Ocelot could barely hear himself think over the pounding beat of the thrash-metal band being pumped through the bar at ear-shattering volume.
He liked it that way.
It was two hours after the team had left the Kingdome and gone their separate ways. They had all walked out to the parking lot in silence, their footsteps echoing loudly in the empty corridors; when they got outside, they had made cursory attempts to organize a trip to one of their usual haunts for beers and conversation, but no one had been particularly forward about pushing the idea. 'Wraith and Joe had taken off first, the former on his Rapier and the latter on his big Harley; Winterhawk had asked Ocelot if he wanted to go find something useless to do, but Ocelot had declined the invitation. "I don't know what I want to do yet," he'd said, "but I'm gonna cruise around until I find it." 'Hawk had left too, and Ocelot, after spending a few more moments staring out over the silent parking lot and thinking about nothing, had done likewise. In retrospect it probably shouldn't have been surprising how easily he had gotten out of the lot, given that only five minutes remained to be played in a tied game. He'd wondered how it would end, but didn't really care.
The name of the bar was the Wharf Rat, and it lived up to its moniker splendidly. Located in one of the nastier areas of the Seattle docklands, it was a big, sprawling, lawless accumulation of the bottom end of Seattle society contained within a rotting, tumbledown structure that barely stayed one step ahead of the building inspectors (probably due to the impressive collection of bribes that changed hands weekly between the Wharf Rat's owners and the more flexible representatives of the local government and law enforcement organizations). It served bad liquor and worse food, but the kind of people who frequented it didn't come for the food and didn't give a damn about the quality of the liquor as long as it was cheap and they could get drunk on it. It was, in short, a dive even among dives.
Its one claim to fame, however, and the reason why Ocelot usually chose it as a place to go when he was feeling in a particularly unpleasant sort of mood, was the action that took place in the back room. The Wharf Rat's "back room" was in actuality larger than its front room, and while ostensibly its existence was a secret to which only certain carefully screened individuals were privy, the reality of the matter was that anyone who could locate the correct door and grease the palm of the beefy troll bouncer with sufficient nuyen could easily gain entry. Once inside, the lucky (or unlucky, depending on one's inclinations) patron had access to the Wharf Rat's main draw: the large, enclosed ring in the center of the room where nightly gladiatorial combats were staged.
One could never be quite certain of the composition of the individual battles taking place on any given night, because the card was drawn from a pool consisting of anyone who showed up willing to fight and able to put up the "entry fee"—the amount of which varied depending on the combatants and their track records and abilities. In addition to the entry fees, the Wharf Rat collected a percentage of all bets placed by the spectators, and the winner of each fight was paid out of this fund. There weren't many rules, and the ones that did exist were not stringently enforced: no firearms, no magic (physads were allowed, but only against other physads or similar opponents), and no intentional killing. Generally the fight organizers tried to match up opponents relatively equally, but they didn't always succeed.
Ocelot used the Wharf Rat's combat arena as a way to blow off steam. He was fairly well known around the place by now as a guy who could put on a good show and who could be counted on to give the customers what they wanted: flashy moves, lots of punishment, and, depending on his mood, a pretty decent scare. They didn't get a lot of guys with his level of cyberware or combat abilities around here, because most of those who had made it where Ocelot was wouldn't consider slumming anymore, or else they wouldn't think the money was worth it. Ocelot didn't care about the money. There were just times when he wanted to hit something hard, and this was a good way to get paid for it.
He sat now at a tiny table near the edge of the sawdust-covered floor, working on a beer, watching the fights, and listening to his body steadfastly refuse to get drunk. He had ended up here after cruising around aimlessly for an hour or so after leaving the rest of the team at the Kingdome; somehow he knew that this was where he would go, but it took his conscious mind awhile to realize it.
The thing was, he wasn't even sure why this whole thing had bugged him so much. He and Gabriel weren't close friends—in fact, as far as he knew, none of his teammates were any closer to the fixer (the dragon, he reminded himself again) than he was. So why was his mind so reluctant to let go of the little scene up in the luxury box?
