|Do You Sleep
Author: Guede Mazaka
Deco looked at his watch. Something whistled by him to smash against the wall.
He looked up, then moved aside as Cristiano threw his other shoe after the first one. “I’m on time. I didn’t break from my performance routine. Now I’m going to shower and go to bed while you lock me in like a prisoner. Anything else you want to say?”
The first shoe had hit a wall-sconce and badly shattered the colored-glass light-shade. The second one had missed the interior decorating, but had come a lot closer to hitting Deco in the face. “I told you, every time you damage the room, your curfew gets shortened by fifteen minutes.”
“I have one and a half hours of free time after dinner now,” Cristiano started, fuming.
“One hour and fifteen minutes,” Deco replied.
Cristiano jerked forward, swelling with rage so much that his face actually appeared to inflate. It was really damned tempting to whip out a camera-phone and take a picture, and then use it whenever somebody got taken in by Cristiano’s looks, but Deco managed to restrain himself. He did notice a strand of hair was getting in his eye and brushed it back.
In the end, Cristiano’s intelligence won out and he didn’t throw anything else. Instead he snarled and spun on his heel to go off and sulk. “You’re a bastard.”
“If you’d called me that in the first place and not thrown your shoes, you’d still have another fifteen minutes.” Deco felt his cell whirr in his pocket and slipped his hand in, covering the phone with his fingers so the movement wouldn’t show on the outside.
The other man stopped, shoulders hunched and head angrily thrown up. “What, you want me to curse at you?”
“It’s a step forward and results in me having to pay out less money. I don’t expect miracles,” Deco said.
Cristiano slowly lifted his right hand, fingers curling. Then he shook his head sharply and jerked his arm out to the side, like he was giving an imaginary person a slam in the ribs as he stomped off.
“Be nice if I got one, though,” Deco muttered. He’d figured this for a hard one, but it hadn’t even been two weeks in and the migraines already were coming back. If Cristiano ever got to the point where he could understand just how many years of work his stupid petulance was undoing…
Deco gave himself a shake, then sat down and checked who was calling: Ruud. The man had been able to keep himself away—Deco hadn’t had a problem intercepting Cristiano’s ridiculous attempts—but he couldn’t stop himself from phoning. And asking, and asking, and asking. And he just really wasn’t who Deco wanted to talk to right now…besides, the time zone gave Deco a good enough excuse for just calling the man back in the morning. On second thought, he’d call Fàbregas first. Now there was somebody who not only could stick to a plan, but could also creatively make sure the plan worked out.
From the sound of things, Cristiano had gotten out of the shower, but just to be sure, Deco went over and looked. He got a glower and a lot of bitching, but Cristiano was definitely settling in for the night. Tomorrow morning they were on the plane and heading for the next stop, and then they had a meet-and-greet right off the plane so Cristiano had better be fresh for it all.
At this rate, Deco wasn’t going to be so well off. He wasn’t going to be seeing his bed any time soon either, even if Cristiano stayed put: he had the damage bill for that broken sconce to deal with now, and before that he’d had the usual logistical problems waiting for him to get back from making sure the actual show went off without a hitch. He…needed a drink. And a fuck.
After a last check on Cristiano, Deco notified one of the bodyguards—whom he’d hired; he’d fired just about everyone Cristiano had on payroll who wasn’t family, and the ones who were, he’d pulled strings to have called home on emergencies—and went out. He never had locked Cristiano in, despite the man’s dramatic claims. The first time Cristiano had tried to sneak out, Deco had just had him dragged back by a couple ex-cops and then put him on the phone with his mother, who’d been told he’d been caught seducing an innocent school-girl. That apparently had made enough of an impression for Cristiano to not try it again.
Not that it actually taught him anything, Deco irritably thought. The boy had brains, and protestations aside, he wasn’t in the kind of love where he was constantly thinking of Ruud; he thought about himself plenty. So why he couldn’t absorb the simplest lessons in self-preservation…he shouldn’t have been allowed to move away from home to start his singing career. Or at the very least, a relative should’ve been with him from the start.
The more exclusive of the hotel’s two cocktail lounges was nearly empty, which both suited and did not suit Deco. He didn’t have the time or the luxury to risk trying someplace outside, but the selection here was bad. At least nobody he saw was connected with him or the entertainment industry.
He sat down in the corner and ordered a glass of Madeira while he decided what to do, but sat up when a glass of brandy arrived instead. The waiter shrugged, professionally blank-faced, and pointed across the room. “From him, sir.”
Deco took a look. Mid-thirties but not a sign of sagging flesh in the lines of one wrinkled but clearly expensive suit. Shaved head. Odd features…not bad-looking, but hard to place. And coming over as soon as Deco had glanced his way.
“Henrik Larsson. If it matters, I’m a consultant in streamlining administration. Did you want to know anything else?” He had a northern European accent, which contrasted oddly with his face.
“What was your criteria for picking me?” Deco asked. He picked up the brandy and swirled it around beneath his nose.
His Madeira finally came and Larsson tipped the glass to check its legs, then slid it over to Deco. “You looked like you had a headache. I’ve got jet-lag keeping me up and an important meeting tomorrow, and sex doesn’t make me groggy in the morning like pills do.”
Deco could recognize, and appreciate, a real professional when he saw one. He let himself smile a little, noted the slight slackening in Larsson’s shoulders, and traded his wine for the brandy. “Anderson.”
He hadn’t gone by that in a while and the name felt a little awkward on his tongue, but after a sip of brandy, he could feel himself getting more comfortable. He shrugged, then waved towards Larsson. “Your room?”
“Sounds good,” Larsson said. He gestured for the bill.
* * *
“It’s too big for just me and I ended up not being able to find another roommate, so I just let the contract run out. I have to move at the end of the month,” Torsten said in between bites. He stopped to lick the powdered sugar off his fingers, then continued woofing down his doughnut. “The new place is a lot more manageable. It’s in the—you know the building on…oh, sorry. Come on in.”
