Monday, May 14, 2012
Walk Like a Man
Nilambari said nothing during the entire ride in Rick’s pickup down the mountain into Talbot’s Peak. Once they reached the town, however, she clung to his arm and stuck close to his side while her wide eyes suspiciously scanned every person on the street. So many were shifters. So many could be agents of Shere Khan.
“Why are we here?” she whispered. “Shere Khan’s men are everywhere. I need to hide.
“You need to eat,” Rick said, “and we need info on what’s up with Ol’ Stripes. This diner and the coffee shop are the best places to catch up on the gossip.” He grinned and gently disengaged his arm from her nervous clutch. “Easy there, sugar smacks. This is mainly a herbie place. Next time I’ll take you to a restaurant that serves meat.”
Rick guided them to an out-of-the-way table near the back. Nilambari seated herself with her back to the wall and a full view of the other customers. Her eyes and nose were well attuned to the nuances of herbivores and carnivores. Most of the patrons did indeed belong to the Grass Castes. That didn’t exclude them from service to Lord Khan.
Perhaps she should run from this American lion who’d promised to protect her. His plan was insane. But where would she go? Where could she go?
A middle-aged woman with white, tightly-curled hair and the smells of flour and a mountain meadow on her stopped by their table. “Rick,” she said. “Haven’t seen you in town in a dog’s age.” Her bright eyes raked Nilambari like searchlights. Nilambari stared at her menu. “And who’s this you brought along?”
“This is my cousin Barry,” Rick said. Lies dripped so easily from his tongue. “He stopped in to check out the Peak.”
The voice came nearer as the woman leaned over the table. “Nice tan, kid.”
“He’s from Utah. Desert cats, y’know. Lot’a mountain lions down there have darker skin and fur.”
“So I’ve heard. What can I get you boys?”
“Two specials. Strawberry for me, blueberry for the kid, scrambled eggs on both.”
“You got it.” Thank Vishnu, the woman walked away.
“This isn’t going to work,” Nilambari muttered. “I can’t pass for a man.”
“You’re doing fine so far. The after-shave’s messing up your scent real nice. Anyone whiffs cat on you will just assume you’re a mountain lion like me.”
“A female, not a male. What happens when I go into heat?”
Rick displayed sudden interest in his coffee. “We’ll ford that stream when we get there.”
This is a stupid plan, she thought, adjusting her cowboy hat. All that hair of hers crammed under it made her head hot as a Bengali jungle. Rick had assured her she needn’t cut it if she didn’t want to. Many native shifters wore their hair long, and everybody knew cats from Utah were a bit tetched. All that desert sun.
The rest of the clothes he’d insisted she wear she could tolerate, thought the jeans felt strange on her legs. For once her lack of curves played to her advantage. “You look male,” he’d told her. She’d managed not to shudder.
She’d noticed Rick spent a lot of time gazing at her butt. His attention eased her concern.
The food arrived. She found the “flapjacks” unique and even tasty, despite the lack of meat. She pretended total interest in her food while in reality eavesdropping on the conversations around her. None held much interest for her, until she caught the name “Shere Khan.”
Her bits of flapjack fell off her fork. She didn’t notice.
The speakers were a handsome old wolf and an equally-grizzled ape. They laughed as if Shere Khan were nothing, a joke. “Shipped in some little tigress as a bride for one of his sons,” the ape was saying. “Then the girl up and runs off. I never knew tigers had that much sense. The old rug’s plenty ticked.”
“She must’ve heard I was in town. How do I look?” The old wolf slicked back his hair.
“It tastes better if you put it in your mouth,” Rick suggested.
Nilambari got up. “Excuse me. I need to use the facilities.”
Outside the doors marked “Rams” and “Ewes” she hit another obstacle. Her needs said one, her garb the other. As she agonized before them, the curly-haired woman came over. “Trouble, hon?”
“No, of course not. I was simply, um … ”
The woman pondered her, then the two doors. “Men’s room’s having issues,” she said. “Go ahead and use the ladies’. I’ll stand guard.” Nilambari darted gratefully inside.
Once she’d tended to business and gotten her heartbeat back under control, Nilambari fixed the set of her hat once again and exited the stall. The herbivore woman was standing by the sinks. Nilambari froze, staring at her. A place for gossip, Rick had said. Eyes and ears of Shere Khan?
The woman shook her head. “Men. Think slapping men’s clothes on a woman will hide her. From another man, maybe. You the girl Khan’s looking for?”
“You know I am,” she accused.
“Easy, girl. Nobody in town gives rat scat for the bastard. That doesn’t mean someone won’t try to turn you in. I know coyotes who’d do it for laughs. If you’re going to be Rick’s cousin Barry, you’d better do it right.”
“The jeans are not enough?”
“The jeans are a start. Wear a looser shirt. It’ll hide what’s up top. And fix that walk. Rick couldn’t take his eyes off your butt, and he wasn’t the only one. I assume it’s straight man you’re going for. How do the men you know walk?”
“Like rajahs. Like all places are theirs. Like tigers.”
“That’s how you walk from now on. Watch Rick. He moves slow and easy, but others get out of his way. That’s a king cat, and now that’s you. Do you know how to use make-up?”
“From now on, you use it different. Forget about the eyes and the lips. Square that chin up a little. Thicken the eyebrows. You can draw in some lip hair and stubble with pencil. It won’t fool anybody up close, but at a distance it’ll feed the illusion. Have Rick buy you decent hiking boots. You may have to run in them.”
She nodded agreement over every suggestion. “You’re a grass-eater. Why are you helping me?”
The woman flashed a sunny smile that somehow had fangs in it, in spite of her diet. “Because nothing makes a herbie happier than sticking it to a carnie, and sticking it to Shere Khan makes me happy as hell. Besides, I like Rick. He never tried to chase my boys. He’s got smarts, for a cat. Now show me that walk.”
Nilambari re-entered the dining area with a tiger’s stride, mindful of her hips. Rick automatically stiffened. He’d noted the difference. No one else paid her any attention.
“You stuck your tail in the bear trap this time,” the woman murmured to Rick as she cleared the plates off their table. “Word is that runaway girl was meant as a wife for Ravi. He’s a bastard and a half. You and your cousin better keep your eyes peeled and your ears perked.”
“I’m picking up extra ammo,” Rick said. “Thanks, Elly.”
“Always happy to help out a friend. Something for the road?”
“Not today. We better skedaddle.” A trio of coyotes had entered the diner. Of course they zeroed in on the one new face. Their manner reminded Nilambari of jackals. More than tails would wag after breakfast, and word had a way of spreading.
Rick paid the tab and got up. Nilambari and her new walk followed him out of the diner, head high and confident, just like a male. Rick’s wild plan might succeed after all. As long as she didn’t have to cut her hair.