Stop me if you've heard this one: a hitter, a hacker, and a thief walk into a brewpub—
* * *
One thing everyone knew about James Sterling was that if you crossed him, he would unleash his fury on you with the rage of a dragon defending its hoard.
One thing most people knew about James Sterling was that if you crossed his family, he would unleash his fury on you with the rage of two dragons defending a clutch.
So everyone, everywhere in the chain of IYS claims processors who denied payment for Sam Ford's experimental treatment should have paid more attention to Sam's file. If they had, they would've noticed that although the boxes for "Parent 1 (biological)" and "Parent 2 (biological)" said "Ford, Nathan" and "Ford, Margaret (née Collins)," the box for "Parent 3" said "Sterling, James."
* * *
Hardison was pulling Lucille into the abandoned construction site he'd mapped out as his best place to stay when his phone pinged with the news alert that Chaos had been arrested again. He snorted and tossed the phone onto the dash. Idiot. He'd warned the asshole plenty of times that he was getting careless. Cocky. Greedy.
Hardison parked and secured everything in the van before hopping out and heading toward the brewpub he'd seen around the corner a ways.
Of the group of hackers he'd started out with, Hardison was the only one who'd never been in jail. He'd made good choices. But those choices had involved cutting ties to his old life. Sometimes his new life was a lonely one.
* * *
Within 24 hours of IYS's refusal of payment, Sterling had been alerted. Within 72 hours, every single person who'd been involved in that decision, from the lowliest claims processor to Ian Blackpool himself, found themselves under investigation by whatever government agency they had the most to fear from. Within a week, the decision had been reversed.
* * *
Eliot looked down the gleaming wood and polished metal of the bar and tried not to catch his reflection in any of it. He hadn't gotten much sleep last night, which, given that he usually slept about four hours a night, said a lot.
He couldn't help it. He never slept well after getting the call.
New assignment. Be ready.
He was pretty sure Moreau knew that, and that was why it always came around 9:00—after Abernathy's dinner rush was truly over but well before the kitchen closed. Moreau wanted Eliot to have plenty of time to stew. To worry. Plenty of time to work himself up before going up to the apartment and staring at the ceiling all night.
And then not a word the next day.
The text he got next was always the same: Be ready.
"Be pliant," more like.
He would be. God help him, but after two nights where he'd slept for maybe an hour and a half total, he would be pliant. He would be any damned thing Moreau wanted.
And then Moreau would help him sleep.
* * *
Sam's treatment worked.
For a while.
* * *
Archie said it was dangerous to think of your aliases as separate people. But Alice had skills that Parker didn't. Skills with people, mostly. Parker knew that she was Alice and vice versa, but sometimes letting herself . . . forget that made a job easier. She thought of Alice and herself as a team. Alice did the grifting and arranging and the things that involved people, while Parker dealt with security systems and actual thefts.
It worked for them. Her. Whoever.
* * *
They lost Nate first, into his bottle.
Then Maggie, who—they said confession was good for the soul, but Sterling maybe should've chosen someone other than his wife for confessing the acts of questionable moral and legal standing he'd committed to get Sam's treatment paid for. When Sam was alive, Maggie could overlook it—the ends justifying the means and all. But when Sam died and the ends were cruelly ripped from them, condoning the means grew harder. Maggie couldn't live with herself, knowing what her husband had done in their family's name, but she couldn't very well push herself away. So she pushed Sterling away instead. And the part Maggie hated most was that he didn't fight her about it. He was so understanding about the whole thing. So empathetic.
Like maybe he couldn't live with himself, either.
Maggie ended up with most of the things of Sam's that they'd kept, by virtue of being the only one left in the house.
Most of Sam's things.
* * *
Abernathy's was softly lit but not dim, filled with gleaming wood, high ceilings, and plenty of space between tables. It surprisingly busy for 8:00 on a Thursday night, but Hardison spotted empty seats at the bar. He made his way toward one next to a small, blond, white woman. She wasn't his usual type, and that was good. He was working tonight, couldn't let himself get distracted.
"Mind if I sit here?" he asked the woman, gesturing at the seat.
Though her gaze stayed mostly fixed on the bar top, for a second Hardison could see that her expression was a storm of emotions. Suspicion, confusion, rage. "I'm not having sex with you," she snapped, and oh, fuck. Exactly his type after all.
Yeah, he could own it. He had a weakness for people who were—well, not broken, because that implied that something was wrong with them. More like, they'd come out of a different mold than everybody else to begin with.
"Alice," a new voice growled, and Hardison looked up as a white dude in a blue chef jacket slid a bowl in front of the woman. He was scruffy and suspiciously buff, his chin-length brown hair held back by a red bandana. He was Hardison's type all over. "What did we talk about?"
Alice scowled and stabbed her fork into the salad in the bowl in front of her. "Don't assume everyone's trying to sleep with me," she grumbled.
"There you go," the guy said. He reached under the counter and pulled up a menu, which he slapped down in front of Hardison. "Drink?"
"Uh." Hardison blinked. He wasn't entirely sure what was going on here. "Just, uh, water for now."
The guy nodded and walked away, saying something to a woman who looked like an actual member of the wait staff before disappearing into the kitchen. A few seconds later, the server put a glass of water in front of Hardison and told him to ask if he had questions about the menu.
Hardison was pretty sure having a thousand questions about the guy didn't count.
He tried to focus on the menu in front of him, but his brain was buzzing, and all he could see was black squiggles. He picked up his water glass and took a long drink. "Alice, huh?" he asked when he felt steady enough to do so. He almost made an "Alec and Alice" joke and remembered just in time that he wasn't Alec here. "Well, I'm Joe. It's very nice to meet you." Alice hummed suspiciously. Hardison drank more water.
"He likes you," Alice said, sounding unhappy about it. Hardison spilled water on himself.
"Who?" he asked, like he didn't know.
Now he had a name to go with the whole sexy picture. "The chef?" Hardison started to ask what the chef was doing delivering Alice a bowl of—uh, it looked like mixed greens and shredded carrots with no dressing—but he realized the question answered itself. Maybe. "You together?" Because that would be hot. Maybe they were looking for a third. Even for one night. Yeah, Alice wouldn't have sex with him, but maybe Wes—or maybe they'd let him sleep in the bed between them. It'd been so long since he'd had even that much.
Alice laughed. "Me and Wes? No way." She sniggered as she went back to her salad, and Hardison wasn't nosy enough to ask why that was funny.
Hardison opened his menu again, and an entry in the middle, surrounded by a thin black border, immediately caught his eye. "Hey, Alice." He lifted a hand to poke her shoulder and then withdrew it, appalled at himself. "Uh, hey . . . Alice."
Alice gave a suspicious scowl. "Yeah?"
"What's this? 'The Angry Chef's Word is Law'?"
Alice barely glanced at the page. "Oh, it's a thing some people like. You order a beer, and Wes picks the food he thinks goes best with it. Or you order food and he picks the beer. But you have to eat or drink whatever he gives you. No whining."
Hardison heard those two words so perfectly in Wes' gruff voice that he snickered, earning a glare from Alice.
He shouldn't drink tonight, not even one beer. When performing a shady job for an unknown client, he should keep his wits about him. But it was his first night in town, and for all that Portland's legendary weirdness appeared not to have been exaggerated, so far nothing seemed to pose an active threat to him. He could live a little.
He ordered the apricot witbier and whatever law the angry chef decided to impose on him, and then he sat, unsure what to do with himself. Normally he was great with smalltalk, but the guy to his left was in the middle of a quiet but angry phone call in Japanese, and Alice gave the distinct impression of being a woman who would stab his hand if he tried to make chitchat. After a few minutes of staring at the rows of liquor bottles along the back of the bar, Hardison gave in and pulled out his phone.
As soon as he entered the lock code, a new text message popped up, which, not gonna lie, freaked him out. He licked his lips and looked around, but no one was paying him any attention.
His contact for this job wasn't named Jack. Hardison had no idea what his name was or what he looked like; they'd communicated via text and email and had never met in person. But a couple conversational clues had let him work out that his contact was 1) a guy, and 2) British. From there it'd been a hop, skip, and a John Barrowman obsession to calling him "Jack." And Jack didn't waste time on pleasantries.
Me: safe but not secure
There was a long pause, and then the message dots blinked on and off several times before the next message came through.
Jack: sending blueprints
Well okay, then. If Jack was willing to send sensitive job-related documents over an unsecured network in an unsecured location, Hardison wasn't going to argue. He was going to bitch about it in his head, though, that was for damned sure.
An email alert pinged, and Hardison swiped over to it. He opened the file and started scrolling around the first blueprint. When he got back to Lucille he would project it on the wall, but this would do for now. It was enough to see that it was a house with an interesting layout and extra security around one room: the room Hardison had been hired to get into. The room where he could hack the house's apparently super-secure network and plant the virus Jack would deliver to him just before the job. It seemed like a convoluted way to give somebody a virus, especially one that, near as Hardison could tell, wouldn't do anything more malicious than make an address scroll across all the mark's networked screens, but the client was king, so Hardison wouldn't argue.
"Are you an architect?"
Hardison jumped three inches off his stool and almost fell off. He righted himself, slipping his phone into his pocket while he did. He turned to glare at Alice. "Woman, you gotta learn how to make noise."
Alice shrugged and went back to her salad. "So, are you?"
"Naw," Hardison said, "Safety inspector. Bad wiring, weaknesses in the fiber optics, that kinda thing."
Hardison jumped again, jerking in the opposite direction as Wes put a beer and a large plate in front of him. "Uh, yeah."
Wes grunted, leaning against the back of the bar and crossing his (wow, impressive) arms. "Might hire you to look at our wiring in the back. Somethin' keeps blowing the fuses."
Hardison's head was nodding entirely without his brain's say-so. "Yeah, man, I—yeah. I could do that."
Wes nodded and started to say something else but closed his mouth and gestured to the plate. "Don't let me keep you from it."
"Thanks, man," Hardison said. He lifted his pint glass and took a sip to wet his mouth. Even with that little bit, he could tell it was delicious. Then he turned to his food, which was almost too pretty to eat.
"Seared pork medallions with pomegranate reduction over a bed of Israeli couscous with pistachios and dried apricot," Wes said, and Hardison wasn't too proud to say he moaned. The corners of Wes' mouth twitched.
After he'd taken a bite that made him wonder if he'd ever eaten food before, Hardison went back to the beer. Now that he'd tried the food, the witbier tasted brighter, sharper. There was coriander in it, a bite of something citrus, too. It wasn't the best beer he'd tasted, but it was definitely the most perfect pairing.
Hardison opened his eyes (not sure when he'd closed them) to find Wes watching him with frank approval and a dash of lust. Hardison grinned, and Wes gave an almost-friendly nod back. Hardison had the weirdest sensation of stabbing—not actual stabbing, something more . . . psychic—from his right and turned to find Alice glaring daggers at him. He swallowed and turned his gaze back to his plate.
"Okay," Wes said, and Hardison looked up. Wes opened his mouth—and a shout from the kitchen drew his attention. He scowled and disappeared with a muttered, "Damn it."
Hardison knew how he felt.
"He likes you a lot," Alice said, and it was clearly an accusation.
* * *
Eliot leaned against the brewpub's back wall and let the sounds of Portland wash over him. Christ, what a day. Basically no sleep last night, two more electrical shorts in the kitchen, Alice being weirder and more overtly hostile than usual, and now this guy—Joe? was that his name?—sitting at his bar, eating his food and drinking his beer and making sounds like he was having the best orgasm of his life and seeing the face of God. A guy could only take so much.
