Friday, June 27, 2008

Chapter 12

August 30, 2028
8:49 p.m.

The only discussion during the ride to Angela’s place was Bridge’s breathless suggestions for the route home. His paranoia was now well and truly in gear, and he sent them all over the Los Angeles area in the most circuitous route possible to throw off any pursuit. By the time they reached Angela’s apartment complex, he was absolutely exhausted. His limbs felt like solid lead, and he moved with a languid, almost drugged pace. Angela parked the car close to her apartment over his feeble objections, but he was inwardly grateful for the short walk up to her place despite his protestations. He leaned heavily on the wall as she opened the door, then stomped straight to the couch and practically collapsed, sinking back into the cushions with a grunting sigh and closing his eyes.

He just had nothing left in his tank. All his plans had gone to shit. There was no one to sell the recording to, and no profit to be made from the venture. He was likely going to be on the lam from the police as soon as the mayor’s people put a name to his face. His bodyguard was likely in lockup and bailing Aristotle out would cost Bridge all the money he had if he could even show his face at the station without getting arrested on sight. And on top of all that, he had a puzzle he couldn’t figure out. Sunderland not only wasn’t surprised about the recording, he was well aware of it. There had been some sort of plan for that information, something that required Kira’s talents. The politician had planned on Kira getting hold of that recording, and doing something with it. Since Kira was a leaker, it was safe to assume Sunderland had wanted the recording leaked. But why would a politician knowingly record a career-killing indiscretion on the eve of the most important election of his life? Was he politically suicidal? Was he just plain fucking nuts? Something was missing, some piece of information Bridge had not seen yet that would put it all together, but Bridge was too exhausted to even speculate on what that could be.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d sat there dozing half asleep, his mind racing over and over the same ground. His eyes snapped open as Angela took a seat beside him, plopping down forcefully while flipping the television on. “You really don’t look good,” she said playfully. Bridge gave her a half-grin, half-grimace.

“It’s been that kind of a day.”

She noticed the drying blood on his cheek. “You know you’re bleeding, right? You sure you shouldn’t go to the hospital?” She leaned over and touched the gash gingerly, her hand brushing up against his ribs. He winced painfully. “Was that your ribs? Are they broken?”

“No, they’re not broken. I know what broken feels like.”

A previously undiscovered set of matronly instincts suddenly appeared. “All right, that’s it, off with the shirt. I want to see this.” He gave her a stubborn look of refusal, but she was having none of it. “I mean it, off. If I think your ribs are broken, I’m taking you to the fucking emergency room if I have to drag you by the stubble on your chin. Let’s go!” He knew Angela’s innate stubbornness. She wasn’t going to be shifted without violent words he was entirely too exhausted to muster up. The concern in her voice was surprisingly alluring.

“Fine, fine.” He threw off his jacket, pulled his tie over his head and unbuttoned the top three buttons on his silk shirt before pulling it over his head. The movement robbed him of any breath, his ribs a fiery bundle of pain. “See, I’m a lovely shade of black and blue.”

“Goddamn, Bridge, how the fuck did you manage to get that many bootheels on your sides?” From just under his right armpit down to his hip, splotches of blue, black and yellowed skin tattooed his torso with a roadmap of pain. The other side wasn’t much better. He even had a shoe pattern scrape on his stomach that was scabbing up nicely, a wound he attributed to Paulie. “Sit right there, don’t move.” She ran to the kitchen and began banging through cabinets and drawers. He heard the water running for a moment, but didn’t bother to look around. He stared glassy-eyed at the television, which was running some nature program about coyotes or hyenas in the desert. He wasn’t paying enough attention to be sure of the species other than it was some kind of canine.

She returned to the couch with a wet rag, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a bottle of vodka, cotton balls and a few bandages. “I’m not good at this, but sit still and I’ll have you taken care of,” she said sternly. He just shrugged. Her first move was to the rubbing alcohol, pouring it on a cotton ball before jabbing it straight into the cut on his face. She ignored his loud curses. “Shut it, you big baby. It can’t hurt that badly. Be good, and I’ll get you a lollipop.” He flipped her the bird with a rueful smile. “No lolly for you!”

She covered the gash with a bandage, then handed him the vodka. “Here, take a slug of that. Better than aspirin.” He chuckled and took a big hit from the bottle.

“What, no bourbon?” he said after swallowing with a grimace.
“That’s you that drinks that shit, not me. I’m a vodka woman.” She ran gentle hands over his midsection, testing for breaks. He winced again and again as she prodded him, but the activity seemed to satisfy her concerns. “Well, it looks like you’re right, nothing’s broken.”

“I did tell you,” was his sarcastic reply.

“And I told you to shut it. I’d rather it hurt for a minute than you die on my couch.” She finally noticed the program he was watching. “What you watching?” Two coyotes were fighting viciously, biting and growling and scratching with passionate venom. The scene cut to the end of the battle, with the loser limping off and the victor raising a leg to mark his territory. “That poor doggie!”

Bridge chuckled. “That’s nature for you. It’s not like that’s all that different from us. We’re all just fucking dogs, running around trying to mark our territory so somebody will know we were here, what we did was important. Just pissing in the wind, don’t mean nothing. We’re all just waiting around for a bigger dog to come steal our shit.” Angela just rolled her eyes.

“Wow, aren’t we philosophical tonight?”

“Almost getting a bullet in my brain pan in some hotel kitchen pantry gets me a little metaphysical, know what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, that’s you, the big philosopher. What the hell happened, Artie? You used to want to create something, something big and beautiful and new. You always talked about building a virtual world to get away from the shit. What happened to that guy?”

