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Keep the Car Running

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Part I: Depending on Your Focus: Moriarty, or Arthur & Eames

Chapter 1

Normally, Eames didn’t attract tails with such flair.

Which was why it took him an inexcusably long time to pick up on it. But being followed by a sleek black sedan didn’t happen to him often: not when he was on his own, had lain low for months, had a dry spell of interesting work, and was doing nothing more suspicious than taking a walk that happened to take him past the art gallery that had the sweet little sculpture in the window that Eames just happened to like. There was no law against liking art or walking through a neighborhood.

Eames, having spotted and confirmed the tail, spent the evening trying to determine who the tail might be. None of the usual suspects would ever have employed anything like that black sedan. Eames brushed up on false documents and fake identities but let his curiosity get the better of him. The next night he stepped off the pavement and directly in front of the car, which was only supposed to tap him, since it had been going slowly enough to stop in plenty of time.

That was his first mistake.

***

Eames woke to the familiar feeling of a cannula in his arm and the relatively unfamiliar feeling of being in an actual bed, with a blanket on him, all official. For a confused moment he cast his memory back to remember what sort of posh job he’d taken where he’d got himself all tucked into bed before going below.

And then the faint sound of beeping came to him, which he placed as keeping the rhythm of his heart, and that was when he remembered stepping off the curb, and then he opened his eyes, full of righteous indignation.

There was a man in the room with him, dressed in an impeccable three-piece suit and twirling an umbrella. Eames thought that men with a fondness for three-piece suits were the bane of his existence. He thought he should suggest, next time he saw Arthur, that he start carrying an umbrella of his own, for flourishing purposes. Eames had a sudden vision of Arthur whacking somebody over the head with the umbrella with one of his patented scowls and decided that, actually, the umbrella would be a good suggestion.

“You ran me over with your car,” Eames accused.

The man lifted his eyebrows as if he was surprised that Eames was upset at being hit by a car. “You’re perfectly all right,” he said.

“I’m in hospital,” Eames pointed out.

The man shrugged and regarded his umbrella closely. “It was a mild concussion. And a couple of bruised ribs.”

“I’m going to bloody sue you,” announced Eames cheerfully, pulling the cannula out because Eames didn’t stay in hospital longer than he had to stay in hospital.

“You’ve surely had worse injuries in your past,” continued the man off-handedly, still looking at his umbrella.

Eames regarded him, sizing him up, this odd tail he’d picked up and who had done an extraordinarily half-hearted job of killing him when given the chance. His hand itched to dig his poker chip out of his pocket, but there was no way he could do it gracefully in his current position. “Or you could just offer me a settlement now,” suggested Eames, deciding that he wasn’t going to remark on the fact that he’d been followed until this man did.

“I thought you might re-think your use of the criminal justice system,” remarked the man, finally putting his umbrella down and looking Eames straight in the eye. He had clear gray eyes and a hooked nose and a displeased mouth and thinning hair, and Eames catalogued every feature with habits born of a lifetime of forgery. One never knew when one might need to impersonate the new person in one’s life. “If you’re quite done, perhaps we can get down to business.”

“Quite done with what?” Eames asked.

“The acting, of course.”

Eames, after a moment, grinned. “I’ve no idea where you got your intel on me, but I never stop acting, mate.”

***

Despite being tucked up tight into a hospital bed, he’d been left dressed, which Eames accepted with gratitude when he had to follow the mysterious man down a corridor in which many other people were wearing undignified hospital gowns. Eames couldn’t quite determine where he was, as it didn’t seem to be a normal hospital. There wasn’t a single window, and other than patients and doctors and nurses, there was no one around. No regular person. Not a single civilian. Eames had the impression they were underground.

And, even worse than all of this, there was no poker chip in his pocket. Not a good sign. When the thing that guaranteed reality to you went missing, it left you feeling adrift. This could be a dream Eames was in, which would have explained his missing totem. Or maybe it wasn’t a dream and the poker chip had been confiscated at the same time as his likewise-missing wallet by people who hadn’t—or had—known how important the poker chip would be to Eames getting his bearings. Eames was honestly torn in half as to which scenario seemed more likely.

