“You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Eames.”
“Is that so?” Eames gave a dry laugh and looked Jacob Tanner in the eye. It was hard to in the position he was in, but he managed to hold his gaze. He pretended he wasn’t being held up by two well-muscled thugs, wasn’t trapped in a back-alley in Tangier at midnight with no hope of back-up. It was just a friendly conversation with an old friend.
“Yeah, you are,” Tanner said. “They sent me instead of Brighton to collect. He still hasn’t forgiven you for Cape Town.” Tanner flexed his fingers, his brown leather gloves glossy with blood. He was tall and dark-haired, all wiry muscle under his button-down shirt and slacks. Once upon a time, he had been just Eames’ type—with that chiseled jaw and slightly crooked nose—but that had been long, long ago. Three continents, two careers, and five years, to be exact. A lot could change in that span of time—the man who once had your back now here to collect up front.
Eames spat, emptying his aching mouth of the coppery flood Tanner’s last punch had unleashed. “Now, you know as well as I do that was his own bloody fa—”
Eames’ words died in a groan as Tanner’s fist slammed into his solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him. Eames struggled to breathe, to push past the fear throbbing through him faster than the pain. True, Tanner wasn’t a fucking sadist like Brighton—known as “The Tooth Fairy” when he wasn’t in earshot—but he was no masseuse either. Eames had once watched him methodically break every bone in a man’s leg, just because he’d almost run into him with his bicycle.
“It really was his fault. Wish I’d had a camera.” Tanner chuckled, as easily as if they’d been sitting across from each other in a bar. Then his soft expression hardened back into a frown, his tone going flat. “But that’s enough memory lane. You know that you’re over three days late with your payment to Mr. LeMaire.”
“I have the money,” Eames protested, putting as much desperate sincerity into his tone as he could muster. If Eames could just get these goons to loosen their grip…
The thugs tightened their hold on him instead. Tanner gave a long sigh. He slowly pulled a pair of brass knuckles from his pants pockets and began to slip them on over his gloves. “Don’t lie to me, Eames. I know you like to think you’re this amazing con man, but I know your tells. You know I hate it when people lie.”
“I’m not lying, you stubborn prat!” Eames’ entire body had gone hot, electric, but he managed to keep his head. Fine. Tanner wasn’t going to buy sincere, maybe he’d buy angry. “Look, I know I’m late, but I’m not fucking stupid! You think I’d really fuck with a man like LeMaire?”
“You did when you—”
“It was an honest mistake! Crossed communication between the higher-ups.” Eames sighed. “He understands this, which is why he gave me a chance to make amends. Come on. If he really wanted to make an example of me, I’d be fucking face-first in the drink, wouldn’t I be?”
Tanner was relaxing by increments…which meant his lackeys’ grip on Eames was, too.
“Look, I pulled some strings, called in some favors, and I have more than enough to pay LeMaire back, with a nice little apology bonus,” Eames said easily. “Yes, it took a bit longer than I had hoped, but I promise, it’ll be so very worth it.”
Tanner looked at him, hard, reading Eames’ expression. “All right. I believe you, Eames.”
Eames sagged in relief. “About bloody time,” he muttered. “Now, if you’ll just get your goons off of me, I can escort you gentlemen to my flat so I can pay.”
“I wish it was that simple,” Tanner said, genuine remorse in his tone. “But Mr. LeMaire was very clear that he wanted to make an impression on you, Eames. He doesn’t like having his generosity repaid with tardiness. You’ve gotta have some damage to show, or it’s going to be my ass. I hope you understand. It’s nothing personal.” He nodded to his muscle. “Boys? Go a little easy on him. No permanent damage.”
Well, fuck. That was unacceptable.
Eames forced himself to relax as the thugs shifted their grip, letting go of his arms so they could push him back with their forearms. Eames could see what they were planning, an old-fashioned against-the-wall beating. Perfect.
Before the first one could land a punch, Eames had grabbed the bigger one’s wrist, and used the leverage to push himself sideways against the alley wall. The two men fell against each other as Eames slid out from their grasp, and before they could orient themselves Eames lashed out with a vicious kick to the back of the closest one’s knee. It didn’t break, but it dropped him hard with a cry. The other—the one Eames had grabbed—hadn’t even found his balance before Eames dispatched him with a quick punch to the throat, leaving him gasping and spluttering on the ground.
He turned to Tanner, whose face had gone pale as ash. He held up his fists, as if ready to box Eames, but by his shrunken, defensive stance Eames knew the fight was going out of him. The thugs might not have ever seen Eames in a hand-to-hand fight, but Tanner had. He knew what he was getting into, and without back-up, he was well and truly fucked.
