"Okay," Ocelot said. "You want to call Harry or should I?"
They were travelling southward on Highway 101, about thirty kilometers south of King City, and already all four of them had developed a hatred of their new vehicle that rivaled the one they had harbored for the RV. The beat-up gray van had no seats in the back, no autopilot, no nav computer, and one of its tires was worn to the point of being dangerous. On top of all that, it smelled more than vaguely of manure, that aroma without doubt emanating from the several bags of fertilizer piled up in the cargo area. They had already had to make one emergency stop to fill the van up with gasoline, since the farmer they'd stolen it from apparently did not believe in keeping his vehicles' tanks more than a quarter full.
Winterhawk sat in the shotgun seat, which he had appropriated immediately upon seeing the interior of the van. He turned around to face Ocelot, who was sitting on one pile of fertilizer bags. They had considered tossing the bags, but decided to keep them since they made good (if aromatic) seating surfaces. At least it was better than sitting on the floor. "Go ahead," he said. "I'll be interested to see you try to explain this to him. Just be certain to tell him that we need a place to rest and have a shower in addition to getting us a new vehicle and appropriate papers."
"Anything else?" Ocelot asked a trifle sarcastically, glancing around at his other two companions. "Chocolates? Companionship? Pool toys?"
"Armor," ShadoWraith said from the drivers' seat. "For Dr. Hildebrandt."
"I'll second that," Dr. Hildebrandt said.
"Yeah. Right," Ocelot said, pulling out his phone. "Probably should get him a gun, too."
"No," Hildebrandt said forcefully. "No guns."
"You'll need something to defend yourself with," Ocelot said.
"I'm not gonna kill anybody. I save lives, not take them, remember?" The ork crossed his arms over his chest and his face settled into a look of stubborn resolve.
"Narcoject." ShadoWraith said. "Taser."
Ocelot sighed. "Doc, you got a problem with non-lethal force? Narcoject pistol, or a stun baton, or a taser? Maybe a shotgun with rubber bullets?"
Hildebrandt's posture relaxed slightly. "No...I guess not. But I still don't want to hurt anybody. If you want to get me something like that, I'll just use it for self defense. And no guns, rubber bullets or otherwise. You can still kill somebody with those things if you hit 'em wrong. Okay?"
"Yeah, okay." Ocelot said, knowing he didn't have a choice. Almost to himself, he muttered, "Harry, you better be around," and punched in the fixer's number.
Surprisingly, Harry's gruff, balding image appeared on the screen almost immediately. "Yeah? Who is it?" Even more surprisingly, he didn't look like he had female company.
Ocelot flipped on the video, and when Harry saw him, his brow furrowed. "Hey, kid. Thought you were on a run. You got a problem?"
"Yeah, sort of," Ocelot said. "Things have gone a bit--uh--weird. We need some stuff." Slowly, he outlined the list of gear and other things they needed.
Harry took them all down on his ever-present pocket secretary. "Okay. Armor, sized for large ork. Helmet. Narcoject pistol. Taser. And a vehicle? Where the hell are you?"
"Down in CalFree. Heading south toward San Luis Obispo. We sorta got our last vehicle shot up, and this one sucks bigtime. Not to mention that it's stolen. So can you get us something big enough for four comfortably? Armored, if you can manage it."
"Four? I thought it was just you and 'Hawk and the target."
"We picked up a new friend."
"Wait a sec," Harry cut in. "Heading south toward San Luis Obispo? I thought you guys grabbed the target and you were on your way back up here. Why the hell are you going south?"
"Long story, Harry. And that reminds me: we're gonna need some travel papers that'll get us into the NAN lands. Won't tell you where exactly, in case somebody's listening, but we need to get into Ute. Can you set us up with somebody on the way down south on 101?"
Harry sighed. "I'm not gonna ask. Better if I don't ask. But you know your asses are gonna be in a shitload of trouble if you don't get that guy back up here pronto. Johnson ain't payin' for sightseein'."
Winterhawk grabbed Ocelot's phone. "Harry, this is a bit important, and a bit touchy. If you can just procure the items we need and let us know where we might pick them up, I'm sure we'll be happy to share our vacation photos with you when we return to Seattle."
Again, the fixer sighed. "Yeah, yeah. You guys never make anything easy. What the hell am I gonna tell Johnson if he calls me wanting to know where his boy is?"
Ocelot reclaimed his phone. "Tell him that somebody's after the Doc and we took an alternate route to avoid a tail. If he complains, ask him if he wants his boy back in one piece. Tell him that's why he hired us, so the details better be up to us."
