|Rain When I Die
Author: Guede Mazaka
As soon as Robert disappeared round the corner with the sommelier, Paolo leaned over and hissed at Thierry, “What am I doing here?”
Thierry blinked as he placidly cut his meat. “I think you’re having dinner with us.”
Paolo looked hard at him. Then picked up his own knife and fork and absentmindedly prodded at his plate; the food at least wasn’t blandly unassuming. “Thierry, adorable as it is to watch two Frenchmen flirt over the meat course, I’m fairly sure that it’s not something that demands a witness.”
“Actually, I don’t know. I thought Bobby and I were eating by ourselves.” Touch of possible irritation in the wrinkles that formed on Thierry’s brow. Then he shrugged and reached for the water pitcher. He refilled his glass, then offered to do Paolo’s, but Paolo waved him off. “Then at the last minute he mentioned you’d be here, and I said I could just meet him afterwards if he needed to take care of business, but he said it wasn’t that.”
“We haven’t jointly worked a case in two years,” Paolo muttered. He would have scanned the room for clues, but they’d been taken into a private room at the back. Which was a little much for two men and an odd one out, he thought. “Did you specify label business?”
Thierry forked up some of his vegetable side-dish, chewed thoughtfully, and then washed the mouthful down with rather a lot of water. His eyes wandered to the door, but Robert was taking quite a bit of time to pick out a second wine. “No, I didn’t. There isn’t any other outstanding matter between you two?”
Paolo started to answer in the negative, but had to stop as a tangential, almost unexpected but very possibly correct thought struck him. He meditated on it for a few seconds, then put down his utensils, tossed his napkin beside them, and got up just in time to see a rather irked Kaká walking up the hall towards them. Thought confirmed. “Oh, I see. It’s the godfather complex.”
“…is he?” Thierry asked, startled. He’d turned to look as well and his eyes had widened a little.
“No, Kaká’s godfather is Brazilian, but he’s in Rio and I think in a pinch, any family friend would do,” Paolo sighed.
From the looks of it, Thierry didn’t quite understand that, but he didn’t need to and if he wanted to, that was Bobby’s problem. Paolo went out to deal with his own.
“I’m sorry,” Kaká immediately said. “I didn’t know till my mother let it slip. I told them—I can’t believe that they would do this. I thought they were friends with you.”
“They are, but you’re their son and honestly, I have plenty of friends who I wouldn’t leave alone for a minute with a niece or nephew of mine.” The hallway was short enough for Paolo to be able to hear conversations in the front rooms, so he assumed people seated there could hear their conversation. And he didn’t particularly enjoy providing the show for others so he started looking around, spotted an empty room and pulled them into it.
Kaká was still so patently annoyed that he nearly jerked his arm from Paolo’s grip. Then he remembered who Paolo was and looked guilty. “Understanding why doesn’t excuse them. I…I told them about you, and about what you meant to me, and I thought they were listening. But no, they ask Bobby to—to feel out your ‘intentions.’”
His hair was flopping in his eyes like haphazard black feathers and his cheeks were flushing with his sheer animation, and his hands were flying about…Paolo had to bite down an extremely inappropriate smile. It actually wasn’t that amusing. “If it makes you feel better, I think Bobby was just as uncomfortable about it. He asked me here, but we’ve gone through three courses and the only time he mentioned you was to ask if you’d been in my office last Thursday. Fulfilled the letter of the request, I suspect, but avoided the spirit.”
It clearly didn’t make Kaká feel better. He grimaced and ran his hand through the hair on the left side of his head, then tugged at the strands. Then his head came up and he stared at Paolo as if he were looking through a pane of glass. “I know I didn’t show up for dinner—my parents visited without much notice. But I didn’t—I wasn’t trying to avoid you. And I’m not looking for an easy way to get out of this. I don’t want to get out of this…do you? Is that why you’re not more insulted?”
Paolo’s gaze dropped before he realized, and once he did, he swallowed slowly but didn’t raise his eyes past Kaká’s jaw. He put his hands in his pockets, clammy moisture coming up between his fingertips as he rubbed them together. People walked by in the hallway outside: their footsteps were echoed by the more muffled clink of plates and glasses, and once Paolo thought he heard Bobby’s voice.
“How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not leaving?” Kaká asked, soft but steady.
Paolo looked up at that, then took a quick step forward. He arched an eyebrow at Kaká’s aborted, instinctive sway back. “Why not? Have you added martyrdom to your halo?” He snorted at the protest he saw in Kaká’s face and sensed rising in the other man’s throat. “It bothers you—I bother you, Ricardo. And if you’re human, then you have to have a reaction to it. Either you’vd decided to take it and suffer the pain, or…you don’t mind for some other reason.”
Kaká almost replied right away, but stopped himself. Someone exclaimed loudly in the hall and he briefly glanced that way. “I don’t think I—”
“Let me see,” Paolo abruptly said. He waited a moment, then reached up and pulled at Kaká’s collar.
The other man was in shirt and trousers only—this establishment technically had a business attire minimum, but of course Kaká would be able to breeze through without even noticing—and so there wasn’t a tie in the way. There was, once Kaká realized what Paolo was going for, a few fingers, but then Kaká tightened his jaw and moved his hand to help Paolo undo his collar.
The little round plastic button didn’t seem to hold off Paolo’s fingers long enough before he was pushing them past crisp cotton. He slid his thumb down till it was resting on Kaká’s collarbone on the wrong side, then splayed his fingers to lift the fabric away. Kaká’s hand dropped to rest on top of Paolo’s wrist, and as the dark, irregular bruise came into view, he tipped his head away.
Not much of the skin had broken. Probably not enough to warrant anything beyond a good rinse with soap and water, and a tissue held to the place till it dried over. Paolo couldn’t even call that speck of dull red a scab; it popped into his head that even Kaká’s scabs had to look pristine. But he shook that off, because the purplish stain of the skin around the spot was a blemish.
Something touched Paolo’s side, so light that he almost didn’t notice it. It pressed a little harder and he startled, his finger slipping to land on the bruise. Kaká sucked in his breath and slid closer, his hand digging hard into Paolo’s waist. His head had tilted back so he was resting it against Paolo’s temple. “I don’t care when you do it because you want to. I don’t because I forget about everything and that’s why I get frightened then,” he whispered. “Because I never—but I care when you do it because you’re trying to make it into something that you don’t want.”