Moreau's text had been a relief.
Now he was waiting in the alley for the car that would take him to Moreau's place. Moreau might even be inside to get the ball rolling. Whatever. He didn't care. He would do anything tonight, as long as it ended with a big brown pill and a long night in Damien and Ekatarine's big soft bed.
Footsteps echoed at the end of the alley, and Eliot braced himself, waiting. But it was Joe, all long limbs and dark skin and intense focus, and Eliot looked away as he walked past. The footsteps slowed, reversed, came toward him up the alley, and Eliot had to either look the guy in the face or come off like a complete jackass.
"Hey, man," Joe said, his smile bright and easy. Jesus, how did people like this exist in the world, not getting broken down by it every damned day?
"Enjoy your meal?" Like Eliot didn't know. Like that moan Joe had made when he tasted the food for the first time hadn't followed Eliot to the kitchen, echoing around his brain while he tried to make the immersion blender work. He didn't know what he wanted more: to shove his hand down Joe's pants and hear that sound again, or to drag Joe into his world of lies and remorse and wipe that eager grin off his face forever.
The look Joe gave him was surprisingly shrewd. "You know I did."
They held each other's gazes for a moment, reevaluating each other. Maybe . . . maybe Joe wasn't completely penny-bright and untarnished. Eliot could only imagine what Joe saw when he looked at him, and none of the images were good.
Joe took a step forward, slow and confident, like he would back off at any point, but only if Eliot told him to. "So here's what I'm thinking," he said, seeping into Eliot's space. The air caught in Eliot's lungs, and he forced himself to breathe evenly. "I'm only in town a few days. Haven't seen the sights." He looked up at Eliot and batted his wide brown eyes, which only worked because he was on the ground and Eliot up two steps. "But you? You look like a guy who knows his way around."
Well, his lines wouldn't win any points for subtlety. But, God, there it was again, that unthinking surety that Eliot wanted to destroy. Any other night, maybe he would've. Instead he put his hand on Joe's chest and took his time pushing him away, a yes and a no that left Joe looking confused and turned on. "Sweet a'you to offer," Eliot said, slowly dragging his hand down Joe's chest (and, damn, there were more muscles there than he'd expected) and then away. "I got other arrangements."
Joe instantly took a step back, hands raised. "That's cool," he said. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, and his whole body slumped. "No harm in asking, right?" He looked around. It was a nice night, warm and clear with a trace of light lingering in the western sky. "Mind if I hang here until your arrangement shows up? There's no place I'm in a hurry to get to."
Eliot shook his head. Of course he didn't mind. But he didn't dare. "Rather you didn't," he said.
Now Joe's face fell, like sexual rejection was par for the course, but he couldn't understand anybody not wanting a friend. Guilt soured Eliot's stomach, but he wanted Joe gone by the time Moreau or his lackeys showed up. Bad enough Moreau had met Alice.
"Okay, fine," Joe said, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Well, it was good finding this place, man. You got real talent."
Eliot nodded. "Thanks, man." Self-preservation instincts warred with baser desires until he spit out, "Come back anytime." Joe gave him a skeptical look. Eliot didn't blame him. He shrugged, embarrassed, but then said, as the thought occurred to him, "You said you'd look at my electricals."
"Aw, shit," Joe muttered. "I did say that, didn't I? All right, but I'm a safety inspector, not an electrician, you got me? I can tell you if something's not right, but I can't—I ain't gonna fix it. Commercial kitchen wiring is scary."
"Understood." Eliot handed over an Abernathy's business cards. "Gimme a call sometime," he said.
Joe looked from the card to Eliot. He seemed like he was about to say something, but he just put the card in his pants pocket and disappeared up the alley without another word.
A black Escalade pulled into the alley the instant Joe walked out of it. Eliot didn't roll his eyes, but only because it didn't seem worth the effort. He wasn't surprised when Moreau himself opened the back door.
Eliot climbed into the back seat and sank into the buttery-soft leather. For a small mercy, he and Moreau were alone in the car. He wasn't ready for Ekaterine. He recognized the driver as somebody he'd pulled a job with once, but he didn't care enough to place where and when. He closed his eyes and waited.
"Good evening, Eliot," Moreau said smoothly. He pressed a glass into Eliot's hand, and Eliot took a gulp with his eyes closed, not checking to see what it was. That was a big no-no in his line of work, but worrying about whether it was drugged seemed hypocritical given how he was hoping the night would end. It was champagne, which Eliot hated but drank anyway, because he knew better than to turn down anything Moreau offered him.
"Hey," Eliot said, handing over the empty flute. He hadn't opened his eyes since he got into the car.
"That was a good-looking man."
Eliot's gut twisted. "Safety inspector," he said, finally opening his eyes and hoping Moreau wouldn't interpret that as a tell.
Moreau hummed and pressed the flute, full again, back into Eliot's hands. "Ekaterine and I don't demand exclusivity from any of you."
By sheer force of training, Eliot didn't snort. No, they didn't demand exclusivity or even suggest it. Finding a permanent third was too plebeian for Ekaterine, who fancied herself a rebel. But the last time they called for Eliot and he said no, he was with someone else, Moreau had sent him to Antananarivo two days later. He'd limped for three weeks after that job, and sometimes his knee still hurt before it rained.
"You and your safety inspector—and Alice, she's quite attractive—"
"It's fine," Eliot said, so Moreau wouldn't speak another syllable about Alice. She'd been sitting at the end of his bar for a week now, and it hadn't taken him more than a night to realize she was different from everyone he'd ever met. Better, in ways he couldn't describe. Moreau wouldn't sully that with his crass insinuations.
"Hmm," Moreau said. Then he straightened, out of Eliot's space and into business mode. He slid a manila envelope across the seat. "Surveillance photos of the house. Number of guards and their schedules. A picture of the object in question."
Eliot opened the envelope and rifled its contents, checking them against Moreau's list. "This is a house? With multiple guards?"
Moreau lifted one shoulder, somehow making it look more refined than a mere shrug. "The homeowner is an unpleasant man. He has enemies."
Eliot bit his tongue. Literally. "What about other security? There an alarm on this thing? Where are the specs for that?" He peered into the envelope, but it was empty.
"Concern yourself only with the guards."
Eliot's eyes widened, and he twisted to stare at Moreau. "Are you out of your damned mind? I can't go in blind, Damien! If the house is alarmed, or they got special security around the statue—"
"Concern yourself only with the guards," Moreau repeated, sharper. "Those are your instructions." His only acknowledgement of Eliot's outburst was a slight increase in his breathing, which reminded Eliot that his anger turned Moreau on, rather than driving him away.
Eliot growled and reread the sheet on the guards and their routine. It would be tight. Three guards on a constant rotation significantly narrowed his window of opportunity.
He must've made a face because Moreau said, voice too eager, "Are you certain you can complete the task?"
Eliot glared at him. "Course I can complete it. Hard don't mean impossible." He put down the guard information and picked up the photo of the statuette. He stared at it. He turned the photo around, in case he'd been looking at it upside-down. "This? All the fuss over this? Moreau, what the hell? This is the ugliest piece of art I have ever seen. It looks like a seven-year-old made it." He squinted at the picture. "While possessed."
Moreau smiled, but it was the cold, thin-lipped smile that never reached his eyes but frequently reached his fist. "The client isn't paying for your skills as an art critic."
"Yeah," Eliot said, jamming the documents back into the envelope. "Okay."
Eliot kept the envelope on his lap, but that didn't stop Moreau from resting his hand high on Eliot's thigh. Eliot forced himself to relax and look like he was enjoying himself. "I'm glad you were available, Eliot," Moreau said, his voice a soft and oily purr. "Ekaterine has missed you."
"Mmm. I been thinkin' of her, too." At least that wasn't a lie, although "hideous nightmares that keep you awake at night" probably wasn't what Moreau thought he meant. Or, hell, maybe he did. Sadistic bastard had always had a good read on him.
"We've obtained new . . . accoutrements that we want to try on—I'm sorry, with someone else. You were our first choice. Although perhaps not an ideal gauge of how most people will react. Given your pain tolerance."
Eliot forced himself to smile and look intrigued, while his very skin tried to get away from this man and his touch and his wife and his fucking accoutrements. It was a good thing Moreau didn't expect him to answer. He didn't think he could.
By the time they reached Moreau's house, Eliot was the closest he ever came to losing his grip. He'd been awake for 48 hours, and the entire car ride had been one giant cortisol flood. He barely felt human, more like a human-shaped soup of caffeine and stress hormones. For once he was thanking God that the only thing Ekaterine liked more than his strength was her ability to confine that strength. If he could fake his way through the next few minutes, he would just have to "lie there and look pretty," as she'd instructed him on multiple occasions.
Ekaterine was waiting on the enormous wrap-around porch, leaning against the railing like she'd stepped out of a photo shoot—and with about as much depth as a photo. She was tall and willowy and favored dramatic, billowing white clothes, like the dress she was wearing now. Her blond hair was styled in a complicated-looking updo, and her skin was so pale it was almost translucent. Physically, she had more than a few similarities to Alice, but internally they couldn't be more different. In the week since he'd met Alice, Eliot had glimpsed the core of strength and resourcefulness under her seemingly fragile exterior. In five years of knowing Ekaterine Moreau, he'd never seen anything under that elegant façade except . . . more elegant façade.
Ekaterine swept forward to meet Eliot as he hauled his weary ass up the porch steps. "Eliot, darling," she said, only missing a wind machine and suitably dramatic lighting to make her look like an extra in a black-and-white film, "how wonderful to see you!" Her voice was low and throaty, like Garbo's. When she'd come to America near the end of the Cold War, she spent a small fortune on dialect coaches who helped her lose her accent. When accents got popular again in the early aughts, she spent a larger fortune on dialect coaches who were supposed to help her get it back, with the result that her native Russian accent sounded slightly fake.
Eliot accepted her kisses to his cheek with as much forbearance as he could muster. "Ekaterine," he said, pulling her into a rough, exhausted approximation of a hug. "Beautiful as always." True, in its way. She was beautiful, all right—on the outside. There just wasn't anything on the inside.
She tittered and took his hand in her small, birdlike ones, stroking the skin gently. "You look awful," she scolded him. "You work too hard."
"And sleep too little," Moreau added, coming up behind his wife and wrapping his arms around her waist. "Ma chere," he murmured as he pressed a kiss to the back of her neck. She tensed briefly and then relaxed into his hold. "Oh, Eliot," Moreau said as though the thought had just occurred to him, "I might have something that would help you sleep. Something herbal an associate recommends."
"Yeah, sure," Eliot said with a shrug that he hoped concealed his desire to grab Moreau by the lapels and demand the damned drugs right fucking now.
Ekaterine laughed brightly and swatted her husband's hand. "But not now, Damien! Not before we get to the fun part!"
Right, Eliot thought. The fun part.
Here were the best things Eliot could say about sex with the Moreaus: it never lasted longer than two hours, start to finish, and it rarely required active participation from Eliot.
Ekaterine took up sexual proclivities the way other people took up scrapbooking or Pilates. She saw them as hobbies to be explored but seldom mastered, dropped when they fell out of fashion or seemed too complicated. Meanwhile, Damien's views about sex were surprisingly narrow given the amount of time he spent lounging poolside surrounded by half-naked lackeys.
