Can’t Get There Fast Enough

One of the men shifted, noisily, and Peach jerked around, ears twitching, and bared her fangs.

“Hoh shit,” muttered one of the men further away, and Peach hissed at him, ears flattened, ready to launch off Keisha’s arm at any of them.

Her truncated tail kept flicking from side to side in her sweats, jerking at the fabric. Keisha scruffed the frantic muscles of her neck. “Breath, Peach. Deep breath. Good. Again.”

Tee Pom asks, “Your gal there okay?”

Keisha blinked hard. “Yeah,” she said, “You driving? You let her sniff you, she might calm down.”

“I’d be pleased to,” Tee Pom said gravely, moving around to where the night breeze blew downwind from him, and then he held out both his hands, palm up, as if he met nervous bagheeras every day of the week.

Peach craned her neck forward, eyes wide. She gave a distressed little whine, digging her claws into Keisha’s arm.

“Mama, easy there. He ain’t gonna rush you. Just take your time,” Keisha murmured into the ears. “Talk to me, baby. Tell me what he smells like.”

Tears welled up in Peach’s eyes. “Seung,” she said, more of a half-strangled mew than a clear name. “Blood. Smell of… sick. Two Seung.”

“Two of Seung, huh?” Keisha said.

“Seung hurt!” Peach said, struggling to get it out.

“Yeah, he was, but he’s gonna get better now,” Tee Pom agreed, looking carefully away from Peach’s wild eyes.

“Easy, mama, I hear you,” Keisha said, stroking her neck and the base of her ears.

“I’d like to get you to the clinic so you can see he’s okay now. We took him to Doctor Alexander to get help,” Tee Pom repeated.

“Thank God,” Keisha sighed into Peach’s neck fur. Then she asked softly, “Can you smell that too? Doctor smell?”

“Stinky wash cut.”

“You’re a big help talking, telling me things. I just love you to bits,” Keisha said, hugging her.

Peach looked up at Keisha nervously. “Not bad doctor?”

Keisha drew in a deep breath.

Tee Pom said quietly, “Man, there’s a gal who’s had a tough life.”

“Yeah, she has,” Keisha agreed, stroking Peach’s forearms and neck. “Good girl. Good.”

“Not bad?” Peach demanded, digging in her nails.

“I swear he’s a good doctor,” Tee Pom said solemnly, putting his hand over his chest.

“Good doctor?” she whispered, kneading her nails at Keisha anxiously.

Tee Pom murmured, “Easy now, easy, sweet gal. Seung will be fine. Alexander’s the best doctor he could ever get, I swear. Your friend Seung is gonna want to see you.”

“How bad is he hurt?” Keisha wanted to know.

“You know that thing in his back? Doctor Alexander has to take it out, tout de suite.” Tee Pom said grimly.

“Oh,” Keisha grunted, as if she got hit in the gut.

“Oh yeah. Your guy say he’s not going under without you. Tomorrow, probably. Don’t worry, the doctor takes his medicine seriously. We gotta get you ladies movin’, okay?”

Peach nudged her. Keisha loosened her frozen grip on the girl’s shoulders. Keisha blinked down at her, gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Okay, now? You okay with going to see Seung?”

Peach smelled the wind coming past Tee Pom. “Okay,” Peach growled. “Okay.”

“He smell okay to you?” Keisha asked again, feeling how her legs were shaking, and how Peach was wobbly too.

“Okay,” Peach said, and buried her face in Keisha’s shoulder, and shivered.

“Girl’s getting shocky?” Tee Pom asked.

“Yeah,” Keisha said, feeling a bit shocky herself. Peach, getting fierce like that!

“Truck’s over this way, ma’am.” He gestured, and the other guys moved back, leaving plenty of room.

Keisha took a couple of steps toward the truck. “ID,” she said, a croak with her throat so hoarse.

“Of course,” Tee Pom said, and pulled out his wallet. He turned one of the lights, held his badge into the light. “Some folks don’t believe it when I say the lawman’s gotta be adaptable, workin’ this parish.”

Keisha guided Peach into sitting down first on the truck seat, and then leaned over her, leaning on Peach. When Peach stopped shaking and shivering so much, she urged Peach to get up again, and Keisha slid onto the seat so she’d be holding Peach.

Tee Pom held out another bottle of water. “Want me to open it?”

Keisha nodded, accepted it, urged Peach to drink some more. Then she got them both tucked up into the cab, blankets pulled in, and Tee Pom shut the door. Keisha felt Peach start crying. She just stroked the soft fur, up and down, feeling hair sticking all over her crusted wet hands. Peach was stress-shedding just like a housecat. “It’s okay, mama, it’s gonna be okay. You just cry all you want, it’s okay.”

“Seung hurt bad?” Peach whimpered into her shoulder.

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out, mama. I am gonna find out.”

Into their open window, Tee Pom said, “We think he oughta be okay, but the Doctor still gotta figure things out on him.  We all were hoping you could help on that.”

Keisha said flatly, “Maybe you should tell your buddy Fozzie he has a problem with his guy Mike.  Wolfy boy with pointy Doberman ears. Mike turned Fozzie’s truck over to those… things.  The guys who locked us in the shed.”

“Yeah?  We will do that,” Tee Pom said.  Then he nodded and walked away around the truck, talking to the other guys. “Yeah, you heard right. Mike going bad, that’s the worst kinda news. You got Fozzie’s number? You peel off ahead and get you some cell coverage, you call him right away. Whatever those bugs wanted with that truck, or with these two women, or with that other naga boy, we wanna know it.”

Mutters.  Somebody growled, “Oh God, Fozz is gonna blow sky high.”

Tee Pom said, “Sure is.  I want Fozz workin’ his end first. Best chance is Fozz hunting Mike down, oh, you bet–and he’s gonna ask that boy what the hell that was about. You might remind him that we might have some different questions to ask Mike too, I don’t want nobody disappearing into some bayou. Now, what I want is Mike nice and clean and pretty in a cell, ready to load up for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and battery, but we’ll be lucky if that ever happens.  Still, that’s what I want, if anybody was askin’.  Plus, we need pictures of those two ladies right away down the clinic, get some shots of Keisha’s poor hands. Yeah, you know it. Hope she didn’t break any knuckles.”

Tee Pom opened the driver’s side door, watching the flinches of Peach’s ears as he climbed in, as he buckled up and got the ignition going.  He acted like he knew just how fast a nervous bagheera can lash out.

Keisha whispered, “I didn’t know till we tried to run away, but those guys, we saw they got these weird white crab arms… and things. Seung… called ’em bug troops.”

Tee Pom put the truck in gear.  “Thank you for the warning, Ma’am, that’s a mighty big help.”

Kiesha nodded. She tucked her nose into Peach’s fur, drawing in the dusty-flower smell. Dark trees flashed by, and they just couldn’t go fast enough. All she wanted was to get hold of her boy again.

Seung’s Women

A flash of light speared his brain; Seung shut his eyes once more and kept them that way. Everything hurt. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like this, hot and chilled at the same time, every joint either throbbing with a dark ache or painfully on fire. Someone told him to stop screaming for fuck’s sake and take this, which he did, washing down the single pill with a tumbler of blessedly wet water, and he went back to sleep again.

The next time he woke he cataloged the sounds of water hitting a fiberglass hull, frogs and crickets, people talking nearby in a lilting dialect, a buzz of activity. There was only a dim light burning, and through his carefully slitted eyes he could see the beginnings of dawn light outside the window.

“…coming in, got about five more minutes on the road, Tee Pom says,” a woman’s clear voice remarked. “Dance, can you.. thank you, lovie.” The scent of the other one– the snake– came to his nostrils, and with it a flood of saliva. He swallowed past a raw throat.

“Older Brother,” Dance’s upper class Korean, “Our outriders are coming back with your friends, will you wake for them?”

“Women?” Seung mumbled.

Dance repeated it in English.

“Yes, your women,” Emma said. “Tee Pom says they are a little bit hurt, he’s bringing them straight here.”

“My women hurt!” Seung tried to sit up at that, struggling with his restraints. “Let me–”

“Older Brother, be calm,” Dance said. “The doctor will attend them, here in your presence. You must rest and grow strong once more.”

The snake man honored him? Seung drew in a great, gasping breath and lay still, listening to the rushing of his own blood in his body, and listening for the diesel engine.

“Get her head back,” the doctor’s voice came from outside.  “You ignorant sonofabitches, back!  No, no, let her go– let go, give her a minute, you sorry bastard.”

“What is happening?” Seung asked the snake man.

“Your woman is a scrapper,” Dance said at the window, and charged out, his tail whipping once against the doorjamb as he went. It raked a vivid scar down into raw wood.

The doctor’s strident voice was going on. “Never try to restrain someone in convulsions like that.  What the hell are you thinking, she’ll tear her own muscles apart!  Dance, thank God you’re here…” The voices sank to mumbles, but Seung heard Peach now, her growl rising and falling rhythmically, and he felt choked with frustration.

He heard movement in the next room now, the creak of cot springs. A sad little meow from Peach ripped a bellow through Seung’s throat, leaving him coughing. And the next thing he knew was a warm furry weight landing upon him, Peach’s dry-grass fragrance and her glass-blue eyes inches from his. “Seung!” she said. “Seung, Keisha, Seung!”

“What about Keisha, dushka moy?” he croaked out.

Dance came to the door. “She’s well, Older Brother, only dehydrated. She will be with you in only a few more moments. She was convulsing and is now not awake, but you will have her quickly, I promise.” He said into the doorway, “Bring the whole cot in, we’ll get her fluids hooked up in here.”

“Who died and made you the doctor?” the doctor groused, but Dance only laughed, and and Seung heard the gurney casters protesting as Alexander and Emma wheeled it into the room, maneuvering it into place next to him.

Keisha lay limp, dark against the white sheet. There was a thin crescent of white showing under her eyelids, which hadn’t completely closed, and Seung wanted badly to stroke them shut. Her skin was ashen. Doctor Alexander, muttering, shuffled into the cramped space with a glittering bag of saline to hook up to her arm; Peach all but leapt at him, growling.

“Hey! I’m not hurting her, kitty, swear it.” Doctor Alexander said. It was, Seung realized, the first sentence the man had said without swear words. He spoke differently, talking to Peach. “C’mon, little girl. Lemme do my work.”

“Only I hold Peach,” Seung said, and rattled his restraints. Doctor Alexander looked over, measuringly, nodded at Emma, who reached over and unbuckled the leather bands on Seung’s bedframe.

“My dushka, you come here now,” Seung ordered. “Come.” And Peach actually did so, nuzzling into his armpit, licking his face frantically. Wads of shed fur came off her. Seung wrapped grateful arms around her, crooning. “Little love, little love…” Together, they watched the doctor clean wounds and wrap white bandages around Keisha’s hands. “What did that?” Seung demanded.

“Keisha hit house.” Peach whispered. “Hit door, hit wood house, many hits. Kick lots.”

Seung was surprised into a bark of laughter. He reached painfully across, rested his hand on the dark, soft skin of Keisha’s shoulder.

“Tee Pom says she was that close to breaking right through the wall,” Emma said. “She’s a fighter, your woman.”

“Is good, my woman,” Seung said. The saline bag shifted as it emptied, trickling its lifegiving fluids into Keisha’s’s bloodstream. Contentedly, he watched the steady rise and fall of her breathing, and held Peach close.

Helping Keisha’s Crew

It ought to be Dance’s twin curled up in the clinic bed. But this man isn’t identical. Dance says he calls Seung Older Brother in Korean, and it fits. Seung looks older, more weather-beaten, heavier through the shoulders and torso, his hands are scarred up from fights, and his eyes are deadly quiet. He makes Dance look like he’s all bubbles and froth and witty jokes and queer as hell. That’s freaky. Dance hasn’t changed a bit.

Seung just doesn’t talk, not in any language. In the hours since he was brought in here, Dance practically had to pull teeth to get him to admit he needed more painkillers for his back.

So it’d been a shock to see Seung’s face open up like that, to see him hugging the poor skinny gray tabby bagheera girl so close. There– there’s Dance’s twin. Emma feels the all-too-familiar twist of blind anger at the bug labs, the rotten war machine that sacrificed this beautiful creature to the filthy alleys of Earth.