Michael blinked, then remembered the world didn’t consist only of Torsten’s fingers and snapped out of it. He turned around and then nearly broke Torsten’s chair.
Senderos registered Michael’s spasm with a quizzical look, like he didn’t know exactly why Michael would do that, and leaned over to pass Torsten a file. “I’m just stopping by to drop off the last of my forms. Oh, and if you don’t mind, I included a few receipts.”
“Well…not when you’ve got all the paperwork filled out and…and you did them in triplicate already?” Torsten looked between the folder and Philippe with increasing awe. He stretched out his fingers and gingerly touched the papers again, as if he thought they’d disappear if he shook them too roughly. “I…damn. These’ll be through by the end of the day.”
“Oh.” A flicker of surprise went over Philippe’s face. “Thanks. Michael, can we talk a moment?”
Eventually Michael had gotten around to telling Torsten the whole story about Moggi, so hearing that made Torsten come out of his daze a little. He looked at Michael, and Michael couldn’t come up with an objection, but at the same time his paranoia was working overtime and he had all these fears about what Philippe wanted to discuss. And finally he realized he’d been sitting and staring at Torsten for way too long and gave himself a shake. This wasn’t him, damn it: he was not an idiot and he would be afraid if something scared him, but he wasn’t going to sit around and do nothing about it.
“Okay. I’m actually going back up…I was just talking to Torsten about some new hardware I wanted to buy,” Michael said. And promptly cursed himself for adding an excuse when he didn’t really have to give one.
He had meant to make dinner plans with Torsten, but since Philippe was there, he ditched that idea in favor of emailing Torsten later. So they said bye and Torsten was looking at Michael strangely because Michael was acting like a wooden soldier, and Philippe was politely ignoring everything. He was a little like Thierry that way, except Thierry always exuded a friendly air and Philippe just was silent.
“So what did you want to say?” Michael asked once they were in the elevator.
Philippe looked at him with a mild expression, then away as something jingled along to the tune of Madonna’s new hit. The other man took out his cell and flipped it open, then began thumbing out a text message. “Jens wanted to know if you’d had time to check again and get anything that’d definitively link Robbie Savage to all the crashes and things happening in the computer system.”
After a moment, Michael decided he had indeed heard Philippe correctly, and no, he hadn’t missed anything. “I…no. It’d be—well, I’m not the lawyer, but you might be able to call negligence on him. But not deliberate malice. I mean, we know he did it, but from looking at the evidence, anyone in the building with computer access technically could’ve done it. And he’s gone now so we can’t catch him in the act, which would be the only way to prove he did it.”
“Oh. Thanks. I’ll let Jens know,” Philippe said. He sent off his message and put his phone back in his pocket, letting his hand stay there as he casually stood and waited.
The elevator pinged, its pressure on the bottom of Michael’s feet easing as it came to a stop. The doors opened a moment later and Philippe walked out without another word. Then they closed and the lift arrived at Michael’s floor, and he went back to his office feeling somewhat outdone, even though Philippe hadn’t actually done much. Which probably was it in the first place, and—“Shit! Oh—are you okay? I’m really sorry, I didn’t see you there—”
Lionel slowly uncurled, head turning back and forth as if he couldn’t quite pinpoint Michael’s location. He put his hands down on the floor and looked straight ahead, blinked a couple times, and then yawned. “What the…oh, crap, Micha. This is your office. What am I doing here?”
“I…think you were sleeping,” Michael cautiously said. It looked like Lionel hadn’t suffered any harm from Michael tripping over him, but then, it usually took about ten minutes for Lionel to catch up on the world after he’d woken up. While he could, Michael eased his way into the office and got behind the desk. “I thought today was your day off.”
“Yeah, well…” A slight shadow passed over Lionel’s face. He wasn’t exactly angry, but he definitely wasn’t in the best of moods. He shrugged as he got up, absently rubbing at his side. “First Ronnie canceled on me and then Cesc called. He sounded stressed and I don’t have anything else to do, so I figured I’d just come in and wait to see if he needed a ride home.”
Michael tugged his keyboard towards himself. He started to weigh the pros and cons of asking, but then his curiosity just got the better of him. “But why are you so tired?”
“Oh.” Looking embarrassed, Lionel ducked his head and scratched at the back of it. He poked at the floor with his foot a couple times before flopping into the nearest chair and swinging his legs up to hang them over the chair-arm. “Um, well…last night I was surfing the ‘net and I got hung up reading this entertainment gossip site…no, I know, don’t look at me like that! I know it’s wrong—but they have really funny writers. They’re—here, let me show you.”
Before Michael could answer, Lionel had popped up and gone round the desk to attack the keyboard. He typed in the URL and hit ‘return.’
“Look, trust me. I know what you think about rumor sites but I think you’ll even like this one. It’s more like satire than any—” Lionel stopped.
To be honest, the photo now lighting up Michael’s computer screen could’ve stopped a bus. A train. A supersonic fighter jet, due to the blinding effect on their drivers or pilots. But then, those lucky people at least would’ve had an extra layer of glass between them and the picture. Michael didn’t, and he was seriously worried that he’d just shorted out all the cone cells in his eyes.
“Damn,” Lionel weakly said. “So…I guess this is a pretty good sign Cristiano and Ruud are really over? Because if that isn’t break-up depression, then I don’t know what is.”
* * *
Deco was from Brazil. He’d been in Rio many times during Carnival. He’d seen his share of wild outfits. And still he couldn’t believe it.
The cut of the sweater wasn’t so bad, though it somehow managed to make Cristiano look bone-thin and breakable. The sleeves and back were a solid brown-black, which reminded Deco of donkey dung but otherwise wasn’t offensive, but the front…the front was…plaid. In brightly hideous shades of red and orange and blue and green. The front was a damn good reason to root for England whenever they came up against Scotland in anything.
