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.

Other Truck

Peach heard the noise first, and her ears twitched alert. She sat up baring her teeth in the dim strips of light from the boat dock outside. She hissed, scrambling backward into Keisha’s embrace. “Truck!”

“I hear it. Easy now, don’t lose it here, I need your help. You hear the engines, mama,” Keisha whispered into the flattened ears. “Are those the same?”

Peach shook her head. “Other truck.”

“It’s all right, it’s gonna be all right,” Keisha told her, scruffing her neck very gently, stroking the loose furred skin down her spine. It hurt. Her fists ached from pounding on the walls. “Easy now.”

“Over here, bring the lights,” said a man’s voice, soft and accented with Cajun French. “Tee Pom, you got another crowbar? Dunno why those damn church folks ain’t noticed this extra new crap loaded onto this door. They’re blind sinners, too.”

“Here,” somebody else grunted, with the same sort of accent. “Good sign. Guy doesn’t lock things up like this when there ain’t nothing in there.”

“Sneakers, you got that bottled water? If them gals are still here, they gonna need somethin’ to drink–”

Wood creaked, and something popped, and there were multiple cracking noises.

Keisha froze, arms locked on Peach, and Peach’s nails dug into Keisha’s arms, and then eased.

“Yeah, here. Shoulda brung some sandwiches,” said a third man, with a much heavier accent. “Mon Dieu, this shed will fall apart first.”

“That’s why they strung them fence line wires round like that, hold it together.”

The wires creaked and strained, and more wood snapped and screws made squeaking, tearing noises as they popped loose.

“Allez, ladies, if you’re in there, you got nothing to be afraid of now, we goan’ open this thing and get you out. My name’s Tee Pom, okay? You in there? You hearing me? You want a drink of water first?”

Peach twisted, squirming down into Keisha’s side, and those nails were raking holes in her.

“Hey,” Kiesha said. It sounded like a growl, and instantly it went quiet outside. All the creaking and cracking noises stopped. Peach nudged her nose into Keisha’s side. “Leave water,” Keisha tried to say, and just scratchy bits of it came out as words.

“Okay,” said Tee Pom’s voice. “We open that door just a bit and let it sit for you. In your own time.”

A crack of light slashed across the broken floorboards that Peach and Keisha tried so hard to kick apart. Keisha pushed Peach back into a corner, warning her with a touch to stay there, and then she crossed the boards in a crunch of broken wood, and snatched up the water, and retreated back to Peach. She popped open the untouched bottle, warned Peach with more touches to drink small sips, and waited until Peach got a good cup of water down her throat before taking some of it herself. She felt noisy, gulping it too fast.

The men outside must be hunters, she thought, they all seemed to know how to sit quiet and listen.

“Okay,” Keisha said then. “Okay. Who you?”

“Tee Pom Jeansonne, sheriff of this parish,” said the nearest man. “Guy said he was a friend of yourn told us to come find you.”

“Who?” Keisha rasped.

“Guy says his name’s Seung.”

Silence.

“Ain’t sure what he is,” Keisha said, very soft, whispering, so it won’t hurt so much to throw out that many words.

“Are you okay right now? Need anything?” Tee Pom said mildly. “You want us to bring some blankets up?”

“Good,” Keisha agreed.

“Anything you want?”

“Down the lights,” Keisha said.

“Okay,” Tee Pom said, and the strip of light on the floor narrowed and disappeared.

Keisha stood up as much as she was able to in the low shed, and shifted her legs slowly, trying to stretch aching muscles. “Peach,” she murmured, and felt Peach slide in under her arm, whimpering. “We goin’ out, okay? You gotta be brave.”

Peach whimpered softer.

“I got something with me, might scare y’all.” Keisha said. “She ain’t dangerous, but if anyone shoots at her or shit, I’m gonna be so damn dangerous y’all be sorry you was born, hear me?”

“M’am I assure you, we ain’t gonna bust a sweat. It’s been a busy night, for us an’ you-all, and we got someplace warm and dry and safe to get you to.” Tee Pom spoke softly, as if he were used to comforting little kids in scary places.

“You maybe ain’t gonna like what you see this time,” Keisha growled. “You guys all settled down, you ain’t gonna get crazy on me? I wanna hear your names. All of you.”

“Well, you heard me, Tee Pom,” he said. “Sound off, guys.”

And they did. Eight of them, by God.

“Okay,” Keisha said, and felt Peach shivering. “Open it up, we wanna see you first.”

“Okay, here’s Sneakers coming up here, he’s got some blankets,” Tee Pom said. “You ready? Okay.”

The door came open, cracking and squealing, and she was looking out at silhouettes against a light bounced off into the water, not pointed directly at the shed. Peach shivered. Keisha stroked her fur, and took a step. Peach came with her. Another step. Peach moved with her, but she was still shivering. “You okay mama?” Peach shoved her head into Keisha’s shoulder, turning her back on them all. Keisha put out one hand, and the nearest guy held out a blanket, and Keisha wrapped it around Peach. He held out another one, and Keisha draped it awkwardly over her own shoulders, hanging onto Peach with her other arm.

Keisha blinked again into the indirect light, and looked at what little she saw of their faces in the broken darkness. “She’s a bagheera.”

“Yes ma’m,” Tee Pom said. He was a heavy-built guy, bigger than a high school linebacker, but not big enough to be pro-sized. “Them kitty ears are pretty plain pointers.”

“You guys know about this? Dan said maybe…”

“What Dan is that?” Tee Pom said, still easy, friendly.

“He drove a truck. Guy named Fozzie owned it. I guess they know some folks made like Peach is.”

“Yeah,” Tee Pom said. Still soft, relaxed, calm as hell. That Chuck Yager jet pilot voice some of them used. “We got a passle of ’em living around here, in fact.”

“I took the truck. Had to.”

“How come?” Tee Pom asked.

“Dan got shot,” Keisha said, and felt a little shudder in her leg muscles.

“You know who shot him?”

“Seung does,” Keisha said. She nodded at the shed. “The guys did those locks, they took the truck. I bet Dan’s boss wants it back. You know Fozzie?”

“Yeah, I do. I bet he does want that truck. Fozzie don’t fool around, either. Does Fozzie know you?”

Keisha shook her head slowly. Peach’s snuffling routine wasn’t bringing her anything bad from these guys. “Man… Ain’t feeling so good…”

“Okay, we got a truck with room, we’ll drive gentle for you. I’d like to take you over to the clinic and have Doctor Alexander bandage your hands, take a look at both of you.”

Keisha looked down. Dark crusts on her knuckles, wet black streaks ran down her fingers.

