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Magic Man

Chapter Eight


Jacquez's was a popular meeting place in Madore Park, the largest (and safest, at least during the daytime) piece of greenery in the archopolis. It was common to see couples there, sharing a meal, or parents stopping for an ice or a piece of shortcake for their kid. Redflare didn't get out that way much. He'd done the lunch date thing himself a few times a couple of years back, when he'd been dating a corpgirl. He'd met Vaya on the job (he'd pulled her out of a nasty scene involving an ex-boyfriend), and that had led to mutual attraction. It hadn't lasted, though; after a few weeks they'd realized that they had nothing in common apart from one shared adventure, and so they parted ways.

He couldn't help comparing Vaya to Ashlyn Dumont. They had the same poise, the same elegance, the same polished manner, but that was where the similarities ended. Inside, Vaya was soft. Her world was one of fair dealing, where corporate backbiting meant taking the last pak of coffee from the break room InstaMeal without telling anyone.

Dumont, on the other hand, was about the frostiest witch Redflare had met. She'd already proven that she had the compassion of a Wren-type android, and the way she could add up lives--including her own--in terms of profits and losses was something the magician found almost chilling. He didn't know why it bugged him, since that was the attitude he expected from the corps. Hell, in Ossale Court he'd had run-ins with skags who'd gravestone a person for ten meseta and a pair of shoes.

Maybe, he thought, the problem was that Dumont was nominally on his side. Yeah, it was one thing for the corps, the cops, and the cutters to be heartless and cold, but Redflare himself? Nah, no way; he was free of all that, living on his own terms, not part of the heartless crush of society. Yeah, he'd just bet that's how his subconscious saw it, what his self-image was. It bugged the heck out of him to watch his side--his allies being, after all, an extension of himself--acting in a way that he wouldn't have chosen, that was supposed to be part of "them," not "us."

You've been spending way too much time watching late-night psych-talk shows on the holovid, Redflare told himself, and started to look for Garriner. Dumont was walking alongside him, while the twins were a ways off, taking up covering positions in case it all hit the fan.

They spotted the headhunter at once. He'd picked a table near the edge of the cafe, almost on the grass. Since it was a nice day, the plastifoil awnings were retracted into the light framework that spanned Jacquez's, allowing those who chose to sit around the rim to enjoy the "classic outdoor dining experience" the cafe's ads promised. It took Redflare a bit longer to spot the bodyguard; the hard man was sitting at the next table, alone, with a Dezoris soda in front of him. He was facing Garriner so that their fields of vision overlapped and covered each other's backs.

The bodyguard reminded Redflare of the two from the warehouse--big man, exec-styled carbonsuit, dark glasses. Possibly there were others in the area, providing background cover like Kemet and Isis were. The magician watched a couple of teenagers buy cherry ices and wondered how many bystanders would be hurt or killed if this went sour.

Too many, he concluded, and wondered if he shouldn't have picked somewhere more private for the meet after all.

"What are you waiting for?" Dumont asked.

"An engraved invitation would be nice."

She sighed, apparently not feeling that this was the time for humor. Redflare decided that she had a point and led the way to Garriner's table.

"I see you made it," he said.

"My word is my stock in trade. When I give it, it gets kept." He glanced from Redflare to Dumont. "You look well."

"As well as can be expected."

"Sit down," the headhunter said. It wasn't an invitation. They sat. "As I said," he began, "my word is my bond. I gave that word to Miss Dumont to find her a new job. I gave it to her prospective employer--" He didn't mention that employer's name, Redflare noted, just in case the magician didn't know. Professional. "--to bring them Miss Dumont. Thus far that hasn't happened. I won't let things stay that way."

His voice was cold and hard, angry but under control. He had good reason to be angry, too. Garriner may have been tops in the corp-jump game, but even one screw-up, for a client with Nakagaki's size and influence, could knock him from that lofty perch. Not, Redflare figured, something the man was likely to take lying down.

"Good," the magician said. "We agree on something." He glanced around, noting that if he talked in a low voice, only the bodyguard was close enough to overhear. Presuming that someone wasn't lurking in the shrubbery with surveillance gear, of course, but that was Isis and Kem's job to worry about.

"Let's move on," Dumont suggested. "Pride is all very well, but at this point what we need are solutions, not questions."

She had a point.

"The lady's right," Redflare stated. "You set up a time and place for last night's meeting. It was our job to get Miss Dumont there. We did that. When we did, a tech-user, two goons, and a pack of gangers jumped us and tried to grab her by force. My team doesn't like being set up, Garriner."

The fixer's expression darkened. Garriner, it seemed, had a temper.

"Mr. Garriner," Dumont smoothly intervened, "everything happened exactly as Redflare said. I was not greeted by a corporate contact, but by kidnappers and assassins. These individuals attacked the hunters and attempted to carry me off bodily. I am not talking about a debriefing by corporate security; I'm talking about being grabbed by two members of the Bane Spikes street gang. This is clearly not what you represented to me would happen."

There was a subtle shift in the mood. Garriner was still angry, but it seemed that Dumont had been able to deflect that anger away from the hunter and onto whom it belonged.

