BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 4
— Episode 32
of the Bicycle Thief"
Max tilted his nose to the autumn sky over the city and tried to sort out the scents on the air. He frowned after a moment and then looked over at his companion. Lorelei’s perfume was a combination of cinnamon spice, rose petals and cherry blossoms, and while it was an interesting mix, it interfered with his olfactory senses.
“What’s the matter?” the white rabbit asked him in a lilting voice. “You look perplexed.”
Max sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t register the scents around us to keep a fix on our location,” he replied.
He rolled up the long sleeves of his loose-fitting denim shirt as he looked over at her. She wore a pair of bell-bottom blue jeans, a low-cut tee shirt with a rainbow tie-dye pattern, open sandals and a thin pair of dark sunglasses on an elastic strap. She appeared completely relaxed as they walked side by side along an undulating avenue bordered on both sides by old buildings of brick and stone. Colorful trees surrounded by iron bench seats dotted sidewalks of pedestrians, kids on skates and bicycles. The late afternoon was busy in this part of Coldsmith, the moderate-sized city where the Blue Horizon had just made its most recent delivery on Kantus.
“Why do you need to do that?” she asked as they approached a corner crosswalk. “I know where we are.” She pointed to a tree park diagonally across the intersection. There were several fountains of running water and gardens of late-season flowers that made the area look inviting.
“Would you mind waiting over there for me?” she asked. “I need to take care of something while we’re here.” The rabbit didn’t wait for a reply and padded off around the corner without him.
Max frowned and looked up and down the avenue. He was disappointed to have been left alone in the middle of a city that was unfamiliar to him. He had hoped to spend time with Pockets and Justy in the entertainment district, but almost as soon as the captain had released everyone following the unloading of their cargo, Lori had grabbed him by the arm to have him accompany her on an errand into town. Now she had left him alone to finish whatever her errand might have been.
He scratched the soft fur behind his left ear and wondered if she intended to purchase something that she thought might embarrass him. He couldn’t think of anything that she might be self-conscious about. Nothing seemed to shame her.
Whatever it was she went to get, he could do nothing but wait, so he crossed the busy street to the park and decided to have a look around. When he reached the curb, he stuck his hands into the pockets of his trousers and strolled over to the water fountain. There were many people about the park, from young children with their mothers, business partners discussing deals, to the elderly getting fresh air in the autumn sun.
A pair of pre-teen boys on bicycles pedaled past him, and Max watched them with interest. He had only been on a bicycle once before on Crescentis, and knew it was an efficient way to get around. Considering how many times he had to walk everywhere or rent a cab whenever they landed in a new city, he wondered if getting a bike to store on the ship might be a good investment.
He stretched his arms and felt lazy. He didn’t want to just sit around and wait for Lori to return, however, so he decided to stroll along the paved walkways through the park. If the bunny returned and needed to find him, they both carried their DataComs.
Max passed several food vendors, but he was not yet hungry. Renny would have stopped at each of the self-contained carts, he thought to himself with a smile. He’d never seen any single person eat as much as the cheetah did, and this included everyone he had ever seen at The Wild Star restaurant where he grew up.
He stepped around a bed of colorful flowers and then ducked under the low-hanging branches of a bright shrub with orange blossoms. He heard a small bell jingle and looked up when he rounded a bend in the pathway.
On a tall wooden stool was another German shepherd only slightly older than he was. Dressed in violet shorts and a white tank top, the girl was reading a printed magazine in one hand, while the other hand absently jingled a small bell to make her presence known. Max gave the bicycle vendor a smile as he walked up to her.
“Hi there,” the girl said pleasantly. She set her magazine on a small folding table beside her and then stood up. “My bikes can be rented for an hour, half day or full day. What can I do for you?”
“Hello,” Max replied. “I’m not sure I remember how to ride one of these, but I know it’s a good way to get around.”
“It’s the cheapest transportation besides walking,” she told him with a smile. “If you have a good sense of balance, they’re easy to ride, and once you’ve been on one, you never forget how to ride one.”
“I like to think of myself as a well-balanced guy,” Max quipped.
