Sunday, November 02, 2008

It was one of those beastly hot days at the end of June and I was getting bored with the city. What had once been a bustling, vibrant city riding the knife’s edge of change was now a bustling, vibrant city of redundancy. Each day was the same as the one before, wake, work, lunch, work, dinner, sleep and wake again. Day and night slid one into the next and since the city never slept day and night became indistinguishable. The streets were identical, the sidewalk caf├ęs all serving the same thing, the night clubs playing the same song over and over again.
I was getting that itch again. The one I always get after I send a book to the printer or an article to the paper. I was looking for something to write about. I’ve had the feeling before, in Hartford. I was looking for stories and my bland lunch companion and blander meal were fodder only for livejournals dripping with teenage angst. I don’t do teenage angst.
My companion was complaining about the heat and her sunburned nose. I suggested she use sunscreen. She muttered something about zebra cum, made her excuses and left. I left as well, the itch was overpowering and I decided to ask for a favor from a detective friend of mine.
It took some fast talking but I managed to convince him to take me down to Freak Hollow and introduce me to the Elemental Hand. The Hand, infamous thought it is, needs some explanation. After HR 2649 there was an exodus as mutants lost their healthcare and homes as the law cut federal funding and eliminated tax breaks to companies that did business with mutants. It was a cruel measure that left its mark everywhere. A few mutants stayed until the Supreme Court upheld the law, some left when they lost their jobs or homes. Most of the known mutants packed up and left the day after it was passed. No one knew where they went at first but that is a different story.
I speak now of the ones who were left behind. The ones who went into hiding and denied their abilities. And the ones who refused to hide, or couldn’t.
In the meat packing district there is a most unexpected building. Between the trendy furniture stores, restaurants and butcher shops is a motorcycle repair shop. Dingy windows display battered motorcycles and parts. It is a shop that seems perpetually on the verge of failure.
I met my detective friend on the sidewalk outside the shop. He asked if I was still sure about this. I just looked at him and he banged on the door. Not the door to the shop but the door to the adjoining garage.
It was jerked open by a tall, lanky man in battered, oil stained jeans and a leather jacket. He listened as my friend introduced me an then stepped aside for me to enter.
When the door closed with my friend outside I took a quick look around. The garage was dimply lit and filled with metal, metal working equipment and motorcycle parts.
“So then,” the man behind me said with a touch a brogue in his voice, “What does a little girl like you want from the Elemental Hand?”
I turned and saw that he was leaning next to the door. “I heard you were planning a run to Sturgis.”
“And if we are?”
“I want to come with you.” When he raised an eyebrow I added, “I want to write the story of the Elemental Hand.”
He glared, “Publicity huh? We could always use some good publicity and I’ve read our stuff. Unfortunately it’s not up to me.”
“But you like the idea.” I pressed.
“We don’t let just anyone ride with us.”
“I’m not just anyone. I’m an award winning author.”
“You’re the district attorney’s daughter. You could get us in a lot of trouble.”
“Let’s leave my father out of this,” I shot back, “You’re already in a lot of trouble.”
He laughed, “We’re always in trouble. But it’s still not up to me.”
I crossed my arms and said, “Then let me ask someone who can make the decision.”
He grinned at me and then looked at a door over my shoulder and bellowed, “Bagoo!”
I spun around in time to see a door at the top of a flight of stairs fly open with the help of the largest boot I had ever seen in my life. Through the door stepped Bagoo Thunderfist.
Many of you have heard of him and know his reputation. I must tell you now that the man dwarfs his reputation. At that moment he looked about ten feet tall and while his chest isn’t as big around as a keg of beer his biceps are. His chest is actually bigger than a beer keg. He doesn’t have to turn sideways to walk through a door but he does have to duck. He can drink his weight in whiskey and eat more than his weight in beef. I’ve seen him do it.
He came down the stairs two at a time and rumbled, “What do you want Irish?”
That finally made my brain click. The man I had been talking to was Irish Mike. Notorious in a dozen states and up and down the east Coast not only for marauding with the Elemental Hand but also for representing them at trial. Before HR2649 he’d been a prosecutor in the same office as my father. That was then. Now he built custom motorcycles and defended his gang members in court.
