Stone was practically fidgeting in his seat by the time the cab pulled up in front of Louie's. He held the leather bag on his lap, gripped in both hands, while his gaze darted around looking for—what? He wasn't sure.
The cabdriver glanced back at him in the rearview mirror occasionally, but if he had any speculation regarding why the well-dressed Englishman was acting rather bizarrely, he kept them to himself. He knew from long experience how to tell when to talk and when to keep his mouth shut, and his tips adjusted themselves accordingly. This guy most assuredly did not want to talk.
The fortunes of Louie's Bar had fallen a few notches since Stone had last been there, but it had been a long time since he'd been more glad to see a place. He directed the driver to stop right in front of the door, then glanced around one last time (including a quick check of the astral plane), looking for potential problems. When he found none, he slotted his credstick, nodded thanks to the cabbie, and nonchalantly exited the vehicle. In less than five seconds, he had crossed the sidewalk and disappeared into the bar.
The cabbie shook his head and pulled back into traffic. They get weirder every day. But at least they tip good.
Ocelot lounged in a booth halfway between the door and the rear of the bar where he normally would have sat. The level of beer in his glass suggested that he had not been here long—unless of course this wasn't his first. It was in fact his first; he had arrived only ten minutes ago, taking in Louie's usual mix of patrons: wannabe runners, a few examples of low-level talent, hookers, and lost souls who didn't have anywhere else to go. At this time of day there wasn't much action; the place didn't really heat up until after dark. The place, as always, smelled of equal parts cigarette smoke, stale beer, and sweat, with a hint of heavy perfume tossed in for seasoning.
Ocelot's position and seeming indifference to his surroundings were designed to fool anyone who might be paying too much attention to him. In reality, he was fully intent, his eyes tracking every person, every corner of the room, looking for—what? He didn't know. He half thought that he was just getting caught up in 'Hawk's paranoia and that this would all end up to be nothing. But that thought wasn't enough to short-circuit his natural inclinations to keep an eye on things.
He glanced down at his chrono again: 'Hawk still had another ten minutes before his forty-five was up. Ocelot hoped he showed up soon—every minute he had to wait here made him more fearful that something had happened to the mage. The door opened, admitting a scruffy-looking ork, and Ocelot sighed and returned to scanning the crowd.
"You don't know how glad I am to see you here," said a voice very close by.
Ocelot looked back up quickly to see the ork who had come in a moment ago settling into the booth across from him. As he sat down, the ork's tusky face and threadbare clothes melted into Winterhawk's familiar visage and stylish suit.
Ocelot glared at him. "Don't do that."
"Sorry." Winterhawk didn't look at all apologetic. "If you'd been through what I have in the past couple of days, you'd be in no hurry to be seen either."
Ocelot noticed immediately that he was holding a black leather bag in his lap, both hands wrapped around the handles as if it contained the British Crown Jewels. He looked pointedly at the bag. "Don't suppose you'd want to tell me what the hell is going on, would you? What's so important that you had to come all the way back from England for?"
The mage looked back over his shoulder; apparently satisfied that no one was sneaking up on him, he turned back to Ocelot and sighed. "Murder."
Ocelot leaned forward a bit across the table, staring at him wide-eyed. "Murder? Whose? And why?"
Winterhawk indicated the bag he was holding. "Because of what I've got in here. I think we should go somewhere else before we discuss this. This is a bit—public."
For a moment Ocelot didn't speak, but instead stared at the mage. This was getting out of hand. He had never seen Winterhawk act this strangely. "Hawk—" he said carefully, "—are you sure you're...uh...all right?"
Winterhawk's gaze sharpened. "If you mean am I in possession of my faculties, yes. Quite. So far one person has been murdered because of what's in this bag, and I'd like to make sure that total doesn't increase. Now, will you hear me out or not?"
Ocelot sighed, draining the last of his beer in one motion. "Yeah, you know I will. It's just that you sound crazy, that's all. So where you want to go? Your place?"
"No." The mage shook his head. "Too easy to trace me there. Probably shouldn't go to yours either. Sounds like it's time to call Harry and have him arrange a safe place."
"You want a safehouse? For this?"
Winterhawk did not seem at all in the mood to have his motives questioned. Ocelot had not seen him look this strung out and stressed in a long time. "Just humor me, will you?"
Ocelot sighed again and pulled out his phone. There was no point in arguing.
"Libra to base."
"Go ahead, Libra. Have you located our objective?"
"Affirmative. He's in a bar called Louie's, over in Redmond. The cab dropped him off there and went on."
"What's he doing there?"
"Talking to someone. I didn't get a good look at the guy, but they seem to know each other. Checked him out on the astral--got a lot of cyberware."
There was a long pause. "All right, Libra. Transmit your location, and backup will be there shortly. Let's try to get him before he contacts anyone else. If he knows what the staff is I doubt that he'll let it out of his sight, but one never knows. Better to get it now than after he's talked to whatever other shadow types he knows."
