The Mayonnaise Murders, Chapter 10

    TMM1 Single Cover

Turned out our clean getaway wasn’t exactly as clean as either of us thought, but that wasn’t even the worst of it.

“Vee, you gotta have an idea about how this could have happened, all right? I mean, it’s gonna be way bad enough with me showing up with you back at the shack tryin’ to explain to Cluck and the crew what the hell was I thinkin’ bringin’ you back there after that Screamer headline, and now I’m supposed to try and explain this too? How, Vee? How you figure I’m supposed to tell them word leaked out that we’re supposed to be hijacking an Earth transport? You think they’re not gonna suspect it was you right away? And do you know what they’re gonna do then? To both of us? ”

But Vee was looking in the rear view mirror, her eyes wide.

“Shit…” she mumbled.

Her expression told me all I needed to know. Death was on the way.

“They’re behind us aren’t they?”

Vee nodded real slow.

“You might say that, hey? Yeah. ”

“Shit…”

“Yeah. That’s what I just said.”

“Told you we were gonna need a woman driver. Didn’t I? Didn’t I say that?”

We were stuck at a light right at the border between the city and the Dregs. I never did understand what exactly prompted whichever of our brilliant city planners that this would be the perfect spot for a stop light, but then this probably wasn’t the best time to be contemplating the shortcomings of our public servants.

“So what the hell is this female driver supposed to do now, Vid? This isn’t even my transport, which means it ain’t souped up like mine. This is just a regular, factory issue transport. No way is this a match for what they’ve got under that hood.”

Then again, maybe this was the perfect time to be familiar with city planner shortcomings.

“How far back are they?”

“About two blocks. Can’t see ‘em real clear because there’s some other transports between us, but they’re there. I think they probably know we see them, but they don’t care. They don’t figure there’s any way we can get away, and we both know they’re probably right.”

“Are they moving up on us, or just sittin’ there?”

“They’re just idling. Like I said, it’s not like they’re trying to be discreet or anything. They know they’ve got us.”

“Oh really? Well that means they know more than me, and I doubt that sincerely. When the light turns, I want you to…wait a minute. Are they idling this side of Furry Street, meanin’ it’s behind them? Or are they just on the other side of Furry? This could be important.”

“They’re this side of Furry, Vid. What…?”

“Oh this is beautiful. OK, what I want you to do is go ahead and make a U-turn once the light turns green and…it just turned. So go ahead. Do it.”

“But that would be pointing us back toward the Gerruh.”

“That it would. Now make that turn. Then I want you to take your time driving right past them to Furry. We’re not even gonna look at them, right? My guess is they’re not even gonna start to make any kinda move until we’re past them. And if they do just that much for me then they’re gonna be really pissed off because we’re gonna be gone before they even get a chance to turn around.”

“How do you figure…?”

“ ‘Cause they’re gonna have to make a U-turn too, that’s how.”

Vee gave me the look she would normally reserve for someone with considerably more mental challenges than I myself had.

“OK. And…how do you figure…Oh. Wait…”

“Right. Now you seeing the big picture? Huh? Are you?”

“OK. But…”

“Vee! The light’s about to change again! U-turn this damn car already!”

Vee made the turn, and several minutes later we were right alongside the Gerruh, both of whom were looking straight ahead and were as calm as you’d expect a couple of assassins to be. They even had their window rolled down, which kinda surprised me. That was a bit too cocky if you asked me.

“OK, now calmly take your left here onto Furry. Don’t even hint that you’re in any kind of rush. Just like you’re going to the grocery store to buy some lettuce or something like that.”

“Hurry? Oh geez, why would I be in any kind of hurry, Vid? ‘Cause they’re gonna kill us?”

“You really need to learn how to be more calm and relaxed. Like me. Go ahead, turn.”

The thing about Furry Street was that it was really a lot more like an alley than a regular street, meaning it was only wide enough for one car going one way, not including the similarly narrow sidewalk. So whoever was currently in the lane headed whichever direction pretty much had the right-of-way. Unless of course there was somebody else in that same lane headed the other direction. Then there had to be some driver negotiation – or intimidation – to decide who was gonna get to keep going straight and who was gonna have to pull over to the side. Whoever’s idea it was to build Furry Street had a lot more faith in the courtesy and generosity of critters than was advisable. But for our purposes that evening, and with Vee behind the wheel, Furry Street was going to be the Goodbye Freeway. ‘Cause knowin’ my Vee as I did and how she operated behind the wheel, there weren’t too many other drivers could ever make her move over to the side to make way. All she had to do was put enough cars headed the other direction between us and our two murderous companions and it would only take us a few miles before we could dart off of Furry, make a few wild zigs and zags, and then hopefully shake our two murder-minded buddies.

Of course, if we didn’t manage to shake ‘em, then we were dead. But that wasn’t the Plan ‘B’ I wanted to consider  right then.

Vee eased onto Furry, and right away I could see a couple cars up ahead coming our way. They were comin’ fast, which told me they knew how this street worked and already had it in their mind that they weren’t movin’ over for anybody. I looked over at Vee. She shook her head and grinned.

Beautiful.

“You might want to strap in, Mr. Vid. I’m gonna have to do some things here.”

“Just what I wanted to hear, doll. Just what I wanted to hear.”

I swear I would have paid good money to get a better look at the expressions of those two drivers as we blew by them, but we were going way too fast. I’d like to think it was terror. As for what the Gerruh were thinking, the only way we were going to find that out was if we managed to make it far enough ahead to get off Furry and weave our way back to the Dregs. Once we got to the Dregs, if they weren’t anywhere in the rear view, then we were home free.

“You see them back there?”

I turned to see if I could get a good look, but for several moments all I could see was dust, several terrified critters who had thrown themselves out of the way, and a few transports still tryin’ to straighten themselves out. I could only imagine the curse words being said.

“Nope, not a sign. Let’s keep goin’ straight for a few more blocks, then we’re gonna make a quick right and make our way back to the Dregs just as fast as you can possibly make this thing fly. Don’t even worry about the Keystones. They might be able to follow us into the Dregs but there isn’t much they can do to us out there, and that’s if they catch us. But if we get caught by the Gerruh…?”

“Got it. You just stay buckled up.”

