Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chapter 2

August 29, 2028
12:14 a.m.

Bridge made his way across the dance floor with a false air of confidence. He couldn’t afford to let the plebes who might actually be paying attention think he wasn’t in control. Dodging flailing arms and grinding hips, he was reassured that most were ignoring him completely, engrossed by their drunken mating dance. Halfway across the floor, he was stopped by a high-pitched squeal. “Bridge! Oh my God! Where have you been?” Even over the music, he could hear her voice. It was a keening wail he’d never wanted to hear again.

“Lola!” Bridge only just succeeded in sounding excited to see her. Her body slammed into his, her arms crushing his neck in a forceful hug that drove the air out of his lungs audibly. “What… what are you doing here?”

“Dancing, silly!” she screamed, jiggling her hips provocatively. Lola was an average beauty, the kind of barely pretty face that dreamed of lighting up the GlobalNet in movies and films. She unfortunately lacked the charisma, acting skills and perfection of form that would have given her even half a chance. It never stopped her from trying, of course, but it had been many years of fruitless attempts, marred by countless exploitations. Bridge knew she was never going to make it. Her voice alone could wilt erections. “I never heard from you! Did you show that producer guy my disc?”

Not all of Bridge’s transactions involved money, and Bridge had collected his fee from Lola without ever following through on his end of the unspoken bargain. She was the perfect mixture of unfulfilled desire and lackluster intelligence that made taking advantage so simple. Code words like producer, screen tests and lunch dates were all it took to unlock her resistance. Now Bridge had to think fast. “You know, I did, and he’s supposed to get back with me when his schedule clears. He’s knee-deep in a project right now.”

She pointed at him, her eyes squinting as she smiled with a drunken mirth. “You’re not lying to me, are you? You really showed it to him?”

Bridge pointed at his chest. “Would I lie? You can stand on me.”

Leaning over with lustful intent, she breathlessly cooed, “Oooooo, Bridgie! And he liked it?” Bridge lied again with a nod. “You want another audition, baby?” Her breath was thick with alcohol. Bridge could just imagine Aristotle smirking behind him. He turned her around and extricated himself from her cloying grasp as delicately as he could.

“Another time, baby, I’ve got business to attend to. I’ll call you.” With that lie, he was away, his eye locked on Barney, ignoring the hurt expression darkening her features. ‘The things I do for guilt-free sex,’ he thought.

Barney was mumbling something as he opened the door to the alleyway, but Bridge couldn’t hear it over the awful music that engulfed the club’s interior. A sickly orange light flooded into the club through the open doorway, almost painfully bright in contrast to the flashing darkness of the interior. Bridge rubbed his eyes as he crossed the threshold, a piercing headache beginning behind his eyes as his pulse quickened in dread of the coming violence.

“Nicky said you gotta come quick, Bridge,” Barney muttered. Like most hard cases, he went by a wholly unflattering nickname not of his choosing. Bridge wasn’t sure what his given name was, but everyone called him Barney because his nasally voice bore an unfortunate resemblance to the purple dinosaur from a childhood TV show. Bridge had only seen the show on some backwater GlobalNet site after Nicky told him the origin of the nickname, but the comparison was hilariously apt. His gangly form and mopey eyes didn’t help matters.

“I’m coming, Barney, I’m coming,” Bridge replied irritably. He looked down at his feet to acclimate his eyes to the changing light. It wasn’t that the alley was overly bright, but his eyes always adjusted slowly. The fact that he slept such weird hours never helped. He cursed under his breath at a flier that had gotten stuck to his shoe. The alley was full of them, glossy political fliers with embedded video, stumping for the upcoming Los Angeles mayoral race. Bridge peeled the flier off with his other foot, spitting on the video of the current asshole in charge, Oliver Sunderland. Bridge didn’t have much respect for any politicians, but that grinning bastard earned Bridge’s special contempt for being a corporate-appointed shill.

