Chapter 1: Ghosts and Stuff
Evan fidgeted with the strap designed to hold his pepper spray in its holster, clicking it off and on as he stared into the poorly-lit tunnel in front of him. The heat and humidity made his skin feel sticky, one more reason to resent the hell out of his boss and most of his coworkers. They'd left him here at Security Door Eight to make sure the conman locked up in the cells didn't escape. Aside from a quick glance at the guy, he'd been given bare scraps of rumor with his orders. He tried to distract himself from the great discomfort of his situation by imagining who the guy was and why it was so important they keep him locked up.
The immediate problem with this was that the man in the cell didn't look like anything much. Short, long hair, kind of a bulky dude, dressed in jeans, boots and plaid. He'd reminded Evan of his fellow members of the wrestling team in high school. The guy definitely didn't look like a conman. On the other hand, if he really had been on the executive floor of Granite Peak Headquarters, as the Chief of Security had suggested, he definitely wasn't the two-bit hick he appeared to be.
Something moved, off in the dark and the mist.
This had always been his least favorite ride, even as a child. Jumpin' Jehosephat's Jungle wasn't just physically uncomfortable, it was also creepy. During the daytime the building relied on natural sunlight streaming in through the windows to provide light. At night, improper venting and a regular malfunction in the smoke machine made it the muggy mess he was currently standing in. The poorly maintained facility was a font of unrecognizable sounds, mostly the sort of thing that could be attributed to faulty mechanics when the imagination wasn't running wild. The air conditioning never worked, leaving whoever had to actually stay inside of the building trapped in a steaming hothouse that smelled like rubber, chalk, bleach and the remains of the cloying 'all natural scents' they piped in during the day. He'd assumed it was plagued by rats and other vermin, but whatever had shifted out there in the dank was no rodent.
His thumb clicked away the strap and he rested one hand on the cap of the pepper spray. His other hand found his radio mike. He was in the middle of turning up the volume to get some information when all at once, the fire suppression system in the tunnel in front of him activated. Water hissed from concealed sprinkler heads, turning what little he could see (or thought he saw) into a sheet of moisture. It took Evan a moment to push past a shock of fright and remind himself of where he was and what he was doing.
Bringing the microphone up to his mouth, he pressed the button. “I need backup,” he squeaked, reddening at the tight sound of his voice. “Backup,” he repeated, trying to force his tone deeper. It didn't work as well as he'd hoped. “I need backup.”
“Copy, Thomson, advise?” came the tinny response. Evan stared at the water, seeing that movement again. Something at the other end of the tunnel was...parting the stream? He stepped forward, into the edge of the spray, and shielded his eyes with one hand. There was definitely a void in the water, one that was advancing steadily towards him.
“There's someone in the Jungle,” Evan repeated, feeling a drip of water slip down his spine and nearly squeaking with fear again. He stepped back into the alcove, feeling the knob on the security door dig into his back. Swallowing hard, he stared at the approaching empty space, willing dispatch to get back to him with the news that backup was on its way. In the misty dark, something clicked and he grabbed the pepper spray so quickly he nearly shot himself in the face.
“WHO'S THERE?” he shouted, yanking on the weapon as he tried to pull it out of the holster.
“I've come to retrieve my friend,” came the unexpected response. The voice was warm, accented and feminine, which somehow made its presence worse. “It would be easier for both of us if you just...turned about and opened the door.”
His mouth hung open as the void in the water finally resolved itself into the figure of a woman holding a black umbrella, walking slowly towards him through the shower. The security guard's fear had driven all thoughts of the hick in the back rooms out of his mind, replacing them with the shadowed lady approaching him now. “Who...who ARE you?” he stammered, pressing his back to the door. A dash of moonlight revealed her dark, wide eyes boring straight into him. “Oh god...WHO ARE YOU?”
She tsked, not slowing one bit. “Are you going to open it then, or do you need to be persuaded?”
Gulping air, he shook his head. “Don't...don't come any closer!”
Heaving a short sigh, Sophie Devereaux finally came to a halt at the edge of the spray. She paused, looking him over with an expression that struck the balance between furious and exasperated. “You leave me no choice,” she said a moment before lunging to close the gap.
Chapter 2: Right This Second
Four days ago.
“Parker, do you know what the dye in those is doing to your insides?” Hardison leaned into the refrigerator, digging around at the back for the coldest of his orange sodas. A hand darted past his face, plucking out the milk, its owner giving him no answer. “It's gonna turn y'all weird colors, make you sick...” He twisted the top off of the soda and took a swig, surveying the interior of the fridge and closing the door when he found nothing immediately snackworthy.
“Can't be worse for her than all that sugar and artificial crap is for you,” Eliot called from his position on the couch. The stocky hitter held up a bottle of water in mock salute before setting it on the table in front of him. “At least Parker's getting some nutrients from the milk.”
“I burn about a million calories a day,” Parker pointed out as she sat cross-legged next to Eliot, offering him a single unnaturally purple 'o', which he nudged back towards her bowl. “I don't think I have to worry about the dye.”
