The blonde in the pale yellow sun dress is barefoot, carrying her strappy yellow sandals dangling from her fingers along with a tiny clutch purse in the same color. Her hair is parted in the middle, caught and curled up on the sides with combs, like a nineteen-thirties movie star. The part shows her roots; she's a real blonde. It's her eyebrows and lashes that have been darkened to show up.

The skirt of the dress swings and swirls around her legs. Her hair is smooth and pale as butter in the sun.

She is lovely as she walks along the sidewalk, passing from sun to shade to sun again as she strolls under the old trees lining the road. Bees hum in the flowers planted along the edges of the lawns that stretch like green velvet back to neat Craftsman bungalows. A golden retriever lying in the front path to one house, patiently waiting for its owner to return, lazily thumps its tail as the blonde walks by. Far down the street, a slight man with slicked back hair, wearing a short-sleeved white dress shirt, is pushing a mower across a lawn. A housewife wearing a flowered apron stands on one porch using a shiny copper water can to measure out water for her potted plants: geraniums, red petals and bright green leaves. On the far side of the street, a mechanic with thick, heavy black hair bends under the arched hood of a robin's egg blue car straight from the nineteen-forties, like every auto parked along the street, fiddling with something in the engine. His bright chrome toolbox reflects the scene behind him like a mirror. There is no one else to be seen.

The black panel van with smoked windows roars up the street and jumps onto the sidewalk in front of the blonde. She drops her sandals as the driver's door swings open and a man in a black ski mask grabs her. He slams her face forward into the van's side, then holds her half conscious form up as he slides open the side door and throws her inside.

The golden retriever is barking and running down the street toward them.

He jumps back into the driver's seat, reverses, and roars away in a cloud of stinking diesel exhaust.

The mechanic tosses his toolbox aside and slams the hood of the car shut. He runs to the driver's door, starts the car, and backs into the street as the van accelerates past the first intersection.

The housewife and the lawnmower man are already running forward as the mechanic screeches his car into the street. He only slows it enough for them to open the doors and tumble inside before he punches the gas.

Less than a minute has passed.

The dog is still in the street, barking.


"Faster, Yusuf," Arthur orders as he pops open the car's glove box and withdraws his favorite Glock. Ariadne has already drawn the Sig she'd concealed in an apron pocket.

"Are you driving?" Yusuf complains. Ahead of them the anachronic black van takes a corner, smoking its extra wide tires and leaving black rubber on the tarmac. Yusuf shifts down coming into the corner and slingshots around with a screech straight from the movies. He works the clutch and gears like a moonshiner, with his lips peeled back from his white teeth in a fierce grin.

"I wish he was," Ariadne moans as she clutches at the back of the seat with one hand after being slung against the side of the car. She's still holding onto the Sig with the other. "I may puke."

"Don't," Arthur warns her.

"It's not really up to me."

The van is pulling away from them.

"Damn it, Yusuf!"

"This is a 1946 Buick not a Porsche," Yusuf snaps. "Ariadne, next time, design in a secret super engine in our chase car."

"Next time?" Ariadne mutters. "Why you think I'm crazy enough for there to be a next time... "

"Just don't lose him."

Arthur has his legs stretched out and his shoes pressed to the floorboards of the car, putting an imaginary pedal to the metal in sympathy with Yusuf. His fine features are set into a sharp mask.

Behind them, police cars are finally in pursuit too. Blue lights spin on top and their sirens wail. When one of the cops inside starts shooting at their car, Arthur calmly sets his Glock aside, opens a panel in the door of the car and pulls out a machine gun.

"Get down," he tells Ariadne, then cranks down the passenger door window, leans out, and begins shooting back at the police cars. Brass from the machine gun flies into the interior of the car. The leather upholstery sears and stinks where the hot cartridges hit and Yusuf hisses in pain when one bounces against his cheek.

"Why are they shooting at us?" Ariadne yells. "Is this necessary? Haven't we proved he's our guy?"

Yusuf slews the Buick around another curve. Arthur holds onto the edge of the door with one hand, riding through the force that wants to throw him out with negligent ease. As soon as they hit the straight away, he reloads the machine gun and starts firing again. One police car careens into the window of a flower shop in an explosion of glass and pink carnations. Eames would be delighted by Arthur's natty impersonation of an Al Capone era gangster if he could see it. Since he can't, Arthur allows himself a smirk. He's enjoying himself. Dreams are better than any video game.


Ariadne is pissed at herself for letting Eames convince her that playing a gangster's moll would be fun. Next time she's designing a very tedious dream in which the mark hands over his secrets in exchange for not falling into a coma of boredom.

"They're projections," Yusuf reminds her.

"Right, right." They're in the mark's subconscious, even if she did design the framework of the dream. The bit players are all populated from some part of the mark's mind. She always forgets that, even after her encounters with Cobb's projections of Mal. They're so real in the dream it makes her wonder if anyone has studied the effects of PASIV use on dissociative disorders or whether it might trigger them, since it seems like everyone has more than enough brain processing power and speed in a dream to create entire separate personalities. Mal had been just a little to malevolent to be just Cobb's unconscious protecting him.