“Are you going out in that?” Deco finally asked.
Cristiano shrugged and went past him to the rolling cart of breakfast pastries room service had sent up. “Already did. They didn’t have the paper I wanted in the hotel, so I went around the corner to a newsstand. Don’t yell—I took the stupid guards with me and everything.”
Oh, mother of God preserve them. He’d been seen. He’d been…Deco wandered back into his bedroom and dazedly flipped open his laptop.
Several minutes later and several meters of temper shorter, he stormed back out. Two security guards and one wardrobe person were just coming in and promptly snapped to attention. Cristiano was messily eating a flaky golden thing with red jam leaking out of it and completely ignored Deco.
Who, with some intense effort, managed to control himself. Till he’d waved everybody else out of the room. And then he cut loose. “What the hell were you thinking? You’re all over the damn Internet! You’ll be on every fucking entertainment show on the planet tonight!”
“So it’s huge and free publicity, right? And I make Mom happy because I wore this stupid birthday gift,” Cristiano mumbled, spraying crumbs all over the place. At least he knew it looked bad. It wasn’t total loss of sane taste with which Deco was dealing.
Deco paused at that, then more calmly went around to the other side of the cart. After picking about between the plates, he finally settled on a croissant, which he sliced in half before spreading marmalade on it. “It’s bad publicity. And you could’ve just sent her a private picture. Or better yet, worn it when you go back home to visit in a few weeks.”
Cristiano might’ve looked calm enough, but he wasn’t good enough yet to hide the tension in his hands or the too-precise way he was holding himself. “You can’t dictate every part of my life. Even if you’re blackmailing me over my singing.”
“I don’t want to dictate every part of your life. I just want you to make intelligent choices,” Deco said. He flicked a glance at Cristiano. “Which currently I’m having a hard time believing you can do.”
“Oh…it’s a sweater! Who cares—some American slut will forget her panties tomorrow and everybody’ll be talking about that.” Done with his food, Cristiano licked his fingers, then slowly pulled each one through a napkin.
Deco remembered Larsson last night doing the same thing after he’d spilled some Madeira on himself and briefly regretted leaving right after their fuck. That man had been efficient and practical, and completely not a problem at any point. “Cristiano, if you want to convince me that you’re capable of managing your personal life, you’ll have to do better than that.”
“What if I want to look ugly?” Cristiano mulishly said. He angrily knocked his hand against one of the steel food covers, then just as roughly jammed it back on its plate. “What if I want to just wear whatever I feel like and do whatever I feel like and not worry about what everybody else thinks? What about that? That’s managing my damn life, even if it’s not how you’d—”
“You really, truly want that…then retire from music and turn into an anonymous nobody. That’s all you have to do. Give it up. Give up singing in front of thousands, seeing your picture everywhere, hearing your name on people’s lips. Give all that up,” Deco snapped. He tore off the corner of his croissant and a big dollop of marmalade squirted onto the webbing between his forefinger and thumb. Annoyed, he flipped his wrist so it fell onto the nearest plate. “You’re too old to be a martyr now, and you’re too smart to think the world will let you have everything. You want something, you have to give something up. And you know that with every choice you ever made.”
Cristiano was watching Deco, his eyes getting wider and his jaw tightening even more with every word that Deco said. His hands closed into fists on top of the cart so it rocked, creaking as its wheels dug into the carpet. When Deco finally looked directly at him, Cristiano’s eyes flashed with rage and it seemed like he was going to—but instead he swallowed hard and stayed where he was.
Deco popped the bit of croissant in his mouth. At first, it was hard to chew, but after the first few seconds, he’d relaxed enough so that it didn’t feel like he had metal bands for jaw muscles. It helped that it was very good quality marmalade. And that he’d had sex earlier; his patience had managed to recover a little and he was beginning to feel as if he could keep things up for the rest of the tour.
“What did you say to Ruud? To make him drop me?” Cristiano suddenly said. His eyebrow jagged up towards his hairline at Deco’s bemused look. “I wanted him, but I couldn’t figure out what he wanted me to give up. If I had, or if he’d goddamn told me, we—”
“No, you wouldn’t have. I didn’t say anything. He told me.” Which was putting it more politely than Deco really needed to do, but at some point Cristiano probably did need a relationship and Ruud was still a possibility for that. He wasn’t really what Deco would’ve chosen, but he was a known quantity to FC and he understood discretion. “He just didn’t want what you were. You’re a pretty face and body, and you did whatever he wanted—that’s a live-in fuck, Cristiano. That’s not a lover.”
Cristiano took it somewhat better than Deco had been expecting. He just grabbed onto the cart so it rocked hard towards him, sending the plates nearly skidding to the floor, and let out a strangled infuriated noise. Then he jerked his head down; his shoulders heaved as he breathed rapidly, the air hissing through his nose as if he were an angry bull.
“Ruud is a grown man with a professional life where he’s used to being the one with the power. Every time he gave in to you, it was unnatural to him and he never got used to it because he didn’t respect you. You want his permanent attention? Figure out how to get his respect,” Deco added. He put another piece of croissant in his mouth, chewed and swallowed it. Then he crouched down to see if they’d included anything to drink, or if he had to have someone fire up the espresso…no, there was a pitcher of orange juice. Which when Deco sampled it, proved to be freshly squeezed. “You want to be able to talk to him in the first place, get my respect.”
“You…don’t respect me.” It sounded like Cristiano was trying to follow a very complicated argument with lots of tangents to it.
Sometimes Deco wondered if Ruud had just let Cristiano out for appearances, and the rest of the time kept him in the bedroom. Did Cristiano know anything? “You technically pay me, but I treat you like a five-year-old. And you let me. What does that tell you?”
Several seconds of silence passed; Deco preoccupied himself with filling up the rest of his glass. Then he stood up only to see Cristiano’s back—his eyes thanked the other man—moving away. Cristiano went into his bedroom and closed the door. After Deco had counted to thirty and Cristiano still hadn’t come out or made things break and smash, Deco decided it was safe to call in the staff and go over the day’s itinerary.
