There is a period after the inception job when Arthur needs to trial working with a number of new people. As a result, a number of things happen that Arthur is never, ever going to talk about ever again.
The most spectacular of them is as follows.
It would happen on a job where he’d called in Eames.
But of course, it could be that Eames’ presence actually caused it – that the whole thing arose from some deep, squirrelly nascence between the two of them. And then the absolutely spectacular fuckups of the new point man Arthur was trying out were just the catalyst.
The result, either way, was rather like nuclear fusion.
He concedes that in retrospect, it was a bad idea to bring in a man to whom Arthur is married for legal reasons, but at whom he would otherwise disdain to throw peanuts from the other side of a bar, on a job that involved a wedding.
In retrospect it is clear that there were certain – adverse resonances at work.
It could have been worse. This could have been the job in which not only did he end up with Eames’ ankles in white silk stockings around his neck, but also the shitty chemist gave him a port-wine stain over half his body. And it could also have been the one where he turned up and the point man was actually five guys from the Russian mafia. That would definitely have been worse. Yes.
It’s important to put these things in perspective.
Beach-side Sydney, from what Arthur could see from the plane, was ravishing – jewel-blue and green and swooping, like the Presidio of San Francisco without the fog.
Their client, however, did not live on the beach side. She lived deep inland, on a hot, wincingly bright street where the grass on the verge had faded to the colour of a dirty sheet.
The house was cheap red brick with white plaster porticos and brass fixtures everywhere. It had magisterial Georgian proportions: two storeys high, crowding no more than a yard from the fence on either side. A metallic bronze SUV hulked at the end of a pair of deep ruts in the curved gravel drive.
Their first sight of the client was when she barrelled out the lacquered double-doors in front, in a beige satin tracksuit and two-inch shimmering bronze nails, howling, “Cheryl, you fucking bogan slut, get in here!” That probably should have been their first clue.
“What’s a bogan?” Arthur said under his breath.
“Some sort of Irish mythological creature, I believe,” Eames whispered.
At this time, Arthur was working through an argument within himself about whether he could, or should, tolerate the inadequacy of other people as point men, now that he was styling himself as an extractor. He was experimentally externalising this argument by trying out various new guys.
There did not seem to be anything wrong with the current new guy, right up until the point that Arthur had the needle in his arm, and was poised in the last possible moment of consciousness before sleep. That was when the new guy looked at a vial he was holding in his hand, and uttered the fateful words, “Shit, wait!”
The dream they were staging was a wedding, and the mark was the bridegroom. He needed to lose faith in the bride, at least for the length of the dream, in order to be induced to give up the details of certain financial arrangements – which their client, his ex-wife, believed he had used to rip her off in the divorce. It was a tawdry affair, and ought to have been straightforward.
Eames, of course, was playing the bride. Arthur seems to remember, bitterly, that he had never once considered another man for the job.
All seemed to be well at first. They were in a dressing room with white satin rosettes on the walls, and flowers in vases everywhere. The bridesmaids and the bride were getting ready. The bridesmaids were already dressed, and gossiping among themselves.
The bride – Eames – was a lovely woman, tawny-haired, pale-skinned, lush and hourglass-shaped, still in her white bridal lingerie. She was applying lipstick in a hand-mirror carefully angled so that the mark, who was hidden behind a peephole, could not see Eames’ true reflection.
Arthur was sprawled on a white-lacquered rococo chair, looking the bride over thoroughly in her white corset, white stockings and tiny little white satin panties. He was playing the rival – his role was to be seen taking liberties with the bride.
There was a certain unscheduled strangeness in the scene, to be sure. The mark’s projections of the bridesmaids were rather less good-looking than the real ones Arthur had tailed in the research stage of the job. Also, they were chain-smoking, and squawking things to each other very loudly in very broad Australian accents – such as “Darl, he was a shithouse root. What a yob,” and “Fucking oath, I chucked up everywhere!”
Also, Eames had reported that the real bridesmaids’ dresses were pretty bad, but they couldn’t have been this bad. These weren’t so much dresses as boudoir window treatments in electric-blue satin.
“Goodness,” Eames said, under his breath. “He talks a good game. All the time I tailed him, he never said a word against her friends.”
