"Everybody in position?" Ocelot's hushed voice came over the commlink.
"Ready," Winterhawk said immediately. "Got the astral covered."
"Watching the building," 'Wraith said.
"Check," Joe said.
"Our friends will be here soon. Now all we have to do is wait and see if our killer shows," Winterhawk said, his tone grim.
Six days had passed since they had begun their investigation, and during that time they had not been idle. Ocelot sat in his position at the top of the building across the street from the abandoned warehouse where the meet would go down in less than half an hour and thought about the events of the previous few days.
After the death of Spaz of the Blood Monkeys, the killer or killers had apparently decided to step up operations a bit. Three days later, Bowie of the Axemen had turned up at mid-day with an arrow through his neck, and the arrow had borne the colors of the Sin-Eaters on its fletchings. Once again tempers began to simmer, and it was due largely to the efforts of the runner team that the whole thing hadn't exploded that same night.
One thing the murder of Bowie had managed to confirm in the runners' minds, though (at least as much as it could be confirmed by Winterhawk's magical sleuthing)—the murders were probably being committed by one person. When he checked the astral plane in the area where Bowie had been killed, he had found the same anger, sense of singleminded purpose, and vengefulness as he'd found at the site of Spaz' demise. Someone definitely had it in for the gangs in this area. The problem was, they weren't any closer to who that someone was. At least they were reasonably sure that if it was the same person committing all the murders, it wasn't a vampire. That had made Ocelot breathe a little easier.
A call to Hennessy had followed later that day, asking the dwarf if he knew of anyone matching their sketchy description (human or ork, dressed all in dark or black clothes, glowing red eyes) who might have a vendetta against one or more of the gangs in the area. He had promised to check into it and get back to them.
Meanwhile, the runners had each been doing what they did best: 'Wraith had plugged the relevant information into his computer and begun running searches on various parameters, looking for any clues from that avenue; Winterhawk had summoned up a couple of elementals and set them on a search pattern around the area in question, as well as performing his own astral inspections of the neighborhoods; Ocelot and Joe had taken to the streets to talk to as many gangers as they could, in addition to tapping their remaining street contacts for any useful information. They had come up with various bits of data, none of it terribly useful except to exclude people and entities from their list of subjects. For example, Joe's and Ocelot's discussions with various gangers from both the five gangs in question and those in outlying neighborhoods had led to the determination that none of the other nearby gangs had any particular vendetta against the five under the runners' scrutiny; in fact, the only feeling Ocelot and Joe had been able to get from the other gangs was a vague sense of concern that the problem would begin migrating outward and start affecting them as well. Further, none of the gangers they had talked with had been able to come up with any ill-feeling sufficient to spark the sort of retaliation that had been occurring. With the fact that the murders had been happening off and on for two months, it just didn't make sense that gangs were involved.
Their next avenue of investigation had been corp or organized crime involvement. Another call to Hennessy the day after Bowie's murder had netted them not only the information that the dwarf had not found anyone in Lone Star's databases matching their description, but also, regarding the new question, that the five gangs were not large enough to attract any particular notice from any corps. As for the organized crime angle, Hennessy told them that all five gangs did some minor work for the local Yakuza, but that the Yak connection didn't pan out either. Everything seemed relatively peaceful, both between the gangs and the Yak and between the Yak and other Yak groups in the area. When the runners told him that they thought that the murders were the work of one person, he had said, "Maybe so. I'll keep checking, but my gut tells me that the Yak and corp angle is a dead end."
When what looked very much like the key to the puzzle had finally fallen into place the next day, it had been 'Wraith who had found it. He had called the other runners that evening, and the four of them had met at Winterhawk's place—which was only five minutes away from 'Wraith's and actually had furniture. The elf had brought his computer in, hooked it up to the Matrix, and waited until his teammates had arrayed themselves around the screen. "Did some checking," he'd said. "Gang names, individuals, neighborhoods, so on. Filtered out useless information." He hit a key and screenfuls of information began popping up. He watched them flash by and hit another key at the appropriate point.