Halfway through, Cristiano came back out in a much more acceptable set of white t-shirt and khakis. The shirt was skin-tight and was distracting the girl in charge of Cristiano’s water-breaks to no end, but it wasn’t something to which Deco could object.
“Who are we having lunch with?” Cristiano asked.
Everyone stopped and looked at him. He sulked deeper into the chair he’d taken and glared back at them all, but still seemed to be expecting an answer. Possibly a serious one.
“Abramovich,” Deco finally replied.
Cristiano blinked. “Who is he? How nice do I have to be to him?”
The temperature hadn’t changed, which was surprised since Deco had always assumed that if Hell froze over, it’d have to get a lot colder. But no, everything was fine, and Cristiano was indeed taking an interest in the non-performing parts of the tour.
“He’s a huge entertainment guy here—he’s part-owner of the stadium where you’ll be performing tonight, and has his own small recording label here. He owns a first-tier hockey team and a second-tier football team,” one of the security people said. His mouth lingered open for a moment before his brain caught up with him and he looked at Deco.
The initial shock was rapidly fading and honestly, Deco didn’t think Cristiano was going to keep up this new leaf for too long. So far it looked like the other man had to try several times before he’d take to a change in lifestyle he didn’t personally like. But while Cristiano was offering…Deco resettled himself on the couch and began explaining.
* * *
“Fuck you. Actually, you know what sounds better? Fuck you up.” With that, the man launched himself from his chair and came flying at Robin fists-first.
Robin side-stepped and got ready to fling open the door…only to watch as Philippe perfectly timed his walk in so the door-edge smashed into the DJ’s left fist. He howled and staggered sideways; Philippe pivoted on his toes, got around the door as it swung back into place, and then calmly dodged the man’s second punch. Then he made subduing the bastard look like…like…well, one of Jens’ yoga routines, only without the part where Robin got ridiculously hard watching.
“Not my day to be welcomed, I guess. Third time today that people’ve done that,” Robin sighed as he walked up next to Senderos. He cocked his head, trying to gauge the DJ’s level of consciousness.
“I picked up on the pattern.” Which, apparently, was Philippe’s way of explaining how he’d started this jaunt with intervening after Robin had nearly busted a knuckle on one asshole’s jaw and was ending it by leaping in before Robin had a hair on his head ruffled out of place. He turned his back to the man and brushed himself off. “I think he can hear us.”
Confirmed by the DJ insulting Robin’s parentage. After giving the bastard a kick in the belly, Robin got himself braced against the desk and leaned over to look into the nearest bruised eye. “You know, going back on an agreement…I’d call that greed. But this is just plain stupid, asshole. All I wanted to know was who put that two thousand in your savings account last month. But no, you had to be a dick and we had to defend ourselves, and now you’re one, down a source of easy cash, and two, not going to get a lay any time soon with that face.”
More cursing, but the guy was curling up and trying not to look at Robin, so Robin was nice. Gave him a second to collect his breath and thoughts and refrained from another kick at him.
The man finally muttered something that wasn’t insulting. Robin leaned down a bit more. “What?”
“Rio,” he spat, staring viciously at Robin. “Ferdinand.”
“Well, that wasn’t that difficult, was it?” Robin said, checking his watch. Then he held out his hand. Philippe popped a CD into it, which Robin dropped on the radio DJ, and then went to get the door so they could leave. “See you next month.”
Senderos rubbed at the side of his face as they walked towards the car, looking a little concerned. “Nobody will know we were here?”
“Well, he knows, but nobody electronic like the security cameras will know, if that was what you were asking. That’s what I was taking care of with the laptop,” Robin muttered. He laced his fingers together and stretched his arms out in front of himself, then let them swing back to his sides. “I’m guessing that you playing the escort means something?”
“Raúl needed to shift your appointment time and Jens can’t take you to it anymore.” Philippe got in the driver’s seat and pulled out his PDA with almost the same motion. While he was waiting for Robin to get in, he did some email. Then he did some more as he was backing the car out and getting it onto the road.
Robin looked at the seat-belt hanging from the wall near his head. He lifted his hand and twisted his fingers in it, pulling out about a third of a meter, and then irritably let it snap back into place. “Bastard.” He wasn’t sure who he meant, but what he did know was that the day suddenly sucked. Even more. “Anything else I’m not going to like?”
Shrugging, Philippe guided the car towards the highway ramp. It was a nice car, but a little low-end compared to what, say, even Lionel Messi drove. “Jens also wanted me to remind you that Ferdinand’s still off-limits even if Savage isn’t.”
“Yeah, I know, don’t fuck with status quo till they do. All I did today was double-check allegiances,” Robin muttered. He slouched down in his seat, thankful he’d healed up enough to at least be able to do that again, and rubbed at his mouth. Then he glanced over at Philippe, who was still fiddling with his damn PDA. “What the hell’s got your attention?”
“I sent out logistical inquiries for the Chels’ upcoming promo stops and now I’m organizing the replies,” Philippe replied. He switched lanes one-handed while rapidly thumbing at the keyboard.
Robin started to snap back something sarcastic, but then had a thought and was momentarily distracted from his frustration. He drummed his fingers on the side of the window. “How’s that coming?”
“Not well. Half the places are asking for more time and that means they want to say no but can’t figure out a passable reason to give me.”
“Does it look concerted?” Robin asked.
The other man hit one last button, then handed his PDA to Robin. On the screen was a neatly organized list of names, associated venues, contact info and…some kind of timeline for using the contact info. This…Philippe hadn’t just made this spread-sheet, had he? While driving on the freeway?
