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To Break the Cycle

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It was a warm summer day when Pym’s life fell apart, and not in the way he had ever expected it to.

He had finished work early, for once, because he had been in the middle of something that had several very large and separate parts and he was missing a vital bit of confirmation for the beginning of the next part of it, so after wandering around trying to find an alternative for several hours, Pym had conceded defeat and decided that he might as well make the most of it. It was a nice day, he had been working hard for the last several weeks: why not go home early for once? Perhaps if he hadn’t, none of this would have ever happened. He had no idea what would have been worse.

Pym had arrived home and spent a chunk of the afternoon with Tom and Mary, which had been incredibly pleasant, as Pym couldn’t remember the last time they had all managed to spend time together without somebody having to go somewhere. They had taken a long walk around one of the nearby parks and then gone out for dinner, and it had been over the appetisers that Pym realised, perhaps just as clearly now as he had done all those years ago in Bern, that all good things must come to an end.

“Dad,” Tom said abruptly, and looking at him Pym briefly registered the fact that it was Tom’s serious voice, the one he used when something had been on his mind for a while. Later Pym would pick through his memories of that day, trying to find out if Tom had worn the evidence on his face and Pym just hadn’t noticed, or if his own son was taking some cues from his father and managing to lock it all away until the right moment.

“What’s up?” Pym had asked, keeping his voice light, as though by doing so he could keep the conversation from heading anywhere too undesirable.

“Is my granddad dead?” he asked, taking a large bite of some garlic bread. Pym was, for a brief moment, blindsided. He could only think of Mary’s father, and evidently she was thinking the same thing too; they exchanged glances with one another, both equally confused.

“Mum’s dad?” Pym eventually asked. “Well, yes. I thought you knew this.”

“No,” Tom said, swallowing and shaking his head. “Your dad. Is he dead?”

Pym and Mary exchanged another glance. Pym asked her, silently, if she had mentioned anything to Tom. She told him, silently, that no, she hadn’t. Pym quickly cycled through the other possible ways that Tom could have found out that Rick, unfortunately, was very much alive, but came up with nothing. Rick wrote, of course, but Pym always ensured he burned the letters. There was nothing laying around the house that would point directly to that conclusion, and Pym was beginning to realise, with mounting horror, that there was only one possible way Tom could have found out. When he spoke, it took every effort to keep that conclusion out of his voice.

“What makes you ask that?”

It was an obvious deflection of the question, but Tom, in his innocence, didn’t appear to notice it.

“Well, you always told me he was dead, right? But I saw him today. Or I saw somebody saying he was him. I was just wondering, is all.”

Pym and Mary exchanged yet another look, this one of alarm.

“When was this?” Mary asked the question this time, only managing to sound conversational to Tom’s untrained ear; Pym could hear the nervousness in it.

“Earlier today, when we were walking in the park. When I was playing. He talked to me when I was on the swings.”

Christ, Pym thought, fighting the urge to close his eyes. You got comfortable. You should have never let him out of your sight, even if there was only a few trees in the way. You bloody idiot, Pym.

“What did he look like?” Pym asked. It wasn’t an unusual question to ask. Tom was used to being quizzed over every encounter he had with the slightest stranger; it was all part of Pym’s job, really. Anybody could pretend they were anybody, just to get close to him.

“Shabby,” Tom said, pulling a face. He seemed completely oblivious to his parents’ growing alarm, swinging his legs back and forth under his chair and helping himself to the appetisers now being neglected by Pym and Mary. “He kind of stank, too. Like when you spill wine. But he was English, and he did look a bit like you, dad, if you were a bit shorter and a lot fatter.”

Ordinarily Pym would have laughed at such a comment, but his throat was too dry. He didn’t need Tom to describe Rick to confirm it was him, of course. He had seen Rick around lately, as he was prone to doing; floating around like a ghost, hoping that if he hovered in Pym’s peripherals enough Pym would literally pay him to go away. But this was a first. He had never approached Pym’s family before. If he had ever grown bold enough to do so, Pym had been convinced it would have been Mary. He had been an idiot. He should have known that Rick would go straight for Tom, because that was what he did. He went for the people who didn’t know what he was.

