The walk through the canyon was accomplished in a tense silence. The five runners were spread out slightly, close enough that they could come to each other’s aid should it become necessary, but far enough apart that conversation was discouraged. They had been like that ever since they had entered the pass; that had been more than an hour ago.
The pass itself had a dark, oppressive feel to it that made them think that the walls were preparing to close in on them high above, to cut off the sickly, red-tinged light that trickled in to illuminate their path in a series of shifting beams thrown out from between thick clouds. The shadows that fell from the jutting rocks that lined the path were weird, misshapen things, like silent monsters observing their progress. More than once one or more of the team had gotten the impression that they were being followed, but whenever they turned to look there had been no sign of life or movement there.
Ocelot had taken the point position without question or discussion; no one argued with him. He made his way forward with a combination of purpose and explosive movement, his posture suggesting that he considered every rock, every impediment to his progress to be a personal affront. Several meters behind him, Winterhawk, ShadoWraith, and Joe followed him in a loose affiliation, closer together but each one clearly alone with his own thoughts and not inviting any sort of conference.
A few more meters behind them, Kestrel walked alone. She was alert, her eyes constantly and almost obsessively scanning the area in front, behind, and above them for potential threats, but anyone who looked at her too closely could see that the portion of her mind beyond that required for vigilance and continued motion was somewhere far away. Every once in awhile one of the three ahead of her would glance back to see if she was still following; she refused to meet their eyes and looked elsewhere until they turned back around again.
Ocelot had not looked back once.
There did not seem to be an end to the canyon. It varied between roughly five and ten meters wide; it was impossible to see how far it stretched out ahead of them because its path was convoluted, bending back and forth in smooth curves and occasional sharper angles veering off to one side or the other. A couple of times Winterhawk looked speculatively upward, considering the possibility of levitating to the top high above to see if he could see anything from there; ‘Wraith had given him a questioning raised eyebrow and he had shrugged, abandoning the idea for now. He wasn’t in any particular hurry to separate himself from the rest of the team at the moment. He had already tested his magical abilities and found that they were functioning properly; that in itself had been a relief to him. One could never tell on the metaplanes what things were going to be like—each one had its own laws that you had to learn to live with. Right now, he was secure in the knowledge that he could perform a bit of aerial scouting if it became necessary, but right now he didn’t think it was.
It was Joe who broke the silence half an hour or so later. “This is weird,” he said, looking around. “How much longer do you think this thing goes on, and where’s it leading?” The canyon had continued in much the same way with no sign of either an exit or a change in scenery.
Winterhawk shrugged. “Don’t know. I’ll admit this is odd, although odd doesn’t really have a proper definition here.”
Ocelot had stopped impatiently up ahead at the sound of Joe’s voice; after a moment he turned and stalked back. “We gonna keep goin’ or what?” His eyes were hard, purposeful, devoid of any emotion beyond the desire to continue moving.
“The way we’re supposed to go,” ‘Wraith said.
“Yeah, but for how long?” Joe looked around. The light was starting to dim a bit—they hadn’t noticed it before because it had been so subtle, but it was definitely darker than it had been when they had started. “We can’t just keep walking forever, can we?”
“I think we should keep going, at least for awhile,” Kestrel said, coming up next to them. “Maybe we’ll reach the exit before it gets dark.”
“Or maybe we won’t,” Ocelot said shortly.
“So what do you want to do—just stop?” Winterhawk was quick to break in before the conversation escalated to something none of them wanted to deal with. “I don’t fancy staying here for the night, I don’t know about the rest of you.”
They stood in a circle now, regarding each other tensely because none of them had any idea what to do beyond continuing as they had been and none of them wanted to admit it. Occasionally one of them—usually ‘Wraith, but the others more often than was customary—glanced around to make sure that nothing was sneaking up on them, but those glances revealed nothing but rocks and darkening sky.
When the fog rose around them it did so in such a quick progression that they almost didn’t have time to notice it before it engulfed them. It started low, the sort of thick white mist that rises up from the ground, and quickly grew higher as the runners continued their conversation. ‘Wraith noticed it first, when it had reached ankle level. “Look,” he said, pointing.
By the time the others looked—the space of less than a second—the fog had risen again and was at knee level. It seemed to be both coming up out of the ground and rolling in from both ends of the canyon. Ocelot’s gaze darted quickly off in all directions, but he could see no place where the fog hadn’t either reached or wasn’t about to reach. “‘Hawk? Can you get us outta here?”
“Not all of us, I’m afraid.” Winterhawk had already considered the levitation possibility again, but was loath to leave his friends behind.
“Stay together,” Kestrel called, moving in closer and reaching out to them. The fog had reached waist-high on everyone but Joe and ‘Wraith now. “We don’t want to lose each other!”
The others quickly agreed and moved in, each one grasping the hands of his or her nearest neighbors. By coincidence or design, Ocelot and Kestrel ended up on opposite ends of the chain. The fog was chest-high. “Let’s try to keep going forward slowly,” Ocelot said. “Maybe it’ll fades as fast as it came up.”
“Careful,” Joe added. “We don’t know what’s up ahead.”
“We also don’t know how long we can breathe this stuff,” Kestrel pointed out. “Come on. Let’s go.”
They started moving forward again while they could still tell what direction forward was. The fog rose steadily, fortified by more drifts that continued to roll in from the two ends. In only a few seconds it had risen high enough to cover Kestrel’s eyes, then Ocelot’s and Winterhawk’s, then ‘Wraith’s and finally Joe’s. It was a cold, dank mist with a faint odd odor, white and swirling, so thick that each of them could barely see the shadowy forms of the people on either side of them. Each could feel his or her neighbor stiffen as they were engulfed. “Can you still hear me?” Ocelot called, his voice unnaturally loud in the whiteness that stopped vision every bit as effectively as darkness did.
“Still here,” Winterhawk’s came back with quick reassurance. The others joined their voices to the call.
“At least we can still breathe,” Kestrel said. The mist seemed to be no more harmful to respiration than normal fog; apart from the odd odor, there was no immediate problem apparent in that regard.
“So we just keep moving forward?” Joe asked. Looking down he could see the ground for about a meter diameter around his feet, but no further.
“Either that or stop and wait for it to clear.” Ocelot didn’t sound like that was his choice of action.
“Don’t know if it will,” ‘Wraith pointed out.
“So we go?” Winterhawk asked. “All in favor?”
Everyone was in favor, so they went on. It was a disconcerting feeling, walking along grasping the hand of someone they couldn’t see, looking down at their feet to make sure there was still ground beneath them. Several times someone tripped, but the clasped hands meant that they did not have to fall. Fortunately Joe, with his large frame and huge feet, was not one of the trippers. None of their cybernetic vision enhancements helped them see: thermographic vision revealed a uniform level of chill with the bright red glows of their bodies in its center, and low light was no help at all. They went on, shuffling their way forward with no idea of where they were going or when they were going to arrive.
The fog lifted.
Its departure was even more sudden than its arrival; although there was no hint of a wind, the effect was as if someone had set up a large fan in front of them and turned it to its highest setting. The white mists dissipated into nothingness behind them. “What the—?” Ocelot whispered.
The canyon was gone.
“Not in Kansas anymore,” ‘Wraith said.
“No...” Winterhawk agreed speculatively. “No, I don’t think we are at all.”
Where before there had been spread out before them only an unforgiving landscape of red rocks, dust, and rising cliffside walls, now their vision was filled with the sight of a city. It was nearly full dark; no stars were visible through the haze of clouds (at least the sky was the same, if nothing else was); illumination was provided by streetlights, the occasional glow of a building’s window, the flash of neon, and the darting headlights of automobiles.
They were on the edge of it now, but the city seemed to have no suburbs—instead, it rose out of the desolate ground like some sort of mirage growing up out of a barren desert. Within it, life pulsed and hurried and went about its business; outside was nothing but unrelenting rock and the far-off line of the horizon and the mountains. The roads were the strangest of all—from their vantage point, the runners could see that they extended to the edge of the city and went no further. It was as if the city were the only thing of anything importance in the world—there was nowhere else to go, or nowhere else anyone would want to go.
The runners stared. “Gabriel’s here?” Joe asked.
“Good bet,” ‘Wraith said. He was looking at the city. “Odd—looks familiar, but not quite.”
Winterhawk nodded. “I was having the same feeling. “The buildings, the signs—it’s got sort of a malevolent, ‘hell goes Art Deco’ feel to it. I know I’ve seen it somewhere before, but I can’t place where.”
“Speaking of hell meeting Art Deco...” Kestrel said, “Check out our clothes.”
They hadn’t been paying any attention to their attire—the sight of the strange self-contained city ahead had captured their attention fully. Now they did as Kestrel directed and looked first down at themselves and then at each other. “Interesting...” was ‘Wraith’s only comment.
They were dressed in a sort of modified, stereotypical 1930s-gangster-era style, in dark pinstriped suits, wingtip shoes, and fedoras. Winterhawk’s mageblade, which still felt in his hand no different than it had before, appeared instead as an elegant walking stick topped with a fiery blue gem. Kestrel’s outfit was slightly out of character for the era but different from the men’s: she wore black slacks and a white blouse covered by a long tan trenchcoat. Her hat had a wider brim than her companions’ and slanted low down over her eyes.
“Okay...” Joe said, examining each of his friends in turn. “So we’re gangsters?”
“No tommy guns,” ‘Wraith said. He sounded slightly disappointed. As if to punctuate his words, the sound of gunfire broke the silence of the night. It sounded far away and died out quickly.
“Sounds like we might get some soon if we play our cards right,” Joe said.
“How the hell are we gonna find him in a city that big?” Ocelot said, crouching down and leaning his elbows on his knees. “There’s gotta be at least a million people down there. Doesn’t seem like stopping people on the street and asking them, ‘Hey, have you seen this guy?’ is gonna be very useful.”
“Won’t know until we get there,” ‘Wraith said.
