Author: Guede Mazaka
“Mrnin’—” Ricardo blushed and ducked, flapping his hand at his mouth as if he’d just eaten a hot pepper.
The only thing before him on the table was the newspaper and a bowl with a little puddle of milk at the bottom of it, so Paolo judged that to not be a possibility. He leaned over to see what section of the paper Ricardo had, absently kissing the other man’s cheek in passing. “Good morning and don’t choke. I could’ve sworn we’d covered swallowing in a timely fashion, Kaká.”
“Ah,” Ricardo said. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he hastily finished downing his mouthful. The red in his cheeks lingered, and combined with the half-tucked shirt and slightly ruffled hair, it was making for a very picturesque start to the day. In fact, it was very possible Paolo had seen the same pose in a recent music video they’d had to screen for copyright violations. “I think we did. The coffee’ll be ready in a moment.”
Though Paolo would’ve had a terrible time fitting into the kimono the girl in that kitchen had been wearing, he irreverently thought. He hummed and flipped up the edge of the paper in front of Ricardo to find the entertainment section. He pulled it out and skimmed it for any red-alert words while he took a pair of mugs out of the cabinet. No front-page worries…he opened it up, noting how thin it felt. The espresso machine went off and he turned around, only to find Ricardo there in front of him.
“You’re low on sugar. I’m going grocery-shopping tonight; do you want me to pick some up for you?” After filling up Paolo’s cup, Ricardo handed it over before putting his own beneath the spigot. He watched the thin dark stream descend with an intensity of concentration that would’ve been ludicrous on anyone else.
Paolo sighed and set his coffee on the counter, then stepped up behind the other man. He felt Ricardo start just before his hands came down on Ricardo’s hips and adjusted accordingly so his nose wouldn’t be bloodied when he pressed it into the vee of hair trailing down the center of Ricardo’s neck. “I suppose the risk of scalding’s too great to just sip it off your skin.”
Ricardo sucked in his breath, then slowly let it out in a low, uneven hiss. His right hand dropped back to cover Paolo’s. It pulled, then pushed, reluctantly allowing their fingers to twine together as Paolo eased up Ricardo’s shirt on that side, tickled the bare skin beneath. “We’re going to be late to work. I still need to go home…Paolo, I need to change my clothes…”
“But I really think you’re better than coffee for waking me up,” Paolo murmured, feathering his mouth along Ricardo’s hairline. He nibbled his way across and then pressed his cheek to the side of Ricardo’s throat; despite the protests, Ricardo had leaned back into him, chin raised so Paolo’s nose just fit beneath the line of the other man’s jaw. “Bring a spare change the next time.”
On the counter, something crackled: Ricardo accidentally fisting up some of the newspaper. He muttered apologetically and smoothed it back out before his head turned, his eye not quite rolling back to look at Paolo. “A spare?”
“An extra suit. God knows my closet is big enough.” Paolo could feel the tension in Ricardo’s hips, the nervous shift of flesh and bone beneath his hands. If he listened harder, he could probably hear the other man’s heartbeat change with the ear he had pressed to Ricardo’s neck. Instead he smiled, briefly and with his head down so Ricardo couldn’t see it, and then twisted around to kiss the pulse. “Really, Kaká. I might think too much, but I don’t see any reason not to be practical while I’m mulling something over.”
Ricardo tipped his head, taking that in, and then turned in Paolo’s hands till he could lay his palm against Paolo’s chest. “Okay,” he said. Every word and look might be sincere, but that certainly didn’t mean Ricardo couldn’t be deliberate. “Thanks, Paolo. I…it’ll probably be the day after tomorrow, though.”
“Mmm?” However open it was to view, the degree of implicit understanding and…cooperation…in Ricardo’s face was a bit unnerving. Paolo leaned in and let his mouth brush over Ricardo’s ear, and was a good deal more comfortable when Ricardo shivered and dropped his eyes.
“I’ve—well, I have to drive to the university after work and register for classes.” Correctly reading Paolo’s sudden stillness, Ricardo laughed a little and guiltily scrubbed at the back of his head with his free hand. “I have one more semester to finish, remember? I took off a year to get more work experience, but…”
“Oh, yes, you said something about that in January, I think,” Paolo said musingly. He grinned at the look on Ricardo’s face, then ducked in again. He did stop when Ricardo pushed at his chest, but only that: he didn’t lean back. “It looks like it’ll be an exceptionally slow day today. Honestly, I doubt anyone’ll be in to notice if we’re a disastrous five minutes late, Kaká.”
* * *
Jens had long since perfected the art of locking his back molars in a grinding crush while keeping his lips relaxed and thus not letting anyone else know the real extent of his mood, but this was testing that. Testing it severely. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
Alessandro Nesta hadn’t changed much in eight years, except maybe in his ability to be utterly contemptuous. When he’d been younger, he’d been too touchy and it was rare for him to still be in his seat five minutes after he’d been shown in—and thus a lot easier to write off. He’d been sitting in that chair for ten minutes now and he hadn’t even changed how his legs were crossed. “Fine. It’s been a while, so I don’t know whether this cesspool’s made you illiterate or hopelessly baroque, but I’ll try the former first. Simple words: I’m here because Luciano Moggi was still in fact an Italian citizen when he was murdered, and thus he falls under my jurisdiction. You’re here because I have reason to believe you can tell me about said murder. Victim. Whichever. I have time.”
First of all, Jens thought, he was going to have a long talk with David, his secretary, the lobby secretary, and anybody else who had a hand in making this the first fucking meeting of the day. Secondly…he managed to take a normally-paced breath. “I see. Is this an official request for an interview? I believe the proper procedure is to send that through my attorney.”
Nesta’s eyebrows rapidly rose and fell. He cocked his head and looked down his nose, which couldn’t have been more suited for that if it’d been reshaped by a punch—not that Jens wasn’t tempted anyway—before uncrossing his legs. Then he got up with the scantiest of nods. “No, it’s not official. I merely thought that, considering our past history, it would be…fitting to offer you the chance to cooperate.”
“Thank you. It’s appreciated.” Jens felt the bottom of his chair begin to bend beneath his fingers and made himself let go of it and move his hands to the top of his desk before anything creaked. Or broke. “If I believe I have the slightest bit of information that may prove helpful, rest assured I’ll be in contact. If you could leave—”
“Your assistant’s got my information,” Nesta said curtly. He spun on his heel the moment he was out of the chair, but took his time going on towards the door. “I assume Paolo’s—”
Something about that managed to get through the fog of rage taking over Jens’ brain, and he was very grateful for the distraction. “Paolo Maldini no longer represents me.”