“Well, did he say anything interesting?” Pym asked, just as it seemed Mary might have to rescue him.

“He just asked me how I was doing,” Tom said, shrugging. “But I thought I’d ask, because he did ask why you told me he was dead.”

“How did he know that?” Mary asked, surprised.

“Well, I said, didn’t I?” Tom said, blinking at her in confusion. “It was a bit weird. I said I thought he was dead. He wanted to know why. He seemed upset, actually. I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?”

“No, of course not,” Pym said quickly. “It’s… it’s quite a long story, right? I’ll have to tell you about it, but not here. When we get home. How does that sound?”

“I suppose,” Tom said, before giving a sheepish grin. “I don’t really care, actually. I just wondered a bit. He seems weird. I don’t like him.”

Thank god the boy had some sense, Pym thought. Tom had always had a knack for that, though – knowing when people were good or bad. Ever since he had been a small child he had shied away from the people that Pym or Mary didn’t quite approve of, and evidently his instinct was serving him well now. Pym had never been more grateful for it in his life.

“You’re probably right not to,” Pym told him, and Tom’s grin widened slightly. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to hang around somebody who smells like alcohol all the time, huh? You’ll have to make sure he doesn’t bother you again. Make sure to let me or mum know.”

“I will,” Tom said, nodding enthusiastically. “I hope he doesn’t, though. It was weird.”

The rest of the dinner passed normally, though it was only down to the extreme effort that Mary and Pym put into making it so. Pym could tell she was worried as well, but privately thought it was nothing compared to how he was feeling. The shock had worn off now and he was angry, angrier than he could ever remember being in his life. He had known he hated Rick for a while, of course – that was nothing new to him at all. But now the anger and the hatred seemed to have combined and fused themselves, and Pym could hear the blood rushing in his ears. Every time he glanced at Tom it surged forward again; to know Rick had been talking to him! That for Tom’s entire life Pym had been protecting him from that man, shielding him, vowing that Rick would never lay so much as an eye on the boy. Now that barrier had been torn down, and Pym could hardly stand it – Rick had spoken to Tom! Tom had had to hear his voice, Tom had had to listen to the man feeling sorry for himself, no doubt going on and on about how he couldn’t understand why Pym had said that about him. Pym knew Rick well enough to know it had been a convincing performance, as well, and that for all Tom’s pride in himself for being told he had been right to dislike him, Pym knew the man’s words would stick with him. Tom was a worrisome child, prone to going over things again and again after they were over. Pym didn’t know what he would do if this lead to Tom feeling bad over Rick, or – god forbid – maybe wanting a relationship with him.

Pym wouldn’t allow it. There was no way on earth he would let Rick have any kind of relationship with his son, even if he was trying to elbow his way in right at that moment. God only knew what kind of things Rick would use Tom for, and Tom, god bless him, was the double of his father at that age – nervous, eager to please, eager to prove himself. Christ. Pym could barely think.

He found himself glancing around the restaurant more and more, as though expecting to see Rick standing at the window or sitting at one of the empty booths. He was even warier as they paid up and left, expecting Rick to begin tailing them on their way home, and it was almost a surprise when Pym turned onto their street and saw nobody waiting outside the house. He had been so convinced Rick would be there, having persuaded himself of the fact on the journey home: of course Rick would wait at the house, it wasn’t that much of a jump, he had already approached Tom and gotten away with it so why wouldn’t he try his luck again?

Looking back, Pym didn’t know what he was thinking. He didn’t suppose he had had a plan at all when he had made his excuses to Tom and Mary and headed back out, though Mary gave him a worried glance and looked as though she might want to corner him as he was putting on his coat. She watched him silently, her eyebrows furrowed slightly in worry, but evidently she realised that there was nothing she could say because she let him go with nothing more than a quick kiss and a plea that he would be careful.

