The Bikes of New York is a science-fiction novella of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your perky host, Cheeseburger Brown.
I'm tired but I'm okay. My work is done, my ill family members are all getting better. I have a tall dark coffee and a bounce in my step. Last night I dreamed I lived in Europe, and all the cars were yellow and they all had their steering wheels on the British side of the car. Also, I was chasing a cat. Go figure.
Let's get on with our story:
Luc Drapeau has a new suit: pin-striped fine fabric, accented tie, black vest, cufflinks.
Like most commuters he wears runners, sensible footwear for the sunrise and sunset walks across the island, part of the million footfalls of a work weary army bouncing the streets with their tread so the stoplights work.
He carries a briefcase. Inside is tank top, a towel, a jar of water, sweatbands, cologne.
Dade is waiting at the fountain. He's decked out in new duds, too, his emsemble faintly recalling a uniform -- sweatpants with a stripe down each leg, faux-epaulettes on the shoulders of his shirt -- expressing undeniably his attraction to authority. "Morning," he says.
"Morning," says Luc.
They don't have to hail a taxicab to start their rounds: Paco is already waiting, patiently winding his radio so he can continue assaulting the city with loud ranchera music. "Hey, boss!" he says, smiling his gap-toothed smile. "Ready to go?"
They stop first at Bryant Park, one of the largest bikefields on the island. Paco parks at the curb on West Fortieth, Luc and Dade cross the canal on a footbridge and pass under the looming columns of Sixth Avenue's raised highway, its shadow splayed across the bikes, its underside swimming with caustic reflections off the water.
The field captain is a short, muscular Sicilian named Vincent. He strolls up to meet them as they approach. "Situation?" prompts Dade in a clipped tone.
"Sirs," says Vincent, "we had a brief incursion approximately a quarter hour ago. They came in numbers, broke right through the ranks, beat the living shit out of Aubrey Flemington before we could rally."
"I see," says Dade grimly.
"I'm sorry, sirs," says Vincent. "All week they've been coming at us a dozen at a time."
Dade grunts. "How's morale?"
"It's solid, sir," replies Vincent quickly. "The riders got high on swarming those Burmese assholes out of here. They've been spewing watts like nobody's business ever since. They feel invincible."
"What about this Aubrey Flemington?" asks Luc quietly.
"Sir," says Vincent, turning to Luc, "he sang our song as they loaded him up on the ambulance. He said anyone who stopped singing was letting his beating matter."
"He's a good man," says Dade. "I think we should assign him his own field at this point."
Luc nods. Dade makes a note in his little notebook, slaps it closed. As Vincent turns Luc notices an intricate wound healing on his bicep. He touches the man's shoulder. "What's this?" he asks.
Vincent grins. "It's my tat, sir. All the captains are getting them."
Luc rotates Vincent's arm, examining the scabbing that delineates an eight-spoke bicycle wheel flanked by a crude set of wings. "This symbol," says Luc, "it comes from where?"
"I saw it in Times Square," he says sheepishly. "They're selling T-shirts."
"Very good," says Luc with a curt nod of dimissal. Vincent jogs back into the park. Luc and Dade look at one another significantly. "It seems our lie is gaining legs," observes Luc.
"This is way bigger than us now, Look," says Dade seriously. "Word is that Kala Kala members are fighting each other over shrinking territories, and the losers claim they were assaulted by us. Isn't that bizarre?"
"They're saving face," says Luc thoughtfully. "Better to be shamed by a phantom than a peer."
They amble toward the bikefield, noting the orderly set-up of legless beggars forming a ring of perimeter interference encompassing an inner ring of watchers. Inside this dual-layered protective fold are the riders themselves, spinning the flywheels, splitting their take according to an informal convention, the throbbing heart of a Bicyclettes Libres social organism. Vincent walks a beat that weaves through every organ, negotiating disputes and leading them in song. The park reverberates with their mismatched voices:
Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques,Dade smiles. "I used to sing that in kindergarten," he says wistfully.
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
"Me too," says Luc.
In Chelsea they meet trouble. Paco guides the cab carefully along the narrow trail on the west side of the Tenth Avenue Canal, their view of the long line of bikefields along West Twenty-Fifth intermittently interrupted by non-functional light standards and the banners of gondoliers. Dade frowns. "Something's up."
Luc presses his face against the glass. "It's an incursion going on," he says.
"What should I do, boss?" asks Paco, turning down the rachera.
The little car bumps against the curb, the humming engine spinning down. Luc and Dade pop open their doors and squeeze out. Luc scampers down the bank and then leaps straight off, sailing through the air and coming down in a passing gondola. "Whoa!" yells the pilot, dropping his pole.
