Author: Guede Mazaka
Zlatan started to roll over, was forcibly reminded about his shoulder, and rolled back. He rubbed the crusts out of his eyes. “Henke? How long did I pass out for?”
“Eighteen hours.” Henrik was sitting on the edge of the bed with a bottle of water, which he waited to pass over till Zlatan had shouldered himself up the headboard. “Freddie went back to work.”
“He didn’t stick around for the bowel-emptying parts, did he?” One reason why Zlatan had always tried not to pass out around Henrik—he clenched his ass, then decided with relief that that hadn’t happened, at least. The water tasted great. “No…which way is the toilet?”
After a long, long moment, Henrik got up and walked over to one of the two shut doors in the room. He opened it and stepped through, then turned on the light. Then he moved out of the way so Zlatan, who was discovering new aches by the minute, could get by. “Zlatan. I’ve already had to do three jobs gratis to cover for you this month and I just got tickets to Italy for another one.”
The counter was too damn short and Zlatan’s hand missed it so he stumbled. Cursing, he slapped a hand against the wall to steady himself. Which took longer than he was used to…he’d really lost a lot of blood. He was better than before, but it still was going to be a while before he was back to normal. “And dumped my car too, right? Because I jacked it.”
A sigh came from Henrik’s direction and Zlatan didn’t look over. He leaned against the opposite wall and got the toilet lid up with his foot, then chanced standing on his own. It worked okay for getting down the sweat-pants he was wearing, but then his balance suddenly went awry and all that saved him from some serious embarrassment was a hand clamping onto his elbow.
Henrik tugged on that and this time Zlatan did look over. He grimaced and tried to get his arm away, but Henrik’s fingers closed on it like a vise and he had to let it go. “So I’ve really fucked up your week.”
“Month. Possibly year, depending. I’ve been looking into Italy—what the hell were you doing in Turin?” The bite in Henrik’s voice snapped out and then vanished, like a cobra-strike.
Not that it did any good, but Zlatan flinched anyway. He fumbled to get his cock directed at the toilet, and then to get it over with fast without splashing around. “Killing the Sicilian and the Krays.”
The little pause gave Zlatan a chance to get the sweat-pants back up and flush the toilet. He tried to angle towards the sink as well, but moved too fast and had to catch himself with the broken-fingered hand. Those bones jarred, his shoulder got shaken, and shit. He hadn’t felt so bad when he’d started driving.
“Why?” Henrik finally asked. He took his hand off Zlatan’s elbow and turned on the water, then stepped back.
It was awkward soaping up one-handed, but Zlatan didn’t feel like adding soggy bandages to everything else. “Because when I showed up again, I wanted to be able to say, ‘I couldn’t get the other job right but this makes up for it.’”
“Killing off competitors? While they’re on jobs?” Henrik’s voice rose in disbelief. “This doesn’t help—this just makes everybody wonder who declared war. Now nobody knows who to look at, and so they’re looking at everybody.”
“Well, I tried!” Zlatan sucked in a breath and held it while he knocked off the sink knob with the back of his hand. Then he exhaled, slow and low. “I—look, I didn’t know what to do. I knew when Nesta showed up alive you’d be mad and I thought maybe if I took out a couple people who’ve been aiming to knock you down a few pegs, you’d appreciate it enough to not shoot me the moment you saw me again.”
The other man moved so he was reflected in the mirror over Zlatan’s left shoulder, and for a long, long moment he stared at Zlatan in complete amazement. Then he sank back and Zlatan was left staring at the damage. One cut that needed butterfly bandages on his jaw, but it and the other thin scabs dotting his face and hands looked to be healing well enough. He was as white as a ghost, though.
“You thought I’d kill you over one lawyer?” Henrik finally said, voice faint.
“I—don’t—” Zlatan threw up his hands. Bad fucking idea; he had to grab for the sink counter almost immediately. “You brought cheekbones to my place! You pulled Olof off him! You broke my fingers and took a picture to send back to him! For all I knew you were already planning the fucking wedding, and God and the devil know Zlatan’s second greatest talent is fucking up other people’s plans.”
Henrik emitted a kind of groan and slumped hard against the doorframe, hand over his face. He pushed the heel of it around his nose, then down so he was pulling at his lips with his fingers. Then he dropped it and stared straight in front of himself. “Freddie never saw the picture. Nesta called and it became unusable.”
“Yeah, I know. Freddie told me,” Zlatan muttered. He held up the fingers in question. “Thanks.”
“I like him enough to tell him where I’m from originally. But he has his other commitments and I have mine, and he seems to understand that. Otherwise I never would’ve let the two of you come anywhere near each other in the first place,” Henrik said. He rubbed at the side of his head, then shrugged. “I’m sorry I didn’t explain sooner.”
Zlatan snorted, then leaned his hip against the sink and grinned. He raked his damp hand through his hair, which felt greasy; a sudden itch on his scalp started up after he nicked it with a nail. “Sorry I fucked up again.”
Henrik briefly showed a trace of exasperated affection before he turned away. “We’re leaving for Milan tomorrow to pay back Giuly for your treatment. Get cleaned up and then come in the kitchen to eat and talk.”
“Milan?” Zlatan repeated. “Should I be going back to Italy so soon? The last one I did got—”
“Well, I’m not leaving you here. And the job’s not a kill, so I need a second man,” Henrik said. “It’ll make you be careful this time.”
The Zlatan in the mirror looked relieved, which was a really stupid reaction. But at least Henrik hadn’t pressed about why Zlatan had backed off killing Alessandro in the first place. Nobody had to deal with that yet, real or reflected.
* * *
“Oh, I’m sorry. I missed what you said,” Kaká said absently, dumping salt into his coffee.
Robert looked at him, then reached over and pulled away the mug. As Kaká made a belated, confused protest, he dipped a fingertip into the dark liquid, then tasted it. Then he took a hasty drink of his raspberry lemonade. “Kaká, go home.”
