THE ULTIMATE RUSH
a NOVEL by Joe Quirk

Excerpt from The Ultimate Rush, a novel by Joe Quirk (St. Martins Press)
a Boston Globe bestseller

 

RUSH
Bomb deactivator. Crack dealer. SWAT rifleman. My job will kill you faster than any of these. And it won't just kill you; it'll crush you to a pulpy clot on the streets of San Francisco. It pays fifteen bucks a pop and gets you a rush like no drug ever made.


I am a bike messenger.

On rollerblades.

All my mohawked coworkers snicker at me, but the boss, Mel, says he don't give a damn what I ride, as long as I make the deliveries on time. Which I do. So he keeps
me on.

I'm the only rollerblade courier in the city. On any other courier job, rollerblades would be about as practical as snowshoes. But, working off Nob Hill, I got two advantages over those bike dweezels. One, I can thrash where no bicyclist would dare to wheel: up stairs, through backyards, over fences. And two, when the delivery is complete, I can hop the cable car back to the summit, then sit back and wave toodle-oo to my sewer-mouthed colleagues grinding a slow zigzag up the side of Nob Hill.

All of us tattoo punks get an excess of exercise, yet severe ulcers are as common as crushed hips, because we thrash it out paycheck to paycheck on the edge of starvation. Mel Corlini moves through fresh courier meat like a pimp through hoes. Mel creates the hostile environment, then lets a brutal natural selection run its course. Certain personality traits survive.

I work with the type of psychopaths who cut their own brake cables. They hurtle through crowded streets, screaming, "No brakes! No brakes!" Yuppiefolk soon learn to get the hell out of the way. There's nothing scarier than a creature who has no regard for himself and wants the square foot of ground you're standing on. Bike messengers are a despised species, but we Corlini scrubs are particularly vile.

The reason for this is simple. Other bike messengers must carry the fury of the entire city. The eight of us have to carry the fury of Mel Corlini.

Mel Corlini is a coked-up stock market player with rabies. He has three Charlie Brown hairs combed across his bald spot. He is pear-shaped and sweats a lot. A self-proclaimed asshole, so rich he shits chocolate mousse, he is the free market's evolutionary pinnacle, capitalism's Ideal Man made flesh.

I've just completed my fifth delivery of the day, and I'm hungry to make my sixth. I hop off the cable car in front of Mel's office building and skate past four or five stormtroopers who got there ahead of me but are securing their livelihoods, bent over the bike rack like prison freshmen. They scowl at me as I pass. Another advantage to rollerblades is that I don't have to lock them to some rottweiler's urinal. I clash up the stairs and stalk like Frankenstein down the hallway on my platform shoes. I follow the trail of black skid marks along the expensive hallway carpeting to Mel's office and get in line.

Mel, a heart attack waiting to happen, is barking into an innocent phone and chawing a stogie to mulch. Mel always keeps the blue stock market screen turned carefully away from us. He puts meticulous consideration into not remembering our names.

There's only one guy in front of me: blond, tanned, California boy, standing at full attention. His name is either Snake or Spider--I can't remember which. He doesn't look at me. I, a blader ninja in his ranks, am a walking sacrilege.

Even as I try to stand still, my butt cheeks are dancing an impatient mambo. A neon sign is blinking in my brain. It says: MUST MAKE RENT. I'm already two weeks late. Every passing second ticks me closer to the sixteenth and eviction time.

Mel slams down the phone, jabs the disk-eject with his thumb, yanks out a computer disk, and shoves it in a stiff eight-by-eleven. He slaps a seal over the opening, looks up at the bicycle courier waiting for instructions, and makes an outrageous offer.

"If you make this delivery in eight minutes, I'll give you four hundred dollars."

My ears perk up like Lassie spotting a steak frisbee. Four hundred dollars?!!

The courier isn't impressed. "Where's it going?"

"Mission and Fifth."

"Forget it."

"C'mon, dammit! It's all downhill."

My colleague laughs. "Yeah, but you can't take it straight down!"

