In the midst of the carnage left behind in his escape, the chair is left toppled on its side. A single, twisted leg juts awkwardly in the air like a broken limb, a severed olive branch. The woman stands, circling over it as though she’s caught in its slow-moving orbit. The shards of glass littered throughout the room crunches contemplatively under her heel as she walks, thin drifts of plaster dusting her hair.
When she arrives by the hole in the wall that was once a window, she pauses. With a hesitant, calculated hand, she touches a finger on a jagged point of glass. What a vision she makes at that moment; a pale, beautiful face, hovering over the gasping of motorcycles, the haze of pollution and angry Spaniards stuck in morning traffic. From the pane she draws a slow finger down through to the wetness on the sill, watches as the redness there exchanges wood for skin.
The silhouette of a man enters the room. She can feel his smile burn into the back of her exposed neck.
“Slippery bastard,” A low whistle, with a touch of something akin to admiration. “Houdini’s done it again, hasn’t he?”
“Have you dealt accordingly with the men guarding him?” she asks without turning.
The man chuckles darkly. Shadows solidify around her, stifling the already hot air rising from the sun-beaten tarmac below. “You know why I love you, Daisy? It’s not just ‘cause you’re sexy as hell.” He nuzzles her collarbone, purring, “But the fact that you’re a stone cold bitch to boot. Will you ever let anyone into that head of yours?”
“Hush now, Holstein,” she murmurs, gazing upwards towards the spires of La Sagrada Familia in the far-off distance. So far away from all deliverance. “You won’t be getting into anything while we’ve got ourselves a prisoner on the loose.”
Meanwhile, in an alleyway several blocks south, a señora utters a blood-curdling scream upon discovering a dazed, bleeding extranjero tangled in her washing line.
There are days when he really, really fucking hates his job. And usually those are the ones that involve her and having to hurl himself out a window. The two are connected farmore often than what would be considered reasonable these days.
When he finally extricates himself out of the grasp of freshly laundered pantaloons and that of the bewildered Señora and Señor Morales, he drags himself back into the meeting place, to where his team are wringing their hands over the phones and the schematics of the city. Things are a bit tense in that garage, to say the least. Irritably, he waves off anyone who tries to come forward and help him. “Yes, I. Well I'm here now, aren't I? I said I’m fine. But their drop-off has been moved ahead to later tonight, so we haven’t got any time to waste. Call in everyone from their stations, yes, including Jack and his motley crew. We’ve got to coordinate this properly, or we’re going to lose them again.”
He can’t lose her again.
MONTE CARLO, ONE YEAR AND FIVE MONTHS AGO
Demurely, she crosses her legs and flutters her lashes at him, the craps table her provisional throne. They managed to wait for the last bell at the Le Grande, for the dealers and the rich drunkards to call it a night before staging this moment, but only just.
“I got really lucky today,” she mentions, rolling a die between her fingers. He’d put good money on it being loaded. “Two grand on the table and a Fever Five in my second round. I’d offer to buy you a drink, but I expect you public sector blokes are always straight edge while on the job.”
Dropping his hand from the light switch, he ambles casually over to her, bracing his hands on the edge of the table at either side of her hips. “Then I’ll get you one instead.”
Leaning forward ever so slightly, slightly being enough for her breath to hit his lips like a knockoff kiss, she frames the side of his face with a hand. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re trying to take advantage of me,” she giggles, breathlessly. It’s all a part of her act tonight, the dizzy, ditzy heiress with too much of Daddy’s cash to spend. They could’ve been at the Folies Bergère, with nude women doing the conga in front of him and still she would’ve captured his undivided attention. “I should warn you, I’ve got expensive taste. Though I hear being the Queen’s personal lapdog pays really well.”
He grins, her palm warming his cheek. “At least I’m well groomed. Not to say that you’re not looking especially lovely today,” he says, memorizing the look of her tonight, the silk of the dress draping and fitting in all the right places. “But I’ve got benefits out my ass and a nice pension waiting for me down the road. What, pray tell, do your employers do for you?”
At this she smiles wickedly, steps down from the table and wraps an arm across his shoulder blades. Pulling him against her, she purrs into his ear, “Oh, believe you me, honey, the perks I get are out of this world.”
“Yeah?” He murmurs back into hers, only a little like a challenge, “You can tell me all about them, because I suspect we’ll be spending a lot more time together from now on. I’ve got your accomplice Mr. Smith roped up in my hotel closet, a confession to the embezzlement of van Statten’s assets, and a dozen agents surrounding the place.” His lips brush the softness of her cheek. “We’ve got you cornered, Bad Wolf.”
For a moment they are both utterly still, halfway between an embrace and waltz position, waiting for the other to make the next move. Checkmate, he thinks, until he hears the smile in her voice. “I bet you were the school swot who never got kissed.”
