The Emperor’s Thumb

It was fucking noisy the next day. Keisha stared at the window. She’d never been a morning person. She was more the midnight party sort of gal. But it was dawn. Somebody showed up at dawn with a weedtrimmer and a mower and waded into the junk growing around the head of the dock next door to the clinic. Then there was a chainsaw. Then more guys in trucks, with ladders. Then they were doing something on the strip of land next to the clinic, guys tromping back and forth along the dock, whacking down loose boards and replacing others and swearing like dockhands and whistling, happy as some kinda silly Disney dwarves banging away.

Then, for hours, there was the racket of an old diesel chugging away, towing in a heavy load on the river. Tugboat, nudging in a houseboat in a manner leisurely even for them. Then it racketed away, and returned again with a second one, which got moored on the other side of the same dock. Hours passed as it maneuvered. The guys, meantime, were swarming over the first houseboat. A couple of plumbers hauled in their bags, and then boxes of flooring got carried in. Coupla women in both those groups, looked like wives.

They stopped frequently for breaks by coming over to the clinic, wiping off sweat and cracking jokes with Doctor Alexander and drinking up all the pop and bottled water in the fridge. They took the liberty of popping in and saying hi, grinning at Peach and shaking Keisha’s hand and saying nice things to Seung about his younger brother Dance. Seung didn’t try to argue. He just looked tired. When she asked if he wanted Dance to come by and translate for him, he shook his head.

It was the big older guy, Drin, who restocked the drinks. He came in with a couple more guys carrying about ten cases of new bottles. They stacked what they had in the fridge, and stashed the rest in the bottom cabinets nearby, while Drin flopped down in a clinic chair as if he had been visiting there for years. Asked the cute volunteer lady out there in the next room what they needed for next week, writing down notes like he owned the damn place. Hell, maybe he did. He was the one who bought all the stuff going into those houseboats next door. He was not hurting for investment money or places to park it, that was plain enough.

But he’d done time soldiering in some nasty places, judging by the way he kept his wallet, how he kept his hands free and how he didn’t wear any watch or rings. It was obvious in how he moved, how his eyes constantly checked things out. He was always watching the windows and doors and who had their hands in their pockets. He had eyes like a mercenary. Or some weird kind of cop, come to think. Dance’s husband being some kind of undercover spook, now that’d be a laugh. Military, at least.

It suddenly made some kind of sense that his partner Emma was not just that nice chatty librarian lady with lovely blue eyes. More like gun bluing, in Keisha’s opinion. A very pretty finish on a thick chunk of steel. How many people were ice-cold enough to measure their lover while he’s turning into an alien and screaming in horrible pain? Measuring him and writing notes. Doctor Alexander seemed to be grateful for it. He was a scientist, too, he didn’t see it as a sign of serious mental malfunction.

What was wrong with these people? Keisha asked herself grimly.

Drin seemed like the most human, but she was beginning to wonder. The eyes didn’t fit with the easy way he talked to everybody. But it did fit with the way all that expert authority was laid down so lightly that most people didn’t feel the effects on them at all. They just swerved off into new directions like it was their idea all along to go out and fetch back more cases of drinks, instead of annoying the pretty black lady receptionist with the feathers on her arms.

When Drin looked off into the room she was in, dimmed down so Seung could sleep, his gaze was cool and thoughtful and remote. The warmth, the affection, the jokes, all set aside. The guy underneath was not sentimental. He decided what needed doing, and he got it done. His own partners took up whatever human being was left in there. The remaining parts whirred around in calculations, and they were full of extra bits most people didn’t have. Scary bits, some of them.

The little timing wheel that considered whether some of his tasks required him to take Seung over permanently instead of borrowing sometimes, for instance.

No,
the decision came down, from that look.

Power requirements? Stature in the community? Conflicts with a different naga handler besides himself?

No.

He was just not interested in the flashy kind of power that mastering two nagas would give somebody in this community, or any other. Not his thing. Can’t be bothered. Too showy.

Oh, he could grab onto Seung, just take him over, fuck him through the mattress and make him like it, just like Dance. She’s seen the little flicker of interest, the stir, of course Drin likes looking at Seung. All those boxing muscles? That strange quick mind? Hell yeah, he likes all that. Seung would have very little to say about it. This guy had so much grip he could warp Seung into anything he wanted, and Seung would still end up better off, more comfortable. Oh yeah, Drin could find ways to accommodate the little things, like sex. They’d figure it out. Make Seung really happy.

