Road Warriors

There wasn’t even a scream.

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

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

She finished putting Dan’s coffee in his holder.

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

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

Thump. A big one.

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

Keisha had the Luger out in plenty of time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shoot Dan!” Peach wailed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you stop bugs?” Keisha demanded.

“Yah. With enough ammo.”

“You got any?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Car!” Peach sang out.

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

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

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

“Not them,” the dark guy said.

“You sure?” Keisha said.

“Yes,” he said.

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

He tensed, squinting even harder.

“This is them,” he said. “Truck.”

“Car, car, car!” Peach sang out.

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

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

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

“Holy shit,” Keisha breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Peach is your payload?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh,” Keisha said. “For how long?”

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

“Why?”

“Laptop got stuff.”

“But do you know what kind of stuff?”

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

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

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

“And Peach? Why did they want Peach?”

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

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

“Like this?”

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

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

“He was,” Keisha said.

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

Keisha nodded, sipped, handed it back.

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

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

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

Peach looked over doubtfully at the stranger.

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

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

“So you shot him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

====

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

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

Monster Bargains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guy made a grunt between his teeth.

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

He grunted again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Keisha demanded.

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

“You got any ideas?”

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

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

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

“‘Cause I’m a sailor,” Keisha said.

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

“Yeah, like woman truck driver?”

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

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

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

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

“Dude–” Keisha said, surprised.

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

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

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

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

A Coney For Peach

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

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

“You’re falling asleep?”

“Pee first and sleep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not sick,” he said.

“It was slow enough you caught it.”

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

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

“Peach also know,” he said.

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

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

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

“Damn, you good girl!” Keisha said.

“‘ankyou,” Peach repeated proudly.

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

“Can you watch the fire for me?”

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

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

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

“Too bad only one,” he said.

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

“You need too.”

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

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

“Say what?”

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

Keisha looked at him in disbelief.

“You smell,” he said.

Even Peach was staring at him.

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

“Oh Christ,” Keisha growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peach nodded, eyes wide.

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

He nodded.

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

He nodded.

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kiss,” Peach said.

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

“Okay,” Peach said.

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

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

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

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

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

Peach leaned into her and sighed happily.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” Keisha snapped.

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

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

He turned.

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

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

“Please,” Keisha growled.

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

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

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

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

He groaned, and made her laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kissing Peach Happy

Well, at least the credit card worked as advertised. Round about dusk the second night, Keisha pulled off the road and picked a cheap motel with a weird-shaped parking lot on a hill that couldn’t accommodate a lot of big rigs, and got a ground floor room near it, which took going back to the desk clerk and using her mild voice on him. The kind of voice that could stand there being mulish and smelly all night long.

That room did make it easier to walk Peach in safely, even with the two raggedy thick-looking Hispanic boys watching the corners and steering some odd-looking people up to the party rooms on the top floor, far side. She’d worked enough parties like it that she knew sad and cheap when she saw it. But in one way it reassured her. She figured she was much less likely to get somebody local shooting shit out of her room if the locals had that kind of income-producing activity going on. Much safer than if the place had been totally quiet. Not like the heavy bass beat rumbling through the rafters wouldn’t have been there anyway, whatever place she could afford to risk, anyway. And this one had, thank God, a shower that worked, more or less. Keisha experimented until she had the temperature sorted out safely, and called Peach.

“Yes, Peach, you go first, you been wanting to get cleaned up for ages, now’s your chance.” It also allowed her to get busy unloading the truck, with Peach safely busy. She and the Chinese guy hauled in their pathetic bags of dirty clothes, cleared the trash out of the cab, hauled in the groceries she’d bought. Sunuvabitch, the store had been nervewracking, trying not to fret in line while Peach was out there alone in the cab with the Chinese guy. The funny part was to come out and find them both hanging tight just under the window, like a couple of dogs watching nervously for her to come back, and apparently completely unconscious of the fact that they were all wrapped up together in the driver’s seat, with the Chinese guy holding Peach and stroking her ears to calm her down. Keisha opened the cab door and there they were, blinking at her, and then grinning with relief.

Keisha locked the cab–not that it was going to stop any of the thick-necked party guys eying her truck, but at least she could make it noisier for them–and then she threw the deadbolt on the door of the motel room, and let out a little air from the breath she’d been holding.

“This place smell funny,” the Chinese guy said, making the same yuck! face that Peach did.

“Yeah, that’s the cleaners they use,” Keisha agreed. She rummaged in a grocery bag, held out a water bottle to him. He drank it all down. “You wanna run the cooler?”

He wiped his face and nodded, fiddled with the box at the front window. Much of the air blew uselessly up into the curtain, and it smelled odder yet, but at least the air was moving. He leaned into it, and drank another water bottle.

“You running a fever?” she asked.

He waved his hands that he didn’t know.

“C’mere,” she said, beckoning. She laid the back of her wrist on his forehead, and then his arm, and then on the base of his neck. She felt the little jerk-stop in his muscles, standing still under the touch when his initial reflex was to push her away. She looked into his eyes, and laid her wrist on his throat, and under his chin. “It’s hot, but I wonder maybe you got a bit of a temp, yeah. Get you in that shower, that’ll make you feel better. Take that shirt off, lemme see your back and look at that bite Peach gave you, huh?”

