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Full Version: The Found Arcana - Chapter 7 [IC]
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Friday afternoon in mid-January would not seem like a promising time for clients to show up at a detective agency, but business this month has shown that some people can get off work early on a Friday, and so show up at SIS's door around 6pm, pour out their story, and still make it home to have dinner with their cheating spouse on time.

Mato is on door duty, this afternoon, but the offer comes as a voice call over the matrix so anyone could grab it. (Except Jawsey, who has gone off on either a fool's errand or a spiritual quest -- to take a handful of sand to his homeland, and to re-introduce himself to family who will definitely not recognize his face.)

The voice on the other end is female, sounding very formal, each word enunciated clearly. "Good afternoon, Seattle Investigative Services? I would like to hire you for a missing person's case. I cannot travel to your offices at this time, but I do have a backroom in Bellevue where we could meet. Once you confirm you are willing to come, I will provide the address."
Bobby was in the kitchen, preparing a late lunch for himself. He had been out and about - as usual, but for once he had kept strictly to his normal form, forcing himself to train his body. Now he was perusing a particularly interesting article about arcane theory when the call appeared on his AR monitor.
Without thinking, he picked up.

It was a sign of him mellowing, that he managed a polite reply:
"You are in luck, there is a gap in our schedule at 1600h. I assume you are familiar with out rates. We offer full spectrum service, so please ensure that our specialists are able to enter wards that might be on your premises."

When the call concluded, he sent a short message to the rest of the team about what he had just learned.
<<... So, who wants to drive?>>
AM spent her time trying to get into shape, a healthy mind in a healthy body. In addition, she was trying to piece together the information Mato has provided her into a clue. She knew that she should study magic, and she did but that felt more like a choir than fun. Seeking ancient information was exciting, there were deep, and more dangerous parts of the matrix where such data fragments may have survived. These followed different rules of the rest of the matrix, and accessing them was hard. AM used her hot simulation, and her avatar was a super fast dark elf sorcerer with a faint spider iconography on her clothes.

She was exploring a cave, a datacache - trying to get something relevant but enjoying the view. When Bobby tells her that she needs to hang out she hurries to the exit point which is an endless black hole in the ground. Looking down she sees the emptiness it is the edge of the simulation, and some basic software seems to manipulate into ignoring it. Making her fear stepping over the edge. She looks into the abyss for a brief moment and steps into it. Falling, flying, initially, there is a sense of great speed but then everything goes black and she has no idea how long she is falling. She wakes up shortly afterwards, disoriented with a slight headache and dehydration, her head on the table, with drool on her cheek, and the cold herbal tea that she never drunk. She quickly drinks the cold tea - she does not like it cold but it is punishment for such neglect. Things were just so exciting at that cave, and she almost found the file fragment.

"I need a proper workplace" she murmurs to herself, complaining that they have no proper decker layer like in the trids with a super comfortable chair and holographic displays. Reality is more modest than fantasy, and the small elf wipes her face clean. Bellevue - right now? Doesn't he know that it takes some preparation to go to a place with rich people and that her SIN might be scanned and burned? Oh well, if she looks like she belongs there perhaps they won't just arrest them on sight.

She feels the muscle pain of her morning session, the drow priestess avatar was just insanely powerful without training. How she wished it could be like that in real life, but real life sucks unless you are Mato or perhaps Bobby. She strokes Trouble, which is still oblivious to her experiences and adventures and hugs him closely. He stood by her the whole time, looking at her, worried.
"I am fine love" she tells the cat, I am just in a bit of a hurry so we'll do some magic. Let's do something fun together." she says, and opens a visual display of recent fashion trends in Seattle, trying to find something that would fit her.

"Here, let's do a dress like that for a high ranking secratery - and neat hair with a splash of wildness a purple dash. Are you ready?" She tells the cat, never receiving a formal answer - and not even needing to ask given their telephatic linkage. She goes to the mirror, curses the way she looks washes her face and begins with some Iktomi's confidence. She does not want a bleeding nose in her new look. First step is hair and nails, blonde bangs with a single purple one to not be completely boring. A quick manual work on the eyes, and then she undresses and looks at the pants suit from their nobility job.

"It is a bit too much... Let's make it look like the dress suit on the picture. Are you ready? We need to make the pants into a dress, and then play with the greys so that it is interesting, but within the boundaries. SINNers are a bit boring, like tamed animals. Their life are too comfortable, and they have rules for everything." she explains Troubles. The two work on the febric, and AM watches as it changes in front of her eyes to mimic the dress she wants to wear. "Fashion spell is so cool, and you are like the Ferry godmother." which leaves her to be cinderella going to the party - or to an everyday at the office in this case.

She dresses quickly, and then feels a bit exposed it is tight on her body, and the dress is a bit short showing legs until the knees. She feels pretty in a feminine rather than a juvenile manner. It makes her feel a bit worried, or excited or both. "What would turn heads in Redmond is regular in Bellevue." she needlessly explains the cat that "Bellevue is different Trouble, I cannot go with oversized man clothes and a sub-machine gun... this is the sure way to get arrested. What do you care? You will just vanish into the astral if it happens. I'll be the one enduring all the unpleasantries.

She grins at the mirror, satisfied with her look, wears nice shoes, and enters the living room a new person. DB would disapprove of such liberal use of magic, but he is a man without matrix access and he lives in a tent. He never needs to be a female at Bellevue with a fake SIN. "Emma Miller - I can remember that. "

AM grins at the little cat... "Nice work Trouble you understand nothing in etiquette but you are a real chummer.". In response, the cut just brushes himself at her legs. Standing, and allowing him to indulge himself she suggests "I'll drive. I'll use the new Emma Miller SIN so you can still call me em if you like.

[ Spoiler ]
Mato sees the call but Bobby is quicker on the response. Bobby is always quicker. That's okay; it saves Mato the effort of being polite.

"Bellevue," he says out loud, but more to himself than anyone else. "It always makes you wonder what their motivations are. You figure if they can afford Bellevue then they can afford someone expensive. So are they searching for a discount? Are they in financial distress? Or do they think the missing person might be in Redmond and they need local operators?"

In truth, the Johnson being in Bellevue might not matter much. The Bellevue-Redmond border was only a klick or two away and it's not like things got immediately nice on the other side. There's a Stuffer Shack on the other side of the border, but even that had a bombing a few years back when a few gangers pretending to be shadowrunners got carried away during an attempted hit.

Mato goes to get dressed. He has a Zo suit for situations like this, a handsome light-grey piece that he enjoys wearing. Except, when he tries to put it on, it doesn't fit.

"Ahh!" he growls, trying to button his shirt across his chest. The problem is that ever since he paid off hits debts, Mato's been eating better and even adding some muscle mass across his lats and pecs. His suit, custom fit for his smaller frame, is now bursting at the seams. For all his strength, he can't get his shirt to stretch. Or, more precisely, he could, but the fabric would rip.

"I can't button my shirt," he pouts, coming into the living room with his chest showing like a 20 pimp.

"Wow," he says, seeing AM dressed up. The compliment hangs in the air for a long moment before Mato walks out again to avoid having it be weird. Probably too late.

He goes back into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror and try again.

"I don't think this is going to work," he concludes. "But, as luck would have it, we have an AR fashion subscription that specializes in the latest trends in business wear. I'll just have to hope that the Johnson is using an AR overlay and doesn't see me looking like a beach bum in July rather than a private investigator in January."

