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Parlor Tricks

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JFK to Narita to Singapore was a brutally long flight even with the comforts of first class, its tedium made bearable with discipline, familiarity and small quantities of excellent wine. And also, Arthur thought, by Eames' absence this time round. It seemed to him that the forger took entirely too much pleasure in attempting to drive him insane. He felt Ariadne's absence a little more strongly; she had been a warm bright spot, smart and pretty as she was, in the obsessive planning of the Fischer job. Saito had informed him that she had declined this job in order to continue her studies in Paris, and in any case there was little need for a full-time architect on this job, which was mostly counter-extraction training. If everything worked out, this job would be easy corporate gravy, more of the do-nothing stuff he had been filling his days with in the past few months.

Something nagged at him, though, as he sat staring out into darkness, listening to the quiet snores of his fellow passengers. With Cobb, Yusuf and Ariadne gone from the team and back to their daily lives he felt as though he had lost something with their parting. Extraction wasn't generally the kind of thing you made friends doing. The few experts at dream infiltration all tended to move in the same circles but those relationships tended to be entirely professional. Cobb was the one person he knew from his work who he could also count as a personal friend.

Reflexively he reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out his loaded die, rolling the smooth plastic between his fingers as he attempted to palm it yet again. He had left everything behind so he could chase the world of dreams, but in moments like this he wondered about the trick of substitution that made it feel as though the dreams were chasing him instead. The clink and rattle of the die against his empty wineglass interrupted his reverie as he fumbled the French drop; his reflexes took over and he caught the die before it could fall to the floor and roll all the way to the front of the First Class compartment. He rolled the die around in the palm of his hand again, and then sighed quietly. Leaning back in his seat, he shut his eyes and hoped that he had finally become tired enough to fall asleep without too much of a struggle this time.

Getting to sleep had always been something of an ordeal for Arthur. Behind his closed eyes his mind remained restless and active with an intensity that he found both maddening and ironic. He spent too much of his professional life in a drugged sleep, working his dreams away, but in his private time sleep tended to frustrate and elude him. He would lie awake with his eyes closed, chasing the specter of slumber only to jerk awake as his legs twitched, or sit up wildly with his hand searching his nightstand for a pencil stub and scratch paper as a problem solved itself in that miraculous hypnagogic state between sleeping and waking. This time he distracted himself by recalling the contents of the dossier Saito had given him, clutching the die like a talisman as he waited for his consciousness to slip its moorings again.

 

Arthur made it through Customs at Changi International Airport with little fanfare; to the authorities he was another anonymous business traveler here to make and spend money. Thanks to Saito's legerdemain and the offer of a consultancy he pretty much was an anonymous business traveler. He hauled his rolling suitcase off the carousel and walked on still-wobbly legs toward the sliding glass doors into the Arrival Hall. His garment bag sagged against the cashmere overcoat he had draped over his forearm and the weight of his laptop bag pressed the contents of his trouser pocket painfully against his hip. Everything had been arranged beforehand; he would take a taxicab to the hotel, sleep off his jet lag, and meet Saito's representative tomorrow morning.

"Fancy meeting you here," he heard someone say in a voice and tone that was entirely too familiar to him. Arthur froze in place as he spotted Eames standing in the concourse on the other side of the railing. Eames had had a haircut in the time between the Fischer job and now, and his dark hair stuck out spikily from his scalp. It was a definite improvement, Arthur thought. Unfortunately his dress sense had not improved in the past few months. His jeans were ripped in one knee, and the Smiths t-shirt he wore looked as though it had dated back to before the band had actually broken up. He was holding a small, portable dry-erase board with Arthur's name scrawled loosely on it with black marker, in a hand that looked eerily like his own. It wasn't the name he had been born with, of course, but he had stopped answering to his birth name years ago.

"Eames. What the hell are you doing here?" Arthur hissed over the railing at him. The letters on Eames' t-shirt had started to shimmer in his gaze as his vision blurred from exhaustion. Maybe he was so sleep-deprived that he had started to hallucinate.

"Welcoming you to the Lion City, of course. You might want to move. It appears you're blocking their way," he said, nodding to the travelers caught up behind Arthur who tutted impatiently as they waited for him to start walking again. Arthur took a deep breath and continued walking. He headed out towards the large lettered signs and their promise of a taxi stand.

"Not so fast," Eames said, steering him down an escalator instead. "Saito's minder is down at the car park with our ride out of here."

Arthur waited for his jet-lagged brain to process that statement before he formulated his next question. "If Saito sent a minder to get me then why did he let you do his job?"
"Her, actually, and because I have a way with women. And also, because I told her we were old friends." Eames' smile was just wide enough to make Arthur uncomfortable. The locals' summer-weight attire reminded him of the tropical climate that the air-conditioning in the airport was letting him ignore at the moment; back in New York it was still snowing, twenty-two hours ago and a dozen time zones away. It occurred belatedly to him that winter-weight merino was probably not the best thing to be wearing right on the Equator.

