"Dammit, Hardison, you're the wizard of this demented D & D party. Cast a spell or something!" Eliot shouted into the air over the loud klaxons trying to interfere with his thinking.
"He seems more like an artificer to me," Shawn said, equally loudly. "Haven't you played anything past 3.5?"
"Thank you, Shawn," Hardison said in everyone's ear. "It's very hard these days to find someone who appreciates the fine differences between character classes."
"Hardison, if this security system isn't down in ten seconds," Eliot roared, "you're going to have a personal experience of negative hit points."
"You do understand," Hardison muttered as keys clacked in the background. "Why do you -- yeah!" The doors opened and the Leverage-Psych partnership scrambled to their respective vehicles, the Blueberry proceeding at a serene pace under Gus's careful driving compared to the nondescript SUV rocketing away.
"Shawn," Gus said, "we are never doing this again."
Gus would spend the rest of the drive detailing all of the past adventures the two had been on that involved the potential of serious harm or death and promising Shawn that his job as a pharmaceutical representative was more important than all of these madcap engagements.
Shawn politely listened, pointed out the contradictions when they appeared, and otherwise let his friend convince himself that he was definitely going to go on the next case, even though he would deny it.
Parker sat Shawn and Eliot down in the bar as soon as everyone got back. "Why don't you two get along?" she said to them, deciding a straightforward approach might shock both of them enough to get them talking. "You're cousins. Family. What's going on?"
"There's nothing to tell," Eliot growled.
"It's not important," Shawn said. "Although I'm sensing that--"
"--oh, cut it out with the psychic thing. You might fool the police in Santa Barbara, but--"
"--Like you have anywhere to judge me, Mr. International Con Artist--"
"Enough!" Parker snapped at both of them. "Both of you, go to your rooms. You can come out when you want to get along." Both Shawn and Eliot were going to protest, but a gleam in Parker's eyes convinced both of them that it would be a bad idea.
While they sulked, Parker checked the fridge to make sure they weren't low on anything that would need a grocery run, and grabbed an orange off the fruit bowl that Eliot insisted always stay full. Shawn came out first, a smile on his face that Parker could tell was for appearances. She sat across from him and gave him her best intimidating and paternal look. Shawn had laughed at her attempts at scary characters like zombies and vampires when they had played Charades earlier in the week, and he'd just stepped around some of the practical jokes Hardison had tried to do to him in revenge for a joy buzzer at the beginning, but when she'd drawn "distant father" and did Archie, he'd stopped laughing quickly. That string felt like something to tug on to get Shawn to talk if her other avenues failed.
"Tell me the truth. Why don't you get along? Or else... I'll make you eat whatever Eliot cooks for a week."
Shawn shrugged. "I can work with that. Guy's got a Michelin Star, after all. Guess that means he's some sort of cooking bigwig."
"And nothing else."
Shawn gave Parker a look that suggested she had been right about this as another weak spot to poke, even though he tried to hide it.
"You'd take away my snacks?"
"All of them. Chocolates, licorice, hard candies, pixie sticks, and that secret stash of potato chips behind the cupboard that you think nobody noticed. By the way, you're out of salt and vinegar."
Shawn raised an eyebrow. "I see you're a woman of refined tastes. But the butterscotch candies are more Gus's style than mine. I'm more of a soft pretzel guy than a salt and vinegar man. But hey, if that's what you like..."
Parker laughed a little. "Can't stand them. Hardison thinks they're the best, though, so he ate them all as soon as he found them. If I ask nicely, he'll design a trap for me so that you'll lose a finger if you try to get to any of your snack stashes," she added cheerily. No need to tell Shawn that between herself and Hardison, they'd already cleaned out every cache of sugar and salt Shawn had laid in and eaten them as they fought over which dancing celebrity Hardison would boost the votes of enough to keep alive until next week's show.
Shawn didn't need psychic powers to realize he didn't want to stay on Parker's bad side. He settled in at the bar, putting his feet up on one of the other stools.
