Nate needed a drink. In fact, he needed several drinks. His hand ached, fingers curling instinctively around an ice-cold glass that existed only in his imagination. He curled his fingers into a fist instead, and tapped the table in front of him, ignoring the dust that filled the air and made Parker sneeze. "So," he said, the word scraping its way through his parched throat and past cracked lips that tasted of dirt and blood. "How many of you have been involved in natural disasters?"
"Does causing them count as being involved?" Eliot asked, and then shrugged at everyone's looks. "What? I may have caused a rock slide that got out of hand. And then an avalanche another time. And then--"
"Okay, I am never going anywhere with you again," Hardison announced. One glance at him made it clear that Hardison was still sulking over the loss of their office and most of his equipment. He cradled his laptop in his arms like he suspected it was going to be snatched from him and tossed into one of the fires that raged through the city.
Nate decided to ignore them both. The sooner he gave them their instructions, the sooner he could go hunt for an undamaged bottle of alcohol. "Let's look at the facts, people. Natural disasters mean several things. One, looting." He paused, long enough for most of the group to nod, although Parker simply smiled back, looking almost wistful. Outside their makeshift shelter, Nate could hear shouts, the wail of sirens, and the occasional glass shattering. "Two, the worst of the worst are going to flock here."
"Makes sense," Eliot said, shrugging. "The government's running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Plus, electricity is out pretty much everywhere in the city, which means no phones, no computers, no--"
Nate had watched Hardison's expression turn gloomier with every word, and wasn't exactly surprised when Hardison finally tossed the ice-pack he'd been pressing against his bruised forehead to the ground. Then he glared at Eliot. "Rub it in, why don't you? Just say it. Mercilessly mock the age of the geek, crippled by an earthquake--"
"Which means plenty of opportunities for any number of scams," Sophie said, raising her voice and looking pointedly at Hardison until he trailed off, muttering, and then at Eliot until he stopped smirking. "I was in Costa Rica during one of their latest earthquakes. The government tried to move families from crowded shelters into homes by offering to pay the first three months' rent, plus deposit. Within hours, you had grifters and plenty of identity theft."
"Speaking of shelter," Hardison said, still scowling, "what are we going to do about our office?"
"Former office," Parker interjected cheerfully, oblivious to Hardison's pained look. "Seeing as it's rubble now."
"Some of our belongings might be salvageable," said Sophie in what Nate suspected was meant to be a soothing tone. "We won't know, until it's safe to return to the office."
"What's left of it," Parker added.
Nate sighed as Hardison let out a strangled noise of frustration.
Eliot just started smirking.
Sophie's flat, unfortunately, had been one of the buildings that had crumbled in the wake of the earthquake. She tried not to think about everything she had kept there, how the flat had begun to feel like home, but she couldn't help but dwell on the fact that she'd just bought those lovely Chanel sandals that she would now never get to wear.
Needless to say, she was not in any mood to deal with Hardison and Eliot's bickering. Thankfully, Nate had ordered them all to scatter to the wind, searching different parts of the city. He had given them very simple instructions-- look for grifters and other unscrupulous men and women taking advantage of the chaos, and then report back to their temporary base of operations.
Then they would grift the grifters.
Sophie was looking forward to it, really. They needed capital, both for rebuilding Leverage Headquarters 2.0 (as Hardison had already dubbed it) and for those people who had lost everything, when the government and insurance companies inevitably botched up their lives in the ensuing months and years.
The street she walked down now was less of a street and more of a chasm. She had to tread carefully, walking slowly around the outskirts of the hungry-looking pit and trying not to look too closely at a crushed car and the stark smear of red on its windshield. The air smelled sour and thick with smoke and gasoline, and Sophie wished she had some perfume to dab under her nose.
She had just walked past the hole when someone stumbled against her.
"Sorry," muttered the stumbler, and the voice was young and listless, matched by a teenager's too-pale face and glassy eyes of shock. Sophie caught the girl by the shoulder when she tried to pass.
