Length: 79 min
Download: mp3 (right click to save-as)
The day everything turned upside down started out normally enough.
It had been a pretty standard con, as these things went, although Hardison would be the first to point out that no two jobs were ever really alike. This one had boasted a few firsts, in fact: the first job Leverage, Incorporated had taken on in San Francisco, and their first time saving a bookstore. City Lights was a beloved local institution that went back decades, one of the oldest independent bookstores in the area--so of course some huge multinational chain had tried to buy the place out using some seriously shady methods. Hardison wished he’d gotten a picture of the look on that corporate stooge’s face when he’d realized he was about to be nailed for multiple counts of fraud and extortion.
The bookstore’s loyal employees were over the moon about it--they’d all shaken Hardison’s hand so many times he was pretty sure it was in danger of falling off. He couldn’t keep the stupid grin off his face. This was his second favorite part of the job, right up there with the initial rush of getting past a really tough firewall. Times like this, he felt like he understood what Nate had meant by that old saying of his, “Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys.”
“I’m sure my boss has already talked your ear off about it, but seriously, I can’t thank you enough.” Hardison tried to recall the name of the lady with the multicolored dreadlocks who was shaking his hand now. Started with an A, something unusual--the name of a mushroom, Eliot had said. Amanita, that was it.
“The people who run this place are like family to us,” Amanita continued, wide-eyed with sincerity. “It’s been a huge part of my life for years now. I don’t know what I would have done if I had to watch it turned into some faceless corporate storefront.”
“Too many places getting Starbucksed these days,” Hardison agreed. “At least we could help one of them out.”
Leaving Parker to take over the small talk, he wandered a few aisles down to talk into the team’s comms channel. “Hey Eliot, you gonna get over here and join the celebration already?”
“‘Gee, Eliot,’” growled a voice in his earpiece, “‘you just fought off fifteen armed guards singlehanded. You doing all right? Get stabbed anywhere important?’ Just once, man, that’s all I ask.”
Hardison waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, come on. If you’re razzing me like that, you’re fine.”
“I had to knock a guy out with a snow globe , Hardison!”
Hardison shrugged. “So it’s a new one for your list. C’mon, get a move on.”
He was just turning back to go find Parker when Eliot spoke again.
Over the years, Hardison had had a lot of practice at telling Eliot’s different tones of voice apart, and now he could instantly sense how it had shifted. This was no longer the growl of an affectionate insult--it was the terse, practical register that meant something serious was going on.
He froze, and tried to focus on breathing even and looking casual. “Eliot, talk to me. What’s going on?”
Eliot’s voice dropped to a rough whisper. “Someone’s tailing me.”
A chill ran down Hardison’s spine. Just when this job should have been over…why can’t it ever be that simple? “Shit, okay, we’re on it,” he said out loud. “Give us a second.”
When Hardison found Parker again, she was doubled over with laughter at something Amanita had said. He shot her a meaningful look and tapped his earpiece, and she immediately sobered up, giving him an almost imperceptible nod.
“Sorry, excuse us a second,” Parker said, giving Amanita what was probably supposed to be a friendly, rueful grin, but in practice looked more like a shark baring its teeth. Hardison added an apologetic wince of his own as the two of them headed for the farthest corner of the shop.
“Okay, we’re here,” Parker told Eliot, voice tight and businesslike. “Details?”
Eliot’s response was almost immediate, and it didn’t escape Hardison’s notice that he sounded a little out of breath. “I can count at least three cars. Been after me for five blocks now. Government, got to be. Most likely FBI.”
“How can you--” Hardison started to say, but Parker flapped an impatient hand at him to cut him off.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s a very distinctive driving style or whatever. How’d they get tipped off? I thought we were being careful with this one.”
“We were being careful!” Eliot hissed. “It’s like they were already here waiting for something. Doesn’t make sense.”
“Okay, okay, let’s worry about that later,” Parker said quickly. “You can take ‘em, right?”
The line went silent for a few worrying seconds before Eliot spoke again. “I don’t know. Maybe. But it’d be messy, and it’d blow our cover. We’re just getting this job wrapped up. Not really a great time to go kick a federal hornet’s nest, you know what I mean?”
“Fine, then. How are you gonna get away?”
“Still trying to figure that out. They know the area and I don’t.” There was another pause, and a noise in the background that might have been the soft rumble of a car engine. “Hardison, you sure those fake ID’s you gave us are gonna hold up?”
Even in a situation this tense, Hardison couldn’t help but scoff a little. “Please. I’m a professional.”
“All right.” Eliot sounded steadier now. “We can handle the feds, same as always. I’m gonna go talk to them, figure out what they’re up to, keep my tracker on. You two, give it an hour, then come bust me out. You brought the suits, right?”
“Of course we brought the suits,” Parker told him.
“Then it’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. A few minutes talking to the feds ain’t gonna kill me. Okay, hang on, he’s getting out of the car--”
“Marcus Grayson?” It was a new voice, all business, and the name was the one that had been on Eliot’s latest fake ID cards. Hardison took a deep breath, then forced himself to hold perfectly still--he couldn't afford to miss the slightest detail of this exchange.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Eliot told the agent, his voice as homespun and affable as it would go. “And how can I help you today?”
There was the kind of pause that usually accompanied a badge being shown. “Agent Bendix with the FBI. I need you to come with me and answer a few questions in connection with the murder of a Dr. Metzger and the whereabouts of the fugitive Nomi Marks.”
Parker and Hardison’s eyes met in a shared WTF? look.
“Uh, neither of those names is really ringing a bell,” Eliot said, as if echoing their thoughts. “But sure, whatever you say.”
“Thank you for your cooperation.” Hardison could practically hear the smug little smile the agent had to be wearing.
There was the slam of a car door, and all at once, everything went silent. Hardison knew what that meant: the audio feed from his earpiece had cut out. Either the FBI agent’s car had some kind of tech that was blocking the signal, or Eliot had thrown it away to avoid raising suspicion. Either way, it meant the same thing.
Eliot was gone.
The interior of City Lights was starting to feel about a hundred times more empty and lonely than it had just a few minutes ago. Parker was sure Sophie would have had an explanation for it, something clever about how emotional context could influence perception, with tips about how a clever thief could turn it to her advantage. For her own part, Parker just knew she couldn’t stand it.
She and Hardison had ended up in a section of the bookstore dedicated to self-help and relationship advice, full of bright covers with cheery titles telling you how to fix all your problems in eight easy steps. Parker supposed that was ironic, or something. She hated irony.
She’d seen Hardison picking out a book from this section, earlier in the evening. Something about how to manage healthy polyamorous relationships. She guessed that made sense for him. He could see as clearly as she could where the three of them were headed, and he was always the one who liked to have a plan for everything. The one who carefully laid out presentations on the target of each new con, complete with charts and photos for the visual learners.
Parker didn’t see the point. As far as she was concerned, what she and Hardison and Eliot had together--and the terrifying, wonderful, unspoken possibility of something more that they’d been orbiting around for months now--was like jumping off the roof of a building and feeling the exhilarating rush of freedom on the way down, knowing the harness and your own skill would be there to catch you when you needed catching.
