It was one of those days. The gang fight at Block 98, home of the Midnight Riders Motorcycle Club, was the talk of every alley, tenement, and dark shadow. The fight looked to be a straight-up turf war between the Riders and the Aces. Somehow a third gang became involved, one new to the streets. Rumor has it they’re an all-girl gang called the Bees. Everything else is rumor and guesses made worse by the fog of gossip.
Every customer visiting my tattoo parlor has their ideas about what went down. None of them the same. Now, I try to keep my business neutral between the various biker gangs, some them are my best customers. It’s not easy, but this means I do have hooks into each of them. So, while the streets mull over rumor I take my Harley to find the truth.
My first stop is Block 98, a dive bar on the west side where it all went down. It’s a typically seedy place in a run-down neighborhood. It is, however, the only cement block building in sight. Dreary. No windows. It’s one door races the walls to see who will be the first to shed their ancient layers of paint. No one knows what the 98 means, no one really cares.
To my surprise, there were cops everywhere. Street fights between rival gangs usually garner little attention. I knew things were bad when I saw the yellow “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape. I spy one of my customers, a city cop I know as Chad who is guarding a spot on the line. I wheel up and cut the Harley’s rumble.
“What’s up Chad?” I ask.
“I can’t tell you much Red, we’re under orders to keep it quiet until the next of kin are notified,” Chad replies.
“So, someone kicked off? Still, it’s a lot of cops and brass for a gang brawl, even if one did die. Can you tell me how many died and which gang?”
“Sorry, no. Orders.”
“Anyone else get hurt?”
“A few of the Midnight Riders were taken to St. Luke’s and a couple of Aces to Methodist. The Captain ordered it that way in case there was any fight left in them.”
I wanted to ask more but my radar told me that I was making the brass nervous. The Harley rumbled back to life and I steered it towards downtown where both hospitals sit within spitting distance of each other.
Somewhere between Perry and Adams I decide to steer towards Methodist first. No particular reason other than the twisties heading onto their campus. The Aces are a rough and tumble gang with more bark than bite. Something must have set them off to tackle the Midnight Riders on their home turf.
I hate ERs. If you’re not sick yet, you’re guaranteed to catch the latest bug before you leave. Bad for business, no one wants a skin artist with a runny nose to ink them. Luckily one of the Aces is right inside the door and I was able to pull him outside. Spider is mid-level in their organization. He’s their procurer of slightly used parts at a discount. Ok, he’s a thief. But he’s always paid for my services so we’re square.
“How bad was it Spider?”
“Pretty normal slugfest, a few broken noses, cuts and such.” He chuckles before continuing, “Slash broke his hand. He swung at one of the Riders and missed. His fist tried to KO a post. The post won.”
“Ouch. Cops said someone died, one of yours?” I ask.
“Naw, we were having a good time of it when a bunch of chicks show up and try to break up the fun. One of them went down. You say she died? That’s bad business.”
“I’m not sure who died but the cops are all over it. So, who started it?” I ask.
“You know how these things go Red. They do something on our turf, we do something on theirs. No starting, just continuing.”
“Yep, I hear you. Any idea where the girl gang came from? Who they are?”
“I didn’t get a good look. Once the gun went off we all bugged out. Don’t even bother asking about the gun, I only heard it. A lot of us were packing but it’s like a rule, fists, knives, and clubs. Hurt but don’t kill.”
“Thanks man,” I say closing our little session with a fist bump. Spider confirmed much that I had already suspected but the big questions remained. Who is this new all-girl gang, why did they show up, and exactly what happened?
Ten minutes later I’m outside St. Luke’s ER trying to build up another batch of courage. I hope to catch a Midnight Rider like I did Spider. No such luck. Walking through the waiting room I spy Ranger in a dark corner by the vending machines. Ranger is Midnight Rider’s top dog and he has the scars to prove it. I know because I’ve inked him more than once. The Ranger I see is not the Ranger I know. He’s always big and alert. You know he’s in the room, everyone does. But at this moment he looks small and defeated, slumped in a dark corner on a hard-plastic chair.
“It’s all my fault,” I hear him mutter as I slide into the seat next to him.
“Hey Ranger, you ok?” I ask.
“No, yes. I’m not hurt if that’s what you mean,” Ranger says looking up. “Hey Red.”
“What’s your fault? What happened?”
Now biker gang leaders and tears don’t go together but that’s the sight I see. “Come on man, tell me about it. It’s ok.”
