Black Bag Job

by Lonnie McDowell

Judge's Note: This story came very close to winning the contest, and I felt it necessary to give it honorable mention. This author has written about a period of Winterhawk's life that I haven't explored yet, and done a great job I might add. I quite enjoyed reading about 'Hawk's exploits in his younger days--I can see how things might have gone just the way the author has described them. Nice job on the story!

The sign on the door said "Resource Management." It was a comfortable euphemism - "spymaster" had more veracity, but tended to attract unwanted attention on budget reports and paycheque vouchers.

The office itself was small - three cubicles, three computer terminals, four storage cabinets, and an adjoining conference room. At the moment, only the conference room was occupied.

"I say let him hang. He should have thought of the consequences before he let himself get caught on trid. If she's half his age, I'm a Tairngire Prince. And the fact that he was using his office for his little trysts - His Majesty don't need someone that incompetent working overseas. Let him hang."

"You know it's not that simple. As a diplomatic attaché, he's entitled to immunity, of course - but the political ramifications are such that we can't afford to let this come to light. Neither can we be connected with the operation if something goes awry: we don't have sufficient local resources to do a proper clean-up."

A third voice contributed. "Don't overlook the fact that the department's annual budget review is coming up before the House of Lords next month. If we can deliver the trid disc to the security oversight committee at the appropriate time, I believe Lord Hawkins would be particularly grateful..."

"Thank you." The argument was broken by the voice of the only woman in the room. It was quiet, but commanding. All eyes turned to the head of the table where she sat. "I think Ian has the right of it. We need the manpower: we also need discretion and plausible denial. I think Neville's boy fits the bill. Gentlemen, activate Winterhawk."

The comm unit beeped once, then twice. Alastair Stone sighed and set aside the hand comp containing the formula he'd been composing for three days, then stretched an arm out to his left and keyed the telecom unit on.

"Alastair?" The voice was familiar, but he couldn't place it right away.

"Yes, speaking." The thin young man twisted as he spoke and fiddled with the viewscreen controls, but the screen remained dark. His electric blue eyes squinted back at him from his reflection: he still had some trouble seeing himself through the cyber-eyes.

"This is Ian." the unit buzzed. Now Alastair recognized the voice, and realized why the call was audio only. "Oh?" he said cautiously. "Yes. Aunt May introduced us, remember?" Alastair's heart thumped. He swallowed quickly, and responded, "Oh yes, from Gloucester. I remember you." The countersign confirmed, Ian continued. "Can you meet me at 6:00 this evening?" Alastair frowned: he was becoming less and less enamoured with being at the beck and call of Ian and his "resource managers." "It's a little early..." he said. Ian didn't let him continue. "I understand, but it's important. I'll explain when you get here." "Where?" asked Alastair. "We'll meet where 'Uncle Rodney' first introduced us." Alastair agreed, and terminated the deliberately vague conversation. He left the hand comp where it was and sat back while a mixture of elation, anticipation and fear whirled through his head.

"It is, of course, a matter requiring the utmost discretion. The information you'll be seeking is a trid disc of highly private diplomatic... negotiations." Alastair noted the almost imperceptible pause. Even in a pre-screened pub with a top-notch white noise generator/jammer running, the resource manager was reluctant to give details, Alastair thought. He nodded, and Ian continued. "There should only be one disc, with last Sunday's date written on it. Our source was able to get us that much, but not much more. We need to make sure the information on that disc does not see daylight. The department can take care of the disc once it's retrieved. You'll arrive in Marrakesh around noon tomorrow. Arrangements will be made to interrupt the power to the alarms briefly that night, but you'll need to bypass any physical barriers - guards, patrol drones, etc. - yourself. This is essentially a solo black bag operation: we have three other possible targets that will be subject to operative insertion at the same time, and our resources are spread pretty thin. You seem to have a knack for handling yourself: I don't think you'll encounter anything you can't cope with. You should be back in London by the following day: it's unlikely you'll be missed over the weekend." Alastair listened, absorbing information as if he were sitting through a University lecture, but his mind was already caught up in preparations for the job. He took the packet Ian handed him and examined the exterior of the building. He smiled.

Alastair gazed at the building from an alley across the street. He'd circled the nondescript granite building twice by taxi shortly after he arrived, wearing outlandishly loud clothing, a broad-brimmed fedora, and a trid camera around his neck. Aside from a high fence topped with monowire concertina and a pair of guards just outside the door, there was nothing noticeably complicated about the building's outer security layout. For tonight's work he had changed into a black leather trenchcoat that had been hanging in his closet for six months just waiting to be used on such an occasion. Underneath his coat he wore a baggy grey sweater and a neatly pressed pair of loose-fitting black pants. He didn't think of himself as a slave to fashion, but he was definitely an adherent to it.

