Chapter 1: The Thieves
“Got one for you. See pic. Deliver it in a week or else.”
A week? Lennie owes someone money.
Josie studied the picture of a woman’s driver’s license — Irene Fisher, lives at 436 East Hadley — and smeared wasabi on her last piece of avocado roll before popping it into her mouth. The stringent spice burned her sinuses and made her eyes water as she pitched the empty container out the window of her SUV into a nearby trash can. She blinked to clear her eyes before pulling out of her parking spot. It would take her a good half hour to get to Hadley from here, so Irene might already be home from her extra unlucky traffic stop.
Asshole should tell me where he’s patrolling. Give me a way to estimate. But then Lennie had no interest in making her life easy. Lennie was only interested in her making his life easy.
As her nondescript SUV wove through sparse late-night traffic, the sharp burn of the wasabi faded from behind her eyes, only to be replaced by the duller ache of too little sleep for too many nights in a row. This would be another one. She’d need to scout the house for the next full day at least before she went in.
And this is what happens when you pull a job on your own, Shorty.
Whatever. She’d figure out a time to catnap once Irene was asleep. And she wasn’t just going to be Lennie’s fucking pet thief.
She parked by the dark house, stationed behind a perfectly manicured lawn. Didn’t look like anyone was home, but either Irene had a hell of a job, or she had a partner to help pay for that monstrosity. And whatever Irene drove that had caught Lennie’s eye.
Giving me a heads up on the make and model too much to ask?
Stealing cars, at least cars made in the last decade, wasn’t so much an art form as a misdirection. Slim jims and hotwiring didn’t cut it in the age of smart key fobs and keyless entry. Some keyless entry cars could be hacked with relay boxes that extended the RFID signal, but as that method became popular a few years back, so did ways to prevent that quick hack. If you wanted to be a car thief, you were better off knowing how to break into someone’s house. Pick a pocket. Steal a purse. Or own a tow truck. But she preferred the houses, pockets, and purses. The tow truck method always felt...exposed.
Irene Fisher was a lawyer — Josie googled her while she waited. According to Facebook, she was single, but she hadn’t updated her page in several months, and only intermittently over the past few years, so she wasn’t one for social media. Damn. It made her life so much easier when people put every detail of their whereabouts and plans online.
The car, a sleek (if a bit clichéd) Jaguar XJ pulled up a while later, the garage sliding open as it did so, and from across the street, Josie watched a slim, blonde woman climb out and enter the house before the closing garage obscured her view. Josie waited until an upstairs light came on, before slipping across the street and over to the side of the house. Side door to the garage, as good a test as any. Lock picks made short work of the simple doorknob and she took a deep breath, holding it as she opened the door. Immediately, she heard two things. One, the beep of an alarm system, requesting a code, and two, the rush of a water heater pumping hot water from the garage to somewhere above her head.
She’s in the shower.
Usually, she was a careful thief. She scouted her targets for days, mapped schedules, made contingency plans, established escape routes and cover stories. She’d been to prison once and she had no intention of going again — something which Lennie loved to hang over her. You wanna work with me, or you wanna go back inside? Your choice, Shorty.
Get this done now and I can go home, get some sleep, plan and pull off a job on my own before he feels safe enough to toss another one my way. It was enough to get her moving the moment she realized the shower was running. She sprinted in front of the cars — the Jag and a more modest Lexus — hit the garage button as she opened the door to the house, and there, dangling on a hook by the door were the keys. Thank God for rich people organization. The alarm settled into its shrieking warning tones, but she was already in the car, reversing down the drive and away, pressing the button to close the garage behind her.
She didn’t have much time, stealing it on the fly like this, and Lennie’s new chop shop guys were going to kill her if she brought in a too-hot car. Lefty — well, Lefty probably would have killed someone for that too, but that was before she’d known he was capable of murder. Before everything changed...and didn’t.
She had to get this car hidden, and kill the battery, but no, shit they’ll still be able to track its last known location, and fuck, this is why I always plan —
“What you need is an EMP cannon and a big hill. I have the first, and the second is about two blocks away, take a left NOW.”
Instead of doing that, Josie screamed, wrenching the wheel and the car fishtailed wildly for a moment before she managed to get it under control again. A blonde woman—wait? Irene?? No, not Irene, though she was wearing the clothes Irene had worn going into the house—climbed out of the back seat, somehow managing to make the transition look graceful.
Josie twisted the wheel, far too aware of how much her hands were sweating and she couldn’t lose control now, not of the car or herself, but this was — they passed under a streetlight and she got a brief but clear look at the woman’s face — “P-PARKER?”
The woman beamed widely at her. “Hi! I found out you were in trouble.”
“I’m in trouble?” They’d reached the top of the hill Parker’d mentioned, and started down the other side. The winding road had no streetlights, and she was glad of the Jag’s high beams illuminating the asphalt ahead of her.
“Well, duh.” Parker reached back and grabbed something cylindrical that looked vaguely familiar. “Shift to neutral.”
She did it without questioning. It wasn’t that Parker inspired confidence, exactly, she just seemed to inhabit the eye of a constant hurricane, so it was better to stick close.
The answer to her non-question became horribly clear a moment later, when Parker blasted the car they were sitting in, rolling down a dark, 45% grade hill with an EMP cannon and killed the entire electrical system.
“Don’t crash,” she advised, as Josie tried to get her eyes to adjust to dim moonlight after the brightness of the high beams and not drive off the edge of what could be a cliff for all she knew. “And don’t tap the brakes, we need all the speed we can get.”
Her heart rate picked up speed in time with the car, hurling down the road, careening through two thankfully empty intersections, veering in a wide left to keep up the downhill ride, before Parker pointed her at an abandoned overpass and finally let her hit the brakes.
She slumped over the steering wheel, trying to remember a time her heart wasn’t in her throat, and gasped, “Now what?”
“Now we take down Officer Leonard Williams.” She couldn’t see much of Parker’s smile, but it had enough teeth to look dangerous.
“It’s not that simple —” she began, but Parker shook her head sharply.
“It is simple. You’re being blackmailed. I don’t like blackmailers, and I really don’t like blackmailers messing with my friends.”
We’re friends? She was just some kid who screwed things up for Parker’s crew over a decade ago. But she wasn’t going to point that out. “It’s complicated — I’m...not exactly legal?”
“Psshh, so? I’m never legal. Especially not when I’m being the law. Speaking of, we need to get a move on, lots to do, and I don’t have backup.”
“Um. Where is —”
“Later. Here’s the plan.”
She’d gotten out of the habit of making plans that relied on just her. Not that she couldn’t do it, of course she could, she was Parker. She could steal anything.
Let’s go steal a thief...but “let’s” was something the leader of a crew would say, and she wasn’t that. Not anymore.
Still this was doable. She wouldn’t fail Josie again.
“It’s still going to be easy to find the car,” Josie said, “Irene — wait, are you Irene?”
“Temporarily. Irene’s on vacation in Bali, so contacting her is going to take a while. They’ll send a cruiser around the house, but you hit the garage button,” she tapped the black rectangle on the visor, “as you pulled out. Good thinking. All they’ll see is one unlocked side door. People forget that door all the time.”
The compliment put the barest flicker of a smile on Josie’s face, before it vanished behind worry. “I know. But there’s also a missing JAG.”
“And the keys are gone too. They can’t be sure it’s stolen yet.” She realized she was petting Hardison’s EMP cannon and stopped. “Anyway, that’s not important.”
“Lennie’s going to hear the dispatch. He sent me to that house. If — if he…” she stopped, her breathing shallow and rapid.
“Yup, that’s the idea.”
“I made sure he pulled me over.” So annoying, going slow enough to get caught. But worth it. “And when I got back to Irene’s house, you were sitting across the street, so I turned the shower on and then went back down to hide in the car.”
“So the shower’s still running back at the house?”
“Uhhhm...” Oops. Eliot growled a dammit, Parker, but it was only inside her head. Real Eliot couldn’t know, not until the job was done.
“Why? Why pretend to be Irene? And how did you know I’d steal the car then?”
“I didn’t, but the opportunity was there and you’re a good thief.”
“No! I’m not! I didn’t think it through and I did something risky and now I have a car I can’t drive and he doesn’t like when there’s that much heat on him, and he’s going send me back and—”
“Hey! No, he isn’t.” She didn’t like the way Josie’s brain short-circuited when it came to Lennie. It opened a pit of cold in her belly. People who made that pit got forks in their shoulders. “I’m not just Irene. I’m also Agent Hagen with the FBI, I have proof that Officer Leonard Williams is forcing his CI to steal cars for him, and with the help of that CI,” she paused to grin at a stunned Josie, “I’ll have the chop shop he’s using as well.”
It was a good plan. So good it worked. Mostly.
She did have to call Hardison last minute to provide some quick backup and because he was Hardison, he did it without pointing out that she’d broken her promise. He just thought it loudly enough that he didn’t need to say it. Usually that was an Eliot trick.
And she forgot how cornered men lose control when trapped.
Stupid. I’m rusty.
Lennie, coming to the chop shop under the pretense of arresting Josie for the possession of a car reported stolen, instead found himself surrounded by FBI and state police, and Josie staring at him, unable to stop a smile.
“YOU BITCH!” He lunged at her and Josie’s eyes went huge as she tried to avoid him.
No. Never again. Parker stepped in his path, raising a hand to block him. He caught her wrist and twisted it viciously. She heard, more than felt, the dull snap of bone, as the opening gave her a chance to press her taser up against his ribs. He spasmed and dropped to the ground, twitching.
She looked down at her wrist, hanging limp and painful. “Eliot’s going to kill me.”
Josie stepped up beside her to stare down at her tormentor. “It’s my fault,” she offered hesitantly.
Parker shook her head. “No, I’m out of practice. He shouldn’t have caught me.” She kicked Lennie once, none too gently. “He’s had a lot of experience twisting arms, hasn’t he.” It wasn’t a question.
See? Eliot will understand. She didn’t want to think about what Hardison was telling Eliot right now, so she forced a bright smile. “So! You’re free!”
“Yeah. I guess I am.” Josie’s smile looked as fake as hers felt. “So are you, uh, going home now?”
“Yes. First I need to get this set. There’s a clinic near…” she stopped, noticing the disappointment Josie wasn’t very good at hiding. “Would you drive me?” Not that she couldn’t drive with a broken wrist. She could. She was Parker. But the other thief’s face got instantly hopeful and she nodded eagerly, and that was...nice.
“Why did you come back?” Josie asked as they drove off in one of the unmarked cars, taking advantage of the confusion at the scene to slip away without anyone noticing.
“I wanted to ask you how to stop being a thief.”
Josie laughed bitterly. “Clearly I’m not the best person to ask. Why?”
“It’s complicated.” She always hated that as an answer, and here she was using it. But it was. “Are you going to stop being a thief now?”
Josie hesitated. “It’s complicated.”
They arrived at the clinic before Parker could wrangle an explanation out of her. It was bright and clean and staffed 24/7 now. She could barely remember the dilapidated building they’d helped save on the private school job all those years ago.
She got her wrist set and promised that she’d keep the removable cast on so they wouldn’t give her a plaster one. Maybe, when she got back, she could take it off and pretend nothing happened? Unlikely. Josie stayed with her the whole time, hovering in the background and providing a convenient excuse for Parker not to answer the calls filling her phone.
“So,” she said when they got back into the car. “Complicated?”
The girl sighed. “I’m a felon with false papers. The only reason I haven’t been deported is Lennie, and now he’s gone. Good riddance, but still. Complicated.”
“Yeah, my mom brought me here from China when I was three? I think? My dad was some American businessman who’d promised her the world and booked it when he found out she was pregnant and she came to find him. Didn’t work out, so she left me here.”
“With my cousins. They had a semi-legit car stereo business. They…”
“Yeah, like I said. Semi-legit. Anyway, they got busted, so I went to Lefty and that’s where I was when your crew took him down. Lennie and Lefty were old friends. Lennie’s always been crooked, and he found me and said I had to start boosting cars for him or he’d get me deported.”
“My papers came from Lefty’s crew, so yeah, he knew. Came to my high school and had a chat with me about my “options” in the parking lot in view of everyone. Even Paul saw, from his classroom. So I did it. Not that it mattered. He arrested me right after I turned eighteen. Probably was getting too much heat and needed a patsy. Got five years, out in three, and he was waiting at the gate. I became his “CI” and it all started again.”
“He was...nice. Too nice,” she said, and Parker knew exactly what she meant. Too naive. Paul had needed their help because he was stupid to begin with. “I couldn’t tell him about Lennie—he’d do something stupid. When I went down, he visited once to tell me he was disappointed in my life choices and that was that.”
Parker ground her teeth. “So what do you want?”
Josie looked surprised and maybe a bit hurt. “N-nothing.”
“Yes, you do.” Her tone was wrong, she realized; her anger about Paul bleeding through. “I want to help you,” she continued, softer. “And I thought I did, but if I didn’t do it right, then I failed. And I don’t like failing.” She glanced down at her wrist. “I thought I’d helped the first time too.”
“I can’t tell you that it’s stupid until you tell me.”
Josie bit her lip, before finally letting the words burst out. “I want to come with you! I wanted to back then! But I nearly got you guys killed! How could I ask after that? And now you’re out of the game. I can’t follow you around like some duckling. So it’s stupid.”
“That’s not stupid. I know stupid. Paul was stupid.” Parker said. She knew plenty about not belonging, and the ache that came from wanting to. She’d taught the girl how to boost. Told her that those car thieves weren’t her family, then left her to be normal. She’d learned about people in the eleven years since. And about belonging. “Okay.”
“You’ll have to come to Albuquerque. Which doesn’t have enough tall buildings. But there is a three-thousand-foot watermelon mountain and it has a tramline with terrible security, so it’s easy to slide down it at midnigh —”
“Parker. You’re serious?”
“Of course. Eliot has horses now, so why shouldn’t I have a duckling? Alec will — We should stop by Paul’s before we leave Boston though. He needs to be punched.”
“Don’t bother. He’s not worth it.” She paused. “Um. You live with Eliot? Will he mind? I sorta nearly killed him?”
“Lots of people do that.” The last person nearly succeeded and it was so close, so close, never again...She shook her head, hard. “He and Alec are probably mad at me, because I left and did a job without telling them, and I promised I wouldn’t be a thief. Oh, and I got hurt, but he won’t be mad at me about that, he’ll be mad at himself.” She realized she was babbling and clamped her lips shut. But Josie didn’t look reassured, so she had to open them again. “He won’t be mad at you. I promise.”
Chapter 2: The Hitters
The crowd tonight was good and rowdy. Molly had to shove hard to make her way through them to the cage at the center, ignoring the fumbled slaps and grabs, letting the anger they kindled sit hot and hard at the pit of her stomach. She’d spend it in the ring, not on some asshole too drunk to feel her break his fingers.
Tonight was a tournament night. Eight fighters, seven fights, three brackets. If she won, the payout was half a year’s rent. And if I lose, I don’t make rent this month.
As far as motivations went, it was middling. Better than her first time in the ring, half drunk and coming to terms with the fact that she’d fucked up her military career and the rest of her life. Not as good as her second, stepping forward when some jacked-up prick asked if anyone in the crowd was man enough to fight him, or if they were all little girls. At 5’7’’ and a hundred and forty pounds, she wasn’t exactly little, but she was a girl. She felt good losing the first fight, felt better winning the second, and by now she’d been sauntering into these shitty basements, backrooms, and parking garages for well over a year. She won more than she lost, and winners got a part of the take. Losers were just glad when they left with all their teeth.
She could hear the darker mutters as she circled her first opponent. When she’d first started, the guys liked her. The chick with the pixie cut who drank hard, punched hard, swore hard. They thought she was cute. There were a few other women who came and went, but she’d stuck around, and once they realized she wasn’t there to fuck them, just fuck them up, that camaraderie vanished. Big whoop. She didn’t need them to like her.
This guy wasn’t named Josh, but he looked like a Josh — the beefy gym bro variety, not the computer nerd variety. He came in wearing some stupid neon shirt, and she didn’t have time to roll her eyes at the undoubtedly stupid slogan before he ripped it off, roaring and swinging it over his head. She watched from her corner, waiting for his posturing to cease. The bell rang, he charged, and she went low, punching him in the solar plexus as she flipped him over her shoulder, to smash heavily down on the concrete floor. On another night, maybe she’d have taken more time to toy with the guy, but he was annoying and she had two more fights to win, so she sent him sprawling the moment he tried to rise, pinning his arms behind him as she knelt on his back.
The crowd’s angry boos and shouts lasted long after Josh crawled out of the cage. She smirked. There was power in being a bitch.
The second fight was harder. She’d lost to Dawes the last time they’d fought and she knew better than to underestimate him. Small for a guy, and quick, they danced around each other and traded a few careful parries before she moved in, landing a series of forceful blows that he barely managed to block before getting a lucky hit in her ribs that made her gasp and dance back. He grinned, his lip split from his first fight.
Ah shit, that’s where he got me last time.
She stayed put, shifting her weight back and forth while she waited for him to come to her. Finally he closed the distance, and she danced out of the way, dimly registering the jeers of the crowd.
This isn’t running, dumb fucks. I don’t run.
Instead, when he started coming in range again, she shifted, snapping out her leg in a kick, but changing the height of it in the last possible moment, angling it down to his knee. He didn’t go down, but she took advantage of his off balance to close, catch the punch he threw, and take him down to the ground, pinning him beneath her. She grabbed a hefty fistful of his hair – dude was a good fighter, but a topnot, seriously? Long hair in a fight just begging to be pulled. Tournament fights were short, and frequently brutal, by necessity. She only had to hold him there for three seconds, before she was declared the winner.
Red Rudy, one of the organizers, handed her his bottle of water when she stepped out of the ring. “What, afraid of my cooties?” he teased when she hesitated.
She drained it and threw the empty back at him. “Suck on that.”
The shitty thing about tourneys was waiting for the other fight to finish, to get back in, face her next opponent. Finally, Raul came out on top, which was good — she’d fought him a couple of times and knew what to expect. Dude had fists like sledgehammers, but not a lot of speed. If she kept moving, she’d have it in the bag.
Back in the ring, she orbited Raul, trying to find an angle to bring him down. She felt off, lightheaded, like she hadn’t eaten in a while, which was true, she never could eat on fight days, so it would have to wait until after she was done and she wasn’t done yet. No one got to say that but her. She landed a few strikes, before a blow to her diaphragm drove all the air from her body, and another to her temple sent her to the floor, her head smacking hard on the concrete. Everything was spinning, like that fucking tilt-a-whirl next to her house growing up, and she could hear shouting — there was something vaguely distinctive about the sound, but she couldn’t place it, and anyway, it didn’t matter until the fight was done, and she had only three seconds to find her feet. She shoved herself upward, staggering, and someone, a very shouty someone, caught hold of her.
“Not yet, fuck off,” she snapped, shoving away from him and everything spun into darkness.
She woke up in a hospital bed, dimly registering the sounds of an ER beyond thin curtains. A man with longish hair stood at the end of the bed, and maybe just because her vision wouldn’t stop swimming, but it almost looked like he was standing guard. Moving hurt. Her head felt like it was ready to crack open, and she both wanted to puke and drink a gallon of water. The thought made her want to puke even more.
It was too dark in the room to see him clearly, but he turned as she moved.
“Where the fuck did you come from?” Nine years since the carnival, but that didn’t mean she’d forgotten him.
“The fuck are you doing here?”
“’M your “dad”.” He jerked his head past the curtain, and she understood. She couldn’t remember, now that he was actually here, and not just in her mind, if he used to speak that slow, like he had to take a moment to find the words.
