The opening night of the long-anticipated Kenny Zane concert was sold out, of course.
It had been sold out for almost three months, following the fastest round of ticket sales since Maria Mercurial’s comeback tour two years previously. In less than five minutes (owing largely to the diehard fans and even more diehard ticket scalpers buying up blocks over the Matrix), every available ticket had been snatched up. Even the seats off to both sides of the stage, normally not sold because of the poor visibility, were eagerly grabbed when the promoter had decided to put them on sale after seeing how fast the rest of the tickets were going. Although greed on the promoter’s part was surely a factor, there was a bit of prudence involved as well: these fans knew their venues, and there would have been a near-riot if every potential spot for a fan to plant his or her posterior hadn’t been made available.
The only reason that all the tickets hadn’t found their way into fans’ hands within a week of the on-sale date was because the ticket brokers had wisely chosen to hold on to some of their offerings until closer to the concert date, assuming correctly that when unfortunate Zane fans had been whipped into the proper fever pitch of desire and faced with the prospect of having to miss the event of their lives due to lack of tickets, they would be willing to pay almost anything to remedy the situation. By a week prior to the concert good seats were going for four figures, and even the cheap seats were commanding prices in the high threes.
The four men stationed in various places around the concert venue hadn’t paid for their tickets. In fact, they didn’t even have tickets. What they did have, hanging around their necks on unbreakable chains, were objects that a sizable percentage of the crowd in attendance would have cheerfully committed mayhem to obtain: golden, holographic “ALL AREAS” show passes. The four had quickly learned to tuck said passes inside their coats before venturing out among the fans.
“See anything out there yet?” Winterhawk’s voice broke through the crowd noise, carried to the tiny earpieces worn by his three companions. He, along with Joe, was currently backstage, where little knots of people scurried madly around trying to make sure everything was operational before curtain time half an hour later.
“Not unless you count a bunch of kids tryin’ to impress each other by seein’ who can get high faster.” Ocelot’s tone was a bit sour; like the rest of the team with the possible exception of Joe he was getting a little old for this sort of thing and would have preferred to spend his evening doing something a little calmer—like getting into a bar fight.
“Nothing.” ShadoWraith, as usual, spoke in a near-monotone; his post was at the back of the venue, keeping an eye on the fans who were coming in past the bank of detectors: metal, weapon, and chemical. From the look of things, the concert’s organizers weren’t paying much attention to chemicals of the pharmaceutical variety; they seemed far more interested in those with a more explosive purpose. So far ‘Wraith had seen several indignant young men pulled out of line and searched, but he had relaxed when nothing more than firecrackers had been confiscated.
Ocelot sighed. “If they’re gonna do it, it makes sense that this would be the place. I damn sure hope it is. I don’t want to end up followin’ this guy around for the next month.”
“I’m with you on that one,” Winterhawk agreed. He was slouched casually out of the way next to the entrance to the dressing rooms, watching as Kenny Zane’s various attendants, hangers-on, and instrument technicians moved back and forth performing their duties.
“Yeah,” Joe put in. “And besides, if it happens here, at least we’re close to home.” He had found a spot near the buffet table, pausing occasionally to fortify himself as he kept an eye on the other side of the backstage area.
‘Hawk started to answer, but stopped as he noticed a man approaching him. Medium height, middle aged but trying desperately to hide it, the man was dressed in a suit that was just a bit too young for him. He had a slight paunch and nervous eyes. “Have you seen anything yet?” he demanded as he drew up next to Winterhawk.
The mage shook his head, trying to look encouraging. “Not yet, Mr. Carson. But don’t you worry—if anything’s going to happen tonight, we’ll find it and take care of it. Just calm yourself. This should be an enjoyable night for you. Let us do what you’ve hired us to do.”
Winterhawk could forgive Timothy Carson his nerves: after what the man had been through so far, it was a wonder that he was here at all. It was an even greater wonder that the Kenny Zane concert had managed to get off the ground. The accidents had not occurred at every concert performed by someone Timothy Carson managed, but there had been enough of them that the man had every reason to be concerned. So far this year there had been four, each one increasing in its intensity until the last, a month ago, had resulted in ten young fans of a rather obscure girl group being trampled when someone had set off the fire alarm in the middle of a concert. The injuries had been minor, but Carson was all too aware that they could have been much worse.
