It starts on a job in Milan, where (due to the mark's inability to make an actual decision about his next hypnotherapy appointment) there's a lot of downtime. Arthur itches with the urge to do something, anything. He'd kick back and read his book, but James Joyce's Ulysses demands more concentration than he's capable of manifesting right now. Instead, he paces up and down the bankrupt fashion store that's their base, uses the mannequins for target practice (hey, it's just a BB gun), smokes too much, and is thoroughly bad-tempered.
Each of the team has their own way of coping with enforced inactivity. Ariadne spends a lot of time trying to copy a bangle she saw in the Mercatone del Naviglio Grande. Laura, their extractor, plays endless games on her laptop. And Eames... Eames, often as not, has his feet up on the desk next to Arthur's, reading magazines and drinking iced coffee.
"Eames, you do know that's a magazine for teenage girls?"
"Yes, thank you, Arthur: my Italian isn't that shabby," says Eames, turning a page and smirking.
"I like the problem pages. And the fotoromanzas."
Arthur rolls his eyes.
"They're charming," says Eames indignantly. "A little romance never hurt anyone."
He leers at Arthur, who scowls at him.
The next day there's a single magazine page on Arthur's desk. Someone has glued Arthur's face (well, the face in the passport he's using at the moment, issued to one Lino Barese) over the girl's, and Eames' over the boy's. The perspective is all wrong and the colours don't match. Someone has also Tippex'd out most of the text in the speech bubbles, and replaced it with -- Arthur blinks -- a verbatim transcription of that conversation about fotoromanzas.
Someone has too much time on his hands.
Arthur smiles to himself, folds the glossy page twice, and puts it in the back of his moleskine.
They're in London, dealing with what the client claims is a 'delicate political situation', and Eames is planning to forge a Member of Parliament. For reasons that are unclear to Arthur (not least because he zoned out during Eames' long and improbable explanation) this involves a private viewing at one of the big galleries.
Arthur mingles with the crowd, sips his Chardonnay (over-oaked) and admiring the paintings. He doesn't need to keep an eye on Eames, doesn't need to watch him cosy up to the MP and her partner; he certainly doesn't need any confirmation that Eames can be dangerously charming when he wants. Instead, Arthur wanders off into the next room, and the next. He's always liked Botticelli.
As he's leaving his hotel the next morning the clerk hands him a crisp white envelope. Arthur accepts it gingerly. On the one hand, he's pretty sure that nobody knows he's staying here, apart from the rest of the team: on the other, you can't be too careful in his line of work.
He waits until he's alone in their short-let office before donning a mask and carefully sliding a knife along the edge of the envelope. Inside there's a postcard of Botticelli's Venus and Mars. Arthur frowns: turns it over. There's no message on the back.
Or, rather, there is a message, but it's not in words. It's a pencil sketch of the painting, the lines quick and sure. Mars has Arthur's face, right down to the scowl. Venus ...ha. Venus has had a sex change: it's Eames' face above the draperies, and instead of gazing at the sleeping (fucked out) Mars, he's looking out of the picture. (Arthur wants to say 'at the camera'.) He's winking.
Arthur huffs a laugh. He turns the envelope upside down and shakes it, but nothing falls out. Okay. He grabs Ulysses from his messenger bag, bins the Tube ticket that's been serving as a bookmark (how is he only on page 97?) and replaces it with the postcard.
Nobody's going to find it there.
I liked your artwork, he texts Eames from a rented apartment in Prague. He's taking a month off, keeping an eye on the BBC news, waiting to see if MI5 are good enough to join the dots, work out why that MP had such a change of heart, and track down the team that provoked it. So far it looks like they've gotten away with it. Meanwhile, Arthur doesn't know where the rest of the team ended up, and the only working number he has is Eames'.
Glad u approve, the message comes back. what can i say, i was inspired.
Arthur's been drinking Becherovka, a local liquor that is apparently made from forest herbs and rotting corpses. Obviously it's affecting his judgement -- not least by convincing him that contacting Eames would be more rewarding than reading Ulysses, because he texts back immediately: good to know you're thinking of me
"Oh, fuck," Arthur says out loud to the empty room when he realises how much ammunition he's given Eames with that throwaway message. Eames, who's always leering and winking and flirting and touching. Okay, it's a game. It's always been a game. Neither of them takes it seriously. Still: he's just upped the ante. What the fuck was he thinking?
His phone buzzes, but it's not a text. It's a picture message. Arthur needs another drink before he can bear to open it. Fuck knows what Eames considers an appropriate answer to that dumb line.
But when he finally bites the bullet, the picture's surprisingly innocuous. It's a headshot, Eames against a blank wall (good, thinks the small sane part of Arthur's brain, he's not giving anything away), looking right at the camera. Right at Arthur. It's the exact same expression as Venus, in the sketch he did in London. (Fuck, that mouth, Arthur thinks. Hey, it's been a while since he got laid, okay?)