But he was not going to do it.

Maybe Keisha should give up Seung for his own good. Just hand him over to Drin, tell him who his new master was, and take off. Responsibility over. It was not like Seung could follow her. Well, not right away. Seung would be so much better off with them than with her, and they all knew it.

Keisha ought to open her coward mouth and beg him to take on Seung, give him over to the guy, and please take Peach too, while he was at it.

But she didn’t move, and neither did he.

It made her suddenly furious.

Seung deserved better than she could offer him. So did Peach, dammit.

But no, Drin wouldn’t take him. Wouldn’t take Peach from her, either. Oh, he was probably sure that it’d be safer for everybody all round if he did command both of these Black Ops Nagas. It’d be a public service. Maybe he should, too. God knew the military would think so. But he was not going to do it.

Drin was not going to make Seung change his mind.

Cats choose their masters.

Seung chose her. It was called free will. Her naga, nobody else’s. That was it. Game over.

He could.

But he won’t.

The Emperor’s thumb goes downward.

Keisha looked at the guy with the tiger-yellow eyes, and she decided that she was taking her own crew somewhere else as soon as she could. But she was going to learn as much as she could before she left. She might need it.

Heat Coming On

“Okay, there’s the breakers in that locker behind the bedroom door, and there’s the last closet, and the bathroom’s right handy here,” Emma said. She rummaged in her purse. “I’ve got the name of the service here where you call them and they come empty the sewage from the tank underneath between the boat pontoons–”

“We’re good,” Keisha said. “Let me go get Seung settled here, get him comfortable, and then I’ll be ready to fall over too.”

Emma looked up at her. “Do you need help pushing him up from the clinic?”

“Nope, me and Peach got it, but thanks. We got plenty left from lunch, thanks to you, so we don’t need to work on dinner.”

“Is that enough meat for Peach? I wasn’t sure if she liked crawfish–”

“Oh yeah, she’s fine with it, she gets hungry she eats,” Keisha said firmly. “You go on home and get your boys settled down, you’ll need some rest, from all I heard.”

Emma looked up at her, surprised.

“Goin’ in to heat,” Keisha said. “Dance told me some. I think I got some idea what we’re lookin’ at, over here, and I guess sleep don’t come into it that much.”

Emma sighed, and nodded “You call if you need anything.”

“I will,” Keisha said, and closed the front door.

“Nice lady,” Peach said, munching on something from a carton of leftover Vietnamese takeout food. “Smell good.”

Trust Emma to know where to find a grungy little shack in town where they sold pho and heart-attack-hot stir fry and weird shellfish–the kind of place that was only open when the guy got back from fishing.

“Yeah,” Keisha said.

“Smell like lots of petting Dance,” Peach said. “And Drin. Smell good. Oooh, lots petting.” And she ran her hand up her thigh, smiling up at Keisha.

“Oh, like her boys are really happy getting petted?” Keisha said.

“Yeah.” She nodded, grinning. “Lots washing, lots fucking, lots latex.”

“Do you like getting petted too, mama?”

“Mmm,” Peach said, and offers her sticky mouth up for kissing, too. They knew Seung was waiting impatiently at the clinic to be hauled back to a proper bed, but it didn’t, for a few moments, matter. Not when Peach’s legs were sliding along Keisha’s hand, and Peach was rubbing herself ecstatically into Keisha’s thigh. “Like you fucking me so much,” Peach whispered, licking at Keisha’s mouth and jaw and neck and downward. Keisha was suddenly not tired at all.

Keisha lifted Peach’s pert furry little fanny up onto the bare kitchen counter, yanked those cute pink new panties down in about ten seconds flat, and her kitty gal was squirming happily out of her bra, yowling, when Keisha stopped and blinked.

“Christ, what am I thinking? We got Seung waiting for us. Drive him nuts, smelling this when he wasn’t there. No, no, stop. Get dressed. I’m gonna make you very happy, little miss, but you get the clothes on right now, and we’ll see about making Seung like petting too.”

She grinned, and squirmed. Her tail thumped the counter emphatically, all five inches of it.

“You know Seung loves petting you,” Keisha reminded her, and Peach brightened up.

