The job was Parker’s idea, which meant that for once she got to be the mastermind. Sophie would probably have been the better choice, but she was a little too close to the mark so they decided to keep her involvement to a minimum. If all went well, she wouldn’t have to get involved at all.
Parker paced in front of the TV screens, slapping her own hand with a rolled up newspaper from time to time, purely for effect.
“So, what do we know about our mark? Hardison? Where’s the presentation?”
Hardison and Eliot, one sitting in an armchair and the other on the couch, exchanged a worried look.
“I thought you were joking,” Hardison said.
Parker whirled and whacked the arm of Hardison’s chair with the newspaper so forcefully that he yelped. “You’re not taking this job seriously!” she snapped.
“Cool it, Parker,” Eliot told her, rolling his eyes. “This ain’t actually a job, you know. It’s more like a favor.”
She jabbed the newspaper in his direction. “That’s where you’re wrong. This is the most intelligent, canny mark we’ve ever dealt with. We need to know everything there is to know about him if we’re going to have any chance of conning him.”
“Parker,” Hardison said with a calm, placating tone, as if she were a child. “We’re not trying to con him.”
She glared at him. He met her glare confidently.
Parker raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to do things my way, or do you want me to steal your laptop and all of your backup hard drives while you sleep? I’ve always wanted to see what happens if you drop a laptop off a twenty-story building.”
His eyes went wide. “You wouldn’t.” His fingers twitched toward his computer, belying his words.
She smiled. The viciousness of that smile made Eliot shudder. “Try me,” she said.
“Just—just give me a sec,” Hardison stuttered, caving. He pulled his laptop to him and began to type frantically. “Just remember that you’re gonna be the one who has to explain all this to Nate.”
“Explain what to Nate?”
They looked up to see their friend and boss standing at the top of the spiral staircase that led from the living room to his bedroom. He was barefoot and wearing black slacks and a blue shirt that gaped open at the neck. His hair was still tousled from sleep.
Parker didn’t see the attraction, but Sophie had assured her more than once that Nate was “sexy.”
Hardison froze under Nate’s inspection. “Uh—I didn’t mean—that is, explain to Nate that—”
“—that we used up all the milk,” Eliot finished smoothly. “Sorry about that.”
Nate sighed. “You know, there was a time when I could wander around my apartment in a bathrobe and nobody but me drank my milk.”
“I don’t care if you wander around in a bathrobe,” Parker said. All three men turned to stare at her. “What?”
After a moment Nate shook his head, aggrieved. “I guess I’m going to the store, then.” He came down the stairs and crossed the floor to slip his feet into a pair of tennis shoes, leaving them unlaced.
He grabbed his keys and wallet off the kitchen counter—and, really, it wasn’t like they’d ever steal from him, but he could at least pretend to worry about the fact that a bunch of thieves had regular access to his apartment and not leave things like that in plain view—and was halfway out the door when Hardison called, “Hey, Nate, pick up some gummi frogs while you’re out!”
The slamming of the door was his only reply. (He’d get them, though. Parker knew that he was never as annoyed with them as he seemed.)
They waited a few minutes to make sure he wasn’t going to sneak back in to surprise them. When she was confident they were safe, Parker said, “Hardison?”
He winced. “Do I have to?”
“Just do it!” Eliot barked.
His lips pursed, Hardison raised his remote control and pointed it at the television monitors. “Nathan Ford,” he said. “Fifty-one years old. Was an insurance investigator with IYS for twenty years until the death of his son, Sam.” He clicked and a picture of a little boy appeared on the screen.
Parker’s heart faltered for a moment. Sam didn’t look so different from her own little brother who had died.
“We know all this,” Eliot pointed out.
“Excuse me, but Parker asked for Nate Ford 101,” Hardison snapped back. “Could I do my job without these constant interruptions for once?”
“Why don’t you try telling us something we don’t already know?”
“Enough!” Parker said. Honestly, the two of them were like children. Girl children. They both shut up. It was fun to be in charge sometimes. “Hardison, continue.”
