Revenge it was to be, then. Or perhaps poetic justice would have been the better term. Martinez had been disloyal to his employer, then disloyal to his lover, and now the second betrayal was going to make him suffer the consequences of the first.
Dace was able to minimize the dangers posed by this course because he had a reliable contact in LIM Security. Not that anyone was necessarily reliable in their biz; everyone had a price. Even his own crew. That might be the biggest reason I've never turned to hunting full-time. It's a game where everyone's got an angle. I prefer magic, where I hold all the cards.
He made the call from a public phone, with Nima running oversight in the datanet to confuse trace programs and taps, not only at our end but on the other as well.
"Do you think this...Rafe Frederichs will help us?" Vaya asked nervously when Dace returned to the van.
"Yeah, he's in," the hunters' leader answered.
"How far can you trust him?" I asked. He gave me a sharp look. Dace was the leader, after all, the man in charge, and not used to me giving him backtalk. There was a difference, though, on this job. Before, I'd been hired help, an outsider, an extra added to his team. Now I was the boss, the one hiring the team (well, more like acting as fixer for Vaya, who had agreed to provide the money), and our roles were essentially reversed. It took Dace about a second and a half, tops, to pick up on that, so his brain cut off whatever wisecrack he was going to toss at me before his mouth opened.
"Fair enough," he answered. "He's straight--that is, he works for the corp, not some interoffice faction. Plus he wants to move up to a desk. Big coup like this'll help him."
"If he's that ambitious," Kemet asked from the front seat, "d'you think he'd consider going to Martinez instead? Nice to have a division chief in your pocket."
"Not if that division chief intends to leave the corporation within a short period of time," his sister corrected him. "It is not wise to link your fortunes to a fading star."
"Far brighter to bust the defector before he can give Scion-Colesburg billions and cop the cred for it," Myrlock agreed.
"So what's the plan?" I asked.
"He'll meet us tonight, and Vaya will give him the datapak."
Vaya's brilliant green eyes widened.
"Why can't we deliver it for her instead of putting Vaya in danger?" I asked, a bit belligerently. "I want her out of the line of fire."
Dace shook his head.
"Frederichs wants to talk to her and hear her story personally. You know the drill, Redflare. He's not going to commit himself without stopping to judge how it feels to his gut."
Reluctantly, I nodded. From the Luveno sec-agent's point of view, this might all be a put-up job, a smear by Martinez's enemies. He'd have his computer people run over the datapak to check for judicious editing, but before that he'd want to get his own "read" on things. The good ones got an instinct about that kind of stuff.
The meet wasn't set for another couple of hours, so we took the opportunity to crash at an apartment the hunters kept as a safe house. We'd grabbed some chow from a First Food shop, and Vaya was grateful to get some food into herself, even if it was just burgers and cola. The hunters took the opportunity to check over their equipment, making sure that nothing had been damaged in the raid on the printing plant. That gave Vaya and I the chance to talk in private.
"I'm going to lose my job, you know," she said, propping her chin on the heel of her hand. She stared out of the window, looking out at the city as twilight settled into place and the manmade lights and neon signs came out to replace Algo. "By the time this is settled, I'll have spent a week or more away from work without leave. Disappearing from my home, I can't even claim to be sick."
Vaya turned back to me.
"Do you know, I hadn't even thought about that until now," she realized.
"Good for you. If you had gone to work, those muscleboys would have grabbed you at lunch or something. You threw them off for quite a while by not hesitating."
She smiled gratefully.
"You know a lot about these things."
"I'm a magician. No one knows better than we do about keeping your mind on the essentials and not getting distracted by smoke and mirrors."
Vaya drew her legs up on the bed and laced her fingers around one knee.
"I still haven't properly thanked you for saving me. Why did you do it? You didn't know me or anything about me, but you recruited those hunters and came after me. Why? Why risk your life?"
Good question. Damn good question.
"I've been wondering about that myself," I said. "It doesn't really sound like a sane thing to do, does it?"
Her mouth quirked up at the corners.
"I mean, if you were in my position and you felt civic-minded enough to help, you'd have whipped out your visiphone and called the DLE. Kidnapping's on the list of things the cops are paid to solve, after all. You wouldn't follow yourself, or bust in on the kidnappers."
