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The Out of Jail Free Card Job

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I’ll put my notes here because I’m not sure how summary/notes on A03 work when posting is delayed.

I chose your prompt Board Game Night Gone Wrong.

First, I had to think of how to herd those five cats into one room long enough to play anything, so I thought about a flu that would keep them inside. After that, I had to come up with where did that flu come from, and why.

After that point, when I decided on a client and a case, everything went wrong. Well, everything except that Board Game :D Plot spread. I applied 3 Act structure, happy I could finally stay strict to it. That meant 4 chapters. Plot spread some more. I entwined this story to be number 4 in my Leverage series, but I didn’t want to fill it with things you knew nothing about. I only had two mentions of Boston-trouble. (events from the first story in series). You gave me permission to use Randall Coddington, a cop from that story, and I’m grateful for that – I tried to make his line self-sufficient, explained even for those who knew nothing about their history.

This episode takes place in their first days in Portland, between The Very Big Bird Job and The Blue Line Job.

Did I already mention that the plot spread?

In the end, of the entire Board Game Gone Wrong prompt, remained only a scene with that board game, but Gone Wrong disappeared somewhere along the way. :/ I’m sorry. (Plot ate it.)

You were pretty open in your other prompts, so I hope this will at least entertain you a bit.

PS: the banner is bonus :D

PPS: Sorry about rambling; I’m completely incoherent when hitting the finish line after long writing.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

***

 

 

“If we were still in Boston, this would never have happened.”

Sophie sounded as if the pillow she was resting on was placed over her face. Nate sighed and pushed a steamy cup closer to her nose.

“No, seriously, Nate. Viruses breed and multiply better in humid air. Portland is awful, awful, I say! - is that a hot chocolate?”

He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He closed it, took a deep breath and tried again, this time forcing the air out over his scraped throat.

“Sure. Hot.” It sounded like a croak. And it hurt.

She took the cup and sank deeper in her chair. Nate turned the chair a little so she could face the screens, and struggled to his feet.

Hardison sat at the desk behind their chairs, only six feet away, yet that distance felt like a mile. His legs were shaky. He put another cup on the table before the hacker, amidst the mess of paper towels, mostly used.

“They’re almost done,” Hardison said. His eyes were half shut, stuck in permanent squint mode. He could work on his laptop, but watching the screens was difficult. At least his voice was normal and not distorted by the flu. “Parker will soon be above the office, still unnoticed.” He squinted harder, watching behind Nate, so he slowly turned towards the screens.

Damn, every movement hurt.

Black and white security feed was good quality, but it showed a corridor, not a vent with Parker. A human shape fled backwards from right to left, clearly hit by someone.

“What was that?” he asked the hacker.

Hardison sighed. “That would be Eliot.”

The same human shape – and a very pissed off one – returned in focus and charged from left to right, disappearing on the other side of the feed.

“It was… what, the third time?” he asked wearily.

“Yep.” Hardison nodded, then held his head with both hands, when nodding stirred his liquefied brain.

Nate felt the same. Parker and Eliot probably felt the same also – but the two of them didn’t have a fever when they left to hunt for the incriminating photos they needed for their client. It wasn’t a job that needed all five of them, thank god.

Crescent Casting Agency only had a few security guards. Eliot wasn’t supposed to have problems with keeping them busy while Parker sneaked in and out unnoticed. She was directly above the office and-

A loud sneeze thundered through their earbuds; all three of them clutched at their heads.

“Parker, noise-“ A quick barrage of Parker’s sneezes ran over Eliot’s gravelly whisper. He managed to put some growl into it too, after an entire day of only whispered words, but it was too late a warning.

“We have an intruder!” A yell shook them all. Hardison felt his keyboard, half- blind, and lowered the volume. “Somebody is in the vent!”

So much about getting those pictures unnoticed. “Pull them out, Hardison,” Nate said.

Eliot flew backwards across the screens, this time from left to right.

Nate sighed and went to make two more cups of hot chocolate.

 

 

36 hours before

 

***

 

The Spruce Goose Job had landed in their lap before any of them had time to adjust to Portland and their new setting, basically during the first hour of their stay there. Only after they had finished it, did they have time to settle and examine their new surroundings.

Nate researched potential marks in Oregon while waiting for the first client to knock on the brewery’s door. The rest of the team were busy and mostly nowhere to be seen. Hardison and Eliot spent their days in the brewery and kitchen, dealing with staff and putting the restaurant in motion. Their conversations, from the snippets Nate could hear, consisted mainly of non-stop arguing. They set their personal record the third day after the Spruce Goose Job. They argued about the vegetables menu for twenty whole minutes in one uninterrupted monologue – each of them speaking at the same time.

Every now and then, Hardison would wander into the office with a sample of the new monstrous fluid he produced, and Nate quickly ran out of encouraging hm-hm’s.

Eliot would usually follow with a pained martyr expression, and recite a long list of obstacles the world – obviously in a form of a relentless hacker – put before him to fight. It was easier with Eliot. He didn’t need encouragement, just an occasional nod. Yet, Nate couldn’t help but notice the flame of challenge in his eyes. They enjoyed it, both of them.

That, also, reminded him of another danger that might disturb their nesting. Sophie had proclaimed it was time for Eliot to start dating again.

“Don’t look at me like that! We are in a new town, and that means new people. New beginnings. Hardison and Parker are together, you and me, well, that’s complicated, and then there’s Eliot. I’ll give him a week or two more, but enough time had passed since Boston.”

Some flames of challenge, when seen in a particular pair of eyes, were very disturbing. That time, Nate tried with smiles. It worked. Sophie took it as encouragement and approval, so she returned to her new pet project – her theatre. Deeply engaged in choosing the students for her acting class, the grifter was seen only in the evenings when they would all gather at dinner. Her full report of her day was usually interrupted with brewery problems, so those evenings were easier to endure. Eliot didn’t pay any attention to her gentle nudging and probing, though he was aware of her intentions, so Nate didn’t have to intervene.

Parker didn’t bother anybody, nor did she speak of her doings.

Nate suspected she spent her days mapping out Portland and everything interesting in it. Her smile, dangerously like cats with a mouth full of feathers, was content and lazy.

Nate wasn’t the only one who noticed that nuance in Parker’s grin; Hardison was on high alert. Running between the brewery, food and his laptops, Hardison did try to involve Parker in any, and all of that. Without any success.

“And, what about Board games?” Nate heard his desperate attempt at the end of a long list of things Parker could do here, and not out in the town. “You don’t want to hear anything about food, I understand that. Beer is not enough to keep you busy. So, why don’t we do something fun?”

“I’m having fun.”

“I know, I know, but together. As a team? We can make a Board Game Night, and proclaim it official, once a week. Team bonding. Popcorn, competition. Monopoly.”

“I’ve never played Monopoly. And I don’t want to.”

“Whaaat?” Hardison voice jumped into higher octave. “That’s… just sad. We are definitely playing Monopoly. It has an Out Of Jail Free card, did you know that?”

“I don’t need Out of Jail Free card. I don’t get caught.”

“That’s not what I meant…”

At that point, Nate sneaked away unnoticed. What they definitely needed, before all of them start killing each other, was a client.

 

***

 

The first client came with Sophie. It also came with a flu virus.

That particular morning when Sophie called was soggy and cold, and nobody was in a good mood when they gathered together.

Sophie insisted Eliot should meet the client with Nate, and they both expected a troublesome case dealing with dangers or killers.

They met with a willowy young woman, sitting with Sophie by the window. The brewery was full, yet nobody took any of the tables near the windows, so not to look out at the grey depressive rain. That woman shone in the dimmed light, as if the murky cover only ignited her spark. Fiery red hair, check. Porcelain skin, check. Green eyes, check.

Unfortunately, Nate wasn’t the only one who saw this as the perfect set up.

Even amongst the music and murmur of voices, Nate heard a low growl vibrating in the hitter’s chest. Eliot skipped his usual early levels of annoyance and jumped directly onto Biblical wrath phase.

Sophie welcomed them with an insanely gentle smile, and hard con eyes. Nate knew that calculated look.

“I don’t like her,” Parker said in their ears.

Eliot gritted his teeth after that confirmation of this trap, and Nate sighed. If even Parker was able to see through Sophie’s motives…

“This is my friend, Ann Lisa,” Sophie started with the pleasantries, guiding them all through the awkward handshakes and smiles. The woman’s eyes were red and glazed; she held a handkerchief in a slightly trembling hand. Maybe, but just maybe, the damsel in distress approach wasn’t that bad an idea.

“You’re quite fast at making friends, Sophie,” Eliot said.

“I’m a lovable person. This nice young lady auditioned for my acting class a few days ago. She is an amateur actress and a promising model.” Sophie waved to a passing waitress, then continued, “She is, also, a Portland State Police Officer.”

Eliot’s silence was an admonition of her dramatic skills. Nate used those seconds to lean a little more forward and smile. “Why would a cop seek help from a consulting agency?”

Ann Lisa rubbed her eyes with her handkerchief; she looked as if she had a terrible headache. “Mr. Ford…” She looked left and right first, then straight at him. “The Crescent Casting Agency threatens to make my photos public. They were supposed to be my agents. I had several shoots for catalogues. Nothing was suspicious at the beginning, the first four times. I even got a few calls for interviews. But the fifth time they called in a hurry with great news – a famous magazine wanted a set of artsy black and white photos, and they chose me.”

“Let me guess,” he said. “Those particular sets of photos were nudes?”

“Half nudes.” She winced a little. “They showed me their previous photos: beautiful images, decent and classy. Black and white is a perfect medium for nudes, especially when lighting is scarce and the shadows hide almost everything. Silk, shadows and skin, in the hands of a professional, really is art.”

“And what happened?”

“There wasn’t nearly enough shadows.” Her words sounded bitter. “And I wasn’t alone. Another woman was on that set. The first photos were separate, then we were both in focus, and before I could react, her hands were all over me and the cameras were shooting in barrage mode from all around. I stopped everything and demanded to see the photos; they refused. They pulled a contract on me; I left the agency. Now, they’re threatening to make them public if I don’t pay the fees. It’s simple blackmail, and my hands are tied. Being a woman cop is hard enough without that.”

“You were lured into that for a reason,” Eliot said. “That blackmail was planned from the beginning.”

“And it’s getting worse,” Sophie said.

The waitress brought two waters for them. Both Eliot and Nate waved off the offer. Ann Lisa waited until the waitress left, holding her glass with both hands.

“The Crescent Casting Agency is under investigation,” she said. “I found that out only yesterday. I received a phone call in the middle of my class with Sophie. My partner called me to inform me that we’ve been added to the team that’s working on it – and I broke down.”

Sophie gently patted her hand, receiving a twisted smile in return.

“You didn’t tell your partner about your account with the agency?” Nate asked.

“No. I froze on the phone, acted like I’d never heard of them – and later I didn’t know how to tell him; or if I should tell him at all. I’m now officially on the team that will work that case, and eventually we’ll find my incriminating photos. That might ruin the entire case.”

“Even if you tell them now, the case will be compromised because you were part of the investigation,” Eliot said.

“That’s right. I don’t know what to do.”

“Tell me more about the agency,” Nate said.

“They rent a building in Downtown Portland. Three story business building with two warehouses in the backyard. These are the studios and shooting sets with props. Hundreds of women walk in there every day. Their security is top notch. Every new client is taken on the tour through the building. Hi-tech security, safes for the photos, security checks on every floor… I really felt safe there, in the hands of professionals who value the integrity and privacy of their clients.”

“Until you realized they don’t make their living on commission, but on blackmail,” Nate said. “It’s a well known scam, though I have to admit I didn’t hear about this big one. They’ve put this confidence scam on an entirely new level. Somebody finally broke down and reported them?”

“Worse than that. We found two bodies, both females, both clients. They were killed last week. Same MO, and only three days between killings. We are investigating the agency because it was the only common denominator.”

“So, what exactly do you think we can do for you?”

“Sophie told me you are very persuasive and excellent in negotiating. And, that you’ve managed before to help people in my position, without public humiliation and without paying the money. Can you make them destroy my photos and terminate my account before the police investigation finds out about that?”

