Redflare let the hot water from the shower head cascade over him, the steaming droplets pelting his body, helping him to wake up. He hadn't slept well, which was unusual for him. Part of it was that he'd lost the coin flip with Kem for the couch--which served him right for playing it honestly when a little sleight of hand would have insured a win, his aching bones told him--but mostly it was his inability to get Dace's dead face out of his mind. Repeatedly, he'd dozed off, then the slash of the laser knife and the spray of arterial blood would shock him awake.
Sighing, he killed the water and toweled off. Regrets didn't accomplish anything, but knowing that made very little difference. Redflare pulled on his pants and left the bathroom.
"Finally," Dumont said and darted in. A few seconds after the door closed Redflare could hear the shower start up again.
Nima was doing something with her computer, while Isis sat on the sofa, snugging her boots into place.
"Where's Kemet?" Redflare asked, reaching for the rest of his clothes.
"Predictably, he has gone in search of sustenance."
Redflare pulled his T-shirt on, then slung his off-white vest with its capacious pockets over his shoulders.
"I suppose we all have to eat," he admitted.
"Check it out!" Nima called excitedly. "I am the man!"
"You are?" Redflare teased. "Does it change like that for Motavians?"
The gridrider's ears twitched in embarrassment.
"Um...I didn't mean it like that."
"It's okay; we get the idea. What did you find out?"
She spun back to her screen. The team must have set her up at the safehouse before the job; the downside to her computer's full-immersion VR rig was that it took up space and wasn't easily portable. Until that moment, Redflare hadn't even know that the thing had a keyboard for conventional operation.
"Last night I modified one of my search programs to hunt the datanet for anything it could dredge up on the gang from the warehouse. It turns out that they're called the Bane Spikes and are apparently a very nasty bunch with a habit of gravestoning people just to get their kicks."
"Where is their center of operations?" Isis asked.
"That's the interesting part. They hang out in one of the rougher ends of Old Camineet."
Redflare blinked in surprise.
"Old Camineet? That's in the northwest corner of the arch', miles away from the warehouse!"
Criminals and corps could and did use street gangs as muscle for their shady operations. In fact, some of the better-off gangs formed permanent associations with various syndicates or corps. Redflare's WizKids, for example, had butted heads more than once with the Curse Kings, a rival tech-gang that had a deal to distribute metachems in their turf for the Green Ring.
What these groups didn't usually do was to recruit a gang from one part of the arch' for biz somewhere else. The Bane Spikes had been in full colors at the warehouse, and those colors would have been a red flag to other gangs as they crossed the city.
"I suppose," the magician said, "that there must be something special about the Spikes that made our blue-haired friend use them."
"That's what I figured," Nima agreed, "and just take a look at these files dug out of the DLE system."
"The DLE? You auto-programmed a search that hacked the Division of Law Enforcement?" Redflare marveled. "Nima, you wouldn't happen to go by the online name Angel Red, would you?"
Nima got embarrassed again at the mention of Palm's most famous gridrider, a legend whose name had given rise to all the angel slang used for hacking.
"It's not that big a deal, Redflare. I had an edge. A few months ago I had to hack the DLE on another job and I found a back door into the system. My engine just checks at that door and sees if it's open; if not, it goes home. The internal security's not half as bad as the external, especially on stuff like this which the agents and detectives are supposed to read. No big deal, not really."
Redflare and Isis glanced at each other over the Motavian girl's head, and the look in the redhead's ruby eyes echoed the magician's thoughts. No big deal...not!
"So what did you come up with?"
"The DLE keeps files on all the gangs they can, especially the ones that get ambitious." Read that: a possible annoyance to taxpaying individuals and organizations properly registered in the public database. "It turns out that over the past three months, there have been some pretty impressive changes in the Bane Spikes' leadership, activities, and methods of operation."
Redflare was still heavily impressed by Nima's hacking skills, but managed to kick his brain back on-line.
"Leadership? So a new guy takes over and immediately starts turning the gang into something else?"
