Bleeding 2.4

James was lying on his back under a dune buggy with most of its fenders and siding intact. Laying on a wooden crawler so close to the concrete floor of his garage was one of the most relaxing positions James could ever find. Like most people, he broke a sweat almost every day, and didn’t always have the water rations for a cool shower.

Under the light frame, James was reattaching the last panel over some well-maintained wire connections. The sheriff didn’t use his buggy outside of Anthill too often, but he still had James check it regularly. The most work James had ever put into it over the years was a camouflage paint job with black, brown and white splotches.

Cliff stood to the side of the vehicle, raising his voice for James to hear, “How’s she lookin’?”

James rolled out from under the front bumper on his unpadded crawler and sat up. “Pristine as ever Cliff. Maybe take it for a joyride sometime so I have something to fix.” He faked a smile for appearance’s sake.

The sheriff nodded with a slow grin and kicked the nearest tire. “I know I oughtta blow out the cobwebs sometime, just can’t justify it if I don’t have to.”

James rolled the crawler out of the way as he stood up, then he rolled his car jack over to the front of the buggy. Cliff knelt down next to one of the props under the passenger tire, “How’s Tsara been?”

James hesitated, but kept pumping the buggy into the air until the sheriff removed the prop. “She’s coping. Been spending more time with her dad lately.”

Cliff walked around James and withdrew the other prop. “I meant today, specifically.” Cliff stared back to James’ oblivious face before continuing, “I wouldn’t authorize the bounty. She tell you?”

Bounty? James tried to sound like he knew what was going on, “Yeah, well, I imagine she’ll try to find another solution.”

Cliff narrowed his eyes, the way he often did while playing cards. The man wasn’t much older than James, but he had the momentum of a white hair. “Well you best watch her. If she’s willing to trade her freedom for a stranger, I can’t imagine what the next idea would be.”

James stared back as the sheriff stepped down into his seat. “No charge sheriff.”

Cliff tapped two fingers to his blonde hairline and clicked the vehicle on. As soon as the buggy left eyesight, James walked to the rear of his garage and slapped his palms on the smooth, stainless steel counter.

His breathing quickened, he felt his heart throb and the veins in his arms pulse. I’m losing Tsara. She blames me for Deb, even if she won’t admit it. He forced himself to take deep breaths. A bounty Cliff turned down? Has to be for Deborah, but what did he mean about Tsara giving up her freedom?

James closed his eyes, focusing on his breathing. He looked up to a small mirror he had hanging from a shelf. Behind his shoulder sat the tank from the Red Bone tribe. He glanced over to a bin as wide as the bench and as long as James’ shoulders.

How did I not think of this before? James reached into the top with both hands and slid a hefty red box across the workbench to a lamp plugged into the wall. He had already removed a section of panel to remove the power source.

Further down past the bin was a handheld monitor. He also retrieved a small set of plyers and screwdrivers. James fiddled around with the connections for a few minutes before adding a small radio tuner into the mix. Before connecting a power source, James remembered why he hadn’t tried this plan before.

*

James stepped over one of the few polished hardwood floors in town. He had changed into one of his more presentable shirts, a short sleeve, gray button up over a clean white undershirt. The councilor he was visiting wouldn’t care, but he wanted to be strictly professional for this meeting.

Every adobe building in the village had cracks in the walls, but this office interior was an exception. The red walls had been renovated heavily in the last few years. Pure black curtains hung over the top and sides of the window on the far and left walls.

The right wall held a painting of a log cabin surrounded by a lush green forest. James lingered on the picture longer than he thought he would. Natti’s voice beckoned him, “What? Did you think I’d get rid of it?”

Sitting in a stainless black chair with more cushioning than most buggy seats, was Natti. She wore a wrinkleless, fitting yellow dress. Her black hair was tied up in a loose, yet intricate style he had never learned the name of. My favorite…

Natti waved casually to the seat across from her dark wooden desk. “Please, be seated.”

“Thanks.” The wide chair was more comfortable than his couch. He glanced back to the painting, “I just didn’t expect it to be in your office. Seems a little, uh, worn for here.”

Natti grinned with a sly look in her eye. “I still remember your face when you got it for me. You worked on that jeep for weeks. Building the whole thing from spare parts. Then that night I came over and you told me it was gone…”

James forced a tight smile. I knew she’d do this.

The woman hugged herself, pressing her cleavage together behind the low hang of her dress. Natti’s warm smile reminded James of a time when she spent more time helping others than stepping over them. “Then you told me—I’ll never forget this—you said, ‘That jeep brought us our perfect getaway.’ Oh my Gods, so cheesy. And cute.” She stared at him with glimmering eyes.

James broke eye contact to look at the floor and clear his throat. “Um, yeah… that was a long time ago.” He glanced back up to a much less happy looking woman, “Natti, I came here for an official meeting. I want to find the Red Bone tribe.”