Harry nodded. "Yeah. I'll do the best I can. But you guys better not be screwin' around. I know there's more to this than you're tellin', but as long as you get the Doc back up here in good shape and ready to start work, I ain't gonna ask questions." He consulted something offscreen. "Give me an hour to see what I can come up with, and I'll call you with the details. You realize this ain't gonna be cheap, on such short notice."
"It never is, Harry," Winterhawk said, leaning over again.
"Anybody ever tell you you're a smartass, 'Hawk? And you look like hell, you know."
Before the mage could answer, Ocelot pulled his phone back again. "Okay, Harry. An hour. We'll be heading south, at least unless this piece of junk we're driving blows a tire or an engine or something."
"Just keep up that optimism, kid," Harry said, and broke the connection.
"Bet he's fun at parties," Hildebrandt said. Nobody answered.
As it turned out, Harry actually got back to them in somewhat less than an hour. After a relatively uneventful trip (save for the smell of the manure, the ever-present possibility that the bald tire might blow at any moment, and the general stress brought on by having to be on constant watch for possible attacks), they were only a few klicks north of San Luis Obispo when Ocelot's phone beeped, startling everyone.
"Okay," Harry said. "I think I got everything you're gonna need. Hope you ain't too far from San Luis, 'cause that's where this guy is."
"No problem there," Ocelot said.
"Good. I'm sendin' ya a name, a place to meet, and a number to reach her at if there's trouble. Oughtta be able to get you the stuff. If not, you can work it out there. Now I gotta go. Don't call back unless you're really up shit creek--it'll be easier to keep Johnson outta yer hair if I don't know exactly where you are or what you're doin'."
The address Harry provided turned out to be on the outskirts of town, at a large auto-body operation that looked like its building might have been from some time in the previous century. The contact, a dwarf woman named Holley, met them as they pulled in, motioning them to pull the van into one of the garage bays, behind which she quickly closed the roll-up door. She looked the van up and down as the occupants emerged. "Harry said you needed a new vehicle," she said. "I can see why." Walking briskly over to the front tire, she examined it a moment, then kicked it. Immediately, with a loud hissing sound, it began losing air. "Wonder you guys made it this far in this piece of shit." She sniffed. "Speaking of shit, what the hell's that smell?"
Wordlessly, Ocelot opened the van's back door.
Holley started laughing, leaning over to slap her coverall-clad knees. "Oh, jeez," she said between chuckles. "Bet you had a great time getting here from K.C." Taking a deep breath, she became all business. "Okay. I got you a vehicle--it's a Land Rover, with some light armor on it. Nothing fancy, though, so don't go gettin' yourselves shot up with assault cannons or anything. Armor and weapons are inside, and you can hole up here for a few hours."
"What about the travel papers?" Winterhawk asked.
"Those you're gonna have to go into town for. I don't do that kinda thing, but I got the name of somebody who does. Harry's set it all up, if you want to call him to check it out. I'd suggest you guys rest a bit first, though--y'all look like you could use it." She looked pointedly at Winterhawk's and ShadoWraith's bloodstained clothing, and at everyone's generally disheveled appearance. "Bet you'll be wantin' showers, too. I'll show you where to go, and you can rest up while I finish getting the van ready."
An hour later, the four men had reconvened near the new van, after having showered and changed clothes (all except Dr. Hildebrandt, who had had to content himself with a shower, since he didn't have any spare clothes). "It's nice to feel civilized again," Winterhawk said cheerfully, fixing the knot in his tie and straightening his suit coat.
"You got that right," Ocelot agreed. "Holley's right, though--we ought to rest a bit before we go on."
"Not long," ShadoWraith said. He was wearing a clean T-shirt and jeans under his armored leather jacket, and had trashed his previous pair of ripped and bloodstained jeans. Ocelot noticed that he had also touched up his dark-skinned facepaint, but he still didn't comment on it.
"No," Hildebrandt said. "Not long. Now that I know they're on to us, I want to get going. The faster we get those chips, the faster I can stop worrying about 'em."
"Well," Ocelot said, "We've got two drivers, and they're both lookin' pretty trashed. We got a couple hours, don't you think?"
Hildebrandt looked reluctant, but nodded. "Yeah, I guess it can't be helped."
While Winterhawk and ShadoWraith grabbed some much-needed sleep on cots in the back of Holley's garage, Ocelot and Hildebrandt watched the dwarf woman finish getting the van ready. She worked quickly and efficiently and didn't seem inclined toward conversation, so the two men kept to themselves, each of them keeping their own pacing vigil around the garage. Ocelot was looking for potential threats, while Hildebrandt was just pacing in an aimless and rather agitated fashion. Ocelot thought about calling the contact with the travel papers, but decided to wait until the others were awake. With any luck at all, the transaction would be quick and they would be out of town as soon as possible.