"So what do you think?" I asked.
It was 18:30. Winterhawk and I were heading toward the Barrens
in Winterhawk's car after dropping my Rapier off at my place.
Winterhawk put the car on autopilot and pulled the holopic Johnson had
given us from his jacket pocket. "I'm very much afraid we're going
to find our man dead somewhere," he said.
"Why do you say that?" I took the holo from him and looked at it.
The picture showed a man who appeared to be in his late twenties.
Caucasian, human, wearing a stained Seattle Seahawks baseball cap, a
blue T-shirt, and a faded denim jacket. His face, under the heavy
growth of beard stubble, was thin and hollow-cheeked, but the grin
on his face couldn't have been anything but genuine. He had a likeable,
devil-may-care look to him, like an old-fashioned hobo.
Winterhawk shrugged. "You know the Barrens better than I do. What's
usually happened to people who disappear without a trace?"
I sighed. "Yeah, you're probably right. He probably pissed off the
wrong person and ended up in a dumpster somewhere. But if that happened,
how come nobody's found him? You think he pissed off somebody big-time
enough that they'd bother disposing of the body?"
"No idea," he said. "Of course, it's equally possible that some
competitor of our Mr. Johnson's has made off with him. Or that he
decided he'd rather be elsewhere. That last one's rather unlikely, though,
I'd say. Johnson seemed to think he was a rather reliable chap, all
I looked at the holo again. The guy's name was 'Tommy T'. Johnson had
told us that it was all the name he had provided. It figured: street
people were often leery about revealing their real names (if they even
knew what they were). He had no fixed address, but apparently spent most
of his time on or near the 86th Street area. "So I guess we start by
heading over to 86th Street and see if we can find anybody who's
seen him lately." I handed 'Hawk back the picture.
"Sure," he said, stowing it in his pocket. "You know, it would be
nice one of these days if we were able to procure a job that involved
going to Bellevue."
I ignored that. 'Hawk didn't make any secret about his dislike of
hanging out in bad neighborhoods. I didn't have much sympathy for him,
so I kept my mouth shut. It reminded me of something else, though. I looked
at him. "You going to the Barrens like that?"
I made a show of looking his suit up and down. "Like that.
In the suit. Don't you ever--you know--dress down?"
It was an old argument/joke, and 'Hawk responded to it as he
usually did. "What difference does it make?" he asked. "You know
bloody well I'd look ridiculous dressed like you are." He grinned.
"Haven't got the legs for tight pants. Besides, I'm a mage. We're
not supposed to fit in with the general populace. It's almost
expected that we're eccentric."
"Yeah," I said, "I know. But this time's different. We're gonna spook
people if you look that much like you don't fit in. They ain't gonna
tell us anything then."
"Don't worry, dear boy," he said with a somewhat nasty smile. "I find
that when one is looking for information, the judicious application
of nuyen goes a long way toward making the local denizens see things
I snorted. "There you go, throwin' money at the problem again."
"Money, drinks, guns. Whatever," he said. "You have to admit, it works."
"Yeah, if you don't get yourself clubbed in an alley somewhere,
'cause they got you pegged as a rich idiot."
"Let them try," he said, his voice taking on a cold edge.
With a sigh, I turned to look out the car window and didn't answer.
He got that way sometimes, just like I sometimes got a little hotheaded
and said things I probably shouldn't to people I probably shouldn't
have said them to. 'Hawk was something of a "magic snob;" I'd learned
that on our first run together. He was supremely confident in his
magical abilities and their usefulness in getting him out of any
dangerous situation he might find himself in, especially if that situation
were of the mundane variety. So far he hadn't been wrong about that,
at least since I'd known him, but I knew his luck couldn't last forever.
I hoped that when he finally learned that lesson, he didn't end up on a slab.
Okay, so maybe troll gangers were easy to take down with spells. They
could still get in a lucky shot, and lucky shots from troll gangers
tended to leave very large red spots where people used to be.
After a pause, he said, "Fine. We'll drop by my place on the way.
Okay?" His tone was resigned.
"Good call," I said, a little surprised. This was the first time I'd
won that particular concession.
So, after a short detour to 'Hawk's apartment, we were on our way back
to Redmond. I didn't comment on the fact that he still looked too high-class
for the neighborhood in his black sweater, pressed black pants, and
black leather duster--apparently, that was 'Hawk's idea of casual.
I busied myself checking over my weapons as Winterhawk drove. Predator
in a holster under my jacket; stun baton in a loop in the jacket;
monowhip in its specially-designed sheath
up my right sleeve. I had a couple of bigger guns in the trunk of the car,
but I wasn't planning to bring them along just yet. So far, this had the
look of a simple information-gathering expedition, and while I didn't believe
for a minute that it would remain one, I also didn't think walking down
the streets with an SMG was going to make me any friends. Neither Winterhawk
nor I was the "big and loud" type. We both preferred to avoid combat
rather than incite it.
By the time I was finished carefully checking all my stuff, we were almost
to Redmond. This area wasn't near where I'd grown up, but it didn't make
much difference. The feel was the same--decay, desperation, and hopelessness.
I watched the buildings: old, rundown things, covered with the colorful graffiti
of the ever-present gangs who patrolled the area. Lone Star didn't make
it down here very often; I might have been bitter about that thought if I
trusted Lone Star to make things any better. Since I didn't, I figured it
was just as well.
Most of the windows were broken or boarded up now; small knots of people
lurked on street corners, completing their deals and their transactions
with blatant disregard for any kind of laws that might forbid them from doing
so. I watched a chip deal taking place under a streetlight; a little further
down the street, an obviously underage joygirl bargained with a middle-aged
ork man leaning out the window of a car while two gangers in synth-leather
jackets lounged in a nearby doorway.
