Later, Cesc would never quite believe how it all started.
All he'd been thinking of, hurrying back from his last lecture, was how much packing he had to do before returning home to Barcelona in two days. He wasn't expecting to turn onto the rundown little street where he rented a room and see what appeared to be the entire population of his building milling around in front of it. He wasn't expecting the two vans emblazoned with a garish "Abramovich Gas & Electric" logo, or the stocky man in blue coverall standing on the front step with a forbidding expression.
And he definitely wasn't expecting to see his tiny, white-haired Barcelonan landlady two inches from the man's face, giving him an emphatic piece of her mind.
"Mrs. Riera?" he said, half-disbelievingly, when he'd fought his way to the front of the crowd and put a hand on her shoulder.
Mid-gesticulation, she peered up at him through an ancient pair of glasses, gasped, and immediately latched onto his arm. "Cesc!" she exclaimed. "Cesc, tell this man he must let me inside!"
"What's going on?" he asked, looking from his landlady to the guard dog and back.
The man's eyes moved over Cesc. He said nothing. Mrs. Riera said in Catalan, nearly quivering with outrage, "These pigs made us evacuate the building and no one will tell us why fools, they're a gas company, do they think we are stupid? And Honey is inside all alone and terrified."
Cesc suppressed the face he desperately wanted to make. He liked lapdogs as much as the next guy, but Honey - squeaky, slobbery, completely hairless - was more rat than dog. "That's, um, terrible," he said, without conviction.
"It's an outrage! My poor darling, crying all alone in the dark - " She whirled back to the man and resumed her appeal, forgetting in the process to switch back to English. "Listen to me, you piece of - "
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Cesc interrupted quickly. He put an arm around Mrs. Riera's shoulders. "Come on, let's go talk where it's quieter. You can tell me the whole story." He held his breath. After a minute, Mrs. Riera nodded, and Cesc gently but firmly led her away from steps.
Sorry, he mouthed over his shoulder at the sucker stuck at the entrance. The man watched them go, not a flicker of acknowledgement in his impassive expression.
"Honey - " Mrs. Riera started as soon as they came to a stop, with a wobble in her voice that presaged tears.
"Honey's going to be fine," Cesc said. He lowered his voice. "Listen, we could keep talking with that guy all day and probably get nothing for our trouble except a restraining order. Or..." He paused for effect. "Or, I could slip in from the back and get Honey myself. Quietly. You know."
Mrs. Riera's eyes went wide. Cesc crossed his toes and prayed she wouldn't ask how exactly he was planning to accomplish this.
"Oh, Cesc," she said, "you're such a good boy."
Cesc squirmed. "It's nothing," he said. "Really." She looked on the verge of tears again, so he said, "Okay, I better go now. I'll be right back with Honey, okay?"
She nodded and patted his hand; then, after Cesc cleared his throat, released him from her iron grip.
He drifted away through the crowd toward the edge of the building, where he glanced around and, in what he hoped was an unobtrusive fashion, slipped through the gap between the two identical blocks of flats.
In the alley, the crowd's restless hum was barely audible. Cesc surveyed the back side of the building. There was his window - fifth over, second up. He felt a pleasantly familiar jolt of adrenaline. This, he'd done a million times.
Against the brick wall, directly under his window, stood a rusting metal dumpster. From behind it, Cesc retrieved a long wooden pole that strongly resembled a broom handle in a previous life. He tossed it on top of the dumpster lid and hauled himself up after it. The accompanying clatter echoed hollowly down the alley.
Many nights of practice had made Cesc fairly expert at locating the decaying notch in the wood of the window frame into which he lodged the pole. Oh-so-carefully, he levered it upwards. There was a brief resistance, and the window lurched up in its frame. Cesc permitted himself a silent cheer.
He dropped the pole and bounced lightly on his toes. One short leap and his outstretched hands caught the windowsill; after a moment of scrabbling, his right foot found a toehold against the edge of an uneven brick. He took a deep breath and pulled upward with all his strength. This time his left foot found purchase as he got one elbow hooked on the sill. Another heave; now one arm was all the way over the sill and the other braced against it, and within seconds Cesc was grinning as he wriggled through the window into his room.
Sometimes Cesc felt a little guilty about sneaking around under his landlady's nose, but Mrs. Riera would probably faint dead away in the middle of the kitchen if she knew how late he stayed out. And what she'd do if she knew how he was getting back inside all those nights he told her he was staying over at a friend's place, he didnt want to know. Everyone was happier this way, really.
Even as he got to his feet and dusted his hands off, he could hear a barrage of high-pitched yaps from the hall. The second he opened the door, he was assaulted by a manic hairless cannonball aimed at his shins, wriggling and yelping and doing its best to absorb itself into Cesc's legs.
"Okay, okay," Cesc said, grinning in spite of himself. "I get it, you like me." He crouched down and picked up Honey, who immediately began slobbering all over his hands. "I know. I'm delicious. Come on, let's get going. You owe one, mutt."
As he stood up, he heard a sound that sounded an awful lot like the rattle of a doorknob.
Cesc went still.
The rattle grew louder. Honey yipped. "Shh," Cesc whispered, and, as quietly as he could, moved forward into the hall.
They weren't in a really bad part of the city, but it was no playground, either. Cesc edged up to the entryway and held his breath -
The door swung open and revealed a dark-haired man in a blue coverall bearing the legend ABRAMOVICH G&E.
"Oh," said Cesc, and for just a minute relaxed, before he remembered he wasn't supposed to be there.
The man was perfectly still, except for the movement of his eyes from Cesc to Honey and back again. He didn't speak; it appeared the sight of Cesc had dumbfounded him.
"Um," Cesc said, and cleared his throat. "Ha ha. I just came back in to pick up my landlady's dog... Sorry, I know we're all supposed to be out of here." No reaction. "I totally won't get in your way, I'm just about to leave again. Don't worry, she doesn't bite."
The man still said nothing. Something in his expression made Cesc uneasy.
"Well," Cesc said, awkwardly. "I'll just - be going now. Okay. Bye."
He swiveled on his heel and retreated - with dignity - to his room. He could feel the man's eyes on his back the whole way. Safely inside, he held Honey up at eye level and made a face at her.
"Five whole months of coming and going," he said to a panting tongue, "and now someone catches me. Real smooth. You better hope they don't report me for trespassing in my own room. I'm not getting arrested my last week in London for you."
Honey barked and tried to lick his face.
"Yeah, yeah," he said. "That's what they all say. Okay, we better get a move on."
He heard the door open and close, and then voices too muffled to make out. Wincing, he tucked Honey under one arm and hurried over to the window. With his free hand, he jammed it up further, so that he could sit on the sill without relinquishing his charge.
He leaned over and eyed the distance to the dumpster below. He'd never done the drop with live cargo before.
The voices were getting louder and more agitated. Cesc could hear clearly enough now to tell they weren't speaking English, or Spanish. Or Catalan.
He didn't want to wait around to identify whatever it was. "Ready?" he said to Honey, and without waiting for an answer, eased himself off the windowsill.
He landed feet-first on the dumpster with a massive ringing clatter, weight driving him down into a crouch. He held it for a split second before toppling over, and as his arms instinctively flapped for balance, Honey wriggled free, bounded to the ground, and scurried away down the alley and out of sight.
"Honey!" Cesc shouted helplessly, too late. The only response was a distant yip.
He groaned. "Great. Just great." He hoped she'd run off to follow Mrs. Riera's scent, or she probably would get mistaken for a giant rat and - Cesc didn't want to think about it.
He rolled over on his stomach and leaned over the edge of the dumpster, fishing for the pole. He'd better tell Mrs. Riera about the workers in her apartment, or she'd probably see their footsteps and think it'd been burglars after all. He glanced idly upward. The voices, at least, had stopped, or quieted enough to be inaudible even through the open window.
Just as the thought flitted across his mind, there was a hoarse shout, and then a sudden, eerie silence.
For some reason, Cesc went still. The back of his neck prickled.
Something told him, Get down.
He hesitated -
The blast of force and heat threw Cesc to the concrete before the deafening roar even penetrated his ears. For a moment, his body was empty of both breath and thought; he was a mass of nothing suspended in ringing blackness.
He snapped back to full consciousness as pain exploded in shoulder. Dizzy, he gasped for air and nearly choked at the vise crushing his chest. He couldn't see; there was something heavy pinning him down. His head was throbbing so hard he couldn't think. He coughed, managing a shallow, painful breath, and the throbbing multiplied.