The girl’s brown eyes sparkled as she chuckled. She took a quick look at his leg length and then walked over to a red, medium-height bicycle. She unlocked a cable, pulled the bike free of its rack, and then wheeled it over to him.
“This one should fit you well,” she said. “Hop on and I’ll give you a quick refresher.”
Max frowned, suddenly unsure if this was a good idea. He’d been rather unsteady on the one he had previously ridden. “Uhm, I don’t know…”
“Aw, c’mon,” the girl prompted. “Surely a capable guy like you can remember something as easy as this.” She leaned forward onto the handlebars of the bike and looked up at him with a coaxing smile. Max swallowed and nodded.
The girl gave him a few instructions when he climbed on, and then walked along beside him with one hand on his arm and another on his seat just above his tail flap. Max wobbled as he tried to find his balance and felt completely unsafe sitting atop two thin wheels without anything for lateral balance. Tanis had once teased him about something called training wheels, but he now began to wonder if he should swallow his pride and request them.
The girl coaxed him with words of encouragement, and soon he was able to pedal along beside her with her hands only marginally on his tail. She worked patiently with him back and forth along the sidewalk in front of her stand, and soon to his delight, Max found himself actually riding the bike alone without much difficulty. She’d been right. Although it had been over a year, it was coming back to him.
The young mechanic had often flawlessly walked balanced on the tops of fences in Lormun, the dingy town where he’d grown up on Quet, so it was only a matter of finding that center of balance again over the bicycle.
Max straddled the bike next to the girl’s stand and gave her a wide smile. “This is fun,” he said enthusiastically. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Blue Eyes,” she replied. “Now, how long would you like to rent the bike?”
Max looked back toward the corner where Lorelei had left him and then stuck a hand in his pocket for the local currency he had exchanged after they the ship. “Maybe for just an hour,” he said. “I’m waiting for a friend, but I don’t know how long until she gets back.”
“Pay now for an hour’s ride,” the vendor said. “If you need it longer, you can pay me for the extra time when you bring it back. I’m open until midnight.”
“Why open so late?” Max asked as he paid her.
“I’m always open until midnight on weekends,” she said with a smile. “Some people can’t afford cabs or other transportation, so they rent my bikes so they can get around for their evening activities. Not very accommodating for dates, but I don’t charge much.”
“Thank you,” Max said. “I appreciate you showing me how to get back up on one of these things.”
The girl stepped close to his bike and lightly touched him on the back of his hand. “You’re welcome. Listen… if your friend doesn’t show up, come back to visit with me. My name is Jennifer.”
The young mechanic swallowed nervously and then gave her a grin. “Sure thing, Jennifer. My name is Max.”
“Have fun with the bike, Max.”
Max gave her a wave and then headed back along the pathway unsteadily. He had his balance, but it would take more practice before he looked as relaxed at it as the others he saw riding bikes. When he neared the crosswalk at the corner of the busy street, he looked around for Lorelei. The bunny was still absent. She’d not mentioned how long she might be gone, so he continued practicing with the bicycle along the paths in the park.
A half hour later, he was bored from just riding back and forth, so he decided to go looking for his crewmate. Traffic on the street had lightened up somewhat, so he rode the bike across to the corner where she’d left him, and then moved in the direction she had gone.
Max had a fairly good idea of the types of businesses she might go into, so he kept a sharp eye out for them. Unfortunately, most of the businesses he saw along the sidewalk would have interested her, so he worked up a routine where he would stop in front of a shop window, peer inside for her, and then move on to the next store. He passed a mom and pop grocery store, though didn’t think she would be in there, but he peeked inside anyway.
Regular maintenance of the street ended after three blocks and the area beyond looked rougher. Dilapidated warehouses and ramshackle apartment buildings lined the street, and uncollected garbage overflowed from receptacles at the curb. Max frowned and turned his bike around, sure that she wouldn’t have gone this far up the road.
Max felt thirsty and decided to go back to a small street café he’d passed. He pulled to a lurching stop beside a waist-high, iron fence and set the bike up against it. He walked in through the gate past mostly-empty tables to the counter and looked over a chalkboard menu hanging on the back wall. Soft singing issued from a portable music box at his elbow.