"The power on the alarm system will be interrupted between 23:08 and 23:09 GMT. That's your window." Alastair smiled as he looked up. Ian probably hadn't meant that quite so literally. His watch emitted a warning buzz, and he took a deep breath. The once-ubiquitous ballad "Stairway to Heaven" wound itself around the outer edges of his mind as Alastair concentrated, then slowly rose to the level of the opposite roof. The song was one of his favourites, and he thought it unjust that so few appreciated the classics anymore. He stilled his mind and let himself drift towards the top row of windows across the street. His concentration wavered briefly when he looked down at the traffic zipping past under his feet, but he recovered quickly.

The first window appeared to be locked, as did the second and third. The fourth window showed an open clasp. He glanced at his watch: just over a minute left until the alarms would be disrupted. It was possible that the upper windows weren't wired to the alarm system: it was an old building, with a pre-Awakening security system which did not contemplate levitation as a security risk. On the other hand, it would not hurt him to wait a little while...

He heard the buzzing sound before he saw it. A shadow flitted into and out of the periphery of his cyber-enhanced vision, too quickly to see what it was. However, it seemed pretty crystal that if he wasn't supposed to be up here, neither was anything else. It didn't sound like any drone he'd ever heard, but he was no rigger, and he didn't want to take a chance on being wrong. The young mage spoke a command phrase and gestured for a handful of arcane energy, but wobbled dangerously in mid-air before he could complete the spell: suddenly he wished he'd taken the second year "concentration segmentation exercises" more seriously. At the time, it seemed much more important to devote his attention to the actual spells. (Well, mostly he'd worked on the enhanced charisma cantrip, snidely known as the "biff magnet" spell: it had done wonders for his sang-froid in social circles.) Unfortunately, his social sang-froid was not going to help him with his immediate problem.

With a flicker of thought he spun around, pressing his back against the window and setting his feet on the window's narrow ledge. His toes hung off into space, and there was no purchase for his hands to grip, but it was better than nothing. He dug the fingernails of one hand into the aged weather-stripping of the window, and concentrated again. A blue nimbus of crackling energy danced along the fingertips of his free hand as he sought out the source of the buzzing sound.

The sound increased, moving in from his left, and he flung out a burst of raw magical energy towards it. The blue glow enmeshed a nightmarishly large beetle hovering less than ten yards away. Crackles of mana arched across its armor plated body, and its wing strokes became erratic, then ceased altogether. He watched the huge bug drop to the ground, where it feebly tried to right itself. "It's as big as Mullins!" thought Alastair as he hurriedly pumped another burst into it just to be safe. The beetle stopped moving, and the thought of his caretaker's beagle covered in chitin (complete with floppy armor-plated ears) and flying around foreign countries in the dead of night suddenly struck Alastair as funny. He noted in a disinterested corner of his mind that he was getting giddy and swaying dangerously on the ledge. The same corner also decided to do something about it before he plummeted down to join the bug. Alastair released his hold on the mana blast spell and reinforced his levitation spell. He stopped swaying and took a deep breath, followed by another.

A new buzzing sound filled the air, and Alastair looked around wildly before he realized it was the countdown alarm on his wristwatch. With a quick gulp and more than a few glances at the motionless bug below, he counted to fifteen, then pulled out a small tool from an inside pocket and slowly pulled open the window. No alarms rang, no lights clicked on. He slipped through and pulled the window closed behind him.

Once inside, he swept the amber-tinted beam of his pocket torch around the office. Although his low light cybereyes did a remarkable job at turning the dark into dusk, they did require some light source, and he wanted to make sure he didn't miss any details. Besides, he still wasn't entirely sure he trusted biotechnology: magic was, in his opinion, a more elegant, flexible solution, and just as reliable (or unreliable, as the case may be). On the other hand, Ian had insisted on having the cyberware implanted at the start of Alastair's training, and Alastair grudgingly had to admit he'd been right: his new eyes and the reflex boost had helped him out more than once so far in his work.

He carefully kept the beam away from the window as he played it around the room. No visible cameras, motion detectors, or electric eyes (other than his own, he thought wryly.) He took a few minutes to peruse the room, waiting to see if he'd tripped any unseen alarms. He didn't hear any footsteps pounding down the hallway, and didn't hear any sirens, buzzers, or bells wailing a security alert. Finally he picked out a comfortable chair and began a detailed astral survey of the building.

