Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chapter 1

August 28, 2028
11:42 p.m.

“I know a guy,” were the only important words Artemis Bridge uttered these days. All of his conversations with those words were a carefully choreographed dance routine, each step planned out in advance with only rare deviations from his expectations. Before those words came the usual bullshit, the greetings, the give and get probing Bridge used to determine if the prospective client was a cop trying to entrap him or a legitimate person with an illegitimate need. After those words, the dance was all details, the who-is and the where-wills and all the rest of the important minutiae that would get the job done. But “I know a guy,” those were the focal point of Bridge’s life. Those words were the music that drove the dance.

Bridge didn’t yet know the well-dressed man coming across the Glitter bar towards him, but he could read the guy like a web site from the moment the sharp-dresser had entered the club. Bridge thought, “Here’s a guy that gets a little action on the side, a little weird action his girlfriend or wife won’t give him. He’s some well-heeled corporate douchebag looking for someone to help him exploit something.” The man’s bearing was all faux confidence. His suit was Armani, his job was corporate, but his bravado was a subtly tarnished facade. Bridge pegged the client at around 32, desperately hoping he was still as cool as he was in high school, but deep down all too aware that the young things gyrating wildly in the club around him had moved on to more interesting predators. He was not cool, he was not crunk, he wasn’t even hip and he sure wasn’t cyber. He ogled the pretty girls as he straightened his silk tie uncomfortably, his eyes shifting nervously from one younger alpha male to the next as he gestured for the bartender’s attention. The man’s eyes never held anything for long, except for constant predatory stares at any young female that happened by. He seemed especially interested in the girls with the cybernetic replacement limbs. ‘Must have a metal fetish,’ thought Bridge. The bartender directed the client over towards Bridge’s table with an indifferent shrug, signaling at Bridge as the client turned his back. Costello the bartender was a stand-up guy who vetted prospective clients. All he ever asked for was a bit of hard-to-get ‘70’s porn. Bridge knew a guy.

Sharp-Dressed stuck out a hand to Bridge as he approached the table, offering a handshake of dubious merit. Bridge waved off the proffered hand. “Sorry, I don’t do physical contact,” Bridge apologized. “There’s too many crazy things can be transferred by touch in this business.” Sharp-Dressed sat down quickly with a slightly offended expression, his eyes darting nervously as he straightened his jacket.

Bridge’s paranoia excuse was a valid one. The people he dealt with were often lying shitheels of the worst kind. There were nanotech listening devices that could be planted through skin-to-skin contact, contact poisons and diseases of varying lethality, and portable weapons bladed and concussive that would make perfect tools of revenge. Bridge always tried to be fair in his dealings, but that never stopped unsatisfied customers from seeking recompense of a physical nature. But those weren’t the reason he avoided physical contact. No, the real reason was that he just hated people on an almost universal basis. He hated the cloying press of humanity, the parade of simpering mongoloids that walked the face of the earth as if they owned it. He hated them for their greed, he hated them for their vices, and he hated their sweating, stinky desperation which fell off of them in waves no matter the circumstance. He hated Mr. Sharp-Dressed man here, for whatever connection this well-heeled faker wanted from Bridge.

Bridge wondered how Sharp-Dressed managed to not sweat his balls off in the intense Los Angeles heat outside, but the man showed only a thin line of perspiration on his brow. “You got a business card?” was the first question Bridge asked him. In any other environment, Bridge reckoned the man would have whipped out the bizchip before their handshake was even cold, but the potential illegality of the situation had obviously put the guy off personal revelations.

“Of course,” Sharp-Dressed answered, whipping out a small card wallet from his breast pocket. He hesitated as the chip left his pocket, wondering if he really should be handing over his particulars to someone who could link him to a crime. “Isn’t this business usually anonymous? No names and all that business?”

“Do you do business with a motherfucker won’t tell you his name?”

Sharp-dressed had a good think about that, finally handing over the card with only a slight reluctance tugging at the corners of his smile. The paper-thin silicon wafer glowed with exposure to the pulsating light show of the club, an animated presentation complete with video of the card’s owner flashing boldly from the card’s electronic paper surface. The man oozed oily confidence even from the bizchip.

