The first time Arthur meets Eames, he isn’t going by Eames. “Nathan Grimes,” he introduces himself, holding out one meaty hand, “but call me Nate.”
To be fair, Arthur isn’t using his real name either. “Arthur Davenport,” he says, shuffling papers and receipts to his left hand to complete the awkward handshake.
“Come through,” Eames says, and leads Arthur to a small, glass-walled office in the back. It’s brightly lit by fluorescent lights, walls painted a neutral shade of almost white. There’s a chunky office chair behind a square, modern desk and black filing cabinets against one wall. There’s a pad of paper and four black pens on the desk, as well as a computer that’s somewhere between new and obsolete. It looks like a standard office but Arthur doesn’t relax until he spots the low bookcase filled with thick volumes of tax law.
“So how can we help?” Eames says, sitting behind the desk. Arthur smiles politely and hands over the pile of receipts.
Arthur doesn’t plan to break the law forever. He enjoys it and he’s extraordinarily good at it. There isn’t anything else he’d rather do, but nothing lasts forever. Only a fool thinks he’s invincible and Arthur isn’t anyone’s fool.
He’s one of the best point men in the business because he plans. He has contingencies in place if things go wrong. Wrong, in this case, could be a botched job or fleeing for your life with a bounty on your head. If the latter happens, Arthur wants somewhere to run to.
And an identity to run with.
This is why he keeps a small harem of aliases up his sleeve. Identities with drivers’ licenses and postal addresses, with residential leases and payslips from holding companies owned by a spiral of other holding companies. He has cars in secure garages, pays his registration and even gets them serviced. He keeps receipts, or forges them, and he files his taxes every year.
Anyone can fake a passport and a drivers’ license, but faking an entire life takes time and dedication. It’s slow and sometimes inconvenient, but the attention to detail will give Arthur options when he needs them.
(Cobb considers it tedious and unnecessary, but he also thinks dreamsharing isn’t illegal until someone passes a law against it. They have different concepts of risk.)
It’s Arthur’s fifth tax agent visit in as many weeks and as many states. He has ID (fake) in his pocket, his social security number (fake) written inside the manila folder in his hands and his date of birth (two-thirds true) memorised. He’s sitting in the rather bland lobby, staring at the navy carpet as the receptionist types. It’s a polyester blend, hard-wearing and commercially practical; he wants to remember the weave for future reference.
It’s important to pay attention to details.
Someone clears their throat, and asks, “Mr Gibson?”
Arthur stands up, picking up his briefcase (Gibson is one of his favourite aliases; he’s fastidious and organised, and it’s hardly a stretch for Arthur to show it). He starts walking towards the voice before he really looks up. It’s a different dark suit, loose around the torso where the last had been too tight, but it’s the same man.
Arthur keeps walking, one foot in front of the other, because he can’t back down now. He’s already given enough information to link the two aliases. So he smiles, nods once, and follows down the office corridor.
The office door says ‘Mark Ganter, CPA’. The room inside is old-fashioned, dark wood panelling making the room small and dreary. It isn’t helped by the heavy desk cramped against one wall and the black leather chair looming over it.
“Should I still call you Nate?” Arthur asks once the door’s closed.
The grin Arthur gets in response is far too pleased. “Depends, love,” he says, with a completely different accent from the flat Midwestern drawl of their first meeting, “should I call you Arthur?”
Arthur shrugs. Narrow-eyed suspicion seems like the best reply.
“The way I see it, we’re both here wanting the same thing, right?”
“Two weeks ago, we were both using different names and I don’t think either of us wants to advertise that fact. It’s mutually assured destruction. We might as well make the best of it.”
Again, that smug smile appears. It sets Arthur’s teeth on edge: inappropriate grins and less than legal situations are not good bedfellows. “Are you even qualified to submit tax returns?”
“Please. Like rorting the government’s difficult,” he says, adding, “And you might as well call me Eames.”
“Peter Gibson,” Arthur replies tightly.
“You’re not going to tell me your real name? I told you mine.”