“That guy saw too much. That guy didn’t realize how many people out there are just waiting to crack him over the skull for a fiver. When it all comes down, it’s every man for himself.”

His answer seemed to bring down her mood. He caught the barest hint of a wistful sadness in her eyes before she looked away. “We aren’t all out to get you, Artie. Hell, Aristotle got busted tonight to keep you from getting killed. That’s got to be worth something.”

Bridge took another swig, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. He scowled at the bottle, replaced the cap and put it on the bare coffee table. “Yeah, I’ll get him something good. If I don’t get whacked that is.”

Her gaze returned to him, and the sadness was gone. In its place was a familiar expression, something Bridge didn’t expect to see there again. All the signals were written on her face plain as day. “Well, if you’re going to get whacked, you should at least spend your last night doing something worthwhile.” Her smile was pure sex, and Bridge found himself responding in kind.

She leaned over and kissed him slowly at first, but with growing intensity, taking care not to put any weight on his injuries. She quickly shifted on the couch to straddle him, grabbing his hand and leading it to the right place. They made out for a few minutes this way, her shirt ending up piled on top of his. All the fatigue seemed to drain out of his body. Somewhere in between breathless kisses, he asked about her Korean boyfriend. She shrugged it off with an absentminded, “Seoul is a long way from here” before engaging Bridge in another passionate kiss.

She stopped suddenly, pulling away from his lips. Her expression had a seriousness that surprised him. “This don’t mean nothing, understand?”

He pondered it for a moment and nodded. “It never does.”

Bridge slept like a stone, any dreams he had lost to post-coital exhaustion. He certainly couldn’t have said it was his best performance, but given the circumstances, he thought he acquitted himself well enough. Angela seemed to respond with equal excitement, and they both fell asleep with enthusiastic yet silent cuddling. Bridge was thankful for the silence. He wasn’t sure of his feelings about this lapse. Better to avoid that discussion at least until the morning.

His consciousness returned with syrupy slowness. Angela had moved quietly beside him and he lay with eyes closed, trying desperately not to wake fully. His mind struggled to remember whose bed he lay in, and he mumbled incoherently. Slowly, he came to realize that someone was watching him, and he muttered, “Go ‘way, sleeping.” The presence didn’t move and he smiled, picturing Angela sitting over him watching like she used to. Finally, he cracked open an eyelid and found himself looking up into one ugly mug.

“Wake up, sunshine,” said Paulie, a cruel smile plastered on his ghastly face. His lip was split, both eyes were horribly bruised and various cuts and bruises littered the craggy landscape of his already undesirable visage. Bridge tried to get up, his only reward a short jab to the chin for his troubles. “Ah ah, Polly, no sense running off just yet. We’ve brought you breakfast in bed, we ‘ave.” He fed Bridge another helping of knuckles and smiled a toothy grin.

Paulie grabbed Bridge’s throat with his left hand and pressed Bridge into the bed with a suffocating strength. He held up his right hand, displaying the empty area his middle and ring finger had previously occupied. “Now see, normally this would be your arse, mate. This is a right big debt you owe me and if I ‘ad me way, the last thing you’d see before your eyeballs popped out of your ‘ead would be my pretty puss.” The enforcer squeezed even harder to prove his point. Bridge’s vision began to swim, spots dancing in front of his eyes as his consciousness ebbed. Just as suddenly as it had started Paulie let loose of his throat. “But that ain’t the job.” Coughing violently, Bridge almost fell out of bed.

“So let’s talk then,” Paulie said, sitting down on the bed and scratching the beginnings of a scruffy beard. Bridge saw past him to his helpers, two gigantic sides of beef with cybershades and long coats. One held Angela with a gloved hand covering her mouth. Her eyes were wide, a mixture of fear and anger. They had at least let her get dressed it appeared, though her feet were bare. “You ‘ave been a very naughty boy,” Paulie began. “See, that recording you’ve been trying to peddle about town, that’s not yours, now is it? No, no it is most certainly fucking not. Your little hacker buddy, he ‘ad a job to do, see? But instead of doing that job that he was well-paid for, he fucked right off. So when he disappeared, we figured he’d try to get rid of the thing. And who better to give it to than you? If he’d ‘ave just done the job, he’d still be alive.”

Paulie looked over at Angela with a disdainful expression. “Come this time tomorrow, your little girlfriend will be in the same boat as Kira if we don’t get what we want. And so will you if I get my way. But, if you’re really good, you can avoid all that. You know what we want?” Paulie stopped talking and stared at Bridge, who nodded with angry intensity.

“You want the recording leaked.”

Paulie snapped the fingers of his left hand. “Eureka, mates, I think he finally gets it. You see that?” He snapped his fingers again. “I used to be able to do that with both hands, and thanks to you and your little Spic friend, now I’m half a snapper. I gotta go and get some metal fingers now. I’m betting those fingers snapping is gonna sound like a fucking steel drum. For that, we will be settling up once this is over. But for now, yes, we want that recording leaked to as many places as it can be by 7 p.m. this evening or your little girlfriend is snuffed. And then I come after you. Do it, boys.”

The enforcer standing next to Angela pulled out a skinpatch and stuck it on her neck. She fought for a second before slumping against her captor. She was conscious but had become overtly pliable, a glassy-eyed stare on her face and a languid droop to her limbs. The patch must have been Sluv, the latest frat boy date rape drug. It left the victim conscious and aware, but completely malleable to the whims of anyone who could catch her attention. The enforcer sat her down and put shoes on her, then led her out the door.

