Karlo is a mutant full of shame and self-loathing. Will he be able to realize meaning though a crimewave of the lowest order? Find out in Mutant Bike Thieves!
Starring Karlo Banaga, Escamilla Oswald, Money Abimbola, and Quest Haswell
by Konju/ Gotham Parks
Last night’s rain had swamped the cratered road leading to Karlo Banaga’s cramped tin garage in Willets Point. Pondering delinquency, he poked his head out of the open garage door to check the outside operating conditions. A grin broke out across his face as he rubbed his hands to the outbound clouds. His frumpy black hair and long beard danced windswept in the easterly breeze that cool autumn morning as he prepared to enter the city to burgle and steal. He’d just inherited the garage from an uncle in the past month but was putting it to unlawful uses as the nerve center for his budding band of mutant bike thieves. All of his small crew were addicts, either to the thrill of crime or designer drugs or both and then some. Notwithstanding rumors of such a grouping having existed in Newark in the early 1990s, they were the first confirmed street organization within the five boroughs that was both all-mutant and stole bicycles as of this writing.
Karlo was hungry that Saturday morning, getting suited and booted early to do some solo work before meeting any colleagues later. He wiped the floor-sleep off his face with a damp cloth and did the same over his armpits before running his fingers through his hair. He still smelled. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a capacity for proper hygiene, but rather he lacked the infrastructure for it in that industrial garage, and so didn’t bother with the contortions needed for a full bath in a large stainless-steel sink but a few times a month, and certainly not today.
Donning wrinkled army fatigues and treadless boots, he hoofed it to Jackson Heights, walking fast and to the point down to Roosevelt Avenue in the 80s. There he could count on the noisy IRT to mask his business. The elevated 7 train was loud enough to drown out the hum of his vibrating hand as it dismantled cast-iron u-locks at very high frequencies.
His taste was typically well-cultivated. High-end road-racing and practical bikes from the likes of Trek, Specialized, or Surly topped the list. But right now he just wanted to steal whatever was in front of him. So he took hold of the thin u-lock that fastened a grimy, beat-down mountain bike to a beefy cast-iron rack planted firmly in the sidewalk. The area was still very crowded, so he worked nervously, hardly able to even look directly at what he was doing.
He would buzz his clenched fist on the metal but then kids and old folks stopped and looked weirdly at his awkward posture as they heard the loud hum in spurts. Karlo would try to grin back but it always turned into a pathetic wince. He just needed a parting of the crowd for long enough to give it that real sustained college try to fracture the lock.
The situation on the street was unforgiving today, especially when a familiar hand now tugged on his olive drab sweatshirt. “Karlo? Is that you?”
Karlo turned to look at the party pooper, a galaxy of shame washing over his face as he recognized his former supervisor. “Escamilla! So nice to see you,” he mumbled.
Escamilla shook her head in her gray cocoon coat and cornrows. “What the hell are you up to? You smell.” The lean middle-aged woman glanced at Karlo’s right hand still vibrating slightly over the lock as he failed to answer her in his embarrassment. “Get away from that bike. Now,” she ordered in a whisper, sharply.
Karlo let go, shaking his head at himself now. Escamilla slapped him hard across the face. Old folks noticed, and nodded.
“This is where you wound up? This shit? Stealing bikes?” Escamilla now slowly walked around Karlo as he stood frozen in scandal, sizing up his disgrace. She pointed to her small store-front stall, a pop-up Puerto Rican vegan bakery. “Look at this. We’re doing brisk business up in here, old friend. This little side hustle. Me and a couple colleagues from the City Law Department. You remember Lupe and Hugo? And just because we can, and we wanna bring that vegan bread to Jackson Heights and have fun. The kind of stuff you might have wanted in on as well. Honest work that’s fun – not even work in the end.
“I remember that first interview with you way back. Still a law school intern but you were very persuasive. Deep inside my mind with your points and counterpoints, and you were a good worker in the end, or so I thought. But then you bailed; then studied alternative medicine or something. All fine, I get that you gotta find your calling. And I thought you were probably out somewhere doing great things with your immense mind.
