Sparks flew on both sides, Vesuvian fountains of brilliant white hot light, foaming into the night air like molten magma. The yard was rife with the smells of oil, smoke and heat, and ahead the huge bay doors of the workshop loomed wide like two titanic curtains. The men that surrounded her were as big as bears, bare-chested and tattoo-ridden, their sweat-glazed muscles glistened with every hammer of steel, every wrench of bolt, every scythe of welding torch flame; skin dark from days in the sun, faces hard and fierce and weathered.
Yet Maya was unafraid. They paid her no more mind than they would a stray cat as they went about their business under the night sky.
She bent over to straighten her thigh-length skirt. Without looking she could feel eyes on her, on the flesh of her legs and her breasts as she leaned forward. Being the sole female in the yard, she was acutely aware of the unnatural amount of attention she was garnering, particularly from the younger men. Some looked harmless. Innocent faces she doubted had known a woman as well presented as her. Others bore aggressive, intense stares, their eyes doing little to mask a history of unsavoury acts and decisions.
But Maya was touched by the sun, so she feared them not. As she rose her eyes flitted briefly enough to confirm her suspicion. The older men’s attentions were on the engines and vehicle bodywork before them – she was nothing they hadn’t seen before – but she noticed the heads of two distracted younger men snap abruptly back to work.
Boys were simple. Maya knew this, had known since she was young, and used the knowledge to her advantage as many a young woman her age would. Nights clubbing were cheaper, conveniences such as parking spaces and taxis were found with less difficulty, ATM lines became shorter. The difference a few inches of skirt and a button or two made.
Of course that was before Sho. After Sho came into her world she abruptly ceased her interest in boys and developed an appreciation of men.
Her manicured fingernails tapped out a rhythm on the oil tank of the Honda on which she sat. The motorcycles sleek black body bore a webbing of intricate red lines, finely criss-crossing a dynamic motif across its length. She favoured red and loved the way they burst across the black when Sho was riding, making them seem to stray right off the surface, cutting a track of red contrails in his wake.
The back of her waistcoat – white like her skirt – had ridden up her back and she could feel a cool breeze grazing the concavity of the small of her back. Instinctively she pulled it down to cover the flesh.
“They know what you are, girl, there’s no need to hide that here,”
The voice came from behind; a gruff yet jovial tone that Maya recognised instantly. She turned and smiled. She couldn’t help but smile when Lucky smiled, his big round face exuded joy infectiously, his eyes all but disappearing beneath those thick cheeks, his dimples sunken deep at the corners of his wide mouth, full of large white teeth and one of gold. He wiped his greasy hands clean on a rag as he stepped up to her.
“Force of habit,” Maya replied, her hands still straightening out the back of her waistcoat.
“Good habit,” Lucky laughed, his mustachio curling over the corners of his mouth, falling off his face like a couple of eels wriggling below his chin. “Make sure your girlfriends adopt the same habit.”
“They know. They do.”
“Good,” he repeated conclusively.
Li-Kung Chou was one of the broadest men Maya had ever known, reminding her of a squat ox, under six feet tall but broader than two of her. The oil-stained vest stretched across his torso looked painted on, tight on his broad chest and keg belly. His arms were two great tattooed slabs, strong muscles hidden below layers of smooth copper flesh. On one arm a faded water-dragon of green and black ascended a rushing waterfall decorated with shrubs and bonsai trees. The other arm was adorned with eight columns of traditional Chinese scripts running from tricep to elbow, passages of philosophy, words she knew but did not recognise, mantras in the ways of war and strategy and peace. Atop the script, encompassing the great wide ball of his shoulder was the sun of the Suns: a thick ring of black, within which lied another ring of red and yet a further ring of black; inside the third ring depicted the dragon’s eye, the narrow reptilian pupil, black and bold; curving triangles of flame jutted outward from the outermost ring, again in black, in-lined in red.
When Lucky’s face straightened, Maya could see the white crow’s feet around his eyes from where the sun had missed; he wore his smile more often than not, but now his expression turned grave. “Between you and me, the streets grow fiercer. Not three nights ago we were attacked by raiders. Knights.”
“Knights?” Maya exclaimed quietly, immediately wondering why she bothered under the din of the garage yard. “Knights in Chinatown?”
Lucky nodded. The huge plates of meat that were his hands came up to flatten the creases of his black bandana. “Four blocks from here. Haruto, Ryos and Cho were hit.”
Maya had grown up with Haruto and Ryos. Ryos was a small boy and loyal. He had reminded her of an eager puppy. If Maya played hooky, Ryos played hooky too, no question. Haruto had always been bigger than her, broad and not unhandsome. She had shared her first kiss with him when they were twelve. Ten years past. Cho was not a name she was familiar with but her concern for the three of them in this moment was even.
“Are they okay?”
“They fought bravely but the Knights outnumbered them two-to-one, and were armed. Cho’s head was smashed and he did not live, nor did little Ryos. He took a neck wound and bled to death. Haruto lives, though he will be less an eye for his part.”
