Neither Redflare nor Kemet went charging off after Bright; they didn't want to put themselves in the middle of a scene. Unfortunately, Bright was making one all by himself. He stumbled at the edge of the dance floor, crashed into two people, and bounced away, staggering. More than one yelp of protest came from dancers thrown off-stride, and then it happened. One man, whose girlfriend had been knocked sprawling by the fleeing scientist, reached out one large hand and grabbed Bright by the shirt.
"Hey, buddy, when you blunder in and a lady gets hurt, you apologize. You don't go running off."
Redflare crossed the club smoothly, not hurrying. People's eyes were on their own business or on the scene on the dance floor. They weren't on him as he drifted up against the wall and pointed two fingers at Bright.
"Rimit," he commanded, firmly but not shouting, and for once the magician's luck was in. Bright's eyes rolled up in his head and he went limp, the suddenly dead weight of his body pulling him out of the dancer's grip.
Kem reached them then and clucked his tongue.
"Poor guy. Shouldn't have had anything here after those strikers at home. I'm sorry he blundered into you," he told the woman Bright had knocked down. "Guess he thought I'd be mad he went out for a few extra."
"He got a problem with the booze?"
"Not usually, but when he's under a lot of stress at work...well, you know how it is."
"Well, maybe I do."
Kem bent and pulled Bright up off the floor, slinging one arm over his shoulder.
"Hey, could somebody give me a hand? I've got to get Marty home."
Redflare took this as his cue and stepped forward. He and Kemet managed to get Bright out to their transport and tossed him inside.
"May I ask what happened?" Isis asked as she started the engine.
"He bolted, so Redflare hit him with Ye Olde Reliable Paralysis Tech and we did the drunk friend routine." With considerably more efficiency than the late, unlamented Vick had shown, Kem frisked the prisoner, removing phone and palmcomp, then locked Bright into technique-numbing plasmarings.
Isis frowned as she pulled out into traffic.
"Bolted? Do you mean that he resisted your advances?"
"No, I mean that he ran at the sight of me. I didn't think I was that ugly!"
"You were made," Redflare said. "He was scared; he knew your face."
"That's impossible! He's never seen me before. He hired us through Garriner--that's half the reason there are fixers, to keep the veil of anonymity between client and hunter if they don't need face-to-face to do the job. I know I've never met the guy."
"He definitely wasn't the guy at the ambush, and he wasn't one of Holst's crew," Redflare mused thoughtfully. Idly, he spun a coin across the back of his knuckles, and something clicked in his brain. "Wait a minute. Garriner said that your team was specifically asked for by Bright, remember?"
"Yeah...oh. You mean that Nakagaki's little pet here might have had more information about us than merely names and rep. He, or his friend at SDE, might have had full dossiers, including holo-images or complete descriptions."
The thought made Redflare's skin creep. One of the few benefits of a street life was anonymity, that his life wasn't all laid out in some datafile for anyone to pick up and review. The idea that someone might have that information--especially someone who wanted him dead--chilled him to the core.
He could only imagine Kemet and Isis's reaction. As professional hunters, they had even more to lose, even if they got through this job with their lives.
"There are some very disturbing implications to what you say, Redflare," Isis pointed out. "If our client requested us by name and went to the trouble of obtaining complete information on us, it implies that there is some greater purpose behind it."
"They knew they were going to put us down," her brother said. "It could have been research to make sure they did the job right. Nah," he contradicted himself almost at once, "that won't fly."
"Why?" Kemet's statement sounded more like wishful thinking to Redflare.
"It's too complicated. No one is going to pick out a first-rank team of hunters--and we are a first-rank team, even if I do say so myself--by name and do a full-on investigation of us just to give them an edge in killing us later. It's a waste of manpower and resources. It'd be lots easier just to hire people who aren't as competent. I mean, let's be fair, we weren't asked to do anything particularly difficult."
Redflare nodded. The hard part of the job hadn't begun until after they'd started running for their lives.
"Well," he suggested, "why don't we ask the man himself, here."