Nate, standing at the console, stepped back as Hardison took up his customary position at the controls. The older man gave a little nod, then moved to one side, the better to see the briefing screens and their contents. “Sophie should be here momentarily,” he said, presaging her arrival by a few seconds. The grifter entered through the front door, smiling sunnily at the group. They all glanced first at her face, then to her right arm, which was still cradled in a low-profile black sling. Eliot looked away first, his eyes shifting to the screen and fixing there. Nate's gaze tracked to Eliot, staring at the back of his head as though he was reading its contents.
“Feeling better?” Parker chirped, showing no sign of noticing the tension that twitched across Eliot's shoulders and neck when she asked her question. Hardison returned his attention to the screen in front of him, tapping a few buttons as Sophie shut the door and walked towards the couches.
“I am,” she said as she settled into a separate chair, smiling again at Parker. There was no sign of pain as she leaned back in the chair, though she did raise an eyebrow to Nate when he meandered over to stand behind her. “The doctor's said with some rest and relaxation I should be right as rain in a few weeks.” She reached up and touched Nate's hand reassuringly. “Don't worry about me.”
Though she was obviously trying to lighten their moods, it was clear it wasn't working. The memory of their last job was still much too fresh. They had been under-prepared for the physicality of the targets security and associates. Nate had anticipated some resistance and they had all taken precautions, but none of them could have predicted the marks wife flying into a rage and attacking Sophie when the scam was revealed. Sophie's shoulder was dislocated before they could separate the two women. The choked-back noise of pain she'd made when Eliot relocated the limb shortly afterward remained vividly with all of them.
The memory ran its course. Nate trailed his thumb across Sophie's knuckles, then moved away, crossing behind Hardison. “Run it.”
The hacker tapped a few buttons and the screens sprang to life, showing a broad panoramic view of a theme park. “This is Granite Hill Amusement Park in Ohio. A few days ago we were contacted by Zane Andrews, a team leader in their catering department.” The face of a young man was superimposed in one corner. He stared blankly into the camera, his mouth slightly open, looking dazed and exhausted. “Zane and ten other workers were recently laid off for trying to unionize the park.”
“Happens all the time,” Eliot broke in gruffly, taking a sip of his water. “Workers get sick of conditions, low wages, they make a little too much noise about collective bargaining. Management gets wind, next thing you know, everyone's fired. Pretty standard It's bad, but what makes these guys any worse than any other shop that pulls this?”
Hardison rolled his eyes, bringing up an article on each screen. “How about the treasure trove of hinky stuff they've been getting up to ever since they made Peter Course their CEO? They hire foreign workers, promise them fifteen, twenty bucks an hour and all the American they can speak, then trap them in a contract they can't leave and make them clean hotel rooms for a third of that. They make people work eighteen hour shifts for weeks straight, no days off, and punish them for getting sick. And that's everyone, even the guys who are in charge of maintaining the rides. I'm surprised no one died.”
“Before now,” Nate cut in, stepping up alongside the screens and pointing to one of the articles. “The actual reason Zane contacted us is his friend.” The headline next to Nate's outstretched hand read 'Montrose Woman Comatose After Amusement Park Accident'. The accompanying picture was of a grinning young woman dressed as the Dormouse from Alice in Wonderland. She was holding the costumes head in one hand. “Katherine Harvey was one of the other employees involved in organizing the park. She was mostly concerned with living conditions in the housing that is provided for employees. It's currently unheated, vermin-infested and dangerous. She was due to speak to a local reporter last week, but she didn't show up for the interview. She was attacked just outside of the employee dorms.”
Hardison took a breath as Nate walked in front of the screens, reviewing them thoughtfully. “She died this morning in hospital. The police, who work for Granite Hill's parent company Granite Peak, have closed the investigation.”
There was a moment of silence as the team took in the information on the screen, then Nate spread his hands wide. “Course is visiting the park this weekend for an annual inspection. This is our best opportunity to make sure justice is served. We're going to go in and expose their whole operation.” His trademark smirk rose and he swept his arms forward. “Lets steal ourselves an amusement park!”
Parker climbed over the back of the couch, balancing her cereal on one hand. “Do you think they'll let me climb the roller coaster?” she asked as she passed Hardison. The young man turned and trailed in her wake, following her as she ambled towards the kitchen.
“I think you'll get a shot at it,” Nate commented, glancing at Sophie and offering a slight smile. Staying? his expression read.
She smiled back and lowered her eyes, inclining her head slightly towards Eliot. The hitter was still focused on the screen, clearly waiting for them to move before he would get up and leave. Nate tipped his head towards Sophie, acknowledging her desire for a private moment with the other man, then followed Parker and Hardison towards the fridge.
“Come with me.” Sophie was just turning fully to face Eliot when the young man spoke. “I've gotta show you something,” he drawled quietly. “Poker room.” He rose and walked towards the door, raising one hand in the direction of the kitchen in a vague goodbye. Sophie followed, brow furrowing as she tried to work out exactly he had planned.
Chapter 3: Raise Your Weapon
When she arrived in the poker room at the rear of McRory's, Eliot was placing a table against the wall. The center of the room was cleared, with most of the chairs forming a ring in the middle. Sophie paused in the doorway, studying the hitter from bottom to top, searching for some clue to his thought process. There was a drag on his movements, suggesting he was more tired than usual. Anyone else, anyone who didn't spend every working minute watching for just such a sign in team and target alike, wouldn't have noticed it at all. His expression was studiously neutral, which was no surprise. He was an intelligent man who knew exactly who he was dealing with. “Come on and stand in the middle there,” Eliot said, turning his back to her and gesturing to the circle of chairs, ostensibly looking up and down the walls for something.
