Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Chapter 9

August 30, 2028
1:14 p.m.

Bridge lingered long over an after lunch coffee, his mind in a tumult. In the best of circumstances, he would have had five paying options for selling this recording and moving on, but time was against him. Few would touch something this hot without demanding a serious discount for the added danger. Tom’s intuition, for all its sarcasm, was spot on. There was definitely a fix in. Losman trying to pass Soto off as some kind of shining knight crusader might play well on the evening news but Bridge knew better. The network's sudden reluctance to break any sort of election scandal just exacerbated his natural paranoia. The kind of high-level string-pulling this would require made his asshole twitch.

Soto had a reputation that Bridge was all too familiar with, even though he’d never done any business with the man. Soto had earned his reputation during the riots just like Bridge. Soto had lived in a lower middle class subdivision, not the type of place you’d see corporate types living in. Mostly Hispanic, it was populated by workmen, janitors, school teachers and retail workers, the kind of barely-above-the-poverty-level residents that politicians pandered to for elections before forgetting completely. He had been a struggling real estate developer living in the home his parents had bought back in the early ‘80’s when home ownership was still attainable with hard work. The neighborhood had the unfortunate providence of being on the border between the poor areas that exploded into chaos during the riots and the targets of that chaotic rage, the downtown corporate sectors. It quickly found itself under siege, with rioters on one side wanting to march through the streets burning and looting everything along the way and the corporate cops on the other side trying to protect their employer’s interests. Soto organized the neighborhood’s defense, successfully fighting off both sides for days. When the LGL was passed, LAPD and the corporate cops were joined into one peacekeeping force which more often served as agents of corporate vengeance. Soto negotiated publicly with these forces to ensure their neighborhood was excluded from the overly violent pacification sweeps. As a result, his neighborhood was one of the least devastated areas in the city.

But Bridge knew a guy who lived there during the riots. Paco had cowered in his parents’ basement most of the time, until Soto conscripted him. Paco hadn’t wanted to fight, but Soto left him little choice, strong-arming the 17-year old into manning a barricade against the rioters. Paco had been a quiet hacker, the kind of kid that couldn’t fight off swirlies in high school. When Soto was done with him, the kid was hard. The riots had done that to a lot of people, but Paco was a kid. He spoke about the things Soto had done, the murders he’d committed and the ones he’d ordered. Soto had been particularly brutal, at one point stringing up a rioter by his ankles and leaving him to die screaming yards in front of the barricades to discourage other invaders. Somehow, that brutality never made it into the official Soto story.

That made Bridge skeptical about the Soto campaign’s desire for honor. Soto wasn’t the kind of man who was squeamish about literally and figuratively crucifying his enemy when the situation called for it. His campaign manager having more scruples than her candidate was a nigh impossibility. The fix was in, but Bridge was damned if he could figure out the angle.

Bridge paid for his meal and strode outside, not quite sure what his next move should be. He spotted a street term and logged in using another disposable ID to check his messages. The first six were all from Nicky, barely veiled threats at first, escalating with each successive call until the final message had lost all semblance of subtlety. Nicky was ready to put Bridge down, and had gotten pissed enough not to care that such a threat was being recorded. He was going to have to do something about Nicky, but that had to take a back seat to this Sunderland situation. He also had a message from that executive, Thames. The normally confident executive’s voice sounded thin and frayed, and Bridge imagined his bosses were putting serious pressure on him. He’d have to wait as well. There was no way Bridge could stick his head out into the hacker pool far enough to hook up a leaker, not with a hit order floating around the GlobalNet. Aristotle had called to check up, and Bridge smiled a bit at the bodyguard’s undeserved loyalty. Bridge really needed to give him a bonus.

The last message was from Stonewall, short and cryptic enough to make Bridge's heart skip a beat. “Yo, Bridge, give me a call about that thing, eh? I got news.” Stonewall was really good at disguising his criminal activities with code words. Bridge immediately purchased another disposable ID and returned the call.

“Yo, Bridge, where you been?”

“Working another angle. You got something for me?”

“Yeah, but it ain’t what you want. Louie Lou, eh?” The ex-footballer hung up without even a goodbye. That meant nothing good, and probably a whole lot of bad. The code words Louie Lou was a location where the two could meet.