“But this? I catch up with you after six years of silence to see you like this? My, how far you’ve fallen, kid.” Escamilla palmed her face and shook her head. “Get out of here before I call the cops,” she muttered, no longer facing him. “I don’t ever wanna see you again.”
Wordless, Karlo turned east and ambled up the road without looking back. After a block and a half, he slowed with tears of shock blurring his vision. A further half block and he had to stop, his hands over his mouth, aghast at his great fall, and that one of his greatest mentors had confirmed it so fully. He stood like that for at least five minutes before recovering in the cold breeze and continuing on home. Old folks saw, and mostly shook their heads.
Karlo woke from a shallow and shiftless nap in the mid-afternoon with a recharged will to steal. He had more serious loot in mind now, and wouldn’t use the vibration technique twice in the same day but rather a more persuasive and subtle approach. He texted his newest potential colleague, Money Abimbola, to meet him at the bike racks at the Whole Foods in Gowanus. Meanwhile he boarded the 7 train towards Times Square.
Just as Karlo once was a strong persuader of other minds, he could translate that ability onto himself, mainly through allowing his craving to totally consume him. This got him out of bed again after such crushing humiliation. This and the rumble and rattle of the train through his bones to drown out his self-doubt and self-loathing.
The train screeched around the roller coaster arch that is the elevated IRT line in Long Island City, the Queensboro Bridge and the Manhattan skyline looming ahead before it came to a stop at Court Square. Karlo beheld the view, a thousand turned-up battle-station turrets in a tight bundle, before descending the stairs into the underground complex to transfer to the G train at its northern terminus.
He took a seat by the door and opposite the subway map so no noobs would hover over him on the way to Brooklyn. Catching his breath after a sprint downstairs and through the labyrinth to catch the soonest train, he noticed a familiar head of dreads in black denim wander onto the train and plop down right in the noob seat.
Karlo waited for the dread to catch his bearings. Then their eyes locked in recognition. “Hey, man. Is that you, Quest? Quest Haswell?” Karlo asked him.
“Yo, Karlo, yo, what’s up! Long-ass time, bro! I almost didn’t recognize you! Yo, this is so ridiculous, you were on my mind, man, and now I see you!” Quest broadcast excitedly. The two stood up to bro-hug quickly before the train’s doors closed up and the conductor began to lurch it southward. They sat across each other, each mindful that the other looked long-lost in an odd way. “So whatchu up to these days, man?”
“I steal bikes,” Karlo replied matter-of-factly.
“I steal bikes, son. I’m one of the bad guys.” Karlo gained comfort from admitting that out loud.
“You’re kidding, right?”
The two looked around awkwardly to note anyone taking in the strange content of their brief reintroduction to one another. The train was still mostly empty.
“You’re not doing massage therapy anymore? Back at massage school I remember they used to call you the vibration king. You hated that shit.”
“But you had skills. So what’s up? Why steal bikes now?
“Got bored with the routine. I was a lawyer for a little while, then a massage therapist. Wanted to try being a criminal, and honestly I kinda like it. I don’t know how much more I can get out of it, though.”
“Wow. I mean, I could never be as bold as you. I always looked up to you back in those days, all learned, wanting to better yourself, already had a law degree and just all around ace student. That’s who I was trying to be, maybe still trying to be. Just trying to be enlightened.”
“Brother, I am not enlightened. Don’t associate me with that.”
“But, you know. What’s it been, a couple years since I last saw you? I would have thought you’d had your own spa by now, with a law firm attached. Serving the hood in Woodside, doing your folks proud. Maybe there’s another way for you, though. Not linear, more fractal. That’s interesting. Whenever my assumptions get stumped, it’s just… interesting. Worth further review, you know?”
Karlo shook his head, unimpressed at the impression he’d left on Quest thus far. “You getting all philosophical. Look at me, I’m an addict. My job is burglar. I’m a fucking slob. My path leads nowhere at all. You wanna be like me or something?”
