Under the Amoral Bridge

Chapter 4

August 29, 2028
6:33 p.m.

The Arsenal was one of the first new clubs built after the riots. A neon-saturated marvel of ultra modern design, it contained a separate dance club, concert hall, sports bar and the requisite VIP lounge upstairs. Awash in soccer brands and memorabilia, the club was lit by huge video screens showing live and archived game footage from around the world. Run by former L.A. Galaxy footballer Crispin Twiggs, the Arsenal acted as a front for prostitution, chip drugs and loan-sharking. Twiggs had been expelled from the game of soccer for gambling, but his public image had been somewhat rehabilitated by the outward success of the Arsenal. The vague whisperings of the club’s illegal side businesses did not slow its trade in the slightest. It was the place to be.

Getting into the club regularly was difficult for those not already affiliated with professional soccer. The beautiful people were allowed in, of course, especially the celebrities and their hangers on. It was especially popular with the nouveau riche Latino celebrities that had come to be the face of the rebuilt Los Angeles. GlobalNet actors like Richie Delgado and tella novella divas like Anise Vargas were the face of the LGL’s success. Bridge had worked for almost a month to get through the bouncers, until he finally found one who needed a connection with a black market cyberware doc. Bridge had hooked up Benny and Benny had returned the favor by giving him access to Twiggs. The Arsenal’s initial success was illusory, and by its second month in business, Twiggs was up to his eyeballs in debt. Bridge had given Twiggs the in with a new set of investors, the kind that wanted their investments kept quiet. Once Bridge had made that connection, he became a regular fixture, schmoozing his way into the VIP.

The night promised to be a busy one. The Arsenal always had its fair share of prospective clients, and Bridge was practically an unofficial employee. He knew the bartender’s routines, their schedules, their likes and their guilty secrets. A night of fitful sleep had left him slightly off-kilter, the whole cab ride a dozy daze. Aristotle tried to engage him in conversation but took the hint when Bridge showed little interest in discussing the difference between determinism and existentialism, lapsing into an indifferent silence. Bridge hoped Angie’s leaker showed up early. The thought of another beatdown from Nicky’s boys was going to drive him to distraction until he’d taken care of the problem. He’d managed to cover up most of the bruises on his face with Skin in a Tube™, but the fat lip was a problem. Of course, knowing the Arsenal, the leaker wouldn’t be allowed in. Hackers rarely showed great personal hygiene, and even less style, both of which were essential to mingle with the Arsenal’s beautiful people. Bridge managed it with charm and wit and impeccable attire, despite his average looks.

The club was already packed, even at this early hour. Though not the only club on the street, it was certainly the most popular, with a line of supplicants running down the block waiting eagerly to be judged worthy by the bouncers. There were actually two entrances. One bouncer waved the regulars in through the front where the paparazzi could photo their grand entrances, while the uninitiated waited in a line running down the street. Most would wait in vain. Bridge made for the front entrance, flashing a smile at the bouncer. The bouncer stopped him cold with a meaty hand in Bridge’s chest. “And just where do you think you’re going, luv?” The bouncer’s voice was thick with an urban British accent.

Bridge appraised the man. He was big. Not Aristotle big, much more of a lanky big, like a soccer player. The hand placed on Bridge’s chest was strong. He didn’t look like a bouncer, most of whom were gigantic slabs of beef. The face was rugged, with a crooked nose that indicated it had been broken at least once. “I was just going inside,” Bridge replied with an amiable smile. “I’ve got business to discuss.”

“Right now, your business is with me. Who are you, then?”

“Artemis Bridge, pleasure to meet you. And you?” Bridge offered up a handshake and his best innocent smile. The bouncer’s ape-like features wrinkled as he eyed the club’s entry list on his cybernetic HUD.

“Don’t see your name on the list, luv.” His arms crossed over his chest in a defiant manner. Bridge spotted a familiar face over the bouncer’s shoulder.

The bouncer working the newbie line was Stonewall Ricardo, someone Bridge had helped out a number of times. Ricardo had played soccer in Mexico before coming to the states to much fanfare in the early ‘20’s. Known as a feared center half, he earned the nickname Stonewall for his physicality, his ability to stop an attack dead in his tracks. Stonewall’s career had been ended early by a horrible knee injury requiring a cybernetic knee replacement. The league still banned the use of cybernetic replacements, and barred from the pitch, he had disappeared in disgust.