"Working together doesn't make us friends. I don't want to be friends," he said. After he had stepped off the escalator he switched his suitcase and coat to his other hand and made an attempt at shrugging his rumpled suit jacket off his right arm.

"You wound me, darling," Eames took Arthur's coat and his laptop bag in a gesture that surprised him. "Maybe you'll have better luck with her. You like your women slender and dark, don't you?"

"What I like is none of your business," Arthur sighed, trying to swallow a yawn and knowing that he had lost the exchange this time round.

 

The heat in the parking level hit Arthur like a soft, meaty fist driven into his solar plexus, the air humid enough that it was difficult to breathe. Eames steered him towards a white Benz, conspicuous among the other vehicles parked there. Too many of the other cars were tiny, Japanese or Korean, vehicle makes he wasn't familiar with. The steering wheels were all on the wrong side. He spent the next moment feeling deeply, wildly baffled before his brain made the connection.

"Oh, right. They drive on the left here, like the British," he said, realizing just how stupid he sounded just after he said it.

"Like us, yes," Eames said as they walked around the back of the car.

"A former British colony, in fact," he heard a woman say, "Like America." Saito's minder was leaning against the drivers' side door, her arms crossed over the front of her severe white blouse. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Arthur. I'm Janine Lee. Mr. Saito has asked me to make sure your stay's a pleasant and comfortable one." She was short and slim and Chinese, her deep whisky voice oddly mismatched with her frame.

"I'll open the boot if you'll get his suitcase, Mr. Eames," she said, opening the door and climbing in. The black pencil skirt she was wearing slid up her thigh and it took Arthur a moment to realize that he was tired enough to be staring in an obvious manner. If she had noticed him staring she was also very good at pretending not to notice, and he slid wearily into the back seat, his garment bag rustling loudly as he dropped it on the empty seat beside him. Eames climbed in the car a few short minutes later, sliding next to Arthur in the back seat with a knowing smile, crushing his garment bag between them. "Well. Now that we're all here, Miss Lee," catching her eye in the rear-view mirror. She nodded and turned the key in the ignition, pulling the car out of the parking garage.

 

They had been driving down the expressway at sixty kilometers a second – ridiculously slow by Arthur's American standards – when Lee started to talk. The sky was ridiculously blue and the sun seemed like a bright neon contrast to the leaden winter sky Arthur had left behind in New York.

"Firstly, Mr. Saito told me that you were not expecting Mr. Eames to be here," she said, "and that you had been briefed on this job being an anti-extraction. Unfortunately, circumstances changed while you were somewhere between JFK and Narita airports." Her accent was a smooth blend of English vowel enunciation and Chinese consonants; similar to that of the other locals he'd heard talking on his way out of the airport.

"If that's the case, how did you get him here before me?" Arthur asked, his eyes narrowing. He reached again for the die in his pocket. Exhaustion came and went, but the reflex never really left him.

"I was in Indonesia, catching a little sun and surf in Bali," Eames said. He was sitting a little too close to, and leaning a little too much into Arthur. He was never very good at respecting anyone's personal space.

"Right. And you expect me to believe that," Arthur muttered, shifting in his seat just enough to jab Eames in the flank with an elbow.

"Always such a doubter, Arthur," Eames said, shifting away from the jab and giving him a precious inch of space. "I could show you my sunburn to prove it, if you wanted."

"I assume you've read the dossier, Mr. Arthur?" Lee asks, all business, staring up at them in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were so dark they might almost have been black, and God only knew what she thought of Eames' flagrant attempts at flirting.

"Kojiro Hanamura, chief operations officer for Ishinomori Incorporated, one of Saito's fronts," Arthur said, dredging the facts up from his blurry memory. "I was asked to help militarize his subconscious."

"Indeed you were. However, Mr. Saito received some interesting intelligence eighteen hours ago that indicates that Hanamura has already been compromised."

"Saito wants us to perform an extraction on Hanamura. Find out how much he's leaked, and who subverted him."

"That explains your presence," Arthur said, giving Eames a pointed look.

"Oh, come on, I still love you even if you didn't bring me anything from Duty Free," Eames said, his expression just too serious to actually be taken seriously.

Arthur glanced at his watch; seventeen minutes past four. Singapore was fortunately currently twelve hours ahead of Eastern, which left him with little mental math to do. "How about Dom? Did Saito call him in, too?"

"Cobb sends his regrets," Eames said, shaking his head. "Also, he wants me to remind you that you owe Phillipa the piggy-back ride that you promised her a month ago."

Arthur's hands shifted upwards from covering a yawn to rub at a forehead that had been aching from tension and weariness. "So, almost like old days," he said, his voice muffled by his hands.

"Almost. Easier, though, and probably less you getting shot in the knee." The garment bag rustled again as Eames yanked it free from between them both, laying it across his lap.

"Cobb told you about that?" Arthur asked before he yawned again, sagging back in the seat. His second wind was leaving him at that very moment, the exhaustion of the twenty-eight hour journey hitting like a sandbag to the forehead.

