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Freedom's Price

Part VII

"You have no idea how irksome this is going to be, Tyler."

Ironically, the first person Tyler tried to reach really had been killed in the four years since he'd last talked with her. The second had been a straight-up dead end, no use at all. At that point, Tyler did what he should have done right from the start; he consulted Melora's datafile. That had brought the ex-agent and Risa to Syclone, a well-known Motavian restaurant in the heart of the city. Jac Norbridge had been holding court there in the corner booth for seven years before Tyler had left LIM and he was still there now.

Put politely, Jac was a consultant, and for a man who didn't have an office he did quite well at consulting. The lithe-bodied beauty in skimpy but expensive clothing draped across one shoulder testified to that without even opening her mouth. So did the top-of-the-line Oldoran carbonsuit, woven with glittering titanium threads that gave the designer businesswear the defensive qualities a man who could afford five thousand meseta suits often needed. Like all Oldoran garb, it was tailored to perfection; though Jac was a well-fed two hundred and thirty pounds it only showed in his pudgy fingers and filled-out cheeks. Unlike Ham, he didn't have a powerful build beneath the excess weight; he was simply a soft and indolent man who avoided physical activity.

"If it was easy," Tyler said, "then we wouldn't have come to you. There's plenty of people in Camineet who can handle the easy jobs."

For all his fancy ways, Jac was a fixer, plain and simple. He brokered deals, whether it was something as small as a street thug looking to add more dangerous hardware to his stash, or as big as disposing of a whole cargo of stolen Trimate. His rep was that he could get nearly anything or anyone for a customer--for a healthy commission, of course. Tyler had dealt with him twice in the past and had to admit that Jac was good at his business, even though he was too greedy.

A Motavian waitress brought a pot of hot, heavily spiced coffee to the table. Like the rest of her race she was short, about a foot below average Palman height, covered in blue fur, and possessing a snoutlike beak rather than a nose and mouth. She was the youngest daughter of the family that ran Syclone, though rumors suggested that the Motavians were merely a front and that Jac Norbridge was the restaurant's real owner.

Jac poured, a light sheen of sweat coating his brow, then sipped the strong-tasting brew. Tyler recalled that traditionally a Motavian host always drank first as an assurance of good faith to his guests. He didn't know enough about Mota's history to talk about the custom's historical roots, but it seemed to fit Jac.

"Ahhh, that's good," the consultant sighed blissfully, the jeweled rings on his fingers glinting in the light. "I love the coffee here; they make it the way it was meant to be, not like the watered-down imitation we Palmans have inflicted on ourselves."

Tyler picked up his cup and sipped. He'd been here before when Jac had offered Motavian coffee; Melora had boldly tossed back half her cup and nearly scorched her throat from the powerful blend of spices that laced the already strong brew. While Motavians had nearly the same nutritional needs as Palmans, their palates were very different, producing some very unusual taste combinations. Jac, Tyler remembered, had laughed himself silly over the episode.

"You're certainly right," the fixer told them, "in saying that my skills are unique. The problem is, to trace one person who--"

Tyler cut him off with a raised hand.

"We already know that when Melora needed hard-to-find equipment or wanted to link up with top-flight people, she came to you." That much her datachip records had told him. Unfortunately, she hadn't specified whether or not she'd gone to Jac on this particular job. "We're not looking for just any hacker here; this one is definitely first-rate. Either you put her in touch with the gridrider, or she did it herself, face-to-face. If it's the former, then you have a way of contacting the person we want. If the latter, then the odds are you know about the personal association, at least from rumors about who's working with whom on this or that piece of biz and probably from more reliable sources."

Jac chuckled softly.

"Well, Tyler, I can't say that you're wrong."

"Then you know Melora's gridrider?" Risa asked.

The consultant ignored her for a moment, instead beckoning to the waitress. The Motavian girl brought over a large platter of appetizers: sliced sandworm, young ammonites with ambira sauce, octopus Tonoe, fried vegetable dumplings, and a half-dozen other offerings.

"Go on, help yourself," Jac offered, taking a dumpling onto his plate. "I always find it's easier to do business when my stomach isn't snapping at me, demanding to be fed."