Arthur considers it a great show of self-restraint that he doesn’t let his fingers twitch towards his gun. Especially when he remembers that he’s here as Peter Gibson, and Peter Gibson doesn’t carry a concealed weapon. “Taxes, Mr Eames.”
Arthur makes a few discreet enquiries around the mysterious Eames. It’s hard to find someone based on a name that probably isn’t real, but he comes across some interesting rumours. Eames is a liar and a con; he’s rumoured to be incompetent and unprofessional, likely to double-cross you as soon as your back’s turned, an incorrigible gambler on and off the job.
There are other reports too, quieter rumours from sources Arthur trusts more. Ex-military of some kind, deadly with or without a gun. Conman, certainly, but his targets are big and rich so whatever he’s doing as a tax agent has very little to do with Arthur’s moderate returns.
He hears one other rumour. Forger. It’s through a friend of a friend, or more accurately, an acquaintance of an acquaintance, but Arthur can’t be sure it’s reliable information. The dreamshare community is full of gossip and stories, exaggerated tales of what can be done and Chinese whispers of the latest achievements. Sometimes, it’s impossible. Sometimes, it’s the next impossible thing Arthur successfully masters.
He’s heard of forging before, camouflaging an intruder as an avatar of the dreamer’s subconscious, but he’d always dismissed it as impractical and unlikely. Dreamsharing is a medium that attracts big egos and a certainty of self that makes forgeries difficult. It would be too hard to manage without alerting the dreamer, too easy to make a mistake and wreck the entire job.
But it does make him wonder about Eames. Perhaps a conman is the perfect raw material for a good forgery.
Third Time’s the Charm
“We really need to stop meeting like this,” Eames says, grinning as he leans back in his office chair. This time, it’s a standard grey material and the desk is pale imitation wood. Eames’ suit is black and ill-fitting, the same dark suit, white shirt and dull tie combination that he’s worn in every office.
“Mr Eames.” Arthur slides over the folder of receipts and payslips. It’s taken him nearly a month to track Eames down to another small tax agent firm in yet another state, but since Arthur’s here, he might as well get his taxes done too.
Eames opens the page. “So, we’re back to Arthur,” he says when he reads the name. “Can I call you Artie?”
“Art?” Eames asks and Arthur glares in response. “Fine, Arthur it is.”
Arthur waits while Eames shuffles through papers and then logs into his computer. He waits until Eames starts entering information, then he says, “I’ve heard some interesting rumours about you, Mr Eames.”
“It’s all true.” Eames grins and keeps typing, two fingers pecking at the keys. “Especially the shocking ones.”
“Including the description of you as a forger?”
“Most people would call it a con.” Eames fingers keep searching out keys, typing at a surprising speed. “Or a hustle. Forger’s a bit of a funny word for it.”
Eames sounds casually confident, almost as if he didn’t catch the reference at all. “Forger is a specific term for a specific job,” Arthur replies.
“You seem very focused on the details, darling.” Arthur’s not sure if that’s meant to be flirtatious or condescending. Either way, that tone of voice is annoying.
“Details are important.”
“To the small-minded.”
“Or the thorough,” Arthur bites back, ruffled even though he shouldn’t be. “The details make the difference.”
“To what?” Eames scoffs, and it’s barely a question. Arthur could ignore it, but he doesn’t.
“To convincing someone to believe a lie.” He stares pointedly at the certificate on the wall behind Eames. “And by the way, ‘accountant’ doesn’t have an e in it.”
Eames swivels around in his chair, staring up at the embossed certificate. “Bugger,” he mutters under his breath.
“Surely spellcheck would have picked that up?” Arthur asks snidely.
Eames rolls his eyes, lips pursed distractingly. “If it was as easy as opening up Word and printing a page, everybody would have a degree.”
It’s a coincidence that Cobb hears about Eames the next week. Cobb doesn’t have a name, but he hears about a forger who successfully swindled a Russian billionaire out of some loose change. The story claims the forger impersonated the Russian’s daughter well enough to confirm an account PIN.
