It wasn’t a craving so much as it was an itch, like a lone hair tickling at his wrist, that Arthur felt when he saw a speck of blood had landed onto his white shirt. The broken-nosed mugger wasn’t as much of an issue now that he was clutching his face on the ground, and he told himself the stain wasn’t really worth the change of clothes either if he was going to keep sweating in the searing heat. Since he quit two years ago, he didn’t regularly have cigarettes on him anyway.
Arthur wiped the sweat from his brow with one finger as he was occasionally buffeted by pedestrians bustling past him on the street. The last time Arthur smoked, he had an itch, though maybe it wasn’t an itch so much as it was a craving.
Arthur departed from the airport and redialed a missed call on his cellphone.
“Thanks for calling back,” came the voice of his landlord. “This is Mrs. Camfield. There’s been a break-in at the building. I haven’t called the police. Nothing’s been stolen as far as I can tell, except a painting.”
“The one, uh, next to the cactus, yes.”
“Alright, I’ll get over there as soon as I can.”
He had a long smoke to himself afterwards. His apartment door was the only one opened.
The sun’s rays shunted Arthur into a café, and he ordered a cup of espresso. The coffee was pleasant enough, but it didn’t make him forget he needed to retrieve his stolen painting. A singular Sargent oil work, a smiling shadow of a lady that had hung warmly above his sofa, snatched away by nimble fingers that ignored everything else in his apartment.
Arthur looked down. The cup only had a couple of brown dregs lying on the bottom. He placed it onto the counter, rose, and left the cool comfort of the roofed haven. Arthur had work to do.
The sound of a sharp knock disturbed Arthur, and he slowly opened his eyes. His vision spun in wobbly motions for a moment, before refocusing on a familiar face. Ariadne had popped her head into the office. “Your 4 P.M. appointment is in, Arty. And man, is she a looker—”
“Stop ogling at the client. This keeps up, you’ll scare even the sewer rats outta here,” Arthur replied, frowning. Few people who walked into the Manse Detective Agency decided to walk out with their wallets a little lighter.
“I expect you to take every sewer rat’s case to cover my salary, Mister.” She ducked her head out and closed the door before Arthur could get in another word. The door opened again, and in stepped the 4 P.M. appointment.
Ariadne was right; she had gams to stop taxicabs and the face to crash them. Her jacket and skirt were a demure brown, but he could tell from the way she squared her shoulders and held her head high, that she was a champagne-and-diamonds kind of gal. The shiny heels of her shoes reflected the grimy floor tiles. Her arched eyebrows and ruby lips demanded courtesy. Arthur folded his crumpled Daily News, covering the unfinished crossword, and rose to greet Mallorie Miles.
They shook hands. “I’ll take your coat,” he offered.
“Thank you.” Miss Miles shed her wool coat for Arthur to hang on the rack before sitting down. “We spoke on the phone earlier.”
“We did. Why the urgent need to meet in person?” He returned to his chair behind the desk.
She closed her eyes, looked like she was entering a world of her own, before snapping her lids back open. “Someone is going to murder me,” Miss Miles said with all of the conviction in the world.
Arthur paused. “And what makes you say that?”
Her lips quirked downwards, wrinkled her peach-skin face. “I’ve been followed for the past two weeks.”
“And you were followed to this detective agency?”
“I made sure to lose him before coming here,” she replied with a steely gaze and a tone that would sound harsh to the ears from anyone less gorgeous.
“What’d he look like?”
Her wavy bangs shook over her knitted eyebrows. “I never got a clear view of my tail.”
“You know the reason why someone’s after your life?”
She shook her head. “Non monsieur, I haven’t the faintest clue.”
“And you don’t think this could all be one bad dream?” Arthur took a good look at her when she pursed her lips. Steady brown eyes, maybe foolish, but steady thinking that she was going to be offed.
“I know, detective. That feeling, of being watched,” she cast her lashes downward, “it never leaves me. Look, I know you’re skeptical, but I can pay.” She took out her pocketbook and placed several wads of hard cash on his desk, pushing them forward with the edge of her fingertips. “Five hundred dollars now, five hundred after you catch my killer.”
“You mean would-be killer.” He knew that rich ladies could be paranoid, but at least they could afford to be.
“So you’ll take my case?”
Arthur eyed the green. He needed the money; no question about it. But it was an odd deal all around. “Alright. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do it.” He slowly picked up the wads, flipped through them, and then dropped them into the bottom drawer.
“Merci, detective,” Miss Miles thanked, face lighting up. They both got and up shook hands again. “I left my address with your secretary. I’ll call if I need anything.”
He showed her out through the door and listened until the clicks of her heels faded away.
“Well?” Ariadne posed from her desk, one eyebrow arched.
“Very classy sewer rat.”
Maybe Arthur should have suspected this, maybe he could’ve done something before everything went to pieces, but the only thing he thought about was the itch on his lower back when he picked up the phone in the middle of the night after rolling out of bed. “Hello?”
“Detective, this is Lieutenant Fischer speaking. I think you want to get down here.”
“And where is ‘here?’”
“253 Forty-Ninth Avenue. Second floor, you’ll know where we are. Hurry up.” The line clicked dead.
Arthur frowned at the abruptness, but rubbed his eyes open and stood up. His feet crumpled the newspapers laid below his bed. Rain pattered against window pane behind him. Within minutes, he was outside and in a car driving towards Forty-Ninth.
“You’re a sopping cat if I’ve ever seen one,” the lieutenant commented as Arthur approached him. walking towards an apartment door left ajar. Despite the fedora, water leaked into his hair, wriggled a lock out of place.
“A sopping cat’s just a cat after one too many days,” he replied. “So what’d you interrupt my sweet dreams for?”
“You know Miles of Miles & Brandford Construction, across the pond? His daughter Mallorie’s dead.”
Arthur felt a cold trickle of water behind his ear. “Why’d you call me?”
“We found your card on her vanity. Figured she maybe went to you ‘bout something. And she did, I’m thinking.”
“Yeah.” He glanced into the apartment and saw red. Lots. “Came into my office yesterday afternoon, letting on about someone wanting to murder her. No name, no motive, no clear leads. Of course, she wanted me to find out who. I took the case, but none too seriously.” His eyebrow creased.
“Well the dead dame’s got a job for you now then. Gonna brood or what?”
Arthur slipped out of his trench coat and hat, sprinkling water droplets onto Fischer, who wrinkled his nose. He placed them on the little table in the hallway corner before following him through the door. “She didn’t have any information, besides having a tail that could be Charlie Chaplin for all she knew.”
When they entered, Fischer motioned for an officer stooping on the carpet to leave. Officer Brandon got up and walked towards them, patted Arthur on the shoulder, and said, “My children thank you for this.” Brandon winked a sleepy eye at Arthur before leaving, and the detective tried not to roll his eyes.
Arthur took in the surroundings: a copper dusting the vanity for prints, somebody mumbling in a room to the right, and in the middle of the floor a large crimson stain shining like a bullseye. “There’s—“
“No body,” Fischer finished. They bent down for a closer look at the blood. “There’s no chance she could’ve lost this much blood and lived to drink another glass of champagne. We think stabbing wound, then she bled out. No shells. We found brown hairs in the carpet, but no sign where the body could have gone.” He nudged his head to the side, and they walked into the adjoining dining room. There, another cop was interviewing a bald, middle-aged man wearing a navy apron.
“He called it in?”
“Yah. Elliot Smith from Rudy’s Delicatessen. They take late-night orders. Said Miss Miles phoned ‘em asking for turkey on rye around 2:30 A.M. Operator confirms 2:27. Showed up, nobody answered his knock, left the sandwich outside the door, was about to drive back when he noticed the apartment window at the fire escape was smashed, so he dialed us up at 2:55.”
“Rudy’s? That’s so far downtown it’s practically in Brooklyn.”
Fischer shrugged. “Best subs I’ve ever had. She must’ve agreed.” They moved into the kitchen. Here, several spice jars were thrown about, herbs dotting the floor like green chickenpox. A chair had been knocked over next to a spot in the wall where floral wallpaper was peeled back, revealing the sleek silver of a key-hole safe. Fischer nudged the door open. It was empty.
“So it was a robbery?” Arthur asked, taking a closer look at the undamaged safe.
“Looks like it. Thieves break in, threaten Miss Miles to open the safe, snag the goods, kill her, and then run. With the body, apparently.”
And odd deal all around. “What was stolen?”
“Not sure. Coulda been cash, coulda been a snowglobe. Her jewelry box was emptied too, though.”
Arthur swept his eyes across the room before settling them back onto Fischer. “Odd that her tail would case her, and then they break in when she’s around.”
“Then you think it’s at least a two-person job too, huh. Probably weren’t counting on the safe being such a tough crack.” Fischer peered back into the living room and motioned for Arthur to follow him back. The copper dusting the vanity was gone now, and Arthur took the opportunity to examine the empty jewelry box. Fiscer kept talking. “But of all the rich eggs, they pick her. Her father’s company hit hard times back in Britain. She can’t have much besides her powder and bracelets.”
“Well, whatever they wanted,” Arthur replied, straightening himself up from the vanity, “doesn’t look like they got it, if they took the body too.”
“Unless they’re hiding evidence.”
“You got a suspect?”
“It’s no rumor she hangs with a shady crowd. One Dominick Cobb, who’s got connections to some Chinatown bootleggers, namely Saito and his gang.”
Arthur kept the twinge of recognition in his brain from surfacing on his face. He hadn’t seen Cobb in a long time, not since the war. They parted ways, Cobb disappearing into the west. Arhur hadn’t known he was back, but still he knew the soft-eyed man wasn’t the kind of man for this job. “Why would he need the money if he’s on a gangster’s payroll?”
“Who knows?” Fischer shrugged. “Word on the street is they were pretty tight. Maybe he wanted a shot at the big life, but found out she couldn’t afford no more than a cheap sandwich with no tomato.”
Arthur nodded slowly. “Alright, thanks for the call.”
“Just part of the investigation. You gonna look into it?”
“Yeah. She did hire me, and the thieves owe me half of the fee from their haul. But first I need to get some sleep.”
“Better hope we don’t crack this case before you wake up,” Fischer smirked.
“I wouldn’t count on it.” The detective gave a half-wave and headed out into the hall. He circled around a drunkard in a tux who mumbled whasappened, picked up his coat and hat, and drove back.
Arthur woke up with sunlight beating down on his face. His mouth was stale but the murder was still fresh. As if he had never fallen asleep in the first place, Arthur got up and fried breakfast. He took his eggs and slightly burnt toast with the morning newspaper. It read:
SOCIALITE STABBED AT HOME
A Gory Caper Amidst Peaceful Dreamers
New York.—Police found the apartment of Miss Mallorie Miles, thirty-five year old daughter of British magnate Millbrook Miles, broken into last night when Elliot Smith, delivering late-night, saw a suspicious broken window and alerted them to 253 Forty-Ninth Avenue. They discovered no body, but Miss Miles is presumed dead from vicious knife-work that left her blood plastered all over her home. The thieves made off with an unspecified amount of goods, and presumably with the body… body…currently…
The reporters got a hold of that story like blood-whiffing piranhas. Skimming over the rest of crockery they were fed by police who had gotten nowhere with the investigation, Arthur glanced at the rest of the headlines.
