Seattle, 1 November 20xx, 06:23
“This is the place?” Ocelot asked as they pulled up in front of a small, nondescript industrial park.
Fang nodded. “This is where he works. He runs an importing business--you know, his real job.”
“Place looks a bit deserted,” Winterhawk commented, looking around.
“It’s not a very good location--maybe they have trouble getting tenants,” Ocelot said. “Or maybe Johnson rents out all the buildings nearby so nobody’ll get suspicious.”
They had driven across town in the van, having given the rigger the day off. Since the rigger didn’t actually own the van but was merely along as the driver, he didn’t mind getting paid a thousand nuyen to take the day off and let the clients borrow his transportation. They had considered using his services, but finally decided that the fewer people knew about this situation, the better off they would be.
It was now early morning, almost six thirty. It was still dark, the stars nowhere to be seen in the overcast sky. A light mist, not quite ambitious enough to be called rain, fell. There were no lights on in the small grouping of commercial buildings. “You sure he’s here?” Ocelot asked suspiciously.
“No, but it’s the only lead we have,” Fang said. “I don’t know where he lives. Dad never said. Maybe if we get inside we can find a lead.”
They had already decided against trying to call Johnson and tell him that they’d finished the run and were now back in town. If he was legitimate, that would have been fine, but if he knew, as they suspected he did, that the run was a setup, then the knowledge that they were safe and back in town might cause him to bolt, or to set up something even more nasty in their path.
“I think we should risk an astral look,” Winterhawk said.
Ocelot looked concerned. “You sure that’s wise, after last time?”
“Oh, I plan to be quite a bit more careful this time,” the Brit assured him. “No worries about that. I don’t care to get perforated twice in one day if I can help it.”
“I’ll go with you,” Fang spoke up suddenly.
“No. Absolutely not,” Winterhawk said emphatically, shaking his head. “No sense putting us both in danger.”
“You can’t stop me,” she reminded him. “And if we both go, we can watch out for each other.”
“She’s right, ‘Hawk,” Ocelot said.
Winterhawk shrugged. “Sure, why not?” he said cheerfully. “Besides, maybe there’s nothing there.”
That suspicion was quickly put to rest: he and Fang had barely settled back in their seats and left their bodies when they were back, both of them looking like they’d seen a ghost. “They’re not even bothering to mask anymore,” Winterhawk said grimly. “Damned if the bloody buggers didn’t grin at us when we arrived. They know we’re onto them, that’s sure.”
Fang nodded, scared. “It was--like they were expecting us. Waiting for us.” She shivered. “I’m not going back there anymore. Not until this is over.”
“Yeah,” Ocelot said. “I hear that.” To Winterhawk, he added nervously, “You sure they can’t materialize?”
The mage shrugged. “Don’t you think they would have by now if they could? You remember--there just isn’t enough magic around to support them on this plane. Yet. At least that means if any of them do manage to show up, they’ll be relatively weak. Not that I’m in any hurry to see them,” he added hastily.
Fang met her brother’s eyes, and a look of fear passed between them. She didn’t like the fact that the things she had seen were the “weak” ones, and after hearing their descriptions, Paul didn’t either.
Ocelot opened the van door. “Okay, then I guess it’s time to go in.” He turned Winterhawk and said in an odd tone, “You watch yourself, okay? No funny stuff. Be careful.”
Winterhawk met his gaze questioningly. “I always do,” was all he said.
Ocelot nodded. “Good. Because I don’t intend on saying Kaddish over you for at least a few years yet.”
The Brit’s expression hardened, and Fang saw a look of sudden sadness, quickly hidden, pass across his features. “Yeah,” he said roughly. “I’m with you on that one, my friend. Now come on. Let’s get on with this.” Before anyone could answer, he had opened his own door and slipped out of the van.
Fang and Striker looked at each other in confusion again, but they didn’t comment. Instead, the followed the others toward the building.
The industrial park was quite small as these sorts of things went; it contained only three buildings, each of which was about the size to house two or three small businesses of the non-manufacturing variety. As Ocelot made his way quietly through the parking lot with the three others following, he could see the sign for a CPA’s office in one of the buildings, and a small insurance firm in a second. Both were closed. The third building, the one that contained Johnson’s importing business, seemed to be closed as well. The only illumination was provided by the streetlights and the lights in the complex’s tiny parking lot. A sign near the door proclaimed the business as “D’Amanico Imports.”
“That’s his name?” Ocelot whispered.
Fang nodded. “We weren’t supposed to tell anybody that. Martin D’Amanico.”
“You know what kind of security he’s got around here?”
Striker drew up alongside them. “No. Not much, I bet. He doesn’t keep anything valuable in here, I don’t think.”
