"Okay, what's up for tonight?" Ocelot climbed into the back seat of the team's Gaz-Willys Nomad and settled himself in.
It was early evening of the following day, and the runners had reconvened to do some more investigation for their current job. After a bit of discussion, they had decided to spend the previous night after Hennessy had left cruising around the neighborhoods comprising the turf of the gangs the dwarf had told them about, just to get a feeling for the size of the territory they were going to need to cover. To that end, they had taken a couple of hours to drive around so Joe and Ocelot could identify the various gang symbols spray-painted on the area's collection of broken-down buildings. While they were thus occupied, 'Wraith was learning the layout of the streets and Winterhawk was doing a bit of astral reconnaissance just to determine if anything looked more out of the ordinary than usual. They had agreed to meet again the next night to get started on some actual legwork.
Ocelot had slept most of the day, getting up in mid-afternoon to get in some exercise before heading out. He had thought about calling Kestrel, but had reluctantly decided not to; she seemed to have enough on her mind, and besides, it was better not to get her involved if they were going to be on a run for awhile. Slowly the feeling that something big was hanging over his head was beginning to diminish, although it had not disappeared entirely. He didn't think it would, either.
"Why don't we go try to talk to some of the gangers?" Joe suggested in response to Ocelot's question. He was in his customary spot, taking up more than half of the back seat. "And talk to some of the people we know. I think if we split up, we can cover quite a bit of it tonight."
"Before we do that," Winterhawk spoke up from the shotgun seat, "do you mind if we go over the relevant players again? I can't keep track of them all without a scorecard."
Wordlessly, 'Wraith pulled the pocket secretary from his jacket and handed it over. Winterhawk took it and called up Hennessy's file describing the gangs who had lost members. "All right, then. We've got five gangs: the Blood Monkeys, the Axemen, the Gutterpunks, the Sin-Eaters, and the Twisted Grizzlies." He looked up from the list, raising an eyebrow. "Colorful bunch of names they've got there." When nobody answered him, he continued. "Six murders so far: Johnny Mayhem, second-in-command and brother of the leader of the Gutterpunks; Psycho Joe, lieutenant from the Axemen; Wolf, third-in-command of the Sin-Eaters; Kano, from the Blood Monkeys; Charlie Tuna, Twisted Grizzlies; and Shiv, also from the Blood Monkeys."
Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. Two from the Monkeys, but other than that, nothing in common. Psycho Joe's an ork, Kano's a dwarf, Charlie's a troll, and the other three are humans."
"No elves," Winterhawk pointed out.
"That's not an elven area," Joe said. "Mostly human, bordering on ork and dwarf neighborhoods. The gangs are all mixed race, mostly human, just like the area. The Grizzlies are more ork and troll than the others, but even they have humans."
Ocelot leaned forward and plucked the pocket secretary from Winterhawk's grip. "Nothing in common about the ways they died, either. We got three guys shot, one strangled, one knifed, and one beaten to death. Whoever's doin' this is damn versatile."
'Wraith shrugged. "Different people. Different specialties."
Ocelot nodded. "Don't know how many, either. Could be one person, a few, or a whole bunch."
"I don't think it's a whole bunch," Joe said. "Not unless they already belong in the neighborhoods. Gangs notice new people in their turf almost before anybody else does. If there were that many unfamiliar people around, somebody'd notice."
"Yeah," Ocelot added, "and it's probably a good bet that it ain't a rival gang, unless they've got some money together and hired some outside talent to do it."
"You mean a gang outside of these five?" Winterhawk took the pocket secretary back from Ocelot and glanced over it again, trying to memorize all the names and places.
"Right. If another gang was comin' in, tryin' to destabilize the area, somebody'd catch on. Gangers aren't idiots—at least the ones that have stayed alive awhile aren't. The one thing they're tuned in to is things that affect their turf."
"Need to talk to them," 'Wraith spoke up. "See what they know."
"Yeah," Joe said. "Maybe try to calm 'em down a bit if we can. They aren't gonna want a war any more than anybody else does, if we can convince them that it isn't their rivals who are killing their guys."
"Are we positive that it isn't?" Winterhawk asked. He shrugged. "I mean, it's possible, isn't it, that one or more of these gangs are doing this in such a way as to make it look like gangs would never have done it?"
