Byron the fixer asks Bashurr, Cole, and Blixt to meet him at a new address – not Category Z, the independent bar at the edge of Touristville, but a straight-up flophouse. It’s a figurative and literal shithole, with hallways crammed with bums and BTL junkies sleeping in puddles of piss. But behind a quintuple-locked door and reinforced steel window bars, Byron’s rented apartment is an oasis of purified air, tasteful if minimal decor, and a bathroom with a water filter that “cleans out the rads and most of the toxins. You can take a shower, just try not to get any in your eyes.”
The little dwarf himself is standing on the couch in a button-up shirt and boxer shorts next to an ironing board on which he is pressing his trousers. “Still getting moved in,” he says by way of explanation. He gingerly sticks one foot in the hot trousers, winces, pulls it out again, and ultimately settles for sitting on the couch and draping the hot trousers over his legs in an approximation of modesty. He seems defiantly unfazed by the skeptical looks of the runners.
“So here’s the question, chummers,” he says at last after a long silence. ‘No point sugar-coating it. I’ve been made an offer – and you remember our thyroidal visitor last week. Do you want to work for the mob for a somewhat smaller paycheck but a steady supply of guaranteed work, yes or no?"
The group shake their heads at this, and there are general murmurs of “nope.”
“Or do you want to continue operating independently and pay the mob’s vig to get them to leave us alone, yes or no?”
This time the response is more emphatic. “Fuck no” is heard.
“Okay. Nice to hear. Last question. Do you want to keep working independently, taking our own jobs, and telling the family to go fuck themselves, come what may?”
Heads move in slow nods of approval.
“All right, then. Because half the guys in my contact list said yes to one of the first two questions. Some of them work direct for the mob now, and cut me out of the picture completely. Some of the rest want to go along to get along and are forking over the nuyen to be left alone. And then some of the rest…haven’t been seen on the streets lately.” He looks at each man in turn. “I hope you understand that’s what you’re signing up for. That’s why the anonymous flop. This is our new place of business until things blow over. The owner of Category Z folded the other day. It’s a Mafia bar now.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Bashurr asks.
Byron shrugs. “Family’s been making a lot of big moves lately. Not against the Yakuza – not yet, anyway – but they’re treating the rest of Redmond like fair game. All the independent operators, from shadowrunners down to the shitty little turf gangs, are getting rolled up or finding themselves ‘under new management.’ The guidos are packing some serious state of the art hardware and aren’t shy about flashing it. Someone’s backing this play. But who, and why, that I don’t know yet.”
“So what do we do about it?” Cole asks.
“Right now? We meet Mr. Johnson. I told you this is our new place of business, and I found you boys work. Supposed to be a blackmail op. I imagine you’ve run a few of those in your time, Cole.”
Cole grimaces and nods. “Been on both sides’a that one,” but says no more.
A little while later, there’s an urgent knock at the door. Byron dons his cooled trousers and unlocks it, waving in the guest.
The Mr. Johnson that walks into the apartment is the archetypal Johnson, the ur-Johnson from which all others were hewn. Blandly handsome, male, apparently in his late thirties; but who can tell these days? Immaculate dark suit. Polished wingtips that you would swear hadn’t just been in a hallway full of cat piss. Big hair. Big smile full of big white teeth. Big shades over the eyes. And a big Halliburton Zero briefcase because obviously.
Mr. Johnson steps in with a swaggering confidence and just the tiniest bit of urgency. “Oh, Jesus, I can breathe.” He dabs at his nose with his pocket square, then puts the briefcase on a nearby table. He pops it open and the team get a glimpse of the spendy computer and holo-rig inside. Mr. Johnson claps his hands like a gavel to open the session. His voice is full of the boundless, slightly nervous energy of the high-powered novacoke user.
