Shane Bledsoe thought he'd try it one more time. "Slow down, Tanager! There's a cop car behind us."
Wishes touched the brake, then laughed. "That's the third time you've said that."
"You laughed, so it must still be funny."
"Yeah, but now I've gotta switch the cruise control back on." Wishes got the car back up to 70.
Shane reached over and slapped Wishes on the top of his head. "Faster!"
"That's the speed limit."
"You drive like old people make love."
"Yes, carefully and with the benefit of experience. I'm not ashamed of being a cautious driver, Shane."
"You have to be cautious, you're DWB. Half black, anyway. Hey, there's a cop car behind us!"
"Nope. I'm not moving my foot. Racist." Wishes held out his hand. "Cookie."
Shane looked in the box, pulled out a Double-Stuf Oreo. "You know, Oreo cookies were originally called Half-Castes."
"No they weren't. Twist it apart for me."
Shane gave Wishes the half with the creme, taking the other chocolate cookie half for himself. "Guess I'm lucky you're so chill. Never even raise your voice."
Wishes grinned at him. "I drove twelve hundred miles with Paulo once. After surviving that, it takes more than one annoying little cracker to get to me."
"Hey, did Paulo get back home to his probation officer?"
"Community service. Overseen by a probation officer."
"Is that your regular family probation officer?"
"Did I say cracker? I meant peckerwood."
"How about crackerwood?"
"That's not a word. Yes, he got back, thanks to Aunt Viviane."
"And now we got a Mercedes. Hell, yes."
"And who is 'we', Redneck?"
"You're my brother from another mother, Man. Your Benz is my Benz."
"That's not what the registration says."
"Well, at least I got the first ride in it."
Wishes shook his head. "No, that was Bethany."
"Oh, right, our lissome young co-worker. Or she would be my co-worker if you'd get off your butt and get me a job there." Shane felt a surge of irritation. How hard could it possibly be to turn one job into two?
Wishes ruffled Shane's hair. "There now, young Mr. Bledsoe. BPM is not a good fit for you. I'll get you something else. Or you could just produce more Baby Widows or whatever those are."
"Merry Widows, you peon. And Baby Dolls, I guess was what you mixed it up with, which are very popular. Well, thanks a lot, but I am not a machine."
"Are you sure? If you were a machine, would you know you're a machine?"
"I'm an artist!"
"An artist or an artiste?"
"Whichever one is more exalted. Artiste, I guess. So, are you banging the gong with Bethany?"
Wishes glanced at him. "No, just friends. You know I'm attached. I've got a girlfriend."
"I know your girlfriend was up on top of your cousin, and then she stole your car. In most countries that automatically makes her your ex-girlfriend. Which, Wishes, leaves you entirely free to split the willow with our Ms. Bethany."
"Split the what?"
"Do the no-pants dance. The bedspring concerto. Get your groove on, my brother."
"I've explained it to you. Ronnie understood, so I don't know why you don't."
"Never mind. You don't understand Michelle and me, so let's drop it."
"Aloysius, I apologize. I would never want to hurt or offend you in any way. If I was out of line, I'm sorry."
"It's all right."
"Good, because I had one of those dreams about your Aunt Viviane. Oh, my God. God, she's hot."
"Don't tell me about it."
"She wasn't wearing anything but that eye patch, had a little riding crop in her hand. Something about training me for 'dressage', whatever that is."
"You're the only one who thinks you're funny."
"One's enough. Bet I could make your aunt laugh. Among other things. That could happen. Yes." Shane ate a Nutter Butter.
"Well, you don't have a prison record, and you don't carry a gun, or a switchblade with a picture of the Virgin Mary on it, so you're probably not her type. Also, having sex with her would probably kill you, Punk."
"Huh." Shane flipped through the satellite radio channels again. "God, this car is awesome. I've honestly never been in a Mercedes before." He got the manual out of the glove box again, looked through the index. "Do you know we could literally watch a movie on this little screen?"
"Yep." The screen was currently displaying their position on I-40, east of Knoxville.
"My Auntie Moira's got a switchblade."
"I know she has."
"You know, Wishes, mi amigo, I was thinking ...."
"That we could sell this sweet beautiful black 2010 Mercedes Benz GLK and get two used Hondas so your lazy redneck self could have a car."
"That's almost right. But I was thinking like Hyundai. Then we'd have some money left over for Six Flags."
"I know you too well."
"To know me is to love me. Come on, Man, this is more car than you can possibly use."
