After You

“I’d say you’re nude, screwed, and tattooed,” Tuan said over this shoulder. Then turned away from his racks of radio, computer and maybe mad science death nukes and said, “Old navy expression. Picked it up from my mom.”

MeiMei, dressed in bad-fitting sweats and cupping a warm mug of chai, curled on the couch as if trying to diminish the very volume of space she took up. She felt subdued and chastened, tried to damp out the shock and terror of the night by keeping things light and flippant, and wasn’t doing all that well. “I like to see a man with a hobby,” she said brightly.

“Monitoring the news is sort of hobby,” he told her. “Scanning police and navy bands is sort of a crime. You sure know how to pick ’em, lady.”

“Well, if you’d only warned me…”

He laughed and wagged a finger at her. “Told ya, told ya.”

She gave a rueful little smile and pointed to several cellular phones on the sweeping desk that seemed to take up half of this small, sealed-off, dehumidified bedroom: geek heaven, piled with gear and laced with no-nonsense cables. “Maybe we could call somebody. Find out…” Uh, oh; he was already shaking his head.

“Who owns Telmex?” he asked her, as if drawing a student out using Platonic methods.

“How would I know? Oh, wait, I do know. Sort of. Carlos something, also owns all the television networks.”

“Carlos Slim. Richest man in the world and he’s a Mexican. You have any idea how deep a level of corruption that speaks to?”

“And he’s tapping your personal phones? That’s kind of flattering.”

“Ronchel probably plays golf with him. Is probably related to him, padrinos to each other’s kids, belong to the same clubs, sit on the same boards, buy up the same officials and pass them around. It’s how it works.”

“Oh, man. Another fine kettle of fish I’ve gotten me into.”

“I think you should just assume from this point on that any move you make will almost certainly bring you to his attention. He’s combing the coast for you.”

“What, the navy and cops and everybody? But he’s a criminal!”

“No, he is one of a handful of the owners of the Mexican legal system. And you, apparently, assaulted him, attempted to steal his property, and killed several of his people. I’m nervous just being in the same room with you.”

“And he’s turned the whole countryside out after me.”

“Like I said, you can pick ’em. It gets better. One of the young guys they say you killed was a nephew. You apparently ran over him with a jetski. Before turning it into a bomb that assaulted Rolandi’s, who’d probably be the richest and most influential people on the island if Ronchel hadn’t helicoptered in to direct the manhunt for you.”

“Woman hunt,” she said in a small, meek voice. She looked around the room, then back at Tuan, who was sipping calmly and eyeing her with patient expectation. She kept her voice calm as she said, “What am I going to do?”

“Flee,” he told her flatly. “You are certainly welcome to stay here, like, indefinitely. But my guess is there are going to be house-to-house searches.”

What?”

“They have to know you bailed off that little hummer somewhere along here. They can do anything they want. I keep trying to impress that on you. Anybody he tells to do something, they can do it, whatever it is. Whatever.”

“I’m starting to get the picture.” She set the cup on a pile of papers, books and gadgets that probably had a coffee table under it somewhere and drew her knees up, hugged them. For dear life, she thought. “But you said any move I make I get screwed and tattooed. The nude part they already managed.”

“I noticed that right away.”

He smiled softly and it warmed her somehow, like the long shower he’d treated her to before he even asked any questions, and the long, deep sleep she’d fallen into on a soft white bed in a guest bedroom. She’d slept all day, wolfed down two plates of eggs he scrambled for her, and was starting to get past the ragged edge hammered onto her by the hours of fear, by seeing Curtsy dead, feeling that boy’s neck break under her feet. She looked at him for answers. There was nobody else. “So fleeing presents some problems.”

“I’ve been working on that,” he told her in the same flat prof voice. “And I think I have it figured out. You’re going to hate it.”

“It’s been that kind of trip.”

“To cross the great water furthers,” he said, trying to look owlishly Asian.

“Been there, done that,” she said.

He set down his cup and stood up, unconsciously dusting imaginary chalk dust off his hands. “This’ll probably be worse.”

