Grim Rippers MC, says the sign on the red brick wall, in large black letters on pale grey. The letters are stylised Gothic, set below the club logo of a hooded skull and crossed scythes. It’s evening, just after dusk, and the skull glows faintly luminous with phosphorescence.
“It might look cheesy,” I’d been warned, “but do not be tempted to laugh. Not even to yourself. There is nothing funny about these people.” As though I’d needed to be told that.
It’s a strange place to have an outlaw biker clubhouse, in this fairly upscale residential district with its tree-lined streets and neat houses with well-tended little gardens out front. It’s an especially strange place to find this particular kind of biker clubhouse. These streets were built with family cars in mind, modestly fashionable vehicles hushing by unobtrusively to work or shopping at the malls downtown. Nobody probably ever imagined they’d echo to the pulsating beat of V-twin cruiser engines. But then there’s nothing usual about the people inside those walls. Nothing at all.
There are motorcycles parked in a double line on the small concrete court by the gate, along with a couple of pickup trucks. I glance at them, counting quickly; there are about fourteen or fifteen. Not a full house then, because some of these will be associates’ and prospects’ bikes, but still a fair number of the full-patch members will be here tonight. I can imagine them on the other side of the wall, and I’m sure a couple of sets of eyes are watching me at this moment, sizing me up, and more likely than not checking to make sure I’m the one they expect.
Despite my training, I feel my tension rising, and pause a moment to get myself under control; but not too much, not all the way to base-level calmness. They’ll detect my nervousness, of course, and to some extent they’ll be expecting nervousness. Nervousness is normal under these circumstances. But they’d react as suspiciously to outright anxiety as they would to a dead – if you’ll forgive the pun – calm. They’re as sensitive to atmosphere as hunted wild animals, and they can be as dangerous as one of those wild animals when brought to bay.
I’m ready for my role, I tell myself, once again. I won’t screw up by making some stupid mistake. I repeat it quickly, so that I know it’s true, and walk up to the gate.
The owner of one of the sets of eyes I’d known were watching me steps out of a small wooden cubicle next to the gate. He’s a big man with a round hairless head, shining in the light pouring down on us from the floodlight on the gatepost. He crosses his beefy arms on his white T shirt and stares at me silently.
“I’m expected,” I say after it becomes obvious he’s not going to make the first move. “I’m...” for the briefest instant I have a shaft of panic when I can’t remember my code name, but then it comes to me. “Bill,” I tell him. “Bill Butcher. Roggy one-percenter invited me.”
For a moment he doesn’t react, his stony expressionless eyes gazing into mine. Then he holds out a hand. I fumble my ID through the wire mesh to him; he takes it without a word and disappears into the cubicle. After a couple of minutes, there’s a faint hum of an electric motor and the gate begins to slide open.
The big man reappears, and speaks for the first time. His voice is harsh and low, as if it is an effort for him to talk. Perhaps it is. “Roggy will be here later,” he says. “You’re to go in and wait.”
“All right. What about my licence?”
He stares at me. “You’ll get it back when you leave. Rules of the house.”
I’d been coached to look out for any attempt to intimidate or dominate me, and to resist from the outset, but it seems counterproductive to raise a ruckus before even getting into the clubhouse. So I shrug, turn away and walk up the steps to the door, which looks very heavy, as though it’s sheathed in metal under the wood. More likely than not it is.
It’s already opening, and another man appears. This one’s surprisingly small, barely up to my shoulder, and thin, almost spindly, which makes me instantly wary. His short stature means he must make up in other attributes what he lacks in centimetres. The club can pick and choose its members – it isn’t hurting for candidates – and it recruits only the best. He grins up at me, a feral smile with a lot of tooth and little else.
“I’m Rat,” he says in a flat monotone. “And you’re Bill Butcher.”
“Rat one-percenter, of course,” he says with some disgust, as though I’ve failed some kind of test. “Roggy said you’d be along.” He throws an arm round my back, as he ushers me though the door; a surprisingly friendly gesture, but I can feel the subtle pressure of his fingers as he checks me out for a shoulder holster. That’s just the beginning.
As soon as we’re through the door it slams behind us and Rat produces a gun, which he holds to my head, and pats me down expertly. “Drop your pants,” he says when he’s done.
“Huh?” This I had not expected. “What the fuck is this?”
“Drop the pants,” he repeats in the same monotone. “Or I’ll blow your head off.”
I undo my belt and let my trousers collapse round my ankles. Rat quickly feels around my legs with his free hand. “All right,” he says, stepping back. “Now the jacket.”
“Did you think I was carrying a bug?” I ask when he motions for me to get dressed again.
