The 10:18 Metro-Link was on time, which took Redflare by surprise. Not its punctuality; Camineet's mass-transit trains were partly under the aegis of Mother Brain, and when the incredibly advanced AI that was Palm's chief executive took charge of something, it worked. Even in the slums of Ossale Court, fresh water and reliable power were available (to those who paid their bills or did some creative tinkering with the lines) and the trains ran on time.
No, the train had caught the street magician off guard because his mind had been on the station instead of his wrist chron, scoping out the concrete-walled block from his vantage point midway down the stairs and not liking what he saw. The Camineet Transit Company security robots were upstairs on the other side of the turnstiles, there to protect the ticket clerk--and his money--rather than seeing to the comfort and safety of the passengers. Anyone on the platform below could work out their own problems amongst themselves.
What bothered Redflare was the presence of too many other people there with him, seven in all. Four wore the green headbands and blue jackets that marked them as members of the Wild Riders, a street gang whose turf was the train system, at least those parts it wasn't profitable to kick them out of. The gangers, three boys and a girl all about seventeen years old, had been talking together in low, angry voices. From the occasional dark glances they shot across the station they were trying to decide what to do about the other occupants of the waiting room. Redflare sympathized; he was trying to work out pretty much the same thing.
It had taken Redflare all of two seconds to mark the three who were the cause of so much agitation as gunjacks, street muscle. They didn't have the polish or bearing of hunters or mercenaries, and with the weapons they carried they sure as hell couldn't be anything else. The thin one in the ratty fibercoat had a short sword at his belt and a cheap sonic gun, a one-hit wonder, shoved into his waistband, the second 'jack could have had pretty much anything under his full-length duster, and the third was carrying a broadaxe slung over his back in clear violation of city law. Not, Redflare reflected, that anyone bothered to enforce those laws in Ossale Court. He didn't think it was likely the three were there for a Petty Thug's Night on the Town; chances were they were going to stick their noses into his business.
That was how far Redflare had gotten when the train pulled into the station, hissing to a stop in front of the platform. The gunjacks, who hadn't even seen him yet, immediately moved towards the opening doors, reaching for their weapons while Redflare's party stepped off the train. He had a couple of seconds' edge on them, because he was looking for Dace Maxwell and Isis while the 'jacks had to wait to see the woman the team was escorting, who got off behind them, before taking action. Even so, they were moving while Redflare stood around flatfooted, letting cheap muscle show more professionalism than he did.
Then again, he wasn't a professional hunter, and the gunjacks' quick move might not have been the good idea it had seemed. While Ashlyn Dumont looked like she wanted to jump back on the subway at the sight of drawn blades, the Wild Riders had an entirely different reaction, sort of a "Who the hell are you to pull steel on our turf?" kind of thing. Even as the 'jacks made their first move towards the train, the Wild Riders tore into them with knives and lengths of chain. Redflare stepped out of the shadows of the stairwell and waved at the three passengers.
"Dace, over here!"
The blue-haired man got the message at once and grabbed Dumont's arm, virtually dragging her along, skirting the edge of the melee on the way to the magician's side. The team leader shot him a dark look as he let go of the lady, the kind of look that suggested explanations were in order. Redflare sympathized, but this wasn't the time or place for talk. He pounded up the concrete stairs, hearing the echoes of three sets of feet behind him.
"What is all this?" Dumont protested, still very confused and not a little scared.
"Save it!" Dace snapped. Before they ran, Redflare had seen the 'jack with the sword stab one of the gangers, and he figured Dace, like him, assumed the thugs would get the better of it and be after them sooner or later. The idea was to have Dumont as far away as possible just in case it was sooner. They dashed through the turnstiles, past the security robots, and out into the darkened streets.
One of Ossale Court's least endearing qualities was its lack of regularly constructed buildings. There were some, like the Metro-Link station, that were still following their original purpose, and more that had been abandoned, but at least half of the structures in the former industrial zone were squatter's shacks thrown together from scraps of wood and metal. It gave the slum a squalid atmosphere that reeked with despair. Crime and violence were epidemic there; it always ate into Redflare's soul every time he was forced to visit.
He'd grown up in Ossale Court. That had been enough of it for him.
There was no time to worry about the setting, though; the need for action kept Redflare from getting too philosophical over it. Dace looked around, scowled, and rounded on him.
"Where's Kemet? He was supposed to have the van waiting."
"He got hung up. I'll explain if we can get some breathing room."
Dace cursed, then nodded. He led the little group in a zigzag pattern through the streets and alleyways, getting out of the line of sight of anyone coming out of the station. Ossale Court was a sprawling, ungainly place, and if you didn't know where to start looking for someone you might never find them. Redflare hoped that logic would work for them this time. It seemed to be; he didn't see anyone dogging their steps or hear cries of "they went that way!" There hadn't even been a second group of gunjacks waiting outside the station in case the first bunch screwed up.
Dumont gasped for breath as they stopped running. She clearly wasn't used to the exertion and bent over, hands resting on her knees to support herself while her lungs sucked in air. Her feet had to be killing her from sprinting in three-inch heels.
