“Have you ever been shot in the chest?” said the chemist, this Czech woman whose leather skirt and dreadlocks Eames privately disdained.
“When someone says that to me on a job,” said Eames, “I find it often leads to gunplay and incivility.”
“I’m asking rhetorically,” she smiled, stirring something like honey into solute with a glass rod. “On these jobs, you’re always getting shot, you sleeping daredevils. But why does it hurt? Where does the brain find the sensation of the bullet wound if you have never experienced it?”
“It’s never so clear, in the memory after waking,” said Mallorie, the extractress. She was French and kind, with the habit of spinning a miniature top between manicured fingertips. “Sitting here now, how do I really know what I felt in the dream?”
“I know exactly what I felt last time someone shot me,” said the thin American, the kind of man who loosens his tie just to point out that it was tight before.
“I know I apologized for that already, Arthur,” said the other man, the architect, without turning from the window. Dom, that was his name.
“I know,” said Eames, “because I have actually been shot in the chest.”
“No!” said the chemist, forgetting her clinking beaker as she leaned forward with an eagerness as unseemly as her wardrobe. “Show me the scar.”
“Let Eames keep his shirt on, Vesta,” said Dom.
“No, it’s good,” said Eames, “you should know this. Forger countermeasure. Case anyone shows up unexpectedly saying they’re me, ask me to open my shirt.” He undid three bone buttons and parted the linen; August in Poland was hot and still on his skin. “Here, see? Came in at an angle, slowed itself down on my rib. Just missed the lung.”
“Any forger who had done his research, he would surely know to include this in his projection.” Mallorie’s gaze flicked at the smooth pale line, a scar he had always privately compared to the roping under a sleevehead, and then her headlamp eyes met his again. Eames decided he liked her.
“That’s the trick, isn’t it,” he said. “In the dream, it’s gone.”
Eames caught Arthur in the act of looking away, back down at the palace blueprint on the table, the hint of heat in his forehead and cheeks.
The first phase of the job had been completed before Eames stepped off his train. Mal and Dom fed the rope to the mark when they met him by ostensible chance, at a gala held in a complex called the Palace of Culture and Science. Its central building was a baroque rocket of German concrete, and Dom had spent the last week making it more baroque still: his maze would be a self-transforming puzzlebox of impossible mechanics, the kind of thing no slightly obsessive personality could resist.
The mark, an ex-military brain named Andrzej Mikalski, was the kind of man who memorized cryptographic keys instead of passwords. He had security clearance high enough to assume training in counterextraction, so this would be more than a matter of simply mentioning secrets and waiting for his eyes to dart to an exhibit case. He had to be persuaded to associate the museum with confession, with hidden things rising to light.
So Eames would play Viktor Mikalski, his brother, estranged nine years. It was a dirty trick.
Their entrance to the stage would be simple enough: Mikalski had a regular girl from a black-car service. She was a businesswoman. Given their assurances her client would be unharmed and likely not even remember the experience, she’d agreed to administer a sedative and leave the door unlocked for a flat fee.
Of course, he had to call for her first. While they waited for the mark to get an itch in his trousers, they watched him, and bantered, and rehearsed.
“Do you always work in his dream, when you two run together?” Eames asked, squinting up at the imaginary clock. An old torch song was playing in their earbuds as they slept, and here it rang through the columns of the Palace’s grand hall as a decompressed arpeggio, its chords stretched out into slow-motion scales.
“We alternate,” Mal smiled, her hand on his arm. “Why?”
They were circling, following the mezzanine around the great room and looking down on the finely dressed inhabitants of Dom’s subconscious. He leaned over to check himself in a bar of mirror, smoothing Viktor’s crow’s feet just a bit. “It’s so… high-res, this one. Sharp and smooth in the corners. Glowing. I don’t think real life is ever this clear.” He paused. “It grates a bit, to be honest.”
“You’re looking through another man’s eyes,” she reminded him. “Maybe you need a spectacle.”
“Spectacles, you mean.”
“You have a knack for double meanings,” he said, giving her a quick look. “Especially for someone speaking her second language.”
“The French,” she said, “we invented the entendre. Where did you learn Polish?”