Especially when I didn't have the meseta to pay for the rescue. Fortunately, Vaya did, and she had been willing to make good on that and pay for arranging the meet with Frederichs. Nima had known enough tricks to disguise the electronic trail left by the credit transfer out of Vaya's account, so her pursuers could learn that she'd hired someone and for how much but not who, which was the key information for tracing a physical location off a payment to a private person.
"I guess I've got it narrowed down to two possibilities," I continued.
Vaya rocked back and forth ever so slightly.
"What are they?"
"One, I'm getting a knight-in-shining-armor complex and just can't help rescuing damsels in distress." Laugh not; it happened to hunters sometimes. The cold, hard life of being a mercenary constantly wary of crosses and double-crosses ground down the soul, and more than one hunter had retreated into romantic illusions of being a hero of the common citizen. Some even managed to live up to that ideal, though most just used it as an excuse to keep from going any farther off their heads than they already were.
"Or, two, something just struck me about you. Maybe it was that you liked my magic. Or maybe it was what you said about hope. You know, one minute you've just had your faith in happy endings restored, even if just by a little bit, and then the next you're being snatched by those thugs. That's just not right, if you see what I mean."
She tilted her head a bit to the right, gazing at me with those glittering green eyes.
"Maybe I do," she mused. "It certainly was magic for me. That's twice you've appeared just when I was at my lowest and gave me a fresh chance. Card tricks may just be sleight of hand, but you're definitely a real magician, Redflare."
I extended my hand.
"Redflare's a name for chums and marks," I said. "You can call me Rick."
She smiled at me. That had a magic all its own.
* * * * *
Rafe Frederichs had picked the parking garage adjacent to the Abion Rose Hotel for the meet. Through the open sides of the fourth level, I could see the Rose's ornate, old-world design set alight by glittering lamps set around the grounds and into the facade. No coffinshop, this; the Abion Rose was a veritable palace--enough of one, in fact, that I had a deck of cards where the hotel appeared as the picture on the ace of castles. Guests had their own parking; the garage was for the convenience of the staff and other support personnel, as well as the general public.
As might be expected, the garage came fully equipped with security cameras, alarms, and guards, but this wasn't a worry. Isis had wired a datanet uplink into the system, which allowed Nima to hack into a computer which ordinarily wouldn't have been accessible from the outside. The Motavian gridrider smoothly channeled images from before we arrived (moving ones, nonetheless, as still frames would have been too obvious) to the guards' monitors while keeping an eye on the real security feed for herself.
Sometimes, I find technology a hell of a lot more amazing than magic.
The landskimmer that pulled into the designated spot was a sleek goldtone sedan that screamed "middle management." It was a Luveno Motor Vehicles Terradyne, which might have earned Frederichs a couple of company-loyalty brownie points, or might just have been a company skimmer. Either way, the choice definitely fit Dace's description of the sec-agent as having management ambitions.
The man who got out of the Terradyne matched the physical description Dace had given us as well, confirming that I hadn't just been psychoanalyzing the guy based on the skimmer of somebody who'd swiped his parking space. He had a boyish face, neat brown hair, and a lean, athletic build that reminded me of Kemet's, built for agility rather than brute force. He wore a black two-piece suit, white shirt, and a green and gold (LIM's corp colors, of course) tie. I assumed out of hand that the outfit was an exec-styled carbonsuit, given the man's job, and further assumed that it was expertly tailored because I didn't see any weapons and it was a near certainty that he had one. Isis remained in the van, ready for a getaway, and Kemet was staked out to cover the meeting ground. That left Dace, Myrlock, and myself to escort Vaya forward.
"All right," Rafe said, skipping the introductions, "is this who I'm here to meet?"
"She is," Dace told him. "Why'd you pick this charming spot for the meet instead of one of our usual places?"
"I'm the head of a security detail at the Abion Rose tonight. I don't want to be seen anywhere except where I'm supposed to be so no one gets the idea I'm holding on to a new project until after I bust Martinez. Tipping off a division chief that I'm about to put him on the hot seat isn't one of the better career moves."
He turned his attention to Vaya.
"So you're the one, then?"