Twiggs had given Stonewall a job, but Bridge had always felt there was more between the two than just footballer camaraderie. Anytime Bridge asked about it, Stonewall became as silent as his namesake. Bouncing was Stonewall’s front job, but most of the time he was in charge of leg-breaking for Twiggs’s other businesses. The footballer was the nicest guy you’d ever talk to, unless you were his target. Then all the anger and frustration of a man denied his passion would flow out onto the target with a homicidal fury. Luckily for Bridge, Stonewall had needed something he could never reveal to anyone but Bridge. Stonewall had needed therapy, from a shrink that wouldn’t rat out his illegal activities to the cops or his criminal friends. Bridge knew a guy, the therapist to the shitheels, whose client list was as infamous as it was long. Ever since, Stonewall had Bridge’s back.

Stonewall caught Bridge’s predicament with a stray glance. Bridge waved to the bouncer, who was busily engaged with an average-looking blonde with horrific combat boots trying to beg her way in. With those boots, Bridge figured she had more chance of fitting through the eye of a needle than getting past the bouncers. Stonewall raised a finger to the girl and walked over to Bridge and the big side of beef blocking his entrance. “¿Qué onda? Is there a problem, Paulie?” he said to the bouncer, slipping between English and barrio Spanish with ease.

“Not a prob, guv. Just doing me job.”

“This here’s Bridge. Bridge, Paulie. Bridge here’s a good friend of the club.” Paulie raised a meaty eyebrow with an almost disgusted air.

“He ain’t on me list,” Paulie protested meekly. “If we’s just gonna let anybody what ain’t on the list in, what’s the point of me?”

“Bridge’s a special case. I’ll take the heat if he causes trouble. Cool?” Paulie seemed about to make some other argument before waving Bridge on through without further comment. Bridge tipped his nonexistent hat at the bouncer as he walked past with Stonewall in tow.

“Gotta forgive him, Bridge,” Stonewall explained. “He’s new and a bit of a pendejo, know what I mean? He supposedly knows Twiggs from somewhere, came begging for a job today. He ain’t exactly making friends. Thinks ‘cos he played in the Premiership, us MLS guys should just kiss his white English ass.” He snorted disgustedly as he opened the glass door for Bridge. “You need anything tonight?”

“As a matter of fact, there’s a guy may come looking for me. A hacker, so he’s probably not going to be on the list, so to speak. If you can’t let him in, just have him wait outside and send me a message, k? Think his name’s Kira or eK1ra or some such idiotic combination of numbers and letters.”

“Will do, Bridge.” With that, he was in. Bridge noticed a flier for the band playing later in the evening, The Ardents. The walls along the entry hallway were decorated with football jerseys from around the world. Bridge noted authographed jerseys for Liverpool, Arsenal, Valencia, Boca Juniors, and of course, the L.A. Galaxy. The club opened up into subtly-partitioned enclosures, wide-open spaces broken by short walls and standing lamps. The interior design was stuffed with modern gadgetry. Each sub-space had its own white noise walls, separating and encapsulating the sounds of each area within its own space. The sports bar, with the live Galaxy match playing on gigantic screens was no louder than a quiet buzz, completely cut off aurally from the dance club which drowned in the sound of a booming prograsmic beat. The concert hall was on a similar auditory island, and each table in all areas had its own white-noise mask, hiding conversations in an invisible cloak from eavesdroppers while allowing in the area’s particular attraction, whether it be the band, the dance beat or the game. Bridge knew that the VIP lounge upstairs was similarly equipped, with the ability to pipe first-floor audio to each table individually. The Arsenal was a stark contrast to a shithole club like the Glitter. It had the most expensive and exclusive technology designed to make the club the utmost in both privacy and public display.

