Authors: Bill Eidson
For Donna and Nick
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Eidson
I would like to thank Frank Robinson, Richard Parks, David Hartwell, Jim Minz, Karen Lovell, Catherine Sinkys, Bill Eidson, Sr., Rick Berry, Kate Mattes, Nancy Childs, and Sibylle Barrasso for their help with my career and this story.
They finished the climb and waited on their bikes for the light to change. Ahead of them, the street plunged for five straight city blocks down the kind of hill for which San Francisco was famous. If a walking man tripped, he wouldn’t stop rolling until he reached the flat of the next intersection. At the bottom, the street took a hard left turn before heading uphill again.
Traffic was heavy up ahead, and the sun was hot enough to make the air shimmer. Royal could smell the oil that the sun brought up to the pavement surface. Cars crossed at the intersections.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said.
Beside him, the blond man smiled and breathed deeply. “Me, I feel great. You should be terrific at this. Much better than me.”
“You can get hurt too, man.”
“Of course I can.” The blond man handed him a hundred-dollar bill. “That’s the fee. You know how to get the prize.”
“Ah, man, look—”
“Shut up, Royal. Talk is not what I’m here for.”
Royal stared back at him. The fucker was dressed in black skintight spandex. Red stripes, leather waist pack, helmet, bike shoes, the bit. Couple years past thirty, probably. Blue eyes, smiling WASP face. In any other circumstance, with any other guy with a similar description, Royal would have put him on the ground.
Royal knew this, but something about this guy made him take it.
Royal told himself it was the craving. He had it something bad. Two hundred more bucks if he raced to the bottom of the hill first. Money in his hand, and he needed that, no shit. Fire up the pipe. Plus the guy got him right where it counted—the one thing Royal could do was
Royal’s legs were pumped hard as rocks, and he knew his machine. He rolled back and forth on the bike and snapped his brakes, feeling their solid clamp on the wheel rims. Even through the jones, he took pleasure in the absolute, oiled perfection of his bike. He had picked out the frame and put the rest of it together one part at a time: a Shimano derailleur, Scott handlebars. That was before he had started smoking the crack. Lately, he had been thinking about selling the bike, but he needed it for his messenger job, and there were other things to sell, other things to steal.
And he had a hard time seeing himself without the bike. It was like if it was gone, he was gone.
Gonna to take care of business with it today, he told himself.
Royal licked his lips, but his tongue was dry. Could he count on the bastard to keep his promise? The guy had shown Royal the cash already. Flashed it right after he had pulled up beside Royal, Lucine, and Burlie. The three of them had been drinking some pop, letting the sweat cool. The guy said he had been asking around, and that Royal who rode for Abbanat Messenger was supposed to be fast, was that true?
fast,” Royal had said, and then the guy made the bet. Then Lucine had told Royal that he wasn’t going to race. Bitch said it right in front of Burlie. “This dude’s weird and you ain’t taking him on, and I mean it, Royal.”
He could tell right away she knew she had stepped in it. But there was no way she could take it back. And no way he could let it go, not with the two others right there looking at him. “You on, Homey,” he’d said. Lucine had taken off, face set like one of them frigging sphinxes, and Burlie had gone with her, shaking his head and grinning at Royal.
Royal had felt bad about Lucine. She was bossy as hell, but she was all right. But he wanted to race the guy. It wasn’t just the money. There was something about him that made Royal
to show him how fast he could ride.
Now the guy waved down the hill. Far below, right down at the bottom, Royal saw someone wave back. It was a woman. Royal could see her yellow hair from there, could even tell from that far away she was a looker.
That gave him a bad jolt. “What’s this shit? You got some fucking cheerleader, man?”
The guy shrugged. “Hey, your girl could’ve come. Don’t know that the two of them have that much in common. But I’d have made the introductions.”
Royal looked at him hard. “The fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
The guy ignored the question. “Light’s about to change. Remember, not just to the fifth light, but around the bend where the hill starts to climb again. You’ve got to beat me.”
Royal set himself. “Oh, I’m gonna.”
“One other thing.” The blond took out a pair of wire cutters from his belly pouch, and faster than Royal could’ve imagined, the guy reached over and cut Royal’s front and rear brake cables.
“What the hell?”
The guy calmly snipped his own.
Royal’s heart flopped. “You cocksucker!” A quick glance at the traffic below, the sickeningly steep plunge down to the hard left. The short little guardrail. The girl’s face turned up toward them. Royal’s voice turned high-pitched. “You crazy?”
“Hell, yes.” The blond guy was sweating, too. But it was more than from the ride up. He looked excited, happy almost. “The prize just went up. Five hundred.”
“We’re gonna be hitting sixty by the time we reach that fifth light!”
“So back out.”
The light turned green.
Royal hesitated. Behind them, a car horn sounded. The guy watched him, grinning. He clutched at his throat mockingly. “Choking? Tell your chick that. She’ll tell you you’re still a man.” He shoved off down the hill.
“Motherfucker,” Royal spat, and then he shoved off too.
Royal clicked the brakes automatically. Nothing. He reached back with his right foot and braced his heel against the frame and let the wheel rub against the bottom of his shoe. The bicycle slowed, but that would only be good for setting up, it would never stop him.