Then she shoves him. It is no playground antic as she calmly hooks a leg between his when he stumbles back, flipping him into the air. His back hits the carpeted floor with a dull thud, and by the time he scrambles to his feet, she’s vaulting the blackjack tables. Immediately he gives chase, clambering up staircases when the elevators take too long, following the swish of her dress and the echoing jangle of her bracelets along darkened corridors.
When he makes it to the roof, he finds her waiting, with one stiletto already in the helicopter. There is nothing they could say that the other would understand over the thunderous whirring of the helicopter blade. She throws him her coy smile, waves in a ‘ta, darling’ sort of way, and alights into the evening sky.
He slips his hand into his pocket, and pulls out her die.
Lunch is an anaemic affair. She keeps her eyes buried in her black coffee, tearing her tortilla into thin, accurate strips she doesn’t eat. But when she hears a shout of bonita! her head snaps up like she’s been expecting this all along. The dirty faced boy in cut-off jean shorts waves the receiver over his head, calls her beautiful again when he sees that he has her attention. Quickly throwing down her napkin and a crumpled wad of Euros onto the café table, she walks over to him, pats down his hair and takes the phone. The boy scampers away. She takes a deep breath. She lifts it to her ear.
Across the street, he brings his own to his mouth. “So,” dryly, he asks, “Where’d you find this one?”
“He found me.” She moves closer into the booth, even though he’s timed this call precisely at the height of rush hour, so as to hinder eavesdroppers. “Swept me off my feet with the promise of matadors, forged passports, and possibly even a high speed car chase or two.” She laughs flippantly, as if the details were amusing, trifling little anecdotes fit for tea parties and better company, “I was putty in his hands.”
“Don’t lie,” he hisses. His knuckles whiten around his receiver; his tone cutting. The irony is not lost on either of them. “Not to me.”
He watches her turn away for a moment, maybe to check her surroundings, maybe so he wouldn’t hear the shudder in her intake of breath. When she returns, her tone drips with equal bite and bitterness. “What can I say? They might treat you MI6 goons well enough, but the rest of us have had to deal with some harder knocks lately. I can’t be as choosy as I used to be.”
Angrily, he braces a hand against the edge of the booth. “Your little boytoy Holstein,” he spits out, “might be a third-tier miserly cat burglar, but his employers are not. Rose, I am telling you, if you go through with this, the implications are going to be catastrophic. And I mean global panic, a World War Three shitstorm kind of fucked. So don’t talk to me about choice when the stakes are this high.”
Her breath caught audibly on the other side of the line as he spoke, and when he realizes why, he winces. He’d used her name. Her real name; the one that belongs to the vulnerable estate girl from South London, with a hairdresser mum, a dead dad and no A-Levels, or so the arrest record attests. But he’s finished with pretending like this job isn’t already compromised to hell just for the fact they’re both involved. He leans heavily against the box. He takes several steadying breaths. “If you walk away right now, I’ll let you,” finally he says, softly. “You have my word. I swear it”
The line at the other end descends into silence. Then she resurfaces again from the sea of ambient noise and sad static; “You’d really risk that pension of yours for me?”
“Oh, you haven’t a clue, do you?”
She hangs up on him.
OSAKA, ELEVEN MONTHS AGO
There isn’t much leg room between the seat and the pachinko machine. For as famously polite and hospitable as the Japanese are, they just don’t design things to comfortably accommodate men his height. He’s already gotten a lot of attention for it, which basically goes against the number one code of being a spy; of keeping a low profile. But he doesn’t much care, because yes, he is one of those employees who place sightseeing first, espionage second. He wonders if she’d approve (probably not). He wonders if she’s had the time to go to Nara Park, if she’s had a chance to get ambushed by tame deer.
He wonders if she’s busy after this.
“You know, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed this,” he says, feet propped up against the coin slots. If he jiggles his left foot, the entire thing lights up and makes pinging noises. She hog-ties his ankles together to put an end to that lovely distraction when she has to take an important call. “When was the last time we’ve spent this much quality time together?” He rolls his head back, as if just for the pleasure of looking upon her face. “Was it the Manhattan job? Toronto? Or that fair night we spent in Berlin, vaulting over the Brandenburg Gates?”
“Wrong.” She leans over and taps him affectionately on the nose with the butt of her gun, “Florence, three months ago. And don’t even think about suggesting that I’ve been keeping track, because I don’t much fancy cleaning brains out of a pinball machine.” Smirking, she slides away, humming tunelessly as she sashays over to the main office. There are files strewn everywhere, and a brimming ashtray acting as a precarious paperweight. She makes a face and empties the cigarette butts into the wastepaper basket before returning to the perusal of the man’s papers.
