I ignored the question as a droplet of sweat burned into the pinprick at my throat. 'I want proof she's still alive.'

The punk snapped his fingers and one of the Buddha brothers produced a portacomp and slipped a small optical disk into the unit. I took it from him and hit the Play button. The LCD screen flickered to life and I saw Moira Alianha standing calmly before a wall screen trideo display. She moved back and forth in front of it, and I concentrated on how her long black hair trailed out and through the image. If they'd recorded her moving before a blank screen, then masked in a recent program to make me think she was still alive, the process would have broken down on those fine details.

It looked clean to me, but I didn't want to give Ronnie the satisfaction of knowing I thought he'd done something right. 'A simchip would have been better.'

It was an effort for him to roll his cybereyes to heaven. 'And we could have brought her here with a brass band and an army of grunges3, but we don't think we're going to recover our overhead on this one. Satisfied?'

I tapped the Disconnect and pocketed the device. 'She's alive.'

Ronnie smiled like a gambler holding four of a kind. 'Mister La Plante has a client who has offered us a great deal of money for Moira Alianha with her maidenhead intact. How can Raven make it worth our while to turn her over to him instead?'

I tried to suppress the wince, but the additional construction on either side of Ronnie's smile showed me I'd failed. Dr. Raven lost no love on Etienne La Plante, but recovering Moira and returning her to Tir Tairngire meant he had to suppress his feelings and deal with the man. As Ronnie's smile cooled into a smug look of superiority, I decided Kid Stealth might have been right in the first place: bring the whole crew in and take La Plante's crime empire apart.

3Yeah, I know grunge is fairly vulgar slang for ork, but the term applied to the orks who worked for La Plante. I think he found stupid ones, then fed them paint chips to dull down any native intelligence they had. Since he used them mostly as mobile weapon transport and trigger fingers, brains weren't vital. As we used to joke, to work for La Plante, you took an intelligence test: if you failed you were in.

'It won't guarantee we save the girl,' Doc had told him.

'Yeah,' said the Kid, 'but it'll feel gigabytes better than helping that slime.'

I rested my elbows on the table and steepled my fingers. 'I have been authorized to offer you the Fujiwara shipping schedule for the next six months in return for the girl. We can make the exchange tonight.'

For all often seconds Ronnie got that divine-revelation look on his face. Suddenly he realized how big a game he was involved in, and how small a player in it he was. Then his eyes hooded over as the little maggot figured out how important Moira Alianha had to be for the Doctor to offer that kind of hot-byte data for her. A thought shot off on the wrong branch of his neural network and he began to believe in his own importance.

He scoffed at the offer and began to ease himself out of the booth. 'Maybe. I'll talk to La Plante and let you know. You can wait here until then.'

My right leg swept out and hooked up between his legs. I drew my knee up, jerking him and his squishy parts against the edge of the table. That knocked the wind out of him and caused him to jackknife forward. I grabbed a handful of his stringy blond hair with my left hand and tucked the barrel of my Viper in his left ear.

A Killer Ring stare kept the karma twins at bay.

'That was a wrong answer, Ronnie.' I eared the hammer back on the Viper 14 even though that was unnecessary on the double-action pistol. 'Mr. La Plante, I know you'd not be who you are if you let an idiot like this conduct your negotiations for you without keeping tabs on him. I'd guess you've bugged Yin and Yang here, unless you tricked this dolt into carrying a set of ears on himself.'

A glint of gold from the cloisonne orchid pin on Ronnie's lapel had given him away. 'Very good, Mr. La Plante. Your gang's trademark pin is a listening device. I salute your foresight. I suggest your chauffeur pull the limo around so we can discuss things in private, say, in five minutes. We'll take a spin around the block and then you'll drop me back here. If not, I'm going to decorate the Weed's ceiling with something that'll add some real color.'