"Sorry!" calls Luc as he jumps off into another gondola even before the first has recovered from the impact of his landing, kicking up a circle of spray. Dade follows wordlessly.
A grey-haired banker cowers behind his briefcase in the second gondola, crying out, "Taken, taken! This boat is taken!"
Luc and Dade hop onto a scow freighting burn-canisters of animal manure, dodge past the pilot as he swings a dripping oar at them, then hurl themselves onto the opposite bank with a twin set of grunts.
It's a hell of a way to J-walk.
The bikefield is chaos. Ten Kala Kala punks are taking turns savagely kicking the field captain, another two breaking apart the crowd, menacing them with machetes. The outer fringes are bleeding away, panicked, but the exodus slows as somebody starts shouting, "It's him! It's him!"
At first Luc thinks he's been spotted, but it's not that -- the riders are pointing to the other side of the field where three men are striding in formation, a tight triangle, their chief at the apex dressed in a cheap suit and grey vest.
"Who is that?" mutters Luc, furrowing his brow.
The Kala Kala cluster realigns itself to meet the incoming wedge, leaving the field captain drooling blood on the pavement, cradling an arm that swings at a sickeningly unorthodox angle. Luc nods at Dade and Dade runs over to the man's side while Luc continues moving toward the centre of the disturbance. He comes up behind the gang members as they swagger forward to meet the suited man's party.
"Zis field, she is hours," says the suited man in a thick, false French accent. "If you know what is ze good, you will turn haround and leaf."
"It's the Frenchman!" whispers one of the Kala Kala lieutenants to a taller, creamy-skinned Burmese with ring-studded fingers. He wears black jeans and a black T-shirt tucked over his paunch, his black hair oiled and glistening. His age dwarfs the other Kala Kala members: he must be thirty years old.
"Do you have any idea who I am?" he asks, squaring his shoulders.
"I am not caring," retorts the suited man. "You come here to steal, to beat people, I know all I need -- you are hour enemy."
"I am the son of Shaya," continues the man in black. "Shaya is displeased, and when Shaya is displeased New York weeps."
The suited man scoffs. "Would you like a tissue?"
"I see right through you," says the son of Shaya, his brown eyes locked on his opponent. "You want to run around, talking shit, getting everybody all riled up over nothing. Oh yes, I know it's nothing. I've been keeping tabs. I know there isn't any army from the Protectorate coming to take this city away from my father."
"Is zat a fact?"
"I know you're the only one, liar. You may have turned the crowds against us, but it won't last."
"And why not?"
"Because your bullshit system is all about hype, and you're the source of it all. So when my boys here chop off your legs and make you watch while we cut out your balls, the crowds will understand their frog prince is finished and things are back the way they were."
"Zut alors," says the suited man mockingly. "I think maybe you hunderestimate their resolve. Zhese people, zhey don't need me. Zhey're strong. Zhey won't be hintimidated, by you or by hanyone hanymore." He pauses, lets a little smile play across his lips. "Of course, zhere is one hother consideration."
The son of Shaya sneers. "What's that?"
The suited man spreads his hands. "We are many."
At that two lines of hard-faced youths in matching T-shirts emblazoned with the winged bicycle wheel pour into the field from both flanks simulatenously. The Kala Kala punks spin to face them but are quickly overwhelmed. The youths, however, do not attack, but merely manhandle each punk into submission, pinning their arms behind their backs and kicking out their feet from under them until they are pressed into the concrete. They are outnumbered two to one by the youths, and four to one if the crowd of bikers is counted. The crowd is no longer dissolving but crystallizing, forming a solid barrier between Kala Kala and the street. Three machetes are handed to the suited man, who collects them into a bundle on leans on them like a short cane.
The son of Shaya doesn't flinch. "Go on," he challenges. "Break their bones. Do you know how many more I have? They're disposable."
A number of the punks look askance at their commander upon hearing this.
"No," says the suited man in a voice that carries across the bikefield. "Nobody is disposable. Nobody's bones are breaking today." He turns to the pinned punks, shaking his head. "You can renounce zhis life, you know. You want ze money? You ride as we do. You are welcome to ride, like hanyone."
The punks look at each other. The son of Shaya frowns. "Don't listen to this bullshitter!" he bellows. "You know what my father will do to you, each of you, and your families."
The suited man laughs. "For ze contrast, I am hoffer you a way to feed your family. It is hup to you, for choosing, which way to liff."
He signs a small salute to the youths, who respond by releasing the gang members. They slowly get to their feet, rubbing their arms and wincing, eyes darting warily.