MORE GANG-RELATED DEATHS
CASSIDY’S CAT STILL MISSING
He bit his tongue at the last one. Leave it to the rich old lady to waste the city’s time looking for her pussy.
He finished his breakfast and left.
“Morning, Arty,” Ariadne chirped as he walked into the agency at exactly 9:00 A.M.
“Call me that again, I’m cutting your salary in half.”
She laughed. “Say that to my old man’s face. Your appointment’s in, by the way.”
Arthur stopped. “I don’t have any appointments today.”
“He said he spoke with you last night.”
They looked at each other. Arthur strode into his office.
“Who are you?” the detective demanded, throwing his coat onto the rack. The intruder was lounging in the chair, feet propped up onto the desk.
The seated man turned his head around. He grinned. “Good to see you again, detective.”
Arthur kept his face passive. It was the drunkard from last night. But this time with an unmistakable British accent. “When people want to speak to me, they make an appointment or wait outside.”
“I admit your secretary is adorable, but I was very anxious to meet famous Detective Manse,” he drawled. His body rose slowly, arm stretching out to shake; Arthur stepped towards his side, took something out of his pocket, and cuffed the stranger’s hand to the chair. When the stranger exhaled onto Arthur’s face, the detective smelled more of mint than booze. “Okay, I’ll make a point to remember that next time.”
“There won’t be a next time.” Arthur took his seat across the desk, facing the Brit. Short brown hair swept to the side. Some stubble. Green eyes, or at least they looked green in this light. Suit jacket spread open with a cocky stretch of his shoulders. An insufferable face. “I’ll have you charged for trespassing.”
“Surely you don’t want to waste the coppers’ time with trivial digressions when there are murders to be solved.” The man raised his eyebrows.
“What do you—“
Arthur’s revolver materialized in the stranger’s free hand. The barrel was aimed straight at Arthur. “I think listening to me would be a good idea. I wouldn’t break into a dick’s place without searching it afterward, you see. Oh, and here’s your cash back.” With his cuffed hand, he pulled out Miss Miles’ bills from his sleeve and threw them out to the side.
Arthur widened his eyes for a moment before a hint of a smile appeared. “It’s rare for someone to get the upper-hand over me.” With a flash of metal Arthur flipped out the gun he lifted when he cuffed the stranger. “As I said, it’s rare.” The barrels stared each other down.
“Big trap for a small gun,” the stranger said.
“You stay outta jail by jerking around men with itchy trigger fingers?”
“I stay alive by bluffing. Who says that gun’s loaded?”
Arthur grinned. “Who says hers ain’t? Ariadne!”
The door burst open. Ariadne rampaged in, brandishing a shotgun. She prodded the back of the man’s head with it. “Don’t point a gun at Arty, you ragamuffin.”
The man’s eyes widened, but he looked amused. “What a gal.” He dropped the revolver. It clanked onto the floor and was promptly kicked to the side. “I think I like you guys.”
“Our guns do have dashing personalities,” said Arthur, moving to retrieve his gun.
“I realized.” The stranger scratched his stubble. “I suppose I haven’t introduced myself yet. I’m Eames.”
Ariadne walked into the office and handed a folder to Arthur. “Officer Hamilton sends his regards.”
Arthur nodded in thanks, and the secretary left the room, not before flicking their guest in the head. Their guest was still cuffed. “Where’d you get her?”
“A lion’s den.” She actually quit clarinet in an all-girl band, but they were pretty much the same. “So, Mister Eames,” Arthur began, scanning the police records, “you’ve been charged with twenty-three counts of burglary, theft, larceny, and assault.”
“But never convicted,” Eames pointed out.
Arthur continued. “Last apprehended working with Two-Point Danny, Carousel Smithy, Abigail Smokefiend, the Table-Hound Kid, and Grip McHannahan on the Shuman Bank heist.” He paused. “Got a first name, Eames?”
“Nope. Mum forgot to fill out my birth certificate.”
“I see she didn’t leave you with a name, but she left you her brains.”
“That’s a low blow, even for a dick like you,” Eames clucked. “Mum’s rolling in her grave now.”
Arthur raised a brow.
“Okay, she’s living happily in the countryside cutting up chickens, but I never did nothing that wouldn’t make her proud. The Shambody caper, Vance Cici Duboy said he’d bump me off if I didn’t find a way into the lady’s heart and house. And the bank robbery, they were gonna give me to the coppers if I didn’t help ‘em stick the place up. All in self-preservation, you see.” He held one palm up, as if self-preservation placed him higher than the other crooks on the moral ladder.
Arthur lounged back in his chair. “You talk too much, Eames.”
“My mouth’s gotten me out of a lotta tight spots.” Eames’ smile was bordering on a smirk.
“So what’s a conman like you doing in a sleuth’s joint? Looking for metal piercings?”
Eames’ face looked bored, but his eyes were bright like a cat’s in the dark. “You’re the sleuth; figure it out.”
Arthur stared him down, but there was no way to crack Eames’ mouth open except with his own. “Mallorie Miles.”
“Yes.” Eames put one leg over the other. He folded his hands on his knees, showing that the cuff was picked and no longer attached to the chair. Arthur started up, but Eames said, “Relax. I’m here to hire you.”
Arthur slowly sat back down, but kept his grip on the chair arms. “I don’t take cases from crooks, much less lying crooks.”
One hand rested on Eames’ lap, and the other rested against his chin. He peered over it. “You want to find Mal’s killer, don’t cha?”
Arthur made a small huff. He took out a case of matches and a cig from his pocket, lit up, and blew out a stream of smoke. It wafted above his face like a ghost. He motioned for Eames to continue.
“I was heading home last night when I spotted all the ruckus outside the building. I snuck in, checked it out, and whatd’ya know, some thief made off with this dame’s jewels.”
“And you want help finding the looters so you can get a hold of their stash.”
“Damn right. And you didn’t even need a magnifying lens for that.” Eames relaxed into the chair’s back. “I have some friends who know of the dame. We help each other out, we both get what we want.”
Arthur stared at the conman. Eames’ mug gave the impression he would enjoy eating up all of New York for dessert. It was unnerving. “Stealing from the dead is sicker than stealing from the living.”
“Not her stuff anymore.”
Arthur’s frown deepened, and he got up. “I’ve had enough of your gum-mashing.”
“Wow, Budsy Spade was right. You really are the straightest sleuth on the East Coast. Anyone else woulda jumped at my offer and probably cut me out of the picture when we found the goods.”
“Get out of my office before I get the coppers.”
“Can I get my gun back first?” asked Eames, holding his palm out.
“Scram.” Arthur stared him down.
Eames picked up his hat, got up lazily, and rebuttoned his jacket, handcuffs jingling merrily like a bracelet. “I promise you, before the night is over you’ll be needing my help again, darling.”
Arthur kept his gun in hand as he led the man to the door. Eames tipped his hat to Ariadne before strolling out of the agency.
“I don’t know what he’s made of,” Ariadne looked up from her typewriter, “but it smells.”
“Yeah,” Arthur agreed, leaning on the wall behind Ariadne. “The punk breaks into my office, and then he compliments me.”
When the moon took the sun’s post in the sky, the city lit up like the eyes of a dame at Tiffany’s. Arthur crossed the street, briskly avoiding a honking car. Hands in his coat pockets, he headed down an alleyway, the passage fogged up by steam rising from the grates.
Emerging on the other side, Arthur heard raucous laughter and a couple of biting curses thrown around. A group of men, some sitting on crates, others lounging against the brick wall, were circled around a craps game. Arthur spotted a man with dark, greasy hair grimacing at the dice on the right. “Nash, let’s talk.”
“Spot me five, and we’ll talk,” Nash replied, which was followed by make it ten! we could use the cash and a couple of laughs. Arthur just gazed on coolly, and the stool pidgeon got up and approached. “Fine, whatd’ya want? Not another dope peddler is it? The last one’s hussy nearly knocked me cold.”
“Your fault trying to cash out his place. Now cut the bull. Where can I find a Dominick Cobb?”
“Geeze, geez alright. Dom Cobb? Might wanna try the flower shop down on Fiftieth and Sixth Ave.” His thin lips curled up. “You know, a lotta people’ve been looking for him.”
“Lincoln might know,” Nash replied with feigned indifference. Arthur unfolded a crisp five out of his pocket, but held it tight even after Nash grabbed it. “Some of Cobol’s been asking around. Coppers too. That guy must be in deep—”
“Thanks, Nash.” Arthur let go of the fiver. “Don’t lose it all at once.”
Arthur took a cab to Forty-Ninth Street and then walked a block until he was standing outside of Kate’s Florals. It was getting late into the night, but he spotted a dim glow through the plastic tulips in the window and walked through the door. Inside, a sandy-haired girl was scribbling on some cards. “We’re closed,” she said without looking up.
“I’m looking for someone.”
“If it ain’t me or those rosebuds, you can scram.” She kept scribbling God-knows-what.
“Well, what a pleasant surprise.”
Arthur turned around, a little faster than he would have liked to. Eames stood there smiling, as nonchalant as he had been in the morning. But his suit was now replaced with a sleeker tuxedo, a little bowtie adorning his neck.
“We’re closed,” the girl repeated.
Eames remained unperturbed as he approached the counter. “I’m looking for some sunflowers for my lovely boy here, and all the other shops are flat out.”
“You—” Arthur started.
“We may have some left in the back.” The girl looked up. If you’d follow me, sirs.”
She turned around and disappeared behind bouquets of carnations sticking out from their racks, with the two men quickly following behind. They went through a large open hatch on the floor of the storage room, feet clapping on cement. Arthur resisted the urge to slam Eames’ head from behind for his previous comment, out of dignity and darkness in the narrow passageway. But they soon reached the end, and the girl opened a wooden door, revealing far less stark surroundings: “Welcome to the Incipere Club.”
The door closed behind them as Arthur and Eames walked onto the red carpeting. The club was a grand space before them, shiny wood and shinier dresses. The night was still young, and the mahogany tables were only somewhat filled with bobbed women and smooth-talking men. A piano played softly in the background as a thin blond on stage sang out a sultry what is it to be a lover and take me far away, love.
“Don’t look so grumpy, detective, have a drink,” Eames said as they approached the bar.
“How’d you find me here?” Arthur scowled. He took a seat nevertheless.