Irish glanced at me, seeming to see that I had made the connection. Then he said to Bagoo, “The girl wants to ride to Sturgis with us.”
Bagoo peered down at me and rumbled, “She wants to join she has to prove she’s a freak.”
Now that was something I couldn’t do even if I wanted to. “I don’t want to join.” I said, “I just want to go to Sturgis with you.”
“You talk in circles.” Bagoo said, frowning. “You want to ride with us but you don’t want to join us, this makes no sense.”
“I’m looking for a story.” I said, “The city is stale. I feel like I need to get out and write about something new.”
I watched Bagoo turn that over and over in his mind. He wasn’t stupid; he just didn’t like complex situations. “Ok.” He said eventually, “If you can take that, “He jerked his chin at a motorcycle that was covered with a thick canvas tarp, “around the block then you can come with us.” An almost relieved chuckle went though the gang members who had gathered as Mike reached over and pulled off the tarp.
Under that tarp was a beast of a bike. Now I’d learned how to ride a motorcycle back in college but since then my bike riding had been limited to a yellow Trek named Jimmy and a blue Trek names Roger after Jimmy got mangled in a traffic accident. This machine fairly hummed with barely restrained energy. The knots and clenches of the frame and engine were graceful as well as menacing. Even with the engine off the motorcycle was a coiled spring.
A Vincent Black Shadow. A motorcycle I’d only ever seen in pictures stood in front of me all gleaming chrome and starry black paint. Someone passed me a helmet and I put it on though with a bike like this the helmet was wearing me for protection.
I slid my leg over the bike and settled onto the seat. The grips fit themselves to my hands and, with barely a touch to the starter, the motorcycle roared awake.
The garage door rolled up and I was in the street. I remember little of that abbreviated ride save for a few images. My detective friend standing on the curb. A crowd of trannies on the corner. Crates of meat being unloaded from a truck. A pair of yuppies strolling into a furniture store.
Then I was back in the garage. The bike had been in second gear the entire time. A gear I had been assured by my friend would fuse the bones in my hands and wrists when riding an engine this powerful. But this bike, this bike had purred for me. Everyone on the street had covered their ears as I passed but I had heard only a low rumbling as of a very large man chuckling.
I cut the engine and saw that all the gang members were staring at me. Later I would find out that the Vincent had bucked off everyone else who tried to ride it, even Bagoo. In fact the owner of the bike, the guy who had paid to have it restored, couldn’t even get it to start and had reluctantly abandoned it.
“Ok, fine.” Bagoo’s voice broke the silence ad without another word he went back up the stairs and through the door. Most of the others followed him.
Irish Mike was shaking his head. “Meet us at Columbus Circle.” He said, “Bring a couple changes of clothes and if you can play an instrument bring that too.”
The gang planned to leave on the 4th of July, when the city would be packed with tourists so I spent the next couple of days getting ready. I paid up the rent for a couple of months, stopped the mail and locked up my apartment. At night I got to know the Vincent. Burning around the island in the weird semi-dark that passes for night in New York City. The bike was my only real companion during that week. The rest of the city just faded away as though it had been swallowed by the fog.
The morning of the 4th dawned clear and sunny and I met the Elemental Hand at Columbus Circle on the corner of the park. A few of them had already arrived and were waiting slouched against their bikes, Cifer Dan was squatting next to his motorcycle, smoking a cigarette and making adjustments to his engine. A small crowd had gathered st stare at the mutants and their gleaming motorcycles. A few people, braver than the others or perhaps immune to the government propaganda, cautiously moved forward and asked some timid questions. It was kind of like asking questions of a dozing lion. It seems relatively harmless but at any moment it could decide to take you apart.
Even in the big cities where mutants had been common people were wary around the Elemental Hand. The gangs made the news with some regularity, usually for bar fights that escalated and resulted in the whole or partial demolition of the bar. Those were the kind of events that everyone wanted to be around to watch but no one wanted to get caught up in.