He sunk through the floor and into the room below. Nothing moved. Nothing flared to life on the astral, no warded containers presented themselves. He made a quick circuit of the offices, but found nothing that indicated "illicit discs here." He rose, double checked his body, and searched the third floor with similar results. His astral form emitted the equivalent of a sigh, and he dropped down to the first floor.

The first floor had an unwarded vault (which more closely resembled an armor plated room) that caused Alastair to cluck his metaphysical tongue in amusement. Nothing he had seen so far indicated an awareness of magic, much less a precaution against it. If he hadn't compared it against the pictures, he'd swear he was in the wrong building. Aside from the front door guards and cameras he'd noted in the hallway, there was nothing here to stop a halfway competent amateur. And with his magic, he was certainly better than halfway competent, if he did say so himself. He poked his head into the vault almost cavalierly.

And pulled it out again as fast as he could, propelling himself across the room and raising a hand in front of him, blazing and crackling. He hung there, waiting, but nothing happened. Slowly, he drifted around the vault, examining it from every direction. Nothing emerged. Cautiously, he drifted back in from the other side.

"Welcome." In spite of himself, Alastair jumped. There was no doubt the spirit was addressing him. "I've not seen you before."

Alastair's astral mouth wasn't actually dry, but he swallowed anyway. He'd seen spirits conjured in different forms, but this one was more anthropomorphic than most: he was dusky skinned, with his hair in a topknot and his chest bare. His lower limbs were encased in a swirling, twisting whirlwind that made him look like a legendary djinn. Formerly legendary, Alastair corrected himself. Frag if there wasn't a brass lamp on the floor next to him. He seemed only mildly interested in Alastair's sudden appearance. Alastair decided a bluff was in order.

"Umm, Yes, quite. I just stopped by to see how things were going along, find out what was happening, as it were. So, er, how are you?" If his astral form had been equipped for it, Alastair would have kicked himself. Not that conversations with 7-foot djinn were his forte, but he should have been able to do better than "how are you?"

"I am imprisoned inside this metal box, serving the whims of a small-minded man who is not fit to walk upright, much less command me. You are the first thing of even passing interest I have seen in days. Thrice have I neared the end of my task and sought leave to return to my realm, and thrice has my term of service been extended by a score of days or more. I am... displeased."

"Hmm. Sorry to hear it. So, what do I call you, and what exactly are the terms of your service?" asked Alastair hurriedly. Just keep him talking, he thought, although he wasn't sure he liked the way the conversation was going so far.

"You may call me Kolob. I am allotted this poor space to dwell, and may not leave it or disturb its contents. Should one open the door who does not bear the proper token on his left hand, I am to destroy them with no compunction. The last is not overly difficult." The spirit confided in Alastair. "And you, how are you called, and why do you come here?"

Alastair felt a compelling urge to explain his mission to the djinn, but he resisted. Instead he adopted a vague air. "Oh, I've just been looking through the building, wandering willy-nilly to see what there is to see." He paused, then added, "I am called Winterhawk." The compulsion eased. Strictly speaking, he'd told the truth. Sometimes knowing what spell you faced was half the battle when playing the you tell me yours and I'll tell you mine game. Still, this was no Smaug, and he was no Bilbo Baggins. He kept his guard up.

"What's so important? What do they keep in here that merits detaining a being of your" - Alastair thought quickly - "obvious magnitude to wait day and night without reprieve?"

The spirit looked almost mollified to find a sympathetic ear. "Puny treasures - paper wrought in the image of man, but with none of the heft of coin. Likewise, even the coins are cumbersome, large and flimsy."

And if you asked an anachronistic spirit to describe a trid disc, thought Alastair, what do you suppose he'd compare it to? He pursued the thought. "Where are these coins kept?"

"That is a dangerous question, wanderer. My purpose here is to stop thieves and those who would take from this treasury, such as it is."

"Really?" asked Alastair. "Duty bound, and with such a liberal set of instructions, too: I must say I'm disappointed, Kolob."

The spirit's brow furrowed. "Say on." His tone promised dire consequences for any perceived insult. Alastair paused to couch his argument in terms as convincing as possible.

"I'm surprised, that's all. I would have thought that a magician strong enough to summon you would be foresighted enough to give clear commands."

"Perhaps he would have, had he not needed gold more than my services. I was bartered away like a common slave to serve a worthless jackal of a man; I, who was once the power behind the veiled prophet of Khorassan!"

Clearly, Kolob had been in his bottle just a little too long, thought Alastair. Not that Alastair was going to tell him that. Instead, he nodded agreeably. "So, your current master - that is, the person issuing the orders - he's not even a magician?"

"No." Kolob sounded almost embarrassed.