Maya was stunned. Chinatown had declared itself neutral in the war. Mouth agape, she struggled to digest the story. “Sho… He never mentioned it…”
“To protect you, most like,” Lucky said, quick and assuring. “The Council are already taking measures to reinforce our borders against future raids. No man is to travel unarmed at night, no woman to travel without a man in her company. The Knights have woken sleeping giants, Maya. They will come to regret this, make no mistake. Sho knows this. You are touched by the sun; Sho isn’t the only one watching your back. He spared you this news because he is confident it will not continue long enough to affect you.”
It already has, Maya thought, poor Haruto and Ryos and Cho.
“Why would they raid us, Li-Kung? Chinatown is neutral.”
“That is not for me to know, little one,” he stepped back and looked askance at the yard, as if searching for prying ears – the back of his thick neck glistened with sweat under the light of nearby blowtorches – then leaned in closer once again. “The Council declared our neutrality because we had nothing to gain from this conflict. For that reason we stood aside. In war, everything is chaos. It is chaos because many of those involved do not know why they fight.
“These are the men the neutrals must fear. To some men neutrality is equal to cowardice. These men are fools. They do not see we have nothing invested in this fight, so some will view our inaction with envy. Why should they fight and die for their masters when we do not? They will seek to include us regardless. Some will think us liars, that we have pledged our allegiance to another in secret, or worse yet, that we have our own agenda. A soldier fears nothing more than an enemy he does not understand.”
“You mean hates,” she said with venom.
“Fears… Hates,” the Ox shrugged. “Both most like.”
“So they make enemies of us even if it is only so they are certain in their own minds,” Maya concluded, her disbelief clear as day.
“Even boredom can spur a soldier into action for no better reason than he has something to do,” Lucky added sadly.
They talked more while Maya waited, of the war and the Council and Sho. Beyond the walls of the work yard the looming buildings of Chinatown glittered with life. Ten-story tenements buzzed with activity beneath in the shadow of high-rises. Beyond those, the skyscrapers of Downtown shone like beacons under the ink-blue sky, reminding this humble garage how small it really was.
By the time Lucky excused himself and went back to work, a warm breeze had picked up. Maya adjusted her headband and pondered all they had discussed.
It made no sense that raiders would be crossing their borders, attacking their people. An assault from the Knights would only push the allegiances of Chinatown in favour of those who oppose them. Since declaring the suburb neutral, several gangs had courted the Council, proffering to might win their favour. Yet all proposals had been swiftly and respectfully rebuffed. Many believed Chinatown was aligned with van der Cliffe, however even Sho did not know if there was any truth in that claim.
Chinatown had its gang like every other territory, but even the Suns were largely in the dark when it came to the strategies and machinations of the Council; Hondo Nshima most likely the only exception. And perhaps the Viper.
She was so lost in thought that Maya almost failed to notice her lover’s approach. Sho swaggered across the wide yard, red leather jacket reflecting the white and gold blaze of torch flares. Under the byzantium haze of the night sky, with his image mirrored clearly in the oil-slick concrete, he looked like a movie star. Lean frame, smooth chiselled features, black eyes and hair, sculpted into a fine layered coif with highlights of electric blue. In his hand he carried a motorcycle helmet, black and sleek with the same lattice of fine red lines that adorned his bike.
As he stepped up to meet her she admired the definition of his collar bones, framed by the scoop-necked t-shirt, charcoal beneath the red leather. She also noted the pointed curling flames of the sun of the Suns poking out at the base of his neckline. Sho wore the sun proud across his chest. Maya loved to run her fingers over the raised skin when she lay in bed with him, cradled in the nook of his arm.
He quietly offered his jacket, which she declined; the night was warm and the air humid. Maya would welcome the cool breeze the night’s ride would bring. Sho smirked and drew up his zipper, threw on his helmet before sweeping a leg over the motorcycle. Maya positioned herself behind, pressed her body against his and wrapped her arms around him; his chest was rock beneath the soft, supple leather. She imagined making love to him, on the bike whilst riding through the warm night, lights of the city stretching out around them, wind blowing through her hair and her legs and all over her naked body.
The roaring rev of the engine broke Maya from her fantasy and seconds later they were rolling out of the yard, leaving the heat and smoke behind for the yellow-tinged darkness of Chinatown’s backstreets. Again, she could feel young eyes on her back, only this time when her waistcoat rose up to reveal the flesh of her back, she made no move to cover it. I am touched by the sun and they can look all they like. But they dare not touch.
They hadn’t reached the next corner before Sho stopped. With the engine still growling beneath them, he turned, swinging his shoulder in a wide arc to face her. He removed his helmet and smiled; the yellow glow of the streetlamp above highlighting the blue in his hair. Before she could return the gesture, he leaned forward and kissed her deeply, longingly, lovingly. His lips were firm and tender. Maya opened her mouth to receive his tongue but he did not offer it, she could feel the corners of his mouth creeping into a smile and knew he was teasing her, so she thrust her tongue forward, lightly lapping his mouth a moment before breaking the kiss with a smile.
“Hello,” Sho Lǐ said, simply. He never kissed her in front of the Suns, out of respect and out of love. Those moments were theirs and theirs alone. Their relationship was no secret; she was touched by the sun. She was his. In front of them he was dangerous and strong. When alone, he was gentle and loving. He was hers.
Maya’s first instinct was to ask him about the raid and all she had discussed with Lucky, to question why Sho hadn’t told her. Instead she asked how his day had been and listened to his anecdotes with interest.
