Hardison whistled under his breath and leaned closer. “I am all about the Monets and the Manets and all of that, but this? This is what I call art.”
Behind him, Mozzie crossed his arms like he’d been vindicated and then nodded his agreement. “See, I knew you’d appreciate it - you’ve got a great eye.”
“Who even needs a great eye? Anyone could see how beautiful she is. But I do have a great eye.” Hardison reached out to the object of his adoration. “Hey, baby,” he crooned. “You are one good looking piece of-”
Neal rolled his eyes and batted Hardison’s hand away from the tracking anklet. “Could you not stroke the bane of my entire existence? Please?”
“Hey, you want this thing off, you got to let me look at it.” Hardison’s fingers hovered over the black plastic casing and he looked up with wide, innocent eyes.
Neal wasn’t fooled. He wasn’t sure anyone on Earth would be fooled. But it wasn’t like he had a choice and Mozzie said Hardison was okay. He lifted his hand and threw himself back against the couch cushions. “Well could you maybe stop looking at it like that?”
“Like what?” Hardison patted the tracker; Neal decided he wasn’t going to notice.
“Like there’s dinner and a movie in your future. Because there isn’t - I hate playing third wheel.”
Hardison snorted and began to turn Neal’s ankle gently side to side while studied the tracker. “Like you ever played third wheel in your life.”
Neal grinned, good humor suddenly restored. “You know it would never work out between you, right? I mean, you’re a hacker and she’s …”
“She’s a TrackerPAL Mark Three,” said Hardison with a trace of wistful longing. “I’ve never seen one of these up close. She heavy?”
Good humor fled under cover of darkness. “Like rocks in my soul.”
Hardison stared at him for a beat, Neal was pretty sure he was trying not to laugh.
It was harder to tell than usual. Most of the hackers he’d met had been open books: they'd spent so long staring at machines they didn’t have the social skills they needed to throw on masks. Hardison was different, Neal had the feeling this hacker was an open book with a few unpublished prequels. Written under pseudonyms. And probably by women.
Finally Hardison turned to Mozzie and asked mildly, “How many pounds would you say that was, non-metaphysically speaking?”
“Less than one,” Mozzie supplied promptly. “But it’s awkward to run in, and his pants never fall right. And it smells weird. And it glows. You want more?” He crossed to stand beside Neal and patted his shoulder kindly. “Because I’ve got so much more.”
Hardison did laugh at that, and then shook his head. “No, I get it.” He looked back to Neal. “I bet, middle of the night, you wake up and you’re all ‘the Cylons are coming, the Cylons are coming!’”
Neal gave him a blankly interested look; it was one of his favorite defaults when he was trying to work out the right answer. “Not so much?” he tried.
Hardison withdrew like Neal had just admitted to enjoying liver with fava beans and nice Chianti. Or Eue Boll movies. “Oh, please tell me you saw Battlestar Galactica. Either one.”
Neal nodded earnestly. “It was a fine example of its genre – both as an outstanding metaphor and on a pure entertainment level. Of course, the original also had a lot to recommend it. But the red light on the tracker actually reminds me more of-”
“HAL, right?” Hardison filled in.
“Right,” Neal said gratefully. It was always so helpful when people gave him his answers. And they usually did, given the chance. Hardison pursed his lips and eyed him for a long moment before nodding. “Well all right.”
When Hardison turned back to his laptop, Mozzie bent down and murmured. “You even know what he was talking about?”
Of course, some people actually knew his tricks. That was fine: it kept him humble. (And occasionally in prison for six to eight, out in four for good behavior.) Neal barely moved his lips as he replied. “No. Did I get it right?”
“Apparently.” He felt Moz shrug and then straighten.
Hardison finished tapping at his laptop and then leant back against the eighteenth century writing desk he’d covered with what appeared to be the inventory from the local Radio Shack.
“You got three choices, br’ah.” He held up his fist, index finger extended. “First, you can try and get it removed. Forget tools, Feds’ll be on you before you’re even an inch in. Acid, maybe. Extreme cold might shatter it. Still unlikely to be effective quickly enough.”
“And, you know, I really don’t love the idea of acid and extreme cold because I like having two legs,” Neal pointed out.
Hardison paused, “Wait, four ways-“
“I’m not cutting off my leg,” Neal said flatly.
“Three ways,” Hardison confirmed, and held up a second finger. “Option two is going after the software, and that’s where I can help you. You don’t want it to stop transmitting your location right off, you want it to send out false information for maybe twenty-four hours and then shut down. Bad news is, you’ll still have it attached. Good news is, you’ll be drinking Mai Tais in the non-extradition country of your choice, and you really won’t care.”
Neal had never really liked Mai Tais. “Option three?”
Hardison dropped his hand and shrugged. “You keep your word, you pay your debt – or many, many debts - to society and The Man takes it off you in four years.”
Neal considered this for a moment and then craned his head back to look at Mozzie. “How much time do you have to get your leg re-attached before you lose it? Roughly?”
“Look, Caffrey-” Hardison started, but Neal cut him off.
“I can’t wait four years, okay? I have to find someone and I’m pretty sure she’s not going to wander into the two square miles of New York I happen to be in.”
Hardison nodded. “Kate Moreau, right? Or Kate Perdue. And a few other names. She kind’ve reminds me of someone I work with. She doesn’t act, right?”
Neal blinked, derailed. Acting? “What? No. How do you- is she acting now? Where?“
“Whoa. No acting involved, forget the acting.” Hardison was leaning back and Neal realised after a second that might just be because he was being crowded. By Neal. He stepped back with what felt like an apologetic expression and sat carefully back down.
Once he relaxed, Hardison looked amused. “And you remind me of a whole other person I work with. Look, no offense and Mozzie is good people and all, but I don’t take jobs without doing some homework. Any more. Lately.” He coughed and brought himself back on tangent. “I can work on the tracker – see what we come up with for option two.”
Neal nodded. “I’d appreciate it.”
Hardison held up a hand “Or, I can look for Kate. See what’s happening - let you know. If she’s in trouble, I know some people might help her out.”
“But you can’t get this thing off me and look for Kate? Is this some kind of union thing? I can pay you whatever you want.”
“It’s not about the money. It’s just one or the other.”
Neal looked confused; it wasn’t a reach. “Why?”
Hardison began to unhook the cables from his machines and pack them into their carriers, carefully not looking at anyone at all. “I been there, is all. Well, not with the anklet, who’d be that stupid? I just mean, I got a chance. Now you got a chance. Taking things is what thieves do, so take it.”
Part of being a good – no, great - con is knowing which people can’t be persuaded, or charmed. Neal didn’t even try, but he couldn’t help a sardonic, “Is this the part where I renounce my life of crime?”
Hardison shook his head emphatically. “Hell no, I’d lose a bet. And I really don’t want to lose this bet. Do not lose me this bet, Caffrey.”
“There are things I just don’t want to know.” Neal decided, like it was ever a choice, “Kate, okay? Look for Kate. Please.”
Hardison smiled and hauled his bag across his shoulder. “You got it, and Ada here is ever vigilant.” He patted the laptop in his hands. “Except when she’s rebooting.”
Neal grinned. “And that sounds like someone I work with.”