The hand that grasped Ryan’s in a firm hold didn’t shake it, so he gave it a couple of light squeezes instead. Electric shocks, a subtle show of power-play before letting go. He kept eye contact as he wiped his palm on his trousers, making a point.
Ryan's boss was unimpressed, and looked up at him from her 5' 1'' with a frown lurking behind black-framed glasses. She turned to the other, much younger man she had just introduced to Ryan.
“Ignore him," Sarah said with a head-jerk towards Ryan. "Grumpy here doesn't like change." She motioned to hit Ryan's shoulder in a half-playful gesture, her limp fist not making contact. "Joanna will be back next week. You should be happy for her instead of glaring daggers at her replacement! I wish I’d won a trip to New Zealand.”
“There’s spiders there bigger than you.”
“See what I have to put up with?” She rolled her eyes and turned to leave, pointing a warning finger at Ryan. “You treat Greg nicely, you hear me? No Special Agent bullshit here. And no bullying the new recruits.”
“Is that what you think we do in the FBI?” She waved at him to follow in a way that could have just as well meant “shut up”.
Sarah took her Head of Security and his newly-appointed Assistant on a tour of the Art Gallery’s ground floor, pointing out cameras, fire alarms and various security features. Ryan trudged behind with his long crooked legs and hands deep in his pockets, looking more like a compass measuring a distance than a person walking, shoulders heavy under his own personal rain cloud. Next to him, Greg appeared to be walking on air, stopping every once in a while to let the tour guides pass with their flocks, the theatrics with which he accompanied the gesture more or less marked depending on whether they were leading art enthusiasts or primary school kids.
Ryan tapped his foot impatiently as his new colleague finished a bowing-off with a tiny Japanese teacher carrying a sign twice her size, her teenage students laughing at the Chaplin-esque sketch. He turned to Sarah, who was waiting for them at the entrance to the Security Room, but the smitten look she was throwing in Greg’s direction destroyed his hopes for complicity.
“Makes sense now,” he said as he approached her, whispering in her ear like a devil on her shoulder, “why I didn’t get the boss’ personal tour.”
“He doesn’t have your experience, I want to make sure he’s alright.” Ryan tutted, amused at the light pink hue spreading across Sarah's face. “Although he does have an impressive CV for someone so young.”
Greg jogged towards them, pearl-white teeth and perfectly-styled hair making every movement a contender for the cover of a fashion magazine. “Is that ‘impressive CV’ the reason why you gave him a uniform half a size smaller?”
The elbow she shot him with did make contact this time around, but towards Greg she was all smiles. “Right this way.”
Ryan opened his locker with a tired sigh, taking off his shirt and throwing it inside as Greg was getting acquainted with their night shift counterparts.
“No way!” Isabel squealed, passing Greg one of her spare hangers so he wouldn’t get his precious new uniform crumpled up. “Why would you lie about your size?”
“Same reason why you wear those.” Greg pointed at Isabel’s feet and everybody looked down at her pedicured toes, squeezed in an impossibly tight opening at the bottom of a pair of 4'' high-heel shoes. “To look good.” He winked at her and she blushed.
“And sleep your way into Sarah’s graces?” Tom asked as he balanced on one leg, having remembered to take off his shoes only after they were buried under the jeans pooling around his ankles. “That’s brave, man. Have you met her husband?”
Greg shrugged, his expression speaking for itself, and Isabel growled playfully in return. “My boy, you wait until I’m fully transitioned and I’ll show you a good time.”
Ryan slammed his locker shut, halting the racy banter. “If I’m unlucky enough I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
“Don’t mind him, he’s just a grumpy old man,” he overheard Tom say as he stopped in the corridor to take out a tobacco bag.
“So I gathered. He doesn’t hide it very well.”
The sounds of squeaking hinges and a key turning made it past the paper-thin wall as Ryan was closing up his cigarette with a wet slide of his tongue. With the misshapen stick dangling from his mouth, he exited the gallery, patting a different area of his body with each step in his hunt for a lighter. He paused at the bottom of the stone stairs, hunching to protect the flame from the wind as he lit up his cigarette, taking a long drag with a blissful air on his face. A deep frown broke the picture of peace and he shoved the lighter in his pocket as steps approached him from behind.
