Me tanner, you jane, p.18
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       Me Tanner, You Jane, p.18

         Part #7 of Evan Tanner series by Lawrence Block
 
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Page 18

 

  I said, “You poor little kid. ”

  “My name is Jane. Who are you?”

  “Evan. ”

  “Jane, Evan. Evan, Jane. ”

  “You poor screwed-up little kid. ”

  “Round and round the mulberry bush to get a pail of water. ”

  I went over to the front of the tent and peered out through the flap. The two sentries remained on duty. Beyond them, I saw the tournament in progress. Pairs of warriors faced one another and crouched, ready for combat. Sam Bowman called out a signal and two of them rushed each other, making sudden movements, thrusting, parrying. Then one straightened up and stood erect while the other lay still in the dust. The winner took his place in line, others carried the loser off to the side, and Bowman signaled another pair of combatants to center stage.

  Behind me, Jane went on babbling in rhyme. I hissed a volley of sibilant syllables at the sentries. They turned, and I crooked a finger to motion one of them inside. He came, voicing some question or other. I turned and pointed wordlessly at Jane. He looked at her, and while he was thus occupied I hit him as one hits rabbits, with a fist to the back of the neck. It couldn’t have worked very much better had he been a rabbit. He made a brief gurgling sound and then made no sound at all.

  “Why did you hit the nice man, Evan? The black men are our friends. Daddy said we must be nice to the black men and teach them the word of the Lord. Uncle Bobby was a black man. Mommy taught Uncle Bobby the word of the Lord. Uncle Bobby was my friend. One day he showed me his-”

  I hissed at the remaining sentry and went through the routine a second time. I pointed not at Jane but at the body of his fallen comrade, but with that exception it was an identical repeat performance. I was pretty good at hitting unsuspecting men in the back of the neck. Now I could try the same trick on Baby Jane Grey, and if I got high marks I could graduate to the next level, that of shooting fish in a barrel.

  Why hit her? Why not just slip away and leave her? She was lost in childhood reverie, wrapped up in memories of what Uncle Bobby had shown her so long ago.

  I went to her. She was reciting a poem, the words spilling from her lips in a childish singsong cadence. I found it as incomprehensible that I had recently bedded her as I did that she went around sacking missions and cutting people up. I said, “Jane,” and put a hand on her shoulder.

  Her eyes met mine, her beautiful empty eyes, and I watched as her eyes changed. Jane turned off and Sheena turned on, and her eyes probed mine, and she saw me as she had not seen me before. “White devil!” she shrilled, and leaped at me, hands out, fingers curled like hooks, nails flashing in the candlelight.

  I hauled off and hit her in the head.

  I found Plum at the river’s edge. She was wrestling the long dugout canoes out into the water and sending them off downstream. This, we had determined, was the only way to render them hors de combat – chopping or burning through the thick sides and bottom would take forever, and they might float anyway. I gave Plum a hand, and we maneuvered them one at a time into the river and out of the picture.

  “The first heat’s over,” I told her. “Half of the clowns have knocked the other half out. I got a close look at a couple of them, and I don’t think they’re pulling their punches. Some of the losers looked awfully dead. ”

  “And now?”

  “Now the winners pair off and do it again. When they’ve lowered the number of survivors to three or four, Bowman’s going to finish them off himself. Of course they’ll be the three or four best of the bunch, which might make it tough for him. That’s the basic flaw. ”

  “He told me that he welcomes the chance to match himself against the best of them. That he fears no man. ”

  “Well, he’s got an ego big as all outdoors. If his devotion to Knanda Ndoro’s not an act, then the Retriever was the only man alive Bowman ever respected. ”

  “You do not like him. ”

  “Not too much, no. ” He had bugged me during the planning session, and I was still recovering from it. “But I have to admit that I’m glad he’s on our side. ”

  “We could leave now, Evan. ”

  “Without him?”

  She nodded. “We could take the last boat and just go. It would be easy for us. And he could get away by himself. I do not think he could catch us, not without a boat, and I do not think he would even try. Perhaps he would stay here with Sheena and her filthy killers. He was happy with them before. Perhaps it is the best life for him. ”

  “I guess you aren’t crazy about him, either. ”

  “He always puts his hands on me. And makes remarks about my color. He is really enthusiastic about my color. Are there no girls of mixed blood in America?”

  “There are thousands of them. ”

  “Then why does he find me so exotic?”

  “Consider it a tribute to your beauty. ”

  “I do not wish such tributes. I have not told you this before, but you look ridiculous with your skin darkened. And with that horrid paint on yourself. ”

  “You don’t look so splendid, either. ”

  “I do not feel splendid. Can we leave him, Evan? He causes me to feel dirty inside. Please?”

  “No. No, we can’t. ”

  “I thought you would say that. ”

  We managed to heave another canoe into the water and send it on its way. Plum wanted to know what happened with Sheena. I gave her an expurgated version. She was fascinated when I told her about the emergence of Baby Jane.