“Shush,” Arthur said. He got lazily to his feet, tucked a tendril of hair behind bride-Eames’ ear, and kissed her bare shoulder.
Eames swatted at him half-heartedly with a long, languid arm.
Arthur grabbed Eames’ wrist and held it up out of the way. He reached down and adjusted the blue lace garter around Eames’ thigh.
It was too overt – the bridesmaid projections stiffened, turning blank, hostile faces towards them.
Bride-Eames twisted her wrist out of his grasp, chuckling throatily. Arthur resumed his seat.
The bridesmaids went back to talking.
Eames turned back to the mirror and blotted fussily at the bow of his top lip.
“Think that ought to do it for this scene?” Arthur murmured.
“Just about,” Eames said softly into the mirror. But then he said, “Wait, what’s this?”
One of the bridesmaids was coming over. Eames sat up and smiled in welcome.
They were only able to escape because the bridesmaid was forced to heft aside such a prodigious quantity of satin skirt to get to her thigh holster.
A bullet severed the petals from the white corsage in Arthur’s buttonhole on the way out the door. Eames staggered out of his white patent pumps to run.
As they ran, Eames turned back into Eames. Except that he wasn’t wearing the clothes he’d come into the dream with. He was still wearing the bride’s white lingerie. His chest hair was curling over the lace edge of the corset. A bomb made of pubic hair had exploded in the tiny satin panties.
“Something’s wrong,” Arthur panted.
“What do you mean?” Eames said.
They burst through a door that should have led to the wedding reception.
Inside the door that should have led to the wedding reception was Arthur’s mother’s living room.
A humungous pastrami on rye sandwich blanketed the coffee table. The bread was the size of a child’s foam mattress, the pastrami thick as beef tongue.
“You never come to visit, and this is what happens!” his mom said. She was on her feet, circling the coffee table , fussing with the curly lettuce as if it were an unmade bed.
“Mom, I know,” Arthur found himself saying. “But I can’t tell you, okay? You know that.”
He remembered what it was he couldn’t tell her: he had a mouse in a tiny brass cage he had to carry with him at all times. It was a special kind of mouse that if anyone other than him looked at it, it would die, but no one would ever believe him, so he could never trust anyone to get near it.
“Other people’s children tell them things,” his mom went on. “Important children. Successful children. They still talk to their mothers. They still come to visit their mothers. Rachel’s daughter works for the CIA and she tells her things. The CIA. Can I tell them anything about my son? No.”
“Mum?” Eames said, suddenly. He took an audible breath in, constrained by the corset.
Sitting on the couch were a woman and a man who looked very much like Margaret Thatcher and Sid Vicious, respectively.
“I mean, you get married without even telling me,” Arthur’s mom said, “and this is what happens! What am I supposed to do with these people?”
Sid Vicious chose this moment to leap upon Margaret Thatcher and start making out with her passionately. She threw her legs around him, exposing an opaque beige stocking top.
“Mum!” Eames cried, anguished.
Sid Vicious looked up, leered at Eames and made a come-hither gesture.
Eames put his hand over his mouth and gave a single, terrible sob.
“Will you at least eat something?” Arthur’s mom said. “My son a grown man and he won’t even feed himself.”
She began trying to tear a corner off the pastrami sandwich. It was heavy going – she had to start with just tearing the top layer of bread first. Giant crumbs like golf balls fell to the carpet.
“No, Mom!” he cried. He knew the mess would make her even more crazy. He grabbed her arm.
She shrugged him off. “No! I just want to...”
But he came back at her. She twisted out of reach.
He lunged for her again. She was savage, her face wild. They began wrestling.
Someone kicked the door down. He caught a glimpse of an electric-blue fishnet-stockinged thigh framed by an enormous expanse of blue satin skirt, before he dashed for the door to the hall.
“Eames!” he called. “Come on!”
Now they had burst through a pair of lacquered double-doors into the wedding reception.
The wedding reception was not like they had planned it at all. It was in the open air, in a green field. There were thousands of guests in wedding-formal attire.
All at once, the guests began screaming and running away from something, towards them.
They had emerged into the scene under a pavilion, and they couldn’t see properly past all the fleeing people. They fought their way gradually against the tide of the crowd, to get out from under the pavilion and get a better view.
Then, behind them, a submachine gun tore through the air.