Rather than seek a permanent third for their relationship, Damien maintained a roster of people in his debt who could be persuaded—cajoled, strong armed, blackmailed, coerced—into climbing into their bed for a night or two so Ekaterine could have her fun. It usually felt less like a booty call than a theater rehearsal.
Eliot didn't know what criterion Ekaterine was using tonight to decide when they were done. Time passed? Orgasms achieved? Prettiness of knots? As always, she gave no advance warning. One minute she was rubbing her fingers over the ropes and leering at Eliot; the next she was untying the knots and disappearing onto the balcony for a cigarette without a word to him or Damien. Lounging across two-thirds of the bed like he hadn't spent the past two hours having acrobatic if unimaginative sex, Damien smirked lazily. "You'll sleep now," he said.
Eliot, lying stiff as a board beside him, stared unblinking at the ceiling and snapped, "I will as soon as you give me the damned drugs."
"Ah, Eliot, that's why I like you," Damien said. His asshole grin never wavered as he hauled himself out of bed and padded naked toward the en suite. "Always to the point."
Finally Eliot had his pill in hand and water to chase it with. He was dead to the world before Ekaterine finished her cigarette.
But his iron control over his body and mind never wavered, and he did not dream of Alice and Joe.
* * *
Joe was back. Joe with his jokes and his quick smiles was sitting at her bar, chatting with her Wes, and Parker hated it.
Parker didn't like people, most of the time. Locks and vaults and safes were easy, but people had more than one key that unlocked them, and that frustrated her. Also, people were mostly interested in her for sex, which frustrated her more.
She liked Wes, because Wes didn't want anything from Alice. He let Alice sit at his bar, drink his beer (though she didn't like beer, either) and eat his food, and he never asked her for anything. He would have sex with her if she offered, she'd seen that in his eyes, but he seemed fine with her not offering.
Alice didn't have many friends. She was more outgoing than Parker, but she still had trouble connecting sometimes. Alice could fake interest in the kinds of things "normal people" were interested in, but Parker couldn't always hide that she thought it was dumb to play video games about dragons or paste your kids' choir concert programs into a scrapbook when you could be stealing a Miró or casing the Kenyan embassy or BASE jumping off Crown Point.
Wes had interests normal enough to be relatable to Alice and . . . off enough to be relatable to Parker. He liked to cook, but he did it in a restaurant that was named after him. He liked to box, and he belonged to some underground fighting club that he never talked about except to say, "It ain't disaffected middle managers with something to prove, and we'll leave it at that." Wes was only slightly better with people than Parker was, but he loved animals, got fussy over beer, and when she'd said she wouldn't have sex with him, he'd smiled that half smile and said, "Lemme get you a glass of water while you look at the menu."
Parker didn't think much about dating, but sometimes she thought about dating Wes. Only Wes wouldn't date her without a third. "Primer couples are bullshit," he'd said one day, out of nowhere. "Three or nothing."
Now there was Joe, and she wasn't stupid, okay? She'd seen the looks Wes and Joe had been throwing each other, and her, all night. Since Joe had come back and asked her again if he could sit by her—asked her, like he cared about her answer and would've sat somewhere else if she'd said no!—and . . . fit into the space at her side like—like he belonged there or something—she had a job to do, okay? That was what was important. That was what she should be focusing on.
Boys were stupid.
She'd seen the looks, was the point. Really, they were Looks. Fraught with portent, she heard Archie's voice say in her head.
Joe was new and untested and uncertain, and Parker didn't like that. Alice liked Joe. Alice was leaning toward Joe, unfurling like the sunflowers in that Van Gogh that Parker had tried to steal. Parker wasn't there yet—if she'd ever be.
Then Joe looked at her, eyes wide and smile soft around the edges. "Hey, Alice," he said gently, like he'd done every time he'd seen her. "You okay?"
She shrugged and glared at her Coke.
Without a word, he slid his plate in front of her. A plate holding half of one of Wes' house-made soft pretzels with the kosher salt crystals and the stone-ground mustard and buckwheat honey sauce. The pretzels that ran out halfway through the night, that people hoarded like raccoons over a trash can. He just . . . put it in front of her.
Parker started at the plate in growing horror. From the corner of her eye she saw Joe smiling serenely at her, not speaking. "I—you—" she sputtered and then made a strangled, wordless cry of despair that turned heads up and down the bar. "Why?!? Why would you do that?"
"Do what?" He frowned.
"Share that with me!"
He frowned more, and it wasn't okay that she felt bad and wanted to make him feel less frowny. "Because you like them. Don't play like you don't; I've seen you go all feral woodland creature over one at the end of the night."
"Why?" she repeated. "Why would you give me yours?" She couldn't bring herself to ask her real question, not even in her head.
Joe must have figured it out anyway, because his expression, at least what he could see of it, turned soft and wobbly, like Wes' sometimes did when Parker talked about Archie or her foster families. "It's not a transaction, Alice," he said. "Eat it if you want, don't if you don't. You won't owe me nothing either way."
"Yes, I will," Parker said, scoffing. "Just because you haven't decided yet what I'll owe you doesn't mean I won't eventually. Everything is a transaction." Joe stared at her, mouth slightly agape, and she pulled at her hair. "Agh! You—I wish you hadn't done it, that's all. Now I'm having—feelings."
He raised an eyebrow. "Feelings?"
Joe pushed the plate back so it wasn't directly in front of her, but he didn't look at it. He never stopped looking at her, though she wasn't looking back. "Well, you know, the pretzel's right here. Whether you decide you want it or not. It's not going anywhere."
There was a possibility he wasn't talking about pretzels anymore, either, that he was on to her, and that was even worse.
Humans were stupid.
The brewpub door opened, and Parker looked over instinctively to check for danger. Joe did, too. Huh. When she saw the familiar face looking around for her, she grinned and jumped off her barstool. "I'm going over there," she announced, scowling hard at Joe. "Don't . . . don't do things while I'm away."
He held up his hands and turned back to his beer, allowing her to walk away without watching where she was going. Which was nice of him.
Parker crossed the dining room quickly and joined her contact at the table. "Hey, Mrs. C," she said, smiling.
Mrs. C smiled back and gave Parker's hand a quick squeeze. Parker scowled. Why did people always do that to her without asking first? "Hello, Parker," she said.
"Shh!" Parker hissed, eyes wide. "It's Alice here."
"Oh!" Mrs. C looked around guiltily and gave Parker a sheepish smile. "Sorry," she whispered.
"It's okay. You didn't know." Mrs. C was okay. She'd hired Parker before, and her jobs were fast, challenging, and sort of dangerous—the best kind. As a bonus, they usually involved stealing valuable art from rich jerks.
"I have more details on the job," Mrs. C said. She reached into her purse and pulled out a folder before Parker had time to say if it was all right, which kind of wasn't cool, but she would've said yes anyway, so she shrugged and took it. "It's not as riveting as other assignments I've brought you, but the object in question is very important to my client."
"Yeah?" Parker opened the folder, intrigued, and pulled out the photo of the statuette she was being hired to steal. She frowned. "This one? You sure? I could get you a nicer one. There's a bunch of Rodins in San Francisco—"
"That's sweet, Alice, really," Mrs. C said, "but my client's heart is set on this piece."
Oh. Well. Once a client's heart was involved, there was no reasoning with them. Parker slid the photo back into the envelope and pulled out the specs.
"There may be guards or other forms of security," Mrs. C said. "You are to pay them no mind. Get in, get out, don't get seen or detected." Parker opened her mouth to protest, but Mrs. C held up her hand. "Your only job is to get in, get the statuette, place the note, and get out before anyone realizes you're there."
Parker looked at her shrewdly. "How many anyones?"
"Two in the house," she said. "Three guards. Also—" Her eyes flicked to the table and back to Parker, her tell that she was worried. "My client has heard rumors that someone else may be after the statuette as well. Obviously, we want you there first. But if you happen to be there at the same time as their retrieval experts—"
"Thieves," Parker said sharply.
Mrs. C looked at her for a moment and then nodded. "Their thieves. We want you to avoid being seen if possible."
Parker grinned. "I'm good at that."
Mrs. C grinned back. "We think you're the best at that. It's why we hire you." Mrs. C looked around the table for a minute, assessing, and then looked back at Parker. "I believe we're done for the moment, unless there's anything else?"
Parker took a deep breath and let it out. There wasn't anything else, not for the job, but—"You've been in love, haven't you?" Ugh. That was terrible.
Mrs. C blinked at her. "I—yes, I have. Why do you—"
"How did you know? I mean, how did you know it was love and not, I don't know, bad chicken or something?"
Mrs. C smiled and pushed a wisp of blond hair back into place. "Because being with them made everything better. I'd been in relationships before, couples and triads, and . . . being with those people was nice, but as soon as we said our goodnights, everything went back to the way it'd always been. With my husbands, I could be doing something that had nothing to do with them, and I'd think of one of them, and whatever I was doing would be, I don't know, easier, or better, just for knowing they were in my life." She shrugged. "And that's how I knew."
That . . . that didn't sound bad to Parker. Other people talked about wanting to be their best selves for their partners, or wanting their partners to be their best selves. It was always about being better people, and that seemed like a lot of pressure. Making someone's life better by existing—that sounded like something she could do.
If she had anyone she wanted to do it with. Which she definitely did not. Pretzels or no.
* * *
Abernathy's wasn't open. It was 7:50 on a Friday morning; the staff wasn't even out of bed. But a light was on on the second floor, and Hardison was the king of calculated risks whose odds were against him.
He waited until a black Escalade that was turning around at the end of the alley drove slowly past him, and then he dashed up the brewpub's back stairs to the second story.
As expected, Wes looked surprised to see him. Less expected was his faint dismay as he grabbed Hardison's jacket and hauled him into the apartment, glancing quickly up and down the alley as he did. Near as Hardison could tell, Wes was still wearing yesterday's clothes.
Wes' apartment ran the entirety of Abernathy's space and echoed the restaurant's open layout. The decor was odd—the walls, mantels, and tabletops were mostly bare, and most of the furniture looked like it'd come from Ikea. It felt like an apartment you could pack up and get out of quickly. Yet what little decoration there was seemed deeply personal, as though the entire Book of Wes were written here, if he could figure out how to read it.
Wes himself was easy enough to read right now, standing in front of Hardison with his arms crossed and his face set in a deep scowl. "What the hell are you doing here, man?"
Hardison slipped off his jacket and dropped it on the nearest chair. "I was in the neighborhood."
"Like hell you were," Wes grumped, stomping into the kitchen. "Anybody see you being in the neighborhood?"
Hardison bristled but kept his voice even as he said, "Whoever was driving that black SUV."
There was a loud clattering in the kitchen. "Damn it, Joe," Wes said, real anger and worry in the tone.
"Friend a' yours?" Hardison asked, aiming for innocent and unconcerned and missing by a mile.
"No," Wes said as he came back into the room with two mugs of coffee. He shoved one into Hardison's hands like it was the worst idea he'd ever had and refused to elaborate on the Escalade and why he was so upset about Hardison being here, no matter how expertly Hardison applied his listening face. Wes went to the side window and settled on the ledge. To anyone just coming into the apartment, the wide window ledges looked comfortable and fun, a cool detail about the apartment. But Hardison could tell from the way Wes settled in that it'd been put there for surveillance of the street below—and that Wes used it for that purpose fairly often.
Hardison took the opportunity to wander the apartment, since Wes couldn't stop him and surveil the street at the same time. He examined unexpected configurations of rock and driftwood, hovered his fingers near tiny, intricate faces and creatures carved into freaking walnuts, stood beneath a Jacob Lawrence print that—actually, that painting had been missing for a couple years. Maybe it wasn't a print.