"Five hundred."

The courier snorts and shakes his head.

My tail is wagging, I'm licking my lips, my eyes are darting back and forth between these two bargainers. I know you could conceivably make this twenty-minute run in about a minute-twenty. If you go straight down.

Of course, only a fucking maniac would go straight down.
I step up next to Surfer Dude. "I'll do it."

Mel looks stunned, almost disappointed. "You will?"

"Sure."

Surfer Twerp shouts at the side of my face. "You can't get down to flatville in eight minutes! It's a twenty-minute trip, at top speed! And once you get down there, you have to hoof it all the way up Mission to Fifth Street, which is like eight minutes in itself--on a bike." He looks down at my skates, then back up at me. "How are you
gonna do it?"

"Momentum."

He squints at me, confused for a moment. I watch the equation work its way though his face, then he goes white. "Oh, fuck. No way."

I turn to Mel. "Five hundred bucks, right?"

One corner of Mel's mouth is scrunched up in a curlicue. Looks like Genghis Mel wanted one of his peons to tell him it can't be done, so he can have somebody to blame. His face, once incredulous at this courier's refusal, is now suspicious of my acceptance. His eyes scan my surfaces, searching for those telltale tattoo markings that an urban rancher uses to distinguish one courier from the rest of the chattel. He looks at my feet and recognizes me as that what's-his-name on rollerskates all the other punks complain about, and he leans forward on his desk.

"Yeah, five hundred bucks. A guy will be waiting at the front door. But you gotta get it there in six minutes now, asshole."

"No problem."

Mel tosses the package at my chest. He points up above my head. "See that clock? Eleven minutes to one. You got to deliver that before 12:55."

My back is already to him. I stilt-walk out the door and clatter down the steps, sticking the package in my backpack. Peroxide Man receives his fifteen-dollar assignment and catches up to me as I'm hobbling out the front door.

"Hey, Rollerboy!" he titters, grabbing his bike and running alongside me. "Guess what? If you don't make it, he'll fire you."

"No duh," I say, churning up speed.

"No way," he repeats. "I gotta see this."

I hear his bike pedals clash, his chains lock and grind behind me.
"Hey!" he calls to his comrades. "Rollerskate Boy is gonna take the Cliff! He's gotta be on Mission and Fifth in like five minutes!"

Followed by an annoying chorus of no ways, I skate down the short driveway and swing to the left towards the legendary position at the top of Jones Street. Behind me is a small wake of bicycle couriers, sniveling like rats. They pelt me with caterwauls.
"You gonna go straight through the lights? It can't be done, man."

"The streets are too narrow, herpie-head. Swerve to miss a truck, and you're a wall mural."

I skate up to the edge of the precipice and stop dead. I have to catch my breath.
"Whatsamatter, Rollerfag? Chicken?"

Watermelon Hill. So named when some hurtling skateboarder burst his head spectacularly against the curb in front of a hundred witnesses last year. Since then, the spot has inexplicably drawn me. I've taken this hill before, but always from about five blocks down. I've never gone from the office way up on Sacramento Street before.

I have about four minutes. Once I step off this edge, I'll be at my destination in a minute and a half, dead or alive.

Knee pads, check. Shades, check. Helmet, check. Attitude, check.
My eyes reject the view of San Francisco Bay. They are trained like lasers on the five streetlights that curve down the concrete ski ramp below me. I can't budge until the first three streetlights are green, and the last two red. Then I'll push off, and instantly I'll be in my favorite zone, the do-or-die zone, the place where it's too late to turn back.

For dramatic effect, I remove my shades, fog them with breath, and squeak them on my shirt.

My streetwise audience quiets to murmuring when they clue in that I'm serious. One guy finally speaks up with a milliliter of compassion sloshing around in the bottom of his voice. "Hey, dickweed. Don't do it, man. You'll kill yourself."

