“So why can’t I come along?”
It was the next night, around ten. They were back at Crank’s, where Jay had spent most of the day helping the deckers out with their jobs, and Sean had spent most of it prowling the streets around the neighborhood, looking for outlets for his restless energy. It wasn’t until after they’d had dinner and Sean was getting ready to go out that Jay realized something had happened the previous evening.
“I told you already,” Sean said patiently. “I have to do this one on my own. Besides, aren’t you guys in the middle of a project?” He indicated the threadbare couches, where Crank and his buddies were sprawled, oblivious to the world. One spot, the one that had been occupied a few minutes earlier by Jay, was vacant.
The dwarf looked reluctant, obviously torn between the allure of helping with an actual decker job and the responsibility of sticking by his friend. “Well—”
Sean clapped him on the shoulder. “Look—I don’t think this is going to be dangerous or anything,” he said, hoping he wasn’t lying through his teeth. “I just have to drop something off for somebody, and hopefully get some information in return. I should be back in a couple of hours at most.”
Jay sighed. “It’s not like I can talk you out of anything, you know. You do things your own way whether anybody else likes it or not. At least take your phone, okay? If nothing else, I’ll be online and I can call for help if you get in trouble.”
Sean grinned, well used to his friend’s pessimistic tendencies, and pulled the phone from his pocket. “I promise. If I get in trouble, I’ll call and you can come save the day. Happy?”
“No. But I’m not going to get anything better,” Jay grumbled.
“Hey, you’re the last one I want to piss off,” Sean said, his grin getting bigger. “You’ll mess up my credit rating or something.”
“You don’t have a credit rating,” Jay pointed out.
The dwarf brightened. “Want one?”
Sean laughed and flung the first thing within reach—a wadded up Sloppy-Soy wrapper—at Jay. “I’ll see you later, okay? Don’t wait up for me.”
Jay snorted, already returning to his couch.
Sean’s first stop was the same bar he and Jay had visited the previous night. The woman was there, just as she told him she’d be. She slid the package across the table to him. On top of it was an address. “Take this to this address and ask for Gretsch. He’ll know who it’s from. Don’t give it to anybody else, just him. He’ll be the one you want to talk to.”
Sean nodded, pocketing the package. “Where is this?”
“In the Redmond Barrens, but not the really bad part. You can still get cabs there.”
That was comforting.
She was right—he could get a cab there, or at least almost there. The ork driver dropped him off at a corner flanked by decaying abandoned buildings. “It’s right down that block,” he said, pointing. “Other end.”
“So aren’t you going to take me there?”
“Dispatcher gets nervous if I get off the main routes,” the ork told him. “Now for a little extra—”
“No, that’s okay. This is fine.” Sean paid the cabbie and got out, noting how quickly the ork got out of there. Part of him was wondering if this had been a good idea, but he shrugged it off. He’d been in bad neighborhoods before.
He moved down the block, staying near the middle of the sidewalk and remaining mindful of his surroundings. A few lounging residents looked him over as he passed, but nobody moved in his direction. He had long ago cultivated the art of carrying himself like someone who wasn’t to be messed with—so far, it seemed to be working.
It took him a few moments to find the address because very few of the buildings were numbered and most of the streetlights didn’t work. Finally he stopped in front of a likely looking place and addressed two young men leaning casually on the rotting steps leading up to the door. “I’m looking for a guy named Gretsch. You know him?”
One of them shrugged. “Who wants to know?”
“I’ve got something for him.”
“What?” The two looked more interested now, pushing themselves up to more upright positions.
“That’s for him to know. He around?”
As one, they moved closer. One of them was about to say something else when a third figure leaned out of one of the upper windows. “Somebody down there?”
The two out front looked disappointed. “Somebody here say he’s got somethin’ for ya,” the taller of the two said reluctantly.
“A d’livery,” the other added.