He followed the man in the suit easily enough, because he didn’t think there was any point in offering up a protest. Instead he said, “It isn’t acting; you hit me with your car.”

“You stepped off the curb,” responded the man, mildly, without slowing his stride.

“You were following me.”

The man said nothing, merely pushed open a door to what was clearly an interrogation room. The man gestured him in, and Eames hesitated on the doorstep, regarding the table piled with a stack of folders, the two chairs, and the two-way mirror on the wall. Eames was, as a general rule, not the world’s most enormous fan of interrogation. If this was a dream, he thought, wouldn’t he be able to dream himself up a gun and get out of here? Dreams, after all, were easy for him. Dreams were his literal job. He had always been an effortless natural at manipulating dreams.

Eames tried very hard to dream himself up a gun. No such luck. Possibly this was real life.

“Dinner would have been so much more polite,” he remarked. “A nice piece of steak, some good wine.”

“Paid for with someone else’s credit card?” asked the man benignly.

Eames shrugged, refusing to rise to any bait. The key to interrogation was to not be the person they were convinced you were. And this person seemed keenly convinced that Eames was Eames, so it was time to start being someone else entirely. Which, luckily, was not overly difficult for a forger to be. He couldn’t change his features outside of dreamspace, but he could change the rest of him easily enough no matter where he was. “Your private proclivities are none of my concern,” he said, and stepped into the room because he hadn’t been able to determine any other options. He sat as if he had decided to sit, as if there had been a choice, and carefully arranged himself carelessly in the chair.

The man sat opposite him and looked at the first folder on the stack. “Ah,” he said. “Diamond necklace, Monte Carlo.”

Eames didn’t frown outwardly, because Eames wasn’t being Eames at the moment, but he internally frowned a whole lot. Of all the things for this man to lead off with, a ridiculous petty crime of a nondescript diamond necklace, pawned off years ago to finance a move to South America? That had merited all of this over-the-top drama?

The man looked at the next folder. “Forged insurance policy used to collect monies for a destroyed restaurant in Prague. Which I suppose also adds arson to the list.” The man picked up another folder. “Smuggling an indicted corporate spy away from the extradition treaties, using very clever passports.” Another folder. “Ah, yes, the small business of one Frederick Milbanks, who never existed except for the week he spent robbing fellow guests blind at a resort on the Black Sea.” The man looked up from the files, lifting his eyebrows. “I can go on all day.” He gestured to the rest of the files in the stack.

“Is it possible to get some popcorn or something?” asked Eames. “I didn’t know there was going to be a story-telling hour.”

The man smiled a thin, unamused smile and pushed the folders off to the side. “I have need of your services. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way involves money. The hard way doesn’t.”

“What services?” asked Eames blandly. This was not the way things were done. Clients didn’t approach forgers first. Eames got jobs from his contacts in the industry, not from being hit by cars and revived in questionable hospitals with his totem gone.

“You know exactly which services,” the man almost snapped.

Eames thought it was possible he was getting to him, which was good because Eames much preferred to eventually work his way under the skin of unbearable men in three-piece suits. “Okay. You’ve got me. I am very good at making meringue. Little-known fact, but clearly your intelligence is solid.”

The man just looked at him.

“This isn’t about sex, is it?” continued Eames, almost enjoying himself now. “I mean, I’m well aware of my reputation, but, just between you and me, it might be ever so slightly exaggerated, just a tad, to—”

“So I take it you’re choosing the hard way?” interjected the man.

“In my experience, they’re both going to end up being hard ways, so I might as well choose the way that’s more fun.”

The man narrowed his eyes at him.

“Why don’t you tell me what it is that you think I can do for you, and then I’ll make a final decision?” suggested Eames, with what he considered great magnanimity.

“Do you think that you’re in a position to be negotiating?”

“I always think I’m in a position to be negotiating. If I do say so myself, it’s basically my best feature. Even more so than the only-slightly-exaggerated enormous penis we were just discussing.”