Nate leaned back in his chair, careful not to dart a glare at Sophie. Involving a cop so early, in their first few days here, might prove dangerous – but he understood her motives. Cop or not, this woman was in the kind of trouble that no law could solve.

“We’ll see what we can do,” he said. “I won’t promise you anything before we do our recon.”

“I understand.” Though her smile was twisted, her nod was grateful.

Eliot’s nod, on the other hand, was almost invisible. Stalling was the best option in this case, at least until Hardison did his thing.

Ann Lisa got up and collected her purse. “I hope this will end well and, and…” A loud sneeze cut off her words, and she quickly pressed her handkerchief to her nose.

“Bless you!” Sophie smiled at her. “Truth, you see? It will all end well. Go home and make yourself a nice cup of tea, and-“

“No, I have to go to work. I’m already running late. Thank you, again.” And with that, she left.

All three of them turned to the window, following her progress across the street to her car. Nate knew Eliot waited for him to broach the subject.

“And now,” he said, “we should discuss bringing cops in as clients, without checking them out first.”

“But, she is an actress, Nate. We can trust her.”

“Yeah, right. That certainly clears her of any-“

“She is also being followed,” Eliot said. He continued to watch her through the window. “Black limo was parked behind her – it went after her, leaving three cars between them. Too far away to see the license plate. Hardison?”

“I’ll pull the surveillance feed,” Hardison spoke in their ears. “Though that part of the street isn’t covered. I’m already working on that modeling agency.”

“Good,” Nate said. “Sophie, if I were a cop, and wanted to infiltrate a suspicious new consulting agency in my town, that happens to run a brewery, I would’ve found a way to get closer. For example, approach through another channel, like an acting class, playing a victim.”

“She isn’t that good an actor, trust me.” Sophie’s light, reckless smile disappeared. Sophie Devereaux in serious mode even erased Eliot’s scowl. “I’m a grifter; I know how it’s done, and how much preparation one needs to put into that kind of scam. We’ve been in Portland a little over a week, and I rented a theatre just a few days ago. It’s too short a time frame to set up her role, if she was a plant. Hardison can see how old her account at the agency is, and then we’ll know for sure.”

“You could do all of it in two hours.”

“As I said, she isn’t that good an actor. She is just a woman in trouble, who happens to be a cop.” Sophie got up. Her gentle smile returned. “And she is also gorgeous. Eliot, you said she was followed… maybe you should go and protect her, or something.”

“Or. Something,” the hitter slowly repeated. “You know, Sophie, you should stay out of-“

Nate raised his hand. “Instead of protecting our client, we’ll first see what exactly is threatening her. Then we’ll decide what to do.”

“Yeah, you do that,” Eliot didn’t lower his glare at Sophie, but at least he didn’t continue. “I’ll need as much info on those two bodies as you can find. I don’t like that part of the job.”

Yeah, that part was interesting, indeed.

Nate watched them both going their separate ways, and waved to the waitress to bring him a large glass of Jack.

 

***

 

Detective Randall Coddington enjoyed rain. That invariably gained him a lot of odd looks from native Portland cops, when he first came from Boston. Now, a couple of months later, they’d accepted his weirdness, and nobody batted an eyelid anymore when seeing him walking around, splashing in puddles and refusing to use an umbrella.

That day, though rainy as usual, his walk to the Portland City State Police building was anything but enjoyable. The phone call he received from one of his informants, confirmed one of his suspicions, and put his partner into the middle of the murder investigation.

Unfortunately, on the wrong side.

Ann Lisa acted strange when they first started working on the Crescent Agency case, yet he paid no attention to that. She’d caught a cold and she wasn’t at her best. It was only when the investigation grew deeper, and they suspected that the agency had an informant inside the police department, that he felt a twitch of unease. Every step they moved closer to the agency, put a more haunted look in her eyes.

He checked her GPS – hoping to clear his suspicions, not to prove them – and found out she was a frequent visitor. He took her for a drive to observe the agency building. When he asked her, neutrally, did she know anything about that block and building, she said it was her first time there.

It wasn’t enough, though. She could have had hundreds of reasons for lying. Yet, when they returned to the station, a briefing revealed that someone from their inner circle had warned the agency owner, Danny Manners, about the ongoing investigation.

Tracking her phone records would require a warrant and opening a case against her, and that was the last thing on his mind. Instead of that, he followed her.

Nobody approached her while she jogged that morning. When she returned home, he hid at the far end of her street, waiting for her car, then drove behind her. She stopped after twenty minutes and parked, then went to the grocery store and into a brewery pub. He made a note about the Bridgeport Brew Pub, to investigate it later; the place looked busy, though not crowded enough for him to follow her inside unnoticed.

Maybe she only had a coffee, he said to himself when she appeared half an hour later and drove directly to their Station.

And maybe, just maybe, he should ask her outright about his suspicions, and clear everything up.

Tomorrow, he said to himself, and followed her to their office.

 

***

 

“Why did it take one entire day to collect enough info on that guy?” Eliot asked Hardison when the hacker finally proclaimed he was ready. He used that time to work on the final menu for the brewery restaurant, and came from the kitchen when Hardison called. Nate and Sophie weren’t there yet, and Parker was also nowhere to be seen.

This case wasn’t that urgent, there was no imminent danger, yet Hardison was much slower than he was used to. In the last four hours, the hacker had made three visits to his beer brewing– or whatever beer did while, well, becoming beer. That could explain his slower than usual pace. Hardison developed an annoying habit of standing there and staring at the fluid, as if he could speed the process up.

Or maybe he sent it some green, new age good vibes, Eliot thought while taking his place at their new workstation in front of the big screens. Every time they moved to a new town, their table got a few new fancy thingies… lights, glass, and various new switches. The next time, he promised himself, he would be the one choosing their new office. And, he also swore, he would fill it with rocking chairs, just to give Hardison the creeps; lots of rocking chairs and an old wooden table. No lights, no buttons.

He cleared his throat and took a sip of his beer to ease the strange tickling sensation in it. His head hurt.

“Because his files are partially sealed,” Hardison said.

He glared at him. “What?”

“You asked me why it took me an entire day to collect info on that guy. That’s why.”

True. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. The throbbing seemed to spread.

“How do you think I find things out about our marks? Going through their Facebook pages and looking at their old photos? Or calling their wife to ask for details? Huh?” Now Hardison rubbed the back of his neck and cleared his throat.

“Ah shit,” Eliot said. “Don’t tell me your eyes burn, and your throat feels as if you swallowed a bucket of sand?”

“As a matter of fact…”

He didn’t have to finish his sentence. A loud sneeze came from above them, and Parker landed on the table with an ungraceful thud. The thief’s eyes were red.

“My head hurts,” she said.

Dammit, Sophie.

“Work on that till Nate and Sophie arrive,” he said to Hardison as he stood up. If they show up at all.

“Where are you going?”

“Kitchen.”

To make a gallon of chicken soup. They were so going to need it.

 

***

“Daniel Charles Manners,” Hardison said. “AKA Danny Manners.”

A robust man in his mid-forties smiled down on them from the screen. Parker followed his appearance with a slurp of her soup, and Eliot’s skin crawled.

Nate and Sophie also looked annoyed with the thief, and that said a lot about how shitty they were feeling. Especially Sophie. Her voice was raspy, Nate’s croaky, Hardison’s throaty… a few more, and they would have all seven dwarves. Their Snow White with porcelain skin - he did notice that - did a great job of spreading her viruses on all of them.

“Englishman. Lived in France. Ex-military. Ex-mercenary. Ex-president of Field Gunners of Portsmouth. Ex- president of Oregon Honda Club.”

“He is a lot of ex’s,” Sophie said.

“He’s led an ex-citing life.” Hardison pulled up a map of Europe with Africa and the Middle East, and many red dots danced across it. “His military career was with Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.” He zoomed out from it, and new dots sprinkled over USA and made a cluster around Oregon. “Today, he is in our neighborhood. The Crescent Casting Agency is only a branch of Crescent Moon Productions. He is organizing major sport events and competitions, and his hostesses are-“

“Imported and very expensive.” Eliot finished Hardison’s sentence. “And now that business with blackmail looks natural. That’s how you start… you import a few high class prostitutes and quickly make your name, then fill your ranks with the best of the blackmailed ones. It’s the same with horses.”

“What? Horses? What do you mean?”

“Amateurs spend fortunes on an entire stud farm, counting on returning the investment through races, over time. They lose big time. Pros buy one or two champions, spending the same amount of money, and return the investment quickly, by winning, and then they spread out and buy more. Manners don’t want money from Ann. He wants her for his stable.”

“You can’t know that,” Parker said. “Maybe he wants the money. And she isn’t poor, isn’t a drug addict; he can’t make her a whore.”

“No.” Nate smiled. He got up and went closer to the screen, studying Manner’s smile. “Okay, maybe yes. But that’s not how I would do it. She is currently in the first stage, when they slowly increase the pressure. They are asking for money right now. If she gives them some, they will offer for her to pay the rest a different way. After the first client – and that one will be chosen very carefully, so as not to spook her; someone classy, a gentleman, rich and handsome – they will reward her. After her second client, not only would she pay off everything, she would make a profit, and a solid one. Another champion in Manner’s stable, and all with a couple of risqué photos.”

“You’re creepy.” Parker finished her sentence with another slurp, and that was too much. Eliot took the bowl from her, and put it on his side of table.

She followed the bowl with wide-open eyes; a yelp on its way out turned into a coughing fit.

Eliot rolled his eyes and immediately regretted it. It felt like the inside of his eyelids was made of sand paper. He squinted and gave her the bowl back.

“And she didn’t tell them she was a cop,” Nate said. “Good for her – if she had, maybe she would’ve been the third dead body. She is only a model and actress for them, an easy target.”

“About those models…” Hardison filled the screen with small images of beautiful women. “Blondes and redheads swarm the place. Manners has a soft spot for blondes. All his first clients were Nordic types, and only recently did he add ginger-haired beauties.” He zoomed in on two of them, deleting all others. “These are the dead ones that Ann’s team is investigating. Both were blond.”

Eliot glanced at Nate, monitoring the depth of his concentration. It wasn’t manic, yet, but it was better to slow him down now, than later. “We only need Ann Lisa’s photos. Portland cops are already working on those dead blondes.”

“Yeah, of course.” Nate’s reply sounded absent. He stared at the screen.

“Nate,” he tried again. “Photos. We don’t solve murders. We most definitely don’t catch killers.”

“We take our marks down, Eliot. Even better if they happen to be killers, don’t you think?”

“What are you going to do?” Sophie said.

One corner of Nate’s mouth jumped up. “I’ll give Manners a blonde,” he said.

This time, Eliot checked Hardison’s frown. It matched his own.

Parker slurped the soup and grinned.

 

*

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 2.

 

***

 

Nate had an immense amount of fun watching two types of worry surrounding him, filling Lucille with a cloud of unease. Hardison’s worry was evident in his swirling around Parker while Sophie prepared her for her role. The hacker was all gentle nudges, encouraging sounds, and smiles. Eliot’s worry had hard edges and glooming darkness; he withdrew, crossed his arms and melted into Lucille’s wall.

Sophie was too busy to express her own worries. Usually, it wouldn’t take long to make Parker into a dazzling beauty, but today it seemed hopeless. Microwaving a corpse into life would have had a better prognosis.

“Open the damn windows,” Eliot said when Parker coughed. Hardison was finely tuned to her, so it triggered his coughing, too.

“What’s the point?” Nate asked from the driver’s seat. He sat sideways so he could monitor their preparations. “We’re all infected, and the number of viruses in the air won’t make it any worse.”

And he really couldn’t imagine that ‘worse’. Every single muscle in his body ached; his head pulsated with pain, and breathing was gruesome effort.

Parker looked exactly as he felt, in spite of Sophie’s attempts with make-up. Powder did cover the thief’s waxy pale face, but her eyes shone with fever.

Rainy, cold afternoon helped in turning her hair into lifeless straw. Sophie gave up on locks and instead drew all that mess into a classy bun with loose whips around the thief’s face. It worked. She put Parker in a small black dress to put an accent on the fragile beauty, and used her fatigue to work for them. Smoky grey around her eyes was the last touch, and they were set.

