The Man with Absolute Pitch

Greenlaw Tewkes Barret gets a burr in his bonnet. Auren Han gets another ulcer.

Dance gets…well, he’s getting something.

The viola… it’s great. It’s fabulous, Auren. I wish it were mine. “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.”

“Hold…hold up. You said you were going to see it got sent to Dance, through Pen and his circus people. Barret… I… I don’t want you in this.”

“You worry too much. No one knows what I look like. I’m just this obscure dude, kind of an overgrown band geek– “

“Barret…you know. You know you’re too well known in Dance’s circles. And in mine. Your name is all over my life, and my fingerprints are all over you.”

**chuckles** “You were kind of rough last night.”

“We’re…we’re entwined at the data level. It’s my fault. It’s…it’s why…”

“It’s why you left me. I know.  Look, I’m just going off for a visit, okay?  I haven’t seen Harriet in three years. I’ll stay with her. She’s not famous. She’s just a person. I’ll send word through Pen. He’s got sense.”

Pen has maggots in his brain, Barret. He has levels  you can’t comprehend, don’t make the mistake of trusting him.

“It’ll be all right. Besides, your forensic geek is chasing Turner, now. He’ll find that bastard. He will.
He always gets his man, sort of like an OCD Mountie.”

Auren, I’ll be all right.”

Damn it, Barret, this isn’t playtime. This isn’t some sonata you’re practicing.

“The bad guys used to carry their guns in violin cases. Unlike good guys, right? They usually just carry violins.”

Some New Doggerel for Bennie

Remember Bennie?
I do.
Poor guy, sitting there drinking cappucinos all the damn day, chatting up barristas with boobies, and getting paid for it. It’s sad. He says silly shit about shooting people, and they laugh. It’s all true, but they laugh, and he lets them. It’s just sad.
I’d shoot them, myself, but that’s me.
Have some music.
Let me sing you a song
About old Uncle Arved from Arvin
(it’s rural, you know, so it’s honest)

older man's face, b/w, photo by Benoit Courti
photo by Benoit Courti

To the grinning apples of his eyes
he gave the keys of his kingdom
every code known to man, money and all
Now he sits naked in his tub
with his beard to his knees
screaming about bugs on the ceiling–
the bugs who tend him–
the bugs who feed him–
the bugs who keep him so assiduously safe–
Oh, they never let him out
They never let him talk much on the phone
They never do
They never will
Oh no
Uncle Arved from Arvin might tell.
He might.
You never know.
He’s quite mad.

Just a Back-Fang Spitting Viper Man

She remembers thinking, on the very first day of this flight into exile, that she had plenty of days where she looked at Dance, thinking, ‘Whatever that is, I’ve been doing my bloody best to fuck it into perfectly blissful peace. And it’s been doing its level best to make me happy. To please me. To make dinner for me.”

Even when she is surrounded by zoomorphs and bug-damaged people and wild things barely out of the wild woods, she thinks it sometimes still.

"Farmhouse Sink," curtained window above sink, photo by Corey Leopold
"Farmhouse Sink", photo by Corey Leopold

The stress of these days on the road are telling on her. They miss their home, and you never realize just how comfortable the routines of living are until you don’t have them any longer. This vacation has gone on too long. There are too many people at this table, and she wishes she’d asked for bowls to take back to the little cabin that offers them some semblance of privacy. Emma scrubs her wrist over her eyes– I will not cry, it’s only fatigue— and takes up the big kettle that held the gumbo and starts for the kitchen with it. Gumbo is not an exotic beast here. It’s not the sausage with the fancy name and the carefully chosen shellfish, it’s bacon and three squirrels that someone brought in, and lots and lots of okra because there’s a lot of okra on the vine right now, and tomatoes. Tomorrow it might be fish. It’s all good, except that it’s eaten in such large company. And she is glad of the chance to stand at Lacey’s scullery, hands immersed in warm soapy water, the good smells of cooking and cleaning filling her nostrils. She can look out at the cypress and the glinting water, turning a deeper gold in the long long summer afternoon.

She starts wiping down the counters and the stove. Some of these folks, when it’s their turn to cook, they leave a huge mess, and Lacey swears like a trooper when she comes in to make breakfast the next morning. Movement catches her eye, and Emma glances up at the window.

Dance and Drin and some of the other men are drifting toward the house, pausing not far from the trees, talking and smiling as kids wander tiredly past them. The kids are all dusty, smudges up their legs. Playing baseball again, beyond doubt. Dance is not the only guy with a tail out there. But he’s the only one whose tail reaches out and straightens a gimme cap on a kid’s head, taps another on the shoulder and makes an Okay sign with it, and the kids shake hands with it as they pass. He grins, white teeth flashing in his sun-darkened face, and says something that makes the other men crack up, and the kids grin.

The men have taken the kids for an afternoon to give a break for other chores to the domestic folks–to those folks, whether male or female, who usually change diapers and spot older kids playing on monkey bars, and take away game controllers when it’s time for some outdoor exposure. The men outside are the guys who mostly can’t help out by going into town, and some of them can’t help with livestock. Two of those who do help out in the stables are sitting in wheelchairs, with gloved hands. They all look tired too.

There’s going to be a rush on the hot water in about five minutes, and then they’ll all be demanding the second kettle of gumbo. It’s so crowded that people eat in shifts. The early shift has the blocky-headed people who need extra time and attention to get food in their mouths. Emma works faster, hoping to get done with the dishes before the water runs cold.

Lace Curtain, painting by Coby Whitmore
Lace Curtain, painting by Coby Whitmore

But she can’t help but glance up when she sees Drin come up and hug Dance, and the two lovers–her husbands–start walking toward the house. Drin is holding part of the weight of Dance’s tail, as if he knows Dance has just done too much that day, and the weight is hurting his back. Dance rolls his shoulders, reaches out, rests his hand on Drin’s waist. She smiles, watching them, in spite of the racket of voices and house doors slamming.  She’s completely unprepared for the big hand that comes down on her shoulder.

Emma whirls around, hand out, and a powerful grip takes her wrist. “Dunno why you’re lookin’ at them pansies, little lady, when I can make you happy right now–” says Efrim, grinning. “You got such a purty mouth on you, ain’tcha.”

Efrim has a lot of inappropriate behaviors, but grabbing women who didn’t invite it is going to be, Emma thinks, one of the last behaviors the man will demonstrate. There are too many women here who have teeth, one way or another.

“Let go of me, Efrim,” Emma says.

“You gonna hurt me again like last time, little lady?” says Efrim, as if he liked it. He puked for forty-five minutes in the barn, last time she got done kicking him.

“Let go,” Emma says, not tugging away, not trying to give him any warning how fast she can recoil. He didn’t have the reflexes last time to stop her kicking his ass across the kitchen, and he still doesn’t.

Efrim grins, and steps in closer. “I like me a purty woman who fights back,” Efrim whispers. “It’s kinda sexy. Not like them dumb bugfucked chicks who don’t know what’s pushing in between their laigs.”

Emma’s toe is just starting to come up when something blurs through the kitchen and there’s a noise like a panther fighting and black glitters are whipping through the air in lethal power cable loops.

Emma finds herself tossed up into Drin’s arms back in the doorway, and he’s shouting, and there’s something rolling on the floor, moving too fast to make out.

Then Dance is upright, and he’s holding Efrim up at ceiling level, with thick coils wrapped around Efrim’s chest and his neck, squeezing, and Dance has his mouth open.

“Holy shit,” says Fozzie, panting just behind them. The big man can move surprisingly fast. “Get her back,” he says to Drin, pushing past them.

“Get her back, Bollocks!” Emma says in a brand new fury, and Drin chuckles and pushes her forward. He always knows just what to do.

Efrim struggles, legs kicking at the cable holding him.

Dance hisses louder, head jerking.

“He’s gonna bite, hold still for fuck’s sake!” Fozzie shouts.

Dance’s head looks very odd. It’s then that Emma realizes his lower jaw is hinging out wider than a human being should be able to do. There’s a pale glint in there, about midway back.

“Fuck, he’s got them fangs locked out,” Fozzie says, almost conversationally. “You know what that means, Efrim?”

Efrim’s not tracking too well. He’s breathing in tiny gasps.

“That there is a pretty li’l back-fang viper set staring at you, Efrim. You know how lethal boomslangs are? No? Lemme tell you. They got cottonmouths beat all to hell for poisonous, okay? You hearing me, Efrim? Mind if you loosen up a little on his neck, there, Dance? I wanna hear his head rattle when I’m talkin’ to him.”

anatomical diagram venomous snake skull
diagram, muscles and skull of a front-fang viper

Dance’s head jerks again. The tail end slides off the man’s head and poises in a hook nearby, like a crooked pinky on a teacup. Emma thinks this may not be an improvement.

Fozzie says, “Drin, you maybe gotta talk Dance down. Ain’t good for anybody to kill a man when he don’t need to.”

Emma says, “He’ll listen better to both of us.”

“Oh yeah, just don’t make him afraid you’re at risk,” Fozzie says, and steps back; a gesture, as there’s nowhere in the kitchen really out of Dance’s reach if he’s crazy mad enough.

“Bring him down to the floor, please,” Emma says to Dance.

Dance gives another furious hiss, and hoists Efrim upward, bashes Efrim’s head on the ceiling with a thump, and then lowers him with great deliberateness until he can stand on his own feet. Efrim is incapable of carrying his own weight, given how short of breath he is, caught in the grip of those relentlessly tightening coils.

