Part Seven, Chapters 25-29
"Well, then," Jeremy said, picking up his hat and turning it thoughtfully in his hands. "That's settled, I suppose."
"Like hell it is," Simon said.
Jeremy ignored him. "We ought to leave in ones and twossafety in numbers and all that, yes, but moving in a pack would be a bit much." He looked up. His eyes skipped right over Simon and landed, after a moment, on Johnny. "Would you be so kind as to go first?" Jeremy asked.
Johnny shrugged and pushed himself up off the bed. "Your call," he said.
"Mm." Jeremy was already looking out the window, his brow lightly furrowed. "If you would, please go out the back way," Jeremy said, tapping the glass. "If the coast is clear, stop and give me a sign."
"Sure," Johnny said. He stepped over Mike, lazily dodging Mike's half-hearted kick, and brushed past Sandra. "We meeting back at the place?"
Sandra glanced at Jeremy, then nodded. "At least for now," she said.
"Right," Johnny said. He paused long enough to clap Jeremy solemnly on the shoulder, then edged past Simon without a word and let himself out. The door creaked to behind him.
"Welp, we got rid of the deadweight," Mike said cheerfully, grabbing the pizza box off the desk. He sprawled out across Johnny's vacated seat with it, popping open the lid and grabbing a slice before passing the box on. "Now we can have some actual fun!"
Jeremy's laugh sounded mostly polite. "Fun," he repeated, and shook his head. "Tell me, do you have a hired car?"
"Aw, man, I wish!" Mike said. He stuffed about half the slice of pizza into his mouth. "People around here drive like fucknuts and I so totally want to play," he mumbled around his mouthful.
"Mm," said Jeremy. Sandra offered him the pizza box, which he declined with a wave and an absent smile. "I think perhaps a car or two would be in order. Do you have an international driver's permit?"
Mike swallowed and made a rude noise. "Well, duh," he said. "I ain't gonna come to Italy without one. You know. Just in case I see a car what needs driving."
"Excellent. We'll see to thatI'll pay for it, of course." Jeremy turned his attention back to the window. "Simon, why don't you go next? Ah... have Nate see you off at the front door, I think. If you see anything odd, send word back with him."
Simon thought about making a stink, but in the end, he just sighed and straightened up. "You're the boss," he said, trying not to sound too pissy about it. "Where am I going?"
"Oh, here," said Sandra. She fished in her purse and came out with a keycard. Simon held out a hand for it; Sandra poked him in the chest with it anyway. "The name and address is on the front of the card," she said. "Just show it to the taxi driver."
Simon plucked the card out of her fingers and looked at it. Suite 1008, Hotel degli Alberti blah blah blah. "Yeah, okay," he said, tucking it into his shirt pocket. "Specs, you coming?"
"Just a sec, pizza," Nate said, fighting against about ten strands of melted cheese, a battle he was pretty much fated to lose.
By the window, Jeremy craned his neck. "Ah, there he is," Jeremy said under his breath, putting a hand against the glass.
"Yeah?" Simon said, picking his way past Sandra to the window. Johnny was ambling down the alley, taking his own sweet time about it; at the mouth of the alleyway he paused and fished around in his shirt pocket, idly looking up and down the street. A few seconds later he turned halfway around, stuck a toothpick in his mouth, and flashed Jeremy a momentary thumbs-up as he did so. "Damn, that was pretty smooth, I have to admit it," Simon said, resisting the urge to rest his chin on the top of Jeremy's head. Outside, Johnny ambled off. "Where'd Texas learn those spy-movie moves, anyway?"
"Spy movies, probably," Sandra said, unimpressed. "God, I work with adolescent boys. Your turn, Nate."
Nate popped the last bite of crust into his mouth, licked his fingers clean, and bounced to his feet. "Okay," he said. "So I'm just walking Templar to the door?"
"Well, a couple of steps beyond, probably," Simon said, picking up the baseball cap. "But yeah, we'll go 'say goodbye' out front."
Mike eyed the Redskins cap. Simon braced himself, but Mike picked up the scent of a different, better joke and ran with it instead: "Aww, you gonna kiss him goodbye?" Mike caroled, snickering. "Damn, this scene's all Templar and his bitch rentin' a room for some afternoon delight"
Nate went red all the way to the tips of his ears. Sandra smacked the top of Mike's head. "Behave," she said severely.
"Not likely, since he's still Mike," Simon said. Since the danger had passed, he went ahead and put on the cap, pulling it down over his eyes. "One thing before I go, though."
"Mm?" Jeremy said, raising both eyebrows.
Simon ignored him, just to give him a taste of his own medicine. "Dave," Simon said.
Dave looked up from the laptop, blinking. "Yes?"
"I have to ask," Simon said.
Dave's expression went hunted. "What?" he said, resigned, like he knew what was coming.
"Are you at all aware of how fugly that Hawaiian shirt is?" Simon asked. "I mean, you must know, right? You're wearing it ironically, right?"
Dave picked at one of the buttons on his shirt, his own ears going red. "I like it," he said defensively. "It's vintage."
"Ohhhh," Simon said. "Vintage fugly."
"I never get a chance to actually wear them," Dave said. "But, well, I'm on vacation, sort of, and I guess it... seemed right?"
Simon almost missed the important part of that sentence. Almost. "Them?" he asked. "How many do you have?"
Dave wilted. "Nine," he mumbled.
Simon eyed Dave until Dave crumbled into a heap, then shrugged. "I guess every boy's gotta have a hobby," Simon said, feeling obscurely better about things. "Okay, I'm out. Archer, if I don't hear from you in an hour... well, uh, I'd better hear from you within an hour."
"Of course," Jeremy said. He was still gazing out the back window, ignoring most everything that was going on around him. "I'll be certain to travel in company."
"Well... good," Simon said. He hesitated in front of the door for a moment, oddly unwilling to take his eyes off Jeremy, then realized how weird he must look and grabbed for the doorknob. "You guys had better all take care."
"Simon," Jeremy said. Simon twitched and glanced over his shoulder; Jeremy was holding out the loaded cellphone, with its charger still dangling from one end. "Take care of this, will you?" Jeremy asked. "I'm rather uncomfortable being in the same room with it."
Simon caught the cord of the charger and reeled in the phone. "Yeah," he said, winding the cord around the phone. "Good idea."
"Don't answer it if it rings," Jeremy said. He flashed Simon a little, private smile, then turned back to the window.
"Yeah, no, not that stupid, thanks." Simon stuffed the cellphone in his jeans pocket and left before things could get any weirder. Nate trailed after him.
The shabby hallway was mostly empty and echoed with the cacophony of at least four competing bass lines cranked up to eleven. Every few seconds a teenager would dart out of one room and into another, blasting Simon with noise and slamming both doors. None of them paid Simon the slightest bit of heed. He might as well have been invisible. "Now I really feel old," he said.
"Yeah," Nate said behind him.
Simon edged past a wet spot on the carpet, thudded down the stairs, and emerged into the crowded lobby. There were kids lined up at the desk and sitting around in little groups, and it required pretty much all of Simon's shredded patience to pick his way through them to the front door. "Tell Archer that the lobby is packed," he told Nate, once they were safely out on the sidewalk. "Be sure to tell him that half the people are just sitting around."
Nate nodded. "I'll tell him," he said. "Uh."
Simon, who'd been on the verge of heading off, stopped. "What?"
"It's good to see you again," Nate offered, tentatively.
Simon sighed and ruffled Nate's hair, making him duck. "I'd say it's good to see you tooand don't get me wrong, it isbut I really wish you guys weren't mixed up in this."
Nate looked down at the sidewalk, then back up. "I know," he said. "I didn't think you'd like it. But... I thought you probably ought to have help anyway."
"Maybe." Simon sighed. "Christ, I don't know. Anyway. Wave goodbye, Specs. I'll see you in a bit."
Nate raised a hand. "Bye, Templar," he said.
Simon backed off a few steps, then spun on his heel and sank into the crowds. Once he was around the corner and Nate was out of sight, Simon stopped long enough to drop the cellphone down a sewer grating before heading off in search of a taxi stand.
The hotel degli Alberti was a fairly boring gray stone building in a part of Milan that Simon hadn't been to yet. It didn't look like anything particularly special. Simon wondered how Sandra had found it. For one particularly conspiracy-theory-level moment Simon wondered if Sandra had called Ethan and asked for recommendations, then he shook it off and went in.
It wasn't a particularly special-looking hotel on the inside, either. The lobby was brightly lit and aggressively bland, just barely weird enough to be obviously not American. No one was behind the desk. In fact, Simon saw no one from the moment he entered the building to the moment he let himself into 1008, which he generally took as a good sign. The room was dim, the overhead lights still off. Johnny, sprawled out on the couch with an arm slung over his eyes, glanced in Simon's direction as the door clicked open. "Yo," he said.
"Hey," Simon said, shutting the door behind him and glancing around. It was certainly a suite of some sort. The main room was large and there were doors on all three of the other walls that looked to lead into bedrooms. Definitely a suite. "Nice place," he added, not sure why he bothered to say so.
"It'll do," Johnny said.
Sensing that their conversation was over for the moment, Simon poked around. The place was... nice. There was really nothing else to say about it. It was clean and reasonably neat, except for the clothes decorating the floor of one bedroom and the computer cables spiderwebbing one of the others. The furniture was comfortably inoffensive. There was even a coffeemaker with an inch of stone-cold coffee lurking in the bottom of the pot. The very mediocrity of the place was strangely restful, and after Simon finished looking around he went to collapse on the other couch, toeing off his sneakers as an afterthought. "So where's Mike sleeping?" he asked.
Johnny grinned a little. "Depends," he said. "You mean technically or actually?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Simon said. "Keeps his stuff in your room and his body in Sandra's, huh?"
"Yep," said Johnny. "Least it's quiet." He thought about that for a moment, then amended that to "Sort of."
Simon snickered. "He's snoring at someone else, huh?"
"Shit, no." Johnny sat up, laced his fingers together behind his neck, and pulled his head down. His spine crunched with a sound like someone stepping on a bowl of dry cereal. Simon winced. Johnny flopped back. "Sandy gets him with the elbow when he snores. Showed me a coupla bruises."
"Guess you shoulda tried that, huh?"
"Guess so," Johnny said equably. "Course, we'd have to be sharin' a bed, but hell, I'm liberal."
"Yeah, 'cause when I think Texas, I think liberal," Simon said. "Christ, I'm tired. You mind if I nod off for a few minutes?"
"Nah," Johnny said.
"Didn't figure you would," Simon said, shutting his eyes.
Fifteen minutes later Mike came banging in, flipped on all the lights, and started crashing around with an enthusiasm that even Simon couldn't sleep through. "Man, I cannot wait to get behind the wheel over here," Mike said, bouncing on his toes. "Motherfuckers are crazy."
"Yeah," Simon said, checking his watch. He felt a little better for the micro-nap. "That they are. Made me think of you whenever I wasn't in immediate fear for my life."
"Aw, boss, that's sweet!" Mike screeched to a halt long enough to blow Simon a kiss. "I knew I was totally unforgettable."
Simon snorted. "That you are," he said. "Make us some coffee, will you?"
Mike simpered in Simon's direction for a couple of seconds before bounding back off to clatter around in the mini-bar. The clattering eventually took on a familiar sound. "Coffee'll be up in ten or so," Mike said, zipping off again. Simon melted onto the couch, pleased.
Johnny slid grudgingly upright, rubbing his temples. "So," he said.
"So," Mike echoed happily. "You still got that headache, Texas?"
"Yeah," Johnny said. "Goddamn planes."
"Awesome!" Mike said, popping up out of nowhere to thump Johnny on the head. Johnny didn't quite wince, but his eyes tightened, deepening the web of lines around them. Mike prudently bounded back out of range. "Man, I ain't never been to Italy before," he said, throwing himself across one of the overstuffed chairs. "And here I even got a perfectly good excuse not to have to wander around museums and shit. Goddamn, this is awesome, boss, you ought to go runnin' off after Archer more often."
"Yeah?" Johnny said, still rubbing his temples. He glanced at Simon past the edge of one hand. "He ain't caught on," Johnny observed.
Simon went still, a useless pulse of adrenalin stapling him to the couch. Mike didn't notice. "Ain't caught on to what?" he said amiably. "That you're one closemouthed motherfucker? Honest and for true, I noticed."
Johnny let his hand drop. "Archer said he'd be coming back in company, right?"
"Tell you one thing, he ain't comin' back with the techs," Johnny said. "Man just scammed you out of half an hour alone with your girlfriend."
Mike's jaw dropped. "Naw," he said. He hesitated, then glanced over his shoulder at the door. "Naw," he said again, a good deal more uncertain.
"Dunno," Johnny said. "Still, gotta admit, man's pretty smooth."
"Well, yeah, but..." Mike flailed around a little. "Naw."
Johnny's face was as unreadable as ever. "Course, Sandy's not gonna do nothin' she don't wanna"
"Yeah," Mike said, relaxing.
"but she and him got awful close a ways back," Johnny concluded, still deadpan. "I ain't the only one remembers them rollin' around on the mats like that, right?"
"Texas has a point," Simon said, lightheaded with relief. They didn't know. Even now, they really didn't know. "If Archer really wants to steal your girlfriend... well, he does steal things for a living."
"Shit," Mike wailed. "Archer's all suave 'n' shit! Plus he's worth like three kabillion dollars! How in hell's a guy supposed to compete with that?"
Johnny, satisfied, fished out a fresh toothpick and bit down on it. "Better hope Sandy likes you as much as you think she does," he said. He turned that bland, unreadable gaze on Simon and nearly smiled. "Guess my work's done here."
"Guess so," Simon said.
Mike glanced back at the door a second time, his mouth still hanging half-open. "Naw," he said again, but he still looked pretty worried.
Nate and Dave arrived a few minutes later, Dave with that tiny laptop clutched protectively against the hideous orange-and-brown splat of his shirt. "We're back," he announced, unnecessarily.
"So I see," Simon said. He had a cup of coffeenormal coffee, the kind that arrived in cans and left in mugsand he was definitely feeling better about things. "Sandy and Archer following?"
"I guess so?" Dave picked his way across the living room, heading for the bedroom with all the computers in it. "Archer said that no one would look twice at a couple and Sandy said that made sense, so I guess they're coming together."
Mike moaned in horror and slithered bonelessly out of the big chair, landing with a thump on the floor. "That's it," he said. "She was totally ever mine to lose and all that shit."
"Um," Nate said. "What?"
