“I think I’d rather check out the cab company first,” ‘Hawk said. “For one thing, if the Palace truly is Yakuza-connected, I’d rather not get involved with them until it becomes absolutely necessary. For another, it simply doesn’t make sense that the Yak would kill someone and dump them behind their own restaurant. I think our trail lies elsewhere for the moment.”
Ocelot nodded. “Yeah, I think you’re right. Okay, Happy Cab Company it is.”
The Happy Cab Company’s headquarters didn’t look very happy. Nestled between a grimy apartment building and a liquor store, it occupied a dirty, two-story brick structure that appeared to be mostly garage. The company’s name was in faded letters over the main entrance to the garage; ‘Hawk and Ocelot could see that they hadn’t quite failed to scrub away the bullseye some graffiti artist had spray-painted on the smiley face’s forehead. As they watched, a green and white cab bearing the smiley-face logo on its door headed out into the sparse traffic. A couple of moments later another left, followed by a third arriving.
“Busy place,” Ocelot commented.
“I hope they keep at least some records of their comings and goings,” ‘Hawk said. He sounded dubious.
They headed inside, passing a large open garage that currently contained five cabs in various stages of repair. On the other side of a large lounge area they saw a caged office surrounded by heavy armored glass. Inside were an ork and a dwarf. They were playing cards, glancing occasionally at a bank of monitors in front of them. ‘Hawk and Ocelot couldn’t see what was on the monitors.
Ocelot looked at Winterhawk questioningly, and ‘Hawk made an ‘after you’ gesture. This was not the sort of social situation in which his skills were applicable, and he knew it.
Ocelot nodded as if he expected that and moved up to the cage’s tiny opening. He waited for the two inside to notice him.
The ork looked up, not doing a very good job at hiding the annoyance on his warty face. “Help ya? I ain’t got no jobs right now.”
“Not lookin’ for one,” Ocelot told him. “We want to talk to one of your cabbies.”
The ork’s look of suspicion deepened significantly, and the dwarf’s attention refocused from the cards and the bank of monitors to the two newcomers. “What for?”
“He picked up a friend of ours Monday night, and we want to know where he took him.”
“Whyn’cha ask yer friend?” the dwarf asked. His voice was gravelly and deeper than the ork’s.
Winterhawk started to speak but Ocelot waved him off. “Because he’s disappeared,” he said patiently, casting the mage a look that clearly said let me do this. “So far it looks like your cabbie was the last guy to see him.”
The dwarf and the ork looked at each other uncomfortably. “We ain’t in the habit of givin’ out information about our fares,” the ork said after a moment. “You ain’t Star, are ya? We don’t want no trouble with the Star.”
Ocelot shook his head. “Nope. Like I said, just friends of the guy. We’re sure a cab from this place picked him up at the Laubenstein Plaza at—” he glanced at Winterhawk, who whispered something to him. “—At about six forty-five on Monday night. That much we know. The part we don’t know is where he went. We were hoping you could tell us.”
“Sorry,” the ork said. His expression was resolute. “We don’t give out information like that. You got somebody missing, you should go to the Star. They get a warrant, we’ll show ‘em anything they want to see.”
Ocelot sighed with a quick sideways glance at ‘Hawk. He was about to say something else when the mage tapped his arm. “It’s all right,” he said. “If I might have a word with you for a moment—”
Reluctantly Ocelot allowed himself to be led over to the lounge area, which was currently occupied by three cabdrivers: two scruffy-looking humans and one somewhat less scruffy-looking elf. “What?” he demanded as they reached the corner by the soykaf machine. “A few nuyen should be enough to—”
“Probably,” ‘Hawk agreed. “But let’s see if we can do this without bribing half of Seattle, shall we?” He pulled out the pocket secretary and pulled up the view of the car. “Now that we’re here, let’s see if we can make out anything that will help us.”
The two of them stared intently at the little image, both of them occasionally glancing up to make sure everything was as they had left it. Aside from a few suspicious glances from the cabdrivers and the two in the cage, nothing changed. “Driver looks like an ork,” Ocelot commented after a long moment. “Or a big human.”
“Definitely male at any rate,” ‘Hawk agreed. “The cab number’s got four digits, though I can’t make them out.”
Both of them looked at the cabs in the garage: all of them had four-digit numbers. No help there. “Why don’t you keep looking and see if you find anything,” Ocelot said. He’d just noticed that one of the humans had left, leaving the other alone. “I’m gonna see if that guy knows anything.”