“I’ll have to admit, I’m disappointed, Tanner. I thought we were friends,” Eames said calmly.
“You know as well as I do, men like us don’t have friends.” Tanner snorted.
“You’re right.” Eames lashed out. He feinted with his left, drawing Tanner’s block, so he could jab in on the right, clocking Tanner hard across the face. Tanner grunted and tried to retaliate, but he was too slow to block Eames’ next punch to his side. He cried out, dropping to his knees. Eames contemplated slamming Tanner’s face into his knee—breaking his nose—but he decided against it. They had been friends once, after all.
Then, looking around to make sure all three men were down, he walked backwards out of the alleyway. Only when he was sure that they couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore did Eames break into a dead run. He’d bought himself ten, maybe fifteen minutes before Tanner came to his senses and tracked him down again. Which meant it was time to leave town.
Damn. Just when he was really starting to like Tangier.
He made it to his rented flat in five minutes, and as soon as he flipped on the light he made a bee-line for his closet. He threw off the piles of dirty clothes and musty books to reveal a trapdoor hidden under a scrap of old rug. He lifted it and pulled out his emergency bag—all ready with a freshly forged passport, two credit cards in the same name, seven different types of major international currency, two changes of clothes, a toiletry kit, a handgun, a smartphone and three different SIM cards for it, a Swiss army knife, three power bars and two bottles of water—and slung it over his shoulder. He scanned the apartment for anything else he’d want to take, but really, there was nothing. No photos, no pieces of art, no little memento to remind him of his six months in Tangier. It’d been the same when he’d left Mombasa, or Cape Town, or Abidjan, or any other city he’d spent more than a few weeks in. Every time he started getting comfortable, something would happen, and he’d be on the move again.
He grabbed his jacket and a beat-up baseball hat and headed out the door, tossing the keys into the room before he slammed it shut behind him. He’d already paid through the end of the month, so he wasn’t cheating the old lady who ran the building. It was one thing to steal from a gangster, and another to steal from an elderly widow.
Eames tried to keep himself looking casual—just another tourist out late in Morocco—as he made his way to one of the main streets and flagged himself a cab. For all he knew, LeMaire had sent more than one clean-up crew after Eames. He’d actually be a little surprised if he hadn’t—Eames owed LeMaire an embarrassing amount of money.
What was even more embarrassing was how Eames had come to be in the Frenchman’s debt. It was supposed to have been an easy job, a little con for one of the smaller bosses looking to undermine some upstart’s new gambling ring. What he hadn’t realized was that the upstart was actually working for LeMaire, who had established himself as the authority in Tangier. Eames had no idea how the staff at LeMaire’s casino had been able to identify Eames’ forged chips, never mind how they’d been able to trace the con back to him. He was still suspicious that it’d been a set-up, though Eames knew better than to try to rat out his client to LeMaire. That would just cause more trouble for him.
He’d been lucky LeMaire had believed Eames’ story that he was new in town, hadn’t meant offense, and could definitely make reparations—though the Frenchman had demanded them in a ridiculously small window of time. Eames had been slightly hopeful he could make it happen, but when his luck had turned at the tables, he’d known he was in trouble. He’d been going all over town to every gambling den and casino, trying to change his luck, but had just dug the hole deeper. He should’ve just left town as soon as LeMaire had let him go.
See, this was what happened every time he tried to set up roots. He always cocked it up somehow.
The ride to the airport was uneventful, and he managed to secure a cheap seat on a flight to nearby Lisbon. He had to part with his weapons in the men’s room, but there was no way he was going to get them past security. It made him even more nervous to be unarmed as he made his way through the checkpoints, and he didn’t breathe any easier until his flight was taxiing down the runway.
It had all happened so quickly. Less than an hour from when he’d been shaken down in an alleyway, he was ordering a scotch and soda from the flight attendant, on his way to the new chapter of his storied life. He sat back in his seat with a sigh. He hadn’t even had a chance to buy a paperback at the airport. He should start adding one to his getaway bag. The flight would give him a couple of hours to think, at least, plan his new course of action. Lisbon was just an escape hatch; from there he could go anywhere.
Since he’d left his parents’ home at sixteen to join the service, he’d never stayed in one place long. First, it was the army moving him around, and then after his three years in London with Project Somnacin, he’d bounced from country to country, continent to continent, chasing opportunities wherever they arose. He’d leave when he got bored, or the money dried up, or something better came up somewhere…or his welcome wore out. That seemed to be happening more and more these days.