It was good advice. I must have seen my life pass before my eyes at least three times, but I never let on to Vee. The important thing was getting us the hell outta there and quick.

Once we were finally back to within sighting distance of the Dregs, I told Vee not to slow down as I took another long hard look behind us. If the Gerruh were back there then they had one of those camouflage transports, and I wasn’t gonna let myself worry about that right then. We had more than enough worries to keep us occupied for the next however long it was gonna take  to get us back to the shack.

Vee looked over at me after I’d concluded my rear view inspection. I shook my head.

“Nothin’. We’re clear. Now you’d better let me drive ‘cause I don’t think you know the way.”

We stopped just long enough for me to get out and jog around to her side and hop in while she slid over. I strapped in and stomped on the pedal like I was tryin’ to kill somethin’. For the next couple hours neither one of us said a thing, I guess each of us working out in our own mind what the future looked like from here – or if we even had one. By the time I saw the large, claw-shaped rock that let me know we were close to the shack I had pretty much worked out how I was gonna approach this thing with Cluck and crew. I decided to run it by Vee.

“I think I’ve got a plan.”

Vee stared straight ahead, not sayin’ a thing. She didn’t even nod.

“It ain’t gonna be easy with these guys, you know, but then you probably already figured that, right?”

“Probably,” she said, still with the stare.

“Right. So, then, you think maybe you might wanna hear the plan? You know, just to see if it makes any kinda sense to you.”

She shrugged.

“Sure. Why not.”

If Vee had just said, ‘sure’? Then I probably woulda been OK with it. Not happy as could be, mind you, but OK. But it was when she added the ‘why not’ that pushed me over the edge.

“OK, look. You’re the one came up with the plan to go back inside the paper. That plan didn’t quite work. Then, after I show up at the paper to find out what the hell was up, it was you decided you had to leave the paper and come back with me, knowing how hard this was gonna be after that story you wrote.”

“That wasn’t my story!” she practically yelled, her eyes shooting bullets my way.

“Oh. OK. Then the story that magically appeared under your byline about flesh-eating chickens.”

“Vid that is not fair! I told you what happened with that, how they made me write that story against my will! It was all a trap. That’s why it is I have to come back with you, hey? You know that. It’s not safe for me anymore.”

“You mean it’s not safe for us anymore, don’t you? Which is why I thought you might  wanna take a little more interest in this plan I came up with.”

“Look, it’s not that I’m not interested in your plan, it’s just…don’t you wanna know why they were trying to lay that trap for you?.”

“I suppose so…yeah…”

“It’s because they already knew about the Earth transport you guys are supposed to get smuggled onto. They don’t know exactly when, or at least it didn’t seem like they knew, and they don’t know which port you’re leaving from, but then there’s only five ports on all of Vivacious 5, right? So how hard could it be for them to track you guys down?”

“The Twins…”

“Who?”

“The Twin Uglies is what we call ‘em. They’re the ones got the hook-up for us to that Earth transport. We already paid them the money, and I thought Cluck had already checked them out so I really can’t figure why or how they’d be the ones. Cluck doesn’t seem like the type to make those kind of mistakes. He’s crazy, but not that kinda crazy. But I don’t know who else it could be if not them. But hey, you still haven’t told me why…”

“Why they want you?”

“Absolutely. Yeah. Why? I’m just a private dick tryin’ to make a living. What do they have against me? And who is this ‘they’ anyway?”

“I’m still not sure about that. It was my boss, my editor, who took me into a room not long after I got back and told me what I had to do. But I know it’s gotta go higher than him, hey? But I don’t have anything else to go on ‘cause he wouldn’t give me anything else. Said there were some ‘big eyes on this’. That’s what he said. Big eyes. And he said they were pretty sure you had a big part to play in this whole thing.”

“Big part to play in what thing? Even if the Twins leaked that we’re trying to sneak our way on board a transport, there’s no way they could have told whoever it is the reason ‘cause they have no idea. All the Twins know is that we have to get to Earth and we can’t leave any official record of our travel plans behind. The Twins never asked and we never told them.”

“Well if they don’t know that then they know something else. Whatever it is has got them seriously nervous, Vid. Otherwise why would they bring in the Gerruh?  You don’t hire their kind to track down somebody who’s behind on parking tickets. And why haven’t they told any of the authorities? Why haven’t the Keystones been notified?”

“Probably because they’re a bunch of idiots but that’s beside the point. Look, Vee, you’re not gonna like me askin’ this question, but I gotta ask anyway; It wasn’t you told whoever’s chasin’ us what the real reason is we’re going was it? Maybe just to try and stop this crazy plot before it got…”

“I cannot believe you would even think…

“Vee, we both know what Cluck and his guys are planning is wrong, all right? So I would understand, even if it was putting me in danger I would understand. So if that’s what happened, I mean, if that’s what you felt like you had to do then, well…”

Vee was giving me the kind of look that could put frost on a fire, so I threw my hands up and gave her my best pitiful look. It didn’t have much effect that I could see right off the bat, but I was determined to wear her down.

“OK, Vee. OK. OK. All right? I get it already. It wasn’t you. I figured you’d know why I had to ask, but maybe not. Anyway…”

“Forget it. Just shut up and tell me the plan.”

“Shut up and…right, right. OK, I did have this one plan which I figured was pretty good, but after you told me about how somebody up there has it in for us, that they forced you to do that story? I’m thinking now maybe just telling Cluck the truth might be all we need.”

For awhile all I could hear was the smooth hum of the engine as we ate up the road on the way to the shack, which I figured couldn’t be any more than five minutes away. I glanced over at Vee, trying to glimpse a hint of what she might be thinking, but her face had gone blank.

“I mean, if these guys were telling you that you had to write this story to flush me out and everything, right? I mean that would make sense why you’d do something like that. You see that, right?”

“Tell them the truth…” she said, her voice almost as flat and vacant as the expression on her face.

“Seriously, Vee, I don’t know what else we got, OK? I really don’t. I’m not saying I know it’ll work but I don’t see as how we have a whole lotta options to choose from here. And it’s not like we got a lotta time. We’re almost there.”

Vee chuckled, but not like anything was funny. More like a ‘you gotta be outta your damned mind but whatever’ kind of chuckle. Then she shrugged.

