Part Six, Chapters 21-24
"Yup, that's my name," Simon said. A crazy glee was blooming under his breastbone, leaving him dangerously close to giddiness. "Good to see you too. What in the hell are you wearing?"
Jeremy fell back a second step, glancing left and rightbut he also touched the lapels of his jacket like he was reminding himself of the answer. "I rather think there are more important questions"
"It's tan," Simon said, waving a hand at Jeremy. "You are wearing tan."
"Wheat," Jeremy protested, then shook his head and glanced at the man behind the counter, who looked confused. "Any other messages, then?"
"And a hat," Simon said, unwilling to let go of this conversational advantage. "Tan, white, and some kind of crazy straw fedora thing'scuse me, but I'm looking for some other fellow, dresses all in black like an asshole"
"Simon, please!" Jeremy's voice was sharp enough to disrupt Simon's train of thought and line of attack. Simon allowed himself to be silenced, although he was still grinning. It was hard to stand still. Jeremy spared him one last exasperated glance, then turned his attention to the guy at the newsstand.
The counterman spread both hands in an expression of futility. "Nothing," he said, in passable accented English. "Except that, and I did not know that he was with you."
"He's not," Jeremy said.
"Liar," Simon said.
"I assure you," Jeremy told the counterman, "I'm as confused as you are." He switched his gaze to Simon and took another couple of quick steps backwards. "I suppose telling you to go home is out of the question?"
"Sure is," Simon said, following Jeremy. "For the record, I also refuse to accept any loose talk about how this is none of my business."
Jeremy took one last stubborn step backwards then came to a halt, balanced lightly on the balls of his feet in the middle of the sidewalk. Pedestrians streamed by to one side and traffic to the other, no one paying them the slightest bit of attention. Jeremy glanced around again, then dipped his head, hiding his eyes behind the brim of his hat. "In that case, I expect we're about to have quite a row, but first I think I'd rather like to get off the street."
"Nooo problem," Simon said. "I've got a hotel room right around the corner, apparently. C'mon." He took one last long step forward and caught the sleeve of Jeremy's jacket in his free hand, the fabric light and nubbly under his fingers.
Jeremy stiffened like Simon had attacked him, his free hand leaping up into a defensive gesture that vanished as quickly as it appeared. Instead, Jeremy sighed and put his hand on Simon's, squeezing Simon's hand briefly. "All right," Jeremy said, giving in, but with a warning note to his voice that promised that it was only temporary.
Simon tugged at Jeremy's sleeve, getting him moving in the proper direction. Jeremy followed him. After a moment, Jeremy was nearly leading him, and Simon was forced to use his grip on Jeremy's sleeve to haul him back. "Slow down," Simon said under his breath.
Jeremy hissed out a breath through his teeth. "As little as I like to admit it, you're right," he said, reining himself in. "I'm not comfortable on the street, however. And I'd appreciate it if you'd let go of my arm."
"Promise you won't run away?" Simon asked, giving Jeremy's sleeve a little tweak.
"I doubt it would do me any good," Jeremy said.
"You're probably right," Simon said. He dropped Jeremy's sleeve. "Also, nice hat. Do you have trouble with goats trying to eat it?"
Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Oh, yes, why don't we get the potshots at my wardrobe out of the way first? That ought to clear the way for the meatier subjects. Go ahead. Ask me why I'm not wearing black."
"Okay," Simon said, following Jeremy to the corner. He shook his head, still grinning. "Why aren't you wearing black? I mean, if August in DC couldn't pry you out of it, I don't see why July in Italy can."
"I always wear black, then, do I?" Jeremy asked, pausing at the curb. He rolled his weight forward so subtly that Simon almost missed it, carrying his shoulders square and his arms loose. His fingers flexed gently.
"Well, duh," Simon said. "I mean, the only time I've ever seen you in something that wasn't all black was the first time, when you had that tuxedo on. Well, and now."
Jeremy quirked an eyebrow at him before going back to scanning the people around them, feigning idleness. "So would you say that I'm known for wearing all black?"
"Yeah," Simon said, and then got it. "Oh."
"Precisely," Jeremy said. The light changed. The crowd around them surged out into the street like a truculent and suicidal animal, Jeremy and Simon relatively sheltered in its midst. Somewhere on the perimeter there was honking, and once, the screeching of tires, which made Jeremy flinch and look around. "And also, we're in Milan," he added as an afterthought. "If I wore a black suit in July, the Milanese would be stopping me in the street to loudly critique my ensemble, and quite frankly, my nerves couldn't take it at the moment."
Simon glanced back and forth at the herd of Italians around them. Somewhere up ahead, a scooter tore through the outer edge of the crowd and was driven off by the shrieking of epithets. "Nobody's said anything about my clothes," he pointed out, feeling obligated.
"Well, yes, but you look like an American," Jeremy said. Despite everything he favored Simon with a thin, quick, cool slice of smile. "I suppose they've learned that some people are beyond saving."
Simon rolled his eyes. "Ha ha," he said. They gained the other curb and relative safety, although another outburst of screaming heralded another rampaging scooter. Simon touched Jeremy's shoulder and nodded to the hotel, on the right. "There," he said.
"Mm," Jeremy said, tilting back his head and glancing up at the hotel's facade. "Very nice. I suspect you didn't choose it yourself."
"Nope," Simon said. "Also, I'm not checked in yet, although I have a reservation. Shouldn't take long, though, and then we can go yell at each other in comfort, privacy, and safety. Man. I ought to get some brownie points for being so thoughtful."
Jeremy glanced at Simon, then huffed out a sharp, exasperated sigh and looked away. "Go check in, then," he said. "I'll meet you at the stairs."
"Stairs?" Simon asked, reaching past Jeremy to pull the door open.
"It's only five stories tall," Jeremy said. After a moment of hesitation, he went in, glancing around the lobby with what appeared to be disinterest. "It's not going to have an elevator."
Simon started to follow him and managed to get the strap of his duffel hung up on the door's handle. By the time he freed his bag and got inside, Jeremy was nowhere to be seen.
"Jesus, this place is fancy," Simon said. He started to throw his duffel and jacket on the bed, then checked himself and put them down with more care, just in case the bed was as antique and valuable as it looked. "Also expensive, even if it does only cost play money."
"Mm," Jeremy said, exploring the perimeter of the room. He paused by the door, his fingers prowling over the locks, before moving on again. "Well, I suppose you needn't stay here for long."
Simon watched Jeremy stalk around for a moment before shaking his head. "I'm not even going to ask you how you meant that. So, weren't we going to fight or something?"
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said. Halting in front of the little table Jeremy took off his hat and put it down, then ran both fingers through his hair, putting it back to rights. Even hat-head couldn't slow Jeremy's hair down for long, although it did seem to lay a little flatter. "We are most certainly going to have words. I'm just trying to decide where to start" He broke off there and made a frustrated gesture. "All right, forget 'how', for the moment. I've a sinking sensation that I know how, or at least the rough outlines of it. Which leaves us with 'why'."
"Actually, you know what, why don't I start?" Simon said. "'Cause I know where to start, and once we get started we can just go all the way through."
Jeremy closed his eyes for a moment. The tautness leached out of his face, leaving him looking just about like death warmed over. "All right," he sighed. "Start, then."
"I," Simon said carefully, putting a hand on his chest, "am so fucking sorry."
Silence fell. Jeremy didn't open his eyes. After a long moment, he reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "About Annabelle, you mean," he said flatly.
"Yeah," Simon said. "About Annabelle. And about getting you into this mess in the first place, but... yeah. Definitely about Annabelle."
"Mm." Jeremy was a statue by the window, his face mostly hidden by his hand. "Well. I'd like very much to tell you that it's all right, or that you're forgiven, but you'll forgive me if I can't, just yet."
"It's cool," Simon said, waving that away. "Jesus, I sure as hell can't forgive myself, why should you?"
"Good question." Jeremy let his hand drop and opened his eyes. "Go on."
Simon snorted and looked away. "'Go on', he says," Simon informed the wall. "Okay, so. I guess we both know that Karpol wouldn't have gotten your name if it weren't for me and Rich. So this whole mess" Simon swept one hand around in a circle, taking in the world "is ultimately my fault."
"You can agree with me. It's okay. It's fair."
"Yes, I suppose so," Jeremy said. "I can't discount the possibility that Bran might have sold me out eventually, but I'm certain it wouldn't have been so quickly, or so... so thoroughly."
"Yeah," Simon said. He sat down on the foot of the bed, quickly discovered that it was sturdier than it looked, and bounced once. "So I guess you could say that I'm here to try and make amends. I got you into this and I should get you out. Right?"
"So you... what? Took a leave of absence?" Jeremy crossed his arms over his chest. "What did you say when they asked why? 'Toodles, I'm off to Europe to meddle in the affairs of criminals and possibly break a raft of laws, don't wait up'?"
Simon took a deep breath. "That's a long story."
"I assure you," Jeremy said, flicking a hand at the clock, "it's in your best interests to make time for it."
"Right." Simon rubbed a hand down his face. "The story starts with a man named Norton Fowles, and believe me, it only gets worse from there."
"... and so..." Simon shrugged. "I've been suspended until further notice."
It had taken longer to stumble through that part of the story than Simon had thought it would. Jeremy was silent through most of it, watching him incuriously and taking it in. Eventually Simon ran out of words and staggered to a stop. He wasn't panting, but he felt like he should be. "I see," Jeremy finally said.
"Yeah," Simon said. "I mean, I'm not going to lie to you: if it hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't be here." He rubbed his upper arms, staring off in the general direction of the floor.
"Because you've told me a thousand times that your job is more important to you than I am," Jeremy said, as offhandedly as if he were remarking on the weather.
Simon winced. "Yeah," he said. "And, and it's true, okay? Except that... well, Jesus, I take responsibility when I fuck up. And I fucked up."
"Mm," Jeremy said in agreement. "So you decided to hare off to Europe after me. And given that I've only had time to tell one person about the newsstand message drop, I believe I can see the gist of your next move."
"Yeah," Simon said, scuffing a foot against the rug.
Jeremy hooked out a chair and dropped into it, folding himself neatly into the chair like origami. "Clever," he said. "So tell me, how did you find Ethan? His old FBI file? He must have one."
"Nah," Simon said. He laughed a little despite himself, rubbing the back of his neck. "I called that museum you took me to in New York and got the head curator to relay a message."
"That was clever," Jeremy said, raising an eyebrow. "And since you're here, I can only suppose you managed to impress him somehow."
"You know, I'm not sure?" Simon glanced over at Jeremy. "I mean, I guess I said the right things, but I'm like ninety percent certain he thinks I'm a giant asshole."
"Well," Jeremy said, his little shrug managing to clearly convey the concept of you are.
Simon grinned a little. "Yeah, yeah, I know. But he said he'd give me the chance to convince you, and here I am."
"Yes, well. About that." Jeremy paused and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose again. "I can understand why you might think you have this tremendous obligation to fix things. God knows you should. But... this isn't something you ought to get mixed up in." He paused and looked at Simon expectantly, waiting for the outburst. Simon only returned the stare and kept his mouth shut. After a moment, unsettled, Jeremy shifted in his chair. "It's a tremendous mess, is what it is, and I simply haven't time to pause and observe your scruples at every step. I intend to take whatever chances are open to me, whether or not they're legal, moral, or ethicalif your role in this ever came to light, I suppose that being suspended from your job would be the least of your worries." Again he paused and looked at Simon, waiting.
"Okay," Simon said.
Jeremy's lips thinned. "Now I'm beginning to think that you weren't listening to me."
"No, I heard you," Simon said. "I just think you're about half full of shit."
"That's more like it." The shadow of Jeremy's usual smile flickered across his face and vanished.
"There's got to be any amount of stuff I can do to help you that isn't illegal, first off," Simon said, ticking off one finger. "I mean, even if it's just running down to check your messages or fetching the paper or take-out or whatever, I can totally help you keep your face off the street."
Jeremy inclined his head, apparently accepting that.
"And secondly," Simon said, ticking off a second finger, "I'm not actually here at all. As far as anyone knows, I'm still in DC. Okay, sure, if I get caught and dragged into a police station the shit is going to hit the fan, but otherwise? I've got plausible deniability. I've got this brand-new fake identity"
"Ah, so you've met Teddy, then," Jeremy said. He looked mildly impressed by this revelation.
"That's the guy," Simon said. "And I kind of got smuggled out of my country in the first place, and believe me, after we're done fighting I have got to tell you about my odyssey, not that you probably haven't done worse."
"Mm," Jeremy said. "Go on."
"Okay, so third of all, Jesus Christ, how stupid do you think I am?" Simon ticked off his third finger and waited.
"I fail to see how that's a convincing argument, although it was nicely delivered," Jeremy said.
"Bite me. It's a convincing argument because if you think I somehow got all this way without realizing that I might have to do some illegal stuff, then you think I'm stupid." Simon smacked the back of his hand against his palm. "I knew that before I left the States. I'm here to help, okay? I've broken the law for you before. I guess I'll just have to do it again."
Jeremy was silent, his eyes watchful. Simon dragged in a breath and plunged on. "And you know what, maybe I won't 'pause to observe your scruples' either," he said, unable to resist the fingerquotes. "I've got a clean gun coming. I don't exactly want to go on a killing spree, but if it comes down to shooting someone or watching you get shot, I know which one I'd choose. Maybe I think you need a bodyguard. I'll do it."
"Simon," Jeremy said, pained. Whatever had been about to follow Simon's name didn't.
Simon punched the mattress, exasperated. "Goddammit, you don't have to do this alone!"
He winced even as the echoes faded and died away. "I mean, uh," Simon said, and stopped. "Well, yeah, I guess I meant that, huh. You didn't get into this alone, you shouldn't have to see it through alone, right?"
Jeremy was blessedly silent, just watching Simon.
"And besides, you need me," Simon said, hurrying on to get away from his discomfort. "I mean, come on. You haven't even said anything suggestive yet, and normally you'd already be inside my pants by now. Hell, if I can't do anything else I can still be, uh, the world's biggest stress-relief ball, Christ, I didn't think that pun was going to be so awful when I started it."
Jeremy made a little sound that might have been a laugh, tenting a hand over his eyes. "I must admit that that was just about the last thing on my mind," he said.
"Yeah, I know," Simon said. "And I guess I can't blame you, but shit, look at you."
"What about me?" Jeremy asked, pulling his hand away and looking down at himself. "Besides the lack of black."
Simon heaved himself off the bed and crossed the distance between them in two strides, grabbing a handful of Jeremy's white t-shirt and yanking it upwards. It came free of Jeremy's pants with a little whispering sound. "I mean that," Simon said, nodding at Jeremy's bared stomach. Absently he twisted his hand, gathering more of the t-shirt about his fist.
"Simon, you're stretching out the fabric," Jeremy said patiently. "That shirt was expensive."
Simon snorted. "Of course it was," he said. "But my point is that you are taut as a wire, and I could see it from there, okay? Take off your jacket and I bet your forearms would be just as bad. You're starved down to muscle and nerve, and I bet you've been working out to keep from going nuts or something, because Christ, I do not remember you being this ripped. Ripped, yeah, but... now I can see your ribs."
Jeremy craned his neck slightly, looking past Simon's wrist at his own stomach. "Yes, all right, I concede your point," Jeremy said. The muscles of his stomach quivered as he spoke and Jeremy looked away again. "Would you mind letting go of my shirt?"
"Try again," Simon said, flexing his fist inside its mummy wrapping of silk t-shirt. "That's not the right way to ask, and you know it."
Jeremy hesitated. "Please?" he finally said.
"Closer, but no cigar." Simon hunkered down so that he could look Jeremy in the eyes. "Come on. I know you've got it in you."
"Simon, this is really not the time," Jeremy said.
"Pssht, sure it is," Simon said. "There's no way anyone could be onto my ID yet. Hell, this is the safest you've been for weeks. Come on. Where's the Jeremy I know? He's got to still be in there."
"Simon," Jeremy started to say, pained, and then shut his eyes. "I suppose you're not leaving me much choice."
Simon couldn't help but smile. "Nope," he said. "None at all. Come on, I came all this way."
For a long moment Jeremy was silent, his eyes shut, his face drawn and oddly gray. His exposed stomach shifted every time he breathed, the sharply-delineated muscles flexing to accommodate his sighthen Jeremy let his eyes drift open and favored Simon with the ghost of a smile. "Well, Simon," he said, and the raw purr of it made Simon shut his eyes. "If you want me to take it off that badly"
"Oh yeah," Simon breathed unsteadily, looping another turn of the t-shirt around his wrist and reeling Jeremy in. "That's what I was looking for."