Winterhawk nodded. “It’s fairly clear that’s where we’re supposed to go, so what are we waiting for?”
It took them about half an hour to trudge down the hillside and into the outskirts of the city. As they were doing so, no one appeared to be paying any attention to them. They saw the occasional glimpse of movement around the city’s edges—cars only, no individual people—but even as they drew up close and prepared to enter, no one acknowledged their presence. Twice more on their way down they had heard the sounds of gunfire: once a barrage from a machine gun and once a series of loud cracks that could only be some kind of handgun. “Busy place,” Joe had remarked.
They stopped for a moment at the edge of one of the streets leading into the heart of the city, as none of them thought that their aura of invisibility would continue to cover them once they’d gotten inside. “Any last words?” Ocelot asked. He’d been trying to be flippant but it came out sounding ominous instead.
“We’d better stay together,” Joe said. “We might not have any way to contact each other if we get separated.”
“And lie low,” Winterhawk added. “At least until we get the feel of the place.”
“We’re so good at that,” Kestrel said wryly. “But we can try.”
Ocelot took a deep breath. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”
They stepped onto the road at roughly the same time, but it was Kestrel who turned back and gasped. “Look!” she whispered.
The others quickly whirled to see what she was pointing at and were hit with varying degrees of shock: where before they had seen the gray strip of road extend to the edge of the town and stop, it appeared now to continue out into the desert. It looked every bit the part of a perfectly normal road leading out of town. “What the hell—?” Ocelot demanded.
“Stuck here now,” ‘Wraith said dispassionately.
The others realized he was probably right. No one wanted to test the hypothesis by trying to take the road out of town, but they all suspected that wherever they ended up, it would not be back where they were only a few moments before.
“Isn’t magic grand?” Winterhawk asked, his tone dripping with sarcasm.
“Come on,” Kestrel urged. “We’re here now. Let’s find him, do whatever we’re supposed to do, and get the hell out. This place is already giving me the creeps.”
“Not surprising,” ‘Wraith said. “Horror controlled.”
Winterhawk nodded soberly. “We’ll be needing to be very careful. I can feel it—this is not, as you say, a nice place at all.”
“Does your magic still work in here?” Joe asked, glancing around for unwelcome visitors. They had moved off to the side of the road; it wasn’t much cover, but it was better than standing out where any passing car could see them.
Winterhawk looked startled, as if that hadn’t occurred to him. He held out his mageblade/walking stick in front of him and attempted to levitate it. It floated up out of his hand and hovered in midair. “Apparently so,” he said, satisfied. The cane lowered back into his hand.
“At least something’s working in our favor,” Ocelot muttered. “We need to get some weapons, though. Can’t rely on magic for everything.”
‘Wraith nodded. “Agreed.”
Kestrel was looking around. They were standing in a vacant lot that was overgrown with scrubby plants and strewn with garbage. The night air was chilly and a bit damp; it carried a faint musty smell and something else she couldn’t quite identify. “Let’s go into town,” she said, pulling her coat closer around her. “That’s probably where the action is.”
They set off in that direction, trying to stay under cover as much as possible. All of them felt uneasy, like something was waiting to happen, but things seemed quiet for the moment. Every step forward increased their feelings of foreboding.
A couple of cars passed them and went on without slowing or stopping. The runners watched them go by. “Mid to late 1930s,” Ocelot said, and ‘Wraith nodded in agreement.
“But not quite,” Winterhawk said. “It looks rather like the Horrors tried to do the American gangster era and didn’t get it quite right. Like—”
“Like a movie,” Joe put in. “Like those old gangster movies from the 1900s.”
“Makes sense, really,” Winterhawk said. “The metaplanes, or the Horrors, or whoever’s building this little scenario, is getting it from our minds, so it only stands to reason that they’d get it a little skewed.”
“Our minds, or Gabriel’s?” ‘Wraith asked.
“Whichever way they went, they’ve certainly put a dark spin on things.” Winterhawk took another nervous look around. “I keep expecting vultures to swoop down or something.”
They heard the scream before they saw its source. Loud, piercing, terror-stricken, it rose up into the night and then died into what sounded like a sob.
The runners barely had time to exchange glances before they were moving. They ran toward the sound, spreading out to remain under cover but still keeping each other in sight. They all knew this could be a trick.
It certainly didn’t look like a trick, though. As they rounded a corner they could see a small neighborhood park laid out ahead of them, its block-sized grassy expanse cut through with small paths and lit sporadically by smaller versions of the few streetlights the runners had seen. These things were not, however, what had captured their attention. That had been seized by the dark form of one of the black cars parked across the sidewalk, its doors open, its occupants—four burly men in dark suits—moving menacingly toward a terrified man pressed back against one of the trees. Next to him was a woman, probably the source of the scream. The two victims’ eyes were locked on the men approaching them. Two of the men carried machine guns—big old-fashioned drum-fed tommy guns that looked like they came out of an old flatscreen gangster flick—while the other two did not appear to be armed. It was they who were advancing on the couple against the tree.
“Looks like we got our guns,” Ocelot whispered to ‘Wraith. There was an odd, satisfied gleam in his eyes. He’d been waiting quite some time for a chance to kick some butt, and here was his opportunity.
“I’ll try to get the two with the guns from here,” Winterhawk murmured. “Get into position first and give me a signal when you want me to go. Be ready if I don’t get them both.”
The other runners melted off into the night. Winterhawk kept his eyes on the scene below, peripherally aware of his friends moving through the trees to surround the park.
The two unarmed men were moving closer to the frightened couple. One of them said something, his voice deep and gruff, but Winterhawk couldn’t hear what it was. The male victim said something that earned him a vicious backhand across the face from the second of the two tormentors. The two with machine guns stepped forward in anticipation.
Across the park, Ocelot waved. They were in place.
All right, let’s go then, Winterhawk told himself, and cast his spell.
The satisfying flower of bright magical energy erupted around the two gun-wielding gangsters. One dropped like a rock, his gun falling to the grass, while the other clutched his head with one hand, kept hold of the gun, and bit out a loud curse as he fell to his knees.
The other two men whirled.
The runners were already in action. Ocelot vaulted from his hiding place between the trees, aiming a vicious kick at the head of the injured machine-gunner. Kestrel came in from a different angle, going for one of the two apparently unarmed men. The man attempted to draw something from inside his coat, but by Kestrel’s standards he was moving in slow motion. He dropped like a rock under her assault.
Winterhawk, hanging back where his magical abilities would be most useful, caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and stiffened. “In the car!” he called. “There’s another one in the—”
He needn’t have worried. Joe was already on it. On his way into position he had picked up a pair of his favorite improvised weapons—large rocks—and now proceeded to put one through the driver’s side window of the car. This took out not only the window but the man behind it, who had been attempting to get it lowered so he could bring his tommy-gun around. The gun barked once and Joe cursed as a round tore into his arm, but then the man slumped. Joe grabbed the gun. “‘Wraith!” he called, and tossed the gun over the roof of the car to the elf.
As soon as it settled into ‘Wraith’s hands, his expression changed slightly. He looked...pleased. With fierce calm he spun around and let loose with a volley of lead that made short work of the remaining gangsters.
As the echoes of the gunfire died down and the runners allowed themselves to take stock of the situation, they once again noticed the two victims. They stood huddled against the tree, their arms around each other, staring with terror at the team who had just liberated them.
“It’s okay,” Kestrel reassured them. “They won’t bother you anymore.” The dead or unconscious bodies of all five of the gangsters lay strewn around the grass; ‘Wraith and Joe were already going through their pockets and collecting their weapons.
“You—you—” The man seemed barely able to speak; the woman didn’t even try. He looked at the bodies and then at Kestrel. He had an angry red welt rising on his face and his lip was bleeding slightly from where the men had backhanded him.
Winterhawk came up next to her. “We’re no threat to you,” he said, his tone soothing. “Why were they attacking you?”
The man tried to get himself under control, watching the elf and the troll tossing guns into the back seat of the black car. “You—who are you?”
“We’re new in town,” Kestrel said.
“They’ll kill you...” the woman whispered fearfully. “When they find out—”
“You let us worry about that,” Winterhawk told her. He cocked his head in question. “Who will kill us?” Glancing around, he noticed that Ocelot was keeping an eye on the scene to make sure they didn’t get any more unwelcome guests at their little party.
The man seemed to be getting a bit of his courage back. He nodded toward the bodies. “Their people. Those men— were part of the Salazaros.” When no recognition showed on the faces of the newcomers, he sighed. “You must be new in town if you haven’t heard of the Salazaros. They’re one of the biggest gangs in town.”
“So why were they bothering you?” Kestrel asked. “You don’t look like gangsters.”
The woman shook her head. “We’re shopkeepers. We own a little grocery store not far from here. The Salazaros—they collect...money from us each month—”
“Protection money,” Kestrel said grimly.
The man nodded. “They get the money, they leave us alone. But this month—sales...they weren’t so good...and we had to send some money to our son and his wife—their new baby is sick, and—”
The woman patted his arm, then looked at Winterhawk and Kestrel. “We tried to explain it, but they didn’t listen. They came back tonight—tore up our store—We tried to run away, but—” She shook her head, tears springing to her eyes once more. She buried her face in her husband’s shoulder and sobbed. He slipped his arm around her and looked at their rescuers helplessly.
“What about the police?” Winterhawk asked. He looked over his shoulder at the sound of a car door closing and saw that Joe and ‘Wraith had finished loading up the car with the gangers’ equipment; ‘Wraith was in the driver’s seat and Joe was coming over. “Can’t you call them about this?”
The man shook his head. “Police? No, the police can’t help anybody. They’re so overpowered by the gangs that they don’t even try anymore. Mostly they just worry about what little non-gang crime there is—but the gangs mostly take care of that themselves.”
“Don’t like competition.” Kestrel’s tone was bitter.
Winterhawk took a deep breath. “Well—we can’t stay here, and we can’t leave you here. Is there—somewhere we can take you?”
