Part 2 of 2 - Click here for Part 1
I folded the silk handkerchief over the stolen cell phone's keypad to keep my fingerprints off of it. With a thought, I started the recording on both my cyber-optic and cyber-audio implants. I pressed the speed-dial button and a phone number displayed on the readout.
The phone rang twice before a woman's voice answered "Militech Corporate Embassy, Washington D.C. Director Robertson's office. How may I help you?"
This was bad.
I mean, tracking Joe Carmichael's killer back to any multi-national corporation would be bad, but Militech? Militech was practically a proxy for the U.S. military before the collapse. Ritz had made it pretty clear that even the troops knew it.
Since then, their global power and influence had only grown. So many governments had eventually privatized and out-sourced their armed forces, that signing a Militech contract was akin to signing a peace treaty with every other Militech client. The signing ceremonies were treated with enough pomp and circumstance that they always made headlines.
Militech was big enough to privatize world peace or wage global war. And we had proof they'd commissioned a murder.
"Sorry," I said when I found my voice, "wrong number."
It took longer than I would have liked to find and mash the end-call button before I dropped the cell phone on the desk like it had just sprouted fangs. My heart was racing.
Behind that reflective Kiroshi mask, Ritz's expression was unreadable. She didn't react. She just sat there, quietly trembling, like my grandmother towards the end. Then I noticed her hands.
Her hands were rock steady, clenched around her rifle... her Militech rifle. She was gripping it so tight that her hands were starting to turn purple. Around the barrel of the gun, her nails had dug gouges into the polymer housing.
"No," Ritz shook her head.
"No," she repeated with a note a defiant disbelief.
"NO!" She turned on me snarling, and I recoiled with a startled cry because for a moment I thought she was going to point the gun at me and get rid of the only other person who knew what Militech had done.
She sprang out of her chair, sending it skidding backwards across the threadbare carpet on wobbly casters until it toppled over with a crash. Taking the gun by the barrel in both hands, she swung it up over her head and slammed it smashing down on the desk, rattling everything on top and causing the trio of security monitors to sway precariously.
"NO!" she screamed again, bludgeoning the desktop again, scattering the tools and toppling one monitor which crashed forward and took the full brunt of her next swing.
I couldn't even imagine what Ritz was going through.
On top of the torturous withdrawal palsy she was suffering, her best friend and lover had been gunned down while she was stuck helpless on the metro. She'd been duped into attacking the gang that had been set up to take the fall for it, shot at, stabbed, nearly blown up, threatened with gang rape, drugged, and deceived again by the real murderer. And then he raped her brain.
Ritz managed to keep going—to fight through all of that—only to discover that behind it all was the one thing she still actually believed in.
Militech was her rock. Maybe the only constant in her life aside from Joe Carmichael, Militech had been there for her. Militech had never let her down.
And Militech had Joe killed. That was the only conclusion that made any sense.
"NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!"
Ritz hammered the desk over and over and over again with the rifle stock until the polymer split and cracked apart. The tools and the log book and various office supplies littered the floor along with shards of shattered monitor glass.
When she swung the mutilated gun one last time, the battered housing finally gave up and broke free causing her to overswing, lose her balance, and collapse to the floor. She threw the remnant of the shattered rifle away and curled into a trembling ball, sobbing, clawing at the Kiroshi that shielded her missing eyes.
I hadn't realized that I'd pushed my own chair all the way back against the far wall to escape her wrath. Her violent outburst had been terrifying to watch. No less terrifying was the knowledge that Militech could squash us like a bug if they thought we were a threat.
But in that fear I saw opportunity.
Militech had a secret. They had a secret, Joe Carmichael knew it, and Militech took great pains to track him down and silence him permanently. Exposing that secret could be the kind of story a journalist could build a whole career on. This story could be bigger than Watergate, or the moon landing, or the Bio-phage.
Alright, that's a pipe-dream. But if I could get to the bottom of Joe's murder and expose Militech, I'd have my pick of offers from every media outlet in the world. It would be dangerous, but the big stories always are.
"Hey, Ritz," I said in a consoling tone, slipping off the chair to sit carefully on the floor next to her. "I know you're going through some shit, but..."
...But what? What could I possibly say right now that would mean anything at all?