Paolo looked over, but all he saw was a fall of soft black hair and the glimpse of one ear, tight-curled and smooth-skinned. He started to close his eyes, but then made himself keep them cracked open. He needed to watch himself slowly lean down, press his mouth over his work, see the shiver go through the other man.
“I’m surprised my lips don’t smoke and burn when I kiss you,” he murmured. He curved his hand over Kaká’s shoulder, letting the fingertips drift up into silky hair, and traced the edge of the bruise with his tongue before teasing the tip directly into the center, where the flesh would be most tender. “Maybe I’ve been watching too many trashy American horror films.”
Kaká tried to lift his head. “I’m not a saint—”
When his mouth was close enough, Paolo turned his head and captured it. He held it prisoner while he took Kaká by the waist and pulled them down onto the nearest chair. Neither of them were really looking and the awkwardness of sitting, knees and feet not working unison, temporarily jarred them apart. Kaká’s grip skidded to Paolo’s belt and he caught it with fingertips; his other hand seized Paolo’s arm in a kind of panic. But Paolo still had him firmly enough, and took the opportunity to rearrange them before Kaká regained his balance.
They were in the corner and the chair was wide enough: Paolo turned, pulling Kaká with him, and put the other man’s back up against the wall. He had one of the other man’s legs over his lap, and swung the other one over to join it before spreading his hand over Kaká’s hip, flexing the palm down into the bony hollow. Then he leaned over and sucked hard at the bruised side of Kaká’s throat, pulling the skin up against his teeth.
Hissing, Kaká twisted and pushed at Paolo’s shoulder. Pulled. His fingers scratched, then dragged across Paolo’s arm to clutch at his suit-jacket’s lapels. His other hand fisted in Paolo’s shirt till Paolo felt the tail come untucked from his waistband. Paolo eased back, licked instead, then ran his teeth along the line of Kaká’s jaw. Then he had to see, had to know—he looked and dazed eyes, eyes with pupils smeared big and black with lust, stared back at him, and then Kaká gave Paolo’s jacket a hesitant tug.
Paolo darted in, stopped a hair short, and then made Kaká crane up and up for the kiss. Then forced the other man’s head into the wall once their mouths had touched, and now Kaká was going stiff and soft in erratic turns. He tensed up till his thigh felt like stone when Paolo moved the hand he had on it, drawing the thumb across and then down, from the air-cooled outside to the warming inside.
Once upon a time Paolo would’ve stopped, but—was it old habits again?—this time he went on, dipped his hand between Kaká’s legs and rubbed it up between them, found the angel sexed after all. And suddenly embarrassed, trying to duck his head away and jerking backwards. Except that was into the wall, and frontwards was into Paolo, who bit Kaká’s lower lip every time it started to drop and moved his fingers to get the shape of Kaká till the other man kept his head up. And moaned and lifted his hips as well, his fingers now hooking into Paolo’s back; some devil had made sure that instinct had gotten into him during Creation.
Damned faith, never really dead when it seemed so, Paolo thought, and suddenly he was breathless and lightheaded as well. He laughed, nuzzled Kaká’s throat. “Stupid rule. I can’t believe I kept it so long.”
“I…can’t either.” Kaká sounded as if he’d just terrified himself. His eyes flicked up to Paolo, then went down almost helplessly to what Paolo was doing to him. His mouth opened as he gasped and his lip was red and gleaming with spit—Paolo sucked at it, then crushed it back. He kneaded at Paolo’s shoulders, then somehow hauled his right hand around and pressed it up against Paolo’s neck. Pulled it down a little, thumb and finger catching at buttons, and then a little more and a little more till it was clear he was trying to—
“Paolo!” Thierry hit the door with a brick. Or possibly he just punched it. “Paolo, Jens got caught in an explosion—”
Kaká jerked, inhaled sharply when anyone else would’ve liberally defamed God, and nearly toppled. Uncertain as Paolo was about what had just been happening, he knew well enough what had him grabbing Kaká and standing up at the same time. He set the other man on his feet—Kaká stumbled right afterward because he over-stretched himself in a leap, but he still grabbed Paolo’s wrist—and cracked open the door. “What?”
Both Thierry and Bobby were standing there, and Thierry was ashen and not actually seeing Paolo. Bobby was, but he was quite obviously compartmentalizing it for later; he had a hand on Thierry’s shoulder and his other hand was working with his cell-phone.
“Jens was at a club downtown. Somebody blew up a car he was—I don’t know if he’s dead, but you should know he brought Giuly back a week ago,” Thierry said.
Paolo swore. “Giuly? Are you crazy? Where is he?”
Thierry flared up and almost went into defense, but then he shook himself. He was still in shock, but working on dealing with it. “I’m going back to the office. Can you fill in Bobby?”
Then he spun on his heel and walked off without waiting for an answer. He knew Paolo would do it—Paolo would have to if he wanted a workplace to which he could go tomorrow morning. Bobby looked at Paolo, then muttered he’d be back and went after Thierry.
“I thought you said he wasn’t very important,” Kaká slowly said.
“I lied. Giuly was—I didn’t like how interested Cesc looked in the subject. Kaká, you should go home. Or if you have to stay, with Bobby,” Paolo said. He absently looked down at himself, then swore again and wrenched at his clothes. “Ricardo. Please. I have—”
Kaká was still holding onto his wrist, and it really was shocking how much Paolo was missing through inattention. The other man tightened his grip, then pivoted up and pressed his mouth to Paolo’s cheek. “I’ll go.”
His unspoken ‘because of you’ trailed after him, like some sweet-sharp aroma. Paolo breathed in deeply, then pulled himself together and went to go pay the damn bill, earthly concerns jammed back into his mouth like a handful of dirt.
* * *
Robin staggered back a few steps, his lungs starting to burn with the effort. He bent down and leaned on his knees, concentrating on slowing his breathing down. Then that reminded him of yoga, and then the center of his chest really hurt, but in the way that meant he needed to hit something again. He pulled himself forward along the wall, positioned himself, and then drove his heel down.
This time, he was sure something broke because he heard it. He fell back against the wall and caught his breath again. Then he glanced over. “So what were you saying? Something about it’s not going to matter, because we ticked off the wrong people? Funny…the only ticked-off person I see is…hmm. Me.”
It was hard to understand the mushy sounds, but Robin made out something about an apology. He rolled his eyes.