He didn’t know where he was going. He went back to the park at first, looking around closely, as though Rick might leave a trail or perhaps even be there himself. There was no sign of him, and deep down Pym hadn’t expected that there would be. Still he found himself searching, leaving the park and wandering up and down the blocks of houses and hotels that were in the area, looking in the windows of every one as though he might see that familiar face staring back at him. If Rick was in a hotel – which he surely would be, as he knew nobody here – it would be a cheap one, and so Pym’s feet carried him towards where they would be clustered, a bunch of relatively cheap hotels in a nastier area of town.

Pym was drawn to the largest of them, partially because he knew that Rick would want some level of anonymity, and partially because he knew that Rick had always associated large buildings with the more successful days of his ventures, and was still drawn to them no matter what kind of state they were in. Almost in a haze he walked in to the reception area, and he only came back to himself when he was asking the receptionist if there was a Richard Pym staying there, and if so, where was he, please?

Of course, she had heard of Rick. She had heard of Pym, too, for that matter.

“You must be Magnus!” she said, snapping her fingers in recognition as she turned to the log book at her desk. “I was told to look out for you.”

“Well, I’m here,” Pym said, trying to sound jovial but not quite hitting the mark. He could feel the blood in his ears again. What was he doing here? What was he even going to say to Rick when he saw him? It seemed too theatrical to slam him against the nearest wall and tell him to never go near his son again; Rick would love it. What’s worse, Rick might be able to talk him down. It was something that Pym still lived in fear of, because Rick was still so persuasive, still had that hold over him, and Pym felt its pull every time he signed off another cheque to the man. He liked to think it wouldn’t work with him when his own son was concerned, but at the same time he knew he could never trust himself around Rick. Such was the man’s magic that nobody was trustworthy around him, not even one’s own person.

“Here you are,” the receptionist said brightly. “He’s on the fifth floor, room 514. You can take the elevator if you want, but at your own risk. It’s prone to jamming.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Pym said, who would have taken the stairs anyway in the hope of burning off some of the energy that was wired up inside him.

It hadn’t worked, and he felt just as on edge as he emerged from the stairwell and onto the fifth floor. He hadn’t expected much from the place but from what he had seen through the windows on the doors at each floor, the place got shabbier the further up it went. The carpet was threadbare more often than not, with stains on the wall from many drinks spilled down them, probably from drunks returning home. From the smell it seemed as though this were a floor where people lived long term: Pym could smell the hints of daily life, the kind of thing he would expect from a cheap apartment block. He moved silently down the hallway, passing faded pictures in their frames and a broken vacuum abandoned by a cleaner, and his pace had almost slowed to a standstill by the time he reached the door to room 514.

There was still time to run, he supposed. At the same time he knew there was no such thing. He couldn’t explain why he was so convinced of the fact that Rick knew he was there, that he knew he was coming. The thought was there without Pym’s consent, and he had devoted himself to it.

He knocked on the door, still not knowing what he was going to say. His throat was dry; his head was swimming. Rick had spoken to Tom. Rick had barged his way into Tom’s life just how he had barged his way into everybody else’s life, and he had done it because he wanted all of Pym, every piece of him. There were precious few people that Rick didn’t have. Who would he go for next? Would be track down Jack’s number somewhere? Would Axel turn and catch a glimpse of him on a Czech street? In Pym’s mind, there was no end to the possibilities.

The door had opened, and Pym realised he had been staring at Rick for several seconds. He didn’t know what he had expected, but if he had to take a guess he would have thought Rick would have been playing his good father role, the ecstatic excitement that came from a surprise visit from his son, even if he had been orchestrating the visit from the moment he had arrived. There was none of that on Rick’s face this time, and with further disgust Pym realised it was simply a continuation of the act from earlier: he had given Tom the sob story, and now it was time to repeat it on Pym. Pym didn’t want to hear it. Pym wanted to walk away. Pym wanted to turn down the hallway and leave. Pym would even try his luck with the elevator.

Pym stepped into the hotel room.