“7 p.m. Start the seeding by then or she’s done for. Got it?” Bridge nodded his assent.

“Where do I pick her up once it’s over?”

Paulie reached into his coat and withdrew a bizchip. “This address. Bring proof or well, you know.” He tossed the chip on the bed. “Now, you don’t want her back, you just head off. She’s a bit skinny for my tastes, but she’ll do, eh?” Paulie began to walk out the door.

“Hey Paulie,” Bridge said. The footballer stopped in the doorway. “This is over, you won’t need to look for me.” The man just smiled that toothy grin again, tipped an imaginary hat to Bridge and walked out chuckling.

That was it, then. Bridge knew what was required. The recording was supposed to be leaked. Traditional news organizations had little real credibility with scandal stories they generated, but leaked media like this could be believed. The mainstream news would pick it up, replaying hours and hours of hurried interviews, talking heads and paid experts to expound on the story, all without looking like scandalmongers. Soto’s people got to benefit from the scandal without seeming like mudslingers. And the mayor, the mayor got his career ruined, something he was perfectly happy with by all appearances.

That was the part Bridge couldn’t quite figure out yet. Sunderland was trying to throw the election, and Soto and the media were in on it. The fix was in, but why would a guy like Sunderland willingly give up the job? What did he get out of it? As Bridge puzzled over the scenario, he picked up the bizchip. His teeth clenched together so hard they hurt.

Bridge had seen the bizchip before. He already had a copy of Thames’ card, and it was the last thing he’d expected to get from Paulie. A slow-building fire of anger smoldered in his stomach as he realized he had been played. For a fleeting moment before he’d picked up the card, he had thought about bagging it all in, packing up and getting the fuck out of LA with his ass intact. Screw Angela, screw Aristotle, screw all this political bullshit.

But it was personal now. He’d been played. It was time to fight back.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Chapter 11

August 30, 2028
6:16 p.m.

Bridge had avoided this meeting as long as he could, but he had run out of acceptable options. If he couldn’t sell the recording to Sunderland’s opponent, if the news organizations wouldn’t take it off his hands, he couldn’t hire a leaker, and blackmail was untenable, he only had one other option. It was hardly preferable or profitable, but it had to be done. He made the first call to Angie, who passed on a message to Aristotle.

The bodyguard met Bridge in the lobby of the downtown Belker Hotel, mere blocks from the Chronosoft LGL Administrative Offices that had absorbed most of downtown since the riots. Combining the finest in modern amenities with architecture that hearkened back to the early ‘30’s deco roots of the downtown Los Angeles area, the Belker was currently overrun with journalists and Sunderland campaign supporters. The mayor was due to speak to his adoring fans in less than an hour. As Bridge entered the opulent lobby, Aristotle approached him with a furrowed brow and a face full of worry. “Isn’t this getting a bit too close to enemy territory?” he asked as he pulled Bridge around the corner from one of the large convention halls.

Bridge just gave his bodyguard a mischievous grin. “Business associates are never enemies,” he replied with little conviction. He pulled a flower from the ornate vase sitting on a oak accent table, stuffing it into his lapel with aplomb. “What do you think? Too much?”

Aristotle nodded. “Just a bit too fruity for this crowd and that jacket. Didn’t this business associate try to have you killed?”

“Allegedly. Look, I don’t have much other choice. I try to blackmail this guy and I’m dead for sure. If he doesn't get re-elected, and that’s 50/50 at best, he gets beat and the blackmail won't be worth shit. If I want anything out of this, I have to get rid of it in the next 24 hours. And since no one else is willing to pay a red cent, selling it back to its original owner is my best option, even if the only thing I get is to save my own ass. The worst he can do is try to kill me again and he’s not going to do that with all this press around.” Aristotle did not look one bit reassured. “Did you bring it?”

Aristotle nodded and handed Bridge a bizchip. It was something Bridge had been sitting on for a while, a rainy day surprise he’d wheedled out of Tom Williams a few months back. Tom had given him press credentials in exchange for a voucher into a high-stakes card game. Tom really did have a problem. Of course, the credentials were shit, some kind of fluff entertainment reporter bullshit, but what the credentials lacked, Bridge would make up for with persuasion. “You’re clear about what you’re supposed to do?”

Aristotle nodded, but Bridge went over it again for good measure. “I get in here and try to work up an interview. I’ll turn on my cell connection and let you listen in. Provided I actually get the interview, and I’m pretty sure I can, they’ll probably white noise me. If you hear the connection cut out, you got five minutes to create as big a distraction as you can manage. You realize you’re probably going to get arrested, right?”

Aristotle shrugged. “All the greatest thinkers have been imprisoned for their political beliefs at one time or another. It will give me ample time to write.”

Bridge’s respect for the man grew a hundredfold. “You don’t have to do this, you know. You can just head home right now, save yourself a night in the pokey. I wouldn’t blame you a bit.” Aristotle shook his head. “Why? It ain’t like I’m the best boss in the world. Why are you sticking your neck out for me?”

Aristotle thought for a moment. He replied with the most matter-of-fact tone. “All this time, you’ve never treated me like a piece of meat. I’m your bodyguard, but you never ordered me to take a hit for you, not even a single punch. You’d rather take another beatdown than put me in harm’s way.”

“I can’t afford a real bodyguard!” Bridge protested meekly, his cheeks flushing.

