An Imago of Rust and Crimson
Five of Wands
'Dear Mr de Ferraz,' began the letter. 'We are writing to you to remind you that your benefits under the MBTW program terminate on 2009-MAY-15. From this point onward, you will no longer receive the weekly $27 payment. You will not qualify for the payment again until you have paid 6 (six) months of contributions to the state fund. To help you with your long-term planning, we have included some useful pamphlets to help you in your pursuit of future employment. Of course, these days increasing numbers of people are becoming self-employed. Have you ever considered becoming your own boss?'
Ned de Ferraz stared through the paper unseeing, his mind elsewhere. Things floated into his awareness in broken chunks, like his senses were reporting from a TV with bad reception. Crisp paper on a grimy table, lit by a humming harsh bulb overhead. The smell of old noodles, stale beer and pot. Bureaucratic mechanical coldness with a false chirpy attitude as if he could just go out and find a fucking job.
He ran his hands through thinning brown hair, his stomach churning. His reflection in the glass screen of the old CRT in the corner of the room stared back at him. The bags under his eyes born of too many late nights made his face look like a skull. He was too fucking young to feel this old. Only twenty-five! But his old man never seemed to get it. The bastard had kicked him out years ago after he'd caught him smoking weed in the house. There had been screaming. There had been rage. There had been words that shouldn't have been said.
And now all that was left to him was this sticky cargo-crate apartment on the edge of Ormswood that he shared with his girlfriend and another couple. It was a dump and his MBTW payments had barely been enough to cover his share of the rent. Who did he know who might be willing to take him on as a temp worker? No one, that's who. Maybe someone might need a handyman for a few days. Those kinds of on-off jobs had kept him going through the six months of unemployment benefits – and had helped a lot 'cause the pittance that the state gave wasn't enough to live on, but nothing was ever long term.
It hurt him to take money from the state. He had to, but he resented it. But he hated it even more now that they were taking it away. He didn't want to need it, but he did and now that they were snatching it away it burned even worse.
The grey days when he had nothing to do were the worst. It was almost funny. When he was a kid skipping school had been great, but these days he'd kill to be able to turn up at the same place every day and work on something. Better than being left to flap in the wind like yesterday's newspaper tossed aside on the streets.
He looked over at Claudine. Tousled black hair pulled back sharply framed a heart-shaped face. She was curled up on their bed, reading a book intently as she idly tapped her fingers against the wall. Probably some kind of chicklit. "So…" he began.
She ignored him, and he felt his courage wilt. Tap-tappa-tap went her fingers. Tap-tappa-tap. Tap-tappa-tap.
"What're you reading?"
"I'm going out," he said, slumping down. "Going to look to see if anyone's hiring."
Claudine just grunted at him.
"I'll be back later."
"Yeah, whatever. Be back by nine."
Her apathetic tone was almost worse than anything she could have said.
"Not right now, sorry."
"Leave your CV and we'll call you if we have any places."
"You're not what we're looking for."
"What professional qualifications do you have? None. Sorry, we're only taking on people with training."
"We need someone with five years experience."
The words piled up, one behind another, and none of them meant a damn thing. Not a damn thing. In Ormswood, everyone wanted a job and no one was hiring. Things weren't much different in the rest of the city. He walked as far as the Docks, looking for anything. The seagulls laughed at him, mocking and ugly. Maybe they were right to. There were a few signs up, but all of them were asking for references and training that he didn't have. Why would they want someone like him, when they could grab a trained electrician or someone with a four year degree?
Splatters of rain splashed down from on high, beating on his hunched shoulders. Fancy well-lit cars from out-of-towners heading to the Boardwalk and the submall zoomed by, their electric engines silent. Ned stopped off in a café to get out of the rain, and was met by the demanding gaze of the Chinese-American employee who watched him like a hawk while she served customers. Are you going to buy something, her eyes nagged? Or are you just wasting my time?
Humiliation boiled in the cauldron of his gut. Humiliation, and no small amount of rage. He could do that job! But instead it was some arrogant bitch's, who judged a man when he just was trying to avoid a rain shower. Shame only added to the heady mix. He was useless. Worthless. Jobless. Scum sponging off his girlfriend.
When he asked here, they had no vacancies either. No job for someone like him, but a job for someone like her. Ha! Women always seemed to find it easier to get jobs!
Eventually her gaze grew too much and he stepped out into the rain. The wind picked up. Overhead, an insectoid black helicopter hung in place, its blades a whirring noise in the sounds of the city. Its bulbous abdomen rotated from left to right over the city. The rumours said that those things were packed full of high tech cameras and tinkertech. Funny how despite all the money that got spent on them, they couldn't stop crime.
