(c)1997, R. King-Nitschke
The idea for this story came into being about a week ago, when I realized, `Hey--it's almost Christmas. I need to write a Shadowrun holiday story.' Its creation was kind of rushed--I wrote it in about 8 hours over a week-- but it turned out okay. Hope you like it.
It had not been a good day for Winterhawk. Or at least not for Alastair Stone.
It was shortly after 17:00, the late-December sky already dark and forbidding, the starlight unable to punch through the thick layer of gray clouds that hung over Seattle like a dirty blanket. Winterhawk guided his car carefully down Sixth Avenue, trying (and succeeding, thus far at least) to avoid the endless series of pedestrians, all of whom seemed to have made it their purpose in life to impede his progress. He watched with growing annoyance as oblivious shoppers, arms loaded down with gaily-colored bags and boxes, scurried out between the slow-moving cars, intent on their next destination. A light, streaky rain was falling, just strong enough that he had to use his windshield wipers intermittently, but not strong enough that he could just leave them on. He glanced down at his watch, scowling: he'd been in this snarl of traffic for more than forty minutes. Forty minutes to make a five-mile drive! I could have walked it faster than this, he thought in disgust.
A car darted out in front of him, making a right turn from a tiny side street. Winterhawk simultaneously hit the brakes and the horn. "Watch where you're going, you bloody idiot!" he yelled. Of course the other driver couldn't hear him, but it still made him feel better. Next time I'll summon up a watcher and have it scream in their damned ear! Perhaps that will get through to them! But he doubted it.
Winterhawk sighed, trying to calm himself down. After all, he wouldn't have to be here much longer. Once he got home, all he had to do was finish packing and catch a cab to the airport tomorrow morning, and he'd be on his way home to England for the holidays. Home where he could get away from all this commercialized holiday hoopla. He looked around, shaking his head. Not that he had tried all that hard, but he could not understand what gripped all these people with this crass materialistic fervor at the end of every year. All around him, neon signs proclaimed sales, last-chance opportunities, and exhortations to buy, buy, buy in order to prove to your loved ones that you had sufficiently strong feelings for them. It wasn't that obvious, of course, but very nearly so. On one streetcorner, an enormous troll dressed as Santa Claus rang a bell and indicated the pot next to him, but the shoppers flowed past him, their current splitting around him and reforming like an avaricious river. Across the street from the troll, a middle-aged human woman in coat and scarf was having a similar lack of luck diverting the single-minded shoppers from their sales and their last-minute bargains.
"I wonder if they'd notice if I just left the car here and walked home," Winterhawk muttered to himself as traffic crept forward at glacial pace. He switched on the car's radio and was hit by a blast of Christmas music followed by a loud ad for a jewelry store. He turned it off again.
It was late for him to be in Seattle. Usually, he tried to get out of town by December 20th at the latest, for just this reason. But this time, it couldn't be helped: his team's last run had gone on longer than they had expected, and they'd only gotten back in town yesterday. `Wraith and Joe had already taken off to wherever they went between runs; Winterhawk didn't know where that was and he didn't ask. Ocelot would probably stay in town, as usual. The only one of the team who'd been born in Seattle and lived all his life there, Ocelot didn't seem to mind sticking around most of the time.
Traffic picked up again as the signal changed, and Winterhawk was forced to concentrate on driving. He could have put the car on autopilot and let the grid handle it, but he was reluctant to trust it in this kind of conditions. Annoyed as he was at the darting herd-animal shoppers, he didn't particularly want to run one down. Even if they did deserve it.
By the time he arrived at his Downtown apartment, tired, stressed, and frustrated, it was nearly 17:45. Dodging more shoppers and trying to juggle his overcoat, keys, and umbrella, he went inside, threw everything on the nearest chair, and slumped gratefully down into his soft leather couch with a satisfied sigh. Home. No more crowds. No more fake sentiment. Now all he had to do was--
His phone rang.
Who could that be? And why were they calling him now? He picked it up slowly, hoping it would go away. It didn't. "Yes, hello," he said wearily, hitting the button to turn on the video.
The familiar kindly but slightly worried face of a man in his sixties appeared on the screen. "Sir?"
Winterhawk smiled. Aubrey. The caretaker at his home in England was undoubtedly calling to tell him of some last-minute arrangements that had to be taken care of. "Hello, Aubrey. What can I do for you?"
"Are you all right, sir? You look a bit...frazzled, if you don't mind my saying so."
Winterhawk waved him off. "I'm fine, Aubrey. Nothing a long plane ride won't cure. What is it? It's late for you to be calling."
A look of even more worry settled over the old man's features. "Well, sir... that's--er... that's what I'm calling about. Something's come up, and I thought you should know about it."
"What it is, Aubrey?" Winterhawk asked, pulling himself up to a more upright position. "Is something wrong?"
"Well, sir...yes, but not the way you'd think. You see, my sister up in York's taken ill. It was quite sudden, but..." Aubrey trailed off, looking guilty.
"--but you want to go up there to be with her," Winterhawk finished. "Of course, Aubrey. Of course you must. Why are you even calling me about it?"
Aubrey appeared even more uncomfortable. "Sir, you're expected home tomorrow. If I go up to York, there'll be no one here. I can't leave you alone like that--"
"Don't worry about it, Aubrey," Winterhawk cut him off. He sighed. "You go on up there. Give her my best."
There was a pause. "Are you--still coming home, sir?"
"I'm not sure." He forced his voice into a cheer he did not feel. "Everything will be fine, Aubrey. If I don't come home, I'll find something to do `round here. Now put it out of your mind and hurry up to York. Just be sure you let Maya know you're leaving. She should be all right on her own for a few days, as long as she knows we haven't all deserted her."
"Yes, sir," the caretaker said glumly. "Are you sure--?"
"Yes, Aubrey. I'm sure. Now let's have no more about it. Have a good holiday, and call me when you're back. Don't hurry, though. Stay as long as you need to."
"Yes, sir. Merry Christmas to you." Aubrey's voice still sounded hesitant. He broke the connection slowly, with obvious reluctance.
Winterhawk fell back on the couch with a disconsolate sigh. Of course it couldn't be helped, and naturally Aubrey had to be with his sister if she was ill. He could still go home, he knew, but without Aubrey there to infuse the house (and its cynical master) with holiday cheer, there hardly seemed a point to it. Maya would be there; however, fond as he was of her, the idea of spending the holidays alone in a huge, drafty house with only a blackberry cat for company didn't appeal to him. Normally it would have, but even he, loner though he normally was, wanted some (meta)human contact right now. He could rattle around in his Seattle apartment just as easily as he could rattle around in his London house. At least I'll save the plane fare, he thought. The thought didn't comfort him. If Joe and `Wraith hadn't already left, he would have considered calling everyone up and seeing if they were game for procuring another run. Maybe Alastair Stone would have a lousy holiday, but at least Winterhawk would make some money.
Without giving it much thought, he snapped up his phone from where he'd tossed it on the couch and hit the speed-dial for Ocelot's number. Maybe his remaining local teammate would be up for a drink or two and some commiseration.
"Yeah?" Ocelot answered almost immediately, his voice somewhat muffled. There was no video.
The video clicked on, showing Ocelot's face in a dimly-lit location. "Hey, `Hawk. Thought you'd be on your way to England by now."
"Yes, well...things didn't go according to plan. I'm not going. Want to go have a beer or something?"
Ocelot considered a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. Sure. Where?"
"I don't care."
"Yeah, you do," Ocelot said with a grin. "Trust me. You care. Tell ya what. I'm over in the old neighborhood right now, talking to some people. How `bout we meet at Louie's Bar in Redmond in about an hour? Then you can tell me why you're not goin' home."
"Fine. I'll see you there. But there isn't much to tell." Winterhawk broke the connection, tossed the phone back on the couch, and tried to summon up the impetus to get up and go back out into the world. It wasn't easy.
Louie's was several steps down for Winterhawk and his teammates; a runner bar that catered mostly to young, up-and-coming talent, it was usually teeming with both shadowrunners looking for work and people looking to hire them. This time of year, though, it was a bit less crowded than usual. The music, which the rest of the year consisted mostly of the latest sim-star hits, had been replaced by synth-metal Christmas carols. At least they weren't too loud.
Winterhawk settled himself into a booth across from Ocelot, who was already there. "I'd forgotten how--"
"--low-rent?" Ocelot supplied. As usual, in contrast to `Hawk's stylish gray suit and greatcoat, he was dressed in jeans, T-shirt, leather jacket, and soft boots.
"--this place was," Winterhawk finished smoothly. "Yes. Exactly."
Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. Me too. I like to come back here every once in awhile, though. Remembering my roots or something." He indicated his beer, which he'd already half finished. "Ordered you a Guinness."
"Thanks." He stared across the small crowd of people, distracted.
"Hey--you okay? You seem a little out of it tonight. It isn't like you to want to go have a beer just for no reason. This got anything to do with why you're not going home?"
Winterhawk shrugged. "Aubrey called. His sister in York is ill, so he wants to go up there to see her. I told him to go ahead."
Ocelot thought about it for a moment, then nodded knowingly. The waitress approached; he waited for her to set a beer in front of Winterhawk before speaking. "I get it. He's gonna be gone, so you don't want to go home and be all by yourself in that big house."
He nodded. "I had a ghastly day today. Tripping over false Christmas cheer at every turn. I'm not sure how much more of it I can take."
"False Christmas cheer?"
"You know what I mean--stores and tinsel and sales and plastic reindeer and all that peace-on-earth and love-your-neighbor rubbish."
"Bah humbug to you too," Ocelot said with a grin.
"Oh, come on," Winterhawk protested. "Surely you don't think any of that is genuine. What's the point of having one day when everyone's supposed to love everyone else when the next day they'll just go back to shooting and exploiting each other?" Without waiting for an answer, he shook his head. "Seems like everyone who isn't trying to force you into some kind of false frenzy of goodwill and salesmanship is in an oblivious stupor of consumerism. Do you know how many people carrying too many packages darted out in front of my car today?"
Ocelot's grin grew a little wider. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Alastair Scrooge."
Winterhawk sighed loudly, smiling a bit in spite of himself. "You're one of them, aren't you? Go on--hit me up for money, or try to sell me some sort of tacky bit of schmaltz in a Santa Claus hat."
"Sorry," Ocelot said, "Fresh out of Santa Schmaltz."
"Don't worry. I'm sure there'll be more along any moment."
Winterhawk and Ocelot both turned at the sound of the new voice. Standing in front of their booth was a boy of no more than nine or ten years old. Dressed in a threadbare sweater, jeans, and a faded, oversized jacket, the boy had disheveled dark brown hair and an earnest, slightly dirt-smudged face. The two men had been so intent on their conversation that they hadn't seen him approach.
"What do you want, kid?" Ocelot said.
"Are you guys shadowrunners?" the kid asked.
"Aren't you a bit young to be in here?" Winterhawk said, annoyed.
The kid nodded. "Yeah. But I heard this was where you could find shadowrunners." His eyes, wide and guileless, shifted back and forth between the two men.
"What do you want with shadowrunners?" Ocelot asked.
"I want to hire some," the kid said. He stood up a little straighter, arranging his boyish features into what was obviously supposed to be a businesslike expression.
"Please," Winterhawk said with a dismissive sigh. "Don't be absurd. You must--"
Ocelot raised a hand for him to stop. To the kid, he said, "Why do you want to hire shadowrunners?"
"To find my Dad." The boy punctuated that statement with a nod of certainty. "So--are you guys shadowrunners?"
"We might be," Ocelot said carefully, glancing up at Winterhawk. The mage merely shrugged.
"Can I sit down?"
Ocelot shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. Until you get kicked out of here, anyway." He scooted over in the booth to accommodate the boy. Winterhawk made no effort to move. In fact, he was still looking rather annoyed, but said nothing. Clearly he intended to have no part in this. "So," Ocelot continued, "What makes you think shadowrunners can find your Dad?"
"They're always doin' stuff like that in the trids," the kid said. "You know, like Fast Eddie `n' Mandrake the Magician and the Matrix Master in The Shadow Enforcers. You know? They saved that guy from where the evil business guy was trying to kill him `cause he knew too much."
"Sorry," Winterhawk said dryly, "I missed that one."
"So," Ocelot said, ignoring the mage, "Let me get this straight. You saw shadowrunners helping people in the trids, so now when you need help, you try to find some."
"Yeah," the kid said as if that was the most self-evident thing in the world.
"If your father's missing," Winterhawk said, "Why not go to the police? That's what they're paid for, isn't it?"
The kid shook his head. "No. The cops don't help people like us. They don't even come around where we live."
"Where do you live?" Ocelot asked.
"A few blocks from here. In the Barrens."