“Just keep in mind to turn your entire body towards the things you watch,” Hardison said when Parker left the van. Her brooch had a camera.

Crescent Casting Agency building had no blueprints anywhere on the web, and Hardison had no idea where Ann’s photos might’ve been deposited. That added to his frustration, helped and fed by Eliot’s occasional grumbling about unneeded risks and recklessness.

“Standard cameras above the entrance,” Parker said. Nate moved to the back of the van to watch the feed on Hardison’s monitor.

They followed her progress into a spacious lobby, full of lights and people. Hardison worked on his other laptop, making a blueprint of what he saw.

“I thought someone would stop me, but there are too many women here. I passed the reception desk.”

Her camera showed them a busy scene; not only there were dozens of women, but also many delivery services and workers with all kinds of packages.

“They are preparing for something, Parker,” Nate said. “Find out what.”

“And if you can, leave the main building,” Eliot said from behind them. The hitter didn’t leave his dark corner, but he watched the feed with them. “I want to see those two warehouses behind it. This building is probably just for show. It’s possible they keep all important things there, hidden from clients and public.”

She paced the ground floor until Hardison had all doors accounted for.

The first story was trickier to get to, but she followed a small group of giggling women, unnoticed.

“Manners will be on the third floor,” Nate said. “Can you find a staircase and go directly up?”

“Deliveries are going through this building to the back. I’ll try to follow- wait, all of you. I can’t go to both the warehouses and to Manners’ office! Decide what you want… and better, let me do my job – I’m following the ventilation shafts and mapping them.”

The grumble in the thief’s voice was unmistakable, so all of them shut up and let her work in peace.

Hardison jotted down everything he saw in fifteen minutes of Parker’s wandering around.

“Parker, stop!” Sophie said at one point. The thief froze. “Turn around and look at that big package that’s been driven on your right…”

The camera jumped and the screen twirled; Nate had to squint to focus his aching eyes.

The package had one green snowflake on it.

“That’s it,” Sophie whispered. “It’s Frozen Delight Inc. They are the biggest provider of ice sculptures in Portland. Manners is preparing a huge party. That’s our way in.”

Nate studied the green snowflake. “How could you know? We’ve been in Portland only a week-“

“I was researching eventual prompts for my first play. A scene full of ice sculptures would look magnificent, don’t you think? But they are expensive – every sculpture is delivered in a fridge built exclusively for that shape. The sculptures are unique; each and every one is crafted and carved, not molded.”

“Well, I’ve seen eight of those packages up to now,” Parker said. “They were all heading to the back, to the warehouses-“

“And what did I say?” Eliot said. “Follow the packages. If we see what they are doing there, you won’t have to meet Manners at all.”

“Yeah, I’m with you on it,” Hardison quickly added. “Leave the third floor and go back.”

And that way their blonde wouldn’t have to meet the man probably responsible for murdering two other blondes. Nate wondered if this cold, flu, whatever it was, was responsible for their unified fretting. Parker had her share of dangerous encounters before, and nobody panicked. Yet, nobody felt this shitty in this particular way before. Even Eliot moved slowly, reminding him of his recovery days back in Boston. Catching a bullet and almost bleeding to death hadn’t, however, put the hitter onto high protective alert, though he’d been aware he might not be an effective back up. One small virus did that now.

Parker ignored their whining. Her camera turned to a wall mirror, so all of them could see her frown and a tongue stuck out as a reply to their obstructions.

“My, my, isn’t it a charming sight?”

A male voice, unmistakably British, said from the left. She jumped up and turned around to glance at Danny Manners standing at the open door of his office. Silvery grey suit, steely blue eyes, and smile with hard edges in it.

“It’s perfect, Parker!” Sophie quickly said. “He wouldn’t think you are suspicious; cops don’t make grimaces at themselves. Just be natural.”

Nate thought that ‘be natural’ was the worst piece of advice one could say to Parker, but said nothing.

“You are Danny Manners?” Parker blurted out. “I’m here to see you. I want you to represent me.”

“All future clients are supposed to be stopped at the lobby. You have to make an appointment.” He eyed her from head to toe. Slowly.

Nate heard Hardison gritting his teeth. Eliot moved forward and Sophie made room for him.

“That man is dangerous, Parker,” the hitter said. “He ain’t like that hockey player you flirted with. This one is the real deal. Look how he stands; he is well built but moves with ease. He looks like he is able to move that fridge with one hand – don’t push your luck and don’t-“ his words ended in a grunt when Sophie elbowed his ribs.

“Don’t let him spook you, dear,” the grifter purred; Nate was certain she meant Eliot, but it would work for both of men. “Just imagine him with your Bunny on his head.”

Parker’s snort-chuckle was mirrored on Manners’ face. He raised his eyebrows in surprise and smiled.

“I don’t wait for appointments,” Parker said. “I aim for the head.”

In more ways than one. Nate hoped Manners didn’t read that from her smile.

“My name and my contact,” Parker offered her card. “You just got yourself a new client, Mr. Manners.”

He took the card and glanced at it, then locked his eyes on hers.

Nate knew what he saw; Parker’s camera didn’t move a millimeter. She didn’t breathe, didn’t move, and her eyes were wide open, returning his gaze squarely. No backing, no hesitation.

For three seconds, nobody in Lucille breathed.

“I guess I have a new client, then,” Manners finally said. “I like your attitude.”

“And what now?” she said.

“No, Parker, don’t ask him- just leave, you did what you wanted-“

Manners took a step closer to her. She didn’t move. “I’m too busy for signing contracts for now. We have a big celebration this night, a masquerade ball. Come tonight – and surprise me with your outfit.”

“Cough on the bastard,” Hardison growled.

“It will be my pleasure,” she said.

The camera twirled when she turned around to leave, and all four of them covered their eyes for a second. Good thing Lucille was parked, so no other movement added to this wobbliness.

They followed her path down the stairs.

“Don’t forget to leave your phone in some plant in the lobby,” Hardison added when she reached the ground floor.

She passed by more packages, more women and workers, and stood by a giant hibiscus tree to correct her stockings.

“The eagle is planted,” she said.

“That’ the sweetest nonsense I’ve ever heard,” Hardison said. “And now, leave, leave, leave that place. I have everything I need now.”

 

***

 

“That woman looks familiar,” Randall Coddington said to his partner. They sat in the surveillance car and observed the front gate of Crescent Casting Agency.

Ann Lisa sank deeper in her seat. “Which woman? I see five.” Her reply was gruff, completely in tone with her behavior that entire day.

“The blonde in a black dress. She came from… aaand, she is gone.” He caught only a profile of a lithe woman, a glimpse out of the corner of his eye, and before he could turn and look directly at her, she had disappeared around the corner.

“Someone you know?”

“I’m not sure – but I hope not. She probably only reminded me of someone…”

He hated the hesitation seeping into his voice. Ann caught it and looked at him.

“An unpleasant memory from Boston,” he said. “The woman in question, young blonde just like this passing one was, wanted to kill me. I saw her only once, and my, I surely hope I won’t see her ever again. Lunatic. When I was in hospital, she filled my food with laxatives.”

Simply stirring up the memory brought back his old tic; his left eyelid twitched. His therapist had worked on that for two months before he was able to control it.

Ann Lisa watched him with interest, but he wasn’t willing to share more. Yet, it was the first time since they parked here that Ann Lisa forgot to keep her face in the shadows.

“I didn’t know you were shot in Boston,” she said.

“I wasn’t.” His short reply wasn’t exactly inviting more questions, and she got the message.

She turned her hand and took a look at her watch. “We are done here soon. How many more days of this useless surveillance before everyone admits we’ve hit a cold trail? We didn’t find any connection with these murders.”

“Yet,” he said. For months he had admired her perseverance, watching her every day in action. She pushed, never letting go, never leaving a case until there was nothing left to do. It wasn’t like her to give up so easily. “We’ve only been on it a few days.”

She coughed and wiped her nose.

“You know what?” he said. “You go home and take something for that cold. I’ll wait for Paulo and Justin and brief them in. They will be here tonight during that party; if our luck holds and they find us some better leads, we might end this tomorrow.”

“I do feel lousy,” she said. Maybe it was only that – maybe all his suspicions about her strange behavior were stupid. Nobody could behave normal when sick.

But when she glanced back at the building, her face fell.

Maybe the shadows put that haunted look in her eyes. Or maybe he just caught a glaze of fever.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll go, if it’s alright with you.” For a moment, she sounded like Ann Lisa, and not this strange new person.

He watched her leaving, studied her shielding her face, and tried to say to himself it was only because she was a cop on surveillance duty. Nothing more. No other reasons to hide.

 

***

 

If Eliot Spencer knew anything, it was the distinction between soldier and warrior. He could smell it from only posture or from a glint in someone’s eye – and he was never wrong.

This Manners dude was the nastiest kind. His smile was open and broad, charming as hell. I’m a good neighbor, you can trust me. The type of a man you would ask for help without thinking, because you saw many like him in local pubs. A hard-working man with a heart of gold.

He would put a bullet in Parker’s head with the same broad, warm smile, and his eyes wouldn’t change.

Eliot knew Nate could feel that darkness in their mark; probably Sophie, too. But Hardison and Parker couldn’t. It wasn’t their world.

It wasn’t clever to think about that while feeling shitty and beaten to a pulp. Everybody usually listened to his warnings, even Nate, but not when they sounded like whining wrapped in nagging and dipped into irritating sniffling.

Damn Portland.

They had a job to do. How things were going, that wasn’t going to happen.

They returned to the office and dragged themselves inside. All of them needed more soup, but he couldn’t go to the kitchen in this state, spreading viruses onto food and staff. He made an order and tried to evade Sophie who ran around, fueled with her own fever, with a thermometer in her hand. He growled her away twice before she had a chance to go near his ear with that thing.

Hardison already had 102. That didn’t stop his typing. God only knew how he managed to hit the right keys, wrapped in a blanket, shivering and cursing under his breath.

Nate didn’t seem to be sick at all, but only because they got used seeing him half dead with his hangovers.

Only Parker didn’t have fever yet.

“We have two options,” Nate said when Sophie finally collapsed into the chair.

Nobody seemed to be eager to hear them.

“We have a mark to take down. And we have a client who needs helping. Right now, it isn’t just one job. We can’t pull it off. Bringing Manners down, tonight on that masquerade ball, is too much for us. It would take all five of us, in good shape, and a complicated con.”

Right now, even moving from one chair to another sounded complicated. Eliot wasn’t sure what he hated the most: the fact that Nate was right, or the fact he had to acknowledge his own limitations.

“Branlhmrve,” said Sophie. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I believe we should let Parker cough on him. Let nature do her job. In five days, we’ll be okay – and he will be in the middle of this nasty flu. Easy target.”

“Right.” Nate sighed. “But Ann Lisa needs those photos before the cops find a connection. If we can concentrate on that part alone, it will give us leeway. She would be safe and we’ll have enough time to prepare for Manners.”

“I made blueprints of the building,” Hardison said. “Most of it. Only a few blind spots.”

“And I have complete ventilation plan in my head,” Parker finished.

Nate now looked at him, and Eliot shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. “I’m functional. What do you have in mind?”

“A quick grab and go. Using the pre-party mess of preparations and lots of people.”

“You mean, smash and grab.” He exchanged a glance with Parker, who nodded.

“I saw a safe through the open door in his office,” Parker said. “No cameras on the staircase, and a good entrance point. The main ventilation pipe goes from the staircase through the hallway on the third floor, entering the offices.”

“You two are in better shape,” Nate said. “Can you do it?”

Parker got up. She was still in her dress; now she glanced around for her clothes. “I can do it alone.”

Yeah, right. Eliot didn’t feel like grinning, but he couldn’t stop an evil one. Like he would let her go – or any of them – near Manners without the hitter. Maybe after five bullets, not after one stupid virus.

“Let’s go.”

 

***

 

And there they were, two hours after that fiasco, Parker shivering and he sporting a few new bruises. He was too drained to be angry at the thought they were beaten and forced to run home with their tails between their legs.