“Wait—Bobby, I’m really sorry but it was just a moment and I won’t—wait, please.” Kaká nearly fell over his chair in his rush to get to his feet. He tried to intercept Robert, and then ran around to the other side of the table when Robert faked him out. “I know I’ve been very bad today, but—”
“But sometimes all the good will in the world can’t change water into wine. Or salt into sugar.” After dumping that disgusting mess into the wastebasket, Robert took the other man by the shoulder and gently pushed him back towards his things. “Kaká, obviously there’s something bothering you and it’s affecting your work. Take the rest of the afternoon off and clear your head.”
“I’m sorry,” Kaká said desperately, uncomprehendingly.
So slow, in fact, that Robert had far too much time to contemplate the various methods of dealing with difficult personalities he’d recently been observing Lehmann employ. The man was a veritable textbook on nullifying others. But then, Robert was supposed to be a less combative person. “First of all, stop apologizing. Secondly—this is not a punishment. I appreciate the loads of paperwork you process and the other small errands you do, but what I appreciate more is you as a person, and right now you need a rest. You’ll work much better and quicker afterward.”
Kaká started to reply, but he was naturally considerate and couldn’t help thinking over Robert’s words first. He pressed his lips back together and half-turned, staring at the papers on the table. One of his hands slipped up to rake nervously through his hair.
A new habit, and one Robert didn’t particularly like to see, remembering the lighthearted young man of a year ago. “Has Paolo been keeping you up?” he said, more harshly than he’d meant. “He’s always been one for the night, but he usually understands people have different—”
“No. No, he’s gone.” Kaká dropped his hand and looked guilelessly surprised at the expression on Robert’s face. “Oh…he didn’t tell you? He had some issue with his house in Milan and he’s gone there for a few days to deal with it.”
Robert blinked, then let out a small bit of breath he’d been holding. Of course Kaká hadn’t been distraught enough, but—well, Robert had known Paolo too long. And was increasingly divided over his policy of not involving himself in other people’s private affairs. “His house?”
“The taxes. I didn’t really understand—well, it never was my favorite subject,” Kaká said, smiling. His rueful laugh had a lingering tinge of sadness to it. “I’m still sorry. There’s so much to do, and I’m lost in my head just because Paolo’s on a business trip. It’s silly.”
“Yes,” Robert agreed, slow and beneath his breath. After a moment he noticed Kaká looking oddly at him. “Still, take the afternoon off. Go see a movie, do your grocery-shopping, catch up on your church. Take your mind off him. It’s not…sometimes, I think, the biggest danger of a new involvement is you aren’t used to putting it next to the chores, work, the other highlights of your day. It’s all part of your life, though, and a little reminder is nice.”
Kaká listened with a grave enough face so that Robert almost hoped he’d dropped sufficient hints. And the other man finally did agree to go, saying something about missing his last confession and needing to mop his kitchen, but Robert watched Kaká’s retreating back with a feeling of unease still curling deep in his gut.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell-phone, but—cursing, Robert put that away. No matter what he thought about things, calling Paolo would just strengthen the manipulations spinning around the other man and Kaká. He’d have to leave it, and hope that left alone, the two of them could thrash through by themselves.
* * *
“Paolo? Paolo Maldini?”
The bright summer sun temporarily dazzled Paolo’s eyes as he finished walking through the doors of the tax offices. He paused, determining from which direction the voice had come, and then tentatively turned towards it. “Billy?”
“Paolo! It is you!” Something dark washed up between Paolo and the light, then came down like a ton of bricks. It wrapped tightly around him, which helped with keeping from falling down quite a few stone steps, before backing off to resolve into a smiling Billy Costacurta. “And at the tax offices! Finally come to your senses?”
“No, I’m tragically still in the dark about the attraction of the tax code. I leave those beauties strictly to you,” Paolo laughed. He turned and slung his arm over the other man’s shoulders, looking out over the street. “I had a little trouble with my house. My accountant filed some document wrong and I showed up to pay the fine. Wait, are you still practicing?”
Billy patted the back of his head, then slipped out from Paolo’s arm. He half-turned back to wave Paolo along before starting down the steps. “I am, and if you’d come round to see me, I probably could’ve spared you that. But you look like you can afford it—exiled to richer pastures, after all?”
“I still visit the family,” Paolo mildly scolded. He straightened his suit-jacket as he followed the other man.
“And the rest of us have dropped right off the end of the earth? But I joke—actually, we’re having our monthly dinner tonight, the classmates who are still in the city. Me, Stam, Baggio might show, a few others. Are you here for that long?” A passing flock of pigeons darkened the sky and Billy instinctively moved out of their shadow. He glanced over his shoulder at Paolo, then pulled out a business card and a pen and began to write something. “Oh, of course you are. Here, this is where we’ll be. Eight tonight. Don’t expect to be home at eleven.”
“Billy—” Paolo started, and was handed the card “—thank you.”
The other man grinned. “Graceful as ever about non-commitments, I see. Well, I’ll have a place set for you, and then you can think about my disappointed face when you don’t show up. But I need to run now, I’ve got an auditor to charm.”
He turned back, grabbed Paolo’s shoulders and smacked a quick kiss to each cheek; Paolo managed to return the gesture without seeming too surprised. And then Billy was off, already hailing somebody else. Still light of foot and of heart…and the melancholy of the thought startled Paolo before he figured out the other half of the comparison.
He almost reached for his phone, but then remembered the time. Maybe later, after working hours, he’d call Ricardo. But for the moment…well, it had been a while. He and Milan might as well get to know each other again.
* * *
Zlatan threw his elbow behind himself and pushed on it to sit up. He twisted his hips and sit down again, but now his left leg was cramped up against the far end of the sofa and his right hip was taking all his weight, and it was already starting to hurt. “This shitty piece of furniture’s defective.”
Henrik came out of the other room carrying what appeared to be a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. “What?”
“…I thought you said this wasn’t a hit,” Zlatan finally said. He’d never seen one of those up close before and the sheer size of its bore was rather stunning.