"Right. According to DLE files, the leader's name is 'Gilfa' or 'Glefar' or something like that. I'll call him Gil for short. Now, before he moved in, the Spikes were a real piece of nasties, burned-out nihilist types that liked to do violence unto others--geez, I'm starting to sound like Kemet--just for the kicks. Sort of a 'life doesn't matter anyway, so let's have nasty fun' bunch."
"How appetizing," Isis murmured.
"Anyway, they pretty much hung out on their turf, which was a couple of blocks near the Ossale Court edge of Old Camineet, and made it unpleasant for anybody else. Nasty, but strictly small-time.
She tapped a few keys, calling up a text file.
"Ever since this Gil took over, though, the Bane Spikes have gotten more focused--and more mobile. They allegedly hijacked an arms deal between the Seven Circles and an eco-terrorist group called Neo Green, all the way over in Parolit. Then when, as you might guess, the Seven Circles decided to hit them back for having the guts to kick in where they're not wanted, the Spikes gave it to them again. Cost Deke Murrain a lot of face with his dad for screwing up."
That explained what a street gang was doing with vulcans and laser knives--serious weapons that were more commonly associated with the military and corporate troopers.
"They're also suspected in a couple of other interesting jobs. The first is a smash-up at the Camineet Historical Museum. Basically they ran in, shot up the place, broke stuff and swiped other stuff. Six people were killed."
"I'm surprised the cops took that lying down," Redflare marveled. The DLE might write off shootouts among crooks or violence in the slums, but something as public as gunning up a museum? No way. Bad for the public image--and when you tossed in that Palm had a computer for a chief executive due to rampant corruption scandals back a couple of centuries ago, it was no surprise that government organizations were very keen on looking good.
"They didn't. Four gangers were shot 'resisting arrest' and two more are on trial for their part in the killings. Don't you watch the holovid, Redflare? It was pretty big news a couple of months back."
"Sorry; must have been working on a new trick."
"Presumably the DLE was unable to bring charges against 'Gil'?"
Nima shook her head.
"Nope. With some other gangs, they'd catch some of the rest while scooping up the guilty parties, but not the spikes. Apparently they don't even give a damn about each other's lives."
"Fits with the nihilism. What was the other interesting job?"
"They tried to hit the Moirlen Auction House. Argus Protective Services was on security and drove them off."
Redflare frowned, trying to tie the jobs together. The best he could guess was that Gil had the gangers running errands for some corporate or syndicate boss.
"What does Gil look like?"
"Around six-one, black hair, the usual spike tattoo, according to the file."
"Then he's not the contact from the warehouse." That fit, though; apparently Gil hadn't been at the museum or auction house either.
"I suppose the DLE is not aware of whatever affiliations the Bane Spikes may have formed?"
"Sorry, Isis; they've been checking but haven't come up with anything."
The door lock clicked and the hunters spun, Isis reaching for her acidshot while Redflare started to draw upon power for a tech just in case it wasn't Kemet. They relaxed when the dark-skinned hunter came in, arms laden.
"Got it to go from the First Food Shop up the street," he said, putting the bags on the table. "Coffee, OJ, eggs, sausage, and toast."
Redflare helped himself to a coffee and two slices of toast. A heavy breakfast always made him feel sluggish, which was not how a hunter needed to be during biz. He supposed that was what he was now, a hunter, until the extraction was wrapped up. Like it or not.
"I don't know where you get the strength to walk around in the morning, eating like that," Kemet remarked. He knocked on the bathroom door. "Hey, corp-girl, breakfast is served."
The sound of the shower cut off and a moment later the executive emerged from the bathroom, a fluffy towel wrapped around her hips. Dumont's naked torso glistened with water droplets.
"Man, I'm starved," she said, and went straight towards the food. She was nice to look at, Redflare had to admit, but he would have appreciated the show more if he hadn't been aware it was a deliberate attempt at manipulation. Not only did it serve as a lure for the male members of the team, but it was a power move, too. Walking around in what was normally a vulnerable position while putting on a show of complete ease and self-assurance implied that the hunters weren't in any position to make her vulnerable--that, like a queen's body-servants, they didn't count because their relative positions were so far apart. Nima glanced at Isis and rolled her eyes.
