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Magic Man

Chapter Fifteen


Martin Bright turned out to be a very cooperative man, so far as tracking down his location went. He had a visiphone number, a home address where he actually appeared to live, and a credit report. He'd published a paper in the Journal of Paraphysics (published by Aoi Palm Press, a Nakagaki subsidiary, natch) two years ago on the analysis of technique energies involved in multiple-target versus single-target healing techniques. On the surface, he appeared to be just what he seemed, a corporate research scientist assigned to a project that was in his field.

Maybe that was all he was, Redflare pondered. Maybe he'd been forced to hire the hunters through blackmail, or maybe he'd been a recent recruit into whatever was going on. The plant inside SDE might have brought him in only after the paratech project had begun.

As for things that were less speculative, Bright had a liking for very retro-style jazz, and Nima's dig into his finances showed a click on his Kodama Bank (another Nakagaki subsidiary; can't have the employees keeping their cash with someone else) card twenty minutes ago for sixty meseta at a Downtown club called, simply, Nick's Place.

"I've heard of that club," Kem said when Nima relayed the information. "'Nick' is Nick Densmore. He's a gambler, supposed to have hit it big and bought the club. Street buzz says it's strictly legit, but also that Nick's got ties to the Jeweled Arc syndicate, who use it as a kind of meeting place, home turf for civilized biz negotiations."

"Is that reliable?"

Kemet shrugged.

"Maybe. Most of the big-name clubs get hooked up with some mob in the rumor mill even if there's nothing to it, which there usually isn't. The guy who fed me this bit's pretty solid, though, so I'd say, maybe seventy percent it's on the up-and-up."

"Good enough for me," Redflare said. "The last thing we need is to get yet another pack on our tails, so violence is out."

"Bright won't want to talk without some kind of incentive," Dumont worried.

"Right, but we'll have to get him to come with us without shooting him, beating him up, or otherwise making trouble in the club."

"The soft touch," Kemet mused. "How are we going to handle that?"

"We'll offer him something that he wants, and thereby get him to come to us. Once he's in our power, away from the club, then we can get some answers."

Kemet nodded.

"Yes, the bait approach could work. What do we have to offer?"

Redflare grinned broadly.

"Here's a hint. Bright lives alone."

That drew a cackle of laughter from the hunter.

"Oh, no, not the old poisoned fruit routine. A research nerd ought to go for that one like a sworm after garbage." He stopped laughing and glanced over at his sister. "Hey, Isis, why aren't you complaining yet? Most of the time you can't stand being the bait."

She smiled back at him.

"Evidently you have not adequately reviewed the intelligence my contact delivered about Mr. Bright."

"What?"

"Bright doesn't go for girls, Kem," Nima caroled between peals of laughter that nearly made her fall out of her seat. "You're the bait."

"Me?" Kemet yelped. "Why not Redflare? He's the professional performer."

Dumont smiled thinly and got into the act.

"Even I know that a plan like this requires the maximum physical beauty to catch the target's attention, and between the two of you, Kemet, you qualify."

Kem sighed.

"The things a man has to do to earn his meseta and save his life. Okay, what do I wear?"

The planning session was fast and largely took place during the drive over, because the team couldn't afford to have Bright slip away. They didn't know if he liked to pop into Nick's Place for a quick drink or a whole evening's entertainment, and every second counted. Redflare took advantage of the time to call up one of the few true street contacts he had, not the grifters and wannabes that hung on the fringes where the magician himself usually plied his trade.

"Time is meseta, chum; lay it out for me. Oh, hey, Redflare, how's it hanging?"

"It hangs, Max."

"Yeah, and if some of the buzz I've been hearing has any basis in reality, you'll be hanging soon."

"The word's out on the street, then."

"Gunter Holst's been spreading it looking for you, or actually that team you run with sometimes. Them he's been asking for by name, and enough people know you're in with Dace's crew that they've been able to kick in your handle as well."

"That's bad. Any news on who's backing him or what kind of finder's fee he's offering?"

"What, thinking of turning yourself in for the cash?" Max joked.

"Max, I'm serious."

Max sighed.

"Yeah, I know. He's been flashing one K for your current whereabouts, less for tips that point him in the right direction. No word on where he's getting the cash, but there's one interesting thing."

"Oh?"

"This Holst, he doesn't have a regular team like your buddy Dace, but when he gets a job he signs up the talent he needs from the same pool of ten or fifteen hunters. Jimmy Breeze recognized one, a lady named Case who does wheels, but he also said that Holst had a couple of hardcases backing him who looked like troopers."

"Secmen?"

"Yep. I don't know if you know Holst, but he likes to go it alone most of the time, without his clients looking over his shoulder while he does his thing. Working hand in glove with corporate goons just ain't his style."

Redflare could have explained that, since it had been his rescue that had thinned out the ranks of Holst's hunters. Should have killed him when we had the chance, he thought. They hadn't been hardnosed enough to make sure of him after the fight the way Dumont had dealt with the 'jack in Ossale Court, and it had cost them. Now SDE knew their identities.

Moral principles could be so inconvenient sometimes.

"If I were you, magic man, I'd give serious thought to a change of address. I hear the weather is nice in Abion this time of year. I can work up something if you like, passport, cover ID, the works if you need an out." Max was a fixer, sort of a one-man black market who hooked his clients up with the gear they needed, whether it was forged documents, weapons, armor, gear, or talent. Those pieces of equipment which Dace hadn't given to Redflare he'd gotten from Max; the magician knew the importance of having a trustworthy source. Too much of the combat equipment on the underground circuit was crap offered up for the nullheads who didn't know the difference.

