There wasn’t even a scream.
Just Dan laying full-length in the parking lot, face down, with a massive splat of red sprayed out onto the wall of the restroom behind him. His dreads fanned out, his jeans all red, his boots sprawled wide.
She’d been to this place before. Waiting on the flames.
She finished putting Dan’s coffee in his holder.
“Hang on,” she said coolly, not even very loud, but she knew Peach heard her. Got her butt hoisted into the driver’s seat and the keys were twisting in her hand and the Kenilworth rumbled to full life and the gears were shifting upward, and the empty trailer was flapping like a kite as she headed for the parking lot exit. She wished briefly she could tell Peach to close the passenger window, but there was no time.
Thumps and bangs vibrated through the chassis. Made her wonder if there really was going to be leaking fuel lines and another fire in their future. They–whoever it is–were shooting at the truck body, not the windows.
Thump. A big one.
The thump, then a black jacketed arm slid in through the window. Passenger door swung wide.
Keisha had the Luger out in plenty of time.
She found herself pointing it at Peach, who was biting the end of the machine pistol in the other hand of the man who swung himself inside her cab. That was him. Dark face, snarling, “Drive! Go! Go fast!”
Keisha shifted with her right hand full of Luger, steering with her left, and she put her foot down. The gearing howled. More shots pinged somewhere through the truck’s lower structure. She holstered the gun so she could gear up at the freeway entrance. Her foot was not quite pushing the floorboards. She revved the poor old Kenilworth’s engine as hard as she dared, barely checking her mirrors, barreling onto the Interstate like she could drive with a red rose in her death’s-head teeth.
Peach and the dark man were rolling around in the passenger seat, the door flapping open behind them, and Peach sank those fangs into his forearm. There was plenty of torn meat in that long dark sleeve, but he made no noise.
Peach didn’t care if his gun was still being jammed in her face and body. Maybe she didn’t know what it could do to her. Or maybe she did. She was damn determined to stop him pointing it at Kesha, to hamper him, to push him backward out the open door. Kesha caught glimpses, keeping her eyes glued on the road ahead, poor kitty had no chance against the guy. The odd part: the stranger wasn’t shooting. The man dragged his machine pistol away from Peach’s frantically grabbing hands, and she almost rolled over his lap out the open door.
“Peach!” Keisha screamed. Peach, going out. Her fur shining in the streetlights as she tumbled, her head turning back to look at Keisha, mouth open, eyes round as saucers–
The man dropped his gun onto the floor of the cab, grabbed Peach firmly by the arm, and hauled her bodily back into the cab. Then he slammed the door shut, and twisted round, and put Peach into a half-nelson as if the blood coming out of his other arm didn’t even slow him down.
“Go!” he snarled at Keisha, and twisted round to stare into the side mirror, looking behind them. He bared white teeth, growling much like Peach herself. Peach reached for his gun on the floor, and he put one foot on it to keep it down there, not even watching her that closely. He glared at the side-mirror and snarled, “Fahhh! Those zertva aborta fucking mothers!” He broke into some other language, cussing thoroughly and comprehensively in a language that rolled and slurred. When Peach struggled to bite him again, he increased the pressure of the nelson on her neck until she squealed in pain.
“Stop, or the truck stops,” Keisha said in her Captain’s voice that cut straight through the racket of the truck.
He heard her. Looked at her. He lifted his free hand, tapped Peach’s shoulder in warning, and slowly loosened his grip on her shoulder and neck.
Keisha reached out and brushed Peach’s thigh lightly. “Peach!” she said, trying to watch complicated traffic and the two of them and check for any mess spraying out of the truck at the same time. It’s not like they’d outrun pursuit if it gets organized any time soon. All she could do was increase their search radius and make weird turn-offs as soon as she figured out where it might help instead of trapping them on go-nowhere rural washboard roads.
Peach was panting hard. She looked up at Keisha with wild eyes, fangs showing, straining a little against the dark man’s grip.
“It’s all right, Peach,” Keisha said. “He’s not shooting me. He’s not shooting you. It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay, Peach. Stop biting.”