"This place is bloody depressing," Winterhawk said, startling me from my
"No shit," I said, still not ready to deal with his attitude. I pointed
down a side street. "Park over there. We're almost where we're going."
He nodded and turned the car as directed, parking it next to a nest of
garbage cans. "Do you suppose it will be here when we return?" he asked, looking
dubiously around the darkened street. A thin, noncommittal rain that was
barely more than a drizzle was falling.
I shrugged. "Not much choice, unless you want to walk a long way." I got out
of the car and pulled up my collar. Even after all this time in Seattle,
I still hated the rain.
Winterhawk got out and buttoned up his duster. "Still, you won't mind if I
take precautions, will you?" Concentrating for a moment, he made a brief gesture
and a form shimmered into existence in front of him. He held a hurried
conversation under his breath with the form, which saluted smartly and disappeared.
"What did you tell it?" I asked as we left the car and trudged back toward
"Oh, nothing much." He smiled his nasty smile. "Simply that should anyone
but us touch the car, he's to appear and explain to them how I'll find them
and microwave their brains for them if they don't move on."
"Oh, that'll work," I said sarcastically. "Around here, they'll consider
that a challenge."
"Their choice," he said, still looking cheerful. "Can't say they weren't
86th Street didn't look any better on foot than it had by car. Actually,
it was worse, since the incessant drizzle was making my hair uncomfortably damp,
trickling in increasingly frequent drips and runnels down my neck and
under my jacket. Winterhawk walked alongside me in silence, his hands in his
pockets, his eyes constantly scanning the street ahead of us. He didn't look
like the rain was bothering him, but it was hard to tell. Sometimes he bitched
about stuff too minor for me to notice, and sometimes he stoically bore
things that would drive me crazy in five minutes. There was no telling with
I sensed, rather than saw, the eyes on us as we moved down the street.
"Keep alert," I said to Winterhawk in a voice barely more than a whisper.
He nodded. "Way ahead of you, my friend," he assured me in the same voice.
"Should I be worried that we're being watched?"
"Not yet. We don't belong here, so we're gonna attract attention. Just
look like you know what you're doing."
"Are we looking for anyone in particular, or are we just going to
question the first person we encounter?"
I answered even though I was pretty sure his question was rhetorical.
"Let's just look around and find somebody who looks like they might
"That could take all night," Winterhawk said, turning sideways to
avoid a shuffling chiphead whose aroma followed us long after he had passed
We continued down the street. The surroundings were getting worse: the
ratio of nonfunctioning streetlights to functioning ones was getting larger,
the buildings shabbier, and the cars on the street were looking less and
less like they could actually be driven. At one point a young ganger--early
teens, maybe--made a move like he was going to step out of the shadows
and confront us; one glare from my cat-styled cybereyes sent him scurrying
back. Winterhawk wasn't very successful in concealing his disgust when he
was propositioned a little further down by a middle-aged, over-made-up
joygirl who attached herself to us for maybe half a block before giving
up in resignation. "What are ya, queer?" she yelled after us in a harsh,
grating voice laced with cigarettes and alcohol.
"Discriminating," he had called back before I could shut him up.
"You know, you're just askin' for trouble," I told him as we continued.
"You gotta stop--"
"A moment," he said quietly. "Keep talking. But there are four--no,
I think five people ahead trying to be unobtrusive."
"Yeah, well, you gotta stop antagonizing people," I continued in the
same loud tone, switching my cybereyes to thermographic mode and scanning
the area in front of us. "I see three," I whispered. "Hiding behind the two
cars there. Where are the others?"
"I just don't see why I've got to put up with that sort of behavior," he
protested. And, quieter: "One behind the dumpster there on the left. The
other is in the second-floor window to the right."
"Got 'em," I said, identifying the telltale heat traces. Then, for the
benefit of our reception committee, "Just shut up, okay. We gotta get back
to where the cab left us." I kept walking, and whispered, "Keep an eye on
the ones on the right. I got the ones on the left. Maybe they won't bother
us." Winterhawk nodded.
I don't think either one of us believed it.
Good thing, too. As we got near the car and started to pass it, three forms
melted out of the shadows, quickly joined by a fourth from behind the dumpster.
The fifth remained in his perch on the second floor. Slowly, the four
figures ringed us.
They were dressed in grubby synth-leather jackets with identical skull-head
patches, and ragged jeans. Human, from the look of them. Their hair was cut
in identical Mohawk style.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Winterhawk said, smiling in that way he had of
looking positively twinkle-eyed cheerful right before he flash-fried your brain.
"Let me handle this," I muttered to him. Louder, I said, "What do you guys
The one who was apparently the leader (he had more body piercings than the
rest) pulled out a wicked-looking switchblade from the pocket of his jacket.
"You ain't from around here, are ya?"
"Nope," I admitted. "We aren't. So? You got a problem with that?" My
aura of machismo from my gangleader days came back to me like an old
"Maybe," the guy said noncommittally, pausing to dig some dirt from under
his fingernails with the blade. "You got any cred on you?"
I could feel the other three gangers moving a little closer, and hoped that
'Hawk noticed too. "Not for you," I said with contempt. "You better move out
of the way. That's a warning."
The leader laughed, just like I thought he would. These guys were so
predictable--anymore, I sometimes had trouble remembering why I used to
spend so much time with their type. "Listen to that, guys!" he called, grinning.
"This dude and his sissy friend are warnin' us." From around our
position, I heard the metallic clicks and clinks of knives
and chains being pulled from their places. "How 'bout we just kill you, yeah?"
"Not today," Winterhawk said calmly. I don't think they heard him, though,
as the leader gestured and the four gangers jumped us.