She hopes Eames is okay in the van. The mark is one crazy driver. He took the bait, though, and has proved beyond doubt he is not only guilty of one murder, but probably more than one, if his kidnapping expertise is any indication.

Ariadne grins, wondering how the mark would react if Eames dropped the forge and the dreamy blond victim morphed into a pissed-off Englishman, with several large guns no doubt hidden on his tattooed person.

"Coming up on the bridge," Yusuf announces. "Everyone ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Ariadne says.

Arthur just slides back into the car, cranks up the window, and nods.

The van ahead of them drives through a wooden barrier and onto the bridge, ignoring the large sign that said Bridge Work Ahead and Detour with a bright red arrow meant to direct all traffic to the right.

"Have I mentioned I can't swim?" Ariadne asks.

Yusuf laughs.

"Don't worry. The fall will kill you."

Great, she's sharing a dream with Mombasa's own version of Butch Cassidy. What next, a re-enactment of Thelma and Louise?

"See you after the kick," Arthur promises.

The van ahead of them careens, trying to stop before it runs out of bridge, slides and tips over sideways.

Yusuf hits the gas on the Buick and whoops, steering straight on for the drop.


Yusuf dreams of the river thick with silt and pollutants. The poisoned water is the color of clay, swirled with the blue of chromium sulfate, orange oxides, threaded with mercury the color of blood. The sky overhead is seared white, speckled with vultures. The heat closes around his skin, a coat that cannot be discarded though he is shirtless. The relentless sun reflects off rust-streaked corrugated tin roofs on the mud-thatch buildings stretching away from the muddy shores.

He sits at the prow of his father's boat.

Yusuf's father is a fisherman.

There are no fish.

Yusuf's father is a fisher of men.

He snags their pale and bloating bodies from the effluvium of a continent. The despairing and unlucky are still sometimes not unwanted. Families come to pay for his catch.

Yusuf clutches the edges of the boat. He watches the women washing at the edge of the river — dipping their cottons and silks in disease and death — and the poor bathing. His hands are smooth and brown and small. He is a child again. The boat sways and rocks beneath them and his child's heart beats fast in the frail cage of his chest. Giant crocodiles swim beneath the opaque water.

A log reveals the golden eye of a scale-armored monster. A sinuous eddy betrays the slow sway of its tail beneath the surface. Yusuf knows if it opened its mouth it could swallow him, his father, and their boat without even needing to drag them to the bottom to drown them.

Yusuf's father snags the dead bodies floating in the river. Yusuf watches the River God, hoping it will not decide they are stealing from him. His father uses a long pole with a hook that flashes silver as a knife. He pulls the bodies to the boat, ties them, and lets them float behind it like fish on a string.

He turns the bodies to keep the faces in the water. There are no fish to nibble their features away.

They paddle back to the shore when his father is satisfied, the bobbing bodies trailing behind the boat until it is beached. Yusuf scrambles out, peering back at the river and holding his breath. The River God has submerged and Yusuf knows he is coming for them.

His father steps out of the boat, rope in his callused hands, black hair matted to his head in the heat, and begins pulling the bodies one by one onto the shore.

As the corpses are freed of the river, they shudder and tremble, cough and come alive and awake. They pull the rope from their bodies, rise to their feet in showers of stinking water, the men in their kikoi, the women in their bright kangas, and bow to Yusuf's father.

His father grins.

The crocodile lunges from the river, water flying up as its clawed feet pull it onto earth, jaws gaping wide.

Yusuf screams and the reclaimed dead run as the River God exacts the price of his father's theft.

His father, a doctor, came from India to Kenya, but Yusuf has never seen the Ganges. He grew up in Kongowea on the Mombasa North Coast. Since childhood, though, he has dreamed of it. He has no wish to discover how close those dreams are to the reality of India.

Awake and sweaty, despite the hotel air conditioning, slumped stiff in the chair where he fell asleep, he gropes for and finds his totem in his jacket and tightens his fingers around the crocodile tooth.


Cobb jerks awake and pulls the IV from his arm. The fluorescent lights are unkind to him; they leach all the color from his features and give his blond hair a greenish tinge reflected from the olive painted walls. With a vicious screech, he sends his chair scraping back from the plain metal table with the PASIV case and a small white tin with a red cross holding sterile pads, disinfectant, and band aids, and stands. The noise wakes the two other men in the room, one slumped uncomfortably in his chair, gray head nodded forward and chin on his chest, and the other with arms folded on the table and his head pillowed on them.

Sedation lines snake from the inner corners of each man's elbow. They each stir and blink at Cobb while he folds his shirt sleeve down over his forearm with jerky movements. Every line of his stance shouts his frustration.

"God damn it," Cobb mutters loud enough for the two men sitting on the opposite side of the table to hear.

"Satisfied, Detective Olsen?" the lawyer asks in a self-satisfied tone. He ostentatiously removes his own IV and presses a sterile pad to the needle mark. "I think we've established my client's innocence. Since this extraction was based on a court ordered warrant, there seems little point to continuing your witch hunt."

"All we established is that your client knows how defend his unconscious while asleep."

"Really, Detective, quit while you're behind. You don't have anything on my client. No prosecutor in the state of New York will take your handful of suspicions and circumstantial theory to a grand jury." The lawyer raised a bushy, snow white eyebrow. "If there is nothing else? No new questions, no more specious and ridiculous charges or threats? Then I and my client are leaving."