“Yeah, you keep on saying it. I know better.” His smug smile was infuriating and encouraging at the same time. If Bridge got out of this, he’d need to do something for his employee, buy him something special.

“Angela has rented a car and will be waiting for us outside if we require immediate egress,” Aristotle said.

Bridge’s jaw set with painful anger. “What do you mean Angela’s outside? She’s offline? She’s HERE?”

“Why yes, she insisted on coming along quite forcefully.”

Bridge let out a string of curses. “Goddamnit, I didn’t want her involved in this, especially in the flesh! What the hell is she thinking?” He reviewed his plans, trying to revise them to keep her out of harm’s way. Finally, he said, “Look, whatever happens, do NOT let her get involved. I don’t care if I’m about to get capped, you make sure she gets out of here even if I don’t. You got that?”

“But Bridge, we can…”

“I mean it, Marcus. I don’t want her in this.” Bridge’s use of Aristotle’s real name obviously affected the man, and he nodded his assent grudgingly. “All right, how do I look?” Bridge asked as he straightened his tie in the nearby mirror.

“Like five miles of deteriorated road,” Aristotle replied with gallows humor. “The bruises are a bit obvious.”

He was right, Bridge looked a mess. Despite his practiced attempts at concealing the damage with makeup, both eyes sported nasty shiners, his lip was split and his clothes were rumpled. One glance at his appearance brought the fatigue of the day into sharp focus, his shoulders slumping with the stress. “Nothing to be done about it now. The speech is about to start.” Bridge buttoned his coat and strode purposefully towards the convention room brandishing his fake press passes. He half-expected them to be rejected, ending his potentially suicidal gambit, but the guards just shuttled him quickly through with barely a glance at his disheveled condition. ‘Political reporters must get their asses beat constantly,’ Bridge thought to himself sardonically.

As he entered the darkened room, the buzzing hum of conversation died to an awkward whisper. The large hall held probably two hundred or so, and it was packed to the gills with reporters from local, national and international venues. The room was lit by several spotlights focused on the stage, festooned with various campaign materials bearing the slogan “Into the Bright, Shining Future.” A speaker was introducing the Mayor, praising the politician's dedication to rebuilding the city. Bridge quickly tuned out. He shuffled as quietly as he could into the crowd, searching for the kind of reporter he knew would be in attendance. He was looking for the cynic, the guy so sick to death of the whole political dog and pony show, the guy who’d talk to anyone about anything so long as the cynicism was mutual. In the end, he spotted his man on the fringes of the room, leaning against the wall with a scotch in one hand and a microphone held lazily towards the stage in the other. This was Bridge’s guy.

Bridge sidled up next to the cynic with casual indifference, offering a greeting in the form of a head nod. The cynic returned it with little sincerity. Bridge leaned over with a convivial quip, noting the reporter’s name on his badge as Cary Batson from Channel 17. “I wonder which talking points he’ll hammer tonight.”

The cynic offered him a sheet of paper with the campaign letterhead in holographic letters at the top. “Didn’t you get the memo? He’s going for all of them.”

Bridge indicated the microphone held by the cynic. “Isn’t that thing going to catch all this?”

“This? Not likely. It’s not even on. But if you don’t at least look like you’re doing something, the jackboots start giving you shit. I could have done this remote yesterday from memory.” They shared a schoolboy level chuckle, and then turned their collective attention back to the stage where the introduction had been completed. The mayor bubbled out onto the stage, the applause from his supporters fervent with screaming and clapping while the journalists offered polite golf claps while trying to look interested.

Sunderland looked more corpulent and slimy in person than he did on his commercials, a pudgy man with a lilting, effeminate voice that spoke of nothing so much as concessions and beliefs that shifted with those of his audience. Bridge couldn’t think of a less palatable candidate for any sort of position of responsibility, though he certainly could chalk that up to having seen the mayor’s disgusting cybersexual display. The speech began with disingenuous thank-you’s for support and encouragement, and continued with clockwork precision along the talking points sheet. The whole thing had the flavor of a pantomime as well-rehearsed as Bridge’s introduction speech to his clients. He got the sense of the politician's greater role as the official state fixer, the go-to guy when you need something no one else can get. Was that all government really was? A series of handshakes and handouts based on an arbitrary series of rules that at least had the benefit of being codified, as opposed to the extra-legal series of unwritten rules that Bridge bumped up against daily? Here was Sunderland’s promise to the land developers to grease the wheels of government to make sure the economy recovered. There was Sunderland’s offering to the authoritarians in attendance to protect them from street violence. With a flourish, he offered to lower property taxes and increase services.

The mayor was just another bridge, a trader of favors with an official title and the backing of legal enforcers.

Bridge shook himself from his thoughts and leaned over to Cary with a whisper. “So has anybody been able to get an interview with the man himself?”

“Sure, if you’ve been kissing the right asses. Mitzy over there,” he indicated an attractive blonde mouthpiece with legs up to her neck, “she got the exclusive a week or so ago. Word is Breckin has a thing for the blondes.”


“Yeah, Breckin Sims, the mayor’s press watchdog. He’s the guy you suck up to if you want a little face time, and he’s the guy who snaps off your dick if you start fucking around.” Cary arched his neck as he scanned the faces in the room. “There he is,” he continued, pointing out a sharply-dressed corporate PR type watching the stage with a bemused reverence. “Of course, you’ll never get one, not this late. The less unrehearsed speaking the mayor does this close to the election, the happier Breckin gets.”