“Well tell him to get his ass up here then,” the voice called. “‘Bout fraggin’ time.”
The taller youth hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the door. “You heard the dude,” he told Sean. “Don’t make him wait. He don’t like it.”
Sean nodded. Going into the house was probably unwise and he knew it, but he also knew that asking the mysterious “Gretsch” to come downstairs to claim his delivery was possibly more unwise. He passed the two youths and moved inside. He wasn’t in the mood for a fight right now.
The interior of the house was shadowy, ramshackle, and rotting, although the upper floor was in marginally better shape than the lower. At the top of the stairs Sean moved toward the only open door, which was to a room with a window that looked out over the street. “Who’s out there?” a voice called. Sean recognized it as the one that had summoned him up here.
“I’ve got your delivery,” Sean called back. He took the box out of his pocket.
“Well, get on in here, then.”
Sean did as he was directed. The door opened on a threadbare bedroom with a few pieces of old furniture. On a chair in front of a trideo unit that was probably the newest thing in the room lounged a man. Human, mid twenties, dark hair. He wore jeans and a skintight T-shirt that barely stretched over the muscles in his chest and arms. On the arm nearest to him, Sean could see a large tattoo of a dagger that disappeared beneath the T-shirt sleeve.
As soon as the man caught sight of the box he was instantly on his feet, moving with the kind of speed and grace that screamed enhancements, either cybernetic or magical. “Hand it over,” he ordered.
Sean tossed him the box.
He caught it easily and settled back down in his chair, where he proceeded to rip it open. Sean got a brief impression of several clear capsules, each one suspended in its own cushioning material, before Gretsch put the box aside. “You still here?” the man asked, annoyed. “You made your delivery, kid—get the hell outta here. What, you want a tip or something?”
“No, I want an answer,” Sean said, more calmly than he felt. “The person who had me bring you that told me you might be able to help me out.”
Gretsch snorted. “Great, now I’m the fraggin’ Salvation Army. Get outta here, kid, before I toss ya out the window and let the boys have you.”
Sean didn’t move. “I’m looking for a guy named Ocelot. Word is you might be able to help me find him.”
Surprisingly, Gretsch’s belligerence seemed to tone down a bit at the mention of the name. He sneered. “You? I don’t think so. He wouldn’t waste his time with you.”
That was a new bit of information. So he was still around, and still doing something at least somewhat active. Sean kept his expression mostly neutral, with a touch of his normal bravado. “Maybe that should be up to him to decide, yes? Look, all I want to do is talk to him. Is he still in town? I know he used to be here, but my information’s a little old.”
Gretsch looked him up and down. “Assuming this guy is still around, how’d you hear about him? He don’t exactly advertise.” His tone was suspicious.
Sean wondered if there was more to this Ocelot than simply long-ago shadowrunning. “I have my sources,” he said. “Shouldn’t surprise you that I’m not in a hurry to reveal ‘em.” Again, he balanced calm with bravado.
Gretsch didn’t take offense. In fact, he relaxed a little in his chair, continuing to give Sean the once-over. “Tell you what, kid,” he said at last. “See, Ocelot, he works on referrals. You don’t just get to waltz over to his door and say ‘hi, I’m here!’ That means somebody he trusts gotta vouch for you before he’ll see you, got it?”
“And I suppose that’s you, right?”
“Damn straight, kiddo. And I don’t know you from the troll wino down the street, which means if you want a referral, you’re gonna have to show me what you got.”
Sean remained silent, waiting. This could mean anything from yet another fight where he’d have to prove his skill to the kind of proposal he wasn’t prepared to take the man up on, or anything in between. In cases like this it was often best to just keep one’s mouth shut and see what happened.
Gretsch rose from his chair in another of his preternaturally fast and graceful movements. “You wired?” he demanded.
Sean shook his head.
