Hal blinked. His pupils were changing. Sliding round, going oddly-shaped, as if he was halfway turning into a goat.
Seung propped his head into his hand as if he was about to go to sleep. “I got back to lockup shed once to let women out, like Peach and Keisha, get them safe.” Then he rubbed his fingers over his eyes, up his forehead. “Too late, other times.”
“You know how they killed those ladies–” Hal said.
Seung sighed. “Oh yes. Bodies, they talk.” He waved one hand, dismissing it. “Nobody stop it. Nobody speak. Police no good. Boss put me in cell. First time they let me out from cell, I got chain on my legs. I see dead girls down the hill. Nobody care how bad they stink, leave those dead girls down there. I get shovel and chop chains off and knock down those men, I go down that hill, I bury them. Lots guns take me back. Boss say, okay, you coming with me, you stand guard on tar bricks, you bury these girls too. ”
Keisha clamps her jaws shut, tight. Let the man talk. And he does.
“Go on trip, I bury them too. First chance, I run away. Dumb. Need money, got nothing. Okay. Take two bricks tar, pay third brick get away. Police raid gets dealer, me, tar. Police take me back. Lots chains, long time, take me on trips, dig in chains, bury dead girl, ride truck in chains. Take chains off, I be good two months. Second time, I got coin. Wrong kind. Money-changer tell secret police, they raid village, they say not kill anybody if I come quiet, but they shoot moneylender right there. Third time–” he taps his forehead, “–I remember what things they did to me. They put tracer in me, like pet dog. I cut it out.” He showed them a messy little scar on the inside of his forearm.
Keisha settled back in her chair, listening. From the corner of her eye, she saw Peach scurry to get the hot oatmeal into more bowls, moving as if she was nervous of the tension in the room.
“Good, tracer all gone. This time I got rich man’s cards, but I know all those money card, they ask, Swiss bank trace cards, find me. No use cards. No take tar. I start hitch rides, mujahadeen very nervous, I walk lots, go hungry. Not bother nobody. But I see troops come in trucks, take village, start shooting. I get mad, stop them. I find their boss, I find his other troops, I stop them too. I blow up things. Put wood bridge on fire, take out train car that got more guns for them. Ammo blow up, boom boom. Crazy man. I forget gas knockout. Americans blanket-gas caves, take everybody, find me. Chains, all of us. Americans give some guys in chains to some other bosses. One boss, he take them off in town, shoot those guys on wall.”
Keisha glances at Peach, worried if she’ll understand, and worried if she doesn’t. Peach glances up at Keisha with tears filling her eyes, and buries her nose down into Keisha’s shirt. Keisha looks up at Seung, and nods once.
Seung inclines his head, and goes on. “Some stay in American jail, lots questions. But me, no questions, no nothing. Somebody American know my boss. Pay good get his men back. They take me back.” He waved one hand tiredly. “Boss laugh. Stupid Americans not know me, give me back to him, not know what I am.” He held his hands up, and there were odd little nicks everywhere along the backs of his hands. So they weren’t just fight scars, the way Keisha had assumed. “Boss say not kill me, Americans pay good for my skin. ”
Well, now they have some idea where those two hundred white nagas came from, Keisha thinks grimly.
Seung taps the table. “That boss die, his sons same. Shoot each other. Shoot men don’t pay right, shoot men ask too many questions. Tell me bury those bodies too. They like shooting. Sons all get to kill girls and be boss and sell tar bricks. I go trips all different sons, they put me in karate tournaments so nobody fight me for tar, good as crazy dog. Me, same job.”
Keisha found herself wobbling right there in the chair. She braced one elbow on the table. She felt Peach put up a steadying hand on her back.
Hal’s pupils were totally u-shaped like a goat’s and his ears looked deformed. Keisha looked away, dizzily, and saw Seung’s tail shifting restlessly on the floor, winding around on itself. She looked up and Peach was right there peering into her face with those lagoon-blue eyes, fur all disarranged, looking anxious with her ears flattened. Keisha closed her eyes, swallowed hard.
Hal said quietly, “That third time, when the Americans took you back. When was that?”
Seung sighed. “Two months after Russian troops go away, leave Afghanistan.”
“Christ,” Keisha said, eyes jolting open. When was that? Twenty, thirty years ago?
Hal said, “Tar bricks, is that bricks of black tar opium?”