Ocelot shook his head. "You don't understand gangs, 'Hawk."
"Well, there's a revelation," the mage said archly.
Ocelot ignored him. "When you're a ganger, doing stuff like this is out in the open. You want the other guy to know you're doing it. It's a dominance thing: I came onto your turf and messed up your guys, and you can't do a damn thing about it. See? Gangs—especially small-time ones like this, which are probably not much more than a bunch of teenagers getting together to hassle each other and give some safety in numbers—would probably go for things more like drive-bys and in-your-face stuff like that. They wouldn't ambush somebody alone, kill 'em, and then leave 'em out with their colors on 'em. Maybe once or twice to make a statement, but not as a rule."
"But according to Hennessy, that's what the gang members seem to believe," 'Hawk reminded him. "That's why he's concerned about the area heating up."
"Yeah, well—kids hopped up on testosterone can get a little hotheaded sometimes too. Sometimes pride drowns out sense and they stop thinkin'." His expression as he spoke suggested that he might be speaking at least a little bit from experience. "But it's not the kids we want anyway—it's the leaders. Maybe they have a little more sense."
Joe nodded, leaning forward to get a look at the data in Winterhawk's hand. "I think we should split up, me and 'Wraith and you and Winterhawk. We can go talk to some of these guys and see if we can find out anything. I know a guy who knows somebody in the Grizzlies, so maybe they might talk to me."
"Yeah. Let's head over there, and you can drop 'Hawk and me off near Blood Monkey territory." Ocelot held up his wrist with his phone on it. "Just keep in touch. If we're lucky maybe we can get to all five of 'em tonight."
"So what's our plan, now that my attire has finally met with your approval?" Winterhawk looked himself up and down, clearly not pleased at having swapped, courtesy of a Fashion spell, his tailored suit for the grubby overcoat, rumpled suit, and shapeless hat of a down-on-his luck private investigator. Both he and Ocelot had determined early on that there was no point in trying to pass him off as a ganger, so they had to settle for making him look like he might possibly belong in this end of town. The Fashion spell, coupled with a Mask spell to hide his armor and make him look more disheveled than usual, had finally resulted in Ocelot pronouncing him ready to go.
They were standing under a fizzling light on a street corner just inside Blood Monkeys turf, watching the occasional vehicle go by and for the moment trying to look nonchalant. Ocelot was succeeding. Winterhawk needed some more work.
"Slouch more, will you?" Ocelot took another look up and down the street. "And let me do the talking. I don't know any of these guys, but from what we've got from Hennessy, they aren't real big as gangs go. Maybe thirty guys total. That's big for around here, but not when you get into some of the real operations like the Cutters and the Ancients."
"So what does that mean?" Winterhawk put his hands in his pockets and tried to comply with Ocelot's instructions, leaning casually back against the streetlight pole.
"Means we're not likely to encounter any serious opposition. These guys remind me of the Predators when they were at their peak—they might have one SMG between the bunch of them, and more likely if they go after us it'll be with light pistols and hand weapons. Nothing we can't handle."
"Assuming they don't all ambush us at once," 'Hawk pointed out.
"They won't. Especially if we ain't a threat. And almost certainly they got no guys with any cyber."
"What about magic?"
Ocelot shrugged. "Maybe one. Maybe." He looked sideways at 'Hawk. "Nothin' you can't handle, I'm sure."
The mage didn't answer that; he didn't think it was worthy of an answer. "So we're just going to try to talk to them, then."
"Yeah. So far, at least according to that info Hennessy gave us, the Monkeys haven't lost any of their top people. Two deaths, but not top guys like the Gutterpunks and the Axemen did. I'm hopin' maybe we can talk some sense into the people runnin' the show around here."
"And how exactly do you propose that we find these people?" Winterhawk indicated the nearly deserted street with a quick head gesture.
"Oh, they'll find us. They're probably watching us right now. I would be, if I was in this gang." He pushed himself off the wall where he was leaning and started off, indicating for Winterhawk to come along. He walked confidently but not arrogantly—just giving the impression that he wasn't worried about what might befall him in this "bad" neighborhood. In truth, he wasn't terribly worried; the odds that the Blood Monkeys would be able to ambush him and 'Hawk were almost nonexistent, and he would put his money on himself and the mage against at least a third of the gang at once, should it come to that. Maybe it wasn't true—you could never know something like that for sure until it happened—but quiet confidence was something that went a long way toward keeping you from getting hassled in the Barrens.