The man’s expression didn’t flicker at all, although he leaned back in his seat. Eames decided to interpret this as: fine, you’re slightly amusing. Arthur was far more fun to tease. Eames would have to tease him an extra lot the next time he saw him, just to wipe the taste of this subpar three-piece-suit encounter out of his mouth.

“I’m in need of a forger. Not for government documents. Trust me, there is no government document you could make that I couldn’t replicate immediately.”

Eames decided to pretend to be polite enough not to make a skeptical noise at that.

“I need a forger,” the man continued, and lifted his eyebrows meaningfully.

Eames lifted his eyebrows back, annoyed at all of this subterfuge. If this man wanted to hire a forger for an extraction, he could bloody well just come out and say it. If Eames had wanted to be a spy, he would have been a fucking spy. “I hope you find one, then,” said Eames.

The man spoke through his teeth. “It’s a complicated, sensitive, government job.”

Government was the wrong word to use. Eames hated working for governments. He hated jobs that had to do with things that weren’t money, and government workers were always some unholy mixture of greed and some lunacy they gussied up as patriotism. Eames had lived in an even hundred of the nations on the planet and affected more accents than he could remember any longer, dreamed in languages only his subconscious recalled how to speak, and he didn’t mind England enough that he had left it as the accent he spoke in, but he wasn’t about to start working for the sodding British government, thank you very much. “My spelling’s atrocious,” said Eames, “so I’m afraid I’d make a very bad bureaucrat. Even spellcheck is no match for me.”

The man said, “It involves confidential information, the utmost secrecy.”

Eames was offended and let himself look it. He’d been a forger for many more years than most people survived in a frankly brutal business, and at least fifty percent of that was because he kept his mouth shut and didn’t attract attention. He understood that forgers had the luxury of knowing how to lay low as a profession, of just having to wait for business to come to them. Extractors had to go out and drum up business; it made them more obvious targets when things went bad, more likely to spill secrets in an attempt to find the next mark and put more food on the table.

What Eames said, as true as anything he’d said yet on this strange day, was, “Doesn’t sound like the job for me.”

The man gave him that thin smile again. “Doesn’t it?”

“No,” Eames responded flatly. He was tired of this conversation. He wasn’t curious; he didn’t want to know any more. He wanted to get out of here, choose a passport, and flee to Santiago or something. “Look, if you want a forger, surely you have one already in your employ.” He cast his eyes meaningfully around the interrogation room.

“We do. But I am assured you are the best.”

Eames almost laughed. He was, but he couldn’t imagine who would have said that. “It’s possible they were talking about my penis again. I know it can get confusing, but—”

“We have…I believe you would call him a mark? Who has proven difficult. Tricky. We need the best. I was told that was you.”

Eames regarded him for a second. “That’s not how it works. You don’t go out and get a forger and throw him into a dream alone. Forgers don’t go in and steal information by themselves. There needs to be a team. No intelligent forger is going to leap into a dream without—”

“Without a point man?” finished the man.

Eames had been going to say “without an extractor they trusted.” It was the extractors who did the work, found the marks, pulled off the stealing. It was the extractors who were the cocky, annoying bunch who considered themselves to run the show. Teams started with extractors.

Teams didn’t start with point men. Extractors found point men the way they found the rest of them. The mention of a point man made Eames narrow his eyes. There was something purposeful about it that made him go a little cold. There was no good reason to mention point man at this juncture. This conversation was all well and good when Eames was the only one involved. Eames didn’t want to have a discussion about who the best point man in the business was.

Eames said carefully, “That’s a start.”

“You can choose your team,” said the man.

You mention point man and tell me I can choose my team, thought Eames, and recognized the nudge there, because he was a forger and he knew how to use the existing thoughts of a person’s brain to get what you wanted. Hasn’t it been a while since you’ve worked with the point man you prefer? Don’t you have more fun when you have Arthur on the job with you? Weren’t you just feeling listless over how dull and rote dreamsharing had become? You can choose your team here. It was clever, and it was terrifying, because Eames didn’t even think Arthur thought Eames liked working with Arthur better than anyone else in the entire dreamsharing world. Eames thought he’d gone to quite a lot of trouble to keep Arthur off of anybody’s radar when they were thinking about Eames.