And how he managed to wrangle his way in on that claim, she didn’t know or care. “Yeah well, I’m fine, so you can fuck back off to wherever you came from.”
“You got … roofied and concussed. A-ain’t a fun combo.”
“Marine Corps did a...a...number on your vocab, huh?”
“What, you think conning a hospital into thinking you’re my dad means you get to call me out on my language?”
“Fuck no,” he replied. Good answer. She was still pissed at him.
He looked like he was about to say something else, but people in scrubs with clipboards turned up, and there were a lot of questions and instructions, and suddenly she was being discharged and the fucking sun had risen in the meantime and everything hurt the moment she stepped into it.
He handed her a pair of sunglasses that still had a tag on them, and she took them, very certain that concussion or not, she would have noticed if they’d stopped in the gift shop. “Look, I don’t need a babysitter.”
“You got a ride?” he asked
They were standing at a car and she had no memory of crossing the parking lot. Okay, so maybe they had gone through the gift shop. He held the passenger door open, waiting, until she reluctantly bent enough to slide in.
“I don’t know your real name,” she told him, once they were both in the car.
That seemed to surprise him. “Told ya’ then. Eliot.”
“Wasn’t enough to find you.”
He frowned. “Didn’t think you’d look.”
“WHY THE FUCK NOT?” She realized, after the words were out, that she’d screamed them. She shouldn’t have done that. Christ, her head was a mess.
He didn’t respond for most of the drive. He also didn’t ask where she lived, just drove there. That should have creeped her out more, but she was tired and sore, and whatever else he was, she’d never considered him creepy. Yeah, ‘cause I’m a fucking fantastic judge of character.
“Spencer,” he said as they pulled to a stop behind her apartment. “Eliot Spencer. Someone needs to…to watch you.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You. Can. Go.” He didn’t move, and it took her a moment to realize this was his car, or a rental, but whatever the fuck it was, it wasn’t hers and she was the one that needed to be moving.
“Ask me any…an-anything you want.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Why’d you look for me?”
Fuck that. She’d rather drive down roads laced with IEDs than touch that conversation with a ten-foot pole. She wrestled with the seatbelt and the door, and lurched out of the car.
Back in the desert, the taste of dust laying heavier in her throat than all the gear she carried, but not as heavy as the sobbing pleas that she couldn’t escape…do something you have to do something, please, you must you must you must you must you must—
Someone was grabbing her. She lashed out and made contact with something solid. “Easy.”
That woke her up. “WHAT. THE FUCK.”
“Did you break in?” She didn’t remember going up the stairs or getting into her apartment, or collapsing into bed still fully dressed, but concussions did fucked up things to short-term memory.
“Picked the lock.” He looked absurdly pleased with himself for the crime.
“If I scream —”
“Someone will jus’ pound on… on the wall, tell ya to shut up.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “Look this doesn’t have to be me. I can call your dad —” He stopped, seeing the look on her face. “Or someone else. There’s people you can hire —”
“I look like I have that kind of cash?”
“I’ll pay, just —”
“Why?” She folded her arms, noting newly sore muscles. “Why do any of this?”
He shifted, awkward now. “You should get some more sleep.”
“You should answer my fucking question.”
“Wanted to see...how...how….how you were doing. How you turned out.”
“Well, I’m great. Did all that hard work you kept preaching and would you look at the results! Give yourself a pat on the back and see yourself out.”
“See ya in four hours,” he answered, apparently impervious to sarcasm.
She did, and she didn’t even hit him for it. The mother of all headaches and a very full bladder motivated her to stumble to the bathroom, swallow a handful of Tylenol, and then to the kitchenette, where she found a pot she didn’t remember owning simmering with food she didn’t remember buying.
“If I say no, will you go away.”
“Not unless you…you call someone.” He got to his feet, a quick grimace at the movement, though there was no surprise in it. “Had a lot of bangs on the head. Know the…the drill.”
“Yeah? Anyone break into your apartment to drive you nuts?”
He shifted, walked past her to the kitchen. For a guy who’d said she could ask him anything, he’d barely answered a single question.
“If I eat, will you give me some straight answers?”
He nodded, ladling soup into two bowls and setting them on the card table in the corner.
It smelled amazing, and the meds were starting to kick in. Maybe she’d feel semi-human by the time work started. Fuck. Work. “Start with the one I just asked you,” she slurped at the soup. “You made this??”
“Which one you want me to…to…to answer?”
She glared at him and he smirked back, the bastard. “Hired someone. Or… rode it out alone. And yeah, I made it.”
“What, and I’m too fragile for that? Well, fuck you very much.”
“Not sayin’ it was smart.” God, he’d never lost that irritating earnest streak of his. “People in…in our line of work generally ain’t.”
“I’m re...retired, but yeah.”
“I’m a bouncer who makes rent by cage fighting on the side. And whatever you are now, you sure as hell weren’t just any old security guard back then.”
“Depends on —”
“I DON’T WANT DEPENDS. I WANT SOME FUCKING ANSWERS.” The outburst surprised her more than him. Usually she wasn’t — she could —
He didn’t blink at her outburst, just waited for her to subside. “Worked with some thieves,” he began and finally she got some fucking answers. They weren’t quite what her dad had told her, or what she’d decided happened, but they were answers.
“So you guys, what, helped the hopeless?”
He nodded. The guy’d been talking for the past hour, no two hours — shit where’d the time go — and he looked about as wrecked as she felt. And about as stubborn in admitting it.
“Made money doing it?” She expected him to say something noble and stupid like “it wasn’t about the money,” but he gave her a nod and a grin instead.
“Piles. Easy when you… know stock’ll crash ‘cause the CEO is...is…is out. An’ you have a… damn genius.”
“Dude. Ego much?”
“Nah. Not me. Alec. He’s the genius.”
“Why’d you stop?”
She could feel him retreating a bit, pulling in. “Got old.”
That was it, but not all of it, obviously. But she hadn’t told him what got her kicked out of the Corps either. Some things… She blew out a breath and stood carefully. Dizzy yes, but the nausea wasn’t too bad. “Thanks for the story. I have to get ready for work.”
“What p-part of concussion don’t you get?”
“What part of ‘must make rent’ don’t you? Or all those piles of money make you forget how real people live?”
“Your dad —”
“Was ruined by your crew, remember? Why do you think I enlisted? Only to get screwed out of a career because I opened my mouth? You think I have my pick of jobs with that fucking mark against me? So yeah, it sucks. I hate that fucking place and no, I’m not in the mood to have my ass grabbed tonight, but that’s life.”
She stormed off, faster than was wise, and puked up all that damn soup in her trashcan. At least she could blame her fucked-up brain for the thickness in her throat and pinpricks behind her eyes. She stuck her head under the faucet in the bathroom to convince her hair to lie flat, pulled on the least dirty pair of jeans she had — same for the bar t-shirt — and stopped to look at herself in the mirror. She looked like shit.
He stood at the sink, washing the fucking dishes when she emerged. If she opened her mouth she was going to start screaming or crying, and she didn’t have the time for either right now.
She had a spare key she’d never been brave enough to hand off to a girl, so she threw it, not gently, at him. He swiped at it and missed, the key clanging into the sink instead. God, but they were both fucked up weren’t they. “Lock up,” she managed, wishing she could add something snarky about being a housekeeper, but then she’d start thinking about Russian mobsters who pretended to care about her and really start crying. Instead, she slammed the door behind her, stumbled downstairs and rode out the swoops of dizziness sitting in her ancient junker hatchback. Fuck everything.
The kid worked at one of those shitty college bars with flashing lights and terrible music defined by too much bass. Eliot winced in sympathy for how her head had to be feeling right now, but there’d been plenty of times he’d worked through something similar or worse. She could ride it out. He wasn’t going to stop her.
Of course, if she came stomping out and demanded he get her out of here, he’d do that too.
So what are you? ‘Cause you ain’t stopping her from hurting, but you ain’t leaving her to it, either.
He didn’t have a good answer to that. He just kept thinking about how she’d somehow grown into those ears of hers and how she still wielded her words like a katana; always ready to cut or stab. And how many side-long glances she’d given him when she thought he wouldn’t notice.
What any of that meant now, years too late, he couldn’t say, but it had to mean something. Molly wasn’t due on break for at least another hour, so he called Sophie.
“Eliot!” she sounded delighted. He could hear the harsh calls of seagulls in the background. On a coast on the other side of the world, then.
“Hey Soph.” He wasn’t sure how to pose the question, so instead he asked, “You talk to…to Parker lately?”
“I’m sworn to secrecy, as usual, and I’ll point out that you’re the one married to her, not me.”
“Fair ‘nough,” he acknowledged. He could hear Sophie waiting on him, and knew she was gauging how long to wait on him, and as usual she knew exactly when to give the conversation a nudge before he got frustrated at either of them.
“We’re in France right now. In the Riviera.”
“If you’re tryin’ to torture Nate —”
“Oh, of course not, Nate’s off pretending not to be working with Sterling on something, and don’t tell him I told you.” She laughed at the growl that escaped him. “It’s good to spend some time apart...” she said and left the sentence hanging, like he couldn’t take a damn hint anymore.
“That would be telling.”
“Kinda the...the...the point of asking.”
“But not why you called, Eliot. You don’t call me to chat.” There was a healthy flavoring of admonishment in her tone, which should have annoyed him, but she was right, they both knew why, and he appreciated that she didn’t accept it as an excuse or a reason not to call him out.
“‘M in Boston,” he admitted.
“Would that have anything to do with Parker’s trip to Boston a month back?”
“She did call you.”
“She was worried about how you’d react.”
Badly. Really fucking badly. “I—I need to make it right. Got me thinking a…about Molly. Looked her up.”
There was a long pause before she said quietly, “We waltzed in and out of so many lives, didn’t we. Adults...they’re accustomed to that, but children…” She trailed off, before asking abruptly, “How is she?”
“At… everything. She kicked the world and the world kicked back a lot fucking harder.”
“Sounds like Parker’s Josie. And someone else, I might add. Though sometimes the world needs a good kick.”
“I can’t drag her back to ABQ, Soph.”
“She’d never go, too…too proud.”
“Ah yes, of course. Her pride would be an issue.”
“Eliot Spencer, you may be retired, but you are still the most effective retrieval specialist I’ve ever met. You don’t need my help in convincing her, you just want to know if you should.”
“Y-yes ma’am,” he sputtered. And then realized she’d already given him the answer. “Thanks, Soph.”
“Of course,” she replied. “Widmark. If you must know. Widmark is the we.” And with that she ended the call.
When Molly stumbled outside for her break an hour later, he was waiting by her car. She looked like shit, slumping against the wall. But the moment she saw him, she seemed to gather every shred of weakness in her, pack it into a tight ball and shove it away as anger straightened her spine and sparked in her eyes.
“Dude. This is some stalkery bullshit, you get that right? Fuck. Off.”
She had a point. He raised his hands, one of them holding a plastic bag from the drugstore on the corner. “Yeah, I know. Hear me out. If you still wa…want me to fuck off, I w...will.”
She rolled her eyes and looked like she regretted it. “It’s quieter in the car,” she said finally.
It was quieter, and neither of them spoke as he handed her the bag, which contained pain pills, a bottle of water, and a couple of granola bars. She ignored the bars, popped several of the pills in her mouth, and twisted the cap off the water, the crack of the safety seal breaking the silence. After downing the pills, she kept holding the water, her fingers stroking the broken seal.
“I only have fifteen minutes, so you better talk fast.” She winced. “Sorry.”
“Don’t. It’s annoyin’.”
“Then I’m extra super-duper sorry!” she beamed a brilliantly fake grin at him. Damn, he’d missed this kid.
“Have a job for you.”
“Yeah right. You can take the pity party and shove it up your ass.”
Back when his brain and his mouth were more in sync, he’d have his pick of answers to that statement, but now he just said, “I mean it.”
Her answering laugh was bitter. “I nearly killed my CO, sure you want to be next in line?”
“He deserve it?”
“Yeah. Military court didn’t agree with me, though.”
That would explain the dishonorable discharge, then. He’d been intending to ask her about that (or get up the nerve to call Hardison), but if he posed the question outright, she’d shut down. But she was still young, and prone to running her mouth, and he could tell this was itching at her. So he waited.
“We were stationed in the asscrack of nowhere. Just rocks, mountains, and tiny villages. The women there. They — they’d come to me. I was the only girl in my unit. And they’d come. Tell me what my CO had done to them. To their daughters.”
“They thought I could help. I wanted to – I played by the rules. I reported him. I got my ass beaten, the shit assignments, scorpions in my bunk, the works. But nothing happened. We were shifted to a new location, and it happened again. And again. So I took matters into my own hands. And feet. Pretty sure teeth too, though it’s kinda a blur. He nearly died.” She paused, probably surprised she’d said that much. “Getting court martialed is fun, you should try it some time.”
“Gotta work on that.”
“Getting court martialed?”
“The blur. Y’ need control.” He studied her. “How long you been tr…trainin’?”
“Started judo and kickboxing after the funhouse. Nine years.” The sound that escaped her only vaguely resembled a laugh. “Not that I’ve been counting or anything.”
They’d already tread that particular minefield. “So you want the job?”
“I don’t even know what the job is!”
“I need ya to protect a girl.”
She paused. “Is this some sort of fucked up irony?”
“Prob’ly. Month back, Parker brought home a th…thief. Girl we ran across about a year before you.”
“Lemme guess. She wasn’t the mission, so you guys left her hanging too?”
“Yeah.” They’d helped, or thought they had, but what was that worth, in the long run? Which is exactly where we are now. The long run. Only I can’t run anymore.
“And decade later you...want redemption?”
“NO.” It came out more forceful than he intended. He didn’t deal in redemption, but that didn’t mean… “She’s scared. Good at...at...pretendin’ not to be. Good at goin’ qu…qu…quiet.” Stupid Q’s. “—And still and hoping that’ll protect her. She does that when I’m there.”
“What did you do to her?” she asked, her voice immediately hard.
He held up his hands. “Nothin’. Back then, she got me shot at, hit by a car, and nearly dr...drowned…”
Molly burst out laughing. “And she’s the one that needs protecting?”
“She needs a buffer. Someone she can…can trust to have her...her back. Parker’s training her, and...Alec will come ‘round. Accept that just cause I’m out of the game, don’t me…mean they have to be.” He took a deep breath, willing his brain to let him get this out. “Parker didn’t tell us she was goin’. Didn’t tell me. And she got hurt...doin’ the job. Not bad, but…” I’m supposed to be there. “I — I couldn’t stop bein’ mad. At her, at myself, at this...this...this girl who sh-shies away each time I come in the room.” And I lost control the minute I saw that cast, smashed up the house, pissed off my partners, and terrified a kid already convinced I hate her. That’s on me. Even Alec had a hard time forgiving him for that one, no matter what he said afterwards.
He was about to try to wrestle the rest of that out into the open, to be judged as she saw fit, when an angry guy with far too much faith in spray tan stormed out of the building and came marching up to the car, to bang on Molly’s window. “Break’s over! Quit fucking your boyfriend and get back inside, bitch!”
Out of the game or not, he wasn’t going to let that stand, but Molly stuck her arm out, as if she could stop him. “So the job is…” she prompted, looking directly at him; completely ignoring the pounding on her window.
“Replace me. Perks include punchin’ ass…assholes like that.”
“Deal.” She rolled down the window, allowing said asshole to reach in and grab her arm. She caught it in her other hand, bending back his fingers. “I quit, fuckwad.” She released his hand, grabbed the front of his shirt instead and pulled forward sharply. His forehead smacked the car and he yelled as she shoved him away from the car, started it, and peeled out of the parking lot. “So, where are we going?”
“WHY THE FUCK DO YOU LIVE IN ALBUQUERQUE?”
Chapter 3: The Hackers
When he picked Eliot and Molly up from the ABQ airport, and Eliot casually introduced Molly as his “replacement,” enunciating the word carefully and looking Hardison dead in the eye, daring him to start yelling, Alec did not give him the goddamn satisfaction.
At least, not until they were back home, and Parker came out of the house asking if Eliot had brought home another duckling, her own duckling hanging back on the porch. And even then he started in a normal tone of voice.
It escalated quickly.
A corner of his brain noticed Molly, clapping Eliot on the back in a gesture that smacked of commiseration before heading up to the porch and going inside with Josie, but the majority of his attention remained invested in letting his husband know that this was NOT OKAY.
Before — before they came so close to losing…before his nightmares almost came true — when Sophie and Nate walked away, Nate’d asked Eliot if he’d look out for him and Parker. As if that was even a question, but then for a mastermind, dude always was weirdly oblivious. Eliot’s response, “‘til my dyin’ day” was romantic and badass, because that was Eliot for you, but it was also a clear expectation. Eliot intended to die for them. Or, at least before them. And sure, if he and Parker were creakin’ around in their eighties and Eliot in his nineties decided to finally kick the bucket, then he could live with that, for whatever time he had left, anyway, but he knew Eliot didn’t expect to get old.
He wanted Eliot to get old.
Maybe he was being selfish, but Hardison was a frelling criminal, and that came with the territory. Altruistic methods be damned.
But you don’t tell Eliot he can’t save people.
He’d considered it. Once, Eliot had asked him if he’d keep on doing this with Parker, ‘cause Parker wasn’t going to stop. And he’d been down for that. But while Parker did some crazy shit, it wasn’t Eliot’s flavor of crazy shit, which involved way too many bullets, torn muscles, concussions, and a fair number of broken bones. He wasn’t down for Eliot dying on them.
And then it nearly happened.
After answering and inventing plausible answers to way too many doctors’ questions about Eliot’s prior head traumas, and what he did for a living, and what long-term pain meds was he on, because he had to be on something, and did he have other family they should contact, because his chances of waking up from this were slim to none, Hardison had sat down on a hard bench next to a silent Parker, her face white and set. “When he wakes up,” he said, because he wasn’t going to consider any other options, “we’re done.”
She’d nodded and stared through the doors where they’d taken Eliot, saying nothing.
And Eliot, stubborn ass that he was, did wake up.
His right foot, ankle, and lower leg had to be painstakingly reconstructed — he came this close to losing them. Broken ribs — the docs had a lot of questions about the number of prior injuries there too, and for once Hardison hadn’t had answers. He knew he should tell them as many details as possible, and to hell with cover stories, or Eliot’s paranoia, but Eliot hadn’t told him. Or let him see the damage. For that reason alone, it was good they’d started sleeping together, just so he and Parker could keep an eye on the idiot.
Parker answered in more detail, which he wasn’t sure if she knew, or just invented what sounded plausible to her, but the doctors had moved on from “impossible” to “implausible” and he understood that. Eliot was all kinds of implausible.
In any case, it wasn’t the broken bones, or the internal trauma, or how a bone shard barely nicked the artery underneath his collarbone and he almost bled out on them in the ambulance. Getting run over by a car wouldn’t kill Eliot Spencer. That just knocked him down, and dragged him, and as it turned out, there’s a lot of opportunities to slam a skull into asphalt repeatedly under those circumstances.
Hardison thought a lot about the hockey job, staring down at Eliot, deep in a medically-induced coma as they waited for the swelling to (hopefully) go down. He thought about Eliot going out on the ice to take hits for a guy who couldn’t take another one.
“Never again.” He’d told the room, and in answer a ceiling panel shifted aside and Parker’s tired face peeked out. He didn’t ask what she was doing up there. Or how long she was planning to stay.
“Where should we live?” she’d asked him, and he remembered that their place in Chicago was burned, that they’d need somewhere no one would look. At least it gave him something to focus on.