“Fine. The truth. Let’s try that.”

“So that’s it? You’re on board just like that?”

“You want me to sign something, darling Vid? I will, you know. Anything for you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I didn’t say anything. Just kept my eyes on the road until the shack came into view. The closer we got, the more abandoned it looked. Or maybe I should say more abandoned than usual.

“Anybody home?” asked Vee.

“Yeah, I was wondering the same…”

But then, right at that moment, just as we were pulling up right alongside, Cluck came sauntering around from the left, which was on my side of the vehicle. Once I turned off the engine I could hear he was whistling some little tune. I was expecting to see his feathered friends coming along behind him, but it appeared he was all alone which was kinda odd. As he approached, I forced a grin and then waved. That right there probably signaled him something wasn’t right since he knew I couldn’t stand him. I wasn’t sure he’d seen Vee right off, but soon as he got up to the window and leaned down there was no doubt. Funny thing was, he didn’t act all that surprised. Matter of fact, he didn’t act surprised at all. He just motioned for me to roll down the window.

“Hi,” he said.

My chest got tight.

“Yeah. Uh…hi back. What’s new?”

“Hmmm..well now it does appear that such a question might be considerably more appropriate coming from myself at this particular moment, wouldn’t you agree? For the obvious reason seated next to you of course.”

“Right. And I’m ready to get to that. But first, where are your friends?”

“Inside of course. Did you perhaps expect them to be outside playing a rousing game of volleyball?”

“OK , that’s cute. Look, here’s the thing about that, because believe it or not this is gonna affect you too. Matter of fact it’s gonna affect the whole plan you got goin’ here in a pretty big way.”

Cluck looked back and forth from me to Vee and back again, that poisonous smile of his never leaving his face. Cluck was the only guy I knew who made you feel better when he wasn’t smiling. Matter of fact, if the day ever came where I was lucky enough to see him sitting by the side of the road crying his eyes out, it would probably make my day.

“Affect our plans in a pretty big way, you say? And how might that pretty big way be?”

“OK first, you mind if we get out of the car? This just doesn’t feel comfortable you leaning all inside the vehicle like that. Not normal.”

Cluck took several dramatic steps backward, gesturing in a real fancy way with his hands that we should exit the transport.

“By all means free yourselves. Where would we be without normality?”

“Right,” I said, as I opened the door and stepped outside. “So do we do this out here, or shouldn’t we step inside?”

“Wellll… we do this here for now. Because quite frankly unless I have a remarkable explanation to give Butch and the boys for why you have returned with that tagging along, I must confess I simply cannot vouch for what they may do. Could be I may join in, seeing as how they are, after all, the only real family I have.”

By that time Vee had come around to stand beside me next to the transport. Both of us had our arms folded tight.

“OK fine. I can understand that. We do it your way. Vee? Tell the man what you told me.”

But Vee was  set on a slow burn from the inside out after hearing Cluck refer to her as ‘that’. I already knew what it was without having to ask, so when the seconds kept ticking away and she didn’t say anything I let the silence hang there between us for a good long while like a thick stench before finally nudging her with my elbow.

“It’s on you now. Don’t screw this up over dumb stuff, all right?”

I figured that little comment would piss her off enough to unlock her tongue. I was right.

“Whenever it was that you guys were planning on leaving for Earth, you’d better cut that time by at least half. Otherwise? You’re all dead.”

“Excuse me, my dear Vee, but…”

“They know about your trip and they’ve hired the Gerruh. I don’t know who leaked it or why, or how, but it’s happened. Somebody way up high knows your plans and they don’t like those plans and they’re willing to put in a lotta effort to make sure those plans don’t work. As for that story, the same whoever it is that’s behind trying to shut you down is the same whoever that was behind forcing me to write that story. Think about it, Cluck; you know my reputation. You might not like the stuff I write, but when have you ever heard about me getting anything that wrong? When have I ever been accused of making stuff up?”

“Well, actually…”

“OK, scratch that. Sure. Critters make accusations. But name one time it was ever proven. And flesh-eating chickens? Really? I mean…really? Cluck, that’s what you get from some amateur, some kid on her first time out, not someone who’s been there. You think about it for any longer than a few seconds and you know this wasn’t me.”

Cluck’s insane grin stayed locked in place, but now he was leaning back against the transport scratching his chin, his left eyebrow arched.

“Go on. I’m listening.”

Vee looked over at me kinda confused, then back at Cluck. She shrugged her shoulders.

“Listening what? That’s it. Wasn’t me.”

“Oh I think you had better fork over a few more pounds of red meat for me to take inside darling, unless you really don’t care whether or not you make it out of here in one piece.”

Vee took two quick steps forward, but I grabbed her shoulder and squeezed. Told her to take a step back. I couldn’t blame her for being all hot and bothered, but right now we couldn’t afford any wrong moves.

“How about this,” I said, keeping my hand fastened to Vee’s shoulder. “I’m thinking there weren’t but a handful knew we had any plans at all, right? If you think it’s me or Vee? Hey, we’re right here lookin’ at ya. But if it wasn’t us, then that only leaves a coupla choices; either it was one of your fine feathered friends, or it was the Twins. That’s it. So unless you wanna question your crew one by one, I say we need to take Vee’s advice and hightail it down there to see the Twins first thing in the morning before they even roll outta bed and strongly suggest they put us on the next Earth transport outta here. No questions asked. They may stutter and spit about how this wasn’t what we agreed and it’s too short notice, but in the end? I think we can make them come to an understanding. Besides, they already have the money, right?”

Cluck squinted hard, something I didn’t recall him doing much, as he looked back and forth from me to Vee, then back again. Slowly, he started to nod.

“Perhaps there is something vaguely, remotely resembling intelligence in what you say. I must confess I was not expecting, of all things, intelligence, but the two of you have surprised Deep Cluck. Indeed you have. Indeed you have…”

“So now you’re referring to yourself in the third person?” I asked.

Cluck ignored me as he shifted his gaze back down the road we had come to reach the shack. He looked down that road a long time without saying a word, and I looked at him looking down that road. His grin had faded, and I wondered if he even knew why. It was as if the Cluck that I was so accustomed to seeing had stepped away while this new individual had stepped in.