Looking around, it seemed Rick had brought most of his worldly possessions with him. At the very least, the clothes were probably everything he owned. Pym stepped further inside and briefly registered the door closing behind him; Rick was standing between the door and Pym, still staring at him, and Pym couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally he forced something out, the only thing that had been running around in his head since he had seen him.

“You spoke to my son.”

His voice didn’t betray the anger he was feeling. Pym didn’t trust himself to inject it into his voice, because he feared he would never stop shouting if he did. He didn’t want Rick to know he had shaken him. He feared it was already too late.

“You told him I was dead,” Rick said, and that was it, right there, in his voice – the slight stress on the last word, the look on his face that told Pym he would launch into one of his speeches if he let him, that he might just convince him he was being unreasonable.

Pym couldn’t allow it to happen. He thought of Tom, cornered, having to listen to whatever Rick insisted was the truth. He thought of all of his efforts to protect Tom from this man, now in vain. He could make sure that Rick never saw Tom again but it didn’t change the fact that Tom had seen him, that Tom had spoken to him, and that Rick now had the image in his head of this new version of young Pym, someone else he no doubt had plans for.

Pym couldn’t let him speak. Before he was even fully aware of what he was doing he had pulled his arm back and then slammed his fist right into the side of Rick’s jaw. He had no idea where the strength had come from; he felt a painful crack and the impact of the hit shuddered up his arm. He was surprised to see he had hit Rick hard enough to throw the man back and slam him into the hotel room door. There was a nasty crack from that, too – Pym had been sure Rick’s weight would have put a dent in the door, but when he slumped to the carpet there was no mark there. Pym’s hand throbbed. He thought he might have broken some fingers.

The silence that covered the room was heavier than he would have expected. He expected Rick to yell at him, then realised that wasn’t Rick’s way, and then he expected to have to put up with Rick’s look, the one he gave him when he was hurt but filled with love for him nevertheless. Pym thought he would kill himself if he saw it. As it turned out, he had killed Rick instead.

He knew it from the moment he saw the man’s eyes. Still open, they had the faraway look of a body that no longer had any life in it. Feeling numb, Pym crouched down and pressed two fingers to the side of Rick’s neck, though he knew he would find nothing. Nothing was precisely what he found. He straightened up, took a deep breath, pressed his injured fingers to his lips and tried to warm the pain out of them. They continued to ache.

He had hit him too hard, he supposed. Perhaps the door had something to do with it, too. Rick was old now, and not in good health – all the drinking and smoking would have taken its toll. A bad hit to the head had taken out men younger and healthier than Rick Pym. Perhaps he had been killed on the punch or perhaps it had been the door that did it but either way there was no denying that Pym now stood there as a murderer. He expected to feel more grief, but it didn’t come. Instead, he could only think about what a problem he had on his hands. He stared at the corpse that had once been his father and hated him all the more. Of course he would walk into his family’s life and turn it upside down. Of course something like this would have happened. If ghosts were real then Pym was certain Rick’s was laughing at him. Pym leaned down and grabbed Rick by his jacket, heaving him out of the way of the door. His fingers throbbed in protest. He looked over the room for the key, pocketed it without knowing why, and left the room. He locked the door behind him, went down the stairs, took a left at the bottom instead of a right, and after slipping down a service corridor and through a deserted storeroom he slipped out of a fire exit propped open for smoke breaks and out into the open.

By the time he got home he had a plan, and he stuck to it rigidly. He came home in a wave of relieved energy, as though a good long walk had cleared his mind. He made a fuss over Mary, kissing her at the door and apologising profusely if he had seemed so short. He confessed he was still feeling a little on edge but it was nothing to worry about, and that she shouldn’t be surprised if he stayed up late to work that night, because he would rather work until exhaustion and get to sleep right away than lay in bed tossing and turning. Then it was into the living room to see Tom and sit with him as he watched TV, with brief heart-to-hearts in the commercial breaks about how sometimes parents weren’t very good parents, and that meant they would make lousy grandparents, and that he was sorry he had told Tom that Rick was dead but it was the easiest way to explain such a concept to a very young child, but he was growing up now and so Pym was sure he understood. Tom nodded seriously and assured him that he did understand, and that come to think of it, Rick had had the look of a crook about him. Pym had proudly ruffled Tom’s hair and taken some comfort from the fact that Tom, had the worst happened, would have probably stood a better chance at seeing through Rick’s bullshit than his father had.

