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It started, as this stuff usually did, with the phone ringing.

"What?" I muttered to myself, even though I knew that the person on the other end couldn't possibly hear me if I didn't answer the damn thing. Grabbing my hopelessly tangled bedcovers, I yanked them over my head and closed my eyes. Too much beer and commercial affection last night had left me in no mood to be awakened by anybody at this hour of the morning.

The ringing persisted, insinuating itself through the blanket and into my aching head. I cursed myself for not setting it to answer before I fell into bed last night, but thinking I'd been in any shape to do so would have been pretty deluded. Gonna have to answer the thing to shut it up, though--

I snaked my hand from under the covers and snatched my wristphone from the floor next to the bed. "Yeah?" I said again, my voice sounding gravelly and muddled to my ears. I didn't turn on the video pickup.

"Good afternoon," said a cheerful, British-accented voice. "Did I wake you?"

I gritted my teeth. The cheer was, of course, affected. He always did this to me. "Go away."

"Can't do that," the voice said. "We've got a job. Harry called."

I slowly poked my head out from beneath the covers and checked the chrono on the wall. 13:24. "Harry ain't even awake yet," I growled, shoving my long, knotted hair back off my forehead.

"You sound terrible, my friend." The voice now took a solicitous tone, overlaid with a thin veneer of mocking. "What did I tell you about late nights and cheap beer?"

"Didn't I tell you to go away?" My head felt like the entire front line of the Seahawks was slam-dancing on it. "When's the meet?"

"1700. Some place called the Oasis Motel. I'll give you the rest when I see you. That should leave you ample time to work off your overindulgence." He hung up before I could hang up on him first.

I sighed, letting my head fall back on the pillow while putting both hands on it to steady it. Winterhawk had a way of knowing when I was least in the mood to talk to anybody, then picking that moment to call. It was a talent. I think he did it on purpose.

Well, I wasn't going to get any more sleep, that was for sure. I hauled my protesting body out of bed and dragged it into the shower, wondering what kind of job Harry had lined up for us this time. Trying to guess wouldn't have done me any good. Harry's jobs ranged from the ridiculous to the highly lucrative to the insanely dangerous. Sometimes they were all three at once. The only way to find out what this one was was to show up at the meet. Grudgingly, I set about making myself presentable, cursing Winterhawk and Harry alternately for not waiting one more day to send this job my way.

By the time I pulled up in front of the Oasis Motel at 1645, my aching head was a memory. As it always did, the adrenalin of anticipation had long since made any vestiges of my hangover a thing of the past. As I rolled up in front of the place on my Rapier, my awareness was on edge, my reflexes ready to respond to any threat. The run didn't always start with the meet. That was one that every runner learned early.

I recognized 'Hawk's car in the parking lot: he'd brought the old nondescript Americar instead of his little Nissan sports job. When he saw me pull in, he got out of the car to wait for me.

I still occasionally wondered why Harry had chosen to make 'Hawk and me teammates. We're about as opposite as they get: I'm an ex-ganger who grew up on the streets of Seattle, he's a college-educated Brit who comes from money. I didn't know that last part for a fact, but it was a pretty easy guess. The surprising fact was, though, that we worked well together. With my wired reflexes, combat skills, and talent for sneaking around in the dark, I carried the mundane end of the partnership. 'Hawk was the magical firepower, as well as our spokesman most of the time. That was, when he wasn't being annoying as hell. We'd been running together for about a year now and we hadn't killed each other yet, so that had to count for something.

He smiled as I approached, leaning against his car and shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat. "Well. You're looking a bit more chipper," he said brightly. He was tall and thin, with medium-length black hair striped stark white on both sides. In contrast to my preference for snug-fitting clothes that were easy to move in and short leather jackets, he rarely was seen in anything but a fashionably loose-fitting suit and an overcoat, the latter usually sporting a few weird-looking items that I was sure were magical on the lapels. I'd seen this guy go to the Barrens in a suit. Sometimes I didn't think he got it. But everybody knew that mages were a little nuts, so I put up with it.

"You were gonna tell me the rest," I reminded him, locking up the bike in the space next to his car.

"Oh, yes. Charming place, isn't it?" he asked, looking around at our surroundings. The Oasis Motel had obviously had its best days, such as they were, in the previous century. It sprawled in tacky tropical style across the better part of a large city block, looking incongruous in the midst of its newer, more utilitarian neighbors. The decor was faux-Caribbean, with a heavy emphasis on pink flamingoes, palm trees, neon, and garish island prints. By the mid 2050s it was definitely showing its age, and the caustics in the rain hadn't been kind to its pale tan exterior. The fact that it had remained in business for as long as it had said something about its staying power. I figured from the look of it that most of that had to do with renting rooms by the hour and not asking too many questions about what happened within such rooms.

"Yeah," I said. "Beautiful. Now what's the deal?"

Winterhawk pushed himself off the car and stood up straight. He was the same height as me but looked taller because he was so thin (at least when compared with my vat-grown muscles). Shrugging, he started toward the inner part of the motel's courtyard. "Not much to tell, really. Room 485. Harry didn't say much else, except that our Mr. Johnson has lost someone and wants him or her back."

By the time we found Room 485 (so many of the rooms were missing their numbers that we began to wonder if we would ever find it) it was 1700. I pulled up my collar against the chill of the damp November air as Winterhawk knocked on the door.

