Virtual light b-1, page 1part #1 of Bridge Series
( Bridge - 1 )
1 The luminous flesh of giants
The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city's middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod.
Hours earlier, missiles have fallen in a northern suburb; seventy-three dead, the kill as yet unclaimed. But here the mirrored ziggurats down Lсzaro Cсrdenas flow with the luminous flesh of giants, shunting out the night's barrage of dreams to the waiting avenidas-business as usual, world without end.
The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night.
Closing his eyes, he centers himself in the background hiss of climate-control. He imagines himself in Tokyo, this room in some new wing of the old Imperial. He sees himself in the streets of Chiyoda-ku, beneath the sighing trains. Red paper lanterns line a narrow lane.
He opens his eyes.
Mexico City is still there.
The eight empty bottles, plastic miniatures, are carefully aligned with the edge of the coffee table: a Japanese vodka, Come Back Salmon, its name more irritating than its lingering aftertaste.
On the screen above the console, the ptichka await him, all in a creamy frieze. When he takes up the remote, their high sharp cheekbones twist in the space behind his eyes. Their young men, invariably entering from behind, wear black leather gloves.
Slavic faces, calling up unwanted fragments of a childhood: the reek of a black canal, steel racketing steel beneath a swaying train, the high old ceilings of an apartment overlooking a frozen park.
Twenty-eight peripheral images frame the Russians in their earnest coupling; he glimpses figures carried from the smoke-blackened car-deck of an Asian ferry.
He opens another of the little bottles.
Now the ptichka, their heads bobbing like well-oiled machines, swallow their arrogant, self-absorbed boyfriends. The camera angles recall the ardor of Soviet industrial cinema.
His gaze strays to NHK Weather. A low-pressure front is crossing Kansas. Next to it, an eerily calm Islamic downlink ceaselessly reiterates the name of God in a fractal-based calligraphy.
He drinks the vodka.
He watches television.
After midnight, at the intersection of Liverpool and Florencia, he stares out at the Zona Rosa from the back of a white Lada, a nanopore Swiss respirator chafing his freshly shaven chin.
And every passing face is masked, mouths and nostrils concealed behind filters. Some, honoring the Day of the Dead, resemble the silver-beaded jaws of grinning sugar-skulls. Whatever form they take, their manufacturers all make the same dubious, obliquely comforting claims about viroids.
He's thought to escape the sameness, perhaps discover something of beauty or passing interest, but here there are only masked faces, his fear, the lights.
An ancient American car comes creeping through the turn, out of Avenida Chapultepec, gouts of carbon puising from beneath a dangling bumper. A dusty rind of cola-colored resin and shattered mirror seals its every surface; only the windshield is exposed, and this is black and glossy, opaque as a blob of ink, reminding him of the gunship's lethal pod. He feels the fear begin to accrete, seamlessly, senselessly, with absolute conviction, around this carnival ghost, the Cadillac, this oil-burning relic in its spectral robe of smudged mosaic silver. Why is it allowed to add its filth to the already impossible air? Who sits inside, behind the black windshield?
Trembling, he watches the thing pass.
'That car …' He finds himself leaning forward, compulsively addressing the broad brown neck of the driver, whose massive ear lobes somehow recall reproduction pottery offered on the hotel's shopping channel.
'El coche,' says the driver, who wears no mask, and turning, now seems to notice the courier for the first time. The courier sees the mirrored Cadillac flare, once, and briefly, with the reflected ruby of a nightclub's laser, then gone.
The driver is staring at him.
He tells the driver to return to the hotel.
He comes awake from a dream of metal voices, down the vaulted concourses of some European airport, distant figures glimpsed in mute rituals of departure.
Darkness. The hiss of climate-control.
The touch of cotton sheets. His telephone beneath the pillow. Sounds of traffic, muted by the gas-filled windows. All tension, his panic, are gone. He remembers the atrium bar. Music. Faces.
