The Joke's On You [A PBP Short Story]

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Herr Brackhaus

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« on: <03-03-15/1119:54> »
"I've seen worse" was the only thing I could think of as I looked upon The Joke, a part nightclub, part fetish club, part Yakuza stronghold on the corner of Union Hill Road and 208th Avenue North East, located deep in the Redmond Barrens part of the Seattle Metroplex.

As a matter of fact I had seen much, much worse in the past three years or so, having spent nights in everything from no-tell motels to alleyways and everything in-between. This place was a marked improvement over the streets of Puyallup City or Touristville, not to mention the "better" parts of Glow City. If you have ever tried sleeping behind a dumpster knowing full well there are feral ghouls roaming about dosed with enough radiation to provide their own luminescence, you know that you have pretty much hit rock bottom. But beggars cannot be choosers, as the saying goes, and when you are on the run trying to evade the potential retribution of a megacorporation you have to be prepared to do anything it takes to survive. But that's a story for another day.

Suffice to say that the one-time apartment complex I found myself walking up to had seen better days. Even with the glare of a setting sun in my eyes it was clear that the exterior concrete walls were slowly giving way to the ravages of time with Seattle's ubiquitous acid rain having stripped away whatever paint the exterior had once held, and the exposed heavy building material was visibly crumbling in places. Still, the balconies seemed to be holding up just fine with only a few of them beginning to lean under their own weight, and for all I could tell the west fire escape still looked solid despite spots of rust marring the black steel construction. Every window on the ground floor had been walled over, and the few entrances I could see were protected by heavy steel security doors complete with gun ports. All of the windows on the upper floors seemed to be in place from where I was standing, which was an almost miraculous feat for this part of town if it had not been for the fact that a syndicate was in charge of the place.

Standing in front of the entrance were two massive trolls wearing cheap suits. As if the muscled metahumans themselves and the rather obvious bulges of heavy pistols holstered under their jackets were not enough of a warning for potential aggressors, each of the guards also had an AK-97 affixed to a shoulder sling held at the ready. Considering that The Joke was owned by the Yakuza the presence of troll guards might have surprised some people, but I had done my research on the proprietor of this fine establishment and Jonny Wakshira was a survivor and a pragmatic, much like myself. Though he might have sworn his oaths to the conservative Kanaga-gumi, his focus had apparently always been on himself. Word on the street was that he had come up through the Nishidon-gumi and jumped ship to the Shigeda when war broke out between the two factions, and then signed on with the Kanaga when the Purge happened and Shigeda was assassinated. That kind of mentality was exactly why I was about to walk into a syndicate controlled stronghold of my own free will. Well, mostly of my own free will, anyway, but more on that later.

Holding my hands out to my sides to show I was not a threat, I spoke up as I approached the door. "Evening, gentlemen. Daemon O'Toole to see Mr. Wakshira." Hearing the words that came out of my mouth for the first time made me instantly regret repurposing the title of an old computer program as the name of my fake identity. Even the most tenuous of connections to the Irish Mafia in this neighborhood could be a death sentence, as I knew that a large part of the population around here adopted a "Shoot first, ask questions never" policy. Still, the meet had been arranged ahead of time so I clenched my jaw and hoped for the best as the guards used their subvocal mics to communicate with someone inside the building.

After a few agonizingly long seconds, the towering troll on my right nodded and grunted something unintelligible, then opened the security door behind him and waved me on. As I stepped into the lobby I released a breath I did not know I had been holding and proceeded to walk through the millimeter wave scanner I had known was immediately inside the door. Why the Yaks had decided to leave the wireless connection of the scanner on in an almost blatantly obvious security hole had baffled me until I saw the inside guards. Like the trolls, the three orks guarding the interior were of the burly variety, and from their sloped foreheads and broken noses my guess was that these guys had more brawn than brains. My suspicion was confirmed when I saw one guard staring intently at a handheld device with simple green and red indicators instead of checking the readout on the scanner directly.

With my hands still out to my sides, I made very sure to make no sudden movements as the red light on the handheld device came to life. "Oy! No weapons inside, keeb" the guard told me in a deep, gravelly voice, and then pointed over to the left side of the room where another ork was standing by a row of security lockers. I slowly opened my coat and with two fingers on the handle freed my Ares Crusader II from its concealed quick-draw holster before I walked over to the counter by the lockers. "Null sheen, chummer. I do not expect I will need this with you fine gentlemen securing the premises." My attempt at complimenting the guards fell on deaf ears as the first ork simply grunted and proceeded to pat me down. Content that I was not carrying any other ordnance, my weapon was unceremoniously placed in a small locker and a maglock passkey was handed back to me. "No charge for company visitors. Swipe da card at da elevator" the ork behind the counter rasped, and I noticed the scar running across the width of his neck. He must have taken a very large blade to the throat at some point, and I was surprised he could speak at all. I had always heard that orks could be notoriously tough to kill, and this one was apparently living proof.

