Dizzy sense of disorientation—
Wrenching sensation, pulling—
The darkness lifted.
Gabriel did not so much awaken as regain his senses, as if they had suddenly been switched on. He looked around, briefly disoriented—he had distinctly remembered falling, the feeling that he had been grabbed by something and wrenched off his course, but yet he was standing upright now and apparently had been before his awareness had returned.
He was standing in an alley. On either side of him, tall buildings of dark brick rose up several stories into the sky. The road beneath his feet was made of brick too; there was a wooden door off to his right next to several overflowing garbage cans. The stench of rotting vegetables and fish filled the alley, along with the more subtle odor of wet street. It wasn’t raining now but it looked like it had been recently: the sky was dark and choked with forbidding reddish-tinged gray clouds and a faint mist hung persistently in the air.
Looking down at himself, he noticed that he was dressed in an old-fashioned-looking black business suit, simple white shirt, thin dark tie, and heavy black wool overcoat. His shoes were wingtips, shiny and a little smudged from wear. On his head was a black fedora-style hat with a wide dark gray band. Odd, he thought. His side, where the scar was, throbbed slightly. It was a bit distracting at the moment but nothing more.
Gabriel frowned, his sharp eyes picking out details of his immediate area before he ventured out. This was not what he had expected. Swiftly his mind went over the ritual again—the long hours of preparation, the implementation, the strange feeling when he had felt as if someone else had tried to wrest control of it from somewhere outside—and compared it to his outfit, trying to make sense of his current location. He could not.
This was a place of the Enemy, though. He could tell that right away. He wasn’t sure how, exactly, but he knew. Perhaps it was the heaviness to the air, the sense of foreboding that seemed to enshroud the place. It was at the same time subtle and nearly impossible to ignore. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck were tingling with a feeling of vague dread.
Outside the alley he could hear the sounds of vehicles moving by; from the sound of it there was a busy street not far away. He wasn’t going to get anywhere by remaining here, that was certain. Slowly he moved forward, his senses at full awareness. If anything was lurking nearby waiting to ambush him, he wasn’t going to give it the pleasure.
It was twilight. Emerging from the alleyway, he found himself, as he had expected, on a city street lined with tall dark buildings. He paused a moment, watching the cars that zipped back and forth down the rain-soaked road racing the faint yellow cones thrown out by their headlights.
Something doesn’t fit here. Still keeping a close watch on what was going on around him, Gabriel started off down the street. There were few pedestrians; those he did see looked wary and moved quickly. The buildings towered menacingly over him, their façades pitch-black and forbidding in an elegant gothic sort of way like no buildings he had ever seen in the Fourth World or the Sixth. Although they were not leaning forward as if in anticipation, they managed to convey the impression that they were. The cars were all dark too, grays and blacks and deep blues, sleek, low-slung: the kind of cars one might see if a horror-movie director had collaborated with a classic-car expert. Overhead, streetlights hung suspended like overripe fruit from dark wrought-iron posts, casting their feeble greenish light into the dim gray almost-darkness.
What is this place? I don’t—
His thought was interrupted by the loud squeal of thin tires on wet pavement followed by a high-pitched scream. Gabriel stiffened and then ran, instinctively heading for the source of the sound.
He had made it about three-quarters of the way down the block when one of the dark cars came careening around the corner in the wrong lane, hovering briefly on two wheels before settling back down on all four. All around him, the street’s few pedestrians were scattering, diving for cover. Gabriel barely had time to notice this before the muzzle-flashes and staccato budda-budda-budda of machine-gun fire pierced the twilight. Two figures were hanging out the car’s near windows, two more out the far ones; the driver propelled the car in a crazy pattern back and forth across the street, forcing the remaining few other cars to skid their way out of its deadly path.
The near gun chattered again, tearing great chunks out of the building only a few feet above Gabriel’s head. He threw himself forward, rolling to a crouched position behind a parked truck; on the other side of the street a woman screamed, spun, and dropped as she was hit. The car continued on its way, its occupants apparently oblivious or uncaring about who or what in particular they hit. The sounds of the machine guns could be heard long after the rumble of the car’s engine had melded with the rest of the traffic noise.
Gabriel rose from his crouch. Darkness was dropping over the city quickly now; the scattered pedestrians were slowly picking themselves up, straightening their clothes, moving on with wary glances around them. No one seemed to be paying any attention to the downed woman across the street—it was as if she was no longer there, despite the fact that Gabriel could see her dark form lying unmoving where it had fallen.
A hand fell on his shoulder from behind. “Gabriel!”
Gabriel whirled, already preparing a spell. He stopped when he saw the man there, backing off, hands raised palm out. “Easy,” the man said. “It’s just me. You’re late. Where you been? We’ve been waitin’ for you.”
Gabriel took a deep breath. “The woman—”
“You can’t do nothin’ for her no more, kid.” The man’s voice was gentle; he was dressed in a dark pinstriped suit and vaguely resembled Harry. “I saw it from the doorway. She’s gone.”
“No—” Gabriel shook his head, starting to draw away. “I might be able to save her—”
The man grabbed his arm. “How? Come on, Gabriel. I know you don’t like it, but there’s nothing we can—”
“Magic. It might not be too late.” He once again attempted to pull away from the man’s grip.
The man stared at him. “Magic? What are you talking about?”
Gabriel broke free and moved around the truck. “I can heal her if she’s still alive.” His voice took on a tone of urgency now; he knew that even with the power of his spell, if he waited until her spirit was gone there would be nothing he could do.
The man swiftly caught up with him. “You hit your head, Gabriel? Since when can you do magic?”
Gabriel didn’t pause to answer. Instead, he sprinted across the street. He could hear heavy breathing and pounding footsteps behind him as the man followed. Dropping down next to the woman’s body, he winced slightly when he saw her wounds. She had been hit once in the chest, once in the upper leg. Her gray dress and coat were soaked with blood from neck to thigh. He reached out with his senses, trying to find a spark of life he could grab—
—and nothing happened.