The man appeared to be trying to gather his thoughts. His wife looked up, brushing tears from her cheeks, and said, “Could you—take us home? We can get our car and go stay with our children for awhile. We can’t go back to our store—”
‘Hawk and Kestrel exchanged glances, and then the mage nodded. “Of course. Is it far?” Gently he began guiding the terrified couple toward the car; Kestrel got on the other side and did the same thing.
“No. Only a few blocks from here.” The man looked at them as if just realizing something. “How—how can we ever thank you for this? It was so dangerous—no one does that sort of thing anymore. No one helps—”
Kestrel smiled. “Guess we’re just the good guys. Don’t worry about it. Just be careful.” She opened the car’s back door and helped the couple in, then got in next to them. It was a tight fit with seven people, but they managed.
“You should be careful as well, my dear,” the woman said. “The gangs are—” She gasped, looking forward to the passenger seat, which Joe had claimed. “Oh! You’re hurt!”
“It’s okay,” Joe said. He was clutching his left arm, where blood trickled from between his fingers. “We can take care of it later. Didn’t go through.” He had one of the machine guns across his lap; ‘Wraith had a second (it was awkward as he was driving, but he wouldn’t give it up) and Kestrel had the third leaning against the seat next to her.
The woman nodded, looking dubious. “Be careful,” she said again.
The couple’s home was an apartment in a shabby building only a few minutes away from the park. No one appeared to be waiting for them at the moment, but they all knew that could change any minute. The runners accompanied them to their car and waited while they got it going. “Are you sure there’s nothing we can do for you?” the man asked. His gaze darted around nervously—he clearly wanted to be off—but he knew how much he owed these odd newcomers.
Most of them shook their heads, but Joe spoke up. “Do you know somewhere we can stay? A hotel or a rooming house or something where they won’t ask any questions?”
The man smiled. “Yes. That I can help you with. My cousin runs a small rooming house. His name’s Albert Ferone.” He gave them the address, and nodded. “You just tell Al that his cousin Frank sent you, and he’ll take care of you. It’s the least I can do.”
As he was about to pull out, ‘Wraith took something from his pocket and handed it to Frank. “Here.”
Frank stared at what the elf had given him: it was a small sheaf of money. “What—?”
“From the men. Not all—we need some. To get you started.”
None of the other runners objected to ‘Wraith’s generosity. Frank looked mystified, but grateful. “Thank you,” he whispered. “God bless you all.”
He drove away, leaving the five runners standing next to their newly-acquired car.
Winterhawk let his breath out slowly. “Well,” he said at last, “We did want some weapons and transportation.”
The five of them rearranged themselves more comfortably in the car and ‘Wraith started driving again, toward the destination Frank had given them. “What did you get from them?” Kestrel asked the elf.
It was Joe who answered, pulling things from his pockets. “The three machine guns, plus three pistols and all their wallets. ‘Wraith has the money.”
Silently ‘Wraith withdrew another wad of money from his pocket and passed it back to Kestrel. “Count?”
She did. “Looks like we’ve got about four hundred dollars here. That should be enough to keep us in food and shelter until we find Gabriel.”
“If not, we can always mug another bunch of gangsters,” Winterhawk said wryly.
Joe handed a pistol to Ocelot and one to Winterhawk. He held up the third and ‘Wraith claimed it after Kestrel waved it off. “We should check the trunk,” Joe said. “There might be ammo back there.” He opened the glove compartment and found only old cigarette packs, a dirty coffee cup, and a rolled-up girlie magazine. He was reaching to close it when he winced, clutching his arm. “Man...this is worse than I thought.”
“Almost there,” ‘Wraith said, turning a corner. “This is the street.”
Winterhawk nodded. “Can you hold out until we get inside? I’ll heal you then.”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “I’ll be okay. Forgot what it felt like to get shot without armor, that’s all.”
They pulled into the driveway leading up to the rooming house, which was a small, self-contained structure set slightly back from the street. The sign out front read Ferone’s Rooming House. Rooms Available. Winterhawk opened the door when the car had come to a stop. “Let’s not all go—we might spook the chap. Somebody come with me.”
Ocelot and Kestrel moved to swing out of opposite sides of the car at the same time; they looked at each other and then Ocelot got back in. “You go,” he said.
She nodded, her gaze lingering on him for a moment, then joined Winterhawk. The mage gave her an encouraging pat on the back and they headed for the door. “Hope we don’t wake him up. It’s a bit late for visitors.”
If Albert Ferone had been asleep there was certainly no sign of it. The door opened a few inches only seconds after their first knock. “Yes?” came a voice from the darkness inside.
“Mr. Ferone? Good evening. My name is Stone, and this is my associate, Ms. Harvath. We and some friends are in need of rooms. Have you any available? Your cousin Frank suggested that we come here.”
“Frank?” The door swung wide, revealing a man in his mid 40s who bore more than a passing resemblance to his storekeeper cousin. He looked them up and down. “How is Frank? How do you know him?”
“He ran into a bit of trouble with the Salazaros,” the mage said softly, “but he and his wife are fine. They’ve gone to stay with their children. We’re new in town and looking for a place to stay, so after we helped them out of their jam, he suggested we come here.”
“Oh, dear...” Ferone suddenly remembered his manners. “Please—come in. Come in. Are your friends here?”
Kestrel nodded and hurried off to get them. In a few minutes all five runners and their gear were inside Ferone’s parlor. He closed the door behind them, eyeing the machine guns warily, but said nothing.
Winterhawk looked at Joe, who was clearly in pain and trying to hide it, and then at Ferone. “Mr. Ferone, if you would be so kind, could you please show us to our rooms and let us know what we’ll owe for the night? We’re all quite tired, and we’d be happy to talk more in the morning.”
Ferone looked startled, but nodded. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’m a bit jumpy lately. Please follow me.”
He led them up the stairs to three rooms at the end of a hall. “This is all I have available. The lady can have the small room here to herself—these two are larger, so you gentlemen can share. Bath’s down the other end of the hallway.” He paused, looking them over as if he was considering saying something, but decided not to. “Sleep well. We can settle up in the morning.”
After he left the team got together in the largest of the three rooms and closed the door behind them. ‘Wraith helped Winterhawk get Joe’s jacket off; the mage’s eyes widened when he saw the extent of the wound. It was worse than he’d thought. The bullet hadn’t gone all the way through, but it had plowed a deep furrow across the troll’s upper arm. Ocelot went off to the bathroom to get something to clean up with while Winterhawk sat down next to Joe and began his healing spell. By the time Ocelot returned he had finished and both he and Joe looked tired—Joe from blood loss and ‘Hawk from the drain of casting the healing spell without any of his usual foci.
“Better rest,” ‘Wraith said. “Can’t do much tonight. Start in the morning?”
“Start what?” Ocelot was pacing again. “We haven’t got the first clue where to start with this.”
Winterhawk nodded. “From the look of things, we’ll have to be careful. We could put not only ourselves, but Gabriel in danger if we ask indiscriminate questions.”
“With his magic?” Joe spoke up. “Nobody’d be able to touch him.”
‘Hawk sighed. “Good point. So we might assume that he’s safe from harm—although Neferet did say he could be in danger. Either way, it still doesn’t help us with where he is.”
“Like a run,” ‘Wraith said suddenly.
Ocelot stopped. “Huh?”
“A run,” the elf repeated. “Unfamiliar city. No contacts. Forget the rest.”
The others nodded slowly. “Yeah,” Ocelot said at last. “That’s the way we’re gonna have to handle it. At least we’ve got a car and some weapons now.”
“So we’ll start in the morning?” Winterhawk asked. “I’m afraid I’m not going to be much use without at least a few hours’ sleep—magic works here, obviously, but it’s harder to cast. Drain’s nasty.”
‘Wraith nodded. “Morning.”
“Yeah,” Ocelot agreed. “And maybe by then those guys’ friends won’t be looking quite so hard for us, too.”
Kestrel didn’t look pleased about having to hold off the search until the next day, but she knew it was the only wise course of action. “Early,” she said. “I’ll see you guys then.”
Ocelot sat up in bed and sighed. It didn’t surprise him that he couldn’t sleep, but he’d hoped that maybe he’d be able to for at least a couple of hours. Across the room in the other bed Winterhawk slept deeply, his slow breathing rhythmic and peaceful. The mage had been asleep almost as soon as his head had hit the pillow; Ocelot envied him but knew it was for the best.
It had been about an hour since the five of them had parted and gone off to their various rooms. Ocelot had gotten into bed the same time Winterhawk had, but had succeeded only in tossing and turning fitfully as his mind refused to quiet. Finally, sighing again, he swung his legs around and stood up. Maybe a drink of water will help. Probably not, but at least it’s something to do. Moving on silent bare feet he crossed the room, opened the door, and stepped out into the hall. He stopped as he noticed movement outside.
Kestrel was just opening the door to her room. She started almost guiltily at the sound of the door and then her eyes met Ocelot’s. “Hi.”
He paused, his hand still on the doorknob. “Hi.” His tone was neutral.
“I was just coming back from the bathroom—couldn’t sleep.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Me neither.”
She took a deep breath. “Ocelot, I—I think we need to talk.”
“About what?” He didn’t know why he said it, why he was being deliberately cruel.
Kestrel looked away. “Please. Just for a few minutes. Will you—come in?” She swung open the door to her room and motioned toward the interior.
Ocelot shrugged. After a pause he moved slowly toward her, past her into the room.
It was a small room, barely half the size of the one he shared with Winterhawk. The bed was tucked under a slanting wall that probably followed the roof line; the sheets were disarrayed as if the occupant had been doing more tossing than sleeping. There was a small desk with a wooden chair next to the window and a dresser by the door. Ocelot leaned against the dresser with his arms crossed over his chest and waited.
Kestrel paced, her restless energy not allowing her the luxury of sitting down. “I didn’t want you to find out that way,” she said at last, not looking at him. The window looked out over a small grassy backyard lit by a streetlight; she watched this as she spoke.