Maybe they could pull it off if Parker hadn’t sneezed in the vent. He could keep the security at bay long enough – heck, even getting pummeled was some sort of stalling – and they only needed a few more minutes.

It was strange how fever and full sinuses could mess up one’s speed and coordination. He had received one hit for every one he placed, and that score was unheard of.

“It was just a bit of bad luck.” Sophie’s voice emanated out from under the towel over her head. She had robbed the kitchen and put a solid amount of mint tea in hot water, inhaling the steam.

Parker let out a dull hrmpf from her chair. Nate had put her there when they finally arrived. He even wrapped her into a blanket, stopping his awkward tucking at her first glare.

“How blown are we?” Eliot asked.

“It’s hard to tell.” Nate shrugged from the work station. His attempts to sit upright were remarkable; beside him, Hardison was slouched in a bundle of blankets, resting his head on the table. “Parker wasn’t seen, maybe only as a blonde shadow in passing. You, on the other hand… five security guys saw your face. It will reduce your role in everything we do, when we finally start.”

“But we’re done for today?” Sophie sniffed from the towel. She raised her head to squint at them, then lowered it again.

“Yeah, we’re done.” Nate looked towards the door, eyeing the distance. “We should go home, all of us, and try to… well, get better. As soon as possible.”

Nobody moved. Eliot only imagined driving to his place – or even calling a taxi – and another wave of headache came with that thought. Sophie didn’t seem to be able to walk.

Hardison and Parker were in better position, just a few stairs apart from their apartment.

“While you were gone, I ordered more soup and tea,” Hardison mumbled. “And while we wait for it, I have an idea.”

 

***

 

“It’s a matter of mind over body,” Hardison proclaimed. “Come here.”

Eliot partially agreed. Hardison even looked a bit better since he got up, arranging the chairs from the restaurant in a semi-circle around big chair. A slightly manic glint in the hacker’s eye, however, was disturbing, promising all sorts of geeky nonsense. He would have trouble to endure that even in his best shape. Now, aching all over and irritated to the level of insanity, he was solidly worried about this idea.

“My mind aches, too,” Sophie said, not impressed at all. “If you want anything more demanding than-“

“No, no, not demanding at all! Just fun that will help us forget our sinuses pulsate filled with prickly alien worms eating our brain.”

“Euw.” She put the towel back on her head.

Hardison dragged a small coffee table into the middle.

“We are playing Monopoly,” he proclaimed.

Nate snorted. “Of all bad ideas you had, Hardison, this one is-“

“Parker’s never played Monopoly.”

Eliot crossed his arms and sank deeper in his chair, watching the battle on Nate’s face. It was fascinating. Nate stood caught in his attempt of standing up and leaving; he glanced at Parker and the small frown of concentration while she watched Hardison spreading the board on the table. That rare frown Eliot saw only once before, when she waited for Nate and Sophie to give her her Christmas present last year.

Eliot could bet the result of Nate’s inner struggle, but he was careful not to show his smirk.

Nate slowly sat back.

“You can leave, all of you,” Hardison said. “But it’s cold outside, wet, and probably raining, and here we have warmth, a game and warm beverages.”

That, actually, sounded great. And nothing could go wrong in an innocent game, right?

 

***

 

Except it could.

The first sign this would be an evening to remember was the strange color of the board.

“The old Monopoly is boring. This is the Middle Earth edition. Three dices for speed, gold instead of money, and-“

“Wait.” Parker raised her hand. “What money?”

“Money you have at the beginning, and you earn more by buying-“

“Real money? Real gold?”

“No, listen-“

“I won’t play unless it’s real money on the table, Hardison.”

At that point, even Sophie leaned closer. Nate sat with his fingers tented, and his stare set firmly on the squirming hacker. Eliot seriously started to enjoy this.

“Okay. As far as I’m concerned, my part of it is real money. What you win, it’s yours.” He turned to the rest of them. “To make it more interesting for you, I brought this.” He raised his hand with a deck of cards in them. “Poker instead of a bank. Every player starts with only a small amount of money, and earns more through a combination of buying, renting and winning poker games. These are timed, just like chess moves. We don’t want your thinking to stall the Monopoly game. Fifteen seconds for each player.”

“Can we cheat?” Sophie asked. “I won’t play unless we are allowed to cheat.”

Hardison glared at her. Too late. Parker chuckled and grabbed the deck.

“Only one question, Hardison.” Nate’s tone was the most irritable one; gentle encouraging wrapped in a smirk, an equivalent of derisive tapping on Hardison’s head. He dosed it perfectly. He always did. “Who will lead the game and keep scores, deal cards, count money, note transactions, monitor cheating?”

“Hey! I play games online with dozens of players. I’m a multitasking beast. I can handle four sick people at the table. You’re not, quite, in my league, ladies and gentlemen.”

Evil glances flew across the table, in all directions.

Eliot put on his most benign smile. Challenge accepted.

 

***

 

“The principle is the same as in old Monopoly. You buy four houses in the Shire, and you can buy a Pub. Buy four orc lairs in Orthanc, and you can buy a Tower. We roll the dices in turns, and go around the board.”

Parker sat stupefied, staring at the false money, seemingly not paying any attention to Hardison’s words. Yet, Nate knew better.

Nate knew them all, and he withdrew a little, more observing them than really playing.

Situations like this one often reminded him of a thing he had almost forgotten during those years he worked with them – how different and unique their set of skills was. Now it seemed they were ready to wake up even the forgotten ones, when a challenge stirred them.

Flu helped. Maybe if they weren’t distraught and feeling this lousy, nobody would care about complicating this to the point where Hardison admitted he lost all control of the game.

Parker proclaimed, at the very beginning, that she liked elf tree houses, and started a race with everybody to get them.

After every round of rolling the dices, they played poker game, and false money started to pile in front of Eliot.

Yet, Hardison wasn’t letting them disturb him.

“Three penalty points to Eliot Spencer for indecent use of a decoy,” he said.

“What the hell is indecent use of – give back that money!”

Hardison put the three bills he snatched from his pile in the bank. “You distracted Parker by moving her money aside, and you checked her cards.”

“Nobody said anything about penalty points,” Sophie said. She took the hacker’s hot chocolate and poured it into her glass; Hardison eyed her as if trying to see what else she had done while doing that. He didn’t notice Parker taking the three Chance cards from his deck and hiding them.

Nate shuffled the poker deck while waiting on his turn to roll the dice.

“You, leave that deck alone,” Hardison said. “I deal – you only play.”

“Yes, of course,” he said. He waited, though, until Eliot leaned forward across the table, drawing Hardison’s attention to his token, in the shape of a tiny hobbit with a backpack. Eliot took it and lay it aside with no reason at all. It gave Nate enough time to snatch two aces from the deck before he returned it to Hardison’s side of the table.

Hardison glared at Eliot; Eliot smiled back. Parker blinked at Sophie; Sophie played with the dice. She couldn’t do anything with them, they all knew that, but Hardison tried to anticipate their every move.

Maybe, if instead of him, there was an octopus with three heads, he could control the game and, more importantly, the players.

It took fifteen minutes before Parker reluctantly gave up some of money that she’d earned in poker, and bought her first property. By that time Sophie had already spread as landlord all over the board. Eliot piled up the money, concentrating more on poker than on the board, and Nate moved at a snail’s pace.

Hardison’s hobbit then stepped onto Parker’s property, and Hardison told her she could collect rent from him. The light of revelation shone in her eyes, and Nate knew only a miracle could save Hardison from complete bankruptcy.

“In this game, Out of Jail Free cards are called Out of Thranduil’s Dungeon Free card,” Hardison said when Sophie drew The Dungeon card and returned her hobbit half a board backwards.

Parker checked her sleeve and grinned. When Hardison dealt the poker cards, she chose one of them and held it ready.

Tissues, scattered all around the table, were used both for their primary purpose – Hardison wiped his running nose after every second move – and for hiding stolen money, cards and poker chips. Sophie’s sticky fingers continually chipped at Eliot’s pile of money. Nate let her give him the half of it when he was running low. In return, he gave her his collection of four aces and four kings that he snatched from the deck in few shufflings.

Tea and hot chocolate didn’t help their coughing. They were getting worse rapidly, and that only cemented their determination in the game. He would enjoy watching them using their own weaknesses to force them forward, if only his head wouldn’t feel like it had been cleaved in half. Headache was unstoppable; and not only his.

Eliot and Sophie were bluffing each other at full speed, but Nate watched Parker. She stole Hardison’s hobbit, thought about it, then returned it at his spot without him noticing it. After that, she helped herself to some money from the bank, and studied the fields, clearly deciding what to buy next and why.

Fever struck hard when the next round of rolling the dice began, and Nate had no idea how long he could endure this. He balanced between having tremendous fun and wanting to crawl away and curl up in the corner, and he knew all of them felt the same. Hardison’s and Parker’s fever manifested in almost manic eagerness, it was as if their batteries were fueled by high temperatures. Eliot, on the other hand, burned inside, slower and slower with each move of his hobbit. Sophie mostly quietly whined, which was the best sign she felt better than any of them.

“The longest Monopoly game lasted seventy days,” Hardison said as if he read his mind. “But since Nate is losing miserably, and Parker has no idea what she is doing, we will very soon see who is in the lead.”

But what they saw, after Eliot put his hobbit on the same field as where Parker’s stood, was another altering of Hardison’s already stretched rules.

“Nobody puts his hobbit on the same field I want to buy!” Parker said. “I want your Tower, or you have to fight.”

Eliot had already bought four houses in Minas Tirith and he was one step from buying the Tower of Ecthelion. “No way, Parker – you have your elf houses, play with them.”

“Then it’s fight.”

“As you wish. I care not.”

“No, you can’t-“ Hardison took both hobbits as hostages, and put the dice down. “Stop! No fighting – and how would you fight, anyway? Clashing your hobbits against each other? Damn, that sounded wrong-“

Parker pulled out her hidden card and shoved it into Hardison’s face. “Out of Jail Free Card!”

“You’re not in jail, you can’t- what in fact do you think that card means?”

“You said it’s the most important one.”

“Maybe for you, but not really. Can I give you back your hobbits? Will you behave?”

At that point Eliot was already growling; a low, nasty sound.

A piercing sound cut through that low one; Sophie’s phone rang, stirring them all in one painful wave. Sounds hurt. She fished it out of her pocket, and frowned when she saw the caller. She put the call on speakerphone.

“Yes, Ann Lisa?”

“Sophie, I’m at Manners’ costume party.” Her voice sounded breathless, with a tinge of panic.

“Why? I told you we won’t go there tonight. That’s not clever.”

“They sped everything up and left me out – they know! I’ll do what I can while I’m-

“Wait, Ann Lisa, slow down. Who are they?”

“The police. I just saw my partner here at the party, dressed as Batman. You know what that means? They are now working without me, I’m shut out, they know I blew up that last action, and they are making a move. I have to get to those photos - it’s now or never!”

“No, wait-“

But it was too late. She cut the call.

“Crap.”

Everybody agreed with Sophie’s comment.

“We have to get her out of there,” she said, still staring at the phone in her hand. “She’ll do something stupid.”

Yeah, they all knew what that meant; leaving the brewery with an average temperature of 102, without a plan, without proper recon, while they were barely able to walk. They were playing the game just to delay going home, so tiresome that travel would have been… and now they had to act.

Nate watched them all, thrown off game, trying to get it together and return to their normal world. It took much longer than usual.

Leverage Inc. had never before seen such slow movement, nor preparations executed with that little enthusiasm.

“Let’s steal ourselves…” Nate began and stopped. He blinked slowly before slumping his shoulders. “…bleh, never mind. Just go.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Secret Santa – Chapter 3

 

***

 

“Okay, pay attention now,” Hardison said.

“I dearly hope your explanation won’t bear any resemblance to your game rules, Hardison,” Sophie said. Her teeth only slightly chattered. Leaving the warm office and going out into the cold night shook them all.

Eliot drove, and the rest of the team gathered in the back of Lucille. The heat was set on maximum.