“Those are the people who said no. I put them in order of information flow—first one can tell us least, second one can confirm the first one and direct us more precisely and so on. Usually I’d send this to Jens and he’d give it to you, but I’m here so…” With a shrug, Philippe returned his attention to the road. He shifted up and tugged at his suit-jacket to straighten it out, then sank back in his seat. “I think there are post-Moggi factions starting up, but nobody has overall control yet.”
For a moment Robin just sat there and looked at Senderos, who really did seem like a…well, honestly, like more of a university student in a suit than Michael Ballack did. But apparently, said suit actually contained an emailing, spreadsheeting machine with a vicious right hook.
“Yeah, well, the chatter I get says Ferguson hasn’t picked one to back yet,” Robin finally said. He took mental notes on the names on Philippe’s list, all of which he recognized to one degree or the other, before handing back the PDA. “I think he’s waiting to see who Jens picks. And Jens is waiting to see who he picks, and it’s all just so--”
“Wouldn’t Ferguson have people doing checks for him about that? Like we’re doing for Jens?” Philippe slipped in. He took the next exit and seamlessly cut across two lanes to hit a cross-section just before the light went to red.
And Robin didn’t end up slammed into the door. All right, all right, he was impressed. “Yeah…you know, I didn’t think of that. I’ve got inputs on the names on your lists, but I didn’t check to see who else is watching them…and I think that’s how we’re going to meet up with Robbie Savage.”
Philippe frowned. “Who?”
“You don’t know?” Considering everything Philippe did know or could do, Robin was genuinely surprised. Cesc had known who the guy was—but then, Cesc was a specialist in that. “He used to work for Jens. Did Ballack’s job.”
“Oh. Oh…I think I’ve heard his name, but that’d be it.” After taking another turn, Philippe spared a moment to sip from the water bottle he had in his drink holder. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “I worked on the third floor before. We distributed and archived meeting minutes, memos, and any other random piece of paper someone wanted to keep, and my supervisor never gave us breaks so we couldn’t talk much with anyone.”
After a moment, he glanced at Robin. Then he frowned, clearly not getting why Robin was grinning so hard his jaw hurt. “I’m just happy about finding out you’re not really the Terminator edition for personal assistants,” Robin said. “So you do bitch about work. Got any private life? Girlfriend or boyfriend?”
Philippe looked at Robin again.
“Hey, I don’t touch people working for Jens,” Robin said, putting up his hands. He made his eyes as wide and innocent as possible; if it worked for Cesc, it would work for him. Well, as long as it wasn’t Jens he was doing it to. “I swear.”
“Girlfriend for the past couple of years. She’s not in the industry.” The other man looked out the windshield, then hunched down and craned his head so he could check out something nearly right above the car. Probably a road-sign. At any rate, he got enough of a view to make up his mind and took a left. “By the way, are you sleeping with Jens?”
Robin tapped his fingers twice against the window-glass, looking straight at Philippe. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” Philippe’s furrowed, slightly worried in a general way but composed expression didn’t change. It was like he was taking notes in his head…he probably was doing that. Or maybe he was even putting it into his PDA; Robin couldn’t see that hand.
After a moment, Robin blinked and looked away. He thought some more before deciding whatever, that was fine. Senderos was a freak, but he was a really helpful freak. And he didn’t have nervous breakdowns like Ballack, or get twitchy every time Robin batted his eyes at Jens like Odonkor. “Anything else?”
“When were you thinking about tracking down Savage?” Philippe asked. His head tilted slightly to the right, then went straight again. “Do I need to bring garbage bags?”
It took a couple seconds for Robin to figure out how that came into it. “Ah…no. I was thinking more like humiliating him. Nothing that bloody. And when…I need to look at some things first. I’ll get back to you within a couple days.”
“Do you need my contact info? My home phone—”
“No, I’ve got all that,” Robin said. He waited for it, then stared expressionlessly back at Philippe when the other man turned towards him.
“Okay,” Philippe said after a moment, blinking. He was making mental notes again. “I’ll look out for your message.”
Robin snorted, turning towards the window. “I’m sure you will.”
* * *
Abramovich was, from the big bronze replica of his football team’s logo in his lobby to the little hockey motifs on his in-house restaurant’s plates, clearly more interested in the sports side of his business. He also was either blindly stupid, or disturbingly practical, because he didn’t seem to object at all to his wife’s blatant flirting with Cristiano.
In all honesty, Deco couldn’t object to it on any level besides sheer disgust at human foolishness. The wife was an airhead so it kept her from having to try and make conversation with anyone else, it kept Cristiano from getting too irritated at Abramovich’s little digs at his masculinity, and having those two distracted let Deco finalize all the little niggling logistical and financial issues before they got to the third course so he could actually enjoy the meal.
Between the main entrée and the first of the dessert courses, they all took a break to see the complicated measures Abramovich had taken to keep the concert stage from damaging the stadium pitch. Deco was mildly interested for the first few minutes—if Abramovich’s engineers could really do that, then he could put on a football match the weekend after the concert and maximize revenue—but after that, he got bored. Which was why he still had so much damn staff around even after trimming Cristiano’s extras: he shoved one of them up to be Abramovich’s sounding board and then excused himself to go find the nearest men’s toilet.
It was occupied. A tall blond man was standing in front of the sinks, tugging and twisting at his tie. He pulled its knot around, studied himself in the mirror for a moment, then sighed and yanked it over his head, flipping up the wings of his collar as he did. When he put his arms down, his head turned so Deco ended up in his line of sight. He paused, eyes narrowing. Then he rattled off something in Russian.
“I didn’t understand a word of that,” Deco said in English. Then he continued on to the urinals. From behind him came a long sigh and then something that might’ve been mangled English, but it wasn’t repeated and he didn’t ask.
After he’d taken his piss, he went into one of the stalls and put the toilet cover down, then sat on it. Then he raised his hands and pressed their heels into his temples. He left them there for a ten-count before slowly massaging them in circles down the sides of his face. Cristiano had been relatively well-behaved since the morning, but that meant Deco was starting to relax and that meant he was finally shifting into a state where all the dramatic tension of the past few days was getting to him.