“Your business with me is as secret as your confession,” Bridge continued as he eyed the card. “You already know my name. We’re just evening up the deal.” Of course, Bridge was lying. Anonymity was a buzzword of his, but it wasn’t religion in his line of work. Bridge’s first priority was protecting his own ass, and if that meant he had to “know a guy” he worked for when someone else asked, like a frisky cop or a mean big bastard with a big bastard gun, he’d sing like a canary. Knowing guys meant knowing their dirty little secrets, and he could trade secrets as well as connections when the need arose. “Good to meet you, Brandon Thames, Film Distribution Assistant,” Bridge read from the card. “Are you a cop?”

Thames appeared taken aback, his affected calm showing signs of wear. “Boy, you don’t waste any time. I like that, I dig that. No, I am not a cop. I’m not wearing any kind of wire or listening device.” He manufactured a smile for Bridge, a smile filled with the ivory produce of a very expensive dentist and the cloying charm of a social predator. He opened his coat to display a crisply-laundered white shirt, as if that would allay all Bridge’s fears.

“Wasting time is a sin in this business, and spending time in jail for what I do is a serious waste of time,” Bridge replied.

“And what do you do, exactly?”

“I am my name. Artemis Bridge, pleasure to meet you. I’m a bridge, THE bridge, the path to whatever it is you want, so long as what you want is something hard to find that someone else has. It may be rare, it may even be illegal, but if you need it, I am the guy that knows the guy that’s got it or does it. I’m the main circuit in the relationship network, I’m the go-between and the get-to-know. You stand here on one side of the bridge with a need, and somewhere on the other side of the bridge is the guy who can fulfill that need. For a nominal fee, I connect you with him. I do not touch the goods. I do not care what the goods are, whether it’s information or mineral, virtual or physical. What you trade with the people I set you up with is your business so long as my fee is paid.” The well-rehearsed speech flowed from Bridge’s lips like electricity through a wire.

“And you don’t care what it is?”

“Not one iota. Couldn’t give a rat’s ass.”

“Which is why they call you the Amoral Bridge.”

“I’m surprised ‘they’ even know the meaning of the word amoral,” Bridge quipped with a sarcastic smile. “It’s an amoral shitstorm out there, Mr. Thames, and I’m just trying to keep dry.”

“Can you guarantee confidentiality?”

“I’m still alive, aren’t I? My clients are ghosts, Mr. Thames. The only people who will know you’ve done business with me are you and the person I introduce to you.” Bridge lied, of course, neglecting to mention Aristotle, the six-foot-three lie watching from ten feet behind Bridge’s left shoulder.

Aristotle was Bridge’s bodyguard, a fantastically gigantic black man with biceps as thick as tree limbs and a stare that filled most with the fear of a black planet. Bridge had nicknamed him Aristotle during their interview last year, when the bodyguard had explained the philosophy of existentialism and how it related to the twenty-first century life under a corportocracy. Bridge hadn’t understood a goddamn word of it, but it had sounded right. Bridge had decided at that point that Aristotle was a damn sight smarter than Bridge was, hiring him on the spot. Unfortunately, Bridge couldn’t afford to pay him enough to actually engage in dangerous activities like fistfights. Bridge mainly kept him around for show, a bluff for the easily dissuaded, a bluff that succeeded more than it failed. The last ass beating Bridge was forced to take was eight months ago, and even Bridge would admit he had deserved it. Bridge glanced over Brandon’s shoulder at the reflection of Aristotle in the mirrored walls, buttressing his confidence with the bodyguard’s presence.

“So what is it you need? Women? Guns? Information?”
Thames voice fell into a hoarse whisper. “I need a leaker.”