With their duties done I was free to step through the lobby into The Joke proper, and I must admit I was impressed. Quite contrary to its name, the main floor was an expansive two-story open-floor design with a circular bar in the center that looked like it was stocked to the nines. The place was relatively empty since the night was still young, but there were a few patrons sitting at the bar nursing drinks and a joygirl or two attempting to ply their trade. On the east wall was a large stage where burlesque performers were warming up, and straight ahead past the bar against the north wall was a smaller stage featuring a band playing something reminiscent of swing music. I cringed as the keyboard player tapped his instrument in a seemingly random fashion that was completely out of time with every other member of the band, and hoped to high heaven that these guys were not representative of the musical talent. "The muscle in the lobby could probably have done a better job banging on trash cans", I thought to myself. "Who knows, maybe I will get a chance to play that piano in the corner if I play my cards right, show these jokers (hah!) what real music is like." I shook my head as the racket continued, and noted that also along the north wall were various racks and wooden furniture more reminiscent of medieval dungeon equipment than anything else. Hazarding a guess, I would say this is where the clubs fetish activities took place and for all I knew the place was well equipped.

I continued my scan of the room and spotted my destination on the west wall. Next to the restrooms on my immediate left was a bank of elevators located behind various gambling tables. I quickly made my way towards them, noting that the emergency stairwell was located in the north-west corner and that another steel security door was nestled between the elevators and stairs with a Japanese male standing guard in front of it. Unlike the exterior guards this guy was much more discreet in his high-fashion black suit and carrying no visible weapons. There was a danger to the man's stance, however, and I never doubted that his bulging arms, chest, and legs contained muscle and reflex enhancers and likely other highly expensive 'ware. He regarded me silently as I walked up to the elevators and pressed my keycard against the card reader embedded in the wall. Moments later the elevator doors opened and as I stepped in I noticed there were no buttons to select a floor.

Curious at this design philosophy, I turned off my AR filter with a thought and was immediately assaulted with advertisements for every sin known to man. I quickly sorted out the spam and spotted the elevator controls ARO, but noted that I had no access to them. Taking a closer look, I discovered that not only where the controls slaved to the building host, but there were cameras and more sensors in the elevator. Whoever had designed this thing had made sure that anyone who left the ground floor was thoroughly scanned, and I must admit I was impressed at the sophistication of it all. Without access to the elevator controls the keycard would determine a visitors floor access, and my guess was that the bartenders would act as brokers for those wishing to indulge in the services offered, while residents had access to the security host directly. As the doors closed and the elevator started moving, I kept an eye on the floor indicator and was surprised to find that I was being taken to the 14th floor, just two levels shy of the penthouse which reportedly belonged to Jonny Wakshira himself.

When the elevator reached its destination and the doors opened, it was like I had stepped into another world. Gone was the bawdy, rough interior of the ground floor, replaced with a stark, dull-white design more reminiscent of an office building. Seated at a desk in front of me was a gorgeous human woman of Japanese ancestry, and she smiled at me as I approached her. "Mr. Wakshira will see you now, Mr. O'Toole. Right this way, please" she said in a melodious voice as she stood up and guided me down the hallway behind her. Following closely behind, and a shapely one it was indeed, we walked past conference rooms and offices that were in various states of activity. One office was full of monitors, and I did a bit of a double-take as I saw various feeds from what could only be interior cameras on-screen, indications of recordings in progress obvious in the upper right of the monitors. This was obviously one of their control rooms, and they were equally obviously not afraid to allow me to see their activities. I knew DevOps had created the most wiz background profile for me that I had ever seen, but either the Kobun was trying to impress me or he was subtly informing me that I was no threat to Yakuza operations no matter what I saw. My bet was on the latter, and I followed the curvaceous receptionist to a second desk where I was handed off to an equally beautiful second Japanese woman.