"Christ," Simon croaked.
Beside him, Jeremy exhaled a long, steady breath. "Mm."
The air in the room was hot, and close, and damp, the miasma of sweat so pervasive that Simon could taste salt on his tongue. The sun had set half an hour ago. The thin curtains over the window let in just enough of the streetlights to illuminate the edges of things and the silhouette of Jeremy, sprawled out on his back with his arms thrown lazily up over his head. With an effort Simon rolled onto his side and splayed his hand out on Jeremy's sweat-slick stomach. "That was like getting mauled by a rottweiler," he said. "You know, in case you were wondering."
Jeremy shifted. Simon's hand slipped, not unpleasantly. "Hopefully not exactly like," Jeremy said.
One of Simon's fingers dipped into Jeremy's navel and slid back out. "Well," Simon said, "I have bitemarks."
"Ah," said Jeremy. "I suppose I take your point, then."
Simon started to say something else, but Jeremy chose that exact moment to roll over onto his side and Simon's thoughts scattered. A fair amount of Jeremy slid past under Simon's hand, including a faint unevenness nestled into the hollow of his lower belly that Simon knew very well. "So," Simon said, putting his hand on Jeremy's hip instead, "feeling better?"
"I suppose you'd find it gratifying if I admitted that I was," Jeremy said. Most of his face was in shadow, but Simon could just make out the edges of his features and the dim glint of his eyes. "I can't shake the conviction that it was foolhardy, however."
"Yeah, well, maybe it was, but I don't think so," Simon said. "You seem calmer and hey, nobody's kicked the door down yet."
The sparks in Jeremy's eyes winked out as he shut them. "I suppose so," he said.
"Great!" Simon said. His hand slid down the incline of Jeremy's hip and settled at his waist instead. "So I guess that means I'm staying."
"Simon," Jeremy said, with something very close to despair. For a little while afterwards he was quiet, and so was Simon. Finally Jeremy took a deep breath and opened his eyes. "I'm just afraid that you'll drag me down," he said.
"Drag you down?" Simon echoed, immediately outraged. "Drag you down? Jesus Christ"
Jeremy smacked his hand firmly over Simon's mouth, pressing his palm down until Simon's only choices were to bite him, edge back until he fell out of bed, or shut up. Simon gave all three some serious consideration before subsiding with a grumpy "Mrphnn."
"I'd appreciate it if you'd hear me out," Jeremy said, his fingers flexing against Simon's cheek.
"It isn't only you that would drag me down," Jeremy said. "It's anyone. I've managed to keep myself at liberty these past few weeks by being ready to abandon a hiding place with thirty seconds' noticeyour being with me can't not slow me down, even if it's just a matter of fifteen seconds to inform you that we're leaving. And, quite frankly, it's hard for me to picture you doing whatever I say without any arguments. My God, if there's one thing I haven't got time for at the moment, it's arguing with you, as enjoyable as it usually is."
Any number of counterarguments flashed through Simon's mind, but for the moment he contented himself with narrowing his eyes and voicing a muffled "Fnghmp."
"And, well..." The faint glints of Jeremy's eyes dropped, then rose again. "I don't want to be responsible for your safety as well as mine. It's a tremendous responsibilityI don't like to think of the consequences of failure."
Simon was silent. After a moment Jeremy sighed and let his hand fall away from Simon's mouth. "Go ahead," he said. "Argue with me. I can tell you want to."
"I thought you didn't have time," Simon said, trying not to sound too nasty about it.
Jeremy exhaled. "You know what I meant, Simon."
"Yeah." Simon deflated a little. "Yeah, I know what you meant. And, and I see your point, okay? But what you're doing here is looking at me just as a liability, and that's" Simon broke off there, abruptly.
"That's what?" Jeremy prompted, after a moment.
Simon shut his own eyes. "I was going to say that's not fair, but if I have to resort to arguing about what's fair, then I've already lost."
"Mm. True. Although now I'd rather like to hear you explain yourself."
"You can't just think of me as a, a boulder you have to drag around," Simon said. "You have to think about it this way: do the things I can possibly do for you outweigh the risk of keeping me around? Seriously, think of me like, like, uh, whatever's in your suitcase right now. I bet everything in there had to pass that test: is having it with you important enough that you'll drag it along the next time you run?"
Jeremy breathed out a little sound that might have been a laugh, reaching up to put his hand on Simon's chest. "I suppose it wouldn't make you feel much better to know that I've abandoned everything but the items in my pockets three times so far?"
"Uh. No, not really." Simon squeezed his handful of Jeremy, not really thinking about it. "But my point still stands. I'll make myself useful enough to justify keeping me around. Okay?"
"I suppose so," Jeremy said.
"Okay," Simon said, satisfied.
Jeremy patted Simon's chest once, lightly. "Will you promise me one thing?"
"I need you to trust me," Jeremy said, and he hurried on before Simon could respond. "I can't be arguing with you over every move we make. Sometimes I'll need to be able to snap my fingers and have us both jump."
"See, I'm liking this, because you're starting to sound like my staying is a given," Simon said cheerfully.
"Simon," Jeremy said, exasperated.
"But, getting back to your point, yeah," Simon said. "If you say we go, then we go. I get that"
"It isn't just that," Jeremy said.
Jeremy's hand drifted up, pressing against Simon's shoulder, and the rest of him followed. Simon found himself being pressed back against the bed, Jeremy slow and heavy on top of him, like his limbs were weighted with lead. "I need you to do what I say, Simon," Jeremy breathed, his nose an inch from Simon's own, his hands on Simon's shoulders, his legs astride Simon's own. "This isn't like before. You aren't the defender of the free world on this side of the ocean."
"Yeah, I get that," Simon croaked, catching Jeremy's hips in both hands. "Also? I am totally appreciating your debating technique right about now."
"I don't think you do get that," Jeremy said, so softly that Simon had to crane up to hear him. "I know you. The moment you think you know better than I do, you'll fight me every inch of the way. But what you need to understand is" he broke off here and rolled up against Simon, boneless as water, making both of Simon's hands clench "if anyone in this mess is 'just this guy', it's you." Jeremy paused, letting that sink in, then added, "Not me."
"Christ, were you saying something, I think I missed it," Simon muttered, lunging up to catch a mouthful of Jeremy's neck. Jeremy twitched his head to the side, eeling free with ridiculous ease. Simon's head thumped back to the pillow. "Okay," he said, swiping the back of his hand over his mouth. "Yeah."
"Mm?" Jeremy said, arched forward over Simon like a gargoyle.
"Yeah," Simon said again. "I get it. Okay? Jesus, keep that up, I'll agree to anything"
"All right," Jeremy said, and for a moment he did keep it up, and Simon hissed and clawed at Jeremy's hips and growled mostly incoherent encouragement. All too soon Jeremy slowed, coming to a halt, bowing his head.
"What?" Simon rasped. "Jesus, what, don't stop now"
"I don't know how I'd live with myself if you got hurt on my account," Jeremy said, his own voice oddly thick. Simon went still. Jeremy's fingers flexed against his shoulders. "I hate that you're here. It takes all my ingenuity to keep myself alive and free while I maneuver to free Annabellethere have already been casualtiesnow I'm to be responsible for you as well, my God, I hate it..."
"Shut up with that defeatist bullcrap and do that again," Simon said, grabbing at him.
Simon's hands stole back from Jeremy's hips and linked together in the small of his back while Simon fought to catch his breath; outside it had finished becoming dark. A car horn blared and someone yelled imprecations after it in Italian. Simon was pleased to note that Jeremy barely twitched. "So I'm staying," Simon said, closing his eyes.
Jeremy, sprawled heavily out atop him, rubbed his face against Simon's shoulder like a cat might. "It seems that way," he said.
"Yeah, I knew you couldn't resist my charms forever," Simon said.
Jeremy laughed a little. "As I recall, Simon, I've never really bothered resisting your charms, even when you'd really rather I try."
"Well, see, I totally understand that I'm irresistible, so." Simon unlaced his fingers and ran both hands up along Jeremy's spine. "So, in all seriousness, has he really got you running that scared? Because, I mean, Jesus, people have put actual bullets into you in the past and you've handled it with more aplomb than this."
"It isn't that I'm running scared," Jeremy said patiently. He shifted a little on top of Simon. "I've never played for stakes quite this high before, that's all. Generally, in my line of work, even if I bungle things utterly, the only life at stake is my own."
"Huh," Simon said. A stray bit of guilt nudged at the back of his mind, but he banished it in favor of splaying his hands out on Jeremy's shoulderblades and making sure that Jeremy didn't go anywhere. "So..."
"So?" Jeremy said, subsiding.
Jeremy pursed his lips, apparently giving this some thought. "Well," he finally said. "I'd been thinking I'd have a shower"
"Ha ha," Simon said, punching Jeremy's shoulder. "I meant, you know, generally."
"Ah." Jeremy sat up slightly, crossing his arms on Simon's chest and resting his chin on them. "Next, generally, is the matter of Annabelle."
The guilt that had been sulking in the back of Simon's mind roared to life on the instant. "Oh. Uh. Yeah," he said, looking away. "So... she's okay? Uh, I mean, in the general physical not-dead sense?"
"As far as I know," Jeremy said. "They've been using her as a bargaining chip, you understand. I turn myself over and they'll let her go. So..." He paused, sighed, and looked away himself, his face falling into shadow. "I've spent the past few weeks negotiating the trade, in between bouts of running like hell."
"Yeah, but you're not actually going to turn yourself in, right?" Simon said. After a moment of silence, he said "Right?" again, leaning on it.
Jeremy's laugh this time was faint and unhappy. "Well, if it comes down to that, then yes, I will. But I don't intend to unless I have no other choice."
"We'll think of something," Simon said, mostly to be saying something.
"In any case, it's taken this long just to agree that the trade will happen in Milan," Jeremy said. "Which is part of why I'm so jumpy at the momentthey know that I'm here somewherebut more than that we haven't hashed out yet, so we've yonkers of time to arrange things to our advantage."
"Now that's the kind of thing I want to hear from you," Simon said, patting Jeremy's arm. "Makes you sound like... you know. You."
Jeremy paused just long enough to let his lips drift over Simon's jaw. "All I've really done so far is consigned myself into the hands of a particular crony," he said. "Our Russian friend has friends wherever the crime is organized, but he isn't so popular among... mm... how to put it. Freelancers. Like myself."
"Criminal craftsmen," Simon promptly said. "So we're up again, what, the Mafia? What is this, a bad movie?"
"It's not the Mafia, Simon. That has a particular meaning around here, and not the one you're looking for. It's just... a bunch of well-organized fellows in extremely good suits."
"The Mafia," Simon said again, pleased with himself. "So why here?"
Jeremy smiled against Simon's ear. "I have a lot of connections here," he murmured.
"Yeah, I do like the sound of that," Simon said. He shut his eyes and tilted his head slightly.
"Really, I know more people in Milan than... nearly anywhere else," Jeremy said, nipping obligingly at Simon's offered ear. "Milan and Paris, but organized crime in France is so... well."
"French?" Simon supplied.
"Yes, that will do," Jeremy said, with a bit of a laugh. "But our friend doesn't know that. He believes that Milan is neutral ground, because it isn't Russia, and it isn't England. I'll let him go on believing that."
Simon gave Jeremy one last good squeeze and then, with some reluctance, let him go. Jeremy slithered off to land by his side. "Better and better," Simon said, stretching out his sore muscles. "So, I'm thinking you ought to go have a shower, and then I'll have a shower, and then I'll run out and get us something to eat, because Christ, I'm starving. Sound like a plan?"
"And there you go, already trying to take charge," Jeremy said, but to his credit, he was laughing when he said it.
"Food," Simon said, booting open the door about half a second before he would have lost control of the pile of boxes in his arms. Finding a restaurant that was nearby and would lower itself to provide takeout hadn't been easy; finally Simon had resorted to pretending to be Jeremy and thrown ten-euro bills at anyone who looked like they might be able to help. Ten-euro bills were orange. Simon had been sort of glad to get rid of them.
His hotel room was empty. His duffel bag still lay where it had been thrown two hours ago, flopped upside-down in a corner like a dead thing. His bomber jacket was crumpled half under it. "Food," Simon said again, kicking the door shut behind himself and heading towards the table.
He was just putting the boxes down when the deadbolt engaged behind him. "I am hungry," Jeremy said, putting on the chain and wedging a chair under the doorknob. "I've been eating as well as I can, but I'm afraid that often isn't very well."
"And in Italy, too," Simon said, shaking his head. "I'm guessing that's some kind of crime. Were you hiding in the bathroom?"
"Substitute 'lurking' for 'hiding' and I'll allow it," Jeremy said equably.
Even lukewarm, the food set Simon's stomach growling. Jeremy fell on his half like a starving wolf, which was so unusual that Simon postponed his own meal for nearly three seconds just to stare. They ate in hurried, appreciative silence, only acknowledging each other when they grabbed for the same piece of bread, and then it was mostly glaring.
Simon was plowing his way through the last of his half of the food when Jeremy rose and went to wash his hands. He came back from the bathroom shrugging into his jacket, his hat in one hand. "I'm going to go reclaim my things from my current room and bring them back here," Jeremy said, rolling one shoulder to settle the jacket.
Simon swallowed his current mouthful. "Want me to come with you?"
"No, I don't think so," Jeremy said. "I intend to try and slip in and out without anyone seeing me, and that would be difficult with both of us along. I should be back in an hour."
"Okay," Simon said. "So, just out of curiosity, how hard should I worry while you're gone?"
Jeremy flipped his hat onto his head and gave the brim a twitch, like a character in an old movie. "Well, it's quite dark and I'll be able to travel over the rooftops for part of the journey. I'd say you needn't worry overmuch unless I'm gone for more than two hours."
"Rooftops," Simon said, and snorted. "Anyway, that's cool. I really need to call home and pick up my messages anyway, maybe touch base with a couple of people."
"If your phone's American, it may have trouble getting signal here," Jeremy said. He pulled a black phone from his waistband and tossed it to Simon. "Use that one."
Simon caught the phone and cringed even as he did soit was thinner than anything he'd ever seen, a flip phone like two credit cards hinged together. He was momentarily afraid that he'd crushed it. "I'm not going to leave you without a phone," he said, tossing it back.
Jeremy fielded it neatly, swept it around in a circle, and returned it, tossing it underhand this time. "I have another," he said. "See?" He groped around inside his jacket and came out with a second, chunkier phone. "I go through them at the rate of about two a week, unfortunately, so I've resigned myself to always carrying a backup."
"Huh," Simon said, eyeing the phone. "Okay."
"Hit the star button twice, dial zero zero one, area code, phone number," Jeremy said. "If I should need to call you for any reason, I'll call on that phone."
Simon gingerly flipped the phone open, checked it, and closed it again. "Okay," he said. "You expecting any calls that I should know about?"
"If someone calls on that phone and it isn't me, hang up immediately and throw the phone out the window," Jeremy said. The suggestion was casual, like he was telling Simon to take a message.
Simon eyed him, waiting for Jeremy to laugh and say he was just kidding. Jeremy just raised both eyebrows. Simon shook his head. "Christ," he said. "Uh, crap. What time is it in DC?"
"Three in the afternoon," Jeremy said, not even checking his watch.
"Right," Simon said. "Okay. Get out of here. If you're not back in an hour, I will hit you so hard."
"I'll keep that in mind," Jeremy said. He pulled the chair out from under the doorknob, unlocked the door, and slipped out, the door closing noiselessly behind him.
Simon finished the last few bites of his dinner, now completely cold, more out of stubbornness than anything else. Fullbeyond fullclose to bursting, he flopped back in his chair and considered their leavings. He should really throw the dinner detritus away, but he wasn't in the mood to move, let alone clean up after himself. Simon eyed the tiny wastebasket by the desk, snorted, said, "Fuck it," and abandoned the mess where it was, heaving himself up out of the chair with an effort and rolling the three steps to the bed.
The bed was a total mess, a fact which Simon had conveniently forgotten. Impatient, Simon grabbed a handful of the bunched-up covers and sent the whole shebang waterfalling onto the floor, leaving himself with the bottom sheet and a couple of misplaced pillows. He sprawled out, stuffed a pillow under his head, and flipped the phone open again. "Star key twice," he muttered, punching it with his thumb. The phone hitched at him, then made some kind of noise. "Zero zero one... area code... number."