“Sounds like you didn’t want me to find out at all.” He couldn’t keep the gruffness out of his voice, but to his credit he tried.
She wheeled on him—her eyes crackled with anger that didn’t reach her face. “It wasn’t really your business, you know. It’s not like we’re—exactly together anymore.”
“Yeah. I guess we’re not.” Ocelot had never been comfortable with this kind of conversation—it was the social equivalent of picking one’s way through a minefield in the dark and there was no room for his usual explosive action. “So was what he said true?”
She tilted her head. “What?”
“All of it. You heard it, didn’t you? That you want him, not me? That he’s better in bed than I am?”
Kestrel sighed loudly, shaking her head in exasperation. “Ocelot, that wasn’t Gabriel. I don’t understand this Dweller thing very well, but it was pretty clear it was trying to get you to fight it. Of course it’ll say things like that.”
“So is it true or not?”
“I’m not going to answer that. You have no right to ask.”
He pushed himself off the dresser with a loud sigh of his own. He knew she was right, but something deep inside him wanted her to answer anyway. “Okay,” he said. “Fine. But what happened to ‘it’s not gonna happen’? What happened to ‘he doesn’t date outside his species’?” He paused. “That—thing—that looked like him said it was your idea. Was it?”
Kestrel sank down onto the bed. “Ocelot—”
She nodded, looking back up at him. “Yeah. It was. Is that what you wanted to hear?” This time the anger did reach her face. “You know, I really don’t like this Neanderthal side of you. You know I sleep with other guys. I know you sleep with other women. Why does this one bother you so much? What is it about Gabriel that upsets you this way when none of the other guys I’m with does?”
Ocelot didn’t answer.
Kestrel stared at him, wide-eyed, as something in his posture, in his eyes revealed the answer to her. “He was right about you, wasn’t he?”
“About settling down. About us, and the future. You do think about that, don’t you? And Gabriel—somehow he threatens that, because you know he’s not just somebody I see for a little fun and move on.” She moved closer to him, taking his shoulders in her hands. “Ocelot...listen to me. I don’t know what I want to do in the future. I don’t let myself think about it. I’m not ready to think about it yet. I’m having fun doing what I’m doing, and I’m not planning on changing it anytime soon.” She paused, sighing. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“You love him, don’t you?” His eyes met hers.
“Of course I do. You know that.”
“Why now? Yeah, I know how you feel about him, but—How many times?”
“How many times have you slept with him?”
“Come on. Just tell me, okay?”
She thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Just once.”
She pulled her hands back and went over to the window, her back to him. “You’re asking a lot of questions you have no right to ask, you know.”
“I know. And I can’t make you answer. I just want to know.”
Turning, she leaned back so her hands were gripping the edge of the windowsill. “All right—you want to know, I’ll tell you. It was because he was torturing himself over what he thought he’d done to me. He’d just told me what had happened, that the Horrors had tried to take over his mind, that they were back and he didn’t know what to do—I was scared, Ocelot. He was too. It was a natural thing. It wasn’t calculated or planned. It just—happened. I wanted to feel alive again—to help him see what it felt like to be human and alive and scared and comforted.” She glared at him. “I don’t regret it for a minute. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change it. Is that what you want to hear?”
Ocelot looked down. “So...when we get back—all of us, I mean—that’s the way it is?”
There was a long pause. She shook her head, her expression confused and frustrated and uncertain all at the same time. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” She met his eyes. “It was wonderful, Ocelot. I know I don’t regret it, and I know Gabriel doesn’t. But—I don’t think it’s going to happen again. Take that for what it’s worth.”
“What—he doesn’t want to?” Now it was Ocelot’s turn to be confused. “But you said—”
“No, no. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. It’s just—a feeling. Like—it was meant to be and now that it’s over, we can move on. Do you understand?”
“No.” Before she could reply, he added, “but that’s okay. I don’t have to understand.” He met her eyes. “I don’t like it, Kestrel. You’re right. I can’t compete with him. I see the way you look at him. Nobody can compete with that. I thought we were—over. That was one thing that Dweller bastard had right—I was wrong about that. You can do with that whatever you want to, but it’s the truth. That was why I didn’t end up trying to beat the shit out of him—because I realized somewhere in the back of my head that everything he said was true.”
She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and smiled a tiny wry smile. “This relationship stuff isn’t easy, is it?”
“Why do you think I like doing it like you guys do—have a little fun, no strings, move on? A lot easier that way.”
“Yeah...” he agreed. He was silent a moment, then said, “Okay, so where are we now?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. Where do you think we are?”
“Damned if I know.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the tip of the nose. “Tell you what—I can see you haven’t gotten all the way through this yet. Why don’t we just put the whole thing on hold for now and bring it up again when we get back, okay?”
He looked into her green eyes and nodded. “Yeah. This ain’t the time for it. What’s going on right now is too dangerous—can’t let personal stuff get in the way. Later, maybe. Not now. It ain’t over, but it’ll have to be over for now.”
She smiled. “Yeah.” Impulsively she pulled him into a hug. “You’re a good friend, Ocelot. No matter what else happens, you’ll always be a good friend. Whether we can go—other places—we’ll figure that out. I promise.”
He sighed, but a little smile quirked the corners of his mouth. “Do you know how much guys hate being told women consider them good friends?”
She punched his shoulder gently. “Better get used to it, chummer. ‘Cause I do know one thing about my future—if I ever end up with anybody on a permanent basis, he’d better be a good friend before he’s anything else.” Motioning toward the door, she added, “You’d better get to sleep. Morning’s going to be here soon and you can’t afford to be tired tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mom,” he grumbled.
“Remember what you said about how much guys hate it when women say they’re good friends?”
“Well, double that and that’s how much women hate being called ‘Mom’ by guys they’re interested in.” Her smile was genuinely playful now.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, and closed the door behind him.
The next morning when they arrived downstairs, they found Albert Ferone waiting for them. A simple but obviously lovingly prepared breakfast was laid out on the table; when they looked at him questioningly he merely indicated for them to sit down. “Frank called last night,” he said when they had done so. “He told me what you did for him and Millie. Frank and I—we grew up together. I don’t know how I can thank you for helping him out like that. I do know one thing, though—you’ve got yourselves a place to stay for as long as you want it.”
“Mr. Ferone—” Winterhawk began, but the man waved him off.
“Don’t even mention it. It’s the least I can do.” Ferone tucked into a plate of pancakes, motioning for them to do the same. “Plenty more where that came from.”
“We appreciate everything, Mr. Ferone,” Kestrel said, smiling. “We’re glad we were able to help your cousin. None of us like to see people being—bullied like that.”
Ferone nodded soberly. “You folks aren’t from around here, are you?”
Ocelot shook his head. “You could say that.”
The man put his fork down and looked at his guests with an expression of worried intensity. “Well, let me tell you this—be careful. This town ain’t a nice place, not since the Salazaros and the Rileys took over. The only way you stay alive is by keepin’ your head down and stayin’ out of their way. And for God’s sake don’t get noticed. If I was you, I’d get in that car of yours and head right back out of town, back to wherever you come from. I’d hate to see somethin’ happen to you, after what you did for Frank and Millie.”
Kestrel shook her head. “We can’t do that. We’re here looking for someone. A friend of ours who’s—lost.”
Ferone’s gaze settled on her. “Yeah? I don’t get out as much as I used to, but if you tell me about him, I’ll keep my eye out and ask a few friends to do the same.” He shrugged. “It’s a big city—not much chance, but it’s worth a shot.”
Kestrel nodded. “I don’t know what he’d be going by here—possibly Gabriel, possibly something else. He’s young—early twenties—about my height, black hair...probably the most obvious thing about him is his eyes. They’re bright purple. He’s the kind of guy you’d remember if you saw him.”
Ferone took that in while chewing a mouthful of pancake. “Like I said, I’ll keep an eye out. Is he—like you?”
“What do you mean, like us?” Ocelot asked, frowning.
The man considered a moment before answering. “Is he the kind of person who might get himself into trouble helping folks out of jams?”
Kestrel grinned at the description. “More than we are, probably.”
“A real do-gooder,” Ocelot added.
Ferone nodded. “Have you got any idea why he’s here? You say he’s ‘lost.’ How do you know that?”
“Lost isn’t precisely the word,” Winterhawk said.
“He’s looking for his brother,” Kestrel added. “He—his brother, I mean—is in a lot of trouble, and he wants to help. We just think he might have gotten in over his head, so we’re trying to find him and help him.”
“You think this brother might be in trouble with the mobs?” Ferone asked, nodding sympathetically.
“Yes...” Winterhawk said slowly, as if realizing something. “Yes, I think that’s probably exactly what’s happened.”
The man let out a long sigh. “I wish I could tell you I thought things would work out, but when you get in that kind of trouble—ain’t much anybody can do to help you. Nobody goes against the gangs—at least not and gets out alive. They don’t stand for anybody tryin’ to muscle in on their territory.”
“What about the police?” Joe asked. “Frank said they weren’t much use, but—”
Ferone shook his head. “They aren’t. Oh, they try, but they’re outgunned and outnumbered and they know it. The only reason they haven’t given up completely is ‘cause half of ‘em are on the payroll of one or the other of the big gangs. They take care of the little crime stuff that the bosses don’t want to get their hands dirty with.”
“So you think...” Kestrel said slowly, “...that if Gabriel’s brother is messed up with these gangs and Gabriel goes after him—”
Ferone looked down. “Sorry, but I’m not gonna lie to you. If you’re gonna find him, you’d better do it before he finds them, or you’ll probably never see him again.” He looked up at them. “I’ll do my best—I do have a few friends I can ask to take a look around. But the only other advice I can give you is to hurry and to stay low. Frank told me how you took out that group of goons that was after him and Millie, but the mobs’ve got a lot of guys and a lot of firepower, and they’re nasty as hell. You know what I mean?”