He gave her a long, unblinking look. “I need help.”

“Your back hurting?”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” Keisha said, turning on a light while he unbuttoned the shirt as far as it would go. She gripped the sleeves and tugged the shirt off over his head as gently as she could.

He stood still, eyes shut, lips closed down tight over his teeth, as she tossed the shirt aside.

Well, he was worth looking at, gotta give him that. Boxer-style manboobs, gotta love ’em, Keisha told herself, and touched his arm. “Lemme see under this bandage.”

He held the forearm out for her, not opening his eyes.

“That bad? Sounds like I gotta push that knob back in again?”

“Yes.”

“We gonna break your spine one of these days doing that? Would it be better to leave it out until you can get a doctor to work on it?”

He opened his eyes, staring off into the shadows. He did not look happy.

Keisha peeled tape on his forearm. The area was a little dirty on the edges. The bite itself was scabbed and oozing a little, not bad. “You got a good hard-working immune system, my man,” she said.

“Your man?” he said, blinking at her.

“Till I say otherwise,” she said, and pushed lightly at him to turn around. “Okay, can you bend forward? Put hands on knees, say.”

He did it, but he made a little sound, as if it hurt to do so.

She touched the knob, about tangerine-sized now, poked at the bruises with the sides and pads of her fingers, working around to figure out what shape that thing in him was. Under the puffiness and liquid she could push around was a surprisingly small bit of something hard. It felt more like some fragment she’d seen in a gunshot scar, not like a misplaced vertebra poking outward. She didn’t try to wiggle it around, didn’t dare, but she felt certain it wasn’t part of his back. She could feel the knobs on his vertebrae, all perfectly normal and solidly connected, and this thing was moving between them. Sliding in like a goddamn knife or something. Or migrating out, like some scrap of shrapnel. “I don’t like it. It ain’t right. That don’t belong in you, I’d swear it. I don’t see a scar. What happened? When you get it?”

“Not know,” he whispered.

“You don’t know?” Keisha demanded.

He straightened up, right in her face. “No!”

“Don’t get mad, I’m trying to help,” Keisha said, eyeball to eyeball with him.

For a long scary moment he glared right back, and it was touch and go if he was going to lose his temper, in pain and tired.

Keisha had never had any feral animal glare at her so steadily for that long, without one blink.

Then they both heard Peach singing. His face relaxed completely. He blinked, looked down, and then he rested his shoulder against her. Just leaned into her.

Keisha put her arm around his waist. “I hear you. It must hurt like a mofo. Boy, I hear you, sugar. Can’t give you any more pain pills for another, what two hours? We’re overloading you as it is. Goddamn, when Vicodin ain’t doing it for you, you shouldn’t be up walking the streets, man.”

He sighed. Then he wiped his eyes, and tilted his head back, and he gave a sharp little gasp. “It go back!”

Keisha blinked at him. “What, it slid back in again?”

“Yes! We stand that way,” he said, gesturing at her.

“Okay, we gotta remember that trick,” Keisha said.

“Magic fix Keisha,” he said.

She smiled. “I’ll let you think so!”

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For food, for water, for driving, for fix me,” he said.

“Least I could do,” she said, and shrugged. “You saved Peach’s life, you pulled her back in when she woulda fallen out of that open door, fighting you. Ain’t never gonna forget that.”

“You love Peach,” he said.

“Yeah,” she said, tired and wry and a bit amazed at herself.

“You kiss Peach happy.”

“Well, not the way she wants, yet. Ain’t worked out if that’s a bad thing, she ain’t all up on her feet as a grownup, just cause she got feelings.”

“Peach love you.”

“Yeah,” Keisha said. “That’s a big job. Trying to do it right for her.”

He leaned into her again, and sighed. “Better.” Then he lowered his head, stretching his neck and shoulders to either side, and Keisha put up her hand and stroked those heavy lats the same way she might pet Peach’s skull and neck and ears. He reacted about the same way, too. He leaned harder, twisting for her to get at more of him. “Okay, lay down on the bed, let’s see if the back thing is fixed for a coupla hours.”

“I lay down, I sleep,” he said, and lifted his head and looked at her. “Shower first, I not smell bad.”

“You don’t smell bad now,” Keisha said. “You just smell like two days inna truck. And some kind of resin, like they burn in church or something. Kinda dusty or something.”

“Okay smell?”

“Yeah,” Keisha said, puzzled. “It’s a little odd, but what do I know? I ain’t been smellin’ sweaty athlete men for some time.” She leaned closer, smiling, and watched his face get ready for something like getting smacked, or pinched, or some other practical joke from her. “You could get that shower now, there’s Peach.”

He turned his head, and his mouth hung open.

She knew how he felt.

Peach was ruffling a towel up and down her fur, singing, wandering around the room with happy little dance steps. Her leg seemed to be carrying her just fine. She hummed.

“Off you go, and wash out some underwear while you’re in there,” Keisha said, going extra-bossy to make him move past the vision of Peach prancing around like that, naked.