“I like petting Seung’s pussy,” she said.

“Yeah?” Keisha grinned at her. “Does he like you petting his stuff?”

“Lots! He show me, he gets pussy like us too,” Peach nodded. “He say his stuff stay inside pussy. Do cock grow inside my pussy?”

“I don’t think so, mama. I think you’ll just have that nice woman-button in front of your vagina, like I showed you. Hop down.”

Peach sighed, and shoved her feet in the new sandals, and pulled up her clothes again. Her tail wiggled around in her pants. It was enough to make anybody long to get them all off again instantly. “I like kissing pussy and button,” Peach said. “And Seung’s cock. Smell good.”

Keisha grunted, and locked the front door with the keys Emma gave them. Those keys, and accepting the credit card from them–from Drin–that was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. Drin assured her that the card was safer to avoid drawing attention from Seung’s ex-bosses, so they couldn’t track where Seung was. When she argued for leaving as soon as Seung can sit up for four or five hours, to widen their search radius, Drin agreed, looking worried. He said they’d work on finding some other places that might be safe for them to visit for awhile. Maybe the horse farm, to start off. Like everybody else, he was convinced that Fozzie’s outrageous wife was her aunt Lacey. Ridiculous.

“Okay, enough kissing, time to walk now,” Keisha said, and tugged Peach’s clothes back into order.

Seung was not in any shape for anything much when they got him home and got him washed up and they finally rolled him into bed. It was impossible to avoid seeing what happened to his ass and his back. On the gurney he could only turn on his side, curled up in something like a fetal position, because he couldn’t get comfortable. There was a bandage over the ragged hole between his shoulder blades, in the meat fairly high up his spine, and from what she had seen under the dressing, Keisha could tell the scar tissue will make it look like he’d been shot. And there was that tail growing off his ass, pushing out between the round bulgy muscles of his buttocks. It was about the size of a toy snake. It glittered and twitched and curled, jerking up off the sheets as if it hurt to lay on one side too long.

“Peach, wouldja get me that lotion, we’ll try that first,” Keisha said. She had taught Peach how to put the lotion on without wasting any of it. The sigh they got from Seung was reward enough. Peach had to spend awhile washing the stuff out of her fur, and by the time she came back to the bedroom, humming like a kid, Seung had rolled happily onto his stomach, hogging most of the queen-sized bed and all of the pillows, and he’d gone right to sleep. Such a guy thing, sprawl out, arms and legs everywhere. She could tell the tail will be everywhere too.

“Okay, Peach mama, we are going to sit here on the chair and sort out where we’re putting the laundry basket and you can just put all those nice new clothes into the hamper right now. Every last stitch. No, not the sandals.”

Peach giggled at her own joke.

“C’mon, stop teasing, into the shower with you, mama,” Keisha said, with a light smack on the butt.

“Do I get my tail grow like Seung?” Peach asked her while they’re washing under the blessedly cool water.

“Well, I don’t think so,” Keisha said. “You think you’d be okay with it if you did grow more tail?”

“Oh yes! Seung’s tail so pretty, I kiss it, make tail so happy. Seung come in his clothes. Tail and him all fall asleep,” Peach said, dancing in place and singing some kind of kid-TV song. Something about a big blue bear in a big blue house.

Keisha blinked. “Kissing it made his tail feel better?”

“Pretty tail,” Peach said, nodding. “Make me so happy, Seung not hurting, sleep good.”

“Peach, you are so nice,” Keisha said, and kissed her. “You find anything that makes it stop hurting, you tell me about it, right?”

Peach hugged her. “I run tell you.”

“Do you know anything else makes him stop hurting?”

Peach stopped scrubbing soap under her breasts and thought about it. It was a very distracting sight. “No hurt when Seung come, I suck him and sit on his cock. We careful on his back.”

“When was that?” Keisha said, a little sharply.

“We careful, promise,” Peach said. “Not yesterday, before yesterday. You busy, umm, buy clothes? I use rubber, make Seung happy. Not hurt.”

“Yeah, I think he’d walk over broken glass and not notice it when he’s fucking,” Keisha agreed, wryly.

“Broken glass baaad,” Peach said, frowning, and then she cracked up into laughter at the look on Keisha’s face. “I joke you! I joke!”

