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 fa├žade 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.

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