The man had reached the other side of the street now. Puffing, he put his hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “They’ll be back soon, kid. We have to get inside.”
Gabriel ignored him. He closed his eyes and forced himself to concentrate, placing his palm on the woman’s forehead. His scar throbbed painfully as if mocking his efforts.
The man's hand closed over his shoulder once again. “Gabriel—”
“I—” He looked up at the man, confused. “I can't—” He lowered his gaze back to the woman's body; she had not moved and was clearly dead now. Slowly he rose as if in a daze.
The man put a fatherly arm around him. “I'm sorry, kid. I don't know what happened to you while you were gone, but I don't get this stuff about you and magic. You've never been able to before.” Subtly he began to steer Gabriel back across the street; the traffic was sparse now and even the sound of gunfire had faded away.
Gabriel allowed himself to be steered. He felt numb—no magic? This was not something he had expected. I should have... he thought a little bitterly. It's happened before. But how am I to face the Enemy without it? Have I made a mistake by coming here? I don't want to fail you, Stefan...
The man was speaking to him. He tore his thoughts from their current unpleasant paths and forced himself to look at him. “What?”
“You okay? They didn't—hurt you, did they?”
He shook his head. “No. I—I'm fine. Where are we going?”
The man made a quick head movement to indicate a building on the other side of the street; they were approaching it now. “There's a meeting tonight. We didn't know if you'd make it, but I'm glad to see you here. It's been too long.”
Gabriel nodded, deciding to play along for the moment and see if he could make any more sense out of the situation.
The building was a nondescript, three-story structure of dark brick that blended in well with its neighbors on either side. A simple brass plate next to the door read Connor. The man looked back over his shoulder to verify that no one was paying attention to them, then knocked softly in a brief pattern, opened the door and motioned Gabriel inside.
Gabriel did not get much chance to look around—long hallway, threadbare rug, vague musty smell, stairway leading upward—before the man closed and locked the door and then urged him down the hallway toward another door.
The door opened into a room lined with bookshelves. It was a dimly lit, comfortable looking room with a soft chair, a reading lamp, and all four walls covered from floor to ceiling with books. Heavy dark drapes were pulled closed over the single window. The man went immediately to one of the bookshelves, pulled out a thick book, and pressed down on the spot where it had been located. A section of the shelf swung outward, revealing a narrow shaft. A metal ladder was bolted to the wall. The man indicated for Gabriel to go first—it was the casual movement of someone for whom this was a fairly common occurrence. Again Gabriel didn't ask questions, but simply swung himself into the shaft and climbed carefully down into the darkness. After a moment he could hear the sound of the panel being moved back into position, and then the man's footsteps on the ladder above him.
The shaft went down for about the depth of one story, ending in a small, chilly, concrete-walled chamber lit by a single lightbulb. A heavy closed door took up most of the space on the wall opposite the ladder. Gabriel stepped aside and pressed his back against the wall, watching the man as he descended. The man gave him a quick smile that was both encouraging and weary, leaping off the second step from the bottom and turning toward the door. The sound of his knuckles rapping the pattern against the metal of the door echoed hollowly around the chamber. The man gave Gabriel's shoulder a squeeze. “They'll be glad to see you.”
The door opened a few inches, revealing the face of a man in his mid 40s. He looked relieved to see who was outside. “Wallace. Good. We heard the gunfire outside, and we were afraid you'd—” His gaze fell on Gabriel and he smiled. “And Gabriel. They did find you. I’m so glad. Come in.” Swinging the door fully open, he stepped back to let the newcomers enter.
There were about ten people in the room about four meters square, seated on folding chairs and benches shoved up against the wall to best utilize the small space. The room itself was concrete-walled like the chamber outside, its floor covered by old rugs to take some of the chill out of the air. Instead of a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling they had a small lamp covered by a simple shade on a table in one of the corners. All of the people were dressed similarly to Gabriel: dark suits, overcoats, white shirts; both genders and all the metatypes were represented, although humans dominated with five (seven now with the addition of Gabriel and Wallace).
“Have a seat,” Wallace told him. “We'd better get started—we've got a new guy tonight and as usual we want to keep things as quick as possible.”
Gabriel did as he was told, moving toward the middle of the room where one of the folding chairs was empty. Everyone was smiling at him; as he passed, a dwarf woman patted his arm. She looked happy to see him, but sad about something too. He sat down behind her and leaned back.
“Okay,” Wallace said, taking his place at the front of the room. Apparently he was the leader of this group, whatever it was. “You all heard the gunfire upstairs. It looks like the gangs are beefing up their patrols around here, which means we’re in more danger than ever. You all know to be careful, so I won’t bother telling you that. We have to make this quick so we can get out of here, so let’s get started.” He looked around the room. “First thing, let me say ‘welcome back’ to Gabriel. It was a tough thing with Stefan, but I’m glad to see you came back. We can use more like you, and it would’ve been a shame to lose you over this.”
Heads turned to look at Gabriel; all of the expressions held a little sadness, a little sympathy, a little relief. “Thank you,” he said, leaving it at that. He had stiffened a bit at the mention of Stefan, but didn’t let it show. You’ll get the information. Just sit back and listen until you know what’s happening.
Wallace nodded. Then his face clouded and he frowned. “Moving on—unfortunately, I’ve got some more bad news to report: Flannery, from East Side, was killed last night by the Salazaros, and Williams is on the injured list. They were checking out a lead on the Rileys’ gun-smuggling operation and stumbled into a Salazaro trap.” He bowed his head. “Flannery will be missed—we’re gonna take up a collection for her family a little later. Williams isn’t sure he wants to come back.” Sighing, he returned his gaze to the silent group. “Can’t say I blame him, really. But the fact remains we have to go on, and this leaves us dangerously short. With Gabriel back we’re doing better than I hoped, but—” There was another pause as he visibly pulled himself together. “Okay. If we dwell on the negative we’re not gonna be able to do our job, so let’s try to dwell on the positive instead.” He indicated a young man seated in the front row. “I want you to meet our newest agent, Joshua Pearson.”