Then, all of the sudden, Cluck’s eyes lit up as if someone inside his head had flicked a switch.  He gingerly pushed himself away from the transport, winked at us both, and headed toward the shack at a rapid pace. Vee and I watched him go, not sure whether we should follow until we saw him motion to us with his forefinger. I started to follow, but this time it was Vee who was holding me back by the shoulder. She was shaking her head just enough for me to notice, her eyes locked on Cluck. She cleared her throat.

“So then…so you’re gonna tell them, right? Johnny Beardy and the chickens? That we’re all right?”

Cluck looked back at us over his shoulder just as he reached the door, his eyes glinting with all kinda mischief. For the second time he motioned for us to follow him with his finger.

“What have you got to fear, dear girl? We’re all family here.”

Then he pulled open the door and disappeared inside. When it closed, the sharp echo made Vee jump just a bit.

“No,” she said real quiet. “No. We’re not all family here. And you freakin’ know it.”

“What do you wanna do?” I asked.

Vee looked up at me, something soft and vulnerable in those big pretty eyes of hers.

“You’re really asking?”

I nodded.

“Yeah. I’m really asking. I’m willing to follow your lead on this. If you wanna go in, then we go in. If you wanna hop back in the transport and hightail it outta here to somewhere else, then that’s what we do. I’m with you on this one. I’m on your page.”

I said it because I knew it was what Vee needed to hear right then, and the way she reached over and squeezed my wrist real gentle let me know I’d made the right call. We stared at each other a little while, not really needing to say anything, and then Vee let loose with this real deep, real drawn out sigh. She closed her eyes, then mashed her lips together tight.

“So we’re going in then, I take it?”

Vee nodded.

“Guess we really have been knowing each other awhile,” she whispered.

“Yeah. Guess so.”

When we stepped inside, fighting the urge to hold hands, the upstairs room was empty. Right away my heart tried to jump outta my chest, and judging by how hard Vee swallowed a ball of air it wasn’t hard to tell she was having the same thoughts.

“So where could he have…”

Hellllloooooooo!!”

We both jumped straight up in the air.

“Downstairs you silly kids! Come on down and join the party!”

I took three deep breaths, hoping there wasn’t a hidden camera somewhere letting them watch just how nervous the two of us were. I tried to get myself calm before I answered.

“Party…?” I squeaked. Dammit.

I could have done without all the guffawing and wheeze-inducing laughter that came blasting up the stairs in response to my considerably less-than-manly reply, and the taut expression on Vee’s face let me know I wasn’t inspiring confidence right at that moment.

“Oh fuck yeah, dude,” came Beardy’s voice. “No way can this party get started until you guys come on down. You’re like the guests of honor, man, so bring those asses!”

I looked over at Vee, and forced what I hoped was a brave-looking smile.

“Hey, at least they’re laughin’, right?”

“Yeah. But I’m not, Vid, all right? I’m not.”

My mind ran through a file of things to say, but none of them seemed to fit.  I knew  saying the wrong thing was worse than saying nothing at all, so I ran my finger across her cheek as soft as I could, then headed for the stairs.

“Vid…?”

“It’s gonna be OK.”

Vid.”

“You heard what I said, Vee. And you know I’ll kill everybody in the damned room before I let them even think they’re gonna hurt you all right? You gotta know that.”

Just before I took the first step down toward the basement, I looked over my shoulder and caught the hint of a smile. That was all I needed.

What they called the basement was really more like a deep cave, the kind of place you’d imagine was built with the intention of hiding some pretty heavy secrets for as long as they needed to be hidden. The smell was thick and greasy moist, not pleasant, and the lighting was supplied by a couple bulbs hanging from overhead. Getting down the stairs musta taken me close to a minute at least, and for anyone who’s ever gone down any stairs, you know that equals a lot. The room itself – there was only one – was pretty spare. Just like upstairs. Some chairs, a few couches, and just big enough to house the entire twisted crew, all of whom I noticed were glaring at us both with anything but smiles. The laughter had dried up just that quick.

“Thought somebody said something about a party goin’ on,” I said.

“That a fact? Somebody said that huh?”

That was Butch, who was standing over to my right leaning up against the wall, his huge feet crossed at the ankles, slapping a large slug of wood the size of a baseball bat into his palm. I noticed another one of the chickens juggling a long, thick section of chain from hand to hand. Both of them looked like they were waiting on a signal. Beardy stood front and center a few steps ahead of the pack just staring, his arms crossed over his chest, legs spread wide. This was probably the more sensible time to be terrified, but for some reason I suddenly felt more calm than I had the entire long and crazy day.

“Yeah. Somebody who sounded like you. But hey, if the party’s over and the dancin’ girls is gone then I guess…”

“Sit your butts down. Both of you.”

“Screw you, Beardy. You don’t get to tell me or my butt what to do, and the same goes for Vee.  If you’ve already made up your mind to kill us, before you even know what the hell is going on, then get it over with. But I gotta tell you it does kinda piss me off  how we just wasted our time – and yours – up there tryin to explain the whole story to your boy Deep Cluck right before we came down here. And I know he hasn’t had enough time to repeat any of it yet, and obviously he hasn’t bothered to tell you why maybe you should listen to what we got to say before the Gerruh show up.”

Yep, that definitely got the planned response. Just that quick the noise of the bat slapping Butch’s palm came to a halt, and the chain slid loudly onto the other poor bird’s foot, which provoked an impressive stream of curse words I hadn’t heard used in quite some time. Cluck’s sick grin was hard and stretched tight as if it might break, and I could just about swear Johnny Beardy was starting to get the shakes.

“The…the Gerruh…?”

“…but…”

“…I mean…”

“…how…?”

Vee giggled, which was a sound worth its weight in all kinds of precious metal. Things were tilting back our way. Improbable as it seemed, Deep Cluck actually stretched his grin a little wider. I actually thought his face might split open from the strain of it all.

“I ummm…I do not believe you happened to mention anything about the Gerruh actually being on their way during the course of our earlier discussion. As a matter of fact, I am quite sure no mention whatsoever was made of this rather significantly alarming development.”

“Yeah. I know. Kinda changes things doesn’t it? Makes things a little more urgent?”