“Shoot Dan!” Peach wailed.
Keisha felt her eyes go all wide and staring. Peach, talking! She had to jerk herself back to watching the road. “Yeah, I know, mama, somebody did hurt Dan real bad. I know. They were shooting at us too.”
“They shot at me too,” said the dark man, and his arm slid loose from the cat, bracing her up in her awkward position. He frowned down at Peach. “Quiet, now, I don’t hurt you.”
“Shoot Dan!” Peach whimpered, looking at Keisha.
“I know,” Keisha said, and patted the rumpled fur on Peach’s thigh, below the scabbed cut made by that hollow claw. “I know, mama. It wasn’t this guy shot him. Angle’s wrong.” Keisha flicked a glance at their unwelcome passenger.
“They fools,” the dark man snapped, eyes blazing as pale gold as coins. Spooky-looking. Pale eyes like that, in a broad face that belonged to an Aleut or an Eskimo or something, but the rest of him very modern in dark Lycra athletic clothes. He brought a sharp strange scent into the truck, and it wasn’t from the fresh blood matting his sleeve. It was the sweat coming off him. Old sweat, yeah, but not dirty workin’ man sweat. Not like any other man Keisha’d ever been around under tough circumstances. He must have been sweating awhile before he wrestled with Peach. His body was short and wide. The muscles under his jacket looked like a welterweight boxer. He was something at the upper end of that huge gulf between amateur and the pros.
“You coulda taken down Dan without a gun, the likes of you,” Keisha said. She was passing the truck amongst other trucks, not talking and not asking permission or greeting folks the way Dan would have done, ignoring the uproar she must be causing on the CB. They’d been convoying two days with some of these folks. The other truckers knew what they were seeing if Dan’s truck started leaking, too. Once things calmed down, she ought to ask some of them to look at her undercarriage as she passed them. The vibration running through the thing as the bobtailing trailer whipsawed back there meant she was pushing it dangerously hard. The other drivers would notice that, too.
She wondered if uncoupling the trailer and dumping it at a rest stop–or give it away to somebody they’ve convoyed with–would leave more of a trail that if she just barreled onward. She wouldn’t have to stop for a good hundred, maybe hundred fifty miles, they’d just fueled. Christ, she even had Dan’s PIN numbers for the gas cards here in the cab, he showed those to her and had her gas up for him a few times, as if he half-expected her to need to cover for him. What kind of godforsaken hell was Dan used to that he’d just expected emergencies like this?
“Damn bugs.” The man lifted Peach easily, and scowled at the scabbed cut on Peach’s thigh.
“You know bugs?” Keisha demanded. She snatched her gaze back to the road again. The empty trailer rattled nastily behind them with the mildest swerve she made.
The stranger glared at her with those narrow Mongol eyes slit down tight. “Yah, bad,” he snarled. He made a raking gesture, and pointed at the injury in Peach’s thigh. Then he pointed behind them. “Bugs be bad tools. Those fools buy them.”
“Can you stop bugs?” Keisha demanded.
“Yah. With enough ammo.”
“You got any?”
He patted his jacket pocket, held four fingers. “Four clips.”
“Damn,” Keisha growled. “Won’t last, shootin’ out clips the way Dan said you had to shoot them bugs.”
The stranger smiled then, toothily. “Shoot very good, so just use little bit.”
“I hear ya,” Keisha said, checking her mirrors. “All right, Peach, you okay? No more cuts or bruises?”
Peach whimpered, and leaned over the gap between the chairs, and rested her nose on Kesha’s shoulder slowly, to avoid jostling Kesha’s driving. Kesha wasn’t expecting that much care from her. “Good mama,” Keisha murmured. She felt Peach lick at her neck. “That’s good. We’re okay, Peach. We’re good. Okay, Mister Gunner, let go of her now, okay? Peach, you climb on up there into the sleeper, and you look at the mirror up there, right? You tell me if you see any cars driving fast. Just yell out, ‘car!’ if you see something moving fast, okay? You say ‘car’?”
“Carrr,” Peach whispered, her nose cold against Kesha’s ear, and then she scrambled up the rungs and she was shifting around up there.
