LMN STORY

THE RIDER:

BREAKFAST RUN CHAMPION

Lawrence M. Nysschens

The African sun rose over the horizon and bathed the night with soft morning light. Turning deep orange, the sunlight spread outwards across the rolling hills and bitterly cold valleys. Trees and bushes blackened; eerie silhouettes. A myriad of insects awoke and rustled their wings. Birds took flight their wings beating loudly at the air. Inside a cave hidden behind rocks, a she-form awoke from its yearlong slumber.

By appearance, it was nothing more than a shimmering cloud of fog and no larger than a thorn bush. But it was alive and sentient and had awakened thousands of times before. Each year she ventures out to feed and recalls her previous awakenings, and memories of mother too.

This year, a mother’s whisper implores her to wait. But filled with impatience, the child sets off alone. And nothing deters that cloud, that child from satisfying an ancient hunger. For it is the hunger, and the hunter and all other life forms the hunted.

Beyond the cave, the vast African land lay quiet, lonesome. Though alone, the child wasn’t lonely. Drifting across the land her meandering path led along the thorn-bush covered foothills of the Pilanesberg Mountains. And she soon found the clustered pockets of residential estates that in a few short hours would swelter under Africa’s midday sun. And like any newly awakened, she was hungry and eager to feed. But only a life consumed could satiate it.

***

Sun City Casino and Hotel lies nestled within the rolling hills of the Pilanesberg Mountain range. Heading off from the hotel entrance the Gary Player Golf Course invites professionals and amateurs to challenge themselves. The potted plants in the entrance are palm trees. Couches and armchairs are of carved wood and their seats and backrests are covered with zebra hides. The hotel sits amongst lush African trees and palms that droop over arrivals with welcoming arms. The rings of an extinct volcanic crater circle the hotel as though embraced by Mother Nature herself. Inside the casino that elusion vanishes. For there is where gamblers search for their dreams.

The suite was a large corner one. Ceiling high windows on two sides revealed the blue hued hills of the Pilanesberg in the distance. There was a long balcony, but Mo had not used it for his eyes seldom left the monitor screens focused on the gambling underway.

Despite the opulence, Mo sat spread out on the couch. Due to a lifelong addiction to all things sweet he could no longer walk without aid. He glanced at his wheelchair, and grimaced. He hated it but preferred it—it was easier than walking aided. He sighed and turned back to the security screens and watched those who’d borrowed from him keeping check on the wins and losses. All his working life he had lived outside the law. He’d loan sharked since back in high school.

Behind him stood Patrick a towering six-foot four inches athlete composed of steel hard muscle and a mind as finely tuned. They had met when Patrick was about nine years old and had lost both his parents in a fatal accident and hundreds of miles from help. He’d asked Mo for money to get home and food to eat. After checking the wreck, Mo picked Patrick up and put him in the back seat of his car. And Patrick had never left and had stood guard over Mo’s life ever since. But they were more than friends, family even for they stood by each other as kin do.

“Doug is betting too much again, Mo,” Patrick said.

“I’ve sent Number One to have a chat with him.”

“Good idea,” Patrick said.

Mo smiled when his field team of three leaned over Doug Hansen and Number One whispered his message. But he sighed when Doug waved them off and he could even hear what Doug had said despite that there was no audio feed. “I got a winning streak here. Let me roll with it.”

“Help Number One,” Mo whispered to the African spirits that roamed the mountains. But Doug had dug his heels in and continued to gamble. “Just one more time, Doug,” Mo said under his breath. “After that I will carry you no more.” He made to have Patrick bring him the phone but changed his mind and leaned back.

“Doug is doing it again, Mo,” Patrick said his deep voice thick with regret.

“It’s in him, Patrick. The bug. The addition. I worry about him.”

“Should I go tell Number One not to extend any more credit to Doug?”

“No, let it run. Let’s see.”

“Mo…? Ah. Doug Hansen has long passed being paid back for what he did for you. It is time to let Number One, Two and Three set him right.”

Mo sighed. “You’re right. But the debt I’m paying says one more time. And if he needs credit tonight, it’s the last time. I need to go home. We’ll leave in the morning.”

“Yes, it’s good we leave. But you know that Doug will need credit again.”

“I know.”

“It will be hard,” Patrick said. “It was a good thing he did for you. But he has changed. Something is wrong with him now. I see it in his eyes. Maybe, Mo, his dream of becoming the Superbike Champion of South Africa is slipping away. It has cost you Mo. After the first failure to become champion, he began to gamble. Maybe that is all he is. A gambler.”

“Leave it for tonight. I will decide what happens after the final race. It’s on Saturday. Let us see if he becomes the Champion. If he does. All changes.”

“Yes, Mo,” Patrick said. “We will know then. It is my hope that he wins.”

“Tell me about your hopes, Patrick.”

“It will open up a whole new world for us, Mo.”

“It will, Patrick.”

“But, Mo, what about Number One, Two and Three?”

“They will have to move on. There will be no place for them in that world.”

Patrick stood silent for several moments, and said, “They do understand that Mo.”

“Yes, they do,” Mo replied.

“It is not in Number One to once again be a nobody.”

“That is true,” Mo said, and his heart fluttered, and a cold dampness touched the nape of his neck. He reached up to it but as he touched it, it dissipated. And he shrugged it off.

“Mo?” Patrick said. “Did you call the painting contractor about the little fixes he needs to do at your sister’s?”

“No. Call him now and give me the phone.”

The phone alerted for several rings, and before the called party could say hello, Mo said, “Hey! They still calling you the Rider, the Breakfast Run Champion?”

“That they do,” the Rider replied and chuckled.

“You still got that something special, that secret ingredient.” Mo asked.

“I do. Maybe someday I’ll show someone worthy how it’s done.”

“Why won’t you go for…become World Superbike Champion…on my ticket.” And Mo crossed his fingers.

But the Rider replied, “What can I do for you, Mo?”

“Ah yes. Always to the point. Well then, listen up the not so famous painting contractor. My sister said she found a few window frames on the inside that your team missed. Can you send one over to fix that?”

“Sure. Is that it?”

“No. You know with every call I must ask you…so! Again! Will you please take up my offer and get your skills onto the racetrack? I will sponsor you fully. You know we’d be looking at World Superbike Champ, down the road and hands down. What you say, painting contractor?”

“The same old, same old thing, Mo. I’ve lost my heart for that. You know why. I still can’t see me doing that.”

Mo nodded, sighed. “You’ve got to get over what happened to your sister. No-no! I mean it. If you can and do, you call. Okay?”

“Okay, Mo.”

***

Sun City perspiration-soaked Doug Hansen’s armpits and they itched like never. But it wasn’t the time to scratch. That would tell everyone he was at a tattered end. His tongue he’d already bitten once too often. Joe, his best and only friend watched over his shoulder as the roulette wheel when round and around. Behind Doug, one to his left and one to his right, stood a stunning blonde and a raven-haired beauty.

Both vied for his attention. Both eager for the gambling to end and the fun to begin. The dancing, drinking, and spending the night together. He glanced at them and decided he liked the blonde more. There was something in her eyes. It was a glow of need, of needing him and him alone. The other one felt more like a hunter.

He glanced at his lifelong friend, Joe. And he could hear Joe the Accountant’s mind ticking over working out the numbers. Those numbers that told the tale of his betting wins versus his losses. He grinned inside as Joe’s hand touch his shoulder.

“Time to call it a night, Doug,” Joe whispered.

Doug shook his head. “Go count some numbers. Other numbers. I’m on a win here. Let it play out.”

“You lose now. You’re done. Don’t borrow from Mo. Just eat it, Doug.”

“Would you stop. This isn’t taxes nor balance sheets. This is Lady Luck. She’s here,” and he tapped his shoulder, glared at Joe and said, “If you can’t watch, don’t.”

And the roulette wheel stopped. And the croupier scooped up all of Doug’s chips, smiled and said, “You done for the night?”

Doug ignored him, glanced about, and crooked a finger at Number One.

“Dougie, old buddy,” Number One said leaning in close. “Please! Don’t tell me you so need to be covered again.”

“Tonight’s the night,” Doug said. “I can feel it. Tonight, I clear my slate with Mo and that’s the end of it.”

“Not quite the end, Dougie. You still got to win the South African superbike championship. Don’t forget Mo so sponsored you for so how many years now?”

“This is the fifth one.”

“So many years, Dougie, and no championship. How many more, eh?”

“I will win on Saturday. Just need second place. You know what?”

“What’s that, Dougie?”

“After I win and head for the World Superbike series, I’ll bet there’s no room for you and Number Two and Number Three.”

“I been so thinking on that, Dougie. But I can smile about it.”

“Smile?”

“You’re a loser, Dougie. You so won’t win. Saturday will prove it to you.” And Joe and Doug both felt a cold dampness touch the nape of their necks.

“Enjoy the gambling, Dougie. I so look forward to Saturday. Maybe it’s going to be so a deciding day…for us all.”

As Number One walked off his rippled and tough frame cleared the way ahead. He smiled inside at the tough guys as they swallowed their pride and eased aside.

Doug placed all his chips onto the table with steady hands and smiled. “The steel of a champion,” he whispered to himself.

And the roulette wheel when round and around. And when it stopped, the croupier scooped up all his chips and a heavy ball of fear filled Doug’s stomach, and Joe took him in hand and steered him away. The blonde and raven-haired beauties followed

“You got one race to fix this with, Doug. Make it a good one.”

“You run the numbers on that?” Doug asked.

“It’s a sure thing, Doug. Just place second. Don’t overdo anything. Ride a safe and steady one.”

“Safe and steady eh? You don’t know me, do you?”

“I do. That’s why I said so, just be certain you take the championship. Don’t let it get away from you, Doug.”

“No one steals a race from me. No one is good enough.”

Joe sighed. “You heard Number One…he’s cooking something, and it doesn’t smell appetizing.”

“I’ll win. It’s a sure thing.”

Doug made his way through the crowd with the blonde on his arm, passing by Numbers One to Three their grins sent cold shivers down his spine. But it was a sure thing. And that boasted him. He glanced over his shoulder at Joe who was talking to the raven-haired. Joe was smiling but there was no victory in it.

“My name is Allie,” the raven-haired said to Joe. And even as she said it, she glanced over at Doug.

And Joe knew what the look in her eyes meant. She’d wanted Doug and Doug alone. She turned back to him and smiled. And he recognized that as well. It said, “I’ll settle for you tonight and maybe it will get me to Doug.”

Joe had seen that look too often. Tempted to turn her down, but she stepped up close and pressed up against him. And that urge that makes a man human overwhelmed him. Taking her hand, he smiled at her and headed for his room. But her hand told him it would be another night of faked passion. He swallowed hoping one day it would be for real.

***

The roar of a summer storm broke across the corrugated iron roof of the Rider’s garage. Far off, a baritone-voiced thunder rumbled as though disgruntled. Above the garage, lightning-bolts cut the air loud as amplified gunshots. The Rider rubbed the goosebumps cascading up his arms, leaned on the saddle of his red motorcycle and its black fairing and for an instant his arms seemed to slip into it. He turned towards the window and listened as the hail roared like a lion challenging the world.

Going to his haunches, he pushed his curly brown hair behind his ears, ran sculpted hands over the bike’s fuel tank and his palms brushed the paintwork yet left no marks.

Leaning closer he whispered, “We’ve never lost racing the Breakfast Run, old buddy. But something needs doing. It’s one of those must do things. Been coming for a while.”

Taking a deep breath, he savored the flavor of wet sun-warmed African soil drifting in through the open garage door. Entwined within came the thick aroma of tar cooling under the drenching rain and pounding hail.

Turning back to his motorcycle, he closed his eyes, leaned over his bike, and ran his hands down the saddle, along the fuel tank, across the engine covers, over the exhaust pipe, the wheels, the brakes, and the handlebars.

Overhead, the dark clouds cracked open, and sunlight poured through the fissures. The sheet of pouring rain and hail diffused the silvery light into a soft translucent glow as it tumbled in through the open garage door. Inside the garage’s gloom, the light thickened, becoming opaque as it mixed with the glare of the bare lightbulb hung from the rafters.

In that strange and eerie light, he leaned closer to his bike, and for just an instant the Rider’s arms shimmered as if transparent; his arms from fingertips to elbows vanished into the fuel tank. But the fuel tank was half-hidden in the shadows cast by the Rider. So, perhaps it was an illusion that parts of him had disappeared into it.

He sighed, placed his forehead on the saddle, wrapped his arms around the motorcycle, spread his hands over the engine’s cooling fins and hugged it.

Rising he checked the garage for a danger no one else would see. But what he searched for was not present. He made a quick inspection and verified that the garage itself was neat and clean despite the oil stains on the floor. But the walls had greyed many years gone and seemed to affect the naked light bulb for it blinked as though recalling better times. And a sadness crept across his face. Irritated, he wiped it off staring out a dust-covered window.

Outside, the sky hung heavy with clouds, rain fell in sheets. In the distance, the clouds transformed from dark and brooding into a luminescence of bright silver and sunshine gold. A blast of freezing air cloaked him, he shivered involuntarily and said, “You have awoken. But you’re looking in the wrong place.” And he stared unfocus for several moments. “But, I agree, it is time.” And he touched the nape of his neck where the hair stood on edge.

Kneeling, he shrugged broad shoulders, dismissed an unease that tightened his heart, and resumed checking his bike in preparation of what needed doing. He frowned as the portable TV resplendent amongst the tools scattered across the workbench crackled alive.

Grim-faced he hung several tools back on the wall and blinked as painful memories escaped that place to which he’d long confined them. He tucked them back in and took a deep breath.

The TV crackled again. He slapped it, and the crackling ended. The screen lit up, and a picture of the Kyalami Race Track appeared. He paused the built-in recorder, rewound it, hit playback, and turned the sound up.

Superbike championship decided by a DNF flashed in red letters across the screen. “The Champion to be?” he murmured. “Doesn’t look like rain was the culprit.”

The racetrack snaked over hills covered in tall drought dried grass. The deep roars of racing exhaust pipes echoed around the garage, bounced against the walls, and fled out an open window. Eager to be free of confinement, they flew high in search of open space only to dissipate and so to live and sound no more.

The broadcaster’s voice shook with excitement as he broke in. “Run it again! Yes. We’re watching Doug Hansen, the points leader, the champion to be. He’s fighting to hold the lead, and he’s leading alright, but the six-pack chasing him are getting closer. He needs second to become this year’s champion. But we all know…Doug likes to win.

“He’s headed into the second last corner of the final lap leaned over in a dangerous way. He’s mid-corner, and it’s all but won—oh no! Blue smoke pours out his exhaust. And down he goes. Sparks fly where metal-grinds-the-road. He tumbles, gets up, and tries to push his motorcycle back onto the track. But the track marshals won’t allow it. They grab him. He pushes them aside and picks up his bike.

“More Marshalls rush in. They take hold of him and restrain him. They’re pushing and shoving at each other. He lets go of his bike, it falls over, he kicks it and stalks off. Oh my! He had it all, but in a flash and crash—it ends in a DNF. Did Not Finish. And so, Doug has lost another chance to become champion! Tragic really—two years in a row now. Life is tough, but if you fight it too much, it just gets tougher.