As more Elemental Hand filtered in the crowd and police presence grew. The crowds moved back as though the bikers were possessed of a strange magnetic force that repelled all other humans. The police were much more focused on the crowd, wary of possible troublemakers. The police still remembered the days when mutants had worn the badge alongside them. They also knew from experience that while the bikers almost never started a fight, they were happy to escalate it. Crows were likely to start believing the anti-mutant propaganda and take a mistaken sense of security and power in numbers.
It was that mob mentality that had resulted in the werewolf riots in Atlanta and the Specter riot in Medford. No one had died in those riots but there had been enough property damage and juicy video to keep it on the news for days. Mutants are just like normal people in a lot of ways. If you push them too far they will push back.
All of the bikers were wearing their colors. Leather jackets in various states ranging from pristine to ragged. Prominent on the back of each jacket was the emblem of the Elemental Hand. The focus of the emblem was always a hand but the details of the design varied from club to club. Some were left hands some were right, some were open palms and some were clenched fists. The Manhattan club, which had recently absorbed the remnants of clubs in the other boroughs, was a burning fist with spiked knuckles.
However ragged their jackets might be, the colors were pristine. In fact the only things in better shape than the colors were the bikes. They crouched on the street like animals, some rumbling angrily, most holding a threatening silence. All gleaming chrome and spotless paint it was clear the bikers cared about their stripped down motorcycles than they did about the rest of the world.
Bagoo and Irish Mike arrived last, the former on a Harley that was easily twice the size of any of the other bikes. Yet Bagoo dwarfed his bike almost like a two hundred pound man riding a pony. There was a quick huddle of the thirty or so bikers after they cut the engines. Bagoo and Irish had already planned the route but, to keep wannabes and the authorities from jamming them up, they didn’t tell anyone until the last minute.
Today the plan was to head north to meet the Boston chapter and possibly party for a few days before turning west. The gang had a month to get to North Dakota but a run was more than just trying to get from one place to another. It was about being seen. That was especially these days with the anti-mutant sentiment running so high in rural areas and parts of the south. It was also about trading information on motorcycles, cops and the network.
There was some talk about turning back south after Boston and swinging through Washington D.C. before turning west. A side trip through the capitol would be a provocative and slightly risky move. There were some who were vociferously in favor of it; they wanted to “give the man the finger.” Eventually it was decided not to make a decision on it until they arrived in Boston. It was considered bad luck to begin a run with a stay in jail, a result that was highly likely to happen to anyone who showed the colors anywhere near the nation’s capital.
The huddle dissolved and everyone returned to their bikes and finished the final adjustments of strapping down gear and putting away tools. In moments the bikers had all donned their helmets and leather jackets. There was a brief pause and then the bikes began to start. One by one they roared to life as each member of the Elemental Hand jumped on the starter.
I touched the starter on the Vincent and it burst awake. I could no longer hear the noise of the city. The traffic and people noises were overwhelmed by the gang members and their bikes. The traffic froze for a moment, everyone staring at the freaks, stunned by the noise. Bagoo took advantage of the momentary lull to lead us out onto the road. We made a strange sight going up Broadway two abreast. A parade of barely restrained menace heading out of the city.
It is easy to see why ancient men believed in all-powerful, capricious gods. A single storm, fire or flood could wipe out their livelihoods, destroy their homes and send their loved ones on to whatever afterlife they happened to believe in. Their gods wielded thunderbolts, tridents and hammers. Appeasing them was a chancy process at best as gaining the favor of one could very well gain you the enmity of the others.
Modern man has evolved beyond such primitive superstition. Modern deities are distant figures of benevolence that inspire hope, courage and kindness. Science tells us when disaster is bearing down on us and gives us ways to mitigate the damage.
But modern science can do very little against a man who can call lightning out of the sky or a woman who can freeze the water running through a water main so fast that it bursts the pipe and the street above it. Science is powerless in the face of a fire that burns simply because one woman wants it to burn.
People were rudely reminded of those ancient feelings of helplessness in the face of the gods that night in Terminal City. Even I, who had been riding with the Elemental Hand for the better part of three months, was assaulted by the sheer power wielded by the gang’s leaders. Even though I had ridden behind Pele and Shiver for weeks I’d had no concept of their capabilities when enraged.
