Part III

The glider started to shift unpredictably. He decided that it was best to land before she woke. Painter headed for the road in a  steep drop, angling to prevent the glider from accelerating beyond its capacity. Bringing it out of the dive, it skimmed the road for a few seconds before he angled the glider for a sheer climb. The braking effect lurched them to a halt.

The glider broke-down easily, but then, he thought, it was meant to. The entire package slid into a long nylon cloth tube. Something about it reminded him of tin-foil origami that someone-back-then would do from packets of freeze dried meal. He sat on the side of the road where he lay her. He was giving her four minutes. He told Tiny and Whitehot so. They said they were waiting.

When she started to groan, he checked his clock. He wasn't that far off. "How you feel?"

"Where am I?"

The singularity of her question didn't surprise him. It was in her profile. "I asked first."

"A bit sore, really groggy."

"You'll be good to go in a few then."

She opened her eyes enough to realize how bright the sun was. Her arm flopped over her head as her eyes clenched. "Your turn."

"About fifty klicks west of your hotel. We would have arrived at the LZ, but you were waking up. Couldn't risk it."


"Landing zone. Its where we agreed to meet."

She was adjusting to the light. "I didn't agree to any such thing. When daddy finds out about this..."

"You were at the meeting that we discussed this. You didn't participate much."

She propped herself up to look at him. "When was this?" She didn't sound thrilled.

He shrugged. "The restaurant." Painter looked over at her through one eye, evaluating what her reaction would be.

"That conversation with Tiny and Whitehot..." He nodded. "Why?"

He started stepping on eggshells. "The men who were shadowing you needed to reconsider things."

She had gotten up to a sitting position. "Daddy is not going to be happy when I get back."

He shook his head and stood up. "Don't worry about it. He'll be reasonable when I explain things to him."

"Why would he be anything reasonable?"

"I was just doing my job."

She gave him that little smirk. "Somehow, I don't see this, whatever it would be called, as the job description of a tour guide."

Painter chuckled a content grin. "Oh, that... that's just a sideline."

Her eyebrow folded upwards. "And which job would this be?"

He looked about. "It's a couple of clicks to the LZ. Why don't we get moving and talk on the way?"

She stood and leaned against a tree. "Why don't you answer the question and I'll think about that."

He paused long enough to give her a cynical stare. She had just started to become uncomfortable. "I'm doing what I'm being paid for... protecting you."

She began to shift restlessly and looked away from him. "Who paid you to do that?"

The response came dead flat. "Your father."

"Tammy?" She heard him call her. She was walking, but didn't know for how long. Painter was holding her hand and rubbing it. His hands burned next as they rubbed against her bluish shin. She realized that there was also a burning next to her skin.

"Huh?" As she said it, she realized how stupid it made her sound.

"You are cold and in shock. Just keep moving. We are almost there."

"The burning..."

"Hand warmers. Not very high-tech, but they do the job nicely."

"Painter, you got to tell me..."

"Tomorrow. Right now, you need to get to the LZ. There is a place you can rest at the LZ. Just keep putting one foot infront of the other."

"Tired. Can't I just rest here?" He seemed like he could move forever.

"No, we have to get to the LZ. It's very important." Somehow, she believed him. A low rumble came from the darkness. She wanted to jump out of her skin, but the world just spasmed for her. A solid object slid itself under the side Painter might have been on. An unworldly voice spoke to her.

"Over here Tammy. Just lay down over here..."

"Drek! What a god-damned son-of-a-scrag! Of all the FUBAR'n luck!"

The string of curses caused the morning to go silent save the responses from the foothills. They brought back a taunting echo of the anger. The sound woke her from an unusual dream. She had dreamt a boy had taken her on a whirlwind tour of the city while she was being followed by two men. The boy and his friends were able to pull a daring stunt that left them in the foothills below. Awaking and not finding herself in a comfortably expensive corporate hotel, she discovered how real it was.

Sunlight crawled its way in bias-leafed patterns through the canvas tent. It looked to be nothing more than heavy canvas on a taught rope, but she felt a warm breeze as she removed herself from a sleeping bag. A voice manifested from one end of the tent.

"Ya pro'ly wanna stay in 'ere Tam. He'z in a fit." The block shadow that had to be Tiny was etched into the canvas wall.

Content to let the world spin a bit, she stayed put. "What's going on?"

Tiny glanced over towards the ruckus. "Maria juz got back."

"What's wrong with that." She popped her head out. Tiny was on a stump stool looking down the edge of an axe. He ran a thumb along one massive bit then flipped it over and ran his thumb along a second.