Seung said, “Yes, so big,” and sketched the size in the air.
“Where was it coming from?”
Seung frowned, lips moving. “Most grow at home there. Others trade in, you say, Burma, Pakistan, some Thailand.”
“So the sons, they all liked killing girls too?” Hal asked, carefully.
“Some more, some less,” Seung said, looking tired.
Keisha clamped a wrist over her mouth.
Hal said, quietly, “So you could’ve stopped them, too, the way you stopped those other troops.”
“Maybe so,” Seung agreed, looking even more tired.
Keisha took her wrist down from her mouth. Her hands were hurting, badly. She took in hot, deep breaths. “No. I don’t believe it. No.”
“What?” Hal said, surprised.
Hal tilted his head, looked at her.
Keisha leaned forward. “Doctor Alexander said that Dance and Drin and Emma all have false memories that don’t match up on the real history at the time. I bet if we checked on those names and dates and crap in Seung’s head, we’d find out it’s cobbled together nonsense. You go back poking around, I bet you find out Seung was never there, nobody knows him, it’s all made up. Somebody brainwashed him into believing these horrible things. Maybe they meant to scare him away from getting help, keep him isolated–who knows. Yeah, I think Seung’s done some fighting, but he’s no old school Afghan cave-war-type guy. I knew vets like that. Seung’s not the same. Doesn’t have the right ‘tude for a vet like that. He’s too damn young.”
“Pictures of dead girls,” Seung said quietly.
Hal pointed at the table. “Dance had pictures too, of his family, and now Drin and Emma proved none of them were real.”
“Doctored,” Keisha said. “Not hard to do, just takes time. Digital to start with. It sure ain’t on film, honey.”
Hal leaned forward, tapping the table. “Those girls, lots of those names Seung remembered for Preacher, those were the same as the digital pictures that got sent to Drin and Dance and Emma, Emma thinks they were sent on purpose, so they’d hate Seung. That’s weird too. Why would anybody care?”
“You think I not do those things–” Seung’s eyes looked pale again. “Fake things shove in my head. Who can do that?”
“Well, our local telepath here, Preacher Slick, he can sure do things like that,” Hal said. He gave a grim little smile. “But he won’t. Preacher’s got standards. I’m not sure all of the others do.”
“Others?” Keisha said.
“Oh yeah. There’s others. You met him, Seung. Brother Slick preaches on the Bible, does radio shows and broadcasts by CB when we need him to block bug raids, and cable interviews and all kinds of stuff. Always reading, taught himself Greek and Hebrew. Tall thin black guy with a terrific grasp of a lot of the various Bible translations, and always eager to hear about new ones.”
“You met this guy?” Keisha said, staring at Seung. “When?”
“Yes,” Seung said. “Pin come out. Dance do things, I have insides feel like guts fall out, hurt lots. Preacher come, speak, stop it hurting. All good. Magic. Feel good. Floating. He say, you show me all pictures, all dead women, we find them. Give them back to families. All of them. Is good. I tell him, I get tired. Tears like blood, Preacher cries. So many murdered, he weeps. I get so tired. Sleep.”
“Oh shit, man, you’re kidding me,” Keisha said. Nobody had told her any of that. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Seung tilted his head a degree, tapped his forehead. “In here. Silly dream, yes? This Preacher man, he come back see me in clinic, before you and Peach safe. He walk in, he talk, Dance talk to me in Korean, be sure we got it right. Preacher talk to Emma, they bring lots pictures from lots of places. Yes, I point, this is one, this is one, this too. Lots dead girls from Moldova. How you say–that place is a total pit. Pretty girls, they want out. Sons, bosses, guests, tell me oh, go buy girls like fries with soda. Bury them after. Preacher and Dance tell me lots of dead girl names. Emmma looks it up, learn what real names they had. Not all, no, but he gets help, he will find families. All real.”
Keisha frowned. “You’re talking about guys who can go into your head and figure out what you really meant when maybe you don’t even know yourself?”
“I remember those dead girls,” Seung said, eyes so pale they were almost a white gold color.
“And you believe all this stuff?” Keisha said. Then she stared at Hal.
“Oh yeah. We know Preacher. He vouched for Seung around here,” Hal said, and there was no mercy whatever in those strange dark eyes. “Yeah, however he’s doing it, Preacher comes back out with stuff like that, names, lists. He says go look, you bet we check on it.”