"Nice show," Kemet remarked, "but we're a little busy for drooling, so why don't you put some clothes on and save the skin until we have time to show our appreciation properly?"
"You're cute, too," she said with a wink and headed into the bedroom.
"I'd have bet money she'd have given me at least a look that would have charred flesh," Kemet mused.
"Maybe she really does think you're cute," Nima told him. He raised one elegant eyebrow and shrugged.
"Whatever." He glanced over at Redflare. "So, oh wise and powerful magician, do you have any plans for a daring escape from this hole we're stuck in?"
Redflare tapped his fingertips on the table.
"We'll call Kail Garriner and set up a meet," he decided.
Kemet did the eyebrow bit again.
"Pardon me, but isn't the most likely choice in the 'who leaked our plans?' sweepstakes one of Garriner's people, if not the man himself?"
"Right, which makes him the one who's most likely to have some answers. Not to mention our best hope of eventually getting Dumont off our backs."
"How chivalrous," the corp manager said, leaning over Redflare's shoulder to pick up a cup of juice. This time, she was fully dressed.
"I'm still not sure it's a good idea," noted Kemet.
"In that case, perhaps a walkthrough would be beneficial," Isis said. "Assuming that Garriner is honest, he will be on our side. If one of his operations has been sold out, he will want to know about it. It would be in his interest to help."
"Which is also something the betrayer has got to know, so if he or she finds out that we're meeting Garriner--"
"Which is likely, if it's one of his people," Dumont interjected.
"--then he or she will probably do one of two things: run like hell or call out the dogs."
Kemet made a face.
"I'm liking this less and less."
Neither was Redflare, but at this point all the options appeared equally unpalatable. Maybe that was an advantage to being a professional illusionist; it helped him keep the brain straight about what was reality and what just wishful dreams.
"How about if Garriner is dishonest?" Dumont wondered.
"Then we will be walking into an ambush," Isis told her. "By coming to him we will be providing him with exactly what he wants."
"So as I see it--and please correct me if I'm missing something here--one of three things could happen at this meet. One, someone in Garriner's organization bolts before it happens. Result: the traitor is identified and removed as an ongoing threat. Two, we're attacked, either to kill us or capture us for interrogation. Result: the source of the leak is located within the headhunter's circle of contacts and operatives, and we proceed from there."
"If we aren't all dead or on the rack by then. What's option three?"
"Three, nothing unusual happens. Result: the leak is located within the Nakagaki end of things, or the jump was a Nakagaki plant all along, and we move on to them."
"I suppose you don't have a nice, easy number four?"
"Don't whine, Kemet," Nima told him.
"Heaven forbid! I just want it known that my desire is to avenge Dace's death, not join him. Sending two people into a possible ambush does not strike me as the best way of doing things."
"Two?" Redflare asked.
"Someone has to babysit Dumont," Nima pointed out. "Honestly, Kemet's got a point; it's a little hard for two people to properly cover each other's backs."
"But," Dumont noted, "you need someone to make sure that your meal ticket--me--doesn't come down with a bad case of independence--or stupidity. You can't leave me alone, Nima will be isolated from the physical world running datanet overwatch, and since whom to trust is something of a problem at this point, you can't dump me on someone from outside the team."
"I'm officially against it," Kem concluded.
"We could leave you with Dumont," Isis offered.
"No way. Getting my friends and my sister gravestoned is hardly an improvement on my own death, you know."
Dumont walked over to the window, lips pursed thoughtfully, then turned around.
"What if all four of us went to the meeting with Garriner? That could give us enough people for some kind of reconnaissance, to keep an eye on the exits, and so on."
Isis looked as if she'd been poleaxed.