He becomes aware of an inner balance, a rare equilibrium. It is all he knows of peace.
And, yes, the glasses are here, tucked beside his telephone. He draws them out, opening the ear pieces with a guilty pleasure that has somehow endured since Prague.
Very nearly a decade he has loved her, though he doesn't think of it in those terms. But he has never bought another piece of software and the black plastic frames have started to lose their sheen. The label on the cassette is unreadable now, sueded white with his touch in the night. So many rooms like this one.
He has long since come to prefer her in silence. He no longer inserts the yellowing audio beads. He has learned to provide his own, whispering to her as he fast-forwards through the clumsy titles and up the moonlit ragged hiliscape of a place that is neither Hollywood nor Rio, but some soft-focus digital approximation of both.
She is waiting for him, always, in the white house up the canyon road. The candles. The wine. The jet-beaded dress against the matte perfection of her skin, such whiteness, the black beads drawn smooth and cool as a snake's belly up her tensed thigh.
Far away, beneath cotton sheets, his hands move.
Later, drifting toward sleep of a different texture, the phone beneath his pillow chimes softly and only once.
'Confirming your reservation to San Francisco,' someone says, either a woman or a machine. He touches a key, recording the flight number, says goodnight, and closes his eyes on the tenuous light sifting from the dark borders of the drapes.
Her white arms enfold him. Her blondness eternal.
IntenSecure had their wagons detailed every three shifts. They used this big specialty car wash off Colby; twenty coats of hand-rubbed Wet Honey Sienna and you didn't let it get too shabby.
That one November evening the Republic of Desire put an end to his career in armed response, Berry Rydell had arrived there a little early.
He liked the way it smelled inside. They had this pink stuff they put through the power-washers to get the road film off, and the smell reminded him of a summer job he'd had in Knoxville, his last year in school. They'd been putting condos into the shell of this big old Safeway out on Jefferson Davis. The architects wanted the cinder block walls stripped just this one certain way, mostly gray showing through but some old pink Safeway paint left in the little dips and crannies. They were from
Memphis and they wore black suits and white cotton shirts. The shirts had obviously cost more than the suits, or at least as much, and they never wore ties or undid the top button. Rydell had figured that that was a way for architects to dress; now he lived in L.A., he knew it was true. He'd overheard one of them explaining to the foreman that what they were doing was exposing the integrity of the material's passage through time. He thought that was probably bullshit, but he sort of liked the sound of it anyway; like what happened to old people on television.
But what it really amounted to was getting most of this
2 Cruising with gunhead
shitty old paint off thousands and thousands of square feet of equally shitty cinder block, and you did it with an oscillating spray-head on the end of a long stainless handle. If you thought the foreman wasn't looking, you could aim it at another kid, twist out a thirty-foot rooster tail of stinging rainbow, and wash all his sunbiock off. Rydell and his friends all wore this Australian stuff that came in serious colors, so you could see where you had and hadn't put it. Had to get your right distance on it, though, 'cause up close those heads could take the chrome off a bumper. Rydell and Buddy Crigger both got fired for doing that, finally, and then they walked across Jeff Davis to a beer joint and Rydell wound up spending the night with this girl from Key West, the first time he'd ever slept beside a woman.
Now here he was in Los Angeles, driving a six-wheeled Hotspur Hussar with twenty coats of hand-rubbed lacquer. The Hussar was an armored Land Rover that could do a hundred and forty on a straightaway, assuming you could find one open and had the time to accelerate. Hernandez, his shift super, said you couldn't trust an Englishman to build anything much bigger than a hat, not if you wanted it to work when you needed it; he said IntenSecure should've bought Israeli or at least Brazilian, and who needed Ralph Lauren to design a tank anyway?
Rydell didn't know about that, but that paint job was definitely trying too hard. He thought they probably wanted people to think of those big brown United Parcel trucks, and at the same time they maybe hoped it would look sort of like something you'd see in an Episcopal church. Not too much gilt on the logo. Sort of restrained.