"Saito, actually," Eames said, catching his eye. "He thought the look on your face was the funniest thing on earth."

"That's rather amusing coming from a man who got shot in the chest," he muttered. The urge to close his eyes and rest for a few minutes was almost unbearable.

"Why don't you take a short nap? I'll wake you when we get to the hotel," Eames said, his expression surprisingly gentle. Arthur pursed his lips for a brief moment, his hand reaching for his totem again. A look passed between them and hung in the air for a tense second before he made a conscious decision to discard the gesture.

 

The short nap, a long, hot shower and a change of clothes went a long way towards putting Arthur's head back together. Now he felt less like his head had exploded somewhere over the Atlantic, and more like the pieces of his mind had been crudely reassembled and were now held together with wet toilet paper. There were times in his life when he missed military coffee (the kind with roughly three times the caffeine of the normal stuff), and this was shaping up to be one of them. There was only really one way to deal with jet lag, and it involved staying awake until bedtime, local time, and just gutting it through until one's circadian rhythm finally picked itself up from the hideous abuse it had taken.

Arthur set his razor back down on the bathroom counter and splashed his face with cold water again. He had used some of the steam from his hot shower to work some of the worst wrinkles out of the Burberry he had worn on the flight here, in case he had to wear it again before it could be cleaned properly. Not that he seriously expected to have to wear a winter-weight suit in a tropical country; everyone seemed to dress more casually here simply because of the brutal heat and humidity. He just liked being prepared.
He had just finished pulling on a pair of summer-weight trousers when he heard a gentle, hesitant knock at the door of his suite. Quickly he tugged an undershirt over his head before he crossed to the door and stared through the peephole. Lee was standing in the hallway outside, her face more animated than before. Eames stood beside her, his hands gesturing as they talked. Already Eames was turning on the charm, he thought, letting out a long, weary sigh before he pulled back on the latch and let them in.

"I just thought you should know," Eames said as the door shut behind him, "that you take longer to get dressed than my last girlfriend did."

"What's the plan?" Arthur asked, pointedly ignoring Eames' zinger.

"First, here's the phone you'll be using while you're here. It's been cloned off of a dummy account. We use a GSM network here, which makes that easier. All the numbers you need have been pre-programmed. It's been hacked to not trace incoming or outgoing calls and the only people who have this number are us," Lee said, handing a sleek little cellular phone over to him. "I can brief you now, but I thought it should really happen after you've had a chance to sleep. If you're up for it we could go get some dinner."

"If I sleep now I'm going to be awake at three in the morning," Arthur said as he checked the number listings. He pocketed the cellphone and reached into the suitcase on his bed for a shirt. "Dinner would be fine with me." He settled on one and then put it on, running his hands down the placket front and then fastening the buttons from the bottom up.

"Good. Eating's one of the national obsessions," she said with a quick smile, "Not that we have much else to do here."

 

Lee got them all chicken rice for dinner. The place didn't look like much; a few little food stalls set in an old shophouse façade, with plastic chairs and folding tables for the diners. This place reminded him of the little hole-in-the-wall barbeque places out in the Carolinas, where they did only one thing, but did it really well. A small knot of loud old men sat around a wall-mounted television watching soccer – what the locals would have called football – and a ceiling fan rattled softly overhead. The heat was, at least, becoming more bearable as the sun started going down in the sky. Whole cooked chickens, heads and all, were hanging from iron hooks in a rack in one of the little stalls, something that made him think, oddly enough, of A Christmas Story.

"I know this isn't the French Laundry or anything like it, but I personally think it's the best damn chicken rice in the country," Lee said, a little defensively, after she had made their orders. "Besides," she continued, her voice dropping as she did, "It's almost impossible to eavesdrop on a quiet conversation in a place like this, and I thought that might be helpful."
Their dinner arrived shortly after they had made their drinks order; three plates of mounded white rice with slivers of cucumber and chicken on the sides. It looked a little boring – white chicken on white rice – but tasted amazing. The rice was soft and pillowy, each grain infused with hints of chicken and ginger and something aromatic like coconut, but wasn't quite.

"I think this is almost as good as the last time I went to the French Laundry," Arthur said after a long silence had fallen over their table, punctuated only by the sounds of eating. The chicken came with a tiny dish of brilliantly red sauce that turned out to be minced chili peppers spiked with garlic and more ginger. Sweat ran down his brow, and he swiped at his face with a hand before his eyes started stinging.

"The price tag's a definite improvement, don't you think?" Eames said, leaning back in his chair as he clutched a longneck of the local beer. The only remnants of his dinner were a few wayward chicken bones and some broken crumbs of rice stuck to his spoon. "That was three SGD a plate, which makes it… a quid and change per head."

"That's a quid and change per head that Mr. Saito is playing for. But your point about the pricing is taken." Lee was driving and she had declined the beer, drinking from a can of soda instead. Near them some of the old men roared and shouted as someone scored a goal.