He could hear the crackle of flame, and running footsteps, and shouting in - Spanish? That couldn't be right. Then several sharp cracks that sounded almost like gunshots.
Cesc realized, a split-second later, that they were gunshots.
Then he blacked out.
He came to to the sound of slow, crunching footsteps.
He was lying face down, cheek scraping against the concrete. His shoulder was a blaze of pain. He tried to open his eyes, only to realize they were open, and everything was dark.
Cesc groaned pitifully.
The footsteps came to an abrupt stop.
A light voice said, "Who's there?"
Cesc's tongue, when he tried to move it, was thick and clumsy. He made another indistinct sound.
There was the sound of a breath, sharply indrawn, and then a hollow scraping rattle. Several thuds seemed to echo right above Cesc's head, and he flinched.
"Is someone under there? Can you hear me?"
Cesc licked his lips with a dry tongue. "Yeah," he said. This time, the sound emerged more or less as he intended, if hoarse.
"You're with me, good. Keep talking to me, okay? Are you injured? Can you feel your hands and feet?"
With effort, Cesc flexed first each foot and then each hand. The movement set his shoulder screaming again, and it took him a minute to answer.
"Yeah," he forced out, breathlessly. "Can't... see anything."
"You will in just a minute. I promise. Okay - I need you to hold really still, all right?"
"Sure," Cesc mumbled. It wasn't like he was going anywhere soon.
There was the scraping rattle again and then a rumble of sounds like a building crashing down directly above him. Cesc couldn't help flinching again, which sent a fresh jolt of pain through his shoulder and ribs.
Then the world was suddenly flooded with light. Cesc blinked furiously. For a moment he could see nothing but a blur of color; then, as his vision cleared, it resolved into kaleidoscope of shattered glass and smashed bricks.
"Better?" the voice asked, nearer now. A pair of grey-clad legs knelt in Cesc's field of vision.
"Yeah," Cesc repeated. "Better."
"Good," the voice said. "Sorry, I'm just going to - " A light hand ran over his shoulderblades and the small of his back and then skimmed down each of his sides, briefly pausing at his hips, calves, and ankles. Cesc's head was clearing by the second, enough that he had the hazy impression it was a strange way to check for injury. "Okay. Good. I'm going to turn you over now to check for any further injuries, is that all right?"
"I can do it," Cesc mumbled and, before the mysterious pseudo-EMT could do more than put a hand on his shoulder, made a surge of effort and rolled over on his back.
The white-hot spike of pain that seared through his shoulder took away his breath like a punch to the stomach. An involuntary gasp tore from his throat as tears sprung to his eyes, and the voice, sounding alarmed, said, "Careful!"
Cesc whimpered, and a hand grasped his good arm. "Careful," the voice said again, soothingly, and Cesc slowly forced his breathing even, until he could open his eyes again.
The face looking down at him was surprisingly young and sweet. A student volunteer? High-bridged nose, sharp cheekbones, narrow dark eyes, feathery brown hair - as Cesc's vision focused, he could see the stranger wasn't as young as he'd first looked, and that his white shirt and grey trousers were sharply tailored. Neither a student nor a medic, then; just a helpful passerby with basic knowledge of first aid. Only - Cesc struggled to sit up.
Only he was wearing what Cesc was pretty sure was a shoulder holster. And -
The stranger followed Cesc's gaze down to the deadly little handgun in his grasp.
"Oh," he said. "Yes." He didn't put it away.
Somewhere underneath the conviction that he was about to be arrested, killed, or both, a very small part of Cesc's brain said whoa, awesome.
The stranger's dark eyes were watching him closely. Heart pounding somewhere in the vicinity of his throat, Cesc swallowed dryly and met the man's gaze, willing himself not to look at the gun.
After what seemed like an eternity, the stranger appeared satisfied. He glanced around the alley and sat back on his heels. "How do you feel? What hurts most?"
"Right or left - oh." The stranger winced as he glanced at Cesc's left shoulder. "Okay, look at me again." Cesc did so, and the stranger fished a metal rod the size of a toothpick from his shirt pocket. Suddenly, there was a bright light shining in Cesc's eyes, flicking back and forth, and it was a moment before he realized what was going on.
"'M'not concussed," Cesc muttered, jerking his head feebly away; the stranger said, "But you could have been," and tucked the tiny flashlight away. He glanced around again and said, "All right. Want to try standing?"
With some effort, and more incoherent grunts, after a minute Cesc was wobbling on his feet, one arm braced against the stranger's shoulders. To his surprise, the stranger was at least a few centimeters shorter than he was.
"Okay?" the stranger asked.
"Yeah - ow, fuck - not you, sorry." Cesc gritted his teeth and took a deep breath. "Okay. You can let go now."
"Are you sure?" the stranger said doubtfully.
"Yeah, just - slowly - yeah, like that - " The stranger slowly eased out from under Cesc's arm and Cesc swayed for an alarming minute before catching himself with a hand against - it was the dumpster, or what had been the dumpster.
For the first time, Cesc got a good look at the alley.
The narrow street was littered with a carpet of debris: bricks, broken glass, blackened metal. Small tongues of flame licked alongside what remained of the building. Where Cesc's room had been, a yawning hole gaped out on the street, and all Cesc could see inside was a black, sooty ruin.
"So," said the stranger, without a flicker in the helpful inflection of his voice, "why don't you tell me who you report to?"
Cesc said, intelligently, "Huh?"
The stranger's brows drew together. "You don't think I'm going to kill you, right? We'll make sure you get good medical care. It would really help with that if you answered a few questions."
"Kill me?" said Cesc faintly.
"And besides, you might as well get it over with before my partner shows up. He's sort of - " The stranger paused. "Quick-tempered."
Cesc's mind whirred, to no avail. "I really don't - do you mean, like, what department? Or clubs? I'm only here for a semester."
"What?" said the stranger.
"I'm supposed to go back to Barcelona this weekend." The throbbing spot on Cesc's jaw twinged, and he winced. "My sister's going to kill me when she hears about this."
"A semester?" the stranger repeated, and then, in a higher voice, "Are you a student?"
Cesc nodded. "You can ask my landlady, she's probably out front. If she's okay. Were they okay? All the people out there?"
The stranger's mouth dropped open. "Shit," he breathed, and suddenly a voice all of two feet behind Cesc said, "Fuck, a witness?"
The stranger's eyes widened. "No, wait - "
As Cesc turned, there was a sharp stab of pain at the side of his neck, and then nothing.
Cesc's cocoon was warm and fuzzy. He burrowed into it, away from the hot, distant throbbing that seemed to grow by the minute. Muffled sounds echoed from a long way off, like his ears were stuffed with cotton wool. The throbbing was right next to Cesc's head now; he realized, vaguely, that it was his own shoulder. The sounds grew louder, and finally he surrendered and let himself be dragged back to consciousness.
His whole upper body was on fire. He whimpered and bit down hard on his bottom lip.
"Watch out," a soft, familiar voice said. "Your shoulder was dislocated."
Cesc opened his eyes.
The room was narrow and high-ceilinged, like something out of an old hotel: black and white tiled floor, many-paned windows, whitewashed furniture. The curtains were drawn, and in a rickety chair between Cesc's bed and the door sat the slight stranger from the street. His holster was gone, and though he was looking at Cesc the pen in his hand was poised over an untidy sheaf of paper.
Cesc licked his lips. His voice came out as a hoarse croak. "'Was'?"
The stranger shrugged. "I popped it back while you were sed - unconscious." His expression took on a vaguely guilty cast. "I can't do anything about the cracked ribs, though. Sorry, we couldn't take you to a hospital."
The sight of the destroyed alley came rushing back. Cesc struggled up on one arm. "Was anyone else - hurt?"
"No," the stranger said without hesitation, to Cesc's immense relief. "No one except you."
Cesc nodded, and said a silent little prayer to his grandmother's god.
The stranger set his stack of papers on the floor. "Are you hungry?"
Cesc shook his head and said, "Thirsty."
The stranger got up. "I'll be right back," he said. "There's someone who wants to talk to you about what happened."
The police. Cesc nodded. He'd never been questioned before. Carlota would probably want to hear all about it.
The stranger closed the door behind him. Immediately, a low murmur rose outside the room. Cesc strained to hear, but couldn't make out anything. After a moment, the door opened and Cesc's stranger reentered, holding a thermos.