The people who worked in the car wash were mostly Mongolian immigrants, recent ones who had trouble getting better jobs. They did this crazy throat-singing thing while they worked, and he liked to hear that. He couldn't figure out how they did it; sounded like tree-frogs, but like it was two sounds at once.
Now they were buffing the rows of chromed nubs down the sides. Those had been meant to support electric crowd-control grids and were just chromed for looks. The riot-wagons in Knoxville had been electrified, but with this drip-system that kept them wet, which was a lot nastier.
'Sign here,' said the crew boss, this quiet black kid named Anderson. He was a medical student, days, and he always looked like he was about two nights short of sleep.
Rydell took the pad and the light-pen and signed the signature-plate. Anderson handed Rydell the keys.
'You ought to get you some rest,' Rydell said. Anderson grinned, wanly. Rydell walked over to Gunhead, deactivating the door alarm.
Somebody had written that inside, 'GUNHEAD,' in green marker on the panel above the windshield. The name stuck, but mostly because Sublett liked it. Sublett was Texan, a refugee from some weird trailer-camp video-sect. He said his mother had been getting ready to deed his ass to the church, whatever that meant.
Sublett wasn't too anxious to talk about it, but Rydell had gotten the idea that these people figured video was the Lord's preferred means of communicating, the screen itself a kind of perpetually burning bush. 'He's in the de-tails,' Sublett had said once. 'You gotta watch for Him close.' Whatever form this worship had taken, it was evident that Sublett had absorbed more television than anyone Rydell had ever met, mostly old movies on channels that never ran anything but. Sublett said
Gunhead was the name of a robot tank in a Japanese monster movie. Hernandez thought Sublett had written the name on there himself. Sublett denied it. Hernandez said take it off. Sublett ignored him. It was still there, but Rydell knew Sublett was too law-abiding to commit any vandalism, and anyway the ink in the marker might've killed him.
Sublett had had allergies. He went into shock from various kinds of cleaners and solvents, so you couldn't get him to come into the car wash at all, ever. The allergies made him light sensitive, too, so he had to wear these mirrored contacts. What with the black IntenSecure uniform and his dry blond hair, the contacts made him look like some kind of Kian-assed Nazi robot. Which could get kind of complicated in the wrong store on Sunset, say three in the morning and all you really wanted was some mineral water and a Coke. But Rydell was always glad to have him on shift, because he was as determinedly nonviolent a rentacop as you were likely to find. And he probably wasn't even crazy. Both of which were definite pluses for Rydell. As Hernandez was fond of pointing out, SoCal had stricter regulations for who could or couldn't be a hairdresser.
Like Rydell, a lot of IntenSecure's response people were former police officers of some kind, some were even ex-LAPD, and if the company's rules about not carrying personal weapons on duty were any indication, his co-workers were expected to turn up packing all manner of hardware. There were metal detectors on the staff-room doors and Hernandez usually had a drawer full of push-daggers, nunchuks, stunguns, knucks, boot-knives, and whatever else the detectors had picked up. Like Friday morning at a South Miami high school. Hernandez gave it all back after the shift, but when they went calling, they were supposed to make do with their Glocks and the chunkers.
The Glocks were standard police issue, at least twenty years old, that IntenSecure bought by the truckload from PDs that could afford to upgrade to caseless ammunition. If you did it by the book, you kept the Glocks in their plastic holsters, and kept the holsters Velcroed to the wagon's central console. When you answered a call, you pulled a holstered pistol off the console and stuck it on the patch provided on your uniform. That was the only time you were supposed to be out of the wagon with a gun on, when you were actually responding.
