She had been fidgeting since leaving the pool hall. Finally, she had to speak. "I think were being followed."
"Yea." He brushed a few drops of water from his coat.
She stopped dead in the street. He was still next to her. "You knew?"
"Yea." He was wondering how long it would take her to bring it up.
"How long?" She was not happy.
"They picked me up before I got to your hotel." He got her moving.
"Do you know them?" Worry, the next stage.
He shook his head and tried to act reasonably normal. "Not personally."
"Meaning?" She was threatening. 'Typical,' he thought.
"I've been about the sewers enough." Another flat statement.
She let that sink in. "What do we do?" He applauded her silently.
It was time to let things hit. "Nothing."
"But they are following you..." He wasn't sure how she would take this one.
"No." A little voice reminded him to be careful.
"I thought you said they 'picked you up?'" The edge of panic creaping in.
A slight nod. "I did."
She shook her head dubiously. "I don't understand."
Time to change topic. "What company does your father work for?"
Her mind muddled for a moment. "Oh... Chimera Industries. They make industrial machinery."
"Something like that." Switch topics before she can think on that too much. "There's an Ethiopian place around the corner. Interested?"
"Ethiopian?" Bewilderment crept in.
"Ever had it?"
"No..." They were off before she could complete the thought.
There was a line, but it was late and people were leaving. A couple of individuals that Painter seemed to know joined them. One was a huge block of a man in a badly fitting black suit with a white bow tie. It wore in a manner that made her think that he was all angled underneath. He talked with a gruff, hoarse whisper of a voice that made her think of old mafia movies.
The other was a wiry wisp of a man wearing an oversized faded black band T-shirt. The screened on letters had flaked off. He wore gray couteroy jeans speckled with stains. His unkempt hair was in a tangled mess which he kept catching his hand in.
Painter looked pleased. "Hey Tiny! How's it going?"
"Iz good Painter," the big one let grind from the back of his stomach.
Painter turned his attention to the other. "Hotflash! Good to see you."
"Whitehot. White. Hot."
A wave of the hand dismissed the correction. "Whatever, Linenoise. You two care to join us?"
"Three." Whitehot crossed his arms.
She looked about and felt as if she couldn't keep up. "Huh?
Whitehot pointed to empty space beside him. "Harold."
"Oh... let's see... he 's got to be somewhere over here..." Painter began waving his arm about an empty space.
Whitehot let loose a look of shocked terror. "NOOOOO! Quit that!"
Painter had a big grin. "Hmm?"
"Harold does not appreciate you doing that."
He winked at her. "Sorry 'bout that."
Tiny prepared for a grumble. "Who's the lady?"
"...this is Tammy, or Tam."
"She your girl?" The sound reminded her of a noise she once heard a car make just before it entered mechanic hell.
He waved the question aside. "Customer. We're seeing the local color."
Whitehot tilted his head as if listening. "Harold wants to know if that color is red."
Tiny pointed at the door. "They'r' ready fer us." He fell in beside Tam and placed an arm about her. "Don' worry. We may be a bit rough 'bout the edges, but there's no place safer." Tiny gave her a smile that showed more teeth than she was comfortable with.
It was a small place with what she thought to be appropriate decor. It was a cross between something vaguely fashionable and something ethnically correct. They were seated about a large metal bowl lined with a kind of bread. On the bread was various prepared vegetables and meats. A pile of the same bread was before each one. She imitated the three as they scooped up what they wanted with the bread, using it as eating utensils.
They conversed as they ate. It was simple conversation. "What'ca been up to?"
Painter swallowed. "The new part came in and I've been busy installing it."
Whitehot pulled off a piece of bread. "How'd that go?"
"Problems with it -- not a friendly merger."
Tiny scooped up some boiled cabbage. Seared bits dropped off from between his fingers. "Iz can take care o' that."
Painter reached for something yellowish before her. "No, a friendlier method of persuasion is in order."
The cabbage went down with a gulp. "What'd you sugetz?"
Painter and Whitehot responded at the same time. "Something that doesn't involve a sledge hammer."
Tiny rolled a piece of bread between his fingers. "But t'e weather'z been nice for that."
Whitehot nibbled at a bit of artificial chicken. "Naw, heard there's a thunderstorm coming."
Painter grunted. "I got things left out in the open. Perhaps I'd better make sure they're covered."
"After eatzin' that is."
She wasn't comfortable with Painter's mad-eyed grin. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
She piped in. "What are you talking about?"
Tiny lowered one eyebrow from its perch. "Juz converzin'. Nothin else, juz converzin'."
She stayed quiet while the conversation moved about. Occasionally, one would ask her the oddball question, but mostly she just fumed and listened. Something smelled amiss.
He had been quiet since the restaurant. Once she had tried to ask a question, but he seemed to be in some sort of reverie. He just drove.
"Sorry I haven't been good company."