Of course, it helped when you were built like a professional athlete, too. Over the years, Ocelot had carefully cultivated his "don't mess with me" demeanor, and most of the time it worked fairly well.
They walked for awhile in silence, both of them carefully observing the area around them with the aid of the low-light and thermographic vision built into their cybereyes. The neighborhood was typical Barrens: broken-down, depressing, filled with decaying buildings and more than a few decaying people. Ocelot knew areas like this all too well: although he wasn't familiar with this particular part of the Barrens, he had grown up in another one very similar to it. As they walked, his eyes scanned over the overgrown vacant lots, the blasted husks of burned-out cars, the graffiti-strewn plaswood affixed to empty window-holes with duct tape. He sighed, thinking how sad it was that for a lot of kids who were born in areas like this, gang membership was one of the few ways to get a little self respect—with no education, no SIN, and limited prospects, there were precious few other ways to do it. Sometimes kids—like him, many years ago—made it out through lucky breaks, superior talent, or just plain chutzpah, but it was rare. The Barrens would chew up most of these kids and spit them out before their twenty-fifth birthdays. He wasn't romanticizing gang life—he had enough experience with it to know better than to believe it was anything but a dangerous and brutish existence for most of its participants—but he certainly understood it.
As they continued on, both Ocelot and Winterhawk gradually (Winterhawk more gradually than Ocelot) became aware that they were being watched. It was subtle at first— just a quick glimpse of a figure slipping into the shadows of an alleyway—but as they continued on, it became more blatant until they were passing groups of young men (and a few young women), usually in knots of two or three, all of them wearing the dark red synthleather jackets and stylized grinning monkey emblems of the Blood Monkeys. "Seems we've attracted some attention," Winterhawk murmured under his breath.
"Not surprising," Ocelot murmured back. "Just let me do the talking, okay?"
"Not a problem."
Ocelot glanced off toward a side street. "Let's take this off the main drag and see if anybody's interested in followin' us." Without waiting for an answer, he turned the corner and started off down a narrow street, barely more than an alley, lined with dumpsters and the corpses of rusting cars.
Immediately the three figures detached themselves from the shadows and trailed the two runners from about half a block back. "Stay cool," Ocelot whispered. "And keep a lookout up ahead."
"Oh, you mean for the three individuals of indeterminate gender who are hiding behind those cars about a block up?"
Winterhawk nodded and continued walking nonchalantly on.
It wasn't long—only about another half a block—before their escort began moving in closer. The three gangers Winterhawk had spotted stepped out from their hiding places and casually blocked the sidewalk in front of the two runners, while the other three moved in behind them. They made no overt threatening moves; it appeared that they expected their mere presence to be enough of a threat.
One of the three in front, a tall young human male with a bright red Mohawk and about nine earrings (most of them in the same ear), stepped forward. "Hoi."
Ocelot nodded. "Evening."
"Nice night for a walk." The young man looked the two runners up and down, his sharp, uneven features showing contempt. "You guys must be new 'round here." Behind him, his two companions—a human woman about his age in ripped jeans and a T-shirt that read Kill 'em All and an ork male who wore sunglasses despite the fact that it was dark—crossed their arms and regarded 'Hawk and Ocelot like they might be something good to eat.
"Why's that?" Ocelot's voice was utterly casual; he didn't even appear to be paying attention to the three other gangers behind him.
The guy shrugged. "Never seen you before. We usually recognize most of the folks around here."
Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. Funny you should mention that."
"Oh, yeah?" The ganger's eyes narrowed.
"Yeah. We want to talk to your boss." Ocelot met his eyes unflinchingly. He knew these guys would respect that, just as he knew they would jump on anything resembling fear or weakness. He could sense more than hear the three Blood Monkeys behind them moving in a little closer.
There was a low undercurrent of soft and mocking laughter coming from the gangers. "You want to see the boss," Mohawk Boy drawled, in a tone that suggested that Ocelot had just asked him to hand over all his worldly goods to the local Salvation Army.