When Hardison wandered over to a photo hanging near Wes, Wes tensed. Hardison didn't look at him, just slid his hand over Wes' shoulder and curled his fingers around the back of Wes' neck. Wes tensed further, every muscle straining, and then he relaxed, almost slumping. He allowed the contact for a heartbeat, maybe two, and then he lifted his own hand and took Hardison's, removing it gently from his neck.
"In the future," Wes said roughly, "I wouldn't recommend touching me without my permission." He squeezed Hardison's fingers, and Hardison winced. It didn't hurt, exactly, but Wes was putting enough pressure on to let Hardison know he could put on a hell of a lot more.
"Got it," Hardison promised, a little breathlessly. Wes let go and went back to watching the window. Hardison went back to examining the photo. Then he whistled. "You met the First Ladies?"
The photo had been taken in the White House vegetable gardens. Three people in chef's whites stood clustered around the broadly smiling First Ladies. The Wes in the picture had longer hair and was wearing sunglasses, and what struck Hardison was that he didn't look like a chef, not the way the other two did, with their relaxed, open body language and bright smiles. Wes, with his folded hands, ready stance, and immobile expression, looked like a member of the First Ladies' Secret Service detail. But the caption read, "First Ladies Michelle Obama and Genevieve Cook launch the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Initiative with chefs Bryant Terry, Lucia Watson, and Wes Abernathy." Hardison definitely wanted to read the accompanying article sometime, but for the moment he just looked at the picture, the caption, Wes' face, and . . . "Huh."
"What?" Wes snapped.
"I don't know, man, somehow it wasn't, I hadn't put together—like, Abernathy's—" He gestured at the picture. "Wes Abernathy—" He repeated the gesture at Wes. "I mean, you live over the place, but I didn't realize you own it."
And, okay, whoa, Hardison could spend, like, the rest of his life unpacking the emotions in those two syllables. There were, seriously, three different kinds of anger, some embarrassment, and Hardison hadn't realized the dude was capable of fear, but it was in there, too. "Oh, uh, okay," Hardison said, nodding and taking a tiny step back, away from Wes. From the way Wes' lip curled into a sneer.
"The owner named it after me," Wes said, but he didn't sound happy about that fact. He took a slug of his coffee and said, "His idea of a joke."
Which, huh, there was a lot of something going on there that Hardison doubted Wes was going to tell him, so he tried to come at it sideways. "Who's the owner?"
Wes snorted and dialed his mood back from "about to blow" to "normal blowhard" (heh). "None of your damned business is who," he said, but he shifted, too, leaning slightly closer to Hardison, which Hardison liked. Hardison liked a lot.
He started to say something about how Wes knew he'd figure it out so he might as well tell, but, no, Wes didn't know. Didn't know who Hardison was and what he could do. Who Joseph Miller was and who Alec Hardison was were starting to blur on a kinda terrifying level. One wanted things the other couldn't have one was making promises the other might not be able to deliver on. Being two people at once was exhausting.
"If you're worried about the inspection fee, don't. He'll pay it, and you don't need to know his name to take his money, right?"
"The—" Hardison blinked. Case in fucking point. "Oh. Right. Yeah. The inspection. Nah, man, I'm good. I trust you."
Wes opened his mouth, looking like he wanted to say something about that. Then he shook his head, took Hardison's coffee mug into the kitchen, and crossed to the apartment door, all while resolutely refusing to look at Hardison.
"Let's get this done, a'right?" Wes said wearily, and Hardison let it drop.
Two minutes later he was walking into Abernathy's gleaming, spotlessly clean kitchen. By his very generous estimate, he had thirty seconds before Wes realized he wasn't a safety inspector of any kind.
Wes was standing next to a machine, as tall as he was, that looked like a warming rack and a cryovault had a baby. "The combi steamer's giving us hell," he said, leaning his elbow against the device. "Braising and blanching are fine, but grilling makes the other appliances flicker, and last week I tried a sous-vide, and the power went off down the whole damned block."
"Uh-huh, uh-huh," Hardison said. He walked as far around the machine as he could go. "Well, you, uh, I see your problem," he said. "The combi is, uh, you know, that's fine, and whatever, but your steamer, that's all wonky. So I'm gonna, uh, I gotta get all up in the . . ." He waved a hand at the general area of the machine and where it was plugged into the wall. He did know things about electrical wiring, and he he would dominate any circuits this thing had. He just had no capacity for talking about the machine itself in an intelligent manner. As he'd made abundantly clear.
Hardison shoved his sleeves up and jerked his chin at Wes, who nodded and positioned himself on the machine's other side. They silently counted three and then shoved, arms straining. Manly grunts filled the air as they inched the machine away from the wall so Hardison could get at its guts.
Hardison eased himself into the space and looked at the back panel. Then he looked at the wall. Then he swore. Sometimes it was the only thing a guy could do.
"Something wrong?" Wes asked, and Hardison knew the asshole was laughing at him.
"Forgot my tools," he muttered. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Forgot my, my everything."
"I'll get you a screwdriver."
Hardison opened his mouth to say he needed so much more than a screwdriver, but Wes was walking away, whistling. He came back less than a minute later carrying a scuffed-up and obviously well-loved toolbox. Hardison accepted it with a smile that felt more like a grimace and got to work pulling off the back panel. Wes stood to the side with his arms crossed, watching without a word, but as each screw came off, Hardison felt his tension ratchet up a notch. By the time Hardison removed the panel, the dude was vibrating.
Hardison stared into the guts of the combi steamer, whatever the hell it was. It wasn't the most complicated machine he'd ever looked at. Given enough time, access to his computer, and a copy of whatever safety guides came with the thing, he could easily fake an inspection. With no time or materials for preparation, he was going to have to reach in and hope for the best. He took a breath and reached out.
"No, stop. I can't."
Warm, callused fingers closed around Hardison's wrist in a powerful grip that shot straight through his body. He looked up into piercing blue eyes that had gotten really close. "What—"
Wes' expression was thunderous, but a spark danced in those eyes, like he was fighting hard not to smile. "Thought I was gonna wait and see how far you'd carry this idiotic game, but it turns out I respect my equipment too much to let you go rummaging around in it."
Hardison opened his mouth to make the obvious joke, but then he caught up with what Wes had said. "Oh," he said quietly. "You know, then."
"Oh, yeah. I'm on to you, buddy. Just—get out of there, c'mon."
But he couldn't—and wouldn't—while Wes was still holding his hand. He curled his fingers up and stroked along the underside of Wes' wrist.
Wes jerked his hand away, and the light in his eyes snuffed out like a candle flame, replaced by hardened determination. "Look, I ain't gonna call the cops or report you to OSHA or whoever for impersonating an inspector. But unless you're interested in leveling with me, this ain't happening."
He really wanted to. But he'd made a promise to his client, and if he broke it he'd have a pissed off bad guy and no paycheck. He reluctantly pulled his hand out of Wes' grip. Wes stepped back, looking disappointed. Hardison slid out from behind the machine, shoving the toolbox out with his foot. "What should I—"
"Go," Wes said. "I don't care if you stay in the restaurant, just get out of my kitchen and don't inspect anything on your way." His tone was joking, but he busied himself needlessly with the screwdriver in the toolbox and refused to meet Hardison's eyes. Hardison didn't know how to read him.
Hardison nodded. "Sure. I didn't, uh, I'm real sorry about this."
"Not half as sorry as I am," Wes muttered, sweeping up the toolbox and walking away.
Hardison should go back to the van. Maybe catch a little more sleep, make plans for the day, or sulk. He shouldn't stay here, with Wes so disappointed in him. But in just two days Abernathy's had started feeling like home in a way that no place had for a long time, and he couldn't give it up, not even at 8 in the morning with only Wes here. He slumped onto a bar stool and let his head thunk onto the counter. How had he managed to develop two hopeless attractions in two days?
* * *
A rich laugh filled Eliot's ears, and he darted to the doorway between the kitchen and the dining area in time to see Moreau set a mug of coffee in front of Joe, who was slumped over the bar. Joe turned his head and looked at Moreau. Then he straightened, lifting his head and fixing his clothes. Trying to look good for Moreau. Shit. Joe slid the mug over with a coy murmur of thanks that Eliot could barely hear and took a huge drink of coffee that had to be scalding. Eliot eased the door open so he could see and hear what was going on. He wasn't sure he wanted to, but he knew he needed to.
Eliot knew too damned well the striking picture Moreau made. And he'd probably made the coffee exactly the way Joe liked it—black with a crap-ton of sugar—which should've been Eliot's job, damn it. But a striking picture was all Moreau was, and Eliot hoped Joe saw that.
Joe raised the mug in lackadaisical salute and said, "Thanks, man."
"You looked like you could use it," Moreau said.
Hardison's glance flicked toward the kitchen, and Eliot ducked behind the door out of sight, though he wanted to stare Joe down, make sure he knew that Eliot was watching. Hell, he really wanted to stalk across the room and kiss Joe breathless, stake a claim, but he wouldn't hand Moreau that ammunition. "I had a rough morning," Joe admitted.
"You're here early," Moreau said. Joe shrugged. "You have business at Abernathy's? With Wes?"
Eliot expected Joe to repeat the safety inspector lie, though no one had bought it so far. "Business in Portland. Just passing through."
Moreau had his back to the kitchen, so Eliot couldn't see his expression. But he could watch the way Moreau curved toward Joe, like he was getting ready to make the opening move in a dance. "Ah," he said, "a friend of Wes'."
"I—" Joe closed his mouth and swallowed. "Something like that, yeah."
Moreau held out his hand. "It's always good to meet another friend of Wes'. Damien Moreau."
"Joe Miller," Joe said. It wasn't polite, how loudly Eliot crowed in his head when Joe extracted his hand as quickly as he could. He couldn't tell if Joe had recognized the name. It was almost a sweeter victory if he hadn't. If he'd moved away because he sensed that Moreau was bad news. Moreau was . . . he was like heroin. Eliot was addicted, and he couldn't do anything about that unless he found a different drug to get hooked on, but he'd be damned if he let anyone else, even a guy he barely knew, take that first taste.
"Where are you staying while you're in town?" Moreau asked.
Eliot had been wondering that, himself, given the way Joe wandered in and out of the brewpub at all hours, seemingly content to hunker down at the bar with his phone when, if he was a businessman, he'd be staying at some fancy-ass hotel with a "business center" and actual computers. Not that Eliot thought for a second that Joe was actually a businessman.
"Lucille," Joe said and then winced like he hadn't meant to say that. Moreau's expression was probably as confused as Eliot's own. Joe hastily added, "Uh, you know, one of those Airbnb deals? Yeah, uh . . . yeah. Lady named Lucille, lives down the block a ways. Sweet lady. Lots of cats." For fuck's sake, Eliot thought, does he hear himself?
Damn it, Moreau's smile curled, and he looked charmed. "Do you know," he said, "you're the first person I've met who has used that service." Eliot felt his blood pressure rising. Moreau was playing vulnerable here, admitting that someone knew more about any topic than he did, even some crap topic like couch-surfing. Joe was smart. He was proud of the fact that he was usually the smartest guy in the room. Moreau was playing to that, and Joe was swallowing his shit without looking at the spoon. Moreau pulled his sleek leather wallet from his pocket and took out a crisp white business card, which he slid over to Joe. "If you need a break from Lucille and her . . . cats. My wife and I have a large home—and a large bed."
