named Mary Ann Wollam seriously, she preferred her more arcane-sounding version. Alastair, who was in no position to talk about such things, had agreed readily. Besides, whatever her name was she was very attractive and he was hoping he might invite her back to his apartment later if the two of them hit it off.
It had been her idea to come here. Aquarius Rising was a fairly new club near the University, where Elspeth was a Th.D. candidate in hermetic studies. As such, it catered to a younger crowd than Stone was used to, but Elspeth had promised that it would be an experience he wouldn’t forget. He’d read about the place and its reputation as one of the better new mage clubs in town but just hadn’t gotten around to giving it a try yet. Now, sitting here on silk pillows next to an attractive young woman and a tall glass of Guinness, he was glad he had. I’m getting bloody stuffy these days, he’d told himself when he’d been tempted to turn down the invitation, and accepted it on the spot before he’d had a chance to change his mind.
Elspeth smiled and moved closer to him, snuggling up against his arm and putting her head on his shoulder. “These guys are amazing,” she told him. “Not much to look at, but on the astral—” She shook her head in awe. “Just watch. You’ll see.”
The name of the night’s headliner was Evenstar. They were an all-elf group from Tir Tairngire comprised of three mages and two shamans, and their reputation had preceded them to Seattle. The astral show they supposedly put on by the sheer force of their auras and their love for what they did was being compared to some of the best magic-based music groups in the country and they had only been together for less than a year. Stone was looking forward to hearing them in their one-night-only Seattle performance. He took a sip of his Guinness and glanced at his chrono. It would only be a few more minutes before they were due to take the stage. Elspeth was already taking deep breaths and beginning relaxation exercises in anticipation of separating her astral body from her physical so she could experience the concert as it was meant to be experienced: on the astral plane.
Stone moved over a bit, finished off his Guinness, and leaned back into the pillows. The club’s odd seating arrangements made a lot more sense once one realized that the majority of the concert’s attendees would be experiencing it from a reclining position. He loosened his tie and was preparing to lie back next to Elspeth when his phone went off, vibrating in his suit pocket.
Elspeth must have felt him stiffen because she looked at him in concern. “Alastair?”
He shook his head, already sitting up and pulling out the phone. He held up his hand for silence and put the phone to his ear. “Yes?” he whispered, a bit harshly.
“‘Hawk?” It was Ocelot. Of course it was Ocelot. Only he and a few others had this number, and most of them were out of town and wouldn’t be calling him now.
“What do you want? I’m rather busy—” He smiled at Elspeth and then turned back away, cupping his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece.
“Sorry. Something’s up. Harry called. He wants to talk to us now. Says it’s important.”
“Now?” He glanced at Elspeth again. She was settling back in again. He sighed. “Just a minute. Let me get to where I can talk.”
Elspeth’s attention returned to him as he rose. “Where are you going? Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing. Excuse me a moment, will you? I’ll be right back.”
“But the show—”
“I won’t miss anything. Just keep my spot warm for me, all right?” He squeezed her hand encouragingly, gave her his best charming smile, and quickly threaded his way through the lounging crowd toward the club’s lobby. He found an out-of-the-way corner and glared at the phone. “All right, now, what is it that can’t wait?”
“I told you—Harry wants to talk to us. Says it’s a personal favor.” Ocelot’s voice took on a tone of amusement. “I didn’t catch you in the middle of something...important...did I?”
Stone didn’t answer. He’d certainly done it to Ocelot enough times that he deserved a little payback, but that didn’t improve his mood. “Does he really mean now? Couldn’t he wait an hour or—”
“He said now.” There was a pause, and when Ocelot spoke again his tone was more serious. “Harry doesn't ask for favors very often..”
Stone swore under his breath, squeezing the phone a little tighter in his hand. He glanced back toward the entrance to the main club area and tried not to think about the evening he was going to miss. “Yes—all right. Where?”
“At the Black Dog.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour. Now let me alone so I can go make a rather nice young lady very unhappy.” He broke the connection before Ocelot could say anything else.
It was actually more like forty minutes by the time Stone entered the Black Dog Lounge, one of Harry’s favorite places to conduct biz. He was not in a good mood when he got there. Elspeth hadn’t taken the news of his departure kindly. She had asked him what sort of “business” he had to attend to, and when he couldn’t tell her, she had icily declined his offer to call her when things had calmed down. By the time he arrived he was feeling equally uncharitable toward the source of his problems.
Harry and Ocelot were already there, the former in his usual spot facing the door, the latter sprawled with one leg over a chair and a beer in front of him. Stone dropped moodily into the other available chair and glared alternatingly between the two of them.
“What’s eatin’ him?” Harry asked Ocelot.
“I think he had better plans for the night.” Ocelot seemed more amused than anything else.
Harry sighed, for once not taking the bait. “Well, I’m sorry about that. Really. I wouldn’ta called you if it hadn’t been important.”
“Get on with it, Harry,” Stone muttered. “We’re here now—let’s hear what’s so vital that it can’t wait until tomorrow.”
The fixer nodded. “Okay. I got a job for you. The reason it’s gotta be tonight is because the Johnson’s leavin’ town tomorrow, and I wanted you to talk to him before he did.” He paused a moment. “That, and he’s a friend of a friend. He’s got a problem and I wanted somebody I could trust to handle it.”
