Also contains a pointless but fun crossover.
Kazuki was debating how much his dignity was worth when the silver-haired woman sat down on the other end of the bench. She wore a neat suit and soft pink scarf, and he found his eyes turning from the fountain to the scarf with abstracted longing. She glanced over and smiled. “It's a miserable night to be out here,” she murmured.
He nodded. “What are you out in it for? Go home. Enjoy a warm bath.” Before I lose it and beg for an item of your clothing, and not even to wear on my sleeve, but to wrap around my shoulders for warmth because it's far preferable to using newspapers as blankets.
“Oh, but I wanted to look at the fountain by sunset.” She waved at it thoughtfully, her gesture seeming to caress in midair the lithe shape of the water nymph who danced within it. “The light is more interesting this way. It was supposed to be put at the other end of the park and catch the morning light, you know, but then they put up that office block.” Her sigh seemed to admonish all the pitiful short-sightedness of the trade-off. “What are you out in it for? Admiring the fountain as well?”
Kazuki's dignity engaged in a brief but valiant struggle with his common sense before crying for mercy and retiring to consider its future battle tactics. “Only partly,” he said. “I was going to spend the night. Given warm isn't an option, at least I could sleep somewhere beautiful.” With the exception of the abandoned newspapers and cigarette butts, but surely she'd understand his meaning. Besides, the newspapers could be a resource.
The woman held out her hand. “I have some quite worthwhile pieces at home,” she says, “if you'd like both. Chieri.”
It wasn't until Kazuki had taken a warm bath and wandered back into her living room in a borrowed bathrobe, combing his hair, that he noticed the vase. It was true that her apartment had some worthwile pieces - a number of paintings that, although he did not reognize them, Kazuki could tell were the work of a master. Several masters, by the look of it. But the vase looked familiar, and he kept glancing at it trying to figure out why.
Chieri, of course, noticed. She moved to stand quietly beside him and murmured, "You like it?"
"It's lovely," Kazuki answered earnestly. "But ... that's not it. I think I've seen it before. It or one like it." He bit his lip. Chieri remained silent. This was obviously some sort of test. It was also quite obvious that this woman had plans within plans. The phone call she'd gotten while he was showering, for example. He'd left a string to listen out of sheer habit but the contents had been fascinating. The person on the other end had obviously been about to hand over a large sum of money in return for an unspecified 'it' that was, it seemed, in her apartment now. Perhaps the vase was It, but that wasn't want stood out. Eventually it struck him, and he almost gasped in surprise. "I've only seen photographs," he said, "but this vase looks just like the one that was stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, the same time the Vermeer and all those Degas sketches were taken."
Chieri nodded solemnly. Evidently he'd passed. "It's the same one," she murmured. "At the moment I'm attempting to assemble the other pieces. So much nicer to have a triumphal return of the complete set, don't you think?"
"Perhaps. You have, ah, the sort of connections to pursue the works?" Kazuki wilted slightly. If this wasn't 'it', what could possibly be? It was the only sculptural work prominetly displayed; Chieri's taste apparently ran far more to paintings. But then again, 'it' needn't be in plain sight. Perhaps after she went to bed he could look.
"And the skills." Chieri tilted her head at him. "You strike me as a person of many talents, yourself. Tell me, what dissapointed you about the relevation?"
Kazuki hadn't realized he'd let his emotions show, and silently resolved to be more careful in the future. Still - it was warm and comfortable here, and Chieri quite sympathetic; hardly surpising he slipped. "I overheard you on the phone," he answered. If she was upset, so be it. "You were going to sell something to someone soon - I thought this might be what you were selling. It's beautiful, but it looks out of place."
Chieri's smile widened, and she nodded as though he'd not only passed a test, but gotten all the extra credit questions. "I would say you have good hearing, but somehow I suspect that's not all you have. Why don't we stop dancing around the topic? If you'd care to, I believe you could be of great assistance to me."
"And this," Matsumuto declared, flinging open the door with a dramatic flourish, "is my gallery." He looked it over and gave a small, satsisfied nod.
His latest mistress, a leggy girl with an unforunate habit of wearing too much makeup, simpered admiringly. "Oooh, really? I didn't know you were an art collector! That's so amazing!" She brushed past him, giving him a wonderful view as she leaned forward and peered around. The room was small, but well-lit, and the pieces strategically placed around the walls were some of his favorites. He padded in behind her, wiggling his toes in the carpet. Thick shag carpet; he'd had a lot of good times in the gallery. The placement of his copy of the Nude Maja was not a coincidence. He'd given many girls a favorable comparison to it. He watched his mistress with appreciation as she flitted over to a sketch by Manet, of which he was rather fond. She focused on it for a long moment, leaning in with an aodrable quirk to her lips. Then she pulled back and glanced over at the safe. "What's in there?"