A bored-looking, female calico cat took his drink order and his credicard, processed the transaction and then handed him an empty cup. Max pocketed his credicard and then took his cup to a self-service drink dispenser at the end of the counter.
Just as he put his cup up to the machine, he heard a sound of metal clinking upon metal behind him. He turned his head and saw a brown bear cub about twelve years old take off on his rented bicycle.
“Hey!” Max shouted in surprise. The cub stuck out his tongue as the canine mechanic vaulted over the iron fence, his drink forgotten. Max raced after the kid, but quickly lost ground on foot.
He kept the bike in view for two blocks before he lost sight of it. The German shepherd growled beneath his breath and his thoughts were dark concerning the bicycle thief. He stopped to lean against an abandoned brick warehouse and panted heavily from the exertion, but he only allowed himself a brief rest. He began walking toward the last place he had seen the cub, but knew it was probably a wasted effort.
He walked another block before he decided that he should make his way back to the park and pay the girl Jennifer for the loss of the bike. He had plenty in his account to cover the expense, but he would have rather had the bicycle to return to her.
The fastener on one of his soft-sided boots had come loose, so he knelt down to reattach it. While down on one knee, Max noticed a particular track pattern in the dirt on the sidewalk. It matched the tread of the bicycle he’d been riding.
The canine’s tail swished in agitation as his eyes silently followed the tracks to a nearby alley. He stood up quietly and then moved to the corner of the building. He peered around the brick wall cautiously, but there was no one in sight. There was nothing else to go on, so Max set his jaw rigid and followed the tracks.
He’d not gone more than a dozen steps before his nose twitched. A scent lingered on the air in the dingy alley, a combination of cinnamon spice, rose petals and cherry blossoms. He stopped and sifted the aromas through his nostrils, recognizing them immediately.
He looked up and down the alley, suddenly concerned that something sinister had befallen his crewmate, but he was also confused. His uncle Merlin had taught him to read the scents in the air, but it was apparent that the scent of fear was not present. For whatever reason that Lori had come this way, it had not been under duress.
The bicycle now forgotten, Max had a new mission. Where was Lorelei? He saw nothing in the shadows of the alley to indicate where she might have gone, so he put his back to the wall of the building closest to him and closed his eyes. He snorted out the old scents and then slowly drew in new air. Almost immediately, he felt compelled to start walking. His nose in the air, he followed the bunny’s perfume to a door just a few steps away.
He opened a torn screen door hanging only by its top hinge, and then peered into the interior of what appeared to be an old abandoned building. A single, low-wattage bulb illuminated a corridor with wooden floors and rotting walls that might have been painted green at one time. Scraps of yellowed newspapers littered the floor but little else.
Max frowned and stepped inside, but despite his misgivings on the condition of the place, Lorelei’s perfume led him on. He followed the scents through a maze of hallways that finally opened up into a larger area, no doubt a common room for whoever had once been tenants of the building. There were no lights inside, so he crossed the room as quickly as he could and remained silent. Only one exit left the room on the far side, but as soon as he walked through it, Lori’s perfume diminished.
He stopped and tilted his head, straining his ears. She had not come this way, he decided, and moved back into the common room. He halted in the center of the room and put his hands on his hips as he looked around. Aside from the newspapers on the floor, the room was empty. There were no other doors than the two he had been through, and there were no openings in the ceiling.
The German shepherd was perplexed, but in the quiet of the building, a new sound reached his ears. It was very faint, but he could hear nearby voices. Unsure if he might be in danger, Max moved to a corner of the room to get away from the doors.
He stood extremely still, but the voices seemed closer than before. He could almost make out the words, but couldn’t pick up the actual conversation. His nose twitched again and he realized that Lorelei’s perfume seemed stronger too.
He began looking around for a door that he might have missed in the gloom of the common room, but the walls near him were as solid as they could be in their dilapidated condition. He moved a step closer to the corner and the floor beneath his boot disappeared.
Max caught himself with outstretched hands against the walls of the corner and he looked down at his feet into a triangular opening a couple feet across. He dropped to his knees quietly; Lori’s perfume emanated from the hole.