“Oh? Breaking. Seems there are rumors of discontent or disrespect even from Doug to his crew. Did that lead to this? Don’t know. But he lives to race another day. At least he has that.”

The Rider reached over to pause the playback but held off as three large, well-muscled men made their way into the crowd, took Doug by the arms, and escorted him away in no friendly nor helpful a fashion.

Running a finger across the TV screen and over each their faces the Rider said, “Worst is you, Number One. Then you, Number Two. And lastly you, Number Three.”

Leaning back, he looked around as though to spot any hidden ears; the kind that hear all. “So, Doug—what made you think Mo would let you win?” he said and waved as if Doug had replied and the answer was irrelevant.

And he checked his bike once more. On looking up, he leaned closer to the TV and scrutinized Doug’s three escorts. “The Deadly Threesome Return. So, it is time.”

He grew more intent as a dark-haired man with broad shoulders took Doug by the arm and led him away from the pits. But Doug fought roughly trying to free himself.

The Rider smiled. “Good for you, Joe. Slap some sense into him. And you Doug. You have a friend there.” The Rider watched as the two on-screen made their way through the crowd.

Beyond the crowd, Doug broke free, stepped close and shoved Joe in the chest with both hands. Despite staggering backward, Joe managed to grab hold of Doug’s arm with one hand, raised his other one and waved it in the universal sign that says, “We need to talk. Now!”

Doug shook his arm free, pushed Joe aside and sliced his hand through the air saying get off it, would you? And he stormed off.

The Rider shook his head. “You owe Mo too much, Doug. Much too much. Listen to Joe. Come on…listen.”

The announcer’s voice solemn he said, “I rest my case. Is that the evidence proving why Doug Hansen is not the champion—again?

The Rider bowed his head. Reaching across with heavy arms he lifted a black cloth draped over a photograph stood on his workbench. Running a thumb down the frame, he stared long at the picture of a motorcycle. It looked much like his own but was black and had no fairing.

Turning to stare at the wall the Rider whispered to any ears that cared to listen, “It’s time to make it right.” And his whisper scuttled along the garage walls slipped out the open window and flew off in search of those secret places where hide the demons that make Africa…Africa.

***

To escape Mo’s bone-breakers after losing a race that was a sure win, Doug called Joe, made up, and both headed for the Natal coast. They rode east from the near mile-high Johannesburg along the fast sweeps and curves of the N-3 highway. Its blacktop snakes over the escarpment twisting and turning its way down the Drakensberg, Dragons Mountain, all the way to the east coast of Africa and its warm waters.

The salt-laden humidity and aroma of the Indian Ocean greeted them as they coasted their motorcycles down the final stretches into the city of Durban. Humidity seeped in through leather jackets and jeans to coat their skin with a sticky moisture. Once at the coast they carefully made their way around the Zulu run rickshaws prancing on Durban’s Golden Mile.

They checked in, hit the beach, dove into the water, and swam out beyond the breakers washing off perspiration and humidity in the process.

After shooting seawater at each other and panting from exertion, they sat down on the beach and eyed the bikini-clad beauties walking by. Both grinned openly as they waited for someone to recognize Doug. And it didn’t take long for several ladies to gather at the water’s edge and smile in their direction. But Joe’s nagging voice dragged Doug’s eyes off them.

“Forget racing the Rider, Doug,” Joe said. “He’s the undisputed Breakfast Run Champion. Never been beaten.”

Doug sneered. “That’s what you call him, the Breakfast Run Champion? I’m more champion than he will ever be. It’s a sure win for me, Joe. I figured it out. All I need is for you to use those skills of yours and make it known the challenge is on. And let the betting begin. And this is just between you and I. Right?!”

Joe shook his head as though it suddenly weighed a ton. “You tried paying Mo with a championship purse. How did that work out? Yeah. It didn’t. You lost. Mo’s Numbered Monsters are hunting you now.”

Barely able to control his fear-charged fury, Doug said, “There’s a fortune, Joe! It’s destiny. I must have it. Beat this Rider, win a fortune. Too simple for words.”

Joe grimaced. “I thought you were born to be World Champion…Superbike. When did that all change?”

“It hasn’t,” Doug growled sending a stabbing glance in Joe’s direction. “I need to wipe it out.” And Doug fell silent.

“What out?” Joe asked after a puzzeling silence.

Doug stared out to sea; his eyes glazed over. “How can I be the Champion if this Rider is the unbeaten Breakfast Run Champion just like you said? Yeah! Yeah! I’ve heard about him. Every race I win some wise ass walks by me and says, you couldn’t beat the Rider in a million years. Do you know how irritating that is, Joe? It’s outright insulting. Me. Doug, who should have won this year’s championship. You know I must do this. I can feel it. Here, inside. Beat the Rider and the rest is history.” And Doug spread his hand over his heart as though committed to a sacred mission.

“Same as you felt about winning the Championship but didn’t?” Joe said.

Doug’s eyes cut into Joe’s. “How was I to know the engine would let go?”

Joe smiled a grim yet knowing one. “You really think it just happened? Didn’t you get the memo? No! Well, here it is. Attention Doug! Mo knows you’re in too deep to ever pay him back.”

Doug ground his teeth, readied a snarl but mid snarl the look on Joe’s face killed it. “You weren’t supposed to be here all healthy and alive,” Joe said. “Got it?”

Doug’s eyes glazed over. “You’re neurotic.”

Joe smiled sadly. “Anyway. He’s not human.”

“Who?” Doug asked.

“The Rider,” Joe replied.

“What’s he then?!” Doug asked. “A ghost?”

Joe sighed. “It’s you who’s the ghost—you just don’t know it yet.” And he waited hoping Doug would get it.

“What’s that mean besides idiotic?” Doug said.

Joe bit short a troubled smile. “Doug, I believe you were destined for the graveyard, not the hospital. As I just told you. Mo is done with you.”

Doug had had it. His fist shook as he drew his arm back ready to punch Joe and shut him mouthing off. But three shadows fell across them sending shivers down both Joe and Doug’s spines. Doug swallowed and dragged his eyes off Joe’s suddenly white face and looked up.

Coated with coconut oil Number One’s straight black hair cast a shiny gleam under Africa’s summer sun. His thin and angular face turned harder as he glared down at Doug. “Dougie, old buddy,” he said rubbing his stomach. “I was so attacked by so huge a stomach gripe when these two here told me you’d so taken off for places unknown.”

And he grinned like a Great White eyeing a meal on the surface. Stepping closer he hauled Doug to his feet and placed his lips to Doug’s ear. “Now, you’re not running away, are you Dougie?”

“It’s a long weekend,” Doug replied staring out to sea, his voice shaky. “We always spend it here.”

Doug almost fell to the sand when Number One let go of him. Number One then threw his arms wide as if shocked to the very core. “You can still spend?!” he said.

Forcing his legs to hold him steady, Doug smiled and said, “This is nothing. Credit cards still work.”

“Well now, Dougie old buddy!” Number One replied. “That nothing you so mentioned isn’t the problem. You know? No. Allow me to explain. It’s that something that so worries me. That something you so owe Mo.” And Number One smiled hard and cruel and leaned in nose-to-nose.

Unable to stop himself, Doug stared at the vertical scar that cut Number One’s left eyebrow in half.

“You remember it, eh Dougie?” Number One said, and his eyebrow bobbed up and down.

Doug swallowed. “Yes. Ha!”

“Remind me again, old buddy,” Number One said.

“You sure?” Doug asked.

“Remind me, Dougie.”

Doug’s heart stopped. Catching the give in his knees and struggling to stand tall, he said, “Yeah. Right. Ah? Okay. School was out, the team was practicing in the cricket nets. You weren’t a student, but you hijacked the batting position anyway. I was outside the nets and asked if you were on the team. You half-turned, and the cricket ball struck you on the eyebrow and blood gushed. I ran away. And got away.” And the twinkle of that escape lit Doug’s eyes.

“So! You so remember, Dougie. But you don’t know I been waiting ever since. And this moment is so wow—so like Christmas coming twice a year. You know what a pleasure it is? You don’t?! Mo gave me—us your account. What a treat old buddie.” And he turned to Joe. “Joe, keep out of this or become part of it. Understand?”

His face white, Joe nodded.

Number One scrutinized Doug as though a trophy just polished and he was judging the value of the elbow grease. “Dougie,” he said, “don’t you know not to run from commitments?”

Doug waved it off. “It’s just a weekend. Okay?”

“Weekends so quickly become escape routes,” Number One said and leaned closer.

Doug tried to back away, but the cold nose of a 9 mm pistol pressed up against his back. His stomach twisted into a knot and his spine spasm-retreated from contact so fast his muscles twitched like a horse standing at the doors of Death after galloping until its heart almost failed.

Moving slowly, Doug looked over his shoulder.

Number Two smiled, and his lips touching Doug’s ear said, “It’s a long beach, you know? The Golden Mile. Why not make a run for it, Dougie? Look at it like you’re on the starting grid and just rev her up, drop the clutch, pop a wheelie and lay down rubber with the front wheel way up in the sky.”

Doug grinned weakly, and Joe stepped closer despite that the blood had drained from his face.

“Easy, Joe,” Number One said. “We’re making chatty is all. Look around. Yeah. How very public, eh? You so think I’m so stupid?” Joe took a step back and waved his hands to deny any such intentions and thoughts.

Number One grinned and nodded to Number Three. Stepping closer Number Three slammed his fist into Doug’s solar plexus. Doug dropped gasping in agony at Number One’s feet.

Around them, vacationers took care to look out at the ocean, gather children close, concentrate on lunch and to not look at what was happening.

Curled up on the sand Doug spat out the little food he’d eaten hours earlier. Its acid-sour flavor forced him to gag and convulse. Pushing himself back to his feet, an explosion ripped through his head.

The beach, the ocean, the people, and the skies turned red. The pain echoed in his ears as the blows repeated over and over. Yet he knew it had been a single blow. With both hands balled into fists a wild and uncaring rage filled him.

Number Two snarled, “No Doug!”

The red pain turned to black and Doug plummeted downwards beyond reason and drew his right arm further back and about to let the punch go when there came a cold and icy mechanical click.

Doug froze as the 9 mm pressed deep into his back and despite summer’s heat, its muzzle bit with a deathlike coldness. His eyes cleared and looking long at Number Two’s rounded face sense came and he dropped his fists.

All the Three and Joe too heaved a sigh of relief.

Number One wiped his forehead. “Shoo-wee, good for you, Dougie,” he said his voice an angry hiss. “You’re so learning a little respect for others…at last.”

Smiling, Number One unzipped his leather jacket to reveal the sweat-soaked armpits of his white T-shirt. “This damn humidity is sticky,” he said. And stepped up nose to nose with Joe. “Get lost, Joe.”

Joe nodded and headed into the ocean. They watched his every step, and he could feel their eyes boring into the back of his head. He wanted to, needed to, but managed to resist reaching up to touch the back of his head to reassure himself nothing scary was creeping through his hair and headed for his face.

Number One looked deep into Doug’s eyes. “You need to learn how to play nice with others, Dougie? You know? No?! So, listen. You been beating on my little brother with that ugly mouth of yours. Right?”

The thuds and scrapes of his lost-it-all crash shook Doug. The mental and physical pain drained his limbs of strength. A clawed hand twisted his stomach over as the championship waved goodbye and the grin on its skeletal face made his heart stutter.

Collecting himself, he managed a smile that said I get it but here are the facts of it. And he spoke those facts in a hurried voice that betrayed his fear. “He was supposed to know what tires I use and when to change them. I can’t qualify well on the wrong ones. Okay. He got it right in the race this time, but qualifying was a disaster. It was also his job to check the oil level before the warm-up laps and again before I’m out there on the starting grid. The hell with you! With him! He cost me all I worked for, bled for, fell and broke bones for.”

Number One threw his hands high. “Dougie. Dougie. Shame on you. He’s just a kid. And a good one too. You know what? He didn’t even ask me to…ah…to so wise you up a little.” Number One smiled coldly and taking Doug by the arm, he squeezed it painfully and said, “But speaking about blood and broken bones, Dougie.”

Doug paled, looked down at Number One’s large hand wound tightly around his arm and back up at a smile that was pure taunt. Doug loathed those smiles. He’d seen more than a lifetime could tolerate. And he almost pulled his arm free, but instead, he chose the safer road.

Number One nodded in both understanding and respect of Doug’s decision, and said, “You blew the engine that last race, Dougie. Nothing to do with tires nor oil. That was a miscalculation on your part. No! Don’t argue. It’s done. We move on. So! That bit of stupid blew away the win, the championship, prize money, sponsorship. Now, how do we fix it eh? Mo is so beside himself…you know?”

Doug raised his head and looked Number One dead in the eye. And it was there. A gleam, a glint; that knowing something that others don’t.

And it thudded into Doug’s head like a killer punch and understanding came as hard and cold-cocked as it gets. That Joe had got it right made him feel sick. His engine breaking apart was not an accident. Which means that the engine oil was either the wrong one, not enough, or both.

And his heart shriveled inside his chest, sweat covered his palms and water filled his knees. “You’re dead,” his inner voice smirked. “Lie down, play like you’re really dead, and hope for the best. Do it now before they do you.”

But he fought the despair, the weakness, the awful voices inside him urging him to surrender, to just let them kill him and he wouldn’t have to worry anymore.

About to give in a voice, a stranger’s voice spoke to him from deep, deep inside his head. “Always be true to yourself,” it said. He tried to shake it off but couldn’t for it kept repeating.

He sensed strength and hope in that voice that revealed a future in which he was still alive. Still winning races and it ended when he held the Champion’s cup high so that the sun glinted off it and his champagne-soaked leather racing suit clung to him. But whose voice it was he didn’t know.

All he knew was that he had a few moments in which to convince Number One that it would be worth his while not to do what he so wanted to. And the only thing Number One loved more than violence was money. But Doug had no cash, and Number One knew that.

Whatever he said now was going to have to be good. Really, good. No. Salivatingly good. And he needed time. Just a few moments in which his mind could click and work again. Moments to raise himself above the fear of death. A painful and violent death. And he sought it. And after several seconds ticked by, he realized he already had it. And he reached inwards and there it was.

It was in part that cold, calm bravado that supplies the courage to race on not just a racetrack, but on public roads. Out there amongst the everyday traffic, fatal moments came hundreds of times more often than on any racetrack.

And he smiled inside and found himself onboard his bike carving through the highspeed corners of the Breakfast Run. And the world around him; the trees, the rocks, the hills, but mostly the other bikers and the motorist seemed to be chugging along in slow motion.

And he calmed, and courage returned, and so did awareness of dangers both present and future. But first, he had to deal with his failure to win the championship. He needed Number One to be open to moving to a new though old subject. And then he’d go for the win. And then he would have to reveal the plan he and Joe had concocted.

Doug raised a hand and waved aside Number One’s demand. But the hand he used shook a little. “It’s just racing,” he said. “The fall of the dice. The moment. A tiny something overlooked. Let’s not get carried away with that hand-of-fate stuff and unskilled help. Okay. Sorry about mouthing off on your brother. It’s me. My bike. My race. My championship.” And he gagged on the last word yet managed to hide it.

Number One nodded sagely. “So slight a correction. It’s now the hand-of-Mo stuff, Dougie.”