The young man turned to face the group, nodding a greeting. He was about the same age that Gabriel appeared to be, with short-cut dark hair and an earnest, rather angular face.
Gabriel returned the greeting along with the others. Our newest agent. Agent for what?
Wallace grasped Pearson’s shoulder as he spoke. “I’m sure Pearson here will prove to be a valuable addition to our organization.” He looked up. “Gabriel—as long as you’re back—I was thinking he might make a good partner for you. What do you think?” His voice had an odd gentle edge to it, as if he was being particularly careful not to probe a wound any more deeply than necessary.
Gabriel looked at the young man and then back at Wallace. He nodded.
Wallace returned the nod. “Good.” To Pearson, he added, “Gabriel’s young, but he’s a damn good agent. He was on leave for awhile after—” quick glance at Gabriel, then away as his voice softened “—after his brother Stefan, who was his partner and one of our top guys, disappeared a couple of months ago.”
Gabriel’s attention stepped up a bit. Disappeared?
Young Pearson echoed his thought: “Disappeared?”
Again Wallace glanced at Gabriel before he answered. “Yeah. He was following up a lead that the Salazaros were upping their drug operations and got in some trouble. Unfortunately nobody knows for sure what happened to him.” He hesitated a moment, as if there was more to say but he didn’t know whether to say it.
“Tell him the rest, Wallace,” a gruff ork man said. His tone was steadfast but not unkind. “Kid’s got a right to know.”
Wallace nodded wearily. “Yeah.” This time the quick look at Gabriel was apologetic. “Rumor has it that the Salazaros captured him—that he’s still alive and—remember, this is nothing but rumor, we have no proof—he might have gone over to their side.”
Pearson’s eyes widened while behind him Gabriel stiffened. “But—doesn’t that put us all in danger?”
“We’re always in danger, Pearson. It’s part of the job. But yeah, we’ve changed a few of our operations, safehouses, that kind of thing since it happened. So far there’s been nothing to indicate that the gangs are doing anything they haven’t been doing all along.” When Pearson didn’t reply, Wallace turned back to the group at large. “I think that’s about it for this meeting. You all know what to do. Watch the usual place for the location and time of the next meeting. Until then, we’d better get out of here before anybody catches on.” He looked around at them all, his expression one of a man who cared deeply for every individual in the room. “You all be careful,” he added softly. “I want to see you back next time.”
The others got up and began filing toward the room’s exit. Several of them stopped to shake Gabriel’s hand, to welcome him back; they also paused to welcome Pearson into the fold. After most of them had gone, Wallace motioned to Gabriel. “Can you two stay a minute after? I want to talk to you a little more about your assignment.”
When everyone had departed except the three of them, Wallace sat down and indicated for them to do likewise. Reaching into his inner jacket pocket, he withdrew a sheaf of folded papers. “I’ll go over this again for Gabriel’s benefit, plus give you some more information that I didn’t have before.” He unfolded one of the papers and spread it out across his lap. It appeared to be a map with a route traced out on it, then looked at Gabriel. “What you’re doing here is you two are going to hijack a shipment of guns the Salazaros have got coming into town tomorrow night. We’ve managed to get hold of their route from one of our informants, and you two know as much as I do how much we need these guns—not to mention the fact that we’ll deprive the Salazaros of some of their expected firepower. It looks like they’re getting geared up for something, but so far we haven’t been able to find out what it is yet. Taking out this shipment might buy us a little more time to find out.” He paused, looking at both of them to see if there were any questions yet, then returned his attention to the map. He pointed out a location halfway down a street near the edge of the map. “This is probably the best place to do it—our agents have been in contact with some of the folks who live over there, and they’re willing to help us provide a diversion in exchange for a few of the guns. We’ve agreed to this, although if you determine there’s a better place, you should do what you think is best and safest.”
“How many on the truck?” Pearson asked, leaning forward to get a better look.
“Four by our intelligence, but be ready for as many as six. We’re fairly sure they don’t know we’ve gotten hold of their route, so the truck might not be as heavily guarded, but like I said—be ready.” Wallace looked up. “It’s good that you’ve got some magic, Pearson—you guys will probably need it.”
Gabriel’s gaze sharpened. Pearson had magical abilities? He had assumed from Wallace’s words before that magic simply didn’t exist in this world, but that was obviously incorrect. Somehow it was just that he didn’t have magic. He felt a bit odd at the thought.
“Something wrong, Gabriel?”
Wallace was looking at him now. He’s perceptive. “No—I’m fine. Go on.”
The older man’s eyes held his for a moment longer, then he nodded. “Okay. When you get the truck, bring it to a warehouse on the corner of 10th and 43rd.” He pointed out the streets in question on the map. “There’ll be someone there to meet you. He’ll ask you if that’s the shipment of machine parts for the Abernathy account—that’s the signal that he’s the right guy. Turn the truck over to him. A car’ll be waiting for you to drive back.” He paused. “Any questions?”
“Should we expect magic from the opposition?” Gabriel asked after a moment.
Wallace gave him an odd look. “You sure are hung up on magic all of a sudden, kid. Don’t know for sure, but be ready for it. Oh—I’ve got something for you. Both of you.” He got up and went to the corner of the room, where a large leather briefcase rested on the floor. Opening it, he pulled out two folders and a pistol. He handed one of the folders to Pearson, and the pistol, the other folder, and the folded sheaf of papers to Gabriel. “You two should read up on each other’s dossiers, so nobody’s surprised by anything. And Gabriel, I figured you’d want that back now that you’re back in business again.”