A minute later he was listening to a tinny rendition of himself, telling him to leave himself a message. Simon winced at the weird, throttled sound of his own voicethe version of him on his voice mail sounded drugged or constipated or boththen negotiated with the menus until his cell phone coughed up his messages.
Message one, the day after he'd left: "Hey, boss," Sandra said. She sounded like she was determined to sound cheerful. "It's, uh, seven PM here. Anyway, I was just checking inI'll call tomorrow." There was masculine muttering in the background. "Mike says to tell you hi," Sandra said, and then she hung up, over what sounded like more aggravated muttering. Simon smiled.
Message two, the day after that: "Hey, boss," Sandra said again. There was road noise behind her, this time, and she sounded a lot less cheerful and a lot more determined. "Checking in again. Give me a call or something when you have a chance, because I'd really like to know that you're not dead."
Messages three and four were exactly the same, only progressively more aggrieved. Simon was beginning to feel somewhat guilty. Also apprehensive: upsetting Sandra was not good for his health.
The voice-mail lady informed him that he had no more new messages. Simon sighed and hung up, flipping the phone closed. There'd been no call from Upstairs, not that he'd really been expecting one. No chance that things were just going to blow over, then.
So: Sandra. Simon flicked open the phone, hit the star key twice, got the noise, and dialed in the string of numbers. The phone rang three times before it was answered; Simon heard a lot of clattering, a faint scratching sound, and eventually, a bit of raspy breathing. "Sandra Leone," Sandra groaned.
"Christ, Sandy, you sound like hell," Simon said cheerfully. "Leadership not the endless party it's cracked up to be?"
"I just got to sleep an hour ago, you unforgivable bastard," Sandra said, her voice still thick with sleep but much more alert. In the background an equally sleep-clogged male voice said something and Simon had to pull the phone away before he could laugh in Sandra's ear. Sandra put a hand over the phone's mouthpiece. "Yeah," she told the voice, then came back. "Also, it's been four days with no word, boss, and I am therefore entitled to kill you."
"Tell Mike I said hi," Simon said.
"After I get done reaming you out, you can tell him yourself," Sandra said. "So... what kept you from calling? Do you actually hate me? Were you planning to ensure your continued leadership of the team by giving me a heart attack?"
"You know what, I hadn't thought of that, but now that you mention it, that is a great idea," Simon said. "So is now a good time to mention that I may very well get into a shoot-out with the Mafia?"
The noise Sandra made was close to indescribable. "I hate you," she said. "Tell me you're kidding."
"I'm probably kidding about the shoot-out part," Simon said. "Probably."
"I'll shoot you myself when you get back," Sandra promised.
Simon smiled up at the ceiling. "I'll hold you to that," he said.
"Mrph." Sandra coughed twice, clearing her throat. "So can I assume you found him?"
"Sure did," Simon said. "About two hours ago. That's why I haven't called until now."
Sandra dismissed this excuse with a snort. "So... where are you?"
"Italy, apparently," said Simon. "The food is great, and hopefully I'll get to enjoy a little more of it before I get run over by an insane person on a Vespa."
"Italy," Sandra repeated. Behind her, Mike muttered something. "Gosh, boss, if I thought I'd get a trip to Italy out of the deal, I'd try and get my ass suspended too."
"Yeah, it's not bad, except the whole shoot-out with the Mafia thing," Simon said. "So what's up over there? NYPD catch Rappaport yet?"
Sandra's laugh was prolonged and bitter.
Phone calls over with, Simon rolled back out of bed and made a half-hearted effort to clean up the dinner boxes. He eyed the wastebasket for close to a minute before admitting to himself that there was no way he was going to get even the smallest box in there, and settled for putting the whole shebang out in the hall for the maids to take away.
He checked his watch, realized that it was still set to DC time, and checked the clock on Jeremy's cellphone: 10:19. Jeremy had only been gone for about half an hour. Simon put Jeremy's phone down on the little table and went to investigate the television.
He quickly discovered that most Italian television was American television with a crappy dub. Eventually, patient flipping around netted him some kind of variety show, which was entertaining in a train-wreckish fashion; Simon watched it with the disbelieving sneer of the amateur anthropologist. Ten minutes or so was about all he could stand, even after the sudden introduction of a bunch of half-naked girls.
Leaving the variety show crashing on in the background, Simon picked up his luggage and dealt with it, hanging the bomber jacket in the closet and dropping his duffel bag on the floor. The covers were still in a huge, untidy heap on the floor, so Simon picked them up and made a half-assed attempt to put them back on the bed, then sat back down on the foot of the bed and flipped through the channels again.
The clock crept towards eleven like it was crawling through mud. Simon found himself checking the time every five minutes, then every two minutes, then every thirty secondsfinally he gave up, turned off the TV, and threw the window open, blasting himself in the face with steam.
The street below was still pretty busy, considering the hour. Simon crossed his arms on the windowsill and scanned the sidewalks for any sign of Jeremy's hat. He wasn't terribly surprised when he didn't see it. He could see the newsstand from here, but it was closed and shuttered, its dirty white canvas top glowing under the streetlights. Scooters were still tearing by, nearly colliding with taxis, pedestrians, and other scooters. Simon decided it was a lot more interesting to watch than the television, particularly after one minor accident turned into a screaming match with lots of gesticulating.
No matter what, though, the cell phone in his pocket felt like it was burning against his hip. Simon sighed, pulled out the phone, checked the time. 11:04. Jeremy had now been gone for an hour and fifteen minutes. Not that Jeremy was particularly overdue, but still, Simon was aware of a low-level creeping sensation in the pit of his stomach. If he'd come all this way just to lose Jeremy to Karpol three hours after he'd found himSimon derailed that train of thought at the station and threw himself on the bed, instead.
The sound of traffic still filtered in through the open window. Simon dropped the phone on his chest, stuck both hands behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling, waiting. Jeremy was bound to notice that he was overdue and call soon. Assuming he didn't just appear, pretending nothing was wrong, which would be just like him, the bastardassuming that nothing was wrong
The realization that Jeremy wasn't coming back hit Simon like a baseball bat to the back of the head and knocked him bolt upright. The phone, forgotten, fell into his lap. Of course Jeremy wasn't coming back: he didn't want Simon here, did he? He'd sure as hell made that clear. And he'd gotten tired of arguing with Simon, so he'd fucked Simon into submission, availed himself of a shower and a free meal, and then walked right back out of Simon's life, and like an idiot Simon had let him go. Jeremy was miles from here by now, and tomorrow he'd call Ethan and set up a new contact point, and all he'd lost was a phone that would be worthless three days from now in any case. "Stupid," Simon muttered under his breath, smacking his forehead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid..."
Leaving the phone on the bed, Simon went back to the window and stuck his head back out. There were still no white hats in view, but now he wasn't expecting one. The urge to go out and look for Jeremy was strong and completely idioticif half the criminals in Milan couldn't find Jeremy, Simon sure as hell had no chance. Simon bit his thumbnail, now furious at himself. He couldn't even call Ethan and beg to know the new contact point. Ethan would tell him that he'd had his chance and blown it, and the hell of it was, he'd be correct.
Simon whipped back around and grabbed the phone off the bed, flipping it open and calling up the contacts list: empty. He poked through menus until he found its call history: empty, except for the two calls he'd just made. Simon groaned, slapped the phone shut, and threw it back onto the bed, only barely resisting the urge to peg it as hard as he could. "Son of a bitch," Simon informed the empty room, windmilling his arms. He was, officially, the biggest idiot he knew.
For a moment he stood undecided in the center of the room, fighting the urge to search the city, to call Ethan, to do any one of a number of ridiculous, useless things. Eventually the urge subsided, replaced with dull rage like a stone in his belly. "Fine," Simon said under his breath. "Fine." He'd get a good night's sleep, here in this overpriced Italian hotel room, and then tomorrow he'd go back to the airporthe had to have enough play money to buy Simon Moorhead a one-way ticket to America. This whole trip had been a fool's errand and he was lucky to get out of it before anyone got wind of what he was up to.
His movements jerky with repressed anger, Simon changed into his pajama pants and turned out the light. Beneath his open window the city raged on; Simon didn't bother to close it out. Instead he curled up into a knot under the covers, knees drawn halfway to his nose, and demanded of himself that he sleep.
How long he lay there simmering, he had no idea. He only knew that he was no closer to sleep than he'd ever been when someone tapped on the door, just a light little patter of fingertips against the woodfor a long moment Simon thought his ears were playing tricks on him. In the end, still surly, Simon rolled out of the bed and groped his way to the door, opening it a crack.
"Did I wake you? I'm sorry," Jeremy said, his voice hushed out of respect for the darkness as he slipped in past Simon. His fingers trailed across Simon's bare chest as he went, light as feathers. "I didn't think I'd been gone that long."
Simon grunted in acknowledgement and groped back to the bed, curling up again. He was still angrycouldn't quite not be, despite the obvious fact of Jeremy rustling around in the darkness behind him. Simon didn't bother to roll over, not even when Jeremy crawled into the bed. On the other hand, just lying here made him feel like an idiot"Just a little late," Simon muttered.
"I apologize," Jeremy said. As if the apology magically made everything all right he slithered over and pressed himself against Simon's back, wrapping an arm around Simon and splaying his hand out on Simon's chest. "I didn't mean to worry you."
"I wasn't worried," Simon said, and fell silent. His anger was beginning to collapse sheepishly in on itself, but it was apparently planning to go down fighting. After stewing for a few minutes, Simon forced himself to admit, "I didn't think you were going to come back."
Jeremy was quiet for a moment. "I hadn't been planning to," he finally said.
In the face of that bald statement, what was left of Simon's rage paradoxically vanished, leaving him blank. "Huh," he said. "What made you change your mind?"
Jeremy shruggedSimon couldn't see it, but he could feel it, Jeremy's shoulder nudging against his own. "For one thing, I feel that Ethan must have had a reason to send you," Jeremy said, patting Simon's chest.
Simon waited. Jeremy didn't go on. "And?" Simon finally prompted.
With his face pressed between Simon's shoulderblades, Jeremy smiled; Simon could feel the smile against his spine, and it made him shiver. "And I couldn't stop thinking that I was running away from the one person in this whole mess that I know I can trust."
"Oh," Simon said. Outside a car horn blared, loud and long, rising and falling as the car it was attached to swept by; Simon sighed and put his hand over Jeremy's, pressing it to his chest.
By the time Simon thrashed up and out of sleep the next morning, Jeremy was awake, clean, dressed, and sitting at the little table reading the paper. "Good morning, Simon," he said, his voice absent, most of his attention on the paper in front of him.
"Gruh," Simon said, scrubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "Timesit?"
Jeremy checked his watch. "Eight forty-five, more or less."
"Kay." Simon thumped back down onto his pillow and shut his eyes. "Fi' minutes."
"All right," Jeremy said.
Simon burrowed back under the covers and tried very hard to get back to sleep. It wasn't happening. The periodic rustling of Jeremy's paper kept attracting his attention, and for all that it was kind of a nice, peaceful sound, Simon would have preferred more sleep. Finally, admitting to himself that he was awake, Simon sat up and swung his legs out of bed, rubbing his face with both hands. "Breakfast," he said.
"Mm," said Jeremy. "What about it?"
Simon opened his mouth and then stopped himself before the first word could come out. "I'll go get it," he said instead. "Gotta be a place."
"At least one more night here, I think," Jeremy said, over breakfast. It wasn't much of a breakfast by Simon's standardsmostly bread and fruitbut there was coffee, and it was hot. Jeremy was eating blueberries, one at a time, picking them daintily from their little bowl and popping them into his mouth. "Since you say you have a gun coming."
Simon, his mouth full, nodded and swallowed. "Ethan said twenty-four hours."
"Then we'll see what comes with the day's messages," Jeremy said decisively. He rolled a blueberry between his fingertips for a moment before putting it in his mouth. "After that, we can make a more informed decision."
"Sounds like a plan," Simon said. "So what do we do until then?" Jeremy paused, fingers pressed to his lips, and gave Simon a long, thoughtful look that was either suggestive or, worse, incredulous; Simon coughed. "I meant, you know, besides that."
"Oh, besides that," Jeremy said, suddenly all maddening innocence. "Well, first I intend to finish my paper, as you popped up yesterday before I could so much as glance at the headlines, and then I need to get in touch with a large number of people."
Simon grunted and submerged himself in his coffee. "Oh yeah, that sounds exciting as all hell. I'll go make myself popcorn now, before the show starts."
For lack of anything better to do, Simon read the parts of the paper that Jeremy had already finished. He was semi-engrossed in the letters columnEnglish people got pissed off at each other so politelywhen Jeremy sat back down at the table with a little book and the paper-thin black phone, already dialing the first number from memory.
Simon listened with half an ear, mostly because he couldn't escape the noise. Listening to half of a phone conversation that wasn't about him was usually about as interesting as watching the specks float around inside his eyes. Listening to Jeremy touch base with half of Milan was slightly more interesting, partially because of the disconnect between Jeremy's affable, laid-back phone personality and the intent, narrow-eyed look on his face, and partially because Jeremy-on-the-phone appeared to be allergic to nouns, proper and otherwise. It was exactly like eavesdropping on a drug deal. Simon, who ought to know, fiddled with the corner of Jeremy's paper and debated the merits of telling him this.
"I see," Jeremy said, momentarily closing his eyes. When he opened them again, he picked up a pen and made a little check mark next to one of the names in his book. "And the information? ... ah. Yes, that should be fine."
"What was that all about?" Simon asked, once Jeremy had closed the phone.
Jeremy blinked at Simon like he'd forgotten that Simon was there. "What was what about?"
"That," Simon said, reaching across the table and tapping the little check mark.
"Oh, that," Jeremy said. He took a deep breath. "One fellow claims that another's been making noises about the possibility of selling me to Volpethat would be the particular crony that I am attempting to avoid."
Simon eyed Jeremy for a moment, then picked up the book and riffled the pages with his thumb. Fully half the names in there had at least one check by them, many had two or threewhat most of them didn't have was any kind of a last name or identifying caption. Just a bunch of first names with phone numbers and, in many cases, check marks. "So... that's what all these little marks are?"
"They're rumors," Jeremy said. He reached across and gently took the little book back. "Such-and-so says in an unguarded moment that perhaps they ought to just hand me over, or muses about how much I might be worth, or simply complains about how loud Volpe's people are getting. Word of his little conversational mishap gets around, and eventually, it reaches someone who's willing to tell me."
"Yeah, that makes me feel great inside," Simon said, blowing out a breath. "So all those people are working for, uh, this Volpe guy?"
"Hardly," Jeremy said. "I have no way of knowing if a given rumor is true at all, let alone whether the person in question was just blowing smoke or was being serious about it. But still, I have to keep track."
Simon slid down in his chair and knuckled at his cheek. Stubble scraped at his fingers, startling him. "Guess so," he said. "Well, this is all too complicated for me, so I'm gonna go shave before I turn into your trained ape for real. Let me know if you need anything."
"I will, in half an hour or so," Jeremy said, tapping another number into his phone.
Jeremy snapped his phone shut with a definitive clack and dropped it onto the table, reaching up to rub his temples. "All done?" Simon asked, glancing up from the muted television.
"For the moment," Jeremy said. He sounded tired. "Could I get you to run a few errands for me?"
"Hot damn but I thought you'd never ask," Simon said, hopping up off the bed with alacrity. "I am bored to tears."
Jeremy's little smile was distracted at best; he was writing something on one of the hotel's little notepads. "Really, Simon, you needn't sit around waiting to be needed," he said. "Milan is a lovely city. You're welcome to go see some of it while you wait."
Simon made a rude noise. "I'm no tourist," he said. "Besides, if I'm off looking at, at churches or whatever, you could get snatched off the street by some guys in a black van and I'd never know."
"I expect you'd figure it out sooner or later," Jeremy said, tearing the topmost sheet off the pad. "I need you to go to a newsstand and buy me these papers," he said, poking the piece of paper at Simon. "I'd prefer it if you didn't go to the one on the corner therethere are newsstands on damned near every block, it shouldn't be too much trouble to find another."
Simon accepted the paper. Jeremy had listed five newspapers, all of which sounded suspiciously Italian. "Yeah, I went past like two others on the way to get dinner last night," Simon said. "No problem. Anything else?"
"Yes, actually," Jeremy said, pushing the little black phone across the table. "Take this a couple of blocks away and drop it down a sewer grating, please."
Simon looked up. "Are you serious?"
"As a heart attack, I'm afraid," Jeremy said, tapping the phone. "I've had it for three days now and it's time to get rid of it."