Cobb levels a fulminating glare at the attorney. "Get out," he snaps.

The attorney solicitously helps his client disconnect himself from the PASIV before they both rise and head for the conference room door. At the door, the attorney turns back and mentions, "Oh, and Detective? If I find out you or anyone with NYPD is still surveilling my client after this, the city will be facing a lawsuit the costs of which will destroy its budget whether it wins or loses. I don't think the mayor would like that, do you?"


"That was pretty impressive, Edgar."

"My boy, that is why you are paying my firm an obscene amount of money," Edgar states. "Guilt or innocence means nothing. Power, that is what matters. Whether it is the power of money or over life and death or over your own mind."

"I beat the dream."

"No prosecutor would try to admit testimony from an extractor in court." Edgar uses a courtly gesture to let a tiny, uniformed female officer and another lawyer, dark-eyed and bearded, enter the elevator ahead of him. "Detective Olsen was trying to rattle you, dear boy, nothing more."

"Well, I'm not rattled," his client insists.

"Of course, you're not." Edgar presses a button. Like every button in the bank, it displays a 1. Tsk, thinks the man playing Edgar, and shifts so his client can't see the buttons. Sloppy work, Ariadne. "Enjoy your evening, William, and spare no worries for the police. They're quite out of their league with us."

The elevator opens and they both step out and walk past the front desk and through the front doors of One Police Plaza into the New York dusk. A mist of rain is falling, surrounding every light with diamond halos and the steps down to the street are already slick wet. A phalanx of model-tall blondes in business sexy suits click-clack along the sidewalk under clear plastic raincoats and umbrellas. Their heads turn to stare at Edgar; identically made up faces blank, blue eyes hostile.

William laughs and agrees, "It isn't hard to fool them."

"You have no idea, no idea," Edgar agrees. He sighs. "I told my driver to take the evening off if we weren't out by seven." He checks his Phillipe Patek watch, smiling at the elegant time piece. Its second hand moves smoothly as it marks the inevitability of time. "Seven-forty. Care to share a cab, William?"

Cars are rushing by on the street, sloshing water up from the rushing gutters onto the sidewalk. There is an ominous roar of water from far up the concrete canyons of the city. The water mains of heaven have broken.

"Home or office?" William asks. He doesn't notice the incongruities.

"Oh, home."

"That's a bit out of my way."

"My treat," Edgar says. "I can certainly afford it, considering the hours I'm billing you."

They start down the steps to where a yellow cab is slotting into a parking spot conveniently left by another, departing one. Je Ne Regrette Rien plays somewhere.

The delicate sound of Edith Piaf's voice hangs on the air in the interrogation room. Cobb watches the second hand on his watch tick the last second away and puts his gun to his head.

On the roof, the lawyer and the petite woman police officer cock their heads to hear the last strains of music. Holding hands, they step off the edge into the air and fall.

Edgar checks his watch again and then, with a yell, slips and tumbles into William, sending them both falling down the steps in a tangle as the yellow cab surges onto the sidewalk and hits them both, Arthur's grim visage briefly visible at the wheel before impact.


Ariadne knows she's dreaming. The giant pen-and-ink ant trundling after her is a dead giveaway. She prefers the control of being in someone else's dream. Lucid or not, that ant scares the pants off her. No matter what she does, she can't get away from it. She conjures a giant jar and tries to trap the ant inside. Of course, since the ant seems to be one from a Escher illustration, the inside of the jar is also the outside of the jar: it's a Klein jar. The inside is the outside and the ant crawls out. Sometimes Ariadne hates her mind.

Ariadne flees inside her house, but like the jar, the villa twists and just when she thinks she's managed to lock the ant outside, she realizes that she is also outside. She's running up a staircase straight from one of Arthur's tutorials, going down and the ant is on the reverse side of the stairs that hang in the air, clinging to the sides with its legs, its mandibles making annoyed clicking noises...

She wakes up on a yellow damask-covered love seat with the afternoon sun warming her shoulder and the side of her face. Arthur is typing on his laptop in the chair across the coffee table. The PASIV case and her sketch book are both sitting on the coffee table along with a bottle of water and Yusuf's pad. The typing explains the sounds in her dream. Her job, of course, explains Escher and the Klein jar showing up.

She sits up and smoothes her hair into some kind of order, then rests her palm against her over warm cheek, letting some of that heat transfer and hoping she didn't sleep long enough to end up with one side of her face turned pink.

"Where is everyone?" she asks.

"Yusuf is in the wash — " On cue, the sound of water rushing through the pipes tells her where Yusuf is. " — room. Eames is still shadowing the attorney. He's a friend of the mark's family, so just looking like him won't be enough for the forge."

Ariadne knows Eames would put in the same amount of work even if it wasn't necessary, though he'd deny being as obsessive over details as Arthur. Admitting he has any sort of work ethic would mean giving up teasing Arthur over his 'anal compulsive' ways. As if a point man could ever be too careful. Arthur is the team's anchor and more vital to their survival and successes even than Yusuf's sedatives.