Gabriel nodded. “Thank you.” He checked the gun, silently grateful that Kestrel had insisted that he learn how to handle one, and then stowed it in his coat pocket. The file folder said “PEARSON, J.” on the tab. Glancing over at his own, he saw that its tab read “DRACO, G.” How original. He had to smile just a tiny bit at it, which earned him another odd look from Wallace.
“You got a place to stay yet?” the older man asked Gabriel.
He shook his head. “No. Not yet.”
Wallace nodded as if he expected that. Digging in his briefcase again, he handed Gabriel a key. “There’s a rooming house just down the street. Number 472. We arranged for a room for you—figured you didn’t want to waste time looking around. Pearson’s there too—things are a bit tight lately so you two will have to share. He can show you where it is.” He rose. “That’s about it. About all I got left to say is good luck, and I’ll see you guys in a week.”
Gabriel and Pearson both got up too and silently followed Wallace out of the room and back up the ladder. The library was as silent and peaceful as it had been when they arrived. Wallace told them to wait a few moments after he left before leaving themselves, nodded farewell, and left.
Pearson and Gabriel regarded each other for a moment, and then Pearson broke the silence: “Want to head back to the rooming house, or go get something to eat?”
Gabriel shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me. Either is fine.”
They ended up stopping at a dim little restaurant near the rooming house, where they spent more time talking in hushed voices than eating. Or, more precisely, Pearson talked and Gabriel listened, occasionally asking carefully worded questions designed to gather as much information about their situation as he could without arousing suspicion. He felt a bit of guilt at deceiving his new partner like that, but he knew that the more he found out about what was expected in this odd corner of the Netherworlds, the more likely he would be able to successfully accomplish what he had come here to do.
What he found out surprised and disturbed him. The city (which Pearson never referred to by name, Gabriel noticed) had long ago been taken over by a series of rival criminal organizations. The two most powerful among these organizations were the Salazaros and the Rileys, both of whom together controlled over half of the city’s criminal activities. A government existed, but it was a puppet government run by a mayor who had long ago sold out to the crimebosses in exchange for kickbacks and job security. The police force was a joke.
Into this mix came the organization that Pearson and Gabriel worked for (Gabriel noticed that Pearson likewise did not name this). It had been started by the city’s former district attorney, who had been disgusted by the rising tide of crime and the indifference of the mayor and his cabinet. The organization was underground, cell-based so no one could compromise more than a few of his or her fellow agents if captured by the enemy, and dedicated to returning the city to law and order in whatever small ways it could. The district attorney himself was long dead, his assassination rumored to have been ordered by the mayor himself and carried out by the Salazaros’ top hit man, but the organization lived on. They recruited carefully out of the general population, looking for people who had had enough of living like frightened children afraid to go out on the streets after dark for fear of being caught in one of the gangs’ numerous sweeps for ‘undesirables.’
This, Pearson told Gabriel, was how he had joined. He had been apprenticed to his father, who ran a local restaurant. One night not long ago he had been ill and so had remained in the upstairs apartment he shared with his parents and his younger sister. Awakening to the sound of gunfire downstairs he had crept cautiously to where he could see what was happening, only to see his parents mowed down by the Salazaros’ machine gun fire, along with his sister and several of the restaurant’s patrons. He found out later, after sneaking out and running for his life, that the Salazaros had been tipped that his father was running an underground newspaper dedicated to recruiting people to oppose them. It hadn’t mattered that it wasn’t the truth—both of his parents had been meek, unassuming people who had simply wanted to live their lives the best they could in the midst of hell—the Salazaros didn’t care about things like truth.
Pearson had been contacted shortly after that by one of the restaurant’s surviving patrons, a man he had known for years but never realized was a member of the underground—Wallace. By that time the young man was ready to do anything to avenge his family’s death and, even more importantly, to make his contribution to seeing the crimebosses’ stranglehold on the city brought to an end.
Pearson at that point had tried to steer the conversation back to Gabriel, asking tentatively about Stefan; Gabriel, once again by means of skillful redirection, managed to deflect it back to Pearson and get his side of the story.
Stefan, apparently, had been one of the organization’s top agents—fearless, smart, and dedicated. He had brought Gabriel in a couple of years ago as his partner and between the two of them they had been known as the ones to call when the job required finesse, iron nerves, and a high degree of grace under pressure. They seemed to thrive on it. This Pearson had heard from Wallace—he had never actually met Stefan, because he had disappeared two months ago after he and Gabriel had gone to investigate a funeral home that had been rumored to be fronting a huge drug smuggling scheme. Gabriel had barely made it out alive, but Stefan had been nowhere to be found. Pearson’s voice shook a bit as he talked about this; obviously he had no desire to offend his new partner.
Gabriel was watching him intently, but not offended. “Do you think he’s gone over to the other side, Pearson?”
Pearson paused, looking away on the pretense of taking a drink. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Nobody’s seen him since he disappeared...no...body was found...”
Gabriel took a deep breath. “I think they’re holding him for some purpose. It sounds like they can be very patient. Either that, or—” He shook his head. “No. I don’t think he’s gone to the other side, and I don’t think he’s dead.” But how can I tell you what I know to be true—that the Enemy wants me to come to them?
Pearson sighed, setting his glass back down. “I hope you’re right,” he said, and sounded like he meant it.
After dinner, Pearson took Gabriel to the rooming house where they would be staying. Number 472 was a quiet, unassuming two-story building tucked between several similarly sized structures. The proprietor was a large woman in her 60s with sharp, intelligent eyes. She nodded to the two young men as they entered, giving them a veiled smile before returning to her needlework. The radio played soft big-band-style music on a table next to her.
