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Magic Man

Chapter Twenty-Nine


Predictably, Redflare couldn't sleep. He dozed on and off for about four hours, but despite his mental and physical weariness alike, slumber was never able to take a firm hold. Giving it up as a lost cause, he slipped out of bed, tiptoed past the sleeping Dace, who was crashed out on the bedroom's couch, and went out into the main living room.

The lights were off, but dawn had come and the bright, sunny day outside gave more than enough illumination to see by. A pensive man might have sat and thought, or stared out the window at the city, but Redflare was a more restless soul. Coins and cards flicked into his hands, deftly turning and twisting across his fingers as he ran through the sleight-of-hand moves of several tricks. Magic was the kind of thing one had to practice diligently to be any good at, and Redflare hadn't had much time to keep sharp lately, what with all of the people shooting at him.

"The gold six goes on the black seven," Dumont's voice contributed.

"Cute," Redflare said. "What goes on this, though?" He laid the seven down on the coffee table, turned it face-down, tapped its back, and turned it over to reveal a completely blank card.

"You're actually quite good at that," the corporate woman said, coming to stand behind the couch where Redflare sat.

"I ought to be. It's what I do for a living."

"Yes, I know. Maybe that's why we're the ones awake. The professional hunters are all blissfully asleep, getting the rest they need for this strike on the Circle. I suppose shoving down nervousness and taking rest when it comes is a job skill for them."

"Could be," the magician replied. He recalled, dimly, that he'd been thinking about that very point when they'd driven out of Ossale Court that very first night. That was back when he still thought all he'd signed on for was a simple extraction. A whole different world, he thought. One before betrayals and black magic and Espers.

Dumont slipped onto the couch beside him.

"Do you think Julian was telling the truth, about us being Espers?" she asked pensively.

"I don't know why he'd lie." Redflare paused, then added, "You're very good with techniques for a suit."

"A suit? I'm being reduced to wardrobe status now?"

Was that actually a suggestion of humor in her voice?

"You know what I mean. You're corporate. The sixty-hour work week, before that an extensive education. There's very little about that schedule which gives a lot of time to study and develop your technique potential. Most corp types know only one or two techs if that, for basic self-defense, unless they're in security work or covert ops. You, on the other hand, have shown some distinct talent in that area, especially given that you've been able to bring Gra up to its second rank."

She understood his point at once.

"So you think that my skill at technique use comes from natural talent? An Esper's talent for manipulating mystical energies?"

"It's a thought."

"Yes, I suppose so. Redflare--" she began, then stopped. "All right, that's it. 'Redflare' is a fine name for a street ganger or a holovid show, or for a stage magician--'Redflare the Remarkable' or something like that. It isn't something I would call an ally or a business associate."

"As a matter of fact, it is a street name, from when I was a ganger in the Court," Redflare told her, a bit tartly. He didn't recall submitting his name for her review.

"Maybe so, but you're not a ganger any more, are you? Dace, Nima, Kemet, and Isis all have real names. Even our mysterious Esper friend does--though whether it's his real name is a different question. So how about you? What's under the mask?"

Redflare sighed. Somewhere in there Dumont almost had a point. Why had he clung to his old WizKids handle? It had been easy enough to do, like a good two-thirds of the inhabitants of Rendak and Ossale Court his birth had gone unregistered in the citizen database and therefore his "legal" name was whatever got put down on the false credentials he was carrying. On the other hand, it would have been equally easy to jettison the name along with the rest of his past when he turned from Esper wannabe to street magician. So why hadn't he?

He didn't even recall asking himself the question before, come to think of it. On the streets, "Redflare" was as good a nickname as any, and like even Dumont had said, it suited him as a magician. Those who had known him from his Ossale Court days, like Dace, knew him as Redflare and called him by it. But he'd never thought to change it, even though he had a perfectly good name given to him by his parents.

Family.

Something he'd lost long ago. He'd been nine when his parents died. He'd been eleven when his big sister, his only other remaining family, had been left dead by a client who took his erotoasphyxiation fetish a bit too far. He'd joined the WizKids at twelve after four months of petty theft and crashing in the streets had convinced him that he'd needed a change if he didn't want to finish Death's sweep through the family.

