|Maybe Tomorrow Is A Better Day
Author: Guede Mazaka
Ricardo woke up shivering. He blinked the crusts out of his eyes and felt around, but couldn’t find the blankets till he looked on the floor and there they were, all in a heap. He bit his lip, then sighed and reached down to pick them up. Then he folded them up and left them on a chair while he did his morning ablutions instead of respreading them on the bed. He’d wash them later, when he was awake enough to not further ruin bedsheets that weren’t even his.
Going to church hadn’t helped much, aside from giving him sore knees this morning. He hadn’t managed to find peace or answers, and then trudging to his too-quiet apartment afterward had just made him more depressed. He’d thought about calling or emailing Paolo, but he would’ve sounded like he’d felt and then Paolo would’ve asked questions. So instead Ricardo had gone to Paolo’s place to sleep, but judging by the quality of his dreams, that hadn’t helped.
And he’d forgotten to bring over the clothes he kept meaning to, even though Paolo had already cleared out part of his closet for them. And thinking of that made Ricardo grimace, for reasons he didn’t really understand. He quickly lost himself in making breakfast before he could get frustrated again.
After he’d eaten he went home to get ready for work. Which, to be honest, he wasn’t looking forward to anymore. He’d made friends and learned a lot, and if he had to choose again how he wanted to spend his year off, he’d do the same. But…well, he had no idea how he was going to tell Bobby this, especially after the man had taken so much trouble, but he didn’t think he was going to go into entertainment law.
And there was Paolo.
Ricardo had left the church too numbed out to have problems ignoring everything when it came time to sleep, but now it all came rushing back. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes; the part of his head behind those felt as if it were swelling to crush them in their sockets. Then he took a deep breath and bent over his desk in an attempt to gather what he needed for the day, and noticed the blinking light on his answering machine. He frowned and hit ‘play.’
After the usual statement of date, number of messages, time taken and all that, the machine clicked. Then:
*Ricky?* Paolo’s voice was harsh and low, as if he had a cold. He coughed, and then he sounded a bit more like himself, though there was still an odd note to his words. *It’s late and I should have called before this. I was—never mind, I’m tardy and I won’t excuse myself. I’m calling to…Ricky, if you’re here tonight you’re probably sleeping and if you’re in my place like I suspect, you won’t get this till the morning. So I’ll be too late either way and…I’m utterly scatterbrained tonight. Sorry. But I wanted to say good night. Don’t stay up. You shouldn’t have a lousy morning on my account.*
There was a long pause, so long that if the occasional background noise hadn’t come through, Ricardo would’ve thought that Paolo had finished but had forgotten to end the call.
*I know your cell-phone is off, but I could call my place and cover all the bases. It wouldn’t take long, and you’re probably there anyway, but I’m not. I’d love to hear your voice right now but I’m afraid it might make me start confessing and I don’t…you’d be on the line a long time. Not that my major concern is your sleep right now—I’m just afraid. So I won’t call. But Ricky, listen to this and then ask me about it when I get home. Ask. Ask till I tell you. And you know, don’t you…you know when I’m not telling you.*
Then the machine clicked again, and moved on to stored messages. Ricardo watched his hand snap out to shut it off. Then he looked down at the small square of plastic for a long time, till something got in his eye.
When he raised his fingers to rub it away, they came away wet. He stared at his fingertips, then kissed them before slowly lifting them to point over his head. And he looked up at God as well, and said thank you.
* * *
The pounding headache that woke Zlatan instantly put him in a mood to do some major damage. And then he tried to roll over, and metal bit into his wrist and his arm was painfully jerked and his shoulder screamed, and for a couple seconds he couldn’t think to figure out what mood he was.
It eventually cleared up. He was still in the hotel room and Henrik had handcuffed the arm with the injured shoulder to the headboard, and as Zlatan laid there and looked at the shiny chain, he suddenly felt a lot more sympathetic towards Alessandro.
That lasted about as long as it took for him to do some bending of the cheap brass and pull out the pole. Henrik hadn’t even taped the fingers of his other hand together…Zlatan frowned, then scrambled to the edge of the bed and ran his hand around between the mattress and the box springs. He hit pay-dirt almost immediately and pulled out two guns. Then he got off the bed, cursing the way his headache abruptly intensified, and did a quick survey.
Nothing of note left in the hotel room besides Zlatan’s personal things…and a plane ticket back to Sweden. So Henrik had knocked him out, chained him up because he knew Zlatan had a hard skull and then moved bases to finish things on his own. And the goddamn ticket…
Zlatan picked up the slip of paper. He flipped it around a finger, then absently wiggled it while he thought things over. Put some serious effort into that, between the headache and the half-frayed temper and the gnawing sense of disappointment in his gut. Then he proceeded to carefully rip it up over the toilet. “Little late for that, Henke,” he muttered, flushing the scraps.
By now Henrik would be deep into the job and he’d never told Zlatan all the details. He had said enough for Zlatan to eventually figure it all out, but that’d take too long; they’d been due to fly out in three days and at the very least Henrik would’ve cut that in half. And maybe he did a great impression of an ice-man, but he’d still be pissed off about the roof-top and he hadn’t seemed to have had the greatest opinion of Alessandro anyway.
Two…Zlatan started to gather up his things. He needed to get moving anyway, so he could wait till he’d checked out to figure out what day it was.
* * *
A boxful of papers had finally arrived from Stockholm, but halfway through Alessandro gave up on finding anything that actually had a ring of truth to it. It seemed like they’d just packed up any unsolved murder they had; some of them dated back to way before Zlatan could possibly have been born. Ridiculous.
“Sir?” Alberto hesitantly peeked in the doorway. “Sir, Baggio’s awake.”
Alessandro disgustedly dumped all the files back into the box and jammed on the lid. Then he heaved it down and kicked it beneath the desk. “How long?”
“Six hours—sir, I did try to tell you when he first woke, but you didn’t, um, seem to hear me,” Alberto stammered.
To be honest, Alessandro had snapped at him without even fully recalling who Baggio was and why he was important. It took a moment, but then it came back. Alessandro looked up at Alberto—red-eyed, twitchy, eyes fixed on him—then put his elbows up on the desk and his head down on his hands, scrubbing at his face. “Thanks, Gila. All right, go tell him he’ll be talking to me now. And if the doctors or anyone else gets in the way…”
“I think I’ve got enough practice to know what to do there, sir.” At the last minute, Alberto ducked his head to sort of mumble it into his hand.