Hardison choked on his coffee. Eliot choked on his rage. Joe could hate Eliot as much as he needed to for cockblocking him. He didn't give a damn how powerful Moreau was or how much hold he had over Eliot. He was not getting his claws—or Ekaterine's—into Joe. "Moreau," he growled, storming into the dining area, "what are you doing here?"
Moreau turned a winning smile on him, though it had an edge now. From the inside pocket of his suit jacket, Eliot's wallet, older and more beat up than Moreau's, appeared like a magician's trick. "Ekaterine found it when she got up. It fell out of your pants last night."
The fuck it did. The rage settled deeper into Eliot's bones as he stalked forward and yanked the wallet out of Moreau's hand. Moreau tightened his grip for a second, so Eliot had to pull harder. When they separated, Moreau was smiling wider and Eliot was ready to kill. "Tell her thanks," he said sharply. He looked at Joe. "You doing all right?" Code for I will fucking end this manipulative cumbucket if you give me the slightest hint you'd like that. He wasn't sure Joe could crack that code, but he was making the offer anyway.
Joe looked slowly between Eliot and Moreau. Moreau was blatantly checking them both out. "Yeah, man. I'm fine." He looked at Moreau again and then back at Eliot. "I did, uh, I got a question for you. Stick around?"
Eliot nodded sharply as he put his wallet into his pocket. "Sure thing." He looked pointedly at Moreau.
Moreau beamed delightedly between Eliot and Joe. "This has been quite enjoyable." He pointed at his business card, still clasped between Joe's unmoving fingers. "Call anytime, day or night," he said. "Ekaterine and I are quite . . . flexible." He jerked his thumb at Eliot. "As Wes can tell you." Then he sauntered out of the brewpub, leaving Eliot with a bellyful of fury and no place to put it. Looked like a couple days' worth a vegetables were about to get chopped. Violently.
Joe caught Eliot's eye. His own eyes were soft and worried-looking, and Eliot couldn't hold them for more than a single long beat before he had to turn away from the concern in them. "Hey, man," Joe said softly, "you okay?"
The lie jumped so quickly to his tongue. It would've been the easiest thing in the world, two little syllables, I'm fine, and it'd be nothing. But he couldn't stop seeing Moreau's hand in Joe's and the challenge—the mockery—in his eyes when he handed Eliot his wallet. He couldn't stop tasting blood from where his lip had gotten cut the night before, because God help you if you told Ekaterine Moreau she was using her BDSM gear wrong. The thought of Joe enduring any of that curdled Eliot's stomach. He slid up alongside Joe at the bar and pinched Moreau's card between his fingers, though he didn't try to take it from Joe. "Don't call him."
Joe's eyes widened. Then they narrowed in obvious challenge. "You gonna make me a better offer?"
"If that's what it takes," Eliot said, voice low and dangerous. Christ, it wasn't like it'd be a hardship.
Joe's tongue darted out to lick his lips. "You really hate him."
"He's filth," Eliot said succinctly. "His wife's worse."
"Well, all right, then," Joe said. He released Moreau's card, letting Eliot take it and rip it in quarters. They looked at each other for an uncertain moment that could've tipped either way. Then Eliot took a step backward, nodded at Joe, and started back toward the kitchen, crushing the torn pieces of the business card in his hand.
"Uh, by the way," Joe called after him, "if you made that offer, I might—I'd say yes."
Eliot paused and closed his eyes. "I don't do couples," he said, eyes straight ahead.
"Yeah, man, me neither. But I, it's not like I'm stickin' around, right? Just, if your bed's got the room . . ."
Eliot released a breath slowly. "Maybe," he said. "Maybe it does."
* * *
"Sage. Alice, what—stop that." Wes slapped Parker's hand away from where it was inching toward the herb next to the basil. "What are you doing?"
"Teach me how to like stuff."
Wes put down his sage (that one was definitely sage) and crossed his arms, studying her. She kept her eyes on the piles of herbs, because the way Wes saw her made her feel a lot of conflicting feelings that she wasn't wild about.
"What's going on?" he said finally. "Come on; out with it."
Parker couldn't say You're still upset about whatever happened with Joe before I got here this morning, and I don't like that, and I don't like that I don't like that, so I'm trying to distract you. So she shrugged and said, "I don't have a thing."
"What's that mean?"
"You have a thing. You love food. Joe loves coding or hacking or whatever he does on that phone when he says he's playing solitaire, because no one gets that excited about solitaire. Your creepy friend has a sicko love of making people scared of him."
"You're not wrong," Wes admitted.
"What happened this morning?"
Wes gave her a withering glare. "We were talking about you. Art, right? You went on an art tour of Italy. You see Michelangelo's David?"
"Okay, what did you see when you looked at it?"
Mark two laser grid around it, infrared on the floor, need a harness rated for six tons attached to a chopper to lift it out through the skylight. Probably shouldn't say that, either. She shrugged. "I wondered if anyone's tried to steal it."
She expected him to look appalled. Most people did. Instead he smiled faintly. "Probably somebody has." He looked around the work area. "Okay, let's start simple." He grabbed a small bowl and dished a large spoonful of brown rice into it, then topped it with the venison stew on the day's menu and set it in front of her. "This? This is like looking at the David."
She squinted at him. "It's just food."
He shook his head emphatically. "It's not just food, all right? Some people could look at it and see just food, but not me. I see art. When I'm in the kitchen, I'm—I'm creating something out of nothing. You know what I mean. And sometimes, I crush it. Sometimes it's crap. But either way, it makes me feel something."
Parker looked at the bowl. It was full of tender-looking chunks of venison, along with white things she thought were turnips, purple things that were actually carrots, carrot-colored things that were sweet potatoes, little round onions, and green flecks of herbs. It smelled delicious, and she knew it would taste good, but how was it supposed to make her feel anything? "Feel what?"
Eliot shrugged. "Just . . . feel."
"Feel." She looked helplessly at the bowl. "Okay."
"You know," he said softly, like a confession, "I didn't feel anything for a long time, and Toby—my old mentor—he taught me how to cook, and after he did, I started to feel stuff again. That's why I share it through my food. This is my art. This is my art, Alice. It's like letting a stranger in your head for just a second. And you allow them to feel what you're feeling." He nudged the bowl closer to Parker. "Look again."
Parker looked at the stew and tried to see it as art. Then she looked at the stew and tried to see it the way other people saw art. "It looks . . . virtuous."
Now, for sure, Wes was going to tell her that was ridiculous. When he just nodded and motioned for her to go on, her shock was so intense she couldn't speak for a minute.
"The—the places where I grew up didn't have a lot of money, but someone was always donating books. And the books usually had messages. About hard work and fair play and not stealing stuff. People in these books, they would chop down half the trees in the forest, or deliver a dozen baby cows or whatever, and then they'd come home, and they'd eat stew. So, virtuous." She looked up at him, challenging. "You have to earn stew."
Wes grinned and handed her a napkin and a spoon. "You, ma'am, have earned stew." Parker's insides felt like they were turning warm and gooey, which was gross, and Wes urged the spoon into her hands when she sat there staring at it. "Now take a bite," he said, "and don't think about what it tastes like. Don't try to identify flavors or calculate the market value of the venison. Focus on how it makes you feel."
Wes turned back to chopping herbs while Parker took her bite, which was nice of him. She put a careful spoonful in her mouth and, after calculating the market value of the venison (occupational hazard. She couldn't help it), tried to feel.
The first mouthful gave her nothing. Neither did the second. She was on the verge of telling Wes this was stupid when she felt something. Just a flicker, but—
"There!" Wes said instantly, gaze zeroing in on her. "That, right there, what was it?"
Parker shook her head. "No, I can't—"
"Yes, you can, Alice, come on," Wes said. "You got this."
Parker took a deep breath. "I feel . . . don't laugh," she warned, and he held up his hands. "It feels like a hug."
Wes' face was carefully blank, and he straightened, pulling away from her. "Ah."
"What?" Parker wiped quickly at her mouth with her napkin. "Is that wrong? Is that not what I'm supposed to feel?"
"There's no wrong way to feel," Wes insisted. "But I know how you feel about hugs."
Ah. Parker had forgotten that Wes would know about that. She'd forgotten about the bachelorette party that had invaded Abernathy's the second night she was here and insisted she take about a thousand pictures of them. About how, after she'd taken the pictures (and five hundred bucks of their cash), the drunk maid of honor had declared Parker their new best friend and given her a hug that was more of an attack. She knew Wes had seen the whole thing, but she'd thought she'd done a good job of making the other woman's fall look accidental.
Parker put down the spoon. "I mean," she said slowly, "that it feels like a hug I've asked for."
Wes' eyebrows jumped. "You do that?"
She shrugged. "Sometimes." She looked from Wes to the bowl and back. "I . . . want to ask for one now. I'm not sure I like that."
Wes took a step back and let his arms hang at his sides. "I'm happy to give it or not, you say the word." He pointed at the bowl. "You eat as much of that as you want; it's yours."
"Thanks, Wes." Silence fell on them as Parker ate. Wes chopped herbs and ground seeds and put everything into tiny metal bowls at the back of the work station. He was finishing grinding something that wasn't coffee in a coffee grinder as Parker reached the bottom of the bowl.
"How you doing?" he asked, glancing at her and then back to tapping the ground whatever into its bowl. "How you feeling?"
Wes took her bowl to the closest sink and cleaned it out before coming back to the opposite side of the workstation. Parker liked that about him: he understood that he needed to give her space unless she asked him not to. "Anything I can do?"
She tilted her head and considered the shape of him. The breadth of his chest, the thickness of his arms. "You could give me that hug."
He smiled and moved to Parker's side of the workstation, opening his arms. He didn't so much hug her as let himself be hugged by her, letting her adjust their bodies until everything fit. He was warm and smelled like spices, and his breath puffed across her face just shy of tickling. It was the best hug Parker had ever had. "I like you," she admitted, muffled into his chest.
"Yeah? Well, that's all right, then. I like you, too."
"Good." She sighed. "Joe's not terrible, either."
"Yeah?" Wes blew out a sharp breath and squeezed her tighter. "Darlin', you say things like that, a man might get ideas."
"I think," Parker said slowly, "that that's exactly the idea."
* * *
Jack: be at the location ready to make your move at 2100 tomorrow
Me: copy that
* * *
"What do you want, Moreau?"
"I could be calling to talk."
"You never have before. Not while you're sober."
"Your assignment begins at 9:00 tomorrow night. Will you be ready?"
"Good, good. Have a good night. Best of luck tomorrow."
"Really? No threats? Not gonna remind me all the ways you can punish me if it goes wrong?"
"That's never made any difference to you. You do the best job you can. It's what you were hired to do. You're refreshingly straightforward that way. If this mission fails, I'm not going to punish you. I'm going to console myself."
"Mmm, yes. Ekaterine will adore Joe. Maybe Alice, too."
"Stay away from them."
"You should let them make that decision for themselves, Eliot. Are you concerned about what they'll choose?"
"They made their decision."
"I was barely trying. I can be much more persuasive. You remember. Sweet dreams, Eliot."
"God damn it."
* * *
Please be at the location provided at 9:00 p.m. tomorrow (Friday). More information will be provided if it becomes necessary; otherwise, this will be our last communication until you deliver the object and payment is made.