The crowd was a mish mash of beautiful people and football fanatics. Everyone was dressed in their most fashionable couture, brand names flashing like Christmas decorations. Gaudy logos were the latest fashion trend. Every fashion designer seemed intent on signing his work in the most audacious possible manner. Dark fabrics clashed with insane combinations of low-tech glitter and thin-film video panels. Many were walking advertisements for their favorite fashion line, fetish or movie, their video panels a constant stream of GlobalNet messages that paid them a dividend for impressions, repetitions and click-thrus. Bridge worked his way through the crowd into the concert hall. The stage was set dead center in the room, a round dais surrounded by a small dance floor and tiers of tables placed in perfect staggered fashion so that no seat was visually or aurally obstructed from the action. The room reminded him of a miniature Vegas showroom. A video holograph was playing on the stage as Bridge walked in, a GlobalNet-transmitted performance from one of the virtual worlds playing in eerily-transparent pantomime. Bridge’s table was as far from the door as he could manage. Aristotle took up position behind Bridge on the walkway surrounding the top tier of seats. Bridge hated that his bodyguard had to stand most of the night, but his clients wouldn’t expect “the help” to mingle with the boss.

Bridge ordered a cheaper single-malt scotch to sip on, asking the waitress to tell the band he was in the building. His first client was Bobby Ardent, the male half of the Ardents duo. They were a brother and sister team, he the guitarist and songwriter, Candace playing the rest of the instruments. Their recordings were veritable walls of sound, ten and twenty instruments laid on top of each other. Candace would play the piano parts live while using her interface jack to control recordings of the other instruments. Bridge didn’t like much popular music, relying on his GlobalNet agents to find him obscure bands from Japan and Chechnya. But the Ardents were interesting, and not just because they were clients.

Bobby appeared in minutes, his demeanor the nervous anticipation of Bridge’s typical client. Bobby’s request was a simple one. He wanted to spy on his sister. Bobby wanted a full tap on his sister’s life, from cameras to GlobalNet to chat transcripts, especially her avatar’s actions in the GlobalNet. Of course, he would never admit why he wanted such a thing, and Bridge wouldn’t force him. Bridge didn’t care that Bobby was in love with his sister. That wasn’t germane to the business at hand. Bobby wanted something and Bridge knew a guy. Bobby’s excuse was that he wanted to make sure she didn’t get involved with the wrong guy. Maybe he even believed that. “Bobby! My favorite rock star!” Bridge greeted the musician with an ear-to-ear grin.

“Hey Bridge, you got it?” Bobby’s wrinkled face was coated in a thin film of sweat, his black goatee glistening. Bridge was somewhat distracted by the band’s video playing on the shoulder of Bobby’s jacket. “Is everything set up?”

“My guy is ready. He just needs the word from you to turn on the tap.” Bridge handed over a muted email bizchip. Bobby only had to fingerprint himself on the card and an email would be sent to the contact, a hacker who specialized in surveillance for private dicks, lawyers and tonight, pervy brothers.

“And these are undetectable? She won’t know it’s there?”

“@Rg0n0t is good. He’s the one who caught Shelley Tilton’s hubby fucking around on her. Motherfucker never knew what hit him.”

Bobby reached an unsteady hand towards the card. “There’s just the little matter of my fee,” Bridge interrupted.

Bobby pulled out a PDA, a clunky old tech relic. Bobby was a half-Naturalist, rebelling against technology by refusing to get an interface jack, but he wasn’t committed enough to the cause to join the Naturalist communes that were springing up in the remote areas of Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas. The most commitment to anything he’d mustered were a few PSA’s decrying the despoiling of the environment by multinational corporations like the one that owned his record label. “You’re taken care of. Ten grand in five-year.”

Bridge smiled and passed over the bizchip. Bobby grabbed it greedily in both hands, planting his thumbprint forcefully on the scanner. “Message sent,” replied the card. Bobby dropped it to the table like it had suddenly burst into flames.

“It’s done then,” he said as much to himself as to Bridge. Bridge just nodded. “You swear you won’t breathe a word of this to anybody?”

“Your priest will spill the beans before I will.”

“My priest was a son-of-a-bitch.”

“Ain’t they all?” Bridge quipped with a laugh. The humor escaped Bobby.

“I gotta go get ready. We’re on in ten.”