Nesta paused and looked over his shoulder, expression faintly surprised. “I suppose it’s still a bit too early for him to retire.”
“He still is an employee of FC.” And technically he was working with Jens’ group now, but that hadn’t yet been formalized so Jens didn’t feel like mentioning it. Not quite yet. “You may address any legal inquiries you may have to Robert Pirès. I’ll have his contact information sent to you.”
“Oh, I’ll just save your secretary the extra step and get it on my way out. Don’t bother going out of your way for me; it doesn’t impress me at all,” Nesta snorted. And finally left.
Jens tapped his fingers on his desk as the door swung shut behind the other man. Then he swung around and checked his email and his schedule. He opened up a browser window and scanned his gossip-column feeds for anything important. And exactly ten minutes after Nesta had exited, he got up and slammed open the door.
“Sir!” David scooted out of his office, bug-eyed and juggling several files, a PDA and three cell-phones. “Sir, I’ve already called Robert and slotted him in before lunch so you can finish briefing him. Thierry’s—”
“—slept over and is thus already prepping him on this, I’m guessing,” Jens muttered. He was dimly aware of being glad that chore was out of the way, and that Thierry’s love life was still going swimmingly, but he didn’t have the time or, to be honest, the inclination to spend on that. He looked at the bouncing phones. “Senderos, Freddie, and…”
A moment of confusion nearly made David drop everything. Then he went ‘ah!’ and rearranged his burden so one cell popped into Jens’ hands. “Sorry, boss, but I wasn’t sure if you also wanted to call Maldini or…”
One of the two phones remaining in David’s hands rang, sending him into another panicky spasm. Jens briefly wondered why the other man wasn’t using the headset system, then remembered David had mentioned it breaking yesterday. That should’ve been a sign, he thought. “Just tell Freddie to get his ass over here. Don’t tell him anything else—I don’t want to add to the damage list before I know what I’m dealing with anyway. Tell Senderos to get Maldini in here the moment that man shows up to work. I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“Okay…wait…um, boss? Sir?” David turned as Jens walked away, but his other phone also rang and he had to handle that. Despite the physical flailing, he was also perfectly capable of handling anything office-based and he probably figured that out, since he didn’t call after Jens after that.
Or maybe he figured that Jens was mad as hell and didn’t want to get fired. Either way, it worked out.
Jens checked over the cell David had handed to him and spared a moment to nod approvingly when he saw it was brand-new, with no personal info entered into it yet: bought and registered under a fake name, and it’d be wiped and donated after this call. Good, David was thinking.
“Lehmann?” Deco stood in the doorway to his office, blinking and holding an empty coffee-mug. “What brings you here?”
“Tell Giuly Nesta’s back,” Jens said. He glanced behind Deco, then gave the room a proper look. “I see you are using it after all.”
Deco shrugged. When his shoulders went down, his collar shifted to expose something that looked a lot like a mouth-shaped bruise. “It has a lovely view. I appreciate the different perspective.”
That…just changed who Jens was going to call. He arched an eyebrow. “Do you mean the horizontal one? It’s expansive enough to make most people forget about the vertical one.”
“Oh, both are equally important to me,” Deco dryly said. Something buzzed in his office and he glanced over his shoulder, then half-turned. “Anything else? Cristiano?”
“No, and Cristiano is your business. I wouldn’t presume to give you suggestions.” Jens spun on his heel and started back to his office. Three minutes according to his watch…he dialed, then put the phone up to his ear. Once he was through one of the lounges, he spoke. “Larsson? It’s Jens Lehmann. I’d like to discuss exactly what your range of services includes.”
* * *
*I think you’d better come down. I’m not getting a good picture here and I’m mostly a visual person,* Ludo said. In the background, somebody was asking where the extra gun clips were.
Deco leaned out of his door till he could just see the elevator at the end of the hall. There was a large potted plant in the way, but he still was fairly certain that that was the top of Cristiano’s head coming out of the lift doors. “I can’t till after working hours. Anyway, I’m pretty sure Lehmann was just confirming I do know how to reach you. He’s not stupid.”
*And so you still called me on the emergency line because…oh, never mind, I remember now. Good, he thinks you’re a whore. I respect Lehmann for many things, but I have noticed he’s got a tendency to write off people who can’t control their sex lives.* Ludo took a moment to scream French at somebody—it sounded like Sébastian answered back—before making a sound like he was scratching his teeth with his nail. *I’ll tell the cooks to expect somebody from him soon. Do you think he’ll send Ljungberg or Senderos?*
Actually, Deco thought it was a good thing they were doing this over the phone, even if it meant he’d have to go find somebody to purge his phone records again, because he might’ve been really tempted to hit Ludovic. They did have a plan but Giuly didn’t have to sound so damn amused at Deco’s work situation. “Does it make a difference? Look, I need to go. My client’s here.”
That was a misrepresentation if there ever was one, but Deco could put up with the charade for a while. He knew Cristiano’s temperament and no matter how the other man had changed, certain fundamental—Deco frowned at the man trailing Cristiano by about a half-pace. Light brown hair, good cheekbones but beaky nose, diffident suit, somewhat familiar…
Cristiano spotted him and waved, then put his hand on his companion’s shoulder and dragged them both forward. “I hired my personal assistant. Deco, this is Gabriel Heinze. Gaby, this is Deco.”
“Deco, I just got a report from Accounting that—” Cesc bounced around the corner and landed by Deco, head up and perky smile in place. He was perfectly positioned to see Heinze and Deco was in a perfect position to watch Cesc go to furiously terrified in two seconds. “Heinze! Oh, my God, who let you in? Security!”
“Hey!” Cristiano snapped. “Hey, relax. He’s with me.”
“You! You sent Freddie Ljungberg home with three dislocated fingers!” It was a sign of Cesc’s extreme discomfort that he wasn’t even pretending to listen to Cristiano now.
Heinze blinked a couple times, looking rather confused. Then comprehension dawned: he grinned and snapped his fingers. “Oh, right. I remember that. That was when our Welsh band outsold…oh, sorry, Cris. Never mind.”
