"Nothing?" Redflare asked, taken aback by Nima's news. Since Dumont had confirmed that Bright worked for Nakagaki, he'd expected that at the least the megaconglomerate would be involved somehow. "There's no record at all of any Nakagaki operations using Bright?"
"None at all," she confirmed.
"Well, that was a waste of ten thousand meseta," Kemet groused.
Redflare saw the look on the gridrider's face and spoke up quickly.
"Take it easy, Kem. You can't expect Nima to find something that isn't there."
"Presuming her high-priced friend didn't screw up the job. Maybe there is something, but the hacker just couldn't hack it."
"She did the job, Kem," Nima snapped, defending her choice.
"I'm glad you're so certain. What makes you so sure; is this gridrider the second bloody coming of Angel Red or something?"
"No," the Motavian retorted, "she's the first."
It took a few seconds for that to sink in. Dumont was the first to recover.
"Did you have any more questions, Kemet?"
It was hard for Redflare to keep a straight face.
"Getting back to the point, the fact that Nima found nothing does give us some information. For one thing, we now know that the Nakagaki job offer wasn't legitimate. This wasn't a planned extraction; it was a baited trap."
Dumont sipped from a plyofoam cup of coffee.
"That's pleasant to hear. I suppose a pithy quote about the wages of greed would be appropriate, but I'm not inclined to be witty just at the moment."
"Something else, too. We know it's not Nakagaki's plot, either, or else that part would have been in their files. I find it hard to believe that I'm saying this, but in this case, the corp is completely innocent--at least that corp."
Isis leaned forward in her chair, intrigued.
"Yet we know that someone is expending a fair amount of time and meseta on this affair. Garriner would have had up-front fees, and then there were the Bane Spikes, who would also require payment. In addition, there would have to be a source of information inside SDE in order to ascertain that Ashlyn was going to be receptive to an offer."
Redflare snapped his fingers.
"That's it. That's what's been bugging me."
"Well, a good ninety percent of the time, when you've got a willing extractee, the corp has them tagged as a flight risk and at least has some beefed-up security on them, right?" He glanced around at the hunters, who had more experience at it than he did, and was rewarded with three nods of agreement. "This was a breeze by comparison. Until we hit the final meeting, the only opposition we had was those gunjacks, who weren't in the same league as this team. Competent corp opposition didn't show up until today--and because it did show up, we know SDE could have done a much better job of protecting Ashlyn than it did. Everybody follow me so far?"
"Makes sense to me," Kemet agreed.
"Yes; until the ambush at the warehouse, this was a remarkably easy job. We were suspicious because it was too easy."
"I figure that's the way our clients--well, Garriner's clients--wanted it."
Dumont looked at him with dawning respect as she began to see where he was going, her corp-exec mind following his theory even before he began to explain it.
"You're on to something, aren't you?"
The magician nodded.
"Yeah. I'm not too up on the who, but I think I've got a pretty good idea as to the what and how. We've got a guy, probably a corp exec, who's got a project involving old-time magic, whether it's with or without official sanction."
"How do you figure that?" Kemet asked.
"The Bane Spikes," Redflare told him. "All of their out-of-character jobs have involved magic, ancient history, that kind of thing. Our guy's got a continuing arrangement with them to provide muscle."
"Okay, I follow that."
"Now, the paratechnology project is designed to study the application of 'magical' energy. That's got to interest our friend, whose own project has to run in a similar direction. So, he or she sets up this scheme to get ahold of it."
"How does this person learn about the project?" Nima asked.
"He's got a spy inside SDE."
Redflare shook his head.
"Nope. Bright looks like he's part of it, but he's not the inside man. Whomever the spy is, he or she works for SDE."