Bridge laughed a little on the inside. Every movie studio in the States had been conducting legal and not-so-legal wars against what they called intellectual piracy for decades. It had started with lawsuits in the late ‘90’s, suing whatever poor soul they could drum up who had downloaded a copy of a movie or a song before its release date. As the corporations had gotten more legal power in the 2k’s, their rhetoric about the effects of piracy on their business had gotten more zealous, and the legal wiggle room to protect their copyrights had expanded with the propaganda. By the early 2020’s, many hackers spoke of hit teams who scoured the GlobalNet in search of anyone leaking books, games, movies, songs, software and TV shows. Net battles were fought, with rumors of the odd fatality here and there. And no matter how harsh the reaction, the hackers just kept leaking pirated goods and thumbing their noses at their corporate opposition.

But what few of the normal people not associated with either side knew was that the corporations hired people under the table to leak the releases. They had long ago discovered that pre-release buzz from legitimate reviewers and paid shills only generated so much interest in a media-saturated world. Unfiltered positive buzz from the hardcore underground, the pirates and the punks, was worth its weight in gold. As a result, the media corporations did what they did best. They made a deal. The corporate liaisons, like Brandon Thames here, would carelessly let the leaker know where and when to steal a copy of the media from the GlobalNet database, like something ‘falling off the truck’ because the driver left the back door open. The hacker would still have to do the work, of course, breaking through security and reaching the prized goods. Like a virus, the stolen media would spread through the GlobalNet, building hopefully positive buzz that translated into bigger releases. The corporations got a boogieman to keep the average meathead from downloading leaked media, and the hackers got a little spending money and the infamy of making a big score. The system worked great, unless the product was a stinker, or the leaker got himself dead.

Bridge asked, “Have you ever worked with a leaker before?”

“All the time. My last guy got himself killed in some goddamn arena battle. That’s the third one this year. I keep getting them from the temp pool of the collections department. Those credcrasher assholes are barely sober most of the time, and they all seem to have a death wish. I figured I’d see if you had a different talent pool to choose from.”

Bridge put his chin in his palm for a moment, a practiced pantomime of thoughtful consideration. He couldn’t think of anyone specific right off the top of his head, but Angela would. His brow furrowed, and he gave a desultory “Tsk!” before snapping his fingers. “I know a guy,” he concluded.

“Great! When can I meet him?” Thames’s face bled relief.

Bridge spread his hands in front of him. “Whoa, patience. I’ll need to contact him and these guys don’t exactly work a 9 to 5.” He tapped Thames’s business card to his forehead. “I’ll give him your credentials and see if he’s interested. If he is, I’ll call you back and set up a meet. Be prepared, he’s probably going to do a quick background search on you, make sure you’re on the up and up, not a cop or anything.”

“I told you, I’m not a cop,” Brandon replied with a hint of irritation creeping into his voice. “CLED could bust me just as easily as him, after all. Technically, this is industrial espionage. It would make Chronosoft Entertainment look incredibly bad to the mouth-breathers out there.”

Palms down on the table, Bridge calmed the angered executive. “Hey, I know you. We’ve sat here, we’ve shared some polite conversation and felt each other up. I know you’re not a cop. HE won’t know you’re not a cop. I don’t know what kind of yahoos you’re used to dealing with, but real leakers are paranoid bastards. Good leakers get targeted by one of your little hit squads, so you can understand why he might want to be exceedingly careful.” Bridge noted that Aristotle’s attention had focused more intently on Bridge’s back as the client’s agitation had bubbled to the surface. Bridge gave him a subtle signal that things were fine. “Now, about my fee.”

“Upon completion of the first successful leak, we’ll deposit ten thousand in a non-traceable cash account at the vendor you specify.”

“None of that corporate scrip or new federal bills with the tracking software,” Bridge added. “I only deal in five-year.” Bridge always insisted on “five-year,” a term given to cash minted before 2023. That was the last year cash was produced without embedded chips that could trace every use of the currency as if it was a debit or credit card. Corporate scrip was issued by the company with the Local Governance License or LGL, and was just as traceable. Chronosoft, besides employing Thames in the movie business, controlled the LGL for all of Los Angeles County. Bridge wanted to steer well clear of their accountants, not to mention the IRS. There was no tax form for the self-employed whose only skill was “knowing guys.”

“Once we have a deal, I’ll give you the name of my exchange vendor. How soon will you want the first release?”