"Man, seems like kind of a waste," Simon said. He took the phone and stared at it, flipping it open. "I mean, look at this thing. It had to be expensive."
Jeremy smiled a little. "Oh, yes, very," he said. "But it's also potentially dangerousI have no idea whether Volpe actually has the capability to track cell phones on a global-positioning device, but really, I'd rather not find out."
"Yeah," Simon said. He closed the phone and stuck it in his pocket.
"And please do put it down a sewer grating," Jeremy said. "Trash cans might be easier, but they're not as... thorough."
Simon half-assed a little salute, already in search of his sneakers. "Right, right," he said. "Papers, phone disposal. I'll get lunch if I'm out for more than an hour. Anything else?"
"Not right now," Jeremy said. "I may have to send you after something this afternoon, but I don't yet know."
"You're the boss," Simon said. He managed to keep a straight face for close to two seconds after saying it.
The particular newsstand that Simon had in mind was located across the street from what looked to be a pretty large electronics store, a good five blocks down and two blocks over from the hotel and only half a block away from the restaurant that had deigned to put together the takeout for him last night. Simon joined the mob of people heading in that general direction and let the crowd bear him along.
Up ahead of him, the light changed, not that it really stopped anybody. Simon, eyeing the potential carnage, decided to go ahead and play the cowardly American and stopped at the curb to wait. There was, he noticed idly, a sewer grating in the opposite curbSimon reached into his pocket and pulled out Jeremy's radioactive cell phone, holding it loose and ready against his thigh.
The light changed. The crowd around Simon surged out into the intersection. Simon ambled along, purposefully going a bit slow to let the people ahead of him pull away and leave an empty space. The sewer grating appeared at the other end of Simon's forced space like a soccer goalSimon dropped the phone on the ground in front of himself and kicked it neatly in. The phone vanished with a clatter and, Simon imagined, a distant, faint splash. No one around him so much as raised an eyebrow; most of them were on their own cell phones and oblivious to the world. Simon made the other side of the road safely and strolled on, feeling weirdly proud of himself for playing it so cool. Maybe he was good at this stuff after all.
Milan really was a pretty city, he decided. Not that he'd actually seen much of it, but what he'd seen was neat, a bunch of fancy old stone buildings that modern society had colonized like hermit crabs. If it weren't for the MilaneseSimon leaped for the curb before he could actually get fucked up the ass by a speeding taxiMilan would be awesome. Yeah. Where had he heard something like that before?
The electronics store that he remembered appeared on his right. Deciding that Jeremy's papers could wait, Simon buttonhooked through the crowd and banged on in.
"Okay, we are all set," Simon said, letting himself back into the hotel room with more decorum than usual, to avoid jostling his package. "I got your papers"
The room was, of course, empty. The bed had been made and the rest of the room returned to its antiseptic glory. Simon rolled his eyes, stopped talking, and shut the door behind himself. "Okay," he said, "you can come out now."
He waited. Jeremy failed to appear. Simon snorted. "Okay, whatever," he said. Jeremy's Italian papers made a pretty significant stack, so he abandoned them on the table, dumped his own bag on the bed, and kicked off his sneakers.
The portable DVD player and stack of movies had cost him another couple of play-money bills, but Simon was of the opinion that it'd be worth it. He was fighting with the poorly-translated instructions when Jeremy tapped on the door and let himself in; Simon raised an absent hand and then went back to exploring the Italian-language menus. "You'd think this thing would have an English-language selection somewhere," he said.
"Doubtless it does," Jeremy said.
"Somewhere," Simon agreed. "So where were you?"
Jeremy laughed under his breath. "Lurking in the stairwell, if you must know. I'd wanted to get out of the maid's way."
"You and your lurking, you lurker," Simon said cheerfully. "Hey, I found English!"
"I can't believe that you're in Milan and you're going to spend your free time flopped out in bed watching movies you could watch at home for much cheaper," Jeremy said.
Simon picked up one of his DVDs and clawed at the plastic wrap. "I can't believe I'm in Milan, period," he said. "So my intention is to ignore it."
"Suit yourself," Jeremy said, sitting down with his papers.
Simon, most of his attention focused on getting this damn DVD out of its plastic, nevertheless kept vague track of what Jeremy was doing. Jeremy flipped through each paper in turn, picking out sections and discarding the restmost of each paper, actually. Simon finally got the DVD case open by chewing on the wrapper until it tore. "Do you even speak Italian?" he asked.
"Unfortunately not," Jeremy said, piling the discards up on the other chair. "I've never had an ear for languages."
"Then..." Simon made a little come-on gesture. "What, exactly, are you looking for?"
Jeremy's smile was quick. "Messages," he said.
In answer, Jeremy held up one of the paper sections that he'd retained. It was in Italian, but even so, the format was familiar"You're shitting me," Simon said after a moment. "Classified ads?"
"Classified ads," Jeremy confirmed. "Somewhat outdated, but still an excellent way to get in touch with someone who refuses to communicate in any other way."
"Huh." Simon scratched the back of his head. "You'd think they'd be a lot more eager to talk to you."
Jeremy flicked open the first classified section. "They are," he said. "I'm the one who's refusing to communicate."
"But," Simon said, and then stopped, because he wasn't really sure what to protest. He finally settled on "What about Annabelle?"
"I know it sounds counterintuitive, but right now, she's safest just where she is, wherever that is," Jeremy said, looking up. For a moment, he looked very old. "She's a tremendously important hostage and their only real bargaining chip. They can't risk hurting her before they have me."
Unsettled, Simon looked away. "I guess so," he said. "Christ, I hope so."
"So do I," Jeremy said, his voice a little rough. After a moment he cleared his throat and went back to his paper, turning the page with a rustle of newsprint. "Right now it takes upwards of three days to exchange information oncewe haven't even agreed on how to open communications, let alone begun communicating in earnest."
"So... why? What does this buy you? Besides more time?"
"Sooner or later they will get me on the phone," Jeremy said. "There's no preventing that. And once that occurs, nothing will stop them from naming a date, place, and time, and informing me that either I am there or something terrible will happen to Annabelle. They won't say that in a classified ad. Too public. It might pique someone's interest, and it would definitely leave a paper trail. Also, I suppose some newspapers still have scruples." He laughed shortly and sobered just as quickly. "So long as I can draw out this stage of the negotiations, Annabelle is still reasonably safe, and I have more time to get my own forces in order."
"But," Simon said again. And stopped again.
Jeremy paused, marking his place with a finger, and looked back up. "There's really only one acceptable outcome to this mess," he said. "It's one in which I rescue Annabelle and then get away myself. The longer the exchange takes, the better my chances become. I don't much like leaving her in their hands, but believe me, there are worse things."
"Yeah, I... I get that." Simon laced his fingers together in his lap, poking idly at one thumbnail. "Shit, I'm sorry."
"So am I," Jeremy said, turning another page.
The most exciting thing that happened after that was Simon running out for lunch.
After the pulse-pounding excitement that was lunch, the afternoon kind of dragged on. Simon finished setting up his little DVD player and settled in with the Italian release of a bad American action moviefortunately with the English track intactand Jeremy flipped through all five classified-ads sections, occasionally frowning. Simon was just at the exciting part of the movie (or what passed for one) when Jeremy said, "When you've a moment, I'm afraid I have another errand for you."
Simon paused the movie and looked up. "What's up?"
Jeremy waved an envelope at him. "I need you to take this to a post office, buy a stamp for it, and mail it."
"Yeah, it's a thrill a minute around here," Simon said. "Can it wait like twenty minutes, or is this crushingly important?"
"Take your time," Jeremy said, twitching out a little smile.
Simon took the movie off pause, suffered through another five minutes of bad one-liners and decent explosions, then sighed and turned it off. "Kind of hard to enjoy a bad movie when you're being whanged in the head with guilt," he said, putting the DVD player on the nightstand. "Any idea where the nearest post office is?"
Jeremy shrugged. "None, I'm afraid. The front desk ought to be able to tell you."
"Any special cloak-and-dagger-type instructions?" Simon stepped back into his sneakers. "I mean, if I need to be careful not to leave fingerprints on the envelope, now's the time to say so."
"Oh, no, nothing like that," Jeremy said. "Really, most any postbox would do, only I haven't any stamps."
"Gotcha," Simon said, holding out his hand for the envelope.
Jeremy handed it over with mock solemnity, bowing slightly. "If you like, you can stop by the newsstand on the way back and ask if there are any messages. I have no idea if he'll actually hand things over to you, but we may as well find out."
"Oh, right, my gun," Simon said, perking up. "So, uh, if he won't give me the stuff, what do I do? I assume that threatening to arrest him is right out."
"Yes, although I'd certainly enjoy watching you try," Jeremy said. "If he's reluctant, it's fine. I'll go by later and ask after my messages myself."
"Ah, the boring approach. Right. Back in a bit," Simon said, heading out.
After a bit of hand-waving and stuttering, the man at the front desk managed to convey that there was a post office a few blocks in the other direction. At least, that's what Simon thought the man was trying to say. If he was going to be here for much longer, he was going to need to buy a phrasebook, because after a while, pointing and gesticulating just wasn't going to cut it.
Simon left the hotel, started to turn left, and hesitateda woman with a cell phone glued to her ear nearly ran him down, dodged at the last moment, and snapped something Italian at him. "Yeah, same to you and more of it, lady," Simon said, distracted. As he recalled, the guy at the newsstand spoke pretty good English. Maybe he ought to stop there first and confirm his directions.
The man behind the counter straightened up as Simon approached. Judging by the suspicious look on his face, he remembered Simon from yesterday. Or maybe he just hated all Americans. No way to tell. "Hey," Simon said. "Can you tell me where the nearest post office is? I hear it's that way." Simon pointed.
"Yes, that way," the counterman said, his eyes still slightly narrowed. "It is... seven blocks. Maybe. There is a big..." He trailed off there and made a hapless circling motion with one hand. "Cars drive in a circle."
"Gotcha," Simon said. "I think I can find that. Hey, I gotta ask: do you remember me from yesterday?"
The man's chin lifted maybe half an inch and dropped again. "I remember," he said.
"Great! So, if I were to tell you that my friend sent me to pick up his messages, would you give them to me or tell me to go get fucked?" Simon beamed, actually sort of enjoying himself.
The suspicious look dimmed, replaced by mild confusion. The man's eyes slid away from Simon as he repeated Simon's words to himself, only getting more confused as he went on; finally he settled on "I have no messages."
"Aw, no messages?" Simon said. "So when you say that, do you mean that you actually have no messages, or that you have messages and you won't give them to me?"
"No messages," the man repeated, developing a stubborn crease between his brows. Simon folded his hands on the counter and waited. After ten seconds or so, the counterman sighed sharply and amended his answer to "No messages yet. Maybe later."
Simon nodded. "Gotcha," he said. "Thanks, you've been a help."
"Okay," the counterman said. "You want something?"
"Nothing I can't subtract from a jackalope in a howdah," Simon said with a manic good cheer he was almost feeling. The counterman's confusion came back in force, and Simon made good his escape while the guy repeated the words to himself.
The Italian post office was disappointingly unconfusing. Simon took one look at the lines for the windows and went to buy a pack of stamps from the machine instead; two minutes later he was walking back out the door, Jeremy's letter duly stamped and mailed.
On a whim, he stopped by the newsstand again on his way back. "Any messages yet?" he said, beaming.
The counterman threw up his hands in a gesture of pure frustration. "No messages! Not for you! Not for him!"
"Just checking," Simon said. "Thanks a lot!"
"Your letter has been mailed, I got some more stamps, and also I think I totally pissed off the guy at the newsstand," Simon announced, bursting into the room. "Aaaaaand some day I will learn not to start talking to you until I'm sure you're here."
There was, predictably, no answer. Simon shut the door behind himself and, like magic, Jeremy drifted out of the bathroom, looking pleased with himself. "Dare I ask what you did to the poor fellow?" he asked, reaching behind Simon to trip the deadbolt.
"I just asked if there were any messages," Simon said. "I think he said that nothing had come yet, but I guess he could have been lying to me because I'm not you. I guess we'll have to go check later."
Judging by the expression on Jeremy's face, he wasn't quite buying it. "After dinner, then," Jeremy said, letting it go. "We'll wait for the sun to go down a bit."
"Awesome," Simon said, kicking off his shoes. "I'm gonna get back to my movie."
After dinner they headed out, Jeremy with his hat carefully pulled down over his eyes. "Perhaps it's paranoid of me," Jeremy said, just before they hit the lobby, "but I think perhaps let's keep our voices down. I'd hate to attract unwanted attention just because someone on the street noticed I was speaking English."
"Yeah, that's totally paranoid," Simon said. "Let's do it."
Jeremy huffed out a faint laugh and led the way across the street. It wasn't quite darkit was July, after allbut it was dim enough to trip the streetlights, and that plus Jeremy's hat was enough to keep his face in shadow. As disguises went, it wasn't bad. Simon, lagging three steps behind, found himself thinking that he would know Jeremy anywhere just by the walk, but he had to admit that he probably had an unfair advantage.
The counterman saw them coming, judging by the half-grumpy, half-resigned look on his face. By the time Jeremy got there he was already pushing an honest-to-God briefcase across the counter. "Here, here," he said, irritated. "One hour ago."
"Thank you," Jeremy said cheerfully, picking up the briefcase. "And for the record, he's with me, and it's perfectly all right to give him my messages." He gestured lazily at Simon, who waved.
"I will remember," the counterman said. His grim face said you bet I will, and he watched them leave like he was expecting them to turn around at any minute and pester him some more. Simon was tempted to do so, but Jeremy was already heading back across the street and Simon had to jog to catch up.
"So," Simon said, once they were safely inside the hotel, "a mysterious man dropped off a briefcase. You know, every movie I've ever seen leads me to believe that it should be full of banded hundred-dollar-bills in neat rows."
Jeremy laughed a little, heading for the stairs. "I won't deny that it's happened in the past," he said. "Although these days it's more likely to be euros or pounds. The state of the world being what it is."
"I'm kind of hurt that we didn't have to exchange code phrases to get our hands on it," Simon said. "You know. 'The black dog barks at midnight.' That kind of thing."
Unsurprisingly, the briefcase was locked. Jeremy spun the wheels of the combination lock, setting them to what looked like a completely random number, and opened the briefcase; after a long, sick look, Simon declared, "That does not count."
"Why not?" Jeremy asked.
"Because it's only half full of banded euros, Jesus Christ, how much money is that?"
"I estimate it at fifty thousand euros, more or less," Jeremy said. He picked up one of the bundlespink money, pink, it offended every last fiber of Simon's beingand riffled the bills. "Walking-around money, mostly. I can't exactly access my own accounts at the moment."
"If that much money wants to go walking around, it had better hire a bodyguard," Simon said. "Still, great, we're rich, woo hoo, where's my gun?"
Jeremy considered the contents of the briefcase for a moment, then selected a lumpy package wrapped in brown paper and handed it over. Simon tore into it and reclaimed his gun with unalloyed relief; he felt safer just having it to hand. He dropped into one of the chairs and laid everything out, thumbing cartridges into the magazine.
"Here are your real papers," Jeremy said, dropping the little pile of Simon's identity by his hand. "And this is... hm."
"Hm?" Simon said, distracted.
"Another set of false papers for you under a different name," Jeremy said, "and... two more sets for me, wonderful, and two more phones. That isn't your usual gun, is it? It seems smaller."
Simon snorted. "Hell, no," he said, slapping the magazine home. "My usual gun has one hell of a paper trail attached. This right here is a SIG P239 SAS that walked away from the scene of an arms bust a couple of years ago. It doesn't exist. It's small enough to wear as a hideout gun, or it would be, if it existed, which it doesn't."
"Ah," Jeremy said. "Let's just pretend that that string of numbers meant something to me, shall we? What kind of ammunition does it use? I can probably lay hands on bullets, at least."
"This one uses standard .40 S&W cartridges, which is one of the reasons I like it." Simon slid the loaded gun back into the ankle holster, but left it on the table. "I've got enough for now, but I'll keep that in mind."
Jeremy nodded, then repacked everything in the briefcase, including the extra cartridges and the little cleaning kit. "We'll move on tomorrow," he said, setting the combination locks back to 000.
Late, late that night, Simon drifted out of a sound sleep, dimly aware that the bed next to him was empty and someone was speaking quietly nearby. Still more asleep than awake, Simon cracked one eye open in foggy curiosity.
