'That you will have to discuss with, er, Mr. Johnson.'

Ratstomper piped up. 'Johnson? Johnson? That name's familiar. Hey, John Parker, you ever hear of a Johnson doing biz in Seattle?'

'Johnson? Yeah I heard of him. He's the short, tall, fat, skinny guy, ain't he? A real Mr. Corp.'

'I tink ya may be right, John Parker.' Kham poked the man with a horny-nailed finger. 'Okay, suitboy, when do we meet yer Mr. J.?'

'Ten o'clock at Club Penumbra. Back room three.' Kham grabbed the man's shoulder and thrust him out into the street. 'Ya said yer piece. Vacate.'

Catching himself before he fell, the man straightened up, stiff with repressed anger, or maybe fear. His eyes would have told the tale, but they were hidden by his dark glasses. He mumbled something, then set about straightening his clothes. By the time he'd arranged himself to his satisfaction, a black Ares City-master was rolling down the street toward him. It didn't have Lone Star markings, but that didn't mean it wasn't the cops. The twin machine guns in the turret said that; police-issue cars mounted water cannons.

The armored riot vehicle stopped behind the suit. He gave the orks a last hard, unfriendly smile, then climbed in. Kham and the others didn't bother to watch the Citymaster roll away, but they stayed quiet until it was gone. John Parker was the first to speak.

'Hey, Kham, Penumbra is Sally's territory.'

Kham shrugged. 'Dis ain't Sally's kind of job.'

'You don't know dat,' Ratstomper said.

Kham cuffed her. 'Lady Tsung ain't muscle. We're muscle. Dey's looking fer us. Dat means da Club's okay fer a meet. Even an elf-brain like you should be able to put dat tagedder.''

'So we taking it?' Rabo asked.

'Maybe. Call Sheila and Cyg. And have the Weeze check the armory.''

Kham didn't know what the job was yet, but he knew

he needed it. They all did; it had been too long since their last run. And they needed more than the money; they needed a boost in their rep and a new chance to show just how tough they were. A good run now would start the biz rolling in again. Then let the other runners in town look out. He'd show them all that he could run a gang as smooth as Lady Tsung herself. He might not have the ju-ju Sally brought to her team, but his guys had plenty of firepower, and he hadn't yet met a wage mage who didn't bleed when you shot him. Guns were still a good way to take out opposition magicians. A bleeding mage had a lot more on his mind than backing up the rest of the corporate goon squad with magic.

This job was muscle spec and his guys were primo muscle, something the shadow side of Seattle was going to know real soon. But first they had the meet, and he had to get ready for that.

At long last, Kham was ready to go home.

Meeting face to face with a client was not business as usual for Neko Noguchi. Personal contact between principal and runner was a rare thing in the shadows of Hong Kong. That was what made this intriguing.

Most of those who employed him preferred to work through virtual conferences such as Magick Matrix offered. It was a clean, safe way to do business. No one need be concerned for personal safety, because the participants did not physically attend the meeting. They sat around the virtual conference room in the form of computer- generated icons of themselves, running no risk of physical or magical danger. No concern for eavesdroppers, either, as long as one trusted the Magick Matrix staff. And that was reasonable enough because Magick Matrix employed some of the best deckers in the world and their entire livelihood depended on their integrity. The firm was something like an old Swiss bank, except they dealt in conversations instead of money. Magick Matrix didn't care who you were, who you were talking to, or what you talked about; your conversation was the 'money'' they were safekeeping. All they asked was a fee for the service. Not always a small fee, either. That was something Neko understood; how could you trust someone to do something for you if he asked no compensation?

This meet had been arranged through just such a conference at Magick Matrix. Usually by now Neko would be running, or looking for another Mr. Johnson, but he had to be philosophical about it. The retainer that appeared on his credstick after the conference had, of course, made it much easier to be philosophical about the delay in getting to the heart of the matter.

Though meetings were intriguing in their own right and the byplay between prospective clients and him could be highly entertaining, he wasn't used to more than one interview for a run. He couldn't decide if he found the necessity for a second interview an insult, or a goad; the unusual always made him want to know more. A second layer of security might mean that the principal was paranoid, a not unlikely scenario in this world. It could also mean that this matter was one of import. Either way, there was business to do.

Without a doubt, his rep was spreading, and that pleased him.

Pleasure always came after business, unless it was a part of the business-as satisfying his curiosity would be. Having reached the place appointed for the meet,

Neko had the urge to stop and consider it for a moment, but if he stood in the middle of the street staring up at Logan Tower, the crowds bustling around him would probably either bowl him over or sweep him completely away. At the very least, some minor predator would mark him as a target and try to lighten his | burden by removing valuables from his person. 1 Though he had no fear of the second possibility, Neko I was concerned about the first. The crowd was beyond his abilities to control. To remove their threat, he stepped out of the traffic flow into the lee of a vege- f table stand. The scrawny, over-priced legumes had no interest for him, but the cart on which they were piled shielded him from the torrent of humanity surging j along the street. He looked up. j Logan Tower was one of the newer buildings on the 1 island, and one of the tallest in the world. As one of I the new skyscrapers of the new world, it had few rivals. Even the previous century's giants like the now -fallen Sears- IBM Tower and the Empire State Building could not have matched it. Logan Tower had been built after the megacorporations had asserted their control over the Hong Kong territory and disposed of the British stalking horses who had led the re-separation of Hong Kong from China. The tower was an arrogant spire, thrusting like an angry finger from the fist of lesser skyscrapers and pseudo-arcologies. It was a gesture to the mainland, made by defiant corporate interests.

Logan Tower embodied the open and free commerce of the city. Though no single megacorp owned it, or even occupied a majority of its space, many had offices there. Even the frail and self-important local government was housed among its many levels. But commerce was Logan Tower's reason for existence and commerce was its lifeblood. Commerce, of a sort, had brought Neko here today.

He thought about checking his appearance, but could see no effective way to do so. He had to take it on faith that the suit he wore for the meet was as impeccable as when he'd put it on. It was a salaryman's suit, the uniform of a corporate drone, and Neko had arranged the rest of his appearance to match. As his master had so often said, 'To blend, everything must appear as it should, nothing must be out of place.' Including attitude. He assumed the self-centered, casually arrogant stance of a moderately highly placed corporate wage slave, and strode through the crowd.

The crowd accepted him, the lesser strata parting in deference and those of his apparent rank accommodating him wordlessly into their own navigation plans. The guards at the tower's entrance let him pass without a glance, but those at the second barrier, who controlled access to the lifts serving the upper reaches of the tower, were less nonchalant. Nevertheless, the identification and access cards he offered them were satisfactory to their computers. They passed him through.

Neko relaxed a little when he was safely into the elevator. There had been a small possibility that the cards he had been provided at Magick Matrix might have been designed to entrap him here. That possibility still remained, for a bad interview might see the cards cancelled before he could ride the lift back to ground level. A paranoid thought, perhaps, but then paranoia was life in the shadows. Surreptitiously, he checked the hidden pocket where he carried a second set of cards, courtesy of Cog, his fixer.

The car stopped on the seventy-fifth floor, a floor devoted to an exclusive club. Neko exited, crossing the Persian carpet and then through the wood-paneled foyer to the podium. The man standing behind it was well- dressed and groomed, in an oily sort of way. He

would be the maitre d'. He spoke as soon as Neko had closed to a reasonable distance.

'Good day, sir. Welcome to our establishment-. You are…?'

'Watanabe,' Neko replied, using the name on the identity card he carried.

'Ah yes, Watanabe-san. You are expected. Please follow me.'

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