The runners, leaning over his shoulder, read the article with growing interest. "This is dated four years ago," Ocelot said. "There was another gang war then? With these same gangs?"
'Wraith nodded. "Same. Very bloody. Severe casualties."
"Severe civilian casualties, it looks like," 'Hawk said, skimming ahead in the article. He looked at 'Wraith as light dawned. "You think this could be one of those civilians?"
"Or a friend, or a relative," Joe added. "Makes sense..."
"Wait," 'Wraith said, hitting another key. "Gets better. Think I found it."
Another news story popped up; this one was dated two weeks after the one describing the gang war. The headline read: "Lone Star Sergeant to Leave Force after Wife, Children Killed in Gang Crossfire." It was accompanied by a holopic of a handsome black human male, approximately 30 years old. Smaller pictures below the man's showed a pretty Asian woman about the same age and two young children, a boy and a girl.
Winterhawk leaned in closer to read the small type. "Sgt. James Hudson of Lone Star has made the decision to resign from the force following the tragic deaths of his wife Louanne and his two children, Jimmy, age 4, and Vivian, age 2."
Ocelot sighed, also reading. "Looks like they didn't have a chance. Plugged on their way to the park."
"Look at the gangs," 'Wraith said quietly, and pointed.
The three others looked and their eyes widened. "The Blood Monkeys hitting the Axemen," Joe said.
"And Hudson worked out of the same precinct as Hennessy does," Ocelot added. "Redmond, 63rd. That woulda been his area."
Winterhawk already had his phone out. He looked questioningly at the others, who nodded. Quickly he punched in Hennessy's number.
The dwarf was caught flatfooted by the new development. "Jimmy Hudson? You guys are kidding, right? No way it could be him. Jimmy was the kindest guy you'd ever want to know. He ain't no murderer."
"Can you be sure, Lieutenant? Do you know where he is now? Where he went after he resigned?"
The dwarf sounded somewhat flustered. "Uh—yeah. He said he was gonna go off and start a store somewhere. Florida, I think he said. He never told anybody exactly where, though. I think he just wanted to put this whole part of his life behind him."
"Do you know how to reach him?"
Hennessy shook his head. "No. Ain't heard from him since he left. I don't think anybody has." A pause, and then: "But listen—I just don't see how it could be Jimmy. Like I said, he was the sweetest guy around. He didn't even want to carry a gun, and he only learned how to fire it 'cuz the job required it. He was a desk jockey. How could somebody like that commit those kinds of murders? It just don't scan."
"Shock can have profound effects on people," 'Wraith said flatly. "Can change personality."
The dwarf still looked unbelieving. "Listen—you guys gotta follow up on this if you think it's possible. I'll do what I can do from here—see if I can find out from Personnel where he ended up, stuff like that. But I sure as hell hope you're wrong. I just don't see how it could be him..." He trailed off, shaking his head. Then he looked up hopefully. "You got any other leads?"
"Not really," Ocelot said. "This one's the best one yet, unfortunately."
Hennessy sighed. "I remember that war. Nasty business. Those gangs were a lot nastier back then—things have toned down a lot since they lost quite a few of their real hotheads. Don't even remember what it was over...distribution of low-level BTLs or somethin', I think. But I remember clearly when Jimmy's wife and kids got it." He sighed again. "I sure as hell hope you're wrong."
When the dwarf had called back several hours later, the news was no more encouraging. "Nobody has any idea where he went," he'd told them. "I did a little checking in Personnel—I got a friend down there—and found out that the last address they got for Jimmy is somewhere in Miami, but he moved a couple months later and didn't leave a forwarding address." He sighed. "I still don't get it, though. Why wait four years to get revenge? Most people get over things like that after that long."
"Maybe something happened that reminded him," Ocelot said. "Thanks."