That was the clue that knitted it all together. Sophie was not new to guilt, nor shame. A man as self-assured as Eliot looked people in the eye unless he was lying or avoiding them. Now he was using this busywork as a way to stall actually talking to her. Clearly he had been tormenting himself since the day she'd been injured. In anyone else the behavior would have been white-knight-chivalry-nonsense but Eliot was a different case. He was their assurance of safety on the job and at the level they were working, any slip could have lethal consequences. An injury to any of them had to weigh heavily on the man's conscience; there would be no trusting him if he didn't take their wounds personally.
She stepped into the center of the ring of chairs, eyeing his back as he located the battered radio in the corner and turned it on. The call of some minor league ballgame rang out until he started fiddling with the dials. He finally settled on a classical station, currently playing an uptempo waltz. He turned away from the radio, watching the floor until he stepped between the chairs. When he raised his eyes, she waited for it, some twitch or twinge that would give him away, but there was nothing. No one became as accomplished at his trade by easily tipping his hand to someone like her.
“Why am I here?” she asked, walking along the inside edge of the ring. As she moved, so did he, falling in to step opposite her. “And why the music?” Her eyebrow quirked. “You didn't set all of this up to ask me to dance.” It was a statement, lacking accusation or a question.
“You've gotta learn how to defend yourself,” Eliot responded, changing the arc of his path, tightening the curve. She did the same, turning the circle into a spiral. “Everyone else can handle themselves, but it's your weak point.”
Sophie blinked at his straightforward approach, lips thinning in irritation. “Eliot, I can't just...pick up boxing. I'm a grifter, I have to believe in myself as much as the mark does. If I'm second guessing, always getting ready for a fight-”
“Cut it out. You know what I'm talking about. I'm not going to hang you out to dry, Sophie, but that can't happen again.” He pointed at her wounded arm. She made a point of meeting his eyes, narrowing her own slightly to express her displeasure. “You have to be able to handle yourself. This is dangerous work and I can't be standing right next to all of you.”
“I'll get a taser, like Parker,” Sophie suggested, drawing closer to him, still waiting for the crack to show.
“Taser requires you to get in close and to make a solid hit. It's a one-chance weapon. If someone takes it, they're gonna turn it right around and use it against you. You've gotta carry it somewhere you can get to it fast, or else it's useless. You're on-point every time we deal with a mark, do you think they're not gonna notice you've got a holster?”
“Pepper spray, then.”
“You ever been pepper sprayed? It's a very distinctive searing pain,” Eliot growled, shaking his head. “This isn't about making you into a hitter, Sophie. This me keeping you safe, the way I said I would.”
She would have argued again, suggested a gun or a knife or something just as ludicrous, but as they met in the middle, he stepped in towards her, necessitating a backstep. “Eliot.” He followed the movement of the music, approaching again, then retreating. She let him, stepping to the side instead. “This is an awful lot like a waltz,” she pointed out as he came close, moving to her left to avoid him rather than backing away.
“How do you know you've got a mark on the line?” he asked, ignoring her comment as he followed her through the ring.
“Now I know we've been over this before.” It was effortless, the way she turned it on. Her movement became more graceful. Her posture changed to lengthen her neck and straighten her shoulders. Her hips swayed. She was silent for only a few seconds, long enough to catch his gaze wandering to the bare skin along her throat. She dropped the posturing and turned her shoulder to him, making him keep pace with her side rather than facing her head on. Her hair fell across her neck. “That's how I know. That look, the distraction. Why are we dancing, Eliot? You didn't answer my question.”
“It's a metaphor,” the hitter replied. “You read the look on their face, see the way they move around you. Like dancing. You have to be able to read your partner, anticipate what they're gonna do.” He offered her his right hand, inclining his head in a small bow. She rested her palm on his, letting him move in front of her and take the lead. His other hand rested very lightly on her waist as he found the music, then followed it into a slow waltz.
“So fighting is like dancing,” she said, understanding in her tone. “Watch your 'partner', learn their body language, respond accordingly?” He took a sharp step towards her and she responded, moving backwards under his guidance. “It's not exactly a revolutionary sentiment.”
“Then why aren't you better at it?” He'd perhaps meant it to be a cut to her ego, but she couldn't stop herself from smiling. He caught the look and his lips twitched. His hand relaxed around hers and she felt the tension flow away from them, just like that. Rubbing her thumb against his, she followed his lead, moving in time with the man and the music. It took some restraint to avoid looking too deeply into him in the following moments of vulnerability but she knew if there was something he needed to share, he would speak.
As the song ended and he let her go, she made eye contact again, trading smirks with the long-haired man. “Alright,” she said, stepping back and nodding. “Show me.”
Chapter 4: Unspecial Effects
Hardison rolled his eyes as he approached the front door of the cabin which was to be their base of operations for the next few days. It was butter yellow, a shade that was perfectly in line with all of the other quaint little domiciles it neighbored-to one side, lavender, to the other, powder blue. The door was a soft green, a stencil of edelweiss imprinted at adult eye level. “Y'all know me and camping still ain't on speaking terms, right?” he asked, pushing the door open and stepping inside.