That was how Rick Denton had lived, staggering from crisis to crisis, a kid tossed around by powers outside his control. Redflare the magician was different. He controlled his own life, his own choices, gave pleasant illusions of a magical world of wonder to paying customers instead of being subject to those illusions himself.

Which, as this particular piece of hunter biz had pointed out more times than he could conveniently count, was all a load of scorpion spew. Redflare wasn't in control of anything other than his own personal choices, and even those got filtered through his subconscious perceptions. He was still just as vulnerable as he had been at eleven to life reaching out and smacking him silly.

He figured Paul Herrod had thought the same way as he did. Herrod's wealth, corporate power, and the sense that he was "in on" a secret reality most of society ignored or disbelieved would have convinced him he was powerful, untouchable--and now he wasn't even in control of his own little group.

The illusion of immortality was usually thought of as an adolescent trait, but it wasn't. It was a human trait that everyone of every age risked falling prey to. Redflare realized that he had fallen and fallen hard.

"Hey, Redflare, I'm sorry; I was just teasing," Dumont said, surprising him with her apology. By now, it shouldn't have, he realized. It was fairly obvious that for her, there was one face to show business associates and a completely different one for friends and companions. It wasn't a matter of "double-dealing," just that when it came to biz she was icy chill and efficient, but didn't carry it over to her personal life like she was some Wren-type. At first, he and the other hunters had been hired employees, strictly biz associates. Now, they were a good deal more, allies in the same struggle.

"Nah; it's not you," he told her. "I'm just tired, and it makes the brain start wandering off into places I'd rather it didn't go."

"Ahh. Places like, 'if I hadn't been such a greedy, ambitious bitch I wouldn't be in this fix'?"

Redflare nodded.

"Yeah, sort of like that. Though as far as that goes, remember that they had us both marked, however they managed to pull that little stunt off. If you didn't bite on the Nakagaki job offer, I'm sure Wulfeburne would have had a Plan B ready to slot right into place."

"I suppose so. I would have."

Redflare wondered fleetingly, despite his earlier thoughts, what it would be like to be able to use himself to predict what underhanded sneakiness his enemies would be up to.

"I just wish I hadn't had to expose my friends to this," he said. "It wasn't the first time that thought had hit. "They got sucked into this and it wasn't even them the Circle wanted. Dace was even killed--temporarily, yes, but you get the idea--just because hiring his crew was a convenient way to get their hands on me."

Dumont shook her head.

"I hope this isn't too blunt, but you've got it all wrong."

"How do you figure?"

"Did you do anything to get your friends in trouble? No. Did you even know there was something special about you that would make you an attractive target for anyone to pursue? No. It's not like you're, say, the kid of some exec or government official, who should know that their parent's enemies may go after them. Knowing what you knew then, could you have done something differently that would have kept this situation from happening? No. You're a magician, Redflare, not a soothsayer. You've done nothing to feel guilty about."

She stopped, thinking, then added, "I doubt that'll sink in all at once, so try this on for size: we're nowhere near out of the woods, and if you choose to wallow in misplaced guilt, your attention won't be on the job. If you don't keep your end of things up, then you really will have something to feel guilty about."

"That's a pragmatic approach."

"I try."

She laid her fingers lightly on his arm.

"The last thing we need is to lose our leader on the eve of what may be the decisive battle."

Redflare turned his head to look closely at her.

"That's not my job," he pointed out. "I was only borrowing the spot, anyway. I had no intention of taking it over on any kind of permanent basis; I'm not a hunter, after all. When this disaster was over, that was it. And, now that Dace is back, the whole point is moot. The real leader is--"

"You," she interrupted.

She looked sincere, which surprised Redflare immensely.

"Ashlyn, where do you get that idea from? I'm not even a regular member of the team."

Dumont smiled wryly at him.

"True, but I've watched you in action, both in the field and at a variety of safehouses. I've even joined you hunters out there more than once--and I try to observe what's going on around me. Having as much information as possible is a basic negotiating technique."

"Then you probably should have observed that this is Dace's crew."

She shook her head.