“What does she think of this work, your mother?”
“She thinks I’m an itinerant tailor,” said Eames.
Mal could do a pretty sharp eyebrow quirk when she wanted.
“Everybody paying attention?” yelled Dom from below. “It’s almost time!”
The music held its breath, and gravity went wild.
In real time and the waking world, Vesta had heard the song pause and then given Dom’s chair a wobbly spin. In the dream, chairs and planters and heavy tables stacked with glassware began to frolic as if suddenly freed of the leash. Things shattered. Splinters flew. Mal and Eames tumbled through it as up and down went haywire, arms up to guard their faces, and then it was time for the second cue.
The Palace began to grind and whir like impossible clockwork. The mezzanine split into four quadrants; the great fluted columns rotated in sections, becoming helices that pushed the upper level apart. Below, the great blocks of marble-topped concrete began to rise, sink and swap. Unperturbed, imaginary men and women stuck like magnetic chess pieces to the reconfiguring board. The central tile of the domed ceiling dropped away into nothing, and then the rest began to follow, falling upwards into a strange glow.
Dom, nearly weightless, bounded up the huge spiral stair and grabbed Eames by his jacket collar. Eames let out a theatrical cry as Mal covered her husband’s escape, one arm hooked around the balcony, the other pulling a gun from somewhere in her midnight dress. “Bang!” she said. “Bang bang!”
A new ceiling was beginning to close in like an iris; beyond it, one could just make out the pencil spotlights of the sixth-floor museum. He and Dom rode the last fling of gravity up and through. If Mikalski was watching, when the time came, he’d get a glimpse of their destination just before it was shut away—and he’d pursue.
“You make this a lot harder to take seriously,” he heard Arthur grumble below to a giggling Mal. Just before down became down again, Eames felt the heartstopping jerk of the kick.
As they stretched and yawned, Eames undid his little IV and made his way out onto the safe house’s little balcony for some fresher air. He was startled when Arthur stumbled out after him, pale, eyes shut, grabbing onto whatever he could to steady himself.
“Don’t get seasick, do you?” said Eames, trying to lean back.
Arthur took a breath and slowly exhaled. “Not on boats. But gravity in dreams… Mal always has to come up with some kind of trick like this, just to mess with me.”
“But you’re all right.”
“I’ll be fine. Yes.”
Eames let him steady himself for a moment.
“When you are,” he said at length, “would you like to release my lapels?”
Arthur’s startled brown eyes opened and went to his hands; he let go and stepped back. “Sorry,” he said.
“Think nothing of it,” said Eames, smoothing the fabric. “I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, this gravity thing. Try keeping your eyes open. Fix on a horizon.”
“Thanks,” said Arthur, shortly enough that Eames decided to yield the balcony.
“Nice work, Eames!” Dom said inside. “We’ll run lines for act two here in a bit. Don’t forget, if you can’t get into position, Arthur will be close by to help.”
“I’m not entirely sure he likes me,” Eames said.
“Who, Arthur?” chuckled Dom. “I know he can be curt. But he’s the best. He just gets too into his own head is all.”
“Yes,” said Eames, ignoring his better angels, thinking of ways to get in Arthur’s head himself.
When they weren’t playacting, they took it in shifts to give Mikalski a slow and lazy tail. It wasn’t until day six that the rotating pairs put Eames and Arthur together.
“So what’d you do with your day off?” Eames asked, glancing up at a nervous sky. “Take in a documentary? Have your shirts tightened?”
“I take time off between jobs, not on them,” said Arthur. They were walking by the river, watching Mikalski give lengthy and specific instructions to a slightly glazed hot dog vendor. “I refined the maze with Mal and Dom, then I followed up some homework on our mark.”
“How could I ever have thought your day would be dry or fussy?” said Eames.
“It’s about to rain,” said Arthur.
“Be a dear and get us an umbrella,” sighed Eames, jerking his head at a shopkeep who was pointedly nudging a display stand out under her awning. “I’ll keep an eye on the world’s most important frankfurter.”
Arthur was halfway across the street when the storm arrived, suddenly, like the wave that upends the boat.