“You’d have bashed your way out through the boards in awhile,” Tee Pom said, and his big open grin shone out in the truck lights.

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

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.

Morning Tutorial

When she opened her eyes in the morning, she felt Peach in a warm lump behind her, but she saw him first. He was sitting on a chair by the window, naked, looking out through a gap in at the side of the curtains. Just watching things, alert. She noticed the wet clothes had been moved around to dry better. He blinked then, and yawned, and sprawled back at a weird angle in the chair, probably to ease pressure on his back. But no, it wasn’t just that. He reached down and shifted his balls out of the way and grabbed that little stub down at the base of his spine and moved it into a different position, looking down at himself and grimacing. Then he lifted his head and looked directly at her. “Dry up, not stay wet,” he said.

“Yeah, especially in this kinda muggy heat we’re gonna get,” she said, blinking at him.

He slapped one hand on his knee, and moved his legs wider for her to see. He pointed at it. “Grow.”

Keisha looked at him. “You’re sure.”

He nodded. He held out his fingers in a span two inches wide, and said, “Last week.” Then he pointed at it.

“Last week?”

“Kinda hurt,” he said, tipping his head back. “You lick, that grow and not hurt.”

Keisha grinned at him. “I bet,” she said.

He held up one hand. “True. Never not hurt, magic Keisha fix, all better.” And that cock of his was unfurling already, showing itself off, too. Most guys she knew on the big side were all queer bottoms, and she was wondering a bit about those invitations to get at all of him, but he sure did like woman smell and woman juice and woman bodies.

Keisha chuckled. “You keep thinking that way.” She turned her head. “God, five-thirty am, what is the matter with me, sleepin’ in that late?” But she sat up, and reached over to pick up one of the the little packets scattered in the dresser drawer by the bed. “Okay, bring me your horny old self, and let’s teach Peach about rubbers. I got me a boy to maul and a truck to load and I ain’t got a lot of time to get out of here before regular people notice.”

Peach sat up, yawning, and blinked at the proceedings. She was enthusiastic about joining the foreplay, and her tongue was amazing on Keisha’s body. Neither of them even had to touch the Chinese guy, he came up hard and ready the moment Keisha flung the blankets aside and guided Peach’s mouth down between her legs. “Yeah, that’s it, momma, oh, easy, I gotta hold onto it, you’re too good,” Keisha gasped. “Now, get that one–yeah, open it, that’s good, now unroll it a little, see which way it’s rolling. Pinch the tip, and roll it onto your average homegrown penis, which this one ain’t, this is one of your bigger guys here, and roll it up onto his shaft. Easy, like that. You got to watch those nails of yours, though, you poke holes, this condom ain’t gonna help you not get sick or pregnant, and I’m thinking pregnant is not a good one for us right now. You got it, Peach?”

Peach nodded.

The Chinese guy gave a little hiss as Peach leaned up beside him and smoothed the condom up the hard purplish length of him. and rubbed her cute little furry titties on his back.

“Okay, now we get to figure out how to fuck this boy without hurting his back. How about you be a pillow in front of the headboard, Peach, he leans back into you, and I come at him from in front, and we’ll see how that feels. How’s that? All right, here’s the program, my man. We’re gonna get you all hot and bothered and ready to punch out right away, so we don’t keep wallowing on you in the wrong place for long. You got other ideas, you tell us that too.”

He just smiled, settling down between Peach’s knees with Peach’s arms curled around his ribs and his head between her breasts. He gave a big happy sigh. He spread his knees, and Keisha got her mouth down there onto his balls and that ridge and that odd little stub, until he was jerking in place, cock straining in its rubber coating. Keisha rubbed her hand into her own cunt lips, and brought her damp hand up to his face, and he licked her fingers, groaning. Then she brought his knees down and she slid her legs around both his hips and Peach’s hips too. Keisha grasped the head of his cock, and guided him into herself, and sat down on him with a grunt.

Either it was timing or it was fate, because in that moment he fit in all the best ways. She’d had smaller men where it always felt like a dry, painful strain, aiming at some remote ideal in the sky or something that she ought to be ready for, and she wasn’t. Here he was bigger, and he slid in like silk, curving all the right ways, reaching the good spots as he moved. She rocked her hips, wanting it, wanting the whole guy down to the root. Keisha gave a deep sigh of happiness, leaned down and kissed him, taking his mouth, fucking his throat.

When she drew back for air, they were both heaving, unable to stop moving.

God, she gasped to herself, it’s been– too long– She angled her hips to please herself, and then he was moving. Oh man, was he doing it, and not gently, either. She could feel that odd little knob slapping forward too, as if it wanted to get a piece of her ass, and it felt damn good. Startling, but just right. Keisha smiled then, folded up a bit, and brought her mouth down onto his nipple, and felt Peach take up the idea by putting a hand on his other nipple, and stroke all over his torso while she was at it.

Too hot, too young, a virgin getting his cherry popped by two women at once–he was gone, as fast as she’d guessed he might lose it. He strained up in just a couple of minutes, totally silent, nose flaring wide, rigid.  Then he gave a loud snort and a gasp, and then he was falling back into Peach’s supporting hands, grunting for air.

Keisha grasped the rolled end of the condom, pulled her hips up and dragged her hungry unsatisfied cunt off of him, and flopped over onto her back. God, so close, and it’d been so long.

She blinked up in surprise.

He was up on his knees, leaning over her, and he said hoarsely, “Woman needs,” and lowered his head to kiss her on the mouth, and then trail down her breasts, and then down her belly, and down marvelously onto her cunt. He’d been watching what they liked, all right. He used his hands, too. Keisha arched up, yelling. Then she felt Peach leaning in, adding in a line of light kitty nips on her breasts, and then Peach kissed her on the mouth, while their not-so-Chinese man was down there kissing her clitoris. Keisha shook them both all round like a truck with an ignition problem. She couldn’t help it, she had whole-body orgasms. Not noisy all the time, thank God, but she gave her whole physical self over to it, and things moved. When she blinked back to herself, she found she’d wallowed around halfway off the bed.

“Woman needs,” the guy said solemnly, and then he looked at Peach, and smiled. “You?”

Peach giggled. “You lay on me, I come!”

“Wow,” Keisha said, blinking up. “Wha…how come you’re both up and moving?”

“Oh, I all happy for work,” he said. “Last night tired, hurt, sleepy. Not like all days. Other days–” he grinned, and stood up off the bed, looking absurd with the condom hanging off a half-erect penis.

“Okay, that’s good to know. Tell you what. Take that off, throw it away, wash up, and start packing. I think I’ll get a shower when you’re out. Peach, only do that with a rubber, right?”