"Sorry, Max. Much as I'd like to take you up on that, I've got things to do here."

"Your funeral. So, if I can't help you save your life, what are you in the market for?"

"Knowledge is power, Max."

The fixer grinned at him, showing off a gold-capped front tooth in an otherwise ordinary smile.

"I'm not sure they meant knowledge of pithy quotes when they said that. I figure it's information you're after, though."

"Right. You've got feelers out in the gang circuit?"

"Some of them talk to me when they want something more than the usual street garbage, and I know a few people who do regular business with them. Most gang hookups are syndicate, though. You know as well as I do the best way for any gang to move up from just being a rat pack is to get signed on as somebody's footsoldiers."

"That's the problem I've got. I need to find out whose footsoldiers a pretty nasty bunch are."

Max gave him a curious look.

"What's up with you today, Redflare? You're not sounding like yourself."

"I'm not?"

"Nah. All of a sudden, you're all biz. Serious. You take up that hunter gig permanently?"

"Maybe having somebody gunning for my head is making me concentrate a bit more."

Max shrugged.

"No skin off mine. Who was it you wanted scoped out?"

"A bunch of sworm-kissers called the Bane Spikes. They're out of Old Camineet, but they've been spreading their talent around lately, and I'd like to know whose idea it was."

"Okay, I'm on it. Usual rates?"

"Fine by me. Keep your head low."

The teeth flashed as Max chuckled.

"No problem with that, Redflare. I don't want to catch any part of what you're into."

The fixer signed off, but Redflare kept looking at the blanked-out display for some time. He had sounded something like a hunter on the phone, not really like himself at all. The idea bothered him. He wasn't a hunter, didn't want to be. It wasn't the kind of life he wanted to lead, then or ever. He wanted something more, something cleaner than freelancing for corps and syndicates and people who valued human life at an amount--any amount of meseta.

And yet, the paradox was that if he wanted to get both himself and his friends out of the mess they were in, he'd have to think like a hunter or he wouldn't be any help at all.

Redflare put the visiphone away. Life, he reflected, wasn't always about making the best choice. Sometimes it was just a matter of doing what one had to do. to survive.

They reached Nick's not long afterwards. The club was understated, its only flashy display the simple word "Nick's" over the door. Since Dumont was waiting at the safehouse with Nima, Redflare and Kemet would be going in while Isis stayed with the vehicle. Redflare's job was to keep an eye out for trouble and watch the big picture while Kemet moved on Bright.

They'd discussed wiring the two of them up with some kind of unobtrusive communications gear, but that suggestion had been vetoed. While it would have been useful to be able to stay in contact with each other and Isis, people who carried microphones into syndicate hangouts were usually DLE agents. "Bug detectors" were more than likely in place to insure the patrons' privacy, a fact Isis was able to verify from the street outside by using a scanner. Likewise, they went in unarmed. The weapons detectors had been built into the doorframe, tastefully subdued, and Kem hadn't wanted to check his firepower with the bouncers because he wasn't likely to have a chance to pick it up again.

The club itself was a pleasant surprise for Redflare. Instead of chrome, mirrors, brilliant lights or unrelieved black, the predominant theme was highly polished wood. The carpets were burgundy, the dance floor looked to be parquet, and the lighting was relatively bright, more at the level of a fine restaurant than the borderline darkness of a dance club.

As advertised, the music was classic jazz, from a hundred and fifty years ago or more, and rather than being played electronically was provided by a live quintet who definitely knew their stuff. To the left, opposite the bar, was the lounge area which not only featured tabletop-model electronic games (with headsets so their music and sound effects didn't disturb the patrons) but an actual green felt pool table, the soft click of the balls forming a counterpoint to the lead saxophone.

Completing the image of the club were the patrons themselves, men and women dressed with understated taste. There was very little flesh and certainly no street leathers, no fiberdenim, no body-hugging stretch fabrics or revealing clothes on either sex. Redflare was glad that he'd stopped to borrow an outfit from Kemet before setting out; his own clothes would have been woefully out of place, probably enough that he'd have been denied entry. As it was, he felt a shiver of nerves as he passed the two large bouncers in their dark carbonsuits and slotted the cover charge. How many of the men and women in their fancy dress would dismiss the real him as street garbage?

Stupid, he told himself, worrying about things that didn't matter. You're just afraid that you're in over your head again, and it's making you feel low.

The fact was, when he wasn't thinking about the job, Redflare found that he liked Nick's Place. It felt homey and quaint, a place to relax and unwind, not to rev up and party harder than he worked during the day. He could imagine himself seated at a table, performing sleight-of-hand tricks across the green baize.

He didn't have much time for pleasant daydreams, though, because the here and now was upon him.

"That looks like our boy," Kemet said. The man they both assumed to be Bright was sitting at the bar, a tumbler of something pale lavender in color on the rocks by his elbow as he watched the band and the dancers.

"Looks like you're on."

"Are you sure you don't want to do this? I feel like a cheap thrill."

"Look at it this way, Kem. Any thrills they let into this club definitely won't be cheap."

Redflare drifted towards the lounge area, keeping an eye on Kem as the redhead moved in on Bright. Whatever his complaints, the hunter was a good actor; he slipped onto the bar stool next to the researcher and struck up a conversation. Bright turned and responded, and Redflare could see the gleam of interest in the man's expression.

Then, in an instant, everything changed. Desire was replaced by recognition, then fear in the researcher's eyes. He jumped to his feet, almost falling in his attempt to get away from Kemet, and bolted for the back of the club.

So much for playing it subtle.

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