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.
“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.”
“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.