Rimit wasn't the longest-lasting technique in a techmaster's arsenal; the fact that it was Redflare's best didn't improve that truth. Its other down side was that the paralyzed victim remained conscious.
Kemet nudged Bright in the side with his toe, not very hard.
"Okay, Marty, you heard the man. It's time for some explanations."
Bright's eyes opened, looking back and forth between his captors with a theatrical expression of terror on his face, a shudder running through his body.
"P-please," he stammered. "I'm a corporate executive. I can pay you for my release!"
Kem glanced at Redflare.
"You're the professional. What do you think?"
The street magician clucked his tongue.
"Overacted," he decided. "The eyes are okay, but the tone of voice really can't carry it. Scientific types just don't have the training to lie very well. I give this performance...two stars."
Redflare caught just the barest flash of anger in Bright's gaze. The fear was real, he decided, as it should be. He'd been captured by people he'd helped set up to be killed; only a fool wouldn't be scared in his position.
They'd already agreed not to take Bright back to the safehouse; Redflare's own experiences had showed just how easy it was for something to go badly wrong, and it would be a lot easier to abandon the vehicle than to find a new hideout. Especially with Holst, SDE security, possibly Nakagaki, and the ubiquitous "X" on their tail. Having a base of operations was vital. Losing it could mean everything.
* * *
Gunter Holst had to admit that he was a man of the streets. He was born and raised in the arch', in the shadows cast by the corps and the slick, shiny facilities created by Mother Brain's government, but more than that, he liked it there. The grit, the grime, and the desperation were like a familiar tune playing over the audicast, the comfortable background music of his life.
Even though his team had been shot up, some of them being men he'd worked with in the past and liked, even though SDE's ice-witch was none too happy with his performance, the streets reached out and comforted him, drawing him in, calming his worry with their familiar sights and sounds. As the evening passed on he was spreading the word around, working his contacts, in his element. Sometimes his questions got blank stares, other times surly grunts. From these he moved on quickly; there was no point in wasting his time.
On other occasions he got glints of cupidity in a gaze, the greed of his fellow men. A bartender in a dive, a fixer in a corner booth, a dancer at a low-class strip joint. Holst weeded out the ones who knew something from the posers trying to make a cheap score off a sucker with the deftness of a predatory animal navigating its native environment, scenting its prey's spoor from among the many others in the terrain.
The break came from a weaselly little man in Neroton who was wrapped in a battered green canvas jacket, whose grimy hands shook and who licked his chapped lips almost constantly. A metachem addict, Holst decided, one who hadn't had his fix in a bit too long. A man who would sell his mother for the meseta to buy two little yellow pills of StarFlare, that chemical concoction which allowed a man to float among the secrets of the universe.
Also, however, a man who would lie to get those same two pills. Holst would have to be careful.
"Birt," he said, using the man's name. "Birt, look at me."
Birt half-turned from the fire crackling in the steel barrel he'd been contemplating. Holst could smell the stench of it, wondered what had been thrown into the can as fuel.
"Birt, I was told you could help me."
"Who-who-who says that?"
"Daxy down at the Purple Dream."
"Daxy's a friend-friend-friend," Birt giggles, then leered at Holst. "She dances real good."
Holst didn't bother with a comment on the quality of a dancer who took her clothes off in a club that a man like Birt was able to frequent. He wasn't so far removed from those days in which he'd twisted arms in such a place just to pump his ego.
"Daxy says you might know something that might help me." He showed the addict three twenty-meseta coins in his palm. Enough for two hits if the dealer didn't jack the price from Birt's desperation. "I'm willing to be friendly to someone who can help."
Birt's eyes lit up like twin suns at the sight of the money.
"You-you-you name it, it's yours," he said with pathetic eagerness.
Holst closed his fist around the coins.
"Two days ago, you saw some people around here. A Motavian, for one."
"Yeah! Don't get many fur-fur-furballs around here."
No, they didn't, Holst knew. Little Mota was halfway across town, and the Motavians who didn't live there either moved upscale to Downtown, Skyhaven, or one of the corp enclaves, or they bled across the district edges into Steeltown, Parolit Central, or the fringes of the Parolit Industrial Sector.