"And Cobb?" she asks as Yusuf comes out of the washroom. He looks sleepy, despite his freshly washed face.

"Lunch with Saito."

"We take too many jobs from Saito," Yusuf mutters grumpily.

Arthur looks up from the laptop screen. He appears thoughtful. "They aren't Saito's jobs. He recommends us. The clients, of course, are less likely to stiff us or cause trouble if they believe we are associated with him. But we're still freelancing."

Yusuf drops down on the love seat next to Ariadne and scowls. "Cobb and Saito spend too much time together."

Ariadne pats his hands. "Yusuf, you sound jealous!"

"Eames thinks they're — " Faintly darker color on his cheeks gives away Yusuf's blush. His fingers make a helpless and completely confusing gesture that Ariadne and Arthur both still interpret correctly.

"Doing the nasty?" she crows.

"Eames has sex on the brain," Arthur mutters in disgust. "Cut his skull open and you'd find one hemisphere humping the other."

Ariadne claps her hands over her mouth, but can't muffle her hoots of laughter. Arthur ducks his head, apparently embarrassed by his own choice of words. He goes back to typing.

Eames chooses that moment to return. He strolls into the room with his hands in his pockets, his jaw rough with scruff, and a pleased expression. "I saw Cobb and Saito in the foyer — "

Ariadne takes one look at him, imagines what Arthur just said, and shrieks with laughter so hard only Yusuf's reflexes keep her from falling off the love seat.


William sits up, blinking, and opens his hands where they rest, cramped around the van's steering wheel. Tacky blood squelches under his palms. He stares at it, suddenly very glad it is evening and the rain falling outside makes it virtually impossible for anyone to see him clearly through the windshield or the windows. 

Behind him, a moan alerts him that his new toy is still breathing.

This toy is so perfect, so blonde and luminously untouchable... He clenches his hands so the blood dried on his knuckles cracks off in brown flakes. Not so untouched now. He'd touched her. Oh yes. He'd shown her. Arousal stirs in his belly. But he shouldn't, he knows, it's too soon.

Too late, though, for regrets. You break it, you bought it. This toy is out of the package.

William opens the glove box and removes the Clorox wipes he keeps there. Good for disinfecting surfaces and, more importantly to him, the chlorine destroys DNA. He uses them methodically on his hands and face and then the steering wheel and the hand print on the passenger seat. He congratulates himself again on thinking to choose a vehicle with Naugahyde seat covers rather than fabric. Even Clorox might not completely obliterate blood caught in upholstery. He is exactingly careful in his clean ups, but forensic science is a constantly developing area of expertise.

There are always those small accidents that can't be predicted, like his latest toy's broken nose bleeding all over his hands as he subdued her.

Quite the fighter, William thinks with excited admiration. The ones who fight are always the best.

He starts the van. Goes through his checklist. Windows up, doors locked, radio off, windshield wipers on low, lights. Double checks the adjustment of his mirrors. The van is registered, insured, washed every week, and its tires are good. Nothing would be more humiliating than being discovered and arrested as a result of a traffic stop for a malfunctioning tail light. He brings it in for a tune up every three months for the same reasons. A breakdown would be unacceptable.

That dream he woke from convinces William that as delightful as taking his latest acquisition home and playing would be, it is much better to dispose of her. Of course the cops could never outwit him, but he should never have given into impulse so soon after the matter of his last toy.

He turns in the seat to make sure the toy is still secured; he's never had one get loose from the duct tape — he'll have to dispose of the roll and replace it — but there is always a first time. Even a wasp can make a driver crash. A loose toy in the van could do any number of unpredictable — but very bad for William — things.

The toy is wiggling on the black plastic he's lined the van floor with, blue eyes wide and leaking tears at the corners, blond hair matted with blood from her swollen, reddened nose. The break is rather spectacular. William suspects if it keeps swelling, this toy will suffocate. The silvery strip of tape wound in and over her mouth will make it impossible to breathe through it.

He does hope this toy lasts until he gets to his disposal site. The clock on the dash confirms the evening is still young. Even though he won't be able to spend as much time as he'd like with this toy, he can still play with her for a few hours.

Why, if she were wearing a sundress and sandals, she'd look almost exactly like the one he dreamed about while he was napping, before the interrogation dream.

William smiles at her and tells her, "We're going to have so much fun. Do you know, I dreamed about you?"

There's the oddest flicker in her eyes before she shakes her head while making begging noises behind the gag. William dismisses it, because every toy reacts differently. Each one is a new treat. It's just like when he was little. Every time he broke one of his toys, his father took him out to buy a new, different, better one.

It's just the same now, though he has to treat himself. Still, it makes him feel closer to his father.

He starts telling the toy in the back about his father as he flicks on the van's blinker, checks his mirrors conscientiously, and merges into traffic.


In the back, the blonde squirms, trying to find a more comfortable position. It's necessary to hold the forge until the mark brings them to his disposal site. The GPS Ariadne designed into the necklace this forge wears is transmitting, so the rest of the team will be following at a sufficient distance the mark will never register them. Dream tech needn't obey the laws of physics. Eames has been trying to convince Arthur of this for years. Even teaching Ariadne took a little while.