"Well, doesn't it seem that your circumstances are remarkably similar to that of the fabled spirit long ago: trapped in a lamp by the seal of Solomon, and forced to do the bidding of some stranger?" inquired Alastair.

The spirit showed two rows of very white teeth. "Something like that."

Alastair smiled. "I thought so. How would you like to get even?"

When Alastair returned to his body a few minutes later, he took a few moments to readjust to having a physical form again. The cyberware made the transition mildly uncomfortable, but he supposed in time he'd hardly notice it. He checked his watch: he'd have enough time, but not by much.

He spread out his ritual materials on the floor, and drew a small mage's circle. The office door was locked, but he wedged a chair under the handle for good measure.

A little more than an hour later, his astral self reappeared in the vault. Kolob raised an eyebrow. "Well?"

Alastair tried not to let his smugness show as he called out "Azazel?"

A bright red spirit with horns and a barbed tail appeared. Had he been more than two centimetres tall, he might have been impressive. "I have got better things to do!" he announced in a high pitched voice.

"So do we all." rumbled Kolob, and Azazel disappeared with an eep, only to peek out from Alastair's pocket.

"Look, Azazel, I've got a fairly simple job for you. I'm going to sort through some discs, and you're going to help me." Azazel eeped again. Alastair sighed. "O.K. Kolob, which of the discs were put in here since last Sunday?"

The spirit frowned. "My box has no calendar. I can measure time only by the waning of my master's power over me."

"Well, what was put in since your summons was last renewed?"

The large spirit gestured. "Ah, I see. This box here, and this stack as well. These six boxes," he gestured, "were opened but naught was added."

"Now we're getting somewhere. Azazel, can you open that box and pull out any round, shiny things inside?"

Warily, with one eye on Kolob, the diminutive spirit did. One by one, Winterhawk assessed them. He couldn't read them from the astral, but in the aura of reflected astral light each gave off a barely distinguishable sense of boredom and monotony. While that readily matched his definition of politics, he had to believe that high level diplomatic negotiations would be more emotionally intense. The second bundle secured a disc and several flimsies. The disc was emotionally intense, all right, but Alastair blushed at the emotions it gave off. Top level diplomatic... wait a minute. The flimsies didn't provide much detail when viewed astrally, but there was no doubt what the subjects were doing, and where. Ian's subtle pause during the briefing echoed in Alastair's mind, and he snorted. Private negotiations indeed.

"Thank you, Azazel. Now, I'd like you to melt the disc and the flimsies. The whole packet."

Azazel looked fearfully at Kolob, but Kolob ignored him. He'd been all for the idea once Alastair had pointed out that he did not have a duty to safeguard the vault's contents, only to attack unauthorized vault openers and to avoid directly causing harm himself. "Besides," Alastair had pointed out, "They're the ones that issued the orders. If they think you screwed up, they will either get mad and tell you to take off, or be disgusted and dismiss you. Either way, the odds are pretty good that you'll be released." Alastair watched the little fire elemental warp and twist the plastic beyond recognition and hoped his assurances to the spirit were borne out. Kolob had dealt fairly with him, and he wanted to return the favour. And the world could always use another free spirit that wasn't out to usher in the apocalypse.

"By the by, if you are set free, you don't plan to go on a spree of mass destruction or anything, do you? I mean, the genie in the Arabian Nights had been trapped for hundreds of years before he decided to start offing people; you've only been in here a couple of months, tops, right?"

"And if I did decide to start 'offing' people?"

Alastair hesitated, and the spirit's teeth were again exposed in a grin. "Worry not. My plans are my own, but I will tell you that there is no cause for you to concern yourself in that regard."

The disc hissed and sizzled as Azazel finished his task. After a final check to make sure the records were destroyed, Alastair bid farewell to Kolob and dismissed Azazel, who had pretty much done all the work he was going to under the terms of Alastair's hasty summoning. He returned to his body and did his best to remove all traces of his presence from the office. From there it was a simple matter of levitating back out the way he came in: even if he did trigger an alarm, they'd be looking inside for him, not outside. Twenty minutes later he was watching the sun rise from the deck of his rented suite.

Alastair smiled. He hadn't quite followed mission guidelines, but he'd destroyed the disc and whatever evidence was stored with it. Alastair had seen enough political manuvering by his father to know why Ian's cronies wanted the disc. Well, too bad for Ian, what he wanted and what he was getting were not the same. It would serve him right for interrupting Alastair's weekend plans. Another decades-old tune began to play in his head, this time from a group called the Rolling Stones. It was true; you couldn't always get what you want, but if you tried, sometimes, you'd get what you need.

(c) 2000 Lonnie McDowell. Used with permission.