“Yes,” he said, blinking, and trailed off when she gave him an extra push on the butt. He had a nice butt there, too, damn her imagination.

Now the tough part, Keisha admitted to herself, was what she was going to do about it when she needed to get in that shower, and leave the two of those happy little campers alone together to amuse themselves in the room. Her imagination was well up to making suggestions about what they might get up to. The surprising part was how she liked the idea of seeing what he would do to pleasure Peach, if he paid attention to what Peach wanted, doing things as much as Peach wanted him to do it, and what Peach would like to do to him. Keisha shook her head. Since when did sex turn into a spectator sport for her?

At least he didn’t get out of the bathroom totally naked. He wrapped up in a towel, but that didn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. Peach was liking it, too.

Keisha might be tired, but she still had enough brain to come up with something she could do. Keisha said, “Peach, you come talk to me in here while I’m washing up, okay?”

Peach was happy to do that. She just smiled very wide at the Chinese guy and waved at him before she settled to sitting on the toilet lid, singing. She pouted a little when Keisha closed the bathroom door, and cheered up, watching when Keisha started peeling off dirty clothes. She gave Keisha a big hug coming in and out of the shower, she didn’t care if it got her wet again. Keisha gave her a kiss both times, too, making sure Peach got a reward for being patient. And not a little peck of a kiss, either. One of the kind that let her learn more about Peach’s sharp little teeth, and the slightly raspy texture of her tongue, and made her think long, hot thoughts about what that tongue would be like elsewhere. “Okay, that’s good, slow down, momma,” Keisha said, surfacing with a long, deep gasp for air. “Easy there.” That was when she realized Peach had opened the door to let the bathroom cool off.

When she looked up, she saw the Chinese guy was lying in bed, in full view of the open bathroom door, curled up on his side under the covers, looking right in at them. He looked drowsy and relaxed, and as if he really didn’t care if he was lying in a sticky wet spot on the sheet.

Keisha sighed and dragged a towel over herself. So much for keeping a lid on all that stuff. She wiped the water out of her hair–three swipes and that was done, sadly– and another swipe at her front and her ass, and then she marched past him and got her wet underwear hung up to dry on a chair by the air conditioner vents. “Okay, showtime, you’ve seen me, you’ve seen Peach, let’s see you,” Keisha said, and flipped the sheet back from the guy in bed.

He blinked up at her, shifted one knee down, and let her look. Uncircumcised prick, with the foreskin pulled back from a thick, reddened head that was still gleaming wet. A little clear honey-thick cum oozed from it. His hair was shaved into a little triangle or something, no hair on his balls, which made her wonder a little. There was something odd down under there, but the size of his prick got in the way of seeing it better. If it was some odd piercing she’d get a look at it soon enough, the way she was going. Then he rolled carefully onto his belly, and spread his knees apart, although nothing much showed, not with the bulk of those butt muscles. He turned his head, blinking at her. He wasn’t looking quite as sleepy, either. Then he rolled onto his other side, and lifted one brow silently.

“Goddamn,” Keisha said.

“Smell good,” Peach said, leaning into Keisha until she put her arm around the girl’s damp furry body.

She kissed Peach on the forehead. “You are a funny girl, momma, you surely are.”

“Lick you?” Peach said.

“Momma, we shouldn’t, I gotta drive in the morning,” Keisha said.

“Sleep, long day morning,” the Chinese guy said, although parts of his body were starting to disagree with him. He didn’t try to cover it, either.

“You want licks,” Peach said to him.

He smiled. “Yes.”

“Sleep now?” Peach demanded, pointing at him. Her effect on this particular naked man didn’t seem to surprise her.

“Keisha say sleep, we do that,” he said.

“Peach, how many guys did you lick?” Keisha said.

She frowned. “No licks. Only pets. Send me down below deck when they smell like that.” She pointed at the man in the bed. “They only stick it in smooth girl got big things.” She cupped her breasts.

The man in the bed sighed, turned his head, covered his eyes with one hand, and muttered something in something that was possibly Russian. Whatever it was, it sounded rude.

Keisha frowned again. “They didn’t let you lick them?”

“No.”

“They didn’t lick you?”

She shook her head, laughing.

Keisha put her hand down, smoothed it over Peach’s thigh, upward. “Did they touch you here?”

Again she laughed, shaking her head. Then she wiggled her hips a little, pushing into Keisha’s light touch. “You lick?”

“I’d love to,” Keisha said, aware that her last remaining brain cell was probably leaking out her ear. What the fuck was the matter with her, playing around like this with Peach, for God’s sake!

Then Peach was looking at the man in the bed, and goddammit, she was smiling. So was he. Peach pressed Keisha’s hand up closer into the warmest, softest fur on her body. “Lick you,” she breathed, and licked water drops off Keisha’s shoulder, up onto her collarbone, down her breast. “Come lick?” Peach said, beckoning to the man in the bed.

He was right there at Keisha’s side, sliding in under Keisha’s other arm. He looked at them both, a long, serious, dark look, and he said, “Lick Peach? Lick Keisha?”