"You...are offering to help?" she said incredulously. Redflare was having a bit of trouble with it himself; the concepts of "Ashlyn Dumont" and "selfless offers of assistance" went together like a magman and a Dezolian snowfield.
"I'm volunteering to aid in getting my own backside out of the line of fire," the exec said crisply. "That seems more likely to happen quickly and successfully if I join in."
"Do you have any combat training or experience in security work?" Isis asked.
"Only SDE's basic self-defense program, and the firearms course I took when I purchased my sonic gun--and I do practice with it, I may add."
Which makes you more of a liability than an asset, Redflare thought. Dumont quickly provided a counterargument to that assumption, though--the same one that covered the magician.
"Don't forget, though, that I'm also a tech-user." She turned to Redflare. "From what I've seen, your techniques are largely of the non-lethal variety. Is that correct?"
"Mine are not," she said succinctly. She didn't have to explain further; everyone remembered her Gigra saving them at the warehouse. Nor did she need to elaborate further; they all knew how useful battle techs--especially area-effect battle techs--could be to a hunter team.
Redflare glanced at the others to make sure they were all on the same page. Kemet, especially, was looking more confident.
"All right, then, you're in," he told Dumont. The five of them spent the next hour sketching out the rough details of their plan until Isis sighed and pushed back from the table.
"I believe that will be all we can prepare for at this time," she said. "Redflare, you had best go and make the call."
That came as a surprise.
"Your idea," Kem said. "Besides, Dace always made the contacts for us; he was the leader."
That's when Redflare got it. Maybe, once again, his subconscious was up on that well before his conscious mind, but either way he only came to the realization then. Ever since they'd gotten back to the safehouse, Redflare had been slipping into a leadership role. Why was that?
Well, a hunter team needed a leader, at least on the battlefield. They might make down-time decisions democratically, but for simple efficiency when guns were going off and techs were being slung someone had to be pointing the way. That had been Dace. Nima, Isis, and Kemet were used to being followers; they functioned that way, instinctively took up that role. Dumont was independent-minded, but there were dozens of bloody obvious reasons why she wouldn't be taking charge.
That left Redflare, and here, ironically enough, his part-timer status actually helped. Most of the time he ran his own life, called his own shots. That wasn't true when he worked with Dace's crew, but he didn't really do that all that often, maybe three or four times a year. He might not be used to leadership, but he was used to being a decision-maker. In other words, under the circumstances he was mentally more proactive, more likely to say "Let's do this!" instead of simply suggesting ideas.
Just what I needed, he groused mentally. Not only am I stuck in a trap, but it looks like I'm going to have to figure a way out.
The good news was, he had people who were much more competent than he himself was to back his play.
"Okay, I guess that's how it's going to be. Nima, can you block a trace on the phone?"
"Well, I won't insure you against Mother Brain or LIM ComSec, but I think I can stall out any standard trace programs."
"Great. Dumont, I presume you know how to get in touch with Garriner?"
It took Nima under fifteen minutes to crack the phone system and set up a multiple relay, essentially bouncing the call from point to point so that a trace had to follow a circuitous route to get back to the origination site. By her estimate, anyone but a gridrider who was a lot more skilled than she was would take a minimum of two or three minutes to punch through a trace; eight to ten was a more likely estimate.
Idly, Redflare wondered just how good Angel Red really was to be so much better than Nima.
Dumont's contact with Garriner was apparently a cut-out, the owner of the Wanton Mermaid bar. The visiphone rang six times before someone answered.
"Whatja want?" a sleep-slurred voice mumbled in response. The face of the Mermaid's owner wasn't pretty; she wasn't attractive to begin with and forty-two years of hard life and harder liquor had taken their toll. Redflare was spared the woman's counter-evaluations because he'd killed the vid pickup on his end.
"I've got a message for Garriner," he said. "Tell him I've got Dace Maxwell's package. If he wants to talk biz I'll be at C3-4555-6513 for the next ten minutes, so he'd better hurry."
The woman's expression had gotten dead serious right off, and why not? The pay she got for running messages meant a lot to her.