“By now, a roach living under a rock buried twenty feet down would know by now half the city’s after Dom Cobb.” Eames waved a finger and a bartender began to walk towards them. “You should be a little more thankful of me helping you out after being cuffed to a chair.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
The wild-haired bartender came over. “Hey, Eames. Haven’t seen you in a week.” He glanced at Arthur. “Not blond, but he’s classier than your usual rent,” he commented.
Arthur’s eyes narrowed dangerously on Eames, and he replied, “Not today, Yusuf. This is Detective Manse.”
When Yusuf stared suspiciously, Arthur clarified, “Just here for a drink and some questions. I don’t work with the coppers.”
“Thank god. We already shell out enough dough for those dinks as is.”
Yusuf made quick with their orders and placed two glasses on the counter. “You said you had questions?”
“Yeah.” Arthur put the glass to his mouth and, face half-obscured, asked, “You’ve seen Dominick Cobb ‘round here?”
Yusuf’s eyes went blank. “Nope, I haven’t.”
“You can trust him,” Eames said as he lit a cigarette.
The bartender looked at him and sighed. “I know you trust me enough that you’ll drink what I give you if this goes bad for me, poisoned or not.” He turned back to Arthur. “You’re talking about my boss, detective.”
“He owns Incipere?” Arthur managed to keep his voice from rising in surprise. It was credit to Cobb but a blow to his pride that his old friend established himself among the speakeasies without Arthur getting a whiff of his name.
“Yeah, but he disappeared four days ago.”
“That was before the incident with Miss Miles,” said Arthur.
Yusuf nodded. “Marlon’s been handling things instead. Nobody knows where to find him. He could’ve fallen into a manhole for all we know.”
“Where’d you last see him?” Arthur’s fingers tapped at his glass.
“His office at the back of this joint, talking to one of the Chinese about the latest shipment. I left after telling him to replace some chairs after a barfight.”
Arthur mulled over this. “You think one of the gangsters could’ve done him in?”
“Well we’ve had no trouble with them before. And Cobb’s a lot more slippery than people think.”
“You wanna talk about Cobb and Miss Miles?” Eames asked.
Yusuf looked at him shrugged. “Head over heels. Bit annoying if you ask me. Always tittering at the bar. Pair of lovebirds, if lovebirds could drink most people under the table.”
“So you don’t think he could’ve bumped her off?” Arthur asked.
“No chance in hell. As sure as you are sitting here.”
“Descartes would say we could just be dreaming that we’re sitting here,” Eames cut in with a thoughtful look.
“I think you should stop talking about that guy all the time, before I mix you something a little too strong,” Yusuf said, wiping a glass with deft hands.
Arthur switched topics with, “You know where I can find these peddlers?”
“Never been to their base myself, I’m afraid.” He paused. “Maybe you wanna check out Meng’s Eatery in Chinatown. Cobb’s favorite place to get noodles, and some other things if he’s in the mood.”
“That’s some help, thanks.”
“Detective, I hope you find the egghead. He still owes me last week’s paycheck.”
Arthur raised his glass in affirmation and threw the rest back. With that, he left some money on the table and got up. “Thanks for the words. And Eames, don’t follow me out.”
“And here I thought this was the beginning of a beautiful partnership,” Eames said, but nonetheless remained behind, sipping from his glass.
The detective strode back across the room with his newfound information. Arthur hoped this didn’t mean there’d be a turf war between gangs. Cobb’s contacts were spelling trouble.
A waiter approached him and showed him out of the club through a different passage, opposite the flower shop one. After ascending a set of steps, Arthur emerged through cellar doors in a back alleyway. He took a minute to get a hold of his bearings. The streets were getting noisier, with muffled claps of heels and riffs of auto engines spilling through the air. From a rail above, a water droplet fell and hit the ground. With each drop, the sound grew heavier. It dropped louder. And louder. It was pounding the asphalt. Arthur whipped around, but it was too late. A hulking figure had approached him from behind. The man fired two shots. There were screams in the distance. Arthur fell.
He opened his eyes and immediately regretted it. The light stung at him, and he quickly shut his eyes, tears trickling out from the sides. His head throbbed harshly, and it felt as if his surroundings had warped around him. His arms felt like dead weight, heaps of lead stuck to the bed he was lying in. He tried to turn his neck to get a look-around, but it was stiff as a jerky. His whole body ached.
“Fuck,” Arthur mumbled. There was a soft laugh in the background.
“Try not to move. Yusuf only took out the bullets some hours ago.” A blurry face hovered over him. It sharpened into a feminine set of eyes, a nose, and a mouth. She wiped his forehead with a cool washcloth. “How do you feel?”
Arthur was tempted to say like shit but thought it would be more practical to say, “Thirsty.”
The woman nodded and left his vision. She returned with a tall glass and helped prop his head up. When Arthur tasted the cool water in his mouth he said, “Not that kind of thirst.”
She laughed again and disappeared out of the room. With a flourish, she reappeared with a smaller glass of amber-colored liquid. “That’s the last of it.”
She held it to his lips. Arthur sipped the beautifully burning drink. “Thanks, Mal.”
“Someone has to take care of you since you clearly don’t take care of yourself,” she clucked, leaving the glass in his hands. She walked to the windows and opened the blinds until sunlight peaked in through the striped openings. It cast a soft glow on her faded wool dress and her features, growing older at the edges, but still just as lovely. “I keep telling you to know your limits, but you just get your body torn apart.” Her voice grew quieter. “You don’t have a partner anymore.”
“I don’t limit myself, that’s why I’m good at sleuthing,” Arthur replied gently, looking at her. “I can handle myself without Cobb.”
The man was killed nearly two years earlier, after a surprise meeting with a murder suspect caught him from behind the head with two little, deadly, lead slugs. Cobb was dead before he hit the ground. Gone with a snap of the fingers were his years wooing a French immigrant, teaching a street urchin the tricks of the trade, losing God-knows how many pots to Arthur’s poker face, and smoking Chesterfields after every meal. Arthur hated Chesterfields. He always carried them ever since.
“You’re just like my husband: bull-headed.” Mal smiled forlornly and shook her head. She took care of him just like her husband, too. “Do you remember anything before you woke up?”
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment. The contents of last night stayed murky. He shook his head.
“You must have been shot while tailing Mr. Milkins to that Ferraday Hotel.” She placed a warm hand on his shoulder. “You should be thankful. Yusuf found you coming back from one of his clients and drove you all the way here before the coppers nabbed you.”
“His driving would’ve killed me faster than those bullets,” he deadpanned. Arthur eyed the paper on Mal’s bedstand. “The reporters mention me?”
She spread the newspaper open for him and chuckled. “Just a couple words about mysterious shots and bloodstains in an alley,” she said, pointing a rough finger at a corner paragraph. “They spent more room on a dead pig stolen from a meatpacker’s floating up in the Hudson.”
“Good to know the city cares for its bacon,” Arthur replied, settling his head back onto the pillow.
There was a knock at the door. When Mal opened it, he heard someone enter the apartment and pad his way into the room. Yusuf, placing his black bag on the dresser, was quickly followed by a cat. It rubbed Yusuf’s leg affectionately. “Hullo, Arthur. Feeling better?”
He stared at Mrs. Cassidy’s million-dollar insured cat, which had wormed its way to Yusuf’s side.
Arthur had seen odder things in life. “If there was more booze, I would.”
“You’re not leaving that room Arthur,” Mal said, voice charming and bear-like. She reappeared by his side and gave him a peck on his pale cheek. “You get plenty of bed rest. Yusuf’ll take care of you while I’m at the factory. I’ll see you boys later.” She grabbed her bag from the dresser and left the room. The front door clicked shut, and Yusuf returned his attention to the detective. The cat meowed.
“You’re lucky they’re only minor wounds. A .38 clipped your right shoulder and the left side of your chest. That slinger has some bad aim. Any idea who coulda done it?”
“Maybe the milkman. You got the slugs?”
Yusuf grabbed a small plastic bag from his case and placed it in Arthur’s coat. Arthur slowly sat up and rubbed the bandages wrapped around his torso. The whiskey had dulled the pain. He looked at the empty glass on the table next to him. “We’re getting drinks, right?”
Yusuf was a house doctor who gained a good enough reputation with punctual visits and without questions asked that he regularly got calls from the upper class. His trade was in medicine, but his hobby was in drugs. Healthy people are all the same, too boring, he said. His glasses hid his smarts and his appraisal of the world as one big plaything. “Car’s outside,” Yusuf said, grinning.
When they arrived at the Incipere Club a couple of hours later, it was quiet and peaceful, the sleepy afterimage of a place brought to life by heavy drinking and bursts of jazz. The bandstand empty, the stools flipped onto the bar like turtles, the room bright from sunlight entering with Yusuf and Arthur through the door. The club was empty except for a busboy sweeping in the corner and two familiar figures still seated at a table as if the tiled floor was covered in shiny dance shoes rather than crumpled napkins.
One of them waved. “Mornin’,” Eames greeted. He was leaning back in his chair, white undershirt wrinkling underneath his suspenders. His upper chest was exposed, and he was smiling gaily, as welcoming as anything. “You look stiff, Arthur. Late night?”
“Was shot. The usual.” Arthur took a seat next to the stevedore Eames, whose clothing still had a scent of seawater from wear at the docks, while Yusuf went behind the counter and grabbed a bottle of scotch and some glasses.
“Lucy’ll put it on my tab,” Yusuf told the glaring busboy before sitting down at the table. He poured the hooch for Arthur and himself before looking at the other patron, who was eyeing them both mildly. “Who’s your friend, Eames?”
“Name’s Aria the Finch,” Eames introduced, ruffling the woman’s bobbed hair.
She swatted his hand away. “Haven’t been Aria since San Fran. You eggs can just call me Ariadne.” Her smile was sweet and rock hard. She was in a flapper dress she probably wore through booze and men last night, and was twirling a gold-colored chess piece in her fingers.
“She went on the lam after killing her twenty-three husbands. She knocked off a twenty-fourth too, but he divorced her first and ruined her count,” Eames teased.
“Bullshit,” Ariadne retorted. “I never signed the papers.” The bishop piece stopped and disappeared somewhere underneath her foldless green dress. “So who are you guys?”
“Arthur here’s a private dick.” Arthur felt the lingering warmth of Eames’ hand on his back before it slipped away. “And this clown Yusuf’s a quack.”
Eames got a swift kick from Yusuf and the chair nearly toppled over. “Anyone ever tell you you’re an insufferable beezer?”
“I’m sure the thought’s crossed many a mind.” Eames’ chair now remained firmly planted to the ground.
“I’m a doctor,” Yusuf corrected. “If you never want a nurse nosing into your bullet wounds, feel free to call me.”
“Thanks for the offer. I like a man who’s skilled with his hands,” Ariadne said evenly.
Eames hacked out cigarette smoke. Some ash spilt onto the waxed table. “Anyways, Arthur,” steering his face to the left, “how’d you get slugged? Turn down another hooker?”