Peach nodded. “More lick?”

“You still feeling it? Still need licks?” Keisha said.

Peach smiled, and leaned into her. “Happy. You?”

Keisha hugged her. Then she leaned on Peach to sat up, and beckoned at their guy. “C’mere.”

Their not-so-Chinese guy came over and stood by the bed, penis wet but denuded. Keisha looked at it, past it, upward.

He bent over and slid one hand onto Keisha’s loosened trap muscles, and kissed her on the mouth, and knelt down in front of her. He looked into her eyes. “You?”

Keisha looked at him. She nodded, slowly. “That was great licking,” she told him.

His face flashed into a broad smile. “Good teacher,” he said, and leaned in and kissed her again, just because. His arms slid around her waist, hands flattened out on her ribs, and then he was leaning into her breasts, his hips shoved in between her knees.

“Bad as a cat, you are,” Keisha said, raking her fingers through his hair. “Only you need a haircut. God, I could do that all over again, easy, until–”

“Until my wiener break,” he said, chuckling.

“Well, I always was pretty hard on my toys,” Keisha said, hugging him too, carefully.

He kissed her shoulder, and got up, and went off into the bathroom whistling. Peach joined him, and there was giggling. Keisha flopped back onto the bed. They were going to wear her down to a nubbin, they were. God, kids that young, fucking like bunnies every twenty minutes. She ought to make them do it on the floor while she got some sleep for a change. Well, hell, they’d probably end up fucking on the floor anyway, or the couch, or the chairs, or wherever.

And why, when she’d just been pleasured in all the best possible ways, was she daydreaming about seeing the two of them going at it, with their naked rumps in the air, rolling around free and happy and not a back problem in sight?

Meeting Dan’s Boss

“Those pills your boss give you, do you know what it was?” Keisha asked, making one of those long slow turns where the highway climbed into the mist, the white fences ticking by against the bright green turf of Kentucky horse country.

“No, Miss Keisha.” He drew in a deep breath, tipping his chin upward.

“You got papers to be in this country?”

“Oh, green card? The passport? No. Just troops on boat. Boss, he say, you do this thing. Long trip. Sea. Troops not like sea.”

“Huh,” Keisha said. “You gettin’ tired?”

He waved it off, frowning. “You?”

“Yeah, road running, you get tired,” she agreed, with a shrug. “So what’s wrong with your back?”

“Say they fix small part, but no,” the guy said. “Small part maybe break spine, maybe I be no legs, maybe monster.”

“Say what?” Keisha said.

“I show,” he said, setting the gun between his knees. He rummaged in a pocket, pulled out a thin wallet. He pulled out some small photographs, held them out where she could see them. “Like that. I shoot Boss, I take these with boss’s gun too. See, monster. This like me. I go find him, yes?”

Keisha flicked her eyes up at the road, back to the snapshot. Somebody just like this guy was standing next to a pond, holding up fish with both brown hands and with a long silvery snakey tail of some kind. Three weeks ago, there were no cat things in her life.

Another picture got shoved under her nose. Same guy, swimming in the same pond, with little ripples where the tail was coming out of the water. A third one, dim, ass up in some bed where he’s naked and hugging two other people, and clearly everybody was just fine with the tail all over them. Another man and a pale woman in that trio. Too awkward for porn, and too odd for a prank. The prints were beat up, crumpled.

The guy tapped the picture. “Boss say, you take special shots. Not take shots, you turn into that. Say, You go like him. You want your shots, you do what I tell. And pills.”

“Fuck, I’d shoot your boss too,” Keisha said.

“My shots, no more. My pills, no bottle. No name. Baggies, like crack. Like smack.”

“Your boss dealt smack?”

“No, not crack, not smack. Not horse, raw. Black tar bricks. Russia, Burma, Afghanistan. Pallets.”

“Why was he coming over here if he’s based over there–” Keisha asked slowly.

“I no ask,” he said, chin up. “Not know troops. All new.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Keisha said, watching the road. Pallets, the man said.

“You know a lot,” he said coolly, watching her.

She waved it off. “Crap, I’m just hauling a little weed, engine parts, some Havanas– or I was. Nothing that size.”

“What is load of boxes this truck by Dan?”

“Here on the truck? Oh, this. Umm, dry goods for the local groceries for his home folks. Canned tomatoes, stew, beans, that kinda thing. I checked, you betcha.”

She took the curves gently. She saw his face tighten up as the cab jolted. They weren’t maintaining the highways real well out here. She left spaces in between her questions. Driving gave a reason not to talk, made her take some time to think it out before she opened her mouth. It helped.

She said finally, “So what else do you know about those pictures of Mister Tail Guy there?”

He looked at the picture with the other people too. “Mister Tail, he use my family name too, old time ago.”

“Holy– is he a relative? Is he in your family?”

“Nobody know. Not always tail, boss say it grow. He run away. I go find him, yes? See? He got friends.”

“You gonna find that guy?”

“You help me, yes,” he said quietly, looking at her. “You smart. Look hard picture, I tell you what boss say, we open laptop, we go find them.”

“So you want to stick by Peach and me and the laptop, and you want my help to find that guy?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Even if you turn into Mister Tail like him?”

He picked up the gun, held out the stock toward her.

“Now stop that, don’t play games,” Keisha said crossly. “We’re coming up on the only bridge for miles. No other way out, right? Coming up pretty soon. You keep an eye out. They could be waiting on us.”

“Yes, Boss Lady,” he said, and he smiled, and flipped the gun around.

It’s at the third bridge that crosses a slough that trouble shows up. Somebody was waiting for them. Well, about four trucks, actually.

“Hoh shit,” the Chinese guy said, peering around at the mirrors.

The truckers were inspecting traffic from that high point on the levee. When Keisha hauled up onto the levee to make the bridge, they pulled out the trucks into the way. They blocked the damn highway. Just blocked it. Passenger cars screeched to a halt, and four guys with guns–guys riding shotgun, because the drivers were still up in those cabs–directed the little cars into a tight s-curve past their grills.

The Chinese guy leaned to squint at the truck cab windows, trying to make out who was driving. He shook his head.

Keisha looked over at him, who said, “Not troops. Not boss of the guy I shot, not boss boss’s guys.”

“So these are other guys.”

“Yes. Guys I not know.”

The CB crackled in the cab.

Then Keisha saw the name glittering on one of the truck cab doors. The same company name was on the clipboard of invoices Dan left behind.

“Holy crap,” Keisha said, drifting the truck to a halt. She hit the CB button. She winced at the clarity of the voice coming back at her on about six bands, all the ones she pushed the tuner through. Which probably meant more than just four trucks out there. She picked one, picked up the mike, said, “Hi.”