“It’s a great joke,” Keisha said.

Peach dropped the liquid soap bottle and the washcloth and flung her arms extravagantly around Keisha and leaned into her. “You make me happy.”

“I know, mama, you make me so happy too,” Keisha said, and hugged a pile of wet, shedding, furry girl.

She knew it was a mistake, but she did it anyway, and paid the price. Loose fur came off on her everywhere. It was like wallowing in a horsehair blanket.

At least Peach was happy about getting washed. She couldn’t reach everything with her mouth, the way a true cat would do to groom itself, although Keisha had seen her lick her forearms to soothe herself when she was nervous. Her skin still sweated like an ape or a monkey or a human, so she needed to bathe. A bath was still a festival of hair in the towels. “Gaaaah.” Keisha rinsed off her face hastily.

Emma and Keisha both nodded in agreement over buying a hair trap for every drain in the place, but Keisha was the one who will have to keep up with it.

“I fuzz you!” Peach exclaimed, laughing, with her hair all pushed every which way, and the longer fur on her scalp pointed like a kewpie doll’s, laughing.

Keisha looked at her. “And I’m gonna towel you dry within an inch of your life!”

Peach shrieked and darted out of the bathroom, laughing. Tickling was involved. Towels were used with total abandon. But Peach proved to like the new hair dryer a lot. She pranced around singing to it as if it was a microphone, making silly echoey noises with it and striking silly poses. She was very funny. And loud. Keisha saw Seung wake up for a moment, eyes barely open, and then he closed his eyes and went back to sleep, but he was smiling.

Keisha had the feeling she’d be buying a lot of hair dryers in the future. Probably track her by a trail of hair dryer purchases everywhere they go. Keisha took the time to teach Peach not to leave it in a puddle of water, how to turn it off, and how to unplug it safely, and she was doing it all right so far.

Thank God that Peach remembered how to do things once she was taught.

Peach was the one who solemnly cleaned out the bathtub hair trap, who gathered up all the towels and threw them into the little apartment-sized washing machine and carefully poured in soap and set the machine to running, the way Emma showed her. She looked incredibly cute and very naked and the late afternoon light caught gorgeous tints of steel blue on her fur. There were darker gray stripes along the five-inch stub of her tail. Her head-hair was still sticking up like a kewpie-doll’s, too.

“Good,” Keisha said, and held out her arms. “Get your comb and c’mere, mama, and get a kiss for being so helpful. You remember how to run the clothes dryer too?”

Peach sat on the chair between her knees, snuggling up into Keisha’s shoulder. “I do,” she said.

Keisha started using the light plastic comb, making her wriggle with pleasure. Holding things hurt Keisha’s hands, and she did it anyway.

“Ohh, ooh, there, itch,” Peach said, presenting herself this way and that, until her fur was totally dry and gleaming and beautiful. Using conditioner for afro-hair was one of Keisha’s more inspired ideas. She suspected that Peach was getting allergic to the cheap soap they’d used on the road, and in the clinic.

“I think you came out gorgeous,” Keisha said, satisfied. By that point Peach was lolling in her arms, totally relaxed. She gave a yawn, tongue curling. Keisha sighed, and poured her into bed along with Seung, and went to dump the wads of combed shed hair in the trash. Then she threw the clean wet towels into the dryer, and threw out more wads of hair from the washer’s tiny lint trap. She was pathetically grateful to have the dryer. She’d heard people complaining how things didn’t dry out when they were hung on a line down on the bayou; they just fell apart in the dripping humidity. Emma warned her she had to to turn their clothes in the closet and wash them every few weeks and put them on open shelving or they’d mold in place.

She was beginning to believe Emma meant it when she said taking care of Dance in the early days was a full-time job by itself. Figuring out how to handle the technical problems was going to keep her asking nosy questions as long as she dared to stick around this bayou.

Keisha flopped in the chair, leant her head back, and watched her two partners sleeping. The knot in her throat ached. What was she thinking, promising them that things would be okay? She should leave them here and take off, remove her unsafe presence, go do something about hurling that damn laptop about 100 fathoms down.

The simplest things became a huge obstacle when she didn’t know who Seung’s bosses were, or what their resources were. She and Emma and Drin went round and round on whether it was safe to reveal her identity by checking into her old online resources. They said wait. They were waiting to hear from somebody else down the bayou who was gone, who’d left to go talk somewhere to some group called the Knights who could maybe bring in some medical resources to help Doctor Alexander in this place.