Cristiano’s face briefly became an amusing sight in its own right. Then he figured out he couldn’t do multiple expressions at once and settled for irritated, focusing on Cesc. “Fàbregas, this is Gaby and he’s my personal assistant. Gaby, this is Cesc Fàbregas. He’s Deco’s—”
Having bad blood with Ljungberg didn’t exactly narrow down the possible explanations, but Cesc’s freak-out and the mention of record sales did. “Gaby, is it? Can I ask who your former employer was?”
Gaby opened his mouth, but Cristiano stepped in front of him so Deco couldn’t see what he did with that. Though, Deco sourly thought, it probably was more of a question of what Heinze had done with it last night. “Hang on a second, Gaby. I’m going to talk with Deco.”
“Sure. I’ll go get that coffee—you still put the same number of sugar cubes in it?” Gaby asked, shrugging. When Cristiano nodded, he turned on his heel and ambled off.
In the meantime, Cesc had apparently scooted into Deco’s office because when Deco turned, the other man was just coming out. He made a quick series of gestures to indicate where he’d dropped off various things, then began to start off.
“Cesc, did you hear back from Marketing yet? Why don’t you go do that?” Deco said, waving Cristiano into the office. He didn’t think that would keep Cesc from his ultimate destination of telling Lehmann Cristiano had just been utterly idiotic again, but it’d at least slow him down.
Fàbregas nodded and trotted away. Cristiano rolled his eyes as he wheeled around to look at Deco. Deco bit his lip and reminded himself he needed Cristiano to balance Giuly and Lehmann, so asking Giuly to bury the spoiled shit alive was out of the question. “He’s from your days at MU, isn’t he? Are you out of your mind? I mean, aside from the—”
“They fired him. I can send you a copy of the termination letter,” Cristiano said. He put his hands on his hips and gazed around with a bored expression. “And his résumé and what?”
The coffee machine was in a public area, and Cesc wouldn’t be the only one to recognize—Deco gritted his teeth and didn’t call after Heinze. Plenty of people would’ve seen him on the way in and it was way too late to try and damage-control that. Instead Deco shut the door, then leaned against it and shook his head. “Cris, you’re not stupid. I’m sure he’s overqualified, and I’m sure he’s your friend, and I’m also sure that it doesn’t matter that MU fired him to most of the people here. All they’re ever going to see is what he did for MU against them.”
Cristiano spun on Deco with an annoyed expression—and then froze as what Deco had actually said started to filter through. “Oh…yeah, I do know. But he’s working for me, not them. And most of the time he’ll be outside of this building, so it’s not like he’ll be running into FC people that much.”
“Then why did you bring him in today?” Deco asked, letting a little of his exasperation into his voice. He knew that was a good choice when Cristiano’s shoulders sagged a bit from their stiff, defensive rise. “Did you schedule in ‘fight with Lehmann’ when I wasn’t looking?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?” A faint tinge of surprise colored Cristiano’s response, but then he shook his head and went back to irritation. “Well, he does need to know where I go here if there’s an emergency. Plus I thought you’d want to meet him.”
Sure he did. The way somebody shooting a gun wanted their bullet to meet its target. But if Cristiano thought that that was going to throw Deco, he still had a bit to learn about psychology. If he was expecting a dig at Ruud as well, he’d be waiting a while—the wait would do more than any sharp comment Deco could come up with. “Well, thanks for that. But you’d better get him out of here before anybody who’s personally tangled with him shows up. Oh, and get his personal info. I’ll be bringing the employment forms with me tonight.”
“Okay,” Cristiano said after a moment. He stepped towards the door and put his hand on the knob, then paused. He frowned, pursing his lips. “Anything else?”
“Did you have anything else to tell me?” Deco raised his eyebrows. When Cristiano didn’t say anything, Deco nodded and went to his desk.
He glanced over some papers Cesc had left till he heard the door shut. After checking over his shoulder, he popped out his cell again and dialed Giuly’s number again. Ludo didn’t seem to like Ferguson, but he’d want to know who his other competitors for Lehmann’s attention were. And Deco could use some more information on Heinze.
While the phone rang, Deco leaned over and snagged his PDA to send off a quick email to Lehmann, who was going to want a heads-up as well. Frankly, bringing up Ruud wouldn’t have done Deco any favors anyway—he was going to have enough to do keeping his head up without digging up old mud as well.
* * *
Cesc was so, so glad he was still on the phone. He pointed at it, shook his head and continued taking notes from the Marketing moron on the other end without looking at Cristiano.
Sigh from Cristiano. “Fàbregas, I need to talk to you. I want to let Lehmann know something.”
A quick peek at the floor showed that only two pairs of shoes were in the vicinity: theirs. The Marketing idiot had just put Cesc on hold for a second, so Cesc risked a look up. “Um…but I’m just an assistant. Wouldn’t Deco—”
Cristiano rolled his eyes, then realized he could see his reflection in the glass of a picture hanging on the wall and began to rearrange his front locks. “Look, I’m not dumb and I’m not drugged up anymore, either. I know you propped up Ruud basically till they shipped him off, and if you can do that, I think you know how to get to Lehmann. Besides, I don’t want Deco to know about this.”
“How come? I mean, he’s your agent,” Cesc said. Then Marketing came back on, but by now Cesc was getting genuinely interested. This definitely wasn’t a side of Cristiano he’d seen before, and well…he and Deco got along fine, but one, it was pretty obvious Deco only trusted him up to a certain point. Two, Cesc was really busy justifying that caution, and anything that helped him with that would probably help him get moved on to somebody else. So he told Marketing to fuck off till they had some actual info for him.
“He is. So he takes care of my business, but this isn’t really my business so much as FC’s,” Cristiano replied, edging closer. He casually peeked into the hallway before shooting a warning look at Cesc. “Gaby is my friend, but I was at MU for a couple years. I saw plenty there—look, I checked and the paperwork shows he has been fired. And I don’t think he’s about to screw me over. But I don’t think he’s going to stop talking to people at MU, if you know what I mean.”