It wasn’t until the family had gone to bed, then, that Pym let his true emotions come through. He walked around the downstairs of the house wearing a constant frown, watching the clock in increased agitation. In his pocket he had a packet of cigarettes and a lighter at the ready. Pym rarely smoked but did so under times of stress, so it wouldn’t be unusual if he were to slip out onto the front porch to light one up. He would be there, then, when one of Axel’s watchers came by as they did every evening, walking his dog on the same route, and watching for the very signal that Pym was going to give him: if there was nobody on the porch, everything was fine. If Pym was out on the porch, he needed to see somebody soon, but it wasn’t urgent. If he was smoking on the porch, it was an emergency, and he needed to see somebody who was no less than Axel right away. He sat himself on the top step in good view of the street, counted down the seconds in his head, and lit up a cigarette. He was a third of the way through it when the dog walker came past, whistling as always, his hat pulled down low over his eyes. In the darkness Pym didn’t even see the discrete look the man gave the house, and as he saw Pym sitting on the porch he didn’t react, and when the glow of the cigarette showed in the darkening evening, it was as though it had never happened. The man ambled along at the same pace, whistling, calling to the dog, whistling again. He vanished up the street and Pym put the cigarette out, feeling colder than the night should have made him. Somehow it was the signal more than anything that had brought it all home to him.

He had never used the signal before but he was glad to know that it worked well. An hour later, he was sitting in one of the familiar safehouses he and Axel had used before, though this time its familiarity only served to heighten the abnormality of the situation. Pym felt as though he didn’t belong there, as though he shouldn’t be in a place so normal when everything had changed in the way it had. The last time he had come here he hadn’t been a murderer; now he was, and the thought was weighing more and more heavily on his mind. He was agitated, jumpy; he knew he was putting the others on edge, the ones who had had to bring him to this place, but he was glad for it because it meant they kept their distance. He had thought that things would have changed more thoroughly than this, though – wasn’t taking a life supposed to alter everything? Wasn’t it supposed to be traumatic? Why did Pym feel none of that? Why did it feel more like a slight but constant annoyance, like a headache that wouldn’t get bad enough to justify painkillers, or a foot that had gone to sleep? Even his aching fingers didn’t feel as though they were enough change, though they should be testimony to what had happened by now, especially after Pym had spent the evening at home disguising the injury and using his hand normally. He was paying for it now; his fingers were swollen and bruised, and vaguely he realised he would have to think of a cover story for them.

Axel had arrived at some point, though Pym only realised when the man spoke.

“Sir Magnus.” He sounded no different, and Pym found that thankfully he could still find comfort in Axel’s sturdiness, in the way he limped into the situation without a flicker of worry visible on his face. “You needed to see me.”

Pym could only nod, trying to find his breath. In all his life, words had never failed him like this. He looked at Axel and then glanced at the other two, the ones who had accompanied him here. He had no idea if they could speak German, which was Pym and Axel’s usual way of communicating, but he found he couldn’t take the risk.

“Alone,” he managed to say. “I need to see you alone.”

“You are of course aware that the room is bugged?” Axel asked. “We can be alone now, but I will not be the only person who hears what you have to say.”

“I know,” Pym said hurriedly. “That’s fine. I just – I need to be alone when I say it, that’s all.”

Axel nodded, turned to the others and muttered something to them in Czech. They left the room, the one at the rear closing the door soundlessly behind him.

“Now,” Axel said, turning immediately back to Pym. “What is going on? You look agitated. Do you have long?”

“No one is expecting me,” Pym said. He found it was easier to talk about the technicalities; maybe if he did so for long enough, he would be able to force out why he was really there. “If Mary wakes up I left a note. I said I was going for a walk. She’ll understand why.”