“Yeah, you there with Dan’s truck!” it shouted back at her.

The Chinese guy flinched even worse than she did.

“My name’s Fozzie,” replied the CB on all those channels at once. “I understand somebody started shooting, my guy Dan went down, and you hijacked my truck in a hurry. I understand you shot out a tricked-out pickup what was giving you trouble, too. So I know you brung trouble with you. I can listen to you and we all figure out what to do about it, or I can just put a stop to it right here. Dan was one of the good guys. I ain’t above blowing a truck if I think you murdered him. Get out of that cab, and bring your people out with you. And leave back the gun what done in that gray pickup.”

Keisha said, “Fozzie, I’m Keisha. I got some pretty weird shit going down. You might have heard some from Dan about my kitty gal. So I’m not sure you want this public.”

“Yeah, we know about that. Just come on out, don’t rush things.”

The Chinese guy looked at her.

Keisha told him, “You think you could take ’em all, and maybe you can, but I don’t think we’d get out of here again in a truck, so let’s be quiet, okay? Let’s just step out and talk to the man. Never hurts to talk.”

The guy actually dipped his head to her. It was a bow, almost Japanese-style formal. If it hurt him, it didn’t show. “As you say.” And he opened the door slowly, and left the gun behind as he climbed down to the pavement.

Keisha said, “Okay, Peach, we’re getting out now, just take it slow.”

Peach whimpered. She was afraid to climb down from her perch in the sleepover cab.

“Gimme a minute, guys, my kitty gal is frightened. Just be cool,” Keisha told the CB mike. When she glanced up, she saw her not-Chinese guy crossing in front of their radiator grill, coming around to the driver’s side, empty hands out widely, strolling, cool as a cucumber. When he got to the cab door, he opened it for her.

“Come on down, Peach, I’ll give you a big hug, we’ll be fine, and we’ll have lots more deer meat for you,” Keisha said, reaching up. “Now put your foot down here on the next step, that’s it. Okay. Down you come, mama. All right.”

The Chinese guy looked up at them. “Please come,” he said softly, coaxing, holding out his hand, and Peach came. She clung to Keisha a moment, and then she moved down far enough to take the guy’s hand, climbing down to the road. She shivered. When he put both arms around her and crooned, she put down her head into his shoulder, same as she always did with Keisha.

Peach wasn’t that trusting with anybody a week ago, Keisha thought, surprised.

Gotta give the guy points, he knew from the start how to pet a kitty. He petted the fur on Peach’s shoulders, scritched up her neck, murmuring to her, but all the time he had his eyes up, watching Fozzie’s truckers.

Keisha got her stiff legs working enough to stumble out of the cab, and the guy put up one hand and braced her as well. It couldn’t be more clear. He claimed them both, they were under his protection.

“Okay, Boss Lady?” he said, looking up at Keisha, holding onto her arm.

“I’m good,” Keisha said. “Guess I needed a break from that seat. Wow, I’m stiff.”

A big guy, wide and hairy and about a foot taller than Keisha herself, strolled up to them with a sailor’s wide-legged roll to his gait. He looked pretty stiff from driving too. But he didn’t look like he was armed.

“I’m Fozzy, Dan’s boss,” he said, and nodded to her. Then he looked steadily at Peach. “Well. That’s a new bagheera strain, for sure, Dan was right. Looks like you been feeding her up lately, that’s good. I take it Dan’s gone.”

Keisha took a deep breath. “Yeah, I think so. All happened so fast.”

He nodded. “Coupla my guys caught up to the pickup. You don’t need to worry about them. But that kind don’t work alone. We got some ideas what we’re gonna do with Dan’s truck, pull the rest of ’em outta the woods. Now, what have we got here.” He folds his arms, looking at the dark guy. It’s absurd, the difference in heights. But there was no sense that he thought the shorter man was less dangerous, no sense that Fozzie wasn’t alert as hell to the man’s speed. Fozzie grunted. “I wanna hear your story. You shot out that pickup with a popgun like that?” He nodded at the gun that somebody was holding, taken from the cab of their truck by one of the guys who already had a gun of his own.

“Yes,” said the not-so-Chinese guy, still stroking Peach, holding onto Keisha, poised ready to do something if the shooting started. Keisha had no idea what it might be, just fast.

“Easy there,” Fozzie said to him, and nodded for his guy to carry the gun away. Then he looked down at Keisha. “Why don’t you get your stuff outta the cab, and my guys will make good use of Dan’s truck, while we head off for parts that those pickup guys aren’t likely to think of, being they ain’t local. We don’t appreciate guys comin’ in shooting our drivers and trying to take out our trucks. Can’t be having with that. And we can get some more food into your kitty gal there.” Fozzie looked at Keisha. He knew who decided stuff for them.

“Okay. Okay. I’m Keisha, our kitty gal is Peach.” She held out her hand.

The big guy took it, kissed the air above it like he was Cajun from way back, and murmured something in French.

“And this guy is– umm–” she turned in the firm grip on her arm, and looked at their own guy.

“Seung,” he said quietly. “My handle now, you say.” And he bowed to her, and then to Fozzie.

Fozzie, by God, bowed right back.

“Right, Seung, wouldja mind holding Peach here while I fetch our stuff down?” Keisha asked her own guy.

He inclined his head again, and stroked the base of Peach’s ears gently. “It’s okay, Peach gal,” he murmured, and brushed her cheek lightly with his. It calmed Peach, too. “It’s okay. All safe. All safe now.”

Fozzie nodded, and turned his gaze back to Keisha. Then he glanced back at the other trucks. “Hey, Mike, go help out Miz Keisha, she can hand stuff out to you.”

Dan had not been fooling when he told those stories about animal people. Mike came out of the shadow between two of the trucks where he’d been hiding. Mike had tall wolfish ears and a graying muzzle and yellow eyes. He had something that was less of a beard and more of a mane, and his striped hair ran down into his shirt. His shoulders were massive. Like Fozzie, he was much taller than she was. “Welcome home, Miss Keisha,” Mike said formally, and it sounded a little odd, because the lips on that muzzle weren’t all that mobile and his speech was coming mostly from his tongue and his throat. He held out a hand with fingers that weren’t quite regular, as they had long black clawlike nails.

“Pleased ta meetcha,” Keisha said, gripping the odd-shaped hand carefully. Her gaze went back up to the intelligent eyes.

Mike nodded. “You done the right thing. Let’s get your things.”