“So which people, exactly, were you talking about?” he asked. He counted off five seconds, then snapped out his foot. This set of moans included a few names. “Ah. Thank you.”
Halfway down the hall, he remembered something…he was supposed to be asking about track rotations, wasn’t he? Well, fuck that—he stripped the latex gloves off his hands, wadded them into his jacket and then stripped that off, too. Picked up the security tape on the way out, covered all his tracks with a meticulousness that Jens would’ve loved.
It was an okay tense, Robin thought after a moment. ‘Would’ve’ had to be used whether or not—never mind, because Jens wasn’t. Wasn’t. No goddamn way.
There were a couple of homeless bums huddling around a barrel fire in the back-alley. Robin made a contribution to their pockets and their fire, and kept on going. He knew where Jens’ schedule put him right now, but he wasn’t going there. He didn’t want to see—“Fuck”—he didn’t want to show up without bringing a couple extra heads along. The way he saw it, Jens was going to be in a worse mood than usual and would need it just to get from enraged grunts to vicious sarcasm.
His cell-phone vibrated again in his pocket. It’d been doing that on and off ever since Cristiano—he was dead the moment Jens didn’t give a shit about him anymore—had called. It was annoying and Robin would’ve pitched it except he would have to really smash it up to make sure it didn’t turn up again as evidence against him.
Then he snorted, shaking his head at how simple it was and how forgetful he was. He popped it out, snapped off the battery, and then stuck it back into his pocket. There. That taken care of. Now nobody could distract him with lies.
* * *
The explosion happened when Philippe and Michael still had a corner to round, so they didn’t get caught in any of the flying debris. Michael did stumble and have to grab for a dumpster for support; Philippe flattened himself against the wall of the alley just behind Michael and then made them wait till they couldn’t hear things falling out of the sky anymore.
Everything seemed to be shaking long after the actual vibrations had stopped. Shrieks and hoarse shouts were coming from inside the club, and a few more from the street—Michael picked out Timo’s voice. “I’m fine!” he called back. “Go inside and check on Lionel!”
Head cocked, Philippe slowly edged out into the center of the alley. He bent down, scooped up a long metal bar with a sharply twisted broken end, then tossed it to Michael. Then he went forward—Michael had nearly dropped the bar in surprise, and now almost hissed for the other man to come back, but it was too late for that. The best he could do was follow.
When he rounded the corner, he saw the gleam of metal and instinctively ducked. Then he realized that Philippe was the one holding the gun and straightened back up, swearing under his breath. “Be careful with that!”
“Watch it,” Philippe said in a low warning voice. He was letting the gun hang loosely by his side as he picked his way through the debris, but that obviously by no means meant he was off-guard. Then he paused, looking at something on the ground. “Maybe you should go back.”
“What?” Michael moved just enough to see the wet slick there and how it threw off red where a streetlamp’s beam hit it, and his stomach heaved. He stumbled back and caught himself against the wall with his hand, then threw up.
He’d missed his shoes, he giddily thought. Then he tried swallowing and his lightheadedness crashed, and he just was sick all the way through. He hadn’t even seen—Jesus, what had that been?
“Philippe? Is Jens—is Jens there?” When Michael didn’t get an answer, he made himself turn around. He was just bracing to go forward when he heard footsteps coming up behind and instead whirled, jerking up the bar.
Timo skidded to a stop with hands raised and eyes wide. “Whoa, whoa—”
“Shit. Sorry,” Michael muttered, lowering the bar. He shifted it to one hand and restlessly pulled at his hair. “Are they okay?”
“Leo’s incredibly drunk. I’m not sure he even heard—I think he and his boyfriend were fucking around, and he just thought it was part of that,” Timo said after a moment. He ran his hands through his hair a couple times, darting nervous glances at whatever he could see behind Michael. “His friends are all trashed, too…Gago and something Torres, they sort of got it but they’re not really coordinated. The only really sober one’s that cousin of Cesc’s. What happened? Where’s Jens?”
Michael opened his mouth, then closed it, screwed up his willpower, and marched around the corner…just till he spotted Philippe. The other man was just stepping out of what had once been a back doorway, but had quite obviously been ground zero for the explosion, with only one wrenched length of metal still forming the frame and cracked bricks on either side. He saw Michael and waved him back; Philippe looked a little freaked, but still seemed pretty calm, so Michael took some desperate hope from that.
“Pipe bomb, something like that,” Philippe said. His gun had disappeared. “I think it triggered early…there’s an injured man inside, and a dead one out here who’re pretty known in underground circles. Don’t think they meant to be in it.”
“Where’s Jens?” Michael blurted. He glanced over his shoulder and spotted a white-faced Timo nervously shuffling right by the corner. “Christ. The police’ll be here. And the club’s packed—oh, my God, was it for Jens? Did he—”
Philippe walked quickly across to Michael. He looked over Michael’s shoulder, then behind himself, and then leaned in. “I don’t know.” He put up his clenched fist between them, then unfolded it to show a handful of smashed plastic and green silica pieces: remains of a PDA. “I don’t see…it was a really big one. If he’d been standing right by it—I can’t tell.”
“What do you mean, you can’t tell? There’s—” Michael started to turn his head, stopped and instead waved to the side “—all around. Then where is he?”
“I don’t know. It’s too messy,” Philippe said. He ducked his head and nervously passed his hand over the back of his neck. His knuckles popped, making Michael jump. “I should have gone in with him.”
Michael bit his lip and pressed his palms to the sides of his face, trying to think. He couldn’t—they couldn’t just stand here. “We need to call somebody. We—shit, I need to get Lionel and them out of here. There’s too many FC—people know that Jens does dodgy stuff and they’re going to assume we were all in on it.”
“Then get them out. I’ll call Thierry or Freddie, whichever I can get first.” Philippe already had his phone out. He pressed a few buttons, swore quietly and then redid whatever he’d dialed. “I’ll stay here, but somebody has to go back to the office to explain things.”
“I can do that,” Michael said. He hadn’t really been thinking about it and it’d just come out…and once he did think about it, he didn’t really want to but he probably had to. Especially if—“Shit!”
Philippe’s head whipped up and he stared at Michael.
Michael didn’t waste time staring back. He spun on his heel and trotted back to Timo, who had huge questions in his eyes; Michael jerked his hand to cut them off. “We’ve got to get Lionel out of here.”