Ned flipped the helicopter the bird. It didn't help and it didn't really make him feel better, but it was something. Screw fancy choppers that probably cost more than he'd ever earn.
Fuck it all. He had done enough by any sane person's standards. It was drizzling and he was wet and cold. So instead of wasting any more time looking for jobs that just didn't exist – and wouldn't employ a high-school dropout like him even if they were there – he instead went off to American Ethos.
The building was half a repurposed old paper mill just on the edge of Ormswood. The other half was a neon-lit bar whose music sometimes thumped through the walls. Back in the fifties, the neighbourhood would have been where solid all-American working class people lived. Ned's parents had bought their first house here. But the eighties had killed the paper mill and the neighbourhood had withered away, only to be dragged back into half-life by Brockton Bay's housing crisis. And now a charity had occupied the old factory, turning it into a place where unemployed men hung out.
"Hi, Ned," said the guy at the front desk, looking up from his book. "You don't look great. Something up?"
"Yeah, Mike," he said, shoulders hunched. "Another day looking for work when there's nothing at all out there, and they're gonna cut off my benefits soon. Fuck."
"Shit, man, that sucks," Mike said, offering him a pen to sign himself in. "And… here're your vouchers. Get yourself something warm from the cafeteria. It'll make you feel better, at least for now. And find a radiator to dry out by. Last think you need is catching a cold on top of everything else."
"Yeah, you got that," Ned said, taking the little blue coupons offered. The four meals a week he got from this place were a godsend. Passing under the banner emblazoned 'With Thanks To Our Sponsors At Medhall' he made his way into the brightly-lit servery, which smelled of fries, cheese sauce and beans. The plastic floor stuck to his trainers.
"Hey, Ned!" someone called out. Turning, he caught sight of familiar faces. The guys were all there; Jeff, Herman, Paul, Louie – twitching and looking irritable, which probably meant he was trying to quit smoking again – and Zak.
"Man, Neddie, you look like shit," Louie said, huddled up warm in his old brown coat.
"You too, asshole," he retorted.
"I feel like shit," Louie agreed, rubbing his puffy cheeks.
Paul – rotund, ponderous, slow of speech and thought – swallowed his mouthful of Mac and Cheese. "Is it still rainin' outside?" he rumbled.
Ned glared at him. "Yeah. It is."
"Crap, I gotta walk home in this."
"We all do, buddy," Jeff said. His hair was shaven short, and his arms bulged with muscles; something he put down to using the time spent unemployed to pump iron. Runic tattoos covered his forearms. He bit into the apple in his hand with a loud crunch. "We all do," he said around the mouthful.
"Hey, close your mouth, man," Zak said, uncomfortably rubbing his plaster-cast arm. "I don't wanna stare at a mouthful of chewed up apple."
"How's the arm doing?" Ned asked.
"Still broken, and itches like fuck. You better dish 'em one for me."
"I promise," Jeff said.
Ned shook his head, glancing over towards the counter. "So I'm going to get my food. Anything good today?"
"Same as usual," Herman said wearily. He was older than the others; his pouchy face and red bulbous nose was rimmed by salt-and-pepper hair. "Wish they'd serve booze here. Better than the off-brand soda crap they give us. There's always next door, I guess."
"Guess I'll take a look, then," Ned said. "I dunno, I've been chasin' all over town for any sign of a damn job and I just want something hot."
When he returned with a plate of fries, beans and a bland breaded chicken cutlet, they'd shuffled up to make space for him. Ned sat and dug in, glad for the hot meal.
"No luck?" Zak asked kindly.
"Nope. Not a chance. They don't want me for anything." Ned gestured with his plastic fork. "What's the point? There ain't any jobs out there."
"Me, I blame the unions," Herman said. "I used to temp at the docks, but they got rid of me 'cause it was easier to go for me than any of the unioned up jackasses." He swirled his paper cup of cola. "They were all a bunch of pinkos. Maybe capital-S Socialists, too. There should be a law stopping commies from having those kinda jobs. We oughta bring in some of those union-breaking laws, like they got down South. That'd show 'em all."
Ned concentrated on his food. Herman was a good guy, but he was old and angry and no one wanted to set him off. Ned didn't want to end up like him; alone, drunk and bitter at his ex-wife who kept him away from his kids. "How's the…" he began.
"Hey, fuck you," Zak said, eyes narrowed. "My sister's only still here 'cause her union fought to keep health insurance for her."
"Some unions might be okay," Herman conceded, "but most of them are rotten to the core. Like the Dockworkers." He reached over and clasped Ned by the hand. "Just keep on survivin'," he told the younger man. "I ain't got a real future anymore, but you might be able to still make it."