“No,” he says. “If you were, it would be disguised anyway. But I needed to be sure you weren’t carrying something illegal to plant on us. It happens.”
“Yeah?” I ask, pulling up my zipper.“Roggy specifically told me not to carry any kind of contraband, so I’m not.”
He shrugs, putting away the gun. “Sorry about that,” he says insincerely. “But you can’t be too careful. Well, come on.”
I follow him down a short, brightly-lit corridor to a large room. It’s got a bar counter down one side, and a small stage opposite. The wall behind the stage is covered by a huge grey cloth bearing the hooded death’s head with the crossed scythes, with Grim Rippers above it, MC to the side and the charter name, in the same Gothic script, below. The rest of the room is scattered with chairs and tables. It looks like a cross between a community hall and a pub, except that there are no drinks behind the bar. Of course, for these people, there wouldn’t be.
There are several of them sitting in the room, and glance up at me with feigned casualness. The casualness is obviously feigned because their eyes all have the same glittering, watchful look, and once again I’m reminded of dangerous wild animals.
“Roggy will be here in a bit,” Rat tells me. “Make yourself at home. Hey, Tiny,” he calls, “we have a guest.” Clapping me lightly on the back, he disappears through the door by which we’d entered.
“Hi.” Tiny, of course, is so huge I have to tilt my head back slightly to look him in the eyes. He gives me a benign grin through a faceful of curling beard. “Welcome to the Ripper Nation.”
“Yeah, hi. Thanks.” Tiny’s hand is so large it envelopes mine. “I don’t want to trouble you,” I tell him. “I’ll just wait for Roggy. He’s to meet me here.”
“It’s no trouble, no trouble at all.” Tiny’s teeth are small and even, his cheeks ruddy above the beard. He looks friendly, happy, and so vital that apart from the slightest waxy sheen on his skin one can hardly tell he’s dead. “It’s nice to see a guest here. We seldom have any.”
“What about them?” I nod towards a couple of women in the far corner.
“Oh, them. They aren’t guests. Hey, Bonny,” he calls. “You a guest?”
One of the women grins back and waves. She’s tall, muscular, chocolate-complexioned, and her hair’s worked into short dreadlocks – as I already know, these biker gangs don’t discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. I watch the muscles slide and bunch under her skin – I wouldn’t fancy my chances against her in hand-to-hand combat. “Guest?” she shouts back. “How I wish.” It seems to be some kind of inside joke, because everyone laughs except me.
We sit at a table and Tiny leans back, his hands locked behind his head. The insides of his arms crawl with tattoos. “Can I offer you a drink?” he asks casually.
“A drink?” I wonder if this is a trick question of some kind. “But you don’t drink alcohol, do you?”
“I meant whether you want one,” he replied. “We do have a few bottles for guests somewhere. Wine, gin, whiskey, you name it, we have it.”
“Oh, all right. Thanks for the offer.” I glance around the room, aware everyone else’s attention is on me to a greater or lesser extent. “But I don’t want it. You see, I don’t drink either.”
“Why not?” Tiny looks a bit surprised. “Don’t tell me you’re a teetotaller.”
“No,” I tell him, and raise my voice slightly to make sure I’m clearly heard. “It’s not that I’m not a teetotaller.” I wait, pausing a moment for effect.
“I’m Undead too,” I say.
“Let me explain clearly,” my controller, whom I know only by the code name of Teri, had told me. She’d stood at the window of her office, back turned to the view, and stared me up and down with her markswoman’s eyes. “These are criminals here we’re dealing with. I know you’re Undead too, but you are nothing like them. You have to keep that in mind at all times.”
“I know,” I’d said. “I’m perfectly aware of that.”
“Uh-huh.” She’d shaken her head emphatically. “You don’t understand, not really. These people – if we’re to call them that – are the scum of the earth. But they can be very persuasive, very convincing. It’s easy to be taken in. And because you’re Undead, you’d feel a natural kinship with them anyway, so it’s doubly dangerous for you.”
“But you need someone Undead to infiltrate them,” I’d said sourly. “So anyone you send would be in the same boat.”
“That doesn’t mean you can afford to relax a moment. Look, Bill...” Teri had switched to what I call her ‘reasonable’ persona, smiling reassuringly and leaning earnestly forward. She doesn’t do it very well, because her eyes remain the same, those sniper’s eyes. “You need to keep in mind what you’re dealing with here. They seem pretty much jokes, don’t they? A few Undead with attitudes, motorcycles, and stickers on their backs? But they could overturn our entire economic and social system. They’re that big a threat.”
“How?” I’d asked reasonably enough. “What do you think they’re planning, an armed insurrection against the government or something?”