By the time Eliot woke up, Nate and Sophie had arrived, with Nate looking awkward and guilty, Sophie thankfully taking command, and Hardison having settled on Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was small, but not too small, and he’d found them a ranch, with a large adobe house, a barn, and a lot of fenced pasture. He chose it because it was still a bit more country than city, but forward-thinking enough that the three of them wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. He thought Eliot would like the tangle of cottonwoods and fishing on the Rio Grande, and he sold it to Parker on the basis of the three-thousand-foot Watermelon Mountain. (Also known as the Sandias, but once Parker started calling it Watermelon, he wasn’t about to stop her.)
By the time Eliot had healed up enough to move, he had a better idea of what they were facing. The neurosurgeon had given them a long list of symptoms, starting with aphasia and interrupted by a slightly hysterical giggle-fit when she mentioned irritability, ‘cause damn, if Eliot was irritable then things would probably be okay.
Now, two years on, Hardison was beginning to think they would be. Eliot had more good days than bad, when sentences came out in order and made sense, when his hands didn’t shake, and he’d carefully test out a memory that might not have been there the day before. Other days, he’d get frustrated, snap and snarl and lose control when his mouth, his hands, his head wouldn’t obey him. The irony of that didn’t escape any of them.
Parker found the mustang auction a year back, after Eliot nearly sliced off his finger when cooking and flung the knife across the room in frustration. She’d dragged them both along, told Eliot he needed to protect her from the murder horses, and they’d ended up buying one, an Appaloosa that she named Fruit Loop. Somehow the cereal theme stuck. Eliot trained Fruit Loop, then Cheerio, Corn Flake, and his latest project, Raven Bran. (Hardison’s choice, because damn that pun was too good.) They’d ended up giving Corn Flake to a woman down the road, who’d lost her last horse, and was looking for a new friend, but the others were still there, keeping all of them sane.
Eliot couldn’t be angry or frustrated when he trained the horses. He had to be patient with them, which seemed to make him more patient with himself. For their part, he and Parker swallowed different sets of fears and learned to ride.
They were okay.
He’d thought they were okay.
And then Parker lied about where she was going and tried to pull a complex job involving crooked cops in the Boston Police Department and an FBI identity that hadn’t been touched in years. She’d only called him in the last minute, before coming home with a broken wrist and a kid who jumped every time Eliot growled.
Though really, if Eliot had just growled, it probably would have been fine. But no, he’d lost it worse than Alec had seen in more than a year, smashed up the living room and punched a wall made of adobe, not drywall, before storming off, leaving Parker vibrating with anger and Josie with fear.
The stupid thing was, Eliot wasn’t pissed at Parker. Alec knew that. He was pissed at himself, and that he’d lost control. He couldn’t imagine what that felt like, for a man like Eliot.
So maybe Alec wasn’t proud of the fact that he’d gone and yelled at Eliot to stay in the barn if he was gonna behave like one of his feral horses, and Eliot had taken that to heart, even after he’d calmed down, and refused to come back to the house. Took more than a day before he’d let Alec check his hand, which was swollen, but not broken. He hoped it wasn’t the only thing.
Parker went down to talk to Eliot after a few days, and the next day she took Josie on a field trip, while Eliot finally came back into the house, and made an enchilada so packed with green chilies that neither he nor Parker could handle the heat, but Josie loved it. It served as an apology of sorts. He still stayed out of her way, and she still looked like a deer in headlights whenever they did cross paths, but Alec had long since learned to accept baby steps.
He was carefully ignoring the fact that Parker had brought home a thief to train. Getting Josie out of a bad situation was good. Great. It hurt, her not telling them, but he got why she hadn’t, which hurt too. He knew this was hard for her. That they’d been making decisions based on the needs of one, and him and Parker arguing about it was out of the question, if they wanted to keep Eliot from doing something stupid. None of this was fair.
Hell, sometimes he cut loose and hacked a bank on the side, just to keep his fingers nimble. But that was low risk, compared to what she’d done...and what she was possibly thinking of doing, training Josie. They’d agreed. They were done. They changed together.
Which brought him back to Eliot running off to Boston and retrieving Molly Connell.
It wasn’t that he was particularly worried about Eliot off by himself. Unless it was a Really Bad Day, Eliot could handle himself. And he’d made the concession to turn his location data on for his phone, as a silent message to Alec that he was okay.
Of course, Eliot texting him mostly gibberish from a Boston emergency room freaked him out, till he figured out it was Molly in trouble and Eliot needed documentation to pretend he was her dad and get past paperwork.
So it’s not like he was surprised when Eliot brought her back. But…
“YOUR REPLACEMENT??? ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS!?”
“Josie got Molly settled and I think they’re friends,” Parker announced, slipping into bed after her spying session on the other side of the house. She snuggled into Eliot’s arms, murmuring, “I’m glad you’re back.”
“M’ too,” he said into her hair, and Alec felt the low rumble of the words, pressed up against Eliot’s spine.
He was still scared shitless about the “replacement” comment, but he’d gotten the yelling out of his system at least.
“Kid’s a mess,” Eliot said, and it sounded almost like an apology.
“Messy is cool. I’m glad you got her to come. I am. Just don’t — There’s no replacing you, man, so don’t say that shit, okay?” He laced his fingers through Eliot’s hair, gently massaging his scalp.
Eliot shifted. “‘M holding you back. With a…another thief, an’ a hitter —”
Parker sucked in a breath. “We change together.” He knew she meant it, but the words had become a habit, almost thoughtless as they slipped out.
He’d use them anyway. “I ain’t — We ain’t doing jobs. Running a crew. And you want to train someone up, to what, be like you?” Eliot growled, rather than dignify that with a response, but Alec meant it. No question, Eliot’s skills had saved them countless times, but the cost — “Is that fair to her?”
“Fair?” The single word came with a healthy dose of derision. Maybe he deserved that. Molly and Josie and Eliot and Parker, and hell, even him, they all knew nothing was fair. They’d tried to even the balance, as much as they could, but it wasn’t like they could change the world.
“I-I can’t condone you sending kids out there alone. But I also can’t…” he swallowed, hard. “Please. I’ll beg if I need to, I ain’t above it. But I can’t lose either of you.”
“They’ll need a crew,” Parker said, ignoring his begging and shifting immediately into problem-solving mode. “A family of their own.”
Eliot hummed in agreement. “Alec, any hackers needin’ a rescue?”
Damn. Two against one.
Tractors do not make good getaway vehicles.
Trevor had plenty of time to consider this fact, as he high-tailed it across the field, up the dirt road leading away from the Fullers’ farm and toward the little bridge that separated the Fullers’ land from the Mathertons’. They wouldn’t mind him cutting across either — no one in these parts would actually turn him over to the wailing sirens at his back, except that tractors didn’t make good getaway vehicles and even at his top speed of 40 mph, he’d never make it to the bridge before they caught him.
He really needed to have a talk with his mom about what to say when people rang the doorbell. For example, if someone came to the door asking where he was, the correct response was not: “Oh Trevor? He’s not here right now, he’s over at the Fullers’ fixing their tractor, but he should be back before dinner, what did you need to see him about?”
The reason he was certain she said this, despite being over at the Fullers’ in his capacity of local tractor hacker, was that she called to relate the conversation verbatim. She didn’t believe in the summarizing power of the word “like.” Getting to the point cut precious minutes off his available time to flee.
So really, it was all her fault he was about to go to jail.
The tractor jounced over a ridge it had probably created, once upon a time, rattling his spine as it careened up the incline onto the road. He checked on his progress. Not good, very not good. There was one turn off before the bridge, but as long as he was on the road, they were guaranteed to catch up, dirt or no. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon…”
Up ahead, a plume of dust rose off the intersection. Shit. He’d be cut off before the bridge. If he went back offroad, he’d destroy crops — not an option. So that was it then.
The dust cloud resolved itself into Kayla Shelty’s purple Jeep. He stared at it, blinking. Kayla lived down the road a good ten miles, and she ought to be heading to work in the opposite direction in about half an hour, so why was she…? She swerved onto the road in front of him and he slammed on the tractor’s brakes to avoid T-boning the driver-side door.
“GET IN, JERK!”
“What, you want to be arrested?”
“No, but why is my ex-girlfriend helping me not be arrested?”
“Trev, if you got in the damn Jeep, I’d be helping a lot more.”
He blinked. “Right.”
She was helping him, she explained, spitting her blowing hair out of her mouth, because his mom had called in a panic, and because he’d left an emergency duffle bag under her bed (“Oh yeah, forgot about that”), and well, because repairing tractors was a stupid reason to go to prison.
“You hated me talking about tractors.”
“You never stopped talking about tractors, Trev. It got old.”
Okay, so that was fair, though technically he hadn’t only talked about tractors. He also had a parking ticket phase before he built a bot to help people with that. Once upon a time, he’d been told he had a problem with authority. Sure, he’d been nine at the time, but that just gave him time to explore which types of problems he had with authority. There were just so many to choose from. Authorities sucked.
“Where are you taking me?” They’d lost the black sedans bouncing down a track barely suitable for the Jeep, though the thing did seem to thrive on adversity.
“Me’n my brother used to hop trains all the time. You’re getting a crash course.”
It wasn’t until after that crash course, with Kayla’s grin and waving middle finger getting smaller by the second that the reality of the situation actually set in. He was on the run. For hacking tractors. At least he knew where he was headed.
Tractors weren’t the only thing he could hack. He’d been messing around with computers since Alec Hardison plopped his hat on ten-year-old Trevor’s head and let him help them steal a potato. He’d gone home with a fascination with technology and a name, carelessly dropped in the server room. It took a few years of digging, and a lot of conspiracy forums, but he found the guy in Portland, all the way across the country from his roots in the Massachusetts countryside. And back then, he wasn’t good yet. Not enough to meet his hero. So he waited. Learned. Tracked and lost and tracked Hardison again, through various places and identities in and out of the states.
Eventually he apparently got good enough, waking up from a faceplant-on-the-keyboard type of night to find a message from “pot00000000” staring at him. Not that the guy ever technically identified himself, but he knew, from hints dropped in forums that they both frequented, in jokes meant for a party of one. A lot of them referenced potatoes. He gave him tips, tricks, downright genius ideas he’d never thought of, but never dropped any clues as to his physical location. Which was cool. IRL out of bounds, he got that.
Till a few months back, when, on their private chat pot00000000 posted:
if u get in trouble, i’ll be quirky
The train Kayla got him on headed toward the Great Lakes, and he had some good fake passports burning a hole in his duffle. Trying for Canada would be the smartest move. But Hardison and his team weren’t in Canada. They were in Albuquerque for some reason. He didn’t have an exact address obviously, but what else could that mean?
The duffle was well-stocked, and Kayla had clearly switched out the food for stuff that wasn’t expired. Damn, he should probably have shut up about the tractors at some point. Anyway, it also held a supply of cash, with which he bought a shitty van in a tiny town, he wasn’t certain he could find on a map. Technically, he didn’t have enough for the van, but less cash in hand was better than none in the bush, and he offered to fix any computer issue the guy selling it had. Turned out what he had was two teenage boys just discovering...well probably more than their parents wanted to know, and they’d got the viruses to prove it. Computer ones, luckily. He’d be useless at any other kind. By the time he finished cleaning up their system, he’d earned that van.
The thing was so old it had a legit tape deck. The eject button didn’t work, so with the van he inherited American Beauty and a newfound appreciation for the Grateful Dead. He managed to keep the thing running till Albany, where he could finally buy a burner, text his mom spoofing Aunt Carol’s number, only a version who wasn’t deathly allergic to peanuts and wanted to let her know the snickerdoodles came out great. He was the snickerdoodle. Or sn1ck3rd00dl3, on certain forums, but none that the cops were smart enough to find.
With the burner phone he could finally start accessing accounts not in his given name, but he was careful. Just enough to limp into a do-it-yourself repair shop, where he diagnosed the issues, and made friends with the legs of a girl fixing up an old-old-OLD VW bug. Soon enough he met the rest of the girl, Luz, and learned the best junkyard in the area. He stayed in Albany a few days, sleeping on Luz’s couch while she helped him get the van up to snuff for a cross-country trek. By the time he was ready to head off, the van was riding smooth, and the back had been cozied up, with a seat that folded out into a bed, and a little cooking area patched together from scavenged camping supplies.
A week later, he prayed the brakes would hold and rolled down the hill toward the Rio Grande. Lacking an actual location, he drove around until he spotted a random sixty-foot arrow sticking out of a Pantry store parking lot. Normally, he’d avoid it; Amazon owned too much of the world and he could buy better stuff at farmer’s markets, thanks, but he needed a landmark. And a potato.
Having acquired the second ingredient, he took his battered cap off, set it on the dashboard, and lay the potato next to it, before snapping a picture with the phone. In the picture, the giant arrow was visible in the background. Posted to their private chat, it ought to be enough.
It took less than a day. The next morning, he relaxed in the back, sipping coffee, when the definitely locked front doors were slim-jimmed open simultaneously. A girl with short brown hair climbed in, scanned the entire back of the van, including him, and shouted, “CLEAR!”
Trevor frowned. In cop shows, “clear” meant no one in the room. “Should I be insulted?”
“If you want. I don’t give a shit.” She clambered into the back. “You Trevor?”
“Yes. Me Trevor. I’m looking for a guy called Hardison? Or Pot-8-0s”
She nodded, as if that was normal. “Stand up.” He let her pat him down and paw through his stuff before sliding open the side door. “We’re good.”
“Told ya,” said a man’s voice, and then Alec Hardison was in his van. He grinned, stuck out his hand and Trevor slapped it, barely fumbling the handshake they’d invented a decade ago. “Alright, man!” He looked around, and asked, “She got a name?”
“Anne-Marie,” Trevor answered instantly. He could hear a few other people outside, but they didn’t seem that important right now. “‘Cause of the song.”
“Got two reasons why I cry, each lonely night. First one’s named sweet Anne Marie, and she’s my heart’s delight.”
From outside the van a low voice started humming and another guy appeared. “Second one is prison, babe, sheriff’s on my tail. If he catches up with me I’ll spend my life in jail.”
Hardison stared back and forth between Trevor and a guy who could only be Eliot Spencer, though finding information on him had been harder than all the rest put together. “Oookay then. You’re definitely comin’ with us. What’s the rest of that song?”
Said I’m runnin but I’ll take my time,
a friend of the devil is a friend of mine,
if I get home before daylight,
just might get some sleep tonight.
Hardison drove, with Eliot riding shotgun, and the scary girl sitting across from him in the rear. She closed the curtains between the front and the rear, so he couldn’t see where they were going, before taking his phone, turning it off and removing the chip. She briefly took his mp3 player too, giving him a weird look at the corded headphones.
“Why not use your fucking phone? And wireless?”
“Uh, because these ‘phones don’t need a battery, or bluetooth turned on, and the mp3 has no wiFi to hack. Why bother encrypting every fracking thing I own, when I can just have older stuff?”
She weighed his response, and nodded, handing back the mp3. “What are you wanted for?”
“I fix tractors.”
She rolled her eyes. “No. What illegal shit did you do?”
“Yeah. It is illegal. Tractors these days come loaded with proprietary software, and farmers aren’t allowed to fix them themselves. They have to take them to licensed, over-priced shops for everything. Which is not cool. So I hack the ones in my area, override the sofware, set it up however they like it, and install an easy program I wrote that lets them do whatever they want. It’s their machine.”
“Sure, everything I do is open source. Live by the GNU, die by the GNU.”
She gave him a flat, blank stare.
Up front, Eliot was singing along to the tape, which, didn’t really match up with the stuff Trevor had managed to dig up about Eliot-Fracking-Spencer, but he had a nice voice, and if he liked Trev’s accidental music selection, then that boded well for his continued survival. Hardison kept starting to talk, or laugh, but always cut off to hum awkwardly along.
“So, I’m good?” he asked the scary girl, who maybe wasn’t that scary, as she tried not to grin and roll her eyes at the weird mix of sounds coming from the front seat.
“Sure, why the fuck not. You’re weird enough. Welcome to The Ducklings. I’m Molly.”
“Stupid nickname. Technically Jo-Jo’s the Duckling, and I’m the Fuckling.”
He considered that. “What else rhymes with…”
“You’re welcome to Suckling.”
“Thanks, I hate it. Who’s Jo-Jo?”
“Josie. She and Parker were the ones who broke into your POS. They’re taking Lucille back.”
He didn’t meet the thieves until they reached a small ranch on what must have been the outskirts of Albuquerque, but he was just guessing. Still, he could smell and hear horses, and there was a big, one-story adobe house in front of him, so “ranch” worked as an identifier.
Molly escorted him out of his own van, and suddenly there was a blonde woman in his face. “Trevor, huh?” she asked.
“Eliot likes his music, mama,” Hardison sounded pleased. Like weirdly pleased.
“Shuddup, Alec,” said Eliot, and for the first time he noticed a lag to his speech before the guy shoved him toward the house. “C’mon inside. You hungry?”
“What’s a duckling? I mean, I know what a duckling is – but like…contextually?” he asked, over dinner, after explaining how he ended up on the run, and maybe fanboying too hard at Hardison, but the guy seemed to enjoy it.
“Molly and Josie,” Parker said, mouth full of tortilla. She swallowed and continued. “They’ve been here about four months. All of you were involved in jobs we did years back.”
“Parker thinks we imprinted.” He could hear the hint of Boston in Josie’s accent.
“You guys were operating out of Boston and you’re calling us ducklings?”
“Yeah. I know,” Molly muttered.
“What?” Parker, for all that she kept saying the name, looked perplexed.
“Official children’s book of Boston is Make Way for Ducklings,” Trevor explained. “And now there’s three ducklings from the Boston area sitting in ABQ. That’s weird.”
“Boston has an official kid’s book? Random.” Hardison waved a hand. “And technically it’s four. Only one’s not in ABQ, but Sophie’s taking some sort of grand tour with hers.”
“So unfair,” Molly grumbled.
“You wanna go learn the…the stuff Sophie teaches, then go on.” Eliot growled.
“Like flirting. And how to make Eliot serve you tea!” Parker said, supremely undisturbed by his tone.
“Fuck that,” Molly said, then seemed to reconsider. “Only tea? Or are there other settings to robo-Eliot?”
Trevor stared at them. “Hang on. You guys are here to train? As a new crew?”
A bunch of highly significant looks passed around the table, before Parker answered brightly, “Yes! If you stay, that’s a hacker, hitter, and thief!”
“And with Sophie’s grifter in training, we almost got a full house.”
Hardison sighed. “Hey, now I ain’t waiting on the universe or anything, but if someone happens to walk up to Nate and demand he teach them how to mastermind, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Chapter 4: The Grifters
A bouquet of two dozen red roses waited for him backstage after the final curtain. They were beautiful, if far too decadent for his not-quite-minor role in a tiny community college theater production. The note attached read: You told it true. —Ms. Donovan. His heart raced just a little bit faster as he read it a second time. The memory that surfaced at the name was old and well-worn from mental replays until he couldn’t be sure how much of it was still accurate, still true. Maybe it doesn’t matter, he thought as he broke open the bouquet to distribute the roses among the cast and crew, presenting the remaining, somewhat diminished bouquet to their teacher/director, Mrs. Burack.
They thought he bought the roses, exclaimed over the gesture, and he felt a little guilty for letting them think it, but what was the harm, really?
Anyway, his mom was waiting among the milling parents outside. If he showed up with two dozen roses — an extravagance she hadn’t been able to afford since Ms. Donovan briefly entered their lives — it would just make her sad, stain the night. Ms. Donovan would be his little secret. He tucked the note into a pocket, and only surreptitiously skimmed the crowd as he wove his way out.