Louie Lou was a restaurant on the decaying edge of the warehouse district, a shithole diner that saw more rendezvous traffic than regular diners. They had good coffee and crappy food, but if you needed to meet somewhere away from where the shit was going down, Louie Lou’s was the place. Bridge caught a cab immediately, not even bothering to hide his trail. If Stoney wanted to meet at Louie Lou, it was an emergency.

Stonewall sat sipping coffee at a corner booth with a good view of the entire diner and the street outside. Catching sight of Bridge, he immediately dropped a few bills on the table and walked out. He greeted Bridge on the street with a curt, “Follow me.” The lack of chit-chat made Bridge keep his mouth shut as they stalked west a few blocks into rows of warehouses. Three blocks into the walk and Stonewall started talking. “So we took your boy Paulie’s crew to a safehouse and went to work on them. One of them didn’t last the trip. The second one managed to make it all night. Poor bastard didn’t talk though.” Bridge had lost track of where exactly he was when Stonewall stopped at the side door of a large warehouse. The building was so dilapidated that Bridge at first thought it was abandoned. The keypad entry was pristine, however, and the Mexican quickly entered a combination and opened the door. Bridge began to follow him in when he noticed the chaotic pattern of a shotgun blast in the dead center of the door. The door’s metal was perforated, blackened holes at waist height giving Bridge a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Watch your step,” Stonewall warned. Bridge narrowly avoided stepping directly in the puddle of blood on the floor. Whoever had been standing behind the door had taken the shotgun blast badly.

“We’d started working on Paulie when Twiggs sent me out for lunch. I was like ok, I’ll pick up where my homies leave off. I couldn’t have been gone half an hour.” Stonewall led Bridge down a shadowy hallway. The blood from the puddle was smeared down the hallway, leading to a body face down in a pool of light. The coppery smell of bloody death seemed to soak the air in the warehouse, the air which was even now closing in on Bridge, so stuffy it was like breathing sawdust and paranoia and impending doom. He could feel the gorge rising in his throat while his back was awash in freezing sweat. Bridge began to say a vain prayer in hopes of warding off the inevitable scene he was about to witness.

“But this is what I found.” Stonewall swept his arms wide to encompass the whole of the scene. The doorway opened into tool storage area off of the main warehouse floor. A haphazard series of cheap metal shelves and cabinets containing various motor parts and tools formed a makeshift room around the doorway. It was well lit with burning incandescent spotlights hanging low from the ceiling. The air was stifling with the smell of settling dust, motor oil, sweat and blood. All the blood. Bridge felt his lunch start to revolt, heading back up his esophagus with sickening force. “Hold it in, hombre, you don’t want the cops sniffing out your DNA ‘cos you yak all over the crime scene.” Bridge got a grip by steadying himself on one of the shelves, which wobbled under his weight. He drew back his hand from something sticky, but was relieved to discover oil on his hand instead of blood. He immediately grabbed a dirty towel from a nearby shelf and wiped both his hand and the shelf where he’d placed the hand. Stonewall approved. “Now you’re learning.”

“What the fuck happened?”

Stonewall surveyed the destruction nonchalantly. “You tell me, brother. Just who the fuck are... were these guys?”

Bridge began to study the scene carefully, reconstructing the interrogation in his head. The victim had been tied to a chair surrounded by three other chairs. Likely the questioner had sat directly across from the victim, the two flanking chairs holding the bruisers who would whale on the victim until he talked. One of the hanging lamps was low enough to be grabbed by the questioner but now swung in a faint elliptical pattern. Various implements such as vice grips, pliers, knives and a blowtorch had been on a table to the right of the victim, a table that now held a bloody corpse. Bridge recognized the corpse as one of Twiggs’ enforcers, Ernesto or Nester or something like that. The dead man’s eyes were frozen open, a surprised expression framing the third eye blooming out of his forehead.