“I wish they would,” Teri had said almost wistfully. “Then we could take care of them.” I’d seen the gleam in her eyes, as if she was taking aim through a rifle’s telescopic sights, and I’d known what she’d meant by that. “But it’s nothing so easily countered.” She’d sat down opposite me and rubbed her face, and for the first time I realised how tired she looked. “They’re pushing Juice,” she’d said.
“Juice?” To say I was surprised would have been the understatement of the year. “How can they push Juice? How can anyone even get their hands on it?”
“Nevertheless,” she’d replied, “that’s what they’re doing, and they’re distributing it on a large scale amongst the Undead. You don’t need me to tell you what that means, do you?”
“No.” I had shaken my head in bewilderment. “Are you sure the Undead biker gangs are behind this?”
“Quite sure. They don’t deal out of the clubhouses, of course. They’re far too smart for that. But they are distributing it. We need to know where they’re getting hold of it first, and then we’re going to strike hard as we can.”
“I thought there was only one source.” We’d both looked instinctively at the company’s red-white-green logo, easily visible on the building across the way from her office. That wasn’t significant – you can’t go two kilometres without seeing the logo five times. “Government-protected monopoly, isn’t it?”
“They claim there’s none missing from their stocks.” Teri had shuffled a couple of files on her desk, her long slim fingers riffling the pages. “That’s what they say.”
“But you don’t believe them.”
“The stuff has to be coming from somewhere, hasn’t it?”
“Maybe it’s being smuggled in from abroad? The Chinese and Russians make it on a large scale.”
“The samples we’ve found don’t have the chemical markers of the Chinese version, and the Russian stuff’s just a copy of the Chinese Juice. Besides they’ve a bigger demand than they can supply, so there’s nothing left over for smuggling.” She’d stared at me, making sure I’d understood what she meant. “But you know as well as I do that we can’t do a thing without cast-iron evidence.” I’d nodded, knowing the tremendous political power of that particular company, and how it virtually owns half the government, leaving the lesser corporations to fight for control of the other half. “You’re to get the evidence.”
“And the only way you can think of is by infiltrating one of the clubs? Isn’t there another way?”
“If there was, don’t you think we’d have used it by now? Frankly, these biker clubs are almost impenetrable. We don’t know a thing about what goes on there. We need an inside informant.”
“Well,” I’d asked then, “why me? You must have other operatives, more experienced ones.”
“But we don’t have another Undead agent.” Teri had slapped her hand on the table. “Look, Bill, I’ll be frank with you. I don’t like the Undead. They give me the creeps – even you, and you’re lifelike enough to pass. Say what you like, but you Undead aren’t natural.” She’d paused to give me a chance to respond. I’d kept my peace, because she’d not said anything I hadn’t sensed already about her attitude. When you’re Undead you grow sensitive to atmosphere, if only as a self-protective mechanism. “But,” she’d continued eventually, “even so, I’ve been lobbying for some time for the Department to recruit amongst the Undead. I fought hard for that, almost alone, and finally I got clearance to hire one operative. And that was you.”
“I see,” I’d said slowly. “I did not know that.”
“What would have been the point of telling you? I’m letting you know now so you realise just how important you are to this project. Without you, there wouldn’t be any chance of putting a stop to this. None.”
We’d talked some more about the logistics of the infiltration, and the training I’d undergone in bike riding. “The sooner you get on it, the better,” she’d said. “It’s going to take time, as we both know. At least we don’t have to set up too elaborate a back story for you, seeing as you aren’t alive.”
Then we’d talked about the club we’d decided to infiltrate. The biggest Undead biker gang in the state was the Death Dealers, but they had no local chapter in the city, and besides they weren’t a club with a national presence. There was only one chance we’d get to infiltrate, so it had to be good. After a lot of discussion, we’d picked the Grim Rippers as the target. They were large, they had a nationwide presence, and there was one more thing about them which clinched the issue.
“They’re the worst,” Teri had told me, shuffling her files. “They push more Juice than all the other clubs put together, and there’s a suspicion that they’re the source for the other gangs as well. The whole supply is going through them.”
I listened, thinking about what she’d said. “Suppose I have to do something illegal if...when...I’ve infiltrated them. Then what?”
“Then you do what you have to,” she’d replied promptly. “The Department will cover for you, don’t worry. We look after our own.” We’d talked for a while more, setting up codes. “Are you ready?” she’d asked at last.
“As much as I’ll ever be.” I’d risen to my feet. “Well, yeah, I’ll be in touch.”
She’d waited until I was at the door. “Bill.”