“Smelling the girl stomach is empty,” Seung says, working at it slowly. “Not eat, sick, fall over, yes?”

“Yeah, that wouldn’t help one bit,” Doctor Alexander says briskly. He smiles at Peach. “When did you ladies eat last?”

Peach’s ears go flat against her skull.

“Easy now,” Doctor Alexander says, and takes a step closer to Peach, who growls.

“She wants to rip your guts out,” Emma warns, from across the room.

“Well, of course. You know how bagheeras get twitchy when their people are hurt, just part of the business,” Doctor Alexander says, as if he’s been doing it for years. He looks at Peach, waiting for an answer.

Peach bares her teeth, and nobody takes the slightest notice of it. Seung just clicks his tongue, and Peach looks at him, clearly anxious. Seung strokes the ears back upright, as if he knows exactly how to get her to calm down again.

“How many days since you ate?” Doctor Alexander repeats. He’s far more patient with her than any other adult so far.

Peach just shakes her head. She’s struggling for words, the mute look on her face is just like one of the tiny kids at the library.

“One day?” Seung murmurs into her fur. “Two?  Many? How many?”

Peach shakes her head. Holds up three fingers, puts up a fourth, frowns, puts it down again.

“Okay, you want a bag of glucose?” Emma asks Doctor Alexander.

“Yes,” he grunted. “Peach will need some protein, too.   They run off calories so fast.”

Emma nods, hands him another of the floppy plastic bags of fluid, and walks away. “I’ll bring over some of Dance’s food from the house later.”

“Emma,” Seung says.

She turns, enquiringly.

“Good.”

“You’re welcome,” Emma says, surprised and pleased.

She finds herself smiling again at home in the kitchen as she puts together a baggie of sandwiches and another of plain, cooked bluegill fillet.

She glances into the bedroom, finds Drin is still conked out in bed, exhausted. He sat up most of the night going over every inch of Dance’s parasail skin, obsessively working out every last bubble of extra pooled blood that might leave bruises and damage, muttering to himself sometimes and adjusting the lamp. Dance was asleep under his hands before he got halfway done. When Drin did finally curl up next to Dance, he kept one arm around him possessively. As the Intarwebs might put it, pwned, and who pwns who there? Emma asked herself, wryly. Neither of them had stirred when she pulled a sheet over them both.

Now she adjusts the floor fan to make Drin more comfortable in the warm room, and he gives a little sigh and goes back to sleep.

Then she rummages for paper plates and plastic utensils, and she thinks about where to find mules or flipflops that might fit Peach’s feet comfortably enough. She’s got frequent lectures on it from Doctor Alexander while they’re waiting for things to cook or things to cool or things to arrive, like the other volunteers at the clinic. Alexander insists that cheap flipflops have kept more people worldwide from getting nasty parasites endemic in the mud than anything else they know. He hands them out from a huge box to the children. She’s ordered some more adult-sized ones.

Back at the clinic, she finds none of the ones in the box are Peach’s size. She makes a note on her shopping list, and goes in the back room to ask what else the clinic might need from town. Clothes for the new Trio, certainly.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Emma says, putting things down on a counter and turning, speaking to them. She smiles at the dark woman on the gurney next to Seung. The woman is not quite sitting, propped up on pillows, with the IV taped on her wrist. Peach is leaning into her on the other side from Seung.

“You hold a minute,” the woman growls at Seung. Her face looks so strange and harsh that Emma takes a couple of steps toward her. From the new angle, Emma sees now that woman’s other hand is busy. She’s got a pair of scissors in her fist, and she’s digging the points into Seung’s throat. He’s got his hands down, not stopping her. Just looking at the woman.

Emma stops short. “Alex,” she whispers.

“Ahh,” Alexander says, from the door, and he stands still. “Dance went to get some–”

Peach gives a soft little cry of distress.

“Quiet,” the dark woman says, and Peach is silent. “I want my boy to tell me.”

Seung looks at the woman. Then he says, “I was slow. Bugs fast.”

“Yeah, I know. But you knew those guys.”

Seung looks aside, lowers his eyes, turns his chin up. It’s remarkably doglike.

“Don’t you be belly-uppin’ on me,” the woman growls at him, eyes narrowed.

Seung swallows hard enough to make the scissors move. “Mike surprise me. Not good, I was slow.”

The woman glares. “No shit. So you saw those guys on the road, and–”

“For Peach,” Seung says. “They put you off locked up safe, I get you out later. I hope.”

“Keisha?” It’s the tiniest whimper.

“Hush Peach.”

“First thing is keep you alive, Keisha. Most important. I fight, you be killed, I know this, know.”

“They ain’t after me, they came after you.” Keisha says.

“They don’t kill me. They kill you.” Seung’s eyes go pale.

Emma knows that look, those pale eyes, and she draws in a shallow breath.

“Don’t you say nuthin’,” Keisha growls, one quick glance up at Emma and down again to Seung, just that fast.

Emma knows it was plenty of time for Seung to reach up and disarm her. Keisha probably knows it too. But she’s staring into Seung’s face, leaning close, jaw muscles bulged out.

Seung puts up his hand and rests it on Keisha’s hip, and she growls, and he takes it off again. He lifts it toward her arm instead, and she jerks in place, growling. “Talk to me,” Keisha says.

Seung takes several deep breaths. “Okay,” he says, gulping. He lifts his hand again, frustrated, and puts it down on the pillow next to him instead. “Okay.”

“Tell me how you know those guys.”

“Boss buy them.  Bugs. We get on ship, come here, boss say get cargo, tell me go get Peach and get laptop on the other ship. Not telling why.”

“Sonuvabitch,” Keisha says, and draws in several hard breaths, nostrils snorting wide. Then she turns the scissors away from his throat, and down onto his forearm instead, pressing in a dent. “Doesn’t that even hurt?”

He waves it off with his other hand, which is still bandaged from the claw-marks Dance reports came from an initial tangle with Peach. “Not big hurt. Back is big hurt.”

Keisha looks at him, and nods, and throws the scissors down on the floor, and covers her eyes with her knuckles.

“Boss lady,” Seung says.

Keisha sits up, and gives a yelp of pain. “Damn, my back too. Okay, you tell me where your damn boss found those damn bug things, I swear I’ll kick me some bug ass–”

“Would you like some help?” Emma says, amused. God, she is a fighter!

Keisha glares up at her. “Yeah?” Her tone says, plain as words, What the fuck would you know about bugs? and Emma is surprised at the sting.

Doctor Alexander grunts, carrying in folders, and shoves them into a filing cabinet. “You want to learn how to stop bugs, ask Emma. She goes with her guys on bug raids, they’re the local snipers we call for help. She’s given me a dozen of her kills as bug cadavers to dissect. Stinking worst dissection jobs I ever dealt with, too.”

Keisha narrows her eyes. “What do you shoot those fuckers with?”

“Stuff that leaves a big fucking hole,” Alexander growls, glaring at Emma.

Emma shrugs. “I’m backup with one of our smaller shotguns, for closeup stuff like head shots. Don’t bother with gut shots, it won’t stop ’em. We’re overloading with lots of duck or goose shot pellets. When we’re down to scratch and I’m borrowing a machine pistol from Michel’s crew, those guys use crazy crap like flare guns and stuff, I never know what the hell they’ve got in there. I think a .32 round is about as small as you want to use. Armor-piercing shells make me feel better, but not if you’re trying to hold bugs off somebody’s house. Go right through six walls and somebody’s kid.”

Keisha grunts. “So you musta grew up shooting?  Fox hunts, that kinda crap?”

Emma gives a grim smile. “Not exactly. Dingos and kangaroos and saltwater crocs and rabbits. Lots of rabbits, even the ones getting mangled by myxo disease. Oh, and cane toads. God, I hate cane toads.”

Seung growls. “Toads blow,” he says, when Keisha looks at him.

Emma smiles. “Yeah. So do saltwater crocs.”

Keisha narrows her eyes again. “So you’re Dance’s bitch?”

Emma lifts her hand with a little flourish, bowing. “And Drin’s. No, they never put the toilet seat down. But I forgive that one, because Dance is such a damn fine cook.”

“I cook too,” Seung says, looking at Keisha, and stroking Peach’s ears.

Keisha looks at him. “That’s good, my man, because you’re my bitch.”

“Okay,” Seung says. He knows perfectly well what the slang means. “Pussy-whip me.”

Keisha growls at him.

He just smiles. It is a very wicked, merry smile, and eerily familiar. “Dance tells.”

Keisha glares up at Emma, and Emma just holds up both hands open and flat, chuckling. “You’d have to ask Dance about that one.”

“I do, I ask him,” Seung says. “Younger Brother say to me, oh yes, Keisha say jump, I am asking how high. Want so bad, beg and beg. Screwed six ways from Sunday, no need on wearing stupid dog leash.”

“He said that?” Emma says.

Seung says, “Oh yes.”

“Oh Christ, that probably sounded worse in Korean than it does in English,” Emma says, chewing on her lower lip.

“Yes,” Seung says. “Lots and lots rude. Like man schoolteacher in girl panties, not even sorry.”

Keisha’s eyebrows are a sight to behold.

“No lie, true,” Seung says. He holds up his hand, palm flat. “Worse than wearing dog leash.”

Emma opens her mouth, sees Keisha’s skeptical eye, and shuts her mouth again.

“Okay, my man, that’s enough TMI for today. Peach, give that boy a smack, I gotta wait till my hands aren’t sore.”

Peach reaches over, frowning in concentration, and delivers a open-handed swat that leaves scratch marks on Seung’s shoulder. He flinches, making a face, as if movement in the wound in his back is what hurt him. Peach gives him a worried look, patting him lightly on the forearm, until his face calms down again.

“Okay,” Keisha says firmly.

Peach looks between them, and says, “Okay now?”

Keisha reaches up her hand, the one with the tape and the IV drip in it, and rests it on Peach’s shoulder. “Yeah, mama, we are all right.”

Peach leans in closer, uttering a sigh of relief. So does Seung. Keisha reaches up and grabs a wad of his hair and grips it hard, in spite of how much it must hurt her. She leans her face into his, and kisses his forehead, more like a bite than a caress. He gives another big sigh.

Alexander snorts and starts pulling out folders, muttering. Then he blinks at the three people in the beds. “You folks need anything?”

“Water,” Seung says firmly.

“I got it,” Emma says. She fills glasses, drops straws in them, hands them around. Peach croons at Keisha, nudging the glass in her hand, and Keisha glares, but sips at it.

“If you guys are hungry, I can get some sandwiches from the fridge here–” Emma offers.

Keisha glances away. “S’okay.”

Emma has the suspicion that Keisha doesn’t want to admit she can barely sit up enough to eat. Alexander had said something about muscle cramps, that she needed to get more potassium in her, from sweating so long out in the heat with no food or water.

Emma knows better than to get pushy finding out where Seung’s former boss picked up those bug troops, but it’s hard to control herself. Emma looks at Seung. “If the place where your former boss picked up bug troops isn’t close here, we maybe could pass it along to some friends in that other area to knock ’em down.”

Seung points at his head. “I tell Preacher where, loud.”

“Ah, then he’s dealt with reporting it,” Emma nods. She looks at Keisha then. “Oh yes– Tee Pom tells me Michel’s boys got in touch with Fozzie, they let him know about Mike. I guess Fozzie about blew a gasket.”

“That’s the problem with havin’ too many friends, one of ’em always likes to roll over on the whole party,” Keisha says.

“Fozzie rescues a lot of people,” Emma says quietly.

Keisha grunts. “Hey, everybody needs a hobby.”

Emma aims a pointed look at Seung and Peach, and Keisha glowers back.

“We are not being your hobby,” Seung tells Keisha, to no reaction.  “Is not,” he repeats, crossly, glaring at Keisha, who only glares right back.

“Why not?” Keisha growls.

“You get only me and Peach. We lots work.”

Emma can’t help it. She tilts her head upward, smiling. “You have been talking to Dance.”

“What’s so funny?” Keisha demands. “You think that sounds too much like your snakeman?”

Emma nods. “When those two get to cracking jokes, it’s gonna get tough.”

“You think Seung would be better off stayin’ with you guys, after he heals up.” Keisha is wooden-faced.

Emma shakes her head. “What? No. That’s up to all of you. But you’re all welcome to stay. The whole bayou here is zoomorph families, it’s safe for us to walk around in daylight here.”