Rolling her bright brown eyes, she couldn’t have looked more disinterested if she had tried. “I’m not in charge of scout missions James, much less raiding parties.” She slipped back into a sultry smile, “Why are you really here?”

The mechanic took a deep breath, “You’re an information broker, don’t you want to know more about how a small group of barbarians got their hands on a tank built for drilling through ice?”

Natti smiled pitifully at him, “You think anyone here gives a shit about where your new toy came from? All they care about is knowing how well it works for the scouts. Was this your plan James?”

“Plan A. Plan B is that I owe you a favor.”

Natti leaned over the desk, draining James’ willpower to not look down her dress. “So I get you, whenever and wherever I want you?” She sat back in her deep chair and spun to the side, exposing a smooth, tan thigh on her desk. She tapped her forefinger to her shiny red lips. “What do you need—want me to do?”

James kept his eyes focused on hers, “I need you to clear me to use the tank to find the Red Bones.”

“And what, say, ‘Hi, let’s be friends?’” She almost laughed, “Alright James, I’ll see what I can do. I suspect the best I can get you is an ‘observe and report’ mission. Sound good?”

James felt a massive weight fall off his shoulders, “Yes, thank you Natti.” He pushed himself out of the chair and turned to leave.

“Wait.”

Shit.

He faced her again, but she was already on his side of the desk. Natti set a dark red, glass bottle on the edge of her desk. “I heard you’ve been visiting the bar more often these days.” She gave him a stern look with no hint of humor. “When you gave me this, you told me we’d finish it together. Next time you feel like drowning yourself, come see me.”

James remembered, he couldn’t help but smirk, “Reverie Scotch. How many times did we wake up on the floor because of that?”

Natti stepped closer, her perfume smelled like a fresh strawberries, James’ old favorite. He wanted to step away, put some space between them, but he was lost in the aroma, the good memories. She pressed herself against James, running her free hand up his thigh. “I know what you like.”

James let his eyelids fall. He could feel her breathing, maybe even her heartbeat. James reached out, hovering his hands over Natti’s hips. He looked down to her, looking up at him. She pulled his hands around her waist, down to her round, firm ass.

Natti ran her hands up and down James’ back, ass and chest. She began sucking the skin just above his undershirt, standing on her tiptoes to reach his neck. James was suddenly aware that he was against the wall, and Natti had slipped a hand down the front of his pants. She grabbed his dick the way she always had before.

He closed his eyes again and turned his head to the ceiling as Natti unbuttoned his shirt. James remembered being in the garage with Natti. How they made love on the workbench, in his clients’ vehicles. She always had to dare him, to always raise the stakes.

Then he remembered the first time Tsara was lying on the garage floor with him. She had been helping him clean sand out of a truck’s alternator. Neither of them knew how or where, but Tsara had rubbed some grease over the tip of her nose. She had smiled back at him and asked, “What’s so funny?”

James’ eyes shot open. He grabbed Natti’s shoulders and pushed her away, a bit harder than he meant to. Catching his breath, his voice was just above a whisper, “No.”

“What?”

He wasn’t sure if his hands were gesturing for her to stop, or point firmly at her, but he wasn’t letting her get that close again. His voice was somewhere between a rumble and a quiet shout, “No!” Keep quiet, someone might be listening. Can’t fuck this up.

Natti pleaded, keeping her voice low as well, “Why her? No one likes her! She has zero hips and almost no ass. What does she do for a living? She works for you! Is that what you want? A woman that doesn’t challenge you? A woman that just takes your orders with a smile and a ‘Yes dear,’? I could have her killed with a snap of my—”

James had her by the throat, bent over her desk. He had no idea what he wanted to say, he just stared into Natti’s terrified eyes. “I knew this was a mistake.” James let go and pushed himself away. He forced himself to turn his back on her as he buttoned his pants and shirt back up. “I’m sorry.”

It sounded like she was crying, “Fuck you.”

James felt lightheaded, like the world was tilting to the side. He held up his trembling right hand and grabbed it with the left. Strangling Natti had brought a distant, dark memory closer to the surface. His whole adventure with Deborah had brought a lot of bad memories to the forefront.

“Forget the favor. You name whatever you want from me.”

He heard her shuffling behind him. “The fuck happened to you? I could have anyone I want. I thought you were the only man worth having. The only good guy in all of fucking Anthill.”

“I used to think the same of you.” He turned to face her, but she was looking out the window. “If we were good people, you wouldn’t have this office.” James thought back to the first man he had killed. “Do you remember what he looked like?”

He saw Natti hug herself tighter, almost lean over.

James nodded, “You saw his eyes. I felt his last breath. We aren’t good people. We didn’t kill him to survive, we killed him so you could feel more important, and because I loved you.”

Realizing she wasn’t going to reply, James grabbed the door knob and looked back to the painting. He left without another word, doubtful that he’d get his chance to find Deborah.

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