There were flowers waiting after each opening night, and it became tradition to distribute them to his castmates. His childhood insecurities about lacking friends were long past, but he found a lesson about camaraderie in the way their eyes lit up; the grins and hugs he received in return. If she ever stayed long enough for him to see her, he’d like to thank her for that too.
Final performance spring semester. In two weeks he’d graduate, transfer to UM-Boston and study biology and education. It was a solid plan, and he could still do theater on the side, maybe run the drama program at a high school one day.
His mom had come to an earlier show, and she was working late tonight, so he’d planned to go out with the others and catch a ride home, when he saw her, waiting in the wings as if she’d always been there.
“I uh, I go by Mark now.”
Her smile at that was brilliant. “It suits you.” She pursed her lips. “I expect you have questions.”
“I’m in a mood to answer some. Coffee?” She offered her arm and he took it, castmates forgotten.
“Are you really a con artist?”
She nodded. “I was, yes.”
“Why did you stop?”
“It’s...addictive. In obvious ways, like the money and the lifestyle…do you miss that?”
For the past eleven years he’d been telling his mother he didn’t. “Yes. Sometimes,” he answered, unable to imagine lying to her.
“See? But also in less obvious ways — the attention, the control, the escape. It’s like slipping into a life as if it was a couture gown, and then slipping out of it again at the end of the night. Both sensations perfect in their own way.”
“So if you’re not Ms. Donovan...what’s your real name?”
She laughed, the sound only a little bit sad. “You know, I used to guard that secret? It was my greatest treasure, my real name.” She said the words with a delicious little thrill of emphasis that reminded him of old movie starlets. The things she could do with her voice, her breath, her tone... “I used so many names, had full lives for each — a name needs a fitting life bolstering it, otherwise when you introduce yourself, it falls flat, feels wrong. A mark will notice that. She raised an eyebrow in amusement as if just noticing – “Hah, Mark!” – and sipped her coffee. “I used to hold it over my team’s heads, like a prize to be competed for and won. Like...leverage, I suppose.”
“And they didn’t like that?”
“Oh they loved that. None of us were what you might call sensible. Sensible people don’t do what we did. We all had a competitive streak a mile wide and so many secrets. Mysteries are a seductive type of power, and I used mine to seduce. It was a specialty.”
She still hadn’t given him a name. He didn’t care.
“Did you ever tell them?”
“Of course. I offered it up as a display of trust — there was some irony in that — but it wasn’t...well it was, but not only that. Spite played a part. I wanted to punish him, and I used the others to do it.”
“My husband. He wasn’t at the time, but I’d already loved him forever.”
“That...doesn’t sound like love.”
“Well, he’s a narcissist who hates himself. Makes shopping for Christmas presents extremely difficult. We’d make any couples therapist cry.”
“So when did you tell him? At the wedding?”
“Oooh, that would have been delicious! No, a bit earlier. And do you know what I realized?”
He shook his head, vaguely aware that he was falling under a spell.
“It was worthless.” Now the laugh was bitter. “I’d already known that, actually, when the others would say my name when he wasn’t around, and it felt so wrong, not me at all. Not a me I liked, in any case. I’ve been so many me’s.” She took another sip of the coffee and stared out the window. “Hardison, our hacker, he loved this show from home — across the pond. Doctor Who. I’d never watched it when I was young, but he’d put on marathons while he worked and it was impossible not to get caught up.”
“I never saw it,” he admitted. Plenty of his friends had. Drama kids were a nerdy bunch.
“The main character, The Doctor, never tells you their name. The show flirts with the reveal of course — remember what I said about mysteries being seductive — but they never actually tell the audience because then the seduction ends. But it isn’t important. Not really. What’s important is the name they chose for themselves: Doctor. And the way the other people in their life say it. With love, hope, fear, anger, joy. That’s the name that means something.”
He understood that perfectly. “What name means something to you?”
She smiled and stuck out her hand for him to shake and he had to fight the impulse to kiss her fingers instead, like the queen she was. “Sophie Devereaux. I’m pleased to meet you properly, Mark.”
He saw her more frequently after that. Once or twice a month she’d find him, and sweep him off on some adventure. Down to NYC to Broadway shows, or something secret and more exclusive.
“Tonight, I’m your Aunt Katherine, Joseph,” she’d say, and he’d start inventing who he thought Joseph was, pulling on his own technicolor dreamcoat.
Offstage, he’d never become quite comfortable in his own skin, but around Sophie, he always felt like he was onstage, like she was leading him into a spotlight. She was right. It was a delicious feeling, finding the warmth of his light. Other nights, she would tell him to be Mark, but somehow even then it felt like a performance, words and gestures bubbling from him as if he’d rehearsed them thousands of times. He met famous directors, actors, playwrights, musicians, authors. She was grifting and gifting him a chance to succeed as an actor, placing the contacts necessary at his feet.
“Why?” he asked her, sitting in the back of a limo. “Why are you doing this?”
“I always wanted to be an actress.”
“You’re the best actress I’ve ever seen!”
“You’re not so bad yourself.”
He thought about that. “It’s different. An audience comes into the theater eager to believe. They already bought the ticket. They’ve already bought into what I’m selling.” It was wonderful, but not quite the same.
“And you want to learn how to sell an audience on that first step.”
He did. That was the missing piece. “Sorry. You said you were out of the game. I don’t have the right to ask that.”
“Sweetie, I’ve never been one to resist temptation for long. When would you like to start?”
The first big lie he told was to his mom or possibly to himself, justifying it as a story — not quite the same thing. Still, he could practically hear his Bubbe rolling in her grave and lecturing him in Yiddish, and he was certain Mom would remember Sophie/Ms. Donovan because how could anyone forget her? But Sophie waved a hand, put on a wig and an Italian accent, cloaking herself in the persona of a director convinced she’d found her next big star.
“Second easiest con there is, telling a mother her son is special,” Sophie murmured as she whisked them away to Naples.
“What’s the first?”
“Telling a man he is.”
Mark wasn’t quite sure what to do with that information.
They were in Paris, working on his French...everything...when she got the first call. Not that she never received calls, but usually they’re brief things. Business, a quick touch to make sure a role stayed valid. He still needed to ask how she kept track of all those lives.
This call was longer, and she stayed in Sophie-character. Even if Sophie was what she preferred, he knew she was a character. That this personality was a performance, just like the others. But then, what personality wasn’t? Everyone performed, to an extent, shifting slightly, or drastically depending on the audience.
Now, he watched her be Sophie with someone else. It was something of a revelation.
“Hello, Parker — what’s wrong?”
Between teaching Mark and worrying about the ongoing drama occurring in Albuquerque, she was more than a bit surprised to answer the door one morning and find her husband on the stoop.
“What are you doing here!”
“Not generally something a man wants to hear from his wife, but —”
“I thought you were off helping Sterling trick some poor thief into prison!”
“Is that why you refused to help?” He brushed past her into the house, already itching to debate this. “They weren’t ‘poor thieves’ Sophie.”
“Well fine, rich thieves, then. I must say, for someone who was always whingeing on about us breaking the law, he’s certainly fine with using you to do exactly that.” Oooh, she shouldn’t enjoy this nearly so much. He hadn’t been here more than two minutes.
“Well, he’s the head of Interpol now, Sophie. He has to play the politics.”
“I’m sure schmoozing people is a real struggle for Jim,” she replied, not bothering to hold the sarcasm. She knew what he meant. Sterling, always one for breaking the rules when it suited him, now had to be more circumspect about his side investigations. The ones that didn’t necessarily follow Interpol policy of non-interference. So he used Nate, and others, she was sure. Sterling, for all that he proclaimed otherwise, was exactly like them. “So which is it this time?”
“Smuggling ring, operating out of Turkey. Distributing artifacts and antiquities from conflict zones in the Middle East to Western buyers. Between bribery and the chaos of the region, Interpol’s usual operations are useless.” He took her hand, playing with her fingers. “We could use you, run a Mona Lisa on them.”
“Tempting, but I’m a bit tied up at the moment.”
“Galivanting around Europe with a kid!” Ah, there it was. No hope of him avoiding that topic for long.
“He’s an adult, and we’re hardly galivanting, but I should have known you’d be jealous.”
“I-I’m not jealous! This has nothing to do with being jealous! But you can’t just steal him away —”
“Who said anything about stealing? He asked. Very nicely, I might add.” She folded her arms, letting her fingers drum against the sleeves of her silk morning robe, and waited for Nate to stop dramatically pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Where is he?”
“Out. Taking a girl to brunch.”
“An extremely wealthy heiress type girl?”
“Obviously, but that’s not the point. He needs practice.”
“At, well, at girls. They aren’t his forte.”
“He was an awkward kid, Sophie.”
“Because no one believed in him! And I helped him. I gave him his dreams. He’s marvelous when he finds his light, you should see it.” She went back to the breakfast nook, sat down, and smiled as he joined her. “Anyway, that is not what I meant by forte.”
“See? Nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not — There are other types of seduction, Sophie.”
“I told you, he asked.”
“Ah yes, he asked. Because you’ve never had a man beg to follow you to the ends of the earth based on a glimpse of your smile.”
“Well, the one I married can’t seem to take off his white hat,” she accused, teasing. He shrugged, gave her one of those considering glances of his and she decided breakfast could wait.
“It isn’t fair to him,” Nate said later, which meant he’d been thinking about Mark the whole time, the ass.
“He’s living in a villa on the French Riviera. I don’t exactly see how I’m being unfair.”
“He’s imprinted on you, and you know it.”
“I do. But that doesn’t mean I can’t teach him things.”
“To act, and if you’re opening your mouth to argue that it isn’t the same, try again.”
“How dare you suggest that! It’s against my better nature.” She sighed. “I’m not denying my influence. But that influence began during that job, when he was ten years old.”
“You’re not responsible —”
“Yes. I am. We are. Parker calls them ducklings, by the way.”
“Huh? Calls who ducklings?”
“The children. The children whose lives we waltzed into. Who we used. Who saw us for what we truly were. In whom we saw something of ourselves.” She was soliloquizing, not an effective way to hook Nate, suspicious as he was of grand words. She never could hide behind them around him.
“Parker is —” Nate nudged her, ignoring the deliciously dramatic spin she’d given the situation. Fine, new tactic.
“Currently training Josie Lee. She began several months ago.” She kept her tone brusque and factual. Nate preferred to glean his own meanings, so she’d give him the material to do so. “Shortly after, Eliot went and, well, retrieved Molly Connell. Both of them needed help. All of them, really,” she added, not specifying who she meant by all. Let him puzzle it out. “The other day, Hardison, who was quite wary about this particular turn of events, sent me a picture.” She handed Nate her phone, watching his face as he looked at an image of a tall, gangling kid wearing an old baseball hat. “Trevor has quite the personal vendetta against agricultural corporations.”
Nate frowned at the image. He’d never been a quick one to hook, always needing to consider every angle and trusting none of them.
“What’s the point?”
“Of a protege? I’d think that would be obvious. Particularly to a man who’s already trained one mastermind.”
Out the window, she could see Mark pulling up on a Vespa, a girl his age clinging tightly to his waist and laughing. “You being here will be quite the curveball for his little charade. Shall we have some fun?”
Chapter 5: The Masterminds
“I just got an update on your police friend.” Jan’s voice came through the open door to his office. He wasn’t one to shout, but he didn’t need to. It was late enough that they were the last two in the office.
“Er ist nicht mein Freund,” Olivia called back. She heard the slight snerk of her German boss trying not to laugh and reviewed the sentence carefully… “Oh for—You people have words for everything and grammar rules to cover new words you want to invent on the spot, but you have to make the word friend complicated?”
“Ah yes, because my language is the complicated one.” He pointed back to her workstation. “Your not-boyfriend is being prosecuted.”
“For everything?” She dropped back down into her chair to skim the email. Next to her keyboard her phone rang. Anthony, Dad’s assistant. Probably smarmily offering to give her a lift home. She ignored it.
“Grand theft auto and coercion.” He waited patiently for her groan of frustration.
She groaned in frustration. “Car theft and bullying. He’ll get what, a few years in American courts? If he’s even convicted. He’s a crooked cop, surrounded by other crooked cops. I gave them images of the stolen military equipment, serial numbers — traced back to the transfer from the US military to the Boston Police Department, where they no longer are, because they’re turning up in the possession of Croatian arms dealers!” She impatiently brushed her hair back from her face. “Williams is low level and an idiot, sure, but he was also involved with every part of this process! Because he’s an idiot! What more do they want?” Her phone rang again and she impatiently stabbed at the reject icon.
“Certainly not the questions that come along with charging him to the full extent of our evidence.” Jan’s tone never changed. She suspected a bomb could go off in the street below and his tone wouldn’t change.
“Much better politics to sweep the ugly things under the rug, than deal with the actual problem,” she snapped.
Jan sighed, closed his laptop and slid it into his briefcase. “I should take this opportunity to remind you that it is not our responsibility to hunt down and arrest criminals.” His tone remained neutral, but the implication lurking behind it was clear: Regardless of how your father climbed the ranks. “We compile, analyze, and provide information. Do not take the failings of others as your own, Olivia.” He gave her a slight smile, slung the case over his arm, and placed his hand briefly on her shoulder. “Go home, get some sleep, and return tomorrow to shout into the void.” He paused by the door. “Oh, and answer your phone, if only to tell them to go away.”
The phone. Anthony again. She waved a hand at Jan, shooing him off and picked up the phone, snapping, “WHAT.”
“Last time I checked.”
“Um. It’s your dad.”
“Well, put him on then.”
“I...I can’t.” She registered voices in the background, and sirens. Anthony was talking still, but she barely heard his explanation. Something about a driver running a red light?
“Which hospital? I’m on my —”
“No, Olivia. He’s gone.”
There were four half-moons carved into each palm by the time the car pulled to a stop. Probably the safest ride she’d ever take, trailing a police escort in a funeral procession, but she’d spent the entire time thinking about shrieking metal and flying glass.
When the car bomb killed her mom, she kept hearing those sounds, over and over, until she’d lie awake drowning them out with litanies of chess moves from games she’d memorized. It helped some. Gave her a focus. Dad asking her to spy on Livingston had been a much better one, redirecting her anger at a target. A person to punish for what happened to Mom.
Then, she’d known. A car bomb sent quite the message. This time...she couldn’t find the message. There had to be one, but the evidence suggested it was just a stupid accident. Same way a million people died each year. She’d spent the past week looking for another explanation. One of the perks of being an Interpol criminal intelligence analyst with the most comprehensive information and databases at her disposal, and a very motivated group of people eager to help the boss’s daughter. It all came up empty.
I will not turn this into an obsession.
She got out of the car, greeted the other mourners, accepted condolences. Maggie Collins pulled her into a tight hug and she had to swallow at the sudden lump in her throat, but tears weren’t a large part of her grieving process for her mom, and thus far they hadn’t been for Dad either.
She was in the middle of her eulogy before she registered the man waiting by a distant tree. Covering the stumble in her voice by clearing her throat, she continued, not looking at him again until the service was over and she’d sent Anthony to wait by the car. She couldn’t make herself get in the car quite yet, anyway.
He looked older than she remembered. Not that she hadn’t seen him a few times in the intervening years, but her best recollections of people were always as opponents, seated across a chessboard.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Of course. We were...many things, but he had my respect.”
“He’d mock you for being that trite.” She sighed, tapping her fingers on her thigh. “But he trusted you.”
“Now who’s being trite. Do you still play?”
“Not in some time. You?”
They both know she wasn’t referring to chess. “I’m retired. He had a hand in that.”
“He had a hand in a lot of things.”
The man coughed, embarrassed. “Yes. Well.”
She didn’t know how to respond to that, and waited until it was clear he didn’t intend to say anything else. “It was good to see you again, Mr. Ford.”
“Uh...Nate. Call me Nate.”
“And...hey, if you need…” he trailed off, hand waving midair. “Give me a call, okay?”
She wasn’t very accustomed to needing and didn’t expect to be anytime soon. “Of course.”
What she needed, she decided at 3 AM that night, was a distraction. Jan had practically forced her out of the office days ago, first by saying she needed to take some time, and then by telling her she was disrupting, sitting there working like her father, the head of Interpol, wasn’t going to be buried in two days’ time. He didn’t really mean that. It was just a feint, to make her take the time he was certain she needed. Germans and their responsible work practices. Maybe he wasn’t wrong. But sitting in the empty flat doing nothing wasn’t helping either.
Anthony had offered to clear out Dad’s study for her (because of course he did, the sycophant). She’d refused. Her healthy sense of paranoia suggested Anthony was probably reporting to someone, but she couldn’t find any evidence of it.
Besides, this was her duty. He’d taught her that.
The desk’s drawers were unlocked, which was strange. He didn’t leave things unlocked. Out in the open. To chance. It’s not in his nature. It...wasn’t.
Nor was it in his nature to leave the key to the storage closet sitting in the top drawer. She rubbed the metal, lifted it to her lips. The metallic tang tasted like the opening of a game. She couldn’t see any obvious traps to it, but neither did it feel quite accidental.
She sat quite still for several more minutes before getting up, purposefully, and walking to the closet. Inside were orderly shelves stacked with filing boxes. She skimmed the labels: A-C, D-E, F-Fo(1), Fo-Fo(2), Fo-Fo(3), Fo-Fo(4), Fo-Fo(5), Fo-Fo(6), Fo-Fo(7)...that could only be one thing. Usually she was methodical. Would begin at A and work her way through. But after seeing him today...She pulled the box labeled Fo-Fo(1) down, sat, cross-legged on the closet floor, and began to read her father’s extensive files on Nathan Ford.
Thirty-two files and a bottle and a half of Moscato later she realized what this was, and that it wasn’t right to do it alone. Besides, when she sobered up, she would need to be responsible about these files and the informational goldmine they represented. Tonight, they were the last bit of her dad that she had. But they weren’t really...hers.
It took him several rings to pick up and she knew immediately she was not the only one doing this wrong. “You’re Catholic, right?”
She got a harsh laugh in response; an answer in and of itself.
“You still in town?”
“Come over. In a cab. We should do this properly.”
“Jim’s daughter would be one for propriety.”
“He left something you should see. If it’s here in the morning…”
“Be there soon.”
Nate brought a bottle of scotch twice as old as the girl – woman – who opened the front door, looking significantly less worse for wear than he felt. “You said we should do this properly.”
She nodded, still somehow managing to look poised, even in bare feet, her hair coming loose from its tie. Kid always was self-possessed, he recalled as he followed her in to the office, where the floor was strewn with neat piles of history. “He believed in doing things properly,” she said.
“Bullshit,” he responded absently, already staring at the files.
They had a wake. Maybe not a proper one, but it involved alcohol and memories, so it counted. They meandered through the files with him insulting Jim’s obsessive tendencies, and her asking questions. They were both surprised by the thoroughness of the ones Jim wasn’t involved in.
Nate dropped the file he’d been thumbing through. “He could’ve had us, if he wanted.”
“After the fact. He was only interested in live prey.” She’d found the file on Livingston – their job involving her – and was staring at it without really seeing the words.
“He never told me you existed,” Nate muttered. “I wouldn’t have...he didn’t need to trick us.” He imagined her as a kid, chasing Sam around a playground. Something they’d never had the chance to do. Something they could have had, if Jim had trusted him a bit more. She and Sam could have been friends as kids.
“I was the queen’s gambit, and proud of it.”
“Of being the sacrifice?”