I held her head in my lap, unable to soothe the seizures that wracked her body. About the only small comfort I could offer was to sit with her and smooth her hair out of her face while she cried.
As I sat there in the dim security office trying to figure out my next move, my eyes fell on Okami's cell phone discarded among the detritus scattered around the dingy floor. A sudden panic gripped me as I realized that the electronics packed inside might yet have a malevolent purpose.
"Ritz! Ritz, get up. We have to go." I scrambled to my feet and tried to pull her up after me, but she was a lot of dead weight.
"Ritz, please! They might be able to track that phone! They might even be listening to us right now!"
"You go." She shook me off. "I'll stall them here... I don't care anymore."
"Seriously!? After everything they've done to you, you're just going to let them get away with it?"
"They've gotten away with it!" she snapped, and pushed herself up to sit trembling at my feet. "They killed Joe and there's nothing I can do about it. I can't fight a whole fucking corporation by myself!"
"You're not by yourself," I countered.
"Right," Ritz sneered up at me. "It will make so much difference having you there to film it. I might make it as far as the front lobby before they crease me. They might as well send a hit team to do it here and save us all a lot of time."
"God, you stupid btich!" I yelled down at her. She recoiled in surprise at the vehemence of my retort. "You don't fight a corporation with guns! You fight them with cameras and headlines and public opinion. You make the people ask questions and demand answers.
"Your little vengeance-fueled rampage will pay the bills, but when the corporation entrusted with the people's defense starts secretly killing those people—this is a story that needs to be told. This is a cause that's worth fighting for, Ritz. This is my kind of fight, and I am not gonna start it by sacrificing my allies.
"Now on your feet, soldier! We gotta move!"
Ritz stared up at me for a moment, opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again. Finally, with a sigh, she reached out a hand and I pulled her up.
"Hand me the log book," she asked as I helped her find her balance against the scuffed up desk. I laid it open to the first empty page and in a shaky hand she wrote 'Dear Jayden, Fuck off. I quit. -Ritz'
"That felt better than I thought it would," she confided with a flash of a grin. "So where are we going?"
I looked down at Okami's cell phone peeking malignantly out from under its silk shroud in the corner. "Not here," I told her, picking up the phone and slinging the shotgun over my shoulder.
While she struggled into the passenger seat of the Black Queen's hot rod, I tucked the cell phone between the asphalt and the back tire. As I peeled away from the curb, we crushed the phone into plastic mulch. I headed toward Little Italy and home.
The Peach Tree apartment building is only three blocks from where I met Ritz. I'd passed Talsorian's pub down on street level several times, but never paid it much mind. I'd never been inside. But when the call came in on my police scanner, I knew exactly where it was and that I could be the first reporter on the scene.
At the time, I hoped the story might net me a few euros. I never dreamed that a simple robbery/homicide call could lead to such a scoop.
Parking in a secure garage was more of a luxury than I could afford, so I left the hotrod on the street. Between the bullet-pocked armor plating and the jacked up suspension, it looked like a car with owners you don't want to piss off. At least I hoped it did.
Ritz folded down the shoulder stock of the shotgun, wrapped it in her jacket, and tucked it under her arm. Hobbling two-and-half blocks through the pre-dawn crowd to the Peach Tree, she left grumbles and puzzled looks trailing behind her.
At the security gate I swiped my keycard and nodded to the guard behind the duraplast partition. His disinterest was palpable as he waved us both into the lobby.
"I'm on the sixty-sixth floor," I told Ritz, guiding her to Express Elevator Six.
Only the big cargo elevator hit every floor in the tower. Each ten-floor 'neighborhood' has its own express lift. The big suites above the Eighties each have their own private elevator, but they never get used because they also have private AV parking up there.
"This is a nice building," she muttered. "You must do okay for yourself, Rhoades."
"The lobby's just for show," I assured her. "My place is going to disappoint you."
"I seriously doubt that."
The Sixties are all one-room cubbyholes mostly occupied by working stiffs like me. Express Six gets packed pretty tight at crush-hour. Still, the Peach Tree has decent security. It's worth the six-hundred euros plus utilities that I have to scrape together every month just to know my place probably won't be burgled while I'm out.