"I'm really not in any kind of shape to think much right now," Arthur murmured after wiping at his face and mouth with a tissue, "but you said you were going to brief us. Considering the change in circumstances I think it'd be good if we talked about this."

"Mr. Saito has acquired some intelligence that suggests that Hanamura has leaked some data that only the both of them are privy to. The specifics of the leak are uncertain and Mr. Saito does not want to show his hand by committing himself to an investigation of the leak. Everything about Hanamura's profile and behavior suggests he's completely loyal to the company. He sees the work he does at the corporation as his legacy. He's well compensated, so bribery very likely isn't the reason why. No gambling habits, no unexpected debts. He's sitting on a comfortable retirement fund right now."

"So we can scratch out Money and Ideology," Arthur said, counting out the potential motivations on his fingers. "What about Compromise and Ego?"

"Mr. Saito has had private investigators keeping an eye on Hanamura, and his behavior hasn't changed. We have no reason to believe he is currently being blackmailed or coerced. He's a boring man," Lee said, "He has a mistress, but it's an open secret. He and his wife are divorced, anyway."

"What do you think about this case?" Eames asked, "You've been on this longer than we have, you must have some kind of opinion about it." He had finished his beer and was beckoning for another. Beads of condensation from the outside of the bottle had left a little puddle on the scratched plastic of the folding table.

"I can't say that I've been working this one longer than you have. Mr. Saito has security making sure that nobody tries to make a grab on Hanamura before you train him. My job is to coordinate what you're doing and make sure you have what you need on the local end. It hasn't changed with your assignment changing." Lee said, "If you ask me, though, I think either Hanamura has no idea that he's been compromised, or that whoever has compromised him is using him as bait. There's no other explanation for why he isn't covering his tracks." She drummed her fingertips impatiently on the tabletop before finishing her soft drink.

There was another lull of silence as two young men came in the coffee shop and sat down at a table near theirs. They wore plaster-stained clothes and one clutched a folded Chinese newspaper in his hand. They looked like construction workers sitting down for a quick dinner, but Arthur watched them, anyway. He had learned, a long time ago, to do a quick visual assessment through his peripheral vision.

"What are they saying?" Eames asked, as the men started talking loudly enough to be heard even over the television and the clink of beer glasses. Arthur recognized the language as Cantonese but did not understand it enough to make out what they were saying.

Lee listened intently for a moment, and then covered her mouth with a hand as she laughed, her chuckle soft, low and almost inaudible in the background noise. "They're complaining that your presence probably means the stallholder is going to jack up his prices soon. They think you're tourists here for the casino resort."

"Half right, I suppose. I wouldn't mind a go at the tables, myself," Eames said. Somehow he had made a casino chip appear in his hand, out of nowhere. He rolled it slowly between his fingers, before making it vanish again.

Arthur watched the coin trick with a kind of weary fascination. Intellectually he knew how such tricks worked; he had even made an attempt to learn them himself, but Eames' hands were like a conjurer's, surprisingly graceful despite their size. "I wouldn't if I were you," he said at last, "They're pretty strict about cheating over here."

"I would never cheat." Eames sounded indignant at what Arthur had just said, enough so to be fairly convincing. "That loaded die business is more your kind of thing."

"I don't carry it because I gamble," Arthur said wearily, "I carry that thing to remind myself that games of chance are always rigged in someone's favor."

"You don't like taking any chances, do you?" Eames asked softly, dropping his arch smile for a moment, his expression surprisingly serious and sober.

"Never," Arthur said, looking away as he did so, refusing to meet Eames' gaze.

 

The drive back to the hotel seemed to blur into a hallucination of city lights and darkening sky as Arthur sat in the back seat of the Benz, drifting in that drowsy, liminal state between sleep and wakefulness that came from utter exhaustion. The movement lulled him, and he had started to lose track of his whereabouts when he felt a soft tickle of breath against his ear. The sensation jolted him awake with a start.

"Wake up, pet. We're here." Eames was leaning over him from the open passenger side door, shaking him with surprising gentleness. "I told you he was asleep," he said to Lee with a grin as he turned to face her. "I think we should get our Sleeping Beauty to bed before the rose-bushes grow up around us."

Arthur wanted to say something to that, a pointed rejoinder of some sort, but a yawn overtook him, squeezing tears out of his eyes even as he tried to swallow it. Lee walked him back up to his room despite his protestations that he could find his own way back up. The worried look on her face told him that he probably looked like hell, which was how he felt. As he stepped out of the elevator into the landing he heard Eames putting on the charm as he talked to the handler. "We should probably let Arthur sleep off his jet lag," he had said, "How would you like to have a drink before you go, you and me?" It figured that Eames would taunt him like that, knowing how much Lee was his type, and then attempt to seduce her himself.

"I don't think so, Eames," she said, dropping the formality with a faint smile on her face. She glanced at the watch on her wrist, and then looked back up at the both of them. "I have to go. Need to relieve the day-shift nurse. See you both tomorrow," she said, leaving without further explanation. The elevator dinged softly as the doors slid shut.