Jeremy was standing by the side of the bed, holding his phone to his ear and looking down at Simon, his gaze cool and remote like Simon was a piece of paper on the sidewalk. The cell phone hummed softly with someone else's voice. "Tell him twenty thousand," Jeremy said, still looking down at Simon; then he turned away and Simon fell back to sleep before he could do more than decide to ask Jeremy about it in the morning.
When he woke he'd forgotten all but the sleep-tainted vow to do... something. It bothered him for half an hour or so, and then he forgot it entirely.
The next morning they moved to a different hotel. Or Simon moved to a different hotel, anyway; Jeremy turned up half an hour later, tapping quietly at the door to be let in.
The new place was a tall, narrow building in a quiet side street, more like the apartment buildings around it than a hotel; Simon checked in paying cash in advance and using his new set of fake papers, which identified him as one 'Trent Darcy'. Simon had no idea where the name came from, but Trent Darcy lived at the same Hinton, Iowa address as Simon Moorhead, saving him from having to memorize another address, at least. The landlady was a wizened stick of an old lady who spoke both Italian and horribly fractured English with unnerving fierceness. The magical words 'cash in advance' made her look at Simon wisely before holding out her hand; Simon, who couldn't shake the feeling that he was breaking several laws, handed over three of the horrible pink bills in exchange for two chunky metal keys. "Five day," the landlady said, closing her claw over the money and making it disappear. "You want more, you tell me four day. Not five day. Four day."
"Sure," Simon said, putting the keys in his pocket.
"Friday clean," she said. "Also Tuesday clean."
"Sure," Simon said again. His landlady eyed him narrowly, then busted out a cracked giggle and patted his hand before bustling off. Simon absently scrubbed his hand against his jeans leg, wondering just what the hell he'd gotten into here.
The hotel room turned out to be an actual apartment, with appliances and bathroom fixtures straight out of the fifties. It was a tiny, dim, rundown little place, grungy in a way that had nothing to do with dirt and everything to do with age and lack of paint. The mattress sagged in the middle. Still, it was clean, it felt safe, and no one would look for them here, or so Jeremy said. Simon put his duffel bag down by the dresser, put the briefcase next to it, and put his bomber jacket in the closet.
The next three days passed largely like the first one had, except that Simon went out and bought groceries to stock their terrible little kitchen. Jeremy spent all his time inside, placing call after call, reading the papers, and dispatching Simon on errands that ranged from commonplace to weird as hell; at night he paced for a while before relaxing enough to come to bed, sleeping lightly and waking often, nestled against Simon inside the bowl of the ancient mattress.
Despite the nagging feeling that he was being usedand really, wasn't that exactly what he'd told Jeremy to do with him?Simon found himself enjoying those three days a fair bit. His little portable DVD player hooked up to the cheap TV set, so he could watch movies in the main room while Jeremy paced and talked and read in the bedroom; there was a bookstore around the corner that carried both DVDs and a slim selection of English-language books and magazines; and Simon happened across a televised soccer gamefootball, whateverand ended up enjoying it, somewhat to his surprise. The rest was easy. Soccer was always on.
The neighborhood was okay, too. It was a lot quieter, the streets were too narrow for much in the way of insane driving, and most of the people on the streets actually lived therebut the best thing about the neighborhood, Simon thought, was the cat.
The cat was a tiny little white thing with a black splotch on its head like a bad toupee and a black tail to match. Simon, not feeling particularly creative, immediately nicknamed the cat 'Wig', since the cat answered to Wig as readily as it answered to anything, i.e. if it felt like it. (It answered to 'dumbass' just as readily.) Still, as cats went, Wig was friendly, and generally came trotting over to sniff Simon's fingers every time Simon came out of the building to run this errand or that one. Feeling like a bit of an idiot, Simon brought the cat half a sausage from his breakfast; Wig promptly ran off with it, tail held high, and was thereafter convinced that Simon was the best person on earth. Suddenly Simon couldn't set foot out of the building, day or night, without Wig appearing to bump up against his shins and rumble like tiny machinery.
Simon had no idea if Wig was a stray or just a rambler. Wig wasn't wearing a collar, but he looked pretty fat and glossy. The landlady caught Simon scratching Wig under the chin one afternoon and laughed at him, not in an unfriendly way. Simon didn't really care. He liked the cat. The cat liked him.
On the evening of the fourth day, Jeremy sent Simon out with three letters in his pocket and the silver phone that he'd been using, which was old enough to be verging on dangerous. Thinking more about where to pick up dinner than anything else, Simon loped down the stairs and let himself out of the building, already looking for the cat.
A raspy chain-smoker's mrowl from the alleyway informed Simon that Wig had also been looking for him. The cat came trotting out to greet him, its tail high, its belly wobbling, its claws ticking slightly on the pavement. Simon hunkered down and let Wig throw himself against his hand. "Hey, dumbass," Simon said, scratching Wig's ear until Wig nearly fell over in bliss. "I don't have any food for you, you know. Seriously. Gravy train's over. You want to eat, get a job"
Simon broke off there, startled. Crouching to pet the cat had brought him down nearly to street level, and at this level Simon could see straight into the tiny sports car parked in an alley across the street. Two heads were silhouetted against the fading daylightSimon quickly looked back down at Wig, running his fingers along Wig's side until the cat fell over for real. "Yeah, kitty, that's all you get," Simon muttered, scratching the cat's belly.
The guys in the sports car were still there when Simon stood back up and made a show of patting his pockets. Still there, not moving, and watching the hotel that Simon had just come out ofSimon patted his back pocket, mimed frustration, and went back inside. The moment the door shut behind him he broke into a run, taking the stairs two and three steps at a time.
"Hey I don't know if it's anything but there are a couple of guys in a car watching the front of the building," Simon said, bursting into the bedroom and gasping it all out in a single breath. "I made like I'd forgotten my wallet and came back up."
Jeremy, sitting on the bed, went very still for two seconds before throwing the paper aside. "We're going," he said, bounding off the bed and grabbing his own suitcase in the same movement. "Get whatever you can't live without. Leave the rest. I'll replace it."
"Right," Simon said. Following Jeremy's example, he'd left his clothes in the duffel and the rest of the stuff in the briefcase, so it was really just a matter of grabbing his jacket and the pile of DVDs he hadn't watched yet. The little player was still hooked to the television. Simon abandoned it with a groan.
Jeremy threw on his jacket and his hat and hit the apartment's door, nearly running. He had the briefcase. "Roof," he said, his voice oddly calm. "Come on."
"Right behind you," Simon said. He yanked his apartment key out of his pocket and dropped it on the kitchen counterright next to Jeremy's, he noticed, which was holding down a green billthen ran after Jeremy, duffel in one hand, jacket in the other.
The roof was a completely normal tarpaper-and-pebbles affair. Jeremy kicked the door shut after Simon and wedged it shut with a chunk of wood that (Simon suspected) was usually used to wedge it open. "They're in front, you said?" Jeremy said, hunkering down.
Simon crouched opposite him. "Yeah," he said. "I don't know if there are any in back. I didn't exactly feel like going to go look."
"Good," Jeremy said. He glanced over his shoulder, then pointed to the building next to theirs. "Let's go that way. Try to walk lightly." He picked up the briefcase and his suitcase and headed for the edge, his footsteps nearly silent. Simon, following, wasn't nearly as lucky. The tarpaper crackled and crunched underfoot, no matter how carefully he placed his feet; finally he gave up and scuffed along like he was trying to build up a static charge, which helped, although not much.
Their building butted right up against its neighbor, sharing a single wall. Getting from one roof to the next was a question of stepping down about two feet. Jeremy went first, putting his suitcase and briefcase down, stepping down, and picking his things up again. Simon followed.
They went across to the next building, and the next, and the next, until finally they hit the last one on the block. Getting up onto that one required scrambling up about four feet. Jeremy went up first, vaulting up with ridiculous ease. Simon handed up their bags one by one before heaving himself up after them. "So now what?" he said, dusting off his hands. "Down the stairs?"
"Look after these for a moment?" Jeremy asked, putting his suitcase and the briefcase down at Simon's feet. Dropping into a crouch, Jeremy rolled forward, edging towards the front of the building.
Simon warily straightened up and looked around. The front of the building opened onto twenty-five feet of roadway, five stories down: no going that way. The side of the building looked out over another, larger roadway. No going that way, either. The back of the building overlooked an alleyway full of garbage cans and parked scooters; it was narrower, but not that narrow. Maybe there was a fire escape, or somethingJeremy blew past Simon like a momentary tornado and was airborne before Simon could even yelp.
For a moment that felt like forever Jeremy hung suspended in midair above the alleyway, one hand flung out for balance, the other holding onto his hat. His jacket whipped out behind him like a cape. Simon sucked in a breath, but somehow Jeremy made it across the gap, hitting the roof across the way with both feet and stumbling headlong a few steps before catching himself.
His heart pounding, Simon looked down at the alley, five stories below. He looked across at Jeremy, twelve feet away. He flipped Jeremy off. "Okay, screw you, no way am I doing that," he hissed, unsure if his voice was loud enough to carry but unwilling to speak any louder.
"You don't have to," Jeremy called back, his own voice pitched low. "They saw you go in after your wallet. You should go back out the same way. Just throw me the bags, before you go. You can do that much, I hope?"
Simon rolled his eyes, grabbed the briefcase, and heaved it across the gap. Jeremy caught it neatly and put it down by his side. Jeremy's suitcase followedit was oddly heavy for something so smalland then Simon swaddled his duffel in his bomber jacket, zipped the jacket closed around the duffel to produce something that looked unsettlingly like a disembodied torso, and threw it after the suitcase.
"Go back out the front door and mail the letters," Jeremy said, unzipping Simon's jacket and extracting his duffel. "If they follow you, go immediately to the busiest place you can find and stay there. If not, find a taxi stand and tell him to take you to... ah... Santa Maria delle Grazie. I'll meet you out in front."
"Santa Maria della whosis now?" Simon hissed. Standing this close to the edge of the building was making him nervous, so he crouched down again.
"Santa Maria delle Grazie," Jeremy repeated. A breeze whipped between the two buildings, nearly snatching his words away. "If you can't remember, just mention the Last Supper and talk about Leonardo da Vinci until the driver figures it out."
"Okay," Simon said dubiously. He patted his pocket, still bulging with the shape of Jeremy's phone. "I'll keep this phone until we meet up again, just in case."
Jeremy nodded, already shepherding the bags into a portable arrangement. "Good," he said. "Do that. Go on, hurry."
Simon nodded, fell back a step, and then headed back the way they'd come, so amped it was hard not to jitter.
Wig came trotting over the moment Simon came back out, confused but happy, rasping out his pack-a-day mew again. Being careful not to look in the direction of the car, Simon hunkered back down and gave the cat one last petting. "Guess this is it, little guy," he muttered under his breath. "Take care of your bad self."
He risked a glance towards the car while he was straightening up. It was still there, still parked, with two indistinct shapes still in it. The nearest mailbox was at the end of the street. Simon headed towards it, forcing himself to walk slowly, trying very hard not to ball his hands into fists; the gun strapped to his ankle felt painfully heavy. Simon strained his ears, listening for the sound of a car starting, or worse, the sound of its doors opening.
Nothing happened. Simon made it to the end of the street without incident, put Jeremy's three letters in the mailbox, and nearly had a heart attack when Wig spoke up at his feet. "Oh, Jesus, cat," he said, shuddering out a jagged breath. The cat mrowled at him again, butted its forehead against his ankle, and waited impatiently. Simon bent down and ruffled its little head. "I'm going that way," he said. "You can follow me if you want, but don't think it's going to amount to anything." He stepped over the cat and headed up the street; Wig followed him for another half a block before giving up. Simon was sort of sorry to see him go, despite the fact that the last thing he needed right now was a mascot.
It was three blocks to the taxi stand, but it might as well have been three miles. Simon braced himself every time he heard a car coming, forgetting to breathe until the car swept on by. He'd never missed his Kevlar vest so acutely before. He made a note to ask Jeremy about getting his hands on one. Milan was a hot, muggy, nasty city, but Simon would rather be sweaty than punctured any day.
None of the cars that went past him looked like that little sports car. As far as Simon knew, it was still there, parked out in front of the hotel, biding its timewhat it was waiting for, he didn't know. It could have been just a couple of teenagers making out, or two people having a conversation in the only privacy afforded to them, but Simon knew deep in his soul that that wasn't the case. He'd never seen the car before, and it had looked expensive, and the people in it had just been sitting there. Watching. Simon fought down a frisson of nerves.
A taxi pulled up to the stand and disgorged its limp, shaken passengers when Simon was still half a block away. He broke into a run and made it to the stand before the taxi could pull away, yanking the door open and throwing himself in. "Hey," he said, a bit breathless. "I need to go to, uh, what was it, Santa Maria Grassy?"
"Santa Maria delle Grazie?" the taxi driver said uncertainly.
Simon snapped his fingers. "Yeah, that," he said. "Leonardo da Vinci."
The light dawned. "Yes yes," said the driver, suddenly more confident. He screeched out into traffic. Simon grabbed for whatever he could catch.
The stars were out by the time the taxi spat a well-chewed Simon out. The church itself was a bulky, complicated shape in the darknessthe lights here were few and far betweenand Simon realized only after the taxi had sped off that he didn't know which end was the front. He picked the end that had a darkened plaza in front of it, figuring he had a fifty-percent chance of being correct.
Simon picked a bench and sat down, only to jump back to his feet a few minutes later. This was no good: the skin on the back of his neck kept crawling, and he had to fight the urge to look over his shoulder every five seconds. Suddenly having a wall against his back seemed like a good idea. Simon groped his way over to a shadowy spot against the front of the church and leaned against the bricks, still warm from the heat of the day. After a while, he even managed to relax a little.
Somewhere in the building he was leaning on was the Last Supper, apparently. Simon had never felt less like sightseeing in his life, but he did feel a little guilty for coming so close and failing to go in. Some day Sandra was going to give him hell for that. Assuming he lived that longSimon bent down and loosened the gun in its holster under the guise of retying his sneaker.
The plaza was largely empty at this hour. An indeterminately-shaped lump on one of the far benches turned out to be a couple making out like a pair of crazed weasels. It made Simon uncomfortable all the way over here. He tried to look away, to give them the privacy they obviously did not want, but every few seconds something would flash pale in the dimness and Simon's attention would get caught on it, only to realize a moment that it was just skin, again. Passersby largely ignored both Simon and the loving couple. Most of them were intent only on their phones.
The minutes crawled by. Simon gave up eventually and watched the couple go at it. Even that got boring after a while; he found himself thinking that their technique could use some work. The crowd on the sidewalk, already thin, thinned some more. Eventually, unable to stand it a second longer, Simon pulled out Jeremy's phone to check the time, and thus he was amply distracted when Jeremy breathed his name from a nearby shadow. Simon's heart stuttered painfully for a few seconds. "Christ," he wheezed, thumping his chest.
"Sorry," Jeremy murmured, slipping into Simon's own shadowed niche by the church door. "I assume, then, that they didn't try to follow you?"
Simon massaged his heart for a moment longer, then let his hand drop. "Nope. Far as I know, the car's still there. So, uh, what now?"
"Good question." Jeremy went silent. "I'm running out of people to trust, and most real hotels in the area aren't fond of doing business on a cash basis, alas," he finally said.
"I have a prepaid credit card," Simon offered. "It doesn't have a name attached..."
Jeremy's attention snapped to him, so intense that it felt like physical contact. "How much is on it right now?" Jeremy asked.
"Three hundred dollars? Something like that."
Jeremy was silent for a moment, then abruptly lunged up and kissed Simon with a thorough swiftness that threatened to bang Simon's head off the bricks. "Perfect," he breathed, once he was done. "Let's get a cab, shall we?"
They stopped only once on their way out of Santa Maria delle Grazie, to drop the phone down a sewer grating.
An hour and a half later they had an ugly, anonymous room at an ugly American chain hotel that squatted like a toad near the city limits. Simon's 'Simon Moorhead' identity and prepaid Visa had secured it for them, and Jeremy had drifted in like the fog ten minutes later, like he did. "May I see the credit card, please?" Jeremy asked, putting Simon's duffel down on the bed.
Simon, too tired and too curious to argue about it, pulled out his wallet, extracted the card, and winged it at Jeremy, who snapped it neatly out of the air. "This room was something like two hundred dollars, I don't know exactly, I don't speak euro," Simon said, dropping onto the foot of the bed. "There's not enough left on the card to pay for a second night, though, I know that much."
