Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chapter 14

August 31, 2028
6:16 p.m.

The boiling afternoon sun was slowly sinking below the horizon as Bridge pulled Angela’s rental into the guest garage of the downtown Chronosoft Civil Administration complex. Much of the massive, multi-building complex was still under construction, as an addition to the existing Chronosoft corporate headquarters. The crossover walkway between two of the buildings would not be finished for another six months, its skeletal framework casting eerie shadows on the ground. The building housing Thames’ office was attached to the garage, its shiny exterior mostly completed though the upper six or so floors were still empty shells in need of final touch-ups. Another massive building that would eventually house all of the LGL’s offices was nothing more than a girder skeleton projecting out of a dusty pit. Despite the late hour, hundreds of construction workers still toiled in the oppressive heat, Spanish curses mixed with English orders echoing from all areas. The droning, beeping blare of the warning claxons on heavy machinery dominated the scene. The sounds invaded the car as Bridge rolled down his window to the guard, who checked his credentials and directed Bridge to his parking place in excruciating detail. Security was excruciatingly tight.

Bridge parked and prepared the car, removing all traces of anything he would need from the vehicle. He didn’t expect to return to the vehicle no matter what happened. The walk to Thames’ office was a long one, avoiding areas yet to be built and passing through multiple security checkpoints. Bridge was at least encouraged by the fact that Thames really was an entertainment division executive. Whatever political operation Bridge had been recruited into, it was at least being carried out far enough away from the elections division to be plausibly denied. Bridge admired the subterfuge.

Of course, he was made to wait outside the executive’s office. It was a trick Bridge had used to his advantage many times. Despite the time frame Thames had set, he would be the one who would be calling the shots and setting the timetable. Thames would believe himself to be in control, and that was exploitable. Bridge shrugged and sat, watching the receptionist with a bemused smile that masked his nervousness. After a five-minute wait, one of Paulie’s goons from this morning opened the office door and motioned Bridge in with a grunt. Bridge got up slowly, calmly taking his time in crossing the office.

"Come in, Mr. Bridge," Thames said, self-satisfied smugness dripping from his perfectly shaped mouth. Bridge really hated this guy now, but hid his disgust under a smarmy smile. "Sorry our meeting can’t be under more congenial circumstances, but you understand." He motioned to a chair in front of the oversized desk but Bridge preferred to remain standing. The office was a model in overcompensation. Opulent white leather couches flanked the desk on both sides, a gigantic wall screen covered one wall and the desk was so large, it could serve two comfortably. The tiny chair Bridge had been directed to was dwarfed by the desk’s girth, and Bridge assumed its position was meant to intimidate those who sat there. The wall screen ran a constant slideshow of various successful Chronosoft Entertainment properties. Thames sat behind the desk, leaning back comfortably in an almost throne-like office chair, its white leather so gaudy Bridge felt nauseous. Paulie’s goons flanked either side of the desk in front of the floor-to-ceiling window. Paulie stood to the side of one of the couches, overseeing Angela, who sat cowed but openly hostile. The drug had worn off, and Bridge could see the mixture of fire and fear in her eyes.

"You all right, baby?" Bridge asked. She said nothing, only nodding with her jaw clenched so tight her teeth must have hurt. Bridge nodded back and winked at her, which only made her squint her eyes even tighter. Turning his attention back to the smug douchebag in front of him, he said, "All right, jackhole, shall we do this thing?"

Thames looked offended. "Now, Mr. Bridge, is there really any need for hostility? I apologize for the violence, but you’ve been somewhat reluctant to comply. I mean, just look at what your friends did to Paulie over there." Paulie smiled the toothy grin of a predator. "We didn’t want this kind of business, but then we chose badly on the front end. Kira’s reputation as hardcore was vastly overinflated."

"He was a nice kid, you cocksucker!" Angela blurted. "If you’d come to me for this, I’d have given you somebody I knew could handle it. But you suits never fucking learn do you? You think everybody is just some replaceable…" Bridge cut her off with a wave of his arm.

"She got a point, you know. Hell, I’d have gotten you a better guy if you’d just come to me first. It’s what I do."

Thames just shrugged. "Lesson learned, then. Have you done what we asked?"

"The leak? It’s all set and ready to go." Bridge pulled out a bizchip. "All I have to do is activate this and we’re off." Thames tried to remain calm as he reached over the desk to grasp the chip, but his desperation showed through in his hurried motions. Bridge pulled the chip back. "Not so fast, there, Skippy. We’ve still got some unfinished business to discuss."

Paulie grabbed Angela by the throat, pulling her up off the couch with brutal strength. "There ain’t no unfinished business here, Cupcake. Give the man the card and get on with it."

Thames was quick to chastise the heavy. "No, no, Paulie, no need for that. We don’t want to get blood on my Persian there." He stared back at Bridge with bemused accommodation as Paulie released Angela. She gave the footballer a petulant slap on the ass and a look to curl the wallpaper. "What unfinished business exactly, Mr. Bridge?"