There was a soft illumination from somewhere below, but it was dim. He reached down into the opening and found a wooden shelf directly below him. It felt solid enough, so he turned around and stepped down onto it. The platform held his weight and was the same size and shape as the hole he had just dropped into, but it was not an end to the route. Opposite the shelf, there was another triangular hole, and with yet another matching shelf directly below it. He nodded to himself in the gloom and understood that it was a kind of alternating stairway that went straight down, probably to the basement.
He took the triangular path down through several levels, and the soft voices below grew in strength. One of the voices belonged to Lorelei, who seemed to be the one doing the most talking. She didn’t sound as if she were in trouble; her tones were conversational.
Max stepped off the final shelf onto a dirt floor in a dark corner of a room filled with burlap sacks of unshelled toca-nuts. A single kerosene lantern hung from a nail in the ceiling further inside the room and gave him some light to see his surroundings. He made his way quietly around piles of sacks, trying not to step on individually scattered nuts, until he knew he must be near to his crewmate.
He dropped lightly to his hands and knees and then eased his nose around a sack until he could see who was in the room. He studied the scene before him and raised an eyebrow.
Several tocanut sacks were arranged like cushions, and sitting in the middle was Lorelei. Surrounding her were several kids of various species, the youngest of which was in her lap. Several more adults sat on other sacks, each one seemingly rapt in attention at the rabbit’s words as she told them all a story.
It took a moment before the German shepherd realized that she was telling her small audience a story about him. She explained how in his desperate hour locked in a filthy shed on Quet, he was rescued and found hope through a renewed life among new friends.
It was odd, hearing someone else relate his former existence, and he found himself listening just as intently as the others in the room did. The children interrupted her from time to time to ask her a question or insert their own comments, and Max found himself smiling at the exchange.
“Now listen,” Lori said as her blue eyes sparkled in the lantern light, “The moral of this true tale is that even when you are down and out, and have a hard time finding food from day to day, there may be some hope for a better life.” She looked across the gathered adults and added, “This kind of thing doesn’t happen to everyone, but if the hope exists, there’s always a chance.”
At her words, Max suddenly became aware of several paper sacks at her feet in front of the children, and that the kids and adults alike all had sandwiches and bottles of juice or soda to drink. Upon the sacks was the name of the mom and pop grocery store he had peeked inside on his search for her. He swallowed at the realization of what her little errand had been. Lorelei went on speaking quietly and Max began to fidget.
While looking over the group again, he suddenly recognized a brown bear cub sitting in the shadows at the periphery of the assembly. It was the kid who had stolen his rental bike. His eyebrows came together and he was about to step out of his hiding place when the cub stood up and walked closer to Lorelei.
“Miss Lori,” the boy said in a quiet voice, “I found a bicycle for you so you won’t have to walk all the way back on your sore foot.”
“Why thank you, Darin. That’s awfully sweet of you,” the bunny said with a smile.
“My mum said you’ve helped us before, so I wanted to help you too.”
Lorelei pulled the boy closer to her and then kissed him gently on the cheek. “I try to help out as much as I can,” she replied. She gestured toward the sacks at her feet and said to the adults, “I’ve made arrangements with Mr. Cashion up the street to deliver a month’s worth of groceries here in a few days. Maybe that will help you all for a bit. I’m sorry, but I can’t do more right now.”
“Miss Lori,” a scrawny feline woman said in a scratchy voice, “we can’t thank you enough for your generosity. This will keep our children fed a while longer while we try to find work.”
“Times are tough in Coldsmith right now,” a short beagle added, “but construction of an off-world business from Alexandrius will break ground next week. They’re promising several hundred new jobs soon, so perhaps there’s hope as you have said.”
Max swallowed back his anger and then stepped out into the dim light. One of the kids cried out in surprise, and the bear cub named Darin looked as if he was about to take flight. Lorelei looked up with a big grin and held out a hand to him.
“My friends,” she said to the group, “This is Maximillian, the one from the story I was just telling you. He started out as a beaten and punished slave in horrible conditions, but now he’s the adopted nephew of the owner of a profitable business. He’s proven himself as a capable mechanic on board the flagship of his uncle’s fleet, and he’s surrounded by friends who love him.”