"Well, it all started when Eliot came back for the Spencer reunion during college. He was even more broody and mysterious at that point, if you can believe that. He already gone through his vampire Goth phase and was working on perfecting his "renouncing the world to go study in a Buddhist monastery" routine so that he didn't have to talk to anyone when he left for college. I didn't know at the time that he was going off and doing this International Man of Mystery thing, so I thought he was just being too serious at the time. Guy needed to lighten up, have a beer or two, and maybe relax for two seconds. Sure, it might have broken his oath to Quetzalcohuātl it some other Nahuatl deity to drink, but it would have made him less insufferable.
"So Eliot kept sneaking off somewhere the whole time he was there, claiming whomever he was with was too drunk to be able to drive themselves home, even though the guys that were there looked plenty upright and didn't have any drinks in hand. The Spencers are the kind of people that will roll in a keg if you tell them to bring a six-pack, so that was pretty suspicious, given what happened later."
Shawn closed his eyes and put his hand to his head. Parker gave him a look, and Shawn dropped his hand.
"Sorry. I do it for Lassie so often it's become a habit." Shawn grinned sheepishly.
"Anyway, Eliot barely talked to anybody the whole time, including the cousin who had waited years for him to come back so that we could finally finish that game of Mutants and Masterminds. I mean, we were right at the climax of the campaign, and I had a devious throne room mystery all ready for him. I mean, I even asked my dad, the detective, for help on how to place the clues so that they would lead anyone down all the wrong paths before the right conclusion could be drawn. They'd have to have known beforehand what was going to happen to get it right on the first try."
"Did he?" Parker asked, knowing what the likely answer was.
"Well, I still don't know," Shawn said, with just a little bit of a pout to his voice. "You see, I had everything all set up to begin, and he had promised to be there at the right time, but he was late. And when he did come through, he was in a bare knuckle brawl with some dude. They were going at it with each other like their lives depended on it. I mean, it's kind of cool to have your cousin go away to college and then come back with awesome ninja skills, but not when those skills cause a fight that totally breaks the table that you had painstakingly set up with miniatures and character sheets and all the necessary atmosphere for having a proper session. Like, I could tell that this was what was going to happen, because it was straight out of a pro wrestling match, with the one guy lifting the other one up and holding on to him for that extra bit of time to make sure the cameras are in place before they both went crashing through the table. But you know how impending disasters seem to happen in slow motion, even though you can't stop them, no matter how hard you try to will yourself to move faster through all of that? Yeah. That's what was going on there. When did you get that sandwich?"
Parker was slowly chewing on a tuna fish sandwich, having gone to make it as soon as she realized the story was going to take a while. Shawn had been looking at her the whole time, or so he thought. Yet somehow she had gone to the kitchen and made a sandwich without him noticing.
"As I was saying," Shawn said, resuming his story, "everything went flying in every direction. All of my hand-painted miniatures were destroyed, and my mixtape got stuck in the player when the door got jammed and bent by a Grey I'd spent an entire day painting to look like Robert Redford. There was a live bootleg of Insane Clown Posse from Santa Barbara in there, and it's lost forever. I really liked that tape. He never apologized for it, even after he'd taken care of the guy and let Dad take him to jail. They told us all a story about an old argument having gotten out of hand and that a few people were going to cool off in the drunk tank for the night. That was even more suspicious - we've been doing the reunions long enough that the cops all know us and don't bother to come out on reunion weekends. Officially, it was something about not having enough manpower and space to hold an entire reunion in the jail cells, but I think Dad had made them an offer that he would make sure things stayed quiet if they would overlook all the public drunkenness. I think he also probably helped them solve a cold case or two. At least, he always seemed to be muttering about how annoying it was to have to keep helping out cops that couldn't find their own butts with two hands and a map. Are you seriously going to eat all of that and not offer me any?"
Parker shook her head. "Nope. There's mayo on it, and you complained about mayo on sandwiches at lunch today."
Shawn shivered a bit. "Ever since the case with the demon chicken, my visions always tell me to hold the mayo." Shawn composed himself for a bit before continuing.
