Murder in the First Amendment: a story

The beeper buzzed deep inside my left hip, the fingernail-on-slate scream of voltage on raw bone.  Inaudible, but clamping my jaw locked.

To think some people used to complain about employers who drug tested.

I figured it was the usual midnight call. Lights, sirens and a three-hour siege, ending when then cops rousted some belligerent drunk passed out on a slip-covered sofa.

The desk always seemed to call right after a bottle of off-year Pichon Baron with some wench in polysilk who’d never appreciate the vintage. Not that I was often lucky enough to get far enough to find out, between the hours on the schedule and the lack of figures on my paycheck.

I smoothly apologized in a soothing on-air voice and picked the cell from the night table. The usual. Police channel 27. Serious turmoil. Move. Be live in 20.

The view on my device came direct from a pool camera mounted in the grille of a police cruiser. Aimed at the back of a ‘022 Turbo Mitsu, I could see red lights flash in the luxury model’s back window. The chase car with the camera, and two or three other black and whites.

The cops used to complain about body cameras. Now video was a profit center.

I pulled the headset from the back of the scanner, wired in and punched the metro desk number.

The girl I was with looked disconcerted, ready to leave now instead of ready to go. Had her half drunk, headed toward full. Kristin or Cassie, I wrote it down somewhere. Regular at the City Room Bar, a network anchor groupie slumming for the night. Not like I have a real damn life.

“Do I have to?” I complained.

MC half-yelled back, not thinking twice about the interruption. “Too many layoffs. No one else.”

I said goodbye to my companion and had to leave my code for the Uber on top of it.

“Live in 12 minutes,” MC dictated over the headset, and I punched my Tokyo-Buick as fast as its battery would take it.

The parabolic mounted on top stole power from the engine as it spun, searching for a frequency. I prepared for a jolt; the car surged every time the antenna locked into a microwave dish on Signal Hill or out near Griffith Park.

The equipment was mostly mine. When I signed on, NewsLife 9 supplied a stationary antenna, a grille cam and a couple of dashboard monitors to show me its feed. Can’t rely on that stuff when you’re paid per-user-minute, so I had the spinner mounted up top, strung a dozen Wave Watchmen along the dash, and had some software genius hotwire 22 TRS-80s and bolt them into the trunk. They’re old and slow, but those things are bulletproof.

The readout from the GPS locators found the chase. High-speed pursuit, Jefferson at Figueroa. Much more than 12 minutes away.

“Go with the feed and voice-over,” I told the desk.

“Bastard, you get there,” MC yelled. “Pool cameras don’t cut it.” At least she had faith in me.

Michelle, that was her name. But we on the other end of the NewsLife 9, Live in Five hyperlinks just called her MC Hammer. You should have heard what we called the people breathing down her neck, network suits who sold stories but didn’t have a clue how to tell them.

“Who is it?” I said, not that it mattered. Violence begets television, especially when it’s real life.

“Royce Benning. “

She said it flat but knew I’d be salivating. The way I did back when I still thought the right midnight chase would send my career speeding up to network. I’d learned better, but this was a big story.

Benning was the world’s most famous cyber-thespian. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to do him. And courtesy of 3D video and 124 track audio and wired sensorsuits, they could.

His wife had turned up dead early that morning, burned to bare recognition with a younger man in a posh apartment off Florence in the booming Afterburn section of So-Central.

I had chased the story all day. But by 10 a.m., every family member, hanger-on, and even casual friend had signed a contract with a tabloid or locked down an appearance deal with Court TV.

By noon, investigators and prosecutors had started inking their own contracts. Word was that Chief Justice Clarence Thomas was claiming judicial and broadcast rights for Supreme Court TV.

“You’re live,” MC yelled over the headphones. She might as well have been inside my skull.

One of the monitors showed the feed she was sending out, the shot from the police car following the sleek ebony Mitsu. A good shot of the Ovitz/LAPD logo on the police cruiser’s hood. Sponsors would love that.

No time to write a script, but I’m a pro. “Dave Vasconcellos here, closing in on the edge of a police chase through midtown LA. Royce Benning, the cybercast star, apparently pursued by police for the murder of his wife.”