“It’s not. This is supposed to be a wiretapping system.” For some reason, Henrik seemed irritated that it wasn’t. “Either I grossly mistyped my order or Olof’s angry at me.”
“And he expresses this by sending you something that could take him out from a kilometer away?” And then Zlatan remembered why Mellberg might be a bit touchy, particularly if he knew Henrik had not, in fact, greeted Zlatan’s return with more broken fingers. At the very least. “He’s not around, is he?”
After setting the rocket launcher on the coffee-table, Henrik wandered over to the fax/copier/printer in the corner and began sifting through the latest faxes. He picked out one and scanned over it, then rolled his eyes and moved his left hand over to turn on the computer. “No, I think he’s in England. Which is frustrating, because we’re supposed to have started implementing today.”
“Did we need that system? I know a couple local sources who are very reasonable.” Zlatan gave up on trying to fit his legs within the confines of the sofa and just concentrated on not jarring his shoulder too much. He’d tried wearing a sling for the first ten minutes of the flight over, but it’d just gotten in the way too much. “And why did you bring your rifle if we aren’t killing anybody?”
“Oh, you can clean that too,” Henrik muttered, now bent over the keyboard. A couple seconds later he glanced over his shoulder, but Zlatan was dutifully breaking down the rifle. “Because Ludo didn’t ask me to kill anybody, but he knows and we know that sometimes in the course of events, certain people become obstacles. Basics: Roberto Baggio’s a private lawyer who occasionally has interesting clients. Recently he switched client sets and his old ones aren’t happy about this.”
Of course, Henrik kept all his possessions in pristine condition, so really all Zlatan was doing was making sure nothing had shifted or jammed during the trip. He dripped a little oil on a few stiffish parts, then put the rifle away and picked up one of his own guns. “We with the old ones or the new ones?”
“Ludo’s got a deal with the new ones. The old ones include the few we framed for Nesta, incidentally. They’ll have fallen too far to matter by next week, but in the meantime it’s tricky. Especially since it’s recently become not entirely clear that Baggio has switched, after all,” Henrik said. The printer started up and he reached over without looking to clear off some of the paper. “That’s why we were going to bug him. I suppose that can wait a day, but he’s got to stay alive till at least the end of this week.”
Zlatan slid his thumb around the end of the gunbarrel to push it free of the handle and rubbed over a fresh scratch. When he took his thumb away, a trace of something black came with it. Soot. And maybe the scratch was from Alessandro’s gun, then.
“Ibra?” Henrik had turned around and had probably been staring at him for no more than a few seconds, but that still was too long.
“I’m listening. So we have to play guardian angel to Baggio?” Zlatan said lightly. After popping off the barrel, he scrubbed it clean with a rag and then filed the scratch smooth. It wasn’t anywhere that would mess with the function, and he was due to swap out his guns in a few weeks anyway. “Where’s he at tonight?”
“Some dinner. I already talked to the head chef: he’s a friend of the head of Monaco, Giuly’s restaurant. I’ll be inside discussing whether a young acquaintance can get a stage in the kitchen. You’ll be with the car.” The tone of Henrik’s voice was soft, but it brooked no argument, and neither did his eyes when he raised them.
Zlatan shrugged. “Do I get the rifle then?”
Henrik’s mouth twitched. He finished what he was doing and powered down the computer, then crossed the room so he passed close to Zlatan. His hand cuffed the side of Zlatan’s head, then dropped to tap Zlatan’s injured shoulder.
“Change this, it’s unraveling,” was all Henrik said.
* * *
For the most part, the dinner company was pleasant enough. Paolo was greeted with surprise and teasing affection, then subjected to far too many questions for the first half-hour about what he’d been doing, but the dinner had been a regular ritual for long enough so that afterwards, old habits slowly took over. He kept to his seat by Billy, against the wall, and listened as his old university friends did him the favor of telling him about each other.
The one spoiler was Baggio, who’d at least learned to shut his mouth a bit, but whose personality hadn’t otherwise aged well. Besides that something seemed to be bothering him, as he openly and rudely kept checking his watch. “That’s just a bunch of nonsense,” he suddenly said.
The conversation, a lively discourse on some very strange nightclub brawls in various Italian cities, came to a stuttering halt.
“You would know,” Jaap intoned, slow and deliberate. “Or would you?”
“Everybody deserves a good defense.” This obviously was the beginning of a long-running argument between Jaap and Baggio, judging by the way Baggio’s irritation flared. “It’s no conspiracy. Just a bunch of young drunken hotheads, like you’d see at any major football match. And I don’t like what you’re insinuating about my—”
Billy slouched down and half-suppressed a groan. “Here we go,” he muttered to Paolo. “Ever since Roberto—”
There was a light knock on the door—Baggio started; Paolo idly recalled the other man had wanted his seat and had left Paolo, who’d arrived earlier, to it with bad grace—followed by the deferentially lowered head of their waitress. “Signore Baggio, there is a man in the lobby to see you. He says it’s urgent.”
She handed Baggio a business card, which he took with a snap of his fingers that made even Billy look sharply at him. He barely glanced at it before throwing it down and himself up so the legs of his chair scraped loudly against the floor. “Goddamn it, can’t I even have dinner in peace? Fucking government cocksucker, he’s worse than you, Jaap.”
“Maybe we should just neglect to tell him where the next one is,” Billy muttered.
He added something else to make it witty, but Paolo wasn’t listening. He could see the name on the card and—and he was surprised, when he picked up his wine glass, to see that his reflection didn’t drain the color from the dark red surface.
When he’d put his glass down, Baggio had gone and Jaap was rising to shut the door. Paolo raised his hand. “No, leave it, thank you. Sorry, gentlemen, but the body’s crude urges…”
“Not Roberto, please. I used to swear by your taste, Paolo.” Billy fell back laughing at whatever expression Paolo produced, then gestured. “Go down the hall and take a left, and take the stairs down. Then follow that hall to the front—it’ll get you to the men’s toilet without going through Roby and whoever’s come to see him.”
“Thank you,” Paolo said, and did exactly that.
