"Blimey, Roman. You sound like you're half asleep. Did I miscalculate the time difference again?"
"Shane?" Slowly a smile worked its way across Roman's face. "No, it's okay. I'm just bored."
"Oh? Have I actually managed to catch Salem on a slow day?" The seemingly ever-cheerful voice of his brother-in-law made Roman start to relax, and his smile grew accordingly.
"I wish. No, things are still crazy out here. Stefano was shot at a little while ago." Roman reached out for the nearest file, and scanned over its contents, more than practised by now at the art of doing several things at once. "The ISA have forwarded some information, though, so thanks for that."
"I can't see it being any use. Most of the stuff that we have on those two is several years old. They've both got far too bloody sneaky recently. Still, I'm glad that I was able to be of some use. Makes me feel like a right cad about what I phoned up for, though."
"If you're about to tell me about some deadly ISA mission on the other side of the world that you want my help with, right now I'll jump at the chance. Don't apologise." Snapping the file shut again with a slap of cardboard on paper, Roman sighed. "I don't mean that of course. I can't leave everybody here in the lurch. It's a hell of a temptation, though."
"I'll bet. And yes, there is an ISA job that's just come up. Since I was calling you anyway to see how things are, I thought I might as well kill two birds with one stone. Or three birds, actually. I've been speaking to some contacts about Victor and Stefano."
"And?" asked Roman, not daring to be too hopeful. The sound of Shane's sighing over the line did not encourage him any.
"Well, it's not helpful. Not really. I can't find anything that would tell you why they've suddenly started shooting at each other. Apparently some of their overseas assets have come under attack recently, though. A ship got set on fire, and an office building was torched as well. It's minor stuff, but added to what's going on in Salem, it does look like they're really at each other's throats. I just can't shake the feeling that it's all rather too petty for them."
"Yeah. It's the same over here. Graffiti, arson. Nothing that you'd really think was their work. Did you manage to find out about anybody else who could be doing it, though?"
"There is a rumour. Somebody with a grudge against them both. I'm checking around, but I have to leave for Italy first thing in the morning. That's the other thing that I wanted to talk to you about."
"The ISA job?" asked Roman. It would be good to talk about something other than Stefano and Victor for a while, and he realised that he was beginning to sit up rather straighter in his chair.
"Yes. And actually, it might be a help, mightn't it. Maybe I can find out some more about your problem whilst I'm out there. Italy has always been an important DiMera place of business, and Victor has done his share of wheeling and dealing there himself. I might be better placed to uncover things there than you are in Salem."
"I'd appreciate any help," said Roman gratefully. "I don't want to keep you from what you're supposed to be doing, though."
"Oh, it's all connected in its way. This job concerns an Italian art collector who died a few weeks ago. It seems that he kept an extensive personal collection, which included a Renet. A previously unknown Renet."
"Good grief," said Roman, alarm bells already ringing in his mind. "Talk about the perfect bait for Stefano."
"Precisely. I'm going out there tomorrow to start scouting around. The Renet is in a vault right now with the rest of the collection, but rather sooner than I'd like, it's going on exhibition in Rome."
"At which point, Stefano will swoop." A grim smile crossed Roman's face. "And then we've got him."
"Hopefully, yes." There was a definite degree of jubilance in Shane's voice. "So what do you say, partner? Are you in?"
"Of course I'm in! I can't leave here yet, obviously, so you'll have to deal with the preliminary work yourself, but as soon as I can get away, I'm there. Stefano won't be leaving Salem yet anyway. Not with all of this going on."
"I thought you'd be interested." Shane's voice was warm, his enthusiasm showing clearly. "How about John? It could be useful to have him along with us."
"I don't know." Roman frowned at the thought. "He's been through a lot lately thanks to Stefano. I'd feel pretty bad taking him away from Marlena again. I really don't think she'd appreciate it."
"He is the one with the experience of Stefano's art gathering operation."
"He's the one with all sorts of experience. It's no good when he doesn't remember any of it, though." Roman shook his head slowly. "We'll talk about it again later, maybe, when all this business here is over and done with, but I really don't think that Doc would speak to either of us again if we took him away. He just got shot at over at Stefano's, and he nearly got his head stove in over at the docks this morning as well."
"Ouch," said Shane. "Hmm. Maybe you're right. She never was very happy about him getting involved in ISA stuff."
"And this is Stefano stuff. Stuff involving his past, and those blasted Renet paintings. It's not like it's any ordinary case." Roman tapped arrhythmically on the desk with a pen. "I don't know. I don't feel good about keeping him out of it, but it might be for the best."