Eames grabbed a flimsy stack of condo listings and scurried the other way, toward the dubious cover of the little food cart’s umbrella. Mikalsi was trying to coordinate paying the vendor while shielding the bun from the rain with his jacket. Eames slowed but kept walking. It was breaking all the rules of a tail, but he’d wanted to get this close to the mark for days—there were things he had to know to seal his forged identity. Deep down, Mikalski would be expecting to see himself in his brother, and remote observation couldn’t convey the way he counted money, the spots he missed when he shaved…
Arthur had his wrist. Eames barely remembered to curse in Polish as he felt himself spinning like a child’s top.
“You don’t look that strong,” he managed. The American had him shoved up against the far side of a newsstand, somehow, just out of Mikalski’s line of sight.
“Aikido,” said Arthur. “What in blazes do you think you’re doing?”
“Did you just say ‘blazes?’ What year is this?”
“The only reason I don’t think you were about to sell us out to him is that no one would be stupid enough to do it right in front of me. So which is it?” He pulled Eames back and shoved him again, not gently, up to the flimsy little wall. “Traitor or idiot?”
“I didn’t realize I had that many options,” coughed Eames. “What is it you have against my lapels?”
Arthur went for his gun, but Eames was ready this time. Aikido. They grappled for a moment as a gust of hard rain stung his skin, and then they’d reversed, Arthur’s face mashed into the laminated cover of yesteryear’s French GQ.
Arthur struggled; Eames forced him back. Then they did it again. Eames had his arm locked in a way that he knew would hurt, but Arthur growled and pushed off a third time, bucking his hips in a way that accomplished nothing but forced Eames to press their bodies tight together, and after that Arthur didn’t try to move again.
Eames held him there until the storm began to go slack. Arthur said nothing; their faces were very close. Heat burned through the cold fabric of their shirts, wet silk on wet cotton. They clung. Eames could see the ribbing of an athletic undershirt, the kind commonly called a beater. He could see a drop of water clinging to Arthur’s earlobe. He could see his clenching jaw, and the spots he missed when he shaved.
“I’m a forger,” he said at length. “I look at people very closely. I’m not selling anything to anyone; I’m doing my job.”
He let go. Arthur didn’t move at first. His neck and forehead were flushed, his nostrils flaring, and Eames was sure he didn’t look much different. Neither of them should have been breathing quite that hard. The air was muggy, and words hung in it like bad fruit, about to burst.
But Arthur rubbed his wrist and closed his lips tight. They went back to watching Mikalski eat in silence.
Vesta was on watch alone when they got the text, two nights later, after a full dress rehearsal.
“She’s on her way to his apartment now,” she said, pacing in that horrid skirt as the rest of them tried to pull on clothes. “After the one day we didn’t spend watching him…”
“And at three in the morning,” said Mal. “What makes him call her now? Will he be under an influence? I don’t like this.”
“It’s my dream,” said Dom grumpily, “and I’m sober. There shouldn’t be any artifacts of perception.”
“As long as we don’t have to go any deeper,” said Arthur.
“Just stay out of his mind and you’ll be all right,” said Vesta as she snapped the lid shut on the heavy case. “I can’t be expected to sedate him and sober him up at the same time.”
“At the very least,” said Eames, yawning, “we shouldn’t have trouble falling asleep.”
Arthur always got to drive, for some reason. He tore through the streets of Praga Południe in a German van at least twice as wide as both lanes put together; Eames, having driven the odd Euro-inappropriate car himself, couldn’t help but be impressed. He was also impressed that Arthur had dressed in a coordinated suit so quickly. His suspicion that the American slept in a three-piece was gaining credence.
Not that Eames hadn’t tucked in and grabbed his hunting coat on the way to the garage himself.
They left the van in the alley and entered in stages, first through the main door of the building, then through a fire exit Mal propped open in the back. It was easy to forget that the physical infiltration of the mark’s sleeping quarters was as important as the mental heist; the client wanted a theft so clean that Mikalski’s employer would never know he had been compromised. Mal had broken in days ago and sabotaged the boiler, just enough to leak steam that would render the rear security camera fuzzy with condensation.
Up the stairs, into the silent hallway, and the door was opening from inside almost before Vesta had sent the girl her text.