Hardison glared at her, then continued, “It’s pretty simple. Everybody enters through the first, business building. The main party is in the first warehouse, and garden. Garden as in green stuff; bushes, flowers, trees… more like a small park than a regular garden. There’s a pool somewhere between that warehouse and, and… trees.” Hardison sighed. “It’s extremely difficult to transform the images into words today. Ever seen a cocktail party in movies? Well, that. And people wearing masks. Which reminds me…”

“That we don’t have any of,” Nate finished his sentence. “We’ll stop somewhere and-“

“No, we won’t,” Sophie said. “I’m not going there wearing a plastic fairy costume.”

“No time for-“

She waved off Nate’s attempt. “Leverage Inc. will shine, my dear. We owe that to our client, and you owe that to me.”

“Whatever you have in mind-“

“I don’t have anything in mind. I do, however, have a theatre full of first-class costumes. Take a left turn, Eliot. We have to hurry.”

 

***

 

“So, what’s the plan?” Eliot asked when Scarlett O’Hara, sailing across the street, reached the main gate. Her sore throat gave Sophie’s southern accent a raw authenticity; her warm alt rolled like a molasses, melting the security guards in their boots.

She passed by the door and corrected her curls – a sign that they didn’t need any credentials or invitations. Having a mask was enough.

Eliot looked sideways, then elbowed Nate who was watching Sophie with a look as akin to dreamy as Eliot ever saw from him. Fever did strange things to cold-hearted bastards, indeed.

“Uhm, plan? Yeah, we need a plan.” Nate straightened, painfully, and corrected his Rhett Butler suit. “We’ll see about the plan when we are all inside and see where Ann Lisa is.”

“She isn’t answering my calls,” Sophie said.

“People bound to do something stupid rarely do,” Nate glanced at him while saying that, but Eliot ignored the sting. Nate continued, “We should take her out and stop her from doing anything reckless. Only after that can we think about procuring her photos and – or– taking Manners down. Concentrate only on that first thing for now. Parker, Hardison, you in position?”

“Yeah,” Hardison sounded as if he was sulking. “I’m invisible. But hey, that’s a mask, too. I should wear the Invisible Man sign openly upon me. Not that anybody would notice that, anyway.”

“She has to be Cat-woman, Hardison,” Nate emanated a combination of irritated patience and pained grimace. Eliot wasn’t that polite; if Hardison was nearby he would have smacked him hard. “Parker might go through her vents again, and skirts and dresses would slow her down.”

“I know, but… latex. Black latex. I’m distracted. I’m terribly distracted, and – why couldn’t I be Zorro?”

“Because I took it first,” Eliot let the growl vibrate through their earbuds. “Stop. I need a mask over my eyes so the security guys won’t recognize me. With my hair tied behind, and a hat, they can’t-”

“You wanted to look pretty, that’s what you wanted. And you got a sword. Sophie, how come your theatre had DC Comics costumes, and when I asked for Marvel, that was all of a sudden outrageous?”

“Her costume isn’t from the movies, Hardison,” Sophie sang from the building. “It’s from Cats, a musical.”

“Whateva.”

“Be grateful I put you in Caesar’s robe. I could have made you into Cupid, with cute tiny wings, and fluffy-“

Hardison’s moan covered the rest of her words.

Eliot now could see a strange pair close to the door. A cat burglar in a cat woman costume looked astounding. Her mask covered enough of her face so Manners wouldn’t recognize her at first glance; a very important part. Eliot wasn’t sure why Hardison whined at all. He was adorned in Roman battle armor; it wasn’t as though he had those long white sheets wrapped around his shoulder. Gold and red, leather and metal – he attracted as many glances of approval as Parker did.

“I have a tiny skirt…” Hardison’s low murmur was the last thing they heard before they entered the building after Sophie, and music and loud voices covered it.

“Okay, we’ll follow them inside,” Nate said. “Everybody – scatter and find Ann Lisa before she tries something stupid on her own.”

 

***

 

Randall Coddington wasn’t actually breaking any laws by attending the party without invitation. The thing he was breaking, though, was the bond of trust between partners.

But Ann Lisa started it first.

He snatched a glass of white wine from the bar, completely aware how childish his thinking was. It wasn’t important who started this first. It was important to discover whether she was involved in a crime or not. He also had no idea what he was doing here. His presence might compromise their investigation – if someone found out about it – and he was annoyed as hell, mostly at himself.

He just showed up here, hoping he could miraculously find something that would prove Ann Lisa had nothing to do with this agency, or the murders.

Of course, she was the first person he saw when he sneaked in with the group of Avengers.

There was a bevy of pirate women all around him, but only one had that nuance of red colored hair. The black mask covering her eyes didn’t help her to stay hidden from him. He was lucky – Batman’s mask worked in his favor. Bruce Wayne knew about the hiding business, not like Clark Kent.

There was a slim chance that she came here because of their investigation. Any real partner would tell him that, and ask to back her up, or even help; but he had to keep some trust.

His plan was simple. Keeping himself in the background, he could follow her through the crowd, observe the people she talked to, and maybe even hear snippets of her conversations. Every little bit would help to clear this up.

He positioned himself a few meters from her and engaged in a small talk with a giant squid, when Scarlett O’Hara walked past them.

He glanced at the beautiful woman and almost choked on his drink. That same smile he had seen in Boston, moments before her eyes filled with fury and she smashed his knee, tearing his ACL with the skill of an MMA fighter.

He managed to swallow his wine before he choked himself; when he glanced at her again, the vision disappeared. He couldn’t be sure; her eyes were under a small mask of black lace.

It was his mind playing tricks on him, he decided. He thought he’d seen Parker, and that wired his mind into an expectation of the rest of them. That was what his therapist would say.

Relax. Those nightmares wouldn’t return. You’ll simply see them all over the place… ten Hardisons on the left, ten Hardisons on the right. It was stress talking to him, warning him to slow down a bit.

He took a deep, deep breath, and smiled at the squid.

 

***

 

The party was in full swing when they arrived. Eliot couldn’t help but think how the entire Portland crème, including all models and actresses, were currently exposed to the virus they carried. In one or two days, there would be many pissed off and sick people.

He left the others to mingle in the first building, while Parker observed the new security measures taking place after their attempted break in. He passed to the back side and entered the garden.

He was positive that whatever Manners was hiding, was in those two warehouses, yet his theory collapsed the moment he saw the first one. The front wall was missing, showing a huge opening into the main hall, complete with dance floor and pool. Stroboscopic lights pierced the night, and his skull in equal measure.

A band played by the pool. The level of noise was excruciating for his headache.

He retreated deeper into the park, towards the glimmering he saw through the bushes.

An entire gallery of ice sculptures twinkled in the night, scattered along small paths. Dozens of animals, human shapes, an Eiffel Tower, even a huge bouquet of flowers. Each and every statue had light seeping through its delicate crystals, and a small ventilator on the ground. The outside wind chill factor helped with preserving them. United, those ventilators created a steady, freezing current of cold air that went through his shirt and cloak, adding to his chill.

To heck with the beauty of it, it wasn’t worth this amount of shivering. He turned to leave when he saw a familiar coat standing near a sculpture of a man holding a turtle. Nate had beaten him to it.

He changed his mind and stood by him.

“Admiring the view, or plotting something in peace?”

“Both,” Nate said. “In fact, I’m wriggling my way out of a plot hole. Manners’ motives are confusing.”

“Motives for what?”

Nate waved his hand around the party. “This. If he ran a legitimate casting agency, this would be a very good marketing move. Publicity is everything in that business. But, he runs a prostitution and blackmail ring. What’s the last thing he needs in that line of work?”

“Publicity.”

“Exactly. So, why has he put himself in the spotlight? Hardison, can you work on your tablet or phone?”

“Working on it all the way already,” Hardison replied immediately. “Everybody is busy taking selfies, so it’s not suspicious. What do you need?”

“Find out if there is something special about this party, something that would justify endangering himself this way, and pay off in the end. He is risking a great deal with this, and he has to have good reason for it.”

“On it.”

“The other warehouse is closed, as far as I can see,” Eliot said. “Do you want me to take a look?”

“Ann Lisa said they have studios and sets for the shoots in there, and probably lots of props,” Sophie trailed in. “I doubt they will have safes filled with photos in there.”

Eliot eyed the dark, tall square on the other side of the park. “In the end, there’s always something in the warehouse. Mark my words.”

“You’re a gloomy paranoid. We have had cases without fights in dirty places full of boxes.”

“Anybody seen Ann Lisa yet?” Nate asked. “I guess she will be closer to Manners’ office. Parker, you there?”

“Yeah. They sealed my ventilation shaft and put a guard in front of it. There is also another guard in front of Manners’ office. I can’t get in.”

Nate sent a smirk in his direction. “If you want to see where the valuables are, find what’s being secured the most. The photos are in the main building, not in that warehouse.”

Eliot scowled at him. “I’ll go around the dance floor and try to find Ann Lisa. She might try to hide; stroboscopic lights are great for that.”

“You do that,” Nate nodded and turned again to the statue.

Eliot glanced over his shoulder once again before leaving the ice sculpture circle… Nate studied them with the same intensity he had when he first stood by him.

 

***

 

They lost fifteen minutes on their search for Ann Lisa, without any luck. She still didn’t answer her phone. Nate returned to the main building, knowing Eliot would comb the warehouse with the pool and dancing. Sophie was nowhere to be seen, but he found Parker. She stood by the column and openly glared at the guard blocking her way in to the ventilation shaft.

“Easy, Parker,” he said. Her eyes, when she turned to him, were so glazed she looked almost delirious. She was unpredictable enough on a normal day; now, running a high fever, she was a veritable loose cannon. “Sophie, I suggest you and Parker pair up in your search. Unless you found-”

“No, I haven’t seen her,” Sophie said. “I keep calling her every five minutes, in case she can’t hear the ringing because of music. Also, she couldn’t enter the party without a mask, so that means she has some sort of the costume. As far as we know, she could be wearing a sandwich on her face – how would we recognize her? Eliot, sweetie, did you happen to notice her measurements, by happy chance? I would say she is 35-23-35 inches. Such a tiny waist! I know you have a keen eye for such details, especially on beautiful redheads and-”

“Stop it, Sophie,” Eliot’s whisper was barely audible.

“Can’t hear you, you have to speak louder.”

“Can’t. I think my voice is gone.”

“Oh my. Do they serve tea at these sort of parties? Or maybe hot chocolate?”

“Ah!” Parker turned on her heel, stiff as a robot, and marched away before Nate’s eyes, not once glancing at him.

“Just great.” Nate didn’t quite moan, but only because it would hurt his throat more than speaking. “Hardison, Parker is headed for some hot chocolate. Stop her, by any means.”

“On my way. And, I have the details you wanted, about this party. In short, I couldn’t find anything special about this one. You’re right about it, though… it is strange for a criminal to drive such attention at his business. More than that, he does it regularly. He hosts these sort of parties every two months. They are renown in Portland; people call them the Ice parties. Those ice sculptures have became a sort of a trademark.”

“Again, not logical. Sophie, you said the sculptures are extremely expensive. How extremely?”

“You could host ten of these parties with what you’d pay for only two sculptures.”

“And I saw dozens of them in that garden.” He thought for a moment; nobody interrupted him. Only the background music and clamor of voices filled the silence in his earbud.

“Eliot?” he finally said.

A husky sound came from afar; it was probably a whispered yeah.

“You’ll be happy. Join me in front of the closed warehouse. We’ll take a look at the refrigerators they brought the sculptures in with. They aren’t anywhere to be seen, so they must be in there.”

“Ha!” This reply was unmistakably clear.

“Parker, I need you there, too. Hurry on ahead of us and unlock any small side door you can find. After that, find Sophie or Hardison and stay with them.”

Nate joined a river of dancers that flew towards the pool. People laughed and sang; he even saw a few pieces of clothes strewn on the floor. One Egyptian princess was already topless; she danced on the table.

He passed by a tall Roman Emperor, but Hardison’s posture, even though he was turned with his back against him, was strangely stiff.

He took a few steps aside so he could see his profile.

There was a Batman pointing his finger at him.

