Shadow Reflections

by shapcano

The main thing about the shadows is they're dark. Wait a minute! I know that doesn't sound like a great revelation, but let me tell you how I found out what they look like from both sides. You might learn something. I did.

I've always thought of myself as somebody you wouldn't want to mess with. I'm an Ork. I stand about 6'6 and tip the scales at about 265, but all of it is muscle. (Well, maybe not all muscle but enough of it that I can do some damage if I have to.) I've also got some implants so that I'm more than I appear to be, but they really proved to be a necessity in the line of work I aspired to. You see, I'm a rigger. I've always had an affinity for machines and when I looked at possible career opportunities I chose chauffeur/bodyguard as a glamorous means of combining my physical attributes with my inclination for the mechanical. Of course, introducing myself as Itami Hanzo, professional rigger/chauffeur/bodyguard wasn't as simple a matter as it might have been if I'd been born with a System Identification Number.

See, me chummers an da go-gos in da plex wot I used ta hang wit, dint plaver no suit. So, soon's I chipped dat corpse need corpse jabber, an dat corpse got da Y's, I copped da cred fer de over an said adi-fraggin-os ta da kine talk. (You see, my friends and the motorcycle gang that I used to associate with didn't speak properly. When I learned that corporate employers expected proper grammar and intelligible pronunciation, and that they controlled the flow of nuyen, I absconded with sufficient credit to remedy my deficiencies in those areas and ceased to use the patois of my youth.)

With sufficient nuyen, anything is possible and so after years and operations and study, (plus the odd shadow excursion to help make ends meet) I eventually re-created myself as a chauffeur/bodyguard with my own Mitsubishi Nightsky. That is, it was my own on paper. Unfortunately the gang whose money I used to buy the car felt they had a greater right to it (and my life) than I did. They made this clear on the day I met my boss.

He's a handsome norm, a physical adept, who was in the midst of some elaborate scam when he first hired me. He was ridding in the back of the car when my old gang, the High Hats, caught up with me and started lobbing anti-tank grenades at my ride. He never got flustered or angry or upset. He said "they don't seem very happy with you". Just like that. Sharp suit boy in the back of my limo leans forward like he wants to talk about sports or nightspots or women and casually says "they don't seem very happy with you". Ten minutes later he's reviving me as he gathers up weapons from half a dozen dead High Hats by the light of my burning car. He mentions that they all had appointments in another plane of existence but he's sure they wouldn't mind if we took some of their toys.

He's like that all the time. He never raises his voice or threatens or blusters. He as calm as a mountain stream, but when he moves, he's faster than anything. In fact the same night he saved my hoop, he rescued the light of my life, Barbie. She was in danger of having her neck snapped by a dwarf who was wacked out on chips. The boss starts juggling. Yes, juggling. He has a bunch of drek in the air, including his shades, and when the Dwarf is distracted enough to loosen his grip, the boss pulls a squirter loaded with tranq and shoots the guy. Now this is chip truth, chummer. He caught his glasses, holstered his pistol, turned away and the dwarf hit the ground before the last juggled item did.

So, where was I? Oh, yeah. Each time he pulls one of these rescues he disappears before anybody can even say thank you. So this last time, (Yeah, he saved my hoop again) he went into the High Hat's Headquarters. By himself. Middle of the day. A clubhouse with like 50-60 hard cases who are already gunning for him. Pulls me out (they had grabbed me and were planning some real nasty revenge drek) and gets away with a big pile of the gang's creds, which he then proceeds to give away. Now, mind you, he doesn't know me from a hole in the ground. When the gang interrupted his ride, they were after me, so I already owe him, but he risks his life to save mine and is all set to disappear again when I come in to thank him.

Now here's the really weird part. I tell him that I owe him. That I know he risked a lot for me and that I want to repay him, whatever it takes. I tell him I'd take a bullet for him. He gets very quiet and solemn and looks me right in the eye. He didn't say anything, but, I don't know, he just accepts my offer. The way he did it, all of a sudden I know I've just made a commitment of honor and that he made a commitment to me by accepting my offer. I'm not expressing the emotions adequately, but, we exchanged something? Bonded? I became a vassal? I don't know, I just put my life at his disposal and he took it so seriously that I knew my life wouldn't be wasted. It's tough to explain, but he stopped being another guy and became the boss.

Well, as I mentioned, I do have some familiarity with the streets and the biz, so when he asked me to try to find a former associate who had disappeared, I jumped at the chance. This would be a snap. I'd prove to him that he hadn't accepted a lot of dead weight when he'd taken my pledge. After all, I know the shadows, right?

The thing is, when you're trying to hide, to blend in with the local color, the darkness of the shadows is an old friend. Even people you don't know will guard info about you when you hide in the shadows. (Of course, many of them will protect the info only until the price reaches a sufficiently high level, but still, they don't co-operate freely and that is some help) When you're looking, however, the shadows can be pretty miserable, and looking is what the boss asked me to do.