Winterhawk grabbed his arm before he hung up. "Lieutenant, if you could send us over a good picture of Sergeant Hudson, along with any other information you think we might find helpful, we'd appreciate it. They don't happen to still have a ritual sample on him, do they?"
"Nope—they destroyed it when he quit. Once they check you out and make sure there's nothin' they need to keep tabs on you for, it's standard procedure. Sorry."
After Hennessy had hung up, the runners had had another conference. "So what now?" Ocelot said. "It sounds like we know who our guy is, but that doesn't put us any closer to catchin' him. He can't just be some desk jockey—somebody woulda found him by now. Somethin' must have happened in those four years."
"Need to set a trap," 'Wraith said.
"Yeah, but how?" Ocelot got up and began pacing. "He strikes at random, and we never know which gang he's gonna blow away somebody from. How are we supposed to know where he turns up?"
"He's trying to start a war between the gangs, right?" Joe spoke up. "Maybe if we can do something to convince him that they're gonna get together and make peace, he might get desperate and strike at somebody then."
'Wraith looked at Joe with approval. "Good idea."
Winterhawk was thinking. "There's one thing that doesn't make sense to me," he said, half to himself.
"Only one?" Ocelot threw himself back down in his chair.
The mage ignored the sarcasm. "If it is, in fact, Sgt. Hudson who's behind these murders, then why would he be trying to start a gang war? If a gang war four years ago is the very thing that killed his family, why would he possibly want to provoke another one which will certainly result in more dead civilians?"
"That's a damn good question. I guess we're gonna have to catch him to find out."
Convincing the remaining leadership of the five gangs to come together in neutral territory for a summit was easier than the runners had thought it would be, once they explained the situation. They hadn't given the gangers any specifics about who they thought the murderer was, but they did reveal that the problems had probably stemmed from the bloody war that had occurred four years ago. Since none of those who remembered that war wanted to see another one, they had agreed to meet at the abandoned Allied National Fabrication warehouse, long considered a neutral negotiating place, the following night. "We're the bait. We know that," the Gutterpunks' leader had said. "But this bastard killed my brother, and I want to nail him. I'll do it." Other responses had been similar—willingness to take a risk for the potential payoff of stopping the murders.
The runners told the gangers to spread the word that the meeting would occur the following night at 21:00. They would stake out the place before that and keep their eyes open; if Hudson (or whoever else the killer was, if they were wrong and it wasn't Hudson) showed up, the entire area around the warehouse would be covered on both the mundane and astral realms. It was the best they could do; they hoped it would work.
"Getting close now," Ocelot said over the commlink. "Keep your eyes open."
"Nothing here," 'Wraith said. He was stationed in an abandoned vehicle near the south corner of the warehouse, where he could watch the convergence of two streets and the tops of the buildings across the street. With his mag vision active, it was unlikely that he would miss anything coming in from his quadrant.
"Nor here," Winterhawk reported from his position on the roof of another building across from the north side of the warehouse. From where he was, he could see in through the large empty spaces where windows used to be; he could also see—barely—the car where 'Wraith was hidden. His two air elementals were roving around the area, instructed to report the approach of anyone other than the team. Unlike watcher spirits, the elementals were intelligent enough to take a bit of initiative on their own; 'Hawk was relying on them to augment his own astral vision.
"I got somebody coming," Joe said. "Looks like the Sin-Eaters."
Winterhawk shifted his scrutiny over to Joe's area at the east side of the warehouse, immediately noticing the three figures warily approaching the warehouse.
"And here come two more groups from my side," Ocelot added. "The—Gutterpunks and the Axemen, it looks like. They're comin' in from two sides and headin' for the door."
"Blood Monkeys approaching," 'Wraith spoke up. "Still about half a kilometer away."
"And here come the Twisted Grizzlies," Winterhawk said after a few moments, spotting the two burly trolls approaching his vantage point.
"Okay, heads up, everybody," Ocelot said.
"Once they get close I'll go inside," Joe said. "Winterhawk—will you take a look inside and make sure he's not already there?"