One of the metal shelves directly opposite the table was overturned. A pair of feet was visible, the landing point of another of Twiggs’ employees. The chair to the left of the questioner’s was also spilled, its occupant having flipped over onto his stomach from the force of the blast that had killed him. The final body was the most surprising. In the center of the circle of chairs lay Twiggs, flat on his stomach with his head turned to stare blankly at the light above him. The former striker had taken two large caliber bullets in the back, and a third to the base of his skull, likely both the killing blow and a message. Bridge let out a whispered curse and shot a glance at Stonewall. The enforcer just nodded, a grim nod suffused with a blinding finality. A queer look of melancholy crossed Stoney’s face.

“Shit, Stoney, I'm sorry. I didn't…”

“Save it,” the Mexican cut him off with a wave of his hand. “If it wasn’t you, it was going to be somebody else got us all killed. Twiggs knew the type of bastards he was doing business with. He didn’t promise me a long life, he promised me a job.”

“You think this was a business hit?”

Stoney shook his head. “Not his business. His enemies would have left the two bodies.” He pointed over his shoulder at an area of the warehouse floor where two separate blood stains sat drying in the dust. A piece of plastic film with bloody stains had been left nearby, probably having covered the two missing bodies. “That's where we put the ones didn't make it.” Stoney pulled back the questioner’s chair and sat with a sigh. He pulled out a pack of gum, offering a piece to Bridge who declined. Stonewall insisted silently, and Bridge took a piece with reluctance. “It’ll settle your stomach,” he said with a wry smile. Stonewall indicated that Bridge should sit.

Bridge sank into the chair with a vacant stare. His eyes caught sight of something by the victim’s chair and he stared at it until he could comprehend it. Two fingers lay bleeding on the floor beside the chair. Bridge burped and barely covered his mouth with his hand, forcing the vomit back down with willpower alone. “Whose fingers are those?”

Stonewall blinked, said “Huh?” then found the digits Bridge was babbling about. “Oh, those. Probably Paulie’s. We’d just started really working him over when Twiggs sent me out. Guess they figured he was harder than the other two.”

“You notice something else?” Bridge shook his head. “No bullet casings.”
“What’s that mean?”

“Professional team, maybe even corporate. Thorough, but they knew how to make it look like a mob hit. Cops, maybe?” He shrugged. “We never could get a name out of them. Tough fuckers.”

Stonewall leaned over to rest his elbows on his knees, the strangest expression of sadness on his face. Bridge could see something behind his eyes, a storm front of emotion building behind the rocky façade the enforcer put on. He stared down at Twiggs with that look in his eyes, squeezing his hands together until his knuckles turned white. “Did I ever tell you how I lost my knee?” Bridge shook his head. “It wasn’t even in a goddamn game, just some training ground scrimmage shit. Twiggs was making a run right up the midfield, and I tackled him. Clean tackle, no funny business and I got possession. I’m heading back upfield, counterattacking right, gonna pass it off to… fuck, what was that guy’s name?” He clapped his hands together as he remembered. “Ricketts, that was him. Pretty good winger. So I pass it off to him and here comes Twiggs from the side, studs up.”

He sniffled a little, emotion getting the better of him as a solitary tear rolled down from his right eye. “I could feel the kneecap just ripping up, right? It totally shattered, pieces driven up into muscles and ligaments and shit tearing right up. Doctor's told me they could never reconstruct it as is, they had to use cybershit. Course, we all knew that would end it, what with FIFA being such dildos about warez. Twiggs apologized afterwards and you know what I told him? Same thing you always tell a footballer when he sideswipes you. I said, ‘I’d have done the same thing, amigo.’ I told him that, and every time we talked about it, I told him the same thing. No sense him feeling guilty about it, right? That’s what you're taught, from a little dude, make the tackle and apologize afterwards. Never begrudge a man a tackle you'd have made yourself.”

A raging thundercloud of anger erupted on Stonewall’s face. His lips quivered. Something had broken free inside of him. “But that was a lie, dig? Only a fucking striker comes in with a tackle that dangerous. That shit would have got him a red in a game and he fucking knew it. He knew it, man. That’s why he gave me this fucking job, that’s why he always took care of me. You fucking knew it, didn’t you! What was I, just some Catholic guilt you worked off? Did you feel good about yourself making me do all this shit? Did you? You know how many fucking bodies I buried? Yeah, neither do I and that scares the living shit out of me. But he just kept sending me out there. Stoney, crack this guy's jaw. Stoney, plant that deadbeat. And what'd it get you, eh puta? What'd it get you? It got you DEAD! Fuck you and burn in hell, you preppy shitbag! I’m glad you're dead!” Spittle flew off his lips as he screamed at the impassive corpse. His shoulders heaved and his breathing came in ragged gasps. His cathartic outburst over, he stood panting paying Bridge no mind whatsoever. Finally he composed himself, straightening his back and making the sign of the cross over his chest. “I'm glad you're dead,” he said one more time with almost a whisper.