Beardy took a step forward, his face trying to figure out which expression he thought might work.

“Dude, I mean…why? Why would you lead those guys…”

“OK, stop right there. Because as much as me and Vee are enjoying this, I do have an itty bitty conscience, and it’s doing back flips right about now.”

Cluck’s face-splitting grin went into a slight retreat as his eyes cut to slits.

“Itty bitty conscience? Back flips? Really.

“Oh yeah. Really. But here’s the deal for real; we gotta be on the first Earth transport smokin’ outta here tomorrow morning. Just like we told you outside. Which means we gotta pack up tonight and drag our stuff over to the Twins and explain the situation. Only they don’t get to say ‘no’.”

“OK whoa. Stop. Cluck? Listen, dude. Now there’s something going on that the three of you know, but nobody’s told any of the rest of us a damned thing, so either you explain what it is Vid’s talking about or I think…”

“No. You don’t. I do the thinking in this partnership, please remember. And as you may recall there is quite a good reason for this arrangement. Nevertheless, in light of recent developments perhaps you have a point. But first I require a bit of clarification about …”

“About the Gerruh? Whether they’re really on their way? The short answer is yes, they are. The longer answer is I’m not sure how long it’s gonna take because I think we shook ‘em pretty good before heading out here. But you know how those guys are at tracking. So there’s your answer on that. And as for the story with Vee, since I know the rest of you down here probably still think maybe she tried to pull a fast one by writing that story? Yeah, well no. I’m not going into any details, but Cluck here knows the story so I figure that should be good enough for everybody else. And you should know Vee ain’t stupid, which she’d have to be to show up here in your little underground cave with only one way out after trying to set you guys up. I know Cluck’s the one that does most of the thinking around here, but even you guys should have enough functioning brain cells to figure that one out for yourselves.”

I could tell by the looks on their faces they weren’t too thrilled with the functioning brain cell remark, but I had to show ‘em I wasn’t scared, even if deep inside I was wondering if  maybe this was the end of the line for me. But despite the looks, and the grumbling and mumbling, none of them made a move, which was a good sign. Plus neither Cluck nor Beardy said a thing. They still didn’t like either one of us much at all, but they were starting to see how maybe we could be useful. Then again, maybe they were figuring it was a better idea to keep us close than to let us run wild up here on Planet 10 with no supervision. Whatever the reason, we got to keep breathing, which was definitely a mark in the plus column.

Three hours later we were all on the road to make an unscheduled return visit with the Twins. All during the time we’d been packing up nobody said much except to grunt, or maybe mutter a brief instruction or two about what needed to be taken and what needed to be left behind. The plan, for obvious reasons, was to travel as light as possible. There was apparently a connect at our meetup spot down on Earth who could hook us up with whatever we needed for our time there. Plus, given what these guys were planning, I was guessing not much thought was going into a return trip anytime soon. This could easily turn into a one-way trip from Bad to Worse.

Once we all pulled up in front of the Twins’ warehouse location, Cluck hopped out the door of that raggedy bus of theirs before it had a chance to slow down real good. Even in his mismatched plaids and highwater pants there was still something a little menacing about the way he was striding toward that door. Like he planned to walk straight through it and grab the Twins by their necks, which I suspect may have been an idea running on a screen in the back of his horribly misshapen head.

“Vid? What do you…”

“Shhh. Let’s just see how all this plays out before we make any sudden moves. Besides, I think we’ve made enough sudden moves over the past few days, don’t you think?”

Vee reached over and squeezed my thigh, which caused a rather rapid involuntary response that wasn’t particularly helpful at the given time.

“Uhh…Vee…?”

But Vee just purred. Thankfully it wasn’t long before there was some activity at the Twins’ door, most of which was being provided by Cluck, who had apparently decided against the subtle approach and was banging on the thick slab of steel like he thought they were torturing his mother on the other side. Watching Cluck go nuts made it even funnier to listen to what he was saying because Cluck talked so damned proper, even when he was pissed off in maximum fashion.

“Quite sorry, but this will not wait! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME IN THERE? Plans have changed due to certain situations, and I am afraid you will be required to open this door NOW. Please do not force me to consider…”

Cluck wasn’t forced to consider. The door groaned loudly like it had a massive stomach ache, then opened just enough for Cluck to push his way through, which he did after motioning for the rest of us to follow.

“So I guess we’re leaving everything else out here then…?” asked Vee.

“Hey, it’s Cluck, right? Don’t expect it to make sense. Besides, we can come out later and grab all our stuff. But for right now we need to make it through that door before it closes because we definitely don’t wanna be sitting here outside all alone waiting for them to come back.

“True.”

Once all were inside, the door groaned shut behind us and we were in darkness just like the last time. Then, once again just like last time, we all went temporarily blind as someone turned on a light that came on strong like a fist full of sunshine right between the eyes. Once the eyes adjusted I was wishing they hadn’t. The Twins, still ugly and still smoking those dick-shaped cigars, were each sitting in front of us on rather large stools to support their overly large selves, their arms folded over their chests, looking pissed – and stark naked. My first reflex was to shove my hand in front of Vee’s face, but then I noticed that amused grin and I figured I was probably too late.

“You boys look good enough to lick from head to toe,” she said in a voice that I’d been dreaming would call my name since puberty.

The Twins looked at one another in amazed confusion, and the rest of us looked at Vee as if she’d lost her mind.

“Exactly what in the…”

“Shut up Beardy,” I said.

Surprisingly Beardy did exactly that. But even more surprising, the Twins were acting as if they’d suddenly woken up and realized how ugly they were with no clothes and were glancing nervously around the room like they were trying to locate a towel or anything that would cover them up while at the same time slapping their oversized hands all over their bodies trying to cover up first one slab of exposed flesh and then another. Vee wasn’t what they’d expected, which is what Vee specialized in. Because she wasn’t what most critters expected.  It was one of the qualities that made her such a deadly page-scratcher.

Looooose something?” she asked, taking several hip-swiveling steps forward.

“Maybe a girl can help. You’d be surprised what a girl like me can do for a big double hunka naked critter like the pair of you two, hey? All that marvelous body to cover and so little time to get to work, you know what I mean?”