"On it," the mage said, and slipped into the astral plane. He returned after two minutes. "Nothing in there," he said over the commlink. "It's empty except for a few specimens of the local wildlife—bats and devil rats and such."
The gangers were approaching now, moving warily but confidently. They converged on the warehouse from five sides while keeping up careful but unobtrusive scrutiny. 'Wraith and Winterhawk continued their sweeps of the area around the warehouse while Joe and Ocelot watched the immediate vicinity of the gangers. As they got closer, Joe came out from his hiding place and began drifting over toward them; as the runners had prearranged with the gangers, he was wearing a Twisted Grizzlies jacket.
Ocelot was getting nervous. There should have been some sign of their quarry by now. "Where is he?" he muttered into the commlink. "He can't pass this up—"
"I just hope we're right," Joe's soft voice came in. "If it's more than one guy, we might be in trouble."
"Don't think it is," 'Wraith said. "Everything makes sense. It—" He stopped short. When he spoke again, his whisper was much sharper and more urgent. "'Hawk! Below you!"
Winterhawk, startled, nonetheless acted quickly, silently moving to the edge of the building and inching his way forward so he could get a look over the edge.
He got a quick impression of a long-rifle barrel sticking out through one of the apartment building's ruined windows before two things happened simultaneously: a bullet from 'Wraith's own rifle shattered the remains of the window, and the rifle's owner, apparently possessed of extremely acute senses, withdrew the barrel of his gun a split-second earlier. Winterhawk got a brief impression of dark-clad arms pulling inward. "I think that's our man!" he called, already activating his levitation spell lock and zipping over toward the roof access door and mentally ordering his two elementals to secure the building's exits. "Somebody watch those gangers in case there's more of them!"
"I'm coming," came Ocelot's quick reply. "Careful, 'Hawk.'
"Coming too," 'Wraith said, already leaping out of the car and moving at frightening speed down the street.
"I'll take care of the gangers," Joe said. "And watch the front door." He knew he was too slow to get up there in time to be of any aid in catching the shooter—he would be best served by making sure that if the guy had any accomplices, they weren't setting up to blow the gangers away. Hurriedly he began encouraging them toward the door to the warehouse.
Winterhawk zipped down the roof-access stairs and into the top floor of the apartment building. The place was officially condemned, but even moving as fast as he was, he could see that there were signs of habitation. Squatters, he thought as he flew by a beat-up tricycle in a hallway. Need to find him soon before he does something we'll all regret.
The window at which 'Wraith had spotted him was two floors down, so 'Hawk headed for the stairs, ignoring the petrified look he got from the drunken ork shuffling his way down the side of the corridor. Everywhere there were signs of decay—rotted floorboards, moldy remains of carpeting, piles of trash. The smell was appalling. 'Hawk ignored it.
'Wraith reached the first floor of the building before Ocelot did, and didn't wait. Flinging open the door, he ducked off to the side, sniper rifle ready, gaze darting around. "'Hawk?"
"Third floor. Haven't found him yet."
Winterhawk paused. "I wouldn't," he finally said. "Let's let Hennessy have him."
"Agreed." 'Wraith stowed his Walther and drew his Narcoject pistol, then stepped carefully into the lobby.
"I've got the third. Check the first and second," the mage's voice came through again.
About this time, Ocelot came pounding up. "What?"
'Wraith pointed up. "Second floor?"
"Right." Ocelot turned back around and ran back out of the building, drawing his grapple gun.
"Where are you...?" Winterhawk muttered to himself. He could hear the sound of running feet echoing through the building, but he couldn't tell if they were the shooter's or if they were being made by some squatter kids somewhere. With the elementals and Joe watching the exits, he won't get far. He has to be in here somewhere. Only a few ways out—
Down the hall, a door slammed. Then the running feet again.