The interior of the cabin was a kitschy nightmare of touristy poor taste. The building was obviously designed to cater to families, with low chairs in candy-colored vinyl and a short, easy to clean carpet. Just past the small entryway was a living room and kitchen, divided by a small island. The food preparation area was scarce, the refrigerator just barely big enough for a few days worth of groceries. There was a coffee maker, a toaster and a microwave, all clean, none newer than three years old. The television was similarly out of date, a small flat-panel hung on the wall next to the window facing the 'lake' at the center of the half-circle of cabins. Advertisements for the various services and entertainments offered by the park played on a constant rotating loop. The wallpaper suggested that the designer had favored a french country aesthetic, its primary motif being chickens and related farm fowl.
Eliot followed Hardison into the room, giving him a nudge with one shoulder as he came through the doorway. “Camping? Hardison, we're in a cabin on a peninsula surrounded by parking lots. There's like three trees outside. Three.”
Since their departure from Boston the previous night, Eliots mood had been improving, buoying the rest of the team. Aggravating as the last hour of the car ride had been, his willingness to engage in banter with Parker and Hardison from the front passenger seat reassured the others that things were coming back to normal. Sophie's only concession to her injury was the sling and a bottle of painkillers, the dosage of which was adequate to keep her quietly dozing on a hastily installed bench seat in the back of the Lucille 3.0.
Eliot deposited his own two bags on the couch in the tiny 'living room' the cabin offered, surveying the room briefly, then stepping aside to let Hardison by. The lanky hacker peered into the corners near the ceiling, then glanced through the window. “And they call that a lake?”
“We're surrounded by people, I counted four security cameras outside, AND two guards,” Parker pointed out, walking into the building just ahead of Nate. “I don't like it. Everybody's so...friendly.” She kept her backpack on, laying her gym bag of equipment on top of Eliots items as she passed.
“Just stick to the story. We'll be fine. We're on a corporate retreat and-”
“Ooo, is that the rollercoaster!” Objections forgotten, Parker pressed her hands to the window, eyes wide, mouth wider in awe and glee at the sight of the back end of the wooden behemoth. Nate shrugged and turned back to the door. Their second briefing could wait until everyone was a little more settled. Hardison looked away from the pond that apparently fit the park's definition of 'lake', beyond the park fence at the intimidating wall that was the side of the roller coaster.
“It's...ah...it's called Mayhem,” he said, looking up and up until he finally spotted the highest point. Just the sight of the thing made his knees a little shaky. Knowing that Parker had every intention of climbing it did not help. “It's one of the biggest wooden coasters in the world and...Parker, you saw my notes, you know they're not maintaining that thing the way they should. Mama, you've gotta be crazy if you're thinking of going up there!”
“Hardison.” Parker rolled her eyes, turning away from the window and giving him a playful swat on the chest. “It's just a ride.”
“The Tilt-A-Whirl is a ride. Bumper cars? Is a ride. That is a three story death machine,” Hardison followed her towards the kitchen, looking into corners in search of monitoring or recording devices as he went. He'd already spotted a camera and a microphone, old enough that it didn't immediately make him nervous. If someone was specifically watching for them, he would hope the team had earned enough respect to warrant serious hardware, not Baby's First Surveillance Kit.
“Tilt-A-Whirl. You're like a little girl,” Eliot drawled as he thumped into one of the chairs. “Wooden roller coasters are a part of history. They're real American works of art, engineering and ingenuity. It's a damn privilege to ride one, they take an amazing amount of craftsmanship to maintain these days, especially along the coast. If they still have some talent on their staff, they'll be able to do right by it after we clean house.”
Parker slid out of the kitchen, narrowly avoiding Sophie as the grifter paused just inside of the doorway to close and lock it. “You want to climb it with me?” the blonde thief directed to Eliot, eyebrows bouncing with bright enthusiasm. “I brought an extra rig!”
Chapter 5: I Said...
It took them two hours to distribute themselves amongst the rooms inside of the cabin. The master bedroom went to Sophie, Nate and the small array of technical equipment that had to remain in a fixed location. The smaller room, graced by a childrens mural and two single beds, became Hardison and Eliot's domain in spite of Hardison's extensive protests about the size of the accommodations and the 'inappropriate' rabbit painted on the wall next to the chest of drawers in the corner. Parker established herself as the primary resident of the couch, the only piece of comfortable furniture in the main common areas.
Clothing was stowed and equipment unpacked once Hardison completed his sweep. The surveillance equipment he'd located was carefully handled, the hacker setting up a complex system of time looped video clips of the team in and out of their rooms. Whoever was observing the cameras would see what they expected and no more. After putting the finishing touches in place, Hardison called the group in, bringing up Nate's presentation on the extra screen he'd set up out of sight of the window in the living room.
Eliot was the easiest to rein in, coming from his inspection of the kitchen as soon as Hardison implied he wasn't going to get the good seat if he didn't sit right away. Sophie wandered by as soon as she heard their bantering, getting herself a bottle of water and settling at one end of the couch. Parker came in through the front door with Nate, bearing a bag of groceries that they put away in the minute fridge. She sat between Sophie and Eliot on the couch as Nate took up position between the team and their lone screen.