MeiMei stayed in the shadow of the wide porch, staring out over the bay in her baggy black clothes and slouch hat. She’d even rubbed her face with the champagne cork Tuan had scorched. Pigment envy, she thought. She wished she could get to Aphra for help. She wished she could get to her Mommy, let’s face it. She pointed to the end of the dock, where Tuan’s sloop’s trim lines made it look like it was dancing even under moorage. “Why can’t we just take the ‘Boolean’, there?”

Tuan was standing on a table, undoing straps that snugged some long black hull to the bottom of his porch above. He pointed further out in the bay, where small craft zoomed about and spotlights played around somewhat larger craft. “Those aren’t fishermen out there,” he said. “They’re coastal patrol cruisers, and it looks like they have some volunteer help. Guess who they’re looking for? And guess what they’d do if somebody put out at night. Especially somebody who’s Navigating While Asian?”

“Well, when you put it like that…” she said, and moved to help him lower the hull. It was long and sleek and black, with a curved, raised skeg like a surfboard. He laid if over two tables and rolled it over. She’d been expecting a Nanook-style kayak with little round skirted cockpit, but this one had a long cockpit with two seats. He pulled two double-bladed oars out of the hull and checked them out. He pointed to the pile of waterproofed nylon sacks on one of the tables and said, “Stow them there in the stern. Push them as far back as you can.”

She grabbed a sack, which he’d apparently packed while she slept, anticipating her decision. She dumped it into the hull and started tamping it back into the tapered cavity as he did the same with the other pile of aqua-luggage. It just seemed like a lot of stuff. She said, “How long is it going to take us to get over there to the mainland, anyway? I hope you put in my flannels for shuffleboard.”

He pulled his head and arm out of the forward portion of the hull and grabbed another sack of canned goods. “The mainland won’t do. I told you: it’s not Isla you have to escape from, it’s Mexico.”

“So we’re going to paddle to where? Cuba? Key West?”

“Belize.”

Oh. Well that made sense. But then what? Suddenly she realized she didn’t care what then, didn’t want to think about it or know about it. For the first time since childhood she just dumped the responsibility for taking care of MeiMei Chiang onto somebody else’s shoulders and bought a ticket for the ride. If felt surprising good, actually.

MeiMei was getting into the rhythm, stroking in a gliding cadence with Tuan, who sat behind her in his own blackface/ninja get-up moving his paddle right behind hers in a sort of rotary water ballet as the long black hull slid across the dark water. They left an hour after dark to get some distance before moonrise, and hugged the coast all the way to the point. As she heard the thrashing, sucking sound of the currents rounding South Point, she realized that it was Land’s End: they were leaving terra firma, and also any illusion of shelter or safety. Once again she was putting out to open sea with dangerous pursuers somewhere behind. This could get old, she was thinking.

Not so Tuan DeTomaso. Man, what a guy, huh? Had anybody ever, in her life, stepped up so utterly and effortlessly? Putting his own butt on the line for her, too, she assumed, though he’d been circumspect about that part of it. It’s almost like he was just waiting for her to walk into his life. Cut that out, Mei, she told herself.

“You seem really prepared for this,” she said over her shoulder. “Are you some fugitive, too? Always ready to bolt off in your eskiboat?”

“Well, I do a bit of cruising and camping in it,” he said, “The lucky thing was that I had any clothes to fit you.”

If you want to call this fitting me, she thought. And they had the very faint odor of Some Other Female.

“But actually,” he went on, speaking in the same unconsciously hushed tones people use when fishing off piers at night. “I always had this dream of fleeing by night, chased by evil antagonists in the company of a beautiful woman.”

That stopped her, but she didn’t want to let the thought hang there too long.

“And I finally showed up.”

“Yep. So I guess you’ll have to do.”

She was about to make some cute response when she felt the boat rock under her, then roll sideways. Then there was a blurred moment ending up with another plunge into black water. She struggled, trapped as her own buoyancy pressed her up into the confines of the hull. Then hands grabbed her, pulled her out… and clamped tightly over her mouth.

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