“I was on business, Eames. It’s not very exciting.”
“Spill it, Arty,” Ariadne demanded, bright-eyed.
Arthur sighed. “I honestly don’t remember much from last night. Apparently I was tailing a cheating husband, and next minute I wake up with a hole in my shoulder.”
“It ain’t serious?” Eames asked, moving a concerned face near Arthur’s.
Arthur stared right back, before breaking his gaze and addressing the entire table with a wave of the hand. “No, just clipped me. Whoever it was was trying to scare me. Or’s a shitty shot in general.”
“Honestly, he coulda pulled the slugs out himself. You owe me, Arthur,” Yusuf said as he wiped his mouth of gin.
“Next time I send you a client, I’ll tape a thank-you card to his back.”
Eames was mulling over something. “Ferraday Hotel, as in the one on Park Ave?” Eames asked.
“Gorgeous bathrooms,” Yusuf commented. “Mr. Hines called me up there once. Shoulda nicked a faucet head when I got the chance.”
“If you can get me in, I’ll glaum all the free faucets and soap I can for you,” replied Arthur.
“I think,” Eames started, “I have an idea to get in. You’ll need me, ‘course.”
“Will this be like how you broke into that Setview Bank with a peacock costume and a chocolate cake?” asked Ariadne.
“That was you?” Arthur almost yelled. Cobb never let him hear the end of it when he lost the culprit in a car chase.
“Hush, no it wasn’t,” Eames cut in. “Anyways, this wouldn’t be the same get-up. And I’ve gone straight since then.”
“You get me in, and I’ll ignore that,” said Arthur.
Eames clapped his hands together with a smile, and Yusuf said, “Just don’t get shot, both of you.”
The sidewalk glistened from the drizzle that had pattered down earlier, and Arthur breathed in the fresh scent of after-rain. It was the only thing he appreciated out of this entire, botched plan.
“Relax, darling,” Eames said as he strolled down the path with Arthur, one arm hooked around one of the detective’s, elbow pressing against his side. It was warm in the cool air, and oddly comforting.
“You’re supposed to keep your head shut.” Arthur was agitated. He was now stripped of his usual rough trenchcoat and had donned his only tux.
After rummaging through the city’s seedy underbelly and finally discovering the Mr. Fent’s daughter mixed up with some seedier hoods, the tailor thanked him with his pins and needles. He wore the result now, playful white bowtie looking odd against his serious mug. There was a small white carnation in his pocket, and pomade in his slicked back hair, a helmet against the high society milling around them on Park Ave, who seemed to, hopefully, not give them the slightest glance. He was out of his element. Arthur was immoveable in the face of guns and gangsters, but conning was not among his daily routines. He gritted his teeth and muttered, “I feel like a tuna among sharks.”
“You’re a Mr. Pullman among sharks,” Eames replied with Arthur’s persona. He patted the Arthur’s arm lightly. “You look just like one of Leyendecker’s finest.”
If anyone else proposed the idea, Arthur would have flat-out refused. But Eames had a way of pursuing, cajoling a bud of faith out of tempered soil, the way he viewed reality as malleable clay.
“Remember, you’re not getting the short end of the stick.” Eames himself was wearing the most eye-catching garb on the street: worker’s clothing. His brown pants barely covered his ankles, and the shirt he wore under suspenders had some grease stains. But no one gave them the slightest look as they walked by towards Ferraday Hotel. Arthur thought back to when he first developed, now seemingly unnecessary, misgivings about the ridiculous con.
“This is ridiculous,” said Arthur.
“As ridiculous as running into firefights,” replied Eames. “Now listen. Those rich kicks sometimes come down to the wharfs. Pick a dashing young lad and invite him back to the car. You wear enough dough, people turn a blind eye. Or they follow you all the way home.”
“Why don’t I just go in alone?”
“With that tux, it’ll take one look and they’ll pass. With me and the tux, they won’t even take one look.”
“That’s swell bullshit Eames, go on.”
“How will you handle the weight of high society bearing down on you? How will you pass those cryptic social cues without me at your arm?”
“You just want a hand at those faucet heads.”
“You know me so well.”
Arthur wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about Eames playing his homosexual lover, though he had no more time to follow that train as they approached the hotel door. Arthur kept a stiff lip and a haughty aloofness. Eames’ face remained mild and submissive, and the detective had to admit that if he were to ever to play a millionaire who spent frivolous nights behind closed doors with manual laborers again, Eames would be his go-to guy. The doorman gave a, “Evening, sir,” as he opened the door for them, and they entered without any trouble.
The inside smelled of faint perfume and oyster fruit, and a jazz melody could be heard from the lounge to the right. The hall was brightly lit with twinkling chandeliers lifted high above their heads, casting an other-worldly glow on the other guests.
When they approached the front counter, the receptionist behind it said, “Good evening, sir. How can I help you?” His thin, pointed black mustache bobbed up and down with his bushy brows.
“I’d like to speak to a Mr. Vern Milkins, whom I believe is staying here,” Arthur said, the line practiced and commanding.
The receptionist nodded and thumbed through a set of cards. Having found the room number, he rang it up, but set the phone back down when no one picked up. “He is out at the moment, sir.”
Arthur put on a frown. “I was afraid of that. I won’t be in tomorrow, so I’d like to have this letter sent to him.” He handed the receptionist a letter Eames had penned earlier, containing general well-wishes and a fable about an impotent turtle.
“Will do,” the receptionist replied, taking the letter and glancing at the corner address, “Mr. Pullman.” He turned to the wall behind him, and Arthur watched as he placed the letter in a box with the label embossed with 317—
“There you are, Mr. Pullman,” came a voice nearby. Arthur turned his head to see a man with rather feminine features dressed in a double-breasted suit. He looked at Arthur expectantly. “We have been looking everywhere for you. My name is Robert Fischer, from Fischer Morrow. I am here on behalf of my father to negotiate the merger. It is a pleasure to meet the president of Proclus Energy.” He held out a hand.
Arthur stiffened. “I’m afraid you’ve mistaken me for someone else, Mr. Fischer. I’m Mr. Charles Pullman.”
Fischer pulled back in surprise. “Well I’m terribly sorry about that. Have a good evening.” He walked away to make a more thorough search of the lobby, and Arthur felt oddly proud that he passed for a millionaire executive.
“You should’ve shook his hand,” Eames said quietly as they moved towards the elevators.
Arthur glanced at him with half-lidded eyes. “At least try to remember you’re no swindler anymore,” he clipped.
“It’s terribly hard,” and he went quiet when they entered the elevator.
Arthur requested floor three, and the metal gates closed in front of them. The lift passed each floor with a rankling scratch until they finally arrived at the third stop. The pair exited into the hallway, and the elevator rattled away.
“317 is that way.” Arthur steered them towards the right, and then turned left down the hallway.
They found the room logically sandwiched in between 315 and 319.
“Keep a lookout for me,” said Eames. He pulled a pair of pins out of his pocket and began to fit them into the lock, while Arthur covered the view discreetly.
“You’d have made the better investment banker,” Arthur commented as he watched the hall.
“I have no tux, remember?” Eames wriggled a pin into the lock. “And I can’t be bothered to shave my face. The boys down at the wharf would never take me seriously.” One click. “And you hit on all sixes yourself, even with your chest hole.”
Arthur’s body went rigged. He quickly flicked his eyes at the back of the Eames’ head, hair greasy but pulled back more elegantly than that of any millionaire. Arthur watched the strain of muscles appearing and disappearing underneath the wrinkles of his simple shirt, like dunes of sand in the wind. Arthur’s mouth parted. “Are you like this with everyone?”
Eames looked slowly up, turning from the lock. “Like what?” The pins remained still. “I dunno if you’ve noticed, but I generally think of you as a skilled detective, even if you didn’t pinch me that time at Setview Bank.”
Arthur opened his mouth, but changed his mind about speaking when they heard the clanking of a cart wheeling its way around the corner.
Normally when Arthur was found in a place he wasn’t strictly supposed to be, he was found by a shady thug whose first words came out of a gun, so natch Arthur’s fingers went for the cool metal in his pocket, brushing against his lucky die. But Eames grabbed that hand and swung it back so it hit the wall. Eames’ other hand grabbed Arthur’s collar and pulled it forward — his chest wound throbbed — until Arthur’s lips smashed into his, their chests touching and hearts pounding. Eames’ hand let go of Arthur’s, and they were kissing as room service rolled its way towards them. Arthur’s whole body tensed when the worker stopped at room 312, and he felt tense with Eames’ lips on his, but then his body melted, and the pain of his bullet scratches began to slip away, and he was actually enjoying this—
“Alright, he’s gone,” Eames said, sliding away and turning back to the doorknob, leaving a void of heat Arthur couldn’t feel. “Didn’t miss that dirty look he shot us, though. What a prude.”
Arthur blinked, mind still reeling. The click of the successfully jimmied lock broke his daze, and he mechanically followed Eames into the room. It was empty, as the concierge had stated, but left behind were some suitcases and scattered clothing.
“What should I be looking for?” Eames asked.
“Any sign a woman’s been filling out here,” Arthur responded automatically. He skimmed his eyes through the bathroom before settling back in the main room, where Eames was flipping over the sheets and checking under the pillows, his back to Arthur. Eames looked animated. He bent down, now covered in shadow, and said, “Nothing here.”
“I should have guessed that, coming from you.”
Eames straightened up and turned, looking quizzical. “Look,” he started, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to blindside you like that—“
“No,” said Arthur. “That’s not it.”
Arthur thought he’d seen every thing the city had to offer by the time Cobb had died, but then Arthur found the man running three blocks to nab a thief because the boy had taken the last piece of marzipan from a confectionery. (Eames exchanged it for a dime). Arthur wasn’t sure what it was about Eames. It was as if every time Arthur saw Eames again, the kaleidoscope had shaken just a fraction, revealing another facet of himself that confused, surprised, delighted Arthur the way criminals, no, people, normally didn’t.
And sometimes the kaleidoscope shook a little too much.
“I thought Ariadne, I mean, Aria the Finch looked pretty familiar when I saw her.” Arthur was rigid, staring back from the other side of the room.
“Pardon me?” asked Eames.
“Different dress, but same silhouette traipsing around with Milkins in the photo the wife gave me,” Arthur continued. “And you were looking pretty chummy with her.”
Eames remained quiet for a bit, realization dawning on his head. “I hang out with a lot of fellas who ain’t straight as me, that’s no secret.” He looked calm, but there was a harshness in his eyes. “If you’re going to accuse me of something, accuse me, but I’ve been on the level with you since the incident with Mal, and the Arthur I know is nothing sneaky.”
Sneaky. That was a word for crooks and former crooks and all the goddamn conmen twirling fools like him around their fingers. He always wondered why Eames seemed so open with a detective. Eames was open like the mouth of a Venus flytrap.