In less than an hour they were out on the streets, cruising around in their stolen car and getting the lay of the land. Ocelot, using some paint supplied by Ferone, had done a bit of an art project on the car’s license plate just in case anyone happened to be looking for it. He couldn’t do much about the car itself, but they soon realized that a low-slung, four-door black car was about as ubiquitous here as a business suit in downtown New York City.
Several hours later all they had to show for their efforts was a lingering despair about what was going on in the city. They had agreed before they went out that it would be dangerous to their mission to try to repeat their performance with Frank and Millie Ferone, especially given that their weapons had limited ammunition and they didn’t have a way to get any more. None of them was happy about it, but the reason they were here was to find Gabriel. If they got themselves killed in the pursuit of that aim, it wouldn’t do anyone any good. They had to keep reminding themselves that this entire reality had been manufactured for their benefit and that the whole thing was literally taking place in their minds.
It got harder and harder to look the other way, though. In the course of the approximately five hours that they drove around looking for anything familiar or potentially useful, they saw two drive-by shootings (both resulting in obvious and irrevocable fatalities) and three instances of various citizens being hassled by large men in pinstriped suits. Clearly the mobsters were every bit as much in power around here as their host had claimed. The acts were open, blatant, committed in the full light of day (such as it was) as if daring anyone to challenge them. The team noticed that no one did—anyone who wasn’t being directly affected got out of the way as quickly as possible, melting into the shadows and the insides of the buildings. There were no heroes here, it seemed.
Aside from the activities they had witnessed, the city itself was depressing. “I’ve never seen a bigger collection of black and dark gray buildings outside of some overwrought vampire movie,” Winterhawk commented at one point, staring morosely out the car’s shotgun-seat window at the towering brick and concrete structures that rose up along the roads. “It’s the middle of the bloody day, and it still looks like it ought to be midnight.”
“Batman,” ‘Wraith said suddenly. He was driving, obsessively scanning the area for potential threats. He still had the tommy gun in his lap down below the level of the window.
“Huh?” Ocelot leaned forward in the back seat. “What’s Batman got to do with anything?”
“Movie. 1990 or so. Looked like this.”
“Yes,” Winterhawk said, nodding with the look of someone who, after having had a thought on the tip of his mind for a long time, finally had it revealed to him. “That’s it. Not quite, but damned close.” He looked at Kestrel. “Gabriel wouldn’t happen to be an aficionado of late-20th-century superhero movies, would he?”
She shrugged. “Not unless the superheroes had scales, as far as I know. But anything’s possible.”
“So we’ve got Batman meets Al Capone,” Ocelot said, running a hand back through his hair. He considered a moment, then shook his head. “Nah, that doesn’t even rate on the Weird-O-Meter. They’ll have to try harder next time.”
“Guys, we’re gonna have to talk to somebody,” Joe spoke up. “We can’t just keep driving around. It’s looking pretty certain that we’re not just gonna see Gabriel walking down the street.”
No one said anything. They all realized immediately that Joe had named the thing they were all trying not to think about—and that he was right. “Where, though?” Ocelot asked after a long silence. “This is a big town, and aside from Ferone, we don’t know anybody.”
“How does one find the shadow community when the whole town is in the shadows?” Winterhawk added, looking around.
Kestrel sighed. “I guess we hit the bars—that’s what I used to do when I came to an unfamiliar town and wanted to find out where the action was.”
“If Gabriel’s where the action is,” Ocelot said.
“Gabriel is the action,” Winterhawk reminded him. “He’s the reason this is all here. Who knows—it’s possible this place doesn’t even look the same for him as it does for us. We’ve no way to know for sure. But I’ll lay odds that he’s in the middle of things wherever he is.”
“So all roads lead to Gabriel if we let ‘em?” Joe asked.
“Moo,” ‘Wraith said.
“I hope you’re right,” Ocelot said slowly. “This doesn’t feel like ‘moo’. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t. Maybe it’s because all the other times, we just kinda got led to whatever situation we were supposed to deal with. This time we just get the situation, but hardly any clues about what the hell we’re supposed to do with it.”
They were still cruising around the downtown area. There were enough cars like theirs that no one thus far had paid them any attention, so they weren’t bothered as they continued to drive slowly down the town’s main drags.
They found a good prospect after only a few minutes’ drive. Bars were prevalent—so far they had not passed a block that hadn’t had at least one—but they were all looking for something that felt right. None of them could verbalize exactly what that meant, but they all knew it—remembering where they were, it was not such a far-fetched notion.
The bar took up the corner of a large black building, its doorway set at an angle to the streetcorner. The name in neon above the door was The Palm Club—a neon palm tree flanked the words on one side, while on the other side a jaunty martini glass with an olive tilted rakishly inward. The neon looked a little washed out this time of day, but still glowed boldly. Several of the dark cars were parked nearby.
Without consulting anyone, ‘Wraith angled their own car into one of the few empty spaces and shut off the engine.
“We all going in?” Ocelot asked.
“Why not?” Winterhawk was watching the people moving in and out of the bar—mostly men, mostly pinstriped suits.
“We can’t take the guns in—at least not the big ones,” Kestrel pointed out.
“If we talk to the wrong person, we’ll need to make a fast getaway,” Ocelot said.
“I’ll stay,” ‘Wraith said. He didn’t look entirely pleased about it, but he likewise didn’t look pleased about leaving their precious artillery unguarded in the car.
“I’ll stay too,” Joe volunteered. “I’ll probably make people nervous in there and I’m the most memorable.”
“Okay,” Kestrel said. She handed her tommy gun to Joe, who leaned it against the seat next to his own, and opened the door. “Let’s go then.”
“We’ll make it quick,” Ocelot said.
The interior of the Palm Club was about what one would expect of a gangster-era bar in the middle of hell. Like everything else around here the interior was gloomy, all dark wood, dim lights, and smoke. A long black bar dominated one whole side of the establishment, which consisted of a long, narrow space that extended far back into smoky murkiness. The walls were covered with framed photographs of large men in suits who were grinning in a not completely wholesome fashion. The carpet was dark red, so dark it almost looked as black as the rest of the place. There was something else odd about the place but it took the three who entered a few seconds to notice it: the music playing from some unseen source would have been a cheerful barroom tune except for the fact that it was being played in a minor key.
The bar was surprisingly full for this early in the day; the runners wondered if the concepts of ‘night’ and ‘day’ even had any real meaning here. “Nice place,” Ocelot muttered under his breath.
“Lovely,” Winterhawk agreed.
“Guess somebody forgot to tell the Horrors that the whole gangster thing was kinda tied up with Prohibition,” Kestrel said, looking around at all the alcohol. “Either that or these guys just don’t care.”
All eyes seemed to be on them as they made their way through the crowd and back toward the bar itself. There seemed to be two classes of patrons here: the ordinary citizens who did their best to melt into the walls, stay out of the way, and enjoy their drinks in quiet, and the gangsters, pinstriped, loud, and boisterous, bellied up to the bar. Currently the two groups were leaving each other alone, although occasionally one of the gangsters would deliberately jostle someone’s table on his way back toward the rear of the bar. The table occupant never objected to this, but merely tried to keep his eyes down until the trouble had passed. The relative harmony between the two classes of people was a bit confusing, given previous experience, until the runners noticed the presence of a couple more of the large men behind the bar. “They’re probably charging the poor slots to get in here,” Ocelot muttered as he became aware of this.
As if on cue, one of the men approached the group. “Afternoon, lady and gents.” His voice was amiable enough, but the eyes that lurked beneath his heavy brows were two chips of ice. “This your first time at the Palm?”
“We’re new in town,” Winterhawk said. “Nice place you’ve got here.”
“Thanks. We like to keep it that way. We got a two-dollar per person cover charge. To cover—overhead, ya know.” He was talking to Winterhawk, but his eyes were on Kestrel. “Course, we could waive the fee for this nice lady here if she’d consent to let me buy her a drink—”
Ocelot shoved six dollars into the guy’s hand as Kestrel’s eyes hardened. “Here you go. Six bucks.”
The guy looked mildly disappointed but didn’t say anything. He carefully counted the money and squirrelled it away inside his suit jacket, then motioned them past. “Enjoy yourselves,” he told them before heading off in search of more unsuspecting newcomers.
“I think I need a shower,” Kestrel said after he had gone, her lip curling with distaste.
“Just be cool,” Ocelot said under his breath. He flashed her a quick fierce grin. “And remember that you can kick the shit outta anybody in here if you want to.”
“There’s that,” she admitted, mollified for the moment.
Winterhawk was scanning the faces of the bar’s other patrons. “This isn’t going to be easy,” he said, looking dubious.
He was right. After forty-five minutes they had gleaned no useful information. They’d split up and tried to engage various bar-goers in conversation, but the gangster types quickly grew suspicious of their questions and the civilians were afraid to say anything even if they knew it—which none of the three runners thought they did. Even the judicious application of a few dollars here and there in the form of free drinks or outright bribes failed to gain them anything useful. Ocelot sighed as they got back together. “This stinks,” he muttered. “We’re not gettin’ anywhere. This isn’t the way it worked before.”
“That’s not surprising,” Winterhawk reminded him. “Remember what Nef—what our friend said about the balance of power ‘round here: I don’t think we can count on Fate to be our friend in this endeavor.”
“We’d better get going before somebody gets really suspicious.” Kestrel glanced toward the door. “Joe and ‘Wraith have been out there for awhile.”
“Yeah.” Ocelot headed for the door. His expression was frustrated and demoralized.
As the three runners made their way out of the bar no one impeded their progress. Several pairs of eyes, however, did pay a larger-than-expected amount of attention to their departure.
They repeated the same performance, varying only the particular individuals who went inside, at two different bars in two other parts of town and got essentially the same results. No one had seen or heard of anyone matching Gabriel’s description; nobody had been aware of any newcomers arriving in town in the last few days; nobody offered any suggestions for where else they might look. It was difficult to tell if they were telling the truth—the few gangsters they bribed all had the same smug I’m in control here and I know it look, and the ordinary citizens had all looked vaguely frightened, not just of the gangsters but of the team and of the world in general.