Gretsch scowled. “So why you wanta see Ocelot?” Without waiting for an answer, he began pacing around the room. “Whatever. You’ll never make it anyway.” Wheeling back around to face Sean, he grinned. “See, I’ll tell you where you can find Ocelot—I’ll even put a good word in for ya. But here’s the trick.” He pointed out the window. “Look out there. See the block this building’s in?”
Sean moved over and nodded. “Yeah...”
“Okay. You’re gonna give me a thirty-second head start, and then you’re gonna have to catch me. Only rule is, I gotta stay within this block. Other than that, anything goes. You catch me in an hour, you get your info. You don’t, you go on home and quit botherin’ people. Scan?”
Despite the fact that Sean knew this guy had to have some kind of enhancements that would make this task a very difficult proposition, he felt a slow grin spreading across his face. “You got it,” he said. “I catch you, and you tell me where he is and how to contact him, right?”
“Right in one, kid. Better hurry, though—I ain’t gonna go easy on you. Remember, thirty seconds. My guys see you before then, the whole thing’s off.” Without another word, he snatched up the package from the table, stuffed it in his pocket, and leaped out the open window with a whoop.
Sean hurried over to the window and watched as Gretsch hit the ground, executed a perfect roll, and leaped up already running. In less than ten seconds he’d disappeared around the corner and was out of sight.
Flicking his gaze back and forth between his chrono and the window, Sean felt like the remaining twenty seconds were taking forever. At the dot of thirty he swung out the window and dropped nimbly to the ground—it wasn’t as flashy as Gretsch’s exit, but it got him there just as fast. He didn’t even acknowledge the presence of the two guys out front, but instead hurried off down the street in the same direction where his quarry had disappeared seconds previously.
It didn’t surprise him at all that there was no sign of Gretsch when he rounded the corner. However, the directions he could have gone were limited, since he had to stay within the block. Sean stood for a moment on the streetcorner and took stock of the area.
The block wasn’t large, but it was densely packed with buildings, most of them abandoned. It was hard to tell from where he was just how many buildings he was dealing with, especially in the dark. “Okay—first thing is to get up high,” he mumbled to himself. Suiting action to words, he grabbed hold of a gutter-spout on the corner of the nearest building and began climbing.
The spout held, but barely. It was a good thing the place was only three stories—he didn’t think it would have borne his weight for much longer. Swinging up to the roof, he saw a wide expanse of flat space broken up by a few small ventilation pipes and huddles of blankets, probably left here by squatters. Sean’s gaze flicked around the area, looking for signs of intelligent life. He spotted a movement on the far side of the roof, near the corner where Gretsch had run, and hurried over.
The ork man wrapped up in the blanket looked scared, but tried not to show it. The tiny flame of his cigarette bobbed in his mouth as he spoke: “Hey, chummer—I got nothin’. Don’t—”
“Don’t worry,” Sean cut him off. “I won’t hurt you. Did you see a guy run by down there a couple of minutes ago?”
The ork blinked, obviously trying to get his mind to work properly. “Just now?”
“Yeah. Just a couple of minutes ago. He ran by here. Did you see where he went?”
“You got any cigarettes?”
Sean sighed, wishing he’d brought more stuff to trade—but how was he to know he’d be in some weird game of hide-and-seek? “No, no cigarettes. Look,” he said quickly, pulling a five-nuyen note from his pocket, “You tell me where he went and you can buy your own cigarettes, okay?”
The ork’s eyes immediately perked up when he saw the note. He leaned over the edge of the building and pointed. “He went that way, ‘round the corner. There’s an alley back there, ‘tween the two sides of the block.”
“Thanks!” Sean barely slowed as he dropped the fiver into the ork’s outstretched hand and took off for the opposite corner of the building.
Reaching it, he leaned over as the ork had done. He was looking down in to a dingy alley with a rickety fence separating the two sides. The only signs of life here were an old cat picking its way along the fence and two junkies sprawled next to a dumpster, but Sean didn’t think they’d be much help to him. He glanced up and down the alley but saw nothing else.