Hardison clicked again. A picture of Nate—looking younger and happier than she’d ever seen him, so it must have been an old picture—popped up on the screen. “He was an alcoholic for several years but has been sober for over six months now. Oh yeah, and when he’s out to get someone for hurting an innocent he’s the scariest dude I’ve ever seen, Eliot included. Sorry, man.”
Eliot waved the apology away. “No, you’re right.”
Parker growled in frustration. “None of this helps us. We need more personal details. What kind of music does he listen to? What kind of stuff does he like to do in bed?”
Hardison, who’d been in the midst of taking a gulp of orange soda, spewed it all over the floor.
“What?” Parker said as Hardison continued to cough and Eliot looked vaguely ill. “Isn’t that what all women want to know about guys?”
“There’s something wrong with you,” Eliot told her, not for the first time.
“We all agreed that Nate needs to meet someone,” Parker reminded them. “He’s lonely. We have to help him!”
“Yeah, we’re gonna help him, but I thought we were going to take him to a bar or something,” Hardison said. “This feels like overkill to me.”
“We’re talking about a guy who over thinks everything,” Eliot pointed out, sounding reluctant. “He’d rather curl up and lick his wounds than open himself up for hurt again. He’s not gonna meet someone new unless we help him along.”
Hardison rubbed his forehead. “All right, all right. I have an idea. Give me a sec.”
His fingers flew over the keyboard and a second later a search engine opened on one of the monitors.
“You hacked the DMV?” Eliot said. “How does that help us?”
“We’re going about this the wrong way,” Hardison replied. “It isn’t a question of figuring out how to get someone to like Nate. What’s not to like? He’s a very attractive man. What we’ve got to do is find a woman he’ll like.”
“And, I can at least narrow us down to a manageable pool of applicants.” He kept typing as he spoke. “She’s got to be about his age or younger. Unmarried. Live nearby.” He paused. “What else?”
They all thought for a moment.
“Shorter than him,” Eliot said.
“Blonde?” Parker said.
The two men stared at her.
“What? Maggie’s blonde.”
“Sophie ain’t,” Eliot said.
“Yeah, and we’ve never seen Nate and Sophie hook up, have we?” she said reasonably.
Eliot’s forehead furrowed the way it did when he wanted to argue with her but couldn’t figure out how to do so.
“Okay, limiting by hair color,” Hardison said. “Well, that gets our number of possibilities down to…a lot. So now I link to the IRS database and the FBI and CIA. We weed out everyone with a criminal record and everyone who makes less than six figures.”
“Why less than six figures?” Parker asked.
“It’s a precaution to get rid of possible gold diggers,” he said. “Normally not an issue, but we want this to go as smoothly as possible, so let’s not take any chances.” He pressed a button and a seemingly endless list of names appeared.
Eliot whistled. “That’s a lot of options.”
“It’s not an exact science,” Hardison said, scrolling down the list to the very end.
Parker squinted and leaned closer to the screen. Her spine stiffened. “Take Alice White off the list,” she said.
“What? Why?” She just stared at him. After a moment he figured it out. “Oh, right. You’re Alice White. Yeah, that’d be weird. Very weird. Taking you off the list now.”
“There’s still gotta be hundreds, maybe thousands, of names there,” Eliot said. “What’re we gonna do, go through ‘em all?”
“Sports,” Parker said suddenly.
“Huh?” Hardison said.
“Nate likes sports. Also, he’s allergic to cats and dogs.”
He typed some more, muttering. “Hacking…the cable…networks. Eliminating the women who don’t spend at least ten hours a year watching sports. And those with dog and cat licenses.” The list shrunk considerably. He looked up at her. “Now how on Earth do you know what he’s allergic to?”
She shrugged. “We talk.” At their expressions she said, “What? Nate’s a good listener.”
“You know,” Hardison observed, “we’re thieves who live under assumed identities, but somehow I know more about the two of you than I do about Nate, who’s the only honest one among us. That’s weird, isn’t it?”