“Of being trusted enough to play the role,” she replied, unwittingly echoing his thoughts. She threw down the file and picked up a slightly earlier one, skimming it without really reading. “‘Russian mafia and carnival,’” she muttered after a moment. “Now there’s a Boolean search begging to be made.”
“Molly Connell.” He’d been thinking plenty about Molly lately. And the other “ducklings” as Parker apparently called them, because of course it would be Parker who would go steal the beginnings of a whole new crew and call it a family.
Olivia was reading intently now, probably because the job had been about a grieving father and the daughter he accidentally put in harm’s way.
He’d called Hardison, after Sophie held it over his head that he was the only one out of the loop. Asked him about the kids.
“You askin’ how much we screwed them up? I dunno man. Are they? Sure. I mean Trevor not so much, but that’s Trev for ya, that kid —”
“— But Josie and Molly, they were in messed up situations before us and ended up in messed up situations after us.”
“So we didn’t make a difference?”
“Well Josie can basically turn invisible and Molly’s got a protective streak a mile wide. Why the hell you think Parker’s callin’ them ducklings?”
“She’s working with Eliot now,” he told Jim Sterling’s daughter, whose head was bent over the file, half-empty glass of scotch beside her.
“Is that why he’s not here to gloat?” she retorted, and then seemed to realize that her response was uncalled for. “Sorry.”
He shrugged, because Eliot was Eliot and Jim was Jim and what else was there to say on the subject. Instead he tossed a few other files at her. “She’s not the only one. Sophie — she got curious about a kid whose step-dad we took down, way back. Started visiting him, now he wants to be a grifter. Parker went back to find a teenage car thief — well, no longer a teenager. Kid’s fresh out of prison and has a crooked cop yanking her chain. Had.” Another file landed on the stack. “Went after an agricultural corporation, and a troublemaking kid from a tour bus follows us into the server room. Turned up looking for Hardison last month after pissing off a tractor company who doesn’t want people messing with their software. And Molly Connell gets a dishonorable discharge and ends up cage fighting for cash.”
She sifted through the stack he’s made her. Grifter, Thief, Hacker, Hitter. “I think the universe might be trying to tell you something.”
“You aren’t interested in what the universe has to say, and neither am I,” he replied. Maybe that was still true. But why else would he be telling her this?
She fingered the files again, thoughtfully. “The cons you ran. They were like chess games.”
“Yeah. Depending on the pieces and their position on the board. And I know the point you’re trying to make. I’m not that drunk.”
“Am I wrong?”
“It worked because none of them were only those things. They were the best at what they did.”
“And it worked because you knew the plays.”
“What were you helping Dad with?” A different angle of attack. She did think in chess moves.
“Tracking artifacts smuggled out of the Middle East and sold as legitimate. He asked me to pose as a buyer.”
“No. Kept getting outbid by a craft store CEO. Dave Grunen. He’s been buying up everything he can get his hands on.”
“I’ve heard of him. He’s a big fish. Has enough money to ignore the laws.”
“Yeah, well. Nothing to be done about that.” Sloppy. Sophie would make that blatant lie more careless, make the mark believe she believed it. She isn’t a fucking mark. Better that she saw through his ham-handed attempt. But even as he made the decision, his hand was already reaching for the bottle, knocking it awkwardly into his glass, the action adding a drunkenly morose context to his words.
“That doesn’t sound like the Nate Ford I met back then,” she said, oblivious to him setting the bottle down much more carefully than he’d picked it up. They’d have to work on that. Registering details. It’s a very distinctive—
“I had a team back then,” he muttered. Sophie tsked in the back of his mind. Who exactly are you grifting here, Nate?
Olivia waved a hand at the files around them. “You and your team were more effective in five years than I’ve been in a similar timeframe,” she said, the words implying possibilities she wouldn’t have entertained while Jim was still alive.
He knew he was watching her with an unhealthy cocktail of longing, anger, and plenty of other things he couldn’t be bothered to define. “We paid a price. What we did – it’s not something you play at.”
“Dad asked me to spy on my step-father when I was fifteen and just lost my mom in a bombing. I don’t play.”
“Yeah, well your dad was a piece of work.” Sure, they were having a wake, but that didn’t stop it from being true.
She nodded, accepting the judgment. “I am my father’s daughter,” she said, draining her glass decisively. Her next words were enunciated with the crispness of someone recognizing they were drunk, but wanting to be taken seriously. A tone he knew all too well. “In the morning, I, Olivia Sterling, criminal analyst at Interpol, will need to contact my office, tell them I have inherited a wealth of information on known criminals. Some of which still falls within the statutes of limitations of several countries.”
Shit. She was a fucking Sterling to the core. “Now hang on —”
“My father believed in justice and order.”
“Yeah, he tried that tune with me, but tell me that you see justice in the order of today’s world, huh? Your dad also believed in using people, in winning, in breaking the rules when it suited him, and for all his self-righteousness he still wound up dead.”
“For all — do you know?” she asked, hunger in her eyes.
Shut up, Nathan. “No. Just paranoid.”
“They found nothing.”
And now she’s going to insist on finding something. Something that likely isn’t there. Sophie isn’t the only one to insert thoughts into people’s heads. “Yeah, well, the best of them isn’t around to think outside the box.”
“What?” They both know it was a ploy. Hell, he hoped she knew it was a ploy, that he’d been nudging her here, because he really was a damn thief just like the rest of them, and he needed to steal her the same way he needed to finish the bottle sitting between them.
“I think in boxes. Thirty-two of them. Teach me to play this game.”
“It isn’t a game,” he warned, pouring even fingers into both glasses.
“I’ll win it anyway.” She held up the glass, clinked it against his, and downed it. “When do we start?”
Chapter 6: The Clients
“Hey boss, so I know you have a lot to deal with and you’re getting back tomorrow...actually you know what, this can wait —” Amy Palavi stared down at the box she’d just opened on her desk.
“Spit it out, Amy.” Maggie’s voice sounded tired, but amused. “I’ve been around the pretense of sadness all day and could use a straightforward problem. Hit me.”
“Uh, well, not sure I’d call it straightforward. A courier just dropped off a crate labeled ‘tile samples.’ Said they were for my department?” Technically, she didn’t have a department. The plaque on her door read Asst. Director for a reason, just as Maggie’s read Director. Oddly, people sometimes forgot to read those and she got strange boxes delivered to her.
“I thought you were handling the illuminated manuscripts?”
“I am…and the box didn’t contain tile samples. Pretty sure these are cuneiform tablets. Old ones. Very old.” Very strange boxes.
“Yeah. Can’t tell you much more than that, it’s not my expertise.”
“Exactly, so why give them to — oh you have got to be kidding me.”
“Yeah, I know, and yeah it’s annoying, but currently I’m less concerned with some idiot thinking I’m from the Middle East and more concerned with the fact that these are labeled as tile samples shipped from Turkey.”
“Nope.” She could hear Maggie’s groan on the other end of the line. “Look, you were just at a funeral. This can wait.”
“He asked me to take this job,” Maggie said. “As a favor. Didn’t tell me why.”
“Who? Sterling? The guy who just —”
“Died, yes. It’s remarkably bad tim…” she trailed off, and when she started speaking again her voice was hushed and anxious. “Amy, listen. I need to you to get out of there. Go to a crowded area, brightly lit. Call Hardison. Tell him you think you might be in danger.”
“Uhm. Maggie? Am I? In danger, I mean,” she asked, grabbing her purse and carefully retaping the box before grabbing that too. Hey, no one would stop her from carrying tile samples out of her own gallery, right?
“I don’t know. But I don’t think you were supposed to see that box.”
She swallowed, her heart suddenly pounding faster. “Uh, okay, illegal activity, check. But that seems kinda drastic?”
“Just — get out of there, okay? I’m going to check a few things.”
Maggie hung up after extracting Amy’s promise that she’d take this seriously. She didn’t doubt the girl, who’d had a kidnapping scare long before they’d started working together, Parker turning up out of the blue one day to “give her an artist, and you’ll like her, she’s honest!” Amy, the artist, who was working on her degree in art history and clearly accustomed to Parker’s…Parker-ness had waved, introduced herself and become the best intern, and then assistant Maggie had ever had.
Perhaps she was being over-careful. James had died in a car crash, just like more than a million other people in a given year. She’d just seen Nate at the funeral, and he’d — well he’d said Sophie would be coming in the next day, and perhaps she should have stayed to say hello, but deadlines, and well…
She half-expected Sophie to answer Nate’s phone when she placed the call, but it was him, sounding not nearly as drunk as she’d anticipated. “Maggie? Flight got delayed?”
She didn’t ask how he knew she was sitting in the airport. “Is there a chance this was a hit?” she asked, not realizing until after the words were out that she’d forgotten to even say hello.
“Why do you say that?” She heard the immediate focus, his brain starting to click into gear.
“James asked me to take a job at a museum, new, high-profile place, funded by the founder of a craft store?”
“He asked you to—You’re working for that fucking bible place?”
“As a favor,” she stressed.
“Ruin your reputation,” Nate replied, oddly distracted. He always walked into conversational minefields when his head was somewhere else. Which really explained most of their conversations.
“It’s contract, pays well, and between the two of us, my reputation is doing just fine, thank you.” She bit her tongue against continuing that argument and explained what Amy had told her. “They’re smuggling artifacts, and they’re likely the product of raided museums.”
“Yeah, but avoiding customs fees isn’t motive for murdering the head of Interpol.” There it was, the I-don’t-believe-what-I’m-telling-you-but-you-should-believe-it-anyway tone. Ass. “Did you tell Amy to get out of there?”
“Of course. And to call Hardison.”
“For her, he’ll look into it, even if it does relate to Ja — Sterling.”
“Look, I have someone who might know more. If I find anything out, I’ll call.” And with that, he was gone.
Maggie stared down at her hands and tried to tell herself she was being paranoid.
Chapter 7: The Players
“So she’s not paranoid?”
“No man, definitely not paranoid. Can’t say for certain it was a hit, and if it was, Eliot does not have a high opinion of their creativity, but it was good she got Amy out of there. I found her a place to lie low till we’re sure.”
“Then we’re doing this.”
“I say that? I definitely did not say that.”
“We retired man. RE. TI. RRRD.”
“As are we. But —”
“That ain’t the tone of Nate understandin’. That’s the tone of Nate deciding his next angle.”
“Listen. You think I can stop Sterling’s daughter?”
“You’re training OLIVIA?”
“As of two days ago, yes. Sophie hasn’t let me hear the end of it.”
“Yeah, well, you deserve that.”
“Thanks. You know she has —”
“Widmark, yeah, known for a while now, but that ain’t a team, Nate.”
“More of a team than we were, first time out.”
“We knew what we was doin’.”
“You didn’t.” Nate could hear the shift in audio as the call switched to speaker. Parker continued, “If it’s just smuggling, it’s a good test.”
“And if it ain’t?” Hardison asked.
Sophie leaned up against Nate. “We’ll be on comms, guiding them, Hardison. They have to learn to fly at some point.”
“Ducks swim,” Parker pointed out, apparently more concerned with the metaphor than this admittedly crazy idea he wouldn’t have entertained a week ago.
“Fine, swim,” Sophie agreed smoothly. “They need to get their feet wet.”
“Eliot?” Nate asked. He knew the other man was there, listening, and really, this all came down to his assessment of Molly. In a pinch, the others could intervene, but Molly would be on her own. “Is she ready?”
“T’ hit? Sure. T’ play nice with others?” He left the question hanging.
A felon, a bouncer, a tractor repairman, and a college theater kid.
That was her team. She recalled the long list of deeds, carefully delineated into verified and suspected, that her father had noted for each of Nate’s original crew. Heists, hacks, grifts, thefts, murders. Impressive curriculum vitae for each member of the team.
And she got Josie Lee, a thief who couldn’t steal herself away. Molly Connell, a hitter who’d failed to protect herself. Trevor Dawson, a hacker who never seemed to take his headphones out and was currently sniffing a curtain, and Widmark Fowler, a grifter who’d allowed himself to be seduced by Sophie Devereaux.
This wasn’t a team. It was a disaster. And they hadn’t even begun yet.
Currently, the twelve of them were gathered in a penthouse suite close to the Washington Mall. Two clients, who normally wouldn’t be so involved, but when one of them was Maggie—
(Privately, she was glad to see Maggie again. Dad and her had given it a try a few years back, and when it hadn’t worked out — Dad was still Dad, and not relationship material, a trait she seemed to have inherited — Maggie had stayed in touch. And she’d already asked Nate if he’d been hiding behind a tree at Dad’s funeral. Maggie was always welcome.)
Apart from Maggie, there was her assistant Amy, who apparently knew the Leverage crew, since strangers did not get to hug Parker for that long. Nate, Sophie, Parker, Hardison, Eliot — all of them strange to see after reading the files.
And then there were “The Ducklings.” Parker kept insisting on the term, amused by it for some inexplicable Parker-esque reason. She’d met Widmark, or Mark, as he’d introduced himself (and how on the nose could Sophie Devereaux get, taking someone named Mark as her protege?), on the flight from France. He’d seemed nice and pointless then, the type of person she’d forget the moment she turned away from him. If that was the type of grifter he intended to be, fair enough. But it had never been Sophie’s style, and she couldn’t quite reconcile the discrepancy. It scratched at her, vaguely.
She would have to ignore the sensation, however, because Mark was her ally. He’d grabbed her hand, walking in, and she’d almost snatched it back, insulted, but he’d given her one of those utterly guileless smiles and murmured something about a united front. She could appreciate that. Perhaps he wasn’t entirely useless.
The others, they too had presented a united front. Sort of. Molly was their front. She did a good job of it too, with Josie — perhaps subconsciously — staying behind her at almost all times. The quiet girl concerned her, as did Trevor, who bounced around like a puppy on caffeine, investigating every nook and cranny of the room.
But neither of them compared to the problem of Molly, who’d folded her arms — they were impressive arms, Olivia had to admit — and demanded, “Who died and made her boss?”
Parker blurted out a laugh and Eliot snorted in agreement, while everyone else looked horrified. In other circumstances, she might have found it funny. Not now. “I —”
“Point.” Eliot muttered, which may have been an interruption, or just a lag, she wasn’t quite sure. Either way, it wasn’t helpful, and suddenly she decided she did want this team. And she would win them over. But she couldn’t have all of this...history...in the room.
“Could everyone over thirty clear out?” her tone indicating that this was not a request. Sophie gave her an approving nod as she began shepherding her flock out the door.
She was slightly surprised to see Amy remaining when the others were gone.
Amy waved. “I-I’m not. Over thirty, I mean. I can go, if you want.”
“She’s a duckling.” Josie, when she did speak, sounded slightly wary. “That’s what Parker said.”
Of course she had. “Duckling? Have some self-respect.” They were not going to let that stick.
Molly’s lips pressed together and she half-rose from her seat, but Mark put a hand on Olivia’s shoulder, which shouldn’t have anything to do with Molly’s movement, and yet the other woman stopped, remained seated. “I like it.”
“Fits, anyway,” Trevor added. “Though you know, Molly’s not a duckling, she’s a fuckling.” He grinned, extremely pleased with that piece of stupidity and Molly grinned back at him. Inside joke, apparently. Great, now they were all united. Except her.
“Okay, what do you need? My credentials?” It sounded weak and useless as she said it.
“The fuck do I care about those?” Molly snapped. Maybe Parker had a point about the duckling thing, because here they were, acting out an old bitterness without the context to go with it.
Ah. Context. She had it, and Molly did not, so she was operating on someone else’s. “Eliot isn’t going to like me.” She spoke directly to the hitter. While the others’ skills and personalities she would need to become acquainted with, Molly was a whirlwind, chaotic and forceful enough to whip everyone with her. She imagined her own queen going rogue, and the havoc that would wreak on the board. And who is my opponent then?
“Then why should I?”
“It has nothing to do with you, and very little to do with me. My dad hated Eliot and Eliot hated him. He had reason to.” Odd how reading files from her father’s perspective had changed hers. Or perhaps not. He’d changed his perspective as well, over time.
“Why?” Josie asked. She was perched on the back of the sofa, behind Molly.
“‘Cause her dad kept trying to put them in jail,” Trevor still hadn’t stopped roaming around the room. It was distracting. “I don’t see Eliot accepting those circumstances.”
“Dramatic oversimplification, but yes.”
“How dramatic?” asked her community college thespian.
She shook her head. “I wasn’t there. I just have the files. Had. And they’re Dad’s files, so the bias is implicit. The point is, if you’re going to judge me based on Eliot, then that’s what you’re getting. An implicit bias.”
Molly rolled her eyes. “Well, I wouldn’t want that,” she muttered sarcastically.
“What do you want?” Olivia demanded, and glanced around at the rest of them to make this less of a showdown. “Are you just here because they still jump when Nate tells them to?”
She could sense Mark stiffening beside her as Josie bit her lip and Molly’s jaw clenched. Trevor, however, grinned cheerfully. “Well, I’m aiming to open source society, and I don’t imagine that’s going to be simple, so I’d prefer a team.”
Olivia blinked. “To what?”
“Oh don’t get him started. It’s his weirdo version of communism,” Molly muttered.
“Is too!” Josie responded immediately, with an actual grin, and Olivia felt them all retreating into their routine. Dammit. She glanced at Mark. What does he want?
“What they’re doing is wrong.” He said it quietly, and yet somehow the others turned and paid attention. Even Trevor stopped moving. “Even without the possible murder and definitely smuggling. This is one person buying up something that is sacred to millions and putting it on show for his own gain. To his own ends.” He shrugged, spread his hands. “I’d like to stop him, if that’s okay.” He met her gaze. “Do you know how?”
She nodded. “If I have a grifter, hacker, hitter, and thief. Yeah, I know how.”
“Then say the magic words, mastermind,” Trevor drawled.
“Magic words?” God, this was the ducklings thing all over again.
“Nate didn’t tell you? Parker says it every time we steal something,” Josie said, surprised.
Olivia pressed her lips together in annoyance. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a shiver run up her spine as Trevor, Molly, Josie, and belatedly Mark chorused: “Let’s go steal a…”
“...The word of God!”
Okay, so they needed some work.
Chapter 8: The Set Up
“Hardi — Sorry, Trevor. Run it.”
“What? Now? Shit. Okay, hokay, okay, let’s see ummm...” Olivia looked so cool and collected, sitting there, watching him. Well, she also looked kinda annoyed, but that was cool too — wait, hang on —
“Trevor.” Nice of Molly to come up with a tone just for him. In the corner, Hardison grinned and gave him a thumbs up.
“Right, here goes. Dave Grunen, CEO of Craft Raft, Inc, a national chain of craft stores that always smell overpoweringly of potpourri and despair every time I enter one, which I have done quite a lot of in the last few days out of research, and I like craft stores! They have all sorts of cool shit and usually dinosaurs and the squishy...hey, those murder eyes are coming along nicely Molly. Where was I? Oh yeah. He’s Christian and annoying about it.”
“Annoying how?” Parker asked.
“More like, how annoying can he possibly be. I drove past barns in Nebraska with more subtlety.” He flicked his wrist, grinning as his adapted controller splashed reports up on the screens he and Hardison had rigged, from TVs Parker and Josie stole, on Parker’s justification that it was practice — both for Josie to steal large items and operate a complex pulley system to shift them, and for him to tell the hotel system the rooms were under repairs and not to be booked. Or cleaned. Or entered. System didn’t even have a setting for that, he’d had to invent one and... oh yeah. Briefing. “Right. So. Grunen believes that being a multibillionaire craft store CEO is not his true calling. Instead, he thinks he’s meant to use his success to spread the word of God.”