"Mr. Wakshira, your 7pm is here" the second woman said softly as I watched the first one walk back towards her desk. Moments later, the door in front of me buzzed and the receptionist led me into a large office with a view of the streets below, and all thoughts of both security design and buxom receptionists escaped me. The view was breathtaking, though the matrix quickly revealed that the wall was not actually made of glass. Instead, multiple trid projectors were located in the ceiling and walls around the interior structure, creating an incredibly realistic view from what I could only guess were cameras located on the exterior, and I nodded appreciatively to myself as the receptionist spoke to the man seated behind the large wooden table. "Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?" she said as the man turned around in his chair.

"Nothing right now, Maiko, thank you" the man said as his steely-eyed gaze fixed on me. The receptionist bowed deeply and quietly retreated from the room as the man I knew to be Jonny Wakshira regarded me with those cold, calculating eyes. "Ahem, good evening, Mr. Wakshira" I said, somewhat shakenly. The man wasn't big on custom, I'd learned, so I had intentionally omitted the traditional honorifics. "Thank you for agreeing to see me personally. It is an honor to speak with you directly." The man proved hard to read, and I chose to simply wait for a response before I made a fool of myself by babbling on.

"You come highly recommended, Mr. O'Toole" he said finally, regarding me over steeped fingers as he leaned back in his high-backed chair. "We always have room for talented people in our organization."

I regarded the Kobun quietly for a second, contemplating my strategy of approach. "Thank you, sir. I must say I am impressed with the level of sophistication of the security system that protects this building." Without pausing for a response, I continued on with my chosen gamble. "That being said, on my way in I noticed several potential security holes. If you would allow me to speak with one of your security technicians I am confident I could..."

Before I could continue further, the Kobun interrupted me. "Tell me of these potential holes in my security" he said quietly.

Armed with the information gathered during last night’s stake-out and the dossier DevOps had prepared, I immediately launched into a detailed explanation of some of the more obvious ones, leaving most of the really critical information out.

Exactly 43 minutes and 28 seconds after I had entered the front doors, I walked back out of The Joke with 15,000¥ on my credstick, several new contacts on my commlink, and access codes to the lower floors of the Yakuza building. I had never been a good negotiator so the terms of our arrangement were definitely in the syndicates favor, but I had achieved the objective DevOps had set for me.

The leader of the Reality Hackers saw me as a potentially valuable asset because of my skills, but I had learned a long time ago that nothing in this world is free. When the wireless protocols of the Matrix changed in the mid-70s I had been left without the necessary equipment to use my skills, and after hiding in the slums of the various Seattle barrens for over two years I had decided that enough was enough. I reached out to the Reality Hackers figuring they'd be sympathetic to my plight, and through some sophisticated and systematic sweet-talking with Lisa Torrence, aka DevOps, I'd managed to broker a deal. In exchange for a deck, the surgery necessary to install it in my skull, and some utility programs, I would insert myself into the security operations part of the Kanaga-gumi, one of the organizations the gang had an ongoing vendetta with. It was a risky plan, but in my opinion it beat the odds of certain death that came with living on the streets of a sprawl like Seattle.

The same skills that made me valuable to the Reality Hackers made me valuable to the Yakuza. I would be working for the latter at cut-my-own-throat rates, as the meager 2,500¥ I would be paid a month wouldn't cover both the room I'd been "given" on the 7th floor of The Joke and the vig on my "loan". That meant I was in their pocket for as long as they wanted me to, though fortunately for me that was precisely the plan. While working for the Yaks I would secretly be passing along intelligence to the Reality Hackers, while trying my best to stay alive. Wakshira had thankfully agreed to let me run the shadows during my spare time, on the condition that I wouldn't run against the Yakuza and that I would occasionally take work for them, a condition I was more than happy to accept.

For the first time since I had gotten myself out of Fargo three years ago, things were finally looking up.
« Last Edit: <03-14-15/2209:58> by Herr Brackhaus »

Herr Brackhaus

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« Reply #1 on: <03-15-15/0020:33> »

Four months. Four fraggin' months of working for the Yakuza is how long it took before everything slowly started going to hell. I should have known better.

Mr. Wakshira was sitting in his high-backed leather chair eating steaming hot udon noodles when he made the remark that should have gotten my attention, but the way he said it made it sound like he was just discussing a vermin problem. "They have been dealt with, then, and for good this time" he said quietly. His tone strongly implied that he was making a statement, not asking a question.