“I…think his friends will have to come too,” Timo slowly replied.
They…God, where were they going to put them? Why did Lionel have to get trashed? His roommate was going to owe him—Michael was clearly not thinking too linearly right now. He gave himself a sharp shake. “Okay, whatever. But we’ve got to sneak them out. I don’t know what Lehmann and Senderos were doing but it’s not good and we can’t stay. I have to go to the office—”
“I think I’d rather help smuggle out a bunch of drunk Argentines than go face that, so I volunteer.” Timo let out an edgy little laugh, jiggling on his left foot every other step. “Um, I should be okay. That—Sergio, he doesn’t seem like an idiot, and I think I’ve hung around Schweini and Poldi enough to have picked up something. Anything else?”
“I need to find Robin,” Michael muttered. He went a couple more steps before he noticed the way Timo was looking at him. “Don’t worry about that. Just…get them out. I’d really hate to have to look for another roommate.”
He had his own shaky chuckle, and Timo cracked an awkward smile in response. When they got back around to the front, people were just starting to drift onto the sidewalk and they pretended to do the same, looking around like they didn’t know what was happening. Which wasn’t that far off, anyway.
When Timo got the chance, he slipped through towards the club’s front door. Michael started towards the car. Then he remembered he hadn’t asked how Timo had gotten here…well, he needed to be able to drive. He was sorry about it, but the others would have to find some other ride.
* * *
Names, numbers, passwords, they all flew by from Robin’s fingers to the keyboard without so much as touching his mind. He finished with his current task and got up to leave the Internet café, only to notice somebody had left their station before their money had run out. So he sat down and did a quick one, and then he moved on to the next one.
He’d hit four by that point, so at the last one he also checked up on Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Savage. Savage’s credit card didn’t show any activity for the day besides one purchase at a small liquor store…he was home. Ferdinand had stopped at two bars for a beer each, a sandwich shop…just paid to fill up his gas tank twenty minutes ago. He was doing his rounds, Robin bet, so he’d have to wait. Anyway, it’d be fun to see if Savage had ever figured out things from the last time, or if he was just that thick.
Jens would be so hacked off if he—wrong tenses. Robin told himself to shut up and got moving.
* * *
“Bobby’s down in his office getting ready for the siege. Kaká stayed to help,” Paolo said, walking in. “Now tell me why you were stupid enough to invite Ludovic Giuly back in town. If last time was so awful that you wiped it from your memory, I can refresh—”
“Not now, Paolo.” Thierry didn’t look up from Jens’ desk, where he was searching for something, anything on exactly what Jens had been doing. He did point beside himself to Michael, who was working on cracking Jens’ computer password. “This is Michael Ballack. He’s our computer tech, and he just came from the club where…where…”
Michael sucked breath through his teeth. Something beeped and he abruptly dropped back in a slouch, staring at the screen. “System password cracked. But I know he keeps a lot of his programs and individual documents passworded separately…do you know where I should look specifically?”
“Where?” Paolo prompted.
After a confused moment, Michael picked up on the conversation. He shook his head, looking thoroughly miserable. “A bomb blew up the back entrance. It killed a guy and put another one in the hospital—I mean, Timo said they took him away in an ambulance—and we couldn’t find Jens. Philippe said he might’ve been…there. He wasn’t anywhere else.”
“Check his calendar first,” Thierry said. He scanned over another handful of papers, then threw them down. He couldn’t hide his irritation; goddamn it, Jens was secretive but he also was very organized and the one should supersede the other.
Paolo only needed a second to read the situation, so apparently his little interlude with Kaká hadn’t dulled his brain. “You weren’t in on this?”
That…Thierry made himself take a deep breath and stop with the petty sarcasm. If it’d been the expected midlife crisis nonsense, Bobby never would’ve let it get as far as it did—and anyway, who Paolo was seeing wasn’t even relevant right now. “Things were getting out of hand. Nobody was stepping up after Moggi died and it was turning into a lot of little men fighting each other over tiny bits of the downtown districts. Giuly had already shown some interest and Jens thought we could reach an accommodation if Giuly ended up winning out…”
For some reason, Paolo was blanking Thierry. His expressionless eyes casually flicked sideways…to Michael, who was looking back with a surprising degree of understanding. “Look, I already know a lot and I’m staying. I need to know more, and you probably want me to because I think I have the best chance of finding Robin.”
Oh…God. Thierry hit himself on the head, then reached for the phone.
“I called while I was driving over. He’s not answering anything,” Michael muttered, swinging back to the computer. “I think he’s out…but I’d need to get into Jens’ apartment to know for sure. I know Robin’s got systems running all the time there, and…never mind, it’s kind of technical. But I need to get in there.”
“Robin van Persie. He lives with Jens. He has a key and the doorman knows him by sight. And he has a…temper,” Thierry explained to Paolo.
Paolo considered it, then dropped into the nearest chair and sighed. “I think that’s all I want to know about him. Well, you can deal with that. I’ll help with Giuly, but I hope you realize this is more because I don’t want the label to go down than because—”
“I know, I know. I’m thankful for whatever you can do, no matter the reason.” Thierry pressed his palms down on the desk, trying to remember his previous train of thought. “Jens couldn’t have met with Giuly himself. He’s too busy and he doesn’t trust Ludo enough. I didn’t do it because I couldn’t fit it in, and I know Freddie wasn’t on it…”
“His assistants?” Paolo suggested.
“David’s not equipped for it and Phil hasn’t been around long enough,” Thierry muttered. He stared at his nails, watching the skin around them pale and then darken as he varied the pressure on his fingers. “Who else…who else…who would Jens get?”
Michael grunted. “Calendar’s open.”
Thierry turned to look at it over Michael’s shoulder. He scanned it once, then searched it more slowly, but nothing stood out at him. His frustration, incredibly, soared higher.
“I don’t know exactly who you have working for you,” Paolo slowly said. “But given the last time…Jens wouldn’t put himself in a position where he couldn’t detach from Giuly if he got cold feet. So he’d want a go-between he knows he could control, either via trust or something else, and that he could sacrifice without too much thought.”
“Ruud,” Thierry immediately replied. Then he frowned and lifted his head, and Paolo twisted around, as somebody opened the door.
Cristiano walked through, closely followed by a smoldering Freddie and a poker-faced Deco. “Ruud? What about him?”