Eames hopes this plan works. It's universally believed among extractors that it is unwise to design a dream using real locales, because of the potential danger of confusing it with reality, but finding a real location makes it necessary in this case.

He hopes that it will be obvious what the mark is doing with the bodies. He's sedated deeply enough that only a hard kick or death will wake him up. He really isn't looking forward to a long torture session at the man's hands. He's endured it before in other dreams, but it's never fun and tends to creep into his own dreams after.


"Too bad extractions can't really be used as evidence," Ariadne says.

Cobb gives her an incredulous look. She reconsiders. People dream about doing things they never do awake all the time. She dreamed regularly of smothering her room mate in her own dirty laundry during her first year of college.

"Maybe not."

"We have thirty-four minutes," Yusuf informs them. He's driving again. It's become Yusuf's in-dream specialty, the way Arthur making sure they kick at the right points is his in-dream specialty. "Could you fold the road to speed this up?"

Ariadne huffs. "No, because I don't know where he's going. Right now I'm adding to the dream straight from the Google maps I memorized." It was a good thing Arthur suggested she familiarize herself with all major exit roads, otherwise the mark would already know something was off. Normally, she'd twist the dream back in on itself, running the mark through a maze. This is harder. Much harder and much more likely to go wrong if she slips.

Cobb squeezes her shoulder.

She's not going to slip.

Arthur has conjured an iPad and is tracing their route on a map as they follow the mark. Once they're awake, he'll recreate the same route from memory on a real computer. The map in the dream is courtesy of his photographic memory: Arthur studied all the maps he provided Ariadne.

"There's a small avian wildlife preserve within a twelve to thirty minute drive of our mark's hunting ground," he says, tapping the green shape on the screen with his finger. He slides his eyes toward Cobb. "Care to make a wager?"

Cobb gives him a small smile in return as he declines. "I have kids to feed."

"I'm their godfather. I'd buy them something with it."

"You will anyway. With your own share of our fee. By the way, Phillipa is taking riding lessons."

"A girl's first pony is the province of her father," Arthur replies primly.

Ariadne suspects Phillipa will be receiving the most expensive, tasteful, and safety-tested riding helmet on the market, along with a new charm for her charm bracelet. Neither Cobb nor Arthur ever say anything, but when Ariadne met Cobb's daughter, Phillipa showed her the charms. One from Arthur for every extraction job going back to before Mal's death. At the rate the team has been operating since the Fischer job, Phillipa will need to start a new bracelet.

"And James?" Arthur asks. He notes the change as Yusuf follows the mark's tracking signal, exiting the interstate.

"Still wants to be a firefighting NASCAR driver."

"Fire resistant long underwear, then."

Cobb chuckles.

"What every man needs."

Ariadne slaps his arm.


It isn't the first time Cobb's seen one of his team tortured in a dream. More often than not it is himself, but Arthur has endured more than once. The old saw about praying for death is something most extractors will do sooner or later. Death really is an escape — though if Yusuf has enough sedation running in their veins it can be a bit of a frying pan and a fire scenario.

Eames usually avoids this sort of pain and suffering by slipping his forge. This time, Eames has to maintain it through whatever William dishes out. They have to be sure that the small clearing in the wildlife refuge is where the bodies — at least one body — have been left in the waking world too. At least Ariadne has been able to manipulate the night into a gray and wet morning in the dream. Everything is dripping from the incessant rain, of course. He's not sure if it's Yusuf this time or the mark, but on their next job, Cobb is instituting a moratorium on coffee for an hour before they go under.

Of course, their client wants his daughter's body found, but more importantly, as Saito points out during their first meeting, a corpse will provide the police the evidence to obtain warrants and make an arrest. William's family lawyer has already sprung him from questioning twice by arguing there is no evidence of crime and that his last victim is — was — merely a flighty girl who has disappeared of her own free will.

Cobb keeps his binoculars focused on William and Eames' forge. Arthur watches through his own pair, memorizing everything about the clearing, no doubt. If it exists in any form close to William's dream, Arthur will be able to find it in the waking world.

The thin sound of Eames' scream drifts through the brown leaves clinging to the branches. It makes Cobb shiver. Yusuf and Ariadne probably can't hear it, at least. They're waiting in the SUV as he ordered. Neither of them have the stomach to watch without interfering.

Arthur's mouth is pressed into a thin, white-lipped line.

"You know," Arthur says, "there is a way to hurry this along." His voice is startling in the silence of woods. Ariadne has created the rustle of leaves, but not bird and other wildlife noises.

"How?" Cobb asks, although he has a good idea.

Arthur puts away his binoculars. Sometimes his prissy carefulness annoys even Cobb, but Cobb, unlike Eames, knows that fifty percent of the time Arthur is doing it just to distract or annoy everyone. Arthur's persona deflects everyone from his reality. Arthur is extremely private and manages to preserve that privacy to a surprising extent even while sharing dreams.

Cobb waits while Arthur walks back to the SUV, opens the back and retrieves a covered rifle case. He carries the long-barrel weapon back to the knoll where Cobb is still keeping an eye on the mark and Eames.

"I shoot Eames," Arthur declares.

