The unseen voice spoke on the other end of the line. "Stone's turned everything over to the police. Our operatives saw them taking it all away this afternoon."
The elf and the human mulled that over a moment, still sitting in their hotel room in London. "So what's our next move?" the elf asked.
"We still don't know if he's discovered anything, but with any luck at all he hasn't and the staff is still with the other items. We need to find out, and if it is still with the other items, we need to secure it."
"You want us to break into the police's evidence locker?" the human demanded. "That'll be considerably harder than breaking into Stone's place."
"Not necessarily," the voice said, managing to convey a cryptic tone even through all the electronic masking. "We've a contact inside the Department. I think we can arrange for someone to be able to get a look at the items if we act quickly." The voice paused a moment. "We also need to keep an eye on Stone himself. He spent a fair amount of time at London University today, and my sources inform me that his caretaker has purchased a ticket for him on a flight to Seattle out of Heathrow this evening. We'll have someone there to watch him and attempt to determine if he has the staff with him."
"Do you think he'd steal it himself?" the elf asked. "From the information we have on him, he's not a thief."
"No," the voice agreed, "but he is known for his curiosity. If he's managed at all to find out even the beginnings of information about the staff's purpose, then likely he'll not want to let it out of his hands until he's found out the rest. He seems to value scientific discovery and such over the mundane workings of the law." Again there was a pause. "Wait for my call, and be ready to go when I get back to you. Our contact in the police department will need to act quickly to avoid being discovered. With any luck at all, the staff will be back in our hands by this evening."
Alastair Stone glanced around him one more time, trying not to look like he was doing so. It was hard to shake the sensation that someone was watching him, even though he knew such a thing was absurd.
There was still another half-hour before his flight was due to board; he wished he could just settle down in one of the uncomfortable plas-form chairs (they were supposed to be ergonomic, but no one had been able to determine exactly what sort of body the ergonomics had been designed for) and read a datafax like the innumerable other businesspeople dotting the landscape around the gate, but every time he tried to do so, he was hit again by that same sensation--someone was paying too much attention to him.
It had begun nearly forty-five minutes ago, when he had sent his luggage through the metal detector/chem-sniffer. He carried one medium-sized hard-sided suitcase and one leather carry-on duffel; the staff was tucked away at the bottom of the duffel, wrapped up in a layer of clothing. The suitcase was a decoy, so he'd look more like the businessmen--he usually didn't carry too many clothes back and forth since he maintained wardrobes both here and in Seattle. The duffel had gone through the detector without setting it off, but when he had finished getting checked and made it through, he was surprised to see an old lady just walking away from the other end carrying his bag. He had immediately accosted her and she'd been quite apologetic, saying that hers was similar and she must have mistaken them with her poor eyesight, but ever since then, Stone had kept a sharp eye and a constant grip on his leather bag. Sure, Heathrow was known for its criminal element, but why his bag on this particular evening?
After that, he began seeing things that continually set his nerves on edge: a troll glancing at him over the top of a magazine; a businessman who sat down right next to him when there were empty seats nearby; a waitress who had been just a little bit too friendly when he'd ordered a drink at the airport bar. Probably all coincidence, he told himself with some disgust. You're jumping at shadows now. Just get the damned thing on the plane and soon you'll be in Seattle.
What exactly he expected to do in Seattle hadn't quite occurred to him yet, but at least there he had friends who were skilled in the art of avoiding surveillance and dealing with the sorts of mundane threats that weren't Stone's forte. If someone was after the thing, they'd have a much harder time getting hold of it when it was guarded by four shadowrunners than they would if it was guarded by one shadowrunner, one old man, and one magical cat.
Sighing, Stone tightened his grip on the bag and settled into a seat with its back to the wall. Only twenty minutes to boarding. He would just sit here and wait.
"We got it, boss!" The elf's voice was triumphant. "It was right there where it was supposed to be."
"Report," the voice ordered, a bit too quickly. It was now almost seven o'clock that same evening.
"We made contact with our insider at the police department," the elf said. "She was able to get inside the room where the boxes were kept and look around under cover of hunting up a piece of evidence for another case. She found the box marked "Junk" right away. The staff was right there inside."
"Almost too easy," the human said, obviously pleased.
