The argument went more or less like this: Miguel didn’t want to keep taking jobs from Hernán, because Hernán was fucking crazy and killed people. Tulio didn’t think they could afford to stop taking jobs from Hernán, because Hernán was fucking crazy and killed people. It wasn’t the worst fight they’d ever had—that honor went to the screaming match they had in Alburquerque, when they were both hungover and embarrassed—but it was pretty terrible. Tulio ended up stealing the last word by running off to Spain on a solo job—for Hernán, of course—where he would be incommunicado. For a month.
Miguel sulked for forty-eight hours and spent the following three and a half weeks planning grand gestures of friendship meant to soften Tulio up without actually admitting any fault. He purchased a bag of fancy gummy bears from Whole Foods—the ones Tulio had too much dignity to buy himself, but secretly craved—and picked through it to isolate the grapefruit and lemon flavors, which he not-so-secretly abhorred. He wrote a tongue-in-cheek apology song for the ukulele. As a final measure, he bought Altivo a sweater with the phrase DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY embroidered on the back.
Only then Tulio didn’t come back.
Miguel knew he’d finished the job on time. The money was in Tulio’s account--he’d filched Tulio’s banking information years earlier—and Hernán was famous for not cashing out until the job was done, which meant the job must be done. A week passed, and Miguel left increasingly urgent messages on Tulio’s emergency voicemail and avoided the temptation to hop on the next flight to Madrid. Showing up unannounced could do more harm than good, depending on the con Tulio was running.
He stayed at Tulio’s apartment—he always did, when Tulio was out of town, because someone had to watch Altivo, and Miguel’s landlord objected strongly to dogs—but worry drove him off the couch and into Tulio’s bedroom. There, surrounded by the comforting smell of Tulio’s detergent, with Tulio’s forgotten paperback on the nightstand beside him, Miguel allowed himself to consider the possibility that “Good luck, I guess,” was the last thing he’d ever say to his best friend in all the world.
He woke to the sound of his phone playing Mi Primer Millón, around two in the morning. He snatched it up, and Tulio was on the other end. “You absolute shithead,” Miguel said, relief making his limbs weak and shivery. Altivo’s tail thumped reassuringly on the bed beside him, and Miguel dragged a heavy hand over to pat his head. “You fucking nightmare. Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been? I thought you were dead. I thought you were being tortured in a cave. Are you all right? Are you missing a limb? Because that’s really the only excuse I’ll accept.”
“I’m sorry,” Tulio said, the familiar cadence of his voice incredibly infuriating and incredibly welcome all at once. “Hey, hey. I’m really sorry. I got a little caught up. I’m fine, I swear.”
“You better be fine,” Miguel snapped, contradicting himself but too relieved to really care. “What happened?”
“The job went fine,” Tulio said, but he was hedging. “The package was delivered, payment rendered.”
“Come on, I’m not an idiot,” Miguel said impatiently. “Why are you still there?”
There was a pause on the other end. “Well,” Tulio said, and there was something off about his voice. “I met someone.”
“Fuck you,” Miguel said, and the noise that came out of his chest was something like a furious groan. “Are you honestly telling me I’ve been killing myself worrying about you while you’ve been shacked up with a hooker in Santiago?”
“Oh, like you did in Corpus Christi?” Tulio asked instantly, never one to miss letting an old argument rise to the surface. And it was true—Miguel had done exactly that three years earlier, although in his defense Esteban had been an ex-prostitute. But that was Miguel. He was reckless, and he was careless, and occasionally he’d gone off the map in pursuit of love and dick, but Tulio never did. The whole thing only worked because Tulio was there to hold it all together. “Shit,” Tulio said a second later, and sighed. “I wasn’t gonna bring that up. Listen—she’s not a hooker, okay? She’s, uh.” A kind of awful softness crept into his voice. “She’s, well. We got married. I married her. Yesterday.”
Miguel’s mind went blank. Altivo lifted up his head, and Miguel’s hand slid bonelessly off. “Not funny,” he said, even though he knew this wasn’t Tulio’s sort of humor.
“I’m not kidding,” Tulio said awkwardly. “I should have gotten in touch, I know—it just happened so fast.”
“Fast,” Miguel repeated.
