"The head of the R&D division." Redflare shook his head in amazement. "We knew the insider at SDE had to be highly placed, but it's still a shock."
Dumont smiled wryly.
"You're telling me. Herrod has complete access to any of the R&D projects. He could have copied the files and erased them from the system as easily as I did. Why bother running me through all this and setting us up?"
Isis tilted her head thoughtfully to one side.
"Perhaps a scapegoat was needed. Certainly by now, Sarranas would not suspect anyone but you of stealing the project files."
"A diversion," Redflare mused. "That's good, Isis. In fact, if I was Herrod, I'd have made myself a fresh set of copies before Ashlyn could get to them. That way, even if something unfortunate happens to the file copies we have, he still has a set to deliver."
"For someone who isn't a hunter, you seem to have a tight grasp of corporate intrigue," Dumont remarked approvingly.
"I don't. It's basic magical theory." He held up a coin and spun it across the back of his knuckles. "Keep the audience, in this case SDE security, focused on what one hand is doing, and by the time the diversion is over..." The coin suddenly disappeared; Redflare opened his hand, showing that it was empty. "No one has any notion what your other hand's been up to."
He raised his other hand. Dangling from his fingers was Dumont's wrist chron. Redflare dropped it into her palm.
"The principles of street magic seem to apply quite well to this kind of business."
"It's all about controlling deception, how to make people think one thing while you're doing another. The only thing is, the corps do it for money and power, and I just do it to entertain."
"I see." Something enigmatic seemed to flicker in the depths of her gaze.
"So," Kemet chimed in, "since we seem to have spotted Herrod slipping the card up his sleeve, what do we do to make sure nobody applauds?"
"We go after him. Ashlyn, is there anything we think the SDE insider has done that Herrod doesn't have the capability to pull off?"
She shook her head.
"Nothing. He'd have the authority to lower security on me. He's certainly in a position to judge the value of the project and to evaluate how I'd react to an offer from Nakagaki. A good manager has to know those working under him and Herrod is definitely a good administrator. Likewise, he could find out what sec-agents were being assigned to aid Holst and influence one." She frowned sourly. "Our escape seemed a little too pat. No wonder the caller knew that the back would be clear; that trooper must have been paid to miss."
"Dace or Kem probably would have known right away just from how the guy fought," Nima remarked sourly. "We didn't have a clue."
"We're not trained fighters."
"That's why we've got a team. Everybody brings their own skills to the table," Kem encouraged.
"It wasn't Herrod's voice on the visiphone," Dumont remarked. "I'd have recognized him almost at once."
"He'd have known that and used a voice-mod, which would be easy enough to apply over a digital signal," Isis deduced. "Or, he might simply have had an underling make the call."
Something flickered in Dumont's face, and then she cursed.
"Damn it!" exploded from her lips. "I do recognize the voice. It was the bastard from the warehouse, the tech-user!"
"And that ties it all up in a nice, neat package," Redflare concluded. "I wonder if our blue-haired friend is one of the six? Bainbridge is dead and Corliss female, so he'd have to be either Gaffney or Wulfeburne. Can we check them out?"
Nima's head bobbed.
"Oh, sure. These are all nice, upstanding citizens, who will have citizen and corporate IDs on file, with pictures. There's a dozen perfectly easy ways to get a picture of someone like that if you have a name or identification number." Her paws rattled over the keyboard. "In fact, it's even easier that that. Angel appended their public data to the file: height, weight, age, address, and picture. This one's Gaffney."
No one recognized the lean, ascetic face, though even in the file image the burning intensity of his eyes suggested fanaticism. All of the hunters could tell that anyone with that much passion about anything was dangerous.
"And this is Wulfeburne."
Contact. Recognition was instantaneous for everyone except Nima. They all knew him as the tech-user who wielded new and powerful abilities, the man who'd overseen Dace Maxwell's death. Jason Wulfeburne. The name burned itself irrevocably into four minds, a symbol of everything they had lost at the hands of these manipulators.
"Oh yeah," Kemet said. "That's him."
"It all holds together," his twin added. "Bright to Wulfeburne to Herrod."
"I don't exactly have an MBM," Redflare stated, "but if I've got my corp rankings right, Herrod's the senior man, isn't he?"
"Ostensibly," Dumont agreed, "although on occasion someone's position is out of line--high or low--from their status. Especially when we start talking black ops and under-the-table interests."
"How about age?"
Nima consulted the datafile.
"He's 54. Bainbridge was the next oldest at 46. None of the others is out of their thirties."
"Senior in age, senior in position. Sounds to me like a good candidate for the boss of this little group."
"Maybe," Kemet grunted. "With terrorists and their kind, you can never really tell what drives them."
Dumont shook her head.
"You're right, but I think Redflare is too. Herrod is the kind of man who delights in being in control, and to give him his due, he's good at it. He's one of those people whom everyone just tends to trust, a natural leader. Sooner or later we assumed he'd wind up as an XD, if not at SDE then somewhere."