"Honda's been outclassed," Johnny said. He definitely looked pleased now.
"What?" Nate said again, and then belatedly got it. He twisted around to stare at the door. "Wait, you think... oh, that's just weird."
Dave reappeared, minus the laptop, but sadly not minus the abomination of a shirt. "What?"
"They think Jeremy's after Sandy," Nate said, marveling. "That's just so weird."
"After?" Dave furrowed his brow. "You mean, uh, after after? But that doesn't make any sensewhy would Archer be interested in Sandy?"
Something in his voice gave him away. Simon, his nerves prickling, shuffled around on the couch and caught Dave's eye before he could say anything else. Dave subsided, but he looked at Simon for a long moment before blinking several times and going to fetch himself some coffee.
"What?" Mike said, still flopped out on the carpet. "You don't think Sandy's good enough for him? That it?"
"What? I never said that..." He would have been fine if he'd left it therewell, almost finebut Dave, inevitably, protested too much. "Sandy's 'good enough' for pretty much anyone."
Mike immediately levered himself back upright, his eyes shining with the joy of the hunt. "Oh, I get it," he said, beaming a grin so insincere at Dave that Simon could see his molars. "You want her, don't you?"
"Um," Dave said. "No?" He was already pulling in on himself, hunched over his coffee mug. "I mean, she's great, but..."
"Ohhhh," Mike said, nodding ferociously. "That's right, you're gay, I totally forgot."
"No," Dave said again. "I'm really not."
"He's in denial," Mike told the room at large. He flopped out on the carpet again.
"He's got a girlfriend," Nate pointed out.
Mike stuck both hands behind his head. "Serious denial," he said, pontificating at the ceiling. "Either she's a beard or she doesn't actually exist. Trust me, I totally know these things."
"'Cause you've been there?" Johnny said. Mike kicked out at him, missed, and stubbed his toe on the arm of the couch.
Ten minutes passed. Then another ten. Simon had a second cup of coffee, avoided looking at Dave, and watched Mike get progressively more uncomfortable. Fidgeting had given way to something a little too spastic to be called 'pacing' by the time they all heard the keycard in the door.
Jeremy opened the door and bowed Sandra in, a little display of manners that made Mike both snort and go all wobbly-eyed. Sandra knuckled Jeremy's shoulder lightly as she went by, making a beeline for the rumbling little coffeepot.
"I'm sorry that took us so long," Jeremy said, closing the door behind himself and flicking on the chain. "I'd wanted to be absolutely certain that we weren't being followed, so we changed cabs at the Duomo."
"We had business to discuss anyway," Sandra added.
Simon sat up. "Business?" he asked, not sure he liked the sound of that.
"Business?" Mike echoed.
"Business," Sandra confirmed, her eyes skating over both of them. "I wanted to make sure he knew where our boundaries were. We're here to help, but there are limits."
Jeremy took off his hat and ran his fingers back through his hair. "I believe we understand each other's positions now," he said. Without further ado he plopped his hat on the table by the door and went to take the big chair that Mike had abandoned, settling neatly into it and crossing his legs. "And now that that's taken care of"
"Hang on," Simon said.
Jeremy blinked at him. "Yes?"
"You know I still don't like this," Simon said. "I guess I don't exactly have the right to order you guys around, goddammit, but I'm going to ask one last time: will you please stop with this and go the hell home? I don't want you to get messed up in this."
"Too late," Sandra said, carrying her coffee over to the couch. "We're already messed up in it."
Jeremy smiled, just a bit. "And to be honest, I can use them," he said. "In for a Simon, in for a team, so to speak. That being said, if you'd all like to come have a seat, I think it's time to discuss strategy."
"Ooh, stradigy," Mike said, plopping down on the couch next to Johnny. "So what's the deal?"
"Guys," Simon said, pained.
Sandra patted his knee. "You're stuck with us, boss," she said. "Deal with it."
Simon switched his gaze to Jeremy. "Archer," he said warningly, and then stopped, unable to formulate the rest of the sentence.
"I intend to keep them as safe as possible, Simon," Jeremy said, picking up on the threat anyway.
"You'd better," Simon said, and gave up.
"So," Jeremy said. He steepled his fingers, looked around the room, and then smiled. "Ms. Leone assures me that you all know the basic situation, more or less, so allow me to get right to the meat of the thing: six days from now, I am supposed to turn myself over to a man named Battista Volpe, who essentially runs the underside of Milan. Over the past couple of weeks, I have made a number of gambles based on Volpe's preferred methods of operation; this afternoon, they paid off." He paused there and touched two fingers to the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. "Battista Volpe is an enormous opera aficionado, you see. He maintains a private box at every major opera house in the city, and is known to conduct, ah, sensitive business therereally, it's an ideal situation from his standpoint. Six days from now a performance of Turandot opens at the Teatro Domenico, where he maintains a box. There is only one entrance, and once the door is closed and guards are stationed outside, it might as well be a cell. The only other way out is down. Forty feet down, to be precise."
"So you're going to the opera," Simon said.
Jeremy's smile went crooked. "No, Simon," he said. "We're going to the opera."
Jeremy ruthlessly dumped Simon out of bed at nine the next morning. "Ms. Leone will be here in half an hour," he said, dusting off his hands. "If I were you, I'd attempt to get showered and dressed before she arrives."
Simon grabbed the edge of the bed and levered himself upright. "I take it back," he rasped, scrubbing a hand down his face. "I miss the days when I had nothing to do but sit around and fret. Let's go back."
"Too late for that, I'm afraid," Jeremy said, sounding better than he had in days. "Go have your shower."
"And for the record, I hate it when you're this cheerful," Simon told him, and stomped off.
By the time he finished showering and shaving, Sandra had turned up. So had breakfast. Simon wriggled into his jeans and t-shirt, grunted something like a greeting, and threw himself at his food. Jeremy and Sandra both favored him with long, cool, slightly amused looks, then went back to conniving with each other. Simon was convinced it was their default state.
"This should be far more than enough," Jeremy said, folding a fat wad of bills into Sandra's hand. "Better safe than sorry, of course, and if it should end up costing all of that, I won't be heartbroken. I leave him in your hands. Do whatever seems best to you."
Sandra's hand closed around the money. "If only my real job were more like this," she said, tucking the bills away in the depths of her purse.
"I suppose there is more fun to be had on the dark side," Jeremy said with a little smile.
"Hey," Simon said grumpily. "What have I told you about recruiting my people to a life of crime?"
Jeremy quirked an eyebrow. "Never in front of you?"
"Never at all is more like it," Simon said, ripping into a roll. "Speaking of recruiting my people, you going to get Nate started today?"
"He and Polito started almost four hours ago, Simon," Jeremy said. "Assuming everything's gone as planned. I can't really get anyone else started until I run a few errands, although I do intend to get Mike a couple of cars so that he can, er, practice." His smile was seraphic; Simon shuddered.
Sandra checked her watch, glanced out the window, checked her watch against the clock on the bedside table, and then sighed. "Come on, boss. Time's a-wastin'."
"Jesus, let me eat something," Simon said, irritated. "I know you chicks are all about the shopping but you can wait like five minutes. Seriously."
"Simon, this isn't shopping," Sandra said. "This is haute couture. I will never again in my life have an opportunity like this, and on someone else's dime to boot. You can have five more minutes and then I am dragging you out of this hotel by your ear."
Jeremy turned away, doing a particularly poor job of hiding his smile. Simon glared at him, threw back the rest of his coffee, and went truculently in search of his sneakers. They could drag him to haute couture but they couldn't make him dress for it.
"Yeah, I can tell this place is expensive," Simon muttered, glaring up at the front wall. "Five pieces of black clothing artistically placed on a brown marble wall. Awesome."
"Don't be ridiculous, Simon, that one jacket is gray," Sandra said. She stopped half-in and half-out of the lobby and eyed him. "You know, for someone who ran halfway around the world just on the off-chance that he could be of some use, you sure are being a gigantic pain in the ass about actually being of some use."
Simon sighed and allowed himself to be tugged down a few feet further down the hallway. "When I said I wanted to help, I was thinking more about shooting people."
"Well, don't shoot anyone in here," Sandra said. "I'm sure they'd charge you an arm and a leg for the privilege."
Simon started to say something else, but an extremely well-dressed man was already heading in their direction, his polite salesman's expression only slightly marred by his flared, disgusted nostrils. "Yes?" he said coolly. "Can I 'elp you?"
Sandra's own smile was equally cool. "I doubt it," she snapped. "My name is Sandra Leone. I am here to see Ulisse, not some... clerk."
One of the two names was magical. Simon couldn't figure out which one. The salesman's supercilious expression didn't change a hair, but he took half a step back and bowed over his outstretched arm. "Yes, madam," he said. "This way."
"I know the way, thank you," Sandra said, brushing past him. Simon, somewhat bemused by the sudden explosion of nouveau riche, tagged along after her.
Sandra led him unerringly through several more mostly-empty rooms lined with brown marble, folded black shirts, extremely shiny shoes, and unhelpful salesfolk. "How do you know where you're going?" Simon asked under his breath, trying not to look at anything in case someone thought he meant to buy it.
"There's a map of the store on the internet," Sandra murmured, glancing left and right. "I cheated."
"That's my girl," Simon said.
The endless string of brown rooms eventually gave way to a larger one, heavily mirrored along the back wall. The man that came trotting to meet them this time was older, stout, and bald, and he beamed at them both like he was actually pleased to see them, which couldn't be true. A skinny woman with cheekbones like cliffs lurked in his wake. "You are Ms. Leone?" the tubby man asked, giving it the Italian three syllables, ley-oh-nee. "I am Ulisse, and this is Eugeniait is our pleasure to be at your service today!" His English was blurred, clogged, and lilting, his accent doing unconscionable things to every vowel it tripped over. Ulisse picked up both of Sandra's hands, casting a professional eye up and down the shape of her. "Oh, yes, the things we can do for you," he said, beaming. "Eugenia will see to you personally, and I shall 'elp your gentleman friendEugenia?"
The skinny woman swept Sandra away with professional ease, leaving Simon alone with the diminutive Ulisse. Ulisse swept around Simon in a circle, frowning and hm'ing to himself. "Yes, yes," he murmured to himself, his accent turning the word into yais, yais. "Ver' nice. Would you like something to drink before we begin?"
"Coffee," Simon said firmly. "Please."
Rumpled, flushed, and grumpyhe'd been in there for almost two hours, which was just about five hours too longSimon chose to wait for Sandra outside. Outside and twenty feet away, where hopefully none of the overdressed Milanese passersby would connect him with the severe brown edifice.
Sandra was also flushed and rumpled when she emerged, half an hour later, carrying a shopping bag. She wore a new black blazer, sharp enough to put your eye out, and an expression of near-total serenity. She looked, in short, like a woman who had just fulfilled a lifelong dream, and Simon felt bad for what he was about to do for almost two seconds before declaring, "Haute couture can bite me."
"The problem with you is that you have no soul," Sandra said, drifting past him.
"Provably untrue," Simon said, falling grumpily into step behind her. "I have a soul. What I almost certainly do not have is the kind of snotty-ass attitude necessary to appreciate that kind of place. Did Archer buy you that jacket, too?"
Sandra touched one of the jacket's narrow lapels. "Oh, no," she said, her voice still dreamy. "I bought it for myself. I've always wanted one."
"I'm happy for you," Simon said. He wasn't. He figured she could probably tell. "Me, I just spent two hours with some strange little Italian ramming his knuckles up into my balls, which is not usually my idea of a good morning."
"Oh, Simon," Sandra said, her eerie patience beginning to fade. "It does not take two hours to measure your inseam, so you can stop exaggerating any minute now. Anyway, it's all over, and I'll come back in five days and pick up the suit. Without you."
"Good," Simon said. "There's a really short list of people who are allowed to touch my balls, and that guy is not on it."
Sandra sighed, snapping back to herself with a pop that was nearly audible. "Really," she said. "It can't be that short of a list, as I know of at least two people in the immediate area who are on it."
"Sandy," Simon groaned, his stride hitching.
"You reap what you sow, jerkface," Sandra said. "Stop bitching."
"I am not bitching," Simon said, gathering the shreds of his dignity. "I am complaining. There's a difference."
"And that difference is?"
Simon stuck his hands in his pockets and grinned down at the sidewalk. "I'm male?"
Normally Sandra would have laughed at that. And probably punched him, too, but not hard enough to hurt. Today she just rolled her eyes and made a face like she'd smelled something bad. "Simon," she said, exasperated.
"Not today, huh?" Simon said, prudently falling back a step. "Okay. I'm sorry. You know I'm just joking."
"I know," Sandra said, coming to a halt at the street corner. "I guess I was just hoping to enjoy the afterglow for a little longer."
Simon stopped behind her and looked away. "Yeah," he said. "Sorry."
"I guess I shouldn't have expected any better from you," Sandra said. The light changed and they both surged out into the street, the Milanese streaming past them on both sides.
Simon waited until they were 'safely' in a taxi and heading away from the fashion district at maximum velocity to ask, "So, uh, who's the other?"
"What?" Sandra said, glancing at him.
"You said two people," Simon said. "Two people on the, uh" he glanced at the back of the taxi driver's head "the list. And, uh, I'm guessing you were taking a potshot at Archer, but who's the other?"
Sandra was silent. The taxi ripped around a corner, nearly going up onto two wheels. "If I were Mike," Sandra finally said, "and if I were not crammed into the back seat of a taxi, I would answer that question by kneeing you in the balls."
"Mmf," Simon said, turning his attention very firmly out the window. The rest of the ride passed in silence.
Sandra was still angry when the taxi pulled up in front of the hotel, and she led the way up through the lobby without a word. Simon trailed a prudent five feet behind her until they got into the elevator. "Sorry," Simon muttered. Sandra blew out a breath and nodded, visibly getting hold of her temper.
The main room of the suite was empty. Sandra peeled away and vanished into the room on the right, carrying her bag; Simon headed for the room at the back, following the sound of voices.
"Yeah, it's working fine," Nate said, squinting at a large flatscreen monitor that certainly hadn't been there the day before. "Their security cameras are kind of hard to read, but the stage camera is beautiful."
"I expect that's because they want the best possible recordings of their performances," Jeremy said. He was seated crosslegged on the foot of the nearest bed, twirling his hat idly in his fingers. "Hello, Simon."
Simon wandered over and peered over Nate's shoulder. The screen was full of windows, each one unspooling camera footage. Most of the footage was gray and grainy, but the largest window showed the stage in such sharp full color that Simon could count the folds on the curtains to either side. Tiny people stood silently around on the stage, watching another tiny person wave its arms. "Guess it worked, then," Simon said, patting Nate's shoulder.
