Read Launched! Online

Authors: J A Mawter

Launched!

For Norry

Chapter One

‘Race you!’ Green eyes flashed like fireflies as Darcy turned his gaze to Mio.

‘You’re on.’ Brown eyes flashed back. ‘Where?’ Darcy looked up and down the street, his eyes narrowing as he searched for a finish line. People were streaming from work, heads down, determined to put the day behind them. Cars clogged the streets, nudging forward in their quest for home. Motorbikes wove in and out of the traffic and buses lurched and spluttered, strangulating the air with fumes. ‘Race you to the railway station sign and back,’ said Darcy.

‘Hmph!’ said Mio, eyeing the sign in the distance. ‘Some race. I’ll be back before you’ve even started.’

Five riders stood astride their bikes. The late afternoon sun bounced off helmets and handlebars and bells and reflectors, giving the group an eerie luminescent glow. They were an odd assortment of kids, drawn together by their love of riding, especially stunt riding. There were the twins, Darcy and Clem Jacobs, with their hair that had changed from red to strawberry blonde in the summer and whose love–hate relationship was legendary. There was Bryce, with his love of music and food (not necessarily in that order), and Mio, who still missed Japan, and the newest recruit, Tong.

Darcy turned to Tong, asking, ‘What about you? You up for it?’

‘Yes.’ Tong’s willowy body tensed like a strong sapling. Despite his slender frame, he could go head-to-head with any of them. Ever since he joined the Freewheelers and was given his own bike Tong had practised and practised, and now he could keep up with the best.

‘Let’s all race,’ said Clem, but as she looked at the traffic whooshing past and the people propelling themselves to the station like lemmings, taking up not only the footpath but the gutters and half the road as well, she modified this with, ‘On handicap. We leave at thirty-second intervals and adjust our times when we get back.’ She turned to Tong, saying, ‘We race. First Darcy. Wait thirty
seconds…’ She held up a hand to emphasise the point. ‘Then you. Wait thirty seconds. Then Mio. Got it?’


Phái.
’ Despite his intensive language lessons, Tong still found the Vietnamese words popped out more easily than the English. He grinned, adding, ‘Yes.’

Clem grinned back, eager to begin. She turned to Bryce, saying, ‘I’ll go last if you like.’

‘Suits me,’ said Bryce. ‘Might be the only time I’m ahead of someone.’

Clem laughed, glanced at her watch then looked up. ‘Ready?’

They all nodded.

‘Attention!’ called Clem, pitching her voice low so it boomed through the air like a loudspeaker. ‘Riders ready!’ Darcy hunkered lower on the battered old bike he called Bullet, and adjusted one foot on the pedal. ‘
Go!

Darcy pushed down and pedalled hard, like an athlete off a starting block. He grunted as he laboured to gain speed, his thoughts on the finish line and winning. Expertly he spun the wheels, avoiding the push-push motion that would sap his energy.

‘Go!’

Tong shot off—catapulted more like it—his legs going from ‘rest’ to ‘burn’ in microseconds. His
hands clawed the handlebars like chickens’ feet and his mouth clamped into a grim line. He wanted to be the fastest Freewheeler of them all. Up, down, up, down, went his legs, his helmet bobbing like a basketball. Tong glanced up. He wasn’t gaining on Darcy, but he wasn’t losing ground either.

‘Go!’

Up ahead, Mio could see the two boys, heads bowed, legs pumping. Pushing off with an almighty grunt she gave chase. Straightaway she gained on Tong, her advantage being her newer and lighter bike. She settled her eyes on Tong’s saddle, determined to gain on him. Millimetre by millimetre she did. It was like hooking a big fish and slowly reeling it in. Sooner or later she would catch him.

‘Now us,’ said Clem to Bryce.

She held up her hand, her finger extended, then let it drop as she shouted, ‘Go!’

Bryce had only gone a few metres when he had to swerve to miss a hubcap lying on the road. He yanked on the handlebars but overcorrected, so instead of straightening out he skidded sideways. ‘Gonzo!’ he cursed himself, annoyed that precious moments had been wasted.

‘Go!’ cried Clem to herself as she chased the others. In a way it was best to go last. Darcy was
the one who had to carve a path through the traffic, who had to swish and swerve to create the openings, while Clem rode in the slipstream behind.

Up ahead Darcy was cruising nicely, confident of being the fastest, when all of a sudden there was the whirring of spokes behind him.
What?
he thought, and in the time it took to swivel his head one rider overtook his mark.