I was looking for another Ork. (That's another thing about the boss. You've never seen anybody less concerned with race or money or any of the accidental things that happen in your life.) I was looking because this slot, a sam named Gitya, had gone into hiding after providing the distraction for the boss to rip-off a Humanis chapterhouse. Well, the boss gives me a stick with 20k on it "for expenses" but I don't want to go waving creds around just on general principles. So I start off at Lefty's, a bar in the neighborhood where Gitya used to live, but I'm dressed down, displaying my Predator II rather prominently and I'm not throwing the cash around.

Lefty's is your typical neighborhood bar. You walk down a short flight of steps to find yourself in a long, railroad car style room. Dominating 1/2 the room is a long bar with a dingy foot rail and maybe two dozen stools. The tables along the wall also have high stools, but I know that's just because it's cheaper to buy one kind of seat, than for any other reason. The tables are empty because it's only mid afternoon and this place doesn't serve food. Behind the bar there are a couple of tenders working. Big, beefy orks with no necks and the kind of hands that have bleeding knuckles nightly. Behind the tenders there are beer taps, shelves of bottles and sports memorabilia. Instead of a trid set up in the corner, there is a reinforced stool. On top of that, reading some thick book is a Troll who I'm guessing is the bouncer. Trolls are big, but a Troll bouncer in a low rent neighborhood has to have more than size if he's going to do the job. As the Troll shifts on his stool, I catch a glimpse of the Wallacher combat axe at his belt. One showing signs of wear. Immediately, I get the idea, as I'm intended to, that I would just as soon not give him an excuse to pull that.

The bar smells like every other poorly ventilated neighborhood dive in the plex. The scents of spilled beer, sweat and cigarette smoke permeate everything. I grab a stool about 1/2 way down the bar, which puts me at the station of Harry Doyle. I learn this because Harry is a sociable kind of guy who doesn't have a lot to do and likes to chat. I light up a flick stick, order a draft and chat with him about the general kind of bulldrek that you talk to strangers about in a bar.

"So, haven't seen ya around here before" he mentions after about an hour of baloney.

"Yeah, new to da neighborhood. Used ta live over on da eastside, but I hadta move fer health reasons."

"Oh, yeah?" he asks idly tracing a star on the bar with his finger.

"No, little problem with some go-gos I used ta ride with. Like ta keep dat quiet, ya know."

"Hey, no sweat, chummer, just that Dave likes a heads up before the place gets warm"

"Dave?" I ask, and follow his thumb gesture to the bouncer in the corner.

"I don't figure them ta come lookin dis far away, but let me give ya this..." I hand across a card with my wristphone number on it and a script bill for 20 nuyen. "you gimme a call if ya see any High Hats in here and I'll give ya dat boy's twin bruddah."

In best bartender form, Harry gives me zero reaction as he slips cash and card into vest pocket.

Harry goes off to serve somebody else and I try to map my next moves. The trail for this Gitya slot is pretty cold, I mean weeks have gone by since his action with the boss so I figure when Harry gets back I can maybe mention him in conversation. I order another brew and when the bartender sets it down, I ask him about a guy who used to live around here. Now, I figure I'm being casual enough but within seconds I feel this giant stone baseball mitt on my shoulder and a this voice that sounds like its rising from the depths of the earth says

"The public library, the telecom provider and the news-media are all excellent sources for research. May I suggest that you avail yourself of the services they offer as healthy alternative to the course of research upon which you have presently embarked."(Yeah, lota tuskers kin plaver suit. Ya jus don see it on no trids all.)

Not being a mental slouch, I immediately realize three things. 1) My pal Harry has highsigned the bouncer, 2) The stone baseball mitt is actually the bouncer's hand and 3) I won't be getting any data out of this place because I am about to leave, either under my own power or with the aid of a well spoken Troll.

"Thanks, I was just leaving", I say as I stand up. Turning to find myself face to face with Dave's sternum, I swallow, continue turning and head out the door. Now, for those who are thinking I might have talked my way out of the confrontation or back into the good graces of the locals at Lefty's, let me say you are living in a fool's paradise. That's the way the shadows are. When I was getting covered by them, they were warm and friendly but once I disturbed them I became persona non grata. I'd made a false step with the way I brought up the subject and was immediately pegged as an outsider and was sent away. Remembering the stains on Dave's ax I was actually grateful that his advice wasn't more physical, but I knew that I wouldn't be getting any data from Lefty's.

It was still early and only my first day of searching, so rather than let my problem at Lefty's get me down, I decided to look for other likely places to run down data. Noticing National Pawnbrokers just up the street I decided that a local fixer might be just the ticket. How did I know I would find a fixer at a pawnshop? They go together like shadows and secrets.

From the first time somebody with a few extra pennies decided to take advantage of his neighbor's misfortune, Pawnshops have existed in the shadows. Think about it. The pawnbroker loans you a pittance and holds something that has greater value as security in the hopes that you won't be able to return the loan in time and he will get to sell your family treasure. Does that even sound like a completely legitimate enterprise? How big a step is it from waiting for someone to gamble a momento or a memory against the immediate need for cash and "arranging" for the disposal of valuable items. Pawnbrokers were always fences for hot goods and the awakened world just gave them more opportunities to make a living in the crack between the straight world and the underworld. They're a lot like cockroaches.

