Christopher Wren slumped at the wheel of his leased Jeep Wrangler, looking at the still tableau of the bikers' bar set against the purplish Utah night. Red and white neon in the window announced Budweiser, King of Beers. An air conditioning flap clicked repetitively like a high, strange pulse, next to the single red dot of a functioning CCTV. Stars wheeled lazily above, insects burred and clicked, and in back the red tracer rounds of receding cars sped by on I-70.
Wren squeezed the bridge of his nose. He'd been driving for weeks, on interstate highways when the mood took him, on dirt roads through little desert towns when it didn't, through forests and canyons and empty American plains, looking for something he hadn't yet found. There was a fog in his head that wouldn't clear, that time and distance couldn't shake. Perhaps this place was what he needed.
The Brazen Hussy.
The bar's name shone with a yellow backlight. Ten large black bikes were parked neatly out front like dutiful hounds. He knew the makes and the plates, some Harley and some Triumphs, and in the fuzzy halogen glow of the bar's one security light, he registered the gang decal on their tail fins; a blue skull with blond dreads and a hammer of Thor.
Vikings. They were a mid-sized chapter based across five states, involved mostly in drugs, underage porn and low-level human trafficking. Dry figures and facts rose up from the last debrief he'd got; their rank amongst other biker gangs, the roads they claimed as their own, their affiliations with white power organizations. The Brazen Hussy was their central Utah chapterhouse.
He killed the engine and stepped out of the Jeep. The blacktop of the lot was hot even through his Mulberry loafers, pitted and scratchy with gravel. For a moment he stood in the dark, letting his eyes adjust to the warm night breeze, redolent with the ozone smell of the desert, the green sap of blooming cacti, and the acrid waft of gasoline. He thought about ripping up a shirt and weaving it into a turban, so there could be no misunderstanding at all. It would be good if he had his full beard, more than this scraggly stubble; but he had what he had.
A brown man walks into a white supremacist biker bar in Utah; like a joke. The punchline was coming, and he walked toward it. The Jeep's locks clicked and he tossed the keys casually into a puddle of shadow at the bar's side. After a moment's thought he took out his wallet and did the same thing, extracting only three crunchy ten-dollar bills. His heart beat hard; this stuff never got easier.
He pulled open the door. Inside it was dark, hot, and smelled like a used boxing glove; fermented sweat mingling with cracked leather and grease. All eyes swung to him, and he scanned them in turn, taking in the details even as he made for the bar, feet sticking on the stained vinyl flooring. Half the space was cordoned off; in the shadows beyond lay a stage with a strippers' pole, not tonight. Along the back wall five men were gathered round a pool table with torn blue felt, downlit by the table's lamp. Three wore their chapter jackets despite the residual heat, as if the struggling AC was doing a far better job. One was stripped to a white wifebeater, late-twenties and showing off pale muscles written with Celtic cross tattoos.
These would-be patch members; made men in the world of organized bike gangs. They looked at him with a mix of aggression and surprise. Probably this had never happened before, a sheep striding into their den.
Wren walked up to the bar. On the wall they'd hung white power memorabilia: the Confederate flag, the Don't Tread on Me serpent, a large Viking seal, a swastika Stars and Bars, a cheap-looking painting of a rosy KKK knight atop his white charger.
"I love what you've done with the place," Wren said.
The bar girl glared at him. Two bikers at the bar, mid-aged with long ZZ Top beards and leather jackets grayed-out by the sun, just stared at him, like there was no way to compute his presence here.
"I'll take a Bud," Wren said.
"I ain't serving you," said the bar girl. She was young, twenty-two maybe, wearing her bleached blond hair in natty sideshot pigtails, with a hint of meth-mouth visible in the redness round her lips. Wren looked at her and read a lifetime of coming last. Last at school, last at home, last in life.
"Why not? You clearly need the money."
Her mouth snapped open to respond, but one of the bikers raised a quieting hand. "That's all right, Liza. City boy here's got a smart mouth. Nice Jeep, too." He pointed a finger at the CCTV screen in the bar's back. "What are you, some kind of banker out of Salt Lake, getting rich off the Jew bailout?"
Wren looked at the guy; late forties with the scarred cheeks of a bare-knuckle boxer, now subtly slipping on a silver knuckleduster beneath the bar. Possibly a gang enforcer; the muscle who kept the gang protected.
"Banking of a kind," Wren said, looking him in his blue eyes. "Collecting old debts, mostly. I specialize in reparations."
The boxer laughed.
"I'll buy one for you," said Wren, "and your boyfriend there too."
The guy next to the boxer looked surprised.
"This is a gay bar, right?" Wren went on, feigning uncertainy. "I thought, all the leather? Of course, I'm not judging."
