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The Bikes of New York
A novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12
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The Bikes of New York, a science-fiction novella by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 6

Along the banks of West Forty-Third Luc Drapeau runs a gauntlet of beggars. They have no legs. They sit on little squares of dirty carpet, their stumps out front. Some of them hold signs in their laps that explain CAN'T BIKE or plead ZAKAH ZAKAT or simply say SOLDIER.

At the apex of the Sixth Avenue Bridge is a walla with a braided beard, tapping lazily at his foot-pedal to add pinches of momentum to the cart's flywheel. Luc worms out of the crowd's current to ask, "How much for a hot dog?"

"Ten dollars or two and half coupons," says the walla, smiling as he wipes his hands on a kerchief. The beads in his braids click together when he moves, winking in the heavy afternoon sun.

"I have coupons," says Luc.

"Two and a half," says the walla.

Luc steps into the shade of the cart's parasol and withdraws his termination voucher from the pumping station. "It's worth five."

"I don't make change," says the walla. "You'll have to buy two."

"But I don't want two hot dogs."

The walla shrugs. "Okay so for you one hot dog costs five."

"Give me two hot dogs."

"You got it, fella."

The walla blows on the charcoal bricks and drops a couple of wieners on the grille with a pair of long tongs. He peers through the smoke, focusing on a quick appraisal of Luc's shirt, tie and slacks. "You want a newsfeed, huh?" he asks. "Recharge?"

Luc shakes his head. "I don't have a phone."

The walla loses interest, scans the passersby behind his customer as he rocks back and forth on his foot-pedal. Luc watches his food cook. When the hot dogs are ready he dresses them with mustard and sauerkraut and continues walking west, gnawing on one and carrying the other.

Gulls wheel overhead.

He climbs the steps up to Times Square, feeling the buzzing of the bikes before he sees them: scores of mounts, scores of riders, dozens more waiting in the wings, standing under public parasols, talking or dozing or waving hand fans. Up to his left, the great dull eye of a dead megalithic television. To his right, a line of rickshaws and a gaggle of streetwalkers.

Luc chews his hot dog.

His chewing slows as he notices a man escorted roughly out from the rows of bikes, tossed to the pavement and repeatedly kicked. His attackers turn and stalk away, leaving the man to cough and sputter and lick his wounds.

Luc shakes his head sadly, then notices something about the man: the beady eyes, the bristle of black hair, the looming frame -- Luc recognizes him. He wanders closer to confirm it. It's the doorman from Cousin Philip's building. Luc extends his hand to help the man to his feet. "Thanks," he grunts.

"You remember me?" asks Luc. "You point a gun in my balls, my face."

The ex-doorman squints critically, reducing his small eyes to mere slits. "...You had the purse, right?"

"The pocket," nods Luc.

"I remember you."

"You want a hot dog?"

The two men eat, staring out over the Times Square bikefield. They don't talk for a few moments, though when the desperate leading edge has softened off his hunger the ex-doorman introduces himself and offers his hand to shake, "Dade Miller."

"Luc Drapeau," says Luc Drapeau.

"There wasn't anything personal when I made you throw your pouch on the ground."

"It's nothing."

Luc swallows his last bite and rubs his hands together for want of a serviette. He observes minor squabbles erupting among the bikes, shouted arguments or pushing matches over whose turn comes next or when that turn should start. They've been picked on by the gangs so now they pick on each other. The square's ambiance is knit from ugly noises.

Luc glances sideways. He can see that his companion is trying to disguise his famine, straining not to devour his meal in just two or three bites. With admirable restraint he pops the last piece into his mouth and chews mechanically as he dabs at a cut on his brow.

"So the bicycles, they are all controlled," says Luke, eyes over the square.

Dade nods. "The Burmese. I didn't make a deal with them. You?"

"No," says Luc. "I don't even know how to get one. What do they ask?"

"Half."

"Half what?"

"Half the money from the bike box."

"Tabernac."

Dade rubs his jaw. "When that punk over there told me the terms I got angry, and when he started talking to me like I had to lick his boots I hit him. So they jumped me and three of them tossed me on my ass."

Luc and Dade both jump when an eager voice speaks out behind them; they turn to see a short but muscular man with cocoa-brown skin and bulging eyes, gesturing emphatically as he says, "It's ain't right, brothers. It just ain't right at all. Those boys is owning what the people is supposed to be owning -- the needing people, brothers, like you and me. You know what those boys spend their bike box money on? Blow and blowjobs. It ain't right when a brother just wants to buy bread, you hear me?"