Ocelot nodded. That much was true--if the kid lived in the Barrens, he was on his own. It practically took a tactical nuke going off to get the Star down there for much of anything. They certainly wouldn't dirty their hands over one missing guy. "Who's `us'?"
"Me an' my mom an' my two sisters. I'm the oldest," he said with a certain pride.
"Does your mother know you're out trying to hire shadowrunners?" Winterhawk asked.
The kid shook his head vigorously. "No. She thinks something's happened to Dad. She said he should be back by now. But she's so busy workin' and takin' care of my sisters that she doesn't get out much." He looked up at them, first at Ocelot and then at Winterhawk. "Please. Let me hire you, if you're really shadowrunners. Somebody's gotta find my Dad." His voice shook a little; both men could see his carefully-constructed facade of toughness was beginning to break.
"What's your name?" Ocelot asked.
"Okay, Matthew. Why don't you go outside and let us talk about this. Come back in five minutes. Okay?"
The kid nodded. "Okay." He jumped down off the seat and headed toward the door.
"You're not actually thinking of doing this, are you?" Winterhawk asked incredulously.
"He's a child. He doesn't know the first thing about what he's getting into."
"Yeah, but it takes a lot of guts to just march up to a couple of guys he's never met and ask `em if they're shadowrunners. He's gotta be desperate. Kids like that--that grew up in the Barrens, I mean--learn early on to keep a low profile."
"So you think he's telling the truth."
Ocelot nodded. "Yeah, I do. You forget, I grew up like that too. I can spot a scam a mile away, especially in a kid that young. I learned `em all myself. If he's lyin', he's a damn good actor. Did you think he was?"
"Lying, or a good actor?"
Winterhawk thought about that for a moment, then reluctantly shook his head. "No. But it's still absurd."
Ocelot shrugged. "Maybe. But you sounded like you were pretty bored--maybe this'll be something to keep you busy and keep your mind off all that fake Christmas cheer."
"You're going to do this regardless of whether I agree, aren't you?"
The mage sighed. "All right, then. I'm in. I must admit, I was looking for something to do. But I want to get a look at his aura first. When he comes in, talk to him for a minute so I can get a look at him."
"Here he comes now." Ocelot said, pointing. Sure enough, the boy was making his way back through the bar.
"So--can I hire you?" he asked eagerly, climbing back into the booth.
"Yeah, I think so," Ocelot said. "You're gonna have to tell us more about why your dad's missing, though." Glancing up, he could see Winterhawk's expression changing slightly as he shifted his vision over into the astral realm.
"He's been gone a couple weeks. He just went off one morning and he never came back."
"Any idea why he did that? Did he get along okay with your mother?"
Matthew nodded. "Yeah. They'd fight sometimes--you know, argue--but everybody does that. He never hit her or nothin'. And she's sad that he's gone. She tries to hide it, but I can tell."
Ocelot glanced up at Winterhawk again. He'd shifted back, and nodded nearly imperceptibly when he caught Ocelot's eye.
"What is your father's name? And what did he do for a living?" Winterhawk asked, apparently deciding that if he was going to involve himself in this operation, he was going to get some answers of his own.
"His name's John. John Henderson. He didn't have a job. He used to, but the place where he worked closed down. He couldn't find another job. Here's a picture of him." From his back pocket, he pulled out a tiny holo, of the type taken in an amusement-park booth. The holo showed a slightly balding, somewhat chubby man in his mid thirties. Matthew was in the picture too; both were smiling. From the difference between what the boy looked like now and what he looked like in the picture, it appeared that the picture was a year or so old.
Winterhawk took it, looked at it briefly, and handed it to Ocelot. "What about your mother?"
"She useta work at a restaurant. You know, a waitress. But after Dad left, she had to quit `cause she has to stay home with Jenna and Katie. Jenna's five and Katie's only two. Mom got another job sewing things. She can do that at home. She don't get paid much, though."
"Okay," Ocelot said. "I think that's about all we need, except for any places you know your dad liked to go."
"I dunno," Matthew said, his brow furrowing as he thought. "He never talked about goin' anywhere. Mostly he was out lookin' for jobs."
"Well," Winterhawk said, "we'll need a way to contact you, so we can let you know when we find him. And also a way for you to contact us if you find out any more information that might be useful."
"We ain't got a phone," the kid said doubtfully.
Ocelot nodded. "We'll set it up so you can leave messages with the bartender here. And we'll leave a number we can be reached at so you can call us from a pay phone."
"Okay." Matthew drew himself up again. "Now I gotta pay you. Just like the trids. Shadowrunners gotta be paid up front."
Ocelot started to say something, but Winterhawk beat him to it. "You can't believe everything you see in the trideos, you know. In the real world, the job gets done before the money changes hands. So you can pay us when we find your father. How does that sound?"
The boy face lit up with hope. "You keep sayin' when you find him. Yeah. If you bring my Dad back, I'll pay you whatever you want. I'll get a job if I have to. I promise."
"Don't worry about that now," Ocelot said. "You'd better get going--it's late, and your mother's probably worried about you."
Matthew nodded. "Okay, I'll go now." He stood up, started to leave, then turned back around. "Hey."
"You guys got shadow names? You know, like Fast Eddie and Mandrake?"
Winterhawk sighed and regarded his glass with a combination of amusement and exasperation, but Ocelot nodded gravely. "Yeah. He's Winterhawk and I'm Ocelot."
"Cool..." the kid said in a tone that bordered on reverence. "Wow...real shadowrunners. And they're workin' for me." He headed out of the bar, his shoulders held high.
Ocelot stood, tossing a few nuyen notes on the table. "Come on, Mandrake," he said with a grin. "Looks like we got a client."
"He's probably dead, you know," Winterhawk said when they had left the bar, buttoning up his overcoat against the chill of the night as he walked. The light rain that had been falling earlier had picked up a bit, though it was still more of an annoyance than an inconvenience.
Ocelot shook his head. "Maybe not, but probably almost as bad. I'll bet we're gonna find him face down in some BTL den or bar somewhere, drunk or stoned out of his mind. I've seen this kind of thing a hundred times."
"If that's what you think, why did you want to take the job?"
He shrugged. "Not sure, really. Maybe I just got a soft spot for Barrens kids in trouble."
"Whatever you say," the mage said. "I'm wondering if p'raps we shouldn't be talking to the boy's mother."
"Why? You think she knows where the guy is?"
"Don't know. But p'raps she knows more than the boy does. There could be any number of reasons why he would disappear, yes?"
"Sure. Like I said, he could be a chiphead, or a druggie, or a drunk. Those are some pretty common reasons for people to disappear. Or maybe you were right--maybe he is dead. There's a hell of a lot of things that can get you in the Barrens if you're halfway unlucky. You could get caught in gang crossfire, or stumble into the wrong alley at the wrong time, or run into a nest of ghouls out lookin' for their next meal. That's just what I can come up with off the top of my head."
"Or it could be something a bit less sinister," Winterhawk said speculatively.
"Possibly our Mr. Henderson simply decided that he wasn't interested in being a family man anymore. Or perhaps Mrs. Henderson hastened him on his way. With a frying pan."
Ocelot shrugged. "Sure, that happens. Maybe he skipped, or maybe he was beating up on her and she kicked him out of the house. But trust me--it's hard to hide that kind of thing from kids. Especially poor kids who probably live in pretty close quarters with their families. The kid said his parents were happy enough with each other. If I had to pick one of those two theories, I'd go with the one where he just skipped because he got tired of the stress." They reached the place where Ocelot's bike was parked, and he pulled a pair of gloves from his pocket and began putting them on. "Whatever's happened to him, though, if he's alive it shouldn't be too hard to find him. I'll lay odds he's still in town somewhere. Tell you what--I got some friends around the area where Matthew said he lives. Let me go talk to them and tell `em to keep their eyes out and their ears open."
"After two weeks, he might be a bit hard to find. He could be anywhere. And he could have changed his appearance if he didn't want to be found."
"Yeah, I know. But we gotta start somewhere, right? Think of it as a challenge. If my guys don't turn anything up in the next couple days, we might have to go talk to Mom."
Winterhawk nodded. "All right, then. Call me if you find out anything. And," he added soberly, "Start trying to come up with a plausible story to give the boy if we find that his father has met with an unfortunate end."
Walking slowly back to where he had left his car, Winterhawk mused on the perverse workings of fate. He had thought he was just going to meet a friend for a few drinks and a couple hours' worth of boredom alleviation, and now he had a job. Working for a child, no less. Talk about mixed feelings. He was grateful for the opportunity to keep his restless mind occupied with something other than long and moody meditations on the insincerity of the season, but on the other hand, he did not like children. In fact, he tried to avoid them whenever he could, considering them to be noisy, unpredictable bundles of chaos, usually with bad manners and no tact. So here he was, a member of a shadowrunner team that commanded and received some of the top rates in Seattle for its services, agreeing to perform a run for a kid who probably didn't have more than five nuyen to his name.
Not that the money mattered, of course. Winterhawk wasn't in it for the money. If he was, he had more than enough to keep him living in fine style back home in England. A lot safer, too. The worst thing a thaumaturgy professor at London U. had to worry about was banishing an occasional errant term project. No, that wasn't it at all, and he knew that this was why he had ultimately decided to accompany Ocelot on this fool's errand. After discovering and then losing his own son a bit over a year ago, his feelings toward children, especially brave and resourceful children, had mellowed considerably. And at least this job would get him out of the house and give him something useful to do with his sudden abundance of free time. Right now that was more important to him than anything else. Still thinking over the events of the evening, he got back in his car and prepared to do battle with the forces of holiday traffic once more.
The phone in Winterhawk's coat pocket rang at shortly after 10:00 the next morning, and continued to ring several more times as he dragged himself up from where he'd fallen asleep on the couch late the previous night. Homing in on the phone by the sound of its beeping, he pulled it out of his pocket and flipped it open. "Yes?" he rasped.
"Kinda late for you to be asleep, isn't it?" The amusement in Ocelot's voice carried easily through the tiny speaker. "Usually it's you who calls and wakes me up."
"Yes, well, I was up late doing some reading," `Hawk said. "What do you want?"
"I think I got something. One of my guys said that they think they rememember seein' somebody who looks like Henderson a few times at a bar called McCarthy's Tavern. He said the bartender there might know somethin', but he doesn't come on shift until 1700. So go back to sleep, or go do your Christmas shopping or something, but meet me at McCarthy's at 1730 or so."
"Right," Winterhawk said, and hung up.
McCarthy's Tavern was dark, smoke-filled, intimate in a rough way. As Winterhawk and Ocelot entered, they were enveloped in a melange of odors: cigar smoke, the tang of beer, and the subtle aroma of sweat. It was not a large place, with only enough tables, booths, and barstools to comfortably support about forty people, but it nonetheless successfully exuded the impression that it was accustomed to being full to bursting.
It was still early for there to be many occupants: only an ork man reading a datafax at one of the far booths, surrounded by a thick haze of gray smoke, and a pair of human men in T-shirts and stained jeans at the other end of the bar. The men were intent on their beers and conversation, and did not notice the two newcomers. The only other person in evidence was a middle-aged bartender who was currently cleaning glasses. High above his head, a blurry trideo unit dispensed sports scores at a volume level barely above a hum.
Ocelot stepped up to the bar and put down five nuyen. "Give us a couple of beers."
The bartender nodded, wordlessly, pulling glasses down from the shelf. He drew two beers, placed them in front of the two men, and took the five nuyen.
For a few moments, Winterhawk and Ocelot sat silently, the latter sipping his beer and the former pretending to do so. Ocelot finished his after a few moments, shoving the glass back toward the bartender. When he came over to get it, Ocelot said, "We're lookin' for a friend. Heard he hung out here sometimes." He indicated for the bartender to refill the glass.
"What friend's that?" the man asked. He looked the two up and down. "Ain't seen you `round here before."
"Name's John Henderson," Ocelot said. He pulled the holo from his pocket and shoved it across the bar. "Seen him?"
The bartender picked up the picture, scrutinized it in great detail, then passed it back with a nod. "Yeah, I've seen him. Not recently, though."
"How recently?" Winterhawk asked.
The man shrugged. "Dunno. Maybe two-three weeks. He didn't come in very often. You say you're his friends?"
Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. We're worried about him. So's his family."
"His family don't know where he is?" The bartender's eyes widened.
"Nope. You know anything about `em?"
"Only what he told me." His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "He's got two kids, yeah?"
"Three," Winterhawk said. "Two girls and a boy."
"Yeah, that's right," the man said, relaxing a bit. "He's crazy about those kids. Lost his job awhile ago. That's when he used to come in here fairly often. Didn't spend much--he'd nurse the same beer all night, but nobody minded. People fall on hard times, y'know? But now you say he's gone?"