"Are you all right?"
"I...." The girl stopped, blinking hard, and Sophie was relieved to see some of the glassy look ease away. "Yes. No. Is there a way to get through to Lake Balboa from here?"
"I think Lake Balboa's blocked off," Sophie said, feeling her stomach sink at the girl's stricken expression.
"God, naturally I pick the worst day ever to skip school," the girl said, voice high and strained. "My mom's going to kill me. And she'll be so worried, thinking I'm at Birmingham like I'm supposed to and--"
Sophie patted the girl's arm, trying not to think about the fact that at least fifteen or so high schools in the Los Angeles area were vulnerable to collapse. Birmingham could've toppled onto its side by now, many of this girl's classmates and teachers dead or injured. She kept her voice soothing. "Where do you live, sweetheart? Maybe we can get you there."
Two hours later, Sophie had done exactly that, and Helen McCarthy's grateful tears as she hugged her daughter was well worth the agony in her arches and Nate's ensuing disapproval. She sat down on a bench that had somehow survived, sighing and rubbing her aching legs. These boots might have been high fashion, but they were decidedly not designed to go traipsing around an earthquake-damaged city.
"Do you need any help, ma'am?" someone asked, and Sophie looked up into a man's concerned face.
"Oh, I'm--" she began, and then stopped at the flicker of interest in his face. It wasn't an altruistic look-- no, Sophie recognized that expression. The man was a grifter who'd found a mark. He'd no doubt noticed her expensive boots-- Louis Vuitton's Vienna Flower High Boots, priced at an obscene amount -- ones she'd gotten during that first flush of money after her first job with Nate and the others. "I'm fine," she finished, assuming a weak smile that suggested she was not fine at all. "Although my flat seems to be quite...flat, at the moment."
One corner of the man's mouth twitched upwards in appreciation of her weak joke, and then he extended his hand. "Peter Harper, at your service."
"Jane Christien," she said, taking his hand and glad that she still had her fake ID from the last job. Harper had a firm, cool handshake, one that didn't linger as most men's did. She could almost appreciate his skill. Still, that flash of hunger had been almost amateurish. "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not quite certain how you'd help me." She waved a hand at smoke drifting from a nearby fire. "Goodness knows everything's chaos right now."
"I'm visiting my cousin in the city. The apartment he owns managed to escape disaster," Harper said. "He's opening it to as many people as possible."
"He sounds like a good Samaritan," Sophie observed, and watched Harper smile again like she'd made a joke. She wondered what his angle was. Would he get her back to the apartment and then try to rob her? No, he didn't seem quite that boorish. He would not doubt be more subtle than that, for all that he wasn't perfect at concealing his emotions. Well, time would tell, she supposed, and then gingerly got to her feet, accepting Harper's arm when he offered it to her.
"Shall we?" he said, and she let him lead her further into the city.
After a few hours, Eliot had managed to track down five grifters and stop ten separate muggings. You'd think people would go for something easier and just loot department stores, but no, people had to be assholes. Eliot had enjoyed beating some sense into the muggers, and they had all limped away promising not to mug anyone else. However, he got the feeling Nate wanted more than five grifters to go after, and so he sighed and trudged on.
Eliot didn't exactly believe in luck, but it was pretty fortunate that he saw Reynolds before Reynolds saw him. Eliot ducked back behind the corner, silently letting loose a string of curses that would've made his mother box his ears. Of all the times for the bastard to show up-- and what the hell had he been doing with Sophie? He gritted his teeth, ignoring the ache in his shoulder where Reynolds' knife had gone in.
Algiers, 1993. The GIA were murdering any foreigner who'd remained in Algeria past the one-month deadline, and Eliot had been hired by one particular foreigner's parents to drag their beloved son out of the country by force. Eliot didn't know why the idiot had decided to stay once the brutal assassinations had started happening on a daily basis, but he didn't really care. He'd get the guy out and get his money. Easy.