"That's what I said." Ocelot held his ground. Next to him, Winterhawk remained still with his hands in his pockets. His gaze cruised over the three forward gangers, but in reality he was more tuned in to the ones behind him.
Mohawk Boy nudged open the front of his jacket, revealing a battered Colt America stuck in his belt. "Well," he said, "here's the way it is. The boss don't talk to no losers who just happen to wander on to our turf and ask ta see him. See, he's got things to do. That's why we make sure that he don't get bothered by nobody." He paused, then looked Ocelot right in the eyes. "What I'd like to see, though, is yer credsticks. And anything else ya got on ya that ya think we might like. You do that, and we'll think about not pluggin' ya where ya stand and sellin' ya for spare parts. How's that sound instead?"
Ocelot appeared to consider that; he shook his head thoughtfully after a moment, a rueful expression on his face. "Sorry, but that ain't gonna work. See, we got some things we need to talk to your boss about—stuff he's gonna want to hear—and...well, I don't think he's gonna like it much if you try to stop us from doin' it."
Around them, Winterhawk heard the slight sounds of gangers shifting their weight and removing things from their pockets. He still wasn't worried, though. He remained silent, listening to Ocelot do his thing.
"Oh, you don't think so, huh?" Mohawk Boy grinned, showing uneven, stained teeth. "Well, ya know, that's why you don't make the rules around here, so ka?" He took a step backward and whipped the Colt from his belt—
—and gasped as Ocelot's steel-strong grip locked around his wrist. "Drop it," Ocelot ordered quietly.
The ganger struggled as the others moved forward, unsure of what to do without getting their friend killed. "Leggo my arm, you fraggin'—"
Ocelot popped his cyberspur with a snik. It ran harmlessly up the back of the ganger's arm, settling there like a gleaming metal snake.
"I'd drop it if I were you," Winterhawk said. "We've just come to talk, but he gets rather angry when chaps try to shoot him."
Mohawk Boy's eyes widened as he stared down at the spur. Obviously these guys were more than they seemed. The process of wheels turning in his head was almost visible. After a long pause, he dropped the gun.
"Smart man," Ocelot said, retracting the spur as Winterhawk casually used a levitation spell to pick up the gun and stow it in his pocket. The other gangers, seeing that things were even worse than they thought, backed up a couple of steps but still maintained their unconcerned expressions and casual postures—mostly.
Mohawk Boy recovered quickly, but did not make another threatening move toward the two runners. "So," he said, still trying his best to sound unconcerned, "what do ya want to talk to the boss about? You can tell me, and I'll take 'im the message. How's that?"
Again Ocelot shook his head. "Two for two. Sorry, try again. And why don't the rest of you come around here so we can see you, okay?"
There was a long moment during which everybody just stood where they were, looking at everybody else. Ocelot noticed that several of the gangers seemed to be looking more worriedly at Winterhawk than they were at him; that made sense—they knew that they had a decent chance of getting away from him if they ran, but mages could plug you from a distance—and they could find you where you hid. As long as 'Hawk didn't stick his foot in his mouth with his sarcastic comments, he'd prove to be a definite asset in this conversation. Slowly the three gangers behind them shuffled forward, just far enough to get into view. These three were all humans—two men and a woman. All three were dressed in the Monkeys' red jackets.
"So," Mohawk Boy said, with as much bravado as he could muster, "whadda you wanna talk to the boss about?"
Ocelot nodded. Finally, maybe, they could get down to biz. He still remembered all too well how to do the strutting and posturing and shows of dominance that were practically required during discussions with gangers, but he didn't like them anymore. The whole thing seemed so much of a waste of time—why not just get down to it? He sighed. "You guys have lost some people lately, right?"
The gangers looked at each other warily. Mohawk Boy's eyes narrowed as he stood up straighter. "We ain't lost nobody. Where'd you hear somethin' like that?"
"Look." Ocelot's voice took on a bit of an edge. "That's bullshit, and we both know it. You lost two guys in the last couple months—Kano, and—" He glanced sideways at Winterhawk.
"Shiv," the mage supplied.
Ocelot nodded. "Shiv. One shot, one knifed. Nobody saw it happen, but Kano turned up with a Sin-Eaters emblem spray-painted on the back of his jacket, and Shiv had Axemen colors tied around his neck." He stared hard at Mohawk Boy, looking for reaction.