While they were moving around, Keisha warned Mike about what kind of jokers might be following her. He just nodded, passing her pathetic little bag of dirty clothes to one of the other guys. Keisha managed to unlock the cabinets and pull out the laptop without making a big deal of it among their bags of groceries, but Mike didn’t comment on any of it. Their stuff got put into a locker on one of the trucks. Mike gestured, and they climbed up to ride in the same truck with Mike at the wheel.

At the passenger-side door, Mike said to Seung, “You can ride shotgun for me, keep an eye on the mirror for the bad guys. Fozzie said you maybe know them?”

Seung said, “Yes. Some. Not all.”

“That’ll help. Yell out if you see anybody like that, Fozzie will get some questions answered.” Then Mike nodded up at the sleepover cab, and said to Keisha, “You and Peach could nap for awhile. Looks like some rest would do you both good. We’ll get you some more game meat for Peach. Fozzie told me, and I think he’s right, that was a damn good idea buying some from Pierre, I’m glad you guys thought of that.”

“Car?” Peach asked, anxiously, clinging to both Seung and to Keisha at once.

“No, mama, it’s okay, you don’t haveta watch for cars. They’re gonna watch for us. You can nap,” Keisha said.

“Sleep,” Seung advised Peach, nodding. Peach was gone up the footholds into the sleepover cab just like that. Upward was easy for her.

Seung looked at Keisha, waiting. Waiting for orders, or permission, or something.

Keisha rubbed her eyes. “I gotta rest. Talk to Mike, see what he knows about that snake guy you’re looking for. You wake me up when you need to fall over.”

Seung nodded. Then he did something odd. He put up his hand and rested it on her shoulder, patted her. “No dreams,” he said firmly. “Just sleep.”

“Oh yeah,” Keisha agreed. And she found herself doing something odd too. She patted him on the arm too, careful not to jolt his sore back. Then she followed Peach upward. She poked her head out briefly, thanked Mike for his hospitality. She was half gone by the time she curled up with Peach warm and furry in her aching arms.

Seung Learns About Sorry

Keisha thought she’d go down like a rock, but she didn’t. She kept jolting awake. She hugged Peach tight, drifting off and coming to, rigid, whenever the two men started talking. Seung spoke softly, lost sometimes in the road noise for her, and Mike’s speech was odd enough that it took a little bit of effort to understand him. Seung had to ask him to say things over sometimes, which helped Keisha get it too. After awhile she wondered if Seung was doing it deliberately, if he heard her shifting around all the time so he knew she wasn’t sleeping.

“Lookin’ for a snake guy, huh?” Mike said, putting the mike back on the CB hook after he spoke to Fozzie, something thick with local bayou names.

“Man look like me,” Seung said bluntly.

“Except the tail?” Mike said.

“Yes.”

“You gonna grow a tail too?” Mike said.

“You do know snake,” Seung said.

“Well, I think so, yeah. Don’t know him real well, just ain’t a guy I’d wanna hang with. Bites people.”

“Bites!” Seung said, shocked.

“Oh yeah, got fangs about this long. Chomp on ya, knock you down in two minutes flat. I saw the marks on a kid. Hadda a good reason, he knocked her out for le bon Docteur Caleb. Kid needed surgery right after the Storm. Compound hip fracture, poor li’l gal. Guess she’s gettin’ around on a cane now.”

“So good bite,” Seung said slowly.

“Yeah, far as I know. He’s one of the good guys, ya know, he goes huntin’ bugs, he can smell ’em a mile off. But hey, I can track him, too. I know snake when I smell it. No offense, man, but that kinda dusty smell, like them rattlesnake dens, makes me go cold all over.”

Mike geared down, took a turn onto a rough, twisty, bumpy road that was paved maybe twenty years back. He turned at the next section line intersection, and again at the next, zigzagging along. He drove more slowly as it got rougher. Dark pine trees closed in on either side, so nothing but trees were visible out of the upper windows in front of the sleeper cab. They were running down a dark, twisting tunnel.

On a straighter longer stretch, Seung asked, “Do smell me snake too?”

“You really want to know?” Mike said.

“Yes,” Seung said.

There was a long silence while Mike negotiated a tight turn. “Yeah. Kinda different, stronger on some stuff, not so much on other stuff. Like smellin’ cousins or something.”

“Thank you,” Seung said, short and curt and quiet.

“You lucky, man,” Mike told him. “He got respect right off. You got him as family, ain’t nobody gonna mess with you.”

Seung said, “People say him a faggot musician. Say tail grow, he run away. My boss got me pills stop tail.”

Mike gave a snort down that long nose. “Well, some of us got born this way from the start, and some of us get a big surprise later on. I ain’t never heard of nothin’ could stop you turning, either. That guy, when he turned, he run away with help. Got him a smart old rich man and a damn hot-lookin’ woman, both at once. Hell, they got style. Your snake guy, he keeps both of ’em busy at night, get that houseboat rockin’ away. Jeez, if that’s faggot, give me some of it. He flirts on both sides a’ that barn door at alla them fais-do-dos when he plays fiddle, and neither of those two even worry about it. You see ’em there, they just smile. Now that hot gal came with him, she is somethin’ to watch. Kicks ass huntin’ inna swamp. You go bug-hunting with them three and you fuck up, she’ll peel your hide off in a coupla fancy words like she’s rippin’ a sharkskin off.” Mike gave a soft whistle, shaking his head.

“Snake choose good,” Seung said.

“Oh yeah, give half the parish wet dreams just watchin’ her walk by,” Mike laughed.

“Nobody say rude to her?” Seung said.

“Oh hell no,” Mike said, dryly, and both of them laughed.

“You’re doin’ even better, you got y’self two gals! Man, lookit that kickass babe and that sweet li’l kitty gal.”

“I like,” Seung said. “They strong. Rip sharkskin, yes?”

Mike laughed again. “Oh, yeah. I seen what them bagheera claws can do, man. You wanna talk about instant filet of gator? Woof, man.”

“Peach just baby, she not talk good, she not know she so cute. Not mess Peach. Nobody mess, right?”

“Oh hell no,” Mike said, sounding surprised. “What you take me for, some kinda short-eye fuckup?”

“What means short-eye?” Seung asked.

“A man in prison for molesting children,” Mike said, enunciating it carefully.

“Oh,” Seung said. “No. You not that fuckup.”

“Okay then,” Mike said.

“Any guys mess Peach, Keisha rip many little pieces, tell me stay back,” Seung said.

Mike laughed. “I bet she would! And stomp on the pieces, man.”

“You like strong,” Seung said.

“I just admire from a distance, believe me. I had sisters, I learned young. I know better than to tangle with them alpha-ralpha-march-it-boys kinda amazons. Too late for you, Seung. Boy, you ain’t even gonna know what hit ya. You are gettin’ done like a steak onna grill.”