She frowned and turned to look at Hardison, who was scowling and pacing back and forth between the walls of bookshelves. He sure didn’t look like he had a plan right now. And then there was the empty space where Eliot should have been, folding his arms and saying something grumpy that they’d all know he didn’t mean…
Parker wanted to punch something. This was exactly why she’d tried to promise herself back at the start of it all: no encores. Just one job and noting more. Because this was what happened when you let yourself get attached. Something went wrong, and you were left feeling like a third of yourself had been ripped away.
“Let’s go get him back,” she said out loud, her voice tight.
Hardison checked his phone. “Parker, it’s only been twenty-five minutes.”
Parker was already heading for the door. “It’ll take us time to get the suits and the badges, and we can run through the plan a few times on the way.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Hardison admitted, and followed her.
Amanita was back to manning the front desk, and he could feel her eyes on the back of his head as they left. Hardison was sure she hadn’t been able to hear their conversation, but still, there was something odd about how still she was standing. Almost like there was something she was waiting for…
He picked up his stride until he and Parker were out the door. Time like this, you couldn’t be too careful.
Dark suits, dark ties, dark shades: they'd get you places. Parker and Hardison pushed open the glass doors and strode into the building in unison. They’d had years of practice with the move by now, and Hardison knew it looked good. A purposeful look, a few quick conversations, and some tactical use of their impeccable fake badges, and they were in front of Agent Bendix’s desk in a matter of minutes.
“Afternoon,” Hardison told him, flashing his badge right in the guy’s impassive face. “I’m Agent Jones and this is my partner, Agent McCoy. We’re here about the suspect you recently took into custody. A Mr. Grayson. Caucasian male, long brown hair, always looks kinda grouchy…”
“Likes beating people up,” Parker added helpfully. “A lot. ”
If Bendix had any reaction to this, it didn’t show on his face. “What about him?” was all he said.
The guy knew his job, all right. Hardison found himself missing the cheerful incompetence of Taggart and McSweeten. Still, nothing for it but to press ahead.
“Yeah, about that,” he started out. “There was some kind of bureaucratic mix-up…”
“You know how these things go…” Parker said, with a laugh that was all false brightness.
“...and to make a long story short, he was actually supposed to be transferred to our unit,” Hardison finished, surreptitiously hitting a button on his phone as he spoke. “Major Financial Crimes unit; we’ve been after that bastard for a long time. I guess the order didn’t come through at first, but if you check again, you should be seeing it now…”
Bendix didn’t react in any of the ways Hardison was expecting. He didn’t move at all, just breathed out a little noise that could have been a sigh or a mirthless laugh.
“I’m afraid you’re a little behind the times, Agent Jones,” he said. “Grayson is out of our hands now. He’s been transferred to the custody of the BPO.”
In one thunderstruck moment, every last detail of the grift flew out of Hardison’s head. “I’m sorry, what? ”
Bendix shrugged. “The way they tell it, he’s connected to the Marks woman somehow, and that means they get first dibs on him. Part of the standing agreement.”
“Since when does the FBI use dibs? ” Hardison demanded.
Bendix’s bland little smile had turned unmistakably patronizing. “I’m sorry, maybe that information is a little ways above your pay grade,” he said drily. “It’s an unspoken understanding. Mutual benefit, quid pro quo. You know how these things are.”
It was exactly the kind of smug look that Hardison had seen on the faces a hundred different marks from a hundred different cons before now. But usually, he had the satisfaction of knowing that there was a plan in motion to pull the rug out from under the guy and wipe the smirk right off his face. Today, that inner satisfaction was nowhere to be found, leaving something cold and hollow in its place.
“So you’re telling me you don’t have any kind of documentation on this?” Parker was saying. “Anything at all?”
“So you’re playing the by-the-book cop today?” Bendix raised an eyebrow at her. “Listen, that’s just the way these things are done. Go ask Dr. Gibbons about it yourself, if you have a problem.”
He paused, and Hardison saw a slight involuntary shudder pass through his body--the kind of thing Hardison’s Nana had used to call ‘someone walking over her grave.’ A moment later it was gone, like Hardison had imagined it.
“I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it,” Bendix continued, “but feel free. Or take it up with anyone higher up the chain, they’ll tell you the same thing.”
He picked up a pen and pulled a memo toward him, an obvious gesture of dismissal. “Now, was there anything else?”
Hardison turned to Parker, who gave him a slight shake of her head, wide-eyed. Hardison nodded his own head towards the door of the office: time to get out of here.
“Um, no, that’s it,” he told Bendix aloud. “Thanks for clearing that up. Our division will be in touch.”
Planting the usual number of bugs on the way out didn’t feel as satisfying as Hardison had hoped it would. He knew a dead end when he saw one, and there was no point in trying to deny the facts: they were back to square one, with no idea where Eliot was.
The trip back to the hotel room passed in silence. As soon as they were through the door, Parker threw herself down on one of the mattresses, a frustrated scream bursting out through her clenched teeth.
“Yeah, I know,” Hardison told her heavily. “It’s a curveball. But we gotta keep moving, that’s what Eliot would say.”
“Fine,” Parker said, voice muffled by the bedspread. She had no plans to get up until she absolutely had to, or until the world stopped being so completely aggravating. Whichever came first.
Still: Hardison had a point. She sighed. “Okay, where do we start?”
Hardison tossed up his hands. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I ran a few searches on the BPO, but as far as their public-facing info goes, they’re just a think tank for genetics research and such. If they've got dirt, it's buried deep. No hints about what got them into the kidnapping business. I found an obit for that doctor that got murdered, but I have no idea what Eliot has to do with him, or with...that fugitive…”
He trailed off abruptly, the end of his speech drowned out by a repetitive digital beeping noise. Parker reluctantly pushed herself up off the mattress to see what was going on.
Hardison was sitting on the edge of the bed and staring, brow furrowed, at his laptop, which seemed to be receiving an incoming video call. “Unknown number,” he said in response to Parker’s questioning look.
“Answer it,” Parker told him. Was the giddy, weightless feeling in her stomach hope or fear? Either, maybe, depending on how you landed.
Hardison crossed his fingers and hit the “Accept Call” button. A moment later, an unfamiliar voice echoed through the hotel room. “Leverage, Incorporated?”
Hardison squinted at the screen, Parker looking over his shoulder. “Yeah…?”
The woman on the other end of the call was blonde and well-dressed; behind her glasses, she had the familiar look in her eye of a person who’s noticing far more than she lets on. “Hi. My name is Nomi Marks.”
Eliot jolted awake in half-darkness, with no memory of how he’d gone under in the first place. For a few disorienting seconds, he couldn’t identify a single detail of his surroundings, either. As his eyes adjusted, a ceiling swam into view above his head, but that wasn’t too helpful. Generic office-complex look, fluorescent lights mostly turned off, could have been anywhere. He tried to get a better look at the rest of the room, but an array of straps jolted him back into place the moment he tried.
Well. Strapped to a gurney. It had been a while since the last time that had happened to him. He couldn’t say he’d missed it.
“Back with us?” said a voice somewhere behind him and to his left. Unfamiliar. Not the FBI agent, then--oh, that’s right, he’d been taken in by the FBI. After that...well, he wasn’t sure. Straining to turn his head as far as it would go under the present circumstances, Eliot caught a fleeting glimpse of what looked like a white lab coat, and a momentary flash of light reflecting off protective goggles.