Tong couldn’t think of the words ‘slow coach’ or ‘snail’ as he went past so he called, ‘See you at finish,’ instead.

Darcy gave chase, desperate to regain the lead, but he had forgotten how much experience Tong had weaving in and out of the throngs of people and bikes and cars back in Vietnam, and the advantage that this gave him.

The closer they got to the railway station, the harder the race became. Men and women strait-jacketed in business suits, nannies taking grizzly children home in strollers, tired and grumpy school kids, not to mention their even more tired and grumpy parents, made it a minefield. Despite his skill, even Tong had to slow down. Before long, Mio caught up, but the three front riders were now porpoising all over the place, reacting to their bikes and the crowds rather than dominating them.

‘Whoa!’ called Darcy as a pedestrian bolted in front of him, making him pull up suddenly.

‘Get off the road,’ snarled the woman.

‘The road is here to share!’ Darcy yelled to her departing back, scoring a nod of agreement from Mio.

Further back, Clem and Bryce were oblivious to the altercation. ‘How goes it, Bryce?’ panted Clem as she drew level.

Bryce gave a wry grin. ‘Didn’t take you long,’ he conceded.

‘Sixty-five seconds exactly.’

‘Sixty-five seconds and I’m wasted,’ said Bryce. He eased up, allowing Clem to push ahead. Then he glanced down at his Mandela T-shirt and smiled at the quote:
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
He took a deep breath, leant forward and picked up speed.

By now, Tong was so close he could almost reach out and touch the railway station sign when a small child darted out from the crowd in front of him. He slammed on his brakes and wrenched the handlebars to the side, sliding a good few metres before pulling up. The air was filled with the pungent smell of burning rubber. It was a miracle no-one was hurt.

‘Markus, come!’ yelled an older boy, grasping a handful of coat and yanking the child to his side.
Markus let out a high-pitched squeal, loud enough to start its own avalanche. Tong flinched. People slowed mid-step, wondering what the commotion was about.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Bryce, pulling up beside Tong and Darcy and wincing at the screaming child, hoping against hope that his dad and Cara’s new baby wouldn’t be a screamer. We’ll soon know, he thought.

‘Nearly hit boy,’ said Tong, visibly shaken. He jumped off his bike, pushed the handlebars towards Darcy and said, ‘Hold, please.’ All the while his eyes stayed glued on the child. By now the little boy had revved up to a full-scale shriek and a crowd had gathered. Tears coursed down his pinched cheeks to nose-dive onto his coat. His face was berry red and his nostrils streamed with thick mucus, which every so often he smeared across his cheeks with the back of his hand, leaving a skid mark like a snail trail.

Poor little mite!
thought Darcy as he watched the older boy flapping a hand around, but in reality making little effort to soothe the child.

Gingerly Tong stepped forward, his heart seared with pain. Dropping to his haunches he said, ‘Sorry. I give you big fright.’ But as he went to pat the child the older boy shoved him away. ‘Leave him alone,’ he yelled. ‘Don’t hurt him.’

Tong staggered back, blinking. He wondered why the bigger boy was so angry when the little boy wasn’t hurt. More kids appeared out of nowhere.

By now Mio, Clem and Bryce had caught up. Clem made a quick appraisal of the situation. She jumped off her bike, raced over to the little boy and scooped him up in her arms, making shooshing sounds as she rocked him. Having four younger brothers made Clem an expert at diversionary tactics, but even she failed to put a dent in the outpourings and wailings of this child. Clem turned to Tong and asked, ‘You sure you didn’t hurt him?’

But before Tong had a chance to shake his head there was a rush of movement. The older boy lunged for Clem’s bike. Catching the movement out of the corner of her eye, Clem let out a shout, ‘Oi!’ With lightning speed Mio sprang off her saddle and snatched for the bike, managing to get a grip on the down tube. It all happened so fast: one minute Tong was on his haunches, Darcy was holding up Clem’s bike and Clem was cuddling the little boy, then all of a sudden bikes and boys were flying everywhere.


Tasukete!
’ cried Mio, clinging to Clem’s bike like a limpet. ‘Help!’

Clem plopped the little boy back on the pavement and joined in the tug-of-war with the
older brother. The other children who had so suddenly appeared started screeching and squawking, moving about in what looked like wild and random hops and jumps, twists and twirls. To an onlooker it was total chaos.

But to Bryce’s practised eye it was a set-up.