"Like a charm," Nate said happily. "That guy Polito and I blew out the security cameras at five this morning, showed up to 'repair' them at nine, and were into every system in the building by ten. Man, nobody pays attention to you when you wear coveralls and keep your head down. Do you want to hear them practicing? I can turn on the microphone."
"That's okay." Simon went to sit on the bed beside Jeremy, trying to find the optimum distance between 'too close' and 'falling off the edge'. "How goes it?"
Jeremy glanced at Simon, obscurely amused by Simon's seating trigonometry. "Oh, quite well," he said. "We're hooked into everything in the opera house that's run by computers and I've, er, made arrangements to let myself in late tonight. Oh, and I have some discs for you."
"Okay," Simon said. "Great. Dave? What's up with you?"
"What? Oh." Dave hesitated. His eyes slid away. "Do you really want to know?"
"Yeah. This isn't like at home. I do, actually, want to know."
Dave touched the screen of his tiny laptop. "I'm, uh, breaking into the computer system for the cargo company we used to get over here," he said.
"Okay," Simon said. "Why? In fifty words or less, hopefully."
"Um." Dave thought for a minute. "We're not supposed to have left the country," he finally said. "Cargo haulers don't have very good computer security, so once we're safely back in the States, I can go in through this back door I'm installing and change our names in their records without too much finessing of Homeland Security." He paused, drumming his fingers on the desk. "That's, um..."
"Forty-nine words, assuming contractions only count as one word apiece," Nate said, who'd been counting. "Fifty, but only if you count the 'that's' at the end."
Simon awarded Dave a slow, meaningful golf clap. "Very nice," he said.
"I try," Dave said modestly.
"So where do they think you are?" Simon asked, sprawling out on the bed.
"Nate's in Portland visiting friends"
"I don't even have friends in Portland," Nate said happily, like this fact made him extra-smooth.
"Johnny went home to Texas for a while, and I'm attending a computer-security workshop in Redmond," Dave finished. "And Mike and Sandy are officially, legally here."
Simon whistled in appreciation. "You guys are pretty slick," he said. "Archer could stand to learn a thing or two from you. Who cares about fake identities, just hack in and change the name by main force later."
"Without access to governmental levers, it doesn't work quite as well as you'd think," Jeremy said, amused. "And now, if you'll pardon me..."
"You want me to come with you?" Simon asked, rising up onto his elbows.
Jeremy put on his hat and tweaked the brim. "I think I'd best go alone," he said. "The fellows I'm dealing with can be somewhat twitchy."
"You know," Simon said, "that sounds like a good reason in favor of having some backup."
"I do appreciate the offer," said Jeremy.
"Huh," said Simon. He flopped back down. "Guess I know a 'thanks but no thanks' when I hear one."
Jeremy left. Half an hour later Mike and Johnny came slamming back in, bearing pizza. "Oh, man," Mike crowed, bubbling over with enthusiasm. "You can totally run over pedestrians in this city and no one even notices, let alone cares. I'm totally going to love it here."
"I hope you haven't actually tested out this theory," Sandra said, emerging from her room, lured by the siren call of pizza. She looked much less annoyed, but Simon hung back a little anyway.
"Well, not so much," Mike said. "I'm just extrapolating based on eyewitness data or some shit. I swear I saw a scooter climb a lamp post this morning."
Nate stuck his head out of the back bedroom, then joined the general exodus. Dave followed him, blinking like he'd just woken up. Silence fell. Pizza vanished. By the time Jeremy let himself back in, carrying a fat metal-sided briefcase, the pizza was almost entirely gone. "Shit, Archer, you're a little late," Mike said. "Uh, there's some left in one of these boxesthis one? No..."
"Thank you, but I'm not hungry," Jeremy said, dismissing the offer with a wave. He put the chain on the door before joining them, shooing Nate over and sitting down on the couch. "I'm afraid this is the best I could do on short notice," Jeremy said, placing the briefcase neatly on his lap and popping the locks; he lifted the lid and started piling holstered guns onto the coffee table, making a neat stack between the pizza boxes. Simon nearly spat out his coffee.
"Woo, it's like Christmas!" Mike dove into the pile, pulling one gun after another out of its holster. "Whoa, oh, shit, hey, Texas..."
"Desert Eagle," Johnny said, kicking himself upright. "Gimme."
"Christ, that thing's bigger than your fucking arm, Texas, where are you going to hide it?"
"Sure ain't room in my pants," Johnny said, curling an appreciative hand around the massive black barrel.
Mike snickered, then went back to pawing through the stack. Jeremy edged one of the pizza boxes aside and put the briefcase on the table. "There's ammunition for all of them in there," he said. "I'm assured that they're clean and in working order. If you're willing to drive for half an hour or so, the people from whom I got them have a compound out in the hills where you can try them out."
"'The people', huh," Simon said. "What kind of 'people' just happen to have nine billion clean guns lying around? Including that hand cannon that Texas is fondling?"
Jeremy laughed a little. "They're members of an anarchist cell, actually," he said. "We are in Italy."
Sandra leaned over Mike's shoulder and plucked one of the smaller guns out of his hands. Mike whined out a little hurt sound, then dove back into the pile and started passing out guns. Five minutes later they all had one, even Nate, who accepted his with an uncertain wince. Simon waved off Mike's efforts to press one on him. "I have one," he said. "You know what, I'm really hoping that we can get through these trying times without actually shooting anyone, folks. Not that that's an order or anything, except for the part where it totally is."
"Sure, boss," Mike said, popping the magazine out of the pistol he was holding. "Suuuuure."
Johnny claimed the gun that Simon had turned down, bringing his total to three, including the massive Desert Eagle. "I'm serious," Simon said. "Christ, if Texas fires that bazooka of his he could bring down a goddamned satellite. It's an international incident waiting to happen."
"Yeah?" Johnny eyed the Eagle. "Now I wanna try."
Dave shrugged into a shoulder holster, twitching both shoulders spastically to get it to settle. "I'm going to need a different holster," he said. "It's too hot for a jacket."
"Yeah, and also shoulder holster plus Hawaiian shirt equals eighties cop drama," Simon said, eyeing this vision askance.
"Turandot," Jeremy said, sitting down at the table opposite Simon and dropping a small pile of CDs in front of him.
"Eh?" Simon said, cracking his eyes open. They'd only gotten back to their own room about half an hour ago, and after the haute couture of the morning, Simon had sort of been looking forward to a nap.
Apparently it was not to be. "Turandot," Jeremy said, tapping the pile of CDs. "Four different recordings, four different companies, three different decades. You can't afford to get too used to one version, as every company's performanceevery performanceis slightly different."
"Okay, okay," Simon said, picking up the topmost CD. "Gosh, that's Turandot all right," he said. "I'd recognize it anywhere by the big word Turandot printed at the top."
"We'll be making our move during Nessun dorma, in the early part of Act 3," Jeremy said, ignoring Simon's sarcasm. "If Volpe is half the aficionado that he's rumored to be, he'll be entirely distracted during the aria, especially since I'll have behaved impeccably for so long that he and his guards will have relaxed." He paused and folded his hands together, considering Simon. His little smile faded away.
Simon suffered under Jeremy's even gaze for a full two seconds before saying, "What?"
Jeremy sighed. "I don't have to tell you how important the timing of this is, do I?"
"No. I mean, I get it." Simon ducked his head, curling a hand about the back of his neck. "So... show me."
Jeremy picked up one of the CDs and shucked it out of its case, popping it into the little portable player that he'd bought. The CD whirled up with a little sound. Jeremy started skipping tracks. "What you'll be listening for is the female chorus," he said absently, watching the window on the CD player. "Once they start singing, you'll have about ten seconds to get into position. Ah. There."
The CD settled in. Opera happened. "Hey, I know this song," Simon said, sitting up. "It was in some movie."
"It's a famous aria," Jeremy agreed. "Which is why I'm hoping that Volpe will be paying more attention to it than to me. I'm told that the tenor in question is young and somewhat controversial, which ought to distract him further." He fell silent.
Simon stared down at the table and listened. "Kinda pretty," he eventually said.
"Mm," said Jeremy. "Here, this part, coming up, right about two minutes in. See, the tenor stops singing, and there's the female chorus..." He raised one finger. "They finish their line, and the tenor sings four notes, and there." The tenor's voice went up and Jeremy's hand chopped down. "Right there, at the end of the word dilegua. We'll do it then."
"Dilega-what-a?" Simon said, and just as quickly held up his hands in surrender. "Kidding. Kidding. I got it."
"I'd like you to listen to this track as many times as you can stand it," Jeremy said. "And the same track on the other three CDs. I want you to utterly internalize that moment. If you're one beat too fast or too slow"
"I know," Simon said. "I will." He poked the CD player, putting the CD back a track. Nessun dorma began to play again. Simon put it on repeat. "What's, uh, dillawhatsis mean, anyway?" he asked, picking up the empty case.
"Dilegua," Jeremy said patiently. "The word itself means 'vanish'." His smile was tight. "The last line, freely translated, means 'vanish, o night, set, stars, set, stars. At dawn I will win, I will win, I will win'."
Simon glanced up from the back of the CD case. "You did that on purpose," he said accusingly.
"I admit nothing," Jeremy said, his smile now beatific.
An hour later, Simon was so sick of Nessun dorma that he started listening to other random bits of the opera CDs just to crowbar the aria out of his head. He had to admit that it was working, though; every time one of the tenors hit that note, Jeremy would snap his fingers (without actually looking up from whatever he was doing) just as Simon nodded. It made Simon feel like a total tool, albeit a reasonably well-prepared one.
Simon took a nap, or tried tothe damned aria was stuck in his head so thoroughly that it kept him awakethen went right back to the CDs. Jeremy spent a large part of the afternoon on the phone, chatting amiably with any number of people and adding a discouraging number of check marks to his little black book. "Jesus," Simon eventually said. "You know, I think that guy with seven checks by his name might seriously be trying to sell you out."
"I'd have to agree with you," Jeremy said. In the background, Nessun dorma hit the critical note again and they tapped the table in unison. Jeremy glanced up, twitched out a smile, and went back to his address book. "I know you're unhappy about it," he said, "but frankly I find it something of a relief to have your friends here. They may not care for me overmuch, but at least I can be certain that none of them are going to sell me to Karpol."
"Yeah," Simon said. "Well. Now."
The silence hung between them for long enough that the aria started over. "Mm," Jeremy finally said, and by mutual unspoken agreement they dropped the subject.
Late that night Simon thrashed up and out of a semi-sleep state that was endlessly scored with Nessun dorma when Jeremy laid a hand on his shoulder. It felt weird, and Simon in his dazed state could not figure out why for several secondsthen Jeremy pulled his hand back and Simon saw the latex glove. Everything became clear.
"I apologize for waking you," Jeremy said. He was crouching by the side of the bed, his jacket off, the top half of his body limned in soot. Simon, still a little foggy, reached out and touched Jeremy's chest, his fingers slipping right off the frictionless surface of the catsuit. It made Jeremy smile, just a little. "I'm leaving for the opera house now," he said, patting Simon's shoulder with latex-tacky fingers.
"Gotcha," Simon grated out, blinking the sleep from his eyes. "You want me to come with you?"
Jeremy breathed out a laugh. "No, no," he said. "Go back to sleep. I just wanted to let you know that I was going."
"Okay." Simon grappled vaguely with the back of Jeremy's head until he managed to haul Jeremy in for a fuzzy kiss. "Good luck," he said, once that was done, and fell back onto his pillow.
Jeremy drifted soundlessly to his feet, his goggles dangling from his other hand. "I believe that when it comes to stagecraft, you're supposed to say 'break a leg'," he said, but Simon was already mostly asleep again and didn't answer.
Jeremy was back by the time Simon woke up the next morning, cool and unruffled, the catsuit nowhere in evidence. Simon almost thought he had dreamed the whole thing. "How's it going?" he said, still groggy. "I mean, how'd it go?"
"Oh, quite well," Jeremy said, turning the page of his newspaper. "Everything's in place and has been tested. Perhaps some day when I'm too old to make a proper thief I'll take up stagecraft instead."
Simon squinted at him, trying to figure out if he was kidding. "I can sort of picture that," Simon finally said. "I mean, doesn't the stage crew have to wear black and stay really quiet?"
Jeremy looked up, gazing thoughtfully off at nothing. "Perhaps I ought to keep it in mind," he said. "At any rate, I think we ought to switch hotels today."
"Okay," Simon said. He yawned and padded off towards the bathroom.
The next few days passed in a whirlwind of activity. Jeremy kept them all on the run from morning to night, but himself most of all. If Jeremy slept at all during those days, Simon wasn't aware of it. He was always already awake when Simon woke up, and he was always still awake when Simon went to bed. One cellphone or another was constantly glued to his ear, and he took over the mundane errands, to boot. A pile of emptied, discarded briefcases grew in one corner of the roomEthan was sending them along at the rate of one every two days.
On the second day Mike stuffed them all into one of his carshe had three now, two rental cars and an authentic Italian taxicab which Jeremy had procured from somewhereand drove them out of the city and into the foothills of the Alps, to a little rundown farmhouse that was so deserted as to be somewhat creepy. There was a decent target-shooting range set up out back, though, and Simon and his team spent a good three hours getting a feel for their new guns by plinking at targets. Or, in Johnny's case, thundering at them.
Simon listened to the various recordings of Nessun dorma so many times that he started to develop opinions about them. He now had opinions about opera. Probably wrong ones. He'd never felt so much like a poseur in his lifebut the critical note shot him full of adrenalin each time and made his heart stand still, so he was grudgingly convinced that all this posing might just be working.
Jeremy arranged for the rest of them to attend a symphony performance at the Teatro Domenico on the evening of the third day. Simon paid the actual performance no attention, and he was pretty sure that he wasn't alone in that. What he paid attention to was the building; he and his team took full advantage of their cheap nosebleed-seat tickets and roamed the building from top to bottom, surreptitiously trying doors and avoiding security cameras. Nate, the only one of them who had been here before, managed to get lost twice anyway.
While Simon listened to the CDs with half an ear he twined a piece of cord around his fingers until he was pretty sure he could tie and release a double bowline in his sleep. When tying the knot became second nature he switched to tying it off around the leg of the chair he was sitting in, nearly standing on his head to do it, his face going red and heavy with blood. Eventually he was able to tie the knot without feeling like he was about to pass out, although Jeremy still remarked on the flush in his cheeks afterwards.