“Which one?” Mark muttered. Dude had a point.
“JESUS!” Parker yelled. Eliot elbowed her. “What? That’s usually the word they mean.”
“Name, Parker.” Eliot muttered.
“I know that, silly. But it is —”
“Babes. Y’all know I love the bickering, but Trevor’s brain train is already way too happy jumpin’ the tracks.”
“Riding that train,” Trevor started singing. “High on cocaine. Casey Jones you better — Sorry.”
“Are you?” Olivia demanded.
He blinked as Hardison facepalmed in the corner. “Am I what?”
“...Watch your speed.” Eliot finished the line and gave him a nod.
Trevor returned it, closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled slowly. In. And out. In. And out. Yeah, that helped. He’d been working without any headphones in, but now he dug an earbud out of his pocket and slipped it in. A steady beat filled that ear. Okay. Better.
“Grunen started collecting biblical artifacts a few years back. Someone gave him the idea that he should have a museum of the Bible and he took off running and hasn’t stopped. He’s bought millions of dollars’ worth of cuneiform tablets, famous bibles, and hundreds of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls. He’s building a museum, a few blocks from the National Mall, so he can capitalize — ha — on a reputation he hasn’t earned. To get people excited he’s got a lil’ preview taster, which Maggie’s hosting.” He waved at her. Maggie was cool. She waved back.
Flicking the controller again, he continued, “I hacked into the plans for the museum for funsies and they’re about as all over the place as my brain. Serious scholarly research — from his handpicked scholars — or theme park? Why not both?” He tossed a few of the really weird projections up on the screens.
“Is that a water slide?”
Sophie sighed. “We already did Bibletopia, why do they keep coming back to this?”
“Because it’ll make money.” Nate remarked. “How does he get items?”
Trev grinned. Nathan Ford was testing him. Him! “Buys them. Everywhere. Auctions, private collections, online dealers. He’s displaying a fragment right now that was selling on Ebay a few years back.”
“Asshole.” Olivia muttered and glanced around, surprised to find everyone waiting for her to continue. “It’s a popular market. And when one guy is throwing around that much money and not caring who he buys from, it opens up avenues for black market deals, items looted from historical sites, stuff that’s been stolen by extremist groups to fund their activities. It’s a much bigger issue than just some guy who thinks everyone should think like him, but he doesn’t care.”
“So how do we stop him?” Josie asked.
Olivia tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “Who finds him the items?”
“Ah. That’d be Herm Braddock.”
“Herm?” Molly’s voice dripped judgement.
“Short for Herman. The guy’s a master at tracking this stuff down, arranging shipments — more on that in a sec — and threatening people who don’t play ball.”
“Oh. He’s an Eliot.” Parker nodded, seemingly oblivious to the high-pitched squeak of outrage that came from Hardison. Eliot folded his arms, but didn’t object to the comparison.
Olivia’s expression froze at Parker’s words. “Tell me about him. Now.”
Molly and Josie both turned to watch her warily.
Trevor swallowed nervously. He didn’t read warning signs well, but those two did. And okay, sure there were some similarities between what Eliot used to do, in acquiring items of high value, and what Braddock did, and the guy wasn’t worried about getting his hands dirty… “Don’t have that much more to tell. The guy answers to Grunen, has two bank accounts I found, another three that Hardison located — that was sick — and tends to shield Grunen from any unpleasantness. A few people Braddock’s dealt with have turned up missing or dead. I’d need to have his computer, or preferably his phone, to find out more.”
Olivia’s knuckles whitened as she gripped the arms of her chair, but she said nothing.
“The shipping?” Amy prompted. “This whole thing started because of a shipping label.”
“Ah, yeah, that’s rich folks being cheap. They don’t want to pay customs on the valuable stuff so they say it’s worthless. Three hundred dollars’ worth of tile instead of thirty thousand worth of cuneiform. There’s a Craft Raft warehouse and distribution center down by the docks. Everything goes there first, and trucks leave there all the time for hundreds of destinations. No one’s gonna bat an eye.”
“Until they hand me the wrong box.” Amy shifted uncomfortably.
“And you ask a question,” Maggie added. “They weren’t particularly careful, security-wise. They don’t think they have to be.”
“So, how do we get them?” Josie repeated her question. “Steal Grunen’s collection?”
“No. He can keep it for now.” Olivia shot Nate a glance. “Zwischenzug?”
“Your game.” He inclined his head toward her.
She grinned, reminding Trevor of a cat spotting a bird. “Good. Let’s go steal a partnership.”
Chapter 9: The Hook
“The fuck is trizrensoog?” Molly asked. Olivia would be all uppity, using words like that and not explaining them.
She, Eliot, Josie, and Parker were sitting, for the third night in a row, outside the Craft Raft Shipping and Distribution Center, an ugly-ass, squat building full of kitschy shit and probably several million dollars’ worth of ancient artifacts.
Three days. If they’d been doing this her way, they’d already have been in, out, and gone on the first day, but Josie wanted to scout, note truck models and guard rotations. Molly got being careful, sure, but this wasn’t some insurgents’ camp — this was a warehouse full of yarn. Based on the pair of rent-a-cops on duty the last few nights, it wasn’t like they were expecting to get hit.
If that wasn’t irritating enough, Eliot agreed with Josie. Traitor. Parker did too, but that was to be expected.
“Chess play,” Eliot said after a moment. “Means...between move.”
Molly frowned. “Like a feint?”
“No.” She’d thought Parker was sleeping, stretched out in the back seat of the car, until she spoke. “This isn’t a feint.”
“Whole board,” Eliot nodded, which meant he was agreeing with Parker, though how Molly would have to determine for herself. This didn’t seem to be one of Eliot’s talkative days. Though whether it was legit, or him just being an ass and withholding an explanation to make her puzzle it out was impossible to determine. He liked fucking with her like that.
Whole board. Multiple pieces. On both sides…
“Incoming.” Josie announced from her vantage point in a tree conveniently positioned by the loading dock.
She hadn’t liked staying outside the perimeter while Josie went in for a closer look. But she was close enough to go in if Josie was caught. The thief rattled off the license plate and model of a semi-truck to Trevor, back at the hotel.
“On it,” he replied. Molly resisted asking how his crash course in artifact forging was coming along. Guy already had issues focusing. She wouldn’t have minded listening in on Hardison on that subject, but their comm structure prevented that.
Even without Maggie and Amy on comms at the moment, ten people on one feed got confusing real fucking quick. Instead the Ducklings could hear each other and their trainer over the comms. The Nanas could hear everybody, but would only be heard by their duckling — unless Hardison, on the switchboard, intervened. (Hardison had started referring to himself and the others as the Nanas and apparently this was a name to be respected because Eliot had given her a Look that dared her to mock it at her own risk.)
Molly wondered how much half-sided bickering the others could hear, thanks to this set up. Since Eliot wasn’t in a talkative mood, she had no way of knowing.
“Truck came from the docks, picked up cargo in lots imported from Thailand, China, Indonesia, and Turkey,” Trevor reported. “So, sweatshop, sweatshop, sweatshop, looters!”
“That’s one fucked up game of duck, duck, goose.”
“Focus,” Olivia warned. She and Mark were having their own crash course in biblical history. She’d take hanging out in a car with Eliot and Parker any day.
“Guards in view,” Josie whispered. Two days ago, she’d slipped in, patched into their security feed, so they could monitor rotations. Molly studied the video on her tablet and frowned.
“How?” Olivia and Eliot asked simultaneously.
“Yesterday was plain security. These guys are ex-military. Higher pay grade.” She smirked at Eliot’s gesture to continue. “They stand at parade rest. Hard habit to break.”
“Distinctive.” Parker sat up, slapping away Eliot’s upraised middle finger.
“So more security, plus suspicious imports definitely means smuggled artifacts, right?” Mark asked.
“Yeah. Move in?” Molly bit her lip in anticipation.
Olivia hesitated. “Don’t get caught.” And then, “Yes, go.”
“Final-fucking-ly.” She still waited until Eliot gave her a nod, then slipped out of the car while Parker was still instructing Josie. Olivia made the calls, but since they could hear everything and had the experience, the Nanas had final say.
Easy enough getting in — security wasn’t exactly tight, except for the surprise muscle. Two on patrol, right now monitoring the truck, and one in the guard office. Trevor set the cameras on a loop, so she wouldn’t have to worry about him yet, and found Josie slipping down from her perch.
“Need you to make a distraction.”
“Easier to catch ‘em off guard so they don’t have time to, you know, shoot me.”
“Um. Right. I can do that.” She ducked her head, not exactly exuding confidence.
Molly grabbed her shoulder. “I’m not gonna let them shoot you, either.”
“Get goin’,” Eliot growled in her ear.
Josie became a blur of shadow, slipping between the lighted areas so quickly Molly, circling around, could barely track her. She slowed down, made herself obvious in a way Molly still couldn’t completely comprehend. She always knew the moment Josie entered a room, the moment a part of her would orient toward her automatically. But to others Josie didn’t seem as obvious. She lurked, forgotten in corners and shadows and seemed to prefer it that way.
Molly could hear her rapid, uneven breaths as she let herself be noticed. It took guts, going against instinct like that.
The two guards shouted, turning, and Molly hit them from the side, sending one to the ground as she caught the other’s Glock, kneed him in the balls, and wrenched the gun out of his grasp as he fell. She ejected the magazine, dropping the rest, and lobbed the full magazine hard into the face of the guy she’d hit first. He yelled as it hit him straight across the eyes. Her first target was still on the ground in the fetal position, which gave her plenty of time to tie them both up.
Men had an honor system that, even when fighting dirty, relied on the rule of “do unto others.” That was fine by her. They could try to kick her in the crotch if they felt like it.
The driver was standing in the open back of the truck, staring at her.
“You want to cause any trouble?” Molly asked, lifting her chin.
The driver shook his head nervously.
“‘Kay, come on then.” He came quietly. Smart dude.
While Molly had her fun, Josie slipped into the warehouse, looking for crates with the special code Braddock used to mark the items not destined for stores.
Everything sat on pallets, wrapped in plastic, mostly indistinguishable. Maybe she should just give this up, take what they had in the truck and run before things got hot. It would be so easy to be caught in this maze.
If someone sees you, go up.
She released a breath that didn’t shiver through her throat quite as much as the last one had.
“Hey Josie-Jo, need some directions?” Trevor asked.
“Yes! Where am I going?” she hissed.
“Y’know, I’m just a whisper away, ask next time. Mind reading is so not my forte. I mean it’d be cool, but —”
“Northeast corner. Aisle 16, Bin Q. Place is organized basically like Ikea. How are you going to lift a pallet?”
Josie frowned. “Is that a joke?” How does anyone lift a pallet? “Molly? I could use a hand.”
“Molly’s going to lift the pallet?? COOL.”
“Shut it, Trev. On my way, Jo.”
“Meet me at the guard room.” She jogged up, eyes lit up the same way they always did when she got to hit something. Josie didn’t exactly get it, but it was fun watching her. “Your turn to distract.”
Molly nodded, walked straight up to the door, and kicked, once, twice, at the lock. On the third kick, it burst open, and she dropped, staying low, only to spring up in the face of the very confused, half-asleep guard. Probably not one of Braddock’s special hires then.
Josie waited long enough to make sure Molly had things in hand before slipping in, grabbing all the keys off the rack behind the door, and slipping back out.
Sure, she could hotwire a forklift, but why bother?
“Hey Trev, quick tutorial on forklift controls, go.”
“Damn girl, can I have your job? So, here’s what you do…”
By the time she arrived back at the tractor trailer, with Braddock’s other boxes loaded on her new favorite toy, Molly was back and staring at her in astonishment.
“You stole a forking fucklift??” she hissed, then winced as she registered the words.
Josie giggled. “Want to try that one again?”
“Shut up. That everything?”
“Only coded stuff in the inventory, according to Trev. Let’s go.”
Molly nodded and tossed her the keys from the original driver, trussed up next to the security guards.
If people kept giving her keys, how was she ever going to build up her skillset?
The seats in semi cabs were designed for maximum comfort on cross country hauls, and her muscles, sore from their extended perch in the tree, gratefully relaxed into their cushioned embrace. Her anxieties relaxed too, now that they were free and clear, with Molly staring at her from two feet away. “So, what exactly is a fucklift?” she teased.
“Shut up and drive,” Molly muttered, turning red. It was cute.
Over the comms, Josie could hear Trevor start laughing again, Mark mutter something about patience being a virtue, and a thumping sound that was possibly Olivia banging her head on a table. It was odd, having all of them in her head. Distracting, to a degree, but also comforting. Sometimes Parker would say something more random than usual, in response to someone she couldn’t hear, and that was comforting too, that they were still a crew, a family, after all this time.
Her own crew quieted, even Trevor, and Molly seemed oddly tongue-tied as Josie guided the semi down dark streets and onto the freeway. They weren’t taking it too far, just far enough that they had a chance to examine its contents. And ensure it would take some time to find.
“You’ve, uh driven one of these before?”
“Few times. It’s mostly knowing the controls and forethought.” She glanced at Molly, suddenly noting the slight dark line trailing from her right eyebrow. “You’re bleeding.”
“So? If you’re not following that with a specific preposition, then what’s the big deal?”
“Out. I’m not bleeding out.”
“To be fair, ‘in’ would also be a concern,” Mark said. “Sorry, my mom helps manage a health clinic.”
“Well, I’m not doing that either. It’s just an eyebrow cut, no biggie...don’t start.” That last was probably directed at Eliot.
“I, uh, I didn’t mean...DNA. I mean DNA. We want the police to find this truck right?” Josie asked, feeling guilty that that was her first concern.
“Don’t worry about it.” Parker told her. “I mean, yes worry about, good thinking, but don’t worry, worry. Hardison needs to teach Trevor to wipe those records anyway.” She paused. “He says it’s moving rapidly up the list. You don’t own a gun, right?”
“I thought that was Eliot’s pet peeve?” Molly grumbled.
Olivia answered. “The gun registry isn’t digital, and records are kept at every store until the store closes, and then they get sent to a building in West Virginia. I do NOT want to go to a building in West Virginia, nor do I have any desire to figure out the crazy filing system they invented to keep track of all those records.”
“So the registry they search in crime shows…” Mark began.
“Fictional. They’re paper. Or microfiche. Or scanned, nonsearchable PDFs. Bane of my life.” Olivia muttered bitterly.
“Paper and microfiche?” Trevor sounded horrified.
“Blame the NRA.”
“Hey, you know what we should do next? Take down the goddamn NRA. Who’s with me?”
Molly grinned at Trevor’s enthusiasm and stuck her feet up on the dash. “Fuck yes.”
Listening to their chatter, Josie pulled off the freeway and onto a dark side street, after several blocks, she spotted Parker and Eliot rolling open a loading door so she could drive the truck straight into the huge, empty warehouse. “Okay, let’s see what we’ve got.”
Molly heaved up the back and they climbed in, quickly cutting open plastic wrap and prying open the crates to investigate their prize.
“Fuck.” Molly said after a moment, and really, that just about summed it up.
“What?” Olivia asked. “Be specific.”
“Uh, so one crate has some cuneiform tablets. And weird bowls? With words in spirals.”
“Probably incantation bowls, they’re for warding off evil spirits,” Mark said.
“That sounds accurate for the type of artifacts Grunen is looking for.” Olivia sounded oddly disappointed at the news.
“Yeah, but is he also buying up gold bars, jewels, and plates...also gold, shit, I think this is a crown…” Molly, with far more care than she usually handled anything, picked it up. The piece was molded in the shape of flowers and eight winged women. Smirking, she placed it gently on Josie’s head. “Suits you.”
Josie gasped at the weight of the crown and the fact that Molly’d just casually set something priceless on her head. “What are you doing?!”
Parker and Eliot climbed into the back of the truck, Parker’s eyes danced with delight at the gold and jewels, but Eliot just looked angry.
“S-Sorry,” she took the crown off and quickly set it back in the crate.
“Nimrod,” he muttered.
“Hey! Perky!” Molly snapped. “Cut it out, I was the one fucking around.” Someday, she’d get up the courage to ask about that nickname.
“Nimrud. As in, treasure of,” Parker clarified. “Eighth or ninth century BCE Iraq.”
“Fuck. What the hell’s that doing here?”
“Rediscovered in 2003 in a flooded bank vault under the Central Iraq Bank, some of the Nimrud Treasure is once again unaccounted for due to upheavals in the MENA region.” Trevor must have hit up Wikipedia. “Hey O.S., I think we may have kicked a hornet’s nest, rather than just poking it with a stick.”
“Good,” Olivia said, and Josie felt her stomach sink at her satisfied tone. Olivia wanted Braddock to answer for her father’s death. And if the crew went down in the process…? She shuddered slightly, and glanced at Parker, grinning and nodding at Olivia’s answer. Even Eliot looked pleased.
So that had been the calm before the storm, then.
Chapter 10: The Tale
Mark sat outside Grunen’s office, listening to the shouting on the other side of the door. Beside him, Maggie was keeping her face carefully schooled in a neutral expression that somehow still conveyed an amused sort of judgment. Maggie’s face, he’d discovered, could rival Sophie’s voice in its subtleties.
Earlier, before they’d entered what Olivia casually referred to as the eighth circle of hell, Maggie’d given him a quick hug and whispered her confidence in him. In view of Grunen’s secretary, who appeared unfazed by the muted shouting of her boss, Maggie couldn’t do the same, but he held on to that feeling of support, and Sophie, in his ear, reviewing the plan with him in that sing-song tone she used when she wanted to soothe a person and nudge them forward. Both weren’t quite enough to calm the butterflies in his stomach, but they helped.
Finally, the yelling came to a close with a final, “WELL, FIND THE BLASTED SHIPMENT BRADDOCK. THAT’S WHAT I PAY YOU FOR.”
A tall, powerfully built man stormed out of the office, colliding with Mark just as he rose from his chair. He’d intended to stay in his way for a moment, stalling him while Trevor, remotely controlling his phone, used it to bluebug Braddock’s device.
Instead he bounced off, landed on the floor, and stared in shock as Braddock stepped over him and kept going.
“Hey man, I got nothing!” Trevor complained in his ear as both Maggie and the secretary rushed to help him up.
“Josie, Mark’s attempt failed, you’re up.” Olivia said.
Molly instantly jumped in. “Hang on, why don’t I do it?”
“No, I-I got this,” Josie whispered, sounding both determined and terrified.
Mark could relate. He hauled himself up to his feet.
“You all right son?” Dave Grunen clapped him on his shoulder in a friendly greeting completely at odds with the yelling match he’d just been in.
Mark nodded hurriedly and stuck out a hand that shook slightly. “Yessir. I-I’m apologize for —”
“Nonsense! He should have looked where he was going.” He turned to Maggie. “Mrs. Collins! How are you?”
“Still a PhD, Dave,” Maggie returned smoothly. “This is Joseph Bernstein, and I think you’ll be very interested in what he’s just inherited.”
Settled in Grunen’s plush office, Mark discovered just how easy it was to remain in character. The props — rich mahogany, plush carpets, prized pieces of the Grunen collection casually resting on the built-in bookshelves. The lighting — warm sunlight streaming in through the huge windows of the corner office, high above the city. The other actors — also playing roles of their own. Oh yes. He’d found his light.
“M-My father passed away last week.”
“I’m sorry, son. May he rest in Jesus’s eternal light.”