"You're the man on the scene, Roman. You probably know best. Anyway, there's time to think about it yet."
"Yeah." Roman tapped on for a while, then threw down the pen and sighed loudly. "In the meantime, I don't suppose you fancy switching places? I'll go to Italy tomorrow, and you can come here and argue with the Brothers Grim."
"No deal." The grin in Shane's voice was clear. "Anyway, you love it. You've always loved tussling with those two."
"Ha." Roman checked his watch. "I'm meeting Bo later, and we're going over to have it out with Victor. I'm certainly not looking forward to that. Still, if there's any chance of getting this finished, we've got to take it."
"Victor will listen to Bo, won't he?"
"He'll make him think that he is. I can't shake the feeling that it's all just a waste of time, though." Roman smiled rather bitterly. "Listen to me. Mr Optimism."
"If I was still living in the same town as Victor Kiriakis, I'd have left optimism behind years ago." Shane laughed, sounding roughly as bitter as Roman felt. "Who am I kidding. I'd have shot him by now."
"I might still try that." Roman smiled again, more cheerfully this time. Somehow it was hard to remain too miserable when Shane was around. "Thanks. Look, I appreciate the help. I appreciate the heads up about that art exhibition also. I'll keep a closer eye on Stefano."
"Thank you. If you hear anything, no matter how minor..."
"I'll be right on the phone."
"And I'll do likewise. There's no telling what I might pick up over in Italy."
"A great suntan?" asked Roman. Shane laughed.
"We'll see. All right, you get things sorted there, and I'll get the preliminaries worked out at this end. We'll meet in Rome as soon as you're free to get out there. You're sure you can handle things in the meantime?"
"Without you, you mean? I'm not exactly alone." Roman had to smile at his old friend's endless enthusiasm for complicated situations. "Anyway, it's really not an ISA issue. It's just two businessmen being pigheaded about something, and managing to get the rest of us mixed up in it." He sighed. "Sorry. I don't mean to go whining about it all."
"You're not whining, and I understand. Bloody hell, Roman. Victor and Stefano? One of them is bad enough. I don't envy you in the slightest."
"You don't?" Roman almost laughed. "Only you almost sound as though you might."
"Yes, well. Let's just say that things in the wonderful world of the ISA haven't exactly been busy lately. It's as though everybody in the international underworld is taking a holiday."
"Just you wait until we're in Italy," Roman told him. "You'll be wishing for peace and quiet then."
"Yes, you're probably right." All the same, Shane sounded somewhat dubious. "Still, if things keep going the way they are over in Salem, maybe we won't have to worry about there being any trouble in Italy. Stefano might be taken out of the picture before he can get anywhere near this blasted painting."
"Somehow I don't think we'd get that lucky." Roman thought about some of the other times when it had seemed possible that they might be granted freedom from Stefano. "He's not called the Phoenix for nothing."
"No. Well, anyway. If he makes a play for that painting, we'll have him exactly where we want him." Confidence flooded Shane's voice, and Roman smiled at the sound of it. It was like old times, the two of them plotting the downfall of some crook or other. Laying traps, planning operations, and waiting for everything to fall neatly into place. "Meanwhile, you take care of yourself. That goes for all of the family."
"Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen to us." Roman's voice hardened. "Thanks for the help Shane, and for the update. We'll speak soon."
"I shall count on it. I don't fancy dealing with this business in Italy on my own." There was a warm smile behind Shane's voice. "Good luck with everything."
"Thank you. Say hi to Kim for me. Bye, Shane."
"I will. Be seeing you, Roman." Miles away over in England, Shane laid the receiver down with a click, staring at it thoughtfully for several moments. With everything that was going on in Salem, he almost regretted filling Roman in about the Renet, but it had had to be done sooner or later. His agile mind ran through the various ways in which he might be able to help his adopted family in their current difficulties, but there was still a lot that he needed to do to prepare for the upcoming mission in Rome. Sometimes cloning himself seemed like an extremely attractive possibility. He was about to suggest as much to Kim, when she gave a sudden and very unexpected squeak, quite losing him his train of thought. He looked up, finding her backed up against one of the kitchen cabinets by their youngest son. He was holding something out to her, with a delighted expression on his face. Kim was looking considerably less delighted, which gave Shane a big clue as to what the little boy was attempting to show her. He considered intervening, but the expression on Kim's face was oddly endearing. It seemed almost a shame to interrupt.