He knew why, of course; he just didn't want to admit it.
He was scared.
Sometimes late at night when he thought about things that he didn't really like to think about, he caught himself wondering if he would have allowed himself to get hooked back up with Kestrel if he had known that her new best friend was a Great Dragon. He had enough trouble in his life, what with all the enemies he'd collected over the years: the bugs, the corps, the...those things from out in astral space—the last thing he needed was to get too chummy with a dragon and pick up his collection of enemies as well. Even though in his rational mind he knew that he wasn't exactly "chummy" with Gabriel, the fact remained that the team had gotten together with him and Kestrel more than a few times in the past six months. Like Kestrel, he could put the thought out of his mind when he was having a beer or shooting a few baskets with a guy who looked like a pretty-boy kid, but every once in a while the image of the huge, golden-scaled, sharp-fanged creature they had seen that night six months ago popped up in his head while he was looking at Gabriel, and he couldn't shake it. Even though he hadn't seen the dragon in his true form since then, he still couldn't shake it.
He also couldn't shake the fact that the dragon had a brother—a bigger, stronger brother who could apparently carry multi-millennia-long grudges with no trouble at all—and that that brother was still alive. Still alive and almost certainly still holding a grudge against not only Gabriel, but against Ocelot, Winterhawk, 'Wraith, Joe, and Kestrel for helping to drive him away, half-blinded, before he was able to finish off his brother.
Ocelot was used to looking over his shoulder for things trying to nail him; he'd been doing it for nearly his whole life, to the point where it had become second nature to him. But this was different. How could you watch out for something so powerful that it could hit you without giving you any advance warning that it was coming? He knew that there were a lot of things that could do that to him: magic, spirits, long-range snipers—all of them could hit him before he even knew they were around. But for some reason he couldn't quite articulate, it wasn't the same thing. The idea of being on the personal hit list of a being as powerful as Stefan had made itself known to Ocelot as a constant low-level anxiety that never seemed to go away no matter how hard he tried to forget about it.
It was the one reason why he sometimes regretted the fact that he thought so highly of Kestrel. She was a constant reminder that he had once again gotten himself up to his ears in things that were probably best left alone by people like him. Sure, she and Gabriel weren't joined at the hip or anything—he had seen her alone dozens of times in the past few months, many of them when Gabriel wasn't even in the same city—but the woman and the dragon spent so much time together that she could no more refrain from mentioning him than Ocelot could refrain from mentioning his own teammates. He had actually thought a couple of times about breaking it off with her for his own peace of mind, but both times he had reconsidered before he had gotten around to talking to her. Each time the same two things had changed his mind: first, the realization that he did care for Kestrel (even if he didn't love her) and did not want to remove her from his life; and second, the much more grim realization that regardless of his future affiliation with Gabriel, his past affiliation had already sealed his fate as far as Stefan was concerned. That fact acknowledged, it made more sense to him to be on at least one dragon's good side.
He sighed, staring down into the half-full glass of beer that he hadn't touched in the last ten minutes. The fights were continuing; right now, it looked like a smallish troll and an oversized ork going at it with fists and clubs. Ocelot had put his name in as a potential combatant, but he hadn't been called yet; apparently there were quite a large number of would-be fighters tonight, and the place always liked to give the new blood a chance. From the sound of things, there was a lot of frustration to be worked off over the fact that the Seahawks had managed to throw a sure thing in the last fifteen seconds of play when, ahead by three points, they had fumbled the snap on a punt, resulting in a touchdown and victory for the Patriots. Ocelot had picked this up from snatches of conversation as various disgruntled-looking bar patrons had trickled by. It looked like there were going to be a lot of frustrations worked out tonight. Ocelot was just as glad he had missed it.
The ork-and-troll fight ended abruptly, with the unfortunate troll finding himself pitched unceremoniously into the front row of spectators. He landed there, unconscious, sprawled out over two of the small tables. One of the spectators, annoyed at having his beer mug overturned, promptly used it to smack the troll over the head, which prompted two of the troll's buddies to come stomping over with violence in their eyes. It was beginning to look like a real bar fight setting up. Ocelot stood; normally he would have enjoyed something like this (it was a fairly regular occurrence, happening at least once a week) but tonight he just wasn't in the mood. Leaving the rest of his beer, he headed for the door to the front part of the bar.