“I assume that reason has something to do with why you’re here?”

“Yes and no,” Pym said, giving a strained smile. “I – this… isn’t strictly business, Poppy.”

“Something told me it wouldn’t be,” Axel said, looking thoughtfully at Pym for a moment. “So we do not have to worry about you being compromised, then?”

“No. No, it’s nothing like that. It’s personal. I don’t know who else to go to. It could ruin everything.”

“Tell me.”

“I killed someone,” Pym said, meaning to end the sentence with my father but finding himself unable to at the last moment. “I didn’t mean to. It’s a long story. I was very angry. It was an accident. I punched him, and he must have hit his head. I checked for a pulse and didn’t find anything. I know he’s dead. I don’t know what to do.”

Axel took several long seconds to reply, seconds which were the longest of Pym’s life. When he spoke he sounded just as calm as ever; Pym tried to draw from it, feeling his own anxieties beginning to flood his thoughts.

“You killed him? Wait. What, literally? There is no guilt complex here, no collateral damage getting to you? You have physically killed a man?”

“Yes.”

“Nobody else knows of this?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Thinking so isn’t good enough, Sir Magnus.”

“No, then. I’m sure of it. There’s no way. It happened privately. A hotel room. I have the key still. I locked him in.”

“Is there anything that may tie you to this man’s death?”

“Well, it’s probably obvious he was hit,” Pym said helplessly. “And the hotel receptionist, she remembers him well and she knows me by name. He told her about me, you see. He talks a lot, to everyone who’ll listen. She’ll remember me, I’m sure of it.”

“So there was a relationship between you and this man?”

“Well,” Pym said, choking on the words before he forced them out. “He’s my father, actually.”

“I see,” Axel said, nodding slowly. He seemed to retreat into himself for a moment, thinking deeply. Pym watched him, forcing himself to be patient. Finally Axel’s face seemed to clear again, and he gave a small nod, as though confirming something with himself.

“We will need to do a bit of cover-up, I am afraid,” Axel said briskly, and there was the kind of authority in his voice that Pym had been searching for since he got here. He felt himself lighten already, a small flicker of hope flaring up in his chest. “I am afraid it will be slightly off the record, so I will warn you now that it will be unpleasant for you. However, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you of the possible repercussions of this.”

“No,” Pym agreed.

“We are going to make our excuses to the others, and I will tell them they are dismissed,” Axel said, pacing as he spoke, his uneven steps a familiar comfort. “I will assure them that it is something private, of a personal nature, that I can deal with. Our closeness and the length of time we have been working together will reassure my superiors that it is probably more out of embarrassment than conspiracy that you should seek out me and only me. Then you will take me to where this occurred, and we will deal with it. After that is done we will return here, and I will tell you what comes next. Is that clear?”

Pym nodded. Even the thought of returning to the scene of the murder didn’t bother him, so long as he could trust that Axel had everything under control. Looking at him now, going back to the door and calling the others through from the kitchen, he could believe he did. There was a grim determination about him that Pym had come to trust completely; it got things done, and it hadn’t failed them yet. Within minutes the house was empty, the two minders leaving in one direction and Axel and Pym cutting across several small alleys to another street, where Axel had another car parked.

“I’ve never seen you drive,” Pym said, weakly, as they pulled away from the kerb.

“A first time for everything,” Axel replied. “Now, show me where this place is. How do we get in?”

“Through the back. There’s a fire exit.”

“Will it still be open?”

“The employees use it to smoke. It will be. The bar attached to the hotel doesn’t close until midnight.”

“And if it is closed?”

“A distraction. I can view the desk from outside without being seen, through the window. The doors are silent when you move them – I noticed that earlier. I’ll go in, go to the desk and make it look like I came from upstairs. I’ll make an excuse as to why I’m still there, ask if it’s allowed or if I should pay. Once that’s done I’ll head back, but before I go upstairs I’ll let you in.”