Drin touches Emma gently on the shoulder, letting her know he’s right there, making her jump. “Dance,” he says.

Dance turns his head, looking at them, the translucent nictous membranes flicking over his eyes. He probably couldn’t talk even if his mouth could shut around the fangs.

“You know you don’t spar in the dojo nearly as well when you lose your temper,” Drin says mildly.

The eyes blink at them.

“I think you’ve subdued him enough for Fozzie to get some answers, too. You know Foz wants that bad,” Emma says.

“Shit, I think Dance broke some of his ribs,” Fozzie says. “He’s not going anywhere. He smells real bad, too. Stinking drunk, right?”

Dance hisses again, but the coil around Efrim’s neck slides away, as if he’s putting himself away from the temptation to wring the man’s neck like a chicken’s.

“Want to lay him down for us, and we’ll get some answers about what he said?” Emma asks.

Fozzie turns his head, takes a step into the doorway to the sitting room. “Lacey, get somebody to drag up a stretcher and some extra bandaging tape. Efrim’s gonna need some attention.”

Dance hisses again, shaking Efrim about two feet side to side, and then the tip whips up and wraps around Efrim’s skull.

Emma opens her mouth to yell, she can feel Drin tensing his arm on her– and they both stay silent.

Dance lays the man down.  The tail is carefully holding the man’s head in place so it doesn’t fall back and bash on the floor first. Then he leans over the man, fangs showing, and hisses.

“Spitting cobra. I can see spray–” Drin says.

“Good,” Emma says flatly. “Guess that answers that question.” She feels like she can’t get any air. Just panic, nothing new. She knows that strained feeling. Means she’s breathing too rapidly.

The black coils slide out from under the man’s body, arc around, bash into the kitchen wall and leave a long tail-shaped dent. Then Dance turns, stalks away toward the outside door.

“Dance,” Emma says, “Stay. Please. I need your help.”

Dance puts his hands on the dented wall, and then he’s sagging to his knees, and then, with no warning, suddenly he’s vomiting like a sick dog, right onto the floor.

By then Fozzie is bending over over Efrim on the floor, checking him. “Breathing, stable, good heart rate. Whatever Dance got going in his venom, that quick, it isn’t killing the guy. Hey, look at him coming around on us. Geez, it might be sobering him up. That’s gonna hurt. Man, I could see Lacey pulling something that mean.”

“She’s a good teacher,” Emma says, and hears the weird edge in her own voice. She grabs a roll of trash bags, lines a trash can with two layers, and hands it to Drin, who’s kneeling by Dance, talking to him. Then Emma is there too, gripping the heavy mug they’ve been using to help Dance release the venom building up in those glands in his sinuses. She dares to reach out, put her hand on Dance’s arm.

Dance drools, gasping, and then wipes his face on his sleeve, and looks up them with those eye membranes still closed. Then he leans on the wall, breathing hard. After a moment he gestures, and Emma hands him the mug, and both Drin and Emma slide back on the floor away from him, as he waves them off, not stopping until he nods that they’re far enough away.

Then he gets the rim of the mug pushed up under the fang tips, and he squints his eyes shut, and pushes onto it, as if it hurts. His tail jerks, coils and lashes angrily. It takes some time before he gets done, jerking and struggling against the rim of the mug, and he pushes himself to do it again, several times. When he finally pulls the mug away, he jerks his head up, shakes himself, and then suddenly the fangs are folded away, and his jaw closes, his mouth shuts, and nothing shows. There’s just him, kneeling on the floor with the tail furiously black, the tip lashing back and forth like an angry cat. Kneeling, Emma thinks tiredly, in front of a mess that may be toxic in itself.

Drin is moving.  He has got plastic baggies on both hands.  He retrieves the mug of venom, carefully, and takes it to the counter to be poured into a sealed jar. He labels the jar and carries it across the room, puts it into the locked fridge where they keep the other various unusual items required in a household with various kinds of zoomorphs, many of them sick or injured. Some of the meds they need are pretty dangerous in themselves. Then he runs a lot of cold water into the empty mug.

She gets up, goes to the sink, finds a pair of plastic gloves, picks up the roll of paper towels, and begins methodically wiping up the mess on the floor, dumping towels into that double-lined plastic trash can.  She takes her time washing her gloved hands. She’s giving Dance time to calm down, so he can watch her move around and understand that they’re all okay, he doesn’t have to do anything more.

Drin peels off the baggies inside-out, off his hands, into the trash can.  Then he fills a glass of water, brings it to Dance, with his boot toe he shoves the double-lined can closer, where Dance can spit out the rinse-water.  Emma gets Dance to hold still while she tips a dribble of water into his eyes, draining that away into the trashcan. Drin dampens some paper towels, brings those to Emma. She washes Dance’s face, carefully and thoroughly, especially where venom spray might have drifted. Just because he can generate it in specially-constructed organs doesn’t mean it won’t poison him, too.

Then Drin holds up another plastic trashbag.  Emma leans in and unbuttons Dance’s shirt with her gloved hands and slides it off him; she takes it carefully by the back of the shirt and folds it, spray-exposed surfaces inside, and dumps in the bag Drin holds for her. That way, it can be put in the washing machine without poisoning anybody else. She washes Dance’s hands, his arms, takes another damp towel to wipe down Dance’s neck and down onto his chest, over his forearms. Dance looks aside, submitting to this as if he’s still feeling nauseous, as if he’s afraid he’ll start puking again. She goes to the sink, rinses off the gloves, peels them off, and tosses them into the double-bagged can to get thrown away. They aren’t going into hot soapy washwater for dishes again.

It seems perfectly reasonable that they do all this so automatically, thinking their way silently through the risks of Dance’s venom, when they’ve never done this kind of cleanup before.

When she looks up, she sees Fozzie finishing the process of wrapping stretchy brown bandaging tape in loops that will keep Efrim safely down on the stretcher. He nods once, and two silent men pick up the load and take it out of the house. Fozzie follows them, silently shutting the kitchen door. He looks grim. They’ve got a long night ahead of them, very likely; one that they didn’t need either.

Dance rolls his head, turns his face away toward the wall he’s dented in his rage.

Emma kneels down next to Dance, on the other side from Drin. She folds her legs crossways, rests her tired hands on her knees. When she sees the tears start to run down Dance’s face, then she reaches out and rests her hand lightly on his forearm. He twitches, and she pulls her hand away, waiting. Once he accepts the touch, then she can stroke his tail, get the ugly black coloring to fade out of it as it relaxes. Drin has his palm down on the middle of the tail already, lightly, not gripping it, not stopping it when it shifts agitatedly around.

Emma can hear Lacey’s voice. “You kids go sit in the other room. The grownups are upset, they need some time to calm down so they can be safe around other folks again.” Then the kids are trooping away out of the next room further away, down into the next room, chattering about who gets first turn with the game controllers.

Emma looks around from that doorway to Drin, who gives her a soft kiss on the cheek, without a word spoken. Then she blinks, because Dance moves, and he too kisses her, on the other cheek. She looks at Dance in surprise, looks at the translucent membranes sliding open again on his eyes, and then she leans in and kisses him back. On the lips. Because, Emma thinks, this is one small enough damn thing I can do for him, and I want him to know I mean it.

“Thank you,” Emma murmurs, and kisses his cheeks, and his forehead, and then he has his arms wrapped round her, and he’s crying silently into her shoulder. She feels Drin’s warmth come up at her back, and then he’s got his arm around Dance too, and they’re all a pile of waterworks.

“Christ,” Emma says at last, taking deep breaths, and feels her hand holding the last little foot of Dance’s tail as it winds around between her hands, stroking it as if he’s a cat in distress. It’s turned a dark muddy brown, not quite the same color as the floor.

By then, Drin is sitting with his back against the wall, and he has her in one arm, and Dance in the other, with Dance sprawled across his lap so Dance’s head is resting in her lap. With her other hand she strokes his scalp, brushes back Dance’s hair. He gives a long tired sigh. Drin kisses her hair, and his arm tightens on her.

She knows that she’s going to make love to Dance soon, perhaps tonight, and she’ll kiss him, and let him lick her in all kinds of intimate places in the way they both love him to do, with the same mouth that can produce different types of venom under different provocations, and pretty damn quickly, at that. They don’t always know what the rules are, or what will trigger something off.

“I choose,” Dance says then, as if it’s hard to talk, as if his head hurts. “I choose what I will do, not that man who–” the tail lashes angrily.

“Yes,” Emma says. “Yes, that’s it, exactly.”

“God, I’m starving,” Dance says.

“If you think,” Emma says in a high, put-upon voice, “that I’m gonna slave over another pot of gumbo just so you can go and puke it back up, you got another thing coming.”

Dance looks up at her, and his smile is like a sunrise.

“Fish will stay down,” Drin says, “Let’s feed you, and then fuck you. Does that sound good?”

“Ooh, yeeess,” Dance purrs. His voice has changed just a little during these weeks. A purr really does sound like a purr now. His tail helps him get to his feet, and then the tip extends to Emma like a helping hand, pulling her up when she grasps it. And she’s getting used to the way it slides over her shoulders and arm, the tip whisking behind her ear in a gentle, casual caress. He leans into her, hugs her, strokes her back with his hands and tail tip, and then he turns to Drin in the same way. Emma puts her hands on her lower back, stretches, groans a little.