'Hawk started, but quickly got his bearings and jetted down the hall in pursuit. "I think he's up here," he reported. He couldn't risk going astral now—instead, he shot off a quick Clairvoyance spell and was rewarded by the sight of a black-clad figure disappearing around a corner up ahead.
"We're on our way," Ocelot's voice came through. "Sit tight."
"Can't. He'll get away. End of the hall. Meet me there." 'Hawk flung open the ruined safety doors and continued down the hallway. He was heading toward the stairway leading downward. They'll get him if he goes that way. Time to be a bit more careful.
He dropped the Levitation spell, landing carefully next to the wall, and tiptoed down the hallway. There was one apartment between him and the stairs, and the door was open. Very quietly he crept forward and prepared to cross the open area toward the stairs, planning to meet up with Ocelot and 'Wraith on the lower floor.
"Don't move," said a soft voice from inside the room. "You do, and they're dead."
Winterhawk didn't move.
Inside the apartment, clearly visible through the open door, were five figures. One of them—the one who had spoken—wore a one-piece black formfitting suit that almost blended in with the shadows of the darkened room. Two pinpoints of red light shown from his eyes. The suit had a hood, and the man's face was painted with nonreflective black so it blended in with the rest of the outfit. A sniper rifle was slung over his shoulder; in his hand he held an HK-227, which was currently trained on one of the room's other occupants.
Clustered together, arms around each other, were three children, none of them older than six years old. All three were moaning and whimpering, staring up at a unkempt-looking squatter woman of about thirty who had to be their mother. The SMG was aimed directly at her head.
Very softly into the commlink, he whispered. "Trouble. No sudden moves. Hostages." Out loud, he said very gently, "Sergeant Hudson, I presume."
The pinprick eyes widened a bit. "How'd you know my—never mind! Drop your weapons now or I blow them away!"
"I don't have any weapons, Sergeant Hudson." Winterhawk held up his hands, palms up, showing that he did not in fact have a gun. "Is this really what you want to do?" He kept his voice low, soothing, calm. Behind him he could hear the nearly nonexistent sounds of his two teammates coming up the stairs.
"Come in here!" Hudson barked.
"We need to talk, James," Winterhawk said, moving slowly into the room. "Your friend Hennessy sent us. To help you. Please. Put the gun down. You don't want to kill these people."
"Don't you tell me what I want!" Hudson's voice pitched up a bit; there was no mistaking the madness in it. "I want to make 'em pay, that's what I want. I want 'em to die just like my Louanne did. Just like my kids did."
The woman whimpered a bit, which started the children crying in earnest. There were two boys and a girl, all of them dressed in ragged, ill-fitting clothing.
Winterhawk took a deep breath. "James, you don't want to kill these people. Look at them. They're not gangers. They're not responsible for your wife's and children's deaths. This is a mother and her children too. Do you want to take these children's mother from them?"
Hudson hesitated, then his eyes narrowed. "It was you. You and your friends were trying to stop me from doin' what I had to do. Maybe I should kill you." The gun didn't move from the woman's head.
Behind him, Winterhawk heard 'Wraith and Ocelot approaching. "Stay out of sight," he murmured under his breath. Again he spoke aloud to Hudson. "James, please. None of this is solving anything. You need help. We want to help you. But first you'll be needing to put the gun down. Then we can call Duke. Don't you want to see your old friend?"
The gun wavered, just a bit. "D—Duke?"
Winterhawk nodded. "He's waiting to hear from us. He'd like to see you again. He can help you. You've got some problems, James, but he can help you. We can. But you have to let us."
The woman, still shaking so hard she could barely speak, gazed up at Hudson entreatingly. "Please don't kill me, mister. My kids—they ain't got nobody else."
Hudson's strange eyes shifted back and forth between her, the kids, and Winterhawk. "Go away," he finally said. "Go away and let me go. That's all I want."
"I can't do that, James," 'Hawk said ruefully. "You know that. Duke asked us to find you, and we can't just go away and leave you in such a state."