Doug bowed his head and said, “Right. Okay. You must know what really happened…and why. Yes. I owe Mo, and now Mo owns me. But the bottom line is money. Nothing comes before that. Nothing. Right?”

Number One grinned at the obvious, and his eyes glinted as does the predator’s when the hunted plays dead.

Doug swallowed loudly and said, “So now. Let’s look ahead. Okay. You see. I er, um, I got a plan. A real winner. You’ll love it. I win. Mo wins. And we all get rich.”

Number One smiled to himself and stared out to sea a few moments. Noticing a particularly stunning brunette along the water’s edge, his face smoothed over, and an enchanting smile softened his eyes. Hardening them again, he said, “That’s rich, Dougie. So. Let me guess. You want to make another bet. Solve your financial problems…you hope. Uh. No. Solve them again despite that your riding skills didn’t win out and now you owe more than you can ever pay back. Right, Dougie?”

“Right. I owe Mo again. But we both know it didn’t just happen. And I’m sure you can agree that despite that he’s your cousin, had the engine oil been right, we would not be here doing what we’re doing. We’d be living the high life looking ahead to next season and planning our next paycheck. Okay? So. One more bet and we’ll all smell the money. It’s much more than winning the championship pays.”

“I admire that Dougie,” Number One said. “That all or nothing play. So, what deal? Not that it’s on. But let’s hear it.”

Doug paused. Should he reveal his plan to race the Rider… or not. The sea whispered along the shore. The smell of ice-cream cones drifted by. Children laughed and ran along the water’s edge oblivious of the war going on inside of Doug’s head. Off in the distance a dog barked.

“I’ll challenge the Rider on the Breakfast run.”

Number One made to protest, but Doug waved him silent and speaking faster said, “The bet is all I owe Mo goes away after I win. And the payout for beating the Rider is mine as well. Of course, Mo will share the massive take he makes with you three like he always does. I’m sure there’ll be those you will have to chat with and bend an arm or two collecting what’s owed Mo. Why the high betting win for Mo, you ask? Well! As you said, no has beaten the so-called Breakfast Run Champion. No one!”

Number One staggered back in faked horror. Number Two and Three followed his lead. “Don’t make me laugh, Dougie,” Number One said. “The Rider? You figure to beat the Rider racing from Four Ways to the Dam? Hell’s bells, Dougie. He’ll wipe you out. He’s never lost. No matter the newer bikes. The faster bikes. The better handling bikes.”

Doug tried to interrupt, but Number One waved him silent and said, “But you, Dougie the so-not-a-champion will beat him. I love that little dose of hope-filled dreams you’re lying about over here on Durban’s beach.” And he pointed. “It’s the warm Indian Ocean over there. We would better wash our bikes in seawater and ruin them. What the hell, Dougie?”

Standing back, all three shook their heads in genuine amazement. Number Two leaned in and said, “And! You want all the prize money on top of it?”

“All,” Doug said, his face as stern as he could make it.

Number One rubbed his chin and turned solemn as a calculation trickled across his face. “You know it’s overs for you if you lose, Dougie. You were supposed to win the championship and pay Mo what you owe. Now you want to do this. What if you lose? What if the Rider leaves you in his dust like he’s done to all takers? You know, right?”

Doug swallowed, glanced at the ocean, controlled his churning stomach, smiled a dead one and said, “Yes. I do. And that’s how certain I am that I will win.”

“Doug,” Number One said, and cruel intent dripped off the word. “This only happens if Mo agrees. If Mo says no, you have one week. Just one. Payday is next Sunday. Not a day later or it’s over for you, Dougie! Understand?!”

Doug nodded. “I won’t lose. I got it figured out. The Rider has never raced a professional racer before.”

“A racer like you Dougie,” Number One said.

“Right,” Doug replied and crossed mental fingers.

“Okay. I’ll call Mo. And I’ll get back to you old buddy. Either way. Right?”

“Right, Mo will like it,” Doug said.

Number One nodded to the other two, who joined him. He whispered to them. They all smiled coldly, glanced at Doug, grunted, and headed off with one final glance back.

Looking over his shoulder Number One said, “It’s to be a good one, Dougie.” And he punched his palm. The sharp slap was audible above the murmur of the ocean and the happy voices of children and the barking of dogs.

Many of those who had studiously looked elsewhere, glanced at Doug and quickly looked away. Knowing smiles flit across their lips and faint nods confirmed that what had been a rumor was now fact.

Doug kneeled staring off into the sky. It was minutes before he became aware of someone standing behind him. He turned as Joe threw a handful of beach sand into the air and watched it drift down.

The sand settled. Joe looked at Doug and shook his head. “That’s you. That’s all you have left. A few grains of sand drifting back to Earth. And no one can tell one from another. That was dumb. What are you thinking? You can’t bet any more with Mo. It’s your life now.”

Doug ground his teeth, and both could hear it. “Don’t go on about it. I’ve got it covered—”

Joe shook his head. “You can’t beat the Rider in his domain, the Breakfast Run. No one ever has.”

Doug stood up. “I will. You see, I’ve planned for this. Yeah. I’ve been riding that Sunday morning road incognito. I’ve got it in my head like no one else has it. This is a sure thing. I’m one hundred percent certain. So! Forget about worrying. Relax, enjoy the beach and the beautiful ladies. Yes. There. That one. Go talk to her.”

Instead, Joe said, “One last time. The Rider will beat you. He’s won against every taker for the last eight years. You should stick to what you’re good at…racing on a racetrack. That’s your domain, Doug. He’ll beat you in his one.”

“It won’t happen,” Doug said tiredly. “I will win. He has no chance against someone like me. I’m a veteran of the racetrack. I know what to do and when. And even if he does win Mo won’t allow anything to happen to me. He knows I’ll pay. We’re tight friends. I did something for him. Way back—it saved his life. He can’t touch me now. He owes me more than I owe him. You’ll see, Joe. Anyway. The Bank called. I asked for more time on my loans. They turned me down. This is it, Joe. I have to win.”

Joe sighed. “Did you just say you’re doing it for Mo?”

Doug smiled gently, “That’s how I see it.”

Joe leaned closer. “You’re looking at dying twice, Doug. Once with the Bank, once with Mo. And Mo will stand up for you? Protect you? That was long ago. Times have changed. You hid him from the police. So, what! What was it for anyway?”

“Someone died. Police wanted to talk with Mo. Mo doesn’t like talking to the Police. Bad for him. That’s all.”

“That’s all?! Were you a witness—”

“Enough, Joe!” Doug said. “But no. I wasn’t a witness to anything.” And he could tell Joe didn’t believe him.

They stood silent for a minute examining each other like strangers do. Eventually, Joe nodded as his eyes filled with sadness. Patting Doug’s arm, he took it, and they headed off across the beach to where those beauties had gathered.

And the Indian Ocean lapped quietly at the beach. And turning inwards Doug rode his bike over the Breakfast Run road. Now, each mile of it held his fate within its corners, its straightaways, its blind dipping bends, and that scary who knows what they’ll do Sunday morning traffic.

And he smiled a grim one. It was a huge gamble. A once in a lifetime chance. One that favored none and had no sympathy for fools. Sighing he entered the ocean, sat down, and allowed the warm sea to wash over him and calm him.

And she was beautiful, and she smiled at him. And he smiled back and patted the water. And Joe watched him wishing that just once Doug would listen to what he had to say. But he held little hope of that ever happening. But they were friends, so he smiled, waved, turned to her, and it really felt as if her bright blue eyes shone for him only and not only because he knew Doug.

***

Four Ways Intersection—Sunday 5:45 AM

Inside her cave, the mother began to worry that her child had broken free too soon. And unable to sense her, she set off to find her child. Flying over mountains and streams she searched calling out in despair, there came no reply. Her path brought her to a crossroads. Overhead the African sun raised its eyelids sending a predawn haze across the gas station known as Four Ways Intersection.

The wind gusted a welcome, and the grass sighed as that mother stole closer. Her searching arms slithered amongst the grass, the weeds, the stones, the insects, and snakes. And she found her child, and they joined becoming one with the other as they do each year.

Together, they prepared for the moment tragedy and death would strike and a life form broke free of the body it occupied. During that separation, mother and child would feast and satiated they’d sleep for another year. When that year ended, they would once again awaken and go on the hunt just as they were now doing. She grinned for survivors called her and her child Death. But she knew it was a fitting name.

They stared across the intersection at the store, the gas pumps, the motorcycles, and the life forms, and pondered which one or how many would become theirs for the taking when circumstances unfolded.

It was unusual that this place would be a feeding site. Though life forms were present, nothing she could see led her to believe a separation was imminent.

She examined the store’s front window, the sign FOUR WAYS peeled as if recovering from a severe sunburn. Its reflected light threw strange images onto the sand. Several looked like snakes coiled around other snakes. The others were like those decorated shields African warriors of old carried to war.

No early morning traffic approached the intersection. Around the gas pumps twenty-some motorcycles parked in scattered groups. Riders spoke in hushed tones as though wary of waking a beast best allowed to sleep. And mother smiled and patted her child for it was a good place to wait.

A wind stirred. The tall grass along the roadside rustled. And the wind swatted it in reprimand; the grass murmured in protest. And the wind whispered in return, “I am free. Obey me.” And it blew again, and the grass bent in compliance. And the wind subsided, and silence fell over the intersection.

That mother and child moved from concealment amongst the grass, rose into the air and sailed over the motorcyclists and their passengers huddled together and blowing on their hands to keep them warm. As one the riders and passengers looked up having sensed something that many were uncertain was real.

Descending, mother, and child lingered on shoulders, slithered through leather riding suits, and seeped their way into minds, hearts, and souls; ever searching, searching.

Riders and passengers shuddered and blamed the chilly morning air and a sun too slow to rise and warm the land. Others shook within believing their fears were for the ride to come. And their eyes searched the road they’d soon race on.

Moved to act, the faint of heart swallowed their pride, mounted, and rode off, and many headed homeward. A few turned towards the Dam but rode at a sedate pace. Bolder riders looked to where the road vanished over the hills and listened for a telltale mechanical howling wail with heads cocked. But no wail from the Rider’s exhaust pipe split the frigid air.

The bikers waited several expectant seconds more, still nothing. And looking back, their eyes searched the store, the gravel, the gas pumps, the motorcycles, and all the others waiting for the Rider to appear. And they sought something no one would admit to; does Death have a presence one can feel?

They calmed when mother and child drifted back to settle in the grass alongside the road. And there to watch and to wait. Several riders would later swear they had heard a voice calling to them. One that sounded like a child both tired and hungry. For several minutes a hush reigned over Four Ways.

The arrival and roar of two motorcycles shattered the hush. Their sound waves hit hard enough to hurt. Doug Hansen and Joe arrived amidst their own dust cloud. Most of the bikers growled and waved at the billowing dust. Some draped themselves over their bikes desperate to keep them dust free. On recognizing who had arrived, attitudes changed, and they waved friendly greetings.

Doug and Joe pulled up at the store entrance and sat a moment; bikes idling. Their riding styles and gear couldn’t have been more different. Doug crouched over his black and yellow barely street-legal superbike as though racing full speed down the straight on a racetrack. He wagged his elbows and chuckled slapping at his leather racing suit. Scuffed with road-rash his suit, boots, and gloves were not merely for show. But they still lacked a Champion’s patch.

Joe preferred jeans, cowboy boots and rode a custom red painted Harley sitting upright with arms high. They cut their engines and checked the gathered bikers over and shrugged on noting the Rider wasn’t present and removed gloves and helmets.

“Would you recognize him?” Doug asked.

Joe shrugged and waved his hands in a do you question.

Doug grimaced. “No! I wouldn’t have asked if I could.”

“Do you think he’s heard about the challenge and decided to stay away?” Joe asked.

A cold sweat sprung out on Doug’s brow, under his armpits, and between his toes. He fidgeted as his thoughts ran rampant. He’d not figured on a no-show from the so-called Breakfast Run Champion. He looked around again only to find most of the bikers were searching for the Rider as well.

And his heart fluttered. For if the Rider didn’t turn up there could be no race. And no money to pay Mo. And that was it for Doug. All he’d have was one last breakfast run. Perhaps if he just rode like there was no tomorrow, there would be no tomorrow for him. But he pushed it aside. He could never do that. And a thought struck him. “Joe, did you get the word out?!”

Joe bit his tongue. “You asked. I did. We have no control over him being here. None!”

Doug sagged, fought it, straightened, dismounted, and headed for the store. His light curls bounced a good four inches higher than did Joe’s straight black hair. But in a moment when both were midstride, that mother and child touched them. Doug and Joe halted, eyes darting, hearts pounding.

But there was nothing odd nor strange to see. They struggled with it and somehow each reclaimed that bravado competent bike riders own. Buoyed once again but not calmed, they stepped inside the store and made their way around the display-racks to the coffee-stand with lungs gasping, minds grasping for answers, and hearts pleading for them to head on home.

But they knew that retreat would not and could not be. For Doug’s destiny had led him to this, his final Sunday morning Breakfast Run race. One way or the other.

Under the stress of financial ruin and possible death, Doug couldn’t bow out no matter that he knew he should. Not even the painful grating of agonized metal along the surface of Kyalami racetrack repeating inside his head could make him turn and run.

But increasingly, a physical weakness ruled his every moment, except when he rode his bike at speed. Only there at the edge did fear subside and peace return.

They also knew that giving in and leaving, would shame Doug and tarnish his career and likely end any hope of becoming World Superbike Champion. His challenge to the Rider was countrywide news. There was no hiding, no retreat. And if he ran and hid from Mo, it would surely be his last days alive.

The Three would hunt him down and kill him, slowly and painfully. And his berating of Joe over getting the challenge out was just nerves on display; those dangling and jangling ones he would calm once on a starting grid.

Since Durban beach, Doug had avoided the Three. But he could sense they were getting closer. He glanced about but found no sign of them. At least the start will be without them. But he knew they would turn up as they always did when payment was overdue.

Taking a deep breath of warm air tinged with bacon and egg sandwiches topped by the thick aroma of coffee, he touched Joe’s elbow and headed outside, his sole comfort a warm paper cup filled with dark brewed coffee.

The morning air turned momentarily frosty as though a touch of winter freeze had passed by in search of an arctic clime. Veteran Breakfast Run riders glanced around and nodded in grim certainty. Their eyes glazed over; their knuckles sprang white as hands tightened into fists.

They understood that Death had awakened and was on the hunt. Many shook their arms and stamped boot-clad feet. And it helped to drive off fears…not at all.

The ticking of cooling engines floated upward on the tendrils of heat rising from cooling fins and radiators. A truck pulled up at the stop sign. Gears grated as the driver fought for an elusive gear.

The harsh roar of its engine spooked a cat hiding in the grass alongside the stop sign. It darted out, raced under the truck, flashed across the road, and almost lost its tail to a passing car.

Roars of laughter broke free of chests tightened by fear, and the cat came to a sudden stop and glanced around as if disheartened at the sight of all those two-legged creatures occupying its territory. The store’s front door creaked open.

In a flash, the cat rushed in. The two-legged ones exiting jigged getting out of its way. Laughter broke free of constraints, enjoyed its moment, dwindled, conversation resumed, and into a moment of silence, a voice murmured. “The road is still wet with dew, you know?”