She looks over her boys from head to toe, and they are doing the same, making sure of each other– over and over now, like a little ritual. are you good? I’m good. Drin touches Dance’s face and hair and back, little touches.

Lacey has her knitting in her lap, in the big room, when they come through. “They took him out to the barn for tonight, got a little infirmary with a lockup out there. I promise you that man ain’t never gone to have another chance for them tricks. But we’ll deal with that-all tomorrow, proper.” She goes right back to her knitting. Emma is sure the gauge will be way off, big wide loopy bits unevenly next to tight stitches, so she’ll have to yank it all out again. But if it keeps her calm, nobody’s going to argue.

The cooler where Dance gets his fresh fish is not a little styrofoam box any more. Lacey has insisted Dance needs to fish out of their emergency water supply-pond, practice hunting for himself. He keeps fishing it empty in a day or two, and the boys enjoy catching things so they can refill it, and watch him fish it out again. They could watch him at it all day. Hell, so could Emma and Drin. But no one is around in the evenings. Dance made it clear he wasn’t on show all the time.

tail of large salmon or steelhead, photo by Nikole Herriot
photo by Nikole Herriot

Emma still hasn’t gotten used to watching Dance feed. It’s not revulsion, or embarrassment she feels, though– it’s a kind of exhilaration at the sight of all that speed, power, precision as he makes his strike. She’s begun a private catalog of his techniques; when he’s angry, nervous, hyped-up, he’ll thresh the water ‘like a bull gator’ in Fozzie’s admiring words, his powerful shoulders rolling in the foam he creates, as he snatches his fish with one hand or the other. It’s shockingly fast, and Emma would swear that Dance is operating a few seconds ahead of himself– his head is already turning towards the next prey before he’s caught the current hapless victim.  Tonight, it’s gar from the pond.

An almost gentle tap with the tail across the juncture of spine and gasping fish skull, and it hangs quiet in his grip, with the tail tip filleting the meat off the spine like a steak knife, delicately, while his other hand is plunging onto the next. His lips curl back from his front teeth, but he doesn’t open his clenched jaws.

She asked about that, once. He told her he’d made it his rule, as Lacey taught him. No gaping mouth unless you mean to kill what you’re looking at. Which meant Dance had been perfectly willing to bite Efrim. He needs another rule: No tail-touch when he’s mad.

He curls the tail in tight loops automatically, not even thinking about it, and gives a little grimace, and the stuff suspended on that tail gives a puff of smoke. Then he extends the opening coils toward her, first. “Would you like some?”

“Yes, please.” She’s suddenly ravenous. The gar is flash-grilled, charred black on the surface and perfectly tender inside, and it’s some of the best fish she’s ever eaten. Emma gives him a crooked smile, mouth full. “You’re an effing gourmet chef,” she tells him, and swishes her hands through the water to clean them.

Drin gets the second skinny side of gar, and sighs over it. “Oh man,” he says.

“Mmm,” Dance agrees, tipping his head back to swallow. He kicks off his shoes, pulls off his grubby socks with his toes. “Mmm mm mmah, I needed that.” Then he leans over the water, eyes wide, not focusing on any one thing. Waiting. This is hunting-Dance at his best, in Emma’s opinion. She can feel that tingle of anticipation, watching his body arrange itself, his knees flex, shoulders roll forward in minute increments. Dance’s tail shifts, like a sliding fog, thickening as he pulls all that dense muscle into tense readiness. He becomes a statue while her heart begins to speed up. A quick glance at Drin shows the big man intent as she is, with the same look of adoration.

Whatever it is, Dance has seen it. He compacts even further, and she’s never been able to see how he does that– he tracks, slow and steady, with his whole body, tremoringly intent. And then he’s over the water, arrowing at least ten feet forward, his tail streaming behind him. He meets the surface with a hiss of displacement, and gone. Emma hears Drin’s sigh of rapture in unison with her own.

bw swimmers legs
Glide

Then they look at each other, and laugh. “Wet clothes in the washer again!” Drin chuckles.

“We forgot to get him to unpants himself.”

“Well, throw it in with his shirt, it’s all good,” Drin agrees.

“Too much fun–” Emma begins, and there’s a noisy burst of water.

Dance is flinging back his wet hair, grinning, his head popping out of the water like a seal. He’s laughing with them, holding up not one, but three gar, all of them limp in his hands. “I know, I know, I forgot.” He’s still holding them up while he strokes lazily through the water, legs and tail providing more than enough power.

“Sexiest damn Little League coach I ever met,” Drin says.

“Maybe it’s because his pants have no ass?” Emma says.

“Oh, could be,” Drin agrees. “Or maybe he feeds us such damn wonderful fried fish.”

Dance sits down in his soggy pants on the concrete wall of the tank, curls up his tail, cooks the narrow strips of gar perfectly, and absentmindedly swishes his tail in the water behind him to cool it and clean it between fry jobs. It’s not electrical; there’s no ground faults, Drin checked on that with this same tank of water, an extension cord, a voltmeter, and a couple of doodads he found in the barn. It seems to be, as Drin remembers it being, purely optical. For this task, there’s no flash, no glitter, no showiness; it’s not even with visible light, just infrared. Dance lets the tip dangle in the water, cooling off again safely.

One memorable evening he pulled six bluegill out of that water because they couldn’t resist coming up to check out the tail tip weaving idly in the water.

“I don’t know,” Dance says, mouth full. He puts on Lacey’s accent, making them laugh. “You seem pertty damn sexy for a coach y’self. Iselda got a crush on you, big boy.”

Drin sighs, and accepts a piece of fried gar skin. Dance likes giving them the nice bits; it makes him happy. Give Dance barbecued salmon skin with a little fat on it, and he’s ecstatic.

“She’s seven!” Emma exclaims.

“She got big big ideas,” Dance says, chuckling. “Hey, tell me she’s wrong.”

“Nope, I gotta agree with the lady’s taste,” Emma says, smiling up at Drin.

“I think we ought to get Dance out of those wet underpants and into the shower,” Drin says.

“I think you’re right.”

Dance sighs with repletion. He pus on his shoes, holds the socks. His tail scuffles around, scoops up garfish spines. He lifts them, looks at them, gravely thanks the animals he’s just killed for their gift to him and his friends, and then he puts the bones away in the locking nearly-raccoon-proof dumpster.  Lacey has been having to put ever more inventive locks on that bin. The midnight furries rifle through the compost with impunity, and Lacey doesn’t want larger, odder things from the woods finding meat in their compost piles. The corncobs are attractive enough menace.

Dance’s wet pants are starting to slide down and gape, and he hitches them up, absently, with his tail tip. She hears Drin chuckle at the sight of it. Dance hitches again, and sighs, holding them together at the back, and just in time, too–as the gradeschool-age kids come piling out of the house, barrelling around the corner, headed out for the play equipment under the trees.

Life in the great swamp, Emma thinks suddenly, is a whole lot more complicated than she ever realized.

Democracy in Action

The place is full of birds, chirping. Quiet. Reverential, Preacher might say. Trees rustle along the river below the flat spot where the speakers stand. They’ve brought chairs, for those who are waiting to speak. There’s a whole row of the biker chicks, snapping their gum, cleaning their sunglasses, tapping their nails, and occasionally roaring–as big cats roar–when they agree with a point made by a speaker. Their hair is teased up particularly large, as if they’re feeling the need to be even bigger than usual. They’re sitting where they are because they have a few stories to tell, too, like Emma’s. There are a few guys sitting there, as well, but they’re quieter than the women, a few seem uneasy, almost embarrassed. But they’re there.

The village is pissed off.

The guy who pissed them off is in no shape to argue. Lacey has him gagged because he can’t stop talking. His comments spill out of him helplessly, continuously, with no filter and no hesitation and no pause for thought–and the mind this reveals, pitilessly, is impoverished, sad, a little too dim to grasp some of the things people always expected him to understand. It’s a form of Tourette’s Syndrome that Emma has seen a few times before, but never quite so bad. Lacey says he’s already said enough, he’s not required to implicate himself in everything.

Dance’s venom did it to him.

Nobody knows if it will wear off, or heal, or if he must live like this the rest of his life–if he lives through these proceedings, that is. The stories are grim. Some of the women who were reportedly assaulted have vanished. This, in an area so disrupted, may be what he’ll get by way of a murder trial.

Some of the others implicated in some of his tricks can argue–and do–but they’re not thrashing around very much with some of Fozzie’s biggest code-enforcers standing just behind them. Running away hadn’t done a lot of good for two of them. The guys who stopped them running away are the guys who ride the bounds and fight bugs and drive the outer trucking lines for Fozzie’s company, big leather-clad guys armed to the teeth who’ve come in during the night.  They’re ticked off that they had to leave their territories unguarded, even for one night, for this kind of crap, and they’re not shy about saying so. Some of them have brought in whatever evidence there is on what happened to disappeared zoomorph women. Some of them set up a St. Andrew’s Cross, and it isn’t for having fun with, and it isn’t just a reminder.

Efrim probably isn’t the murderer; but somebody in the bunch is. Efrim’s always been too blatant for that, unless something went wrong; he couldn’t have hidden bodies and not yakked about it when he got drunk.

Actually, nobody’s been shy about anything. Even without Efrim’s diarrhea of the mouth, there was enough testimony to make it clear that something has to be done. They can’t afford this sort of threat from their midst, not with the plethora of threats coming in from outside. But there’s really no precedent here, and nobody, not even Lacey and Fozzie, know exactly what the right course of action should be.

