Monkey Crocodile Temple was one of many nightclubs that had re-invented itself to cater exclusively to the Aztec Band craze. A two-story rectangle of concrete covered in garish paint and rippling with capering animations of stylised animals and the sort of old gods who demanded blood.
Nicholas Mitcham entered the club with the wary curiosity of someone who hadn't set foot into a nightclub for twenty years. A lot of the territory was familiar to his memories; the bass pulse in his innards long before he reached the main wall of noise, the smell of cheap booze and air-freshener failing to mask the heady undercurrent of hot, hormone-ravaged bodies and the inevitable glowering bouncers prowling the perimeter of the dance floor. Amongst this was the unfamiliar. The music was nothing but a rhythmic, pounding noise to him. The synthetic feathers, bones and body paint the kids were done up in looked ridiculous, but still not quite as stupid as the dance moves.
He made his way through the edge of the heaving press towards the booths near the back bar. The music changed gears and most of the lights went out. He had to slow down to avoid barging into people - or a supporting pillar - and he felt the tension level in the club start to climb, the movements of everyone around him getting stiffer with anticipation. When the music resolved in a barrage of bass, light came blazing back in the form of a shower of artificial rain, made of glowing multi-coloured drops of Slick, a gel-like self-illuminating sweet designed to bio-degrade in minutes once it was out of its container. The crowd exploded with fresh energy, hands raised up to catch the Slick, cramming it into their mouths as they danced.
At forty seven, Nick was old enough to look at the crowd of be-feathered, jerking bodies under the flashing lights and wonder what the fuck was wrong with the youth of today - but he was not so old that when the beat dropped he didn't feel it. Some primal call in the music distantly answered in the back of his mind, where his lizard-brain capered in the same tribal way as the skinny, spotty little arseholes all around him.
He slipped into a small, sticky booth, kicking some empty bottles out of the way from under the tiny table while his gut scraped a few more off the tiny table. He got his digipad out and thumbed his way through settings for his EyeSpy camera to compensate for the shitty lighting before he started to record. It was 01:45 and what was going to happen was supposed to happen soon.
As soon as the EyeSpy was turned on, the muscles in his eyes respond to the twitch-dampeners and he did a few slow pans of the dance floor to get back into the feel of it while he waited for the main show to begin. He hadn't personally set up any of it - he never did, if he could help it - but things had been passed along by second and third parties and if all had gone to plan, once that particular batch of Slick kicked in, he'd have himself a story. Not a great story, but things had been a little slow lately.
It was barely noticeable at first, just a few dancers halting mid-thrash and gazing up at the ceiling with their arms dropping limp by their sides. It spread, accelerating through the crowd until the few that hadn't been crunching down mouthfuls of Slick stopped dancing themselves, looking around at the sudden field of open-mouthed, glassy eyed ceiling-gazers.
A bouncer crossed Nick's frame of view shouting into his collar mic, "We've been fucking zombied!"
Nick twitched half a smile as he filmed the un-zombied dancers shifting from unease, to a more annoyed alarm. They knew as well as he did that the rozzers would be on their way soon and they ducked and scampered their way through the zombies to make themselves scarce before the law showed up. What they didn't know was that this particular nightclub was smack-bang on the border between 4L London Constabulary territory and their bitter rivals, Surrey CapSec Security. Both forces had been called out by two separate barmen who had been slipped a few credits for their trouble and while the zombie-footage was something Nick could sell as stock 'zombie menace' for the news feeds, a story showing two private police forces having a dust up at the scene was a rent-payer.
CapSec were usually a bit slower off the mark, but given the contested territory, they still managed to be the first to arrive, decked out in navy blue hardshell armour with battenberg bands and the corporate abortion of 'PROLICE' stencilled across their backs. For some reason they were already flashing their laser-sighted guns around the club, sending a spray of red dots over the completely harmless zombies on the dancefloor. A CapSec officer with pips was waving her arms around, shouting and Nick's EyeSpy translator took a stab at lipreading, flashing up subtitles on a separate layer. It was never a sure-thing, but the gist seemed to be that the officer wanted the music killed and the house lights put on.