“Nah. But, where does it lead though, man? What will you learn?”
“It’s not about learning. I wish it were. But it’s not anymore. I guess I’m chasing something, but it ain’t knowledge, son.” Karlo paused. “I need help.”
They stayed silent and thoughtful for a moment, the train now a crowded ruckus deep into Brooklyn.
“So, what about you, Quest? Whatchu up to these days? And what brings you to the G train this afternoon?”
“Just wandering the city. I feel like that’s my profession nowadays. Don’t know what I’m gonna find, but it stays interesting. Other than that, working at a nursing home on weekdays. Now those folks got wisdom. Tryna learn something between these two gigs.”
“Good luck with that.”
“Wait, are you gonna steal bikes right now?” Quest asked with sudden alarm.
“Yeah. You wanna see?”
“I mean, I’m not stealing no bikes, but… I gotta see this,” Quest admitted with childish curiosity.
By now they had reached the Carroll Street stop and made their way to 3rd Street for a modest hike to the grand supermarket of the bourgeoisie. Money Abimbola was already there waiting for them, pacing around the bike racks in a well-pressed navy-blue Mao suit and sharp short fro, the sharpest looking one of the bunch. She flashed her crispy Apple Watch at them in jovial consternation.
“Time is rare. You owe me eighteen minutes. Who’s this?” she asked hastily.
“Money Abimbola, meet Quest Haswell. Old classmate from my massage therapy school days,” Karlo introduced as the strangers shook hands.
“You steal bikes too?” she asked.
“No, just here for the show,” Quest replied, stepping back with his hands raised.
“Wait, so how’s this work, Karlo? Random homies can just watch?”
Karlo frowned. “The rules are written in real time, I guess. Quest, this is her first attempt at this.”
“Really?” Quest wondered, amused. “So you’re new here too? How’d you guys meet?”
“Karlo stole my bike!” she hollered. “Just this past Monday, dude! Real solid e-bike, German import. I dropped four figures on that joint! Ain’t nobody gonna get off easy for a crime like that.
“So I tracked him down. I work over at the Seagram Building in Midtown doing accounting. They got good security cameras, sharp pictures, HD. The security guys show me the footage of the bike racks. ‘Cuz you know I lock my stuff right. I got two heavy-duty u-locks. I even have a cable just for the saddle. Plus the frame had its own lock, European style!
“And then I see Karlo in the video just holding onto the locks or something, and they open. I’m like, what? So then I look for the bike on craigslist and e-bay. And soon enough, busted! But when I confronted him yesterday after work to get my bike back, armed with peppers spray just in case, I had to ask how he did it, and he showed me. He partly deformed the sign at the bus stop where we met, and then he bowed. And then I was curious. I told him I also have irregular lock picking skills. He said he wanted to see them in action if I had an hour to spare. So here I am. With 22 minutes left cuz y’all are late and you got me explaining shit.”
“Well, I like curious people. Taking risks just to see what happens. This is a cool group, guys!” Quest offered, cornily. The others grinned and nodded. “So who goes first?”
Karlo stepped up. “Check this out, guys. No hands this time,” he said as he approached a tall red-headed young man rolling up on a minimalistic race-red Italian fixie. “Hey, bro,” he greeted the man, who looked him up and down with do-not-disturb-me-bum-type glances. He didn’t say anything, though, picking up the lock dangling from his handlebar as his feet left the pedals for the floor.
Karlo continued, looking hard into the man’s eyes with a disarming smile. “My man. Boss! You’re not gonna lock your bike,” he ordered almost bromantically.
“I’m not?” the man asked as if seeking confirmation.
“Nah. Why bother? I’ll take it.”
The man looked first at other people entering the store, then at Karlo’s audience of two, and finally at Karlo himself, his roiling confusion dissipating into compliance. “Okay. You got it, man.” The tall fellow then handed Karlo his bike before proceeding into the supermarket without looking back.