Okay. Not a great sign.
“Excellent,” his mystery captor told him. “We were hoping you could answer a few questions for us.”
“You answer mine first,” Eliot croaked through a dry throat. “Then I’ll think about it.”
The voice was unperturbed. “I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way.”
“Yeah?” Eliot managed a chuckle. “What, you gonna try to torture something out of me? Tougher guys than you have tried and failed, pal.”
“I don’t doubt it,” the voice said. “There shouldn’t be any need for that. If you wish, you can simply wait until our associate gets here. Or if you’d prefer, you can make things easier. The names of the rest of your cluster would be a good start.”
From the way it had paused, Eliot gathered that the voice had meant for that last statement to have a big impact. Well, his captors were out of luck on that front. “Cluster?” he snorted. “What am I, a piece of peanut brittle?”
“All right,” the voice told him. “We can talk again later.” There was the sound of receding footsteps, then a closing door.
Eliot relaxed his tensed muscles and let out a long breath. He wasn't sure how long he'd been out, but he had the feeling it had been well over an hour at this point.
He didn’t blame Parker and Hardison. From the looks of things, he’d landed himself in a situation that would make him a whole lot harder to track than usual, specially since he’d had to ditch his earpiece before the suits could find it. Still, a little thing like that wouldn’t hold his partners in crime back for long. He'd trusted them to have his back through situations worse than this. But still: he had the feeling this was going to be a long day.
“So you’re the fugitive?” Parker asked Nomi, eyes narrowed.
“Also a blogger, a hacker, an activist, and Amanita’s girlfriend, but…” she shrugged, mouth turning up in a sheepish half-smile. “...Yeah. I’m sorry about this, but I was kind of listening in on you guys. I picked up a few things about what happened to your friend.”
She paused for a moment, seeming to gather herself up before continuing. “Bendix is in the area because he’s looking for me, and it sounds like you guys got tangled up in it. I’m sorry about that, I really am, but I might be able to help you get out of this mess.”
“I hope so,” Parker said, still tense as a drawn bow. “You have any idea what they wanted Eliot for?”
“A pretty good idea. Unfortunately.” Nomi paused and bit her lip, seemingly teetering on the edge of saying something more. “Maybe I shouldn’t ask this, but was he...a part of your cluster?”
Hardison stared at her blankly. “Um, he’s a part of our crew, if that’s what you mean.”
The color drained out of Nomi’s face. “You don’t….oh, shit. Okay, this is going to take some explaining.”
“We’ve been getting a lot of that lately.” Hardison folded his arms, scowling. “I’m about ready for some answers.”
“I know you are.” Nomi frowned, looking pensive. “This is supposed to be a secure connection, but you can’t be too careful these days. Tell you what, meet me at this address”--Hardison’s inbox chimed with an incoming text message--”and I’ll explain everything. I promise.”
“Uh-huh,” Parker said. “And how do we know we can trust you, exactly?”
“I guess you don’t,” Nomi admitted. “I mean, I already admitted I’m a fugitive, that kind of makes it hard. But...uh, Hardison, is it?”
Parker could see Hardison doing a slight double take. “Uh, yeah?”
“You said you were a hacker, right?”
Nomi nodded, looking satisfied, and started typing something. “We might have bumped into each other a time or two, back in the day. Do any of these names mean anything to you?”
Hardison’s inbox chimed again, and Parker went back to looking over his shoulder. The new message looked like a series of online usernames--meaningless to her, but Hardison’s eyes went wide. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. I feel like I should be asking you for an autograph, and that’s coming from a guy who hacks into the Pentagon for fun.”
A quiet smile spread across Nomi’s face. “That’s a gesture of trust. None of these are current, but still, I wouldn’t have shown them to just anyone. If that’s enough for you to meet me halfway, maybe I can help you save your friend.”
Parker still wasn’t buying it. There was an angle somewhere, there had to be. “What makes you think we can’t handle this ourselves?”
Nomi’s smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “Listen,” she said, measuring out the syllables with such a deliberate weight that she might as well have been carving them into stone. “I did some homework on you guys. I know you’re very good at your jobs, and I’m always going to be grateful to you for saving City Lights. But trust me when I tell you: you do not know what you’re getting into here, or how much danger you’re in. And if you go in there without being prepared and things go south, your friend is going to die, or worse.”
Parker glanced over at Hardison and mouthed worse?
He just shook his head. Parker was pretty sure she knew what he was thinking. Information is power. And when you don’t have any information, and only one way points to getting it, there’s not much else you can do.
“Okay,” Parker told Nomi. “We’ll be there.” As soon as she’d spoken, Hardison closed down the video call and pulled up a local map. By the time he’d found the address, Parker was back on her feet and getting her gear together. Something told her she wasn’t going to see this hotel room again for a long time.
Nomi’s address led Parker and Hardison to Mission Bay, and then to a small, boxy houseboat, one of a long row of similar crafts docked along the side of a river. From the outside, it looked fairly unremarkable, save for a large decoration next to the front door in the shape of a giant squid. Without hesitating, Parker marched up and knocked.
The door swung open after a single knock, displaying a scruffy, wide-eyed man in a straw hat and a loud Hawaiian shirt. It took a few moments for Hardison to place his sense of deja vu: the guy was the spitting image of Nate’s standard “obnoxious tourist” disguise. “Welcome to my humble abode,” he told them like it was a line out of a movie, bowing with a dramatic flourish.
“Um, sorry,” Parker told him, already backing up a step or two. “I think we have the wrong place.”
He put up both hands in a hang on gesture. “No, no, you’re cool. You’re looking for Nomi and Neets, right?” Parker and Hardison nodded, and he waved them in. “Come on, come on, mi casa es su casa. They’re waiting for you.”
Hardison blinked at him. “And...who are you, exactly?”
The man at the door gave them a theatrical wink and tipped his hat. “Nomi told me one of you is kind of a hacker type,” he said in a stage whisper. “Ever run across a fellow on the ‘Net by the name of Bug?”
Hardison paused to think about it, bristling a little at the “kind of.” The name didn’t ring nearly as many bells as Nomi’s credentials had. Still, something finally drifted to the surface of his memory, some long-forgotten rants about the many evils of ‘the Man’ that he’d scrolled through in the distant past. “...Wait. That guy who always talked like he was living in the middle of a Matrix movie?”
Bug spread his arms wide, grinning. “The very same!”
Hardison glanced at Parker, who shrugged and threw him back a look that said You think we have any better options right now?
She had a point. “Uh, thanks for having us,” Hardison said, and followed Bug into the houseboat.
He had to admit, the inside of the place took some getting used to. It was a riot of multicolored clutter, old takeout containers sharing space with computer hardware on every available surface. Psychedelic paintings and movie posters lined the walls and bead curtains separated off the various rooms, making the place feel like a fifty-fifty blend of a hippie commune and a messy teenager’s bedroom. Still, Hardison bit his tongue on any snarky comments as he walked in. It wasn’t like his own hacker dens had ever been much more organized, back in the day.