“Sedated?” said Arthur, first through the door, eyes in the corners. A low snore rattled from the bedroom.
“I didn’t have to,” said the girl, older and distinctly more Asian than Eames had expected. “He was half-drunk when I got here. He just wanted to talk.”
Eames, helping Vesta set up the IV pump, froze at that. “Talk about what?” he said.
“Oh, matters of the family,” she said. “His brother, I think? Today they met for the first time since they were young.”
Everybody looked at Eames.
“It’s fine,” he said with force, “it’s fine. Someone find his computer, check his email or something, see if he sent pictures, but half the mask is in his head anyway. It’s all about the suggestion.”
“You’re sure about this?” said Dom.
“We do the job,” said Eames. “The more contact they have, the more his old impressions will be overwritten. Tonight is the best chance we’ll have.”
Everybody looked at Mal.
“He’s right,” she said. “The show goes off.”
The computer, of course, was encrypted and no good to them. Arthur paid the girl in złoty as she left, pink and green notes. Eames, going down in the sickly-sweet grip of the drug, felt the noughts and crosses from their corners burning under his eyes.
The face is easy. An architect builds a maze from memory and holds it in her mind; a forger applies the same skill to his own presence. On a simple job that’s all it takes. But to fool the mark up close, to be reliable, you have to take the identity deeper.
Often in dreams you meet someone who looks like X but really, you’re certain, is Y. This is the real trick. It costs something to buy that second level of certainty: a birthmark or a talisman, a muscle memory or a habit. Or a scar.
Find it, dig it out, put a piece of the dream in its place. The mark will see you as part of the dream world then. It’s irrevocable—the forger will never have that piece of himself in his sleep again. Eames had made a few such trades in his career, but when he checked in the waking world, nothing about himself had changed.
So did the price matter?
Fleeting, the self under scrutiny, like the paradox of Plutarch’s ship.
Eames strangled the most alert of Dom’s subconscious guardians in a hedgerow at the base of the complex. By the time he stepped out, straightening his starched collar, he knew the man would already have vanished.
Arthur was walking toward him. Eames stood for a moment in the clarity of Dom’s dream-perfect moonlight: he hadn’t taken the time to properly appreciate Arthur’s costume for the job before. The gala was black tie, and his lapels were peaked above six buttons, his tie a tight little bow of raw silk; his French cuffs were linked with winking silver knots, and one cap toe on his patent Oxfords was scuffed in careless haste. And the waistcoat…
God, could that man wear a waistcoat.
Eames was so absorbed by it that he had to ask Arthur to repeat himself.
“I said, are you trying to figure out if I’m a forger?” Arthur said.
“Oh, no, I can always tell anyway,” said Eames.
“Good to hear. I don’t trust you.”
“What,” said Eames, “is it my turn to prove I’m me?”
“Nothing personal. But no matter how you try to spin it, your little stunt the other day what, what are you doing?”
“I’ll show you,” said Eames, his lips pursed as he undid one, two, three buttons on his very white shirt. “No scar.”
“That isn’t what I’m talking about,” Arthur frowned.
“Here,” said Eames. “So I don’t have to strip to the waist.” He caught Arthur’s wrist easily, as if he were palming a card, and pressed it to the unroped skin of his flank.
“Stop it,” said Arthur.
“Trust me,” said Eames. He let go and began to button up again.
“Trust is earned,” said Arthur, shaking his hand as if he’d burned it. “People who are experts in lying with their whole bodies aren’t at the top of my list for doling it out.”
“You’re a con man, Arthur,” said Eames.
“I’m a point man,” said Arthur shortly. “There he is. Get to your place.”
Mikalski was making his way toward the great doors of the Palace of Science and Culture, compelled and stumbling, as if in a dream.
Eames pulled his hat low and walked quickly to a disused side entrance, one of Dom’s impossible backstage shortcuts. He opened with a toothless brass key blank and stepped into the cloakroom for the great hall, several floors away.
The four blue-suited men in a hissing argument at the counter did not belong in Dom’s dream. Eames could tell because their argument was in Polish.