"Yeah," Jeff agreed, taking another bite from his apple. "You're a great guy."
Their consolation only seemed to make things worse. "My girl has a job," Ned said, mood stormcloud-black. "What am I going to do if she meets someone else there? Someone who's richer than me and isn't going bald before he's twenty-fucking-five?"
"She might," Herman said, staring into his can of store-brand cola. "Women are like mozzies, man. All they care about is what they can take." He took a drink. "You know male mosquitos, right, they just eat plants and shit. It's only the women who drink blood. You'll never get sick from a boy mosquito 'cause he'll never bite you. Unless you're a vegetable, I guess."
"You better watch out then, Herm," Louie said, to sniggering. "'Cause all you do is vegetate."
"Hey, fuck you, man."
"Wait, is that really true about skeeters?" someone else asked.
"Yeah. Saw it on TV."
"Huh. Nature is weird, ain't it?"
"You can say it." Herman finished off his drink. "You know, back when I worked down at the docks sometimes some fishing ships would come in with all kinds of weird catches that they trawled off the bottom of the ocean. Freakiest shit I ever saw. Straight out of some kind of horror movie. And," he said, leaning in conspiratorially, "a guy I knew, he said they were getting bigger. And there were these freaky white crabs and bugs crawling over some of them. And not just over them. There were things like these fish where the bugs had eaten their eyes, right, and now were living in the sockets and…"
"Hey, I'm trying to eat here!" Ned protested.
"Yeah, really, that's sick," Louie agreed, arm bouncing up and down on the table. He forced it to be still. "Who… uh, who saw the game last weekend? I caught it on the radio and it sounded like a real nail-biter right until the brownout hit."
Jeff nodded. "I know, right? I was watching it down at All Bar None and missed the ending."
"Jesus, when are they going to fix the fucking power?" Zak complained.
"Never," Herman said bitterly. "Never ever."
"Hey, guys," Mike from the front desk said, coming over with a smile on his face. They half-turned to face him. "Good news. I just got a call from some friends and they're looking for some good guys to help with a temp job at short notice. It's just some lifting and set-up work, but they're paying for it."
"I'm listening," Ned said immediately, eyes widening, and he wasn't the only one.
"So, did you see the news today? About how they caught the guy who killed that kid at that school?"
"Yeah," Herman said. "It was some Jap illegal, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Mike said, nodding seriously. "It was."
"Fucking Japs," Louie rumbled.
"Well, there's going to be a rally downtown this evening, and my buddy wants me to look for some guys who can do some heavy lifting for the setup. You know, helping getting the signs out, handing out placards, unloading the trucks… that kinda stuff. They're paying twenty bucks for the job, which's probably an hour or two, three tops, and… listen, the guy's a good guy, so he's making a donation here and so I can throw in ten extra meal vouchers a head. 'Cause I like you and if you help out here that'll help us. So we can help you. That's how real Americans do it, right; men helping men?"
"I'm in," Ned said immediately, just before everyone else. Ten extra meals here would have been enough – twenty dollars was only the cherry on the cake.
Mike grinned. "Knew I could count on you. Listen, they'll be sending over a truck at three to pick you guys up. Oh yeah, and once you've done set-up, you also gotta be there at the rally. Don't let me down, 'kay?" He winced. "And… sorry, Zak, but they're not going to want you. You can't lift stuff."
Zak pulled a face. "I know," he said ruefully, rubbing his cast. "Bad luck, ain't it. Well, at least I'm not gonna get rained on. That's something, at least."
"Oh, I dunno," Mike said. He rummaged in his pockets. "Just 'cause you can't help out doesn't mean you shouldn't show up. The Patriots are being real helpful and they've already made a donation to help get a real presence out, you know. If you're out there, showing how angry we all are, you'll get some food vouchers."
Zak leaned back, a look of relief on his face. "Thanks, man. That's a real help. Stuff's been hard with a broken arm."
"Hey, don't thank me," Mike said. "Patriots like us should help each other out, right?"
The setting sun painted the western horizon crimson. The dark grey clouds sweeping in from the ocean were daubed in rust by the light. The holograms and neon lights of the Boardwalk seemed a long way away. Looking up, Ned shivered and pulled his hood up. He was cold, and while the light rain had stopped it looked like it was going to get heavier tonight. He wanted to get home before that. His back hurt from the time he'd spent lifting boxes around and carrying things out of the trucks, and now he'd been standing here in a high vis jacket handing out placards for what felt like an hour on top of the two that he'd been setting things up.
But he was getting paid for this. He reminded himself of this every time he felt like just going home. Twenty bucks wasn't anything to sneeze at and the food vouchers were probably worth even more.