It was shortly after that point that Carson had made the decision that he needed to supplement the regular security force at his artists’ performances with something a bit more professional. He had done some searching and, through a few of his less above-board contacts, had discovered the team that he had now retained. After hearing about their work with Maria Mercurial, The Shadows, and the Dark Angel situation, he had determined that they were exactly what he needed to keep things safe.
Apparently he had been right. The team had been working with him for almost a month now, and the two concerts that had already taken place—a death-metal band called The Entrails at a small club in San Francisco and a retro-folk combo called Mother and the Slugs at an oversized coffee house in Vancouver—had gone off without so much as a stubbed toe. Carson had been pleased, but his nervousness was still mounting. He knew what was to come.
Kenny Zane was the biggest act Carson had ever had the good fortune to manage, even counting the unfortunate Twyla Ellindel, whose tragic death two years ago at the height of her popularity had cast ripples throughout the recording industry. In the months following that death, the agent, distraught over the loss of someone he had not only represented but mentored, had contented himself with the remaining acts in his stable, all of which were minor-league talents at best. He had been sure that he would never have the opportunity to represent someone like Ellindel again and had resigned himself to it.
Enter Kenny Zane, almost exactly one year ago. Carson had not been expecting to make a discovery the night he had ducked into the little Los Angeles club to kill a couple of hours before his plane left for Seattle. The young troll, despite performing with a band consisting of some decent-but-not-great musicians he had met on the club scene, managed to light up the room with the driving beat and sheer outright feeling of his music. Carson had watched, amazed, as Zane and his guitar had time after time transcended the mediocrity of his backup group, not only sounding fantastic himself but somehow making them sound better as well. It was clear by the look of bliss on the troll’s face that he was loving every minute of what he was doing, and it was every bit as clear that the crowd was too.
Carson had wasted no time approaching Zane at the bar after the set was over; it turned out that the troll had no particular ties to LA and had drifted out here from back East because he’d heard the club scene out here was better. An hour later, Carson had signed him to an exclusive contract, and two weeks later he was in the studio (with a different band) recording his first album.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Zane’s debut album, Monster, had lived up to its name by becoming a runaway hit, topping the charts and propelling the slightly bewildered but very happy Zane to instant stardom. His popularity crossed all metatypes: he was one of the few troll artists who had been able to break out of the “goblin rock” genre and make it with mainstream audiences, a fact which was no doubt aided by the fact that his music was a powerful combination of thundering beat and literate, melodic lyrics. Zane himself was humble about his success, exhibiting little of the “bad boy” behavior that was almost expected among rock stars (especially troll rock stars).
Timothy Carson couldn’t have been happier. Suddenly he was managing one of the most sought-after acts on the music scene, and things could go nowhere but up from here. Zane’s second album, The Two of Me, was tearing up the charts and he couldn’t see how the accompanying tour could be anything but a massive hit as well. Life was good.
That was about the time the problems had started happening.
First it had been small things, like misplaced instruments, malfunctioning connections, and other similar but minor nuisances. As time had gone on, though, the incidents had grown more serious until they had culminated in the trampling injuries to the ten young girls. Carson had given the team a rundown of everything that had happened; before he had hired them, he had cooperated fully with law enforcement in the towns where the incidents had occurred, but they hadn’t been able to turn up anything. Most of them seemed convinced (at least up until the fire alarm episode) that the problems were the result of nothing more than coincidence.
Carson was not convinced, which was why Winterhawk, Ocelot, Joe, and ‘Wraith were now keeping an eye on the place. Carson believed, and the four runners concurred, that if somebody was trying to sabotage his acts, there was no better time for something big, spectacular, and potentially dangerous than during Carson’s biggest act’s biggest concert ever.