Keisha turned her eyes to Seung. “Okay, how did he do it to you?”
Seung held out wide-open hands, as if he had no guesses at all
Hal smiled. “Nobody knows how he does it. Hey, ask him. He doesn’t know. He feels it as a burden, a large duty laid on him by the Lord, and he don’t hardly ever sit down. I don’t think it’s by smell, or by just being good at reading people. Hell, I can do that, and I’m not getting the kinda of things he hears coming outta of people.”
“You put him on Mike,” Keisha said, leaning back.
“You got it,” Hal said. “They both gonna be crying, cause Preacher don’t ever give up on somebody’s soul. Never.”
“So you think there’s other–other preachers–like him?”
Hal pushed his chin forward. “Preacher was made. He knows that. He was made in a lab, just like Dance and Seung. Yeah, we know there’s others like him. Not so many now. Preacher says mostly they suicided right away. Good reasons, too. He says he’ll set himself on fire first, he’s not letting bug troops take him. No telling if the black market labs got hold of tissue from those other guys, but they’d sure try repeating it with bug mod methods.”
“That’s no good,” Keisha said, shivering. “I mean, if it’s true.”
“Yeah,” Hal said.
“I haven’t met him,” Keisha said, frowning.
“No need. Seung vouched for you and Peach, talking with Preacher. Preacher’s call on it is good for us.” At the look on her face, Hal smiled a little. “Welcome to Bayou Rainette.”
Keisha swiveled her head and glared at Seung. “You don’t even hardly know me!”
Seung smiled at her. “You teach Peach how to eat off rabbit bones. I know you.”
Keisha rubbed the back of her wrist across her eyes. “Oh, cut it out. Just stop. We ain’t gettin’ anywhere wallowing in goo.” She blinked fiercely, and felt Peach’s hand slide around her shoulders, and then Peach gave her a little whispery-soft kiss on the ear. She leaned into Peach a moment, breathing hard. “Okay, enough silly stuff. I know we’re missing something here. Something important.”
“Why,” Seung said softly.
“Did Preacher check on Mike like that, too?”
“Early on, yeah, of course. But Mike been going on the road a lot, and Preacher always wants to be right there with the person. He don’t want to go pushing Mike’s brain around when he’s driving a truck, right?”
“So all Mike had to do was stay away from this bayou. Stay away from Preacher.”
“Hell, he stayed away from me and a couple other good sniffers, too, maybe he knew we’d smell something wasn’t right,” Hal said.
Keisha thought about it. “Would Preacher know if somebody way back when had got into Seung’s head and twisted things around?”
“He might. He doesn’t say much, not unless people got a need to know.”
Keisha frowned. “Yeah. But you know what I think? Sure, there was some guy who saw the Russian front in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t Seung. I know that. Stop arguing, I know it. Other guys like Preacher could have doctored Seung’s head. But why do it? Why would somebody push it into Seung’s head in the first place?”
Hal frowned back. “Maybe it was accidental. If he was poking around in Seung’s head, maybe he shared stuff, didn’t even know he was doing it. Preacher says it’s real hard keeping things sorted out.”
“Okay, that’s random. That shit happens. What about reasons to do it on purpose?”
Hal shrugged. “To go out and testify what happened. Let’s say, maybe that head-guy can’t leave, but he thinks hey, maybe this Seung guy will get out.”
Seung nodded. “Get lists out. Send it out, away from tar bosses.” He lifts one forefinger. “Maybe not just me. Maybe tell others. Maybe lots guys got same bad dreams too, huh?”
Hal looked at him, nodded. “Do you know who that head-guy maybe was? Why maybe he couldn’t leave?”
“No. They bring me back–” Seung waved it off. “Hurt lots. Chains. Lots bad things. Forget lots.”
“Yeah,” Hal said, pushing his empty oatmeal bowl to one side.
Keisha pointed her bandaged hand at Seung. “But why would any dumb-ass tar boss make this guy bury your bodies? Seung ain’t your boy. He thinks he’s run away a coupla times already.”
Seung leaned into the wall again, sighed. “Some guys like to make you do things. Do things nobody like.”
Hal nodded. “Yeah, I get that part. Make a big show of it. Prove to everybody your boss controls you absolutely, he’s not afraid of proof coming out later, you’ll never escape. Chase you down.”
Seung sighed. “Tar. Lots money.”