“Alright, boys. I’ve got a rush job on my hands and you don’t have time for bullshit and, frankly, I don’t have time to bullshit you. I assume the little guy told you this is a blackmail gig?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, but taps a button on his computer. A face appears, floating in the air – a thin, pensive, academic sort of face, silver hair slicked back, a small beard, wire-framed glasses, and, above where the projection cuts off, what looks like a nice button-up shirt sans tie. “Target’s James Purness. He’s a kind of…cultural attaché to the Salish-Shidhe nation. Speaks the tribal languages, knows the customs, all that drek. Last few years he’s been working for Saeder-Krupp, negotiating with the natives on S-K’s behalf. He’s got an in with them, and it gives his corp an edge. In the interests of fair, market-based competition, you guys” – he makes double gun-fingers at the runners – “are gonna bring me something on him to use as leverage. I’ll send the particulars to your PDAs, but our preliminary investigations showed that Mr. Purness takes a lot of ‘business trips’ but never checks in at SeaTac. I’d start there.”
Bashurr rolls his eyes. “Why not just crush his skull?”
Mr. Johnson shrugs. “You could do that, big guy. Yeah, you could do that no problem. Of course, S-K would start asking questions about who geeked him and why, and as direct competitors of theirs, suspicion would naturally fall on my employers. And my employers, in turn,” the Johnson’s hands whirl animatedly, “would have no choice but to cooperate fully into any investigation of the rogue agents or elements that committed such an act.”
Bashurr blinks, nonplussed.
“He means don’t do that or we die,” Blixt finally says.
“Ohhhhh,” Bashurr says.
The deadline for the delivery of incriminating information (if any is found) is one week. Cole negotiates a payout and manages to get Mr. Johnson to agree to a bonus provided the team gets the data to him before Friday so he can take a long weekend.
“Thank fuck,” Mr. Johnson says, closing up his suitcase. “That’s all arranged, now I’m off the clock.” He loosens his tie. “Later, boys.”
“You lookin’ for a party?” Bashurr says.
Mr. Johnson stops. “Why, you know where one is?”
“I’m from the Barrens. I know all the best places. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Cole and Blixt shrug and decide to hit the ground running. Blixt casts an illusion on the (once-again) battered and bullet-ridden Americar. Between Blixt’s residency, Cole’s newly-upgraded fake SIN (it no longer shows him as a young Chinese girl), and the illusion spell, they get past the Knight Errant checkpoint into Bellevue without a hitch and cruise down the tony streets until they find James Purness’s townhouse, a stately, dignified place that speaks of quiet, unostentatious wealth. The lights are on in a few rooms, and through the heavy drapes they can see the silhouette of a woman moving around
They consult the dossier. Purness has an academic background. Married a tribal native – Sierra Mountain Crow-Purness. Two kids, a daughter in college and a son in middle school.
Cole sighs, plugs himself into his deck, and begins trying to hack the house’s wireless signal. It’s surprisingly well-defended with some pretty recent Saeder-Krupp commercial-grade security softs, but after a while he gets in and gets access to Purness’s personal PC, skimming through its contents as quickly as he can. “Huh,” he grunts. There are plans for a new S-K facility in Everett for which Purness has been negotiating water rights with the tribe. That’s not blackmail material, but it could be valuable in the right hands.
No porn on the computer at all. Lots of family pictures. James was a tan, rangy sort once, in outdoor gear with a thick beard and UV-protective everything. And for her part, she has aged gracefully, but when she was younger, Mrs. Mountain Crow-Purness was a genuine va-va-voom stunner, even through her preferred attire, which even in her wild youth was strictly demure and practical: denim jeans, baggy flannel shirts, and those big belt buckles you could eat dinner off of.
Accounts are all boring and normal – power, gas, Matrix. Except for one thing: every month, like clockwork, there is a Y2000 payment to Saeder-Krupp labeled “expense account reimbursement.”
Lots of emails back and forth between James and the tribal negotiators and between James and his bosses and James and his family. But buried deep, about six weeks ago, is one message from an anonymous user at “b101.net.” It says “We haven’t seen you in six weeks, loyal customer! When you come back, you’ll get the VIP treatment!” Cole traces the domain name to Matrix Confidential, a small hosting company in Touristville that handles Matrix security, e-business, and Matrix pages for small businesses (and Yakuza fronts) in the Redmond area.