  “She is how old, Evan? Ten? You see, it is even worse now than before. I am fourteen, and that is bad enough, but now you have made love with a ten-year-old. ”

  “Cut it out. ”

  “You must be ashamed of yourself. ”

  “Dammit, Plum -”

  “But perhaps it is all right because you are married to her, Evan. ” She giggled merrily. “Now you must not make love to me any more. I am not the sort who would have relations with a married man. ”

  “That’s fine with me. ”

  She tossed her head. “I will have to content myself with Sam. ”

  “You stay away from-”

  “Oh? You are suddenly jealous?”

  “I’m not jealous. ”

  “You have only my best interests at heart. ”

  “Right the first time. ”

  “Perhaps I could consider adultery after all-”

  All but one of the boats was afloat now. I pulled myself up onto the bank and shook off the excess water. “Some other time,” I told her. “You wait here. I have to see how Bowman’s coming along. ”

  “It would be easy to leave now, Evan. Without him. ”

  “I know,” I said, and headed back to camp.

  Bowman was beautiful to watch. I found someone’s abandoned machete and sat in the shadows with it, waiting for him to need help. He never did. He just kept hanging in there, letting the troops decrease from fifty to twenty-five to thirteen to seven to four, and while two men were joined in brief combat he worked his way around among the fallen. Whenever one of them threatened to regain consciousness, he would wait until all eyes were riveted on the combatants before moving to apply a kick or chop to some vital center. When the four were narrowed down to two, he stood them next to one another, stepped alongside of them, and knocked their heads together. I had heard of knocking two clowns’ heads together often enough, but this was the first time I had actually seen anyone do it. After such a display of advanced judo technique there was something shocking about such a primitive act as this. But you couldn’t fault it for effectiveness. There was a marvelous clunking sound and that was it. They fell, and stayed put.

  He had his back to me when he finished. I stood up and took a step forward, and he spun around to face me, moving at the speed, I would guess, of light. I was holding onto the machete, but I realized instinctively that the sight of it would not stop him from flinging himself at me, nor would the use of it do much more than slow him do
wn a fraction. I shouted out that I was me, and his hands dropped to his sides even as his face relaxed in the now-familiar grin.

  He said, “Shee-it, Tanner cat, you has missed all the fun. Or were you around for the finale?”

  “I caught the last act. ”

  “Like cracking coconuts. I told you there’d be nothing to it. Once you get people trustin’ you, ain’t a whole lot you can’t get by with. ”

  “True enough. ”

  “You make out good with the Queen of the Jungle?”

  “Something strange happened. ”

  “Lady Jane?”

  “Oh. She’s made that trip before?”

  “Every time, man. Sends me up the wall. ”

  “You might have told me. ”

  “And ruin the surprise?” He slapped me on the back, which was something I would have just as soon he hadn’t bothered doing. “I just figured you might like findin’ out about it all by yourself. First time she tried that on I went bonkers, baby. I bet you heard all about Mommy and Daddy and Uncle Bobby. ”

  “I bet I did. ”

  “Lady Jane came by that taste for dark meat honest-like. Inherited it from her old lady. You put her out?”

  “Yes. ”

  “Kill her?”

  “Of course not. ”

  “Just that I was thinkin’ you maybe should. She plays mean, you know. The way she gets on with these bush types, she’ll have fifty fresh men in colors by daybreak. I wouldn’t want to meet up with her again. ”

  “Just kill her,” I said.

  “Easiest way. ”

  “Just like that. ”

  He clapped me on the shoulder again. Plum had a point, I thought; he would be a real pleasure to abandon. He said, “You gettin’ butterflies, Tanner cat. I’ll go on and do it for you. Don’t make me no never mind. ”

  “No. ”

  “If you want. ”

  “No,” I said. “No, go down by the river, give Plum a hand. ” An unfortunate choice of words, that. “I’ll be along. ”

  I was panting by the time I reached the riverbank. I got to where the boat was beached and my knees started to buckle, but I stayed on my feet.

  Plum and Sam were looking at me as though I had lost my mind.

  “Tanner cat-”

  “Evan-”

  “Not now,” I said. “I can’t talk. I can barely breathe. Later. ”

  “But-”

  “Later. ”

  I put Sheena in the back of the dugout and arranged her animal skins over her. Then I straightened up again and tried to catch my breath.

  Bowman was scratching his head. Plum was shaking hers. I couldn’t honestly blame them, but I was damned if I felt like talking about it.

  Chapter 13

  Some conversations which took place between or among various persons floating down the Yellowfoot River over a period of several days:

  “Tanner cat, you must be out of your head. Like totally stone bonkers. ”

  “Ours not to reason why. ”

  “How’s that, man?”

  “You know the Chief, Bowman cat. You worked for him long enough yourself. When he gives out an assignment, he wants it followed every step of the way. Right?”

 
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