Morning Tutorial

When she opened her eyes in the morning, she felt Peach in a warm lump behind her, but she saw him first. He was sitting on a chair by the window, naked, looking out through a gap in at the side of the curtains. Just watching things, alert. She noticed the wet clothes had been moved around to dry better. He blinked then, and yawned, and sprawled back at a weird angle in the chair, probably to ease pressure on his back. But no, it wasn’t just that. He reached down and shifted his balls out of the way and grabbed that little stub down at the base of his spine and moved it into a different position, looking down at himself and grimacing. Then he lifted his head and looked directly at her. “Dry up, not stay wet,” he said.

“Yeah, especially in this kinda muggy heat we’re gonna get,” she said, blinking at him.

He slapped one hand on his knee, and moved his legs wider for her to see. He pointed at it. “Grow.”

Keisha looked at him. “You’re sure.”

He nodded. He held out his fingers in a span two inches wide, and said, “Last week.” Then he pointed at it.

“Last week?”

“Kinda hurt,” he said, tipping his head back. “You lick, that grow and not hurt.”

Keisha grinned at him. “I bet,” she said.

He held up one hand. “True. Never not hurt, magic Keisha fix, all better.” And that cock of his was unfurling already, showing itself off, too. Most guys she knew on the big side were all queer bottoms, and she was wondering a bit about those invitations to get at all of him, but he sure did like woman smell and woman juice and woman bodies.

Keisha chuckled. “You keep thinking that way.” She turned her head. “God, five-thirty am, what is the matter with me, sleepin’ in that late?” But she sat up, and reached over to pick up one of the the little packets scattered in the dresser drawer by the bed. “Okay, bring me your horny old self, and let’s teach Peach about rubbers. I got me a boy to maul and a truck to load and I ain’t got a lot of time to get out of here before regular people notice.”

Peach sat up, yawning, and blinked at the proceedings. She was enthusiastic about joining the foreplay, and her tongue was amazing on Keisha’s body. Neither of them even had to touch the Chinese guy, he came up hard and ready the moment Keisha flung the blankets aside and guided Peach’s mouth down between her legs. “Yeah, that’s it, momma, oh, easy, I gotta hold onto it, you’re too good,” Keisha gasped. “Now, get that one–yeah, open it, that’s good, now unroll it a little, see which way it’s rolling. Pinch the tip, and roll it onto your average homegrown penis, which this one ain’t, this is one of your bigger guys here, and roll it up onto his shaft. Easy, like that. You got to watch those nails of yours, though, you poke holes, this condom ain’t gonna help you not get sick or pregnant, and I’m thinking pregnant is not a good one for us right now. You got it, Peach?”

Peach nodded.

The Chinese guy gave a little hiss as Peach leaned up beside him and smoothed the condom up the hard purplish length of him. and rubbed her cute little furry titties on his back.

“Okay, now we get to figure out how to fuck this boy without hurting his back. How about you be a pillow in front of the headboard, Peach, he leans back into you, and I come at him from in front, and we’ll see how that feels. How’s that? All right, here’s the program, my man. We’re gonna get you all hot and bothered and ready to punch out right away, so we don’t keep wallowing on you in the wrong place for long. You got other ideas, you tell us that too.”

He just smiled, settling down between Peach’s knees with Peach’s arms curled around his ribs and his head between her breasts. He gave a big happy sigh. He spread his knees, and Keisha got her mouth down there onto his balls and that ridge and that odd little stub, until he was jerking in place, cock straining in its rubber coating. Keisha rubbed her hand into her own cunt lips, and brought her damp hand up to his face, and he licked her fingers, groaning. Then she brought his knees down and she slid her legs around both his hips and Peach’s hips too. Keisha grasped the head of his cock, and guided him into herself, and sat down on him with a grunt.

Either it was timing or it was fate, because in that moment he fit in all the best ways. She’d had smaller men where it always felt like a dry, painful strain, aiming at some remote ideal in the sky or something that she ought to be ready for, and she wasn’t. Here he was bigger, and he slid in like silk, curving all the right ways, reaching the good spots as he moved. She rocked her hips, wanting it, wanting the whole guy down to the root. Keisha gave a deep sigh of happiness, leaned down and kissed him, taking his mouth, fucking his throat.

When she drew back for air, they were both heaving, unable to stop moving.

God, she gasped to herself, it’s been– too long– She angled her hips to please herself, and then he was moving. Oh man, was he doing it, and not gently, either. She could feel that odd little knob slapping forward too, as if it wanted to get a piece of her ass, and it felt damn good. Startling, but just right. Keisha smiled then, folded up a bit, and brought her mouth down onto his nipple, and felt Peach take up the idea by putting a hand on his other nipple, and stroke all over his torso while she was at it.

Too hot, too young, a virgin getting his cherry popped by two women at once–he was gone, as fast as she’d guessed he might lose it. He strained up in just a couple of minutes, totally silent, nose flaring wide, rigid.  Then he gave a loud snort and a gasp, and then he was falling back into Peach’s supporting hands, grunting for air.

Keisha grasped the rolled end of the condom, pulled her hips up and dragged her hungry unsatisfied cunt off of him, and flopped over onto her back. God, so close, and it’d been so long.

She blinked up in surprise.

He was up on his knees, leaning over her, and he said hoarsely, “Woman needs,” and lowered his head to kiss her on the mouth, and then trail down her breasts, and then down her belly, and down marvelously onto her cunt. He’d been watching what they liked, all right. He used his hands, too. Keisha arched up, yelling. Then she felt Peach leaning in, adding in a line of light kitty nips on her breasts, and then Peach kissed her on the mouth, while their not-so-Chinese man was down there kissing her clitoris. Keisha shook them both all round like a truck with an ignition problem. She couldn’t help it, she had whole-body orgasms. Not noisy all the time, thank God, but she gave her whole physical self over to it, and things moved. When she blinked back to herself, she found she’d wallowed around halfway off the bed.

“Woman needs,” the guy said solemnly, and then he looked at Peach, and smiled. “You?”

Peach giggled. “You lay on me, I come!”

“Wow,” Keisha said, blinking up. “Wha…how come you’re both up and moving?”

“Oh, I all happy for work,” he said. “Last night tired, hurt, sleepy. Not like all days. Other days–” he grinned, and stood up off the bed, looking absurd with the condom hanging off a half-erect penis.

“Okay, that’s good to know. Tell you what. Take that off, throw it away, wash up, and start packing. I think I’ll get a shower when you’re out. Peach, only do that with a rubber, right?”

Peach nodded. “More lick?”

“You still feeling it? Still need licks?” Keisha said.

Peach smiled, and leaned into her. “Happy. You?”

Keisha hugged her. Then she leaned on Peach to sat up, and beckoned at their guy. “C’mere.”

Their not-so-Chinese guy came over and stood by the bed, penis wet but denuded. Keisha looked at it, past it, upward.

He bent over and slid one hand onto Keisha’s loosened trap muscles, and kissed her on the mouth, and knelt down in front of her. He looked into her eyes. “You?”

Keisha looked at him. She nodded, slowly. “That was great licking,” she told him.

His face flashed into a broad smile. “Good teacher,” he said, and leaned in and kissed her again, just because. His arms slid around her waist, hands flattened out on her ribs, and then he was leaning into her breasts, his hips shoved in between her knees.

“Bad as a cat, you are,” Keisha said, raking her fingers through his hair. “Only you need a haircut. God, I could do that all over again, easy, until–”

“Until my wiener break,” he said, chuckling.

“Well, I always was pretty hard on my toys,” Keisha said, hugging him too, carefully.

He kissed her shoulder, and got up, and went off into the bathroom whistling. Peach joined him, and there was giggling. Keisha flopped back onto the bed. They were going to wear her down to a nubbin, they were. God, kids that young, fucking like bunnies every twenty minutes. She ought to make them do it on the floor while she got some sleep for a change. Well, hell, they’d probably end up fucking on the floor anyway, or the couch, or the chairs, or wherever.

And why, when she’d just been pleasured in all the best possible ways, was she daydreaming about seeing the two of them going at it, with their naked rumps in the air, rolling around free and happy and not a back problem in sight?

Meeting Dan’s Boss

“Those pills your boss give you, do you know what it was?” Keisha asked, making one of those long slow turns where the highway climbed into the mist, the white fences ticking by against the bright green turf of Kentucky horse country.

“No, Miss Keisha.” He drew in a deep breath, tipping his chin upward.

“You got papers to be in this country?”

“Oh, green card? The passport? No. Just troops on boat. Boss, he say, you do this thing. Long trip. Sea. Troops not like sea.”

“Huh,” Keisha said. “You gettin’ tired?”

He waved it off, frowning. “You?”

“Yeah, road running, you get tired,” she agreed, with a shrug. “So what’s wrong with your back?”

“Say they fix small part, but no,” the guy said. “Small part maybe break spine, maybe I be no legs, maybe monster.”

“Say what?” Keisha said.

“I show,” he said, setting the gun between his knees. He rummaged in a pocket, pulled out a thin wallet. He pulled out some small photographs, held them out where she could see them. “Like that. I shoot Boss, I take these with boss’s gun too. See, monster. This like me. I go find him, yes?”

Keisha flicked her eyes up at the road, back to the snapshot. Somebody just like this guy was standing next to a pond, holding up fish with both brown hands and with a long silvery snakey tail of some kind. Three weeks ago, there were no cat things in her life.