“Awesome. For real. Break a leg or something.” As Bobby walked away, Aristotle came over, pointing towards the door. Bridge’s next client had entered the hall. Bridge put @Rg0n0t’s card in the table’s ashtray and activated its self-destruct code, a program that not only caused the card’s physical material to break down, but sent a virus through the GlobalNet that erased the message trail from the card. The only evidence of the transaction was now in Bridge’s head and Bobby’s conscience.

His next client made Bridge frown. It was Sid Tobin, a wannabe DJ with pretensions of pop greatness. Bridge knew this meeting’s script by heart, as they had gone through its motions again and again. Sid wanted a GlobalNet publishing deal and he had no scruples about how it was acquired. Sid’s problem was that he was a walking stereotype, the kind that turned off A&R guys. The talent acquisition suits didn’t want someone already packaged, they wanted something genuine and authentic that they could then sterilize, commoditize and package as the next big thing. Sid was always trying to cash in on the last big thing a week after it had been abandoned.

By the look of his outfit, Sid was on a Japanese anime hip-hop kick, his features accentuated by makeup to make his eyes look bigger with pointy brows, baggy neon glitter pants and a green glowing jacket festooned with brand labels, gold chains and Nipponese thug slogans. Sid walked with an exaggerated swagger, tossing gang signs as greetings. Before the poseur could even sit, Bridge had already cut him off. “Sid, before you get started, no A&R is going to touch you looking like that. What are those, Hammer Pants?”

“No, no, tomo, I got it all worked out, yo! You know a bunch of A&R guys, right?”

“I know a guy,” Bridge repeated almost unconsciously.

“Yo, check it, we throw this blackmail scheme on his ass, right? We get some dirt and throw it in the guy’s face and then he’s gotta give me a pub deal, yo!” Sid’s face was a beaming icon of stupidity, the bullheaded desire overriding any sort of common sense. Bridge just shook his head.

“Do you even know how a blackmail scam is run, you mental midget? First, you actually need to have some dirt on your target. I can assume that since you are coming to me, you don’t have any such dirt?” Sid shook his head. “So you’d need to hire someone to find some dirt, a hacker or a PI or something. Then, you’d need a go-between, which I suppose you think is going to be me.”

Bridge cut off Sid’s excited head nodding. “No, it sure as fuck would not be. That violates my most important rule, I don’t touch nothing illegal. Not one fucking thing. And finally, you’d need an A&R guy with such a shitty crop of skeletons in his closet that he’d rather risk his job to sign a complete retard like you than let his dirt get out in the open. You ever met an A&R guy? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Well, let me enlighten you. They spend their entire professional careers searching for guys they can sign to the shittiest deals possible, stuffing them full of drugs, hookers and booze until the acts don’t know their own fucking names. Once that act is all used up and no good to him anymore, Mr. A&R moves on to the next fucking target. He’s a predator with less morals than me. Do you really think he’s going to give one shit about his dirty laundry getting aired? They are expected to be shitheels, it’s in their job description. He’s more likely to kill you than sign you. Use your fucking head, you moron. Did you get a manager like I told you to last time?”

“Shit, Bridge, I don’t need no fucking manager. All he’s gon’ do is take fit’een percent to book me here, and I already got booked here.”

“That’s because your mom is Twiggs’ cousin. Get a manager and let him deal with your fucking ideas. Do you really think I’m going to piss off one of the few A&R guys I know in some half-assed blackmail scam? You can’t afford the fee on that sort of shit.” Sid whined for a few more minutes before being ushered off. It took the physical presence of Aristotle to get Sid moving on.

Once Sid was gone, Bridge exclaimed, “Aristotle, I swear that kid is going to get himself killed one of these days. He’s a dumbass at the genetic level.”

“The Buddhists say that all suffering is born of desire,” Aristotle began. “By that measure, that little muppet has got lifetimes of suffering to burn off.” Bridge grinned at the bodyguard.

“I think he’d literally give up a body part to get signed. You ever hear him?” Aristotle nodded, a pained expression marring his features. “I’d rather listen to two rhinos fucking. Check with Stonewall about Kira when I’m not occupied. I really wanna get that shit taken care of.” Aristotle nodded and strode off to find the bouncer.

