Night time is best for riding. That’s what I do, I ride my bike. Morning, noon, and night I ride. You could say it is a compulsion, the summer sun blisters my skin and the winter weather turns it to leather.
I hate my life, my crap job, the low pay, a run down efficiency, no car, no friends, social anxiety, and a fear of losing what little I have.
But my city, Pittsburgh, has so many sights to offer, and so many "experiences."
You see Pittsburgh is unusual, two rivers join to form a third, with God-awful hilly terrain that breaks up the streets into one big meandering labyrinth. The waterfronts are full of abandoned relics of its industrial past. Once it was called the "Arsenal of Democracy" and what is left are rusting pieces of steel factories littered here and there.
I revel in the musty decay. I ride along the rivers on the trails and grind up the hills into blighted neighborhoods. Feelings come over me, overwhelming, as I become one with the rank lots.
Nights are the best.
Tonight is a Saturday, I ride with my seventh beer chugged. The monotonous rhythmic pedaling lulls me into a trance by my fifth hour of riding along the Monongahela river. I am about to call it a night when another group of riders appears ahead, feeling well lubricated and chatty, I pound the pedals and catch up.
“Hey yinz, mind if I join?” I ask.
A cute, mousey, brunette, hipster girl in cat’s eye glasses says, “Sure, if you can keep on that monster of a bike,” pointing at my mountain bike.
“Oh yeah, I’ve got gears and can use them. I’m not stuck in the 1950’s with just one speed.” I point to her fixie.
“You can try. We’re going to Eugene's Bar, a half mile from here on East Carson. If I get there first, you’re buying me a beer. If you get there first, I’ll buy you one,” she says and flashes me a smile.
“You’re on. But this doesn’t mean we have to get married,” I say.
The two guys and two girls riding with her laugh.
Adrenaline surges, I pop into high gear and crank away. My tires are three times wider than hers, and she is half my size, but I do well at first. I pull ahead in a hard sprint hoping to catch her off guard at the next rise. She doesn’t break cadence until at the start of the uphill grade. Then she fires on all cylinders and mashes down the pedals rising off her seat throwing her weight into downward stroke. Like a flash I am catching the tail end view of her as she pulls ahead into the darkness along the riverfront.
Chuckles behind me, and her four friends shoot past me as if I was standing by the trail taking a piss.
“Fuck it,” I think. I drop a gear and push out at a steady beat trying to keep them in view when it hits me: none of them are using any sort of lights. I rise over the crest of the hill and dart forward into the downhill. I catch my breath as soon as I nose in on them.
“Almost there, better catch up,” she says.
“Sure thing... I just want to make sure you don’t... fall behind... and ditch me. I’m looking forward... to that beer,” I say in-between gasps. Those seven beers are weighing me down, I could puke them up at this moment, or piss myself. Neither option is very cool in front a cute chick and her friends.
The lights from East Carson street are visible and I lay it down. All out I rocket past them and coast into the clear by a long margin. I pull the brakes once I am ten feet from Eugene's. I steal a glance back at my competition. For a second I feel a clench deep inside, bile pushes against my diaphragm. I saw something my brain won’t process. A weird reflection in their eyes, like the street lamps being perfectly mirrored, and then it is gone.
“First here, buy me a beer!” I shout.
She skids to halt in front of me, and says, “Any beer you want as long as it is Pabst Blue ribbon.”
Smart ass, easy on the eyes as all hell, but no less a smart ass.
We chain up our bikes and go inside. The joint is packed asshole to elbow, and reminds me of my grandfather; everyone is smoking, smells funky, and the music is too damn loud. We grab the nearest table and the girl grabs the beers.
As promised I get my PBR pounder.
“I’m Esther,” she says putting a weird annunciation on the first syllable so that it sounds like “Et-ther.”
I say, “James, nice to meet you. Do you guys do this regularly? I’ve never seen you before and I’m around a lot.”
“Yeah, regular like on Saturday nights, but we go all around. Some nights we do Greensburg, or the North Side, all the way up to Neville Island,” she says.
“Ah,” I say, “I’m always riding in and around here on the Southside Saturdays.”
“Yeah, we just moved to the Pittsburgh area, we’re old college friends and figured it would be great for our internet based start up ‘Evening Star,’” she says.
We talk, the beer keeps coming and I haven’t had to reach for my wallet yet. I find out her friends are Micah, Jonathan, Miriam, and Judith. Esther shows me their company website on her phone.
The deeper the beers get, the less I am taking in. Besides I am getting distracted, because unless I am a complete idiot, her focus and eye contact with me seems to mean she is interested in more than making new friends.
Esther leads me to an open space where people are dancing, I follow. Some slow number, she grinds her ass against my crotch, hard. What a pair we must make on the dance floor, sweaty, covered in road grime, dressed like cyclists.