Catching Bridge's look of terrified embarrassment, Stonewall smiled. “That therapist you got me said I should work on releasing my anger in a non-violent manner. He's good.”

“Should we be hanging around this slaughterhouse?”

Stonewall was about to speak, his mouth just opening to form the words when a beeping sound interrupted. He snapped to attention, darting over to an open doorway that led to a security room. Banks of monitors displaying feeds from various cameras all over the warehouse lined the walls. Bridge could see police cars pulling up in at least two of the exterior feeds. Stonewall cursed loudly. “We gotta get out of here,” he said, springing into action. Slamming a button on the monitor console, he pushed Bridge out into the warehouse floor. The vehicle lift of one of the work bays began to rise, revealing the darkened pit of the oil changing bay below. “Somebody’s called the cops on us, and unless you want to get framed for a gangster-style execution, it’s time to beat feet.”

The ex-footballer pushed Bridge down into the darkened bay, grabbing a shotgun, a pistol and some clips from underneath the vehicle lift as he did so. Bridge heard muffled shouts and the thwump of flash bang grenades behind him as he ducked below the level of the warehouse floor into darkness.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

GlobalPedia 2028: United States Currency

In the late 2020's, the United States consumer economy has evolved from a cash-dependent society to one almost completely based on transactions of credit. The physical dollar is still exchanged, especially among the poorer strata of society, but most transactions are accomplished with some form of electronic funds transfer. Physical currency has evolved into a wired currency as well, and multiple forms of dollar-based currency have gained acceptance in the form of corporate scrip. The reliance on electronic means of transferring and accumulating currency has led to a new twist on identity theft, the credit assassination.


The exchange of paper money for goods and services has been on a steady decline since the early '90's. By early 2020, cash was used in less than 4% of all transactions within the United States. As part of the U.S. Treasury's attempts to curtail counterfeiting operations, they began work on a new type of paper bill, called the Smart Bill. While previous series of bills had contained RFID strips for authentication purposes, the 2023 series of bills was the first to contain writable storage space along with readable information. For the first time, cash could be traced, with each bill linked to the purchaser of the bill through ATM and bank teller records. Point-of-sale systems were upgraded to register the transfer of the bills from one customer to the establishment.

The tracing program was initially a classified program of the Department of Homeland Security, ostensibly used to track the financial trail of suspected funders of terrorist activity. A group of anonymous hackers known as the Epic F@il Legion discovered the tracing properties of the bills , exposing the secret through the GlobalNet. The Treasury Secretary initially denied the program's existence, but within a year, the details were confirmed by the department. Exchange programs were instituted at all banks, offering to exchange the old bills with the new on a one-for-one basis. Response was incredibly low from the beginning, and has remained so. The Treasury Department has instituted a number of incentive programs to collect and destroy all of the untraceable currency, with little success.

Many of those who still use cash, such as low-wage workers, immigrants, criminals and black marketers prefer pre-trace currency. Dubbed “Five-Year,” the bills are hoarded. Those who wish to live “off the grid” are forced to use the slowly dwindling supply of Five-Year. A thriving industry of cash vendors has sprung up in most major metropolitan areas. Often found in convenience stores and high-interest, no credit-check loan establishments, the cash vendors will exchange all sorts of currency, including corporate scrip and new bills for the equivalent value in Five-Year, charging only a nominal percentage as a fee. The official government exchange rate for Five-Year is two old bills for one new bill, and it continues to go down as the government attempts to discourage its use.


The modern economy of the United States is built on electronic funds transfer. Most currency is called “credit” even if interest is not charged. The most important financial asset a consumer can possess is their credit score. No longer used just to determine lending worthiness, credit scores now determine employment , membership and service eligibility. Though the actual credit scores are kept anonymous, credit reporting agencies are used by businesses to refuse service to anyone whose credit score does not match the businesses minimum credit threshold.