By the fifth day Simon was so bored and wound tight that he went with Sandra to pick up their fancy-ass opera clothes. Ulisse promptly made him stand for another hour's worth of last-minute fittings, making infinitesimal adjustments here and there and fussing endlessly. Even the fittings beat listening to Nessun dorma another thirty times, although Simon caught himself humming it on two separate occasions. He asked Sandra to shoot him if she caught him at it again. Sandra laughed at him.
When Simon absolutely had to have a break from Turandot and double bowlines, he went down to the hotel's exercise room and pushed himself until he thought he would drop. He did chin-ups until his biceps burned with acid, then switched to the free weights. He put a quarter of an inch of muscle on his arms in four days and took to casually tossing around and catching the bigger barbells, at least until a hotel employee caught him at it and nearly had a heart attack. Simon tried to be a little more circumspect after that.
Nate and Dave spent most of their time jealously guarding and improving their connection into the opera house's computer systems, and doing dead-run practices in the middle of the night while the opera house was theoretically empty. Mike went screaming around the city, learning the streets in one of their two rental cars, racking up minor dings and near-collisions, apparently having a wonderful time. Sandra spent most of her time shoppingboth for the long list of items that Jeremy had asked her to buy, and for herselfand Johnny, alone amongst them all, played tourist, wandering around museums by himself until shifty Milanese turned up to give him shopping bags full of those things that Sandra couldn't buy. Then he wandered around the museums some more. He seemed to like them.
Neither Simon nor Jeremy slept much, if at all, on the last night. Simon eventually dozed off an hour or so before dawn and didn't wake until noon, and all of a sudden it was seven hours until showtime and there was no more time to do anything but prepare.
"This? This is not clothing," Simon said, fussing with the knife's-edge pleats on his tuxedo pants. "This is some kind of, of S&M gear. Not only are there these hidden tabs on the shirt that connect to secret buttons inside the pants, but the pants button up over my hip. Not to mention that I'm wearing suspenders. I might as well be strapped into this goddamned gimp suit. I will never be able to pee again as long as I live. Or do anything else, for that matter. The chastity belt lives on."
"Mm," Jeremy said absently, fiddling with one of his cufflinks. The four thousand remaining pieces of their tuxedos were spread out over Mike's nearly-unused bed, filling the room with unnecessary complications. Simon's team was a constant and cheerful din outside, most of them having to wear nothing more complicated than a Hawaiian shirt. For a moment Simon hated them all like poison. "The tabs are to keep your shirt laying flat and tucked into your pants," Jeremy said, brushing invisible lint off his starched shirtfront. "And if you've gotten this far in life without learning to undo buttons, Simon, perhaps you have larger problems than mere black tie."
"That is beside the point," Simon said. "My point is that I do not wear my dick on my hip"
"I'm aware," Jeremy said, his little smile gone seraphic.
"and so I should not wear my fly there, either," Simon finished, trying to ignore that. "Peeing should not involve having to detach my shirt from my pants, either. It's just common sense, something which formalwear completely lacks."
Jeremy picked up his waistcoat and slid into it, buttoning it across his midsection with absent little flickers of his fingers. His bow tie still hung untied around his neck, like a scarf. "Do you need any help with your cummerbund?" he asked, his attention more on his waistcoat than on Simon.
"No," Simon said, touching it just to make sure he wasn't lying. "It's a band of fabric that goes around my waist. I think I'm up to that, even with the multitude of sins we're requiring it to hide."
"It also buttons onto your pants, you realize," Jeremy said. "There ought to be a tab inside the front."
"What? Christ. You're kidding." Simon insinuated his fingers under the cummerbund and promptly got one of them caught in a loop of elastic. Muttering under his breath, Simon sucked in his stomach long enough to hook the loop around yet another button on the inside of his pants. "Tell you what," he said, carefully tugging his cummerbund back into place. "Next time let's just go somewhere that requires me to wear scuba gear, how's that? It'd be easier."
"If not nearly as attractive," Jeremy said, glancing up long enough to favor Simon with a thin smile. His fingers ticked down the row of black studs that dotted his shirt front.
Simon looked away. "Yeah, well," he said. "I think you're overlooking the sheer focative power of skin-tight rubber, there."
"Mm." Jeremy gazed off into the distance for a moment, contemplating this vision, before shaking his head to dismiss it. "While I concede that you may, indeed, have a point, I also think you're discounting the fine figure you cut in decent black tie. If you're been wearing that tuxedo instead of that awful hired suit you had on at the Mornings' home, I'd have had no choice but to invite you to dance instead of asking Sandra, and then where would we be?"
"Making huge fools of ourselves, maybe?" Simon tugged at his cummerbund again. "Is this thing on straight? It feels weird."
Jeremy glanced up, his eyes skating over Simon's midsection. "Straight, yes, but you've got it on upside down."
"I hate the world," Simon said, throwing up his hands in defeat.
"Oh, now, that's hardly fair, it doesn't hate you," Jeremy said. He made one last minute adjustment to his cuffs, then made a little finger-twirling gesture at Simon. "Here, turn about and I'll get it."
Giving up, Simon turned around and put his hands in the air, his undone cuffs flapping loose about his wrists. "I surrender," he said. "Formalwear has beaten me. My only complaint is that it wasn't a fair fight."
"And yet you must outweigh your opponent by a good fourteen stone," Jeremy said, suddenly so close behind Simon that he could feel Jeremy's breath on the back of his neck. The hairs there fought to rise and failed, foiled by the heavily-starched cloth of his collar. Jeremy's fingers lit on the small of Simon's back and slid under the cummerbund's band, his knuckles pressing into Simon's spine as he worked the clasp. The undone cummerbund fell away. Jeremy caught it, tugging against the loop that was still attached to the inside of Simon's pants. "Do you want me to get that?" Jeremy asked, tugging at the cummerbund again, now plainly amused.
Simon sucked in a breath and went prospecting for the elastic loop again. "As much as I'd just love to let you stick your hand down the front of my pants while the door is unlocked," he said, "I think maybe it would be, oh, I don't know, a catastrophically stupid idea?"
"Ah, well, I suppose we haven't enough time to do the idea justice in any case," Jeremy said. The cummerbund's ridiculous elastic loop came free, snapping against Simon's fingers hard enough to sting. Simon grabbed for the cummerbund. Jeremy beat him to it, reaching around Simon's waist to flip the band over; he didn't linger too much, just pulled the cummerbund tight across Simon's stomach and did up the clasp in back. "There we are," Jeremy said, patting Simon's hip. "Shall I tie your tie for you, while I'm here?"
"Think you can do it without putting your hands down my pants?" Simon asked, hooking the elastic loop to the hidden button again. "Because seriously, I never know with you."
Jeremy laughed under his breath and tugged at Simon's hip, turning Simon to face him. "I promise I shall be the very model of decorum," Jeremy said, touching two fingers to the underside of Simon's jaw. "Chin up, if you would."
Obligingly, Simon lifted his chin, staring out across the top of Jeremy's head. The band of the bow tie pulled lightly against the back of his neck, once, then again; one end of the tie and Jeremy's fingertips stroked down the front of Simon's throat, making him swallow despite himself. "You know, real bow ties come pre-tied," he said, trying to ignore the tugging. "Some of them even clip on, for maximum convenience."
"Oh, yes, but why stop there?" Jeremy asked, knotting the two ends of the tie together. "You may as well just cast the entire thing in cheap plastic and attach it to a stickpin. Then you could have an entire wardrobe of the things in various horrendous prints and colors to attach wherever you saw fitthere we are." He patted Simon's chest.
Simon swiveled to check himself out in the mirror. "Not bad," he admitted, grudgingly.
"Very nice," Jeremy said in agreement, tying his own tie.
Cufflinks in, jacket on, Simon submitted to being fussed over with ill grace. Jeremy pulled Simon's shirt cuffs out to the correct millimeter, smoothed his lapels, checked his shirt studs, and made minute adjustments to Simon's bow tie, all with a certain frowning demeanor that made Simon feel like a mannequin, or maybe like an oversized Barbie doll. Finally Jeremy pronounced himself satisfied and went to nitpick his own tuxedo. Simon took the opportunity to escape.
The main room of the suite was a cheerful shambles, littered with pizza boxes, empty cans, stray computers, and one member of Simon's team, sprawled sideways across the overstuffed chair. Mike looked up as Simon came out and whistled, long and low. "Damn, boss," he said. "Bet you could be a headwaiter at any joint in town, you wantedlookin' pretty smooth."
"Feeling something like a masochistic penguin, though," Simon said. He caught himself tugging at his wing collar and made himself stop, lest he unravel something and give Jeremy an excuse to fuss over him again. "We just about ready?"
"Sandy's still puttin' her face on or whatever it is chicks do," Mike said, glancing over his shoulder at the closed door of Sandra's room. "Me, though, I'm good to go whenever." He tilted his head, showing Simon the Bluetooth headset clipped to his ear. "We're all hooked up and ready to go. Nate just got done testing the connection and everything."
Simon brushed nervous fingers over his lapels. "Great," he said. "Where's mine?"
"Nate's got it," Mike said.
Simon headed for the back bedroom, halting in the doorway and surveying the damage. "Christ, either you kids clean your room or I'm docking your allowance," he said.
"Awww, Ma," Nate said. He had his nose nearly pressed to his new oversized monitor, watching a few early opera-goers drift through the hallways of the opera house. "Halt camera five, Stone."
Dave, seated cross-legged on the foot of one of the beds, tapped a command into his laptop. "That get it?"
"That's got it," Nate said, pleased. "Turn off the main camera and turn it right back on."
Dave tapped out another command. The largest window on Nate's monitor went black and then went red again, focused on the closed curtains of the stage and the box seats nearest it; tiny figures already moved in one or two of the boxes. "I think we're ready," Dave said, blinking nearsightedly at Simon. "You look really good."
"Wish I could say the same for you, Stone," Simon said. "Specs, I understand you've got my earpiece."
"What? Oh, yeah." Nate tore himself away from his monitor and picked up a little white box, holding it out. "It's not quite as small as the ones we use at work, but I don't think anyone will really notice."
Simon held out his hand and waited. Nate eventually noticed, blushed, stood up, and gingerly picked his way through the spiderweb of cables to hand Simon the box. Simon flicked it open and pulled out the little pink plastic earpiece, wedging it into his left ear like a wad of Silly Putty. "I hear the hearing aid is the new look in formalwear," Simon said, trying to push the thing farther down his ear canal and failing. "I guess I'll have to hope that no one notices it."
"I don't think they will," Nate said. "I mean, nobody's going to be looking at you anyway."
"Really? What's that supposed to mean, Specs?"
"Well, ah..." Nate flapped his hands helplessly. "... have you seen Sandy's dress?"
Simon tried to call it to mind; all he remembered was something silvery inside a clear plastic garment bag. "I guess the proper answer to your question is 'sort of'," he finally said.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is that you look really smooth, boss, but as long as Sandy's in your general vicinity, well, uh, I know what I'd be looking at," Nate said.
Simon eyed him. "Wow, Specs," he said. "Was that some kind of appreciation of the opposite sex that I just heard?"
"No, I'm just being sleazy," Nate said. "Seriously, wait until you see that thing." He turned around and started picking his way back to the computer, nearly tripping over one particularly high-hanging cord. "Give me a sec and we'll test your earpiece," he said, more or less falling back into his computer chair and grabbing his headset. "Ready?"
"Ready," Simon said, touching two fingers to his ersatz hearing aid.
Nate hit a button on the headset. "Testing for Templar," he said. His voice doubled tinnily in Simon's ear, and Simon nodded. "One, two, three, many. Say hi to the boss, Texas."
"Yo, Templar," Johnny said, his voice crackling slightly with distance. "I'm online."
"Hey, Texas. Okay, sounds good," Simon said. "Has Springheel got her earpiece?"
"Honda's got it," Nate said, taking off his headphones again.
Out in the main room, Mike whistled. Simon swiveled around just as Jeremy let himself out of the other bedroom, impeccably black tie'd and wearing what amounted to a long-suffering expression. "God damn," Mike said, fanning himself. "I feel all constricted 'n' shit just looking at the two of you."
"Yeah? You ought to feel it from the inside," Simon said.
Mike leered at him. "Was that a proposition or something, boss, 'cause I can peel you back out of that thing no problem"
"Christ, at this point I'd almost take you up on it, just to get out of this goddamned penguin suit," Simon said. Forgetting himself, he pulled at the collar of his shirt; Jeremy caught his eye and Simon desisted, grumpily.
"Have you got everything?" Jeremy asked, raising both eyebrows.
Simon unbuttoned his jacket long enough to stick his fingers under his cummerbund and run them from front to back. "Yep, it's all there," he said, rebuttoning the jacket. "And I've got my earpiece in, to boot. All we really need is Sandy, and we're good to go."
"Awesome," Mike said, picking up Simon's Redskins hat and jamming it onto his head. "You guys are gonna tip the driver, right?"
"Tip him, hell, I'm not even planning to pay him," said Simon. "And if he bitches, I'll tell him I know where he sleeps."
Mike snickered. "Aw, man, boss, was that a threat or was that a threat"
The door on the far side of the room clicked open and Sandra shimmered out. There was no other word for it; Simon caught himself gaping. Part of the dress was silver, he'd remembered rightly, but a lot of it was just exposed Sandra: the dress was a halter top, a skirt with an uneven pointy hem, four zillion tiny beads, and well over half of Sandra's skin, bare to the air. "God, I feel pretty," Sandra announced to no one in particular.
Mike made a high-pitched yelping noise like a chihuahua that had been stepped on and slithered bonelessly out of his chair. "Oh God, take me now," he moaned from somewhere under the coffee table. "No, wait, fuck that, oh, Sandy, take me now..."
"Not a chance," Sandra said, picking up her little clutch purse and touching her neat updo. "It took me like two hours to put up my hair." She glanced across the room at Simon. "Well?"
"Nice," Simon said, not quite strangling on it.
Sandra looked at Jeremy. "What do you think?"
"Oh, very nice," Jeremy said, twirling his fingers. "Turn about."
Sandra obligingly spun in a circle, holding her arms out. "It's cut maybe half an inch above the crack of my ass," she noted in an offhand voice. Mike, who'd been climbing back into his chair, moaned and collapsed onto the floor again. Ignoring him Sandra completed her spin, the heavy beaded skirt twisting momentarily about her legs before dropping back into place with a weighty rustle. It even sounded expensive. "Seriously, I can't believe that I own this gorgeous thing," Sandra said, touching the high neck of the halter top. "Usually I only get to borrow them."
