Chapter four of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
Bransen really didn’t like the looks of the bar. His was the only four-wheeled vehicle in the lot, and he veritably tip-toed past the lineup of hogs and choppers so his footfalls wouldn’t topple them like dominoes. A couple of bikers had just arrived and glanced at him suspiciously as he walked toward the doors. He’d opted to fit in as little as possible, going on the assumption that a nervous man in a golf shirt and khakis would pose no threat as either interloper or poser and thus would be left alone. Besides, his careful swoop of brownish-blond hair, stubbled chin, and beaming smile looked best with grown-up frat-boy garb—anything else would’ve been immediately suspect and would undoubtedly have drawn more attention to him than he wanted.
The bouncer at the door raised his eyebrows in mild surprise as Bransen approached and asked (with an air of genuine concern), “Are you looking for someone in there?” The unasked follow-up to which was, Because if you aren’t, why not head to the wine bar down the street?
“Yes,” Bransen said, his voice strong. Nervous as he was, the outward sign of such was something he had long ago learned to quell. Nerves looked bad when you were applying for loans to fund a private scientific research facility that was weighted with a name like the Private International Space Administration. “I’m looking for Mouse.”
The bouncer’s eyebrows raised a bit higher, then he nodded.
“He’ll be at the bar, most likely doodling on a napkin.”
He opened the door for Bransen and ushered him in. Bransen didn’t see it, but he was sure a silent signal had been given to the bartender to watch this guy because he shouted, “What’ll ya have?” before Bransen had even taken three steps into the place.
Fortunately, most of the bikers were huddled around the pool tables or loitering on the dance floor. The haze of smoke was like walking through a forest fire, but at least there was no music blaring, for the moment. All the noise was mumbling voices punctuated with loud laughs and swearing. Bottles clinked into trashcans and the low rumble of glasses moving from table to lips and back seemed like distant thunder in the clouds of cigarette smoke. Bransen headed for the only guy at the bar who seemed hunched over and possibly doodling. The bartender paced him and met him as he slid onto a stool, so Bransen ordered a beer (“anything that’s wet”) and glanced at the man to his right. He was large—from a diet of hamburgers and beer, no doubt—and his hands and face had the grime of engine repair on them. His beard was long and unkempt, but, like his lengthy hair, not hanging in dirty clumps. In the dim lighting, Bransen couldn’t tell if he was a dark blond or a graying brunette.
“Are you Mouse?” he asked.
The man—who was indeed doodling on a napkin—stopped what he was doing and straightened up before looking at him. He met Bransen’s eyes and nodded once.
“My name’s Bransen. I run PISA. I have only two questions for you.”
The bartender plopped a beer in front of Bransen and looked suspiciously at Mouse. Mouse shook his head almost imperceptibly: No, he wasn’t being bothered.
“Go ahead,” Mouse replied.
“What were you figuring out just now?”
Mouse looked at his napkin and chuckled, then held it up for Bransen. There was an artfully rendered doodle of a spider in the center of a wagon wheel.
“I was thinking how much better off a spider in a wheel would be if it used the spokes to reinforce its web. Could probably catch grasshoppers. Thing is, spiders are too small to see the big picture, and they make the same old web between the spokes.”
Bransen smiled widely. This was indeed his man. The mythical biker named Mouse. The man who could fix—and improve upon—any motorcycle on the road. The man who should hold the patent for the next-generation Tesla power coil, if not for the fact that the patent office thought him crazy.
“Then my other question is simply this,” Bransen said softly. He glanced around to make sure no one would hear him. “Would you like to go to Mars?”