Chapter Ten

The plane was only fifteen minutes late, but it seemed like an eternity to Stone as he sat fidgeting in his seat, unable to take his attention off the bag still pressed between his ankles. He continued trying to look nonchalant--just another business traveller on his way to Seattle for some corp meeting--but he couldn't help believing that every person in First Class, not to mention a few in business class and the occasional coach passenger, had their eyes and their attention locked fully on him.

He occupied his mind during the last few minutes of flight time with trying to figure out how to contact Ocelot without anyone finding out about it. Normally he was not terribly paranoid about things technological, but today he was convinced that any method he used would be bugged, monitored, or otherwise scrutinized. Unlike some of his magical colleagues, Stone felt quite comfortable around technology and used it every day; however, his knowledge was generally confined to the operation of said devices rather than their inner workings. He was rapidly finding out that when one was sufficiently paranoid, the unknown could be a very unnerving thing.

You're really being quite silly about this whole thing, he chided himself angrily as the plane began its descent. Just call the man and have him meet you somewhere. You'll feel better when you're not alone with this. Besides, you're flattering yourself if you think they'd follow you all the way to Seattle just to retrieve this trinket..

He'd almost believed that when the thought poked itself up once again: Yes, but they killed Toby for it.

He tightened his grip on the bag and prepared to rise as soon as the seatbelt light went off. At least the first class passengers get to exit first. Thank the spirits for small favors, I guess.

He was very nearly the first person off the plane, bag gripped in his right hand as he swept past the flight attendants and their mechanical Buhbyes without even seeing them. Glancing around, he was heartened to see that no one appeared to be paying attention to him at the moment, so he took the opportunity to make a hasty retreat and get as far away from his fellow passengers as he could. He was halfway out of the terminal before he realized that he had forgotten to pick up his other bag--the decoy that he had checked. For a moment he debated leaving it, but decided that would be even more suspicious. Sighing, he retraced his steps back toward the baggage carousel.

The unassuming, suit-clad elven business traveler lounged by the public telecom, reading a datafax. His eyes did not appear to rise as he subvocalized into his nearly invisible throat mike: "This is Aquarius. Contact. He just passed my location, but he's turned around and is headed back the way he came."

The tiny voice came back in his earpiece: "Acknowledged. Remain in position. Pisces, Taurus: look sharp. Don't lose him, but don't approach him. We want him to believe he's gotten away from us. Maybe he'll relax and screw up--that would be the easiest way."

"Affirmative. Aquarius out." The elf languidly turned the page of his datafax and appeared to be watching a shapely human woman as she moved toward the gate. Out of the corner of his eye he focused his attention on Stone until he disappeared into the sparse crowd.

Not surprisingly, Stone's checked bag was nowhere to be found when he arrived at the carousel. In a way he was relieved, because it meant he wouldn't have to carry it; all it had contained was a few random clothes put there for the sole purpose of fooling anyone who decided to examine his luggage. The loss of a few old clothes and an old suitcase was a small price to pay. Perhaps they'll think I was trying to fool them by hiding the damn thing in plain sight, he thought cynically as he once more retraced his steps back toward the terminal exit. It'll serve them bloody right if they think I'd do something that stupid.

When he reached the door he hesitated, wondering if he should call Ocelot from here, show up at his place, or wait until he got home. After a few moments' deliberation he decided a cryptic message over a public telecom would be the best, since even in his wildest paranoid's dreams they couldn't have bugged every telecom unit in the terminal, right?

He wished he'd paid closer attention when 'Wraith was explaining all that electronics theory that always made his eyes glaze over. He also wished that 'Wraith--and Joe--were in town, because in his mind the more people involved with this situation on his side, the better. But both his former teammates were who knew where and deliberately out of communications until their appointed time to get back together--which was more than a month away--so he would have to make do with one ally instead of three. Hope he didn't decide to take a surprise trip to CalFree, he thought, and slotted his credstick. That would be a lovely end to a lovely day.

Ocelot almost didn't answer his wristphone when it buzzed. In fact, he had considered turning it off so he could have an afternoon free of distractions, but had decided at the last minute that nobody was likely to call him anyway. That, and he forgot to turn it off.

When the familiar buzzing feeling vibrated his wrist, he was halfway through the process of trying on a new pair of running shoes at Wally's Sport World. Wally didn't have the lowest prices in town, but the jovial troll always got in the good stuff in a wide selection of sizes and styles. This coupled with the fact that Ocelot had once beaten up a couple of street types who were causing trouble in his store and thus had been rewarded with a perpetual 10% discount by Wally (perhaps in hope that he would continue to keep the place thug-free whenever he happened by) kept him coming back when he needed gear.

Sighing, he shoved his foot the rest of the way into the shoe and thumbed the Audio On switch on the phone. "This better be important," he growled.

"Well, good afternoon to you too." Ocelot started a bit as Winterhawk's voice came from the tiny speaker. 'Hawk was in England, and he never called Seattle from England unless it was important.

"'Hawk?" Ocelot leaned down a little closer to the pickup and began pacing around as if testing the shoe's fit. "Aren't you--home?"

