For the longest time, Henry Lee had believed that nothing was worse than having to pursue a ruthless trained killer over rooftops while taking fire from irate gunmen. This, he now realised, was inaccurate. The greater ordeal was having to transcribe and translate a full radio transmission of said chase – as well as all fifteen hours of the subsequent interrogation.
They had given Henry a desk. A desk, an ergonomic chair, and a view of Grosvenor Square Garden that Henry frankly didn’t care for. He also had a computer with not two but three screens arranged at optimal angles to each other, the third of which served no apparent purpose apart from bathing Henry in the eerie glow of the CIA desktop wallpaper.
Will would have laughed himself to tears to see Henry penned in like this – sitting through recordings of some whippersnapper with college-level Mandarin floundering through Class B interrogations, spending his lunch hour making small talk in the cafeteria, or – God forbid – tending the potted plant by the window out of obligation. But Will wasn’t here. And, really, that was the root of Henry’s problems. Because if Will had stuck around, hadn’t let something as mundane as a bullet to the chest get the better of him, they would both still be on assignment in Shanghai.
I was waiting under a street lamp on the corner outside the Grand Theatre, where I had said I would be waiting. Above people’s heads, I could see most of the poster advertising tonight’s concert hanging in a frame by the doors. Big, elegant letters spelled the name of the choir and a list of compositions the choir was going to sing. The concert itself made me excited, but I was rather conflicted about everything that was supposed to happen next.
I took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one. A faint cloud of smoke coiled lazily in the air.
I was waiting for my companion. Or, to put it more bluntly, a whore. A male whore.
At first, Paul didn’t understand what was happening, so all he said when he looked up from his desk and saw Percy standing in the doorway was, “Don’t forget to pick up paper towels if you’re going out.”
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Broderick,” said Percy in a tone that was part business and part ice, and that was what made Paul really look, shoving his glasses up the bridge of his nose and marking his place in his new as-yet-unpromising biography of FDR with the flap of the dust jacket as he stared across the dim span of his study. The room was windowless, paneled with mahogany, and lined on all sides with bookshelves; a brass clock on the desk gave the time as 1:50, but it could have been early afternoon as easily as the middle of the night. The bulb of his desk lamp hit his eyes like a spotlight, illuminating the top of the desk and half-blinding him to everything beyond it. “Did the girl out front offer you coffee?”
With the great calm of a well-learned routine, Paul placed his book on the desk, folded his hands atop it, shut his eyes, and took three long, deep breaths, listening to the soft rushing sounds as his lungs moved the air tidally in and out. When he opened his eyes again, Percy was still standing there in an unfamiliar, ill-fitting suit and Paul was reasonably sure he wasn’t having a hallucination. Well, that solved one question, but raised several others. Was it a.m. instead of p.m.? The book hadn’t been that good, but he’d lost more time to less.
Percy was not a tall man, but he crossed the study in four purposeful strides, briefcase in hand, and with every step his well-oiled wingtip shoes squeaked as his feet bent inside. When he reached the other side of Paul’s desk, he put the briefcase down and opened it so that Paul couldn’t see the contents. Paul sniffed the air. “Is that … Brylcreem?”
“Champrose will be two days further, but they have great ale,” Marion said, holding his horse’s reins tightly in one hand, his only good eye scanning the map in their captain’s hands for the city he had just named. He pointed at it with the cheese he was holding. Sean watched with great amusement as Thane’s aristocratic features twisted in a grimace—it made him look like one of these sneering nobles they hated working with—and Thane moved the map away from Marion’s greasy fingers.
“If that’s our criteria, then Vieux-Port should have a festival about now,” John protested. He tried to take the map from Thane, but their leader moved it again, without even looking. “That’ll be way more fun than good ale, Captain, and I bet we can find work once the festival is done,” he said, trying to grab the side of the map closest to him. Thane jerked it away again and promptly folded it, holding it very close to his chest. Thane had a thing about people touching his precious papers. Considering that the last map had gone up in flames, Sean understood that particular hang-up.