“Good. If you get the opportunity to say why you are still there, take it. Did your father have any vices? Drinking? Drugs?”

“He drank a lot.”

“Tell her he had too much to drink. A bit of a drinking problem. You were looking after him but he fell asleep, so you’re going to let him rest. Apologise in advance for any trouble he might cause.”

Pym had learned not to question Axel when it came to matters such as this. He simply nodded his agreement.

There was no need for a distraction. The fire exit was still propped open, the hallway behind it deserted. They moved cautiously along it, Axel unexpectedly silent even with his limp, and then to the stairwell, where Axel cursed under his breath at the amount of floors.

“Though,” he added, somewhere between the third and fourth floors. “With that rickety old excuse for an elevator, I doubt it would have given us a silent journey anyway.”

They made it to the top floor slightly breathless, Axel with exertion, Pym with nerves.

The hotel room was exactly how Pym had left it, though he didn’t know what he had been expecting. He knew, logically, the bodies took longer than the time that had passed to begin smelling, but he had still half expected to open the door and find a swarm of flies already buzzing around the room. They stepped inside and closed the door, and then Axel switched the light on and they gazed down at Pym’s handiwork. Rick didn’t look grotesque but he certainly looked worse than earlier, his skin discoloured where the blood had pooled. To Pym’s relief there wasn’t much of a mark on Rick’s jaw, probably because he had died so quickly he hadn’t had the time to bruise in a way that looked any different from the other discolourations on his face.

“You said he hit the door?” Axel asked briskly, already inspecting it.

“Yes. With the back of his head.”

“There is no mark. Apparently these doors are the only well-built thing in this place. Alright, look around. We are looking for something that will make it look like a terrible accident.”

It didn’t take them long to find it. Behind the long curtains were a pair of balcony doors. There was no balcony, but the doors opened inwards, and only a waist-high railing separated anybody inside from five storeys of open air. Pym and Axel peered over it and exchanged a glance, before Axel turned and moved quickly back to the body, now wearing what appeared to be a pair of leather driving gloves. Pym watched as he methodically searched through Rick’s pockets, removing everything identifying. He even searched the clothing for name tags.

“Won’t they know?” Pym asked, nervous again. “He’s been dead for some time. Won’t they realise that he died before he hit the ground?”

“It’s a possibility,” Axel said. “Which is why I am removing all traces of who he is.”

“He signed in the register. The receptionist knows me.”

“I know that.” Axel looked up, staring at him for a long moment. “I do not know how you do things here, Sir Magnus, but I assure you that back in Czechoslovakia we are given plenty of field training in this kind of thing.”

“Of course,” Pym said, swallowing.

“He is not from here, no?”

“No. He lives in Britain.”

“People will know he is missing?”

“Yes, but not for some time. He frequently goes off wherever he want to. They likely won’t notice for weeks. Even months.”

“And he knows nobody here aside from you?”

“Nobody.”

“Good. That will slow down things immensely. I am hoping they will not put much effort into this case. It is a bad neighbourhood and he is obviously a drunk. Perhaps we will be lucky, and they will take the fall at face value.”

“And if they don’t?”

“That will complicate things. I will have to ensure that they do.”

Pym didn’t ask how Axel would do that. He didn’t want to know.

“When we put him over the side, we will have to move quickly,” Axel said, now placing all of the items removed from Rick in his pocket. He got to work wiping down the room key, and, as he spoke, reached down to press Rick’s hand against it several times. “We will exit the way we came. What time was it when you spoke to the receptionist?”

“Seven thirty in the evening.”

“It is likely that a new shift has started. We will check before we go. If it is still her we will have a problem.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“We will go as normal. She won’t remember seeing you leave, but she will have left with enough time for you to theoretically leave afterwards.”

“Alright.”

“Are you ready?”

Pym swallowed. “Yes.”

Heaving Rick to the window was the easier part. Pulling him up enough to get him over the balcony was the most unpleasant part of it all, though it served as a welcome distraction from the reality of what they were doing. It was a relief when they got him over the edge, simply because the task was over, but the sickening crunch of Rick hitting the ground five floors below them was enough to shock Pym out of his relief.