He told her how the new kid almost lost a hand as he was sawing a tail-pipe. Fortunately he only lost the distal phalanges of his first two fingers. Fortunately? Maya thought. Nezha had wanted to cauterise the wounds with a blowtorch, which terrified the kid into unconsciousness. By the time he had awoken, Keisuke had sown and dressed the ravaged fingers and by the end of the day the new kid already had his nickname: Digits. Maya couldn’t help but laugh at that. He told her of Daiwo’s ever-changing emotions; he and Matsu had broken up recently, so Daiwo had spent every day since either depressed and pining or volatile and deprecating. Today had been the former and Sho was finding his fortitude waning. “If I have to listen to him contemplate the point of living one more time, I’m going to enlighten him myself.”
Maya and Matsu were good friends, so her allegiances were strong; rather than hear any more of Daiwo’s woes, she gently moved the conversation forward.
That was when Sho told her of the Viper’s visit.
“You?” she said, surprised, “He came to see you only?”
“The Old Bull and I,” Sho had worked at Tatsu’s Chop Shop since he was fifteen. In the eleven years he had known the man, he had heard no one call him by his birth name… until the Viper’s visit that afternoon.
“What did he want?”
Sho hesitated, his eyes darting away. His brow furrowed enough for her to know he could not tell her.
“They’re fighting back,” Maya determined, her voice little more than a whisper.
Sho’s eyes met hers firmly. “You know of the raids.”
“Yes, but don’t ask from who. You were quick to keep the Viper’s words from me a moment ago,” Maya snipped. “Besides it matters not who I heard it from. I know. And now I know what the Council intend to do about it; they’re dragging us into this war—”
Sho hushed her, as if the entire world could hear. He put a hand to her face gently, it was warm and comforting. “My flower, no,” he said in their native tongue, voice deep and smooth and even. “You do not understand. It will take more than one raid to rouse the Council. You are right in that measures are to be taken in response, of course we cannot allow these raids to pass unanswered. But about these matters I cannot speak. Not even to you.
“At this time I can tell you no more than this: trust in the Council. They have five heads to ensure they do not allow vengeance to blind them. They will not send us needlessly to war. They would not spend our lives with such abandon.”
Maya was stunned and confused. But she was no idiot. She processed the information quickly. The Council were hitting back in secret. Lucky knew of the raid, but do all the Suns? If only a select number knew of the attack, keeping it from Chinatown at large would be no easy task. Without a universal silence cast over the Suns, word of mouth could prove damaging to clandestine plans. And how do they plan to retaliate without reprisal? A random strike on unspecified Knights was not vengeance; it was simply an eye for an eye. For vengeance they would need to target the raiders, and for that they would need to know who the raiders were. And then the answer came to her.
“They caught one of the raiders.”
“Mandarin!” Sho snapped, firm and cautious.
Out of reaction Maya’s head turned right and left, her eyes scanning every doorway, every nook, every shadow. “Haruto—”
“Fought well,” Sho finished for her.
Maya was born in America and as a result used her Mandarin very seldom. Still she obliged her man, “He did more than that, I think. And if the Suns still hold this man, and mean to force the identities of his allies, then the Council have gambled on the assumption this is a contained incident. That these raiders were acting without consent from Mach-10.” Sho’s face was unyielding. Maya gave him no opportunity to respond, “If they are wrong in this assumption, Sho… then our war has already begun.”
For a long while they sat in silence. A strained grimace of pressure held Sho’s face like a vice. “You would have me break a promise to the Viper mere hours after making it?”
She sat up and kissed him gently. When their lips parted she gazed into his eyes and ran a hand over his cheek. “Never,” she said. “Promise me it will be okay; that you will not let any harm come to me and we will never speak of it again. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Sho said, barely leaving room for another breath.
Maya kissed him again and in English said, “Then let’s go.”
Summer was dead but the air was still warm. It caressed her face as they raced along the silent streets, dark and dead. The world around her had become an ocean of purples and blues and blacks under the light of the moon. Once upon a time Chinatown had been a bustling centre of life, a virtual city-within-a-city with thriving economies in fresh fruit and meats, in vehicle modification and trade, in silks and other fine fabrics, and in weapons and whores. Now only the vehicular commerce remained to sustain their district; the rest they kept for themselves for trade on the swathe of teeming bazaars that encompassed the Strip day and night.
Goods and supplies were still coming in from outside, how she did not know, but trade was still alive in Junction City. However with the vast numbers that abandoned town in the preceding two years, many and more vendors had gradually and reluctantly closed their doors. No district felt that more than Chinatown. Narrow lanes and side-streets that once housed lively food stalls and restaurants now lay dank and vacant, little more than negative space. They passed a row of boarded up boutiques, one of which, Maya remembered, had been her favourite curio shop; another, a parlour known for their particularly effective massages; another, a magazine store where she had worked when she was seventeen. The boards over their doors and windows were graffiti-ridden and damaged, as if looters had tried and failed.