He scanned the crowd, looking for the tell-tale signs…and sure enough, a silver coin disappeared from Mio’s pocket, glinting in the sun before it melded into the palm of a hand. Bryce watched with morbid fascination as another small hand plucked a lip balm from Clem’s shirt pocket; and if he wasn’t mistaken, Tong was relieved of a packet of sweets. And it happened in the blink of an eye.

As fast as it began, it stopped.

The older boy let go of Clem’s bike, sending Mio toppling. The small child abruptly stopped crying and the other children scattered as the older boy scooped up the youngster and went in pursuit.

‘Stop them!’ yelled Bryce. But the crowd was dense, and the kids were nimble and small enough to vanish in front of their eyes. Bryce reeled with shock. He’d seen one of them before, a girl, but where? He searched the recesses of his mind but he couldn’t place her. And now she and the others were long gone. Bryce shook his head. That was the slickest operation he’d ever seen.

‘I no understand,’ said Tong, hopping back on his bike, his fingers plucking at the rubber tubing on one of the handlebars.

‘Pickpockets,’ said Bryce. ‘Little scammers.’

Clem thought of the young child, not much older than her brother Tim. She shook her head to clear away such an ugly thought. ‘They couldn’t’ve been,’ she said. ‘One of them looked about four or five and the others weren’t much older than eight, Jonas’s age.’

Mio shivered. In Japan, crimes like this were unheard of.

‘How can you be sure?’ asked Darcy.

‘’Cause I saw them doing it,’ answered Bryce, and to emphasise the point he added, ‘with my own eyes.’

Silence greeted that remark.

‘Check your pockets,’ he urged.

‘My money’s gone!’

‘So’s my lip gloss.’

‘And my sweets.’ Tong felt a pang of loss, for these sweets, with their sweet and sour taste, reminded him of the food back home.

‘When you were fighting over Clem’s bike and Darcy was minding Tong’s I watched them. They were pickpockets alright. Seen their sort before.’

‘You would’ve,’ said Darcy with a snort.

Bryce glared at Darcy and replied with as much calm as he could muster, ‘Yes, I would.’ He felt like he would never be able to forget his past—the days on the street instead of at school, being caught for shoplifting, and the final straw, doing graffiti (or graf as his friends called it) and being sprung. Bryce closed his eyes as a familiar face flitted through his memory, the face of the judge at the juvenile court, the face that had given the reprieve that would change his life.

‘Should we tell the police?’ asked Clem, shaking Bryce out of his reverie.

‘Yes,’ said Mio, but Bryce said ‘No’ at the same time.

‘What are we going to tell them?’ he asked. ‘That we think we saw a gang of pickpockets. Sounds iffy if you ask me.’

‘But what about our stuff?’ asked Clem.

‘Not worth it.’ Bryce shrugged. ‘Besides, they’re long gone now. There’s nothing we can do.’

Clem pouted as she thought this through. ‘I guess…’

‘I’m hungry,’ announced Bryce.

‘Me too.’

‘And me.’

‘I is hungry too.’


Am,
Tong. I am hungry too,’ corrected Clem.

Darcy looked at his watch then said, ‘It’s getting late. Maybe we should go home.’ He turned to Clem. ‘Dad won’t notice but Mum’ll be getting worried.’

Clem nodded. ‘And I promised to bath Tim and Drew before Friday night Shabbat dinner.’

Mio, through clenched teeth, added, ‘And I have violin practice.’

‘Can’t see Cara getting too concerned,’ said Bryce, bristling at the thought of his young stepmother. ‘But I’d better be off, too.’

‘I go home now. See you tomorrow. What time?’ asked Tong.

‘Hockey’s finished by eleven,’ said Clem, who played in an Under 14s mixed team comp with Darcy.

‘So’s karate,’ said Mio.

‘Guitar will be over by twelve,’ said Bryce.

‘Why don’t we meet at The Van at say, half past twelve?’ suggested Clem. Then she asked, ‘Want to make peanut butter banana wheels?’

Bryce frowned. ‘What about ants on a stick? They’re my favourite.’ Nobody argued, so he said, ‘Ants it is.’ He caught the look on Tong’s face and burst out laughing. ‘Not real ants. Yummy ones. You’ll see. I’ll bring all the stuff we need.’

Despite looking sceptical, Tong said, ‘Good.’
Then he put out his hand, palm downwards, and cried, ‘Freewheeler!’

Four hands stacked themselves on top.

‘Freewheelers!’

As Bryce rode away, his fingers felt for the reassuring outline of his key-ring with a metal tube in his pocket.

It was gone.

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