Due to the increasing reliance on credit, a nasty side-effect has been the emergence of “credcrashing” otherwise known as “credit assassin.” A crasher assassinates his target by destroying his credit score, severing all ties the target has with their funds. The target is left bereft of credit, their bank accounts drained, bills unpaid and overdue. Some severe cases have resulted in the target being arrested on charges of credit fraud for their past credit transactions, even though those transactions were legally executed at the time. Like identity theft taken to the extreme, credit assassination can be corrected, but often not without the help of the very same credit reporting agencies that allowed the crashing to take place. The GlobalNet is rife with unsubstantiated rumors that many assassinations are ordered by corporations, either as attempts to sabotage competitors through their employees, or as a recruiting tool. The corporations assassinate the credit of a competitor's employee, then offer the target a job at reduced pay when the recruit has no other options. To this date, no corporation has been charged with such a crime. None will admit to using the practice, except in cases where debt collection has repeatedly failed, which is legal in extreme cases.

Corporate Scrip

The Corporate Currency Exchange Act of 2023 instituted another form of currency in the United States, known as corporate scrip. Issued by corporations, this scrip is equivalent to money issued by the Treasury, with a variable exchange rate pegged against the dollar based upon that particular scrip's overall activity. Scrips with brisk trade can actually exchange at a greater than one-to-one ratio with U.S. Dollars, while less popular scrips can be practically worthless in dollar terms. All corporations will take their own scrip at a one-to-one ratio for their goods and services, while using the official exchange rate for other scrips.

The stock price of corporations can also affect their scrip exchange rate. Corporations with low consumer confidence find their scrips being traded in for other currency or not being used at all, while corporations with high consumer confidence will find their scrip frequently used. As a result, stock prices and exchange rates generally move in similar proportions.

Many corporate employees are paid in scrip. Corporations find this lowers their overhead and increases revenue, as those employees tend to purchase goods and services from vendors also owned by the scrip's issuer due to the favorable exchange rate. Employees are urged to “keep it in the corporate family.”


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Chapter 8

August 30, 2028
9:13 a.m.

Bridge woke early, fixed a light breakfast and headed out without a word to Angela. She never showed, in holograph or in person, so he assumed she’d either passed out or was still running deep. He was glad not to have to talk to her again. If she wasn’t going to help him get rid of the recording, best she wasn’t involved in what he had planned next.

Since this Sunderland data had already almost gotten him killed and given him his second beatdown in twenty-four hours, he was committed to ridding himself of this data in the safest way possible. He wasn’t yet desperate enough to try to blackmail Sunderland. Though the mayor had the means, he’d be just as likely to kill everyone involved as pay blackmail money. If Paulie was in Sunderland’s employ as Bridge suspected, odds were Sunderland would err on the side of violence. Without using a go-between, one Bridge could hardly afford to find or pay on such short notice, Bridge was entirely too exposed for blackmail.

Sunderland had enemies, though. He had one big enemy in particular, one who’d welcome the kind of dirty laundry this recording represented. With the election only two days away, the value of the information was reaching its apex, so time was short. After the election, the information would only be valuable if Sunderland retained his post and even then, its value would sink like a stone with each passing day. But while the voters were still being inundated with the candidate’s message, one person in particular would pay a king’s ransom for this kind of bombshell.

That was why Bridge stood across the street from the campaign headquarters of Sunderland’s opponent, Arturo Soto. In keeping with Soto’s anti-corporate political stance, it was a modest location, a strip mall space leased out and transformed into a buzzing hive of activity. Bridge, being a paranoid fucker, had to marvel at the lax security of the building. The entire front of the space was clear glass windows from knee height to ceiling, and most areas were clearly visible from his vantage point. One area was clearly designated for the net roots activity, a bank of hastily constructed cubicles barely sheltering a squad of cyber operators posting videos, testimonials, advertisements, rumors, news stories and other such “net roots” information. Most other workers were busily making phone calls or gathering fliers and there was a constant stream of workers flowing through the door.

