At times like this, even someone like Simon, who was more or less an optimist at heart, could find his faith in human nature restored. He'd just left the Village Vanguard and was walking back toward his car, when he came around a corner and saw a woman lying in a crumpled heap under a streetlight. He trotted up to her, leaned over to check her out. She was dressed for the neighborhood, suggesting an assault rather than a street person passed out. The section of pipe lying next to her in what appeared to be blood was a nice touch, he thought.

"Hey! Are you all right?" he called out. She groaned and her eyelids fluttered. He nodded even as he heard the footsteps coming out of the nearby alley. Three of them, unless his hearing was going bad. "Well, look what we got here!" He rose smoothly to his feet, picking up the pipe as he did so. "Don't do it," he said as they closed in.

"You gotta pay the toll to leave this street," one of the thugs said.

"And if I decline your offer?" Simon replied, not making much of an effort to keep the smile out of his voice.

"That isn't an option!" another one shouted. "You either give it to us, or we take it from you!"

All three grabbed for Simon at once. They were pretty well-coordinated, he had to admit. He told them so, even as he danced out of their way: "Not bad, for amateurs. There's no way I'll let you get your dirty hands on my jacket, though." A moment's thought suited word to action, as he brought the pipe up, backhanded, driving the end straight into the gut of the man on his left. Then he dodged into the alley, activating the nightvision implant that filled the socket where his left eye had once been. No sense in making more of a mess on the sidewalk than necessary, he thought. Besides, the alley was the proper place for punks like these.

The other two must have realized that the move was that of a trained fighter, for they both pulled out big knives as their comrade clutched his stomach and crumpled to the sidewalk in agony. This too was fine by Simon: he was only just getting warmed up himself. A moment's familiar concentration activated his boosters, the regulator implants that gave him conscious control over normally autonomic functions, in effect, putting his already fit body into overdrive.

The knife boys had enough sense not to get in one another's way. They were good, for street thugs. That was all they were, though: Simon had been to places that boys like these wouldn't last five minutes in. Somehow, Simon doubted they would appreciate that fact. They ought to appreciate the fact that he didn't just pull out a gun and shoot them all dead on the spot, though.

They came close a couple of times, even though he could see better than they could. They nearly even scratched his suit, an apparent black leather blazer and slacks combination. But the outcome was never really in doubt, at least, not until the gunshot creased the sleeve of his jacket on its way into a wall. Fortunately for Simon, both he and the jacket were tougher than they looked. Nonetheless, he was going to be sore when the boosters wore off.

Without looking back, Simon called into the street, "I was wondering when you were going to make your move."

The "victim" was now in a crouch, gun in hand. She seemed to be in much better shape than her initial appearance had suggested. "Whoever you are, you did a real number on my boys. And that's bad for business. But I won't miss again, now that I know where you are. And you won't be able to get me before I can get off another shot. So just come out nice and easy where I can see you. And drop the pipe."

But even as she was telling him what to do, Simon was carrying on another conversation, inside his head, that might have looked something like this:





Whereupon a miniature heads-up display appeared in his artificial eye, showing his position and the relative positions of his opponents. The woman was right: she had him in her sights. But that also meant that he had a direct line on her. She was still on her knees. His boosters were still running. His running speed and reaction time were more than twice those of a normal person. Simon wasn't a gambling man, but he felt these were odds he could live with.

Pivoting on his heel, Simon charged back out into the street, somersaulting to keep her distracted. She got off two more shots before he reached her and knocked the gun out of her hand. Now she was scared, trying to get away as he backed her up against the lamppost. "I have a message: you are not welcome on this street. Come around here again, and you'll be leaving here in boxes." With that, he delivered two sharp raps, one to the temple, one to the belly, and watched her fall over with satisfaction. Then he dropped the pipe, unloaded her gun, and leaned on the lamppost himself. He knew from past experience that it would take about twenty minutes on average for his system to stabilize after a boost. Then he would also feel the bruise from that glancing shot. The letdown was always the hardest part.

Some time later, Simon took a deep breath and walked back to the Vanguard. Lorraine Gordon, the club's seemingly ageless owner and manager, was waiting to meet him. "Did they get the message?" she asked.

"If they didn't, they're dumber than I figured," Simon replied. "And that was a pretty smart, if simple, set up. The girl on the street was bait for the mark, as well as backup for the others. I'd figured as much. The descriptions your customers gave seemed to similar for it to be coincidence."

"Well, as long as I my customers don't have to worry about being shaken down anymore, that's what matters. And it's well worth your fee." She gestured inside. "Would you like to start collecting now? The second show is starting, and this new singer could just be the next Cassandra Wilson."

Since the biochip age had begun, the Vanguard and its chief rival, the Blue Note, had prided themselves on having only unmodified, natural performers, not that Simon minded in the least. "Even with electronic instruments, you still have to know how to play the instrument to make music with them," Lorraine had said on more than one occasion. "But it doesn't take talent to make musical sounds if you've got these songbox things implanted in you. It cheapens the entire notion of music, especially jazz, and I won't have it."

All of this flashed through Simon's mind in an instant, as he recalled why his father and grandfather before him had been so fond of this place. "If you think I'm going to miss out on a year's worth of reserved front-row seats at the world's most exclusive jazz club, you're sadly mistaken," he replied. "Lead on."

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