"Curiosity, mostly. See, I’ve been trying to figure this thing out. Here you’ve got an election, probably one of the biggest local elections in the country what with the Los Angeles LGL kind of being held up as the model for the entire national LGL program, right?" Thames nodded. "And your guy is throwing it. He’s purposefully set himself up to lose this election. I don’t doubt the peculiar virtual tastes he demonstrated for the recording are a regular thing for him, but he knew he was being recorded. He did it willingly, and you set the whole thing up for him. He didn’t have very good things to say about you, by the way. Thought you were a bit too inexperienced for this sort of thing."

"His opinion really isn’t relevant," Thames responded with mild annoyance.

"Yeah, I bet it isn’t. What does he get out of it? What he did isn’t illegal, but there aren’t many people who want play-date pedophiles running their city. This gets out, especially this close to the election, and the only thing people will think of in the voting booth is whether to pick the good-looking anti-corporate crusader or the fatass pedobear. His career is finished."

"Indeed. Mr. Sunderland is well aware of his situation. But as you’ve pointed out, he’s done nothing illegal. He can retire to some out of the way place to do whatever he wishes. His name will be mud, but if he can take a few months’ public roasting, his future is assured. He’ll never have to work again. With the fickle nature of the public, the story might not even last one news cycle. He retires rich, which is really all he cared about. He wasn’t exactly a willing civil servant in the first place."

"So why pick him? Was he always going to be a fall guy?"

Thames seemed to mull this over for a moment, as if trying to decide just how much he should bother to tell Bridge. He could have stopped at any time, but as he began to speak again, Bridge knew he couldn’t resist. He was damn proud of whatever this plan was and he couldn’t resist a good brag. "Of course. Despite what our press relations department is saying publicly, the LGL is not exactly popular with the masses. Selling the concept was always going to be difficult, no matter how bad the riots were. We needed someone to be ‘our guy,’ the corporate mouthpiece.""And you needed the opposite," Bridge finished both his thought and Thames’s at the same time. "You needed a protagonist, a hero for the masses, the crusader against the big bad corporation. Your movie needed a good guy."

Thames nodded enthusiastically. The executive was thoroughly impressed with himself.

"Exactly. That’s the trick we’ve learned about democracy, you see. Democracy is inherently chaotic, with the will of the people often easily swayed by all sorts of externalities, things like fear and pride and greed. But if you can control those externalities, manipulate those factors, democracy is imminently controllable."

"But if you wanted Soto for mayor, why not just fudge the votes? You control the voting machines, the voting process, all of it. Why not just control the count?"

"Too easy to track. Besides, the masses have spent decades mistrusting the counts anyway. While it puts our chosen man into position, it makes people suspicious of his administration. Did he really win? Was it just some shenanigans behind the scenes? However, if you infect his opponent with scandal, if you make the choice between candidates the choice between good and evil, the masses will be behind him completely. They’ll give him more leeway to do things they’d never support otherwise." Thames was excited now, leaning forward across the desk with the smile of a child displaying his refrigerator masterpiece. "You see, control isn’t enough. Controlling the masses overtly just creates ill will. An iron glove is resented. You have to give the masses the illusion of control. Let them think they’ve made the choice you want them to make and you can lead them anywhere you wish. They will follow you gladly. By the time anyone really figures out your game, it won’t matter because they’ve already given you what you wanted."

"And Soto? He’s in on it?"

"Certainly. Who do you think is building this complex?" Thames pointed out the window at the
massive frame of the construction next door. "He stands to make a lot of money from this deal, through all sorts of proxies, of course. He deserves an Oscar for his turn as the working man’s hero in this little picture but he’s hardly a saint. The things he did during the riots could land him in jail for life."

"All of which disappears if he just goes along with this little game?" Thames nodded again.

"It’s the Algebra of Need, Mr. Bridge," the smarmy suit replied.

"William Burroughs. Nice. A bit before your time, though isn’t it?"

"And yours. I’m impressed. I didn’t realize you were that well-read."

"You’d be amazed what I’ve read, Mr. Thames. And me? Why involve me?"

"Your connections. Once Kira went off the reservation, we had to find some way to get to him, and your connection with Angela was the best we could find on short notice. She’s not exactly easy for someone like me to approach."

"Yeah, I have a douchebag detector installed," Angela said. "Artie’s is broken."

"Does that satisfy your curiosity, Mr. Bridge? No more useless questions then?" Bridge shook his head. "Then will you please do what we’ve asked? I have eight o’clock dinner reservations at Spago."

Bridge held out the bizchip. "If you’d care to do the honors?"

Thames reached for the card quickly, but a thought stopped him cold. He put up his hands as if the card was a gun. "No, that’s all I need is for you to capture my fingerprints on the transaction and use it against me."

Bridge frowned. "Really? I get that little trust? Fine, I’ll do it myself." He grabbed the bizchip with his other hand, activating the program that started the leak. "Besides, if I really wanted your fingerprints on this operation, I have more than enough DNA off of your other cards to do what I would need." Thames face sank a bit. "Don’t worry, I didn’t. I hate blackmail. It’s more trouble than it’s worth."

"So it’s done then?"