The Mitsu turned and tires screeched. I cut just before the sound, congratulated myself for the move. The feed from my car went live in the monitor, side angle across the intersection. Benning’s car bottomed out with a bump, sparks flying. Great footage.

But I found myself locked in police traffic, no room to pass, parked cars lining both sides of the road. Then the pool car cut in too separate me from the Mitsu.

MC shifted the broadcast from my cameras to B-matter. I weaved through the traffic on one eye, watched the feed in the centermost monitor on the dash. Being cut away from is painful and costs me some bonus. But the background was interesting.

 

Benning was a golden boy, the first cybercast superstar. Came out of nowhere with the early point-and-shoot Muscleripper ROMs. Standard antihero stuff, plastic acting and a lot of plastic explosive. But his work was pure, raw, one dimensional, perfect for the first direct lines that carried action and emotion straight from the thespian’s skull into the Wave, then into the customers’ brainport. You could be him, albeit with limited control, cutting between different takes with different actions you would choose. You felt the impacts via the controller and saw his view on your own optic nerve.

The feeds and cybercasts had gotten more complex over the years.

At 30 he started playing 00-Binary, suave and sophisticated in a series of Inner-games that never played the same way twice. You could log into Benning’s brain and become him, guide his actions, ravage the enemy. Or enlist as his sidekick, fighting the good fight.

Or you could play Benning’s woman, counter-espionage between the cybersheets.

Benning lived a life nearly as exciting as the ones he played. Old Infocasts showed him surrounded by glitzy, ditzy women in exotic places, wining and dining through the worst years of the Collapse. For millions, an Inner-tain was the best solace.

At 40, he’d begun to fade. There were younger, stronger stars. Benning’s old Inners seemed dated, and in the new ones, he seemed past his expiration date as well.

That was when Benning married. A model, 20 and a co-star, black as a dark star, bright as a supernova.

 

Race, cash and sex. This story had it all. I made a note to get comment from the KKK lobbyist at City Hall and the Church liaison to the mayor.

Hit their numbers on the speed dial.

NewsLife 9 cut back to me as I swerved with a pack of cars onto Figueroa, swung wide and cut into the front of the chase. Only one cop car and a network van were still ahead of me, behind the suspect vehicle.

“Damn it, Dave,” MC was yelling. “You’re still obstructed.”

I could hear her tell the producer, “Go to the police camera.”

Police camera. When I started in this business, they kept a healthy distance from reporters and reporters from them.

But since the government last cut taxes and declared bankruptcy, the LAPD and the courts have has survived on TV residuals and advertising fees. And we stay in business with them because they provide cheap productions that draw big ratings.

“David,” MC yelled.  “Get past that van. I want you on it.”

I’ll tell you, I’m beginning to hate this business. Used to be something different, something important. The fourth estate. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Now, we worship the lifestyles of the comfortable and wallow in their afflictions. We don’t disclose sources, we unclothe them. On the crime beat, where I live, if it speeds, it leads. Even better if it bleeds.

With the new laws, politicians and business leaders can take reporters down these days. But criminals and corpses never sue. Forget truth; death is the perfect defense. Murder in the First Amendment.

I swerved the heavy T-B into the opposite lane, side by side with the big network van. Nearly went head-on into some old broad in a computer-driven heap. Her AI swerved, piledriving into parked cars.

I cut the van off. In my rearview, I saw Brad from CBSpielberg give me the finger. MC yelled in my ear, “Get it or this is it. I mean it.”

I swerved in behind the police cruiser. Brad wouldn’t back off. No wonder. A car from AP and a three-wheeled Harley from another network were on his tail. The little dial for market share showed 6 for my local outlet. Even considering the competition — network Infostars were doing voice-overs to the police video — my numbers were mediocre.

“We need a cut-to. Get up there.”

The road widened out and I hit the accelerator, passed the police wagon, ran up right behind the suspect Mitsu.

The boom camera extended from my grille to give me a side angle.  Two men. The driver looking worried. Talking at wit’s end.

Benning was the passenger. I remembered him from the Inners.

I remember one, Benning wounded, taking up with a housewife somewhere in Derby, England, longing for a row house across from a park on a hill.