“Okay, so we’ve all met by this point,” Nomi said, once everyone had gathered around Bug’s kitchen table. Next to her, Amanita gave Parker and Hardison a little wave and a slightly guilty smile. “And you’ve also met our, uh, ‘old friend’ at the FBI.’”
Amanita scowled. “I guess I should have known by now that Agent Bent-Dick would find another way to fuck everything up.”
“It’s not just Bendix, Neets,” Nomi said heavily. “Their friend got handed over to the BPO.”
“Okay,” Parker said over Amanita and Bug’s simultaneous murmurs of “ oh, shit. ” “Is someone gonna tell us who these BPO guys are, already?”
“They’re a secret group of mad scientists who kidnap people to run experiments on ‘em,” Bug volunteered. “Your tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen!”
“They’re the assholes who tried to lobotomize my girlfriend, ” Amanita snapped, her eyes hard and bright.
That brought Hardison up short. Bug’s statement had been enough to make him want to head for the door, bring an early end to Crazy Conspiracy Hour--but the pain in Amanita’s voice was real. He sank back down in his chair, saying nothing for now.
“Both of those things are true,” Nomi said. “But for this to make any sense, I think I’m going to have to start at the beginning.”
Amanita laid her hand over Nomi’s and leaned in close to her. “Nom, are you sure about this?” she asked, almost too softly for Hardison to catch.
“Yeah. I’m sure.” Nomi took a deep breath, pushing her glasses up on her nose. “I know things are...crazy right now, and we have to be careful. But this whole thing--all of it--is about reaching out and connecting with other people. If I don’t let myself trust someone sooner or later, then what’s the point of anything?”
Amanita didn’t say anything to that, just bit her lip and gave a slow nod.
“Besides.” Nomi’s voice caught. “If I have a chance to save someone else from….what almost happened to me...then I have to take it. It’s what you did for me. How could I live with myself if I wasn’t willing to do the same?”
“Okay,” Amanita whispered. “Okay.” She squeezed Nomi’s hand tight, and even in the low light Hardison could see the tears glittering in the corners of her eyes.
Hardison turned away, staring down at the floor. He might not have had any real idea what was going on just yet, but that was something he’d recognize anywhere. It was the kind of “okay” that meant something a lot closer to “I love you.” He’d heard it in Parker’s voice before, and in Eliot’s, whenever the three of them were checking in with each other after a tough job. He tried not to think too hard about what that meant.
“So,” Nomi said, and Hardison snapped back to attention. “The whole story.”
“Get ready for these two lovely ladies to blow your mind, ” Bug said, leaning back in his chair and making a head-exploding-outwards gesture with both hands to emphasize his point. “I mean really, really blow your mind. The first time they told me about this, I told ‘em they’d gone way off the deep end! But The Bug is not too proud to admit when he was wrong. Take it from me, this is the real shit right here.”
Hardison took a long, long look at Bug. The guy was giving him a strong sense of deja vu for the time he’d posed as an unhinged conspiracy theorist himself, back in the old days, when the team had been taking down an unethical reporter. That persona could have been Bug’s best friend. It wasn’t exactly an encouraging comparison.
“He’s not wrong,” Nomi said, with the sound of someone who’s been rehearsing what to say for a while. “This is going to sound kind of crazy. But I can promise you we’re not on drugs, or part of a weird cult, or anything like that.”
Bug put up a hand. “Um, that might depend a little bit on how you define ‘weird cult,’ technically…”
“Not helpful, Bug.” Nomi steepled her fingers and closed her eyes for a moment, seemingly gathering herself up. “Listen, all I ask is that you hear me out to the end, and then make your own judgments.”
That was a hell of a disclaimer. Hardison raised an eyebrow, then looked over at Parker next to him. She didn’t look like she could see a better option, either. “Okay, go on…”
“I’m pretty sure those agents took your friend because they think he’s a sensate,” Nomi told them. “A member of a parallel human species, homo sensorium, capable of telepathically sharing thoughts, experiences, and skills with other people across the planet.”
Okay, that was a new one. Hardison’s brow furrowed. “So, like, some kind of Men in Black type of situation? And you know this because…?”
Nomi shared a brief glance with Amanita, then turned back to face them. “Because I’m a sensate, and that’s why they were after me. I’m connected with seven other people. I can mentally ‘visit’ them at any time--talk to them, see the world through their eyes. Their minds, their experiences...they’re all a part of me now.”
Maybe it was just the motion of the houseboat, but Hardison was pretty sure he actually felt his heart sink. So this was going to be Crazy Conspiracy Hour after all.
Parker flashed Nomi a mirthless smile, eyes hard. “Uh-huh. Cute story. Bold, but I like bold. Could make a good grift someday. Now tell us the truth.”
Nomi shrugged. “I told you how it was gonna sound.”
“I didn’t know what to think either, at first,” Amanita told them. “But the craziest thing? Is that it all turned out to be true.”
She sounded very sincere, Hardison thought. But then again, her bookstore had a whole section on things like crystal healing and ancient aliens.
“Okay.” Parker folded her hands, giving Nomi a challenging look. “Prove it.”
Hardison felt Nomi’s attention turn to him. He shrugged. “I mean, she’s got a point. It’s kind of a big thing to just take on faith.”
“That’s fair. I can forward you some of the research I’ve been doing, but if you want something more than that, I understand.” Nomi pushed her chair back, stood up, and started pacing, muttering to herself. “Fuck, though, this is hard. I guess I haven’t really thought much about how I’d prove it to someone…with Neets and Bug it just sort of happened... no, no, hang on, I got this.” She tilted her head slightly to one side, as though trying to hear something from far away. “Lito, get in here a second?”
Bug rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Ohhh, this is gonna be good.”
The houseboat was not enormous, and it was obvious that no one else was there now but the five of them. By instinct, Hardison turned to the front door, but it stayed closed and silent. An awkward moment passed.
Then Nomi’s face lit up with recognition. “Hey,” she said aloud to the empty air in the middle of the room, as though she was answering a phone call. “Is this a good time?...seriously?” She rolled her eyes with a fond yet exasperated smile. “The world isn’t ending, Lito, I’m sure he’ll call you back tomorrow.”
Hardison made it a point of professional pride to always be able to tell at a glance when someone was wearing an earpiece, and he was sure Nomi wasn’t. He swept his eyes across the cluttered room, looking for hidden audio equipment. If there was anything there, he wasn’t seeing it.
Nomi was still talking to thin air. “Listen, I’ve got kind of a situation here...I need to prove the sensate thing to these guys. Do you mind showing them something?”
Half of Hardison was convinced that there was some kind of punchline coming any second, but at the same time he couldn’t tear his attention away. Was this what being on the wrong end of a grift felt like?
That was when Nomi’s whole demeanor changed. Her expression, the way she was standing, the way she carried herself: all at once, everything was completely different, turning into a lazy confidence that looked nothing like the person who had been talking to them a moment ago. It was like seeing Sophie slip into character for a grift, Hardison thought--but not even Sophie had ever managed to be quite this convincing.
Eyes suddenly smoldering with repressed emotion, the Nomi who no longer seemed like Nomi launched into a speech. In Spanish, no less. It was clearly something very dramatic, something that deserved a swelling orchestra backing it up--but dramatics alone couldn’t account for how different Nomi sounded now. The cadence of her speech, the way she emphasized her words--everything had undergone a complete transformation.
