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The elf's gaze roamed constantly around the interior of the small restaurant, never still for a moment behind his darkened shades. If anything happened in here, he was going to know about it.

He sat near the back of the restaurant, in a booth with his back facing the wall. He had entered a few minutes ago, and had strategically chosen the spot so he could watch not only most of the restaurant's patrons, but both of its entry points: the main door and the one that led off toward what was presumably the kitchen. He hadn't been here long, but already the large cup of soykaf around which he currently had his hands wrapped was succeeding in warming not only his body, but to some extent his outlook as well.

He had assessed his options and found them to be somewhat wanting-- the bike was without doubt unsalvageable, for the main thing. If he'd been in a large city when the breakdown had occurred, he might have been able to have the bike towed to a repair shop and get the problem fixed, but around here the chances were not worth pursuing. At best, it would need a new engine; at worst, additional hidden damage would make it more economically feasible to just get a new bike. He didn't know enough about things mechanical to diagnose the problem, and in truth he didn't care. It didn't function properly anymore, so he had to move on. He was not one to tie himself too closely to anything, be it person or possession.

His briefcase sat between his feet on the floor, protectively cradled there and never out of contact with him. Currently, his worldly possessions consisted of his clothes, his motorcycle helmet, his armored jacket, a Browning Max-Power heavy pistol and holster, a Ranger Arms SM-3 takedown sniper rifle, ammunition for both guns, a credstick with 2,437 nuyen on it, and the spare clothing in his duffel bag. What little else he owned, including several more guns and a katana, were elsewhere at the moment and thus of no help.

He thought about calling someone, but quickly dismissed that notion. Whom could he call? He wasn't sure yet whether his contact for the hit on the politician had been doublecrossed just like he himself had been, or whether the contact was the doublecrosser. Until he knew for sure, he wasn't going to continue with that. Besides, he'd completed the contract, so technically he had fulfilled his obligation. Of course, he hadn't received the rest of his payment for the job, but if that meant risking another ambush, he'd just as soon live without the money. He had enough to live on for awhile. Replacing the bike was going to be expensive, though.

He glanced up quickly as the bell on the door sounded, indicating that someone was coming in. Stiffening, he tightened his grip a bit on the coffee cup, inclining his head so he could see the newcomers while appearing to be intent on the table in front of him. Three men. As they entered, he focused on each in turn.

The first one in was a tall, thin human, dark-haired and watchful. He was dressed in a fine suit that looked out of place around here, and a long overcoat that the elf immediately identified as armor, even though its purpose wouldn't be obvious to the average person. As he spoke to the waitress, his British accent further marked him as being a long way from home.

Behind the Brit was a tall, wide ork man, dressed in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. The ork kept casting glances around as if he expected someone to jump out at him from behind one of the booths. His watchfulness had a different quality than the Brit's, though--the ork seemed to be unfocused, untrained, nervous, while the Englishman's gaze took in the area with almost the same level of scrutiny as the elf's own.

Bringing up the rear of the party was a tall human with a long blond ponytail. He wore a T-shirt, snug-fitting dark pants, and high soft boots that made no sound as he moved. The elf's interest notched up a level--this man moved with a quick grace and economy of motion that bespoke some sort of enhancements. Wires? Physad? The elf couldn't tell, but it didn't matter. The blond human was even more carefully scoping out the area than the Brit had, and for a moment, his eyes locked with the elf's, noting his presence and then moving on. This human also wore a longcoat, this one a bit more obvious as armor.

The elf continued to watch the threesome as they took seats at one of the booths on the other side of the restaurant. He noticed the way they sat: the blond man and the Brit on the side facing the door, with the blond man on the outside; the ork across the table with his back to the door. The blond man said something quietly to the ork, who shifted on his seat so his back was against the wall and he was facing mostly outward, toward the interior of the restaurant. Neither of the two facing the door relaxed their vigilance.