Matsumoto beamed. He'd had a tough day, starting with a nasty note from his cousin about his poor treatment of his last girlfriend - which was ridiculous, he'd given her a whole million yen to tide her over - and ending with a drop in the price of oil shares, but showing off his pride and joy would be a good end to it. "My latest prize." Chest puffing out, he put a hand on her hip to steer her in front of the safe. "The Mona Lisa."
Her eyes widened, as he had expected. He chuckled and stepped in front of her, reaching for the lock. "Not the real one, of course. But a fake that was sold as real for a very long time. You know the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911? It wasn't returned for two years."
"I hadn't." His mistress cast her eyes down as he thumbed the keypad. No old-fashioned dial locks here, thank you. "How did they manage it? It must have been an amazing heist."
"Not really. It was one man - an Italian nationalist, who wanted to take it away from France. He just walked in while the place was open, hid in a cabinet, and when it closed, stuck the painting under his coat and walked out. Of course a lot of brilliant forgeries were sold as real, shortly afterward." Matsumono beamed at her. "This is one of the best." He opened the safe door with a flourish, and she gasped again, this time in wonder.
There was a long moment of silence before she spoke, her voice trembing. "Can we take it out to look?"
"Of course," he said, "but we have to put it back afterwards. I couldn't bear to lose her. She's almost as pretty as you." He swooped in for a kiss. She giggled and tossed her head. Her dangly earring glimmered in the light, and for a moment, so did a trailing thead hanging from her platinum necklace.
On the roof overtop Mutsumoto's penthouse, two figures sat, hidden in hooded windbreakers, looking thoughtfully at each other in the reflected glow of city lights. After a while, one said, "This might be difficult. Can you crack safes?"
The other shrugged. "Most of the time. What kind of safe?"
"It has an electronic keypad."
"Mmm. I can probably deal with that. He wasn't so kind as to say the combination aloud?"
"Of course not." The first figure tiwtched his fingers, and a gleaming thread shimmered in the air for a moment before vanishing. "However, he is going to take his mistress to Hawaii for Golden Week. We might be able to use that. Pity that Golden Week starts tomorrow; this would be better with some time to plan."
"We'll think of something." The second figure stretched languidly. "You don't suppose he suspects?"
"Either he's certain it's a forgery, or he's a very good actor. How did this happen, anyway?"
"Oh, things got a little confused in 1912. I have no illusions that we'll be able to return it to the Louvre, and perhaps that's for the best; the one there now was pained from the heart. But I think she deserves better than to be shut up in a safe by a philandering profiteer."
"He doesn't deserve a woman," the other agreed coldly. "Real or painted."
It was Constitution Memorial Day when they made their move. The previous night Clayman had added a logo to her van in water-soluble paint. At six-thirty in the evening they pulled it up to the side of the building and parked, then removed a covered tray on wheels from the back. They went in through the side doors.
The bored security guard, whose mind was mainly on his resentment at having to work a holiday, barely glanced up. He saw two women in the neat skirts and striped vests of a catering service that the asshole from the penthouse used all the time. Probably bringing up a tray of caviar. He took a second glance. The one with short black hair wasn't much, but the tall one with with brown hair - whew. He reminded himself that his girlfriend was going to take him out to dinner that night, and waved them through.
There was a secuirty camera in the elevator. Kazuki glanced at it nervously. "They're awfully paranoid. Do you suppose they have microphones?"
Clayman shook her head, the short black wig bouncing over her cheeks. "No. Now relax. I assure you, the masks will keep working as long as we need them to." Kazuki bit his lip and resisted the urge to rub at his cheeks. There were techniques of the Fuuchoin school for changing one's apperance, but for this, he'd let Clayman work her magic. The clay felt a little damp still against his skin. She'd told him that it was supposed to.
The upper floor was deserted. They padded across the lobby to the door of Matsumono's suite; it had a keypad lock as well, but he had cheerily told his mistress the number. Once inside it was simple to wheel the tray into the gallery and shut the door behind them. The gallery had another lock, but it was the mechanical type - terribly easy. Clayman removed the cover with no trace of a dramatic flourish, and took her implements from the bin. "Watch the door," she told Kazuki. "This might take a while."
