They took turns preparing the meals. One day around noon, Tokyo and Nairobi were in the kitchen, and Raquel was out on a walk, so only the men were gathered around the table waiting for lunch. Sergio was reading, only half paying attention to the conversation of the others.
“I hope the food turns out better than last time”, Berlin said. “Those two are terrible cooks.”
Rio laughed. “Who cares if they can cook when they look like that?”
There was a general murmur of agreement around the table, and Denver grinned, nudging Rio.
“Which one do you prefer?”
“Tokyo”, Rio said immediately. “She is so hot.”
“But totally crazy”, Moscow shook his head.
“Oh come on papa”, Denver said. “What does that matter? Have you seen her body? She’s smoking.”
Sergio frowned and bent deeper over his book.
“Though I wouldn’t say no to Nairobi either”, Denver continued.
“Yes”, Rio nodded. “They’re both hot.” He turned to the Serbians. “What do you fellows think?”
Oslo and Helsinki merely shrugged.
“What about you, Berlin?” Denver asked. “Which one would you prefer?”
Berlin shook his head. “Neither of them.”
“What?” Rio said. “Really?”
“Tokyo and Nairobi are both attractive, but they’re girls. Give me a real woman over them any day.”
Sergio looked up. “Please don’t.”
“Oh”, Denver laughed. “You don’t mean…?”
Berlin nodded. “I think Lisbon has a lot more to offer than Tokyo or Nairobi.”
Moscow nodded thoughtfully, but Denver and Rio protested loudly.
“You’re crazy!” Denver said.
“How could you prefer her over a bombshell like Tokyo?” Rio asked.
“Tokyo is hot”, Berlin conceded, “but she’ll burn you. I much prefer a steady fire in a woman. And if anyone’s got a steady fire, it’s the Inspector.”
“Please don’t”, Sergio repeated, a little louder, but no one was paying him any attention.
“I suppose she does look good for her age”, Rio mused.
“Yeah”, Denver said. “She has a nice pair of…”
“Stop it”, Sergio said, so forcefully that everyone looked at him. His heart was beating fast. “These women are members of our team and you should treat them with respect.”
“Come on Professor”, Denver grinned. “You’re a man.”
“We’re just having a bit of innocent fun”, Rio added disarmingly.
“Reducing people to body parts isn’t innocent or fun”, Sergio said quietly.
An awkward silence fell. Berlin finally broke it.
“The Professor is right”, he said. “Let’s not discuss our colleagues in this way.”
Moscow nodded. “Personal relationships aren’t allowed anyway. Let’s talk about something else.”
The conversation turned to more innocent things, and Sergio bent back over his book, relieved. He didn’t see the thoughtful look Berlin shot his way.
That evening, the weather was so nice that they stayed sitting outside for a long time after dinner. After a while, the general conversation broke up into smaller groups: the Serbians had their heads together; Moscow was talking to Denver; and Tokyo, Nairobi and Rio were laughing while they passed around a bottle of wine. Sergio was pleased to see that his brother sat down next to Raquel and struck up a conversation, and he was even more pleased that she didn’t get up and walk away. He returned to the book he was reading with a pleasant sense that the group was beginning to accept her, and that she was starting to feel more comfortable around them, too.
After a while, though, he noticed that he couldn’t keep his mind on his book. His eyes kept getting drawn to Raquel and his brother, who, he suddenly realized, were sitting rather close together and who seemed to be having a great time. He told himself that he was glad that she was smiling, but when she burst out laughing, he felt a sudden stab of a feeling he couldn’t identify, and it made him uncomfortable. Then his brother, smiling broadly, put a hand on her arm for just a moment and, alarmed, his mind went back to the conversation around the table at lunchtime. I much prefer a steady fire in a woman. God help him, please no.
He loved his brother, but he’d seen him go through woman after woman, and the thought of Raquel being the next on that list made his blood run cold. He heaved a deep sigh of relief when she got up after a while and went to bed, waving at him in passing. Finally, he checked his watch and loudly told the group that it was time to go to sleep. They grumbled at him but got up anyway, collecting the glasses and plates off the table to take them into the kitchen. Berlin lingered in the kitchen to get a glass of water while the others traipsed out, talking and laughing. Sergio stayed behind with him, waiting until the door closed behind Oslo before turning to his brother.
Berlin looked up in surprise. “I thought we said we wouldn’t use first names while we were here?”
“I know, but I need to talk to you about something personal.”
“Alright”, Berlin said, leaning against the kitchen counter with a serious expression. “What’s wrong?”
