After the knife slipped out of my hand, I fumbled for my belt buckle and pulled the thin strip of leather through the loops, screaming to keep myself conscious.
The pain. The terror. I didn’t know which was worse or really care. All I knew for sure was I had to stop the bleeding or I’d die here in the bayou. Die if I wasn’t already dead.
I yanked what was left of my leg from the clamped jaw. What was that still trailing from between triangular teeth, remnants of my slacks? Tendons? Skin?
My sight dimmed, thick clouds heavy with moisture. Sweat? Tears? Blood from the original blow to my head?
I rolled away from the gator and wrapped the belt around my thigh. Weaved the end through the buckle and wrenched the tourniquet tight. Ran out of air to scream and sobbed instead.
Maybe I wouldn’t bleed out now. Maybe I’d live long enough to feel something else chomping through bone to tear off chunks of my flesh.
I hadn’t known she was anybody’s sister.
Angelique. Sitting under the lumbering ceiling fan, beads of condensation running down a glass of amber liquid, beads of sweat running down her neck and traveling bare skin until it disappeared under thin fabric cut low.
Her hair sculptured short, inviting my fingers to press up through the thatch and follow the curve of her skull.
I snagged the next bar stool. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
She caught Remy’s eye and nodded at me. “He’ll have what I’m having.”
Remy smiled wide. “Jake’s more of a beer drinker.”
“He’s drinking bourbon tonight.” Her voice smooth as smoke.
I tapped the bar. “Make it a double.”
Remy shook his head as he poured my drink. “Smart thinking, Jake, getting it over quick and going home early.”
She moved her leg until our thighs were touching. “I’m Angelique.”
“So I heard.”
“Is it a bad sign when the bartender knows your name?”
“Suppose it depends why he knows it.”
Remy placed a double bourbon in front of me. “This one’s on the house if you stop right there.”
Angelique shook her head. “I’m buying.”
Muttering, Remy went to serve someone clamoring at the other end of the bar. Gary, from the rig.
I raised my glass and toasted my new friend. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” Angelique took a slug of her drink, ran her fingers through the condensation, and laid her wet hand on my leg. The moisture seeped through my slacks.
I cleared my throat. “So you live around here?”
“I don’t have to go home to find a bed.”
“Guess that’s true.” Angelique could have been a predator, lying in wait for me to arrive, except to be quite honest—I wasn’t exactly most women’s idea of a tasty morsel. It wasn’t like she was drunk.
Angelique licked sweat off her upper lip. “For that matter, the woods out back are all the bed I need.”
“I got to say, you’re faster than most ladies I meet here.”
“Do I scare you?”
Angelique laughed. “Good.”
I sipped my bourbon, desperate to slow this down to a more comfortable speed. “And why is that good?”
“Let’s go out back and I’ll show you.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” I glanced around to see if the other guys from the rig were laughing themselves silly, but nobody was paying us any mind.
Angelique leaned into me. “I want you right now, but I’m willing to wait until we get outside.”
What was I, an idiot? “Let’s go.” I tossed a bunch of bills on the bar and followed the sway of her body. Even my dreams weren’t half this good.
Angelique led me around back and into the darkness.
Once we were in the woods, she spun around and ground her lips against mine.
“Hey!” A voice behind me.
Angelique stepped away. “Buddy, did you follow me?”
“What do you think your brother would say if he could see you now?” The shadow she called Buddy was flanked by two other guys who were moving sideways as if they too were predators, accustomed to pack hunting.
I raised my hands, smart enough not to reach for the knife on my belt. “Whoa. We were just talking here. There’s no need for anybody to get upset.”
“Shut up.” Buddy turned his focus on Angelique. “Your brother’s instructions were explicit.”
“A girl’s got to have fun.”
“Explicit. And still I got to chase you all the way across the county to this dump.”
I made another effort, “Look, no harm, no foul.”
He turned on me. “I told you to shut up.”
“I’m just saying–”
Buddy gave a nod, and I heard a sound behind me a split second before the world went dark.
Went bright with pain, a gator ripping off my leg.
I somehow got my knife from the sheath and swung until I landed a blow through its eye. Fumbled my belt into a tourniquet. Passed out but fought my way back.
Rolled onto my stomach before vomiting bourbon and fear.
My nightmares not half this bad.
I clenched my teeth until the world sharpened.
Swampland. Just me and the dead gator. Stars shining so bright they hurt.
No sign of Angelique. But then it hadn’t sounded like she was in danger. It had sounded like Buddy was following orders to keep her safe from the likes of me.
I reached forward, grabbed a clump of something, and pulled, dragging myself across the damp ground.
They wouldn’t have wanted to carry me far from their vehicle, which meant there was a road nearby. Reach. Grab. Pull.
Concentrate on getting to the road rather than the reason I couldn’t walk to freedom. Imagine flowing across the ground as easily as a bead of sweat trailing down her neck.
Maybe Remy knew her last name. Maybe if I managed to pull myself to safety without bleeding out, without attracting another predator, maybe Remy would let her buy me that drink.
Stephen D. Rogers is the author of Shot to Death and more than 800 shorter works. His website, www.StephenDRogers.com, includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information.