He'd almost reached it when his wristphone buzzed. Great. Now what? "Yeah?" he yelled, hitting the button. He had to yell to be heard over the cacophony behind him.
"Ocelot?" Kestrel's face appeared on the little screen.
"Yeah—hang on a minute. Let me get outta here." Moving more quickly, he made his way out of the bar and onto the street. The bite of the cold air was welcome after the oppressive heat and smoke and stink inside. "Okay. Go ahead."
"Where are you?" she asked.
"Don't ask. You don't want to know."
That earned him a small smile. "Okay. You're at the Wharf Rat. Are you still in one piece?"
He smiled back, just a little. "Yeah. I didn't get on yet. I think I just forfeited my entry fee." He paused. "What's up?"
"You have some time to talk?"
He frowned. "Couldn't find Gabriel?"
"No, I found him," she said, shaking her head. "For awhile, anyway. I'd just like to talk to you. Can I come by?"
"Yeah. Sure. I can be home in about half an hour or so—meet you there?"
"Sounds good. I hope I didn't interrupt anything interesting." The little smile was there again.
He shook his head. "No—I was just leaving anyway. I'll see you in a few."
By the time he pulled up in front of his small house in Tacoma, she was already there. Her green Westwind was parked off to one side of the garage; she stood leaning against it. She was still wearing the same jeans, T-shirt, and black leather jacket she'd worn to the game, but she'd gotten rid of the cap somewhere. As he glided his Blitzen to a smooth stop in front of the garage, she pushed herself off the car and waited.
He didn't say much until they got inside. Sliding out of his armored coat and tossing it over a chair, he dropped into another one and ran his hand back through his long dusty-blond hair, pulling out the leather thong that held it into an unkempt ponytail. "So what's up?"
She didn't sit down right away. Instead, she paced around the room checking out his collection of hand weapons that hung on the walls. This room, the largest of the three in the house, served multiple duty as a bedroom, kitchen, dining room, and sitting area. The other two rooms were a bathroom and the house's real bedroom, which Ocelot had converted to a workout room. "I'm not sure exactly," she said. "I just wanted somebody to talk to."
"You said you found him—was he okay?"
She sighed. "That depends on what you mean by okay." Pulling a sword from the wall, she hefted it experimentally and then returned it to its place. "Physically he seemed fine. No ill effects from what happened."
"Did you find out what happened?" Ocelot swiveled around on the chair so he could keep her in sight as she paced.
"Sort of. He said somebody's died. Someone very close to him."
That wasn't what he was expecting to hear. "Huh? Who?"
"He wouldn't tell me." She tired of pacing and came over to sit in another chair near him, where she leaned her elbows on her knees and stared down at her boots. "I don't know what to do—I can tell he's just devastated over it, but he says I can't help him. He has to go find out who did it and why."
Ocelot stiffened. "Did it? As in—killed whoever this was?"
She nodded. "Yeah. That was what he said."
There was still something that was confusing him. "So—how did he know? And what did somebody getting killed have to do with that thing that hit him at the game?"
"He said—whoever it was cried out to him as he died. That was part of why he was so upset. He seems to think that if he could have somehow been able to get to his friend, he could have done something to help."
Ocelot thought that over for several moments before replying. "You mean...whoever this was, he—I dunno—beamed in some kind of SOS to Gabriel with enough power to knock him flat on his back?"
"That was what it sounded like." She sighed. "I've heard of people getting weird premonitions when their loved ones die, but never anything like this."
He leaned forward, staring hard at her. "Kestrel, he's not 'people.' He's a dragon. We got no idea how things affect them—at least I don't. But I do know, and you do too, that their minds are a hell of a lot tougher than ours are." He paused, as if feeling his thoughts out before voicing them. "For something to be able to nail him like that, through all the defenses he must have had up—" He trailed off.