“Yooooooo!” Quest noted in a quiet tone.
“Didn’t know about that one,” Money remarked with a smirk.
“It wears off after a little while, though. So, Miss Abimbola, if you’re gonna work your own magic, do it quick.”
“Aight guys, don’t blink,” Money warned them. She then walked up the racks to a fine Dutch cargo bike. Closing her eyes after a long study of the beefy padlock fastening a thick chain, she began what looked like an elaborate finger-tutting routine that lasted almost a minute before the lock fell to the ground.
Quest and Karlo looked at each other, nodding in amazement. Money didn’t move or touch the bike.
“You’re not gonna take it?” Karlo asked her.
Money paused, then shook her head slowly. “Nah, I’m not a bike thief, man. I don’t think I can live with that.”
“Well lock it back up, then! Let’s be gone, please!” Karlo urged with growing anxiety.
“Wait! Lemme get a look at that real quick,” Quest said, squatting by the bike to inspect Money’s telekinetic handiwork.
Just then, a young policeman happened by, stopping close to Quest, who stood up and nodded in acknowledgement of his presence. “Sir, is this your bike?” the cop asked nervously. His nervousness proved contagious, causing Quest to step back slowly and run towards the Gowanus Canal.
The sky was dim as the afternoon had gotten old and the clouds returned from the west. Quest was fast but lacked any strategy for his escape in the unfamiliar parking lot. He ducked between two parked SUVs under a solar roof shelter, but the cop quickly caught up with him with his weapon drawn. Quest saw him squeezing the trigger, his mind slowing the moment to appreciate his own mortality and thus prompt him to do something to avert immanent destruction.
“Wait, you’re not gonna shoot me, man! Holster your weapon!” Quest’s voice echoed throughout the shelter with an alien vibrato. The cop was rendered completely immobilized for what seemed to Quest like an hour, still aiming and cocked to open fire right into his chest. Finally, the cop’s finger slowly slid back to release the trigger, he holstered his weapon and then stood as if awaiting further instructions.
Relieved, Quest straightened his back and approached the man like an old friend. “Go on home, mister.”
“Kay,” the cop assented, turning around and walking away. In his wake, Karlo, rolling the red fixie, and Money found Quest in the shelter, his face painted with mind-blown astonishment.
“You, too? I thought you were just a bystander. You turned that cop all the way around!” Money observed.
Karlo rested the bike on one of the SUVs and slid to the ground as the others stood before him. “I don’t know what to say. I almost got you killed. For no reason! Look at the situations I’ve put into play! But then, it turns out you have this ability, too. Amazing!” Karlo scratched his scalp and rubbed his forehead, seeking a conclusive explanation. “I wish I could stop, though. Could stop being sick, stop making others sick. That I could go back to an honest life.”
“So do it!” Money shouted.
“No!” Karlo replied. Then he stood up with a proposition. “Would you join me? In a band of mutant bike thieves? I already run with a couple other guys from time to time, but you two would make us unstoppable.”
Quest shook his head. “What do you take me for, man? I can’t be a bike thief! What kind of life is that? How petty, how small is that? I wouldn’t want anyone stealing my bike. Nope, sorry, man.”
“Can’t disagree with that,” Money said. “Bike thieves don’t even register on the moral spectrum. They’re deep in the gutter somewhere. But I’m glad I got to see all this, just once. That’s more than enough.”
Karlo’s face softened, slightly relieved. “Well, I don’t have lights, and I’ve got a good hour-plus of riding between here and Willets Point. I think I’ma head out. I want to apologize deeply for wasting your time and putting your life in danger like that. Quest, Money, don’t be like me. Use your skills thoughtfully, and watch what you get addicted to.”
With that, he took off down the road, still mad at himself that he couldn’t get off the fence about how to live, and more ashamed than at any time that day. He peddled furiously, running a series of red lights. Quest and Money took their own separate paths to the subway, pondering the odd day just lived and how to live the next one now.