--Two weeks, an Eliot-made avalanche, and one knife wound later, Eliot was rethinking the whole easy part and daydreaming about killing Michael Stephen Reynolds IV slowly and painfully. The idiot had turned out to be a conman and blackmailer, working with the GIA to terrorize rich families into giving up their wealth. Christ. This was the last time Eliot did a rescue mission on behalf of some rich kid's family.
He reached up and pressed a hand against his bad shoulder. The phantom pain didn't ease, and Eliot idly wondered if Sophie would object if he snapped Reynolds' neck. Maybe, maybe not. Reynolds wasn't exactly someone Sophie would be friends with. Which made Eliot wonder why she was holding onto Reynolds and walking with him to God knows where. Shaking his head and resigning himself to Nate's disappointed look, he trailed after Sophie and Reynolds.
He was ninety-nine percent certain that Sophie could see through Reynolds' guise, but even a one-percent chance that she couldn't would've been enough to get him following after. And hey, maybe Reynolds would give him a reason to knock his teeth out. A man could dream, after all.
He followed them down a street that had only a few crumpled cars and overturned lampposts, and then across a block to an apartment whose only apparent damage was a few shattered windows. Must've been built once folks realized Los Angeles earthquakes were dangerous.
Eliot watched Sophie and Reynolds disappear into the building, and frowned. Unknown terrain, and he couldn't be certain of following them inside without being noticed. Damn it. Luckily, Sophie reappeared only five minutes later, alone and looking thoughtful. On anyone else (except maybe Hardison or Parker or...okay, except maybe everyone on his team), that thoughtful look would've been innocent. On Sophie's, Eliot knew it spelled trouble.
Slowly, he smiled. This might actually be fun.
Sophie didn't look surprised to see him when he stepped out of the shadows. She just raised an eyebrow and looked at him.
"I see you've met Michael Reynolds," he said. "Let's go tell Nate all about him."
Parker peered at herself carefully in the mirror. Her reflection peered back, looking puzzled, and, Sophie had said, "appropriately disheveled." Parker wasn't exactly sure what Sophie had meant by that, but Sophie said a lot of things Parker wasn't sure about, and everyone else had grinned and nodded, so Parker guessed that meant she looked good enough to be the bait.
Not that Parker wanted to be the bait, but Nate had said she had to. Reynolds apparently had a thing about young blondes who were in trouble; they were his favorite marks, though he liked anyone who appeared rich. So now Parker had to pretend to be "a damsel in distress." She still wondered why Hardison had laughed so much when Nate had said that. She could look weak and defenseless. It was helpful when outsmarting the police after heists. Not many people suspected tourists, after all.
Somehow, even though Parker knew for a fact that Sophie's apartment was rubble, Sophie had managed to find Parker a business suit and a pair of fake glasses. Now she was going to be Susan Walker, a concerned and overwhelmed social worker who could not handle the emergency situation.
"I am Susan Walker, a concerned and overwhelmed social worker who cannot handle the emergency situation," she said to the mirror, and tried to look overwhelmed. She watched her brow wrinkle and her mouth twist into a frown. She hoped that was overwhelmed. She wasn't very good with facial expressions sometimes. She frowned some more at her reflection, until her face was a little red.
Good enough, she decided, and stepped away from the mirror.
Reynolds' apartment was about twenty minutes away. By the time Parker got there, she was sweating through the suit and thinking wistfully of her tank top back at the office, the one that made Hardison's face twist into funny expressions sometimes. She still couldn't believe they weren't getting paid for this job. If Eliot hadn't promised that Reynolds was incredibly rich, and that they would steal his accounts later, she'd be pretty annoyed. Especially since Eliot had also rubbed at his shoulder and told her to watch out for knives.