“You’re not real.” He heard Batman saying. “You aren’t even here. I predicted your appearance, and I have means to fight against you. You don’t exist.”

“Uhm, yeah, okay buddy, easy with that wine,” Hardison spread his arms out, in non-threatening manner.

“And, I don’t hear your voice. My mind is tricking me. Nightmares can materialize when people suffer from a lot of stress.”

“Do you have something against the Roman Empire? Or Italians?”

Batman turned around and disappeared without reply.

“What was that?” Nate asked.

Hardison took one whizzing breath and coughed. “Hkhave no idea,” he croaked. “I thought he was a cop at first – Ann Lisa said her partner is dressed as Batman. But I’ve seen at least five Batmans around, and this one didn’t say anything…cop-y? copi-ish? Cop-like?”

“Hardison?”

“Uhm?”

“Stop talking.”

“Good idea.”

 

***

 

Randall Coddington observed his hand inside its black glove. His fingers trembled.

Maybe he should really leave that wine alone. Hardison had looked too damn real. He even sounded the same as the Hardison he met back in Boston, when he visited Ford’s apartment. He could recall all their voices with terrifying clarity. Four of them spoke to him that day – the fifth one, The One, was at that time hanging between life and death.

He never heard The One speak.

He was stuck for three days in Massachusetts General Hospital, and Hardison put him on proctology tests twice a day – after Parker fed him with laxatives. He wanted to die.

Turning to the bar to leave his glass on it, he felt a painful twitch in his knee. His torn ACL had healed a long time ago; this was just an imaginary pain, but it brought back Sophie Devereaux’s face and her mad eyes.

He changed his mind and grabbed the glass back – when over the bartender’s shoulder he saw Nathan Ford passing by.

Another image replaced Sophie – this man advancing on him with heavy throwing knives and lunatic eyes. A handle of one of the knives broke his nose that day and knocked him out.

“M-more wine,” he said to the bartender. His therapist called it a psychogenic stuttering, a rare form brought on by traumatic events. His progress was linear. He regulated his breathing and anxiety levels, and he hadn’t stuttered for more than two months.

His left eye twitched again. And again.

He waited until his glass was full, then took it and went after Ford.

This nightmare had to stop.

 

***

 

It was a short walk from the first to the second warehouse, but Eliot deeply regretted he left the park with the ice sculptures. He froze to death there – now he was cooking alive. He would give anything if he could only wrap his arms around all that ice, and rest his head on it to cool it a little. Breathing was tiresome and it hurt like hell.

He was there first. No one to be seen around him. Bushes and a few small trees made a barrier between this darker part of the park and the hurtful lights.

He resisted the thought of sitting on the cold ground to rest a bit. It would be extremely tiresome to get back up again and continue.

Maybe he should’ve let Sophie take his temperature; he felt as if his blood boiled in his veins.

Instead of sitting, he circled around the warehouse to check all the exits. The front door was huge, two winged, probably for delivery vehicles, but both sides also had two smaller doors. When he made a full circle and returned in front, he found Parker about to leave. The thief just waved her hand at the open door, and disappeared into the darkness. Cat woman indeed. She made no sound whatsoever. Her fever sped her up as much as his slowed him down.

Nate arrived a minute or two later.

“We have people wandering around,” Nate said. “Every dark spot will soon be occupied, so you better close that door behind us.”

“Yeah, good idea.” Eliot looked across the park full of moving shadows, mostly consisting of giggling couples, and let the door silently click shut.

The smell of motor oil and old dust was the only thing they could sense in the complete darkness. The air was cold and heavy.

“We’ll have to-“ he whispered and stopped. His voice couldn’t penetrate the constant buzzing of all the background noise in his earbud. He took it out and let out a breath of relief when the silence fell around him.

Nate did the same and his phone’s light showed the same relief evident on his face.

“We’ll have to hurry.”

“Couldn’t agree more.” Nate led the way through the huge storage room.

This was the type of warehouse he was used to. They started zigzagging through the place, entering small passages through stacks of boxes, shooting props and weird scenery. He barely avoided bumping into a cluster of palm trees that were held together with a chain, placed sideways on an artificial small island. No fridges in sight in the first third.

There was a square opening in the middle, and behind it, deeper in the room, they saw barely visible tiny dots of light.

“That’s it,” Nate whispered. His breath formed a bluish mist in the pale light. “The fridges, plugged in. They probably hold reserve sculptures to replace the smaller ones which melt faster.”

They closed in on the group of silvery machines. Smaller ones looked more like capsules than fridges; there were only a few regular square ones. But five taller ones drew their attention. One of them was shaped like the Eiffel Tower, one as a giraffe, and one has resemblance to a human body, with wide outspread arms.

Nate took a step closer to them; Eliot paid more attention to the darkness behind the fridges. He saw two doors leading to rooms divided by a concrete wall. The cables disappeared under them.

Nate broke the silence first. “What did Ann Lisa say was the cause of death of those two clients?”

Eliot followed his gaze to the fridge shaped as a human form.

“She didn’t say,” he said. His mouth went dry. “You think…?”

“Yes. Suffocation. With dozens of fridges going to and fro, one could easily carry a body around, and get rid of it just as easily. As soon as we find Ann Lisa and her photos, we’ll think of some way to direct the cops in here. One of those fridges must have some forensic trail for them.”

“And on what basis? They have to have a warrant to come in here. We can’t give them that. We are trespassing. And, an anonymous tip isn’t enough for that.”

“One crisis at the time. Now, Hardison, can you... ah.” Nate reached in his pocket for the earbud and put it in his ear. “Hardison, we’re back. Can you…what?”

Nate’s face froze. Eliot suppressed a curse and fished for his own earbud, right on time to hear Hardison’s alarmed voice.

“Parker, no, don’t go with him, stay- Shit, Nate, she pulled out her earbud! She met Manners and-“

“Where are they? We’re coming-“

“Everybody calm down!” Sophie’s voice cut through Nate’s words like a knife; nothing calming in her tone. “They are in public, there is no imminent danger. Hardison, meet me at the lobby; we’ll go after them together. You two, do your part. We’ll call if we need you.”

“Call before you need us,” Eliot said. Nate waved off his implied question, giving a sign to stay where he was.

“We will.” Sophie now sounded a little less sharp, a smile colored her words. “Just take it easy, we’ll be there in a bit. I’ll call Ann Lisa once more while I walk, and maybe we’ll get her as well.”

“Hurry up.” Nate turned to him again. “One more look, check of those back rooms, and we’re done here. We’ll join them-“

A quiet melody danced to them from the right; for the moment it seemed as if it came from their earbuds. They both turned around. Eliot cursed under his breath when he saw the light on the floor.

“Sophie,” Nate said. “You’re calling Ann Lisa right now?”

“Yes, I’ve told you- why?”

“Because we are watching her phone ringing, discarded on the floor.”

 

 

***

 

Hot chocolate had strange effects on her fever. Parker evaded Sophie who was glaringly visible in her broad skirt, and slid through the crowd as slippery as a black latex snake. Invisible in the darkness, she danced on the edges of the lit circle around the pool. Only the little sparkles of lights hitting her costume revealed her shape.

“Parker, where are you? Join me by the pool – we will search together.”

Music pulsated in her ears. The team’s voices faded, muffled and distant.

Bass and drums resonated with the rhythm of her too fast heart, but she sped up her steps to keep the rhythm going.

Searching for that woman was irrelevant now; she couldn’t recognize her and she couldn’t take off the masks from every redheaded woman she saw. The rest of the team could do that.

But the rest of the team couldn’t do what she could – get to those photos.

The guards in front of her ventilation shaft were a burning pain in her side, as strong as the burning in her throat and eyes.

The building with offices had to be her target.

The dazzling lights in the lobby hit her eyes like spears. She staggered for a second, disorientated. New people arriving, voices, drums, everything attacked her at the same time.

Her knees were strangely rubbery.

A firm hand grasped her upper arm and kept her on her feet.

“Well, well… isn’t it my new client? Are you drunk?”

Danny Manners. He stood just an inch away, hovering, all broad and wide – omnipresent – and his smile swirled around her.

She couldn’t get past those guards… unless someone took her inside.

She tapped his chest with her finger, trying to find the words. “I want to buy your Tower.” No, that wasn’t what she wanted to say. She tapped him again. “Your office.”

Hardison’s voice echoed and she glanced around, confused. He wasn’t there. He spoke in her ear and her words couldn’t form properly because of that new voice. She took off her cat mask and let her hair fall, taking her earbud out in an invisible move.

“Your outfit excels my expectations,” Manners said. Or it was Hardison? She blinked and smiled.

“Your office.” She tried again. “Now.”

Without any comment, only with a broad smile, he tucked her hand under his arm and took her away.

 

***

 

They didn’t need words. Nate started from the left, Eliot from the right.

The smaller fridges weren’t secured or locked, those were easy to open. The bigger ones had digital keypad locks, but they couldn’t wait for the rest of the team to arrive to work their magic on them.

Eliot found a pole strong enough to take his own weight. No matter how expensive and hi-tech, those fridges all had a rubber stripe along the door. It gave way, giving enough room for the pole to gain its leverage.

It took all his strength, while Nate stabilized the fridge, to pry open the doors, one by one.

They found her in the Eiffel Tower.

She had maybe minutes left. When he dragged her out, the stale air splashing at his face almost knocked him down. Coldness wouldn’t kill her, at least not that fast, but she would suffocate in less than ten minutes.

“Your cloak, hurry!” Nate was already taking off his coat. Ann Lisa shivered much stronger than she breathed; Eliot quickly checked her vital signs. Strong pulse and normal pupils were encouraging.

“She’s been hit on the head,” he said while they carried her a few steps away from the fridge, into an open part and level flooring. He found a few drops of blood above her ear.

“Good,” Nate panted. He kneeled, holding her head off the floor while Eliot finished wrapping her up. He knew what Nate meant; she didn’t know she was in a sealed coffin, left to die.

Nate pulled out his phone. “Calling 911. She’s breathing on her own, but she’ll still need oxygen. Can you-”

Eliot lifted her up a little so she could rest more comfortably. Damn, the heat the both of them emanated should warm her up in no time – but that only reminded him of her flu. This wouldn’t help her health.

His earbud cracked. “Nate, we have a Situation,” Hardison said.

Eliot held his breath when he heard him; dull, dead words.

“I located Parker’s phone on the third floor of the main building. She is upstairs alone with Manners in his office. Sophie and I are going up, but you two better come quickly.”

“On our way.” Nate said. He stood motionless a second, holding the phone. “Pick her up,” he finally said. “I’ll call 911 while we walk – party of this size has surely seen its fair share of collapsing partygoers with possible alcohol poisoning. They would have an ambulance car ready, maybe even nearby.”

Eliot secured his bundle and got up with her in his arms. His urge to run was overwhelming, but he didn’t let his fear progress into rage. He gritted his teeth and started a quick calculation; distance, steps, speed, time… numbers whirled in his mind. The result was not good.

“Stay where you are!” A flash of light followed the barked words, hitting his eyes, blinding him for a second. Back doors. He turned sideways, shielding his eyes with the rim of his hat.

Nate moved two steps aside, giving him space.

It would take a second to throw Ann Lisa in Nate’s arms, and two more to reach-

No. Not this time. Now he could see them through purple spots dancing in front of his eyes. Three of Manner’s guards with guns aimed right at them. Too far away to reach them before they all fired. If there had been only one, he could risk charging at the gun, but not with Nate and an unconscious woman behind him and without cover. The bullets would spray.

Another crack in his earbud. Sophie. “Nate? What’s going on? Hurry up, Hardison said Parker’s phone isn’t moving!”

“In a minute,” Nate said. He slowly raised his hand, still holding the useless phone, and smiled at the guards. “How can we help you, gentlemen?”

Eliot held his breath.

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

***

 

 

Coddington arrived in the darker part of the park just in time to see Nate Ford disappearing through the warehouse door. He wrapped his Batman cloak tighter around himself and followed him.

His nightmares coming to life might look like those people, but seeing them doing what they were doing in Boston shook his denial. It would be so nice to keep reassuring himself that they weren’t, actually, here, but wishful thinking never worked.

He melted with the wall and pulled out his phone.