"Yes?" A voice answered almost immediately. It sounded like its owner was standing right on the other side of the door. Instinctively, I moved to one side, my hand on the Predator in my pocket.

"Mr. Johnson, I believe we have some business to discuss," Winterhawk said smoothly. "May we come in?"

There was the sound of first a chain-lock, then a deadbolt being disengaged. Apparently the proprietors of the Oasis hadn't upgraded to maglocks in the last fifty years. The door swung open to reveal a human man in his mid-forties, with thinning hair, a standard-issue corp suit, and nothing much else distinguishable. "Who sent you?" he asked, obviously nervous.

Winterhawk smiled his most charming smile. "Harry sent us, Mr. Johnson. Please let us come in. It's quite cold and damp out here."

"Oh. Uh--yes, of course. Come in." Johnson stepped aside and let us into the room. It was a typical no-tell motel room: bed, small table with two chairs, door leading to the bathroom. Unobtrusively, I moved so I could see into the bathroom: nobody there. Good.

"Sit down," Johnson was saying. He looked more sure of himself now that he knew who he was dealing with.

"Thank you," Winterhawk said, and did so after removing his overcoat. "My name is Winterhawk. This is my associate Ocelot. I understand you've lost someone." I didn't sit down, but rather leaned on the wall near the door, content to let 'Hawk handle the pleasantries. He was better at it than I was.

Johnson took the other seat at the table. "Yes." He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. "Let me start with a little background. I work for a small pharmaceutical firm. One of the projects we're currently working on is a drug that, when taken regularly, has proven highly beneficial in boosting the immune system; making a person less susceptible to common diseases such as influenza that tend to strike those whose immune systems are weakened. Our research isn't flashy, but when our tests are completed, we're hoping that something such as this will be very favorably received.

He took another deep breath. "Naturally, we have tried to do as much testing as possible with animal subjects and Matrix simulations, but at some point the treatment must be tested on human and metahuman test subjects. This is not strictly ethical, of course, but surely you must be aware that it's almost a universal practice, one way or another. The way we have chosen to test our treatment is to offer--financial inducement--to selected individuals, then monitor their response to the treatment. Of course we're keeping this program highly secret, since our competitors would be quite interested in finding out how close to market we are."

"Let me guess," I said. "You're paying some poor slots in the Barrens to be your guinea pigs."

"Yes, in a manner of speaking," Johnson said mildly. "So far the drug has shown no harmful side effects in any of our previous testing, nor has it shown any in our human/metahuman testing so far. But let's get back to business. Our test subjects are instructed to check in with us once a week to answer some questions, receive a blood test, and obtain their payment for the week. So far, we've had very good success with the program. But last week one of our test subjects disappeared. He didn't come in for his checkup, which is very unlike him. He had up to this point been one of our best subjects. We did a bit of checking, but were unable to find any information about his whereabouts. He's disappeared into thin air, apparently." He paused. "I want to hire you to find him for us. You must understand that should he fall into the hands of our competitors, the resulting publicity could be very detrimental to us, not to mention the chance that they could obtain vital information about our progress by examining him."

"What kind of checking have you done?" I asked.

"Not a lot," Johnson admitted. "We didn't want to be too conspicuous about searching for him. Since that's not our business, we were afraid of someone getting suspicious. We asked some of our other test subjects in that area if they had seen him, and to keep a lookout for him. We offered them a bit of extra nuyen if they could find him. Also, our spies in the industry have informed us that, as far as they know, our competitors haven't shown any interest in kidnapping our test subjects. But nothing more than that. So far, no success."

"What about magical means?" Winterhawk asked. "You said you had blood--surely you could find him with a magical ritual, if it's that important."

Johnson shook his head. "We're a fairly small company, and we don't have any magical people on staff. We could hire somebody, of course, but since we took the blood sample a week ago, it's already been analyzed. I thought it wasn't possible to do a ritual after that long anyway."

Winterhawk shrugged. "Sometimes it is. Depends on how the blood's been preserved."

"Well, we had no reason to preserve it. We've never had a problem before. Besides, as I said, we tend to look at things in a more...um... mundane way."

"Okay," I said, "Let's get this straight. You want us to find this guy for you. Do you want us to bring him back to you?"

Johnson took a deep breath. "We want to know where he is, and if possible why he chose not to show up at his appointment. If he seems reluctant to honor his agreement, you may need to employ a bit of persuasion. We would prefer not to lose any of our test subjects at this point."

"And if he's dead?" Winterhawk said.

"Then we want proof."

Winterhawk considered that a moment, then looked at me. I nodded once. "All right, then," the mage said. "We may have an arrangement. We'll be needing to hear your offer first, of course."

Johnson reached into his briefcase and withdrew two credsticks. "I'm authorized to offer you five thousand nuyen each now, and an additional five thousand apiece on the delivery of the agreed-upon information." He placed the credsticks on the table in front of him.

Winterhawk picked one up and looked at it. The display read 5000. Again glancing at me, he nodded. "That'll do for a start," he said briskly. "And for a finish, assuming that things stay fairly close to the way you've described them. If there's more to this than you're telling us, the price will go up accordingly."

Johnson nodded. "I've given you the facts as I know them. So you accept?"

"Yeah, sounds that way," I said. I picked up the other credstick and pocketed it. "Now give us the rest of the information."

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