The ganger's eyes narrowed further, and he began to get brave again. "How do you know about that?" he demanded. Taking a step forward, he added, "You in on it?"
Ocelot shook his head. "You think we'd be dumb enough to show up around here if we were? Whoever's doin' this, they're good. Nobody ever sees 'em, right?"
"It was those fuckin' Sin-Eaters!" one of the other gangers piped up. "I'm tellin' ya, Bug, they're tryin' ta start somethin' with us!"
"Shut up, Jimmy!" Mohawk Boy (apparently his real name was Bug) snapped. He turned back to Ocelot. "So if you ain't in on it, whadda you care about it?"
Ocelot shrugged. "We got our reasons. It ain't just you guys—it's happenin' all over around here. We're tryin' to figure out why."
For a long moment Bug didn't say anything. He looked the two runners up and down. "The boss don't just see anybody. Like I said, he got things to do."
Ocelot smiled a bit to himself. Their show of force had worked, and now things were starting to turn. "How about if we make it worth your while—you know—to fit us into his schedule." He glanced over at Winterhawk, who silently withdrew the Colt from his pocket and offered it, grip-first, to Ocelot.
Ocelot paired it with a fifty-nuyen scrip note and held them out to Bug. "Deal?"
Bug grabbed the gun and the money, stowing both in his jacket. "Okay," he said grudgingly. "You wait here and we'll set up a meet."
"No go." Ocelot shook his head. "We ain't gonna stand out here in the open so you can plug us from some building. You take us to the spot and bring him there. You can leave some of your guys to keep an eye on us if you don't trust us."
The reluctant respect in the ganger's eyes stepped up a tiny bit. "Okay. Come on."
He was just turning to go when the sound of pounding feet could be heard in the distance, getting closer. Bug drew the Colt and the other gangers (as well as Winterhawk and Ocelot) moved into defensive positions as two figures came hurtling around the corner. "Bug! Bug! Where the hell are you?" one of them—a young kid who couldn't have been more than fifteen—was screaming. The kid and his companion, who was even younger than he was, were both clad in the Blood Monkeys' colors and looked like they had been running for all they were worth.
Bug kept the gun trained on the space beyond the kids. If something was chasing them, he wanted a good shot at it. "Over here!"
The kids barrelled up to Bug without even seeming to notice the presence of the two runners. They skidded to a stop, leaning over with hands on knees and panting so hard they couldn't stand up straight.
"What's goin' on?" Bug demanded. "Somebody chasin' you?" His eyes were on the kids, but his gun was still aimed and ready. The other gangers kept their eyes on the area behind the kids as well.
"No—no—" the kid pushed out between puffs. "Bug—"
"Spaz is dead!" the other one blurted out.
Bug stiffened, lowering the gun. "What?"
"Found him—alley—84th St.—behind Sully's," the first kid panted.
"Came back—to find you—or Ripper." The two kids were tag-teaming their story as they recovered their breath.
Bug looked at the two runners suspiciously. "You guys know anything about this?"
Ocelot shook his head. "No. But if it happened recently, maybe we can get some idea who did it if you let us go along."
The ganger was obviously shaken. There was a low murmur around the remaining five Blood Monkeys in his group, but nothing loud enough to make out. Some of it sounded scared, and some of it sounded angry. "Okay," Bug finally said. He was unable to keep the edge of fear out of his voice.
"Then after that," Winterhawk said grimly, "p'raps you'll set up the meet with your leader?"
Bug's gaze came up to meet 'Hawk's. "Spaz was our leader."
'Wraith and Joe were not having much luck getting anything useful out of the Twisted Grizzlies, although they were having a much easier time of determining this than Winterhawk and Ocelot had with the Blood Monkeys.
Joe's friend did in fact know one of the Grizzlies indirectly—his sister's friend's boyfriend was a member—so instead of having a meet standing in an alleyway surrounded by hostile gangers, 'Wraith and Joe had been escorted into a ramshackle apartment on the bottom floor of a condemned building, where they had had the ear not only of the aforementioned friend, but also of the Grizzlies' second-in-command, a medium-height troll named Blaster. Joe, as an active ganger himself (and, more importantly, a member of a gang that had absolutely no rivalry with the Twisted Grizzlies), had been able to develop an almost instant rapport with Blaster, to the point where after half an hour the two of them were chatting away like long-time buddies. 'Wraith, meanwhile, was ignoring the scrutiny of some of the other Grizzlies (elves were apparently a bit of an odd sight around here) and concentrating on listening to the conversation, picking up any subtle vocal nuances or expression changes from the group as Joe explained the situation.