"Mm," Jeremy said, flipping the card over and studying the back. "Let's see if I can't do anything about that, shall we? May I borrow your phone?"
Simon's hand flew to his waist. "My phone? Don't you have like two more phones waiting for you?"
"Well, yes," said Jeremy, "but your phone is American, and it's an American I intend to call."
"Huh. Well, okay, if it works all the way out here," Simon said. He unclipped his prepaid phone from his belt and tossed it at Jeremy.
Jeremy tossed Simon's credit card into his left hand and caught the phone with his right. "It should," he said. "This is an American-owned hotel, after all. They make arrangements." Jeremy performed the internationally-recognized 'looking for bars' gesture, swinging the phone around in a circle; eventually he found something that pleased him and tapped a number into Simon's phone from memory, spinning Simon's credit card in a lazy figure-eight around his fingers. "Hilary?" he said, after a moment. "It's Jeremy, love. I'm afraid I need a favor."
Simon, who was listening and trying not to let on, couldn't make out anything but a vaguely feminine buzzing from the other end of the phone. "Oh, I'm doing as well as possible under the circumstances, thank you for asking," Jeremy said, sending Simon's credit card dancing over his knuckles again. "At any rate, I've an American prepaid credit card here that needs reloading." The card finished its last rotation, winding up between his thumb and forefinger, and he read off the numbers on the front and back. The voice on the other end of the line hummed again once he was through. "As much as you can," said Jeremy. "At least a thousand dollars, please." He listened for a moment, then shut his eyes. "You're a godsend," he said. "Thanks ever soof course. Yes."
Jeremy waved the credit card at Simon, then skimmed it towards him sidearm, the little square of plastic humming through the air like a tiny Frisbee. Simon fielded it with both hands, then stuck it back in his wallet. "The large one, definitely," Jeremy said, laughing a little. "The largest they make. Take care of yourself, loveoh yes. I'll try." He closed the phone and tossed it gently onto the bed next to Simon.
"So," Simon said, "who's Hilary?" He stifled a yawn.
"Ethan's answering service," Jeremy said. He took off his hat and put it on top of the dresser, then slithered out of his jacket. "Lovely woman. At any rate, she's going to reload your credit card for us. We'll move on tomorrow no matter what, but having the card to fall back on is a huge load off my mind."
Simon leaned back, propping himself up on his hands. "You're welcome," he said.
Jeremy went still for half a second before laughing ruefully. "Yes, of course, thank you too, Simon. I'm terribly sorry, I can't imagine what's happened to my manners"
"I'm kidding," Simon said. "Mostly."
"Oh, mostly," said Jeremy.
"Yeah, I'll cut you a break because of the whole 'running to save your skin' thing," Simon said, flopping out on the bed. "Man, I am not going to miss that horrible mattress one bit," he said, bouncing a little. "It was like sleeping in a taco."
"Mm." Jeremy kicked off his shoes, then stripped off his t-shirt. The effort of it made him stagger a little. "I expect that I could sleep on concrete, right about now," Jeremy said. "Thanks to you, I needn't do so."
Simon shut his eyes, tucked his hands under his head, and blindly toed off his sneakers. "Hooray, I'm useful," he said, yawning hugely. His own adrenalin was long since gone, leaving him nearly dizzy with exhaustion.
"I never said you weren't," Jeremy said, amused. His hand flicked out and killed the lights. Simon only dimly remembered pushing himself up onto the bed before he fell asleep, still in his jeans, still on top of the covers.
He woke up again some unknown number of hours later, deep in the night. Someone had stripped off his jeans and thrown the covers over him, but Simon was, once again, alone in the bed. Muzzy, Simon rolled over and lifted his head.
The light of Jeremy's cell phone screen lit one corner of the darkened room with a dim grayish light. Jeremy was half-hunched over it, barechested and tousled, his eyes closed; "I see," Jeremy murmured, rubbing his shoulder absently. "Tell him there's a perfectly insane amount of money in it for him. And tell him I'll come alone."
Simon furrowed his brow, trying to make his brain close on the word alone, but it was no use; the words slipped away from him like fish in water. Simon's head thumped back down. A moment later, he was asleep again.
By three o'clock the next afternoon Simon had a different hotel room, under a different name, in a different ugly American chain hotel less than a quarter of a mile away from the first one. The room was slightly less tacky and was, therefore, slightly more expensive. Simon, long inured to terrible motel rooms, cared only that his credit card worked and that the hotel provided free breakfasts.
Even Jeremy seemed disinclined to complain, although he did touch the bedspread gingerly and then shudder. "My God," he said, his distaste visible, "what's the point in coming to Italy at all, if you insist on staying in a hotel room that's just as awful and generic as one you'd get at home?"
"Well, first of all, you're a goddamned prima donna," Simon said reasonably, "and second of all, you chose this place, not me."
Jeremy sighed, then gave Simon a quick smile. "Generic 'you', Simon," he said patiently. "Well, generic American 'you', I suppose. And for all that it's soul-crushingly bland, a hotel of this monolithic size does have a few advantages."
"Laundry service for both of us, to start," Jeremy said, ticking off his points on his fingers. "English-language television for you. And, I might add, an extremely fancy exercise room, which I intend to go make use of, if you wouldn't mind lending me your keycard."
Simon, already investigating the television remote, flapped a hand at Jeremy. "Knock yourself out," he said. "I think I'll vegetate for a couple of hours, maybe call home. Touch base. You know."
"Good idea," Jeremy said. He plucked the room's keycard off the desk and vanished into the bathroom with his suitcase. Simon turned on the television and spent a few minutes flipping through the channels, barely noticing when the door closed behind Jeremy.
Unsurprisingly there was nothing on that Simon wanted to watch, although at least the stuff he wasn't interested in was the same stuff he wasn't interested in at home. Eventually Simon left the television tuned to the middle of some action movie that looked vaguely familiar and went to dump out his duffel, making a pile of his dirty things on the floor'laundry service', Jeremy had said, and truth be told Simon could use a little laundering. He dug out the plastic laundry bag in the closet and stuffed it full of his dirty clothes. Hopefully Jeremy wouldn't come banging back up here in an hour and insist that they leave.
That done, Simon found himself at loose ends, again. He muted the movie, letting it explode on in silence, and went to dig out his prepaid phone and sprawl out on the bed with it. True to Jeremy's word, the American phone did get bars here; Simon called his own phone to pick up his messagesnone, which was unsurprising but a little depressing anywayand then called Sandra, who snapped open her phone on the first ring. "Hey, boss," she said.
"Oh, hey, you're still awake this time," Simon said, putting his free hand behind his head. "What time is it there?"
Sandra's laugh was hollow. "Nine in the morning," she said. "And, just so you know, nine in the morning is a horrible time to still be awake."
"Really? It's three in the afternoon here"
"and that's one of the many reasons why I hate you," Sandra said. "So! I note for the record that you are still alive! Poor marksmanship amongst the Italians? How sad."
Simon snickered. "Careful, Sandy, I might almost think you care or something."
"I'm not sure what gave you that impression." Sandra paused. "So how goes it?" she asked, the mocking edge gone from her voice now. "You still okay?"
"So far, so good," Simon said, closing his eyes. "We did have to run for it once, but it was just a couple of hard guys staking out the hotel. No violence whatsoever, just a bunch of leaving. Swear to God." Sandra made an indescribable little choking noise. "What?" Simon asked. He was almost enjoying this.
"You know what, boss?" Sandra said. "If you think you can say that and then leave it there, you've got another think coming."
Simon shut his eyes. "Well, if you insist"
"and then we got ourselves a hotel room using one of my brand-new identities," Simon said. "And here we are, safe as, uh, things that are really safe."
On the other end of the line, Sandra was quiet. She'd barely said a word since Simon launched into his explanation. Simon would have liked to think that she was just listening hard, but he knew her too well; halfway around the world Simon pulled the phone an inch or so away from his ear and braced for the metaphorical impact.
When it came, though, Sandra's voice was only worried. "Boss, I know it's none of my damned business, but I really don't like the sound of any of this," she said. "I mean, I know why you're doing this, but... I guess I didn't think that you'd be breaking so many laws to do it."
"And here I thought you'd scold me for missing an opportunity to experience Great Art"
"Simon." Sandra did not sound amused.
It had been a weak joke anyway. "Yeah, yeah, okay," Simon said, sitting up. "I get what you're saying. Okay? I'm not really all that fond of that part of it either, but..." He trailed off there and flapped his free hand helplessly, groping for the words. "I have to do this," he finally said.
"I know you feel that way," Sandra said. Her voice was subdued and a little too rational, what Simon had always thought of as her 'I am reasoning with you now' voice. "And I understand why you feel responsible for the situation, but, Simon... there's a line."
"Yeah," Simon said. He rubbed a hand down his face. "Yeah, I know. I figure I crossed it like a week ago. Do you want to know where it was?"
"Not really," Sandra said. "Tell me."
"I called someone who could put me in touch with someone else who could put me in contact with Jeremy," Simon said, avoiding as many names as he could. "I told her I was with the Bureau, to convince her to help me. It wasn't a lie, but... Christ, that was the line and I saw it go whistling by. There's no taking that back."
"No, there's not," Sandra said, her voice quiet and defeated.
Simon folded forward over his crossed legs, wrapping himself into a ball. "It's just that I'm responsible for this mess," he said, his voice a little thick. "I fucked up and I got a lot of people in trouble, and... when you get right down to it some things are more important than the letter of the law."
"And... this is?" Sandra asked. "This was worth it? He was worth it?"
"I don't know." Simon let his head fall. "I keep asking myself that. If I figure it out, I'll let you know."
Sandra breathed out a little noise of assent. "All right," she said, sighing. "I'm not interested in being your mother. Just... try not to fuck this up, boss. We need you."
"I'm trying," Simon said. "Cross your fingers for me."
"Okay," Sandra said. For a moment she sounded like exactly what she was: sincerely worried. Simon fought back a rising surge of guilt. "Are you okay?" Sandra asked. "You sound kind of weird."
Simon pushed himself back upright. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'd apologize for worrying you, but I think I'm way too manly."
Sandra laughed a little. "You've been worrying me for years, Simon," she said, and hung up.
"... what?" Simon asked the empty line. "Excuse me?" Sandra was long gone, though, and there was no answer. Simon snorted and folded the phone shut.
The television banged silently on. In the corner, the air-conditioning unit clicked twice and exhaled. Suddenly the room felt small enough to crush him. Simon rolled off the bed and headed for the balcony.
The balcony was plain and ugly to match the rest of the hotel, with plain iron railings and a cement floor. The view was of the equally ugly and anonymous row of buildings across the waynew apartments or warehouses with windows, Simon wasn't sure whichand Milan itself was mostly just the muted sounds of traffic somewhere off to the south. Simon caught the rail in both hands and stared off into the distance.
It was hard to defend himself to Sandra when he could barely defend himself to himself. "What in the hell do I think I'm doing, anyway?" Simon asked the spectre of Milan, articulating the question in hopes that it would trigger some kind of answer. It didn't work. The longer he was here, the less sure of himself he became; the ready answers that had convinced Jeremy to let him stay sounded more idiotic with every boring, unnerving day that passed. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but this? This wasn't it.
Tapping his fingers on the railing, Simon struggled to sort it all out. The sun moved sluggishly through the muggy afternoon air; the air conditioning curled out of the open balcony door and licked against the back of Simon's shirt. Simon let it. He wasn't paying for it, after all.
"Enjoying the view?" Jeremy said, behind him.
Simon didn't so much as twitch. "Nah, it sucks," he said. "When are we going to stop running away and start doing something?"
Silence from behind him; then Jeremy appeared at his side, folding his arms on the railing a foot or so away from Simon. Jeremy was still sweating from his workout, his muscles tensed like cables. He had on weightlifting gloves andSimon wasn't sure what the hell that thing was, but Jeremy looked like an Olympic gymnast in it, which was to say, ridiculous, effeminate, and weirdly hot. "Soon," Jeremy said. "I realize it doesn't seem like much is going on, but I'm making arrangements."
"I hope so," Simon said, tearing his eyes away from the spectacle of Jeremy's unitard-thing and going back to contemplating the ugly buildings across the way. "I can't stand just running and reacting. There's got to be something we can do."
Jeremy sighed and ran a gloved hand over his sweat-soaked hair. "All I can say is 'soon'," he said. "If you really can't stand the pressure, you're welcome to go home. I won't hold it against you."
"I've thought about it," Simon admitted. "It's hard to remember why I'm here, sometimes. Like when I've been sitting around all day, or when the extent of my help is mailing letters and fetching newspapers. No, don't," he said, holding up a hand to forestall Jeremy's answer. "I know I volunteered for it. Hell, I even know it's a help. But it's hard to remember that sometimes. That's all I'm saying."
"Mm," Jeremy said. "Well. It's a huge help, to be honest. Things have gotten ever so much easier since I've started using you as my public face. And I've come to be grateful for the company. More than that, I really can't tell you."
Simon glanced at him. "Just... tell me you've got a plan that involves more than running away a lot," he said. "Assuming you do."
The silence stretched between them for a moment. Jeremy's eyes were unreadable. Simon's stomach knotted... but then Jeremy shook his head and laughed a little, dispelling the illusion. He turned around, leaning back against the railing. "Simon, think about who you're talking to," he said. "I'm hurt that you think so little of my organizational skills."
"Yeah?" Simon asked. "You're not just saying that?"
Jeremy's little smile curled in on itself; just like that, Simon found it easy enough to believe him. "Oh, I definitely have a plan," Jeremy said. "I rather suspect you'll hate it."
Simon snorted. "Yeah, I'll buy that," he said. "I hate all your plans. Hey, remember the time one of your plans got you shot? Or the time you got Texas shot, that was a good one"
"In fact, I'm working on several fronts at once," Jeremy said, blatantly ignoring Simon. "Once things begin to move, there'll be no stopping them, so I have to have all my dominos in a row before I tip the first one over. So to speak."
"Huh. Yeah, okay, I feel a little better," Simon said. "I just have one question."
"What in the hell are you wearing? I mean, seriously, is that a leotard?"
All in all, they stayed in the ugly American hotel for three days. The sheer size of the place made it both easy to blend into the crowds and hard to tell if they were being watched, everyone on staff and most of the guests spoke English by preference, and the nearest newsstand was almost five blocks away and shiny in a way that didn't seem very Italian. It didn't really feel like being in Italy at all, not that Simon would ever admit this to Jeremy's face. Simon ran errands and, as the days passed, watched Jeremy tauten like a bowstring. Outwardly he was still the same as ever, but behind the shield of his easy good manners he was wound tight, his skin grayish under its tan; he paced the room constantly while on the phone and slept in fits and starts.
It was starting to wear Simon out just to watch him. Despite the irritating passive boredom of his days Simon's own nerves were wound pretty tight, to the point where he was aware of every shift Jeremy made. Jeremy woke him three times in one night, slithering out of the bed to go have a quiet cigarette on the balcony, and on the third occasion Simon crawled out and followed him, scrubbing sleep from his eyes. The east was just barely beginning to lighten, and birds were singing from somewhere. The muggy cool of the early morning clung to Simon's bare skin as he stepped out onto the damp concrete. "What's up?" he said.
Jeremy's lighter ratcheted. The little flame illuminated his face and the corner in which he was hiding; his cheeks drew in and the tip of his cigarette flared. "Ah, did I wake you?" he said, vanishing as the flame snapped out. "I apologize."
"Well, yeah, you did, given that you've been jumping around like a cricket all night," Simon said. "Something's up. What is it?"
The shadow that was Jeremy sighed out smoke, the glowing orange coal of the cigarette dropping to hang by his hip. "I'm out of time," he said. "I daren't stall any longer."
"Okay," Simon said, resisting the urge to add finally. "So what do we do?"
"Soonthis afternoon or the nextthey'll be able to get me on the phone." Jeremy paused long enough to tap ash off the end of his cigarette. "And once they've got me on the phone, things are going to start happening."
"Okay," Simon said again. "Tell me the plan."
"We'll move hotels tomorrow," Jeremy said.
Simon waited for him to go on. When he didn't, Simon said, "Well, yeah, I figured as much, smart guy. Tell me the rest."
He sensed more than saw Jeremy's smile. "And then we wait," Jeremy said. "Or we don't. It all depends on when, exactly, la Repubblica received my letter."
"Yeah, and...?" Simon said, making a little come-on gesture.
"Then they'll have a number at which I can be reached," Jeremy said. He took one last sip off his cigarette and flicked the half-smoked end over the balcony railing. It fell like an orange meteor. Simon lost track of it in seconds.
