Kestrel spent almost an hour just driving around aimlessly before she finally called Ocelot. Several times during that time she had pulled out her phone and poised her finger over the speed-dial button that would connect her with him, but each time she had stopped. She didn't want to talk to anyone yet, she decided. She needed some time to sort her thoughts out.
The problem was, even after forty-five minutes of driving around Seattle, she still hadn't gotten them very sorted out. It seemed like every time she turned around lately, some weird piece of Gabriel's past was popping up to confound her and to remind her graphically that despite the fact that he was her friend, she was never going to comprehend more than the tiniest corner of his complex history and personality. In the past year and a half that she had known him, she had not had to deal with that much; except for the business with Stefan, he had kept the more "dragonish" side of his life away from her. He had often gone off by himself to take care of some task or business, occasionally being gone as long as a month, but she had never questioned him. It was just the way he was. They spent a lot of time together, but each had his or her own life as well. It was part of the reason they got along so well—they knew when to leave each other alone.
The only thing different about this situation was the danger involved. Before, when he had gone off who knew where, she had never had the impression that there was anything dangerous or potentially harmful in his errands. Now, though, she was scared. Scared for him and, maybe based on some sixth sense that she would never believe that she possessed, also scared for herself and for Ocelot and his team. She was not convinced that this situation wasn't going to eventually spill over into their lives as well, and she wanted to be ready when it did.
Then there was the matter of the garishly painted elf. There was something about him that seemed familiar, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not place the association. She was sure she had not met him anywhere before; she would definitely have remembered such a face. But then where might she have encountered him? Seen him on the trid, maybe? She shook her head, sighing. It wasn't going to come if she tried to force it. That was the first rule of trying to recall something: just forget about it and it will usually just grind its way through your brain cells and surface with an answer eventually. Trying to coerce the thought to the top would do nothing but drive it deeper down.
Gabriel had said that he wasn't entirely sure that this elf was not the one who had killed his friend, but that he didn't think so. She hoped he was right. Even though she could not have done anything to prevent the elf from trying to kill Gabriel as well, it still would have caused her immense pain to discover that she had gone off and left him to die. As a samurai and a leader, she wasn't accustomed to doing that.
She sighed, pulling up her phone again. She wasn't going to get anywhere driving around in circles. If nothing else, maybe spending the night with Ocelot might take her mind off the situation. He had a talent for taking her mind off things.
He answered after the second ring. "Yeah?" In the background, she could hear the sounds of people; he wasn't home, then. As usual, there was no video.
She flipped on the video from her end. "Hi."
After a moment, his came on too. "Hey. I was wondering if you were gonna call. Everything okay?"
"Uh...yeah. I guess so." She paused, glancing up to make sure that the Westwind's autopilot was still doing what it was supposed to be doing. "Still want to get together?"
Ocelot looked at something off screen, then nodded. "Yeah, sure. 'Hawk and I are just havin' a couple beers over here at the Spider. Want to come by, and then you and I can ditch 'Hawk and take off in awhile?" He grinned toward the place where the mage was apparently sitting; Winterhawk replied, but his words didn't carry over the phone.
She thought about that for a moment. She really wanted to see Ocelot alone, but maybe Winterhawk might be able to shed some light on this thing too. A fresh perspective couldn't hurt. "Okay," she said at last. "I'm about twenty minutes away. I'll see you then."
Arriving at the Glass Spider, a Downtown bar that was a favorite hangout of Ocelot and the rest of his team, Kestrel saw that the parking lot was only about half full. She spotted Ocelot's BMW Blitzen motorcycle parked near the door, and after a moment saw Winterhawk's little black Honda-GM 3220 across from it. She pulled the Westwind in next to the Blitzen, set the alarm, and went inside.
Ocelot had apparently been watching for her, because he waved as she came in. He was seated at a booth near the back. Winterhawk, sitting on the other side, nodded as she came up. As usual, the mage was dressed in a stylish suit; a wool overcoat lay across the seat next to him. "Evening," he said pleasantly.
Kestrel smiled, sliding in next to Ocelot, who had already ordered her a beer. Teasingly, she said, "What's this? I go away for an hour or two and you get another date?"
Ocelot shrugged, grinning. "What can I say? I got lonely."
"—and I was the only one he could find willing to play second fiddle," Winterhawk added.
"So," Ocelot said. "Did you find him?"