They reached the door and discovered quickly that Striker was right: the place was protected only by a simple alarm system that even Ocelot, with minimal skill in that area, could disable. A judicious application of Striker’s troll muscle quickly had the door open. The four runners slipped inside and found themselves in a standard small-office lobby with a receptionist’s desk, a couple of chairs, and a collection of ancient datazines on a table. “Hold on a minute,” Winterhawk said, holding up a hand for them to stop. Swiftly he cast a spell, closing his eyes in concentration for a few seconds. “All right,” he said, relaxing. “My enemy detection spell didn’t come up with anything. Keep alert, though--we already know some of these things don’t show up to magic.”
Fang took a flashlight from her bag. “Is it all right if I use this?” she asked. “I can’t see very well in here.”
Ocelot nodded. “Yeah, but keep it shielded. I don’t think anybody’s here.”
Beyond the receptionist’s desk was a set of locked double doors. obviously leading to the back office. When they examined the doors and determined that as far as they could tell, there was no alarm on them, Ocelot motioned for the others to stand back. Taking a few steps backward, he surged forward and crashed into the doors. Splintering, they flew open.
The smell that rolled out from behind the open doors was unreal--ripe and nauseating, putrid as a slaughterhouse on a hot day. Striker staggered backward, clamping his jaws together to avoid vomiting, and Fang gasped behind him. Ocelot, in the doorway, quickly glanced around the contents of the room, blocking the way as Winterhawk came up behind him. “Come on,” the mage said impatiently. “Let me through.”
“Just a minute,” Ocelot said through clenched teeth. Winterhawk, disgusted, shoved his way past into the doorway and stared at the scene beyond.
Behind him, Fang said, “What is it?”
“You don’t want to see this,” Ocelot said. “Just let us take care of it, okay?” In the dim light, he looked queasy. There was a good reason for that.
“Is it Mr. D?” Striker asked, still trying to deal with the smell. He had not yet gotten close enough that he could see over the two older men.
“Not sure yet,” Winterhawk said grimly. “You’d best stay outside. Ocelot’s right. You don’t want to see this.”
“Come on,” Fang said, an edge to her voice. “If it’s him, he was our friend. We’re not children, remember? Let us through.” Striker nodded, though he looked distinctly as if he was just doing what his sister wanted--had it been left to him, he would have been content to let the more experienced pair check out the area on their own.
Ocelot sighed and moved into the room, Winterhawk behind him. Fang and Striker followed more slowly, both of them now unsure they wanted to claim their victory.
The room was as bad as the one at the Garst installation. Blood was everywhere--on the walls, all over the rug, covering the furniture. The stench of death and decay hung in the room like a noisome cloud.
The source of the smell was not hard to ascertain: the man Winterhawk and Ocelot had known as Johnson and Fang and Striker had known as Mr. D’Amanico sat behind the desk, his hands on the smooth surface, looking for all the world as if he was conducting business. As well as one could do so, at any rate, with the jagged shaft of a pole lamp shoved through one’s head. Johnson’s eyes bulged grotesquely from their sockets; blood congealed down the sides of his face from the entry and exit wounds. His tongue, black and swollen, protruded from his lips, his mouth frozen in a silent scream of agony.
Winterhawk winced. “Ouch,” he said as Striker turned away and was loudly sick in one of the room’s few non-blood-smeared corners. Fang decided that comforting her brother was the right thing for her to do at the moment.
Ocelot moved forward to examine Johnson as Winterhawk moved over to the other side of the room. “Look at this,” he said, squatting gingerly down next to something behind a chair. When Ocelot came over, he saw the woman who had been Johnson’s bodyguard at the meet. Or at least part of her. “Look,” the mage said, pointing to her torso. “Something’s been at her right and proper. Looks like whatever did this grabbed her chest and ripped her open like a lobster.” Her weapon, a submachine gun, lay near her.
Ocelot swallowed hard. He occasionally doubted his friend’s judgment in a combat, but Winterhawk could dispassionately examine carnage that would make most people heave their guts up in five seconds. It was a useful skill sometimes, though he was perversely glad that he himself did not possess it in quite such a measure. “What--do you suppose did this?” he asked, looking quickly around. “Bugs?”
Winterhawk shook his head. “No. Can’t be bugs. Whatever it was was bloody strong, and had hands. Look how it’s dug in here and pulled.” He indicated the subject of his theory with a pen he’d pulled from his jacket. “See? Bugs don’t do this. They’re strong enough, sure, but remember the bodies in Chicago? Totally different attack pattern. And look here,” he said, rising to point out the rest of the bodyguard several feet away. He shook his head. “She didn’t have a chance. She fought like a wildcat, though, you can see that. Hello--what’s this?” Without a backward glance, he hurried over to look behind the room’s large sofa, and whistled.