Another picture got shoved under her nose. Same guy, swimming in the same pond, with little ripples where the tail was coming out of the water. A third one, dim, ass up in some bed where he’s naked and hugging two other people, and clearly everybody was just fine with the tail all over them. Another man and a pale woman in that trio. Too awkward for porn, and too odd for a prank. The prints were beat up, crumpled.

The guy tapped the picture. “Boss say, you take special shots. Not take shots, you turn into that. Say, You go like him. You want your shots, you do what I tell. And pills.”

“Fuck, I’d shoot your boss too,” Keisha said.

“My shots, no more. My pills, no bottle. No name. Baggies, like crack. Like smack.”

“Your boss dealt smack?”

“No, not crack, not smack. Not horse, raw. Black tar bricks. Russia, Burma, Afghanistan. Pallets.”

“Why was he coming over here if he’s based over there–” Keisha asked slowly.

“I no ask,” he said, chin up. “Not know troops. All new.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Keisha said, watching the road. Pallets, the man said.

“You know a lot,” he said coolly, watching her.

She waved it off. “Crap, I’m just hauling a little weed, engine parts, some Havanas– or I was. Nothing that size.”

“What is load of boxes this truck by Dan?”

“Here on the truck? Oh, this. Umm, dry goods for the local groceries for his home folks. Canned tomatoes, stew, beans, that kinda thing. I checked, you betcha.”

She took the curves gently. She saw his face tighten up as the cab jolted. They weren’t maintaining the highways real well out here. She left spaces in between her questions. Driving gave a reason not to talk, made her take some time to think it out before she opened her mouth. It helped.

She said finally, “So what else do you know about those pictures of Mister Tail Guy there?”

He looked at the picture with the other people too. “Mister Tail, he use my family name too, old time ago.”

“Holy– is he a relative? Is he in your family?”

“Nobody know. Not always tail, boss say it grow. He run away. I go find him, yes? See? He got friends.”

“You gonna find that guy?”

“You help me, yes,” he said quietly, looking at her. “You smart. Look hard picture, I tell you what boss say, we open laptop, we go find them.”

“So you want to stick by Peach and me and the laptop, and you want my help to find that guy?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Even if you turn into Mister Tail like him?”

He picked up the gun, held out the stock toward her.

“Now stop that, don’t play games,” Keisha said crossly. “We’re coming up on the only bridge for miles. No other way out, right? Coming up pretty soon. You keep an eye out. They could be waiting on us.”

“Yes, Boss Lady,” he said, and he smiled, and flipped the gun around.

It’s at the third bridge that crosses a slough that trouble shows up. Somebody was waiting for them. Well, about four trucks, actually.

“Hoh shit,” the Chinese guy said, peering around at the mirrors.

The truckers were inspecting traffic from that high point on the levee. When Keisha hauled up onto the levee to make the bridge, they pulled out the trucks into the way. They blocked the damn highway. Just blocked it. Passenger cars screeched to a halt, and four guys with guns–guys riding shotgun, because the drivers were still up in those cabs–directed the little cars into a tight s-curve past their grills.

The Chinese guy leaned to squint at the truck cab windows, trying to make out who was driving. He shook his head.

Keisha looked over at him, who said, “Not troops. Not boss of the guy I shot, not boss boss’s guys.”

“So these are other guys.”

“Yes. Guys I not know.”

The CB crackled in the cab.

Then Keisha saw the name glittering on one of the truck cab doors. The same company name was on the clipboard of invoices Dan left behind.

“Holy crap,” Keisha said, drifting the truck to a halt. She hit the CB button. She winced at the clarity of the voice coming back at her on about six bands, all the ones she pushed the tuner through. Which probably meant more than just four trucks out there. She picked one, picked up the mike, said, “Hi.”

“Yeah, you there with Dan’s truck!” it shouted back at her.

The Chinese guy flinched even worse than she did.

“My name’s Fozzie,” replied the CB on all those channels at once. “I understand somebody started shooting, my guy Dan went down, and you hijacked my truck in a hurry. I understand you shot out a tricked-out pickup what was giving you trouble, too. So I know you brung trouble with you. I can listen to you and we all figure out what to do about it, or I can just put a stop to it right here. Dan was one of the good guys. I ain’t above blowing a truck if I think you murdered him. Get out of that cab, and bring your people out with you. And leave back the gun what done in that gray pickup.”

Keisha said, “Fozzie, I’m Keisha. I got some pretty weird shit going down. You might have heard some from Dan about my kitty gal. So I’m not sure you want this public.”

“Yeah, we know about that. Just come on out, don’t rush things.”

The Chinese guy looked at her.

Keisha told him, “You think you could take ’em all, and maybe you can, but I don’t think we’d get out of here again in a truck, so let’s be quiet, okay? Let’s just step out and talk to the man. Never hurts to talk.”

The guy actually dipped his head to her. It was a bow, almost Japanese-style formal. If it hurt him, it didn’t show. “As you say.” And he opened the door slowly, and left the gun behind as he climbed down to the pavement.

Keisha said, “Okay, Peach, we’re getting out now, just take it slow.”

Peach whimpered. She was afraid to climb down from her perch in the sleepover cab.

“Gimme a minute, guys, my kitty gal is frightened. Just be cool,” Keisha told the CB mike. When she glanced up, she saw her not-Chinese guy crossing in front of their radiator grill, coming around to the driver’s side, empty hands out widely, strolling, cool as a cucumber. When he got to the cab door, he opened it for her.

“Come on down, Peach, I’ll give you a big hug, we’ll be fine, and we’ll have lots more deer meat for you,” Keisha said, reaching up. “Now put your foot down here on the next step, that’s it. Okay. Down you come, mama. All right.”

The Chinese guy looked up at them. “Please come,” he said softly, coaxing, holding out his hand, and Peach came. She clung to Keisha a moment, and then she moved down far enough to take the guy’s hand, climbing down to the road. She shivered. When he put both arms around her and crooned, she put down her head into his shoulder, same as she always did with Keisha.

Peach wasn’t that trusting with anybody a week ago, Keisha thought, surprised.

Gotta give the guy points, he knew from the start how to pet a kitty. He petted the fur on Peach’s shoulders, scritched up her neck, murmuring to her, but all the time he had his eyes up, watching Fozzie’s truckers.

Keisha got her stiff legs working enough to stumble out of the cab, and the guy put up one hand and braced her as well. It couldn’t be more clear. He claimed them both, they were under his protection.

“Okay, Boss Lady?” he said, looking up at Keisha, holding onto her arm.

“I’m good,” Keisha said. “Guess I needed a break from that seat. Wow, I’m stiff.”

A big guy, wide and hairy and about a foot taller than Keisha herself, strolled up to them with a sailor’s wide-legged roll to his gait. He looked pretty stiff from driving too. But he didn’t look like he was armed.

“I’m Fozzy, Dan’s boss,” he said, and nodded to her. Then he looked steadily at Peach. “Well. That’s a new bagheera strain, for sure, Dan was right. Looks like you been feeding her up lately, that’s good. I take it Dan’s gone.”

Keisha took a deep breath. “Yeah, I think so. All happened so fast.”

He nodded. “Coupla my guys caught up to the pickup. You don’t need to worry about them. But that kind don’t work alone. We got some ideas what we’re gonna do with Dan’s truck, pull the rest of ’em outta the woods. Now, what have we got here.” He folds his arms, looking at the dark guy. It’s absurd, the difference in heights. But there was no sense that he thought the shorter man was less dangerous, no sense that Fozzie wasn’t alert as hell to the man’s speed. Fozzie grunted. “I wanna hear your story. You shot out that pickup with a popgun like that?” He nodded at the gun that somebody was holding, taken from the cab of their truck by one of the guys who already had a gun of his own.

“Yes,” said the not-so-Chinese guy, still stroking Peach, holding onto Keisha, poised ready to do something if the shooting started. Keisha had no idea what it might be, just fast.

“Easy there,” Fozzie said to him, and nodded for his guy to carry the gun away. Then he looked down at Keisha. “Why don’t you get your stuff outta the cab, and my guys will make good use of Dan’s truck, while we head off for parts that those pickup guys aren’t likely to think of, being they ain’t local. We don’t appreciate guys comin’ in shooting our drivers and trying to take out our trucks. Can’t be having with that. And we can get some more food into your kitty gal there.” Fozzie looked at Keisha. He knew who decided stuff for them.

“Okay. Okay. I’m Keisha, our kitty gal is Peach.” She held out her hand.

The big guy took it, kissed the air above it like he was Cajun from way back, and murmured something in French.

“And this guy is– umm–” she turned in the firm grip on her arm, and looked at their own guy.

“Seung,” he said quietly. “My handle now, you say.” And he bowed to her, and then to Fozzie.

Fozzie, by God, bowed right back.

“Right, Seung, wouldja mind holding Peach here while I fetch our stuff down?” Keisha asked her own guy.

He inclined his head again, and stroked the base of Peach’s ears gently. “It’s okay, Peach gal,” he murmured, and brushed her cheek lightly with his. It calmed Peach, too. “It’s okay. All safe. All safe now.”

Fozzie nodded, and turned his gaze back to Keisha. Then he glanced back at the other trucks. “Hey, Mike, go help out Miz Keisha, she can hand stuff out to you.”