“Now, Peter Course arrives tomorrow at noon. The plan is two-pronged. We need to get into Granite Peak, that's their corporate headquarters and where they'll be keeping the documents we need to get to Zane and the media. We also need to get Peter Course into position for the takedown. Parker, Eliot, Hardison, tonight you're on recon. Check out the park, get an idea of what we're up against. I want physical and electronic systems checked out, all the way from here to Granite Peak. Sophie and I are going to get...established.”
“Ew!” Parker piped up, sticking out her tongue and pulling a face in Sophie's direction.
“Parker! That's not what he meant!” Sophie protested, shooting a glare at Nate. “Nate's going to make a spectacle of himself and that's all. I have a meeting to attend.”
“Suuuure,” Hardison drawled. “Y'all nasty.”
“Hey, Hardison, focus,” Eliot shook his head and looked at the screen. “We already know their security force are cops, but they're mostly fresh out of the academy in Tanners Bay. They're here to get rid of drunks and smash and grab thieves, they never get any real action.”
“Their most senior officer,” Nate picked up where Eliot left off, waiting the split second for Hardison to bring the man's photograph up on the screen, “is Frank Mallard.” The face presented was lean, tanned and young, with early-onset balding obvious at the top of the head and along the temples. The man had a pinched expression, as though he was trying to glare but didn't quite 'get' how to do it. “He's their heavyweight at five years experience. Most of Zane's information on him suggests he's got a strong authoritarian streak, he's not afraid to get violent and was most likely directly involved in Katherine Harvey's death. He's also Course's nephew. Watch for him while you're inside, do not engage.”
No one missed the implication in Nate's tone, nor in the look he directed at Sophie. She returned the glance coolly, only returning her attention to the screen when Nate broke eye contact. “Does he patrol with the rest of his squad, or is he an office man?” she asked, avoiding those blue eyes when they snapped back her way. She leaned her uninjured elbow on the arm of the chair, sipping from her bottle of water, then tucking it between her hip and the sofa and resting her chin on her knuckles. “If he's in Granite Peak, I think he'll be rather unavoidable.”
There was another moment of uncomfortable silence as she finally let Nate catch her gaze, holding it as a challenge between them. The tension was broken by Eliot leaning forward and clearing his throat. “I'll go with Sophie,” he stated firmly, drawing both the grifter and the masterminds attention. “Tonight,” he clarified as Sophie opened her mouth to protest. “After we know where he's most likely to be, we'll know how to handle him.”
Nate's jaw worked as he studied their faces, then he took a step back, conceding to both. “Alright. Hardison, can you-”
“Already done. Miss Lounsbury just got a personal assistant,” Hardison drawled, avoiding Eliot's frown.
“Good. So go, work fast. Everyone back here by nine,” Nate said, turning off the television. “It's gonna be a long night.”
Chapter 6: Animal Rights
“Motion sensor camera!”
In between attempts to re-attract the attention of his assigned partner, Hardison took a moment to appreciate the planning that went in to a park this size and complexity. It was a system, designed to excite the people moving through it, then drive them towards overpriced food and kitschy toys made in China to commemorate the experience. Having to leave your bags behind every time you went on a ride made it seem easier to just give in and carry enough cash to eat in the park, and what kid was going to turn down action figures and brightly colored stuffed toys? The backstage access points had security that might even make him raise a sweat. That difficulty was only compounded by their obscurity and how far apart they were-it was no wonder the employees were complaining about breaks when it looked like some of them had to walk forty-five minutes just to get in and out of the appropriate entrances.
“I'm just helping you make notes,” Parker commented, peeking at the 'courtesy map' he was using to mark out the location of the most obvious security measures. “You missed a motion sensor, three back and around the corner,” she added, jabbing one finger at the page. “It was in a fake tree, above that doorway.”
“Nah, I got that one, I...” He looked over the map again, spotting no notes whatsoever, then made a circle where indicated. “This is a damn waste of time,” he murmured, low enough that only the earbud would catch it. “Nate, there's just cameras and security everywhere, okay? If it's in the park, it's on at least three screens.”
“That's what I thought,” Nate replied, standing just to one side of a hawaiian ice cart halfway across the park. His hair was slicked back and in his powder blue suit, he stood out like a sore thumb. The throngs of vacationing park-goers moved around him,
Pulling Parker aside, into the observation canopy that surrounded the bumper cars, Hardison watched the crowd. “This place is locked up tight,” he pointed out, looking back and forth. “They're using a closed system for surveillance and it's separate from the one in our cabin. I think the only thing they don't get is sound, but backstage, that's probably different. I need direct access to their system if I'm gonna do anything to it, which means getting backstage...”
“Parker?” Nate said. Her silence was readable even from his current vantage point across the park-if anyone had an idea to get them the access they needed, it was her. “What've you got?”
“Every half hour, a bunny pokes his head out of the back,” she said, as though this was the most sensible statement in the world. “We can use that.”
“Real bunny or guy-in-a-suit-bunny?” Nate answered, tracking the movement of a young man dressed as the Mad Hatter and his accompanying handler as they greeted a crowd of enthusiastic children. His smile grew wry. With Parker, you never quite knew what she was seeing.