Something banged against the stall door, and when he looked, a pair of shiny black shoes had appeared beneath its bottom. He frowned and raised his head, but before he could call out, a heavily-accented voice said: “Want water?”
Deco thought a second, then reached out and unlatched the door. He backed up to let it swing open, revealing the blond man leaning against the side. He had a glass of some clear liquid, which Deco was betting was vodka, dangling from his hand. When he saw Deco, his eyebrows shot up.
“No…” he gestured awkwardly, his tongue momentarily bulging into his cheek “…no drugs? No little pills?”
“No.” Deco noted the insignia on the man’s lapel. “No needles either.”
The man’s spoken English might not have been best, but he seemed to understand it fine. His lips tightened into a tight line. Then he glanced at his jacket and grinned sourly, shaking his head. He tossed back his vodka—Deco could definitely smell it now—with a short laugh. “Andriy. I—one of the…football directors. Music?”
“Ah,” Andriy said. He grinned again, so wide that it had to hurt. “Shit music. Sorry, but…”
“What director are you? You’re not on the executive board,” Deco said, leaning back. He rested one arm on top of the toilet-paper dispenser.
Andriy looked a bit more sharply at Deco. Then he shook his head again and toyed with his empty glass. His undone shirt-cuffs flopped about, and at one point one even fell into his glass; when he saw, he merely flipped his wrist to make it come out. It was stained. His hair was ruffled up in the distinctive pattern left by hands repeatedly raking through it. “I…I am the…how do you…needle director. No, not on board.”
Well…no wonder he was drinking midday. So the rumors about Abramovich’s desperation to get his team out of relegation this year weren’t too far off.
“I…saw—Ronaldo, he’s very…” A tiny furrow appeared between Andriy’s eyebrows as he struggled with the words “…he saw me back. Liked it, I think. So that is true? I heard…my ex-girlfriend was trying to sing and she did a…a show before his once. Said…”
Deco stood up and grabbed the edge of the door to keep it from swinging into it. He put his palm against Andriy’s shoulder and pushed. The other man stopped his mangled taunting and resisted, snorting out a laugh. It did break his concentration enough for him to drop back into Russian; Deco ignored that and shoved hard at Andriy’s side. That finally got him out of the way so Deco could leave. Of course, Andriy was yelling after him, but then it sounded like the tipsy asshole had slipped and fallen, and Deco honestly did hope he’d broken something doing it.
He rejoined the others as they were coming back inside, Abramovich still babbling along. For all Deco knew, the man hadn’t even noticed the switch. Abramovich’s wife looked somewhat irritated, which Deco took to mean that Cristiano had finally told her off, and Cristiano was making vigorous ‘can we go now?’ gestures every time he thought he could get away with it.
Well, for once Deco was going to indulge the brat. He popped out his PDA and pulled up his schedule, pretended to find a conflict and got them out of there in fifteen minutes. And if that didn’t teach Cristiano to appreciate efficiency, then he didn’t know what would.
He idly wondered if Larsson was still around, but then Deco remembered that had been last night and a different city. It wasn’t a good idea to get attached so he was glad for that, but still…he could’ve used another good fuck.
* * *
The door banged open and Ruud jerked up his head so fast something in his neck painfully twanged. But he hadn’t even put up a hand to rub at it before Cesc was leaning over his desk and talking as if he’d be shot if he didn’t cram a certain number of words into every minute. “Cesc! Shut up!”
Cesc actually jerked, rocking forward like Ruud had pulled at him. Then he dropped back, mouth open and eyes wide with hurt shock. After a second, his jaw closed enough for him to approximate a pout while still looking incredulous.
“Close the door,” Ruud muttered, pushing at his neck. He found the spot and ground at it till the tendon or nerve or whatever it was went back to how it was supposed to be. By then Cesc had silently shut and locked the door, and had come back to stand in front of Ruud with a persecuted look on his face. “And stop doing that. All right, now try telling me again. Slower—and how many cappuccinos did you have today?”
“Just four.” Lower lip still sticking out, Cesc grudgingly sat down and started over. “So I was talking with Ricky in the elevator earlier and we accidentally got off early on the fifteenth floor and the elevator didn’t come back right away. So we had to wait around, and I overheard Pizarro talking to Borowski. He was saying that Kahn was going to bring up the Hargreaves thing at the next board meeting.”
With an effort, Ruud dragged his brain out of the minutiae of flying in and auditioning three bands in three days and dug up the relevant gossip. Which wasn’t much. “Hargreaves—the Chels’ manager?”
“He’s just logistics now—they’re leaving all the legal stuff up to FC. But he was in some kind of trouble around Christmas and it was probably illegal. Lehmann fixed it then, but if Kahn’s found out about it in the first place…” Cesc reached up and pretended to strangle himself. Then he looked up at Ruud. “So what do we do?”
Ruud opened his mouth to ask why Cesc was going to him with this when the obvious thing would be to let Jens know, but then he noticed Cesc was staring hard at him, eyes almost pleading. And it did occur to him that, if he took it to Jens and added something more concrete, that’d get him closer to being on Jens’ good side again. “Cesc, I really don’t pay you enough. I’ll put in for a raise for you next—what?”
“…I’m still on a trial period till the end of the month, and the…well, you can’t get my salary changed till two months after that,” Cesc mumbled, looking a little embarrassed. Even if he obviously couldn’t help himself.
After a moment, Ruud let himself smile and reached over to ruffle Cesc’s hair. “Well, I’ll mark down to do it then. But Cesc? Never point out when somebody can change your pay rate again, all right? Every time after this, it’ll get you a pay-cut.” He paused so Cesc could nod. “Where is Hargreaves?”
“Still…” Cesc squinted one eye and thought briefly “…hanging out in Lahm and Hildebrand’s extra room, I think. Too many of the wrong people knew where his old apartment is and he hasn’t found a new one. Do we need him?”
