Chapter 2, 25: Free Wheeling
Billy Tatum peeled back the tarp. Ice crackled as the stiff canvas gathered in his gloved fingers. “1988 Kawasaki Ninja 250R,” he said. It was a grimly overcast day, this Tuesday in a Philadelphia January, six days before the Lunar New Year, and almost dark at noon.
“So pretty,” Chris answered. “But I’m over crazy girls. It’s way too cold to ride a motorcycle today.”
“Maybe if you’re a wimp,” Billy answered.
“If by ‘wimp’ you mean, ‘Doesn’t have fast healing powers,’ then, yes, I am a wimp. There’s ice on the roads.”
“And I put proper winter tyres on the bike, just like mine.”
“Hello? Is the sound on, here?” Chris asked, knocking on the air in front of him. “We’re going to freeze our asses off.”
“Pff. You’re wearing your uniform under your clothes, right? You’ll be fine. Owner could show up any day, and he paid me to look after it. ‘Ride it, every once in a while, Billy,’ he said. ‘Keeps the engine from seizing up.’ You’re doing him a favour.”
“So,” Chris said to his lunatic friend, who was seriously proposing that they ride motorbikes ten blocks down to this Tuney’s place, “Who are you doing this huge favour for?”
“Oh, guy named Mike Suzuki. You wouldn’t know him.”
“The heck I wouldn’t. That’s Morning Glory’s Dad! She’s been looking for him for months. Did he say where he was going?”
“He did not. Or I would have mentioned it. I’m not completely stupid. Tell you what, though. If he ever shows up for his bike, I’ll be sure to drop down to Supervillain Central and let your girlfriend know. Does it still have that thing where if you ring the bell, the doormat drops you into a vat of boiling acid with sharks with lasers on their head?”
At the mention of the word ‘girlfriend,’ Chris couldn’t help himself. His shoulders and eyes went down. “I’m not sure that. . . .”
“Ruh-roh. And you two looked so cute together. When you weren’t trying to knock each other’s heads off, anyway. Like, ‘meaningful glance,’ BIFF, ‘touch the hair,’ BAM, ‘that dress sure looks purty,” KABOOM!” Billy did his own sound effects with gusto, waving his arms around. The tarp slid to the frozen concrete of the little garage in the corner of the Institute parking lot where Billy kept his old Suzuki 750. And, apparently, Mike Suzuki’s Ninja.
Chris looked back up at Billy. “It’s not funny. She’s seriously mad at me.”
“Don’t look at me, Chris. I don’t get girls, either. One question?”
“What did your sister say when she heard?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Just saying that brought his sister’s words back to Chris all too clearly. “Oh, Chris. Just when I’d stopped worrying about you.”
“Had some opinions about what you did wrong?” Billy asked.
Chris looked at Billy, tight with anger inside. He didn’t want to talk about how stupid he’d been.
“Yeah. You listen to your sister, Chris. Now come on.” Billy dropped over his 750. Chris looked at it, slightly giddy to think that was only thirteen years younger than he was.
It looked like they were really going to do this. Chris got onto the Kawie crotch rocket and began to put his borrowed helmet on. He wondered if this were Suzuki’s helmet. Had Morning Glory’s Dad ever worn this helmet?
Billy didn’t even bother trying the kickstarter in this weather, just pushed the bike out onto a little ramp. There was a gate in the fence along the ravine that he’d already opened, and Billy led the two bikes gliding down it, dropping into first gear half way down to the creek. Chris followed suit. His bike jolted underneath, as ahead, the Suzuki’s engine sparked into life on choke, oily smoke pouring out of the mufflers. Chris whiffed the half burnt, half meaty smell of engine oil as they roared along the paved bicycle path along the creek up to the rise where it climbed up onto the street right beside Pemberton Elementary.
As they pulled out onto the street and hit second gear, the frozen January wind really began to find the chinks in Chris’s outfit. It was at least as bad as he’d expected. This road led south through the university campus, but it was one of the main routes, and they didn’t have to worry about running undergrads over as they ran the four blocks until finally they passed the blocky, concrete Admins building and the east side gates, and entered the same kind of run-down student housing that filled the block before the Institute.
Right after the light, the street began to descend the hill, with the creek falling away into the flats of the old river flood plain to their left, and the forested hillside that led up to the McNeely Mansion beyond, the terraced streets marked through the leafless branches by the line of nice roofs on nice houses. Divided, Chris noticed, from the rundown neighbourhoods below by the road and the ravine. Philadelphia might be the big city and thirty years in the future, but in some ways it still felt like Hope.