“It's one of the mascots,” Parker confirmed. Her own smile turned crooked at the corners, a sure sign the blonde was about to be up to something. “Nate? Can we?”
Nate's smile became a grin as he watched the Mad Hatter's progress through the crowd, to a concealed door leading into the backstage area. “Parker, Hardison, go steal a bunny.”
Parker was hurrying away from the bumper cars the moment Nate gave permission, Hardison trailing after her. “Can you knock out a few feeds?” she asked him as he caught up, cutting off the question he was about to ask her. “If we can get rid of the cameras on this alcove,” she said, stabbing her finger down onto the map he had in his hands, “we can finally get into one of those costumes!”
“...Finally?” Hardison looked at the map, then back to Parker, already working out where the fuse boxes and electrical outlets were. “Wait, really? When did 'finally' happen? Was there an 'eventually' I missed?”
“I wanna be the March Hare. He looks like...Bunny,” Parker said, biting her lip for a moment. Her eyes took on a wider aspect, the thief vanishing into her own little dream world as they meandered along. Hardison had to loop an arm through hers in order to keep her on track as they approached their target area. “Hardison. I could BE. BUNNY.”
“There is something wrong with you,” Eliot growled over the earbuds. By this point, the response was practically Pavlovian. Regardless of where he was or what he was doing (ostensibly taking notes from a position just over Sophie's shoulder as she charmed her way through Granite Peak), there was something about Parkerisms that demanded a response from him.
“Eliot. Parker. Focus,” Nate cautioned, finishing his hawaiian ice and tossing the paper bowl into the bin. “One minute, then get to work, Hardison. I should have their full attention by then.”
“Jimmy Papadokalis strikes again. Have fun, you ambulance chaser you,” Hardison drawled, chuckling as he guided Parker behind a stand of immaculately groomed trees and stood face to face, close enough to give exactly the wrong impression. “Keep an eye out,” he instructed her quietly, settling his smartphone against her stomach to keep it concealed. “This is gonna take...a...minute...”
The blonde thief casually draped her arms over his shoulders, the odd blankness remaining in her eyes. She was halfway present, staring off into space, looking at something he wouldn't see no matter how hard he looked. Glancing at her once, trying to read her and failing, Hardison returned all of his attention to the phone. Parker always had gone a little weird on unfamiliar turf. He was so absorbed in the work it took an extra fraction of a second to notice that she was getting closer still, folding in against him and...
Pushing him backwards. He saw the security guards over her shoulder as she bodily pressed him further under cover, pinning his hands and their contents out of sight. In their ears, both could hear Nate let out a howl of pain so exaggerated it had to be fake, followed right after by a gentle huff of laughter that could only have come from Sophie. The grifter slipped smoothly back to her conversation, some mind-numbing flattery tailor made for the men in front of her, but Nate carried on in finest Papadokalis tradition, shouting about his knee and his back and his sciatica and how very, very sued the amusement park was going to find itself.
“Are you done?” Parker asked him lightly, fidgeting with the back of his neck in a fashion that Sophie would HAVE to talk to her about later. “They're coming this way.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he murmured, tipping the screen so he could see it again, then swallowing around the tingles rushing down his back. “We got a few minutes while the cameras are diverted. Blind spot's right in here.” He slipped his phone back into his pocket, using the other arm to gesture to the area around him. His fingers were jittering with the echoes of the tension building in his back, a fact he hid from her quickly.
“Thanks Hardison.” Just like that her fingers were off of him. As she approached the mascot and its handler for a quick tet a tet he granted himself a moment to recover from the unexpected touch. Getting closer was a good sign for Parker, but the way she went about it needed to be addressed. He had to focus, dammit! By the time he had his head about him again, she was bouncing back towards him, bunny and handler in tow. “So there's actually a fan in there?” she asked, leaning in to look through the rabbits eyes at the person inside. “Does it help?”
The reply sounded something like 'not really', but was muffled by the costume's heavy padding. The handler managed a wan smile as Hardison ushered them into the cameras blind spot. “Thank you,” he said, giving the hacker a light pat on the bicep. “Zane told us you were coming.”
“Hey, it's what we do,” Hardison replied, gesturing to the employees shirt. “That a large?”
The young man started doffing it immediately, offering the uniform top to Hardison as Parker stood behind the costumed performer and started undoing zippers. “You can take my clothes,” she murmured to the teenager emerging from the fake fur rabbit outfit. He looked her over uncertainly, his eyes going wide as she stripped off her top and yanked off her pants. She was only unclothed for a moment, climbing into the costume with ease as the boy who had been inside tried to pull on her jeans. “This is really heavy,” she muttered as she jammed the head of the costume over her own. “It smells like Lucille after a really looooong job. In hot weather. With goats.”
“Don't be talkin' about my van,” Hardison said, fixing the collar of the shirt, then digging into his pocket for the carefully prepared sticker he'd made to cover the employee's own picture on the kid's ID card. “We've been working on all that.” Securing the picture to the plastic card, he looked at his phone. “The camera's are coming back onto their normal cycle, we've gotta go.”
“You two get out of here. Go someplace nobody's going to recognize you,” Parker said, pulling on the mouth of the suit to line it up so she could speak.
“The closest entrance is over there,” the handler said, gesturing towards the back end of a ride. “There are signs once you're inside.”