The howling of the crowd peaked, a feedback squeal from a stadium amplifier.
Arthur turned in slow motion.
The bridesmaids had arrived, and they had Uzis. They opened fire on the crowd.
People screamed, fell and died.
In the confusion, Eames and he fought their way out from the pavilion.
Eames turned, and now he had an Uzi, too. He fired in the direction of the bridesmaids. But he kept mowing down civilians who were in the way instead.
Tears ran down his cheeks as he saw the civilians die.
He kept firing at the bridesmaids, and hitting the civilians instead, over and over. Soon he was sobbing aloud as he fired. Splatters of blood peppered his corset.
“Eames!” Arthur cried. “Eames!” But Eames wouldn’t listen. He just kept firing.
Arthur had seen what the crowd had been running from.
It was the wedding cake. It was three times the height of a man, and a great maw had opened between the second and third tiers. It was eating people.
It moved in a series of single, massive, ponderous bounces. At the end of each bounce, it would land with a sort of blubbery splat, and then pause to gather all the vectors of force inside itself, ready to bring them to bear again. It was coming towards them.
In another two bounces it would be here.
“Eames!” Arthur cried again. But Eames was deaf to him.
The cake bounced, landed, and gathered itself to bounce again.
“Eames,” Arthur said, softly, desperately, now, trying to shake Eames’ shoulder. The recoil of the Uzi vibrated all through Eames’ body, but he was immobile, rooted like a tree. Arthur could not move him.
The cake launched into the air again.
It was above them, blotting out the sun.
The maw was opening over them.
“Eames!” Arthur cried, throwing himself on Eames’ insensate back like a child.
The dream-reality flashed, up-ended, rebooted.
Eames and he were running down a white corridor, over a shiny parquetry floor. They could hear someone chasing them. But he knew it wasn’t the bridesmaids, and they weren’t in any danger. Nonetheless, they needed to keep running.
Everything was warm and slow. They moved like honey flowing. There was a feeling like hot static, churning in Arthur’s head, that made it hard to concentrate. For a while he just enjoyed the feeling without judging it, without articulating what it was.
Eventually he named it to himself: he was aroused.
At the same time, sanity had returned, at least insofar as he remembered he was a dream-sharing professional, that this was a staged dream and that they had a plan.
In fact, this corridor had a familiar air. The fact that they were in this corridor was very, very promising for the plan.
Beside him, Eames ran tirelessly, with a long, efficient stride, every inch the ex-military man. He was still in full bridal lingerie. Arthur didn’t think he was going to get the image of Eames’ cock and balls jiggling in a circular motion in a white satin pouch out of his head any time soon.
There was a door, its lintels draped in white satin. They burst through it.
In the middle of the room was a gigantic round marshmallow of a white satin bed.
“This is the place,” Arthur huffed, bending over to get his breath back.
There was a small scuffling sound from inside the wall. The mark had arrived, ready to see his bride betray him.
“Quick!” Eames hissed. He dragged Arthur up by the collar, and kissed him.
Kissing Eames involved the prickling of far too much beard bristle, and a rude, thick tongue. A hard hand gripped Arthur’s arm.
Then a vertiginous slide. A liquefaction. A churning. A kind of a falling, without moving.
Eames had metamorphosed into the bride in Arthur’s arms.
The bride was a very, very good-looking lady.
He slipped his arm around her corseted waist and kissed her more deeply. He felt fuzzy and hot.
Another sound from the wall. The mark was definitely in place behind the peephole. They were back on track. He felt elation, triumph – relief.
Her tongue was slim and slippery now. She slipped her hand into his shirt collar. A delicate brush of her hand, and his shirt and jacket both fell as one from his shoulders.
He carded her caramel-coloured hair through his fingers. It smelled like cherry blossom.
He was hard in his pants, pressing against her. He nudged his knee between hers and felt the heat of her mound against his thigh.
She whimpered like a kitten. It made his entire lower body stiffen, like he’d been shocked.
Where was the mark? He ought to have burst out by now.
They fell, somehow, onto the bed, or the bed fell upwards under them, or Arthur didn’t even know, but he had his face buried in her plush, white bosom above the corset. He was fingering her under her panties. She was so wet. He could smell her, like honey.