Arthur switches his phone off before he can do anything so stupid as acknowledge receipt.
They're in Paris again the next time Eames bestows an artwork on Arthur. Nothing as obvious as a photo-message or a scrap of paper, not this time. In fact, it's so subtle that it takes Arthur a whole minute to notice that the picture above the desk has changed. This morning it'd been a blocky sub-Rothko abstract. Now it's an autostereogram, which means that at first glance it's nothing but a patterned blur of colour. The frame's the same: the picture isn't.
When Arthur was in high school he had a Magic Eye poster of Escher's Belvedere on his bedroom wall. He'd spent a lot of time staring at it, especially when he was stoned. There is no way in hell that Eames could possibly know that. (There is also, Arthur admits, no way in hell that the substitution could be the work of anyone but Eames.) But he's clearly confident in Arthur's ability to unfocus, to stare at the space behind the print and see the hidden picture.
When Arthur's brain makes sense of the image, several thoughts spring simultaneously to mind:
1) Eames' talents aren't limited to traditional media such as pen and ink, collage et cetera.
2) he needs a drink.
3) he really, really hopes the maids haven't encountered Magic Eye pictures before
The picture's on the wall facing the bed, which means Arthur can recline with the Tanqueray from the mini-bar and feast his eyes on... well. On Eames. Okay, he's never seen Eames nude, and he can't see the face of the guy in the picture. The swirling tattoos and the broad shoulders and the abs could be anyone. Really they could.
But Arthur's pretty sure ... and anyway, the guy's hand (which is helpfully holding his erect dick, pointing it right at the camera like an offering) is scabbed across the knuckles, just the way that Eames' hands had looked after that little fracas on the Metro the other day.
It's an offer, a suggestion, a proposition, a promise. Arthur downs the rest of his drink and sticks his own hand down his pants, because no way is he going to be able to think logically about this while his body's sitting up and begging so avidly.
He ignores the buzz of the phone -- it's Eames, it has to be Eames -- because he's busy coming at the thought of getting that broad, uncut cock in his own hand. In his mouth. Everywhere.
Once Arthur's showered and checked his messages (there's a text from Eames, of course there is: fancy taking in some art?, which makes Arthur laugh even as he deletes it) he gets to work.
Okay, it's not the job he's being paid to do. It's worth doing right, though. And besides, there's no way he's ever going to make it to the end of Ulysses. The Botticelli postcard's advanced to page 120. Eight hundred pages to go? Fuck that. Anyway, he knows the last line: his high school girlfriend had it on a tee. That's the only line that matters now.
Slicing out the last page of text, Arthur takes a black marker to it, obliterating everything except the last seven words. (Oh, and he missed 'kiss'. That's cool.) He highlights that last line, yes I said yes I will Yes: hesitates over adding his name, the place, the date, but decides there's no point. Eames'll know who it's from.
Arthur folds up the butchered page and stuffs it in a Hotel Convention envelope. Time to turn the tables.
He slips the envelope into Eames' jacket pocket while they're getting coffee at Cafe Debussy the next morning. Eames is too good a pickpocket himself to be oblivious to someone planting something on him, but he doesn't say anything: doesn't mention art, or illusions. Doesn't even leer at Arthur when Arthur pays for his coffee. Maybe he thinks Arthur didn't notice the picture in his hotel room. Maybe he thinks Arthur did notice it, and doesn't want ... doesn't want what Eames is offering.
Maybe it was just a joke. A game. Doesn't matter. Arthur's played his hand now, and all he can do is sit back and wait for Eames to make his move.
It doesn't take long.
"I liked your, ah, found art," says Eames softly, as he leans over Arthur's desk under the pretext of borrowing a pen. (Arthur is accustomed to these interruptions. Admittedly they've never -- well, seldom -- made his breath catch, his dick harden.) "Maybe we could discuss modern mixed-media some time? Over dinner, perhaps?"
"I'll order room service," says Arthur levelly. "You know where I'm staying."
Eames' slow, brilliant smile is all the more delightful for the complicity in it.
The next picture that Eames sends Arthur is a nine-by-nine package, delivered by courier to Arthur's New York apartment. (Eames, as far as Arthur's aware, is in Mombasa, tying up some loose ends. He's due back next week.)
The package contains an oil painting, and Arthur feels his face and neck flush hotly as soon as he unwraps it. Because it's him -- and, okay, Eames is always careful: it's not identifiable as Arthur, the strokes are too broad and bold to map to any photograph, but he knows his own face, knows the goddamned dimples that Eames loves to tongue -- it's him, and Eames has painted him at a moment of what Arthur, loosening his collar, decides to describe as 'extreme pleasure'. His lashes are wet, his skin's blotchy, he's biting his lip and grinning like a maniac and if there was anything as déclassé as a speech bubble above his head, it'd have Eames' name in it.
He turns over the canvas. There's nothing on the back: no signature, no quotation, not even a date.
Arthur hears what Eames is saying anyway.