Which meant this man knew more than possibly anyone else on the planet. Which was never a good thing. Not under any circumstances. Especially not these.

He wasn’t getting involved in this, and Arthur definitely wasn’t. It wasn’t that Arthur couldn’t handle it, probably better than Eames could, damn him. It was just that Eames had made it a personal goal of his not to get Arthur into trouble if he could help it.

Well. Not serious trouble. That little bit of trouble over the counterfeit currency in St. Thomas that time, that had been fun.

Eames thought about Arthur in a three-piece suit in fucking St. Thomas, vetoing Eames’s in-no-way-serious-to-anyone-but-Arthur suggestion that they steal a rickshaw; stealing a car and then overturning a cart of kitschy painted coconuts in order to get them a head start; and then being so furious about it all afterwards that Eames had been treated to the most hilarious lecture of his life. Arthur, in his three-piece suit, ranting on the beach over a couple of counterfeit dollars, his thousand-dollar Italian leather shoes sinking into salt-stained sand.

And Eames said, to this annoying mysterious government operative, “No.” And then, after a moment, “Thanks for the offer, though.”

The man didn’t look displeased, which Eames liked less than if he’d looked displeased. He glanced at the stack of files on the table. “And what do you suggest I do with all of these files?”

“Catch the perpetrators of the crimes?” said Eames, deciding he may as well go for broke.

“Oh, I already have,” said the man, and he smiled then and turned one of the files around to face Eames.

Eames took the bait because he didn’t know what else to do. Affecting intense boredom, he opened the file. And it wasn’t his face, wasn’t his name littered all over the file the way he had expected, the way it should have been because he had done every single thing that had been mentioned. It was Arthur’s.

Eames fought not to react, channeling the persona of an innocent person who didn’t care about Arthur and his stupid, sharp, irritated edges. He reached for another file, trying to look merely casually curious, and opened it. Arthur again. Arthur’s face, in a grainy, faraway photo, but there was no mistaking it if you were Eames and definitely no mistaking the cut of that obscene suit.

“I’ve learned a great deal by now about where to exert the pressure to get a person to do as you wish. It’s so very seldom that the pressure should be exerted directly on the person. The pressure points usually lie elsewhere.”

Eames closed the files he’d taken and arranged them very carefully and neatly, thinking hard.

“I think you should take the easy way, Mr. Eames. I think you should ring your point man, and I think you should tell him to come to London. I do not think he would be pleased with the outcome should you choose the hard way. The United States can sometimes be so cooperative when it comes to extradition. And, really, they have turned out to be remarkably good at spying on their own citizens.”

Eames sat back in the uncomfortable interrogation chair and folded his arms. He had no idea where Arthur was at the moment. He could have found him, given a bit of time, but he didn’t generally automatically keep tabs on Arthur unless something out of the ordinary happened. Like this. For all he knew, this man in front of him knew exactly where Arthur was. And Eames didn’t think this man actually gave a damn about extradition treaties.

“Ring Arthur?” he clarified. “And tell him to come on a secret government job I know nothing about? Arthur doesn’t even like me. You think he’ll just drop everything and come, do you?”

The man smiled, and Eames felt a cold trickle down the back of his neck. “Yes, Mr. Eames,” he said confidently. “I very much do.”

Eames considered without making it look like he was considering. Ringing Arthur might be a good thing, actually. If this was a dream, Arthur’s behavior would give it away. Eames could think of no forger who would be able to impersonate Arthur well enough to fool Eames. And if Arthur was merely Eames’s subconscious’s projection of him, then Eames was about to have very good phone sex in front of some mysterious government operative and then find some way to kill himself to wake himself up from this bloody annoying dream. And if Arthur was Arthur and this was all real life, then Eames was going to tell him to stay far the hell away from London, demand his poker chip back, and, if he had to, find himself someone else to work with on this ridiculously covert mission.