"We need to stop and sort things out," Redflare said, "and I think Miss Dumont needs a break. Tough to run if you pass out."
"Good idea," Dace agreed. He glanced around and his eyes settled on a subway car that had been turned into a diner. A sign out front proclaimed it to be the Dining Car, except that the first "in" had been painted over with a Y in neon red light-gel paint by some food critic. "How about there?"
It seemed as good a place as any.
"Sure. I just hope the name isn't an omen."
The layout of the diner was pretty standard for cheap restaurants, a row of booths along one side of the place, counter and kitchen on the other. They took the booth in the opposite corner from the door, along the short side of where the counter bent into an L. Not only did it give a good vantage point for observing the entire room, but it also was away from the row of windows that pierced the entire front side of the converted Metro-Link car.
A waitress in a white blouse and pink skirt came over almost at once as the diner was nearly empty. She gave Dumont an odd look; the lady's cream-colored silk shirt and navy skirt-and-jacket carbonsuit were obviously corporate mufti, making her definitely not the sort to be found in an Ossale Court diner. Since the others were dressed more normally for the streets, she had to figure it was something under-the-table, anything from hiring muscle to an illicit metachem buy. Also figuring it was none of her biz, she brought the coffee they asked for and took care to stay well out of earshot. The waitress had a paying job, not the regular state of things in the slum, and didn't want to blow that success by prying into something that could end up getting her killed.
For a while, no one said anything, coming to terms with the sudden, unexpected violence. Redflare took the time to get his first good look at the woman in the suit across the table. Ashlyn Dumont looked just the same as in her picture: slender-bodied, with long, ash-blonde hair worn in a single thick braid down her back and iron-gray eyes that while blurred with confusion now Redflare could easily imagine settling into a gaze as cold and stern as a winter sky. The slim leather handbag she carried no doubt contained data--papers, chips, or some other information, the kind of thing she dealt with as a project manager for Sarranas Development Enterprises--data that would be immensely useful in starting up for a new employer.
Dumont was on the inside of the booth, against the wall. Isis had the outside seat, which put her between the corporate defector and any threats but also kept Dumont from jumping up and making a break for it. Isis wanted answers and Redflare doubted they'd be leaving until she got some--the missing Kemet was her twin brother. They shared their mahogany-brown skin, bright red hair and eyes, and their attractive, sleek facial features, but Isis was most definitely female. Her snug while leather unisuit and flat heeled long boots showed off that fact quite plainly.
Both women were looking at Redflare, curious about the brawl that wasn't supposed to have happened and the missing transportation. Dumont, though, was doing something else, sizing him up the way she'd no doubt done to Isis and the tall, handsome, lean-muscled Dace on the train. He wondered if his white T-shirt, faded jeans, and denim vest (layered with light carbon-fiber armor) gave her any insights into the man under the clothes.
Then again, she was probably more interested in the fact that he wasn't openly carrying a weapon. That was the sort of question people asked about a bodyguard. In fact, he did have a gun, a small Inverness YZ-6 holdout poisonshot, but unlike Dace his main fighting skills lay in the use of techniques.
"Redflare," Isis asked, "where is my brother? He was supposed to meet us with the van when we left the Metro-Link station." People hearing Isis speak for the first time tended to be caught off-guard. She looked sensual and brazen, the stereotypical "hunter babe," the slinky sidekick of a holovid hero. She spoke, though, with the accent and educated vocabulary of a scientist or university professor. Redflare suspected she got a kick out of jarring people's complacency with the contrast.
"He had to dump the van," Redflare explained. The team had borrowed (stolen, albeit temporarily) it to use as transportation that, if seen, wouldn't lead back to them. "Apparently the watchman at the shipping company counted the landskimmers, came up one van short, and called the cops."
"How'd you find out?" Dace asked.
"Nima told us." Nima was the gridrider who worked for Dace's crew. On commando-type missions, she'd keep in touch with the team by headset commlink, but since they were operating in public where such things might attract the wrong kind of attention, they were forced to do without on this job, except for Kemet. "Luckily she had an auto-scan checking for that, just in case."
Paranoia, in the hunter biz, was less a mental illness and more of a job skill.
"So he's getting his hands on a new vehicle?" Dace asked.
"Right, but he dropped me off so I could hook up with you and explain the delay. He was going to ditch the van, find something, and pick us up."
"Surely we were not supposed to wait at the Metro-Link station for him?"
Redflare shook his head.
"No," he answered Isis, "I told him we'd call Nima with the time and place so she could relay it to him."
"Okay. There's a phone in the back; I'll make the call." His gaze narrowed. "Now, what about the other problem? That's the first time in my life I've been thankful to have the Wild Riders around.
"The muscleboys were there before me," Redflare told him. "I was trying to figure out why they were there and if I needed to do anything about it when the train showed up and the questions pretty much answered themselves."
"Next time, figure faster. Miss Dumont is important property, and failed bodyguard jobs don't pay the bills."
He could tell Dace wasn't really angry at him, just blowing off steam at the situation in general, so he didn't take it personally. Well, not too personally. Dace, Isis, Kemet, and Nima were used to working together; they were a team. Dace's crew knew each other's moves, how to deal with each other both as people and as units in combat. Redflare, on the other hand, was always a step or so off the pace, a gear that didn't fully mesh.