"RJ, honey, take the extremely large spider outside, there's a good boy." Eyeing the creature with trepidation, Kim was clearly doing her best to appear as though she really, truly wasn't scared. Her son blinked up at her, out of disconcertingly intense blue eyes. He was holding the spider on the palm of one hand, and she was quite sure that it was planning to jump off. Probably at her. Watching the proceedings from the other side of the room, Shane smiled in gentle mockery of her discomfort.
"He's four, sweetheart. He doesn't understand how anybody could fail to be fascinated by a spider."
"It's not a spider. It's an alien life form." She wasn't taking her eyes off it, much as though she didn't feel that she could take the risk. "RJ, I'm sure it would be happier outside."
"I think it's hungry," he told her, his little voice very earnest. Shane came to her rescue then, crossing the room, and steering his small boy towards the door.
"That's quite likely. It's rather late for food, though, don't you think? And since you were supposed to be in bed quite some time ago..."
"Sorry daddy." The boy contrived to sound not in the least bit apologetic. "But it was on my pillow, and I thought it would like to meet you and mummy."
"And we appreciate the gesture." Shane's eyes drifted back to Kim, and he couldn't stop himself from smiling. "Or one of us does. All the same, it's late, and mummy and I have things to discuss. Take him outside now. He'll be much happier out there than in bed with you."
"Okay." Apparently seeing the sense in this, the boy headed off out of the door, the spider still sitting patiently on the palm of his hand. Kim breathed a sigh of relief.
"That was easily the biggest spider in the world," she said. Shane began to laugh.
"I have my doubts about that. Anyway." He went to stand behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. "It's your own fault, you know. If you will go naming your child after your brothers, you can't very well complain when he turns out to be at least partly as insane as they are."
"Hey!" She tried to catch him in the ribs with her elbow, and he let go of her, laughing and wincing at the same time. "That's my family you're insulting. Even if it is almost entirely warranted." He rubbed at his ribs, and she gasped. "I didn't actually hurt you, did I?"
"Me?" He came closer again, sliding his arms back about her. "Am I or am I not the world's greatest secret agent?"
"Well, then. Of course you didn't hurt me." He laughed again. "Although for what it's worth, you have a great future in bare-knuckle fighting."
"I did hurt you." She turned herself around in his arms, sliding a hand up inside his shirt in an effort to rub the injured area better. He smiled at that.
"I should incite GBH more often."
"Degenerate." They both began to laugh then, and he tipped his head forwards to rest against hers.
"And proud of it."
"I have no doubt of that." She moved back slightly so that she could look up at him properly. "Didn't somebody say something about having things to discuss? Before we get completely distracted."
"Distracted is good. I like distracted."
"So do I. Do we want to have this discussion some time today, though?"
"Damn. Yes. We do." He sighed and let go of her, stepping back out of the embrace, and guiding her into a nearby chair. "I need to ask you a favour."
"Small or big?"
"I'm not sure. Kind of depends on how things go." He sat down opposite. "How much of my conversation with Roman just then did you hear?"
"None of it really. I was doing the crossword until the King Of The Spiders came in for a chat. Why?"
"ISA business," he told her, half expecting an immediate objection. "I need to go to Italy, and I'd like you to come with me."
"That? That's the favour?" Her eyes widened. "You don't have to ask me to go to Italy with you. I'm always happy to go there."
"I know. I'll be going for work, though, not for pleasure. I just don't want anybody else to know that."
"I see. So I'll be your cover, is that it?"
"Exactly. I know you've done it before - lots of times - so it's hardly anything new. You probably won't be seeing very much of me this time, though. That's why I feel sort of bad for asking." He reached out for one of her hands. "I know how much you love us to spend time there together."
"I do." She smiled, raising his hand to her lips to give it a kiss. "But I married a secret agent, Shane. Not a bank manager. I know the work, and I know that you won't be going there on a whim. I'm always happy to help you."
"That I have never doubted." He smiled. "I have years of memories to prove it, for one thing. Mostly involving you, me, a foreign country, and a succession of men with guns."
"Fun, isn't it." She let him take back his hand. "So what is it this time? Or are you not allowed to say?"
"Oh, I'm allowed. I just don't want you jumping off the deep end." He leaned back in his chair again. "Another Renet has surfaced, and it's being shown at a gallery in Rome. We think - and by 'we' I mean the ISA - that there's a chance Stefano will make a play for it. Roman is meeting me there."
"I see." Her eyes had widened. "And John?"
"John doesn't know, and we're thinking of keeping it that way. Might be for the best."
"I'm not sure I agree." She wasn't happy with the idea of keeping any secrets from John. "Was this Roman's idea?"