Arthur shook his head as Eames watched her go. "You know that she's probably going to tell Saito that you're trying to pick her up, right?"

"It was worth a try," Eames said as a knowing smirk spread across his face.

Arthur stopped trying to feed his keycard in the lock on his room door and stared hard at him. "Ariadne told you about that," he managed to say after his brain finally processed the thought through a fog of drowsiness.

"I told you I have a way with women." Eames was standing beside him, close enough that he could catch a hint of aftershave and clean sweat and the bitter, floral notes of hopped beer. "Men too," he said, almost as an afterthought. His smirk grew wider, blossoming into a mischievous smile. Arthur felt his heart skip a beat through the fog of exhaustion and then took a deep breath that filled his head with light.

"Good night, Eames," he said flatly, before he took a step back into his room and shut the door in his face. Arthur sat down on his bed and took a few slow moments to calm down before he took his shoes off. His tension headache had returned, and he wanted sleep more than anything else in the world. His pulse was still racing, and as he undressed and climbed into bed he admitted to himself that he wasn't quite sure if what he had felt then had been anger.

 

Arthur started planning in earnest at eight the next morning, over a room service breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. He wasn't completely over the jet lag yet; he had woken up twice in the middle of the night, once with a sudden sense of falling like a kick delivered too soon, and the second with a stab of loneliness and frustration so intense that he had felt his teeth buzzing like a pane of window glass resonating to a train whistle. Fortunately he had managed to deal with his stray thoughts in the indeterminate time between when he crawled out of bed and when he had ordered his breakfast from room service, and now he was all business.

Most extractors tended to be well-connected individuals; it came with the job description. Arthur found himself working with a geographical blind spot in Singapore. Most of his contacts were spread across the US and Europe, with a significant number in Tokyo and Taiwan. Southeast Asia was not a place he had operated extensively in at all. This meant a certain paucity of sources for the background checks and research he did on their mark when he was point.

He sat at the desk in his room fuelling his concentration with cup after cup of black coffee, going over the dossier that Saito had sent him in New York. His Moleskine notebook sat within reach of his hand, filled with his own observations. A series of phone calls to contacts in Taiwan and Japan had also given him a few local phone numbers to try.
"I think Lee might be right," he told Eames as he let him into his hotel room somewhere around nine, after he had spent nearly an hour spent obsessively reading and re-reading the file. Arthur made sure the door was properly shut before he spoke again. "I don't think Hanamura knows he's been compromised."

Eames nodded and helped himself to a cup of coffee. "I'd trust her instincts if I were you. She used to work the local extraction scene. Ran into her once while I was working in Hong Kong."

That brought Arthur up short. "If she's an extractor, then why did Saito hire us for this?"

"That would be because she doesn't do this any more. She quit years ago, but the reason she quit isn't something I'm privy to," Eames looked around for a place to sit, ignoring the couch and armchair before he lowered himself onto the bed with a faint creak of bedsprings. "You made your own bed," he said, the tone of his voice vaguely impressed and incredulous at the same time, "Do you not know that they have housekeeping for this?"

Arthur pointedly ignored him, staring instead at the Hanamura dossier. He had laid the papers out on the desk and was standing so he could look down at the pages as a whole.
There was a jingling sound as Eames stood up, reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a handful of change. "What are you doing?" Arthur asked, turning to stare at him.

"I think I could bounce a coin off of this." Eames put the coffee cup down on the nightstand and sorted through the change in the palm of his hand, picking out a Singaporean fifty-cent coin – a coin close in size to an American quarter.

"It won't work," Arthur said, fighting the irrational urge to smile.

"And how do you know that?" Eames flipped the coin onto the middle of the bed, where it landed with a faint thud on top of the quilted comforter. The look of disappointment on his face made Arthur start to explain, despite himself.

"You can't bounce a quarter off a bed if there's a comforter on top," he said, his hands in his pockets, fingertips brushing against the loaded die, "It has to be just a blanket and sheets because the batting is too soft otherwise."

"So it is," Eames said. He collected his cup of coffee and sat back down, making no move to pick up the coin he had attempted to bounce off the sheets.

"Aren't you going to take that back?" Arthur asked, glancing at the coin glinting dully in the middle of his bed.

"Keep the change," Eames said, with a slow, dirty smile, his eyes alight with mischief. Arthur took a deep breath and turned back to his papers, his mouth suddenly dry, hoping that he could get this job done before Eames actually managed to drive him fully insane.

 

Lee showed up to collect them some time around eleven. This time she was dressed even more casually than Eames was, in faded, ratty jeans and an oversized t-shirt. She drove them to what would become their headquarters in some rented office space in the buildings around a shopping arcade within walking distance from their hotel. The office was private, anonymous, the rooms themselves accessible only by authorized keycard. The offices were hushed and empty, the carpet marked by the footprints of desks and cubicles that had moved out with its former occupants some time ago. Several metal-framed lawn chairs sat near the pale curve of carpet that marked where the receptionist's desk had once been.