“Aria bummed out to New York, you and her decided to con some cash out of cheating Mr. Milkins, and now you’re here to throw me off your trail.”
Eames’ fingers flexed underneath his cuffs. It was well-feigned anger. “I’ve been living clean for the past year. You ‘spect me to blow shit to pieces by pulling a half-assed con and then shooting you for it?”
“You pulled a look-a-like Mr. Pullman from the hotel list. And those shots. I never said nothing about a chest wound.”
“Goddammit Arthur, when I elbowed you—“
And the door swung open and a gun appeared in a beeline towards Arthur and Eames. The door swung closed. “Alright, put your hands up, and maid service won’t be charging you extra for bleeding all over the walls.”
Arthur slowly opened his eyes. He blinked twice as his surroundings came into focus and took in a deep breath. The room smelled faintly like tobacco, mothballs, and now like citrus shampoo.
“Easy now,” said Arthur, hands slowly rising into the air. His temples throbbed, but that faded away. He peered into the darkness and saw an obscured figure. “You’re that saleswoman. From Shuman Jewelers.”
“I’m happy you remember me,” she replied. Out of the shadow of the doorway stepped Ariadne, hand wrapped menacingly around the pistol. Her hair was no longer in a bun, like how Arthur had first seen it, tight and stiff to withstand her constant stumbling over two-inch heels at the shop. Now it was long and loose, unfurled like a burning sheet of paper. Besides the deceptively flowery blouse and pencil skirt, the woman looked nothing like the unassuming girl who had greeted him three days ago, telling him how the insurance company for the store was fearful of a midnight robbery.
There was a gun taped underneath the desk a foot behind Arthur. If he could inch back slowly—
“Move your dogs again and I’ll plug you through.” Her voice was sharp.
There was no choice but to stall while he tried to figure a way outta this jam, which he wasn’t even sure about how it started, carpet edge under his feet, kitchen to the left, couch on the right. Although a woman’s touch would be welcome in Arthur’s apartment, which was bare except for some paintings and a withering cactus, he preferred it not to be in the form of bullet holes. “What do you want?”
“For you to stop snooping around. It would make everything more pleasant if you and your friend didn’t keep us from doing our jobs.”
The girl was as cocky as a college high hat. He could work with that. “Well we have to do our jobs and make sure another jewelry store ain’t robbed.”
“Don’t worry your dead little head. The next joint ain’t a jewel stock.” She stepped closer. “My crew had felt pretty gypped when I cut the alarms only to have some detective drop in at the same time.”
Arthur felt a drop of sweat slide down his forehead. There was only a yard between them now. “It was my lucky day.”
“Today you’re not so lucky then. Goodbye, Detective Manse—”
There was a knock.
“Why’d you lock the door again Arthur? Now I hafta pick it,” came a muffled call.
Ariadne twitched her head back for a split second.
That was all Arthur needed. He stepped forward and kicked the hand with the gun, but she didn’t lose her grip. “Eames, get in here!” he yelled.
The gun fired, shattering the lamp behind Arthur. He dove forward to tackle her. The knob was jiggling frantically now. She slipped to the side and shot again, blasting the carpet, but Arthur rolled away. She whipped around and fled into the kitchen. Her heels clacked like horse hooves. She scrambled to open the window to the fire escape, grappling at the lock. It clicked. As she flung the window open, Arthur dashed in behind her. Looking wildly around, he grabbed the nearest thing—a toaster—before slamming it across her head. Ariadne slumped to the ground. The gun clattered out of her hand, and Arthur heard the front door burst open.
Eames appeared in the kitchen. “Arthur, how could you hit a woman!” he said, looking at the body. He looked at the dented toaster. “Arthur, that was a gift.”
“She shot at me, if you didn’t hear,” Arthur grunted as he pulled Ariadne’s legs until her body was prone to the floor. As a sales rep, she seemed like a nice girl, eager to succeed. Too bad most of the nice people he met ended up wanting to slit his throat. “Stop standing there like a lump of wet clay and help me tie ‘er up.”
“Always demanding,” Eames replied. But he took out spare cuffs from his coat and hooked them onto the woman. After they folded her limp body neatly into a corner, Arthur phoned the police. And when their pestering questions grew into loud squawking, Arthur shut them up by hanging up the phone. Eames tsked.
The chair Arthur finally sagged into was a hell of a comfort. “What the hell are you even doing here?”
Eames held up a brown paper bag by the rolled-up edge at the top. There was a little bulge at the bottom. “You said your faucet head was broken.”
The police station was buzzing in the early morning, blinds stripped up, swathing the yawning officers and bright-eyed greenhorns in sunlight. It wasn’t Arthur’s favorite place to be; too many chaotic files and sweaty underarms cramped into too little of a space, and at least the dark grit at the bottom of his coffee pot could be peeled off. But he came in and out over the years when his suspects roamed into Eames’ territory, like the bald whore, this fork-killer, that barbershop-burner, and okay, maybe it wasn’t only sometimes he turned up, but at least Eames kept a box of his favorite cigs in the top drawer.
The ashtray next to Arthur was half full when Detective Yusuf carried his joe and himself over to the sleuth.
“You’re playing bad copper this time?” Arthur asked, seated at Eames’ desk. It was covered in a mudslide of papers, a pair of glasses peeking out from underneath the pages.
“Gave the role to Eames,” Yusuf replied, taking a swig from his mug. “He was pretty insistent on cracking that nut himself. Something about a toaster.”
“It didn’t work when he gave it to me.”
Yusuf shrugged. “As his good friend, I’ll gladly let him do most of the work.” He put his mug on the desk and loosened his beige tie. Whenever Arthur dropped by, it seemed like all he did was loiter around. “And the dame seemed less eager about me than him.”
“She say anything to you?”
“Zip. Her mouth is clammed airtight. Gave me nothing on where the rest of Dom and Mal’s crew are hiding out or their next target.” Yusuf motioned for Arthur to move his arm off the desk.
“Did you guys find anything on her?”
“The bullets in her gun match the ones you were pumped with. Nothing else, unless you wanna take a look at her powder, which I think I’m allergic to, by the way.”
“No, thanks,” Arthur replied, tapping his cigarette impatiently.
“You know, you should be more thankful you got access to all of the police info on this case,” Yusuf tutted.
Arthur waved his hand, leaving a trail of smoke behind. “Next time, I’ll make sure to ask the thieves to break into your apartment and wave a gun in your face.”
“If you guys are going to brawl, don’t do it so near my paperwork,” broke in Eames as he approached them. He had his shirt slightly open and a somewhat subtle, but mostly triumphant tilt to his lips from spending all night interrogating a lethal femme. “Arthur’s got mixed up with us slimy gits enough times that he’s practically our partner.”
“From anyone else, I’d be insulted,” Arthur replied, a grin forming. “You only undo the second the button when you got something, now spill it.”
“Always work with you,” said Eames. “Never going to Broadway even though I happen to’ve won two tickets—”
“I hear you complain enough when you hafta go to the dentist,” groaned Yusuf. “Now get on with it.”
Eames just smiled broadly. “She broke. I fed her that story about the warden, the electric fan, and the toilet seat. Always works.” He took his sweet time lighting a cigarette before continuing. “Next hit is at the Fischer-Morrow Bank a couple stores down from the jeweler’s, today at 5 ‘o clock, if the Cobbs haven’t changed plans since we nabbed Ariadne. Thought nobody would suspect ‘em in the same area twice.”
“Eames,” said Arthur, “I’m impressed.”
“I’m delighted my egg-cracking abilities never fail to leave me in your good graces, Detective,” Eames replied, drawing out the last word. Arthur wasn’t sure what Austen book the man plucked his condescension out of, but he’d be damned if he didn’t admit the cop’s mouth led them to half the crooks they chased together. The other half were found with, well, Arthur’s trusted .38 S&W.
“Looks like you’ve got it taken care of. I can take a day off then,” Yusuf said, stretching back his shoulders. “But I swear, if the Chief just let me try out some of my drugs, I could’ve gotten her to spill everything from the beans to her mother’s underwear sizes.”
“Before they shrivel up and kick the bucket like that frog,” Eames pointed out.
“If someone’s too weak to stomach my powders, it’s their fault for not eating enough vegetables.”
Arthur had heard this train of thought too many times. They were like kids in a schoolyard, trying to see who had the better toy fire-truck, though they were all painted dull red and the ladders didn’t move. “Listen, I want to close this case before my teeth rot off.”
Yusuf did his best to look offended, and Eames said, “What do you propose, then?”
“I,” Arthur replied, getting up, “am going to have grab breakfast at Rudy’s. I’ll be at the bank ‘round 4 ‘o clock to stake it out.”
“I’ll let the Chief know about the plan.” Eames turned to the other policeman. “Yusuf, you bum, what are you gonna do?”
“My cat’s eating up all my green so I need to drop by Cobol Bank.” Yusuf finished off his coffee. “Good thing I don’t deposit at Fischer’s.”
“Then it looks like I’ll be heading out with you,” Eames told Arthur with a smile.
Arthur heard a sharp rap on the window of the Buick.
“Don’t make me break this,” came Eames’ muffled voice as he looked through expectantly, one hand holding two hoagies and the other pressed against the window, fisted around what looked to be a delicious, steaming hot cup of coffee. Arthur swiftly leaned over to the other side and popped open the door, allowing Eames to worm his way back in. “Thanks.”
Arthur felt the warmth of his hand and the coffee passed to him. His eyes threatened to water when he took a long, scalding gulp. “Still no sign of Dominick or Mallorie, or anyone matching descriptions of their gang.”
“I guessed that when I didn’t see anyone handcuffed to the street lamp,” Eames replied before taking bite of his sandwich. The paper wrapper crinkled underneath his fingers.
Arthur turned his head slightly and watched him as he chewed, head framed by the window on the other side of which businessmen and secretaries bustled along. But Eames’ small movements held more weight. He had a way of accidentally making anything he did look purposeful, with a smoldering energy that rolled off him like the hats and ties he found too constricting.
“Is there dirt on my face?” Eames said suddenly, not even turning his head, eyes out the window, mouth on the hoagie. “If there is, it’s there on purpose.”
“I don’t how you understand how you got Nash to install a police radio in your car,” Arthur said, turning his head forward towards the bank they were staking out. He understood exactly how Eames got the radio. Some backclaps, smiles, and charm.
“It’s pretty fancy, isn’t it?” Eames took a finger and prodded the speaker. It crackled. They looked at each other, and Eames turned the volume knob up.
“Attention, Ariadne Hanaway has escaped from holding. I repeat, Ariadne Hanaway has escaped from holding. She is a known killer associated with Dominick and Mallorie Cobb. The cell was unlocked. Suspected to be an inside job. Last known interaction is with Officer Eames. All personnel be on the lookout…”
The radio spit out crackle in between sentences like an old man as the officer finished his announcement, before quietly resigning itself back into a lifeless box.