Over the commlink, Ocelot's voice came very quietly. "Can you hold him a few more, 'Hawk? If we can get down a level, we can climb up and get him through the window."
"Hurry up," the mage said without moving his mouth. "I think we've got a class-A nutter here." He didn't look sideways, but he sensed 'Wraith and Ocelot moving off.
"Guys, we got another problem," Joe's voice broke in. "These guys have figured out you got somebody over there. I don't know how much longer I can keep 'em here. They want blood."
Winterhawk didn't answer that. He knew that 'Wraith and Ocelot would deal with that problem if it came up. Right now, his only problem was this one. "James," he said softly, "Please put the gun down. You don't want to kill this nice woman here, do you?"
Hudson glanced down at her again. "I—" The gun was noticeably shaking now.
"Come on...there's a good chap. Come on, James...let these good people go. They're not part of the problem. They're innocents, just like Louanne and Vivian and Jimmy were."
The names hit Hudson like a hot wire. "You—know? About Jimmy and Viv?"
Winterhawk nodded. "I know, James. It's a terrible tragedy. It's no wonder it made you a bit unwell. It would have done the same to anyone. But don't make it worse by killing more innocents. That won't save anyone. Please. Just put the gun down and let's go see Duke, shall we?"
"Duke..." Hudson's grip tightened on the woman until she moaned at the pain.
"Shall we call him? He'll come here if we call him. But you have to put the gun down first."
"Duke..." he said again. Tears began running down his face, looking very strange with the facepaint and the solid black eyes with red lights in the middle. "Louanne...help me...I tried, but I can't—" He started to sob—great wracking sobs of four years of pent-up grief. "Louanne...Jimmy... Viv..."
He pulled back the gun, and before Winterhawk could react, he pointed the barrel at his own face—
—and fell over in a heap, the gun clattering to the floor unfired.
'Wraith appeared in the window, followed a moment later by Ocelot. The woman, released from Hudson's grip, collapsed into her own heap, her three children piling on top of her like puppies. 'Wraith stowed his Narcoject pistol and looked down at Hudson's crumpled form. Ocelot, who was looking at him at that exact moment, was surprised to see an expression quite like sympathy and understanding cross the elf's face.
It was another two hours before everything got wrapped up. Hennessy, whom Joe had called, had showed up shortly after the hostage situation had been defused, shocked and saddened to see what had become of his friend James. Close examination (after they had gotten out of the immediate area, for fear of starting their own gang war as the five gangs vied for who would be the one to kill the murderer) revealed that James had been busy in the four years since he'd been gone: the guy had barely any of his own body left, most of it having been replaced by cyberware, muscle replacements, smartgun link, cybereyes, and various other modifications that would have most likely driven him mad if he hadn't already been there to start with. Winterhawk's astral examination had revealed more cyberware than it should have been possible to fit into a human body, indicating that Hudson must have had connections to some very good cyber-clinics. "Has to be at least beta-grade," Hennessy had commented. "And he's been workin' out, too. I don't know who he hooked up with, but it's pretty obvious that he was a man on a mission."
"So what's gonna happen to him?" Joe asked as the ambulance carrying the heavily-sedated and restrained Hudson had rolled off, leaving the five of them standing next to Hennessy's beat-up plainclothes unit in the parking lot of the closed store where they had met up.
Hennessy sighed, handing over the credsticks containing the remainder of their payment. "I don't know. He's got some problems, but he did commit eight murders, plus attempted murder on that woman. I hope we can get him some help, but I think he's gonna do time. Maybe the courts'll cut him some slack, though, especially if we can get his head straightened out." He looked down. "Man, this is not what I expected to find. I'm glad it's over, but why did it have to be Jimmy? I sure wouldn't want to see what was runnin' around in his mind for the past four years."
"No," 'Wraith said in an odd tone. "You probably wouldn't." He motioned toward the truck. "Gentlemen?"
Ocelot nodded, running his hand through his hair. "Yeah. I think it's time to go home and get some sleep."
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.