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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