Bridge crossed the street warily. He’d managed to get a new suit to replace the blood-covered one he wore the previous night, ditching the horrible t-shirt and jeans combination Angela had foisted on him from spare clothes she had in her closet. He didn’t ask whose clothes they had been. He strode confidently into the front door, flashing the receptionist his most charming, nano-enhanced smile.

The cute blonde behind the desk responded with a dutiful friendliness, but her eyes gave Bridge that little something extra. Bridge was by no means a handsome man. His black hair was slicked back, exposing a burgeoning widow’s peak. His nose was perhaps a tad too big and angular, while his face was a bit too doughy from years of stewing motionless in a vat of saline. The five o-clock shadow he sported didn’t hurt his appeal. But Bridge had discovered that thing that made him imminently more attractive than his looks. He walked with the confidence of someone who knows how to get what he wants. It didn’t hurt that his attitude towards the entirety of humanity was one of loathful indifference. He showed no sign of caring whether a woman found him attractive or not, and Bridge could only conclude that woman viewed that as a challenge. So it was with the receptionist, Carly.

Bridge made a vain attempt to see Soto himself, knowing full well that no campaign manager lets just any jagoff get close to the candidate without a thorough vetting. It was a good thing Bridge actually wanted to see the campaign manager. Bridge pretended to settle for this meeting with feigned disappointment. Candidates don’t lay their own hands on their opponent’s dirty laundry. That’s why they hire campaign managers.

Carly ushered Bridge through to the manager’s office within minutes. Along the way, she slipped him a note. Bridge knew it contained the woman’s phone and NetID, but he feigned surprise for the purpose of the pantomime they were performing. A final wry smile saw Carly out the door.

“Good morning,” was the all-business greeting Bridge got from the campaign manager, Barbara Losman. Losman was a young-looking mid-40’s, long straight golden brown hair framing an imperfect face that smiled a little too disingenuously. Long smile lines stretched around her perfectly lined lips, her eyes just a bit too wide as if incredulous at the world around her. But underneath that expression, Bridge could sense the most cunning sort of cynicism, a calculating coldness that parsed every fragment of dialogue for the slightest advantage. This was a dangerous woman. “How may I help you, Mister… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

Bridge sat down across from her smoothly. “That’s because I didn’t give it.”

Losman rolled along without batting an eyelash. “Well, I’m Barbara Losman, and it’s a pleasure to meet one of the voters. Were you interested in volunteering for the campaign? We’re a bit overstaffed, if that’s the case, but I’m sure we could find something for you to do.”

“I’m here to help you put this election in the bank.”

Losman’s eyebrow rose almost imperceptibly. She was cautiously intrigued. “That’s certainly good news. Are you sure I can’t offer you anything? Coffee? Tea? Fresca?” She said the last bit as she shuffled papers on her desk. She attempted to make the movement seem absentminded, but he could tell she was angling to push the security button she likely had under her desk.

“I’m not just some crazy off the street, so you can take your finger off that button,” he said with a relaxed smile. One solitary bead of sweat rolled down his left armpit, the tension in the room becoming palpable.

Losman smiled the grin of a predator pleased to finally meet a canny opponent. “Fair enough,” she said, raising her hands above the desk before leaning back in her chair. “Since I don’t know you, explain to me how you intend to help my candidate win the election.”

“Your opponent is about as dirty as they come,” Bridge began.

Losman feigned a sarcastic surprise. “No, you don’t say! Was it the fact that he was appointed into his position by corporate fiat or the fact that he’s done nothing for this city other than bulldoze neighborhoods since he got into office? You could ask any ten people out on the street and nine of them would say he was dirty. You could put a patron saint into his position and at least six would still think he was dirty.”

“What if I told you I was in possession of information proving your opponent was engaged in ethically questionable activities that would make all ten of those people throw up?”

The wall came up. Losman’s features hardened into an inscrutable blank stare. “I would say that you should be talking to the press. They love a good sex scandal. My candidate isn’t interested, no matter what the price.”

Bridge was taken aback. He hadn’t even mentioned sex or money, but it appeared the negotiations had started without him. “What I have will make sure Sunderland gets fewer votes than drunken Mickey Mouse write-ins. All I need…”

And just like that, the negotiation was over. “You don’t understand, so let me make it perfectly clear. My candidate is in no way interested in your seedy scandals. Maybe you haven’t checked the polls lately. Soto is ahead amongst just about every demo that matters.”