"I'd say it was money well spent," Jeremy said with the ghost of a smile. "Although, if I might?"
"Lose the bracelet," Jeremy said, flicking his fingers at her. "The earrings are goodthe earrings are very goodbut the bracelet is too much."
"Yeah, I wasn't sure about it either," Sandra said, pulling off the bracelet. Simon hadn't even noticed it was there. "Better?"
Jeremy considered her for a moment, then nodded. "Perfect," he said.
"I do not understand how you can look at that and critique the jewelry," Mike said, from the floor. "Is that some kind of English thing?"
"Believe me, I am only just restraining myself from undignified display," Jeremy said, just barely smiling. His fingers rose to touch the front of his throat.
Deciding that he'd had enough of this, Simon cleared his throat. "Okay, people," he said, pitching his voice to carry; Mike scrambled back into his chair and Nate and Dave appeared at the doorway of their room, Nate still wearing his headset. "Are we ready?"
"We're ready," Nate said. "Texas left half an hour ago, so he should be in place now."
"Great," Simon said. For a single, shining moment it felt just like any other operation, and he allowed himself to bask in that, ignoring Jeremy's quiet, formal presence as best he could. It didn't last. It couldn't. Simon forced his doubts to be quietit was way too late to call this offand clapped his hands. "Well, then, hell, let's do this thing," he said, as formal an invocation as he ever spoke. "Game on, people."
The ripple of reaction spread outward through the room. Mike bounded to his feet and grabbed the car keys off the table. "Right, we're out of here," he said, tweaking the brim of the Redskins cap. "You guys ready?"
"Ready," Sandra said, tucking her Bluetooth headset into her tiny clutch purse and heading for the door.
"Ready," Simon echoed. He turned to follow her. Mike bounded past him and out into the hallway, yelping cheerfully at Sandra.
Simon turned to close the door behind himself and hesitated, framed in the doorway. The techs had vanished back into their room, leaving Jeremy alone and supremely out of place amidst the happy chaos of the main room; Jeremy was watching Simon, his expression grave. Simon cleared his throat, then nodded, once.
Jeremy nodded back, favoring Simon with the slightest curve of a smile as Simon shut the door.
The outside of the Teatro Domenico had been spotlit to within an inch of its life. Simon, ducking to look out of the taxi's windshield, could see the overspill of light from a block awayand that was all he was likely to see for a while, since traffic outside the little opera house was snarled into a Gordian knot that reached all the way down the block.
"Yo, Specs, we're about two minutes out," Mike said from the front seat, his voice redoubled in Simon's left ear. Mike patted the steering wheel and glanced from side to side, the Bluetooth headset glinting.
"Two minutes out," Nate confirmed over frequency, a ghostly extra presence inside the car. "How long before you get back here to pick up Shadow?"
"I'd say... seven, eight minutes," Mike said. A tiny space opened up between two momentarily-unwary cabs on his right and Mike hauled the wheel around without hesitation, wedging the front end of the taxi into the space amidst an infuriated crescendo of honking. "Yeah, closer to seven," he said, snickering.
"You drive like a native, Honda," Simon said, glancing uneasily at the gesticulating cab driver on their right. "And believe me, that isn't a compliment."
Mike slid the rest of the taxi into the space as it opened. His back bumper kissed lightly off the front bumper of the cab they'd cut off, jolting Simon minutely to one side. "Sure it is," Mike said cheerfully, accelerating. "It is too totally a compliment, Templar. Just 'cause you didn't mean it as one doesn't mean it's not."
"What'd he say?" Nate asked.
"Told me I drive like a native," Mike said, shamelessly thinning a herd of scooters who were trying to zip by on their left. Through sheer luck he didn't actually hit any, but now there were five scooters bottled up behind him. Most of the drivers were yelling at him, although one leaned over to tap on the back window, trying to get Sandra's attention. Sandra flipped him off, which made Mike hoot before he pulled away again. "God, I love this city," Mike said, still snickering.
"So do I," Sandra said, "but probably not for the same reasons."
Somehow they made it to the front of the opera house in just under a minute, Mike screeching to the curb by the edge of the plaza. The opera house was small by Milanese standards but still looked pretty imposing when it was lit up, four stories of ornate gray stone lit a hellish yellow by the huge floodlights sitting in a circle around its base. Simon leaned forward and handed Mike a folded American dollar bill. "There you go," he said. "I want my change."
Mike snickered and batted at Simon's hand. "Yo, Specs, we're here," he said.
"Roger that," Nate said. "We're cutting the camera feed now. You should be good to go in five."
Simon touched two fingers to his bow tie. It was absurdly puffy compared to the flat pre-tied kind, and he kept thinking it was about to come undone. "Okay," Dave said. "Camera feed has been diverted to us. You guys are good to go."
"Right," Simon said, kicking open his door and, true to form, nearly getting creamed by a scooter. This time, however, he'd been expecting it, so he just flattened himself against the side of the taxi and edged around until he was in nominally safe territory and could open the other door for Sandra.
Sandra put her hand demurely in Simon's and shimmered up and out of the taxi. The silver spangles of her dress caught the spotlights, turning her into a blindingly-sparkling... something. She looked an awful lot like a sequined Christmas-tree ornament, actually, although Simon didn't dare tell her that. Already they were starting to attract some attention; Simon reached behind Sandra and shut the door of the taxi. Mike peeled out, abandoning them to their fate. "Well, then," Simon said, glancing at Sandra. "Shall we?"
"Let's," Sandra breathed, scanning the plaza in front of them. "I've wanted to do this all my life."
Simon laughed under his breath and put his hand lightly on the bared small of Sandra's back, guiding her forward. "Gosh, I sure haven't," he said.
"That's because you have no soul," Sandra said. "As I believe I've noted."
They headed across the expanse of the plaza towards the massive double doors, propped open to let the light spill out. The plaza was already half-full of opera-goers, most of them dressed more or less like Simon and Sandra, but, Simon had to admit, not nearly as effectively. More than one person turned, openly or covertly, to watch the two of them go by. "I'm en route back to the hotel," Mike said, now just a disembodied voice in Simon's ear. "Tell Shadow to be ready."
"He's ready," Nate said. "Down in the parking garage waiting for you."
Simon and Sandra joined the thin stream of people making their way through the double doors into the buttery-yellow opulence of the main lobby. There was no other word for the color of that vast expanse of marble, even when it was shot through with the blood-red of the carpets. Simon led Sandra off the red carpet, testing their footing on the marble proper; whatever it was that Jeremy had done to the soles of Simon's dress shoes, it had worked like a charm. It was almost like wearing sneakers. "You good?" Simon asked, under his breath.
Sandra tossed her head. "Perfect," she said, jutting out her hip and striking a pose on the marble flooring. Simon, who was watching for something else entirely, saw her twist the ball of her foot against the marble and faintly heard the rubberized sole of her sandal squeak. "See?" Sandra said, glancing sidelong at a passing ticketholder. "I'm good."
"Probably ought to turn it down a notch, though," Simon said. "I mean, we don't actually want any of these old guys throwing themselves at your feet, right?"
"Wrong, buster," Sandra said, poking Simon's chest. "You need to turn it up a notch. You're supposed to look like someone who belongs here, remember?"
Simon sighed a little and offered Sandra his arm. "Right, right, nouveau riche American socialite, I remember," he said, putting on a smile. "C'mon, Spring. Let's go dazzle some of the poor people."
"Best idea I've heard all day," Sandra said tartly, pivoting neatly into the crook of Simon's arm and incidentally thwacking him across the thighs with the heavy swing of her beaded skirt. Manfully not wincing, Simon escorted her across the massive lobby towards the internal doors. It was a long, long trip, almost disconcertingly long, and the marble-sheathed walls made it into a perfect echo chamber; even though the lobby could easily hold five times as many people as it currently held, the din was already enormous. Simon glanced around as he went, but if Johnny was inside, he was well out of sight. Probably a good thing, all things considered.
"Shadow and I are en route," Mike's disembodied voice said. "I estimate ten minutes."
"Ten minutes," Nate repeated. Dimly, under the hum of voices echoing off the walls of the lobby, Simon could hear the clicking of someone's keyboard, and someone honking at Mike. Nate made a humming sound under his breath, then sighed in relief. "I've got Templar and Springheel on camera four. Boy, that dress is easy to spot."
"Specs likes your dress," Simon murmured, his lips half an inch from Sandra's ear.
Sandra laughed. "I'll bet he does," she murmured back.
They joined the short line of people waiting to be admitted into the auditorium proper. Simon left his hand in a proprietary position on the small of Sandra's back while she shimmered and pouted and put on a performance for the people around them; Simon tried to look like he found her antics entertaining. It was difficult. Not because they weren't entertainingindeed, they were just about the funniest thing Simon had seen all daybut because his senses were on high alert. Any of these people could be someone"Never knew you were such a girl, Spring," Simon said under his breath, trying to shake off some of the paranoia. Sandra cut her eyes at him and contrived to step on his foot mid-pose.
Once they made it up to the podium Simon fished their tickets from the inside pocket of his jacket and handed them over, feigning boredom. The usher checked their tickets and promptly bowed, saying something obsequious in Italian as he led them over to a staircase that was closed off with one of those thick velvet ropes. Simon could feel eyes on his back as he waited for the usher to stop bowing and scraping long enough to unhook the rope. It was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. Simon could only suppose that he wasn't cut out for socialite-ing. Socializing. Socialism. Whatever.
Taking Sandra's hand, he led her up the broad marble stairway, both the crowds and the unholy racket fading away as they went. The stairway, not short by any means, doubled back on itself twice, losing half of the remaining roar of the crowd each time. By the time they emerged into the second lobby the din was only a faint background rumble, not loud enough to obscure the sound of their footsteps. The luxurious horseshoe-shaped second lobby was smaller, dimmer, and much more sparsely populated, the inside of the horseshoe lined with wide doors half-hidden behind heavy, tied-back curtains. A few people glanced at them, then away again, not interested.
Sandra's hand tightened on Simon's arm. Simon turned to her, letting his eyes drift across the room, and halfway through his turn he saw what she had seen. The private box that must belong to Battista Volpe was obvious, even from here: it was the only door in the room flanked by a pair of gorillas in tuxedos and expensive shades. "Step in front of me and hold your hands out," Sandra breathed.
Simon did so, putting his back to the door gorillas with great misgivings. Sandra reached up and made a few minute adjustments to Simon's bow tie, glancing under his arm at the guards. "They're carrying way too much gun," she murmured after a moment. "It pulls their suits out of whack."
"Well, now we know," Simon said, smiling down at her, purely for the benefit of anyone who might be watching.
Sandra nodded. "I'm going to go freshen up," she said. "Meet me at the bar?" Before Simon could respond she slipped past him and shimmered off across the lobby, drawing a few admiring staresincluding, Simon noticed, that of one of the monoliths at Volpe's door. Simon watched her go, still wearing his smile, then went to go lean decoratively against the bar.
Thirty seconds later Sandra was speaking into his ear, all her mannerisms gone. "Two guards on the outside of Box 13, armed for bear, but I didn't see any down in the main lobby," she said. "If they're there, they're well hidden. We'll be heading into the box here in a moment."
"Gotcha," Nate said.
"I'll tell Shadow," Mike said. "And we're about four minutes out, I estimate."
"Four minutes," Sandra repeated. "Right. Templar and I are on our way in."
Mike's voice dropped to a low, thick hum as he blocked the microphone, conveying Sandra's message to Jeremy. Simon glanced over just as Sandra reappeared and headed his way. Simon straightened up. "Ready?" Sandra said, holding out her hand.
Simon took it. "Any time you are," he said. Bracing himself, Simon led Sandra across the lobby, heading for the door marked with a discreet brass '12'. Their path took them right past the bodyguards, who watched them go by with incurious suspicion; Simon, painfully aware of the heavy shoulder rigs under their jackets, forced himself not to tense up. Instead he opened the door to Box 12 and shepherded Sandra in, relaxing only once the door had closed again behind them.
For the moment they paused in the back of the private box, letting the side curtains block them from view. The box was essentially a small, curved room that was missing a chunk of wall; a wide, padded brocade railing ran around the top of the box, hip-high on Simon. There were six seats, lushly padded and well-spacedbut, Simon was pleased to note, bolted to the floor like any other theater seat. The roar of conversation rose faintly up from below. "Nice," he said.
"Oh, come on," Sandra said, heading for the front of the box. Simon followed her, resting his hands on the padded railing and looking out over the theater below. Far below them the orchestra seats stretched out like a sea of red, only about a third of them currently occupied; there was another row of private boxes below them and a third row above them, their curved and padded railings looping artistically through empty space. The enormous stage curtain was closed, the orchestra pit about half-full of musicians.
Sandra dug around in her tiny clutch and came out with the opera glasses which Jeremy had borrowed just for the occasion. "Want them?" she asked, holding them out to Simon.
"Yeah," Simon said. He took the little fake binoculars and sat down, training the opera glasses on the orchestra pit. The left lens showed him the musicians, far below; the right lens showed him nothing but the palm of his hand. Simon shifted his grip, clearing the lens of the hidden periscope, and Volpe's booth leaped into pristine, miniature focus. Simon shut his left eye and took stock.
There were already five people in Battista Volpe's private box. Two of them, standing near the back, looked to be bodyguards much like the gorillas on the outside of the door. Volpe himself was obviously the white-haired man with the unfortunate hooked beak of a nose and the bored expression; the man sitting beside him had the look and general demeanor of a secretary, or some kind of factotum, anyway.
The fifth personSimon swept the opera glasses slightly to the right, trying to get a better view. The fifth person in Volpe's private box was a youngish woman with brown hair that had been put up into a froth of ringlets. She was wearing some kind of sparkly blue strappy evening dress and a distant expression. Annabelle, Simon could only assume, tucked away in a convenient corner. On a closer look he could see what looked like the handles of a wheelchair jutting out into space behind her back.
Simon lowered the opera glasses and handed them back to Sandra, who promptly put them to her own eyes. "Looks like we've got four," Simon murmured. "Plus our friend."
"I make four too," Sandra murmured back, smiling. "I'll call it in." She stood up, touched Simon's shoulder, and headed for the back of the box, hiding herself behind one of the drawn curtains. "We've got five people inside the box, one of which is presumably our friend," she said a moment later, her voice oddly loud inside Simon's left ear despite barely carrying to his right. "Besides her, I make two more guards, a secretary of some kind, and the big guy."