Cesc tilted his head and looked Cristiano over very closely, but all he saw was sober thoughtfulness. He fiddled with his phone. “Okay…so…”
“So somebody was angry enough at Ruud to pay for a hitman, and then the moment he’s gone, I run into Gaby? I’m curious. I’m sure Lehmann’s curious, too. Just tell him our curiosities overlap so not to give me a lot of shit, all right? Better I’m dealing with somebody I’ve known before than with…well, use your imagination.” Cristiano leaned forward on the balls of his feet, like he was trying to intimidate Cesc with his height or something, before abruptly spinning and walking off. A couple of seconds later, his voice was mingled with Heinze’s as they went down the hall.
Well, that’d been…interesting. That whole Larsson thing was apparently still eating at Cristiano, and then there was what sounded like another MU-FC dust-up brewing. Only this time Cristiano was angling for a more dynamic part. And crap, he was growing brains: Cesc was going to have to tone down the polite act a bit till Cristiano got distracted again.
The Marketing guy called back with something useful, so Cesc finished getting it all down and then dropped it off with Deco, who as usual was busy ripping people new assholes over the phone. Honestly, you’d think that publicists would know better by now than to double-book stars for the same high-profile luncheon without cross-checking first…whatever, that wasn’t in Cesc’s line. Though he did note that Deco seemed to be okay with the whole Heinze thing now.
Cesc wasn’t dumb enough to go find Jens without checking the office grapevine about how things were going there, and the grapevine said Jens might’ve killed somebody already and run them through the industrial shredder. Wincing, Cesc stopped to get himself a cup of water and was contemplating calling Robin—it was kind of early, and he knew Robin had been out late and then probably had gotten fucked stupid for not being around when Jens had finally gone home—when Senderos showed up. David would’ve been best since he had the background, but…well, Senderos was allowed to drive Jens and Robin home. He’d do.
“Hi, can I get in?” Philippe asked. He had a stack of fat brown file-sized envelopes under his arm and their flaps weren’t sealed, so that meant he’d been to Legal. “Oh, thanks.”
“No prob.” After handing the first cup to Philippe, Cesc got himself another. “Hey, listen, how bad is Lehmann’s mood right now?”
Philippe’s expression went from vaguely concerned to flat-out freaked. The furrows of his brow could’ve been mistaken for corrugated iron. “Shit, what’s happened?”
“Oh, wow. That bad? I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you like this,” Cesc said. He sipped at his water, wishing it was coffee or soda. He probably needed to start building up a good caffeine high.
“I just got to see Paolo Maldini go white in the face.” Philippe stared down at his little paper cup, which looked like an eggshell in his hand. A hummingbird’s eggshell. “Is it Deco or Cristiano? Or both? Giuly?”
Cesc stared at him for a moment. “You really found your feet fast. You’ve only been for…sorry, that was rude. And I’ve—” Deco had an appointment with his and Cristiano’s security company, and since Heinze was here, he really shouldn’t miss that “—gotta make this quick. So: Cristiano’s hired Gaby Heinze as his personal assistant as part of some kind of double game. He doesn’t think Gaby’s totally free of MU yet but he wants to figure that out by keeping Gaby around and not letting Deco in on it. Got that?”
“Yeah,” Philippe muttered. He stuck his cup beneath the spigot and refilled it, then had to do some quick juggling when his cell went off. “Hello? I’ve got them and will be there in two minutes, sir. I’m sorry I’m late, but Kahn was there and I didn’t think you’d want me to see him…I’ve got a list of the files he had pulled and I’ll bring that too.”
“Thanks. I’ll just—you look like you’re busy too,” Cesc muttered, easing off. He got an understanding but distracted smile from Philippe and a nod, and that was taken care of. Great. Now for Deco, and then after that…maybe tracking down Kaká to see if he knew what was up.
* * *
Paolo was partially right: when Ricardo finally made it in to work, the secretaries were all either away from their desk or too busy taking calls to notice him, and Bobby’s desk looked like it had the night before so possibly he wasn’t even in yet. That was a little odd: Bobby was usually punctual to a fault. Then again, he might have gotten a call or something and stopped to take care of some work during the drive over…Ricardo checked his voicemail and email and came up with a curt message listing what he needed to do for the day.
One of the items was getting an awful lot of files from Paolo, from years and years ago, and after getting over his initial embarrassment, Ricardo had to wonder about that. He did remember that one time Paolo had complained about having to dig up old records—for reasons besides why his blush was coming back, and he really wished he’d stop doing that—and couldn’t help wondering if they were related.
Paolo, however, wasn’t in his office. Which was another odd thing, since he’d told Ricardo he’d be in there the whole morning. He’d said all his active cases were at the point where junior lawyers were handling them and so he was going to work on researching…he’d gotten vague there, which meant it had something to do with his ‘dissipated youth.’ It did actually bother Ricardo that Paolo only talked about that time when he was trying to warn Ricardo off, but one thing at a time was usually the best approach, so Ricardo was concentrating on—well, right now, on where Paolo could be.
“Hey, Ricky!” Cesc appeared around the corner, a bit breathless like he’d been running. The glitter in his eyes, however, said his red cheeks weren’t just due to physical exertion. “Thank God. I can’t seem to find anybody I want to today and I was beginning to think it was me.”
“Hmm?” Ricardo reached for Paolo’s door and had pulled it half-shut when Cesc reached him. He couldn’t pull it the rest of the way because Cesc had grabbed the jamb and that would’ve crushed the other man’s fingers. “Paolo’s not here.”
“Yeah, I just ran into Senderos and he said he’d just seen Paolo, so I’m guessing that means Jens has him up for something,” Cesc said, like it was just another piece of gossip. Then he winced and leaned back to look apologetically at Ricardo. “Sorry, Ricky. I’m just really—something’s up and I don’t know what, but it’s all very confusing.”
For a moment, Ricardo was actually thinking about getting Cesc by the shoulders and shaking him. Then his senses came back to him and he was both shocked and ashamed that he’d even—he bit his lip and put his back against the wall to steady himself. “Did…did Senderos say what was the matter?”
Cesc shook his head, then peeked at Paolo’s office again. He absently grabbed at the back of his neck and rubbed his hand over it. “Nope. He had a bunch of legal envelopes—you know, the brown ones for classified stuff—and so I was hoping you’d know.”
“I…just got in, sorry. I don’t even know where Bobby is,” Ricardo said.
The other man blinked, checked his watch, and then stared hard at Ricardo. “Wait. That means you were…late. Oooooh. Did you two get up to anything last night? Like level sixty-nine, or—”
“What?” Then Cesc grinned. “Hey, you got the joke.”