A yawn caught Alessandro, pouncing out of nowhere. He fought it for too long before finally giving in and just getting over it. “Gila, listen…”
“Should I call him back?”
Alessandro pressed his fingers to either side of his nose till he couldn’t hold his breath any more and the world was going black. Then he slowly lifted his head, breathing in. “Good morning, Paolo.”
Paolo had showered, shaved, dressed himself perfectly. Gotten the grime out from beneath his perfect oval nails. The blue-black bruise beneath his left temple slightly distorted the line of his face, but not so much that various men and women weren’t openly staring as they walked by. For that matter, he was openly staring at Alessandro over the two Styrofoam cups he was holding.
The aroma reached up Alessandro’s nose and made a damned compelling case for at least standing up in appreciation, but he ignored it. “Oh, God. I hope you’re joking.”
“Did you sleep at all?” Paolo asked sharply, crossing the room. He shoved one cup at Alessandro, then pushed out a crime-scene photo to where he could see it. “I didn’t poison it, Sandro. For that matter, I didn’t even buy it. I found two of your men debating in the hall about whose turn it was to beard the lion, as they put it.”
Alessandro reluctantly picked up the cup by two fingers. He let it swing, but then the smell was too much and he took a sip. “You remembered the amaretto,” he snorted. “Now, was there anything else you wanted to lecture me on?”
Paolo nearly answered, but twisted it off at the last moment. His lips slowly straightened so he could drink some of his own coffee. “I’ve been sitting with Roberto. He did recognize a few of the men who pulled him through the ceiling—they belong to an old client of his.”
He floated a name and Alessandro fished around in the mess of papers till he’d found the corresponding file. “Not surprising. We’ve been tapping him for a month and have kilometers of tape where he’s ranting about Baggio.”
“Then what brought you up to Milan now?” Paolo asked.
“Dead bodies. They just started turning up in clusters, similar MOs.” The caffeine was rough on Alessandro’s nerves, setting them to jangle and twitch restlessly beneath his skin. “Obviously somebody imported a professional…Paolo, would you mind telling me something I don’t know? Otherwise I could use the time for more productive matters.”
The other man looked down at him over the little white cup, eyes glinting. Then Paolo turned around so he could observe the rest of the room. “Roberto’s got a deposit box of interest. He wouldn’t have been able to drop a client like that without it.”
“I could’ve guessed that,” Alessandro said slowly, turning in his chair.
“Do you get a car of any sort?” Paolo frowned at Rino, who was getting into some argument over the phone with room service. “They don’t care even to give you a proper office?”
“Not when I’m merely visiting.” After downing the rest of the coffee, Alessandro got up and tossed the empty cup into the wastebasket. He pulled his suit-jacket off the back of his chair; across the room, Alberto’s head went up and he looked over, then started to push towards them. “I see you haven’t lost your persuasive talent.”
A deprecating shrug didn’t quite mask Paolo’s amusement, and when he replied, it wasn’t to that. One trait he never had been afflicted with was the need to bask in a compliment, probably because he’d never lacked them. “There’s another thing. I called Lehmann.”
Alessandro waved Alberto off towards a snarl developing between two of the detectives detailed from the local office to help them, then swung his suit-jacket behind himself and on. He raised his brows at Paolo.
“He has no idea what’s been going on here,” Paolo added. He was being careful about his tonelessness.
“Well, is he sending somebody now that he does? He does have your face for a cause.” That probably was true, Alessandro decided. Anyway, nothing Baggio was into would give FC any advantage, and Lehmann was not the kind of man to needlessly waste resources.
Paolo shook his head. Then he saw Alessandro’s expression and he smiled ironically. “I’m not exactly in Jens’ good books right now. I told you, I didn’t know what had happened to you and when I was told—well, the timing meant you’d just come straight from my place.”
“And you what, lost your temper? How impressive. I’m flattered.” Alessandro picked up his phone and pager and put them away. Then he reached up to tighten the straps of his shoulder holster and he just glimpsed the disturbed look Paolo aimed at that. Alberto, having scolded the detectives into sense, came up to ask what was going on and Alessandro took the opportunity to turn from Paolo. A cup of coffee wasn’t permission to judge or to pity by a long shot. “You still were his legal rep for years.”
“And you’d think with all the phones he threw through my windows, I’d be allowed to knock off a corner of his desk,” Paolo said. Mildly enough, but without that extra smoothness that meant he was trying for a reaction. He shrugged and followed Alessandro to the door, keeping exactly the right distance. “Sandro, I’m not trying to make you like me.”
Alessandro breathed in fast, then belatedly tried to cover by rubbing his mouth. But he saw Paolo’s face, and even before that he was hating himself for even flinching. “Sensible of you. And since we’re merely talking, as I think you’d put it, where is this deposit box?”
* * *
Zlatan didn’t even bother trying to find Henrik. If Henrik didn’t want to meet up—and it seemed pretty clear that he didn’t—then trying to track him would be like chasing a unicorn. And Zlatan wasn’t qualified for that on multiple levels.
He grimaced and wiped his mouth off with the last clean bit of his napkin, then wadded that up and pitched it into the trashcan after his sandwich. The security guard on the ground groaned a little and Zlatan rolled back in his chair, then aimed a precise bootheel. That done, he went back to watching Alessandro and the man from the restaurant lobby stand awkwardly in the elevator. If Zlatan couldn’t find Henrik, then neither could Alessandro, but what Alessandro could do was lead Zlatan to whatever the hell was important now. The man had a gift for finding the center of trouble, and Henrik was usually on the edge of the maelstrom, waiting to pick off his target when they stumbled dazedly out.
That image didn’t sit so well with Zlatan right now, so he pushed it out of his mind and concentrated on the security monitors. Alessandro and his friend were obviously leaving, but the damn cameras didn’t have audio so Zlatan had no idea where. He didn’t even know where Alessandro’s car was, hence his hanging around for so long. And Alessandro kept staring up at or near the camera, which was fucking unnerving.