The fans continued to filter in. There was a certain urgency about their movements now, because there were still quite a number of them outside in line and everyone who was not yet inside was worried that the concert would start without them if they didn’t hurry. The venue security guards did their jobs keeping the lines orderly, processing people through the detectors, and making an effort to quickly deal with anyone who set off the detectors with something innocuous. It was not magnanimity on their part: most of these guards worked here every night and had seen just about everything, but they were all acutely aware of the problems they could have on their hands if they didn’t get people into their seats as quickly as possible.
Off to the side, ‘Wraith continued to watch, his sharp gaze roving over the faces. He could not watch everyone, of course—there were just too many of them—but he had been in the shadowrunning business long enough that he knew how to spot potential warning signs such as furtive expressions, attempts to get around the detectors, or simply that difficult-to-quantify quality of “looking suspicious.” He glanced quickly down at his chrono. Twenty minutes to go. The radio crackled in his ear. “Anything in back?” It was Ocelot’s voice.
“Nothing.” ‘Wraith’s tone was crisp; if he was bored watching this unending stream of overexcited teens and twentysomethings hurrying past his scrutiny, he did nothing to show it.
“I’m thinkin’ they’ve either been here all along or else they’ll try to get in close to the start time so maybe the guards don’t pay as much attention to ‘em,” Ocelot said.
“Yes. Nothing in the crowd?”
“Nope.” Ocelot’s job was to circulate among the crowds of spectators, using a carefully-calibrated listening device to try to pick out any suspicious conversations. “So far most of ‘em are talkin’ about how good the concert’s gonna be, how much dope they can score, and what their chances are of getting laid afterward.” When ‘Wraith didn’t answer, he sighed audibly. “I’ll keep looking.”
“Will join you soon,” ‘Wraith said. “T.C.?” The fifth member of their group, the one of whom they were all well aware of but did not check with often because she was offsite and would speak up if the noticed anything, was T.C. Pip, the decker they subcontracted with when they needed services that ‘Wraith and his turtle connection couldn’t provide. Her job was monitoring Matrix traffic in and out of the venue, including the security systems and reporting in if she saw anything out of the ordinary. So far she had been so quiet they contacted her occasionally just to make sure she was still there.
“Nothing.” Her voice came back almost immediately. “Everything looks fine.”
“Good. Thank you.” As agreed earlier, ‘Wraith would remain where he was until they closed the doors, then come into the hall to supplement Ocelot’s surveillance. Joe would do the same, while Winterhawk would prowl around the backstage areas and use his astral scouting abilities to keep watch on the network of scaffolding and rigging up above the stage. They hoped that, with the addition of the not-inconsiderable security force who came with the venue (quietly beefed up a bit from its usual numbers by Carson, ostensibly because of the popularity of Zane’s act), they could stave off anything untoward and—with any luck at all—catch whoever was responsible for the attacks so everyone could get on with their lives.
Backstage, Winterhawk had just returned from one of his astral passes; he had been slumped into a chair pushed off into a back corner of the backstage area where nobody would disturb him. Joe noticed him and gave him a questioning look.
‘Hawk shook his head. “I didn’t see anything. Whoever our saboteurs are, they’re either not here or they’re keeping very low.” He hadn’t spent much time checking out the main concert hall—the astral energy there made it difficult for him to pick out any particular individual aura, and besides, all that youthful exuberance gave him a headache. Instead, he had concentrated on the non-public areas: backstage, the corridors leading to the venue’s administrative offices, the catwalks and lighting rigs, under the stage itself, and other such places where someone might choose to secret him- or herself until it was time to act. He had found nothing out of the ordinary—a few technicians making last-minute adjustments to the lightbars above the stage, their auras focused and professional and a little bored, a couple of corporate suit types grabbing a quickie in one of the venue offices, and several security guards patrolling their rounds. ‘Hawk checked each person for any sign of oddnesses in their auras, but they had either been more adept than he thought they were at hiding such things or else, more likely, they simply were what they appeared to be and thus were not worth a second look.