He nodded and went to stand guard. There were a lot of odd clicking noises, and the occasional beep. After a while, there was a statisfying thunk, and Clayman's barely-voiced "Ahah".
Kazuki turned. The safe was standing open. The keypad appeared to have been partly dissasembled. Clayman reached into the safe; her hands were long and ghostline inside her latex gloves. Reverently, she removed the painting. Kazuki's eyes fixed on it automatically, and he drew in a breath. He'd seen the Mona Lisa before, of course - prints, digital images, always secondhand. He hadn't had this chance.
She caught his look and smiled. "We'll have time to look once she's home," she said gently, and laid the painting inside the tray. She began to reassemble the safe keypad, and Kazuki looked away, leaning out the door. The gallery opened on the living room, and its big glass doors led onto a small patio - one of Matsumono's indulgences, perhaps; open-air dining at 200 meters. Already the sunset was fading. Kazuki glanced back; Clayman had covered the cart with its cloth and was removing her gloves. "Shall we?"
He nodded and they rolled the cart into the living room and closed the gallery door. At that point there was a ping as the apartment's front door opened.
They looked at one another for a frozen moment; then Kazuki shoved the cart to the side of the room, praying it would go unnoticed amoung Matsumono's modernistic furniture, and headed as fast as he could without making noise for the balcony door. Clayman followed on his heels. They shut the door behind them and crouched behind and enormous concrete planter. Kazuki could hear voices coming into the living room. "- is a jerk, what do you expect?" one of them said; it was a light female voice, with a hint of a Kansai accent. "Of course he wants his apartment sparkling when he comes home from Okinawa, so we have to work on a holiday to make it all just so." A light flipped on, bathing half the patio in reflected glow. "Look at this place. It's already sparkling."
"Well," said another voice, "he's got a big-screen. Anything good on tonight?"
"I think one channel's doing a Gamera marathon. Hey, he left the patio unlocked." There was a click.
Clayman and Kazuki looked at each other. As if to taunt them, a cool breeze wafted across the patio. Clayman silently mouthed, "What now?" Kazuki considered for a moment, then pointed to the roof. This was going to be tricky, and probably hurt his hands. It really wasn't what the strings were supposed to do, but what choice did they have? He fished the bells out of his shirt. It was hard to gauge the distance; the planter they were hidden behind was close enough to the wall that it wouldn't be difficult to get to it without being seen, but he couldn't tell what was up there to hook the other end to. Well, no matter. He motioned for Clayman to follow him and crept toward the wall.
Once they were pressed against it he wrapped an arm around her waist. Undersanding, she did the same. Then he cast the threads up, and over the edge of the roof. They caught on something. He couldn't tell what, but when he tugged gently, it held. Well, hopefully this would work. Taking a deep breath, he set his feet against the base of the wall and began to reel it in.
It took fifteen nerve-wracking seconds to travel the four meters to the roof. Then they were over the edge, and Kazuki let go with a sigh. His hand, as he'd expected, hurt; the string had dug in and left a bruise, although he had made it too thick to cut skin. He looked down at the patio. "I think they'll be there for a few hours," he murmured. "Should we wait up here?"
Clayman shook her head. "They locked the door. There isn't even a keyhole outside; we would have to break the glass, and that would leave too much evidence. It's best he doesn't notice the theft until he tries to look at her again." She reached up and took off her wig, shaking out her hair. "We'll go back down and come back in a few hours. After the guard change."
"Guard change isn't until midnight and it might look a bit odd for caterers to show up at midnight." Kazuki sighed. "Tomorrow? He won't be back until the evening. We could show up in the morning."
"Assuming she isn't found."
Kazuki winced and tried to be calm and reasonable. "If the cleaners find her, there's nothing we can do," he said. "If they don't, it's not likely that anyone else will." He wished he had left a thread inside the living room, even if it would mean crouching on a cold roof, in a skirt, for three hours, listening to an old Gamera movie and gossip. He went over to the maintenance stairwell and tried to open the door. It was locked. "Ah, you have your lockpicks, right?"
There was a long moment of silence.
"I do," Clayman said in clipped tones, "but that door has a deadbolt that only opens from inside. Furthermore, there is a security camera in the stairwell. When we came up here before, I had disabled it. Then I put it back, because it would look suspicious if they noticed later." She bit her lip. "We could risk it. The guard didn't look to attentive."
Kazuki eyed the door, which had one of those annoying plates designed to keep people cutting the bolt from the outside. Who in their right mind would put one of those on a door to a roof no one could get too from outside? He might be able to slip a string in and cut it, but metal was a lot harder to cut than flesh.