“Yes, this life feels glamorous,” he told her. “But I sometimes wish I were normal, not so modern. So many voices in my head, so many duties, that I don’t know which one I am.”

“Sometimes I feel,” she said, “that you’re a figment of my imagination.”

“Sometimes I worry I’m a figment of mine.”

Maybe that was his real life. Image was everything. He probably didn’t know where it ended and he began. The media had created Royce Benning, and we’d all been him. If he could be a killer, so could every one of us.

The voice on my headphones brought me around in time to avoid a pedestrian.

“Dave, good angle. Network wants your feed,” MC said in my head. “In 2-1…”

Network. Yes. That meant I had the best tonight.

“Dave Vasconcellos here. You’re seeing Royce Benning, 3-D star, fleeing a police car live in Los Angeles. Talking furiously. I believe… yes, that’s a gun next to his cellular phone. A handgun.”

Damn, that was good. Close up on the handgun, until you could read the label. Advertising sold three commercials for the next break; the gun companies loved these casts.

“Whether you’re a cyber star or a working stiff, whether you’re fleeing federal agents or corporate LA police,” some salesman would say, “it’s good to have a Gatling 55 at your side…”

Another voice, the melodious Christian Baxter, Baxter, the modern anchorman’s anchorman. A new century Dan Rather with the same occasional crazy, but none of the reporting chops.

This was big. But I had to swerve back into the lane to avoid a semi.

“David, do you know what they might be talking about?”

Damn Ivy League twit. How the hell would I?

“I don’t know, I…”

I stared forward, looking for room to pass on the left. But we were hugging a center island.

“Hold on Dave, we have another feed.”

I looked over to the other side of the Mitsu. PBS-Independent had pulled alongside on the right and fired a wire across the gap, a suction mike thwacked solidly to the back window.

Bastards had sound.

The network monitor switched as Baxter cut to the PBS feed. MC in my ear. “Way to lose one, Dave.”

Damn. I swerved behind the Mitsu, cut off the five closest police cars, rammed the PBS van, shredded their wire. The feed Baxter was showing went static and he uttered a few curse words in perfect dictation.

MC screamed. “You bastard. Real dumb, Davy. Network is not happy.”

She was right. And NewsLife 9 was a network affiliate. Baxter was on air fuming. He would have my paycheck. I saw an email pop into my phone from Human Resources. My cell rang as my final paycheck hit my bank account. Damn, the world moves fast. I was now as independent as PBS before President Pence.

NewsLife cut back to B-matter.

 

Benning’s marriage had reinvigorated his career.

The wedding videos showed his wife coiled against his chem-tan. Three more Inner-tains followed, and millions of women tuned in to be the young, sleek black catwoman in love with Royce Benning.

That was the deal.  When he was young, you always knew he was doing his costars, just like you knew Grant was doing Hepburn, or the professor, Mary Anne. And you could do them, too, at least as far as cyber-star shyness and the limits of wired suits would take you.

The marriage proved he was still in the game.

But now he was near 50. There were rumors his marriage was breaking up, and good ratings for those reporting the rumors on the tabloid shows. This was the classic Hollywood story, rich man and young woman. She grows up and cuts him off. He takes it as a body shot to his manhood, and his fans and producers figure his run is over.

Word was his latest Inner, due out in a week, would be his last.

I fell back to think, cut off MC’s feed, heard a “don’t back off now” before I could turn her off. Did she even realize I didn’t work for her her anymore?

I replayed the loop. That’s it, blow the picture up. On his cellular, the number. I punched it into mine.

“Yea?” Surprise in the voice.

“This is Dave Vasconcellos, NewsLife 9. Mr. Benning?”

“No, this is Bill Canning. Mr. Benning’s aide. We’re a little busy right now.”

They screeched into a wide turn, somewhere in Santa Monica. The police cars opened fire. Time was short.

“I know. I won’t bullshit you. You need me.”

“Right. NewsLife 9. I could have Baxter or Jenning if I wanted.”

It was Benning. And he was right. Local feed was nothing in the scheme of the Wave.

“Yea,” I told him. “But actually, I’m not NewsLife anymore. You need money. I know the tabs.”