“Counterextraction,” he muttered, sinking back among summer jackets. Mikalski’s own subconscious guards, dragged in with him, not yet fully on alert. They wouldn’t act unless they saw Mikalski in danger—probably—but he still had to get past them. The closest of the men had a shaved head and a slight twist from a scar on his lip; he slouched back against the counter, and if Eames wasn’t in his field of view, he was only just occluded. Eames found the ridged grip of the silenced P-83 under his shoulder. One or maybe two he could have taken without attracting attention, but four…
Mal swept up to the counter, a torrent of demands in whipcrack French. The men stepped back; this wasn’t in their script. “Et?” she glared, leaning over toward them. “Est-il lа?”
“Pani! Nie możesz tu być,” said Eames in his best accent, striding forward out of his hiding place. The men parted, watching him, but they seemed to accept this dream logic: none of them went for weapon or said a word. He caught Mal’s arm and towed her away, and she trailed what he thought was nasty invective until they could cut off the line of sight.
“Thank you,” he said.
“They may have recognized you,” she said. “One never knows precisely how sapient they are.”
“I doubt they’ll tattle.”
“Next time they may shoot first and tell tales later.”
The French song shimmered out note by long note. They were ascending the grand staircase to the mezzanine, catching the suspicious glares of Dom’s imaginary attendees. His dream was growing restless a little ahead of schedule. “It’s fine,” said Eames again, “they’ll have a hard time keeping up with you once the world starts turning, right?”
Mal’s husky voice was cool with amusement. “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if they didn’t.”
They had come to the ascending bars of mirror; Eames leaned over to check his face.
Mikalski was standing behind him, shimmering like a summer road.
Eames spun, clinging to his second self, the bargain-bought piece of the dream. “Andrzej,” he said in Polish, pulling from later in the script. “Andrzejek, little brother, seeing your face again is—”
Mikalski’s voice was uneven, slewing like a disc on a hand-cranked turntable. “I was not supposed to dream tonight,” he babbled. “He swore I would not dream!”
“Uh-oh,” Eames muttered.
“Under an influence,” growled Mal as she moved away from him, one hand dipping into her dress. “I knew it. Merdre.”
“This isn’t a dream,” Eames tried, hands open as he stepped forward. “Andrzej, you took some kind of drug, didn’t you?”
Mikalski flickered forward, skipped frames in the film, and had Eames by the throat. A quiet thump of compressed air: a dart hissed through the space where he had been standing. Eames could hear Arthur cursing from his hidden blind nearby as a bald man with a twisted lip scrambled up the stairs. Behind him, one of his friends jerked back with a spray of blood from his forehead. The latter two spun back as Mal, gun drawn now, slid on her knees into the relative safety of a crowd of snarling partygoers.
Mikalski had Eames bent backwards over the railing, thumbs against his larynx with a frightening certainty. They were all out of place, all off in their timing. He couldn’t reach his shoulder holster, couldn’t speak, and Mikalski’s eyes and lips were wet and rimmed with red.
“In how many worlds must I kill you, Viktor?” he whispered.
Eames kicked off from the floor.
Mikalski wouldn’t let go. They tumbled over the rail, and Arthur behind them, with a spread-eagle leap of startling grace. Caught in the field of Mikalski’s shimmering distortion, Eames watched him reach for them at a thousand frames a second.
The music held its breath.
Gravity changed halfway through their fall, just as the first block of floor leapt up to hit them like a pinball paddle. Eames took most of the blow with his shoulder, but he heard an ugly crack from Mikalski’s head too. They bounced and caromed off a sliding column segment, spinning in midair, a mapleseed whirlybird in the click-and-lock chaos.
Mikalski’s grip went slack. Eames shoved him toward what he hoped was a softer landing on the balcony, but the movement sent him hurtling the other way—into Arthur’s arm.
Three bounding steps up the spiral, and Arthur pulled him through the tightening iris, so close it clipped his cuff.
They panted, slumped, in the dark of the museum.
“No nausea this time?” Eames said eventually, testing his shoulder.
“What?” said Arthur.
“The gravity trick,” said Eames. “That was some wirework you pulled.”
“Oh.” His eyes really did have the most innocent look, in surprise. “I didn’t think about it. I guess not.”