* * *
The blond German guy was laughing at him. Which actually was kind of good, because that made Sergio annoyed at him and that made it easier not to notice how cute he was. God, Sergio hoped Miguel and all of Leo’s slutty friends caught syphilis—he’d worked really hard to ignore his libido, meaning to turn over a new leaf, and then they’d gotten it started up again. “It’s not funny. What the hell is my cousin doing…if he were asleep, he’d hear the ring and wake up. He must be fucking somebody. So he can’t take my call that I had to drag one Spanish guy plus two Argentines back to his apartment.”
“At least your other friend’s boyfriend could take the other one who thought he was a bunny,” Timo said. His accent was cute, too, damn it all. He chuckled a little more, but his humor was clearly dying. And then it completely destroyed itself when he saw the time. “Shit. I need to go. I have—are you going to be okay?”
No, Sergio wanted to go back to Sevilla, where he never was the one explaining why the bathroom smelled like vomit; he usually was the one who caused it and then conveniently passed out, leaving his friends to handle the problems. “No. Cesc’s going to kill me. But look, just go on and get to whatever you need to—it’s a family thing, so you don’t need to worry about it.”
Timo blinked, then reached over and squeezed Sergio’s shoulder. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Sergio let him out, then went back to the bedroom to check on them.
Miguel and Gonzalo were still on the bed, but Fernando had disappeared somewhere…the bathroom light was on. Sighing, Sergio looked in. “How are you feeling?”
“I threw up through my hair,” Fernando rasped, his disgust coming through loud and clear in every syllable. He awkwardly jammed his head back under the sink faucet and rumpled at his hair with one hand.
“Um, wouldn’t it be easier to do that in the tub?” Sergio asked, sympathetic. He eased behind the other man, poking the rug out of the way with his foot. Way easier to just mop up tile—he glimpsed the toilet’s contents, grimaced and quickly flushed them.
Gago groaned and flapped a hand around till he’d shut off the water. “Think I’d fall and break my neck first. Hey…where’s Leo?”
“Ronnie took him and…and Javier. Gonzalo’s with us.” Sergio rolled up his sleeves, then gritted his teeth and got behind Fernando. He leaned against the sink for balance and peered down, then turned on the water again. “You missed a lot. Hang on, I’ve got it.”
Fernando said something very rude and probably not anatomically possible involving Gonzalo, River Plate and a couple of chorizos, which wasn’t completely drowned out by the water. He had a hard time figuring out what Sergio was doing, constantly bumping his head around and knocking it into the faucet, and knocking Sergio’s hand into the faucet, till Sergio finally jammed elbows into his back and held him down.
“I’m not drowning you, damn it. I’m trying to rinse out your hair,” Sergio muttered. He pulled at the strands till he was sure he’d gotten out all the clumps. Then he turned off the faucet and gathered Fernando’s hair into a tail to squeeze out the excess water.
“Mmm.” The other man lowered his head till his forehead hit the bottom of the sink with a soft thud. He groaned, then settled down. “Hey…I wasn’t going to bring this up, but you’ve been really ni—is it true that you’ve got a bet running with Lionel that you can go without sex for a year?”
Sergio accidentally shoved Fernando’s head. He immediately let go and backed off, shaking his hands…and kind of wishing he’d gotten Messi. It’d make squishing that little pest a lot easier. “No! No—no, I just got cured of chlamydia and I’m trying not to catch anything else! That’s why!”
Fernando blinked. Frowned. Began to look uncertainly offended in the way only the somewhat-tipsy could. “And you think I’ve got an STD?”
“No—wait—fuck! Well, how should I know!” Sergio snapped. He vibrated in place for a moment, then made a dash for the door and just squeezed out past Gago. He was going into the living room and—and—
--and Gonzalo and Miguel were lying on the bed and making out, sloppy and groaning and with the exaggerated half-inept movements of the truly drunk. It went straight to Sergio’s dick. He bit back a cry to God about the unfairness of it all and stumbled back into the bathroom before he remembered…
Fernando looked at him with big, soulful, pleading eyes. “I don’t. Really. I mean, look at my mouth. No sores.”
He opened it wide and also stumbled over the rug Sergio had shoved to the side, and the way he kind of fell and Sergio caught him…shit. Sergio was mouth-sucking with him. Shit. Shit. Holy shit, he’d gone two months without this?
* * *
“I want to know why his name came up,” Cristiano insisted.
Fredrik finally gave up hoping that this would be over soon and took a seat next to Cristiano’s so-called agent. From what he could tell, Deco wasn’t doing too much better than Ruud had. “You sleeping with him yet?”
Deco was a precious thing and coolly examined his nails. “No. You wishing you were that tall one who got to leave yet?”
That…wasn’t bad. “That was Michael Ballack. No idea why he was even here anyway,” Fredrik muttered. “Why are you staying?”
“Keeping an eye on my responsibility. The current situation’s a pretty good reminder of what happens when you don’t do that, isn’t it?” Deco calmly said. His eyes slitted a side-long look at Fredrik like the snake he was.
“This has nothing to do with you, and as a professional it’s my duty to inform you that involving yourself in it poses severe risks to your career and potentially your civil liberties,” Thierry shot back.
Fredrik nodded towards Thierry. “So shouldn’t you be the one saying that?” he told Deco.
“It does have things to do to me. I was on the phone to Lehmann when—whatever it was happened,” Cristiano snapped. Suddenly he became the most interesting object in the room…and for once, he didn’t seem to be reveling in it. “I’m the one who had Ljungberg informed. You wouldn’t have found out—”
“Phil got through to Thierry,” Fredrik casually added. “You did call me, but—”
Cristiano shot him a death-glare, then contemptuously flipped a hand Fredrik’s way. He continued addressing Thierry. “I called Robin.”
The air around Thierry suddenly dropped to arctic temperatures, hinting at the inexorable, devastating grind of an advancing glacier. “You…called Robin. Have you lost your mind? Did you think about the repercussions of that at all?”
Nope, Fredrik thought. And as serious as the situation was, and as much as he was dying to get going, damn it, so he could do something about it, he had to love the shock on Cristiano’s face. Stupid Portuguese fuck didn’t know everything about playing with the big boys yet.
He did, however, know a thing or two about rearing back and throwing his hands around in the air like one of those old-style blood-and-thunder judges. “I thought about the fact that if somebody blows up Lehmann, then they obviously don’t give a shit about business or the rules of whatever. Like they’re going to wait for you to conference-call them. You think they’d stop at him, either? Van Persie will keep them busy, if nothing else.”
