I first noticed her at the edge of the crowd just as I'd gotten the mark to pick the six of castles from a deck of cards. She was the kind of lady I noticed, classy-looking, not one of the usual street thrills. Bright blue hair tumbling in layered waves that just brushed her shoulders, a pretty face made up but tastefully so, and a neat gray skirt-suit over an emerald blouse that matched her eyes. Real silk and wool, too, not the lightly armored carbonsuit that a lot of security-minded (read: paranoid) corporate types are going for these days.
"Now, show your card to everyone, but don't let me see it," I told the mark. He was one of the smug ones, a sleek, well-fed executive who's just sure he can't be caught out by some street magician--he's too clever for that. In other words, a prime sucker. He's lucky I wasn't running three-card monte or Motavian rikesh; he'd have been fresh meat on the hoof.
Once the rest of the crowd had seen the card, I swung into my patter. The lady was watching with interest, but every so often she'd look around herself as if trying to see if someone was following her. There was a tight, worried expression on her face, like I imagined a deer would look fleeing a noble's hunting party. Not that I'd ever seen a deer; the Camineet-Parolit archopolis of AW 1272 wasn't exactly awash in wildlife, and the only nobility left was the nobility of money, the corporations whose skyscrapers rose above the streets of Downtown Camineet, where I put on my show.
"Now, put the card back in--wait. I'll tell you what. You take the deck. Put your card into it, anywhere you want to. Then you shuffle them. Go on, mix them up however you'd like, really change everything for me. Make it as tough as you can."
The mark quickly began shuffling, the steady but unexciting shuffle of a man who gets together with his pals for a weekly card game. He was determined to get the cards so mixed up that no matter how I tried I'd never be able to remember which was his. I didn't even bother trying, since that had nothing to do with the trick. Instead, I watched the blue-haired lady while I kept up the patter to keep the crowd from wandering off.
"Around and around go the cards, spinning and dancing around each other just like we dance through life. We're all in the deck somewhere--king or knave, ace or fool. The only question is, can we find ourselves, or do we see only the backs of the cards, destined to be a mystery?"
It was pretty meaningless stuff--like I said, the point of it was to keep the crowd from thinning out while I wasn't personally doing anything--but the woman in gray got a kind of wistful look on her face, like I'd managed to touch something deep inside her. You don't get a lot of that as a street magician.
The mark squared up the deck and handed it back to me, looking even more smug than before. I let it sit there in my open palm, making sure everyone knew I wasn't manipulating anything. When I first started doing this trick, I'd pop the card out of the deck with a flick of my thumb and catch it with a flourish, but although it was fancier it didn't play as well as how I do it now. Probably it was too fancy--it smelled like a stunt to the audience so it didn't impress.
Instead, I simply took the deck and slid my fingers down the ends until I found the spot where the edge of the six of castles had been shaved down by a hair's breadth and lifted the cards above it off the pack.
"One simple cut, no funny business," I said to the mark. "Now, just so you know I'm not trying any last-second switch, you take the top card. Go on, show it around."
He plucked it off the deck with a well-manicured hand, and the smugness went away in an instant. I love that part. The crowd gave the usual mix of reactions: some amused chuckles, a smattering of applause, some whoops and cries of "Oh, wow!" from the more demonstrative (and easily impressed), and some silent smiles of appreciation for a trick well-done. Those are my favorite. When the meseta started dropping into my hat, which was conveniently left on the sidewalk for just that purpose, it wasn't the whoopers but the quiet ones who paid up most often. As for my lady in gray, she was giving me a star-struck expression, like I'd just made the Nakagaki Spire disappear.
Down the block I happened to catch sight of a uniformed DLE agent heading my way. The cop's gaze met mine meaningfully, and I got the hint. If I quit now, he'd spare us both the trouble of an inquiry into the status of my public performance license (which I didn't have, natch), hauling me in, booking me, keeping me overnight in the lockup, and having us both in a hearing the next morning so the magistrate could assess me a hundred-meseta fee.
"Sorry, folks," I said, holding up my hands, "but that's all I have time for today. Don't worry, though, because the magic will always return."
I picked up my hat and started transferring the last hour's take to my capacious vest pockets. The crowd started thinning out, but wonder of wonders, the blue-haired woman lingered.
"I just wanted to tell you," she said, "that I loved your tricks." I wondered at her use of the plural; believe you me, she hadn't seen more than two or three at the most. That's about an absolute limit on how long it would have taken me to spot someone like her in my little audience.