"Got it," Mike said. "We're just now pulling up outside. Shadow will be go in ten seconds."
Nate apologetically cleared his throat. "We need silence on frequency now unless it's urgent."
"Right," said Sandra. "I'm going off frequency." A minute later she rejoined Simon, taking the seat by his side and putting the opera glasses to her eyes.
"Shadow is en route," Mike said. "Going off frequency."
Simon nudged Sandra. "Can I see those?"
Sandra swayed towards him, laughing softly, and put the opera glasses in his hands. For the moment Simon left them in his lap, touching his forehead to Sandra's and closing his eyes; his senses strained outwards. "This is cozy," he muttered, laughing under his breath.
"I might almost think you liked me," Sandra muttered back.
"Heck, I might almost start treating you like a real girl, you keep this up," Simon said. "Anyway, shut up. I'm trying to listen for Shadow."
"Asshole." Still smiling, Sandra sat back and patted Simon's thigh.
Simon put the opera glasses to his eyes and scanned the crowds below, keeping his right eye closed. "Watch it," he muttered, ninety percent of his attention elsewhere. The auditorium was beginning to fill up, the din from below increasing. Simon replayed his own trip across the plaza and through the lobby in the back of his mind, counting stepsJeremy was probably just now entering the doors of the lobby, entering the jaws of the trap that had been set for him. Simon let the opera glasses play up over the stage curtain and the boxes nearest the stage. Most of them were occupied by now.
Simon drummed his fingers on his thigh, counting mental steps in the back of his mind. By now Jeremy was probably at the ticket podium, giving them his namenow he would be heading for the private stairsnow he was taking the first flightthe secondthe thirdnow he was in the horseshoe-shaped second lobby
Behind the screen of the opera glasses Simon shut his eyes and listened with all his might. Beside him Sandra swayed forward, to do what, Simon had no idea. The roar of the crowd from below was huge, almost a physical presence in its own right, and yet Simon almost thought he could hear footsteps ringing out across the marble and a pleasant English voice outside Volpe's box.
The door to Battista Volpe's private box opened with a click that carried clearly to Simon's ears, ten feet away. Simon's eyes flew open. His left eye saw nothing but the floor of the stage; his right eye saw Jeremy, calm and smiling, caught in the center of a square of four bodyguards.
Simon shut his left eye again and watched, forcing himself to sweep the opera glasses idly from right to left across the stage. The door shut behind Jeremy with a second click. Jeremy looked at one of the two remaining bodyguards and said something, still smiling, spreading his hands; after a moment the bodyguards closed on him, one of them seizing both his wrists and pulling Jeremy's arms out away from his body, the other patting him down with professional speed and thoroughness, undoing both Jeremy's jacket and his waistcoat to run his hands underneath. Battista Volpe hadn't bothered to turn around yet.
The bodyguard doing the patdown went down on one knee, mostly vanishing from Simon's sight as he ran his hands down Jeremy's hips. Jeremy's face was, at best, the size of a dime in Simon's periscopic view, but Simon still saw Jeremy's eyebrows twitch when the man's hands ran heavily over Jeremy's crotch. Despite everything, Simon stifled a laugh, smiling for real for possibly the first time all evening. Beside him Sandra nudged his shoulder, murmured something, and laughed a little, playing along. Simon barely noticed.
A moment later the bodyguard rose to his feet. Apparently satisfied that Jeremy was unarmed, he nodded to his partner, then leaned down to speak into Volpe's ear. The other man let go of Jeremy's wrists and stepped back, putting himself between Jeremy and the door. Jeremy merely shot his cuffs and rebuttoned his waistcoat, waiting. Eventually Volpe glanced over his shoulder and said something; Jeremy inclined his head and moved to one of the empty seats, next to Annabelle.
Simon pretended to scan the crowds below. A band of pressure was starting to clamp down over his templeshe'd have to stop using the opera glasses soon. In the box next to theirs Annabelle flung her arms around Jeremy and clung to him like she was drowning. Jeremy held her, patting her back and murmuring something, his eyes closed and his smile gone. Simon, feeling uncomfortably like he was spying on something private, put the opera glasses back down. "We're in place," he said, handing the glasses to Sandra.
Sandra put them up to her own eyes. "So we are," she said after a moment, her voice oddly constricted. "Christ, that poor woman."
"Yeah," Simon said, looking down at his hands.
The auditorium continued to fill, as did the orchestra pit. The squeaks and squawks of instruments being tuned was a constant note in the din, pierced occasionally by little ripples of actual music as some violinist or another got carried away. Simon watched the audience or the orchestra or Sandra and very carefully paid no attention to Volpe's box at all; occasionally Sandra swayed over against Simon's side to take a momentary glance and confirm that everything seemed all right over there so far. "Smile," she said, and Simon did.
The house lights dimmed momentarily, laying a brief spell of silence on the auditorium. The ruckus, when it picked back up, sounded more purposeful. Forty feet below Simon, people hurried to find their seats. The orchestra pit was full and the conductor was standing at the podium, waiting. The enormous stage curtain rippled once as someone bumped into it from behind.
A minute later the lights went down for good, dousing the crowd noises like a bucketful of water. Sandra grabbed Simon's hand and squeezed it, once, dropping it a moment later. The conductor tapped his baton on the podium and the orchestra hushed; one instrumentSimon had no idea which onewailed like a heartbroken duck and the rest of the orchestra bloomed around it. Simon risked flicking his eyes right in the darkness. He could only just make out Jeremy's profile. He glanced away again. The orchestra fell silent again, and then crashed into performance as the curtain rose.
Simon, who had been fully expecting to be bored to tears, instead found himself somewhat flabbergasted by the initial spectacle. His exposure to opera was mostly limited to flipping past the cable arts channels at full speed; he'd been expecting cheesy painted backdrops, not some freakishly lush fantasy city teeming with extras in fancy dress. He'd have thought it was CGI if it hadn't been so obviously there. "Whoa," Nate said in his ear, sounding just about as taken aback as Simon felt. "Uh, sorry, folks, pardon the interruption. Opera's starting."
By the time one man stepped out of the crush and started to sing, though, the initial shock of the set dressing had worn off, and Simon was just about as bored as he'd been expecting. He'd never liked this song on the CDsa whole bunch of words sung on the same damn note, there were fourteen-year-old pop singers with more rangeand so after another swift glance to the right Simon slid his fingers up under his cummerbund.
The rope coiled tightly about Simon's waist was pink and distressingly thin. One end of the rope hung down over Simon's right hip, just about where Simon was accustomed to wearing his cell phone; Simon caught it between his first two fingers and pulled it free of the coils with a slight jerk. The rope tightened about his midsection and bit into his stomach, giving way just a moment before it drove the breath out of his lungs. Simon pulled in a long, slow, relieved breath and inched the rope free.
Sandra sat forward, to all appearances actually engrossed in the performance below, and put her hand on Simon's thigh. Simon put the end of the rope into her hand, then sat back, eyes on the stage, and let his fingers unspool sixty feet of thin rope from under his cummerbund like a magic trick, carefully keeping his upper arms and shoulders still. He took his time. He had hours before Nessun dorma. Possibly days.
"Lobby's totally deserted," Johnny said over frequency. "Looks like all his people are up there with him."
Nate blew out a relieved breath. "Good," he said.
Sandra coiled the rope back up as Simon uncoiled it, producing a neat, untangled bundle. The necessity of not attracting attention kept the process agonizingly slow, but eventually Sandra was holding sixty feet of rope in her hands and Simon's midsection felt a lot less constricted. Sandra nudged the coil against Simon's leg. Simon took it, kept one end, and carefully dropped the rest on the floor at his feet even as some song ended and the audience burst into applause. Pinning the end between his knees, Simon also applauded, although he'd be damned if he could tell what he was clapping for.
Nothing left to do during the first act; nothing to do but to sit and wait it out. Toying with the end of the rope, Simon let his eyes go unfocused and let the meaningless music wash over him.
A few years later, Act I ended (to more applause) and the house lights came up on the first intermission. The babble of conversation immediately rose all around them. Simon blinked and shifted, waking up out of his near-trance; he had been wound too tightly to actually fall asleep, but it felt like it had been a close call. Stifling a yawn behind gritted teeth, Simon rolled both shoulders to loosen them, glanced down at his feet, and then leaned forward.
Instead of tying his shoe, he whipped the end of the rope around the legs of the seat he was sitting in and tied it off in a neat double bowline, anchoring his line to the bolted-down seat. Thanks to days of practice he managed to tie the knot in under five seconds, yanking it tight and sitting back up, hardly even pink in the face. "I'm awesome," he told Sandra.
"I know," Sandra said, touching his shoulder and handing him the opera glasses. "I'm going to go powder my nose, and before you ask, yes, I do mean that literally." Wrinkling her nose Sandra stood up, gave a little shimmy to settle her fancy-ass dress properly, and headed for the door.
Simon stayed where he was. A couple of minutes later the ghost of Sandra was speaking in his ear. "It's act one intermission now," she said, her voice weirdly cheeryshe must not be alone in the bathroom. "Everything's just fineno static at all."
"We're on schedule, then," Nate said. "Templar, if you want to give Shadow the high sign, cough twice."
Simon put his fist over his mouth and coughed, once, then again. He didn't dare glance over to see if Jeremy had reacted, even though he wanted to check with every fiber of his being. As long as the opera was actually going on, it wasn't so bad, but during intermission, with Sandra away and Jeremy right there in the midst of trouble, it took everything Simon had not to look. The muscles in his shoulders twinged. Simon forced himself to relax and nudged the coil of rope with one toe.
Sandra came back just as the house lights dimmed in warning. Her nose didn't look any different to Simon, but Simon knew better than to point that out.
The lights went out and the curtain rose. Act II crashed in around Simon, as incomprehensible and flashy as Act I but about twice as racially insensitive, which was kind of a trick. Simon left his eyes on the stage and flexed his fingers in his lap, turning the plan over and over in his mind while three horrible Chinese stereotypes wailed on about something on stage.
There was nothing for Simon to do during Act II but keep his eyes open, applaud when everybody else did, and wait for it to end. By the standards of the CDs Simon had spent the last week listening to, he supposed that this opera company was... good? He had no idea. The audience seemed enthused, though. Nate and Dave were a nearly subliminal buzz in Simon's left ear, punctuated by the faint sounds of typing. Once or twice Simon thought he heard Johnny, but officially all was silent over frequency. Simon blew out a breath and ran over Act III in his mind again.
Simon was so deep in his mental recital that the end of Act II came as a surprise. For a moment he sat there blinking in the house lights, startled; then he pushed himself up out of his seat and automatically leaned in to kiss Sandra's cheek. "Back in a moment," he said. Sandra smiled at him. Simon turned and left the box.
The second lobby was a lot more crowded than it had been before the show. Simon shouldered his way through the crowds, heading for the restrooms and carefully not paying any attention to the two bodyguards still guarding Volpe's door. There was a long line outside the ladies' room, as usual, but the door to the men's room was unblocked. Simon pushed his way in and found the men's room only about half-full, with all of the stalls empty.
Simon picked a stall and locked himself into it. He pondered the idea of actually using the toilet and eventually decided against it; it would take him damned near five minutes to pry himself out of his pants, for one thing, and for another he was too focused on the minutes ahead to care.
Instead Simon locked his hands into fists and stretched his arms up over his head, trying to loosen the knotted muscles in his shoulders. They twanged like guitar strings. Simon winced and dug his fingers deep into the muscle, then stretched his arms up over his head again. Much better. Simon grabbed the top of the closed door and hung from it for a moment, then turned to face the toilet and punched the air, loosening his muscles as best he could in the enclosed space.
By the time he let himself back out of the toilet stall, the bathroom was entirely empty and the muscles in his arms and shoulders were tingling with warmth. Still flexing his fingers Simon headed back for Box 12, barely noticing when the gorillas watched him go by.
Sandra was waiting for him, her purse already in her lap, the opera glasses nowhere in sight. One hand held the coiled rope, down and out of sight. "All right?" she said.
"Ready as I'll ever be," Simon said, taking his seat. Sandra nudged his knee with the coil of rope and Simon took it, trapping it between his knees. "Going to storm out now?" he asked, picking over the coils until he found the end that was tied to his seat.
"In a second," Sandra said. She glanced down at the closed curtain, then back at Simon. "Think it's going to work?"
Simon shrugged. "I'll hold up my end," he said. "As for Shadow, that's his lookout."
"Kind of cold," Sandra said.
"It's his plan," Simon said. "If he wants to make part of it be 'I'll take care of myself from this point on', then I'm not going to argue, much as I'd like to."
Sandra looked away, tapping her fingers on her purse. "I was hoping there'd only be one guy on the outside of the door."
"Yeah." Simon looked down at the rope, caught between his knees. "Me too."
"Good luck," Sandra said. "Keep yourself safe. Think I ought to slap you now?"
Simon pretended to consider this. "You know what, I'm thinking no," he said. "If only because that would probably be overacting, and certainly not because I'm afraid you'd actually break my cheekbone."
"Fine, then," Sandra snapped, jumping to her feet. Behind the furious mask of her face her eyes were wary. "Stay. I'm leaving." Before Simon could say a word she stormed off, slamming the door to the box behind herself.
Simon twisted around to stare at the door, then sighed and settled back in his seat, rubbing a hand over his face. "Women," he muttered, mostly to himself.
Thirty seconds later Sandra's brisk voice crackled in his ear. "I'm out and good," she said. "Templar's ready. Texas, where are you?"
"Round back," Johnny said. "Heading around to the side now."
"Meet you there in one."
"Okay, people," Nate said, his voice suddenly urgent. "Lights will dim in two minutes and then it's showtime. Honda, are you there?"
"Yo," said Mike. "Already parked out front and gettin' honked at, heading for the front door now."
Someone punched a door open. "Be there in a minute," Sandra said. "I'm letting Texas in now."
"In," Johnny said. "Go."
"I'm gone." Sandra fell silent.
The house lights dimmed in warninga bolt of pure adrenalin shot through Simon and dissipated, leaving him eerily calm. The world snapped into high focus. He flexed his fingers in his lap. One minute to showtime. Simon unbuttoned his jacket. "One minute," Nate said.
"I'm in place," Sandra said. "Honda's heading back to the taxi now. We're all good to go."
"Then I need silence on frequency now," Nate said. "I'll count us off when it's time. Good luck, Templar."
"Good luck," Sandra echoed.
"Yeah, what they said," Mike said, snickering.
