The job goes wrong. Not catastrophically wrong- nobody winds up dead, severely injured, or in jail, and Sterling doesn’t turn up. All in all, it could be worse. Still, though, it does go wrong.
The mark was using a modified truth serum- scopolamine and sodium thiopental base with an added mild tranquilizer- to lower victim’s inhibitions and subject them to mild chemical hypnotism. The mark administered this to victims, including the president of a large non-profit organization, and used their suggestibility to steal huge amounts of money from them. The victims were all confused about what had happened to them, barely able to remember the incidents and incredibly embarrassed and ashamed about having given over their financial information, apparently willingly.
The police were miles from figuring it out, but Hardison could follow the financial trails, and Eliot had used a similar substance before, in one of those jobs he didn’t talk about. He’d listed out their effects, rather mechanically:
“Originally designed as a truth serum, but it’s not that effective at it- under that state, people are suggestible, will tell all kinds of stories without even meaning to. ‘Sides which, emotion plays a huge part of it- the drug shuts down a lot of higher-level cognitive thinking, so feelings take a front seat. More often than not, you get a scared person who won’t say anything at all, or an angry person who just sits there and swears at you. That’ll be why they added the tranq. But even in the right state of mind, half the time they don’t respond to questions at all, just ramble on about whatever’s on their minds. Dude in Manitoba talked about the Ninja Turtles for four and a half hours while being prompted about arms dealing. Harder to get them to shut up than to get them to talk. When it works, though- when it works, it’s crazy. Powerful. People’ll do whatever you tell then, answer any question.”
So they’d gone to take down the mark. And they had, probably. None of them have gone back to double-check whether or not he’d been caught at the border as planned, suitcase full of dirty money.
They hadn’t anticipated him accelerating his timetable and trying to drug Sophie three days ahead of schedule.
Eliot and Hardison had been on the other side of the city pretending to be police officers. Parker had been in the vents directly above three armed guards. Nate had been downstairs, and the only one with a hope of reaching Sophie. Which he had, but not before the mark had administered the serum, and Sophie was leaning, dazed, against the wall.
He’d gotten her out, gotten them all back to the back room of the brewpub. Eliot has assured them that there are no long-term effects, that it’ll be out of her system by tomorrow morning, and that they can all go home for the night if they want. None of them have left.
Sophie’s loopy but cheerful, reminiscing in wistful tone about cons and grifts long past. She’s drawn winces from Nate at least twice by mentioning past lovers, and seems oblivious to the tension in the room.
“He was such a smart man,” Sophie says fondly, around one in the morning. “Brilliant, really.”
“Not that brilliant, given how you grifted him,” Eliot responds, and it’s a mistake.
Sophie smirks at him- miles from her usual smirk, given the mussed hair and blown pupils. “No one’s too smart to be grifted. You know better. Besides which, don’t be arrogant. You’d be easy.”
Eliot hesitates. “I don’t think I would be.”
“Please,” Sophie says patronizingly. “Eliot, darling. A blonde dye job, some sass, a bit of well-placed flattery, maybe a bit of a Southern accent, and you’d be mine. You’re very predictable, you know.”
Hardison snorts. “She’s got you there.”
Eliot rolls his eyes. “A’ight, y’all know that wouldn’t work.”
“Of course it would,” Sophie replies, nodding. “The women aren’t your hook. You respect them, you like them, and you like the sex, but that’s not why you do it. That’s not why you keep going back, why you do this again and again. You like being the man they think you are.”
Eliot shifts back, uncomfortable, but under the influence, Sophie is either oblivious or uncaring.
“All right, Sophie, let’s talk about something else now,” Nate suggests.
She might as well not have heard it at all. “You’re completely different with them, you know.” Her voice is taking on a hint of twang, just a bit of Southern accent. Getting into character, maybe involuntarily. “The way you move, the cadence of your voice, the set of your face. It’d be a magnificent grift, if it were a grift. No, it’s as genuine as you can make it. The road not traveled, I suppose, the man you think you could have been. That’s your hook. That’s what you keep going back for.”
