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.

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