"I'm glad. Entertainment is the reason I'm here, after all."
"Oh, it's more than that. You made me feel a real connection with something bigger than just ourselves, a...a hope for something better. You don't know what that means to me." She pressed a bill into my hand and while I was still groping for a response, hurried off down the sidewalk. I took a look; she'd given me fifty meseta. This was in contrast to the forty-seven I'd taken in thus far today, so my appreciation of my mysterious lady shot up several points. As, admittedly, did my curiosity.
I watched her walk off, which got me a first-rate view of what most everyone else caught only bits and pieces of due to the speed at which it happened. I don't know who it was who came up with that bit praising audacity above all other qualities, but he or she evidently had a couple of disciples. A full-size landrover swept up to the curb (on the wrong side of the street, no less, but who argues with the law of gross tonnage?) and the side door popped open to disgorge two muscleboys. They hopped out, grabbed my lady, loaded her inside, and got the rover back into the traffic flow in under fifteen seconds. The hand being quicker than the eye and all that, most people had barely figured out that something was going on by the time it was over.
I'm not precisely sure what made me do it. Maybe it was the fifty she'd slipped me, or maybe it was that scared-animal look I'd seen in her eyes. Either way, I suddenly found myself jerking some guy off his microbike just as he was starting it up, hopping onto the seat, and peeling out, doing a quick U-turn that nearly let two different skimmers turn me into a grease spot just so I could follow the landrover.
There are words for people who do stuff like that. "Heroic" and "selfless" have a nice ring to them. "Crazy" and "totally freaking stupid," I'm not so fond of.
Whatever the assessment of my sanity, I followed the landrover through the traffic. It wasn't that hard; Downtown Camineet's groundways are fairly congested and I could stay far enough back so that I wasn't too obvious. They stayed on the groundways through Lordan and into Neroton, one of the arch's shadier districts. The landrover stopped outside a deserted-looking building that used to be the Pristine Printing factory, let out the two men and their prisoner, and drove off, probably so the vehicle could be ditched some distance from the action. It was a good precaution, in case some bright witness had seen the plate number or the landrover had somehow gotten caught on holovid. One of the men, meanwhile, opened the door with a card key and they dragged the woman inside.
At this point, an average person might have called the cops. The Division of Law Enforcement is notoriously hostile to individuals who kidnap women off the streets. My experiences, though, have taught me to beware of jumping to conclusions like that. For all I knew, putting my lady in gray in the hands of the cops would have been as bad or worse for her as leaving her where she was. You hang around the streets of Camineet long enough, you realize that pretty much everyone's got an angle.
So, I didn't play Good Little Citizen and dial up the DLE. Instead I called a guy I know. The vidscreen lit up on the third ring.
"Evening, Dace," I said. Dace Maxwell looks like the leader of a hunter team, which is what he is. Pale cyan hair, holovid idol's face, lean, whipcord body--all of them fit the generic pattern. "I was hoping you'd be in."
"Yo, Redflare. Been too long. You've got to work on that whole communication thing, man. The only time we see you lately is on the job."
Now, understand that I am not a hunter. I am a magician. The closest I got to being a hunter was when I ran with the WizKids, a short-lived tech-gang, in my misspent youth. Like most tech-gangs, we went in for the whole medieval Esper wizard thing, which is how I got my street name. Today, I'd probably just have stuck with Rick Denton, but that's the difference between sixteen and twenty-three. The fact is, for the few years I was in the WizKids I worked hard at developing my skills at technique use (it being the closest thing to real magic any of us could find), and I'd gotten good enough that Dace and his crew sign me up now and again when they need an extra techmaster to round out a job and I need some extra cash to keep myself in playing cards.
"You're being ironic and you don't even know it, bud. I need some help."
"You in trouble?"
I shook my head.
"Not me, somebody else." I gave him the newsblip version of events, and Dace broke out laughing.
"Redflare, you serious? You want us to help you rescue somebody you don't know from people you also don't know who grabbed her for reasons you, again, don't know?"
"Yeah, that's pretty much the size of it."
"You got anything other than friendship as why I should be putting my life and those of my crew on the line just because you've got a soft spot for the cuties?"
It did sound lame, now that I thought of it. Extremely lame, as a matter of fact. Dace and his team would be jumping in with both feet before even looking to see if there was any water in the pool.