“I’m gonna go do another round,” Joe said. “Then I guess I should get out front soon. Will you be okay back here by yourself?” As the only member of the group who was actually interested in seeing the concert, Joe found it a bit hard to believe that Winterhawk was not displeased that he was the only one of the four who would have to experience it from backstage.
The mage nodded. “Of course. Go on. I’ll yell if anything exciting happens back here. I—”
He stopped because Joe wasn’t listening to him anymore. In the space of a couple of seconds a palpable aura of excitement had come over the backstage area as a figure came sweeping in from the hallway leading to the dressing rooms.
Flanked by Carson and a man in a flashy suit, Kenny Zane towered over most of the humans and orks who made up the backstage crew. Behind them, like a pack of hyenas following a predator, trailed an entourage of various hangers-on who followed at a close but respectable distance.
Zane wasn’t as big as Joe—in fact, he was rather small for a troll at only about two and a half meters—but he had a presence that dominated a room. The only thing physically remarkable about him was the fact that his skin was relatively smooth when compared with the lumpiness of most trolls, which gave him a surprisingly human-looking appearance if you ignored the two large, polished tusks that were his pride and joy. Other than that his longish brown hair, warm hazel eyes, and unassuming manner of dress were no different than any of the other club habitués from whose midst he had risen. His charisma came not from his appearance, but from his bearing, which somehow managed to be simultaneously cheerfully open and almost frighteningly intense. Fans who had had the chance to speak with him reported that they felt as if they were the only subject of his interest at the time of their conversation, as his eyes zeroed in on theirs and did not let go.
At this moment, he was cinching up his belt around a pair of faded jeans and a green T-shirt bearing the logo of a company that specialized in sports clothes for orks and trolls as he approached the buffet table. He grinned at Joe and Winterhawk as he went by. “Hey guys,” he said. “Any nasties yet?”
The team had been introduced to Zane earlier that day; they had all found him to be pleasant if a bit preoccupied, which was understandable given what was to happen that evening.
“Not yet,” Joe said.
“We’re hoping not at all,” Winterhawk added.
Zane nodded. “Me too. I’d hate to see anybody get hurt. I wish whoever’s doing this would just find something else to do for awhile.” He grabbed a small plate and selected a few light items, obviously not wanting to fill himself up before the concert.
“It’d be nice if we could catch ‘em,” Joe said. Timothy Carson nodded emphatically.
“Yeah—I just don’t want anybody hurt, y’know?” Zane finished what he was doing and nodded to them. “I better get going. Curtain in fifteen. See you guys after.” Carrying his plate, he swept back out of the room the way he had come with his collection of hangers-on still trailing behind him. Carson cast one last worried glance back over his shoulder at ‘Hawk and Joe as if to say, Please catch them this time, and then they were all gone.
Joe watched them go, then turned back to ‘Hawk. “I’ll see you later,” he said, picking up one last sandwich for the road. “I want to catch this guy tonight.”
“You and me both,” the mage said, sounding rather more heartfelt than one might have expected. This was because he had looked at Carson’s concert schedule and discovered that the next event they were slated to attend was a hardcore goblin-rock fest in Oakland featuring two bands called The Running Sores and The Skullfuckers, both of whom were known for inciting their own mayhem in addition to anything the mysterious saboteur might have planned. He was not looking at all forward to that particular evening.
The concert started twenty minutes late because the security force had determined that it would be safer to make sure everyone with a ticket was admitted before the doors were closed—the likelihood of a riot was higher if fans were turned away than if those already inside were forced to wait a few extra minutes to see their idol. After the doors were finally closed and the last of the fans had been ushered through the banks of detectors and into the hall, ‘Wraith joined Ocelot and Joe in patrolling the area. ‘Wraith was stationed on the right side of the tiered seating, Joe on the left, and Ocelot down on the floor. Even though their all-access passes were safely hidden away inside their shirts, the passes contained electronic chips that identified them to the venue’s regular security force so they weren’t hassled for their activities—not that anyone would have noticed with fans packing the aisles and heading back and forth between the concession stands, the restrooms, the seats of their friends, and their own seats. The only movement that was strictly controlled was that between the tiered seats and the floor seats—no one without a proper ticket was allowed past security onto the floor—and any that got anywhere near the entrance that led to the luxury boxes suspended high above the floor, which were where the VIPs such as recording executives, prominent corpers, and other such luminaries were allowed to watch the concert without having to interact with the rabble. These boxes had their own restrooms, their own bar service, and were built so that their acoustics would be as close to perfect as could be managed by late-2050s tech. The “real” fans scoffed at such amenities, denouncing them as “too sterile” and “not a real concert experience,” but their opinions were for all intents and purposes irrelevant because very few of them would ever have the chance to experience a concert from such a rarefied environment.