Jeremy evolved from the shadows and put his hand lightly on Simon's chest; it was oddly cold. "And then we'll have to take the call in a place we can run from," he said, moving past Simon, heading back into the room. "Just in case."
"You're just going to keep on with this inscrutable crap, aren't you," Simon said, following Jeremy. He shut the balcony door behind himself, closing out the humidity.
"Yes," Jeremy said. "I thought you knew better than to ask. Come back to bed."
Simon groped his way back to the bed, dropping down on top of the covers. "Sometimes I just want to shake you until words fall out," he said.
Jeremy laughed a little and touched Simon's arm, his fingertips still cool. Simon waited, in case that meant that an explanation was forthcoming, but if it was, it didn't come until after Simon had fallen back to sleep.
Simon had barely unglued his eyes the next morning before Jeremy sent him off after a copy of la Repubblica. Simon trudged the five blocks to the newsstand and back still half-asleep, gave Jeremy his precious paper with a grunt, and went to throw himself in the shower.
The shower did more to wake him than the walk had, not that that was saying much. Simon braced his hands against the tile and sputtered under the spray, starting to think about breakfast and coffee, not in that order. The hotel's free continental breakfast was lavish, if not particularly great, and there was real coffee that didn't come in thimblesthe thought propelled a nearly-human Simon out of the shower. He wasted a couple of minutes in front of the mirror, rubbing his chin and trying to decide if he needed a shave. Eventually, he decided that the answer was yes, but screw it, slung a towel around his hips, and padded out of the bathroom. "Yeah, so I'm thinking breakfast," he said, and stopped there, the words trailing off into silence.
Jeremy was sitting at the table, his hands folded neatly on top of the paper. He might have just been lost in thought, except that his knuckles were a bloodless white and his right eye was twitching, just a bit. To top it all off, he hadn't even raised an eyebrow at Simon's state of undress.
Simon went equally still. "Today, huh," he said.
Jeremy shook his head and came back to himself. "It seems that way," he said with unnecessary briskness. "Breakfast if you must, but we need to switch hotels quickly."
"Just lemme get dressed," Simon said. He dropped his towel and grabbed for his jeans. Even this display didn't seem to merit a comment. Simon was oddly hurt.
An hour later 'Simon Moorhead' had a room in yet another of the ugly chain hotels that dotted the road between Milan and the Malpensa airport. He'd barely set foot in the room before Jeremy tapped urgently on the door; Simon dumped his duffel on the bed and went to let Jeremy in.
"We have to go," Jeremy said, blowing past Simon and into the room, so alert that the air around him seemed to vibrate. He dropped his suitcase on the floor next to the briefcase. "Leave everything you can, and leave it packed, just in case." He paused. "Bring the gun," he added, his voice just the slightest bit uneven.
"Already wearing it," Simon said, hitching up the leg of his jeans to display the ankle holster. "Where are we going?"
Jeremy twitched out a smile. "To a youth hostel, believe it or not," he said.
"I'm not even going to ask," Simon said. "Oh, wait, that's a lie: why a youth hostel?"
"Three reasons," Jeremy said, holding up three fingers. "Reason one" he twitched his pointer finger "because youth hostels cater to teenagers, they're willing to do business on a cash basis. Reason two" his middle finger twitched "we're laying a false trail, just in case they are able to track this phone call. And reason three" he folded his hand into a fist "I mailed the phone in question to myself two weeks ago. It's waiting for me there."
"In case they're already tracking it?" Simon asked.
Jeremy nodded. "In one," he said. "If we get there and someone is already watching the place, we're blown, and we leave."
"And I suppose you're going to want me to scout the place out before you set foot inside," Simon said, shaking his head. "You're lucky I like you so much."
"Aren't I just?" Jeremy shut his eyes and blew out a breath. He flexed his hands twice, then let his eyes drift open. Just like that the nervous energy was gone, leaving him calm to the point of serenity. "Call down to the front desk, would you, and have them call you a taxi," Jeremy said. "We'd best leave."
"Yeah," Simon said, picking up the desk phone. Helpless to stop himself, he added, "Let's do this thing."
The cab spat them out half an hour later, in the midst of an unfamiliar neighborhood that looked to be mostly apartment buildings. Jeremy flicked the driver a folded bill and headed for cover with alacrity; Simon followed, joining Jeremy in a deeply recessed doorway lined with mailboxes. Simon glanced left, then right, and then frowned. "So where's"
Jeremy's hand flicked out and down. "A bit softer, please," he murmured, running his fingers along the brim of his hat to make sure it hid his eyes.
"Right," Simon said, rolling his eyes and lowering his voice. "Paranoia is go. So where's this hostel?"
"A block that way," Jeremy said, jerking his chin up the street, "and to the right, about half a block along. There ought to be a sign."
Simon glanced up the street. Out here, at least, he could see no one loitering, either on foot or in a parked car. "Right," he said. He took a deep breath and thumped his fist lightly against his thigh; the world sprang into high focus. "Right," he said again, more firmly. "I'm going to make the block first. You wait here."
Something poked him in the side. Simon looked down to discover that he was being prodded with a baseball cap. "Here," Jeremy said, his smile faint but present. "Just in case one of the same fellows that was staking out the other place is staking out this one."
Simon stared down at the cap until Jeremy poked him with it again, then took it with ill grace. "Yeah, okay, that idea has merit," Simon said dubiously, rolling the cap's bill in one hand, "but seriously, a Redskins cap? Is this your idea of appropriate?"
Jeremy raised both eyebrows and did a poor job of looking innocent. "Well, you are from Washington."
"Bullshit," Simon said, ramming the baseball cap onto his head and pulling the bill down. "I'm from Hinton, Iowa. Just ask Ethan. Besides, the Redskins broke my goddamned heart two years ago, which you would understand, if you weren't such a, a huge Englishman. Okay, I'm going."
"Luck," Jeremy breathed, touching Simon's arm before withdrawing back under the building's overhang.
Simon hesitated, then followed him, backing him up against the entryway door. Jeremy's shoulders bumped up against the glass; he glanced over his shoulder, then back at Simon, raising both eyebrows. "Yes?"
"'Luck'? That's it?" Simon glanced over his own shoulder, making sure that they were reasonably unobserved, then leaned forward and lowered his voice. "What, I don't even get groped for luck this time?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Simon," Jeremy said primly, his little smile neatly belying his tone. "I refuse to molest fellows wearing billed hats. It's gauche."
Simon snorted and poked Jeremy. "Not to chop some goddamned logic or anything, but the hat was your idea"
Jeremy's hand flashed up and plucked the baseball cap off Simon's head, dumping Simon's hair in his eyes. "There," Jeremy said, his smile going crooked. "Problem solved."
Snickeringand jamming the baseball cap back on his headSimon came reeling back out of the recessed doorway a minute or so later. If anyone had noticed Jeremy wishing him luck, they weren't letting on. Simon fought down his grin and headed up the street, falling in with the rest of the crowds.
At the intersection Simon fought his way back out of the pack and took shelter at the corner, pulling out his cell phone and flipping it open. Covertly, he studied the cross street over the top of the screen. The cross street was wide and fairly busy, without the usual complement of poorly-parked cars along its sides. Good. Simon flipped his phone closed, put it back in its clip, and set off.
Ten seconds later he ran afoul of his first problem. The architecture around here was way too fancy, almost baroque, and the stone front of every building was pitted with deep recesses around the doors and windows. A person tucked away in one of those hideaways was going to be nearly invisible until Simon got almost directly opposite him, and while that made Simon feel even better about Jeremy wishing him luck, it didn't particularly endear Milan to him. Simon gritted his teeth and forced himself to amble along, playing the gawking tourist. If he'd thought, he'd have brought a map to frown at.
The hostel della Piana unfolded on his right, a fancy-ass stone building just like all the others on this block. Simon slowed a little more. There were cafe' chairs and tables outside the building, blocking foot traffic, and clustered around these tables lurked Simon's second problem: something like twenty teenagers of assorted nationalities, screaming enthusiastically at each other in what sounded like multiple languages. Huge and serious backpacks slumped on the sidewalks all around them, narrowing Simon's corridor of passage to a single-person lane.
Simon picked his way past, taking ample advantage of the slowdown to check the nooks and crannies of the buildings opposite. No one was there, but no one needed to be. Any one of these teenagers could be someone on the lookout for Jeremyall right, it didn't seem likely, but it didn't seem particularly unlikely, either. Simon thought for a minute, then veered past a smallish herd of nomadic backpacks and pushed his way into the hostel.
He stopped just inside the doorway, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Once they did, he wasn't impressed. The woman behind the shabby desk looked up at him and frowned. "I'm sorry, sir, we're currently on turnout. No one is allowed back into the hostel until two PM."
"Ah, no, I don't need a room," Simon said. "Do you have a payphone? My cell phone's dead."
She compressed her lips for a moment, then pointed down a dimly-lit back hallway. "Back there," she said. "Please make it quick."
Simon gave her his second-best grin, making her take a startled half-step back. "You're a lifesaver," Simon said fervently. He darted off down the back hallway before she could respond.
The hallway, much like the lobby, was shabby, the carpeting beginning to ruck up in dirty folds. Simon guessed that any facility that stored teenagers must take a beating on a regular basis. The battered pay phones ran along the wall to his left, several of them, at least two missing their handsets. Simon loped right past them, past the restrooms, around a corner, past the double doors that led into the kitchen, past a couple of offices with nameplates...
The back door was at the very end of the hallway. Simon pulled up short and considered it. It didn't appear to have be alarmed, or, at least, it didn't have any signs to that effect. The door had a simple doorknob and deadbolt; Simon unlocked the deadbolt and twisted the knob, and the back door sprang open, letting sunlight spill in.
The back door opened onto a narrow, deserted alleyway full of garbage cans and loose garbage. The alley stank like cheap beer and vomit, which at least meant that it was likely to stay deserted. Simon reached around and tried the knob on the other side. It didn't turn. "Huh," Simon said under his breath. He eased the door shut again and pulled out his wallet.
Most of Simon Drake's effects were still back in the hotel. Simon Moorhead's personal effects were few and far between, and eventually Simon gave up and sacrificed his Starbucks gift card to its fate; he bent the heavy plastic in half, opened the back door again, and folded the bent card over the door latch. He eased the door shut. The weight of the door trapped the card against the doorjamb, pinning it in place; the door appeared to be closed, latched, and locked, assuming no one looked too closely. Hopefully the half-a-card that showed would go unnoticed for a few minutes.
Simon sped back to the lobby and gave the woman behind the counter another smile and a wave. "Thanks a lot," he said, and hit the front door, heading back out into the mass of teenagers.
"Okay," Simon said, zipping into the recessed entryway where he'd left Jeremy. "We're good, but I don't know for how longI'll explain while we go. Come on, we're going that way, around the back of the block."
Jeremy didn't need to be told twice; he popped out of the doorway like a cork, forcing Simon to trot a couple of steps to catch up. "Is there a problem?" Jeremy said under his breath, glancing from side to side.
"Maybe. Not really. Sort of. To the corner here and turn left." Simon forded the lunchtime crowds with Jeremy alert in his wake. "See, the hostel's on turnout, which means that there are something like four thousand kids sitting out front waiting for it to open up again, and who knows who could be lurking in the crowd, right? So I went in and loided the back door with my Starbucks card, and now we have to get there before someone notices the rigged dooroh, yeah, same to you, lady," Simon snarled under his breath, cutting a wide swath through the angry crowds as he led Jeremy around the corner. "I figure it's probably paranoia, but better safe than sorry, right?"
"Indubitably," Jeremy said, smiling faintly. "So I suppose this means that I owe you some coffee."
Simon let the crowds force him to the curb and lengthened his stride. "You owe me so much coffee that your puny mind cannot begin to comprehend it," Simon said. "You owe me a lifetime's worth of coffee. You owe me, like, coffee every day for the rest of your life."
"Mm," Jeremy said, loading the little sound with so much meaning that Simon sped up to avoid it.
Simon almost walked right past the mouth of the narrow alley. Unmarked and unobtrusive, the alley opened out onto a side street, nearly overshadowed by the awnings of the buildings to either side; if Simon hadn't caught a whiff of that beer-piss aroma, he'd have missed it entirely. "Here," he said, stepping into the alley.
Jeremy followed him, stepping with extreme care, his nose wrinkled in distaste. "And who says Italy isn't charming," he murmured, easing around a splatter of something disgustingly chunky. "Which door is it?"
"No clue," Simon said cheerfully. "Pull on the doorknobs until one opens and a Starbucks card falls out, I guess."
Jeremy's smile twitched on and off. "Somewhere in the middle, I presume," he said. He reached out and tugged the nearest doorknob, just in case.
The fourth door answered to Simon's pull. His Starbucks card, now bent in two places, fell at his feet; Simon eyed it, eyed the dirty cement that it was touching, and abandoned the card to its fate. Jeremy slid past him and into the hostel's back hallway with alacrity. Simon followed, pulled the door shut, and relocked the deadbolt. "Just like I left it," he muttered under his breath, jogging to catch up with Jeremy. "It's almost like I didn't break and enter at all."
"Keep telling yourself that, if it helps," Jeremy murmured.
The woman at the desk looked up as they entered the lobby, startled. "I'm sorry," she said, thrown a little off-balance by their sudden appearance from the back. "The hostel is on turnout, no one's allowed back in until two"
"Good afternoon," Jeremy said, his English accent suddenly pronounced and as smooth as butter. "My name is Roger ThawteI believe you're expecting me?"
After a moment of fluster, the woman at the desk said, "Oh! Oh. Yes. Just a... just a moment." She took a couple of steps back, then turned on her heel and hurried into the back room.
Simon glanced towards the front door, then craned up onto his toes and tried to peek into the back room. "Sure hope she's not back there selling you out," he said under his breath.
"My goodness, so do I," Jeremy said, sounding almost cheerful about the possibility.
"Well, you sound better," Simon said, or started to; he broke off abruptly as the woman reappeared, carrying a small and incredibly battered cardboard box.
Jeremy accepted the box with a smile. "It's so kind of you to allow me in early," he said, slipping back into that buttery English. "I've just stepped off the train and I'm exhausted."
"Well, since you did call and make arrangements beforehand, ahyou're welcome," she said, still a bit flustered. "Ah... the semi-private room is twenty euros per..."
Jeremy held out a green hundred-euro note. "For both of us," he said. "He'll pay me back later."
"News to me," Simon said, glancing around the lobby again. "Man, what happened to that box? Taxi run over it?"
"Oh, quite possibly," Jeremy said, darting a narrow glance at Simon.
The woman finished making change and handed Jeremy a pair of brass keys. "Up the stairs and to your left," she said, pointing. "It'll be the last room on the right, and the bathroom is right next to your roomI'm sorry. It's liable to be noisy."
Jeremy put a five-euro bill on the counter and pushed it across. "Madam, I'm unlikely to be in any shape to notice by the time that turnout ends. Thank you, you've been a darling."
After a bit of protest, she picked up the bill and tucked it into her pocket. Jeremy beamed at her, then headed for the stairs; Simon waved and followed.
"Smells like feet," Simon noted, turning in a circle to take in the rest of the room. He was immediately sorry. The room was basically a walk-in closet with two twin beds and a tiny desk jammed into it. What little he'd seen of the communal bathroom ensured that he didn't want to see any more.
"Doesn't it just?" Jeremy smacked the palm of one hand against the window sash until it tore free in a shower of dirty white paint and rust. Wriggling his fingers into the newly-created gap, he pried the window open; it dragged upwards with a scream and another shower of paint chips. Jeremy poked his head out the window. "Ah, good, a fire escape," he said, his voice muffled.
Simon sat gingerly on the foot of one of the twin beds. It barely compressed under his weight but redoubled the smell. "So... what's the plan?"
Jeremy pulled his head back in, dusting paint chips off his shoulders. "The plan," he said, "is to sit here until someone calls. I don't expect to have to wait more than an hour or two."
"Yeah, sounds exciting," Simon said. "And if they come after you?"
Jeremy waved one hand, taking in the whole room with a minimum of effort. "We have two escape routes, both of which lead up as well as down, our things are cached elsewhere, and furthermore, we're both armed." He tugged back the sleeve of his jacket, revealing one of his wrist harnesses. His smile went tight. "I suspect that the first time they come after me, they'll be overconfident. They won't send enough people. My goal is to keep them from finding me at all, but if necessary, I'll accept not letting them find me twice." That pronounced, he let the sleeve of his jacket drop.