I turned my head. She was leaning over her desk, her eyes burning into mine. “Do not fail me. You don’t need reminding what’s at stake for you, do you?”
“I do not,” I’d acknowledged, and closed the door deliberately slowly. She’d probably expected me to slam it shut. It wasn’t much of a rebellion. But it was all I was capable of.
We Undead have our limitations, and are all too well aware of them.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Roggy 1%er slips into the seat opposite me with fluid ease. “I heard they gave you a hard time.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I tell him. Roggy has a thin bearded face and intense eyes, and when he speaks he gestures with quick movements. I remember how difficult it had been for me to believe, the first time we’d met, that he wasn’t actually alive.”Your friend Rat seemed a mite paranoid that I could be sneaking something in, though.”
Roggy shakes his head. “Rat’s Sergeant-at-Arms for the club, so he’s in charge of security, and he takes his job kind of seriously. Don’t mind him. But he’s right, you know – a couple of the other clubs have had people trying to plant things, in clubhouses or even on bikes during rallies. The government doesn’t really like the idea of uncontrolled Undead at large – let alone organised into clubs. It isn’t because of want of trying that they haven’t closed us down by now.”
I’d first met Roggy at a motorcycle workshop across town, where I’d heard Rippers liked to hang out. I’d begun taking the motorcycle the Department had given me for the mission – a huge cruiser complete with fake registration and back history proving I’d owned it since before I died – for a radical customisation job. It gave me a reason to visit the workshop several times, during which I’d talked to the owner about bikes in general, and how I’d wanted to join a club but never got the chance. Finally, one day, I’d been at the shop when the owner had told me that one of the Rippers was there, and I should talk to him.
It hadn’t been difficult to strike up a conversation with Roggy. We’d talked of motorcycles and he’d warmed up to me once he realised I was Undead, like him. By the time my bike had been done for the day, we’d made plans to meet again, and after that, once more. Pretty soon we were fairly close, and it was he who finally suggested I should try out for the Rippers.
That had been a delicate balance to strike. I couldn’t look too eager, and yet if I waited too long it might have killed his enthusiasm. And in the background there was Teri, whose communications to me always urged me to get a move on, because the situation with the Juice was getting more serious every day.
“So,” Roggy says now, putting his elbows on the table, “what do you think?”
“I’ve only just got here, and I haven’t really got to know anyone.” I nod towards Tiny, who’s sitting across the room leafing ostentatiously through a magazine. “He seemed fine until I told him I was Undead, but that seemed to spook him.”
Roggy laughs. “Tiny thinks he knows everything. It’s a shock to him whenever he discovers he doesn’t.” He looks over my shoulder at the door. “Ah, Mitch’s here.”
I turn. The newcomer is a broad-chested individual with a bandanna round his head and a grey moustache which droops over his lips. He wears mirrored sunglasses even though it’s indoors and evening, and walks with a musclebound man’s awkwardness.
I know who he is from my briefings, though I’ve never seen him before; Mitch 1%er, president of the chapter.
“He runs an extremely tight ship,” Teri had cautioned me. “He’s smart, dangerous and unpredictable. If you’re going to have trouble, he’s the most likely source. Besides, he’s the club president, and what he says goes.”
“Mitch,” Roggy makes the introductions. “This is Bill. I told you about Bill.” We shake hands, and I can feel him sizing me up through the sunglasses.
“Hi.” Mitch has a surprisingly soft voice for someone with such a barrel chest. “Roggy suggests you might want to hang around with us and see how things turn out. Do you?”
“I might,” I admit. “He says I’d probably like it here. It’s not as though I have anything else to do, either.”
“Right. You don’t.” He’s still staring at me across the table, the mirrors reflecting my image. “Tell me something,” he says suddenly. “How come you’re free? Did you buy your freedom?”
I’d been prepared for the question, though I hadn’t expected it so early in the proceedings. “According to the records I’ve had access to, I had savings, and before I died I made the arrangements.” I had documents to prove it, if they asked; and more than likely they would. “It paid just about enough to buy my way out.”
He nods, noncommittally. “And how do you pay your bills now? Your bike, gear, your house if you have one...your Juice?” I know what he means. After all, as a free entity, I’d have to buy my ration of Juice, from the authorised shops, not get it given me gratis by the government at compulsory weekly clinic.
“I’ve been working,” I say with careful unconcern, as though we’re having just a casual conversation. I can feel everyone in the room straining to listen in, even Bonny and her friend in the corner. “I’m a supervisor in one of the casinos. It covers the bills.”
“Which one?” he asks as casually. “Which casino?”