Specifically, I knew Michael Rafskallion, a night editor who paid well for celebrity tips. I’d supplemented my paycheck a few times. I had misgivings about paying for a story. But Royce Benning wasn’t going to talk to me just to save my career.

Word was, Benning had blown most of his loot on offshore gambling after he split with his wife, the rest on cyber-models at 15 grand a session. That was big news even before the murders. Big entertainment, too.

Since that news broke, the per-byte rentals for mainlining his library had soared. Innerversal, his company, was getting rich off him all over again. Benning was hot, violent and bankable. His Q rating was soaring.

“Piss off,” he said. “I’m going to kill myself. I don’t need you bastards.”

“Oh, come on, you fraud.” I mocked him. He wouldn’t like that, the tall, tanned God of the Inner- tains. It would keep him interested. “You can kill yourself anytime. I can get you a lot for a live feed from the car.”

Not even silence. “Right. Like I need your money. I’m as good as dead.”

Old clips flashed across my video readers. I was looking for an edge. He’d begged her to take him back, wanted time with his kids. Three kids, I remembered the photos.

“The kids need the cash,” I added. “They’re not used to being poor.”

This time he paused. Then quietly. “Maybe for the kids.”

Success. “I’ll call back in five.”

I had to swerve hard to avoid a police Cobra banking low.  The gunman went for my wheels with his 110-calibers, but he didn’t want to risk the police cars, so he missed.

Benning’s Mitsu swerved up an on-ramp onto Facebook’s Santa Monica Freeway, best kept privatized road in LA. I turned late, went two-wheel, jammed the autopilot because I knew I couldn’t hold the heavy Tokyo-Buick alone, somehow made the turn.

Baxter was feeding aerial over the network feed. Seventeen official news vans, at least three dozen privateers and five cop cars. Half the night patrol for the whole county.

Behind them, a half-dozen cars marked for private security teams, heavily armed with scatterguns and stuffed with freelancers. Must be joy riding. No profit for them in this, unless Benning damaged the freeway. Gun violence was frowned on, but messing up traffic in LA is a serious offense.

Similar sights all across the Infowave, each station fighting for market share. I could picture the broadcast fees clicking up quickly, counters ticking off cash.

 

I hit the speed dialer. Michael at the ENQ. “Man, I’ve got a hot one for you.”

He was a junkie, tuned in 24 hours a day, knew the top 100 markets by heart, had the Wave hardwired to his optic nerve. He knew where I was. “I’ve got Benning. Cell phone. Talking suicide.”

“Weren’t you just feeding to network?”

“Screw them. What can you get me?”

“Live?”

“And high res.”

“I can go 200K. 25 percent on top for you.”

“I’ll see. But that’s not much to a guy like Benning.”

“O.K. 500, plus 250K for resale rights. Push him, he’ll go. It’s that or nothing.”

The searchlights from the copter above were blinding, closing in. He was going to sell the news to someone.

The cell rang just once. “Yea. Dave?”

“Look, let me test the feed. ENQ will give you 500K. 250 more for video rights.”

“I don’t know, man. I can get more. I can call PROBE. They were going 200 for just an interview. Now I’m on the run.”

The boom cam up in front of my car was now halfway in his window, and the feed looked beautiful, 12,000 dots per inch, 5,200 tones. This was hot. I begged for time.

“Michael, man, he’s talking to PROBE. He wants more.”

“Bear with me. Offer him a mil.” My mind spun. With a standard 25 percent to me…

“We’ll give twice that if we have to. But I want an exclusive. I don’t want him double-selling a second, soon as he’s locked up.”

My fax spit out the contract. A copy went to his phone for a digital sig.

A bullet shattered the rear window of the Mitsu. Network was running tri-feeds from the chase cars. One channel cut to commercial. “You watching this crap, Dave? Networks can run public access. Here at ENQ, we need live,” Michael said. “Inside.”

“I got you.”

“And Dave, you realize there’s just one way for him to guarantee an exclusive.”

Damn. The tabs are cold.

The dashboard displays split in 20s, trying to display every broadcast with Keyword: Benning. This thing was all over the Wave. Even the movie sites were on it, running old Inners like “00-Binary Logic” with the live feed on split screen.