Stopping in front of the door to Reynolds' apartment room, Parker took a deep breath and tightened her grip on her clipboard and purse. Then she put on her "overwhelmed" face and knocked the door. As soon as the door opened and a man fitting Reynolds' description looked out, she immediately began to talk, making her words rushed in a way she knew most people used in a panic.
"Hi, I am Susan Walker. I'm a social worker, and I'm just going around the neighborhoods, trying to help keep people calm and also to let people know what the government is doing right now. Can I answer any questions for you or the other people who live here?"
By the time she finished speaking, Reynolds was looking almost amused. "And how long have you been a social worker?" he asked, very obviously looking her up and down.
Parker frowned. She didn't like the way he eyed her, and she also didn't like the fact that he'd asked her a question Nate hadn't given her the answer to. It made her want to kick him in the ankle, or maybe stab him with something sharp. "Five months," she said, because it had been five months since she'd stabbed that man in Serbia. "Can I answer any questions for you? We don't have pamphlets yet, since the computers and electricity are still out, but I have answers for many--"
"My name's Peter Harper, and I have one question. Why don't you come in and sit down? You look like you're about to fall over," Reynolds said. He almost sounded nice, but then, most people did right before they were going to scam you. Not really too often when they were about to stab you though, but Parker kept an eye out for knives anyway.
"Do you have anything to drink?" she asked, and tried for a hopeful tone. It apparently worked, because he smiled at her.
"Nothing cold, but I have some bottled water."
"Thank you!" Parker said, and she didn't have to fake that. The walk had made her really thirsty. She kept a careful eye on him as he took out the carton of water and handed an unopened bottle to her. Water that looked unopened sometimes weren't, after all. Eliot had said Reynolds wasn't the type to use drugs on his marks, but there was always a first time. She opened it carefully, pretending that her hands were too shaky to get a good grip, and then took a small sip. Then she carefully set it down, and said, "I don't want to bother you, and I need to keep going, but if you have any questions--"
Reynolds laughed. "Determined, aren't you?" Then he frowned. "Actually, my tenants and I were wondering how to reach family outside Los Angeles and let them know we're all right."
"I know the answer to that," Parker said, making herself look excited and also noting that he had said his tenants, not his cousin's, like he'd told Sophie. Nate would want to know that. "The government is working on restoring electricity and phone and internet access. We should have some electricity back for some of the city soon. Until then, we're asking people to remain calm and go to the available shelters if they are homeless." She looked around, wrinkling her nose. "I guess you aren't, but if you know anyone who needs shelter, I can leave the list of government-sanctioned shelters for you."
"Actually, I've made this apartment into a shelter myself," Reynolds said. "So if you find anyone on the nearby blocks who needs a place to stay, just send them over here."
Parker frowned. "This is not a government-sanctioned shelter," she said slowly. "I don't think I'm allowed to do that."
Reynolds patted her knee, and she concentrated on not breaking his pinkie finger. "It's okay," he assured her. "I'm just trying to help out. Be a Good Samaritan."
"Oh." Parker pretended to consider that, and then nodded. "Okay." She got to her feet. "May I use your bathroom?"
"Sure," he said.
She acted as though she didn't notice the gleam in his eye that meant he was going to rifle through her purse and look at her clipboard while she was in there. When she came back out, Reynolds was sitting there, innocent and sipping at his own drink. "Thank you for your consideration of the city," she said, and tried not to frown at his lingering handshake. "Goodbye, sir."
"Peter, please," he said, smiling.
"Goodbye," she repeated. She took her opened bottle with her, holding it carefully as she left. She pretended not to notice how he stood in the doorway of the apartment, staring after her.
Alec really loved whoever had discovered aspirin. Already he could feel the ache where his head had hit a wall during the earthquake beginning to ease. Now if only his Nate-sized headache would go away. "Why can't somebody else do this?" he said, well aware that he was whining but not really giving a damn. He was going up against a guy who had managed to stab Eliot. This guy was already terrifying him, and Alec hadn't even seen him yet.