“Amen,” Mark replied, automatically polite. It was a traditional Jewish response, though he wasn’t sure Grunen understood that from the way he smiled as if welcoming someone into the fold. We are not the same. “I’ve been going through his possessions — he lived an interesting life, my father. Grew up poor in one of the first settlements on the West Bank. He immigrated to America long before I was born, and he did not like to talk about before.” He gave Grunen and Maggie a sad smile. “I wasn’t entirely sure what I had in my possession at first…” At this line, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a picture frame, setting it carefully on the desk.
Grunen leaned forward, his eyes lighting up with desire. “How did he come across…” He reached out, gently picking up the framed fragment of parchment.
“He lived near Khirbet Qumran as a boy. I-I’m not sure, but I believe his father took him to the caves after the scrolls were discovered.” He shrugged, lifting his hands. “I doubt they were there legally.”
“Thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls were looted in the years immediately following the discovery in the 1950s,” Maggie supplied. “Most only came into the light decades later.” She gave Grunen a quick smile. “Of course, you’re aware of their history. My assistant met Joseph at your temporary exhibit, staring at the fragments on display. When he told her he’d recently come into possession of something similar, she introduced him to me.”
“And you believe it to be real?” Grunen asked.
“Them. Joseph has a total of five fragments. The rest are safely secured. I’m happy to host your preliminary exhibit in my gallery, Mr. Grunen, and as far as I can verify, these fragments are real. However, this is not my area of expertise. I do know someone in the city who could ascertain their legitimacy, if you’d like me to contact her?”
Grunen nodded. “Do that.” He turned again to Mark. “You are willing to sell these to me?”
Mark bit his lip, giving his answer a moment of hesitation. “Honestly, I don’t have much choice, Mr. Grunen. I am a student. I have my father’s final expenses to pay and I need to return to school. I hate to sell them, but Maggie tells me you are building a museum, where people can come and study them. It seems to me that it’s the best option I could hope for.”
The man rose, smiling, and stuck out his hand. The smoothness of the gesture caught Mark slightly unawares and he stumbled quickly to his feet. Good thing this role called for a bit of awkwardness. “Depending on the tests run by Dr. Collins’ counterpart, I think your hope will not be misplaced. Perhaps a plaque, identifying your father as the original owner of the fragments?”
Mark gave him a grateful smile. “I think he would have liked that, yes.”
Chapter 11: The Wire
Olivia had been right to order Josie to track Braddock. She knew that, even if Molly and Josie didn’t. Mark and Maggie were playing Grunen beautifully and she left them to it, finally understanding what Sophie saw in him. His innocence and openness worked in his favor. People wanted to believe the story he told. The possibilities — no. Her goal was separate from theirs. They saw this as a game, and it was, though one in which they pieces, not players.
Nate wouldn’t like her thinking like that. But Nate’d already had his revenge on his father’s murderer. She hadn’t had the pleasure.
And to get there, to know for certain if she was even on the right track, she needed to know Braddock’s whereabouts, to have his phone, his contacts, everything she could get.
“His ph-phone’s protected,” Josie hissed.
“Where are you?”
“Followed him into the parking garage. Any moment now he’s going get to his car.”
“Are you safe?” Molly asked, voice tight.
“Yeah, there’s plenty of cars to hide behind. I got close enough to try the bluebug, but it wouldn’t take.”
“Huh? Oh! Shit. Okay. Can you pick his pocket?”
“NO.” Molly snarled.
“Molly, she’s a thief.”
Josie didn’t say anything for a moment, then answered, sounding relieved. “Parker says it’s too obvious here.”
“We need that phone.”
“She’s not going in without Parker’s go-ahead,” Molly insisted.
“Careful,” Nate murmured to Olivia. Not quite a reprimand, but a warning. Don’t leave your pieces unprotected.
She took a breath, let it out. “Okay, changing the play. Josie, you represent the crew that took his shipment. Can you do that? Give him your burner. Trevor, that should give you time and proximity to crack his security.”
“Are you out of your mind? She can’t just walk up and tell him that!”
“Yeah. Yeah I can.”
Molly hissed out one last, slightly desperate “Josie —”
“Mr. Braddock.” Josie’s voice sounded surprisingly clear and confident. “We have something of yours.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“A middleman. Just like you.”
“Listen, kid —”
“I wouldn’t insult the person holding your balls in a vice, would you?” Josie countered. “I imagine you have a number of very angry buyers right now. And an employer who should have already called the police, but is relying on you to see this situation resolved. I’m here to resolve it.”
“What do you propose?”
“Not here.” Olivia imagined her stepping closer, heard the worry in Molly’s tone as she whispered she was in position. Josie continued. “Take this. You’ll be contacted with a time and place. Nice doing business with you, Mr. Brad —” her voice cut off in a gasp.
“Who. Are. You.” He snarled, his mouth extremely close to the comm. A moment later there was a sizzle and a pop.
“FUCK!” Molly yelled.
Molly didn’t answer for a minute of tense rustlings punctuated with curse words. “She fucking tasered him! And herself, and the comm. Nice plan, asshole.”
“She okay?” Trevor asked.
“Coming ‘round. We’re in the stairwell. I can haul her out of here if needed, and leave you to your fucking vendetta.”
“She played her part. Perfectly,” Olivia argued. “You can’t protect her from everything.”
“That’s my fucking job,” she snapped. “Hey, Jo-Jo,” she continued, much softer, and that was the last thing Olivia heard before Molly’s comm went dead.
“Hey, nothin’ to worry about, I cut your connection.” Hardison broke in.
“WHAT? WHY?” She knew she was yelling, but this was her crew.
“‘Cause I have some experience with hitters deciding to go offline ‘cause they’re pissed. And since Josie’s comm is fried, I didn’t want Molly tossin’ hers before Parker and Eliot get there.”
“Y’should know, that is her job,” Hardison said. It was a surprisingly gentle rebuke. “Eliot hired her to protect Josie. Who’s more than a lil’ bit traumatized by threatening men, I might add.”
“Oh.” She felt stupid. Both for needing to be told that, and for repeating herself.
“Parker an’ Eliot will make sure they get out all right. You better figure out how to get them back on your side.”
She took a breath. “Thank you. Hardison.”
“Yeah well, it ain’t always easy, separating the people and the job.” He cut the connection.
“You want the good news or the bad news?”
“Damn. I haven’t actually thought of a good news yet. So! Bad news: the phone Josie handed him is not responding. Neither is Braddock’s and I’m guessing both were bricked when they got tased. If they bring them back here, I might be able to pull data off them, but it’s not a guarantee.”
“What kind of taser —”
“Parker gave it to her. He’s not exactly admitting his involvement, but I’m pretty sure Hardison built it. He’s telling them to get the phones though. Oh!” Trevor rebounded instantly into cheerfulness. “Wait! Good news! Parker is scary prepared and has another burner.” He listened for a moment. “So does Eliot. And Molly. Okay, so everyone I know is paranoid. Cool. Cool. Really should get on that train. And learned that lesson after hopping a literal train without a burner…”
Olivia tuned him out. Maybe there was still a chance.
“Uh, hello? Guys?!”
“Hey Mark! I turned down your comms while you were in there. It got a bit distracting out here.”
“Olivia, Grunen wants to meet you later today. Distracting?”
Olivia cleared her throat and summarized. “Had to change the play, sent Josie in. It mostly worked, aside from she and Braddock both getting tasered and Molly losing her shit. They’re off comms, but safe.”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense.”
“What part of it makes sense?”
Mark hesitated. “That...that Molly’s in love with Josie. You didn’t know?”
Why should that — she sighed. “I’m not interested in...that stuff tends to fly over my head,” she admitted.
“Ah. Well, I wouldn’t confront either of them about it. Molly’s always looking for a fight and Josie’s always trying to avoid one. I wouldn’t get in the middle. Let them sort it out.”
Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose, trying to ignore the headache that was forming. “Thanks, Mark.”
“Sophie does this. She was always getting calls about relationship drama.” She could almost sense his deprecating shrug. “I think it’s part of the grifter job description. ‘Keep team from imploding.’”
“Better you than me, apparently.”
“As long as you can convince Grunen Trev’s forgeries are the real deal, I still think we’ll pull this off.”
“Hey man, quick question. Did you become a con man to be the voice of confidence?”
“Sure, why not?”
Olivia smiled in spite of herself. “Okay, Trev, let’s go steal an accelerator mass spectrometer.”
As it turned out, stealing an AMS was as simple as marching into Georgetown University acting like they wanted to be anywhere else, as Trev grumbled about some professor Olivia was relatively certain didn’t exist and how he wouldn’t know compromised results if they bit him in the ass. It was late on a Friday, and the place cleared out without giving the two of them a second glance. By the time Grunen, Mark, and Maggie showed up, Trev had the thing up and running while she greeted them, introduced herself as Dr. Laurel, explained her expertise was in detecting archeological forgeries and stroked his ego in regards to his museum.
“It’s quite the undertaking, assembling a collection of that size, ascertaining the legitimacy of the items, and in such a short timeframe. You and your staff must be extremely dedicated…”
She nodded and smiled as he launched into an explanation that was more bullshit than reality, about purchasing items from formerly wealthy European families. Her credentials may have been forged by Trevor in the last twenty-four hours, but she knew the antiquities trade. One look at Maggie’s face, standing inconspicuously behind Grunen, almost broke her facade. She was thinking the same damn thing.
“And you work with an importer you trust for your acquisitions? I only ask because it can be so difficult these days to trust anyone, especially given the regions you are collecting in, and the complexities of verifying provenance.”
“We do what we can,” Grunen replied. “But there is the risk that after the fact, you find out that it wasn’t appropriate for us to buy it.”
“Forgive me, Mr. Grunen, but that approach may work for a private collection. It will not with a large and controversial museum.”
He smiled. Behind her, Trevor, in the role of a harried T.A., carefully faked the analysis of Mark’s fragments. “As it happens, I may be in the need for a more reliable dealer. Why don’t I hire you?”
She blinked, pretending to be surprised. “Hire me?”
“To oversee the collection. Maggie here has been helping as she can, but as she keeps reminding me, her expertise is in art, not biblical antiquities. You however, are young, knowledgeable, photograph well — important for the press you understand.”
“Of course,” she replied, turning her desire to slap him into a sharp smile. “I, well, I would be honored, Mr. Grunen.”
Trev came up, handed her the “results” of his scan. “Looks like the real deal — see those C14 ratios?”
Olivia frowned at the pages, studying them for a believable amount of time before looking up. “May I see the fragments?” She smiled at Grunen. “I always like to have the analysis done sight unseen. Prevents bias.”
Trev laid them out on a table and she examined them carefully with a magnifying glass before looking up at Mark. “These were yours?”
“Your father was hiding quite the wonder. These are from the Book of Esther.”
Grunen’s real shock somehow failed to match the pure wonder of Mark’s expression. Her grifter was good.
“The only book of the Old Testament, not yet located in the Scrolls,” Grunen whispered.
“Precisely. Its value is, well, some might argue priceless.”
Grunen clapped Mark heavily on the shoulder. “Joe and I will figure something out,” he promised. “Say, Maggie! The gala, tomorrow! We should present these as the star of the collection! A new discovery! Plenty of media coverage and scholarly interest to boot!”
“Sounds like a perfect plan,” Maggie agreed, her eyes on Olivia.
Of course. I’m the mastermind. I will win this game.
She absently reached up to touch her ear, where two voices were still silent.
Chapter 12: The Shut Out
“Triggered the taser ‘stead of using stun mode.” Josie’d been expecting Parker or Molly, but instead Eliot answered from somewhere behind her. “Too close. Wires tangled an’ th’ current did too,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
“Sorry,” she whispered, feeling stupid. “Molly?”
“She’n Parker…” he trailed off.
“Are cleaning up my mess. Got it.”
“I say that?”
She swallowed. “Nossir.”
She winced at how frustrated he sounded with her screwing things up. Again. Like always.
“You didn’ screw up.”
“Did I say that out loud?”
“Nah, jus’ thinkin’ real loud.” She turned to look up at him, seated a few steps above her. “Back then either.”
He gave her a look and she shut up. Why can’t I be more like Molly? She doesn’t apologize, just listens and tries again. “You were loyal to your…your crew. They didn’t deserve it, but loy…loyalty ain’t always ‘bout that.” He shrugged. “You learned that les…lesson helluva lot faster than me.”
“Oh.” She’d thought about it back then, but she’d clearly been wrong, so… “But this time —”
“Parker stabbed a…a guy with a fork once. She was s’pposed to flirt with ‘im. Stabbed ‘im an’ dove out the…the...the window.” She couldn’t help giggling at the image. Eliot grinned, his face soft at the memory. “Bein’ scared’s okay. You…You went in, did the job, defended yourself when it went south. An’ all jobs go s…south, one way or ‘nother. I’m proud of you.”
She smiled, heart fluttering in her chest. “Thanks. Eliot.”
“When we get done here I’m going to kick O’s ass.” Molly growled, rummaging around in Braddock’s pockets for his phone. He’d pissed his pants when Josie’d tased him, and Molly theorized that humiliation, as much as Parker standing over him holding said device, was keeping him well-behaved.
“It’s okay to be scared.”
“Who the fuck said anything about being scared? I’m fucking furious.” Olivia had sent Josie in alone, and now she was demanding they get Braddock’s phone, and leave a non-bricked burner and one of Hardison’s little tracker bugs on him, just in case. She understood why — hopefully he wouldn’t find the bug, tucked underneath the lapel of his coat while she manhandled him, and hopefully he’d think the burner was untraceable.
Braddock wriggled a bit as she searched his pants pockets. “Mrmph!” Okay, so she’d also pulled his shoes off and used his socks to gag and blindfold him, which, look, it hadn’t been fun for her and she wanted to wash her hands as soon as possible, so he had to be regretting some life choices right now. Good. She’d make him regret more if he gave her a reason.
“No one with any fucking sense would be interested in your dick,” she told him. “I may not have a lot of sense, but I have that much.”
“Sophie’s better at this,” Parker said.
“At holding a freakishly modded-out taser on this asshole while I pat him down? Wouldn’t have guessed that.”
“At explaining feelings things.”
Molly straightened, completely nonplussed. “Feelings? I just stuffed a piss-soaked sock in this fucker’s mouth. Why are we talking about feelings?”
“Because you have them. For Josie. Feelings hurt. Especially after you lose — Anyway. That’s not a hurt you choose or control or push away and that’s scary. And it’s not something you can run from or leap off a building, or punch. But I think she’d like your pretzels.” Parker’s face brightened as some inexplicable circuitry lit a light bulb in her brain. “Spicy pretzels! She loves spicy things.”
And people thought Eliot was tough to understand. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about and neither do you.” She held up the phone. “Let’s get out of here. Later, ass-wipe.” she kicked him as she walked past and marched back to the stairwell, furiously ignoring the fact that she did know what Parker was talking about. Some of it anyway.
By the time Braddock managed to spit out the disgusting gag, wriggle free from the tie binding his arms behind him, pull off the blindfold and undo the belt cutting the circulation from his feet, his assailants were long gone, along with his phone. Shit. They could do a lot of damage to him with that phone.
He patted himself down, running his fingers everywhere he remembered the stocky one touching, until he found the bug under his lapel. Amateurs. He tossed it down and almost crushed it before he had a better idea. Stooping to pick it up, he noticed the burner, dropped by their dealer in the struggle. The screen had cracked slightly, but it turned on and he saw no sign of tampering. He’d dump the thing soon enough, but Grunen was expecting an update, now long overdue, and he needed to track down that damn truck.
“Have you located the truck?”
“Made contact with the people who stole it.”
“What do they want?”
“Dunno yet. Want me to deal with them?”
“I want you to get back the precious relics of our holy Lord, that you allowed to be stolen! If that truck gets into the wrong hands you will regret it.”
“You think you’re going to avoid questions, if that happens?” Braddock snapped. “You told me to import them as cheaply as possible.”
“That’s what lawyers are for. And PR firms. Get back my artifacts, Braddock.” He hung up.
Braddock glared at the phone for a moment. He doesn’t know half of what’s in that truck. Working with Grunen had been a good gig, with an infrastructure that made it easy to slip plenty of other items past customs. But lately, that working relationship had turned sour. About time to move on.
The phone in his hand beeped and displayed a message from a blocked number, giving him a location down in the industrial district near the docks, and a time: 2 AM.
“Is it weird that this feels like bein’ a parent, out late after the kids have gone to bed?” Hardison asked. “Oh no, my dude, you think I don’t see what you’re doing with that bug? Bless your heart, you ain’t that smart.”
“Quit rhymin’” Eliot growled at him, but he couldn’t quite hide the upward twitch of his lips.
“Hardison’s right, it’s exactly like being a parent,” Nate muttered.
Parker opened the trunk of the car and tossed them jackets, emblazoned with FBI logos and lettering. “They should be here. This is part of the con.”
“Oh, give them the night off. You already had Josie out boosting cars all evening after an exciting afternoon.” Sophie said, fluffing her hair after pulling on the jacket. “They’re wound too tight, and besides, this is like old times!” She rubbed her hands together in excitement.
“Please, she could boost these things in her sleep. They need to stay focused!”
“Babe, you’re the one who tried to give Molly a pretzels talk,” Hardison pointed out.
“Ooh, how’d that go?”
“Well, there’s an element of timing to it.”
Sophie shook her head. “I’m not going to start on her, Eliot, there’re other ways. Olivia’s not the only one who can work a zwischenzug, ja?”
“Braddock’s about two minutes out, though he sent the bug off in another direction, hopin’ to split us up.”
Eliot smirked. “Dumbass.”
“Told ya,” Hardison grinned, sticking out his fist for Eliot to bump. “Parker, lights!”
Red and blue flashing lights from multiple
stolen borrowed government vehicles lit up the area surrounding the semi truck.
When Braddock arrived, he wouldn’t stay long.
Trevor first became aware of the presence of Sophie, standing slightly behind him in the darkened hotel room at — shit is it really 4 AM? — before he registered she was probably talking, and pulled out his earbuds. “Hey you’re back! Sorry, say again?”
She smiled, and sat down next to him. “I said, I thought everyone would be asleep by the time we got back.”
He shrugged. “I focus better at night. Finished compiling the audio from Braddock’s call to Grunen. Can’t believe he walked right into that.”
“People tend to compromise themselves under stress. They make rash decisions.”
“Like calling your boss on a burner the people who stole your stolen goods gave you? ‘Cause that was a dumb move, Herman.”
“Yes, like that. He found the bug, so he felt safe. Though, I’d argue Grunen’s response was even better.”
“RIGHT?!” Sophie winced at his loud excitement. “Sorry. How’d it go at with the truck?”
“Braddock came, he saw plenty of flashing lights and FBI agents digging through crates, and he ran. He’ll be headed out of the country as quickly as possible.”
“Olivia has that covered. Benefits of not quite quitting Interpol.”
“You should get some sleep, not sit here, watching security feeds.” She nodded at the screen, where he’d been watching Molly in the gym, beating a punching bag within an inch of its life. In another window was Josie, not actually in view on the roof, but he’d seen her ghost of a shadow flit by the cameras over an hour ago, so she must be crouched extra small in the blind corner of an AC unit. Olivia, down in the bar, not drinking from the glass beside her, just staring at her dad’s files. And Mark, pacing back and forth on a landing of the stairwell, probably practicing lines as if this were a play. No one was sleeping tonight.
“That thing you said about stress. How close are we? To falling apart?” He’d never been good at thinking of consequences. But even he could see they were cracking apart. They needed the win. All of them awake at four AM and stuck in their own stupid holding patterns. Even him.
“Quite.” Sophie answered, still calm.