“I do understand that he’s both ahead and behind by statistical nothings depending on whose poll you believe. Two days ‘til the election and it could go either way. I’m offering you a slam dunk.”

“You’re offering me the chance to drive this campaign right in the gutter. My client has no interest in those kinds of dirty politics-as-usual.”

Bridge couldn’t prevent a hint of anger creeping into his voice. “Come on, lady, we both know politics is about as clean as a fucking cesspool, especially in this city. And we both know your client has as much blood on his hands from the riots as any Chronosoft executive. Soto ain’t no Richard the Lionhearted, no matter what you’re trying to peddle on those commercials of yours.”

“Richard the Lionhearted? You’re going to go crusaders on me? That’s very educated of you.”

“I read history, I been to college. That’s a good one, eh?”

She smiled a smile so disingenuous it gave the truth whiplash. “Yes, quite impressive.” And then she was done playing games. “This meeting is over.” Her eyes were simmering coals, and Bridge knew he was wasting his time. “Will you leave quietly, or should I indulge myself and let my security curbstomp you out the door?”

“I’ll show myself out,” Bridge said coldly, standing and straightening his lapels. He gave her a sarcastic head bow and walked out, barely able to contain his anger. He waited until he’d crossed the street and made it around the corner before letting out a torrent of inventive curses. He began to walk aimlessly, not thinking about a destination, just trying to sort out the puzzle before him.

Soto’s people weren’t interested in dirt, but that just didn’t compute. Politicians spoke ad nauseum about their desire to run clean campaigns, their firm belief in a return to honorable politics as if such a thing had ever existed. But invariably, all political races turned into sleazy, mud-slinging games of one-upmanship. The presidential election of 2020, the first Bridge had voted in, had taught him the scant lessons he knew of politics, and he’d mostly sworn off voting after that bitter experience.

It was beyond Bridge’s conception that a politician wouldn’t take any opportunity to smear his opponent, especially if done in such a way as to make it appear the smear-er had nothing to do with the smearing. Losman had refused to even consider the option. While both she and the candidate may claim it was because Soto was some crusading savior, Bridge wasn’t buying it. Furthermore, Bridge had never mentioned what exactly it was that Sunderland was involved in, yet Losman had immediately hit upon a sex scandal. That seemed a little too spot on to be a coincidence.

Bridge looked up to find himself in front of a waiting cab. Without even consciously considering it, Bridge had decided on his next course of action. He needed to see Tom Williams.

A quick call to Tom led Bridge to the Press Room, a tiny bar and grill just outside of the downtown area where most of the news broadcasts located their LA bureaus. The Press Room was such a prototypical LA establishment, a darkened private restaurant built in the 1970’s. The original décor still insulted the eye with its vomit brown plush carpet, dark faux brick and copious red stained glass. It was the kind of place anyone could walk into, from movie stars to regular schlubs, and the patrons would pay no special attention to anyone, making it the perfect anonymous meeting point for reporters and their sources. Or, in the case of Bridge and Tom Williams, the perfect meeting place for client and provider.

Tom was the kind of man who stood out anywhere he went, a ruggedly beautiful man with perfect blonde hair, teeth and physique. His square jaw was prototypically Midwestern, and his voice had the gravitas to carry a broadcast all on his own for hours. His career had been practically meteoric, from local field man to local anchor to the face of the Chronosoft owned National News Network in 15 years. Luckily for Bridge, in the Press Room, Tom was just the good-looking guy in the corner booth with the slick talker. Tom had needed a source for floating card games, the kind of games no one admitted to running or participating in. Tom had a helluva gambling problem when he was losing, and he’d been close to having that problem exposed when Bridge had taken care of him. Bridge knew a guy.

Bridge’s stomach started grumbling as soon as he sat down, so he ordered lunch, while Tom just had coffee. “Like I need anymore caffeine in my day,” Tom grumbled to no one in particular. He crossed his hands in front of his chest and gave Bridge a stern look. “So why the fuck did you feel it necessary to call me out at work? I thought you relied on the utmost discretion.”