Of course, there was another option. It wasn't a very good one. Getting up the building or one story had been tricky; going down for fifty would be hellish. But given the alternatives, which were currently limited to completely blowing their cover, or sitting on the roof for the forseeable future ... "Give me that wig," he said with sudden determination, and cast a string to tie onto the door handle. It was a metal door; it could, he hoped, handle two hundred kilograms of force for ten minutes. In fact, he threw out a few more. Best to be safe. Clayman looked at him sideways, and he smiled. It was already dark; that was good, and in fact would be necessary. "There are some vertical elements with no windows, right? Find me one of those."
Clayman nodded and went over to the edge. After a while she looked up. "Here. There are a lot of trees near the base, and this side was the least busy of the streets. Do you think it's dark enough to do this yet, or should we wait?"
"It's dark enough. People never look up, you know." Kazuki wrapped the black wig around his hand; after a moment's consideration he tugged off the cravat and wrapped it loosely around his other hand, which was already showing a deep purple bruise. It didn't hurt, and he wasn't sure whether that was a good sign or a bad one. He made a mental note to have Juubei look at it, then a half-instant later remembered that Juubei wasn't there anymore, and closed his eyes against the sudden pain. Now was not the time. He brushed past Clayman as he knelt at the edge, wrapping the mass of threads around and around his hands, making sure as best he could that there was no possibility of them slipping.
He set his hands on the edge of the roof and clambered over, carefully, bracing his feet against the masonry. There weren't a lot of lights showing on the side. People were out of town for Golden Week, or out to dinner. Hopefully no one walking below would look up. "Get behind me," he told Clayman, "and hold on tight. Very tight."
She was careful, lowering herself over the edge right next to him before she moved over, her arms over his shoulders and her legs tight around his waist. He could almost feel her thudding heartbeat - or was that his? It was hard to tell. There was a lot of wind noise, as was only reasonable at fifty stories up. He wanted to wrap the two of them together, but it might be dificult to do without bruising her and besides, he didn't have a hand free. He closed his eyes and twitched his fingers, then let go o the edge.
The strings held. They slipped down a few centimeters, then were still again. Kazuki took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and let them out a little more.
Clayman took a breath as if she meant to say something, then let it out again. He hoped this wouldn't take too long; his nerves were already a mess. He went a few meters this time, slow but steady, picking up a little speed as he went. Pause. Out again, and this time he didn't stop for three stories. Slow but steady, that was the ticket. Fast-moving objects drew the eye. Hopefully if anyone caught a glimpse they'd assume they were imagining it. A sudden breeze blew up and he had to flatten against the building to keep them from being knocked sideways. It left his skit flapping around his hips and he shivered.
"Am I holding on too tight?" Clayman asked softly.
"No. Please. It's fine as long as you don't put pressure on my neck, and it would be a very bad thing to fall right now."
"Mmm." She shifted slightly, leaning furher forward. Her breath on his neck was very warm, which was a slight relief since the rest of him was cold all over. Five stories. Ten. He kept having to stop and shift his grip; he could barely feel his fingers. This was a bad thing. Halfway down now, and the danger of being seen was greater. Ten more stories. Pause. Five.
They were almost to the treetops now, and the leaves would hide them from anyone looking. He took a deep breath. Three more stories. Two. One. They were hidden. The trees were huge bushy poplars, the sort lanscapers loved because they grew twenty feet in a year. Kazuki paused again, taking deep breaths. The air down here wasn't quite so chilly. "We should be safe now," he said, and slowly, carefully, began to let them down the rest of the way.
They hit the ground with barely a thump. Kazuki almost fell, kneeling without meaning too and leaning into the building, with a deep sigh of relief. After a moment he tugged the strings loose and wound them back in. He had never let them go quite so long before, and the concentration required left his mind feeling wrung-out and hollow. Gratefully he hooked the bell back on its chain and sighed. Clayman took her wig back, shook it out, and settled in back on her head. "Thank you," she said quietly. "Although I admit, that is not an experience I'd care to repeat."
"Me either." He adjusted his skirt and scowled. "One thing about kimonos," he said quietly, "was that I never had to worry about the draft."
Clayman chuckled. "That was one of the reasons I insisted on wearing a boy's uniform at school. It annoyed my teachers, but Mother didn't care ..." She trailed off. "Let's go back to my place. There isn't anything more to do here tonight."
Matsumono was having a very good day. There were two beautiful women serving him drinks, for one thing. His mistress was having a slightly less good day; she was watching with open annoyance and slight jealously. She'd get over it, he was sure. He'd buy her something pretty and expensive; girls really went for that sort of shit.