Max looked embarrassed, grasped her proffered hand, and then stuck his other hand into his pocket. “Hello,” he said meekly.
“Hi!” several of the children replied in unison.
“Welcome, friend of Miss Lori,” said the collie with a weary smile. “Welcome, Maximillian.”
“What’s the matter, boy?” the scrawny feline said to the bear cub. “You’re shaking like a leaf.”
Darin swallowed hard and stared up at the German shepherd. “Uhm…” he said in fear. “I, uhm… think I’m in trouble.”
Max cleared his throat. “Darin got the bicycle from me,” he said with a nod to the cub. “I rented it from the park so Lorelei could have something to ride.”
“Aww, thanks, Max,” the rabbit said.
“Then why would you think you were in trouble?” the cat asked the cub suspiciously.
“Because… he lost me in the alleyway above,” Max answered with what he hoped looked like an innocent expression. “I had to find my way down here by myself.”
Darin hung his head, but looked up at Max with wide eyes. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
Max made his way to the boy through the small crowd and then held out a hand to him. “It’s okay, Darin. You were just in a hurry to help my friend.” The bear cub swallowed and then jumped forward to embrace the canine mechanic. Max cast a smile back at his crewmate and gave the child a hug. He then pulled away so he could drop to a knee to look into the boy’s soulful brown eyes.
“It’s okay,” he said to him again in a whisper. “I know you’re a good kid.”
Darin’s eyes welled up with tears, though he tried to hold them back. He grinned when Max poked him gently in the tummy with a finger.
“Well, folks,” Lorelei said to the small crowd, “my friend and I need to be going so I can take care of my bad ankle.”
The young child in her lap looked up at her in alarm. “Nooooooo!” the small collie whined in protest. “Don’ go!”
“I’m sorry, honey. I really would like to stay longer.”
“C’mon,” the child’s father said as he took the little girl. “Miss Lori will see us again when she can.”
“That’s right.” Lorelei gave the child a peck on the cheek and then started to get up. Max gave her a hand up on one side, and two other adults rushed forward to lend extra support.
“What did you do to yourself?” Max whispered to her.
“I stepped down wrong coming through the corner steps,” she replied, “but my friends here have taken good care of me.”
“We’ll take you back up through a different, easier way,” one the others said.
Several minutes later, Lorelei and Max waved goodbye to a small crowd. The bunny rode atop the rented bicycle and Max walked alongside of her out of the alley back to the main road.
After a few quiet moments on the way back to the park, Lorelei looked over at Max. “Darin didn’t get this bike from you, did he?”
“Oh yes, he did,” Max replied, “but he stole it from me when I stopped at a café for something to drink. I rented it from the park and was out looking for you.”
The bunny reached out and stroked the fur of his closest cheek. “Thank you for not making a fuss back there,” she said. “You would’ve been right to be mad at him for stealing, but I think what you did made a better impression on him.”
Max looked embarrassed and stuck his hands into his pockets. “Lori, I know how he feels. I’m not exactly innocent, myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I used to steal stuff all the time when I lived on Quet. Although Mr. Tagon fed and clothed me, I was barely given anything else, so I helped myself when I needed something. I know that’s what Darin was doing, but I’m just glad it worked out okay.”
“I didn’t know you’d ever ridden a bike before,” Lori remarked with a grin. “You’re full of surprises.”
Max grinned at her. “Tanis taught me to ride one while we were on Crescentis about a year ago, but I’ve not been on one since. The vendor gave me a brief refresher before I was on my way.”
Lorelei looked thoughtful. “Was it a German shepherd girl named Jennifer?”
“Yes,” Max replied in amazement. “How’d you know?”
“She told me she thinks you’re cute.”
“She told you… Wait, when did she tell you that? I didn’t even meet her until after you left me to go on your errand!”
“Trust me,” Lori quipped with a wink. “She thinks you’re cute.”
“I think she’s cute, too, but how did you talk to her?”
“Hmm, what would your girlfriend have to say about that?”
“Leave Wendy out of this,” Max said perplexed. “How do you know Jennifer?”
Lorelei only gave him a smile and pedaled ahead of him. Max trotted to catch up, wondering if the bunny was ever going to answer his question.
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