“My nuts are in a wringer. My editor says if I don’t get something with the mayor, my desk is cleaned.”

“Good luck with the unemployment line then, buddy,” Cary said with a rueful laugh. Bridge crossed his fingers to the cynical reporter and walked off, stalking deliberately towards the PR gatekeeper. The police escorts guarding the entrances to the stage flinched as Bridge approached, their eyes locked on his path.

“Mr. Sims? Caston Bocanegra,” Bridge began, flashing his fake credentials with the same air of confidence he used on his clients. “I’d like to speak with the mayor, maybe get a five minutes interview if I could.”

“I’m sorry,Mr. … Bocanegra did you say? The mayor’s schedule is booked solid until the election. I can’t even squeeze Tom Williams in these days, much less any fluff reporter, no offense.” The man’s smile was so white his teeth gleamed with reflected spotlight, and his attitude had the galling arrogance to match.

“But I have some very important questions about the mayor’s campaign. If I could just get three minutes with the man…”

“Three minutes is more than he has to offer. I’m very sorry.”

“Just tell him that I have a story about Candy. He’ll know who I’m talking about. Candy. Remember that. If he still wants to talk after the speech, I’ll be over there.” Bridge pointed to the open bar across the room, currently occupied by a swarm of disinterested reporters. He floated towards the bar hiding the smug smile from the PR man. Despite the danger, or maybe because of it, he was enjoying this entirely too much. The last look he'd gotten at Sims' face was priceless, the barely-concealed fear of a man who'd just been told his meal ticket was getting punched.

The speech was interminably long, a series of regurgitated buzzwords and catchphrases that said nothing much in particular with a preponderance of words. Bridge admired the man’s ability to promise absolutely nothing while managing to make it seem like the moon was being offered to the crowd in exchange for their votes. Bridge nursed a couple of whiskeys during that time, engaging in meaningless chit-chat with some of the other reporters. A few he’d heard of through his association with Tom Williams, others he’d seen while flipping through channels. The disparity between the on-air personalities and the actual reporters was striking, and not just in their looks. The talking heads managed to pull off the appearance of genuine interest, while the less attractive jotted an occasional note on a PDA between irritated glances at their watches. Finally the speech ended with a flourish of applause, and the mayor left the stage, his politician’s smile fading as quickly as he left the spotlight's glare. Bridge watched the pudgy man stride off stage and past Sims, who stopped the mayor with a hand, whispering in his ear with furtive, conspiratorial glances around the room. Bridge could tell the minute Candy’s name was mentioned, as the mayor’s face grew stormy, a red flush of anger darkening the man’s otherwise stoic demeanor. Sims pointed in Bridge’s direction, and the mayor almost exploded, sticking a furious finger into the PR man’s chest. With cowed resignation, Sims nodded to the mayor and walked off towards Bridge, while the mayor exited the room flanked by uniformed and plain clothes protectors.

“Congratulations, Mr. Boncanegra, the mayor has five minutes for you after all. If you’ll come with me?” Bridge nodded, replacing his half-empty glass on the bar and following behind Sims. He activated his cell connection to Aristotle as they walked through a door on the opposite side of the room from the mayor’s exit. Sims led them around a few corners and into the kitchen area of the hotel. Bridge had to squeeze past waiters and carts stacked with trays of dirty dishes.

As they turned the corner into a pantry area, Bridge was floored by a shot to the solar plexus, a well-trained blow that forced all the air out of his lungs and dropped him to his knees. His assailant was a large man in a plain dark suit, its cheap stitching stretched by the man’s effort. His other fist struck Bridge across the cheek, the metal knuckles scraping a gash on Bridge’s face. He was knocked onto his side.

“That’s enough,” said the lilting voice of the mayor. “We don’t want to kill him.” Bridge peered up into the faces of four men: the mayor, two almost identical bodyguards and Sims. “You can go, Breckin.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Sims, exiting the room with nervous glances at the bodyguards. He obviously had no taste for the hard realities of the situation. “Remember we have to press the flesh in five.”

Sunderland waved a dismissive hand in Sims’ direction. “Yes, yes, now beat it.” The mayor hiked up his pants as he squatted down to look Bridge in the eye. “Now you listen here, you little shit. What the fuck game are you playing at?”

Bridge checked his cell connection on his HUD, amazed that it still connected. Something wasn’t right about that. The bodyguards hadn’t checked Bridge for any sort of wire; he hadn’t had his goons deaden any transmission away from Bridge with portable white noise generators. Those things were cheap enough that Bridge carried one around with him. Either this guy was the most idiotic criminal on the planet, or he just didn’t give a damn about getting caught doing naughty things.

“No game, your honor,” Bridge said around gasps for air. “I have the recording your guys are looking for. I’m willing to give it to you, cheap.”

Sunderland’s head bobbed around as he looked from bodyguard to bodyguard. “You little bastard. You’re trying to squeeze me? ME? You’re trying to squeeze me for more money? That wasn’t the deal. You don’t just go off script on this thing here, you stick to the plan. I’m not paying you one goddamn cent for that shit. You got your paycheck when we started this thing.” Bridge’s mind kicked into overdrive. He’d miscalculated somewhere. Had Kira been blackmailing Sunderland? That didn’t make sense. The hacker wouldn’t have tried to get rid of his only ammunition, for free no less, if he had this guy on the hook already. If Kira had even half a brain, Sunderland would never have known who he was, and couldn’t have sent someone after him. Kira may have been young and socially clueless, but he wasn’t stupid.