"No, it's the right amount of car."
"God dang, look at all these bells and whistles. Nobody needs that. All you need's a radio and a cupholder."
"We're not all rednecks, Shane. Lean your seat back. Go on. Doesn't that feel nice?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Feels like a La-Z-Boy."
"It's nice, correct? That's leather."
"Wonder if the cow was from Brazil, like your Aunt Viviane. I could so have sex with her in this seat."
"Son, did you just call my aunt a cow?"
"Aunt by marriage. No, because if she were a cow, I would not want to have sex with her. At least not on a leather seat, because that would be thoughtless and hurtful. I'm a gentleman."
"You're delusional, Shane."
"We'll see about that when I'm pleasuring your Brazilian aunt. By marriage. She could ride me like a horse on this seat made of cow."
Wishes reached over and faked a punch at Shane's crotch, causing him to curl up. "Have you discussed this with Parmelia, your long-suffering girlfriend?"
"She would back me up, Man. Don't be punching my crotch. I like my crotch."
"You are a crotch. Are you saying she feels okay about it?"
"Under my thumb, that's how she feels."
"Seriously, under your thumb. I don't think she feels that way."
"Yes she does, 'cause I'm the Man."
"Right, you're the Man." Wishes punched a button with a picture of a phone on it. "Call! Parmelia!"
Shane had just crammed five Grasshopper cookies into his mouth. "Vod de vug?"
"Hello?" Parmie's voice came from the speaker.
"Hi, Parmie, it's Wishes."
They heard three female voices: "Hi, Wishes!"
"Parmie, Shane says you're under his thumb, and he thinks my Aunt Viviane will have sex with him."
Peals of laughter came out of the speaker, lasting long enough for Shane to shake up a bottle of strawberry Yoo-Hoo and chug it down, clearing his mouth of mint cookies. He finally got out: "Hey, Parmie! Hi, Baby!"
"So, you think you're going to score with Wishes' aunt? Dream on!"
Shane pictured a tiny Parmelia behind the little grill on the dash. Since the age of three, he hadn't been able to shake that image whenever a voice came out of a speaker. "Yeah, but you're not mad, right, Baby?"
"Are you kidding? I'd hit that. No offense, Wishes."
Wishes laughed. "None taken, Parmelia. I'd say Shane's already got one black-haired beauty, so he doesn't need another one."
They heard three women make a little soft gasping sound. Moira's voice said, "Now, Son, why can't you be more like Wishes? You're such a redneck."
Shane sighed. "Sorry, Auntie."
Moira said, "Wishes, Sweetie, could you maybe put your foot down a little? You drive like old people screw."
Shane told him, "Told you."
This time it was Ronnie's voice. "We're having girl time, Redneck!"
Parmie: "Right! Don't bother us!" The line clicked off.
Shane turned to Wishes. "See? Under my thumb."
* * *
Ronnie put her arms on the big dashboard, rested her head on them and looked at the Mercedes two hundred feet ahead of them. The distance visibly grew.
"Thank God!" Moira disengaged the cruise control and gave it some gas. The Crown Vic surged forward, rapidly closing the gap before Moira eased off.
Ronnie could feel the acceleration. "Moira, how many horses did you say this thing has?"
"About 224. Enough so I hate to dick around at the speed limit. Waste of a V8."
"And it really was a cop car?"
Moira patted the dash. "P71 Police Interceptor. This was a detective unit." She turned at Ronnie with a heavy-lidded smile. Ronnie thought she looked like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. "Detective Stanhauser, to be exact."
"Did you know him?"
Moira nodded toward the back. "Let's just say we explored the dimensions of that back seat. How you doing back there, Parmie?"
Parmelia Mobley, stretched out in the back, sat up and said, "I was fine, till you said that."
"Just kidding. God knows, I've done it in stranger places."
Ronnie turned around in her seat and set her chin on the headrest, face to face with Parmie. "Like that cemetery?"
Moira laughed. Parmie smiled and reddened at the same time, and said, "Brat! Well, that's definitely in the top five." They were less than a year apart in age, but sometimes Ronnie felt she'd gained a big sister in Parmie. And an idiot kid brother in Shane. It was inexplicable that the two were a couple.
She said, "I couldn't do it there. Not in that particular cemetery, anyway. It's got all those markers that just say, 'Unknown Child'. Like twenty of them."
"I suppose that is a lot."