I didn't ask if you were asking about love hypothetically, or if you had a specific person(s) in mind. If the latter, how's it going? :)
* * *
Main security around the house had taken Hardison under a minute to disable, but whatever they had around the room where the statuette was kept was proving trickier. He leaned back in his chair and chugged his Squeeze while his electronic army worked its magic around him. The hum of whirring circuitry and the occasional sounds of search parameters being met and probabilities calculated soothed him. Sure, he was alone here in Lucille, but the touch of a screen or a key could connect him to damned near anyone in the world.
It was a shame, though, that the two people he most wanted to connect to weren't at the end of any circuit he could build or hack. He could get into Abernathy's security system, watch the camera feed, but knowing what an intensely private guy Wes was, that was a line he wouldn't cross. And there was no camera that could lead him to Alice. Keeping an eye on Wes and not Alice felt wrong to him. Incomplete. Unbalanced.
It'd been a while since Hardison had let himself think about this possibility. He'd fallen into plenty of beds, but the thought of building something, of taking the time to forge a triad, hadn't come to his mind in years. Now, finding two people at once he wanted that chance with—the chance to build the thing right from the beginning, rather than being a wobbly, two-wheeled tricycle looking for its third—well, he'd be willing to make a lot of changes in his life for that. Leave St. Louis, give up his life of crime, anything Wes and Alice asked. So long as they were willing to keep him.
A series of pings ran around the room, and Hardison grinned as his fingers flew over the nearest keyboard. "Age of the geek, baby," he murmured happily as he shut down security around the statuette. Now he just had to sneak around the three guards to make his client happy and himself very well paid.
* * *
One key to being a successful hitter was the ability not to focus completely on what you were doing. Eliot's understanding of human anatomy was unparalleled among everyone he knew, including medical professionals. But if he thought about it too much while he was fighting—if he allowed himself to think deltoid triceps flexor extensor—he would make himself sick.
Over the years, he'd perfected a sense of how much brain power he could devote to thinking about other things while he fought—major alar cartilage vestibule superior meatus—and still get the job done.
The problem was that Joe and Alice were smart. Not in the same ways, but Joe manipulated that phone like it was an extension of his hand, and Alice knew odds and ends of facts about everything. And they both listened with singular focus. Sooner or later, one or both of them would figure him out. Joe would Google some offhand remark Eliot made, or Alice would notice that his knife grip was more based on fighting maneuvers than cooking ones, and the façade of Wes Abernathy would fall apart, leaving only Eliot Spencer behind.
Eliot Spencer was a dangerous man to know (caeliac plexus gastric plexus vagus nerve).
The third guard went down, and Eliot pinned the note to his lapel as he'd been instructed and raced toward the room that held the statuette. Moreau had told him to focus on the guards, and he appreciated that someone had knocked out the main alarm (though he worried about who that someone had been), but this room had extra security, and he didn't know how he was going to get around that, unless someone had—
"Aw, what the hell?"
Eliot froze. What the hell, what the hell? What was that voice—he ran into the room and looked around, desperately attempting to process what he was seeing. What was that face doing in the middle of his job?
And where the hell was the statuette?
Something hurtled past the window, plummeting downward at terrifying speed. Joe (not Joe. Well, Joe, but probably not "Joe," god, Eliot's brain was a weird place right now) shouted and ran over to look down after the figure. "What the hell was that?"
"That was twenty pounds of crazy in a five-pound bag, and she's got the statuette." Eliot grabbed Joe's arm and raced toward the exit.
"But that—that was Alice. It was, right?"
Pieces were clicking into place in Eliot's mind, though the picture they formed was still plenty confusing. "Not Alice," he snapped.
"Naw, man, it was her," Joe insisted.
"Yeah, I know it was her," Eliot said, hauling Joe down the back stairs, "but I think—the name Parker mean anything to you?"
Joe's feet faltered on the stairs. "Parker-Parker? You think Alice is Parker?" There was a pause and then, "Damn, that should not be that hot."
Eliot laughed despite himself as he and Joe leapt over the rousing guards and out of the house. "I don't know," he admitted, "I kinda think it should."
* * *
The guards were down. The alarm was cut. Mrs. C had warned Parker about beating other thieves who might be in play, but so far Parker's only grievance against anyone else involved in this was that they'd made the job too easy to be interesting.
It was pretty cool that the statuette was on the third story of a building cut into a hillside. That had been a nice jump.
Parker unhooked herself from the rig and the rig from the house and went to work getting everything together so she could bolt. The drop-off was at a warehouse a half hour's run at her current level of weight impediment. It was a nice night. She wouldn't even try to hitch a ride.
She was alert and watching, but her brain had this nasty habit of being oblivious to less obvious threats. It said a lot about what had been going on in the last few days that Wes popping up in front of her, even with Joe rushing up behind him and shouting at him to stop, didn't register as a threat.
"Hey, Parker," Wes said.
Now it was a threat.
Parker gripped her backpack with the statuette tucked safely inside and stared at the two men in front of her. How had they found her? How did they know her name? Something hot and jangling tumbled up inside her, and she squeezed her eyes tight against it, not knowing where to put it. "No," she said. She wasn't looking at them. Maybe they wouldn't look at her. "My name is Alice White. I don't know this 'Parker' person you're talking about."
She heard Joe huff, "Eliot, what did I tell you? You can't—here." There was a pause, and then Joe's voice, closer than it'd been before, asking, "Parker, can I touch you? Is that okay?"
Parker shook her head. "No, no I can't—"
"Okay." Instantly, the voice was farther away again. "That's okay. You take all the time you need."
"Except not a lot a time," Wes (Joe had called him "Eliot." Why had he done that?) said gruffly. "Those guards ain't gonna stay down forever."
Parker's eyes flew open, and she looked toward the house. "That was you?"
Joe gave a humming laugh and said, "Turns out I am in the presence of, of greatness. Eliot Spencer and Parker on the same job."
That was surprising enough to make her look at them for a second. "You're Eliot Spencer? But . . . you cook."
"Same tools," he said, shrugging, "different applications."
"As heartwarming as this reunion is," Joe drawled, "we got guards who are gonna wake up at any second and a security system that may be scanning the area again. I suggest we continue any, uh, revelations while heading toward Lucille."
"You brought your landlady into this?" Eliot's voice was high and pinched as they continued moving away from the house.
"No, she, what? Oh!" Joe laughed. "Yeah, no, that was—your man Moreau is scary, dude. The hell I was gonna tell him where I'm staying. This is Lucille."
This was a large black van, nowhere near as hidden by the surrounding brush as Joe probably thought. Joe grabbed the handles on the back doors and yanked them open, hopping up and frantically motioning the others to follow. Eliot scrambled up and in without hesitation, but Parker stopped just shy of the doors. "Woman, come on," Joe hissed.
Joe and Eliot stared down at her. "What do you mean, why?" Joe demanded.
"Why should I come with you?"
"The guards, Parker!" Eliot hissed.
"One woman dressed in black," she said, pointing to herself. "One giant van. Good odds." She grinned. "And I have the statuette."
"Yeah, but we're all going to the same place," Joe insisted. "Might as well take the ride."
Parker did the calculations in her head. She'd cover the distance in half an hour; the van in a third of that. Even if she had the statuette, did she want them alone at the drop-off, with the client, for twenty minutes? She did not. But if she could find a ride to hitch, or a car to steal, there was a chance she could beat them there, hand over the statuette, and be in the wind before the others showed up. Mrs. C's client would be happy, Parker would have her money, and Joe and Eliot would never be able to find her again.
She didn't want that.
She didn't want that, and wasn't that a surprise.
Parker got into the van.
Joe whooped and scrambled quickly through the van's narrow interior, crowded with electronic devices and weird-looking computer parts. He crawled over a console to get into the driver's seat. "Somebody come here and ride shotgun, I don't care who!" he yelled as he buckled in. "And whoever's left better hang on tight to something, 'cause my girl's a sweet ride, but she don't corner so great."
"Terrific," Eliot muttered, but he waved Parker toward the passenger seat and dropped onto the rickety cot that Joe had obviously been sleeping on for the past week. Parker looked back in time to see a knowing grin cross his face. "Airbnb, huh?"
Parker had no idea what that meant, but Joe laughed loudly as he threw the van in gear and peeled through the underbrush, dropping them onto the road. Parker cheered as her stomach swooped, like the first lurch at the top of a roller coaster, like the last second before a kiss you actually want.
Joe turned the van in a hard right—the opposite direction Parker would've gone to get to the drop-off. Then he turned off the road altogether, bouncing across abandoned lots and down underlit alleys. "Should keep the security guys off our tail, if they were thinking of following," Joe said.
If Parker had gone on her own, she would easily have beaten them to the drop-off. But then she would've missed this.
"A'right," Eliot said, leaning forward into the space between the front seats, "who are you?" He was looking at Joe.
Parker frowned. "What do you mean? He's Joe."
Joe laughed quietly, and Eliot turned to look at Parker. "C'mon, Parker," he said softly, and for a second it made her so angry, that he was, was . . . handling her, but, no, he was smiling, a smile that seemed to encompass Joe, too. "You're not Alice White, and I'm not—well, I am Wes Abernathy, too, but that's a long story. Stands to reason Joe's got a secret or two in that big brain a his."
Joe waved a hand. "Pfft, naw, it ain't—I'm nobody you heard of, man."
Eliot pinned him with a stare. "Still like to know your name."
Joe swallowed. "It, uh, it's Hardison," he said. "Alec Hardison."
"Nice to meet you, Alec Hardison," Eliot said, giving him that little smile again. He waited a beat and added, "You're right. Never heard a' you."
Parker and Hardison snickered.
"Wait!" Parker said, and Hardison jerked the steering wheel slightly, veering them up onto a curb. He glared at her before turning back to the road. "What's your hacker name?"
"No, now, come on—"
"You took down the security system, right?" Parker went on. "Therefore, hacker; therefore hacker name."
Hardison was silent for a long moment as he navigated them around the city. Then he floored it through a yellow light and sighed. "Some people, no matter how many times I tell 'em not to, call me Ice Man."
Parker sifted through her computer-related facts. "You hacked the Bank of Iceland! That was so cool."
"It was a medical emergency," Hardison snapped.
Eliot's forehead furrowed. "You had a medical emergency in Iceland?"
Hardison glared. "Nobody talk to me."
Eliot grinned at Parker. She smiled back and settled in to wait out the rest of the ride.
The drop-off was a small abandoned warehouse in the city's light industrial section. Parker was running toward the door before the van came to a complete stop. She heard muffled swearing from inside the van, and then Eliot was grabbing her by the shoulders. "Parker! Whoa, Parker, slow down. Wait."
"What?" she demanded. She didn't pull away from his hands, though. They felt nice.
"It could be a trap. Let me check it out first."
Hardison jogged up to them, panting, fiddling with the knobs of some gadget. "No electronics. Barely electricity."
Eliot nodded and dropped his hands from Parker's shoulders. She shivered; they were cold now. "Could still be a trap."
"Yeah," Hardison said. His face was all squinty and serious-looking.
"We're not going to let you walk in there alone," Parker insisted. "It could be dangerous." She looked between the two of them. "We go together."
They moved into the warehouse, communicating through head-jerks and eyebrow twitches as though they'd been doing it for years, alert to any threat.
There was no threat. There was just Mrs. C and a small, dark-haired man Parker didn't recognize, leaning against adjacent sides of a large, square pillar in the middle of the empty space.
"Mrs. C!" Parker called. She slipped around Eliot and Hardison's grasping arms trying to hold her back and made her way quickly toward the other woman.