"C3-4555-6513?" she repeated back.
"That's right." This wasn't a "real" number; it existed only because Nima had created it. A trace attempt via phone company records would lead anyone who didn't get past her initial security shell to an address of 702 Windward Plaza--DLE Central HQ. The little Motavian had a sense of humor.
Redflare hung up. In the minutes that followed, he experienced the waiting game in all its glory. Had he been too pushy? Not pushy enough? Was ten minutes enough time? Or was it too much--enough for Garriner to arrange a counter-hack by his own gridrider? He was relieved when the phone rang seven minutes later and Nima gave him the sign that it was, in fact, a call diverted from the hacked number. The image of a sharp-featured man came into view. Redflare glanced at Dumont; she nodded and said, "That's him."
He keyed the command to turn on the video feed for Garriner's benefit.
"You're not Maxwell," the man said at once.
"You're right; I'm not. The milk run you sent us on turned into a damned hose-up and he can't come to the phone right now."
The headhunter's eyes narrowed.
"Perhaps you don't know me. If you did, you'd know that I don't appreciate being jerked around by skags I've never met. Nor do I like people who cut in on my deals. Word gets around the streets fast, but unlike most of the streetscum, I happen to know what was supposed to go down at that warehouse."
Redflare blinked in surprise. Then he got it.
"You think we took the package from Dace's team."
"Now how did you guess that? You've got guts, sworm-kisser, I'll give you that. Crashing one of my deals and expecting to sell the merch back to me means you've got some big brass ones. It also means you've got crap for brains."
Redflare was starting to get a bit ticked at Garriner's conclusion-jumping, added to the fact that he was already on edge.
"Wrong, Garriner, you're the one with no brains. We are Dace's team, and despite you throwing us into a situation that went way beyond untenable, we actually managed to get out with your precious package. I was calling you to give you a second chance to make good, but at this point, I think you're the kind of shoot first, think second wastecase who's just going to add to our troubles. Goodbye."
He moved his hand towards the disconnect key, making sure the movement was obvious to Garriner.
Redflare paused, watching the anger on the headhunter's face start to be replaced by a more thoughtful expression.
"I may have been a bit hasty in my conclusions. I'm surprised to hear that your task was apparently successful, given that there's quite a bit of interest being stirred up on the street." That was about par for the course, with SDE, Nakagaki, the Bane Spikes, and possibly someone else entirely all interested in Ashlyn Dumont and her project files. "Apparently your team was well-chosen."
"You can save the compliments for another day. Your biz has turned out to be more trouble than it's worth."
"I'm aware that there were complications, of course." He was smooth, Redflare had to admit. Righteous anger one minute, "aware that there were complications" the next. "The fact that you gave Dace Maxwell's name to Hilda was one reason why, under the circumstances, I was suspicious of your intentions."
"I had to get your attention somehow."
Garriner smiled wryly.
"You certainly did that. After last night I half expected you to be dead, and if not, then on the run."
"We don't like to leave unfinished business behind us," Redflare growled, his tone of voice making it clear he wasn't talking about completing the jump.
"Perhaps," the headhunter mused, "given the unforeseen difficulties involved in this job, a bonus of some sort would be in order."
"I'll take that bonus in solid information, today."
"I want a meet. If you can make new delivery arrangements, then--maybe--we can talk further."
"Fair enough," Garriner decided. "How well do you know the Down Zone in Ossale Court?"
"No," Redflare told him flatly. "Too private. Forgive my bluntness, but I'm not just ready to meet you in any dark alleys, considering last night."
Garriner's eyes narrowed, but he kept his voice calm.
"Where do you suggest, then?"
"Jacquez's, in Madore Park. Two-thirty."
The fixer thought about it, then agreed. He could tell Redflare was in a touchy state, and too much haggling could make the whole deal fall through.
"Very well; you have your meeting."
"I'll be there. Oh, and Garriner?"
"Buy something to drink. You're going to be doing a lot of talking, and we don't want your throat getting dry."