“Much as anywhere is safe, huh? Except when guys like Mike start handin’ you over to the Man.”

Emma shrugs. “Nobody expected that.”

Keisha shrugs too, like a sharp little imitation. “Always some damn fool spoils the party.”

“I don’t know how they paid Mike off, if they did. Far as I can poke around, nobody in Mike’s family got new money. Now, I talked to Michel about old-time ways to bribe.  His family are all old-school smuggling, old-style discipline.  Oh lordy, they were pissed off, Tee Pom had quite a job talking them down from just shooting Mike on sight. Now, on tracking down newer ideas, things like internet chats and payments, that kind of thing, that’s where we could use your ideas.”

“I think maybe Fozzie got too many friends.  It’s too easy for some crooked parish guys to use other things.  Get somebody’s dumb kid brother outta jail, no money down.”

Emma blinks. “Thanks. I’ll look into friends and relatives getting off on some criminal or civil charges during the last few weeks.” She makes herself a note to follow up on certain arrest records. “So if you don’t like big groups like Fozzie’s bunch, why would you want to go visit your aunt Lacey?”

“What about my aunt Lacey?” Keisha’s voice sounds flat, spooky.

“Well, she is the one running Fozzie’s horse farm.  Hell, she runs Fozzie, and he’d be the first to say so, she’s his wife from way back, nobody knows how old they are.  The horse ranch is, oh, about sixty miles from here. He’s always out on the road.  Lacey is the one who sorts out zoomorph rescues, keeps the farm and the lab functioning, keeps the trucks running, the whole thing.”

“Aw, shit.” Keisha, for once, is honestly astonished, her dark eyes round. “That’s– shit, man, my auntie? I remember her puttin’ on her gloves for church, man.”

“There’s only one Lacey in the swampland,” Emma says, grinning at the idea of Lacey wearing gloves to church, enjoying some well-deserved peace and quiet while she visited a wandering niece. “We owe her big time.  That horse farm lab of hers helps out patients here all the time, they helped sort out Dance’s changes, so–”

“Just– no.” Keisha holds up her hand, half laughing. “No, that’s just too weird, I get me these zoobabies and the person I was going to see anyway is all over it– Nuh-uh.”

“Oh, I know.  It’s been like that for me as well, all these Odd Coincidences. Well, anyway, I’m running off to the store now and pick up some sandals for Peach. Are there any clothes I could pick up for you guys? Jeans or tees or–”

“No, we’re good,” Keisha goes flat again. “Don’t worry about Peach, we’ll see to her.”

“It’s clinic policy,” Emma says. She feels her backbone stiffening up. Seung looks over to his boss as if he’d like to contradict her. Time to get out, before she snaps back something regrettable.

Fozzie even warned her, once, that some folks weren’t happy about needing help, and they hated admitting it when they got it. Some other folks were sure the world owed them everything, so they took it all for granted, and treated their rescuers like dirty servants. And some people were just too angry to keep a lid on it.

Fozzie just smiled, telling her. It didn’t bother him.  He’s seen too much weird to get ruffled over it.

Doctor Alexander gives Emma a glance, eyebrow raised.

She nods stiffly, and says, “So after I get back from that, I’ll head off to my laptop. Give me a call if you need anything, Doctor.”

Keisha gives one of those grunts that says worlds.

Emma heads for the door, tight-lipped.

File drawers clatter. Alexander’s voice comments, “Busy lady. Works on all kinds of stuff on her computer, tracking things, keeping up on legal cases, running business stuff for folks. No time for visiting like this, most days.”

“Good for her ass,” Keisha’s voice replies.

Then the latch clicks, and their voices are muffled. Emma lifts her head and folds her arms and walks away, disappointed. She was looking forward to talking to another woman about Dance, about Dance’s genetic twin, hoping for some common ground with the fierce black woman. But she’s been living in the South long enough to know that plenty of folks will not respond kindly to innocent West-Coast-style overtures from her.  She’s never cautious enough.

It always makes her so furious.

Alexander’s Prelim Findings

“Okay, I got some good news and some bad news. Question is, do you want me to tell you by yourself, or share it with Peach and Keisha?”

Seung blinked at Doctor Alexander. The painkiller was starting to take the sharp edges off. He thought he’d have a twenty-minute window of sense before it really kicked in and put him back to sleep. For several days now, he was on a teeter-totter between too much and too little medication. The doctor said his liver was knocking it down faster than normal. A lot faster.

“You mean, tell them or not?” Seung said through the fog.

“Yes,” Doctor Alexander said shortly. “It’s your rights.”

Seung didn’t let anybody else into his personal business since he was about twelve. But when he opened his mouth to say one thing, he heard himself say something else completely. “Want Keisha to hear.”

“And Peach?”

“Peach is okay too. Small words, simple.”

Doctor Alexander waited until Peach and Keisha came out of the restroom. Peach steadied Keisha, who was having headaches bad enough to make her dizzy. Doctor Alexander had talked to them about maybe treating her for a sinus infection. Keisha settled onto the gurney, making a grim face. She complained, once, that her hipbones hurt from the thin bedding. She was a woman, dammit, she had a big old pelvis to haul around. Seung worried about her hipbones, when he had a brain. He liked her hipbones as they were. Peach, too, winced sometimes when she turned onto her side, squeezing in on the gurneys next to them.

“Look like you got a hairball, doctor,” Keisha managed a little smile. She concentrated when Alexander was working with any of them, no matter how crummy she was feeling.

“Well, we thought you two ought to hear this too,” the doctor said. “I’ve got some of the blood work results back from our specialty zoomorph lab. Seung’s doing fine getting over the infection from that metal pin stuck in his back. Now, as I told you last night, we can’t get an Xray to work on him, same as Dance. I checked his reflexes and manipulated his spine this morning when we redid the bandaging–” he nods when Seung makes a sour face. “I really don’t think he’ll have any lasting neurological damage from it. I don’t get any impression of bone fragments to worry about. He might have soft tissue scar tissue and develop reactions like arthritis in later life, but I think it ought to be healthy for a long time. Now, on some of the other things, we don’t have answers yet. They’re still waiting on the DNA sequencing.”

“Who’s they?” Keisha asked.

“The horse farm lab prepared the samples and sent them off to some of their military buddies. I understand the military lab has been studying the zoomorphs for oh, twenty years now. We always send the difficult stuff to them, plus they have better security. Don’t worry about them doing crazy stuff like detaining either of our boys here. I’ve talked to them many times before. They want Dance down here living quiet with other zoomorphs, learning what he can do. Now it’s the same for Seung. They don’t want either of these guys getting provoked or chased around. Now, whether they’ll step in and send some damn troops and help us keep the bug labs cleared away out here, that’s a different problem.”

Keisha frowned. Alexander held up a stern finger and kept talking. “Turns out all of Dance’s different parts are all him. One guy, not Frankenstein. The lab who made him did the stitching at a genetic level.” He looked at Peach. “Dance’s different parts get along fine. We don’t know how they did that. It could really help other people who have problems, if we learned that.”

Peach nodded.

Doctor Alexander nodded back. “Nobody knows how they did that, or how that works. Just for that one thing, Seung and Dance are…valuable resources. We don’t know for sure about Seung yet, but we’ll find out. Anyway, the lab guys are working on identifying Seung’s tissues, and figuring out if Dance and Seung are different. The early gel electrophoresis shows they’re very close, but not identical. I mentioned the military folks wanting things kept quiet, that’s the first big reason.”

Keisha was just staring at the doctor. Seung couldn’t tell if she understood it all. “Not twins?”

“Not identical. Fraternal, maybe.” Doctor Alexander waved one hand impatiently. “One reason we know how Dance grew out is that Emma took pictures and measured him through it. He grew out at a faster rate than any snake we know about. Seung’s tail is growing out at a rate faster than Dance’s did at the same stage. Since Dance had problems with bone growing pain and hurting new raw skin as it was shedding, we’ll have pain meds in case Seung needs them. I’ve got in an order of topical cortisone cream to ease the pain levels if Seung reacts in the same way. We can go to shots if it gets worse. I’m not assuming that you two are the same, but just in case. Do you want me to show you file pictures on what Dance’s scales look like under a microscope and what they can do?”

Seung glanced at Keisha, helplessly. He barely understood half of the words, and putting them together was more than he can manage.

“I thought they were just scales, like a gator, or a cayman,” Keisha said, frowning.

“No. Oh no. Now, Seung hasn’t been feeling good enough to go into details, and Dance is always careful not to scare anybody around this place, but there’s stuff that maybe can get out of hand. Dance’s scales can manage light. They change color and become virtually invisible to infrared sensors. That thing can disappear.” Doctor Alexander shook his head. “From what I’ve been able to see of the larger scales at the base of Seung’s tail, his are the same or close to it. Dance’s scales can throw coherent light–laser light. That collar thing around his neck has scales too. It can generate focused laser light. He shoots bugs with it. That unfolds, it’s huge, got struts, he can actually glide on it as a parasail. The thing can stand up into a band shell for directing the noise when he shouts. That’s completely lab-built, I don’t know of any animal like that.”

Keisha frowned, looking at Seung. “That’s what you saw?”

Seung gave a tight little nod. He’d thought the other man was turning into a helicopter or something. He remembered the tail turning colors, too. Blinding him. He tried to tell Keisha that first night, warn her, but he didn’t have enough words. She said she expected weird stuff when she saw Dance the first time, but it nearly gave her a heart attack to wake up and see him sitting there in a chair near the gurneys, reading some kind of sheet music and humming while his tailtip was conducting it–and arguing with him, in gestures. Enough to give anybody a heart attack.

Doctor Alexander nodded. “Dance grew out other snake parts too. He can adjust the chemistry in his venom sacs. He makes different kinds of drugs against infections and deficiencies, injects a sort of anti-venom. Seung, you gave me that tooth that fell out this morning? Some of Dance’s teeth fell out to make room for his fangs. Looks like it’s the same premolar as his were.”

“Fangs?” Seung said.

Alexander nodded, watching Keisha, not Seung. “Two of them about an inch and three quarters long, midway back along the upper palate.”

“Like mine?” Peach said, baring her front teeth and pointing. Seung blinked. He didn’t remember her fangs being that large, and he’s been kissing her past them.

“Yeah, sweetie, except these teeth fold up, and yours don’t.” Alexander made hinge gestures.

Peach leaned down, peering at Seung, and she put her hand on his lip, happily asking him to open his mouth.

Seung opened his mouth.

Peach stuck her fingers in his mouth, poking around gently, feeling upward with the pads of her fingers. “Oooh, there it is–pull,” she commanded him.

“Careful, don’t get your nose too close in there–” Doctor Alexander said.

“Yes!” Peach said triumphantly, and held out her hand. One fingertip had a little nick on it, and blood welled out of it. “Seung got fangs! Cool!” And she grabbed Keisha’s hand. “See–feel–”

Keisha looked into Seung’s eyes. Then she put the bruised, meaty base of her thumb into his mouth, pushing. “Bite,” she said. “If Dance can heal people, so can you. Fix this sinus infection for me, that’d help a lot.”

Seung made a guttural noise in his throat, protesting.

“I’ve been hearing stories about Dance,” Keisha said, and nodded. “Give it a good hard push, the rest oughta take care of itself.”

Seung closed his eyes, shoved his head forward, pushed his mouth onto her hand, and nothing happened.

Then she popped her other hand on his jaw, a good hard noisy slap.

He felt something click, snap, and thump in his head. He jerked under the force of it, three times. It hurt. Keisha gave a yell too. Then he was tasting blood in his mouth, impossible to tell whose it was. He jerked upward frantically, dragging something up out of the meat of her hand, and then she was free of his grip, gasping.

Seung found himself lying flopped over to one side, hanging onto the gurney, panting. “Sick!”

Peach leaped for a trashcan, and held it for him as he gagged. She patted him. “Keisha get better now,” Peach told him.

He felt their hands supporting him when he finally fell back into the bedding. “Uh uh uh,” he heard himself panting.

“Better?” Keisha said, looking at him. Her hand was bleeding. There were holes in it. Seung pawed frantically, lifted her wrist, turned her hand to see it.

“Oh, don’t you worry, I’m all good now you fixed me up,” she told him.