"Thanks," Cesc said and gratefully gulped down mouthful after mouthful of cool water, heedless of the thermos' metallic tinge
The stranger remained standing. "How are you feeling?"
Cesc shrugged his good shoulder. "Like shit." The stranger's expression did something funny. For some reason, his earlier words came back to Cesc, and suddenly Cesc remembered the sharp pain in his neck just before he'd gone under.
He frowned. "Just now, " he said, "when you were talking about hospitals. You weren't going to say 'sedated', were you?"
The stranger winced. "Um. Yes?" He coughed. "Sorry. My partner got a little carried away. He - does that sometimes."
"Stabs people in the neck?"
The stranger winced again. "No - well, yes. Sometimes. But I meant he gets carried away."
"Oh." Cesc paused to digest this. So he'd been sedated via neck stabbing by a mysterious violence-prone operative who had then transported him to an unknown location, where he was now confined with a man who was familiar with handguns and tended to assume people were gang affiliates.
Cesc was in the middle of thinking he should probably be feeling a lot more nervous when there was a perfunctory knock and the door swung open.
The man who entered the room radiated such sheer magnetic presence that it was a minute before Cesc realized someone else had slouched in behind him, nearly in his shadow. Where the first man moved with all the controlled power and confidence of a big cat, not a thread of his impeccable suit out of place, the shadow projected an aura of simmering belligerence, spiky black hair standing straight up with the force of his glower. A loaded shoulder holster stood out starkly against his plain white t-shirt.
Lion King took the vacant chair. Cesc's stranger and Spiky Hair moved over to take up positions on either side of the door.
Cesc was starting to think this wasn't the police after all.
"So," Lion King said, leaning forward and clasping his hands. "You're Francesc Fbregas."
"Everyone calls me Cesc," said Cesc automatically, and then, "Hey. What?"
"Let me introduce myself," said Lion King. "I'm Lus Figo." He held out a hand for Cesc to shake.
Cesc just stared at him. "How did you know my name?"
In the background, Cesc's stranger was looking guilty again. Lion King - Figo - folded his hands again and said, "We identified you just as we would anyone else."
"Which is what?" Cesc sputtered. "That's an - an invasion of privacy!"
"I could tell you we found an ID card on you if that would make you feel better," Figo suggested.
"No!" said Cesc. "No, it wouldn't! Who are you guys? Who do you work for?"
Cesc's stranger and Spiky Hair exchanged a glance. Figo merely said, "You haven't heard of our organization. Trust me."
"My sister's in journalism," said Cesc, half-challengingly, omitting the fact that Carlota was in fact a journalism student. "Try me."
Figo sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling, then uttered three letters. Cesc frowned. He thought, and thought some more. Try as he might, he couldn't get them to mean anything.
Figo gave a faint smile at Cesc's consternation. "We're headquartered in Brussels," he said. "I'm afraid that's all I can tell you right now."
Cesc said, in a voice pitched considerably higher than usual, "Are you spies?"
Spiky Hair snorted. Figo said, "I would say more along the lines of law enforcement."
"So you're - you're, like, secret agents. You too?" he said, looking at the one who'd rescued him. "You're a secret agent?"
Cesc's stranger started. He looked at Spiky Hair, and then at Figo, who gave him a slight nod. "Um - yes?"
Cesc drew in a breath. "Oh man," he said reverently. "That is so cool."
All three looked taken aback. Then Figo's lips twitched, and Cesc's stranger - Cesc's secret agent! - coughed into his hand. Spiky Hair just rolled his eyes.
"So that's why you couldn't take me to a hospital," Cesc said with dawning realization - not that he minded having his shoulder set by Jason Bourne. "Someone's after you."
There was a short silence.
"Actually," said Figo, "someone's after you."
Who was he talki
"What?" said Cesc blankly. "Me?"
"We're hoping your answers can help us figure out why."
"Cesc," said Figo, "what exactly do you remember from the explosion?"
Cesc realized his mouth was hanging open. He willed himself to close it and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Um... before or after I jumped out the window?"
Cesc's agent had another bout of coughing. One of Figo's eyebrows went up, but all he said was, "Before you jumped out the window. Start at the beginning."
"Um, well - " Cesc scratched his neck slowly. "I got back from class and everyone had been evacuated from our building. But Honey - my landlady's dog - got left inside, and my landlady was really upset. The guy at the front door wouldn't let her back inside and she was about to cry and everything, so - "
Figo interrupted him. "At the front door? Someone from the gas company?" Cesc nodded. "Did you talk to him? Or did he see you?"
Cesc thought. "Uh - just for a second, I think? My landlady was talking to him when I found her. Why?"
"Silva, notes," Figo said without taking his eyes from Cesc, and at the door Cesc's agent - Silva? Was that his name? - checked three pockets before producing a slim electronic device, which he promptly flipped open. "Keep going," Figo said to Cesc. "I'll explain when you're done."
"Uh - right, so I said I'd go in from the back and get Honey. So I - " Cesc paused, " - got in through my window..."
He trailed off, and Figo said, deadpan, "You've had practice."
Cesc fidgeted. "A little, yeah."
Figo somehow managed to give the impression of amusement without actually moving any facial muscles. All he said was, "Then once you got inside...?"
"I got Honey and just as we were about to go, one of the gas company guys came in."
Figo only leaned forward slightly, but his gaze somehow doubled in intensity. "And he saw you there?" At Cesc's nod, "Can you describe him?"
"Sure," Cesc started to say, "he - "
He stopped. That was funny. Cesc had seen the man perfectly clearly, and he was - he was -
Figo sighed. "Don't feel too bad," he said, as Cesc's mouth opened and closed like a fish. "Most witnesses can't describe a suspect with more than thirty percent accuracy, anyways."
"But he was two feet away, I can remember everything else, I just - " Cesc stopped, one arm flung out. "What do you mean, a suspect? What did he do?"
Figo ignored the question. "Did this man approach you?"
"No," Cesc said. "It was creepy. He didn't say anything, he didn't even move, just watched me leave again."
"He was expecting someone else," Spiky Hair said. His voice was, surprisingly, not deep. Cesc started, but couldn't help asking, "Who?"
"Us," Spiky Hair said, in a voice clearly meant to intimidate, and Cesc realized that - of course - he was the mysterious neck-stabbing partner.
Figo resumed his questioning before Cesc could bring that up. "You left the same way you came in?"
"Yeah. Oh, wait - someone else came in, but I didn't see him, I just heard them talking in the other room. Then I got out the window, and..." Cesc frowned. "There was a shout, or something. And then, boom. Next thing I knew I was on the ground and he - " a nod in the direction of the door, " - was there."
"Silva? Does that sound right to you?"
"Hm?" Cesc's agent, furiously tapping at his little device, jerked his head up. His bangs flopped in his eyes. "Oh. Yes. He was under the dumpster lid - it protected him from the worst of the debris."
So that explained it. Cesc spared a grateful thought for his luck before pressing on. "But I still don't understand," he said. "You said someone was 'after me'. What do you mean, after? What for? What did I do?"
All three agents exchanged a look. Figo sighed and rubbed the side of his temple. "To be honest? We still don't know." Cesc opened his mouth, and before he could say anything, Figo said bluntly, "There is no such company as Abramovich Gas. The men you saw are connected to one of the most dangerous criminal syndicates in Europe, and right now that syndicate wants you."
As Cesc, open-mouthed, attempted to process that, Figo stood up. "Well?" he said to Silva and Spiky Hair.
Silva shook his head. "You're right," he said. "We can't let them know he's alive. It's just too dangerous, at least until we know what they're after."
"Yeah, great," said Spiky Hair - Villa - "but unless you're planning on locking him in a safehouse with a 24-hour bodyguard, someone just might notice a kid suddenly hanging around our people who happens to match the newest item on Moggi's wish list."
Silva's eyes flicked over to Figo apprehensively, but Figo said, "That's a very good point." He waited a beat before adding, "Thank you for volunteering."
Silva's eyes went big. Villa's entire face convulsed. "What?"
"What?" Cesc echoed, but no one paid attention to him.
"Congratulations," said Figo. "Meet your new trainee, as far as everyone outside this room is concerned. Treat him like a normal recruit - take him to the labs, the firing range, whatever you want. But do not, under any circumstances, let him out of your sight outside of a secure facility. Understand?"
Villa was still dumbstruck, so Silva was the one who got it together to say, "Yes, sir."
