Redflare hadn't just been blowing smoke when he talked about the advantages of not being a professional hunter. Whomever had hired them for this jump obviously had solid intel on Dace's crew. That might extend to him as a part-timer, but of all of them his life, and specifically that part not associated with his hunter work, was the least likely to be in the hands of their adversaries. Particularly, he thought, since even if they did know what he did in his spare time the bad guys would be less likely to associate it with what the hunters might do in a crisis. Likewise, Holst and his SDE allies would be less likely to hunt him up. A whole different set of people had useful knowledge about the life of Redflare the magician than did about the team of hunters, so it would take time for them to reorient their thinking.
Of course, this was all dependent on Redflare being able to come through with a crash pad.
He didn't head for his own apartment. That would have been too obvious, and was the most likely fact about his personal life to show up in a datafile. Instead, he went to a location about two blocks away from it. The front window was dark, the door closed and locked, but that didn't turn him away. He took Isis and Kemet around back and knocked on the rear entrance. No one answered, so he hammered on the neowood again. This time it creaked open.
The guy on the other side was roughly as big as a Cooley-61 mining robot but not half as pretty. His electric yellow hair was cut in a shaggy mop, and his jaw sported a five-day stubble.
"Evening, Palkk," Redflare said easily, ignoring the scowl.
"Redflare." The smile broke into a wide grin. "Ain't seen ya in three, four days."
"Life's like that. Look, my friends and I need a place to crash for a day or so."
"A day?" He frowned. "That ain't so easy to arrange."
"We'll pay double the going rate for a crib, and since we're not here professionally, the boys upstairs get the whole take without the thrill's cut."
His brows narrowed.
"Ya ain't gonna bring trouble wit' ya? Word's out, ya know."
Redflare looked him in the eye, then shrugged.
"We won't make any for you and your guests. As far as any following us home, that's a different story. It's the last thing we want, though. Trouble for you means trouble for us."
"That ain't so easy," Palkk said, frowning thoughtfully--not the easiest look on a man with his facial type. He glanced from Redflare to Kemet to Isis, then back to the magician.
"I wish it could be, but I'm not going to lie to you and say it's a milk run. There's one other thing; we'll need a datanet jackpoint."
Palkk's scowl grew deeper.
"Hell, we owe ya, Redflare. Toni's still boss here 'cause of what ya did. Can't go back on that. I gotta tell her, though."
"That's all right." Toni wasn't a pal like the bouncer was, but she had a mostly-trustworthy sense of honor.
"Okay." Palkk stuck a paw out and Redflare paid over a full day's charge, doubled, in advance. No use looking like he couldn't keep up his end of the deal. Isis had given him the cash on the way over; if he was doing the talking it looked better if someone else didn't have to pay. Palkk let them inside, handed them a key tube for a cheap lock Isis could bypass in thirty seconds, and pointed them to a staircase leading up. "Room Eight."
"Thanks. I've got two more friends coming. One's a Motavian girl and the other's corporate. Just send them up, all right?"
"Yeah. Take it careful, pal."
"I wish you'd told me that three days ago."
They headed up the stairs, which like the walls were cheap imitation wood veneer. The soundproofing was rudimentary at best, so it was clear what was going on behind the doors of most of the six rooms on each of the two upper floors.
"Is this a favorite hangout of yours?" Kemet asked dryly.
"You do seem on pretty friendly terms with the bouncer," he said, white teeth flashing in the dim light. Room Eight was on the building's third floor; Redflare inserted the tube in the lock and opened the door.
"Downstairs, Kemet, not upstairs."
The room contained a bed, a table, two chairs, and a visiphone/holovid unit. Nothing was expensive, but the place was kept reasonably clean and free of any obvious stains or spills. The carpet, drapes, and bedspread were all a rich red, and the table topped with a better quality of fake wood veneer than the walls.
"Is there a casino in the basement?" Isis asked after shutting the door behind them.
"How did you know?" Kem asked his sister.
"The bouncer had two scars in an X pattern in the saddle of his right hand, between thumb and forefinger. That marks him as a member of the Cross Scar syndicate. A syndicate would not go to the trouble of disguising a brothel behind a fake front of shops, especially in this neighborhood. There had to be another reason for the concealment, and an illegal gambling parlor seemed to be the most likely. It would go together with prostitution as a way to get back some of the money the house loses to winners."
"Very logical, and you're right."
"Thank you. I was unaware that you possessed syndicate connections, Redflare."
The magician dropped into a chair and sighed.
"I don't--at least, not in the way you mean. One of this place's dealers was running a three-card monte scam on this street, and I scammed him right back. He called out the heavies, but they were more impressed by the way my sleight-of-hand had fooled the dealer than they were interesting in denting my spine. I figure they weren't too happy with him for risking their operations with petty street crime."
"So why did that guy say they owe you?"
"The brought me in, and had me check their casino out, because they'd been losing a bit much. I spotted the scam and saved the Cross Scar a few thousand meseta a week because of it. I have a feeling it also kept Toni, the manager, out of trouble with the higher-ups. So, she owes me more than what the job was worth."
"Well, it's basically anonymous, and if the goon squad does try to break in they'll have to go through Palkk and whatever syndicate gunjacks are around, so it looks like a good idea. Nice work."
Nobody said much of anything else until there was a knock on the door--two short, two long, and two short, apparently an "it's okay" message among the team--and they opened the door to admit Nima and Dumont. The latter wrinkled her nose as she walked in.
"Redflare, you know the most charming places."
"My apologies, fair Ashlyn, but you are not the first to mention that fact."
"Or in other words, we already did that bit," Redflare translated.
"Rats," Nima chirped. "I'd have liked to hear how you have connections with one of the bigger syndicates." She gave the phone unit and its data connection the once-over, then started unpacking her computer gear. "Oh, well, it's probably better that you catch us up on what happened to Bright."