Last year had been a nightmare year for America in general, but particularly for Los Angeles. The United States government had gone bankrupt in late 2026. Bridge didn’t understand all the talking head blather about how a government that printed its own money could go bankrupt but the effect was clear. The government had no money, which meant the state of California had no money, and the city in turn had no money. The politicians in Washington had spent 2026 bickering with their thumbs up their asses instead of figuring out how to fix the problem, while the states and cities suffered. Los Angeles was a picture of what Aristotle called class inequity in still life, upper crust assholes with gold-plated swimming pools and gated communities living blocks from drug-infested shitholes where the poor shot each other over neckbones. Bridge lived among the shit-upon, the people who relied on food stamps and free clinics to live something close to a normal life. First the government food dried up and then the free clinics closed. City workers were sent home without pay. Crime skyrocketed as people got desperate, and the cops who hadn’t been laid off to cut costs started walking off the job when their paychecks stopped coming. Riots followed hunger like thunder follows lightning.

Then along come the corporations. Congress signed the Local Governance License Act of 2027, and suddenly megacorporations like Chronosoft were allowed to bid for Local Governance Licenses, or LGL’s. The government handed civil administration of Los Angeles to Chronosoft for a song. They established Chronosoft Law Enforcement Division or CLED, who were much better at policing Bridge’s information trade than LAPD. Their board of directors appointed a city council with Sunderland as mayor. The LGL was allowed to run for one year with appointed officials, and that year was up. Elections were four days away, and based on the number of Sunderland fliers in the alleyway, he was trying damned hard to keep his LGL gravy train rolling.

Bridge held the whole LGL scheme in contempt. It was bad enough when giant corporations paid lobbyists to pillage the country legally, even worse when the government gave them control over virtual city-states. CLED’s efficiency led Bridge to change illicit careers. Information theft was a definite crime, but now Bridge worked in a grey area of legality. That didn’t stop most CLED officers from trying to squeeze him for information but as long as he didn’t touch any of the goods, they had no real legal leverage over him. That left many of them to use extralegal leverage. LAPD had been easy to deal with in comparison. Grease the right palms with a pittance and you were golden. It wasn’t as if the cops had been paid worth shit, so any extra income was welcomed by all but the hardcore crusaders. CLED, on the other hand, paid their officers handsomely and gave them carte blanche to actually enforce whatever laws Sunderland’s government laid down. Bridge couldn’t afford to bribe CLED officers, he had to finesse them.

Bridge started to complain, “Now what is so important…” but he never finished the sentence. Caught in mid-stride by a punch to the gut, he doubled over with a loud exhalation. One of Nicky’s boys had come from behind the dumpster to the left while Bridge was distracted by the flier, delivering a blow that left him gasping for air. He managed to stay on his feet, but only by leaning on the dumpster. Three more men surrounded him, their shadows growing long over the slick ground. Last night’s rain had pooled in the alley, and the humidity still hung in the air, causing Bridge’s back to break out in a thin line of sweat. Bridge gasped, “I assume there’s a problem?”

“You goddamn right, dere’s a problem!” Nicky shouted from over Bridge’s right shoulder. Bridge heard Nicky’s pimp cane tapping the pavement, and there he was, dressed in the finest white Egyptian cotton suit, a purple and gold tie setting off the stark whiteness of the suit with almost painful intensity, fat cheeks pouring over the coat’s high collar. Nicky never could let go of his LSU roots, garish “Geaux Tigers” colors queering up what would otherwise be acceptable fashion sense. “We got a big fucking problem dere.”

“I’m sure we can discuss it rationally like two grown men,” Bridge responded, finally able to stand his full six feet again. He spared a glance at Aristotle, who stood with arms folded trying to look mean and succeeding. A few of Nicky’s guys were eyeing his stance nervously. They weren’t used to fighting people with the ability to fight back, but Aristotle’s non-threatening body language confused their limited intelligence.

“No, we done passed the point of rational men, Bridge. You set me up a doser.”