Hardison just sat there, totally baffled, and listened. His Spanish was a little rusty, but he caught the end of the speech--something about “we will all be judged by the courage of our hearts.”
Bug and Amanita broke into applause, and Nomi--looking like her old self again--joined them. “The great Lito Rodriguez,” Bug said with relish. “That’s gotta be his best speech, I’ve always said so.”
Nomi grinned. “He says thanks.”
Parker just crossed her arms. “So you’re a good actress who can do impressions. What does that prove?”
“Hang on.” Nomi held up a hand. “Hardison, put your phone on speaker; it’s gonna ring in five seconds.”
Hardison silently counted to five and willed himself not to jump when his phone’s ringtone went off right on schedule. He hit the necessary buttons, set the phone down on the table, then jerked his hand back like he was in danger of being bitten.
“Hello.” It wasn’t Nomi’s voice on the other end of the line--but somehow, it was the same voice they’d heard delivering that speech a moment ago. “This is Lito Rodriguez. I promise you, everything Nomi just told you is the truth. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s real.”
There was no way it wasn’t a recording or something. “Seriously?” Hardison said.
“Seriously,” the voice on the other end of the line replied. “I hope you enjoyed the speech.”
Hardison stared at the phone. It had to be some kind of trick. Had to be.
“IMDB him if you want,” said Bug. “It’s the real deal.”
“If you need more proof,” Nomi said hesitantly, “I could see if Sun is available…”
“You better take it outside for that one,” Bug warned her. “Or you’re gonna end up breaking my boat. Again.”
A few minutes later, Nomi had spoken in several more languages and demonstrated an exact knowledge of numerous things she should not have been able to know, to say nothing of an Eliot-like range of abilities. For his part, Hardison was feeling more lost than ever. There had to be some way to fake this with technical trickery; he was still hanging on to that. But if this was all an act, it was one that even Nate would have dismissed as “a bit much.”
Hardison kept scrolling through the research Nomi had sent him, looking for the catch--the one tiny mistake that would prove the whole thing was a sham, like spotting a zipper toggle that proved Bigfoot was just a guy in a costume. So far, he hadn’t found it.
Parker wasn’t having an easy time with this, either. She kept shooting quick glances all around the interior of the houseboat, laughing nervously. Hardison wasn’t sure if she was searching for a hidden camera or an escape route. “Look,” she finally said. “Even if this ’sensate’ thing is for real....that doesn’t mean Eliot is one. Right? ‘Cause that would be ridiculous.”
She tugged on one of Hardison’s sleeves. “Back me up on this.”
Hardison opened his mouth, then closed it again. He wanted to be able to reassure her, to say, no way, Eliot’s just a normal human. But “normal” wasn’t a word you could easily apply to Eliot Spencer. And the longer Nomi had been talking, the more a strange sense of deja vu had crept up in Hardison’s stomach.
“...I mean,” he finally said. “He does know a lot of different ways to beat people up. And I mean a lot. ”
Parker frowned. “That doesn’t mean anything…”
Hardison wasn’t done, though: anyone who assumed Eliot was just a hitter and nothing more wasn’t paying attention. “And then there’s the chef skills. And all those weird facts he always knows. And that one time he was a country music star. And that other time he was a baseball star. And…”
Parker flapped her hands at him like she was trying to shoo his thoughts away. “Okay, okay! Not helping!”
Parker’s eyes searched Hardison’s for a long, desperate moment. When she spoke again, her voice was much smaller. “I mean....he would have told us, wouldn’t he?”
Again, Hardison didn’t have the answer she wanted. He thought of all the cons the three of them had run together, always watching each other’s backs, relying on each other completely. Then he thought of how many of those jobs had involved some secret or other from Eliot’s past coming back to haunt them, something he’d never so much as hinted at before.
“....I don’t know,” he admitted.
Nomi stepped in, twisting her hands together nervously. “I hate to tell you this, but it might not matter either way. You wouldn’t believe how ruthless those BPO guys are. Take a look at this.”
She turned her laptop around, showing Parker and Hardison what looked to be security-camera footage of a heavyset man lying in a hospital bed. The timestamps sped up, days flickering by with the man lying immobile, until without warning he pushed the covers back, stood up, and walked out of the room.
Nomi closed the video and brought up a news article. Two faces stared grimly out at them under a block headline: a former coma patient had mysteriously woken up and shot a doctor, then himself. Hardison wasn’t sure, but a queasy intuition told him that the first photo showed the same man he’d seen in the camera footage a moment before.
“There’s this man working for the BPO,” Nomi told them, her voice suddenly shaky. “He’s a sensate too, but gone...wrong. We still don’t know his real name; there’s a lot of things people call him. Mr. Whispers. The Cannibal. The Soul Carnivore…”
“...Dr. Gibbons?” Hardison cut in.
Nomi raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, actually. How did you….never mind. The man you just saw in the footage was another sensate named Niles Bolger. Whispers took his brain, then somehow turned him into a glorified puppet, a human murder weapon. If it wasn’t for Neets here, I would have been next on the menu.”
Hardison fought down a wave of nausea. He’d seen countless corporate tyrants celebrating policies that would lead to ordinary people dying. He’d had plenty of close calls with nasty customers who wanted to put him and the rest of the team in the ground. But this....this was something else.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” Nomi said, “but you’ve got a ticking clock here. Whispers is devoted to hunting down every sensate he can find. We don’t know where he is now, but now that the BPO has Eliot, he’s got to be on his way here. If Eliot is a sensate, Whispers is gonna try to Bolger him. If he’s not, then Whispers will probably decide he knows too much. And, well...now you’ve seen how he gets rid of loose ends.”
Parker pushed her chair back with a thump. “I think I need some fresh air,” she said to the room at large. “Back in a sec.” A moment later, the front door slammed behind her.
“Well, that went about as well as it could have,” Bug said, scratching his chin with a philosophical air.
Nomi sighed. “I hate to say it, but I think you’re right.”
Parker was not freaking out.
She reminded herself of this, repeatedly, as she paced back and forth along the dock where the row of houseboats was moored, taking in deep lungfuls of the salty air. Parker liked Nomi and Amanita (and warily tolerated Bug), but she wasn’t sure she liked this place. The dock was hemmed in by a massive wall of luxury condos on one side, and the broad sweep of a bridge on the other. As far as possible from high ground, with no good places to hide. Even the weather-beaten planks beneath her feet seemed unsteady. It was putting her on edge.
Parker ground her teeth. This was ridiculous. She was the leader of the Leverage team, and a world-class thief in her own right. She’d been taught from childhood to maintain a steely calm under fire, to always stay composed in a world where falling even a millimeter off balance could mean disaster. So, no, she was not freaking out.
She just needed to….pause. And reassess the situation. Nothing more alarming than that.
Because of course you’d have to reassess the situation, wouldn’t you, if you’d just learned a vital new piece of information that could affect the balance of a con. New information like the existence of another human species with telepathic powers, and a shadowy organization hunting them all down, and these were the people who had Eliot and she had to believe he’d be fine in the end because he was Eliot and that meant he was always fine, but Nomi had been talking about lobotomies and…..