The magician cut that line of thought off and stifled it. There was no time for self-pity, appealing as it seemed to be, when there was biz going down.
"The 'jacks were after the lady, weren't they?"
"I think so. They moved on you as soon as you got off the train."
"A three-man team," Dace mused. "Dumont wouldn't be up to three all by herself. Maybe they work together regularly, or maybe they were expecting an escort."
"Especially as they were waiting at the station," Isis observed. Her eyes met Dace's; it was clear that they were thinking the same thing, but neither of them wanted to put it into words. It was Ashlyn Dumont who brought it out into the open.
"I fail to understand why the three of you seem so concerned," she said coldly. She had recovered most of her composure now that the immediate danger was over, and was once again the smooth, iron-hard corporator. "I'm in the middle of jumping from SDE and bringing valuable research data. Until I'm safely placed with my new employer, my life represents a potential loss to them. Killing or kidnapping me would be their most logical choice."
She said it like she believed it. Typical suit, putting money ahead of human life, even her own life. Redflare wondered how many meseta she valued herself at.
"That is," she continued, "why your team was hired to protect me, after all. Why are you so surprised?"
Dace shook his head.
"That isn't it. Trouble we expected. If SDE had intel you were going to jump, they might have had your home staked out, your usual haunts covered, even followed you."
"Given that you are valuable company property," Isis observed. From another woman it would have sounded catty; from Isis it was a straightforward statement of fact.
"That's why we set up to make the extraction on the Metro-Link . It's crowded, and the flow of trains bring people of every social class together," Redflare explained. It was his idea, though the others had honed it, based on the most elemental principle of magic--misdirection. Namely, the fact that while Dumont rode the Metro-Link from work to home each night, the train made two stops along the way. Dace walks by her casually, mentions the prearranged password, and presto! He and Dumont step off one train and onto another, quick as a flash.
"If the corporation did have Miss Dumont under observation, then it is possible that the watcher, or his or her superiors, deduced that we would be disembarking at the Ossale Court station and arranged for a train to be waiting."
"Why use the gunjacks, though?" Redflare asked. "Why not have a corpsec team there to do the job?"
"Deniability," Dace told him. "A bunch of SDE troopers can't just come in and shoot up a train station. Big difference between corp agents gunning a defector in a public place and a woman being killed in a random street crime."
Dumont nodded her agreement.
"All any witnesses would have seen was a well-dressed woman attacked by thugs, who killed her and stole her case." The way she said it made it clear she wasn't impressed by Redflare needing an explanation.
"What's wrong is the level of opposition," Dace said.
This time Redflare had the satisfaction of seeing that the corp manager was as confused as he was. It felt easier on the ego to have Dace explaining things to her instead of him.
"SDE's not Luveno or Scion-Colesburg. They don't have the cash to have a team at every train station in the arch' just in case you decide to run for one of them. If the 'jacks were waiting for us it's because someone specifically saw us switch trains at West Neroton and figured we'd get off here in the Court, since it's the next stop on the Green Line and 'cause it's easy to get really lost in the slums. If that's true, then they'd have known you weren't alone, would have upped the stakes."
"What, you're miffed they didn't send enough people to deal with a tough guy like you?"
Dace smiled back.
"Heck, yeah, I've got a rep to maintain!" The smile vanished and he added, "I'm serious, though. I checked out the car carefully before making contact, and I didn't see anyone that was keeping tabs on the lady."
"In addition," Isis contributed, "I swept Miss Dumont for electronic tracking devices on board the train and found none." She was the team's electronics expert; if she said there wasn't a bug then Redflare was willing to bet there wasn't one. On the other hand, he'd have said the same thing about trusting Dace to spot a tail.
"I think I get it," he said. "You're trying to figure why a security team with enough talent to watch Dumont without you noticing and the brains to figure out where she was going would arrange for a hit team that at least looks like it wouldn't be able to take down the escort."
"That's the holy truth."
"Then what?" Dumont asked, her slim fingers toying with her coffee cup but not lifting it to drink. She looked more like the Gothic Regal type than Kedge InstaKaf, a can of which Redflare had noticed next to the coffee machine behind the counter. "Where does all this reasoning leave you?"
"I don't know. It just feels off. There's something that explains it, but we don't know what that is. Maybe it's important, maybe not, but I don't like only having part of the puzzle." He knocked back half his cup in one gulp, then rose. "I'm going to call Nima. The faster we get you out of here and off our hands, corpgirl, the better I'll like it."
"That is something we both can agree on. I don't cherish the idea of being killed any more than you want to lose your fee."
Dace was only gone for a couple of minutes. Just in case the diner's staff or the few patrons there got the idea to watch Ashlyn Dumont climbing into a specific vehicle, the pickup wasn't to be right there but around the corner by the burned-out hulk of a tenement. They paid their bill, then headed that way. Halfway there, though, that plan was cut short.
Redflare looked over the three muscleboys from the station as they stepped away from the ruin of the burned building. "Well, Dace," he said wryly, "looks like you get to see if these guys were up to the job, at least."