Upstairs Pearson opened the door to a room at the end of the hall, bordered by the wall on one side and a linen closet on the other. “Mrs. Klein used to be with us,” Pearson whispered. “She’s retired. That’s what Wallace told me. We should be safe here.”
The room was mid-sized, simple, with two heavy wooden beds, some framed landscape prints on the walls, and a single window. There was a desk on the other side opposite the beds. One bed was neatly made, the other disarrayed as if it had been slept in. Pearson dug in his briefcase and passed his dossier across to Gabriel; he had been carrying it because Gabriel didn’t have a briefcase with him. “Not much to read there,” he said with a little wry smile. “This is my first job. I’m sure yours’ll be a lot more interesting.”
I’m sure it will, Gabriel thought, already working on a way to get hold of it when Pearson was finished with it so he could see what he was supposed to be.
It turned out not to be too hard. Gabriel sat down at the desk with Pearson’s folder while Pearson stretched out on his bed. By the time Gabriel had finished reading through the information (noting particularly that his partner’s magical talents consisted of a couple of offensive spells, the ability to conceal himself effectively in anything but full light and to heal minor wounds, and occasional flashes of premonition) Pearson had dropped off to sleep. It was a simple matter for Gabriel to borrow his own folder and return to the desk.
“Gabriel Draco” (he couldn’t get over that name—apparently the Enemy wasn’t very original in that regard) was 21 years old and had been with the organization for three years. He normally worked out of “Northside” (wherever that was) and had just recently been reassigned to the city. He was known for his high intelligence and tactical planning abilities; although he possessed no innate magical talent his willpower measurements were practically off the scale, which made him difficult to affect with magic and highly resistant to coercion or torture. His gun skills were fair to middling (they got that right, he thought wryly, wishing he’d spent more time practicing with Kestrel), his hand-to-hand combat abilities high. There was a note in his file about Stefan’s disappearance, although there was obviously a page missing that followed it. They don’t want to let Pearson know they’re afraid I might do something rash to get Stefan back. Under his personality profile, they listed him as smart, intense, trustworthy, occasionally willing to take dangerous chances to attain a goal, and prone to thinking outside the box, although the dossier didn’t put it that way. Gabriel closed up the file and put it back next to Pearson, who was still sound asleep. Sighing, he sat down on his own bed and leaned back against the wall.
Everything is set up. Now we wait. I’m coming, Stefan. Just hold on a bit longer—
He didn’t know whether to be comforted or disturbed that he could feel no hint of his brother’s presence any longer.
It was dark—a cloud-choked, moonless night.
Gabriel and Pearson crouched on opposite sides of the street, the former behind a large trash receptacle in an alley, the latter far back in a doorway, using his magical concealment talent to blend his dark-clothed figure in with the shadows. They had been here for almost an hour, waiting.
The truck was late.
The day itself had been fairly quiet—they had spent most of it in their room studying the papers Wallace had given them, memorizing the route of the truck, and making plans for how they would accomplish the hijacking and what route they would take to the warehouse after they had taken possession. Both of them had agreed that the spot Wallace had indicated to them was probably the best place to do the job, especially if they could count on help from some of the locals to provide a diversion. Apparently there were quite a large number of city residents who weren’t brave enough to join the underground organization and take a direct role in trying to shut down the gangs, but who were nonetheless willing to do what they could in their own small ways to aid those who were. Gabriel got the impression from listening to Pearson (fortunately the young rookie agent liked to talk and was anxious to prove himself to his new partner) that the agency was usually quite happy to make use of this offered assistance, although they were reluctant to trust the civilians with any important information for fear it might fall into the wrong hands. This philosophy had been supported by another of the documents Wallace had provided: the paper simply instructed the two of them that if they should decide to hijack the truck at the suggested place, they should contact a man named Hector at a bar nearby and tell him only what he needed to know for him and his associates to pull off the diversion. In exchange, they were to give Hector five of the guns from the truck’s cargo.
After both of them had memorized the map, the relevant locations, and the rest of the information contained within the sheaf of papers, they had destroyed them along with the dossier folders. They were copies, of course—Wallace would never have let the originals out of his possession.
Following a late-afternoon meal downstairs prepared by Mrs. Klein, they had set out. Pearson had a car, one of the low-slung black things that were so ubiquitous around here; it seemed to Gabriel that everything in the city was dark. As they drove around the town (Pearson had suggested the early drive, noting that the gangs’ patrols rarely started in earnest until twilight) he observed that everywhere they went the buildings, the cars, the streets were all black, gray, dark brown, dark blue—demoralizing colors when there were no others to relieve them. There were few plants and those that did exist were scraggly, unhealthy looking things; no parks or playgrounds—for that matter, no children. There were many more people on the streets during the day than there had been the evening Gabriel had arrived, but they all walked purposefully, heads slightly lowered, shoulders hunched, as if they were trying hard not to attract any attention. It was difficult in most cases to tell the men from the women, except that some of the figures in shapeless dark overcoats were larger and taller than others. Even in full daylight the city had an overcast, shadowy look to it. The sun, high overhead, shone reddish behind the thick clouds. Gabriel sighed. He knew in his mind that none of this was real, that likely the Horrors had simply constructed it from bits of his own thoughts and memories, but even that disturbed him. Where had he gotten thoughts and memories like this?
Pearson mistook his sigh for general gloom. “It gets to you after awhile, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah...me too. It’s hard not to think about my family. But then, remembering them is what keeps me going. It kept me going all through the training, and it’ll keep me going now. Don’t worry—I’m not gonna let you down.”
Again Gabriel nodded. “I know that.” He was restless, his usual patience being tried by all this waiting. Driving around town wasn’t helping to get Stefan back. Neither was hijacking trucks. But he knew that trying to rush things would do no good at all. The Enemy might control this corner of the Netherworld, but it was still the Netherworld and operated according to its own rules.