“It’s all my fault. She’s gone, one of the few who ever cared is gone.” Ranger sobbed.
Now my counseling skills are zero. I’m a poop or get off the pot kind of person with no patience and darn little compassion. Those are a required skill set in my line of work. But I had another one of those vision things like Ray’s tattooed heart. It was just a glimpse but I saw a grandma type sitting on Ranger’s other side cradling his head.
“Was it your grandma? I don’t get it?” I stammer.
“I never knew my grandparents or my parents. Not my real ones anyway.” He paused and then chuckled. “Yeah, I guess she is, was, a bit like I imagined a grandma to be.”
“Go on,” I encourage.
“Where to start? Let me think,” Ranger mutters.
“I was riding solo one Saturday morning a few months back, trying to clear my head by taking country roads. I’d heard there were some twisties not far off the river road.”
“Yeah, that’s it. If you’ve ridden it then you know it dumps you out on top of the bluff with nothing but straight flat prairie roads in front of you. I just kept going and found a good stretch for a flat out run to see what the bike could give me. It topped out at over 110 but the bike didn’t like it. She started running rough and I managed to limp her into a place called Fairlawn.”
“Never heard of it.”
“No reason you should have. It may have been something before the railroad pulled out but now there’s only a handful of small houses and an old church. There were a few cars at the church so I figured it was the best place to find a phone.”
“No cell phone?”
“No. I hate those things, just one interruption after another. Anyway, sure enough the church is unlocked. When I step in I hear laughter. Like angels laughing that I’d dare to set foot in God’s house. I’ve always bragged that when I show up at the pearly gates God will laugh as He throws me to hell.”
Ranger pauses a beat.
“I told myself to pull it together and find the people. The laughter led me to the basement. Around a table sat seven older ladies sewing a quilt. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The pattern was amazing. All blues and white with hundreds of triangles and squares arranged to look like a lion. They didn’t see me so I fake coughed to get their attention. I must have been a menacing sight. Black leathers, biker gloves, and my bald head covered by a flaming skull dew rag. ‘I’m looking for a phone.’ I growled. One of them came over and introduced herself as Anne.”
“There’s a phone in the kitchen, cell service doesn’t work out here,” Anne offered. “Would you like some breakfast strudel and some coffee?”
“Sure, I guess so,” I muttered. “That’s some beautiful work,” I said pointing at the quilt.
“Red, you know I like designing. I made our logo and drew several of the tatts you’ve done. That quilt was something.”
“We call ourselves the Bees, as in quilting bee. This quilt is going to an orphanage in Ukraine that our church partners with,” Anne explains.
“Long story short I make the phone call and Shorty heads out to pick me up. In the meantime, the Bees show me more of their work. All of it amazing. The next Saturday I end up back in the church basement. Imagine me the big rough biker and a group of grey-haired grandmothers eating breakfast strudel and learning how to quilt. I’ve been back every Saturday since. One Saturday I even brought some of other Midnight Riders and gave the Bees a ride to Al’s Drive-In for lunch. That was a sight to see.”
“So, what happened today?” I asked trying to get us back on track.
“Anne called a few days ago and asked to meet up with the gang at Block 98. The Bees had finished a quilt with our logo and they wanted to present it to us. Before the Bees showed up the Aces barged in ready for a brawl. It seems that one of my guys trespassed on their territory. So, we go at it. About five minutes later the Bees walk in, but instead of running away they try to break up the fight. Lefty Louie, my second in command, pulls his Colt to shoot the ceiling and call a truce. The Ace’s second sees the move and must think that Lefty is escalating. They struggle for the Colt, it goes off. There’s a pause, a freeze frame. Anne slumps, a red stain painting her blouse. Everyone scatters. Everyone except for Anne, me, and a few of the boys too hurt to run.”
“I rushed to Anne, cradled her head, and tried to stop the bleeding. She smiled and breathed her last. She smiled Red! I’ve seen folks die before but not one of them ever smiled. Not ever.”
I’ve thought a lot about that day. About Anne and the Bees. How they accepted someone in their circle so completely different from them. What haunted me most was Ranger’s report about Anne’s smile. I never knew her although I have gotten to know a few of the Bees. The question about what happened at Block 98 is solved but now I have a new mystery. Why did Anne smile?
From Dale: Red is a return character to our pages. His first story is “The Tattooed Heart.“