"It make no difference," says Luc. "I need the money. I'll do the deal."

"Shit," says the bulging-eyed man. "Everytime one of us needing peoples be bending over to let theyselves get fucked by Burma, they fucking the rest of us, too. They be making the system work, brothers. They be giving up, so we don't have no chance in Hell. It ain't right."

Luc sighs. "What do you think I can do about it, one man?"

"Brothers got to stand up."

Dade nods fervertly. "Fucking A," he says. "I'm not rolling over either. I'll fight to the end. What's your name, guy?"

"Anthony," says Anthony, licking his thick lips. "I'm from Philly."

"Good to meet you," replies Dade, pumping his dark hand. "This is Look Drapo. Me and him just got laid off. I bet the three of us can take those little shits at this point and ride some bikes. What do you say, gentlemen?"

Luc holds up his hands. "Impossible," he says. "Taking on a street gang? How could we expect to succeed? It's not courage, that, it is the suicide."

"There's never more than a few of them around at a time," says Dade, scanning up and down the rows of bikes. "I count four. They're just kids. I could've messed them up myself if they hadn't taken me by surprise. I'm a fucking juggernaut -- trained combat machine."

"Damn right!" agrees Anthony. "You got to be-lieve, brother. Be-lieve in yourself -- in your power to stand."

Dade nods firmly and turns to walk back into the bikefield. Luc touches his shoulder and Dade pauses, his face fierce. "It's too dangerous," says Luc. "Let's figure out something else."

Anthony grimaces. "You fucking us all, Look. You a pussy, brother."

"I've got to stand up," whispers Dade with white hot resolution, his mole-eyes fixed on Luc. He shakes loose Luc's hand, turns, and resumes walking. Anthony scampers after him, flexing his fists with nervous energy.

Luc hovers on the edge of the square, watching them go.

He sees them skulk around the field until a couple of bikes come free, their riders exhausted. Luc sees their heads lower and disappear as they mount the bikes. He shifts his view over to the other side of the square: one of the brown boys with a crimson headband is staring. He signals to his companion and they both move in to investigate.

Luc starts and stops half a dozen times, ultimately finds himself striding quickly between the rows, closing the distance between himself and the two strangers that are the closest thing to friends he knows in this city.

He reaches them a moment after the boys from Kala Kala do -- five of them, not four. A shouting match is already in progress. They've arranged themselves in a loose ring, hedging in Dade and Anthony from every quarter. The riders around them hunker lower, avert their eyes. Anthony is yelling, "It ain't right, you Burmese motherfuckers. It just ain't right!"

He's pulled off his mount and stomped on with a depraved vigour that makes Luc dizzy, doubting his senses. Dade surges to his feet but gets nowhere before two boys have rushed him; Luc winces as Dade takes a hard hit on the jaw, an arc of spit flying loosely from his mouth. "Stop!" cries Luc. "Stop this!" he begs.

Dade roars, casting off his attackers. His shirt is torn and his face is red with rage. He pushes his way to Anthony's side and begins wrestling another Kala Kala punk, yanking him away by the hair. They end up on the pavement, rolling over each other and then rolling over Anthony.

Luc is interrupted from his observations when he's grabbed from behind and punched in the gut.

When he is able to look up a sixth gang member has arrived, and from the reverence in the eyes of the other five alone it is evident that he is some kind of lieutenant or chief. His biceps are densely tattooed, his face pinched and hard. He wears a syrup of gold chains around his neck and a jumble of bracelets on his arms. He chews a toothpick as he surveys the scene: Luc held by one boy, Dade by three more, Anthony curled up in a ball on the pavement, twitching.

"Boys," says the lieutenant with an eerily soft, smooth voice, "this is no place for this kind of mess." He claps his hands twice. "Move it to Tick-Tock Alley."

Tick-Tock Alley turns out to be a disused lane running behind a giant clock shop on Broadway. It is lined by rusty dumpsters full of warped cogs. A constricted breeze causes scraps of garbage to continuously skitter and twirl between the narrow brick walls. Behind a barbed-wire fence is a massive, streak-stained ventilator, the air quivering with the drone of its function.

The Kala Kala lieutenant raises his voice to be heard over the machine, ordering his boys to drop their captives. "So-o-o," he drawls, standing over them with his thumbs in his belt. "Who's gonna explain the problem here?"

Dade says nothing, breathing hard. Anthony is dazed, his face bloodied.

"There's no problem," Luc says quickly. "Just a misunderstanding. We don't want trouble. My friends and I, we just want a deal with you so we can ride."