He slumped back in his seat, allowing his mind to travel back to Kestrel and the others at his apartment. He wondered what they had done when they had discovered his note. Were they still there? Had they decided to leave and go about their business, get back to their lives that had been interrupted by this madness? He chilled a bit as he considered the possibility that they might disregard his advice and try to follow him here, but then relaxed. They had no way to do it. Winterhawk couldn’t get them all to the Netherworld, and he doubted the mage would go alone into this kind of unknown. As far as he knew they had no way to contact Harlequin, and even if they did manage to do it, chances were good that the elf wouldn’t send them over after him. He would realize that this was something Gabriel had to do and leave it at that. No, likely his friends were safe. The Enemy had all but told him in his dream that it was him they wanted, that they were only using the others as a means to get him where they wanted him. Now he was where they wanted him. He just hoped that he would be strong enough to come to them on his terms, not on theirs.
He was thinking about that again as he crouched in his hiding place behind the trash container. It was cold; the damp chill in the air sneaked in under his heavy overcoat and his muscles ached from being in the same position for too long. He wondered if this was how humans felt all the time—back home, even when he was in human form he didn’t experience these sorts of feelings unless he was injured: his magical nature allowed him to create a body that was physically flawless and not prone to normal human infirmities. Here, now, he felt vulnerable without his magic in a way he had not last time he and his friends had been to the Netherworlds. Perhaps it was because he had not been alone then. It was an odd and somewhat disquieting thought. Absently he rubbed his side where the scar was throbbing painfully again. He wished there was a way to communicate with Pearson, but in this world no one seemed to have heard of small portable radios, let alone cellular phones and other accoutrements of the 21st century. Sighing, he shifted position slightly, settled back, and continued to wait.
He glanced at the truck parked on the other side of the alley, its engine rumbling softly in the night air. He couldn’t see the driver, but he and Pearson had met with him earlier that evening and he knew what to do. Hector Duran was a short, wide ork with intense dark eyes and a ready laugh—a man unwilling to give in and give up despite the fact that he had lost two brothers and his best friend to the gangs’ sweeps over the past year. Duran had shown up at the appointed meeting place with three others, two men and a woman, and listened attentively as Gabriel and Pearson had explained the plan. He had volunteered his truck, a big black stakebed with no markings, its body long enough to block both sides of the street if parked sideways across it. Currently, one of his friends was in the cab with him and the other two were huddled under a canvas tarp in the truck’s bed. Duran and one of the two associates in the bed carried pistols.
Gabriel pressed his back against the wall, pulled his hat down low over his eyes, and kept a close watch on the darkened street. His gloved hand tightened around the small rock he held; tossing the rock at the truck’s side behind the driver’s door would be the signal that their quarry was approaching. How much longer is it going to be? Did they decide to take a different route? Did they somehow find out—
Far off in the distance, headlights approached.
Gabriel rose slightly from his crouch, gripped the rock, and leaned forward, trying to determine if the approaching vehicle was the one they sought. He knew that they had to make a fast decision but couldn’t afford to be wrong: if they blocked the wrong vehicle before the real one arrived, they would not only lose their element of surprise but likely put innocent civilians in danger. They’d have to cut it close.
A stone skittered across the street and bounced off the side of the trash container. Gabriel tensed. It was Pearson’s signal—the oncoming vehicle was the target. He rose the rest of the way, tossing his own rock against the side of Hector’s truck, pulling his scarf up to obscure the lower part of his face, and drawing his gun. The stakebed rumbled to life, already beginning to back up. Gabriel moved in behind it; the pistol felt alien in his hand, but he gripped it tightly. With any luck, the mission wouldn’t hinge on his marksmanship skills.
It was easy to see now that Pearson had been right: as the oncoming headlights drew closer, Gabriel could see that they hid a large panel-side truck—the sort that might have been used to make deliveries of bread or milk. He could see two people through the big front windows, already scrambling as the truck screeched to a halt several meters away from the obstruction. All right, Pearson—your turn...
Pearson knew his job and did it well. As the doors opened and the driver and passenger began to swing out of the truck with their guns already drawn, they suddenly clutched their heads and cried out in pain when the bright nimbus of a spell appeared around the truck’s cab. The driver, who had managed to make it all the way out, staggered backward, while the passenger fell back into his seat.
Gabriel ran forward. Neither of the two gangsters was unconscious; he would have to make his move before they recovered sufficiently to get a shot off. Hoping there were only two more in the back he lashed out with a brutal kick, taking the driver down and leaping into the driver’s seat to try to get a clear shot at the passenger. Good! No opening through to the back. They’ll have go come around from the rear doors.
Gunfire chattered outside as apparently they were doing just that. Hector Duran jumped out of the stakebed and his passenger slid over to take the driver’s spot. Off to the side of the delivery truck Gabriel could hear the sharp crack of Pearson’s pistol and the grunt of someone back there taking a round and going down.
His heart was beating fast as everything seemed to be happening at once. Next to him the ganger in the passenger seat tried to bring up his gun; without a thought Gabriel shot him in the chest. The ganger screamed, blood spraying the back of the cab. Gabriel shoved him out of the truck.
The stakebed was moving forward, getting out of their way. Hector was crouched in front of the truck, the muzzle of his pistol flashing as he squeezed off a shot at something unknown coming from behind. In the back of the stakebed one of their allies cried out and dropped back into the bed.
How many of them are there? Gabriel’s thoughts raced, trying to tally up the count so far—he’d gotten two, Pearson at least one, Hector one, but still the sounds of gunfire continued.