Those who heard it did as riders touched by Death’s hand have always done. Like clockwork, their eyes turned to Africa’s eastern horizon and urged the weak sun to rise quickly and fill the world with warmth. For the road they raced lay treacherously wet with dew until the sun dried it.

And that dew often came mixed with fine African sand. But when the sand was dry, and wind-driven by speeding vehicles, it formed islands along the white painted center line. Once wet, it clung to the road like a desperate lover unwilling to sleep alone.

And sand is unthinking, innocent of premeditation, yet deadly. For if a Rider foolish enough angled across it, it returned disaster. And those on two wheels who did so seldom made it home unscathed.

***

Four Ways Intersection—Sunday 6:05 AM

The African sun bloomed into streaks of orange and turned the beige stalks of dried Highveld grass a lighter gold. And reaching across, it tanned the hands and faces of the motorcyclists. Had the bikers inspected the roadside grass they’d have noted many stalks had snapped and broken.

But no wind strong enough blew nor had any trucks meandered across for there; mother and child waited. After several minutes tensions eased with greetings exchanged, and smiles appeared, and loud voices lied in greater earnest. And their tales already too tall rose to greater heights.

As Doug and Joe looked bikes over with coffee in hand, the high-flying words of technique, close encounters, and excessive speed turned to speculation. Amongst the bikers, a querulous voice said, “You think he’ll be out this morning? The Rider, I mean.”

Joe’s and Doug’s ears prickled, and nonchalant they leaned over to listen.

“Don’t know. I heard he wasn’t here last week. He’s never missed two Sundays in a row though.”

Joe and Doug shared a look and a nod of hope.

“Yeah. It was real cold out last week.”

“He still riding that old air-cooled bike of his? The Rider I mean.”

“Sure does.”

“I don’t know how come no one can beat him.”

“You know? They say he’s not really human.”

“Shut up will you!”

“Anyone seen him lately?”

“Oh man! Did I?! The week before last. He came by me like I was cruising and looking for parking. No, really. But I was going flat-out, a hundred and twenty percent. Well for me. You know—?”

Doug froze as the relative silence shattered and a deep-throated wail tore apart the African air. Every head lifted, and all conversation ended as the howl of the Rider’s old bike burst alive from beyond the hills.

There was no mistaking the sound of his air-cooled engine as it exhaled through a racing exhaust pipe. Its wail rose higher shouting a challenge to all living souls who dared to race him and so too those demons that hunted him each Sunday morning along the Breakfast Run.

Another cough-and-bark from the exhaust howled and ripped the air as he changed up a gear and twisted the throttle fully open. And the high-rpm screams echoed around the hills for a long two minutes.

Several mind shattering snarls cut the air as he neared the Four Ways stop sign. He halted his bike without putting his foot down. Those waiting watched as he rode in and parked next to a pump and killed the engine. For several moments a silence lingered.

It broke as a few muttered in consternation and wiped a hand across their eyes. Many shrugged when a voice whispered, “Must be those shabby window signs reflecting this eerie light.”

“Maybe it’s just morning light,” another said.

“I seen it,” a voice broken with awe said. “Yeah. It seemed to me as if an image of him, the Rider rose out his motorcycle and slipped back inside of him. You know?”

Those around shook their heads when they knew they should have nodded. “That stuff doesn’t happen,” a shaky voice said. And they all nodded happy to hitch onto what was a lie.

And they watched the Rider filling his gas tank. And their hands drifted to pat saddles, touch a throttle, or fiddle with a headlamp. Some wiped a gas tank clean or cleaner. And all had a question. One no one could answer.

And each asked of himself what exactly it takes for old technology to outperform the new. A new that included better handling, more power, faster acceleration, better braking, lighter motorcycles, and then too; superior tires.

As always, no one found an answer; none realized they’d already seen the answer. And bikers both daring and tame turned to gaze up the winding road that led to the Dam believing it was a magical road that somehow made one Rider greater than all the others. And they wished it made everyday riders great as well once they’d fathomed its mysteries.

Mostly though, it sent them home beaten and shaken inside. For along its curves, dips, and twists, Death stalks the unwary riding this unofficial race track which crossed mountains, thundered through valleys, over hills, down steep inclines, and howled along straightaways until it passed by the entrance to the Dam’s Parking Lot; the agreed upon Finish Line.

And a thought came to them, and a soft voice said, “I wonder who else will challenge him today.”

There came no answer; no challenges.

The pastel glow of orange light faded. Clearer morning light hung translucent and pale. The air smelt brisk with the cold of a departed night. The few cars and trucks pulling up at the stop-signs dripped water and spewed clouds of vapor from their exhaust-pipes as though sad the night’s cold was on the wane. And that mother and child drifted over the riders and passengers; ever searching, searching.

After gassing up his motorcycle, the Rider parked in front of the store and dismounted. Lady riders eyed his boots that compressed the red-sand beneath them at some one-hundred-and-sixty-five pounds evenly spread. Only then did they lift their eyes to the leathers he wore.

Their eyes widened as the bulging motions of his arms rushed like cascading waves along an ocean of black and red leather. His broad shoulders remained hunched in a perpetual superbike-rider-crouch. His curly brown hair now pressed flat by his helmet, hung to his chin, and looking closely one could discern lighter streaks sprinkled amongst the curls. He scanned the crowd and nodded at an acquaintance.

Focusing back on his bike he went to one knee and checked it intently. Distracted, his eyes turned neither hard nor cold as Doug and Joe ambled over, coffee in hand. The crowd gasped as one when Doug placed a hand on the old bike’s handlebar, went to his haunches, and took a sip of coffee.

Inside the crowd, a voice murmured, “Damn! Doug’s gone and touched a stranger’s bike without permission. A man can get himself killed for that.” Chuckles drifted back and forth, and the speaker nodded to acknowledge those who got it.

After a close inspection of the Rider’s bike, Doug said, “I’m Doug Hansen the—”

“Almost champion,” the Rider said.

Doug grinned sheepishly and pointed at the old red bike with its black fairing. “I see you’ve stripped her clean down to bare-essentials.” The Rider remained silent, watchful.

Irritated, Doug caressed the ten-year-old black fairing that hugged the Rider’s bike. As his hand moved along the paintwork a strange sense of peace came over him. It was as though someone had slipped a syringe into his vein and injected morphine. His eyes glazed over for several seconds and his muscles relaxed, and he almost slumped over.

Struggling free of it, he stood upright and turned to walk off. But paused when he noted the Rider’s saddle had almost two inches cut off the top.

“Lower is better for cornering,” he muttered, and the mother-and-child touched the nape of his neck. He spun around, but there was no one there.

Looking about Doug jolted when Joe reached up and rubbed his own neck staring as if he could see something no one else could. Doug checked once more, but there was nothing save for the riders, their passengers, and sunlight.

Doug ran his eyes over the black-and-red leathers that hugged the Rider’s frame. When he looked up the Rider’s face seemed haunted. Lines cut it as though scarred by a terrible loss. Doug dismissed it as the patterns of morning light reflecting off the store’s windows.

And he closed his eyes. Opening them, he found the Rider’s face smooth, angular, absent scars. “Yeah, it’s the morning sunlight alright,” he said and activated his own homegrown tactics.

“I see you cut the front of your saddle down but left the back of it high. Let’s a Rider secure his butt when riding.”

The Rider remained silent.

“Have you changed the engine internals?” Doug asked.

The Rider ignored him once again. After an extended and tense silence, Doug turned away, muttered an expletive under his breath, and ground his teeth. And again, that damp cold touched the back of his neck. This time it made him shudder. From the corner of his eye, he watched as Joe mouthed, “Don’t race today!”

Anger and darkness descended on Doug. Four Ways vanished in a flash of receding light leaving in its wake a large black dot which wrapped itself around his face. But he fought it. And slowly it turned white. And inside his head, that voice he’d first heard back on Durban’s Golden Mile beach said, “Good job, Doug.”

He shuddered and stepped around the Rider’s old bike and froze there horrified; his palms sweaty wet, his mind caved into havoc-mode. This time his own inner voice whispered, “I’ve seen the back of this bike before, but no one passes me on this road. No one. I mean no one. I’ve made sure of that.”

But it came to him. It was back before he began racing and long before he almost became champion. Staring down at his boots he reviewed it being careful to hide the racer’s gleam of triumph that now smoldered in his eyes and lit his cheeks with the glow of victory.

This was something he could use. No. Would use and he patted himself on the back. It was that something extra he needed—and about as heaven-sent as it gets. It was akin to an inside track; that all-important detail you know about your opponent. He stepped back and took a moment to relive it so that it came into the present as fresh as the time it first happened.

It was a Sunday morning on the Breakfast Run. He’d pulled away for all the we’d-like-to-beat-Doug crowd. He was well ahead and hard on the throttle. The corner ahead was an as-fast-as-you-can-go-in-a-straight line kinda bend.

He was alone with just the road beneath his tires and those nuances of Africa that swept by on the wind. The howling note of his exhaust pipe echoed off the trees and the hills beyond. For an instant, he listened to the song of his motorcycle with his head cocked to one side and noted a difference. It was as though another exhaust pipe was echoing around his one. And a light flickered across his eyes. It was the flash of a headlight in his rearview mirror.

He froze for a second. Moments earlier no one had been close, never mind tucked in tight behind and slipstreaming him. He eased his hold on the handgrips, took several deep breaths and grinned.

“A challenger,” he muttered. “Oh yeah!” And his snarky inner voice came alive. “No one slipstreams me,” he growled. “I’ll teach you to do that.” And he figured how, where, and when.

And he smiled as the calm returned. That one born of riding fast and suddenly everything slows down as if the world around moved in slow motion. Looking about he found that he could see the tiny specks of gravel in the tarred surface. And he’d smiled broader, but there was no warmth in it.

He’d checked the rearview mirror, and it struck him that his bike was newer and far faster than the one behind. That made the follower’s bike far too old to stay with him.

The only way it could remain close was to be in the slipstream where there’s less wind-resistance. Without the slipstream, that old bike would drop back and disappear from his rearview mirror.

He patted the fuel tank in celebration of his bike’s superior power and handling. All he had to do was wait. Wait until the last possible instant to execute his move.

And their exhaust pipes sang as one and around him the hills and trees vanished, but Doug was as one with the two-lane road snaking along the valley and climbing the hills.

Face devoid of emotion, the wind roaring inside his helmet, he glanced back, and his certainty doubled. That rider back there was coming right into his slipstream. It handed Doug the weapon he cherished most.

And he muttered, “Keep coming. Yeah. Just like that. Now, just a little closer. Yeah. Nice.” He pursed his lips chuckling at how he had sent other riders who had dared to slipstream him weaving and convulsing into the oncoming traffic lane.

“One a hell-of-a tank-slapper,” one such unfortunate had muttered to him over breakfast at the Dam. Doug had advised him. “Don’t ride beyond your skill level. It’s never a good thing.”

And it was time to do it again. In preparation, he drifted towards the center line, checked his mirror, and it was perfect. The rider back there was hugging his taillight. Out ahead, the turn-in point to the crucial corner was coming rapidly closer. He eased his hold on the handgrips and relaxed his shoulders.

“Say goodbye to the slipstream and hello to a wall of wind,” he whispered and snapped his bike over from the center line to the edge of the road and glanced into his rearview mirror.

Expecting to celebrate that a sudden blast of headwind had forced the following motorcycle back and that it would soon be a speck in his mirror, he instead shuddered.

The rider wasn’t behind him but was already overtaking him. Once he’d passed, the rider waved a courteous thank-you for letting him by and leaned his bike into the long sweeping corner.

Shocked, Doug’s mouth dropped open, he exhaled loudly, and his face-shield misted up. “He waved a thank-you,” he’d snarled half-blinded inside his helmet. And the corner was on him.

Late and in desperation, he threw his bike into it. It wallowed through a dip he knew he should have avoided and weaved and twisted beneath him. “Damn,” he growled. “A tank-slapper.”

Almost entirely out-of-control his motorcycle bucked like a wild stallion no buckaroo could tame. Doug gentled the throttle open. After several heart-stopping seconds, his bike calmed and came under control.

He accelerated out the bend and looked ahead, but that rider was gone. Half a mile on, he dipped through another turn and looked up.

The road stretched out for a mile of straight as an arrow tarmac. “He’s really gone,” he said in dismay to the wind rushing by. Shaken to the core, he slowed and cruised to the Dam.

After eating, he searched for that old bike and its rider but couldn’t find it. “We’ll meet again,” he’d promised himself.

And that day had come. And Doug now knew that rider was the Rider. But Doug had prepared for it with endless incognito races against all takers along the road from Four Ways to the Dam. He’d kept a low profile; ridden a bike no one knew was his. Arrived late enough to race others or on his own gaining knowledge about the road, its conditions, and the vagaries of meeting bicycles, pedestrians, cars, trucks, and even cows that left their piles of dung in the road when driven across it in search of greener pastures.

But for this all-important race against the so-named Breakfast Run Champion, Doug had called around, and many of his friends from local Sports News Channels had offered to lend him a hand.

He figured some of them were looking for his second major defeat in less than three weeks. But he didn’t give a damn. He needed them to ensure no cheating took place. Well, against himself anyway. And all was in place and waiting. And only he and those involved knew about it.

Along the winding mountain road to the Dam, they had set up cameras to ensure both stuck to the route. There were several other crews with cameras hidden behind trees and bushes ready to capture the race just in case the Rider knew of a shortcut that no one else did.

At the finish-line, Racing Frozen, a friend’s company had placed high speed cameras on both sides of the road should the finish be that tight. That’s how much money was on the line and for Doug especially.

Using the rumor mill that travels nationwide between motorcyclist, Joe had made it known this race was on and that sent the betting skyrocketing. The winner’s prize was already double what he’d expected. Even Mo called to congratulate him on the idea. The betting was so heavily in favor of the Rider winning that if Doug won Mo’s take would be like never.

That lifted the mountain of angst that had sat on his shoulders since the encounter on Durban beach. Joe had raised an eyebrow to intimate that nothing good ever left Mo and ended up in the hands of others. Doug had smiled and given Joe the wave-off. The crude one.

“Race time?” Doug asked the Rider and bolts of high voltage excitement rushed through him and shot out across the parked bikes, bikers, and passengers. The crowd shivered involuntarily, pressed closer, and once again mother and child smiled and knew there would soon be a feast. All they had to do was follow and wait and the moment would come, and their hunger would be satisfied.

The Rider nodded, mounted up, and started his bike. It snarled once, and heads came up, and eyes stared, and it settled and ticked over at idle as though it was a completely standard street bike.

Doug took hold of Joe’s arm, and they headed for their bikes. “He’s got those racing carburetors working well,” he muttered and glanced at Joe.

“It sure idles smoothly,” Joe agreed. “No air filters, just those short air-intake trumpets. Or should I say, I can hear those smooth-bore venturis gulping air from here. Figure there’s more to that old bike than meets the eye.” And Joe raised an eyebrow at Doug.

“All you need to do is tag along,” Doug said. “He has no chance. I mean look,” and he pointed at his own bike, “No way will he even stay with me. So, forget about him winning.”

“Where are the Three?” Joe asked.

They examined the crowd but found no sign of them.

Joe glanced once again over his shoulder, shrugged and said, “Last time Doug. Don’t underrate his ride by the age of it. It’s unreal is all I can say.”