“The Golden Horseshoe.” I’ve actually been working there as a cover since being revived, and the management will back me up. But it’s time to take some charge of the conversation, before it becomes an interrogation. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a bike clubhouse. It’s interesting.”
“You think so?” He looks around as if he’s never seen the place before, but I can sense he’s pleased. “We like it. But tonight’s a little quiet. You should be here during the weekends, that’s when the place is really buzzing. Listen,” he adds without any change of tone. “Why don’t you come for a ride with us tonight? That way we can find out how you handle a bike.”
There it is, the invitation I’d been angling for – the chance to ride with the club, the first step to membership.
“Thanks,” I reply, struggling to keep my voice casual. “I’d like that.”
The twin lines of bikes roar into the night, leaning into the curve, their headlights shining in two broad lanes of yellow light. I don’t even know how fast we’re going any longer – I don’t dare take my eyes off the road and the bike in front of me long enough to look down at my speedometer. The surroundings are a blur, trees and the occasional house merging into one another, the wind slashing at me hard enough to make even my Undead eyes water in sympathy.
In the wash of my headlight, the patch on the back of jacket of the rider in front of me glows silver, the eyes of the skull pits of infinite darkness. That’s my goal – to work my way through the selection process until I have one of those on my back. Then, perhaps, I can give Teri what she wants, what I’ve been revived for.
The thought’s strangely depressing. Criminals or not, these are Undead like me, and like me they like to ride. These two things alone make us closer kin than the people who brought me back, gave me a second birth I didn’t want and hadn’t been given a chance to choose. They and I have nothing in common.
We’ve been riding for hours now; it must be close to midnight, and we’ve been far from town and are curving homeward again. I can see the lights ahead, glimmering in the darkness like a chain of jewels. It’s gratifying that I’ve been able to keep station in the pack – they’ve pushed themselves, and hard, testing their own skills as well as mine.
We rumble through the streets back to the clubhouse. The noise of eight large motorcycles will undoubtedly be making some residents lie awake in their beds, but nobody throws open a window, cursing. The Rippers’ dominance over this part of town is total.
The same shaven-headed prospect in the white T shirt throws open the gate. This time I’ve got the right to park with the club’s bikes, having officially gone on a run, but he doesn’t like it, and doesn’t take his eyes off me all the way in. I’ve heard him called Gunny – I don’t know if it’s a real name or a club nom de plume, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon.
The biker behind whom I’d ridden all the way shakes my hand and claps me on the back. “You aren’t bad,” he says. “You kept in place all the way, and I was trying to shake you all the time. You aren’t bad at all.”
“Thanks,” I say, looking at him curiously. I’ve heard him called both Deadly and the Priest. He’s very dark, of medium height, and his curly hair is cut short enough to show his scalp. A vicious scar loops from the right corner of his mouth, cuts across his cheek, touches the right eye and vanishes into his scalp. He looks very, very tough and yet at the same time curiously vulnerable, with careful black eyes and smile lines at the corner of his mouth. “Kind of you to say so.”
“Hell, I was just trying you out.” He claps me on the back. “Next time I’ll really test you, huh.”
Mitch lumbers up to me with his bodybuilder’s walk. “Good job,” he says. “Planning on turning up tomorrow afternoon? We’re going for another ride.”
“I’ll be there,” I reply. “I’d better be leaving now, though. I’m due at work in half an hour.”
On the way out, Gunny hands me back my licence as reluctantly as if it had been his own.
“Fuckin’ Romero.” Tiny 1%er sights down the barrel of his gun and fires. The long room which serves as the club’s gun range echoes deafeningly with the shot. Nobody in the gang has apparently heard of ear protectors.
“Fuckin Romero,” Tiny repeats, when our ears have stopped ringing. “Fuckin’ Romero, man.”
“Good shooting,” I tell him, peering through the scope. The blown-up picture of George Romero has a target drawn on the pelvis. Tiny’s bullet has nicked the edge of the bull’s eye centred on the crotch. “If that had been Romero, you’ve just castrated him.”
“I’d like to castrate him,” Tiny growls. He’s begun to loosen up towards me in the past days, cautious wariness giving slowly away towards acceptance. “Fuckin’ pussy.”
“Is it true,” I ask casually, “that one of the clubs has put a price on his head? Word on the street says so.” The rumour says that Romero has had death threats, but is too frightened to complain to the authorities. Teri had ordered me to find out what I can.
Tiny snorts. “Why would any club put a price on the bastard’s head? He thinks so, though. You know the pussy hides in his apartment all the time now? He never comes out, because he thinks we Undead are going to get him.”