Keisha looked at them both. Peach, she had no doubts about. She looked at the man, whose name she didn’t even know, and she closed her hand on a wad of his hair by his ear, and drew him up closer, until his body was bumping hers, and his chest was pressing her breast. His eyes were huge as cannonbores, he was breathing hard. “Gimme that mouth, I bin wanting to fuck that mouth all day,” she growled, and dove into him. He had a helluva tongue that went on for miles, plenty long enough to get down her throat too, once she let up a little bit. Oh, he wanted to kiss her elsewhere, no doubt of that. He was well up into the dog phase of humping her leg, already, when she pulled back from tongue-fucking his throat. “Right, now it’s Peach’s turn. How patient can you be?” She tugged on his hair, gently.

He smiled. “Good. I watch.”

“You like watching me kiss Peach, and lick Peach, and make Peach happy?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Right, sit on the end of the bed and watch, and then maybe we’ll see if you can make Peach happy too.”

“I want to lick Peach.”

“You can lick her hands,” Keisha said. “Make love to her fingers. All right, Peach momma, where do you want me to lick you first? You point.”

Peach shuddered, and pointed at her face.

“Right,” Keisha breathed at her. “Okay, momma, I am gonna lick your face, and kiss your sweet lips, and make love to your tongue.”

She was all incredibly soft kitty fur and sharp little pointed teeth and a wild acrobatic tongue, and Keisha had to back off to catch her breath and guide Peach into sitting down. Keisha crawled up onto the bed next to Peach, and felt the Chinese guy move around to make room for her. That was good. He started licking Peach’s other hand, and Peach shuddered in place, gasping. Keisha leaned down and licked at the soft gray fur, ignoring the fuzz that came off on her lips and tongue, working her way down to Peach’s nipples. “How’s that feel? Too much? How sensitive are these gorgeous little girls? More? Tell me how it feels, momma.”

“Yes, yes that, that,” Peach said, thrusting her chest upward at Keisha. Her hand came up and clutched at Keisha’s waist, and she felt sharp nails start to dig in. Peach moaned. “Oh sorry, sorry–careful–”

“That’s good,” Keisha murmured, and suckled the other woman’s nipples with some intensity. She brought up one hand and stroked the fur on the swell of the breasts, feeling her jerk and moan. “Mama, looks like I could bring you with just a touch on your girls here.”

“Lick,” Peach moaned, and brought Keisha’s hand down her belly, down onto the soft mount of her pubis. Keisha lifted her hand away, and Peach moaned, pleading.

“No, no, no quick jerkoff for our first time, mama, I gotta lick my way down there, you gotta feel my tongue on you,” Keisha said, taking her time at licking down the darker line of fur that led down to the woman’s navel, and then the treasure trail joining little dark stripes down to her pubes. Keisha petted the fur there, so soft, not wiry like her own at all, and then she breathed on it, and said, softly, “Smells good, mama, smells real good. Legs apart, let me kiss you good.”

She heard a moan from the other side of the bed. Keisha lifted her head, and looked at the Chinese guy. He was rubbing his face into Peach’s fingers, and Peach was stroking him, running her fingers into his mouth, petting down his chest. Peach had the presence of mind to rub her whole arm against his chest, rubbing her knuckles across his nipples, and she grinned when he leaned into it and practically cried out with need. Peach was enjoying herself.

That girl is not nearly out of her head enough, Keisha told herself sternly. Falling down on the job there. We’ll just see about Miss Peach being able to think that much.

Keisha lowered her mouth back to breathing on the soft fur on the girl’s pubes. She slid her tongue over them, around them, slid almost down to her ass, up her belly to her navel, and then down again, diving right in between those first pair of lips, deep between them, probing for the hood of her clitoris. She knew Peach had one, she’d seen it there. And it was coming up hard, a little point of firm tissue that she could flick and twist and push at. She felt the legs flailing and the belly jerking and the hips pushing up into her face, bruising Keisha’s tongue on her own teeth, and she only let up by diving deeper into the girl’s vagina, relieving the pressure on the clitoris. She knew the limits on her tongue as an organ of penetration, and came back to suckling on Peach’s clitoris. She got her hands around Peach’s ass, gripping her fingers firmly into the globes of muscle, and lifted her up a little off the bed, making Peach feel herself being lifted up to get her cunt licked. When Peach was whooping hard for air, Keisha let up, lifting her face free.

“Okay,” she said, looking at the Chinese guy, who was licking frantically at Peach’s palm. He looked up, dazed.

“C’mere,” Keisha told him, opening her mouth to be kissed.

He sat up, leaned across Peach, and dove in. “Mmm,” he moaned, and he moaned louder when she drew back.

“That taste good?” she asked him, looking into his eyes.

“Mmm,” he said. His eyes were wide and soft and all pupil.

“How many people have you licked?” Keisha asked him.

He panted, blinked, shook his head. “No fuck, no licks.”

Keisha stared at him. “Nobody?”

He licked his lips, tipping his head back, and took a deep breath. “No.”

“You’re a big buff good-lookin’ guy in your own country, why aren’t the mall rats all over you?” Keisha demanded.