By now, Manely Park was packed. There were more here than Ned had expected would show up when it had been raining earlier today. It wasn't just people here for the rally – there were burger vans, men pushing carts with hot dogs, and wandering sellers with pockets full of merchandise. On stage, a band was playing some forgettable pop song, keeping the crowd entertained.
Maybe that might be something he could do, Ned considered as he stood there, his feet sinking into the trampled up mud. After all, people were buying tonnes of things here. Even if it wasn't a full-time thing, the extra money couldn't hurt. Yeah! He'd just need, like, some stuff he could sell at meetings like this. Wait, but you'd probably need to sign up for something and he'd been burned by offers like that in the past. They always said that you could make money in your spare time and forgot to mention how it involved tonnes of work for almost no money once they'd taken their cut.
He shook his head. Later. "Hey, want a sign?" he asked a couple walking by. "I still got 'Send Them Home!' and 'America For Americans!'."
The man paused, and looked at his girlfriend. "Yeah," he said. "Give me the Americans one."
Ned passed it over. "Just remember to give it back to one of us helpers at the end," he said, repeating what he'd been told. "If you do that, you'll get a free badge and be helping to avoid littering."
"Yeah, whatever." The couple headed off, and Ned worked his shoulders. His shoulders were aching and his feet felt like they were swelling up. Still, it was good to be out and about and feeling useful. This was far better than wandering around constantly being turned down for jobs or sitting at home watching TV and feeling useless. And he was helping.
Really when you thought about it, it was super-impressive how fast they'd managed to get everything set up. The news'd only come out today that they'd caught the murderer and that they were some Jap illegal, but they had signs and everything all printed out and ready to give to people like him to hand out.
"Looks like it's a good turnout," Herman said, ambling up to him carrying his own set of placards. He huffed on his hands. "God, I need a drink after this. Somewhere warm."
"Yeah," Ned agreed, pulling his hands back inside his sleeves. He shuffled awkwardly. "Do you think this is going to work?"
"Well, like, there's so many people out here. But do you think anyone's listening? I mean, obviously we're listening 'cause we're here, but do you think protests like this will actually make a difference?"
"I'm thinking the right people are listening," Herman said, after some thought. "You know, the people who realise how bad things are getting. Of course, politicians up in Washington aren't listening, but they should be. 'Cause if they keep on not listening and more kids die because of them, well, it'll all be their fault. And maybe someone oughta really remind them that they're in charge to do what we tell them to. We'll get a Patriot for president – and if they try to stop that, well, they're all a bunch of traitors. We know what to do to traitors."
"Yeah," Ned said, bouncing up and down on his toes. Something struck him. "Hey, man, have you got a phone at the moment?"
"I gotta text my girlfriend and tell her that I'll be out working on this and that I'm getting paid for it. I don't want her shouting at me when I get back 'cause she didn't want me getting back to late."
"Oh, right." Herman dug in a pocket. "Yeah, go ahead. Women, eh?"
"Yeah. But thanks." He took Herman's old bashed brick, and sent her 'b back l8r got work for evening c u luv ned xxx', then handed it back. "I gotta get a new one some time. My old one died on me and just won't turn on."
Herman nodded. "I know a guy who might be able to help. I got a friend who runs a hardware store and he has cheap phones." He paused, listening up. "But not now. Sounds like the music's done and they're starting the rally proper. That means we gotta hand back the signs and the jackets."
"Oh yeah, hah, don't want them charging us for them," Ned said nervously. "Last thing I need."
By the time they'd trooped over to the central point and handed back all but one of their placards, it had started to drizzle. Despite that, the area around the stage was packed and the two men had to stand at the back with their signs. A few people seemed to be drifting off, but most of the people here had expected the weather and come prepared.
"Well, hello everyone!" the man on stage said, waving at the crowd. "It's great to see so many people here! Can I get an 'America' from all of you?"
"America!" Ned shouted, along with the roar of the crowd.
"I can't hear you! Louder!"
"That was pretty good, pretty good. But you know what? I think you've got a little more in you. How about another time, just a little louder. Loud enough that they'll hear us in Washington DC!"
"America, yeah! That's why we're here! That's the country we're all so proud of! And that's the country that saw a tragic murder at one of our schools. A murder that was carried out by a Japanese illegal. An illegal who shouldn't have been here, in our country! That's what we have to remember! That's why we're all here, and we're all outraged! I'm glad you all came here in the rain, to show that this can't be allowed to stand!
"But you've probably all heard enough from me. I'm just the introduction guy. So everyone, guys and gals, can you raise your hands and stomp your feet for… Purity!"
