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"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 things considered."

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?"

"Like what?"

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 one's way."

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 thoughts.

"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 86th Street.

"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 warned."

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 him.

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 know something."

"That could take all night," Winterhawk said, turning sideways to avoid a shuffling chiphead whose aroma followed us long after he had passed us by.

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 want?"

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 friend.

"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.

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