"Yeah. Just disappeared. We were hopin' maybe you might know where he is."
"Sorry," the bartender said, and he looked genuinely as if he was. "Wish I could help you. John's a good guy. Spent all his time worryin' about taking care of his wife and those kids. He'd never just run out on `em. But I don't even know where he lives. I don't pry about stuff like that. Part of the job, you know."
The ork man with the datafax, apparently having taken an interest in the conversation, had emerged from his smoke cloud and was now approaching them. "Hey," he said. His voice was raspy and more smoke-filled than the room.
"What?" Ocelot turned to face him, and after a moment so did Winterhawk.
"You guys talkin' about John? John Henderson?"
"Yeah. You know him?"
The ork nodded. "Yeah, a little. Missed him around here. He in trouble?"
"Not as far as we know," Winterhawk said. "Aside from the fact that no one seems to know where he is."
"Ain't seen him in a couple weeks, come to think of it." He regarded the two runners with the same suspicion they had previously received from the bartender. "What do you guys care?"
"We're friends of his," Ocelot said.
"How come I ain't seen you `round here, then?"
"Do all his friends spend their time here?" Winterhawk asked, staring the ork down challengingly with his electric blue gaze.
"No..." the ork said, shuffling nervously and looking away. He quickly changed the subject. "You lookin' for him?"
"Yeah," Ocelot said. "Know where he is?"
The ork shook his head. "No. Like I said, ain't seen him in a couple weeks." He looked like there was more he wanted to say.
"Go on," Ocelot said. "Tell us the rest--"
"--Oscar. If he's your friend, you're gonna be doin' him a big favor."
Oscar thought about that for a long moment. He looked up and met their eyes. "You sure you're his friends?" he asked slowly.
"Quite sure," Winterhawk said. "All we want to do is find him and help him get home."
The ork took a seat on a barstool around the corner from where Winterhawk and Ocelot sat, so he could look at them when he talked. He looked at the two men for a long moment, then spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. "I--I'm not sure if it's any help," he said. "I don't know where he is. He just comes in here sometimes for a beer, and we talk. He talks to lotsa people--nice guy--but that night it was me. I came in about 18:00 or so. Looked around, and saw him sittin' at a booth by himself, lookin' at something. He wasn't payin' any attention to nothin' else. I went over there, not tryin' to be quiet or nothin', and said hi. He jumped like I'd smacked him or somethin' and grabbed up the paper he was lookin' at and shoved it in his pocket. All I saw was that it was one o' those flyers you see tacked up to streetlights and buildings and such, but I didn't see what it was for. He grinned big and said hi, and then we sat down and talked for awhile. That was the last I saw him. Didn't think nothin' of it at the time."
Winterhawk and Ocelot exchanged glances, then the mage turned back to Oscar. "Do you remember anything else about the paper? Color? Any distinguishing features?"
The ork thought about that for a moment. "Well...lemme see...I think it was blue. Yeah, blue. And there was a big nuyen sign on it. You know--bigger than the rest of the stuff. I couldn't see any of the other words, though. Sorry..."
"No, no, that's helpful," Ocelot assured him. He nodded toward the bartender and put twenty nuyen down on the bar. "Keep this man happy, okay?" he said, and stood up. "Thanks, Oscar. Thanks a lot. I think you just gave us our first real lead."
Once he enlisted their aid, Ocelot's gang contacts wasted no time in scouring the neighborhood for flyers matching the description Oscar had given. In less than an hour, Winterhawk and Ocelot were sitting in yet another bar, looking at a weatherbeaten piece of paper incredulously. Spread out before them on the table, it read:
Take a Chance on the Dream of a Lifetime!
Become a Member of the Elite Team!
Proven Sales Methods
1,000 NUYEN GUARANTEED FIRST SALE!!!!!
Come to our Free Informational Meeting
and Take Charge of Your Life!
At the bottom of the flyer was an address, along with several seminar dates. No LTG number, though. The runners looked at each other again. One of the dates had been the night Henderson had disappeared. Another was the following week. The third and final date was tomorrow night.
"Do you think he actually fell for such an obvious con job?" Winterhawk asked, shaking his head in disgust, not at Henderson, but at con jobs in general.
Ocelot shrugged. "Lots of people do. Especially down here were there ain't much money and folks don't have much education. It makes sense--here it is right before Christmas, the guy lost his job, and here's something offering him a guaranteed thousand nuyen. Maybe he decided to give it a try, figuring if he didn't like it he could just walk out."
"Couldn't he?" Winterhawk asked.
Again, Ocelot shrugged. "Who knows? Depends on what kind of scam it is. Maybe once they hook you in, they won't let you go. Maybe their pitch was so good that he bought into it all the way. I don't know. But it sure looks suspicious that he apparently went to this thing and then disappeared, doesn't it?"
"Very much so," Winterhawk agreed. He spread out the paper and examined it again. "There's another of these things tomorrow night, I see. P'raps we ought to go `take a chance on the dream of a lifetime', don't you think?"
"Way ahead of you," Ocelot said, getting up. "More like a nightmare, though, I'll bet you."
"Are you sure I look sufficiently down on my luck to pull this off?" Winterhawk asked, regarding his image dubiously in the reflection of one of the few remaining intact store windows in the Barrens.
Ocelot looked him up and down, admiring his handiwork. It was early evening of the next day, and they were getting ready to go to the informational meeting. Making Winterhawk--whose normal mode of dress was a hell of a lot closer to Savile Row than the Salvation Army--look like he belonged in the Barrens had been a real accomplishment. The mage was now dressed, as was Ocelot himself, in a shapeless coat over an equally shapeless sweater, faded jeans, and old scuffed boots, all of which had been purchased from nearby thrift and surplus stores. "Yeah...you'll pass. But mess up your hair some more. And stop straightening your jacket!" he added, whacking Winterhawk's arm away from where he'd been prepared to do just that. "You aren't supposed to care about your clothes, remember?"
Winterhawk sighed, running both hands through his dark hair. "I thought we were just supposed to look poor, not like we live under a bridge somewhere," he said peevishly.
"Trust me--if you lived under a bridge, you wouldn't be that coordinated." Ocelot grinned, pulling two pairs of lightly-tinted sunglasses from his pocket and passing one over to Winterhawk. "Here. Put these on. They get one look at those eyes and they'll never believe you're desperate for money. We gotta make `em believe that we're just two down-on-our-luck joes lookin' for some easy nuyen." He put on his own pair, effectively covering his pale blue catlike cybereyes.
After a moment, Winterhawk did the same. Ocelot was right--even though his eyes looked normal, real ones didn't come in bright electric blue. And out-of-work blue-collar types couldn't afford that kind of tech. "We'll just have to sit in the back," he said.
"Yeah. Way in the back. And it might be a good idea for you to keep quiet," Ocelot said with a grin. "They get an earful of that accent and we're gonna be the center of attention."
"You're just afraid I'll get caught up in the moment and sign us up to sell vacuum cleaners or something," Winterhawk said, with his own smile at the absurdity of that.
"Yeah, you figured me out. So keep quiet, okay? C'mon. Let's go. We'll have to park quite a ways away and walk there."
The address on the flyer was an unassuming storefront in one of Redmond's more marginal neighborhoods. The place was unremarkable except that it was a bit more well-kept than the surrounding buildings, with clean windows and a fresh coat of cheap but serviceable paint. The legend on the door read Elite Sales Training Center. "I think this is the place," Winterhawk said. "It doesn't look very elite to me."
"You got that right," Ocelot muttered.
Inside, they were greeted by a flight of stairs leading up to the second floor. A crisply-lettered sign reading "Elite -> Upstairs" pointed them toward the object of their quest. Muffled voices could be heard from above. Winterhawk and Ocelot looked at each other and headed upward.
At the top of the stairs was a human woman standing by an open door. She smiled dazzlingly at `Hawk and Ocelot as they approached. "Hello, good evening," she said warmly. "Welcome. Are you here for the sales training? Please go in and take a seat. The presentation will begin in a few minutes. We have refreshments and hot coffee inside."
"Thanks," Ocelot said, but she was already smiling at another man coming up the steps behind them.
The room inside was large and well-lit, filled with several rows of folding chairs. At the front was a podium with a table next to it; on the table was a small computer attached to a trideo projector. In the back of the room, another table, covered by a white cloth, held cups, a corporate-type coffee urn, and a plate of cookies, most of which were already gone.
Winterhawk looked around the room, noting that Ocelot was doing the same. Currently about fifteen people milled about, nibbling nervously on cookies, sipping coffee, and trying to fade into the woodwork as much as possible. He noticed that there were very few groups; most people stood alone, or sat in the chairs facing straight ahead. The crowd was mostly men and mostly human, though there was one couple (one of which was an elf), one dwarf man, and two women who cast occasional glances at each other as if trying to gauge whether it was worth it to try to start a conversation. What little talk there was seemed to be dominated by two grinning orks, who were cheerfully discussing what they were going to do with their soon-to-be-gotten riches.
The smiling woman came in, closed the door, and went to the front. "If you could all please take your seats," she said with great ebullience, "then we'll get started right away!"
A moment passed while chairs were shuffled and people chose spots. Winterhawk and Ocelot took seats all the way in the back.
After a few more moments of muffled shuffling, a door on the other side of the room opened and a man entered. He strode confidently to the podium and smiled benignly at the assembled group. Appearing to be in his mid-40s, the man wore a fine suit and carried a leather briefcase. His hair, perfectly coiffed, showed just a hint of distinguished gray at the temples. His mustache was precisely trimmed. His face, split with a wide grin, evoked images of a kindly father figure. "Hi!" he said, his voice strong and full of enthusiasm. "You're all here to make money, right? Well, my name is Paul, and I'm gonna help you!"
From that point, he launched into his spiel. And it was a damned good spiel, too. With pep and vigor that would have put most professional cheerleaders to shame, Paul described the opportunity that the lucky group in the room was going to get the chance to seize--an opportunity that might come only once in a lifetime. He described how he had grown up in an area much like this one (in Detroit, he said), and how if it hadn't been for someone giving him a similar opportunity, he would still be where they were now--broke, barely making ends meet, having trouble feeding themselves and their families. But that was all over now, he said. Now he was wealthy and successful and happy, and soon they all could be too. It was easy!
Paul had everyone in his thrall now (although at least two of the crowd were only pretending to be enthralled). People were leaning forward in anticipation, their long-dormant hopes stirred by the promises of this friendly stranger who seemed eager to help them. As the spiel went on, Winterhawk noticed that even the initial cynics, who'd been making derisive noises at some of Paul's earlier claims, had now been drawn into the pitch.
"Okay," Paul was saying. "Now, you're probably thinking, `Who is this guy? We don't know him! He could be lying to us!' Right?" There were a few nods among the group. "Well, of course that's what you're going to think! You're smart people. I know you're all smart people. You're here, right? You had enough savvy to come take advantage of this opportunity, when a lot of other people didn't. But I'm going to show you that this can and will work for you. Marty? Kain? Come out here, please, boys!"
The back door opened again, and two more men emerged. One was a human, and the other was an ork. Both wore suits similar in quality to the one worn by Paul; both had professional-looking haircuts, shiny shoes, and big grins. The ork had a large gleaming diamond pinky ring on his right hand, and the human wore a heavy gold watch. Paul indicated them with a flourish. "Ladies and gentlemen, meet Marty and Kain. Two of my best salesmen." He turned to face them. "Why don't you two tell the nice folks here where you're from?"
"I'm from Puyallup," Marty, the human, said. "Born and raised."
"I grew up right here in Redmond," Kain said. "And let me tell you, I'm grateful to Paul here every day of my life. You shoulda seen me a year ago. I was a mess. Lost my job, lost my girlfriend--I was gettin' drunk all the time, hangin' out with the wrong kinda people. I was goin' nowhere. But then one day I saw an ad just like you folks saw, and I decided to take a chance. And look at me now." He spread his arms wide. "I got nice clothes, a nice car--I even got my girlfriend back."
"Yeah," Marty agreed. "Same here, except that my wife was ready to kick me out of the house `cause I couldn't get a job. Now we get ta take vacations, and my kids go to the best schools...and I can give my wife all the stuff I couldn't give her before. Listen," he added, leaning in closer to the group. "It's true. It can happen. It happened to me, and Kain here, and even Paul. And all it takes is wantin' it enough. Don't let this one go by--you'll never forgive yerself for it!"
Like a well-oiled machine, the two men faded back and sat down side by side in two chairs in back of the podium. "See there?" Paul gushed. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime. You can make your dreams come true."
"Doin' what?" a dwarf sitting near the front called out. "Somethin' that good's gotta be illegal."