Esther pulls her hips in long drawn out gyrations until I am erect.
“I like a man who has that much energy after a hard ride,” she says.
“Well you know biking benefits the cardiovascular system, and that means better performance in bed,” I say with surprising clarity considering I lost track of how much I drank. And it must have been a lot since normally I am a sputtering mess with girls.
“Let’s go,” she says.
“Oh yeah,” I say like a horn-dog.
As we head out the door I wave to her friends, and in unison they snap their attention to us, and I think I catch that glint in their eyes again. I’m not sure and don’t care, a lot of booze will do that.
We’re unlocking our bikes when Esther grabs me and lays on a hot passionate kiss, she grabs my ass, I paw her pert breasts. “Keep up,” she says, “we’ve got to get back to McKees Rocks.”
“Are you sure you’ll have the juice for when we get back to your place? That’s close to six miles of hard riding,” I say.
“I will if you will,” she says and alights on her fixie and takes off.
I follow in hot pursuit like a jackrabbit loaded up on Viagra.
We follow the trails along the river, across the Tenth Street Bridge into Downtown. I feel refreshed being back on the pedals, blood pumps, and I gain a new lucidity. I am not taking a ride, the ride is taking me.
Midnight downtown is surreal, traffic lights flicker, business sign's fluorescent hum. We tear it up all over the abandoned sidewalks and street.
We follow some more trails along the Ohio River, unfamiliar to me, and sparsely lit. The glow from the city starts to fade. Esther is putting me through the paces. I catch up, she pulls ahead, teases, and slows down.
From somewhere behind someone shouts, “Astarte!”
Esther answers, “Yes, we’re here.”
I look back and see her friends catching up to me.
How the hell? I think, they didn’t leave with us and must have been a good ten minutes to half hour behind us. Maybe I was wrong in my timing, but there sure as shit weren’t with us through downtown.
Esther’s four friends ride with us now. She has stopped teasing and leading me on. Uncomfortable, I ride in silence with the clicking of pedals and the gentle lapping of the river as background noise.
“I can’t wait to fuck you in the ass,” I hear a voice beside me. I see it is Micah the largest of her friends. In the shadows I can see he is looking at me.
“The fuck you say!?” I shout.
Brakes squeal, tires skid, I crash into Judith. I hit dirt and gravel. My vision goes black lit by a thousand stars.
Judith stands over me, “Poor boy, all alone. Did you fall down and go ‘boom boom’?”
“The fuck’s going on, you bitch? What sort of shit is this?” I spit out.
A kick connects solid with my ribs. My breath catches.
Judith continues, “Micah and Jonathan I haven’t spit roasted a nice fellow for a while. And Esther hasn’t tasted the pleasure that comes from pain in weeks either.”
Esther’s voice cuts in, “Your kind are so easy to catch. A little sex offered, after some beer, and it is like flies to honey. You were so eager to get some, so easy to lure out here. Hmmmm? I do like the strong ones, maybe after we’ve had a little fun I might let you have some booty.”
Heavy bestial breathing echos in my ears. Someone seizes both my arms and jerks me upright. My shorts are yanked down and shirt is torn off; something rips across my chest and back. Searing pain shoots through to my bones. I hear laughing.
I puke and start screaming. One of them grabs my throat and tries to force me to the ground, something soft presses against me. I can feel the heat coming off their bodies. Eyes glow. Closer now, too close.
I make a break. In a titanic burst of effort I dash off the trail and into the river. I swim blindly with the current. Water sloshes into my mouth and nose, nearly gagging me. I don’t stop pulling strokes for what seems like an eternity.
Each stroke gets weaker, each time water splashes against my face I drink it in. I almost let go and slip under.
Something solid underneath me. I let go.
Three days later I wake up in Presby Hospital. The doctor said I was lucky. Some utility workers checking some lines out of the power plant on Brunot Island in the Ohio River had found me, naked, cut and bruised. My blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit and I was suffering from exposure. A couple hours later and I would have died.
The police visited me two days after I woke in the hospital. I gave them all the details I could. No Esther, Judith, Micah, or Jonathan could be located. No company named "Evening Star" was registered in the Pittsburgh area, or Pennsylvania for that matter. Witnesses in Eugene's Bar say I was alone that night, making a drunk ass of myself drinking five beers at a time and dancing with myself. The downtown traffic cams show me riding with reckless abandon. Alone.
I don’t believe them.
I was released after a week in the hospital, it took weeks to recover from the severe muscle strains I incurred. So I spent some time researching, Esther’s pronunciation of her name is truer to its roots: Astarte, Ishtar, Athtart, the Evening Star. The Ancient Near Eastern goddess of sex and death.
She and her acolytes are still hungry.
A couple weeks ago the authorities pulled a headless and limbless torso from the Ohio River near where I made my escape.
I still want to ride, I still need to ride.