Lana wasn’t sure what woke her, the sharp stink of panic or the cold steel of the gun barrel pressing into her cheek. Maybe it was just that internal click she always felt more than heard when the sun dropped behind the horizon. Situated as she was now in a valley between some rolling foothills, sunset had come almost an hour earlier than it would have on flat terrain. Whatever the stimulus, Lana went from stone-cold and out of it to stone-cold and alert in less than a second. How alert? Alert enough to know better than to move. Which was inconvenient, since she needed to be in New Orleans before midnight and she was still a couple hundred miles north of that.
Better to play dead than to get shot, Lana thought. Not like that’s much of a stretch. Under other circumstances, her eyebrows would have been arched almost to her auburn hairline and her blue eyes would have been rolled all the way up. Instead, she pretended to be a corpse. A really, truly dead corpse.
“Wake up, bitch!” The voice came from an arm’s length above her head. Lana guessed it came from person on the other end of the gun. His northern Alabama accent didn’t match his words. “I said, “Wake up. Bitch!’ Move it!”
She didn’t. She didn’t even breathe, which was no loss, given the unwashed fumes coming off the young man. Not for the first time in her unlife, she was glad that breathing was optional for her. Now, if only she could shut off her entire olfactory system, so she didn’t have to smell him.
Holy hell, kid, she thought, are you allergic to soap? Never heard of deodorant? Fine, I can hold my breath till Saturday… or whatever day is your bath day. Not that I’ll be here that long. People to see, places to go, et cetera, et cetera.
His pitch went from gansta-wannabe bass to teenage-boy tenor. “I think this bitch is dead, Ty. What the hell?” His voice cracked on “hell” and hit into the soprano range, where it stayed. “How’d some dead chick wind up in our pantry?”
My, my, aren’t we fancy, Lana thought. “Pantry”? It’s a root cellar. Hunting shacks don’t have “pantries.” This one doesn’t even have a toilet! Not that I need a toilet, but it’s the principle of the thing.
“Well, butthead, maybe you could holler my name a little louder,” a slightly older man said from across the shack. “She might be dead or she might be playin’ possum. And if she’s alive, we’ll have to take care of that, Robert James Taylor, so she can’t go telling anyone what you can’t seem to keep from shouting to the whole damn world, which is my name.”
His voice had risen to a bellow, and the gun barrel was shaking now, digging into Lana’s cheek in time with the younger man’s quivers.
“Aw, hell, Ty– I mean, well, crap. I didn’t mean nothing by it. And she’s dead. I can tell. She ain’t breathing and she ain’t moving and…” his voice dropped off. A few seconds passed, then he gulped and asked, “You want me to shoot her?”
Lana almost flinched. No! It hurts and it leaves a mark for days and it gets blood all over my clothes. And I just might have to eat you if you do. Ew, god, no. Not unless you were the last meal on Earth… and even then, only after a bath… or six.
Ty sighed. Lana could picture him rubbing his face and clenching his jaw.
“No, RJ, I do not want you to shoot her. Hand me the flashlight, get the hell out of the way and let me see for myself,” Ty spoke slowly and clearly, like he was talking to a ten-year-old.
“Idiot,” Ty muttered under his breath as he approached, which almost made Lana smile. “Why my baby brother has to be a moron, I will never understand.”
The gun went away as RJ backed out of the cellar door, too quickly perhaps. Lana heard the two men bumping into each other and the doorframe, pictured a fragment of a Three Stooges bit and had to bite down on her tongue to keep from laughing aloud. It was clear that Ty was the Moe of the duo, and RJ? He was either Curly or Shemp.
A few seconds later, a calloused hand touched her cheek for a second.
Warm, Lana thought.
“Cold,” Ty said.
The hand moved to her throat. Ty pressed two fingers into Lana’s jugular vein, held for a handful of seconds. Ty swore under his breath, repositioned his fingers by a quarter inch, then repeated the procedure in the other direction.
“Fuck. No pulse. Just what I need, a dead chick in my root cellar. Tonight, of all nights. Fuckshitfuck.” Ty stood up and looked down at her for a moment, then moved back into the main part of the shack, leaving her in the dark corner of the cellar.