‘Hawk nodded distractedly, his concentration focused on the image.
Ocelot sauntered casually over to the human. “Hey,” he said.
The man looked up. “What do you want?” he asked. His voice was heavily accented.
Ocelot shrugged. “Just curious about the place. Maybe lookin’ for a job. How long you been here?”
“About a year.” Apparently the cabbie had decided that Ocelot wasn’t a threat.
“Hey, you want a cup of kaf? Maybe I could ask you a few questions.”
The man eyed him for a moment, then shrugged. “Sure, why not? My cab is not ready yet.”
Ocelot got the guy a cup of soykaf and the two of them sat down in two of the lounge’s threadbare chairs. “Who is your friend?” the cabbie asked. He still looked suspicious. “He is not looking for a job.” Of this, he sounded certain.
“No. He’s—my ride. Car’s in the shop. So,” he said, switching subjects smoothly. “How many guys work here, anyway?”
The man thought. “About forty or so. But not all the time. We come in when we want to drive.”
“You always drive the same cab, or just get whichever one they give you?”
“The regulars get the same cab, usually. Many of us like one cab or another.” He shrugged. “We get used to it, you know?”
Ocelot nodded. “What about routes? You guys got—you know—like your own territories? One guy does the airport, one guy does Downtown, like that?”
The man nodded. He smiled proudly, showing stained teeth. “Oh, yes. Most of the time, yes.”
“So where’s yours?”
“Mine is the airport, along with two other drivers.” Pausing to slurp another sip of his soykaf, he added, “You would not get a good territory to start with, but as you stay you—how you say?—move up.”
“So if I stuck around awhile I could move up to a better route, is that what you mean?”
The man nodded emphatically. “Yes, exactly.” Something unintelligible blared over the lounge’s speaker and he stood up quickly. “I am sorry, but I must go. My cab is ready.”
Ocelot stood too. “One more question, okay?” When the man paused, he said, “Who’s got the territory with the Laubenstein Plaza Hotel? Downtown. In the evening?”
The man shook his head. “Oh, no—you could not hope to get that one, my friend. That is Hamid’s route, and he has had it for longer than I have been here.”
Ocelot looked rueful. “Ah, well. Thanks anyway.” He watched as the driver left the lounge, then moved back to ‘Hawk. “Anything?”
The mage shook his head. “No. I’ve been trying to spot dents in the car, anything that might identify it. It’s just not a good enough image for that.”
“What if I told you the driver’s name?” Ocelot tried to hide a smile.
“That could be helpful,” the mage said without missing a beat.
“Guy says his name’s Hamid. He’s got the Laubenstein route in the evening. Sounds like our guy.” He looked over at the cage office. “Maybe now that we’ve got a name they’ll be more helpful.”
‘Hawk shook his head. “No, I’ve got a better idea.” The glint in his eye suggested that he had a plan.
Half an hour later they were back in front of the Laubenstein Plaza Hotel. “Okay, we’re here,” Ocelot said. “You gonna let me in on your idea?”
In answer, the mage pulled out his phone. Holding up a hand to Ocelot to wait, he punched in a number and waited. “Yes, good evening. I was wondering if perhaps you could send a cab to the Laubenstein Plaza. Yes, of course. And I’d like to request a particular driver—he quite impressed me on my last trip over. Do you still have a chap named Hamid?” He paused a moment, then grinned and nodded at Ocelot. “Ten minutes? Excellent. My friend and I will be waiting outside the hotel. Thank you so much.” He broke the connection and put the phone back in his pocket.
Ocelot looked at him with a combination of admiration and exasperation. “‘Hawk—” he began.
“What?” The mage was the picture of innocence.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
They waited and almost exactly ten minutes later a green and white cab pulled up in front of the hotel. Winterhawk hurried over before anyone else could claim it and opened the door. “Are you Hamid? We called a few moments ago.”
The driver was a human, but built like an ork. He appeared to be somewhere in his mid-forties. There was no need for him to answer, as his hack license proclaimed him to be Hamid Jazeri, but he nodded nonetheless. “Yes. Do you have bags?”
“No bags.” ‘Hawk climbed in and Ocelot followed him. When they were settled, the mage said, “Just drive around a bit, all right? We’d like to see Downtown.”
The cabdriver shrugged, started the meter, and pulled out into traffic.