“I make that people afraid,” he said.

“So you don’t even know if you do weird shit when somebody licks you,” Keisha said.

He smiled. “No. Find out?”

“Love to,” Keisha said. “But not risking a chance of hurting Peach. I wanna make Peach happy. Then we find out about you.”

He smiled. “I happy.”

“Well, yeah! Never been laid and now you finally get some girl juice on your face?”

“Want more girl juice,” he said.

“Always a good sign in a guy who likes girls to be happy, I think,” Keisha said, grinning back at him. “What, am I laying two virgins at once tonight? Goddamit, I must be living right, finally.”

“I lick you?” he asked.

“Yes, as long as you’re careful when I need to move around for Peach,” Keisha said.

He moved, just like that, so he was on the end of the bed, with his head between Keisha’s knees. He licked the inside of her thigh.

“Oh hell, that’s distracting,” Keisha gasped.

“Lick Peach,” he said.

Keisha took a deep breath down in the fur of Peach’s pubes. God, she smelled so damn marvelous. Like clean soapy girl and warm fur and dried flowers, and there was that sweet musky foam of Venus, sliding out onto her tongue, warm and viscous and clean and smelling of the sea. Peach lunged her hips up and down, and Keisha had to time it, teasing her, sucking on that clit. She alternated with pushing her tongue as hard as she could into the upper end of Peach’s vulva. Peach gasped, stiffed, arched her back, and at almost the same moment the Chinese guy had got his head up there between Keisha’s thighs and he was pushing up into her cunt with his mouth.

He didn’t know how to use that bloody long tongue, but he figured it out pretty fast.

Keisha had to stand to, rigid, not bucking around making it harder for him while he felt his way around in there. Then he found his way to her clitoris and started working that, along with diving down past it into her vulva, and Keisha was sobbing for air when she came, shuddering with her knees clamped all anyhow around his head. He was smiling when she let go of him, though.

What was there to say when she flopped onto the bed next to Peach? Peach smiled at her. Oh, Peach was happy. Good, give the grownup in the bunch this one thing, Keisha had managed that much, she made Peach’s first experience a good one so far, pray God it didn’t all end badly. Keisha turned her head and looked at the guy who was still leaning into her thigh, breathing in deep sniffs of Keisha’s wet crotch, as if he really did like it. He smiled at her with the same dorky, stoned expression as Peach. Then he flopped limply onto the bed on the other side of Keisha, and told her, “You make me come too, not even touch my cock.”

“We’ll work on that a little bit later,” Keisha said. “I ain’t done with you tonight. I think you got more boy juice in there you could share, if somebody came at you the right way.”

He blinked at her. “I come twice.”

“Well, we’ll see. Gimme a little bit, I’ll think of something. Why don’t you tell me what you want licked?”

“Where? I lick him lots now,” Peach offered, bouncing up on one elbow and smiling, as if she was ready for Round Two right away.

“Okay, but none of this–” Keisha reached down and touched his penis, which shuddered, and with her other hand she touched Peach on the pubes, “–in this, not playing bare, you got that? I got some rubbers in my purse. You don’t go sticking that thing in Peach’s cunt without rubbers, right?”

He nodded solemnly. She touched his hip, and he flinched. Touched him on the side, on the ribs, she got another tiny little jerk, and not because he’d just come. Guy was used to getting hit hard whenever somebody got that close to him. No wonder he never got laid, he probably ran away from most people. Reminded her of a kicked dog who’d finally got too big to bully.

“What are rubbers?” Peach said, leaning in on her shoulder and rubbing her cheek on Keisha’s collarbone.

“I’ll show you. I’ll show you on him, even. But gimme a few minutes.”

“Long drive,” the Chinese guy murmured, and shifted up onto one elbow, looking at Keisha as if he was concerned. He put up his hand and stroked his fingertips lightly through the stubble of her dreads.

For a moment she stiffened. What in hell gave him a right to–she thought, and then she caught herself. No guy she ever had was a cuddler, and it was her loss. She knew it wasn’t always like that for other people. So why was it so weird that this guy was?

If he was really a virgin, he didn’t have much of a clue what rules anybody had. Why shouldn’t he feel just like Peach, why wouldn’t he want to hug up close with his lovers too? Nothing wrong with him, even if he was fighting that jerk-stop thing.

It was her. She had the same jerk-stop reaction he did, and he knew it, too. He laid his head down on her ribs, and she felt his hair tickling the side of her breast. His hand came up and touched her breast, rested on her ribs, slid down onto her hip. Not so light it was ticklish, and it helped that it was his open, flat hand. “Soft,” he whispered, and kissed her cheek.

Keisha reached up, took his hand, and kissed his palm, firmly. Then she lifted it across her and put it on Peach’s shoulder, and watched him stroke Peach’s arm. “Peach is really soft.”

He leaned in closer, looking at Peach. “Soft, so soft,” he said.

“Yeah,” Keisha said.