“That slippery snake,” Eames said.
The black coffee Arthur was holding was beginning to burn his fingers, and he placed it onto the dashboard. Aria the Finch was well-known in many criminal and non-criminal circles for her abilities, but she was no Houdini. The policemen at the station were sleep-deprived at times, but they weren’t incompetent. The commissioner had the cell tumblers replaced after a thief busted out with some candle wax, a chipped tile, and a pen. So how the hell did she escape?
“Did Aria mention anything out of the ordinary when you talked with her?” Arthur asked.
“The only thing odd about her was that she was cool as ice. Like there weren’t bricks of concrete between her and the outside world.” Eames stared out of the front window with a frown.
“But she gave you the dish on the Cobbs anyways.” Arthur said slowly. He stared at Eames’ profile, whose jawline was hidden underneath flecks of brown hair. He couldn’t help that his brain leaped to suspicions that were silly or maybe, possibly, logically warranted.
“Yeah.” Eames turned his head to face Arthur. His eyes were curious and painfully, blank. “Do you think I was bought by her?”
The radio crackled again. “There is a break-in at Cobol National Bank. Suspects are Dominick and Mallorie Cobb and several unidentified thieves. They are armed and dangerous. All available personnel head towards 36th and…”
Arthur turned his head back towards the front. “Of course. The only other bank in the city to have a vault rivaling the size ofFischer’s.” When he looked back at Eames, the officer was facing the steering wheel as he crumpled up the sandwich paper and threw it into the back.
“That’s where Yusuf said he was going.” Eames started the Buick. Arthur happened to remember that Yusuf interrogated Aria the Finch first. “He’s been hinting at looking for an alternate source of revenue during work. He’s been complaining about his rent for weeks. Aria probably bought him off with her legs and a cut of the loot.”
The question was swept under the rug, and Arthur wasn’t sure how he would have answered it. Whether he was angry at himself for not being able to trust Eames or angry at Eames for expecting anything else, he wasn’t sure. “If he really broke Aria out, will you arrest him?”
Eames brusquely backed out of the parking space. “He owes me fifty bucks from a poker game.”
They sped off, the car nearly scraping against a lamppost before Eames swerved it back between the lines.
Arthur did his best to look unfazed by Eames’ driving as they passed one, two, seven buildings at breakneck speed. They were both silent now. He let images of Dominick and Mallorie Cobb and known associates flood through his brain instead of images of Eames. Putting the radio transmitter next to his face, Arthur spoke, “Officer Eames, reporting. We are en route to Cobol Bank.”
The brown handheld stared back pleasantly at Arthur before coming to life: “Arthur? Is that you? Only police officers are allowed to use this frequency, you know.”
“Shut up, Nash,” the Arthur cut in, before being thrown forward as the car unexpectedly stopped in front of a crosswalk filled with kids running towards a candy store on the other side.
“And isn’t Eames the lead suspect in Aria’s escape?” the radio continued in Nash’s voice, and the car rushed forward again. “I know he’s driving the car right now—“
The car swerved around a corner, and Arthur had to grip the door when Eames swiped the transmitter from his hand and breathed onto it slowly, “It was Yusuf.” He through the radio back and said, “That bugger.”
Nash replied as several cars honked at them, “Well, I always believed in you—”
“Stop filling this channel with your prattle and catch those damn robbers,” flung out Commissioner Miles’ authoritative rebuke from the speaker.
The radio went silent, and the detective focused on keeping his body steady. As the car swerved yet again, Arthur’s coffee flew out of his hand and spilled onto his knees, and he let out a muffled yelp.
“We’re here,” said Eames, his attention focused on a gaping hole in the bank wall half a block down from where he parked behind a brown sedan.
Arthur gritted out as they both took out their guns. In front of the building, three sleek black cars with a running engine remained idle. A mask covered the driver’s face. The other passenger stood up through an opening in the car roof behind a Tommy machine gun.
“Think they’ll ask questions first, shoot later?” Eames asked.
“You’re free to test that out.” As Eames radioed in, Arthur opened the door and slipped out, dashing to the hood of the next car and peaking out from behind. He was too far from them to get a clear shot, and if he did anything stupid now without backup he would just get riddled with holes like an oak by a woodpecker.
Arthur looked back to check on Eames when there was a burst of gunshots coming from the bank. A group of sharply dressed criminals in grotesque, pink pig masks quickly followed out, some carrying sacks filled to the brim with greenbacks and some half-twisting around with guns aimed at whoever dared pursue them. Leading point were two lively figures, one in a dust-covered tuxedo and the other in an elegant black dress with slits up both sides of her legs. Every step they ran in their shiny, pointed shoes mocked the institution they were treading all over as they glided into an equally shiny car. Dominick and Mallorie Cobb. The most notorious robbers on this side of the country.
The squealing of sirens was fast approaching, and the thieves piled into the cars with their loot. Arthur heard several shots fired from their side of the street and saw the tires of the nearest getaway car deflate like a clown’s smile. But the other two cars accelerated away.
Arthur jumped up and ran back to Eames’ car, directing himself onto the seat. The driver said, “What took you so long,” before speeding off after the perpetrators, with the sounds of more police trailing not too far behind.
The cars in front blasted out several rounds from their guns, coercing traffic aside as they gunned down the busy street. Eames swerved around the mess created by the Cobbs, and the Buick could only cling to the exhaust left behind.
“If you’re going to drive like a maniac, at least drive like a fast one,” Arthur gritted out. The spilt coffee on the floor was beginning to soak into his pants, but he would just bill the station for it later. He unrolled the window and inched his upper body out, finding the right position for his gun arm to fit against the frame. They weren’t too far behind now; the two cars had left the more crowded streets and were pretty much racing down a linear path. The tires weren’t coming in and out of his vision anymore like a broken eyelash. Arthur raised his gun; he lined up the barrel with right tire and—
“Shit,” said Eames as each car took a sudden turn in opposite directions, one to the left and one to the right. He braked the car, and Arthur was forced against of the front of the window, knocking the wind out of him. He could have sworn he heard something crack. With watering eyes he did his best to shoot Eames a withering look.
“Right. The Cobbs. First car,” Arthur huffed out. He’d be damned if he was killed by a pothole or faulty breaks instead of a good old bullet.
“Got it.” Eames hit the gas again and rolled the wheel around, making a wide turn into the intersection and dodging pissed off motorists. They could hear the sirens behind them moving further away, probably chasing after the second car.
The car sped into Chinatown, with the black sky dimming over the buildings from which nocturnal occupants scurried out, bustling through lighted streets. A murmur of pedestrians and whistles and tires filtered through the glass panes. Arthur squinted into the darkness and saw an object. Its lights flashed. An out-of-control car sped into the intersection front of them. “Eames!” he shouted as he heard tires screeched. The car crashed straight into the side of the other vehicle. Metal crunched on metal Arthur’s torso was thrown forwards into the dashboard. His mind tumbled down after it.
Arthur blinked his eyes open. He was pulling the car to the side and parked a couple stores away from Meng’s Eatery. They were somewhere in Chinatown, with the black sky surrounding the street in a dark haze. The restaurant sign flickered to the beat of the throbbing of Arthur’s head, which subsided as he blinked quickly to readjust to the scene.
“I’m glad you took me along.”
Arthur turned to face the grifter Eames seated on the passenger side. The man smiled, his crooked teeth glowing eerily in the moonlight. “That doesn’t mean I trust you completely,” Arthur replied, quickly averting his eyes. He felt like a moth. Arthur swiftly exited the car.
Eames followed him out, and they walked towards the shop. “Fair enough. Neither of us stand much of a chance alone though if things go south, as a note.” Arthur remained quiet as they entered the building.
Meng’s Eatery was a dingy place. A couple of plastic red tables were scattered across the scuffed, checker-tiled floor. It reeked of salt and saltier fish. The yellowing wallpaper looked like it was slapped on haphazardly to cover up some dirtier underneath. A lone couple in the corner talked quietly, huddled like penguins around their steaming bowls of noodles. The man in a stained-white shirt behind the counter eyed them with a deep-set frown framed by sagging cheeks.
Eames stepped in front of Arthur and gave him an inquiring look. Arthur motioned be my guest with one a hand. Eames approached the cashier. “We’re—“
“Mr. Saito has been expecting both of you, Mr. Eames and Detective Manse,” replied the white-shirted man. He pointed behind them at a doorway covered by small wooden beads dangling from black string.
The pair looked at each other. Eames said, “Thank you,” with a still-gracious face, but Arthur could tell Eames was just as surprised as he was. Or maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised. They just walked into the den of one of the most notorious bootleggers on this side of the country.
They crossed the room and passed side-by-side through the beads, which clinked together with soft touches. The other side of the doorway was dimmer, the only light coming from one bulb above them obscured in a red wrapper. Their dark shadows followed them faithfully through the narrow, crimson-lit hallway before they stopped at the closed door at the other side. Arthur turned the knob and pushed the door open. It was pitch black.
Two pairs of hands thrusted out and grabbed Arthur and Eames by the neck and jerked them through. Arthur cried out as the cold fingers were replaced by a black hood, and he could hear Eames struggling as well against their unseen captors. He heard the door click. With gritted teeth, he shoved his foot forward and heard a satisfying thump and groan. Then a hard fist came in contact with his stomach, and he doubled over, but not before reaching out and ripping his nails into something warm and soft. Another hand grabbed Arthur’s and forcefully bound them behind his back with a scratchy rope. He felt someone pat his overcoat before reaching in to grab his gun. “Arthur!” he heard Eames call out, before everything went silent. Arthur felt a cold barrel against the back of his neck. Presumably, Eames was undergoing the same hospitality.
“Move,” came a gruff, bitter voice, probably from the man Arthur stabbed with his fingers. The detective stubbornly remained still until he felt the butt of the gun slam against his neck. With a slight stumble, he started shuffling forward.
The fish odor gradually faded away into something muskier as he walked. He could here the footsteps of several other people, but how many there were besides Eames, he couldn’t be sure. He pulled his wrists against the rope, but they were bound tight, and he only succeeded in losing circulation to his hands. They just kept walking. The walked up twenty-three steps, took a right, down a hallway, through a door, through a room or a hallway, down twenty-five steps, took a left, the air was cooler now, through a rounded hallway, wetter air, through another hallway, down ten steps, around a hallway, down how many steps now he was losing count, they circled through the unseen building for what seemed like hours, and Arthur was beginning to think this was just some foggy dream before the hood was ripped off of his head. Arthur rolled his head to the side and cracked it as his eyes readjusted to the piercing light.