He walked faster than either Billy or Baggio would’ve expected and arrived at the edge of the front lobby while Sandro was still standing there by himself. Back straight, one hand in his pocket, loosened tie and bags under his eyes, which were hooded out of respect for the public place but which still gave the impression of fire-starters. A greenish cast stretched over Sandro’s temple and occasionally he would absently rub at his chest as if something there hurt as well, pulling bruise-striped wrists out of his sleeves. He turned, gazing at the molding along the top of the wall, and Paolo slid behind a large decorative screen.
“You again. I told you—” Roberto came charging in blustering.
Sandro pivoted on his heels. No other part of his body moved. “And I informed your secretary that it is my duty to extend the protection of the government to all law-abiding Italian citizens no matter the circumstances. Of course if you’d like to contradict any part of that statement, I’m all ears.”
“You’re intruding on a private gathering without any—” Roberto started again.
“Because I’ve got very good information that your life is in danger. And as distasteful a concern as that may seem—” the curl of Sandro’s lip said that was mutual “—I have to take it seriously.”
Baggio rose up on the balls of his feet, face reddening, and then suddenly subsided. Well, better men than he had discovered the meaning of immovability in Sandro’s cool gaze. “I need to make my farewells,” he said stiffly.
Sandro lifted and dropped a shoulder. After another moment, Baggio grudgingly wheeled around and walked away, and Paolo eased himself out from behind the screen. He wasn’t in Sandro’s line of sight, so he coughed. And Sandro’s shoulders went still in a rigid line.
Then he turned, more slowly than he had for Roberto. His eyes widened, but then he got his old reactions under control. “It actually has been a rather good day,” he finally said. “I suppose that explains it. I thought you only came back to Milan for the winter holidays.”
“I do, but I had a property tax problem and ran into an old classmate. They have a monthly dinner, apparently.” Paolo came forward till they didn’t need to raise their voices to be heard over the din of the main dining room, but he stopped well wide of the other man. Nevertheless Sandro had leaned back, shoulders hunched like a wounded animal at bay.
“Baggio’s your classmate.” More than a little derision touched Sandro’s wry smile. “Don’t you know anybody who’d pass muster with St. Peter?”
“A few, now. I said ‘old classmate.’” Paolo spoke a little sharply.
Sandro lifted his brows. “Oh, yes, you’ve gotten some standards.”
“I—” Paolo caught himself, then looked away, out the doors. He pulled at his nose, watching a black car cruising the parking lot. “Are you all right?”
“I’m better than the last time.” Then Sandro laughed. It was a low, thin noise, with the backings scraped out of it. “I should feel flattered that you bother with the guilt over me, but really, Paolo. The only way you could’ve stopped it was to take my place and you’ll never do that. So why bother? Just enjoy your little saint.”
“Ricky’s not a—” Paolo started heatedly, and then he realized what he was doing and shut his mouth. He looked down at the parquet floor, trying to calm down by following one twisting line of mahogany blocks. “Damn it, Sandro. Does it have to be like this every time?”
“Every time?” Sandro repeated, voice rising.
* * *
Zlatan did sit in the car. SUV, actually, with the seats ripped out. He sat there, down on the floor and twisted between the computer screens and cables with the fucking headset that kept jabbing him in the mouth, and watched the jacked video feeds. People ate food. Cooks had panic fits right on the line. The maître’d had slipped off for a blowjob from the big-breasted bartender. Baggio pissed off his dinner-mates. “Boring, Henke.”
*You still have Baggio?*
“Have him and his little dog, too,” Zlatan snorted. His back twinged and he moved, only to have to grab his shoulder when it went off. Hissing and swearing, he pulled up a leg and began to shift over when his foot hit a screen. “Goddamn it, couldn’t you find a bigger car? A van, maybe?”
Henrik chuckled, so things on his end must’ve been going well. *Nobody drives a van to this sort of restaurant, Ibra. And you watch too many cable movies.*
Zlatan ignored him and finally managed to get in a position where he could poke the screen back up with his foot. Some staticky lines fizzed across it, then vanished. He squinted at the screen. “Wait, Baggio’s left. He’s…um…”
*Where?* Instant ice. *Find him, or…find him. There’s something going on in the hall—hey.* Henrik wasn’t talking to Zlatan anymore. *No, that waiter. He had—he’s not--shit.*
After a frantic search of available feeds, Zlatan finally found Baggio again, safe in a hallway even if he looked like he’d just been told his…he was walking back towards his table. Coming from the lobby…Zlatan tapped a couple keys to bring that camera up, then swore and jerked up his knees. The laptop went sliding and he barely grabbed it, and in the process kicked a whole ton of stuff into a tangle.
Not that he gave a shit. He slapped the laptop aside and wrenched himself around to get his face right up to the screen, staring hard as Alessandro snarled at…at somebody else, who looked vaguely familiar. One of Baggio’s dinner partners, but the way Nesta was acting, he obviously knew this one as a bit more than that. And then there was the fact that he was fucking here in the first place, again even though—well, Zlatan really truly hadn’t egged fate on for this one. Henrik had done all the planning and it was his show; Zlatan was just an extra pair of eyes.
*Zlatan,* Henrik hissed in his ear. *One got in. Later.*
“Shit, wait, Henke—” But the line went dead; Henrik had turned it off and wouldn’t turn it back on till he was done. Zlatan swore like he’d been shot all over again, kicking himself for the distracted moment, and scrambled to check all the feeds: Baggio pausing as another room emptied out into the hall ahead of it, some couple being seated, a van pulling up—it was out of sight now, somehow finding a spot the cameras didn’t cover.
A second later, Zlatan had kicked himself free of the last cable and was out on the pavement.
* * *
Alessandro exhaled irritably, pushing at his hair. “No, never mind, I think you actually have a point. I’m working right now and unless you just lied about this being a chance meeting, I don’t want your distractions.”
“I’m not—” Paolo started heatedly. Then he caught himself, glancing at something over Alessandro’s shoulder.