"Good," said Figo. He checked his watch. "Perfect timing. I'll take care of the necessary paperwork immediately. I expect you to stay in direct contact with me for the duration. Villa, I'll give Ral your regards."
Villa, still gaping, revived enough to snarl. "Wait," said Silva. "What are we cleared to tell him?"
One brow arched. "Tell him whatever you want," Figo said. "He's dead."
The thud of the door closing behind him was ominously final.
Silva let out a deep breath and slumped against the wall. Next to him, Villa finally produced a noise. "A trainee?" he exploded, at the same time Cesc yelped "Dead?"
Silva looked from Villa to Cesc and back again, and both hands came up to scrub over his face.
Cesc had had enough. "Look," he burst out. "I answered your questions, I didn't butt into your weird cryptic secret agent talk, but now you're talking about some kind of plan for me? And apparently I'm dead? I still don't even know why my flat blew up, not to mention why the Mafia has my number!" He crossed his arms over his chest, and leveled his best glare at the two agents.
Villa opened his mouth, and Silva said, without taking his hands away from his face, "David, just - don't say anything. Please."
Villa's expression teetered between injury and outrage. It eventually settled on an even blacker scowl and he slouched against the wall, muttering under his breath. Silva muttered something, too, before taking a deep breath, removing his hands, and dredging up a smile in Cesc's direction.
"Sorry," he said. "We haven't even introduced ourselves yet. I'm David Silva, and that's David Villa."
Cesc blinked. "Really? Is that part of your cover?"
David Villa shot him a look of purest contempt. David Silva merely gave him another smile, marginally more cheerful, and said, "Nope, just coincidence."
"Huh," said Cesc.
"Anyway," Silva continued, "we'll tell you what we can. But Figo was telling the truth - we don't know much about what they want with you." The smile faded away, replaced by a frown. "It doesn't make any sense."
"So what were they doing in my building?"
"There was supposed to be a meeting," Silva said. "A minor gang - cigarette smuggling, lottery skimming, that kind of thing. Our offices don't usually deal with that, but someone tipped us off that they were getting into in narcotics. A planted tip, actually." He shrugged and said dismissively, "As soon as we figured out Moggi's syndicate was involved we knew it was just a lure. They knew we knew, we knew they knew we knew, you know."
"...I don't think I do," Cesc said after a minute of trying to wrap his brain around that one.
Silva paused, disconcerted. "Oh. Um. It's like - a message? That we can't ignore."
Cesc gave him a blank look.
"Okay, well, anyway," said Silva, soldiering on. "David and I were wrapping up another trail in London, so the local office called us in to cover. They figured it was meant to draw personnel away from another area, but nothing unusual seems to have happened..." He frowned again, staring at some point in the distance.
"So..." Cesc prompted after a minute.
Silva gave a little start and flushed. "Um, right. Sorry. Anyway, we were in position next door all morning, there was no sign of anything - and then suddenly 'Abramovich Gas' drove up and ordered the building evacuated. We didn't want to make a move too early, we had no idea what was going on - and then before we knew what was happening..." He shrugged.
"In other words, we have no fucking clue what happened," Villa cut in. Apparently no longer able to stand prolonged stillness, he burst into a restless stride, across the room and back again.
Cesc said, "So the guy I saw inside, and the one out front - they were from the gang? And they want me because... I saw them?"
Silva put a hair in his hair and tugged absently. "That's the obvious answer, but it makes no sense. We identified just about everyone on the scene and we've got half of them in custody now, it's not a secret. They're not even directly part of the Moggi syndicate - they're little fish, the syndicate likes to outsource for minor jobs like that. So what were they doing with heavy explosives, and why - " He stopped short.
"What?" Cesc persisted.
"Why does the syndicate wants you on a platter," Villa said from across the room.
Silva shot Villa a look and sighed. "Or someone who matches your description, anyway. They haven't got much on you yet, but it's only been a few hours." He checked his watch. "Seven. We've closed down the site and floated unidentified casualty reports but that will only last so long. We have to do something with a firm ID before they start to think you're still out there."
It still wasn't sinking in, that some faceless criminal organization he'd never heard of seriously wanted him - dead? Unable to talk? "But you said no one else was hurt," Cesc said. "There's no body."
Silva said delicately, "There's a body."
"Just not yours," Villa said, in a voice that somehow implied, yet.
"We're pretty good at that kind of thing," Silva added.
Cesc decided he probably didn't actually want to know. "So - so you're going to tell everyone that the, uh, body is mine?"
"Already have," said Villa. Silva elaborated: "Figo - did we mention, he's the bureau chief here - gave the orders as soon as he left. First a police report, then press leaks."
Cesc sat bolt upright, ignoring the protest from his ribs. "The press? Oh my god, my family's going to think - wait, are you in touch with them already? Can I send them a message?" When Silva and Villa looked at each other, he pressed, "I mean, you're not going to tell them that..."
Neither agent said anything.
"No," Cesc said immediately. "No way. You can't tell them that, they'll - no."
"Yeah, we can," said Villa, at the same time Silva said, "It's temporary."
"How temporary?" Cesc demanded. He was gripping the blanket, he realized, so hard his knuckles were white. "They'll think, they'll - don't you understand?"
"You want to keep that journalist sister of yours safe?" Villa asked harshly. "Then shut up."
"You shut up," Cesc said hotly and surged forward.
There was a hand holding him down by his good shoulder before he even saw Silva move. He struggled, fruitlessly, until he pulled his other shoulder again and the lance of pain made him jerk backwards with a hiss.
Silva said, like it hurt, "He's right, Cesc. It's protecting them as much as you."
Cesc searched his face. Silva's dark, tired eyes met his, and Cesc knew without being told that it would be pointless to plead, or to run. He stared helplessly at Silva for a long moment. Then he slumped back against the pillows and swore as viciously as his choked throat would allow, until his voice gave out.
"Okay," he said finally, when he ran out of words, and when he was sure he wasn't going to cry. He rolled on his back and stared at the ceiling, jaw clenched. "Okay. Fine. Whatever. I get it. Can I sleep now or do I have to get permission for that, too?"
After a minute, Silva said, "Cesc - " and Villa said, in a voice so low Cesc barely heard him, "Come on."
Cesc refused to look away from the ceiling as footsteps moved across the floor and the door opened and closed.
He could try to steal Silva's pocket mobile device. He could sneak out the window just long enough to find a phone booth. He could drop a freaking letter outside, if he had to -
The wave of sleep that had been looming over him threatened to crash down and swallow him whole. Cesc let it come.
Out in the little kitchen, David sank into a chair and rolled his neck in a slow circle while Villa paced around the kitchen restlessly.
After a moment, David flipped open his laptop and keyed in his password for the secure network. As expected, Figo's effect was immediate. There were the London police reports identifying the body recovered at Cudworth Road as one Francesc Fbregas, aged 22, Spanish exchange student. Depending on how quickly they released the information to the press, clippings would probably begin to roll in within the next hour.
Next David called up the listing of internal personnel directives. He wasn't surprised to find an order, apparently dated two weeks ago, for the assignment of recruit ID #54104 to agents David Villa and David Silva, Madrid bureau.
Villa wandered over and leaned one hip against the table. "Think he'll actually sleep at all or should we take shifts outside his door?"
"Hm?" said David absently. He glanced up from the screen. "Oh, I drugged his water. So, yeah, probably pretty soundly."
Villa's eyebrows shot up. Then he grinned. "You're something else," he said, and flicked a finger against David's temple. David tamped down on the automatic little flush of pleasure and smiled up at him. Then he ducked his head before he did something stupid and swiveled the laptop around.
"Look," he said. "I guess we've officially got a trainee now."
Villa's grin disappeared. He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at the screen. "Of all the fucking - We don't even have time for a real recruit. What the fuck are we going to do with some kid who's never fired a gun in his life?"
"Teach him how to?" David offered. Villa gave him a disbelieving look.
"Look, let's think about it for a minute," David went on, trying for persuasive. "This is supposed to be cover, right? It won't be very effective if we hole up in a safehouse somewhere. Figo's not going to stop sending us out, so we might as well make the best of it. The better we handle the cover, the more normal we can act."
After a moment Villa nodded, grudgingly. "What do you want to do tomorrow?"
David thought for a minute. "Take him down to headquarters, I guess, and get him a badge and a gun. If he'll go." He sighed. "I don't think we did a very good job telling him."