“Come. Quickly,” Axel said, and the two of them hurried to the door, Pym double-checking the room key was still on the table as he passed it. Within seconds they were out in the hallway, and after another few seconds they were in the stairwell. Axel made good time going down stairs, being able to keep pace with Pym, and they moved in hurried silence down to the ground floor. They listened for a moment, but evidently nobody had raised the alarm yet. The hotel was large and Pym thought that most of the rooms were probably empty; it was late and people were sleeping. The hotel faced onto businesses. It was likely nobody had noticed Rick fall. It was Axel who limped up the hallway to peer through into the foyer, and Axel who limped back, nodding. They moved back down the hallway and towards the fire exit. Axel pointed Pym silently down the street, and as Pym, confused, went to stand in the shadow of the doorway Axel had pointed out, Axel vanished back into the hotel. Pym waited, his heart in his throat, until Axel emerged no more than sixty seconds later, folding in his hand what looked like a page of the hotel reception’s log book. He gave Pym another nod and didn’t speak until they were a street away from the hotel, moving towards the car.

“You’re sure it wasn’t her?” Pym asked, his voice strained with worry he didn’t realise he was still carrying.

“I’m positive,” Axel said, before giving a small smile. “Because it was a he, believe it or not. A strange job, for a man.”

“I suppose around here you take what you can get,” Pym said. “Or perhaps they don’t want a girl working the night shift on her own in a neighbourhood like this.”

“Whatever the reason, it made for easy identification. Come. We still have much to do.”

Within half an hour they were back at the safehouse, and Pym watched as Axel hauled himself up onto a chair and opened up a vent near the ceiling. From it he pulled a tape recorder and a pair of headphones closer to him, popped open the tape, checked it, replaced it and rewound it. He spent a few seconds listening and rewinding and forwarding, and then pushed everything back into place. He hovered his finger for a moment, turning to look at Pym.

“It is activated by voice,” he explained. “When I turn it back on it will record as soon as we begin speaking. I have rewound it to our earlier entrance, right after you asked to speak to me alone. We will time it so its end matches up with our exit. As it is not a constantly recording tape, there will be no oddities in the flow of the sound. Instead of telling me that you killed your father you are going to confess to me, with much embarrassment, that you have been caught by a colleague in a homosexual act. You will tell me that you fear you may lose your job, as it could be seen as blackmail material. I will quiz you on this colleague’s personal life and it will come out naturally that he is stressed, experiencing financial difficulties that his wife does not know about. I will offer to give you money to buy his silence if you can get him to agree to it. He will, as it turns out, agree. I will have the money removed to you and you can return it in discrete segments. Is that clear?”

Pym felt a rush of affection for Axel at a level he had not experienced since Bern. He nodded, noticing his eyes felt damp, and furiously blinked them away.

“Yes,” he said, his voice hoarse. “That’s – that’s genius, Poppy.”

“Clear your throat. If you must cry you can wait for the recording. It will be more authentic.”

Pym nodded. Axel held up a finger in warning and pressed a button. He climbed down from the chair and signalled to Pym; together they moved back to where they had been standing originally.

“Something told me it wouldn’t be,” Axel said, in the exact same tone as he had said the words earlier; Pym had the uncanny feeling of travelling back through time. “So we do not have to worry about you being compromised, then?”

“No, no. It’s nothing like that.” Somehow Pym’s voice didn’t betray everything he was thinking. “It’s personal. I don’t know who else to go to. It could ruin everything.”

“Tell me.”

“I –”

The memory of everything that had happened that evening caught up with Pym in one blow and he heard his voice crack. He took a shuddering breath, forcing himself to look at Axel, who stared at him steadily. To hell with it, Pym thought. It’s all for the show anyway. May as well let it out now, when it’s deniable later.

“I did something unthinkable,” Pym said, with such brokenness that Axel gave him a small nod of approval. When Pym finally let the tears come, they both pretended it was for the realism.