"Because he's already seen Parker and Sophie. And Reynolds will take one look at me and run," Eliot said dryly. "Or, you know, stab me again, which I have to admit I'm against. Plus, we want him in jail, not running off to Bermuda."
"Right," Alec muttered. He adjusted his glasses and fiddled with his tie until Nate gave him the patented enough-stalling-and-get-to-work glare. All in all, Nate had about fifteen different glares, twenty different scowls, nine different smiles, and seventeen different smirks-- and okay, now Nate was wearing the no-really-I-mean-it look, so enough stalling. "You're going to be right outside, right?"
"Yes," Eliot said, as he'd answered three times before-- hey, nobody could blame Alec for being nervous.
Parker patted him on the shoulder. Her smile was wide and slightly lopsided, probably emphasizing her sincerity. Or overall craziness. Alec was still working on cataloging Parker's expressions. "Don't worry, Hardison. You might be able to dodge any knife. You can move pretty quick when you want to."
"Thanks," Alec said, not comforted at all. He squared his shoulders, smoothing out a wrinkle in his suit. All right, time to bite the bullet (hopefully only figuratively).
Michael Reynolds didn't look terrifying. Then again, neither did Eliot at first glance (okay, Eliot's hair was pretty terrible, but that wasn't the point). He offered Alec a warm smile, brown eyes curious. "How may I help you?"
"Peter Harper, right?" Alec said, letting anxiety color his voice. "Miss Walker mentioned you're opening your building to anyone who needs a place to stay."
Reynolds blinked, and then a gleam of interest flared in his gaze and he smiled. "Just doing my part for the community," he said at last, shrugging and looking modest.
Just doing his part. Did this guy listen to the words coming out of his mouth? Alec mentally rolled his eyes, pasting on a relieved look. "Great." He leaned against the doorway, smiling earnestly. "My apartment sort of...bit the dust, and I just-- yeah, I really cannot take living in a stadium or wherever the government sticks us, you know? I've read all about Katrina. I'm not getting stuck in a trailer or tents for the next year if I can help it."
Reynolds looked sympathetic. "Well, I've still got some room, and you're welcome to it." He offered up his hand, and when Alec took it, he found himself on the other end of a powerful grip. "I'm Peter Harper."
"Stephen Anthonyson," Alec said, and then pulled out his wallet with hands that trembled (and that was all part of the act, if anyone asked). He let Reynolds see the flush of bills, selecting two hundred dollar bills and offering them. "Great to meet you. Look, I can't pay you much right now, but once we get back electricity and the government regains control, I'd be happy to give you some more--"
"You don't have to," Reynolds protested, but his eyes lingered hungrily on the cash, and the fingers of his right hand twitched.
Alec shoved the bills at him. "I insist. You're doing a good thing for the community, I want to help out too."
"All right," Reynolds said slowly, the cash disappearing into his pocket.
"Now, about my room," Alec said, and cheerfully allowed himself to be tricked out of enough information during the conversation to have "his" identity stolen. Then, once Reynolds had what he needed, Alec added, "I'm going to go see if any of my belongings survived. Last I checked, they were still digging people out of the rubble, but you never know."
"Good luck," Reynolds said, almost absently, and Alec could practically see the dollar signs in his eyes. Yeah, Reynolds was definitely looking forward to milking Stephen Anthonyson out of as much money as he could.
Alec walked away, keeping a wary eye on Reynolds until he was out the door and safe on the street. Then he took in a deep breath and thanked the good Lord and his Nana for watching out for him. He kissed his fingertips and pointed up at the sky. "Thanks. I owe you one," he said, and then pretended not to hear Eliot's laugh from where he was concealed behind the apartment.
"Hey," Parker said, appearing so suddenly that Alec yelped and turned on her with a scowl. She blinked, and then tilted her head, eyes bright behind her fake glasses. "Oh, you're still calming down after meeting him." She pointed her clipboard at him. "See? I told you you wouldn't get stabbed. Now let's go. I really don't like this suit."