Do I sound bitter? Well, maybe if you'd seen your ma pawn off pieces of her soul to those leaches to try and feed her family.....Aw, frag it. Old data. Anyway I swallowed my bile and walked under the three balls to enter the shop.

"You will place your weapons in the box before entering this shop" said the tinny voice over the intercom. I had walked through the front door into a clear Plasteel box and I wasn't going anywhere until I complied with the instruction. With as much good grace as I could muster I surrendered my Predator II, my Czeka vz/120 and my Lightfire 70 along with most of my blades. The scanner must have cleared me because the inner door buzzed open and I was able to enter the pawnshop.

"Whadaya want?" The clerk sounded as thrilled to see me as I was to be here.

"Data" I replied.

"Inna back" he said jerking a thumb towards a partially open door at the rear of the shop.

That wasn't so tough, I thought as I walked through the door.

Twenty minutes later, I woke up with a splitting headache fastened to a chair in an empty room, with soundproof panels on the walls. I began to reconsider my appraisal of what was and was not tough. In addition to the pain and embarrassment, another thought about the shadows came to me. Not only are they good for disappearing in yourself, but they are tailor made for you to make other people disappear in too. Even if those people are good guys like me.

"You will tell me what data you are seeking." the same tinny voice that had admitted me said. I gave him big points for not finishing the statement with an 'or else'. I quickly hit on a line that was close enough to the truth without dropping my hoop in the drek.

"I'm not seekin nothin. My boss is looking for somethin. An before ya ask, it's an ork sam from aroun here wot disappeared a couple a weeks ago."

"You will tell me why this samurai disappeared"

That wasn't the question I was expecting. "Who is this sam?", or "why does your boss want him?" where the obvious questions, but I guess the world looks different to a cockroach.

"He was avoiding trouble, and now dat da danger is past, my boss wants him ta know it's safe fer him ta come outta da dark. My boss is real particular about what happens ta da folks dat work fer him. He always checks if dey disappear." This last was a pretty obvious ploy, even to me, but I didn't want this guy to decide it was easier to eliminate me because I was working alone.

"You will tell me what your boss is offering for the data you seek."

I noticed that he didn't say he had it, just that he was curious about the price range. "He left that in my hands. I might be willing to go 500......" When this drew no reaction I said "Maybe a thousand for something really valuable....."

"You will tell me why you had so much on your person if you are only willing to offer....."

I interrupted the tinny voice "Excuse me, I didn't realize I was dealin wit somebody big enough ta steal from my boss. If I......"

"STEAL?! There is no stealing! No one is stealing! Why do you say this stealing?"

"Well, I was attacked, I am being restrained and if ya know how much I had, (you did say had, didn't ya?) If ya know, it must be cause you've taken it and dat's like stealin, ain't it?"

Immediately the room was plunged into absolute darkness. This was either very good or very, very bad. I heard movement behind me and even my cybereyes couldn't tell what was going on back there. I heard the clatter of equipment dropped to the right of my chair and as the muzzle of a large caliber weapon against my temple kept me perfectly still, the binding holding my right arm to the chair was cut. Again I had to give the guy big points for avoiding the melodramatic lines about my next move being my last. The hand cannon at my temple delivered the message quite plainly.

When the weapon and my interrogator were out of the room, and the lights came back up, I leaned over and fished a stiletto out of the gear pile. As soon as I had sliced through the binders on my other arms and legs the tinny voice said:

"You will check to see that no credits are missing from your sticks. That there has been no stealing."

As I checked the sticks I made a mental note about using the phrase "stealing" with fixers. It had certainly rattled this guys cage. "It's all here......."

"You will go now."

"But I thought we might do some biz......"

"You will go now." <Click-Clak>

One of the few advantages of growing up in a really bad neighborhood is that you learn to use all of your senses. Semtex has a distinctive smell even before it is detonated. Seeing how quickly someone charges can give you a read on how much damage they intend to do. Once you've heard a round being chambered in an AK-97 it is impossible to mistake the sound for anything else. I gathered up my stuff and headed for the door that swung open in front of me.

In the ally behind the pawnshop I re-equipped myself while muttering that this search was not starting out well.

I wandered around, trying to familiarize myself with the area, which was how I encountered the 88's. Apparently the go-gang "owned" this turf, because they were pretty blatant about following me around. I turned up a side street when the trio behind me and the pair coming towards me all veered in my direction. Of course, this was precisely what they intended me to do because I suddenly found myself facing four others. The leader was actually standing in front of his bike and flexing the biceps that were uncovered by his sleeveless jeans jacket "colors". I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing out loud when he collapsed the beer can into his head. Does he really think this display is gonna scare me? I thought to myself.

I mean, it's not like I've been around the world or anything, but really, even I thought this "Me strong, you scared" approach lacked a little finesse. Besides, I worked for a guy who could personally dismember each of these clowns without breaking into a sweat and he never even raised his voice. How obvious does real power need to be?