She could just go on the run, or she could wait and take these two with her once Seung healed up, but how smart was that? God help her if either of them got hurt out there, away from this place. How the hell did Alexander fiddle his records at the clinic so he avoided revealing this patient had a tail like an anaconda and didn’t even show up on X-rays? Or that one had retractable claws, a rough tongue like a cat, and incisors about about half the size of a baboon’s?

How in hell would she get any other doctor to do it?

But she made promises, and there they were, sleeping. Both of their tails were curled in the same curve on the sheets. There were birds calling outside and water slapping and the drone of cicadas going and the sound of somebody, distantly, singing.

The way it echoed, she wondered if the singing might even be Dance, down there at their houseboat on the other side of the clinic. Sounded like he was yodeling or singing opera or pig-calling or some damn thing. It was sure not your average folk-singing hoedown stuff. Keisha looked at Seung in alarm. Was he going to start doing noisy stuff like that?

There was absolutely no doubt whatever that Praise the Lord and pass the hosannas, somebody was getting laid, and was really truly happy about it in a big way. And he was getting louder.

People said he could get really loud, but nobody warned her that he could frighten the frogs into silence– Christ, did he do that when he was– oh shit, he does.

Keisha grinned. Oh yeah, there he goes. Push him off the cliff, and hear him howl.

Emma was just going to die when she got kidded about it later on. Keisha has an idea or two about the locals, now she’d met a few of them, and she knew the sheriff, Tee Pom, will tease them about it. Tee Pom would tease anybody about it. He’d teased Keisha about it, warning her about what to expect.

But damn, that man sounded like he was having a good time falling off that cliff.

Due Process

Grace’s pleated paper fan rustles.   Beside her, Dance is humming, one hand describing circles on the beat.  A few couples are still on the floor even with canned music, reluctant to let the evening end. She’s pleased to see that Coral and Tee Pom are among them, and Coral’s smiling.

“Hey, hey, Michel my love!” sings out a cracked old woman’s voice among the faces. Grace knows the man who Maman Cardoza is greeting; but the smuggler’s face is unusually somber as he comes into the room. He’s a wizened sun-leathered little old swamper, and tonight he’s in muddy camos, not one of his fancy fais-do-do suits. “Hey, Maman,” he say, holding out his hand. He speaks to her in Spanish as comfortably as he spoke Cajun French to some of the older guys by the door when he came in.

Maman Cardoza frowns impressively and speaks aside to her son in a rattle of consonants. Bert Vargas nods to his mother, then his buddy Ricardo murmurs agreement, and they pick up lamps and a compressor from the heap of gear at one side of the stage, and they go outside with it.

Dance stops humming.  He goes still, head tilted as if he’s listening to something.

Tee Pom abruptly stops dancing with Coral. He gestures mildly for her to have a seat, and kisses her. Then he goes over to the knot of people, his face blank and relaxed, which is the deputy at his most dangerous.  Michel speaks to him with a gesture toward the door, and then both men are crossing the floor to Dance and Grace.

Michel bows to Grace, and then he shakes Dance’s hand lightly. “Will you look at all these pretty ladies! My my!  I hate ruining a good party, I surely do.”

“What’s the trouble?” Grace asks.

Michel shakes his head, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “Mister Dance, I think maybeso you and Tee Pom ain’t goan’ like what we brung round in my truck. Me and my boys, you know, we heard a few things, then we found this guy on the bayou road by the dog kennels.”

Grace isn’t sure what signal gets passed, but Dance’s husband Drin is drifting into range without a word said.

“Creepy, like. I mean, we know it ain’t Dance, first time we saw him, but he do look like–”

Tee Pom looks at Michel and says a few words in Spanish, and he gets a nod from the old guy. “Where’s your boys, Michel? Don’t tell me you brought in this crazy man by yourself?”

Michel gives a wide grin. “Dobro and Sneakers, they sittin’ on him with a few guns. Got him all wrapped up in duct tape.”