Of all the mutants perhaps the Valkeries and the Shapeshifters are the most noticeable. They are, in essence, tribes. They are powerful in their numbers but each individual is greatly limited in the amount of damage they can cause.
There are others who are different. There are others whose power and potential for destruction dwarf those tribes like a sequoia dwarfs a rhododendron.
The night started innocuously enough. We had actually been in the Seattle area for a couple of day, long enough to make the police nervous but not long enough to antagonize the. The bar for the night was a worn out dive between a warehouse and a nightclub. The bikes had to be left a few blocks away as there was nowhere to park them closer to the bar.
Pele, Shiver and the Hand’s core group of about thirty had taken over the bar in their usual fashion. The door had been kicked open and, with a great tromping of boots and creaking of leather jackets, they filled every seat and stool in the place. Any patrons who were irritated when Bagoo yanked the cable tv out of the wall either made a hasty exit or bit their tongues. Those who stuck it out were somewhat mollified when Syfer shoved a stack of cash into the bartender’s chest and told him to keep the taps open all night. Conversation was loud, interrupted only when one or another of the gang members would break out into raucous drinking songs.
I didn’t notice anything was wrong until the bar went silent. I had been talking to one of the locals and looked up to see a dozen or so people shouldering their way into the bar. I was close enough to see that each one of them was wearing a leather jacket so I thought at first that it was just the local chapter. As some of them turned to get a good look at the crowded bar I saw the Elemental Hand patch was clearly visible on their back, so why the silence?
It was when they walked past me, the members of the Elemental Hand pulling back, that I got a good look that them and their leader. His face and neck were seamed with old scars from knife fights. On a chain around his neck were six or seven military I.D. tags and a dried dog’s ear. On the back of his jacket the Stormhand, which was the local chapter’s insignia, had been slashed and was crusted brown with dried blood. Too much blood.
He walked past me, the rest of his gang following his and I could see that each of them was wearing a jacket with the local chapter’s colors on the back, and each was brown with dried blood.
Pele stepped out of the dim shadows at the back of the bar to meet him. They spoke but I was too far away to make out the words. Then she reached up and laid her hand gently on his scarred cheek. It was a loving gesture perverted when he began to scream. He jerked back and fell to his knees, clutching his face.
I saw the skin on his hands and neck turn red and start to blister but then the other members of each gang joined the fight. The last thing I saw was the leather jacketed chest of one of the Hand’s members who grabbed me and another bystander and threw us into the street.
The locals fled the moment their feet hit the pavement but I was glued to the spot. The bar itself did not noticeably change but waves of heat and cold swept over me. Once every hair on my body stood on end as though lightning were coming to ground next to me. When the ground began to shake people ran screaming from the nightclub.
When the Elemental Hand walked out of the bar it began to rain. Wisps of smoke and frost clung to them. Though I had ridden with them halfway across the country they looked like strangers. They looked like aliens.
Pele stopped in front of me. Little flames still writhed and spun around her, flower blossoms and dancers and wild animals. As I watched, each little flame creature twisted into smoke and was gone.
“You should go home.” I looked into her eyes and saw the deep river of power that flowed within her. It was ancient and flowed from the heart of the earth.
“What about you?” I asked, seeing a flicker of joy in her face.
“Our road is charred bones and ashes.” She said. “You should go home.”
They flowed around me, into the dark and the rain. Human, but not. More powerful than any single human, yet separated from humanity by the fear and hatred that was made so obvious by the empty street and the necklace with the dried dog’s ear.
Would it have been possible for someone like Pele to have a normal human life? Could she have run a bakery and Shiver an ice cream shop next door? The possibility seemed smaller and smaller after a night like this.
When I found a hotel hours later (the Vincent had proved highly reluctant to start) it was still raining. I stood by the window watching the rain splash in the puddles. I wasn’t tired. It felt like I had never been tired in my entire life. I stood watching the shimmer of the of the puddles and remembered the sound when the roar of the motorcycles had mingled with the drumming of the rain. It had been a strange sound. Strange and unnatural, like God’s own thunder.