He adds some synthleather gloves to cover his cyberhands, reasoning that they'll look reasonable in the winter weather. He loads his "Dirk Magnum" SIN that identifies himself as a private investigator goes back to see how Bobby and AM are coming along. AM clearly doesn't need it, but Bobby might benefit from the AR fashion subscription too.
Bobby looked confused for a moment, then the penny dropped: "You are all dolling up for Bellevue? That might be a problem. I haven't invested in a new wardrobe for about three years now."
That is quite obviously true. There is a reason why flats and second hand clothing dominates what little Bobby's wardrobe has to offer - jumping in and out of your attire by transformation isn't particularly material friendly.
"So I'll either need your help, AM, to make my stuff look less shabby, or I'll have to come with you as your emotional support dog."
There is no indication that Bobby would mind either solution.
Of course, he cannot bottom his shirt one sin leads to another she says and feels suddenly self-aware when Mato makes that comment. She never looks like a girl, aside from her delicate face, which she always balances with an automatic weapon. Then Mato disappears before she manages to react, and Bobby is checking her up. More reserved, but clearly curious.
When he suggests coming like a dog she comments "I have a cat already, and I told him to go astral. Then Troubles meows in a protest and AM responds to the cat "No seriously Trouble, people do not bring pets to business meetings. Life is not like that teenage witch trid-show." The young cat just hurls in response clearly disappointed.

She says to Bobby I want to blend in there, hence the outfit. Jawsey is not here, so I got some big shoes to fill if I want us to get paid well. We got some good clothes at the last gig I modified it with magic. My regular outfit is as problematic as yours for the same reasons. I can have a look at your clothes, perhaps we are lucky and some clothes can pass as ironic. Or I can change them to be passable. Another possibility is just to dress like a Sioux shaman and if anyone asks just say something cryptic about spirits. Powerful awakened can get away with almost any wiredness.

The cat meows at that last statement - as if AM is contradicting herself, but she just shrugs frustrated and does not speak to him further. Then Mato speaks out of the bathroom, with an outrageous suggestion to cover his muscular chest with AR only.
The Trickster is happy, and the more frustrated AM feels the more she feels his amusement. Jawsey is just charming and calm and is like the ideal silver tongue elf. Nice of the Trickster to send Jawsey away when we go to Bellevue, now they all expect me to do the talking with Mato half-naked and Bobby as a dog. AM rolls her eyes out and lets out a nervous shrug. One disaster at a time... I'll make sure Mato does not look like a Chippendale and be back with your problems.

AM approaches the bathroom and stands near the half-opened door "Can I come in Mato? I have this spell that I and Trouble used to refit my clothes from the mansion to this gig. It may work for you as well. Your chest is best seen in private. Let the ladies buy you a drink and get to know you a little bit..." She speaks and feels her cheeks and ears are turning red, not because she has not seen Mato half-naked. She had, but because she is a bit embarrassed to use her magic in that particular manner. She imagines Dancing Bear giving her that self-righteous look, first she channeled the power of the great spirits as a small one-time favor to look good in public. Now she does it so that Mato does not embarrass her - and should spirit help with fashion problems? It is not strictly forbidden, but none of her original cycles would have considered that. On the other hand, Iktomi loved disguises - and they were pretty much dressing to blend in on a different environment. There was not much time.
Bobby finally receives a message from the client <<Backroom is confirmed for the next three hours. 10045 NE 1st Street. Tell them you are expected in the back room.>>

A two second search resolves the address as belonging to The Juju Ice Cafe, a high end purveyor of frozen delights (including authentic hand made ice cream). It is located across the street from the Bellevue Downtown Park, where the security presence will certainly be strong.
"Yeah, come in," Mato tells AM.

"Let's talk this through,"
he says, continuing to stare at himself in the mirror, not quite making eye contact with AM to help her avoid her obvious embarrassment. "I really like what you've done with your uniform. That might be a good option here.

"Option 1. This suit doesn't fit anymore. I give this suit to Bobby and your magic tailors it to him. Then I wear the uniform from the mansion but you tailor it so that it doesn't look like something out of a British trid mini-series. Bobby has a suit, problem solved.

"Option 2. We try to get Bobby something on short notice. It's an ice cream shop on a Friday afternoon; he doesn't need to be wearing business clothes. He could be wearing something sporty, like Ares' Rapid Transit line, or even an Urban Explorer Jumpsuit."

He glances at Bobby, thinking that it was stranger to see Bobby in clothes than out of them.

"Option 3. He's a gerbil in my pocket.

"Option 4. We leave him in the car. Or, you know, running around the park across the street, sniffing butts with the other dogs."
Then AM feels guilty because suddenly Mato is making a lot of sense so, perhaps the message is that she is too uptight.
She grins when he mentions her suit, excited to finally have something practical to wear for meetings. She never had beautiful clothes before. Option one makes the most sense. It solves both the problems and the suit from the mansion while impractical in its current form is excellent fabric tailored to your needs, I'll just need to shift around accessories and change the color a little bit."

She could see the practicality in that suggestion and there were no rules against it. Usage of holy powers remained somewhat vouge with guidelines but no concrete dos and don'ts. So I use my holy link to our ancestors and to the great spirit for magical tailoring of clothes. It was more of a realization, while she was okay of that use, or at least managed to justify the necessity. AM would be embarrassed if another shaman finds out about it.

Within the next few minutes, she will cast a series of spells to make fashionable suits for her two colleagues. The spell should not be within the reach of her skill with such highly processed fabrics but with Iktomi's help, and with Trouble's help manipulation magic becomes so much more powerful, and yet it takes her six tries for both suits until she is satisfied with the results. Mato's old suit is reduced to Bobby's size and is modernized a little bit giving it an elaborate design of complex interplays between shades of dark greys. Matos new suit is changed entirely into a business attire eliminating all the relevance like extras and turning them into carefully sown and barely visible pockets. She works with an AR picture of a suit she is mimicking but tries not to make it look exactly the same so it won't be perceived as a knockoff. These suits are all one of a kind, and eventually, it feels good but has mild fatigue from that excessive spellcasting.

Here you go, two brand new suits of my own fashion design. Tailored modified with the generosity of the great spirits. I feel strange to even say it, but it is so much fun - all the benefits of a tailor at the tip of a finger, and I can do it while you are wearing the suit so no need to even take measures. "

[ Spoiler ]
Bobby smiled: "Thanks - I really appreciate that. Never really had a well tailored... well anything." While he talks, he also nods at Mato: "And thank you too. Now, can I borrow your mirror too? I need to modify my hair."
Even as they speak, the others can see Bobby's long hair growing... shorter, retracting into his scalp at respectable speed.

When they were ready to go, Bobby wore a very conservative short hair cut that made him look almost like a typical corporate drone, an impression that was enhanced by Mato's old/new suit he was wearing now.
Mato disrobes, barely giving AM enough time to escape the bathroom before Mato strips down to his underwear. (Black briefs, some sort of absurd tactical fabric.) He walks over to Bobby and hands him the light grey slacks and suit jacked, plus the white dress shirt.

"It's a good suit. Zo Executive Suite from last year. If you need to transform, try going smaller instead of larger."

Then Mato goes and puts on his Chasseur Field Uniform.

"You didn't see these, did you?" he asks Bobby rhetorically. "These were the duds we were wearing around Pike Hall. Although I enjoyed the tailoring process. Something to aspire to. Anyway, AM, work your magic."

He looks pleased with the results, which are less ostentatious than they were before.

"This is good," he tells her. "You should do the tuxedo sometime if you're up for it."

AM does the longcoat that goes over the uniform as well. Mato supposes this is what makes it a 'field' uniform. He pulls it on and feels its comforting warmth. There's a holster and you can see him visibly debating whether to bring something or not. Eventually he puts a magazine of gel rounds into his Walther P118 and puts it into the holster.