Slowly she nodded. "It would have to have been...a pretty powerful signal."
"That's what I figure too. Damn powerful. And pretty uni-directional, too." Unable to sit still any longer, he got up and started to move around the room. "Remember—'Hawk checked the astral plane and found the residue of it, but he didn't get hit with anything when it happened. I don't think anybody else at the stadium did either. Whatever it was, it was aimed right at Gabriel."
"So—what are you trying to say?" Kestrel pulled herself upright and regarded him over the back of the chair.
He sighed. "I'm not sure exactly what the hell I'm tryin' to say. It just sounds to me like if he's right and somebody died, it must have been somebody pretty strong." A stray thought struck him, and he brought his gaze up to meet hers. "You said he told you this was an old friend?"
"Yeah. A dear friend, he said. Somebody he's known for a very long time."
He came back over and sat down again. "Does that suggest anything to you?"
She frowned. "Come on, Ocelot. I'm a little frazzled right now—"
"No, seriously. How long have you known Gabriel?"
"About a year and a half now."
"And how long was he—you know—awake before you met him?"
Light began to dawn as to what he was getting at. "Only a couple of months," she said, nodding. "I see what you mean. He hasn't been around here very long—but he was around a long time ago. So anybody he'd call an old friend—"
"—is probably another dragon. Or something on the same power scale." He blew air through clenched teeth. "Which brings up another question I'd really rather not think about."
He looked back up at her. "Who killed him?"
Her eyes widened as once again she followed his line of reasoning. "Or—what killed him?"
Soberly he nodded. "That's what I'm getting at. Anything tough enough to take out a dragon—or whatever it is that's been around long enough for Gabriel to call it an old friend—is not something I want to get anywhere near." He paused. When he spoke again, it was in a whisper. "Oh...shit..."
Another pause. "Stefan again?"
"No." She shook her head vigorously. "No, I asked him about that. He said it didn't have anything to do with Stefan."
"But how does he know?" Ocelot demanded, leaning toward her. "You said yourself he doesn't know who did it. What if this is another way to get to him?"
To his surprise, she shrugged, scrubbing at her face with her hands. "I don't know, Ocelot. I mean, he told me he had to go deal with it on his own, and he didn't seem to think Stefan had anything to do with it. I have to respect his wishes. If he doesn't want me involved, I won't get involved. I'm sure he'd tell us if he knew anything about Stefan."
"If he knew, sure he would," Ocelot said again. "But what if he doesn't know? What if Stefan's covered his tracks even better this time?" He was getting nervous, and as usual his nervousness was manifesting itself in rampant speculation that came tumbling out of his mouth faster than his brain could regulate it. Even though Kestrel's expression was clouding, he couldn't stop. "What if he's after Gabriel again—and maybe after us?"
"Ocelot. Slow down." She stood up and came over in front of him, grasping his shoulders firmly. "I just wanted to come talk to you. To tell you what I found out, and see what you thought. But Gabriel will do what he wants to do, and there's nothing you or I or anybody else can do about that. He's my friend, Ocelot. I won't stick my nose into his business if he doesn't want me to."
"Even if he's in trouble?" he asked, a trifle sullenly. "Even if we might be in trouble?"
She knelt down. More gently, she said, "Remember the night you first found out about him? When he wanted to go fight Stefan alone, and we talked him into letting us go along because it affected us too? Do you remember what he said?"
He didn't want to remember, but he couldn't forget. "Yeah," he said raggedly. "That we had free will, just like he did, and if we wanted to go get ourselves killed, that was our business."
She nodded. "I have to let him do this on his own, if that's what he wants." Shrugging, she added, "I'm not sure I could stop him this time. He promised he'd come back and tell me about it once he got himself straightened out and figured out what was going on. That's all we can really ask for. I trust him enough to believe he'll let us know if he finds out this could affect us in any way." She reached up, cupping his face in her hands. "Okay?"
"Okay," he whispered, after a long moment.
"So—" She smiled a little. "Can I still stay?"
He returned it. "I was kind of hoping you would."
Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.