The Coors clock on the wall ticked off four and a half minutes before the door opened. The Chauffeur4, dressed in a spiffy uniform with creases sharp enough to cut like razors, nodded to me. I patted Ronnie patronizingly on the head. 'We'll have to do this again some time, when I have more time to play.'

Whatever Ronnie replied, it wasn't very polite and I put it down to his discomfort as I leaned heavily on his head while working my way out of the booth. The twin pillars of Eastern wisdom let me pass, and I made it to the doorway unmolested.

I handed the Viper to The Chauffeur and stepped into the street. The white Mitsubishi Nightsky stretch limo looked as out of place on the litter-strewn street as a wharf rat in the mayor's office, but that didn't stop it from being there. I waited as The Chauffeur scanned me with whatever he had for eyes behind those dark glasses of his, then smiled and entered the limo's dark interior.

Having grown up among the concrete alleys of Seattle, I thought of class as something you escaped from during the day. Despite my absolute loathing of anything and everything Etienne La Plante did and was, I

4I've always thought The Chauffeur was a dumb street name. Usually, in street names, you want something that suggests you're on top, like Tiger or King Cobra or something slick like that. Wolf, maybe, even. But The Chauffeur? I guess he liked it because he thought it made him sound like he was going places. still had to admit he looked classy. His double-breasted suit was cut from cloth of silver, yet-if possible-did not look ostentatious or flashy. His wavy white hair had been perfectly cut and combed, giving me the impression that I'd stepped into a boardroom for a long-planned meeting.

I settled into a velvet seat so comfortable I could have died happy in it, especially if the woman seated next to La Plante gave me another one of her I-want-to-have-your-baby-or-at-least-try-hard-at-it smiles. In the armrest at my left hand sat a frosted mug of beer-the half-empty bottle next to it proclaimed it to be Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve.

Very good, Etienne. My favorite. Is it true that you bought the brewery because you heard one of Raven's men loved the stuff?

La Plante refrained from offering me his right hand, but I didn't mind. If there was any flesh and blood left to it, the silver carapace hid it completely. I noticed, as he picked up his own mug of beer, that the hand articulated perfectly, but thenhe could afford perfection. I'd not heard of any assassination attempts against him, so I had to assume he had voluntarily maimed himself.

'I would apologize, Mr. Kies, for my underling's actions but, you understand, that was a test.' He shrugged wearily. 'After the bad blood between Dr. Raven and myself, you can hardly forgive my being suspicious.'

I gave him a quick smile that I broadened as I looked at his companion. 'You can call me Wolf.' I directed the comment more to the woman than La Plante and waited a half-second for a similar offer of intimacy from the crime boss or, more specifically,her. I continued when he ignored me-she was just being coy, I could tell. 'When Dr. Raven was informed that you had become the custodian for Ms. Alianha and was called upon by her elven guardians to get her back, he was forced to make some choices. I am sure you can understand that that negotiation was not the most popular course of action suggested.' La Plante nodded sagely. 'Former employees can be so, ah, vindictive, can't they?'

Sure, especially when you try to plant them in the harbor with their feet bound in a block of cement. No one would have figured Kid Stealth would blow off his own legs to escape that little death trap, but he did and survived. When your time comes, the timekeeper will be wearing shiny new legs and will move faster than even you remember.

'You heard our offer. You get the Fujiwara shipment schedules for the next six months in return for the girl. We'll burn you a chip. We can do the exchange tonight.'

La Plante's nonchalant expression remained rooted on his face. 'You have a decker good enough to get into Fujiwara that quickly? We're talking layers of protection-psychotropic 1C, defensive and offensive knowbots, expert constructs, you name it. Enough ice to give anyone a case of terminal frostbite.'

I smiled confidently. 'This decker is so hot the only way to stop her is to dunk her in liquid nitrogen and hit her with a hammer. We'll get the schedule for you.'

He hid his excitement at the offer well. 'How do I know the data will be good?'

I sat up straight. 'You have Dr. Raven's word on it.'

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