"Maybe that's his in. Whatever he and his little group are up to, he's got the top slot."
Kemet got to his feet in a sudden, spasmodic movement.
"Who cares what he's doing? The guy to go after is Wulfeburne, right? Hell, Redflare, you were Dace's friend since you were kids. You ought to be the first one in line to take this skag out!"
"Kem..." his sister began.
"Don't give me that look, Isis. Nima's pal came through with the name and address of Dace's killer for us, and nobody cares! Redflare and the corpbitch just shrug it off and keep playing the who's-in-charge game and analyzing the other bastard's psyche. Who gives a damn? Let's take the sworm-kisser down and if there's other biz to mop up later than so be it."
His gaze swept back and forth between Nima and Isis, trying to draw them in to what he was saying.
Redflare slid out from behind the table and rose to his feet, a fist clenching in his gut. He hadn't realized there was such anger building up inside Kemet. Had he somehow missed the signs? He was sure that he must have; the red-haired hunter was volatile, not repressed. It had been right there in his treatment of Martin Bright. Belatedly, Redflare understood that Kem had not been playing "bad cop" but had been completely serious. Was he getting so used to looking for deception and illusion that he couldn't see truth when it stared him in the face?
And, his conscience tickled him, was he getting too close to Ashlyn Dumont since she'd helped rescue him from Holst's gunjacks? Was he really starting, because of that one action, to view her in a different and unjustified way? Or was the mistake Kemet's, for clinging to his first impression of her?
"Look," he told Kemet, holding his hands up placatingly, "we all want vengeance here--"
"Do we? I don't bloody think so. If you really gave a damn about your friend, you'd want to make sure his killer pays instead of worrying about the job!"
There were probably a number of sane and sensible things that Redflare could have said to settle and calm the hunter. Kem wasn't the only one who was wound tightly, though. Redflare had lost a friend, been turned into the prize in a corporate fox-hunt, and had a leadership role thrust upon him, none of which he'd been prepared to deal with. He'd been maintaining control, but when Kemet pushed, he pushed back.
"And if you gave a damn about the lives of your sister and the friends you've got left, you'd stop and think about what you're doing instead of trying to get them killed, too!"
They say that the hand is quicker than the eye, and in the case of someone as fast as Kemet it was certainly true. Redflare didn't even see the fist clench before it crashed into his jaw, sending him bouncing off the wall. Stars swam in the magician's head, more as a result of striking the wall than from the punch. Kemet grabbed him by the vest and shoved him hard up against the thin barrier between rooms. He was shouting something in Redflare's face, but the magician couldn't be sure of quite what. Dumont and Nima actually leapt to their feet, pulling Kemet off Redflare bodily. The hunter twisted away and would have gone for him again, but Isis blocked her brother's path, standing between the two of them.
"Stop it!" she snapped, her scarlet eyes flashing, her beautiful face curved into a snarl of anger. She looked like a representation of a pagan warrior goddess from a fantasy holovid. "You two are acting like fools! We are being hunted by corporate security as well as by whatever resources the conspirators possess, and you choose to butt heads like male sphinxes in mating season! Men can be such idiots!"
Isis took a deep breath to steady herself.
"Redflare, explain why you think pursuing Wulfeburne is a bad idea."
"Shut up, Kemet!" she ordered her brother.
Redflare spat out blood; he'd cut the inside of his cheek on a tooth when Kemet had hit him.
"He's not the one we want."
Kem was about to say something else, but Isis glared warningly at him and his mouth snapped shut. Dumont grinned wryly at the sight.
"The one who actually killed Dace was a ganger. Wulfeburne's technique knocked him out, but one of the Bane Spikes actually used the knife."
"No one gives a damn about that," Kemet cursed. "We want the one giving the orders. Those gangers were just Wulfeburne's tools to do the job with."
"Yeah, and Wulfeburne was just somebody else's tool. The big man doesn't do his own assassinations, right? He sends his flunkies. Wulfeburne is middle management, a field commander over the bodyguards and gangers, but he was taking orders from somebody else. It's the one giving the orders I want to make pay. I want whomever woke up one morning and said, 'Let's sacrifice a team of hunters to make this job work.' What's more, we're all five of us in major trouble here. Revenge won't mean anything if we're all dead. Taking out flunkies won't get us out of that trap. We have to derail their entire operation and then find a way to get SDE off our backsides. If we could figure an easy way to take Wulfeburne off the board without jeopardizing the rest of our goals I'd say, do it--with his new techs he's dangerous.
He met the gazes of Kemet and the three women in turn.
"I just don't see that easy way, so I say skip him and move on to Herrod. Herrod may be the leader, but even if he isn't he has a lot of information about what went on inside SDE. If we can get it out of him without him dying on us."
"It won't be easy," Dumont remarked. "Herrod has a luxury condo in Skyhaven. Not only is there private security, but the DLE also cares what happens in that part of town."