Mal insists on meeting him to learn how it’s done. She and Cobb are endlessly curious about the dreamshare process, always wanting to know the newest possibility. They share a childlike awe of new ideas, something that always makes Arthur think of kids gathered around a magician, gasping over balloon animals and card tricks.
(Arthur had a magician at his eighth birthday party. He’d spent the next month at the library, reading about how rabbits were really pulled out of hats.)
Arthur wants to be prepared, and forewarned is forearmed. So he agrees to look into it, futilely hoping it isn’t Eames.
“Richards says he’s somewhere in the US,” Cobb says when he gets back from an almost friendly meeting with rival architect. “Or he was a month ago. He’s English, goes by Eames. Not sure if there’s a first name.”
“Ten days ago,” Arthur says, regretting the sentence before he’s finished saying it, “he was in Wichita.”
Cobb stares at him, one eyebrow drawn ridiculously high. “What was he doing in Wichita?”
Fourth… (Arthur has no idea why there’s a fourth time)
Eames swaggers through the door and grins when he sees Arthur. The badly fitting dark suit has been replaced with chinos and a short-sleeved mustard shirt. They fit in all the right ways, especially where the cuffs of the sleeve are snug around strong biceps.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Eames says, flirtatious enough that Cobb’s eyes widen in curiosity. “Arthur, right?”
“Mr Eames,” Arthur nods back.
“Oh, for you, it’s just Eames.”
Arthur doesn’t roll his eyes, but it’s a near thing. Beside him, Cobb clears his throat and brings up business.
Arthur isn’t an amateur. He’s seen the impossibilities of dreaming, watched architects build cities out of thin air, stepped across the Grand Canyon on mirrored slices of nothing. The only true limitations, as Cobb is so fond of saying, are imagination and belief. With enough of both, everything and anything can be done.
Yet the first time he sees Eames change into another person, Arthur almost doubts himself. He doesn’t reach into his pocket because he knows this is a dream, but for a moment he wants to pinch himself. “Do it again,” he says, and it sounds more like a demand than a request.
“Like this?” Eames asks, shifting from tall dark-haired man with wide Slavic cheekbones to a short redhead with a soft, round face and ruddy cheeks. It’s seamless. It’s not a slow slide from one to the other, no echoes or hints of what Eames had been a moment before. It’s a blink of the eye, a shift of attention and Eames is something different again. There’s a leggy blonde in front of Arthur, laughing at him with a teasing tilt of her head. Then it’s a black kid, no older than seventeen, holding a soccer ball under one arm.
Then it’s Arthur himself. Slicked back hair with yesterday’s grey suit and vest. Arthur blinks into his own eyes, thinking the familiar reflection looks wrong. He’s seen that smirk in mirrors, dimples threatening to show and his right eyebrow just a little higher than his left. Except Eames has it the wrong way around, the wrong eyebrow higher.
Before he can say anything, Eames says, “It’s inverted.”
“A mirror shows you an inverted reflection of yourself,” Eames says in a voice that would be Arthur’s if it was slightly lower. “You’re used to seeing your features switched around, that’s why looking at yourself doesn’t feel right.”
“That’s…” Arthur pauses, distracted by the detail of Eames’ shirt. Arthur’s left-handed and he always wears down the left cuff first. The left cuff on Eames’ costume is slightly frayed, an off-white stain of smeared ink that obstinately remains despite dry-cleaning. Arthur knows his own clothes. He notices details. Apparently so does Eames, when it suits him. “Distracting.”
“I bet you say that to all the boys,” Eames says, shifting back to his own body in the space between one word and the next.
“I think we have a use for you.”
“Full of compliments, aren’t you, love?”
It’s much easier to ignore Eames when he’s wearing his own face again. “No, Mr Eames.”
The job runs smoothly. Everything runs to plan. Cobb’s architecture is precise and beautiful; Eames does exactly what he’s supposed to do when he’s supposed to do it. Arthur stays close by, in case the dreamer gets suspicious or the projections get violent, but he’s not needed. It’s a rare joy to unhook the PASIV, pack away the equipment and walk out knowing that there won’t be any repercussions.