"Right," Alec said, resisting the urge to fiddle with his own glasses. It could wait until they got back to the base.
Nate took a long, slow sip of Brighton Punch he had hidden in a soda can as he watched Sophie set aside the brick she was holding to wipe her hand across her forehead and glare up at the too-bright sun. A sheen of sweat lined her brow, the heat flushing her face even as she gratefully accepted a water bottle from Hardison. Overhead, a helicopter roared past. After three weeks of it, no one flinched, though Eliot squinted upwards, maybe trying to see what type it was.
"Hardison, if you don't quit checking your email and come help us, I'm dropping your laptop into the cement mixer," Eliot snapped a second later, and Nate's gaze flickered in Eliot's direction just in time to see Hardison blanch and step between his laptop and the other man.
"Not cool, man, not cool at all," Hardison said. "You should never threaten a man's laptop. Ever."
"Let's get moving, people," Nate called, taking another sip of his drink. "We've got this house to finish repairs on today, and then we're working on another one tomorrow."
He ignored the dark looks both Hardison and Sophie directed his way, and leaned back in his lawn chair, enjoying the slow burn at the alcohol slid down his throat. He'd get up and help them in a second, of course. Right now he was just taking a break.
A hand reached out, and snatched the coke from him. A quick sip and then another sputtered second later, Parker shot him a reproachful look. "Alcohol shouldn't be consumed when building something, Nate," she said, sounding like she was reciting something she'd read. Then again, she probably was reciting something she'd read. "It's dangerous. And I'm already not getting paid for this. If you drop a brick on my foot because you're drunk, I get to choose the next job."
Nate privately winced at the thought, and set the drink aside. Well, his fifteen minutes were up anyway.
"Booyah, baby!" Hardison said suddenly, leaning closer to his laptop and pumping a fist in the air. "Got him."
"About time," Eliot muttered, but the complaint was half-hearted at best, Eliot already crowding Hardison in his eagerness to look at the screen. "He finally used the identity?"
"Mr. Stephen Anthonyson just spent a few hundred dollars at very fancy department store," Hardison reported with a grin. "Reynolds is going to be pretty surprised when that name triggers a dozen or so red flags."
"I give him, oh, four or five hours before he discovers he's in trouble," Sophie said. She tilted her head in thought, pursing her lips. "Though I do wonder who will get there first, the FBI or the mob. Quite a number of people were after Mr. Anthonyson, after all."
Hardison was practically rubbing his hands together and snickering to himself as he added, "Also, if the FBI decides to run Reynolds' prints, Reynolds is going to be pretty damn surprised at a few extra felonies he's got on his record."
Everyone smiled; Eliot like the Cheshire cat. The plan was working well. Nate was certain that the real Stephen Anthonyson, a member of the federal witness protection program, wouldn't mind them using his former identity to bring Reynolds to justice. Besides, the new identity Hardison had given to Anthonyson, the one that helped him slip his crooked handlers and get his family safely out of the country and away from the very angry Mafia, was much better than the old one.
There was peaceful silence for a moment. Nate relished it while it lasted.
"So," Parker said after a moment, and Nate resisted a regretful sigh, "what are we going to do now? Something where we actually make money?" She sounded a little sulky at the last, obviously still put-out that Nate wouldn't let them do anything more than scare off the grifters flocking to the town, but Nate just smiled.
"Sophie, you have the list of grifters we haven't gotten to yet?" As Sophie placed the list on the table, Nate closed his eyes, a dozen different scenarios playing out against the back of his eyelids. Yeah, the next few weeks would be fun. And after they were done with the grifters, they would be able to keep rebuilding, not just their headquarters, but some of the hundreds of houses that had crumbled in the wake of the earthquake.
"Okay, everyone, let's get started," he said, and opened his eyes.