He's right. If I wipe out on the hot macadam, my knee and elbow pads will protect my tattooed flesh like the candy wrapper in my ass pocket will protect the milk chocolate inside. Be like scraping a strawberry over a cheese grater. I will become a smoking gumbo of bones, gristle, entrails, and blood, slopped and splattered down ten blocks of hand-braked cars clutching to the side of Nob Hill. An entire fire department and a small legion of car insurance bureaucrats to clean me up.

Just the thought gives me a hard-on.
I have to take deep breaths to hold down my Honey Nut Cheerios. The diesel engine in my chest is doing triple flips. My quivering knees hug together to keep me from wetting myself.

I love it.

This is doable once a month, the second Monday of each month. Street cleaning day. On street cleaning day, no vehicles are allowed to park along the right side of Mission Street, so I can hit top speed down Jones and cut the left turn onto Mission without splattering my giblets all over somebody's paint job, and have my oversight immortalized in some new nickname for this hill.

Now they sound like they're talking to a jumper poised on the edge of a building. "Bail out, dude. If this hill got any steeper, you'd be going it upside down. Just come back and let us laugh at you."

"Yeah. So you lose your job! Bladers don't belong on this detail anyways."

I don the headphones. My skull becomes an angry hornet's nest of speed metal riffs. They are shut out.

The first two traffic lights go green. The last two go red. C'mon, c'mon. Then, the third and middle traffic light--green! I'm off!

Instant hyperspeed.

I'm in my zone now: rubber cheeks pulled back and flapping, shins vibrating like jackhammers, eyeballs shaking like ice cubes in a martini shaker. I swear I can hear the rattling of my vertebrae clacking together. My femur and shin bones are pulling apart and snapping together one hundred times per second, playing tug-of-war with my cartilage. All my favorite kinds of pain are humming together in a perfect chord. My body is a harp string vibrating.

I am a comet, leaving two hot parallel streaks in the sizzling tar behind me. My skates are smoking. My fiberglass wheels are starting to get sticky. A couple bugs splatter on my sunglasses, one splats between the teeth of my shit-eating grin.

I rocket past a long line of briefcase trudgers.

"Shwayyyyyt!" I scream--meaning "sweet"--as I reach the most exalted level of adrenaline overdrive.

"Shwaaayyyt! Shwaaayyyt! Shway-yay-yay-yaayyyt!"
I can imagine my voice Dopplering off behind me, the heads of the drones swiveling to gape.

The music is inside me. Bass drums are thudding in my rib cage, electric guitars shredding blood from my eardrums, bass guitars cracking my skull with each pluck. I am experiencing ultra-face-tuck now. The corners of my mouth can taste my ear wax.

The air friction gradually pulls my headphones off my helmet until they snap away. Now they are flying behind me like a cape. Captain Blader is being garrotted by his own Walkman.

A flock of businesswomen presume to cross my street. I jettison a war cry: standard courier procedure when some ped maggot is about to step in your way. The suits freeze like sheep before the charge of the rabid lion. I tear past and my back gets darted with screechy epithets.

The first three lights, each in succession, turn yellow. I scorch beneath them as each flares red at the top of my vision and bores between my eyebrows like some Hindu implant. The light in front of me flashes green, and the last one beyond that is still red. So far, so good.

O'Farrell Street bump is coming up--not actually a bump but a place where the sixty-degree plummet momentarily levels off for a perpendicular street, then dips down again. My knees take the split-second upward surge like springs. Then--air!

Getting air is like snatching a little piece of eternity. The raucous wheel rattling ceases, the earth melts away, and I am floating. I don't breathe. The only sound is the hum of the tiny rollerblade wheels still spinning on their axes. I am weightless as an angel, free from guilt and shame, a tiny breeze soft as a negligee on my face.

Then I hit street, a hard jolt back to mortality. Knee bones splinter in collision, and I am going faster than when I left the ground. Blader legend says that one second of lost friction increases your speed by ten percent.

The last vibrating red traffic light never turns green as it rockets over my head. Damn, this is too fast.