Grace has seen Michel’s boys get busy on bug raids. She’s seen them coolly choosing for range, plucking one gun and then another out of the welded racks slung inside the truck bed walls. They wrestle gators for weekend shows in town, and work traplines on weekdays. Michel’s grand-daughter taught Tangerine how to shoot at competition-level.  So nobody gets too fussy about all the firepower racked in their trucks. Tee Pom has been known to mutter against Michel and his Wile E. Coyote smuggler’s tricks.  Michel’s bunch think it’s funny as hell when they get to bring in something and report to Tee Pom because they’re on the same damn side, for once.

“You wanna bet that your buddy Hyphen can get the drop on those boys, even with a serious duct-tape handicap?” Tee Pom says to Dance.

“Don’t know, if he’s still pinned in human form,” Dance says.

“Not in the shape he in, all drunk off his mind. You hear him, all his cussin’ and yellin’?”

Dance tilts his head again, as if he is listening to something, half-distracted.

“You ain’t gonna have Emma get out them cable ties again, are you?” Tee Pom says, exasperated.

“You could bring along your handcuffs, if you like,” Dance says, smiling a little.

“For all the good it’ll do me, huh?”

Michel puts out one hand gently, touching Dance’s arm. “You and Tee Pom, let me know when you done with that piece of merde, then I take you down and show you where we caught him trying to lay off that poor lil girl’s body. He was pro’ly going to weigh her down in the fastest current in the Rainette,” Michel says, with a wave of his hand, the expert smuggler disgusted by such amateurish efforts. “You ever heard something so dumb?”

What?” Tee Pom hisses.

“One of them hungry street gals from NOLA, from the look of her poor lil feet,” Michel says. He waves again. “Don’ worry, we took pictures before we lifted her out. She’s over at the doctor’s clinic, waiting for a look-see. All needle tracks up her arms, sad lil thing.”

Oh shit,” Tee Pom growls. Then, “And stop grinning like that, Dance, I don’t need that right now, I purely don’t.”

He’s right. It really isn’t a smile.  It reminds you about the fangs in there. Grace looks away. She knows and likes Dance too well to watch him like this. She doesn’t like seeing any of her friends gear up for bug battles.

“I think you’ll want Preacher to sit in with you on questioning this one,” Drin says. “If he’s the one we think–”

“Right.”  Tee Pom gives him a wild-eyed look, and keeps walking toward the door. He moves stiffly, which means he’s already so mad he can hardly see straight.

“Tee Pom,” Drin says gently, “This man is innocent until proven guilty.”

“Oh yeah, due process. … Let’s get started before some damn fool goes smarting off out there.”  The deputy charges out towards the truck lights.

It’s clear that even if the gentleman in restraints managed to get himself upright, he’d have trouble getting through the crowd of gawkers. Currently his feet are hanging awkwardly over the end of the truck bed—the truck’s net tailgate has got tossed aside—and he’s laying on his back making a lot of noise.

Dobro is holding their prisoner’s wallet in his big crooked left fist and some sort of machine pistol in his right fist.  Tee Pom accepts the wallet, goes through it in a leisurely, thorough way. Sneakers yanks over a backpack, gesturing, and Tee Pom looks that over too. He gets that scary still look on his face when he opens a baggie with pictures in it, and he doesn’t let anybody see what’s in the pictures before he puts the baggie back in the backpack. Tee Pom just says, “You ready to swear to the chain of custody on that thing? It never left left your control?”

Dobro stutters a word or two, shrugs, and fidgets with his pistol instead.

Sneakers frowns at his brother, then at Tee Pom. “Wanda kep’ a good eye on it for us. You could swear her in. She give it up just now, you saw her walk off, she want a soda.”

Tee Pom nods. “Wanda’s good. She speaks up fine. Plus, she ain’t got your sorta court records to show off.”

Sneakers just laughs. He is sitting comfortably on the truckbed sidewall, a shotgun in one hand and a large flare pistol in the other.  He’s found it effective against certain sorts of bugs.

The prisoner begins speaking in a hoarse, exhausted voice, switching into more than one language.  Grace thinks that only one person there may have a hope of understanding him. Repeating himself, over and over, slurred.

“Some of this language right now–I think it may be Russian?” she says.

“Yes, he’s speaking Mat. It’s a very profane slang. Oh, the surprise,” Emma says, appearing out of nowhere.  She strokes the tip of Dance’s tail.

Drin gives her a flat look. “Something about finding girls before they die.”