“Oh yeah. But Keisha’s right. That’s lousy leadership. Running a gang, you gotta be better than that. It’s stupid, it’s wasteful, people betray you and wreck things and do sneaky stuff. Somebody else who’s smarter and not so–so showy–might end up controlling that trade instead.”
“Guy like Drin. People like run, do things for him,” Seung said coolly.
“Oh yeah,” Keisha said. “Over here, Drin’s too smart to bother with shit like tar. But what if he was some Afghan warlord with nothing else to sell?”
“Still smarter. Get off tar into better profit, lower risk trade,” Seung said.
“Insurance or credit cards?” Hal said, wryly.
“Guns,” Seung said, and they both nodded.
“I guess Drin was stockpiling aluminum while it’s cheap, last I heard,” Keisha said wryly. “But damn–“
Seung sighed again. His face was looking thin.
Damn fool’s not getting enough food for that tail, Keisha thought, looking at him.
“Now, the other question I been wanting to ask–” Hal began.
Keisha looked at him.
Hal smiled, let out a sigh. “Why hasn’t one of that gang come to pick up Seung by now?”
“I been worrying on that,” Keisha said.
Seung waved it off. “I know why maybe. Long way here, boss not like trip but he gotta do it anyway, I kill him, all messed up on orders. Boss got boss who got boss.”
Hal frowned. “Plus those bug troops. Do they always use bug troops?”
Seung waved in a negative gesture. “First time I know about, but I not know everything.”
“Hope this time got written off as a big honkin’ six-truck disaster,” Keisha said.
Seung held both hands wide again, that it was anybody’s guess.
“As Aunt Frog would say, ‘From your mouth to God’s ear’,” Hal said cheerfully.
“Can’t count on it, though, we oughta move on soon as Seung can handle it,” Keisha said.
“Make good use of the time you got here, that’s my advice.” Hal smiled, and patted his stomach happily.
“Yeah, we will. Peach and me got lots to learn about, and I figure on visiting your Aunt Frog at the first chance I get,” Keisha said.
“You let me know, I’ll get your a ride over to our place.” Hal pulled out a card from his shirt pocket. “There you go. You need anything, if you can’t get the Trio first, cause they’re so close, then you call us, we’ll get somebody up here right away. We ain’t letting no damn bugs or tar-traders take Seung away from you. Anything you need, okay?”
She took a couple of deep breaths, picked up her fork, and said, “Okay. That helps. Okay. Seung?”
“Peach? Can you read this number?” Keisha pointed. “Can you remember that number?”
Peach peered at it, nodded. Somebody did teach her to read words and numbers, at a very low grade school level. She repeated it, slowly. “Use phone? I know how.”
“Yeah. You tell them who you are, that’ll be enough, somebody will come,” Hal said to her, and she nodded.
“That’s good, Peach. Real good,” Keisha said, and got a hug from her.
“My Aunties can give Peach the right level of reading books, figure out where she is,” Hal said.
Keisha took another deep breath. “Thanks. That’d help her a lot.” She looked at Seung. “My man, if you want those eggs heated up again, I can do that. Hate wasting good food.”
Seung waved it off.
Keisha leaned over, rested her aching bandaged hand on his, which made him blink at her. Keisha said, “Outlive the bastards. You need to eat. Take another bite of that bacon for me.”
Seung frowned a little, looking at her. Then he leaned toward her, turned his head, and kissed her cheek. “Okay, boss lady.” Then he did. He didn’t look like he’d keep it down, but he ate it.
Hal took a deep breath, nodded when Peach offered to heat up more oatmeal in the microwave for him.
Keisha watched their kitty gal punching the buttons carefully in order. First thing Emma insisted on giving them as a housewarming present, was that microwave. Keisha blinked, looked down, saw Hal watching her with those u-shaped goat pupils. “Okay, Mister Community Organizer,” Keisha said to him firmly, “I got some questions for you, too. About these damn bug labs round here, those places you guys destroyed. I wanna hear how you did that.”
Hal smiled. It was not a nice smile. “I’d love to tell you about it, if–” and he turned his gaze on Seung, “–Seung is okay with getting something to eat when I talk about this stuff. I’ve upset you guys enough this morning, didn’t mean to.”
“I eat well, if you teach us how to knock down bug labs,” Seung said, with that stubborn look on his face.
Keisha gave a skeptical grunt.