Altivo whined, and Miguel looked down at him in dumb surprise, and then at the apartment around him. Tulio’s books, Tulio’s oak floors, and Tulio’s high thread count sheets. Altivo was Miguel’s dog, but that was a name-only thing at this point; he’d lived here since the beginning. Tulio hadn’t wanted a dog, much less a Great Dane. But he’d followed Miguel home from a job, and what was Miguel supposed to do? Return him to the man he’d just robbed? Put a fully-grown dog into one of the city’s high-kill shelters? Tulio had bitched and bitched about it, but then he’d bought an ugly and expensive dog bed for the laundry room, where Altivo was supposed to sleep, and he yelled at Miguel for buying the high-calorie dog food, and Altivo always ended up sleeping at the foot of the bed anyway.
“Real fast,” Tulio agreed, and there was that ridiculous softness in it again.
“You’re married?” Miguel asked, knowing he sounded a bit dazed, not sure how to make himself stop.
“Yeah,” Tulio said, and there was just a shred of defensiveness in his tone, but it was enough to snap Miguel out of it.
“Fuck,” he said intelligently, and cleared his throat. He got out of bed, smoothed the comforter back down. “Well. When are you coming back?”
Tulio gave a weird, choking laugh. “Seriously? That’s what you’re asking me? Not ‘What’s her name?’ or ‘Congratulations’, or—anything?”
Miguel started getting dressed. “I need to know when you’re getting back. For Altivo.”
“Jesus,” Tulio said, and he sounded tired. “Okay. Sure, Miguel. We’re coming in next week. Monday.” There was a brief scuffle on his end, and the sound of a woman laughing.
“Good luck, I guess,” Miguel said, because he wasn’t above being petty, and hung up.
The problem wasn’t repressed emotion or sexual tension or anything. Miguel knew exactly how Tulio felt, and vice versa. They’d dealt with that years ago, roaring drunk in a Motel 6 in Albuquerque, hiding out from federal agents with half the vault of a Vegas casino stowed in the boot of their car. Miguel had given into drunken weakness and gone in for a kiss, Tulio had most definitely kissed him back, and then the panic hit them both at the exact same time. They had a screaming fight that sent Tulio out into the parking lot to stand guard over the money and Miguel out for a furious walk in the desert, where he broke a toe resentfully kicking a boulder. After they’d both sobered up and calmed down they went back to the hotel room with a fresh bottle of tequila and had the most mature and honest conversation they’d ever had in their lives. It was incredibly horrible, and they agreed never to speak of it again, but they took the arrangement they hammered out very seriously.
The facts were these:
1. Miguel was in love with Tulio. He couldn’t help it, didn’t know how to stop, so there was really nothing to be done there.
2. Tulio loved Miguel, but was really honestly mostly straight. “I mean, I think I’d—“ he’d said, before blushing scarlet red and gesturing vaguely at Miguel’s crotch and biting his lip. “But I love women, Miguel, I love women. All soft and smooth and—I love women,” he’d finished, in a pleading sort of way, and Miguel had literally begged him to shut up.
3. Their friendship—partnership—was the most important thing in either of their lives. Miguel would have died or been arrested a dozen times in the last five years if it weren’t for Tulio, and he knew that much was mutual. Nothing could be allowed to fuck with that.
4. The way Tulio was in relationships wasn’t really compatible with the way their partnership worked. There were the usual issues with jealousy, protectiveness, worry, could they keep putting themselves at risk if sex and romance and all that shit were on the table, yadda yadda. Mostly, though, the problem was that Tulio had unilaterally terrible breakups—every single one had ended with screams and broken glass, and both Annika and Elisse had set his shit on fire. Nicole had been perfectly sane until she broke up with Tulio, and then she took a baseball bat to his car windows. “I turn people crazy,” Tulio had said sincerely, and it would have been funny if it weren’t for the genuinely miserable lines around his mouth and the sick feeling in Miguel’s stomach. “I’ve never gone back to being friends with someone. Never. And so, what? Are we gonna gamble everything on hoping this is it? This time, over all the other times? I can’t do that, Miguel. I can’t risk that.”
5. Miguel was great with casual relationships—witness Danny in Queens and Noah in Astoria and Tino on third avenue––but he didn’t think he could keep this casual. Well. It already wasn’t casual, and adding sex into the mix would only make it worse.
6. If something did go wrong, if the perfect balance they had as partners did upset itself somewhere down the line—they both needed other people. Miguel was adult enough to admit that, even if he hated the thought of it. They were better conmen than that. You always set up a contingency; you always made sure you had a way out.
With that in mind, they’d come up with a series of rules, to be taken with the utmost seriousness and never ever spoken of again:
No drunken hookups, no thank-god-you’re-alive kisses, no boyfriend crap, even for a con. No matter how drunk they were, or how vulnerable one of them felt, or how many cops were chasing them into the nightclub.