Thames practically jumped from his seat, reaching into his pocket. Aristotle leapt into action immediately, angling to support Bridge if need be. The businessman pulled out a flier, oblivious to the threat signals he was broadcasting. “The name of the movie is…”

Bridge cut him off with a quick wave of his hand. “Whoa, whoa, I don’t want to know. The particulars are between you and your boy. The less I know the better.” With a deflated expression, Thames replaced the flier in his pocket quickly. “All I need to know is how quickly do you need someone?”

“This needs to start going out in three days.”

Bridge grimaced and sighed. “That’s one tight deadline. I may not be able to get my top guy with that kind of turnaround. Have you thought about not waiting until nutcrunching time to try to pull this off?”

“I told you, my guy got whacked. I thought I had it taken care of. Will your guy be able to do it?”

“I said he wouldn’t be the best, not that he’d be a muppet. Leaks are mostly cake and coffee runs, and the guys I know aren’t fuckups. He’ll take care of you.”

Thames appeared pacified, finally attending to the drink he’d been fingering since he sat down. He downed the martini in one go, finishing it off by devouring the olive and depositing the toothpick into the glass with a brittle ting. “If that’s all then, there’s a girl at the end of the bar who’s been dying for me to buy her a drink.” His smile was all frat boy bravado, an unbecoming salaciousness reawakening his natural machismo. Bridge dismissed him with a playful shrug of his shoulders, pointing the man to the dance floor. Thames took off like an unleashed dog in heat.

Bridge sat back and let the music wash over him. It was forgettable for all its pomp, a mediocre example of the prograsmic genre. Made by programmers, prograsmic was a collage-like blend of old techno, rock and bits of random sound bites fashioned into songs not by hand, but by programs. Bits and bytes of code pieced it all together into a structure that sounded musical. But there was always something off about the compositions, at least to Bridge’s untrained ear. One of his acquaintances had tried to explain it to Bridge with little success. The music followed the rules of traditional musical structures handed down through centuries of musical evolution, from the time man had started banging two rocks together and dug the rhythm. But the programs messed with that structure, focusing on agitating unconscious associations the mind made with certain notes and frequencies and beats, producing a feeling in some not unlike light drug use. It just made Bridge antsy.

Bridge’s concentration was broken by Aristotle’s voice cutting through the music. His bodyguard’s voice was soft, yet forceful, the voice of someone assured of their power without a hint of overconfidence. “Your presence is being requested,” Aristotle said matter-of-factly, his finger pointing across the club at the waving figure of Barney. Barney was a pain in the ass, one of the many ignorant gophers used by local mob shitheel Nicky Sharver.

“Fuck, that is just what I need,” Bridge grumbled. One of Nicky’s boys motioning to Bridge was never a good omen. It usually meant Nicky wanted something, and when Nicky wanted something, he didn’t take no for an answer. Bridge gave a sarcastic smile and returned Barney’s wave, mumbling under his breath, “Yeah, I see you, you ignorant cocksucker. Run along and tell your boss I’ll be there soon.” Barney pointed to the side exit, which led to the alleyway outside.

“He wants you in the alley,” Aristotle said. “You know what that means.”

“Yep. I’m about to get a beatdown. Did I piss him off this month?” Aristotle shrugged.

“We could go out the front, put him off until a more opportune time,” the bodyguard offered.

“He’d just look for me until he found me somewhere else,” Bridge replied, straightening his jacket as he stood. “Fuck it, the sooner I get this over with, the sooner I can get with Angela and get paid.”

“You could always give me a raise and I’ll deal with them,” Aristotle said with a malicious smile.

“I can barely afford you now, mountain man. I’m not paying the ER doc to pull their teeth out of your knuckles. How do I look?” Bridge posed before the bodyguard, his clothes immaculate, his demeanor that of the condemned man. He gingerly fussed with his spiky black hair in the wall-length mirror. No sense looking like a mutt until after the violence.

“Like a man about to get his face smacked in,” Aristotle joked. Bridge returned his smirk.

“Funny. Off to the gallows!” Bridge shouted, striding purposefully across the packed house to his inevitable beating.

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