There is a thick moment of inaction.
And then one of the punks opens his mouth. He moans a staccato mumble of wordless lilting, sweat on his brow.
It takes Luc a moment to decode the slipshod crooning: it's La Marseillaise.
The others have no trouble. The crowd picks up the melody instantly and begins to fill in the gaps, some shouting malformed versions of the words, most belting out nonsense syllables in rough rhythm. One more punk joins in, and then another and another.
"You see ze power of song?" asks the suited man playfully. "You see ze power of peace? Go home, son of Shaya. Tell your Daddy you've lost this war."
The son of Shaya is an island in a sea of joined voices. He glowers rather than show fear. A single loyal hooligan stands at his side, searching fruitlessly for an avenue of escape. The crowd begins to advance and the remaining Burmese are forced to retreat, shuffling backward as they are relentlessly herded.
A triumphant cheer resounds as the son of Shaya and his last loyal fool topple into the canal, coughing and sputtering.
Luc finds himself standing next to the suited man, watching the spectacle of the Kala Kala rats dodging gondola poles as they swim to the opposite bank. The suited man looks over. "Nice suit," he says.
"Thank you," says Luc. "That was some performance there."
"And that's some accent," he notes chattily. "You're awesome. And your suit looks just like his, too. I guess I'm not the only one to come up with the idea of aping the Frenchman."
"You do a good job."
"That accent is just killer!" enthuses the suited man. "Do you actually speak French or something?"
"I learn some in school," shrugs Luc.
"Right on, buddy," he says, clapping Luc on the shoulder. "Vive les Bicyclettes Libres, eh?"
"Vive les Bicyclettes Libres," agrees Luc.
Dade loads the beaten field captain into the back of Paco's taxi, then bangs twice on the roof. Paco salutes and pulls cautiously out into the road, bound for a hospital. He coasts in beside a cow and then accelerates, honking as he goes. Luc watches after the car. "He's going to be alright?"
"Broken arm, he'll be fine," says Dade as they begin to walk. "So, what's the situation with the copycat Look?"
Luc dodges a stray dog as they squeeze between two wallas carts, then dodges again to avoid the urchins chasing down the dog for meat. "Like you say, he's a copycat me."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"No. Why should it?"
"He's taking a cut of your coin."
Luc shrugs. "It is earned, the coin. He said just what I would have said."
"He said exactly what you did say, yesterday, at Battery Pond."
They turn on West Twenty-Fourth, the air thick with birds circling over a grocers' market. "This is a good sign, my friend. Every living thing, she replicates. It means our movement is alive. Like you say, it is bigger than us. It is it's own animal."
Dade grumbles. "It just seems like credit should go where credit's due, you know?"
"I don't mind," replies Luc seriously, "especially when due credit might mean being dead in the gutters. The risk is share, so the moneys should be share, too."
They take lunch at the Old Eatery Restaurant with a selection of top field captains and scouts, tucked into their usual booth in the back corner. Luc spins the end of his beer in the bottom of the glass and then drains it as he listens to the latest intelligence report on Kala Kala movements.
Jennifer Hampton, chief scout, tallies the day's details with her sharp chin in her palm, flipping through her notebook. "They're obviously putting some effort into keeping tabs on us," she concludes; "for the past week they've been ghosting you, turning up within an hour either side of your inspections."
"Basically, then, we have to switch up our rounds at this point," offers Dade, speaking around a mouthful of rice.
Jennifer shakes her head. "I don't think so. The false-Lucs have put a crimp in their intel -- now they don't know if you're coming or going."
Vincent wags a slice of buttered bread meaningfully for a moment until he swallows, then says, "I don't like those guys. They're opportunists. They should be working through us."
Luc snorts, puts his empty glass down hard. "Why for? The point is not for us to own the bikes, Vincent, the point is to make sure the peoples can use the bikes without being terrorize."
"We're building this thing," argues Vincent, "we should keep control to make sure it stays on course."
"Why for?" Luc says again, more sharply. "Do you want us to become like them? Is that your wish? A war of the gangs, winners taking all?"
"We can keep it clean," says Vincent.
"That is the bullshit," Luc replies evenly. "If we take their role, even our own version of the role, we will become like them. Mark my word: we will be sitting at this very table planning beatings, each of us the monster."
"Not me," says Jennifer. "I believe in this, Luc. It's about giving the power back to the people. I'm not losing sight of that. I've ridden those bikes under Kala Kala for three years and the Scarpellis before that -- and I won't ever subject someone else to what I had to go through. I'm here because I need to feed my daughter, and I don't want to lose any more teeth over it."