"Partly. I can see his point, though. John is too close to all of this."
"Precisely. He knows Stefano better than anybody. He knows the way that he thinks, and works. If anybody can spot a DiMera plot in all of this, it's John."
"You can be very persuasive at times, you know that?" He smiled. "Anyway, it's a moot point just at the moment, with them all being so busy over in Salem. Again. Sounds as mad as ever, so I'd rather not bother them just now. I only told Roman because I had him on the phone."
"It's still looking bad?" she asked. He nodded slowly.
"Yes. Although they're always in trouble, so that was probably a redundant question."
"They are not always in trouble." She was playing along with the joke, but he could see that she was worried. He reached out for her hand, and she smiled at him. "Well, maybe most of the time they are. But it's still not always."
"Most of the time, then." He thought back to his conversation with Roman. Things had not sounded fun at all, and if it had not been for all of the work that he had to do in Europe, he would seriously have considered flying out to join them. "I feel pretty bad about it actually. I'd love to help them, but I have two thousand and one security details to check out, and half of the art dealers in Italy to interview. Which sort of brings me back to my question."
"We need to leave now?" she asked in surprise. He shook his head.
"Not quite now. I have to leave in the morning, though. I don't expect you to tag along for the really boring stuff, but if you could join me by the end of the week, that'd be great. I should have had time to get most of the groundwork done by then, and then you can be my cover when the art exhibition kicks off."
"Tomorrow? That's awfully soon."
"I know. That's why I wanted to speak to you about it as soon as possible." He gave her hand a squeeze. "I know it's sudden, but it's not as though we're not used to that by now."
"True. With you leaving tomorrow and me at the end of the week, it's a bit hard on the kids, though." She sighed. "You know, even with the preposterously large spiders, I do miss them when we're away."
"Me too. When this is over, maybe we can have Peach fly them out to meet us there, and we'll have a family holiday together. How's that?"
"There's this little thing called 'school'," she told him, and he shrugged.
"My parents were always pulling me out of school to go dashing about the globe getting up to all sorts. And look how I turned out."
"Yes..." She grinned, putting out a hand to catch hold of his head, and pull him in for a kiss. "You're not exactly a shining example, though. Are you."
"Of course I am. I'm the world's greatest secret agent." He kissed her back. "Are we agreed, then?"
"We're agreed. Just remember that there are supposed to be Great Whites in the Mediterranean. If either of the girls knows that, we'll never get them to leave Italy. Not unless they can bring one home with them, anyway."
"I shall keep the fact secret, and guard it with my life," he promised her. "And in the meantime, I suppose we should call Peach. It's only fair to give her a few days notice."
"She thrives on the unexpected," pointed out Kim, and he laughed.
"That's true. All the same, it's not as though she just sits around waiting for us to ask her to baby-sit, is it. Goodness knows what she gets up to the rest of the time. Shall I phone her, or shall you?"
"You'd better do it. She never could say no to you. Besides." She leaned in for another brief kiss. "You're terrible at packing."
"I shan't deny it." He smiled happily, and rose to his feet. "I'm sorry to throw all of this at you. Again."
"Shane, honey, I knew exactly what I was marrying the first time. I certainly knew what I was getting into the second time. Anyway, I'm rather looking forward to playing secret agent again, especially if it's going to be in Italy. It'll be lovely to see Roman again as well." She frowned suddenly. "You do think everything's going to be okay in Salem in the meantime, don't you?"
"It's Salem. When is anything ever okay?" He smiled teasingly, and leaned in to kiss her again. "Don't worry, they'll sort it out. I'm sure that nothing all that bad is going to happen. We do have one major problem of our own to tackle, though."
"Oh?" she asked, concern showing bright in her eyes. He smiled, and looked over towards the door, still standing open from RJ's spider-bearing exit.
"One small boy, last seen wearing dinosaur pyjamas, and carrying a rather large spider," he said, and saw realisation dawn in Kim's eyes. "I'll go right, and you go left?"
"That boy is going to be the death of me." She sighed. "All right. But if he still has the spider, you're dealing with him."
"Fair enough." He slung an arm around her shoulders as they headed for the door. "Today, RJ. Tomorrow, Stefano DiMera."
"Stefano's less trouble." She smiled, and leaned her head against his shoulder. "Remind me again why we had children?"
"Pass." He frowned. "Unless it was to make Christmas more fun?"
"Hmm. How about we rent them out the other three hundred and sixty-four days?"
"I like your thinking." He leaned over to give her a very affectionate kiss. "You definitely could be on to something there."