Finally Twin #1 got up the gumption to squeak out a question, “Who…?”

Then came Twin #2 with, “Yes, who…??”

“Quite marvelous, wouldn’t you say?” asked Cluck, who I could see was starting to catch on and was actually enjoying the show as Vee sashayed and switched her way to where she was standing just a foot or two in front of the now-terrified Twins.

“Who??” the Twins demanded again in unison, this time sounding somewhat more agitated than scared.

“Well, you know, I’ll be more than happy to give you boys an answer, and maybe even give you a towel to share, but first me and my friends need your help with just a few little things. If that’s all right?”

“Fine,” said #1, “but first the towel. This is embarrassing.”

“Imagine how we feel,” I said. “Maybe next time you’ll wanna consider taking a look in the mirror before you answer the door, right? Not all of us are as impressed as Vee here with your assets.”

The eyelids of both Twins rolled up like someone had just yanked up the shades as they glared at Vee with a look that let me know a really scary light had just been switched on inside their heads.

“Surely you’re not…”

“…that Vee…?”

“The one from the…”

Vee’s only answer was to rev up that purring sound she did so well, before stroking #1 inside the thigh, right next to his…

“That just might get you half a towel, sweet. Even though I can see that won’t be enough to cover up such a big, thick critter like yourself, hey?”

By now, pretty much everyone in attendance was snickering and pointing. Seemed like the only ones not having any fun were the Twins. For some reason, #1 singled me out for a cold stare.

“I don’t remember her being with you the last time.”

“Yeah. And I don’t remember you being butt naked the last time either. Time passes, things change. Now why don’t you guys hush up for a minute while my friend Cluck fills you in on a few things.”

Cluck gave me a quick confused look, probably ‘cause I called him ‘my friend’, but then he got back into character real quick as his eyes  rolled back and forth from one twin to the other.

“This really needn’t take long at all, you know. There are just a few slightly irritating developments that seem to have presented themselves since last we met, and since these particular developments do appear to not only involve you but our planned excursion to Earth then we felt it might be wise to address these issues up close and personal. So to speak.”

They say that twins can sometimes communicate with each other without even saying a word, and I got the distinct feeling I was witnessing one of those communications at that very moment, watching the two of them watching Cluck, their eyes real hard and cold, but neither one uttering so much as a word. I could tell there was something they were sharing, something they knew that they didn’t want us to know, but they weren’t quite ready to share just yet.

“The problem we have,” said Cluck, who I could tell was having a bit too much fun with this as he clasped his hands behind his back and started to pace slowly back and forth in front of his captive audience, “is that it appears our departure date has somehow been leaked to certain outside parties that we had not cleared for inclusion. One might wonder how such a thing could have happened. And why.”

The Twins made some uncomfortable, reflexive movements to cover themselves up again, but they kept looking straight ahead.

“Suffice it to say that we are fairly certain of the how, and the who too, for that matter. But what is causing me a rather uncomfortable amount of consternation is the element of why, don’t you see. Because I just cannot fathom the reason anyone might have to pass along such information to the authorities, particularly if that someone – or perhaps let’s say those identical someones – had no idea why this trip was being made or why it might be important. In other words, what would be the benefit? And what might be the incentive, do you think?”

Right then, Vee, who had stepped a few paces back to give Cluck room to move and maneuver, stepped forward again to within thigh-stroking distance of the Twins. Both of them leaned backward away from her as far as they could without falling off of their stools.

“Towel, boys?” she said, leaning forward just enough to expose some appetizing cleavage.

Twin # 1 started to answer, but then #2 elbowed him hard in the ribs. Twin #1 gave his brother an embarrassed look, then cleared his throat as he looked away from Vee’s treats.

“You suuuuurrre?” she said, leaning forward just a bit more, “because it does appear to me that although you fellas may be Twins, one of you two has a bit more rise in his little occasion, if you know what I mean…?”

I think it was the ‘little’ part of the occasion that really set #1 off, hollering about how could she call his occasion little, and didn’t she just refer to them as a pair of thick twins, and on and on as Vee just stood there with a mild grin on her face, and I knew she had to be wondering why this was so much easier than she’d thought it would be. Then she winked, spun around on her heel, and gave them both a lesson in the rhythm of departure I’m sure they will never forget. And judging by the appreciative grunts coming from Beardy, I suspect he carried those images with him in a safe and happy place for quite a while too. As for Cluck, I gotta give it to him, he stayed focused on the business at hand.

“You can bring those towels back with you, Vee my dearest. I do believe our two friends are in a bit more of a cooperative mood. Am I correct in that assumption?”

Twin # 2 gave his brother a look that could have melted diamonds, then called him a few choice names that I had to file away for future use. But after that the two of them nodded.

“Fine,” they said.

Cluck’s smile lit up like it had been plugged in.

“Fine it is then!” he announced.

“But the chickens have to leave,” said #2. “We’re not spilling our guts in front of those freak birds of yours. Despite appearances, we’re still pretty civilized.”

If it hadn’t been for Beardy’s quick reflexes, Butch would have stomped both Twins into the ground right then and there without even ruffling a tail feather. All those birds stayed pretty revved up, which was why they’d wound up outcasts in the first place. But Butch was the worst of them by far. That chicken was close to dangerous.

“You sissy boys want civilized? Huh? ‘Cause I’ll give you civilized right here and now, you got me? Do you? I’ll…”

Beardy shook Butch. Hard. Then he smacked the back of his head.

“Timing, dude,” he said, sounding more calm than I’d ever heard Beardy sound. “Timing is everything. We need these clowns right now. So bottle it up and save it for when we can put that temper to some serious use, right? So easy. Eeeeeeasy.”

Gradually, Butch’s chest heaves subsided from huffing and puffing back to normal breathing level. A few minutes later and all the chickens had been cleared out, mumbling protests under their breath the whole way. Once we heard the door close, the four of us remaining – me, Vee, Cluck and Beardy – pulled up four chairs right in front of our hosts. By now they had their towels and, though I wouldn’t exactly call them relaxed, they did appear a bit more loose, which worked in our favor. That combined with the fact that these guys really weren’t that bright.

Sooooooo…” said Cluck, raising an eyebrow.