“Patrick,” he said.

A mumbling sound from the other side preceded Bonnano’s reply. “What the hell- it’s three in the morning, Randall!”

“Tell me they are still in Boston. Tell me that murderous bunch isn’t roaming around Portland. Tell me!”

“What are you talk-… ah.”

“Ah?” He could hear Bonnano’s quick thinking.

“I can’t confirm or deny that information.”

“Fuck. Just for your information, I’m right now watching Nate Ford entering some warehouse, in the middle of my case! In Portland! I chose Portland when I was transferred to be as far away from them as I could – my therapist strongly suggested-“

“Look, Randall, they are quite nice once you get to know them. Just try and-“

He hissed a curse and cut the call.

 

***

 

Sophie followed Hardison’s long strides with effort, but the hacker cleared the way for her. She didn’t have to bump into dancing masks, just hurry to catch up with him through the empty trail he left behind him. Nobody stood to argue with a rapidly advancing Caesar in a murderous rage.

The well-lit lobby was full. She could see only a sea of shoulders, wings and cloaks. Hardison was taller, able to cast his eyes across the entire room from above, searching for a lithe cat-woman.

“They aren’t here!”

She dreaded the anguish in his words.

He strode to the staircase, but she lingered, glancing back from where they came, waiting for Nate and Eliot. They needed a hitter for this. If Manners took her upstairs…

“She is on the third floor. Hurry up, Soph, we can’t wait for them. Every second that passed means…” He didn’t finish his sentence, didn’t have to.

She grabbed her skirt, an armful of silk, and ran after him.

“The guards are still near the ventilation shaft,” Hardison said when she caught up with him on the stairs, already breathless. “That’s good and bad. Fewer guards with Manners means I can barge into the office alone… but fewer guards also means she is alone with him in there. And we don’t know for how long.”

“She’ll be fine, Hardison,” she said. “Parker knows how to take care of herself. And we’ll be there in a bit.”

But as she spoke, a heavy fear squeezed her heart; Parker wasn’t well. Neither of them was.

Hardison didn’t deign to respond to her empty words. He turned around and ran upstairs, three steps at a time.

She followed.

 

***

 

“Put the woman down and raise your hands!” Manner’s guards spread around the two of them, and Nate nodded to Eliot. The hitter knew they had to stall; Nate saw his quick assessment of the situation, invisible to the thugs. He could calculate their chances, too. Seventy-five percent chance of catching more than one bullet.

The guards circled around them, putting more and more distance between each other while staying too far away for Eliot to charge at them. The hitter could reach one of them on time, and that would be it. The two others would simply empty their magazines into him from both sides.

Eliot did what they told him. He lowered Ann Lisa on the floor and slowly straightened up.

Right at the moment Nate opened his mouth to speak, his phone rang.

“I have to take this call,” he said, spreading his arms more. “If I don’t answer, you’ll be in even bigger trouble then you are in now. He isn’t happy.”

“Who? What trouble?”

“Danny, you stupid ass. Your boss. He sent me here to move the woman. I guess that memo didn’t reach you, idiots?”

“Answer the call.”

He slowly put the phone to his ear – very grateful they didn’t ask for him to put it on speakerphone – and clicked it.

“You know what? It’s damn-well three in the morning here in Boston. Too early to be woken up with distressed calls about you.” He blinked in surprise when he recognized Bonnano’s voice. “I don’t care what you’re doing right now, so don’t tell me. But whatever you do, don’t let Eliot do anything violent.”

“Well, about that…”

“Don’t care, don’t want to know. Call me later and tell me how the meeting went… if you don’t kill him this time.”

Bonnano cut the call and he needed one more second to get it together. Fever didn’t help his thinking process, and for the moment he simply stood there, too confused to continue.

Impatient thugs with the guns were a good accelerator, though.

“That’s it,” Eliot said. “I’m done with this shit. Tell Manners to go to hell.” He lowered his arms and spat in the dust, turned on his heel and simply walked away. The three guns waved around, from his back to Nate, and back, but no one fired. Their confusion lasted two seconds, enough for Eliot to reach the end of the circle lit by the light from the door.

Right in the moment the hitter disappeared into the darkness, Nate turned to the guard on the opposite side. “Here, take it.” He threw the phone to him. “Manners wants to talk with you.”

The guard caught the phone, fumbling with it and the gun for the second, and Nate crouched down by Ann Lisa.

Not a second too late.

When a freight train burst from the darkness – five meters from where he had disappeared and directly behind the first guard – Nate hovered over the bundle on the ground.

No bullets came their way, just screams of pain and nasty low sounds of fists hitting flesh. Only when a new sound joined the thumping one, did Nate raise his head. Zorro’s sword might’ve been only a dull replica of the real deal, but it was solid and heavy.

When the third thug joined the other two on the ground, and Eliot put the sword back in his sheath, Nate said, “That was the first time I’ve ever seen someone being slapped with a sword. A moment of inspiration, or…?”

Eliot bent and tapped him on his shoulder – but the hitter’s eyes were still sharp and fierce.

“One more shadow is behind us,” he whispered. “Stay down.”

Eliot sprung without any warning, deadly as a coiled snake; Nate could see his target deep in the shadows, only a silhouette of a man. It had a black cloak and dark mask…

And in a heartbeat, everything clicked when he connected Batman costume with Bonnano’s confusing call.

“Eliot, don’t!-“

 

***

 

Coddington’s heart raced as crazy when he recognized a whip of a red hair on the ground. He saw a movement; she was alive.

Only after that he acknowledged the other people in the scene, and his left eye danced again.

A warehouse. A hundred times cursed warehouse, just as the one in which all of this had started a few months ago.

And just like that last time, he was being held at gunpoint. The One. He knew his name, but he avoided thinking about it. When you gave name to the cause of your troubles, you made it real. Eliot Spencer, he forced himself to think about it now.

The last time, there were four Chilean cartel members, and he was among them. The last time Spencer had a bullet in his chest, surrounded just like he was now.

His throat clenched and he swallowed. Those three goons had no idea what was going to happen. He knew. He had seen him crawling up to his knees, dying, heard his whisper when they came close enough to finish him off. He was sure the guy was done for, and Bonnano and the ambulance that he had called would be too late.

They all came closer. And then Spencer’s eyes changed.

Ten seconds after he sprung to his feet, had followed Coddington through his nights for months. Sounds of hits, screams, bones snapping with sharp cracking sounds…

He was the last one. Paralyzed with fear, unable to move, to explain to him he was an undercover cop, he watched him turn toward him – fiery, feral eyes boring into his – as he advanced those last few steps before he flew at him. Spencer flew, with one jump, adding force to his hand pulled back like a coiled spring and… he didn’t remember the rest.

He woke up in Mass Gen with broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, shattered clavicle and concussion.

The same bare-teeth smile that haunted his nights, with that fist raised above him, now flashed before his eyes as he stood in the darkness – disorientated, unable to say a word as this force turned his attention to him.

“Eliot, don’t!”

A yell penetrated his haze – Spencer stopped. The fist poised midair for a second, then slowly went down to his shoulder, grabbing his cloak instead of hitting him.

Spencer pulled him out of the shadows and pushed him towards Ford.

“Randall Coddington, I presume?” Ford said. He sat on the dusty cement, keeping a hand over Ann Lisa.

He took off his Batman mask and tilted his head to the ground. “What happened to her? What are you doing here, and what business do you have with her and Manners? What is she doing-“ He stopped his barrage of questions, feeling the dark presence just two inches behind his shoulder. “What…?” He stopped when he realized that he only wanted to ask him what he did to deserve this - them - again.

Ford must’ve felt his turmoil because he slowly stood up, not making any sudden moves. “She will be all right, we arrived just in time. Manners put her in the fridge.” Ford paused, thinking. “We were helping her with this case of yours. Manners used fridges to kill your two victims.”

The shadow behind him made an impatient move with his hand, and he twitched.

Ford nodded. “Yeah, we have to go. Call your people and 911. We’ll be nearby for more details later. But, one more thing.” Ford smiled now. “I don’t believe you two have been officially introduced before. Randall Coddington, meet Eliot Spencer.”

He turned around to Zorro who took off the black cover from his eyes.

“Nice to meet you,” Spencer said, and that raspy, deep voice, heard for the first time, cracked this nightmarish feeling. A smile followed, pretty self-ironic. Yes, this late introduction was very weird indeed.

His only memory of this man was his fierce charge towards him. Now he met calm eyes and the easy movement of a quiet man, simply standing there.

He held out his hand and shook the same hand that shattered his bones. And he couldn’t not to think that if he had only waited until Spencer woke up back then, and talked to him, his troubles might not have needed a therapist.

 

***

 

Parker’s phone wasn’t moving. Sophie knew there could be hundreds of normal explanations for that. This wasn’t like one of Hardison’s shooting or sword games, where an immobile dot in the middle of a battle meant the almost certain death of said player. His geekiness was what scared him to death; he simply forgot that phones didn’t move if people were sitting, standing, or chatting at one place.

And why was it that her heart raced like crazy, when she wasn’t one of his geek people?

The flu, a heavy skirt, late night, and combined with collective panic, she answered herself; not particularly in that order.

Hardison murmured something under his breath, typing wildly when they stopped on the staircase, and she used those seconds to catch her breath. Even here, two stories above the lobby, music thundered so loud that all the sounds in her earbud were only muffled echoes of male voices. Nate and Eliot talked about something. The tone of their voices wasn’t alarmed or tensed; she could feel it without guessing the meaning of the words.

Parker’s earbud was silent. Hardison had said she pulled it out – and that could also mean it was taken from her, or destroyed.

She looked at Hardison, at his quick fingers shaking while he typed, at his gritted teeth and fear in his eyes, and warmth washed over her heart. Even in the moment of his worst fear, he had carefully chosen the most benign words for her, so as not to scare her.

“Okay, we can go now.” He finished typing and continued climbing up. She followed him. “Stay behind me. We can’t wait for Nate and Eliot, so I’ll go first and-

They entered the hall of the third floor. Two guards stood in front of Manners’ office.

Sophie quickly grabbed Caesar around his waist and chuckled. He slowed his first step into drunken stumbling; a wave of his hand looked like he continued to explain something. The guards looked up, unnerved.

“I will handle them,” she whispered through her giggles, pulling him closer. “I will push you away - you slam the staircase door after you, and immediately-“

A click from the office stopped her.

The door between the guards opened and grinning Parker peered out.

“Two hot chocolates, Harry, please.”

“Again?!”

“Again.” She looked towards them and waved. “Finally, what kept you so long? Come, come. Danny asked about you fifteen minutes ago.”

For the first time in her life, Sophie Devereaux’s relief threatened to burst out in the form of sailor’s curses. For that, she definitely blamed this flu.

Just in case, she kept her arm around Hardison’s waist, not to keep them in a role, but to stop him from flying straight to Parker.

Harry left with an exasperated shake of his head; the other guard didn’t even glance at them when they went past him into the office.

Parker quickly clicked the door behind them.

The lights were dimmed, almost romantic – except a sharp neon light emanating from the opened safe.

Danny Manners lay sprawled on his back in the middle of the carpet, and for a terribly long moment, Sophie thought he was being eaten by a giant turtle. The top half of his upper body and one arm were stuck deep in…

“It’s a fridge,” Parker said. “A small one. It had had an ice turtle in it, so it’s all round-y and cute. He thought it would look great in the office for drinks. I didn’t have any weapon handy so when he opened it to take out the bottle, I closed the door over his arm. That guy will have serious trouble with his tendons and bicep, mark my words. He pulled, trying to free himself, I held the door, and the turtle did the rest.” She stopped talking to catch her breath, then huffed once. “Somebody tell Eliot not to beat Harry – at least not until he brings my chocolate. So. That’s it. What now?”

Whatever Sophie might say to her, she wouldn’t hear it; Hardison surged past her and the thief disappeared in his embrace.

She took a step back and turned to the open safe to give them some privacy. Parker sorted her loot in several small piles; dozens of DVDs with faces and names. On the top of the first pile stood DVD with a redheaded woman on it. She took that one now. They would take all of them and destroy them, but now she had more important things to finish.