Seung made a desperate little whine in his throat, unable to find any words at all. He reached out toward the doctor, gestured wildly, unable to reach far enough.

Keisha grabbed his head in both hands. “Look at me,” she said.

He panted, looking.

“You did exactly what I told you,” Keisha said. Her eyes were very big and dark and fierce, a little frightened, a little tired.

He gave another murmur in his throat, unable to stop himself.

She jerked his head slightly, determined. “Look at me,” Keisha said.

He blinked, and watched her.

“You see I’m okay,” Keisha said.

He nodded a little bit.

“That’s good. That’s what I wanted you to do. I’m gonna ask you to bite me again tomorrow. I want you to trust me it’s gonna be okay. Better than okay.”

Seung blinked, squinted, took in deep breaths. “Okay,” he said, hoarsely.

She smiled. “Maybe in a different spot next time.” And she leaned in and licked the side of his face, licking away the smear of blood she left like a thumbprint on him.

“Why?” Seung gasped.

“We gotta clear out those baby venom sacs nice and clean, so they don’t swell up and get infected. And if you know it’s me, it’s gonna be good sweet stuff coming out of you, nobody needs to worry.” Devious woman!

She grinned over at Alexander then. “Think we got it worked out now, oughta be easier next time.”

Doctor Alexander looked a little pale. But he nodded, and he said to Seung, “You got a good taste of her there. You might need to bite her tomorrow too, just to be sure you gave her immune system enough boost.”

“Bandage?” Seung said, worried, frustrated, and touched Keisha’s wrist again.

“Oh yes, if Keisha would like to wash her hands first, we will proceed to bandage her up even more,” Doctor Alexander said.

“Don’t cry,” Peach said, while they were busy, and she hugged him. Seung hugged her very hard, until she squeaked.

Keisha turned from the sink. “We ain’t done yet, Seung, you know that. But we’ll pick it up tomorrow, same time.”

“Same bat channel!” Peach said, and giggled, and yelped when Seung swatted her on the butt. But even her laughter couldn’t keep him awake after that.

Due Process

Grace’s pleated paper fan rustles.   Beside her, Dance is humming, one hand describing circles on the beat.  A few couples are still on the floor even with canned music, reluctant to let the evening end. She’s pleased to see that Coral and Tee Pom are among them, and Coral’s smiling.

“Hey, hey, Michel my love!” sings out a cracked old woman’s voice among the faces. Grace knows the man who Maman Cardoza is greeting; but the smuggler’s face is unusually somber as he comes into the room. He’s a wizened sun-leathered little old swamper, and tonight he’s in muddy camos, not one of his fancy fais-do-do suits. “Hey, Maman,” he say, holding out his hand. He speaks to her in Spanish as comfortably as he spoke Cajun French to some of the older guys by the door when he came in.

Maman Cardoza frowns impressively and speaks aside to her son in a rattle of consonants. Bert Vargas nods to his mother, then his buddy Ricardo murmurs agreement, and they pick up lamps and a compressor from the heap of gear at one side of the stage, and they go outside with it.

Dance stops humming.  He goes still, head tilted as if he’s listening to something.

Tee Pom abruptly stops dancing with Coral. He gestures mildly for her to have a seat, and kisses her. Then he goes over to the knot of people, his face blank and relaxed, which is the deputy at his most dangerous.  Michel speaks to him with a gesture toward the door, and then both men are crossing the floor to Dance and Grace.

Michel bows to Grace, and then he shakes Dance’s hand lightly. “Will you look at all these pretty ladies! My my!  I hate ruining a good party, I surely do.”

“What’s the trouble?” Grace asks.

Michel shakes his head, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “Mister Dance, I think maybeso you and Tee Pom ain’t goan’ like what we brung round in my truck. Me and my boys, you know, we heard a few things, then we found this guy on the bayou road by the dog kennels.”

Grace isn’t sure what signal gets passed, but Dance’s husband Drin is drifting into range without a word said.

“Creepy, like. I mean, we know it ain’t Dance, first time we saw him, but he do look like–”

Tee Pom looks at Michel and says a few words in Spanish, and he gets a nod from the old guy. “Where’s your boys, Michel? Don’t tell me you brought in this crazy man by yourself?”

Michel gives a wide grin. “Dobro and Sneakers, they sittin’ on him with a few guns. Got him all wrapped up in duct tape.”

Grace has seen Michel’s boys get busy on bug raids. She’s seen them coolly choosing for range, plucking one gun and then another out of the welded racks slung inside the truck bed walls. They wrestle gators for weekend shows in town, and work traplines on weekdays. Michel’s grand-daughter taught Tangerine how to shoot at competition-level.  So nobody gets too fussy about all the firepower racked in their trucks. Tee Pom has been known to mutter against Michel and his Wile E. Coyote smuggler’s tricks.  Michel’s bunch think it’s funny as hell when they get to bring in something and report to Tee Pom because they’re on the same damn side, for once.

“You wanna bet that your buddy Hyphen can get the drop on those boys, even with a serious duct-tape handicap?” Tee Pom says to Dance.

“Don’t know, if he’s still pinned in human form,” Dance says.

“Not in the shape he in, all drunk off his mind. You hear him, all his cussin’ and yellin’?”

Dance tilts his head again, as if he is listening to something, half-distracted.

“You ain’t gonna have Emma get out them cable ties again, are you?” Tee Pom says, exasperated.

“You could bring along your handcuffs, if you like,” Dance says, smiling a little.

“For all the good it’ll do me, huh?”

Michel puts out one hand gently, touching Dance’s arm. “You and Tee Pom, let me know when you done with that piece of merde, then I take you down and show you where we caught him trying to lay off that poor lil girl’s body. He was pro’ly going to weigh her down in the fastest current in the Rainette,” Michel says, with a wave of his hand, the expert smuggler disgusted by such amateurish efforts. “You ever heard something so dumb?”

What?” Tee Pom hisses.

“One of them hungry street gals from NOLA, from the look of her poor lil feet,” Michel says. He waves again. “Don’ worry, we took pictures before we lifted her out. She’s over at the doctor’s clinic, waiting for a look-see. All needle tracks up her arms, sad lil thing.”

Oh shit,” Tee Pom growls. Then, “And stop grinning like that, Dance, I don’t need that right now, I purely don’t.”

He’s right. It really isn’t a smile.  It reminds you about the fangs in there. Grace looks away. She knows and likes Dance too well to watch him like this. She doesn’t like seeing any of her friends gear up for bug battles.

“I think you’ll want Preacher to sit in with you on questioning this one,” Drin says. “If he’s the one we think–”

“Right.”  Tee Pom gives him a wild-eyed look, and keeps walking toward the door. He moves stiffly, which means he’s already so mad he can hardly see straight.

“Tee Pom,” Drin says gently, “This man is innocent until proven guilty.”

“Oh yeah, due process. … Let’s get started before some damn fool goes smarting off out there.”  The deputy charges out towards the truck lights.

It’s clear that even if the gentleman in restraints managed to get himself upright, he’d have trouble getting through the crowd of gawkers. Currently his feet are hanging awkwardly over the end of the truck bed—the truck’s net tailgate has got tossed aside—and he’s laying on his back making a lot of noise.

Dobro is holding their prisoner’s wallet in his big crooked left fist and some sort of machine pistol in his right fist.  Tee Pom accepts the wallet, goes through it in a leisurely, thorough way. Sneakers yanks over a backpack, gesturing, and Tee Pom looks that over too. He gets that scary still look on his face when he opens a baggie with pictures in it, and he doesn’t let anybody see what’s in the pictures before he puts the baggie back in the backpack. Tee Pom just says, “You ready to swear to the chain of custody on that thing? It never left left your control?”

Dobro stutters a word or two, shrugs, and fidgets with his pistol instead.

Sneakers frowns at his brother, then at Tee Pom. “Wanda kep’ a good eye on it for us. You could swear her in. She give it up just now, you saw her walk off, she want a soda.”

Tee Pom nods. “Wanda’s good. She speaks up fine. Plus, she ain’t got your sorta court records to show off.”

Sneakers just laughs. He is sitting comfortably on the truckbed sidewall, a shotgun in one hand and a large flare pistol in the other.  He’s found it effective against certain sorts of bugs.

The prisoner begins speaking in a hoarse, exhausted voice, switching into more than one language.  Grace thinks that only one person there may have a hope of understanding him. Repeating himself, over and over, slurred.

“Some of this language right now–I think it may be Russian?” she says.

“Yes, he’s speaking Mat. It’s a very profane slang. Oh, the surprise,” Emma says, appearing out of nowhere.  She strokes the tip of Dance’s tail.

Drin gives her a flat look. “Something about finding girls before they die.”

“Yeah,” she says grimly.

Dance nods. “In Korean too.” He steps up to the end of the truck, with his tail rolling in agitated tight little sidewinder loops the way it does when he’s on a raid, poised to snap up in any direction. He speaks in a language that sounds quite different from Hyphen. Even to strangers who don’t understand any of it, it’s perfectly clear that the prisoner was using street slang and Dance is an educated man using a cool, crisp, precise scholarly diction.  It’s as surprising out here as hearing a Brit using the Queen’s received English.

Hyphen practically levitates in place, jackknifing off the end of the truck and landing balanced on his feet in the dirt. He’s shouting, almost vomiting words, with his face going violently red and his shoulder muscles straining in the duct tape bonds. He staggers from one foot to the other, teetering about awkwardly with his shins taped together.

“He wants somebody to find where two women are being held prisoner by bug troops.  He is saying this might be in a shed or outbuilding near boats near that kennel on the bayou road.”

Gurney to The Clinic

“I hear you been giving it away with both hands, as the Good Book says you should do,” Preacher says, walking up the parking lot slowly, hands wide, “but of course some of them guys down at the co-generation plant are goin’ crazy trying to figure it out.”

“Had to put it somewhere,” Dance says, trying not to let his canopy tremble with exhaustion.  H wants to leave it to Preacher.  He wants to pitch forward on his face and sleep too.  But he needs to guard, translate, explain what he’s done.  He waves at the man on the ground. “He helped me do this. Couldn’t– couldn’t manage by myself. Too much of it.”

“Ours not to question the blessings of the Lord!” Preacher’s white teeth show in a grin. He looks down at the unconscious man still tied in the duct tape.  “I guess he really wanted a good hard rest for awhile.”

“He was in great pain.”

“Oh yeah. We’ll check on it, me and Doctor Alex. You know, we’re gonna need you on hand in case he wakes up. Just keeping an eye on him until we’ve got him assessed and properly sedated, right?”

Dance sighs. “Yes.  He’s got some crazy cocktail in him.”

“Doctor will have to guess how soon that comes out of his system.  We’ll get a sample, get somebody to run it down to the lab, get some analysis on it tomorrow.”

“I can taste him, maybe help. We have to sniff pills Doctor has, smell what’s in them, to compare.”

“Are you sure you want to-”

“Yes!” Dance says fiercely, “My brother!”

“And thou shalt be his keeper. We used one gurney for the poor lost soul– I think we need one for you as well, my friend.”

“I can walk…” Dance says, and then realizes that he cannot in fact move a muscle.

“Uh huh, brother, you ain’t been home in there for a bit, have you?  Give y’self a moment,” Preacher says, and grins.

“No rush,” Drin says.  “Let’s get him some of that water, huh?”

He hears Grace’s soft voice, asking, ordering, and receiving mumbled male answers.  ‘Toine assures her it should be safe to start the generator again.  Her pen is scratching out notes.  She sounds so assured and authoritative, such a change since the days of the Storm.

The lights go back on in the building, with a distant thunk of circuit breakers. The energy fields around him have ramped down so smoothly he hadn’t noticed, but he feels their lack as if a solid support has been removed. Drin is next to him, gripping his shoulders, saying something to Emma about the shape of Dance’s canopy.

Preacher kneels beside the guy in the duct tape on the ground. Dance is amused to see that he’s got those big scissors from Emma’s purse in his hand. “I want to cut that tape off him so the doctor can get a better look at him.” Turns Hyphen on his side, adjusts his head in textbook first aid style. The man’s eyes flutter a moment, and he sighs, and fades back to sleep again.

“Have you got restraints?” Emma says, purse swinging.