"She gotta scratch." Tiny seemed unconcerned, so she sat down cross-legged and began to watch Painter. After the initial explosion, he settled down into a long winded string of truly heart-felt expletives, many of which were in languages she didn't know. Tiny began a whispered countdown at, "five, four, three, two, one." Painter went dead silent. Maria's back door opened as he headed back that way. He disappeared inside only to emerge with a black case. Around the corner, she heard Painter start to sooth Maria.

"What happened last night?" The questions started.

"You'z slept. T'e night befor' you 'rived. Doc sayd you had hy-po-ther-mia. Gotz ya warm and some broth in ya, then just let ya zleep." Things were quiet for a bit. Tiny occupied himself with sharpening his axe while waiting for her.

"What was going on that night?"

"Someone hired a couple 'a thugz ta do a grab job whit'z ya. Seem'd betz ta get ya outta ther'. Whitehot ran the hotel syst'mz an' the street lightz. I didz zome friendly perzuation." One eye seemed to independently flick over her shoulder as Tiny's skin rippled a dark red.

She shook her head. "Who would want to kidnap me?"

He let out a low note of a grunt. "Notz necessarily a kidnapping. Whitehot iz out drivin' about checking it out."

They sat there within the silence of thought, half listening to the careful ministrations of Painter. "Who are you?"

"Uz? Well, that'z a good question -- one bezt left to after dinner."

It was an exhausting day, sitting there, waiting, wondering.  Tiny checked the area every hour, mumbling something about Painter not helping him.  He wasn't much fun to talk to; she quickly realized that they had nothing in common.  Whitehot arrived and she tried to talk to him.  Harold got upset at her for ignoring him, so Whitehot left to his own stump across the clearing.

Tiny had started a small fire.  He placed a smoldering tin can in the middle of a teepee of thick branches, then popped the lid on the can.  He walked over to where she had the butt of his cigar, thanked her for it.  One last puff and he absentmindedly tossed it over towards the fire.  The shrapnel was spread to where she sat, four meters distant.

Painter took the time to cheer.  All Tammy could do was sit there slack-jawed, eyelids loosely fluttering about.  She thought someone was laughing.  Everyone looked over at her until Whitehot spoke.  "Harold wants to know if you are alright..."

She smiled, still giggling.  "I don't know. Something feels really good, though."

Painter leveled a dark stare her way, letting his eyes sink deep into the sockets and curling his lips under until they disappeared.  The arteries beneath the colorless skin became pronounced.  It was a terrifying sight that rocked the foundation of her soul.  The Look brought her down to the crumbled foundation of her soul.  The laughter swept into weeping.  Painter once more, he was next to her with arms about her, trying to breath in her embrace.

Whitehot placed the tin-foil package on a damp muslin bandana resting on her lap.  Tammy stared at it, mesmerized by the crinkled surface reflecting the deep red of the coals. "Who are you." It was little more than a whisper that carried across the clearing to all of them.

"Something human." Painter's words were comforting even as she shivered.

Whitehot unwrapped the dinner next to him before unwrapping his own. The crinkling of the foil was an unwelcome intruder to the silence. "We're here to protect you. Your father sorta sent us."

Something flamed within her. "My *father*." It had an edge.

Tiny nodded. "Painter checked ya out after za laundamat -- specially when he saw a coupe-a guys follerin' ya."

Painter picked it up. "Your father was concerned for you. He's got a big deal going through and wasn't sure what the... competition... would do. He knew my rep and I vouched for Tiny and Whiteflash here." Whitehot made to speak, but placed a forkful into his open mouth instead.

She brushed her hair back out of her face and held it there with both hands. "Those guys... they work for my father's competition?"

Whitehot waved a fork about while trying to hurry up and swallow. "They were local muscle. Ran them through Freddy. They were good."

"Were'z right, chummer." Tiny flashed his toothy grin.

"Who's this Freddy?"

"Fixer. The man with the jobs for our profession."

She was feeling a bit cautious. The tin foil opened to reveal real shaved beef among real vegetables. "Which is?"

Tiny straitened his tie. "Profezional problem zolvers."

She looked over at Painter. "Not painting things..."

"No, I paint things." His tone barked back.

A lull. "What did you do to me."

There was an uncomfortable pause as Painter looked at her again. "Men I worked with had a name for it... Death's Quake. It rocks you down to being able to deal with things."

"What men?"

Something edged behind the professionalism. "My father's troop."

"Troop of what?"

Painter got up and walked towards Maria. "Mercs."

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