Before him, a blurry black figure against white light focused in his vision. A man with jet-black hair in a jet black suit was seated leisurely on a wide mahogany chair, flanked by two beefy guards with stony faces. Flanking the guards were two tall lamps, throwing harsh light around the wide, nearly empty room. Arthur turned his head to the side. Eames’ uncovered face was taking in their surroundings as well, looking none worse for wear except for a reddened cheek where a fist was undoubtedly used. Arthur turned his head back.
“Please gentlemen, have a seat,” said Saito with a magnanimous wave of the hand. The men who had pushed them through the maze of a building released their grip and picked up stools from the side, which were promptly shoved at the back of their knees. Arthur slipped onto the stool in a relaxed fashion, gazing at the bootlegging magnate mildly.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you in person, Mr. Saito, the only Japanese who’se ever been able to make it in Chinatown. I’d shake hands with you, if it weren’t for my current situation,” Arthur said, raising an eyebrow.
“What can I say, money speaks louder than heritage. And I apologize for the man-handling; it’s a necessary precaution in my line of work.” Saito jerked his head, and the detective heard a slicing sound behind him before his bonds fell to the floor. The captors stepped back from the stools. “So, I hear you are looking for a Dominick Cobb.”
Arthur rubbed his sore wrists. “And I hear you’re the man to find him,” he replied.
Saito chuckled to himself for a moment before looking back at them. “Why are you looking for this man?”
Eames leaned forward and tightened his shoulders. “He owes us some money,” he said with well-feigned bitterness, unbound now as well. He plucked out of his pocket a worn poker chip and flipped it through his fingers.
The Saito’s face hardened immediately. “Mr. Eames, if I wanted to play with you, I would have sent your mother some arsenic in a wine bottle. But, no I am being serious and since I have given you both the opportunity to speak with me, I demand respect.”
Arthur stiffened underneath his trench coat. He didn’t like the amount of leverage Saito had over them. Saito probably already knew why they were here. “I’m working on a case for the dead Mallorie Miles, Cobb’s former lover.”
“Don’t waste my time, detective. I have friends in the station who inform me of these things,” clipped Saito. Of course he would.
Arthur looked at the Saito’s waiting face, clean skin against a lint-free collar. “Ms. Miles was killed by the person she asked me to find, whom I didn’t.” He paused. “It doesn’t sit well with me.”
Saito smiled, and he folded his fingers together. “You must be the only honest man under this roof.” He eyed Eames, and his smile seemed to grow a fraction of an inch wider. “Alright then. Why do you think I would know where Dominick Cobb is?”
“Don’t play games with us either, Mr. Saito,” replied Arthur. “We know he’s a part of your operation. Runs the Inciperejoint.”
“That does not mean I am his mother. Maybe, he took a train to Promontary Point or maybe London.”
“Or maybe you had him killed,” stated Eames, with a slick grin topped by steely eyes. He flicked the chip up with his thumb and caught it on the way back down.
“Maybe I did.” Saito took two fingers and motioned at one of the guards. The one on the left took long strides towards the exit and disappeared through the door, his footsteps growing softer and softer. The rest of them waited in silence.
Arthur hid the sweaty side of his clammy palms; he wasn’t expecting a second death, much less that of an old friend. But he couldn’t lose focus of the situation he was stuck in now. Arthur glanced around at the remaining muscle. It was hard to see with their bulky attire, but he spotted at least two guns on each person.
“Two of them have knives hidden in their right boot as well, if you’re wondering,” informed Saito.
“Thanks for letting us know,” replied Eames. His voice had an odd twinge of worry mirroring that of Arthur’s.
The door opened again. In stepped the guard, and behind him was a living, breathing Dominick Cobb.
“Arthur!” he exclaimed. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Arthur dead-panned. He then looked back at Saito.
“Dominick is a friend. I would never hurt him without good reason,” the businessman replied. “You two are already acquainted I see.”
“Old war buddies,” Cobb explained. He walked towards Arthur and gave him an awkward half-hug, half-pat on the shoulder.
“Dom, I’m investigating Mallorie’s death,” Arthur said, more quietly this time.
The Cobb’s face lost some of the gaiety from walking into the room, replaced by a somber frown that pulled his skin downwards. “So it is true then, what was in the papers.”
“Mostly.” Arthur looked from Saito back to Cobb. “Mind explaining?”
“Mal is…was rumored to have stolen two-hundred grand from Cobol,” Cobb summarized. He folded his arms together. “Nobody knows where the money actually went. I don’t know where the money went. But the gang thinks that either I or Saito or probably both of us knows where it is. You guys are pretty much in the middle of a gang war right now.” He paused and shot Saito a dark look. “I’d be outta here looking for Mal if Saito didn’t insist on me laying low since this two-hundred large was nabbed.”
“All for your well-being, Dominick, and the well-being of this business. You know far too much to get caught up in this,” Saito replied.
“So basically, you’re looking for the two-hundred grand to get Cobol off your back?” asked Arthur.
“Every dead gang member that shows up near one of our speakeasies, we lose customers,” said Saito.
“Well you got bad luck, cause this stolen cash is news to me,” Arthur said, looking straight back at him.
“I was actually hoping Mr. Eames would know more about this situation,” Saito replied slowly, turning his head towards the grifter, who had remained quiet for most of the conversation.
“I’m not the detective,” Eames replied with a laugh.
“That is correct, but you were spotted having an argument with Ms. Miles four days ago, the afternoon before her murder. In a different guise perhaps, but the same flip of the chip.”
This revelation sank into the silent room like a rock through thick mud. Eames’ expression, posture, neither changed one bit, but the poker chip remained still between his thumb and pointer finger as he continued staring back at Saito.
“Is that true,” Cobb asked slowly. His hand was quivering at this new piece of information. “Then you know something about what happened to Mal?”
“Pure coincidence,” Eames brushed off steadily.
“Yet here you are,” replied Saito, “inquiring about her and her cash.”
Everyone turned to stare at Eames now.
Arthur’s brain clicked. “You had someone tailing her,” he addressed to Saito, who nodded.
If Saito’s gang was watching her, then Cobol definitely was too. So she was in real danger. But where was her body? Why the robbery? What did the culprit want to hide behind the empty safe? Why the two hundred greenbacks? The lover split? The wildcard grifter?
The sound of bullets hailing down rang through the building. Saito stood up. He spoke swiftly to the guards, and all except for two remained still in the room. The others followed behind Saito as he addressed the rest of them, “Looks like Cobol has made an unnecessary move. You three will remain here while I sort our issues out.” They disappeared out the door.
With them gone, Cobb leaped forwards towards Eames. “What the hell happened to her? Answer me!” There were distant sounds of sporadic firing.
One of the guards held Cobb back, and the other wrapped his arm around Eames, who had gotten up in response to the outburst. Eames opened his mouth, but then thought for a moment and closed it again. He turned to Arthur. “Do you trust me?”
Arthur looked back at him. Eames wasn’t grinning any longer, but had a steady gaze and a firm mouth. Arthur thought back to the time they first met, and there was nothing between them except guns and curiosity. He thought of a man who helped him con his way into a high-class hotel room. He thought of a man who replaced his faucet heads and lit his cigarettes. He thought of a man watched his back in a firefight. He thought of a man who could forge the identity of any other person. He thought of a man who could single-handedly defend a fortress on a snow-topped mountain. He thought of a man who would pull him out from any Limbo he fell into. He thought of the man he could trust.
“Cobb, just go with this,” was Arthur’s reply.
Before Cobb could open his mouth in confusion, Arthur kicked the stool underneath him back at the guard. Arthur spun around, and seeing the man occupied by the wood rammed into his shin, he threw a punch to the stomach before sliding his hand into the guard’s jacket pocket and swiping back his gun. With another punch to the head, Arthur slammed the man into the wall; he crumpled into a heap on the floor.
When Arthur turned around, he saw the other gang member doubling over in pain on the floor, with Eames standing over him with a newly acquired gun in hand, suit jacket hanging limply, but otherwise looking none worse for wear.
“We better get out of here,” Arthur told both of them.
“Where the hell would we go?” Cobb bit out.
“To Mallorie,” Arthur and Eames said in unison. They looked at each other, and Eames’ slightly rumpled state didn’t cover up the confused look that passed over his face.
The sound of gunshots continued to pepper their conversation. “We’ll explain while we get out of here,” Arthur said.
Cobb furrowed his brow, and if Arthur didn’t know about the gangs and guns running around his life, he’d say Cobb looked like any other normal tired-of-shit middle-aged man. Pointing his index finger at the grifter, he said, “I don’t trust him.” He turned back to Arthur. “But I trust you.” He headed to the doorway. “I’ll get us to the back door.”
He ran out, with Eames and Arthur trailing closely behind. They followed Cobb through dark passages heading up and down staircases, lit only by the cracks in the wooden walls where light poured in from unknown rooms. Their footsteps creaked loudly, but Arthur imagined most of the inhabitants to have either ran or moved to fight the Cobol members.
“Well?” asked Cobb expectantly, turning his face sideways to shoot Eames a look.
“I’m a friend of Ms. Miles,” Eames began, with one foot after the other. “I’m her friend, and I know she’s pregnant with your baby.” When Cobb didn’t say anything, he continued, “She knows you want to get out of New York and start a family, but for obvious financial and…criminal connections, you can’t.”
“So she killed herself,” Cobb growled mockingly as they slipped through a corridor.
“After stealing Cobol’s money, they grabbed a bloody pig from the meatpacker’s and faked Mallorie’s bloody death,” Arthur cut in. He caught Eames’ eye in front of him, who looked partly annoyed and partly impressed, and added, “That was a shitty job trying to fake a robbery. No body, the murder had to be faked too. It was a two-man job.”
“How’d you know to trust me about her?” Eames asked. They were heading upwards now.
“When we first met,” Arthur replied simply, “you called her Mal.”
Eames turned his head around, and even in the darkness Arthur could see him grin.
“You two can bond over beers and shit later,” Cobb asked with a strained voice, “but where the hell is Mal?”
“Penn Station, boarding a train to Buffalo,” came Eames’ swift reply. “When the hell is this labyrinth going to end?”
Cobb stopped at the top of the steps, and they all halted in front of the hallway Arthur remembered to be the place their heads were shoved like cabbages into rough sacks.
“Car’s out front,” said Arthur, pulling out his gun.
“Think they all killed each other by now?” asked Eames. Then the sound of a Tommy gun ripped through the air. Glass shattered on the other side of the wall. “Forget I asked that.”
“Stay close,” Cobb said quickly. He turned around and head in the opposite direction. They passed by a storage room, the dried noodles piled around the sides, and came by the side store where goods were dropped off. When Cobb unlocked the door and opened it, Arthur could hear the cries of pain and curses mixed in with the gunshots. Eames pulled out his gun.
They crept out slowly, feet softly stepping on the asphalt. When they came around to the corner of the building adjacent to the front, Cobb stopped them and peeked out to the other side. “Well, shit. What’s your car?”