I thought briefly that I could stay legit with this feed, no pay-for-news crap. But you know, the legit guys carry it live every time the ENQ pays some woman to say she slept with some politician. You feed on that stuff, you might as well write the check.

A cop van swerved close and I had nowhere to go. I was just to Benning’s right, the boom stretched alongside his car. I had sound. I heard his buddy yell, “Right turn.”

Benning’s car swerved hard onto the San Diego Freeway. Brad from CBSpielberg ended up off the side of the ramp, in the bushes. Half the police vehicles didn’t make the turn.

The road was wider now, the path clearer.

I pulled close, hit the redial. One ring.

“Look, they’re going a mil.”

“Baxter already did, for the network. The ENQ will go 2 mil to stay in.”

“Maybe,” I said. A shamefully small pause. “You realize what they’ll want. Guaranteed exclusive.”

“I realize. Tell you what. Offer them a direct line.”

Damn. I should have stayed in print. At least there was still a Washington Post and a New York Times. Though even they’re a tough sell in a world that doesn’t read anymore.

Used to be a lot of hope for the Wave. It would fuel education and help develop an informed citizenry. But they had the same hopes for broadcast and look how that turned out. Hell, Gutenberg would probably be bummed at where print ended up.

“Look man,” Benning told me. “It’s over for me, and that’s OK. I’m tired of living up to an image. I just want to be human, and I can’t.

“Ask them what they’ll pay if we cybercast it. Millions of people feel like I do, and they’d love to live it out.”

Christ, just what I needed. Media martyr, and you can be him. They’d have hearings in Congress on this.

“Give me five micros, friend. Just five.”

Two freeways later, ENQ had the deal in Benning’s cloud. The contract ran seven pages, single-spaced, $11.5 million. The guarantee was not in quite so many words.

“But here’s the deal,” Michael told me again. “No second sale, ever. He goes or it is off. So is your cut. If he balks, you talk him in.”

Bastard. The ENQ played for keeps, made MC look bush league. I used to respect that. But three hours at 90 had turned me wild. I felt for the guy.

Yes, he’d probably murdered two people. But he’d wind up dead and never do it again. Me and the ENQ, we would.

“Plead for the kids if he balks,” that’s what they told me. Damn. These people were hardball. Journalism’s Khmer Rouge.

I hit the phone. The networks had topped out at 6 mil, then stepped out talking about ethics. Other tabs matched up to 10.

The contract came back. Signed, sealed, and delivered. Suicide is painless, but I could take it or leave it.

My phone rang. “Benning? Almost a go.”

“This is Captain Gains, LAPD. Are you in contact with him?”

Just what I needed. “Captain, I have called him. He doesn’t respond.”

Just then, the ENQ ads cut in across the Infowave. “In 60 seconds, live from the star’s car. The tragedy about to conclude? We’ll have it live. A landmark cybercast direct from Royce Benning, brought to you by Dave Vasconcellos. Be there as never before, wired directly in as a star decides whether to live or die.”

“I know you have him,” the captain said. “Let us cut in. Our negotiators can help him.”

I’d already done my negotiating. Maybe they could counsel me later.

“Look,” the captain said. “Think about this. Think about honesty and this guy’s life. For Christ sake, isn’t there more than a story? Some kind of ethics?”

Right. Let’s talk profiling, you ethical creep.

“Look,” the captain said. “I only mean, think about responsibility. Think about truth.”

This is truth, pal, raw and unedited. Or at least, close enough for the First Amendment.

“You ready?” The tab people back in my headphone.

“Ladies and gentleman, 3-D Star Benning is about to discuss his killings and his flight.”

“Screw that,” Benning said by cell. “I’m sad. Not sorry but sad. That’s the bottom line. I have a gun in my mouth. I’m killing myself. In two minutes.”

He slowed a tad and I pulled in close. My gun looked like the usual .45 every driver in LA carries, but it shot a thin carbon fiber with a universal plug. Benning popped it into the link behind his ear.

The ads flashed on millions of screens. “Live feed, as Royce Benning prepares to kill himself. And you can be him. Feed his pain. Feel his suicide.”

Benning was now a human peripheral, from his link into my car and out over the microwave.

The vultures were tuning in, live suicide, the ultimate Phil and Oprah. 78 share. A record.