Ocelot, looking around the interior of the cab (it smelled vaguely of Chinese food and old sweat) nodded ‘Hawk toward the tiny camera pickup attached to the cab’s rearview mirror. The answer to what the dwarf and ork back at Headquarters were watching on their monitors was probably solved.
They drove in silence for about five minutes, then Winterhawk spoke up again. “Hamid, old boy, how would you like to make a very nice tip?”
The cabbie’s eyes cut to the rearview mirror and met the mage’s. “Sorry. I only drive. Nothing else.”
“Nothing else,” ‘Hawk agreed. “It’s about driving, actually.”
“What is it?” Hamid’s voice was slow, as if he were thinking it over.
“We’ve got some questions for you, about another of your passengers. If you can give us the information we’re looking for, it will be worth a good tip.”
“What passenger?” Apparently the drivers weren’t under the same moral scruples that drove the management of the Happy Cab Company.
“It was Monday night, between six and seven. Asian chap, carrying a black duffel bag. You picked him up at the Laubenstein. Do you remember him?”
Hamid thought about it for several moments, then stiffened in an unmistakable “aha!” pose. “Yes!” he said. “I do remember him. I drive many fares, but he was—unusual.”
‘Hawk glanced significantly over at Ocelot. “Unusual in what way?”
Hamid seemed to reconsider his words. “He himself was not unusual,” he amended. “His destination was unusual.”
“Where did you take him?”
“To a park.”
Winterhawk and Ocelot exchanged glances. They didn’t know what they’d been expecting, but that wasn’t it. “A park?”
Hamid nodded. “Yes. A small park. I believe the name is Strickland Park. I thought it unusual because it is not an entirely safe part of town, and he was dressed like a businessman. It seemed odd to me.”
As Winterhawk paused to mull that over, Ocelot jumped in. “Did he say anything about it, or just ask you to take him there?”
“He said very little. I recall that he seemed a bit nervous. He spoke to me only to tell me where he wanted to go.”
Winterhawk and Ocelot spoke almost in unison: “Can you take us there?”
A short time later they stood on the sidewalk next to Strickland Park, watching Hamid drive away with his promised hefty tip.
They waited until he was gone before turning to look at the park itself: it was the size of a large block and consisted mainly of scruffy grass, trees, a few walking paths, some benches, a sand pit full of children’s playground equipment in an appalling state of disrepair, and a squat blocky structure on one side that could only be a public restroom. Ocelot indicated the walls of the restroom, which were covered with graffiti visible even from a distance away. “Gang territory,” he commented.
“Which one?” Winterhawk glanced around as if expecting the area to be rife with leather-jacketed presences.
“Not sure. None of the major ones.”
The mage nodded. “Shall we, then?”
They entered the park and explored the area for several minutes. It wasn’t a big area—except for the interior of the restroom and a few spots behind clumps of trees, you could just about see every part of it from every other part. This time of the evening there were few other people to be seen, exacerbated by the fact that only about one in three of the park’s lights were functional. Still, it wasn’t long before Ocelot stiffened very slightly and muttered under his breath, “We’ve got company.”
‘Hawk nodded. “Yes, I noticed,” he answered in the same tone. “Three—no, four of them. Up ahead, behind the trees there.”
“More company than I thought, then. I was talkin’ about the ones behind us.” Ocelot never slowed his pace, but kept ambling along like a guy without a care in the world, just out for an evening constitutional.
“What do you suggest we do?” ‘Hawk didn’t sound too concerned about the situation.
“Nothing yet. They might just be watching us to see what we’ll do. Let’s give ‘em a little time to tip their hand—maybe they’ll decide we’re not worth botherin’ with and leave.”
“And if not?”
Ocelot smiled in the darkness. “Then they’ll find out they should have.”
They were heading past the trees in the general direction of the bathroom when the shadows began stepping out from cover and surrounding them in a slow, languid way. “Look what we got here,” one of them commented.
They were all human, all looked to be in their mid to late teens, and all wore the same style of synth-leather jacket with a grinning skull crudely painted on the left side. Their only visible weapon was a baseball bat in the hands of the one who had spoken. Even Winterhawk could tell they were a small-time kid gang, but even small-time kid gangs could be dangerous under the right circumstances.
The gangers moved in a little closer, and the same one spoke again. “What are you nice boys doing out in a place like this?” he sneered. He raised the bat in a gesture that could be interpreted as menacing or simply as emphasis.
Ocelot glanced at ‘Hawk.