Every few minutes the team reported in to each other, announcing their findings over the radio: “Nothing here.” “A couple of guys smoking something smelly in the cheap seats.” “Nothing.” “The buffet table is getting low but nothing else.” T. C. reported no odd activity in the Matrix or the arena security systems, except for a couple of deckers trying to patch into the mixing board in order to make bootleg recordings of the concert. Those she watched, but otherwise left alone. It was certainly beginning to appear that if their quarry was going to make a move, it wasn’t going to be before the concert started.
Winterhawk came back from another astral patrol and leaned back in his chair. Kenny Zane was out again, pacing back and forth in the wings while he waited for his cue. He was alone this time, or at least as alone as a major performer could be fifteen minutes after an opening-night concert was due to start. His aura suggested that the wait wasn’t easy for him—he was keyed up and ready to perform, and that sort of nervous energy did not take well to having to wait. Winterhawk offered Zane an encouraging smile when the young troll looked in his direction, but Zane didn’t even seem to notice it. ‘Hawk doubted he noticed anything about the real world right now, his mind taken over by setlists and lyrics and chord changes and whatever else musicians thought about before they went onstage.
The mage sighed and got up, preparing to make another physical check of the backstage area and the dressing rooms. As he did, he found his mind wandering back to past events as it often did when he got a chance to think.
Things had returned pretty much to normal over the last three months or so, and he was glad. He thought the entire team was probably glad—there was only so much high-intensity weirdness that one person could take before things really started getting strange. Despite the fact that this was not the sort of job he would have picked had he been given more of a choice, ‘Hawk was enjoying their current assignment. Musicians, fans, concert venues, and promoters were a lot easier to deal with than some of the stuff they’d had to contend with in the last few months.
Still, though, it wasn’t the sort of thing you forgot about easily, and it tended to pop up at odd times. Like now.
He wondered idly where Gabriel and Kestrel were these days, thinking that they probably would have enjoyed the concert. He wondered when—or if—they would ever return to Seattle. Gabriel had taken off on his own after they had all returned from the metaplanes last time, saying he needed time to mourn his brother and his friend. Three months after that he had apparently returned to town just long enough to see if Kestrel wanted to accompany him on his travels to see the world, and she had accepted. ‘Hawk still remembered the night Ocelot had dropped by his place unannounced to tell him that Kestrel had invited him over to her townhouse and given him the news. Ocelot had listened as she had told him about the invitation, about the fact that she didn’t know when (or if) she would be back, about the fact that she too needed some time away to sort out her thoughts about all of this—and then he had wished her luck, told her to have fun, and seen her to the door. It was after that that he came to Winterhawk’s place.
At first he hadn’t said much, telling ‘Hawk he just wanted to go have a beer or two and bullshit the night away. As Ocelot’s beer count had increased, though, he had told the mage about Kestrel’s visit. “Ah, hell, ‘Hawk,” he’d said, staring down into the depths of his glass, “We’re not even together anymore. Why should I give a damn about where she goes or who she does it with?”
The mage hadn’t had an answer—or rather, he hadn’t had one he’d thought Ocelot had wanted to hear at the time—so he had remained mostly silent and played the combination of psychologist, father confessor, and commiserating friend until Ocelot had finally had enough of it, pulled out his phone, and looked up one of his favorite call girls. The last ‘Hawk had seen of him that night was when the woman showed up and the two of them had left together. The next day, Ocelot had seemed fine and had said nothing about Kestrel, the conversation, or the woman. ‘Hawk, for his part, had not mentioned it either.