Simon shifted in his seat, casually poking a hand into his jacket. The heavy leather climbing gloves were still tucked into the back of his cummerbund, their Velcro wristbands held undone by strips of masking tape; as unobtrusively as possible Simon extracted one glove, then the other, and put them in his lap. He was easing the masking tape off when the lights went down and the curtain went up. Three minutes to Nessun dorma, more or lessSimon ripped off the rest of the tape under the cover of the orchestra, balled it up, and dropped it to the floor.
Below, Turandot recommenced, the chorus droning ominously. In his box, Simon eased his left hand into one of the climbing gloves, pulled the strap tight around his wrist, and pressed the Velcro together with exaggerated care. He could hide the sound of the masking tape coming off, but no cacophony on earth could hide the telltale sound of Velcro ripping open; if he didn't get the gloves perfectly strapped on the first time he tried, he would just have to live with it.
Simon flexed his left hand, testing the wrist strap. It held. Simon clamped his hand over his wrist just to make sure and then slid the other glove on, repeating the process. The chorus stampeded across the darkened stage below, carrying real torches, really wound up about something. Simon squeezed his right wrist, then caught the top end of the coil of rope and let the rest fall. Measuring across his knees Simon counted out about ten feet of rope, hesitated, then wrapped a turn of rope loosely about his left hand and left the rest where it was. One minute until Nessun dorma. Simon waited, aware mostly of his own heartbeat and his eyes wide in the dark.
The chorus fled off to the right. The tenor who was singing the lead role drifted on from the left, his gaudy costume nearly lost in the darkness. Simon sat up; judging by the sudden rustle from below, he wasn't the only person in the auditorium doing so. The tenor ambled down a set of steps and paused, halfway down, gazing off into the distance after the long-fled chorus, and the orchestra segued into a tune that had been ingrained in Simon's bones. For a single moment of time Simon was frozen in his seat, his heart standing still; the tenor opened his mouth and intoned the first two words
and Simon snapped out of it, suddenly, coldly awake. His left hand flexed about the rope. The deep rustle from below sounded both surprised and satisfied, as the Italian audience judged the tenor and found him, apparently, acceptable. Simon, who'd only recently begun to have any opinions about opera at all, couldn't care less.
Nessun dorma! Tu pure, o Principessa, nella tua fredda stanzaguardi le stelle che tremano d'amore, e di speranza
Simon risked another swift glance to his right. Volpe sat hunched forward in his seat, eyes bent around the tenor on stage below, hands steepled in front of his face, wearing an expression that might be either disgust or utter rapture. Simon couldn't tell which. Beside Volpe Jeremy sat upright and perfectly still, his face locked into that calm, pleasant expression that could mean anything at all.
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in meil nome mio nessun saprà! No, No! Sulla tua bocca lo dirò quando la luce splenderà
Simon caught himself fiddling with the loop of rope around his left hand and forced himself to stop. The aria flowed on, the live performance turning it from merely pretty into something that was nearly beautiful. Simon felt a momentary pang of regret that it was being wasted on him, his left hand tightening on the rope again.
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio che ti fa mia...
Simon tucked his feet under himself and shifted his weight onto them, only barely sitting in his seat any more. The tenor hesitated and glanced offstage, and the mournful chorus drifted in like ghost song:
Il nome suo nessun sapràE noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir
Simon's heart slammed, once, and fell back into its normal rhythm.
Simon shot to his feet and twisted around. Eight feet away, Jeremy was already on his feet, on the move; behind him the others were just beginning to react, the bodyguards reaching forward, the secretary's mouth opening in a large, stupid O. Simon's eyes met Jeremy's across the intervening empty spacethen Jeremy scooped Annabelle out of her wheelchair and threw her across the gap.
Too startled even to scream, the woman in blue arced across the empty space, flinging her arms out for balance. Simon lunged forward and caught her, the solid weight of her body thunking into his outstretched arms. Reflexively she grabbed him around the neck, gasping. On the other side of the gap Jeremy was already turning away, striking at the nearer of the two bodyguards"Hi!" Simon said. "You need to hold on to me right now." And, having said that, he jumped up onto the padded railing and off the other side, falling over the side of the box. Annabelle's arms went tight around his neck, her startled squeak momentarily louder in Simon's ear than the triumphant final line of Nessun dorma.
The rope snapped tight five feet down, Simon thumping hard against the outside of the box. The knot heldSimon's heart began to beat againand the bones in his left hand groaned but accepted their burden. The trailing end of the rope fell into the darkness below with a hiss. Simon clamped his legs around the rope and got his right hand on the rope, untangling his left. Annabelle was clinging to him with all her strength, her useless legs dangling alongside his own; Simon took them both down the rope, hand over hand, his legs taking as much of their weight as they could. Dimly, in the darkness, he saw the smeared white Os of startled faces peering out at him from the box below his own.
"Templar's on his way down!" Nate shouted in his ear. "People, we are go! Stonewall, now!"
"I'm on it," Dave said. Somewhere above Simon's head the world exploded in light, and someone yelped, the sound quickly choking off. "Spotlight's on," Dave added, unnecessarily.
Simon slid down the rope as fast as he dared, expecting at any moment to hear a shot or a yell from above. Somehow, ridiculously, the opera was still going on all around himit seemed impossible that no one had noticed anything and yet the tenor was still singing that final lineand then Simon's feet hit the carpet of the aisle. He gasped once, abandoned the rope to its fate, scooped Annabelle up again, and bolted up the aisle.
The lobby doors loomed in front of him. Simon lowered his head and drove his shoulder into the doors and they burst open, slamming back to bang against the wall. The spangled light of the lobby nearly blinded him after the darkness of the auditorium. Simon clutched Annabelle to his chest and ran across that stupidly massive lobby, heading for the front doors.
"Texas, they're heading your way!" Nate said in his ear. "Springheel, Templar is heading towards your position, be ready!"
Johnny appeared at the edge of Simon's vision, running flat-out towards the stairs that led up to the second lobby. He had both of Jeremy's weapon harnesses strapped to his own bare arms and an expression of complete concentration on his face; half a second later Simon heard the horrible flat crack! of Jeremy's taser and a sudden babble of voices from behind him. "Shit," he muttered, redoubling his speed.
"What the?" Nate said, then burst out laughing, startling Simon. "Oh, my God!"
Belatedly, Simon became aware that Annabelle was thumping on his back, peering over his shoulder. "Your friend missed one," she panted in an oddly familiar voice.
"He missed one!" Annabelle pointed back over Simon's shoulder just as someone behind them yelled something in Italian.
"Shit," Simon groaned. The doors were still a long way away, and the guy in pursuit wasn't carrying anything.
"I'll slow him down," Annabelle said, her eyes wild and her mouth a thin line, and suddenly she was clawing at Simon's jacket, dragging herself bodily up and over his shoulder.
"What?" Simon said, grabbing her dangling legs to avoid dropping her. "No, wait, we'll just" Annabelle, draped over his shoulder, yanked up the back of Simon's jacket and grabbed his gun out of the holster at the small of his back. "Christ, don't" Simon yelled, and then his gun cracked, the recoil driving him bodily forward and nearly pitching him right over onto his face. The bullet whined off the marble somewhere behind them, and the guy chasing them yelled in alarm.
And suddenly the doors were right there"Springheel, now!" Nate said, and Sandra jerked the door open less than a second before Simon would have faceplanted into it. Simon and Annabelle burst out into the night and Sandra kicked the door shut behind them, jamming the crowbar through the handles a heartbeat before someone slammed into the other side.
The handles groaned and the wood splintered with a sharp sound, but the crowbar held. Volpe's bodyguard banged against the door twice more"Yo, asshole," Johnny said from inside, and suddenly, all was silence. "All done now," Johnny said, his voice still conversational. "On my way out."
Sandra slapped Simon's unoccupied shoulder. "What are you waiting for?" she snapped. "Go!"
"Right!" Simon dragged Annabelle off his shoulder and hugged her to his chest again, racing across the plaza, Sandra in his wake. Annabelle was still clutching his gun in both hands, its muzzle pointed somewhere up at the sky; across the plaza Mike yanked both passenger-side doors open and threw himself across the hood, heading for the driver's seat.
Sandra beat Simon there by a couple of yards and ducked into the front seat, one last swirl of silver marking her passage before the door shut behind her. Simon hit the curb and kicked himself around, throwing himself backwards into the back seat; he fell across the seat cushion, a gasping Annabelle sprawling out on top of him. "Go!" Simon yelled, and Mike peeled out, shutting the back door by casually smacking it into a lamp post.
"Specs, we're out!" Sandra said, touching her earpiece.
In the back Simon inched up into a sitting position, wincing, and carefully lowered Annabelle onto the seat next to him. "Are you all right?" he asked, patting her shoulder.
"I think so," Annabelle said, fumbling the gun back into Simon's hands. "But Jeremy... what about Jeremy?"
"We're working on that," Simon said. He pulled up the tail of his jacket and put his gun back in its holster. "How'd you know I was carrying?"
Annabelle shrugged, picking at her skirt with trembling fingers. "I hoped, mostly," she said. "Jeremy told me where you wore it, once..."
"Making the block," Mike said into his headset, hauling the wheel right and cutting someone off with a blare of horns. "Got three passengers, just waiting on my fourth."
"I'll let you know," Nate said. "He's coming... wait... there! Honda, stage door! Stage door!"
Mike slammed on the brakes, smacked the turn signal, and whipped the taxi over into an alleyway that was barely larger than the car. Garbage bounced off the car's bumper and hit the windshield, making everyone inside duck; two seconds later the taxi's headlights picked up a moving flash of white and Mike stomped on the brakes, the taxi slewing to a stop. Jeremy yanked open the dented door and threw himself into the back, jostling Annabelle up against Simon's side. "I'm in," he said, slamming the door. "Go."
Mike went, with a screech of tires and a happy whoop. "Four passengers, full up!" he cried, the taxi peeling back out onto the roads and immediately getting lost in the horde of identical cars.
For a moment, everyone was quiet, breathing hard. Then Jeremy laughed under his breath and put a hand over his eyes. "Annabelle, love, allow me to introduce you to Simon," he said, and after a moment of spellbound silence everyone in the car cracked up.
The rush wore off soon enough, leaving them all worn out and disinclined to talk. The taxi wove through traffic as Mike took them away from the Teatro Domenico. He was humming under his breath, occasionally tapping the steering wheel. Sandra was silent in the front seat, her eyes closed, her breathing deep and even. It was dark and quiet inside the cab.
"I'm out," Johnny said over frequency. "Got a cab. On my way."
Nate let out a heartfelt sigh of relief. "We're good, then," he said, slumping down in his chairSimon couldn't see it, but he knew Nate. "We'll see you guys when you get back."
"I estimate ten minutes," Mike said, glancing left. "Ain't no way anybody could be on our tail, but I'm gonna make sure before I head back."
Simon picked at the Velcro strap around his left wrist, fumbling with it until he managed to pry up the end. He shed the climbing gloves with some relief, flexed his left handit was sore where the rope had snapped tight around itand then picked out his earpiece, dropping it into the inside pocket of his jacket. He always felt an odd sense of letdown after a successful operation, and this one was no exception; he slumped down against the door and let himself go limp, his muscles twitching as the last dregs of adrenalin worked their way out. Fighting the urge to doze off, Simon glanced over at Jeremy.
Annabelle and Jeremy were a dim huddle in the opposite corner. Whatever store of bravado had fueled Annabelle this far was gone now; the shaking Annabelle clung to Jeremy for dear life, her face hidden against his shoulder. Jeremy held her tight and stroked her hair, murmuring reassuring little nothings in her ear while she cried herself out.
Simon shifted uncomfortably. "Before you yell," he said, then winced and lowered his voice. "It wasn't me that fired the gun."
Jeremy's eyes drifted open in the darkness, regarding Simon over the spill of curls coming loose from Annabelle's updo. "Oh, Simon," he said, his own voice low. "Really, you ought to have more respect for classical architecture. And passersby."
"Hey, I said it wasn't me," Simon said, pointing semi-dramatically at Annabelle for emphasis.
Jeremy closed his eyes again and curled his hand about the back of Annabelle's head. "Ah, well," he said. "Needs must."
There it was again, that little pang that Simon recognized guiltily as jealousy. He made himself settle back. "Yeah," he echoed, closing his own eyes. "Needs must."
Mike took them on a leisurely tour of Milan, doubling back on his route several times and cutting down handy alleyways on two separate occasions. Once he was satisfied he took them back to the hotel, pulling into the underground lot; Johnny was waiting for them there, his forearms bare again, Jeremy's weapons harnesses dangling from one hand. Mike sniggered and made a lazy attempt to run Johnny down, just because he could. Johnny kicked the side of the cab as it went by. The metallic sound made them all jump.
Mike parked the car and rolled down his window, sticking his elbow out. "Yo, Texas," he said.
"Yo," Johnny said, stooping down to look inside the cab. "Parking lot's empty, lobby's empty, and the hallway outside the room's empty. Think we're good."
"Awesome," Simon said. "Still and all, I'd feel better if you went and hung out in the lobby until we were all safely upstairs."
Johnny patted the car's roof and straightened up. "On it," he said, and jogged off.
Simon glanced over at Jeremy, still holding the now-semiconscious Annabelle. "You, uh, need any help?"
"I have her, I believe," Jeremy said. "If you'd just come and open the door?"
"Yeah. Yeah, sure." Simon let himself out of the cab, already wincing. He was going to be so goddamned sore in the morninghe straightened up with some difficulty, took a moment to stretch out the muscles in his back, and then trotted around to the passenger side and opened the back door.
Jeremy edged backwards and slid out, carefully cradling Annabelle against his chest. She hung limp in his arms, her face pressed against the side of his throat, one hand clutching a wrinkled handful of his once-pristine shirt front. Simon couldn't tell if she was catatonic or just asleep.
"Texas says the lobby's still clear," Mike reported, touching his earpiece. "I'll go call the elevator." He ran off.
Sandra shut her door and joined them. "Is she all right?" Sandra asked, nodding at Annabelle.
"She'll be fine, I think," Jeremy said, glancing down at her. "Let's get her upstairs."
"Right," Sandra said. She took a step back, still shimmering under the dull lights of the parking lot, before spinning on one heel and heading for the elevators. Jeremy followed, carrying Annabelle; after one last glance over his shoulder Simon brought up the rear, still feeling weirdly bereft.