“Just because I haven’t done it doesn’t mean I don’t know the name for it,” Ricardo said a bit stiffly. Then Cesc staring at him came back to mind and he hurriedly pulled at his collar. “Do I look—do you see anything? I had to run home before I came in and—stop smiling like that, please.”
Cesc didn’t. “Sorry. No, you look fine, like usual. Well, if he’s not here, then…oh, hi. Can I help you?”
He was looking over Ricardo’s shoulder, so Ricardo turned around. A man he didn’t recognize at all was loitering in the hall, idly looking about as if he had been waiting for them to leave. He was quite tall, just about Paolo’s height, and had longish black hair and when he smiled at Cesc, his teeth were very white against his tanned skin. Paolo was definitely the best-looking man Ricardo had ever met, but he had to admit that this stranger was no slouch in that department.
“Perhaps. I’m looking for Paolo Maldini’s office.” The man turned and bent at the waist to check out the name-plate of a door to his right. “Hmm, they’ve reorganized quite a bit…I don’t even know half these names.”
“Nice suit. Doesn’t pinch at the shoulders when he’s got his hands in his pockets,” Cesc murmured. He’d sidled up to Ricardo and now nudged him with an elbow. “Hey, you work on this floor.”
Ricardo glanced at Cesc, then hesitantly stepped forward. The strange man was still looking at the name-plate, but the up-quirk of his mouth said he’d been listening. He did turn to look at Ricardo when Ricardo cleared his throat. “Paolo’s out of the office right now,” Ricardo politely said. “I could take a message, or if you want you can leave it with the secretary.”
The man was now smiling, but something about it made the back of Ricardo’s neck prickle. He straightened and walked forward, and though he stopped when he was still a meter away, Ricardo had a difficult time not backing up. “No, that’s all right. I just wanted to know where his office is now. Right here?”
He started to round Ricardo and Cesc, but Ricardo moved so if the man wanted to get at the door, he’d have to get at Ricardo first. And Cesc, while withdrawing a bit, was still standing so he could get between them. “Yes, but he’s out,” Ricardo repeated, a little firmer. “Would you like to leave your business card?”
“Oh, he doesn’t need it,” the man said. He took his hands out of his pockets and checked his watch, then looked back up at Ricardo. He gave off the distinct impression that he was searching for something unpleasant. “Do either of you work for him?”
“No, I’m from a different floor and Ricky here is Robert Pirès’ paralegal,” Cesc said. He smiled very nicely at the man. “Your turn.”
For that he got a sharp look, then an oddly appreciative smile. “I’m Alessandro Nesta. Thanks for the tour,” Nesta said. “Oh, and Ricky—good to meet you. It’ll probably happen again.”
Then he pivoted on his heel, shooting one last look Ricardo’s way, and walked off towards the elevators. Ricardo let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, then surprised himself by shivering. He leaned against the wall a little too fast and grimaced both at the thunk and the pain in his hip that resulted, then rubbed at his face.
“Nesta?” Cesc repeated in a faint voice. “Like, Nesta from that story Paolo told about Ludovic Giuly?”
“I hope not,” Ricardo said. And to be honest, not just because that might mean FC was in serious legal trouble again.
* * *
Paolo hadn’t even gotten out of the hallway before Senderos had shown up. The consequent meeting with Lehmann had been short and sharp, rather like a razor-blade, and Thierry Henry’s fortuitous arrival had probably been the only thing that had prevented it from becoming cutting. And then he’d met Bobby in the hall and clearly Thierry had already briefed him just enough for him to latch onto Paolo in a rare fit of public fear.
“Yes, he’s good, but he never managed to really link Jens to anything back then and I don’t see how he’ll do it now,” Paolo said. “Lehmann had almost nothing to do with Moggi’s death—as far as I know. Bobby?”
Who’d ducked into a nearby kitchenette for a cup of coffee. He took a long drink from it, then put his head down and his hand against his forehead for a moment. One slow inhale-exhale later, he stepped back into the hall, looking much more calm. “Jens can’t be linked to the actual death, no. But he may have said things to certain people in Italy that would’ve…facilitated the event’s occurrence. And he may have had an incident with Moggi a couple days beforehand, though his alibi for that whole night is unbreakable.”
“Incident?” Of course it wouldn’t be simple, Paolo irritably thought. If Lehmann had a gift for handling messes quietly and efficiently, it was to offset his incredible ability to get involved in them in the first place.
Bobby rubbed at the side of his mouth as they walked on. “Moggi may have been stupid enough to try and use Van Persie as leverage, and Jens may have lost his temper in a parking garage level about twenty meters above ground.”
“And that is all the detail I need and want about that,” Paolo muttered. Enough previous “incidents” had broken his office windows for him to be able to fill in the rest of the picture. “It still doesn’t sound like anything that’ll be a problem. If Sandro really had something, he would’ve stayed in Italy and used it against those certain people there first.”
“Then why is he here?” Bobby asked. He abruptly pulled up and turned to face Paolo, so close that his coffee mug bumped into Paolo’s chest. “What’s the point of the harassment? He’s dependent on the cooperation of the local law here, and he has to know how delicate that can be.”
Paolo pressed his lips together and looked off to the side. He had a few ideas in his head, but he didn’t think any of them were worth mentioning since they were all built on the Sandro he’d known eight years ago. “I don’t know. One fifteen-minute meeting with Lehmann’s not enough to go on. Sandro’s very intelligent and I would think he’s experienced enough not to give himself away this early.”
“Wonderful.” Bobby stepped back enough for him to be able to finish his coffee, which he did with a sharp backwards jerk of his head. Then he stared into the empty mug. “Paolo? Is there anything else you want to tell me about Nesta?”
“I haven’t been in contact with him since he went back to Italy,” Paolo said after a long moment. “I don’t think I could tell you anything current enough.”
Bobby’s expression subtly shifted from curious to contemplative. “I’m not worried about how Nesta might affect work right now.”
“I didn’t think so, but my answer would cover that as well.” Technically speaking, and for the moment Paolo was going to be a lawyer and retreat behind that. As much as he could understand Bobby’s concern, he wasn’t about to open up that box from the past just yet. And that was both because he didn’t think it would help and because he simply didn’t want to if he didn’t have to.