"I'll leave it in the car," he tells the others. "Given that it's Bellevue, I shouldn't take unnecessary chances."

Then, when AM is done, Mato marvels at the results.

"Look at us!" he exclaims. "We'll fit right in. ... Let's try not to get mugged on our way out of Touristville."

He slips on his chemsniffer ring, his contacts and earbuds, dons his glasses, then shoves a few private-investigator things in his pockets. Bug scanners, area jammers, lockpick sets, the usual.

"Are we taking the Americar?" he asks AM. "Or the Shin-Hyung? Are we going for flash or anonymity?"
"Since this is a missing persons thing, we might wand less flash." Bobby replied while fingering his perfectly tailored collar. "Sheesh, is it normal that I feel like I'm going to get choked any second now? How are people wearing stuff like that day in day out?"
Even a casual observer can recognize, that Bobby isn't used to wearing anything with a tie included.

"With that much ballistic cloth, I suspect our muggers would need some pretty heavy caliber to inconvenience us. But we better get going. The client won't wait forever."
"Lose the tie," Mato says, going over to Bobby and loosening the knot for him in some sort of grooming display. "You'll look more dashing. This is an ice cream parlor, not a board room.

he says when he's done. "Undo the top button on the shirt, the one at the neck. Now it doesn't feel like a leash, like the yoke of your oppressor."

So why isn't Mato taking off his tie?

"There's a different sort of comfort," he answers, "that comes from knowing you look your best."

This is either some profound wisdom on the role of fashion or an epic burn on Bobby's tielessness.

"Cornflower blue looks better on me than on you anyway," Mato continues, reserving the tie for future use. "You do well in grey and white. The white shirt really pops against your skin tone. BANG! Here, can you make your hair swoop back a bit? or can you only control length, not direction?" He fusses with Bobby's hair for a few seconds.

"This look is just for the meet with the Johnson. Then we'll see which direction she sends us. We could be headed right back to Redmond. Remember Bau Chou? Maybe Junior joined the Halloweeners. Or maybe Urubia abducted some tween who just Awakened at puberty." He finishes with Bobby's hair, which is as majestic and as unruly as a cashmere goat.

"I'm not worried about the muggers themselves," Mato clarifies. "I expect it would actually be a fun bit of sport. I just don't want to show up for ice cream smelling like cordite.

"Ooo, I hope they have cookies and cream!"
"Thanks. Much better." Asked about the hair, he replied: "Honestly, never thought about that. I learned that trick mainly so I wouldn't freeze my balls off one of these days. But I'm pretty sure if I grow them thicker and with more oil, I can form them whichever."

"Heh, maybe we can get another sportscar out of the deal - like last time we got a wayward son back.
Hm, I think I'll get a frozen yogurt".
A drive-by easily locates the place; The Juju Ice Cafe is done up in bright baby blues and pinks, but with a facade similar to those you would see on a Downtown nightclub. It looks as though the owner is trying to walk a thin line between child and adult, safe and adventurous. Against the grey of the rain and the early winter evening the bright colours of the Cafe looked a bit forlorn.

Finding parking was not too difficult; the cold drizzle was likely keeping people away from the park and the businesses overlooking it. Still the spot was a block away which meant the team had to pass through the drizzle on the way to the Cafe. When they step inside the brightness and colours form a strong contrast to the dreariness outside. The walls are painted with random images, AR features bounce and leap jerkily, like an old teen web site from the turn of the century. There is a bar with various flavors of what purports to be real ice cream, and various drink dispensers made to resemble beer taps.

There is a trio of human teenagers in matching school uniforms at one table, focused on an AR projection of a singing Naga. A human woman in a brightly colored uniform (which skirts the line between harmless and club-wear) is behind the bar. She is probably mid-30s and unlike most people in Bellevue she looks her age; most likely she commutes to this job from elsewhere in the 'plex.

The woman behind the bar puts down the ice cream dish she'd been wiping with a rag, and gives the SIS group an uncertain look "Can I help you?"

[ Spoiler ]
AM shrugs "I regret it any day but we took the Dodge + money rather than the sports car. I was really submerged in debt at the point and was fearing for my kneecaps more than I wanted a fun car. Let's take the Dodge."

She drives manually but follows all the rules, does not speed up, or makes anything the autopilot wouldn't make. She does not like to drive in such a boring manner, but the last thing she wants is attention. When they go into the ice-cream shop AM does not order ice cream not wanting her lips to get dirty. She is not complete with that decision, but they can order afterwards.

When entering the coffee/ice cream place she walks confidently knowing that her totem is there to help. In a way she feels now more comfortable than she did while still in Redmond wearing a feminine suit. Hoping not to be seen by anyone to avoid gossip.
In Bellevue, at a good part of town and well dressed she feels confident and she is almost certain that none of her neighbors would be there.

She asks for the back room and waits to see if her comrades are going to order. Being the one that does the talking she does not want to take risks with food prior to the meeting. She has no protest if Mato and Bobby order ice cream without a protest. Knowing that they probably are not used to a place like that and having them feel more comfortable is not a bad idea.
"A sugar free froyo and directions to your backroom. We've got a meeting."
Bobby answered without thinking much if any about it.
Mato eyes the woman, her age telling him a great deal. Someone who needs to work for a living. He half-expected the person behind the counter to be some bouncy teenager, probably a local who didn't need to work but who had parents that wanted to instill an honest work ethic for corporations to exploit later. Rich teens had socially acceptable jobs and socially unacceptable ones and Mato figured this nightclub / ice cream parlor would be one of the acceptable ones. Maybe teens just don't want to work on Friday afternoons. Or maybe they're all doing homework, also in preparation for corporate exploitation, although the trio of teens watching the naga video suggest otherwise. Mato really has no idea what teenage life is like in Bellevue.

"I'll have a cookies'n'cream milkshake, please," he confidently tells the woman behind the counter.

"That will be 25," the woman responds.

"A shake?" Mato asks. Now he's the uncertain one. "Milk and ice cream?"

"Uh-huh." The look in her eyes communicates the absurdity of the product.

"It costs 25?"


"You don't put bourbon in it or anything?" A valid question, given the shop's thin boundary between adult and adolescence.


"Just checking."

Mato pays, silently stung by the thought he could feed the whole team for a day on that. The shake arrives and he takes a sip as the trio walks toward the back room. The flavor explodes in his mouth.

"Wakȟŋ Tȟŋka! That's a pretty fragging good milk shake. I don't know if it's worth 25 but it's pretty fragging good."

He offers the cup and straw to AM and Bobby in case they want to try a 25 milkshake.
AM decides to risk a small sip, she takes the glass and sips a little bit just letting the taste rich her lips. She closes her eyes so she won't miss it. She hasn't tasted anything good in a while now. "25 ehe? I could get used to it." she says and returns the drink. Her mind racing if this was a power play by the customer or perhaps they just don't want to come to Redmond? There is no point in speculating, but she cannot help it.
Bobby had not bothered to specify a non-soy product, so of course his frozen yogurt was the cheap stuff. Taking a sipp of Mato's order made him smile.
"Pretty good. Real milk is amazing. I've got to take you along some time to that farm down Rochester. They have hay fed cows - free roaming. Naturally, I'm always staying in a small form, so the stuff I eat isn't that noticeable in proportion.
But I guess this is also pretty good - and less likely to get dogs sicced on us."

"Hey there", he greeted the waiting customer.
"Wait, hold up," Mato says, freezing at the implication of Bobby's comments. "Are you transforming into a calf? Are you eating the hay or the milk?"