Blixt has not been idle during this. He casts Clairaudience to hear what, if anything, the woman is saying. It’s clearly Sierra, James’s wife, and she is in the midst of a heated phone argument.
“No, Grandfath – no. No. We’ve – we’ve been over this. Yes. A million times. I don’t care what the spirits tell you about him. I moved to the metroplex to get away from all the fucking spirits, remember? Spirits lie. I can’t believe you people still don’t get that. …Yes, well, even if that were true, that would be between him and me, wouldn’t it? And not a talking blob of water or whatever? Here’s what I think: if you want to see your great-grandchildren again, you’ll fucking get over the fact that I married an Anglo, and you’ll stop listening to every passing…fairy! Ugh!” There’s the clatter of a PDA being hurled with great force.
Meanwhile, in another place, Mr. Johnson is telling Bashurr that he loves him, man. A few minutes later, in between pulses of gutwrenching bass, he confides that his real name is Lord Dragonmaster the Third. For his part, Bashurr is in no state to disbelieve any of this.
Cole and Blixt head back out of Bellevue into Touristville and pull up outside of Matrix Confidential, where Cole does some more tricky decking to sleaze past their security and get a copy of their client list. The “b101.net” domain is owned by a local business named Bliss 101. An address is given – the floor above a nightclub in Yakuza territory – but no description other than “Preferred Customer Status.”
The next morning, Bashurr awakens naked in a strange apartment.
He slowly crawls to his beeping comlink and answers it. A few minutes later, Cole and Blixt burst in and set about mixing some kind of godawful home hangover remedy (mix some soyeggs with soypepper and a bit of soyvodka…). Soon, they are driving out to the address of Bliss 101.
It’s eleven am, so the nightclub on the first floor is dead, nothing but chairs on tables and dudes pushing brooms. But the stairway to the second floor is accessible, and it transports the runners to a whole new world. The second floor is tinkly music, black marble polished to a mirror sheen, a cool smell in the air like a morning mist, and an enormous troll bouncer behind a velvet rope. “Welcome to Bliss 101,” he says skeptically, eyeing the runners up and down.
They’re beginning to get an idea of what this place might be. “We’re from out of town,” Cole says, “and a buddy of mine recommended you.”
The troll shrugs and opens the door. “Bliss 101 does not accept responsibility for any heart attacks or strokes incurred on the premises, old man.” He jabs a thumb at Bashurr. “And your…hired help…can come inside if he checks his weapons. Each of our rooms have annexes equipped with one-way viewing mirrors for the convenience of close-protection personnel.”
Bashurr’s brow quirks, but the runners check their arms at the coat check and step inside, breathing deeply of the purified, refreshing air as their footsteps echo on the marble floors. A crowd of intensely beautiful people of every description begin to flock to them. "Why hello there – " “Oh my god, that coat…” "Hope you didn’t check all your weapons, big guy – "
And that’s when the girl who looks just like Maria Mercurial tugs on Cole’s sleeve, and he realizes exactly what kind of place Bliss 101 is.
“You look old enough to have been there for my first big show at CenturyLink Field,” she coos in a perfect replica of the voice, running chromed nails up his thigh. “Ever hear what I liked to do with my biggest fans backstage…?”
“Uh…” Cole looks around, suddenly seeing clearly all the telltales of personafix chips. Meat puppets. Bunraku. “Actually, my friend Jimbo told me about this place? Ever heard of him? Jimbo…?” She stares. He pulls up a hologram of James Purness.
“Oh, him,” she rolls her eyes. “He only ever plays with Millie. Between you and me, I think her shtick is maybe just a little ra-”
“Ah, new customers!” says a commanding voice. An elegantly-dressed Japanese woman, somewhere in that nebulous space between forty and seventy, stands in the hall, having stepped out of a side office. “Welcome to Bliss 101. I am Ms. Kamato. What brings you…here…today?”
Cole senses, in his gut, daggers of data pointed his way – biometric scans, SIN scans, whatever else this place can muster. He forces a smile. “Howdy! We’re here from out of town, and well, our business partner Jimbo told us we just had to try this place while we were here. He said ‘try Millie.’ Those were his words. ‘Millie will change your world.’”