As they had agreed beforehand, Joe hadn't mentioned the fact that Hennessy had hired them to investigate the mysterious murders. All he had said was that "someone" was interested in ending the deaths, and that he, 'Wraith, and their compatriots believed that other gangs were not behind the killings.
Opinions in the Twisted Grizzlies were split almost equally between those who believed that the killing of Charlie Tuna was a setup and those who believed that it was all a plot by the Axemen, who had a long-running and occasionally bloody rivalry against the Grizzlies, to provoke the Grizzlies into a costly war. Some of the younger members believed that it was a matter of honor to avenge Charlie's death (he had been quite a popular member of the gang with many friends), but cooler heads were reserving judgment until they had had a chance to investigate further. For one thing, the Axemen emblem had been carved into Charlie's chest—nobody in the Grizzlies had ever known an Axeman to do something like that. Usually they marked their occasional kill by leaving one of their trademark weapons lying next to the victim.
Fortunately for Joe and 'Wraith, Blaster—not to mention the Grizzlies' leader, a troll woman named Slash—were among the cooler heads, and had so far been able to prevent the younger Grizzlies from going on a rampage of death and destruction that would probably have resulted in at least as many Grizzly deaths as Axemen deaths. However, as Blaster told the two runners, they weren't sure how long they were going to be able to keep a lid on things.
"You do know they lost somebody too, right?" Joe asked.
Blaster nodded. "Yeah. Psycho Joe, one o' their big guys. But they're sayin' the Gutterpunks did that. We sure's hell didn't."
"Gutterpunks say they didn't?" 'Wraith spoke up.
The other ganger, Horse, nodded. "That's what they say. Axemen don't b'lieve 'em, though."
Blaster nodded. "Yeah. Nobody believes nobody. Ain't gonna be long 'fore things get outta hand. Can't keep these kids under wraps f'rever. They think we're just shittin' 'em to keep 'em from goin' after the Axemen."
Joe was about to answer when his wristphone rang. "Hang on a second," he said, stepping away, and hit the button. "Yeah?" He listened for a moment and then came back over to the group. "We gotta go," he said to 'Wraith. "That was Ocelot. They've got a fresh murder over in Blood Monkey turf." Turning to Blaster and Horse, he said, "We'll come back. But we think this might be connected, and maybe we can figure something out."
Blaster nodded. "Yeah. I hope so. We go to war, we're gonna lose a lot of guys. If that happens, I want it to be for our reasons, not 'cuz somebody's fraggin' with us."
When Joe and 'Wraith arrived, Winterhawk, Ocelot, and the entire contingent of their Blood Monkey escorts had already arrived at the alley behind Sully's, which turned out to be an abandoned delicatessen. The alley behind it was narrow, dark, and strewn with months' accumulation of trash; when the runners and the Blood Monkeys had arrived, they had almost missed the remaining young ganger who had been left behind to guard the body. This individual was clearly very frightened and happy to have company again—he was a young troll, big and burly but not more than ten years old.
The gangers had been told to expect an elf and a troll arriving shortly, but even then they got a little nervous about the Nomad pulling into the alleyway with its bright lights blazing until the expected individuals stepped out and immediately came over.
Winterhawk was knelt down next to the body as the Blood Monkeys stood back and Ocelot watched over his shoulder. Spaz had been a human male in his early twenties; his dark hair, light brown skin and facial features suggesting Amerind or Aztlaner heritage. He wore a Blood Monkey jacket, white T-shirt, and blue jeans; all three were soaked with blood from the numerous gunshot wounds throughout his body.
'Wraith came forward and joined Winterhawk in his scrutiny. "Move the body?"
The mage shook his head. "No, not yet. I was trying to get some astral impressions, but aside from fear and surprise, there's nothing else."
"I'm tellin' you it was those fuckin' Sin-Eaters!" one of the gangers yelled. "They killed Spaz, and they're gonna die for it!"