“I wish I could stop it.” He drummed his fingers on the laptop. “I like people, but I’m not the greatest at fixing them. Machines, now, they have problems that can be tweaked with the right part, or program.”
“People aren’t so different,” Sophie said. “What do you think the problem is here?”
“Olivia is lonely. Molly is angry. Josie is scared. Mark is...doubting himself.”
“SQUIRREL!” He grinned when she jumped slightly. “I’m all over the place. Always. And I can’t give Olivia back her dad. Or fix Molly, or Josie, or Mark. There’s no diagnostic. No patch. No reloading the game, or starting the trial, or —”
Sophie held up a hand. “Yes, I think I see your point. And no, there’s no going back. There’s only forward. But sometimes machines are like that too, yes?”
“I guess. A piece breaks and you jerry rig something to make it work. Find a replacement. Or reroute a wire. Sure.”
“What’s broken here? Not everything. Just the biggest thing.”
“Molly hates Olivia.”
Sophie made a rueful sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “I suppose in the grand scheme of things, that was practically a given. How would you fix it?”
He considered. “Give her a reason not to? She likes Josie and she’s mad at Olivia because of Josie, so Olivia…”
“Needs to help Josie,” Sophie finished.
“What about Mark?”
“I have confidence in Mark. He’ll be fine if the team holds together.” She stood up. “You’ll figure it out, Trevor. I have confidence in that as well.” She disappeared into the darkness.
Trevor stared at his crew for a moment, before turning away from the feeds. Hardison had made him start collecting information on everyone the moment he got to the ranch, to practice finding information, and also because “No matter how much you trust them, at some point, they’re gonna blindside you. Know everything you can, but always remember, people can change.”
He hadn’t managed to get into Interpol’s intranet yet, but he’d long since hacked everything in the Massachusetts justice system, so he started there, gathered everything he could find about Josie’s past, and headed downstairs to the bar to talk to Olivia.
He clearly hadn’t been the only one unable to sleep last night, Mark realized as he surveyed their increasingly disastrous hotel rooms the next morning. Molly had her head down on the table in the crook of her arm, Trev was face down on his keyboard, while Olivia covered a yawn with her hand as she spoke quietly into a cell phone. He couldn’t see Josie, but he could hear the shower going.
At least with Molly and Trevor unconscious, no one was yelling.
How to solve a problem like — oh shut up brain. Breakfast. They needed breakfast. And coffee.
He took the elevator down, unable to escape the vague gnawing sensation that he didn’t quite fit in his own skin this morning.
Nate, of all people, was at the bagel place across the street, sitting with Maggie and her assistant Amy. Maggie waved the moment he came in. “Come join us!”
Amy leaned in, looking conspiratorial as he sat down. “How’s the con going?” she whispered.
He’d really been trying not to think of it like that. “Um. I guess it’s going okay? I mean, half the team hates each other, so it’s kinda hard to judge.”
Nate waved a hand. “Sophie said she was working on that.”
“Better her than you,” Maggie smirked at her ex-husband. “You’re useless at it.”
“Well, I take pride in that.”
“I, um, I was coming down to get breakfast for everyone upstairs…” Mark said, uncertain he belonged in this banter session.
Maggie beamed at him. “We have to run, there’s a thousand things for us to do before tonight. Make sure Nate helps you haul everything upstairs, Mark.”
“So,” Nate said, after they were gone, “what’s making you squeamish?”
Mark blinked. “How’d you…” He thought he’d disguised his discomfort better.
“Of all of them, you’re the one I didn’t expect. The others, well, Trevor has a healthy disrespect for authority, Molly’s got a chip on her shoulder about the way the world works, Josie was already in the game, and Olivia...she’s like her dad.”
“I thought Olivia’s dad worked for Interpol and chased you guys around the world?”
“Didn’t make him honest.” Nate shrugged. “Or any less of an ass. But you. You were a good kid. You still are a good kid. This sit right with you?”
“No. And yes. I don’t know.” He stared at the table. “I fought for us to do this job. And Grunen — he’s doing something wrong. But he believes it’s right. And if I’m doing something wrong that I also believe is right, then how are we different?”
Nate laughed, slightly bitter. “I’m an extremely lapsed Catholic. We go straight for the guilt, without stopping for debate.”
Mark smiled at that. “Half-Jewish, and I can’t seem to escape the debates.”
“Some things are passed down, whether we like it or not.”
“So what do you do?”
“Well, I drank a lot. Alone.”
“I-I think I’ll try a different method.”
“Suit yourself. Just — there are moments that make the doubt worthwhile. Know that.”
When they got back upstairs, Mark opened the door to find Josie squealing and hugging Olivia, while Molly looked actually happy, and even Trevor, who usually looked happy, had the smuggest look of satisfaction on his face.
“Hey man, you missed — OOH BAGELS!”
“Missed what?” Mark demanded, surrendering the bags of food. Nate had mysteriously vanished, after setting down the coffee.
“Mark!” Josie bounced over. “Liv is — I mean, she was investigating Len — the asshole cop — when she was at Interpol! And now that Parker’s got him for a few charges, her evidence is actually being looked at and turns out he’s in even deeper shit than I thought and he’s DONE. He’s going to stay gone for a very long time.” She grinned huge and relieved, before whirling again to hug Molly, who caught her up, holding her as tightly as she could. Her eyes found Olivia’s and she gave her a tight, respectftul nod over Josie’s shoulder.
So. This would be one of those moments. They weren’t done with the job, plenty of things could still go wrong, but right now, everything fit perfectly.
Chapter 13: The Sting
Amy had long since mastered the art of moving very quickly and purposefully through a crowd of people without being noticed or bumped into — a substantial downside to invisibility. She could see Josie, dressed as a server and similarly unobtrusive, weaving her way through the milling cultural elite. This being D.C., the cultural elite merged seamlessly with the political elite, business elite, and of course, the press.
If this were any other night, she’d consider it a success. Tonight though…
She found Maggie and lightly slapped her boss’ hand away from her mouth before she could worry another nail down to its bed. “Successful gallery owners hosting world-renowned collections of ancient artifacts do not bite their nails,” she whispered and put some of her mother’s forcefulness behind the words.
Maggie studied her fingers wryly. “I always forget how stressful getting involved in Nate’s games can be.”
“Well, I haven’t been kidnapped yet, so…”
“Same. Good point.” She scanned the crowd, and Amy tracked her gaze, noting Sophie cooing over a display in one corner, Nate beside her, but more interested in the crowd.
Eliot and Molly, both dressed as security personnel, stood stationed by the exits. Parker and Hardison were somewhere nearby, she was certain. Hopefully not stealing anything.
“Do you know what’s going to happen?” she asked Maggie.
“I’ve learned asking is pointless.”
“Even if neither Parker nor Nate is running it?”
“If you take Nate’s arrogance and cleverness, roll it into Parker’s determination and highly unorthodox upbringing, and toss in both their fundamental understanding of how people operate and inability to relate to someone on a personal level, you get Olivia Sterling. Just don’t tell any of them I said that.”
“Here she comes.”
Olivia entered with Grunen and Mark, all three in immaculate evening wear, though Mark’s clearly looked rented. He seemed no surer of himself than he had this morning at breakfast, but something about the way he held himself was different. Back when she was a server at the BrewPub, and Sophie would bring her actors in, she’d hear them talking about inhabiting a role, making it theirs. Mark, she realized, as he rubbed his palms on his pants before shaking someone’s hand, took this to a new level.
“Here we go,” Maggie murmured, as Grunen held up his hands for silence.
“Welcome, to a preview of the wonders that are to come! I always say, we aren’t collectors, we’re storytellers. God has given us the ability to be very successful in our business, and I think to some degree it’s providential. The Craft Raft is not just a business. It’s a business that enables a ministry, and at the center of that ministry is the Bible. We want to share this book with people all over the world,” Grunen said, gesturing widely. “And the more resources we have, the more we’re able to do that. So I invite you tonight, to see the blessings God has bestowed upon us. And, in celebration of our bright future, allow me to reveal the newest piece in the Grunen Collection: Five fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, never before documented, depicting the Book of Esther!”
The crowd gasped as he pulled back the cover and revealed the case containing the fragments.
As people rushed forward, cameras and questions at the ready, Molly, stationed by the door, shouted at full parade ground volume. “FIRE! OUT FRONT!”
The crowd picked up the alarm, causing confusion as they reversed direction to run to the windows for a different type of show.
In front of the building sat the Craft Raft delivery semi, black smoke billowing from under its hood and in the cab. Trevor, in a delivery uniform, stood nearby, waving and shouting.
Grunen rushed out. “Where’d that truck come from?” he demanded.
“Mr. Braddock told me to drive it here, sir. It just started smoking and shit —!” He exclaimed as the fire engulfed the cab.
Molly, on her way past Amy, muttered, “Well that’s one way to get rid of DNA.”
“The artifacts! There’s precious pieces of history in that truck!” Grunen ran to the back of the truck, recruiting Molly and Trevor to help him open the back and rescue the items. Amy had to hand it to him, he did actually care, in his own way. It was just a dangerously short-sighted way, so she didn’t feel too bad when he clambered into the truck, and with the help of Molly and Trevor, began shoving the first of the crates to the edge.
They made it look so innocent. A little too much pressure on one side, not enough on the other, and the crate toppled down off the truck, and smashed open, revealing packs of packaged picture frames, bearing the Craft Raft logo, all with identical fragments to the Esther fragments inside.
Grunen stared, absolutely bewildered as the press, politicians, and plenty of others began shouting questions. In the distance, fire trucks blared, while at the edge of the crowd, several police cars and official looking sedans pulled up. A man wearing a cheap suit and an FBI badge — real, she assumed — climbed out of one.
“Mr. Grunen, I’m Special Agent McSweeten. The FBI just apprehended an associate of yours, Herman Braddock, attempting to flee the country on a passport flagged by Interpol. He suggested we talk to you. What is going on here?”
Grunen was still staring at the frames, while behind him, Molly and Trevor shoved another crate forward and popped it open. She pulled out the crown.
“This one of the items you were looking for?” she asked, voice nasal and bored. The chaotic clamoring of the crowd intensified.
“No! This – this isn’t what it looks like!” Grunen stammered. “I’m just trying to bring people closer to God! By showing them the word of God!”
Mark shoved his way forward. “Esther isn’t about the will of God,” he called out, his voice somehow carrying above the noise of the crowd. “It's about the actions of people.”
“You! You did this!”
The grifter frowned, entirely perplexed. “Did what? I allowed you to buy my father’s prized possession and you mass market it overnight? Now see to thine own house, Dave.” Amy could just see the slight smile hiding in the corners of his mouth. “Or truck, in this case.”
Maggie walked past Amy, hauling a hose, and handed her a fire extinguisher. “Better not let those actually burn,” she remarked.
Amy grinned. “Trevor promised he knew what he was doing.”
As they tamed the fire up front, Amy glanced over her shoulder to see Olivia, Mark, Trevor, Molly, and Josie, striding away from the scene somehow unnoticed, smoke billowing around them. Across the street stood Nate, Sophie, Hardison, Eliot, and Parker, waiting for them.
“And they leave us to put out the fire,” Maggie sighed. “Typical.”
Everyone was so fucking happy. And hey, they had every right to be. Job was done, Grunen was facing plenty of questions about the legitimacy of his collection, the burning Craft Raft truck was all over the news, and Braddock was being held on smuggling charges. Not to mention, Grunen had paid Mark three million fucking dollars for the fake Esthers. Yeah, it’d been a good day.
She wasn’t very good at having good days, so Molly’s brain decided to just go with what it knew and be irritated at everything anyway. She considered hanging around, ignoring the pent-up frustration that she couldn’t quite identify a source for. Maybe if she’d been able to hit someone today, rather than just playing security guard. Hit something. She should hit something.
“Where are you going?” Mark asked as she got up.
“Grabbing my gear, and heading to the gym. Training never ends, right?” She slung her duffel over her shoulder and bolted out. The elevator took her halfway to the lobby before she realized the earbud was still there, and she yanked it out, stuck it in a pocket. Job was done.
Thanks to that stupid piece of tech, she couldn’t act too surprised when Eliot joined her a few minutes later, supporting the bag as she punched it.
“Great feedback, boss.” Her next strike hit slightly off, twinging at her wrist. She sighed and stopped beating on the bag. “Look, if cryptic’s all that’s happening right now, can we hold off? I’m not in the fucking mood.”
Eliot glared at her. “What the fuck are ya doin’ down here?”
Okay, that was definitely not cryptic. “Training.” Because I insisted on being the hired hand. Having a job, and a fucking paycheck, and being a fucking professional about it.
“Used t-to drag Nate out of the bar. Ain’t healthy.”
“I’ll bet he thanked you for that.”
“His right-hook’s shit.” He nodded at a bench along the wall. “Sit.”
“I’m still on the clock?”
“Fuck the clock.”
Damn, getting that sentence out without it sounding too filthy meant he was having a very good day. She sat. “You didn’t say much on the comms.” It’s an excuse to make him explain. Hardison had told her Eliot wouldn’t like the comms. Something about auditory signals getting jumbled. Didn’t mean he hadn’t been fucking with her at the warehouse though.
“You had it. Knew you would.”
“Then what makes me a fucking idiot?”
He didn’t say anything for a long time, but she’d gotten patient about that in the past months.
“After the carnival. That fight messed me up.”
She remembered that. Or remembered remembering it, afterwards. The actual memory was likely much hazier and confused than the story she’d pieced together.
“Alec and Parker. They were kinda a...a...a thing by then. They wanted to help, but...well after a beating, ya kinda want to feel invincible so…”
“You brushed them off to find a quick fuck.” She’d been around enough fighters. Hell, she was one. She’d never paid anyone anything but drinks if she was flush, but a quick no-questions fuck tended to be just what the doctor ordered.
“Yeah.” Now, he finally looked at her. “You asked what I was doin’ after I left you. Answer is, bein’ a…a damn idiot.”
“Well, I’m your fuckling, aren’t I,” she muttered and walked out.
Mark watched Josie watch Molly stalk out, and Eliot sigh, roll his eyes and follow her, only to return empty-handed. He may be in a criminal gang, not a high school drama group anymore, but some things didn’t change.
“You should go after her,” he told Josie.
“If she’s not listening to Eliot —”
“She’s not in love with Eliot.” Which was blunter than he preferred, but sometimes…
Josie’s head whipped from the door, to him, and back to the door. “What? Oh. No, Molly’s not…she’s just...she is?”
Mark nodded. “Trev! Where’s Molly?”
Trevor, bouncing along to the music he’d started and that Mark would be changing the first opportunity he got, held up a finger and tapped a few times on his laptop.
Josie glanced at the door and bit her lip.
“You can keep staring at the door, or you go through it. Up to you,” he placed a hand briefly on her shoulder, before making a beeline for Trevor and his terrible music choices.
When he looked back, Josie was gone.
She found Molly on the roof, like Trevor’d said. Sitting alone, staring off into the city.
It was cold up here, this late in the year. She’d come up last night, trying to calm the anxious voices in her own head. “I brought a blanket.” She held it up, feeling awkward. She’d stolen it off a housekeeping cart on her way up, remembering how much she’d wished for one last night.
“Good for you.” Molly didn’t turn around, but she shifted in surprise when Josie draped it over her shoulders and sat down beside her on the edge, swinging her legs over to let them dangle, close enough that she could feel the other girl’s slight shivers. “I...this was supposed to be a job,” she said finally.
“This was a job. We finished it. You can be happy about that.” Not that Molly appreciated being told what she could and couldn’t do.
“No, I mean...oh forget it.”
Molly was good at being big and loud and bright, her smiles flashing like knives when she let them show. She wasn’t very good at being quiet, and she was terrible at hiding. They’d have to work on that. For better or for worse, Josie was an expert. Hiding feelings was a lot like hiding the rest of yourself. No unnecessary movements, facial expressions, or words. It could be a tough habit to form. And a harder one to break.
“Me. I’m your job.”
Molly started and grabbed at the blanket as it slipped off her shoulder.
“Parker told me months back. She said Eliot used that to convince you to come.” She kept her tone carefully neutral.
“You’re not mad?”
She considered that before answering. “For about five minutes I was. Mostly because I was tired of being used. But it didn’t feel like the other times.” Josie couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been watching body language, to gauge a reaction, a threat. And from the moment Molly’d gotten to the ranch, she’d casually placed herself by Josie’s side. She always felt braver with her there, whatever the reason. And Molly’d never held it over her, or even mentioned it.
“I always hated it...having someone follow me around. And you don’t need me to do that. Especially not now.”
“Maybe not.” She forced herself to turn, to meet Molly’s eyes, to take her hand. “But I like you there. If you don’t have a better place to be.”
“Josie and Molly sitting on the roof. K-I-S-S-I-N — oof, what was that for!?” Trevor glared at Olivia’s offending elbow.
“Stop spying on them.”
“I wasn’t. Technically. Technically I was practicing accessing security feeds...by accessing the hotel’s security feed.”
“Well then, loop the feed, make sure no one else can see it either, and then stop spying on them.”
“It’s about damn time anyway.” He did as he was told. “Hey, OS. What happens now?”
“You stop calling me OS?”
“C’mon. You’re our operating system. You gave us the program and we executed it. It worked great! So how do we find our next client?”
“I mean, obviously we have a few glitches and issues to work out. And more training. But still. Best way to learn, am I right?” He glanced up from his screen to find Olivia nowhere in sight. “OS? Liv?”
They’d won, as a team. As a crew. They’d taken a run at one of the most powerful businessmen in America and succeeded. That was a win. Right?
“Of course it is, sweetheart.” Dad leaned against the window, one leg crossed in front of the other.
“Doesn’t feel like one.” She set Braddock’s bricked phone in front of her. “I thought this would give me answers. If it was him. If he made a call.”
“And if he did?”
“I’d have an answer.”
“Would that be enough?” He stepped away from the windowsill, sauntered toward her. “Could you walk away then?”
“I don’t —”
“Olivia. Answers are everywhere. And most of them are worthless. What does an answer give anyone? What is knowing this answer going to give you?”
“Someone naïve would say closure.”
“But you, my girl, are not naïve.”
She let out a breath. “No. I’m not.” She sat there for a long time, before putting the phone away and walking out to join the others.
“I remember when we used to stay up all night after jobs,” Sophie murmured, her head tucked in Nate’s shoulder.
“With age comes wisdom,” he groaned, pulling a pillow over his head.
“The Ducklings are a flock, Operation Spicy Pretzels is underway, and Aimee texted me to say Fruit Loop is a thief and an escape artist and we better come home soon. He’s such a good horsie.” Parker unhooked herself from the rig dangling on their balcony and leapt, still wearing her harness into the middle of their bed.
“What? Scoot, it’s cold.”
“That would be your icicle fingers, woman!” Alec howled.
Eliot took her chilly hands in his and blew on them gently. “Better?”
“Yes,” she whispered, snuggling down between them. “All better.”
This story went through a LOT of iterations and turned out to be almost nothing like I originally imagined, but I had so much fun writing it (and got a little over-invested in researching artifact smuggling.) While this is fictionalized, some elements of the case did absolutely happen, and the newly opened museum of the bible does actually have a water slide.
I stuffed this fic full of things I love and/or love to hate - if you're wondering about anything come say hi in the comments (actually come say hi in the comments regardless, they make my day!) and I'm over on tumblr at http://pagerunner.tumblr.com/.
Thanks again to Ponderosa for drawing such amazing art, I GOT THE OT3 WITH A HORSE!! I can die happy now. Check her other stuff out on AO3 and on tumblr at http://ponderosa121.tumblr.com