"They knew about the paratech project, which might be Bright. They also knew about Ashlyn and were able to identify her as a candidate for extraction, which might have been Bright but probably wasn't because he only sees her through the project. Lastly, they had enough pull with SDE security to keep the sec-cover light on Dumont. That couldn't have been Bright, both as a Nakagaki employee and as a researcher. Maybe X works for Bright, maybe Bright works for X, or maybe they're at the same level in our pal's chain of command, but there it is. Bright acts as the point man to set up the extraction. He's on the staff and his personnel jacket's there in the Nakagaki system to be found if Garriner checks up--which we can probably assume he did, but don't have to go solely on that assumption because Nima checked it herself."
The Motavian girl clicked her beak happily.
"Presumably, they used Bright for that," Dumont clarified what Redflare had been getting at, "because it makes sense that Nakagaki would want to extract me and get their hands on the project files and because Garriner could verify that the messenger, if not necessarily the message, came from there too."
Redflare nodded. He figured that Garriner would do his legwork before he'd set up an extraction, but not to the extent that Nima and Angel Red had gone to.
"To make sure the extraction goes smoothly, the spy in SDE keeps the in-house security presence low. Dumont basically falls into our hands, and we obediently take her to the warehouse, where the hunters are to be killed, the project files seized, and Ashlyn either killed or, more likely from the way it played out, taken for interrogation. One very neat little scam, with us caught in the middle and SDE and Nakagaki left pointing fingers at each other."
"Okay, I follow most of that, but where do the gunjacks fit in?" Kemet asked. "Who sent those boys?"
"This is the point I'm not completely sure about, but I'm betting it was the one who set it all up. He or she would have a better idea what was going on, maybe an eye on Dumont."
"Why send them?" Isis asked. "The ambush is set to occur at the warehouse under far more favorable circumstances. The gunjacks had little chance of succeeding."
"I do not quite understand."
"It's a basic principle for magicians. A trick doesn't work unless I can get the audience to expect that something else is going to happen. The 'client' wanted everyone to believe that this job was just a typical corp-jump, so he could end it with the surprise effect--the ambush. The less like a usual job it was, the less likely you, being experienced hunters, would have been to believe that everything was on the up-and-up."
"We expected opposition," Isis said, understanding, "and therefore it was provided for us."
"But not enough opposition that it had a serious chance of doing any real damage," Kem contributed, "because they don't want to screw up their play. The warehouse was a closed site, where the other side nearly had everything under control. In the streets of Ossale Court, even if the gunjacks did take us down, there's too many opportunities for everything to get shot to heck. A passerby might snag the chips, a gang might get militant on both sides, hell, even the cops could have taken an interest, it happens once a year or so."
"That's how I figure it, Kem."
"That's just damned twisted." He shook his head in disbelief. "It all hangs together, though." He seemed to have completely forgotten the smack his ego had received a few minutes ago--but then, Kemet's ego was a resilient thing.
"It does," Nima agreed.
Redflare glanced over at Dumont, wondering how she would deal with all of it. The lack of mention in Nakagaki's data archives, combined with Redflare's deductions, had spelled out the bare fact that she'd thoroughly burned her bridges behind her and had nowhere waiting for her to go.
"It looks, then," she said coldly, "that you and I are one and all of the same. Cat's-paws, used to fetch something of value and then to be disposed afterwards. An ambitious executive, a band of hunters, but nothing different there."
Her fingers tightened convulsively, crushing the empty cup; she flipped it into a recycling bin.
"You can believe this; you four aren't the only ones who dislike being used."
It made Redflare wonder what would become of her. Now that she knew there was no cushy new position waiting for her, Dumont was caught in a net. She was a corporate defector with a very valuable piece of property in her hands. SDE wanted her--and it--back, the client who'd tried to ambush them would no doubt try again, and should Nakagaki learn what happened, they would probably throw in with all the resources at their command. Even if the team found the client and made him or her pay for Dace's death, for setting them up, it didn't let her off the hook. Her old employers would still be after her, for what she knew or perhaps just to send a lesson to others who might try the same thing. The unwritten rules of the extraction game said that when a defector was in a position with their new corp, it was "hands off" for object lessons--but Dumont would never reach that new corp.