“Hey, kid!” called a taunting voice. It was Gretsch. “You’re gonna have to do better than that if you want to catch me! Time’s a-wastin’!”
Sean’s head snapped up in the direction of the voice, and saw his quarry standing on top of the next building on the same side of the street, laughing at him. As soon as he saw that Sean had spotted him, he waved, ducked down, and disappeared.
Sean growled. Without giving himself a chance to think he was up and running. The distance between the two buildings was only about three meters, and he leaped and cleared it without without a thought. Landing hard on the roof’s debris-covered surface he went down and rolled up again. Gretsch was gone.
Where could he have gone? There was only a single vent pipe here, and it wasn’t big enough for him to have—
The thought didn’t come to Sean so much as a word as a feeling, a deep sense of downness that scratched persistently on his brain. Never doubting his instincts, he carefully picked his way across the roof. The night was cold, and a light mist that threatened to turn to rain was falling. Sean pulled up his collar and zipped up his jacket. He took another careful step forward.
His foot went down, and then kept going down. His body pitched forward and he desperately flung it back to avoid going head over heels through the hole that had been hidden by the pile of trash. He crashed to the roof with a grunt, his cheek digging into the rough tarpaper, and swore under his breath.
His dismay didn’t last long, though: this had to be the way down, they way Gretsch had disappeared. Now he wished he had a flashlight, but once again it couldn’t be helped. He levered himself back up to a crouched position, then lowered his body down into the hole.
It smelled bad down here, like the squatters had been using the place as a trash dump. Could be worse, he told himself wryly as he got his feet under him and tried to penetrate the darkness. They could have been using it for a toilet.
It took only a couple of moments for his eyes to adjust—it wasn’t really pitch dark down here, as several broken-out windows lined the far wall. The place had probably been an apartment building at some point, but in the meantime somebody had taken out several of the dividing walls to make one large clear area. He saw many more signs that squatters lived here, though no movement. Forcing his breathing to slow, he stood very still and listened, trying to make out any sign of Gretsch’s footsteps as he left.
It was as if the guy had simply disappeared.
If he left at all...
Once again the wordless thought poked at his awareness. Sean tensed, willing himself not to move, to continue his attitude of listening for far-off sounds. If Gretsch was still here, he was hiding well. Invisible? That wasn’t one of his instincts, but just a thought that gave him a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He hadn’t asked the guy if he was a magician, and Gretsch hadn’t volunteered the information. If he was a wizard, this whole thing would be pointless: it wouldn’t be hard to hide from a mundane kid if you had magic powers.
Sean shook his head and swiped his hair off his forehead. That couldn’t be it. If the guy had wanted to get rid of him, all he’d have had to do was tell him to buzz off. No, he was here, somewhere. Sean could feel it.
He crossed the room slowly, moving in the direction of the exit and keeping up the ruse that he was listening. His eyes were downcast, searching for footprints on the dusty, rotten floor. His feet made no sound.
And then—a noise. The tiniest of noises, from above. Sean didn’t stop, but his awareness shifted. Could be a mouse, or a rat, or something worse. But it could also be—
He spun himself around and leaped forward, looking up. “Ha!” he yelled, unable to contain himself: Gretsch, grinning, hung from the open beams of the ceiling. As Sean sped toward him he gracefully dropped, crouched, and then took off toward the exit.
“Not bad, kid!” he called back over his shoulder. “But you haven’t caught me yet!”
Sean was right there with him. Now that he had him in his sight, he wasn’t going to lose him again. Gretsch had only a couple of seconds head start on him now, but it was enough: the two of them pounded down the dilapidated hallway, neither gaining any ground on the other.
At the end of the hall was a stairway leading down. Gretsch grabbed hold of the railing and vaulted over it, landing on the next flight down without a stumble. Sean didn’t hesitate, but followed his lead. His landing wasn’t as nice to look at, but he didn’t twist anything and didn’t fall. Gretsch was still laughing as he ran.