Dan had not been fooling when he told those stories about animal people. Mike came out of the shadow between two of the trucks where he’d been hiding. Mike had tall wolfish ears and a graying muzzle and yellow eyes. He had something that was less of a beard and more of a mane, and his striped hair ran down into his shirt. His shoulders were massive. Like Fozzie, he was much taller than she was. “Welcome home, Miss Keisha,” Mike said formally, and it sounded a little odd, because the lips on that muzzle weren’t all that mobile and his speech was coming mostly from his tongue and his throat. He held out a hand with fingers that weren’t quite regular, as they had long black clawlike nails.

“Pleased ta meetcha,” Keisha said, gripping the odd-shaped hand carefully. Her gaze went back up to the intelligent eyes.

Mike nodded. “You done the right thing. Let’s get your things.”

While they were moving around, Keisha warned Mike about what kind of jokers might be following her. He just nodded, passing her pathetic little bag of dirty clothes to one of the other guys. Keisha managed to unlock the cabinets and pull out the laptop without making a big deal of it among their bags of groceries, but Mike didn’t comment on any of it. Their stuff got put into a locker on one of the trucks. Mike gestured, and they climbed up to ride in the same truck with Mike at the wheel.

At the passenger-side door, Mike said to Seung, “You can ride shotgun for me, keep an eye on the mirror for the bad guys. Fozzie said you maybe know them?”

Seung said, “Yes. Some. Not all.”

“That’ll help. Yell out if you see anybody like that, Fozzie will get some questions answered.” Then Mike nodded up at the sleepover cab, and said to Keisha, “You and Peach could nap for awhile. Looks like some rest would do you both good. We’ll get you some more game meat for Peach. Fozzie told me, and I think he’s right, that was a damn good idea buying some from Pierre, I’m glad you guys thought of that.”

“Car?” Peach asked, anxiously, clinging to both Seung and to Keisha at once.

“No, mama, it’s okay, you don’t haveta watch for cars. They’re gonna watch for us. You can nap,” Keisha said.

“Sleep,” Seung advised Peach, nodding. Peach was gone up the footholds into the sleepover cab just like that. Upward was easy for her.

Seung looked at Keisha, waiting. Waiting for orders, or permission, or something.

Keisha rubbed her eyes. “I gotta rest. Talk to Mike, see what he knows about that snake guy you’re looking for. You wake me up when you need to fall over.”

Seung nodded. Then he did something odd. He put up his hand and rested it on her shoulder, patted her. “No dreams,” he said firmly. “Just sleep.”

“Oh yeah,” Keisha agreed. And she found herself doing something odd too. She patted him on the arm too, careful not to jolt his sore back. Then she followed Peach upward. She poked her head out briefly, thanked Mike for his hospitality. She was half gone by the time she curled up with Peach warm and furry in her aching arms.

Seung Learns About Sorry

Keisha thought she’d go down like a rock, but she didn’t. She kept jolting awake. She hugged Peach tight, drifting off and coming to, rigid, whenever the two men started talking. Seung spoke softly, lost sometimes in the road noise for her, and Mike’s speech was odd enough that it took a little bit of effort to understand him. Seung had to ask him to say things over sometimes, which helped Keisha get it too. After awhile she wondered if Seung was doing it deliberately, if he heard her shifting around all the time so he knew she wasn’t sleeping.

“Lookin’ for a snake guy, huh?” Mike said, putting the mike back on the CB hook after he spoke to Fozzie, something thick with local bayou names.

“Man look like me,” Seung said bluntly.

“Except the tail?” Mike said.

“Yes.”

“You gonna grow a tail too?” Mike said.

“You do know snake,” Seung said.

“Well, I think so, yeah. Don’t know him real well, just ain’t a guy I’d wanna hang with. Bites people.”

“Bites!” Seung said, shocked.

“Oh yeah, got fangs about this long. Chomp on ya, knock you down in two minutes flat. I saw the marks on a kid. Hadda a good reason, he knocked her out for le bon Docteur Caleb. Kid needed surgery right after the Storm. Compound hip fracture, poor li’l gal. Guess she’s gettin’ around on a cane now.”

“So good bite,” Seung said slowly.

“Yeah, far as I know. He’s one of the good guys, ya know, he goes huntin’ bugs, he can smell ’em a mile off. But hey, I can track him, too. I know snake when I smell it. No offense, man, but that kinda dusty smell, like them rattlesnake dens, makes me go cold all over.”

Mike geared down, took a turn onto a rough, twisty, bumpy road that was paved maybe twenty years back. He turned at the next section line intersection, and again at the next, zigzagging along. He drove more slowly as it got rougher. Dark pine trees closed in on either side, so nothing but trees were visible out of the upper windows in front of the sleeper cab. They were running down a dark, twisting tunnel.

On a straighter longer stretch, Seung asked, “Do smell me snake too?”

“You really want to know?” Mike said.

“Yes,” Seung said.

There was a long silence while Mike negotiated a tight turn. “Yeah. Kinda different, stronger on some stuff, not so much on other stuff. Like smellin’ cousins or something.”

“Thank you,” Seung said, short and curt and quiet.

“You lucky, man,” Mike told him. “He got respect right off. You got him as family, ain’t nobody gonna mess with you.”

Seung said, “People say him a faggot musician. Say tail grow, he run away. My boss got me pills stop tail.”

Mike gave a snort down that long nose. “Well, some of us got born this way from the start, and some of us get a big surprise later on. I ain’t never heard of nothin’ could stop you turning, either. That guy, when he turned, he run away with help. Got him a smart old rich man and a damn hot-lookin’ woman, both at once. Hell, they got style. Your snake guy, he keeps both of ’em busy at night, get that houseboat rockin’ away. Jeez, if that’s faggot, give me some of it. He flirts on both sides a’ that barn door at alla them fais-do-dos when he plays fiddle, and neither of those two even worry about it. You see ’em there, they just smile. Now that hot gal came with him, she is somethin’ to watch. Kicks ass huntin’ inna swamp. You go bug-hunting with them three and you fuck up, she’ll peel your hide off in a coupla fancy words like she’s rippin’ a sharkskin off.” Mike gave a soft whistle, shaking his head.

“Snake choose good,” Seung said.

“Oh yeah, give half the parish wet dreams just watchin’ her walk by,” Mike laughed.

“Nobody say rude to her?” Seung said.

“Oh hell no,” Mike said, dryly, and both of them laughed.

“You’re doin’ even better, you got y’self two gals! Man, lookit that kickass babe and that sweet li’l kitty gal.”

“I like,” Seung said. “They strong. Rip sharkskin, yes?”

Mike laughed again. “Oh, yeah. I seen what them bagheera claws can do, man. You wanna talk about instant filet of gator? Woof, man.”

“Peach just baby, she not talk good, she not know she so cute. Not mess Peach. Nobody mess, right?”

“Oh hell no,” Mike said, sounding surprised. “What you take me for, some kinda short-eye fuckup?”

“What means short-eye?” Seung asked.

“A man in prison for molesting children,” Mike said, enunciating it carefully.

“Oh,” Seung said. “No. You not that fuckup.”

“Okay then,” Mike said.

“Any guys mess Peach, Keisha rip many little pieces, tell me stay back,” Seung said.

Mike laughed. “I bet she would! And stomp on the pieces, man.”

“You like strong,” Seung said.

“I just admire from a distance, believe me. I had sisters, I learned young. I know better than to tangle with them alpha-ralpha-march-it-boys kinda amazons. Too late for you, Seung. Boy, you ain’t even gonna know what hit ya. You are gettin’ done like a steak onna grill.”

“Done?”

“Cooked like a piece a’ meat, well-done headin’ toward crispy black stuff, yeah. She say jump, you already up in the air. She say, buy me this, you gonna buy it. She say, no party this house, you know there ain’t gonna be no party, ya hear me?”

“Pussy-whipped?” Seung said.

Mike roared with laughter. “Where’d you learn that one?”

“Boss had boss with rude,” Seung said.

“If you even get some pussy, you’d be lucky, man. Maybe ain’t gonna get none of that, right?”

“Yes,” Seung agreed. “Sad. Keisha say she like mens, but I only know her and Peach little time, not meet good way.”

“She told you that?”

“Yes,” Seung said.

“Oh, you are so gonna get fried like a big ol’ rack of ribs and chomped,” Mike told him.

“Chomping me okay,” Seung said. He laughed, softly. “I not mind get pussy-whipped from them.”

Mike laughed too. “Seung, you are something else, you really are. You gonna be so sorry, I tell you. You are gonna be cryin’ later.”

“Okay,” Seung said, chuckling. “But happy first.”

“Oh Christ,” Mike said, shaking his head. He started gearing down and down and down.

“Who there? You slow? Why stop for those men?” Seung said, twisting his head around. “Why we stop?”

“Because this is where you learn about sorry,” Mike said calmly, and opened his door with the truck still rolling along slowly. He just let go, stepped out onto the cab’s ladder, and somebody else swung around him into the seat, smoothly. That man was being covered by somebody else on the ladder as well. All Keisha could see was the muzzle of a gun aimed right into her face. It was not aimed at Seung. It was aimed up at the sleeper cab.

“Don’t move,” said the first man, braking the truck to a full stop. He was wearing some kind of dark, brownish camo outfit with cryptic badges and buttoned pockets that bulged. The gear was not cheap, and it was in a fairly new style that’d been used pretty hard already.

Seung looked up, saw Keisha, and blinked once, waiting.

