Ashlyn Dumont studied her reflection in her hand mirror critically, then applied a bit more gloss
to her lower lip. Pleased with the effect, she snapped the compact closed and returned her makeup to
its place in her handbag. She checked her watch. It was six fifty-eight.
Her intercom beeped.
"Ms. Dumont, there's a Mr. Richard Denton here to see you."
Ashlyn sighed. She didn't have time for this.
"Have him make an appointment for tomorrow."
There was a pause, and then her secretary's voice returned.
"Ma'am, he says he does have an appointment with you, for seven this evening."
"That's impossible! I specifically--" She broke off suddenly as the explanation occurred to her. A
slow, catlike smile spread across her lips. "Very well; send him in."
She was still smiling when Redflare walked into the office and the door was shut behind him.
"So that's your real name, magic man," she said with satisfaction. "You never did get
around to telling me."
"I thought it sounded more appropriate for visiting a corporate bigwig in her office than
"Yes, no doubt my secretary agrees. So it's 'Richard,' then, is it? It makes me wonder what to
call you." The catlike smile widened, and Redflare could all but see half-a-dozen double entendres
flit through her mind. She rejected them all in favor of a more tactful approach.
"Well, if you don't like my street handle, it's usually Rick," he told her.
"Rick it is, then. Redflare the magician doesn't dress like that."
His clothes were casual, but stylishly so--dark gold button-down shirt and charcoal slacks. He
could afford them, since SDE had come through with a nice fee to Dace's crew for "exposing corporate
treachery and safely preserving SDE property"--in other words, nailing Herrod and giving back Dumont
and the project files.
"Oh? You mean Research and Development Division Chiefs don't date street magicians? A bit of rough
and all that?" he teased. Ashlyn just laughed.
"Don't be silly. That would be if I was dating Dace. You're far too clever to be anybody's
boy-toy, as a certain red-wearing gentleman of our former acquaintance can testify."
"Please, don't go there."
"Was it really that bad?"
He shook his head.
"You really can't know." Swiftly, he changed the subject to help clear the memories. "I still
can't believe they gave you Herrod's job."
"Why not? The position needed to be filled, and XD Kendrick prefers to promote from within. It
encourages company loyalty when you can see that there's the possibility of advancement. Plus, it
also addresses any lingering issues they might have had about my own loyalty. After all, if I was to
be tempted to leave, it would be by a job offering more money and more authority--so they got rid of
that possibility by giving me exactly what I would ask for."
"Clever," Redflare replied, meaning not only the strategy but also Ashlyn's carefully chosen words.
No doubt just in case Reiko Yoshida had a few discreetly placed spy-eyes monitoring Ashlyn's actions.
It was, after all, much easier to be confident about someone's loyalty when they were under
surveillance. He doubted that Yoshida had anything to worry about. Ashlyn had her promotion, and it
wasn't likely she'd be trying for more anytime soon.
Redflare, too, had no desire to push the envelope. Julian's death meant that his connection to the
Esper underground (now there was a vid-thriller term if he'd ever heard one) was gone, and no
one else had come out of the woodwork--yet--to take his place. It didn't bother him, though. He'd
had most of his illusions knocked away, but all in all he still liked his life as a magician and
hunter and he wasn't going to be giving up either anytime soon. Especially not on a mad search for
magic power. Like he'd told the Gi-le-Farg, that hadn't been his reason for being since he'd left the
WizKids. Plus, he'd had a very good example of what could happen to people who went digging in the
wrong corners of Esper magic.
Not to mention the fact that he had a relationship on his hands. He had no idea where it would end
up--he'd lost out on a previous relationship that had started during a job, because they couldn't
bridge the differences once out of danger--but he was going to make sure it got where it was going.
He held out a hand to Ashlyn. She rose and hooked an arm through his.
"Shall we be off? I've arranged for reservations for two at LeMarais tonight."
"How did you manage that? Corporate XDs and media celebs end up on a two-week waiting list."
"XDs and celebs don't have Nima arranging their booking," he answered with an easy grin.
"Using your contacts and connections to insure superior service, Rick? We'll be making a corporate
man out of you yet."