"Listen!" Ocelot snapped. "You guys wanna be chumps? You wanna get yourselves killed just like whoever's doin' this wants you to? I thought you were smarter than that."
"What're you talkin' about?" Bug demanded.
"That's what they want you to believe," Joe said. "They're tryin' to set your gangs against each other. If you go off and fight each other, you're just doing exactly what they're manipulating you into. Is that what you want?"
There was another low murmur among the gangers. "But they killed Spaz," one of the younger ones said. "You just don't let anybody get away with offin' your boss, do you?"
"We aren't gonna let anybody get away with anything," Ocelot said. "But let's figure out who's really behind this before you go runnin' off over the wrong thing. Don't play into their hands."
The rumble got a little lower as the gangers quietly discussed this, taking frequent glances over toward their fallen leader. Ocelot and Joe took it upon themselves to try to keep order among them.
While Winterhawk continued his astral examination of the area, 'Wraith concentrated on Spaz' wounds. There were five of them in all. "Interesting..." he murmured to himself.
"What?" Winterhawk glanced up and shifted his perceptions fully to the material plane.
'Wraith pointed. "Wounds. Pattern. Notice?"
Winterhawk looked, frowning. "No—should I?"
"All haphazard. Not fatal. Except this one." 'Again, the elf pointed out the five wounds, one at a time. One was in Spaz' arm, one in his shoulder, one in his leg, and one in his hand. The fifth, however, had hit a perfect target in the ganger's heart.
"Lucky shot?" 'Hawk asked, glancing around.
"Doubtful." 'Wraith stood, carefully examining orientation of the body, the entry patterns of the wounds, and the surrounding area.
Ocelot was getting interested in the proceedings now. "What?"
The elf didn't answer, Winterhawk pointed out 'Wraith's findings. Ocelot too frowned. "So—the four are covering up the other one? Assassination?"
"Likely," 'Wraith said, returning his attention to his friends.
"What I want to know is what he was doing out alone," Joe spoke up. "That isn't normal, is it?"
Bug stepped forward and shook his head. "No. Nobody goes alone, especially now that people are gettin' killed."
'Wraith nodded. He looked over at Ocelot. "Let's find the spot."
"Yeah." The two of them headed off.
Bug looked perplexedly at the remaining two runners. "Huh?"
"They're looking for where the shooter shot from," Joe told him. "'Wraith's an expert at that kind of thing, and Ocelot likes to climb around on the tops of buildings."
Winterhawk, meanwhile, was still looking at the body. "He's not been dead for long," he said to Joe. "No more than an hour." Then, to the assembled gangers: "Where are the ones who found him?"
The three kids stepped forward, trying to hide their nervousness under masks of toughness. "Yeah?" said the oldest.
Winterhawk had given up any pretense of trying to pretend to be a Barrens denizen. "When you found him, did you see anything suspicious? Hear anything?"
The two human kids shook their heads. The troll did too, but there was something strange in his eyes.
Winterhawk noticed that immediately and moved over toward the troll. Despite his youth, the kid was taller than the mage and outweighed him by at least fifty kilos. "What's your name?" he asked gently.
The troll kid tried to glare at him, but it came out looking more scared than menacing. "Rocko." He sounded proud of the name—he had a real gang name, not just his own boring one.
"Rocko." Winterhawk repeated, nodding. "Well, Rocko, I sense that you saw or heard something that you'd rather not talk about. Am I right?"
Rocko's lower lip twitched a bit, but he didn't answer.
Joe stepped forward and glanced at Winterhawk, clearly asking permission to take up the questioning. 'Hawk nodded and backed off.
Joe smiled at Rocko, ducking down a bit so their eyes were at the same level. "Hey, Rocko. I'm Joe."
"Hey." The kid seemed a bit more at ease with another troll than he had with Winterhawk.
Bug, who apparently had decided that these new guys were worth trusting at least for awhile, leaned in toward 'Hawk. "Rocko's a good kid, but he ain't quite right in the head, y'know?"
'Hawk nodded wordlessly, watching Joe.
"Did you see something, Rocko?" the troll was asking. "Maybe hear something? You can help us out, you know. Help us find who killed Spaz."