Villa's face shuttered. "He'll thank us when it's over."
They were suddenly treading on thin ice.
"They've put a detail on the family," David said carefully. "Just in case. Xavi's in charge."
Villa said, without expression, "Good."
David ran a hand through his hair and cast around for something - anything - to say. Before he could think of something, Villa suddenly put a hand on the table and turned toward David, just a little. His eyes were hooded.
A little thrill ran up David's neck, and his breathing went unsteady.
Villa leaned in, halting, and then abruptly stopped. David looked up at him; his face was a taut and strained. But his eyes were on David.
So David reached up and curled a hand around the back of Villa's neck, drawing him down. As Villa's rough, searching mouth came down on his own, for the first time in weeks David let himself slacken, let himself ease. Let himself think about nothing else but what he wanted - nothing else but this.
For a moment, when Cesc woke up, he couldn't remember why his cheeks were damp.
Then he could, which was worse.
It didn't take him long to make a decision. There was only one way he was going to be able to survive the next – however long – without going insane, and that was to put them completely out of his mind, as much as he possibly could. (Your family, a ruthless voice whispered.)
For a fleeting moment, he once again thought about running. He was pretty sure they'd catch him, but if he could just get a message to his mother or Carlota... In the light of day, the whole thing seemed even more unbelievable.
But nothing about Figo or his two subordinates had implied anything other than utter seriousness. Cesc rolled over, restless, and his ribs protested.
Whoever had blown up his flat hadn't been kidding around, either.
Cesc sat up and carefully swung himself out of bed. The only way to find out would be to get up and see what happened.
He tried the doorknob, and then when he encountered no resistance, slowly opened the door.
He didn't know exactly what he'd expected, but it wasn't what appeared to be the interior of a perfectly normal apartment - if one a little on the small side. Cesc took one cautious step, then another. No alarms went off. With growing confidence, he padded down the hall.
It opened into a small kitchen flooded with sunlight, where David Villa was sitting at a battered wooden table.
One hand held a mug of coffee; the other was tapping at the keys of a sleek, razor-thin laptop, in which he seemed absorbed. He appeared to be wearing the exact same outfit as the evening before, down to the shoulder holster. Cesc wondered if he slept in it.
"Um," said Cesc. "Good morning?"
Villa's eyes flicked up; he didn't otherwise move. "You're awake," he said, and returned his attention to the screen.
Cesc shifted from foot to foot. "Yeah." He looked around. On the tiny counter, a coffee maker bubbled away; next to it was a chipped mug.
"Can I – " He gestured at the coffee.
"No," said Villa, without looking up from his laptop.
"Oh," said Cesc.
There wasn't that much to look at. Cesc prodded his memory. "Where's, uh, Silva?"
Villa's glance flicked up again. "He'll be around," he said, in a tone that did not invite further inquiry. He added, indifferently, "Make yourself breakfast if you want. Or whatever."
"Oh. Okay." Cesc thought for a minute. "Have you got any ramen?"
That got a reaction. Villa recoiled. "For breakfast?"
"It's nutritious," Cesc said defensively.
"The hell it is," said Villa, and, shaking his head, closed the laptop. "Look, here – " He stood up and at first Cesc thought maybe he was going to – Cesc didn't know. Beat the ramen liking out of him. Instead Villa went over to the fridge and, after a moment of poking around inside, pulled out a carton of eggs, a couple of plastic containers and two red peppers. The cupboard yielded a heavy iron skillet, which made Cesc leery for a brief second before it was set innocently on the stovetop.
Villa spared a moment from his preparations long enough to give Cesc a once over and say, "You go - sit down. Read. Or something."
Cesc was tempted for all of about five seconds to ask if he could use Villa's laptop, before sense got the better of him. It was probably full of secrets he could be killed for reading, anyway. Instead, he sat down in the other chair and, for lack of anything better to do, watched Villa chop the peppers and a small onion with alarming speed.
He was clearly at home with sharp objects. Cesc eyed the knife. Was it his imagination or was it longer than normal for cooking?
Villa scraped the vegetables into the skillet and, as if sensing Cesc's eyes on him, turned and raised his eyebrows. "What are you looking at?"
"You," Cesc said truthfully.
Villa gave him a long stare. Cesc stared back, until Villa had to turn back to the skillet with a mutter.
The vegetables were simmering away when Villa set down the spatula and detached the coffee pot from its stand. The smell wafted even more temptingly toward Cesc as Villa filled the empty mug. He then left it sitting untouched on the counter and returned to breaking eggs into a bowl.
"Is that for me?" Cesc said hopefully.
"No," said Villa. Cesc sat back, frowning.
A door opened and closed, down the hall, and a minute later Silva shuffled into the kitchen. His eyes were barely open to slits. Several feathery tufts of hair at the back of his head stuck straight up in the air. "G'morning," he said, or tried to say, as it was swallowed in a yawn.
"Yeah," Villa said, and handed him the cup of coffee.
Silva mumbled something indistinct that might have been a thank you and gave Villa a sleepy smile as he sank into the mug. Villa rolled his eyes, cuffed the back of Silva's head, and pushed him gently toward the table, before turning back to his eggs.
Cesc looked from Villa, at the stove, subjecting the skillet to an intense glare, to Silva, in the chair Villa had vacated, curled around his coffee.
There was no way Jason Bourne made omelettes.
Across the table, the caffeine was taking effect. Silva blinked several times in Cesc's direction, then sat up as if seeing him for the first time. "Oh, Cesc," he said, with another one of those smiles. "Good morning."
Cesc attempted to return it. "Morning."
Silva's eyes went to the empty place in front of Cesc. His expression became slightly attentive and he started to say something; a yawn got in the way before he managed, "Sorry, do you want some coffee?"
"Actually, yeah," Cesc said with a pointed glance at Villa's turned back, which somehow emanated a distinct lack of concern.
"David," said Silva, and was interrupted by another yawn. " – sorry. Could you get Cesc a cup as long as you're over there?"
There was a minute of silence, then Villa made an unintelligible sound. That appeared to mean "Yes" in Villa-speak, because Silva, smile intact, said "Thanks." Villa set another mug on the table with a look that dared Cesc to say something.
"Thanks," he echoed, and smiled at Villa innocently. Villa looked less than amused.
Silva now looked more or less revived. "Did you sleep okay?" he asked Cesc.
"Yeah. What?" – at Villa's inexplicable smirk.
"Nothing," Villa said. "Here." He'd slid the omelet from the pan and cut it into slices; now he put a plate in front of Cesc and another in front of Silva.
Cesc took a bite. He blinked. "Whoa."
"He's good, isn't he?" Silva said, with a little grin.
Villa, leaning against the counter with his own plate, just grunted.
It was good. It was really good. All of a sudden Cesc realized that he hadn't eaten anything in twenty-four hours. He took another bite, and another, and suddenly it was all he could do to keep himself from shoveling the omelet in his mouth as fast as he could.
The rest of the world faded out for a while. His plate was almost empty before he really noticed that no one was speaking. Cesc glanced up from his knife and fork to see Villa and Silva holding a silent conversation that, to judge by the way Villa's head jerked toward Cesc, was probably about him. Silva looked over. Their eyes met. Cesc cleared his throat.
A very faint hint of color brushed Silva's cheeks. "Um," he said. "Are you feeling better this morning?"
He didn't specify whether he meant physically or emotionally; Cesc grabbed at the opportunity to overlook the previous night's meltdown. His chest still hurt, but he gave his shoulder a cautious, experimental roll.
"Yeah," he said, surprised. "A lot."
"Good," said Silva, sounding genuinely pleased. "Then if you're feeling up to it – " He glanced at Villa, who nodded grudgingly, " – we'll take you down to bureau headquarters and get your ID. And a real medic can take a look at you, just in case."
Cesc halted mid-chew. "Wa – " His mouth was stuffed with omelet. He hastily tried to swallow the entire mouthful at once, choked, took a gulp of coffee, and cleared his throat. "Wait. Wait. Do you mean what that guy, Figo, said – I'm seriously going to be disguised as, like, a secret agent in training?"
"We're not that secret," said Silva, which wasn't a no.
Completely independent of will, Cesc's mouth was stretching upward in a gleeful grin. "Oh man," said Cesc. "Oh man."
Silva was having a hard time hiding a grin. Villa was rolling his eyes so hard they were on the verge of falling out of his head. "Okay," Silva said. "We'll check in with Figo while we're there. And you should meet Raúl as soon as possible, too."