Mato doesn't really understand Bobby's inner workings, although Hunger seems to be a significant component. That part, at least, resonates with Mato. He can appreciate the animalistic appetites: food, hunting, freedom, the exhilaration of moving fast. Mato's higher needs - love, intimacy, spirituality - have been rather diminished by his essence loss. He still has some artistic inclinations, like music for example. Perhaps Mato is the proverbial savage beast to be tamed by music. Or perhaps he's not a savage beast any longer, but a cold, calculated beast.

Mato resumes his stride. Ultimately Bobby's answer is a curiosity. But, as the accountant, it does help explain why their food budget isn't higher. Bobby just needs the occasional beer. And, evidently, hay.
When you reach the back room, It strikes you that the room would be the likeliest result if someone crossed every seedy back room in every hard-boiled action trid with nothing like every seedy back room in every real-life bar in the Barrens. The decor is dark but the paint if fresh, the lighting is simple and not overly bright but all the bulbs work and the entire room is adequately lit, the chairs are basic but they all match each other and the table dominating the middle of the room. And most of all it only smells of sweet treats instead of stale beer and noxious fumes.

There are a full seven people occupying one end of the table, all dressed very soberly. The woman in the middle is human and looks like she is Korean or maybe northern Chinese descent, wearing a suit that AM is pretty sure she saw in her research earlier today, on the host of an upscale department store. The woman in the middle of the group stands up when the team enters, and the rest hasten to follow. She greets the investigators "Hello, we are collectively your client. Please, take a seat. We have additional information since first contacting you, and time is of the essence."

There is one dwarf (female) and five more humans (one female the rest male), all dressed similarly in upscale but not exclusive clothing. They are also all clearly teenagers, despite their best efforts with clothes and make-up to look more mature.

Once the team sits down, so do the teens. The woman who greeted them steeples her fingers in what looks like 'power body language' from debating club, and continues "It is now a search-and-extraction job. The principal is a boy named Brent Sihler. The opp;osition is a group of at least three kidnappers. They are professional and armed. They have taken the target to an unknown location, but one away from the wireless mesh." She pauses and chokes a bit on the next sentence, "They have threatened to kill him in about thirty-four hours. I assume that you have questions?"
Putting the son in Johnsons, Mato thinks to himself.

"Dirk Magnum, PI," he introduces himself before he sits. He sets his milkshake down.

If Mato is surprised by the client, he doesn't show it. Long ago he learned how powerful even a middling corper could be. If that was true then the children of corpers were not far removed from wealth and thus power. Didn't he see the rich kids slumming in Touristville each Saturday night?

Mato plays along with the scene, taking out his area jammer. He sets it on the table and activates it. He takes out a bug scanner and waves it around a bit, more for show than actual effect. Who knows, maybe there will be a bug under this specific spot of the table and he'll get lucky. In the meantime, it will make a good story for the kiddos.

"Yes, of course," he says calmly when asked if there are questions.

"A missing person case is much different than a search-and-extraction. The former is open-ended and generally on a retainer basis: time and expenses until the conditions for success are met. The latter is time-sensitive and usually completed on a contract basis. The price changes accordingly to reflect the urgency of the matter and the additional risk."

Seed planted for AM to capitalize on later.

"As I presume you are all SINners. Is there a compelling reason for why you have not formally engaged law enforcement? Knight-Errant, for example, or any relevant corpsec authorities."

He looks over the top of his glasses as he asks, feeling somewhat old as he does so.

"Did any of you witness the kidnapping? If so, what can you tell us anything about the kidnappers? Size, sex, metatype, any identifying details. What leads you to believe that they are professionals? When you say armed, can you tell me about specific weapons? Why are you so confident that he is away from the wireless mesh?" To Mato, there's only one particular reason why they would be so confident about this. "Is Mr. Sihler a technomancer?"

He continues with his questions as if he's going down a list. His tone is professional bordering on dispassionate.

"I presume the kidnappers have made some sort of demand, otherwise they would have killed Mr. Sihler already instead of threatening to do so in 34 hours. What did they ask for? Do they have any motives beyond money? A grudge or revenge or the disruption of a business deal ...?"

Mato has heard examples about the children of execs being targeted during tense negotiations. The children are (usually) returned unharmed, the goal being to disrupt the parents emotionally and to make their business proceedings ineffectual. Mato may or may not have been hired to do this himself at one point, no comment.

He looks up, trying to convey as much seriousness as he can.

"If the kidnappers are indeed professional, and indeed armed, then force may be required to retrieve Mr. Sihler. We need reassurances that the threat is real and that this isn't an elaborate prank or criminal harassment. SWATting, in the parlance."

Mato makes sure his Thermal Mood Reading and Vocal Tension Lie Detection services are running as he watches closely for the teens' reaction. The software seems to be having some trouble though, perhaps due to the age of the Johnsons. Mato makes a mental note to complain to the software designer.
"There are too many of them and they are too young." AM says and her 30 years of age - makes her feel old.
Emma Miller. she says as she takes her seat. While Mato is scanning the crowd AM remains quiet, she is an elf so they will likely assume that she is the one negotiating. Staying silent gives her time to carefully observe the situation and understand it better, which in turn would help her negotiate better.

AM uses Troubles which roams the room in the astral, when she assenses the people to infer their emotional state she uses Trouble to verify what she notices and to make sure that she does not miss anything. She also observes the social situation and pays close attention if any of them is using acting to mislead, avoid the truth or bluntly lie. Being experienced in many con techniques makes it easier to discover when somebody else is using them. She also observes the people, their clothes are they used daily or are fresh out of the shop. Their other equipment - does it fits their apparent social status? She then looks into the matrix, to verify which devices the people have online and if she can identify silently running devices on these people.

[ Spoiler ]
Bobby replied to Mato:
"What? No, I'm going in as a cat. The drones ignore me and the farm hands give out samples - sometimes even intentionally."

As it becomes clear that this is a kindergarden playing at being adults, his face turns stony. Leaving it to Mato to be rational and AM to be kind, he takes on the role of the intimidating, stern authority figure.

When Mato finished, he added: "Come to think of it you better tell us the whole story - and leave out the bullshit. You are paying for our time and help. If you don't tell us the whole truth you endanger the job and all chances of success."
When Mato was pulling out his gadgets, one of the boys whispered to the dwarf "He's the one that fought the bear!" She shushed him with a "Stop fanboying, Chet." Shortly after Mato activated the Jammer, the young woman who seemed to be their leader spoke up. "Please turn that back off. There is a chance of an important matrix call arriving, relevent to the situation. And my apologies for not introducing myself earlier, please call me 'Seraphina'."

Turning off the jammer also helped the bug scanner run better. It soon spat out a long list of local devices; it appeared that none of the young people were running silent or wireless off and they were all equipped with commlinks and most with trodes, smart contact lenses, and the like.

The younger people mostly listen attentively while the SIS team talks, and by the body language and facial expression some of them are taking AR notes. It doesn't take much skill to notice a ripple of concern when Mato explains that an extraction will be more expensive, and when he asks if the victim is a technomancer Chet mutters "Told you they'd be good."

After Bobby has said his part, there is a brief pause, then Seraphina says "We'll tell you everything that we can. That was a lot of questions, but I think I caught them all."

She unsteeples her fingers and lays her hands flat on the table, then admits "Yes, Brent is a technomancer." The Dwarf mutters "Not a very good one." Seraphina glares at her, then admits "She is correct. He has a sprite that he keeps around that he mostly uses, and he's learning a couple of techno tricks but despite the technomancer reputation I'd say he isn't as good at computers as most of the rest of us, even if we are just working with with tricked out commlinks rather than a proper deck. Uh, I guess you could call us the unofficial hacker club of Bellevue Village Green Private High School, and Brent was -- is -- one of us."

