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Magic Man

Chapter Three


One of the most common mistakes amateurs--and a lot of professionals, too--made was to put themselves into what Redflare thought of as "crisis mode" when they were in trouble. They focused all their thoughts on the situation at hand, let adrenaline raise their senses and reflexes up a notch, and generally pushed themselves to the limit in order to get themselves through their problems. It didn't sound too bad, but there were a few things to realize that took the gloss off. One was that people needed rest. People who kept themselves going at full steam for too long wore down. Sleep and physical relaxation were important, but more so was mental rest. Obsessing over one subject wore the brain down. It was absolutely key that in moments of relative safety and security the mind be allowed to relax, or it might shut itself down sometime when its full power was needed.

Another consideration was intuition. Logic was the tool of the conscious mind, moving carefully from one step to the next, but the subconscious functioned without much rigor, adding up the myriad of details that no one really noticed to arrive at its conclusions. Sometimes it made emotional associations that were wrong, really wrong, but a well-developed intuition most often didn't. That was why some people could count on their hunches and others lost lives and fortunes on them. When the conscious mind focused intently on a subject, it cut off input from the subconscious, keeping intuition out of its way. A person who did that too much trained himself to ignore the urgings of the subconscious. It was people like that who got knives stuck in their backs because their brains filtered out the warnings that their unconscious shouted at the sound of a quiet footstep. They became vulnerable as hell the instant they stepped out of "crisis mode."

So, one professional trick Redflare had managed to learn was to let his brain drift whenever a lull in the action presented itself. When the Brocknar reached its destination, he'd give the extraction his full attention, but until then he fastened on whatever other topic he could and let his subconscious take a shot or two at putting together some answers. This time, unfortunately, his mind latched onto his own poor performance.

Dumont had it right, sort of. Money was the root of all evil. It was the only reason Redflare was there. Unlike Dace's crew, Redflare was not a professional hunter. He was a street magician, pure and simple. As a hunter, he was strictly a part-timer.

Redflare had grown up in Ossale Court, a kid enticed by stories of magic that would make the world seem bigger, better, more comfortable than the Palm of technology and computers that had condemned him to a life in the slums. A magical world would be a better world, at least in his mind, one of mystery and wonder.

As a kid, he had run with the WizKids, one of the tech-gangs that ran the streets of the slum. These gangs were almost tribal, obsessed with magic and with the ancient days. They dressed like something out of a sword-and-sorcery holovid, imitating the old-time Espers in whatever ways they could, based on the scraps of mass media information that crept down to them. Most of all, they assiduously practiced to develop their potential with the techniques that were the closest thing to magic Palm had to offer.

Sometime along the line, though, the bloom had fallen from the rose for Rick Denton, now called by the supposedly Esper-like name of "Redflare." Some part of him couldn't take it anymore, the pretending to live in a world that was long since gone and probably wasn't anything like what they thought it had been, anyway. So, he'd turned to magic, not the real thing but sleight of hand, to escape the illusion.

If he'd ever told the story to someone, he figured that they'd think it was strange to escape an illusion by joining a profession whose basic nature was rooted in deception. The difference was that stage magic was an illusion he controlled, he created with words and props and the skill of his own hands. Instead of being a prisoner of his own yearnings, Redflare lived in the real world and, as he imagined the true Espers had, commanded his own "powers" with his own will. It was a good way of life, one he liked, but it was plagued by one major problem.

Money.

Being a street magician may have been fulfilling, but lucrative it was not. Redflare wasn't a big-name conjurer who performed on stage or over the holovid; his box office receipts were whatever his audience thought to toss into his hat, minus the occasional fine when the Division of Law Enforcement beat agents were bored and had nothing better to do than check on the status of his public performance license (which, of course, he didn't have).

The fact was, that while he was a better-than-average magician and made pretty high-end meseta for his profession, if Redflare had to support himself by magic alone, the best he'd be able to afford was a tenement flat back in Ossale Court with cold Global Envirotech nutribars (without flavor packets, even!) three meals a day and the occasional First Food Shop daily special for a treat.

So, like many people on all but the top levels of the entertainment industry, Redflare had a part-time job. Jinn Krystal had waited tables before she hit the big-time, Aron Mercury had sold insurance by visiphone, and Redflare was a hunter.

The difference between hunters and muscleboys and gunjacks basically boiled down to talent. Hunters were often more skilled in combat than thugs, but they were also capable of doing a wide variety of jobs, some involving brute force, others involving negotiation or special skills--breaking and entering, hacking, explosives use, or whatever was called for. A good hunter team was like a corp or government black ops squad, only in a mercenary (and therefore less traceable) capacity.

Dace was an old pal of Redflare's; they'd grown up on the same streets, but he had taken a different path. Like many of the kids in Ossale Court, he'd taken up with a gang for protection, a sense of belonging, and maybe to get out of the hole he'd been born into. Unlike his comrades, who generally ended up burned out on metachems, stuck forever in the slum, tossed into prison, or just plain dead, Dace had had the skills, smarts, and luck to make a name for himself, first as the gang's war boss, then as a part-time enforcer for the Green Ring syndicate, and then finally as a full-fledged hunter, until he became the leader of his own team. That team was good at what it did, but sometimes it needed a little bit extra, the help of the techniques Redflare had learned with the WizKids.

And, Redflare reflected, leaning back into the battered seat of the landskimmer, he was all too eager to take those jobs, throw in for hunter biz. It paid the bills, then let him go back to the life he enjoyed the rest of the time.