“I like soft,” he said. He reached wider, although it seemed to hurt him, and stroked Peach’s cheek, and down her back. Then he touched Keisha on the shoulder, and stroked her collarbone, and down her midline, and up around her breast. “Soft,” he said again, and leaned in and kissed Keisha on the cheek, and then on the upper slope of her breast. He shifted, rested his head on her shoulder like a mirror of Peach, and sighed.

Keisha lifted her arm and stroked her hand lightly down the man’s chest, onto his belly, down onto his hip and the slope off into the muscle of his butt. The skin was soft. The muscles weren’t. Sweat came off on her fingers. She lifted her hand to her nose. Soap, man, semen, and that tickle of dusty resinous herb, like rolling around out in some of that thorny brush. Made her think of cats sunning themselves. She licked it off her fingertips, smiling at him, and watched his pupils flare open. Oh yeah, he was not done for the night, not by a very long way.

What she had in mind might finish him off, tired as they all were. And there were quite a few things she didn’t have the gear for. Yet. She thought about him rolling round letting her look at him. Well, she was gonna have to hit the store again anyway sometime tomorrow, might as well pick up some lube to teach him a few other new things, tomorrow night.

It was odd thinking of how she was going to get her mouth all over him and make him come a couple more times, probably yelling louder than the bass throbbing in the roof joists right now. She knew she was going to find out lots more about how his body worked and how to make him scream in total and literal fucking abandon–but right now she didn’t even know his name or his family or anything worth a damn about him. Well, except that he could shoot pretty well and kill people, and he was willing to chase down rabbits for Peach.

Did anything else matter, just now?

No, not really, she thought, and lifted her hand and stroked hair out of his eyes, stroked along his face. He looked at her, not blinking when her fingers got near his eyes. It was like he was doubledaring her, holding still for whatever she asked him to do. So she stroked the pads of her fingers along his face, learning him, feeling how he’d shaved it smooth, feeling how heavy those facial bones were. She shifted around on her side, came up on her elbow, looking at him, touching his ears and neck and shoulders. “Lay back, sugar, find a comfortable position for your back, you might be there awhile. Peach, what part do you wanna lick? You can work on his legs, too, sure, just don’t go licking his prick. I got other things I need to do with that. You can lick his tummy if you want.”

Keisha got up, leisurely, and rummaged in her purse, and took in the sight on the bed with pleasure as she came back to them. Peach was a thorough little gal, she’d started off with his feet. He was groaning already, with his fingers buried in the short fluff of fur on Peach’s bottom, and Peach was licking her way up his chest, sucking on his nipples, halfway biting them. He shifted on his side, stretching out his legs, and he almost rolled onto his back.

“No, none of that, we aren’t having you get hurt again,” Keisha warned him, and tapped his knee. “Now shift this knee, let me get up in there.” She ran her fingers briskly up his thigh, scrubbed her palm across his belly, slid her hand down onto his scrotum. He jerked, and opened his eyes and his mouth wide. Keisha chuckled. “You can yell all you like, they ain’t gonna hear you over the music. Just sing out what you want, sugar, and we’ll see what we can do about it.”

Peach nipped him, carefully, and he gave a yell. She did it again.

“There,” he gasped, arching his chest, and Peach giggled, pleased that she was having an impact.

“You just start talking,” Keisha advised him, and leaned down to breath across the man’s scrotum. Then her fingers slid across a strange little ridge of tissue, bulging out until it halfway cradled his testicles.

What in hell– Keisha looked up. The guy had his head buried in the fur of Peach’s shoulder, and then he started licking his way down Peach’s breast toward the nipple dangling like a tease above him. When Peach drew back, wincing as if the nipple was still too sensitive, he didn’t try to grab. He drew in a hard, panting breath, and sweat ran down his belly and thighs. He was shaking in place, but he wasn’t mauling Peach, he was still stroking her lightly with those scarred hands, petting the fur smooth.

Keisha pulled her butt around and shifted the lampshade to get a better look at him. Fucking weird–that hard rubbery little ridge glinted and flickered in the lamplight, like there were tiny bits of something shiny buried in his skin. Keisha leaned in close to lick the skin across his thigh, looking at an angle across him. She could see the same little glints, but much smaller, at his knee, and hip joint, and along the curve of his abs, catching the light in flickers as he panted under Peach’s weight on his chest. When she looked carefully in the dim light, she could see the same thing all over him.

He wasn’t just Chinese any more than Peach was just a nice girl, Keisha thought. Damned if she knew what he was.

She stroked the upper curve of that ridge just as she might stroke Peach’s vulva lips. He sighed, arching into it like a woman, mouth open. Oh, he liked that. She licked at the upper end of the ridge, where it faded out above his penis, almost unseen until she got down to the underside of his crotch. He gave a high odd little cry, straining up for more, and she laid her hand on it, flat, making him shudder.

There was a matching stiff little lip on both sides, too, joined up at the top like a women’s vagina, but it didn’t stop where it ought to. It kept going past his balls. Not a hermaphrodite, since he wouldn’t have had those nice sturdy balls in a nicely seamed sac like that. Well, unless he was some kind of conjoined partial twins, with partially duplicated body parts. Keisha had seen some strange things at parties and carny shows, but this beat them all in a really quiet way.