A couple of blocks later, they finally saw another vehicle. Maya’s heart pulsed with a rush of panic but calmed under familiarity in the same breath. The pale blue GT 500 Supersnake cruised by at a snail’s pace, a snarling white tiger emblazoned across the hood and further stripes of black slashed down the side. Sho gave them a nod as they passed. The black teardrop beneath Raiden’s eye leapt when he winked back, his fluffy platinum bouffant crowned his narrow face like a huge mushroom and the vague smirk in the corner of his mouth was unsettling, even for an ally. The other two men Maya did not know; the one at the wheel was a bronzed hulking beast with thick black tiger stripes tattooed down both muscular arms and over his bald head; the little one in the back flashed a grin of dirty yellow teeth, the beady black eyes of his murine face twinkled under the streetlights, wiry black fuzz creeping all across his chin, cheeks and neck. They passed with nary a word. And Maya found herself mistrusting their silence.
As the tail lights of the low-rider shrank to the size of stars and fizzled out far behind them, Maya’s arms tightened around her man and she put her cheek to his back, the leather supple and warm on her skin, counting the beats of his heart as they pulsed around the contour of her ear.
More familiar shop-fronts passed them, hair salons and delis and fishmongers and video stores, all bare, all barren. The streets a patchwork of wooden boards and iron grates interspersed with alleys black as pitch. Between the buildings Maya would pick out the lattice silhouettes of fire escapes climbing the bricks, washing lines and telephone wires stretching from one side to the next, the huge hulking blocks of shadow that were dumpsters and abandoned cars.
But as they passed, Maya found her eyes lingering on the opening of the alley. On the unnatural refraction of light, no bigger than a face, that glimmered in the shadow for but an instant. And the second. And the third. Sho must have felt her fingers tighten; he glanced over his shoulder, and that’s when everything went crazy.
The headlights sprang to life in unison, like beacons in the night, then one after the other the motorbikes emerged from the alley. Yellow and red and black; their respective riders garbed in matching leathers. At first they cruised behind leisurely, holding an even pace, no threat or urgency in their pursuit. Instinctively Maya felt her hand leave Sho’s chest and reach for the back of her vest; she was touched by the sun, and it was that same sun of the Suns that adorned the small of her back and was on show, the dragon’s eye in its centre staring at their followers aggressively. She pulled the vest down with a forceful tug, but it was too late and the riders came upon them at pace.
The yellow rider’s leathers had strips of vibrant pink panelling running the length of his arms and a large circle of the same colour on each pectoral; his helmet had been painted with black and pink into the likeness of a maniacal laughing clown and a plume of multi-coloured streamers flapped at the back of his head like some kind of rainbow ponytail. The piping of the red rider’s leathers was black under the streetlights, outlining his shoulders, the length of his arms and zig-zagging a jagged pattern down his torso; his helmet had myriad sharp-edged arrowheads of black and white and red, all pointed downward but to Maya they looked to be angled straight at her. When he turned his head, she noted a fin-like crest at the crown of his helmet and suddenly he resembled a great red shark; arrowheads became rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth. The black rider led the pack, his leathers solid black from head to toe, with simple piping running the breadth of his collar bone vertically to his waist; his helmet again was black, save for the silver paint across the visor, made to look like the grilled face-plate of a medieval knight.
Bikes were the predominant mode of transport around Chinatown, the streets often thick with them from one side to the other. Chinatown bikers did not dress this way; the Suns did not dress this way.
Knights dressed this way.
Maya felt the pull of acceleration as Sho squeezed the throttle. Streetlights stretched into glowing bars overhead and Maya’s heart raced faster than any bike. It was all she could do to turn away from their pursuers but once she looked ahead, wondering where on Earth they could run to, she remembered how much she trusted Sho and so returned her attention back on the Knights.
She wished she hadn’t.
The yellow wheeler, the clown, had gained on them considerably, so close now that Maya could distinguish the individual teeth of his maniacal smile, fat pink tongue lapping out between them. Less than six feet away and it was only then that she noticed the glint of steel in his hand. She almost didn’t see the chain whipping towards her face until Sho swerved right and the fat links arced beyond her; the momentum did nothing to slow the clown down, instead he used it to sweep into a back-handed horizontal swipe, this time the end of the chain thrashed the tail light into a hundred splintering pieces of red and black plastic. Maya heard herself yelp in panic, she could feel tears welling in her eyes but blinked them away quickly.
Buildings whooshed by at velocity, the snarl of the engine filling her ears as the revs topped out. The shark and the black knight swooped into flanking positions left and right. Maya could see a pipe of dull chrome in the knight’s hand; the shark also held a weapon but she could not make it out in the ever-shifting light at this speed. And the clown was rushing in again—
“Maya,” she heard Sho shout, “put your head against my back. Low and tight. Now!”
She complied immediately and not a second later Maya felt her body heave into his as Sho hit the brakes. Their world slowed to a crawl; chain links swung over their heads and the riders rushed past them at speed, heads snapping after their prey relentlessly. The black knight swung his pipe wildly as he passed but the end of the truncheon skipped off Sho’s helmet with no effect.
Sho didn’t wait to see what they did next; he veered left and took them north on Boundary Street, leaving the Knights hurtling eastbound along 25th Avenue.
“Sho, what are we going to do?!” Maya shrieked.