Now, I knew there were a limited number of ways to play this. Any reaction to the leader meant a confrontation, and I'd already had two of those, so I just ignored the display entirely. Focusing on a bike I said"

"Wow, chummer. Dat's wiz. I'd a never extended da forks on da yam. I seen dat on da Harley, Triumph, even on a Indian, but I figured da rice grinders......"

"Yer fulla drek! Where'd you see a Indian?" This from a short norm male with three strips of different colored hair running down his tattooed scalp.

"Dis chummer a mine. He knew dis guy. Slot wasn't exactly a suit, but he done some skull work fer S-K and walked away wit da big chunk a cred. He's dis wannabe, see, an he's usin da cred ta buy up scooters. Well, he sez he wuz workin wit dis finder......"

When I was learning how to speak properly, I read a lot of books. Books on any subject. One of the books I read by a guy named Campbell talked about the importance of oral tradition in primitive societies. It never meant much to me before, but it struck me at that moment that as long as my story kept these bikers entertained, I was safe. The reverence for the oral tradition would keep me inviolate until the tale ended. I spent the next 20 minutes creating the story of how I saw a bike that was a legend 60 years ago. When I'd gotten to the end of the story I launched into the cautionary tale of the sissy bar and the ruined Vincent suspension and when that was done I'd earned enough slack to let somebody else talk.

"So wot ya called, Omae?" asked the short norm

"Itami" I replied "And you?"

"Da slot wit da glasses is Joshua, dis is Boomer, da Halfer's named Gizmo, da slitch's name is Jackie...."

"Watch who ya call a slitch, pumpkin head" interrupted the norm female with the nose studs and eyebrow rings.

"Aw, frag you. My name's Pyro, da tree behind ya are Max, Shultz and Clem and da big fella here is Chun. He's da boss."

I nodded to each ganger as I learned their names and sketched the nod into a bow for the gang leader. His voice was surprisingly high when he finally spoke.

"Nice heat. Lemme see it."

I knew this was a test to see if I was ready to fight with him over who was the bigger dog. I didn't hesitate. I pulled the Predator II and handed it to him butt first. As he reached up for it I thumbed the clip release and caught the ammo before it hit the ground. Casually, but obviously, I hooked my hand in my belt next to the Czeka. I'd done what he'd wanted without a squirm, but I'd also let him know that I wasn't going to lie down under his wheels.

As Chun pretended to test the weapon's balance I caught glances from the other 88's that acknowledged I hadn't flunked the first test. I was certain there would be others.

"Good gun. Wanna sell?"

"Drek man, if I was as big as you maybe I could walk da streets wit just a light pistol. As it is it'd be like sellin ya my pants."

"I'll buy yer pants" offered Jackie with a leer that had everybody laughing and even made Chun smile.

"Hell, if you find someplace less public, I might give em' to ya". My response got bigger laughs.

"Yeah, da pant's ain't really of use ta me, it's what yer packin in em dat I wanna see."

Oooooooooo's from the crowd.

"Packin in em.......? But ya can see Chun's got my biggest artillery. What's left, won't hardly kill nuthin." I topped the laughter that followed this confession with "Wouldn't even hurt."and waggled my eyebrows. This brought more laughs and Chun signaled the test was over when he handed me back my pistol.

I reloaded as Chun was asking

"So wot ya doin......." Because my predator was in my hand I was the first to return fire when the dozen bikes roaring up the street began shooting at us. Someone yelled "FRAGGIN CATS!" over the sounds of automatic fire. My smartlink gave me the green light on the lead rider before he could fire the grenade launcher on his M22A2 assault rifle. I tagged him with two in the chest and as the recoil raised the barrel, my third round caught him in the face. It was a lucky shot, but if the stupid punk hadn't been trying to fire the undermount on his assault rifle, he would have been able to steer when my first slug hit his body armor.

Since I was the only one from my side shooting, there was no question that it was my kill. I say kill, because with most of his head blown off, the dead rider began falling from his bike while his assault rifle emptied on full auto. I saw the biker next to him go down from the M22's fire before I ducked behind a parked car.

Without there leader, the Cats, whoever they were, didn't seem as anxious to continue the firefight. They slowed their bikes and fired their SMG's from long range. I thought they had lost their will to fight, right up until the sniper round from the roof went through my thigh. Before I could really focus on the pain my instincts took over and as soon as my smartlink bullseyed the silhouette on the roof, I emptied my clip into him. When his lifeless hand dropped the sniper rifle to the street, I began screaming at the pain.

I wanted to reload, hell, I wanted to pass out, but if you give yourself that luxury too early you never wake up. I pulled the belt out of my pants and put a tourniquet on my leg, against the slug having severed an artery, slammed a new clip into the butt of my PredatorII and then screamed again.

I hate getting shot. It's only happened to me a couple of times, but I really hate it. It scares me and it hurts so fraggin much! I've thought about a pain editor. I know it would keep me quieter and more dignified if I do catch a bullet, but I always seem to find some other way to spend the money. Then I get tagged and I swear the next wack of creds I put together is gonna keep me from ever feelin like this again.