And Joe’s stomach was tight with fear, and he wished Doug had taken his advice. But too many times to count Doug had waved it off as if Joe had nothing worth listening to when it came down to life’s little lessons.

And the sound of his cowboy boots crunching on gravel left an eerie sense of dread in Joe’s heart. He mounted, and his Harley barked in anger and settled into its lumpy idle. Briefly, he placed his hands on the warm engine, smiled, and pulled his gloves on. “Ah, warmth,” he muttered.

As the other riders started their engines, the bushes alongside the road quivered. The tall beige grass waved gently, and an anguished cry of hunger drifted across Four Ways. It sounded much like a starving child impatient to be fed. The riders paused and glanced about, but there was nothing unusual to see.

Doug and the Rider pulled up at the end of the Four Ways driveway and glanced at one another. Doug’s heart beat slowly but with heavy thumps. It was the same beat that filled him when he waited for the lights to change on a starting grid. But this time there was pain too.

He swallowed hoping to keep the fear out of his eyes. But images of Numbers One-to-Three bursting in through his apartment door with guns barking overwhelmed him. His fist clenched for several seconds as he fought back until it subsided.

And thankfully, it returned to him; that calm a veteran racer has. It allowed one to experience the anxiety of those around him, and unaffected by it, remain a pool of calm within.

Behind them, bikes snarled alive as those riders who followed as spectators fell in behind the hardcore racers. The Rider pointed westwards, raised his visor, and shouted, “Let’s take the back road north.”

Doug nodded and smiled. That’s where his crews were. And it was the road the Rider always took. He glanced back to see how many were joining in and grinned; five plus Joe.

And that mother and child caressed them and smiled for neither had yet decided who to feast upon on such a chilly African morning. It was indeed the perfect time for Death to feast. They were hungry, and the morning light shining across the grass made it look like a table laid for breakfast.

The bikers headed from Four Ways as a group. Engines revved like wild dogs eager to scream all the way to redline in every gear.

Doug forced his way to the front following a car that had turned in ahead of them. And a sense of victory filled him. It was as though destiny had rewarded him with a leading pace car. Yet, his spine tingled. He glanced back.

Joe was in the rear behind the line of racers who looked to challenge the road, the Rider, Doug, and Death. They had strung out behind him and the Rider in single file. Doug calmed himself and turned his attention back ahead. And he smiled inside. He was comfortable, eager and twenty yards on was the turnoff to the Dam road proper.

They followed the car onto the north road. The driver’s eyes jumped back-and-forth between the bikers filling his rearview mirror and the way ahead. Sweat dripped down his forehead and smiling weakly he waved Doug on by.

Readied to pass, Doug checked across the roof of the car for oncoming traffic; several cars headed towards them.

The leading vehicle flashed its lights at him. He stayed behind the one blocking their progress and waited. It was the perfect start to the race. All he had to do was time his pass correctly—and the win was his.

He’d noted that the oncoming vehicles had bunched into two separate groups. Two were in the first group, then a gap, and three made up the second group. The gap between the two groups was enough for Doug to nip by and pass the car ahead of him.

By doing that, he planned to force the Rider and his old bike to wait for all five cars to streak by before he could overtake. And that would give Doug a considerable lead. And no one was going to catch him once he had that much of a gap on them.

The first set of oncoming cars flashed by. Doug held his position as though waiting for all the vehicles to pass. At the last instant, he banged the throttle open and swung out, roared by the car ahead, and cut back into his lane moments before the leading car drew level with him.

“Now that’s what I call a nip,” he whispered to himself.

Clear of all those following him, he grinned, glanced over his shoulder, jerked involuntarily, and almost fell off his speeding bike. What he’d seen had caused his lower body to inadvertently spasm left-n-right, and both his butt-cheeks had cleared the edges of his saddle.

He’d almost embarrassed himself by falling off his bike for no good reason at all. He held still as he could, frozen by the thought of falling off a perfectly stable motorcycle and with it upright at that. Once assured, he found his inner calm and snuggled down below the windshield. After redlining up through the gears, he hugged his bike to reduce wind-drag as much as possible. And he smiled in victory despite the setback.

A quick glance and the speedo read one-hundred and fifty miles per hour. Doug settled into the comfort of a win. And the road spoke to him through the handlebars and footrests revealing each tiny bump, each wriggle-grove; those lines cut into the aspalt that a motorcycle’s two wheels have a habit of following, and he felt the small stones too.

And he sighed his pleasure. And the symphony of motorcycles racing in concert and howling in harmony filled his helmet. Around that music, the wind rushed, and its whispering tenor urged him to hurry for only one would win.

***

Joe had watched from the tail-end of the riders. He knew Doug would use the fortuitous circumstance. He smiled when Doug slipped back into his own lane with less than seconds to spare before the oncoming vehicle would have collided head-on with him. In the next moment, Joe too almost fell off his bike in disbelief.

The Rider had positioned himself next to the white painted line dividing the two-lane road. And as far as Joe could make out the Rider’s front wheel was a couple of inches back from the taillight of the car ahead of him. And Joe sensed he was timing something. No. Not just timing.

He was…but Joe didn’t get it until he saw that old bike ease over onto the white divider-line and slip in between two passing cars with maybe an inch of clearance between each of the two vehicles and the Rider’s knees. And that mother and child swooped in and readied themselves to feast.

The oncoming driver stared ahead his eyes bulging with fear. Without turning his head, he glanced at the Rider mere inches away. As they passed by each other, the car driver’s face paled to become the mask one wears when Death’s needy hand brushes across one’s heart. But the Rider cleared both vehicles and set off in pursuit of Doug.

Mother and child muttered their discontent.

Joe tried to clear his mind of that impossible move, but he couldn’t, and his thoughts ran rampant. And a cocktail of shock and disbelief grabbed him by the arms and jerked, sending his American Iron into a tank-slapper.

He fought it briefly, calmed himself, gentled the throttle open a touch, his bike settled, and he silently thanked Doug for teaching him how to handle tank-slappers.

Again, mother and child backed away.

When Joe overtook the car, he’d lost sight of the racing.

***

Doug exuded confidence and allowed a random thought to waft by; yeah, track time pays dividends. The Rider had twice come close to his taillight. But at each attempt to pass him, Doug had blocked forcing the Rider to fall back.

Doug looked ahead. Coming up was the fast bend where the two of them had first met. But this time Doug knew he couldn’t win the corner with the move he liked most. But it didn’t matter.

There was oncoming traffic which left just one racing line through the corner—at high speeds anyway. Get off it, and it’s into the bush you’d go, or worse, suffer a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle. All he had to do was stay on his line.

Oh, he was going to offer the racing-line to the Rider, but at extremely high speeds. And he grinned and chuckled to himself. Not even God would be able to help the Rider if he took the bait.

At the perfect moment, Doug cracked the throttle back a smidgeon, just enough to ease off on his entry speed. That old bike slipped by at once and moved a bike-length ahead of him. And they were at the bend in the next instant.

“Gotcha,” Doug whispered as they leaned into the corner.

Their motorcycles were so close to each other it seemed as if one was towing the other. And the old bike did just as Doug had predicted. It began drifting towards the white dividing line and the oncoming traffic.

Doug smiled his winning smile. The one none other than he and his bathroom mirror had ever seen. And the racing-line opened its arms to him as the Rider drifted closer to the centerline. About to dive in and claim it and perhaps send the Rider into the oncoming traffic lane, Doug’s hand froze on the throttle.

Ahead of him, the Rider had slid his body sideways and half-off the saddle. His kneepad touched the road, and puffy clouds of road dirt trailed off the point of contact. The Rider’s leg served as a sail against the wind, and that old bike stopped drifting wide and held its line.

“Not enough,” Doug murmured and edged closer ready to take the perfect curve through the corner—the line that’s the fastest going into a corner, sets up a rapid exit but denies anyone following a passing lane.

But the Rider leaned out further placing his shoulder, arm, and a part of his torso in the wind. And the Rider’s brake-light lit as he gentled the rear brake allowing his rear wheel to slow his bike just a little but not allow it to lockup, and his motorcycle cut back in and closed off the racing line. Doug shuddered, and so did his bike followed by tank-slapper convulsions as it weaved threatening to fall and crash.

Doug had never braked when banked over that much. And he forced himself not to admire it but to learn from it. And his heart dropped into this stomach as he fought despair and his bike.

He managed to pull his bike upright and calm it. It settled, he braked a little, eased the handlebar down, and turned back into the bend. He cursed silently as they roared onwards. But he cut his snarl short; it was time to plan. He edged closer to the old bike and waited in the slipstream for opportunity to come knocking.

He followed the Rider through a long high-speed corner at the foot of a hill. As they began the climb, Doug peered ahead. An old car chugged along near the crest of the hill with blue smoke billowing out its exhaust.

He grimaced and whispered, “Hate the smell of burning engine-oil.” And he watched the Rider’s bike. “That old bike is really race ready,” he murmured into the wind and checked his mirrors. The two of them were well ahead of the other racers.

The bushes flashed by. The sun was warm on his back.

It would be warmer on the return ride.

On his victory lap!

Suddenly they were upon the car and its oil smoking exhaust. Ahead of it, the top of the hill dropped away into a blind corner. They had reached it at the same time the car had. What would the Rider do? Slow down and follow and allow the others to catch up or would he pass the laboring vehicle in a blind corner?

If they overtook, oncoming traffic would be out of sight until they were mid-corner and helpless with no escape route. That was gambling with death. At their speeds, they were looking at instant death for there was no verge to speak of. He tucked in behind the Rider and waited.

The car was at the bend now, its rear suspension wallowing from age and the weight of three large men in the back seat, and two up front. The Rider steered over and onto the solid white painted dividing line. Doug had no choice, he had to follow. Crossing fingers and toes and saying a silent prayer he steered onto the white dividing line. They edged up alongside the car, an old sky-blue Austin 1100. As the corner opened, Doug almost fell off a stable motorcycle once again.

Coming towards them was another motorcyclist. His bike too straddled the white center line. And worse, he had frozen at the sight of Death disguised as two speeding motorcycles hurtling straight at him. And worse yet; there was nothing he could do about it. And a cold, damp hand touched the back of his neck, and he shivered.

Strange he thought, moments earlier he’d figured the safest place to position his bike in this blind corner was on the white line. From there he could swerve left or right if trouble came.

He hadn’t figured on freezing up, and in that instant, his eyes lost the light of life. And his lady’s eyes dimmed too. Her fingers digging into his leather jacket, she pressed up against his back, and he knew she had murmured a prayer. And the light dimmed for them, and the trees and bushes lining the road crept closer. And it was cold. A damp cold.

This was death for they were a mere three bikes lengths apart. At their combined speeds, it was less than two seconds to collision. He had no time nor the skills to do anything. He accepted death and waited for the inevitable.

Doug was about to swing over into the oncoming lane but paused. Too often he’d seen someone come out of shock and suddenly dip their bike away from the center line to exactly where Doug would be if he steered over into the oncoming traffic lane. Then the impossible happened.

The Rider sat up from crouching below his windshield but didn’t slow down. His left hand swung up and pointed to the sky. He snapped it down and pointed at the oncoming rider as though firing a shot. And the oncoming biker’s shocked and unseeing eyes focused as though he’d been hit between the eyes by an energy beam.

The Rider’s pointing finger snapped over and pointed at the empty oncoming lane. Like a puppet on strings, the approaching Rider steered his bike over and flashed by. But deep inside himself he knew that the rider who had pointed at him was somehow making him swerve to avoid a collision. He shrugged it off though, happy just to be alive.

The light appeared to have dimmed for Doug. He blinked several times trying to clear the haziness that shrouded the road ahead. And it cleared after a moment. And calming his heart, he hunched down and followed the Rider; close and readied.

“Patience, Doug,” he told himself between his rapid heartbeats. “This is not the time to ponder what happened. I’m alive, I’m racing, I must win. Easy does it.” And he made a point of listen to his engine and the howl of his exhaust. “Strange how I don’t hear them in the heat of the fray,” he muttered.

And he searched for a weakness, but no matter what Doug did he couldn’t pass the Rider. That is, until the final corner before the mile and a half stretch to the Finish Line. It seemed like a gift. The Rider had run it in a little too hot, a bit too wide.

Doug smiled. “They all make a mistake if you hound them hard and long enough. Love this corner.” And the roadside trees pressed closer, and the hill behind him blocked out the sun. “My dearly beloved ninety-degree-relatively-tight-corner, good morning to you,” he muttered to himself and he ran the bend through his mind.

This corner waits for the unwary at the foot of a hill. The two-hundred-yard approach was a straight line of smooth asphalt. But early each morning, a herd of cows crosses mid corner driven to greener pastures, seven days a week. Often, they’d leave slippery piles on the road big enough to send a bike into a low-side slide, onto the gravel verge and beyond. Furthermore, fist-sized rocks often found their way onto the racing line. Hit one and tumble in an ugly fashion.

Doug cut to the inside, out braked the Rider, and took ownership of the racing line. He ran his bike deep into the corner forcing the Rider to brake harder and stay upright longer.

As he came out the bend, that old air-cooled bike pulled up next to Doug. Exhausts howling in concert; throttles fully open, and the wind howling in harmony, they accelerated down the final straight nose to nose.

And victory’s anthem sang in Doug’s heart when he glanced over at the rev-counter of that old, old bike. The Rider’s rev-counter needle had swung all the way to and through red-line, passed the blocks of red-danger-rpm and sat level at an impossible three o’clock. And there it remained.

He glanced at the Rider, grinned triumphantly, waggled an adieu with his fingers, shifted into top gear and wound the throttle open. His trusty modern bike pulled hard in its sweet spot, and he sighed as he held gently onto the handle-bar grips, elbows bent to absorb road-bumps.

Doug’s bike was blindingly fast and stable. But for the first time since the end of his second season of racing, tunnel-vision kicked alive. On public roads, more so than on a racetrack, tunnel-vision is a prelude to death.

Stunned, he shook his head as the world around him turned into a sheet of solid black. A telescope-like peephole appeared in the black sheet and was all he could see out. He saw nothing other than what was in the little peephole. The fact that sound turned off was scarier. Feeling and sensation also dampened leaving him almost numb.

Utter terror swamp Doug. Yet, he struggled to undo it and to understand why now. It was a horror many riders could never cure. And if they were racers and no matter how talented, championship trophies seldom stood on their mantles. At least until they overcame it.

Since the final race of his second of five seasons in total, tunnel-vision had vanished for him. The first time it disappeared, his awareness opened-up and the world; the track, the riders, the grandstands, the crowds, the sky, the trees, the flags, became clearly visible as if he were one with everything and everyone.

And the faster and harder he rode, the slower the world, the track, and the other riders seemed to go allowing him to slice through the competition as though they were standing still. It was as if Doug had one-hundred and twenty or even more seconds per minute in which to work, think and act.

But it was the hundred-and-ninety-degree vision which turned on that made all the falls and failures worthwhile.

With it, Doug could see ahead, sideways, and backward a little past his shoulders. And since then no one had crept up on him from behind on the racetrack. He’d see them before they got alongside him.

Yet he knew there was a place beyond even that to which racers go. But only those destined to became great. Those he called The Great Ones. He had ground his teeth at that and promised himself, “I’ll find it. Damn. I’ll find that holy grail of racing on two wheels.”