“The hell are you so annoyed about?” Zlatan muttered to the screen. “You didn’t pull a gun on your—”
The elevator stopped and Alessandro took a right, towards the parking garage. He was moving so much faster than the man with him that he’d have to stop, but that still wouldn’t keep him for too long. Zlatan got up and headed out to jack a car while he still could.
* * *
“You had the entire bank shut down for one box, yet they stick you in a hotel no junior executive’s assistant would accept,” Paolo marveled.
Sandro rolled his eyes and continued briskly towards the safe deposit box area. First getting in to see the bank manager and then having the entire building emptied and secured by the police had taken the whole afternoon. And though that was obscenely quick for Italy, Sandro had spent the entire time fretting as if the president’s life depended on it. “They just want me the hell out of Milan before I get bored with the footsoldiers and start moving up the ladder to the big fish. Speaking of which, hurry up. I want to know if Baggio’s got anything worth this much trouble or if he’s just foisting bullshit off on us.”
“Roberto seemed frightened enough.” Once Paolo had dropped enough hints about his familiarity with such arrangements, Baggio had been pathetically eager to shove his burden onto somebody else.
“Then I want to know that all that time-wasting wasn’t cover for tampering,” Sandro insisted. The two cops guarding the vault door were local and tried to stall him, but he simply barged through so they had no choice but to follow.
Paolo lingered outside. The only interest he had in the deposit box’s content was in the fact that having it would hasten Sandro’s departure from Milan. Lehmann hadn’t known what was going on, but he’d had some idea of the Swedish hitman Paolo had described and he’d been very clear on the danger the man posed. In fact, he’d told Paolo to fly back immediately and finish settling the taxes via a proxy.
At the time it’d been rather satisfying to tell Lehmann where to shove his orders, but now Paolo just felt…tired. This wasn’t what he did—Sandro would say differently and he’d have a point, when looking from his perspective. But then, he’d always disregarded borders, whether they were geographical, departmental or public/private.
He was wrong when it came to experiential, at least as far as Paolo concerned. But it didn’t really matter: the borders Paolo had counted on to guard one part of his life from the other had been thoroughly shattered. And, he was strangely unsurprised to find, he was not the kind of person who leaped back up on them and hoisted the flag till he was dragged down. He admitted to having a facility for callousness and for a very good pretence to ignorance, but he didn’t have any for that kind of violent to-the-death devotion.
Sandro would finally get around to homicide if he could see inside Paolo’s head, Paolo thought. Comparing the other man to Jens Lehmann…and never mind that it was meant as a compliment.
He wouldn’t believe the other thought either, but that made no difference. Perhaps Paolo couldn’t fight in the same way, but he had no intention of staying on the sidelines and he was not about to see the other man dead. Paolo looked out at the empty main chamber and finally understood what he meant by that and why. And then he turned around to rejoin Sandro.
“No! Get them—sir, get—” Alberto was shouting at the front door, struggling to get through a knot of guards. He waved desperately, his eyes snapping to Paolo. “No!”
A soft, slight whistle stirred the air behind Paolo. He whipped around to see the vault door shutting and those two cops nowhere in sight. “Shit!”
His palms hit the door before it’d fully closed, but it was too heavy and even as he threw his weight forward, his shoes were sliding back across the slick marble floor. The woof of the door settling in its frame knocked Paolo off-balance and he scrabbled for a handhold, then slammed his fist against the door. “Sandro! Sandro, they’ve—”
“Open it! Open the fucking thing now!” Another one of the local carabinieri smacked into the door, pushing Paolo away to the left. Behind the now-dazed man, Alberto was screaming and jamming a gun into the base of his skull.
There was another of Sandro’s men, a stocky man Paolo vaguely associated with ‘Rino,’ yelling at the front and shoving around the officers standing at the door, but they couldn’t do anything. Paolo had been around for the bank manager’s explanation of the security system and the damned door couldn’t be opened just by—Sandro on a chair, staring into a hole in the ceiling.
“Where are the stairs?” Paolo snapped. He grabbed Alberto’s arm and shook him, but he’d already spotted the sign over the other man’s shoulder.
He ran for the door, then lunged at the steps; behind him, Alberto was still having a high-volume monologue at the local cop, but other footsteps were following. Paolo stopped at the second floor and turned, only to be pulled sharply through the door into a dark hall. He watched the door swing shut on a man’s snarling face, still floating at threshold level.
Then he was spun around and—Paolo slapped one hand against the wall to steady himself. “You’re not the—”
This one had a thick crop of brown hair and his eyes were level with the top of Paolo’s head when he was standing straight. He didn’t do much of that in between jamming the doorknob with a chair and then yanking Paolo down the hall. “Who?”
Swedish accent…Paolo nearly fell over his feet when it clicked together. “Zlatan? Where—what did you do to Sandro? How far did it go?”
The other man shoved Paolo against the wall again, then flipped around and barged through a door. Literally: it fell with a crash that shook the floor and made Paolo jerk his arms up over his head. Then he spun around and went for the doorway, only to have to dive again as a bullet went screaming over his head.
“Yeah, Zlatan,” Zlatan said, dropping a corpse about a meter from Paolo. He stared down at a hole that had been cut into the floor, gun pointing right at its center. Then he stiffened and took a second glance at Paolo. “Wait. Sandro? Are you the asshole ex?”
“Ex?” Paolo repeated blankly.
There was a metallic clatter from below and both of them snapped their attention back to the hole. Zlatan dropped fluidly to one knee and peered into it, then cursed under his breath. He shifted back, his hand going for a coil of rope on the floor.
“Zlatan?” Sandro coughed. “Goddamn it, if you’re up there—”
Relief clawed at Zlatan’s face, but he just looked at Paolo again and backed up so he could kick the rope into the hole. One end of it was already secured to a staple that had been driven into the floor.
“Come up and see,” Zlatan said.
He lowered the gun, which made Paolo sag back against the floor. Paolo didn’t even care about the simmering glance Zlatan threw his way, so focused was he on the wobbling of the rope and then Sandro’s dark head rising over the rim of the hole. A long thin metal box was pushed up and rattled to a rest at Zlatan’s feet. Sandro got an arm over, then the whole upper half of his body with one heave, and Paolo painfully began to get to his feet.