Paul beamed at him, coming out from behind his table. "My good man, I'm glad you asked. Of course it's nothing illegal. Let me just show you the quality product that you'll be proud to stand behind." Reaching around the podium, he pulled out a velvet-covered box about 30 centimeters long and 25 centimeters wide. "Gather `round, friends, gather `round!"
There was much shuffling of chairs and jockeying for position as the crowd moved up for a closer look. Winterhawk and Ocelot joined the group, casting a meaningful glance between them as they craned their necks to see.
Paul slowly opened the box. There was a gasp from the front ranks. Nestled on crushed black velvet inside the box were several pieces of glittering jewelry. Most of the pieces were gold and diamond: a solitaire pendant, a ring, and two bracelets. Two other rings were set with a ruby and a sapphire. The remaining pieces, two more bracelets and a necklace, were gold. The contents of the box shone like an otherworldly treasure under the harsh (and carefully placed) overhead lights. "Aren't they beautiful?" Paul asked, his beatific smile shining almost as brightly as the jewels. Just as slowly and carefully as he'd opened it, he closed the box and returned it to its place. "Only the highest quality. We never deal with anything but the best, I assure you."
"Come on," said the dwarf who'd spoken up before. "We ain't gonna sell stuff like that down here. How much do those things sell for anyway? Nobody's got that kinda money around where we live."
Again, Paul flashed his dazzling grin. "You folks are making me proud. I can see I've got a smart group here, and that really makes me happy to see. Of course these beautiful pieces aren't cheap. Why would I waste my time and yours trying to sell you on inferior pieces? Like any work of art, these lovely jewels are expensive. And naturally, you have to choose the right potential buyers for such exquisite items. But as you'll see in our presentation, we'll be helping you with all that. If I might direct your attention behind me--"
He stood aside, and pressed the button on the projector. As if on cue, Kain got up and turned off the room lights.
For the next twenty minutes, the potential salespeople were treated to a colorful, flashy, and extremely persuasive trideo presentation describing the adventure on which they were preparing to embark. Winterhawk leaned back in his chair and forced himself to look enraptured as he was presented with what he recognized as some extremely effective psychological conditioning; glancing over at Ocelot, he could see from his friend's posture that he was doing the same thing. The trideo started out by describing what a wonderful group of people the attendees were, praising them for taking charge of their lives and starting down the road to riches. Then, one by one, the hosts (Paul and a lovely young human woman) brought up each likely objection and immediately shot it down with sincere (albeit sparkle-teethed) abandon. Nowhere to sell the jewelry? We'll set up your appointments for you! No salesmanship skills? You learn while you earn, with expert teachers on hand! No nice clothes to wear on sales calls? We'll help you get yourself spruced up! The view switched to scenes of happy salespeople selling jewelry to equally happy customers.
The presentation ended with both hosts exhorting the attendees to not allow any small roadblocks to set them back on their voyage to success and prosperity. Following a swell of cheerful bombastic music over a freeze-frame of the woman's smiling face, the trideo winked off. Winterhawk and Ocelot exchanged looks again. All around them, people were focused on the place where the trid had been showing.
"See?" Paul said, flipping the lights back on. "Everything's there. All your questions were answered, I hope. Now, who's ready to see if they have what it takes to be a success?"
"I got one more question," the dwarf said. "How much money do we make from sellin' one of those pieces?"
"Oh, dear! I'm so glad you asked!" Paul gushed. "Almost forgot about the best part!" He pulled the velvet case out again. "You see, each of these beauties sells for anywhere from 500 to 1,000 nuyen. Together, everything in here is valued at around 4,000 nuyen. Once we've gone through our selection process and chosen our new salespeople, we'll be so confident in your ability to make a sale that we're going to set you up with your first display case. Our cost on the jewelry is 2,000 nuyen or so. So when you sell your case, you just give us 3,000 nuyen--we have to make a profit too, you know!--and you keep the other 1,000 nuyen as your own profit! It's so easy, isn't it? No money up front from you, and you only pay us when you make a sale!"
There was a moment's silence as everyone digested that. "But--" one of the women spoke up timidly, "What if we don't make a sale?"
"What kind of attitude is that for a successful salesperson?" Paul protested. "Of course you're going to make sales! But for you doubting Thomases out there, I'll set your minds at ease: if for some extraordinary reason you don't sell your case, you can simply return all the jewelry to us and you'll owe nothing. You can't lose, friends! You can only win! Now who's interested? Raise your hands!"
Everyone, of course, raised his or her hand. No one wanted to be thought stupid or unwilling to seize what to them looked like a no-lose situation. Paul smiled. "I thought so. Now, it's time to find out who's got what it takes. Kain? Marty?"
The two salesmen immediately got up and began circulating among the crowd, handing out little datapads. Paul, still bubbling with enthusiasm, instructed everyone to answer the questions that would be read to them.
He's even got the ones who can't read covered, Winterhawk thought sourly as he punched false data into the pad. The questions were an interesting mix of psychological profile, demographics, and a few that `Hawk was convinced were just there as fillers to put off anyone attempting to analyze the patterns. Simple stuff, really, but these people were uneducated and unsophisticated regarding scams like this. `Hawk wanted nothing more than to poke a few pins in Paul's carefully-prepared facade, but he remained silent. Time enough for that later.
"Okay!" Paul exclaimed when everyone had finished. He had a small computer up front into which the information from the datapads was being sent. "Looks like we've found our winners!" He stood up, his face taking on a fatherly look of understanding. "I wish we could take everybody. This is such a good crowd that I know you'd all be fantastic successes, but we only have so many appointments set up. For those of you who aren't chosen, I encourage you to come back next time and try again." Checking the computer, he scanned the crowd and called out three names, one at a time. "Come on up here!"
One of the young orks, one of the women (but not the one who'd asked what would happen if she didn't make a sale), and a middle-aged human man hurried up to the front, grins almost as wide as Paul's on their faces. The ork high-fived the human man. "Okay," Paul said, putting on his rueful face again as he turned back to the remaining attendees. "Hey, I want to thank everybody else for coming. Remember, just because you didn't make it this time doesn't mean you won't make it next time. Right now, though, I'm going to have to say good night to all you nice people." He smiled at his three `winners'. "We have a lot of work to do now!"
Outside, Winterhawk and Ocelot watched as the dejected-looking crowd shuffled out of the room. Reaching the street, they quickly distanced themselves from the rest of the non-chosen and headed toward where they'd left the car. Winterhawk sighed. "That's a bloody nice pitch he's got there. No wonder he's rooking them in."
Ocelot nodded soberly. "Yeah. I've seen things like that, though never one quite that professional. Folks around here, a lot of them are desperate for easy money. Sad thing is, the ones who get caught by scum like that are usually the honest ones. The dishonest ones go for things a lot more illegal and dangerous."
"I wish I could have gotten a look at what those people he chose gave as their answers," Winterhawk said. "I'd like to find a common denominator. We're really not all that far along in our investigation, you realize. Just because we've discovered what Mr. Henderson's gotten himself embroiled in, doesn't mean we've discovered where he is or what's become of him. Any ideas?"
"Not at the moment." Ocelot shook his head. "Sounds like it might be time to go back and talk to our junior Johnson. I want to see if Dad dropped any hints about what he might be up to. The thing that doesn't scan is why he'd just drop off the face of the earth like that."
"We could go ask Mr. Teeth back there if Henderson's been by," Winterhawk mused.
"No, bad idea," Ocelot said immediately. "If they're runnin' a scam in there, and we both sound like we're convinced they are, then the last thing we want to do is let on that we're on to them. It might cause `em to pack up and take off, and then we'll never find out what happened to Henderson. They might even kill him to protect themselves."
"Do you think they'd kill someone over this sort of thing?"
"Let's not take any chances, okay? Maybe he's alive now--I think our best bet's to keep quiet and do our snooping carefully."
"Well, I'm all for that," Winterhawk agreed. They reached the car and got in. "Let's go back to Louie's, then, and see if we can manage to make contact with our young employer. I could do with a drink, at any rate."
Matthew's eyes widened as he entered the parking lot at Louie's and saw Winterhawk and Ocelot emerging from their car. "You came back," he said, almost as if he didn't believe it.
"Of course we came back," Winterhawk said briskly. "We're in your employ, are we not?"
"Yeah..." the boy said slowly. He grinned. "Yeah. Did you find my dad? Louie said you wanted ta talk to me. Did you find him?"
"Not yet," Ocelot told him. "But we're workin' on it. We need to ask you a couple of questions, though."
"Okay." The boy sat down on the bumper of Winterhawk's car. `Hawk started to say something, then shrugged and remained silent.
"Did your dad say anything about getting a new job before he left?"
Matthew shook his head. "Nope. He was pretty upset `cause he couldn't. He said nobody was hiring anybody. I'm sure he woulda told us if he found one."
"What if he wasn't sure he would get it?" Winterhawk asked. "P'raps he might want to surprise you with his good news, but he didn't want to say anything until he'd gotten the job."
The boy shrugged. "Maybe. But I didn't hear anything."
Ocelot began pacing around. "Did he say anything about selling things? Or making lots of money?"
"No...is that what he's doing? Selling things? Why can't he come home?" Matthew began to look worried.
"We don't know yet," Winterhawk said. "We haven't found him, and we're not sure what he's doing. But this is a lead we're pursuing, so we wanted to see if you might know anything about it."
"Sorry," the boy said glumly. "I wish I did. I want to help you."
"Yeah," Ocelot said. "We know you do. Just try to remember, okay--did he do anything weird or unusual right before he left? Talk to anybody he doesn't usually talk to, go anywhere he doesn't usually go, dress differently--anything?"
Matthew pushed himself off the car bumper and started his own round of pacing, hands jammed into the pockets of his faded jacket. "I don't know...I don't think so--" His smooth brow furrowed, and he took one hand out of his pocket to shove back his unruly hair. "I just can't--wait a second! Maybe there was something."
"What is it?" Winterhawk said, his attention now fully on the boy. Ocelot stopped pacing.
Matthew thought about it a moment longer before speaking. "The day before he left... he was talkin' ta one of his friends from work outside our place. They didn't see me, but they were talkin' kinda quiet-like. Then his friend left. Later on, Dad told Mom that he was gonna go out for awhile. He didn't come back after that."
"What do you mean, a friend from work?" Ocelot asked. "You mean a friend from his old job?"
"Yeah," Matthew said, nodding. "He usedta come to dinner with us sometimes, back when Dad was workin'. I think he got fired too, `cause we didn't see him anymore after that. Not till that day."
"Do you know his name?" Winterhawk asked. "P'raps if we find him, he might be able to shed a bit of light on this situation."
Matthew took a deep breath. "I think it was...Tom...somethin'. Tom..." He rubbed his head in frustration. "I know this is important...I'll get it... It was somethin' Irish. O'Riley, or somethin' like that." He looked up at the two men. "He's an ork."
"Do you know where he lives?" Ocelot still hadn't resumed his pacing; he watched the boy carefully.
"No. Sorry. He never said. I guess Dad knew. Mom might know...you want me to go ask her?" Matthew appeared poised to dart off to his home and get the requested information.
Winterhawk shook his head. "No. That should be enough to go on for now. He probably doesn't live too far from here, if he and your father worked together. Does your family have a car?"
Matthew shook his head. "No. We couldn't afford one even when Dad was workin'. Dad took the bus to work. At Allied something-or-other. They went outta business. That's why everybody got fired."
"All right, then," Winterhawk said. "I think that's all for now." He looked at Ocelot, who nodded. "We'll be getting back to you again shortly. And don't hesitate to call us if you come up with anything else."
"One more thing," Ocelot said. "If anybody else asks about what you've told us today, just tell them you don't remember. And don't mention that we're working for you, okay?"
Matthew's eyes widened. "Is this dangerous?" he whispered. "Shadow stuff?"
Ocelot nodded gravely. "Yeah. Shadow stuff. Secret stuff. Can you do that?"
"I won't tell nobody," the boy said, his voice full of awe. "I promise."
Back in the car, Winterhawk looked sideways at Ocelot. "What's all that `shadow stuff' talk? Are you just trying to give the boy an adventure?"
"Kind of. But it's more than that. I'm gettin' convinced that Dad's involved in something here. Aren't you?"
"And I'm not convinced that whatever he's involved in isn't dangerous. I just want the kid to be careful, that's all. Not talk to the wrong people."
Winterhawk nodded. "Good point. And speaking of talking to people, we'd best look up this Tom O'Riley chap. He seems to be our best lead at the moment."
There were twelve entries in the Greater Seattle LTG directory for a Tom, Thomas, or T. O'Riley. There were also several more under variations of O'Reilly and O'Reilley. A quick call to a friendly decker and two hundred nuyen later, and Winterhawk and Ocelot had the address of one Thomas O'Riley, ork, who had been on the employee roll of Allied Manufacturing, Inc., before it had met its untimely demise and closed its Seattle plant a month and a half ago.