He blinked hoping to shake tunnel-vision off. On the third blink, that old bike drifted up alongside him. He glanced at it, looked ahead, and understood.

They had both almost died in one horrific accident, and the fear of it clung to him. He could even smell the sour odor of death seeping up from under his racing suit’s collar.

With tunnel-vision and the earlier near-death moment, he’d rolled off the throttle just a bit. He wound it fully open again and began to pull ahead. Inside himself, he cried out in victory, “Yes. Yes. Yes!” But a thought touched him.

He’d been afraid for the first time in an awfully long time. Yes. Losing this race was a death sentence. And that had hit him full in the face and had given birth to the tunnel vision. He sighed and checked for the Rider. That old bike was still there.

Doug hugged his motorcycle tighter and hunched down under the windshield. Right then tunnel vision dissolved fully, and he could see the gauges of the old bike, the Rider, his boots, and the old bike’s gear lever down by the Rider’s left foot. And with a sharp stabbing pain, his heart almost stopped beating. “Can’t be,” he groaned.

But it did. The Rider pulled his clutch lever in. And his boot snuck under the gear-lever, and he changed up a gear, dropped the clutch and banged the throttle open. That old bike snarled in anger and rage through its racing exhaust and began to pull ahead. Doug could hear those short intake venturis howling as they sucked air into the engine.

“And no air-filters,” he muttered as he drifted into the slipstream behind the Rider and caught up.

Keeping back from the Rider’s rear-wheel Doug positioned himself to slip by and cross the Finish Line first. “It’s timing, Doug,” he whispered. “Always timing.” And physics were on his side, and he knew it.

He rolled off the throttle a little more but could still match speeds with the bike ahead. This left him with extra acceleration on tap. He would use that to pass the Rider and cross the finish line first. And he muttered, “Race experience rules.” And he used it and timed it perfectly.

With more than enough distance left he opened the throttle and swept out the slipstream. And his front wheel came level with the Rider’s one. He pressed himself into his bike as much as he could and tucked his elbows in even tighter. His knees were hard against the fuel tank, his calves snugged against the sides.

It was going to be a close finish, and he thanked his foresight for the cameras he’d put in place. He edged forward, and his front wheel moved ahead of that old bike.

But he could still see it next to him and a little back. Its old rounded fairing was doing a fantastic job cutting the wind at high speed. It was going to be close, but Doug could already taste a champagne breakfast.

He smiled a grim one, feeling a little sorry for the Rider and his old bike. “Dethroned,” he whispered to himself.

In the next instant terror came, and he froze, and his heart stuttered, and his mind refused to believe what his eyes had seen. And a pain drove straight through his heart. He had never felt that much pain. That unbelievable agony when a ball of solid lead drops down onto one’s heart and lungs and crushes them.

He was barely able to breathe yet he kept the throttle open. Inside, he fought as he watched something that couldn’t possibly be happening. And he struggled to live for every cell in his body had died for just an instant. And still mesmerized, it happened.

Again, the Rider’s left fingers curled around the clutch lever. “Impossible,” Doug murmured and cringed in horror.

But the Rider pulled the clutch-lever to the handgrip one more time and kicked up another gear. His exhaust pipe snarled like a predator bursting out the bush to paralyze its prey. And that old bike leaped away and pulled ahead by three bike lengths just before it crossed the finish line…first.

Trailing, Doug no longer watched the old bike ahead. Next to their bikes at the entrance to the Dam Parking Lot, the Three watched him lose. Their smiles were broader and happier than if he’d won.

It was over for him. The final curtain had fallen not for him, but on him. Yes. He should have listened to Joe. But there had been no way to handle his debts except to bet on the Rider to win. But that would have been the end of Doug the Racer’s career once fans heard he’d bet against himself.

Mo having sponsored him for the past five seasons had suffered enormous losses which multiplied when Doug’s engine broke in the second last corner of the final race and demoted him to second in the championship.

Second to the champion wasn’t good enough.

Helping him through the crowd after he’d crashed the biggest of the Three had snarled something about Doug not ever riding again, never mind still racing, if he didn’t pay his debts. “If your knees don’t work no more, your legs don’t bend to get those feet on them footrests no more,” he’d snarled at Doug and added, “And that’s so just for starters.”

“I will pay,” Doug had replied quaking inside.

“With what? You broke. Mo has no more money for you. He’s given up on you. We so have our own way of collecting, Dougie. You know? One payment pays all and fixes the disrespect that’s going down. You have three weeks. Maybe a little more. Enjoy them. Then we so come to collect. Better have that money ready. In cash!”

“I’ll figure something. Give me some time. I’ll get the money.”

“Maybe try Mo again? Dougie old buddy, Mo may be my kin, but his real kin carries the name of Mister and Missus Hard Cash. You got any? Naw. Didn’t think so. Here you are Dougie, your last pit-stop. Enjoy! And don’t be taking any trips any time soon. You hear?!”

And the racetrack faded, and the Dam reappeared.

***

A cool breeze blew off the Dam and across the Restaurant’s terrace lapping at the umbrellas that hung over the tables. Those riders breakfasting on the terrace let their food grow cold as they watched the speedboats carving whitish roads across the dark waters. Others looked down at the swimming pool, but no one was swimming so early in the morning.

Doug’s OJ, toast, bacon, and eggs were flavorless and could just as well have been cardboard. Still, he ate while Joe chatted, but didn’t hear a word. His attention drifted to the Dam taking in the water-skiers, swimmers, fisherman, and boats. The trees and bushes along the far shore seemed like a solid wall blocking out the future. A living dead-end street with no escape route nor a U-turn. Three shadows fell across him, and he shivered.

“Dougie, my man,” Number One said leaning on the table and dipping his finger into the egg yolks on Doug’s plate. “If I wasn’t so awfully glad, I’d feel for you, old buddy. Now. Mostly, you see, I’d give someone like you a choice.” And he stuffed his fingers into his mouth, licked the yolk off, and smiled like a predator.

“There’s a choice?” Doug asked barely able to speak.

“Yep. Options they’re called. Normally I’d ask how long you’d need to wrap up your life. But that don’t work here with you Dougie my man, the so not a Champion.”

“Why?” And Doug’s voice broke.

“For someone like you, Dougie, we call it the surprise party. But don’t worry yourself now. You head on home and so have yourself a time. You see? No? We’ll make this a private matter between you and we three. And you can so live without a care. Right? No?! Look, it’s coming, Dougie. Accept it and just live. And, you won’t even know it happened. Nice of us?”

Doug nodded involuntarily. Number One smiled and glanced up the hill behind them. Covered by thorn bushes and dried grass it climbed into the blue sky. At the crest dried grass grew like a winter shawl. A few trees stood close to the parking lot.

Number one grinned. “Any questions? No? Oh? You don’t happen to have the cash?” Doug shook his head. “I’d say I’m sorry about that, but this morning I so don’t feel like lying to you, old buddy.”

And all three of them stepped back, crossed their arms, and smiled. The wind gusted and blew a speck of dust into Doug’s eye. He rubbed it, his eyes watered, he looked up, and there were now four of them. He blinked. Blinked again. No.

The Rider was standing alongside them as impassive as always. Behind him stood an expectant crowd, silent and hopeful. Doug figured they would be the followers who hung around the Rider both at the Dam and back at Four Ways. And he recognized one or two who had chided him after races.

Many of them hoped the Rider would explain or at least talk about some of his heroics. Like that pass, he’d made between two cars. But the Rider never spoke about his riding and neither about himself.

Doug sensed the Rider didn’t find what he did on his old bike to be out of the ordinary. But the crowd was always there, always hopeful of a few words to explain how one got to that level. Honestly, Doug wanted to know as well. But as a professional racer, he accepted the Rider’s silence.

Dressed in black leather riding suits, helmets in hand, hair glowing with coconut oil, and open worship in their eyes, the Three turned to the Rider, and each shook his hand as in a formal ceremony.

“You with them?” Doug asked stunned. And the murmuring from the crowd died as they held their collective breath and listened intently. This was life and death stuff.

The Rider shook his head no and turned to the Three. “How’s Mo doing these days?” he asked.

The Three stared open-mouthed. “You know Mo?” Number One asked as he recovered.

“Sure,” the Rider said.

Doug and Joe turned into dead, unthinking statues.

“How?” Number One demanded.

“Oh? We lived in the same neighborhood during High School. Back then he was already loansharking and breaking bones. Seems he likes breaking bones more than being paid.”

Number One leaned forward. “Hey! You the Rider here. Don’t talk about Mo that way. Mo’s great. He sponsored Doug five seasons in all. Doug being his trusted friend and all. Yeah! You know? We were looking to make World Superbike next year until Dougie, our man here so over-revved his engine it blew up. Dougie owes Mo big time.”

The Rider nodded and glanced at the Dam and no one saw his smile. It was a cold one. The kind that grows and comes alive when great loss has shattered a life; lives.

The conversations of the riders and passengers stopped, and they fell silent. In a strange fashion, Doug, Joe, and the Three waited in silence a full two minutes while the Rider gazed off into the distance as though he were far away and in another time. It was Doug who coughed politely.

The Rider turned to them and examined all five faces.

“What you ride anyway?” Number One asked him.

“Nineteen-eighty, 750-ish inline-four. Over there.” And he pointed. They turned as one and stared.

“You should see it up close,” Joe whispered.

“Let me see this ancient 750-ish relic,” Number One said and headed for it. By that time the small crowd had grown.

The Three stood over the Rider’s bike in critique mode; leaned back a little, arms faintly raised, palms forward, heads swinging left to right like swooping cameras.

Number One’s arms dropped as he straightened up. “It’s not the one, right?” he asked as the Three turned to the Rider, who just stood there looking his bike over. “I mean this one is red and has a fairing on. You know? Was the other one sold as scrap?”

But no reply came from the Rider unless the steal hard cold in his eyes was his answer. But no one saw it clearly for it vanished as fast as it came.

“Similar, but not the same,” Doug said, and Joe nodded confirmation.

“Ah!” Number One grunted. “For a moment, I thought….” And he fell silent and so did everyone present.

It was a silence filled with a respect that the living hold for those no longer racing and scratching footrests through corners along the road from Four Ways to the Dam.

“Damn. I could have sworn…,” Number One muttered, and many of those gathered around jolted as though his words had broken a spell.

“Sworn what?” the Rider asked.

“You don’t know?” Number One asked.

The Rider waited eyes fixed on Number One.

Number One obliged. “About three, maybe four years back,” he said then looked the Rider in the eye. “Okay. A guy and his girlfriend….”

“Four years! His fiancée!” Joe cut in, and the wind picked up, and the trees’ leaves swished as though warning them of something. As one they shivered.

“Right, Joe,” said Number One, and shrugged, sniffed at the air, and frowned. “Anyway! They came off in a corner out here. Both died. End of story.”

The Rider nodded staring off as though he could see exactly where. The Three shuffled nervously. That fog drifted closer and hid in the shadows of a nearby bush.

“What more?” the Rider asked.

Doug and Joe glanced at the Three and waved them on.

“They were racing us,” Number One said looking off towards the Dam.

The Rider nodded. “You see it happen?”

After a long silence, Number Two said, “Yeah. Serious stuff.”

“He hit a stone,” Number One added.

“A stone?” said the Rider.

Number Three shivered, looked up. “Don’t you go believing that junk rumor about we three did something to them,” he hissed. “To that motorcyclist and his fiancée, I mean.”

A long silence passed. Gravel crunched as Doug stepped around the Rider’s bike and faced them. “I wasn’t far behind that morning. You know the road? It’s the same one we just rode coming here. Only we were going back up it. You know. Headed back to Four Ways from here.”

They all nodded.

Assured, Doug said, “I was a little behind these three. We all took off together, one behind the other. We made the first turn, as usual, stood the bikes up for the short straight that follows and hit fourth gear on it. And into the left bend, we leaned. You know how it dips down and levels out just as you cross the bridge over the Crocodile River.”

They all nodded.

“Then the road curves left and heads along a short straight to the foot of the hill, the one with the blind corner at the top. It’s blind—coming and going. We had a big moment there this morning.” Doug paused, nodded to the Rider and everyone else nodded.

Doug waved as if clearing the air. “Anyway. These three here went into the blind corner first and close enough to each other’s taillights to look like a train. But that rider with his, ah, fiancée on board passed me and then them on the outside. I mean, he could ride. And two-up at that. Anyway. As you know, some say a foot shot out and kicked at his gear-lever and made contact.”

Number One made to protest, but Doug waved him silent and added, “So, his bike dropped down a gear, maybe two, the engine over-revved, broke, and flipped the bike in a rear-wheel-over-front-wheel somersault across the oncoming lane and spat them off into the trees. It’s said they must have died instantly.”

“Not so!” snarled Number One. “I remember it. I was right there on the white line. He and the girl were here, next to me. I’m thankful every day that it so lay on his line and not on mine.” And, his eyes darted, searching, perhaps for the hand of God to appear and ease his mind.

“What lay there?” asked the Rider.

“A rock,” replied Number One and he glared his hate at Doug and raised a fist. “This big it was.” And he paused then hurried on. “Listen to me. It’s a tight high-speed bend. You all so know that. You just raced it this morning, and something grim almost went down with you guys.” And he looked for agreement. Flat eyes and silence met his plea.

Number One took a deep breath. “It’s so a bad corner. I’m telling you death hangs out there. That guy leaned on me. Anyway, I saw him hit that rock, and his front wheel turned at about forty-five degrees. Of course, it was so in the air at that moment. When that front wheel dropped back down again the tire bit the road sideways, and his bike stopped dead. Only, at speed, it could never stop. Sad to say but the backend came up over the front. And that was the beginning-of-the-end for them both. Nothing anyone could do.” And silence descended.

And mother and child drifted closer; searching.

Doug’s face paled as Number One strode around to stand nose-to-nose with him. “We’ll wait down at the entrance to the Parking Lot, Dougie. Don’t keep me waiting!” And the Three turned to walk off but paused and looked over their shoulders and each smiled coldly.

The crowd had fallen silent. The air seemed bare of oxygen. Doug struggled to breathe. But what he heard next made him jerk as though stabbed through the heart.

“What if we do double or nothing,” the Rider quietly said.

“What?!” Number One said as his head swiveled, and his eyes burned into the Rider.

“Call Mo,” said the Rider. “Tell him it’s me. Tell him if any of you can beat either Doug or me back to Four Ways, you get double of what Doug owes. If you don’t, you get nothing, and Doug’s debt is paid, and the betting wins due to Doug are his too.”

And the Three grinned a dark harmony of ugly deeds done and those to come. “Call,” said Number One and licked his lips.

Number Two nodded and smiling gleefully headed for the payphone. Minutes later he returned, a massive grin on display. “Mo says he’s good with it.” He stepped closer and whispered in Number One’s ear, “The Rider and Doug don’t get to finish. That’s a tidal wave of winnings for Mo, and for us.”

Number One’s eyes lit up, and he glanced across at Doug and grinned wider, colder. Then his eyes slid over to the Rider, and his grin broadened. “You so got a deal,” he said and walked to Doug and leaned close. “Lessons learned, Dougie. You know? Lessons why no one knows our names. Some of those from so way back do. But they so can’t talk no more—understand? Don’t make us wait too long down at the entrance now, Dougie old buddy.”