“Nate, Eliot?” she said. “Parker is okay. Manners is out cold, and we have Ann Lisa’s photos.”

“And we have Ann Lisa and her Batman.” Nate’s reply was followed with drums and banging; they’d left that warehouse, probably closing in. “It’s time to finish this party, don’t you think?”

Oh, she was more than ready for that.

 

***

 

Two policewomen escorted the ambulance that took Ann Lisa for a checkup, wrapped in warm blankets and with an oxygen mask. She was stable and conscious. Nate made sure she knew the working version he had told Coddington, but she shook her head when he explained it to her.

“No more lies, Mr. Ford,” she whispered. “He is my partner; I should’ve told him about those photos immediately.”

Yes, she should have – but Nate knew better than to tell her that. He left her with Coddington while she waited for her transport. That explanation didn’t need witnesses.

Police cars with their red and blue rotating lights added a new variety to all those stroboscopic lights that already hurt his eyes. The Party rolled on. Nobody seemed to care about their host being carried out on a stretcher and taken away by an ambulance and a police car.

The rest of the team occupied a wooden bench where the park bushes met with the driveway leading to the warehouses. They chased off a pair of arguing green monsters. Hulk and Shrek stopped their drinking contest when a pissed off Zorro stood between them and looked each of them in the eyes.

Not a minute too soon. They could barely stand. Sophie’s temperature must’ve run at at least 102 by now, according to the frenetic speed of her black lace fan. Parker curled herself in a latex ball, resting her head on Sophie’s layered skirts. Even Hardison poked at his tablet with only one finger, slow and squinting. Zorro stubbornly still stood behind the bench when Nate approached.

“I’ve finished roaming through Manners’ files. Remind me to pick up the phone Parker had left in that hibiscus earlier.” Hardison drawled his words as slow as Eliot did when badly beaten and with concussion. “Take a look and see if there’s anything useful.” Hardison gave him the tablet and sank into the backrest, closing his eyes.

Nate scrolled through reports, documents, bank accounts and business transactions until all the letters and numbers started dancing before his eyes. Too much of information, and he could only process a tenth of it.

“All this doesn’t answer the main question here,” he said. “Why the hell did he host these parties? A party every two months. Why? Not your usual keeping of low profile when running a blackmail ring.”

“You’re repeating yourself,” Eliot said – slurred – the words.

Yeah, he was. His thoughts were caught up in a loop. “Those two murders were recent. He simply got rid of the women who refused to pay, or work for him, or became too unreliable, threating to expose him. It’s just a minor-“

“I want more chocolate,” Parker said.

“You’ve drank way too much already. Not gonna happen,” Eliot said.

“I don’t want hot chocolate – I’m cooking alive in this latex. Bring me ice- cream, or I’ll go and lick those sculptures.”

“Dammit, Parker, just stay where you are; I ain’t in the mood to chase you all around! Nate, whatever you’re thinking, think fast – Dark Knight on your six.”

He turned around. Coddington only slightly hesitated when he saw them all together, in one pile. The cop must’ve been tired, too, because he rubbed his left eye and sighed.

“Forensics are working on the Eiffel Tower,” the cop said. “I talked to them right now. They’ve already found scratches on the inner side, and Ann Lisa confirmed she didn’t make them. Somebody else was in there before her, Ford. I guess you were right about his choice of murder weapon.”

“Congratulations.”

“What?”

“On solving the case.” Nate smiled at his confused frown. “You and Ann Lisa solved the murders, following a hunch and an idea. At least that should be stated in your report. We weren’t here.”

“You’re doing the same thing you did with Bonnano?”

“Without you two, Manners can’t be legally accused of anything. Our findings wouldn’t hold up in any court. I suggest you talk with her in the morning and work out the details of your story. She told you about her deal with us?”

“Yes. Told me everything.”

Parker raised her hand. “And did you tell her you had braids with pearls when you were a Chilean?”

“That’s not…I wasn’t… that’s classified-“ He rubbed his eye again and let out one exasperated sigh. “You people should be arrested for, for… something. A lot of something’s.”

Eliot leaned forward and rested his elbows on the backrest, between Sophie’s and Hardison’s heads.

“You’re right,” Nate said. “We should be arrested. We break a law almost every day. We will continue to do that here in Portland. In your town. You plan to do something about it?”

Nobody said a word while the cop thought. Eliot even tried not to look too intimidating.

“I don’t think so,” Coddington finally said. He didn’t look entirely happy while saying that, though. “You cleaned Boston that day; you decimated the gangs and cartels in one night. Portland will be better off with you, than without you.”

“Good choice. You’re a practical man, I like it,” Nate said. “Now, that we’ve cleared up that issue… I have something else for you.”

“I’m not entirely sure I want it.”

“Oh, you’ll like it. You should start thinking about all the reasons why one prostitution and blackmail ringleader might have to throw parties with so many nosy people and expensive ice sculptures.”

“To make his casting agency well-known and legitimate as a cover for his criminal activities?”

“Good, but not good enough. Another question: all his girls working solidly for an entire month still probably wouldn’t earn enough to pay off even one of those ice sculptures. Why does he keep ordering so many of them for every party?”

“To show off; to attract gullible girls to join the agency; to…” Coddington stopped; there was a clear spark of interest in his eyes now. “You’re right. It’s not enough.”

“And, the last question…” Nate glanced at Parker and winked. “Would you consider licking one of those sculptures? Not those around us… those which are still sealed in the refrigerators in that warehouse, under armed guards.”

Coddington got it instantly; his eye stopped twitching.

“Every two months, as the entirety of Portland knows, Manners prepares his famous exhibitions,” Nate continued. “Dozens of fridges are driven to and fro; full ones in here, empty ones back to Frozen Delights Inc., over and over again. Nobody counts them or checks them. For most people, when they see green snowflakes on their vans, they are only a sign that another great party is nearing; Manners established that, on purpose.”

“And even if someone opens a fridge, they would only see an ice sculpture inside, as stated on the consignment papers,” Coddington said. “That must be cocaine; it can be diluted and frozen without losing it’s potency, and reversed back into a solid form after melting.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you will find out everything.” Nate rubbed his temples; everything around him spun for a second. “And now, if you’ll excuse us… we should go before too many more cops gather around us.”

When Hardison got up, he swayed and the girls weren’t any more stable than he was. Coddington shot a glance at them, then at Nate again.

“I have more questions. Do you need a ride?”

“We have a van.”

“That van from…?”

“No, the new one. You’re free to tag along.”

He didn’t only tag along. He proclaimed that not one of them was fit to drive – what was true from his point of view, but nevertheless an entire nonsense – and sat behind Lucille’s wheel.

 

***

 

So, that was the new Leverage Headquarters. Coddington stopped their van before the huge brick building, the same brewery where he saw Ann Lisa entering. They really were here to stay.

Dawn was nearing and he was tired, but those people… they looked like they were on the edge of collapsing. Nobody had the strength for more talking, not even Ford. They simply shuffled out of the van.

He threw the keys to Hardison and received mumbled thanks in reply.

But Spencer didn’t follow them to the door; he stayed by him.

“Nate told me you were the one who called Bonnano and an ambulance to the warehouse that day, so they found me on time,” Spencer said. “He also told me that you were running to protect my room in Mass Gen when he surprised you and broke your nose.”

“That was my job. Nothing special.”

“Yeah, nothing special.” Spencer smiled. “Thank you.”

He had a feeling those words weren’t said lightly, just for the form. “You’re welcome.”

Spencer glanced at the Brewery. “Now you know where to find us. If you need us, call.”

“Zorro signal?”

This time, his smile was more of a wolfish grin. “Somethin’ like that, Dark Knight,” he drawled and went after the rest of his team.

Coddington waited until the door closed, then put on his Batman mask. Dark Knight would take a walk through the sleepy Portland streets, to clear his head, before he called a taxi to take him back to his car.

Yes, maybe having them in his town, now when he was able to break the traumatic memories, might prove interesting. Bonnano worked with them for years. A symbiosis of that kind, where both parties gave their share for a common cause, bringing criminals to justice, resulted in many arrests. Both sides of the law worked for justice.

And the most important part, his second encounter with the Leverage team ended without any physical harm for him.

All in all, a good day. He put his hands in his pockets, and promptly sneezed.

 

 

***

 

“Whatever you do, Nate, make sure our next job has nothing to do with any ice,” Eliot said when they entered the office and when warm air caressed them, chasing the chill away.

Nobody was in the mood for replying; they simply slumped back into the chairs they had left in a hurry.

Nate first took away the glasses and Hobbits and put them on the floor, then he moved cards, and in the end, he simply threw everything else from the table onto the floor. All five of them leant back in their chairs and put their feet on the table. Parker and Hardison shared the biggest chair; Hardison didn’t move from Parker more than two inches since they’d left the party.

For five minutes nobody said a word, all of them too drained to even think.

“I’ll put chicken soup on tomorrow’s menu,” Hardison broke the silence first.

The sound that escaped Eliot was indescribable; a grunt, a yelp, a moan, frustration melting them all into something that could be heard in the seventh circle of Hell from tortured souls.

“What did I say?”

“I just managed to complete that trice damned menu and- if you touch even one component, everything will collapse- you can’t-you shouldn’t...” Eliot choked, as if the air he breathed was too much for his sore throat. “First rule, Hardison. You don’t touch my menus. Ever. You don’t alter them, you don’t change them, you don’t think about them.”

Nate caught a darker shadow in Sophie’s eyes while she watched the hitter. A tinge of sorrow colored her worry for the moment, before she smiled and hid it. Yes, it was good to see that old fire in the hitter again, to see him returning to his old mostly-annoyed-at-everything-you-people-do attitude. His silence and calmness after the Boston crisis were too painful to watch. But Sophie wasn’t the only one who saw that that process needed more time – and clearly more redheaded women pushed into his direction.

Hardison didn’t choose a brewery with a restaurant by chance; that was a brilliant move. And it worked.

“Look, man, I can’t think about it now. I need my orange soda to live through this. Heck, even my orange soda needs orange soda to live. Spare me of any menu talks today.” Hardison wiggled his feet on the table and looked at all of them, forming a star around that center. “Maybe I should’ve thought of this before,” he continued. “It’s quite comfortable this way, with our feet on the table. Leverage Inc. maybe needs this – The Round Table. Comfy chairs, laptops on our laps, and instead of screens, a huge hologram that would rise from the middle for-“

“Stop. Talking.” This time, Eliot’s growl was a very distinctive one – snapping somebody’s fingers in three, two, one…

Hardison, as usual, paid no attention to the warning, opening his mouth to continue, so Nate decided to stop this before Eliot’s flu-affected self-control came to the test. “Coddington,” he said. That broke their mad glare; they turned to him.

“What about Coddington?” Parker asked.

“Nothing.”

Now even Sophie frowned in his direction. He smiled, though feeling completely opposite of smiling, waiting for their annoyance to rise a little bit more.

“Having a cop who knows about us might be a trouble, especially a cop with the particular history of… unhappy events,” Sophie said. “Do you think he might be a problem?”

“No, quite opposite. We need someone who will do the last part of our jobs, making sure our marks are prosecuted. It worked with Bonnano. It will work with his friend, too. And I have a perfect name for him.”

“Dark Knight?” Parker now chuckled.

“No. Our personal Out of Jail Free Card. I guess this Monopoly game was useful for something, after all.”

They all fell silent, thinking about his words.

“It was useful for one more thing,” Parker said. “Hardison, you owe me a hundred and thirty seven thousand dollars.”

“Whaaat?!”

“I rounded it up. The exact amount was…”

“You can’t remember that!”

Of course she could.

Nate lowered his hand; he felt a glass on the floor and picked it up. He had no idea which glass it was, and he didn’t care.

A soft chair offered a good rest for his aching head, and he just sat there, listening to four voices laughing, coughing, arguing – Hardison squeaking in protest and horror, Parker and Eliot sword fighting with their Hobbits, Sophie calculating her share in Parker’s earning as her accomplice in cheating – and he drifted away.

Hot air might’ve warmed his body – but only those sounds could warm his heart.

 

THE END