A seagull perching on the dilapidated roof of the nearest houseboat screeched at her, jolting her out of her accelerating panic. Parker screeched right back, sending the seagull flapping hurriedly away, then kept moving as soon as she’d gotten her breath back.
Once she was far enough away from the houseboats to be reasonably confident she was out of earshot, she pulled her phone out of her pocket. It was amazing how heavy it felt for such a tiny object, sitting there in her hand like it was daring her to dial the number.
When she’d first taken over leading the team, Parker had made a silent promise to herself to never call this number during a job. The other two had picked up on that before long--after all this time, there wasn’t much they could hide from each other--and it had turned into an unspoken team rule. Eliot seemed to get why she’d needed to draw that line--or, at least, if he disagreed he wasn’t saying anything--but Hardison had never been completely happy about it. He was always the first one to remind her that they were a family as much as a crew now, that it was okay to reach out and depend on someone else for a change.
Today, Hardison was finally going to win that argument. Because if there was any job that justified asking for help, it was this one.
Parker punched in the number, hit the call button, and waited for a few agonizing seconds.
“Yeah?” Nate’s voice was brash and unperturbed, same as always, and Parker sagged with relief, feeling like she’d just landed on solid ground.
There was no point in mincing words. “Nate, I need your advice.”
She could practically hear Nate’s familiar, calculating frown over the line. “On a job?”
Parker bit her lip. “Sort of a job. Something went wrong.”
Nate sighed. “Parker, I told you, you’re in charge now. I wouldn’t have passed the torch to you if I didn’t trust you to handle a little trouble when it comes up. I’ll do what I can, but at the end of the day--”
“Eliot’s been kidnapped by a group of mad scientists,” Parker blurted out over the rest of Nate’s speech. “Because they think he’s a member of another species. With psychic powers.”
There was a long pause.
“Run that one by me again,” Nate said.
Parker did, stumbling hesitantly over the explanation, then waited for Nate to get Sophie on the line and told both of them the whole thing all over again.
By the end of it, Parker was practically dancing in place with impatience, waiting for one of them to say something. “Listen,” Nate finally said. “I still don’t know if I believe in this whole...new-age, telepathy, shared-minds thing.”
“Perhaps that’s just as well,” Sophie added. “Anyone who shared your mind would be driven around the bend inside a week.”
“Yeah, thanks for that, Sophie,” Nate grumbled. “But that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter if I believe it. What matters is that these, ah, these suits, they believe it, and that’s why they’ve got Eliot. No matter how weird things get, there’s some parts of human nature you can always count on. And one of them is this: people see what they want to see.”
As irritating as Parker usually found it, Nate’s lecturing tone was wonderfully familiar. It could have been any one of a hundred planning sessions before a job.
“And when the grifter knows what people want to see, what’s her next step?” Sophie asked, and Parker knew the answer right away.
“Giving them what they want.”
She could hear the satisfied grin in Sophie’s voice. “There you go.”
“I told you,” Nate said, “you had the answer all along. Now go get your hitter back.”
As Parker headed back to the houseboat, the ground felt steadier under her feet than it had for a long time. She had a plan. Now all that was left was to put it into action.
“Okay, I’ve got a question,” Parker told Nomi the moment she was back through the door. “If I had the right fake ID, could I just walk into whatever building this BPO thing is set up in?”
Nomi nodded. “That’s how it worked out last time, at their supervillain lair up in Iceland. It’s that old axiom: the bigger and more high-tech a place is…”
“...the easier it is to just walk in the front door,” Hardison finished for her, grinning--that had been a favorite saying of Nate’s, as well.
“I’ve cloned one of their IDs before; it wouldn’t be hard to do it again.” Nomi had her laptop open and was already typing rapid-fire, but she paused to make eye contact with Parker and Hardison, looking grave. “But you realize that’s going to be the only easy part, right?”
Parker nodded. “Right. But I’ve got an idea. And the best part is, I owe it all to that Agent Bendix guy.”
Amanita gave her an arch look. “Okay, this I’ve gotta hear.”
So she explained, Hardison nodding along and then starting to throw in suggestions of his own once he’d gotten the picture. At the end of it, Nomi just shook her head. “And you said I was bold.”
“Like I said, sometimes bold can work,” Parker said. “If we’re gonna pull this off, though, I’m going to need everything you know about this Mr. Whispers guy. I mean everything. Are you okay with that?”
Nomi hesitated for a moment, but only a moment. “Yeah. We’ve come this far already. You might not be sensates, but we’re in this together, and you deserve to know what you’re going up against.”
Parker nodded briskly. The world steadied itself under her feet. This could work. She’d make it work.
“It’s probably going to have to be you two who actually go in and do all the talking,” Amanita warned them. “These creeps still know our faces from when they tried to hunt Nomi down a few months ago. Which is why we’re stuck slumming it in the spare bedroom of the U.S.S. Bug.” She glanced sidewise at Bug, who’d seemingly stopped following the conversation and was working his way through a ham sandwich. “Uh, no offense.”
He waved her away with a muffled “None taken.”
“That’s fair,” Parker said. “Nomi, do you think you could hack into the building’s systems from a distance, though? Enough to trip some alarms or knock out the power?”
Nomi’s eyes lit up. “Give me a few minutes and I can be playing that place like a Stradivarius.”
“Great.” Parker ran down her mental list. “Still gonna need one more pair of hands on site, though.”
There was a pause as, one by one, all of them turned to look at Bug, who was polishing off his sandwich in a state of oblivious contentment. Feeling the pressure of four pairs of eyes on him, he came back to attention with a guilty start. For a moment his face remained blank, then his eyes somehow got even wider than usual.
“Oh no. Ohhh, no no no. Listen, you may have picked up on the ‘suave and handsome secret agent’ vibe I’ve got going on, but The Bug does not do fieldwork. I’m strictly a mission-control kind of guy.”
“Relax,” Parker told him. “You’re not gonna have to go in. Don’t tell me you’ve never wanted to steal a van.”
Bug pulled an exaggerated thoughtful face. “You know what, I may just have to reconsider.”
“Okay.” Hardison, like Nomi, had his laptop open and ready. “So where do we start?”
Parker grinned. “We get our new identities in order. This place is after sensates? We’re gonna give them what they want.”
The building where the BPO was holding Eliot looked disconcertingly normal. Perfectly standard four-or-five-story office complex, the kind the Leverage team had infiltrated about a thousand times before. Cloudy skies above, cracked pavement choked with weeds below, a few green vans parked out front.
Hardison didn’t trust it. A place this boring didn’t look like it should belong in a crazy world of mad scientists and telepathic powers. But he knew better than anyone how much could lie hidden beneath an unremarkable surface.
Don’t keep thinking about it, he scolded himself. You’re just gonna psych yourself out. He turned to Parker instead. “Ready?”
She rolled her shoulders a few times, getting limbered up for the mission. “Ready.”
“We’re at the point of no return here,” Hardison reminded her. “Take a minute to get into character if you need it.”
Parker just shrugged, tossing her ponytail back over one shoulder. “We went over everything about a hundred times. I think we’ve got this thing down.”
“The sensate thing, sure. But remember, we’re not just your average garden-variety sensates here. We’ve gotta walk in there acting like we own the room and all their asses and they ought to be grateful for it.”