The chunkers weren't even guns, not legally anyway, but a ten-second burst at close range would chew somebody's face off. They were Israeli riot-control devices, air-powered, that fired one-inch cubes of recycled rubber. They looked like the result of a forced union between a bulipup assault rifle and an industrial staple gun, except they were made out of this bright yellow plastic. When you pulled the trigger, those chunks came out in a solid stream. If you got really good with one, you could shoot around corners; just kind of bounce them off a convenient surface. Up close, they'd eventually cut a sheet of plywood in half, if you kept on shooting, and they left major bruises out to about thirty yards. The theory was, you didn't always encounter that many armed intruders, and a chunker was a lot less likely to injure the client or the client's property. If you did encounter an armed intruder, you had the Glock. Although the intruder was probably running caseless through a floating breech-not part of the theory. Nor was it part of the theory that seriously tooled-up intruders tended to be tightened on dancer, and were thereby both inhumanly fast and clinically psychotic.
There had been a lot of dancer in Knoxville, and some of it had gotten Rydell suspended. He'd crawled into an apartment where a machinist named Kenneth Turvey was holding his girlfriend, two little kids, and demanding to speak to the president.
Turvey was white, skinny, hadn't bathed in a month, and had the Last Supper tattooed on his chest. It was a very fresh tattoo; it hadn't even scabbed over. Through a film of drying blood, Rydell could see that Jesus didn't have any face. Neither did any of the Apostles.
'Damn it,' Turvey said, when he saw Rydell. 'I just wanna speak to the president.' He was sitting cross-legged, naked, on his girlfriend's couch. He had something like a piece of pipe across his lap, all wrapped with tape.
'We're trying to get her for you,' Rydell said. 'We're sorry it's taking so long, hut we have to go through channels.'
'God damn it,' Turvey said wearily, 'doesn't nobody understand I'm on a mission from God?' He didn't sound particularly angry, just tired and put out. Rydell could see the girlfriend through the open door of the apartment's single bedroom. She was on her back, on the floor, and one of her legs looked broken. He couldn't see her face. She wasn't moving at all. Where were the kids?
'What is that thing you got there?' Rydell asked, indicating the object across Turvey's lap.
'It's a gun,' Turvey said, 'and it's why I gotta talk to the president.'
'Never seen a gun like that,' Rydell allowed. 'What's it shoot?'
'Watch,' Turvey said, and brought the thing to his shoulder. It had a sort of breech, very intricately machined, a trigger-thing like part of a pair of vise-grip pliers, and a couple of flexible tubes. These latter ran down, Rydell saw, to a great big canister of gas, the kind you'd need a hand truck to move, which lay on the floor beside the couch.
There on his knees, on the girlfriend's dusty polyester carpet, he'd watched that muzzle swing past. It was big enough to put your fist down. He watched as Turvey took aim, back through the open bedroom door, at the closet.
'Turvey,' he heard himself say, 'where's the goddamn kids?'
Turvey moved the vise-grip handle and punched a hole the size of a fruit-juice can through the closet door. The kids were in there. They must've screamed, though Rydell couldn't remember hearing it. Rydell's lawyer later argued that he was not only deaf at this point, hut in a state of sonically induced catalepsy. Turvey's invention was only a few decihels short of what you got with a SWAT stun-grenade. But Rydell couldn't remember. He couldn't rememher shooting Kenneth Turvey in the head, either, or anything else at all until he woke up in the hospital. There was a woman there from Cops in Trouble, which had been Rydell's father's favorite show, but she said she couldn't actually talk to him until she'd spoken with his agent. Rydell said he didn't have one. She said she knew that, but one was going to call him.
Rydell lay there thinking about all the times he and his father had watched Cops in Trouble. 'What kind of trouble we talking here?' he finally asked.
The woman just smiled. 'Whatever, Berry, it'll probably be adequate.'
He squinted up at her. She was sort of good-looking. 'What's your name?'
'Karen Mendelsohn.' She didn't look like she was from Knoxville, or even Memphis.
'You from Cops in Trouble?'
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