But, where would he go this time? Now with this debacle, Morocco made, what, seven countries he could never return to? Not counting the ones he didn’t want to return to. Money was becoming thin again, and his list of friends was even thinner. He supposed he could see if he could convince Yusuf to venture out from his little den in Mombasa to meet him somewhere for a bit, but Eames knew how hard it was to get him to leave his regular clients, even for a few days. He’d probably say no. Eames sighed. How long had it been since he’d actually spent time with anyone for the fun of it?
No, the smart thing to do when his funds were so low was to take on another job. Something that utilized his full range of skills, hopefully. Extraction jobs were becoming harder and harder to come by since the dream-tech boom had begun last year, both because extractors were being snapped up by biotech companies for R&D, and because more and more people were going through the training against extraction. Dream-share was becoming so commonplace that somnivid arcades were popping up in major cities all over the world. Brave new fucking world.
The attendant brought his drink, and as Eames sipped on it he spied the latest copy of The Economist in the pocket of the seat in front of him. It wasn’t his first choice for reading, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, eh? He scanned over the small articles near the front of the magazine, none of them able to hold his attention for more than a few seconds…until his eyes landed on a small picture of a familiar face. Eames’ stomach did a flip, an unexpected jolt going through him.
“I’ll be damned,” Eames whispered to himself. “Hello there, Robby.”
Robert Fischer looked different. Older than three years should’ve aged him. Tired, pale, his sharp, blue eyes slightly red along the rims. This was definitely a candid shot someone had snapped of him, as there was no way the polished prince that Eames had known Robert to be would’ve allowed himself to be seen so disheveled. Unless he’d changed more than Eames thought. A lot could change in three years.
Not those cheekbones, though. Or those full lips. Or that long, graceful neck of his…
Of all the marks Eames had studied for a job, Fischer had been by far the most…interesting. Between the weeks of research to learn about his past and then infiltrating his company to learn about his present, Eames almost felt like Fischer was an old friend at this point. In a warped, one-sided way, true, but Eames had learned much of what made him tick, what made him happy…what his deepest pain was. You didn’t forget a man whose head—whose very soul—you’d cracked open. Eames liked to imagine that he’d helped Fischer, guided him towards a cathartic reconciliation with his cold, domineering father. Looking at this new picture of Fischer, though, Eames wasn’t so sure anymore.
Eames looked at the article beside the photo, where the headline read “Fischer New Player in Dream-Tech Field.”
Oh, really? Eames’ pulse sped up as he began to read:
“Having been completely silent in the two years since he dissolved Fischer-Morrow, Robert Fischer has finally reappeared—in a completely unexpected venture. His fledgling company, Pinwheel Enterprises, based out of Bangkok, is currently developing something they call Somnus Shield. Though details remain under wraps for now, Fischer says it’s a revolutionary process that utilizes the same mechanics of shared dreaming that have previously only been used for dream therapy, military training and somnivid entertainment modules...”
By the time Eames had finished reading the piece—twice—his heart was hammering. This…this was not good.
Somehow, Fischer knew.
Fischer knew that someone had been in his head. Why else would he be pouring his energy, his fortune, into something as strange and contested as dream-tech? This…this wasn’t a sound business strategy, this was personal . If Fischer was actually able to pull this off, Eames would have a lot more to worry about than a few angry crime bosses. So would everyone else in the extraction game, or who had ever been a part of it. Yusuf, Cobb, Ariadne, Arthur…
The wheels began to turn in Eames’ head. He hadn’t really spoken to Arthur in almost two years. Not since Arthur has offered him a job at his new dream-tech firm…and Eames had turned him down. He’d had enough R&D for one lifetime with Project Somnacin, and besides, Eames didn’t really like San Francisco. Too many hills, too much fog, too many tourists. Since then, Arthur had become one of the major players in the growing dream-tech field, especially since he had a big, secret backer with extremely deep pockets. He was as legitimate as they came, now—wealthy, connected, and respectable.
Or was he? Once a con man…
Think, Eames, think.
By the time the plane touched down in Lisbon, Eames had the first shadow of a plan in his head. If he played his cards right, he just might be able to find a way throw Fischer off their scent while also securing his own financial future. No more scraping by, just a nice, steady stream of modest income. Find some quiet little corner of the world and live like a king. Maybe Bali. He’d always liked Bali.
When the plane touched down in Lisbon, Eames didn’t even leave the airport. He just made his way to the ticket counter and bought a one-way ticket for San Francisco.
It was time he paid his old friend a surprise visit.