Finally the viaduct intersected the road that led by the Panther Heights Mall to the Interstate, and Billy turned left onto the bridge. They were on the floodplain now, and down in it, it was even more obviously not a nice neighbourhood. Billy geared down ahead of him, firing up his turn signals. Chris slowed, then followed him into the parking lot of a housing complex of row houses, with a paved, abandoned playground in the front.
Billy pulled up at a crumbling sleeper and swung athletically off his tall bike. Chris followed suit. As they were taking their helmets off, Chris gestured to the silent kids in big parkas watching from the slight shelter of the doorways of the facing apartments. “Wow. I’m getting more homesick every minute. Hope Suzuki doesn’t mind slashed tires.”
Billy snorted. “I paid for those tires. No-one’s going to slash them. Long as we stick our entrance.”
Chris looked at Billy. “We did all of this for a dramatic entrance?”
“Have you noticed how we’re coming to ask a bad guy for some info with, like, zero leverage? It’s all about presence, man.” Billy ostentatiously flexed his arm, and an organic knife slid out of his sleeve into his hands, hardening near-instantaneously in the air as he flipped it in the air and caught it with his left hand.
Chris put his helmet under his arm, resisting the temptation to check for helmet hair in his handlebar mirror. He did feel a little cool in his leather jacket and his rolling gait, imposed by the heels of his scuffed black leather engineer boots. Billy stepped up on the sidewalk. It led around the side of the row houses facing the road and down a long-T section that stretched beside the extended parking lot, here with an open-sided roof to make a cheap substitute for a real garage, kind of like the cheap substitute cars parked underneath it. Bags of sand, salt and even kitty litter leaned against the sagging boards that divided the parking stalls, towering over jerry cans and plastic bottles of motor oil.
At the end of the “T,” Chris led him around the corner. There was one door facing a two-lane blacktop road dividing the housing estate from the forest along the creek. A deep pool of water submerged the road just down the way. Billy rapped on the door; once, twice, three times. “Open up, Tuney. I know you’re in there.”
He turned and looked over his shoulder, talking to Chris, or maybe someone invisible. “Nothing. Well, looks like reasonable use of force to me,” as the door handle audibly broke in his grip and the door creaked open.
“Crap!” Chris said. “You can’t do that!”
“Look at me, Ma. I’m a deputy!” Billy answered. “Seriously. I am. Of the university. But it’s the landlord. Where are you, Tuney? We’re letting the nasty old cold in.”
Chris crowded in behind Billy. Behind a small alcove crammed with boxes with big shoes sitting on them and jackets draped over them, right underneath empty wire hangers still on their rods, Billy led him into a kitchen so crammed with electronic equipment and dirty dishes that there wasn’t enough room for either in Chris’s head. A refrigerator door was open, and the nasty smell of something off was building in the room. Chris’s feet found something light and irregular underneath of them as they came down, and he shifted his step. Looking down, he saw that he was groping for a place to put his feet in the midst of a full-blown spill of Chex cereal. There were other bits, too, and a bright orange spot.
“Cheezies,” Chris breathed. “Give me a break.”
Ahead of them, the big monitor on the kitchen table turned to face them. For a second, it showed a naked girl screensaver before flicking into life to show a fat, smiling man.
“Ah, if it isn’t Little Dawg. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be home to see you, Tatum.”
“You’re under house arrest, Tuney. Come back now, and no-one needs to know you weren’t here,” Billy answered.
“Oh. Dear. You’re such a sheeple, Billy. The reason I’m under house arrest is that I’m rather prone to breaking rules. Do you see the logical flaw in your position, now, or shall I explain further. Perhaps with visual aids?” A picture briefly replaced Tuney’s face on the viewscreen, showing a cat trapped in a bird cage with the bird sitting on top of it, with “Epic Fail” written underneath.
“Who even says ‘epic,’ any more?” Chris asked.
“Ah, another Wong. Because the big old Furious Fist just can’t stop collecting himself little failtards. Well, your stupid magic may prevent me from exposing him to the world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hit back.”
“What did my uncle ever do to you?” Chris asked.
“He twisted my arm. In front of high school students! I . . . never mind. Now, here’s the way we’re going to do it. I’m going to test out some new jammers in my Segway, and the two of you are going walkies with my doggies. You didn’t happen to bring any silver weapons, did you?” Something that sounded more like a wolf than a dog whined, high pitched but loud enough that Chris could tell it was probably a block away. The kitchen window banged open, all on its own.
“You’re going to be in so much trouble over this, Tuney!” Billy barked.
“I’m going to be in so much trouble over this if you live. Well, good news on that front. I mean, good news for me. Kind of sucks for you.”
