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Magic Man

Chapter Twenty-Three


Breaking and entering was an art form, one involving not merely technology but quick thinking, guts, and planning. The fact that Nima could make the Fairlane Building's security sit up and dance the pao-pao if she wanted it to was a nice advantage but hardly the end of the war. Witnesses and armed guards were not subject to hacking, and if a Wren saw Redflare and the crew engaged in illegal activity it wouldn't matter if the alarms weren't flashing. It would shoot first and repair the sec-system later.

For example, it was entirely possible that Nima could insert names into the sec-database, allowing the team to walk in through the front door. That plan had three flaws, though. There were bound to be witnesses, who might remember them later, or who might recognize Redflare or Isis as the phone company workers. Second, they wouldn't be able to carry obvious equipment like commlinks, heavy guns, or combat armor through the front lobby without raising eyebrows. Thirdly, it was entirely possible that Herrod had stationed people in the building to watch for Dumont or the hunters. He knew a lot about them, and it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine them making a move against him if they learned his identity.

For all I know, Redflare mused glumly, someone saw and recognized us this afternoon. There was no chance to bail out now, though. They'd just have to hope.

The blue-white sparks from the laser cutter in Kemet's hands testified to the alternative method of entry they'd chosen: up through the floor through a utility access panel.

"I'm surprised that no one's ever tried this before," Dumont murmured.

"Oh, they have," Nima told them happily. "In 1271 a B&E team did exactly this, and walked right into the arms of a DLE unit. The floor is rigged with heat and pressure sensors that could pick you up seconds after you started cutting."

"In that case, thanks for shutting them down," Kemet answered. He powered down the cutter, then disengaged the suction clamps that had kept the section of flooring from falling onto his face while he worked, and lifted the circular steel plate up and into the basement. Making as little noise as possible, he slid it aside, then squirmed up into the room, followed by Redflare, Isis, and lastly Dumont.

The basement had changed little from when Redflare and Isis had visited it during daylight hours. This time, though, Nima had a complete three-dimensional model of the building in her computer and guided them effortlessly to a staircase which, unlike the one they'd used before, connected to the upper floors.

"We've got to go up seventeen flights?" Redflare verified.

"That's right. The suite is number 1706."

"Why can't the bad guys ever live on the ground floor?" he muttered, then pulled the door open.

For the next couple of minutes all they heard was the rhythmic pounding of feet as they proceeded up the stairs. This wasn't a race; they didn't sprint as fast as they could but took it slow and easy. Redflare and Dumont both appreciated it, neither being in combat-honed condition. At last they reached the seventeenth floor.

"The door's locked," the magician reported. "Looks like a card key is needed. Can you pop it for us, Nima?"

"Sorry; it's not wired to the system."

"Come again?"

"The sec-system sets off an alarm if the lock's broken or forced, but the operation itself is strictly local, and the system can't cause it to release."

"That's whacked," Kem concluded. "If the elevators fail, the residents could be trapped in their fancy digs."

"The lock is only on your side of the door. It's to prevent exactly what we're doing, not to stop emergency access. That's why there's no lock on the first floor--only."

"Well, then, my faith in architects has been restored."

Isis stepped in and went to work on the lock. Without the threat of triggering a security alert to worry about, she soon convinced it to give up its prize.

"It's unlocked," she announced.

"Hold on a minute," Nima told them. "There's a woman coming out of 1707. She'll see you if you come out now."

They waited tensely, hoping the woman wasn't the type of person who walked up and down stairs as a fitness boost. The door wasn't soundproof; Redflare actually heard her walk past with a soft shuffle of feet on an undoubtedly carpeted floor.

"All right, she's at the elevator..." Nima updated. "There's the door--good service around here, I must say."

"I'll keep that in mind if I'm ever shopping for a home among the rich and corporate."

"Are all magicians this mouthy?"

"Pretty much, yes. It's a witty and outgoing profession."

"Witty in your own mind, maybe. Anyway, you're clear."

They pushed open the door, emerging into a nicely outfitted corridor with wood trim--real wood--on the walls and a soothing burgundy carpet. Following Nima's directions, they went to their right, then around a corner to come to the door of suite 1706.

"Do you know if Herrod is home?" Redflare asked.

"I'm sorry; there aren't any security cameras inside the suite itself."

"What about the main desk log?" Dumont suggested. "It should track the coming and going of residents and their guests."

"That would drive me nuts," Kemet said, "some computer tracking my coming and going, not to mention what friends I see."

"All part of the appeal of a high-security building," Dumont told him dryly.

"I'm checking it now," Nima reported. "The log shows Paul Herrod arriving at 9:53 P.M. He's got company, too. Arlayne Corliss is logged in at 10:02."

"Three hours ago," Kem muttered. "Could Mr. Herrod be up to another scheme, or is he mixing business with pleasure?"

"Let's find out. Isis?"

"I'll do my best."

She took a bit longer on the suite door than she had on the stairs, but it was still a matter of less than two minutes before the indicator turned green with a happy beep.

Kemet went in fast and hard, commando-style, his sonic guns flickering into his hands. The others followed, ready to provide covering fire with weapons or techniques. The foyer was empty, lit by soft light providing a minimum of intrusion while still affording visibility. The hall beyond was the same, but they could hear voices from beyond, music and speech together which meant some kind of broadcast, a holovid maybe. The hunters slipped cautiously through the main living area towards an alcove set up with a first-class entertainment system. A large sofa faced the holoscreen, away from the rest of the room. Two figures were entwined on the couch, the man's arm around the woman's shoulders.