"Understood. Transmitting location now. Tell them to be quick about it--I don't think he's going to remain here long. He looks nervous."
"Just sit tight, Libra. Contact me again if he leaves, but don't engage him alone."
"Okay." Ocelot leaned back in his seat and debated whether to order another beer. "Ten minutes, Harry'll call back with the location. Can you sit still until then?"
Winterhawk gave him a dirty look. "I think you'll be a little less flippant when you hear this story, my friend. I am not crazy, and I'm not seeing things. Someone wants what I've got in here very badly."
"You want to give me a hint?" Ocelot was starting to pick up on some of his friend's agitation now.
'Hawk looked around again, then turned back with a sigh. "It's a magic item. Very old. Very old. I have no idea--yet--what its purpose is, but I plan to find out once I can be convinced that I'm not going to be jumped in an alleyway somewhere."
When the mage said magic item, Ocelot stiffened. He should have known. With 'Hawk it practically had to be something weird and magical. "And you don't know why these people--whoever they are--want this thing?"
'Hawk shook his head. "No. It could be because it's valuable, though the fact that it's old doesn't necessarily mean that it's got any particular value. It could be for some power it possesses. But so far I haven't been able to stay in one place long enough to analyze it. That's what I'm hoping I'll get a chance to do. Once we know what we're dealing with, then we can go on from there."
They remained there, trying to remain calm, until Ocelot's phone beeped again. There was a brief hushed conversation and then Ocelot hung up and looked at 'Hawk. "Okay. Harry's got us a spot not too far from here."
"Good. And not a moment too soon." He eyed Ocelot sideways. "You... er...did bring the truck, didn't you?"
"You don't want to know," Ocelot told him, getting up. "Trust me."
Across the street from Louie's Bar, a hunched street person in a shapeless coat and torn jeans sank wearily down next to another similarly dressed figure who was already seated there. Wordlessly the previously seated figure offered the newcomer a drag on his stubby cigarette. "The stars are aligned," he said in a low, guttural voice.
"The planets are in harmony," the second figure replied. "Libra?"
The first figure nodded.
"He's inside," said the newcomer. "They look like they're getting ready to leave. We've got Scorpio up on top of the building we're sitting against, and Virgo's on the roof of the bar, overlooking the parking lot. When Stone comes out, orders are that we try to take the staff as quietly as we can, but if he and his friends put up a fight--" He let that trail off, but his meaning was obvious.
Libra nodded. "Four against two--shouldn't be too much of a problem. If we can get him before they get to their vehicle, they'll never know what hit them."
As they approached the door, Winterhawk held up a hand. "Wait."
'Hawk sat down in a booth much closer to the door than they'd been before. "You can tease me about my paranoia later on. For now, I want to be sure." Without another word, he leaned back and slumped in a posture Ocelot recognized as his "astral scouting" mode.
Sighing, Ocelot leaned against the booth to wait, blocking the view of 'Hawk from the remaining bar patrons as best he could. He wondered how long the mage would be gone and how far he would range out before he finally conceded--
"Bloody good thing I checked," Winterhawk muttered as he sat up and adjusted his coat.
Ocelot's gaze sharpened immediately as he turned. "Why?"
"We've got some rather nasty-looking company out there." Strangely enough, 'Hawk didn't look terribly perturbed by the new development, especially given his previous nervousness.
"How many? And how do you know they're after us?"
Winterhawk stood. "Four, from the look of it. And as for how I know they're after us, well, I'll ask you: is there anyone else currently in this bar who might have attracted the attention of a mage, a physical adept, and two heavily-cybered types with guns? Doesn't look like it to me. Not to mention the fact that their auras are practically glowing with anticipation. Whatever we're going to do, we'd best make our plans and do it quickly, before they get impatient and decide to check up on us."
Ocelot took a look at the sparse crowd and nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Okay," he added, now all business in the face of a real threat. "Tell me who's where, and we'll arrange a little surprise party for them."
By the time he'd finished outlining his plan, Winterhawk's nasty smile mirrored his own.
Across the street, Libra and his fellow "street person," Leo, waited for Stone to come out of the bar. Libra leaned over, dropping his head onto Leo's shoulder as if he were sleepy or drunk. "Anything?"
Leo's eyes were fixed on something far away as he directed his Clairvoyance spell. "Nothing around the back. They're still inside. It looks like they're still talking."
"Watch the back. They might try to slip out that way. Scorpio?"
"Ready. Got my Narcoject loaded and ready to go."