“Just a minute,” Chris said. “We’re being set up. I know, I know, you’re fine with that, Officer Tuney. But the guys who’re setting us up are trying to set a major plague going. You can’t be down with that. So throw us a bone.” Chris thought about it. Frankly, he already had a read on Tuney. It just felt wrong somehow to play to it. On the other hand, he was an asshole. “Just something deniable. For if we live. So we can start some trouble.” Chris let his tongue go slow on ‘trouble,’ tasted the word, and offered it to be tasted. Not so long or obvious that Tuney would suspect that he was being manipulated. You love trouble, don’t you, Tuney, Chris thought to himself. That’s what this is really about.
The face in the viewscreen turn over its shoulder and shouted, “Back! Okay, you’ve sold me. Here’s the phone number where I got the link to that little app the counsellor used on you, Chris.” Tuney rattled off what Chris recognised as an Osoyoos-area phone number. Billy held up his phone. “Got it. Now let’s haul ass.” But instead of running for the doors, Billy jumped in place, slashing back and forth against the kitchen ceiling across his body as he reached the apex of his leap, then jamming his right hand through it to take a grip before swinging up to kick the ceiling, which disappeared in a cloud of plaster and fragments.
Chris jumped after Billy, soaring through the hole to land in a filthy hallway strewn with parts of little figurines and cards in baggies. He barely had time to take it in before Billy had broken through the second storey ceiling. Chris followed again. Seconds later, they were on the peaked roof of the townhouses. “Come on,” Billy shouted, cramming his helmet onto his head as he ran, flat out, for the front of the townhouses.
Behind him, Chris heard the clatter of hard nails on the shingles. He was surprised to find himself clamping down on his starting fear with a silent prayer, but he knew what he had to do. The thing with the blind strike behind was always impressive, and werewolves could outrun humans, probably even Billy and Chris. They needed time and space.
Chris counted off the moments, knowing that if he was wrong, he would find out when magically-strong teeth clamped on his ankles. Then, at the right moment, he hoped, he broke his run, pivoted on his feet, and delivered a sweeping kick behind. His heel was connecting with bristling fur before his eyes were even in field. He turned to watch the four-legged bag of sinew that he’d kicked regain its paws after a few feet rolling. But this was a steep-pitched rood, and it just fell again and slid right off the roof after a desperate lunge at the eaves trough.
“Too bad that a fall won’t kill a werewolf,” Chris snorted, running after Billy.
“Yeah, too bad,” Billy finally answered as they reached the front of the roof. “Okay, you first. First floor, magic killer dogs and motorcycles.”
Chris jumped, feet first. Between ankles and neck, he knew what part of him he was willing to let the weres at first. Of course, if these werewolves were infectious, it really didn’t matter whether they bit his legs or tore out his throat. Stupid werewolves.
Chris landed between two weres with a thudding shock that rode up his legs into his stomach and chest, compressing low until his butt almost touched the ground. The weres came in low. So much for his planning. Chris tensed his legs, rising into a low horse stance, then lashed out, improvising on crane moves to bring his feet under the two wolves. Reaching out with both hands, he grabbed the skinchangers by their scruffs, already feeling their mystic strength as they strained, twisting their massive necks to get their teeth on his wrists as Chris’ little hop brought him rolling back down to thump into the ground again. The solid plastic chunk that his helmet made hitting the pavement was followed by a grinding as Chris rolled over. Oh, that would leave a scratch on the helmet.
Chris’s roll leveraged his body weight. As he came up, he threw the wolves while lifting with his legs. As he came up on his feet, in horse posture again, he watched the werewolves, propelled upward, soaring at the peak of their arc, scrambling madly in mid air, their angry yellow eyes luminous with menace as they fixed on him. You’ve only bought yourself a few seconds, human, he could imagine them saying.
Then Billy came falling through the weres, lashing out on both sides with long, straight knives as he fell. Chris had to scramble to get out of the way of falling chunks of werewolf gore.
“Come on,” Billy shouted as he came out of his breakfall roll, a little blood showing on his neck below his helmet where he’d touched the rough, paved ground. Chris didn’t need any prompting. He vaulted on his Ninja, hauling it around by main strength as he fired the engine with the electric start before popping the clutch in first gear. The Ninja had a lot of torque out of rest, and he couldn’t get too far ahead of Billy. Chris checked his mirror for a second, just in time to see Billy’s leg reach the bottom of the kickstart swing, while, on the pavement in front of the housing estate, writhing bits of werewolf knitted themselves together, while more of the beasts poured around the corner.