"You have it now?" the voice asked.
"You didn't touch it?" There was some urgency in the voice.
"Of course not. Don't you think we know better than that?" The elf sounded put out. "We've got it here, all wrapped up and ready for delivery."
"Excellent. I'll call you back in a few moments with a location where you can deliver it. Well done." The line went dead.
The elf and the human looked at each other, then down at the blanket- wrapped item that lay on the table next to the phone. "Wonder what all the fuss is about?" the human asked. "I know it's supposed to be magical, but what kind of magic would be worth what we did to that dwarf?"
The elf shook his head. "I don't know, Ghost, and I don't want to know. All I want to do is deliver this thing to the boss and get on to my next assignment. The whole thing gives me the creeps."
Stone sighed as he realized that he had read over the same passage in the in-flight magazine for the third time. I don't know what you've got yourself so bothered over, he told himself peevishly. It isn't like someone's going to steal the bloody thing right out from under your feet. Nonetheless, he glanced down once more at the black bag nestled firmly between his ankles. Damn good thing you're flying first class. The only thing that would make this worse would be getting stuck between an overweight businessman and a snoring troll.
He had wanted to take the suborbital, despite the havoc it always played with his senses (last time he had flown on one of those he'd felt vaguely sick and headachy for hours afterward), but Aubrey hadn't been able to secure a ticket at such short notice. Waiting would have been much worse than taking an hour or two extra to reach his destination, since despite his paranoia the likelihood that anyone would bother his carry-on luggage in flight was fairly slim. Nonetheless, he had purposely refrained from having more than one drink to avoid the potentially problematic instance of having to visit the restroom with duffel bag in tow. With the level of anti-terrorism security that existed these days, he didn't think he would be able to pass it off as an outsized shaving kit.
Leaning back in his seat, he stowed the datapad containing the in-flight magazine in its holder and tightened his grip slightly on the bag. He was probably overreacting about the whole thing. The artifact was probably nothing more than some esoteric gewgaw--except for the fact that Toby had been murdered for it. Stone had known some fairly ruthless academics in his time--in fact he had been a fairly ruthless academic a few times himself--but even the most coldblooded of his magical colleagues would not consider stooping to murder, and particularly grisly murder at that, to obtain an object for study. Stone was reasonably sure that the interested party had to be either of a corporate nature or perhaps a private collector who had somehow gotten wind of the object's existence. Either way, he had no idea what he was going to do with the thing. More study would be necessary, undoubtedly--perhaps going to Seattle would buy him some time to do just that. If nothing else, he'd feel safer there.
"Drink, sir?" Stone looked up to see the flight attendant smiling down at him.
He shook his head. "No, thank you. I'm fine."
She smiled again, nodding, and moved on.
Had she glanced down at the leather bag?
Once again, half in disgust, Stone squeezed it a little more tightly between his ankles. If they didn't land soon, his paranoia was going to drive him insane.
Damn! Damn! Damn!
The shadowy figure flung the staff down with a ferocity that threatened to snap it in half against the edge of the hardwood desk. "What kind of pathetic joke are you trying to play on me, you fool?"
The other stood before the desk, posture suggesting confusion. "Sir? I don't understand. This is the staff our operatives obtained from the--"
"It's a fake, you idiot!" The shadowy figure dropped back down in his chair with a loud sigh of consternation. "Damn it all--that Stone is slipperier than we thought. He must have heard your idiotic hirelings discussing the staff and made a switch! That thing--" he added, pointing with one shaking finger toward the object that now lay on the floor in front of the desk, "--is nothing but a cheap trinket that could have been bought from any tourist-trade antique store!"
"But the magic--"
The figure's voice lowered dangerously. "The magic, my witless friend, is nothing more than a low-grade enchantment. It might have been there before, or Stone might have put it there, thinking it would fool his pursuers. Apparently he was correct." His tone took on an edge of contempt. "Now, if you don't think it would be too much trouble, could you please contact our operatives in Seattle and make sure that they're there to meet our slippery Dr. Stone when he arrives?"
"Yes, sir. Of course. Please forgive my ignorance." The man in front of the desk was practically hanging his head in shame.
"Just don't let it happen again. We've still got a chance to secure the artifact before Stone figures out what he's got-- don't botch the job this time."