“What?” Ocelot demanded. “More bodies?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to see any more bodies. Right now, he wouldn’t have minded at all if they’d just left--there was nothing more for them to find here.
“Well--yes. In a manner of speaking,” Winterhawk said reflectively. “Come have a look at this.”
From the other side of the room, Fang said, “We’ll go out and be the lookouts, all right?” Her voice sounded like she had been crying, and Striker looked like he was threatening to erupt again at any moment. “We’ll make sure nobody’s coming.”
“Yeah, fine,” Ocelot said distractedly, already heading for Winterhawk’s discovery.
The thing on the other side of the couch was not human, that was immediately apparent. It was about six feet long from stem to stern, with a black, hairy body and eight jointed legs. The frontmost two of these ended in handlike appendages. Its cause of death was just as apparent: its body dripped black, malodorous ichor from a large number of close-range bullet wounds. Pieces of the creature decorated the wall behind where it lay.
“She got a few in,” Winterhawk said, nodding approvingly.
“What is this thing?” Ocelot said under his breath. “It’s--one of those Horrors, isn’t it? I thought you said they couldn’t manifest.”
“Didn’t think they could.” Winterhawk knelt down next to the dead monster, prodding at it with his mageblade.
“Do you have to do that?” Ocelot demanded, suddenly annoyed by his friend’s catlike curiosity. “Let’s go. We’ve found what we’re looking for, haven’t we? It’s obvious now that Johnson wasn’t working for them--if anything, he was just their patsy.”
Winterhawk ignored him, still poking at the creature and muttering to himself.
Ocelot stood up in disgust. “Oh, frag it. I’m getting out of here. Come on out when you’re done, but make it quick, will you?” He didn’t really mean to speak so harshly to the mage, but this whole thing had unnerved him greatly. Especially the part about these things’ apparent new ability to manifest on the material plane. He supposed that Winterhawk’s interest in the creature might gain them some helpful clues, but he had no desire to spend any more time in this stinkhole of death.
Stepping over the bodies and the broken furniture, though, he was struck by a sudden thought. Turning back to the scene, he looked at Johnson, sitting at his desk. “I think there was more than one of these things,” he spoke up.
“Quite likely,” was Winterhawk’s quiet reply, startling him. “Come back here. I think I’ve discovered the answer to the manifesting question.”
Ocelot came back over, steeling himself to the sight of the hideous creature again.
It was even more hideous now: Winterhawk had done a crude and hurried dissection job on it with his mageblade, leaving its interior workings open to the world. Ocelot gagged, but held his lunch, barely. “‘Hawk, what the hell are you doing?” he demanded.
“Oh, get off it,” the Brit said, now disgusted himself. “Everybody’s bloody squeamish. Knock it off and have a look at this. Anything look familiar?”
Ocelot took a deep breath and stared down into the creature’s guts. “What am I supposed to be looking for?” he asked through his teeth.
Winterhawk indicated the spatters on the wall with the sword. “See? These are black. Black blood. But if you look in here--” the sword came around to point at the interior of the arachnid, “--It’s been a long time since I took biology in school, but unless I miss my guess, these aren’t spider innards.”
Ocelot saw what he meant now. “You’re right. They look almost--”
“--Human.” Winterhawk finished soberly.
Ocelot couldn’t take it anymore. The whole situation was too disgusting, and ‘Hawk’s abnormal curiosity about it was pissing him off. He grabbed the mage by his arm and hauled him up. “Come on,” he snapped. “We’re leaving now. You can play doctor with the damned thing some other time, when its friends might not be coming to see what happened with it.” Ignoring his friend’s angry protests, he dragged him out of the room.
Fang and Striker were standing one on either side of the office’s large window, peering nervously out through the blinds. Fang looked up as Ocelot approached, still dragging Winterhawk. At least now the mage was cooperating. “What--did you find out?” she asked.
“Is anybody coming?” Ocelot indicated the window.
Striker shook his head. “Nope. It’s pretty quiet out there. This place isn’t too busy when the businesses are closed.”
“We need to call the cops or something,” Ocelot said, letting go of Winterhawk’s arm. “Anonymously, of course. They don’t seem to know anything about this yet.”
Winterhawk shook his head. “No. We can’t do that.”
The mage gave him a significant look. “What would the world think when those pictures hit the streets?”
Ocelot was confused for a moment, then realized that Fang and Striker had not seen the arachnid-thing. He sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. What, then?”
“We need to torch this whole bloody place. Let’s clear out and I’ll take care of it.”