The food was no doubt wonderful, but Tyler didn't take any. To tell the truth, he didn't like Jac; he found the man's urbane ways and attempts at charm to be too polished, artificial. He was trying to lull his customers into a good mood, feeling mentally relaxed from eating, so he could slip some outrageous demand past them. Risa sampled the appetizers, and after a moment Tyler decided to follow suit. There was no point in deliberately antagonizing the man, so long as he was aware of what Jac was doing.

"This is really good," Risa exclaimed.

"Ah, you like octopus, then?" Jac said with a sly smile.

"I figure anytime I'm eating and not being eaten it's a good thing," she replied without the slightest squeamishness. A flicker of displeasure crossed Norbridge's dace; undoubtedly he had been hoping to evoke the usual shock and disgust many people showed when first exposed to seemingly strange foreign delicacies. So much, Tyler thought, for one-upmanship.

"If we might get back to the business at hand?" he asked mildly.

"Of course, Melora's gridrider." Jac dipped an ammonite in the translucent white sauce and took a delicate bite to sample the flavor by. "Like I said, you're right; I do know whom Melora uses when she needs a real neon angel." He chuckled softly at that as if there was some joke only he got. "I could arrange a contact for you."

"Excellent; who is it?"

Jac waggled the first two fingers of his left hand back and forth at Tyler.

"Tut-tut, Mr. Jorran. I said that I could arrange a contact. At no point did I mention giving you a name."

"What?!" Risa exclaimed. "You're holding out on us?"

The fixer laughed heartily.

"Please, my dear, don't be so melodramatic. I don't have any assurances that the gridrider in question has any desire to talk with you. I could hardly put one of my clients in potential danger.

"If we were that much of a threat to them, then what's to keep us from getting the name out of you the hard way?"

Not the least disturbed by Risa's attitude, Jac replied, "I am quite capable of taking care of myself, my dear." His gaze flicked over her head to meet that of a burly Motavian bouncer who lingered in the background, a heavy two-handed axe slung across his back. "Besides which, if your intentions are peaceable, then why not simply allow me to arrange a meeting, as I offered?"

"Because time is a factor," Tyler said. "I do know, though, that you're not going to give up your commission for putting us together, so we'll play it your way for now."

"It's so good to meet a rational businessman," Jac said. Another flick of his eyes and the Motavian axeman visibly relaxed. He turned to Risa and said, "Do try one of the ammonites; they're especially good today."

"Shellfish make me puke," she growled.

"Well, suit yourself then. As to the business, I gather that you would like the meeting to be as soon as possible?"

"Today," Tyler stated flatly.

"The fixer's thick fingers drummed on the maruerawood tabletop.

"That is a bit less notice than I prefer. There are various factors to take into account and--"

Starting to get fed up with Jac's oily manner and thinly-veiled greed, Tyler cut him off in mid-sentence.

"Today," he repeated. "That's nonnegotiable. If you can't make it happen then we'll find someone who can."

"I suppose it can be arranged," Norbridge conceded. "It will cost, though."

"How much?"

"Two thousand meseta."

"Let's go," Tyler said to Risa and started to get up. Jac spoke quickly before he had gotten to his feet.

"Now wait, Tyler, be reasonable. I have to postpone deals that have been in the works for a while on your behalf. That's going to cost me."

Tyler wasn't in the mood to be reasonable, not with Melora's life on the line.

"I don't like being held up."

"That name," Jac observed, "is a marketable commodity. You may be able to find it elsewhere, but I have it now, and you did say that time was important to you."

"Urgency and importance aren't always the same thing." Of course, this problem was both urgent and important, but Tyler saw no point in telling Jac that.

"Whereas I'm not going to lift a finger if it's not worth my time to do so."

The two of them watched each other across the table, outwardly calm, faces expressionless. Jac's gaze flicked over to Risa, catching the nervousness that she was trying to hide.

"All right, then, Tyler. You make me an offer. What are you willing to pay me to broker this meet for you?"

"One K," he said. "Two hundred up front, the rest if you get it set up."

"Three-fifty up front. Your party may say no, and I do not intent to lose money on this affair."