Her hand brushed his belt. It leaped open on its own, as if spring-loaded. She took his radiant cock in her hands.
She sighed. It was like a lament of angels at twilight.
Her panties tore away in his hand like tissue.
He pushed his cock, roiling like molten metal, inside her.
Now he was over her on the bed, fucking her. She was a swan in flight, long and white, curving, head thrown back, hair like silk ribbons. Her pussy was hot, slippery as syrup, turning his whole body to fire.
Her breasts rocked free of her corset as he lifted her hips to get deeper. For a moment he couldn’t even look anymore.
On the wall of the room was a long mirror. In the mirror, he was fucking Eames. Eames had ropey shoulders the size of grapefruits, and a three-quarter sleeve of biker tattoos. His leg hair made curlicues in the white stockings.
The total, ecstatic abandon on his swarthy face was, however, identical.
Later, on the surface, they got very, very drunk.
They were in Eames’ motel room, sprawled on the beige carpet at the foot of the beige-nylon-covered bed, emptying the mini-bar. It appeared that they had been thrown out of a regular bar earlier: the shoulder seam of Eames’ shirt was half torn-open.
In between drinking, Arthur was having terrible trouble with getting the tab of one of his suspenders to attach itself back to the waist band of his pants. He would try very hard to fix it, then give up, and only just then remember all the other times he’d tried and given up previously. Then he would be filled with a great, elegiac melancholy.
“The shitting bollocks thing is,” Eames was saying, gesturing largely, his drink sloshing, “I don’t even know if that’s what it feels like for a woman. I mean, I was thinking at the time, oh my God, this is what it feels like for a woman. And it’s fucking amazing.”
Here, Eames stopped for a beat and looked at Arthur, as if he expected him to say something. Arthur looked studiously down at his cheap bourbon.
“And was thinking, well, that’s a pretty good consolation for not getting paid. But it wasn’t actually it, was it?” Eames went on, tragically. “It was just my subconscious’s idea of what it feels like for a woman. It wasn’t actually, actually it.”
A terrible thought lanced through Arthur. “Wait,” he said. “Whose vagina was I fucking?” He was having a slight difficulty pronouncing “vagina”.
“You haven’t seen the actual bride’s vagina. So that was some vagina that you came up with from somewhere. Like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster vagina. That you made me have sex with.” Now he had become heroically good at pronouncing vagina.
“I didn’t make you!” Eames squalled. “You practically made me!”
Arthur gestured fiercely. This required a stinging retort, and he could not quite seem to think hard enough to come up with one.
“It was a nice vagina, though, wasn’t it?” Eames said. And then he pushed Arthur over sideways onto the carpet and climbed on top of him.
Arthur’s drink fell over, saturating the carpet next to his head. Bourbon began soaking into the back of his hair, but he was sleepy and it was nice to be lying down, so it didn’t really seem to matter.
Eames was sort of slobbering on his neck. “It was nice, wasn’t it, hmm,” he was murmuring.
Through the great fog blanketing his mind, Arthur felt a stirring. He realised, with a distant, amused fondness, that if he had about a quart less liquor in him, he would have liked to have sex with Eames right now. It was mostly an intellectual realisation: on the physical plane, he could only manage to rouse himself enough to pat the back of his head limply.
Eames kissed him, all tongue, very sloppy. “Darling,” he slurred huskily, ardently. “Darling, you know you fuck like a god.”
He slobbered on Arthur’s neck again, then went still.
Eventually it became clear that he was asleep on top of Arthur.
There was a vague sense of affront, but Arthur found it infinitely simpler to lie back and close his own eyes.
In the morning, Arthur levered the overwhelming bulk of Eames off him by a series of lurches.
At last gravity took over and flopped him onto his back like a dead fish. Arthur got to his feet.
After extensive consideration, he determined that he was wearing only one shoe.
He made his way to the door, then turned.
Eames had managed to sit up against the side of the bed, and was now looking at him with one eye, his hair like postmodern architecture.
Arthur preferred to think it was his baleful glare, rather than Eames’ own current physiological distress, that compelled Eames to silence.
“We will never speak of this again,” Arthur said.
He stepped out and, pausing only to vomit with great dignity into the potted plant outside, shut the door firmly between himself and Eames.