The Bikes of New York is a science-fiction novella of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your hinterland host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Winter has finally caught up with Ontario. It's a whipped cream wonderland outside, with marshmallow cars and wind-polished sidewalk rides. Our discount was great, but the amount to endure is still greater.
I retaliate with long-johns, thick socks, an absurd hat that looks like something greasy and wild has died on my head; long scarf, a parka of holding, glubbulous gloves, extra hot coffee.
My car skates as much as drives, but this is simply a matter of finesse.
Let's continue with our story:
It rains, it rains, it rains.
New York is enveloped in a swamp of brown dust, a summer's worth of grit and grime and flaked skin airborne into billowing clouds of haze that roil up between the sheets of rain, bent by the wind, bleeding off over the Atlantic in a series of murky waves. The streets run with mire.
Today water is free, and everyone has a bucket out.
Parasols become umbrellas and the trams are packed. I can always find a couple of dollars to splurge on transit rather than walk on a day like this, and I bet you do, too. The sidewalks are still full, however, because to many more there is no choice: that dollar must be bread.
Luc Drapeau hops off the streetcar, tugs up his cuffs to avoid splashing his slacks. He juggles his briefcase while his umbrella unfurls with a clicking whine of spring-loaded clockwork. It's Swiss.
He hums Offenbach.
Luc crosses half of Park Avenue and then steps up onto the boulevard island, his pace slowing when he sees that Dade is not waiting for him at the fountain. Luc squints at the pavement. Scratched into the upper layer of grime is the word RUN in crude strokes, rapidly washing away.
He leaves off the humming, looks up and turns slowly in place, scanning carefully beneath the low hem of his umbrella. He spots Dade. He's on the far side of the street, standing in line at a food walla's cart, looking back at Luc through a curtain of rain drooling off the awning. Dade points at Luc, and then raises his hands and makes two fingers scurry in his opposite palm.
Luc begins to walk along the boulevard, circling tightly around the fountain as he pans his head in search of danger. He accelerates, swinging his briefcase. To you or I it looks like he's just received an urgent call, or he's late for an important meeting. But Luc's heart is beating to save his life, his legs coming alive with adrenaline.
He looks over his shoulder. There's a blue and white police cruiser there, dogging his steps. Luc takes off at a sprint. In seconds his toes are barely tapping the ground as he lays on a surge of real speed, his briefcase swinging and his furling umbrella pointed like a javelin.
He risks a glance back at Dade across the street. Dade is emphatically gesturing "No!"
Two cars with reflective windows draw out of oncoming traffic. Before they've bumped against the curb four big brown men in sombre grey suits have stepped out and begun crossing the boulevard to converge around Luc.
Luc tries to stop but he's going too fast. He slips on the slick pavement, stumbles over his runners, pirouettes out of control. His briefcase goes sailing high over Park Avenue, trailing an arc of spray. Luc skids directly into the four men. He's caught roughly and propelled in a coordinated motion by several sets of hands directly into the back of the first car. He smacks his head against the opposite door, his body flying up against him with mis-spun inertia.
A moment later he is compressed rudely between two of the men, three in a seat designed for two. The doors are closed and car is already moving. Though the tinted windows Luc gazes forlornly at the police cruiser crawling along in traffic on the other side of the boulevard, running the plate of a Dell with a broken tail reflector.
"Tabernac," mutters Luc.
"Shut up," says the man on his left.
The car creeps forward. The windshield wipers clunk back and forth. Luc's head hurts. He can see Dade in his peripheral vision, marking their progress as he wrestles his way through the pedestrian parade to keep up. His umbrella is long forgotten and his face runs with rain.
Traffic is really bad.
"Don't do the turn at Fifty-Nine," Luc says to the driver. "Fifty-Eight is better for the morning."
The driver fusses over the controls, scrolling around a satellite fed-map. He glances at Luc in the rearview and then turns on East Fifty-Eighth. They move along more swiftly. "You're right," he says.
"Are you mens from Shaya?" asks Luc.
"That's enough talk," snaps the man on his left. "Block the windows."
The windows turn black. The driver huddles over the dashboard. The radar meeps quietly. Luc leans back into his seat, sandwiched between shoulders, and closes his eyes to wait.