"When I asked Eliot about the game and all the stuff he'd wrecked, he grunted and told me how much he hated playing the game anyway, and so he was glad to not have to pretend any more. Ever since, he hasn't been back. I'd like to think it's because he didn't want to come back until he'd tracked down all the pieces we needed to recreate the game and play, but he didn't have any presents for me when we met at Psych. Speaking of, I've got to get to work. Lassie will want to know if I caused the problem last night, and Jules will want to make sure I'm okay, because she won't have to ask if I'm involved "
Shawn stood up from the counter, shook Parker's hand, somehow avoiding having his fingers bent in unnatural directions by Parker's reflexes at being surprised, and sauntered out the front door, looking for Gus. Parker started after him, because she had more questions, but stopped when she concluded that she'd have more luck with the sandwich than Shawn right now.
Eliot appeared in the kitchen shortly afterward, still looking sour. It was obvious to Parker that he'd been waiting for Shawn to leave, so as not to have to talk to him again. He sat at the bar for a bit, arms crossed. Parker sat beside him and, after thinking about it for a minute, gave him an "I-sympathize-but-you-could-also-hurt-me" hug. Words were hard normally, and in relationships, they were even harder. It was a very distinctive hug, he would say.
"So," Eliot rumbled, "do you really want to know why we don't get along?"
Parker leaned her head on his shoulder as an affirmative.
Eliot sighed. "Knowing Shawn, he probably tried to tell you something about a ruined Pathfinder game at a family reunion. That's not even close to true, because I never played those kinds of games until someone decided it would be an appropriate punishment for disturbing one of Hardison's elaborate setups. I still don't understand what this THACO crap is. Armor is armor, and it either stops what's coming at it or it doesn't. Only in Hardison's fantasy world can armor help you somehow dodge arrows and swords."
Parker smiled. She had been particularly proud of that one. Team building exercises didn't always have to take the form of trust falls over the sides of skyscrapers. And kinky scenes didn't always have to involve physical restraints.
That everyone had then been hitting on each other while their armor was zero by the end of the night was just a side benefit, she told herself, replaying a few of the more interesting critical successes (and failures) of that session in her head.
"The truth was that I was working. Henry is a great guy, but he never stopped being a detective, you know? Which makes things even more awkward when you're a hitter assigned to protect one of the cousins long enough for him to make his trial date to testify. Henry isn't supposed to know this, of course, because he'll want to get in on it. Or worse, he'll realize it's connected to some case of his from a long time ago and start digging in to that, and then it's a mess. Because that's what brings guys armed with AKs and Molotovs to your family reunion." Eliot's voice took on a harder edge, as if this particular problem had been a regular facet of his life before his career as a hitter.
"The first couple guys were sloppy. I could tell they didn't fit in, and they weren't very subtle about the hardware they were carrying. If everyone had been as clumsy and obvious as they were, I could have gotten through the reunion without any trouble. I might have even been able to enjoy myself. Instead, I kept having to have 'interviews' with 'distant relatives' for a made-up genealogy project that is probably hanging on Shawn's wall somewhere. He likes that kind of stuff. And then having to explain why those 'relatives' all disappeared after giving their interviews. I had been getting great mileage with an excuse about how they were only in town because of the project and had other things to catch, but Henry didn't believe me for a second. How was I supposed to know that when Henry went on 'fishing trips,' he really meant he was going on a stakeout?"
Parker shifted so that she could try to massage Eliot's shoulders. Eliot uncrossed his arms in response, but Parker could feel that he hadn't actually relaxed any. She was about to tell him about that when he continued.
"So Henry knows I'm lying about the genealogy, and when I lost sight of him for a minute, he came back with his service weapon holstered somewhere inconspicuous. Now, not only do I have to keep this cousin from doing something that will get him killed, I have to keep Henry from doing something equally stupid. The only way that could get worse is if a hit squad shows up and doesn't care about subtlety."
"Did they?" Parker asked, even though she already knew the answer.
"Yeah. Right in the middle of the lawn darts tournament. There's a reason those things got outlawed, you know. In the hands of the wrong family with just enough training to be dangerous and just enough liquor to be confident, someone could do a lot of damage, if you know what I'm saying. Thankfully, these guys were amateurs enough that just about everyone at the tournament got a couple of them before they realized what was going on. Most of them were leg hits, because of the booze, but that day is when I learned Aunt Janice played pitcher in her college softball days and taught both of her daughters everything she knew."