“Now folks,” Lacey says, calmly, as they start yelling. Her eyes are gold, her snakes are visibly agitated, and there’s the slim whipcord black tail twining around the legs of her chair. She’s as mad as everyone else, but she’s had years to learn to control her temper to avoid killing people by accident. “Now folks, you’ve heard a lot of upsetting things here. But we aren’t barbarians, we aren’t a lynch mob. We are intent on justice. We are asking the questions here. Right?” She gets a roar. Then she stands up, that slim tail looping and sliding hypnotically along the grass of her stage. “You saw what Dance’s venom did to Efrim. The question can be asked, what might it do to any of the others accused here? Now, in a court of law, that would be a threat.”

“Fuck a court of law,” someone shouts, “we want justice!”

Lacey nods, turning, holding out her arm. “We hear you, Tee-boy. I would say the same–except for one thing. If one of us standing here, with our bully-boy strength, accused you of hideous crimes, Tee-boy, would you want people to have a say in what happens to you? Would you want the rest of your kin here, your people, your best friends, to have the chance to argue on your behalf? Would you want the voice of those who don’t agree with you now to be respected, so later on your voice is respected when you are not agreed with?” Her arm sweeps out. “We have fought too hard, and too long, for our rights as people, to give up on the most basic rights of a trial in this country. That is my belief. Who will speak next?”

“Have Dance bite ’em all!” Tee-boy shouts. There are scattered shouts of “Yeah!” and “Right on!” from the assembly, but people are looking thoughtful, and muttering quietly amongst themselves. Lacey, as usual, makes a lot of sense.

“But Dance’s venom might kill ’em now, there’s no predicting,” Lacey says.  She nods at Preacher Slick, who gets silence from the crowd when he stands up.

“Is it fair to ask him to have that on his immortal soul?” says Preacher, in his great, carrying voice. “Is it fair to ask a man who hasn’t taken his place in our community permanently to answer for our crimes, if the authorities ever come knocking on our doors and asked what we did here? Is that fair, to place that burden on one person’s shoulders, even if his conscience was willing to risk such a danger?  Is that the justice we ought to seek?”

Another roar from the lionesses, and a lot of cross talk.

Lacey holds up her hand, and soon there is silence. “In a regular court of law–and if questions ever got asked–using that venom of Dance’s would be a threat. That would be cruel and unusual punishment. Let me tell you something you may not know. Dance is a baby. He’s still growing into himself, since he was unpinned. He’s a naga. He’s a fucking Black Ops Naga, one of only two in the goddamn world ever made that we know of. He was warehoused in that sarcobox for months, and he came out of it alive, when a hundred other morphs out there died. He’s already killed bug-bits to defend his people. He is fucking dangerous now if he’s provoked. He’s fine with rehabilitated folks, he’s fine with babies and children, he’s our resource for fixing all kinds of infections and bad diseases, but don’t fool with him, cause he ain’t gonna be fine with that. Has everyone got that? Don’t talk Dance into drinking too much, don’t try to fight with him, and don’t come whining to me if he manages not to kill ya if you do something stupid with him. That is why Efrim got hurt.  Efrim was warned, and he didn’t pay attention. Don’t mess with my back-fang boy here, because you are endangering everybody else around you if you do. Clear? Everybody got that?”

There are those, standing along the stage, who nod significantly. Each one of those guys who work the bounds, it seems, already spread some similar announcement of warning to the community. Just before she strolled up to go to her chair, in the center, Lacey told Emma she was going to do this. Dance isn’t looking happy about this at all. He looks tight, blank, which means he’s probably deeply ashamed of becoming a problem of this magnitude.

cypress trees in water
cypress in the bayou, source unknown

“I would like to make a suggestion,” Emma says, and realizes she sounds very Aussie, under stress.  Lacey nods, and Emma stands up.

Silence, the void of faces staring at her.

“Dance also has a very, very good nose. Let him smell the dress of that woman who disappeared last week. And then let him go and smell the cabin, the bunk, whatever, where these men have been sleeping. I’m sure you can pick out some other folks who also have very good noses, do a blind test, and check if they agree– or, if you have enough great sniffers, then you could leave Dance out of it completely.  That would be good, because he’s involved in it personally, because of me.”

“Brilliant,” Lacey says, a moment before the crowd erupts into roars of agreement. Some of the cat women are standing up, fists pumping, roaring. Under that roar, Lacey looks at Emma, and says, “Girl, you are reading my mind so nicely.” Then she turns, and all the snakes rise up high on her head, together, like some sort of amazing headdress. It’s so striking an image that people quiet down. “I want six volunteers chosen for sniffing, and I want ’em picked from a pool of a dozen or eighteen, and I would put in the request that you folks vote on ’em your own selves. Who’ll run the voting? Tee-boy, you think you can be fair about running a vote? Why don’t you come on up and help out. Calm you down, make you feel better, make everybody feel better. Okay, let’s get a move-on, thinking out who’s got a good tracker’s nose who could sort this out. I don’t want to keep our guards here off their beats. The speaker’s stick is yours, Tee-boy.”

“Me, I need couple three vote counters,” Tee-boy says, coming up. He’s tall and thin and nervous, like a black greyhound. His ears flatten on the top of his head and flick forward again as he takes a carved stick from Lacey. The deference is entirely natural and obvious. Lacey nods a little, retires to her chair. Then Tee-boy turns, and looks alertly at the crowd, and the intelligence in him shows. His ears make him look like an Anubis straight off a tomb painting. His tail is whippy too. He starts calling on people, nodding to the vote counters, who brought little notebooks with them already.

Emma can feel the tip of Dance’s tail come up and rub her arm lightly, and she folds her fingers around it gently, letting it slide away when Dance gets embarrassed about being stared at. “Wish you had an instrument under your chin?” she says, picking her words carefully.

“Yeah,” Dance mutters. “Or a banjo, or… anything. Are my pants okay?”

Drin murmurs, from the other side, “They’re staying up okay.”

“It’s turned into a murder trial, and all I can think of is my pants falling off in public, and the kids on the baseball team giving me total grief about it,” Dance mutters.

“I’m sure, in a bunch of folks with tails, you’re not the only one worried about your pants,” Drin says.

Lacey says to Emma, quietly, “Not quite a trial, we ain’t got evidence yet. Think of it as a big ad hoc grand jury, maybe. Ain’t nothing stopping us from collecting evidence on behalf of a citizens’ grand jury. Now, since I called and asked for somebody to come out here for evidence collecting last week, when that last woman disappeared, and I called about the one before that at the time, and so on, and nobody’s got here, what with one thing and another, I figure it’s all been contaminated and messed with, and the scent may be the one thing that rat bastard didn’t figure he’d get caught on. I bet he planted shit so he could roll over on his best buddies if he got caught. Damn, if anybody would loan me a cigarette, I’d be in big trouble, I want a smoke so bad.” She sighs. “Which one is it, Dance?”

Emma glances up, surprised. She meets Drin’s worried gaze over Dance’s head.

Dance sighs.

Lacey says, “That woman’s dress, I know you walked right past it on the table first thing this morning, and then you walked along down front there, past every one of these guys, like you already knew they hung out together.” She tips her head back, looking under her eyelids.

“You have a good smeller too,” Emma remarks to her.

“Uh huh, sure do, baby, but I’m the judge, or as close as we get. I don’t mess with the evidence, I just mess with the jury’s heads,” Lacey says.

“It’s the second on the left, Remy,” Dance says quietly. “By the smell of it… he’s… a trophy-taker.”

“I see,” Lacey remarks. “Well. Makes it easier, don’t it? Probably isn’t a brand new habit with that one, either, probably been learning his trade for awhile. Living in a bunkhouse where you can’t hide things, now that does wear on a guy like that after awhile. I’ll just make a suggestion they try finding just where he’s stashed his little things.”

Dance grimaces. “The noses might be thrown off by the other guys he hangs with. Toine, to the right end, I smelled lots of stale bug-taint on his clothes. You smelled it too, yes? I could understand, if he handled rescue jobs for Fozzie’s clean-up crew, or maybe his work crew got attacked and he stepped in a mess. But I also hear maybe he’s been running off from his crew when he’s supposed to be helping out.”

“You know damn well he ain’t never been trusted near rescue jobs, he bullies smaller people, as you must know well,” says Lacey. “Running off where he got no business being, with his work crew buddies covering it, I could see that. Be nice to have it pointed out by somebody besides me.”

“Will I have to fight very many guys, since you put a big silly sign on my back?” Dance says to her.

“Ahh, you need to learn to keep your mouth shut while you’re beating the crap out of fools anyway,” Lacey says, with only her eyes smiling. “Funny, how sometimes watching a totally unfair fight just makes a gal feel so much better about things.”

Emma murmurs, “As long as it’s our side winning.”

===

This sprang off of “Just a Back Fang Viper Man”, which in turn started off from a 50kinkyways prompt and took off plotwards instead of pr0nwise.

As I noted there, googledocs collaboration, for the win!