“Hey, Sophie, what do you think of Manolo Blahnik’s new spring lineup?” Hardison asks, voice full of completely manufactured cheer. They all know how she feels about it, because she’s been complaining for three weeks, but it’s a reasonable distraction technique nonetheless. It doesn’t work.
“It never works, of course, not for long,” Sophie says, nodding, her head lolling against the back of her armchair for a moment. Her voice is distant now, almost dreamy, but the Southern accent is stronger now. “You play the part for a night, or a date, never longer than a week before they start to sense it’s all a façade, or ask you questions you can’t answer. Me, though- Stephanie Randolph-” the name rolls off her tongue easy as anything, the accent in full force for a second, “I’d avoid the pitfalls, let you think that you could stick around, become that mask. Make it easy to be with me, comfortable. It’s always easy with the ones who hate themselves. Give them an oasis, a sliver of respite, and they’ll sell their souls. Again.”
Sophie leans into her armchair, eyes fluttering. She looks comfortable, but she’s the only one. Eliot’s the stiffest, standing against the wall, arms crossed and breathing too quickly. His body’s braced like he’s expecting an attack. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone.
It was an unexpected attack, a bandage ripped off to reveal an unhealed wound. It’s not like the rest of them didn’t know that some of Eliot’s vulnerability was there, was wrapped up in self-loathing, but it’s another thing entirely to have it announced, unexpectedly, by one of their own.
Nobody says anything for a couple minutes. There’s not much to say.
Hardison speaks, finally, and when he does, it’s like jumping on a grenade. It’s like seeing Eliot in the only danger that still means anything, and jumping in front of the bullet. It’s like following someone into hell for no better reason than that they shouldn’t be alone in there.
“A’ight, me next,” Hardison says, voice calm enough but eyes already a little anxious. “How’d you have grifted me, Soph? Do I get honeypotted too?”
Sophie smiles softly. “Oh, it depends. You know, most people you’d expect you’d be the easiest to grift. That’s not true, you’re not. You don’t have any dark secrets, no skeletons in your closet. They say you can’t con an honest man, and whatever lies Nate likes to tell himself to fall asleep at night, you’re the closest we’ve got.”
Nate does look a little dissatisfied by this judgment. Parker giggles a little from her perch in the ceiling.
Sophie continues, “Of course, that’s a lie too, isn’t it? Aren’t most of our marks people who con honest citizens? The hooks are different, and it gets your hands dirty, but people do it all the time. It’s not even more difficult. If I just needed the money, that’s what I’d do. Use your kindness, your generosity. Come up with a sob story, let you take the hook, make off with the money. Straightforward. Of course, that’s barely a grift at all. That’s just a con. No elegance, no power. No pleasure. Grifting is about finding the cracks in someone and pushing your fingers in them, breaking them open and reshaping them into something that will give you what you want. Cons like that are for desperate people and gutter rats. So, if I were going to grift you. If the money came second, if I wanted the power…”
She breaks off for a moment, maybe considering, maybe just savoring. Sophie’s never talked about her job like this before, not in so many words, anyway.
Eliot tries to interrupt before she finishes with a straightforward, “Sophie, shut up.” It doesn’t work.
“Family. That’s your fault line. Always has been,” Sophie tells Hardison, smiling a little. It’s not gentle, or fierce- just sated, like a well-fed carnivore, or an addict with their hit. “You love intensely and almost immediately, and it works for you, because you’re good at it. People come into your life and you love them, listen to them and shower them with warmth, make them feel precious, give them their harbor. You’re really very talented at it. Your return rates are good. People like you. Occasionally they keep you. But it’s something you’ve always felt like you have to earn. I bet every person who’s ever told you that they love you has said it second.”