Tyler studied the other man thoughtfully. He didn't know how far Jac was willing to push things. Norbridge didn't care in the slightest about Melora, Tyler, or anyone besides himself. He'd help because it was profitable; arranging contacts was part of his regular biz. The ex-agent didn't mind paying the going rate for services rendered; he just disliked being played for a fool.

Another thought crossed Tyler's mind then. Jac's fees were usually arranged on a percentage basis. That is, someone would offer a price for whatever job they needed help for, and the parties would bargain it out. Whatever they arrived at, Jac got a fee equal to a percentage of the hiring price, usually 5%. Since Tyler didn't necessarily want to hire Melora's gridrider, Jac had quoted him a flat fee instead--and if a thousand meseta was five percent, then the gridrider's average was around twenty thousand a job. For that kind of meseta, he or she had to be every bit the artist Ham had described.

Then again, who else was going to successfully run LIM's systems? The corporations weren't stupid; they found up-and-coming high-talent hackers and put them on the payroll designing security to stop their former colleagues. All the amateurs and hotshots got from a grid-dive against Luveno CompSec were busted systems, fried synapses, and occasionally jail time.

"All right," Tyler agreed. "Three-fifty up front." He took out two hundreds and three fifties, handing them over.

"Cash? How curious; I would have expected a credit transfer from a man like you. Untraceable, of course."

"A surprise now and the helps keep our lives from getting dull."

"Perhaps so. Now, how shall I contact you with the details of the meet?"

That was something Tyler had been thinking about for a while. Without a permanent base of operations or a portable visiphone, he was almost impossible to reach. He could have called Jac at regular intervals from public phones, but constant reminders like that could get aggravating for the fixer. A basic rule of biz was that you only went around getting people mad at you if you couldn't help it or you had a reason to want it that way.

"Do you know the Intra-Metro message board on the visiphone system?"

"I do."

"Leave a message, text only, telling me the time, place, and any conditions of the meet."

Jac nodded. "That will be easy enough. What names should I use?"

"Hmmm...make it to Alis from Odin."

The fixer laughed heartily at that.

"Ancient history, Tyler? I never knew you were so interested in the past."

Funny he'd mention that, considering that Tyler had been thinking of little but the past over the last couple of days.

"The way things are going, maybe invoking a few heroes will draw on a little divine aid."

Smirking, the fixer said, "Yes, from the looks of your coat you haven't had an easy time of it lately."

Tyler shrugged noncommittally, rising from his seat. Risa took the opportunity to wolf down one last piece of roasted crawler, then joined him.

"A pleasure doing business with you," Jac called out as they left.

"That's one sworm-kisser who really needs to be cut down to size," Risa muttered as they emerged from the quiet of the restaurant out onto the busy sidewalk. Skimmers, trucks, landcycles, and the occasional rover roared by them. Downtown Camineet didn't have the tense, watching-eyes feel of Neroton or the war-zone, urban wilderness atmosphere of Ossale Court, but it had an aura all its own. With people and vehicles rushing to and fro, the dazzle of color from electric-lit signs, it was a single living organism, generating titanic amounts of energy and expending just as much, never moving yet always in motion.

"He's as greedy as they come, I'll admit," Tyler noted. "He does his job, though, and he's in the best position to find that hacker for us."

He wondered where Melora was, and what she might be enduring right then. There was a chance her kidnappers might have only taken her to a more convenient location for murder, or that she had been killed trying to escape. For all Tyler knew, he was chasing the ghost of a dead woman.

"Besides," he said glumly, "we're short on leads."

Risa looked down at her boots, hands thrust into her jacket pockets. People moved around the two of them like a river flowing past a rock. The crowd seemed just as inanimate as water, too; they weren't a collection of individuals but one large, single entity. To it, the two people standing in their midst might not have existed.

"Tyler," the girl said quietly, "there's something I haven't told you."

That was, Tyler supposed, only to be expected. He looked up at a sky which had grown overcast since the morning and reflected that he'd been back in Camineet for less that twenty-four hours and he was already distrusting people, even those who were his friends and allies.

"What's that?" he replied, keeping the disappointment he felt out of his voice."