Keisha shook her head minutely.

Seung blinked once again, and looked down at the two men, one hanging by the open door. He didn’t move when the cab passenger door beside him opened, and another gun pointed upward at the sleeper cab. A third gun got close, too, pointed this time at Seung himself. And that gunman was smart enough to use a cross-angle that might take out the windshield, but it wouldn’t hit the new driver or his buddy. They were all dressed in the same uniform, whatever it meant. Some private militia, the assholes. No official clothes like that in this state.

“Your new boss got some questions,” the driver told Seung. “You wanna get out quiet, or you want us to shoot the kitty in the knees first?”

“No shoot,” Seung said. “I get out. No shoot.”

“Good, boss will like that. You go with those guys, do what you’re told, and boss might let kitty gal last awhile longer,” the driver said. The gunman behind him squeezed past him, settled between the seats, without ever losing the bead on Keisha’s head.

Seung looked up, and quickly down again, and climbed out. He was kneeling there on the road, hands on top of his head, when the door swung wide and Keisha lost track of him. She was a little distracted. Two more gunmen got in the open passenger door, one with a machine pistol and the other with a sawed-off shotgun, both aimed upward.

Keisha heard Peach whimper. She put her hand gently over Peach’s mouth, and tapped her shoulder warningly, and Peach fell totally silent.

“We’re going for a little ride,” said the driver, as both of the cab doors were slammed shut from outside. He put the truck in gear and got it rolling again. “You want some new holes, just try makin’ a fuss. Ain’t no never mind to me. Boss might be mad if the real fun didn’t make it to the party, but hey, shit happens.”

After awhile, the driver’s little black tac mike at the shoulder tab crackled some code phrases, and he grunted and stepped on the gas, making everybody sway in place.

Keisha stroked the back of Peach’s head, down her neck, wrapped her arm close around her. Peach buried her face in Keisha’s shoulder.

One of the gunman said, “This goddamn old piece a’ shit ain’t gonna make that kinda time on this road.”

Another growled, “Alla Fozzie’s fleet are old crap. They oughta know that goin’ in.”

“Ain’t askin’ you,” said the driver, and they were quiet. It was a good hour before he stopped making turns and pulled the truck to a stop at a deserted gas station with a tree growing through the roof. “Just set quiet, ladies, we’ll get word soon enough whether you get to play with party favors or not.”

Keisha shifted around to lean up on one elbow, very slowly, and opened her mouth.

One of the guns made that ominous click of the safety being released, and she closed her mouth without saying anything and laid back down again. The safety went back on.

“I like it quiet. Quiet is good,” said the driver. “You gotta pee, just wet your pants right where you are. This old pile of shit ain’t gonna care any more’n’ I do.”

Keisha stroked Peach’s shoulder gently. Then she realized Peach was dragging at her hand. She let her hand be guided. Peach made it into a pointing finger sort of hand, and aimed it, hidden well back of the lip of the bunk where they lay, in the direction of the driver. Then she aimed Keisha’s pointing index finger until it poked at herself, at her own forehead. Keisha tapped her arm lightly to show she understood, and then stroked her shoulder, soothingly. Peach might have limited language, but she was no dummy. If Peach knew the guy driving, that meant either he was with the security who used to keep Peach locked up, or she saw him with those forces who attacked the boat Peach was on. Maybe the bug guys who came with Seung’s late, unlamented boss.

Judging from Seung’s flat reaction, he knew them pretty well. Oh, the questions. Anaconda was back, squeezing her ribs until they ached.

Kinda silly, asking those cosmic questions in her head. Asking if Seung got surprised by Mike’s betrayal, or whether he was in it with them. What chance was there of ever finding out? The rest of them, history. But just let her get a chance to nail Seung’s ass to the floor for some answers.

Now that’d be cosmic justice.

Alligator Wrestlers

Seung knelt in the road and watched the truck roll away. He looked at his new bosses and did not bother to react. No point. Lock it down. He could take them, just take the lot, he saw repeated patterns of openings that would get him loose. Take one of their trucks cross-country. But not with their tac-mikes talking, all the time chattering, putting the two hostages at risk. He was pretty sure Keisha and Peach were not at much risk if he did what he was told. If he did the usual job expected of him, that is. If Keisha could be good, not mouth off, they had a good chance. These troops knew messing up the boss’s meat was their last mistake. They’d dump the two women somewhere to pick up later, extra mice on ice for the boss in case he was delayed and got bored. And hey, if nobody ever came back for them, too bad. There were always more women nobody would care about, the places they went.

It was risky, going in on his own time after the ones he knew were stuffed away somewhere and the boss had moved on. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d crosscrossed some stinking thorny stretch of country, cutting trail over and over until he found where they’d cached the latest extras, trying to get there before the women died of injuries or shock or lack of water. He’d only managed to find them in time once, and that was bad enough he had to think about the risks ever since.

What he had to gamble on was guessing whether the same man who’d been his boss’s boss was still in charge. Seung had shaken things up by killing one of his gang officers. Nobody knew he’d done that, or these guys would have orders to to make him a big messy example at one of the boss’s vacation compounds.

But it didn’t feel right. They weren’t treating him normally. When he shifted on his knees, there were still five gunmen in an arc lined up to shoot him. They ought to be a little afraid of him, yes, as his former bosses’s gravedigger and handyman and junk job bodyguard, but not like that. They didn’t know what’d happened to his boss, which probably made them wonder if that guy had crossed his own boss, no huge surprise. With that guy gone, everything was up in the air. Now they didn’t know where Seung would fall into the new hierarchy. They knew he was worth more than any one single one of them; but they didn’t come as one guy, the way he did. They were interchangeable troops, a larger unit.

“Catch,” said the officer in charge, and tossed a pint vodka bottle at Seung. “Get that down. I got nothing else for your back, and you got work to do.”

Seung nodded, one hand idly stripping the seal off. Booze was better than nothing. He wasn’t sure he could dig for long, the way his shoulders and neck and butt muscles were starting to twitch. It made him twitchier to find out they’d been told about his back hurting, too.

“I’ll give you another later,” the guy said, as if Seung was just another pathetic drunk of a civilian who might see things but he wasn’t going to last long enough to worry about. They dumped those bodies too, sometimes right alongside the girls.

Seung was lying on his side on the ground, after two more pints and a couple of rotations to fresh guards standing over him, and it was getting to be late afternoon, before somebody showed up. There was shouting on the other side of a troop vehicle, and more tac-mikes chattering, and finally they let in the transport he’d been expecting.

He wasn’t even surprised when a rusty stake-sided farm truck rolled up, with a pathetic tarped bundle in the back. The troops in brown pointed, and he climbed in, and somebody threw a backpack at him. There was a shovel in the cords on the outside of the pack, a tatty old bedroll strapped on top, a couple of American MREs in it, a thin roll of fifty dollar bills, and a baggie full of the kind of pictures that’d make the local cops make all kinds of wild assumptions about anybody who was carrying it. The pictures were pretty new, not something the boss came up with. Somebody else’s cute idea to liven things up, maybe.

They’d be right about some of it. Just not the guy who was doing it.

Seung settled down on the truck bed next to the tarped bundle, gave it a pat, and nodded at the other men. They grinned and cleared aside, and the truck rolled away in the same direction as Keisha’s diesel had gone. He let out a short breath of relief.

The truck stopped after a few miles, pulled in at a house, and the driver went inside. Somebody else came out, a sour-looking weather-beaten old guy who glared into the back at Seung, and spat. Then he drove the truck out onto a long winding levee above the water. The way the old guy drove, Seung had to brace up and keep the bundle from sliding all over the truck bed into the other junk in there, paint cans and ladders and chemical drums, to prevent it picking up any more evidence of where it’d been. Seung was pretty sure the old guy was just driving around almost randomly, either killing time or trying to get Seung confused where they were, and it wasn’t working, as Seung recognized passing the same big painted locked box on a brick pillar, with a sign on top, not far from a lot of shabby-looking boats at a rickety old dock. By the third time, he’d worked out that the sign was a bad attempt to show a large fluffy dog. It was nearly dark by the time the old guy pulled up in some trees and parked.

“Get out,” he told Seung, glaring.

Seung looked around. Aside from the trees, there was no cover. He looked back along the road. The only decent place to deal with the bundle was a good distance back down the road, but the guy always sped up when he went along there, so he wasn’t going to stop there.

Seung stood up, got the backpack on, dragged the tarped burden up over that, with the stiffer end of it sticking out forward over one shoulder. Then he jumped down from the truck bed with it, feeling the force of the extra weight in his feet. Then he gave the old man one long look, and a longer look at the truck, and then he started walking, leaning into the load. He heard the truck rev up and pull out in a spatter of gravel and dust, and then he was alone with the thing on his shoulder. He was walking on a nice evening breeze, with the wind off the water, and distant voices coming across the water. People were out there near the picture of the dog, moving among the shabby boats at that dock on the far side of the water. Then he blinked. He saw a row of lights along a truck cab over there. It was the same pattern as Keisha’s diesel. It turned away, and was lost among the trees.

Seung kept walking. Whatever he did, this thing needed to be hauled out of sight and dealt with first, and then he could go check out the place with the dog picture on top of the box, once it was nice and dark. If he could get Keisha’s help, they might take a boat instead of trying to retake the truck or steal a car, and a boat would be very confusing for any pursuers. He thought Keisha would like having a boat again.