"You want to shoot Eames," Cobb teases. Everything is reversed in the funhouse mirror of extraction. Shooting Eames will release him from the dream and leave William with a body. Since they want to know what William does with the bodies... "Do it."

Arthur settles himself down onto the ground and brings the rifle to his shoulder with the scope lined up with his eye. Arthur does it with the same grace he demonstrates at almost all times. He's just as deft awake.

The shot cracks loud in Cobb's ears and echoes off the trees. Back in the SUV, Ariadne's mouth is a dark opening in her pale, shocked face. Down in the clearing, Eames' forge flops in the mark's arms, reduced to a projection.

Eames will be awake by now, no doubt checking all their IVs, and cursing.

Arthur watches through the rifle scope as the mark begins digging a grave for the dead forge.

"That's it," Cobb declares when William scuttles away into the dark and abruptly ominous woods. Ariadne has been weaving the surroundings beyond the clearing into a nightmare maze.

The two more cracks from Arthur's rifle shock Cobb so that he spins in time to see Arthur bring the rifle to bear on him. Over Arthur's shoulder, he sees two stars cracked around bullet holes in the SUV's windshield.

Arthur brings the rifle to bear on Cobb. "Time to wake up."

Cobb braces himself. The bullet hits.

And he's falling...


Eames is rolling up IV line and slipping it back in its place in the PASIV case. The headphones placed over Arthur's ears are still playing Edith Piaf. Yusuf and Ariadne are already up.

Yusuf is administering another sedative to the mark's IV to keep him under after the dream ends. He'll wake up in the cab he got into outside of One Police Plaza and chalk up his 'nap' to exhaustion after the marathon interrogation by the detectives there.

Cobb pulls his own IV loose then rubs his eyes.

Eames gives Arthur's foot a kick and Arthur cracks open one eye.

"You were aiming that cab right at me," Eames says.

"Don't be paranoid, Mr. Eames," Arthur tells him, a hint of a smile kicking up one corner of his mouth. He sits up and holds out his hand. "Pad."

Ariadne hands him the iPad. Arthur opens the navigation app and traces in the route they followed in the final level of the dream. He even enters longitude and latitude for the ultimate destination. Superb point man and best anchor in the business.

Arthur is the one who, after pulling on a pair of nitrile gloves and wiping it down with the mark's own jacket lining, presses the mark's fingerprints all over a brand new shovel. The shovel, wrapped in plastic, goes in the SUV. They'll need it later.

They finish the clean up, wiping down every surface in the echoing warehouse they rented for the job. Everything goes into the SUV except the mark himself. He goes into the taxi's back seat, still unconscious, his head lolling against the seat. They're careful with him; they don't want to leave any unexplained scrapes or bruises. Yusuf slips into the driver's seat and turns the key in the ignition. It starts with a cloud of exhaust from the tailpipe and runs rough for a moment before the engine smoothes out.

"Leave the cab anywhere with the keys in the ignition," Arthur instructs, "and go straight to the airport."

"I've done this before," Yusuf says with a small huff.

Arthur isn't deterred. "You've got your passport and phone?"

"Of course, he does, Mother," Eames interrupts.

Cobb opens the loading dock doors. They rumble as they roll and damp, cool air pours through the opening they leave, catching on his tongue. A dozen pigeons explode into the sky, pale gray wings fluttering against the night until they disappear beyond the meager circle of the orange-tinted halogen street lights. The reek of garbage in an overfull dumpster is oddly comforting. Cobb doesn't need to finger the top in his pocket.

Yusuf pats his jacket pocket and nods. Arthur thumps the roof of the cab with the flat of his hand.


The yellow taxi rolls out into the alley and, with a flash of its brake lights at the intersection, is gone.

Cobb takes the wheel of the SUV without any discussion from anyone else. Arthur and his iPad take shotgun, leaving the backseat for Ariadne and Eames. They drive without discussion and leave Ariadne in front of her hotel. She'll pack and check out, then, like Yusuf, call them once her flight is in the air.

"Airport, Mr. Eames?" Arthur asks. The plan is for Eames to follow suit. Of course Eames doesn't want to follow the plan. He's taking the kidnapped, tortured, and shot thing personally, even though it was all a dream. On some level, he does identify with the forge, especially the ones he makes up whole cloth from his own psyche.

"I'm not missing out on the end of this one, dear children," Eames declares, leaning forward between the front seats. "Not after that little interlude in the woods."

"I'm perfectly capable of retracing William's route."

"I want to see that wanker arrested."

Arthur doesn't offer any more objections. Cobb doesn't either. Eames is a big boy, if he wants to risk staying in the States instead of flying out, it's his choice.

After their architect and chemist are both clear, they'll have one more task to accomplish before Cobb calls Saito and their client.

Eames settles himself back in his seat.

"Put on your belt," Arthur tells him.

In the mirror, Cobb sees Eames laugh silently and do as he is told for once. A few minutes later, he checks again and Eames' eyes are closed. He spots the telltale flicker of rapid eye movement beneath Eames' eyelids.

"Is he dreaming?" he whispers to Arthur in surprise. He can't turn to check himself since he's still in thick traffic and will be for another half hour.

Arthur doesn't even look up from his iPad's screen.

"Yes. Bastard."