"She might be grateful," I suggested, "and she did tip a street magician fifty meseta."
Dace scowled. It was speculative, at best, and hunters didn't generally like to work on speculation. When your line of business involves getting shot at, you rarely enjoy doing freebies unless it was personal.
"Okay," he finally decided. "But if we don't get paid, you're gonna work it off. Next job we want you for, you do free of charge."
"Deal. I'm at--"
"We know. We'll meet you there."
I tried to think of how the hunters knew, until I realized that Nima, the blue-furred Motavian girl who was their gridrider, could easily trace my call to a physical location through the datanet in under a minute. She hung out at Dace's place a lot, which was good because Nima was the type who'd forget to eat if someone didn't unplug her now and again.
The whole time I was waiting, I kept having to fight off the urge to bust in the abandoned factory's door and save her myself. The funny thing is, I knew how crazy it was but that didn't stop me wanting to try. The kidnappers had looked like major hardcases, and from the lady's frightened expression she'd known it or something like it was going to happen. That's about the ultimate in bad tastes in my mouth. I began to wonder if this was love at first sight or premature senility, and which would be worse.
I'll say this for Dace; he was fast. A nondescript brown van pulled up within fifteen minutes, and I got in the back. There was no back seat; Dace and Myrlock sat in the back while Isis drove and her brother Kemet occupied the passenger seat. Dace tossed me a slimline headset, a commlink like they all wore so Nima, who was halfway across town hooked up to a computer via a full-immersion virtual reality rig, could keep in touch.
"Okay, Redflare," Dace said, "this is your party. What's the score?"
"Nothing fancy. The lady is in trouble, and we need to get her out of it. I'm fairly certain that this isn't a kidnapping for ransom, so any delay might be too much." I didn't like to think about that.
"Why not a ransom job?" Myrlock asked. Like me, his role on the team was as a tech-user, but he specialized in destructive techniques like FOI, GRA, and ZAN whereas my abilities tended to be of a more indirect nature. Also like me, he'd grown up in the tech-gangs and even now his carbonsuit and long fibercoat were festooned with fetishes, amulets, and charms--none of them any use, but part of his style as a "wizard."
"Girl was scared," Dace said succinctly, slipping a powerpack into his Inverness AN-9 laser shot. The compact weapon was a nasty piece of artillery, but it was actually only his backup. The hunter's primary weapon was the ceramic longsword he wore slung across his back; with it he could wreak serious havoc among his foes.
Myrlock gave his leader a puzzled look.
"Do you mind running through that again in complete sentences?"
The voice of an electronic sylph chimed in over our commlinks.
"The girl was afraid before the kidnapping attempt began," Nima explained. "That means she was expecting trouble. Most kidnappings for ransom are essentially random events, so..."
"So," Isis chimed in, "a ransom kidnapping would not provide any stimulus to which the prospective victim could respond with fear until the actual moment of the event."
Isis had really thrown me the first time I'd met her. She looked like an action movie's idea of a "hunter babe"--dusky skin, ruby eyes and hair, wearing skintight white leather. Yeah, it was laced with carbon-fiber armor, and if she was walking into a firefight she'd augment it with a cape of titanium mesh, but combat efficiency was not the first idea anyone got when they saw her for the first time, which was why her college-professor voice and upper-crust accent took everyone she met flatfooted. Including me. Book and its cover and all that.
"Yo," Kemet spoke up. He had the same looks as his twin and the same accent, but his dialogue was much more what I was used to hearing. "Not to put a wet blanket on all this analysis, but we're about to come full circle around the block again, and sooner or later someone's going to spot us and decide we're up to no good."
"There should be an alley to your right, Isis. Go that way," Nima cut in. From her oversight position in the datanet, the gridrider could access city schematics, ownership records, building blueprints, and a wide variety of other data which she could use to guide the team. She couldn't always predict real-world events such as delivery trucks blocking key shortcuts, but her success rate was excellent, as it was thus far on this job.
"There should be a kind of cul-de-sac at the end of the alley where the plant's loading dock was," Nima continued. "It leads to a back door. You should be able to get in from there."
"Worth a shot," Dace agreed.
Isis parked the van and the team got out. The bare pavement surrounded by blank concrete and brick walls stank of pollution and garbage; it was a grim, almost iconic representation of the harshness of the arch'.
All of a sudden I got very, very worried for my lady in gray.