Parker made a mental note to ask Adam and Jamie if they would test that idea on a show. She knew at least one of them had been itching for an excuse to use their own set...
"Not too soon after we'd finished our improvised module launch, the shooting started in earnest, and I'm pretty sure Henry got clipped at some point. Probably in some sort of macho standoff or something like that."
Parker reached over Eliot's back and pulled the other half of her sandwich in front of Eliot. "Eat," she said.
Eliot crossed his arms again. "That's canned tuna and white bread with far too much mayo on it. Do you know how awful that's going to taste?"
In response, Parker brought the sandwich closer to Eliot's mouth, as if daring him to give her an opportunity to shove it into his mouth while he spoke. Realizing he was not going to win the argument on the basis of its merits, Eliot took a bite.
"...when did you learn to make aioli?" he said.
"Every time you made it, I learned it a little better." she replied. "And I made Hardison eat my experiments every time I tried. For such a thin man, he has--"
"--a massive appetite," they finished together. Eliot took another bite of the sandwich and chewed it more thoughtfully this time, aware of its true character.
"So," he continued, "the problem with hit squads is that there's usually one team that's sent to make all sorts of noise and draw everyone's attention, and then there's another one that's supposed to take advantage of all the noise and do what's actually supposed to happen. The noisemakers are almost always amateurs, the quiet ones are professionals."
Parker brightened. "Oh, like how we made all those pretty explosions over by the vaults so Hardison could get into the servers and take the real things that we wanted."
"Yep," Eliot said. "Henry might have known, but he was in the middle of fighting the goons. So I'm trying to get into the crowd of relatives when this...cousin of mine thinks I'm in league with these shooters and tackles me into the room where Shawn and Gus are playing video games with weird characters and aliens and whatever other things games like that have. I'm trying to get away from my cousin without hurting her too much, but she's apparently a state champion in wrestling and I have to put her in a choke long enough for her to pass out and slump to the floor. Gus is screaming high enough that the dog in the room next door starts barking, and Shawn is complaining that I've upset his chips and dip. I can't spend time dealing with their hurt feelings, so I rush out of the room, thinking I'm already too late, but Shawn had already figured it all out and the quiet hit squad is already being put into police cars by the time I get to where my witness is."
"Why do you think it was Shawn?" Parker said.
"Because every one of them had their hands tied with pink ribbons done up in elaborate bows," Eliot said, rolling his eyes at the memory. "Shawn is the only person at that reunion I know who would think that was an appropriate way to keep criminals restrained while waiting for the police to get there."
"Shawn didn't say anything about being involved."
"He wouldn't. The way he sees it, he got hurt when someone interrupted what he was doing, regardless of what else was going on at the time. Plus, Henry got the credit for everything, because I couldn't say anything and Shawn...has a weird relationship with Henry about approval. Since Shawn's ego could probably be its own ZIP code, of course he's going to feel hurt when something happens to it. It's why I said it wasn't a good idea to get him involved in this con. He going to make it all about himself and probably blab all over about what we did."
Parker frowned. "I thought you and Shawn didn't think very highly of Detective Lassiter."
"Him? Nah," Eliot waved his hand dismissively. "As much as I hate to admit it, Lassie is a perfect name for him. Carlton is tenacious and won't let go of something once he thinks he has a lead, but he didn't make detective because he had a great mind. I'm more worried about O'Hara, not least because Shawn's in love with her, even if he's not admitting it to himself. He'll probably try to impress her with a wild version of what happened here, and she'll come looking for us."
Parker brightened even more at this thought. "Oh, good! I've always wanted to have an inside person in the police as an asset. It would make things so much easier, instead of having to impersonate the FBI so often."
Eliot snorted. "I think those agents are more interested in your pants than your investigative technique, Parker."
"And aren't you glad that I share that with just you and Hardison?" she teased, bounding from the stool and wiggling just out of Eliot's reach.
Hardison would complain a little bit at them for being rough with the furniture, Parker thought as Eliot gave chase, but he would come around pretty quickly once he knew there were blanketforts involved. And that he could join in.