Ocelot didn’t argue, and neither did the others. They hurried quietly out of the building and soon were standing outside the van, looking at what used to be D’Amanico Imports.
“Now what?” Striker asked.
“Now this is the end of the line,” Ocelot told him.
“What?” Fang looked uncertain.
“You saw Johnson, right?”
She nodded sadly. “What a terrible way to die.”
“Yeah,” Ocelot agreed. “But that’s all you guys were in for. You wanted to stick with us long enough to find out what was up with Johnson. Well, now we know. This is where we part company.”
“But--” Striker protested.
“But nothing,” Winterhawk spoke up quietly, putting one foot up on the van’s running board and leaning over his knee. “Ocelot’s right. You know he is, both of you. This isn’t your fight anymore. There’s no point in your risking yourself for it any longer.” When Fang seemed to be drawing breath to protest, he said more gently, “Look, we’re not trying to send you packing. It’s not like that at all. You couldn’t possibly know how grateful I am to you for what you did for me on that plane. It’s simply that if this is what we think it is, and it really can’t be anything else, you won’t be able to help us. You’re good, for youngsters. I don’t mean that to be insulting. You’re talented and your skills are good, but these things are simply out of your league. They may well be out of ours.”
Ocelot nodded. “He’s right.”
Fang looked at Striker, then back at the two older men. “You’re trying to say--without saying it--that we’ll be a liability.” Her voice was soft, but held no anger.
“Not a liability,” Winterhawk said in the same tone. “But if we do have to fight these things, I just don’t think you have the power yet to help us. I would so hate to see you killed needlessly.”
“But we would be in the way, wouldn’t we?” Striker said, thinking of the first bug fight in the Garst lab.
Ocelot took a deep breath through his teeth and ruefully blew it out. “Yeah,” he said reluctantly.
Fang nodded. “I don’t want to leave you in the middle of this,” she said. The pain of her strained loyalties was evident.
“You won’t be leaving us. You did what you had to do. You stuck with us till we got to Johnson. And believe me, it’ll just be harder if we have to look after you.” The expression on Ocelot’s face took all the sting out of his words.
The shaman sighed. “Will you at least tell us how to contact you? To make sure you’re alive after all this is over?”
Winterhawk shook his head. “No, I don’t think that’s wise. We’ll get in touch with you in a bit, when this is all over. If we’re still around.”
Striker nodded. “You do that.” He reached out and gripped Ocelot’s arm, hard. “You guys are okay. Thanks a lot for everything. We owe you big.”
“You don’t owe me a bloody thing,” Winterhawk said. “I don’t know about Ocelot here, but with me you’re paid up in full. In fact, I’ll be owing you two a few later on.”
“Yeah,” Ocelot said, “I think we’ve evened things up. You’d better get on before the cops decide to come by and check out the area. You want to take the van?”
Fang shook her head. “We’ll be fine. We’ll catch a bus or something. We’re not too far from home.” Impulsively, she hugged Winterhawk, then Ocelot, hard little hugs more like two war buddies would give each other when meeting after a long absence. “You two be careful. I want to hear from you again.”
“Oh, you will,” Winterhawk said, trying to hide the odd note in his voice with false cheerfulness. “We have a way of turning up, don’t you worry.”
Fang nodded wordlessly. Taking Striker’s arm, she said, “Goodbye, then. Good luck.” Then she turned and walked off, her brother following, stopping only to retrieve their gear bags from the back of the van.
Winterhawk and Ocelot silently watched them walk off into the dim light that indicated that the sun would be rising soon. Then the mage turned briskly back to face the building. “All right, then--let’s take care of this building.”
“What are you gonna do to it?”
“Just watch,” Winterhawk said with a ghost of the old nasty gleam in his eyes. “If I lay myself out with this, just haul me back to the hotel to sleep it off, all right?” Standing next to the van, he stared intently at the side of D’Amanico Imports. After a few seconds, a tremendous explosion rocked the building, blowing out the windows from the inside. A wave of searing heat rushed out, reaching the two runners with its warmth even as far away as they stood. From the interior of the building, flames licked out, seeking oxygen. Winterhawk staggered back into the side of the van, looking utterly spent but satisfied. “There,” he said between breaths. “That--ought to--take care of the evidence.”
Ocelot stared wide-eyed at the building. “Damn. You’ve improved.”
The Brit climbed wearily into the passenger seat. “Told you--I learned a few new tricks. That one goes by the charming name of Hellblast. Now--let’s get back and figure out what to do next.” He settled back and said nothing more for the rest of the trip. In the distance, the sound of approaching emergency vehicles could already be heard.
Copyright ©1996 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.