The elf looked up to see the waitress, a washed-out-looking human woman of about thirty-two with dyed reddish hair and a faded but clean dress, standing there. "Yes." He had subconsciously noted her approaching presence, but had not attached any importance to it.

The waitress set a plate in front of him and refilled his soykaf cup. "Can I get you anything else?"

"No." After a moment, he added, "Thank you," almost as an afterthought. His voice was low, quiet, almost featureless. His exchange with the waitress finished, he ignored her and turned his attention back to scanning the doors and watching the threesome at the booth. After a moment, the waitress flashed him an annoyed look and departed.

Winterhawk, Ocelot, and Hildebrandt all looked up as the waitress approached their table. "What'll it be?" she asked in a tone that almost managed to sound interested in their replies. Her eyes swept over the three, assessing their potential as tippers.

"I suppose a wine list would be out of the question?" Winterhawk inquired with an evil smile, then cast Ocelot a mock dirty look when his friend kicked him hard under the table.

"Just some coffee for now," Hildebrandt said, rolling his eyes companionably at the waitress and smiling as if he was slightly embarrassed by the behavior of his tablemates.

"Yeah, that sounds good," Ocelot agreed.

"Extra caffeine," Winterhawk suggested. Ocelot kicked him again, but not as hard this time.

The waitress sighed, seeing her tip evaporating. "Right. Three `kafs, comin' up. Got it." Turning on her heels, she headed back for the kitchen in no particular hurry.

"Charming woman," Winterhawk said under his breath.

Hildebrandt shrugged. "You probably wouldn't be very charming either, if you worked out here."

"I'd shoot myself before I'd work out here."

Ocelot drummed his fingers impatiently on the table. "Let's stay focused, okay?"

"Sorry," Winterhawk said. "What are we focusing on, exactly?"

"Keeping an eye on the doors, for one thing. And the other people in here, for another."

Hildebrandt looked around. "Nobody looks dangerous to me."

"That's why they're paying us," Winterhawk reminded him. "Anyone could be dangerous. Exactly what does `dangerous' look like?"

Ocelot nodded. "For instance, that elf sitting over there on the far side of the room--don't look-- could be. Did you notice how he was scoping us out as we came in?"

"Surely they wouldn't send one person after us," Winterhawk said. "And none of the others were paying any attention to us. I sincerely doubt that our waitress has an SMG under her skirt."

"We don't even know who they are," Hildebrandt pointed out.

Before anyone could answer, they had to pause their conversation for a moment to watch the waitress coming over, bearing three large cups of steaming soykaf. "I can leave the pot if you want," she said.

"Yeah," Ocelot said. "Thanks."

"Can I bring you anything else?"

Winterhawk had paused in his scrutiny of the restaurant's patrons to briefly peruse the menu. "What do you recommend?" he asked her, a somewhat wicked glint in his bright blue eyes.

She eyed him with the same sort of unbelieving look she would have given a cat in a clown suit should it have wandered in and inquired about the time. I gotta get all the weird ones. I can't just take the day shift and put up with the truckers pinching me. No, I gotta get the looney tunes. First it's the tightass dandelion eater over there, now some smartass rich Limey and his buddies slumming. "We got a special," she finally said, a bit sullenly.

"Why don't we just get three of those?" Ocelot said quickly, looking around to see if anybody was going to disagree with him. When they didn't, he turned back to the waitress. "Yeah. That'll do."

She jotted that down and quickly made her exit without further comment.

"You just have to do that, don't you, `Hawk?" Ocelot asked.

The mage shrugged. "One does what one must." He was looking so loopy from fatigue that Ocelot decided to let it go.

"We were talking about who those guys were," Hildebrandt spoke up.

"Yeah," Ocelot said, looking around the restaurant again. Two truckers had come in and taken one of the tables in the center aisle, and one of the single customers was paying his check and leaving. The elf at the far booth and the couple at the near one had not moved, nor had the single human man at the counter, who was reading a newspaper. "Seems like we've done a pretty good job of figuring out who they weren't, but not much of a job figuring out who they were."

