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.

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