The blood drained from Doug’s face, his hand motioned to protest involvement, to bow-out, but froze half done and never completed its plea. Knees and elbows hollow, he stumbled to his bike. And his racing heart told him that Number One had made it clear; Doug and the Rider were going to die on the road back.

His hands balled into tight fists, he placed them on the seat of his bike and leaned on it afraid his knees would give. The sun beat on his back, the dry grass smelt like hay and waved gently in the cool breeze blowing off the Dam.

He knew people were talking, but he heard no words. Shadows of riders clutching helmets strolled by. A mixture of voices drifted closer and touched him with words of warning.

About to stumble as best he could down to the Gate and negotiate a different deal with Number One, when a strange warmth slipped into his inner self. It drifted across his eyes, into his heart, touched his elbows, filled them, and eased his shaky knees.

Standing close behind him, and in a different and more commanding tone, the Rider said, “Doug. Don’t kick back. Just listen and do what I say.”

Too shattered, Doug could only nod.

“Close your eyes, Doug.”

And Doug recognized the voice! It was the same one that had earlier spoken to him as though it was inside him and despite feeling the need to ask why Doug nevertheless closed his eyes.

“Spread your hands on your bike’s saddle,” the Rider said.

“I can’t play games at times like this. Do you understand what they intend doing to us?”

“Yes,” the Rider said.

After hesitating, Doug asked, “What for?”

“The answer is in the doing, Doug,” the Rider replied.

“This is weird but…okay.”

“Now. Let your hands gentle along the saddle, the fuel tank, across the tailpiece, down the mudguard, around the tire, over the wheels and brake. Now along the exhaust pipes. Now where those pipes join to become one. Now over to the engine, the fuel tank again, the handlebars, down the mudguard. Now take the handgrips and clasp them gently. Good. Now grip the saddle again.”

As Doug did so, a strange tingle ran up his arms and into his head. It reminded him of those times he was on the starting grid waiting for the lights to change. And his knees and elbows firmed, his mind cleared, and his heart beat evenly again.

“With your eyes closed look down the insides of your arms and into your hands, Doug,” the Rider said.

And Doug jolted as the point of view inside his head moved. It was the one he normally looked at memories with. But now it drifted down into his hands; and there all was dark. Reddish dark.

“Keep a grasp of your saddle,” the Rider whispered. “Now slip that viewpoint out your hands and into the saddle. That’s right, Doug. Now. Slide it down through the saddle and into the engine and see the insides of your bike. Touch the metal particles, the rubber of the tires, the copper of the electrical wiring, the bodywork, the insides of the mudguards.”

But all Doug could see was darkness. In desperation, he tried imagining that he could see what the Rider asked of him. He worked at it for several minutes, and nothing. It was foolish, he gave up and accepted failure.

About to open his eyes and turn to the Rider, the close-up and personal odor of hot engine oil wafted by him, and he took a deep breath of it. It was oil alright.

And not just spots of it like on his workshop floor. Nor that oil odor that hung in the air around auto workshops. It was the same warm aroma he smelt every time he checked engine oil levels on a hot engine. But he knew it had to be impossible. “This is nonsense,” he said.

“It’s the beginning,” the Rider countered.

And that made Doug look inwardly and down again but all he saw was darkness. And straining to see with his eyes closed only hurt them.

“Keep looking,” said the Rider. “But not with your eyes. Those are for the outside world. Do this. Maybe it will help. Inside your mind get a picture of your bike. Examine it closely. See all its details.”

And that was easy, Doug figured. He’d often look his bike over mentally, and sometimes that revealed things he could improve. He examined it in detail and smiled inside.

There it stood leaned over on its side-stand. The black and yellow paintwork glowed and matched his leathers. Strange how he never saw it when riding or mounting. And he figured his bike was like an arm or leg. And those appendages he’d never examined when dressing and he realized that mounting his bike was akin to dressing.

And he noticed he was nodding and grinning with his eyes closed for his bike was real and almost as solid as the one his hands were touching. “I’m looking at it inside my…head,” he said, and there was a sense of awe to his voice.

“Great,” the Rider said. “Now carefully turn that point of view from looking at a picture of your bike and send it down your arms into your hands and into your bike.”

Doug pulled back and drifted his attention downwards. And a part of himself slid out from behind his eyes, down his arms and into his hands. Still wanting to protest he instead watched as the darkness grew lighter.

He blinked or thought he did, focused, and found himself looking at the internals of his bike’s engine. He blinked again, and the metal surfaces brightened up and glowed as if alive. Around him, silver sparks dashed by. Some paused and became drops of translucent metal.

They were water-like-drops glowing with light. He reached further in, and his heart sang a new song. “I can see inside my engine,” the lyrics said.

“How can that be?” his doubts asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“It’s not something one can do,” his doubts hissed.

“If that’s true,” he replied. “How can I see inside my bike’s engine if I can’t see inside it?”

His doubts had no response.

“Now, let’s see if I can make this work,” he said to himself. And like a kid in a swimming pool, Doug dipped into the warm oil languishing in the oil pan at the bottom of the engine. Leaping upwards he kissed the pistons and dove back into the oil and swam around as if in a swimming pool. “This works,” he said.

“It’s delusion,” replied his doubts.

Doug paused and thought on it. “It’s like racing but slower,” he said muttering. “No one believes they can go faster on a bike until they do.”

And reaching further into the internals of his bike, he made his way down to the spot where the front tire and the tar of the parking lot met. And he raced back up into the engine and danced in the oil and bounced back and forth between the pistons overhead and the oil below.

Contented he lay on his back looking up. Around him, drops of light fluttered like raindrops flying horizontally across the sky. Yet out there in the parking lot, he could feel his hands gripping the saddle.

And the drops of oil pelleted him and splashed across his face. But it was light splashing, not water, nor oil. And the light dripped off him and plopped back into the oil. And just before his doubts began to scream, he stopped at the edge of sanity and rocked on his heels.

His arms and legs shook, his brain was about ready to explode, his mouth opened, and he screamed, but there came no sound. He stopped the screams for they were inside of him only. And he touched the dark oil again and outside his hands pressed against a saddle warmed by the sun.

Behind him, the wind whispered through the trees as though a predator was present. Overhead the blue sky invited him to leap up and fly across it and escape. And he was ready to flee. He yearned to feel relief. That peace of mind that comes from no longer worrying about dying or being killed. And he braced ready to lunge upwards and leave this life. But a voice stopped him.

“Don’t retreat, Doug,” the Rider said.

And Doug held still. And the sky was still there, and his hands were still on the saddle, and inside the engine, a light glowed, the oil was warm, the metal sparkled. He reached out for them all, and his mind expanded moving closer to the point of utter and explosive disintegration. “I’ve gone mad,” he said to himself. “Will madness protect me from Mo?”

And reassurance came. “Now be the bike and yourself at the same time,” the Rider whispered.

Unable to stop himself, Doug looked all the way down inside himself. He paused and touched his heart and lived its beat. He dove into his veins and swam in his own blood, bounced around inside his lungs by moving up and down with the air of each breath he took. “Is this what those in the Hall of Fame can do?” he asked.

“Mount,” the Rider said ignoring the question.

Doug did so. And taking hold of the handgrips, he lifted the bike upright—and for the first time, his motorcycle was a featherweight in his hands. And that made him smile inside. “There’s something to this,” he murmured to himself.

His foot swung out and kicked the side-stand in. His hand inserted the key and turned it. He flipped the kill-switch back to alive and pressed the Start button. Inside the engine, he watched as the pistons moved up and down and he smiled with wonder at the flare of burning gasoline.

Blipping the throttle, the bike roared a challenge to any who would dare to race him. And the Rider dropped his hand from Doug’s shoulder and stepped aside. Doug placed his left foot onto the footrest, pulled the clutch lever in and feathered his bike into gear. “Test run,” he whispered.

With blinding speed, his foot moved from the footrest to the ground and back again. He repeated the test until something new came to him.

“You know,” he said to himself. “I don’t tell my feet nor my hands to move. I just see where, when, and how fast they should move.” And he leaned forward ducking his head below the windshield. He stayed hunched over for some minutes. Comfortable with himself and his bike, he sat upright and opened his eyes.

The Rider touched his elbow. “In the first two miles, practice steering and riding your bike like you controlled your foot.” Doug nodded and waited not sure if it had all been real. “Stay in my slipstream,” added the Rider. “Don’t leave it no matter what, except to brake.”

Doug nodded.

“Stay close,” the Rider said.

“How close?” Doug asked.

“About six to ten inches max.”

Doug nodded.

***

The Three grinned at them as they rode out the gate and onto the road. Many more than eight riders waited at the entrance to follow for the betting had been wild. And the news had made its way down the route. And the News Media and camera crews were still in place. The Three, Doug and the Rider spread out side-by-side and rode their bikes slowly until their front wheels passed the near gate post—the starting line.

And they roared off; five angry lions fighting over meal enough for one. Dipping and diving around each other they battled for the lead. Number One took the point, the power of his large 1100 engine too much for the others. His two friends moved into his slipstream, and all three began to pull away from Doug and the Rider.

Behind the Three, Doug managed to stay close. But when he checked over his shoulder, the Rider was far behind. And panic gripped him, and tunnel vision returned.

He fought its darkness. It clung to him. Yet he could feel the tingle of the handgrips through his leather gloves. And the wind roared around his ears. Inside the wind, his bike’s engine howled in four-part harmony.

Part one was the moan of air rushing in and mixing with gasoline. The second was the high-pitched whine of all the metal parts moving as one. The third came from the fuel mixture exploding. The fourth was the plaintive howl of his exhaust pipe.

He shook his head, and tunnel vision vanished as fast as it had come. And being one with his bike returned. He looked up and out ahead of the Three, and grimace.

A string of cars, pickups, and motorcycles headed towards them. He checked behind. The Rider was a little closer now that the power of the newer bikes’ accelerating from low speeds was over.

Still, he was too far back. And Doug looked ahead for he knew there was an obstacle in the road. Usually, he’d avoid it by switching into the oncoming lane, but traffic filled it—there were enough vehicles coming towards them to force them to stay on their side of the road.

They would have to jump the obstacle.

It was far off enough, and they had time to prepare.

Ahead of him, the Three spread apart in preparation. And Doug could see it, and it was higher than before.

It was a natural speedbump crossing the road that had formed when a large tree root grew outwards under the road. It began at the curb and went across his lane.

And as he did every Breakfast Run, Doug hoped the tarmac along the top of the bump had not split open to create a gaping mouth and two sharp lips to snag at a bike’s tires. His fingers curled around the brake lever ready to slow down.

Ahead of him, the Three braked well before it. Doug slowed at the same time while looking some three hundred yards beyond the speedbump.

There waited the ninety-degree corner he loved and in which rocks and cow dung often waited for the unwary. He slowed a little and the Rider shot by him as though there was no speed bump waiting. The Rider’s brake light had not lit up either.

“He’s done for,” Doug said. “Those old brakes have failed.” And he said a quick prayer.

The Rider flew by the Three who took fright and braked harder afraid of crashing into the Rider when he fell. Doug took advantage and passed the Three but kept well back of the Rider. Nearer the speedbump, he braked again but made sure he was still faster than the Three. And it struck him that with the Rider about to go down, winning the race fell on his shoulders alone. Prepared to swerve around the Rider a shock jolted him.

The Rider ramped over the speed bump standing up on the footrests like they do racing Motocross. Doug jumped the hump and slowed for the corner. Still, the Rider’s brake lights hadn’t lit up. Doug waited for the fall.

In the last instant, the Rider braked hard, turned into the bend, curved through it, and powered out. Amazed, Doug followed. As he exited the corner, the Rider looked back and pointed to the slipstream. Doug nodded, caught up and moved into it figuring they would alternate who leads.

Each time the one in the slipstream pulls out and moves to the front, the little faster they’d go. And Doug hoped it would work. If he and the Rider got well ahead of the Three, they just might be able to pull away and win outright. But the 1100 engine in Number Three’s bike had a lot more power than his and the Rider’s.

And Doug murmured as he’d done when he started his racing career. “It’s all or nothing.”

A glance over his shoulder revealed the Three were in his slipstream. It was to be a close race. And Doug feared what was coming; the play by the Three to end his life and that of the Rider.

Regret touched him, and he promised he’d never get into the same troubles again. But he knew he’d just lied to himself. And he smiled at the latter. It was a first, and perhaps his recognizing it was a step into a new future. And focusing, he turned thinking off and concentrated on racing.

The handlebars buzzed in his hands. The suspension rode the rough spots, and the bad ones made the handlebars shake before settling. The air was hot. The smell of leaves and dry African soil so sandy-thick it caught in the back of his throat. The echoes of five exhaust pipes beating against each other hurt his ears each time he lifted his head.

Comfortable in the seat he relaxed as a long straight vanished beneath their wheels. The howl of exhaust pipes echoed against the wall of roadside trees and bushes.

Like a snake, they strung out one behind the other. Hurtling through fast sweeping bends and leaned over so far it was a miracle of skill and tires that their bikes didn’t lose traction and slide out from beneath them.

Braking hard and with handgrips shuddering in his grip, the Rider led as they leaned over into the third gear corner. Doug edged closer and tucked into the Rider’s slipstream. The Three followed. Number One drifted into Doug’s slipstream and the other two into his. They flew through the left-hander and roared across the bridge crossing the Crocodile River. Spectators along both sides cheered.

Flying up the long hill to the blind corner at the top, Number One figured his engine’s extra capacity should drive him past Doug and the Rider. He pulled out of Doug’s slipstream, but the headwind was too much, and he dipped back into it. Spectators leaned into the road and waved them on.

Doug and the Rider held the lead headed for the blind bend where years ago that Rider and his fiancée had died. The same corner they’d almost met with death earlier that morning. All five of them tucked in tighter on their bikes. Number One was as close to Doug as Doug was to the Rider. And the wind roared inside their helmets. And the sun flashed on and off through the trees.

And that fog followed; ever waiting, waiting.

At the blind corner Number One missed the entry point by a fraction, drifted a little wide and lost the slipstream. Doug and the Rider at once opened a bike-length on him. Concerned for the two following him, Number One glanced into his rearview mirror and almost fell off his bike. Some fool of a Rider was trying to overtake him and his friends.

Number One searched for the eyes of both the passenger and the one riding, but the sun reflected off their visors and hid them from view. And he grinned coldly. “A side dish,” he muttered and recheck his mirrors.

Behind him, Number Two and Three were in his slipstream. He nodded to them and looked back ahead. The Rider and Doug were still close but a little blurred. He blinked, but there was no improvement. He figured his windshield was bug splattered and raised his head enough to see over it, but it made no difference.

He glanced sideways. That Rider was still next to him. His inner snarl came alive. “Damned fool trying to interfere when we’re so racing.”

And he resolved to deal with it, and in that instant, everything slowed down for him. He sighed, opened the throttle a little, and all three bikes leaped forward and closer to Doug.

Doug glanced at the rear tire of the Rider’s bike and jolted as he realized he could make out the rippled threads of melted tire rubber along the edges. And they both drifted towards the white divider line, and Doug smiled at the odor of hot tires slipping on the asphalt. He hugged his bike and brought his attention back in and down his arms and legs and into his own bike.