Parker hoped she had gotten the ambiance right. It was hard to create a dark and foreboding environment with all these windows, but lowering the blinds and turning off the lights had helped. She knew Gus didn't like horror movies, and hoped the environment might keep him off balance enough to tell her the truth before he thought about what Shawn might do to him for the betrayal. All she had to do now was wait for him.
Gus obliged her not too soon afterward, entering into the office and stopping at the door frame.
"Not funny, Shawn," he said, reaching for the light switch. "You know I had nyctophobia as a child. And when you made me watch all of the Night of the Living Dead movies in a single day."
"Shawn's not here," Parker said, giving Gus what she thought was her best smile, as the lights came on. Gus screamed...into Parker's hand, which she clamped over his mouth as soon as she recognized what he was going to do.
For five minutes, Gus just screamed. Parker didn't think his pitch ever crept up enough to bother the neighborhood dogs, but she did think he would have made a great comic book character with a weaponized voice. She couldn't remember the name, though, because Gus was still screaming and she had to focus on that. Finally, he calmed down enough to recognize her from a couple days ago, and then have a seat at his desk to complete his recovery. Parker recalled that Hardison had occasionally gotten this way in the beginning of Leverage, too.
"Every nerdy black kid screams when the lights come on and there's someone in the room," he'd said, waving his arms in the air agitatedly when she had asked him about it, "because in every single movie, that person in the room is going to kill him. Whether by stabbing or shooting him, and maybe, if he's lucky, he'll get to sleep with her first, but he gonna die."
"You're not going to die, Gus," she said, trying to reassure him. "I just want the truth."
"Which you are getting by sneaking into my office and scaring me," he said.
Parker shrugged. "Didn't think you were the kind of person who would be up for elaborate death traps."
"You're kidding, right?" Gus's eyes darted toward the door. "Of course you're kidding. Shawn says you weren't the kind of people that would leave no witnesses."
"Shawn's a pretty smart guy," Parker said, not quite ready to drop the vaguely threatening act, "but he can't sense everything about us. Maybe he's wrong about us." Parker held what Hardison had referred to as her "creepy slasher smile" for just a little bit longer before collapsing in a fit of giggles.
"I'm sorry," she said, regaining a little composure. "I didn't know how little I'd need to intimidate you into telling the truth."
"The truth? About what?" Gus said, confusion slowly replacing the terror he had felt at her intrusion.
"Why Shawn and Eliot don't talk to each other. You were there, you probably know better than anyone. You might be the only one who has the actual truth."
"No, I was not," Gus said, but Parker could tell he was lying to her. Every part of his body language said that Gus not only was lying, but that he was extremely uncomfortable doing so. Parker wanted to know how he made a career as an honest pharmaceutical representative.
"You were there," she insisted. "Tell me what happened, or I'll tell Shawn and Eliot that you told me everything."
"All right," he said, "but we never talked about this. Ever." Gus grabbed a piece of chocolate from his desk and sat down on the other side of the desk.
"I assume they both told you it had something to do with a family reunion," he said, after thinking for a little while. At Parker's nod, he continued.
"It wasn't a family reunion. Any time a Spencer talks about a family reunion, they're lying. They haven't had a family reunion since I've known Shawn, and that probably has something to do with the fact that the Spencers seem to divide themselves into criminals and cops, and the cops in the family are really good at catching the criminals. Shawn is the first member of the family that I know of who has been able to combine the two into a single job. Eliot might be doing the mirror image of that, from what I've seen. Actually, "mirror image" might be exactly the right description for those two."
"You know Shawn's dad basically trained his son to be a police officer with all of those exercises and observation training and the like? Well, Shawn put it to use the best way he could that would let him be mad at his dad without actually telling him he was mad."
Parker raised an eyebrow, intrigued.
"Let's say that show and tell days, or projects that required dioramas were always accurate, down to the last drop of blood spray from whichever crime Shawn wanted to illustrate at that moment." Gus shivered.
"How detailed are we talking here?" Parker said, leaning in. She always appreciated an eye for detail, and Shawn certainly had it, even if he tried to disguise it with over-the-top theatrics.