I laid on my back, my feet against the curb and peeked out from under the back of a parked car. The Cats had been waiting for their sniper to take his toll before they rode us down, but now their sniper was ready for a dirt nap and they were drawing return fire from the 88's who were stationary but behind cover. I aimed at the best target I could think of and blew up the gas tank on one of the Cats' bikes. Whether it was the rider's fiery death or the knowledge that the numbers had suddenly turned against them, the Cats decided to abort their attack and vamoose. I moved the wrong way and the pain in my leg was so intense that I screamed as everything went black.

When I came to I was laying on a cot in a dark room. I gritted my teeth as I waited for the waves of pain from my leg to wash over me, but I didn't feel any agony. After a brief moment of thanks I began examining myself to find out why. My pants were missing, but my leg was healed. I felt around and judged that the sniper round must have gone straight through my thigh and sometime after I had passed out in pain I must have been seen by a spell worm who healed the wound. All of my weapons and credsticks were still with me and again, I realized that this was the kind of thing that happened in the shadows. I had fought well enough that the gang had taken me as one of their own, at least to the extent that they had gotten me medical help and had not robbed my unconscious body. Before the firefight there was a very real possibility that they would kill me themselves, but after I had fought with them, I was treated with the respect of a member of the gang.

Unfortunately, the spell that healed my leg did nothing for the egg shaped lump on my head that I had gotten from the pawnbroker. When I moved too quickly it throbbed and I groaned as I sat up. Immediately a troll woman wearing an incredible amount of jewelry came into the darkened room.

"Don't yew be runnin aroun jest yet, mon. De gris-gris need time."

Without any further explanation she approached the bed and began running her hands over my thigh. Now, I'm a normal guy and well....uh, I guess I had a kind of normal guy reaction to having my thigh felt by a strange female in a dark room. The troll just chuckled and said

" Ah, now I see why Erzulie smile on me connaissance, mon. But still it be too soon you make dis offer to de Mambo. You get you some rest, den you come back we see what we see, okay?"

Even though I could tell she was smiling as she said it, I was a little embarrassed, but I was glad that she took it in stride. I haven't known a lot of spell worms and I don't know anybody involved with Voudoun, but she seemed very.... I don't know, not nice exactly but worldly wise enough to be forgiving.

She stood up and said "De 88's gonna take you outta here, shooter mon. Dey got debt to you for killin de Top Cat main mon, Breeze. I tink maybe de Top Cats also be wantin some payback, mon. You watch yer hoop, you bring it back to Mama Tambo, cher. We make different kind gris-gris."

Before I could say anything she was gone and the 88's started coming into the room.

"Hoi, deadeye, how ya feelin?" "Fancy shootin, Omae." "Hoi, shooter, nice to have ya back"

Then Jackie rather dramatically asked "Wanna buy some pants?"

Everybody got silent for the exchange, but honestly, my brain wasn't movin fast enough yet. When I muttered "uh.....yeah." Pyro came to my rescue.

"Aw, give him a break, will ya? Son of a slitch took out four Cats and caught a bullet. He wakes up an ya expect him ta play word games wit ya?"

"Who da frag asked ya, Pumpkin head? I'm talkin ta tall dark an deadly, not ta you. Mind yer own fraggin biz or......."

"Ya call me pumpkin head again, slitch, an yer gonna be carryin yer teeth in yer pocket..."

"Ya call me slitch again......"

"Shut up, before I slap the drek outta both a ya" Chun said. He then turned to me an said "Nice work wit da pistola. Jackie, give 'em back da pants sos we can get outta here."

Jackie reluctantly gave me back my pants, but didn't turn away as I pulled them on. I shrugged and after a few minutes I was ready to move. I stepped out of the storefront to see both a Honda Viking and an old Suzuki Aurora along with a pile of weapons and ammo. I looked up as Pyro explained:

"Hey, spoils of war, bro. You iced em, dis drek is yours."

I recognized that I had stumbled into another test. Every ganger was completely focused on what I would do next. I checked the ammo pile and found a couple of clips that would work in my Predator II. I also pulled an Ingram 20t and the ammo for it and considered the rest of the pile. Although I could use one of the leather jackets, I knew enough about ganger etiquette to simply spit on them. They were, after all the enemies colors. I then sat down on the Viking and turning to Chun said "I can't carry all a dis drek. Would ya gimme a hand?"

Although his eyes lit up, Chun was nonchalant as he sauntered over to Breeze's M22A2 assault rifle and after a moment's thought, picked it up. He then tossed the Ruger 100 that had made a hole in my leg to Clem, and quickly dispensed the rest of the arsenal to the gang. They reacted with the oohs of kids at Christmas. When the equipment pile had been distributed he said "What ya want fer de Aurora?"

I shrugged and said "I can't ride both bikes. Take it in trade fer da healin?"

Chun gave me a nod that said it was good form to offer but said "Line a duty. Healin pays our side. Ya don't owe fer dat."

I asked "Ya got any doubles could maybe help me out?"

Every eye was focused on Pyro who was desperately trying to hold himself in check. After a few minutes Chun said "Pyro! Looks like ya lucked out.....pumpkin head. Ya got a ride. Don't frag it up."