Beneath him, everything was working smoothly. Ahead, the rear wheel of the Rider was a mere six inches away. He smiled at that as they leaned over a little further.

“Yes,” he whispered. “I know what you’re doing.  You know what I’m doing. So, in a race, it comes down to who does it the best.” And a sense of awe touched him, and his bike shook beneath him as it hit an imperfection on the road.

He firmed his grip on the handgrips, bent his elbows a little, lifted his weight off the seat, and hugged the bike with his knees, and noted it hadn’t happened to the Rider.

“Why?” he asked himself.

And a mental thunderclap struck him; the Rider never sat down on the saddle. He was always standing on the footrests, bent forward. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered. “It doesn’t matter what his bike does. His weight isn’t on top of it because he rarely sits down in the saddle.”

And Doug lifted off the saddle and stood on the footrests. “Damn,” he growled and clamped his knees against the sides of the fuel tank.

Glancing into the mirror, Doug noted Number Three had dropped back a few bike lengths though not enough to be out of the race. And he turned his attention back ahead and settled into his rhythm.

And that mother and child sensed it and moved closer hovering over the five bikers. Yes. The feast was about to begin. And they smiled as the reward for their patience was set to play its hand.

Number Three checked his mirror and snarled, “Damn fool! What do you think you’re doing? Would you just go away?”

But that Rider passing him didn’t go away and edged up alongside him. Snarling his frustration, Number One drifted his bike towards the one trying to pass him, but the passer didn’t flinch, nor budge, nor brake. Checking his rearview mirror, Number One made eye contact with the two behind him. They glanced at the rider and his passenger trying to pass them and nodded agreement.

They edged closer to the passing bike, and Number One’s foot kicked out at the passers gearlever. “Damn,” he muttered as he missed and fought to keep his bike steady.

Again, he kicked. Still, he missed. Infuriated, he slid his bike right next to the passing rider. He glanced into his rearview mirror. His two friends were still in his slipstream. He kicked hard. And the solid thud of contact was like winning a championship and far more gratifying than the time before.

His breath rasped in and out. The loud thunder of a bike rolling over and over and the screams of tearing metal was, he decided, the most intriguing sound he’d ever heard. The sudden and strange sense of peace that embraced him was itself mind-boggling. It was like riding on a cloud but more satisfying than any ride ever.

“The racer’s high,” he said to himself and understood why everything had slowed for him.

Mother and child embraced the dying and hugged the screams of metal on road. Their arms entwined the glows of life that slipped free of entrapment. And they feasted without reservation. When done, little of the life remained.

Number Three glanced over his shoulder and found his faithful friends were still behind and had crawled back into his slipstream. They rocketed onwards chasing Doug and the Rider who were just a little ahead. They grinned with evil delight at the thought of being the first to arrive at Four Ways. No, the only three to arrive at Four Ways.

But they couldn’t get any closer. Number One’s anger rose tight in his throat at how easily Doug and the Rider drifted away and off into the distance ahead. But they sped onwards willing themselves to catch the leading two, and to take the lead, and to see to it that both Doug and the Rider crashed as Mo had demanded.

And then they’d race onwards to take the win. Number Three wanted it in so many ways, and he knew that Mo would be wild with rage if they lost. They urged their bikes to higher speeds. But coming around a bend, their hearts sank. It was clear that having lost the slipstream of the two ahead, there was no chance of catching up.

The spectators along the way paid no attention to them now. Not even when Number One waved at someone he’d recognized. “I’ll so have me a little word with that one soon as we settle with Dougie and that Rider at Four Ways.” He grinned at the thought of how much pain they would put Doug and the Rider in.

And for a long time, that pain would haunt them and so teach them a lesson. And then Doug would get the final payment, and it wasn’t going be as fast and easy as first promised.

In a tight trio, the Three crested a hill and the road ahead was empty, desolate. A little further ahead was a dip in the road. A strange mixture of light and cloud hung there. Overhead, the sky was hazy with dust. To their left towered a high kopje; a hill. From the top of it, Number One knew you could see Four Ways off in the distance.

And an urge touched him.

Its impulse took him and knowing they had lost and in no hurry to deal with Mo, he waved, all three pulled over and parked their bikes under some trees right where the road dipped. Leaves fluttered in the breeze as they removed their helmets and looked upward. The sun was warm on their sweat-soaked faces and hair.

As one they sighed quietly and making their way around the bushes and trees, they headed up the kopje together. There they sat atop a large rock and gazed down at Four Ways off in the distance. With the wind blowing away from them they couldn’t hear the sirens but did see the police cars, and ambulances headed towards them.

They high fived and chuckled.

Sitting quietly, contented and at ease, their eyelids gradually grew heavy with the fatigue of racing on public roads. But that incredible wellbeing and its strange sense of detachment clung to them, and they sighed again.

“Man. I’m feeling the racer’s calm,” Number One murmured and grinned figuring the Rider and Doug would be walking on eggs until he and his two faithful friends came knocking; assuming he and his friends survived Mo’s wrath. But for now, thoughts of Mo didn’t bother him too much.

The sun was nice and warm, the breeze refreshing, and as one they drifted off, and Number One smiled and glanced at his two life-long friends. The sunlight reflecting off the rocks and bushes glowed around them as though they were ghosts caught in the light of day. But then, that’s what the African sun often does.

The other two smiled in return, and their eyes came alive with something he couldn’t quite figure. And he realized he was feeling it himself. It was a joy like none before. Rapture accompanied by a sense of weightlessness as if one were drifting on a cloud, but there were no clouds.

He glanced downwards, and there was now a large crowd gathered around Four Ways intersection. “So many came to see us win,” he murmured into the gentle wind that caressed his face.

And he could smell the dried grass and trees and felt a touch of chilly air that had somehow found its way to them from the far-off Dam. It raised goosebumps on his arms. They smiled about that and made themselves comfortable, closed their eyes, and nodded off.

***

Headed into Four Ways intersection, the Rider sat up before reaching the large crowd that had gathered. Doug, keeping in the slipstream, sat up and pulled back from that close association with the Rider. It felt odd, disconnecting, it left him feeling like he’d lost a bit of himself or perhaps left some behind in the Rider, or inside his bike.

Police lights flashed. Red Ambulance lights flashed, and sirens howled as they drove by headed towards the Dam.

Doug slowed down, but the Rider pointed, and Doug steered back in and close behind. For a long moment, the entire crowd stared at them. Recognition crossed faces as the Rider slowed and the crowd parted like a curtain.

They rode through it, pulled up to the storefront, cut their engines, kicked the side-stands out, leaned their bikes over, stepped off, and removed their gloves, and helmets.

Several riders in the crowd who had gathered to see what the fuss was about, glanced at Doug and the Rider and their eyes widened with disbelief.

One whispered, “Did I just see shadows of those two slip out their bikes and back into them like ghosts or something?” But no one cared to answer.

Doug shook the Rider’s hand. “Thanks, I really needed that win.”

The Rider nodded and the payphone began ringing.

Picking it up the Rider said, “Hello, Mo.”

“You done me this time,” Mo replied.

“I know. Can you at least get away?”

“No. Too late. Didn’t expect this.” And the crash of a door kicked-in echoed across the phone line. Shouting Mo said, “You knew I’d have to borrow to make this play. Did you plan it?”

But the sound of gunfire came before the Rider could reply. He hung up and gazed off northwards, and a strange sadness touched him. “You know Mo? A life with dirty-hands often ends in a messy death.”

And he stared off across the grass towards the hills that lay between Four Ways and the Dam. And he sensed that he may never see them again. And a deeper sadness filled him. “Just one more thing to do,” he whispered to himself.

Doug came out of the store and handed him a soda. He took it, and they drank. After watching the crowd a few minutes, the Rider offered his hand.

Doug shook it and said, “I’m headed out of here. Not a clever idea to be here when the Three arrive. They don’t like losing. They deal with it…you know?”

“Yes.”

“Ah? You did something for me today. Something I don’t think I would ever have figured out. Something I have no way of thanking you for. The only wish, hope really, is that we never meet on the racetrack.”

The Rider nodded, smiled.

Doug rode off waving at all the fans who chanted his name. After the sound of Doug’s motorcycle faded, the Rider mounted and rode away.

And the eyes of the fans followed him, and their ears listened to the haunting howl of his exhaust pipe long after a dip in the road hid him from view. And they held their breath until that howl faded and a strange silence fell over Four Ways intersection. And it felt as though a unique life had left and would never return.

***

The Rider parked his bike in his garage as he always did. Waiting for it to cool, he turned the portable TV on, sat down and watched.

“A breaking story,” said the announcer. “This morning on the road back from the Dam to Four Ways intersection something terrible, strange, and tragic happened. We are fortunate to be able to show the incident thanks to those who were present and had cameras rolling.”

The Rider inserted a VHS tape and turned Record on.

After shaking his head sadly, the announcer continued. “Note the five motorcycles heading up a hill and into a corner at the crest. Now, the two leading this bike-train pull slightly ahead of the other three. Now watch the three. See how the leader is looking at something next to him and a little behind him.

“Now he moves his bike towards where he keeps glancing. And there it is. You see. Okay. Run that again. Okay. Good. Slowly. Watch how the leader of the three kicks out. And again, he kicks. Now he moves over further. And he kicks harder. And his foot slams into the surface of the road and that pulls him off his motorcycle.

“Slower. Now there. There is the shadow that he may have kicked at. But as far as we can tell it’s just a loss of light across the lens of the camera. Perhaps as those bikers passed beneath an overhanging tree, the light diminished. It seemed a lot like a small cloud—as some claim. Or perhaps a lingering mist. The focus is too foggy to see it clearly.”

The Rider leaned closer to the TV his eyes sharpened into racing-like concentration. And he smiled a cold hard one.

“Roll it,” the announcer cried out. “His motorcycle somersaults! The two behind smash into him and his fallen bike. Horrific! What for? Why? Why waste life? I don’t know. None of those three lifelong friends survived. Why? Tragic! These Sunday riders need to stay off the stuff they’re on. Those three must have been on drugs. But wait. Just handed to me. A gangster known only as Mo found shot to death in his home today. The police suspect a drug war has begun. There’s no good news this morning, folks. None at all!”

The Rider covered his bike with a tarp, placed the portable TV on the rear seat of his six-year-old car, picked fresh flowers from the garden and placed them on the front seat, backed out, and drove off.

He turned into a cemetery and parked at a double grave and set the TV down at the foot of it. After replacing the old flowers with fresh ones, he turned the TV on. “Watch this,” he said.

He sat in silence as it ran. Overhead, the rolling clouds cast strange lines across his face as though it was severely scarred. When the sequence of the shadow drifting across the camera’s lens played, he froze the picture and leaned closer to the TV screen, smiled coldly, and played it slowly.

Inside the misty shadow, he saw the vague image of a motorcycle, it’s Rider and a passenger. Number One kicked out at them, and they turned and looked at him. And the wind lifted their helmet visors and revealed two skeletal faces.

And Number One’s foot jerked wildly and slammed into the road pulling him off his motorcycle. And the two behind crashed into him. And there came the screams of tearing metal and the dull thuds of death. And for an instant, a strange misty light flashed several times then vanished. The Rider turned it off and sat a few minutes in silence.

“Thank you for allowing me to see you once again. You always had a way of being hard to find when you didn’t want to be found. Not exactly your best picture though.” And he smiled, and a weight lifted off his shoulders. It was like a black cloud, filled with grief and terrible loss. And it floated away into the sky and joining the clouds it dissolved into them.

Standing up the Rider said, “I won’t be coming back for a while. I think I may take a bike ride across the Namib desert or up into Botswana. Anyway, I know I promised, but the World Superbike Championship doesn’t interest me right now. Seeing the Namib does. Other places too.”

And looking to the sky the scars on his face slowly faded away and he smiled as he had last done many, many years ago.

He packed the TV away, placed the VHS tape into a waterproof envelope and laid it down next to the flowers. Done, he sat close to the gravestone and stared off across the Highveld. “Well, little sister—it’s over.”

He stood up and looked to the distant hills baking in the African sun. A cloud rolled by. He shivered. A wild clap of summer thunder ripped across the rows of graves, and the light around the gravestones brightened momentarily, then dimmed. “Goodbye to you sis…and to this man who you loved and died with. Wish I’d known him. Adieu.”

As he turned away, a strange warm dampness touched the back of his neck. Placing a hand on it, he felt a sudden twinge. For an instant, the sunlight dimmed as though filtered. Then the light turned soft and warm as it often does just before a summer shower.

Exiting the cemetery, large drops of rain splattered across his windshield. He rolled the window down and stuck his arm out. After driving for a few miles, he pulled his arm back in and found it covered in red welts where hail had hit. And it made him smile.

***

Out across the thorn bush covered hills mother and child drifted skywards and satiated, slowly evaporated. And as the last wisps faded there appeared inside a cave hidden behind jagged rocks a strange and linger ball of mist.

And as the light glanced off the rocks into the cave that mist glowed a little and inside it grew a tiny spot darker than the whole. It was the first drop of a second mist growing, and its mother smiled.

***

Joe waited for the Rider every weekend after that, but he never turned up. Doug signed a new contract. One that promised if he won the championship it was off to Europe and the World Superbike. The agreement forbade him from riding the Breakfast Run though. And he won that year’s championship hands down.

“So, Champ,” Joe said as he shook Doug’s hand and admired the Championship cup Doug was hugging. “The Rider retired as the breakfast run champion. You leave as the local superbike champion headed for Europe.”

Doug nodded, looked wistful. “He did.”

“Wouldn’t it be something if he’s headed there too?”

“I doubt it,” Doug said a thoughtful expression crossing his face. “He’s something else. There’s a courage you need out on the Breakfast Run. A special one. On a racetrack, it’s much safer, Joe. Takes more to survive the road to the Dam riding at or over the one-hundred-and-twenty percent limit. That’s over the edge for others…is what that means.”

Joe nodded and looked Doug in the eye. “Something more happened that morning…Doug?”

Doug nodded, and his eyes turned to the horizon as though he could be there and with Joe at the same time.

Joe stepped closer. “You’re suddenly riding and winning like a future Hall of Famer. Something changed that morning despite that you lost twice. You’ve raised your skills to a whole new level. Come on, tell me.”

Doug nodded and said, “I’ll tell you this much. Not once during the race back to Four Ways did the Rider invite me to move out his slipstream and take the lead. Not once! Only later did it come to me that his bike was much faster than mine at top speed. I learned a lot that morning.”

“What did you learn, Doug?”

And Doug smiled and looked to a cloudless blue sky.

“You not going to tell me?” Joe asked.

And Doug nodded.

“That’s it? A nod.”

Doug nodded again.

“Well. Okay. I can settle for that seeing as you scare the hell out me with all this listening you’re doing. Care to explain, Doug?”

“Just a little, Joe. You see…if you can be something or someone so much that you and it or him or her are one for all intents and purposes, if only briefly. But at the same time, you can still see yourself as different from it, and you can spread out to become all that’s around you as well…who knows what barriers one would obliterate.”

“Lot of words to say nothing at all,” Joe said looking displeased and genuinely peeved.

Doug grinned, took Joe’s arm, and headed off into the future. “I suspect Joe, that what I’ve described may be the starting point of new skills for people—all people. But that’s maybe. And only time will tell.”

END

#Rights4ever