Still got the Mission Street turn to make. Barreling down in this raging fury, I have to bank it right up against the parking meters on the right side of the street. Coming around the buildings, I glance up Mission, and--

Oh, shit!

Monday! Today is Monday! The second Monday of the month! Right? Street cleaning day!

So then why is there a long line of snugly parked yuppiemobiles sitting smack in the middle of my safety zone?

Waitaminute! The first was a Monday! So this is the third Monday of the month!

I'm street spam. Make this turn tighter? At this speed? Impossible!

Then again, the threat of death has a way of inspiring me.

My right skate is directly behind my left. I snap my right skate around backwards, so I'm skating sideways and my knees are spread-eagled. I raise my elbows up like a figure from an Egyptian hieroglyphic.

I lean, and lean hard. I arch backwards until my spine is retroflexed to the max. I'm trying to bring the back of my skull to my heels, and I can feel sciatic nerves pinching painfully. My thigh muscles twist like steel cables as I bend my femurs to the snapping point. I growl in strain, feel my puckered face go red hot. Sweat peels off my forehead to the hair above my ears.

I make the turn. The mile-long battering ram of steel passes to my right with a whoosh of air displacement, and I am hurtling along its side at a squillion miles per second, hearing the steady hum of the parked cars as I pass, an eerie acoustic phenomenon caused by the echo of my wheels. I snap my right leg back around frontwards, get down in a squat like a tubing surfer, and careen along two feet from the car doors like a little cannonball.

I'm in a fetal position, for good speed and in preparation for death, to leave this world in the position I entered it. I'm down below the windows, so a meter feeder couldn't see me even if he glanced over his shoulder.

I zoom up behind a snorting bus lugging its ass up Mission like a crippled hippo. I can't lose the momentum that will carry me to Fifth Street, so I hold my breath as I pass through its black flatulence and wriggle into the narrow steel alley between the leviathan and the parked vehicles. Standard courier maneuver. We call it "chrome sandwich." Keep your elbows tucked close. It looks suicidal, but it's actually pretty safe. Nothing is going to kill me in here, unless--

A car door opens, seventy feet in front of me. It splays its wing like a steel beetle, and out from its armpit steps an Armani shoe. I will cover that distance in one second, with no room to brake or swerve. The car is an open-air convertible with the door window rolled all the way down.

I stand up straight, put one skate in front of the other, and head straight for that door.
The opened door hurtles towards my balls at forty-five MPH. In the half-second I have to act, I see the leathered toe turn outwards, the knee bend for leverage. He is a millisecond from stepping out into my path.

I prance like Baryshnikov, pull my heels into the small of my back, grab my toes with one hand, and--groin muscles be damned--bend them up towards my ear.
Door flashes beneath me. Release toes. Skates clash with perfect precision on the pavement. Bus slips away and shrinks to bunny size. Death is behind me.

As my skates lose momentum and noise at sea level, I hear the cheers of onlookers, who would have been just as thrilled to see me bite it. My chest pistons are thudding out my elation. I want to gasp the whole sky into my lungs. This is the only time I really feel alive.

Twirling around and skating backwards, I can just barely see my innocent motorist sitting frozen in his car with one Armani shoe on the pavement and mouth agape. As I sailed over his leg, I felt the businessman's nose pass within inches of my right buttock.
I cannot tell you how much this immature yet sublime little notion means to me.

I spin, hop the curb, leap a snoozing drunk getting a suntan in the middle of the sidewalk, pull the package out of my backpack, and skid to a halt beneath a street sign. Mission and Fifth. Ten feet from my toes is the delivery site: a Chinese restaurant built into the first floor of an abandoned hotel. A well-dressed Asian man launches out the front door, snatches my package, and skitters back inside.

"Yo! Where's my receipt?"

He's gone. I look at my watch.

12:53.

Fuck if I'm gonna let this weasel gyp me out of my five hundred bucks. I gun after him, barge into the dimly lit restaurant under the prissy gaze of the bourgeois gaping at this sweaty tattoo punk desecrating their snobatorium. My eyes catch the package-snatcher heading through the back kitchen.

