It was an appraisal statement. He might have said, "water is wet," or, "snow is cold." The tone would have been the same.
He noted the characteristic sheen reflecting from the plate polyfiber window. Beyond it was the night city -- the city of No Name. He saw without looking the corporate crowd enjoying late night excursions. Occationally, he wondered what their lives were like. Maybe, just how his was different.
He knew a guy who said that working at the laundromat was a good way to meet babes. He started 'cause it was good, easy money. On the application, he'd put that he was 18. They wanted someone who was 18. He could be 18.
The guy was wrong about the babes.
He worked graveyard shift. The customers were mostly regulars -- tired second shifters and local kids up late. The remainder were of the children of the visiting crowd -- children like the one behind him.
She was maybe 18, maybe 19. The baggy sweater bearing the name of some college and a pair of oversized jeans hid the shapely form underneath, but he knew it was there. He knew the scars were there as well. They all had scars.
Well, he had scars too.
"You come here often?" He had his back to her, but he could feel her gaze. The question was silly.
"I work here." He didn't turn about. She was disappointed, but undaunted.
"Wiz! I think it would be great to work here. What's it like?" He heard her hop up on a washer. He had her pegged for a corporate daughter out for some trouble. She wasn't proving him wrong.
"The universe has a dumping ground. This is it." He could see her reflected face drop for that instant. It was not the response she expected.
She nervously began swinging her legs. Several minutes passed before she continued. "There must be something good around here."
"Then it sounds like you are the best person to show me around." It was his turn to be suprized. He turned to look at her, breaking the raw neo-military stance.
A stone face raised an eyebrow just enough to convey curiosity. "Why do you say that?"
This wasn't going as she had planned. "Well, Daddy hired this woman to show me around. She plays tennis and golf and polo and speaks five languages and is friendly and smiles all the time. I felt like I might go diabetic, you know what I mean..."
He allowed himself a grin. "Yea... I've met people like that. So you can't stand her. Somehow I don't think 'daddy' will approve of me."
She shifted a bit from her perch on the washer. She tilted her head a bit and raised a hand to push a length of wavy brown hair out of the way. "Well, daddy had something come up just before the trip and, well... what Daddy doesn't know..."
He turned back to the night city. "I think I'll decline that."
The pause was audible. "You know... I know this girl. Someone turned her down once and she told her father some things about that person. He wasn't too happy about that. That person became very unhappy too." She studied him closely. He didn't flinch at the lack of subtlety. He didn't respond. "Well?"
He allowed himself a shug. "Well what? Your lack of tact? You know nothing of me. You want me to show you around. I wouldn't be surprised if you were planning on telling daddy about all of it later. I fully expect you to carry out your threat. It's just that it doesn't impress me."
"Ah... well..." She felt the heat of her face. His smile was inward this time. It had been too long.
She shifted her weight to slide off of the washer. "What kind of places did you want to see?"
She was caught off balance, but was glad to have her tongue back. "Well, local places, you know? Not the touristy stuff. No racquetball or anything like that. I can get that back home. I want to see... well.. the local color."
He almost laughed. "Local color? That's one way to put it."
She didn't miss a step. "Ya see... I get so sick of people putting on masks. They see daddy and instantly put it on."
He nodded once. "Get that a lot, do you."
She tilted her head off to one side. Long strands of tinted hair rolled off her shoulders. "Yea, well... except for you."
"Everyone's got masks. I got my own."
"But you're not putting them on."
"You don't know that."
She tilted her head for a skewed survey of him. "If you are, it's not the same. You feel real... kinda like you don't need to put on the masks as if it is beyond you."
There was a momentary pause inside of him. It was the moment of uncertainty that his father had taught him about. He recognized it and made his decision. "Perhaps I might reconsider that."
Her smile was all too naive. "Really! That would be great!"
"Two conditions. First, you pay me what your guide was getting. I know who she is and what she charges. Good so far?" She nodded. "Second, you want to see 'local color?' Okay, but you do as I say when I say." The biz of things.
"Sounds reasonable." She hopped off of the washer. "What's first?"
"First you finish up here. Then you go back to your hotel. Get some sleep."
"Then we get you some clothes."
He arrived at the hotel late in the afternoon. The sun had drifted behind the mountains, obscuring the direct rays, yet it was still bright enough to see clearly. It was uncomfortable for him, but he walked into the hotel and took the service elevator up, just like all the other deliverymen.
He carried several boxes, the cardboard water-stained and browned with exposure. He stood to the side, away from the doors. He went to the floor below and took the stairs up. It was habit that he didn't want to break.
