August 31, 2028
"You want me to do what?" The indignant surprise in Gina Danton’s voice made Bridge cringe a bit despite himself. Bridge sat with the CLED patrolman in her personal car, parked in the deserted parking lot behind the MacArthur Park subway station. Trash blew by the car as a dusty wind picked up from the direction of Westlake Avenue. The parking lot was deserted at this early hour. A few pedestrians came and went on the streets, but none took notice of the parked auto. Bridge had insisted she not roll up in a CLED vehicle. He threw a few nervous glances towards the subway station, where some of the gang members who ran the subway kept a lookout for anyone brave enough to enter the station. They certainly noticed the car, but were polite enough to act like they weren’t watching its occupant’s every move.
"I need you to bail Aristotle out of jail," Bridge repeated patiently.
"I heard you the first time. I just wanted to make sure you had actually lost your mind and it wasn’t me losing my hearing." Danton really was a looker out of uniform. Her silky blonde hair flowed over her shoulders, a much sexier do than the tight bun she sported on duty. A little makeup did wonders for her already attractive face, and civvy attire flattered her tight curves and well-toned body much better than the uniform. But no matter how she was dressed, the hardness of her character infused her every word. It wasn’t just the job that made her an ice queen. She was just naturally tough, a stoic core of stone wrapped in a pretty shell. "You realize that just talking about pulling favors as simple as fixing a ticket can get us both arrested by IA, right?"
"I do realize that. Look, we both know that no matter how many changes the suits force on you, police work hasn’t really changed. Without a smoking gun, you need one bad guy to drop dime on the other bad guys. You trade favors for that kind of information all the time. That’s the way it’s done."
"What are you telling me, Bridge? Are you ready to drop dime?" Bridge said nothing, letting the rather unkempt state of his person tell her all she needed to know about his level of desperation. "I don’t think you understand just how much these Chronosoft guys have changed things. We got more paperwork than ever before, and every single nano-penny is counted, tracked, stamped and audited. Believe it or not, those suits have actually improved the place. We still got some of the old asshole Neanderthals trying to keep up business as usual, but the writing’s on the wall. That old school skull cracking alpha male bullshit is out. I’d almost say the place is professional. I may not like the suits, but they have cleaned that place up."
"And the one thing suits understand is the art of the deal," Bridge said with a crooked grin. "They know dollars and cents, and they know public relations. And big busts make good public relations. All they’ve got to do is release a guy who doesn’t even have a record."
"Aristotle’s got a record."
It was Bridge’s turn to be surprised. "Marcus? Marcus has a record?"
"Oh yeah. I guess you didn’t interview him all that well, but then you probably don’t believe in background checks, do you? No, he’s got priors, most of it petty assault, low-level gang shit. That’s why I was kind of glad he hooked up with you. I thought you’d keep him out of that shit." Her disappointment was smeared across her face. Bridge had let her down, and he hadn’t even known it.
"Huh, I never knew. He didn’t talk about it."
"He was always smarter than that. But once you got that stink on you, going legit is hard. Nobody reputable wants to hire you."
"I hired him."
"See what I mean? Nobody reputable." She was only half-joking, but Bridge mocked offense just the same. They didn’t call him the Amoral Bridge for nothing. "You put him through college and I THOUGHT you’d keep him from getting in fights. Now you got him arrested again. What did he do?"
"Saved my goddamn life," Bridge mumbled ruefully. "It’s a minor beef, unless they embellish it. All he did was streak the hotel after the mayor’s speech, set off a false fire alarm. Oh and he stumbled over some guards that were in my way. He could always say it was a frat pledge thing."
Danton just buried her head in her hands with a disgusted sigh. "Goddamnit, Bridge, the fucking mayor? Could you get him in any more trouble? Can I at least ask why?"
"Not if you want to help him," Bridge replied. "The less you know about why he did what he did, the better."