Weathercock

Pen doesn’t want a cigarette. He wants a drink.
His girlfriend is out back again, high in the trees. She’s pulling feathers again, doesn’t even know she’s doing it. Scares him to death.
He puts down the little stack of mail, turns on the hall light, sings the security code and hears the distant rattle of storm doors. Wipes damp palms on his pants.
Rough weather’s coming. That was the first thing he knew for sure, when he surfaced, screaming like a girl, and they hauled him out of the sarcobox and rolled him past the others of his kind, stacked and thawing by the doorway, just beginning to stink. His body resonates to pressure changes, striations in the cloud; he sings like a harp in the wind.
Pen has no clear idea whether this is a bug or a feature.
He keeps painkillers handy for this, but he has promised Estelle that he will not be taking that drink, and he aches as he walks the corridor, topheavy, absurd as a popinjay, on skinny and suffering legs. There’s a strip of light under the closed parlor door. Pen pauses outside, face completely expressionless.
Rough weather is coming.
Slides the door open, then, flinging open his arms to the music and his miracle boy perched at the iMac and his baby girl, playing glisses on Tree’s old harp on the floor.

Iscen

Pen, hand on the bannister, looks from Iscen to Callie Moorehouse, his mouth open in disbelief.

Callie is nine. Nine. Dav’s age. She’s littler than Dav. Her hair is tied back in one of those hairties with bobbles on it, for God’s sake.

“The people coming, he wants to meet them,” Iscen says in her flat voice. “Meet them first. Make sure they’re trustworthy. Take ’em out if they’re not.”

Pen has a flash, horribly vivid, of children strapped to bombs, children carrying AKs through bombed-out Kabul, and is abruptly, utterly incensed.

“Take them out? Iscen? Are you mad?”

Iscen does not match his anger with anger; she folds her hands behind her, and simply watches. Long Iscen, tall Iscen, Iscen with wild dark hair and Inuit eyes, elegant bony wrists sticking out of her habitual black jacket with its sleeves a trifle short; her posture, her blasted perfect posture and her stoic, deadpan face.

“You understand,” she says finally, “what Callie does.” It’s not a question. “You know too that needs must when the Devil drives. Your man Auren Han–”

“Bloody Auren Han,” Pen grinds out, “would that I never heard his name–”

“‘Bloody Auren Han,'” Iscen echoes, indifferently, “is owed a favor.” She looks down at her jacket cuff. “Callie can handle it. She knows Singing Security as well as I do. Better, maybe.”

“Iscen, she is nine!” Pen’s voice is rising. He glances at Callie and struggles with himself, to right himself, to slow his agitated breathing. “I won’t have it. I won’t. We’ll send someone else. We can send Hal–”

“No,” Iscen says absently.

They face each other, Pen red-faced, incredulity and fury fighting for ground in his breast; Iscen a narrow-focused beam, her steady dark eyes regarding him.

“Hal’s needed here, hauling things. Besides, you should know–” and finally, something, a flicker of uncertainty, of actual emotion, crosses Iscen’s face. “This one inside her now is different.”

“Different? Ah, ha, because so ordinary and commonplace the others are–”

“This one used to be alive,” Iscen says shortly.

Pen feels suddenly, terribly old. He faces Callie, and holds out his hand.

“Callie-girl, Callie–you don’t have to go.” His fingers close reflexively.

Callie, wearing one of his shirts–Christ’s sake, that’s one of his combat medals, where’d she turn that up–minutely shakes her head.

“Pen, it’s all right,” and her voice, clear and light like a kid’s, is nevertheless full of resonance, full of the sort of humor and regret that should live, he thinks, in Iscen, should not be in the voice of a child.

Wind Is Picking Up

It doesn’t matter that it’s been nearly three years since they were both – officially – killed in combat over in Afghanistan, along with the rest of their squad. They’ve spent that time flying below everyone’s radar, and it’s kept their paranoia sharp. A career in the military lends itself to developing a certain kind of alertness, especially when you’re Spec Ops. They haven’t even come close to losing that.

That, and the guy following them isn’t exactly being subtle. These roads are all but deserted most days – with a hurricane blowing in, the faded red truck clanking down the dirt track behind their car stands out just a little bit.

Aaron glances as Cesar, whose eyes flick once again to the rear view mirror, then back to the road ahead of them. “I’ll give it another mile,” Cesar says. “Just to be sure.”

Aaron doesn’t bother replying, just opens the glove compartment and lifts the pieces of the highly-illegal H&K MP5 out of it, snaps them quickly together, and grabs the extra magazine that goes with the assembled gun. He sets both in the console between their seats where Cesar can reach them easily, leans forward a bit and pulls the unregistered Beretta M9A1 out of the concealed carry holster clipped inside the waistband of his jeans. He checks the magazine out of habit. It’s fully loaded, of course. The spares are in the left pocket of his denim jacket.

They give it two and a half miles. The truck is still behind them, rattling along, and Cesar doesn’t bother pulling over – the opposite, in fact. He spins the wheel, stops the car in the middle of the road so it completely blocks the dirt track, and puts it into park. He picks up the MP5 as Aaron gets out, keeping the body of the car between himself and the approaching truck.

There’s wind now, picking up slowly, but it’s not touching the humidity. A smattering of water hits his face, not even enough to be called rain.

The truck slows, comes to a stop perhaps thirty yards from them, and the man gets out of the cab. He’s smiling, but something about it is off. It’s like looking at someone who’s seen a diagram of what a smile should look like and is trying to copy it. All of Aaron’s instincts are screaming at him to get the hell out of here. Cesar has wiggled over into the passenger seat from the driver’s side and is climbing out next to him. No point in trying to be circumspect – Aaron raises the Beretta, levels it across the roof of the beaten old Chevy.

The man doesn’t slow down. Doesn’t even appear to recognize the gun as a weapon.

Aaron can hear another car engine approaching in the distance, the sound carried to them by the wind. If this comes down to a fight, it needs to happen now, before any civilians arrive – they don’t want anyone getting hurt. He narrows his eyes, focuses on the man’s face.

Something is…moving…under his skin. Little bulges and ripples are rising and falling on his cheeks, around the orbits of his eyes, sliding about just beneath the surface.

head of Devil's Flower praying mantis
head of Devil's Flower praying mantis

“Bug,” he says calmly, and squeezes off a shot. The bullet takes the thing in the right eye socket, knocks it back a few steps. It doesn’t go down, though, and whatever the liquid is that sprays out of the back of its head, it’s not red. It…screams, or screeches, or something. Mandibles push out of its gaping human mouth, tearing the lips at the corners, widening the opening. Antennae erupt from its forehead.

Cesar swears as it comes at them fast and squeezes the trigger on the MP5, strafing the area on the other side of the car.

The spray of bullets barely slows it down, and its enraged retaliation – a long hinged thing like an arm, its end a jagged curve of ridged chitin, a vicious length that rips out of its side and darts out at them, grating on the metal top of the car – nearly beheads them both.

Aaron hits the dirt hard, Cesar next to him, and they roll under the Chevy. Aaron shoves his gun back into the holster – Cesar’s eyes widen and he tries to grab the other man, misses – and keeps rolling, emerges from beneath the undercarriage of the car right between the thing’s feet. He doesn’t slow down as he comes up inside its guard. It snaps at him, mandibles trying to close on his face, but he’s just that little bit faster and manages to get a grip on its mouthparts, one in each hand. The edges are like saws, slip a little in his hold and rip jagged gashes in the bases of his fingers before the tendons and muscles in his hands harden in response, become chitinous in turn.

He feels his arms aching, itching, feels things moving under the skin in his forearms, the muscles shifting, and he grits his teeth and refuses to let go. He pulls.

The mandibles give way, tearing loose with a terrible crunching sound. The thing’s human hands are scrabbling ineffectually at Aaron’s torso, its longer multi-jointed bug legs trying to fold in and reach him, hampered by the bulk of the car behind him.

While it’s distracted with Aaron, Cesar puts the muzzle of the MP5 against its side and squeezes. The gun’s rate of fire can cut a door in half, as long as the person wielding it doesn’t swing too fast. When he finally lets up, Aaron and the side of the car are covered in ichor and the bug is dying in the dirt. Its limbs are still draped around him, twitching spasmodically. They’re no longer connected to the body.

Aaron pushes the legs off of himself, stumbles forward, and ends up down on his hands and knees in the dirt. He’s panting, big gulps of air, feeling things move around inside his ribcage, the skin of his arms on fire, his forehead itching, his ears buzzing. The Hive is a hum in the back of his mind, trying to gain his attention, usually so distant but closer now, closer, noticing him, turning to look at him, trying to pull him into obedience. He grunts, biting down on his lip as a curl of flesh peels away from the inside of his cheek, turns hard and rough, then melts and fades again. Blood in his mouth, dripping into the dirt beneath his face.

Cesar is watching him, silent. The MP5 dangles from his right hand, ignored now, but not abandoned. He waits.

Aaron forces the Bug back down slowly, laboriously, and grips the dirt with his fingernails.

The car he heard comes around the bend in the road and stops, idling, on the far side of the pickup. Aaron turns his head, sees that the pale ginger-haired woman driving is staring at them both, at the scattered bug parts on the ground. It looks like she has passengers in the back seat – one of them has dark skin, is leaning forward, craning his neck to get a better look at the scene in front of him.

“So much for being discreet,” Aaron says hoarsely. He hears the doors of the new car opening. It’s a shame. He liked this place, and now they’re going to have to leave it. The Hive seems to have found them.

Keys

“Well, first of all,” Barret is saying in his dream, “I don’t really get why there’s such a reluctance to actually get the instruments to play together, in these student pieces. Unless we get all Adorno on it and talk about commuter trains.”

There’s a polite inquiry from the back of the room of the dream.

“Commuter trains,” Barret hears himself say obligingly, eyebrows going up and down, “you know the experience. We’re going in the same direction. We’re all rolling somewhere together. But we’re all alone.”