“Done?”

“Cooked like a piece a’ meat, well-done headin’ toward crispy black stuff, yeah. She say jump, you already up in the air. She say, buy me this, you gonna buy it. She say, no party this house, you know there ain’t gonna be no party, ya hear me?”

“Pussy-whipped?” Seung said.

Mike roared with laughter. “Where’d you learn that one?”

“Boss had boss with rude,” Seung said.

“If you even get some pussy, you’d be lucky, man. Maybe ain’t gonna get none of that, right?”

“Yes,” Seung agreed. “Sad. Keisha say she like mens, but I only know her and Peach little time, not meet good way.”

“She told you that?”

“Yes,” Seung said.

“Oh, you are so gonna get fried like a big ol’ rack of ribs and chomped,” Mike told him.

“Chomping me okay,” Seung said. He laughed, softly. “I not mind get pussy-whipped from them.”

Mike laughed too. “Seung, you are something else, you really are. You gonna be so sorry, I tell you. You are gonna be cryin’ later.”

“Okay,” Seung said, chuckling. “But happy first.”

“Oh Christ,” Mike said, shaking his head. He started gearing down and down and down.

“Who there? You slow? Why stop for those men?” Seung said, twisting his head around. “Why we stop?”

“Because this is where you learn about sorry,” Mike said calmly, and opened his door with the truck still rolling along slowly. He just let go, stepped out onto the cab’s ladder, and somebody else swung around him into the seat, smoothly. That man was being covered by somebody else on the ladder as well. All Keisha could see was the muzzle of a gun aimed right into her face. It was not aimed at Seung. It was aimed up at the sleeper cab.

“Don’t move,” said the first man, braking the truck to a full stop. He was wearing some kind of dark, brownish camo outfit with cryptic badges and buttoned pockets that bulged. The gear was not cheap, and it was in a fairly new style that’d been used pretty hard already.

Seung looked up, saw Keisha, and blinked once, waiting.

Keisha shook her head minutely.

Seung blinked once again, and looked down at the two men, one hanging by the open door. He didn’t move when the cab passenger door beside him opened, and another gun pointed upward at the sleeper cab. A third gun got close, too, pointed this time at Seung himself. And that gunman was smart enough to use a cross-angle that might take out the windshield, but it wouldn’t hit the new driver or his buddy. They were all dressed in the same uniform, whatever it meant. Some private militia, the assholes. No official clothes like that in this state.

“Your new boss got some questions,” the driver told Seung. “You wanna get out quiet, or you want us to shoot the kitty in the knees first?”

“No shoot,” Seung said. “I get out. No shoot.”

“Good, boss will like that. You go with those guys, do what you’re told, and boss might let kitty gal last awhile longer,” the driver said. The gunman behind him squeezed past him, settled between the seats, without ever losing the bead on Keisha’s head.

Seung looked up, and quickly down again, and climbed out. He was kneeling there on the road, hands on top of his head, when the door swung wide and Keisha lost track of him. She was a little distracted. Two more gunmen got in the open passenger door, one with a machine pistol and the other with a sawed-off shotgun, both aimed upward.

Keisha heard Peach whimper. She put her hand gently over Peach’s mouth, and tapped her shoulder warningly, and Peach fell totally silent.

“We’re going for a little ride,” said the driver, as both of the cab doors were slammed shut from outside. He put the truck in gear and got it rolling again. “You want some new holes, just try makin’ a fuss. Ain’t no never mind to me. Boss might be mad if the real fun didn’t make it to the party, but hey, shit happens.”

After awhile, the driver’s little black tac mike at the shoulder tab crackled some code phrases, and he grunted and stepped on the gas, making everybody sway in place.

Keisha stroked the back of Peach’s head, down her neck, wrapped her arm close around her. Peach buried her face in Keisha’s shoulder.

One of the gunman said, “This goddamn old piece a’ shit ain’t gonna make that kinda time on this road.”

Another growled, “Alla Fozzie’s fleet are old crap. They oughta know that goin’ in.”

“Ain’t askin’ you,” said the driver, and they were quiet. It was a good hour before he stopped making turns and pulled the truck to a stop at a deserted gas station with a tree growing through the roof. “Just set quiet, ladies, we’ll get word soon enough whether you get to play with party favors or not.”

Keisha shifted around to lean up on one elbow, very slowly, and opened her mouth.

One of the guns made that ominous click of the safety being released, and she closed her mouth without saying anything and laid back down again. The safety went back on.

“I like it quiet. Quiet is good,” said the driver. “You gotta pee, just wet your pants right where you are. This old pile of shit ain’t gonna care any more’n’ I do.”

Keisha stroked Peach’s shoulder gently. Then she realized Peach was dragging at her hand. She let her hand be guided. Peach made it into a pointing finger sort of hand, and aimed it, hidden well back of the lip of the bunk where they lay, in the direction of the driver. Then she aimed Keisha’s pointing index finger until it poked at herself, at her own forehead. Keisha tapped her arm lightly to show she understood, and then stroked her shoulder, soothingly. Peach might have limited language, but she was no dummy. If Peach knew the guy driving, that meant either he was with the security who used to keep Peach locked up, or she saw him with those forces who attacked the boat Peach was on. Maybe the bug guys who came with Seung’s late, unlamented boss.

Judging from Seung’s flat reaction, he knew them pretty well. Oh, the questions. Anaconda was back, squeezing her ribs until they ached.

Kinda silly, asking those cosmic questions in her head. Asking if Seung got surprised by Mike’s betrayal, or whether he was in it with them. What chance was there of ever finding out? The rest of them, history. But just let her get a chance to nail Seung’s ass to the floor for some answers.

Now that’d be cosmic justice.

Alligator Wrestlers

Seung knelt in the road and watched the truck roll away. He looked at his new bosses and did not bother to react. No point. Lock it down. He could take them, just take the lot, he saw repeated patterns of openings that would get him loose. Take one of their trucks cross-country. But not with their tac-mikes talking, all the time chattering, putting the two hostages at risk. He was pretty sure Keisha and Peach were not at much risk if he did what he was told. If he did the usual job expected of him, that is. If Keisha could be good, not mouth off, they had a good chance. These troops knew messing up the boss’s meat was their last mistake. They’d dump the two women somewhere to pick up later, extra mice on ice for the boss in case he was delayed and got bored. And hey, if nobody ever came back for them, too bad. There were always more women nobody would care about, the places they went.

It was risky, going in on his own time after the ones he knew were stuffed away somewhere and the boss had moved on. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d crosscrossed some stinking thorny stretch of country, cutting trail over and over until he found where they’d cached the latest extras, trying to get there before the women died of injuries or shock or lack of water. He’d only managed to find them in time once, and that was bad enough he had to think about the risks ever since.