Chet interjects "Tell them about Peshtigo!" but Seraphina snaps back "I'm answering their questions first." Turning back to the SIS team she adds "That is his sprite, Peshtigo. We'll get to that in a minute."

She looks like she is consulting AR for a moment, then continues "Brent was not at school yesterday or today. No explanation and we could not reach him, which is unusual. His parents are ... let us say at least disapeared. For this school year Brent has been using his technomantic skills to help cover their absence, and we've all helped. For that reason we communicate frequently, and with the school no doubt trying to reach his parents due to Brent's absence, we should have been working on how to cover the situation. In short, we were already concerned."

"Earlier today Peshtigo came to me, saying Brent had been kidnapped and could we please hire help. It seemed quite confused about how it found me, and didn't have a lot of useful answers, no matter what I asked. Peshtigo can be kind of dumb that way, I don't know if that is normal for sprites or not. Finally I asked it to go back to Brent to get more answers, and it didn't come back. We are hoping that it might re-appear at some point."

"After that contact we searched around the outside of his house, and didn't see any signs of a break-in,but we founds an old-fashioned paper envelope lying in the stoop, with a note inside demanding 2 million nuyen in ransom, and, well, here." She pulls out a bag from an upper-tier clothing boutique and hands it over to whoever takes it. Inside is the envelope, and the note simply reading "We have your son. Bring a certified credstick carrying 2 million nY to the end of the breakwater at Yarrow Bay Marina at 6am Sunday morning and give it to the drone that will meet you there." Taped to the note is a tuft of hair, presumably off of Brent.

"Brent has access to some of his parents accounts, enough to keep the house running and the school paid, but nothing close to two million worth. Not until they are declared dead and he inherits, but he doesn't even want to start that process until he has turned 18. He fears what foster parents might do if they found he is a technomancer. We debated calling Knight Errant anyway, but I don't think they'd take us seriously enough to do anything in time. Hopefully you will."

Mato absorbs the answers. He blinks, letting them sit for a moment.

"My initial reaction is that the kidnappers are not professionals.

"There's a dance to these things, almost an etiquette. A back-and-forth. Kidnappers are selling a commodity - a hostage - and often there is only one buyer. So, from the kidnappers' perspective, demand for their product is simultaneously very great but also very limited."

He holds up the note with the tuft of hair.

"Is this Mr. Sihler's hair color?" he asks to confirm. He pushes it toward Bobby. "We should confirm that this is indeed human hair. No professional would provide a material link that could be magically traced."

He exhales a bit, contemplating the note's message.

"One price, no negotiation. No chance to turn the screws into scared parents. Too much lead time. Not enough recon. Professionals would have conducted sufficient surveillance to know that Mr. Sihler's parents were missing. Why deliver a note to a porch when the intended recipients could be spending the week skiing in the PCC and never see it? Sloppy." Mato shakes his head in pity for these 'professionals'.

"No communication means no opportunity to provide proof of life either. In truth, without the opportunity to communicate with Mr. Sihler or to irrefutably confirm his life, there's little room for serious discussion. You're right that Knight-Errant would not commit significant resources to this, especially in the absences of Mr. Sihler's parents."

Mato drums his fingers on the table.

"His parents were some people of consequence, I presume? We would need to know as much about them as possible. We would also need access to his house. We would pursue all methods of investigation: mundane, magical, and Matrix."

He looks over his glasses again at Seraphina, again feeling old.

"Shall we discuss the nature of our engagement?"
"Let me look at it." AM carefully examines the lot of hair, and astrally observes it to determine if it is a material link to someone, and to guesstimate how long do they have to use it. Is there a physical item that Bernt really likes?

Did Brent had any conflicts or enemies? Anyone that would want to wrong him? How public were Brent's abilities? Did everyone know or just a select few?

When was the last time you saw him, and did he act nervous or pressured? or unusual in any way? How long since his parents passed away, does he have a legal guardian? What is the deal with his living arrangements? Kidnappers knew where he lives - does the home has a security system? cameras, drones? armed guards? Servents?

How are his matrix habits? Does he keep a blog, social network presence? Online calendar? Fitness app, biomonitor for medical insurance? We can find all of this ourselves but you can do it faster since you know him."

She takes a moment to let it sink and then adds Do you updated pictures of Bert? Nothing digitally enhanced, I want to see what he really looks like. "

"Also, does he have contacts outside school? As you describe it, it's highly unlikely that he was kidnapped form his home. The kidnappers think his parents are still in the picture, but they haven't entered the house.
That screams limited information - as my colleague said. Someone from your school - either student, teacher or admin staff could have been behind it. We'll need a list of who your techno friend interacted on a daily basis. The stupidity of the scheme sadly doesn't automatically tell us it was an adolescent like yourself - adults can come up with stupid quite as well."

Bobby added.
After this barrage of bad news and doubts the teenagers passed lots of concerned glances back and forth, punctuated by staring off into AR. After an awkwardly long pause Seraphina gives a forced smile and says "We are assembling his contact list, but honestly he's kept mostly to himself and the club since his parents disappeared, trying to limit the possibility of being caught out. It helped that his parents were not very sociable. His parents did something about tax planning? They traveled sometimes to visit certain clients, but otherwise worked out of their house. Brent said they were in Morocco when they dropped out of contact. Presumed dead by Brent after a while with no word from them or anyone else."

There was another moment of AR communication, then she added "There is services that come to the house. Cleaning once a week. Gardening. That sort of thing. We think his parents used to hire extra security occasionally, but nobody knows much about that. Brent would call an auto-cab to take him from house to school, and from school or here home, or to do stock up on food and then home. He was kind of lonely, but he just had to make it until he was 18 in May, or maybe until the end of the school year, he hadn't decided. He didn't really have enemies, maybe a couple of kids were starting to razz him a bit about never coming to parties anymore, but that is about it. It is only us that know he is a technomancer, he admitted it after his parents disappeared and he needed out help."

The hacking club agrees that the hair looks like Brent's, but as a sort of medium-brown it is not highly distinctive. When looked at astrally it seems curiously inert, like it has been sterilized somehow.

Just then, Chet shouts, "Wait a minute! It's Peshtigo! Give me a sec." He apparently links to a trid display unit in the room, because what looks like a cartoon version of a stereotyped headhunter (complete with spear and bone through its nose) gets projected into the room.

"]Hi guys!" says the figure, "Miss us?" Its voice sounds a bit like a child who has just spent all day eating candy, oddly squeaky and rushed. A chorus of babble, both in real life and over the link, comes from the teens around the room. The figure continues "Brent said to say that the only matrix thing he can see is attached to a host too scary for him to hack, and he thinks it belong to Aztechnology from the gear names. It is a sensor of some sort, its only connection is to a satellite up-link, and from there he found the anonymizer that I came through. The anonymizer went away before I could come back last time, but now it came back so here I am! Brent doesn't know what the anonymizer is. Also I'm supposed to say 'the kidnappers keep me hooded but I can't hear any traffic and I hear running water so I think I'm in the country. I've heard three sets of footsteps, and I think one is a mage' I have no idea what any of that means but I'm sure it is important!"
"If there is a mage, we can forget about the hair sample. It will have been severely damaged or sterilized.
We'll need a current picture of Brent. And his address to look around inside."

To the sprite he transmitted:
"If he has even short contact to the net, try to trace him with coordinates for us to follow."