2. No getting jealous. The call had been made; no recriminations after the fact. They would both have romantic lives, and that was fine.
3. That said, try to be discreet. No flaunting lovers all over the place.
4. No pining. The entire point of the agreement was making sure that their feelings weren’t going to get in the way of their partnership, and pining would fuck that up.
5. If one of them needed out, all they had to do was say so. No questions asked.
Miguel had been very proud of that conversation later on, after the horror and shame and truly miserable hangover had worn off. The elephant in the room was well and truly handled, even if it wasn’t gone. And if it was bittersweet, so what? He was stupidly, absurdly lucky to have Tulio in his life at all.
They hadn’t talked about marriage, although maybe they should have. Honestly, Miguel thought savagely, trying to smuggle a two hundred pound Great Dane up into his apartment via the fire escape at four am, he thought he’d have some time to ease himself into it, since most people dated before skipping straight to the altar.
Altivo walked in an uncertain circle around Miguel’s living room, and wouldn’t settle down until Miguel dragged him to the bed and told him to stay . The problem, Miguel decided, falling asleep in his own apartment for the first time in weeks, was that their partnership had gotten fucked up all on its own, and therefore everything else was falling apart. Altivo licked a soothing stripe onto Miguel’s ankle, and a while later he fell asleep.
Miguel screened Tulio’s calls for three entire days, and pretended not to be home when Tulio showed up at his apartment, even though it sent Altivo crazy and it meant he had to put the Great British Bake Off on mute. “I know you’re in there,” Tulio said through the door. “I can hear you shushing Altivo.”
Altivo barked more urgently at the sound of his own name, and Miguel cast him a betrayed look. “Come on,” Tulio said, and if he’d sounded at all contrite Miguel might have opened the door, but instead he sounded irritated. “Bad enough that you stole my dog. You can’t ignore me forever.”
“He’s my dog, and you ignored me for a week while committing international theft,” Miguel called out instead, the injustice of it all rankling severely. “And I thought you were dead. And you didn’t invite me to your wedding.”
“I didn’t invite anyone to my wedding,” Tulio said, and the note of apology didn’t help this time. “It was me, Chel, and a priest.”
“How romantic,” Miguel said viciously, and turned up the volume on the TV, so Tulio had to shout to reply. “What kind of a name is Chel, anyway?”
“I’ll tell you all about it if you let me come in. I promise, I can explain everything.”
“Do you have a job for us?” Miguel called out instead.
There was a suspicious pause. “No.”
“Better come back when you do, then,” Miguel said snidely, and there was a muffled thumping sound, like Tulio had let his head fall into the door.
The next morning, a strange woman knocked at the door. He looked through the keyhole, and saw that she was small, pretty, and holding a pie in both hands. He opened the door just a crack, kneeing Altivo away from the door. “Are you Miguel?” she asked with a bright smile.
“That’s me,” he said, uncomfortably aware that he was only wearing boxers and a T-shirt. She had on a cream-colored dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at the UN, and a pair of magenta heels he knew for a fact cost more than a purebred Great Dane. A huge bag was slung over her shoulder, but it looked expensive too.
“I’m Chel,” she said, and gave him an apologetic smile. “Can I come in?”
Miguel wanted badly to put his pride above his curiosity, but it simply wasn’t in his nature. He let her in.
She stepped inside, and his vague intention of maintaining a posture of cool civility vanished when several things happened in very quick succession. First, Altivo broke free of Miguel’s grip and lunged at her—all five feet of her—and put his enormous paws on her shoulders and gave a bark of discovery. Second, Chel staggered under his weight and dropped the pie, sending fragments of crust and fruit everywhere. Miguel shouted in horror and threw himself after Altivo, and finally Chel’s bag started barking back. Altivo dropped to the floor, and an incredibly ugly Chihuahua mix leapt out of the bag after him. The dogs greeted each other joyfully. Miguel and Chel stared at each other in mutual horror.
“Fuck,” she said in a stunned way, “I got pie on you.” It was true; the cherry filling had spattered all over her dress, the floor, and his bare feet. It was still faintly hot on his toes.
“It’s all right,” he said, just as shocked. “I—I like cherry pie.”
She started laughing an instant before he did, but soon enough they were both in utter hysterics. Miguel could barely breathe he was laughing so hard, and when they were both doubled over it was easy enough to sink down to the floor. He put his hand in more cherry filling on the way down, and she laughed harder. The Chiuhahua came over and started lapping it up, and Miguel picked him up to make him stop. Altivo stuck his nose in Chel’s face to give her the full inspection.