The address proved to be an apartment in a clapped-out building about two miles from where the runners had met Matthew at Louie's. The space in the parking lot that corresponded to the apartment number was empty except for a few rusting car parts and some trash.
Winterhawk looked dubiously at the door after their knock brought no response. "Looks like no one's home."
"Maybe he's at work," Ocelot said. "Maybe he got another job."
"Shall we wait?"
Ocelot shrugged. "Ain't got nothin' else to do. Why don't we sit in the car out on the street where we can keep an eye on things."
Once back in the car, Winterhawk checked out the apartment on the astral plane and found it empty of life except for a sleeping cat on a couch in the living room. "Cat looks healthy enough," he remarked when he came back. "Someone lives there, at least. Our man's going to be quite dismayed to find out that his cat's apparently knocked half the ornaments off his Christmas tree."
"Do I really need to know this?" Ocelot answered, shaking his head in amusement.
Winterhawk shrugged. "Just trying to be accurate, that's all."
They sat in the car for another two hours before something happened, and during that time both of them suffered from varying degrees of boredom. Winterhawk's attention span for such things was notoriously short, and Ocelot wasn't too much better. They watched as a large troll woman left one of the apartments with a gargantuan basket of dirty laundry, several ork kids got up an impromptu game of tag in the grassless courtyard, and an elf woman arrived home with a bag of groceries and a small child in tow. The troll woman was just closing the door an hour later behind herself and her now-clean laundry when Ocelot touched Winterhawk's arm. "Look," he said, pointing. "Maybe that's our guy."
An ork man was approaching the apartment building. As Winterhawk and Ocelot watched, he mounted the rickety stairs to the second floor and headed straight for the apartment they had been keeping under surveillance. "That's him," Ocelot said. "C'mon. Let's go talk to him."
"Wait," Winterhawk said. "P'raps we should make ourselves appear a bit more... non-threatening. The two of us up there might spook him."
"What do you suggest? Or I should be afraid to ask?"
Winterhawk's only answer was a wicked smile.
When Thomas O'Riley opened the door to his apartment, two frail-looking elderly ladies stood there waiting patiently. One held a bag that read "Give to the Poor," and the other one carried a large and rather ponderous purse. "Yes?" he said. "Can I help you ladies?"
"Hello, good sir. May we come in and tell you about our mission?" one of the ladies asked in a rather high, quavering (and British-accented) voice.
"Well, I was just leaving--" O'Riley said nervously.
"Oh, it'll just take a minute," she assured him. "Please...my feet are so tired from all this walking..." The other lady nodded in silent agreement, shifting back and forth in her sensible shoes for emphasis.
"Well...maybe for just a few minutes," the ork said. "At least I can offer you some water or something..." He stepped aside and opened the door.
The two old ladies moved inside with agonizing slowness. Once they passed the door, though, their frailty seemed to disappear. As O'Riley looked on with wide, frightened eyes, the women's disguises melted away.
Ocelot swiftly moved to stand in front of the door to prevent O'Riley from leaving (they had already determined that there was only one entrance and exit from the apartment) while Winterhawk faced the ork. "Hello, Mr. O'Riley," he said cheerfully. "Sorry about the disguise, but we rather doubted that you'd let us in if we looked like ourselves." His gaze flicked quickly around the room: threadbare but clean and neat, with a couch, chair, several-year-old trideo unit, and a large Christmas tree in the corner. As `Hawk had noted before, the ornaments from the lower tier of the tree were scattered around the floor. The culprit, a black and white cat, lounged indolently on the back of the couch, seemingly oblivious to its master's new and potentially dangerous visitors.
"Oh my God..." O'Riley moaned. "Please don't kill me. I don't have much money, but you can have it--"
"Calm down, Mr. O'Riley," the mage said. "We're not here to kill anybody. We're looking for a friend of yours, and we have reason to believe that you might know where he is."
"John Henderson," Ocelot added.
Both he and Winterhawk watched O'Riley's face carefully when the name was spoken, and both were rewarded by a quick look of terror that passed across the ork's features.
"What about him?" O'Riley asked carefully after a pause. "I haven't seen him for a long time."
"Are you sure of that, Mr. O'Riley?" Winterhawk asked with deceptive gentleness. "That's not what our source tells us."
O'Riley's expression grew a bit harder and more resolute. "Who sent you guys?"
"We're not at liberty to say that at this point," Winterhawk said. "But if it matters to you, let me just assure you that we mean Mr. Henderson no harm. We're trying to help him. He's in trouble, isn't he?"
"Look," O'Riley said wearily. "Why don't you just go, okay? If those goons sent you, then beat me up and get it over with. I ain't gonna rat on my friend."
Ocelot leaned forward a bit from where he'd been propping himself up on the door. "Goons? What goons? You mean the people from the jewelry scam, don't you?"
O'Riley's gaze snapped up. "Don't play dumb with me. It isn't gonna work. You know damn well where you're from."
Winterhawk took a deep breath. "Mr. O'Riley, it seems that we're both withholding information here, and that will do none of us any good. I suspect we're both on the same side. I'm going to take a chance on that, because frankly, if my hypothesis turns out to be in error, we can find you and deal with you before you can do anyone any harm. So, that said, I'd like to tell you who hired us." He looked over at Ocelot, who nodded slowly. "Mr. O'Riley, we're currently employed by the young Mr. Matthew Henderson. John's son." He smiled a bit to himself as the irony of that occurred to him.
Surprisingly, that took all the air out of O'Riley's bravado. He sank down on his couch with a loud sigh and put his head in his hands. "That kid..." he whispered. His eyes came back up to the runners. "Matthew... he's a good kid. He loves his dad. But where'd he get the money to hire guys like you?"
"He appealed to our holiday spirit," Ocelot said, only half-sarcastically. "So come on, Tom--you know something you're not tellin' here. Spill. If you know where this guy is, tell us so we can get him back home to his family."
O'Riley sighed again. "Guys, it's not that easy. Believe me, it's not."
"Why not?" Ocelot demanded. "Is he alive?"
"Yeah. He's alive. But he ain't doin' too good. I don't think he can take much more of this."
"Of what?" Winterhawk asked. "If he's alive, why hasn't he contacted his family? Is he in some kind of trouble?"
The ork looked up. "Yeah, you could say that," he said bitterly. "If you call havin' a goon squad on your tail and owin' more money than you could pay back in a lifetime bein' in trouble."
Winterhawk took a seat at the other end of the couch. "Mr. O'Riley, please go on. I've no doubt that we can deal effectively with whatever Mr. Henderson has gotten himself tied up in, but we need to know what that is first."
For a long moment, O'Riley didn't speak. He stared down at his hands, which were clasped in his lap. Finally, he said in a ragged voice, "I can't do this anymore. Johnny's my friend, but I can't keep lookin' over my shoulder like this." He looked up. "Is there anything you guys can do to prove that you're really tryin' to help the kid?"
Ocelot pulled the holo of Matthew and his father from his pocket and passed it over. "Can't do much, but Matthew gave us that. So we'd know what his dad looked like."
O'Riley took the picture, looked at it, and closed his eyes. "I've seen that picture," he said. "Johnny has one just like it." His head came up and his worried eyes studied the faces of the two runners. "Okay," he finally said. "I can't do this anymore. I'll help you. I'll take you to Johnny. He can tell you the whole thing better than I can. But I sure hope you're on the level, `cause if you're not, I don't think he's got much other hope. And those kids of his are gonna be without their dad for good."
"Where did Matthew find you guys?" O'Riley asked. He was sitting in the back seat of Winterhawk's car, along with Ocelot, who was back there to make sure he didn't try anything. They had been driving for about twenty minutes, and although they were still in the Barrens, they were several miles away from where Winterhawk and Ocelot had met Matthew. This area was even more depressing than that one had been, with decaying buildings, broken and boarded-up windows, cannibalized cars, and neverending multi-layered sprays of graffiti, the latter applied one coat at a time over many years as the neighborhood's fortunes and balance of power changed. O'Riley was looking nervous, but he also apparently knew where he was going. "Where would he have even seen you? You look too uptown to be hangin' out down here."
"A lucky coincidence," Winterhawk said, his eyes on the pothole-strewn road.
"Yeah, I guess so," O'Riley said doubtfully. "Turn left up here at this corner, and then you'd better park. He might get suspicious and run if he sees the car." As Winterhawk turned the car around the indicated corner, the ork pointed at an abandoned warehouse, its dark bulk rising up into the cloud-choked black sky.
"He's in there?" Ocelot asked suspiciously.
"Yeah--he's holed up in one of the offices. I've been comin' by every day to bring him food and stuff. He'll tell you the story." He opened the car door. "Come with me," he whispered. "But be quiet. If he hears us, he'll run."
"You don't mind if I take a look first, do you?" Winterhawk asked.
"Astrally. You understand that while we'd like to trust you, it's still prudent to check things out ahead of time."
O'Riley shrugged. "Sure. Go ahead. There should be one guy in there--he'd be toward the back, in the office area."
A quick astral scan later, Winterhawk sat up and nodded. "Right you are, Mr. O'Riley. One man, near the back. His aura looks quite worried and anxious."
"He's waitin' for me. I should have been here half an hour ago."
The three men moved quietly around the back of the warehouse to where O'Riley indicated that one of the doors was unlocked. They entered, looking around the building's cavernous interior. Winterhawk and Ocelot melted into the shadows off to either side of the door as O'Riley stepped out into the middle of the room. "Johnny? You here?" he called softly.
"Yeah," came the immediate, slightly quivery reply. "Tom? You're late. What happened? Nobody followed you, did they?"
"No, Johnny, nobody followed me. C'mon out." O'Riley looked back at the where the two runners were standing silently, then turned back toward the interior.
After a moment, a figure emerged from one of the doors on the far side of the warehouse. In the dim, fading light, the runners recognized the chubby form of the object of their search. O'Riley switched on a small flashlight, shielding the beam, and shined it on Henderson.
Winterhawk's eyes widened. The man looked terrible. Unshaven, hair hanging in limp strings, his clothes grimy and oil-stained, Henderson appeared not to have slept in most of the two weeks during which he had been missing. It was clear that if the clothes he was wearing had fit him two weeks ago, then he had lost a good deal of weight. He walked with an uncertain gait, glancing constantly around him as if he expected to be shot at any moment. "Tom?" he said uncertainly, looking at his friend. "Was there a problem? You didn't bring anything with you." He looked as if he might cry. "Tom, I'm so hungry. It's been a day already, and I've been afraid to go out--"
Winterhawk stepped slowly out of the shadows. "Good evening, Mr. Henderson," he said in a soft, soothing voice. "It's a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance."
Henderson's face froze in shock, and then a series of emotions from rage to terror to resignation passed over it in quick succession. "Tom..." he whispered, his posture slumping in utter surrender. "Oh, Tom, I thought you were my friend, and now you've sold me out."
Winterhawk shook his head as Ocelot came out to join him. "No, Mr. Henderson. You've got it all wrong. He is your friend. And may have done you the biggest favor he could have done for you."
"These guys are helpin' Matthew, Johnny," O'Riley said. "They have the picture of you guys together. They said he gave it to them. Somehow he's talked them into trackin' you down. They showed up at my place, and I believe `em. We gotta trust somebody, Johnny."
"M--Matthew?" Henderson's posture straightened slightly as his eyes locked on his friend, then moved to Ocelot, then Winterhawk. "What--what are you talking about?"
"Matthew hired us," Ocelot said. "To find you and bring you back home."
"Hired...you?" The man looked as if he might faint. He sagged a bit sideways, and O'Riley hurried over to support him. "But...I can't go home. I can't."
"Mr. Henderson," Winterhawk said. "Is there somewhere we can sit down? You look a bit under the weather. We may be able to help you, but I'm afraid there are several answers you need to give us before we can take further action."
"Yeah...uh...yeah. Come on back." Henderson, still supported by O'Riley, led the two runners back into one of the warehouse's offices.
Winterhawk and Ocelot looked around, passing a dismayed glance between them. Henderson's sanctuary consisted of a tattered sleeping bag and pillow on the floor, an overturned box he was using as a table, and a small pile of magazines and newspapers on the floor. On the far side of the room, carefully tossed into another box, were several food wrappers and empty bags. The room had the smell of someone who had not bathed in a long time, combined with the damp, musty aroma of a building not well protected from the rain. Small puddles of water pooled on the floor where the ceiling dripped in several places.
O'Riley helped Henderson sit down on his sleeping bag, and sat down next to him. Winterhawk and Ocelot opted to remain standing, leaning against one of the interior walls that did not appear to be damp. "Okay," Ocelot said, not unkindly. "Time to let us know what's going on. This is about that jewelry scam, isn't it?"