Coming out of the last place they had stopped, a slick gambling joint called the Fortuna Club, Winterhawk, Kestrel, and Joe dropped into the car in frustration. “Nothing?” Ocelot asked as ‘Wraith pulled away and merged back into traffic.
“Not a damned thing,” ‘Hawk said, running a disgusted hand back through his hair. “Just the same collection of large unpleasant men, a few wretched little chaps losing their savings at their rigged tables, and the usual assortment of ladies of questionable virtue.”
“They looked like they wanted to toss us out,” Kestrel added. “It’s a good thing Joe went in with us that time. I don’t think they wanted to mess with him.”
“So now what do we do?” Ocelot sighed loudly. “We can’t go to every damn bar in town. They’re gonna get suspicious eventually, if they aren’t already.”
“Why don’t we go back and see if Mr. Ferone’s come up with anything?” Joe said. “Remember, he said he was gonna try.”
Winterhawk shrugged. “It’s as good an idea as any. It’s getting dark; p’raps later on more people will be out and we can try a few more.”
They made the drive back to Albert Ferone’s rooming house in silence, each one of them alone with his or her own thoughts. They parked the car in the back and wearily went inside, taking their weapons with them.
Ferone was in the sitting room, in a pose that suggested that he had been waiting for them. He wasn’t alone. His visitor was a middle-aged man with a craggy face, dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and a thin black tie. “I was hoping you folks would come back sometime today,” Ferone said, rising. “This is Mr. Wallace. He came by earlier. He wants to talk to you.”
“What about your calls?” Ocelot asked, not looking at Wallace. “Did you find out anything?”
Ferone shook his head. “No. I didn’t call Mr. Wallace—as I said, he came by. None of my friends had any suggestions. But—” he nodded toward Wallace “—I think you should talk to him. Please, sit down. I’ll get some refreshments.”
The runners warily took seats around the room. As usual, Winterhawk spoke first. “What can we do for you, Mr. Wallace?”
The man seemed unperturbed by their scrutiny. He had the look of someone who had seen and dealt with just about everything in his lifetime and was no longer even affected by such things as suspicious examination. “I think it’s the other way around,” he said. His tone and his expression were weary; he looked like he hadn’t slept for quite some time. He paid no attention to the weapons they carried. “I understand you folks are looking for someone.”
“How did you find that out?” Ocelot asked. “I thought Ferone said none of the people he called could help us.”
“He didn’t call me. I just met him today, in fact.” Wallace didn’t look at Ocelot specifically as he spoke; his restless gaze moved over all of them, settling for a moment on each before moving on. “I heard about what you did last night—how you took out five of the Salazaros to help a couple of folks you didn’t even know.”
“So?” Ocelot still wasn’t satisfied. “What’s that got to do with who we’re looking for?”
“Everything,” Wallace said, still unmoved by Ocelot’s suspicion. He paused a moment, then his gaze grew challenging. “Tell me, if you will—why did you do what you did?”
“Because it was right,” Kestrel said firmly. “Because we all hate bullies. Because we couldn’t stand just sitting there and watching it happen.”
Wallace nodded once. “Even though you knew how dangerous the Salazaros were?”
“What dangerous?” Joe asked. “Yeah, they had guns and we didn’t, but we were stronger, faster—”
“It wasn’t even a contest,” Kestrel finished.
Winterhawk’s eyes narrowed a bit. “Tell us, Mr. Wallace—what is your interest in our purpose? Why did you come here seeking us?”
Wallace took a deep breath. “I have purposes of my own for that, which I’ll reveal to you in due time,” he said mildly. “But that’s only one of the reasons I’m here, and not the most important one as far as you’re concerned.” Again he paused and again a look of something hard to identify crossed his eyes. “You’re looking for someone. That’s why you’re here, yes?”
Kestrel nodded, leaning forward in her chair. “What do you know about that?”
“Tell me about the man you’re looking for.”
The runners exchanged glances, and it was Kestrel who spoke. She gave Wallace the same description of Gabriel that she had given Ferone last night, then looked at him hopefully.
Wallace bowed his head for a moment. “How do you know Gabriel?” he asked softly.
The runners looked at him in shock; they had not named the object of their search. “He’s—an old friend of ours,” Winterhawk said. “How do you know him?”
For a long moment Wallace didn’t answer; he appeared to be weighing something in his mind. Finally he looked up. “He’s—or he was—one of my best young agents.”
“What?” Ocelot, Winterhawk, and Joe spoke simultaneously, while at the same time Kestrel was saying “Was?”
“Agent?” Ocelot continued, tilting his head in confusion. “What kind of agent?”
“I can explain that to you later,” Wallace told them. “It’s important, but not as important as the rest of what I have to tell you.” He was looking weary again.
“You said was.” Kestrel spoke cautiously, as if afraid to name the thought in her mind for fear of bringing it to life. “What did you mean by that?”
Wallace sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I hate to be the one to have to tell you, but he—he disappeared recently while on a mission. It’s very possible that he is—” He didn’t say it; he didn’t have to. The word dead hung unspoken in the air like a dark cloud.
Surprisingly, this revelation did not have the expected effect on Wallace’s audience. Winterhawk shook his head. “No,” he said firmly. “He’s not dead.”
“Sir,” Wallace said, “I know he is your friend, but—”
Again the mage shook his head. “No. It’s not that. I can’t explain it to you, but he isn’t dead.”
The other runners were nodding. How could they explain to part of the illusion that the illusion itself would no longer exist if its raison d’être was dead? “Why...do you think he might be dead?” Kestrel asked. “What kind of mission was he on?”
“I should never have sent him out so soon,” Wallace said under his breath, as if he were talking more to himself than to the group. “I knew he hadn’t gotten over what had happened to his brother yet—”
“What about his brother?” Winterhawk asked quickly.
Wallace looked up, surprised. “You do know what happened to his brother Stefan, don’t you?”
“Tell us,” Joe said.
The man looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “Same sort of thing, a couple of months ago. He was one of our top men—he and Gabriel were on their way to being the best team we had. But something happened—Gabriel made it out, barely, but Stefan didn’t. Officially he’s dead. Unofficially—” he looked away. “—well, I’m not sure how much credence I give it, but some say he went over to the other side. Gabriel never did believe it. He’d just gotten back to duty after taking some time off to heal up and come to terms with what had happened. We sent him out on a mission with a rookie agent.” He sighed, pausing to rub his forehead before continuing. “Everything went to hell. The rookie was killed and Gabriel disappeared. We think they probably killed him too, but—” He shrugged. “Now you say you don’t think he’s dead. Any idea why?”
“Why don’t you tell us about this agency of yours, Mr. Wallace,” Winterhawk said. “What is its purpose?”
Wallace sighed again, but did not look angry. “All right,” he said, his tone weary. “It doesn’t matter if I tell you, because the reason I’m here is to see if you might want to work with us. We can always use folks like you who can’t stand to see the city controlled by—”
The door opened and Ferone entered, carrying a tray of glasses as if it were an afterthought. His expression was guarded. When he spoke, he addressed Wallace. “I think there’s someone outside.”
Wallace and the runners were instantly alert. “Where?” Wallace asked, his hand going to the inside of his jacket.
Ferone shook his head. “Not sure. I was getting the drinks together and I saw somebody movin’ around outside the window.” He was visibly trembling; he put down the tray on a table before he dropped it. “I kept as calm as I could and got away from the window; it might be nothing, but I figured you’d want to know.”
Wallace withdrew a large handgun from inside his jacket and scanned the faces of the others. “They might have followed me here,” he said. He was all business now, crisp and controlled. “I didn’t think I was watched, but it’s hard to tell these days.” His gaze dropped to the guns they held and then back up to their faces. “If it’s trouble, are you in?”
“Damn straight,” Ocelot said, a rather fierce gleam in his eyes. He glanced at ‘Wraith and saw the same look. “Wouldn’t mind at all the chance to take out a few of these bastards.”
Kestrel nodded. “Let’s try to take one alive—if you’re right and they’ve got Gabriel, maybe they’ll know where he is.”
The runners were already in motion. Closing his eyes to fire off a quick spell, Winterhawk said grimly, “Looks like about eight of them all told. Still moving into position. Four in the front, four in the back. They seem to be waiting for some signal. Heavily armed.”
Ferone looked around nervously. “Oh, my God—”
Wallace took charge. “Mr. Ferone, I suggest you go down to your basement and wait there until the situation has been secured. If you have any weapons, it would be helpful if you would put them at our disposal.”
“I don’t have any weapons,” Ferone said. “Just one little handgun up in my bedroom—”
“Too dangerous. Just go downstairs and wait until you hear from us.”
Ferone looked like he didn’t have much faith in their ability to handle eight armed attackers, but having no alternative, he nodded and headed off.
Wallace had already forgotten about him. “We have to hurry.”.
“Need to get outside,” Ocelot said. He was pressed flat against the wall next to the window, leaning over to peer out with his thermographic vision. “I can see some of ‘em out there—we need to take ‘em out before they can all start shooting.”
“Magic?” ‘Wraith asked, arching an eyebrow at Winterhawk.
“Might be able to get one,” the mage said. “I doubt they’re close enough together for more.”
“How are we gonna get out there without them seeing us?” Joe asked.
“I can make someone invisible,” Winterhawk said, “but that doesn’t solve the problem of the window.”
The sense of urgency was growing in all of them; they knew they only had at most a few more minutes before their attackers took action. “Any windows on the side of the house?” Wallace asked.
“There’s one in the bathroom on the second floor,” Ocelot said, “but it’s too small to get out.”
“For you, maybe,” Kestrel said. “Not for me.”
Ocelot looked like he was going to say something, but then decided not to. Instead he nodded. He snatched up a poker from the rack next to the fireplace and handed it to her.
