"The problem is," the man said in Russian, "that women want equality. Till they find out what equality really means."
He punched John again, a sharp jab to the solar plexus to wind him.
"See? Would Miss Quinn be able to take this? No, she would not. Would most men be hesitant to give it to her? Yes, they would. This is not equality, old friend."
He punched John again and stood back with satisfaction as the other man sank to his knees, his arms pulled tighter by the men on either side of him.
"I'll tell her that," John wheezed. "It's about time she learned."
"Good," the Russian said jovially. "Now, tell me again what you wish to know."
"The contract – " John struggled to find the right verb in Russian. "Who made the contract on us?"
"Who opened the contract on you?" the Russian corrected him, in an almost kindly tone. "I really cannot tell you that, Jardani. And I find it surprising that you would even ask. Why do you think we would open a contract on your head; and if we had, why do you think we would tell you?"
"Just crossing the t's, dotting the i's," John said in English, closing his eyes against the pain.
"Fool," the man said and bent his head so his eyes were level with John's. "Try elsewhere, Jovonovich, you little shit."
He nodded curtly at the men who held him and then turned to pick up his jacket from the hotel room sofa.
They dumped him in the corridor, silently closing the door behind them.
John glanced up and down, tried to stand up but the pain in his side shot through him. Too many punches, too many bullet holes. He had a moment of quiet despair: when he was younger he would've bounced up, beaten down the door and taken his tormentor down. Now – older and wiser, stiffer and sorer – he allowed himself a moment before he got to his knees and then to his feet before any of the other guests came out. He was getting mightily tired of this shit and his battered body was aching in every bone. He pulled himself straight and set off slowly down the corridor before one of the Russian goons pulled him back in for more. The hotel was a country resort, halfway between Perugia and Assisi, and he'd walked in with his customary assurance, straight up to the suite where the Russian contingent was staying. He had known in his heart of hearts that they had no contract on him, but he had to be sure. And he had to pay his dues for infringing on their territory. It was better to make himself known to them and take the beating that came with it, than to have them come after him when they discovered he had been snooping around.
He went down the elevator, allowing himself to lean against its mirrored wall. When it came to a stop, he straightened up as the doors slid open -
- and came face to face with Dieter Römermann.
"Chohn!" the German cried. "Chohn Vick!"
"Dieter," John replied quietly. The German grabbed his hand and pumped it enthusiastically. He tried not to wince. Behind him was his bodyguard, a large man in dark clothes, and Römermann's older son. John recognised him: he stood a good head taller than his father and he looked at John with open distaste, recognising him instantly as well.
"You know my son," Dieter said proudly. "This is Max, remember Max? Little boy when last you saw him. A big man now, helping his father with the business."
Max Römermann was built like his mother and he had inherited the best of her handsome features. He stared down at John, his face set.
"Nice to see you again," John murmured, but the young man remained silent, holding his eye, his gaze cold. Dieter didn't seem to notice, beaming at John like a long-lost friend. Despite his wealth, his power, the German loved to boast: he preened like a little rooster, straightening the sleeves of his bespoke suit, one that had had to be made to fit his rotund frame. John knew what he was dealing with and he knew how best to play Römermann: he nodded respectfully.
"You have fine sons," he said to Dieter.
"And the other boy is qualified, he's a doctor now," Dieter said, sticking his chest out.. "He's the brains of the family, clever boy, my Tim."
John was caught by a momentary memory of the young man in his apartment in Nuremberg, a gun hidden behind a box of cornflakes in the kitchen. Dieter Römermann's son had been brought up in a world with plenty of easy money and a constant hum of violence, underneath a thin veneer of respectability. It was hard to imagine him tending to the sick, pulling 36-hour shifts.
"Is he working at a hospital or in private practice?" John asked politely.
Dieter suddenly looked shifty.
"He decided to work in industry," he said. "Doctors' hours – very long, you know. Pay not so good. He's in the USA now," he added, puffing up a little again.
Aha, John thought. That sounded more like a Römermann: less work, more money.
Dieter looked over his shoulder as the elevator pinged and a well-dressed couple walked out, their heads bent in conversation. Hhe grabbed John by the arm and pulled him aside.
"Who are you here for?" Römermann said in a low voice. "Is it them fucking Russians?"
"No," John said. "I'm not here for anyone. I just had ... a question."
Römermann cocked his head. "A question? You wanna ask me this question, too?"
John smiled. "I'm pretty sure I know the answer."
"Who opened the contract on me and Anna Quinn? It keeps repeating itself, like something on a loop. In the meantime, the Agency has been alerted but it re-enters the system almost weekly, an automatic order. It's like a virus they can't get rid of."
"Tell them to block it," Römermann said with a quick click of his fingers. "Easy."
"They have blocked it," John said. "But I need to know who's behind it because eventually it'll slip through and someone will take a shot at it. There's money behind it, waiting to be collected."
Römermann patted his arm. "I can find out," he said. "I can pull some threads, is that what you say?"
"Pull some strings," John replied.
"Pull some strings. Now I have to meet with these fucking Russians and make sure these slippery bastards are on my side before we meet the Italians."
"Good luck," John said wryly. "Sergei should be in a good mood."
He felt a twinge of pain from his midriff.
Dieter grinned at him knowingly, eyeing John's stiff bearing, his careful movements.
"You warmed him up for me, right? Well, herzlichen Dank, John. Let me buy you dinner tonight as a thank you."
John demurred with a smile. The last time he'd had dinner with Dieter, it had set off a chain reaction of dreadful events. Max Römermann glanced away, his face grim, and John knew instinctively that the young man was thinking about his mother, accidentally shot in place of Anna Quinn.
"I insist," Dieter said. "We have much to discuss before this meeting tomorrow, John."
"I won't be at the meeting," he replied. "Like I said, I'm not here in any kind of official capacity. This is a private inquiry."
"All the better," the German beamed. "Just two old friends, catching up."
John shook his head. "Thank you," he said, "But no."
"Is Miss Quinn with you in Italy?" Max Römermann asked suddenly and John hesitated, not sure how to answer. He glanced at Dieter, who froze, tugging his jacket down over his tubby stomach.
"Yes, she is," he answered quietly.
Dieter stared at him for a second, John could see his inner debate.
"Give her – how do you say it? – give her my greetings," he said finally.
"Your regards," John corrected quietly. "I will."
The elevator pinged again and this time Dieter moved to enter it, followed by the bodyguard and his son. There was no more mention made of dinner.
"My best regards to Miss Quinn," he repeated again. "Good luck with your inquiry."
And he turned to check out his reflection in the mirrored elevator walls. As the doors closed, John inadvertently locked eyes with Max, who stared at him evenly the elevator moved.
John felt a cold finger on his spine; felt someone walk over his grave.