Henderson again looked as if he was going to burst into tears. "I'm sorry..." he said, almost to himself. "I've messed things up so much, and all I wanted to do was earn some money to take care of my family..." He looked up at the runners. "Are they all right?"
"We haven't seen them all," Winterhawk said. "Only Matthew. But he hasn't said anything to the contrary. They miss you, though. They want you to return home."
"I can't," Henderson said. "I screwed up big-time, and now they're after me. If they find me, I'm afraid of what they'll do to me. Of what they'll do to my family."
"Why don't you start at the beginning?" Winterhawk asked, settling back to hear the story.
Henderson sighed. "Yeah. The beginning." He took a deep breath and did not look at the runners as he spoke. His voice was weak and hesitant, but it gained a bit of volume as he went on. "A couple of weeks ago, I found a flyer up on a streetlight. It said I could make a thousand nuyen, guaranteed, before the holidays. All legal. All I had to do was show up at this meeting, and they'd tell me how. It sounded too good to be true, but I'd just lost my job and I was havin' trouble findin' another one, so I took a chance. I didn't tell Carolyn--that's my wife--or my kids, because I didn't want to get their hopes up. Besides, if it was really on the level, I wanted to surprise them. I was all excited about the stuff I could bring home for them if I had a thousand nuyen. I wanted to see their smiles, you know?" His eyes filled with tears, but he wiped them away angrily and went on. "So I went to the meeting. There was this guy there, Paul--"
"--We've encountered Paul," Winterhawk put in. "We attended the presentation."
Henderson nodded. "Then you know how convincing he is. I was sure that this was going to work. It all seemed so easy. And when they picked me as one of their salesmen, I couldn't believe it. I was going to get my wish--I had to!" Shifting position, he leaned back against the wall. "I was so caught up in the whole thing that I was happy to sign their agreement. They gave me my first case of jewelry--one of those black velvet cases like they had at the meeting--and told me to come back the next morning for my first sales appointment. They made it sound like I'd have my money by the end of the next day. So I thanked them--I was such an idiot--and then I left to head home. I still wasn't going to show the jewelry to Carolyn, because I still wanted to surprise her with the money. I wished I could afford to buy one of the pieces for her, but I knew when I had my first commission, I could buy her something nice, and then later on maybe I could get her one of the necklaces." He wiped tears away again with a savage swipe of his hand.
"So there I was, all excited and on my way home, when these guys stepped out in front of me. They roughed me up a little and dumped me in an alley. When I woke up, my jewelry case was gone." Almost shyly, he looked up at the runners and then back down again. "I was so stupid. I wasn't even watching where I was going. I should have known better than to walk home with something like that."
"People get mugged in the Barrens all the time," Ocelot said.
"Yeah, I know. But that's not the worst of it." Henderson shifted position again and shoved his hair back off his forehead. His eyes, round and blue and earnest, wandered around the room as if looking for something to anchor on. "I was so ashamed I didn't go home. I was scared to, since I didn't know what would happen if I showed up at my sales call without the jewels. I was afraid they might think I was a thief. So I went to the bar for awhile, had a beer--I still owe for that beer--and collected my thoughts. Finally I convinced myself that if I went back and told them the truth, they'd let me set up another call or two where they could watch me, and I'd just turn over all the money to them until I'd paid them back for the stuff."
Winterhawk and Ocelot exchanged glances again, but both remained silent. They were both beginning to see how Henderson had been snared so easily by the scam.
"So," Henderson went on, "I went back to the place they told me to go. I got there a little early, `cause I wanted to make a good impression. I was still hurting some from the night before, but nothing too bad. So I got there, and I heard voices. Loud voices behind the door." His expression grew sheepish. "I guess I listened some. I don't normally do that, but they were so loud, I got curious." Now, his eyes got harder. "There was somebody in there with `em. I recognized the voice. It was one of the other guys they picked the night before. And you know what?"
"He'd been mugged too," Winterhawk said. Ocelot nodded in agreement.
"Yeah. Same as me. They'd beat him up and took his case. So he was doin' just what I was gonna try to do. But they were gettin' mad at him. Tellin' him that he was a thief, and he must have stolen the jewelry `cause he wanted to sell it on his own. He said he wasn't, but they didn't believe him. They told him that if he didn't pay them back, they'd turn him over to the police and hurt his family. He begged `em to let him go. They just laughed. Then I heard a weird sound, like a moan, and a sound like somebody hittin' the floor. After that, I heard Paul's voice. He said, `Looks like we got another one for the shipment tonight.' Then he laughed."
Beads of sweat were standing out on Henderson's forehead. "I ran away then. I ran and I kept running until I couldn't run anymore. I think I heard somebody chasing me at one point, but I hid until they went away. I knew if they found me, I'd be in for the same thing. I didn't know if they killed that guy, or what, but I didn't want to find out. I had nothing I could do then, though. I couldn't go home--I was afraid they might track me back to my family."
"I take it you didn't provide your real address or your marital status on their survey?" Winterhawk asked.
Henderson shook his head. "No way. I was afraid if I did, that it might get back to Carolyn what I was doing and spoil the surprise. I remembered that, so I figured they couldn't find my family if they didn't know where they lived. I didn't even give `em my real name. Even if they kill me, at least my kids'll be safe." He slumped. "Tom was the only one I could trust. He was my old friend from my old job. I called him from a pay phone later that day, and he helped me find this place. He offered to let me stay with him, but I said no. I didn't want any ties, and I didn't want to risk gettin' him hurt. He's been bringin' me food and stuff for all this time." He looked up at O'Riley. "You're a good friend, Tom. I'm sorry I thought you sold me out."
Now, he did start to cry, burying his face in his hands. "What am I gonna do?" he moaned. "I don't know what to do! I'm scared, and I'm scared they'll hurt my family! I can't pay back all that money!"
"And you don't have to," Winterhawk said, a cold edge to his voice. Pushing himself off the wall, he approached the sobbing man. "We're going to take care of this for you, Mr. Henderson."
"Yeah," Ocelot said in a similar tone. "There's enough scumbags around this area, takin' advantage of people like you. I for one wouldn't mind seein' one of `em get shut down."
"You'd--do that for me?" Henderson stammered. "But...why? You don't know me. I don't know you. Why would you want to help me?"
Winterhawk shrugged. "As my friend here said to Mr. O'Riley earlier: p'raps it's holiday spirit. Or more likely, it's because we're both vehemently opposed to con operations such as this one."
"Besides," Ocelot added, "We're workin' for your son. We've gotta get these guys off your back before you can go home. That was part of the contract."
"You realize," Henderson said, a faint glimmer of hope warring with despair in his reddened eyes, "that Matthew doesn't have any money."
"We know that," Winterhawk said cheerfully. He extended his hand. "As for introductions, I'm Winterhawk and my companion here is Ocelot. I believe we've already made your acquaintance."
"You...you're really gonna go after these guys for me?" Henderson asked, slowly reaching up to shake Winterhawk's hand. "They're dangerous, you know."
"So are we, my friend," Winterhawk said, his cheery expression shifting into something more chilled. "So are we."
"Just give us the details," Ocelot said, not even trying to hide the fact that he was anticipating this with great relish. "We'll take care of the rest."
"Hard to believe that someone who grew up in the Barrens could be that gullible," Winterhawk commented as they drove back toward Seattle.
"No, not really," Ocelot said. "Lots of people are. There ain't much to hope for down there. Most of `em have seen all the obvious scams, but sometimes you can even get your hopes up for a scam when it looks convincing enough, and you ain't got nothin' else."
"Sad, really," Winterhawk said. "He seems like a decent enough chap."
"Those are the ones who get caught. The decent ones."
They were headed back to Winterhawk's place to pick up a few things, and then to Ocelot's in Tacoma to pick up a few more. They had left Henderson with Tom back at the warehouse, after a quick run to a nearby corner market to pick him up a supply of food. He'd promised to remain there until he heard back from them, and Tom had said that he would stay with his friend.
The stops only took a few moments each. Winterhawk changed clothes, donned his armored longcoat, and slipped a pistol into his pocket "just in case." Ocelot was already wearing his armored jacket, so he just had to pick up a few weapons. As they left his place, bound for the address Henderson had given them, he checked each one carefully and stowed it in its place: custom-made shotgun pistol on left side under his jacket where he could quick-draw it; grapple gun on right side; monowhip in its custom pocket in his jacket, and throwing knives on his belt. With his jacket zipped up, only the slight bulge of the grapple gun revealed that anything was there.
"I want a piece of that Paul scumbag," Ocelot said.
"What I want," Winterhawk said, "is to know what he meant about the `shipment.' You don't suppose this is another organlegging operation like the one we were involved in a couple of years ago, do you?"
"Not sure," Ocelot admitted. "The MO seems wrong, though. Seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through to grab people for parts. I don't know what it is, but I don't think that's it."
"Well, I suppose we'll find out in due time," the mage said, and continued driving in silence.
The address Henderson had given them was not the same one at which they had attended the sales presentation. This one was in a slightly more upscale part of the Barrens (which wasn't saying much) in a single-story office that looked like it might once have been home to a real estate firm.
"You got a plan?" Ocelot asked. "I don't think storming the place is going to be much good."
"Let me take a look at what's in there first," Winterhawk replied, and proceeded to do so. When he came back, he looked troubled. "It appears that there's another of their gullible salesmen in there sharing his tale of woe. The atmosphere is quite emotionally charged."
"There's a guy like Henderson in there?"
"Yes, it appears so."
"And how many others?"
"Can you tell if one of `em's Paul?"
"I don't think so," Winterhawk said. "These gentlemen were both rather large and physically imposing."
"Shit," Ocelot said harshly. "I wanted that bastard." He thought a moment. "But I bet those guys know where he is, wouldn't you think so?"
"Most likely they do." Winterhawk smiled a bit, nastily. "You have an idea, don't you?"
"Matter of fact, I do. You gave me the inspiration with that old lady thing today. Listen to this..." Ocelot mirrored `Hawk's nasty smile as he explained his plan.
It was a toss-up as to who was more surprised when the door to the small office burst open and Winterhawk and Ocelot rushed in to take up positions on either side of it: the occupants of the office, who were no doubt caught off guard by the sudden arrival of two unexpected newcomers, or Winterhawk and Ocelot themselves, who were just as certainly caught off guard by the sight of Kain and Marty, Paul's two "top salesmen," standing over the unconscious form of an elf male. The elf would likely have been surprised himself, had he been awake at the moment.
Marty was dispatched rather quickly when he made the fatal mistake of trying to draw a gun on Ocelot. His hand flew to his jacket, but since he was a normal human, unenhanced by cyberware, he was no match for Ocelot's wired-reflex-driven reactions. The throwing knife was embedded in his chest before he even got his hand on the gun. He uttered something strangled and wet in the back of his throat, then dropped in a heap next to the elf.
Kain didn't think. He ran for his life. Vaulting over the desk toward a second door in the room, he almost made it before Winterhawk's levitation spell lifted him up off the floor, legs pumping like a cartoon character trying to make a quick getaway. Gently, Winterhawk directed the spell to bring the ork back over to them, still running. Ocelot had drawn his pistol and now had it trained on the struggling man.
"I'd stop that and start talking, if I were you," Winterhawk said conversationally. "Wouldn't want to end up like Marty here, would you? There's one salesman who isn't going to the Bahamas this year."
Kain growled and lashed out with a foot, but the mage was too far away and the kick missed. Ocelot smacked him in the knee with the back of his armored forearm. "Bad idea," he said as the ork screeched in pain.
"Now," Winterhawk said as Kain hung there alternately glaring and groaning, "We'd like some answers. If you give us the right answers, we might take pity on you and let you live. It is nearly Christmas, after all."
"Hey," Kain said, his gaze fixing on Winterhawk. "I know who you are. You were at the meeting."
"Score one for the floating thug," the mage said. "We were attempting to find out some information about a certain friend of ours."
"What friend?" the ork asked sullenly.
"A guy named John," Ocelot said. "He went to one of your meetings too. A couple weeks ago. Chubby guy, light brown hair...is this ringing any bells?"
"Never heard of him," Kain said, trying not to wince in pain.
"Ooh, wrong answer," Ocelot said in a rueful tone. "Should I do your other knee for you too?" He moved forward, making as if to follow up his threat.
Kain flinched back, which was hard to do since he was still held firmly in Winterhawk's levitation spell. Once more, Ocelot smacked him with the back of his forearm guard, and once more the ork yelled in pain.
"I'd talk," Winterhawk said. "You've still got two elbows left. Not to mention eight fingers, two thumbs, and a nose. This could get quite ugly for you." He appraised the ork. "Oh. Too late for that, I'm afraid."