“God, I’m glad Dan put in extra mirrors up top,” Keisha muttered. She said then, “Peach, throw down a towel to this guy, okay?”
Peach did that, amazing Keisha all over again. Peach got it. That alone was a shock.
The guy pushed up his sleeve, looked at the bite marks in his forearm, made a sour face.
Keisha pointed. “Hand wipes in there. Peach bites when she’s startled.”
He wiped the bites with the towel and the alcohol hand wipes, he found Dan’s sad old first aid kit, and bandaged it one-handed, as if he’s done that before too.
“Car!” Peach sang out.
“I see it, mama, I am on it,” Keisha said.
The guy picked up his machine pistol from the floor, wound down the window, twisted around to face backward, and waited, eyes narrowed.
Keisha watched the screaming yellow sports car pulling up at noticeable speed.
“Not them,” the dark guy said.
“You sure?” Keisha said.
“Yes,” he said.
The sports car whipped past them, honking, and left them behind.
He tensed, squinting even harder.
“This is them,” he said. “Truck.”
“Car, car, car!” Peach sang out.
“Good, mama, I got it,” Keisha said. He was right; it was not a car, it was a dark gray large pickup with a heavy grill and extra lights. Kesha wondered, How come the bad guys always have the fancy stuff? Then, “Hang on.”
It didn’t take much to make the empty trailer fishtail. The trick was to keep it from flipping on its axis around the hitch. Skippering a boat, and hauling a boat trailer for years, was good practice.
The dark guy grinned, bracing himself hard into the front angle of the door. “Good,” he said. Then he lifted his arm, leveled the muzzle of the pistol, and fired, all in the same easy motion.
“Holy shit,” Keisha breathed.
The gray shadowy truck was spinning in the sun, bucketing around like a bronco toward the ditch.
“Good,” the dark man said, baring his canines at the enemy pickup behind them.
“Do you know all of them?” Keisha demanded.
“Many, not all,” he said, and he smiled at her. “Challenge, yah? Don’t shoot all assholes on this road. More easy shoot them all.”
“You are one crazy sonuvabitch. You ain’t taken your meds lately, have you?”
“No, I shot boss who give meds,” he said.
Keisha put her eyes back on the road. “No joke?”
“No funny,” he said, still holding the machine pistol ready to aim it rearward.
“Boss’s men try to shooting me, fucking shits,” he said, and hefted the gun. “I take this off body.” He pointed at her. “They burn boats. Eba new toast”– that’s what it sounds like to Kesha– “didn’t get payload. Burn first, not get her–not get kitty– how you say, Peach.” He pointed toward the anxious little face peeking out of the sleeper.
Keisha took a deep breath. “You were on my boat.”
“I chase,” he said calmly. “You got payload.” He pointed rearward. “Goodamm fucking bugs forget to go for payload.”
“Peach is your payload?”
“And laptop. Laptop got stuff.” He pointed right where she stashed it, locked up in one of the secure cargo pockets in the cab. How the hell could he know where she locked it up? He nodded. “Laptop call me. Like radio.”
Keisha told her eyes to stay on the road. Keep those hands steady, keep that trailer rocking nicely on the road. It won’t help to look over at him, anyway. He just gave that blank look. Poker-playing face if she ever saw one. “You think I got something your boss wants,” Kesha said.
“Not now,” the dark man said. “Boss dead.” He grinned. It wasn’t nice at all. He looked up at Peach, who was peering into those upper mirrors, one side and then the other, still grumbling and whimpering a little to herself. He nodded in her direction. “Good payload. She fights. You too, I like.”
Keisha glanced over, surprised at the clear note of approval in the stranger’s voice. “Yeah? I was damn glad you were riding shotgun on that truck for me there.”
He flashed those white canines at Kesha, and lifted his gun muzzle slightly, let it down again. “Don’t want shotgun. This got better range.”
“You got any plans since you shot your boss?”
“Don’t let dickheads get laptop or Peach. You keep safe, I guard.”
“Huh,” Keisha said. “For how long?”
