Off-the-rack suit, fashionable horn-rimmed glasses, no visible make-up: few things about the politician marked her as one of Cobb's usual clients. Two nervous men in black slacks and white shirts — party faithfuls — prowled the room where they sat behind tightly-closed curtains, breathing in lemon-scented detergent and cooling tea.
"Mister Cobb, you must understand that under no circumstances can we be implicated. Even if you fail," she said. Her elocution was school-precise, with vowels that hinted at an extended stay Down Under. "You came recommended with a warning of your high expense. I hope the high cost implies that your professionalism extends to complete discretion, and an ability to escape detention under your own initiative."
"Ma'am, I have no intention of signalling my presence and intent to the forces of law and order in your country." Cobb let the sarcasm sink under his even tone, and a smile briefly curled the corners of the politician's mouth. He crossed out a mental list: Arthur was in, but he needed a forger of Eames' calibre who would understand the cultural context and language. No one he knew fit the bill.
"The preparations will take time," he warned. "I work in teams. My contacts in Malaysia aren't as extensive as they are elsewhere, and I need to recruit one other person."
"Yes, so you indicated. I think we can help you there." She tore a piece of paper from a magazine, her fingers carefully covered with a handkerchief, and wrote down a number and the letter T. "Call this woman. Tell her Meng Mei introduced you. She'll set up a meeting with the person we had in mind."
"Thank you. I appreciate the risk you took in meeting me." He patted his pocket where his mobile phone lay, the battery taken out at the back door of the cafe that was the second decoy stop.
Her face was impassive, but fierce glare in her eyes gave her away. "I didn't come because I wanted to, Mister Cobb. I came because I was deemed to be the most expendable."
She handed him the magazine as she left. K+L_ue, the cover blared, on the pulse of the Klang Valley. "When you're done, take a few days off to sight-see and pretend you're a tourist. You may even enjoy it."
The person they "had in mind" was Khidir, an actor of burgeoning repute, quick-minded and slim-hipped. He and Arthur sized up each other warily, then proceeded to behave with cool civility. Cobb liked how quickly Khidir learned his way around a forger's role in extraction missions, and possibly liked even better his status as a socialite that gave him access to the mark.
"I'm very grateful for the money, you see, but I'd do it if you paid half as much," he said, one night. Khidir had a habit of smoking Menthol Lights after evening prayers and, to Arthur's dismay, tipped the ashes and cigarette butts out the window of their fourth-floor room rather than leave behind a possible trail for the police.
"But not for free," Arthur cut in, eyes flickering up from his laptop.
"Nope. I need the cash for my sister's schooling. The bastard didn't leave our mother with much when he divorced her. Terus jatuh talak tiga." Smoke trailed from the cigarette in Khidir's hand as he brought his hand down in a chopping motion.
"Our target. Meng Mei didn't tell you? He was my stepfather. My sister's father, poor girl."
Cobb's mind raced to a conclusion. "Is that why she trusted you with this?"
"Not if I can't also see the bigger picture why they're paying you and that one for this. My beliefs are as far from his political ideology as anyone can possibly be and still live on the same planet." Khidir flicked his cigarette away into the night. "And it's all about family here: some of us grow up to be princes, others grow up to be bitter. Plausible deniability, you see. If we're caught, they can claim I did this without instigation from outside parties, for revenge."
Khidir reached into his pocket. "I've picked my totem, by the way."
He opened his hand: it was a white clam shell, ragged around the rim and blackened by an unidentifiable substance. A small hole had been drilled near its hinge teeth, just enough to fit a string.
"I grew up by the sea," he said. "You know how your childhood always seems more perfect than it really was? This isn't how the shell looks like in my dreams."
The extraction ended as smoothly as it began. Khidir played the mark's personal assistant with pitch-perfect assiduousness in a dream of everlasting paperwork, chivvying the mark into signature after signature and — finally, in exasperated mutters — information on proof of an eye-wateringly large sum of money paid by a multinational company.
Cobb woke up to Arthur leaning over the mark and Khidir already on his feet, toeing on a pair of loafers. Arthur carefully unattached the intravenous needles from from the sleeping man's wrist and, looking up, nodded sharply at Cobb.
"The security cameras loop for another 21 minutes."
"Time enough for me to leave." Khidir slung a laptop bag over his shoulder and became, in a second, just another up-and-coming young executive in a city of hopefuls. "You two — you'll be okay?"
The PASIV case clicked shut. "Yes, assuming my taxi arrives on time," Arthur said. "Dom?"
Cobb pulled on a pair of gloves and searched the opulent desk for stationery. He wrote, in blocky, messy script, Thank you for your hospitality. I hope you don't mind I asked the hotel staff to put you in your room, and that you will feel better in the morning. I will call about the investment. — Staas.
"Ready," he said, thinking of Phillipa and James. No speedy exit for him this time, to better disassociate his presence from Arthur's. The distance between himself and his children chafed. "My flight's in two days."
"KL's not that bad a city to be stranded in," Khidir said, with apparently sincere sympathy, pulling the door open. "Take Meng Mei's advice and see the sights. You might like what you find."
"Good evening, Cobb."
He couldn't help the wry smile and, "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world..."
"She walks into mine," Saito finished. He looked perfectly at home in the glittering music hall, heavy with golden light, his black tuxedo cut to emphasise the elegant lines of his shoulders and posture. A boutonnière of white camellia and baby's breath adorned the jacket's left lapel with a flourish. "I assume you're not here to enjoy a quite beautiful performance of 'The Planets'."
"Which you're pointedly missing," Cobb said, over the strains of music.