A second later, a man strolled past them. He looked around for the hostess, then shrugged and went on towards the dining room to meet his party. Then the hostess nearly ran into him and he backed up, his elbows swinging a bit so his suit-jacket bunched up between his shoulders.
Paolo had been pretending to stare at the trompe-l’oeil panels, concerned as always about his public presentation, but now he looked back at Alessandro. “I couldn’t care less what you do to Roberto. I haven’t spoken to him in years and whatever he’s doing now isn’t—”
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Alessandro dryly replied. He stared at the newcomer’s back, something niggling at his own mind. The other man had a brief conversation with the hostess before she pointed out the way, and then he began to squeeze by her. Another party was leaving, so it was slow going. “And speaking of minding, of course you merely mind your own business. So please, do that now.”
The man was leaving. Alessandro moved to follow; he still didn’t know why, but he’d been on the job long enough to know which instincts to trust. But a hand on his arm stopped him cold, and then Paolo was in Alessandro’s face again, eyes a snapping electric green. “I need to talk to you.”
“Make a damned appointment, then.” Yanking his arm free, Alessandro hurried after the stranger.
He nearly ran down the hostess and had to steady her by the shoulders. By the time he’d done that and gotten around her, the man had detoured into the halls leading to the private dining areas. Alessandro walked as fast as he could around the first corner, then slowed once he’d gone around it. He trailed the man for a few meters, but then a waiter carrying a huge platter almost as wide as the hall crossed in front of him, so close the steam wisping out from the silver dish covers nearly scalded Alessandro’s face.
He squeezed back against the wall and impatiently waited for the waiter to pass, and heard Paolo’s voice again, made loud with serious annoyance. For a moment Alessandro nearly felt smug, but then he snarled at himself for even tending towards that old pattern. The day when he’d been satisfied just with getting an unstudied reaction out of Paolo…
…around the next corner was no one. And Alessandro hadn’t heard anything, and—that man’s clothes had shifted wrongly. It flashed back to him, that lumpy outline under one arm, and Alessandro swore, looking frantically for a server to ask where the hell Baggio’s party was. He glanced up in his panic, then looked again, staring at the slight offset of one ceiling panel.
“Sandro—” Paolo said, coming around the corner.
Alessandro whirled on him and Paolo took a quick step back, eyes widening. Then he frowned and his mouth opened, and they absolutely didn’t have time for this. “Do you see a chair? A stool? Something? Your damned friend—I need to get into the ceiling.”
After a second—too long--Paolo ducked back around the corner, then returned with a chair. He tossed it to Alessandro, then stared at the gun and small flashlight Alessandro produced. “Since when do lawyers carry arms?” he hissed.
“Since they switched me off the courtroom and made me a preparatory investigator. Paolo, either shut up or—” Alessandro finally got the panel up with his arm; it was heavy but it still came free too easily. He quickly scanned the dark space behind it with the usual flashlight-gun sandwich, but saw no one and not…wait, there were fresh footprints in the thick dust lining the tops of the panels.
It’d take too long to figure out how they’d gone, but obviously they were going up—and there were other ways to the roof. Alessandro dropped back down, then jumped off the chair. He kicked it aside and headed towards what he guessed was the back.
“What’s happened? Where’s Roberto?” Paolo still was following, damn the man. “You’re in investigation now? Since when? But that sounds less like a—”
“It’s been quite a while, same job title but different work, yes, it’s probably meant to get me killed faster than prosecuting was doing, and can we please talk about this later?” Alessandro snapped.
Inhale. Exhale. “Fine, but if you want up, then there’s a quicker way than that.” That damnable arched eyebrow greeted Alessandro’s turn-and-stare. “I’m from here. The restaurant’s new but no decent building in Milan is.”
Paolo grabbed Alessandro’s arm and dragged him down a short side-hall, then through another, and then just when Alessandro’s patience had run out, to a door labeled as ‘utility.’ Behind it was an air-cooling unit, but there was also a second door, and this one led to a narrow staircase.
“That goes all the way to the roof. But Sandro, shouldn’t you—”
“Probably,” Alessandro agreed. Amiably, and then he shouldered Paolo back and yanked the door shut. It had a rusty bolt that sliced blood from Alessandro’s thumb when he forced it into its slot-hole, and that wasn’t going to stand up to real pressure but hopefully Paolo’s preference for clean hands would still hold true.
Alessandro did text a curt message to Gila as he raced up the steps. He stopped once he thought he was near the top, then went on as quietly as he could. It was extremely dark but he didn’t get out the flashlight again. He did keep his gun in his hand, but if it was at all possible he’d rather not have to rely on that and the hasty training he’d gone through when they’d moved him.
The staircase ended in a rickety door that was rattling constantly against the stiff nighttime breeze, which conveniently covered any sounds Alessandro might’ve made but also made it difficult for him to hear what, if anything, was going on outside. He slipped up against it and partially steadied the door with his fingertips, trying to see through the crack. Nothing, really: a bit of sky, what might’ve been another door across the way…another door. Alessandro straightened up for a better view, only to have something dark completely block out—fuck.
He threw himself backwards and his foot slipped so he fell with a clatter, barely catching himself on the rail—which was old and ripped out of the wall under his weight. Alessandro slammed the gun onto one of the steps and desperately drove his heels down and managed to stop his slide that way, but at the same time the door was ripped open. He stared up at a silhouette that almost filled the whole doorway.
“Fuck, you have the worst timing.” Then the door was shut and Zlatan was hauling at Alessandro’s lapels. He stepped all over Alessandro’s feet and left calf, and on the gun as well; it jerked out of Alessandro’s hand as he was made to stand.
Once Alessandro was on his feet, he’d gathered enough of himself to grab Zlatan by the forearm and shoulder; Zlatan suddenly stumbled, hissing, but even then he fell on Alessandro to pin them against the wall. His fingers slapped against Alessandro’s waist, then dug in hard as another door banged open nearby. They both froze.