“The gurney does, Miss Emma.” Preacher works deftly opening the wrappings of silver tape and the fabric it adhered to, like a shell. The unconscious man will not lay back, cannot be uncurled; Preacher moves him more comfortably onto his side. The truck lights show a green and black and purple knot bulging out of the heavy upper slopes of Hyphen’s back, as big as a fist, with the skin split in small cracks and little runnels of crusted blood stained into his shirt.

“This is his problem,” Dance tries to explain. “His pin…”

“We will see what can be done for your brother,” Preacher tells him, and the gurney is trundling away down the cracked asphalt, surrounded by wary, solemn men.

“I need to go with them–” Dance says, and makes a face at the canopy still inflated around his head and shoulders. He’s never getting in the clinic door like that.

“Speed drain,” Emma says.

“Very speed please, I want to be there.”

“Of course, love, where else would you be?” Her hands are warm and settling. Dance brushes tired tears away like a petulant child.  “Let’s unfold it all the way first, fold it up right.  Here, folks, if you want to help, hold the tip out there–”

Once the canopy is pleated back down with the help of many hands, Emma walks along slowly with him.

He catches Tiny’s scent, and the big guy opens the door to the clinic for him, bowing. That means Dance has to crack his eyes open, since the zoomorph speaks visually. This is not a limitation that Doctor Alexander must deal with, however.

“I am not doing surgical intervention on a spinal infection with no tools and no general anesthesia, no skilled anesthetist and no idea even what kind of biology I’m working on!”

“You have Dance’s medical records,” Drin says patiently, one hand bracing Dance’s shoulder.

“Strangely, I also have no trust in assuming that Dance and this patient are that much identical as twins or clones or some kind of crappy lab-built anomalies. No thank you!” the good doctor says.

The other men are watching as if it’s a pingpong match, but Emma sighs. It’s a very matriarchal, cut-the-bullshit sort of sigh. “Obviously something triggered Hyphen’s system to kick his naga pin out. I took out the fragments of Dance’s– his skin hadn’t begun developing yet, it was just regular skin, no slide coat armoring. It’d be interesting to know when Hyphen’s pin started moving, get a clue what knocked it loose.”

Dance settles one haunch tiredly onto the edge of a counter, sagging in place. “He is in very great pain, and we all are in some danger while his back looks like that.  The power box, it will overload again.”

“Emma, are you thinking it’s like these notes you wrote on Dance’s pin?” Doctor Alexander says fiercely, flapping a sheaf of papers bound into a file.

“Probably very close,” Emma agrees. Her voice is as cool and relaxed and distant as Drin gets, when his older self surfaces. “So maybe I can talk you through visualizing it, or draw you some quick diagrams, whichever will be quicker for you to get going on surgery. Yes, I had some schematics pop up in my head when we removed Dance’s fragmented pin. But those plans were for some later, tamer version, not quite the same shape they put into these Black Ops Naga guys. The bits we took out of Dance’s back were so broken up it never mattered. I suspect the pin’s shape was circular maybe to anchor it, not just releasing inhibitory materials from the inside of the pin.  But it was merely wedged into the cartilage between vertebrae. I think it never encircled anything. Maybe it was originally tethered to something, I couldn’t tell. The pin certainly wasn’t latched around any nerves or bones at that point.”

Dance shivers. The memory of his partners cutting fragments out of his skin is a little blurred now, thankfully.

Doctor Alexander nods, pulls out paper, hands her a pen jerkily. “Draw it out for me, then I can decide better on this. Do you have any idea what kind of anesthesia might keep him quiet?”

“I believe Preacher using yoga-style calm is your best bet, maybe with a topical to numb the surface and the upper muscle tissue,” Emma says absently, frowning as her hand scribbles frantically. “None of us know if Dance could generate a sedative for him that wouldn’t knock out Dance himself right alongside Seung.”

“It was hurting me, of course,” Dance offers. “But this… is bruises all inside, and I can smell the infection. It is going to kill him if we don’t get it all out, I think.  So his pain now is not what you should worry about.”

Emma draws in a deep breath. “No. We need to worry about how dangerous he is.”

Dance shrugs again. If he held out his open hands, they could watch him shake.

Road Warriors

There wasn’t even a scream.

Just Dan laying full-length in the parking lot, face down, with a massive splat of red sprayed out onto the wall of the restroom behind him. His dreads fanned out, his jeans all red, his boots sprawled wide.

She’d been to this place before. Waiting on the flames.

She finished putting Dan’s coffee in his holder.

“Hang on,” she said coolly, not even very loud, but she knew Peach heard her. Got her butt hoisted into the driver’s seat and the keys were twisting in her hand and the Kenilworth rumbled to full life and the gears were shifting upward, and the empty trailer was flapping like a kite as she headed for the parking lot exit. She wished briefly she could tell Peach to close the passenger window, but there was no time.

Thumps and bangs vibrated through the chassis. Made her wonder if there really was going to be leaking fuel lines and another fire in their future. They–whoever it is–were shooting at the truck body, not the windows.

Thump. A big one.

The thump, then a black jacketed arm slid in through the window. Passenger door swung wide.

Keisha had the Luger out in plenty of time.

She found herself pointing it at Peach, who was biting the end of the machine pistol in the other hand of the man who swung himself inside her cab. That was him. Dark face, snarling, “Drive! Go! Go fast!”

Keisha shifted with her right hand also holding the Luger, steering with her left, and she put her foot down. The gearing howled. More shots pinged somewhere through the truck’s lower structure. She holstered the gun so she could gear up at the freeway entrance. Her foot was not quite pushing the floor boards. She revved the poor old Kenilworth’s engine as hard as she dared, barely checking her mirrors, barreling onto the Interstate like she could drive with a red rose in her death’s-head teeth.

Peach and the dark man were rolling around in the passenger seat, the door flapping open behind them, and Peach sank those fangs into his forearm. There was plenty of torn meat in that long dark sleeve, but he made no noise.

Peach didn’t care if his gun was still being jammed in her face and body. Maybe she didn’t know what it could do to her. Or maybe she did. She was damn determined to stop him pointing it at Kesha, to hamper him, to push him backward out the open door. Kesha caught glimpses, keeping her eyes glued on the road ahead, poor kitty had no chance against the guy. The odd part: the stranger wasn’t shooting. The man dragged his machine pistol away from Peach’s frantically grabbing hands, and she almost rolled over his lap out the open door.

“Peach!” Keisha screamed. Peach, going out. Her fur shining in the streetlights as she tumbled, her head turning back to look at Keisha, mouth open, eyes round as saucers–

The man dropped his gun onto the floor of the cab, grabbed Peach firmly by the arm, and hauled her bodily back into the cab. Then he slammed the door shut, and twisted round, and put Peach into a half-nelson as if the blood coming out of his other arm didn’t even slow him down.

“Go!” he snarled at Keisha, and twisted round to stare into the side mirror, looking behind them. He bared white teeth, growling much like Peach herself. Peach reached for his gun on the floor, and he put one foot on it to keep it down there, not even watching her that closely. He glared at the side-mirror and snarled, “Fahhh! Those zertva aborta fucking mothers!” He broke into some other language, cussing thoroughly and comprehensively in a language that rolled and slurred. When Peach struggled to bite him again, he increased the pressure of the nelson on her neck until she squealed in pain.

“Stop, or the truck stops,” Keisha said in that same cool, quiet tone that cut straight through the racket of the truck.

He heard her. Looked at her. He lifted his free hand, tapped Peach’s shoulder in warning, and slowly loosened his grip on her shoulder and neck.

Keisha reached out and brushed Peach’s thigh lightly. “Peach!” she said, trying to watch complicated traffic and the two of them and check for any mess spraying out of the truck at the same time. It’s not like they’d outrun pursuit if it gets organized any time soon. All she could do was increase their search radius and make weird turnoffs as soon as she figured out where it might help instead of trapping them on go-nowhere rural washboard roads.

Peach was panting, hard. She looked up at Keisha with wild eyes, fangs showing, straining a little against the dark man’s grip.

“It’s all right, Peach,” Keisha said. “He’s not shooting me. He’s not shooting you. It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay, Peach. Stop biting.”

“Shoot Dan!” Peach wailed.

Keisha felt her eyes go all wide and staring. Peach, talking! She had to jerk herself back to watching the road. “Yeah, I know, mama, somebody did hurt Dan real bad. I know. They were shooting at us too.”

“They shot at me too,” said the dark man, and his arm slid loose from the cat, bracing her up in her awkward position. He frowned down at Peach. “Quiet, now, I don’t hurt you.”

“Shoot Dan!” Peach whimpered, looking at Keisha.

“I know,” Keisha said, and patted the rumpled fur on Peach’s thigh, below the scabbed cut made by that hollow claw. “I know, mama. It wasn’t this guy shot him. Angle’s wrong.” Keisha flicked a glance at their unwelcome passenger.

“They fools,” the dark man snapped, eyes blazing as pale gold as coins. Spooky-looking. Pale eyes like that, in a broad face that belonged to an Aleut or an Eskimo or something, but the rest of him very modern in dark Lycra athletic clothes. He brought a sharp strange scent into the truck, and it wasn’t from the fresh blood matting his sleeve. It was the sweat coming off him. Old sweat, yeah, but not dirty workin’ man sweat. Not like any other man Keisha’d ever been around under tough circumstances. He must have been sweating awhile before he wrestled with Peach. His body was short and wide. The muscles under his jacket looked like a welterweight boxer. He was something at the upper end of that huge gulf between amateur and the pros.

“You coulda taken down Dan without a gun, the likes of you,” Keisha said. She was passing the truck amongst other trucks, not talking and not asking permission or greeting folks the way Dan would have done, ignoring the uproar she must be causing on the CB. They’d been convoying two days with some of these folks. The other truckers knew what they were seeing if Dan’s truck started leaking, too. Once things calmed down, she ought to ask some of them to look at her undercarriage as she passed them. The vibration running through the thing as the bobtailing trailer whipsawed back there meant she was pushing it dangerously hard. The other drivers would notice that, too.

She wondered if uncoupling the trailer and dumping it at a rest stop–or give it away to somebody they’ve convoyed with–would leave more of a trail that if she just barreled onward. She wouldn’t have to stop for a good hundred, maybe hundred fifty miles, they’d just fueled. Christ, she even had Dan’s PIN numbers for the gas cards here in the cab, he showed those to her and had her gas up for him a few times, as if he half-expected her to need to cover for him. What kind of godforsaken hell was Dan used to that he’d just expected emergencies like this?

“Damn bugs.” The man lifted Peach easily, and scowled at the scabbed cut on Peach’s thigh.

“You know bugs?” Keisha demanded. She snatched her gaze back to the road again. The empty trailer rattled nastily behind them with the mildest swerve she made.

The stranger glared at her with those narrow Mongol eyes slit down tight. “Yah, bad,” he snarled. He made a raking gesture, and pointed at the injury in Peach’s thigh. Then he pointed behind them. “Bugs be bad tools. Those fools buy them.”

“Can you stop bugs?” Keisha demanded.

“Yah. With enough ammo.”

“You got any?”

He patted his jacket pocket, held four fingers. “Four clips.”

“Damn,” Keisha growled. “Won’t last, shootin’ out clips the way Dan said you had to shoot them bugs.”

The stranger smiled then, toothily. “Shoot very good,  so just use little bit.”

“I hear ya,” Keisha said, checking her mirrors. “All right, Peach, you okay? No more cuts or bruises?”

Peach whimpered, and leaned over the gap between the chairs, and rested her nose on Kesha’s shoulder slowly, to avoid jostling Kesha’s driving. Kesha wasn’t expecting that much care from her. “Good mama,” Keisha murmured. She felt Peach lick at her neck. “That’s good. We’re okay, Peach. We’re good. Okay, Mister Gunner, let go of her now, okay? Peach, you climb on up there into the sleeper, and you look at the mirror up there, right? You tell me if you see any cars driving fast. Just yell out, ‘car!’ if you see something moving fast, okay? You say ‘car’?”

“Carrr,” Peach whispered, her nose cold against Kesha’s ear, and then she scrambled up the rungs and she was shifting around up there.

“God, I’m glad Dan put in extra mirrors up top,” Keisha muttered. She said then, “Peach, throw down a towel to this guy, okay?”

Peach did that, amazing Keisha all over again. Peach got it. That alone was a shock.