Gang etiquette prevented Pyro from thanking either Chun or myself but the gratitude was there all the same. When he pulled some gear off of Jackie's bike, I understood more about why they played so rough with each other.

We rode together back to the warehouse that the gang called home. Over dinner Chun asked me what I was doing in his territory. The same question a few hours earlier might have meant life or death for me, but since I had been wounded fighting the 88's enemies, it was now just a point of information. Having already blown it twice, I was not about to tell him I was looking for somebody. Instead I created a story where I was on the run.

"Dis street Sam is after me." I said. "He's been after me fer a while. Weeks. I was over on da eastside but it got a little warm so, since he was from around here, I figured it'd be da last place he'd look fer me ta be hidin out."

"Smart" Chun acknowledged. "Dis slot got a name?"

"Yeah, Gitya. Ork."

"Why's he after ya?" Pyro chimed in, trying to be sociable.

The look that both Chun and I gave him would have stopped a clock. Finally I said "Biz" and let the subject drop. Pyro looked like he wanted to sink into the ground.

Chun yelled "Listen up! Any a you slots know some fragger name a Gitya? Ork sam."

"Yeah, I know him." Jackie said coming forward. Pyro was walking away when he threw back "a course. She knows everybody." Which got him some chuckles and a single finger salute from Jackie. Before she could go after him, Chun said "Whatya know?"

"I seen him aroun. Little bigger dan Shooter, not so good lookin. Went underground a couple a weeks ago. Ain't seen nothin of him. Right after he ducked out there was some fraggers come lookin fer him. Bad mothers. Word was dey took out old Mrs. Haddad and den burned down da building ta cover dere tracks."

Having gotten me some data, Chun apparently felt his duty was done because he wandered off. Jackie looked at me as though waiting for something.

"Thanks." I said, "Anything else?"

"Not that I can think of. Maybe if ya helped me refresh my memory....."

"Whaddaya mean?" In retrospect, sometimes I can be extremely dense.

"Well, I might have some stuff in my room dat I could look through....."

"Yeah?" Like I said, dense.

"Ya wanna help?" she asked.

"Sure" Solid lead is more permeable.

As I heard the lock on the bedroom door click, it finally dawned on me how I was going to refresh Jackie's memory. I just hoped the boss would appreciate my sacrifice.

The next four days felt like I had gone back in time a dozen years. Suddenly I was a 16 year old probationer with a go-gang again. I was learning rules, constantly being tested and generally getting to know my way around. Jackie's enthusiastic attention was real flattering (exhausting, but real flattering) and because she and Pyro were both in my corner, they seemed to be getting along better. The other gangers either sought my advice on tech matters and wanted to hear more stories. The only negative involved my relationship with Chun. The gang leader didn't want another hoop kisser but at the same time didn't want anybody strong enough to challenge him for control of the group. I'd proved my ability with a pistol, (in fact, my name had been changed to Shooter), I brought a good amount of mechanical expertise and I did have more experience in a lot of areas than Chun, all of which he both wanted and hated. It was strange but the more comfortable I got, the less comfortable he was.

Eventually I realized that I wasn't getting any closer to the conclusion of my mission and that being a big wheel in a go gang was an ambition I had outgrown a long time ago. I started pursuing leads on Gitya.

After some research and a lot of asking around I found that Gitya's lover, a norm male named Thomas was still in the area. I tracked him down and went for a talk.

I've met some average Joe's in my time, but when he opened the door to his apartment, I thought I'd stepped into some sort of vid. This guy was incredibly ordinary. Average height, average weight, average features, average sounding. I had seen some of the highs when I had my limo and some of the lows, well, hell, I came from the lows, but this guy was bland? whitebread? average that I actually had trouble focusing on him. I found myself looking for things in his apartment (also incredibly ordinary) that I could use as a topic for conversation. Nothing. It was like I had suddenly stepped into some Corp's matrix model of "the consumer" instead of the home of a flesh and blood man. Spooky.

It also left me at wit's end for how to introduce my questions. I guess I kind of mentally threw up my arms because I broke one of the cardinal rules of interrogation, and showed the guy my hand before we started to play.

"Look, Thomas. I won't jerk you around. My boss worked with Gitya a couple of weeks ago. Then Gitya went into hiding. My boss has been concerned because the danger is over and Gitya hasn't resurfaced. He's asked me to see if I could find him and make sure he doesn't need anything, or to at least get word to him that he can come out. I've been trying, but the shadows are closed pretty tight, I guess because some of the folks looking for him earlier were hard cases, but whatever the reason, I haven't had much luck. Can you help me?"


That was it. No. Delivered in a monotone without any other reaction. I started to wonder if I was dealing with some kind of robot, but there was such finality about his delivery I shrugged, got up and headed for the door. That's when Thomas' humanity broke through.

"And you can tell your boss that he's a low down scum bag!" He yelled at my back. I stopped and turned as he continued. "That he's got no soul, no humanity, that he will burn in hell and I hope he gets there soon! You say he's concerned. MY HOOP! If he was so fraggin concerned, why's he put Gitya in danger in the first place? If he's so concerned what has he been doing all these weeks while my Gitya has been running, hiding, maybe wounded or sick or starving or captured....." At this point the guy was openly weeping and I felt like total drek. I couldn't say a word and this guy who I was thinking was a robot just a moment earlier was showing me that his heart was broken and he couldn't keep the pain in anymore.