“Got it.” Parker tilted her head to one side for a moment, considering. “So, act like Nate?”
“That’s…” Hardison shrugged. “Okay, you know what, sure. Act like Nate.”
“All right,” Parker said, giving the goggles and surgical mask she was wearing a final adjustment and shrugging her lab coat into place. “Nomi should have the alarms turned off for the top floor by now. As soon as she sees you’re in, Bug will bring the van around. Remember, you need to be through that door exactly three minutes after I leave.”
On an impulse, Hardison took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Parker. We’ve got this.”
She looked him gravely in the eye, then nodded. “Well, then. Let’s go steal us an Eliot.”
Hardison recognized the old catchphrase for what it was: something between a good-luck charm, a mission statement, and a prayer. He nodded, not saying a word, and the two of them split up to begin the first phase.
“I need to talk to whatever pencil-pusher of a homo sapiens is calling the shots around here,” Hardison demanded, barging through the front door and impatiently swiping Nomi’s fake BPO ID past the scanner. “Right now.”
The agent at the front desk gave him a baffled look, her eyes briefly flickering to his ID. Hardison took a few steps closer, holding himself tall, and gave her his best challenging glare in response.
“What exactly is this about?” the agent finally managed.
Hardison threw up his hands, rolling his eyes, as though asking an invisible audience can you believe this? “Seriously, ‘what’s this about’? Okay, fine, we’ll tell you what it’s about.”
That was Parker’s cue, and of course she hit it flawlessly. The nearby elevator doors gave a pleasant ding and slid open, and there she was in her scientist’s gear, moving toward them with a purposeful stride and picking up Hardison’s sentence right where he’d left it off. “It’s about the valuable asset you’ve been treating like a lab rat.”
“It’s about the end of this whole damn division, if you don’t do something to fix this mess pretty quick,” Hardison added. He and Parker were standing side by side now, mirroring each other’s poses, arms crossed, staring the agent down.
“I’ll….see if he’s available,” she finally managed, clearly trying not to look too worried and making a bad job of it.
Hardison held his breath as the agent hit an intercom button. This was the moment where things were about to either go very right, or very, very wrong.
“We’ve been following standard procedure,” the guy in the suit told them doggedly. “Once Dr. Gibbons gets here, he’ll be able to confirm…”
Hardison shook his head, trading a disgusted look with Parker. As they’d been ushered into the supervisor’s office, he’d practically been on the edge of a heart attack. If they’d guessed the timing of this wrong and they came face to face with Whispers himself, that could have been it. Goodnight, Leverage.
But for once their luck had held out. The man they were talking to now--a tired-looking guy with dark, thinning hair--didn’t remotely match the description Nomi had given them of Whispers (white male, mid-sixties, average build, white hair and beard, glasses, “looks like some kind of psychologist, but like, in a creepy way”). That meant they were in with a shot. Now came the hard part.
He cut off the man’s bureaucratic drone with a hearty scoff. “I know, I know. So you’ll just sit around and play Angry Birds or whatever it is you sapiens do around here, and wait for him to show up so you can do whatever he tells you.”
“ Or you could do the smart thing and listen,” Parker finished for him, picking up seamlessly from where he’d left off yet again.
Hardison was getting into the role now. “Your friend Dr. Gibbons? Or, uh, Mr. Whispers? He’s played out. Past his prime. You heard about that incident in Iceland, didn’t you? Had a whole cluster right under his nose and let them get away?” He gave the supervisor a dry little smile. “Or is that kind of info above your pay grade?”
The suit blanched, and Hardison took a moment to silently thank Agent Bendix.
“ Who are you, exactly?” the man demanded.
“We’re his replacement,” Parker and Hardison said in flawless unison, just like they’d practiced.
“Or, well, part of his replacement,” Parker amended. “Because you decided to lock another member of our cluster away. Not a great move, let me tell you.”
The supervisor scowled. “I haven’t heard anything about this.”
The smile Parker turned on him was saccharine and pitying. “Your clearance level really must not be that great.”
Hardison nodded. “Yeah, it’s a little thing called deep cover. You think we want word getting out about us when there’s whole clusters we’re still trying to track down? And that was going great, until you went and got your hands all over it.”
The supervisor ping-ponged uncertain glances back and forth between the two of them, not seeming to know who he should be focusing on. Hope flared up in Hardison’s chest. Time to press their advantage while they had it.
“Think about it,” he said. “You’ve got a tightly run organization here. Do you really think the higher-ups want to keep around some creepy loose cannon with supernatural powers and an axe to grind? You know what that is? That’s Darth Vader. Go ask the Empire how well it turned out keeping that dude on the payroll.”
“Whispers is unstable,” Parker summarized. “The boss is getting ready to cut him out of the picture. Who do you think is the better option: one old man who just let a cluster get away? Or a pack, coordinating and hunting together?”
“Which brings us back to your mistake,” Hardison said. He produced the tablet computer he’d brought along, and started up the video. A scrap of old security camera footage he’d managed to dig up: Eliot taking on a room full of security guards, switching fluently between a half-dozen fighting styles. The supervisor looked on, enthralled, subtly wincing whenever Eliot landed a particularly brutal hit.
“He’s gone by so many names,” Parker said, solemn. “When there are survivors left to talk about him. The Butcher of Kiev. The Iceman. Some just call him...Chaos.” Hardison hastily disguised his laugh behind a cough. How Parker was keeping a straight face for this, he didn’t know.
“And that’s who you wanted to turn into a zombie,” he said, slamming the tablet down on the nearest table. “The most talented agent this organization has ever employed. I don’t have to put all the pieces together for you, do I? This was Whispers trying to pull a fast one. Eliminate his competition before anyone was the wiser.”
“He knew if something happened to one of us, it would affect the rest of the cluster,” Parker said. “Got the drop on our friend here, then delivered him to you and told you he was next on the chopping block.”
“And you know as well as anyone that there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t exactly friendly to us,” Hardison added. “While we’re turned against each other like this, with our best asset out of commission, we’re a prime target. Our security could be compromised at any moment.”
Parker shook her head at him. “You could have destroyed this organization without even knowing it. Do you want to be the one who has to explain that to the Chairman? I know I wouldn’t.”
After a long silence, the man pushed himself up out of his chair. “Okay, first of all, I need--”
They never found out what it was he needed. That was the moment that all the lights in the building went out, plunging them into darkness, and the alarm systems started up.
“We have a breach!” Hardison shouted over the din. “Get that asset in a van and on the way to a secure location! Save all the classified intel you can get your hands on!!”
He made his way to the stairwell, Parker close at his heels, listening to the echoes of the supervisor repeating his warning over the intercom. By the time he reached the next floor down it was already in chaos, agents dashing in all directions, strobing red alarms the only source of light. Parker darted ahead, and Hardison followed the dim shape of her white coat, knocking into as many people as he could along the way to create a little extra chaos.
By the time they reached the gurney, Eliot had already gotten himself out of it, apparently having taken his cue when the lights went out. He was disheveled, limping, and clad in a hospital gown, but--as far as Hardison could tell in the low light--otherwise none the worse for wear.