"I asked Shane about it and he said a circus train ran into a bus full of orphans. That's not true, is it?"
"I don't think so."
"Hope not. Though they're definitely dead, anyway. Did I thank you yet for coming?"
"About three times."
"Well, thanks again."
Ronnie was having a great weekend. Five or six weeks ago, she'd found herself in Georgia with no job and no friends. But one chance encounter with oddly comforting Wishes Tanager, and now she had, apparently, not one but several people willing to give up their weekend to drive 300 miles to Kingsport, Tennessee and bring back her belongings from storage.
She'd established Georgia residency, and between her work with Aardvark, and taking over Wishes' part-time weekend burrito gig, she was making enough to pay her way. She even had a membership for Dragon*Con next weekend.
Not that her belongings amounted to much. The five of them, their bags, and all her worldly goods that remained in Kingsport could have all fitted in either the Crown Vic or the Mercedes.
But Moira was taking a side trip into Virginia while the rest of them were in the Tri-Cities. She said she was seeing "ex-in-laws", but that could mean any of several sets of people; Ronnie didn't pry. And everyone but Ronnie and Shane needed to be back home on Monday. They'd take the Ford and let her borrow the Mercedes for a couple of days.
She said, "I'm amazed Wishes is going to trust me with his new car."
Parmie said, "Well, I'm trusting you with my boyfriend. Just don't get him pregnant."
"Believe me, nothing's going to happen."
"I trust you, Hon." Parmie stretched out again on the long seat. Her hair was up in one big braid today; it draped over her shoulder like a velvet rope.
"You really do have beautiful hair, Parmie."
Moira said, "God, doesn't she? That takes me back."
Parmie sat up and flipped her braid onto the back of the front seat. Ronnie stroked it. "You could tie up a ship with that."
Parmie laughed and used the end of her braid to swat Ronnie's nose. "Some Cherokee from my dad, some Italian and a little Seminole from my mom."
"How are they doing?"
"They're doing great. I really love them. Can't wait to get the hell out of their house forever."
"I hear you. Though I never had to get out of the house; they moved out and went to Denver. Hey, Parmie, what's the deal with you and Shane? I know he's not really going to get anywhere with Wishes' aunt—"
Parmie laughed. "God, that woman would kill him."
"I've never met her."
"I think she might swallow his head while they were mating. She probably has a death ray behind that eye patch."
"But you trust Shane?" Ronnie wanted to get something clear.
"I trust him to be honest with me. That's all I ask."
"Okay. Just don't worry about anything happening with him and me. Ever."
"No kidding. Some days I'm amazed that boy has ever gotten laid." She bit into a Slim Jim.
They all three laughed. Ronnie thought their laughter blended well: Parmie's bell-like peals, Moira's deeper, almost mannish chuckle; and her own half-snort, half laugh.
Moira said, "What about you, Ronnie? Any hot, shirtless males on the horizon?"
"Quick answer: No."
For years she'd carried an image in her head. She didn't know his name; she just called him Captain Future, and made herself believe he lay in her own future. Or stood, rather, somewhere on the path ahead of her.
He'd be tall, at least eye to eye with her. Smart, but not arrogant. Honest, but not moralistic. He'd know how to dance, or at least be willing to try. And he didn't even have to be any kind of geek, as long as they connected.
In a long string of ill-considered encounters with short, arrogant, untrustworthy men, she'd kept in mind her mother's advice to "Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good."
After WillEm, though, she was taking a break. It had reached the point of not letting the ridiculous become the enemy of the barely adequate. She couldn't focus on the image of her Captain Future anymore; he'd faded into an amorphous shape, and she had a feeling her own path might detour around him entirely.
She said, "Just between us three, I had a crush on Wishes at first. Then he explained about his so-called girlfriend, whats-her name ...."
Parmie said, "Michelle. AKA La Chupacabra. Yeah."
"Now, it feels like Wishes is the cousin I never had. I mean, I feel close to him, but not like hot-and-sweaty close."
Moira laughed. "Ask Shane about Joanna sometime."
"My daughter. His first cousin. Also his first something else."
"I am not."
Parmie said, "What can you say? Boy's a redneck."
"Okay, then, Wishes isn't my cousin. Forget about cousins. He's a close friend I'm not going to have sex with."
Moira leaned over and patted her leg. Ronnie felt the heavy gold rings, cold against her skin. Moira said, "Toots, there are worse things than keeping company with yourself for a while. Stop worrying about the future, and I guarantee it'll surprise you."