Of course Sandro’s eyes went to the staple and instantly blazed with disgust. “This took planning--fuck, that shit-eating manager—”
“Yeah, you’ve got a serious talent for pissing people off. Even give me a run for my money.” Zlatan gave Sandro a hand up, then wrenched him around by the arm and out of the way to stare back into the hole.
“They’re out cold. I’ve got no need for a guardian angel, even if you were remotely—” From Zlatan to Paolo provoked a complete sea-change in Sandro’s expression. He went utterly still except for his left hand, which had been kneading Zlatan’s shoulder and now made an aborted attempt to drop off it. “Paolo.”
“There are problems downstairs,” Paolo finally managed to say. His eyes flicked rapidly between the other two men and his mind…his mind couldn’t put together the snapshots into a coherent film yet. “I think you’ve got to look higher than a mere bank manager.”
He pushed his hand up the wall and got his fingers over some sort of molding, then used it to pull himself up. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the light, he could see the other slumped forms scattered around the room. And the way Zlatan’s gun twitched towards him before the other man suddenly hauled Sandro around and flung both of them through another doorway, into the next room.
Paolo tried to follow, but his knee seized up and he had to grab for the wall. He breathed in once, twice, then gritted his teeth and tried to stand again. Then something cold touched the back of his neck. He bit his lip, listening to the feet racing away from him, before slowly turning to see that other Swede. Who he knew from Sandro and Lehmann had no problem with killing.
“Which way?” the man demanded.
It…might have been too long for him to have seen. “What?” Paolo said, still too short of breath.
A flicker of irritation went through the man’s eyes. “Not this again.”
“Indeed,” intoned a familiar voice.
Well, familiar to Paolo; why exactly the Swede would also flinch upon hearing Jens Lehmann speak was momentarily beyond him. Though, he thought as Lehmann plus Ljungberg appeared in the hall, ‘momentarily’ was the keyword.
And fulfilled its purpose as soon as Ljungberg opened his mouth, eyes fixed on the other Swede. “Maldini called and Jens guessed most of it and I had to tell him.”
The gun dropped from Paolo’s face. Its wielder stared for a moment past Paolo’s shoulder, looking almost worried. Then he turned and his expression as he met Ljungberg’s eyes was undoubtedly regretful, but strangely unbowed. “I understand.”
“What—damn it, Lehmann, if you’re here for—” Paolo started.
“I’m here to salvage a fucking disaster,” Jens snarled, stepping forward. He cocked his head as a sudden racket rose from the floor below, but didn’t reduce his glower an iota. “No, actually I’m here to check out a twins act who Freddie swears could sing the stars from the sky, in a café across town. I am not here to do anything to Nesta despite the fact that he’s single-handedly ruined my month and subverted some excellent employees—”
Ljungberg started, then forcibly restrained himself. He put a hand over his face.
“—because I’m just a music executive. I listen to music. I do not fly to Italy to rescue hitmen from themselves or lawyers from their extracurricular affairs because my work is completely unconnected with all of that. Is that understood?” Jens stared around, then nodded curtly. “Maldini, I don’t want to touch Nesta any more than I have to. As long as he’s busy with that lot downstairs, and I think he will be, I’m happy. But Larsson? Your colleague?”
He turned to the man who’d first dropped his name during this debacle. “He doesn’t know anything about you. He won’t kill Nesta either.” That with a look to Paolo. And then Larsson’s eyes flickered as he slowly drew breath. “And I’ll answer for him.”
“Good, because Freddie’s already drawn up the employment papers.” Someone banged on the stairway door and everyone but Jens flinched. “I’m offering you a job, Larsson.”
Larsson stared. Then he…smiled, looking surprised and rueful and something very like grateful. “Interesting idea of a ball and chain you have. Where do I sign?”
“In my hotel room. Tomorrow morning, of course, because I’m out scouting all night. Now, Maldini…” Jens started.
Paolo opened his mouth, then hissed and spun around. He managed to get down and scoop up the safe deposit box before Ljungberg could stop him. “I’m not running, you idiot. Listen, Lehmann: in here is what everyone downstairs wants, and what Sandro needs to have enough work to keep him in Italy. Now, they know I’m here and that I’m working with Sandro…I assume since you got in here, you know something about how things are going downstairs?”
Lehmann flicked his eyes over Paolo, then made up his mind. “They’ll give you a few seconds to explain, and you’re good enough to work with that. I’ll be seeing you later, though—we have things to discuss.”
“I agree,” Paolo said.
That gave Jens pause, but he didn’t suspect enough to not wave Ljungberg and Larsson towards…wherever he’d come in from. “Fine. Tomorrow, nine AM. Now, I have an alibi to get back to.”
They disappeared moments before the stairway door burst open and Alberto charged into the hall, looking ready for a war. Paolo stayed where he could be seen and after the first wild reaction, Alberto calmed enough for speech. “Sandro! Sir! Where’s—what happened—”
“Sandro went out the window after one of them, but he saved the box first,” Paolo told him, pitching his voice at a soothing level. “You should look in the next room…here, see, that one…”
* * *
As Zlatan collapsed, clutching his shoulder, Alessandro threw himself across the roof. He dropped on his shoulder and rolled, then slammed back over to point his gun at Zlatan. “Don’t move.”
“Do I look like I’m going to?” Zlatan snarled. He shoved his fingers under his shirt-collar to the bandages and felt a hot dampness soaking up through it. The whole area felt like it’d been prodded with a hot poker, and if he hadn’t ripped out any stitches, it’d be a goddamn miracle. “Fuck. You bastard.”
“No, I didn’t hurt your fucking asshole ex. I saw—I saw my friend coming and I didn’t want to have to pull a gun on him again, all right? Don’t worry, he won’t kill Paolo. Maybe give him a headache, but hey, that’s life.” Zlatan tried breathing. His shoulder flamed up and his vision temporarily whited out. When it came back, he’d dropped so his forehead was touching the ground.
Alessandro shifted slightly, then took a few steps towards Zlatan. “Your friend? The one who shot at me last night?”
“He did that because it looked like you were about to kill me,” Zlatan muttered. He carefully braced his knee against the ground, then slowly pushed on it so he could raise his head. Two gun muzzles greeted him; they went to three before snapping into one. “So how about you go back downstairs to tell your men you’re still alive, and I just slip over to the next roof, and then you don’t have to say thank-you, which probably would kill you, and I don’t—” Zlatan had to swallow “—lose a friend for nothing.”