“Oh my god,” she gasped, Altivo practically in her lap, “Oh my god, you have no idea how embarrassing this is. I was gonna make this whole big gesture of, like, friendship and apology and stuff, and instead I dumped a pie on your carpet.”
“ You’re embarrassed,” Miguel managed between great heaves of laughter, the Chihuahua wriggling in his grasp, “My dog mauled you! You’re Tulio’s wife , and my dog is mauling you right now! And I’m in my underwear.”
“Oh shit,” she repeated, and they both lost it again.
He had really, really wanted to hate her. But once she’d stripped off her dress—which she explained needed to soak immediately or it would be really ruined—and Miguel boiled some water to pour over the stains, and she started cleaning up the pie mess in her underwear before he gave her a T-shirt to wear—which came down to her knees, because she really was tiny —well. It was sort of impossible to hate her.
Miguel made coffee with the leftover hot water, and they sat together on the couch and she gave him a condensed and—he suspected—much less dramatic version of the speech she’d planned to go with her gesture. “I totally get why you’d hate me,” she said earnestly. “Like, who gets married after knowing someone a month, right? I’d be suspicious of me, too. And, well. My family’s not exactly happy with me. I don’t think my mom’s ever going to forgive me for not having a real wedding. My abuela’s not even talking to us yet. But—god, it just happens like that sometimes, you know? Where you just meet someone, and you just click together in all the right ways, and you just know ?”
Miguel did know. It brought back the familiar symptoms of heartache he’d been trying to banish for days now: the old ache in his chest, the pit of bittersweet longing in his belly, the tightness in his throat. But he’d been living with muffled heartache for years now. It was easier than he thought it would be to push it down, especially since Chel’s eyes had gone suspiciously soft, and her accent thickened a little with emotion. She looked surprisingly beautiful, sitting cross-legged on his couch, black sheet of hair spilling over his faded Batman shirt, love shining out of her face. “Maybe it’s stupid, but sometimes stupid’s the right call. I believe that.”
“You don’t have to justify yourself to me,” Miguel tried, but she interrupted him again.
“No, I know. But the thing is—you’re the most important person in Tulio’s life,” she said with utter sincerity, sending another little stab of ancient sadness to Miguel’s chest. “I haven’t known him very long, but I definitely know that. He’d be miserable without you, and I’d hate to come between you, or anything like that.”
“You won’t,” Miguel told her, and was surprised to discover it was true. He liked Chel. He already felt as if he’d known her all his life.
Tulio brought Miguel a job—a deliberately uncontroversial fiddle game for Tannabok, no sweat, no debate necessary. This time the fiddle was a bootlegged app, and the mark was an opportunistic businessman. Easy as pie. Half the profit went to Tanni, the other half they split. They were done in about seven hours, and ended up at their usual spot for post-job drinks.
“So, how are my rankings on the forgiveness scale?” Tulio asked after they sat down, not quite meeting Miguel’s eyes. “Let’s say, one to ten, where one is ‘not at all’, and ten is ‘I’ve forgotten about it already?”
Miguel raised his eyebrows, and sipped his vodka tonic. “Four.”
“Four’s not so bad,” Tulio said quietly, and he was looking at Miguel now. “All things considered.”
“Nope,” Miguel agreed, swallowing around the bitterness in his throat, and because it was true and because he deserved a fucking sainthood, he added: “Chel’s nice.”
“She’s great,” Tulio said, smiling in that crooked way that meant he wasn’t aware he’d stopped frowning. “She thinks you’re great.”
“Great,” Miguel said, and he meant it—he did—but it came out strangely, and Tulio’s eyes dropped back down to his drink. His knuckles whitened on the glass.
“Listen, Miguel,” Tulio started, the tense note in his voice that meant he was about to say something he would desperately like to keep to himself. Miguel didn’t want to hear it.
“It’s getting late,” he interrupted Tulio, and threw some money onto the bar. “And the dog probably has to go out. So. I’m gonna go. My love to the missus.”
“Miguel,” Tulio said, sounding annoyed, and Miguel didn’t give him a chance to reply, giving him an entirely false smile and heading out into the night.
Tulio called twice while Miguel was on his way home. He didn’t leave a message.
Things stayed in a holding pattern for about three days: he avoided Tulio and pointedly didn’t avoid Chel. She invited him to the dog park, and he was delighted to learn that the Chihuahua—Dillo, apparently short for Armadillo—had a bitter rivalry with a pug named Le Croix. (“And so, Dillo, we meet again,” she said in an exaggerated French accent as the two little dogs approached each other, teeth drawing back. Altivo was panting anxiously, watching, and Miguel nearly died laughing. “You know this parque is mah territory.”) She texted him stories about her coworkers, who all seemed to be horrible. Her schedule was incredibly packed—she was a junior associate at a law firm in the city, which kept her hours nearly as unpredictable as theirs—which turned out to be a good thing, because Tulio hadn’t told Chel what they did for a living.