She jumped in her seat, calmed herself and crossed her arms. "No you have not."
"Couldn't be helped. I can only concentrate on so many things at once. Our tail needed all of my attention." She had almost forgotten about them.
"What are we going to do?" A thin approximation served her as lips.
"You need to get out of the way. They need to see that following us is not a good idea. I'd like to persuade them personally, but someone needs to stay with you." He faded out.
"That's what you were talking about?" She waved a hand infront of his face when he didn't respond. "Hey!"
He started. "Oh, sorry. We'll have to leave Maria for the moment."
"How are we going to get away from them?"
"Ah, now that is a bit of a surprise." Painter motioned toward her hotel. "Here we are."
They took the elevator to her floor. She pressed her palm against the lock, but it didn't recognize her print until she wiped her hands off on a bandana he had stashed up his sleeve.
He opened the closet door. "Throw on some more clothes -- the warmer the better."
He gave her a frozen look. "Please." It was not a request.
Loose clothes flew across the table as she poured out the box's contents. Selecting fashion over function, she opted for two additional layers of items that weren't too hideous. He walked in from the bedroom with a few of her items and placed them into an oil-splotched backpack. The crinkle of plastic came from within.
"Come on." He opened the window and stepped out to the ledge.
Tammy gave him that doe-eyed look again. "Painter... you are not serious..."
He stamped his boot. "There's three feet of solid concrete. It's here just incase of fire. The janitor uses it for cleaning the windows. We are only heading a few meters." He took hold of her wrist and pulled her along side of him.
In her shock she was still able to make out the click of the window locking behind them.
He walked along amidst the winds with one arm behind him to keep hold of her hand. Over one shoulder was slung the cardboard boxes from the closet. Beneath that he had the backpack over both shoulders. Both eyes closed, she let him lead her. "Just take deep breaths. We are almost there."
There was another click and the slide of a window. She felt him drop down and he helped her. She let herself open her eyes. "Where are we?"
"Next room over." He handed her a headset. "Put this on."
It fitted under her hair. With some help she was able to get it adjusted. One side curled under her chin and pressed into her throat. The other snaked under then into her ear. From it, she heard voices.
"Painter, you'z nev'r known howda treat the ladeez."
"Can it Tiny. How we doin' IcyWet?"
There was a sigh. "Got about 20 until they hit the room. I'll give them about that."
Painter nodded. "Just give me the sign."
The pent up anger burned up within her. "What's going on?" Painter cringed to one side.
She heard all three cringe. "No need to shout. All it takes is a whisper, the mike is subvocal."
She whispered this time, but the tone was just as harsh. "What is going on?"
Whitehot piped in. "No time for full explanation, Tam. Your shadow has decided to become very active."
Painter guided her into the entryway. "They are being very careless. If they were following me, they would be much better."
"Stop the babbling. This is it."
He pulled her out the door.
He wasn't in a hurry, but she was slow. That was unavoidable. It was time for Whitehot to work his trade. "Pop the door." He heard the locks release on the stairwell. One hand pushed the door open. After passing through, he made sure the door shut, listening for the locks and alarm trips to engage. Nodding, he hoisted her over a shoulder. The steps came three at a time.
"Half a flight to roof." The roof access door popped open. They were outside. He put her down.
"What a rush..." She knelt down looking nauseous. He looked at her long enough to check that she was fine.
Sliding a thumb, he broke the yellowed taped sealing the cardboard box. Reaching inside, he pulled a polymer roll that had been squared by life in the paper container. Setting it down, he held down an end and flipped the bundle so that it unrolled along the roof. It unfolded into a roughly triangular shape. Going to the pointed end, he gave the fabric a flip. It went rigid, forming a wing. He lifted it up and bars flipped down into place.
He spoke to the mike. "Glider is good." He took two tablets from his pocket and placed them in her palm. "Take these. They will calm your stomach."
Whitehot chuckled. "The boys are on the way down. Estimate 73 until Maria."
"Notify me at ten." Painter sat cross-legged beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. He felt her slowly drop her weight onto him.
"Thirteen... twelve... eleven... ten..." He felt Maria start. "Nine... eight... seven... six... five..." Systems check was OK. "Four... three... two... one... arrival." Maria took off, nearly running the two men over. Painter watched Maria become "unavoidably detained" in traffic while the men got into their rented euro-compact. It was a piece of tin-foil with an engine, leaving Painter unimpressed. He watched them gain on Maria through the winding curves as they approached the aqueduct. Maria's forward running lights flashed twice as she approached the tunnel opening. Maria surged forward and plunged into the darkness. Behind her, a puff of explosive smoke rose as a massive slab of a gate crashed down. Barbed points driving the tin foil engine into the concrete. Behind the reverb, he heard the rhythmic slapping of massive hands and Tiny's gruff voice.
"Chummerz... it seems ya ain't paid yer toll."
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