So sorry to inconvenience you, sir, Lana thought. Had I known you would be coming back to your elegant wilderness abode tonight, of all nights, an abode that appears to have been abandoned for months and not cleaned since… well… ever, I would have sought another crash pad for the day. Do accept my humblest apologies and, oh, would you get the hell out of my way, so I can skedaddle?
“A dead fat chick,” RJ snorted at his own attempt at a joke.
Lana’s eyes shot open, but she didn’t move otherwise. She stifled the urge to pin the smartass against the wall and rip his throat out. Her fangs tingled in her gums at the thought, but her stomach rebelled at the thought of drinking from such an odorous man. She fought down her gag reflex and her anger, and forced her body to relax before one of the two men shone his light her direction and realized she wasn’t as dead as she used to be.
“She’s not fat, dumbass,” Ty said.
Yeah, dumbass, Lana thought, what he said. I’m not fat. I’ll have you know that for most of history, full-figured women have been valued, cherished, desired. Not like the skinny twigs these last three generations have called “ideal.” Hell, they wouldn’t have lasted a week in a famine… although some of them look like they’re living in one now. Eat a sandwich, girls! Build up some reserves! You never know when you’ll need ’em.
Ty went on. “She’s got a little meat on her, but there’s nothing wrong with that. More cushion for the pushin’… if she weren’t dead, I mean.”
Nice to know you have standards, Ty. And limits.
“She wasn’t here yesterday, Ty, I swear. I’d’ve seen her when I brung the bear traps and extra ammo.” RJ said. “And I locked the place up tight, like you always tell me to. I swear I did.”
“Yeah, RJ, I’m sure you would’ve seen her when you brought the traps and ammo,” Ty corrected him, “if you’d gone into the pantry, which you hate to do unless there’s someone with you. Which there wasn’t. And I’m sure you think you locked the door, but here she is. Inside. So, let’s do the math, shall we?”
“Aw, hell, Ty, you know I ain’t no good at math,” RJ whined.
Or grammar, Lana added.
“No, butthead, I didn’t mean–.” Ty cut himself off. “Look, however she got in here, she can’t have been here long, or she’d be stinking the place up.”
Like decomp would be noticeable over the eau de Butthead. Lana thought.
RJ started to say something, but Ty cut him off.
“The important thing is getting her the hell out of here before our clients get here,” he said. “They’re expecting to hunt bear this weekend, not watch us bury some dead chick and worry about being arrested for murder after the fact or illegal body dumping or littering. Fuck me all to hell. I do not need this.”
Bear poachers, Lana thought. Could be worse. They could be Klansmen. Or coal-company flunkies, dumping toxic waste. Not that there’s much coal mining around here, but you never know.
She wondered what they’d do if she sat up and told them to carry on, that it was none of her business how they made their money, so toodle-loo and arriva-bye-bye. Somehow she didn’t think trigger-happy RJ would take it in the spirit she would mean it. And if he started firing wildly, he might just mess up and hit her. Aside from leaving unsightly holes in and stains on her clothes, a gunshot wound would slow her down considerably, even if she were to augment her inhumanly fast healing ability with fresh blood.
From Ty, not RJ. Lana thought. She had standards, too. Either way, I’d be late. And that is not an option. Late might mean dead dead, permanently dead, ashes-to-ashes dead, if the big boss decides to make an issue out of it. I personally don’t see how being 15 minutes late to a midnight-to-dawn affair is such a big deal, even if I was late last year and maybe the year before that. Can I help it if Antoine’s such a tight ass about ritual? “We begin at midnight because our ancestors began at midnight, and their ancestors began at midnight, and their ancestors before them.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s not like anyone back then synchronized their watches or moondials or whatever.
RJ derailed her train of thought. His voice was nearing soprano again. “I think I see headlights, Ty. What do you want me to do with her?”
“Put her in the bed of the truck and throw a tarp over her. I’ll figure out what to do after we get them set up in the bear stands,” Ty said.
“Aw, hell, Ty, don’t make me touch her,” RJ begged. “I’m not sure I can carry her by myself anyways. She looks like she outweighs me by a good 20 pounds.”
One more crack about my weight, dumbass, and Ty’s gonna have a corpse on his hands for real.
(to be continued)
Author’s note: Obviously, this isn’t finished yet. I’m eager to know what you think so far, though, so feel free to leave a comment.