Ritz leaned on the side rail of the car as it started its ascent. She was shivering like a screamsheet caught in an AV downdraft.
"Is this as bad as it gets?" I asked, putting on my sympathetic interview voice. "The withdrawal, I mean."
"Almost," she admitted. "I can still walk for now... mostly."
"I know the Lucidrine causes nerve damage, but doesn't it just get worse the more you take?"
"Yeah, but the devilish thing is, it cures it's own symptoms. If I could get another hit, I'd be just fine... But then it'll be a little bit worse when it wears off again."
"How long does a hit last you?"
"It depends. I think the chemical reacts with adrenaline or cortisol or something. The more stress you're under, the faster you burn through it. Working that dull-as-rust night watchman's job, I can usually stretch it out for about a month or so."
"Was it worth it? I mean, did it really make you better soldiers?"
She didn't answer right away, but a wistful smile played across her lips as she stared down at the floor. Finally she looked back up at me.
"When you were a kid, did you ever swipe your hand across a candle flame fast enough that it didn't burn? Ever reach between spinning ceiling fan blades, or dip a finger in and out of boiling water before it could scald you?
"When Uncle Sam first started us out on Lucidrine, we did that shit with acetylene torches and helicopter tail rotors—in between the bullets firing from a machine gun. Lucidrine jacks up your reflexes until it almost feels like the world is moving in slow motion around you.
"When I served with the CyberMercs in Lithuania, I made serious euro off bar bets with those kind of tricks, but in CentAm, we could all do it."
She paused to work her jaw back and forth as our ears popped.
"Took about three months before anyone noticed the shakes, but in that time my unit hadn't lost a single soldier. We could practically side-step incoming fire so we kept quiet about the side-effects. It was a year and half before they canceled the program, but by that time--"
The elevator dinged at the sixty-second floor. When the doors parted, a harried looking woman in sweats with a basket full of laundry was staring at a skin watch implanted in the back of her wrist.
"I swear, these elevators are getting slower every day," she huffed as she stepped aboard.
"Yeah, they are," I told her. "There was a report about it on the news last week. The management corp is intentionally slowing down the lifts in all of its buildings so they can justify a rent increase by saying the money will be used to overhaul the elevators. Didn't you see it?"
"No, I missed that," she admitted with a deep frown. "What channel was it on?"
"It ran on K.J.O.N. Pirate Television."
"Oh!" She looked startled and slightly relieved. "I don't watch the pirate channels. I wouldn't even know how to tune them in."
"It's not that hard. I could come by and show you if you like. It's the only way to get the news the corporations don't want you to see."
"Um, okay, maybe," she hedged, and I could tell she didn't mean it. She gave me a look like I'd just showed her my new tinfoil hat. The elevator dinged again at the sixty-fifth floor and with a polite smile she scurried off towards the laundromat.
"What a choob," I muttered and turned back to Ritz. "So you were saying about the Lucidrine?"
"Oh, um, just that having the fastest soldiers on the battlefield isn't always enough, you know?"
The elevator opened on my floor. Even at this hour, three early-birds clustered in the lobby. They looked up from their screamsheets and newsreaders and groaned collectively as they realized the lift was going up, not down. None of them shuffled more than a few inches out of our way, trying to keep their place in the pre-crush queue.
Ritz was unstable on her feet as we made the walk to my apartment. She braced a hand against the wall to steady herself rather than accept my help. It was taking her forever.
The scop grill on my floor was gearing up for the morning crush and the hall was filled with the chemical aroma of artificial bacon, yakizakana, and sausage flavors.
"I'm going to grab us some breakfast," I told Ritz. "Turn left at the second junction and keep going down to twenty-one twelve. I'll catch up."
"Race you," she joked with a grunt.
The line was still short this early, but Ritz had made it to the corner and turned out of sight by the time I got up to the counter.
"Morning, Mr. Kim," I nodded to the owner behind his register. The fluorescent tubes overhead masked the real hour and kept the windowless restaurant in a perpetual state of bleak, washed-out daylight.
"Good morning, Ms. Rhoades!" he beamed. "Are you up late, or up early?"
"Late, I'm afraid. How's that new coffee?"