“Does he have magical knowledge of exactly who ‘they’ are, too?” said Maldini, whom Fredrik had totally forgotten was in the room. He and Thierry looked at each other, Thierry’s brow first furrowing and then gradually smoothing. “I thought it was odd…it always seemed more like Giuly loved baiting FC, not that he wanted to go to all-out war with them.”
“It’s not him,” Thierry slowly muttered, tone wondering. He blinked, then gave himself a shake. His shoulders slumped a little in relief. “Then we can see him—he’ll want his name cleared. He won’t want this on his head.”
Cristiano frowned at both of them. “What? Who’s Giuly? What does this have to do with Ruud?”
“You have to see him—I’ll be helping Bobby and Kaká.” Maldini turned and headed for the door. “I doubt you’d want me there anyway, considering.”
Deco, Fredrik gradually noticed, was watching him closely. Well, the bastard wasn’t going to get anything, since Fredrik actually didn’t know much; he’d heard of Giuly and knew it was the name of somebody on Jens’ shit list, but nothing else. Giuly was before his time, apparently.
“All right,” Thierry said. He dismissed Maldini with a shoulder-twitch and absently sorted some papers on Jens’ desk before looking back up at an increasingly impatient Cristiano. “Why were you on the phone with Jens?”
Cristiano…didn’t answer, though he did do some uncomfortable fidgeting.
Creaking chair as Deco shifted. “He was trying to get Ruud fired.” He somehow ignored the furious look Cristiano sent him. “But Lehmann was unusually resistant to the idea, and I guess it would be counterproductive if FC fired a man who was intimately involved in some of its more unsavory affairs.”
Thierry stared at him for a long minute, while Fredrik tried to make sense of that and Cristiano was visibly struggling to decide on a reaction. Then Thierry shrugged, switching into his business nonchalance. “Ruud hasn’t been contacted yet. He will be, but to warn him not to involve himself any longer—it’s gone a bit past him. Giuly’s a powerful crime figure in the area and he’ll have to be negotiated with more directly.”
“By you?” Cristiano asked. He’d settled for a look of intense thought, which was a shocker from him. “You know what, take Deco with you. He knows how to handle himself and he’s familiar with that level of society. That should show my commitment. That’ll also let you send Ljungberg off to do whatever—stop Van Persie, whatever. I know you’re shorthanded.”
Deco sat up ramrod straight and bug-eyed. To be honest, Fredrik had to sympathize with him there.
“What?” Thierry asked. “Why would I—”
“Amazingly enough, I still have a lot of money. So I thought I’d really make sure I’ve changed for the better and start looking for investments.” Cristiano managed to keep a straight face through that, but not past it. His eyes flashed a bit too much. “My contract means I’m stuck here for years, so I have to care about what happens to the label.”
“There’s a lot more to it than just making the best of the situation.” Thierry’s voice stayed mild and composed, and that was why he was the agent and Fredrik was the personal assistant. Then he shrugged again. “We’ll save that discussion for later. For now…thank you very much for your current contribution. Now, can I have a minute with Freddie?”
After the other two went out, Freddie walked up to Thierry. “From the look on Deco’s face, I think we could sneak past them once he gets really going.”
“No, Cristiano was—is different. I think he said that because he could back it up…he’s been thinking about this. Thinking a lot…and I wish we had the time to sit down and understand what he really means to do, but we don’t. I have to set up a meeting with Giuly, and you need to go handle Ruud,” Thierry muttered. He shut down Jens’ computer, then straightened and came out from behind the desk. “If this is part of a power struggle on the streets, he’d be the next target.”
Fredrik opened his mouth.
“Freddie, just do it. Please. I know you don’t like him, but we take care of our own. I’ll be fine—I’ll call you after we talk to Giuly, and if—when we find out about Jens.” A near-shout from the hall made Thierry glance up once, but otherwise he was busy doing something on his cell-phone. Then he snapped it shut and stuck it back in his pocket. He pulled at his tie-knot. “We’ll leave once David’s here and can handle the phones.”
After a moment, Fredrik shrugged and nodded. In his opinion, letting Ruud get taken out would be saving them a lot of trouble in the long run, but Thierry was in charge whenever Jens couldn’t be. And Thierry looked more than a little stressed right now. So Fredrik would go and try and get his end dealt with quickly. “All right, but if something goes wrong I hope you remember there’s nobody left to tell me I can’t suffocate Horse-face with a carrot.”
Thierry didn’t really smile. The corners of his mouth tried to twitch, but the muscles in his cheeks were too tense. He shook his head and patted Fredrik on the shoulder, squeezed it and then started towards the door.
When they walked out, Cristiano had his head up and an obnoxiously smug expression, and Deco looked as if he probably wouldn’t mind if Fredrik had a go at his star too. It didn’t seem like that conversation was quite over, but much as Fredrik wanted to see it…he made himself go. See to Van Nistelrooy first, get back that much faster to Thierry, he reasoned.
On the drive over, Fredrik called ahead and was somewhat surprised to find Ruud’s line busy. He reluctantly called the security for Ruud’s building instead, but they insisted that nothing out of the ordinary was going on.
* * *
Some noise got through to José, but he didn’t completely wake up till Ruud shook his shoulder. He didn’t know who it was at first and jerked away, but then his arm was yanked sharply and he sat up. Then he groaned and grabbed at his sore arm…his back and ass weren’t very forgiving either. “What—”
“Get dressed. I’m taking you home,” Ruud said. His silhouette was already half-dressed. He snatched up José’s clothes and threw them over, then scooped up things from the side-table: phone, keys.
The shirt was stiff with vodka residue and smelled and…José was already halfway out of bed. He put his feet down, grimaced at the pressure on his aching ass, but then just jiggled the remnants of his clothes in his hands. “What? I…my…I can’t wear these. They’re completely ruined. Oh…Christ. Oh, Christ--they’re going to know. I didn’t want that at all but they’re going to and I let you do this.”
“You have to go.” Ruud threw on a t-shirt, then a dress shirt over it. He started for the door, but turned back when he noticed José wasn’t coming. For a moment, it looked like he was going—he shook his head and sighed. Then he stalked back across the room and into his closet.