The kids in parkas had disappeared, as quick as if the werewolves were cops, instead. He didn’t look back any further. The three-cylinder, two-stroke beat of the 750 was a tinny drumming in his ear, telling him that Billy had gotten away. Chris gunned the Ninja, squeezing into a of all of twenty feet between a semi and a minivan. The truck honked its horn behind him as Chris wrestled the Ninja back out of traffic, gliding right over the white stripe at the edge of the outside lane so that hopefully the truck would run him off the road instead of running right over him, if it needed to brake. He hoped.
Then, he saw motion behind the concrete divider that separated the shoulder from the bicycle path. A brindle-patched werewolf was running alongside, keeping pace in traffic that was hitting 40 miles per hour. It looked over at him. Its open, panting mouth seemed to be grinning at him for a long second until Billy’s 750 came rolling up beside Chris, so close that footpegs grinding the divider. A gout of red showed as something brindle and dismembered came flying up on the outside of Billy’s bike, arcing high over the bikes behind them. Chris glanced at his rearview mirror. The werewolf, skewered by a long blade, tumbled into the path of the delivery truck and slid abruptly under its wheels. Magical regeneration or not, that had to hurt, Chris thought. There was more honking from behind, now frantic. The rest of the pack was coming at them through traffic. Chris hoped that no-one stopped to see if the werewolves were all right.
Or maybe it wouldn’t matter, he thought, watching more werewolves in the mirror, cutting through the gaps between the cars behind them. They were fast. Far faster than ordinary dogs, he thought, just as they were stronger. They needed space. Billy was taking up the shoulder, so Chris dropped from third to second gear, cracking the throttle wide open as he did so, aiming at the line that marked the middle of the space between the minivan and smart car in front of him, locked in their own late-from-lunch race back to work, like his Mom running out the door of the trailer. Behind him, he could hear the extra racket made by the 750 as it accelerated, and then the still worse ear-battering from the exhaust as it exploded from the mufflers and bounced off the concrete wall of the divider.
More honking. Thanks, everyone, Chris thought. I know I’m a maniac. Please don’t pet the doggies. Chris was out and past the two cars. Chris cut in front of the minivan, closing up on Billy so that the werewolves couldn’t run between them. Besides, he needed the shoulder for space. Distantly, he heard the minivan’s brakes, but Chris had already swerved across the full lane to the edge of the shoulder, safe again as they came up on the wide road bridge across the creek. Could werewolves cross running water? Of course they could. That was vampires he was thinking of.
There was more honking behind him, and then a solid crunch and a yelping sound. More werewolves were getting run over. That wouldn’t help, but if he and Billy could somehow get out of this pulse of traffic, maybe run the light at the campus gates, they could open up to fifty or sixty. Surely there were limits to even magical legs.
Just for a moment there was a pause for hope, and then, out of nowhere, a fat man on a Segway appeared in the northwest bound lanes right in front of them, with traffic, somehow, smoothly curving around him to get off the bridge and onto the far side. All of the traffic, that is, except Chris and Billy, who were carried by plain old-fashioned physics right into the man on the Segway. It was Tuney, of course.
Billy, just ahead of Chris, suddenly leaned his bike to his right, not to turn, but to jamb his boot right to the pavement and drag his machine into a pivot, so that instead of riding straight into Tuney, he was headed clear –although also for the side of the bridge. Chris gulped, and summoned his qi. That looked painful, not to mention crazy, but he had to trust Billy. He leaned, pulling the brake and shifting down as he slammed his boot on the ground.
It was the most pain his abused legs had suffered yet in this crazy day. He could feel the muscles and the ligaments trying to go, and the mystic power of the Eight Spirit Dragon teaching fighting the torque, keeping muscle, tendon, blood and bone in place. And it was enough. Abruptly, the Ninja was cutting across the lane. As he exited onto the shoulder, going far too fast, he could feel the wind of the minivan behind him.
Only where was he going? Frontal collision with concrete? No, thank you! But there was a gap ahead of him, between divider and divider, and then rails leading down. A ramp, leading down, or something. Chris hauled on his brakes and aimed at the gap, shooting abruptly off the bicycle path into another world of grey brush and evergreen leaf. He was on the paved bike path, headed down to the river side, still going far too fast.
Desperately, Chris put his leg down, wincing at the twisting pain and pulling his Ninja into the corner to follow Billy down onto to the path. Finally, they levelled out from their zooming descent, front wheel to back, following the winding, narrow, black pavement between crunchy layers of thin snow, on the downhill side leading directly into the ice of the creek. This was crazy, Chris thought. They were going 20mph, at best, and that was still far too fast for the conditions. The werewolves would catch them in a moment.