“She’s your wife,” Miguel said in a shocked whisper when he discovered this fact—most inconveniently, after having accepted an invitation to dinner at Chel’s apartment. (She hadn’t moved out yet—she and Tulio wanted to find a bigger place before selling both apartments. Miguel was seriously considering taking over her lease, so he wouldn’t have to keep sneaking Altivo down the fire escape to pee early in the morning.) Miguel had made a casual reference to the job they did in Ankhara, and Tulio had glared at him and tapped the side of his nose, their code for stop blowing my cover.
“I know she’s my wife,” Tulio hissed back, and cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder at the kitchen door, where Chel was grabbing glasses and a bottle of merlot. “I’ve been trying to explain, but you haven’t given me a chance.”
“What do you mean, a chance,” Miguel said incredulously. “What does she think you do?”
“Insurance investigator,” Tulio mumbled. “You too.”
“We’re insurance men,” Miguel repeated, disbelieving, and Tulio winced.
“Insurance investigators,” Tulio emphasized, coloring a little. “Like the hot chick from White Collar.”
Miguel stared at him until Chel came back with the wine.
Dinner was strained, although Miguel did his best to be normal in front of Chel. Tulio was silent for most of the meal, although every so often he gave Miguel the significant look that meant they needed to talk.
Eventually he and Chel stumbled into a conversation about how she and Tulio met, ground they’d treaded over carefully on their own. With Tulio in the room, Chel apparently felt free to expand a little more.
“Well, I’d taken a month off work,” she said, pouring another glass of wine, “Used up two years worth of sick days in one go. I wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago—not as a spiritual thing, but as a way of remembering my dad. He did it when he was about my age, and it seemed like a good way to be close to him.” Her father, Miguel knew, had died several years before. “And at first it was nice being alone—I was walking fifteen or twenty miles every day, stopping in churches to light candles, all that stuff. And by the time I got to Santiago—well, I was ready to talk to another human being, you know?” She smiled at Tulio. “I went out for my first breakfast in the city, and who do I find but a fellow American sitting at the bar, swearing at his computer.”
“Ah, but was he banging his head against the table?” Miguel asked, to Chel’s laughter and a dark look from Tulio. “That’s when you know it’s serious.”
“At any rate, we started talking,” Chel said, with a fond look. “We didn’t stop talking for about—three days? And then, you know. Things just sort of spiraled from there. And then we found ourselves in the basilica with a friend of my father’s—who’s actually a priest in the Catholic church—and, well. We made the jump.” She took Tulio’s hand, and Miguel forced a smile.
When he got up to leave, Tulio walked out with him, claiming there was some work stuff they had to go over. He gripped Miguel’s elbow hard, steering him down the stairs and out into the night, and for the first time in weeks Miguel didn’t try to escape.
“Well?” Miguel said, once they’d left the building. It was cold out, but Tulio marched them determinedly towards the little park around the corner.
“What, no excuses?” Tulio asked sarcastically. “No urgent business elsewhere? Altivo didn’t text you with an emergency? You don’t need to wash your hair?”
Miguel folded his arms over his chest and shifted, uncomfortable. “You’ve been busy.”
“You’ve been busy,” Tulio said. “I’ve been married.”
“I did notice,” Miguel snapped. “Under false pretenses, apparently. So. Why does Chel think we’re insurance men?”
“Because,” Tulio said,
“Look, of course I want to tell her,” Tulio said impatiently, when Miguel called to scold him after a trip with Chel to the dog park. “But it’s more complicated than that. I met her on the job, Miguel.”
Miguel blinked. “You mean she was involved?” His voice went high with incredulity, and not a little fear. Sometimes that was how a job went, although it was never his favorite tactic. You found a civilian and you used them to further the con. But you didn’t marry them afterward, Jesus. That was as good as turning on a homing beacon for anyone dedicated enough to follow all possible leads.
“She wasn’t part of the con,” Tulio objected. “Look. Things went sour—not rotten, but tangy. Interpol was looking for a man traveling alone. So…I made sure I wasn’t alone.” It’s easy enough for Miguel to picture: there was Tulio, alone in Barcelona, and there was Chel, beautiful and single and American. Tulio needed to finish the job. She would have been an easy mark.