Bridge raised a hand to forestall any more beating. “Wait, wait, I think we’ve come to a misunderstanding here. I’m not trying to blackmail you. I’m just trying to return your property what got stolen from you. The recordings fell into my possession when you sent your guys around to recover them.”

“My guys? I didn’t send any guys around. Are you telling me those fuckers lost the recordings? Shit, I said that guy was too young to be handling an operation like this. Now I’m going to have to be the one clean it up.”

Something dark and cold began to form in Bridge’s mind. This was a man with no concerns. He knew good and damn well this career-destroying information was floating out in the wild. He was in no way concerned about possible electronic eavesdropping despite being embroiled in the most important election of his life. This man had no qualms about popping a cap in Bridge’s ass with the press mere yards away. Even worse, Paulie and his crew weren’t in Sunderland’s employee, which meant one pissed off ex-footballer with two missing fingers was out there looking to steam roll Bridge. He was going to have to do some serious soft shoe to get the fuck out of danger. “Wait, wait, I have the recordings. Or I can get them at least. You don’t even have to pay me, see? I’ll just give them to you. Wash my hands of the whole thing. Call it even.”

Sunderland’s doughy face chewed over that thought a moment before replying. “Like I need that kind of trouble. Boys, you know what to do.” Sunderland began to shamble out of the pantry, putting his hands absentmindedly in his jacket pockets. Bridge’s eyes darted around in a panic, desperately searching for some way out. From a distance, he began to hear a high-pitched keening wail, building in intensity from down the crowded hallway. A tray crashed to the ground with a metallic clanging. Just as Sunderland stepped into the hallway, a flash of black skin blew past him, his red tie flapping above him. With a chagrined relief, Bridge recognized the buck naked form of his bodyguard.

Aristotle was saving his ass again. The man had stripped to the skin and sprinted into the kitchen. He’d grabbed the mayor’s tie on the way past, discombobulating the fat politician. As the bodyguards rushed towards the door, the fire alarm blared into life, the sprinklers erupting with a gushing hiss, showering the tiny room with stale water. At the height of the confusion, Bridge struck, mentally crossing his fingers that neither guard had metal legs. He kicked out at the nearest kneecap, hitting it squarely from the side. A sickening pop echoed in the tight space and Bridge pressed his advantage, upending a heavy metallic shelf full of food, spices and pots onto the guards. Though his side was on fire from the beatings he’d taken in the last few days, pure adrenaline propelled him as he shouldered past the guards. He knocked the mayor for a loop, sending the pudgy politician reeling in soaked confusion. He cut down the hallway Aristotle had come from, hoping that the guards would be focused on cutting off the first threat’s exit. Bridge took one corner, and then another, ducking behind a wall just as more of the mayor’s bodyguards went past him towards the disturbance.

The key to getting out of the building now was to move quickly without appearing hurried, blending into the evacuating throng. He hoped like hell the guards and policemen swarming around the hotel were more interested in the streaking naked black man than the beat up but well-dressed white guy. Bridge passed a few frantic guards with little incident and had even begun to relax in a crowd of moderately-panicked reporters when a trio of guards standing between the door and Bridge spotted him. Scenarios shot through Bridge’s mind as he continued to walk calmly towards them. Beyond the doors, he could see Angela’s car idling. If she’d seen him, he just had to get to the car and she’d have the door open. The windows all around the lobby area were inviting targets, but Bridge reconsidered trying to make a mad crashing escape through them. A hotel this posh would likely have bulletproof glass, especially one that hosted big political events such as tonight’s speech. There were a few side exits, but he’d have to walk around the front of the building in plain sight offering ample opportunity for interception. He couldn’t really run towards the door anyway, not without jostling the crowd around him making himself even more conspicuous. He was just going to have to bull his way through. His spirit sank.

Ten feet from the guards, Aristotle came roaring out of the bar behind the guards, crashing into them with bubbling laughter. The four men rolled over in a heap and Bridge took advantage, hopping over the pile of arms and legs and bursting through the door into the oppressive summer heat. Angela’s eyes grew wide and she quickly reached over to open the door. As Bridge began his dive into the front seat, Angela threw the car into drive, blasting away from the hotel with shrieking tires. Bridge barely got the door closed behind him before she turned the corner, throwing him haphazardly around the cabin with a painful thump.

Bridge sighed, finally relaxing. His breath coming in ragged gasps, he said, “What… the hell… are you… doing here?”

“Saving your ass, baby,” she said with that puckish grin beaming on her face. “Saving your ass. Be grateful and shut it.”

Bridge did just that, exhaustion finally overtaking him as he slumped back against the seat.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Return to the Sickhouse

Once again, I've been struck ill. It feels like the same cold I had just recently. As such, I won't be able to update this week. However, Chapter 11 is done in rough draft form, and should be ready for next week's update. I plan on updating with chapters weekly until it's done. The novel will end up with 14 chapters and an epilogue.

Thanks for your support.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Chapter 10

August 30, 2028
2:03 p.m.

The darkness underneath the warehouse floor was stifling, rank with the smells of motor oil, sweat and dust. Bridge tried to get his eyes adjusted to the blackness but before he could, Stonewall turned on emergency lights with the flick of a switch. The enforcer must have been well-practiced at using this escape route, because Bridge would have stumbled in the dark for many minutes before locating that switch. The bay was bathed in a dull red light that turned it into a red-tinged nightmare of shadows. Stonewall moved with a practiced grace, his jaw set in determined, barely controlled anger.