Hardison startles a little at the statement. They can all see him contemplate for a moment, and then his face goes stiff as he mentally goes through the litany and can’t prove her wrong.
Sophie nods decisively. “Mary Goude, I think. Maternal influence- I’d probably bump up my age a few years. Play off those old foster child anxieties- use some subliminal cues to remind you of that time, bring back those worries- and then ease that fear. It would be a bit of a tightrope, managing the timing. Can’t jump in too quickly, or you’ll think I’m unstable, but make sure to jump before you do, because that’s the trick. To pretend to love you before you love me- novel enough to draw you in, and it would create plenty of emotional influence to isolate you, if I needed to, create just enough reliance to get what I wanted. It would be easy. You only ever want to trust people.”
“A’ight,” Eliot interrupts again, scowling, “Jesus Christ, Sophie, knock it off.”
“No,” Parker says, from the ceiling. “Me next.”
Sophie’s head rolls backward, loosely, as she tries to find a good angle with which to observe Parker. “Really?” she asks, once she’s pulled it off. “Why?”
“If you could do it, someone else could,” Parker points out, crossing her arms. “Tell me what I need to fix.”
Sophie hums. “Nonsense. I’m the best.” She closes her eyes briefly. “Do you really think you can protect yourself, if I tell you?”
“Do you think Eliot or Hardison could save themselves from what I just told them?” Sophie asks.
“Sure,” Parker says, a confused furrow forming between her eyes. “Just don’t trust anyone who tries to go for the spots you just explained.”
Sophie throws back her head and laughs, genuine and throaty. “You know, Parker, you might be more self-aware than I give you credit for,” Sophie says fondly. “You’re right, of course. Distrust is the only form of protection against a grifter like me. Which, incidentally, is why I wouldn’t have gone after you.”
Parker looks pleased with this. “You wouldn’t?”
“Really, how much more distrustful could you be? There are things you need, desperately, but you already take months or years to let anyone close enough to give them to you. There is such a thing as a con too long for me, you know,” Sophie says, shaking her head. “Besides which, my job relies on my ability to figure out someone’s weak spots, the chinks in their armor, quickly and accurately, and you- I think I might know you, after all this time, but you’re weird. You’re unpredictable and broken. You keep your pain and your desires in such odd places. My initial assessment certainly wasn’t accurate enough for the kind of con I run.”
Parker withdraws a little, coldness in her eyes. She’s broken, and maybe it’s protected her in this way, but that doesn’t make it any less bitter.
Still, she just says, “Good.”
Sophie nods, and adds, “Of course, I could have still conned you, if I had to.”
Parker’s jaw tightens again, immediately. “How?” she demands again.
Sophie considers for a long moment. “My preferred grifting style is to find out what the mark desires most, something they do not think they can bear to be without, and give it to them. In return, they give me whatever I ask for. But for you, I couldn’t. For you… I’d use Charlynn Colacurcio, I think.”
Parker blinks. “You’re Charlynn Colacurcio? Who stole the Calla Lily Diamond?”
Sophie laughs lightly. “Yes, that was me- though not with the methods that were reported. I still have that stone, actually, in my cottage in Nice…” Sophie hums happily. “You, you I couldn’t grift with desire. I would have had to go a different route. Insecurity, I think, would have done nicely. You’re the best thief in the world. Unless, of course, Charlynn was better.”
Parker makes a face, and Sophie laughs again.
“No, obviously I couldn’t be, not really. But I can fake it. Use a little grift to pick up complex items, add a couple details to make it look like I broke in and stole it the old-fashioned way. It would bring more official attention on the theft than I prefer- Charlynn always does. If I could, I would try to get jobs from your contacts, or steal your marks before you could.”
“That would make me insecure?” Parker asks.
“Of course it would. You’re a thief. Not even first and foremost- you’re just a thief. You’ve been just a thief for all your adult life and then some. The only reason you can live like that without hating yourself is that you’re the best.”