Eames had found the bad spot in his shoulder. His laugh was pained.
“I have to get back. If Mikalski’s dead here, he’ll be waking—”
“And Vesta will see it and give the us the kick. We’ll improvise from there.”
“This is why I’ve been saying we should go two levels deep as a matter of course,” Arthur muttered. “Give ourselves a fallback position.”
“The museum is the fallback position,” said Eames. “Give them time. They may be able to bring him around, and then one of the power couple will find us to relate the brilliant new plan.”
“And what do we do until then?”
Eames looked at him for a long minute. Arthur was Mal’s second-in-command, and he should have taken the reins in hand as soon as they were back on their feet. But he hadn’t. The trouble with his job, even if one is good at it, is that one gets used to looking for someone to command first.
“Wrap my shoulder, please,” said Eames, “I think I’ve torn something.”
Arthur probably had no idea how relieved he looked to be taking orders.
The first-aid kit under the front desk probably dated back to the Communist era, but the gauze still worked. Eames washed back two dusty aspirin with a swig from his little silver flask and wished for something stronger. Arthur’s hands were quick and certain on his bare back.
“Couldn’t wait to get my shirt off again, hmm?” said Eames, feeling reckless.
Arthur froze. His fingers were still warm as blood.
“What’s the matter?” Eames grinned.
“They’re staring at us,” said Arthur.
Eames twisted his head back to see: looking through the glass doors of the museum were two of Dom’s subconscious figures, stern and still.
“Quick,” said Eames, “try to blend in,” then grabbed Arthur’s tie and pulled him down for a kiss.
Startled, that narrow and elegant mouth, but—as before—Arthur didn’t pull away.
“They’re still looking,” Arthur mumbled at last, still close enough for Eames to feel his lower lip brush stubble.
“It was worth a shot,” Eames said.
Then he spun, pulled the gun from his holster and fired twice through the glass. The men beyond fell as the doors slumped in a crashing shower; he used his grip on Arthur’s tie to pull them both down behind the desk as splinters bounced off its solid surface.
They kissed again, hasty, sloppy, as Eames dropped the gun to jerk Arthur’s jacket off his shoulders. It tangled his arms back behind him, and Arthur struggled, but Eames liked that. He rolled over, put the taller man beneath him, and got his teeth and tongue on Arthur’s ear.
Arthur bucked. Eames found the center of his hips and shoved him back down, hand flat against the base of his cock as it stiffened through the thin wool. How had Arthur gotten himself straightened out already? Eames felt his own trousers were far too constraining.
Arthur, tugging out of the jacket, seemed intent on helping with that. Eames thought he felt his zipper break as his lips worked down Arthur’s neck: salt and a faint tang of aftershave. So clean, this point man. So tidy.
They ground together, clumsy pestles on the cold black floor.
There would have been some satisfaction in ripping Arthur’s buttons open, but Eames didn’t want to spend time removing more clothes than were absolutely necessary. Besides, the man really could wear a waistcoat. Arthur was unencumbered by such decisions: Eames gasped a little when he felt teeth rake his chest, then a startling rough tongue against his nipple.
He savored it, just for a moment, before he rolled off and pushed Arthur’s head farther down.
Warm and soft and wet. Arthur tugged down at the base of his cock with a circle of finger and thumb, and as Eames closed his eyes and ran his fingers up the back of that smooth dark coiffure, Vesta’s words from the week before troubled him.
Where does the brain find the memory of a particular mouth when one has never experienced it? Was he feeling a melange of old experiences, other mouths, other men? Or did the dream honestly relate these physics: the movement, the tightness, the heat of Arthur’s intent?
Of course, this dream didn’t belong to either of them.
Arthur’s thumb was making its way up the cleft of his ass, driving such thoughts from his mind. It was his turn to buck, hand clenching on a starched collar: Eames was coming before he realized it, and Arthur made him ride every last crest and trough, until his body ached with effort.
Eames got to his knees, one arm on the desk chair, grinning raggedly as the other man spat on the floor. “So,” he said, “do you trust me eno—“ and Arthur mounted him with one cruel thrust.
Words mattered less, then.