"Passport?" the bored immigration official asks. Eames pulls the passport from her purse and hands it over. She winces at the blood caked under long nails and goes cold as she realizes there is a large handgun in the purse too. How is she getting that through security?


Eames begins panicking. He can't remember who she's supposed to be. He can't see the passport to get the name. He can feel his forge slipping, blond hair turning to raven black, body shifting from curvaceous to cadaverous, and then to his own face reflected from the official's computer screen.


"Let me see it," Eames blurts, the dread of complete disaster taking him over, the same feeling as sitting at the wheel of a car rolling down hill with no brakes.


"I don't bloody remember!"

"You'll have to come with us."

The security officers are on all sides of him, pulling him out of line, and Eames begins fighting, but no matter how many he puts down, more pour in from every side, their faces warping and reflecting his own and he goes down, his forge shifting and merging until he's just another one of them, dragging away his own unconscious body.


It's rained steadily since William visited his dump site, but Arthur has a compass and GPS on his phone, along with a surprising gift for direction. He walks them through the woods, unconcerned that everything looks different in the colorless light of pre-dawn and the leaves have all fallen. He carries the shovel with the mark's prints on it in one gloved hand.

Everything smells of wet earth, mold, and rotting leaves.

For an avian wildlife refuge, it's almost devoid of birds. Eames hears rustling in the underbrush that could as easily be a coyote as a mouse and hears the high, distinct screek of a bird of prey, but sees nothing, not even an insect. He's not looking though, since his leather-soled shoes — which will never recover — threaten to slip on the rain-wet leaves with every step. The cuffs of his trousers are dark with wet and mud too.

He almost wishes he'd stayed in the SUV, but he's tired enough to fall back asleep and he doesn't want to go through another of his nightmares. He knows Cobb and Arthur both envy him his ability to still dream for himself, but frankly, when it's all a mishmash of a dozen extractions blended into one nightmare that repeats every time? He'll have to give it a pass. He has a very nice dream he designed for himself he uses with the PASIV.

Frederick Eames, Gentleman Cracksman. He gets to wear a tuxedo, steal jewels, drink champagne and dance with lovely girls in nineteen-twenties flapper outfits.

Ariadne would look smashing in one of those. Maybe he can persuade to have her hair cut short.

Eames comes to stop behind Cobb and Arthur. His breath catches in his chest for an instant.

"This is it," Arthur says needlessly.

Though the leaves cover the ground in a slick brown-black mess, it only takes an observant eye, one searching for it, to discover the grave. It has sunk deep and filled with water.

When Eames turns in a slow circle, he sees where the puddles of water fill other hollowed places at the base of several more tree trunks. They aren't as deep as the latest one; they must go back for years.

"God," Cobb breathes.

"Be worth doing this one for cost, wouldn't it?" Eames makes himself comment with forced casualness. It isn't like the corporate espionage extractions, where the client means to use the information to make a profit. This is... Well. Eames breathes out through his nose. The vapor from his breath is briefly visible. None of the women in these graves got to wake up after William was through with them. None of them had Arthur and a sniper rifle watching over them to end it with even a hint of mercy.

Eames would rather like to bring William out here and bury him, but the client wants proof and legal punishments.

Arthur doesn't say anything, just shifts the shovel he's carrying off his shoulder and begins digging. The soil is wet and easy to shift, but heavy, and Arthur digs slowly, scraping away layers. Eames starts to say something impatient, then stops himself. Arthur is being careful out of respect for William's victim. They don't want to add new damage.

He tucks his cold hands under his armpits and stares into the hole as it gets deeper. Muddy water runs down from the sides of the hole and seeps from the soaked soil.

Mud stains the dead woman's clothing, but Eames sees it anyway and catches Arthur's arm before he can dig the shovel in again.


They uncover a hand — crumpled and broken — next and from there work upward to reveal what's left of her face.

Arthur closes his eyes for a full minute. Eames has to turn his back. He knows exactly how what William did to her felt. New material for his nightmares.

"It's her," Cobb states.


Cobb pulls out his phone.

"I'll call Saito."

They leave the grave open and the shovel leaning against a nearby tree.


The floor is parquet, stained dark and gold, the grain of the wood almost infused with light, laid down in an intricate maze pattern just wide enough to walk. The walls are all windows, the windows are all doors, and the doors are all open. Floor length, translucent white curtains lift on invisible breezes. There are no shadows, even where there should be.

Arthur sits at the center of the maze, his cello cradled like a lover, playing Hindemith's Sonata for Solo Cello. The notes become perfect white flower petals falling out of the air to the shining floor. No matter how long he plays, curved and curled around his instrument, bowing over the four strings tuned to perfect fifths, his fingers never grow tired, and his back never aches. The petals drift down, perfuming the air, and slowly fade with each note.

The maze on the floor remains still while he plays and shifts when he stops. Every doorway offers an entrance into his maze, but none of them ever reach him at the center of it.

On one side of him, beyond the open windows, a deep blue dusk illuminates a snow covered vista, while beyond the opposite wall's opening is a glittering, grimy city that is Tokyo, Rio, Johannesburg, New York, and London incarnate. By night, its lights promise every decadent desire just beyond its doors and shadows.