Libra nodded, satisfied. Things were going according to plan. There was no way that Stone was going to give them the slip again. Not with the four of them keeping close watch on the place. As soon as Stone came out, they would take him down with a Narcoject round, grab the bag, and be out of there before he knew what had hit--
"Watch it!" Leo's voice came suddenly, very close to his ear. "He's coming out the back! Virgo! He's coming up on the--"
Suddenly the quiet of the street was split by the thunder of a shotgun going off twice in quick succession. Virgo's scream echoed a beat behind, then both were silent. "Virgo!" Libra called into the throat-mike. "Scorpio! Get a bead on him! Somebody's up there!" He was already leaping to his feet.
Ocelot was banking on the fact that their pursuers didn't know that he and Winterhawk were on to them, and the gamble paid off nicely. As soon as he had finished telling 'Hawk his plan, he had taken off at top speed for the back door. His speed and athletic ability had carried him out the door and up on the roof before the sniper had had a chance to react. The shotgun, which he'd brought into the bar with him from its usual spot in one of the Triumph's specially-modified saddlebags, had been another calculated gamble: make a lot of noise and get their attention, distracting them from the other threat.
The other threat, meanwhile, was peering out through the door to Louie's, watching as the mage and the physad jumped up following the sound of gunfire on the roof above. One powerful Manabolt made short work of the physad before he had even made it across the street; 'Hawk didn't know if he was dead and he didn't care. He was down, which meant that he wasn't after them anymore. That was enough.
The mage, seeing his companion go down, dived for cover from the unseen assailant. Winterhawk swore and ducked back inside. He couldn't stay in here forever, though: he had to get out there and help Ocelot. The sound of gunfire--this time from a different gun--crackled in the air again, but there was no corresponding thud on the roof. He knows what he's doing, 'Hawk reminded himself. He's done it a thousand times before. Just get out there and deal with your end of the equation.
Ocelot looked down at the dead sniper, keeping crouched to avoid being hit by the other one across the street. Narcoject, he noted as he saw the rifle lying next to the bleeding form. Too bad. You set up an ambush, you take what you get. Keeping low, he crawled to the edge of the roof and raised his head slightly, only to lower it quickly again as the other sniper squeezed off a couple of rounds at him. "Where are you, 'Hawk?" he whispered as he struggled to get his shotgun into position.
A Clairvoyance spell revealed to Winterhawk the position of the mage: he was waiting just around the corner, hidden behind a parked car and apparently waiting for the opportunity to hit whoever came out the door with a spell. Too bad this place doesn't have windows, he thought, but we'll have to make do. Activating his Levitation spell lock, he zipped across the bar and out the back door in almost no time at all, hovering around the corner. He was about to cast a spell of his own when the mage, who must have heard something or sensed movement, wheeled around and flung his own spell, then disappeared around the corner.
Winterhawk winced a bit as the spell hit him, but it didn't get far enough past his barriers to do more than cause a mild headache. He tightened his grip on the leather bag and retraced his route, instead coming out around the other rear corner of the building. He'd lost sight of the mage again.
This time, though, Ocelot hadn't. As he waited on his outpost atop the bar, the sound of footsteps alerted him to the mage's imminent appearance around the corner. Pointing the shotgun downward, he pulled the trigger. He wasn't really trying to hit the mage (although that would have been fine)--he just wanted to scare him into running back into 'Hawk's line of sight. He rolled sideways as another round from the sniper tore into the edge of the building.
Winterhawk, once around the other side, kept low and levitated upward. He was rewarded by the sight of the sniper, still focused on Ocelot, preparing to fire another barrage. Smiling rather unkindly (he was getting very tired of being the prey and pleased that he finally had a chance to be the predator) he flung another Manabolt at the sniper. The man screamed and dropped. "Ocelot!" he called across the roof.
"That's three down," Ocelot replied, leaping up and running back across toward 'Hawk, who'd set down on the far side of the building.
"Where's the mage?" Winterhawk looked around quickly, but there was no sign of him.
"Screw the mage! Let's get the hell out of here!" Ocelot yelled. "Come on--and keep your eyes open!" Without another word he headed back toward the parking lot and swung himself gracefully down. There was still no sign of the enemy mage.
Winterhawk floated down just in time to see Ocelot vault onto his Triumph and fire it up, stowing the shotgun in the saddlebag. "You brought this?" he protested.
"Get on and hold tight!" Ocelot gunned the engine, worried that at any moment the mage would pop out and attempt to fry them.
For once Winterhawk did not complain further. He climbed on the back of the bike, wedging the leather bag between himself and Ocelot, and grabbed tightly to his teammate's jacket. "Go!"
Ocelot didn't have to be invited twice. "Hang on!" he called again over his shoulder, then grabbed the throttle. The back wheel spun briefly, then the bike settled down, screaming at top speed out of the parking lot. Winterhawk, clinging for dear life to the bag and Ocelot, got a brief glimpse of the enemy mage picking himself up off the ground in front of the bar (he appeared to be clutching his arm) and then they were around the corner and roaring off into the sparse midday traffic.