When Eames could think again he felt those fingers, cold as marble now, on the dip of his spine.
“The dream’s still here,” he mumbled. “They must have roused him after all. I suppose we should write up some sort of, er, climax to this little piece. Maybe Mikalski should get the satisfaction of killing me again? Then Mal and Dom…”
“What’s this tattoo mean?” said Arthur.
“What?” Eames blinked; he’d sold all three of his tattoos to dreams already. Had one reappeared?
“This one,” said Arthur, marking out a rectangle in the middle of his back. “Numbers and letters, like a code…”
Eames was up. “Where?” he said. “Get me a mirror.”
“You broke all the glass,” said Arthur, in the self-satisfied tone of a man who never makes jokes.
“Come on,” Eames growled. Arthur grabbed his shirt and holster; Eames grabbed Arthur’s hand.
The museum had its own washroom. He twisted, trying to get a good look at himself. “This isn’t my tattoo,” he said. “It must be Viktor’s, but I never knew he had one.”
Arthur was staring at it, mouthing character after character. “What’s the basic objective of an extraction?” he said.
“To get the mark to externalize a secret,” said Eames. “To get him to associate it with something physical that we can take, something symbolic, something—“
“Something,” said Arthur, “like the body of the brother he killed.”
They stared at each other. In the mirror, Eames caught himself grinning.
“I have to say,” he said, “I’ve never cracked a code quite this way before.”
“I’ll need a minute to memorize this key,” said Arthur, “but then we can take the kick and be gone. Give me ten seconds, waking time?” He had Eames’s shirt in one hand, and the gun in the other.
Eames winced. “Yes, well. Be quick about it.”
“I always am,” said Arthur, and shot him in the head.
It’s never so clear, in the memory after waking.
Arthur recited the key aloud into his phone, character by character, while the rest of them wiped the apartment for fingerprints and packed away the briefcase of dreams. Ten minutes after the dream ended, Mal locked the door from the inside, and they were gone down the humid stairs.
The short summer night was ending, false dawn above the roofs of Praga Południe. “Northwest, north, northeast, east, southeast,” said Dom, pointing to them each in turn. “Walk six blocks and hail a cab. When Arthur confirms the payment has been wired to our accounts, he’ll pick a meeting point and send it by text. See you there in a week.”
“Brilliant work, everyone,” Mal smiled.
Eames shook Dom’s hand, tossed off a salute, and started walking.
After a block he doubled back.
Arthur had his coat slung over one shoulder and was in no hurry, cutting over a couple blocks to a park that ran along the Vistula. There were already a couple of joggers out, white earbud cords and the flashing soles of their shoes. Arthur was taking another call; Eames let him, keeping pace through a screen of trees.
The call ended. Arthur slid out the keypad and began tapping. Eames moved closer, pulling out his own phone.
When it pinged with a new message, Arthur jumped.
“So where’s this rendezvous, darling?” Eames grinned. “Somewhere with a little more style, I hope. Manhattan? Marseille? Unless you get those suits done in Hong Kong—”
“You were supposed to head east,” Arthur muttered.
“What kind of a lovable rogue would I be if I just…” Eames stopped and made himself actually read the message.
Deposit made, it said. Assistance invaluable. Services not further required.
“Oh,” said Eames.
“It’s nothing personal,” Arthur said.
“It really isn’t, is it?” said Eames. “You little whipped dog.”
Arthur flushed. “You were hired for forgery and your Polish language skills. The next job requires neither. If in the future it becomes necessary, your performance this evening will be—”
“Performance! Spare me,” said Eames, suddenly very tired. The problem with lucid dreaming is that you never get any fucking sleep.
Arthur’s hands were white on his little black phone.
“I think I get it, anyway,” said Eames, putting as much boredom into his voice as he could muster. “When I’m down there, on a job, the marks on my body disappear. But you don’t have any scars, do you, Arthur? Not the kind you can see.”
That sharp jaw, clenched at the corners.
“Did it have to be in the dream?” Eames asked.
“Did it have to be,” he said, “in Dom’s dream?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. Eames walked east, toward the pounding light of sunrise, and on his back he felt the phantom imprint of writing he couldn’t read.