“I see.” Something down the hall caught Bobby’s eye and he glanced at it, then grimaced when his PDA buzzed. He took it out of his pocket and thumbed to reply, but moved his gaze to Paolo instead of it. “I respect your expertise, but Paolo? I will call Kaká’s parents in before I let him get dragged into it.”
Paolo started to smile, but his snort got away from him. “Believe me, you’d have to race me to it if it gets that bad. I’ll keep you updated, Bobby. Dinner?”
“No,” Bobby muttered. He looked at his PDA as if it were a dead fish. “Actually, you should probably just count on email with me for the next few days.”
What he’d been looking at a moment ago developed into David Odonkor sprinting towards them, so Paolo removed himself and popped into his office just long enough to rework his entire schedule. He had been planning on double-checking FC’s old connections to Thuram, but that man had just dropped a few pegs on the possible liability scale.
He really did believe that Sandro was using Moggi as a blind, but the question of what for was worrying. When the other man had left, he’d been quite articulate about why he was going back to Italy and why it was a permanent move. And then Lehmann had said Sandro had brought up Paolo’s name, which was odd—well, for one, it wasn’t like Sandro not to do his research first. He should’ve known Bobby was Lehmann’s legal representative now. Unless that had been on purpose, to…make Lehmann blame Paolo for Nesta’s return?
“And it all circles around why?” Paolo muttered, going out into the hall. He needed to check with his contacts at city hall and possibly with the federal law enforcement. At the very least, Sandro wasn’t here on vacation and he would’ve had to explain his real business to somebody there.
Ricardo’s office was on the way to the elevator, so Paolo couldn’t help noticing the shut door, which meant Ricardo was out. God knew what Bobby was telling him, or…damn it, that had looked like the back of Cesc Fàbregas’ head disappearing behind that potted plant. He and Kaká talked a lot and he probably already knew more about what was going on than Paolo did. So on top of everything else, Paolo was going to have to—
“Paolo. I thought at your age, you didn’t even need to come into the office anymore. They just sent pretty page-boys around to whatever party you were at with updates.”
“Your taste in sarcasm hasn’t changed,” Paolo finally said, turning around. He calmly looked up and down the other man; after so long, a lack of curiosity would’ve been a sure sign of discomfort. Not that Paolo wasn’t acutely feeling that right now, but he doubted that he could afford to give up any more than he’d been able to back then. “Sandro. You look very well.”
Sandro smiled and pushed off the counter against which he’d been leaning. “So do you. I thought excessive alcohol was supposed to have a kind of pickling effect, but you seem to have preserved excellently. As is to be expected.”
“Actually, you’re looking at a very boring reformed penitent. I can’t remember the last time I went to a party—I doubt I’d recognize what constitutes one nowadays.” Paolo ducked his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, then rubbed it as he covertly peered about. No secretaries or interns wandering around nearby, no ready-made excuses for taking this somewhere less public. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“You’re being nice.” Eyebrows raised, Sandro walked forward till he was an arm’s-length away. Then he bent down to peer up into Paolo’s face, feigning astonishment. “This almost makes me believe that bit about penance.”
Well, he had the right to be skeptical, but Paolo wasn’t about to cede the right to have some dignity. He took his hand away from his face—stupid ploy, actually; he needed to stop panicking—and levelly met Sandro’s gaze. “I’m not lying. I still like a good wine with dinner, but I’m afraid I don’t see the pleasure in making a fool of myself anymore. Or of others.”
“I’m glad you added that last part. I was beginning to think you’d given up on lawyering as well, and that would’ve been a shame,” Sandro said, straightening up. He briefly looked sober, but then his eyes sparked. “You’ve been my shining example of all the negatives that term encompasses. Eight years and I haven’t found a better one yet.”
“I can’t say I can take that as a compliment,” Paolo replied.
Sandro tossed up his head and laughed, and damn it, in motion he still was pure poetry. But in words he was pure vitriol. “I can’t say that I believe this. Though I have to compliment you on not resting on your laurels—you’ve gotten much better at acting. But enough pleasantries—Paolo, where the hell is the staff around here? I asked the one person I saw if I could see Oliver Kahn’s rep and I haven’t seen them or anyone else in the past fifteen minutes.”
“Kahn?” Paolo was too startled to even make an attempt at disguising it.
Of course, Sandro pounced on the mistake right away. He snorted and leaned in so a few strands of hair came untucked from his ear and fell into his face, doing nothing to soften the sharpness of his eyes. “Oh, not Lehmann this time, though I think he knows a few things I could use. Yes, Kahn. I’m looking into the Luciano Moggi murder and it appears Kahn had quite a few expensive dinners with the man in the two weeks before that.”
“I see.” That would certainly be welcome news to Lehmann, though whether he’d be capable of being happy after the false alarm was a different question.
“They seemed to really like one restaurant in particular, possibly because of its signature canapé. Oysters and pearls.” Sandro was still leaning in, and now he lifted his chin a little so their mouths were level and Paolo was suddenly thinking that public space was in fact a good location. “Don’t suppose they got a recommendation like I did?”
Paolo picked up his left foot and then put it down so his toes were touching the heel of his right foot. Then he scooted that one back so they were even again, and didn’t blink at the mocking expression that developed on Sandro’s face. “It’s a very well-known restaurant and has been for longer than I’ve been here. Sandro, I’m not sure what you’re getting at but I’d be happy to discuss it in—”
“I shudder to think of what you consider appropriate surroundings now,” Sandro dryly said. Then he suddenly, seamlessly slid forward so they were too close again and his head came up and—he turned it at the last moment, leaving Paolo facing a gleaming dark veil of hair that only made Paolo that much more aware of the mouth behind it. “Oh, I’m sorry, Paolo. I think I’m getting in the way of somebody else’s discussion.”
The laws of Greek drama, bad days and torrid love affairs all guaranteed that Sandro would be referring to one specific person, but Paolo still tried out a silent prayer as he turned to look. And promptly received a reminder that God didn’t have the time of day for aging roués.
“Robert Pirès’ paralegal, wasn’t it?” Then Sandro turned towards Paolo. He leaned back a bit, but that only deepened the questions in Ricardo’s eyes. “We both were having a good deal of trouble finding you earlier. But seeing as I have found you, I think I’ll let him have his turn now.”
