“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.