“So she was your cover story,” Miguel said, outrage overtaking his shock. “You married your own cover story.”
Tulio winced, and the pieces clicked together. Miguel blinked. “Oh,” he said slowly. “Oh, no, that’s not it. Getting married was your cover story.” He sat down heavily on a park bench, almost light-headed with revelation.
“Look,” Tulio said, rubbing his forehead. “I was already running behind schedule, okay? They were on my trail, this put them off the scent and gave me access to the right hotel. And after our last conversation, I didn’t exactly want to disappoint Hernán. It was a gambit, and it worked.”
“You married someone for a job, under your real name,” Miguel said dumbly, the full horror of it just barely dawning on him. “And—not someone! Chel! She thinks she’s married to an insurance investigator, and you made her an accessory to one of Hernán’s crimes, Jesus Christ. Tulio!”
“I know,” Tulio snapped, and finally came to sit down next to Miguel, the line of his shoulders tight and awful. “I know, I’m a piece of shit.”
“You’re an enormous piece of shit,” Miguel agreed, and the relief he’d halfway expected to pour in didn’t at all. Instead he felt a hard lump of guilt settle into his stomach, as though by wishing Tulio’s marriage were all a bad joke he’d become responsible for ruining Chel’s life. “What—what are you going to do?”
Tulio gave a miserable shrug. “I don’t think anyone will be that shocked when the people who got married after two weeks end up getting a divorce after a month.”
“You’re getting divorced?” Miguel asked, and the guilt was even more nauseating now, because he knew it wasn’t secondhand. “But—she loves you.”
“She doesn’t know me,” Tulio said, and Miguel gave him a sharp look.
“That’s not true,” he said. “All I’ve been hearing about this week is how ridiculous she thinks you are. She baked me a pie to show me how much she loves you,” he finished, and had to draw a deep breath in to stop from getting too choked up.
Tulio was hunched in on himself, arms folded protectively over his chest, his mouth tight.
“Come on,” Miguel said, and gave his arm a little shove. “You can admit it. We’re partners, you know.” But Tulio didn’t say anything, and Miguel didn’t press him. It was obvious Tulio was in love. Miguel should know.
“What am I supposed to do,” Tulio said helplessly, and Miguel couldn’t answer.
Being friends with Chel was much harder after that. Miguel didn’t break it off, although it occurred to him uneasily that maybe he should.
Things came to a head after Tulio had been married for about a month. They had taken another job for Tannabok––this job slightly more complex, but nothing they hadn’t handled before—and everything was going swimmingly. The target was a USB kept in the pocket of a visiting British CEO, who was being courted by a rival company and kept under lock and key in their high-security offices. Miguel pretended to be the man’s personal assistant—never having ditched his original accent came in handy––and Tulio came in as the impatient new guy from IT. With a few stolen ID cards and a second identity as the assistant of the mark’s British boss waiting for Miguel in a waterproof bag in the men’s toilet, things were coming along like gangbusters. Miguel lifted the USB, passed it to Tulio, Tulio copied the information and then got the hell out of the building, and Miguel was just about to slip it back into the mark’s pocket when everything abruptly went south.
He felt the barrel of a revolver pressed into the small of his back, and a terribly familiar voice say sweetly into his ear: “I think we need to talk.” It was Chel, dressed like a sandwich girl, an utterly blank look on her face. He started to draw breath to speak, and reconsidered when she pressed the gun more firmly into his back.
He let Chel lead him to an empty conference room, while Tulio—who knew something was wrong, but couldn’t tell what—demanded to know what was happening into his earpiece.
Once they were inside, Chel shoved him ahead of her, keeping herself between him and the door. She kept her gun steady, trained on him. “Who do you work for,” she asked, her voice flat.
“Is that Chel?” Tulio demanded in his ear, fear thick in his voice. “Dammit, Miguel. I’m coming back in.”
“No one,” Miguel told Chel, and she clicked the safety off. “Well, Tannabok, on this job,” he said hastily, keeping his arms up. “But we’re freelance, honestly. Independent contractors. I’m the, um. The grifter. I trained at the RSC, you know. And I—I—I have a face people like to trust, I guess.”
“I can see that,” Chel said grimly, and over the pounding of his frightened heart he was struck with an awful pang. She wasn’t a civilian. He’d liked her. He’d trusted her with Tulio. He’d—thought a lot of things that weren’t turning out to be true. It made his breath shaky, his stomach hollow with betrayal.
“Jesus,” Tulio said, and Miguel could hear the sound of him running, breath coming fast.