Parker hissed a few instructions in Eliot’s ear, then quickly handed him her lab coat, goggles, and mask. He got right into action as if he’d been in on the plan from the beginning, getting into the scientist gear and grabbing the nearest passing BPO agent to throw him to the ground.
Working together, the three of them wrestled the now-unconscious agent onto the gurney and strapped him in, tucking a sheet around his body to obscure his features.
Only one step left. Several groups of BPO agents were still scattered around the room, scrambling to collect files and lab equipment. Parker spotted the nearest group and together, she and Hardison hurtled the gurney into their path. “What are you still doing here!” Hardison barked at them. “Van’s waiting. Get that asset out of here and don’t look back! Go, go, go, move, move, move!” The agents grabbed the gurney and made for the exit with alacrity, the Leverage team following close behind.
Outside, the agents squinted in the sudden brightness, shading their eyes with outstretched hands. A van was already waiting by the curb, engine idling.
“You take it from here,” Hardison told them. “Don’t let this man fall into anyone else’s hands, or it is over. ” The agents loaded the gurney into the van, Hardison slammed the doors, and they were gone in a screech of tires.
Parker, Hardison, and Eliot watched them go, waited for a few moments more, and made their way to the back of the building, where an identical van stood waiting for them.
“Everything’s taken care of,” Parker reported as the doors opened, and Nomi, Amanita, and Bug welcomed them with whispered cheers.
“Ready to get us out of here, Nomi?” Parker asked.
“Actually, I’m not your driver today.” Hardison could see the mischievous lift of Nomi’s eyebrows in the rearview mirror. “Parker, Hardison, Eliot, say hi to Capheus Onyango. He wants me to tell you that he’s always really wanted to be the getaway driver in a heist movie.”
“Hi, Capheus,” Parker and Hardison chorused as Nomi’s posture and body language went through another sudden shift, her grip on the steering wheel turning white-knuckled.
“ What, ” said Eliot.
He was scowling at each of them in turn, eyes narrowed. It was a very distinctive form of bafflement, and Hardison didn’t have the words for how much he’d missed it.
“I’ll explain later,” Parker muttered to him, then turned back towards the driver’s seat. “Okay, hit it.”
Nomi/Capheus slammed a foot down on the gas and spun the wheel, there was a screech and the stench of burning rubber, and the BPO building roared away into the distance behind them.
“So, is this how things usually go for you guys?” Nomi asked them over coffee the next morning.
Parker shrugged. “I don’t know if we really have a ‘usually’...but yeah, more or less.”
“Parker’s never happy unless she gets to sneak into a building from the roof,” Eliot put in, “so it’s a good thing she got her fix this time around.” Parker stuck her tongue out at him, but her heart wasn’t in it. Eliot was a little banged up, had deep shadows under his eyes, and was keeping a death grip on his coffee cup--but he was there, so Parker knew everything else would take care of itself just fine.
“The tricky part,” Hardison said, “was not being able to go over any of the plan with Eliot beforehand. All Parker had time to do was loosen a bunch of his restraints and tell him to wait for the lights to go out. But I’ll give him this, he catches on pretty quick.”
“And from there,” Parker concluded, “it was just the oldest trick in the book. Invent the problem, and let the mark believe you’re helping them solve it.”
Nomi nodded slowly and took a long drink of her coffee. “Do I need to be worried about those guys you sent off in the van with the wrong body?”
“Not gonna be a problem,” Bug said, the usual unsettlingly wide grin spreading across his face. “Something tells me they’re gonna be running out of gas really soon. And your friend there”--he gestured to Hardison--“left a few nice little presents for their computer network on the way out. They won’t be figuring anything out for a long, long time.”
Nomi breathed out a sigh of relief. “Okay. There’s no way Whispers is done with us yet, but it’s good to know these local goons are off our backs.”
Parker scalded her tongue on her coffee, then just stared down at the table for a while, trying to figure out what to say to that. She was still trying to wrap her head around everything Nomi had shown her--connected souls, hunters, mindless men with deadly weapons. It just felt too big to deal with.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t...do more,” she eventually said. “About all the rest of it.”
“Oh, hey, no, it’s okay.” Nomi’s expression softened. “You didn’t have a say about getting pulled into this. It’s going to be a long fight. I’m just glad we were there to help each other when it was really important.”
“You’re not the only one,” Eliot muttered, gruff as always, but Parker thought she saw a slight smile on his battered features.
“And hey,” Hardison said, “if you ever have more trouble with that Agent Bent-Dick…”
Amanita broke into a surprised laugh, and Hardison gave her a mock salute in return. “...just let us know,” he finished. “We can always try calling in some of our old favors with the FBI, see if that helps out.”
Nomi’s eyebrows climbed up towards her hairline. “The FBI owes you favors? You are so telling me some more of your stories when we have the time.”
Hardison grinned. “Sounds like a plan.”
“Glad to hear it,” Nomi said. “Our first meeting might not have been under the best circumstances. But, you know, something tells me we’ll see each other again.”
Parker wasn’t sure if that “something” meant just a feeling, or one of Nomi’s seven other lives. Was it rude to ask? Probably.
But either way, she believed it.
“So you’re sure you’re not secretly a sensate?” Parker asked Eliot. It was about the sixth time she’d brought up the question since they’d gotten back to Leverage headquarters, and she had every intention of keeping at it until she got a satisfying answer. “Like, completely sure?”
Eliot, damn him, just shrugged. “You know, nobody ever told me what being a sensate actually means. ”
Parker was sure she wouldn’t be able to explain it as well as Nomi had, but decided she’d give it a shot anyway. She and Hardison started talking at the same time, voices overlapping each other. “Having a bunch of other voices in your head--”
“Being permanently connected to all these other people--”
“People who can talk to you when they’re not there, let you borrow any of their skills when you need them…”
“Oh, sure, I got that,” Eliot said, as casually as if he’d mentioned that he wore glasses sometimes.
Hardison stared flatly at him. “Seriously.”
A grin slowly started to spread across Eliot’s face. “Yeah. One of ‘em’s this hacker who thinks he’s a real wiseguy, one of ‘em’s a thief who’s this total adrenaline junkie...a few others who come and go, but always those two. Annoys the hell out of me, but I don’t know what I’d do without ‘em.”
Hardison let his breath out all in a rush. “Dammit, you really had me going for a second there.”
Eliot chuckled. “Yeah, I know. You shoulda seen the look on your face, man.”
It was almost like he’d never left. “I’m….really glad you’re back, Eliot,” Parker told him quietly. It sounded dangerously like feelings stuff, and she hated talking directly about feelings stuff, but just this once she’d make an exception.
Eliot smiled back at her, and she was sure he knew what she’d meant. “Thanks, Parker.”
“You would tell us if you were actually some kind of telepath, though, right?” Hardison said after a moment.
“I mean, probably,” Eliot amended with a shrug, then got up and ambled out of the room.
Hardison followed him, still protesting: “Prob--Eliot, this is not a ‘probably’ kind of situation!”
Parker contentedly watched them go. All three of them had settled comfortably into the well-worn routine of their banter, and for a few golden moments, everything was back to normal. She had a feeling it wouldn’t last, though. Old definitions of “normal” never did.
In the end, as long as the three of them were together, that was just fine with her.