It’s no secret that the clubs hate Romero. They blame him for ruining the image of the Undead in the eyes of the public with his zombie films. The general populace has never really been able to accept that we Undead aren’t ravening living corpses wanting nothing but to snack on brains. And no matter that the Undead now constitute a steadily increasing segment of the population, they’ll never be happy about letting any of us live free.
And it’s all because of Romero.
“It’s funny,” Tiny says, after putting three more bullets into the poster’s crotch. “He’s worse off, actually, than if we’d killed him. He’s scared all the time now – never any peace, jumping at his own shadow by all accounts. Why should we want to kill him? He’s putting himself through worse than we could ever do!”
“Yeah.” I walk past Tiny to the gym, where Roggy, Mitch and a couple of others are straining at weights. It’s difficult to keep up muscle tone when you aren’t alive and your metabolism is practically at a standstill, and they work out three or more hours a day.
“Hey, Hot Stuff,” Mitch calls from the Nautilus machine. “Why don’t you join us and cool off?” For some reason this strikes him as funny, and he laughs at his own joke. But it’s a command, not a suggestion, and I strip off my shirt and for the next hour bench press and squat half my own weight. I needed the workout anyway.
On the way back from the clubhouse I stop off at the authorised Juice supplier for my monthly ration. I’ve got my card with me, and the money. Tonight I’m almost certain I’m being followed. They’re good, and very unobtrusive – I haven’t actually seen them yet, but they’re there, trailing me.
Not that it matters – I know the club has already made inquiries at the casino and I’m sure they know where I live as well. It’s something I’d known would happen, which is why my contacts with the Department are limited to Teri and there, too, kept to a minimum and by highly devious ways.
I only have a short wait long in line outside the Juice supplier – there aren’t that many free Undead, and the number’s been dropping over the years now that the government’s tightened up regulations on buying one’s freedom. It’s almost impossible unless you’ve bought it in advance when you’re still alive, and even then of course you have to have enough left over to pay your way afterwards, for clothes and housing and above all for the Juice.
I’m still waiting when there’s a rhythmic chanting and a small group of protestors appear, waving placards demanding that all of us “zombies” be destroyed. We’ve all encountered such protests before, and shuffle inside one by one when our turn comes. I’ve often wondered why – since we never actually retaliate verbally or otherwise, and there are no police to intervene – the protestors don’t physically attack us. The only explanation I can think of is that they’re too frightened by their own ideas about us to actually come too close.
The Juice outlet has a staff of six or seven, all Undead of course but for a live manager. The Undead are typical Slave class, with the identifying tattoos on their foreheads – shuffling around, unwilling to make eye contact, but healthier-looking than us, with glossy hair and smooth skins because they get higher and more regular supplies of Juice. The one who hooks me up to my Juice drip is an attractive female who can’t have been more than twenty when she died; the sort who would normally have been prized as a salesperson at one of the major department stores. I wonder, casually, what she’s done to be put into this dead-end job where her looks are wasted on us fellow Undead. I could ask her, of course, but she wouldn’t have replied.
My monthly Juice shot always makes me feel completely exhausted, as though I’ve been wrung out and hung up to dry. I’ve heard from others that they feel energised by Juice, as though they can go for days without resting, but it’s not like that for me. Each time, I can only last a couple of hours before collapsing into what approximates sleep for us Undead, a dreamless unconsciousness.
When I wake this time, I’m sure at once that my apartment has been searched. Things are just a little awry, moved around just that little bit from where they were, the curtain drawn a little further back on one side than the other. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to copy my keys while I was working out or towelling off at the club, so it’s not a mystery. Nor is it worrying – I have nothing in the flat which will compromise me in any way.
All the same, I decide that I’ll make a stand on this point. It’s one thing to make inquiries and follow me around, quite another to enter my home – and also they ought to know that I’m not utterly oblivious.
Mitch is quite unfazed when I mention it to him though. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Standard security precaution where prospective members are concerned.”
“Standard security precaution?” I snort. “Who do you imagine I work for, the fuckin’ government?”
He shakes his head, his thick moustache twitching with amusement. “No, no. Since when does the government hire Undead agents? But there are the other clubs, and the Mafia. None of us would put anything past those fuckers.” He claps me on the shoulder. “Not to worry though, hombre – you’ve checked out fine. If you want to join the club, once you’ve done your time as a prospect, you’re in.”
Just like that, it happens. Just like that.
“It’s once you’re a prospect,” Teri had told me, “that you have to be careful. That’s when you’re under observation, close up, all the time. If they want you in the middle of the night, you’ve to go to them in the middle of the night. If they want you to turn somersaults, you’ll turn somersaults. They’ll really put you through the grinder then.”