He hesitated, then blurted out: “Please don’t sleep with Lisbon.”
His brother’s eyebrows went up. “Why do you think I want to sleep with her?”
“Because of what you said at lunch. That she has a… steady fire.”
Berlin grinned. “I’m sure she does.”
Sergio raised a hand. “See, there, that! Please don’t!”
His brother gave him a calculating look. “Why does this bother you?”
“I don’t want her to get hurt.”
“Why do you assume I’d hurt her?”
“Because you and women, Andrés, it never ends well. And she’s been through so much. She’s lost her marriage, her job, her daughter, her home.” He shook his head, then continued softly: “Don’t put her through another heartbreak.”
Berlin was still eyeing him closely. “Why do you care?”
“Because… because she’s a member of our team and I don’t want her distracted by emotional issues. She needs to be focused only on the heist.”
His brother raised an eyebrow. “Like you?”
“Yes, like me. I don’t allow myself to be distracted by anything.”
“No”, Berlin said smoothly. “I see that.”
“Just promise me you won’t sleep with her. Or even try to sleep with her.”
His brother drew himself up. “You told us at the beginning that we are not supposed to have personal relationships. I take your words very seriously. I may look at a colleague in appreciation, but I would never break your rules.”
Sergio felt himself relax. He knew his brother would keep to his word. “Thank you.”
“Can I still talk to her?” Berlin grinned.
“Of course”, Sergio said, confused. “She’s part of the group, I want her to feel included.”
“Yes”, his brother said thoughtfully, “I’m sure you do.” He pushed himself away from the kitchen counter and passed Sergio on the way to the door. “Well, I’m going to bed. I’d wish you sweet dreams, little brother, but…” He grinned. “I don’t think that will be a problem.”
Sergio was left alone in the kitchen, staring after his brother and wondering what the hell he had meant by that.
The next day was particularly warm and sunny, and early during the afternoon’s class, Sergio noticed that everyone’s attention was drifting as the temperature rose and people started throwing longing looks out of the windows. He decided to end the lesson early and send them outside. They smiled and thanked him as they filed past him out the door. Raquel was the last in the line, and she stopped by his desk.
“This must be killing you, having to end your lesson early.”
He sighed. “I don’t like it, no, but they just weren’t paying attention anymore, and I can’t afford to have them uninformed about this part of the plan. Better to lose some time now and work a little harder tomorrow morning when it’s cool.”
“You don’t have to completely waste this time, if you want. I could stay here and we could practice negotiating some more.”
He shot her a grateful look. “You would do that?”
She shrugged. “What would I do with that extra free time – bond with Tokyo?”
He grinned. “Alright, let me get my notes.”
They practiced for about an hour, serious negotiations mixed with less serious banter, interrupted every now and again as she gave him feedback on how he could improve his strategy. They were well-matched as negotiators, and he was enjoying himself immensely, feeling rather disappointed when she suggested a break and went down to get them something to drink. They both sipped their water in silence as she leaned back in her chair and idly looked up at the ceiling.
“Hey”, she said. “There’s a trapdoor up there. Where does it lead?”
He looked up too. “I don’t know.”
She turned shining eyes on him. “Do you want to find out?”
“Come on, where’s your sense for adventure?”
He gave her a dry look. “I’m currently channeling all of it into this enormous heist we’re planning.”
“Well, I want to know what’s up there.”
“It’s probably just a dusty attic.”
“But who knows what treasures we could find there? I’m going to look for a ladder.”
It only took her ten minutes before she was back, carrying a rusty stepladder, which she placed underneath the trapdoor. He eyed her apprehensively as she started climbing.
“Please be careful. I can’t take you to the hospital if you fall and break a leg.”
She merely nodded as she reached the ceiling and lifted her hands, pushing experimentally against the trapdoor. To her delight, it opened inwards without too much effort, and she ascended a few more steps on the ladder until it was open completely. The ladder wasn’t quite high enough, so she had to heave herself up through the hole and into the attic. A moment later, her voice drifted down to him.
“Professor, this is amazing, come and see!”
He hesitated only a moment, then his curiosity won out and he carefully ascended the ladder, too. When he heaved himself up into the attic, he noticed immediately that there was very little space – almost all of the floor was taken up with furniture, boxes and chests. There were only a few inches of open space around the trapdoor, and he carefully got to his feet, edging around the hole in the floor to a spot where there was a little more room.
“I can’t believe all of this stuff is up here”, she said wonderingly. “Isn’t it fantastic?”