"That's all the more reason to skip the sideshow. If we don't, we're pretty well out of chances. Holst's already managed to find us twice, and our six-now five-friends once." Redflare held Kem's gaze, ignoring the others, even though it was Nima and especially Isis who would really make the decision. He'd included them before, but now was just for himself and the hunter. Keep the audience in, but when you work with a volunteer, that's the one to focus on when you give him his part. It was astonishing, really, how many basic lessons of magic applied to being a high-grade technomercenary. "I don't know how this usually goes, but that seems a few too many times for me."
"It is," Isis said. "We're lucky to be alive now. The warehouse, the park, and Mama Russi's. Three separate times we've mananged to slip away, and we lost Dace on the first and had you captured on the second."
"Part of it is that we're a good team. Another part is that Ashlyn is pitching in usefully, in a big way." Redflare didn't spell out that she'd been why they'd escaped Wulfeburne and the Bane Spikes, or that she'd been vital in rescuing him from Holst. Reminding Kemet was enough; there was no need to rub his face in it. "There's also been a lot of luck involved too. SDE and our 'clients' will correct for the first two factors, and we can't push our luck forever. We have to act quickly and decisively, before someone else does. And," he emphasized, "we can't take the time to let side trips get in our way, or we're all dead. That's why I say, we move on Herrod and forget Wulfeburne for now."
The two men looked at each other. Did he have Kemet, Redflare asked himself? Or was he staring at someone who thought the magician was full of it?
Isis didn't wait to find out.
"Redflare is right, Kemet," she said flatly. No equivocations--but then, Isis was about as unequivocal a woman as there was. "If we are going to make vengeance a priority besides mere survival--and I agree with you that we should--it needs to be the one at the top who pays. We do not need to expend our limited resources on a person who lacks decision-making authority."
"Yeah," Nima agreed. "What she said."
"Okay," he admitted. "You've got a point. Odds are, Wulfeburne's just a high-grade flunky, like, well, us."
He returned Redflare's gaze, measure for measure.
"Guess I owe you an apology, magic man."
Redflare rubbed his stinging jaw.
"I guess you do. That's a nasty right you've got."
"Hell, I made a complete idiot of myself, didn't I?"
"Pretty much," the magician agreed. "I didn't realize you were that stoked for payback."
"Dace was a friend, but he was more than that. Isis and I've run with his crew for six years now. That's bloody forever on the streets. She was always tops, but me, I'd be one of those skags you went around with back in Ossale Court if we hadn't made the connection. It's 'cause of Dace I'm more than just a muscleboy. What's more, he's pulled us all through a bunch of tough spots, more than I can count. We didn't make him the boss just 'cause he looks the part, after all. I've got a major jones for gravestoning the bastard who put him down. Especially because we were sold out, and it wasn't some cop or sec-guard just doing their job."
Redflare nodded, but kept his eyes on Kemet's. They still had something to settle.
"So what's your problem with me?"
"You've got to ask? You may have been Dace's bud from way back, but you ain't one of us. Ever since Dace went down, you've been making the calls, giving the orders, and you aren't even one of the team."
"That is because we were all too stunned by Dace's death to select an original course of action, and you, Nima, and I are all used to the role of the follower," his sister explained. "In a crisis, we acted reflexively, turning to another for direction. Redflare had the role thrust upon him by our inaction, not because he sought to usurp it."
Kemet held up his hands.
"Hey, Isis, I know that. I'm just talking about how my gut feels, not whether it's right or wrong." He turned back to Redflare. "Honestly, you're doing a good job. You're not the same guy now that you used to be, or at least you don't sound like it. Hell, you're picking up on stuff that's going right over my head."
He shook that head ruefully, looking down rather than up.
"Just try and tell my instincts that, though. All they see is a guy who isn't even a full-time pro telling me my biz. Fact is, though, like Isis said, you were right and my gut was wrong. I just wanted Wulfeburne 'cause he ran the show when Dace got gravestoned. I wasn't thinking about it. I just wanted him dead."
"And here I was, a street magician, telling an experienced hunter like yourself how to handle your own revenge."
"Yeah. You and Miss Corp here." He jerked a thumb in Dumont's direction. "Basic rule of a jump is you don't take orders from the package, they take orders from you if they want to get where they want to go without getting taken out by corpsec."
"Except," the blonde remarked, almost gently, "this isn't really a jump, not anymore."
"Yeah, I know."
"There's no need to apologize for what you said earlier, though. I've always prided myself on being a cold bitch. Professionally, that is."
The laughter was instantaneous, although it had a nervous edge since no one could be sure how much of what she said was meant to be funny. Still, it did a good job of breaking up what tension had been left over.
"Look," Kemet said to Redflare when they'd regained their breath. He ran a hand through his hair and started again. "Look, all I know is if I take the time to think it over, you've been on your game in a bunch of ways that I haven't. If you say Herrod is the guy to go after, then let's do it."
He stuck out his hand and, after a second, Redflare took it. Isis nodded approvingly, maybe at one or the other, maybe at both.
"There's just one thing," Kem added.
"If we're going after Herrod, let's get his backside! I don't want to have to admit you're right enough to try him twice."