Kasumi Kahje, a woman in her late 20s and prominent decker on the Yakuza payroll, was the first to respond. "They took the bait as we expected, Mr Wakshira" she said, then paused to carefully dab a napkin over her elaborately painted lips before continuing. "After that it was a simple matter of tracking them to their safehouse. Once we had a physical location it was only a matter of time before we were able to compromise their admittedly impressive security, at which point Hiroshi and his boys performed a clean sweep." She nodded at the tall man standing next to her with a flamboyant leather jacket slung over his shoulder. If his Asian features, extensively tattooed chest and arms, and various holstered weapons were any indication, he was likely the leader of one of the many Yakuza-affiliated bōsōzoku operating in the city. Out of habit more than anything I mentally commanded the vision magnification in my contacts to zoom in on his face, then captured a high-quality still frame of his likeness. The whole process took less than a second to complete, and by the time I was done Kasumi continued her summary.

"They managed to set off some sort of data bomb that shredded their host and we believe a few of them might have gotten away with their offline backups in the chaos. We're confident that the Reality Hackers are no more, however." Her voice was calm, with only a hint of a Japanese accent betraying her origins.

I was preparing to run the still I has just taken through facial recognition software when all of a sudden the realization of what had just been said hit me like a brick to the face; this could be the aftermath of Fargo all over again. I had been hiding in the back of a cargo container heading to the CAS three years ago when I had learned that the Red River Rumblers had been wiped off the face of the planet. The nameless officers in charge of the MCT archive we had inadvertently broken into had been calculatingly callous, ordering corporate hit squads to leave no stone unturned in their quest to keep their secrets buried. Deep down I had to admit that I admired the ruthlessness of it all in a morbid sort of way, as it was only through sheer, dumb luck I had managed to make my escape. And now, three years later, it was happening all over again.

"No, this time is different," I thought to myself.

This time I was sitting across the table from not only the person who had ordered the hit, but also the people who had most likely directly led the action against my former acquaintances. I forced down the anxiety and fear that threatened to overtake me and at the speed of thought opened a private AR window. The readout of the machine pistol holstered under my left arm was nominal; 40 rounds of gel rounds in the clip, safety off, burst fire selected, and the smartgun system showed me the inside of my own jacket, since that was what the barrel was currently pointing at. I minimized the window into a thumbnail display in the corner of my view, and manually activated my wired reflexes. With all thoughts of the real prawns sitting on top of a bed of perfectly cooked noodles bathed in a deliciously flavorful broth pushed into the back of my mind, I focused on mapping out any and all possible escape routes and plans just in case things went from bad to worse in the next few seconds.

Kasumi smirked at me from under the hood that concealed part of her features, and that look would have sent shivers down my spine if it was not for the fact that I knew how Kasumi operated. If she had known of my involvement with the Reality Hackers and could prove it, I would already have been bleeding out in a gutter somewhere. As a woman of relative standing in an organization that was not known for its progressive thinking, Kasumi was somewhat of a rarity. Still, her loyalty to Jonny Wakshira was unquestionable considering their past, and I had come to believe she saw me as an intruder in her personal domain.

"No, she only suspects" I thought while trying to figure out what her angle was, "but she does not know."

The ongoing feud between the Kanaga-gumi syndicate and the local Matrix/thrill gang that called themselves the Reality Hackers was a poorly kept secret in the Emerald City shadows. Most people did not know how the friction between the two organizations had started, but I was not most people. Before even contemplating going into business with the gangers I had done extensive research on them, and later on I had heard some of the stories I had dug up confirmed through first-hand accounts. Some 30 years ago, back in the early '40s, the oyabun of the Watada-rengo had ordered a hit on any and all Korean members of every Yakuza syndicate operating in the city, starting at the very top and moving down the ladder, rung by bloody rung. At the time the Reality Hackers had been doing solid biz with the Yakuza, but for some inexplicable reason they were sent on a suicide run during what later became known simply as the Purge. The survivors had reformed the gang and began a campaign of revenge that would last for decades, eventually allying themselves with Seoulpa Rings formed in part by former Korean Yaks.

The kobun nodded his approval. "Good work, Kasumi, I am pleased. They have been a thorn in our side for far too long." She smiled at the compliment and bowed her head deferentially.

As Mr. Wakshira went on with the list of current tasks and elaborated upon his business plans I resisted the temptation to reach out to my contacts in the Reality Hackers. If they had been hit as hard as Kasumi described, chances are they would be dead anyway. My heart was still racing, but since no one had even batted an eye at me yet it was possible that my involvement with the Puyallup based gangers had remained secret.
« Last Edit: <03-17-15/1436:42> by Herr Brackhaus »