After that was when things started looking normal again. They had fallen back into the groove of getting jobs, with the only difference between now and previously being that they didn’t take much time off between them these days. It used to be that they would accept a job, get it done, and then take a month or more off to rest, relax, and recuperate before seeking out another. Nowadays it seemed to be almost a compulsion among each of them that they had to stay busy. They had agreed that after this one, though, they were finally going to return to their old ways. ‘Hawk was looking forward to a month or two home in England to recharge his batteries, but until this saboteur situation was handled they didn’t know when their employment was going to end. Tonight wouldn’t be too soon for me, he thought a trifle sourly as he finished checking the dressing rooms and headed back for the backstage area.
He could hear the swell of the crowd noise before he even got close. He’d been hearing it peripherally for awhile now—crowds at concerts, particularly those that were starting late and thus giving no indication of when something important might be happening—tended to cheer at anything even slightly out of the ordinary. A technician climbs up a light scaffold—cheering. A roadie comes out to check one of the guitars—more cheering. Someone peeks out from behind one of the curtains in the wings—cheering and thunderous applause. It didn’t matter that the artist they’d all come to see was safely secreted away backstage and would not make even a token appearance before the start of the concert—they didn’t know that. Every stray movement could be a chance to see their hero.
Now, though, the crowd had a different sound, a kind of subtle undercurrent of excitement that hadn’t been there before. They knew that something was going to happen soon, and they were ready. There was no opening act, so the next presence they saw on stage would be the one whom they had come to see.
Suddenly the house lights went out and the speakers crackled to life. “Awright, everybody!” boomed a loud male voice. “This is it! Let’s give a warm Seattle welcome to—Kenny...ZANE!!”
The crowd went wild, their screams and cheers drowning out the speakers as the stage lights came on and Zane and his band poured out through the wings and ran onstage, snapping up their instruments and launching immediately into a loud, driving anthem that even Winterhawk, who didn’t listen to much popular music, recognized: Not In My World, the first breakout hit from the Monster album.
“‘Hawk, anything happening back there?” It was Ocelot.
“Not a thing. It just got quite a bit quieter here. What about out front?”
“Had to body-block a few guys trying to storm the stage past me, but everything looks good here so far. ‘Wraith?”
“No problems. Everybody’s into the music.”
“I’ll take another look ‘round astrally and report anything I see,” ‘Hawk said. “Expect me in ten minutes or so.”
Winterhawk was about to settle back into his chair, ignoring the various technicians, caterers, and others, when he saw Timothy Carson approaching. As usual, the manager looked nervous. “You guys seen anything yet? Anything at all?”
‘Hawk shook his head. “Nothing yet, Mr. Carson. Please—calm down. Between the security you’ve already got here and the five of us, it’s going to be difficult to manage anything without being seen.”
Carson took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah,” he said, his voice full of reluctance. “I know. It’s just—”
The mage patted his shoulder. “I know,” he said, keeping his voice calm and soothing. “Why don’t you go have a drink and try to enjoy the show. As I said before, we’ve got it under control. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go check the astral again.”
The manager nodded, at least somewhat mollified by ‘Hawk’s words. “Okay. Thanks. Let me know if you find anything.”
“I promise.” Winterhawk didn’t make a ‘shoo’ motion, but that was only by an effort of will. He did not particularly like Timothy Carson personally—the man had the air of a nervous little dog who could be stirred into a frenzy by even a small amount of tension—but whether ‘Hawk liked him or not was irrelevant. He was their employer and thus they had an obligation to at least try to assuage some of his nervous-dog worries. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have cause for them, after all.
They had already, along with the venue’s security force and some off-duty Lone Star cops from the bomb squad, been over the entire arena looking for anything that someone might have planted previously, particularly explosives. They had found nothing. If anything was going to happen, it wasn’t going to be something that had already been set up. That meant that if there was anything planned for tonight, the perpetrators and/or their agents were inside the building somewhere. That was what Winterhawk was looking for: inappropriate emotions, anyone who was where they shouldn’t be, or anything else that looked suspicious in that regard. He sat down, leaned back, and separated his astral body from his physical once again.