“Hold on to me and do as I say!” he yelled back without looking. When she looked back, the wheelers were already behind them and gaining; Maya’s added weight was proving a hindrance to their escape, her fear intensified at the thought. Her eyes drifted left; down the passing lanes and alleys she could see the golden lights of the Strip not two blocks away, the night bazaar lit up like a runway. Boundary Street ran parallel with the vast street market for almost eight blocks; all they had to do was swing a left and they would be safe.
Maya was about to call out and tell Sho as much, when reason took her. He was in control here. He knew full well where they were in relation to the Strip, but he wouldn’t take the chase there – couldn’t take the chase there.
The Council wanted the raids contained.
What could they do; take the pursuit to the Strip and announce the Knights to the entire district in one fell swoop? Sho’s Suns tenure would be the shortest in their history. Perhaps Sho intended to end the raids here and now. Take it upon himself to exact vengeance, return to the Council with three heads – a clown, a shark and a black knight – to hang on their walls.
Again they came. Again the clown led the charge, chain whirling at his side like a propeller.
Maya squirmed desperately, sensing a blow she could not avoid. “Sho!” she screamed. “Sho, he’s coming!”
The black knight was banging his pipe against the tank of his motorcycle like a war drum, the bark of steel on steel chasing them like a hound in the night. The clown’s dead black eyes bored into hers as he drew closer, his fat-tongued mouth fixed in perpetual laughter. Laughing at the inevitable. He came so close that Maya could hear the thrum of the chain cutting the air incessantly, three feet away and all he had to do was swing.
Then Maya felt a shoulder arching into her, steering her firmly out the way and all of a sudden she was looking down Sho’s arm, down the red leather sleeve, down his hand and the barrel of the gun held in it. A barrel aimed squarely at the smiling yellow face of the clown.
The gunshot didn’t sound as close as it was; the metallic pop seemed a mile away under the chainsaw wail of motorbike engines and the wind splitting on either side of them. The bullet struck the clown’s teeth, pin-pricking a hole no bigger than a penny. In the same instant the visor became a spider web of cracked glass, the sneering face lost in a maze of white lines. The clown’s head jerked back, and Maya thought his body might follow. Then his arms fell limp, and his body flopped forward, toppling the bike beneath him. The yellow motorcycle twisted sideways and spun out violently into the path of the shark. His front wheel caught the other bikes rear and half a heartbeat later Maya saw him launched into the air, ten, maybe twelve feet, before crashing on his shoulder then again onto his hip. He did not look to be getting up. The black knight swung wide to avoid the detritus the two before him had left; he slowed and glanced back to assess his fallen allies.
Sho leaned forward, focused on the road. But before Maya could turn away she saw the Knight’s grilled helmet rear round after them, and in that moment she was not convinced this chase was over.
Sho took them farther north, swung right, put another block behind them then hooked north again. Ahead the buildings fell away and the cold and infinite sky filled up their view. The sight disoriented Maya but as she heard the throttle-wail subside and their pace relax she gathered her bearings.
They pulled left and all at once the Reeds opened up on their right, and Maya was surprised to find they had come as far as Randwick. At night it was difficult to see the projects and warehouses on the other side of the expanse. The bike slowed and Sho pulled them over under a streetlight near the edge of the waste-ground, but even in stopping, Maya could sense the urgency in her man.
“Get off,” Sho barked before they had even come to a complete halt. Maya did as she was told and quick. “Go,” Sho continued. “The Reeds. Go, hide now.”
“Hide? I don’t—”
“It’s not over, Maya.”
And then she heard it; those familiar engines rising from the city behind him. “Oh Sho,” she exclaimed. “They’re coming!”
Sho gripped her arm firmly and shook her back into reality. “Yes. They’re coming. Now you must hide – into the Reeds and wait. If I don’t come back for you in twenty minutes, make your way to the Strip – to the lights. I will find you there. Do you understand?”
“But what if they—”
It didn’t even sound like a question this time, but Maya nodded all the same.
“Good.” Sho revved the engine urgently, “Hide. Now. Go!“
As soon as he released her arm Maya turned and burst into a run, breaking through the long blades of panic grass that reached as high as her chest. She glanced back to see Sho pull away from the sidewalk and roar down the street; over her other shoulder the approaching Knights wailed louder. The ground was uneven; pot-holes and boulders came up beneath her feet sporadically, all unseen under the thicket of the Reeds. Fifty feet in and Maya did not yet feel safe enough. She stepped on a large rock that rolled out under her weight, causing her to trip, but fear kept her on her feet and she continued to run, and run, and run.
When she turned back again, the city was no longer looming over her; now a good hundred feet behind. And the white glow of headlights filled the mouth of the street from whence she came. She threw herself to her knees as the beams came lancing across the long-grass, barely ducking beneath them in time. She turned and pushed onto her haunches, eyes just high enough to see over the field.
Across the Reeds, the black knight emerged in pursuit, and a moment later Maya recognised the red leather of the shark as he rolled in behind him, movements stiff and diffident. However what came next was less than expected: a third rider sidled up alongside the shark.
It wasn’t the clown; the clown wore yellow leathers and was undoubtedly dead in the gutter somewhere back on Boundary. This wheeler had leathers of dark green and blue, with a helmet design she could not make out from this distance; but the design of his visor was the least of her concerns.