Mrs. C smiled. "Hello, Parker." Her eyes flicked past Parker and widened as they took in Eliot and Hardison. "And . . . others."
"I admit, I did not foresee this development," said the man Parker didn't know. He had an accent, London, probably, and an air of being pissed at the whole world all the time.
Hardison said, "Hey, it's Jack!" at the same time Eliot snarled, "Sterling." He lunged at the guy and only pulled up short when Mrs. C stepped smoothly between them.
"Stand down, Mr. Spencer," she said calmly.
Eliot froze, but his body stayed taut, ready to leap at any second. "I swore I would never work for you again," he spat out.
"Mmm." Sterling stepped away from his pillar, adjusting his suit jacket. "A rash and regrettable vow, as it meant I was forced to deal with Damien Moreau in order to obtain your services." He shook his head. "Why the hell do you still associate with that man?"
"None a your damned business."
"I'm interested," Hardison put in from where he was hovering near the back of the room. "Sorry, man. Dude is an ass. And scary as all hell."
"Not helping, Hardison," Eliot muttered.
"Now, if one of you actually has the statuette?" Sterling asked as though none of the rest of it were going on.
Parker started to unzip her bag, only to have Eliot's hand shoot out and close over the top of it. "Don't give it to them, Parker," he said. "That's Jim Sterling. IYS."
"IYS?" Parker echoed. "But that means—"
"Well, blow me down," Hardison murmured, coming up to stand behind them. "It is a trap."
"No," Mrs. C said firmly. "It's not. I give you our word that you'll walk out of here unimpeded. IYS isn't looking for you, and neither are the police. This is a personal matter."
"Don't do it," Eliot said again.
Parker turned to both of them, stomping her foot. "I trust her," she hissed.
Eliot stared into her eyes. She didn't usually like that, and he knew it, which must mean that he considered whatever he was about to say really important. "Trust me, Parker."
She shouldn't. Mrs. C had been giving her jobs for a year, and she'd known Eliot for a week. But at this moment, she trusted him more. That sent tingles down Parker's spine and started a fizzing in her head, but she could sort that out later. Now she had to turn, smile apologetically, and say, "Sorry, Mrs. C" as she zipped the bag back up and returned it to her shoulder.
There was no way Sterling and Mrs. C were going to let the three of them walk out of here with the statuette, but she had a feeling the three of them would have no problem figuring out a way around that.
A voice said, "Excellent choice, Parker," and the hammer of a gun cocked back loudly. No matter how many times Parker thought about it later, she couldn't remember if those two things happened at the same time, or if the voice came first, or the gun.
The voice belonged to a middle-aged white guy who looked like he hadn't slept or showered in a week. And was possibly also drunk. He was wearing a long brown coat over dark blue pajamas. His hair and stubble were dark brown liberally streaked with gray. His dark blue eyes skipped from person to person around the room, unable to settle on any of them.
Sterling smiled. An actual, genuine smile. "Nathan," he said, taking a step forward, "you're early."
The gun swung to point at Sterling, who stopped walking and lifted his hands. "James," Nathan said. "I'd say it was nice to see you, but . . ."
Sterling stopped smiling as Nathan let his voice trail off. Mrs. C stepped up to Sterling's side and slipped her arm through his. "There's no call for that, Nate," she said softly.
The gun in Nathan-Nate's hand wobbled. "I expected this from Jim," he said, and his voice wobbled, too. "But you, Maggie?" Oh, so Mrs. C had a name. Parker hadn't thought about that.
"You wouldn't return our messages," Sterling said. "Drastic measures became necessary to get your attention."
"Sending thieves to take—" He snapped his fingers at the three of them. "I don't know which of you has the statue, but it belongs to me, and I will have it back."
Parker looked to Eliot to see if she could tell what he was planning. If he was going to take down Nate and his gun, she would hold onto the statue, but she didn't think he would. Eliot shook his head. Parker unzipped her bag and pulled out the statuette, holding it out to Nate.
He stared at it and then gestured at Parker with the gun. "Unwrap it."
When she'd looked at it back at the house, the thing had looked like it'd been glazed about a hundred times and was impervious to dropping, jostling, or nuclear war, but Parker had wrapped it with her usual care, because she never took a risk with a target object. She cradled the bundle against her arm and carefully unwrapped layers until the statuette lay exposed.
It was the ugliest piece of art she had ever seen. It was about the length of her forearm, and she was pretty sure it was supposed to be an arm. A long tube of terracotta was topped with a blob that might've been a palm and a bunch of smaller, kinda finger-like tubes. There were six of them, but still. Four small potatoey blobs stood in the palm blob. From the way the bigger potatoes huddled together, linked by spaghetti noodles that were supposed to be arms, one noodle draped over the head of the fourth, smaller potato, Parker guessed it was meant to represent a family: three parents and one child, held in the hand of . . . Perry Como, maybe?
"It's God, Parker," Eliot murmured in her ear. For a second she wondered if she'd said the Perry Como part out loud, but no one else was reacting. Maybe Eliot just understood her that well. "A family held in the hand of God."
Parker looked at the statuette again. "Huh."
She didn't have time to contemplate that weirdness further, because Nate was striding up to her, gun pointed at her head, and snatching the statuette out of her hands. She didn't resist.
The gun clattered to the floor as Nate cradled the statuette in both hands, checking it obsessively for damage, which, rude. Parker took excellent care of her steals. Nate looked at Sterling and Mrs. C, his face twisted and his eyes dark. "This is all I have left of him. You know that. The only thing I have left of my son, and—why? Why would you do this?"
"Our son, Nate," Mrs. C said gently. She took another step forward but stopped when Nate glared at her. "We were all Sam's parents. His death doesn't belong just to you."
"We all miss him, Nathan," Sterling said. "We mourn his loss every day, and that will never change. But we can't let his death rob us of our lives."
"What do you want from me?" Nate was whispering now, but Parker had never encountered a whisper that felt so loud.
"In a word, you," Sterling said, stepping up beside Mrs. C and wrapping his arm around her waist. "Maggie and I are making another go of it."
"We've been together nearly six months now," Mrs. C said. "We've tried to find another third, but no one works like you do. No one else fits."
Nate snorted again, louder. "The Nathan Ford you were married to doesn't exist anymore."
"Then it's a good thing we've changed, too, isn't it?" Mrs. C smiled softly and held out her hand. "Please, Nate?"
Nate looked, unexpectedly, toward the three of them. "Parker, Spencer, Hardison?" he asked. Parker nodded. "Hmm." He turned back to Sterling and Mrs. C. "It's no good, you know. I'm with someone."
Mrs. C tilted her head. "Sophie Devereaux. We've heard." Behind Parker, Eliot whistled low.
"Sophie Devereaux the grifter?" Parker whispered. Nate glared at her, and she kind of wanted to high-five him, but given the cautious way he was cradling the ugly statuette, he probably wouldn't go for it.
"Of course you've heard," Nate muttered, turning his gaze back to Sterling and Mrs. C. "You two thought of everything. I'm not breaking up with Sophie to get back together with you."
"We didn't think you would," Mrs. C said. She looked at Sterling, who gave her a small nod. Then she turned back to Nate and took a deep breath. "We're willing to try," she said, her voice quieter than before. "You're important enough to us to try to make it work with Sophie, too."
Hardison made a startled noise in the back of his throat. "A tetrad," he muttered. "Damn."
"Never work," Nate said instantly. But Parker noticed that he had relaxed his arms slightly, wasn't keeping the statuette in such a stranglehold.
"Come on, man." Surprisingly, it was Eliot who spoke, stepping forward until he was right behind Nate. "Never know 'til you try, right?"
"And these two went to all sorts a' stupid lengths to hire us," Hardison added as he came up behind Parker. She swayed backward into the heat and bulk of him before she fully realized she was doing it. Even when she did realize, she stayed where she was.
"That is true," Sterling said. His lip curled as his gaze settled on Eliot, and something hot and uncomfortable unfurled in Parker. She didn't want anyone looking at Eliot like that, like he was less than them somehow. But she relaxed slightly when Sterling continued, "I initiated contact with Damien Moreau for this."
Parker felt the shudder that ran through Hardison at the name, which sounded vaguely familiar to her. Mrs. C shook her head at Eliot. "You ought to find better associates, Eliot," she said.
Eliot grimaced at her. "If you think you can get me out from under him, you're welcome to try," he snapped, and Mrs. C tilted her head in acknowledgement of his situation—whatever it was.
Nate studied Mrs. C and Sterling for another minute before bowing his head slightly. "Hey, Soph?"
Everyone looked, startled, as a shadow fell dramatically across the warehouse floor. A woman stood in the open doorway, somehow managing to look mysterious in the harsh fluorescent glare of the outside light.
Parker looked at her appreciatively. Archie had never taught her the tricks of the femme fatale, claiming they were beneath her abilities, but she'd been in plenty of situations where they would've come in handy. She admired the way Sophie's movements, her clothes, the way she stood directed everyone's gaze exactly where she wanted it and presented exactly the picture she wanted them to have of her—and nothing more.
Sophie sauntered into the room as though it were a palace rather than a dingy, abandoned warehouse. She nodded regally at Parker, Eliot, and Hardison before standing next to Nate. "So," she murmured (Australia? New Zealand?), holding out her hands for the statuette, "have we been made an offer?"
Nate nodded. He handed Sophie the statuette, and she tucked it gently into the crook of one arm. Mrs. C gasped, and Sterling's eyes widened for a fraction of a second that was, for him, like shouting from a rooftop. Nate gestured in front of him. "Sophie, meet my exes, Maggie Collins and James Sterling. James, Maggie, Miss Sophie Devereaux."
Sterling swept forward and took Sophie's free hand, bending over it and kissing it showily. "Enchanté," he said, and Sophie smiled.
"My, my," she murmured. "Nate, you didn't tell me he was a gentleman."
Nate, Eliot, and Mrs. C snorted.
Mrs. C stepped forward. She and Sophie seemed to be assessing each other more frankly. "You're not what I expected," Sophie said at last.
Mrs. C gave her a small smile. "I seldom am. You are exactly what I expected."
Now Sophie smiled, sharper. "Oh, just you wait," she said, both promise and threat, and for a second Parker was equally relieved and disappointed that Sophie wasn't turning that attention on her.
Mrs. C's smile widened, and Sophie laughed, a clear, bell-like peal. "Oh, yes," Sophie said, turning back to Nate, "there's so much to work with here."
Mrs. C laughed softly, and even Sterling looked less like he was plotting how to murder everyone's pets. Nate's face kind of looked like it was . . . melting. It was unexpectedly sweet.
"This is real sweet," Hardison said, "I mean, like, really. My heart cockles are definitely feeling toasty. But, uh, I'd like to get paid sometime this century."
"Yes, of course," Mrs. C said. She moved back to the pillar she and Sterling had been leaning against and picked up a briefcase sitting on the floor. She blocked Parker's view of the combination while she opened it (shoot), but then she was turning around with three sealed envelopes and handing them over.
Parker eagerly opened hers and pulled out the stack of cash inside, ruffling the bills next to her ear. Exactly what she'd been promised, to the dollar. She stuffed the cash into her underwear and looked up to find everyone staring at her, Eliot and Hardison with their envelopes in their hands. She looked at Hardison's hand, which was closer. "You gonna use all that?" she asked hopefully.
"Woman, yes!" Hardison sputtered. The envelope disappeared inside his jacket, but he didn't move away from her. She nestled in closer, pulling his arm around her waist. He made a startled oomph but left his arm where it was.