As he floated out over the crowd he stopped momentarily in sheer amazement. He often went to clubs that catered specifically to mages, places where more emphasis was placed on the astral component of the performance than the visual, so he was used to what the collective aura of a charged-up crowd looked like. This crowd, however, put anything he had ever seen before to shame. The sheer number of people and the levels of their emotions combined to create a staggeringly beautiful nimbus of shifting colors that extended out above the crowd to a distance of several meters. Accompanied by the glowing, multi-hued auras of the individual fans—everything from the bright yellows of happy excitement to the reds of passion to the blues of fan loyalty to the greens and purples of altered consciousness—the very air pulsated with the sound of the music and the power of the colorful display. It was a funny thing about the astral effects of music: a terrible musician who put serious heart into his music could produce a better show than a master musician who was jaded by success and bored with his art. When you combined a great musician like Kenny Zane with the kind of emotional commitment that the troll put into his music, the show could really light up the astral.
Winterhawk stared at it, entranced, for several moments, the forced himself to focus and move on. You’re not here to watch the bloody show, he told himself sternly. Don’t get distracted.
He didn’t spend much time in the main arena itself—as beautiful as it was, it would be impossible for him to pick out any individual auras from the midst of the crowd without a great deal more concentration than he had time to spare right now. The place held 30,000 people and was stuffed to the rafters; there was no way he could pause to examine even a tenth of the auras. Besides, that was where Ocelot, Joe, and ‘Wraith came in. With their advanced low-light surveillance gear, they’d be able to get a pretty good picture of what was going on out there. Instead, Winterhawk concentrated once again on the fringe areas.
He had been through the dressing rooms and the office hallways enough times that day that he was getting to be quite familiar with them—this allowed him to get through them fairly quickly and get to the part where he expected the trouble would be if there was any: the rigging and scaffolding above the stage. A slower sweep of that area, though, revealed nothing more than the lighting techs at their posts, manning the boards that controlled the shows highly complex light, laser, and holographic displays. Their auras were calm and a little excited—’Hawk knew that everyone was more than a bit nervous tonight, not only because of the possibility of sabotage but also because this was the kick-off show of the tour and was therefore the first time a lot of these effects had been seen by the public. So far everything seemed to be going as smoothly as could be expected. He drifted back to his body, got up, and headed over to the wings where Carson and some of the others were watching from out of sight. “Nothing on the astral,” he murmured into his throat-mike. “I’ll check again in ten.”
“Maybe it’s just not gonna happen tonight,” Ocelot said.
It was beginning to look like he might be right. Zane went through song after song, whipping the fans into a fervor with his driving guitar-playing, his passionate voice, and the sheer love of what he was doing. He was not afraid of his fans, often moving to the edge of the stage to reach down and clasp a hand here or there despite the event security force’s attempts to dissuade him. Zane liked fans up right next to the stage—it made him feel more connected to his audience.
The team had access to the setlist, which showed the order in which the night’s songs would be played. When Zane had neared the end of the second-to-last song before the fifteen-minute intermission, Ocelot opened the connection again. “Intermission soon,” he said.
“Already getting into position,” Joe returned quickly.
“Yes,” ‘Wraith said. The plan was they would make their patrolling more active during the intermission because a lot more people would be moving around, so there was a greater chance that someone could slip away unnoticed. Very few fans wanted to miss even a moment of the concert itself, so the concession venues would be packed shortly.
“‘Hawk?” Ocelot called.
“Ready to start another astral patrol,” the mage said. “I’ll—”
“Wait.” It was T. C.’s voice that cut Winterhawk off.
“What?” Ocelot sounded tense.
“Something’s happening. Hang on—” There was silence for several seconds, and then the decker’s voice came back on. “Whatever it is, I think it’s about to happen, so look sharp. Something just tried to shut down all the lights in the place.”
“Did you stop them?” Joe asked.