Ocelot snorted in disgust. "This is too slow." Re-drawing his pistol, he held it under Kain's chin. "Where is he, you bastard?"
The ork drew a sharp breath, sweat breaking out on his forehead. "No--don't kill me! It ain't worth it! I did see a guy like that! At one of the meetings!" His words came out fast and furiously, tumbling over each other in his desperation-borne eagerness.
"That's better," Winterhawk said. "Now where can we find Paul?"
Kain hesitated; Ocelot shoved the gun a bit harder into the soft skin under his neck. "No!" the ork begged. "Don't shoot me! Paul's on the ship! On the ship!"
"What ship?" Ocelot demanded.
"It's at the docks. It's gonna sail tomorrow." His bluster gone now, the Kain started babbling. "Pier 60. The Callie Marie. It leaves tomorrow with the shipment. He's there. He's there. Don't kill me, man...please don't kill me!"
"You're pathetic," Ocelot said in disgust. He raised the gun and smacked Kain in the back of the head. The unconscious ork hung there in the air like a large, well-dressed sack of potatoes.
Winterhawk lowered him to the ground. "All right, now we know where they are. Why don't you make sure he doesn't spoil our plans while I check on our unfortunate elf friend here."
Ocelot made short work of firmly trussing up Kain with plastic restraints around his wrists and ankles and duct tape over his mouth. After checking him for weapons (and divesting him of same), he rolled the ork over on his back. "How is he?"
"Unconscious, as expected," Winterhawk said from where he'd been checking over the elf. "He'll be out for awhile, I think. which suits our purposes just fine."
Ocelot nodded. "Okay, let's get on with the plan. You want to be a human or an ork?"
"Three guesses," Winterhawk said, heading over toward Marty's body.
The Callie Marie was right where Kain had said it would be: docked at Pier 60 at a rather sleazy and disreputable-looking section of the Seattle harbor. It was a large, similarly-disreputable-looking cargo ship, looming huge and black in its sparsely-lit berth. The only lights in evidence were a few on some of the dock buildings, and a few more on the ship's deck, but none of these were very helpful in illuminating things adequately. The sharp stench of salt mingled with the fainter one of chemical-tainted garbage filled the air. Men's voices could be heard calling to each other from somewhere inside.
Winterhawk and Ocelot, now looking remarkably like Kain's and Marty's twin brothers thanks to Winterhawk's Mask spell, supported the still-unconscious elf between them. "Okay," Ocelot said. "This is it. You ready for this?" Quickly, he checked to verify that his weapons were all where he had left them: ninja sword on his back, grapple gun on right hip, Franchi-SPAS 22 under his coat, grenades on his belt, two of his custom-made taser shuriken in his pocket, and his monowhip in its compartment in his sleeve.
"No problem," Winterhawk said, his voice full of confidence. He pulled his coat together against the chill bite of the night air. "I'm looking forward to taking care of this situation once and for all, and getting our Mr. Henderson back where he belongs."
"Careful," Ocelot said. "We still don't know what they're up to, or how many people they've got on that ship." After discussion, they had opted for skipping astral surveillance this time, fearful that there might be a magician on board who would be alerted to their unwelcome presence.
"I'm always careful," Winterhawk said, but his tone didn't change. He regarded Ocelot. "You know, tusks become you."
"Shut up," Ocelot said, grinning an orkish, tusky grin.
The elf groaned in their grasp. "Shh," Winterhawk said. "Keep quiet, there. This will all be over soon, and you'll be safe."
Together, he and Ocelot hustled the elf over toward the gangplank that led up to the top deck of the ship. Two burly forms stepped out to meet them. "Hey guys," the first, a troll, said. "Yer late gettin' back. Any trouble from the dandelion eater there?"
Ocelot, as Kain, shook his head and grunted. Since his voice sounded nothing like Kain's, he was trying to speak as little as possible.
"Okay," the second guy, an ork, said. "Take `im on down and put `im in one of the empty cells. We're almost full up. Just a couple more comin'."
Winterhawk and Ocelot both nodded, hurrying past the two guards. They glanced around, looking for a likely place to find cells. Ocelot pointed toward a doorway. "There," he whispered. Winterhawk glanced around the deck, seeing crewmen busily going about their activities, then followed Ocelot.
Once inside, they could see a stairway leading downward. "Okay," Ocelot said. "Let's take him down and see if we can figure out where Paul is. The longer we can keep anybody from suspecting us, the more time we'll have to make sense of this."
Winterhawk just nodded. They started downstairs. The inside of the boat smelled terrible: rust mingled with unwashed bodies mingled with brackish saltwater. Lighting was intermittent and grimy, and the footing was uncertain on the slimy decks. "Guess this isn't where they put the first-class passengers," `Hawk muttered. Ocelot didn't answer.
At the bottom of the stairs was a door, which was locked. Ocelot rapped sharply on it, and after a couple of minutes it was answered by a burly human. "Got another one?" he said, grinning. "Okay--put `im down at the end there."
He indicated past him. Behind the human was a row of small cubicles like prison cells. Each was about two meters wide by three deep, with straw-covered floors and stout metal bars. Almost all the cells were occupied. As Winterhawk and Ocelot walked slowly down to the end of the row, they saw people of all metatypes and both sexes, one to a cell. Most were unconscious or asleep, but some were clutching at the bars, moaning or sobbing. With a flick of his gaze, Winterhawk indicated one of the cells to Ocelot; inside was the young ork male from the sales presentation they had attended.
"Almost full, we are," the human guard said cheerfully. "Once we have a full load, we'll be off. We should be able to sell this bunch for quite a sum. They'll be a good group of workers, don't you think?"
"Oh, without a doubt," Winterhawk said, his voice deadly cold. When the guard, after a moment to process the disconnect in what was occurring, looked up sharply to see why Marty was suddenly talking with an English accent, Winterhawk was ready with a spell. The guard clutched his head, dropped to the deck with a strangled gurk sound, and lay still.
Ocelot moved swiftly, taking advantage of the unexpected event. "You weren't supposed to do that yet," he said, grabbing the keys out of the dead man's pocket and the gun from his holster.
"Sorry," Winterhawk said, dropping the Mask spell. "Not that it makes a bit of difference."
"C'mon, then." Ocelot headed for the stairway up. As an afterthought, he reversed direction and shoved keys and gun at the young ork. "Stay down here until you hear from us," he told the ork. "Might get dangerous up there. Shoot anybody who comes down and isn't us." Before the ork could reply, Ocelot was gone, with Winterhawk quickly following.
At the top of the stairs, Ocelot slowly and quietly eased open the door that led back out to the main deck. "Okay...he whispered. Looks quiet. We--" Suddenly, his eyes caught a flash of movement behind a pile of crates off to his left. "Incoming!" he yelled as a crewman with a gun rose up from behind the crates and began firing. Moving at full jacked speed, Ocelot grabbed the top of the doorframe and swung himself up onto the roof of the bridge, rolling over to drop down on the other side as a hail of gunfire rained ineffectually around him. A quick glance showed him that there was another gunman on the right, behind another pile of crates.
Winterhawk, all at once left at the front of the assault, a position in which he did not like to be, ducked back behind the heavy door and flung a spell at the gunman Ocelot had first spotted. He was rewarded sight of the man clutching his head and dropping, his gun clattering to the slippery deck.
On the other side of the bridge tower, Ocelot was having his own problems. Two more crewmen rose up, one from under cover in the ship's single lifeboat, the other from behind yet another pile of crates. "Shit!" Ocelot muttered to himself. Somehow the whole damned ship had been tipped off to their presence. Grabbing a grenade off his belt, he hurled it toward the lifeboat and sprinted off in that direction away from the other gunman. The grenade went off with a great BOOM, and although it was mostly contained by the stout lifeboat, pieces of boat and occupant were flung outward with a still-considerable amount of force. As he ducked around the corner of the bridge tower, shrapnel raining down on his armored jacket, Ocelot got a quick impression of a short figure hurrying around the other side, but he couldn't deal with that now. The figure was heading toward `Hawk, who should be able to handle him.
In his position behind the door, Winterhawk assessed his options. Already he could hear voices from down below; undoubtedly the owners of those voices had heard the commotion upstairs and were even now heading toward the stairway at the top of which he was now stationed. He couldn't stay here. Making a swift decision, he darted out from behind cover and dove down in back of the pile of crates where the body of the crewman he'd hit with the spell lay. Raising up a bit to check out what was going on, he saw the short figure Ocelot had spotted previously hurrying around the corner. Unlike Ocelot, though, who'd just gotten a brief glance, Winterhawk had a moment to get a good look at him. His eyes widened a bit as he recognized the skeptical dwarf with all the questions from the sales meeting. Of course! It made sense--the dwarf had just been a shill to bring up all the right things and allay people's suspicions. Now, apparently, he was one of the leaders of this little strike force, as he was shouting orders in a very militaristic fashion.
At that moment, another door flew open and another man emerged. Winterhawk's attention completely left the dwarf as he noticed that this one, unlike all the others thus far, was moving at a greater-than-(meta)human rate of speed. Bugger, he thought in annoyance. I would have to get the one with the cyberware. To complicate matters even more, another series of shots rang out, tearing into the crates behind which he was hiding from a different direction. A quick check to Winterhawk's right verified that yet another crewman--the one who had been shooting at Ocelot until he had run out of sight--was now shooting at him from the other side.
Ocelot was still in trouble. Coming around the corner of the bridge put him in direct line of sight of two more crewmen, this pair hiding behind more crates at the far end of the boat. Fortunately for him, they were as slow as the rest and only had pistols, but he still couldn't remain there long. With this many opponents, he had to keep moving or their sheer numbers were going to overwhelm him. Fortunately he was having no trouble seeing in the dim light; his cybereyes were equipped with thermographic and low-light vision, which between them allowed him a clear view of what was going on around him. Noting the railing at the back end of the ship, he yanked his grapple gun from his hip and fired it in that direction, reeling himself quickly back to it and startling the hell out of the two crewmen who hadn't been expecting a maneuver anything like that one. They fired at him, but he was moving too fast and the shots went uselessly out over the water.
Winterhawk had had enough of being harrassed from two different angles. Momentarily ignoring the guy with the gun (he was slow and apparently not much of a shot), the mage concentrated on the approaching samurai, who had drawn a katana and was hurrying up with a grin on his ugly face. Winterhawk waited until he got about three meters away and then formed the spell pattern, smiling his own nasty smile as the surprised samurai lifted up off the deck, shot up into the air, and traced a graceful parabola out toward the sea. `Hawk dropped the spell at its highest point and didn't bother to listen for the plop as the sam hit the noisome water.
From his vantage point at the back of the boat, Ocelot took stock of his situation, trying to spot out all the potential assailants with whom he was going to have to deal. Once again, a quick movement far off on the right side of his peripheral vision caught his eye. His gaze snapped to the right in time to see a man, running far too fast to be a normal unwired human, running from inside an office building and toward the ship. He carried a large gun and was headed directly for the gangplank up to the deck. The dwarf, running away and out of Ocelot's line of sight, was yelling, "In the back! He's in the back!"
Another crewman chose that moment to raise up from behind his cover only a few meters away from Ocelot, taking aim with his heavy pistol. Ocelot took that opportunity to drop the grappling hook, grab the railing, and swing himself around the end of the boat and up behind the thug before he had time to do more than finish bringing the gun up in what looked to the hyper-fast Ocelot like slow motion. A quick flick of Ocelot's cyberspur brought the crewman's hopes crashing to the deck along with his gun and, a moment later, his body.
Winterhawk glanced over at the crewman who had been shooting at him, but before he could do anything about the man, he had more pressing concerns. The dwarf ran the rest of the way toward the door to the bridge and yanked it open, throwing himself through. Winterhawk tried to get him in sight to cast a spell, but he was already behind the closed door and out of his line of sight.
The four crewmen spilling out on to the deck from downstairs, though, were another matter. Still hiding behind his crate and trying his best to ignore the gunman off to his left for the moment, Winterhawk waited patiently until all four crewmen had made it out through the door and were looking around for orders. One well-placed area effect manaball spell dropped the four of them like broken dolls. Winterhawk sagged back against the crate, taking a moment to rest and recover from the drain. Only minimal, but every bit of lost edge was bad in a fight like this.
Ocelot could see only one more assailant from where he was, except for the cyberguy who hadn't yet reached the top of the gangplank. The crewman hiding behind more crates further back had not expected the action Ocelot had just taken, and he certainly hadn't expected to see him friend skewered by a metal spike protruding from the intruder's wrist. He brought his gun around to get Ocelot in his sights again, but once more Ocelot was faster. At a speed so quick that the crewman couldn't even follow the motion, he drew his Franchi-SPAS from under his coat and squeezed off a burst. The gunman danced in the rain of bullets, screeched, and dropped.