Then Billy turned again, plunging, sliding, down the grass and smashing right through a leafless bush into the water, dead wood flying everywhere. And it gets crazier, Chris thought, as he followed. This time he had to plunge both feet into the water, smashing the thin ice to find a purchase on the creek bottom so that he could hold his spinning, wallowing rear wheel in place and get some forward momentum going. For a long moment, it seemed that nothing was happening, and then, abruptly, he felt hot breath on his neck and a massive weight falling on the back of the bike. There was a wolf right on the bike, and he couldn’t even take his hands off the handlebars! Desperately, Chris head-butted backwards, but at the same time, the extra weight finally let the tyre bite, and the bike abruptly plunged forward. He almost fell off the back of the bike, following the werewolf, when the front wheel ran up on the far bank, but Chris’s reactions were just fast enough to put his weight back forward over the bars so that he could keep the wheel down and ride the bike up the gravel on the far bank and onto another path, this one not paved at all.
How were they going to keep up on this side, with no pavement for their bikes’ tyres to grip on, Chris thought for a moment, until Billy went off the path again, smashing his heavy bike right into the brush on the far side. Again, Chris followed, tough branches whipping by him as they burst through the bushes and onto the sidewalk of a residential street. An elderly woman with a walker stared at them angrily as their wheels bumped down off the edge of the sidewalk into the street. Again, Chris had to pivot, this time, on his left foot, although fortunately they weren’t going more than twelve miles per hour.
As he swung around, Chris had a good view of the foliage behind them. All four werewolves were breaking through it in line, going flat out. Chris turned back to the street and cracked his throttle wide open, feeling the power of the Ninja surge beneath him until he had to ease off so as to stay behind Billy on the craziest test yet, because this street was rising towards a dead end in a slightly widened out circle of pavement, a good turnaround point where the road met a vertical rock hillside, just past the last neat old 1920s style house on the street.
Billy was headed straight at the cliff, not braking at all. Chris could only do the same, speeding up, and, once again, going up to second gear just so that he could drop it just as fast, the rear tyre swinging out with the rapid change of torque to add force to the hardest kick he could deliver to the leading werewolf’s head.
It worked, but Chris felt the rear tyre go wobbly, and he finally lost control of the bike. He was sliding straight at the wall and going down. It looked like he’d have a chance to fight four regenerating werewolves single-handedly, after all. This would be great time, he had a moment to think, for him not to have just thrown away a magic sword.
Then he went right through the cliff, as though it were nothing but air. Chris was so surprised that he finally let the bike down, and went sliding on his right side right behind the bike, watching bits smashing off the underside of the Kawie’s right side onto a very familiar flooring of gun-metal, science-fictiony material under the white, industrial lights of the secret tunnels that joined Tatammy School to Panther Heights Mall and the Yurt as well as this cliff side on the hill beneath ….the McNeely Mansion.
Oh. Chris picked himself up, gingerly. His leg and his side hurt like blazes, although not as much, he knew from experience, as if he hadn’t been wearing pants and a jacket, and there were plastic and rubber shredded bits of the Kawasaki everywhere.
Chris was mad at himself for a bunch of reasons by this time, but not so mad that he couldn’t look at the bits, including the front turn signal and the side plate that covered the fuzes and see something out of place –an engraved disc, with a colour that was somehow lustrous and tarnished at the same time. Chris stooped to look at it. He felt, rather than heard, Billy come up beside him.
“So this is the Batcave,” Chris observed.
“Goblin Deep, dude. The Batcave is in comic books.”
“Yeah. It’s one of the entrances, anyway. The Hobgoblin used to use dozens. The whole old McNeely Patent is lousy with them. Not even just the tunnels we use. Otherwise, the police would have found him in no time.”
Chris picked up the disc. It felt heavy and metallic. He looked at it. There was an inscription, but he couldn’t make it out. Then he held it up at shoulder height, pivoting around his rising hand to stand in front of Billy. “This look like factory Kawasaki parts to you?”
“Nah,” Billy replied. “It’s a clue. And before you start lecturing me about not finding it before, let’s get Mike’s bike up before all the gas spills out over the paint work.”
“What about after that,” Chris began to ask, but even before he could, a door slid open on the side wall of the tunnel. “Oh. Here’s the welcoming committee.” It was Bruce McNeely, wearing his Hobgoblin-style outfit, holding a pistol crossbow in one hand, and two bayonet knives in metal scabbards. Knowing Bruce, Chris didn’t even have to guess that they would have silver blades.
“Oh, God,” Billy said. “The cavalry’s an eighth grader.”