“He’s a private person,” Eliot said. “Not everyone goes around blabbing their life stories to the entire world, you know.”
“Assuming that we do narrow this list down to a few candidates, how exactly are we going to get Nate to meet them?” Hardison said.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Parker said. She crouched behind the couch and pulled out the schematics for a building. She unrolled it on the coffee table.
Eliot and Hardison gathered around and examined it.
Hardison winced. “I know I’m going to regret asking this, but isn’t that that coffee shop down the street?”
“Please tell me we’re not going to steal a coffee shop,” Eliot said.
“We’re going to steal a coffee shop,” Parker affirmed. “It’s Nate’s favorite. Now, this is what I’ve been thinking. We break into the apartment of the woman we pick and drug her—not much, just with something that’ll leave her a little dazed. Then Hardison will hack into her computer or phone calendar and add an appointment at the coffee shop at a time when we know Nate’ll be there. She won’t hesitate to go because she’ll be drugged, see? When she arrives, Eliot will sneak in and cuff her by the ankle to a table. We’ll steal the chairs for all of the other tables so when Nate shows up he won’t have any choice but to sit with her. He’ll strike up a conversation. Then I’ll rappel down from the roof into the storage room and start a small fire, setting off the fire alarms. Everyone will run for the exit, but she’ll be stuck. Nate will stay to help her. He’ll be able to show off the lock picking skills I’ve been teaching him, which should impress her. Then he’ll probably carry her out of the building—I hear that most women like that. After that, she’ll declare her undying love for him and they’ll get married and make lots of mini-Nates. Ooh, maybe she’ll even go on jobs with us!”
Parker beamed and waited for their applause. Eliot and Hardison studiously avoided her eyes.
“Don’t you like my plan?” she demanded, her face falling.
The two men looker at each other, then at her, then back at each other. They seemed to reach some sort of unspoken agreement.
“It’s a great plan,” Hardison said.
At the same time, Eliot said, “You should get to be the mastermind more often.”
A key turned in the lock. They leapt into motion, Parker rolling up the floor plan, Eliot blotting up Hardison’s spewed soda, Hardison hurriedly blanking the TV screens.
Nate stepped inside, carrying a grocery bag of milk and gummi frogs and a few other items (including blueberries, Parker saw with delight; he stocked those just for her). He set his things on the counter and toed off his shoes.
“You’re all still here?” he asked, seemingly uninterested.
“What can we say?” Eliot said. “You’ve got a nice couch.”
Nate began to put the groceries away. “You know, the strangest thing happened to me at the store today.”
“Oh?” Hardison said.
“A woman came up to me and told me she’d seen me around. She thought I was—what’s the word she used?—mysterious. Wanted to know if I’d be interested in going on a date.”
“What did you say?” Eliot asked.
Nate paused, holding the milk carton and gazing at them with an expression Parker didn’t know how to read. “I said no.”
“How come?” she blurted. “Was there something wrong with her?” She had a horrifying thought. “Did she drive a mini-van?” she whispered.
Nate chuckled. “There wasn’t anything wrong with her. She seemed great. A doctor, even.”
“Then why’d you say no?” Parker pressed.
He put the milk in the fridge and shut the door. Stuck his hands in his pockets. “Because I’ve already got a family, and there isn’t room right now for any more additions. They’re quite the handful, but they’re my handful.”
It took a moment for that to sink in, but when it did Parker felt herself flush with something like pleasure.
Nate headed up the staircase to his room. He paused halfway up. “Oh, and Parker?” he said.
“You really should remember to take out your ear bud occasionally. It can’t be healthy to wear it all the time.”
He disappeared before she could reply. Hardison smacked his own forehead with his palm. Eliot laughed, groaned, and put his face in his hands.
Before Parker could figure out how she felt—guilty? amused? hungry?—Nate’s voice spoke in her ear through the ear bud, his words for her alone. “It was a good plan, by the way. We’ll make an evil genius out of you yet. Thanks for trying, Parker.”
The smile that bloomed on her face was astonishing in its brightness.