"I'm not worried." Saying it out loud, she found it was true. "You sound like Aardvark. Your hands are way softer, though. And you've got ten fingers."
"Now, Aardvark's good people. He got me through some very dark days."
"Oh, hell, yes. Little dude's like a superhero. Here." Ronnie's satchel was on the floor; she pulled a notebook out and opened it. She glanced at the speedometer; right on 80 mph. "Okay, just take a peek, don't crash and kill us all." She held the notebook up. Parmie leaned forward from the back seat; Moira glanced at it several times.
Moira said, "That looks like Aardvark's scooter."
"Right! Death Princess."
Parmie asked, "What's the title mean? SPLAND of the SPLOST? I can hardly even say it."
Ronnie coughed; her voice always threatened to desert her when she talked about her artwork. And this was different; she'd never tried to do a comic book before. "Well, I was going by Cumberland Mall, right? I saw a sign that said something about 'SPLOST dollars at work.' So I started asking people, 'What the hell is SPLOST?'"
"Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax."
"Right! And then I found out about the new ."
"Right, Windy-Mac. Hmm." Parmie's eyes looked far away. "Sounds like chili-mac. I used to love that. Moira, how about a lunch stop?"
They'd been on I-81 for a while. Ronnie looked at her new watch. "We're like an hour from Kingsport at this point. I'll take you to Pal's."
"Do they have chili-mac?"
"I don't know, but they've got a chili burger. Highly recommended."
"Hell, yes. Do they have shakes?"
"You know it."
Moira snapped her fingers. "You were saying, Doll, about SPLOST?"
"Okay, so I just pictured Aardvark riding on Death Princess on the new Connector, in the middle of the night."
"So why's he doing that?" Moira glanced at the notebook again. "And what are those things on the front of the scooter?"
"Those are railguns. They use an electromagnetic field—"
"Oh, right, right. Yeah, Wishes and Shane made one of those. Tried to, anyway."
"What? God, those idiots don't tell me anything!"
Parmie said, "I never saw it, but I heard about it. There was a police report."
Moira said, "So, you've put experimental military weapons on a Vespa."
"A GTS 300. Right, and a bunch of other stuff. Night vision, experimental turbine engine, defensive countermeasures and stuff. It's not a scooter to be trifled with. And its rider is a figure known only as the Deliverer. Sort of based on Aardvark, but not by name. I thought it's more mysterious if you don't know the guy's name."
Moira winked at her. "Tell you a secret: Aardvark isn't his legal name."
"Thanks, I did know that."
Parmie asked, "So what's he deliver?"
"That's where SPLAND comes in. Special Purpose Late At Night Delivery. Could be anything. At least, anything that needs to be delivered from East side to the West side of Cobb County in the middle of the night. Could be delivering pizza."
Moira said, "Could be delivering sexual services."
Parmie said, "He could be delivering a whoopin'."
"Right! He could be delivering ... justice."
"Can I see that?" Parmie took the notebook and looked at it closely, flipping through the pages. "Wow, there's a lot of violence. I love how that guy's head flies straight up, and the panel looks like a crane shot in a movie. You can really draw, Ronnie!"
Moira said, "Oh, that's nothing, you should see what she's done to Aardvark's truck."
Ronnie felt the special embarrassment praise always brought. "Thanks, guys. I haven't shown it to Aardvark; he might think it's stupid."
Parmie handed the notebook back. "That comic book gave me new respect for motor scooters."
Moira said, "Sounds just like Aardvark, in my experience. Except for the violence. He never messed a guy up who didn't have it coming."
"Oh, neither does the Deliverer. He just delivers what's needed, in a timely and decisive manner."
Moira patted her leg again. The rings really did feel nice. "Well, I don't know what more anyone could do."
"That feels nice, Moira. You could make money as a masseuse."
"And I have, Doll."
"I like all those rings."
"You like them?" Moira held her hand up in the sunlight slanting in through the window. "I never get rid of a wedding ring. Three is enough, though; I'm done."
Parmie said, "You're not exactly over the hill, Moira."
"Oh, I didn't say I was done with men, just with wedding rings. There's a man young enough to be my son who keeps e-mailing me."
"Do you write back?"
"Oh, yes. Just enough to make him crazy."
Ronnie said, "Moira, I want to be you when I grow up."
Moira leaned toward Ronnie. "Babe, put it off as long as you can."
"Put off what?"
"Growing up. It's overrated."