Ned's heart soared. Everyone knew Purity. She got it. She wasn't one of those rich elites like the New Wave lawyer lady who'd show up on TV and talk down to people and act like she was better than everyone else. He was already looking up, because he'd seen it before. She was one of the leading capes up in Maine who'd publicly come out for the Patriot Movement, and she always entered rallies a certain way.
Overhead, he saw the streak of bright light. People who hadn't seen it before might have thought it was a plane, but he knew better. Dropping down through the clouds, a woman with brilliant glowing white hair and eyes who shed a soft radiant aura descended in a trail of light, illuminating the crowd like she was a stadium light.
She touched down gently, almost like she was stepping down from an unseen box, and raised her hands up. The crowd roared their lungs out, Ned among them.
"My fellow patriots!" Purity called out. She had a broad Maine accent. "It's great to see you all here! It's a sign of how big your hearts are that you're willing to brave the cold and wet, just to show how we all feel! To show that we Americans are all in this together! That we're going to stand up to the threats to our country, whether they're inside or outside!
"And right now, I'm thinking there are more threats to us here inside the country. Because that's why we're all here, isn't it? A child was murdered by a Japanese illegal! An innocent child is dead because we let someone who shouldn't even have been in the country past our borders!
She gestured behind her, at the big picture of the dead boy's face which filled the back of the stage.
"A boy is dead. A sixteen year old boy is dead! His name was Justin Wells! He wanted to be a soldier! He wanted to keep his mother safe – and now she's having to bury him! He's dead, and it's all the fault of the politicians and all the bleeding heart liberals who never thought about what would happen when they opened up our borders!
"Well, they opened the floodgates, and let through a tsunami of blood and filth and crime! They don't follow our laws! They don't respect our culture! They kill our children and take our jobs!" Spreading her arms wide, Purity gestured in the direction of Little Tokyo. "There are regions of our city where the cops don't dare to go, that America has surrendered to the Japanese! Why do we let this happen? Why?"
A sullen roar rose from the crowd. Purity paused for breath.
"Now, some liberal sell-outs might say that we're just fear-mongering, that it was just one dead child; that we shouldn't get so worked up. They might even say that he 'deserved' it and it was somehow his fault that he got murdered by someone who shouldn't have even been in the country! You know what I say to that?
"Yes, I'm scared! I'm scared of what they're doing to our children! I'm scared that bits of our country aren't what they should be. I'm scared that America is being taken over from the inside!
"I joined up to fight to keep us safe with my powers. And when I came home from the army to start a family, what did I find? I found the world wasn't safe anymore! That for all that I'd fought against the enemy without, the Washington elites had stabbed us in the back and let in enemies into our streets.
"As a woman, as a mother, as an American, I'm scared of the fact that we have Japanese murderers in our schools!" She took a deep breath. "Yes, I said fear. I might have superpowers, but that doesn't help at all. Not if illegals are going to kill our children, in our schools. I'm just the same as any other mother. I'm just the same as the rest of you! My daughter is going to be going to school in a few years and I won't always be there to hold her hand or keep her safe!"
Purity paused, looking over the crowd. Her shoulders shook with suppressed emotions. Her light painted every onlooker's face in stark illumination and left the placards and flags carried by the crowd looking wan and faded. The cameras from the local press didn't need their flashes despite the twilight – Purity laid everything clear for them to record.
"And that's why I'm glad you're all here together, today. I'm glad that all of you are willing to stand up and tell them that we are not afraid, that we will not lie down and we will not let them kill our children! We will not let them take our jobs! We will not let them break our laws! You, me, everyone is here to march! A statement of American pride! A statement that we will not be cowed! Who's with me?"
Ned cheered and cheered and cheered. He wasn't alone. The hollers of the crowd bounced off the buildings surrounding the park and certainly reached as far as Little Tokyo.
American flags fluttered in the rain. Feet pounded against wet pavements as the parade marched down the streets of Little Tokyo. The sun had gone down and now sodium streetlamps painted the red in the Stars and Stripes jet black. Nervous pale faces looked out from the windows of the overcrowded neighbourhood down at on placards calling for 'JAPS GO HOME' and 'KEEP OUR SCHOOLS SAFE!'. Cops in high visibility jackets escorted the march and blue-lit cars trailed from behind.
But Ned wasn't with the main body of the march. He and Herman had met up with Jeff and Louie, and then Jeff had met up with some of his friends who were pissed about what'd happened to Zak, and now there were upwards of twenty men doing their own parallel march through Little Tokyo, overturning bins and breaking windows. Late night shops and take-out restaurants hastened to pull down their shutters as they saw them coming. Ned didn't want to be here. It was cold, it was wet, and he didn't feel safe here. This was Boomer turf, and he didn't want to cross them.