The boxer laughed, but the edge was there and building. "Boy, you must be high. I guess we should go easy for that. How you feel, Jug, shall we go easy?" He patted the hefty shoulder of the man at his side.
Jug was younger, early thirties, wearing a few metal studs in his face with a gang tattoo on his shaved skull. He wasn't a ranking member, Wren figured; not from the redness around the tat. He was a prospect at the bottom, on probation for full-blood membership.
"Not that easy," said Jug, and stood. He was a big guy, maybe a linebacker once, but far along the road to fat. Wren read the desperation all over him. Bench three hundred pounds and carry close to that in his gut, or he soon would; living off roadkill, exhaust and fast food, dreaming of becoming a respected rider in the mid-ranks, though that would never happen. Wren saw the lack of conviction in his eyes, and took it into account.
Jug strode down the bar, circling around to take up a seat on Wren's right and cutting off his exit.
"You breed them fat out here," Wren said, admiring Jug's girth. "So this is the real America, huh?"
The boxer rested his left fist on the bar top, no longer hiding the knuckleduster. "You've got a real hard-on for this, boy. How do you think it's going to go?"
Wren sighed. Sometimes the build-up to violence made him tired. How much more honest was it just to walk up and punch someone in the face? "It depends how much of a pussy you are, and how many guys here are wearing steel toe boots."
"Steel toe boots," mused the boxer, turning his knuckleduster so it scraped on the bar. "Makes a difference, I suppose. You been beatdown a lot? You get a thrill out of it?"
"This isn't therapy," said Wren, "get on with it."
The guy shot a look to his group around the pool table. They were all watching. He smiled. "Fine, but first I gotta know just what kind of mongrel you are. Wetback? Raghead? All these shit browns blur into one."
"I'm a goddamn rainbow," Wren said. "Mexico by way of Pakistan. It's your lucky day."
The boxer licked his lips, like he was about to tuck into a juicy steak. "And Muslim?"
"Once upon a time. I'm an apostate now. Anything else you need to know?"
"I think that'll do. Jug."
Jug laid a heavy hand on Wren's shoulder. Wren looked up at him while the boxer padded over, and saw through the desperation to the sadness.
Probably his name was Boyd. Maybe he'd been cool in High School but wanted more out of life now. He wasn't smart, and for all his white privilege he'd just landed at a junk food drive-thru, spraying ketchup for college kids. His own kids, if he had any, found him an embarrassment. The tattoo and piercings were an active decision to stop being a loser and get out of the trailerpark.
It was funny. The one thing they never told you when you joined a gang was the truth: we want you because you're a loser. Trust us, we know, because we're losers too.
"What's your real name, Jug?" Wren asked, clamping his own hand over Jug's. It was rough-knuckled with eczema. "Is it Boyd?"
Then the boxer threw his punch. Wren kicked hard off the bar with his left foot just as the knuckleduster arced in, a sweeping haymaker left. His stool rocked back and he fell out of the blow's range, but his hand on Jug's jerked the fat man straight down into it. There was a toothy crunch as the boxer followed through and Jug's mouth splattered in blood, then Wren hit the floor and rolled.
"Shid!" Jug shouted, clamping his hand to his mouth. The boxer wheeled, shock on his face but holding up his guard and taking a step in. The guys at the pool table moved. Wren rose smoothly to his feet, maybe ten seconds ahead of the five of them, and fired a vicious kick to the boxer's groin.
It landed perfect and bent him double; Wren followed with a jump-knee cracking into his forehead, dropping him like a boneless sack of fat. No MMA training for him. At the same time Jug roared through a mouth full of broken teeth and charged. Bareknuckle fights in Kabul had prepared Wren well; he slipped the first and rammed the fat man's belly with his shoulder, blowing the air out of Jug's lungs. While he gasped and bent double, Wren sped around and planted a firm push kick into his wide ass.
Jug tumbled into the five patch members as they closed in, pulling two down with him and knocking a table in the way of another. While they dealt with that, Wren smoothly slipped Jug's wallet into the back of his waistband; palmed in the charge.
"You all wanna see my Koran?" he asked, then the first pool cue came in. It was the guy in the wifebeater, muscles rippling and rage on his face. He had to be their road captain. Wren got a hand up and the cue broke over his forearm, whipping across his vision trailing blood. He sent a straight right but he was off-balance and the captain bulled through it, following up with an elbow into Wren's chin that sent him down.
After that he was done. Wren lay in their midst, rolling and flexing where he could, covering his face and eyes, taking the beatdown as they worked out their rage on him blow after blow. They stamped, and spat, and kicked, and it was good.
Finally the fog in Wren's head began to clear. He deserved all this and more.