She nodded, pausing for a drink of beer before speaking. "Yeah. He was home after all. Zonked out, but there."
"Yeah. Asleep. He's been spending a lot of time on the astral plane, trying to find clues about who killed his friend. I think he'd been overdoing it, and it finally caught up with him." Kestrel decided that she wasn't going to keep secret the pieces of the situation that Gabriel had already shared with her, with the exception of the part about Slyde. Gabriel hadn't seemed particularly worried about her sharing them with the team, and she was growing weary of keeping all this to herself.
"Hmm," Winterhawk said speculatively. "That must have been a lot of time indeed. I know how long I can remain there, and his power is on another level entirely." His electric blue eyes fixed on her. "So, has he found anything yet?"
"He says he's got a good lead," she told him. "He wouldn't tell me anything else about it, though, except that it isn't anybody I'd know about."
"So I guess this really doesn't have anything to do with Stefan, then," Ocelot said, unable to keep some relief out of his voice. "Unless he's lying to you, of course."
She shook her head. "He doesn't lie to me. He said he doesn't know exactly who the killer is, but he's got some pretty good ideas, and that he's sure it isn't anybody I know." She sighed. "I wish he'd tell me the rest, but I guess he has a right to his privacy. He says there's nothing I can do to help, and that we should probably not see each other anymore until he gets it straightened out."
"Isn't he a bit worried about going into this alone?" Winterhawk asked. "If this—whatever it is—has killed someone stronger than he is, then p'raps he might do with a bit of backup."
"That was what I thought too," she admitted, "but realistically I guess that's not us. What are we gonna do to help out against something that eats Great Dragons for lunch?" Again she sighed. "It just chafes not being able to do anything."
Ocelot nodded. He understood that feeling as well as Kestrel did. Still, though, he knew she was right, and he wasn't in any particular hurry to get involved in a Great Dragon's personal problems if they didn't involve him. "Maybe you should try to get your mind off it," he said. "I know it ain't easy, but we'll have a few drinks, and then you and I can go back to my place." He smiled a little. "I'll try to help you forget..."
Winterhawk half-jokingly started to rise. "I think that's my cue to be off," he said.
"No, no, sit down," Kestrel said with a little laugh. "I think I'd just like to sit here with you guys for awhile. The weird quotient over at Gabriel's was getting a little high for me. That was part of why I left."
Ocelot frowned. "Weird quotient?" After a pause he added, "I guess I was kind of wondering why you left if he was there. Did he kick you out?"
She nodded. "Someone came by—someone he wanted to talk to alone." Shaking her head, she frowned. "I know I've seen this guy before—or at least heard of him—but I can't place where. I mean, you'd think an elf with a face painted up like a clown would ring some bells, wouldn't you—What?" she said quickly, as she looked up to notice that she had lost her audience.
Winterhawk and Ocelot were staring at each other with expressions of shocked horror. Very slowly, both of them turned back to face her. "Did you say an elf—" Ocelot began.
"—with a face painted like a clown's?" Winterhawk finished. Both his voice and Ocelot's sounded strained.
"Yeah, that's what I said." She looked at them with suspicion. "What's going on? Do you guys know this elf or something?"
"Or something," Ocelot agreed lamely.
"Wait a second..." Kestrel began as if talking to herself. She looked up at the two men. "Now I remember. You guys mentioned somebody like this back when we were dealing with Stefan. You asked me if I'd ever seen an elf with a painted face. This is who you were talking about, wasn't it?"
"It appears so," Winterhawk said. "Reddish-brown hair? Strange clothes? Smart-aleck behavior?"
She nodded. "That's him all right. He was wearing what looked some kind of weird concert T-shirt from the last century. But he acted like he knew Gabriel." Again light dawned. "Yeah. Somebody said so when we were riding over to Stefan's building in the Rolls. You guys seemed surprised that Gabriel knew him. I can't remember what you called him, though."
"Harlequin," Ocelot said in a dull tone.
"Gabriel called him something else," Winterhawk said, "but I can't remember what. Yes, that certainly sounds like him."
"Is he dangerous?" Kestrel asked quickly. "I mean, I know Gabriel's tough, but he's so wiped out right now—"
"No doubt he's quite dangerous," Winterhawk said, "but I'd be surprised if he's any threat to our young dragon, if that's what you're worried about. From the way he talked before, they're friends, or at least friendly acquaintances."