“Back,” ‘Wraith said, already moving.
Continuing to communicate in clipped phrases, the elf, Joe, and Ocelot arranged themselves around the bottom floor of the rooming house. ‘Wraith and Ocelot were in the back, while Joe and Wallace took the front. Kestrel and Winterhawk had already disappeared up the stairs. Tensely, the four of them waited what felt like an eternity until Winterhawk returned, holding Kestrel’s machine gun. “She’s out,” he said grimly. “I don’t think they saw her.”
“Not invisible?” ‘Wraith asked.
‘Hawk shook his head. “Couldn’t keep her in sight after she went ‘round the corner.” He handed the machine gun to Ocelot and took up a position alongside one of the windows.
Ocelot stowed his pistol, gripped the heavier gun, and nodded.
Kestrel crouched behind a bush near the corner of the house and scanned the trees. There were four of the men back there, all right—her thermo vision was picking up their heat traces loud and clear.
She had slithered out through the small window in the upstairs bathroom (she had been right: none of the others, including the slim Winterhawk, would have fit through) and then, hanging for a second from the side of the house, dropped silently down to the grass below. Waiting a moment to make sure no one had spotted her, she crept along the wall until she reached her current position. Okay, time for a little speed now. The poker was in her right hand, the pistol stuck in her belt under her coat. She didn’t regret leaving the machine gun behind with Winterhawk—it wouldn’t do her much good out here anyway, and right now she was in the mood to do some good old-fashioned butt-kicking.
She took a deep breath and moved, crouching low to remain under cover of the hedges next to the house. The rear yard was large and wooded, affording her good concealment. Keeping her sight on the nearest of the four heat traces, she made her way closer, closer—
She was behind him now. Pausing, she checked to make sure the others hadn’t noticed her. They were still faced toward the house, watching as if in anticipation of something. Sparing a brief moment to wonder what exactly they were waiting for, she covered the last few feet at the unearthly speed of her wired reflexes, bringing the poker down upon the man’s head.
There was almost no sound except for a quick thump and a soft grunt from the man. Kestrel grabbed him under one arm and lowered him silently to the ground behind one of the trees. Slinging his gun over her shoulder, she moved on.
Inside, Ocelot stood flattened against the wall near one of the kitchen windows in the back of the house, taking careful glances at the sight outside. At the window on the other end of the same wall, ‘Wraith was doing the same. As Winterhawk came silently up behind Ocelot and handed him Kestrel’s machine gun, he whispered, “She’s got one already. Saw him go down. One more and we go.”
‘Hawk nodded, adjusting the coat and hat they had hung on Ferone’s hall-tree. It was set up in front of the back door, waiting for the next stage of their plan. The mage prepared his spell and waited.
“Two down,” came ‘Wraith’s dispassionate voice several seconds later.
“Go!” Ocelot hissed, already crossing the kitchen. Crouched low, he grabbed the doorknob and flung the door open while ‘Wraith hefted his machine gun and took aim.
Winterhawk, crouched on the other side of the door, made a gesture at the hall-tree and suddenly it was moving as if alive. Waddling on its stubby legs, it moved into the doorway and continued on its way outside, coat flapping in the light breeze.
The night erupted with gunfire as the remaining two gangsters hiding in the trees opened fire on what they thought was one of the house’s inhabitants coming out to see what was going on. The rounds tore through the coat and into the walls next to the door.
‘Wraith and Ocelot acted simultaneously. Ignoring the window, the elf let loose with a barrage from his own machine gun, aimed at the glowing form of one of the thugs—now glowing even brighter with the addition of his white-hot gun barrel. Ocelot took advantage of the lull in the assault caused by the thugs’ confusion at the hall-tree’s failure to go down and their scramble for cover to vault out through the same door and disappear into the night. He shoved the machine gun into ‘Hawk’s hands on the way by.
From the front of the house they could all hear more gunfire, but there was nothing they could do about it at the moment. Likewise, there was nothing they could do to help Kestrel, who was still out there somewhere.
In the front of the house, Joe and Wallace had waited grimly for something to happen. Joe used his natural troll thermovision to keep track of the four gangsters who had spread themselves out along the street in front of the house, hiding behind trees and parked cars. Wallace, who didn’t have any sort of special vision, merely waited at the window, gun ready.
“They’re not moving yet,” Joe whispered.
“How do you know that?” Wallace had not yet figured out these odd newcomers, but he did know enough to see that they had abilities far beyond those of one of his typical agents. He wondered why he had never heard of them before this; it would be hard for a group such as this to remain under cover for long.
“I can see ‘em. They’re waiting for something. They—”
That was when the sounds started from the back of the house. “That’s it,” Joe said as barely two seconds later the four on their side began firing. “They’re on the move now. Two staying here, two heading for the back.”
“Can they handle two more back there?”
Joe grinned in answer. “Don’t worry.” He raised his machine gun and took a shot through the window at one of the remaining figures.
Kestrel kept low as the bullets started flying. The night, so still and quiet only a few moments ago, was now broken by shouts and the irregular cracks of gunfire on both sides. She had seen Ocelot come out seconds earlier and had provided covering fire for him with her pistol—she thought she might have hit the gangster but she wasn’t sure: he had dropped down behind the bushes but whether it was for the purposes of pain or cover she couldn’t tell. She continued her progress through the bushes, and stiffened as she heard the sounds of running feet and shouts approaching from around the front of the house. Then she smiled. They had her surrounded.
Too bad for them. She changed directions.
Inside, Winterhawk grimly watched the proceedings using a combination of thermovision and awareness of the sounds of the gunfire. He wished he could use his magical senses, but astral vision didn’t work on the metaplanes—it was one of the few absolutes he had ever discovered about them. They had agreed that he wouldn’t use his magic anymore in an offensive fashion unless the tide was turning against them—drain here was more harsh than it was at home, and chances were good his power would be needed for healing. He usually hated being stuck in a support position, but this time he didn’t mind. Eight armed thugs (well, six now, he reminded himself) against his four friends wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as a fair fight. They would be all right. It’ll probably be cathartic for them, he thought with some amusement as he leaned against the doorframe and observed the show.
Ocelot moved fast and low, crossing the expanse of lawn before the thugs could figure out that he was there. He heard the sound of pistol fire behind him and wondered if that was another of them shooting at him or Kestrel covering him. Either way, nothing hit him so he ignored it. There were still two of them back here somewhere. He’d lost track of them for a moment as he ran, but after he pulled up behind a tree it only took a second’s glance to re-establish his targets. It only took another second after that to watch one of them clutch his chest and go down under a barrage of ‘Wraith’s machine-gun fire. The other one ducked down lower and took off further into the trees. Ocelot followed.
The thugs out front seemed determined to do their best to blow the front off Albert Ferone’s rooming house. They had both let loose with their guns, the rounds tearing big chunks out of the place’s wooden front, blowing the windows into thousands of tinkling shards, taking out objects on the other side of the room.
Joe and Wallace waited, pressed against walls at both ends of the room away from the windows. Wallace was watching the troll, who didn’t look at all worried about this new turn of events. Joe caught him looking and grinned. “They’ll have to reload soon at that rate,” he said. “We’ll get ‘em then. They’re being stupid.”
“They’re frustrated,” Wallace agreed. “This should have been easy for them—eight of them against six of us, them having the element of surprise and all—”
“All the better for us.” Joe checked his gun and, as there was a brief lull in the gunfire, moved with a speed that belied his size over to the edge of the window where he neatly picked off one of the figures crouched behind a car. “This is like catching fish in a barrel.”
Wallace gave him an odd look but didn’t answer.
Kestrel stayed hidden until the two remaining thugs had moved past her. It was obvious they couldn’t see anything beyond what a normal person could in this kind of light—she wondered what they would think if they knew they were facing five enemies who could observe their movement as clearly as in daylight. More clearly, actually, because the glow of their body heat and the heat of their weapons made them stand out sharply against the dark of the night. It wasn’t quite fair, really, if you got right down to it. Not that Kestrel cared about that, though. They’d chosen the fight, they’d picked the weapons—and they or their brethren had Gabriel. That meant that if they got more than they bargained for, that was just their bad luck.
She silently followed the two thugs through the trees, anticipating their expressions when they discovered they were sandwiched between her and Ocelot.
Ocelot was far enough away from the main fight now that he could occasionally hear his quarry breathing ahead of him. He recognized that pattern: it was the sound of a frightened animal. The tide of the battle had turned and this guy knew it. He would fight if he had a chance, but otherwise he was running for his life. Inexorably, Ocelot continued through the trees. His own breathing was quiet, his steps nearly silent in the grass and the carpeting of damp leaves beneath his feet.
He could hear someone behind him, crashing toward him with the subtlety of an elephant. Possibly two elephants—it was hard to pick out individuals when he was focusing his attention forward. He wondered where Kestrel was, but didn’t worry about it overmuch—she could take care of herself as well as he could, and this wasn’t exactly the most challenging fight they’d ever been involved in. He ducked behind a tree and peeked around, trying to identify the locations of the two approaching thugs.
Kestrel had worked her way around the two gangsters she’d been following, and was now moving slightly ahead of them and off to the side, keeping them in sight out of the corner of her eye. She spotted Ocelot ahead and could see from the tenseness in which he held himself that he was preparing to spring into action as they went by. She smiled, creeping in closer. She wanted to get in on this action.
There were no more visible targets out the back window. ‘Wraith glanced at Winterhawk. “Staying in?”
‘Hawk shrugged. “No reason not to. They’ll yell if they need us. That’s three out of four down, at least.”
The elf nodded, then indicated the front of the house with a head motion. “All right alone? Might need help out front.”
“Go ahead.” The mage waved him off. “I’ll be fine here. I’ll keep an eye on things and come running if anything changes.”
‘Wraith didn’t answer. Picking up his machine gun, he headed off.
He stopped and turned back.
‘Hawk tossed him the machine gun Ocelot had left with him. “Nobody here, except p’raps those chaps outside, want me using this.”