The guy pushed up his sleeve, looked at the bite marks in his forearm, made a sour face.

Keisha pointed. “Hand wipes in there. Peach bites when she’s startled.”

He wiped the bites with the towel and the alcohol hand wipes, he found Dan’s sad old first aid kit, and bandaged it one-handed, as if he’s done that before too.

“Car!” Peach sang out.

“I see it, mama, I am on it,” Keisha said.

The guy picked up his machine pistol from the floor, wound down the window, twisted around to face backward, and waited, eyes narrowed.

Keisha watched the screaming yellow sports car pulling up at noticeable speed.

“Not them,” the dark guy said.

“You sure?” Keisha said.

“Yes,” he said.

The sports car whipped past them, honking, and left them behind.

He tensed, squinting even harder.

“This is them,” he said. “Truck.”

“Car, car, car!” Peach sang out.

“Good, mama, I got it,” Keisha said. He was right; it was not a car, it was a dark gray large pickup with a heavy grill and extra lights. Kesha wondered, How come the bad guys always have the fancy stuff? Then, “Hang on.”

It didn’t take much to make the empty trailer fishtail. The trick was to keep it from flipping on its axis around the hitch. Skippering a boat, and hauling a boat trailer for years, was good practice.

The dark guy grinned, bracing himself hard into the front angle of the door. “Good,” he said. Then he lifted his arm, leveled the muzzle of the pistol, and fired, all in the same easy motion.

“Holy shit,” Keisha breathed.

The gray shadowy truck was spinning in the sun, bucketing around like a bronco toward the ditch.

“Good,” the dark man said, baring his canines at the enemy pickup behind them.

“Do you know all of them?” Keisha demanded.

“Many, not all,” he said, and he smiled at her. “Challenge, yah? Don’t shoot all assholes on this road. More easy shoot them all.”

“You are one crazy sonuvabitch. You ain’t taken your meds lately, have you?”

“No, I shot boss who give meds,” he said.

Keisha put her eyes back on the road. “No joke?”

“No funny,” he said, still holding the machine pistol ready to aim it rearward.

“Why?”

“Boss’s men try  to shooting me, fucking shits,” he said, and hefted the gun. “I take this off body.” He pointed at her. “They burn boats. Eba new toast”– that’s what it sounds like to Kesha– “didn’t get payload. Burn first, not get her–not get kitty– how you say, Peach.” He pointed toward the anxious little face peeking out of the sleeper.

Keisha took a deep breath. “You were on my boat.”

“I chase,” he said calmly. “You got payload.” He pointed rearward. “Goodamm fucking bugs forget to go for payload.”

“Peach is your payload?”

“And laptop. Laptop got stuff.” He pointed right where she stashed it, locked up in one of the secure cargo pockets in the cab. How the hell could he know where she locked it up? He nodded. “Laptop call me. Like radio.”

Keisha told her eyes to stay on the road. Keep those hands steady, keep that trailer rocking nicely on the road. It won’t help to look over at him, anyway. He just gave that blank look. Poker-playing face if she ever saw one. “You think I got something your boss wants,” Kesha said.

“Not now,” the dark man said. “Boss dead.” He grinned. It wasn’t nice at all. He looked up at Peach, who was peering into those upper mirrors, one side and then the other, still grumbling and whimpering a little to herself. He nodded in her direction. “Good payload. She fights. You too, I like.”

Keisha glanced over, surprised at the clear note of approval in the stranger’s voice. “Yeah? I was damn glad you were riding shotgun on that truck for me there.”

He flashed those white canines at Kesha, and lifted his gun muzzle slightly, let it down again. “Don’t want shotgun. This got better range.”

“You got any plans since you shot your boss?”

“Don’t let dickheads get laptop or Peach. You keep safe, I guard.”

“Huh,” Keisha said. “For how long?”

He shrugged. “How do you say– till cows come home? Hell freeze?”

“Why?”

“Laptop got stuff.”

“But do you know what kind of stuff?”

“No. I hear it. You help. We find out kind of stuff, yes?”

Keisha drew in a deep, slow breath through her nose, let it trickle out again. Reaction. Old boa constrictor, that’s all, tryin’ to take his due. “What do you hear?”

“Like radio, but not.” He tapped his chest, then his ear. Then he shifted position, where he was braced, as if other things were hurting him, not just the arm that got bit.

“And Peach? Why did they want Peach?”

“They give order, ‘You go, take payload off boat.’ We go in, two squads with guns for little hungry kitten. Very little kitten. No why, just do. Idiot shits burn boat too soon.”

“I hear ya,” Keisha said, and let off the gas pedal a little. “You wanna hold this wheel for me? Man, I am– I gotta–”

“Like this?”

“Yeah,” Keisha said, and then she twisted away, puking down into Dan’s trash bag, half full of fast food wrappers and cups. She tried hard not to move her lower body with each spasm, just keep the truck going evenly. She spat, put aside the bag, and sat up again. She gripped the wheel, felt how he’d kept it for her. “That’s good. I’m okay.”

He looked at her. “Sorry. That Dan, I saw him. Nice man.”

“He was,” Keisha said.

The dark man rummaged in the bags hung behind his seat, found a water bottle, opened it one-handed, held it out for her. “Drink.”

Keisha nodded, sipped, handed it back.

Peach gave an anxious sound, crawling awkwardly about halfway down the rungs. Kesha reached over and patted her back lightly. “I’m okay, mama, don’t worry. You okay?”

Peach dabbed her hand at Keisha’s shoulder. “Mmm hhhmmm okay? Okay?” Peach said.

“Okay,” Keisha said, a little hoarsely. It was a shock hearing her talk.

Peach looked over doubtfully at the stranger.

“You got a handle? A name?” Keisha asked him.

“No want name. Boss shames family. No want bad name.”

“So you shot him?”

“No, I only shoot cuz he shoot at me. Dumb shit. He miss. I don’t miss. I practice hard, don’t miss.”

Keisha nodded. She reached back and patted Peach again. “That’s okay, we’ll figure out a name for you, if you decided to stick around.”

“I stick around,” he promised, narrowing his eyes at her.

“You may live to regret it,” Keisha said, smiling crookedly.

He grunted. “Night, I be sorry,” he said, and lifted the forearm that Peach chewed on. He understood a lot more English phrases than he gave back when he talked.

“Oh, I give that bite about twenty minutes. There’s some painkillers in that emergency kit. You drink some of that water too.”

“You give order? ‘Hey you, you drink now!'” he said, grinning again. That face was all sharp white teeth when he grinned.

“Yeah,” Keisha said. “This is your new boss lady talkin’, now. If you gonna stand guard, we gotta make sure you be okay. So you drink lots of water. Peach, are you okay with climbing up and watching up there for me? You see back farther when you’re up there.”

Peach nodded, and scrambled back up there into the sleeper cab.

The dark man pointed upward. “Good fighter. Little, strong.”

The light caught those eyes looking a little darker gold now, but still weird. He was faster than Peach, so what the hell did that make him?

Not human, Keisha thought. A guy who can hear a laptop calling him.

Keisha tilted up her head a little bit and said, “You’re a good girl, Peach, you prolly saved our lives. You’re so good.”

She heard the purring from where she sat, and the cab was noisy as hell. By the sound of it, Kesha had about half an hour of Peach’s extra set of eyes on watch before the poor little gal just fell asleep from exhaustion. Peach just couldn’t stay awake for long stretches. “Got some more of that water?” Kesha said tiredly to the stranger in the truck cab that didn’t belong to her.

====

The short dark guy here speaks a number of languages. One of them is Russian slang called Mat. Speakers will warn you not to use any of these words in public, because you really don’t know the context or how relatively rude a particular word or phrase might be. However, it is interesting.

Try this website for a lot of interesting rude words that get used, some of them specialized to the Russian Internet:
http://www.russki-mat.net/e/Russian.htm

Monster Bargains

Keisha drove in silence for awhile after that, the white line blinking like a metronome in the corner of the windshield. Just trying to breath, around the hurt that Dan was gone, and this Chinese-looking guy was sitting there in the cab instead, like a solid block on her right, head turned away into the mirror, and the edge of a high cheekbone catching a glint of light as the clouds let the sun through. Scar there on his face, matched on the other side. He twisted in the corner of her gaze, bringing her eyes over, and she had to force herself to watch the road. In the corner of her eye she watched him hunch, roll the massive shoulders, work his thick neck, subside. And again, restlessly. When the truck juddered over rough pavement, his lips pulled back from his teeth in a hiss that she could almost hear over the engine noise. The gun stayed across his knees.

Peach was out of it an hour into the drive, a few rumbling purrs up behind Keisha’s head and then silence. Kiesha drove. She was going to sleep hard when she went down. But not like the dead. Not like Dan. She didn’t know yet if Dan would come back in her dreams like her crew, her boat.

When she did pull off, scraping through pine branches to get as much screen as she could between the truck and the highway, the guy blew out a big sigh, puffing his cheeks.

“Have water?” He passed her one of the bottles out of the cooler. He took one for himself, scrabbled a tablet out of a ziplock baggie, and chugged the bottle in one gulp.

“You can’t drive one of these, can you?” Keisha asked without much hope, and didn’t even feel a twinge when he shook his head.

“I stay watch, you sleeping now. Go more after sleep, right?”

“Right.” She opened the door and pushed her way down the footholds. “Christ,” she groaned, hanging on. How in hell she was going to pee in the woods when she was so stiff… She walked up and down awhile, breathing deep. The cold wind pushed at her back, through her jacket. Her scalp felt like ice, and she scrubbed at the short stiff curls. Missed her dreads. Better get her a hat somewhere. Walking back to the tall red presence of the truck felt like coming home, welcoming  row of little lights outlining the open door.

Her passenger was halfway out of the cab on the ladder, his hands gripping white on the handholds, and his spine arched backward.

She came up on his side, looking at the sweat running down his forehead. “Muscle spasm, huh?”

The guy made a grunt between his teeth.

She waited a moment, but he didn’t move. It wasn’t getting better. Not good. “Okay, I’m gonna grab you off and put you flat on the ground, okay? It’s okay if you lose it and pee all over, but don’t you go kicking or biting none, you got that? No hitting, no grabbing. Just let me put you down. Got that?”

He grunted again.

She put her hand up on his back, about midway between his shoulder blades, and felt a lump bulging out under the jacket, big enough to fill her palm as she cupped it reflexively to brace him. His head flopped backward and he fell away limply into her grip with a little hiss of indrawn breath. She couldn’t hold his weight. She staggered back a dozen steps hit a sapling tree trunk with a jar, and dropped him. He flopped around in a couple of wild arcs, with no sound at all, stilling on his side in a fetal position.

“Oh God, oh God–” Keisha bent over him, went down on one knee. Gingerly, she touched that spot, hardly pressing at all, as his shoulders heaved with his panting breath. The bulge was a lot smaller, hardly as big as her thumb.

The guy opened his eyes and looked at her. “You fix me,” he said.

“No, I didn’t fucking fix anything,” Keisha snapped. “What the fuck is wrong with your back?”

He moved one foot, and gave a sigh. “Better.” He swung around on one hip and sat up smoothly, startling her into shifting her weight away from him. He held up both hands. “Thank you.”

“What is it?” Keisha demanded.

“I don’t know,” he said. His eyes were huge and veined with gold and a darker brown the same color as a beer bottle in the sun.

“You got any ideas?”

He pointed past her. “Lots ideas, no…solid things. Pee now.”

“What the hell–” Keisha stood up. Angry, she offered her hand.

He leaned on it just slightly when he stood up. His hand was hot and dry and hard with callouses. Boxer’s callouses, scars across the knuckles. He looked down at her hand. “You have sailor hand.”

“‘Cause I’m a sailor,” Keisha said.

He cocked his head, peering up at her. “Woman sailor.”

“Yeah, like woman truck driver?”

“Yah,” he said. Then he smiled. “Woman who drop me on my stupid back.”

“Well, fuck, dude, you weigh about a hundred pounds heavier than you look. And you’re welcome. Go pee, I wanna crawl up into bed.”

He turned away, and Keisha turned back to the truck. Her truck, now. She did the routine Dan had taught, walking around checking the tires and the undercarriage, opening the back and checking the load hadn’t shifted, logging in the numbers, for whatever good it might do later on.