“That way,” he said curtly, pointing a finger behind Bridge. Bridge followed the finger, trying to discern where Stoney intended him to go. The room was a dead end, a blank series of four walls. It took a second to realize that what looked at first like an impenetrable wall was in fact a tiny alcove, the recessed exit built so as to be invisible except from close-up. Bridge started towards the alcove, tripping over the hydraulic apparatus lining the floor. “And take this.”

Stoney tossed Bridge the pistol he'd grabbed from the hiding place underneath the bay. Bridge caught it awkwardly, barely grabbing the clip that followed. He spoke hesitantly. “I'm not really comfortable... I mean, I've shot one, but I've never actually shot anyone.”

“And I don't suggest you shoot anyone now. Killing cops is a sure way to get the needle, even in this state. But you know, they got 'em, so you better have one just in case. Just don't shoot my ass and remember to take the safety off.” The ex-footballer slipped through the crevice quickly despite his size, while Bridge had to wiggle a little to manage his way through. Behind the alcove was a long hallway with telecom pipes running both ways down the length of the dark corridor. Either end of the hallway was engulfed in shadow, the same red emergency lights providing the barest of illumination. Stonewall took an immediate left, flicking another switch as he passed. A small panel beside the alcove began to beep annoyingly. “We better vamoose.”

“Where the hell are we?”

“Old 20th fiber trunks, built to wire this area up back in the '90's. Once Twiggs found out this place was right on top of them, he had this emergency exit built. Don't nobody use these tunnels much anymore less a cable breaks.” The beeping sound started to fade away as the two adopted a brisk pace.

“What’s that beeping?”

“You'll find out soon enough.”

All Bridge could think of was explosives, and he quickened his step unconsciously. “Shit, you're gonna blow it up, aren't you?”

Stoney just flashed a mischievous grin. “Only a little piece.”

Bridge could feel the tunnel veer a bit left, though he had long since lost any sense of direction. The tunnel filled with noise then, a cacophonous FOOOMPH followed by a shrill ringing in his ears. A thin coating of dust shook down from the ceiling, followed by a gigantic choking cloud that engulfed the entire tunnel. Bridge cursed loudly, though he couldn't hear his own voice over the ringing. His eyes watered from the dust and he coughed violently. Stonewall was talking to him, but he couldn't hear. He tried to focus on the man's mouth, tried to read his lips but to no avail. The Mexican had a hand on Bridge's arm and was trying to pull him down the corridor. Bridge started to follow when the ex-footballer raised the shotgun one-handed and pulled the trigger.

Bridge felt the shotgun blasts more than heard it, two quick vibrations shivering past his right arm. He looked back in the direction the shots had been fired, seeing a dark uniformed officer thrown to his back. The explosion had opened the alcove further, and Bridge thought he saw a few limbs buried under the rubble. Another shadowed figure sprang from the hole in the wall, firing short, quick bursts from a submachine gun as he tried to make it across the tunnel, begging for cover that did not exist in the tight space. Bullets whizzed past Bridge and Stoney, one coming close enough for Bridge to feel the wind displaced on his cheek. The brief flashes from the man’s gun revealed a uniform with the letters SWAT emblazoned in white across the chest. Bridge threw himself backwards by reflex, raising the gun and firing wildly. He had squeezed off six shots by the time his back hit the ground, rolling over to face the attacker. None of the shots hit, but they were enough to send the target skittering down the hallway in search of cover.

Stonewall fired two more shots down the hall before yanking Bridge up violently by the arm. A little of Bridge’s hearing had returned, allowing him to catch the gist of what the Mexican was telling him. It amounted to moving his ass and Bridge obeyed with the blood rushing in his head. Dizziness followed by nausea passed over him, but he maintained his balance and kept going. Stonewall pushed him around a soft bend to the left, which switched back to the right in a serpentine pattern.

Suddenly the tunnel exploded in light, brighter than the sun. Only the fact that Bridge faced away from the source saved his eyesight, but spots still danced in front of his eyes. The concussive force of the flashbang replaced what little hearing he’d gained back with a new piercing ringing. He cursed out loud, but kept moving. Stonewall’s reassuring hand still pressed on his back, pushing him forward, around corners, and through a bewildering maze of tunnels that so thoroughly disoriented Bridge that he could have emerged from the tunnels into the kingdom of the Mole People and not been the least bit surprised.

Finally, Stonewall yanked his shirt, stopping him cold. The Mexican said something to Bridge, but Bridge still couldn’t quite hear it. The enforcer aimed his shotgun at one of the red lights illuminating the tunnel and blasted it, then took similar aim at lights to either side of the now darkened air and repeated his pinpoint shooting. Bridge was now thoroughly blind again, but Stonewall’s hand on his arm pulled him towards where he knew the wall to be. Bridge reached out his hands blindly, his fingers touching cold metal instead of the expected stone. It was a door of some kind, and he fumbled around until he found a handle. The door opened inward, a sliver of yellow light briefly dispelling the darkness. Stoney pushed him through quickly, shutting the door behind him with silent care. He emptied the shotgun of shells and jammed it into the silver bar that opened the door on this side. It would take some major effort to open the door from the other side.

“Give… pistol…” Stonewall said, barely breaking through the ringing filling Bridge’s head. He handed over the pistol and clips eagerly. Stonewall checked the magazine, slamming it back into place forcefully before hiding the gun in the small of his back.

“Where the fuck are we?” Bridge asked.