A tiny smile quirking the corner of his mouth was the elf’s only acknowledgment. He deftly caught the rifle and went on.
Out back, Ocelot and Kestrel were closing in on the two men who had come from the front part of the house. They crept through the trees, silently, keeping an eye on both their quarry and each other as they approached. Oblivious, the two thugs moved slowly, their gun barrels constantly moving, unaware that their targets were only a few meters away.
Closer they got, converging until the four of them were no more than five meters away from each other. Ocelot slipped halfway behind a tree, waiting for them to go by so he could nail one with his cyberspur; Kestrel sneaked quietly behind them, ready to take care of the other one. She smiled to herself. It would only be a moment—
A movement caught her eye, behind Ocelot. The third gunman, the one Ocelot had thought had run away! He stepped out from behind a tree a few meters back and took aim at Ocelot’s unprotected back.
Kestrel moved before she thought. Shifting into full jacked speed, she flung herself forward, past the two thugs they had been trailing. “Look out!” she yelled, diving forward to take Ocelot down. She heard guns go off and her leg exploded in pain; she went down hard and rolled, trying to find cover, clutching at her leg.
Ocelot was up again almost as soon as he was down. He spun, popping his cyberspur, his eyes filling with rage as he saw Kestrel go down. He launched himself forward, plunging his spur through one of the two thugs while viciously kicking the second who hadn’t had time to move away in the split-second when all of this occurred. Rounds from the third one’s machine gun tore into a tree above his head but then there was silence.
Ocelot didn’t stop to figure out what had caused the man to stop firing. Instead, he savagely drove his spur through the neck of the thug he’d kicked, grabbed his gun, and hurried over to Kestrel.
“You idiot!” he snapped when he saw that she was awake. “You could have yelled, you know!” Worry and fear took the edge off his words.
“Yeah, well—” she got out through gritted teeth. “Next time I’ll do that.”
He gathered her up in his arms and hurried back toward the house as Joe and ‘Wraith, followed after a moment by Wallace, came out the back door. “Got all of ‘em out front,” Joe said. He spied Kestrel. “She all right?”
“Will be,” she said.
Winterhawk joined them. “Get the one way out there,” he told Joe and ‘Wraith, already helping Ocelot get Kestrel lowered down to a couch so he could heal her. “I used a sleep spell—he’s the one we can question.”
They nodded and hurried away. Wallace kept an eye on the area outside while Ocelot hovered over the scene as Winterhawk began his spell. He took Kestrel’s hand. “That really was a dumb stunt,” he told her, but there was gratitude and grudging admiration in his voice.
She nodded. “Yeah...I realized that about the time my feet left the ground.” She shrugged. “But hey—I’m not through with you yet.”
“Just don’t do it again, okay? Next time, yell.”
“Would you have?”
He sighed. “Did anybody ever tell you you were frustrating as hell?”
“Only two or three times a day.” Her smile turned to a grimace as the magic began to take effect.
He sighed even more loudly. “Yeah...well I’m tellin’ you again.” He dropped into a chair to wait for Joe and ‘Wraith to return.
They did so after a few more minutes. Joe carried the sleeping gangster while Wraith sported an impressive array of machine guns slung over his shoulders on straps and several handguns stuck in his belt. Joe dropped the gangster none too gently on the room’s other couch.
Winterhawk finished his spell and sagged back into his chair; sweat beaded his forehead. “There,” he said. “Sorry I can’t do anything about the trousers, but other than that you should be good as new.”
“Thanks,” Kestrel told him, swinging around to sit up. She swayed a bit but looked otherwise reasonably well all things considered.
“We’ll keep watch,” Joe said, indicating himself, ‘Wraith, and Wallace. “Call if you need help getting him to talk.” He cracked his enormous knuckles and grinned tuskily.
“Hurry,” ‘Wraith said. “Must leave before more come.”
Ocelot nodded grimly. He looked at Winterhawk. “You up to it? I’m afraid I might just run him through if he looks at me the wrong way?”
The mage nodded. Standing slowly to verify his balance, he perched on the edge of the couch occupied by the sleeping gangster. He slapped the man’s face, first gently and then with a bit more vigor. “Wakey wakey.”
After a few moments of this the gangster’s eyes opened. They immediately widened when he saw ‘Hawk looking down at him. He tried to scramble up, only to encounter Ocelot’s hand on his other shoulder. “Wouldn’t do that,” ‘Hawk said conversationally. “He’s not feeling too charitable toward you right now, and frankly neither am I.”
The man glared. “Whatta you want?”
“Information, and quickly.”
“Fuck you. I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’.” The man’s eyes darted around as if expecting something; when it didn’t happen he resumed his glare at Winterhawk.
“Oh, I think you will.” He matched the man’s glare. “A friend of ours is being held by some of your people. We want to know where.”
The man shrugged. “I dunno.”
A slight snik broke the room’s silence as Ocelot’s cyberspur slid from its sheath. It ended up barely a centimeter from the man’s chin. “Wrong answer, asshole.”
“Especially since we haven’t told you who it is we’re looking for,” Winterhawk agreed. “Young chap, dark hair, purple eyes, good-looking—do you know who I mean now?”
Neither ‘Hawk nor Ocelot missed the quick look of recognition that passed across the man’s face before it became a truculent mask once again. “Never heard of ‘im.”
Winterhawk raised his hand so it was visible over the man’s face. Magical energy in the form of blue fire flickered around it. “Which way would you like to die, then?”
The gangster tensed but said nothing.
“Fuck it,” Ocelot growled. “Just kill the bastard and get it over with.”
‘Hawk nodded. “I’m beginning to consider it.” He contemplated his hand for a moment. “You do the honors, will you?”
“Gladly.” Ocelot grabbed the man by the scruff of his shirt and dragged him upward, barely nicking the soft underside of his chin with the blade. Blood welled out and the captive gasped. “Last chance, scumbag. Your life worth a little information?”
The man held out for a few more seconds and then his eyes bulged out. “No! Don’t do it. I’ll tell!”
The blade pressed in just a bit more. “So tell.”
“The Fortuna! He’s at the Fortuna! Salazaro’s holding him there!”
“Wrong answer,” Ocelot said, digging with the blade, which had still only gone in less than a centimeter. “We were there.”
“He’s there!” the man screamed, trying not to flail too hard and drive the blade further into his own flesh. “He’s there! In the back! There’s a cellar in the storeroom! That’s where he is, I swear it!” He looked like he was about to cry.
Kestrel stood up. “Come on. Let’s go. Throw him in the trunk—if he’s lying we can deal with him later.”
The door on the other side of the room opened and Alfred Ferone entered. He looked around nervously. “I heard the shooting stop—” he said. “Is—everything—?”
“Everything’s fine, Mr. Ferone,” Winterhawk said. “I suggest you get out of the house for awhile, but I don’t think you’ll be bothered again.”
He nodded as if he didn’t quite believe they’d dealt successfully with eight armed attackers, and left the room again as Joe, ‘Wraith, and Wallace came back in. “We’re movin’ out,” Ocelot said, hefting the gangster, whom he had conveniently knocked out with a punch to the jaw. “This guy better hope he was tellin’ the truth, ‘cause I’m not done kickin’ ass yet tonight.”
The Fortuna Club was much more impressive after dark than it had been during the area’s weird twilight-day. They could see the huge blue and green neon sign blazing out the club’s name from quit a distance away—from the look of things this was the place to be, as the Fortuna’s parking lot was packed with cars. The sound of dance music blared out into the night, occasionally getting louder when someone opened a door.
“Go around the back,” Ocelot whispered to ‘Wraith. Those who had been present at the interrogation had already shared their information with the others; the plan was to try to break in through some unguarded area and try to find the storeroom from there. ‘Wraith was already steering the car around the block and toward the rear of the club.
It was a big place, more of a resort than a simple nightclub. Around the back, along with more of the building, they could see a parklike area with a courtyard, a large pool with a fountain in the center, and a grassy patch that extended back for about fifty meters, ending up in a line of trees. ‘Wraith was about to turn off the lights and coast the car off the road when Kestrel pointed and hissed, “Look!”
The others quickly followed Kestrel’s line of sight as ‘Wraith pulled the car to a stop. Something was happening over at the other side of the courtyard, partially obscured by a low wall and some bushes.
“What is it?” Winterhawk whispered.
‘Wraith and Kestrel were already getting out of the car; the others quickly followed. ‘Wraith peered into the darkness. “Can’t tell. Several figures, near the window.”
“You can’t identify them?” Ocelot tried to make sense of the scene but he didn’t have ‘Wraith’s built-in magnification. He could see moving shapes glowing in his thermo-vision, but nothing else at this distance.
“We have to get closer,” Joe said. “Come on.” He started moving. They others gathered their weapons and went after him.
Just as they drew up almost close enough to get a good look at the figures, they all heard someone scream “NO!”
“That’s Stefan!” Kestrel cried, picking up speed.
“No—there!” ‘Wraith called, pointing. Sure enough, Stefan in human form stood amid a group of gangsters pointing machine guns at a swaying figure near the window. It was very clear that he had not cried out.
“And that’s Gabriel!” Kestrel was paying no attention to any of them now. She raised her gun and fired at the gangsters, trying to concentrate on them and not on the bloody figure in shredded clothes pressed against the window.
“Kestrel—” Ocelot yelled, but it wouldn’t have mattered. It was as if she hadn’t fired at all. They could hear the bark of their guns, but the figures on the other side of the courtyard did not react to the sound, did not fall or dive for cover. They merely remained where they were, raised their guns, and let loose with a barrage at Gabriel.
“No! Gabriel!” Kestrel screamed. She skidded to a stop and readied her gun again.
The figures in the courtyard slowly faded into nothingness, like a mirage that had stayed around too long. The sounds of gunfire echoed for a moment after before they too faded.
As if no longer needed now that the actors were gone, the scene likewise shimmered and melted away.
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.