Leaving the group meant striking out on his own, though. There was safety in numbers. And he didn't want to cross some of Jeff's friends either. They were big, bulky guys with shaven heads and bodies that either came from hard manual labour or abuse of synthsteroids. He wasn't a sympathiser with the pocs, and he didn't want them thinking he was either.
With a yell, one of them slammed the baseball he was carrying into a shopfront window. The glass shattered, falling outwards into the gutter where it mingled with the rain. The burglar alarm started to scream, a siren in the night. It wasn't the only one wailing.
"Maybe we oughta get out of here," he suggested.
Jeff snorted. "Why? What're you scared of? The cops are on our side. They want these fucking criminals gone just as much as we do, yeah." He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Out out out! Out out out!" he bellowed, joined by others. He kicked over a bin, and the scent of rotting garbage cut through the rain.
Ned huddled his wet jacket around himself tighter. The Boardwalk was visible through the gaps in the tightly packed buildings, and its bright neon lights and holograms floated above these dark damp sodium-lit streets. "Out out out!" he joined in, but his heart wasn't in it. He was cold, wet and miserable – and hungry, too. Dinner had been a long time ago and he'd been out in the cold since then.
The roar of motorbikes provided a bass counterpoint to the wailing of alarms. They were coming closer.
"Oh crap," Herman muttered, looking around nervously. "Boomers. Fuck. Fuck."
"Maybe they're the cops," Louie squeaked.
But the bikes turned the corner, revealing a squadron of customised motorbikes; ten in total. The riders had customised their faceplates, turning them into demonic visages that leered at onlookers. Several were carrying things that weren't quite weapons – metal baseball bats, heavy chains, or hammers. Others just cut out the middleman and prominently carried guns.
The Boumei gang members pulled up, blocking the road ahead. "You. Eagles," one of them called out in a heavily accented voice. His red demon mask was black under the streetlights. "Get the fuck out. Or we take payment our own way."
"Shit shit shit," Ned muttered, backing away. He caught Louie's eye. The other man was shaking, raindrops bouncing off him.
"There's more of us," one of Jeff's friends shouted back. "Just turn around and fuck off yourself."
"You told them!"
The Boumei bikers revved their engines together. It was obviously meant to intimidate the locals – and at least from Ned's point of view, it was damn well working. All those bikes revving in unison sounded like a great beast snarling. Herman grabbed him by the sleeve, yanking him further back, and he saw that Louie was already backing away.
"This is our turf. Our neighbourhood," the demon-masked biker said. "You show us respect here, or you die. You wanna die, Eagles? They won't find your bodies."
"Unless the fish spit you out for being too bad to eat!" one of the other bikers jeered. That one was a woman, though it was hard to tell under the leathers and her dragon-like helmet. "Then maybe you'll wash up on shore!"
Demon Mask raised his hand. "You got ten to turn tail and run, or we fuck you up for messing with our neighbourhood," he said, voice cutting through the screaming alarms. "This is under our protection. You know this is Lung's place and he tells us to make examples of anyone who crosses us. You mess with our people, you mess with the Boumei: you end up a mess under our wheels. Got it?"
Ned got it. Louie got it. Even Herman got it. But Jeff and Jeff's friends didn't get it, or didn't want to get it. They didn't back down. There were more of them than the Japanese. And the bikers weren't going to back down, either.
Demon Mask shouted something in Japanese, and the bikers revved their engines. Slowly, deliberately they advanced on the men, prepared to ride them down.
"Stick together!" Jeff yelled. "Don't fucking run! That's what they want! Eagles! Eagles! Eagles!"
His friends took up the chant together, but Ned wasn't feeling brave. They had bikes, they had weapons, and they were coming right for them. He broke and ran, and he wasn't alone.
"This way!" Louie hollered, feet splashing on the ground as he dashed for the dilapidated parking lot next to the street. The lot was poorly lit and the street lamp overhead had been shot out. Asphalt was buckled and torn, and potholes marred the surface. Ned's foot went into one of the holes and he nearly fell; his leg emerged wet to the mid-shin.
Herman was behind them, all on his own. Two bikers roared in to cut him off, herding him away from the pitted terrain of the lot like he was a sheep and they were sheepdogs. Whirling a chain over his head, a wolf-masked biker brought it down towards Herman's head. He managed to get his arms up, but even from this distance Ned could hear the snap of bones. Herman went down and the bikers peeled away, one of them running over his legs with an audible thump.
Ned could taste bile in his mouth. Wet hands felt cold metal as he vaulted a burned out car, and then he was running again, heart pounding in his throat. There, to the left was the leering Wolf Mask, whirling his chain around. It whistled in the air. The biker jinked to the left, taking a swipe and Ned ducked down to avoid the blow – a motion which turned into a slip on the slick ground.