He was already going too fast just to bail out—not without losing lots of skin on that asphalt. Royal had made runs as fast before, but with the full use of his brakes to adjust. He started looking ahead, trying to find his path.
The hill seemed to suck him down. Already the wind rushed past his head, blurring his vision. He snapped down his sunglasses and pedaled hard, catching up to the blond in the first traffic-free block. The intersection came up fast, and he let his arms absorb the impact as the front wheel hit the flat of the cross street. When he reached the other side, he simply pushed the wheel down and tucked. Beside him, the blond guy lifted the front wheel and flew a couple of feet.
Showy bastard, Royal thought, and kept his head down.
He rode the yellow double line for most of the next block, sweeping past the cars braking for the next light. The other rider was right behind him. Royal looked far ahead: Guy coming up the hill in a big old Buick looking left, was he going to turn in front of him? The guy didn’t have his signal on.
Yeah, thought Royal, his quick eyes picking the broken glass of the turn signal.
This car don’t tell.
Royal kept his front wheel kissing that double line, and when the dickhead in the Buick suddenly pulled a hard left in front of the oncoming cars, and then stopped, Royal was ready. He pumped hard in his top gear and raced around the ass end of the big boat just before the next car up the hill blocked the intersection completely. Its horn blared, the tires screeching as the driver was suddenly faced with two bikers.
Royal wondered suddenly if he had gone too far.
The guy behind him didn’t scream. Royal put a fast glance over his shoulder and was amazed to find the guy still drafting him, less than a foot behind.
Paint. He must have scraped through on paint.
Up ahead, a paneled van was crowding the left lane. Royal whipped in behind a Toyota and plunged down the right side of the hill. The blond guy stayed with the double lines. Royal was doing risky shit, but he could still see over the cars on his left. Even though he was approaching forty miles an hour, he kept his hands light on the handlebars and kept an eye on the left-hand mirrors of the parked cars. A face appearing in any one of those could mean an opening door, or worse, a driver about to pull out.
I’m on it, Royal told himself. Doing what I do best.
Even so, when the big white lady stepped out from the curb at the next intersection with her arms full of groceries, Royal used all his considerable arm strength to clamp the useless brake grips to the handlebars. It wasn’t until he was upon her that his body broke into the magic that years of riding had taught him.
He slipped around her, bumped into the side of a moving panel truck and kicked off. The truck’s horn wailed behind him as he crossed the next intersection.
The blond bastard was ahead of him by at least one bike length, and still pedaling for all he was worth. Pedaling. Didn’t that bastard see the next light was already turning yellow?
Course he did, Royal realized, and poured on the power too. Who knew what they would do at the light after that, but running this light was the only way to live this block out, and the one thing Royal had learned in his twenty-two years on the street was that if you were still moving, you were still alive. He started drafting the blond biker and stuck right with him through a two-lane swerve to bypass a drifting U-Haul straight-truck.
And then the traffic up ahead went into a dead stall. Two lines of traffic behind a big old truck, the driver lifting up the hood.
Royal would have died right there had it been left up to him.
His balls froze up inside him, he went totally rigid. But the blond cut a hard right, going straight for the sidewalk. He jumped over the steep curb and rode right into the busy afternoon crowd.
People were scrambling out of the way, yelling. Royal flashed past them, having seconds only to notice a young woman grabbing a kid wearing a bright yellow T-shirt; a heavily muscled brother shouted. A second later, he ran over the toes of a fat old guy wearing a suit, but recovered his control just in time to miss clipping his handlebars on a parking meter.
That would’ve done me, he thought.
The two of them were hitting fifty at this point.
Something inside of Royal broke, and he screamed to the only one who had a clue as to what was in his head at that moment—the other biker: “Jack. Hey, Jack, how about this?”
They launched their bikes off the sidewalk and flew.
The traffic jam on the fifth block had kept the final stretch free of cars. Royal was digging in, making those years in the saddle pay. Aware now of the girl up ahead, the blonde. He knew she was the dude’s, but that made Royal work all the harder. If the fucker was gonna show off in front of his cheerleader, he had best take the consequences.…
Royal liked the sound of that in his head, and he put those words to work right on his pedals: Take—the—Consequences.
The blond guy had the inside, but just as they flashed by the woman, Royal took the lead. Royal felt a sharp burst of pride, wishing Lucine had been right there beside the bitch. But he shoved all that down and settled in for the curve ahead. He almost reached back with his foot to hit the rear tire, but figured he could take that corner if he laid the bike all the way over.
The tires were inches away from the gravel on the soft shoulder. The roofs of the houses below flashed by. Gonna make it, he exulted.
Then there would be the uphill to slow him down, the laugh he’d have at that blond bastard—the guy was a good rider, he’d give him that. He risked a glance over. The guy looked back.
Crazy eyes, Royal thought, then put his head down, concentrating on the win.
That’s when the blond guy drifted into him.
It wasn’t a hard hit, didn’t have to be.
Royal suddenly found himself sitting straight up through the curve, surprised. He hit the gravel, slid, started to fall. He corrected by jabbing the wheel toward the guardrail, but that was just a reflex. He knew he was screwed. The front wheel hit the low fence and crumpled.