THE MEDICINE WOMAN - STEPHEN BOOK
Previously published in a different form at Stephen’s blog, Powder Burns & Bullets
They were practically flying now, racing across the desert floor, the high-pitched whine of the car’s engine and the rush of air the only sounds between the three of them. In the driver’s seat, Gunter’s head twisted one way, then another. It was coming. Lu Yi could see it in the way his eyes flickered toward the rearview mirror, the windshield, his mouth working over a small worm of gum. Sooner or later, he would say it. No, that wasn’t right. First there would be a question—at least one, if not more. Then, he would make a statement. Only it wouldn’t be a statement. If the last few weeks had taught her anything, Gunter would issue an ultimatum: do it again, and you’re dead.
In the back, either freaked out by what had happened at the convenience store, or too obtuse to know better, Lance finally spoke. It started out low, like a groan from a dying horse, but then steadily built up. “Man. Man-oh-man-oh-man...” In the seat, he rocked back and forth. “Hey, Lu, didyou see the way her head exploded?”
Gunter said, “Lance?”
Lu looked over and saw Gunter staring into the rearview. His voice held an edge to it.
In the back, Lance stopped rocking. “Yeah?”
“But, dude, did you see the way her head just... Oh man, all that blood.”
Gunter gritted his teeth. “You going soft?”
Lance fell back against the seat. “No way, man.” He pressed the palm of a hand against his head. “I can handle it.”
Lu reached up to scratch an itch on the back of her neck, but abruptly stopped. Her hand was shaking. Quickly, she jammed it between her thighs and squeezed her legs together. Beside her, the gun lay matter-of-fact on the seat. She’d thrown it there when they ran out of the store and jumped into the car.
Looking up, Lu saw Gunter staring at her.
“You mind telling me what happened?”
Lu shook her head, the images from the store still fresh in her mind. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
It wasn’t that Lu refused to admit she blew it. That much she already knew. Gunter’s plan was direct. In a hold-up, you’ve got to get in, get the cash, and get out. Leave no witnesses. Don’t think. You think, and you’redead. And don’t let them think, either. Just raise the gun and pull the trigger. Even an idiot like Lance can carry that one out.
Lu opened her window, felt the air whip across her face. Maybe Lance could carry it out, but he wasn’t the one posted at the back of the store. He wasn’t there by the inventory closet when the old lady came out, dressed in moccasins and leathers, a couple of feathers dangling from her greasy black hair. Lance didn’t see what the woman did with her eyes or hear what she said.
Lu expected the woman to freeze, maybe even beg for mercy. Instead, she looked at Lu with crazed eyes and said, “Beware of the snake.”
Lu cocked her head to the side. “What?”
“It strikes quicker than you think.”
Lu opened her mouth to ask what the old bat was talking about, but then as if they had had slipped through a door into a freak show the woman held up a pair of maracas and started chanting. Her eyes rolled up, showing the whites. Her voice rose in pitch. One leg lifted. Louder and louder she sang, the maracas hissing in the air.
Lu reached out to stop the woman, but then noticed Gunter’s arm coming up beside her, his gun firmly gripped in his hand. “No,” Lu begged, but Gunter shook his head and pulled the trigger.
Sitting in the car now, the desert sliding by her open window, Lu remembered the smell of cordite, heavy in the air. She remembered the sick thwump! as the woman’s body collapsed and hit the floor. She could still see the blood splattered against the wall.
The engine screamed as Gunter down-shifted and passed a semi-truck.
“Well, you better start talkin’, little girl,” he said, “or I’ll have to kick you out. And don’t start thinking I’m gonna stop the car, either. This ride don’t stop for nobody, you hear me?”
She looked at him, started to say something, but then saw his birthmark—a liver-colored spot that coiled up by the collar of his tee-shirt and then rose up the side of his neck. It almost looked like...
Beware of the snake.
After two weeks of running with this man, riding next to him in the car, sleeping in the same bed, she had never seen his birthmark that way before.
It strikes quicker than you think.
Gunter’s eyes darkened. “What you looking at?”
Lu reached down and grabbed her gun from the seat. Don’t think. You think, and you’re dead. She lifted it up and pulled the trigger. A flower of blood instantly blossomed in the side of his shirt. Gunter’s face contorted. He gripped the steering wheel and twisted it. The car yawed and then nosed down as a tire blew. The world spun out of control. There was light and air, and finally nothing.
Lu opened her eyes. Her skin was on fire, her mouth filled with grit. She took in a deep breath and coughed. The hot air burned her throat, punishedher lungs. Above, the sky was bright blue with a haze of black smoke, billowing from somewhere.
She remembered flying down the desert highway. She remembered Gunter’s expression, the look in his eyes, and then it all came back. Lu tried toget up, the pain biting every muscle, but then froze as something—a branch maybe?—moved beside her. Then she heard the sound of something like maracas.
BIO: Stephen lives in Texas, where he is currently at work on his crime fiction novel, Lost Hearts. His crime fiction has been published by Crime and Suspense, Powder Burn Flash, as well as Flash Fiction Online.