The Chinese guy came back and climbed up the ladder, easy now as Peach could. He got another water bottle, chugged that, ate the disgusting leftover fries from Keisha’s bag of food, and chugged a second bottle of water. “Okay, you go sleep now,” he said, wiping off his fingers with as much fuss about getting it all clean as Peach.

“Dude–” Keisha said, surprised.

“Okay now, I pee later,” he said, apparently reading her mind.

“Your problem,” she said. “Wake me up if you gotta leave the cab, okay?”

“Okay,” he said. He flipped one hand upward. “Go, go.”

Keisha climbed into the sleeping compartment, warm from the sun and filled with Peach’s dusty flower scent. Closing her eyes, she felt the New England current under her keel, pulling her south through the keys. Rocking her steady.

A Coney For Peach

Keisha woke up from dreams of driving endlessly, aimlessly, in the fog. She blinked sandy eyelids, and turned her head sharply, winced and waited for her neck muscles and rib muscles to calm down. “What?”

“Not watch now,” the Chinese guy said from the cab below.

“You’re falling asleep?”

“Pee first and sleep.”

“Okay, I’m moving. You go ahead and take a leak first.”

Peach stirred next to her, stiffly, curling her hands up and yawning.

Keisha leaned up on one elbow and looked out the forward windows. Just the last light fading across the trees out there. A good time to get the truck out of these trees, while she could still see. Something was moving, very fast, in an open area among the trees. Blue jacket, blink once and it was gone again.

Keisha scrambled down both ladders, almost falling over herself, and was about to climb back up for her gun, when she saw the Chinese guy come out of the brush holding a rabbit. A very dead, bleeding, gutted, neck-broken rabbit.

“Oh,” Keisha said, swallowing on an outraged empty stomach. “You hunt?”

He blinked at her. “Ahh. You people not? Back home, not so easy catch.”

“How did you clean it? That’s not a knife done that,” Keisha said.

He made a little wave of his hand, showed his fingernails. “Soft tummy. Kitty like, taste good.”

Fish bleed too, but they didn’t have necks that break quite like that. Keisha climbed up the ladder and got out a bottle of water and napkins from the food bag. Peach was peering out the driver side window. “Bunny for breakfast, momma?” Keisha glanced up at the sky ruefully. If she made enough of a camp to cook that thing, they’d lose the light. God only knew what kind of worms and parasites Peach might get from eating it raw. It was like having a dog that chased deer, for crying out loud.

“All right, hang it up and let it bleed out while I get some fire going,” Keisha said. She started snapping sticks and hunting for rocks.

“Hang up?” the Chinese guy said. “Eat now.”

“We don’t know what sick it might have, we gotta cook it,” Keisha said.

“Not sick,” he said.

“It was slow enough you caught it.”

“Dumb, not sick. I smell. It not sick.”

“Okay, so now you can tell sick rabbits by how they smell?”

“Peach also know,” he said.

“Peach, don’t eat this. Just smell. Tell me what you think. Is it okay? Is it sick?” Peach leaned into Keisha’s arm, getting in the way, and then she opened her mouth and nipped on Keisha’s wrist, not all that gently. Keisha scruffed her, firmly, and said, “No biting. Does it smell okay?”

Peach gave a breathy little noise and nodded. When Keisha released her, she huddled into Keisha and made distressed noises. “Okay, Momma, I got the fire going, let’s take a leak, okay? You’ll get your rabbit. Say thank you for catching it for you, right?”

Peach ducked her head, looked up at the Chinese guy, and ducked away again. “‘ankyou,” she whispered.

“Damn, you good girl!” Keisha said.

“‘ankyou,” Peach repeated proudly.

He nodded back. “Very welcome,” he said, and smiled.

“Can you watch the fire for me?”

He nodded, and propped up the rabbit, head down, in a tree nearby.

When they came back, he had the rabbit mostly skinned and completely disjointed and all the various bits of it propped out expertly on forked sticks. He’d clearly done all of this with his hands and a bit of stone that he’d knocked into a sharp edge. The meat was well on its way toward getting nicely barbecued. He was looking at it as if he wouldn’t mind chomping down on raw meat either. It spoke of a lot of time spent out in the back of beyond with nothing much for tools, scrounging for whatever had failed to run away. Sort of like hiding out in the swamp for a couple of weeks after a really bad day. At that, it was lot easier in the swamp than stuck out on some bald coral knob or a mangrove key with no water.

“Wow, looking good,” Keisha said, and stood watching the flames moving on the broken branches she’d dragged in. It was a small enough fire that the rabbit needed every bit of it. She rubbed Peach’s shoulders and neck, keeping one hand on her in case the rabbit started looking too good.

“Too bad only one,” he said.

“Yeah, it does smell good,” Keisha agreed.

“You need too.”

“Oh, I’m okay on cold burgers,” Keisha said.

“No, need more. Soon you got woman need.”

“Say what?”

“You get that–” he waved one hand in frustration, and slapped the inside of one thigh.

Keisha looked at him in disbelief.

“You smell,” he said.

Even Peach was staring at him.

“Smell good, real good,” his hand made a flattened, tipping gesture, and then he grinned. “Then you feel bad. Throw thing. Lots bad saying. Lots mean word.”

“Oh Christ,” Keisha growled.

“See?” he chuckled, poking the rabbit, “Bad words!”

“All I fuckin’ need right now, start having my period! How the hell–”

He held up both hands. “Smell good. I know. That smell… then other smell.”

“That’s fucked up! How the hell can you smell that?”

“Woman smell.” He nodded toward the rabbit. “Food smell good. Woman smell good.”

“And what does your bunch like to do to women who smell that good?” Keisha growled.

He looked at her. “I not hurt you. I not hurt Peach. I like smell. I like you. You like Peach, not me. Okay. Not be afraid.”

Keisha looked at Peach. “You stay here. Right there. Okay?”

Peach nodded, eyes wide.

Keisha crossed the five steps it took to reach the Chinese guy. “I have never been afraid of a man in my life, and I ain’t about to start now. Most guys are assholes or dumb or both. The ones that ain’t, the good ones like Dan was, I like them just fine. I ain’t decided about you. Got that?”

He nodded.

Keisha reached out and touched him. Straightened his jacket collar, brushed a strand of hair back from his face. “You in my truck, you belong to me, I am gonna cover for you with anybody askin’ questions, you got that?”

He nodded.

“I give you huge points for bringing that rabbit for Peach. You keep an eye out to help her, I am right there with you. I am watching your back, I got you. Don’t mess with any of that.”

He nodded.

“I ain’t had a bath in ages, and you tell me I smell good,” Keisha said.

“Yes,” he said. It was getting too dark to see his eyes, the face smooth and unreadable in the dusk. But his nostrils opened up wide as a dog sniffing.

Keisha shook her head. “Man, I heard some funny come-on lines, but that beats all of ’em.”

“Peach get woman smell too,” he said then, warningly.

“Oh yeah, of course she will, grownup gal like her,” Keisha said. “She’s cycling right with me. We can all be grumpy together, how’s that sound? God, I’m talking to myself, nobody understands a goddamn thing I say–”

Peach stood where she was, quivering. “I know stay here,” she said then, perfectly clear.

Keisha looked up at her. “Wow. What was that, momma? You can move now if you want, you can come here.”

Peach rushed into her arms, hugged her. “No grumpy,” she said into Keisha’s shirt. “Smell good.”

“What, you agree with him? I’m reeking like two days of sweaty hard driving, you like that?”

Peach nodded. “Smell good.” And she started licking Keisha’s shirt.

“I think you two are starving hungry, that’s what I think. C’mon, give it about twenty minutes, you’ll be stuffed and happy and grease all over and then you’ll start fussing about getting your paws clean.”

Peach licked up onto Keisha’s neck, and then the side of her face, carefully and gently, and then she licked onto Keisha’s mouth.

“Okay, enough, that tickles,” Keisha said firmly.

“Kiss,” Peach said.

“Not now, momma, I’m trying to move this rabbit stick. Okay? Gimme two minutes.”

“Okay,” Peach said.

The Chinese guy smiled at Keisha and said, “I do fire. You go. Kiss Peach happy.”

“Not go,” Peach said. She held out a hand toward the guy, beckoning.

Keisha looked at her, and at the equally puzzled guy.

“You smell good,” Peach said to him. “Lick you.” Then she looked up at Keisha and smiled. “Lick you.”

“Oh sunovabitch,” Keisha said loudly. Peach leaned and kissed her on the collarbone, apologetically, hugging her. “I heard you, Peach. I ain’t mad at you, I’m fine. I heard you. You like how he smells, you like how I smell, right?”

Peach leaned into her and sighed happily.

“I’ll think about it,” Keisha said, glaring at both of them. “And no licking until it’s decided! Let the two of you go at it like bunnies, shit, that’s what happens to bunnies, isn’t it?” she waved at the sticks.

They looked at the meat, and back up at her.

Peach said, “I lick you good,” and stroked Keisha’s arm, sadly.

Keisha ruffled the hair around her ears. “Yeah, I love you too, momma, but I don’t want nothing bad to happen to you, either.”

“I not bad to Peach,” the Chinese guy said, with dignity. “I know careful.” And he got up and started to walk away into the woods, back stiff, head up, very upright.

“Where are you going?” Keisha snapped.

“I go, not make you afraid,” he said, still walking.

“You’re not going off in these woods alone in the dark. Not now, when I wanna get back on the road tonight. Not when I just told you you’re mine, you’re in my truck. Not if I tell Peach to make you come here,” Keisha said levelly.

He turned.

Keisha held out a pointed finger. “No. Don’t argue. Just come back and sit down and eat some rabbit. Help Peach. Might make her sick eating all this by herself, might be too much all at one go.”

“For Peach, yes. But for you?” he said.

“Please,” Keisha growled.

He came back, marched up to her, looked in her eyes in the dimming light, and then he knelt down in front of her and put his forehead down on the toe of her boot.

“Oh godammit–” Keisha growled. “Cut out that shit. Stop. I know your folks don’t do that kinda thing these days, cut it out!”

He sat up on his heels and looked up at her. Then he put one hand on Peach’s foot, and rested one arm against Keisha’s leg, and he leaned into Keisha’s knee. “Smell good,” he said, and sighed.

Keisha didn’t move. Peach was hanging onto her middle, hard, and he was wrapped around both of them. It was more like having a pile of dogs leaning into her than a basically childish girl and a total stranger of a man bent on worming his way into her jeans. “You know, Peach, you smell pretty damn good too,” Keisha said at last. “Okay, I hate to spoil our party, but it’s time to break it up and check on the rabbit again.”

He groaned, and made her laugh.

The rabbit was good, too. Gamey as hell and tough and greasy and half-charred on the outside, nearly raw on the inside, but Peach growled happily as she tore into it, and he grinned at them both, and Keisha relaxed a little bit when they both got busy dribbling bottled water on their hands and fussing with the napkins. That took them longer than gobbling down the rabbit did.

Keisha got the folding shovel out and buried the fire, and tossed the charred meat sticks and the bones away into the woods so it’d be less obvious at first glance from the road.

When they got back in the truck, the Chinese guy was too tired to protest. She told him to climb up, take his gun with him, and get some sleep. Peach sat bouncing happily in the passenger seat, singing out whenever she saw house lights out in the darkness, or when she saw cars on the road in the mirrors behind them. Keisha taught her how to play with the CB radio, and she scanned happily across the bands, singing to herself in the blank areas and startling back in her chair when she got voices. Within two hours she was curled up limply in the seat belt, head nodding, asleep again.

Keisha got local radio stations tuned in and sang along hoarsely with the gospel hymns. When they got too crazy with preaching, she flipped to oldies, or r & b, or even country, wailing away with Tammy Wynette. Nothing modern or urban or edgy or the least bit fashionable out here. Kinda strange, when she thought about it, since pop music was supposed to be what got played the most on stations like these, trying to help the truckers stay awake crisscrossing the dark.

Turned out the Chinese guy had bad dreams too. Early on, Keisha had adjusted one of her multiple mirrors inside the cab to look up into the sleepover compartment. She’d worried about Peach for awhile, and then she found she liked glancing up at sleeping kitty-gal in all her odd limp little positions.