The gun didn’t move, but Alessandro’s expression wasn’t quite raging determination anymore. His brows pushed a wrinkle into shape in between them. “You don’t even look like you can stand.”
“Look, if you think my idea’s shit, you can just say it’s shit. There’s no need for the contempt on top of that.” That wet spot in the bandages was getting bigger, and Zlatan’s need to have that gun out of his face was somehow, impossibly, getting dimmer. In fact, he was having a hard time just focusing on Alessandro. “By the way, you’re really sexy like this.”
Like usual, Alessandro stuttered. Unfortunately, Zlatan passed out right then and couldn’t take advantage of it.
It wasn’t a nice slide into unconsciousness either. It was painful all the way, with plenty of tortured nightmare-fragments flashing at him before they settled for skulking around, teasing him with the idea of waking up again. Then he’d fall for it and try and they’d lance some part of him with white-hot pain, or he’d slam himself up against a black wall, and he’d go back to sluggishly wishing they would fuck off.
So it was a complete surprise to him when he did wake up. He inhaled and got a noseful of dry scratchy suffocating cloth, rolled over in a slight panic and put weight on his shoulder. And the resulting pain pretty much blew everything else out of his head.
Somebody smacked him lightly on the ear, then held him up against a hard wood thing. “No, if you’re going to waste my work like that, you’d better be up.”
“I am,” Zlatan snapped, and opened his eyes.
Alessandro stared at him, pupils so wide only the thinnest bit of iris still circled them. Then the other man let go of Zlatan and leaned back, expression neutral. He’d lost the suit and had on a navy blue buttondown that definitely had seen better days, its sleeves rolled up past his elbows.
Zlatan pushed himself further up the headboard and took a look around a room that definitely wasn’t a jail. A little dusty and spare, but also a little expensive for a government man. “We still in Milan?”
“You think I could or would haul your ass out of town?” After wiping his hands on a rag, Alessandro began picking various pieces of a first-aid kit off the bed. He didn’t look at Zlatan. “You only tore out a few stitches at the edge. I think you collapsed because of exhaustion. And possibly the concussion somebody gave you earlier. Your friend again?”
“Yeah, and before you make that smug face, how about remembering the ambulance back to Italy eight years ago,” Zlatan hissed. He grinned at Alessandro’s wince. “I’m not giving up anything on him, so don’t bother trying.”
Alessandro jerked the shoulder closest to Zlatan. “Didn’t think you would. By the way, this is Paolo’s house. I couldn’t exactly bring you to the hotel where I’m keeping office right now, so I had to call him. Right now he’s busy distracting my men.”
That…that, Zlatan couldn’t quite reply to. So he didn’t. He sat there and watched Alessandro tidy up, then sit with bowed head and an apparent interest in the floor. The other man’s fingers twisted around each other once in his lap, then slowly separated to spread over his knees.
“Why?” Zlatan finally said. It was the only sensible thing he could think of to say.
Alessandro lifted his head and turned to look at Zlatan, moving as if he was paying for every second of mobility in blood. His gaze was steady and serious. “Thanks,” he said flatly.
Zlatan started to sit forward and tweaked the shoulder. He grimaced and grabbed at it, but didn’t drop his eyes. “That’s not it. That’s bullshit.”
And this time, Alessandro’s eyes caught fire. He jerked forward, sucking in a breath, before pulling himself back. And then he came forward again, so fast it was practically a fall, and his hand seized Zlatan’s good shoulder and his mouth smashed Zlatan’s lips back into his teeth. It steamrolled across till they were cheek-to-cheek, just a canine of Alessandro hooking their mouths together, so Zlatan grabbed the back of Alessandro’s neck to align them properly and the other man snarled sobbingly, his hand scratching down over Zlatan’s chest.
Zlatan turned his head, got their mouths full-on again. He opened his mouth wide and bit, then let his lips drag together, wrapping his hand around the side of Alessandro’s throat. Alessandro’s shirt hung open well down his chest and Zlatan’s hand wasn’t ashamed to straggle into that bared vee, pressing from neck to breast and back again. He pushed at the other man, and when Alessandro got over enough, slipped his fingers into the waistband of Alessandro’s jeans and pulled as well. His shoulder kept making him wince, and Alessandro occasionally twisted sharply like he had old—well, he did, and suddenly Zlatan wanted to see them.
“Sex is what it is? I almost feel insulted,” he hiss-laughed, mouthing along Alessandro’s jaw. He grabbed the side of Alessandro’s shirt, but his hand was yanked away. Though Alessandro had undone the buttons before Zlatan could get annoyed, and with all that skin he could now get to, he wasn’t wasting time.
Alessandro sank his teeth between Zlatan’s neck and the beginning of those fresh bandages he’d just been complaining about putting on Zlatan. He got a knee up on the bed, wormed himself around Zlatan’s knees that Zlatan was drawing up to get from under the sheet. “Prick.” The suck at the new injury wasn’t meant to soothe; it pulled up all the blood to make the stinging worse. “Thanks. Thanks for the new bruises. Thanks for fucking up my investigation, thanks for putting me in debt, thanks for forcing me to ask a favor from Paolo. You ass.”
“Hey, could’ve just left me there. I would’ve woken up eventually, found my own way out.” Zlatan dragged his hands across Alessandro’s belly till he found the sore spots he’d left last night. He pressed a knuckle into them, then smoothed over with his palm and dipped his fingers into Alessandro’s waistband again.
He pulled the other man fully onto the bed by them, and his fucking shoulder screamed but Zlatan just dove into Alessandro’s mouth, Alessandro’s sweet scathing bitter mouth, and drowned that out. He yanked up his right knee enough to finally kick the sheet off that leg, then tried to do the same with the other only to have Alessandro slap a hand down on his thigh, trapping the cloth in place.
A burning look, chin held high, and then Zlatan was staring at the top of Alessandro’s head as the other man bent over him. He raked a breath over his teeth, grabbed Alessandro’s shoulder. Hissed as he felt the sheet’s rasp over his cock be replaced with the deceptive silk of that fucking mouth. Alessandro snorted, lips snapping tight around Zlatan, and slapped one hand against Zlatan’s thigh to hold it back. “Oh, fuck,” Zlatan said, and he swore at God the other man nodded.