He wore the same long black oiled-leather coat. Despite the dimness, he still wore sunglasses. Slung on a should strap was a heavy black helmet with a dark face shield. His side felt naked without a steady thumping he'd grown up with. He adjusted his dark fishnet-covered gloves and rang the doorbell.
"I was wondering when you would make it." She smelled of money with her expensive shampoo. He wasn't happy about the way that she was pleased to see him. It had potential to be dangerous.
"This is for you." It was biz when he handed her the largest of the cardboard boxes.
She didn't notice and gave him a teasing smirk. "What is it?"
He walked past her. "Clothes. I borrowed a few things. There should be something that will fit you. Light layers are good. Wear the windbreaker on top. Nice to see you."
She placed the box on an ironwork table. She untied the twine holding the box closed and flipped the lid. Her nose wrinkled in disgust. "These smell."
He nodded. "As I said, I had to borrow them. The smell will mask that shampoo. You don't want to deal with masks, you're going to have to mask yourself."
A pile of clothes on her arm, she made for the bedroom. "What's in the other boxes?"
He opened the closet and placed the boxes on an old piece of paper. "I like to be a little cautious."
He made closing the door look easy. The van had a solid box of a look to it. "Maria is good for the occasional odd job. Hauling, painting... you know." It took her throwing her weight into it to budge the door. "Let me get that." He moved the door in a way that reminded her of watching the ballet, his smooth motion almost hypnotic with graceful ease. She wouldn't have thought that he was that strong underneath the concealment of is coat.
She checked out the interior. A folded bench seat lay behind her. Behind that were racks with slatted fronts that were pulled down to conceal the interiors. By the rear doors was a large sheet covered mass anchored to the wall. The front area was spacious on the passenger side. The seat wrapped about her in a comfortable manner. He got in.
Her head nodded toward the back. "What you got back there?"
His seatbelt slid home. "That? Just tools of the trade."
"That would be..."
"My business." Flat, no questions.
She gave him that pouty look. "Aww..."
He rolled his eyes for effect. "You gotta be a little more reserved with the questions. Some of the people about will take offense at it."
"If they do, I'll just have to apologize." It was her best wide-eyed innocent face.
He turned the engine over. "These tend to be the kind of people who will remove that tongue of yours as an apology." He saw it -- that look his father called the 'doe in the road.' He regretted it, but it was necessary. "'Long as you are with me, they will think twice. Just be careful and enjoy yourself. Remember, you are not rich. People will react to you differently."
He felt his hands shaking as he reached for the wheel. Several deep breaths calmed him. "You okay?"
'At least she is a little observant,' he thought. "Yea," he shrugged at her. "Just been a while." The van slammed into gear.
They had been walking for five blocks. She was obvious in the way that she kept looking about wide eyed, despite his reminders. The street appeared new and fresh to her. It was early and after a couple of looks no one cared enough to notice.
He tried to make conversation to get her attention focused. "There are two kinds of smells in the world... there is stale and there is fresh. You have to prefer fresh... and this is nothing but fresh."
She peered over at him. "What is his place called?"
"This is the local incarnation of the Sprawl."
He nodded. "Sprawl. It's a place to hang, do biz, lay about, have fun... get lost in. Each one is individual, having its own ebb and flow. There is etiquette unique to each. Normally, city this size has something pathetic. This city is an exception."
"So this is like underworld places in the stims?"
He pulled her into a bar. Walking over to a shadowed booth, he motioned to the bartender. Off the street, away from the eyes, he gave her a serious look. The dimness enhanced the albino whiteness of his skin and the darkened sunglasses he purpetually wore. In the darkness, he was something fearful. "Nothing is like the stims. Nothing. Stims are the modern westerns with the hero riding off into the sunset. The hero doesn't always ride off. Sometimes, you can't tell who the bad guy is."
She was silent at his tone. He reeked the sense of someone who was used to saying something only once. She jumped when the waitress set the drinks down. "Scarin' your date, P?"
He raised his eyebrows at the waitress. "Not my date, Beth."
Beth posed for him. "Thought she was too uptown for you."
He raised his glass to her. "I didn't think she was that obvious."
"Be glad no one cares to make waves with you." Beth turned to her. "What's your name honey?"
He spoke first. "Tammy. Tam for short."
She was about to protest. Beth broke in, shaking a finger behind her as she turned to go. "Ah ah! Listen to P, hon. He knows a few things."
Tammy waited until Beth had gone. "She called you P."
He nodded. "That's my handle down here."
Her tone was flat and amused. "A letter?"
He smirked at that. "Naw, she just shortens it. My handle is Painter."
"Painter?" Just flat this time.
Painter threw back the remainder of the drink. He ran his finger around the rim, making a humming sound. "Yea. I paint things."
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