Jean took on a thoughtful expression. “Lots of merchants due to be heading back home, I’m sure someone will want protection for the road back.” He said it with a shrug of his bony shoulders. It was rather comical in Sean’s opinion. The man was like a living scarecrow.
Thane had probably already considered the job possibilities himself, but he still nodded to the two.
It was such a rotten cliche, to be smitten with the cute boy behind the counter at the coffee shop, but, well, cliches had to start somewhere. At least in Adam’s defense, he had only been caught in deep smit for the three minutes he’d been waiting in line. The boy in question had soft eyes and long lashes and a scruffy chin and smirky lips and Adam was just fine with waiting as long as possible while he got practice at staring while pretending not to stare.
When it was Adam’s time to come up to the counter, though, he saw the barista’s nametag read ‘Smug.’ Well, at least he was properly labeled.
“What can I get you today?” he asked, and up close Adam could see he had the loveliest eyes, rich brown like strong tea.
“Tea…” Adam blinked rapidly. “Ah, no, pardon. A large cappuccino, please.”
The barista — Smug, Adam supposed — gave a glance over to the girl behind the espresso machine, who was muttering to herself and seemed to be having a bit of trouble. “Might take a few minutes more, if that’s all right with you.”
“Oh, that’s fine, just fine,” Adam said. He was the last person in the queue at the moment, so he felt no guilt for lingering.
“Right, thanks,” he said, and tilted his head back to call to the girl. “Large cappuccino please, Marian.” He got a faint grumble in return, and Adam stifled a laugh. Smug — it was ridiculous to even think of that as a name, but it was easier on the internal monologue than ‘Perfect Handsome Man at the Coffee Shop I Wish to Marry’ — told him how much he owed for his drink and handed it over. The register clanked and jingled and Adam just watched his face. Handsome eyebrows, even; he’d never thought of eyebrows as something to be handsome.
He shook himself out of his charmed reverie. “Ah, my change?” he said. Society had to keep functioning, even in the face of infatuation.
Smug just smiled at him. A bit smugly, to be perfectly frank. “I think you’ll find it’s in your hand, sir.”
The last thing Cai felt like doing after a six-day work week was going to a party, but he’d told Marc he would, and with everything that was going on with him he was trying hard to keep his promises. The bells hanging from the red velvet bow on the door chimed and rattled against the glass as he stepped into a seasonal sub-climate comprised of equal parts pine, beeswax candles, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and wet winter coats. Heads in the living room turned; Maryanne, perched on the arm of a couch, waved a half-eaten gingerbread cookie at him. He waved back and toed off his boots, and carried them down the hall into the spacious back kitchen. It was the size of the living room, and twice as crowded.
“Cai!” Syl’s embrace wrapped him in white lace and satin and fringe. “How have you been? How’s Marc?”
“Good, he’s good, we’re good.”
“Did he bring those coconut cherry things he made last year? Because people have been asking.”
“I don’t know. I came straight from work.” Cai inclined his chin at the diadem of white Christmas tree lights–lit and blinking–that crowned her salt-and-pepper curls. “White Witch?”
As a gimmick, many of the districts’ entertainment houses ordered large amounts of fireflies to release in their gardens and party rooms. But since everyone was doing it, it had lost its charm. Even the low folk making their homes in a riverbed could enjoy the view of fireflies released near the K River. At night, during the start of the festival season, all mingled. Groups of children, yelling and running along the riverside through willows and cherries, chanted the firefly-hunting songs, though there was no sweet water in the capital. Surely it was also tiresome for the prostitute boys dressed up in pale greens and yellows for the occasion. There were even rumours of gold dust glowing on buttocks in shows of excess among patrons.
Other houses took their inspiration in advertising from anything that might give them an advantage with the tourist crowds. Many a historical and mythical figure turned out. Yoshitsune and the master tengu descended from Mt. Kurama to entertain with a crowd-pleasingly unsophisticated repertoire, and were booked flat till the end of the month. The great M-district courtesan, Sasanami, became an older Takeru with his hair tied in buns, which caused quite a sensation among his fans.
“Can you believe that shit?”