His eyes flutter open as he feels broad, wet leaves stroke his face. The Jeep—he’s still in the Jeep—is negotiating a terrain change, moving from pitted blacktop to a narrow, deeply carved deer path or hog trail or something. The air is full of latent rain. The Jeep is moving almost delicately, like a spider, over tufted hummocks and ruts left behind by ancient tires.

“Christ on a bike,” says the gal behind the wheel.

“Want me to spell you?” asks Drin from the back seat, the Drin, Barret remembers, the Shadow King and ghost patron, the answer to a lot of unasked questions, the maker and unmaker of war.

“I’m fine, love,” the gal replies, not sounding so sure.

“We look to rejoin the main road up apiece,” Drin says, and Barret knows that tone well, the tone of the reassuring captain of the ship, peerless and perhaps immortal; the one who knows the dangerous reef is nearby. “They still have to go by the road, the long way around. We get back on the blacktop, we’ll have to wake him up for directions. Till then, straight on until morning, my lady.”

It’s hard to keep his eyes open. The musician Dance is sprawled in the back, surrounded by strange, glinting lights—an artifact, Barret thinks, of the dream, the other dream, the first dream, Auren Han standing beside him in the yogurt section at Trader Joe’s, holding his hand and making him recite the sequence, slowly, his left eye just beginning to wander—it does that, Barret knows, when Auren is pushed past endurance.

“Remember this,” Auren said in the dream, and Simon smiled a thin smile beside him.

“He’s got the numerical sequence now. That’ll bring up the locks. Give him the key.”

Auren, grey in the fluorescent lights; and his hands, touching Barret’s, cold.

“Auren, give him the key,” Simon said softly.

Empty carts, piloted by no one, coursing the aisles around them. Barret hearing their rattling wheels as they pass. For a long time no other sound; then Auren, sobbing.

Barret, slowly surfacing, remembers: this terrible sound from the other dream, the first dream. He remembers the bracingly cold air from the dairy cooler, and Auren’s baritone voice, and Simon’s light touch on the back of his neck, at the precise point the spirit guys say that gods like to enter the human body.

Of course, he heard that voice in his dreams for years. Certain pieces of music he had to stop playing, stop performing, because he would shudder to a halt in mid-stride, in tears.

The Jeep shies right, the gal—Emma, jesus, that’s her name—curses impressively, brings the vehicle to heel, and Barret flinches, blinks phantom numbers away. A sound remains, it’s right in his ear, lover’s voice in lag time, crooning a wordless song.

“Oh god, I promise, I’ll remember,” he cries, and Emma, her face fierce, quickly turns her head to look at him, struggling in the passenger seat.

“Barret? Remember what, love?”

Drin reaches across from the back seat, touches him then.

“Barret? Wake up, son. Wake up. We’ve got terrorists.”

A Lesson in Improv

It started off quietly.

Bored, Dance had lain back there resenting the heat. They’d parked on the last one of three concrete house pads at the end of a rough-graded gravel street. The developer abandoned the project some time ago, judging by the fourteen-foot volunteer trees shading half of this pad. A forlorn plumbing stack juts up near what would have been the kitchen.

The pads had the advantage of being open spaces in the midst of drought-stricken silk trees and mulberry and Japanese privet and scraggly yellow pine in the areas that were disturbed by the dozers. It did not soothe the gardener’s soul in Dance to recognize what he was looking at. He gave it all a jaundiced glare, and stayed in the jeep.

The rocky slopes rising beyond the disturbed areas were mixed pine and hardwoods, both too thick for fire safety and too thinned by dry weather to look nice. They weren’t the kind of lush Sherwood green that induce visions of Bambi and Thumper, or at least of spoiled squirrels who aren’t paying attention in time. He didn’t much like the idea of poking around in there to look at the tracks on the deer and pig trails through there, going down to the water. Dance could see the spider webs that built up over the summer. They like dry heat. They’re usually a warning sign for other pests, too. He grew certain the woods were full of deer ticks, and possibly dog fleas, depending on how many coyotes and feral dogs are out there.

“Well, guys,” Emma said quietly, before it got weird, “this is the end of the directions. The last email in Barret’s stack says, ‘wait for nightfall.'”

Drin had looked over again at Dance, for the umpteenth time. That look: “Can you smell anything you don’t like?”

Dance had already reported that he didn’t smell anything but dry woods, with some bayou maybe a quarter mile away. That’s close. He could hike down there, if needs be, to look for crawdads and frogs and fish. That’d give Barret something to think about. He talked about visting Pen’s place before, on some trip recording rural blues artists.

“Hate it when they do that,” Barret had commented about the directions, when he was still awake, just starting to slouch in the front passenger seat. He didn’t sound worried, though. “Makes you wonder what they don’t want you to see, but it’d be impolite to ask about it.”

Dance remembered his tail tip flicking in annoyance, and how he’d tried to stop it before it hits something noticeably. He’d been trying to stick with the ordinary appearance, and he knew he was failing sometimes. He knew Barret has been politely glancing aside from the subtleties, just as he can politely ignore Barret’s eager references to playing recent computer game alpha versions that only a few investor-geeks might have access to test out. Somebody like Bud Innes, or Auren Han, if he bothered with games.

It didn’t make Dance any more patient with things, either, knowing from Barret’s critiques that he should skip paying for one much-ballyhooed attempt and wait for the next thing by a competing game company instead. It was surprising to find how much he really, really wanted to sit down and zone out and just blow things up and make that next level that’s been driving him crazy, dammit.

Barret even told him where the cheat keys were hidden, although Dance would rather not use them. He remembered thinking crossly that he will be weak, some night, and he will yield to the damnable temptation, and then he’ll be cross with himself. He was cross with himself knowing that he’s going to do it, when he hasn’t even had a chance to resist.

Or possibly he was just cranky.

He’s feeling hungry again too. He’s been eating everything in sight, including a surprising number of bags of jerked beef, and that wasn’t even counting two big incautious Norway rats he caught outside the dumpster behind the gas station while the rest of his party was all busy in the restrooms. The rats tasted heavily of the garlicky pizza crusts they’d been living on.

That beat the muddy, sulferous smell of the crawdads and the frogs in the roadside ditches, but not by much.

He hasn’t told anybdy how much wild food he’s been snaring. Drin saw him fishing around in the ditches a couple of times at the rest stops, and Drin clearly had some idea of his needs anyway. Drin knew he’s been eating weird stuff. Drin was still kissing him anyway, right on the mouth, and sometimes he did it where other folks can see it. Drin knew exactly what sort of germy risks he’s been taking, touching Dance.

Emma, not so much. Dance knew he wasn’t being entirely honest with her. He was sure, at the time, that she didn’t want him to. Emma might comment on his chowing down on expensive, salt-laden jerky, saying things like, “The crawdads in the ditch would be better for you, and better exercise,” but she didn’t really mean it.

She sure as hell wouldn’t appreciate seeing him pith frogs, as a mercy, before he ripped them apart, cleaned them, fried them, and ate them.  Fried them on his tail, just like frying nice clean bluegills or crappie or gar from Lacey’s pond.

He’d rather cook them anyway as a sop to his own creeped-out fears about wacko germs and parasites from the local water. Back in the early days at the horse farm, having his muscles seriously overheating inside that tail, with some of the accidental damage he did to the interior of the Jeep, forced him to learn some interesting expedients to get some relief.

watercolor blue shine on rounded surface
watercolor, blue wave/tail

Emma had been refilling the ice chest at every stop. Dance had been emptying the water from it at every stop, because he melted it all down, every time. He’s been spreading out with his arm, or his knee, or his shin, on top of the ice in open chest, halfway laying in it, in full view of all of them, making no excuse for the way he was still sweating buckets. He had to vent the heat, wetting down the bandanna around his neck and soaking the gimme cap that Drin lent him. He tried hard not to make a lot of noise with the tail soaking down there in the ice as well, he tried to turn his body to make it less obvious that something as thick as his thigh was displacing all those ice chips, but he knew he probably wasn’t fooling Barret.

Barret hadn’t asked.  Didn’t even ask if he’s sick. His mild dark eyes hadn’t even speculated about it. Well, when he’s awake, that is. He went back to sleep while they’d been parked, with his head against the door again.

But during their time at the horse farm, Dance had learned that he can cook his prey to a precise degree. If he really felt hungry enough, and he really wanted his meat cooked, he coiled the tail around his prey at the hot moment of capture, and flash-fried it. The glassy coating on his tail did this trick without even affecting the human muscle meat inside his tail, which was nice. He remembered wishing the flash heat drained some of the heat load from the inside, but no. It didn’t relieve anything. It just left his tail-skin itchy and hot enough to leave melt-prints in the jeep’s plastic fittings. He was not certain why he should still be able to feel things at the outside of the coating. It still feels the same as his ordinary human skin, even when he just used it to fry a feral goldfish into a stiff little piece of char. It doesn’t hurt at all.  It’s cleaning the seared bits off his tail, and feeling how the burnt bits stick to him, that’s so damn depressing.

He remembered thinking that Emma really wouldn’t appreciate knowing how much the taste of garlicky trash rats made him want to kiss her instead.

He remembered looking up into the rear view mirror, gazing at Emma with the fierce desire to pull her pants down and take her right there in the driver’s seat. She just smiled back at him.