A few thousand breaths later he's escorted from the car and rides an elevator with fancy authentic wood paneling inside. The elevator car smells like cigars, cologne and worry. Luc's belly swoops. "Twenty-one," says the elevator, doors parting.
Luc steps out of the car. Two of his escorts step out with him, and then take places on either side of the doors as they slide closed. Luc looks to the one on his left, who nods at him to continue forward.
There's a fire in the hearth and rain streaming down the tall windows. A dog sleeps on an elaborately woven carpet, legs twitching with dream. There is an unoccupied desk of dark wood. Music is playing: a run of percussion with a distinctive, eastern flavour of tail-biting syncopation and pregnant rests.
Luc stops before the desk, head inclined to the music.
An older gentleman with a halo of wispy white hair walks out from behind a screen, polishing his glasses. He replaces them on his cocoa brow and then dusts his hands on his slacks. "Do you like the music?" he asks. His voice is a mellow baritone.
"Yes," says Luc. "Who is it?"
"Kyaw Kyaw Naing," replies the gentleman, taking a seat behind the desk. "He was a genius." He clears his throat. "Please, sit down."
Luc sits in a plush armchair with ornate arms. "I'm sorry to get your chair a little bit wet," he says. "I lose my umbrella."
"I find your civility gratifying, given the circumstances. But it's no less than I would expect from you, Frenchman. You do operate with a certain sense of style, don't you?"
"My name is Luc," says Luc. "Let's us use none of this the French man, okay? It bother me."
The gentleman smiles. "I'm called Shaya, Luc. You already know this, I hope."
"I do guess that."
"Very good. And, no doubt, you bring to bear a comparable level of insight to what might be the matter of our discussion, yes?"
Luc tightens his lips, looks Shaya in the eye. "We're here to talk about the bike, then maybe you kill me."
Shaya laughs, then shakes his head and folds his wizened hands on the desk before him, rings winking in the light. "Luc, I am a business man. I live by making deals. You are my guest here today."
"Your son, he is not so restrained."
"The Son of Shaya? Ah yes, Hock-Aun. Well, what can I say? The streets are the streets, and they're his play toy." Shaya pauses, rubs his chin thoughtfully. "Perhaps I do the situation too little credit -- they're his proving ground. A safe place for him to stretch his legs and learn the ropes: managing people, handling money, sorting out problems."
Luc furrows his brow. "You do not run the bikes?"
"Gracious me, no," says Shaya. "If this were my affair I can assure you we wouldn't be having this conversation today, you and I, on account of your unavailability. I believe in nipping these sorts of things in the bud, you understand. Hock-Aun, on the other hand, is still learning. He's young. He's let affairs spin quite out of control."
Luc crosses his legs. "So now you clean up after him?"
"Hardly," says Shaya darkly. "He'd never learn a thing, that way. Do you have children?"
"I have one."
"Then you see my point, I'm sure. It's best to let them make their own mistakes in order to maximize the educational value."
Luc lets a beat go by, cocks his head. "So what do you want with me?"
"It's the turncoats that present a problem," says Shaya, spreading his arms. "They're bad for branding. It erodes our mindshare in the city, and that impacts my bottom line. While I'd love to give Hock-Aun all the time in the world to find his feet, business is business."
"I hope you can appreciate what I'm trying to do for these kids. Do you have any idea what things are like back in Myanmar?"
The old man assumes a professorial posture, gesturing at a globe of the Earth on the corner of his desk. "When Bangladesh went under water, America was holding Myanmar. Do you remember? This was before the fuel crisis. They opened the gates to the surge of refugees, and in return promised Myanmar's princes their sons would find opportunity here. Let the Bengali rats into your country, we'll reward you in ours."
The lecturing tone irritates Luc. "So you came..." he prompts.
"Me? Gracious, no. I'm fourth generation. I grew up in Boston. But I did see an opportunity to bring in loyal kinsmen by the boatload to work my factories and run my streets." Shaya sits back, his head high. "I saw my chance to overwhelm the Scarpellis and carve something out for myself here, and I took it. When you've got nothing else up your sleeve, raw numbers work wonders." He clears his throat again, leans forward over his clasped hands. "But numbers require coordination, and to coordinate them I require their loyalty -- loyalty based on Shaya providing them a way of life where every other door is slammed in their faces. That loyalty comes into question when they imagine they could eat from your trough just as well as mine."