There is a general nod of agreement around the table. Luc silences the muttering by holding up his hand. "Jenniver, yes, never lose sight. Okay. But we must be always bearing in mind the greed. Do not any of us become greedy for the total control, or believe it is our due. We do this for every biker, not for just us ourself."
There is a silent pause, then Dade begins to nod. "Luc's right. We all know it. We just have to keep it all in perspective, right?"
"Right," concedes Vincent.
Jennifer nods uneasily. "Right."
In the afternoon Luc and Dade ride. They have their choice of bikefields. Luc wows a group of onlookers by peaking out at almost seven hundred watts, but he's oblivious to their enthusiasm in his private riding zone. Dade accepts tribute on his behalf, tallying every coin in his notebook. When it's his turn to ride his pushes himself to match Luc's output, ends up gasping for breath and retching in a bush.
"How do you do it?" he pants.
"It's not me," claims Luc, avoiding his eyes. "It's Jesu."
The day wanes. Luc walks home. He still feels disturbed by the direction of the conversation over lunch, scrubs over and over again through the words in his memory, fretting. He worries about what they're becoming, and where it all will end. He wonders how long it can go on before it comes down to a contest of murders.
He stops in the middle of the New Williamsburg Bridge, watches cargo barges slip beneath him, sails flapping in the indecisive twilight breeze. He scans up and down along the rail, noting a few others who, like him, are staring out over the water, hands clasped loosely over the edge.
When he works his way back into traffic to continue walking he notices that one of his fellow contemplators has also broken off staring, and is now feeding himself into the current of people two dozen paces behind Luc. He's pale, bearded, thin, nervous.
He's still there when Luc hits Wythe. When Luc lolligags the man doesn't catch up, instead slowing to an awkward saunter. When Luc speeds up the tail accelerates to match, lingering unconvincingly at wallas' carts whenever Luc glances over his shoulder.
He heads the wrong way down South Fourth, away from the boarding house. He passes into a market and worms into the densest part of the crowd, swallowed by zealous dickering, pressing hands, flapping parasols. Without warning he strafes sideways and pops into the mouth of a narrow alley, hugging the bricks.
A pimple-scarred prostitute servicing a blind man looks up, startled. "Don't mind me," whispers Luc.
"You want a date?" she asks once her mouth is clear.
"No thank you."
An instant later the tail comes into view, looking around desperately. He steps up on a milk-crate and cranes his neck, panning his view over the clot of humanity and wringing his bony hands. "Fuck, shit, fuck," he wheezes. "Where'd you go, Frenchman?"
Luc steps out of the alley. He takes the man's arm roughly and hauls him off the milk-crate. He's impossibly light. "What do you want?" Luc hisses in his face. "What do you think you're doing?"
The skinny man blinks rapidly and his nostrils flare, tugging back against Luc's grasp. "Fuck fuck," he pleads, "please don't cut off my head."
Luc appears to mull this over for a second. "We'll see," he says. "Who sent you?"
"Son of Shaya's going to give me a fix," he blubbers, his face contorting childishly. "Alls I have to do is tell him where you live, man. I didn't want to, but I got no choice. Shit, please don't kill me. Please, man. Have a heart."
"You ask me to have a heart when you're doing a job to endanger my family?" demands Luc, squeezing the man's arm.
"I just need a fix, man. Fuck." He starts to cry, his hands shaking. "Fuck, shit, fuck," he moans.
Luc is disgusted. He sighs, his eyes wandering over the rooftops and catching sight of a rusted crucifix glinting in the bronze sunset. "Alright," he says, letting go of the scrawny tail's arm. "You have five second to run, otherwise..." Luc trails off, zips a finger across his neck to demonstrate his point.
"Fuck!" says the tail, recoiling. He staggers into a group of Indians, shoves them aside and runs away.
Luc leans back against the bricks, pinching the bridge of his nose. He opens his eyes at the sound of footfalls behind him, watches the blind man tap his way out of the alley. The prostitute wipes her lips on the back of her hand and kicks out a hip as she swaggers over. "Hey," she cooes, "you're the Frenchman, aren't you?"
"I'm not from France," mumbles Luc.
"You're the bicycle guy."
"I'm not no one," he snaps. "Leave me alone, okay?"
She leaves, a tiny purse bouncing against her ass. Luc is left standing the alley, suddenly too tired to move. He is famous and afraid. On this side of the river he feels too vulnerable to bear it -- too close to Celise, too close to the baby.
"Tabernac," he swears quietly, shaken.