Funny, he thought, that he should care about a woman he'd dismissed as an ice-cold corporate bitch from the first time he'd met her.
One problem at a time, he decided.
"Does this mean you're with us, Ashlyn?"
"I always was with you. The difference is now it's by choice rather than owing to expediency. This bastard is going to pay for ruining my life."
Kemet smiled at her.
"Now, that's what I like to see. If he or she is wise, the client will be trembling in fear of your vengeance, fair Ashlyn."
"I wouldn't be laughing at someone who can toss around battle techniques, Kem," Nima advised.
The dark-skinned man's smile turned wolfish.
"I'm not by any means joking."
Isis rubbed her temples. Her brother's sense of humor tended to escape her.
"Where do we begin, though? We have three links to the client: the Bane Spikes, Martin Bright, and the unknown spy within SDE."
"Forget the gang," Kemet said. "You don't tell your street-level muscle any more than you can help--a lot like us hunters, actually. Plus, they're hardcore nasties and have some decent ordnance in their hands. That's strictly a high-risk, low-reward proposition."
"Bright or the SDE plant, then."
"Better yet, let's take them both," Redflare said.
"Bright's a known quantity. He's got a work schedule, an address, a predictable routine. We can investigate him. As for the spy, Nima can do some background work in SDE's system and try to pull up a name."
Nima tilted her head, looking at him curiously.
"How can I do that, Redflare?"
"See who gave orders to the security people to hang back off Ashlyn. Someone had to make that call, and the odds are good it's that person we're looking for." Of course, that individual might be acting on the recommendation of a second person, which second person could be the spy, but that was starting to wander a bit far afield with the paranoia. Or was it? From what he'd seen, labyrinthine was the minimum level for this kind of plot.
"All right, first things first. We should move on Bright quickly because that shootout at the park was pretty spectacular. If the client gets wind that Garriner was involved, he or she will see to it that Bright can't tell us anything, by having him go to ground or just erasing him from the board."
"I'd do it anyway," Dumont said. "Bright is a recognizable figure. The instant I got away from the warehouse, Bright became a possible liability."
There was the frost-cold corpgirl at it again, Redflare reflected. She might have been emotionally shaken by the fight and by the conversation after, but it obviously didn't take her too long to get her feet back under her.
"That would be the practical corporate perspective," Isis agreed. "Only if Bright had extraordinary value or if resources were limited would he be permitted to live."
"Exactly," Dumont said. "He's too public; his name and identity are known, and if he's a plant in Nakagaki then he acts as a better decoy dead because the truth can't be interrogated out of him."
Kem feigned a theatrical shudder.
"Is it just me or did it just get colder in here?"
"This whole job's been cold," Redflare said. "We were used as pawns and Dace died because of it. We need to dig up everything we can on Bright before he has a convenient accident--datanet research, street contacts, corporate contacts--"
"Isis knows a few scientists and researchers," Nima interjected.
"Good. People in the same fields often know each other; if he really is a researcher he may have a rep. Heck, just verifying that he is a researcher and not a plant for the paratech project would tell us something."
His gaze swept over the three hunters.
"This is where you guys are the experts. I know a couple of people who might be able, but you're the ones with the real connections in this business."
Dumont raised an eyebrow at that.
"May I ask why you are so...limited in this area, Redflare?" He couldn't tell if she was mocking him or just curious.
"I'm not a hunter," he told her. "I'm a magician. I know some techs that come in handy on jobs like this, so Dace brings me in. It keeps me in trick coins and decks of cards." With a trace of bitterness he added, "That explains my brilliance in combat, doesn't it?"
She didn't answer, either with words of reassurance (which would have been way out of character) or a sardonic dig (which Redflare expected). She only looked at him with a strange, almost assessing look, as if judging him on some internal measure. It made Redflare very uncomfortable, so he quickly got back on point.
"The bottom line is, if Bright's still among the living, I want to move on him tonight. That doesn't leave a lot of time for research, planning, and doing the job, so let's go."
He only hoped this plan of his didn't go as sour as the last.