“And you called us?” Ocelot asked, shifting position in the chair.
Harry just glanced at him. “So you want the job or not?”
“The only thing I can think of at the moment that’s worse than breaking a very promising date to take a sudden job that’s come up is breaking the date to not take the job,” Stone said sourly.
“I think he’s in.” Ocelot grinned. “And I guess I am too.”
By the time the two of them had reached the Laubenstein Plaza Hotel, which was where the meet with the Johnson was scheduled, Stone was already thinking like Winterhawk and was over most of his annoyance. “Room 1607,” he commented as they rode the elevator up to the 16th floor of the massive luxury hotel. “Odd place for a meet.”
Ocelot nodded, checking the pistol he’d stowed in his jacket along with his monowhip. “Shouldn’t be trouble, but that never works.”
‘Hawk didn’t answer; he was watching grimly outward as the glass-enclosed car worked its way swiftly upward.
Room 1607 was at the end of the hall. Winterhawk knocked as Ocelot stood aside, looking casual but with his hand poised to draw his gun.
“Who is it?” a voice called from inside. A male voice with a slight Asian accent.
“We’re friends of Harry’s,” ‘Hawk said smoothly. “He asked us to visit you when we were in the area.”
There was a pause and then the door opened, revealing a rather harried-looking Asian man in his mid 30s, dressed in a white corp shirt, suit pants and a loosened tie. “Please. Come in.” His expression was that of a man who had something serious weighing on his mind.
The two men stepped inside, Ocelot sweeping the area for other people while ‘Hawk kept his eye on the man. The room itself was as expected: small sitting area with table and chairs, separate bedroom area, and door leading to a bathroom. The bed was not made and there was a garment bag spread out across it. When Ocelot returned from his check, Winterhawk nodded to their host. “What can we do for you, Mr. Johnson?”
The man seemed a bit taken aback by the name, but then he smiled a tight little smile and indicated the table. When everyone was seated, he said, “First, I must thank you for coming so quickly. Second, I must tell you that my name is not Mr. Johnson. You will know who I am as soon as I tell you what I wish you to do, so I might as well tell you now. My name is Yuri Takahara.” When the name elicited no response from the two runners, he continued, “Let me start at the beginning.”
Reaching into a briefcase on the floor next to his chair, Takahara pulled out a holopic and slid it across the table. It showed another Asian man about the same age as he was—a pleasant-looking man with a happy smile and lively eyes. “This is Edwin Ng, my business partner and best friend. He’s disappeared, and I’m hoping that you might be able to find him.”
Winterhawk looked at the picture, passed it across to Ocelot, and looked back up at Takahara. “I think we’ll need a few more details, Mr. Takahara.”
The man nodded. He blinked a couple of times and visibly gathered himself together. “Edwin and I are the co-founders of a small software company based in Boston, which is where we both live. Edwin was here in Seattle to seek venture funding for our company. He was due to meet with investors Tuesday morning, but he did not attend the meeting. The investors became concerned and phoned me—that was the first I was aware that something was wrong.” He looked imploringly at the two men across from him. “Gentlemen, it is not like Edwin to simply disappear like this. The meeting with the investors meant everything to him, as it did to me. If he missed it, it means that something must have happened to him.”
“Have you called Lone Star?” Ocelot asked. “They’re better at handling this kind of thing than we are.”
Takahara nodded. “They have been contacted, but they have told me that in a missing persons case such as this, when an adult is involved, there is nothing they can do until the person has been missing for at least 72 hours.” He took a deep breath. “That time won’t be up until tomorrow morning. I have to return to Boston for another meeting this evening, although I can return here after that. Gentlemen...I don’t have to tell you that I’m worried about Edwin. His family—his wife and two children—are even more worried. Please help me find him for them.” He put his briefcase up on the table. “I can pay you five thousand nuyen each, with half up front and the other half after you’ve located him, or—” his voice caught a bit “—information about what might have happened to him.”
The two runners exchanged glances, then Winterhawk looked back at Takahara. “Mr. Takahara, do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Ng might have been in danger here in Seattle? Did he have any enemies? Had he ever been to Seattle before?”
“He’d never been to Seattle. As for enemies—” He spread his hands. “—I certainly don’t know of any, and I’ve known Edwin since we were children. He’s the head of Engineering for our company, and aside from his work, his family is his life.”
“What about your company?” Ocelot asked. “Any enemies there? Anybody want to buy you out?”
Takahara shook his head. “No. We’re not far enough along yet to be of much interest to anyone—and our technology is not the sort of thing that would make enemies. There’s nothing glamorous or cutting-edge about it. We make inventory-control software that will help companies track and route their inventories more efficiently across the Matrix. I can’t imagine why anyone would—do anything drastic—to get hold of it, especially since we’ve never been opposed to talking to anyone who might wish to acquire us.”
“But no one’s wanted to?” Winterhawk asked.
Ocelot sighed and looked at Winterhawk. His glance clearly said, what do you think?
VOTE RESULT (Poll closed 6/25/00, 71 votes):
Ask for more information before taking the job: 79%
Take the job and get started looking for Ng: 21%