Bridge thought back over his recent dealings with Nicky. He would much rather never know a guy like Nicky, but in his business, pickiness was not an option. The transplanted Cajun ran a crew of thieves and leg-breakers, passing money up the chain of organized crime to people with much more juice. He was just as likely to steal goods from shipping trucks as he was to steal credit information from GlobalNet accounts, and never without a healthy dose of needless violence. Where other criminals were elegant, Nicky was a rabid dog. He liked hurting people. Bridge had set him up with a hacker, a generally reliable scrub named Z@m@, for some big heist Nicky had planned. “Z@m@’s clean, Nicky. He swore to me he was clean.”

“He coulda swore he was the Queen of Fuckin’ England, and he still woulda been lying. He got nicked selling a month’s worth of Trip to undercover CLED. Now he’s doing a dime upstate and I got no hacker.” Nicky leaned angrily on the cane. “So I’m taking it out of yo’ ass.” He nodded tersely to his crew, but they hesitated, eyes glued to the giant bodyguard. Nicky cocked his head, eyeing Aristotle with a petulant squint. “We gonna have an issue with dat, big man?”

Aristotle shook his head, his hands held out in front of him in a gesture of peace. “I don’t pay him enough to sully his hands on your boys,” Bridge quipped with a resigned sigh.

“Maybe you oughtta t’ink ‘bout dat dere,” Nicky snickered. “Might save you a few teeth.”

“I got expenses. Just don’t bust my face too much. Clients don’t react well to black eyes.” The crew started to close in on Bridge. He raised his hands for one final plea. “Look, what can I do to make this up? I didn’t know he was on Trip. Hell, half of these guys are on it 24/7 and you’d never know it. Most of ‘em claim it makes them better crackers. I can get you another guy!”

“Oh, you gon’ do dat, sucker. But I can’t just let you off with a warning. You got to pay a fee for my time and trouble, or else da’ community gon’ t’ink I’m weak.” The first blow caught Bridge across the back of his legs, bringing him down to his knees in a puddle with a splashy thud. It felt like a bat or a club. A boot landed squarely in his breadbasket, sending the air rushing out of his body again. A fist across his jaw made him angry.

“FUCK, Joey, I told you not the face!” Bridge mumbled over a swelling jaw. He spit a bloody mess on the ground.

“Sorry, Bridge,” Joey offered with a sheepish grin. Bridge had hooked him up with a digital pimp that provided virtual ageplay scenarios. Joey liked the jailbait, but Nicky frowned on his boys cruising the high schools, so cyberbait was the solution. Another shot with the club across Bridge’s back put his face on the ground, a wet, gritty mess sticking to his clean-shaven cheek.

The blows came in slow, measured succession. They weren’t really trying to damage him, just make it hurt while having a bit of fun. Each hardguy took a turn, planting a kick in his ribs or a punch to his gut. The blows started to merge into one series of painful flashes when he heard one of his attackers scream out in pain. The beating ceased, the shuffle of feet replacing the sickening thuds of fists on flesh.

“What the hell’s going on here?” yelled a female voice infused with a steel-edged air of authority. It took Bridge a moment to recover his senses enough to recognize the voice. Silence followed her initial question. “I asked you what’s going on here. Now am I going to get an answer or do I have to haul you all in?”

Bridge opened his eyes and peered up at Gina Danton, CLED hardass. Danton stood about 6’, her blonde hair pulled into a tight bun underneath the CLED cap. She was a looker, though Bridge always thought she was the kind who didn’t know just how good she looked. She seemed more concerned with proving how big of a badass she could be. But unlike most of the assholes CLED had hired from the old LAPD ranks, Danton was fair. She wasn’t out to bust someone’s ass just because she could. He was also never happier to see her in his life.

He spat a wad of bloody phlegm on the ground. “Officer Danton, you’re looking lovely tonight.”

“That’s Patrolman Danton to you. Bridge, did I just interrupt a beatdown?” She offered a hand to the fallen man. “Stand up and stop staring at my ass.” He grabbed her hand. She pulled him up with surprising strength.