Pain flared in his hands and knees as he slid. Scrabbling to get back to his feet despite the burns on his palms, he managed to throw himself over the hood of another car and get it between him and the biker who skidded to a stop, screaming Japanese invectives at him.
Rain and tears alike blurred his vision, and Ned gasped for breath. Keep the car between him and the biker. Yes. He had the advantage here – a bike might be faster on the flats, but it couldn't turn. He wanted to throw up. Fear gripped his stomach tight and he nearly retched. Looking around, he caught a rusty fire escape hanging down from the building behind him. It was lowered, leading up to a metal walkway lit by flickering neon signs.
Fuck. Climbing a fire escape in the middle of a rainstorm wasn't his idea of a good time, but what else could he do? He caught a glimpse of Louie's vanishing behind as the other man squeezed through a board fence on the edge of the lot. He was safe, at least, but Herman was still lying in the middle of the road curled up in a ball. The other guys were sticking together on the side of the street, clumped up around the shuttered entrance of a shop so the bikers couldn't charge them, but they weren't even looking for him.
Wolf Mask was looking at him, idly swinging the chain around. Ned couldn't see a gun on him, so maybe, just maybe…
He made a run for it. His feet splashed through pock-marked asphalt and his lungs burned. The motorbike roared behind him, accompanied by the sinister whistling of the chain. Every heartbeat he felt might be his last, might be the moment when this Boomer brought the metal down on his head and it all ended.
He slammed shoulder-first into the redbrick wall, feeling the dull ache all down the left side of his body, and grabbed for the first rung. The metal was slippery and icy cold in the rain, and with his friction-burned hands each move hurt. One rung, two rungs, three rungs, four. He screamed as his foot slipped and banged him against the wall again, but a desperate scrabble was just enough to get a foothold again and adrenaline propelled him up the last few rungs, up onto the safety of the gantry.
Rolling onto his back, Ned gasped for air as rain and tears rolled down his face. The sign above him flashed red-purple, red-purple, red-purple. The growl of the motorbike below him receded. Wolf Mask must have got bored and gone back to harass the others. Maybe he just wasn't willing to get off his bike.
Gunfire crackled in the night, and he found energy he hadn't though he had to scramble along the rain-slick metal. He swore he could hear bullets crack all around him, whizzing over his head. Someone screamed down below him, a long and agonised noise that went on for quite some time. He slammed into the railing as he turned the corner of the building and only stopped when he could no longer see the fight behind him. The gunfire was a sign that he couldn't really escape it, though.
His lungs were burning and ice-cold water ran down the back of his neck. His legs felt raw from where his soaked jeans were chafing. And he couldn't stay up here. Ned knew that. There were people moving on the other side of the wall and they'd be Japs here in Little Tokyo. He had to get out of this neighbourhood and get back somewhere safe. The Boomers were out in force and he was one guy on his own.
There was another lowered fire escape that led down into an alleyway. He took a deep breath. This would get him away from the gang fight back there. A bit of him didn't want to leave Herman, but there was nothing he could do. Not with the Boomers around. He'd just have to find a payphone once he was out of Little Tokyo and call an ambulance.
Legs shaking, hands aching, he climbed down the wet fire escape with care. The metal smelled of copper and rust, and the only light was the red and purple from the illuminated sign up above. It picked up discarded trash bags and a thick detritus of abandoned cardboard boxes, slowly rotting away. Liquid dripped down from the sodden rooftops, and things scurried and rustled in the bags.
The scent of copper was thicker down here, thick and acrid. And there was something else here – something which smelt like an overused copy machine and hot plastic.
Garbage clattered up ahead. Something that he'd thought in the gloom was a bag of rubbish straightened up and revealed itself to be a person in a witch's hat. The broad brim of the hat left their face mostly in shadow, but he thought they were wearing a green rubber mask. Had to be. And that meant he was in deep trouble. He swallowed, tasting the copper in the air, and glanced back. Could he make it back to the ladder? Another masked Boomer was waiting for him down here. No wonder Wolf Mask had let him run. "I… I d-don't want to fight," he said, voice cracking.
The witch bent down, picking up a bag that she slung on her back. And then she turned, and walked away from him, heading down the other way. A sudden wave of nausea hit him, something about the rotten smell of the alley and that metallic, acrid hint to it. His head reeled, and he sagged, leaning against the wall. His teeth ached and he could feel something squirming in his palms.
Rats burst out from the bags of garbage, keening just at the edge of hearing. They flowed over his feet in a living carpet that fled towards him. In the dim red light their eyes gleamed. Ned screamed and flailed, feeling little bodies crushed beneath his feet, and nearly overbalanced. Only a desperate grab onto a drainpipe was enough to stop him from going down into the sea of vermin. The panicked thought was enough to make his skin crawl.