"Yo, motherfucker! Hold up!"

The maitre d' steps forward. "Can I help you?" he whimpers.

I body-check him aside and skate across the carpet into the bright shrine of the greasy kitchen, dart in and out of shuffling cooks, and just barely notice the gofer scampering through a small green door in the back like Alice's white rabbit.

I got him now. Spitting venom and vitriol, I charge after him.

Just before I reach the small green door, it swings wide, and out steps a gargantuan olive-skinned brute who has to duck to fit through the door. He steps at me and battering-rams my chest with one lead forearm.

My neck snaps forward as the bright tile room crishes to scattering diamonds behind my eyes. Tender lumps instantly sprout on either side of my bitten tongue. It feels like somebody just fired a howitzer off my sternum. I blink and look up into his face, pretending I can still breathe.

I wait for him to tell me I ain't getting in. He doesn't. He's Caucasian, and he's wearing a perfectly tailored suit, with a striped green, white, and red tie, looking about as incongruous in this environment as I do. His slit eyes glow a reptilian green, and he smiles at me. He looks deep into my pupils and espies my innermost animal nature, the ancient part of me that remembers being prey.

Here's a guy who enjoys his job.

Usually in a situation like this, I would be worrying about preserving my dumbass phallocentric ego. But this motherfucker is huge. I'll be tough some other day--when a smaller guy bullies me, maybe.

Besides, I can't fight on blades. Believe me, I've tried it. Rollerblades are as crippling as they are empowering. On the move, I am invincible. Standing still, I'm a sheep limping through a lion's famine.

I yank my eyes away from his hypnotic talent and race back through the gawking restaurant, feeling like an Arab who just farted in a synagogue, and hurtle out into daylight. I spy a phone booth across the street and attract a few tire squeals and horn honks getting to it. I pounce up the curb and snatch the receiver from a businessman who is fingering through his wallet in search of his phone card. I look at my watch. Thirty seconds to 12:55.

I fumble through my pockets for a quarter and feverishly stab out the number to Mel's courier line.

"Make your report."

"Yo Mel, man, it's me, Chet Griffin."

"Rollerboy?"

"Yeah, that's me. Hey, the delivery was made, man. Homeboy didn't even give me a--"

"Go home."

"Wha?"

"Go on home. You did good. Now just go home."

"I just want to confirm that I get five hundred--"

Click.

I slam the phone into its stirrup and glare at my watch.

12:55.

I made it.

I breathe deeply, snaking my trailing headphones around my neck. I thumb off the Walkman tape, snipping the clashy whispering of white noise.

The adrenaline high simmers and passes. My heart cools just before its meltdown. The drudgery of safety returns.

I am no longer alive.

Slowly reclaiming possession of me is the incessant agitation of my life, the twitching sinews knotted into muscles, the frustration in the marrow of my bones. Damn it all! It always fades! I want one pure experience to wipe the boiling hunger from my blood. I want to catch one crystal piece of timelessness and carry it with me in my pocket. I need to escape this utterly damned existence of mine. I lust for the ultimate rush.

Sound shallow? Fuck you.

New Age bliss ninnies say that life is filled with choices. That's bullshit. There is only one choice: Will you live for comfort or adventure?

The price of stability is drudgery. The price of ecstasy is agony. I don't want the meaning of life. I want the experience of being alive.

Hell, I don't even want the meaning of my job. What is Mel delivering? Is it legal? Who cares. I got no business pondering the upper echelons of the economic structure of which I am a single disposable and semiloose basement screw. On the list of Seven Deadly Courier Sins, ranked right up there with Sloth and Flaccidity, is Curiosity. Succumbing to Curiosity might lead me to break the psychic stone tablets on which are written the Two Courier Commandments:

Commandment I: Ask no questions

Commandment II: Never look inside the package

Represented by Richard Curtis Associates, Inc. 
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email: rcurtis@curtisagency.com 
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