"Secure warehouse space is a little hard to come by here," Lee said as she let them in. "In any event, I thought you'd prefer somewhere that was air-conditioned."

"Thanks," Arthur said as he looked around the empty rooms, looking for a place where he could sit and think and read. In the end he set himself up in what once had been a conference room, pinning his notes to the wall to keep track of the data they had already collected. Additions and corrections written on color-coded sticky notes fluttered like feathers in the constant draft from the air-conditioning system.

"I know this is probably a little early to ask," Lee said, looking in at him from the doorway as he organized his workspace, "but have you got any ideas?"

"Actually, yes," he said, "I do."

 

Eames had stretched himself out full-length on one of the lawn chairs, his lips moving soundlessly as he read one of the dossiers to himself again. "What is it?" he asked as he saw Arthur come in, spreading the folder out over his lap. "The look on your face tells me you have an idea."

"I'm going to proceed as we usually do on an extraction." Arthur said as he grabbed an office chair to sit in. It was so new it still had plastic wrap stretched over the seat cushion, and it crinkled as he sat down in it. "Right now I'm shaking down my contacts to see if I can get the information I need, but Southeast Asia isn't my usual area of operations and I don't have the network I usually have in this case."

"That's what Saito hired me for. I know you always take point, but I can help you with the legwork and introduce you to some of my contacts." Lee said, leaning against the wall by Eames' seat. One of her shoelaces was undone, but it didn't seem like she had noticed.

"That would be helpful, thanks," Arthur said, glancing down at the notes he had jotted down in his black Moleskine notebook, the letters printed rather than handwritten. "Tomorrow, a new executive is going to transfer into Hanamura's office."

"And that new executive would be…" Lee glanced at Eames, and then at Arthur, raising an eyebrow.

"Me." The word was drawn out into a grunt as Eames stretched his arms upwards, his fingers locked and t-shirt riding up to expose a sliver of hip still flushed with mild sunburn. A tattoo writhed across the surface of his skin and vanished beneath the hem of his t-shirt and the waistband of his jeans.

"You," Arthur said. He found himself looking down then, picking at the lint on the fabric of his trousers. "And you get to observe his co-workers closely in case you need to forge their likenesses. Meanwhile, Lee and I get as much intel as we can about him."

"Unimaginative but reliable. I like it." Something about the way Eames had said it made Arthur think that he had been talking about more than just the plan.

"I'll make the call," Lee said, pulling out her own cellphone. There was a small glittery charm hanging from it, something pink and girlish and completely at odds with her businesslike demeanor.

"You do realize what this means, though," Eames said, glancing at Arthur, his expression gently mischievous.

"What?" Arthur asked, taking the bait out of curiosity.

"I am going to have to go clothes shopping today." Eames started to climb out of the lawn chair, levering himself up on one elbow before swinging his feet from the footrest onto the floor. Lee smiled that faint smile again, and then tossed him the keys to the Benz, which he caught in his hand.

"Company car," she said. "Just don't wreck it and we should be fine."

Eames stood up, bowed gallantly in reply and then left the office, the door clicking quietly shut behind him.

 

Lee borrowed another car – an Audi – from Saito's front company and took Arthur on a short trip out of the office, ostensibly to buy some office supplies. She took several detours on the way back, and introduced Arthur to a few of the people she had worked with three years ago. Money exchanged hands on two of the five meetings; crisp bills that looked like Monopoly money to Arthur's American eyes. The first contact worked as a private eye; he spent most of his time chasing down cheating husbands until something more interesting came along. The second was a young man who sold pirated videogames and VCDs off a folding table in a hawker center; the police were serious enough that the local triad presence tended towards lower-key activities like this. Two more of the meetings were impersonal business introductions, one to a hacker who worked out of the back room of a print shop that catered to the business-card market, and the other to an information broker who spent most of her time doing legitimate patent research. The last was a visit to a private residence in a densely-packed suburb full of little duplex houses, to a retiree whose former profession was purposefully left unclear in the little conversation. He offered them sweet, fragrant tea, and recommended that they go to the nearby hawker center for oyster omelettes, which they did.

Lee dropped him off at the offices some time around four-thirty and left to do whatever else she did for Saito here in Singapore. This left Arthur alone in the office to plan the labyrinth that they would need for the eventual extraction, and he worked oblivious to the lengthening shadows or the changing colors of the sky. Ariadne was a true savant with dream-architecture, but Arthur had, some time in the past, been trained enough to pinch-hit as an architect from time to time. He wasn't as gifted a draftsman or designer as she was, but he made up for that with obsessive attention to detail and an ability to concentrate that bordered on hyperfocus. He had left his laptop powered on from the brief interlude where he had he trawled the Internet for photo references of places closely connected to Hanamura's life. One of the other folders on the desk contained photographs of other locations, private places one would not find through a search engine. He didn't need the specificity of those images this early in the design process, but he liked having them committed to his visual memory, fodder for one of those predawn hypnagogic bursts of inspiration.