Risa looked up at him in surprise, his reaction not what she had expected.

"I--I saw the men who took Melora," she told him.

"You were there?" Tyler asked.

She nodded.

"Could we go somewhere a little more private?"

Mindful of the fact that neither one of them really had gotten anything to eat that morning, Tyler pointed to a small family-style diner.

"How about there?"

"Good enough."

The neighborhood was sufficiently upscale that Tyler's battered coat and Risa's street garb got a second glance from the hostess who seated them, but no more than that. Still, she guided them to a booth in the back, out of view of most of the customers, which suited Tyler perfectly. They put their conversation on hold while a civilian-model Polezi robot took their orders. Only after it had gone did Tyler mention the topic.

"Now, how did you come to see the kidnapping?"

"Most of what I told you was true. The only thing I lied about was me being there."

She toyed with her water glass.

"I went there to visit Melora. I wasn't invited; she's been like a big sister to me, though, so I've come and gone pretty much as I pleased over the last year. It's not like she does any real biz out of her home, just recordkeeping and some phone calls." She said it defiantly, as if daring Tyler to disbelieve her. He had no reason to, but he could see it from her point of view. The grubby street kid, maybe one step better than a typical ganger--no doubt Risa still had to convince herself now and again that she really was more than that--allowed to run tame in the home of a first-class ex-corporate agent? Yeah, there were people who wouldn't buy that scenario.

"Go on."

"I was coming up the street when two men brought Melora out of the building and loaded her into a landskimmer. She wasn't fighting, but she looked out of it, like she'd been drugged or frozen, something like that."

Tyler nodded in agreement.

"The 'drunk friend' routine is an old one, but effective, though it works better in public than at a person's home."

"There was already a driver in the skimmer; it started up and drove off before I could figure out a way to help."

She was clearly feeling guilty about it, too. Rationally, she probably knew there was nothing she could have done in time to stop the kidnappers from getting away, but that did nothing for gut-level emotions brought on by watching a friend kidnapped before her eyes.

"I went on upstairs, then; I knew Melora's door code. I wanted to, I don't know what I wanted. I guess I just went up because it was the only thing I could think of. That's when I saw the other two guys. They'd left her door open and had just started to look through the place. I shrank back into the alcove at the top of the stairs and tried to figure out a plan to ambush them, but then one of the other doors opens and this kid comes out. His eyes go all wide, he jumps back into his apartment, and the next minute I hear the alarm go off. The two skags run right past me to the elevator, and I beat it too, because I have a record for petty theft from when I was a kid. Cops see an open apartment, catch a girl with a rap sheet, and I can kiss my freedom goodbye."

"The police mind gets trained to accept easy suspects because most of the time that's who's guilty," Tyler agreed.

"I did get a good look at the two guys who were rifling the apartment, though, good enough so I'd know them if I saw them again. One was a real muscleboy--no shirt, just a leather vest and jeans so he could show off his build and his tan--with a bright green six-inch Mohawk. The other guy looked more like a corp wannabe, with a black suit, fibercoat like yours except it was black too, and black-lensed sunglasses."

"He sounds more like someone from an organized crime syndicate," Tyler commented, wondering if this business was about to get that much more complicated.

"Corp or cutter, he was a wannabe either way," Risa replied, cutting that line of thought off before it got anywhere. "If he was a syndicate goon, his boss would have gutted him rather than sending him out on a job wearing heavy boots like mine. Those skags keep a tighter dress code than the corps do."

"True enough."

They stopped talking for a moment while the robot server brought their orders. It set generous platters in front of each of them, then left efficiently.

"So why didn't you tell me about this before?" Tyler asked.

Risa picked up her sandwich, eyed it cautiously for a while, and took a bite. Knowing she was concentrating on the food to give her time to sort through her answer, Tyler didn't press the question. She'd speak up in her own time.

"I guess it's about trust," Risa decided. "One minute I'm trying to kill you, the next you're an ally--it's a little much. I mean, I believed you, but...well, you never know. So I held something back."

"And now?"

"Well, I don't know that I trust you any more than I did, but you're not a stranger."

Tyler liked the sound of that.

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