Behind him, sound exploded as a fusillade of machine-gun rounds tore through the flimsy wall separating the back part of the truck from the cab. Gabriel lunged to the side, wincing sharply as one of the rounds caught the upper part of his right arm before exiting through the windshield. His hand tightened spasmodically around his gun—the pain was incredible, but he couldn’t drop it. Gritting his teeth, he twisted in his seat and prepared to fire back. There was a brief burst from somewhere behind the truck and then, for a moment, silence.
Pearson threw himself into the passenger seat. “Go, go!” he yelled. “They’re down!”
Gabriel didn’t have to be invited twice. Forcing his injured arm to function, he grabbed the oversized steering wheel and prepared to move forward. “Hector?”
“One down. They got their guns. Go!” Pearson’s voice had the same staccato pattern as the gunfire, quick and short and sharp. He was sweating, his eyes wild with fear and adrenaline.
Gabriel threw the truck into gear and stomped down on the accelerator. The truck’s tires squealed briefly and then caught traction on the rough street, shooting the big vehicle forward. In the side mirror Gabriel could see Hector and one of his associates running back toward their own truck, waving machine guns in each hand. Then they rounded a corner and were gone.
Pearson was breathing hard, still caught up in what had happened. “We did it!” he cried, his voice bright with exultation. “We got ‘em!”
Gabriel didn’t answer. It was only when Pearson looked over at him that he noticed the slightly darker spot growing on the arm of his partner’s overcoat. “Gabriel?”
“I’m all right,” he said through gritted teeth. “Navigate.”
Pearson gave him another worried look, but nodded. Slowly he got his breathing under control and guided Gabriel through the route they had agreed on. Other than quick hushed directions, the drive was silent. In less than ten minutes the hulking form of the warehouse on the corner of 10th and 46th Streets loomed ahead. “There it is. We’re supposed to go around the back.”
Gabriel nodded and steered the unwieldy truck down another alley toward the rear of the warehouse. It appeared to be deserted; there were no lights except for one of the sickish streetlights on the corner, and no cars were parked nearby. This didn’t surprise them: Wallace had told them that there wouldn’t be any indication of anyone there until they got inside. Gabriel doused the truck’s headlights, relying on the minimal illumination from the streetlight to get them where they were going.
“Gabriel?” Pearson’s voice split the darkness, very soft, hesitant.
“Do you think it was too easy?”
Probably. Definitely. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were waiting for us inside. “Why do you say that?”
Long pause. “It—it just seemed too easy, that’s all.” Another pause. “Do you want me to heal your arm before we go in?”
Gabriel weighed the options. He could feel the blood running down his arm; it wasn’t a life-threatening wound, but it was his gun arm and it was beginning to shake with weakness from the pain and blood loss. “How long? And will it put you in any danger?”
“Just a couple of minutes. I think if you believe we can risk it, it’ll be worth it. Just—just in case. No danger, just maybe a little drain. Like I said, I think it’s worth it.”
Gabriel felt odd not being able to heal his own wound, but he knew Pearson was right. “All right—but quickly, or not at all. We can’t wait long.”
Pearson nodded and began helping him out of the right side of his overcoat. The rookie whistled slightly when he saw the damage, then his expression grew serious as he concentrated on the task at hand.
Gabriel, meanwhile, remained vigilant, keeping an eye on what was going on around the truck. He transferred his pistol to his left hand, knowing that he would have even less chance than usual of hitting anything that wasn’t right on top of him, but it was better than nothing. He could feel the warmth suffusing his arm, dulling the edges of the pain as Pearson’s healing magics took effect. He was frustrated at feeling so powerless, on having to depend on this fragile body and this unreliable weapon to defend himself and his allies—but frustration was a useless and potentially dangerous emotion now. I must deal with things as they are, not as I want them to be. But when we are finished here I must begin searching for Stefan. I know he is here somewhere, and this isn’t helping me find him.
“There.” Pearson let his breath out, settling back in his seat. He looked tired but satisfied. “How’s that?”
Gabriel raised his arm, moving it around to test the healing. The pain was still there, but it was a ghost of its former intensity. “Much better,” he said, nodding. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” The younger man seemed pleased to have been able to do something to help his partner.
Gabriel started up the truck again. “Let’s get inside before someone sees us.” He slowly guided it the rest of the way around the back of the warehouse. The roll-up door Wallace had told them about was there, currently extended about halfway down. He flashed the truck’s lights as they had been instructed and was rewarded by the sight of the door beginning to crawl slowly upward. When it was fully open he drove inside.
The inside was dim and shadowy; there were no lights on in here either. The headlights picked out a large open space surrounded by boxes and machinery. When they had pulled all the way in, they both heard the decisive clang of the door being rolled shut again behind them. A moment later a man holding a clipboard stepped out from behind one of the stacks of boxes. Gabriel’s hand tightened on the pistol which was now in his jacket pocket; he could sense Pearson tensing next to him.
“That the shipment for Abernathy?” the man called. His voice was gruff, perfunctory. He was dressed in workman’s coveralls; a cigar stuck out from the corner of his mouth.
Gabriel rolled down the window. “Yes.”
The man nodded, hooking a thumb over his shoulder toward the back of the warehouse. “Good job. Bring it over there and park it between those two rows of boxes. Then you better get outta here. Car’s waiting for ya.”
Gabriel rolled the window back up and did as instructed, trying to watch everything at once. Glancing sideways, he noticed that Pearson had his gun in his lap down below the level of the window.
The spot the man had indicated was barely wide enough to pull the truck into and enable the two of them to get out. “I don’t like this,” Pearson said nervously.
Gabriel shook his head, his eyes grim. “I don’t either. Let’s leave it here. They can move it themselves.”
Pearson seemed relieved. “You don’t trust ‘em either?”
“Just being careful.” He pulled the truck up to the opening between the two rows of boxes and stopped it there, setting the brake.
Two other shadowy figures waited nearby. “Pull it in!” one of them called. “Park it there between the boxes.”