“Yeah,” she says grimly.

Dance nods. “In Korean too.” He steps up to the end of the truck, with his tail rolling in agitated tight little sidewinder loops the way it does when he’s on a raid, poised to snap up in any direction. He speaks in a language that sounds quite different from Hyphen. Even to strangers who don’t understand any of it, it’s perfectly clear that the prisoner was using street slang and Dance is an educated man using a cool, crisp, precise scholarly diction.  It’s as surprising out here as hearing a Brit using the Queen’s received English.

Hyphen practically levitates in place, jackknifing off the end of the truck and landing balanced on his feet in the dirt. He’s shouting, almost vomiting words, with his face going violently red and his shoulder muscles straining in the duct tape bonds. He staggers from one foot to the other, teetering about awkwardly with his shins taped together.

“He wants somebody to find where two women are being held prisoner by bug troops.  He is saying this might be in a shed or outbuilding near boats near that kennel on the bayou road.”

Other Truck

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

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

Peach shook her head. “Other truck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” Keisha rasped.

“Guy says his name’s Seung.”

Silence.

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

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

“Good,” Keisha agreed.

“Anything you want?”

“Down the lights,” Keisha said.

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

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

Peach whimpered softer.

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

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

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

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

And they did. Eight of them, by God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I took the truck. Had to.”

“How come?” Tee Pom asked.

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

“You know who shot him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gurney to The Clinic

“I hear you been giving it away with both hands, as the Good Book says you should do,” Preacher says, walking up the parking lot slowly, hands wide, “but of course some of them guys down at the co-generation plant are goin’ crazy trying to figure it out.”

“Had to put it somewhere,” Dance says, trying not to let his canopy tremble with exhaustion.  H wants to leave it to Preacher.  He wants to pitch forward on his face and sleep too.  But he needs to guard, translate, explain what he’s done.  He waves at the man on the ground. “He helped me do this. Couldn’t– couldn’t manage by myself. Too much of it.”

“Ours not to question the blessings of the Lord!” Preacher’s white teeth show in a grin. He looks down at the unconscious man still tied in the duct tape.  “I guess he really wanted a good hard rest for awhile.”

“He was in great pain.”

“Oh yeah. We’ll check on it, me and Doctor Alex. You know, we’re gonna need you on hand in case he wakes up. Just keeping an eye on him until we’ve got him assessed and properly sedated, right?”

Dance sighs. “Yes.  He’s got some crazy cocktail in him.”

“Doctor will have to guess how soon that comes out of his system.  We’ll get a sample, get somebody to run it down to the lab, get some analysis on it tomorrow.”

“I can taste him, maybe help. We have to sniff pills Doctor has, smell what’s in them, to compare.”

“Are you sure you want to-”

“Yes!” Dance says fiercely, “My brother!”

“And thou shalt be his keeper. We used one gurney for the poor lost soul– I think we need one for you as well, my friend.”

“I can walk…” Dance says, and then realizes that he cannot in fact move a muscle.

“Uh huh, brother, you ain’t been home in there for a bit, have you?  Give y’self a moment,” Preacher says, and grins.

“No rush,” Drin says.  “Let’s get him some of that water, huh?”

He hears Grace’s soft voice, asking, ordering, and receiving mumbled male answers.  ‘Toine assures her it should be safe to start the generator again.  Her pen is scratching out notes.  She sounds so assured and authoritative, such a change since the days of the Storm.

The lights go back on in the building, with a distant thunk of circuit breakers. The energy fields around him have ramped down so smoothly he hadn’t noticed, but he feels their lack as if a solid support has been removed. Drin is next to him, gripping his shoulders, saying something to Emma about the shape of Dance’s canopy.

Preacher kneels beside the guy in the duct tape on the ground. Dance is amused to see that he’s got those big scissors from Emma’s purse in his hand. “I want to cut that tape off him so the doctor can get a better look at him.” Turns Hyphen on his side, adjusts his head in textbook first aid style. The man’s eyes flutter a moment, and he sighs, and fades back to sleep again.

“Have you got restraints?” Emma says, purse swinging.

“The gurney does, Miss Emma.” Preacher works deftly opening the wrappings of silver tape and the fabric it adhered to, like a shell. The unconscious man will not lay back, cannot be uncurled; Preacher moves him more comfortably onto his side. The truck lights show a green and black and purple knot bulging out of the heavy upper slopes of Hyphen’s back, as big as a fist, with the skin split in small cracks and little runnels of crusted blood stained into his shirt.