<sob> "It's just fine that he sends an errand boy around after weeks of ignoring the problem. Now he can say 'Well, I tried' but what good does that do now? I've been worried sick every moment of every day and I haven't heard a single word....." The tears were really rolling now and I felt lower than a snake. "but I don't matter in this, it's Gitya, my poor brave Gitya that's disappeared.... that I can't help or even reach..... Don't you dare look at me like that, errand boy! You don't have the right to share my grief and I don't want your motherfragging pity! You tell that heartless bastard that sent you that I pray daily for his ruin. That if there's any justice in the universe he'll get to share the misery he causes. Now get the frag out! GET OUT!"

Whoa. There's another thing about the shadows that I hadn't really focused on before. It's real easy to pull a trigger. A lot of the time that's the only choice you have. But every time you do, you take away somebody's child or parent or lover or friend. A few days earlier I'd killed 3 people and caused the death of a fourth. Who were they? How many Thomases had I created when I'd pulled the trigger? I sat down on the steps of the building, lit a flickstick and put my head in my hands. Drek. I'd been running the shadows on and off for a dozen years. Generally I wasn't the one who started the gunfight, but I'd still been part of an awful lot of them. Was this the kind of drek I left in my wake?

As I sat there feeling like dogshit the apartment building door opened behind me. It was Thomas. The tears were still running down his cheeks but he thrust a stack of photos at me and said "I'm .......I'm sorry. I didn't mean........ please, find Gitya. Please." Then he ducked back inside.

For the next three days I ran down leads from the photos. Some had notes on the back. A lot of them had dates. Once I figured the location and the date I was able to flash the photo and ask about the people in it. I used every ruse I could think of. I was a private investigator, I worked for Lone Star, I was searching for my brother, I was a lawyer with inheritance money, I was a bounty hunter, a bailbondsman, a repo man, a shadowteammate. Nothing. I spread money, I threatened, I wheedled, I cajoled. It made no difference.

Meanwhile the 88's were growing less enamored of me. Jackie wanted more attention, Gizmo wanted help with the bikes, Pyro and the other's wanted to hear stories or get advice and Chun wanted to establish in everyone's mind that he was the alpha of the pack. In my desire to complete my assignment, I ignored all of these warning signs and continued following my scanty leads. I let it be known that I was offering substantial nuyen for data on Gitya.

When the blowoff finally came, I have to admit that I wasn't as prepared as I should have been. I'd come back from another disappointing day of lying to people while investigating Thomas' photos to find the 88's waiting for me. There was no preparation, no warning, I was just surrounded while facing Chun.

"Well Shooter, another day out, huh? You have a wiz time?" The gang leader asked.

"I had some biz." I replied. "Problem?"

"Pyro, you're Shooter's good chummer. Splain to em what bein a 88 means."

Pyro looked at me like a stranger and said "If yer an 88, ya got no biz cept 88 biz an Chun tells ya what that is......."

Before he could continue Jackie jumped in with "...An if ya ain't double oct, wot da frag ya doin here?"

As unprepared as I was for the showdown coming this quickly, I'd been through this before. I looked directly at Chun and asked "so it's over?" When I got no response I started walking away. Clem looked like he was going to contest it but I told Chun in a voice as serious as death "He's makin a mistake." and then waited. After the longest thirty seconds of my life Chun said "Let da fraggin tusker run if he's dat yella". Maybe it was my conversation with Tommy, or working for the boss or maybe I'm just getting old, but I didn't even hesitate at the insult. I pushed through the circle and headed back into the street.

The blowoff with the 88's meant my search was almost done. Not because I was any closer to completing my mission of finding Gitya, but because I wasn't going to be allowed to hang around that much longer. The Top Cats weren't happy with me for killing Breeze, Thomas didn't like me cause I worked for the boss, Wo Fat, the fixer from National Pawnbroker, didn't like me for the stealing remark, and Lefty's thought I was some sort of narc. There were also dozens of people in the neighborhood who I had told different stories to, who would eventually compare notes and decide I was enough trouble to inform on if anybody hostile came looking. On top of that, I had the 88's who felt mortally insulted that I hadn't accepted their offer of membership, including Chun who wanted to prove he was tougher than me and Jackie who wouldn't forgive me for failing to fall in love with her.

I was getting depressed about all of the people who wanted to see my blood and feeling a little sorry for myself. I'd stumbled into another truth about life in the shadow world. It can change in a minute. I mean, when I was with the 88's, the Top Cats, Wo Fat, the slots at Lefty's and even Thomas were minor problems because I had a solid base to work from. Once that was taken away, all of the others shifted to major concerns because I had no place to go for protection. Suddenly, no one was watching my back. If you've ever had a run go bad, you know exactly what I'm talking about when I say that in the shadows you can go from great to awful in the time it takes to snap your fingers.