"Lovely day," he told her, gesturing at the clouds expansively. "Almost as lovely as you. And as hot." She simpered, mollified for the moment. At that precise moment his cell phone began to buzz. With a quiet curse he flipped it open. "Moshi moshi."
It was the unlisted number, so whatever it was must be important, unless of course his idiot cousin had somehow - "Ah, yes," said a harried-sounding voice he recognized, with mounting displeasure, as belonging to his cousin's personal assistant. "I'm supposed to read this to you, in tones of subtle menace. Matsumoto, you skunk, you blight upon the face - " There were the sounds of a brief scuffle and the phone being snatched away. "Here, I'm obviously better at this," his cousin's madly cheerful voice cut in. "Where were we? Right. You blight upon the face of the earth, you excresance, you harrier of women, you shame to men everywhere and disgrace to the family name. Kasumi-san's check bounced."
Matsumono took a moment to process this, then said, "What?"
"Bounced," his cousin continued, the words like a diamond needle into his skull. "A lousy million yen, and you snatched it away from the poor girl. Fortunately she confided her difficulties to me and I've seen to it she'll lack for nothing, but I'd still like to take this opportunity to destroy your reputation utterly and drag you through the dirt. Still, Kasumi-san is a better person than I." A wistful sigh. "She says she'll forget, if not forgive, if you come back and apologize to her in person. Tomorrow at noon, at your penthouse. And give her a check from an account you aren't busy draining for obscure tax reasons. And maybe kiss her feet, if she isn't too disgusted."
Matsumono made a wordless noise of outrage.
"I knew you'd see things my way," his cousin said happily. "I'll meet you for lunch tomorrow, then. Better hurry, the next flight's in two hours!" He hung up. Matsumono stared at his phone for a moment, then flung it to the sand.
His mistress blinked lazily over at him. "What's the matter, dear?"
"Urgent business," he told her. "I have to go back to Tokyo right away. You can stay here, dear, I wouldn't dream of interrupitng your holiday."
She sighed. "But it just won't be the same without you. Oh well, if you insist ..."
Kazuki finished peeling the mask off with a litle help from a hairdyer and went back out into the living room, where Clayman was mixing drinks. She gave him a sympathetic look. There was a long moment of silence as she handed him something he didn't recognize in a tall, red-rimmed glass. He sipped it and was pleasantly surprised by the sweetness; he had little taste for alcohol as a rule but this was not dry enough to bite.
After a while, she set her own glass down. "It's always a risk breaking into a home. Most of the work I do involves museums or deposit vaults. Sometimes offices."
Kazuki nodded. "I'm sorry, Chieri-san. I should have thought to seal the door."
"Don't worry about it. The worst is over. We just have to go back and get her. it won't take five minutes." She smiled abruptly. "Kazuki-san, I appreciate your helping me. I'd almost forgotten how pleasant it is to have a reliable partner." He hid his answering smile in his glass. Clayman picked hers up, then wandered over to the stereo system. "Do you have any objections to Vivaldi?"
"None whatsoever." He followed her, and settled on the couch. She sat next to him, closing her eyes, and they drifted in companionable silence for a while, enjoying the soft noises of the violin.
Eventually the movement finished, and Clayman took their empty glasses away. She came back as the next began, leaning back against the edge of the couch comfortably. She looked far better, Kazuki thought, now that she had gotten out of the skirt. She seemed ill-suited to the trappings of femininity. He tugged her dressing-gown closed over his chest and blushed slighty; it was probably the wine. "What time tomorrow should we go back?"
"A little before noon, I think. The guards change shifts at noon, so it will obscure that we were only inside for a few minutes. If they ask, we just say we forgot the cart. So busy this season, you know, so much to keep track of." She smiled demurely.
Kazuki nodded and reached out to take her hand, twining their fingers together. "This is the easy bit. I'm amazed you could open that safe."
"I've had speial training, but in principle, it's simple," Clayman said thoughtfully. "I'm more amazed by what you can do with those strings. Family school?"
"Yes." He tightened his fingers on her for a moment, then let go. "Very old. Although I'm not sure most people couldn't do it, if they were taught correctly from a young age. It involves chi as well." He pauses. "And I did learn how to play the koto, although that isn't strictly necessary. In fact, the basic techniques were developed before the instrument came to Japan ..." He trailed off, suddenly aware that he wasdrifting close to the topic of his family, one that he meant to stay well away from.
Clayman smiled and leaned closer. "I don't have anything like that sort of history. It must be trying."
"It can be." He closed his eyes against the obvious next questions, wishing he hadn't said a word. But they didn't come. Instead the music swelled and filled the air around them, and they let it take up the silence. Kazuki found himself wishing, for the first time in years, that he had a koto again. He missed playing; it was calm and beautiful and simple. The sound of the violin was not really like a koto, but it was similar enough to make him feel nostalgic.
It was not until the music had faded into silence for several minutes that he realized it had stopped, and Clayman's hand was still entined with his. She gave it a gentle squeeze, and he opened his eyes. "I think I'm going to bed," she said languidly, her eyes half-closed. "Do you want to come with me?"
His throat went dry, and he paused to be certain he had understood correctly. "You're asking me to lay with you?"
"I'm not asking," Clayman told him evenly. "I'm offering. Please don't think I had this in mind when I brought you here, or anything of that sort. But you are a man of considerable charm, and we've become fast friends."
"We've only known each other a few days," he pointed out, a little amused.
"Surely you aren't suggesting we're such poor judges of character as to take days to discover whether someone is worth friendship?"
"No," he said, but really, the answer was obvious, and that she had pointed it out only brought it into sharper relief. He let go her hand. "You honor me, but I can't accept. There's ... "
" ... someone else?" She sounded a little sad, but not surprised.
His answering smile was bitter. "Someone who I'll probably never see again, someone who will hate me if we ever do meet. But nontheless, someone. I'm a romantic fool, and I'm sorry., but there's nothing to be done."
Clayman rose and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Everyone is a romantic fool at some point. It's not a bad thing to be."
When she left he sat on the couch for a long while before he got up, spread the blankets out, and lay down. He was terribly lonely, and for a moment entertained the notion of following her to bed and asking to stay, not for love but for comfort. He dismissed it. Lonliness was simply something he would have to get use to. He'd gotten used to the dull ache of an empty stoumach for a while, until his luck hit or his pride disintegrated, depending on which way you looked, and he found a bakery that threw out their day-old bread in an easily accessible can. Lonliness should be easy by comparison.
But still, what reason did he have to bother? Juubei wasn't there any longer, and he would never be again. That much was certain. Clayman - Chieri-san - was a woman with hidden depths and a beautiful surface, who he fell into companionable silence with almost without noticing, a woman who had taken him with all his contradicitions in her stride and smiled at what she saw. He could imagine himself loving her. He would be happy to share her work; as far as he could see she did no harm and much good with it, and it would be a good game to scheme agaisnt ordinary humans, knowing no one's life was at stake and that each victory, hard-won though they might be, would stay firm and solid in their hands. The rest of their lives would be comfortable and easy.
Too easy. His pride stuck in his throat. Bad enough that he had taken her offer of a place to sleep. He was the heir of the Fuuchoin; staying with her, eating her food and sleeping in her bed, would be too much like selling his honor. He was grateful that she had offered, instead of asked. He would not, could not, accept such an offer, unless they could approach it as equals, with no question of pity. And perhaps not even then; he was still a hopeless romantic.
Cold but settled, he pressed his face into the cushion and waited for sleep to overtake him.
The following morning they didn't speak of it. They awoke late, and Kazuki made breakfast while Clayman prepared their masks.
It was, as before, simple. Absudly simple. The guard didn't give them two glances. Kazuki ajusted the cooler he was carrying for cover and beamed as the elevator slit shut. When they reached the top of the building he began to feel a little nervous. It wasn't supposed to be this simple. There was always a complication. He stuck close behind Clayman as the elevator slid shut behidn them, and she puched in the same keypad number. The door opened smoothly.
Standing behind it were two men.
Kazuki's heart promptly settled in the back of his mouth. The men were dressed neatly, in causal suits; one bore an enormous smile, while the other looked harried, hovering protectiely close. His heart skipped a beat as the smiling man bowed. "Hello," he said. "I'm sorry if we caught you by surprise. I had a little business with my aboniable cousin, but his flight was delayed, and he won't be here for two hours at least. Were you looking for him?"
"No," Clayman said smoothly. "We're from the catering service. Ah, we forgot a cart when we were here yesterday, and we've come to pick it up." She smiled. With her mask on she looked like a completely different person. Gone was the confident professional, and in her place was a young, worried woman, struggling not to mess up too badly. He hoped it worked.
The two men exchange glances. "The cart," the smiling one said, "in the living room? I though something like that might be the case. It matches the furniture, but you know he looks for things with signatures on them."
The other man looked suspicious, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Odd that the caterers came by when he wasn't here," he offered. Kazuki had been hoping, really hoping, that they wouldn't notice. He put a hand to his collar. If either of the men were carrying a cell phone, and felt inclined to call building security -
Clayman tightened her fingers. "Please, sirs," she said. "It's our busy day. Everyone's throwing a party. We don't have a lot of time."
The smiling man gave them a long look. Kazuki decided to take a chance. He stepped forward and looked right at him. "There's a lady who really needs our help," he said. It could be taken several ways. It could mean they had another client, one they liked and wanted to help. Or, if as Kazuki suspected, the smiling man had looked under the cover of the cart - It was the thinnest of hopes, but it was all they had to stand on.
Their eyes met for an endless moment.
Then the smiling man bowed deeply. "Who am I," he murmured softly, "to stand in the way of the happiness of a lady? Please, go in. But first - " He picked up Kazuki's hand and, to his great surprise, kissed it. Kazuki realized that he was blushing. At least it wouldn't show with the mask on. He gasped in surprise, and the smiling man took avantage of his reaction to press a card into his hand. "Give me a call sometime," he told Kazuki, and the other man put his head in his hands. "We should have lunch. I would be delighted by your company." He swept past them with his chin thrust up, grabbing the other man's hand and dragging him along despite vauge, incoherent protests.
The elevator door shut behind them with a final click.
Clayman walked into the apartment with every evidence of calm. Kazuki followed behind her and shut the door. "A farce," she declared. "This has been an absolute farce. I'm sorry. My jobs normally go much more smoothly."
Kazuki wondered miserably if he was spreading bad luck. "It's fine. We're almost done."
She nodded. They went into the living room and she lifted the cover from the cart. For a moment Kazuki had a glimpse of an upside-down smile, then she dropped it again. They each took one handle, wordlessly. The cart rolled smoothly across the carpet and onto the marble of the foyer with a soft click.
The guard didn't even look up from his book.
By unspoken agreement they changed and took their masks off before they even touched the cart.
Kazuki would not have blamed Clayman for making a ceremony out of it, but she was simple and direct, taking the cloth away folding it, and pulling on her gloves. Then she picked up the painting again with infinte care, and set it on the coffeetable, resting against a folding easel. Kazuki stepped beside her and looked. For the first time, he looked.
She had a smile that seemed to promise the world to the one who got the joke, and there was a joke inside somewhere, Kazuki was certain. She smiled as if she were content with the world despite its faults. Her folded hands looked ready to unfold and pull him close.
After a while he became aware that he had sat down heavily. Thankfully he was near the sofa at the time. Clayman glided over and crouched beside him, rubbing her hand against his knees. "Isn't she wonderful?" she said, sounding happy and proud.
"Of course." He did not know what had happened; he was not at all sure that it mattered. That smile. He would see that smile in his dreams.
Clayman's hand clutched at his knee. "She deserves a place in the light," she said fervently. Kazuki looked over at her and saw the same soft, enigmatic smile on her lips as on the painting's. "She'll have to go right in the middle of the gallery. I don't have anything else by Leonardo," she added absently, with a beatific sigh. "But this one was his favorite. Do you know, he traveled everywhere with her for years? Almost until he died."
"It could be dangerous," Kazuki suggested, "if the man we took it from ever visits your gallery."
Her beatific smile turned slightly demonic. "Oh, but there are dozens of copies of the Mona Lisa. This one's just ... unusually faithful. I'll say my mother painted it, and I certainly won't sell, so no one will get the opportunity to check."
Kazuki nodded thoughtfully. He didn't blame her for wanting to keep the painting close to her, even while she put it somewhere anyone could see. "How long do you suppose it be before he realizes it's gone?"
"Oh, days." She rose gracefully and tossed her hair. "Shall we go out for dinner tonight? I think this calls for celebration."
Matusmono was seething when he finally stormed out of his own apartment, five million yen poorer and thouroghly humiliated. His cousin had been, as always, smarmily smug. His secretary had somehow managed to be menacing, and that was not a word he would have associteated with the harried young man before. Kasumi had shown only the perfect calm of someone who knew she had a big windfall in the offing. It was ridiclous. He hadn't made her get pregnant - she'd told him she was on the pill, the imbicile. And now he was going to have a bastard son out there because she refused to do the sensible thing. Wasn't his problem. Wouldn't have been, at least.
He sailed into the office, looking for someone to yell at, but they were all gone. It was a holiday, after all.
After that he wandered around for a while. The restaurants were still open, and he parked at an all-you-can-eat noddle stand and attempted to take them at their word. He always felt better with food in his stouchmach. He had a beer as well, and came to the conclusion that it wasn't a dead loss after all. She surely wouldn't have the guts to sue for child support, for example. Not after he'd given her so much. And it wasn't even half of what he'd paid for that stupid imitation Da Vinci.
He went home and settled himself in the art gallery, then called his mistress. "Hey, baby."
"Hey," she said. She sounded tired, and in the background Matsumono could hear someone running a shower. "What is it? The business go through okay?"
"All taken care of, honey. You just jet on back. You know where I am right now?" reached out one-handed to punch in the safe's combination.
"Mmm. No. You place? Living room, bedroom ..."
"Gallery. I was just going to take out your favorite," he purred.
Inwardly he grinned. "You know, you like it so much, I was thinking maybe you'd like it for a birthday present? I was going to get you a diamond necklace, but everone gets their girl a necklace, you know. This one's something special." She gasped in awe. He swung open the safe, reached inside to touch empty air, and made an incoherent sound of rage.
After a long moment, she said, "Honey? What's wrong?"
"I'll call you back," he told her grimly, hung up, and dialed his cousin.
The voice that said greeted him would have been suspicously cheery had it belonge to anyone else. As it was, this was about normal. "Is something the matter, dear cousin?"
"You dickhead, you took my Mona Lisa," be said, struggling not to scream again. "You know how much that thing cost me?"
"You're overlooking something."
"What?" Matsumono's fingers clenched on his cellphone so hard he almost cracked it.
"I don't have the keys to your gallery, and I don't know how to pick locks. Really, enjoyable as it is to hear your strangles screams of rage, there are some things even I would not do in pursuit of it. Hadn't you better call the police?" He hung up with a click that somehow managed to sound smug.
In Matsumono's cousin's office, his secretary leaned against the wall and raised his eyebrows. "Aren't you going to tell them about the mysterious caterers?"
"And spoil my fun? Besides, we don't know enough to identify them. They were doing it for good cause, I'm sure." He leaned forward and planted his chin in his hands. "I wouldn't rat on a lady."
There was silence. Then, with the air of someone poking a bruise, his secretary said, "You do know the one you gave your card to was a man, right?"
"Of course. But when someone obviously wishes to be treated as a lady, it would be rude to do otherwise." He sighed happily. "And he was awfully pretty, don't you think?"
Kazuki raised his glass to his lips and took a long sip. "To a - stunning success," he murmured, painfully aware that they were still in public. He shifted in his chair and glanced around, but there were no waiters nearby and all the other diners were focused intesely on their food.
Clayman tilted her head. "I might return," she said. "He had some other pieces that quite intruiged me."
He nodded thoughtfully. "If there's anything I could do to help ..."
"I'll let you know." She smiled. "Kazuki-san, I suppose it would be too much to hope that you already have a cell phone?"
He blinked. "No." The concept seemed a little strange; nobody in Mugenjou had that sort of thing - he vaugely recalled Makubex saying that cell phones wouldn't work there because of the radiation - and since, he had nobody he wanted to keep in contact with but Shido. Shido didn't need a phone. Kazuki had found birds had an odd tendency to hang around him, and concluded that he was being kept an eye on. "Should I?"
"Mmm. Probably." Clayman tilted her head and regarded him thoughtfully. He found himself tugging at his collar. It felt so strange to be wearing a skirt, and balancing in these ridiculous shoes - but her suits wouldn't have fit him, and it was probably worth it just for the joke. He wondered what the waiters thought. "If you're going to do annaiya work again, you'll need some way to keep in contact with the world."
He raised an eyebrow. "Is that what this was? I thought it was a favor for a friend."
"It was work," Clayman assured him. "We didn't discuss fees, but you were quite professional. I appreciate that. I could pass your name onto some friends, you know. Someone who can find things out can often make a good living at it."
It sounded like difficult, dangerous, exhausting work. But what sort of alternatives did he have? He could go back to the parks - and he would be doing that anyway, soon enough, probably tomorrow. Welcomes are extended for guests who help with the housework, but he'd done all he could there - right now. "Of course, Chieri-san," he told her. "I'd be glad to help out any friend of yours who could use it. One must find some way of passing the time."
"Mmm. And there's so much to find out, if you're willing to expend a little effort."
"It's certainly tried its best," Kazuki said solemnly, "but curiosity hasn't killed me yet."
Their eyes met for a long moment, then Clayman smiled wryly and raised her glass. "I think," she murmured, "this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."