Villa expelled a noisy breath. Cesc glanced at Silva, meaning to ask who they were talking about.
Silva looked resigned, and – something else, something Cesc couldn't identify. It surprised him enough that he stopped short of speech.
In the lull, Villa drew a long breath and opened his mouth. But when he spoke, it had nothing to do with the mysterious Raúl.
"Call that reporter friend of yours," he said.
Silva clearly hadn't been expecting that. "What?"
"If we're really going to do this," Villa said, like the words were being dragged from him, "which I guess we are, then we need eyes. Whatever we can get. Call the guy you know at the paper, what's his name, Mata. Let him know we're back in Madrid."
"Madrid?" said Cesc.
"Madrid," Cesc muttered.
"Sorry," Silva said for the dozenth time. "Really. Sorry. I was sure someone had mentioned it."
They were waiting in what was, to all appearances, a glassed-in lobby several floors high up a plain office building. It could have been home to any mid-sized corporation or government agency. Only the fact that Villa and Silva had provided, at various points, pass codes, handprint scans, and vocal recognition keys in order to navigate the building indicated that it was something rather out of the ordinary. That, and the fact that Silva, seeing Cesc look out the floor-to-ceiling glass, had said, "Don't worry, it's bulletproof."
That had gone a certain way to alleviate the undeniable sense of disappointment Cesc felt at the fact that the headquarters of a secret agency was so – normal.
Villa had disappeared once they were inside, leaving Silva to escort Cesc to what he called the clinic, where the medic on duty had retaped Cesc's ribs and pronounced him more or less fit and trauma-free. Now they were waiting for Villa to rejoin them – which left Cesc plenty of time to brood over the newest development in his enforced disappearance.
"How'd we get back to Spain, anyway?" he asked. "Some kind of top secret connection, right?"
Silva didn't answer for a minute. "Yes," he said finally. Cesc waited. When Silva didn't say anything else, he sighed again.
"So what's next?"
"Um... let's see." Silva brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "Once you've got your ID we'll get you in the security system, then check in with Figo's office and introduce you to a couple people you should probably know. Then you can check out a gun."
"They come in handy," said a voice right behind Cesc. Cesc nearly jumped out of his skin.
Villa, looking far too smug, handed Cesc a slim leather wallet. "Here."
Cesc flipped it open curiously. On one side was a standard head shot of Cesc he was sure he'd never sat for; on the other, his height, weight, hair and eye color, a signature that definitely wasn't his, and the name Francisco Macià.
"Macià," he said aloud, trying it out. The unfamiliar name sat awkwardly on his tongue.
"You probably won't need the signature much, but you should probably practice it when you've got some free time, just in case," Silva said. "Don't lose the badge if you can help it. The chip gets you into the building – see, right there." He pointed to an almost imperceptible rise in the corner.
"Come on," Villa said, heading in the direction of the hall. "Back to security, they've got to scan you."
Cesc frowned. "What kind of scan," he started to say suspiciously, when he was interrupted by two identical piercing beeps.
Silva and Villa both stopped short and looked at each other. "You take it," said Villa. Before the words were out of his mouth Silva had his mobile up to his ear.
"Silva here," he said, and then, "Yes, sir." Then, "Has Figo talked to you...? No. I mean, yes. I – would you rather talk to Da – sorry, Agent Villa?" He blanched. "Oh, no, I – okay. Yes. Got it. Thank you."
He flipped the mobile closed and said, "Raúl."
Villa's jaw jutted out. "What's he want."
"They've tracked Žigić to a location in Carabanchel," Silva said, not smiling now. "We've got to go." He began moving again, swiftly, toward the elevator.
Cesc hurried to follow. Villa was already in step. "What? You're kidding. He's giving that to us the kid's first day?"
"Hey," Cesc said, but neither Villa nor Silva were listening.
They reached the elevator and Silva ran a hand through his hair. "We did do most of the work on Žigić," he said. "He's not exactly a heavyweight. It'll look strange if we're not the ones to bring him in, especially with a trainee who's supposed to be..." He trailed off.
Villa blew out a breath. "Fine. Whatever. We don't have time for this shit."
"Okay. Cesc – " The elevator pinged. Silva stopped, and then said, "Just follow us and I'll explain in the car. Okay?" Villa was already punching a button inside.
Bewildered, Cesc followed.
The car skidded around another sharp corner and David heard a thump from the back seat. He twisted around; Cesc had been thrown across the seat and was rubbing his head.
"Sorry," David said automatically, even though apologizing for David Villa's driving was an exercise in repetition.
Cesc didn't seem to mind too much. He looked sort of excited, actually. "This guy tried to smuggle himself into a bank on a mail cart?"
"He's eight fucking feet tall," Villa said with his eyes on the road. "Who'd he think wouldn't notice?"
"Anyway, that wouldn't normally get us involved," David said, "but it turned out he'd been doing a lot of business with forged passports on the side, and when the police showed up he panicked. Assaulted an officer, jumped the border, landed in our lap." At Cesc's face, he felt compelled to add, "Sorry. It's not all bombs and organized crime."
"Two minutes," said Villa. David's mobile beeped, signaling an incoming message.
It was Raúl's office. Subdue with minimal force.
"Minimal force," he said to Villa, who grunted and swerved the car the wrong way down a one-way street. David knew better than to think that was agreement.
"So what should I do?" Cesc asked from the back seat.
"Um – " David twisted back around. "Stick close to me or Villa and do exactly what we say. Do you know any kind of martial arts, or self-defense...?"
"I took karate in primary school?"
Villa made a noise that David had no trouble translating as I told you so. "Okay," he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Um – "
Villa left one hand on the steering wheel and reached inside his jacket with the other. "Give him that," he said to David, and handed over one of his handguns.
David also knew better than to ask if he was sure. He passed it back to Cesc, who took it gingerly.
"Um," said Cesc, "I'll try, but I don't really know how to shoo – "
"Don't shoot it," he and Villa said simultaneously. Cesc looked from the gun to the front seat, wounded. "But then what – "
"Time," Villa said, swerving around one final sharp corner, and the car shuddered to a stop.
"Just – hang on to it and try to look like you know what you're doing," David said hurriedly, just before Villa opened the door.
The abandoned workshop where Žigić had run to ground should have been knocked down five years ago, according to city council reports; it had been empty for closer to fifteen. The street backing on to it was narrow and grimy, and there wasn't a soul in sight.
Half the neighboring buildings must have been deserted; they all looked it. David scanned the upper windows. Not so much as a curtain moved.
Villa gave David the signal for silence and took the lead to a small run-down door that must have once been the back entrance.
Villa tried the handle. It rattled, but only gave an inch. He put a shoulder against it and heaved, and it burst inward with a scraping screech. David turned to Cesc and put a finger to his lips, then followed Villa inside.
Faint sunlight filtered through the filthy windows. The wide room was empty of furniture; boxes half-full of unidentifiable machinery parts lay toppled and haphazardly stacked and several wooden planks leaned against one wall. Everything was coated with a thick layer of dust – which made the footprints leading out the doorway on the other side of the room stand out with brazen clarity.
Villa moved forward silently like a wolf on the scent. David fell back, and gestured for Cesc to go ahead of him. He did so, gripping Villa's gun awkwardly; his head darted from side to side and David could tell from his quickened breathing that his pulse had already picked up.
The open doorway led into what first looked like a labyrinth – the first of a warren of cramped, low-ceilinged workrooms cluttered with building debris and raw materials, connected by similar open thresholds. In the corner, a heavy wooden staircase disappeared into a hole in the ceiling.
Villa fell back so they were out of the line of sight of any of the doorways. He signaled to David, Upstairs.
David nodded. Split up.
Cover the exits. Take him.
David nodded again. He was peripherally aware of Cesc looking back and forth between the two of them; now as Villa prowled forward, he turned to Cesc and motioned for him to follow David farther into the building. If they could close off the front entrance, either Žigić would be forced to the back or Villa would find him first. David was betting on Villa.
Just as he began to move forward, there was a thump overhead.
For a minute, there was absolute stillness. Then, a muffled crash, and heavy running footsteps.
Villa was off. David put a hand on Cesc's arm; Cesc had started badly at the crash and now whipped around with wide eyes at David's touch. David looked to where Villa's feet had just vanished from the top step, then back at Cesc, and shook his head; Cesc seemed to get the message and David released him.