"No. Dace is the field commander. When people are shooting at you, or in less violent confrontations like negotiations with Yoshida, he takes charge. He executes the plans--but they're not his plans, they're yours. Analyzing the situation and suggesting a strategy is your job. You fell into the role naturally, and everyone turns to you when you do, especially Dace. He just did it again when you laid out our current strategy. The bottom line is, you tell him what to do, and he leads everyone, including you, in carrying it out. Isis and Nima get it; Kem's the only one having trouble with getting his directions straight from the top without Dace's filter in between. I'd bet everything I own that's exactly how it goes on every job you work with them."

Redflare scowled, rejecting her suggestion.

"Don't be silly. I wouldn't dare try to usurp Dace's position, not that I'd even want it. The fact is, most of my ideas so far have crashed and burned. Garriner was killed by Holst and I was snatched in the process when we tried to meet him. We tried to bait Martin Bright and he spotted it at once. When we managed to catch him anyway, he died without telling us anything useful. All our move on Herrod's apartment did was nearly give the Circle complete victory in a nice little gift-wrapped package with a bow on top. If that's what you call planning strategy, I'm not surprised that the Circle wants to sign me up for their side, since I'm doing more for them than I am for us."

"Whereas Dace's sole strategic decision was so brilliant that it got him killed," Dumont snapped back. "When are you going to wake up and face reality? The truth is, you didn't have enough information to account for the true situation. All of your ideas were fine as far as they went. The down side was that we didn't know what we were really dealing with--we couldn't know, until we put all of the pieces together. Even a high-level Wren-type's logic can't pull up a perfect analysis without the correct data to reason from."

When are you going to wake up and face reality?

The sentence echoed in Redflare's thoughts. It was so close to what he had been asking himself just a few moments ago about the course of his life that it startled him sharply. Was his perception about his place with the hunter team only one more misconception?

Hunters were pawns, after all. Although independent--on no one's permanent string--they were employed by others to carry out jobs. Usually they did not know the ultimate significance of those jobs; they were cogs in the wheel. Maybe his firm refusal to identify himself as a hunter was nothing more than an attempt to reject that role and preserve the illusion that, as a magician, he was a free agent controlling his own life.

He shook his head in sheer amazement. There was no other reaction that fit, unless he was going to opt for suicidal depression, and Redflare wasn't geared that way.

"Just how is it that you can see so clearly?" he asked Dumont. "You're cutting through years of first-class self-deception here. I never knew just how much of a talent I had for it until you came out and scattered it all." Did she know how deeply she'd cut, Redflare wondered, then shrugged it off--the point was moot.

"It's a talent that we heartless corporate bitches have perfected. By seeing everything with crystal clarity, we make it possible to manipulate people to satisfy our boundless ambition and greed."

She was trying for flippancy and not quite managing to achieve it. Too much bitterness was leaking through.

"You sound like that bothers you."

"It bothers me a lot, Redflare. I might joke about it, but that's how people see me. Even Reiko Yoshida comes off as having more passion, if only because she's so loyal to the company. I've worked hard at being professional, and while it may have gotten me the promotions and opportunities for advancement I wanted..." Her fingers tightened on Redflare's arm, clenching hard. "Damn it, Redflare; I'm a person too, with my own dreams, my own fears. Yes, one of those desires is success, money, and a better life, but that's not all of it. Not even close to all--but it's all anyone sees, all anyone ever thinks. Damn it," she repeated, "do I feel cold?"

She reached up, grabbed the lapels of his vest, and jerked Redflare towards herself, turning him at the same time. She didn't have to pull him down to her; she was a tall woman and when her lips crushed against his she hadn't even had to tilt her head up.

She didn't feel cold at all, he thought. Dumont's kiss was scorching, part hunger and part fury, but none of it cold or calculated. This was one more sudden shock, one more sharp change of perception in a morning already top-full of them. Redflare's brain reeled, logic and analysis impossible. Emotions took over, surfacing, and deep in his belly a need for her awoke--a need that had been there, he realized, sleeping inside him since Ashlyn had stormed into the abandoned factory to help rescue Redflare from Holst's hunters.

Now it wasn't sleeping. Like a dragon, it uncoiled sinuously and arose, filling him with a fire, a craving that matched the energy of her kiss. Redflare's arms came up, encircling her, and he gave himself up to it.

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