"'Jupiter' is enjoyable, but overplayed. I have always preferred 'Saturn'." Saito set down his glass — water, not champagne or wine — on a nearby table. A passing waitstaff eyed them nervously, picking up the glass and hurrying away.
"It has been a long time since we last met." Discomfiture tightened his jaw, briefly. "Three years, almost to the day. How are your children?"
Weariness pressed against Cobb's eyes. "Is this a coincidence or a set-up, Mr Saito?"
"Neither one nor the other. The recommendation made to our mutual friends did come from me, though none of the money. I didn't think you would ever leave America again — after all, I did pay you very well."
"I have two children to feed and put through college," Cobb said, sharper than he'd like. "But yes, thank you — I can afford to choose which jobs to undertake. Where to go."
"Yet here you are, in a place you don't like, listening to music you don't appreciate. What are you doing here, Cobb?"
The question tickled the back of his mind, but Cobb shrugged and pulled out a torn-off page from the magazine the politician had given him, listings circled in red ink. "I made the wrong choice."
Saito took a step towards him, hesitated. "So did I, in hindsight. Let me buy you a drink at my place, Cobb. I understand congratulations are in order for a job well done."
His dark eyes compelled their subject. Cobb felt a little unbalanced, as if standing on the edge of a tall precipice. "I can't. I have a flight home in a few hours."
Saito's brows furrowed. "Cobb—"
"No." This time, it was Cobb who stopped for a beat, half-turned away. "Maybe next time."
"Next time," Saito echoed, to Cobb's back.
Of all the places Cobb met his clients, the cafeteria of the Musée international de la Réforme was far from the most unusual. Geneva's quiet charms allowed for discreet meetings in unexpected places, as arranged by those astute enough to work around the city's small size and its resulting possibilities for complications.
Cobb was not, however, entirely sanguine about the doctor who warbled nervously as he flicked through a coffee table book of Martin Luther's life. Perhaps he'd lost the willingness for danger — or cared more about it, now. Ariadne had taken his arm when they met in Paris, on the long walk to her new apartment across the Seine, and asked in all seriousness, "How are you, Dom?"
"Better," he'd said, unwilling to elaborate. "And you?"
She'd smiled and told him all about the research project whose initiators hired her. "It's not that I disapprove of extraction work," Ariadne said. "But the technology for dream sharing has more potential than military purposes or corporate spying. Therapy, for example. It won't be for everyone, and of course developing regulations will be a nightmare—" She'd caught herself, and laughed.
He thought about Mal and their children as the doctor talked, laid down the purpose, conditions and necessary outcomes for the mission. Corporate espionage on behalf of a big pharmaceutical, the kind of work that used to mark his calendar before what was supposed to be the last one. The one before he came home. To Phillipa's face, filling out in the sunlight, as she gravely wrote down new vocabulary lessons: fantastic, growing, awaken. To The Little Prince, James' new favourite book, which Cobb now read out over Skype every night he was away.
A thought roused reluctantly: perhaps a new beginning elsewhere, far from the seat of memories, would be good for all of them. Cobb dismissed it.
"Dr Dupont," he said, after a decent pause. "I apologise, but I won't be available for this job. I can recommend someone else, if your employer requires."
"Well, that's extremely unfortunate." The doctor peered at him over steepled fingers. "May I ask why?"
Cobb rose from his seat, happy to hasten his leave-taking. "I'm otherwise occupied, doctor."
That Saito would emerge to find him in the north tower of Cathédrale St-Pierre was less startling than it should have been, upon reflection of their history. Decades in dream time whittled away ordinary boundaries between two people who were otherwise barely more than strangers, the space apart acknowledged merely for illusion.
They fit uncomfortably on the narrow staircase, but when Cobb leaned in just so, Saito could brace himself against the chilly walls with relative security, and kiss him back with a small, almost soundless sigh. Saito tasted of salt and dry skin, and under the light autumn coat his clothes were warm from his body, delicious to Cobb's hands.
"Come back with me," Saito breathed into Cobb's neck.
Cobb pulled away. "Mine's nearer."
They were silent on the climb down, bumped shoulders in the taxi to Paquis, and kissed again because they could. Saito's eyes tracked the Brazilian flag and the name Paraíso on the window of the cafe nestled at the ground floor of the building where Cobb rented a place, the wild bunches of white chrysanthemums perched in jars on the tables. A woman laughed from within, still audible from the open windows of Cobb's first-floor apartment.
Saito undressed with unself-conscious care: first his coat and jacket, hung over a chair; his waistcoat, on top; the silk tie with gold-etched plum blossoms. Cobb helped him with his shirt, slid a hand down past the waistband to watch Saito's eyes lose their focus for a second.
Cobb shivered when his bared skin pressed into the cool sheets of his bed, pushing up to meet Saito's ardent mouth. It was terrifying. It was familiar. He flattened his fingers against the back of Saito's neck, feeling the vulnerable vertebrae, curling hard into Saito's hair when sharp teeth grazed his nipples. The room darkened with the evening, unremarked by its occupants.
After, Saito stretched out next to him, raising Cobb's hand to press a kiss to the wrist. "It's been a year since we last met," he said, his lips wandering down to the crook of the elbow.
Cobb rolled to his side, pressing a thumb to Saito's jaw. Conversation and Cássia Eller's husky voice floated from the cafe below, singing, quem sabe a vida, é não sonhar.
"Non sequitur," he said. "It's not important."
Saito raised his eyes to Cobb's face, coolly considering.
Cobb drew in a breath and waited.