It’s slightly less of a joy to have Eames right there beside him. “We should celebrate,” he says. “Go out for a drink.”
“There’s a bottle of champagne back in our room,” Mal offers. Judging by Cobb’s momentary frown, it hadn’t been bought to be shared.
“Are you sure mixing sedatives and alcohol is a good idea, Mr Eames?”
Eames turns to grin widely at Arthur. He seems far too amused. “You really are the life and soul of the party.”
“I prefer to separate my intoxicants,” Arthur replies.
“Any other preferences I should know about?”
Arthur pretends he doesn’t notice Eames’ flirtatious tone, or the way Mal grins at him over Eames’ shoulder. “None that concern you, Mr Eames.”
There’s No Reason for a Fifth
The fifth time he runs into Eames, Arthur’s sitting in a hotel lobby, nursing a not-so-great glass of cabernet. He’s meeting up with Cobb and Mal in Paris at the end of the week, but he’s never been a fan of Paris. Narrow cobblestone streets and picturesque walk-up apartments make him begrudgingly yearn for Manhattan. He’d rather stay in this small Prague hotel, and wait a few days before he crosses the border.
He’s not expecting Eames to walk through the door.
He’s certainly not expecting Eames in an olive green turtleneck that clings to the breadth of his shoulders and the sheer muscle of his arms. Arthur takes a quick sip of wine, his mouth suddenly dry.
“Mr Eames,” Arthur says when Eames drops into the seat opposite him. Arthur’s on his third glass of wine. He can feel the flush on his face and the dulled edges of his senses, and he’s far too mellow to remember how much Eames should annoy him.
“Cobb said you were in these parts,” Eames says, easy and familiar. He smiles and raises a wine glass of his own, tapping it against Arthur’s with the thin clink of cheap glassware. “Thought I’d stop by for a drink.”
“Really?” Arthur takes another sip, noticing how closely Eames watches his throat move as he swallows. Arthur has time, he has a hotel room and he has Eames’ undivided attention. Arthur drags a finger across the mahogany polish of the low table between their chairs. “Was there something you wanted, Mr Eames?”
It’s hardly a subtle question.
Eames catches his lower lip between his teeth, grinning as he looks Arthur up and down. “I can think of a few things.”
“Good,” Arthur says, eyeing the last mouthful of wine in his glass. He gulps it down and then stands up, pulling out his room key. Eames leaves his full glass sitting on the low table.
Eames is a morning person. For some reason, that’s what catches Arthur by surprise. Arthur’s mostly asleep when Eames eases out of bed and runs a shower. When the shower stops, Arthur’s curled on his side, hiding from the sliver of sunshine sneaking past the curtain. Eames says something about having to take care of a few things and catching up later, while Arthur keeps his eyes shut and mumbles an acknowledgment before he drifts back to sleep.
It’s hardly Arthur’s first one night stand. He travels a lot, usually under a false name, and frequently breaks the law. It’s not the kind of lifestyle suited to a long-term relationship. Still, he can admit that he’s a little disappointed that Eames doesn’t reappear over the next few nights. He has pleasantly hazy memories of Eames’ soft, full lips and low, husky groans. He thinks it’d be nice to palm the steady contour of Eames’ chest and well-muscled shoulders when he’s sober enough to remember it clearly.
He doesn’t see Eames again until Paris. They’re meeting in an abandoned school, and the dust motes shimmer in the air when Eames opens the door. “You’re looking well rested, darling,” he says, eyes twinkling with mischief.
Arthur is equal parts charmed and annoyed. “And you’re almost late.”
“Almost. That’s an important distinction.”
It’s much easier to be annoyed. “Come inside,” Arthur says curtly and secretly hopes it’s the last time he works with Eames.
(It’s not. Eames is very good at what he does, although his spelling needs to be checked and he can effortlessly annoy the living hell out of Arthur. Arthur would complain but Eames also tends to find Arthur a few days before any job starts and spend a few nights in Arthur’s bed.
A recurring one night stand isn’t a relationship, but Arthur’s not going to live like this forever. He has contingency plans.)