"Nope. Just got back into town. I was wondering if you might fancy getting together for a beer or something."

Ocelot frowned. There was an odd note in the mage's voice, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. Too cheerful, maybe? A little...strained? "Uh...yeah. Sure. I'm in the middle of something right now...say an hour?"

There was a pause. "Yes...of course. An hour would be fine. Just fine." Again the odd note was there, and it was more pronounced this time. Ocelot had spent enough time around Winterhawk to know when he was agitated about something but trying not to let anyone catch on.

"Uh...I can cut this short if you want. Where are you?"

"At the airport. What say we meet at...let me think...How about the place where we first met young Matthew? Remember, at Christmastime? Always fancied that place."

Once more, Ocelot immediately caught on to 'Hawk's cryptic directions. "Oh, yeah. I remember that place. Rico's, wasn't it?"

"That's the one." The voice came back reassuringly quickly, indicating that Winterhawk was well aware that the bar was actually named Louie's, not Rico's, and the he knew Ocelot knew it as well. "I'll catch a cab--can you be there in forty-five minutes? I'm looking forward to reminiscing about old times. I've a lot I want to tell you."

"Yeah. I'll be there. See you then." He clicked the phone off and looked at it for a moment, wondering what sort of trouble 'Hawk had gotten himself into this time, that he was this afraid of letting anyone know where we were meeting. He hated to go to a potentially dangerous meeting so lightly armed, but there wasn't much choice. If he went home first he'd never get to Louie's in time, and he sensed that 'Hawk wasn't in any mood to wait.

"You okay, chummer?"

Ocelot turned, a little startled, to see Wally looking at him oddly. The old troll's ugly/kindly face appeared worried. "Yeah," Ocelot said with a sigh, running his hand back through his hair. "Yeah, everything's fine, Wally." He looked down at the shoes. "Tell you what--I'll take these, but can you hang onto 'em for me until later today? I got something I gotta do."

Wally shrugged. "Sure. No problem." He didn't look convinced that nothing was wrong, but he didn't ask further questions. He probably regretted that he had asked in the first place. Kneeling down, he began boxing up the shoe that Ocelot wasn't currently wearing.

It was less than five minutes before Ocelot was outside, on his bike (he was riding the Triumph today, ironically: the one that 'Hawk had given him a couple of years ago when the mage had been overwhelmed with a feeling of generosity after the team had saved him from near-certain death--everybody had gotten a very expensive Christmas present that year), and roaring off toward Louie's. He estimated it would take him only about half an hour to get there, so he kept it at only twenty klicks over the speed limit.

His mind tried to speculate again regarding the nature of 'Hawk's problem, but he sternly forced himself not to. He didn't want to know yet. That was the difference between him and 'Hawk-- his problems were simple. Painful, but simple: thugs, people trying to hassle his friends, chipheads in the neighborhood, gangers-- that kind of thing. 'Hawk's problems were never that simple. And somehow the mage always managed to drag his friends into them.

The jeans-clad tourist girl slouched sideways on the bench, leaning on her backpack, her eyes hidden by enormous mirrorshades of a style currently popular with German college students. "This is Gemini," she subvocalized, watching the terminal door open and Stone exit along with a knot of corp-looking humans. "He just came out. He's heading for the taxi stand."

"Acknowledged, Gemini," came the immediate reply. "Proceed with plan."

The girl nodded. "On it." Moving with a sort of lazy fluidity, she rose from the bench, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and hurried toward the taxi stand.

Stone was startled by the sudden appearance of someone behind him as he reached one of the cabs waiting in front of the terminal. "Excuse me," she said, speaking slowly with a heavy German accent.

He turned to look at her. No more then nineteen, she was dressed in scruffy jeans, oversized sweatshirt, big shades, sandals with socks, and a large patch-festooned canvas backpack over one shoulder. Her hair was dusty blond and scraggly, her face apologetic. "Yes?" he asked, a bit impatiently. He wanted to be away as fast as possible. He tightened his grip on the bag in case she intended to grab it.

"I..." The girl appeared to be struggling for words. "I am...student. Not much money." She shrugged and pointed to the cab. "Ride with you? Share...cost?"

Stone hesitated. All around him, the knot of businessmen was breaking up and leaving in various cabs. "Er--" He looked at the cab and then at the girl. Was he being too paranoid? Afraid of college students now? Shifting his perceptions briefly to the astral plane, he stole a fast glimpse at the girl's aura. It glowed calm blue, but a bit...anxious? That could be because of anything, he chided himself.

She was still looking at him. "You coming, sir?" the cabbie called over his shoulder from the driver's seat.

Stone looked back and forth again, then reached in his pocket and pulled out a wad of small-denomination scrip. "Sorry," he muttered, not looking at her as he pressed the bills into her hand. "In a hurry. You'll need to get your own cab." Without waiting for her to answer, he slipped in and closed the door behind him.

The girl watched, puzzled, for a moment, her hand on the cab's roof. As the car pulled away from the curb, she turned away and smiled. When she spoke again, her voice had no trace of an accent. "Gemini here. He wouldn't let me ride with him, but I got the tracer on the car. You take it from here."

"Good work, Gemini. Return to base."