He was about three-quarters of the way down the road toward the thicket on the water, when he heard the first engine, and the grating of tires going too fast on gravel. Somebody must have called them. He was walking out in the bald with no cover except the dark water itself. Six or seven pickup trucks came roaring up on him from both directions, cross-pinning him in the headlights. Two of them pulled off the road and lights shone across him from every direction. There were a good dozen semi-autos cocking out there in the dark behind the lights. Somebody called out in French at him, and something whanged like shots ricocheting off a piece of metal in the dark, and somebody else snapped orders in French, and the shooting stopped.

Seung turned slowly toward the voice.

“Ahh, you dumbshit ferriner,” said another voice, younger, from behind him. “Goodammit, what if he don’t speak English either?”

“I speak,” Seung said.

“What in the fucking hell are you carrying?”

“Dead girl. Not know who,” Seung said.

“Sonuvabitch.”

“I put down.”

“Yeah, you do that. Take off the pack. Kneel down too.”

He did all that. He sighed as he knelt next to it. He looked at it, and spoke to the bundle. “Sorry, dead girl, I not lay you down to rest. More travels. Sorry.”

There were mutters in French. At least nobody was shooting yet.

“Open it up. Open that tarp.”

“Not good. Not do. Let police. No mess on proof for police,” Seung told them, sternly.

“Goddamn, crazy as a bedbug inna hot skillet,” the English speaker said.

“No, sorry, not crazy. Want police see dead girl. Proof. Catch boss.”

The insects singing in the hot, sticky darkness seemed very loud, for a long time.

“When did you kill her?”

“I not kill her,” Seung said.

“Then who did?”

“Boss,” Seung said, patiently. He’d never tried this before, but it might get him away from all those guns.

“You see it?”

“No. Not first time.” He had to speak slowly. All that vodka.

More mutters in French, and somebody commanding quiet.

“How bad you want your proof to get to the police?”

Seung stared into the lights, blinded. “Here. I not run. Here she is. Call police.”

“No shit, with fifty ‘leven guns.”

Seung grinned, crookedly. “Old guns. Not machine pistol. Seven revolvers, yes?”

“Okay, okay, I ain’t tryin’ to provoke him, I ain’t,” the English speaker snapped at somebody else. “I ain’t goin’ up to him, he’s the spit of Dance the fuckin’ snakebite man, and this one’s fuckin’ crazy. Well, yeah, minus the tail, but shit, you ever seen Dance fight? He don’t need no fuckin’ tail.”

“Boss still got two live girls for this, tonight,” Seung said, nodding toward the bundle, and heard the bugs in the silence again. “You want wait too long for them?”

“Okay, somebody gonna come up to you, cuff you, and we take you to the sheriff. No trouble, right?”

“Okay,” Seung said, blinking.

There were rattles and banging noises and lots of swearing. “What do you mean, you don’t got no cuffs? What? Mary Lou broke them last time you made out in the shed? Well, shit, man, ain’t nothing that wimpy gonna hold something like Dance’s brother, no way. What the hell– Duct tape. Mon frer, we got duct tape. God, is this pathetic or what? Fucking duct tape.”

“What is duct tape?” Seung asked.

When he saw what it was, hanging between the hands of the two skinny young men approaching him, he moved. He knew what it meant. It meant ending up right next to the tarped bundle.

He was halfway between the trucks before a vast weight tackled him in the middle and knocked him down into the mud and they rolled down the jagged wall of rocks right above the water. Somebody grunted, and then he was flopping around, shoving them away, kicking out, and then there were a dozen of them on him, and somebody found the knob in the middle of his back, and shoved it sideways, and he arched up in a muscle spasm that took him over and over and over down the rocks and then he was underwater. He was arched up stiff, stuck there, head under the water, when somebody finally dragged him out. He wasn’t going to drown that night after all–they knew what to do. They turned him upside down by his ankles, and gave him a bash on the ribs that knocked him loose again. It was the two guys who shook him upside down, laughing, wet from head to foot. They said something in mixed French and English about alligator wrestling. They threw him down on the road and watched him vomit up his guts while other guys taped his legs together with duct tape.

“No, tape his hands in front or he’s gotta be peein’ his own pants or we gotta get up close to him again, and I ain’t doin’ that,” said the English speaker impatiently. “You dumb gatorheads might like getting your face bashed in, the rest of us got better things to do.”

“Well, fuck, we oughta just shoot him. You seen the pictures from this backpack?”

“Shut the fuck up, Peebrain, we ain’t shootin’ him. He goes in, and the pictures go in with the fucking body, and stop messing about with that shit, he’s right, you don’t want to be messing with forensics. Don’t you ever watch TV?”

Somebody older, quiet, spoke in French, and they stopped arguing and flung things back in their trucks. The two young guys came up and waved off the rest of the mob, looking superior. Thy looked around, and finally nodded once, and a third skinny guy came out and stood over Seung. They looked at Seung, and one of them grabbed the tape on his ankles, and the other one dropped some kind of rope around Seung’s head, and when he got his hands up to protect his neck from the loop, the third one slapped tape on Seung’s wrists and whipped his hands around and around, wrapping Seung’s arms together. Easy, simple, irresistable, and Seung knew better than to fall for it, but he did anyway. It wasn’t even that good a restraint; he’d get out of it in a matter of seconds if he was left alone. It just slowed him down. They knew that, too, grinning at him as they picked him up. They wouldn’t mind going another couple rounds with him.

“Bet he does bite,” said one of them, proving that they did know English just as well as the one who’d been talking. That guy grinned, and took a gun from one of the others, and pointed it down at Seung, aiming between the eyes, grinning.

Seung sighed. So this was what some of the boss’s men were talking about. They’d bitched about getting into it with the locals. This kind. Bored alligator wrestlers. He’d heard the stories. Seung spat junk out of his mouth and said, “Snake man.”

“What?” the nearest one snapped.

“You know snake man. Must talk.” Seung blinked into the glare of the lights.

The skinny guy snorted. “Lucky you! Oh yeah, you’ll get to talk to him. Boy, will you ever talk–”

Somebody spoke sternly in French, and the guy shut up and stomped away. When he came back, he didn’t have the gun, either. He and his two friends brought up a long fence plank and rolled Seung onto it and pushed it over the dented, splintered wooden floor boards of one of the older truckbeds. There was no tailgate on it. Then the three skinny young guys roped Seung’s ankles in a cross-tie to hooks that stuck up out at either side of the wooden floor down by the missing tailgate. Seung rolled onto his side, curling up to keep from getting bounced around onto the lump in his back, and they tried to twist him flat on his back, until somebody pointed out the lump, and reminded them in perfectly ordinary English that Seung’s weird muscle spasm was the only thing that let them catch him in the first place. They weren’t too happy about that reminder. But they didn’t get much chance to take it out on him because the truck rumbled to life and they had to sit down in a hurry on the low bulging sides of the truck, and grab on.

The driver had the same general style as the bitter old guy who’d dragged Seung and the body all over the levees. When he braked, Seung slid along the board to the full reach of the cross tie, and his head bashed into the truck bed wall nearest the driver. When the guy accelerated enough, it flung Seung down the other way so his feet hung out over the open tailgate end of the truck, and the crosstie strained to hold his weight. They seemed to think it was hysterically funny, until one of them nearly tipped out backward. The three guys yelped and swore and bounced, and another one almost fell out. “You crazy sonuvabitch!” one of them pounded on a sliding cab window that wouldn’t open. Eventually the three guys got down low, braced down in the truck bed with Seung, and they began to stick out a boot to catch Seung on the knees or the belly, and stop his sliding. He was glad of all the drills to build up his trunk muscles to resist punches.

The three guys were complaining loudly in French when the truck finally stopped, and they jumped out and started shouting at a whole bunch of the other guys. Seung twisted around to see, and felt a gun muzzle poke the lump in his back, and it set him off with a roar of pain. He flopped and arched up in a spasm so hard the cross-tie broke.

The party broke up in a hurry, the three guys scrambled back in, and the truck took off with a bang that threw Seung into one of the side-walls and twisted his body enough that it finally broke the spasm. He lay between the boots gasping for air as if they’d kicked him. The one thing clear in his mind was that their first reflex was to pull the gun away. They didn’t hit the trigger and shoot him when he jerked up.

Maybe not quite amateurs, these guys, but not like the bug troops. Not like the boss’s mercenaries. Big change from the troops in brown–lucky for him.

Ask the Bartender

It’s the music, or two whiskies on an empty stomach, or unrequited desire, but he can’t settle.  He returns from the can to find the place emptying rapidly.  He knows how much Dance can’t afford to lose the jacket he’s clutching, and still he’s halfway convinced Dance won’t be back to retrieve it.

The bassist departs with two of the eager fan ladies; the drummer meets his equally scroungy brother at the side door; and the sax player is chatting up a well-dressed couple.  Drin stands and waits.  Stubborn, yeah.  If it’s a test of devotion, he’s past caring what it reveals.  At the Metro, if Dance is late coming out front, it’s just because he’s a helpful guy.  Always shepherding things.  But that tense moment earlier keeps coming back, and Drin hopes there isn’t a fight.

The bartender pulls him a tumbler of water.  Pauses his mopping up to answer a phone briefly.  Collecting empty glasses, he says to Drin, “Them singing, that was new.”