Bridge’s night was business as usual. He met with three other clients in two hours, all routine jobs with minimal payouts. They’d keep the lights on and not much else. With each meeting completed without an appearance from Kira, Bridge’s nervousness grew. As small-time as he was, Nicky would be all too happy to follow through on his threats. The quicker he could set Nicky up with the hacker, the quicker he could relax. Finally, around midnight, Aristotle came to his table.

“Kira’s outside,” he said.

“Well tell him to get his ass in here.”

“He won’t come in.”

“What do you mean he won’t come in?”

“Exactly that. He refuses to go around the front. He’s waiting in the alley across the street. He was exceptionally squirrelly.”

“Goddamnit, Angie, can you not give me one clean hacker? Shit, I bet he’s hopped up on Trip, all paranoid and shit.”

“He didn’t look to be speeding so much as genuinely nervous.”

Bridge sighed. “Fuck it, I’m done here.” He slugged back the last vestiges of his drink. “Let’s go meet him. You sure this ain’t a setup or something?” Aristotle nodded. “Last thing I need is another beatdown.” Bridge stalked out with his bodyguard in tow. He waved to Stonewall as he exited, the Mexican waving back jovially. The asshole bouncer was nowhere to be seen. Maybe Twiggs had fired him for being a cunt to the patrons.

Bridge crossed the street quickly, leaving Aristotle at the alley entrance to cover his back. The alley was deserted, nothing but dumpsters, grime and filth to greet him. “I thought you said he was in here?” Aristotle shrugged. Bridge began walking down the alley, avoiding the puddles of dumpster juice and piles of garbage. The alley smelled of fried rice from the Chinese restaurant.

“PSST. Here.” Bridge’s head snapped up at the strained whisper. It came from the restaurant’s kitchen entrance. “Over here!” Bridge walked slowly to the doorway, his body tensing into some semblance of a fighting stance. His one karate class years earlier had not yielded much beyond embarrassment, but he tried to recall something of the defensive techniques he’d been taught. A head peeked out of the doorway, darting quick glances up and down the alley. “Did anybody follow you?”

“Just Aristotle,” Bridge replied, indicating the bodyguard at the other end. “You wanna tell me why I’m standing ankle deep in shit instead of having a civilized conversation surrounded by hotties in the club?”

“I got people after me,” Kira said. Bridge finally got a good look at the kid, and kid he was. He might have been eighteen, but he sure didn’t look it. Bridge guessed he had not been shaving too long, and not well at that. His upper lip was covered by a thin wisp of a mustache. Kira’s dark hair was tousled, in typical hacker fashion. Even his sideburns were messy. Sweat covered the kid’s face, a nervous sweat that seemed to soak his shabby clothes.

‘Surely Angie didn’t send me one of these homeless squatter hackers,’ Bridge thought. The clothes Kira wore weren’t cheap, just badly maintained. Brand names were all over his slept in attire. Every movement, every nuance of the kid’s body language was nervous paranoia, but an examination of his green eyes told Bridge the kid wasn’t tripping. “What are they after you for? Who is they?”

“I found something, something I shouldn’t have.”

“Ok, well that’s nothing to me, kid,” Bridge replied, raising his hands to fend off whatever bad mojo the kid had acquired. “I just need you to do a couple of jobs for some clients of mine and…”

“No, Bridge man, you gotta see this, it’s… you gotta see who it is!”

“Whoa, I don’t see nothing. I don’t touch nothing. Whatever you got going on, you keep it to your damn self. All I do is hook you up with someone that wants to buy or sell. I’m the Bridge, not the warehouse, dig?”

Kira’s agitation spilled over, his hands grabbing Bridge’s coat in a death grip. “You have to see it! Please, I gotta get rid of this! I don’t want nothing to do with it! You gotta take it off my hands!”

Bridge pushed the hacker away forcefully. Aristotle strode two steps into the alley. “No, I don’t. Sell it to Angie, she can find you a buyer.” A red light blinded Bridge for a second. Raising his hand to cover his eyes, he saw three pinpricks of red at the end of the alley. His mind processed the image in slow-motion. Silhouettes, armed. Three armed men coming down the alleyway towards him from the darkness.

“They’ll kill me, Bridge, you gotta take this off my hands,” were the last words Bridge heard before the shots rang out. He was thrown to the ground by the force of the body hitting him, his vision blurring with pain.

Under the Amoral Bridge

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