“Me? A beatdown? Who would want to administer a beatdown to someone as charming and effervescent as me?” Bridge wobbled a bit but maintained his balance. “I merely slipped and fell into a pack of rabid alley rats, and these gentlemen were kind enough to chase them off of me. Rats are filthy bastards, you know, diseases and all.”

“Uh huh,” Danton replied. “That what happened, Aristotle?” The black man shrugged and nodded sheepishly.

“He’s a rather maladroit bumbler,” was all the bodyguard would say. Bridge huffed loudly, checking his body for significant damage. There appeared to be no breaks, but he was going to be bruised for a month.

She scoffed sourly. “That’s how it’s gonna be, then? Do I look stupid to you? How about you, boys? I look that stupid to you?”

Nicky put on his slimiest grin. “No, chere, you look like a lady deserves a fine meal and some sweet talkin’.” He oozed. Bridge grinned painfully to himself. Trying that approach with her was likely to get Nicky a smack.

“Put it back in your pants, Casanova,” Danton shot back. “I ain’t one of your Barbie dolls. Why were your boys pounding on Bridge here?” Their silence infuriated her more. “Bridge, it doesn’t have to go down like this. You say the word, and I’ll haul ‘em in for assault and battery. Go through their pockets, look for illegal guns, drugs, whatever.”

“No charges, Patrolman Danton. It’s all good.” She scowled again.

Turning quickly on Sharver, her anger was a cool fist wrapped in iron. “Fine. You and your boys get the fuck out of here before I decide to search you just on GP. Do not let me see you around here again tonight.” She emphasized the point with sharp jabs of her billy club towards Nicky.

“Nice ta meetcha, Patrolman Danton,” Nicky said with a shark-toothed grin. “Bridge, we’ll speak another time.” His boys formed a cordon surrounding him as they walked out of the alley.

“What the fuck was that about, Bridge?” Danton spat as she whirled on Bridge. “I could have had him up on enough to give me a warrant on his place. And we both know that would have turned up a gold mine.”

Bridge knew it all too well. He knew that she too honest to trump up a reason to search Nicky’s place by planting evidence. And Bridge knew that if Nicky did get nicked because of a beatdown on Bridge, tonight’s beating would have just been a preamble to an epic, fatal orchestra of violence lasting weeks. No need to rock that boat. Bridge could handle a beatdown.

“You bust him, he gets someone to bust me a helluva lot worse. In the grand scheme of things, a little beatdown is a trivial cost of doing business.”

“What business are you into with Nicky?” she asked, cop curiosity piqued.

Bridge grinned and wiped the blood from his lips. “Oh, Patrolman Danton, my lips are sealed. I know nothing, I see nothing, I hear nothing. I’m just a…”

“I know, you’re just a bridge. Spare me, I’ve heard it before. See no, hear no, speak no evil. Next time he comes around looking to polish his knuckles with your face, I might not be around.” Bridge just shrugged. “The offer’s still open,” she stated matter-of-factly.

The offer was a death sentence, if not in actuality, in the sense that her deal would end his way of life for good. She had tried to cultivate Bridge as a confidential informant for months, to drop dime for a pittance. CLED paid better than LAPD, but the principle was still the same. A rat was a rat was a rat, no matter how big that rat’s payday. He’d have been a gold mine for her, but he wasn’t interested in being anyone’s meal ticket but his own.

“That’s a non-starter and you know it,” Bridge replied. “I’m no rat.”

“Then you better get used to those bruises.”

“Already there.”

“Maybe you should think about finally paying him enough to be an actual bodyguard,” Danton said as she pointed to Aristotle. “Keep it clean, Bridge.”

“I always do, Officer Danton.”

“Patrolman Danton, goddamnit!” She waved behind her as she exited the alley.

Once out of earshot, Bridge said, “Let’s get moving. I’ve got to find another hacker before Nicky gets his panties in a bunch again. Angela is not going to be happy to hear from me.”

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