With a polite nod, Sandro then withdrew. The thud of his footsteps echoed noticeably in the still-empty hallways; Paolo pressed at the bridge of his nose again, and this time he wasn’t faking the migraine. “I don’t remember any memo about an off-day,” he muttered. Then he sighed and made himself lift his head. “Hi, Kaká. I…did you or Bobby need something?”
“He was trying to get into your office earlier.” Ricardo, curiously enough, was no longer looking at Paolo. Instead he was watching Sandro’s retreating back, tight-lipped with his brows drawn down as if he were…angry? Well, when Sandro was in the mood he could rile a saint, and Ricardo certainly was further along that path than Paolo was. “He wasn’t being all that nice about it. What’s he here for? I thought—” first hairline crack of uncertainty in Ricardo’s tone “—you said he’d moved back to Italy?”
“So he introduced himself, I take it. And you remember where you’ve heard his name before,” Paolo slowly said. He started to go on, but two interns rounded the corner with a mail-cart and he could hear other voices coming near, so instead he took Ricardo by the arm and pulled him into an empty office. “Sandro’s looking into a murder—Luciano Moggi, happened back in the winter. Moggi still had Italian citizenship and Sandro…he’s fairly high up in the national investigative ranks, I think now. He thinks some FC people might have been involved.”
A shadow passed over Ricardo’s face and his eyes flicked away from Paolo. Just for a moment, and to be honest he could’ve turned on his heel right then with justification, but it still made Paolo curse Sandro’s reappearance even more. That and his stupid past mistakes, which of course weren’t about to stay buried.
“Lehmann? Is that why Bobby’s so busy?” Ricardo hesitantly asked. He might say ‘I love you’ a thousand times, but that clearly still didn’t equal a relaxing of his moral principles.
“Officially it’s Kahn, but I’m beginning to get the feeling Sandro wouldn’t mind returning some of the favors we did him the last time he worked here. He’s—obviously been mulling over the past.” Paolo paused, thinking that he’d heard the office’s owner coming in. But it turned out to just be somebody shoving mail under the door, and that was probably going to be the only break he got today. “I wish I’d tried harder at talking you into calling in sick. This is not going to be a pleasant day.”
Something touched the back of Paolo’s hand and he glanced down, only to be caught off-guard when Ricardo suddenly stepped up and embraced him, wrapping one arm tightly around Paolo’s back while twisting his fingers around Paolo’s wrist. His head started to go down onto Paolo’s shoulder, but then he stopped. After a few seconds, he instead tilted it so their cheeks were pressed together.
“I’m sorry.” A nervous laugh flitted past Paolo’s ear when he started to object. “No, I wish we’d stayed in too—I know Bobby will have me running around like crazy till the day ends, but let me know if I can help. I’d like to.”
Paolo didn’t comment on the way Ricardo hurriedly changed the subject, but he noticed. He said something about remembering the offer and then began to pull Ricardo back, but when he went to peck the other man on the cheek, Ricardo turned his head and took it on the mouth. And then shifted his arm up to around Paolo’s neck and returned the kiss with almost desperate passion.
It startled Paolo enough to make him stumble, which broke them apart. Ricardo immediately dropped his head, rubbing at the side of his face. “I—really need to get back to Bobby.”
“Well, don’t let me disrupt your life—day—again,” Paolo said, still not quite composed. He grimaced, then looked at Ricardo’s bent head and…and he had to reach out and push up the other man’s chin. “I’ll be fine. I am paid, and very well, to deal with this sort of thing, so go take care of your work first and then go register for classes.”
“I’ll call you when I get back.” The lilt of Ricardo’s voice turned it into a question. He smiled quickly when Paolo nodded, but still rushed out like he badly needed air.
So did Paolo, but unfortunately, he wasn’t paid for that. He gritted his teeth and went out after Ricardo to continue what he’d been doing before Sandro had walked up. Best to get it done while he still could.
* * *
The door opened and closed and Thierry did look up at the noise, but it was just a reflex. When Kaká tapped Bobby’s shoulder, both Bobby and Thierry jumped.
“Sorry.” Kaká flushed and jabbed a bunch of files at Bobby’s upper arm instead of the hand he raised to take them, then apologized again. “I’m really sorry, I—”
“I’m fine, don’t worry about it.” Bobby spared a second to smile reassuringly at Kaká, but then turned to the files and was immediately absorbed in their contents.
His movement had drawn Thierry’s attention as well, and so Thierry had only a vague impression of Kaká telling Bobby something and then leaving. “I just heard from the front lobby—Nesta’s finally left the building.”
“Sort of a reverse-Elvis, I suppose,” Bobby said. His tone was so dry it seemed to suck the little good humor left in the room into itself. “Lehmann is worried. I’ve seen Jens angry quite a few times, but worry is something new. And—” his PDA buzzed and he picked it up, scanned the screen and then dropped it “—oh, we have confirmation from Paolo that apparently Jens isn’t even the main target.”
“Still…half the record execs in the city met with Moggi in the weeks before his death—it was almost impossible not to if you wanted to book anywhere prominent. I can’t help but think that choosing Kahn still relates to Jens. Nesta was—” Thierry stopped there, belatedly considering what he’d been about to say. He put his elbows up on the table and then pressed his hands vertically together, tapping their sides against his mouth. “Off the record, Bobby: back then Jens wasn’t actually doing that much. We couldn’t afford to, with the way he kept getting exiled to second-tier posts. But for some reason Nesta had it in for him. I don’t know what that might be…to be honest, I don’t think Jens knows, either.”
Bobby slowly leaned back in his seat and pushed his hands over his face. Neither of them had gotten much sleep, and that fact was visibly beginning to show in him. “That explains the worry—it bothers Lehmann when he can’t read somebody’s motives, doesn’t it?”
Several conversations about Robin instantly came to mind. “Quite a bit. Look, Bobby, I’ll work on Jens when I can and I promise we won’t hide anything from you, but…well, he and I only know so much about what happened then. We weren’t in the positions we are now. I think…I honestly think the better people to ask would be Paolo and maybe Ludovic Giuly.”
“Can I talk to Giuly?” Bobby asked, eyebrows arched.
“Not directly. Believe me, it’ll be better for your health if—oh, Freddie. Good timing.” Thierry rose to greet the other man, then stayed standing in a silent signal.