Everyone else winces in sympathy, but Parker’s face remains still. “How would my insecurity give you money?”
Sophie waves a hand. “Oh, I’d have to do recon for that, that’s where the details get tricky. Does your fear make you reckless, careless, and you don’t secure your wealth the way you usually would? Perhaps I could engage you in some kind of bidding war, or challenge you to a competition to steal one of your own artifacts and then cheat? Options, options, but it all depends on the circumstances. Requires more research. That’s why it’s easier, it’s better, to create trust. Or better, dependence.”
Parker looks dissatisfied- there’s not enough there to plot out someone else’s plan of attack, fortify against it. Still, she doesn’t ask any follow up questions. For a moment it’s quiet, uncomfortably silent except for Sophie’s contented sighs.
“Come on, Nate,” she finally says, a taunting lilt in her voice. “You know you want to know. You want desperately to know.” She leers at him, just a little, and he shifts.
“You’ve been drugged,” he tells her. “You’re not in my right mind.”
“You only like to think you know a thing about my mind,” Sophie scoffs. “Ask me, then. Ask me so you can get off to it, later, like you always used to.”
Everyone not involved in this scenario makes a disgusted face. Nate flushes a bit, turning away. “Sophie.”
Sophie just smirks at him, drugged and half-sprawled on an armchair and still looking as dangerous as anyone they’ve ever brought down.
Nate breaks. “How?”
She laughs, clear and triumphant. “Sophie Devereaux, of course. Who else?”
Nate startles visibly, staring at her. “What?”
“Oh, Nate,” she tells him, fondly. “You’ve always been so easily bored. Such a high opinion of yourself, always searching for a worthy adversary. You pick and defeat one after the next, and all you want is for someone to give you a good challenge. You need that rush, makes you feel alive, makes you feel worthwhile when you win. That’s always what you’ve looked for. Someone you can defeat, but only narrowly. An opponent. Someone worth occupying your time.”
Nate stares at her, utterly speechless.
She grins at him, sharply. “So that’s what I’d give you. Sophie Devereaux, tailored exactly to the sort of criminal you’d chase, oh, and a chase I’d give you. A balance, of course, being good enough to keep you locked in, but let you think you’re better, let you think that victory is just around the corner. The next time we meet, you’ll win for good, and the thought excites you. Narrow escapes, close calls. Enough to hook you, obsess you in just the way you crave, until you’re entranced. Until I’m the only thing that really makes you feel alive.”
There’s a long second of silence before Nate splutters, “You’re lying.”
“Am I?” Sophie asks coyly. “Or have I always been just a little too perfect to be true?”
“It’s gotta be wearing off,” Eliot says slowly. “She’s messing with you.” Sophie hums noncommittally.
Hardison nods. “If the hypothetical Parker con was too long for her, she hasn’t been grifting you this whole time. She’s not a workaholic like the rest of us.”
Sophie shrugs, still smiling. “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time a game got away from me.”
“Also, if this was a job, she probably would have put more effort into not telling you all about it,” Parker adds.
Sophie throws back her head and laughs. “It wouldn’t matter,” she giggles. “You get a mark hooked enough, attached enough, and it stops mattering what you tell them. They need you. Oh, Nate, honestly.”
Nate’s just staring at her, mouth slightly open.
None of them know whether she’s grifting right now or not- if it’s the truth or a lie or something in between, if she has an agenda or it’s the drugs or just the joy of bragging. It’s more unsettling than most of their marks. They all glance at one another anxiously, hoping for a clue.
When they look back at Sophie, she’s either drifting off or faking it. None of them try to find out.
The night passes, and things move on. Sophie doesn’t address her time on the serum, other than to huff about the mark who drugged her with it, and none of them bring it up. If they occasionally look sideways at her, trying to figure out just who and what she is- well, that’s hardly new. Besides, even if they don’t know what it means, they’ve always known what she is. Sophie Devereaux is the world’s greatest grifter.