Danton mulled it over for a minute, leaning over to rest her chin on the steering wheel. "Look at those two," she said, pointing out the subway guards. "Do they really think I don’t know what they’re doing? I’d bust their asses myself if I had probable. People ought to be able to use the goddamn subways." Her rambling seemed to be to no one in particular, a distracted lilt to her voice that masked her internal struggle. Finally, she came to a conclusion.
"What are you offering me?"
Bridge clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Something juicy. Two days from now, there’s going to be a big-time hold up, and I know who's going to pull it off."
"And how exactly do you know this?" Bridge’s smile told her she didn’t want to know. "Because you’re going to set up the score, of course. Fine, fine, go on."
"Remember that guy whose boys were giving me the beatdown the other night outside the Glitter?"
"Sharver? You’re gonna give me Sharver? He’s not exactly film at 11 material."
"He’s big enough for what I’m getting in return. Now do you want him or not?"
She nodded reluctantly. Bridge began to spill the beans, giving the entire setup for Nicky’s proposed heist. He had already lined up the hacker replacement Nicky had so violently requested. Of course, the hacker was dead. Bridge had used the ID of the one that had tried to assassinate him. But Nicky didn’t know that, and there was no reason to sell one of Angela’s guys down the river when a little creative running had given Bridge the opportunity to set Nicky up. Bridge would get rid of one troublesome contact, and if he got lucky, he’d do it without Nicky knowing who had set him up. And even if Nicky did find out, Bridge would deal with that problem when it came up.
Aristotle would be safe. Now Bridge just had to do the same for Angela.
Bridge’s next meeting was much more difficult to arrange than his morning’s rendezvous with Gina Danton. It only took him three hours to set up, because he was just that good, but it was a close run thing. In the end, he’d had to come clean about the danger Angela was in, and it was only because of Angela’s reputation among the LA hackers that Bridge even had a chance. One didn’t just meet Michael Freeman these days, not in the flesh.
Freeman was a legend, an icon of the LA hacker scene from the good old days. He was the old man of the movement. He’d been living on the net since before there were even interface jacks. He was the magic man, the boy genius who had done more hacks before his fifteenth birthday than most runners manage in their entire careers. More importantly, he’d lasted through those difficult teen years without ever getting caught, transitioning from keyboards to interface jacks seamlessly while doing massive hacks that others only dreamed about. Though never prosecuted, many believed him to be behind the great 2021 Traffic Riot, a mega hack that caused all the traffic lights in the Los Angeles County area to malfunction at the same time, resulting in mass chaos. His legend had since grown to the point that only he could tell the difference between fact and the fictitious hyperbole of the GlobalNet rumor mill. A hacker’s best advertisement was his reputation, and Freeman’s reputation was beyond reproach.
Freeman had mostly retired from the public hacking scene during Bridge’s early career. Everyone knew him, of course. His NetID had the same sort of cache as Timothy Leary among the drug culture. He could walk among hackers half his age and be revered as a god, despite the fact that he’d been working full-time for the Chronosoft Corporation for four years. Any other hacker who’d made the switch to regular nine-to-fiver would be labeled a sell-out, but not Michael Freeman. If anything, his reputation was a challenge to all the foolhardy runners out there, a bullseye painted on the Chronosoft databanks. If a hacker could pierce their security, it would mean they had bested Michael Fucking Freeman, god of hackers. Not that anyone ever did, of course. Freeman was just that good.
Bridge had one advantage over other runners wishing an audience with Freeman. He knew Angela. And he also knew that Angela had hired Freeman many times for jobs his corporate bosses would not have cleared. He could pick and choose the jobs, and Angela offered him the most challenging. Freeman liked Angela, or at least she thought he did. Bridge gambled that she was correct in her assumption, that Freeman would like her enough to help her out of a jam, even if that jam involved going up against Chronosoft.
Bridge found himself seated at a kitchen table in Freeman’s downtown apartment. The late August sun made searing shapes on the worn linoleum of Freeman’s kitchen. Unlike other runners, Freeman kept a meticulous home, every single object in its proper place. Bridge marveled at the order. It was painfully neat, everything lined up as if the owner had measured the distance between each object down to the millimeter, all arranged according to some intricately deranged plan.