Somebody had gotten to Freddie and given him enough of an explanation so he didn’t look surprised or alarmed at that. He did glance at Bobby, but aside from it being rude, it’d also be pointless to keep Bobby out of the loop for this. Thierry went ahead and explained in brief terms what Freddie needed to do, told him what to keep Bobby up on, and then sat back down. Freddie left without saying anything; he didn’t need to, after all this time.
“How much do I need to worry about Giuly over this?” Bobby asked, watching the door close.
Thierry pursed his lips and rested his chin on his hand. His cell, and then his PDA, went off, but he didn’t answer them. “Not much. Ludo stayed well away from here till Moggi was dead. There are no links between him and that. Nesta did know him, but as a low-level—well, Nesta assumed he was a paid witness for Maldini. He did a bit more than that, but I don’t think Ludo would’ve failed to tidy that up.”
“Still, a prosecutor on a revenge-trip isn’t something any self-respecting crimelord would want in their backyard. But Jens doesn’t want trouble, yes?” Bobby pushed himself up and started flipping through the folders again. He propped his arm on the table, then leaned his head against his hand so his fingers pushed his hair messily across his forehead. “So how much do I need to worry about you?”
The PDA shut off, but the phone kept—Thierry looked up, his hand half in his pocket. “What?”
The only response he got was a lifting of the brows, Bobby still squinting through his bangs. Which were getting too long and badly needed a trim, and Thierry just told the phone to wait and reached over to finger them. If the call was important, whoever it was would try again.
Bobby smiled and flipped his hand around to catch Thierry’s fingers. He pulled them down and kissed two of the knuckles before he snorted. “It’s a good thing we stayed up last night after all. Tonight’s not going to be free.”
“It was your idea,” Thierry said with judicious indulgence. He grinned back at Bobby –and then his cell went off again, and this time he answered the damn thing. If it was Jens, a third try would be accompanied by furniture breakage, and with everything else going on, they weren’t going to have time to get replacements.
* * *
Giuly actually wasn’t in. Fredrik had dropped by at all hours and had always found that freakish Frenchman up and about and hopping like he’d downed a handful of meth pills—Jens said that Robin swore Giuly wasn’t on anything, but Fredrik was reserving judgment—so that was weird. “No, I’m not going to leave a message. What do I look like, an empty-headed twit?”
“Then you will have to wait.” Thuram began to turn, but stopped midway much like a revolving door getting stuck. He rolled one glowering eye back to Fredrik. “Here.”
“Right. Not like that’s new,” Fredrik muttered. He stepped back and made a mocking half-bow to Thuram, who ignored him in favor of walking after a suit with his arm in a sling. Sling. Huh.
As soon as Thuram had gone around the corner, Fredrik did not stay put. Hell, if he had that probably would’ve brought old Stone-Face running back to check Fredrik’s temperature. With a nine-milli—Fredrik and Giuly’s paranoid toy-boy staff had reached something of an understanding: they were shits to him and he went wherever he liked on the ground floor. He knew the important stuff was on the floor above, but he wasn’t about to go up there with a gilt-edged invite from Giuly himself. People were too guarded around stuff they knew they had to watch, and a lot more careless away from it.
That odd blond man who’d shown up a couple weeks ago wasn’t in the kitchen like he usually was, smelling vaguely of vodka and blood and genially trying to learn French and get free tasters from the cooking staff while they picked up Russian curses from him. Another interesting thing to notice. There were less suits running around than usual. The door to the loading dock was propped open not with a brick, but with an expensive-looking shoe. Fredrik wandered over, and when he wasn’t stopped, bent down to look at the shoe.
The door promptly swung open, letting it fall to the side a bit. He stopped it with his hand before looking up into…oh, great, everybody else was MIA but Larsson of course popped up. With—“What the hell is that?” Fredrik asked.
“Move before it drips on your head.” Henrik somehow managed to make the order sound friendly. He hefted the big plastic-wrapped…thing, then edged his way past Fredrik. One of the chefs looked up, and then came over with a friend to take it from Henrik.
Fredrik pivoted on his heels to watch them carry it off. “Is that how Giuly keeps his overhead down?”
“What? Oh, no, that’d be revolting,” Henrik said, making a face. He checked his hands and then his rolled-up sleeves before he extended a hand towards Fredrik. He looked faintly disappointed to get the shoe, but just switched that to his other hand and then extended his right one again. “I needed a sheep’s head, but my supplier got the order wrong and sent me a whole corpse. Top-quality though, so Ludo said he’d take it.”
This time, Fredrik flicked it away and got up by himself. “A sheep’s head?”
“Overnight mail,” Henrik dryly remarked. He glanced out the door, then kicked it shut with his foot. Then he tossed the shoe in a bucket holding other pieces of clothing and walked over to a utility sink to start washing his hands. “Ludo will be back in a half-hour,” he said more quietly. “He’s meeting with some gang-leaders and the negotiations went long. You may as well go grab a quick coffee.”
“Are you sure you’re not working for him now?” Fredrik casually turned around and backed up next to the other man, keeping about a third of a meter in between them. “I need to talk to him.”
“No, you need to talk to me. Ludo already knows about Nesta. I’ll wager Lehmann knows this too, and that’s why you’re here and not the other one, the Swiss one.” Larsson knew damn well who Philippe was, but he’d switched to quiet, dangerous mode. Like a tiger sunning itself. “Yes?”
Fredrik bit down hard till he felt the roots of his teeth ache, then inhaled deeply through his nose and forcibly relaxed. He really wished something, anything from Thierry’s wish-list had come up ahead of this, but that lack of conflict was of course deliberate. And he hoped to God Jens knew what he was doing. “I was hoping you’d be out.”
“I’m a professional,” Henrik said in a mild tone. “We’re doing business right now. I assure you, any other interest I have in you is off the table till we’re done.”
If he had to work with the man, then he at least was going to get some fun out of it. Fredrik tugged at his tie-knot, then pulled the tie over his head. He drew the silk through his fingers, considering the length, before stuffing it in his pocket. Then he undid the top button of his shirt, since it was rather warm. “Great. I do need to talk to Giuly, though. But a coffee would be good. Do they have any whipped cream around here? Chocolate syrup? Or do we have to go out for something that wild?”
Henrik’s mouth twitched slightly at the corners. He regarded Fredrik for a few seconds before looking away to turn off the water. “I’ll see what I can do.”