Meanwhile, he glows against his bindings. “Ah, that’s right! Silly me, how could I have forgotten? The lost chapter to the Decameron at the Museo di Firenze, locked up all snug in that pressure sensitive, eighteen digit glyph-encrypted vault.” A wistful sigh. “You were wearing that fetching red frock of yours, with your hair down.”
“Just for you, darling,” she calls from under the desk, over the clicking of the vault lock.
“I’m flattered. Well, that is, unless you did intentionally wear that dress to prey on my weakness for you in that dress, because then I’m – actually, no,” He grins again, wide and ridiculous. “I’m still incredibly chuffed. You miss me?”
There is no reply, only clattering and a muffled clang as the steel case is breached. His smile drops, and he calls over his shoulder, “You know what’s going to happen if you deliver those blueprints, right?”
She melts back into his view, leaning against the doorframe with a smirk, her bounty in her hands. “I’m going to get an obscene amount of money wired into my Swiss bank account?”
“Places like this will cease to exist.” He nods to the very machine he’s strapped to, “Pachinko parlours like these are essentially your Mom and Pop stores. You hand over the blueprints of that underground gambling hall to the yakuza, and you ruin the livelihood of entire families, such the one that owns this place right here. But already knew that.” He doesn’t turn to look at her again, but stares levelly at her distorted shape in the glass, “And you’re not that kind of girl, are you?”
“Oh, you think you know me so well,” the snaps of her briefcase click angrily. He doesn’t fight, only calmly listens to her heels clatter against the arcade floor and towards the exit. “But that’s where you’re wrong. I’m every type of girl, if the price is right.”
She doesn’t bother shutting off the lights when she leaves.
After another dressing-down from his superiors and orders to be halfway around the world by morning, he’s basking in his momentary furlough in his barely-furnished apartment, sprawled over his lonely sofa. The television blares what is either the morning edition or the evening news – he is too jet-lagged to tell. But out the corner of his eye, he reads the scrolling text beneath the headlines, which informs him that a prominent Japanese yakuza family has been arrested for fraud and illegal gambling practices, based on evidence in an unmarked package left conveniently on the stoop of the Japanese embassy. He throws an arm over his eyes, elbows the power button on the remote, and grins to himself.
She pitches her transistor radio to the Besòs River.
“Not a word,” she says to him, as she strides up the levee and past him. “Until this is over for good.”
AMSTERDAM, TWO MONTHS AGO
It could be full of family pictures or bank account passwords or DIY instructions for home-brewed nuclear fission. Usually unnamed, unmarked compact disks secreted away in a vault under the Westertoren would have him brimming with curiosity, but now he can’t bring himself to care. It’s burning a hole in his jacket pocket for different reasons.
He killed a man today.
As a general rule of thumb he tries not to, has a reputation for trying not to, but the job always comes first. He’s done it before, many times before, and the real shame is that he’s gotten good at it. Quiet and nearly bloodless, vapour and rigour mortis, the gun warm like melting chocolate in his hands. It’s not something you ever get used to no matter how many times you do it, and thank god for it. He doesn’t know what would happen without the weight of guilt pressing down on him. He’d probably lift off into the atmosphere, burn up like space junk.
He doesn’t question it when she appears, the lights strung up the Prince’s Canal haloing her from behind, reminding him of old paintings depicting even older saints. It’s like she comes with the job, as inevitable as the rappelling and the lock-picking and the killing comes. He remembers that sometimes he loves his job, is frightened at what he’d become without its parameters and its thrills. The look of calm and empathy on her face is one he would’ve fallen hard for, had he not seen her use it on countless schmucks in the past. It belatedly occurs to him that he’s probably the only person in the entire world who truly understands her, and yet still he refuses to know better and stay away.
“I’ve decided that this is all wrong for you,” she announces, planting herself directly before him. She’s watching him, a stern crease on her brow, as if she really did care. “That I’m all wrong for you.”
He blatantly ignores the latter part of that statement. “What, the canals? The recreational drug use?” Hollow laughter. “I suppose it’s true, I’ve never been able to handle my spliff addiction very well.”
“Stop it,” she snaps, glaring at him. “Why do you keep going on like this, when it’s so obvious you hate it?”
“But I don’t.”
“Yes, yes you do,” she insists. “You love the chase, but you hate the kill. You resent having people control your life. So why do you stay? Do you think you’re a hero if you do? For Queen and country –”
He stops her there. “The infamous big, Bad Wolf. The stuff of nightmares for just about anyone on this planet with a safety deposit box,” he asks, wryly, “Are you trying to save my soul?”
Her eyes, pools and whorls of deep, warm brown, shiver with brightness. “Are you trying to save me?” she murmurs. Then she pulls him down by the collar and kisses him.