“No, we need him to absolutely not show up anywhere near here. You’ve got half an hour for that. Also, find out if you can if Hargreaves has gotten within two meters of anybody on Kahn’s team,” Ruud said, swinging over to his computer. He checked his schedule for what he could skip, saw that he could free up an hour if he worked overnight, and promptly made the change. Then he cocked his head. “Are you still here?”
Sudden rush towards the door. “Nope. See you in thirty.”
Ruud smiled for a few seconds, and felt it fade off his face in another ten. He took out his cell and flipped it open, then grimaced as usual: Cristiano was still at the top of his contacts list. He’d deleted the number associated with it—anyway, he assumed Deco had had that changed—but somehow couldn’t bring himself to eliminate the name altogether.
A month later and he was still surviving. His productivity was up and his liquor cabinet was mysteriously empty, probably thanks to the Fàbregas fairy, and deep down, Ruud knew he was just slapping bandages over still-open wounds. He was actually looking forward to working into the night, since at least that made it a hell of a lot easier to pretend he didn’t want to drink himself senseless.
But it was still day now, and he still had plenty to distract himself into thinking he was getting over it. He gave himself a shake, put the brooding off till later as well, and called Robin.
Ten minutes and a lot of nonsensical rigmarole later, Ruud was sitting in his car, which was parked in a nondescript back-alley, and Robin was warily staring at him from the other side. “Why do you need to know?”
“Because if Kahn knows Hargreaves by name, then obviously somebody told him and there’s a leak in the office,” Ruud patiently explained.
That obviously got to Robin and it almost spurred him into a quick reply. Then he stopped, chewing at his lip. He rubbed at his nose, then flicked his eyes up to Ruud again. “Hargreaves went drinking a lot before he finally fucked up. Enough for MU to pick up on him. So it’s also a possibility that MU leaked it.”
“Not so likely. Ferguson’s concentrating on Jens right now because first Jens got his attention and second, Jens always fights back. Most of the others who’ve seen a conflict with Ferguson coming will back down. But Kahn’s stood his ground in the past…he hasn’t clashed recently with Ferguson, but you can bet he’s still on Ferguson’s to-do list.” Ruud thought a moment, trying to remember what he’d heard. All of that had been before he’d even been at MU. “Kahn got the worse of it too, so he’s not likely to listen to MU in the first place.”
Robin muttered something about hah, another reason Kahn wanted to stick it to Jens so badly. He pulled at his nose again. “Jens and me, Thierry, Ljungberg and Ballack…and Senderos, we knew the most. Lahm was only around for the opening shots, and Hildebrand would know what he knows.”
“Ballack’s friends with them,” Ruud pointed out.
“Yeah, but Michael wants to be a good citizen. He…huh, well, he might’ve talked to Frings about it, but I really don’t think he would have told anyone else. He would’ve had to talk about what he did and he got pretty dirty in it.” Quick, absentminded smile, followed by an annoyed look out the windshield. “Thierry, Ljungberg and Frings are definitely not it. I don’t think Senderos…he just got a job here and it’s way better than his last one.”
When money and power and fame came calling, anybody could turn into a backstabber, but Ruud had to doubt Lahm and Hildebrand as well. Lahm just on the man’s principles, and while Hildebrand wasn’t so open about it, he hated Kahn almost as much as Jens did for reasons that were never quite clear to Ruud. Which eliminated just about—his cell phone was ringing. After he saw who it was, he immediately had the phone up to his ear. “Cesc?”
Robin blinked, then sighed and turned away to look out the window. After a moment, he pulled up his knee and propped it against the dash as he worked on one of his odd-looking PDAs. Ruud would’ve told him to get his damn feet off the leather if Cesc had been telling him anything less than who the leak was. But Cesc was doing that.
He lowered the phone and Robin looked at him. “Sebastian Deisler,” Ruud said. “In Oliver Kahn’s group. He chatted Hargreaves up in the company cafeteria once and they had a one-off fuck. Hargreaves had no idea who he worked for.”
“Deisler? E then I? Hang on a moment.” Some poking at the PDA.
“No, don’t bother. I know him and I can talk to him.” Ruud didn’t miss the skepticism in the look Robin gave him. He deliberately turned and stared the other man down. “What? Do you want to do it yourself? I thought you weren’t even allowed in the office.”
Robin flinched back, then angrily jerked himself around and grabbed hold of the door lever. He started to open the door, then stopped. “Well, and I thought you were getting over your Ronaldo hang-over.”
“It’d be better coming from me,” Ruud said.
He played it as cool as he could, but Robin wasn’t an idiot. The other man swept a contemptuous gaze up and down Ruud before finally shrugging, as if to say fine, but not to expect him to pitch in if it went wrong. “Okay. I just messaged Jens and he says he can see you as soon as you get back.” Sharp, humorless smile. “Oh, no, I’m not going to fuck around in FC. That’s not what Jens wants me to do. But you sure as hell can’t call me for information and then waltz up to him in whatever way you want.”
Ruud opened his mouth, closed it and then slowly opened it again. “Look, Robin, everything before…I’m genuinely sorry about that. But if you haven’t figured out by now that I’m not interested in going after Jens like that again, then I don’t know what to tell you.”
“It’s not about that, you—never mind. You’re going to be late for your meeting,” Robin muttered, getting out.
And he was right, so Ruud didn’t stop him.
* * *
Cristiano was well into his performance and wouldn’t be going anywhere for a good long while. Right after he was finished, they were flying out and spending the next three days in the next city, so Deco could afford to count on downtime then. He left the stage manager in charge and went up to the hall outside the sound-control room where it was quiet and empty enough, and then he made a call.