Bridge nodded. "Give it six hours, and every body who's anybody in the underground news, blogging and political scene will have published, dissected and bloviated on the video at length. It should hit the morning news cycle like a freight train, just in time for the masses’ morning coffee before going off to the voting booths."

"Well if that’s all…" Thames began, throwing a glance towards Paulie, who nodded knowingly.

"Not so fast," Bridge interrupted. Paulie’s hand, which had been moving towards his jacket, stopped suddenly. "You got your leak. But with a situation such as we find ourselves in here, I couldn’t take the chance that your boy Paulie over here wouldn’t just whack the two of us once you got what you wanted. So I gave myself a little insurance."

Thames’ jaw set and he asked through clenched teeth, "What kind of insurance?"

Bridge threw the bizchip down on the desk, where it began to immediately smoke and dissolve. "Don’t worry, you got your untraceable leak. The leak contained a little something something, a little extra if you will. A very well-hidden trojan."

The pompous executive’s faced dropped, his eyes narrowing in a burning glance. "What does it do?" Thames’ voice was laced with angry impatience.

"Nothing much. It just attacks the voting machines, the election commission’s network. Those voting counts you don’t want to manipulate? I just did."

"Those counts are secured…" Thames’ voice trailed off as he started to realize the implications.

"Seriously? You’re going to count on the machines you yourself claim can be manipulated easily. You’re going to count on those things’ security? You said it yourself, manipulating the ballots are too easy to track, and as soon as the press gets wind those counts are suspect, there goes your election. If the process itself isn’t trusted, neither is your candidate."

Thames had the look of shocked defeat plastered across his mug. All trace of his former smugness was gone. "That kind of hack would take more than you’ve got," he said, but his confidence was shaky.

Bridge smiled. "You’re right." He motioned to Angela, who quickly got up to join him. "But I know a guy." Bridge’s smile got even wider, an infuriatingly toothy grin. He began to back away towards the door. Paulie looked towards Thames for orders then back at Bridge and back at the executive again, unsure of what to do. "Now I see I’ve confused the Limey Ape over here, but I’m sure you get the gist of what I’m telling you."

"What do you want?"

"I’m pretty cheap, actually. You let us go, alive and leave us that way for three months. Three months is all I ask. Keep the ape off me for that long, and you’ll get the code to clear this whole thing up."

"Three months? We need that election settled tomorrow night."

"And I need to keep breathing for three months. This isn’t a negotiation, Mr. Thames. Three months. Or you can just kill us now and sort out the counts when you get them sorted out. Do we have a deal?"

Thames pondered it for only a second, before agreeing with a sigh. "We have a deal."

"Smart man." He turned around, ushering Angela out the door quickly, then paused. Bridge turned back to Thames and said, "You know, you could have saved us all some time if you’d just come to me in the beginning. Shit, I don’t give a fuck if you elect Mickey Goddamn Mouse if you pay me enough to set the whole thing up. But you had to get cute. You had to fuck with me. You had to fuck with her. You want something from me you come at me straight up. Maybe next time you’ll know better than to fuck with me.""Don’t cross the Bridge?" Thames asked with sarcastic amusement.

"Not unless you’re willing to pay the toll," Bridge responded all too aware how corny that sounded. "Now fuck off, you cunt." Bridge slammed the door behind him.

"Let’s not dawdle, my dear," Bridge said to Angela. He led her away from the elevators and down the stairs. "No, no, we’re not taking the car. It won’t be useable anyway."

"What did you do to my rental?"

"Yeah, it’s not your rental anymore. Thames just bought himself a soon-to-be burned out husk of a rental sedan," Bridge said with a smile. They almost ran down the stairs and out the back, cutting across side streets to catch a bus that almost left them at the curb. Bridge had his escape route all planned. The car would have combusted right about the time they reached the street, and as they boarded the bus, he could already hear the wailing screech of the garage’s fire alarm.
"He is going to be so pissed," she said with that mischievous grin. "Especially after you fucked up his election."

"Oh that. Well, not exactly."

"What do you mean? That’s what you bought our lives with, what do you mean not exactly?"

"Well, I didn’t technically hack the ballot. It’s sure going to look like I tried, and it’ll take them months to figure out that nothing was altered. Months and months and millions of dollars and most importantly, all that trust they were hoping Soto would have as mayor. Whoever gets elected tomorrow, it’ll be a clean count, at least as far as my efforts are concerned. But damn is it going to be painful to figure that out." Bridge was beaming.

"You risked our lives on a bluff?" He nodded vigorously. "You motherfucker. You absolute cocksucker. That is the most brilliant hack I’ve ever seen."

"Ain’t it though? See, there’s some use to being a manipulative cocksucker."

Her dour scowl dissolved into a lascivious grin. "I’ve got a use for you when we get home, you rat bastard." She gave him a long kiss. When she had detached herself, she looked around the bus with an embarrassed self-consciousness. "Tomorrow, we look for a new place."

"We?" He arched an eyebrow at her.

"You just put us on the shit list of the biggest LGL on the West Coast. We’re joined at the hip, you and me. Might be a good idea if we disappear off their radar for a bit." Bridge nodded agreement and leaned back into his seat. Three months wasn’t a long time, but it would have to do.

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