"I just want to know what the hell he's doing there," Ocelot said. "I didn't think he just paid social calls, even to dragons."
"Maybe he's come to help Gabriel find who killed his friend," Kestrel suggested, shrugging.
"Could Gabriel have called him?" Winterhawk asked. "That would explain his presence..."
Kestrel shook her head. "I don't think so. He seemed surprised to see him when he showed up, like he wasn't expecting him."
"Hmmm..." Ocelot muttered. This was really making him nervous now. Trouble seemed to follow Harlequin around, and it had the habit of overflowing to engulf everyone around him. If he was here, now—
He turned to Kestrel. "Did he say anything else that might explain this? Anything at all?"
Kestrel was a bit startled by the intensity of his stare, but she nonetheless tried to recall the conversation she'd had. "He said...that he didn't know who had done it, but he had some idea. That...there were new developments, and that he might be in danger before this is over."
Winterhawk and Ocelot looked at each other again. "I'm getting a bad feeling about this..." Ocelot said under his breath.
"As am I," Winterhawk agreed soberly. "Somebody's killed a Great Dragon, but no one can find any evidence that it's happened, nor any trace of either the body or the killer. And now Harlequin's made an appearance. This is very much beginning to look like it might have some connection with—"
"Don't say it!" Ocelot snapped, cutting him off. Then, quieter, "Oh, holy shit, 'Hawk...if you're right..."
Kestrel looked at them with a combination of angry glare and confused frown. "What the hell are you guys talking about? We went through this before. You know something, don't you?"
Ocelot stood so fast he almost knocked over the table. "We have to get over there," he said urgently. "Now. We need to talk to him."
Winterhawk was already rising and gathering up his overcoat.
"Wait a minute!" Kestrel protested as Ocelot shoved past her out of the booth. "What the hell is going on? What do you guys know about this?" Grabbing Ocelot's arm, she spun him back around as he tried to move out. "Ocelot—tell me! I think I deserve not to be kept in the dark on this anymore."
"We gotta get over there," Ocelot repeated, shaking free of her grip. "And we gotta call the guys!" His breath was coming faster, and a thin sheen of sweat had broken out on his forehead. "Come on. If it's what we're afraid of, you'll hear about it soon enough. But I don't wanna miss Harlequin." Heedless of Kestrel's continued protests, he practically ran out of the bar, yelling, "I'll make the call and meet you over there!" over his shoulder as he left.
Kestrel looked at Winterhawk, who looked marginally less agitated than Ocelot had. "What's going on?" she asked again, like a kid who was tired of getting the brush-off by all the adults around her.
Winterhawk continued shrugging into his overcoat. "I think Ocelot is right," he said. "If we can talk to Harlequin, we can find out. What we're afraid of is that something very dangerous is involved. Something we've dealt with before, but that we thought was safely tucked away where it couldn't do any more harm." He motioned for her to follow him.
"Dangerous enough to murder a Great Dragon without a trace?" she demanded incredulously, catching up with him with ease.
"Quite so," he said. "In fact, about the only things I can think of that might have the ability to do just that."
"And you guys have fought these things?" Her voice was rising, picking up fear and disbelief.
"Not any that big," Winterhawk said. "Not anything like that big. But yes." They were outside now; as they headed for the parking lot, they saw Ocelot astride his Blitzen, roaring out of the lot at far too high a rate of speed. As they reached their cars he receded into the distance and disappeared around a corner.
Winterhawk indicated his car. "I'll meet you over at Gabriel's place. I hope that Ocelot has the good sense to wait for us before he tries to barge in there on his own."
Kestrel was the last of the three to arrive at the downtown high-rise that housed Gabriel's penthouse apartment. As she pulled up next to the gate leading into the underground garage, she saw Ocelot and Winterhawk waiting, the former pacing around looking like he was seriously considering trying to rip the gate from its moorings in order to gain entry. As she drew up he hurried over to her passenger window. "What took you so long?" he demanded. His agitation was clear. Winterhawk came up behind him.
Kestrel was beginning to pick up some of their urgency now, if for no other reason than fear that Gabriel was in danger. "Get in," she ordered, unlocking the passenger door.