"Set-up," he growled. "Sorry, friend; I can see why you're so frosted. I presume you're out for payback?"

"Got it in one. As far as Dumont, here, goes, we're willing to turn her over to you and set up another meet, but some guarantee that we're not going to be walking ourselves and her into another execution squad would be a good thing."

"You think that Nakagaki used me to set up the theft of certain data and Dumont's death." No one had ever said Garriner was an idiot; once provided with the facts he'd reached the same conclusion as Redflare.

"Either that or someone in the information loop sold us out for a nice side profit."

Garriner's fists clenched.

"Meaning one of my people."

"We want all the information you have on this job," Redflare said, "so we can figure out which one."

"I was the one betrayed, either sold out by someone I trusted or used as a corporate cat's-paw," Garriner countered. "How is it your business?"

Not quite believing he was arguing over who had the right to take revenge, Redflare put forward his side. "I've got three reasons why it is. One, Dace didn't walk away from that double-cross. That makes this a heck of a lot more personal for us than it is for you. Secondly, we're the ones whom SDE's goon squad will be chasing with blood in their eyes. Lastly, your 'package' is currently with us, and don't think we'll be giving up that hole card."

"You just said you'd be willing to turn her over."

"That," Dumont interceded once again, "was in exchange for your good-faith efforts to identify who wants me dead. Until we've established that I'm no longer a target, I'm not likely to abandon the company of the one group I know isn't out to get me."

Garriner drummed his fingers on the table. He didn't like what he was hearing, but he couldn't dispute it, either. Redflare wished he could let Dumont know that he was grateful for the timely interruption, but that would sabotage his position with the headhunter.

"So, do we work together here or not?" he challenged.

"All right. We're both in an uncomfortable position. No reason to be fighting each other on the way out of it."

"Then let's start with your Nakagaki contact. Either he's legit and we need to get to him or he's dirty and we need him even more."

"Martin Bright, according to him. Around thirty, blue hair, ponytail."

"Blue hair?" Redflare asked suddenly. The age was wrong, as was the style, but hair could be cut.

"Cyan, really. That glow-in-the-dark sky shade, the same as Maxwell had."

Not the contact, then.

"Bright," Dumont murmured. "Damn it, I know that name." She snapped her fingers. "Got it! He's--"

She was cut off by the ring of a porta-visiphone from Redflare's pocket. Commlinks were out of place at Jacquez's, so the team had arranged a simple code. The ringing phone was an alarm bell; one ring meant to retreat towards cover while two meant the whole thing was in the tank and it was everyone for themselves.

Forewarned was forearmed, and Redflare and Dumont were both out of their seats, guns drawn, when the full-size landrover barreled off the drive and across the park lawns towards the cafe. At the same time, three men pushed their way through restaurant patrons towards the headhunter's table. The crowd got out of their way quickly and noisily; drawn weapons tended to do that.

"How the hell--?" Garriner grunted, but his bodyguard was already in motion, on his feet and stepping in front of his boss while he produced his own gun.

Redflare's phone rang again, twice this time, but he'd already figured that out.

The bodyguard did his job. He took on the three charging men, stopping them with sheer size and strength. His sonic gun fired, hitting one of the attackers dead-center, but it didn't take the man out.

Armor, Redflare thought, which meant the attackers weren't just more gunjacks but hunters or plainclothes secmen. He grabbed Dumont's arm and they ran.

The landrover's doors popped open and additional attackers piled out, two more people and a conical Informer robot. Ashlyn stopped, pulled her arm free, and spun to face them. She raised her fists, and Redflare realized what she was going to try. Unfortunately, so did the new arrivals; they scattered. When the Gigra hit, only the robot was left at ground zero, its body crumpling like paper. One of the two Palmans was clear; the other only caught the fringe of the tech's effect, jostling him off-stride but no more. The one who had dived clear hit, rolled, and came up with a laser shot in his hands, the large-frame military model. His first shot spiked into Garriner from behind, penetrating his carbonsuit and leaving a bloody wound; the second blew apart the headhunter's skull in an ironic end to his career.

Redflare tried a Rimit technique on the man, but unfortunately the killer just shrugged it off. The magician pushed Dumont towards where the twins were supposed to be waiting and spat out a round from his poisonshot while the hunter was getting his senses back.

Meanwhile, the second man moved to cut off Dumont, but the cover team finally decided to make its presence known. Shots from Isis and Kemet's weapons struck the pursuing hunter, putting him on the ground, and Dumont raced free.

Redflare sent another burst of toxic chemicals at the hunter with the laser shot, hoping to keep him pinned. This one missed just like the first had, harming nothing but the grass. The killer lined up another shot with the laser, one that Redflare had a feeling would put a hole through his midsection.

The magician dove to the ground, knowing that if he made his move after the gun was fired it would already be too late, and even so he barely made it. There was a searing burn across his hip as the blue-white beam grazed him, and he hit the ground facefirst. There would be no acrobatic roll-and-leap to this one; Redflare's fall was nothing more or less than a flop.

Pounding feet from behind him told Redflare that the other hunters had gotten past the bodyguard. He heard someone bark a terse command--"Alive!"--and then a searing pain shot through the back of his skull and darkness claimed him.

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