Drin nods, perches on a barstool.  “I’m not sure they’ll try it again, if folks didn’t like it enough.”

The bartender shrugs.  “Takes all types.  I like a change, myself.  One night–” he grins reminiscently, racking glasses, “–you’ll never believe this, but one night the bass guy brought in this Carlos Santana-type guitar and amps, they did a whole set.  Black Magic Woman– man, that was good.  Well, Dance did this tribute with that crazy guitar on Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Joan Jett and Frampton and Clapton and Jerry Garcia–” he pauses for some brief, intense air guitar gestures.  “Hey, it made you hear what they musta heard live, back then maybe.   I mean, these guys ain’t none of them Clapton, but hand him strings, Dance does okay.  He claims he’s not so great on banjo, but hell, couldn’t tell it by me.”

“Oh, yeah, wish I got to see that.” The bartender’s statement jars on him, timewise.  The muscular guy with tats behind the bar looks solid as a bouncer, but he’s only mid-thirties.  Still, that’s completely ancient by the standards of the local music scene.  “I didn’t know he could sing. Or got groupies grabbing him.”

The bartender grins.  “Hey, don’t worry about Dance.  He won’t leave Constancia back there by herself on a bad night.  She did a great job on her solos tonight–there’s a chick who puts on her heels and kicks ass instead of lying down and crying.  But we all got our break points, you know?”

Drin makes a wry face, lifts his water glass in tribute.  “Here’s to kickass ladies, and the friends who help them strap the load back together and keep going.”

The bartender flicks up two fingers in salute.  “Ahhhh, tough chicks like that always manage, in the end.  But nobody covers shit for Dance.  Never goes the other way, you know?  Funny how that works.”

“Guess he’s used to it.”  Drin stacks drink glasses, hands them over.

The bartender bends with a grunt, filling the dishwasher.  “Sweet guy, but you gotta watch him.  Those crazy-ass paratroops, right?  They get off on fallin’ into all kindsa mess and obliterating everything in sight.  Don’t care what size they come, little ‘uns are just as bad.”

“Worse,” Drin agrees, handing over trash.

“Last Friday, we got this fuckin’ crackhead bunch screaming outside.  Dance just bent this guy’s shotgun into their steering wheel.  No kidding, in a knot. Then he curled up back here with me, gone fetal.  I said cool by me, leave him, he can have that corner all night.  The cops give up.  It’s a howling full moon, fleet’s in town, the place looks like a Navy goat locker, we got tourists pickin’ fights.”

Drin hands him more glasses.

“Midnight, I finally start callin’ Dance’s people.  Christ, the roommate’s outta town with his cello buddy, his patron guys at the Metro are out, fuckin’ hell, his damn conductor hung up on me. Nobody else has the fuckin’ time of day for him.  Us vets know that kinda shit, fuck whatever the damn uniform was.”  He points.  “I’m gonna call you, next time.  You’re one of his Metro guys, right?  I thought so. You coulda talked him down in a coupla hours, you’re that good.”

“Please do.  I’d fly back if I’d known Dance was freaking.  Call if you get other vets who need it, there’s my volunteer thing.  You’d be doing me a favor,” Drin says, handing over a card.  The guy adds the number into his phone on the spot.

brown flooring made of wine crates
flooring of recycled wine crates

He wonders, though, what the police report looks like.  Dance is too young to be a veteran, surely, even when those kids have to do mandatory South Korean service–but Drin doesn’t argue.  The idea that the diminutive musician was a paratroop veteran sounds absurd by beefy Western standards.  But he believes it after chatting with folks at the dojo where Dance works out.  Hooray for due diligence.  “So, you got out on a medical, Sarge?”

“Feet first, the only way they let us go.  Truck bomb in the nice safe Green Zone, halfway through my third re-up.  But no bitterness, right?  Where’d you get yours?”

“Burns, in Afghanistan.  Just after the Russians gave up and left a mess.”
“Talk about advance work!”  The bartender wiggles his left hand, which moves stiffly and is missing part of the little finger.  “Can’t stand up all night, but I can still play keyboards.”

Drin lifts his water glass in salute.  He drags up another stool to hold Dance’s jacket.  The bartender abandons all pretence of cleaning, folds his arms on the bartop, pulls up a stool on his own side, and starts talking.  “So you’re thinking, what silly meathead would work a bar in a cheap Navy town like this, huh?  Well, my sister married this redneck mechanic kid outta South Carolina, he gets to be a Navy chief, right, and–”

Several funny stories later, Drin is resigned to getting locked out as the last one left standing, reeking of smoke and his own sweat. He’s laughing at a deployment story from the bartender when something breathes at his shoulder, and he swings around with a jolt, arm flying up.

“Oh, we are sorry, please, no wish for startling our Mister Drin, we are thinking you heard us laughing right there–” Dance says, holding up open hands.  This time, there wasn’t even a scuff on a squeaky floorboard to warn Drin.  Dance bows several times, that rapid little bob that means he’s agitated.  “Please not to worry, I have not forgot you.  Our apologies, again please, for taking so long.”

“Oh!  I thought you’d come in this door, over here.  It’s okay, Dance.  No, really, don’t worry,” Drin says, clutching the jacket.  “So you got things sorted?”

“One of our ladies needed help on these sad home problems–it was not pretty, we all think she deserves better treatment but–” and Dance gives a flying-away gesture with one hand, shrugging.

“Yeah,” Drin says, looking him over.  “So do you.”

diaper safety pins with animal heads
diaper safety pins

Dance is wearing the worst rehearsal sweat outfit ever.  The pants sag with new muddy streaks and old stains.  The ragged collar of the sweatshirt has been ripped downward recently.  Half his chest shows under a motley collection of safety pins and plastic-headed diaper pins.  One of them is a smiling duck’s head.  Of course he’ll patch the shirt and go on wearing it to rehearsals.  There’s a dark bruise on his skin under the duck, mid-chest.

“Was that a present from Constancia’s husband, brother, or father?”

The bartender snorts.  “Um, yeah.  Plus a former boyfriend, all Tijuana cops.  Ugly shits swung by here twice tonight.  We only have a bouncer two nights.  Thanks for sorting it, Dance.”

Dance looks down at himself, sighs.  “We are so loving this very glamorous life,” he says, adopting a pompous expression and waving his arm in an imperious gesture that is too much like the current conductor to be accidental.  “Ow,” he adds, and grimaces while he delicately readjusts a safety pin that has flopped open and stuck him.

“You did that on purpose,” Drin says, laughing.

Dance gives him the pained face.  “Not that part.  Ow, ow.  We give up on that bending pin.”

The bartender rummages in a drawer.  “That’s what you get, borrowing pins from Constancia.  Huh.  No, we’re out.  You’re on your own.”

“So parents still use diapers that pin, these days?” Drin says, fascinated.

Dance nods.  “Well, green progressive types, yes.  Waitress moms here take pity on Constancia and me.  We get lectures on solid waste diversion.  Oh yes, and the–erm– impact of different vegetarian diets.”  His nose wrinkles into a wincing expression that suggests all kinds of horrors.

“You’re kidding me again, aren’t you?” Drin pleads.

“Only a little bit,” the bartender says grimly.  “All together now–fuuuck!”

Dance flaps both his hands in droll imitation of the bartender.  “Does it help?”

“No,” Drin says firmly.

Dance sighs, looking down at the silly pins.  “So much for making a good impression on our Mister Drin.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that.  I’ve heard you play.”

“Well, you could take that several different ways,” the bartender says dryly.

“Take it only as a compliment.”

Dance bows, and shifts a cloth shopping bag in one hand and his instrument case in the other.  He looks like he’s used to going home hungry and tired.

“You got any food allergies?  Lactose intolerant or anything?”

Dance shakes his head again, looking puzzled.  More of his hair is hanging loose.

singer actor Chen Kun
after a long night

Drin pats the empty bar stool, and beckons to the bartender.  “I know it’s late, but while he’s waiting, can you make my buddy a nice big milkshake?  His choice, my treat.”

The bartender grins, showing gold front teeth.  “We can do you some real nice pineapple tonight, Dance.  Gotta use it up, it’s really ripe.”  He cups one hand at his mouth, points at Dance, stage-whispers, “His favorite.”

“May we take our jacket now, Mister Drin?” Dance has his belongings piled together under his stool, his hands solemnly folded on the counter before him.  His height is all legs.  Sitting down, turning those big dark eyes up at them, he looks absurdly young.

Drin clutches it tighter.  “No, my hostage.  You don’t get it back yet.  Not until you get all of that milkshake inside you.  The whole thing.”

“Ahh, the mean ice cream monster will make me eat something delicious,” Dance says, nodding.  The outer corners of his eyes are crinkling upward.  He licks his lips broadly, like a kid might, gazing up at Drin, who remembers exactly what it feels like to get all the air knocked out of his lungs.

The bartender chops pineapple, shakes his head.  “They just so cruel like that, ice cream monsters are.”

“Big meanie,” Dance says, looking up at Drin with his eyes laughing.  Drin has no idea why people think the man doesn’t know how to flirt.

“Yeah, you better believe it,” Drin growls, as deep as he can.  He gives them a huge scowly face, making big silly clawhands.  “Rarr!  Ice crrream, Rarr!”

Dance laughs, flapping his hand at Drin.