He came out a moment later with a pair of trousers and a shirt, which José numbly put on. They were ridiculously long on him, and the shirt was—he glimpsed Ruud’s face and just tucked it all in the best he could. He’d just have to try to sneak in and pray to God he wasn’t caught. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“You don’t need to know,” Ruud said sharply. Absently, because he clearly wasn’t seeing the painting at which his eyes were pointed. Then he gave himself another shake, his mouth twisting. “You don’t want to. You just need to go. If you want to keep clear of—”
“I’m going, I’m going,” José muttered. He wasn’t exactly hung-over, but his head didn’t feel right. He felt like he was deep under-water, with that odd pressure coming down all over. “You don’t even need to say you’ll call.”
He walked by the other man, and after a moment, Ruud just fell in behind. José got to the front door first because Ruud needed to grab a few things, which was lousy planning. Then he had to wait, and then it was really hard not to think about…Ruud came up in a hurry and grabbed José’s arm, dragging him around before José even had a chance to move. They started towards the elevator, but then Ruud changed his mind and made them go the opposite way, into a disguised door that led to some maintenance stairwell. After going down a floor, they then got on the elevator.
Ruud pressed the button, then sent off some texts while they went down. He started when the elevator chimed for their floor and his head came up, and with the way they were standing, he had to look at José. His eyes widened slightly, then turned—José looked off to the side, but only ended up looking at his reflection in the chrome wall. He had reddish-purple marks on his throat, and his mouth…so much for worrying about the clothes. “Have to admit I’m seeing somebody after all. Great.”
“Why me?” Ruud abruptly asked. He almost waited for an answer, but seemed to remember he had things to do and resumed hauling José around.
They went out to the car and José saw himself again in one of the windows. He looked trashed, ripped up like Sergio stumbling in after a night out. Worse—he touched one of the bruises on his neck, then winced. His fingers moved down farther, pressing till he ran up against…Ruud’s shirt-collar, actually. “Fuck. Fuck—you know, I actually think I’m looking forward to it. They’d never think I’d do something like this…like I could get into this kind of mess. I’m too boring.”
Ruud had just unlocked the car and was pulling on the door-handle, but not enough to open it. He stayed like that for a long moment, head cocked away from José. Then he suddenly jerked José around and—and José was ready with his sore, swollen lips stretched open, but Ruud’s mouth came down carefully. Gently. José pushed at him once, then hit his shoulder and then Ruud shook him, but only to make him hold still while the other man kissed him, like he—like they—like that wasn’t a lie, too. God, José was glad when Ruud finally got off, because he was ready to give the hypocritical bastard an earful.
But before he could, Ruud looked regretfully down at him and said, with genuine honesty, “I think we’re done.”
“You were doing fucking fine before, and now you can’t—can’t—”
Even the anger didn’t last long enough, because that just wasn’t what José was really good at. It just drained off and he didn’t have it in him to dredge more up; instead he had this hollow and it really hurt and…and he had something wet on his face. He reached up, felt it and then he really was crying, digging his fingers into Ruud’s arms and sobbing into the other man’s damn shoulder. He couldn’t even do this right.
“Look…” Ruud pulled away soon enough. He was awkward about it, but José wasn’t going to call him on it now.
He just let Ruud get them into the car, and then he sat there and wiped at the snot and tears on his face. He tried to at least get himself clean, but there was so much and it just kept coming…he jumped when something touched his shoulder. Then he tried to pull away, but Ruud had himself more pulled together and finally José just let his head fall on Ruud’s shoulder, the other man’s arm around his waist. Like he was a fucking child. Maybe he was.
The car started. Somebody called Ruud, and he immediately focused on whatever it was and said he was on his way. Great for him, because José didn’t have a clue.
* * *
Ruud’s apartment building seemed normal. Nothing happened all the way till when Fredrik was standing in front of the door and knocking for the third time on it. He waited for a ridiculous amount of time, then took out his phone. Then he thought the better of it and bent down on the ground to press his ear against the door. “Ruud!” he shouted. “Open the fucking door! It’s Freddie!”
Fredrik…really wanted to kick it in just then. But at the last moment he remembered that’d set off a really inconvenient alarm and instead went around the hall to find the security phone. He was just lifting it off its cradle when he heard somebody coming down the hall. Walking very, very quietly, which immediately pinged Fredrik’s already heightened paranoia. So he carefully edged back around the corner, lifting a vase from a side-table as he did.
A man he didn’t recognize was standing in front of Ruud’s door: about Fredrik’s height, shaved head, good inconspicuous suit with suspicious bulges showing in the back when he bent down to do something to the doorknob. And excellent senses, since he suddenly went still.
Not being too bad there himself, Fredrik threw the vase. And then lunged out while ripping off his coat, and threw that after so the stranger was blinded before he’d even gotten up from ducking the vase. His reflexes were amazing, though—he’d turned while still in a crouch so Fredrik’s coat, aimed a little high, fell mostly off him and he only needed to toss his head once to get it off.
He didn’t do that. He drew a gun instead, and made a pretty good guess as to where Fredrik was. Fredrik had been meaning to get around behind him, but instead had to quickly kick the gun out of his hand. It went skittering down the hall, but the other man whipped around and got hold of Fredrik’s ankle, and then they had a full brawl going on. Which frankly suited Fredrik down to the ground.
Random glimpses of the man’s face in between punches showed dark eyebrows, long sharp nose…definitely not somebody local. He was good—he’d had obvious training, which none of the assholes Fredrik usually had to settle for had, aside from Rio and maybe Heinze. Twice he nearly got Fredrik pinned; he’d settled fast after the initial shock and he was thinking as he retaliated and attacked, not just reacting—a punch of his suddenly had hot blood running down the side of Fredrik’s face and the world reeling, and like that Fredrik wasn’t sure who’d win.
No, he couldn’t be that. He had to win, because Jens wasn’t fucking dead and he needed to be there--he needed to be there.
He lashed out wildly and something caught. The pressure lifted and Fredrik instantly rolled over, whacking the other man’s head against the floor. Then he fell back as the stranger went limp. He took a breath and his ribs and jaw screamed at him, but…okay, no broken bones. Made it easier for him to scoop up the other man’s lock-picks and deal with the lock.
And after all that? Ruud wasn’t even fucking home. Fredrik went through the apartment once, then again in utter disbelief, but there wasn’t anybody. He finally went back to the front and stopped near the door, staring in disbelief—Fredrik whirled around, then slammed his heel down on the man’s wrist as he tried to sit up. He kept on going and grabbed up the gun, then turned around.