What he had to gamble on was guessing whether the same man who’d been his boss’s boss was still in charge. Seung had shaken things up by killing one of his gang officers. Nobody knew he’d done that, or these guys would have orders to to make him a big messy example at one of the boss’s vacation compounds.

But it didn’t feel right. They weren’t treating him normally. When he shifted on his knees, there were still five gunmen in an arc lined up to shoot him. They ought to be a little afraid of him, yes, as his former bosses’s gravedigger and handyman and junk job bodyguard, but not like that. They didn’t know what’d happened to his boss, which probably made them wonder if that guy had crossed his own boss, no huge surprise. With that guy gone, everything was up in the air. Now they didn’t know where Seung would fall into the new hierarchy. They knew he was worth more than any one single one of them; but they didn’t come as one guy, the way he did. They were interchangeable troops, a larger unit.

“Catch,” said the officer in charge, and tossed a pint vodka bottle at Seung. “Get that down. I got nothing else for your back, and you got work to do.”

Seung nodded, one hand idly stripping the seal off. Booze was better than nothing. He wasn’t sure he could dig for long, the way his shoulders and neck and butt muscles were starting to twitch. It made him twitchier to find out they’d been told about his back hurting, too.

“I’ll give you another later,” the guy said, as if Seung was just another pathetic drunk of a civilian who might see things but he wasn’t going to last long enough to worry about. They dumped those bodies too, sometimes right alongside the girls.

Seung was lying on his side on the ground, after two more pints and a couple of rotations to fresh guards standing over him, and it was getting to be late afternoon, before somebody showed up. There was shouting on the other side of a troop vehicle, and more tac-mikes chattering, and finally they let in the transport he’d been expecting.

He wasn’t even surprised when a rusty stake-sided farm truck rolled up, with a pathetic tarped bundle in the back. The troops in brown pointed, and he climbed in, and somebody threw a backpack at him. There was a shovel in the cords on the outside of the pack, a tatty old bedroll strapped on top, a couple of American MREs in it, a thin roll of fifty dollar bills, and a baggie full of the kind of pictures that’d make the local cops make all kinds of wild assumptions about anybody who was carrying it. The pictures were pretty new, not something the boss came up with. Somebody else’s cute idea to liven things up, maybe.

They’d be right about some of it. Just not the guy who was doing it.

Seung settled down on the truck bed next to the tarped bundle, gave it a pat, and nodded at the other men. They grinned and cleared aside, and the truck rolled away in the same direction as Keisha’s diesel had gone. He let out a short breath of relief.

The truck stopped after a few miles, pulled in at a house, and the driver went inside. Somebody else came out, a sour-looking weather-beaten old guy who glared into the back at Seung, and spat. Then he drove the truck out onto a long winding levee above the water. The way the old guy drove, Seung had to brace up and keep the bundle from sliding all over the truck bed into the other junk in there, paint cans and ladders and chemical drums, to prevent it picking up any more evidence of where it’d been. Seung was pretty sure the old guy was just driving around almost randomly, either killing time or trying to get Seung confused where they were, and it wasn’t working, as Seung recognized passing the same big painted locked box on a brick pillar, with a sign on top, not far from a lot of shabby-looking boats at a rickety old dock. By the third time, he’d worked out that the sign was a bad attempt to show a large fluffy dog. It was nearly dark by the time the old guy pulled up in some trees and parked.

“Get out,” he told Seung, glaring.

Seung looked around. Aside from the trees, there was no cover. He looked back along the road. The only decent place to deal with the bundle was a good distance back down the road, but the guy always sped up when he went along there, so he wasn’t going to stop there.

Seung stood up, got the backpack on, dragged the tarped burden up over that, with the stiffer end of it sticking out forward over one shoulder. Then he jumped down from the truck bed with it, feeling the force of the extra weight in his feet. Then he gave the old man one long look, and a longer look at the truck, and then he started walking, leaning into the load. He heard the truck rev up and pull out in a spatter of gravel and dust, and then he was alone with the thing on his shoulder. He was walking on a nice evening breeze, with the wind off the water, and distant voices coming across the water. People were out there near the picture of the dog, moving among the shabby boats at that dock on the far side of the water. Then he blinked. He saw a row of lights along a truck cab over there. It was the same pattern as Keisha’s diesel. It turned away, and was lost among the trees.

Seung kept walking. Whatever he did, this thing needed to be hauled out of sight and dealt with first, and then he could go check out the place with the dog picture on top of the box, once it was nice and dark. If he could get Keisha’s help, they might take a boat instead of trying to retake the truck or steal a car, and a boat would be very confusing for any pursuers. He thought Keisha would like having a boat again.

He was about three-quarters of the way down the road toward the thicket on the water, when he heard the first engine, and the grating of tires going too fast on gravel. Somebody must have called them. He was walking out in the bald with no cover except the dark water itself. Six or seven pickup trucks came roaring up on him from both directions, cross-pinning him in the headlights. Two of them pulled off the road and lights shone across him from every direction. There were a good dozen semi-autos cocking out there in the dark behind the lights. Somebody called out in French at him, and something whanged like shots ricocheting off a piece of metal in the dark, and somebody else snapped orders in French, and the shooting stopped.

Seung turned slowly toward the voice.

“Ahh, you dumbshit ferriner,” said another voice, younger, from behind him. “Goodammit, what if he don’t speak English either?”

“I speak,” Seung said.

“What in the fucking hell are you carrying?”

“Dead girl. Not know who,” Seung said.

“Sonuvabitch.”

“I put down.”

“Yeah, you do that. Take off the pack. Kneel down too.”

He did all that. He sighed as he knelt next to it. He looked at it, and spoke to the bundle. “Sorry, dead girl, I not lay you down to rest. More travels. Sorry.”

There were mutters in French. At least nobody was shooting yet.

“Open it up. Open that tarp.”

“Not good. Not do. Let police. No mess on proof for police,” Seung told them, sternly.

“Goddamn, crazy as a bedbug inna hot skillet,” the English speaker said.

“No, sorry, not crazy. Want police see dead girl. Proof. Catch boss.”

The insects singing in the hot, sticky darkness seemed very loud, for a long time.

“When did you kill her?”

“I not kill her,” Seung said.

“Then who did?”

“Boss,” Seung said, patiently. He’d never tried this before, but it might get him away from all those guns.

“You see it?”

“No. Not first time.” He had to speak slowly. All that vodka.

More mutters in French, and somebody commanding quiet.