About the only person I had met in the past week who didn't hate my guts was Mama Tambo. With no place else to go I decided to stop by her place and at least tell her thank you before I was driven away or iced. Remembering her fondness for jewelry I stopped at shop and looked for some trinket for her. I saw a nice set of earrings in silver with turquoise stones and then got a matching bracelet. It felt like the right thing to do.

When I walked through the front door of the storefront of Mama Tambo's home/shop/church, (I later learned it's called a honfour) I remembered how much magic scares me. This also wasn't you shaman-casting-healing-spells-or-fireballs kind of magic either. This was like religion and worship and souls stuff and it scared the piss out of me. The guy in the front room, old skinny norm with milky eyes said nothing when I came in but a few minutes later Mama Tambo swept into the room.

"Ah, de shooter come to pay de debt to de Mistress a Love. Is good to see you, cher."

"Mama Tambo, I just come back ta thank ya. I've pissed off da 88's an I don't want trouble ta follow me, but I needed to tell ya thanks before I get run off......"

"De hell you say, cher. You come into me parlor an tell de troubles."

I probably should have waved it off and kept going, but I'd been on my own with this assignment for long enough that I really wanted to talk to somebody out loud about it. I couldn't call the boss, I just wanted to bring him the completed assignment, not to whine about how tough it was. I didn't know/trust anybody I could think of that I could tell this stuff to and there was something about the troll that just, I don't know, it just felt right to do what she said and come talk to her.

When I stepped into the parlor, I suddenly had second thoughts. You ever been someplace where you know you're insignificant? I've driven some corporate big wigs and I've had the feeling before. The environment is not hostile, exactly, it's just focused on much more important things than what you want or think. If you're lucky you just become a witness, if you're unlucky....well, just say that the feeling is like "please DON'T notice me". Mama Tambo's parlor was like that. I guess she must have seen it in my face because at the threshold she took my hand and said:

"Now, now, now, cher, you got no need for de fear. Me mait tete already smile on you. De Loa no gonna bring you harm. You sit, tell Mama Tambo all you trouble."

So I did. It felt really good to unburden and I must have talked for two hours about my boss and my search, the 88's, Thomas' grief and my feeling about the shadows. At the end I hadn't changed anything but at least somebody else had heard the tale. Finally I said:

"So, it looks like I'm outta here widout havin done da job, but I had ta say thanks and" pulling out the jewelry, I said "I brought you these......."

The hair stood up on the back of my neck as Mama Tambo suddenly changed. I don't mean she transformed or anything, at least not physically.... damn, it's so tough to describe. She was sitting there looking at me and nodding. Then all of a sudden her head dropped forward and when she looked up, suddenly she was gorgeous. I mean there was something there that hadn't been there a minute before. The look she gave me, wow! Barbie, the light of my life, works at a pretty nice joyhouse. There are joygirls (and joyboys too for that matter) who can just become incredibly sensual and desireable and sexy because they get into a frame of mind that shines through everything they do. Well, none of them could hold a candle to Mama Tambo at that moment. She was the most desireable woman I had ever seen. My body reacted and, well, afterwards Mama Tambo told me that:

"De Mistress of Love accepted de gift you offer dis time an de gift you offer last time...... Oh, cher, you blushin like de school girl."

I stammered something and started to get dressed when she said

"You show Mama Tambo de image of de boy you lookin for. Maybe we make gris-gris with Ghede an learn if he in da land of de dead."

Now, I'd had enough magic to last me quite a while, but you don't contradict a Mambo in her own Honfour. I handed over the pictures and sat quiet, but I was really uncomfortable. Mama Tambo explained that her hounsis (assistant) would serve as the Cheval (person mounted or possessed by the Loa). I don't like to talk about what happened next. I wasn't a follower and it profanes something I don't really understand to try to describe what happened. (If you went to a Church, or a Synagogue or a Mosque and saw an angel or were in a Buddhist temple when a bodhisattva manifested, you'd know what I mean about profaning the experience by describing it).

After the installe (possession) I knew that Gitya was dead. He'd stumbled into an organlegger team posing as expediters who could move "hot" individuals out of town undercover. They'd doped his food, cut him up for parts and solid his cyberware. I wouldn't be bringing happy news back to the boss, and now I knew I would also have to tell Thomas. I'd like to think that I would have had the guts to bring Thomas the news anyway, but when the Cheval named it as the service I had to perform I knew that I didn't really have a choice.

As I made my way to Thomas' apartment it hit me that I'd gotten the answer I was looking for from somebody who I'd met a full week ago. I thought about it but it didn't seem unique to the world of the shadows that the answer might be right under your nose but you never see it until you look there. I guess that's true everywhere. I rang the apartment buzzer.

In a way, Thomas was actually relieved that it was over. It wasn't the answer he was hoping for, but at least he wasn't still waiting for word that would never come. He cried a lot and I held him for a while and in the end he thanked me for finding the answer and bringing back the photos of his true love. He even smiled when I delivered the message I had been given. It was a sad smile, but I think he started coming to terms with what had happened. I don't know why, but I felt closer to Gitya too. Thomas gave me a portrait photo of Gitya. I keep it with me. I showed it to my boss when I told him the story. He cried too.




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