Gus learned back, disturbed by the gleam in Parker's eye. "Detailed. The kind that might not look out of place as a set for a crime show detailed. Anyway, Shawn was getting tired with doing displays in miniatures and decided that he was going to scale up his creations to life size. And Eliot was the only cousin around at that time, so Shawn thought it would be a good idea to make Eliot try to solve the crimes that he was creating. Because that's what cousins do when they're bored and have access to a mind that will happily talk about all of the cases he's worked on in a misguided attempt at male bonding." Gus shook his head, laughing a little at something in his memory. Parker suspected Gus knew his way around Spencer family outings by experience.
"Naturally," Gus went on, "Eliot took to the idea like a fish does to water. And since Shawn and Eliot are both highly competitive, soon each one tries to outdo the last one with more false leads, better traps, and upping the general level of gore and violence. Surprisingly, nobody got hurt the first few times they did it. I think someone might have lost a girlfriend the first time one of them asked her to play a victim, and they always seemed to want to use me as a gauge whether or not a particular scene was gruesome enough, which I still don't understand, but they both seemed to understand that the idea was to gross each other out and not to hurt each other."
Gus put his head in his hands for a second, as if reliving something painful. Parker leaned back and considered. From what she understood of Gus, he would probably have been effective at calibrating a scene for maximum horror, even if he didn't understand why at the time.
"Did they hurt you?" she asked.
"Me? No. I had the good sense to be nowhere near those games while they were going on. But I got to see the aftermath.
"Apparently, one of them got the bright idea to try and add some extra realism to their scenario by slowly flooding the spot where the diorama was. It needed washing anyway. But the safety valve that was supposed to trigger when the room was half full didn't. Being boys, each of them assumed the other one was trying to psych them out and kept at it, long past the point where someone should have called a halt. In the end, everyone was glad the only thing that was permanently ruined was Shawn's favorite Annette Funicello mixtape. Sometimes I think he liked her more for her mouse ears than her singing ability. So--"
"--Wait," Parker interrupted. "Who was in the box at the time?"
"Neither of them would say," Gus replied. "Everyone asked. Henry demanded. But nobody actually said who was in there at the time. But whomever it was, that was the point where they stopped getting along. One of them thinks it was an accident with a safety failure, the other thinks they tried to drown them deliberately. Neither of them will say what happened, and instead it seems like they made up these family reunion stories to prevent anyone, including Henry, from getting at the truth. I think because they both knew if the truth got out, Henry would never have let them hang out together. That would have killed them both, to have a score to settle and not to be able to keep the feud going until they could make the other one give in."
Parker stifled a laugh. Out of everything she had heard today, what Gus had just said sounded like the first completely honest thing.
"That's what happened," Gus did, nervously playing with the chocolate wrapper. "You won't tell them what you know, right?"
"If you'll excuse me, then, I have work to do," Gus said, indicating his desk. Parker stood up and walked out, making note of the layout of the building in case she has to come back for a later job. This company seemed reputable, but there were a lot of secrets using behind anything that looked reputable.
The other part of her brain was trying to figure out how to engineer a confession out of Eliot. Traumas like that needed to be talked through, many of her therapists had said, and a team like theirs needed to have all of its secrets and potential liabilities out in the open, so they didn't come out at the worst possible time.
As she thought, Parker realized she had the perfect opportunity. There was a possible client who claimed the sensory deprivation tanks in a health spa had been deliberately shoddy. Maybe having to deal with a drowning in a confined space would get the information needed out of Eliot.
"Hardison?" she said into the air, after turning on and putting in an earpiece. "I think we should accept Mrs. Wu's request. And make Eliot the primary contact for her. There's a lot to learn about this situation, I think, and I have a feeling Eliot will relate the best to her."
Talking to Henry might also be a good idea, to see what kind of story he would spin for her, and how much he would bend the truth and dare her to call him out on it. Parker would get her answers, one way or another. The Spencers were a secretive family, and Eliot and Shawn were both good liars, but Parker knew just as many ways to get people to divulge the truth. Even if she had to resort to exploiting their weaknesses. She knew exactly where the tickle torture bag was. The only remaining question was how much it would take.