Winterhawk reached into the inner pocket of his suit coat and withdrew an object wrapped in a white handkerchief. "I'd forgotten about this until now," he said. "It dropped off the body. I didn't get a chance to take a look at it. It's probably nothing." Unwrapping it, he tipped the object onto the table without touching it. "Careful," he warned. "I don't know if it's got any of that poison on it."

All three men looked down at the object in the middle of the table. It was a small insignia pin, of the type worn on a collar or lapel. The backing had fallen off, leaving only the pin part with the insignia. All gold, it bore the image of a open hand, palm facing outward. Around the palm was a simple circle.

Winterhawk and Ocelot both stared at it blankly, but quickly looked up at the sound of a loud gasp from across the table.

Dr. Hildebrandt's gaze was riveted to the object, and both runners noticed that he had gone a bit pale under his healthy tan.

"Dr. Hildebrandt?" Winterhawk said gently. "Are you all right?"

"...No..." Hildebrandt said, the word coming out slowly, deliberately.

"Do you recognize this?"

"What is it?" Ocelot asked. "I've never seen that symbol before."

For a long time, Hildebrandt didn't answer. He stared past Winterhawk and Ocelot, his eyes fixed on some point far away from the restaurant. Briefly, he closed his eyes. "Damn..." he whispered. "I should have known better... Why did I ever think they wouldn't--" he trailed off, dropping his gaze back down to the pin on the table. "Damn."

Ocelot reached out and locked his hand around Hildebrandt's broad wrist. "Doc--if there's somethin' you're not tellin' us, you'd better do it now." His voice held a dangerous undercurrent. "This isn't the time to be keepin' secrets."

Hildebrandt pulled his eyes up from the pin and, after a long moment, sighed. "Yeah," he said, resignation lacing his voice. "I guess it isn't."

Across the restaurant, the elf watched the odd threesome with interest, still feigning rapt attention to his rapidly cooling plate of eggs and hash browns. He couldn't hear what they were saying from this far away, but it was clear that they had managed to piss off the waitress, judging from the expression on her face as she clumped back toward the kitchen.

It was what they did after she left, though, that captured the elf's curiosity. They spoke in hushed tones for a few moments, and then the Brit pulled something small from his jacket and put it on the table. For a few seconds, the three did nothing but look at the object. The elf wished he could see what it was, but without his mag scope--which was currently nestled in the briefcase with his SM-3--there was no chance of that. His eyes widened a bit as the ork stiffened, his full focus consumed by the thing. Then the blond man reached out and grabbed the ork; for a moment, the elf thought there would be a fight. But the ork merely nodded. Even from where the elf sat, he could see that the ork looked beaten and prepared to capitulate on whatever the blond man was demanding.

Suddenly, the elf realized that he was becoming far too interested in someone else's business. That in itself was not the problem; he was not above eavesdropping on conversations if he thought they could be useful to him, but this time his interest had caused him to relax his scrutiny of the rest of the restaurant. Quickly he brought his eyes up and made a sweep of the area, noting that the trucker and the two pairs of humans were still where he had left them, eating their meals and talking or reading newspapers. The waitress had stopped to answer a question for one of the humans, and the suspicious threesome appeared to be staring each other down. Through the pass-through cutout to the kitchen, two young Aztlaner cooks in white hats could barely be seen, no doubt preparing the orders hanging suspended from a spinning holder above the cutaway.

The elf's scrutiny had moved on, resting for a moment on the waitress as she made her way slowly back toward the kitchen. Subconsciously, however, something was nagging at him. Something pawed at the outer fringes of his mind, only to skitter maddeningly away as he tried to pin it down.

Something was wrong. But what? Everything had looked fine: the customers, the waitress, the cooks--

The cooks.

Lightning-quick, the elf's head snapped back up toward the pass-through cutout. He got a brief impression of the two young cooks staring off to their right in wide-eyed terror, and had barely two seconds to draw his Browning under the table before the door from the kitchen flew open.

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