The ridge itself sure wasn’t scar tissue, it was even more sensitive to touch that the wrinkled skin of his ball sack. The little ridge, maybe as thick as her finger, swelled a little more, darkening, as the shaft of his penis stiffened. She looked at that ridge, stroked it, leaning in and licking it where it was the largest as it cupped around his scrotum. He moaned, pushing his hips upward, begging for more.

She’d thought he shaved himself down there–hey, some folks liked it–but no, he was just made that way. That straight, stiff black pubic hair of his stopped in a line just above the ridge, and his balls had no hair at all, bald as a baby, and not from being shaved. She stroked his balls gently. Without any hair, it was amazing to touch. Softest skin on earth, she thought, watching his prick leak and tremble where it hung above his thigh.

She made him move his knees a little more, and she pushed some of those heavy thigh muscles out of the way to get a better look at him. The ridge ran down alongside his scrotum and kept going. No hair at all inside the lines, either. She touched the inner cheeks of his butt muscles, parting them with both hands, and he just sighed and strained wider, popping his hips up high for her, letting her in there to touch him anywhere she liked. Not like any other guy she’d ever been with. He didn’t know her from Eve either, and here he was spreading everything for her, letting her in there.

The ridge was a little wall of tissue that moved and breathed and flexed right along with the sphincter of his ass. The damn thing enclosed his entire genital area and his asshole. and beyond it, at the far end, there was some kind of broad bony knob about four inches long poking out between his butt muscles, as if it was part of his backbone down there. The ridge curved around at the base of that knob. The knob had nerves in it, some kind of joints, like some rudimentary tail. It twitched and moved and he gave another moan when she touched that. The little knob strained toward her touch, turning to a limited degree, and it glinted with lots of little speckly glitters, lots of that dusting to it. She breathed on it, and the damn thing changed color, went pale, and then congested dark pulpy red like another prick. He gave a yell and thrust upward, hard, with his hips jerking and his leg muscles trembling. “There, please there, lick,” he gasped out, shaking all over.

It was awfully close to rimming him, but hey, he’d just got a shower and he still smelled of soap, it was probably fine. Keisha breathed on it a little more, fighting back horror-movie visions of the devil’s second prick growing like a hydraulic pole, ramming down her throat and gutting her from the inside out. “Right,” she said, and touched her tongue to it.

It tasted like the rest of his private parts, like licking his scrotum. He shuddered as she leaned across him. His prick jumped, and then trembled and drooled in place.

“You like that? You like me touching it there?”

His chest heaved up and down with deep, hard breaths. “I–never– I like– what is that?”

“Beats me, baby, but I’m gonna see if it feels good for you. You tell me if it’s getting too much for you,” Keisha said, and got her mouth down there, suckling it gently, ready to pull back quick.

His hips started rocking, hard, belly muscles pulling up. She drew back and fisted that strange little knob, stroking upward, but a lot more gently than she would have handled anybody’s prick.

His body started to buck around.

Peach laid herself carefully and deliberately across him, holding down his chest so he wouldn’t move that upper back too much. He gave a little moan, and breathed into her furry ribs, and just when Keisha’s hand was speeding up, he gasped, “Stop, stop,” and she did. Peach pulled herself up, hastily, patting at him to make sure he was all right.

“Too intense, huh?” Keisha asked, and stroked his thighs instead.

He laid there, nodding when Peach nuzzled at him. “Good now. Too much, not get crazy, yeah?”

Peach made mrrping noises at him, licking at his face and ears, nudging him, worried.

He blinked and stared up at the ceiling. The whole place was throbbing with dance music, which probably didn’t help a bit. Keisha felt his legs and belly ease a little bit, and he sighed. “Better.”

Peach petted his hair back from his face, stroked his shoulder and along onto his ribs. He lifted his arm and wrapped it around Peach’s waist and sighed again, turned his face into Peach’s breasts. “Oh, soft, oh yes,” he said, ruffling Peach’s fur. Then he lifted his head and looked into Peach’s eyes, and stroked her rumped fur around her ears. He wasn’t looking at Keisha when he said softly, “Kiss Peach?”

Peach looked at him gravely, a long time, and leaned in and nipped at his jaw, and then at his neck, and his earlobe. Then she laid her mouth fully on his, and they both closed their eyes, concentrating.

“Ummmmm,” Peach moaned, leaning into him harder, with her fingers kneading dents into the muscles of his shoulder blade.

“Easy with the claws, there,” Keisha said, touching Peach’s arm.

“Mmm mmm,” Peach said, opening her eyes, alarmed, but he only shifted his head and dove deeper into her mouth, pushing his arm back into her grip.

“Okay, as long as you’re careful,” Keisha said.

The only sound for some time was the two of them moaning a little, hands rustling the bedding now and then as they shifted. After awhile, Peach drew back, breathing hard, and kissed her way down the guy’s chest, down his belly, and up onto Keisha’s arm, up to Keisha’s face. “Are you happy, momma? Is that good?” Keisha asked, petting her.

Peach nodded, and drew Keisha’s hand down to her cunt.