The suite was just about the best thing Simon had seen all day, unholy mess or not. Mike whooped and threw himself full-length on one of the couches, kicking his feet up onto the armrest. "God damn but that was awesome," he said. "Shadow brings us to the funnest spots."
"And to think, all you did was drive," Simon said wryly, shutting the door behind himself and feeling a lot better for it.
Dave appeared in the bedroom doorway, blinking. "Hey," he said. "So, uh, is that her?"
"Aw, Stone, don't be stupid," Mike said. "Course it ain't her. We just stole some random lady from the nosebleed seats and called it close enough."
"Oh," Dave said, apparently accepting this. "Anyway, Templar, Specs says you ought to come look at this."
Simon yanked at his bow tie until it came undone. "Can it wait?" he asked, popping open his collar button. "Sooner I get out of this penguin suit, the less chance I kill somebody."
"It won't take long," Nate called from somewhere behind Dave. "It's just... you've got to see this."
"Okay, okay," Simon said, picking his way across the main room. Behind him Jeremy carried Annabelle into Sandra's room. The door closed behind them.
Nate was sitting exactly where Simon had left him, still peering at that giant monitor, which was still displaying the footage from the various opera-house cameras. "Hey, Templar," he said, blinking up at Simon.
"Hey yourself," Simon said, leaning on the back of Nate's chair. "So what's up?"
Nate snickered. "Okay, so this is the main stage camera, right?" he said, wheeling the mouse pointer in a little circle over the largest window, the one in crisp, full color. He clicked on one corner and the window expanded to fill the entire monitor, popping into full resolution a minute later.
"Yeah?" Simon said.
"Anyway, this is from earlier," Nate said, hitting the space bar. The image jumped from red to a dark, glittering blue, the thin strains of Nessun dorma popping out of the computer's tiny speakers. Onscreen the lead tenor was an indistinct figure about the size of Simon's little finger.
Even at this volume Nessun dorma poked the back of Simon's brain, making him shiver. He clutched at the back of Nate's chair and watched the tiny figure gesticulate. "So there's the chorus," Nate said, "and there's your cue."
Dilegua the tenor sang, and a weary jolt of electricity ran up Simon's spine. It was a good thing he'd never really cared about the song, because now it was probably ruined for him forever. Simon grunted.
"Now here's where Dave turns the spotlight onto Volpe's box," Nate said, tapping the screen. The stage lights hung in a complicated array at the very top of the camera's field of vision, most of them glowing some color of blue. Below them the tenor still sang on, bringing the song to its triumphant conclusion; somewhere just off the top of the screen one of the lights popped on, directing its brilliant white glare straight out into the auditorium. Simon thought he heard the choked-off yelp all over again. "So much for their aim," Nate said, snickering. "Now watch here." He traced the mouse pointer along the row of boxes on the left-hand side of the screen.
Simon leaned in until his chin was nearly resting on the top of Nate's head. "Okay," he said. "I'm watching."
Nate sat back and folded his arms across his chest. The tenor, apparently still wrapped up in his performance, threw his arms wide and hit the final note; thirty feet above him a dark-clad figure dashed onscreen from the right, his arms thrown out for balance as he ran full-tilt along the wide padded railings of the private boxes. Nate hit the space bar, pausing the recording, and tapped the screen. "That's Jeremy," he said.
"Yeah, I figured," Simon said, squinting at the screen, "but what the hell is he doing? Christ, where does he think he's going?"
"Watch," Nate said. He hit the space bar again and Jeremy flickered back into motion, vaulting from one box down to the next. Behind him there was motion, nearly invisible in the dark, as startled operagoers leaned out of their boxes to watch him pass.
Onscreen Jeremy lowered his head and threw his arms out behind himself, somehow managing to pick up speed. He vaulted down onto the railing of the very last box, hitting it squarely, and put on one final burst of speed to nowhere; half a second later he ran entirely out of railing and dove cleanly out into the open space above the stage. Despite himself Simon yelped.
The swan dive flung Jeremy into the massive red curtains. He caught one fold in both hands and turned his dive into a wild swing, his sheer momentum yanking the curtain nearly halfway shut as he sailed around in a lunatic arc. Below him half the orchestra crashed unmusically to a stop, dragging down the other half, and the audience screamed almost as one. The tenor, lost in some world of his own, held the note to the bitter end despite the sudden pandemonium.
The curtain jerked and shuddered and swung, heavy folds of red fabric sweeping out across the stage. Jeremy clung to the curtain like a beetle, his legs drawn up to kill his excess momentum. Finally the tenor noticed and took half a step back, lifting his hands to protect himself even as the curtain shuddered to a stop.
Jeremy swung over, grabbed the edge of the curtain, and slid down, his hands two little pale blurs of motion against the red cloth. He hit the stage a few seconds later, staggered, and spun around to face the tenor. The tenor flung his arms out in as perfect an expression of why, God, why as Simon had ever seen; Jeremy hesitated, then bowed deeply to the aggravated singer before spinning around again and darting offstage, vanishing behind the curtain and leaving the rest of the auditorium in chaos. Nate hit the space bar and paused the footage. "And that's why we can't have nice things," he said, his voice uneven with hilarity.
Simon rubbed a hand down his face. "Oh, Christ," he said, cracking up.
Getting out of his mangled tuxedo took Simon exactly as long as he'd been fearing it would. The pieces piled up in an untidy heap on the foot of Mike's ostensible bed and Simon happily abandoned them there, getting back into his plain jeans and t-shirt with a joy that was damn near sensual. He stomped into his sneakers and slammed back out into the main room, announcing, "Christ, that feels better."
"Yeah?" Johnny looked up. "What, you finally get to pee?"
"What? No, but thanks for reminding me," Simon said, turning on his heel and banging back into the bedroom.
When he came out again, he felt pretty close to great, despite the lingering ache in his shoulders. Mike and Johnny were sprawled out on the couches lobbing a tennis ball back and forthwhere they'd gotten it, Simon had no ideaand Dave was puttering around in the minibar, futzing with the coffeemaker. "I'm gonna go check on things," Simon announced to nobody in particular, and went to knock on Sandra's door.
She opened it a moment later and ushered him in. The frothy silver thing was gone; Sandra was wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, her face washed clean, her hair down. "Hey, boss," she said, closing the door behind him.
"Hey yourself," Simon said. "What, no dress? Way you were enthusing over it, here I thought you'd probably sleep in it for a couple of days."
"Everyone knows the best part of formalwear is taking it all off at the end of the night and getting comfortable again," Sandra said serenely.
Simon clapped her on the shoulder. "Sandy, I could not agree more," he said with real feeling.
Annabelle was sitting on the foot of Sandra's bed, still wearing the sparkly blue dress. Jeremy had pulled the desk chair over to sit with her, holding both her hands; they both looked up as Simon edged past Sandra and came over. "Hey," he said. "How's it going?"
"As well as can be expected," Jeremy said. "Annabelle's had a bit of a shock, but I think she'll be all right."
"I'm okay," Annabelle echoed faintly. "I'd kind of like to get out of this dress, though." She let go of Jeremy's hands and started picking at the unholy mess of her hair, pulling out pins and setting them down beside her. Her curls slithered free.
Sandra reached past Simon to toss another t-shirt and pair of sweatpants on the bed. "I'll get you my brush," she said, her voice gentle.
"Thank you," Annabelle said, still in that disturbing faraway little-girl's voice. She sank both hands into her hair and fluffed it up, scratching at her scalp with vigor. "That's a lot better," she said with a sigh. Sandra handed her a hairbrush and Annabelle attacked her hair, wincing.
"Ethan has plenty of clothing waiting for you," Jeremy said, touching Annabelle's knee. "Tomorrow after you've had some rest you can call your caretaker and let her know you're safe."
Annabelle looked up at that, her hair newly lank about her face. Her eyes focused a little more, bringing her more firmly into the present. "Oh, God, Shawna's going to have a fit," she said, grimacing. "She's a sweetie, but she treats me like being in a wheelchair means I'm made of glass."
"Imagine if she knew how you ended up there," Jeremy said with the ghost of a smile.
Annabelle hesitated, then made a sound like a laugh. "Oh, God," she said. "I do believe she'd have a brain hemorrhage."
Simon glanced from Annabelle to Jeremy and back, then sighed. "Okay, look what you guys did: now that you've said that, I have to ask. How did you wind up in a wheelchair?"
The brush paused. "He doesn't know, huh?" Annabelle said.
"It isn't my story to tell, love." Jeremy patted her knee. "However, I think I'm in a position to say that he can generally be trusted with details like that."
"Details," Simon said, and snorted. "Yeah, wheelchairs are just details."
Smiling to herself, Annabelle went back to brushing her hair. "I fell off a third-story roof a few years back," she said, her voice matter-of-fact. "Landed on a concrete patio."
"A roof, huh," Simon said. He glanced at Jeremy. "And you were up on a roof because..."
"Once upon a time Annabelle was a cat burglar," Jeremy said, confirming Simon's theory. "A professional acquaintance, as it were."
"Hey," Annabelle said, poking Jeremy in the chest with the hairbrush. "Tell him the truth. I was a damned good cat burglar."
Jeremy glanced at Simon. "It's true," he said, just barely smiling. "She was."
"And don't you forget it, buster," Annabelle said, brushing all her hair back and gathering it up into a loose ponytail. "But that's not really a line of work you can pursue in a wheelchair, so now I work for Jeremy."
"Or she did, at any rate," Jeremy said. His little smile faded.
Annabelle put the hairbrush down on the bed. "I still do," she said firmly. "Most of the time it's a really good job. It keeps me sharp."
After a moment, Jeremy nodded. "We'll hash out the details when this mess has been sorted out," he said.
"Okay, you two, out," Sandra said, popping back out of the bathroom. "She needs to get changed already and nobody gets a free show."
Needing no further prompting, Jeremy stood up and spun the desk chair back into place. "I can tell when I'm not wanted," he said, heading for the door. "And I also need to get changed."
"Yeah, your tux is looking a little worse for wear," Simon said. He followed Jeremy out into the main room. "Do you want me to come with you to drop Annabelle off?"
"Yes, that might be good," Jeremy said, brushing at his mangled lapels. He was coated with a thin dusting of bright red fibers. "Mike can drop us both off at the other hotel afterwards."
Simon nodded. "Makes sense," he said. "Want to bring anyone else?"
"Anyone who wants to come." Jeremy shrugged. "There's room enough for five of us, as I think we've proven."
"I'll come," Johnny said, tossing the tennis ball up in the air and catching it again. "Honda needs managing."
Jeremy glanced at Simon. "That's settled, then," he said, and headed for the opposite bedroom.
Simon watched him go. "Hey, Archer!" he finally said, unable to resist the urge for a single second longer.
"Yes?" Jeremy paused in the doorway.
"You do realize that's not what 'stage-diving' means, right?"
Jeremy glanced over his shoulder. For just a moment he looked exhausted, to the point where Simon felt guilty about making him parse the sentencebut then Jeremy shut his eyes and smiled, just a little. "I suppose I've always been a touch literal-minded," he said, shutting the door behind him.
An hour later Simon stood in a floodlit clearing thirty miles outside Milan, squinting against the freshening breeze. Milan wasn't quite as sodden and awful as DC in the summer, but it was still undoubtedly summer; out here in the foothills it was actually pretty nice, which almost made Simon glad he'd come.
The clearing wasn't so much a runway as it was a long strip of tamped-down lit-up dirt. A small passenger plane was parked at one end, refueling itself from a hose attached to the back of a small tanker truck. Annabelle sat on the hood of the car, hugging a small bag to her chest and waiting. Jeremy sat next to her, one arm about her shoulders.
After one last look up and down the clearing, Simon shrugged and headed over. "meet you there and take you directly to Ethan's," Jeremy was saying. "He'll have a chair with him."
"Good," Annabelle said fervently, dropping her head to Jeremy's shoulder. "No offense, handsome, but I don't actually like being carried everywhere."
Jeremy laughed a little. "None taken," he said. "I'm afraid it's not as good a chair as you're used to, but hopefully it will do until we can get you properly resettled."
Annabelle picked at the legs of her borrowed sweatpants. "Is it wrong to admit that what I'm looking forward to most of all is checking my email?"
"Can't blame you for that," Jeremy said, smiling and looking away.
"I think they're almost done," Simon interjected, wandering up. "If you wanna go ahead and get her settled."
Jeremy hopped down off the hood of the car. "Probably a good idea," he said. He glanced at Annabelle. "Do you think you can stand to be carried about for a bit longer, love?"
"If I have to," Annabelle said, holding out her arms. Jeremy scooped her up and carried her towards the plane.
Simon watched them go. "Nice meeting you," he finally called.
"It was nice to finally meet you, too!" Annabelle called back, waving at him over Jeremy's shoulder. "And after all this time! You be careful, huh? Keep Jeremy safe for me!"
"Yeah, I'll sure try," Simon said under his breath, as the breeze carried Jeremy's little laugh clearly back to his ears.
No one had the energy to say much on the drive back into the city. Even Mike's usual boundless energy was pretty well sapped, most of his attention focused on driving without getting them killed. At this time of night, it wasn't impossible.
Mike let Simon and Jeremy off a block away from their hotel. Simon stumbled out of the car like he'd become geriatric overnight, and Jeremy was carrying himself stiffly, like he also hurt and was determined not to let it show. "You guys sure you don't want Texas to walk you up?" Mike asked, rolling down his window. "I can wait."
Jeremy and Simon glanced at each other, then Jeremy shook his head. "I think we'll be all right," he said. "We're here under a brand-new name and we've only been here a day. Go home and get some sleep. I think we could all use it."
"Shoot yourself," Mike said cheerfully. "See you guys tomorrow." He rolled up the window and pulled back out into the thin late-night traffic.
They watched him go, too tired and sore to do much else. "Want me to go first?" Simon finally asked, shaking his head to snap himself out of it.
Jeremy nodded. "I think that would be best," he said. "I'll meet you up at the room."
"Yeah," Simon said, taking a step back. "Yeah. Okay. I'll... yeah, see you there."
He barely got ten steps before Jeremy called his name. "What?" Simon said, turning around.
Jeremy's smile was a momentary flash in the darkness. "She's an old, dear friend," he said. "And that's all she's ever been." He paused, letting it sink in. "In case you were wondering," he added.
"I wasn't wondering," Simon said, after a pause that felt about a second too long. "I mean, I know you better than that. So I'll just, uh, go make sure the coast is clear, okay?"
"Thank you, Simon." Jeremy stepped back and lost himself in the nightmuch like the Cheshire Cat's, his smile seemed to be the last thing to go.