The ENQ would have it exclusively. Wire snippets would go to the networks, who would express shock but had experts standing by to analyze it. It would be on ROM by nightfall and a game two days later.

“Hey Dave,” Benning asked me before we went back on live. “How can you stomach this?”

Dude, I’m a TV reporter. The stars of what I do went from chasing truth to getting both sides to yell louder years ago. I’m just trying to keep up.

“Ladies and gentleman, live from the freeway, we’re about to see a beloved cyber-star kill himself. I beg, I plead, sir, don’t do this.”

“You can’t talk me out of it, no matter how hard you try.”

Nice script. A bit overdone, but they were in a hurry. And the lawyers said it legally absolved us.

 

Now, I know you’re thinking you know what happened. But I don’t and I was there.

He talked a bit more, put the gun in his mouth, panted around it. Viewers could taste the metal, feel the cold of the steel. See the flash. The feed was detuned to avoid viewers actually dying with him, but it was intense,

The feed went wild, scrambled, like a signal locked on cable TV, ghosted and phase-shifted. Thought for a minute I lost the uplink. But it was Benning himself, flipping like a video screen that had been abruptly turned off. He became a buzzing shadow, the static between channels.

If you studied it close, there was a flash of carbon-fiber robotic frame, holo-projectors at every joint.

One last smile, a grin, then blank. No death. No body. No hero. Just metallic strands, an animator and a CPU.

Before I could even try to understand it, Michael from the ENQ was on the line. And I was off the feed, transmission ended.

“First, from me, hell of a show. Enjoyed it,” he said, but darkly.

“The bad news is, I just received a call from the boss. Seems you just erased a media empire. You’ll never work in this country again.”

 

I wasn’t paid in full. Call it a kill fee.

The ENQ also sent me an airline ticket, fast plane to the resorts in lower Guatemala. Great place to duck corporations and congressional subpoenas.

Michael showed up at the airport, bought more than a few preflight drinks. “I’ve been on leave,” he said. “Ever since it happened. Trying to lay low. You should do the same.”

“But man,” he said in dismay, “what the hell happened?”

What to say? I think Benning was a total media creation, a completely AI cyberthespian. So he wasn’ a suicide, not really. He was a computer that wanted to be human but couldn’t quite make it.

 

I didn’t understand why we were being punished. Michael had bought a rating bonanza for the ENQ, and I thought I’d served well.

“That part I can tell you,” he said.

“Stan Sheridan, the Wave guru. He also owns the ENQ. Our little broadcast put billions in his pocket but also raised a lot of uncomfortable questions. He’ll probably hide us away if we don’t try to answer them.

“See, he also owns Innerversal. Which means he owned Benning.

“While we hit big in the ratings one night, a Royce Benning trial would have meant 70 shares, day after day. Plug into all the tortured emotions of a loving, murderous father, husband, and killer. Like one of his Inners, but all reality. That would have been a hit series.”

“But how,” I asked, “could they have put a simul on trial?”

Michael laughed. “How do they send him on a promotional tour? They did. And Innerversal is the principal sponsor for the LA Criminal Courts building. They would have found a way. And then, if he’d been found guilty, he’d do more Inners from a Def Jam penitentiary.  Benning’s last show is currently a hit. Imagine a dozen more.

“See, we weren’t watching a suicide. We were killing a franchise.”

And that was it. Innerversal had a lot invested in the Benning icon. Celebrity is our day’s most valuable commodity. But turning him back on after our little show was impossible. Someone would have had to explain what Benning was. That image was reality, and that the real business of business is fooling us. No corporation wants to admit that.

Now, how Benning had a wife, whether she was in on it, whether she got bored with the game or was a cyber herself, I can’t say. Just like I don’t know if his murder victims were real or Memorex.

There were bodies, but burned beyond recognition. It’s not like bodies are hard to come by these days.

Now, I live in Latin America and occasionally ship feeds of topless celebs back to the ENQ. I don’t worry too much about that night. The LA stations replaced all the street people with botcams and Milli Vanilli chips soon after, so I would have had to leave anyway.

And besides, I did my thing. I told it like it happened. I told the truth. Or at least, close enough for the First Amendment.

 

 

 

 

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