Her memory instantly pulled Lucky’s tale of the raiders to the fore: Haruto and the others had been set upon by twice their number. Six raiders in all. Three had pursued her and Sho; although he hadn’t specified, Maya presumed the Suns held only one; and a fifth had just presented himself here and now, his prior whereabouts a mystery. That meant one more remained unaccounted for. Captured, dead or simply skulking around Chinatown’s backstreets was anyone’s guess, and it was that idea that unsettled Maya the most.
The riders didn’t pause or even slow down; they tore off after Sho, his remaining tail light a minute prick of red in the distance. He had stayed in sight so as to lead them from her, she knew. The shriek of engines curled over the open wasteland as they continued their vigorous hunt, gradually fading to a dull, distant hum.
And then came the silence.
It was only then that she noticed how much she was shaking. Finding an unbroken breath proved impossible. Her heart felt like it was going to explode. Her ears rang a muffled, high-pitched whine; an aching counterpoint to the rustling of the Reeds under the ageing summer winds. It was there on her knees Maya waited. She waited until the ringing had died. She breathed, deep and even, until her heart rate reached normality and the shakes began to subside. And then she waited some more.
From her low viewpoint, she could see next to naught. The Reeds were a sea of swaying blue shadows under an ink sky. On their purlieus, the city was a dull indigo, dusted with specks of yellow and white light.
She stood up, sat down, stood up; her confused and stricken body eschewing to comply with her wishes. Her head scanned left and right. The bikers were now pin pricks of light in the dark city, long gone. But still she waited.
Sho said to wait. Twenty minutes, he said.
How long had it been? With all that had transpired, Maya could no longer tell. Everything had happened so fast, to her it had felt like seconds. No bikes or cars or people had passed since the Knights had gone. She stood there, bent low and watchful. Waiting. Soon enough the gentle bending of the Reeds began to resemble clandestine whispers. She listened to their chatter, all around, talking to the wind.
She waited. As she listened to their gossip, a dozen possibilities filled her head. What if they caught Sho? What if he crashed? Sho had killed their partner; surely they would not relent until they found him. What if they gained on him, noticed he was now alone. Would they double back for me? Haruto, despite losing an eye, had subdued one of them, now a prisoner of the Council and the Suns. If the Knights were to catch Maya, nothing would stop them from ransoming her in exchange for their own man. Or perhaps they were not even concerned with their missing member; perhaps they were rabid dogs, only interested in chaos and torment. They had not been hesitant with taking life; that much was evident. If they found her…
Had it been twenty minutes? Had it even been ten? It felt like hours, the stillness, the whispers. Crickets had now joined the Reeds’ song. Maya’s white skirt closer resembled black; soiled and wet from marsh and muck. A warm, viscid liquid was pooling between the toes of her right foot, which burned when the wind caught it; she must be bleeding, cut by a rock perhaps. Aside from that minor injury, Sho had kept his word, had kept her safe.
How long had she waited? She instinctively checked her wrist for a watch that wasn’t there. Then Maya remembered her cell phone and reached for her purse. Her hand groped for white leather but found only grass and air. Gone. Immediately her mind began retracing steps, searching the possibilities of when and where it could have been lost. On the bike? Impossible; it had been slung diagonally across her body and she had clung to Sho the whole way – nothing could have pried it from her. That left the Reeds. When she dismounted the bike? No, when she fell, for a certainty.
The Reeds were one of many renowned dead zones within the city, rendering the majority of cells useless. But it would be sheer idiocy not to even try. She needed her phone. Moreover she needed something on which she could focus, her phone could serve for at least that much.
Maya straightened up slowly, head peering after the Knights who at this juncture were lost within the city once more. Even the growls of their engines were nothing more than memory. Stood there with bent knees, she waited, still the slightest of doubts burning inside her.
Minutes passed. Finally she found the courage to take a step forward. Then another, and a third, and all at once Maya was slowly making her way back towards the city. Dark as it was, the moonlight was enough for her to follow the darkened path of trodden grass she had ran previously. She crept low, unable to see the ground at her feet but expecting the white leather of her purse to give itself away even in this gloom.
Her face peered up every second step, nervously watching the road as she trod closer. Not a single vehicle had passed since the Knights raced by and – at this hour – the Reeds were left well alone by those on foot.
The Mouth couldn’t be far from where she stood, and as she gave it thought, she caught its faint metallic scent on the wind – the smell of iron, the smell of blood – and pondered just how close she had come to passing as she burst through the Reeds in blind panic.
Maya had heard her fair share of ghost stories. She had also dismissed them. The Mouth was the source of many an urban legend: children vanishing in the middle of the day, adults by night; the Banshee of the Reeds – that was the label the vagrants had given to explain the horrifying and unidentified wails of terror that emanated from the Reeds in the night. All nonsense, Maya knew. Stories fabricated to scare children and idiots, particularly in moments such as she currently found herself. And, to an extent, they were having the desired effect.
It was as her head was turned that the headlights illuminated the street. Maya caught the light in the corner of her eye. Her heart leapt into her throat and she hit the deck immediately, down amongst the grass and the dirt she could only be seventy feet away but she dared not stand to ascertain that assumption. She waited and listened, all at once her heart taking flight all over again.