“I don’t need babysitting,” he said, munching the words around the filter.
He sprinted down the pavement, footsteps close in pursuit. “I’m only here to help. It’s been four months. We thought you might be a bit... Stuck.”
“I had to be careful. Joanna’s got eyes behind her back, I tell you.” Every word was a pant of effort, the space between them a fight for breath.
“It took us two minutes to swindle a couple of plane tickets and send her to the other side of the world.” Smooth and relaxed in contrast, as if Greg was reading a bedtime story to a child instead of running up to him.
“Yeah, well, that’s easy when you’re on the outside. Anyway, I don’t need help. I’ve studied people like you all my life, I know what I’m doing.”
“I’ve been people like me all my life, and no, you don’t.” They were ambling side by side now, Ryan having slowed down, wary of a second heart attack. “A heist is not just paperwork in the Financial Crimes archive.”
“That’s where they all end up though. Where do you think I found you guys? You’ve all done time for one thing or another.”
“Which is why we welcomed you so warmly.” Greg beamed, moving temporarily out of the way of two school children chasing each other down the street. “We value your FBI expertise. But on this side of the law, things are a bit different. That’s why for your first time we gave you something simple.” They stopped as Ryan spent his stub with a hiss, adding it to a small forest in the sandpit above a waste bin. “Security guard in an art gallery. You get to be yourself, no need to forge a background. Basic recon, mapping security measures. Easy.” Ryan rolled his eyes and walked away, pretending not to know him as Greg called his name and jogged after him. “Think of me as a tutor, I’m here to support you on your fist assignment.”
“Tutor? You’re what, 25? Trouble with you kids is you’ve got no patience. You’ll have your ‘assignment’, once it’s ready.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. For us this is our job and livelihood, not a fun boost to our retirement package. You’ll have to respect that if you want to fit in.”
That struck a chord in Ryan, who had long forgotten what passion was. It would have been a lie to say that fishing Greg’s name out of the archive on his last day as an FBI agent hadn’t been, at least in part, a desperate attempt to get some spice into a life that he was afraid would soon become meaningless. Out of all his cases in all the years he’d investigated White Collar crimes, Greg’s Gang, as they were known, had been the most fun to pursue, with their quick wit, imaginative plans and playful rivalry with their lawful counterparts. He had wanted the reckless fun to dampen the sense of failure left behind by retirement. But the idea that there could be more purpose to this new life than he had foreseen was suddenly far more appealing.
Greg raised his arm to get his attention and Ryan let a car pass before joining him at the street-food cart, just as Greg was paying for two burgers, two medium sodas and a large portion of fries to share. They turned the corner and strolled across the square in companionable silence, sitting down on the edge of the central marble fountain. Opening the greasy ochre squares in their lap, fries tucked between them and a paper cup on each side, anyone could have mistaken them for father and son.
“Work hard, play hard.”
It took Greg a moment to link the comment to their previous conversation, then he nodded in approval, his mouth full of almost half his burger. Ryan snickered at the sight, the Prince Charming persona clearly not food-proof.
“Well, since we only have a week before Sergeant Joanna comes back, I better get a move on with the blueprinting.” He took a swig of his soda, squinting in discomfort as the bubbles burned his tongue. “Which means that, as my Assistant, you will have to take on the ‘hard work’. Wailing kids who can’t find their mums, teens setting off the alarms by taking selfies with the statues, noisy pests screaming and running down corridors... and the most fun of all: the constant complaints about anything and everything.” He took a moment to appreciate the look of slight terror in Greg’s wide eyes. “Of course, with you going to such lengths to look so good and ingratiate yourself to everyone, I would say a good half out of possibly hundreds of those will be a ruse to get your attention. Me on the other hand, making the effort of being such a grumpy old pain in the arse, hardly get bothered at all.”
“What effort?” Greg muttered around a painful-looking dry swallow of his last mouthful.
“You won’t be so snarky once the pseudo-frail gradmas start lining up, suddenly unable to cross a room without the support of the bulging biceps that your tight shirt makes so easy for their myopic eyes to appreciate.”
“What happened to not bullying the new recruit?”
Ryan shrugged as Greg’s ball of crumpled grease-paper scored an easy point in a nearby bin. “Apparently things are different this side of the law.”