Glances at that told her he was not sleeping well. She heard him flop around and give a muffled noise, hitting the sides of the sleeping compartment with his whole arm at one point, and then making sleepy, grumpy noises in some language she didn’t understand, rustling around, turning over and going back to sleep. After the fourth time he woke himself up, he pushed aside the curtain and hung his elbows out over the edge, looking out the forward windows. He rumpled at his hair, looking hot and dazed and disoriented. He took his jacket and shirt off and he sighed when she opened the cab windows wider for more air.

“Catch,” she said, and tossed up a bottle of water for him to snag out of the air.

“Thank you,” he said, and did that camel routine of his, dropping the empty bottle on the floor. Then he hung there over the edge, leaning his head on one hand, staring somewhere downward, looking like the bumps in the road were hurting him again.

The mirror told her that his forward end was holding still, but the other end was moving in a way that didn’t match the road. Well, not her business if his libido was getting a nice hand, but damn, did his bottom have to have that distracting little wiggle to it? She kept her eyes on the road and only gave herself permission to glance at him occasionally. If she was guessing, she’d say that jacking off as pain relief wasn’t working as well as he wished it would. Eventually he pulled back into the cabin area, curled up on his side and pulled down the loose front of his pants, which showed her some amazing abs. Then he blocked the view with the top of his head. When he moved, it only gave the mirror a great view of the lump on his back, which looked about the size of a golfball. It looked bruised with repeated old green and black marks, as if great force had been applied to it constantly, and damaged the meat in between.

Guy needed a doctor, stat, before he gave himself a severed spinal cord or something.

Just like Peach needed somebody who could look at her lab results and figure out what else she needed added to her food.

Keisha turned her gaze from the man’s bruised back in the mirror, and thought hard about how she was going to have Peach wait for her safely while she did the meetup with the computer guy and got the laptop sorted out. Would she need the Chinese guy to stand guard over Peach, or come with Keisha as extra bodyguard?

Days of Strength

It hurt climbing down the rungs from the sleepover cab one-handed, carrying his gun.

“Hey, my man,” the woman said to him. “You feeling a little rested?”

He shook his head. It didn’t do any good to lie to a woman like Keisha. “Stupid dream. Okay now.”

“Yeah,” Keisha said, quiet. She drove for awhile, frowning into the oncoming lights, leaning into it and everything working at it, her arms and legs all moving at once whenever she had to steady the motion of the truck against gusts of wind. The muscles stood out in her neck and shoulders as if she had to strain to get it done now, after hours of sitting in the same position. The trailer rattled and shook and boomed behind them.

He looked at her doubtfully, hanging onto the back of the passenger chair. He didn’t know any other truck drivers, so he didn’t know if this truck was just old and stiff and hard to drive, or if it was always a job like this, but he didn’t remember them driving for hours on end the way she was. She was all tendons and muscle under that pool of dark, shining, skin. And she didn’t like being stared at.

“Wind advisories up,” she said, down-shifting so hard it threw him forward into the back of the passenger chair. He grunted. Peach gave a little squeak and curled up tighter, eyes big.

“Sorry, man. Worse than a goddamn boat trailer, tell you that, blow sideways if I give it an inch.”

“You want help? Get things?”

“No, Peach got me stuff, but thanks.” She stared into the distance with a pained squint, her face all bone-hard angles and shadows. Just a taste of what she would look like when she was very old and thin. She was the kind of woman who would become nothing but cords and bones. The look of it started tugging on some memory he didn’t want, some vague place he could never make sense of when he dreamed, and he wasn’t sliding down into that stuff. No. The sudden fear made him want to tell her jokes, hear her laugh, even if it broke her awful concentration on out-guessing the wind.

“We stop?” he asked.

“Well, lucky you, you can go pee in a bottle,” Keisha said, thinning her lips.

Peach uncurled a little in the passenger seat and laughed, folding her hands over her mouth and grinning up at him. “Peepee go pee!” she said.

“Yeah,” Keisha said. “Tell you what, Peach, why don’t you climb into bed and get a nap while you can, huh? We don’t know if we’re gonna go short on sleep, when I might need you to sit up for me.”

Keisha knew perfectly well that her soft fuzzy kitty-girl couldn’t sit watch for half an hour without nodding right off. But Peach nodded solemnly, and darted up out of the seat.

He looked at her, surprised at how fast she moved.

Peach smiled back at him, showing her canines, and made a little throbbing, purring noise in her throat, blinking at him. Whether she was inviting a touch, a nip, or a fight, he couldn’t tell. Whatever it meant, it wasn’t childish at all. It made him think about brushing up against the rest of her, accidentally, and he made an effort to move aside and stop thinking things like that.

“Where?” he asked, peering out the windshield, holding his gun. He moved behind the passenger chair as much as he could, letting Peach slip past him and skitter up the ladder.

But Peach didn’t go quietly. She reached out and goosed him on the way past, running those sharp gray claws up the curve of his ass, hooking in his pants and tearing threads loose. If she wanted, she could have ripped the meat right off. He whipped his head around so fast it hurt, and she just gave that little girl giggle and scampered upward, laughing.

He watched her furry little butt flex and jiggle and wiggle under her sweats, until she flipped herself upward out of sight. He thought Peach must have been disobedient, sneaking out of her underwear again when Keisha was busy, because the pants dragged down, hung up a the lip of the cab, and he saw a flash of bright girly pink amongst all the soft grey fur. His prick knew perfectly well what that was. He didn’t blink, either.

“Peach,” Keisha said.

There were rustlings in the cab overhead. “Sorry,” Peach whispered, face hanging over the edge, and then she darted back out of sight.

He sat down and looked out into the dark, not thinking about the dotted line of little Peach-scratches he was sitting on. He had a lot of practice at that, the not-thinking. It didn’t made his prick behave, but at least he could keep his face in order. Finally, he asked, “Where going?”

Keisha grinned without turning her eyes from the road. “Does it matter?”

“No. You boss lady,” he said.

“And don’t forget it.”

“If me know where places, help better in a hurry. Map?”

“Yeah, over there,” Keisha said. She told him the interstate number. “We want Kansas City. Just about anything will do to get there, we can sort the rest once we’re closer.”

He pulled open the cracked plastic packet. Dan’s old paper maps were shredding away in pieces. He propped the gun off against the door panel, laid the pieces of map on his lap, and began flipping them back and forth. “City big,” he said.

“Yeah, big enough to make the best damn barbecue you’ve ever had, and a’ course there’s all that jazz music. Can’t forget that.”

“Dizzy, Bird, Bobby Keyes, Miles Davis, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich.”

“Shit, man, where’d you learn all that?”

“I listen lots. American radio loud, back home. Army bases play old things.”

“No shit,” Keisha said. “So what do you like?”

“Barbecue,” he said, grinning. “Slow smoke red sauce ribs, oh my,” and he imitated an American soldier’s voice so clearly that she laughed.

She chuckled. “Gotta get us some of that. Gotta stop and call my buddy first anyway.”

“Buddy?”

“Whole point of driving this way, meet up and get me some technical assistance.”

“I not good enough technical?” he said, exaggerating his hurt tone.

She laughed again. “My man, you are a specialist. You are a different kind of specialist, okay?”

“Way different, yeah,” he muttered, but of course she heard it.

“Oh, stop feelin’ sorry for y’self and find me a radio station,” Keisha said, grimacing as she fought with the wheel and the wind and the gearing. Her muscles were trembling.

“Not radio, find truck stop,” he said, a little sharply. “You tired, wind gets stronger.”

Keisha shook her head. “We are pushing through this, man.”

“Boss lady,” he said. “Please.”

“What, I’m scarin’ ya?” She grinned.

“Scare me is easy,” he said.

“You’re a fucking clown, that’s what you are, kidding alla time,” Keisha said.

“Not kidding.”

Keisha said, “Okay, we’ll break at the next rest stop, if it looks okay. Pull over for a few minutes. I can give my buddy an early call.”

He was grateful, after another ten miles, that she did pull off into the darkest corner of the rest stop. She turned off the lights, and had them all take turns in the bushes on the darkest side of the truck rather than risk the lights around the restrooms.

“Damn, I sure could use some coffee,” she said. But she didn’t go over to the drink machine. Instead she rummaged around until she found Dan’s cell phone and turned away with it so he couldn’t see the numbers she was punching in. It didn’t matter; he could hear the ring tones anyway, it was perfectly easy to decode and remember the number. Silly quackings of a distant voice came out of the phone.

Keisha spoke rapidly in a garble of slang that made no sense to him, arguing something, and not winning. Then she swore, and bashed her fist on the steering wheel, and put the phone down with a bang. “Sonuvafuckin’ bitch.”

He sat quiet, and Peach up above made no sound at all.

“He don’t want no trouble like me no more,” Keisha said bitterly.

“Yes, we are not in that business no more,” he said, imitating somebody else, somebody she’d never met.

She blinked and looked at him in the dim light from the parkling lot lights. “Yeah,” she said.

“This buddy maybe rat us out?” he asked.

“God, you do play rough,” Keisha said.

He scrubbed wearily at his face, down his neck. He wanted to get out of that rattling old machine and run fast, run away into the windy dark. He wanted out of that truck so bad he could taste the panic like a bar gag tied across his tongue. But he swallowed, and he said, “Boss Lady, we better not rest. We gotta go. Not stop for barbecue. Turn around and run. Tailwind.”

“Shit,” Keisha said.

“Stop different place, ten minutes, I rub your back, we go again,” he said.

“I don’t need a backrub,” Keisha snapped.

“You will,” he said quietly.

“No,” Keisha said. “No!”

He held up his hands. “Okay. Not be afraid. Okay.”

Keisha’s hand shot out and she grabbed his ear and yanked on him and he let her do it, puzzled. He ended up sprawled sideways along the seats, with his head in her lap. “I ain’t afraid of you,” she growled.

He blinked up at her. “Oh. You scared of you. Oh. Okay.”

Keisha blew out a big, deep breath. “Sonuvabitch,” she said again, glaring down at him.

“Okay,” he said, feeling her belly push in and out as she breathed. She smelled of leather and truck grease and road dirt and sweat and woman. Hours of woman, working and moving and leaking woman-juices into those jeans. It made him dizzy. The panic flashed away and was gone, just like that. He could lay there smelling that tickle of musk and sea and drying sweat all night long. He wanted to suck on it and rub himself in it and roll in it and get that taste into his mouth. He stared up the curves of her, rumpled and tired and crumpled with days of strength, doing this. That amazing face leaned over him at an awkward angle, with the eyes invisible in the shadows. He knew they were glaring at him. “I can sit up close, help push things,” he said.

“Huh! I heard excuses before, but that one–”

“Good, huh?” he grinned. “But I can. I help.”

“How badly am I scarin’ you, baby, driving like–”

“Grateful Dead skeleton,” he said clearly, and smiled. “Scare me!”

“Sonuvabitch!” she said again, and slapped his cheek with her hand, the same firm way she’d slap a dog. “You try sitting up here between my knees, pushing this damn wheel around, and your back’s gonna go so far out you’re flying some goddamn fucking orbit.”

He blinked again. She must be really angry, her language got so bad.

“And stop batting your goddamn eyelashes like that!” she said crossly, and hauled him up by the ear. “You go sit back over there. Be a good boy. I’ll think about it.”

“But I not good boy,” he said, puzzled. Not from when he was a baby. Stubborn, they always yelled at him.

“No shit,” Keisha growled, and got the engine revved up again. “We’ll grab something to eat when we stop to fuel up.”

“But no money,” he said, puzzled. “You feed all with Peach, yes?”

“Yeah, I fucking know that,” Keisha growled.

“I got card,” he said.

“What?”

“Boss forget job card, not turn off. I careful, not use. Risky, find me. Show where card pay–”

“Yeah, I understand. I’ll think about that too.” Keisha took a deep breath, stretched, turned the lights on, put her hands on the wheel as if it hurt to assume the position again, and put it in gear.

“Boss lady?”

“Yeah?” feet moving on the pedals.

“I want do what I can. You strong.”

Keisha snapped, “Strong? Fuck, you got no idea. You see my gramma, she was strong. My crazy aunts, hell, they so nuts you can’t tell what they got going. But me? I– am just–doing–what I gotta–be doing. Now find me a goddamn radio station, I need some tunes put me out of this misery.”

“I hear you,” he said, and smiled when a long arm reached out and rested on his knee.