He said more, when Alessandro’s head kept bobbing, when the head of his cock scraped from a bony place to a soft one in Alessandro’s mouth, but honestly only God and one other would’ve been able to make any sense of it. His nails skittered over the slippery fabric of Alessandro’s shirt, slamming up against the other man’s shoulderblade as it angled up and then fell in time with Alessandro’s sucking. Alessandro’s fingers gouged little dots of blue to life on Zlatan’s thigh, then scored off onto the mattress. He rose up on his elbows and the change meant deeper, hotter and Zlatan put his head as far back as it could go but his eyes still rolled even farther.
He didn’t see then, but just felt Alessandro’s fingers track some slimy cold ointment up his thigh, back around his balls. Zlatan thumped down on Alessandro’s shoulder, but that just raised him up so the other man had an easier time of it, and then Alessandro got out the teeth and took them to the topside of Zlatan’s cock, and by the time he’d gotten over that, he had a finger jammed to the knuckle in him. It stretched him hard despite the ointment, then crooked and moved and the pain pulled out into a long hot burn that curled back to his prick, and Zlatan hissed, blanked out by it, and of course then protesting would’ve been stupid.
Zlatan fisted his hand in Alessandro’s shirt, yanking it taut so it drew halfway up Alessandro’s back. His head got too heavy to hold up and fell forward, and he saw that golden span of skin and he wanted so badly to—to lean forward and to—to—he cursed, coming hard and too soon and fuck, Alessandro was annoying. That had been a good thought there.
The finger twisted out without so much as a warning, and as Alessandro lifted his head he cleared his throat like he was trying to take off a couple layers of skin. He dragged the bedsheet further off Zlatan as he sat up, slapping the back of his hand over his mouth. “Killer.”
“Cutie,” Zlatan snorted. He grinned at the growling look Alessandro shot him, tugging on the man’s shirt. Once Alessandro got close enough, he moved his hand back to curl around Alessandro’s throat. He liked the look of it, his paler fingers splayed over the olive skin. “Yeah. Yeah, well, you gave me the gun at least one of those times. You gonna say now you’d trade their lives for yours?”
Alessandro pressed his lips into a white line, glaring sideways at Zlatan. He put his hands down on the bed on either side of Zlatan’s hips and didn’t watch Zlatan’s two fingertips draw around the base of his throat, down his chest and stomach and then flick open his fly.
“Don’t kid yourself. You’re broken-hearted, not bleeding-heart.” Zlatan shoved his hand past the little nibbles of the zipper’s teeth. His bad arm got jostled a bit and he tried to pull it back where it was out of the way; he smiled when Alessandro finally gave that a knock with the back of one hand and took care of it.
“You’re good at what you do,” Alessandro said tonelessly. He did look down, moving his hands to Zlatan’s waist as he rose to let Zlatan haul down the jeans, the underwear. Then he pushed forward on his knees, his swollen cock bumping higher and higher on Zlatan’s stomach, and abruptly craned his head so his mouth seared Zlatan’s ear. “You like it?”
Zlatan couldn’t see the man’s eyes, but he knew what they looked like right then. He traced Alessandro’s hips, scratched aimless zig-zag chains into them. He knew he was still smiling because his mouth hurt.
“Yeah,” he finally said. “Zlatan doesn’t kid himself. You could learn from him.”
“Learn what?” Alessandro asked harshly. His right hand left Zlatan’s waist and his hips hitched up in Zlatan’s hands, little pained jolts as his mouth ran hot as melted lead over Zlatan’s ear. “I knew all of that already.”
“You like your job. You like doing the dangerous, dirty work, going the places other people wouldn’t dare. You do or you would’ve walked already.” Zlatan slid his hands lower, ripped more of Alessandro’s thighs from the jeans, then curved his palms to feel the muscles shift as Alessandro pulled up his knees against the headboard, wedging them beneath Zlatan’s arms. He stabbed himself down on Zlatan’s cock and Zlatan drank in every grimace, every fucking twitch in the man’s face. “You’re just legal, is all.”
Alessandro swayed for a moment, his head back and his mouth wide open and working as he stared at the ceiling. He gasped, then exhaled slowly and lowered his head to look at Zlatan. Heavy-lidded but eyes afire, nose pointing down at Zlatan and mouth twisted hard to hurt himself. “Legal means I go to trial every day, when you run from it.”
Zlatan looked at him. Then swore and drew blood with his nails when he yanked Alessandro forward. He buried his face in Alessandro’s throat, sucking and licking and biting, and his cock in Alessandro’s body, and it didn’t make a difference because the man was his fucking word and his word was—truth, after all. And fine, Zlatan snarled to himself. Fine. Yes. Yes but “It’s not day now.”
“No,” Alessandro rasped, and then he turned to press his head into Zlatan’s neck. He’d grabbed the headboard and Zlatan could feel it shaking behind them, rattling faster and faster like Alessandro wanted to shatter.
And it was such a brutal, unforgiving, irresistible undertow pulling him along with the other man, and so he went with it. And the last time Alessandro hurled himself forward, Zlatan didn’t take it, but instead broke with him.
* * *
Half the bandages on Zlatan’s shoulder had unraveled, falling in loose loops down his arm. He stirred when Alessandro pulled at one, then shifted restlessly away. His hand drew slow circles over the slight dip above Alessandro’s hip. “I don’t run from anything,” he muttered. “I just don’t give a shit.”
“Same thing.” Alessandro reached up and pushed the hair from Zlatan’s temple, fingering the bruise there. He didn’t stop at the other man’s flinch, and didn’t pull away when Zlatan’s hand threaded into his own hair and pushed him forward.
It hurt to just kiss, after all the mauling they’d done. Stung right on the tear in the lower lip, and then ached at the corners and along the middle, but if Alessandro closed his eyes he could get past that and to the part where it felt good faster. He knew that but he couldn’t quite; he kept blinking, trying to have it both ways, till Zlatan snorted and slid his thumb along Alessandro’s jaw. Slow, unbelievably light compared to his usual sledgehammer approach.