He shrugged. “How do you say– till cows come home? Hell freeze?”
“Laptop got stuff.”
“But do you know what kind of stuff?”
“No. I hear it. You help. We find out kind of stuff, yes?”
Keisha drew in a deep, slow breath through her nose, let it trickle out again. Reaction. Old boa constrictor, that’s all, tryin’ to take his due. “What do you hear?”
“Like radio, but not.” He tapped his chest, then his ear. Then he shifted position, where he was braced, as if other things were hurting him, not just the arm that got bit.
“And Peach? Why did they want Peach?”
“They give order, ‘You go, take payload off boat.’ We go in, two squads with guns for little hungry kitten. Very little kitten. No why, just do. Idiot shits burn boat too soon.”
“I hear ya,” Keisha said, and let off the gas pedal a little. “You wanna hold this wheel for me? Man, I am– I gotta–”
“Yeah,” Keisha said, and then she twisted away, puking down into Dan’s trash bag, half full of fast food wrappers and cups. She tried hard not to move her lower body with each spasm, just keep the truck going evenly. She spat, put aside the bag, and sat up again. She gripped the wheel, felt how he’d kept it for her. “That’s good. I’m okay.”
He looked at her. “Sorry. That Dan, I saw him. Nice man.”
“He was,” Keisha said.
The dark man rummaged in the bags hung behind his seat, found a water bottle, opened it one-handed, held it out for her. “Drink.”
Keisha nodded, sipped, handed it back.
Peach gave an anxious sound, crawling awkwardly about halfway down the rungs. Kesha reached over and patted her back lightly. “I’m okay, mama, don’t worry. You okay?”
Peach dabbed her hand at Keisha’s shoulder. “Mmm hhhmmm okay? Okay?” Peach said.
“Okay,” Keisha said, a little hoarsely. It was a shock hearing her talk.
Peach looked over doubtfully at the stranger.
“You got a handle? A name?” Keisha asked him.
“No want name. Boss shames family. No want bad name.”
“So you shot him?”
“No, I only shoot cuz he shoot at me. Dumb shit. He miss. I don’t miss. I practice hard, don’t miss.”
Keisha nodded. She reached back and patted Peach again. “That’s okay, we’ll figure out a name for you, if you decided to stick around.”
“I stick around,” he promised, narrowing his eyes at her.
“You may live to regret it,” Keisha said, smiling crookedly.
He grunted. “Night, I be sorry,” he said, and lifted the forearm that Peach chewed on. He understood a lot more English phrases than he gave back when he talked.
“Oh, I give that bite about twenty minutes. There’s some painkillers in that emergency kit. You drink some of that water too.”
“You give order? ‘Hey you, you drink now!'” he said, grinning again. That face was all sharp white teeth when he grinned.
“Yeah,” Keisha said. “This is your new boss lady talkin’, now. If you gonna stand guard, we gotta make sure you be okay. So you drink lots of water. Peach, are you okay with climbing up and watching up there for me? You see back farther when you’re up there.”
Peach nodded, and scrambled back up there into the sleeper cab.
The dark man pointed upward. “Good fighter. Little, strong.”
The light caught those eyes looking a little darker gold now, but still weird. He was faster than Peach, so what the hell did that make him?
Not human, Keisha thought. A guy who can hear a laptop calling him.
Keisha tilted up her head a little bit and said, “You’re a good girl, Peach, you prolly saved our lives. You’re so good.”
She heard the purring from where she sat, and the cab was noisy as hell. By the sound of it, Kesha had about half an hour of Peach’s extra set of eyes on watch before the poor little gal just fell asleep from exhaustion. Peach just couldn’t stay awake for long stretches. “Got some more of that water?” Kesha said tiredly to the stranger in the truck cab that didn’t belong to her.
The short dark guy here speaks a number of languages. One of them is Russian slang called Mat. Speakers will warn you not to use any of these words in public, because you really don’t know the context or how relatively rude a particular word or phrase might be. However, it is interesting.
Try this website for a lot of interesting rude words that get used, some of them specialized to the Russian Internet: