The restaurant, when he found it, was down a quiet alley, a little away from the main tourist throng. He allowed himself a few moments, leaning against the side of the building, eyes closed, letting the maelstrom of recent images slow and fade. Breathe in, breathe out. Opening his eyes again, he saw a small bird - very like an English sparrow, but slightly smaller and with almost no black in its feathers - hopping across the cobblestones. It pecked at a crumb in the dirt, but as Eric reached up to open the shades a little, the bird started and flew off down the alley, gliding upwards in a tight arc to alight on a section of flaking black guttering.
Turning to face the restaurant entrance, Eric pushed aside the heavy, slate-clad door and found himself in a low-lit reception area. Dark-stained teak floor melted into a high black desk, behind which stood a thirty, maybe thirty-one year-old Japanese man in a featureless black cotton shirt and trousers. Thank god; the name Ikebana had been ambiguous, potentially an orgy of floral designs and full of rich, overdressed, successful young people, their every gesture screaming look at me, look at my money! But he should have known better than to doubt Nicholas.
The Japanese man bowed and ushered him across the dark floor and through another doorway to the restaurant, a pleasingly-constructed room almost exactly three times as long as it was wide, with a high, dark ceiling from which seventeen low black pendant lamps were suspended. As he stepped into the room, Eric saw Nicholas, seated at small square, black table towards the back, smile and rise to greet him.
Nicholas, in a new grey suit with a very expensive-looking lilac silk tie, held out his hand. “Thank you for coming, Eric.” He saw from the brief flicker of Nicholas’s gaze that today’s outfit - black jeans, and a black cotton shirt under the black jacket - was adequate, if not ideal. If nothing else, he would blend in with the waiting staff.
They sat, and a twenty-three year-old waitress, Greek, and with flirty eyes outlined in shimmering gold, brought menus. This was a script that he knew well, and he chose some items from the dark grey card, guided as much by the tiny, involuntary reactions of Nicholas’s eyebrows as by any idea of what the various dishes might be like. The waitress nodded and took their menus, returning a short while later with his glass of water and a pale white wine for Nicholas. He watched her small black leather pumps recede again into the kitchen.
There were only two other customers in the restaurant, perhaps because it was still quite early for lunch. A young couple, further down towards the kitchen and on the opposite side of the room, sat opposite each other, holding hands over the table. The girl looked Dutch - the walk here had given him a good idea of the dominant Amsterdam phenotypes, and her fair skin and delicate features were a good match. The young man was harder to place, but looked as though he might be of Spanish descent. Their clothes, fashionable but slightly understated, suggested a lunch break from work; if he had to guess, the man was in retail, she in advertising. Eric watched as the man stroked the girl’s hand with his left thumb, watched the smile light up her face.
“How’s the assignment going?” Nicholas leaned back, relaxed, in his black and chrome director’s chair. “I was sorry to hear about Dr Nash’s brother.” Nicholas was, he knew, a master at saying the right thing, the epitome of polite discourse. Automatically, Eric sought to memorise his expression, the angle of the head, and the words that accompanied it. You can learn everything by watching, Eric. He wondered if the act of imitating the physical gestures would make his voice sound more sympathetic. I’m sorry about your brother.
He took a sip of water, seeing the frozen explosion of air-bubbles caught in each of the six ice cubes. He hadn’t told Nicholas about his inexplicable blind spot for Jon Nash. Nicholas was proud of him, of the agent he’d become, and just the idea of disappointing him was anathema to Eric. Focus on where we’ve made progress. “Jon Nash is in all of the clips Judith sent me. But his face has been altered in all but the last one. Judith says he’s the one who sent her the films”
If Nicholas was surprised to hear this, he gave no sign. Took a sip of wine, wiped his mouth with the charcoal-grey linen napkin, and said, simply, “Go on.” Thirty-nine more white hairs at his temples than at their last meal together. He supposed that even Nicholas, who looked at most forty-eight but was in fact fifty-three, must age.
“I don’t know anything else yet. Dan was working on it when I left. The person who did this wanted to avoid attracting attention.” He had always been able to form his conversations with Nicholas better than with anyone else; Nicholas had a patient, subtle body language light-years away from Dan’s awkward hesitancy or Phoebe’s flapping, jarring movements. It relaxed him, having Nicholas around.
Nicholas pursed his lips slightly, and was evidently about to speak, but just then, the waitress reappeared, bringing their starters. She laid a round, glossy black plate in front of Eric, and he saw the long, red strips of fish gleam with a faint iridescence. Nicholas’s plate contained several white, slightly translucent blobs that looked oddly like jelly. The waitress set down a dish of pea-green wasabi and a small white ceramic jug with a lid that, he assumed, contained soy sauce, and left them. Small hands.
They ate the fish in silence, Nicholas evidently with great appreciation, and the conversation did not resume until the waitress had been again, asking them, with dimples in her cheeks, if they would like any more to drink, and removed their plates.
Nicholas dabbed at his mouth with the napkin again, and met Eric’s gaze. “Why did Judith not tell you about Jon Nash being in the films?”
“I don’t think she knew.” He paused, seeing again her agitated, tired face at the airport, the worn, picked-at thread in her trousers. “Except the last clip - that’s where she identified him.” And then he showed up dead in the canal.
“Nicholas - I think Judith’s losing her grip. Or she’s being paid off. She warned me not to get involved, but I think she knows who killed Jon Nash.”
Now Nicholas did look interested: his spine straightened a little and he rested his weight forward, elbows on the table. “Did she give you any names?”
“No. I’m sure she knows, but she wouldn’t say.” Damn, the drugs were starting to wear off. The weave of Nicholas’s suit frowned at him. He wondered about going to the bathroom and taking another pill. Not going to get back across town without one.
Nicholas sat back in his chair, apparently thinking hard for several moments, then Eric saw his eyes re-focus. “Don’t worry about Judith - I’ll have a chat with her boss at Int Ops. You concentrate on finding out who and where these cell members are.” Nicholas smiled, bathing him in reassurance. “How was your fish?”
“It was ...” he thought hard for a few seconds “meaty. But delicate at the same time.” A description based more on texture than on taste, but Nicholas smiled and nodded, clearly pleased at this evidence of his progress.
The waitress arrived with their entrees. The geometric arrangement of the fish and rice was attractively precise, and Eric found himself mesmerised by the translucent grains of rice compressed within the seaweed. He looked up as she brought him another drink, and saw the light from the nearest pendant lamp refract through the transparent sandwich of glass-water-ice-water-glass. The reflections pierced his brain. Not going through that again. The memory and humiliation of his vulnerability in front of Robin was fresh enough to make up his mind.
He pushed back his chair and stood, to Nicholas’s mild expression of surprise. “Are you alright, Eric?”
“I’m just going to the bathroom. Excuse me,” he added, Nicholas’s presence reinforcing the memorised script. The bathrooms were out by reception, to the right of the cloakroom. He followed the wooden lines of the floor, his gaze shying away from the polished planks directly beneath the lights.
The lights in the bathroom were off, thank god - apparently he was the first person to use the room today. In the dim daylight emanating from the frosted glass window, he locked himself inside one of the stalls and sat down. Breathe in, breathe out. He took the phial from the jeans pocket where he had put it while Nicholas’s food arrived. Only five left. He swallowed the pill and leaned back for a minute against the wall, eyes closed.
He could feel it starting to work as he walked back to the table where Nicholas, who had apparently been waiting for him before starting the main course, was using the moment to jot something down, wielding the stylus with characteristic flair. As Eric approached, he smiled apologetically and pocketed the pod. “I’m sorry - Anita wanted some meeting dates.”
“That’s fine.” He sat, relieved that the glistening rice no longer made his head ache quite so badly. Became aware of Nicholas’s eyes on him, and looked up again.
Nicholas regarded him seriously. “How are the new pills?”
He doesn’t miss much. “They’re fine. A little stronger than I’m used to, but they’re fine.” If Robin bloody Nash is reporting back on me, I’m going to kill her.
Nicholas nodded, still serious. “Good, good. I’ll make sure you get more if you need them, of course.” Does he know I only have five left?
The food, he supposed, was alright. Nicholas seemed to be enjoying it, which was the main thing. The meal over, the waitress took their plates and asked if they wanted coffee or anything else. He would willingly sit ninety two centimetres away while Nicholas drank coffee, he would hold his breath if he had to, but he was glad when Nicholas declined graciously and asked instead for the bill.
While the waitress fetched it, Eric, who was now feeling considerably more robust, took the opportunity to ask Nicholas about something else that had been bothering him. “If the cell really is responsible for last autumn ...” The inquiry’s published images of dead agents, former colleagues, murdered in cold blood. Burned not just into his mind, but, uniquely, into the minds of the entire agency. He looked at Nicholas. “If it’s them, what will happen?”
Nicholas shrugged. “If we can prove it, then extradition, indefinite incarceration. Mind-taps.” He looked at Eric thoughtfully. “You might get to see for yourself.”
He didn’t get a chance to ask what Nicholas meant by that, because at that moment the waitress returned. Nicholas settled the bill, and Eric said “Thank you.” The waitress winked at him, though his thanks had been meant for Nicholas, and disappeared back into the kitchen.
As they left, he saw the young couple still holding hands over coffee. He shrugged on his jacket, Nicholas already in his long wool coat, and they emerged, blinking, into the thin afternoon sunlight.
Nicholas shook his hand again, gestured towards the main street, said “There is a car waiting for me just up there. Can we give you a lift back to the hotel?”
He felt the drug warming him, insulating him against the city and its millions of faces. “I’m fine. Thank you.” He watched Nicholas walk down the alley towards the waiting car, its shaded windows gleaming. And turned back in the direction of the hotel. Maybe he could find some of those bastards on his way, while the visimorphine was still on his side.