“Trace?” ‘Wraith added.
“I’m working on the trace,” T. C. said. “Not only did I stop them, but I made them think they’ve succeeded. I can’t detect any communication between that location and anyone where you are, so it was probably a prearranged thing. I’ll fool ‘em as long as I can.”
The team was already in action. Ocelot, ‘Wraith, and Joe began scanning the area, moving around to take in the most territory. ‘Wraith contacted the event security command post and informed them of a possible intruder. Silently and invisibly to the oblivious fans, the machine moved into action.
Backstage, Winterhawk tapped Carson on the arm. “I think something’s up,” he murmured. “Look sharp, and alert security if you see anyone you don’t recognize. Excuse me.” Before Carson could answer he hurried off to his chair and slipped into the astral plane again.
His patrol was faster this time, less careful the first time through so he could examine a larger area. Still, it didn’t take him long to spot something out of the ordinary that hadn’t been there before. High above the backstage area, above the scaffolding and the catwalks, something was floating downward. Something that glowed brightly on the astral plane.
Winterhawk watched it for a moment. It continued to drift downward, heading not for the stage or the arena area itself, but remaining in the backstage area. Out of the corner of his vision, the mage could see the glowing form of Timothy Carson hurrying away and shutting himself up inside one of the dressing rooms. Bloody coward, he thought contemptuously. He wasn’t going to spare him another thought until he realized that the glowing form was moving toward the same dressing rooms. Damn damn damn. He flung his astral form back into his body, keying his throat-mike as the jolt was barely wearing off. “It’s backstage,” he called. “Something’s back here. It’s going after Carson.” He was already hurrying in that direction.
The team out front didn’t waste time with niceties. Ocelot, who was already near the stage, yanked out his grapple gun and fired it upward—the thin line shot out and wrapped around some of the lighting rigging, drawing him up over the crowd, where he swung on to the stage. Zane glanced at him, immediately saw who it was, and went on playing as if nothing was happening. He had already been briefed to remain calm if odd things started to happen, because the last thing they needed was a panicked crowd causing a stampede to the doors. He likewise continued to play, drawing out the bridge in the last song before the intermission, as ‘Wraith, moving at lightning speed, vaulted up onto the side of the stage and flashed past, and, after a few seconds, Joe came in from the other side and disappeared into the wings.
Ocelot and ‘Wraith got there at roughly the same time, only a few seconds after getting Winterhawk’s call. They found the mage standing outside the door to Zane’s dressing room. “Locked,” he said grimly.
‘Wraith was about to pull out his lockpick kit and Ocelot was preparing to make a run at the door when Joe arrived. “Let me,” he called. The others moved quickly moved out of his way and, with his massive bulk, he made short work of the door.
What they saw inside stopped them in their tracks.
The dressing room was large, well-appointed, and dimly lit. On the far side, pressed into a corner as if trying to push himself through it, was Timothy Carson. On his face was a look of abject panic. It was not the sight of him, though, that had shocked the runners. It was what was standing in front of him.
It was a woman—an elf, obviously, from the delicate, pointed ear-tips that stuck up from her long, flaxen-blonde hair. Her back was to them, but as the door was broken down she spun half around to face the new threat. Her face was beautiful, elegant and strong but somehow fragile too, like something that didn’t quite belong in this world. Her eyes were the bright blue of a summer sky. She was naked, but she did not seem to notice or care. She also did not seem to care that there were now three assorted weapons pointed at her.
“What the hell—?” Ocelot demanded.
Winterhawk and ‘Wraith seemed equally unsure of exactly what was happening.
Joe, on the other hand, stared at the woman with wide eyes. “You’re—Twyla Ellindel,” he gasped. “You’re dead!”
She smiled, revealing gleaming white, wickedly pointed fangs, although her expression was not correspondingly wicked-in fact, her eyes were rather sad. “Yes,” she said softly.
“Shoot her!” Carson screamed, scrabbling back farther into the corner, although that wasn’t technically possible. “She tried to kill me! She’s behind all the sabotage!”
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.