Where Ronnie Killstar would have answered with some inane barb, La Plante just nodded. 'Very well.' He leaned over and whispered something in the redhead's ear. As she reached over and picked up my mug, he spoke. 'You've not tried your beer. I assure you it has not been tampered with.'

She sipped and returned the mug to its place on the armrest. As she licked her lips I felt an urge to procreate, then counted to ten-no, fifteen-to regain control. 'Sorry,' I said, and smiled, 'but after the Weed, drinking in here just wouldn't be the same. You understand.' For her benefit I added, 'Maybe another time…'

The door opened again. La Plante's chauffeur hovered by the door with my gun in hand. 'Tonight, Mr. Kies, at warehouse building 18b, on the docks. We will give you the southern and western approaches. I would prefer this to be an intimate gathering.'

'My feelings exactly. You bring a dozen of your grunges and I'll consider it even.' I succeeded in getting myself perched on the edge of the seat. 'And leave Ronnie at home…'

La Plante waved my last remark off with a silvery flourish of his right hand. 'Do not concern yourself with him. He has been assigned new duty. He'll be feeding fish for the foreseeable future.'

The Chauffeur handed me the pistol, then swung the door shut. I smiled at him and his plastic mask of servitude cracked. 'Someday, Wolf, it will come down to you and me. I'll make it quick. I want you to know that.'

I met his mirror-eyed stare with my number two nasty glare. 'Good, I like that. If a fight goes on too long, the blood stains set and then you can never get them out…'

His plastic mask back in place, he turned and walked away. Though every olfactory nerve ending in my nose protested mightily, I reentered the Weed. My beer still waited on the table, but Ronnie Killstar and the Wonton boys had vanished. I waited and sniffed, but I couldn't smell the mulch drippings that passed for Ronnie's cologne.Given how that stuff smells and sells, the Weed here could bottle its mop sloppings and make a fortune. I shook my head.Never happen -they'd actually have to mop this place.

Instead of returning to my table, I walked over to the jacktables. I pulled the bug from inside my jacket and tossed it on the black woman's deck. 'Did you get it all?'

Valerie Valkyrie, Raven's newest aide, gave me a smile that made me forget La Plante's taste-tester. 'Everything, including your pulse rate and blood pressure when she sucked on your beer.'

I felt the burn of a blush sweeping across my face, and it grew hotter as it pulled a giggle from her throat. 'We'll discuss how much of that makes it into the report for the Doctor later. Right now we've got work to do.'


'All right, Zig and Zag, let's go through the drill one more time.'

Zag frowned and the razor claws on his left hand flicked out, then retracted with the speed of a snake's tongue. 'We've got names…'

I raised myself up to my full height, which put me a centimeter or so taller than the smaller of them. 'And right now they're Zig and Zag. You're local talent and I'm your Mr. Johnson. Now, you claim you want to join this elite circle? Fine, this is a tryout. Try living with new names for a second or two, got it?'

Zig elbowed Zag and they both nodded. For street samurai they weren't bad. Zag had gone the obvious route of adding chrome in the form of razor claws grafted to his hands and some retractable spurs that popped up from the top of his feet. He'd replaced his right eye with a rangefinder modification linked to the scope on his autorifle. He'd gone a bit far, in my mind, by having a fluorescent orange cross hairs tattooed over that eye from hairline to cheekbone and ear to across his nose, but it came close enough to warpaint that I could understand it. Still, I knew if I was on the other end of a sniper rifle, that would make a real nice target.

Zig had been more discreet. He'd gone in for body work. From the way he moved I knew he'd had his reflexes cranked up to move with the speed of something between a Bengal tiger and a striking cobra. I didn't see any body blades, but he was a bit more subtle than his partner so he might not have flashed them. I also got the impression he'd had some dermal sheathing implanted to protect his vital organs-a wise choice. One never knows where those replacement organs were grown, and the failure percentage on cut-rate Khmer hearts made having a Band-Aid slapped on the old one look like a good bet for survival.

'Val and I are going to jack into the Matrix. No one should be able to track us to where we're going, but we can't be a hundred percent certain of that. I need you two to be alert and careful because when we bust the system we're going after, things could get messy. What do you do if there's trouble?'

Zag grumbled and walked over to where my MP-95rested on the bed. 'We slap the trades off you and hand you this toy. Then we get the wirehead out of here.'

Val didn't notice the rancor in Zag's voice at his having been shot down earlier. When he asked if she would be interested in a little horizontal tango to 'relieve the tension,' she looked at him as if he were a deck with 'Made in UCAS' stamped on its side. Zig and I shared a smile as Zag's anger deepened when Val continued to ignore him.

'Good. That's it. You get her out and get her to the place she tells you. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine.'

'Or dead.' Zag hefted one of the spare clips for my MP-9 submachine gun. 'Freaking nine-millimeter toy and you've got silver bullets? Who do you think you are, the Lone Ranger?' He thumbed one bullet from the clip and tossed it to Zig.

Easy, Wolf. Better this tough guy act to hide his nerves than him falling apart on you.'I think I'm your Mr. Johnson-and a superstitious one at that.'

Zig looked closely at the silver bullet in his hand. 'Drilled and patched. You got mercury in there to make the bullet explode?'

I shook my head solemnly. 'Silver nitrate solution. Physics is the same, the result is nastier. Burns as it goes.'

5Yeah, yeah. It's another antique gun, but it shoots straight, which is all I ask. Stealth keeps my guns as well tuned as my mechanic does my Mustang, so they work. Besides, the MP-9 is considered such a toy by most gillettes that they don't see it as much of a danger until one of its bullets is finished making an exit wound.

Zig tossed the bullet back to his partner. 'You planning on hunting a werewolf or something?'

'Were you in Seattle during the Full Moon Slashings?'

The mention of that series of killings tore Val away from her deck. 'A half-dozen years ago? That was the first anyone had heard of Dr. Raven, wasn't it?'

'Yeah.' I let that one-word answer hang there long enough for all three of them to realize I wasn't going to say anything specific about that outing. 'After that I've carried silver bullets. Never want to be without them if you need them.'

Val shivered. 'Viper too?'

'Amen.' I forced myself to smile and break the mood. 'You got that Hibatchi chip encoder prepped yet?'

Val scolded me. 'Hitachi, Wolf, and you know it.'

I accepted a trode coronet from her slender fingers and pulled it onto my head. I adjusted it so the electrodes pressed against my temples and ran back over the midline of my skull. Val reached over and tightened the band to improve the contact, then she clipped the dangling lead into a splice cable. She slid that jack into the slot behind her left ear, then flipped a switch on the deck.

I winked at her. 'Let's do it.'

She winked back and hit a button on the keyboard. 'Play ball.'

Doc Raven had warned me that Valerie Valkyrie was special, but until we plunged through that electric aurora wall of static and into the Matrix, I had no idea how special. I'd jacked into the Matrix before-who hasn't-but it had always been on a public deck where I ended up inside an entertainment system. Moving from game program to game program, I caught glimpses of the Matrix through the neat little windows the programmers had built into their systems, but I'd never had any desire to go out adventuring on my own. Before, the form and shape of the Matrix had always been decided by the local network controllers. Here in Seattle the RTG resembled a vector graphic of the urban sprawl it encompassed. Well-fortified nodes were surrounded by fences and walls, and Matrix security teams patrolled the electronic streets like cops cruising a beat. I'd heard it had been designed that way because it made the casual user feel like he was in familiar surroundings and thus easier to find his way

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