"Um...is it too late to cancel?"
Ashlyn laughed, then turned and kissed him on the cheek.
"Far too late. Worldly power, dear, is far more difficult to reject than even the most tempting
"I can see this relationship is going to be quite an education."
"Those worth having always are."
* * *
The Haven Clinic was crowded. It always was; that was the nature of a charity medical facility.
The beds were choked with the sick and wounded. The waiting room, too, had more than its share. Here
was a woman, her face purple with bruises, clutching a broken wrist feebly. The cause, Nurse Angela
Riordan noted as she glanced at a chart, was listed as "a fall." Repeatedly fallen on her boyfriend's
fist, maybe. Next down the list was a man suffering from a knife wound to the abdomen. First aid had
been applied and he'd been left to wait, as he would last longer than the friend he'd dragged in whose
street-banger's jacket was shredded by the flechettes of shotgun ammo that had done the same to the
Angela might have stopped to think about the futility of it all, but the truth was that she didn't
stop to do anything while she was on-shift. It was all go-go-go at top speed, without a chance
to rest. If she rested, someone would probably die.
A man staggered into the reception area. He was thin and pasty-faced, with sandy hair and
spectacles. A sheen of perspiration covered his skin and his eyes were wild. Metachem addict,
Angela deduced at once. She'd seen these signs before, far too many times. At least this one was
ambulatory; they might be able to keep his heart from popping--this time--clean his system,
maybe even reverse some of the effects of brain degradation. He wouldn't stick with the rehab,
though, and would end up right back where he'd started, at least according to the probabilities.
The man made it across the lobby to her desk.
"I...I...I need help," he pleaded, eyes staring as his hands clutched spasmodically at the narrow
surface outside her window. Not for the first time, Angela was thankful for the armored plastiglass
screen separating her workstation from the patients.
"We're here to help you, sir. Do you have a citizen ID?" It wasn't necessary, and a good
percentage of the clinic's patients did not, but it could make processing easier.
"ID?" he babbled. "ID? By all that's holy--I have seen the end of the world!"
She didn't mention it out loud, but Angela reflected inwardly that she got a good ten or so of
those each week. In fact, just the day before had been the "magic date" according to one
trancer, but she was still there. Idly, even as the man's fists began to beat on the plastiglass, she
wondered if perhaps he was a mental case rather than a metachem or wire abuser. The tox scans would
sort that out, of course.
Staff robots approached the screaming man. Their shape was basically human, but they lacked the
sophisticated AI required to class them as androids. They were not unlike the Polezi used by the DLE
and certain security firms, but lacked integral weapons and combat programming.
"Come with us, sir," they said, their metallic hands grasping his arms. They steered him to the
waiting area, where another nurse ran a quick scan and, apparently detecting no chemicals that would
react badly, efficiently administered a fast-acting sedative. He did a quick frisk of the doomsday
soothsayer and, finding a wallet, removed an ID smartcard before returning the wallet to the man's
pocket. He brought the card over to Angela.
"Why does our shift always get the crazies?"
"I don't know, Mike. Thanks, though; I'll log this one in."
Angela slotted the card and watched as the man's identity information popped up on-screen.
"Gaffney, Peter J. No family listed. Maybe your employer will take care of you." She programmed
the computer to send an automated message to Nakagaki--basically a "hi, your employee's here, please
come transfer him to the primary medical facility specified in his contract" with the implied addition
"so we can spend our limited resources on the charity cases who need us." Smoothly, Angela then
opened a datafile on Gaffney, downloading the information from his ID, then adding the date, time, and
circumstances of his arrival. That done, she slotted him onto the waiting list.
The object of her efforts lay slumped in his chair, head lolling to one side. Despite the relaxant
efforts of the drug, his eyes remained wide and staring, looking out not at the sterile white of the
waiting room but at a future he believed to be full of darkness.
"It's coming," he tried to shout, but was barely able to whisper, "The darkness is coming for us.
I've seen it. The end of every one of us..." on and on again in an endless litany to the damnation
that had shattered his spirit.
For, of course, he was right.
The dark force was coming.