Things started to get odd when Drin pulled out his heavy old cell phone, frowned at some text message that was in some kind of Cyrillic alphabet. Drin grunted, frowned, and replied by texting something that was too terse to be read as English words by anybody else. He wasn’t bothering to hide it from Dance’s interested stare, and he certainly knew Dance would remember the keytones. He knew Dance remembered stuff like that. Then Drin had looked at Dance, he leaned over, and he kissed Dance on the cheek, smiling a little.

“We’re in range,” he said. Then he stuck his head out the side window, craning his neck. “You see a trail running downhill anywhere over there off that second pad, Emma?”

She’d turned on the engine again, pivoted the Jeep slightly, and pointed.

“You think we can get the bus through there?”

“I’s a four-wheel job, and if we’ve got fallen logs we’ll have to back up or chop our way through. You guys check the luggage is tied down.”

Emma was good at it. Barret didn’t even wake up as the springs started rocking.

“Where’d you learn to drive rough country?” Dance had asked her.

Emma had smiled. “Doing volunteer archaeological digs when I was a college student. This is nothing. We may get a few mud problems, but hey, we don’t have to winch ourselves up rotten sandstone. Drin, you got any idea why somebody wants us to go native here?”

“It’s a shortcut,” Drin replied. “I guess there’s strangers in the area, which doesn’t get that many visitors. The locals think these aren’t the kind of buddies we ought to meet anywhere on the main drag where other folks might get involved.”

Emma had said, alarmed, “But we don’t have any weapons–”

Drin had just looked at Dance, and smiled quite an odd smile.

Dance had looked back at him, seething with resentment, frustration, and a sudden thick rage against his own ignorance. But he spoke quietly. “I think I can be of some assistance. I just don’t have a very good idea of what we’d be up against.”

“Nor does anybody else,” Drin had told him grimly, “if the things we’re up against keep changing.”

Dance hadn’t been surprised to hear Barret muttering in his sleep, twisting around. He’d seemed confused when Drin woke him up, just before they got back onto a paved road.

The reek is sudden, choking, and beyond any mistaking. He doesn’t even have to say it.

“What the hell is that?” Emma says, gripping the wheel tight as she jerks them to a final stop. She looks like she wants to vomit right where she sits.

“That’s the stink I’ve been checking for when we visit rest stops,” Dance says. His voice sounds odd to him, heavy, low in his belly. He’s shifted his voice somewhere low into his diaphragm, like an opera singer about to project some pretty big sound into a big empty space. Then he feels his lips curl up off his front teeth, and his mouth come open slightly, so he’s panting slightly.

“Looks like they could use help,” Drin says quietly. “Yell if you see any movement in the woods, Emma.”

“Yeah,” she says, her eyes darting around the mirrors.

Dance steps out of the Jeep at the same moment as Drin on the opposite side, and they both walk slowly about fifty yards closer.

Drin says quietly, “Nice job,” to the two men holding the weapons, who are standing in the middle of a reeking mess.

green moss on dark wet tree roots
mossy roots

Dance finds his eyes skipping away from the people with the weapons, which isn’t like him. They’ve killed something grotesque that stinks, and all his instincts assume they’ll shoot more things that stink if they show up, and he’s good with that. His instincts assume they’ll know how to use the weapons to avoid shooting civilians, or them, if more bugs show up.

That may be a big, foolish assumption to make. But he’s busy watching the woods, just as Emma is doing. He’s not just using his eyes. It’s going to take concentration to catch a tickle of a warning change in the background odors when the foreground noise is so incredibly nasty.

===

Challenge: mixed up up, but the latest from bjd_30minfic, prompt 6, lazy or tired

Just Love the Smell of Bug Ichor in the Morning

The two men are watching them as they get out of the Jeep, the way a man who has nothing left to lose watches something that he suspects might kill him – half anticipating the worst, half eager. Drin has seen that look in the eyes of soldiers before. After all, the very worst means, if nothing else, an end to the uncertainty.

Considering what they’ve just been through, they look damned good. They’re standing up. The car with the rows of holes in the door isn’t doing so well. The stinking mess around them says it all.

closeup, damascened lines on steel knife blade
Damascene steel

Drin waits a moment, sees they’re staying by on the car, making no threatening gestures with the weapons they’re holding loosely. They stand as if they’re just waiting for him, and he steps forward. Oh yeah. Some sort of irregular forces military, too.

Instantly Dance is right there, just in front of Drin’s left side. Dance looks all loose and relaxed, but he’s not fooling the soldiers one bit.

Drin says then, “Looks like your hands got hit with some bug venom, there.”

The paler man’s eyes stay steady on him and on Dance. He doesn’t look down at his own hands.

Dance says, remotely, “He probably needs help from Lacey, then.”

Drin tilts his head. “Or from you.”

Dance glances up. It takes a clear effort of will to jerk his attention back to standing watch on the woods.

The pale man holding the gun says quietly, “You know Lacey? Heard about her.”

Drin looks at him. “Yeah. And I’m guessing you have’t met? I’m guessing that thing there tried to get you by surprise. I’d like to get out of here before more of them surprise all of us. They find a lot of things by chemical trail, like ants do. And there’s usually lots more of them, like ants.”

“Needing a fire hydrant to wash that stink off,” Dance says, not looking at them. He’s watching the woods. The air is finally moving, which makes confusing shadows shift around. Dance’s eyes jerk, his focus shifts constantly, flicking from one motion to the next. He clearly doesn’t like the twitchy, unpredictable flickers of the upper leaves of the trees, or the way the clouds are rolling and curling.

They look the way Drin’s stomach feels, knotting tightly under his breastbone.

It’s Emma who surprises them all by leaning out her window and saying, quiet and clear, “We should all roll in the mud. In the ditch there. Knock down the smell of the bug juice, and the local fungi attack bug tissues. I bet it messes up their body fluids. Might work pretty fast, or it might take a couple hours, but we can keep moving for awhile until Dance’s nose tells us it’s all cleared away.” She looks at the two men with the weapons. “Dance’s nose is pretty reliable on this stuff, we’ve found.”

Drin smiles. “Thank you, an excellent idea. We can hose down that mess from the ditch, give it a few days and nobody will know it was there.” Then he says, quietly, “Ease down, it’s all right, Dance.”

Dance says, “They found the body, didn’t they?”

The two men look at him.

“The guy who owned the truck,” Dance says impatiently, waving at the rusty red pickup truck abandoned beside the road.

American flag tailgate old red truck
An old red pickup truck

“Not the bug– the redneck guy who left all that stinking tobacco in the truck. I smell his cigarettes on both of you.”

“Oh, that probably splattered on us from the meat.  That bug ate off him,” says the darker man. “Bug musta stayed pretty dry out here, if it lasted long enough to get hungry.”

Dance opens his mouth slightly, and nobody moves. He looks like he might sneeze, or he might throw up, or he might whip around and bite somebody, and none of them are quite sure what, least of all Dance himself.

Drin reaches forward and lays his hand on Dance’s shoulder. Dance turns his head a degree, and Drin just looks down into his face, waiting, willing to wait all day. Then Dance swallows, shakes his head, spits on the ground like a disgusted trucker, and grimaces. “I’m all right,” he says to Drin.

“You’re good?” Drin says, sliding his hand gently up and down Dance’s neck.

“I’m good,” Dance says.

Then Drin says, to the two men watching them, “I’m sorry to hear that. That’s a shame.”

Dance says then, halfway angry about it, “If I can smell it, the bugs probably can too.”

The dark guy with the goatee gives a grin that isn’t funny.

“Oh, we understand,” the white guy says.

Dance shifts his head side to side, looking at the clouds, clearly impatient. Then he says, “We are waiting here for more directions to reach shelter from the hurricane.” From Dance, it’s an invitation. They’ve killed a bug, good enough. They both clearly recognize Dance’s accent, too.  They spent leave time in Seoul, probably.

The blond man says, “I see. So, you’re Dance?”

“His name is Dance of Knives. I’m Drin, for short.”

“Emma,” says herself, briefly.

“Barret,” their wild-haired guest says gravely to the strangers. “Musician, composer, that kind of stuff. Glad to see you got through that okay. Dance is a musician, too. Emma’s a librarian. Drin’s a network admin.”

“No way,” says the paler man. “Musicians?”

Dance smiles. “Shall I get the viola out of the case and demonstrate?”

Barret looks at him soberly. “Do you think you need to?”

Drin looks at the two men, and at Dance, and shakes his head. It’s as close to a command as he ever gets. “No. Later for that. At the house, I think. And you, sir?”

“Cesar,” the dark man with the goatee says curtly. He’s looking more at his companion than at them.

“Aaron,” the blond one replies, without any prompting.

Drin nods to them, and crosses back to the Jeep. “Barret, could you help me get out the tire jack here? I threw a hose in back here, and I think maybe we can stack it like an accordion and improv that way on a water pump. I don’t think their car is gonna be hurt that much by a few tadpoles, do you?”

Barret climbs out of the passenger seat and goes around to help in the back.

“I assume you’ve all got questions,” Drin says then, holding up a heavy crate of supplies while Barret yanks a flat canvas hose out of the lidded box beneath it. “But you can oblige me by dunking yourselves in the ditch fast as you can, all over, and then get your things out of your car if they’ll take water damage, and then if you wouldn’t mind keeping an eye out on those woods, while Barret and I get busy on the hose. Barret, get that entire hose down into the ditch-water and filled up. That’ll seal up the air holes–damn thing’s canvas, you see– and keep both ends in the water when you drag out the middle for me. Now, we’re figuring out how to do a squeezebox routine here. What I need is a one-way flapper valve. Plastic tarp–Em, you’re a genius.”