It’s deep and slick and hard, all tactical strike with one hand driving north while the other delves south, pushing at the lapels of his suit jacket to get underneath the cloth. But when his upper brain function finally decides to cut the lame duck act and participate more actively, her mouth, demonstrative, needy and petal-soft, unfurls at his reciprocation. She tastes like the smoke of her gunpowder, the metal of the pearl-handled pistol he knows she has hidden up her thigh, white tea and chamomile lip balm. He presses anxiously against the small of her back, touching her in ways he’s barely dared to dream of, pulling her, for the first time, as close as he’d wish and still for it to not be enough.
They break apart, gasping for breath. Slowly, she unwinds her arms from his neck, taking her time. Her fingernails softly scrape the shell of his ear, the pad of her thumb following the design of his jaw, resting there, just below the jut of his bottom lip. She leans towards him, as if to claim it for her own again.
But then her hand abruptly drops. “Save yourself,” she whispers.
Quietly, water gushes beneath the arches of the canal, centuries of marked fidelity with only one path to take. But they are not promised to each other in such a way. She runs from him, and there’s no telling where she’ll turn up next.
And it’s only later, much later, while in line at Heathrow customs, does he realize his pockets are empty.
“Do you remember when we first met?” he babbles, faint and frenetic all at once. A brook of red streams down his chin, a mere tributary to the rivers and oceans that split and crack the Earth, the planet he’s caroused through and chased after her twelve times over. But now here are the aches and shakes, the darts of pain being slung over and over into his chest. Warmth seeps and spreads beneath the Kevlar vest she’s stripping open now, and oh god everything is starting to do the whirligig again. Eye rolling and an unconscious, gaping mouth is a very unattractive look for him, so he focuses on her instead. She is the only constant thing in this carnival ride of a shooting. “Wasn’t that far from here, I don’t think. Upturned several fruit vendors trying to get to you. All those satsumas rolling down La Rambla.” Little specks of blood dot his collar as he trembles. “What a shame. Worth it, though.”
A few feet away, Holstein is writhing on the ground, screaming Jesus Mary mother of fuck my leg fucking bollocking Christ. And only a few streets down from La Sagrada Familia too, honestly. He’d sigh if he truly believed in a prophet’s hands more than her hands at this moment, if he were sure his innards wouldn’t come gushing out with his next breath. There are no weepy embraces from her, no tears as she leans over him, eclipsing the sky and with the Spanish sun burning bright in her hair. Instead, she’s got him pinned tightly by the shoulders, as if she could keep him here, here on Earth, here with her, just by the sheer force of her small palms. She grounds him.
“You didn’t catch me,” she reminds him, her voice wavering in and out of signal like a radio being gently tuned. “I got away in the end, remember?”
“Says you,” he murmurs.
“Shut up,” There’s laughing, possibly a smile, gasping, “you shut up right now and just – just focus on bleeding less, okay? Can you do that for me?”
“Quite right too.” His eyes waver shut. “I’ll work on that. Exercise total platelet control. Yeah. I can do that.”
LONDON, ONE YEAR LATER
He slips the haggard operator a few folded pounds. “Give us an extra five minutes. And if you can throw a wrench in the circuits and keep us up there for longer, you’ll get another tenner,” he promises.
“Cheers, mate,” the man replies, nodding as he pockets the bribe.
As the next glass capsule descends and opens, families and tourists spill out, high and giddy from altitude sickness. He steps in once they’ve vacated and seals the door behind him. Almost immediately, they’re jerked into motion, a rough takeoff leading into smooth weightlessness. And there she is, of course, buckled tightly in a jacket and her hair down, falling in soft waves. She has her back to him and her hands pressed flat against the glass. She looks small in that moment, innocent and childlike and beautiful as ever.
“How long are you going to keep coming after me?” Rose asks, softly.
“I’m the one that lives here."
“What, on the London Eye?” she laughs, “Nutter.”
All that travelling, all that running. And here they are, shaken and bruised, tossed up upon this uncertain shore. This could be another one of her long cons and yet maybe it’s not. She might shoot him dead the minute his back is turned or throw him out a window, but perhaps she won’t.
It’s a risk he’s increasingly willing to take.
“Stay,” he swallows, and says it again with every last shred of honesty he possesses. He gives whatever he has left of himself to her, hoping it’ll be enough, hoping she’ll understand why it’s so difficult, not because of their shared history but because of his own. “You should stay here. With me.”
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe never. But at least now she knows, if she hadn’t before, which she could’ve, must’ve. Finally she’s turning, and he notices the wetness growing in the corner of her eye. But there’s also a smile, albeit a trembling one, which means she’s trying to decide whether to laugh or cry. Trying to pretend as though she has a choice in the matter. “We’ll have to get off sooner or later.” she reminds him, gently.
“We’ve got time,” he says.
He takes her hand.