Stonewall pointed at the ground where a pair of rails ran into the darkness in both directions. “Subway,” he said gruffly. “They won’t want to follow us down here.”

“How do you know they won't?” Bridge asked, his vision starting to clear with only the occasional floater throwing off his balance. He felt the distant rumble of a train somewhere.

“Cops aren't coming into the subways anymore. They've given it to us.”

“Us who?”

“The gangsters, the gangs. The criminals, the hobos, the naco. They've been giving this place up more and more since the corps took over.” Stonewall pointed down the tunnel behind Bridge and started walking towards the barely perceptible speck of light. “Nobody takes the subway anymore. The rich got that new dirigible, the middle class got the taxis and the buses. The poor, they take the subway or they beat feet. Ain't no cops on the trains, hell, most stations don't even charge anymore. Haven't you noticed?”

Bridge shrugged, trudging along beside Stonewall. “I don't take the subway. My clients expect a certain style. I show up on the subway, they’ll think I’m some kind of lowlife. Ok, some OTHER kind of lowlife. But why aren't the cops down here?”

“Have you just really not been paying attention to what these pendejos have been doing to this town?” Bridge shrugged again, and Stonewall scoffed. “I suppose you haven't noticed what they're turning the Warehouse District into either.”

“I don't do business in the Warehouse District.”

“That's right; you don't deal with the poor people, do you?” Stonewall said with an irritable disdain creeping into his voice. “You just get the bourgeois their dirty pleasures from the lower classes.”

“You sound like some kind of communist.”

“Just know how the world is, brother.”

“Don't forget you're one of those bourgeois, brother.”

“Yeah, I am.” Stonewall's voice took on a wistful edge. “CLED’s been busy since the LGL got passed. They call it pacification, settling down all the neighborhoods that are still resisting the whole LGL thing. That's bullshit, of course. Those riots ran out of steam once the food came back. But the CLED's got to show some progress, bring the crime rate down to prove the grand LGL experiment is a success. How do you think they pull that off? By moving the crime around like the queen in three-card Monty. They've been busy evicting folks from houses, pushing the drug trade and hookers and dice games and whatever else they can into the areas with the lowest crime rates. The crime rate in the hot spots goes down. Even if it goes up in other places, it averages out, see? And if you look hard enough, you can see where they are moving the worst of the worst. It's a series of lines that run the length of the subways. And all of 'em lead down here. They're creating their own little version of ethnic cleansing, their little invisible class war.”

“How the hell did you get so political?” Bridge asked. He had a newfound respect for the footballer. He'd always thought of Stonewall as a typical superstar jock, a hardguy with little need for education. He'd probably underestimated the man by a mile.

“You think I'm just some dumb footballer, brother?” He shook his head. “You white guys, still think us Latinos are just lazy ass gangsters throwing down for our colors. My set went to college, motherfucker. Pumas didn't recruit me out of some Mexico City shithole, I got my degree in political science. I was gonna help the poor kids when I got done with soccer. I guess you never listened to Aristotle and me talking shit, did you?” Bridge shook his head. He noticed the ambient illumination growing with each step. The speck of light in the distance had grown taller and wider. They were nearing a station. “Course you didn't. That's a smart motherfucker. You should listen to him. Or at least, don't get him killed. We could use a smart brother like that. We're here.”

Stonewall reached a hand up to the platform about chest high. Bridge was surprised to find a hand reaching down to help the footballer up onto the platform. He looked up to see three gang members with automatic weapons and tattoos up and down their arms offering to lift Bridge up along with Stonewall. The Mexican began speaking in hurried Spanish to the three. One began talking to himself, and Bridge figured he was speaking to someone on a cell connection. After a few minutes, Stonewall turned his attention back to Bridge.

“We got you a ride coming,” he said flatly. “Take you into Downtown. Cops won't bother you there. You can also use the phones on the car, call anyone you want. It won't get traced. We've zeroed that bitch out. That line doesn't even exist in the records anymore.” Bridge was impressed.

“You're not coming with me?”

Stonewall shook his head. “No, brother, Twiggs' boys are going to have some serious heat on them once that slaughterhouse gets searched. I expect the Arsenal is going to get hot pretty soon. I'm headed back to Mexico for a little while, lay low. Whoever you got me involved with, they got the power to fuck with us something fierce.”

“Yeah, the mayor can do that,” Bridge said. Stonewall didn't bat an eyelash.

“Figures. That fucker’s in Chronosoft’s pocket so deep, he’s eating lint. I don't wanna know any more. Watch your ass, amigo.”

“You too. I owe you, Stoney,” Bridge said, trying to sound sincerely grateful.

“Save it. That thing you hooked me up with? Saved my life, whether you know it or not. We ain't square by a long shot.” The platform filled with a rumbling sound, the train pulling into the station behind Bridge. “Castro here gon' see you safe,” he said, indicating one of the three guards should accompany Bridge. “Nobody will fuck with you.”

Bridge shook his hand wordlessly then hopped on the train. Among the trash and gang tags littering the train, Bridge found a barely clean seat, trying hard to disguise his disgust at the accommodations. Castro didn't seem to notice or care. He leaned over a seat near the window, automatic weapon at the ready, one leg hiked up on the seat. Bridge noticed the tattoos on his left arm weren't tattoos, but decals covering the cybernetics like a sleeve. As the train got underway, he located the phone and began to make calls, a dangerous yet unavoidable plan forming in his mind. A ball of nervous resignation plummeted into his stomach as he settled on his next move.



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