The stranger’s mouth pressed into a tight line. Then he nodded philosophically and eased back. “All right.”
As if the night hadn’t been surreal enough, his accent was Swedish. “Who the hell are you?” Fredrik snapped in that language.
The other man blinked hard, then sat back as far as he could on his heels and stared thoughtfully upwards. He absently lifted his wrist and gingerly worked it around a bit. “Not broken.”
“Actually, never mind about who you are. Who sent you?” Fredrik rubbed at his own jaw, which wasn’t broken either but which felt like it wished it was. “They’re not about to come and get you out of this, you know. And no, not broken. I like a good fight but for long-term enjoyment, it’s nicer to see you heading for prison.”
“Keane,” the man said after about forty seconds. “I’ve been paid for this one and contracted for another, but I haven’t heard from him in a few days.”
“Well, you probably won’t be. He’s gone back to Ireland.” Which, much as Fredrik hated to admit it, had been a neat piece of long-distance work by Robin…Robin. Oh, he’d be going ballistic.
He got on Fredrik’s nerves, but right then Fredrik felt the strangest sympathy with the man. But then the man in front of Fredrik shifted and his attention snapped back. He stepped forward so the gun was only a few centimeters from the other man’s face and the stranger immediately smoothed out his expression, which had been verging on angry. “No, not you. That—if what you say is true, then…I always keep up my end and I expect others to do the same. I hate it when they don’t.”
“Professional?” He acted like it, and…and this was holding Fredrik up. He couldn’t let the man go, but turning him over to the police would take too long and trying to store him somewhere without anyone free to watch over him would be suicidal. “I can show you proof about Keane. Just how much was he paying you?”
Head-cock and shrewd eyes. Then the other man named a number.
“For Ruud van Nistelrooy? Bullshit,” Fredrik said. “Maybe a fourth of that, I’d find reasonable.”
“No, for him plus a Ludovic Giuly,” the stranger said. He shrugged. “Now I’m willing to cut my losses at expenses, which…put it at a fifth of that.”
Fredrik considered it, decided he could swing Thierry and Jens around to that much, and nodded. He lowered the gun and stepped back so the other man could get up, but then grabbed his arm and swung him around. After taking his tie off, he knotted it around the other man’s wrists, keeping them in front so they’d be visible, because he knew that wouldn’t hold for long the moment the man got a chance. “Right. Offer noted, and we’ll work on finalizing things after I check on some other details. Like whether you do bombings, too.”
“Bombings? No. Who was that?” the man asked, sounding faintly disgusted. He didn’t seem surprised when Fredrik’s answer was a shove at his back. “Oh, and Henrik Larsson.”
“What? Oh…well, I’ll be looking that up, too.” Fredrik pushed him on towards the elevator. “My God, Swedish hitmen. I better get to go clean out some MU accounts now…”
Larsson arched an eyebrow. “What’s so surprising? What are you?”
“Personal assistant to an FC label agent.” The other man’s obvious disbelief brought a brief smile to Fredrik’s face. “I think you really slipped up on your background research.”
“Possibly,” Larsson slowly said. He went a little further in silence, then turned around again. “It does sound like there’s another one of my profession running around. Would you like a complimentary expert analysis while we’re negotiating?”
Now Fredrik flat-out laughed. “What makes you think sucking up to me’s going to work? You don’t even know how angry I am right now.”
“No, but that offer’s genuine.” Larsson’s eyes kept going to the blood dripping down the side of Fredrik’s face. His pupils rapidly expanded and contracted a few times, and he pursed his lips so they came out with a wet sheen on them. “It seems I have to look for another employer, and I like efficiency.”
Fredrik…was damned grateful the lift pinged right then. He shoved Larsson in, then called Thierry.
* * *
Before Giuly had seemed to operate out of cafés and small smoky, out-of-the-way bars, but now Thierry and Deco pulled up to a very nice French restaurant. Eight years…well, before Thierry had thought he’d known Ludo, but he hadn’t after all. He shouldn’t be so surprised.
“Okay, thank you, Freddie,” Thierry said as he turned off the engine. “See you back at the office.”
Deco hadn’t said a word for the whole ride and he didn’t seem inclined to now. But Thierry wasn’t about to go in without—he frowned, looking past the other man and through the window on Deco’s side. Then he swore and dove, first at Deco so he could grab his arm and then the other way to fling them out of the car.
His hand touched the door just as something slammed up against the other side, cracking the glass, but they got out without anything else happening to them. Deco was asking something, but Thierry ignored him and ran around to the other side of the car. He looked—Philippe, glass, body slumped against the car—then dropped down and grabbed Robin’s waist, helping Philippe to haul the unconscious man up and onto the hood where he could look him over.
“I tried to just hit him hard enough to put him out, but he was…” Philippe trailed off, sounding nervous. He scratched at his chin, nails moving around some fresh bruises. “I don’t think he knew who I was.”
“I think he’s fine.” Thierry brushed off the broken glass, which fortunately seemed not to have gotten through Robin’s clothes, and then checked pulse, breath, and skull. “Did Michael clue you in to where he was? What was he doing?”
“Well, so is sunshine still outsourcing his dirty work?” Ludovic Giuly strolled out of the dark shadows near the building and into the sodium-yellow halo of a street-light. It made his smile look like the demonic ones of theater villain masks, but where their exaggeration was comical, his was more than a little menacing. “Titi. Are you here to apologize for this one, or for the one this morning?”
Morning…Thierry paused, then pushed Robin to Philippe and got his mind into gear. Hopefully Senderos had picked up on that and would look it up. “Get him somewhere he can rest without being disturbed. Ludo, I’m not here to apologize. Someone planted a pipe bomb by a doorway that Jens walked through an hour and a half ago.”
There. That was out in the air…and Thierry was so busy quashing all the fears and sorrows that instantly rose up after it that he didn’t see how Ludovic’s expression changed. All he saw was that it was now deadly serious.
“And…?” Ludovic tightened his mouth when Thierry helplessly spread his hands. “Damn. Damn…well, you’d better get inside. You still like your pasta and red wine?”
“Not now,” Thierry snapped. He started to go on, then took a deep breath. Then he waved his hand and warily, side-by-side, he and Ludovic walked towards the entrance.