While the officer was shouting at a bouncer, 4L Constabulary rocked up, materialising out of the gloomy entranceway in black silksteel softshell that proudly displayed the word POLICE, since 4L was the only company with the licence for it. Their officer was a man with sergeants stripes who was so solidly muscled, he looked like he could snap the CapSec officer with one hand.
The argument started almost instantly and the flashing lights and pounding rythm made a great backdrop for the scene, subtitles stuttering across the bottom of his vision. He would edit them later, either to a best guess, or to whatever would make the best story. If Nick had any sympathy at all, it was for the CapSec officer. CapSec were a bit gun-happy, but on the whole he trusted them more the 4L lot, who depended less on hardware and more on wetware and augmentations. Nick had never met a single 4L constable who didn't have some heavy alteration and he was of the opinion that there wasn't a man or woman amongst them who hadn't joined up out of a deep seated desire to be 'fixed' somehow.
His distrust of their augmentations bore fruit less than five minutes into his footage of the increasingly juicy inter-security row. The big 4L sergeant, for reasons Nick couldn't fathom, suddenly flared his nostrils and looked directly at him. For a couple of beats, neither of them moved, then the sergeant pointed a finger at him and the subtitles translated his mouth movements into a probably very accurate 'Stay right there, Sunshine.'
While he hadn't personally done anything beyond making some requests of some fixers, who did all the real arranging - a night in 4L custody trying to explain why he was filming at the club didn't really appeal. Nick weighed his options up. The Sergeant looked too heavy to be a fast runner and there was a packed dancefloor full of zombies between him and Nick. The emergency exit, on the other hand, was right next to Nick's booth and he hadn't been chipscanned on the way in, so short of a facematch, they'd have a job finding him and he was wearing some 'moisturising' cream that by sheer co-incidence showed up as solid black on most face-scanning cameras.
The 4L sergeant made a 'hang on' gesture to the CapSec officer and began to walk Nick's way. Nick thumbed off his EyeSpy, squeezed himself back out of the booth and made for the emergency exit as fast as he could.
When he was filming, Nick forgot he was fat. When he crashed through the emergency exit, the alarm joining in with the thudding beat from the dance floor, he remembered he'd put on a little weight. By the time he'd run the length of the side-alley and cut hard left into a back alley, his memory caught up with reality and he felt an unpleasant stab of panic when the noise from the club flared up behind him as the emergency door crashing open again.
He put on the best spurt of speed he could, hoping like hell it was still the big sergeant after him and not one of the more whippet-like subordinates. If he could just out-run the ox, he could lose himself in the rubbish-strewn riverside alleyways and get out of even borderline 4L jurisdiction. All the sounds of the club were behind him now, fading, fading and replaced by his own thudding footfalls and laboured breathing. He could already feel needles of pain shooting through his over-burdened ankles and knees and he silently cursed all the sitting and eating he'd been doing the last few years.
Two more alleyways on he was forced to burst out onto the main road, cross over a street sparsely populated with clubbers and drunks wending their way either to the next venue or the nearest fast food joint. Wheezing, Nick paddled a drunk out of his way with the flat of one hand and jogged across to another alleyway.
Behind him, he heard the Sergeant roar, "Stop right now, or I'll shoot!"
There was a scream from a colt-legged girl and a chain-draped ginger boy shouted, "Fly, fatboy, I'll hold off the filth!'
Nick risked a glance back, automatically trying to jink to avoid being shot. He saw the big cop did have his gun out, but the trim was ebolt blue instead of a deadly red and the ginger idiot was dancing in front of the cop spoiling a shot anyway. At least until the cop just ran through him, sending the boy flying with only a slight dip of his shoulder to meet the impact.
Deciding he'd seen more than enough, Nick scampered into the next alleyway. He was lucky that the cop was a slow one - almost as slow as he was. He had no doubt about which one of them would run out of stamina first though and he started looking for somewhere to hide, pulling plastic rubbish bins down behind him as he went along the back of a row of shops.
His possible salvation lay two turns further on, in the form of a miraculously unlocked dumpster. Under normal circumstances, Nick wouldn't have been able to boost himself into it, but the particular panic of being hunted leant him some of his old athleticism for a few seconds and in a flailing of legs, heavy grunting and a final teetering of balance, he fell in a crackling, crunching heap into the dumpsters contents. He flailed one chubby hand at the lid, pulling it closed and trying to muffle his laboured wheezing into the crook of one elbow.