"Who was with this Motavian?" Holst asked.
"Guy," Birt answered. "Two guys."
"What did they look like?"
Somewhere not too far away, the evening was split by the scream of a siren. Holst's ears identified it as a medskimmer rather than the DLE. Cop sirens were deeper, more threatening in pitch.
Birt's face fell.
"It was two-two-two days ago!" There was the problem with addicts; their memories couldn't be trusted. His face suddenly brightened. "Red!" he exclaimed. "One was red, like this star, like the u-u-universe being born!"
Dream imagery, but Holst's heart jumped anyway. The most striking thing about Dace Maxwell's crew were the dark-skinned, red-haired twins, Kemet and Isis. Their hair caught the eye, even the bleary eye of a metachem user under the influence of his drug of choice.
Birt grabbed two handfuls of his greasy lavender hair and twisted it in frustration, as if trying to pull-start his abused brain. It was comical and gut-wrenchingly pathetic all at the same time.
"Cases!" he exclaimed. "Cases-cases-cases! They were carrying them--big, black, and hard!" Birt shuffled his feet in a kind of dance. "Does-does-does that help you?" he whined.
Holst smiled. Dace's team definitely included a first-class gridrider, and neon angels of that rank used VR rigs. That meant not only computer equipment but also the interface itself and all the attendant paraphernalia. Two or three cases' worth, at least.
He wondered if the Motavian was the gridrider; he hadn't known about the furball until he started asking around. In the anonymous world of the datanet, a gridrider might be anyone or anything.
"Where did you see these people?"
"Just up the street there, at Mama Russi's flop!"
Holst smiled at the man, opened his fist, and poured the coins into Birt's dirty hand.
"Thanks for the assistance," he said, though he doubted Birt even heard him, so lost was the addict in contemplation of the money. Holst strolled off, away from the boardinghouse Birt had named. About a block later, a long, broad skimmer glistening with too much fake flash glided up beside him. A door popped open, and he slid into the back seat. The vehicle belonged to SDE, local color for security ops. The female hunter, Case, was at the wheel, and three sec-troopers were the cargo.
"Okay, here's the deal. Guy says he saw them moving into Mama Russi's up the street a couple of days back, and he gave enough details to make me figure it's the straight stuff. We need to move on it now, before anything happens."
He surveyed the team. The troopers wore black carbonsuits with titanium armor and headgear. Each carried a combat shotgun for suppressive fire, a heavy sonic gun for single-target accuracy, and a ceramic knife if it came down to hand-to-hand. Intelligently, they'd removed their Sarranas identification, but they were unmistakably soldiers, not street thugs. Stealth was out as a strategy.
"Here's how we'll do it. Kurt," he nodded to one trooper, "will cover the rear alley and watch the kitchen door. If they try to make a run for it, tail but don't engage unless you can take them down," he instructed the secman.
"Bryson and Luke will go through the front door with me. I doubt we'll have trouble in this neighborhood. Case stays out front with the car. If they get by us, call it in. If they get in a vehicle, follow."
"Let's make this clean. Remember, Yoshida would prefer to get the corpgirl back alive but she ain't insisting on it. We shoot first and ask questions later, because these people are too dangerous for games."
They moved out. The presence of armed troopers on the street raised eyebrows in interest, but not enough to get anyone scurrying to call the DLE. In Neroton, you didn't interfere in business that wasn't coming down on your own head. There was no reason for anyone to get involved, and Holst counted on that.
The trooper that had ducked down the alley to watch the back door, though, had different ideas. When he reached his position, he switched his commlink over to visiphone mode and made a call.
"Boss? That you?"
"Yes." The voice was most definitely not that of Reiko Yoshida.
"Holst found them. He's about to move in." He gave the address and summed up the tactical situation in a couple of sentences.
"What are you going to do?"
"That's not your concern. Just remember that your bonus depends on them escaping alive. I would advise that you that your marksmanship should not be particularly notable."