Whimpering with fear, Ned cracked his an eye open. The rats were gone. The witch was still there. Staring at him, her head tilted. There was someone else with her, a larger figure in the red-lit alley. And another one – shorter, perhaps a child – with pale hair.
And then he screamed. Because he saw what the witch had been kneeling over, discarded down among the trash. It was Louie on the floor. He wasn't going to get another smoke. Not now. Not ever. Because someone had opened him up and gutted him like a fish. Everything was red and purple, with the pale of his shattered ribs spread open like some mad angel's wings.
The witch crocked her finger at him, with a come-hither gesture.
He took a step forwards.
His journey back home was an unreal patchwork of fragments. He remembered a mad flight down winding alleys to the surreal sound of Americana from the Patriotic rally. He remembered shivering on a bus, mumbling words to himself that he could barely recall even as he said them.
Ned's hands were shaking so much that he couldn't open the front door to his squalid shared apartment. In the end, Claudine let him in, her eyes widening in surprise as she saw the state he was in.
"What happened with you?" she asked.
He wetted his lips. "Trouble with… with the Boomers," he croaked. "They chased me. Ran through… through the backstreets."
She wrinkled her nose. "No wonder you stink. What were you doing?"
"Es-escorting the Patriot march. Like I was paid to." He rummaged in his pocket, and pulled out the money in his pocket. "Here."
Her eyes widened. "Ten, twenty, forty, sixty, eighty… and a dollar coin?" she asked, eyes lighting up. "Damn. That's great for a few hours work. Come on, let's get you out of those wet clothes."
Slumping down on the floor in front of the CRT, Ned peeled off his t-shirt and his drenched trousers. Hadn't he had a coat? He thought he had. Had he left it somewhere?
He groaned and rested his forehead on his knee. Fucking Boomers going after him like that. He was a mess. And Claudine hissed when she saw the cuts and the scrapes which covered him. She fetched the iodine. The pain on his cuts made him feel more here. Here. Yes, here. Where else would he be?
"What's that in your pocket?" Claudine asked.
Ned blinked. There was something in his trouser pocket. He pulled it out. It was a cheaply bound book with a brown cover, bent in half to fit. There was no author on it – only a title in black lettering.
"I dunno," he mumbled. "I… I think I picked it up at the rally or something." He frowned, head aching. "Yeah. Something to read. For you. 'Cause you like books."
She smiled at him. "Well, that was sweet," she said, tossing it onto her side of the bed. "I'll take a look through it." She frowned. "You know what? We can have something nice. I'll go grab a take-out pizza, okay? A treat for us."
Ned stared into empty space while she fussed around, putting on her coat before heading into the rain. Slowly, his hand sought out the TV remote. He turned it on, flicking through the channels.
He settled on channel nine.
The camera was a harsh mistress. Under her white flash, every intimate part of the exposed chest cavity of the corpse was laid bare. It was just past dawn and the rain had stopped. Now the alleyway was surrounded by yellow tape and dark-suited federals with guns. The body had been found here in the aftermath of a gang fight between the Boumei and the Iron Eagles.
The Chinese-American woman squatted by the body. She reached out and touched the one intact eyeball with a gloved hand. Her shadow spasmed, flocking like dark birds for just a second. "He died from haemorrhage. By my reading, it's another organ harvesting. AB-negative blood group, rare. Possibly deliberately targeted." She paused. "I think it's her again. Number 57."
"That would match her pattern," said the older man behind her, adjusting his tinkertech glasses. His short-cropped hair was iron-grey, and paler scars criss-crossed his dark hands. "I'm seeing traces of Number 38's influence, too."
"I thought Number 38 had been sterilised. He was marked as sterilised."
"Yes. Which is concerning. See if there was anyone else here."
Pulling a crow's feather from an inside pocket, the woman wiped it in the blood and carefully examined how the quill sagged and the barbs rippled in an unseen breeze.
"I can't read it," the agent eventually said, her eyes narrowed. "The crows don't know the answer. Or someone has blinded them. Alarming. Agent Bryant?"
One of the federal agents stepped up behind her. "Ma'am? What is it that you want?" she lisped, her accent not quite native.
"Have your kin move the body back to the lab, and then quarantine and scrub down this entire alley."
"First time it'll have been cleaned in years," the man said dryly. "It might draw attention."
She reached into a pocket and put on her mirrored glasses. "Mmm. Can't be helped. You handle the sterilisation of this site and make sure they blame the gangs for another death. I need to find out which cops saw the body and mark them for redaction. If necessary, of course."