Several people were coming out onto the roof. One not willingly: the sound of gagging carried across till a short dull thud cut it off. Alessandro thought about the last time he’d run into Zlatan and slowly curled his fingers into the other man’s shoulder.
They were pressed so closely together Zlatan couldn’t disguise the wince, for all the darkness. His breath suddenly raked across Alessandro’s ear. “Hey, now. I haven’t even done anything yet.”
“Anyone, you mean. Who is it?” Alessandro hissed. Then he went rigid as something thumped down very near their door.
“Inside’s normal, but no signal from seven.” Voice too low and harsh to pick out any unique characteristics. Accent uncertain. Still pretty far from them.
Zlatan pushed his thumbs into either side of Alessandro’s abdomen, gouging painfully in between the lateral muscles. His voice was more heat than anything else. “Maybe I just like you up against walls.”
“You were surprised to see me.” Alessandro pressed at Zlatan’s shoulder again and this time, he could feel the bandages beneath the other man’s clothes. Thick. “Who?”
Pebbles skittered about outside. “We can’t wait for him.”
“We can’t be tracked, either.”
The icy edge to both voices gave the impression of a temporary stalemate, but these men were well-trained and ingenious; they wouldn’t dither long. Zlatan sss’ed his breath almost like he agreed, one of his lips touching Alessandro’s earlobe. “Baggio. Not to kill—to keep away from these idiots.” His whole mouth grazed Alessandro’s ear long enough for the smile to be made out, and the whisper of laughter said that was purposeful. “It’s not all crazy shootouts, you know.”
Yes, I do, Alessandro sourly thought. “He’s mine,” he near-mouthed.
“He’s theirs right now. Where’s your gu—” Zlatan cut himself off, going stiff as the men outside started to move again.
Purposeful—what little sound they made steadily advanced towards the edge of the roof. Alessandro knew what chance there was of getting Baggio before it was too late, but he only accepted it now. He gritted his teeth and reached up to Zlatan’s right hand, touching its back with his fingertips. Then he covered it with his own and carefully pushed it down his left side.
When their hands crossed Alessandro’s hip, Zlatan nearly blew it by starting to suck in his breath over his teeth. Then Alessandro felt the other man’s lips fold in on themselves against his neck; the men outside seemed to be oblivious, but they were operating much closer to the door now. Alessandro was biting his lip before Zlatan’s fingers curled around the back of his thigh, both of them easing themselves down, and by the time they hit his knee, he knew he’d be trotting out lame shaving-accident excuses tomorrow morning.
They finally reached the gun, still beneath their feet. The other man snorted softly. “Thought your toes felt weird.”
Alessandro didn’t bother saying anything. He was having a hard time keeping the hissing of his breath down to what he thought was a low enough volume, but it seemed like his wheezing just kept getting louder. It was a warm night and his shirt was stuck to his back with sweat beneath his suit-jacket, and Zlatan had on a short-sleeved shirt so Alessandro’s other hand was on bare skin, the between of that turning slimier by the second.
“Ready,” said somebody outside.
Zlatan dragged his fingers out from under Alessandro’s hand and wrapped them around the gun. He turned his head so his breath came full on the side of Alessandro’s neck. Alessandro heard him lick his lips—the sound seemed to snap louder than the breeze—like he was going to say something.
Instead Zlatan pivoted on his feet and kicked out the door. He shot at the same time, though how—Alessandro had the idiotic thought that the ass didn’t even listen to the laws of physics. Then he was back into it; Zlatan slammed against him again, thrown back by the gun’s recoil, before catching himself and lunging out the door. Alessandro would’ve followed, but a knife thunked into the door, singing like a tuning fork, and sent him back against the wall.
Two shots, three—the scuffling was rapidly dying off. He scrambled up to the doorway again and took a quick peek out, then shoved himself out onto the roof. And he took the knife with him.
* * *
“Sandro!” Paolo hit the door once before he managed to get the better of his temper. He whirled away, eyes flying across the room, and spotted a crowbar lying on the floor.
The door yielded easily to it, and Paolo was about to go through when somebody seized his shoulder. He turned with some vicious language on the tip of his tongue, but none of it ever made it out.
He did have the vague thought that all those witnesses hadn’t been lying. The small black hole at the end of the gun did command all of your attention, and only after it’d refocused the world around itself did things beyond it start to come into view. Such as the man holding the gun: sharp-featured, cool-eyed. His head was gleamingly hairless but he seemed too young for that to be natural, and he had an air of utter belief.
So it was noticeable when incredulity tainted that. “Paolo Maldini?” he haltingly asked. “FC Records?”
Swedish. Paolo didn’t speak that and tried English. “Yes. Call your boss and tell whoever it is they’re about to get at least ten years of—”
“I don’t work for FC.” The gunman had regained his composure and also clearly had adjusted for the new circumstances. “I just find it convenient to know about certain employees—no, not MU either. Who just went up that staircase?”
The crowbar’s weight dragged on Paolo’s arm. He wanted to but did not flick his eyes towards the hall; this was a busy restaurant but no movie and anyway, he was out of practice in relying on faith--Swedish. Sandro had said…but this man was shorter than Paolo, and he and Sandro were about the same. “I don’t know.”
“You do.” The gun touched the tip of Paolo’s nose so he had to stare at the other man to avoid going cross-eyed. “I did hear a name, by the way. And I see the crowbar. It’d never make it above your waist.”
Probably true; Paolo had cross-examined enough ‘experts’ to know a genuine one when he saw one. He took a deep breath and the gun scraped up his nose to nestle down between his eyebrows, despite his dropping the crowbar.
“Who went up that staircase?” the man repeated.
Paolo suddenly wanted to apologize to Ricardo, because he really should have called before dinner. And for so much else, and to quite a few other people as well, but he hardly had the time to dwell. “Sandro. Common enough name in Italy, isn’t it? He’s the janitor, I believe.”