“Thanks man,” Hardison replied, putting a hand on Parker's shoulder to move her along. “Alright, you okay in there?”
“The fan's blowing in my eyes,” Parker answered, shaking the head violently to attempt to move it. “And now it's blowing in my ear...”
“Just keep walking,” Hardison said, stepping out ahead of her as the teenagers slipped into the passing crowd. “Let's go find the server room.”
Chapter 7: One Trick Pony
Nate sat next to Hardison on the couch, staring at the TV screen on the wall. His elbows were planted on his knees, one hand rubbing across his mouth as he searched for the words to describe the visuals Hardisons new access was providing. “That's...”
“Dystopian? Orwellian? 1984?” Hardison shifted the netbook on his lap, typing in a command to change the feeds on the screens. The quartet of images, originally four random locations in the park, became live feeds of employee changing rooms and bathrooms, then changed again to show different rooms in the employee dormitories.
“Bloody illegal, isn't it?” Sophie suggested from her vantage point at the wall. She pushed away, gesturing with her glass towards the screen. “They don't have one bit of privacy, even in their own homes.” She side-stepped Parker and Eliot, who were seated cross-legged and facing one another on the floor, engaged in what appeared to be a very demanding slap-fight. Keeping her eyes on the screen, she made her way towards Nate and a spot on the couch.
“Some do,” Nate replied, shifting aside to make room for her. “There are no cameras in security quarters, or on the upper levels of Granite Peak. How was your meeting, by the way?”
“Gloriously dull, until my attorney slipped in a puddle of water and threatened to sue everyone in a ten mile radius,” Sophie answered with a smirk, seating herself next to him and running her hand across his knee. “Course did quite like our pitch, however. He's very interested in this ride. Apparently they have just the spot in mind.”
“Hardison, bring it up on the screen. Parker, where did you put the bunny costume?” When the thief didn't immediately pipe up with an answer, Nate turned away from the screen, frowning at the duo on the floor. Parker and Eliot's hands moved fast, gripping and breaking one anothers grasp in seconds. Both had all of their concentration on this quick exchange of leverage and control. Hardison and Sophie also joined the silent staring as Nate waited for a break in the action that did not seem to be coming. “Parker?” he asked again, reaching out to nudge her shoulder and barely wincing at all when her hand snapped back and caught his wrist, squeezing with all of her considerable strength. She tried unsuccessfully to parry both of Eliot's hands with her remaining one, ending up caught between them for a moment before she spread her fingers in surrender. Nate leaned back, flexing his palm and forcing himself not to rub out the ache already starting in his wrist. Eliot let Parker go, unfolding his legs and offering her a hand as he stood up.
“Threat assessment,” Eliot murmured to her as he slouched into one of the armchairs. “Gotta stay aware of who's around you and what they're doing.”
“Like holding a briefing that took blood, sweat and tears to put together?” Hardison suggested, watching as Parker perched in the other armchair.
“You didn't bleed,” Parker observed, glancing past Hardison to the screen, then looking back to Nate. “It's in a guest locker just inside of the northeast entrance to the park. I rented it for a week.” Producing the key from one of her many hidden pockets, she tossed it to the older man, who caught it one-handed.
“Okay. Eliot, where was the head of security during your meeting?” Nate's glance skipped away from Sophie and her injured arm as he spoke. The grifter arched an eyebrow at the side of his head, but he gave no indication he noticed, all of his attention on Eliot's answer.
“He wasn't in the building. He's got an office, but it looks like a place he goes to leave paperwork. No radio jack in there either, and a guy like that's gonna be listening to the radios all the time. I think he spends most of his time in the security office in the park, not at Granite Peak,” Eliot stated.
“Alright. Tomorrow is make-friends-and-influence-people day. Parker, Hardison and the bunny suit are going to meet with some of the workers to start setting up the playing field. Eliot, you've just been hired by the security department, your first day is tomorrow. Get as close to Mallard as you can. Sophie and I are going to smooth over the mess I made with Course.” Dropping his hand over Sophie's and giving a gentle squeeze, he got to his feet, helping her up as well. “Have a good sleep tonight, everyone. Long days ahead.”
Chapter 8: Hi Friend!
I am sorry this took so long to get up, thank you for continuing to read!
The morning came grey and dreary. The chill of it even seemed to seep into the warmth of the master bedroom, where Sophie was just squeezing her eyes shut against the reality that was five AM. She burrowed her face against the pillow and shrugged the blanket higher on her shoulder, forcing herself not to yawn. The noise would almost certainly wake Nate and therefore start the day in earnest. His back, lightly touching hers, still moved rhythmically with his dozing breath.
It would have been nice to be in his bed, to be able to wake slowly, talk, touch...he would just have to owe her another lovely morning when they got back. There would need to be breakfast in bed with tea, not that dreadful instant coffee he favored. Possibly a foot rub. Sophie vanished into the haze of dreamland once again, just long enough to be surprised when three pairs of feet who should know better went thundering by the closed door, rousing her with a startled gasp. Her involuntary twitch backwards against Nate finally woke him.