Arthur wasn't sure what time it was when the card-lock in the door beeped, once, cheerfully informing him that someone was coming in. He looked up, only to remember belatedly that he didn't have a view to the reception area from the conference room he was working in. A quick glance at his watch told him that it was past seven. A look out the window through the blinds confirmed it. The tropical sky had started to turn a deep purple-blue, the faintest corona of pink and gold lingering in the horizon. He heard the latch of the door click shut and the faintest hint of a heavy tread muffled by the pile of the carpet. As though on cue, Eames stuck his head through the doorway of Arthur's improvised studio.

"I knew I'd find you here," he said, stepping through the doorway.

"You could have called me," Arthur said, putting his pencil down. His hand was stiff from the non-stop drawing, the muscles at the base of his thumb threatening to cramp. The skin on the outside edge of his hand and on the curl of his pinky was smudged with graphite that he had picked up off his preparatory sketches. He cracked his knuckles in an attempt to relieve the tension in his hand and wrist.

"I didn't have to, to know where you were." Eames leaned over the layout Arthur was working on, studying it with some interest. "Once you get started on a job you don't stop. Have you even remembered to get something to eat?"

"You are not my mother, Eames," Arthur said. He stood up at his desk, neck and shoulders sore from the way he had sat half-hunched over his work.

"I could be her if you want." Eames' offer was made in a mock-innocent tone of voice, his facial expression at once cherubic and obscene and silly.

"No thank you." Arthur worked the stiffness out of his shoulders as they left the office, taking careful inventory of his aches and discomfort. He felt thirst, but little actual hunger. "I don't know why," he said, "but I just haven't been very hungry."

"It's the bloody heat. Kills your appetite," Eames said, as they waited for the elevator. "We should go somewhere cooler, and I know just the place."

 

Eames was still driving the Benz that Lee had lent him, and when Arthur opened the door to climb in the passenger seat he noticed that the back seat of the car was full of shopping bags. He picked out Dunhill, Armani and Zegna from glimpses in the rear-view mirror. The thought of Eames in any of those designers was at once subtly cognitively dissonant and very appealing.

"I've almost forgotten how much I like it here. In small doses, of course," Eames said from the driver's seat as Arthur pulled his seatbelt on.

"I didn't think you'd ever like a country this conservative." It still felt subtly wrong to be a passenger sitting in the left side of the car.

"Oh, it isn't all bad," Eames said. "The food is good, the people are pretty and the shopping is absolutely killer. The government takes security very seriously, though, and sneaking across the straits to Malaysia for exfil is a bit of a pain in the arse."

"Dare I ask?" Arthur shot him a glance.

"Oh, it was nothing," he said, a little too lightly and innocently, "A little bit of nothing during the last ASEAN summit they held here."

"Did that nothing, perchance, have anything to do with how key members of the Burmese delegation left early on account of unspecified illness?" Arthur asked.

"No comment." Eames chose that moment to whistle a tune that Arthur did not recognize, cutting off further conversation. Arthur smiled quietly to himself. He'd not expected any kind of answer when he had asked that question. It was an unspoken truism of the extraction scene that most of the real experts had military or intelligence backgrounds simply because of how the tech had been developed and tested in the first place.

The whistling stopped two bars into the song as the car slowed to a stop at a red light. "You should do that more often, you know," Arthur turned away from the passenger side window to find Eames looking at him, his gaze opaque and intent.

"You mean I should ask you more interesting questions about clandestine activities you may or may not have undertaken in the recent past?"

"No, you idiot," Eames said affectionately, "Smile. Although I wouldn't mind answering other kinds of questions." The sly grin and the sidelong glance made it plain the kinds of questions that Arthur had no intention at all of asking.

 

The place Eames had in mind happened to be a very upscale Indian restaurant in a mall right by the Singapore River. He had no trouble finding his way over to Clarke Quay, but parking was another matter entirely. They eventually found parking space at a shopping center not far from the quay itself, and walked the rest of the way. A welcome breeze came off the water's surface as they crossed a bridge spanning the river. The ambient temperature still wasn't what Arthur would have called cool, but he felt his appetite start to stir as the wind whipped the end of his tie around.

"I'd call this place touristy," Eames said, "except most of the country's history is like this. Old British Raj-type architecture and neon lights side by side." Like Eames, Arthur thought, although he did not say it. They stood together at the quayside for a few minutes, appreciating the pleasing effects of light bouncing off the water. The air possessed a green muddy note of scent from the river water that wasn't actually unpleasant.

"We should go," Eames said after Arthur had started to turn away from the river. "I made reservations and I don't want to be late."

"You made reservations." Arthur raised an eyebrow at that, hoping that Eames didn't think this meant that they were dating.

"Come on, if we're late they'll have us wait around until they can put us somewhere, and I don't want to wait any more for my dinner."

They showed up ten minutes late for their reservation, but Eames' fears about having to wait were unfounded. A waiter seated them at a table near the bar shortly after he had confirmed their seating. Arthur pored over the menu and the wine list before finally settling on lager instead, uncertain on how the Australian Gewürztraminer he had had an eye on would actually stand up to the lamb he had ordered.