"I hope I didn’t wake you up," Bridge began as his coffee cooled.
Freeman shrugged it off. "I don’t sleep much these days. The eggheads have me on some stuff I can’t talk about." Freeman had the waxy skin of most crèche hackers, but his eyes lacked the telltale bags.
"They need help finding a distribution channel?" Bridge asked without thinking. Deals like that were just a reflex at this point. Hooking up a black market distribution deal for cutting edge pharmas was big-time money. He had already started tallying percentages in his head when he caught a glimpse of Freeman’s scowl.
"What happened to Angela, Bridge?" Freeman could not disguise his distaste for Bridge. They had met only once, and Freeman had not shown him much respect. Maybe it was the fact that his breakup with Angela had been ugly, maybe it was Bridge’s line of work, or maybe he just didn’t like ex-hackers. But that disdain had not changed. Freeman’s elongated face punctuated by a scraggly goatee had disgust written all over it. "What did you get her into?"
"Whoa, whoa, I tried to keep her out of it. As a matter of fact, I told her specifically not to show up at the place. If she’d just stayed away, they wouldn’t have been able to track me back to her apartment."
"Yeah, and you know Angela has always listened to what you said." Freeman laughed, but his smile was cold and humorless. "Maybe you should explain what you were doing." Bridge sighed and relayed the whole story from start to finish. Freeman listened stoically, occasionally sipping his coffee and interrupting Bridge for clarification. "So you stumble across this recording, try to sell it and almost get yourself killed, and you expected Angela would just stay out of all that? Surely you aren’t that dumb."
"Hey, I offered her a slice, and she didn’t want to touch it. I thought she’d stay as far away from it as she possibly could, see if I could get myself capped trying to move the goods so she could laugh."
"Except you were in trouble, man. You got yourself into a big pile of trouble and it still surprises you that she came to your rescue. You really don’t know her very well at all, do you?" He finished off a cup of coffee, and poured himself another from the carafe on the table.
"What do you mean?"
"What do I mean? What do you think I mean? I talked to her when you guys split up. You think she just jumped into bed with that fuckhead from Korea, don’t you? Hell no. That girl was tore up. The only reason she ever got with that Kim guy was because of his connections. She’s been playing him from the getty. She’s been holding a candle for you since the minute you left."
Bridge looked up from his cup quickly. "What? No, no, no. She threw ME out, didn’t want me anywhere near her. Hell, she barely let me use any of her stable."
"If she really hated you like you thought, you think she’d have kept hooking you up? She treats those hackers like her children, and yet she hands them off to you for whatever shit you get them involved in. She’s still looking out for you, whether you know it or not."
Bridge mulled it over. Maybe Freeman was right. Angela certainly had every opportunity to cut ties with Bridge any time she wished, and yet she hadn’t. And now, she’d gotten herself in the thick of this mess over his objections, all because he’d put himself in a dangerous situation that would require rescue. "Shit, Freeman, she’s a woman. I’m never going to be sure how she feels, and right now, it doesn’t matter. It is what it is. These assholes have kidnapped her and I have to give them what they want."
"A leak? That’s it?" Bridge nodded. "Seems like a lot of trouble for a leak. So why call me? Leaks are script kiddie territory. It’s not exactly a challenge. And who’s to say they’ll give her up even if you do what they say?"
Bridge smiled that smile, the one he used when he was working. It was the smile of supreme confidence, of the schemer putting his scheme into action. "That’s where you come in. I got a plan." Bridge laid it all out for Freeman. The middle-aged hacker began to smile with each sentence, his smile getting bigger as the plan took shape. By the time Bridge was done, Freeman was positively beaming, his eyes twitching from side to side as he began to work out the details in his mind.
"I’m in," said Freeman. Bridge leaned back with a satisfied smile that hid the nervousness bubbling in the pit of his stomach.