“First of all, we’re not confessing to anything. We’re not crazy. But there are some things we could probably help you with,” said #2, followed by a sharp nod from #1. I was getting the distinct impression that #1 was the flunky in this equation.

“Right,” he barked.

“Oh absolutely right, I’m inclined to agree,” said Cluck. “For example, I believe you can help us right away with moving up our planned departure date. Once we have that squared away then we can proceed to the other items.”

“Move it up to when?” asked #2.

“It will have to be tomorrow morning, I’m afraid. First shuttle.”

“Excuse me what?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we were sitting quite so far apart. I said that me and my colleagues must be on the first shuttle departing for Earth in the morning.”

“Oh wait a damned…”

“I am quite sorry again but no, I’m afraid we cannot wait. If someone or someones had not felt compelled to leak our planned departure date to various and sundry outside parties that had no need to know, then suffice it to say we would not be having this discussion. But seeing as how this is indeed exactly what did transpire, then we unfortunately were left with no other workable options except to depart as soon as possible. We all stayed up practically all night packing our belongings in a rush and it really was quite a trying ordeal. But we are survivors and adaptors. I must say this is what we do quite well. So. Are we understood?”

“Look, I know we’re the go-to guys for last-minute transportation around here, especially when it has to be kept off the books, but there’s only so many miracles in a day, all right? I mean…”

Cluck looked at his watch, grinned like a maniac, then shoved his scrawny branch of a wrist in front of #2’s face.

“Do you see the time? It does appear to me that we are only minutes away from entering into a brand new day. Time for another miracle!”

So this level of back-and-forth went back and forth for a few more minutes, I think mainly because Cluck loved listening to himself talk these guys into a really painful corner. Even I had to admit it was quite a work of art, and I’m not exactly what you’d call a connoisseur. But when  it was all said and done, the Twins had managed to see the light and Cluck had extracted the promise that whatever else might not be on that shuttle in the morning, all of us most certainly would be. Then we moved on to the part I really wanted to hear about, namely how the Gerruh had found out about our plans to get off the planet.

“To be honest? I don’t have the slightest idea how they found out, and I’m serious about that. We never talked to the Gerruh because we like to live. And anybody who talks to the Gerruh directly, except for a few Way Higher Ups, usually doesn’t have a lot of time left on his dance card, if you know what I mean.”

“I do indeed,” said Cluck. “So then the question becomes, exactly who was it that you did tell? And, of course, why? Since, well, we specifically told you not to tell anyone and all of that.”

Twin #2 put his fist to his mouth and cleared his throat, making a sound like a small rodent could have been caught in there, then looked away. He slumped a bit, and was back to having a hard time getting comfortable.

“Yeah…about that…”

“Yes. About that.”

“Right. Well…we got this call not too long after you guys left. Call was from the Travel Bureau. They always call once a week to check on our log of who’s going where and when. Mostly they don’t care, except when it comes to Earth travel, which makes sense because of all the illegal trafficking and all that. Seems like no matter how hard the officials clamp down, they can’t clamp down hard enough, you know? Because…”

“Yes. Moving right along, then?”

“Oh. Right. So, well, the call comes in, and I take it. They ask me this and then they ask me that, like they normally do, so I’m not focusing in real hard because everything seems routine at first. My mind is kinda roaming in other places. But then whoever it was on the other end of the line asks me if we’d had any unusual visitors recently. So right then my mind stops roaming to those other places I was telling you about. Because this here, this was not a routine question. I ask the guy – it was a guy – unusual like what? Specifics is what I need.”

“Certainly so.”

“Absolutely. So he doesn’t say anything for awhile, and I’m starting to think maybe he’d hung up and I just didn’t hear the click, but then he repeats it again, like he thinks I’m dense or something. ‘Unusual, meaning the opposite of usual. That’s what I mean by unusual,’ is what the guy says. Which is why I called him an asshole. Which I’m pretty sure is why he started threatening to pull our license if I didn’t give him what he needed to know. So then I back up a bit because without the license we’re through, and I tell him I’m not trying to be that difficult I just need something to go on. Something more than ‘unusual’, which could fit just about half the folks on this rock, you know?”

Cluck chuckled.

“Quite true. Go on.”

“Sure. So then he asks me if I know who killed Johnny Beardy, and I tell him last I heard was somebody found his body face-down dead in a mayonnaise sandwich, but then his body disappeared or something. Whatever was in the Screamer. Said I didn’t know any more about it than anyone else. I promise you guys I did not let on that I knew anything different. But then this guy’s voice comes back at me, and for some strange reason I’m starting to get the feeling he sees me at the same time he’s talking to me. Just a chill I got, and my twin can tell you when I get a chill it’s something to take notice of. And right after I got that chill? That’s when he asks me if I have any idea why a dead rock star would want to book a trip to Earth.”

“Whoa. Dude! Hold the fuck up. What?” 

Johnny had gone from leaning way back in his chair, looking around the room like he didn’t much give a damn what the guy was saying, to leaning forward all the way up in front of #2’s face. Cluck grabbed Beardy and pulled him back.

“Kindly let the man finish. He has information we may need prior to our departure.”

“But did you hear what he…?”

“I’m sitting right here, so yes. But you’re obviously not dead, so I hardly think it matters right now. There are more urgent…”

“More urgent my ass, man! Because nobody except you guys are even supposed to know I’m still around, and if that cover’s blown, then…”

Shhh!” Cluck says to Beardy, looking seriously pissed, then he looks back at #2 and says, “So what you’re telling me is somebody, quite likely a somebody at the highest of levels, has somehow managed to come into possession of rather sensitive information regarding our little exploit and you are unshakably certain that you are not in possession of any knowledge related to how this particular somebody may have stumbled upon this information. Correct?”

Twin #2 had a look forming on his face like a kid gets when he’s tryin to solve this really tough math problem in front of the whole class.

“Uh…yeah. Something along those lines, yeah. What you said. So anyway, that exchange right there kinda let me know that maybe this whole thing might be above my pay grade, you know?”

“Meaning…?”

“Meaning it could maybe get me and my brother in the kinda trouble that we might not be able to get out of.”

“Ah. I see. So you were scared, then?”

Twin #2 started nodding like one of those bobble-head dolls.

“Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And I don’t mind saying it either. Normally we’re not the kind to scare easy, but sometimes you damned sure better be scared, and you need to recognize those times when they show up. This was one of those times, believe me, and that’s why – just being honest here – that’s why I decided to put me and my brother’s general health and well being above your travel plans, OK? Whoever that was on the other end of that line knew how to make it plain without saying it straight out that not answering those questions would be the last mistake I’d ever get a chance to make, and that’s all the encouragement I needed. So if you guys want your money back then…”

“Oh my dear no! Why ever would we want our money back when you’re going to have us on the first transport leaving tomorrow morning as we just discussed? No, I am one who believes that a deal is a deal, and our deal has been sealed. I simply would like to know if you recall whether there was an indication this terrifying voice you encountered happened to betray any particular knowledge about the nature of our trip? After all, if they know how to bring the dead back to life then it would not particularly surprise me if they knew a few other things as well.”

“Knew how to bring the dead back to…? Oh. Oh! Right. Good one. And no, I’m pretty sure not. For what it’s worth, I didn’t give any long answers, meaning I didn’t spill any more than I had to.”

“Quite right. So then when he asked you why you thought a dead rock star might want to book a trip to Earth, you said…?”

“I said damned if I know is what I said, and that’s the truth. Told him I didn’t ask my clients questions about why they were going where they were going I just collected the money plain and simple. Just business.”

“Thought you said you didn’t give any long answers.”

“You think that’s long?”

Cluck shrugged.

“Some might say. But then who’s to say, hmm?”

Twin #2 shrugged in response with this pathetic-lookin grin.

“Right? Who’s to say.”

Cluck asked him a few more questions but from that point forward the interrogation routine was pretty much through. We got all we were gonna get outta the guy, and we’d gotten a lot of what we needed, so wasn’t any need to push much harder on this thing. A few hours later we were all asleep on the floor.

Next morning somebody’s shakin my shoulder hard, sayin my name over and over again right in my ear. It was Beardy, which I thought was strange. Plus his wasn’t the kinda voice anyone like me would ever want to wake up to.

The first few sounds I made didn’t resemble any known language, but eventually I stumbled my way into coherent.

“Whathefuhhhh…??”

“Dude, I think you’re gonna wanna see this. If you ain’t woke yet, seriously, this right here is gonna make you sit up straight like somebody shoved a pole up…”

“WHOA.”

“Look at this man, look at this. See what it says? Man, this is not good, all right?”

When my eyes finally focused I saw the thick letters of a Screamer headline shoved right up to the tip of my nose, which was kind of annoying.

“Beardy?”

“Yeah, dude. What?”

“You want me to read this headline, right?”

“Too close?”

I just let the glare tell him the rest. He pulled the paper back a few inches, and then I saw what…damn. This really wasn’t good.

“Where’d you get this?”

“Is that really the first question you wanna be askin’ me, man? Do you see what it says?”

“Oh, you mean about me and Vee being wanted fugitives and there being some kind of reward for any information leading to our apprehension? Or was there another headline up there you were referring to?”

“Right. So then you see why the part about where you askin me about where I got this  might not be…:

Where the hell did you get this?”

“Wow. You’re persistent, I’ll give you that. Probably comes in handy for a detective, right?”

“Pretty much.”

“Right. So like I pretty much got this from the Twins over there. Twin #2 if you wanna get specific. Guess they subscribe or something, which is kinda wild ‘cause I really didn’t peg them for the reading type, you know?”

Both Twins, who were sitting at the table nearby eating whatever they ate for breakfast, turned around and gave Beardy an evil eye that would have scared…well…no one.

“Oh, and you’re Shakespeare?” said Twin #1.

“Good one,” said #2.

“You know Shakespeare?”I asked.

Now the evil eye was on me, which was like being tickled by a pesty little kid.

“Perhaps the more pertinent line of inquiry here might be what this rather distressing development portends for the rest of us,” asked Cluck, without even letting his eyes wander from the bowl of cereal in front of him. Frankly I was surprised he trusted the food.

“What it portends? Seriously? Well if you’re really worried about what it all portends then I suggest you pretend like you really care what this portends for all of us instead of just you and yours.”

Cluck turned down the sides of his mouth like he was mimicking a sad clown.

“Oh that does hurt me so. I do care, I do! Now please answer the question.”

“Simple. It doesn’t portend anything for you that it doesn’t portend for me and Vee.”

“Cute. Which is?”

“Nothing good, since we’re all together in this thing, all for one and one for all. I’m pretty sure about that one. But since we’re leaving outta here in the next few hours then I don’t suppose that matters much because whatever they got planned we won’t be here to receive it.”

Cluck’s mock frown turned itself upside down, but his eyes were cold. His next question was directed at the Twins, but he kept glaring at me and Vee.

“I’m sure our agreed-upon arrangements are still firmly in place, correct, my friends?”

“Oh yeah!” said Twin #1.

“For sure!” said Twin #2.

“Well then. I guess we’d better prepare to be on our way, hadn’t we?”

The earth transport, which was docked all alone at a gate far away from the rest of the fairly crowded hub for intraplanetary transport ships, was one of those super-sized double-decker outfits with several large compartments on the bottom level usually set aside for staff and storage. We were herded into one of those compartments through a separate entrance after everyone else had been boarded. The early morning light outside was fairly dim, which meant anyone glancing in our direction from the passenger windows as we hustled our way onboard might be curious about what they were seeing, but they wouldn’t be able to say for sure what they were seeing, so we were pretty much covered.

Once inside the compartment, which I could tell was normally used for food storage, I noticed there were only two small windows to see out of, each of them fitted with a sliding cover, both of them closed. I managed to nab a seat next to one of them. As the engines revved up, I decided to unfasten the little latch and take a look since it might be my last view of home for quite some time.

What I saw nearly made my insides turn to jelly. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how in the world they had found us. And if they could find us here, would we ever be able to get away? I decided to try the fake bravado approach and wave goodbye with a smile and a tip of my hat.

The Gerruh, who were staring directly at my window, winked and waved right back. They didn’t bother smiling. They didn’t have to. And they never wore hats.

Like what you’ve read so far? Get the book to see how it all ends! Then get Part 2!

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kaoblues
Writer and musician.

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