No, that wasn’t exactly fair, but neither was the way that stroking thumb hurt in an entirely different manner, and actually, Alessandro just didn’t want to care right now.
“You still going to nail me for those deaths?” Zlatan asked roughly.
Alessandro snapped open his eyes, furious and—and then he half-closed them again, feeling so damn tired as he let the bed cradle his head. “Eventually. I don’t care how lucky you are. You’ll lose sometime, and then I’ll be there.”
Zlatan just kept looking at him, amused and angry. And so damn arrogant, the way he put himself all out in the open and still…got away with it. “I’m not lucky, I’m just that good. Well, before—” he grimaced and started to turn, and then snapped his teeth when Alessandro yanked his head back. Then he flashed a smile, teeth white and eyes dark above them. “You’re an idiot, you know. You’ve seen me lose and didn’t even know what you were seeing.”
“Didn’t I?” Alessandro whispered harshly. Then he grimaced, twisting his fingers in Zlatan’s hair.
The smile dropped off of Zlatan’s face. He fingered Alessandro’s jaw again, looking at his hand. Then he moved over and kissed Alessandro again, and Alessandro shut his eyes and so he didn’t see when Zlatan hit him.
* * *
“You need to stop,” Paolo said tightly, knotting up the towel-ends. He handed the make-shift ice-pack to Sandro, then moved into the way when Sandro tried to walk out. “Look at you. At this rate I’ll be attending your funeral before—”
“And why, exactly, do you care? Don’t you have enough on your plate, between your workplace politics and your new bedwarmer? And that’s beside the point that you did quite well at forgetting I existed for several years.” Sandro attempted to glare Paolo into stepping aside.
When Paolo didn’t, the other man threw up his free hand and stalked back into the kitchen. He slammed around cabinet doors till Paolo opened the one for the shot-glasses. Then Sandro just sank back against the counter, glowering and clutching at the ice-pack till water began to run out of it and drip down the side of his throat over…over…
Well, Paolo had suspected before, and then completely understood the moment Sandro had opened the door, but that didn’t make things easier. “Don’t call Ricky a bedwarmer, damn it.”
Sandro arched a brow and wrapped his arm around himself. “Then what is he? I wasn’t around long enough to tell.”
“You were. He’s who I love.” Paolo bit off the last word, his anger unexpectedly spiking. He grimaced and glanced away, then back.
The pain hadn’t yet receded from Sandro’s eyes, but he didn’t look away. “Well, if you love him, then what do you care about me? You’re ducking the damn question, Paolo.”
After a moment, Paolo had the breath for it. “Because I loved you.”
He made himself watch Sandro’s expression move through all the stages of realization, from bare comprehension to shock to anger to…Sandro took the ice-pack off his head and dropped it before Paolo could see the last. He pressed two fingers into the top of his nose. “You. Loved me.”
“I realized when I was told—the first time, between finding out what’d been done and that you’d left for Rome. It didn’t seem like an appropriate time to tell you, though,” Paolo said baldly.
Sandro looked up, blinking hard. Then simply a long stare. “One of your better decisions, I’d think.”
He looked a bit longer, then ducked his head and carefully applied the ice-pack to it again. Paolo turned around and poked about till he managed to turn up a bottle of cognac, which he set down on the counter along with a pair of shot-glasses.
“But right now…this is different. You love him and care about him at the same time,” Sandro finally said.
“It doesn’t mean I can’t help being disturbed at what’s happening to you. Yes, I had a hand in planting the seeds for it, and yes, I’m motivated by guilt and other selfish reasons, but—but damn it, Sandro. I don’t want to see you kill yourself.” Cognac just didn’t—nausea laced Paolo’s throat with a biting sourness as he pushed the bottle from him. Then he walked towards the other end of the room, so if Sandro wanted it, he could get it. “And you are. Not the conventional way, but with…you were more clever before. You outmaneuvered your superiors, you didn’t go running into fights you didn’t know how to win, you didn’t fuck trained assassins—”
“I know!” Sandro jerked his hand down, his head going up and back. His eyes flashed and so did his teeth as his lips briefly curled back from them. “Paolo, damn it, stop saying sorry long enough to fucking look at me. For once.”
The hand-slice Sandro used to cut Paolo off sent a spray of water spattering over the floor, the noise jangling in the sudden silence.
“You’re not,” Sandro said a little more calmly. He shifted against the counter and tossed the ice-pack on the counter, then gingerly wiped the water from the side of his head. “Look, yes, I haven’t exactly been a poster child for the right way to do things. But—so many years.” He laughed a little, shaking his head and looking at the ceiling. “So many, trying to rebuild with you out of the picture, trying to be more than a Reaction to Paolo Maldini, like a case study in a textbook. And it just—wasn’t working. All right? It wasn’t working, and I just couldn’t fucking fight for anything anymore. I didn’t care.”
Paolo grabbed the edge of the counter and leaned against it himself. He opened his mouth, only to have the words stabbed out by Sandro’s glare.
Then Sandro turned away, crossing over to the cognac. He picked it up, looked at the label, and then put it and the glasses away. “Don’t even think it. I know you’re sorry by now, and anyway I had a hand in it, too. If I can’t take admitting that, then there really is no hope.”
“This Zlatan—you can’t think…” Paolo started.
“If I couldn’t stomach you in your heyday, then I’d have to cut out my guts to stand him, wouldn’t I? No, Zlatan’s a killer. He doesn’t value the law or life in general.” Sandro paused, stretched up with his hands around the shot-glasses. His head bowed a bit, and then he breathed in sharply and turned to look at Paolo. Clear-eyed, steady and knowing. “But you should know it’s not simple. I can’t forget you, damn you. But—when Zlatan is in the room, you are not. Understand, Paolo?”
Paolo…did. Though he fought against it, and wasn’t ashamed to acknowledge that. But he did, and in the end he had to nod.
“And what else is in the room with me and him isn’t your business.” After shutting the cabinet, Sandro rested his hands on it and looked at them.
He stayed like that till Paolo came close enough to tap his shoulder, and then he started. But Paolo left his fingertips on Sandro’s arm and shook his head, and the other man stilled though he did watch warily.