As a criminal, she'd suspected that Nathan Ford woke all in one go, as though IYS had installed an on/off switch. The truth was that he came around in stages, blinking, looking around, turning over and finally yawning. She'd watched the process a few times from close up, chiding him with how adorable he was once he was conscious. This morning, she just pressed her face into the pillow again, groaning a wordless complaint against the race to the bathroom.
“How much y'wanna bet they're all in there?” Nate mumbled, adjusting his position so he wouldn't roll directly onto her, then carefully turning over. Like many men used to sharing bed space, Nate had mastered the art of moving under the sheets without tying everyone in the bed up in knots. He fit himself against Sophie's back, running his palm across her waist and over her stomach. She pouted again, pressing backwards towards his warmth, but couldn't help a smile at the muffled argument coming from the washroom.
“They are,” she confirmed, glancing at him in her peripheral vision as he kissed her shoulder. “And I'm fine, since you're asking.”
He caught the sarcasm in her tone and sighed, a gesture she felt more than heard. “Injuries make things...unpredictable,” he tried to explain, shaking his head at her huff of laughter.
“You've dealt with quite a few unpredictable things, Nate. Try to have a little faith?” She set her hand over his and gave it a squeeze. “I really am fine. As you may recall, I am Sophie Devereaux. An arm in a sling is nothing.”
He smiled into her shoulder, nuzzling his nose against her back. “If you-”
There was a heavy thud outside, cutting Nate short. In the hallway, Hardison stood on his toes, his back to the wall, holding a bottle of shampoo high over his head. He took advantage of his one edge over Eliot, raising an arm to guard himself as the shorter man jostled him about. “I get the shower next or you're using those little complimentary bottles they leave in there,” Hardison proclaimed, trying to stand firm as Eliot jabbed an elbow into his unguarded stomach. Boxers and a tank top were no armor against even the friendliest blows.
“Just give it back and get in line,” Eliot growled, swatting at the bottle as it came into range again, just missing as Hardison pulled it out of reach again. “You were third Hardison, fair and square!”
“And I want to be second! Ain't gonna be any hot water left after you're done soaking your hair,” The hacker passed the bottle from hand to hand as Eliot finally got a solid grip on his bicep and started pulling it downwards.
“Why can't he be second?” Both men looked directly at one anothers faces at the sound of Parkers voice from the doorway of the bathroom, their expressions mirror images of wide-eyed surprise. Neither dared a glance, given the chance that their colleague might have relapsed back to her tendency to go without clothing. When no answer came, the towel-clad thief shrugged and turned back, getting her toothbrush and wedging it between her teeth and her cheek. “Anyway, I'm done,” she mumbled, starting to scrub as she strolled down the hall. As expected, the woman was only half-wearing the towel. As she turned to enter the bedroom to get dressed, it was dropped to the floor.
“Second,” Eliot proclaimed, recovering far faster than Hardison. He jumped, pulled the shampoo out of Hardison's hand, then strode into the bathroom and locked the door behind himself. The hacker remained in place, staring at the bedroom doorway with his mouth gaping slightly. He was still there a moment later when the master bedroom door opened and Sophie stepped out, clad in a robe and slippers.
“Is anyone waiting for the shower?” she asked, looking at Hardison, then following his gaze across the hall to the open doorway. Parker's arm was just visible inside, before she turned and moved back out of sight. “Tsk, really, Parker.” Crossing to the doorway, Sophie gave it a quick tug shut, then shook her head at Hardison. “I'm next then, yeah?” she said as she walked past him, taking up a position just outside of the bathroom door.
The young man hadn't moved when Nate emerged from the master bedroom. Like Sophie before him, Nate glanced at Hardison's face. “Parker?” he called, still watching the hacker. The door to the other bedroom opened and Parker emerged, fully clothed and tying her hair back.
“You didn't look away that time,” she noted to Hardison with a smirk, before turning towards the kitchen. Nate fell into step with her immediately, turning his back on Hardison as the spell finally broke and the hacker started to clue in to what had just happened.
“Uh uh, back of the line. I asked if I could go next.” As Sophie lightly chastised their teammate at the far end of the hall, Nate opened the refrigerator and passed Parker the milk.
“So, today you're going to take the bunny costume, move around the park with Hardison and talk to as many workers as you can,” Nate explained, ducking aside as Parker reached into the cupboard behind his head for a bowl. He bent forward and retrieved the cereal from a low cupboard, handing it over, then picking up a mug and filling it with water. “He's going to need you to get him in and out of a few of the security offices.”
“No climbing? No rides?”
Nate punched a few buttons on the microwave, frowning at the machine, then set the mug of water inside. “Not today. Tomorrow you can play tourist, I promise. Try to target supervisors and those with access to backstage areas, but anyone you can get on board will help. Find out if anyone has out-of-hours access to the dorms, get the details and anything else they're willing to give you.”
Parker nodded along with his instructions, crunching into her first bite of cereal. She watched as Eliot emerged from the bathroom, crossing face to face with Sophie in the doorway and flashing a bright, sarcastic grin at Hardison as he passed. “I'm going to climb that coaster, Nate. I had a dream about it last night. That means it's...” Tilting her head to the side, she looked out the window, gazing at the behemoth in question. “Destiny,” she grinned, before jamming another spoonful of brightly colored cereal into her mouth and meandering to the common area to turn on the television, leaving Nate and his raised eyebrow behind.