At the foot of the second flight of stairs was a window, its glass long ago broken out. With Sean only a second or two behind him, he nimbly jumped up on the windowframe. However, instead of leaping down as Sean had expected, he launched himself up and immediately disappeared from view.
Sean took his place in the window and wasted a couple of precious seconds taking stock of the situation: he had expected something like this. Above the window was the remains of a rusty fire escape, and he could just spot Gretsch’s foot as he swung over the top of the roof and took off again.
He was going to have to do something to even this out, or he’d never catch Gretsch. Clearly the guy didn’t run any faster than Sean, but just as clearly he knew this area and all its nooks and crannies. If he got out of Sean’s sight again it would be over. Again Sean followed his lead, scrambling up the fire escape and flinging himself over the edge of the building.
Gretsch hadn’t disappeared this time—he was still running across the roof toward the other side. He’d reach it in seconds, long before Sean could catch up with him. Sean had only a couple of seconds to make a decision.
He did as he always did in situations like this: he gave control over to his body and his subconscious mind. Instead of chasing Gretsch to the other side of the roof, he hurried to the side of the building off to his right and swung himself over, his hands and feet finding purchase in the rotting bricks, gutters, and window frames. In a moment he was back on the ground floor, around the corner from where Gretsch had been. He waited, knowing that if his instinct failed him this time, he might as well go home, because—
Gretsch came barrelling around the corner, almost faster than Sean could react. His expression showed shocked surprise as he slammed into Sean. The force of impact took them both down, but Sean had the presence of mind to throw his arms around the man’s shoulders and hold on tight. “Caught you!” he cried triumphantly.
Gretsch’s shoulders were shaking, and at first Sean thought he was trying to struggle free—but in a moment he realized the man was laughing. “Damn straight, kid,” he said, rolling out of Sean’s arms and jumping back to his feet. Now there was an expression of reluctant admiration on his face. “I don’t know how you did it, but you got me. How’d you know I’d be coming around that corner?”
Sean shrugged, also getting back up and brushing the dirt off his jacket. “I don’t know. Just lucky, I guess. I knew I wasn’t going to catch you if I just chased you down.”
Gretsch punched him in the arm—a hard punch, but nonetheless a comradely gesture. “Not bad at all,” he admitted. “If nothin’ else, you might give Ocelot a few laughs.”
“So you’ll tell me where to find him?”
Gretsch indicated for Sean to follow him, back toward the building where they’d started. “Yeah. That was the deal, right?” When they got back to the building’s front, he stopped. The two guys who’d been there before were gone now. He took a scrap of paper from his pocket and wrote an address on it. “You’ll have to do some travelin’, though. He ain’t around here anymore.”
“Where is he?” Again, Sean felt a sinking in his stomach: what if the guy had relocated overseas or something? It was still doable, but not without a lot of trouble. He was getting impatient.
“San Fran. He’s got a dojo down there—only takes students by referral. I think you might have the stuff.”
That wasn’t what Sean had expected, but it didn’t surprise him, either. He took the scrap of paper and stuck it in his inner jacket pocket, then grinned. “Thanks, man. That was fun.”
“Yeah, well, don’t get cocky. I went easy on ya—the guys down there won’t. Hope you like bruises.”
Gretsch nodded. “Just tell ‘em I sent ya—that should get ya in. Now get outta here—got things to do.”
Sean nodded. He was still grinning as he headed down the street toward someplace where he could call another cab to pick him up. So his father was some kind of fighting instructor. This could work out well after all. Although he wondered why he should care given that the guy had abandoned him, he had an irrational hope that maybe he could actually make Ocelot proud of him.
“Next stop, San Francisco,” he said to himself under his breath.
San Francisco, and with any luck the end of his search.
Copyright ©2001-2003 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of Wizkids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.