“How bad you want your proof to get to the police?”

Seung stared into the lights, blinded. “Here. I not run. Here she is. Call police.”

“No shit, with fifty ‘leven guns.”

Seung grinned, crookedly. “Old guns. Not machine pistol. Seven revolvers, yes?”

“Okay, okay, I ain’t tryin’ to provoke him, I ain’t,” the English speaker snapped at somebody else. “I ain’t goin’ up to him, he’s the spit of Dance the fuckin’ snakebite man, and this one’s fuckin’ crazy. Well, yeah, minus the tail, but shit, you ever seen Dance fight? He don’t need no fuckin’ tail.”

“Boss still got two live girls for this, tonight,” Seung said, nodding toward the bundle, and heard the bugs in the silence again. “You want wait too long for them?”

“Okay, somebody gonna come up to you, cuff you, and we take you to the sheriff. No trouble, right?”

“Okay,” Seung said, blinking.

There were rattles and banging noises and lots of swearing. “What do you mean, you don’t got no cuffs? What? Mary Lou broke them last time you made out in the shed? Well, shit, man, ain’t nothing that wimpy gonna hold something like Dance’s brother, no way. What the hell– Duct tape. Mon frer, we got duct tape. God, is this pathetic or what? Fucking duct tape.”

“What is duct tape?” Seung asked.

When he saw what it was, hanging between the hands of the two skinny young men approaching him, he moved. He knew what it meant. It meant ending up right next to the tarped bundle.

He was halfway between the trucks before a vast weight tackled him in the middle and knocked him down into the mud and they rolled down the jagged wall of rocks right above the water. Somebody grunted, and then he was flopping around, shoving them away, kicking out, and then there were a dozen of them on him, and somebody found the knob in the middle of his back, and shoved it sideways, and he arched up in a muscle spasm that took him over and over and over down the rocks and then he was underwater. He was arched up stiff, stuck there, head under the water, when somebody finally dragged him out. He wasn’t going to drown that night after all–they knew what to do. They turned him upside down by his ankles, and gave him a bash on the ribs that knocked him loose again. It was the two guys who shook him upside down, laughing, wet from head to foot. They said something in mixed French and English about alligator wrestling. They threw him down on the road and watched him vomit up his guts while other guys taped his legs together with duct tape.

“No, tape his hands in front or he’s gotta be peein’ his own pants or we gotta get up close to him again, and I ain’t doin’ that,” said the English speaker impatiently. “You dumb gatorheads might like getting your face bashed in, the rest of us got better things to do.”

“Well, fuck, we oughta just shoot him. You seen the pictures from this backpack?”

“Shut the fuck up, Peebrain, we ain’t shootin’ him. He goes in, and the pictures go in with the fucking body, and stop messing about with that shit, he’s right, you don’t want to be messing with forensics. Don’t you ever watch TV?”

Somebody older, quiet, spoke in French, and they stopped arguing and flung things back in their trucks. The two young guys came up and waved off the rest of the mob, looking superior. Thy looked around, and finally nodded once, and a third skinny guy came out and stood over Seung. They looked at Seung, and one of them grabbed the tape on his ankles, and the other one dropped some kind of rope around Seung’s head, and when he got his hands up to protect his neck from the loop, the third one slapped tape on Seung’s wrists and whipped his hands around and around, wrapping Seung’s arms together. Easy, simple, irresistable, and Seung knew better than to fall for it, but he did anyway. It wasn’t even that good a restraint; he’d get out of it in a matter of seconds if he was left alone. It just slowed him down. They knew that, too, grinning at him as they picked him up. They wouldn’t mind going another couple rounds with him.

“Bet he does bite,” said one of them, proving that they did know English just as well as the one who’d been talking. That guy grinned, and took a gun from one of the others, and pointed it down at Seung, aiming between the eyes, grinning.

Seung sighed. So this was what some of the boss’s men were talking about. They’d bitched about getting into it with the locals. This kind. Bored alligator wrestlers. He’d heard the stories. Seung spat junk out of his mouth and said, “Snake man.”

“What?” the nearest one snapped.

“You know snake man. Must talk.” Seung blinked into the glare of the lights.

The skinny guy snorted. “Lucky you! Oh yeah, you’ll get to talk to him. Boy, will you ever talk–”

Somebody spoke sternly in French, and the guy shut up and stomped away. When he came back, he didn’t have the gun, either. He and his two friends brought up a long fence plank and rolled Seung onto it and pushed it over the dented, splintered wooden floor boards of one of the older truckbeds. There was no tailgate on it. Then the three skinny young guys roped Seung’s ankles in a cross-tie to hooks that stuck up out at either side of the wooden floor down by the missing tailgate. Seung rolled onto his side, curling up to keep from getting bounced around onto the lump in his back, and they tried to twist him flat on his back, until somebody pointed out the lump, and reminded them in perfectly ordinary English that Seung’s weird muscle spasm was the only thing that let them catch him in the first place. They weren’t too happy about that reminder. But they didn’t get much chance to take it out on him because the truck rumbled to life and they had to sit down in a hurry on the low bulging sides of the truck, and grab on.

The driver had the same general style as the bitter old guy who’d dragged Seung and the body all over the levees. When he braked, Seung slid along the board to the full reach of the cross tie, and his head bashed into the truck bed wall nearest the driver. When the guy accelerated enough, it flung Seung down the other way so his feet hung out over the open tailgate end of the truck, and the crosstie strained to hold his weight. They seemed to think it was hysterically funny, until one of them nearly tipped out backward. The three guys yelped and swore and bounced, and another one almost fell out. “You crazy sonuvabitch!” one of them pounded on a sliding cab window that wouldn’t open. Eventually the three guys got down low, braced down in the truck bed with Seung, and they began to stick out a boot to catch Seung on the knees or the belly, and stop his sliding. He was glad of all the drills to build up his trunk muscles to resist punches.

The three guys were complaining loudly in French when the truck finally stopped, and they jumped out and started shouting at a whole bunch of the other guys. Seung twisted around to see, and felt a gun muzzle poke the lump in his back, and it set him off with a roar of pain. He flopped and arched up in a spasm so hard the cross-tie broke.

The party broke up in a hurry, the three guys scrambled back in, and the truck took off with a bang that threw Seung into one of the side-walls and twisted his body enough that it finally broke the spasm. He lay between the boots gasping for air as if they’d kicked him. The one thing clear in his mind was that their first reflex was to pull the gun away. They didn’t hit the trigger and shoot him when he jerked up.

Maybe not quite amateurs, these guys, but not like the bug troops. Not like the boss’s mercenaries. Big change from the troops in brown–lucky for him.