“Man, you’re wet, momma, we gotta finish making you happy,” Keisha said, rubbing gently, and feeling Peach moan and push herself into the touch.

Then Peach surprised her. She stopped moving, opened her eyes, and frowned. “No, no, bad. Me lick him.”

The man in the bed next to Peach stroked his hand along her thigh, along the slope of her rump, up onto her back, and watched Peach arch her back, presenting her hind end upward. “All good,” he murmured, stroking the fur down into order again. “All good, Peach happy, me good.”

“It’s okay, momma, we both like seeing you happy. Tell you what, you lick him all over, except not his prick, okay? I’ll see what I can do about making you happy. And hey, you with the cock, you can pet her into doing some more of that humpy ass up thing, right?”

He nodded, and put some time and attention into figuring out just what made Peach arch her back and mewl like a cat in heat. She ended up rubbing her tits into his mouth, too. Keisha got around behind Peach and pushed her knees apart and licked her and stroked her and finally pushed her own weight into her, wrapping her arms around Peach’s hips and finger-stroking her cunt from the front. It took Peach about two minutes flat to tip over into it, shaking and yowling and raking at the sheets rather than tear into either of them.

“Easy, easy now, momma, lay down and take a rest,” Keisha said, and felt the man’s hands come up along with hers. He guided Peach into laying down next to him.

“Okay?” Peach asked the guy, blinking at him, and he smiled back at her.

“All good,” he said, stroking her face, petting the fur straight down her arm.

Jeez, Keisha thought, kneeling up and looking at the pair of them stretched out there on the wrecked sheets. Peach needed another shower, and the Chinese guy was shining with sweat as if he was greased up for some porn video. He looked pretty goddamned ravished, with his face flushed and his lips all wet and red and his prick drooling and his knees about as far apart as they could go, laying partly on his side like that. “All good. No hurt.”

“Really?” Keisha said, pleased. “We gotta try some more of that.” She stretched out at his back, putting her hand round on his hip, and sliding down to pick up his penis, and start working it. He went rigid, gasping.

Keisha got up on her knees again, leaning so he would feel her breasts brushing across him as she leaned down into him. “Oh baby,” she murmured into his belly. “You just let it happen. We lick all over you.”

He gasped.

“Talk to me, baby, tell me where you want us to kiss you,” Keisha said.

Peach chuckled, and leaned down and licked his chest, licked at his nipples, chewed on him a little, and he flung his hands away from her and clutched at the sheet instead, gripping into the mattress, hard.

“Ahhahhah,” he panted, mouth wide. “Ahh.”

“That’s the problem of being a really strong guy, it’s hard to lose it and not hurt anybody,” Keisha said, breathing it across his belly, licking him slowly down to his crotch. Damn, he tasted good. That musk, down there in his public hair, along his balls, down there with that alien little ridge pleading to get some attention. She licked that, and he shuddered, his belly muscles curled up, and his cock shuddered in place, pulsing rapid little spurts of clean gooey fluid. He didn’t yell when he came. Good to know, Keisha thought. She caught up the mess on a fast food napkin, and set it aside. She looked up at him.

He lay there looking back at her, and his belly heaved a sigh.

“Better?” Keisha said, and crawled up to lay next to him, rest some of the muscles that got tired in awkward positions. Hell, at least her hand wasn’t aching so bad right now. Better than most of the painkillers she’d ever tried, and sex almost never did that for her before.

He lifted one arm, stroked Peach, who smiled at him, and then he rolled over onto the other side, leaning into Keisha. He put his arm around her waist, rested his head so he was breathing into her chest, down between her breasts. “Smell so good,” he said.

“Yeah? You too,” Keisha said, and rested her arm along his ribs and stroked her fingers into his hair, along his scalp, down onto his neck. He turned his head, to make it easier for her, and heaved another big sigh, blowing it into her skin. “Funny guy. You gonna bite if I pet your belly too long, like a cat?” Keisha murmured.

“Mmmm,” he agreed.

Keisha looked up. Peach was watching them, sitting up with her eyes very bright, looking pleased with herself, as if the whole thing was her idea. Keisha smiled at her. “Okay, Peach, you did good. How are you feeling?”

Peach gave a happy little growly noise and darted around the bed, crawling up at Keisha’s back, wrapping an arm and leg close around Keisha so all that hot damp kitty fur pressed against Keisha’s hot back. Keisha sighed, puffing up strands of the guy’s hair. When her cunt let up yelling that loudly, the rest of her had other things to say. God, she was tired.

“You sleep, I not hard now, I please Peach,” he said.

“Oh, you’d get hard.” Kisha chuckled. “Man, I am falling asleep. You two be good. You can kiss but no prick, right? Peach? Okay. I’ll haveta show you later about rubbers, okay?”

And she was out cold, just like that. She woke up a couple of times. One time was because they were rocking the bed too much, Peach had her hands all over the poor guy and he was getting noisy when he came that time. Another time was because they were tickling each other after another shower, giggling, and bumped into the bed. “Sorry,” he whispered, “We good. No prick, yes?”

“Good,” Keisha said, and closed her eyes.

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.