“I don’t hurt you now,” Paolo quietly told him. He saw Sandro recognize the truths in there and moved to lay his fingers on either side of Sandro’s jaw. Old habits died hard: he waited out Sandro’s flinch, then the sudden spark in the man’s eyes, and then he kissed Sandro. Once on the lips, once on the forehead. “Alessandro.”
He wanted to say more, but the other man’s eyes stopped him. And finally, Paolo made himself show respect.
After a moment, Sandro put up his hands and covered Paolo’s. He breathed in, eyes closing, and then pulled Paolo’s hands down. “Go back to him,” Sandro said quietly, eyes open and clear.
Since they’d both said their goodbyes, Paolo left.
* * *
“Something for you, sir,” Alberto said, stifling a yawn. Despite that he was watching Alessandro with bright curiosity as he handed over the pot. “They’re…I think they’re called bleeding-hearts? I already called the florist and the trail’s cold. No card either.”
Alessandro stared at it, then lifted the pot to eye-level. The motion set the delicate little flowers to swinging on their hair-fine stem and he had to roll his eyes. “I’m probably going to kill this by the end of the week.”
“Never mind. Did you get anywhere with Baggio’s deposit box?” Whereupon Alberto revealed that everything was waiting on Alessandro’s desk, so Alessandro immediately went to that. He told the other man to hold everything but absolute emergencies, then began to sit.
He’d momentarily forgotten the pot. Alessandro looked at it again, and as no one else was in the room he let his sense of humor drain away till he was gripping the pot so hard his knuckles were white. He touched the new bruise on his head, then made himself take a breath. And another.
He sat down. He put the pot to the side. Looked at the papers on his desk and needed to breathe and did so with his eyes squeezed shut. His wrists were aching again and he rubbed them a few times. Then he exhaled slowly, opening his eyes, and pulled out the box from Stockholm.
* * *
Ricardo opened the door.
“I kissed Sandro.” Paolo stood there. Disheveled, his hair like gauzy cobwebs and his shirt actually wrinkled. There were bags under his eyes and fine red lines in their whites, and a huge bruise on the side of his face and he just looked as if he needed to fall onto something and lie there for a very long time. “I ran into him in Milan and you should know I kissed him goodbye and that it was on the mouth. That’s a reason and a description, not an excuse.”
“And actually, the whole trip was a mess: there were Swedish hitmen, and apparently I’m not the only one of my law class who’s been mixing with dangerous people, and I also might end up in the hospital because Lehmann didn’t take my resignation well just now,” Paolo went on. He grabbed the sides of the doorway and Ricardo couldn’t tell whether it was for support or for restraint. “Damn it, I’m sorry. I’m scaring you right now and I don’t mean to. I just—God, Ricky, I love you.”
He pried his hands off the wood, which creaked loudly, and raised them, and Ricardo instinctively grabbed them. Then he pulled Paolo inside; the other man tugged his hands free, then wrapped his arms around Ricardo and dropped his head on Ricardo’s shoulder. His body sagged unexpectedly and Ricardo staggered a bit before adjusting and bearing up.
“You don’t have to forgive me, you know. You don’t have to suffer for what I’ve done. You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t have to swallow anything to just stay with me.” And then Paolo sighed, and slowly lifted his head.
Ricardo put his hand to the side of Paolo’s face so the other man would look at him, then shook his head. “What happened? No, don’t—Paolo, I just need to know who you are. Who I’m speaking to. The rest…the rest I’ll take when it comes. As long as I know that it’s you in there…I know it’ll pass, and you’ll still be there with me.”
Paolo stared at him as like a drowning man would water. Then his hand covered Ricardo’s and he kissed Ricardo so feverishly Ricardo nearly fell, his knees giving way.
But the other man held him up, and eventually Ricardo was allowed to catch up on his breath. He slung his arm back around Paolo and pressed his cheek to the side of the other man’s head. “What happened? What did that to your face?”
“I—” Paolo laughed raggedly. “I need to sit.”
“Okay. There’s a chair somewhere.” Ricardo smiled himself, trying to look around and find said piece of furniture. “But…what happened? I did get your message…”
“Oh. Oh. Oh…I paid my taxes and I…I ran into an old classmate. Billy Costacurta. He invited me to dinner, and…” They stumbled their way into the chair and Paolo pushed Ricardo down onto it, then slid to the floor on his knees. He stopped talking to lay his head on Ricardo’s lap, but Ricardo prompted him again. And again, till the whole story came out.
Ricardo listened, and he was confused and upset and terrified by turns, but when the last of it was told…he bent down and held the other man, and told Paolo he loved him.
* * *
Olof cocked back the safety lever further than it actually had to go in order to disengage. “You royally wrecked a perfectly good Italian villa. Want to tell me why I shouldn’t shoot you right now?”
“I just used the kiln and ruined a set of bedsheets, Mellberg. And I heard that you’re getting into a lot of fights for somebody who just hooks people up with things and could use the help.” Ignoring the gun, Zlatan shouldered far enough into the doorway to get out of the cold drizzle.
After another moment, Olof let the safety snap back on and lowered the gun. “If I hadn’t gotten a message from Henke saying to expect you, I’d take my risks with a stranger. I hope that Italian was worth it.”
Zlatan froze, replaying those words in his mind. Then he took a deep breath, and started off by thanking God Mellberg was such an idiot he’d been swinging his shotgun under his arm and had completely missed everything.
“Shut the fuck up,” Zlatan genially told the other man. And if Olof couldn’t take a fucking hint, then fuck him and fuck England. There were other jobs, even if Zlatan was still getting over his shoulder and his fingers. And other shit, but never mind that now. Henrik wasn’t going to show up one day and shoot him, and the day had just gotten too good for Zlatan to get upset.
“After I know whether you’re done with that. Things are delicate up here.” Olof backed off so Zlatan could get inside.
Zlatan took a second to scrape the mud off his shoes on the threshold, not missing or caring about Olof’s grimace at that. Then he put his arm up to keep his head from hitting the top and stepped through the doorway. “Bastard waited for eight years last time, I think he can manage a couple months,” he muttered.
“I said he won’t be a problem. Now why don’t you tell me about the problems you do have.” And never let it be said that Zlatan couldn’t do anything some crazy Italian lawyer could, he thought. He walked on into the house, shaking the water off himself.