The lieutenant leans in close to Luc's face, rolling the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. "Oh yes?"

"If you please."

The lieutenant straightens, pursing his lips. "You know, it looks a lot to me like you guys are troublemakers. I'm gonna need some assurrance of your obedience. I can't have no respect problem on my territory, you can appreciate that, I hope."

Luc steels himself. "What do you want?"

He shrugs theatrically, his gaze now wandering along the walls of the alley. "I'm gonna need to see some teeth smashed out." He looks back at Luc, fixing him with his brown eyes. "But I'm gonna offer you a chance for a prize: if you smash out your own teeth, you can have a deal and you can ride. If we have to smash them out for you, you'll never touch a Manhattan bike again."

Luc blinks. "What?"

It is at this point that Luc notices that the bracelets laced up and down the lieutenant's forearms are strung with teeth: grey and yellow and brown. It is no joke or empty threat. They are savage. One of the Kala Kala punks steps up beside his boss, cracking his knuckles. "Who's first?"

Luc is speechless. Dade just stares. But Anthony looks up sharply and shakes his head. "You motherfuckers aren't taking no teeth," he yells. "You motherfuckers be going down! You motherfuckers be begging my ass for mercy before I done."

The lieutenant smiles wanly, puts his hands behind his back and rocks carelessly on his heels. "You see?" he says with a dramatic sigh, a cavalier wink of cruelty in his almond-shaped eyes. "I hate having respect problems. It just looks bad. It depresses me. It makes me mad." He drops down on his haunches in front of Anthony and lowers his voice to hiss, "Apologize, nigger."

In response Anthony spits a large wad of bloody saliva on lieutenant's gold chains, then grins up at him with pink teeth.

The lieutenant stands up quickly, the muscles in his neck taut. He taps his boy on the shoulder, says, "Fuck this. Take their legs." Then he strides out of the alley, his head high.

The punk draws out a machete, the blade ringing as it clears its sheath.

Luc's eyes widen. He pushes up against the wall behind him, stumbling to his feet and pressing backward. Dade is looking back and forth between Luc and the gang members, his skin pale. "What did he say?" he asks, his voice cracking.

Two of them descend on Dade, and another blade is drawn. "No!" shouts Luc but two others grab him, throw him back down to the asphalt. Luc bucks with all his strength but one of the punks presses his torso flat while the other jerks out his legs and stands on his shins. He raises the machete high.

Luc hears the blade chop down meatily, clang on bone or pavement. He feels nothing.

With a loud grunt the weight on his chest disappears. Luc opens his eyes. Dade has a machete in each hand and he's swinging them in tight, murderous arcs as he bears down on four of the Kala Kala boys at once, backing them into the side of a dumpster. Luc notes that his legs are intact as he reflexively bounds to his feet and charges after his friend.

Dade wallops the blade against one of the boys, who cries out. His fingers fly loose. Dade rounds on the next gang member with a savage ululation and strikes again, slashing at the boy's calfs as he falls over himself to flee.

"Dade, stop!" shouts Luc.

Dade hesitates. It's enough of a distraction for the Kala Kala boys to run away, one of their number hobbling between two others, another pinching one hand beneath the opposite arm. There are coin-sized drops of blood on the pavement, an arc of spray dotted along the dumpster. "Are you okay?" breathes Dade. And then, "Look out!"

Luc spins. The fifth gang member lunges at him, his stained blade singing in the air.

Luc dodges. The punk overbalances and Dade steps up to catch him with a direct and motivated punch to the face, which breaks his nose. His machete clatters to the ground. Luc seizes Dade's hand, stopping from swinging again, and the punk runs off with his hands cupped to his face.

"Yeah!" hollers Dade, shaking his fist. "You'd better run!"

Luc draws an unsteady hand down his sweaty face and leans against the dumpster, his heart pounding. "Jesu Christ," he pants. "Jesu Christ mon dieu, this city is damned."

"You see that?" cries Dade, oblivious. "We beat them, Look! I said we could take them and we did. They're not so tough. They're all talk. Fucking A, we did it!"

Luc hears a groan. He frowns. Dade hears it too, and looks over. He blanches, his mouth suddenly agog and working without sound.

Luc feels a shiver roll down his spine.

Anthony groans again. "Oh lord," he mutters. "They took my legs. Oh lord. They're gone. Oh lord. My legs."

"Holy shit," whispers Dade, averting his eyes.

Luc holds the side of the dumpster for support. "Come on," he says. "Let's get him to a hospital."

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