Luc takes a breath. "What does that mean for you and I, then?"
"As I said, Luc, I'm a business man. Let's make a deal."
"What do you want?"
"I want you on my side. I want you working with me to keep Kala Kala strong. I want you to run every bike on this island."
"I have other diversions for him," says Shaya with a dismissive wave. "Think about it, Luc -- a salary, personal guards, upward mobility. You can go far. My organization is diverse, and growing fast. What do you say?"
Luc bites his lip, hesitating.
Shaya pushes on. "Consider, before you answer, the alternative. You and your family can never be safe from me as enemies. I would see your children's fingers broken one by one if I thought it would ensure your compliance. As a nuisance you're as good as dead, as a member of my team you could be a prince. Which will it be, Luc? Think seriously. This isn't a bikefield: this is no game that can be won by bluffing."
Luc shakes his head. "I don't have to take my time," he says. "I'm not a hero. I will not go against you, Shaya. You threaten my family, I can only choose to stop. Maybe for a better man it would be hard, but for me this is a decision that is easy."
Shaya smiles, and offers his hand across the desk to shake. "Very good. Welcome to the family, Luc."
Luc purses his lips, doesn't move from his chair. "I will not go against you, Shaya, but I also cannot join on your team," he says carefully. "I wash my hand of it, you understand? I walk away."
Shaya narrows his eyes. "Gracious, man, why? Do you understand what I'm offering you?"
Luc nods. "I do." He stands up slowly, buttons his jacket and flattens it out against his body with a sweep of his hand. "But, with respect, there are some sin I am not prepare to repent come Judgement Day."
Shaya stands, his mouth grim. "Luc," he says simply, imploringly. "Come now."
"You have what you want," Luc says. "I'm gone. You do for the bike as you see fit. It isn't my problem anymore. Just leave me and my family in peace."
Shaya looks into Luc's eyes for a long moment, piercing him. Luc stands firm. Shaya blinks, then begins to nod, his glasses reflecting the overheads like a winking lantern. "Very well. Go in peace, Luc." Then he holds up a single finger in warning. "But, should you slip -- should you find yourself back at the bikes...you appreciate that I owe you no special favour, I hope."
Luc nods once. "I know."
"It would mean war."
Shaya raises his brow, holds Luc's gaze for one last moment, then waves at his men flanking the elevator door. "See our guest safely to a destination of his choosing," he calls, turning toward the windows.
"Thank you," says Luc.
"Not at all."
The boarding house has a leaky roof. The corridors are wet and they resound with a pitter-plop cacophony of drips collecting in pots and pans inside every flat. The candles keep going out, perfuming the air with waxy steam. Luc Drapeau holds out a shivering hand to count the doorjambs until he's home.
The door is whisked open in his face. "Luc!" cries Celise. "Where have you been?"
"Celise," says Luc. "I love you."
She frowns and pulls him inside by one sopping sleeve, propelling him into the corner by the heater and commanding him to strip. He unbuttons his shirt, peels down his pants. Celise closes the door and then leans against it, staring down her narrow nose at him, brow knit. "It isn't the only thing you need to explain," she tells him. "We've received a benefit rebate from the Sewage Department. That's interesting, isn't it, Luc?"
Luc sighs. "Yeah," he concedes. "It is."
"So," she says dangerously, "what else is interesting?"
Luc drips quietly for a moment, his lips blue. Celise scoops up a towel and lobs it at him. "Where's the baby?" he asks, drying off, his eyes anywhere but on hers.
"There's a girl across the hall," says Celise. "She helps me."
He looks up. "You pay her?"
"Where does the money come from?"
"Where does your money come from?"
Luc swears. She scolds him. They stare at each other in quiet rage, cheeks quivering, pupils cold. Luc closes his eyes, drops his head and sits on the edge of the bed. "I have a lot to tell you, Celise," he whispers. "But it's all over now."
"What?" she demands sharply. "What is all over now, Luc?"
He brings his eyes to hers. They're hurting. "The bikes," he says to her. "It's all over with the bikes, Celise. I promise."
"Tell me," she says.
"I will tell you," he replies, nodding somberly. She crosses the room and sits on the bed beside him. "I will tell you everything," he says. "And then we can both forget it, together."
Outside the rain splatters and cackles, drums and prattles.