The gunman stared expressionlessly at him. Then the man sighed, suddenly looking very tired. He muttered something in Swedish. And then his hand moved, and—
--it was very strange, considering how much work Paolo had put into smoothing out his reactions. But the urge to live ripped through all those habits and mannerisms and barriers like a tsunami through paper walls, and slapped him aside almost before the other man did.
Which was probably what kept Paolo conscious. The gun against the side of his head, the elbow to his solar plexus and the wall against his spine certainly did their best to work to the opposite effect. Though he still was no young action hero popping right back up. He was grateful to the bruising wall for the support, and even some minutes later, Paolo was unsteadily leaning with one hand against it, wheezing to call his breath back.
“Here?” someone said urgently, and skidded through the doorway. Young, easily startled; he nearly drew his gun when he first saw Paolo. “Who—”
“Alessandro Nesta?” Paolo tried. The other man nearly leaped at him, eyes blazing questions, and he waved at the doorway. Then he turned to watch the cop dart up the staircase, still trying to claw the air into his lungs.
* * *
Ricardo walked strongly enough to the front of the nave, but when he got down on his knees on the steps before the altar, he had to hold onto the railing for support. He’d already been through confession but while the priest on duty had been sympathetic, he hadn’t had much in the way of advice to offer. That was Ricardo’s fault for not really being able to explain. It was so hard to put into words the way silences turned sour, the blankness of Paolo’s eyes when he lied, that sharp burning in Ricardo’s chest when he’d thought Nesta had meant to kiss Paolo, right there in the middle of FC.
He knew one thing: he loved Paolo. He knew it like he drew breath, like he knew that God was holding him in His hand even now, even though it felt as if Ricardo were balancing on the edge of a long, long drop. But everything else was a complete…
…muddle. It was a little simple and childish, and Ricardo knew he’d squirmed a bit in embarrassment when the word had popped into his head, but it did describe things well. He didn’t know if he was still worried about comparing to Nesta. He didn’t know if he should worry about that, or if actually he was utterly furious and ready to do anything to keep off the other man. He did think he should worry about that: that startlingly ferocious feeling that made him just want to hurt something.
And, he confessed to God, he had doubts now about Paolo. He wanted so much for—but it wasn’t just him. It was the other man as well, and Paolo had made choices Ricardo could barely stand to think on without feeling sick to his stomach, and Paolo might still make them. Was still making them, even though he knew now the mistakes they were while he was…love alone didn’t change things. Love didn’t necessarily make things easier to forgive and accept either, and following on that, the lack of forgiveness or acceptance didn’t stop love. There was no easy way in that corner, either.
“I don’t know, God. Because I will do everything I can, I will try as hard as I can, but I don’t know if it’ll mean anything,” Ricardo whispered. “I don’t know Paolo well enough and I don’t know if I ever will.”
But he knew a little of Alessandro Nesta, a little of what kind of man Nesta was, and he’d seen into Nesta’s eyes over Paolo’s shoulder. And in them had been failure, and anger and bitterness and unhealed sores.
And love, still.
“Tell me I’ll be strong enough. Tell me I won’t fall away. God, tell me I’ll never look at someone like that. And tell me Paolo will never let me.”
Ricardo bent his head nearly to the floor and prayed.
* * *
“Out but not dead,” Zlatan said, fingers to the pulse in Baggio’s throat.
“Lucky you.” Something pointed and cold prodded the back of Zlatan’s neck, much like Alessandro’s voice. “Now put down your gun and put your hands in the air.”
Zlatan just moved his head a little and the bastard dug in so there was a prick and then a couple hot drops welling onto his skin. He blinked. “Are you kidding?”
“I kid like you deprecate,” Alessandro said. He kicked the back of Zlatan’s right foot. “Gun. Down.”
“And with the fancy words…look, I’m tired. I just saved your ass and my shoulder is killing me, no thanks to you. By the way, last time would’ve been a hell of a lot less messy if you’d just—ow.” There was a fucking trickle running down the side of Zlatan’s neck now. His shirt was soaking it all up for now, but still…up till he’d met Nesta, he’d had no damn DNA record and he preferred it that way. “Jesus, Sandro. Show some gratitude.”
Alessandro snorted. “I didn’t crack open your skull with a blunt object, did I?” His voice chilled. “Zlatan, you’ve killed quite a few people in front of me. How exactly you think I can let that go, considering my profession and my appreciation of the law—”
Of course there weren’t any pebbles rolling or anything stupid like that, but Zlatan still knew. His blood went icier than Alessandro’s voice and he forgot about the knife ready to sever his spinal cord: he spun around and leaped up, shoving Alessandro aside.
He didn’t get off unscathed like with their first face-to-face. The knife slashed across his neck, but it didn’t go as deep as bone so Zlatan kept turning. His elbow hit Alessandro’s arm and jarred the hell out of his shoulder, but he forced through the pain and swept up his gun. “No! Wait!”
Henrik stared disbelievingly at Zlatan over his own gun—which was trailing a thin whisper of smoke. Zlatan hissed.
“What…” Alessandro said, and then went quiet.
No knife prodded Zlatan’s ribs, so the other man must’ve dropped it; Alessandro had balls and brains, but obviously hadn’t done much of this crap. And Henrik’s eyes briefly flicked to something before he carefully edged his way across the roof. He toed up the knife, then stooped without taking his eyes off Zlatan and picked it up with a handkerchief. After scrubbing the ground a bit with the cloth, he whisked it and the knife back to wherever the handkerchief had come from in the first place.
“Who are you?” Alessandro demanded. He sounded angry enough for Zlatan to figure the bullet had missed him, but not by too much. “I’ve got men coming. Neither of you are getting away.”
The racket in the staircase backed up Alessandro’s words. Zlatan stared desperately at Henrik, whose expression gone quietly blank again. Henrik walked towards them at a normal pace—for all the snarling, Alessandro scuffed about to keep Zlatan in the middle—and then, when he was just beyond arm’s length, blurred forward. His fingers clamped around Zlatan’s wrist and then they were soaring over the edge of the roof.
* * *
“I don’t know if we’re going to get anything, sir,” the young man from earlier was saying. “The forensic people aren’t hopeful.”
