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.
“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.