He had to admit that it was quite a collection. There were large oak wardrobes, moth-eaten chairs, heavy wooden chests, an old rocking horse, and boxes upon boxes filled with yellowed paper and black-and-white photographs. He took half a step back to take it all in, and accidentally bumped against the raised lid of the trapdoor, which swung shut with a loud ‘bang’, making her jump.
“I’m sorry”, he said quickly, then bent down to open it again. “Uh oh.”
“I think there must have been a ring attached to this trapdoor at some point, but it must have broken off. There’s no way to lift it now.”
“What do you mean there’s no way to lift it?” she said, alarmed.
“I mean I can’t get it open again”, he said, straightening up and looking at her in dismay.
She bent down and tried to get her fingers around the edges, but there wasn’t enough space to really get a grip. After a few minutes of fidgeting, she looked up at him with big eyes.
“Fuck. What do we do now? Shout for help?”
He shook his head. “They’re all outside, nobody will hear us.”
“Can we shout through a window?” she asked, looking around, but the two small windows were set up high in the roof, inaccessible. She laughed in disbelief.
“Well this is a nice situation! What the hell do we do?”
He shrugged and sat down on the floor. “Nothing we can do but wait until they’ll come looking for us, I’m afraid.”
She gave him a look of horror. “But that could be hours! They probably won’t notice we’re missing until dinner!”
He nodded. “Yes, probably.”
She sat down heavily on the floor next to him and shot him an annoyed look. “You had to bump into the trapdoor, did you?”
“Hey!” he said indignantly. “It wasn’t my idea to come up here, you know!”
“Alright”, she said soothingly. “Let’s not fight, we’re going to be stuck here for a while.”
He loosened his tie. “It’s really warm up here.”
“Yes”, she agreed, “it really is.”
His eyes widened as she began unbuttoning her shirt. She was wearing a black top underneath, hemmed with a lacy fabric and showing rather a lot of cleavage. He quickly averted his gaze and subtly shifted away from her as she shrugged out of the shirt. She noticed, however, and raised her eyebrows.
“Are you always this uncomfortable around women?”
He kept looking at the floor. “In general? Yes.”
“I just… haven’t been around them much.”
“What about girlfriends?”
He shook his head. “Not really.”
“Oh. Boyfriends then?”
He quickly looked up. “No, I’m not gay.”
“Alright.” She hesitated, then delicately asked: “So you have had… experience with women?”
He shot her an annoyed look. “Why are you women all so obsessed with the status of my sexual experience? You’re the second person this week to ask me if I’m a virgin.”
That surprised her. “Who else asked you?”
She gave him a look of disgust. “Please tell me you didn’t sleep with Tokyo.”
He stared at her. “Of course not.”
“Are you going to sleep with Tokyo?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! First rule of this heist: no personal relationships.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Does that mean that you would sleep with her if the situation was different?”
He gave her a look. “Why do you care?”
She drew herself up. “I don’t”, she said with dignity.
“Doesn’t sound like it.”
She gave him a look of supreme indifference. “Seriously, sleep with whoever you want.”
An awkward silence fell. She kept shooting him looks, however, and he felt like she wasn’t done with the subject yet. And sure enough…
“So what’s the answer?” she asked.
“Are you a virgin?”
“No!” he said, exasperated. “Why would you assume that?”
She smiled. “You just seem so innocent.”
He shot her a dark look. “I resent that. I am not innocent.”
“Says the man who started sweating just because I took off my shirt.”
“It’s hot in here”, he said defensively.
“Not that hot”, she grinned.
He sighed. “Look, I’ll tell you what I told Tokyo. I’ve had relationships in the past, just… not very many and they never lasted very long.”
“Nobody you’d call a girlfriend?”
He shrugged. “I’ve just never met someone who was really interesting to me.”
She considered this for a moment, then asked: “And what about sex?”
“What about it?”
“Don’t you mind having to live without it?”
He shook his head. “Honestly, I’ve never understood how other people just… do it. Sex is very… intense and… and very personal, and I’ve never met someone I liked enough to actually want to do it with. I mean, I have done it!” he clarified quickly. “I just didn’t like it much.”
She nodded thoughtfully, then said: “Do you think it might be different with someone you were in love with?”
“Maybe”, he said stiffly. “I wouldn’t know.”
He was relieved when she didn’t push the matter further. Instead, she asked:
“So you don’t want to sleep with Tokyo?”
She nodded, satisfied. “Good.”
He gave her a calculating look, then asked: “Do you want to sleep with Berlin?”
She looked surprised. “What? No, of course not!”
“Why not?” he pressed. “Women usually like him. He’s handsome.”