Rocko's eyes got a little wider and his lip trembled a little more, but otherwise he was silent.
Joe smiled encouragingly. "Come on, Rocko. You're the only one who can help us. You can help us find who did this. Don't you want to do that?"
The troll child glanced over at Bug, who nodded. Then Rocko himself nodded, looking back at Joe.
"Good," Joe said, still maintaining the smile. "What did you see or hear?"
"Ghost," said Rocko. His eyes darted around as if he expected somebody to jump out at him.
Joe frowned, unsure of whether the kid was talking about someone named Ghost or a real ghost.
"Is there someone named Ghost that he might know?" Winterhawk asked Bug under his breath.
The ganger shook his head. "Don't know anybody named Ghost."
Rocko shook his head emphatically. "Ghost. Dark. Glowing red eyes."
That set off the murmuring again. Joe and Winterhawk remained calm. "That's good, Rocko," Joe said, keeping his tone calm. "Where did you see the ghost?"
Rocko pointed upward, toward the top of a building across the street at the end of the alley. "Up there. Looked at me. Then went away. No sound."
Winterhawk got into the act again. "What sort of person did it look like a ghost of? A troll like you? A human? Dwarf?"
Rocko's gaze shifted to the mage. "Human, maybe. Or ork. Or—something else." He was shaking now.
"Did he see you?"
"Yeah." The shaking increased. "Is he gonna come after me too?"
Joe sighed. "I don't think so, Rocko." He looked up at the gangers. "Maybe somebody ought to take him home, huh? He looks like he had quite a scare, and I think he's told us all he can."
"I'm not scared!" Rocko protested, but nonetheless did not struggle when one of the other troll gangers took him by the shoulder and led him away.
Winterhawk was already on the wristphone, relaying the message about the "ghost's" location to 'Wraith and Ocelot. "I'm going to head up there myself and see if I can get any traces on the astral."
Joe volunteered to remain down with the gangers, so 'Hawk, Ocelot, and 'Wraith converged on the roof of the building. It was a four-story, mostly abandoned apartment building, its roof ramshackle and unsafe. 'Hawk remained levitating to avoid disturbing any evidence as 'Wraith examined the area. Ocelot kept a lookout to make sure no one was sneaking up on them.
"No ghost," 'Wraith stated after several minutes of scrutiny.
"Why not?" Winterhawk floated down to get a better look.
'Wraith pointed. "Gun here. Rifle."
Sure enough, there was a disturbed spot in the dust at the lip of the building—a spot just large enough for something narrow, like the barrel of a gun. Below it, more disturbed dust could be seen, along with some dark footprints that had already almost washed away in Seattle's incessant drizzle. 'Hawk nodded. "So whoever was up here, he was as real as you or me. But the questions remain—who was it, and was he or she acting alone?" Without waiting for an answer, he found a reasonably clean spot to sit and slumped, sending his spirit out to the astral.
Ocelot came over to view the evidence. "So you think this guy was some kind of assassin, huh?"
"But why? Where's the money in assassinating a bunch of gangers? And why didn't he kill the kid, if the kid saw him?"
"Unknown. Not in contract?"
Ocelot sighed. "I'm just glad to know he's not a ghost. Maybe 'Hawk likes that kind of stuff, but it gives me the creeps."
Winterhawk chose that moment to return from his astral foray. He had a contemplative look on his face.
"What?" Ocelot turned to face him.
"Interesting...there was some residue there. More than I would have expected after an hour. Whoever our shooter was, he obviously had some quite strong feelings about what he was doing. I got a sense of anger, determination, singlemindedness, and—" he paused a moment, considering "—vengefulness. Also satisfaction—presumably because he accomplished his mission."
"Find him?" 'Wraith asked, raising an eyebrow.
'Hawk shook his head. "Not after all this time. Not without something to use in a ritual. Doesn't look like he left anything behind."
Ocelot and 'Wraith searched again, but found nothing. Even the footprints had drifted away by this time.
"Glowing red eyes..." Ocelot mused. He met Winterhawk's eyes a little fearfully. "You don't suppose it's a vampire, do you?"
Winterhawk shrugged. "I've no idea. That would make things more interesting, wouldn't it?"
"You got a damn weird definition of interesting," Ocelot said sourly.
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.