"You know almost as much as we do," Redflare explained. Dumont and Isis took the other two chairs while Kemet sat cross-legged on the bed. "He recognized Kemet almost as soon as he was approached, but we caught him anyway without too much fuss. Only, when Kem managed to convince him that it would be in his best interests to talk--"
"In my own inimitable style, thank you."
Redflare marveled once again at how the red-haired hunter could switch back and forth from street argot to the flowery dialogue of a holovid romance hero, then continued.
"--he died. The best guess we have is that it was some kind of new technique which kills a person when they're about to reveal certain information."
Dumont shook her head in amazement.
"I wish our project had come up with that technique. Corporate security divisions would be lining up to purchase the method for it. We'd have made a fortune."
Redflare stared at her, wide-eyed.
"Ashlyn, you're a genius!"
"Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?" she replied, a wry smile dancing on her lips.
"It's the corporate attitude. We don't have that. We're all coming at the problem from the street perspective, but you aren't. You may have jumped, but you still think like an R&D exec."
Nima looked up from the computer components she was wiring up.
"Could you make that a little clearer, magic man?"
"Okay. What's the most obvious fact about our enemy? The brand-new techs we keep seeing. Like Ashlyn said, though, these techniques would be worth a heap of meseta on the open market. That's why Nakagaki is willing to sink cash and talent into the paratech project, because they figure it will pay them back in profits. Syndicates operate the same way, for money. Our enemies aren't corp or organized crime, not if they're hoarding all this power for their own use instead of selling it."
"That makes sense," Isis reflected. "Our enemy's motivation does not appear to be primarily financial."
"Which ties in with what Nima found about the Bane Spikes' recent activities," Redflare went on. "If we assume their current client is still in control, that's a direct link with magic and techniques, from historical artifacts to the most modern new research."
"We covered that link before."
"Yeah, Kem, but we didn't think about what it means."
Dumont crossed her legs.
"If I understand correctly, you think we're facing, what? A terrorist group with an Esper fetish?"
She made it sound like an overgrown tech-gang, which Redflare supposed was essentially what he'd been thinking of. The WizKids hadn't been about the money from their crimes, not even about protection from the Court's predators and a sense of belonging like most gangs. It went beyond that, a way to live life in a different way, to go beyond the dirty streets, shadowed alleys, and crumbling tenements of the urban jungle. Wasn't that what terrorists wanted, too, only by taking proactive steps to change the world to suit their particular obsession? Like Neo Green, who wanted to level the archopoli and return Palm to an agrarian society where the ultimate expressions of technology were the lever, the wheel, and the pulley?
"Basically, yeah, that is what I mean. I don't know what their political ends are, but it seems clear that they're seeking mystic power--and developing it as well, to judge by the new techs."
Nima tapped a couple of keys and her screen sprang to life.
"I had to leave the straps back in the safehouse, so I'm just going to try standard access without VR for now. I don't need to get fancy just yet." She looked up at Redflare and said, "Does that get us anywhere, what you're saying?"
"Probably not, but I think it points us in the right direction."
"It does help to establish precisely who wants one dead when trying to prevent it," Isis concurred.
Nima's fingers, meanwhile, were flying over the keyboard, which was ergonomically designed for a Motavian's thicker fingertips. The computer gave a happy beep, which it never did when she used the VR rig.
"Good news?" Redflare asked.
"Yes! Angel finished digging up that extra background on Bright for me. Let me just...ah! There we go. File retrieved. Let me just link up to the visiphone and I'll...there!" The visiphone screen flashed on, showing a duplicate of what was on the computer's display. "It feels so weird doing things this way, in the real world."
"Just so long as it works. What have we got here?"
"Well, most of Bright's personnel jacket is pretty standard, and conforms to what's in non-Nakagaki databases, nothing there. Angel flagged his phone records for me, though, so..." She made a few keystrokes and a window popped up. "The key data is about three months ago, here."
The screen scrolled down; Redflare saw the point almost at once. Before the three-month date, the average number of calls on Bright's home unit was almost double what it had fallen to. Several names were flagged in bright yellow.
"Why are those names marked?"
"For nearly a year prior to the three-month date, these were the most common numbers called, except for food orders. Hm, he liked Motavian cooking; I can't fault his taste. Anyway, after the three-month point, nothing. Not one call to these numbers. Angel jammed with the phone company records, and guess what? The exact same thing happened to all of these marked people on their records."
The unusual always excited Redflare. Sometimes it was flash, to distract, but sometimes...
"Who are these people?"
"Suits, one and all. Peter Gaffney of Nakagaki. Jason Wulfeburne is with Daisho Investments, part of the Daisho Palm-Mota Combine. Arlayne Corliss is the token female; she's on the Board of Trustees of Camineet Academy and is a former employee of Sarranas. Bright we know, of course. Then there's Adam Bainbridge. He was with Greenvale Expedition and Research, which is kind of like SDE but instead of being independent is owned by Alliance Oil. He's dead now, and guess when?" Nima's ears twitched.
"The same day three months ago that all the phone calls stopped?"
"It must be magic. According to Angel Red, the DLE classifies this death as a homicide, currently unsolved."
"That's too big a coincidence to ignore, but I still don't see how it links to our current problems."
"I was saving the punchline for last," Nima admitted. "There's one more name on the list."
"Do tell," Kemet said. "Keep us not in suspense."
She made a growly-click noise deep in her throat which Redflare suspected was something akin to blowing a raspberry or giving someone the finger.
"Save the flirting. The last one is from SDE, and not just anyone. His name is Paul Herrod, and he's--"
"Research and Development Division Chief," Dumont finished for her. "In other words, my former boss."