They ate for the most part in silence; Arthur had forgotten how hungry he had been while distracted by work and now his appetite had returned with a vengeance. He was halfway through his second beer when he decided to ask Eames a question that had been nagging him since the conclusion of the Fischer job.

"Why do you keep flirting with me?" he asked at last, having pondered the question over a long sip of lager. "You do it every time we work together."

Eames took a few slow bites of his curried chicken before he spoke again. "Because, believe it or not, Arthur, you're a very good-looking man and I fancy you." His tone of voice was flippant, but the look on his face was utterly serious, with an intensity that was oddly touching.

"I'm flattered, I really am," Arthur said after a few minutes of silence, looking down at the scraps left on his plate. "It's not that I'm not attracted to you or that I've never been attracted to men, but –"

"But?" Eames said, before he could continue.

"I don't sleep with anyone I work with," Arthur said, firmly, with all the authority he could muster, which was a lot. "It complicates things."

Eames nodded then, once, his eyes hooded, a sort of understanding in his face, and something else that Arthur wasn't entirely sure of.

"You don't have to worry about getting drunk in front of me," he said after a sip of iced water. "I wouldn't take advantage of you like that." Eames smiled wryly, but the expression faded into seriousness. "Really. I'm not offended. You said no, and I'll respect it."

"Thank you," Arthur said.

 

"You know, I was wrong about this," Eames said a short time afterwards, the words slow and thoughtful. They had left the restaurant and were now sitting on a bench by the riverside watching the neon light dance off the water.

"What about?" Arthur reached up and loosened the knot of his necktie very slightly, and then undid the button on his shirt collar. A stiff breeze came off the water's surface then, and his eyes stung with something that could have been dryness or fatigue.

"That this job would be like the old days. It isn't the same. Not even almost." Eames was sprawled almost full-length on his half of the park bench, his legs stretched out in front of him, as if at rest.

"No. No it isn't." Arthur stood up and crossed the short distance to the riverside, leaning heavily on the railing as he watched the tourist boats go by. The wind felt surprisingly good in all its intensity, the tortured heat of the day dissipating at last. The pavement was still radiating warmth back up at him as though the ground could not forget the sun's fever. "It hasn't been the same since Cobb retired."

"I suppose we should be happy for him," Eames ventured. The bench creaked softly beneath him as he got up to join Arthur at the railing.

"I should, but it just isn't the same without him doing all the things he told me not to." Arthur couldn't help smiling ruefully when he said that. It was funny how much he missed what had formerly driven him nearly mad with frustration.

"You sound almost as though he jilted you at the altar."

"Our relationship isn't like that," Arthur said, stifling a low chuckle at the absurd mental image that popped into his head, of Cobb as a runaway bride. "Dom's just my best and oldest friend, and now that he's moved on I'm not sure what I'm going to do."

"Time to make some new friends, maybe." Eames caught Arthur's eye, his gaze uncharacteristically frank and open. They stood staring at the river for a few seconds after the moment evaporated. "I think we should head back to the hotel," Eames said after that companionable silence. "I have to be at work early tomorrow."

 

Housekeeping had been in during the time Arthur was gone, and the room had been tidied, the sheets changed. Something glinted faintly from the dark wood of the desk in his room, and as he got closer to investigate he realized what it was. The chambermaid had found the fifty-cent coin Eames had left behind on the bed after the failed coin-bounce that morning and left it on the desk where he could find it. Arthur smiled quietly to himself as he picked it up and then flipped it, catching it on the back of his hand. The embossed crest of the country's seal glimmered faintly against his flesh as the coin came up heads. He flipped it into the air again, catching it this time without looking, and then put it down on the dresser with a wry smile.

Arthur crawled into bed after a quick, tepid shower. The moisture still in his hair soaked into the pillowcase as he lay down but he was beyond caring; the cool water had done nothing to combat the jet lag he was still struggling with, and that in combination with the intense concentration of the day's planning had left his brain feeling weak and rubbery, as though it had done a ten-mile run. Sleep evaded him for a time, as usual, but the exhaustion and jet lag left him with a strange, pleasant sense of drifting similar to the one he sometimes felt if he had been swimming laps before bedtime.

He lay awake for two and a half hours before he actually dozed off this time, his sleep full of blood and burnt gunpowder and yellow crime scene tape, imagined camera flashes blooming behind his eyes like summer lightning storms. He twitched awake with a gasp at the memory of a sob on the phone and a pop on the other end like a bottle rocket. He had this dream once every few months and even his training as a lucid dreamer did not help him with the blend of grief and horrified fascination that held him in the psychic prop wash of those memories. Unlike Cobb he could still dream unassisted, but the times the nightmare recurred made him envy Dom for the blankness of his sleep. It took him more than two hours to fall asleep again, his mind uneasy and fearful of the other phantoms lurking in his subconscious.