"Okay, then," Simon said, after a moment. "So we're going to sit around in this charming room for a couple of hours and then split. I can handle that. Do you want me to go sit in the lobby and keep an eye out?"
"I'd prefer it if we stuck together." Jeremy picked up the cardboard box and started picking at the tape. The box had been so sadly smashed by its trip through the Italian postal service that it resembled a small cardboard football. "Besides, around here I'm afraid you'd stand out like a sore thumb."
"Yeah, probably," Simon said. "Christ, that thing had better not be broken."
Jeremy ripped the top of the football open. "Fortunately, I'd planned for this," he said, extracting a small metal box. It was a bit dinged up, but not too badly. "Now, if they'd managed to tear the package open, I suppose the box would have fallen out and gotten lost, but these are the risks we must take." He popped open the metal box, extracted a cellphone and a charger, and plugged the cellphone in. "Now we wait."
They settled in, the plugged-in cell phone lurking on the desk like an ill omen. Simon kicked himself around so that he could lean against the wall by the door and listen to the noises from the hallway; Jeremy lounged on the other bed, keeping a lackadaisical eye out on the fire escape.
Half an hour or so after they'd arrived, turnout ended with a vengeance. Suddenly the hallway was packed full of teenagers without volume knobs, thumping and screaming and banging things around. The toilet next door flushed without stopping for ten minutes straight. "Goddamn kids," Simon said, mostly as an observation.
"Now you see why I haven't been hiding in hostels," Jeremy said. His expression was particularly flat and unamused. "Even the better ones cater to the youth crowd, and this, quite frankly, isn't one of the better ones."
"Yeah? You're kidding. I thought all the best hotels featured exciting new stenches."
"On the other hand, no one in their right mind would look for me here." Jeremy folded his arms across his chest and sighed. "I suppose it's something to keep in mind."
A teenager of indeterminate gender went screaming up the hallway, thumping indiscriminately on every door it passed. The door next to Simon rattled in its frame and nearly popped open. Simon flinched away from the door, then settled warily back again. "I feel old," he said. "I'm thirty. I should not be having a 'you kids get off my lawn' moment."
"I expect you were a handful in your day," Jeremy said, poking idly at the drift of chipped paint in the corner of the window.
Simon scowled at him. "Scuse me? How would you know?"
"Well, you seem the type." Jeremy dusted his dirty fingertips off on the bedspread.
"The type," Simon repeated, and snorted.
The awkward demi-conversation petered out. Outside the initial ruckus was starting to die down, although the occasional hosteler went thudding by. Someone turned on the shower. Simon tried to get comfortable, failed, sighed sharply, and sank down until he was nearly prone across the foot of the bed, poking idly at Jeremy's shins with the toe of his sneaker. "I wasn't a handful," he finally said, grumpily.
"What you said. I wasn't a handful. I was a perfectly normal kid."
"Ah," Jeremy said, the light dawning. "You wanted to get drunk and have sex with anything that moved."
"Well, yeah, but I wasn't an asshole about it," Simon said. "And I did pretty good in school"
"pretty well, I assume you mean"
"yeah, okay, eat me," Simon said, halfheartedly trying and failing to kick Jeremy in the knee. "But my point is that I never went screaming up and down the hallway of a hostel like a giant moron, because I had half a brain, okay?"
Jeremy held up his hands in surrender. "All right, all right. I suppose I was only making conversation."
"Well, this conversation you made is stupid," Simon declared. "Let's kill it. Anything moving in the alley?"
Jeremy pushed himself off the wall and peered out the window. "Nothing that I can see," he said, after a moment.
"I wish the asshole would hurry up and call," Simon said.
"So do I," Jeremy said, glancing at the silent phone on the desk. "I'm sure it won't be long." He sighed and reached for the phoneand someone hammered on the door.
Simon shot bolt upright with a squeak of bedsprings, grabbing for the nonexistent gun in the small of his back. Jeremy nearly teleported out the windowone moment he was sitting on the foot of the bed, the next he was straddling the windowsill with one foot on the fire escape. Simon threw up a hand to keep Jeremy from bolting entirely, then reached down and drew his hideout gun. He couldn't put his back against the wallthe room was too smallso instead he crouched down between the beds and brought the gun up until the front sight kissed off his cheek. "Yeah?" he called, his voice gruff.
From outside the door, silence. Then someone sniggered and said, "Landshark."
Simon jerked, rocking back onto his heels. Jeremy was still frozen half-in and half-out of the room, breathing silently through his half-open mouth, his eyes on the door. "Aw, no," Simon muttered, slamming the gun back into its holster and lunging to his feet. He stomped over to the door and threw it open. "No, you are not here, I am not seeing thisI nearly shot you, dumbass!"
"And here we brought pizza and everything," Mike said, still snickering. He had the cardboard box up over one shoulder like a waiter. "Totally bad form to shoot the messenger, boss."
"HowwhyJesus Christ," Simon eventually concluded, slapping a hand over his eyes. "Okay, I demand answers and I already know I'm going to hate 'em, but first you all need to get in here before half the goddamned city notices we're here." Simon stepped back and jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
"Awesome," Mike said, ambling into the tiny room and automatically taking up half of it just by being Mike. "Man, this place is swank."
"I'm almost afraid he means that," Sandra said, grimly herding the rest of the team into the room. Nate, at least, had the good sense to look sheepish, but he was the only one displaying anything like remorse for this boneheaded maneuver; even Dave, who could usually be counted on for sheepishness, was too busy interacting with the tiniest laptop Simon had ever personally seen.
"What can I say, I got ghetto tastes," Mike said. He spun the pizza neatly down on the desk next to the plugged-in cell phone. "Yo! Archer! Nice threads! You actually fuckin' that windowsill or what?"
Warily Jeremy pulled his leg back into the room and stood up. His shoulders were so taut that it hurt Simon just to look at them. "Well," Jeremy said, his voice thin, "this is certainly an... unlooked-for surprise."
"Hey, don't look at me," Simon said, forced to raise his voice just to be heard. He was having to talk to Jeremy over the heads of his team, none of whom were particularly quiet human beings. There were now seven people crammed into a room that was barely large enough for two, and Johnny and Mike were already staging a desultory kicking fight over one of the beds. Simon glanced back to Jeremy. "Shut the window," he suggested.
Jeremy compressed his lips into a thin line and did as he was told. The window hitched back down and finally consented to close; the moment that it slotted home, Simon smacked the top of the desk with a sound like rifleshot. The sound cut cleanly across the discord and killed it. The kicking fight came to an abrupt end. "Everybody sit down and shut the fuck up," Simon suggested, his voice overly bright.
Nate dove for the nearest bed, tugging the semi-oblivious Dave down after him. Sandra perched on the foot of that bed and kicked Mike's feet out from under him, dumping both Mike and Johnny onto the bed opposite. Mike squalled, pushed himself off Johnny, took one look at Simon, and visibly shrank. Now that that was settled, Simon looked at Jeremy. "Seriously, this was not my idea," he said.
"Mm," Jeremy said. "No, I didn't think you'd be quite this stupid."
"You know, I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me?" Simon swung to confront Sandra, who was still perched on the foot of the bed by the door, looking grim. "So how the hell did you guys find me?"
Sandra nodded back over her shoulder. "Dave."
"What?" Dave said, looking up from his tiny laptop and blinking.
Sandra sighed. "We found you using Dave," she repeated with fading patience.
"Oh! Yes. Right." Dave hugged the little laptop to his chest, still looking a bit scattered. "I, ah, I tracked the signal from your cell phone," he said. "Um. Global positioning. You know."
Simon's hand flew to his belt and the squarish shape of the phone clipped to it. "My phone?" he repeated.
"It's really very accurate," Dave started to say, but Sandra hushed him with a terse gesture. "I gave him the number that you left with me," she said. "It led us right here."
"Okay, well, that's one question answered," Simon said. His own patience was wearing thin. "How about this one: what the hell are you guys doing here?"
The grim expression fell off Sandra's face on the instant, replaced by a fake smile so incredibly savage that Simon's hand flew to his throat. "We are on vacation," Sandra said with dangerous good cheer. "Rappaport got shot by Miami airport security three days ago! Isn't that lovely? So our current bullshit job ended with a bang, and when I went in to give Upstairs his final briefing, I suggested that maybe now would be an excellent time for us to take some of this vacation time that we never have time to use! My goodness, I know that I haven't had a day off in something like four years!"
Simon opened his mouth, then shut it again at the sight of Sandra's narrowed, glittering eyes. Implacably, Sandra went on. "Since none of us had less than five full weeks of paid vacation time, and since we had just finished up four weeks of exhausting round-the-clock work, and since we seemed to be minus a boss, it seemed like a very good idea! Upstairs concurred! Indeed, he seemed to be of the opinion that it was an excellent idea to get us the hell out of his hair!" At some point during this recital Sandra had drifted to her feet; now she stood nearly toe-to-toe with Simon. She was wholly, ominously still, coiled to spring. "I've always wanted to see Italy," she said softly. "And so here I am. On vacation. Boss."
"You know, I'm getting the sense that you're displeased with me, Spring," Simon said, leaning back away from that carnivorous fake grin. "I mean, it's just a feeling I have."
"Ha!" Sandra cried. "Do you think? No, seriously, do you think?"
"Excuse me." In his corner, Jeremy stirred. His face was blank and his voice was bland and cool. "Far be it from me to break up this little tete-a-tete," he said, "but I am attempting to keep something of a low profile here"
Sandra rounded on him, her hands snapping into fists. Whatever she'd initially intended to say, she swallowed it. "Hello, Archer," she said, her voice weirdly calm. "I'm not unaware of your issues, no. None of us are quite in your class, but we do have some resources, and we've taken a few precautions. I believe you'll find that our profile is fairly low."
"Mm," Jeremy said, squaring his shoulders, his fingers flexing at his sides. They faced each other across not nearly enough space, two incredibly pissed-off human beings daring each other to be the first to move. The rest of the team was silent, hypnotized or just plain frightened; Simon prudently backed up until his shoulders bumped against the wall. "How nice for you," Jeremy finally said, his voice thin enough to cut like a razor. "Milan is a lovely city. I do hope you enjoy your vacation"
Incredibly, it was Nate who found his balls and spoke. "We came to help," he said, his voice faint.
Both Sandra and Jeremy sagged, half the crackling energy in the room dissipatingSimon wondered, not for the first time, just how aware Nate was of his powers. "Yes, all right," Sandra said in a much more normal voice. "We came to help. But not you." Still holding Jeremy's gaze, she stabbed her forefinger into Simon's chest, hard enough to hurt. "Him."
"Ow," Simon said, just getting that out there.
"I see." Jeremy rubbed a hand down his face. "So... you are proposing what, exactly?"
"We need him back," Sandra said, tapping Simon's chest again. "We need him back soon, in one piece, and not implicated in any sort of international brouhaha. But since Mr. Chivalry-Is-Not-Dead isn't going to let us drag him back to the States until he's righted this terrible wrong he imagines he's done to you"
"we're going to help fix this shit, shut up, Simon," Sandra finished. "And once you're out of danger, we're taking him the hell home."
"I see," Jeremy said. "Is that what you think, then?"
"We took a vote!" Mike volunteered. "It was fair and not rigged at all!"
Simon waved both hands until he caught a few people's eyes. "Jesus, don't I get a say in this?" he asked, outraged.
"No," Sandra said.
"No, apparently not," Jeremy said slowly. "So... you're here to help."
"Yes," Sandra said. "Don't get me wrong: I don't particularly care what happens to you. But Simon cares, apparently. And as long as Simon cares, I care."
Jeremy was silent, considering this. He pursed his lips. "To the best of your various and sundry abilities?"
Sandra nodded. "We're yours until we can pry him off you," she said.
"Hey," Simon said, the skin on the back of his neck prickling. "I protest! I find the wording of your last statement nauseating!"
"Of course, if you get any of us shot, killed, arrested, or fitted for cement boots, I'll kill you personally," Sandra told Jeremy.
Jeremy inclined his head. "Of course," he said. "I thought that went without saying."
"No one's listening to me," Simon told the nearest person, which happened to be Dave.
"What?" Dave said.
Simon sighed. "Nothing." He swung both arms around in a huge gesture, gathering the room's attention again. "You guys, I hate this," he said. "Jesus Christ, I'm not going to put you guys in danger like this!"
"That's right, you're not," Sandra said. "You don't have a say in this. We're not in the States. You've been suspended and I'm a free agent. I'm not leaving until you doand guess what? You can't make me."
"Nanny-nanny-boo-boo," Johnny said matter-of-factly, the first thing he'd said since they arrived.
Jeremy cleared his throat. "We can discuss this more at a later time," he said. "Also, somewhere else. I'm only here because I needed neutral ground to wait for a phone call."
"Fair enough," Sandra said. "Mike and I are the only two people who are officially in Italy, but we seem to have a suspiciously large suite. We can go back there."
"Er, possibly," Jeremy said. "I've been taking a ridiculous number of precautions"
The phone shrilled. Everybody in the room shied away from it, except Jeremy, who jerked upright like someone had pulled his strings. "Silence," he snapped, grabbing up the phone. "You" he tapped Johnny's shoulder "keep an eye out the window, let me know if anyone enters the alley, you" he pointed at Simon "listen at the door, and the rest of you had damned well better not exist." The phone shrilled again; Jeremy shut his eyes, hissed out a breath, flicked the phone open, and changed. "Jeremy Archer," he said, nearly purring it, like he hadn't a care in the world.
Johnny eased down to the foot of the bed and put his forehead to the glass, cupping his hands around his eyes. Simon slithered past Sandra and put his back against the door, turning an ear to it. Jeremy, both hands on the phone, listened for a few moments, then made a sound like a laugh, all the more creepy because his face was entirely devoid of expression. "Ah, well, I'd say that I'm sorry, but you know how these things are," he told the person on the other end of the line. His voice was still eerily light and cheerful. "So! To whom do I have the privilege...? Ah? Really? Well! In that case, I am honored."
The room, packed wall to wall like a can of sardines, was weirdly quiet. Simon could hear them all breathing, and over that, the growl of the voice on the other end of the line. He couldn't make out any of the words, although he tried. "Of course," Jeremy said. "But I'll need to speak to Annabelle first, before we go any further. I know you'll understand. ... yes. Yes. I'll wait." He paused, staring blindly off at the wall above Nate's head, his face empty like a doll's.
Abruptly Jeremy squeezed his eyes shut, the blood draining from his face. He went white, and then such an alarming shade of gray that Simon forgot himself and reached for Jeremy's arm; Jeremy warned him off with a blazing glare. Simon yanked his hand back like it was burnt. "Annabelle, love," Jeremy said, his voice just the slightest bit uneven. "Yes. Yes, it's me. Are you all right? They're treating you as well as possible?" He paused. "I see," he said. "That's good, then. Don't worry, we'll have you free in no time. I promise." His voice was soft and reassuring, but his face was blank and pale. Simon was pretty sure that Nate had stopped breathing entirely.
The growling voice came back. Jeremy flinched like he'd been hit. "Yes, I believe that does satisfy me," he said, digging down deep to reclaim that carefree voice. "Would you care to make threats at this point, or shall we skip the nonsense and get down to business?"
Sandra turned away, compressing her lips. She was either angry or trying not to laugh. Simon couldn't tell which. "No, no, I suppose you're right," Jeremy said, still cheery. "So, how are we going to do this? You understand that we can't make the exchange just anywhere."
The voice on the other end of the line growled on. Jeremy sagged back against the wall, an expression on his face that could only be relief. "Opening night?" he said, now looking almost as cheerful as he sounded. Simon was wholly confused. "My goodness, how am I going to get fitted for proper attire in only six days? Ah, well, needs must when the Devil drives, I suppose. Generous and civilized of you, to be certain. Yes. Yes. Of course. She'll be there? I would like to confirm her state for myself, you'll forgive me if I seem untrusting"
Two minutes later Jeremy carefully folded the phone shut. He was still crumpled against the wall like it was the only thing holding him upright, and he was staring down at his own feet. In the other corner of the room, Mike whistled in appreciation. "Daaaamn," he said.
Jeremy looked up at that, his face composed. "That's that," he said. He looked around the room, then bent down and unplugged the phone from the wall. When he straightened up again, he was almostalmostsmiling. "It seems that I accept your offer," he told Sandra. "I can use you."
"Hey," Mike said, immediately and happily outraged. "Nobody uses Sandy but me!"