“Who do you work for?” he asked, pushing through the fear.
“Tzekel-Kan,” she said, and Tulio swore. Tzekel-Kan was bad news. Almost as bad as Hernán.
“And you—you’re here for the drive?” Miguel asked.
She nodded warily, but a brief, miserable expression crossed over her face, and the gun drooped in her hand. “Wait. We? You and—Tulio?”
“Me and Tulio,” Miguel confirmed. “He makes the plans. And sometimes—computer stuff. You didn’t know?”
She shook her head, steadying the gun again. “Of course I didn’t know,” she said. “But obviously you did. What does Tannabok want with me?”
“Nothing,” Miguel said. “Nothing, Chel, I swear. We thought you were a civilian.”
“Yeah,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “Right. Tulio just happens to run into me in Spain, on the job. Just happens to propose, right when my job is going south. That sounds plausible.”
“So—you’re a thief?” Miguel tried, grasping. Tulio’s breath was coming in strained heaves—he’d been forced to take the stairs. All twenty flights.
“Among other things,” she said. But she was staring at him, and there was a vulnerable little line in the curve of her mouth.
“And when the job started going south,” Miguel said earnestly, “you got word that Interpol was looking for Americans traveling alone. And you leaped at the opportunity to be—not alone, didn’t you?”
“Fuck,” Tulio was gasping in his ear. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“You thought Tulio was a civilian,” Miguel appealed. “He made the same mistake. Chel, I swear.”
She lowered the gun—not all the way, but so it wasn’t pointing straight at his heart anymore. “Are you—holy shit. You were working for Hernán?”
It was right around then that Tulio burst through the door. Chel whirled around and fired her gun, jerking her arm back at the last second so she missed Tulio’s head. The bullet ended up going through the frosted glass of the conference room window, shattering the glass. Tulio screamed and clapped a hand to his left ear, and Miguel threw himself at him—a second after Chel.
“Clipped the earlobe,” she said to Miguel, dragging Tulio’s bloody hand down and out of the way. An alarm had gone off, and there was distant screaming in the background. “Come on, we gotta get out of here.”
Tulio—temporarily deaf—cast Miguel a freaked out look, and Miguel threw caution to the wind. “I’ve got a grappling hook stashed in the bathroom,” he called to Chel, already running for it.
“What are you waiting for?” she shouted back, and shot out the outside window.
They made it out of the building relatively unharmed, although Miguel had to abandon his second-best grappling hook at the scene. They wound up at Miguel’s apartment. In Miguel’s bathroom, actually—Tulio in a bloodstained shirt sitting on the closed toilet, Miguel stitching up the slice in his ear while balancing on the edge of the tub, Chel blocking in the doorway with one outstretched leg, keeping a whining Altivo from charging in.
“So,” she said in an unreadable tone. “You’re not insurance men.”
“You’re not a lawyer,” Tulio replied defensively, and winced as Miguel tied off his last stitch.
“You ruined my job,” she said. “In Santiago.”
Tulio winced again. “In his defense,” Miguel said as he reached for the antiseptic, “Hernán is fucking crazy. And he kills people.”
“Yeah,” Chel said, her eyes meaningfully wide. “I know. Why do you think I jumped at the first cover story that popped up?”
“I didn’t even know Tzekel-Kan had an operation in Santiago,” Tulio complained. “I thought all I had to worry about was—ah!—Interpol.”
“Honey,” she said. “Believe me. Interpol was the least of your worries.”
Miguel thought about the stuff he’d heard about Tzekel-Kan—that he’d once strung a guy up by his knuckles, that he’d mailed his mutilated hands to his wife. He felt dizzy, thinking about the danger Tulio had been in—the danger Chel was in—the danger he was in now, too, he supposed. “Tequila,” he announced, shoving the fear down. “I need it. Now. Anyone else?”
Neither Tulio nor Chel objected. They did their first shots in grim silence, but within fifteen minutes Tulio and Chel were screaming at each other, as Miguel knew they would be.
“You married me under a false name,” Tulio was shouting in a very wounded way.
“You married me under false pretenses,” Chel shouted back. “You were using me for a job! You let me think you were in love with me for over a month! When it was just about a fucking job!”
“Well, he is in love with you,” Miguel felt obliged to point out, the worry sinking underneath the rising warmth of the tequila.
They both froze, and then Tulio flushed red, violently tapped his nose and shouted “Shut up, Miguel,” and Chel spilled tequila all down the couch and slapped the table. “I knew it,” she shrieked. “I knew that was a code!”—and they were off again.