“Under normal circumstances, you’d never hear from me unless you sought me out.” Bridge was paddling against a very tough upstream. “This is not a normal day. I’ve got something big.”

“How big?”

“Like break open an election big.”

Williams’ eyebrow shot straight up, and he seemed to be chewing on the thought. “Elections? Since when did you get involved in politics?”

“Something kind of fell into my lap. Believe me, it’s nothing I’d touch otherwise. Would you be interested and more importantly, would that interest be worth anything?”

“That all depends. What election are we talking about?”

“THE election, my friend. Two days from now, the mayor of Los Angeles against the upstart neighborhood crusader. I’ve got some dirt that is guaranteed to swing this thing…” Bridge paused as the waitress brought the drinks to the table. When she’d left, he continued, “I’m serious, this is national breaking oh my god everyone switch the channel big.”

Tom ripped open a packet of sweetener, dumping it unceremoniously into his coffee. He stirred in silent thought, finally lifting the cup and wincing at the heat. Replacing the cup on the table, he shot Bridge down. “I can’t touch it.”

“What do you mean you can’t touch it?”

“I mean I can’t touch it. Editorial directive, coming from the very top. No one, and I mean no one, breaks any kind of scandal on this thing first. Me, the guys at CNN, the local guys, nobody can touch any kind of dirt on this election until someone else breaks it first.”

“I thought you guys lived to break stories like this, like it was a divine calling.” Bridge asked with confused irritation.

Tom chuckled. “You know, for someone so street wise, you sure are naïve as shit.” He took another sip of his coffee, his reaction no more positive than from his first sip. “Man, they make some shitty coffee here.”

He stared straight into Bridge’s eyes, his hands gently pounding the table to emphasize his points. “Look, I’ll level with you. We like to call ourselves journalists, and we ride that objective viewpoint pony until it is dead. But it’s all bullshit. The more people I get staring at my face every night, the less actual journalism I’m allowed to do. I’m a glorified teleprompter with a dashingly handsome face, if I do say so myself.”

He leaned back in the booth, a weary sigh escaping his body. “I’m not allowed to piss people off, I’m not allowed to make a stand, and I’m not allowed to break a story if the suits that give me my paycheck don’t want me breaking it. At best, I get to regurgitate the talking points, the PR spin. Maybe once a year, maybe, someone with some actual journalistic abilities is allowed to get a page of copy to my desk and I get to read the truth before the bullshit is tossed on top of the body to cover it all up. I have a staff to do my legwork, which usually consists of emailing their plugged-in buddies to feed them the official lie.”

“I’m the hype machine, buddy. It’s a wonder I can still fucking dress myself.”

Bridge sat aghast. “Jesus. I thought I was cynical.”

“You ain’t old enough to be this cynical, bucko,” Tom smiled sardonically.

“So you won’t even take this story for free then?”

“I don’t even want to hear what it is. It’ll just make me jealous.” He took one last slug of coffee, and made a face that belonged on a poison control sticker. “Goddamnit, they gotta get some better coffee in here. Listen, I have to get back. We’re doing a story on the glorious benefits the LGL has brought to Los Angeles.” He seemed more intensely displeased over the story than he was the coffee. “Say, have you thought about using a leaker for the story? That’s probably about the only way you’re going to get it out there.”

“Where do you think I got it from?”

Tom shrugged. “Well, good luck with that then. Once it gets out, I’d love to do a followup, if it’s still news by the time you get it out.” Bridge waved him off. “Suit yourself.” Tom turned to leave, but Bridge stopped him.

“This doesn’t all seem slightly suspicious to you, then? The eve of one of Los Angeles’ biggest elections and you’ve been forbidden from breaking any story on the candidates. That doesn’t smell at all fishy to you?”

Tom’s sardonic smile was infuriating. “It stinks like last week’s garbage. But it does alert my well-honed journalistic instincts to one thing.” Bridge marveled that he could say those words with a straight face.

“Yeah and what’s that?”

“The fix is in. Gird your loins, buddy.” With that, the newsman left whistling some pre-21st tune.

Bridge sat and finished his meal, the wheels in his head turning desperately with every bite.



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