"Wait," Winterhawk said, looking off to one side. "Looks like 'Wraith and Joe didn't waste any time getting here," he added as the team's Gaz-Willys Nomad came rolling up behind Kestrel's Westwind. ShadoWraith, at the wheel, had an expression of single-minded purpose on his face; Joe had his massive arms draped over the front seats as if he had been urging 'Wraith to go faster.
The runners quickly sorted themselves out and piled into the two vehicles, after which Kestrel opened the gate to let them into the garage. Once parked, the five of them convened behind the Nomad.
"What's going on?" Joe demanded. "You said something about Harlequin, but I could barely make out what you were saying on the phone with all the wind noise."
"Come on," Ocelot urged. "He's here. We gotta talk to him. It sounds like they're back."
Nobody had to ask who they were except for Kestrel, and she decided to let it rest for now. Ocelot looked like he was about to go mad if he didn't get where he wanted to go. She hurried after him, heading toward the elevator.
'Wraith fell into step next to Winterhawk. "Horrors?"
The mage shrugged. "Looks like it might be. I hope we're wrong, but—" he spread his arms.
"I think that's what we're about to find out, if we can catch our painted friend before he leaves."
Kestrel stopped before she reached the elevator, looking back at the crew that was following her and doing a sudden sanity check. Four intense sets of eyes met her gaze as she paused: Ocelot looked manic, 'Wraith driven, Winterhawk sober, and Joe anxious. "Guys," she said, holding up her hands, "wait a minute. This is crazy. We can't just go up there and barge in on him. He told me he didn't want us to get together anymore until he took care of this—I don't think he's gonna be too happy about me bringing all of you up there uninvited."
Ocelot was about to snap. "Kestrel, listen," he said, his voice rising higher with the bright edge of panic. "You don't know what this is about! If they're back we need to know about it!"
"If who are back?" she demanded angrily. "I'm tired of being kept in the dark, Ocelot. This involves me too. We're not going anywhere until you give me some more information." She crossed her arms and planted her feet resolutely apart, challenging anyone to oppose her.
Winterhawk stepped forward. "Kestrel, we can't explain it all now. It's far too complicated for a twenty-five-words-or-fewer sort of explanation. But the short and simple version is that there is a threat—an enormous threat—from out beyond astral space that's been trying to reach us here on Earth. Last time they made the attempt, Harlequin and our team managed to successfully prevent them from doing it. But from the sound of things, they're trying again."
"And are successful," 'Wraith added with a glance toward the elevator.
"So what's this got to do with Gabriel?" Kestrel asked, lowering her voice as some of 'Hawk's words sunk in.
"We don't know yet," Winterhawk said. "That's what we're trying to find out. But it certainly appears that this might have to do with the murderer of his friend."
"If the ones that have got through are strong enough to kill dragons—" Joe spoke up, letting that trail off.
Kestrel considered for only a moment, then made a swift decision. Turning, she punched a code into the elevator. "Okay," she said. "Let's go. You can tell me the rest later."
When the elevator door opened on the top floor of the building, Ocelot was the first one out, moving down the hallway at full jacked speed. Before Kestrel could stop him, he knocked hard on the door.
The others caught up quickly; Kestrel grabbed Ocelot's arm. "Wait!" she said.
"What?" He glared at her, then knocked again. "Gabriel! Open up! We need to talk!" he called through the closed door.
Winterhawk drew breath to say something, then decided not to. It wouldn't have done any good anyway, he knew. He was well aware of his friend's neurosis when it came to the Horrors—his simultaneous abject fear and need to know everything he could about a potential Horror appearance in order to somehow have a chance of arming himself, as absurd as they all knew that was. Winterhawk hung back and did not comment.
Ocelot pounded again. "Gabriel! We know you're in there! Open the door!"
Kestrel closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. "He doesn't want to see us now," she said quietly.
Four pairs of eyes turned on her immediately. "Huh?" Ocelot demanded.
"He says he doesn't want to see us," she repeated. "He asked me to ask you to leave. He says he'll talk to you in a few days if he can."
"Can't," 'Wraith stated. "Need to talk now."
"Damn straight," Ocelot agreed. "Tell him it's important. Tell him we gotta talk to him now."
Again Kestrel closed her eyes. Her expression clouded as she frowned, then she nodded as if in reply to something unseen. Sighing, she opened her eyes. "He says he apologizes, but he can't see you right now. He says he's very tired and needs to rest."