And that’s how it turns out in the next months. Often, I become convinced that the only reason I‘m able to go through all this is because I’m already dead and I don’t need food or eight hours’ sleep. Even an Undead needs rest, though, because wear and tear doesn’t get repaired so easily as in a live person, but said rest comes in snatches during the day.
Often I’m the guard at the gatehouse, or I’m sent out on shopping trips for spares and furnishings, and on these occasions I’m almost always followed, and not too discreetly at that. Once or twice they’ve dropped in to my home in the middle of my rest period, as well, just to “make sure I’m all right” as Tiny once put it. I’m under observation, and they want to make sure I know it.
One of the things I’ve been ordered to find out is just how the club makes its money. Teri suspected that they pushed drugs on the side, but the drug business has pretty much dried up after the Great Legalisation five years ago. Now only the most exotic synthetics still have an illegal market, and they are pretty much the Mafia’s monopoly. Even an Undead bike club doesn’t tangle with the Mafia.
There’s a rivalry between the bike gangs, though, that can’t be dismissed as just friendly competition. The other gangs hate each other even when they have to co-operate, but they all hate and fear the Grim Rippers out of all proportion to the club’s actual size. Obviously there’s something going on there, some way the club has the others by the short and curlies. But, as a prospect, I have no idea what that is.
One evening, Tiny, Roggy, Gunny and I go with Mitch for a meeting with officials of the Death Dealers. The Death Dealers are a much larger club, but unruly and disorganised compared to us and have never been able to spread outside the state. They are allegedly Grim Ripper allies, but there have been rumours of dissension and conflict in recent times, and the meeting is to iron out those troubles – or so I’m told. Mitch and the other club’s president are there to talk; we four are bodyguards.
The Death Dealers president is an enormous man, as much bigger than Tiny as Tiny is to me. His face looks as though it’s cut in half by a scar which divides his thick beard in two, and he’s got a machete in a scabbard slung over his back. When he sits down opposite Mitch in the bar chosen as neutral territory for the meeting, his head is still at shoulder level to me. His bodyguards – six of them – are hardly any smaller.
My orders are simple and direct – to keep a watch on the other side’s guards, and to be ready for any violence. I’ve been given a weapon for the job, too – a huge knife that I’ve stuck in my belt. Against Undead, a knife is a far better weapon than a gun as long as it’s big enough to hack off a limb. But though I’m supposed to be giving all my attention to the men standing opposite me, I know that this is my best chance to listen into a private high-level conversation, and I do my best to eavesdrop.
Most of it is above my head, because it refers to people and deals about which I have no information. Both Mitch and the big man talk about money, though – money which the Dealers owe someone, which hasn’t been paid. From what I can hear, the creditor owes the Rippers money, but can’t pay until the Dealers pay him – and it’s all part of some complex transaction involving a lot of people.
I can tell Mitch is getting angry by the way his voice deepens. In no other way does he show it, though – he’s still looking absolutely relaxed, his eyes covered by the sunglasses and giving nothing away. A quick glance shows me that my fellow bodyguards are still focussed fully on the other bikers and haven’t noticed what’s going on, and I can’t let them know, either. Quietly, knowing things might explode any moment, I sidle closer to the Dealers president.
Suddenly Mitch sits back and crosses his arms on his chest. “You make that payment,” he says, “or we’ll blow your fuckin’ club apart. You don’t know who you’re messing with here.”
I’m just close enough, and I have the advantage of surprise. The Dealers president must have thought he had the forces to carry the day, and he was slow. He was still reaching for the machete in his back scabbard when my knife was pressed to the side of his throat.
There’s a moment of absolute and frozen silence. Then Mitch removes his sunglasses and smiles. Even I, who know him, find that smile terrifying.
“Make the payment,” Mitch says, his voice soft again, and silky. “Or my prospect will go to work.”
Slowly, making sure not to spook me into slashing, the Dealers giant puts the machete back and nods. “We’ll make the payment,” he says.
After that I don’t feel so much like someone on the outside anymore.
One day we go right out of town, on a trip the purpose of which hasn’t been explained to me.
There are six of us: Deadly, Roggy, Rat and I on bikes, and Gunny and Bonny in one of the pickup trucks. Bonny I’d found was almost a full member, sitting in on meetings which even prospects couldn’t attend, even though she was a woman. She and her friend, whose name I haven’t found out, ride too – as well as any of the men, and go along on runs. I have not the faintest idea what she’s doing out with us today, though.
We drive out on the highway until the last of the city has long since disappeared, and then turn off onto a secondary road. A half hour later we take an even narrower path which degenerates into a track winding through scrub forest, trailing such clouds of dust that I can feel it in my mouth and between my teeth even though I’m not breathing.