The engine sounded different. Whereas the others had been high and wild, this was low and old and tired. It was also static, sat off to her left somewhere. Then the revs picked up and she could sense it rolling forward. She pushed onto her haunches, slowly creeping higher, high enough to see ever so slightly across the top of the panic grass.
Two beams of light shunted out along the street, reaching slowly forward. It was a car, not a bike. A shot of relief eased Maya’s heart. She stood up and took a step forward, her initial reaction to run, to call out. However, she remembered herself, remembered the city, how far she was from Chinatown and that stayed her. Instinctively she bent her knees, drowning most of her body under the sward. Only her head and her hunched shoulders bobbed above the surface, watchful of this newcomer.
The car had been parked by the side of the road at the adjoining street from which she and Sho had came; where they had turned left onto the Reeds, the car had been stationed to the right. The driver must have seen everything. It was old and world worn. Patches of dark rust covered the battered surface. Dents adorned the passenger door and the right fender. When it passed under a streetlight, she saw that the roof was black and the bodywork a flat and lustreless silver, whatever glossy finish it once boasted was now a distant memory. A long hood and short trunk gave the vehicle a sense of speed, but the model was all angles, sharp and jarring, taken directly from the 80′s.
And now it crawled along the edge of the Reeds. The occupants had to have seen the chase, had to have seen Maya dart into the grass, had to know she was still here. Perhaps looking at her right now; the white of her outfit would not be difficult to spot even in this night. Again she contemplated stepping forward, seeking aid. Until the car came to a stop under the very same light Sho had loosed her beneath, and there it lingered, its engine rattling cantankerously.
Gently the wind kicked up again, its warmth lashing her neck and her arms and her chin, but the sight of the car now left Maya cold. The engine continued to grumble low and broken, but the uneasy, unnatural stillness of the vehicle was irrepressibly foreboding. Inside it was too dark to distinguish any one shape.
Maya took a step back. All of a sudden her imagination had become her worst enemy… and it was beginning to defeat her. In her mind’s eye she saw the doors open and a team of gangers pour into the field. She saw them swarm on her and her own desperate attempts at escape marred by the hidden depths of the Reeds. She saw herself stumble and fall, unable to keep distance between them. She saw them descend upon her like a pack of ravenous hyenas, cackling all the way. And after that, she dare not imagine.
In reality a single door opened. Maya froze upon the sight. Light from the lamp above glinted along the upper edge of the driver door as it swung outward from the vehicle. Another prolonged stillness followed, only now, she could make out a driver through the front windshield, just a silhouette, small and distant.
Confusion took Maya. Who was this newcomer? The last raider? Had they all been bike-mounted except for him? Or had he seen events unfold and come to ensure her safety? Was he a cop; one of the BPD perhaps? She glanced back and forth, willing Sho to return and put an end to this.
Then the engine cut out, followed seconds later by the headlights. And the driver slowly pulled himself out of the car. Most definitely male, medium height and a very lean frame, accentuated by a neck almost too thick for the body, and the way he carried himself was unmistakably masculine. He gently swung the door shut and with slow, deliberate movements he strolled around the vehicle and stood directly beneath the streetlight.
Aside from his build, he was too far away for Maya to determine anything about him physically. A flat cap of sorts crowned his head, the brim casting a wide shadow over his face. And there was a particular darkness around his eyes, like make up or sunglasses even. His angular shoulders jutted out from his neck like the transversal beam of a cross; even at this distance his body looked wizened beneath the dark shirt he wore, buttons fastened to the neck, sleeves rolled to elbow, making it easier to identify the gloves that adorned his hands.
Whatever little hope for deliverance she once harboured vanished at the sight of those gloves. Nothing about this felt remotely close to right anymore. Maya felt a tremor in her knees; she looked down at her hands to see them shaking again, now worse than before.
The man looked to be glancing far to her right, his hands securing the gloves around his wrists, tucking his shirt into his pants.
Tears filled her eyes. She scanned the tenements behind him, looking for some sign of life, of relief, at the very least of witness. Boarded up businesses lined the street-level, the apartments above nary a light on. She was on her own. Terrified and alone.
Then, as if he had always known, the stranger casually turned to face her. She couldn’t be certain – the distance made it impossible – but Maya lingered long enough to believe he was looking right at her.
She shrank quickly out of sight, down to her knees, and finally the gravity of the situation overwhelmed her. Salty tears ran down her face onto her lips. The Reeds whispered all around her, taunting her. Offering nothing but their voices, unyielding and without remorse.
“Please, Sho,” she whispered, turning her head to the heavens, “Mother, please… I want to go home…”
The heavens, unfortunately, did not deign to respond. Maya looked about her, eyes desperately searching for a glimpse of white leather. From there on her knees, the countless blades loomed like skyscrapers, shaking and battering each other, voices chattering with each collision.
Her entire world was shrinking before her eyes. Once it had been Chinatown, small as it was, but vigorous and vibrant and alive. Now her world was the Reeds. Not even that much; her world, in this moment, was this grassy cocoon she found herself cowering in. Scared and beaten and pathetic.