*Hello?* Ruud said, sounding somewhat startled. *Is something wrong?*
“It’s been thirty-eight hours and fifty…three minutes since the last time I had to tell you to not call so much. I wanted to make sure you weren’t dead and I didn’t have that mess on my hands.” Deco took the water bottle he’d taken with him out from under his arm and twisted off the lid, then took a long swig from it. “He’s fine, by the way.”
Long pause. It sounded like Ruud was still in the FC building, since Deco could distinctly pick out Jens haranguing someone in the background. *Look, can you be honest with me? Do you hate me for—never mind, just do you hate me? Dislike me?*
He sounded confused throughout, but near the end rage was beginning to suffuse into his voice. Which reminded Deco of why this had been a bad idea and why he really should’ve stuck to his plan of calling Fàbregas first…but what was easiest and what had to be done weren’t always identical. “No. I do think you’re an incompetent shit when it comes to Cristiano, but I don’t hate you.”
*Thanks,* Ruud said after a moment. He didn’t sound like he wanted to say it, but he did sound like he meant it.
“Incompetent or not, you lasted two years with him. I…” Deco sighed and rubbed at the back of his neck “…I have to say I’m impressed by that.”
Ruud snorted, then laughed, though a bit hollowly. *So that’s why you’re calling.*
He didn’t say it offensively, though he could have. Instead he just sounded sympathetic, and beneath that, tired and wistful and bitter. It was one of those odd moments of connection that only happened in a field where people were spaced thousands of miles apart and isolated by overwork, and could only really relate to just a handful of others whom a humorous Fate seemed to have picked out.
*You’ll do better than me,* Ruud added, voice dropping to a mumble. *If not, you would’ve just had a breakdown and I’d have read about it in the…by the way, that sweater?*
“Trashed. And I know I will do better.” Of course, moments didn’t last too long. Deco needed to get back downstairs and back to work.
Ruud picked up on it, but still couldn’t help himself. *Wait—he’s really okay?*
Hell, no. “He’s completely recovered,” Deco said, and hung up. He felt a lot better.
* * *
Cesc decided he hadn’t timed this one too well. He got back from Lahm’s place—where he’d told Hildebrand that for sure Ruud and Cristiano were over, and been amused to see the man crowing for a good five minutes over winning the office pool—just in time to get news of Deisler’s tearful resignation. And apparently, Ruud had been the one to talk him into it?
“No, he’s been depressed for a while—he’s a nice guy at heart and he couldn’t take the atmosphere here anymore. I just point-blank asked him if he’d passed the news to Kahn, and if he’d known how close Hargreaves came to dying before Jens stepped in, and he went to Jens himself,” Ruud said. He looked pretty depressed himself, slumped in his chair with the back ratcheted down and his hands dangling over the sides. Not at all like somebody who’d just forced Ljungberg into complimenting him on his ‘quick thinking’ in public. “Of course, Kahn’s just lost one of his best agents and a chance to legitimately get Jens, so he’s angry as hell. But the way Deisler announced it, Kahn’s got to put up and support him or else he’ll get burned by everyone.”
“I just saw Lehmann and he seems more than annoyed this time, too. Think he’s losing his…” Cesc stopped, then came the rest of the way around Ruud’s desk and sniffed. His heart sank. “Ruud—”
Held up a hand. “I had one shot of whiskey. One. From David’s stash. Deco called—that’s why. I’m not going to have another one, but he just…I’ll be in the office all night, so you can round up people to check on me if you have to.”
After a bit of consideration, Cesc decided to let this one go. He did know enough people on the cleaning staff to arrange for them check in on Ruud. “Okay…so Kahn…”
“Well, he can’t try again for a while. I think he might have to hold off till Jens makes a bad mistake—Jens was hinting about having something on Kahn that he’d been withholding out of respect, and Kahn was going white enough for me to believe it’s that good,” Ruud replied. He didn’t sound drunk. He sighed and stared at the ceiling for another moment, then slowly pulled himself up. “Take the rest of the day off, Cesc. I don’t really have anything for you to do that I can’t do myself, and I’ll be needing you almost around the clock for the next three days.”
Cesc thanked him, made arrangements with the cleaning staff on the way out, and then ran into Lionel, who was in even though it was his off-day. He turned down Lionel’s offer of a ride since he’d been planning to go over to Raúl’s and Lionel would’ve teased him all the way, and happily zipped there early. Iker was out of town attending a film festival, so Cesc had been looking forward to working on the project of getting Raúl to loosen up. And now he had even more time for that—he could maybe talk Raúl into going out for a while before dinner, like to that…
A car Cesc didn’t recognize was parked in the driveway. Which wasn’t that unusual, but for some reason, his stomach got a bit tight. He shrugged it off and happily swung up to the front door…which was unlocked and ajar. Cesc stared hard at it, the cramps in his gut coming back strong. Then he slowly pushed it the rest of the way open. He could hear voices: one was Raúl’s, which temporarily made Cesc relax. But then he realized Raúl was yelling at someone and tensed up again.
It sounded like they were in the kitchen, so Cesc headed that way. He was just turning the corner when a sudden, deafening silence fell—he skidded the rest of the way, then froze.
Raúl noticed a second later and shoved his hands up, twisting himself free so he stumbled back against the counter. He was breathing hard and his lower lip was already a little swollen, and—Cesc looked away before he saw Raúl’s eyes. But the only other thing he could look at was Fernando Morientes, who was staring at him with palpable annoyance. “I thought you said you weren’t expecting anybody,” he irritably said. “I wanted to talk in private.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Cesc snapped. His stomach cramps suddenly expanded to engulf his heart as well, and when it burst under the pressure, he filled up with acid. Years and years of it, so strong and blinding that he didn’t see or hear if Raúl said anything. “I’m leaving. But you know what? You’re an asshole. I always thought you were an asshole, and you’re still an asshole—and if you call me kid once, I’ll smash your asshole face in.”
Then he turned around and left. He didn’t know if he ran out or what, but one way or the other he got back to his car, and then he just drove.