Bobby kept his mouth shut about the implications of Aztechnology being involved. That could be a whole different kettle of fish than a simple hostage rescue.

"Well if they have a mage then that significantly increases both the challenge and the risk," Mato says. AM and Bobby will know this, of course. This is for the benefit of the kids prior to the discussion of numbers.

To the SIS team: <<I'm going to get out of my depth quickly here, but an anonymizer could be run by a Matrix gang or the kidnapper's hacker (if they have one) leveraging a little-used corporate node. The Brain Eater sometimes did that. So the kidnappers could just be piggybacking on Aztechnology's reputation to scare intruders away and to keep Mr. Sihler in line.>>

<<AM, correct me if I'm wrong, but a trace won't reveal the access ID of the original sender but rather the access ID of the mediator, the anonymizing node. Is that right? Then what... if we find it, could we hack the middleman to find the satellite uplink? If that doesn't work, then... what about triangulation? Can we use timestamps and response times to calculate physical distances? If we get a series of those over the course of the next 36 hours, could we daisy-chain our way to the source?>>
"Confirmed, hair is useless for magical tracking" AM responds, and then she listens to the conversation with a stern look.

she texts Mato briefly about the possibility of a trace
[ Spoiler ]
but then adds >> Now that our employer has called, I think it is the best time to negotiate before we get overly invested in this gig.

AM keeps her expression neutral, identifying the best place to price the service. "Alright, Hacker club members, this is the moment of truth. Finding and rescuing Bernt is a difficult task to pull. Our firm has a combination of physical, magical, and technological abilities and you are in luck because we can pull it off given sufficient compensation.

I am going over the points briefly.
First, your kidnappers are convinced that Bernt is worth 2 million, which means they can justify very expensive personal and security to keep him locked up.
Second, Bernt is a technomancer so absurdly; he is worth a lot to the right buyer for experiments and stuff we better not mention.
Third, they have a mage... very dangerous and mages can potentially see the technomancer in his aura and learn this secret.
Fourth, there is an Aztechnology host - very expensive and may indicate that we're going against the business interest of some triple-A division.
Fifth, there is a concise window of opportunity to do this job, no time for errors, and success is not guaranteed.

Now given all these circumstances, 100k is a nice and reasonable rounded number for successfully delivering Bernt.

She lets the number sink in, and then comments to the mysterious sprite: ...did Bernt mentioned how much money he is willing to pay to be rescued? she looks at the hacker club members or are you going to raise money for rescuing Bernt?
Ana Maka's suggestion of 100 000nY drew a babble of "What!?!" "impossible" and "But you said ...." (that last aimed at Seraphina). After AM's comment about Brent possibly paying they paused, and then Seraphina held up a hand and demanded "Give me a minute." One of the boys muttered "Bossy much?" but they all fell silent while Seraphina apparently worked in AR.

Finally she dropped her hand and said "I don't think either side that is in this room should count on money from Brent that the rest of us in the hacker's club can't guarantee if something happens to him. Those of us in this room cannot guarantee a hundred thousand nuyen. Outflows that large would trigger parental investigations which would inevitably undo all that Brent has done to stay independent. On the other hand, we'd originally been looking at hiring you just to locate him, before we started making contact. So what if we break this into two parts?"

"For part one, we pay you a reasonable fee, consistent with jobs you have done in the past." she emphasizes 'reasonable' and 'consistent' in a way that suggests she has some idea of your usual rates, or at least thinks that she does. "That job is to locate Brent to a high level of probability and make some reasonable estimates of who has taken him and what threat they may represent. The risk level there should be fairly low, and with the information that Brent has provided and which we may get relayed through his sprite it shouldn't even be that large of a job. The Hacker's Club guarantees that payment, whatever happens with Brent. It is only a day of work, one way or another, but it is high priority and no no notice, so maybe ten thousand?" She says that last number hopefully.

"The second job would be to actually rescue Brent. That is the high risk job. We get Brent to agree to a payment of, say, the other ninety thousand. We here guarantee ten thousand of it, the rest is dependent on you getting Brent out alive, and for most of it you would depend on Brent being alive to inherit. He should be getting some more money when he turns 18, but it may take until he can get his parents declared dead that he could pay all of it. If we can come to an agreement we'll send Peshtigo to get Brent's agreement. But we should agree quickly because last time Peshtigo couldn't get back for a long while."

[ Spoiler ]
Mato finds himself nodding along unconsciously. He mentally chides himself for such an obvious tell. Maybe it's not the end of the world: it shows he's reasonable. But he still needs to work on his presence, to study how AM and Jawsey comport themselves.

<<10K is reasonable for the investigation. 36 hours at most, the three of us, that's almost 100/hour and covers the time we spend sleeping too. I vote to accept the proposed arrangement.>>

He studies the kids. They're so similar to him in some ways, and so very very different in other ways.

Mato grew up well-off. His parents were corpers. He never went hungry, had good medical care, always had a comfortable home. But he saw the cost too: the professional pressure on his parents, how it crushed them, made them turn to drugs to release the stress. He still blames drugs for the car crash that killed them; the coroner had said as much. What good was all the money in the world if it killed you to earn it? (Mato has not been self-aware enough, so far, to ask the same question of his current profession.) Are these kids all on the same career path? What allowed Mato to escape it? Being dumb as a rock?

And that's where these kids are different. Seraphina, a teenager, is more eloquent than he is. She has a confidence and a command of the situation that's enviable for a teenager. Her response to AM was nimble, demonstrating an agile mind. She'd make a good Johnson someday. She's a decent Johnson already. Mato envies her competence. What would it be like to earn a living with only your wits, your mind? To think and create and to advance the world through your vision and originality?

But that is not Mato's path. He is a creature of flesh and blood and chrome. He started from the same place as these kids but went an entirely different direction. And yet... here they are, still in the same room. Same table, different sides. They probably enjoyed 25 milkshakes too. Mato sips his, belatedly realizing that he should have been studying their reactions rather than getting lost in his own thoughts.

AM grins . "Seraphina, splitting the job is a terrible idea, and even if you insist that we only find Mr. Schiller and not rescue him, it would cost you a lot more than 10k. I will try to explain the situation.

She pauses Even just finding Bernt is not a low-risk job. Sure the risk of being physically harmed is lessened. However, we do not charge you much for such risks. We all live and thrive in Redmond, and we know the gangs, crimelords, and the other residents. The main risk for us is unwanted police attention that would slow down our business. The police attention risk is the same in both cases as we are getting close to a crime scene involving someone important such as Mr. Shiller. We will need the best lawyers to get us out of such a mess, and such lawyers will cost us an arm and a leg. This job is costly for you because it is risky for us. It is as simple as that.

She pauses Now, Seraphina I admire your computer skills on the spot for finding what you think our rates are.
I will explain myself to clarify the situation, we have nothing to hide. Yes, we have rescued a kidnapped kid for only about 50k. However, in that particular case, the kidnappers were gangers. They tied him up to a bed and called it a day. By calling it a day, I mean excessive drinking and BTL slotting. The kid was in Redmond, no risk of police, and the kidnappers were a bunch of misfits. No risk of anyone important being hurt in the process of a police investigation.

Your case is harder. The kidnappers have a mage and are likely well-armed and alert. It would take more than boldness to get Mr. Schiller outside. If we find Mr. Schiller, we may only have a small window of opportunity to retrieve him. Any delay in getting his consent risks exposure. So we are not stopping at that point as exposure is bad for us and bad for Bernt. We will do this work as fast as possible to maximize the probability of success.