I am touched by the sun. She tried to grasp whatever strength was left in those words. The Reeds were expansive and not without means of escape. The Raplock was distant behind her, three or four hundred feet away, but not unreachable. Crazy Eights territory. A potential danger in itself, but at this point Maya would gladly exchange their devil she knew for this devil she did not. To her right was more city; Upper Midtown. Closer than the Raplock, perhaps three hundred feet, but given Sho’s insistence to lead the Knights away from the Strip, she was more likely to run into him or the pursuing riders on those streets.
She had already taken too much time. She had to move now. The palm of her shaking hand wiped her tears; she sniffed away the mess around her nostrils. With a deep breath she rose, slow and unsteady, back hunched, head low, preparing to peer over the dancing acreage.
Her eye-line crept over the surface and nothing more. She glanced watchfully across the plain to the streetlight from whence she came, to the worn and weary car, static and alone under the shower of light.
Of the stranger, there was no sign.
A panic she did not know possible enveloped Maya in an instant. She slapped both hands hard against her mouth, hovering just above the grass-tops. It was all she could do to tear her wide, glazed eyes away from the vacant spot left by the stranger. He was gone. Now she had to know where. She needed to know now.
Quickly she scanned the dark blue field. Almost a half mile of swaying, living shadow lay left; far beyond that the miniature silhouettes of half-constructed outlet buildings were almost invisible in the night. Her eyes worked their way forward from there, running over every inch of grass, but found no one. She studied the area between her and the abandoned vehicle, speed-reading every blade. Again nothing. She spun right and repeated. The whole exercise took no more than thirty seconds. Maya was overcome with dread but she would fight, tooth and nail, to retain a level head.
The streets held no significant hiding spots. The car was most certainly deserted and the angle the light hit it, his shadow would give him away if he were using it for cover, stretching out along the street.
He was in the Reeds.
He was coming for her.
Maya took a step back. The only direction she was certain he could not approach from. That’s where she would go. The Raplock may be fraught with its own dangers but it was—
He came at pace. From the left. She didn’t even turn her head, but sensed the black shape, the unnatural movement of the long grass in the corner of her eye, the abrupt and violent sound of the Reeds shocking against the grain. She didn’t look for confirmation. She just ran.
Grassland cracked and crunched behind her rapidly and Maya could hear her own uncontrollable screams echoing out across the Reeds. But nothing came back but her own resonance. She had become the Banshee of the Reeds this night. Her crying eyes fixated on the distant twinkling lights of the Raplock, seemingly miles away. She tried to tell herself only a hundred more feet, a hundred more feet; but there was no time left. Now she prayed for another ten yards. Another ten yards. Another ten yards.
She could no longer hear the grass breaking behind her. Only the high-pitched wail of her own terror, her cries loud and perpetual and futile.
Pothole! She stumbled forward, regained her footing and ploughed on. She cried for her mother, she cried for Sho, she cried for her God, she cried for herself. It didn’t help. Her vision was deteriorating under her tears. The deeper into the Reeds she delved, the deeper the night swallowed her. Another ten yards. Just another ten yards. The Raplock looked no bigger now so she strafed left, headed for the brighter lights of Upper Midtown, only a hundred feet away. Two hundred. Twelve. She’d lost the ability to think at all; now simply running for her life, crashing through long reeds of panic grass like a gazelle across the Serengeti, mind clear and of a single primal purpose.
When she turned to see he was only ten feet behind, a euphoric feyness took her and all at once she was floating across the plain, light as a feather, soaring over the swathe like a flock of chickadees. She no longer felt the uneven ground beneath her or the cords of grass lashing her arms and breasts and thighs. She no longer heard the oceanic chant of the Reeds swaying in the wind or her own helpless screams. Moreover she didn’t feel his shoulders as they tackled the back of her legs, dragging her down; she didn’t feel the ground come upon her or the rock break her teeth. She didn’t feel the dirt fill her bloody, wet mouth.
The world had become a pinhole of light in an otherwise darkened room. It had become the claustrophobic sound of her own underwater breaths and the salty, metallic taste of blood. When she rolled over she saw her arms flailing wildly in defence; she knew she was screaming, but the world had faded away to nothing more than the throbbing echo of her own heartbeat in her ears. And now he was upon her, dark and heavy and fast, his hands scrambling at hers. She saw the heel of his hand come at her face. The world went dark for a moment and she was no longer screaming and the flesh beneath her eye tingled hotly.
His full weight pressed down upon her, his knee boring into her stomach, pushing her deeper into the dirt, squeezing the breath from her lungs. A hand clutched her neck tight and vicious, leather burning her flesh. Then a blinding pain shot across her chest. She opened her eyes, and they met his. In that second, Maya Chun knew fear unlike any other. Those eyes sucked the terror right through her. She tried to scream with what little breath remained, but all she could muster was a strained wheeze, cracked and worthless.
He released her oesophagus and clamped his hand over her mouth; her arms pulled and fought against his, but she was exhausted and broken and lost. He raised his free arm and the light from the city reflected across his claws, making them sparkle like three crescent moons in the night sky. Then they came down on her, and Maya felt her left arm snap and fall to her side uselessly. His talon fell on her again, a searing burn slashed across her face and the world ceased to be. Her liquidised eyes, moist and thick and heavy, felt like warm soup upon her face.
Then she felt the claws across her throat. And her mouth bubble over with blood. And lastly his teeth sink into her open neck.