Miguel poured himself another drink and let himself curl around Altivo, who wasn’t supposed to be on the couch, but seemed to sense that tonight the rules didn’t quite apply. Chel was offended that Tulio hadn’t been nicer to her mother and grandmother, since he was a conman and clearly knew how to be polite when he wanted to. Tulio was offended that Chel’s mother and abuela were apparently paid actors, since all of Chel’s real family was dead. Chel couldn’t believe that Tulio had told her—things—at which point she’d given Miguel a pointed glare—but hadn’t told her what his job was. What was wrong with him. Tulio couldn’t believe Chel had heard that particular confession and hadn’t told him what her job was. Chel upturned her drink on him, and he poured her another. Chel was furious that Tulio had been trying to convince her to sell her apartment when obviously he’d been planning on divorcing her, and when her apartment was clearly nicer and more conveniently located for her job. Tulio was furious that she was still using her fake job as an excuse. Chel accused him of not denying that he’d wanted to divorce her. Tulio accused Chel of not denying that she’d wanted to divorce him.
When Chel slammed down her glass and threw herself into Tulio’s arms, Miguel very cautiously stood up. The floor only wobbled a little under his feet. But he had to cross by Tulio’s side of the couch on his way to escape in the bedroom, and Tulio managed to disentangle himself from Chel long enough to grab Miguel’s arm. “Where do you think you’re going,” Tulio demanded, very red in the face.
“You’re just as much to blame,” Chel said fiercely, and grabbed Miguel’s other arm, tugging him back down to the couch. He let her pull him down to her other side, the three of them occupying a single couch cushion, while Altivo sprawled out on the other end. There was a small, fraught pause, before Tulio had let go of his wrist and Chel’s huge eyes were staring straight into his.
“I thought you were going to kill me, earlier,” he said without quite meaning to, and Tulio made a small sound Miguel was too tired to really interpret. Chel didn’t look away, although her mouth curved down unhappily.
“I’m sorry,” she said, gravely. “I wouldn’t have. But I wanted to scare you.”
“I know,” Miguel said, because he did know, in retrospect. As soon as Tulio has started bleeding, Chel had dropped everything, even though she had every reason not to trust them. “I’m sorry for lying to you.”
“Thanks,” she said, and leaned in and planted a soft kiss on his forehead. “I understand why you did.”
“Hey,” Tulio said, outraged. His hand came around from Chel’s waist to poke at Miguel’s arm. “Why does Miguel get forgiven?”
“Miguel only lied to me a little bit,” Chel replied, relaxing against Miguel’s side. “Plus, he’s got that face.”
“What face?” Miguel asked.
Tulio rolled his eyes. “The face. You know the face.”
“It’s a very kissable face,” Chel said seriously, and kissed him again—once on the brow, once delicately on the lips. Miguel went very still. “Is that okay?” she asked, drawing back.
Miguel looked past her to Tulio, waiting for the objection, but Tulio was just looking at him, dried blood on the side of his neck and tequila that Chel had thrown in his face making a damp spot on his shirt, a strange, hesitant look on his face. “Hey,” Chel said, and Miguel looked back at her, an entirely new ache in his chest. He opened his mouth to explain about Albuquerque, about their truths and their compromises, but what he said was “Yes.”
Tulio let out a sigh, and before the bravery could coalesce into fear in Miguel’s veins Chel kissed him again. Tulio took Miguel’s hand, and Miguel gripped it, hard. When Chel let him breathe, he sat straight up and said—“No, I don’t understand. We have—we have rules.”
“We’re starting over, right?” Chel said reasonably. Her hand worked into Miguel’s pocket, and she pulled out the USB. “Tannabok might come after us. Tzekel-Kan definitely will. We’ll have to go to ground in the morning. Seems like a good enough spot to rewrite the rules.”
“But—“ Miguel protested, touching his mouth.
Chel rolled her eyes. “Please. You’ve been pining. I like you, and Tulio loves you. Why not?”
“Yeah,” Tulio said quietly, still staring. His grip tightened on Miguel’s hand. “Why not, Miguel?”
Miguel couldn’t answer. Chel smiled.
In the morning, hungover, exhausted, laden down with essentials and one Chihuahua and one Great Dane, they went to ground.
“We don’t have an exit strategy,” Miguel said in the car, a last-ditch attempt at being reasonable. Dillo was curled up in his lap, Altivo hunkered down on the floor.
“We don’t have a plan,” Tulio agreed, in the kind of determined tones that meant he was about to make one.
“That’s what makes it interesting,” Chel said wryly, behind the wheel. “Let’s go.”
Together, they went.