“This is his problem,” Dance tries to explain. “His pin…”

“We will see what can be done for your brother,” Preacher tells him, and the gurney is trundling away down the cracked asphalt, surrounded by wary, solemn men.

“I need to go with them–” Dance says, and makes a face at the canopy still inflated around his head and shoulders. He’s never getting in the clinic door like that.

“Speed drain,” Emma says.

“Very speed please, I want to be there.”

“Of course, love, where else would you be?” Her hands are warm and settling. Dance brushes tired tears away like a petulant child.  “Let’s unfold it all the way first, fold it up right.  Here, folks, if you want to help, hold the tip out there–”

Once the canopy is pleated back down with the help of many hands, Emma walks along slowly with him.

He catches Tiny’s scent, and the big guy opens the door to the clinic for him, bowing. That means Dance has to crack his eyes open, since the zoomorph speaks visually. This is not a limitation that Doctor Alexander must deal with, however.

“I am not doing surgical intervention on a spinal infection with no tools and no general anesthesia, no skilled anesthetist and no idea even what kind of biology I’m working on!”

“You have Dance’s medical records,” Drin says patiently, one hand bracing Dance’s shoulder.

“Strangely, I also have no trust in assuming that Dance and this patient are that much identical as twins or clones or some kind of crappy lab-built anomalies. No thank you!” the good doctor says.

The other men are watching as if it’s a pingpong match, but Emma sighs. It’s a very matriarchal, cut-the-bullshit sort of sigh. “Obviously something triggered Hyphen’s system to kick his naga pin out. I took out the fragments of Dance’s– his skin hadn’t begun developing yet, it was just regular skin, no slide coat armoring. It’d be interesting to know when Hyphen’s pin started moving, get a clue what knocked it loose.”

Dance settles one haunch tiredly onto the edge of a counter, sagging in place. “He is in very great pain, and we all are in some danger while his back looks like that.  The power box, it will overload again.”

“Emma, are you thinking it’s like these notes you wrote on Dance’s pin?” Doctor Alexander says fiercely, flapping a sheaf of papers bound into a file.

“Probably very close,” Emma agrees. Her voice is as cool and relaxed and distant as Drin gets, when his older self surfaces. “So maybe I can talk you through visualizing it, or draw you some quick diagrams, whichever will be quicker for you to get going on surgery. Yes, I had some schematics pop up in my head when we removed Dance’s fragmented pin. But those plans were for some later, tamer version, not quite the same shape they put into these Black Ops Naga guys. The bits we took out of Dance’s back were so broken up it never mattered. I suspect the pin’s shape was circular maybe to anchor it, not just releasing inhibitory materials from the inside of the pin.  But it was merely wedged into the cartilage between vertebrae. I think it never encircled anything. Maybe it was originally tethered to something, I couldn’t tell. The pin certainly wasn’t latched around any nerves or bones at that point.”

Dance shivers. The memory of his partners cutting fragments out of his skin is a little blurred now, thankfully.

Doctor Alexander nods, pulls out paper, hands her a pen jerkily. “Draw it out for me, then I can decide better on this. Do you have any idea what kind of anesthesia might keep him quiet?”

“I believe Preacher using yoga-style calm is your best bet, maybe with a topical to numb the surface and the upper muscle tissue,” Emma says absently, frowning as her hand scribbles frantically. “None of us know if Dance could generate a sedative for him that wouldn’t knock out Dance himself right alongside Seung.”

“It was hurting me, of course,” Dance offers. “But this… is bruises all inside, and I can smell the infection. It is going to kill him if we don’t get it all out, I think.  So his pain now is not what you should worry about.”

Emma draws in a deep breath. “No. We need to worry about how dangerous he is.”

Dance shrugs again. If he held out his open hands, they could watch him shake.

Road Warriors

There wasn’t even a scream.

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

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

She finished putting Dan’s coffee in his holder.

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

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

Thump. A big one.

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

Keisha had the Luger out in plenty of time.

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

Keisha shifted with her right hand full of 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 floorboards. 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 her Captain’s voice 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 turn-offs 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?

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.

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.