Winterhawk saw the new and fast-moving gunman as he reached the top of the gangplank, but he at last decided that it was time to deal with the guy who had been shooting at him for the past few seconds. He was still missing, but his aim was getting better. When Winterhawk actually felt a round from the crewman's gun whistle right above his head, he took action. Ducking to one side of the crate where he could just get the gunman in his line of sight, he fired off another spell. Just a simple one, this time, but it was enough. The crewman sank down and stopped firing.
By this time, the cyberguy had reached the bridge. At about the same point, Ocelot and Winterhawk realized that their remaining opponents must have some sort of plan more organized than the one the crewmen on deck had been evidencing. Ocelot leaped back over the railing and sprinted over to take the place of the gunman he'd just killed, while Winterhawk dropped back behind his crates and took a moment to collect his thoughts and decide on a new course of action.
All at once, the bridge door flung open again, disgorging a fast-moving flying wedge consisting of the cybered human in front, another man neither Winterhawk nor Ocelot recognized on the left side, the dwarf mercenary on the right side, and, in the safe spot in the middle, the unmistakeable figure of Paul. The group seemed intent on reaching the gangplank at the highest possible speed, and appeared oblivious to the two runners on either side of it and several meters off.
This supposition proved wrong, however. When Winterhawk and Ocelot both raised up, preparing to hit the group with their attacks, the dwarf and the unknown human both briefly turned sideways, each toward his respective target, and flung something almost in unison. "Shit!" Ocelot yelled as he recognized it. Diving sideways, he yelled, "Down, `Hawk!"
The two grenades went off at almost the same time, producing twin BOOMS that split the quiet air of the dock and sent pieces of crates flying. The deck rumbled under the explosives. By the time the two runners poked their heads up again, bloody from flying shrapnel but mostly unhurt, the formation had gotten halfway down the gangplank. A quick look ahead in the direction in which they were moving verified their destination: a car parked behind the office building from which the second samurai had come.
Ocelot acted without thinking. He'd lost his gun somewhere in the scramble to avoid the grenade, so he drew one of the taser shuriken from his pocket and flung it at the dwarf. The heavy metal disk flew silently through the air and slammed with a loud thunk into the dwarf's shoulder; there was a bzzzt! of discharging electricity and the dwarf dropped, twitching and shaking like a marionette in the hands of an insane puppeteer.
Winterhawk was only a beat behind. By unspoken agreement with Ocelot, he did not use an area effect spell; in addition to the drain he did not want to risk right now, he also wasn't quite ready to kill Paul yet. The unknown human shrieked and tumbled down the gangplank as Winterhawk's spell tore into him.
The samurai, realizing that he and his employer were both in trouble, shifted into overdrive. Grabbing Paul in front of him and practically lifting the man off the ground, he hunched over to provide the best protection and then began to sprint down the gangplank, his eyes on the car.
Ocelot, realizing what he was doing, didn't waste any time. Hope you're fast, he thought as he vaulted up onto the railing and, gathering his legs under him, pushed himself off in a mighty leap toward the dock. He cleared the three meters of open water between the boat and the dock and hit the ground rolling, coming up to a crouch just beneath the gangplank near the bottom. As the samurai's footsteps thundered above him, he jumped up, cat-quick, and drew the ninja sword from the scabbard on his back. As he brought the sword around in a mighty swing, Ocelot had a pang of regret during the time when the razor-keen blade sliced through the samurai's neck and separated it, its eyes bugged wide, from his body. Too bad he had to kill a guy who was just doing what he'd been paid to do. The pang passed quickly.
Paul was in outright panic now as he realized that his entourage had all gone to meet their various makers. In full terror mode, he put his head down and propelled himself on sheer adrenaline toward the car.
"I wouldn't do that," a voice spoke, almost directly in front of him.
Paul brought himself up short to see a figure floating about a meter off the ground and about two meters in front, directly in his path to the car. The man's face wore a smile that was almost cheerful, but his eyes were twin chips of blue ice.
Cornered, sweating, his clothes in disarray, Paul looked nothing like the dapper, fatherly cheerleader he had appeared to be at his meetings. Still, though, he was nothing if not a charismatic pitchman. Breathing hard, he pulled himself up and met the floating man's eyes. "Please," he said breathlessly. "Please, listen to me. It doesn't have to be this way. We can cut a deal. I'm always willing to deal."
Winterhawk floated impassively in front of him, saying nothing. Ocelot, unseen, waited near the gangplank.
Paul took Winterhawk's silence as acquiescence. "Come on," he said, his voice getting stronger and taking on more of its characteristic persuasiveness. "Listen. We can make a deal on this. I've got a lot of money on that ship, and you can be part of it. I'll cut you in for half. You saw the cargo--every one of those people goes for 50,000 nuyen. I've got connections. And there's 20 of them down there. That's a million nuyen. And half of it's yours. Just say the word. We can be partners, you and me. What do you say?"
Slowly, still without a change of expression, Winterhawk lowered himself down until his feet were touching the deck. He appeared to be considering Paul's offer. After a moment, he wordlessly offered his hand.
Paul beamed, reaching out to take it. "I knew you'd see it my way. A smart guy like you--" His eyelids peeled back and his entire body lurched as the Death Touch spell seared through him, frying every one of his nerve endings simultaneously. He hit the deck with an ignominious thud and lay still.
"No sale," Winterhawk said. Across the dock, Ocelot grinned.
The scene in the Henderson living room was straight out of a Christmas card.
The tiny apartment, which the rest of the year was one of hundreds of other similar apartments, small and cramped and ramshackle, was today positively alight with holiday finery. A tall Christmas tree stood in one corner of the room, festooned with lights and ornaments and tinsel; it was artificial, of course, as it was difficult to obtain real trees these days, but that didn't make it any less festive. The floor was strewn with gifts and wrapping, and from the kitchen the smell of a turkey roasting wafted out into the living room. The turkey, unlike the tree, was genuine.
Winterhawk and Ocelot sat back in their respective chairs, watching the Henderson children play with their new toys and watching John Henderson beaming over his family. Henderson was still looking pale and too thin, but the sheer joy that lit his face as he presided over the festivities was enough to elevate his rather ordinary appearance to something just a bit more sublime.
The previous day, Winterhawk and Ocelot had, quietly and without fanfare, sent a message to Matthew through Louie's bartender that they wanted to see him. When the boy had shown up, the hope showing through his despair obviously beginning to falter, the two runners had stepped back and allowed Henderson to have his reunion with his son. They boy's eyes had widened to near-popping as he stared, hesitantly walking closer, then began to run and hurled himself into his father's waiting embrace. The two, tears glistening in their eyes, had insisted that the runners accompany them to their home and meet the rest of the family; when they arrived, the remaining members of the family, in addition to John and Matthew, had insisted that they come back the following day and join them for Christmas dinner. "That is," John had said shyly, "If you don't have other plans."
They hadn't had other plans; in fact, neither of them had given any thought to what they were going to do, so they had both accepted. Now here they were, sitting in their chairs in the midst of this family celebration, feeling satisfied but a more than a little superfluous.
The holiday finery had come from the money the runners had obtained from selling various guns and other paraphernalia they had taken from Paul and his gang; Winterhawk, using his best persuasive skills, had convinced John that there had been a reward offered for the elimination of the con ring, and that Matthew, having put himself and Ocelot on the trail of the gang in the first place, was entitled to it. In a nice touch that even Ocelot had to admit was inspired, he'd even managed to convince Matthew that the money they were being offered, which was in excess of five thousand nuyen, was what had been left over after he and Ocelot had claimed their fee for the run. Matthew, still a little shell-shocked by the whole thing, had immediately handed the money over to his father.
Winterhawk leaned back in his chair, sighing as once again two-year-old Katie, who had taken an immediate liking to him in much the same manner as cats take a liking to people who are allergic to them, tried to climb up his leg and offer him her new doll. "No thank you, my dear," he said tightly, forcing a smile. "You run along and play with your sister, all right?" He supposed it was his own fault; he had, after all, arrived with an armload of packages for the various members of the Henderson family. He would have brought more had Ocelot not talked him out of the extravagant gifts he'd been prepared to buy for the family; his friend had reminded him that they were still living in the Barrens, and such a display of opulence would only mark them as easy targets for anyone who got wind of their new bounty. Winterhawk, who tended not to think of things like that when he was in the mood to spend money, had reluctantly downsized his gifts to mostly practical things such as coats and boots, and only a few frivolous items. Most of these, especially the toys, he'd farmed off on a professional shopper at one of Seattle's finer department stores, so he was as surprised in most cases as they were when the Hendersons opened them. The only exception was a small trideo unit, which he had bought specifically for Matthew, and two bottles of fine wine, which he'd offered to go with dinner.
Ocelot had, typically, been more restrained and practical in his gift choices, giving each of the children a couple of small, simple toys and several books appropriate to their ages. Strangely, he had given nothing to Mr. and Mrs. Henderson, but no one had commented on this.
The Hendersons certainly hadn't. They were so overwhelmed by the turn their lives had taken that they could scarcely speak to the two runners. Henderson had tried a couple of times, but his emotion and gratitude had been so great that he had nearly burst into tears on both occasions.
Dinner was simple, lovingly prepared, and nearly perfect. Even the necessity of serving Winterhawk's wine in mismatched water glasses because no one had thought to buy wineglasses seemed more charming than inconvenient. After it was over (and following one of the most heartfelt and emotion-filled prayers of thanks either of the runners had ever heard), everyone settled back to rest and reflect. Matthew slowly, almost shyly, came over to where Winterhawk and Ocelot had reclaimed their seats slightly outside the center of activity. He took a deep breath, shuffled back and forth, and faced the two men with his hands behind his back. "I want to thank you," he said formally. "You got my Dad back for me. I knew you could do it. I just knew you could. Shadowrunners can do anything, right? Just like in the trids."
"Just like in the trids," Ocelot said softly. "Yeah."
"I...uh...I got you guys gifts too. I didn't have much money, `cause I gave it all to Dad, but... well... here," he said awkwardly, pulling two crudely-wrapped packages from behind his back and offering one to each of the runners. "Hope you like them."
The two men examined the parcels for a moment, then Winterhawk looked at Ocelot. "You first," he said.
Ocelot quickly unwrapped the present, and grinned. Inside was a six-pack of beer. "Where'd you get this, kid?" he asked good-naturedly. "Thought you were too young to be buyin' beer."
"I thought you liked it," Matthew said. "Louie got it for me. It's okay, right?"
"Yeah, it's all right," Ocelot said with the same amused look. "Thanks." Turning over to Winterhawk, he said, "Okay, your turn."
More slowly, Winterhawk pulled the paper off his gift and immediately began laughing. He held it up for all to see. "The Shadow Enforcers, starring Fast Eddie and Mandrake the Magician," he said, shaking his head.
"Well, you said you missed it," the kid said.
"I'll watch it straight away when I get home," Winterhawk said, still chuckling.
At that moment, Matthew's mother called him away; he ran off without a backward glance. Winterhawk turned to Ocelot. "You know," he said reflectively, looking around, "I never thought I'd enjoy myself this much spending the holidays in a house full of children in the Barrens."
Ocelot shrugged. "Gotta admit, it's sincere. No fake holiday cheer here."
"No," the mage agreed. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment. He'd have quite a story to share with Aubrey when he finally got back to England. For the first time in days, he actually felt relaxed. "By the way," he commented after a moment, eyes still closed. "I was rather wondering why you didn't bring anything for Mr. and Mrs. Henderson."
There was a long pause. "I did."
Winterhawk opened his eyes and turned to look at his friend. "What do you mean, you did?"
"They won't see it until after we leave. I left it in an envelope around the back of the tree when nobody was looking."
The mage raised an eyebrow. "What is this mysterious gift, then?"
"I talked to a friend of mine. He's got a nephew who's a shift boss at a warehouse not too far from here. I told him about John, and he said he'd give him a chance if he's willing to work. He can start at the beginning of next week."
Winterhawk smiled approvingly, closing his eyes again. "No more easy money."
"No, but nothin's easy. I think John's learned that now."
"Yes, I think he has. I think I have, too." Opening his eyes, his gaze roved over the room, taking in the Hendersons, the modest apartment transformed more by emotion than by decorations, and the aftermath of the holiday celebration. "Next year, p'raps I'll stay in Seattle again. It's not really so bad here after all, once you get used to it."
"Yeah, I hear that," Ocelot agreed. He glared at Winterhawk with mock sternness. "But I'm warnin' ya, `Hawk--if you say `God bless us, every one,' I'm gonna paste you one."
Winterhawk's only answer was a contented silence.