“Yes”, she nodded, “He’s very handsome, and funny, and charming, and also a complete and utter sociopath. You think I want to sleep with a man like that?”
He considered her for a moment. “Most women don’t see that about him. At least, not straight away.”
“I’m a negotiator”, she reminded him. “I know men like him.”
The last of his anxiety about her and his brother disappeared, and he felt some of the tension in his shoulders dissolve.
She was eyeing him closely. “Why do you care?”
“First rule”, he said quickly. “No personal relationships among members of the team.”
“Yes”, she said softly, and there was something in her eyes he couldn’t interpret. “That’s a very important rule.”
They looked at each other for a long moment, then he cleared his throat and looked away.
“Well… since we’re going to be here for a while, why don’t we take a look at some of these boxes? We might find something interesting.”
“Yes”, she said. “Good idea.”
They each turned around and pulled up a box of papers, which they started to sift through. Every once in a while, they showed each other interesting photographs or notes they found.
“Hmm", Raquel said, as she studied a particular piece of paper. “I’ve found a stack of love letters. Some of these certainly are interesting.”
He looked up. “Interesting how?”
“’My love’”, she read out loud, “’I can’t wait to feel your lips on mine again.’”
He smiled mildly. “That’s nice. Though I’m not sure I see…”
“’I can’t wait to feel your hands on me’”, Raquel continued. “’Your head between my thighs and your tongue on my…’”
“Alright, alright!” Sergio quicky cut her off, feeling himself go a bright, burning red. “I get the picture!”
Raquel let out a laugh – a bright, joyful laugh that made her face light up, and he felt something swoop in his stomach. He quickly looked down.
“You embarrass too easily", she said, amused, as she folded the letter and put it away.
He’d rather forgotten his embarrassment at hearing her laugh, but now it returned. He quickly pulled another letter out of the box in front of him, and purposefully turned his attention to it. It was, thankfully, devoid of obscenities.
After a while, the embarrassment faded, and he noticed that she hadn’t said anything for several minutes. When he looked up, she was staring intently at a yellowed piece of paper with flourishing handwriting on it.
“Look at this”, she said, and he shifted closer to see.
“What is it?”
“Another love letter”, she said.
He gave her an alarmed look, but she smiled.
“This one is clean, I promise. Look at this line, it’s lovely.” She put a finger on the letter, then read out loud: “The sun has set twenty-four times since I last saw you, my darling, and it will have to rise twice as often before I can set eyes on you again. But then our life together can begin, and we will never be apart again, but eternally happy in a perfect union of souls.”
“That’s a nice way to look at marriage”, he said.
She smiled. “Young love, so hopeful, so optimistic.”
“When was it dated?” he asked.
She looked at the top of the letter. “September 25th, 1901.” She looked up at him with shining eyes. “That’s amazing! This letter is more than a hundred years old!”
He nodded. “It’s strange to think that the person who wrote it is long gone now.”
“But a bit of his love is preserved forever in this letter”, she said, smiling down at it.
He looked at her. Over the past few weeks, she’d always been so tough, so strong, and he admired her for that, but now he was seeing a glimpse of something else, something softer. He wondered what it would be like to have her look at him with that look in her eyes. The next moment, she looked up and their eyes met. The words she had been about to say died on her lips as they kept staring at each other for several long moments, unable to look away. She was so close. His heart was beating frantically against his ribs. Then the trapdoor creaked open and Rio’s head appeared.
“There you are!” he exclaimed.
Sergio hastily scooted away from Raquel, but Rio’s face had already split into a big grin.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your cozy “practice session”, I just wanted to let you know that dinner is ready.”
He moved to go down the ladder again, letting the trapdoor close behind him, and they both shouted: “No!” at the same time.
“It doesn’t open from this side”, Sergio explained to a surprised Rio. “We were trapped here for hours.”
“Sounds terrible”, Rio winked at him.
“Yes, well, it could have been worse”, he murmured as he pulled the trapdoor fully open again and lowered himself down the hole onto the ladder after Rio. He looked up. She was looking at the letter again. “Are you coming?”
“Yes”, she said, then she glanced at him. “Do you think I could keep this?”
“Why not”, he shrugged. “It’s not like anyone’s going to miss it. But why do you want to keep it?”
She hesitated. “I’m not sure. It’s just… I don’t want it to molder away to nothing in this dusty attic. Besides”, she said, folding the letter and putting it in her back pocket. “It’s a nice reminder.”
“Of what?” he asked.
“That love exists.”
And with those words, she came down the ladder after him, closing the trapdoor on the attic and its contents.