“Buick,” replied Arthur, leaning against the cement wall.
“Yeah, shit,” Cobb repeated. He stuck his head further out. “Cobol’s busy hiding behind it as it gets shot to pieces. We’re gonna have to—”
Cobb’s body fell backwards as a bullet ripped through him.
“Cobb!” Arthur watched wide-eyed. When he saw Eames brush past him and take shots into the darkness to cover for him, Arthur dragged Cobb back behind the corner. “God damn it,” he hissed, surveying his friend and the red blood pooling around his side. This wasn’t the time to be losing someone to a real death.
“Ergh,” Cobb moaned and scrunched his eyes together. Arthur looked more closely and saw the source of his blood was a flesh wound on his shoulder. The slug never entered him. Cobb’s awkward limb shuffling, trying to get back up, now seemed silly.
“Hey, watch out!” shouted Eames.
Arthur looked up. A pair of headlights was barreling towards them. He couldn’t see anything but white on all sides. Then it receded back into a point before a car swerved in front of them, trunk facing the restaurant. A couple of slugs thrown their way were received with shot gun shells exploding in the direction of Cobol from the other side of the car. On the driver’s side in front of Arthur, sat the grinning bartender, black hair sticking out wildly around his face. “Thought you might need my help, Eames.” Yusuf glanced at the detective and lowered his eyes. “Heat getting a little too hot for you?”
Arthur looked down at his pants and saw the dried coffee stain. He brought his head back up and glared at Yusuf. “We’re not on a joking basis until after you get us out of here.”
Eames popped open the passenger door, and they helped Cobb into the backseat, before piling in afterwards. Yusuf stepped on the gas, and they shot off onto the streets, letting the restaurant disappear behind them like all the other lighted buildings on the street.
“Hey, Arthur,” chirped Ariadne as she turned around in the front seat, shotgun embraced in her arm. “Glad you’re still alive.”
“So am I,” Arthur replied. He braced an arm against the back seat and caught his breath. “How the hell d’you find us?”
“Yusuf called the office to see if Eames was with you, but I thought you were with Eames. So we teamed up and checked out the place Yusuf said you guys were askin’ about,” Ariadne replied with Yusuf nodding at the wheel.
“Thanks, both of you,” said a weakened Cobb. “And Yusuf, I’m going to fire you unless you get me to Penn Station.”
Steam rose from the grates in Platform 2, wrapping the train and the lone figure waiting outside of it in a gentle fog. Arthur recognized her legs while they were still heading down the stairs.
Cobb ran to the bottom, even with his injured shoulder, and rushed to his lover, with Arthur and Eames approaching them. He threw his arms around her. “Why didn’t you tell me about this,” asked Cobb, holding her tightly.
“Saito can spot your bullshit from a mile away, you know that, dear,” Mal said warmly into his shoulder. She pulled back and gave him a peck on the lips before turning to the other two men.
Her eyes and her perfectly coifed hair were obscured by the shadow of her hat, but that didn’t block out her smile.
Eames asked, “Are you all set?” glancing at the large suitcases piled around her feet.
“Yes of course, Eames, with all the help you’ve given me.” She drew away from Cobb and kissed him on the cheek. “You are an irreplaceable friend.” Mallorie then turned to Arthur. “I was hoping you would find the tail so I could fake my death without trouble, but I suppose that did not quite work out as planned. Thank you as well.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek as well. “I believe I owe you some money—“
“As soon as Dom Cobb was mentioned, there was no charge. I’ll make sure to mention to the police about Cobb’s unfortunate death,” Arthur replied. He looked at Cobb, who now had an arm wrapped around Mallorie’s shoulder. They looked perfect for each other, with the train light behind them bathing the couple in a yellow aura.
“Hopefully that’ll keep the bootleggers out of your hair,” said Eames, giving his friend one final rub on her shoulder.
“I guess this is the time we leave for a new life,” Mallorie said, picking up her luggage. “I do wish both of you the very best.”
“Yeah, and Arthur, stay out of trouble,” added Cobb, nodding to him. He started forward, paused, but then drew Arthur into a hug.
“I didn’t have any trouble until you showed up,” Arthur replied wryly, patting Cobb’s back. But he smiled at them anyways.
“You ever need anything, Mal, ring me up,” said Eames. He picked up some of her cases and helped bring them into the train compartment.
She nodded, and the couple walked through the train doors into the brightly lit room. The train whistled as Eames backed out, and Arthur looked at the couple and the space between them, filled with trust and love that translated into stealing two-hundred grand and running away to the Midwest. It was the closest Arthur would get to appreciating a romance story.
“Hey, how’d you get Cobol’s money?” Arthur called out, watching them from the platform.
“I looked into their dreams and gave them their hearts’ desires,” replied Mal with a laugh.
The doors closed, and Arthur watched as the train inched forward slowly, then faster, and faster, and faster until Cobb and Mallorie’s face disappeared behind the churning black wheels and the grey smoke. The platform was empty now, except for him and Eames.
“Well,” Eames asked as he turned his head towards Arthur, “what do you want?”
Before Arthur could reply, Eames placed firm hands onto his shoulders and shoved him over the platform ledge. He fell.
Arthur woke up with a start. The first thing he felt was the air wrapping his face in a sticky layer of sweat. His eyes adjusted. He was in a cab, which was slowing to a stop next to a familiar-looking home.
“Your stop,” the cabbie said with accented English.
Arthur paid the man and got out. He watched as the car drove off, before turning his attention to the house in front of him. It was one-story and small. He made sure to shake the hesitation out of his limbs as he approached it. There were overgrown shrubs wrapping their green limbs along the walls and the dirt lawn, flanking the stone steps. Arthur rapped the door thrice before it opened. Cool air rushed out into the Mombasa heat as he faced Eames over the threshold.
“Why Arthur, what a pleasant surprise.” Eames held the door and the siding between strong fingers, broad shoulders taking up the space in between. He had stubble dotting his chin, and his shirt collar was crinkled, but he still emanated a fierce heat. Humid air settled over them.
“You stole my painting,” said Arthur.
A pause. “What painting?”
Arthur flicked his eyes behind Eames’ head to the spot on the wall where a large frame hung between a copper lamp and a stack of ripped leather-bound books. Inside the frame was the canvas, painted with a glowing woman underneath a grey shade. The canvas Arthur had himself stolen from their last job together. “That one.”
Eames’ gaze never left him. They stood there for a second stretched out thinly like a chew toy between two dogs. “Well there was no other way to get your attention.” He dropped his hands and walked further in, opening the doorway for Arthur to step inside. “You can just take it off the hook.”
His back was between Arthur and the wall in the dimly lit room. Arthur shut the door. There was a sunken couch and an oval table nestled together on the side where a small television box sat, bathed in light and dust. Scraps of paper hugged the floors, some papers covered in figure drawings, some blank. The place smelled like a pinch of paprika. Arthur breathed in deeply. “I don’t want the painting.”
“Coffee then?” Eames turned around. He was close to grimacing. “Do let me know. I do my best to accommodate work associates—“
“I’m sorry,” Arthur cut in. Warm air drifted out of his mouth where his chafing lips formed a crack. His shirt felt stickier, and it was such an unimportant point to note when he was cutting through months of stupidity.
“I don’t see what you’re apologizing for,” replied Eames nonchalantly. “You have yet to try killing me, like so many of my other co-workers. Or is that what you’re here for?”
“I shouldn’t have disappeared after Trinidad,” exhaled Arthur.
Eames raised his eyebrows. “Disappeared? You were actively avoiding me for six months. Every time I went to one country, you skipped over at least five countries away. Do you know how much I shit I went through dealing with our last client, trying to fix the hole you blasted through his son’s mind?” Eames’ shoulders relaxed. He licked his lips and closed his eyes, sighing. With hands on his hips, he began pacing around the room, papers crumpling underneath his bare feet. “Why’d you run off? Our partnership, I thought, was nothing less than excellent.”
Arthur thought about the time after the inception, after Cobb returned home to his kids and Arthur was left with a void he never knew needed to be filled. And there was Eames exiting the airport next to him, walking briskly through the wind to wherever it would take him or wherever he would take himself.
They ran their first extraction together on a shale oil corporate executive two months later.
The next year was spent working closely with Eames, sometimes doing finding out the identity of Mr. Pullman’s mistress or stealing a set of bank vault blueprints, and sometimes testing new theories on dream-sharing. Arthur knew which sandwich he preferred eating before forging a woman or a man. Eames had stayed at three of Arthur’s flats located in different countries, and broke into the rest of them for fun. And Arthur wondered if Eames was becoming another Cobb.
“I never thanked you for pulling me out of Limbo, then.” Arthur said quietly. Thanks was something Arthur couldn’t bring himself to give after Eames pulled him out of the endless, unrealistically dry, unforgivingly lonely, desert of his mind. During their last extraction together, two dreams down, another team strode in and blew their plan to pieces, sending Arthur down to a third level to extract the name of Arthur’s employer from him. But then the dream collapsed around them, and he was crushed underneath buildings and sand. Eames somehow brought him back and salvaged the operation, but Arthur was never one to let shit fly past him. He spent his anger back in reality hunting down the leader of the interfering team, tearing down the man’s credibility in the dreamshare community and burning down his house, before taking the painting as a prize. But Arthur’s anger, anger at himself, never really left him. “All dreamsharers, unless they retire before they stop dreaming, start slipping eventually.” He paused. “I was becoming too dependent.”
“It’s because we all mess up eventually that we need teams to keep us grounded. That doesn’t mean you should’ve left me cold,” replied Eames, turning around to face him again. “And what you did was childish.”
“It was,” Arthur agreed without reservation. He kept thinking that at one point along the line, Eames would double-cross him or lose control of his own faculties. But that never happened, and Arthur had never felt so unnerved yet secure. The constancy was alien, but Arthur wasn’t sure he would ever feel as right without it. “We do make a great team, and it was dickish of me to rush off.” He paused. “I have another job. Extraction on an old film noir star. Employer wants to know if the guy helped fake a death eighty years ago.”
A smile crept onto Eames’ face, and he shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you apologize once since I met you, and that’s the only interesting case I’ve heard of in a while.” Eames looked at him. “I’m glad that painting actually got your attention.”
Arthur put his hands into his pockets and stared intently. “No, you got my attention.”
Eames’ mouth parted slightly, before closing back again. He cocked his head to the side. “I’ll go grab us some beers.
Arthur woke up, the left side of his face pressed into the pillow. Disoriented, he slowly lifted his torso and tried to remember what happened before he went to bed. When he turned on the lamp at his bedside, he noticed the rising and falling of a chest lying next to him.
“Go back to sleep Arthur,” Eames mumbled quietly, limbs and mouth underneath the tangled blanket.
Arthur smiled. His hand brushed past his fedora on the table and turned off the lamp.