Ocelot fought to contain his anger and frustration, which weren't directed at anyone in particular—it was not even Gabriel that he was angry with, but just the situation. Around him, his three teammates looked grim, though perhaps for differing reasons. "We can't wait," he mumbled. Suddenly he reached out and pounded on the door again. "Gabriel, we know about Harlequin!" he yelled. "We know he's here! We need to talk to him!" His voice was rising higher as he punctuated each statement with another pound of his fist.
"Ocelot—" Kestrel began angrily.
The door clicked.
Ignoring Kestrel, Ocelot shoved it open and stormed into the room. The others swiftly followed. After a moment, Kestrel did likewise, sighing.
Gabriel was changing form as they entered, the dragon decreasing and shifting into the young man who came striding across the floor toward them with fire in his eyes. He was dressed in simple black pants, pullover shirt, and soft boots. "I asked you not to come," he said quietly, his voice tightly controlled.
"We had to," Ocelot said obstinately. He looked around as if expecting to see something that wasn't there. "Where is he?"
"Where is who?" Gabriel stopped, regarding the four runners with an expression that was chillier than any of them had ever seen him direct at them.
"Harlequin!" Ocelot almost yelled. There was sweat on his face and he was shaking slightly. "Where is he? I know he's here somewhere. We need to talk to him."
"Ocelot—" Winterhawk started, but stopped when he was ignored.
"He isn't here," Gabriel said.
Ocelot glared at him. "Then where is he? He was here."
"He has gone. I don't know where." He started to turn. "If you'll excuse me now—"
Ocelot grabbed his shoulder and spun him back around. "This is about the Horrors, isn't it? Tell us!" His voice was now almost devoid of sanity. He was not getting the information he wanted, which was driving him further over the edge.
Kestrel gasped as Gabriel's smoldering gaze fell on Ocelot, and again as the young dragon pointed his hand and sent the other man sliding across the floor in a none-too-gentle manner. "You presume much," he said through gritted teeth. "I—cannot deal with this now. This is no concern of yours. You will go."
Ocelot's three teammates hurried over to him as he tried to scramble to his feet and attack Gabriel. In his mind he knew that what he was doing was sheer lunacy, but irrational terror of the Horrors drove him back up. He would have lunged at Gabriel again if Joe's huge hands had not clamped themselves on his upper arms and held him immobile. "Ocelot," the troll urged, "settle down. This isn't getting us anywhere." Looking up at Gabriel, he added apologetically, "Sorry. He gets pretty wound up about anything he thinks involves the Horrors."
Gabriel was not looking at the runners. He stood, his hands hanging at his sides, his head bowed. His breathing was fast and irregular. "Forgive me," he said raggedly. "There was—no need for me to do that." His gaze came up, and for the first time the runners could get a good look at just how wasted he appeared.
"Gabriel," Winterhawk said, measuring his words carefully, "please forgive our intrusion. We were—understandably concerned when Kestrel told us you'd had a visitor who was a clown-painted elf."
Gabriel looked at Kestrel, something unidentifiable in his eyes. "That was my fault," he said, still speaking in the same soft tone. "I had forgotten that I had mentioned him to you before."
"Was he here?" 'Wraith asked.
The young dragon nodded with a sigh.
Ocelot struggled in Joe's hold. "Let go," he growled. "I'm okay now."
Joe regarded him for a moment, then slowly relaxed his hold. Ocelot remained where he was standing, but he was still shaking.
"Why?" Gabriel asked, looking at 'Wraith. "He is an old friend."
"That ain't why he came," Ocelot said. "This whole thing is about the Horrors, isn't it? Don't keep it a secret—they're back, aren't they?"
Gabriel stood there, unmoving except for his eyes. His gaze moved over each runner, taking in the four (five, counting Kestrel. She is curious too) pairs of eyes that were fixed on him, waiting for his answer. For almost a full minute he said nothing. Then, finally, reluctantly: "Yes—I think they are."
"I knew it!" Ocelot said, a little too loudly. "I knew it. Oh, shit...this is bad. What the hell do we—"
'Wraith was no longer looking at him. Instead, the elf was staring at something past Gabriel. Like his fellow runners, he was standing facing Gabriel's door, while the young dragon had his back to it. When they had made their stampede into the room, they had failed to close the door, and Gabriel had not done so either. Now the door was moving. Someone was coming in. "Company," 'Wraith said dispassionately, though his eyes had hardened and his entire posture had gone stiff.
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.