"Weak, and... well, kind of purple," he confided. "But it's hot."
The best scop processors in the world still hadn't gotten coffee quite right. It had been years since I'd had the real stuff.
"Two cups of tea, please," I requested, not even trying to hide my disappointment. "And two packs of kibble," I added, taking a pair of Nutri-Snax bags from the wobbly rack next to the counter. The smell of a hot meal was enticing, but my budget was down to basic nutrition.
"Breakfast for two, huh?" Mr. Kim grinned at me. "You finally meet a nice fella?"
"No," I sighed. "Just a woman I'm working with."
When I plugged my deb-chip into the cash register, I could see that my budget fears were real. My balance had fallen into double-digits.
"Well, they say the news never sleeps."
"And so neither do I. Thanks, Mr. Kim."
"Have a nice day, Ms. Rhoades... Next!"
Ritz had propped herself against my door frame by the time I caught up to her. Stuffing her hands in the pockets of her jacket couldn't hide the trembling, or the weird, irregular way her head sort of bobbled.
I swiped my card key through the lock.
When I dashed out yesterday afternoon, I'd left my sofa-bed unfolded, the sheets in a tangled mess. The bed ate up more than half the floorspace of my apartment, so it was a tight squeeze to get inside with my hands full.
The floor was littered with screamsheets and scop wrappers. In the background the police scanner jabbered a steady stream of staticky call-codes and addresses. Drips from my leaky faucet plonked steadily against an old take-out container in the sink. KJON's off-the-air test pattern filled my TV screen.
"It's not much," I told Ritz, pushing aside a stack of vid-chips to set the tea cups down on my desk, "but it's home."
She ducked under the wire running from the TV to the aerial in the room's one window, propped her shotgun in the corner, and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. The room's only chair was piled with laundry.
"It's great," she told me. "I wish I had someplace to be embarrassed by in front of company."
"Well, you're welcome to stay as long as you'd like. Shower's through there," I pointed. "There's a unisex boutique on sixty-nine if you need a change of clothes, a pharmacy on sixty-seven for pain killers, and a bodega on sixty-three for anything else. The even floors all have scop shops. Unless your grandmother was from Naples, the Italian place on sixty-two isn't half bad."
"Thanks for the tour," she mumbled. "I think sleep is my top priority right now."
"Yeah, good plan. You look like raw hell."
She scowled and shot me a look, but it was the truth.
"Alright," she replied, "I'll stretch out on the floor as soon as you're ready for bed."
"Oh, no. You go ahead and take the bed," I insisted. "I have to go out again."
"I need to get back down to the University and cut your story together."
"Can't that wait?"
"Nope. If I don't earn some euro off this story, I'm not gonna make rent this month."
If a story is important enough, and the networks won't touch it, I'll give it to the pirates for free just to get it on the air. But I learned a long time ago that there's a time for crusading journalism and there's a time to pay the bills. If I could edit Ritz's rampage into a compelling enough feature, I was hopeful that it might just finance a crusade.
"Well be careful out there, okay?" she cautioned as I pulled down my old camera from the box on top of the fridge. I smiled to myself recalling that twice yesterday Ritz had threatened to shoot me herself. I wasn't about to point out the irony though, or that she was getting sentimental. She might shoot me.
"I'm the paranoid one, remember?" I smirked instead and held up the kibble packs. "Do you want Honey-Nut or Ranch flavor?"
"I don't care... Ranch, I guess."
I tossed a pouch of Nutri-Snax to her on the bed, dropped the other in my bag, and grabbed my spare camera and cup.
"Get some sleep Ritz. I'll be back before you wake up."
On the other side of the door, I popped another stim tab and washed it down with a swallow of tea.
How many was that today? Three? No, probably four. I was approaching about thirty-six hours of up-time. But like the man says, 'the news doesn't sleep.'
By the time I rode the metro to the University, the campus was just starting to wake up. I still had my pick of digital splicing machines in the media lab. There were impatient J-school students lined up behind me by the time I got my story cut together. I had to wait myself for a turn to record the voice over, and my stomach was grumbling for lunch by the time I handed my chips over to the courier who would drop them at Net54, KFLW, ICS, Network 23, and Channel 2.
One of them would pay to put it on the air. They had to.