Now David had to decide whether Žigić would go for the front or the back. The window panes were too narrow for someone of his size but there was no way now to know if there were any other potential exits – or any other stairways. David gestured for Cesc to stay put and moved cautiously forward, squinting into the dark recesses ahead.
He heard, very faintly, what sounded like another thump overhead.
It was in the direction of the front – assuming he could trust the acoustics. David made a split-second decision and gestured for Cesc to come forward. Every nerve attuned to any sound from the upper floor, David led the way into the dark warren.
It was a mess. Away from the outer windows, the room was shrouded in a dim gloom; hulking and damaged furniture wedged together with more abandoned machinery loomed everywhere, shadow-like. The floor was strewn with rubbish. The other doorway, to the left, seemed to lead into a room equally dark and chaotic. David strove to recall the blueprints he'd barely had a chance to glance at on his handheld, but even if he could have remembered them perfectly they were about fifty years out of date.
He stopped for a minute to listen. Overhead, there was nothing but silence.
A fit of stifled coughing broke out behind him. The dust was even thicker here; David realized he'd automatically held a sleeve up to his mouth to filter the air. He looked over his shoulder. Cesc was doing his best to muffle the sound into his elbow and his shoulders shook as he gave David a look both guilty and apologetic.
David waved him off, turned back around and promptly banged his shins against a lopsided stool.
Slowly, they picked their way through three more dark and cluttered workspaces. There was no sound but their own footsteps. Cesc's heavy breathing hung in the silence.
There was no sign of Žigić's presence, recent or otherwise, anywhere.
There were nearly to the front side of the building – a shaft of daylight sifted in through the doorway, indicating windows beyond – when David heard an unmistakable creak from behind them.
He swiveled around and thrust an arm in front of Cesc. "Stay back," he murmured under his breath. Cesc nodded quickly. He was breathing far too rapidly, but David didn't have time to worry about calming him.
David edged forward along the wall, gun at the ready. One heartbeat, two – Instinct prickled, his pulse jumped, and he leaped through the open doorway.
The room was empty.
Cautiously, Cesc crept up beside him.
Then there was the crack of splintering wood, and Žigić crashed through the ceiling.
Cesc's heart was racing so fast he could barely catch his breath. Half the rotting ceiling seemed to have fallen in, flooding the workroom with musty daylight. Žigić lay sprawled on his back, clearly dazed. He struggled up on his elbows and his head moved unsteadily from side to side, taking in Silva, Cesc, the doorway they were blocking – and the one behind him they weren't.
Silva was standing in front of Cesc – Cesc had barely realized he'd moved. If he was at all surprised, he was doing a good job of not showing it. He held his gun loosely at his side; Cesc guessed it was supposed to make him look less threatening, but to Cesc's eyes the competence radiating from every tensed line of his body negated the effect.
"Get away," Žigić gasped, scrabbling back toward the doorway behind him. "Or – or – "
He was unshaven and his face a sickly white – with fear or malnutrition, Cesc couldn’t tell. Sweat trickled down his neck. And he was really, really tall.
His hand was creeping toward his pocket. "I wouldn't," Silva said, and Žigić's hand froze.
Slowly, without taking his eyes from Silva, Žigić pushed himself up into a crouch. When Silva didn't react, Žigić got all the way to his feet. Cesc looked quickly at Silva, who still didn't move. Žigić was tensed – was it for fight or flight? Cesc's palms were sweaty, and he could feel his pulse hammering out of control. If Žigić lunged –
Silva remained very still. When he spoke, it was in a low, soothing tone. "Come on, Nikola," he said. "You're not in serious trouble. Just come in with us and we'll do our best to make sure you're treated well."
Žigić licked his lips. His chest was heaving. "Us," he said. "Who's us."
"My partner and I," Silva said.
"That's not your partner," Žigić said. His voice was high and shaking. Cesc could see him trembling from across the room. "Who's that? Where is he? Tell me!"
"Right here," David Villa said, striding through the far doorway, and jammed a taser between Žigić's shoulders. Žigić dropped like a ton of bricks.
Villa had him on his stomach and handcuffed before Cesc could even blink. As David Silva's shoulders relaxed, Villa said, "He's out. Must have hit his head on the way down."
Cesc's pulse was still pounding a mile a minute. He looked down and realized the hands gripping Villa's gun were white-knuckled. Silva holstered his gun and went up to check Žigić's pulse. "Time?"
Villa checked his watch. "Ten minutes, forty-seven seconds. Damn."
Silva looked disappointed. "Maybe next time."
"Ten minutes?" Cesc said. "That was ten minutes?"
"Our record's six minutes thirty," said Silva. He peered at Žigić's slack face. "Think he'll be okay?"
Villa shrugged. "Yeah, probably. Not our problem."
"Minimal force," Silva reminded him, and Villa grinned and said, "That was minimal."
Villa was in a good mood, Cesc realized. The air around him seemed to crackle, and his grin had an edge of something dangerous and heady.
Cesc eyed the body. "What happens now? Do we have to get him out of here ourselves?"
"Not this time," Silva said. "We call in to headquarters and they'll send along someone to take him off to a holding facility. David – "
Villa was already on the phone. " – got him. Send someone over." He hung up.
Silva cleared his throat and said to Cesc, "Usually there's a little more protocol involved."
It was only a few minutes before Cesc heard a distant creak, followed by footsteps. "Back up," Silva said, but Cesc didn't miss how he and Villa were suddenly tensed and alert again.
The footsteps drew closer. There was a resounding sneeze, and a tall head ducked under the lintel. Its owner stopped short at the sight of them and grinned. "If it isn't my favorite pair of deadly secret operatives," he said.
The newcomer was no Žigić, but next to Villa and Silva he seemed huge, tall and shambling, with shaggy brown hair and a wide grin. Silva's face lit up, and even Villa couldn't seem to decide whether he wanted to smile or scowl.
"Morientes," he said, not unwelcomingly.
"Mori, good to see you," Silva said with a beaming smile, and then almost immediately his expression changed to one of regret. "Raúl didn't call you in, did he? Oh no, sorry – there's not really anything left for investigation – just a suspect to haul in – "
"I volunteered," Morientes interrupted. "Happened to be in the area. I like to see professionals at work. Who's this?"
The question caught Cesc offguard. He had an uneasy feeling Morientes could tell, a feeling supported by the dark look Villa shot at him.
Silva appeared not to take notice. "Our new trainee," he said. "Francisco Macià, Detective Inspector Fernando Morientes."
Cesc nearly missed his alias. Villa raised his eyes to heaven.
Morientes was clearly no fool. He looked from Cesc to Silva, who smiled implacably.
"Okay," he said finally, with another grin. "If David says so. Nice to meet you, Macià."
"Nice to meet you," Cesc muttered, and shook the outstretched hand.
"You got back up?" Villa asked.
"They'll be along." He looked at the insensate form sprawled on the floor and grinned. "The mail cart guy, right? I think we can handle it."
Neither agent responded, which made Cesc look at them curiously. Morientes intercepted his glance. "Hey, new kid," he said. "Want to give me a rundown?"
"He's not allowed to talk yet," Villa said, before Cesc could answer.
Silva began, "There's really not anything – "
"I'll just take a look around," Morientes said, still smiling, but with a hint of the same steel that Cesc had begun to realize was always lurking under Silva's guileless exterior.
Villa and Silva exchanged a glance. "Okay," Silva said after a minute, with good-natured resignation. "Raúl didn't actually call you, did he?"
"Nope," Morientes said cheerfully. "I cracked the encryption on one of the office's communication frequencies. Made sure to tell him I was coming, though."
Silva looked torn between a laugh and a grimace. Villa's snort was definitely amused.
"But I bet you thought so from the beginning, didn't you," Morientes went on. Silva looked vaguely contrite.
"Well," he said, and Morientes' eyes creased.
"So there's no chance of getting either of you to open up a little, huh? What happened, why are you after small fry like this guy?"
"Sorry," Silva said again. "You know the policy."
"All too well," Morientes agreed. "Speaking of which, how is your boss? He wasn't in the mood to talk." He began to pace in a circle around Žigić's prone form.
Villa's mouth flattened. "He's not our boss."
"Actually, he kind of is," Silva said, and glanced at Villa with a sigh. "He's the same as always."