He heard the Sergeant thud his way down the alley, but any hope he had that the man would run straight past died as the policeman's boots scraped to a stop. Nick strained to listen, fighting his lungs desire to tear breath.
The sergeant, by contrast, was breathing easy, as if he'd done nothing more strenuous than take a stroll. Nick hated him for this and grew no fonder as he heard the bootfalls coming closer to his dumpster - the prospect of a night in constabulary custody seeming near certain and making all this exercise an unpleasant waste of time.
He was saved by the sergeant's comms, which tootled an alarm before Nick heard the sergeant answer it with an inpatient-sounding;
"What? I'm still in persuit."
There was a pregnant pause, during which Nick discovered his elbow was in something squishy and unpleasantly fragrant and his lungs tugged at his diaphragm insistantly. Then the Sergeant's tone changed to exasperation.
"I'll be there in five - don't let it escalate."
There was a few seconds of silence, then the sergeant - right outside the dumpster now - said, "You are one lucky fat man. I smell you anywhere near my patch again and I'll have you," the man exhaled heavily, muttered, " Skurwysyn," under his breath and then Nick heard him moving away, picking up speed as he ran back the way he had come.
Free to gasp for air again, the smell of the dumpster suddenly became a more pressing concern and Nick gagged as much as wheezed as he flung the lid open to let a little fresh air in, almost not caring if the copper had been playing a trick on him. He didn't think he had - he thought the cop had known exactly where he was hiding, but just hadn't the time or leisure to drag him out. Nick hoped the CapSec lot were busy beating the tar out of the 4L freaks back at the club.
It took him twenty or so attempts before he realised that he couldn't get himself out of the dumpster alone. He was too low into it and the footing was a mess of shifting food sludge and slippery wrappers. As he slid back into the mess for the umpteenth time, he almost felt like crying out of sheer frustration.
He was still trying to decide his next best course of action when his digipad bleeped at him. He pulled it out and accepted the call, seeing that it was Jackson - a digifeed editor that on occasion, commissioned stories from him. Good ones, usually.
Jackson looked hatefully safe and comfortable in a well-lit office, a glass of whiskey and water at one elbow, "Nick! Where the hell are you, on a job?"
Nick worked his face into a sort of professional self-assuredness he didn't much feel at present. What he felt was a nasty wetness seeping through his trousers from the rubbish he was wedged hip-deep in, "Evening, Jackson. Always on a job, you know that. What have you got for me?"
"Something fairly big, if you're up for it? Corporate expose, offworld."
Nick pursed his lips, "Who's paying for it and what corporation?"
Jackson took a sip of his whiskey, "Confidential and I can't tell you what corp until I know you're on board. You'll need to use a device - I know how you are with personal involvement, but..."
"I like to stay out of jail," Nick glanced at the bottom of the screen, noting a completely unfamiliar encryption protocol flagged on the signal, which piqued his curiosity despite his instant misgivings, "Just how big is this?"
Jackson smiled, "Remember the Polymol massacre on Mars? At least that big. Probably bigger."
Nick straightened up, crap rustling all around him, "Seriously?"
"Seriously. I can't tell you any more over a feed. If you're interested, come to my office and have your thumb ready for the NDA you'll need to sign before I can fill you in - whether you take the job or not."
Nick thought about it for less than two seconds. He could always turn it down, after all. He had to at least hear the deal out. He nodded sharply and said, "Sure thing, but I need a favour from you first."
"What sort of favour? Offering you the job is a favour, you know."
Nick grinned, "I know and thanks, but if you want me at your office tonight, I need you to send a couple of your lads my way. Ones good at heavy lifting."
Jackson frowned, "Is this trouble?"
"No, just heavy lifting and my back's not what it used to be. I'll send you my location. Alright?"
"Hnn. Alright - you'll be here tonight for sure?"
"For sure, you have me intrigued."
After the link was cut, Nick tried to make himself comfortable in the rubbish while he waited for help to arrive. He hoped they'd come quickly, before that ox of a copper decided he did have time to fish a journalist out of a dumpster after all.