“Rarrr?” Drin backs off, acting puzzled.  He pitches his voice at different notes, tries out different monster, piratey voices.  “Polly wanna cracker, rarrr?” Drin says, way up in his nose. The falsetto voice has Dance leaning into the bar, laughing.

“Rarr, matey– okay, gimme a minute, ” Drin says, dropping his hands to pull out his wallet.  Clenching his knees together into Dance’s jacket is excusable then.  And it hides things.

The bartender glops icy balls into a metal mix can.  “We gotta get you here on Pirate Night to emcee the charity contest, Mister Drin, cause I sure ain’t lettin’ you compete, not a pro like you.”  The bartender shoves the metal shake container up into the mixing beater.

Drin puts a bill down on the bar, and waits for the noise to subside.

“Rarr,” he says, in a flat ordinary voice, and he’s pleased when Dance is cracking up again. Dance flaps one hand at him again, leaning on the bar.  It takes his whole body when he laughs. This time he isn’t flirting, it’s just the sound of a young boy in a state of delight.  Maybe it’s the sound of exhaustion.  Everything’s hysterically funny to him.  Just look at him, absolutely calm, not even making silly faces, and he’s laughing.

The bartender pours out the shake, puts a tall glass in front of each man. “Yours has just a touch of booze, Mister Drin, but yours don’t, Dance.”

Dance leans in, halfway closing his eyes, and he works that straw.  It’s a thick mixture.  But he doesn’t have to run a ridiculously long tongue along it like that. Then he smiles, and goes back to sucking on it.  Dance’s hollowed cheeks are nothing like a little boy’s.  “Oh yes, it is excellent.  Very ripe pineapple.”

“It is,” Drin agrees, clutching his knees into the jacket.

There’s just a whisper of some rum in Drin’s drink, just enough to add some warmth, not much alcohol.  He can feel the cooling drink spread through his whole system.  His scalp prickles, and he’s aware of how hot and sweaty he has been feeling, now that the drink is relieving it.  He and the bartender exchange more service stories, trying to get Dance to laugh.

Dance is lagging by the time he’s halfway through his pineapple drink, leaning on his hand.  There are more purplish shadows, unfamiliar lines, around his eyes.

Drin asks him, “Why did you change into sweats when it’s so hot in here?”

“Oh, when we are cooling down after, it is like running.  We are always getting the shivers.”

“Do you have a ride home?”

Dance touches him on the forearm so lightly it’s barely there.  “Not to worry, our roommate is picking us up right here, so convenient.  But is our Mister Drin okay to drive?”

“I will be, if I wait and see you off first.”

“You are very kind,” Dance says.  He gestures, and the bartender puts a couple of tumblers of water up for them.  Dance pulls his shoulders back, straightens up, takes a deep breath.  Performing, even if Drin is his only audience.
Drin laughs.  “And you are very patient!”

“We are trying, yes.  My roommate says we are very trying sometimes.”  He releases the widening grin when Drin laughs.   “Would our Mister Drin like hearing our poor six-year-old jokes?”

“Do you mean jokes you learned six years ago?” Drin asks.  He’s got nephews, he knows how this stuff goes.  “Will there be snails? Promise?”

“Oh yes.”  Dance cracks his knuckles slowly and impressively, and starts unreeling a respectable catalog.  There are some fun translations of Korean school experiences.  There are pickle jokes.  Dance claims pickling is very big in Korean cuisine.

large lidded stoneware jars
stoneware crocks and jars

Drin’s ribs ache a bit by the time the musician has, at last, finished making slurpy noises with that straw in the empty glass, and there is a single honk from the parking lot.

“I must pack up my bad jokes and take myself out and go home now.”  Dance makes a sad-clown face.

Drin holds out the folded jacket, and then his empty hand.  This time, Dance wraps his long fingers warmly around Drin’s hand.  Ceremonially Dance cups his other hand around Drin’s knuckles.  Dance bows several times over their hands, thanks him for the drink, allows Drin to pat him on the back once before he lets go.

Drin watches him go, but he doesn’t follow the man.  He knows he’s probably not fooling anybody, but damn, that violinist has a fine-looking ass.  Yes, the same butt that bruised him just by shoving him into the bar, guarding him from nothing much.  He’s very sorry to see the door close.  Drin stalls for a few more minutes, though, gives the bartender a final tip in the jar, gets a salute.  Apparently he has the guy’s approval as one of Dance’s Big Time Fans.  Or possibly the only one.

The night air outside feels blessedly cool when he departs the front door, smiling.  Progress!  The tricky part will be to avoid making obvious claims in public, when Dance is on the job.  Especially when Evans is asking nasty questions about why somebody might go vandalizing the Metro’s office.

Dance’s tongue on that damn straw has a lot to answer for.  Drin might regret that he didn’t try to fuck the violinist tonight.  But he’s not going to shortcut things, not after what he saw tonight.  There’s a lot more in the guy than a weekend blitz. The fey little musician, the deadly martial arts champion, the chilihead madman.  Solemn First chair, six-year-old boy.  The way his dark eyes suddenly go pale as a cat’s.  All those questions to hunt down just to satisfy his own inner auditor, too, that’s going to take awhile.

Right, Drin tells himself, patting the shirt pocket with the shred of cloth in it. This will be a strenuous long-term project.

Standards

Drin scrubs the heel of his hand across his eyes. “Sweetheart, what are you–why are you up this time of the night– Oh.”

Another bad dream, no doubt of that, and some time ago. The kitchen smells of cardamom and cinnamon and mace and nutmeg and a dozen other aromatics. There’s a dirty teapot and a mug by the sink, a bread wrapper in the trash, and an empty jar soaking in the sink. Apple butter doesn’t last long in this house, not these days.

Dance’s eyes come up to him, and when Drin reaches out, he flinches away. Instead of trying to touch him anyway, Drin pulls out a chair, moving slowly. He’s about to ask when Dance starts talking. He sounds odd: flat, toneless, blurred, as if he’s talking with something in his mouth, like he’s chewing gum, but he isn’t.

“You had a blue uniform. It had gold bees here.” Dance touches his own collarbone. “You had a– a black thing in your hand. A tool. How do you say, a baton. I don’t know, a taser, I guess. It zaps me, it feels like a stinger, it hurts. I was waiting for you in this concrete pit, this cell, I was going to bite you and make you all better because you were sick, but you didn’t want me to. You– you zapped me with the stinger to make me stay back. I bit you anyway. Then I carried you to bed in white hospital room, I made you stay there while the medicine worked, and other people tried to sting me, and I wouldn’t let them. I let you, but I wouldn’t let them. I was too fast. I made them stay out of this hospital place, and leave you alone so you could get better, and it made them afraid. They kept chasing me. Why didn’t you want me to bite you all better?”

Drin sits on the chair so he’s not looming over his lover. “Did I get better?”

Dance rolls his head away, and then he’s covering his head in his hands. “I don’t know, I don’t know–”

“It’s all right,” Drin says. “I’m here. I guess it worked, huh? I’m fine. I’m all here, and you’re here, and it’s fine–” And then his arms are full of heavy muscle and bone, and he gives a grunt of surprise, and kisses the hot skin. Dance’s head is pushed against his chest. “It’s all right.” He’s not sure why it makes sense to say, “I’m not wearing any uniforms with bees, not ever again,” but it does. He can see the uniform as clear as if Dance had given him a picture of it. He’s not sure why the act of seeing it makes him feel so tired. That horrible dread: More doors to things he doesn’t want to see. “Never again, I swear.”

Dance gives a big sigh.

vintage locket

Drin kisses his forehead, murmuring, and hugs the smaller man. Hugs him very tight. “You’re safe, it’s all over. We’re home.”

“Home,” Dance whispers.

“Home,” Drin assures him. “You don’t have to fight anything now.”

Dance burrows in tighter. “‘m lucky, I’m so lucky,” and he’s shivering.

“I think I am, too, yes,” Drin tells him, stroking his back. Dance feels as hot as if he’s been running, when all he’s been doing in gobble up slices of toast with apple butter on it. Doctored up with an amazing collection of spices, if Drin is any judge. “Did the cinnamon help?”

Dance shivers. “Yeah. So hungry. ‘m always hungry. Want more. Something. Korean food. Indian food. Tex-Mex. Afghan. Chinese. Ethiopian–”

Drin strokes the man’s knotted back in long, slow sweeps. “It’s all right. We can get some chilihead goodies. Just chili heat, or lots of different spices?”

“Lots of things,” Dance says. He lifts his head, kisses Drin’s shoulder, and leans his head back into Drin’s arm, stretching back so his throat is exposed to Drin’s gaze. It’s a very odd posture. Drin used to think it was just Dance stretching out those violinist’s muscles. He’s not sure what to think any more, after hearing some of Dance’s dreams; but it’s a request, and he knows what to do.

Drin leans down and kisses him on the cords of his throat, up along under his ear, rubbing his hand along the warm skin, licking thoroughly along the side of Dance’s neck, and as he’s noticed before, those muscles ease. Those all-important shoulder and arm muscles, the sinews for playing violin, gradully relax, the incredible knots and bulges smooth out.

Dance gives a little groan of relief. “Better.”

“Good.” Drin reaches around with his thumb and kneads at the base of Dance’s skull, feeling around for any last resistant fibers, and massages them into submission. Massage will fix just about anything with his partners, he’s found. Well, anything except not being there to do it, or being too busy with work, and he’s not letting that happen again. Dance’s head rolls limply as he rotates the skull and pushes his fingers along in slow sequences along the man’s spine. “There. Magic reset button, yeah? Are you still starving for something spicy?”