Now, I made you a good offer that is just five percent of what the kidnappers are asking. I demonstrated my honesty by only asking to be paid upon successful delivery. Such a payment model also implies that I am confident about our abilities to retrieve him successfully. If I was talking to Bernt's parents they would not even negotiate such a price with me. However, I understand that this reasonable price is objectively a lot of money, and is hard for you to meet. You are not Bernt's parents but his hacking buddies and that you have your expense accounts and cannot just pay so much money on the spot. Without your parents asking questions. I respect that, and I am willing to take a step toward you to facilitate this transaction.

The job costs 100k, and this part is non-negotiable. It is a combined search and rescue job because this is the right way to do the job. As for payment, you will give me 10k right away, at least 10k extra when we deliver Bernt back to his home. At that point, the job is successful and Bernt is likely to have something to pay for his rescue. I am not sure if 90k or less, but this is your risk, not ours. You know him better than us, and have a better estimate as to how much he'll pay us. As long as we get at least 10k nuyen we're good at the time of delivery.

Now, assuming that Bernt may not have the whole 90k Nuyen on the spot, I will ask all of you collectively to make 10k monthly payments until you finish paying us the agreed-upon 100k amount.

She pauses and explains her idea a bit more. You will have cut down on some unnecessary expenses, or inflate your expenses without raising suspicion. There will be eight of you, I am certain you can collectively skim 10k once per month of your expenses. Make sandwiches instead of eating out, or clean up yourself, or cut down on matrix games. I am sure you will find some other way to spend less. You can endure some hardships for a good friend, and it is temporary.

In addition, your debt will have interest, but we will not collect it in money since lack of liquidity is what gets us into this place in the first place. Once per month, we will send you some matrix jobs that will be completely legal and take the hacker club less than a day. Now if you'll enjoy these jobs, and perform them to our satisfaction we may send you more jobs while reducing your monthly payments accordingly, meaning that your life will feel more comfortable. You'll have to show some genuine skill with computers for that, so no guarantees there. "

AM pauses and then says "Please, debate it upon yourself and give me an answer soon because there are some matrix actions I need to do right away if we take this job. She takes her Erika out of her purse, which is unnecessary but as all these kids want to have decks of their own seeing AM working her deck may get them excited, which may make them more likely to accept the offer.
She texts >> Peshtigo, I'll need you to invite a mark for me. I need the mark to trace you when you get back to Bernt. If this trace is successful, I may find out where Bernt is, which is the first step in rescuing him.
Bobby smiled as AM brought up the installment plan. "Paid internships at a top rated detective agency. You won't find a better of than that any time soon."
AM and Trouble both observe the same thing about Serephina; when AM had initially asked for 100k the girl was clearly upset, but after about twenty seconds she'd calmed down, and stayed at a very level emotional state all during her response. Which felt off somehow. As AM shreds the girl's arguments, Trouble notices that that Serephina has an almost detached emotional state, more like an observer than someone whose arguments were just rejected. As AM finishes up her points, the girl's body language suddenly makes sense to AM -- Serephina has someone guiding her, be it AR or by voice.

Once she has put that together she can see the beats. Seraphina steeples her fingers again and stares at AM for a few seconds, no doubt obtaining guidance, before responding "Yes, we'll need to discuss this more" but then pausing another few seconds, with just a beat of unhappiness in her aura at the end of the pause, before suggesting "Would you be willing to wait in the main part of the cafe while we talk? Feel free to order something each, on my tab, I've notified Theresa." The same unhappiness in her aura showing up again as she offers the tab.
Mato kicks himself for not waiting to order the 25 milkshake. But then he realizes... he could get another 25 milkshake! Although that's a lot of sugar, even for an ork.

He stands. It's not an unreasonable request. Runners often need space and time to discuss an offer; it's not outlandish for a Johnson (or Johnsons in this case) to need the same for a counterproposal.

AM nods in agreement. Having someone guide Seraphina is not necessarily a bad thing, teenagers are very emotional - and there is merit in the ability to take a deep breath and hear another perspective. AM could use such a break as she feels pumped up, and a little hesitant toward rescuing Bernt. After the security of the mansion, Van-der-Bloom with his monstrous deck, hell hounds, and armed guards - was this job the one to walk away from? Is she a brilliant negotiator for trying to get the team a contract for 100k, even if the flow of money would be slow - or she is the greedy pig on his way to the slaughter? Are they reaching out too high with the risks?

There is no time to hesitate, Mato is already standing up which means that the discussion is over. At her 160 centimeters, AM is barely visible when she stands up. She takes her deck inside of her purse, uncertain if it made an impression or not, and she texts her mates. ">>Order something to show respect but nothing expensive. She asks them with a mental text through her throdes.

[ Spoiler ]
Mato goes out to the front room. He doesn't really want more ice cream, but nor does he want to let an opportunity like this slip away. Mato hates missed opportunities.

"I'll have the birthday cake sundae, please," he orders. "With the Funfetti ice cream."

It comes with whipped cream and sprinkles and a cherry on top. This is totally normal fare for ork street samurai, right? The tailored suit really completes the image.

He's uncertain whether to speak out loud or to comm, given the room full of hackers next door. Usually a Johnson would know not to hack the talent, but maybe a bunch of scared teenagers aren't exactly up-to-speed on their Johnson/runner etiquette.

<<First we're working for the mayor and a great dragon and British nobility>> he comms. <<Now teenagers.>> He marvels a bit at the contrast. <<Cred spends the same though.>>

Mato is privately impressed about how AM put the screws to the kids. He didn't think she had it in her. He hopes it doesn't cost them the job, because the job sounds like easy cred, but if the kids walk then Mato will go back to his day job (night job, really) of hiding in bushes and taking photographs of unfaithful husbands through the window.

"I could do it," he says under his breath, as much to himself as the others. "Sounds like good fun."
Bobby walked out behind the others and ordered... a glas of milk. Not as expensive as a lot of other things on the menu, but certainly more expensive than Mato's soy based sundae. Before taking the glas he moved his hands and fingers in a complicated Kata, touching briefly his head, and those of Mato and AM

'Better talk through telepathy. I'll translate each of your thoughts to the other. I bet you already noticed that we are hired by a bunch of stooges.
Can you find out who is giving them directions? I don't like that kind of complication. We are a legitimate business. If someone wants to hire us, they can. There are only two reasons to set up a false front for that: Either it's someone we hate or it's someone who has something to hide. And what you don't know could kill you.
If you want, I can go to the toilette and come out as a bug to listen in on their discussion - provided they don't just message each other.'
AM thinks at Bobby I don't think they hacked us, but I took it as a possibility when I texted you. My request would have only made Seraphina respect me more, and more receptive to accept our suggestion. I am very careful with what I send over the trix.

I am certain that someone is whispering down Seraphina's ear, but I see that someone as a positive force at the moment. I placed a lot of pressure on her and she managed to be an adult about it and not break. It is impressive considering that she is not an adult, and I deflected all her arguments. A lesser person would flip a table or irrationally call it all off despite not having other good alternatives. So I assume that there is some adult in the picture, but see no evidence that said adult is secretly our Jhonson.

As for spying, Trouble is still in that room and would notice their emotional state. I imagine their talk should be emotional since they are teenagers risking many of their luxuries. It is difficult to give up good stuff once you grow used to them.
Troubles would definitely call to my attention if they are super calm - as would be the case if it was all a show and someone else is paying.
No need to spy, Mato thinks. Let's observe the etiquette until we have a reason not to.

Mato hadn't noticed someone coaching Seraphina. Once again he's reminded about his own limitations.

Who would be coaching her? he wonders. Not a sympathetic adult, presumably, or the adult would be in the room instead of them.