"That's right," she said, her voice low but firm. She was scared, but resolved to put Javi Martinez in his place.
"Let's have it, then."
Vaya told him the whole story, much as she'd told it to us. Frederichs stopped her now and again to ask her to explain or clarify a point. I suspected that these were as much a test as they were legit requests for information. The truth would be supported by background details, the memories of everyday life, but wouldn't be too pat. A story that was too thin or too seamless would be suspicious, and if the sec-agent was half as experienced as Dace made him out to be he'd know just where to probe for the right responses.
When she finally got to the end, Frederichs was nodding. Either he believed Vaya or he didn't want to make an issue of it. He held out his hand.
"Let's have the recording, then," he said.
I was the one carrying it, so I plucked it out of one of my vest pockets. I was about to put the datapak in Frederich's hand when Nima gave us a heads-up that the exchange wasn't going to be easy any more.
"You've got incoming," she said. "Four guys who look remarkably like the ones from whom you rescued Vaya."
Dace cursed loudly.
"Just once, why can't anything go down easy?"
"Trouble?" Frederichs asked. Without a headset, he wasn't privy to Nima's conversation.
"Got a warning from our gridrider. We're made."
"I fail to comprehend how it was possible for them to find us," Isis observed. "We searched carefully for electronic tracking devices, both on Ms. Sedgewick's person and on the van."
"Hell, that's an easy one," Myrlock said. "I just phoned them up and told them an hour ago. Give me the datapak, Redflare."
The expressions of shock, disbelief, and astonishment that flashed across everyone's face was highly reminiscent of how the mark looked way back at the start of all this when I'd pulled his card. Only this time, we were the marks, and Myrlock was doing the tricks. My fist closed around the recording.
"Give it to me," he warned darkly. "I've been sitting on a GIZAN since the start of all this. One funny move and you're all going down." He held out his hand insistently, keeping the other raised before his face, ready to guide his technique use. I reached out, opened my fist, and dropped the pack into his palm.
Myrlock grinned nastily.
"Thanks. Glad to see you're playing it smart." He backed away from us towards the interior edge of the level, which overlooked the third floor below. "Holst, I've got it!" he called.
"Good. Drop it over," a voice barked back.
It didn't take a warning from Nima to tell me that the muscleboys were a level down, waiting for Myrlock to drop the recording to them. He didn't turn and drop it, just reached back and let it fall--no way was he going to take his eyes off us for a moment. I heard the loud roar of the landrover engine, and knew that Holst hadn't dropped the pak on his end.
"Looks like this piece of biz is done," Myrlock said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a ride to catch. HI-"
He never finished the HINAS technique, which would have teleported him outside the building to meet up with his new buddies on their way out. Suddenly, he clapped his hands to his ears, his face a twisted mask of agonizing pain. With a titanic effort, he ripped the commlink off his head--the commlink through which Nima had pumped a few hundred decibels, nearly blowing out his eardrums--but it was too late. The brilliant blue-white beam from Dace's AN-9 punched through his heart a hair's-breadth before the globule of caustic chemicals fired from Isis' acidshot started eating into his flesh with a nasty sizzle.
"Efficient," Frederichs noted, "but I'm afraid that without the recording as evidence, our business is concluded."
He turned towards the elevator, no doubt to get to his job.
"Hey," I called.
"You're forgetting something."
I admit it; I grinned. Magicians aren't supposed to get smug, especially after something as simple as a slight of hand switch. The way everyone gaped as I held up the datapak, though, made it positively irresistible.
"Wait a sec. I saw Myrlock toss the pak to the goons. No way you could have snatched it back," Dace protested.
"You're absolutely right, and I'm sure Martinez will enjoy watching it. It's the holovid recording of Jinn Krystal's '71 tour, from Gothic--the enhanced version, too." I'd snagged it from the safe house's holovid rack and removed the label just in case Frederichs tried something funny.
"Redflare, today you are the man. C'mon, let's blow this joint. We've gotta get Vaya under cover before the good squad comes after her again."
"I'd have sworn you gave him the same datapak you were holding," Kemet marveled.
"I think that's the point," Dace said.
"No," Vaya corrected with a brilliant smile, "that's magic."