“Drin,” Dance says then, lifting his head. “I think you’ve got about fifteen minutes.”

“Bug stink on the wind?”

“No. The wind smells weird.  The ears are ding crazy ickle-ockle noisy altitude things.”

“How big a storm are we talking about?” the pale soldier says then.

Emma says crisply, “This is a tropical depression stalled over warm Gulf waters, building strength. The forecasters hope it’ll shift and make landfall in about ten hours, but they’re not sure where yet, just within about a hundred miles. It’s been strengthening rapidly over the last four hours toward hurricane status.”

“Would Lacey help us find shelter?” the pale man says.

The dark one smiles. “We can pull our own weight to help her out.”

Drin chuckles. “I’m sure Lacey would love to put you two to work. Unfortunately, Lacey is about sixty miles from here, but we’ve got friends we’re gonna visit closer, if we can get there without dragging along bugs onto their doorstep. That wouldn’t be nice. And help like yours, we can definitely be going on with. Okay, I’m laying the weight of the jack on this accordion, right? Pushing. Are we getting any movement? Okay, try again. Again–good. Now keep the end low when you drag it over to their car, and I’ll keep pumping like mad, and with luck–”

The paler man says, grimly amused, “Don’t worry. The car stank anyway.”

“Nice guns,” Dance says then.

“Thank you,” the paler man says.

“Okay, let’s drain and coil her up,” Drin says then. “I’m hoping to get a call with directions in a few minutes. In the meantime, why don’t we all shift our cars about two miles down, eastward there, further into the woods. The bugs have a definite bias toward city life, I find.”

“You get any cell tower reception out here?” the pale man says.

“Mine is satellite-based, but amounts to the same thing. It’s still pretty crappy out here in the back of beyond,” Drin says calmly, clapping the box lid down. Then he glances at his phone, gives the two men a number by which to reach him, and warns them that it’s only good for an hour or so.

The darker man just nods. Neither of them stop to write it down.

“Excuse me,” Drin says then, opening his phone, and frowning at it. He takes a little time replying, fingers not moving all that fast on the keys. He’s being careful. “That was our friends, where we were expecting to take shelter during the storm. They said they’re sending somebody out as a guide, but they weren’t precisely sure where we are in relation to their landmarks. I am to text back with a better fix on our position. They thought we might be near an old bridge abutment next to the road, but not sure how close.”

“I’ll check it out,” Cesar answers, and turns to go.

Aaron watches him disappear into the woods, MP5 in his hands, head up and scanning the trees around him. He twists his neck, looks at them. “How do you know about the bugs?” His gaze is unblinking.

“Somebody sent them in after us in a different location from this. Tried to kill us,” says Emma, in her widest Aussie drawl.

“You got lucky?”

“Oh yeah. We got Dance,” Emma says gravely.

“Is this viola a weapon or something?” Aaron asks, squinting at Dance. Dance’s choices in martial arts leave very few plain signs.

Barret smiles. “We’ll let you know when we figure it out.”

“Oh,” says Aaron, glumly. “That good, huh?”

Drin revises his estimates on how special the ops were that these guys got to play in. But he also keeps an eye on Dance. Dance is being weird, turning his nose to the wind and shifting his head oddly. He starts walking around in long loose circles, the same as he did the night they abandoned Emma’s car and a bottle of perfume. It looks even stranger now than it did that night.

Aaron’s eyes slide over to Dance, seem to consider him, and then he nods, once. He doesn’t question the implications of that. Seems content to wait in silence then, until Cesar returns from the woods a few minutes later.

Drin leans on the Jeep, squinting at the trees and the sky, while he closes his big old phone and puts it in his shirt pocket. He holds out one arm as Dance comes near him. Dance turns into Drin’s arm, slides up into his reach, hugs him back, tight. Then he lets go, and Dance is off again, pacing around the Jeep and watching things move in the woods.

Drin says, “I don’t know how much time we have before more of the damnable bug things show up. I’ve got a few theories, but no good reasons why they’ve thrown so many of the bug boys at us. Did you find the bridge abutment?”

“Yeah, it’s about an eighth of a mile east of this position,” Cesar answers.

“Drivable, or we hoofing it?” Aaron asks, without looking at the other man. His eyes have gone back to the woods.

“We’ll be able to use the vehicles at least that far. I didn’t scout much beyond that.”

Drin says, “Dunno if you’d need to get some care for the venom in those cuts, or if you’d rather handle it without our help. I’m impressed that you’re still standing up, I’d normally give you about four minutes from exposure before you had seizures, so I’d like to hurry on getting you decent treatment. Any particularly urgent stuff to ask, before we get rolling?”

“Are you armed?” the darker man asks. “Can you defend yourselves, if we are attacked again?”

“Well, for a given value of armed, sort of.  I’ll have to explain later.”

“Can you smell anything over that mess?” Aaron suddenly asks Dance.

“Yeah, and I am not liking it. Have they been dumping waste product from bug facilities upstream from here?”

Cesar turns his head slowly, that not-funny grin frozen on his face. “Might be.” He’s watching Dance.

“What are you smelling?” Aaron is watching Dance, too, and he’s not grinning at all.

“Bug chemistry, from lab wastes,” Dance says.

“Metabolites?” Drin asks.

“Yes, that,” Dance says, moving restlessly. “And not just from bug juice and slime on you two.” He makes an impatient gesture. “Let’s go. You can explain later.” He climbs into the Jeep, motioning Barret and Dance to get in, and then they’re rolling.

small bird on handle of hunting knife buried in fence
Target Practice, Forgotten

Aaron turns and gets back into their hole-riddled car, on the passenger side. Cesar stares at Dance for a moment longer, then gets in as the driver. Aaron seems to be bending down as Cesar starts up the engine, getting something from under the seat or between his feet, and when he comes back up he’s got a submachine gun in his hands, an FN P90. Cesar glances at him, his lips moving as he asks something, and Aaron hesitates, then nods.

Drin is a little unhappy that he instantly knows what the weapon is. Just as he knows what kind of troops they must have been. But ask his former self for anything useful, and it fades back like a nervous ghost, goddammit.

“How am I supposed to detoxify that man’s intake of bug poison?” Dance demands, climbing into the Jeep.

“By tasting it on him,” Drin says calmly, leaning back and closing his eyes. “He’s obviously got something interesting going on, he’s partially neutralized it himself, but I bet it’s not entirely.”

“All right, MacGiver, how do I know it won’t poison me?”

“I think you’re pretty hard to poison with that stuff, done slowly,” Drin says. “I believe that it’d take a faceful of it, or injected on major wounds, to knock you down. Mind, it’s a belief, not a solid assurance.”

“Damn scientists,” Emma says from the front, grimly amused.

“Or whatever,” Dance says, annoyed again. Shifting around in the Jeep, Dance is growling a bit. “Cesar asked Aaron if I was a mutant, too. Maybe he didn’t think I’d hear them.”

“Christ,” Emma growls too.

“What did Aaron say?” Drin asks.

“Yes,” Dance says, and he’s not happy about it.

“An item?” Barret asks idly. He’s already settled in the front passenger seat as Emma gets the key in the ignition.

“Living together, not sex,” Dance says from the back. “Long term. Not as long-term as you and Auren, but close.”

Barret is very still for a heartbeat. The Jeep rumbles to life under them, and starts rolling, before he shifts in his seat. Barret turns his head gently, slowly, and looks at Dance.

“You smell of him, same as we smell together,” Dance says, eyes half-shut. “Can’t hide that from the bugs either.”

Barret proves, then, that he has the steely reflexes to sit in on a decent jazz session. “So did Auren enjoy your concert?”

“Said he did.  Puts you at risk, too.”

Barret looks at Drin then. “Then it’s just a question of what’s worth living for.”

Dance gives a crooked smile. The invisible tail tip comes up, makes a loop, thumps Drin on the ankle silently, where Barret can’t see it moving, and flops back.

Drin sighs. “Damn artists, always asking the hard ones.”

Barret chuckles.

That’s when Emma turns her head, says,”The new guys are following us okay,” and they roll the small distance down the road.

“There,” Barret says, pointing toward her side.

“Got it.” Emma puts the Jeep in neutral, engine running for a moment. Then she says, “You know, if somebody grew all these series of different kinds of people like– like Lacey, then what if they were growing out other illegal things in a series, different varieties like her?”

Barret says calmly, “She’s clearly a Medusa. Been running her horse farm a long time, from all I’ve heard. You’re saying people designed all that?”

Emma snorts. “If you call it proper design, releasing stray junk where it can cause mutations in the local environment–”

Barret leans in closer to her. “So you’re asking if there’s other things like Cyclops or Sirens or Giants or things from different mythologies–hell, Phoenixes, Dragons, God only knows–”

Drin is silent a moment. “I think there probably were. Don’t give me a look! I hate not remembering things. To explain, Barret, there are ways to damaging a person’s memory selectively, in advanced technical labs, and people still have such damnably weak organizational discipline that they will come up with all kinds of excuses to use it, and it rarely comes out very well in the end.”

“The Fisher King,” Barret says, not blinking.

Emma rests her head in her hand, elbow propped on the steering wheel. “Yeah,” she says. “And damn lucky to have him here to help us out.”

“Oh yeah, I agree,” Barret says, and means it.