Software? Like an activesoft? But maybe she doesn't have the wetware to run the 'soft herself, so he has to run it like a knowsoft that whispers advice in her ear?

He shrugs.

What does it matter? I don't care if the Johnson is 17 or 70.

But at the same time, let's not overestimate their resources. Speaking from experience, they might have generous allowances but these are probably on the scale of 500 to 600 a month, not 1,000. Collectively, they're going to struggle with a 10k/month payment plan. Even if there are seven of them, they're probably going to have a hard time with 5K/month. And you have to make allowances for the embezzlement. They need to be inconsistent, especially over the course of several months, or their parents will pick up on their patterns. They're not practiced criminals; they're a bunch of kids trying to save their friend. They can sacrifice luxuries, but if you push them toward outright theft then they're going to explore other options.
AM comments "Let's see how it plays out Mato. I think that the greatest achievement so far is the 100k pricetag that Seraphina did not challenge. Their achievement is that they get to pay just 10k right away, and I am not sure they'll easily give up such an achievement. They do not have much money right now, but they get money over time. Let's say they find a cheaper firm that only wants 50k total - most would want to get paid the whole sum on delivery. Would these guys have 50k? Do you think someone will do such a job for less? I am not so sure - we took about 50k if you factor the car for taking a kid out of Redmond.

Now you may also be conservative about their ability to pay because Seraphina's clothes are super expensive. I saw them in a catalog before I came here priced in thousands. It is silly to wear these clothes to a meeting where you claim to have no money to pay. Bernt is also richer than the rest, and he'll be there to help them. Otherwise, we failed the job and only got a 10k advance.

Now, if they can't collectively make 10k monthly, we'll agree on a lower amount or use their services more. Jimmy taught me to think cooperatively. He had me beaten up on my first screwup, but the next month he gave me a job to not miss out again. Next month I had SIS, so things got alright - but he'd rather use me forever than kill me. He was ambivalent when I paid up the debt. On one side, it was a good investment, and his faith in me was justified. On the other, our relationship has changed and my price tag is now higher.
Perhaps, Mato thinks, half-heartedly picking at his sundae. It's not as good as his milkshake, or maybe his milkshake curbed his sweet tooth. He moves the whipped cream from the sundae onto his milkshake and pushes the rest away.

I'm not interested in control or posturing or sticking it to The Man or The Man's children. The kids could have fun, pretending to be infamous. Maybe one day the trids will show the shadows as grim and gritty instead of glamorous and then interest will dry up, but until then rich kids will want to keep slumming it.

Why am I doing this? Mato thinks to himself, not exactly sure if his thoughts are private or not. And if Bobby hears them? Oh well.

For money? Sure, but it's not like orks live that long. I'm middle-aged already, coming up on 25 soon. No long and luxurious retirement for me.

For thrills? Yes, I suppose so. I spent my first 18 years on the couch, on the sidelines. Now I'm in the game and it's fun. I like it here. I want to stay, see if I can make it to the playoffs.
'If you think so, I'll let it slide. Still, I don't like puppeteers.'
Bobby mentally replied to the others. His milk was empty in about 30 seconds. Enjoying the fact that he wasn't lactose intolerant, Bobby contemplated for a moment what would be necessary to include real milk and fruit in their food budget. The number he arrived at let him drop that thought immediately again.
'Is Trouble getting anything interesting?'
While the SIS team was waiting and whispering, Peshtigo showed up in their AR feeds, and enthuses. <<Nice Ikon-329E57 person said I should do what you want, if you want me to do anything! Do you still want me to invite your mark, Nice Erika person 75A4C9 >> He sounds like he's had all the sugar that Mato is passing up.

just after that the boy who apparently goes by Chet comes out, calls out "Hey Theresa, a blueberry Italian Soda please.." Turning to Mato he says "You really wrestled a bear, right? Your ad went kudzu through the club last Fall, some thought it was tacky but I thought it was awesome! So when this happened I said we had to call you, and Seraphina, she ..." he trails off, shrugs, then continued "So I hope Seraphina and Dir -- Penumbra I mean -- can come to an agreement on our side, and that it works for you. It would be cool to say we'd hired you." He flashes his commlink at the pay pad without looking at it, to pay for his drink.

"Seraphina would do almost anything to get Brent back, but not everyone is so committed. Giving up our deck fund? None of us probably thought we'd ever really have enough to buy one anyway, so that part isn't too hard, if Brent doesn't manage to pay it back to us. But the rest? If Brent can't cover it when he comes back ... I mean, most of my pocket money comes from teaching swimming on Saturday mornings, my parents have a 'learning the value of a nuyen' bug up their ass so they cover school and uniforms and stuff, but even if I give up this place" he waves at the cafe "I don't know that I can scrape together a grand a month. Maybe if I can score some evening life-guarding shifts? Some of the others though, they probably could, and Seraphina is captain of the debating team so she can be pretty convincing."

He accepts his soda and then adds "And there is the bell to mark the end of the round, and our cue to go back to the room. Coming down to the wire, a life is at stake, egos are in play, this is pretty intense." He punctuates the comment with a loud slurp.

[ Spoiler ]
AM is a bit overwhelmed when Chet begins to talk, mental chats and physical chats at the same time are confusing. Of course he was unaware that they already were talking. She focuses on Peshtigo trying to establish some trust with the mysterious matrix entity.

>> Thanks Peshtigo, you are looking nice yourself. I am very proud of my little Erika, it is a simple deck but it can do wonders in my hands. You just need to be aware of the limitations and work around them, for example, I installed a vectored signal processor because the deck lacks any form of noise compensation inheritably, and I also run the signal scrub software to further reduce the noise - and keep me reliably connected. Do you run programs? Did Bernt make you himself? How long are you in existence?

She then changes a mental tone and says... and yes, I need the mark on you so that I can follow you to Bernt. It is called a trace action, and it deduces your physical location according to the identity of devices that connect you to the matrix and their location. Are you familiar with the tracing action? It involves a combination of triangulation, common sense, and some luck if the one you are tracing does not want to be traced. In our case, you want me to trace you so you will not try to resist my probe queries and let them pass your firewall - that is if you can not resist the action. In any case, move slowly and stop to let me triangulate every several steps. Even if I lose you at a certain point, the longer I trace you the closer we are to Bernt. I hope that he is feeling alright and that we can go rescue him soon.

If need be, AM would explain Peshtigo the trace action, and would otherwise be very open with him to keep the Sprite cooperative. She is unaware of how these autonomous beings work - but she visualize it like a doctor that needs consent from a patient before administering a drug, she will explain her actions and get the Sprite to resist as little as possible and improve the outcome.
<<There's a "Penumbra" in play>> Mato informs the others. <<Sounds like that's the voice on the other end of the line. Maybe not an activesoft or a knowsoft then.>>

"I did fight that bear," Mato tells Chet. "But bears are big, dumb brutes." This with a pointed smirk at Bobby to make sure Bobby heard him.

Mato isn't really arrogant but he does have a sense for marketing. He plays it up a bit for his audience.

"Bears are fast, but I'm faster." Probably true of a real bear. Probably not true of Bobby.

"Bears are strong, but I'm stronger." No comment.

"But the ultimate adversary, Chet, is the metahuman. Man is the peak predator, and the pinnacle prey." Mato conveniently leaves out dragons.

"And not just the other man. In conquering him, you must first conquer yourself." There's some quasi-philosophical bulldrek for Chet to think about when he's on his iam14andthisisdeep Matrix chat rooms.

Mato takes a slurp of his milkshake, probably undercutting the image he's trying to project.
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