"Still working too hard, I bet," said Morientes. Before either could answer, his eyes sharpened and he dropped to a crouch, peering at Žigić's upper back. "Aha," he said. "Taser. Isn't that a little tame for you, Villa?"
"Nice try," said Villa, looking amused again, and Silva, obviously trying not to laugh, added, "You're terrible."
"It's part of my charm," said Morientes, when Silva's mobile beeped.
He glanced at it, then made an apologetic face. "Sorry, Mori," he said. "Our people are here."
"Damn," said Morientes amiably. "All right, the chief won't like it if he hears I keep getting in your way. I guess I'm out of here. Give your boss my best." He turned to Cesc. "Good luck in the madhouse, Macià."
Cesc didn't know what to say other than, "Thanks." Morientes tossed them a wave and disappeared the way he'd come.
Not a minute later, two other men ducked through the same doorway, coughing all the way. They were wearing the same sort of sharp-edged suits as Villa and Silva, but something about them that Cesc couldn't put his finger on said "muscle".
The one in front – friendly face, long nose – whistled at the sight of Žigić. "Nice job," he said. "He's, what, twice your size?"
"Hi, Joan," said Silva, and "The fuck he is," said Villa.
'Joan' grinned. His partner – shaven head, solemn expression – nudged the prone form with one foot. "I thought Raúl said this was a minimal force job."
Villa opened his mouth and Silva interjected, "He hit his head on the way down. Can you take it from here? We were on our way to get our new recruit checked in when we got the call."
"What?" Joan's eyes went from Villa to Cesc and back with an unholy sort of glee. "You're in charge of a trainee? You?"
Villa bristled so obviously Cesc was surprised static electricity didn't crackle from his hair. "Damn straight. Got a problem?"
"Course not," said Joan, who wasn't even trying to hide his wide grin. "Good luck, new kid."
"Thanks," Cesc muttered again. This was obviously going to be a recurring theme.
"Thanks, Joan," said Silva. "Thanks, Senna." He snagged Villa's arm and yanked not very subtly in the direction of the door. Cesc obediently followed.
"So," he said as they emerged from the building and he judged the newcomers were definitely out of earshot. "What was that all about, with the cop? Morientes?"
Silva took a moment to choose his words carefully. "The local police don't always see... eye-to-eye with the bureau. Especially when we, ah, requisition support."
"Yeah," Villa said sardonically, "or make them clean up our mess." They reached the car.
"Our security classification is way beyond theirs so the policy is we're not really supposed to talk about a case if we haven't been cleared first," Silva went on, as they got inside. "Mori likes to do his best to find out what happened anyway. It's – sort of a thing."
Villa snorted. "'Sort of'," he said. The car started with a sputter and rolled down the street.
"So... I shouldn't tell the police anything if we run into them next time?" Cesc asked.
"Yes. I mean, no. Definitely not. Actually – " Silva looked like he was trying to be tactful. "You maybe shouldn't talk at all to anyone we haven't introduced you to. And, um, maybe work on your poker face."
"Oh," said Cesc, deflating a little. "Okay."
"But you did well," Silva added, in an encouraging sort of tone. "You didn't get yourself in danger, and you didn't get in the way. That's harder than it sounds."
"Yeah?" Cesc said, perking up a little despite himself.
Silva nodded. Villa, to Cesc's surprise, didn't offer a contradiction, so maybe it was true. He felt the faintest hint of a warm glow.
They pulled up outside headquarters in somewhat more time than the outgoing trip had taken. This time, Silva peeled off to, he said, go pick up the necessary paperwork, and Villa took Cesc to the seventh floor.
"Security," he said. "They're all pretty weird, but – " he shrugged, "pretty damn good."
The elevator opened onto a single white hall. It was empty.
At one end was a heavy steel door. A security unit was mounted on the wall next to it. Villa punched in a code, then placed his hand against the pad. The unit flashed red, beeped, and an automated voice prompted for his name and ID number.
"David Villa Sánchez, 33207."
There was another beep, and with a wheeze the door slid open. Villa gestured Cesc forward.
He went through the door and his eyes widened.
The room was long and windowless. Banks of television lined one wall, showing every angle of the headquarters' interior – but also, Cesc realized as he stared at them, closed circuit feed of Madrid's metro stations and – was that the Parliament building? On the next wall was a massive LED screen, currently displaying an overhead map of the greater Madrid area marked by several blinking dots. In front of it, a man and a woman were involved in a heated discussion. A line of workstations ran down the middle of the room, each manned by someone absorbed in their screen.
This was more like it.
"Hey," Villa said, raising his voice, "I need a new input here!"
A dark-haired kid who looked younger than Cesc detached himself from one of the workstations and came over to them. He looked at Cesc questioningly.
"New recruit," Villa said. "Macià, number 54104. He needs to get in the system. Badge," he said to Cesc. Cesc scrambled to produce it. The kid scrutinized it and his face broke into a smile.
"Martínez," he said. "Nice to meet you. This way."
Martínez led him over to a corner, where he fired up an intimidating conglomeration of screens and wires and slick black electronics. His fingers flew across the keys faster than anyone Cesc had ever seen, and after a moment, he told Cesc to step up and place his hand against the screen in front of him.
Villa slouched against the wall, tapping at his handheld, as Martínez recorded Cesc's fingerprints, handprints, a retinal scan, and several different vocal recognition keys. Silva rejoined them while Martínez was having Cesc test his responses against a mock security prompt. Martínez ran a check, a double-check, a triple-check, and finally pronounced Cesc free to go.
As he and Silva and Villa returned to the sterile outer hall, a thought occurred to Cesc. "Hey," he said. "Isn't it sort of, you know, dangerous to have this much information lying around? If I'm supposed to be dead?"
"Good point," said Villa, and before Cesc had time to recover from his double take, "but we can't integrate you into the system without it and you have to look ordinary to everyone else around here." He smirked. "Plus, you saw the place. Our IT security's not bad."
"Besides," Silva added, "nothing besides your fingerprints should be on record anywhere else. Unless you've had a reason to get a retinal scan before." Cesc shook his head. Silva turned to Villa. "That's an idea, though – I wonder if we should change his fingerprint records?"
They boarded the elevator again. "Nah," said Villa. "They'll have been examined too recently. The London team had to laser the fingerprints on the bo – ow, fuck!"
Silva removed his elbow from Villa's side and glanced at Cesc.
Cesc was more unsettled than he wanted to let on. He didn't want to pursue it. "Where are we going now?" he asked instead.
"The chief's office," Villa said. "If he's in."
"And deputy chief's," Silva added. "That's Raúl González – he runs most of the day-to-day operations here."
So that was the mysterious Raúl. If he was the deputy chief, what was Villa's problem with him? Cesc wasn't stupid enough to ask, but that didn't mean he didn't really want to.
The elevator let them off at the fifteenth floor, near the top. At first it seemed like just more ordinary offices – until they turned a corner and the corridor came to a sudden end in front of a glass wall, double doors emblazoned with a large seal Cesc had never seen before.
There was no extra security here. Villa pushed one of the doors open.
A clamor of voices filled the air, over what sounded like a dozen mobile phones going off at once. Someone shouldered Cesc aside and dashed out the door. It took him to minute to realize that all the commotion was coming from what couldn't be more than half a dozen people, each attempting to be in at least three places at once.
Villa was glaring at the room at large. "It's always like this here," Silva said to Cesc in a low voice. "You get used to it, sort of." He got the attention of the nearest scurrier and nodded toward a pair of doors in the back wall. "Is Figo – "
One of the doors swung open with no small amount of force and everyone stilled. The man who stood in the doorway wasn't particularly tall or physically imposing, but he dominated the room effortlessly. His dark eyes lit on them.
"Villa," he said. "Silva. Get your protégé in here and shut the door." His gaze swept the rest of the area and he raised his eyebrows; suddenly everyone was working with doubled intensity.
The office was wide and well-lit, with a sweeping view over the city. Cesc forgot about it within seconds. As soon as the door shut, Raúl said bluntly, "Capdevila and Senna were ambushed on their way to the holding facility."
It took Cesc a second to connect the names with the pair who'd taken custody of Žigić in Carabanchel. His mouth dropped oven. Next to him, Villa had gone rigid, and when Cesc glanced over, Silva's eyes were wide.
But Raúl wasn't finished. "Senna was shot in the shoulder. Žigić ran. Capdevila thinks they were trying to spring him and he thinks they were organized."
The ringing silence was broken by Villa saying, "Well, fuck."