The house we stop at is small and set well back from the track, screened by bushes and weathered until it’s almost indistinguishable from the landscape. Someone is watching from the window, and when we park outside in a cloud of dust, opens the door and steps out to meet us.
It’s a man, tall and thin, with a bald head and a prominent nose. He looks live, and it’s only when I see him close to that I realise he’s Undead – I’ve seen live people who look far more dead than he.
“Mark,” Rat greets this individual. “All ready?”
Mark nods slowly, his eyes sweeping over us, lingering on me for a bit. “Who’s he?” His voice is lifelike too, without the usual monotone. “I haven’t seen him before.”
“Bill,” Rat says curtly. “New prospect. If it’s ready, let’s roll.”
“Yeah, it’s ready all right.” Mark’s still looking at me, and I wonder if we’d known each other in my former life. Not that it would matter if he did, because when you come back from the dead you start with a clean slate. “The same quantity as usual, I take it?”
And now suddenly it makes sense to me. I know why we’re here, and where the Juice is coming from. They’ve found a way to reverse-engineer it. Somewhere, probably not too far away, there will be a laboratory, churning the material out. No wonder Mark looks so good; he must be his own best customer.
“Stay here,” Rat snaps at me. “You and Gunny keep an eye on the vehicles.” He’s nervous and on edge today, looking ready to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. “Come on,” he says to the others, and they follow him into the house.
Left with Gunny, I examine my options. This is the big break, this is what Teri is waiting for. When I get word to her, she’s going to come down on the club like a ton of bricks with everything she’s got. No more black market in Juice. No political complications with the company. Teri will be so happy.
I stand there in the dust, waiting for Rat and the others to return, making plans.
Planning my betrayal.
I lean into the turn, feeling the thrumming of the engine in my blood, like a celebration of life, joy hammering up at me through the wheels.
At the head of the line, Mitch signals the stop with his hand, and one by one we slow down and turn onto the parking lot. It’s a day of brilliant sunshine and blue skies, the perfect weather for a run. Though, today of all days, I’d have gone out even if we’d had a thunderstorm breaking overhead. It’s a special occasion when you get your full patch. I’m Bill 1%er now, and it’s like coming truly alive again.
Mitch and Rat are talking together, leaning over a map and deciding on the route for the next leg of the journey. I feel a sudden rush of affection for them – they’re undoubtedly not nice people, they’re undoubtedly criminals, yet they and I are now together, for better or for worse, and there’s no turning back now.
My association with Teri is history now. I’ve quit the Department, and I’ve made sure the government can never infiltrate the clubs again the way they did with me. I’ve told Mitch and the others all I know – I’ve held nothing back, and after confessing it all I’d ended by offering myself up to whatever justice they’d thought appropriate. I’d thought they’d blow my head off, or at the least throw me in a hole in the hills somewhere until I rotted.
Instead, they’d taken me in, made me one of them.
In the end, it hadn’t been a hard decision to make. I sometimes think I’d made the decision subconsciously long before, and only acknowledged it to myself later.
It had happened when I’d been standing in the slowly settling dust with the silent Gunny hulking nearby. I’d been thinking about the Juice, and how it means literally everything to us.
Without the Juice, the Undead can’t exist – it’s our substitute for food and drink, the source that keeps us from rotting away, and the way we’re controlled by the powers that be. Work for them, as literal slave labour, then you get your Juice and you survive. Don’t get the Juice, and you’ll rot away, little by little until you’re a skeleton – but you still exist, you can’t even die. We Undead will do anything for Juice, even sell ourselves back into slavery once we have no other way of getting it. The government knows this, and the corporations who own the government exploit this.
A separate, unregulated source of Juice – that would mean the difference between freedom and slavery for uncounted numbers of Undead, set them free to look for happiness the second time round. The corporations might even have to hire live workers again, and pay them union rates. We might even see some social justice once more.
Yes, I’m a criminal. I acknowledge it to myself. I’m an enemy of society. But when society is sick, there’s no other way to be.
Mitch and Rat are folding the map up, and we shall soon be on our way. Roggy has made use of the break to do some minor maintenance on his bike, and there’s a smear of grease on his chin. He feels my eyes on him, and he looks up, grinning. I grin back.
Yes, tomorrow there will be problems, hurdles to overcome, and the authorities to contend with. But today I’m with friends, and I’m happy, and I’m free, and I’ll settle for that.
Happiness is rare and precious enough to enjoy it a day at a time, I think, and swing my leg over my bike.
All around me, the thunder of motorcycle engines is rolling.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012