“He’s a fucking kamikaze ass. There’s got to be something: hair, blood. Something,” Sandro snapped. His fingers were knotted hard in his hair and busy contributing their own samples to the scene. “Have them check again, Gila. Goddamn it.”
Paolo side-stepped a corpse and cleared his throat.
“Oh, now what do you—” Sandro turned. He took in Paolo with one angrily dismissive glance, and then looked again. “What happened to your face?”
“A Swedish man with a large gun. Not taller than you.” After putting his half-melted icepack back to the bruise, Paolo walked past the other man and on till he reached the edge of the roof. “This might be shocking to you, but I’m not ready to watch you get killed.”
Sandro put off his assistant with a couple curt words before coming up to stand beside Paolo. “It’s not. But for God’s sake, Paolo. We’re not in a fairytale—‘sorry’ and flowers don’t magically make everything better.”
“I wasn’t just talking about that. I meant why you practically invited everyone in FC to come at you when you know how the label works. Why you seem perfectly all right with your bosses throwing you into suicide mission after suicide mission. If you’d just meant to get me, you wouldn’t have bothered scaring Kahn at all.” The street below seemed over-sharpened, as if somebody had put it beneath a microscope and then turned knobs till the focus threatened to pop out one’s eyes. “Why you came back to my goddamn door after talking to Ricky.”
“Ah, yes, him. Shouldn’t you be calling him? Get a few kisses for that bruise?” Sandro drawled.
“It’s not much compared to what you’ve taken lately,” Paolo snapped back. “I saw the doctor’s report after they found you.”
Sandro’s eyes widened and he momentarily paled. Then he jerked his hand at Paolo and turned away at the same time, as if yanking himself back from a slap. He stared angrily over the side at a pair of cops checking over a lower-level balcony. “You would do something like that. Well, what were you expecting? Poor abused Sandro, ready to throw himself at your feet? At least I wasn’t surprised this time, and it wasn’t as bad as the—it wasn’t, Paolo. You of all people should know not everything makes it to paper.”
“Are you saying—” ‘Gila’ passed by them and Sandro stiffened, and Paolo picked up on it and stopped himself. But only for that moment. “Then why the call about ‘Zlatan’? I don’t know any more about him than what you told me, by the way.”
“Not a nice feeling, being in the dark. Is it?” The other man threw Paolo a vicious look on the way to glancing restlessly at the work his men were doing. “Paolo, this is my crime scene and if it’s not in my city, it’s not in yours either. So give me a reason why I shouldn’t just take your statement and have you thrown out, or…well, actually, that’s your only choice.”
Paolo pinched the bridge of his nose, then sighed. “That Swedish man,” he said more quietly. “He knew me. He knew about FC and MU, but claims not to work for either. I have been kept in the dark before, as a matter of fact, but I’ve never been assaulted.”
People moved around behind them, heaving things and dropping them. Somebody snapped pictures and the backflashes paled out the night sky.
“You have been,” Sandro eventually said. He was calmer, a little more thoughtful in his bitterness. “Not with a gun, but you have. You just never cared about it. And I’d like to laugh at the pathos of your midlife epiphany, but I know it didn’t really start with that gun belting you. That just made you look at it.”
“You might despise this about me, but you have to look yourself at the fact that I’ve got a lifetime of working with people like these hitmen,” Paolo quietly replied. His equanimity, or at least his ability to skillfully fake it, was returning. “And like Roberto, come to think of it.”
Sandro looked at him. “I also wish I could take some of the credit, but I can’t even have that.” The bite of his tone made Paolo turn, but Sandro already had his back to him. “I’ll have to have things in writing, I hope you understand, so you might want to call FC first. But if you’re still feeling guilty, I’ve got some things I’d like you to look at.”
“Sandro,” Paolo said. His throat closed a bit on him.
The other man flipped his hand over his shoulder, signaling derision and follow-me all at once. “You ruined my life, Paolo. You didn’t stop it. And you sure as hell didn’t stop the shit from raining down. Alberto-Alberto! This is Paolo Maldini—he’ll be assisting as a visiting expert.”
The one Sandro had been calling ‘Gila’ stepped forward, looking at Paolo with the same kind of intense curiosity Cesc Fàbregas possessed. It made Paolo wonder exactly what—but that was Sandro’s business. He waved it off and nodded to Alberto. “I need to make a couple personal calls, but then I’m all yours.”
Another snort drifted across the roof, but when Paolo looked, Sandro was bent over one of the bodies and deep in conversation. Paolo returned his attention to his phone. He wavered, then called Ricardo’s apartment and left a voicemail.
* * *
Henrik put the heel of his hand against Zlatan’s injured shoulder and slammed Zlatan up against the wall via it. The world went white, then slowly reformed around Henrik’s face.
“What is with you and that Italian?” he demanded. He actually raised his voice so Zlatan could hear the rage in it.
“Alessandro Nesta. Sandro if you want to piss him off,” Zlatan corrected. He set his teeth against the next blow, but it never came.
Not in physical form, at least. Henrik stared at him, breathing through the nostrils like a bull. Then the other man abruptly stepped back, letting Zlatan fall to the floor. He turned on his heel and walked to the other end of the room, then came back to stand in front of Zlatan.
“I should have given you the jobs in town and taken him back myself.” The note of regret in Henrik’s voice was new, but not exactly reassuring. He stared down at Zlatan as if they’d just met, which was even less reassuring.
Zlatan shrugged, then sucked in his breath and grabbed at his shoulder. Then he let his head fall back against the wall and looked up at Henrik. “Yeah, probably. Henke—I am sorry I screwed it up for you.”
“He’s about the worst possible choice,” Henrik commented.
“Look, I don’t even--know--what he is, so don’t call him that. He’s just—fucking nuts.” An inappropriate little snicker got away from Zlatan as he slowly pushed himself up the wall. “Anyway, what are we doing now?”
“We’re—” And then Henrik spun and the last thing Zlatan saw was Henrik’s fist.