Arthur has only to turn his head to see through the windows behind him into a lost world: the sunlit baseball diamond of childhood memory. Cut grass and snow cones, the knock of the bat against the ball, a sky so blue he could fall up into it forever.

He pauses in his playing, but doesn't turn to look again, only picking up the melody of The Boys of Summer for a while.

Ahead of him, the windows only show a vast desert of red sand with a half moon balanced on the edge of a dune and the sky indigo behind it. Everything that's ever been built is buried in the sand there.

Arthur abandons Don Henley and plays Bach instead. He'll wake when the moon sets and the PASIV reaches the end of his dosage.


"William Everett did it."

"Ah." Saito says nothing more. He watches the client, a president of a company Saito's conglomerate recently acquired, clench his fists then slump. Cobb watches too. The satisfaction of a successful extraction, even the pleasure of knowing they've provided the key to stopping a monster from victimizing anyone else, isn't there. There's only pain.

Cobb talks to Saito instead of the client.

"We have the location where he's leaving the bodies. We found... proof there." He doesn't add that they left the shovel with the mark's fingerprints behind as a little gift for the police, just to make things certain, because it wasn't part of the job. It was Arthur's idea, in case the bodies weren't enough and the police needed a link. The team wouldn't be around to testify, not that any of them would be helpful witnesses if they were willing. They're all discreditable.

Physical evidence isn't.

The irony doesn't escape Cobb. The dreams are true, the evidence is manufactured. Even in the waking world, reality is subject to manipulation.

"You're sure?" the client asks. His voice cracks and he keeps his back to Saito and Cobb.

The client is wrecked. No matter how convinced he was that William Everett killed his daughter — and many other women whose value was independent of their relationships to anyone else — some part of him still hoped. Cobb has just taken that away from him. Age digs deep furrows into the client's face. Hope has a color and without it, the client is gray as a tree dying in winter.

Cobb knows something of grief along with guilt. He watches helplessly as the client walks to the window of his hotel room and stares over the roofs of the nearest buildings.

"Do you have children?" the client asked at their first meeting.

"I would do anything for them," Cobb answered.

"I'm sure."

Cobb hands Saito the slip of paper with the address and coordinates neatly printed on it along with a map with the route through the wildlife refuge's woods neatly marked in yellow highlighter.

"You'll have your money by tonight," the client promises.

Cobb meets Saito's dark gaze and Saito nods.

"Then I'm done here," he says. "No more jobs."

He wants to go home. He wants his kids. He wants to be a young man with no more regrets than he already has.

Saito hands him a first class ticket from New York to LA. Cobb checks it and swallows a nervous chuckle. Saito has kept his airline. It must be convenient. Cobb tucks it inside his jacket with his passport. He leaves while Saito is talking to the client. What they do now is none of his business.

Phillipa and James are waiting.


Eames likes Arthur's dreams. He tucks the newspaper with the headline Serial Killer Caught! under his arm and waits until Arthur lifts his head at the end of one piece. He smiles when Arthur blinks at him and the bow in his hands stills.

The maze on the floor stills too.

He walks the twisting path without hesitation, knowing Arthur is allowing him to find the passage that leads to the maze's heart, and sits down at Arthur's feet when he reaches it. He hands the newspaper up to Arthur, who reads the headline, or dreams he does and isn't it the same thing? It's the paper Eames went out to get while Arthur had a lie down and he read it or at least the relevant front page article on his walk back to the flat.

"Happy?" Arthur asks.

"I'd be happy if the murdering sod had resisted arrest and had had his brains blown out," Eames replies sourly.

Arthur neatly folds the paper up and hands it back. Eames lets it dissolve into nothing. While he's at it, he tweaks the floor into providing him a red velvet cushion. Because he can't ever refrain from pulling at Arthur's metaphorical pigtails, he adds gold braid and tassels to it.

Arthur pokes at the tassels with his bow, but says nothing, no doubt just to thwart Eames.

Eames snags the pillow and places it on the left side of Arthur's chair, behind the body of Arthur's instrument, where he won't be in the way. Arthur's elbow ruffles the air over Eames' head as he sets his fingers to the cello's strings. "Play something else," Eames says, as soon as he's settled and comfortable.

"What do you want to hear?"

He leans his cheek against Arthur's thigh.

"Play Twilight Time."

Arthur sets his bow to the strings.

"Don't sing."

"Wouldn't think of it," Eames assures him.

Arthur begins to play again and Eames closes his eyes in contentment.


"Daddy, what did you bring us?" James demands when Cobb comes through the door. Phillipa is more self-possessed and hugs him, telling him she loves him, first.

Cobb hands over the presents he bought before leaving New York, plus the ones Arthur and Eames always send, making sure they get credit.


The top is still spinning.



  • Summary: It's the sort of job they'd do for cost.
  • Fandom: Inception
  • Rating: mature
  • Warnings: violence
  • Author Notes: Christmas present for eretria
  • Date: 12.25.10
  • Length: 8536 words
  • Genre: gen
  • Category: team casefic, action/adventure
  • Cast: Arthur, Dominic Cobb, Eames, Ariadne, Yusuf, Saito
  • Betas: murron
  • Disclaimer: Not for profit. Transformative work written for private entertainment.

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