Gabriel ignored him, opening the door to slide out. On the other side, Pearson was doing the same.
“Din’cha hear me, kid?” the other voice called.
“You can pull it in yourself,” Gabriel replied. “Where’s the car?”
The man grumbled, but didn’t protest. “Over there by the back wall. You have any trouble? Anybody followin’ you?”
“Not that we know of,” Gabriel said. “Everything went well.”
“Nobody’s following,” Pearson echoed. He had been watching as Gabriel drove.
The first man, the one who had met them originally, was coming toward them now as the two other men began opening up the back of the truck. He glanced at it, but simply shrugged. He tossed Gabriel a key on a ring, then stopped, pausing to get a good look at him. “You’re Draco, aren’t you?”
“Why?” Gabriel spoke warily.
“‘Cause if you are, I got some info to pass on to ya. So you want it or not?”
His hand tightened on the gun in his pocket. “What do you have?”
The man consulted his clipboard, although Gabriel suspected it was only a prop. “It’s about your brother. I think we got a lead on where he might be.”
Gabriel’s gaze focused on him. “Where?”
The man nodded. “Coupla guys I know heard a coupla other guys talkin’. Sounds like they might be holdin’ him in the back part of the Fortuna Club. At least they were holdin’ somebody there an hour or so ago. Figured you might want to go check it out.”
Gabriel took a deep breath. “Thank you. I’ll do that.” There was something odd, something he couldn’t quite place in the man’s expression, but it was the first semi-solid lead he’d gotten since arriving here. He would check it out, but he would be careful.
“Yeah, good luck,” the man said, nodding again. “Now get on outta here. It’s dangerous to be here right now.”
The two of them didn’t have to be encouraged twice. Gabriel took the keyring and together he and Pearson headed for the car, another ubiquitous dark sedan. They walked quickly but casually, careful to continue their watch for unexpected motion. “I’ll be glad to—” Pearson began, and then stopped both his forward movement and his sentence simultaneously.
Gabriel tensed. “What is—?”
Pearson’s eyes widened as he stared at something that didn’t seem to be there. “Oh, shit, Gabriel, it’s a—” His voice pitched higher with fear and then abruptly halted as gunfire erupted from high above them and his face exploded in a spray of blood. Several more rounds spanged into the concrete floor and ricocheted away.
“Pearson!” Gabriel spared him only a glance—enough to tell with sickening certainty that the rookie was beyond the point where anyone could do anything for him—and then ran, launching himself off in the direction of the shadowy corners of the warehouse, away from the car. Already other figures were rising up from behind the car, behind boxes, behind machinery—his gaze darted around, looking for an escape route.
The truck’s headlights went out, plunging the place into total darkness.
Gabriel stopped, struggling to slow his breathing, to get his bearings. Where was he? Where was the door? I have to get out of here—
Wait. Stop. Don’t panic. He forced himself to remain still. Without magic, with only a human’s strength and stamina, he was at a disadvantage—but he hadn’t been defeated yet. He was still standing. Pearson—He closed his eyes briefly, racked with a wave of guilt and grief over the rookie’s death, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that now. If he didn’t get out of here, no one would know what had become of either of them.
Someone else—something else—was near. He could hear its soft breathing as it approached. He stood very still, holding his breath, waiting to see what it would do. Could it see him? How can they get by like this? In darkness, they are helpless...
Don’t panic. If you do, you’re dead.
The approaching thing stopped. It seemed to be sniffing for something. He could hear other sounds from around him: footsteps, the soft swish-scrape of clothing, breathing. There were several of them. He had seen at least four before the lights went down. Were the workmen in on it? They must have been—they aren’t running—
Gabriel began backing up, moving on tiptoe back toward the wall. It was so dark in here that his vision was not clearing; he could feel the blackness pressing in around him, almost hurting his eyes. If I can get to the wall, I might be able to feel my way along it, to find the door—they can’t have seen me...if they could, they would have shot me already—
Step. Step. Slowly, carefully. Make no sound.
The other noises had ceased, the breathing quieted, the footsteps gone.
Step. Step. Stop. I must be getting close now. The wall wasn’t far away—
He felt vulnerable, exposed. Some inner sense told him he was moving in the right direction—something about the way the air felt around him, almost a blind man’s sense. But he hadn’t been far from the wall when the lights have gone out. Could he have gotten turned around? He—
His heel touched the wall with a soft click. He halted his motion again, waited for anyone to notice him. Where are they? They can’t all be this quiet? Why aren’t they breathing? Why aren’t they doing something?
He pressed his hands behind him against the wall, feeling the cold corrugated metal with sensitive fingertips. Slowly, still holding his breath, he began moving sideways, still on tiptoe. He would have liked to get rid of his shoes to allow him to move even more silently, but doing so would have doubtless revealed his position—and then there was the fact that he would need them later if he needed to run.
Step, pause. Step, pause.
Still no sound, no light from around him. The only thing he could hear if he strained his ears was the soft ticking of the delivery truck’s engine cooling down. It wasn’t loud enough for him to tell where it was, though.
Step, pause. Step, pause. He ran his fingertips along the metal, feeling its undulating contours, the occasional bolt, small patches of rough rust. There has to be a door here somewhere.
His hand fell on a seam.
His breath caught silently, his eyes widening as they fought to pick out the smallest bit of light. He stopped, moving his hand up and down along the seam until he reached a knob. All right—do this quickly—hope it isn’t locked—
The lights came on, all at once.
Gabriel flinched against the sudden sensory overload, bringing his arm up to shield his eyes.
There was a figure next to him, floating a few centimeters above the floor. It was laughing silently.
“Bad luck, pretty boy,” he purred, and brought something down on the side of his head.
As he fell and felt consciousness fleeing, Gabriel’s last thought was I’m sorry, Stefan. I’ve failed you—
And then nothing.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.