He wasn't a pro, though, and sometimes it showed--in his reaction time, in his knowledge of the biz, in a half-dozen different ways. For example, in his shock and distaste at Dumont's shooting of the downed thug.

Admittedly, no one who had grown up in the Court could have been squeamish about death, or about killing to protect your life, your friends, whatever was yours. The WizKids had rumbled with other gangs more than once over territory or just pride, like a pack of wild animals defending its hunting grounds. Guns, knives, and lethal techs had been part of those battles. Redflare himself had cut down one of the gunjacks with his poisonshot. No, he wasn't unfamiliar with death.

To walk up to a helpless person, though, and coolly execute them, that was another order of business altogether. That was something he wasn't so used to. It was the cold, almost inhuman nature of the corporations, of business efficiency--the kind of thinking that led them to hire hunters for industrial espionage, kidnapping, "wetwork," sabotage, and more--anything for the bottom line, regardless of legality.

Dace didn't appear to be overly upset by Dumont's actions. Maybe he was just used to it, the cold expenditure of Palman life like it was any other asset, from his years as a hunter.

Or maybe, Redflare granted, Dace was making allowances for the situation. After all, the gunjack was undoubtedly a hired thug who had accepted money to kill Ashlyn Dumont. Not a minute before his death, he had been firing a sonic gun at her. Yes, she had been way too frosty to sit easily with Redflare's gut about it, but in truth it wasn't too hard to see her side of it. The thug had been an assassin, she the intended victim. She had simply turned the tables on him.

Redflare still didn't like it.

When he opened his brain back up to the outside world, they weren't in Ossale Court anymore, and Dace was talking.

"Kemet, where in the name of all that's holy did you find this wreck?" he asked with a grin.

"Used-skimmer lot," he replied.

"Is it not standard practice for landskimmers on a dealer's lot to be encoded with a transmitter and shutdown switch that summons the DLE and disengages the engine if someone attempts to venture beyond a certain radius of operation?" Isis asked. It was a common anti-theft device which kept a test drive from turning into a test drive-away.

"Well, maybe," Kemet admitted, "but I don't think the dealer would have put one on his own car, do you?" Even Redflare had to chuckle at that one.

"If I may," Dumont changed the subject, "what is our next destination? Garriner didn't pass on more than the date, the fact that I'd be approached on the subway, and the code word you'd use to identify yourself."

"That's the way it's supposed to be," Dace told her. "What you don't know, you can't squeal to corpsec if they catch on you're gonna jump ship."

"True, but that danger is past, now."

"We are going to the Southern Industrial Sector," Isis explained, "where we will rendezvous with your new employer."

"I'm not being turned over to Garriner?"

"Garriner sets up extractions," Dace said. "He doesn't carry them out. That's what he hires people like us for."

"I see. They you know everything."

He shook his head.

"Not unless they show up with their company logo all over their transport. It ain't our biz to know anything more than we have to know. Makes us less of a security risk," he added, eyes narrowing, "for corp types who figure the best way to cover their carbonsuited backsides is to gravestone everyone who knows anything about the jump."

That wasn't just hot air, either. Even if SDE couldn't stop the extraction, knowing the name of Dumont's new employer was worth something in and of itself. Acquiring that name (say, by squeezing it out of a hunter team indiscreet enough to learn it) would enable them to mitigate the damage by directing resources to counter the effects in the marketplace. Or, as Redflare thought of it, they'd know which guy had the new knife so at least they wouldn't get it in the back.

Would Ashlyn Dumont order them killed to keep that name out of SDE's hands? Redflare figured she'd do it in a heartbeat. Would her new corp go along with it? Maybe. It would all depend if they felt the gains from keeping quiet were worth more to them than the potential loss they'd get from screwing over loyal hunters, which really wasn't all that likely.

It was funny, he thought. Even when clients were trying to play it straight they always held something back, something they thought was irrelevant or, more likely, which was personally embarrassing. Then there were the ones who thought the hunters might double-cross them--which was possible; after all, hunters were criminals almost by definition, never a good recommendation for someone's character--and so played their little need-to-know games. There were other times when clients thought they were giving out the straight goods but had been lied to by their bosses or had info that was just plain screwed up, big surprise.

To Redflare's way of thinking, it wasn't odd at all that he preferred the plain simplicity of magic, where he controlled the deceptions.

The fact was, though, as he knew from his limited experience and which was backed up by Dace's crew, that hunters simply didn't get sold down the river with the shocking regularity they did on the holovid or in the latest databook thriller. Most clients, either directly or through fixers, were corporate, and doublecrosses were bad business. That kind of thing got around the streets fast, and a corp that got a rep for setting up its independent contractors found itself unable to hire talent and having to pay through the nose (up front, of course) for those willing to take the risk. When the high cost of revenge was factored in on top of that, it became clear in a hurry that while betrayals did happen, it wasn't standard operating procedure. Dace had been in the biz for five years, after all.

"Really, Mr. Maxwell, you don't need to be quite so obvious," Dumont said, a faint smile on her face.

"I'm just letting past experience guide me," the team leader replied. Redflare bumped back up his opinion of his friend's morality; Dumont's execution of the gunjack had more of an effect on him than the magician had first suspected.

"Perhaps a wise decision, but it's quite clear to me at least that you are trained professionals who know how to act like them." In other words, who would keep their mouths shut.

Maybe it was just that they took that advice to heart, but no one said much of anything for quite a while.

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