She is if anything even more suspicious. “He wants you…to try…Millie?”
“Yeah! He wouldn’t shut up about her!”
Ms. Kamoto is silent for a long, long moment, then shrugs. “I…see. Room eight. Your Barrens trash may wait in the viewing area. It will be a few minutes to…prepare her.” She claps theatrically and strides off, the moment instantly forgotten as she attends to other business.
Cole and Blixt are led to room eight and Bashurr is gently guided to the “viewing area,” which is quite literally a small, closet-sized room with a mini-fridge holding some drinks and snacks, with one side wall given over to a large one-way mirror that looks down the length of Room eight.
Room eight isn’t anything notable at first – synthleather couches, treated to be double-extra-stain resistant. A big circular bed, speared through the center by a giant brass stripper pole. The walls are mirrors.
Until suddenly, the walls ripple like water, and the mirroring gives way to a detailed tri-d image of a beautiful forest primeval. The air is filled with birdsong and even a faint scent of pine and a distant hint of campfire ash. Artificial moonlight plays over the floor in complex patterns.
The door opens, and Millie stands before them. Tall, tan, impossibly proportioned, barely covered by some kind of leather jerkin. Cole squints at her face. There’s something funny about it…
“Get off the white man’s couches, Anglo,” she spits without preamble, rolling out an enormous bearskin rug with a single practiced kick. “A real hunter takes his woman on hide, under the sky and stars.” As if on cue, the room’s stereo begins blaring the most stereotypically “Indian” drums and song any of these runners have ever heard.
Blixt recognizes the voice instantly. “What. The. Fuck.”
The woman who looks and sounds exactly like Sierra Mountain Crow twenty years ago begins loosening the leather straps on her jerkin. An appalled Cole stops her with a hand. “What the…what’s your name?” he says.
“Sierra Mountain Crow, of the Cascade Crow,” she says, confusedly. Cole grimaces, reaches for her hair, and with a quick yank pulls off the black wig, exposing the simsense ‘trodes and pointing them at the mirror.
“You get all that?” Cole calls back to Bashurr.
The ork replies by comlink. “Yep.” His cybereyes recorded the whole thing.
Red-faced and deeply, deeply uncomfortable, Cole and Blixt leave, with “Sierra” angrily calling after them. “So you can’t handle a real woman, white man? Go back to your chrome! Go back to your synth!”
Ms. Kamato meets them in the hallway. “That was…sudden. Is there something-”
“I can’t believe James recommended that,” Cole says. “That was awful. I’m beginning to seriously reconsider our business relationship.”
Genuine relief spreads over Ms. Kamato’s face. “Ahhhh, so he did not tell you that…”
“No,” they all say emphatically.
“Ah. Yes. In that case, no fees will be assessed. You are invited to return to Bliss 101 at…another time, perhaps,” she says.
“Yeah, maybe.” Cole doesn’t even try to sound convincing. Bashurr, looking around at the sociopath’s playground he stands in, looks more thoughtful.
Later that day, the runners are in Byron’s flop. Byron is wearing the same shirt, now stained around the collar, and a stack of red-e-heat meals can be seen teetering near the entrance to the kitchen. Mr. Johnson looks some combination of hungover and profoundly unimpressed.
Without ceremony, Cole pops a hastily-edited highlight reel into the trid player.
“Oh, he likes to get laid?” Mr. Johnson snorts contemptuously. “Come on, guy. I’m snoozing here…I…wait, what the fuck? What the fuck?!” They have the distinct impression that his eyes would be saucers behind the mirrorshades. “I asked you guys for bronze and you came back with novahot platinum. And it’s…” – he counts on his fingers – “Tuesday, and that means I get an extra-long weekend, which I have richly earned, and you get that bonus we agreed on.” He taps on a secured credstick and tosses it to Byron. “Alright, fellas. It’s been real. Bashurr, I took the liberty of putting your number in my PDA. I’ll give you a call the next time I need a real wild man on my wing. Sound good? Hell yeah. Scan you later, kids.”