The twins moved instantly, pressing their guns to the base of each person's skull.

"If you so much as raise your voice without permission, we will kill you and be happy about it," Kemet threatened. "Now, stand up slowly, turn around, and come out to the center of the room."

Sensibly, the two obeyed. As they turned, Redflare could see that they were in fact Herrod and Corliss. Both wore only robes in a satiny black fabric that shimmered in the low light as they moved.

"So," Herrod remarked, his manner cool, even suave despite the sonic gun pointed at his skull, "you've decided to return to the fold, Ashlyn? Though I must say that your method of doing so is hardly designed to inspire confidence in--"

"Spare me," she said dryly. "I'm quite aware of what you did."

Herrod just smiled.

"Are you?"

Arlayne Corliss spoke for the first time. She had light green hair spilling across her shoulders, a sharp contrast to the robe. Her face showed character, lines beginning to take shape at the corners of her eyes and mouth; she looked her age. Apparently Corliss had eschewed biosculpting--not really a surprise, as the scientific professions were still inclined to favor a public persona of age and wisdom. Her body, though, was curved and tight beneath the clinging fabric. There, Redflare guessed cynically, was where technology had assisted nature.

"Paul, we shouldn't play games with these people," she warned her lover.

"It's a little late for that advice, don't you think?" Redflare asked mildly. "After all, games are exactly what we've been getting so far. Deadly games, but games nonetheless." He looked at Herrod curiously, trying to get a fix on the man. "You've had us all running in circles for your amusement, you and your friends. You entice Ashlyn to defect by offering her a nonexistent job, using Martin Bright to convince Kail Garriner and so add credibility to your scheme. You stage-manage us right into a trap led by your friend Wulfeburne. It all looks like it's a big corp-war operation, industrial espionage at its cliched best, while really it's you and your five friends--well, now you and your three friends--and your pet gangers that are pulling the strings."

"So, you've deduced the existence of the Circle."

"How cute, your little group has a name." Kem pulled a face as he said it. Redflare flicked him a quelling glance.

"We know you have access to new and experimental technique forms," he went on, "and that the paratech project was pushing in the same areas. We know that the Bane Spikes got shockingly interested in mystic history and legend three months ago, right when you lost your first member."

Herrod's sangfroid didn't crack in the slightest. It was actually starting to bother Redflare. Yes, he expected the duplicitous exec to maintain control and not break down blubbering. The things he'd done demanded a calm, rational brain, capable of facing trouble without fear. Still, it wasn't natural for him to be so completely at ease.

This was a man holding an ace or two up his sleeve, Redflare thought grimly. He'd have to keep a close watch.

"You don't lack for imagination, I'll give you that," Herrod remarked. "Tell me, though, if you 'know' so much, then why are you here?"

"You're going to fill in the blanks for us, Herrod," Kem advised. "You'll tell us everything about your twisted little scheme and why you jerked us around."

"Or?"

Kemet blinked in confusion.

"There is generally an 'or else' clause appended to statements like that," Herrod explained with mock gentleness. "I can save you some time. I have no intention of telling you."

"Somehow, I doubt that."

"Because you'll kill me if I don't? Really, Mr...let's see, you're the one they call Kemet, aren't you? I'm not a complete fool, after all. You've gone to a great deal of trouble to come here, and no doubt vengeance is burning in your heart to avenge the wrongs you feel were done to you. What good would it do to explain precisely how wronged you were? That would only make you angrier. If your suspicions are borne out, you will execute me as soon as I am done talking. No, a death threat is meaningless in this situation."

Rage erupted across Kem's face, the mercurial young hunter exploding into movement. His forearm crashed into Herrod, knocking the SDE exec to his knees. A second blow sent the man sprawling onto the elegant carpet. Anger suffusing his expression, Kemet's boot launched out, caught under Herrod's ribcage, and flipped the man over onto his back. Kem dove at him, ramming the barrel of a sonic gun up under Herrod's chin.

"Murdering bastard!" he swore. "You'll tell me everything--what you did and what you hoped to gain--or I won't kill you, no matter how you beg!" His ruby eyes burned.

Herrod just smiled.

"Good. Very good," he said.

"What?"

"Anger...fury...the profile suggested that you'd be the most hot-tempered of the hunters. It's too bad that you're not one of the ones we want. It would make it easier if you were."

It crashed through Redflare's consciousness like a thunderbolt, a piece at last falling into place.

"That's what it's about," he realized. "That's why you hired us, specifically, for this job. You weren't just after the project data. You want what one of us, as a person, has."

Herrod chuckled softly.

"Indeed. Then it seems, does it not, that you did not know quite so much as you believed that you did."

"What's this game about, Herrod," the magician demanded. "What makes us so important?"

"Why don't you wait and find out? They say that patience is a virtue, after all. Don't they, Jason?"

"I believe so."

The answering voice came from one of the back rooms of the condo. As its owner stepped into the dim light, none of the hunters had any trouble recognizing the blue-haired killer, Jason Wulfeburne.

"Then again, Paul, I doubt either one of us would be, just now, a particularly good authority on virtue."

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