Dance gives another sigh. “No, I’m… I’m not. That’s weird. I’m okay now.”

“Maybe it just took a few minutes for the toast and apple butter to kick in?”

“Maybe,” Dance agrees. He stares up at Drin. Solemnly he says, “You’re very scary with a stinger in your hand, you know.”

corridor in rainbow colors
corridor in color

“Hell, anybody would be, that’s the whole point of weapons like a taser,” Drin replies. His own sudden rush of anger is… odd. He’s not angry at Dance. He’s angry at something. Somebody else. What an appalling image– him going after Dance with a goddamn taser, of all things. How stupid. The image infuriates him, angers him, he can imagine it as clearly as it did happen. Like watching a disaster unfurl on a video, and nobody can stop it. Damn fools would do better to walk in on Dance unarmed, talk him down. A tool like that is an idiot’s caution, somebody’s smart idea of going after a bear with a peashooter. He sounds a little too fierce when he tells Dance, “I would never do something like that.”

Dance rolls his head down into Drin’s shoulder again. “You would if you thought I was going insane, if I was killing people, but that’s all you had.”

Drin snorts in disbelief. “I hope I’d never do something that stupid.”

Dance nuzzles into Drin’s shoulder with a huff of warm breath, and gets hugged tighter. Why would Dance dream of being abused by such a thing in his lover’s hand? What is going on, that he has fear dreams like that? Fears of going crazy, yeah. Pictures of dead girls, that’s enough to worry anybody. But would it do any good to tell him that nobody was going to chase him with a taser? Especially not any of the local authorities. Not after that one wacko silly interrogation they pulled on him. Hell, nobody is fast enough to stop Dance from taking such a tool away from them. Nobody. He says so.

Dance stirs, chuckles. “Oh, I’m not that good. Tired. I’m not practicing enough to keep up on my speed drills, you know.”

“You and your impossible standards, man.” Drin shakes his head.

“And yours, my love?” Dance says.

Drin smiles at him. “My standards say I carry you back to bed and kiss you and make you come until you are so tired out that you just can’t stay awake and you sleep like a baby.”

Dance rolls his head up higher on Drin’s shoulder. “I like your standards.”

An Even Better Bug

“Well, I’m going to get out and take a look at our bridge abutment here, and see if I can make out anybody coming–” Drin steps out of the Jeep while Barret comments about some writer called Tim Powers. Drin walks around the back of the Jeep. He knows Dance will be coming around with him, automatic as a guard dog. Drin gives a little wave at the vehicle waiting behind them, and steps down off the road into the gravel.

The abutment has been reduced to two ruined thumbs of WPA concrete, clearly an old road bridge over water which is no longer there. It’s unclear why the water is gone, although he can see the old crumbling remains of banks, where the creek cut into a slope in the woods. It’s been dry long enough that the modern road crews tossed fill into the empty watercourse as if it was just another gully, and plowed onward.

Feeling silly, he sings out, “Well, if you’re listening, we’re here, ready as we’re ever going to be–”

The two great lumps of gray broken concrete rise up, unfold reaching arms from ribby wrinkled woman’s torsos, lift heads like groupers with open fanged mouths, screaming, and claws are swinging through the air at him.

There is an explosion of red fluids and gray stuff and chips of rock and the stuttering noise of guns as he falls. The guns are tearing apart something above his head, for a moment, and then they stop firing.

Instead, there are the howlings and screaming of the damned going on above him.

Drin is flat on the ground with somebody standing over him, screaming back, and lights are flaring blindingly, and there is the overpowering stench of burnt meat.

Something big and alive thumps down into the gravel next to Drin’s head, and an arm scrabbles briefly at the ground, and then Drin is staring into the eyes of the grouper. The mouth opens wide, and Drin rolls his head frantically aside, and he fells hot stinging fluid spray across his back. It sticks Drin’s shirt to his back and burns like some sort of fairly dilute acid.

He sees a flash of moving glitter, hears a meaty noise, and the fluid isn’t hitting him any more. He hears then the sound of something large making thumping noises as it falls away into the dry riverbed. It’s screaming, high and shrill, as it goes, and eventually the noises stops.

Drin blinks, twists, looks upward.

Dance is standing over him, mouth wide, with the tail swinging in wide arcs, the scales as brown as the rest of him, except where it is splashed with broad burnt-looking patches toward the tip–and the black is a mere coating of something that is flaking off in coarse chunks. Dance is breathing in big gulps of air, hands swinging around in opposite arcs to his tail, twisting his head around wildly.

Drin turns his eyes in the sockets, slowly, and looks at a wide ground plane scattered with debris. Some of it is shot up. some of it seems to have been burnt apart. There are disarticulated gray-skinned parts smoking on the ground. It’s only the thick, armored outer layer of skin that is gray. The inside is a mixture of what looks like red meat with the pearlescent tendons of any mammal on the planet, and greenish sections that seem organized quite differently, more hydraulic in nature, full of membranous sacs and iridescent, spilled fluids. And it stinks, oh God does it stink, of bug juice.

Dance shifts his bare feet, scuffling the dirt, and Drin can see that there are cuts on his shins where he bashed his legs in tumbling out of the Jeep. It is fascinating, reading upward the pattern of exactly what Dance was doing, just from the cuts and bruises on him. “Huh, uh, huh,” Dance grunts as he breathes, tail lashing in great ten-foot arcs.

That’s when Drin hears the other breathing. About eight feet away, somewhere off by his feet, something else is breathing in long, gurgling, rheumy exhalations that are growing shallower.

Drin lifts his hand, puts it out toward Dance’s leg, and manages to gasp, “Here, okay,” before he touches Dance.

Dance stands like a rock under the contact, still watching, breathing hard.

Drin pushes himself up on his elbow, scrabbles his legs around, looking for the other person breathing. When he gets his head up, he stares.

chimera statue at palce in Ukraine
Ukrainian Chimera

The other gray-skinned creature is just a head on a partial torso. It’s still alive because whatever severed it at the hip level was so hot that it cauterized the meat. And in that area, it is still ordinary red tissues. The oddly pupiled eyes shift in the sockets and blink with actual eyelids, the clawed fingers scrabble a little at its own mortal damage. Then the extraordinary round lampreylike mouth closes enough to fold the thick lips into shapes.

It slurs out words. “Oh Gaaawd, thaaank you.”

Then there are people screaming, and running feet, and hands ripping the shirt off Drin’s back, and bottles of water and baby oil wiped down him and scrubbing it off again to get rid of the acid, and it works.

He keeps saying, “Check Dance,” and then Dance himself is there, groaning, and hugging him, and so is Emma, and the tail is wrapped around all of them, the scales hot as a pan just out of the oven.

“Get back into the ice!” Drin says, “Go, go on, we don’t need you getting really sick, go–” but Dance won’t let go of him, so Drin just makes him go by getting up, with Emma’s help. They all stagger out of the mess, back onto the road, up to the Jeep.

“Get Dance sitting down, we need to cool him off right away,” Drin says, and he knows he sounds like bugs are less important than making sure Dance doesn’t explode like a bomb.

Just Love the Smell of Bug Ichor in the Morning

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

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

closeup, damascened lines on steel knife blade
Damascene steel

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

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

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

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

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

Drin tilts his head. “Or from you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two men look at him.

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

American flag tailgate old red truck
An old red pickup truck

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m good,” Dance says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Emma,” says herself, briefly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bug stink on the wind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice guns,” Dance says then.

“Thank you,” the paler man says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got lucky?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Metabolites?” Drin asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Christ,” Emma growls too.

“What did Aaron say?” Drin asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barret chuckles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man with Absolute Pitch

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

Dance gets…well, he’s getting something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auren, I’ll be all right.”

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

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

FWD to AH, ATTN: TS

Hi teslamomma,
Got yours of the 29th.
Let me know.
I owe ya, thanks!
Pimpernell

ATT: AH
Well, it’s clear from the focal convergence the sloppy photog was taking it from that two-story across the street, can see how grainy it is. D, D & E don’t know who it is, but I sure do. The wife of the second violinist took a lot of stray shots while she waited around for our lot to get busy ironing the sheets.

nude woman at window among blinds, b/w photo
looking out

Lot of work for shots that involve nothing more exciting than Drin reading the newspaper and Emma vegging in front of the TV, and Dance cuddling with them until bedtime.
Puzzling why the snooper saved any of these sequences.
Strange stuff. Turns out this is probably where Dance fell asleep briefly one night, but then Emma had a back spasm bad enough to make her squeak, woke him up.
I don’t know this is terribly useful as footage, but it shows Dance doesn’t wake up swinging or anything, so long as he trusts who’s in the house.
You don’t need a snooper with a telephoto to figure out it’s all hostage-bait.
Just how it is. I know, soppy, but there you are.

ATT: AH
Server coughed up more pix from the jealous wife. Hope you’re onto tracing who’s paying. Trying to scandalize the Metro Board? Jealous of Dance, for making her hubbie look second rate?
If that’s all there is to it, of course it’s totally pathetic.
Also, useless trying to hide the way this makes me feel about it from Drin when I’m talking emails to him.
Oh, somewhere in there he knows the tip of the wave may break any day, might be time to shift in a hurry. He’s been hitting the Fogarty road-trip tunes a little hard, lately.