"As fascinating as this is," Nate said, "Sophie and I need to get home. We weren't expecting a self-guided tour of the Portland warehouse district in the in the middle of the night."
"Man, it's not even eleven," Eliot said. He looked at Nate and Sophie again. "And it was nine when we got to your place. Why are you wearing pajamas at this time of night?"
Sophie winked and said, "Darling, we weren't wearing anything when you showed up." Eliot spluttered and turned red.
They waited until Nate, Sophie, Sterling, and Mrs. C said their goodnights and left the warehouse, because nothing was more uncomfortable than leaving a walk-away with the client. Then they made their way to Lucille. Parker got distracted with one foot on the step-up, looking at the cherry-red Tesla Roadster parked haphazardly by the warehouse door and the four people standing beside it with their arms around each other and their heads pressed close together.
Eliot grabbed her arms and yanked her into the back of the van. Parker yelped and crashed into him, sending them sprawling conveniently onto the cot. Sitting in the computer chair, legs splayed and chin on palm, Hardison watched them with a smile.
"Hey, darlin'," Eliot said, a little breathless.
"Hey, yourself," Parker replied. She ducked her head down and nipped his jawline. His breath caught, and Hardison's did, too.
Eliot sighed and pushed her away, not just from his face but all the way off him. She pouted but went, and they sat side-by-side on the cot, facing Hardison.
"So, I, uh, I guess we should talk," Hardison said.
"I'm dangerous," Eliot said immediately. "Dangerous to be with. Dangerous to know."
Hardison scoffed, the only correct response. "Eliot, man, did you just suffer through the same hour and a half I did?" Hardison asked. "We are all dangerous, okay? Eliot Spencer does not get a monopoly on dark sides. You don't get to use it as, you know, like, an excuse for pushing us away."
"Yeah!" Parker scooted closer to Eliot. "I mean, the three of us would make a perfect triad, wouldn't we? We're all criminals already, so it's not like you would have to hide your secret life of crime from us. We can crime together. Like . . . crime date-nights."
"Oh, yeah," Hardison gushed. "The dagger of Aqu'Abi is on display at the Boston Museum of Art and Antiquities. I got an in, but it'd run a lot smoother with a couple other people, you know?"
"Or," Parker said slowly, "I . . . enjoyed what we did here. Stealing something for . . . a reason. A nice reason."
"For no reason," Eliot snapped. "They paid the three of us a lot of money, and for what? Wasn't anything we did that they couldn't've."
"That's not true," Parker said. She drummed her fingers against her leg, thinking. "Sterling said Nate wasn't returning their calls. It was like Nate couldn't see them because—" She stopped and considered. "Because they were too close." There were problems like that in the world. Problems whose solutions you couldn't see until you stepped back and looked at them from further away. "Nate could see us because we're further away. Like a . . . like a lever. Yeah." She grinned, warming to the idea. "We provided leverage."
"You'd wanna do more stuff like that?" Hardison asked. He was talking faster, body straining forward. "'Cause I know stuff'll make your hair fall out, it's so nasty. Crooked politicians, hinky science, greedy executives—world's full'a awful people."
Parker grinned and leaned into his space, feeling the heat radiating off his broad chest. He had pretty eyes. She wouldn't mind looking into them a lot. "So let's go get them," she said.
"Hold up," Eliot said, holding up a hand. He had pretty eyes, too. "We gotta deal with a bigger issue here."
Parker didn't grin, but she wanted to. Eliot was talking like this was going to happen once they got things straightened out; no more "no" and "I can't."
"Moreau." Hardison nodded.
"He is poison," Eliot said, holding Hardison's gaze without wavering.
"Oh, believe me, I know," Hardison said earnestly. When Eliot gave him a skeptical look, he narrowed his eyes and said, "What? You think I didn't research the shit out of him after he skeezed all over me the other day? I know what kind of bloody pies he's got his fingers in."
Parker scrunched up her face. "Ewww."
Hardison rolled his eyes. "You know what I mean."
"If you researched him so much," Eliot said, voice tight, "you know he's got iron control over me."
"Yeah, what's he got on you, man? Why you still working with him?"
Eliot shrugged. "He owns Abernathy's. He mostly lets me run things my way, but it's his place."
Hardison grinned wide and turned his chair. He rummaged through a row of folders in a bin above his main computer setup. When he found the one he wanted, he made this ridiculous little noise of triumph that was one of the cutest things Parker had ever heard a human do. He pulled the folder out of the bin and held it out to Eliot. "I think you mean it's my place."
Eliot stared at him. He didn't look at the folder. "What?"
"The brewpub. I bought it." He waved the folder at Eliot, urging him to take it. Eliot ignored him. "For you."
"Fuck you, it's for me!" Eliot roared. He leapt off the cot and stormed as best he could toward the back door of the van. He stood with his back to them, head bowed, every line of his body clenched tight. "I was gonna buy it off him," he said through what sounded like very tightly clenched teeth. "I saved every damned dime I could wring outta the place. Another year, two, tops—"
"Never," Hardison said firmly. He stood and made his way forward, slow and cautious, eyes never leaving Eliot, ready to back off at the slightest indication. Eliot hung his head lower and slowly uncurled his hands from the fists they'd formed. When Hardison got up close, he rested his hand briefly on Eliot's shoulder and then slid it down Eliot's arm until he could lace their fingers together. "I mean, you know that, right? He woulda found a way. Some big repair expense you didn't see coming. Some, some incriminating photo or video you didn't know about. Dude like you is way too useful to a dude like that to let you settle your debt."
"Yeah?" Eliot snarled. He spun around and got up in Hardison's face. "What about you? How long 'til I settle my debt with you, huh? How many times am I gonna have to bend over?"
"What? Whoa!" Hardison put up his hands and stepped backward. His body was tenser than Eliot's; he looked positively gray at what Eliot was suggesting. "No obligations, man, I swear. Hell, I was planning to sign it over to you tomorrow anyway. No strings."
Parker snorted. "There's always strings." That was the first lesson she'd learned from Archie. One she'd learned without him having to say it.
"No, I—" Hardison's shoulders slumped. He came back to the computer desk and dropped into an impressive slouch in the chair. "Listen, I can tell you what, what I want to happen here. I mean, I think you know. But if you decide you don't—I mean, no matter what, you give me a dollar, and I'll go to the bank tomorrow and transfer the deed to you. I ain't gonna make demands."
Eliot leaned against the van's back door, his head resting against it. He crossed his arms over his chest, and it made him look smaller. Like he was protecting himself. "Damn it, Hardison, he's dangerous. You think he's gonna like that you took away his biggest hold on me? He's going to come after both of us—all of us—with everything he's got. Every crime you've ever gotten away with, every indiscretion you thought nobody knew about—he will find it, and either you will play his game, or he will ruin you."
"Let him try," Parker said. She wasn't sure if it would work, this . . . this that they were starting, but if it crashed, it would crash because of them, not because one of them had gotten mixed up with icky people. "We can take him."
"You can't—Parker, no." Eliot shoved his hands into his hair and tugged. "You don't 'take' someone like that, okay? The worst thing I ever did in my entire life, I did for Damien Moreau. Going after him is out of our league."
"Hey," Parker said sharply. "Just because you met us stealing a cutesy statuette from a paranoid recluse doesn't mean we haven't done darker stuff."
"And we're not gonna go after him, do we look stupid to you?" Hardison waved his hands around. "We're . . . protecting what's ours if he comes after us."
The tiniest ghost of a smile twitched the corners of Eliot's lips. "Am I what's yours?"
"Would be if you'd say damned yes," Hardison grumbled, more to the floor than to Eliot.
The smile appeared for real now, broad and bright and taking over Eliot's entire face. He stepped away from the door and came over to Hardison, standing between his sprawled legs. Parker watched them in three-quarter profile as Eliot reached out and cradled Hardison's jaw, tilting his head up for a soft kiss. Parker gasped as Hardison's eyes fluttered shut and one kiss stretched into two, three, gentle and unhurried. Eliot pulled back and searched Hardison's face until Hardison opened his eyes again. "Yes," Eliot said. He turned and held out a hand to Parker. "Yes."
"Yes!" Parker shouted and launched herself across the narrow space. Hardison oofed when she landed in his lap, and Eliot made the same sound when she wrapped her arms around his waist and nuzzled her face into the soft cotton of his t-shirt.
"Parker," he said, but his voice was laced with something soft, and he didn't say anything else, just raised his hand to stroke her hair.
"I'm still not having sex with you," she said, feeling safer saying it out loud while her voice muffled and she wasn't looking at them. "Either of you. I mean, Alice might, but—"
She braced herself for rejection at worst and disappointment at best. Instead, Hardison snorted a laugh as his arms curled around her midriff. "Baby girl," he said, "you're Alice. And neither of you has to do anything you don't want to."
"Why didn't you say you're ace?" Eliot asked. "We get it."
Parker lifted her head and frowned at them. "Say I'm what now?"
Hardison's forehead creased. "Ace. Asexual. That is what you're talking about, isn't it? I mean, it's not just... us?"
Parker had gone perfectly still on the outside while everything spun dizzily on the inside. "Asexual," she said. The word burst in her mouth like good caviar. "That's a word." She wasn't sure if that was a statement or a question.
Parker was aware of Hardison and Eliot exchanging confused glances over her head, but she didn't care. She didn't care. "I've never known any word for it besides 'broken.'"
"No," Eliot said fiercely. Now he turned her face up to his, and, oh, it was a fluttery feeling, having all his attention on her. "You're not broken, Parker. There is nothing wrong with you, you hear me?"
She suddenly couldn't bear not having kissed either of them. She jumped out of Hardison's lap and into Eliot's arms, swallowing his strangled gasp of surprise into her own mouth. He caught on quickly and returned the kiss. His lips were firm and chapped, and he kissed Parker like she was precious to him. His hands hovered uncertainly at her sides, so she grabbed them and put them securely on her hips, humming happily when Eliot tightened them almost involuntarily.
Parker pulled away and smiled. Eliot smiled back.
Parker turned, and Hardison was looking at them with a soft smile of his own. "Now that's what I like to see," he said, but something in his eyes was . . . off, like he wasn't sure he meant it. Parker all but crawled back into his lap and kissed him, slow and certain. His lips were softer than Eliot's, but his kiss was firmer. Eliot came up behind her and reached over her shoulders to settle his hands on Hardison's neck where it joined his shoulders.
Other people who had wanted to date Parker in the past had told her they didn't mind that she didn't want sex. This was the first time she believed them.
"Okay, so, wow, kissing's good," Hardison said breathlessly when they broke apart. Then he scanned her face intently. "Kissing's good?"
She squinted at him. "Why wouldn't kissing be good?"
"Some ace—no, you know what, never mind, that's not for—kissing's good. Got it." Then he kissed her again, which was way better than talking about kissing.
After the kiss ended, they all three stood in each other's spaces, touching each other gently wherever they could reach, breathing each other in.
"We still got a lot to talk about," Eliot said quietly. "A lot to figure out."
"Yeah," Hardison said, taking Eliot's hand, "but later. Right now I need a beer."
"Ooh, yeah!" Parker said. "Eliot, let's go to Abernathy's and have beer and pretzels."
Eliot snorted. "Don't ask for much, do you?"
She shrugged and wriggled off Hardison's lap to climb back onto the cot. Eliot could ride shotgun this time. "I ask for what I know I can get."
"Darlin'," Eliot said, "I think you can get more than you realize." His eyes got that twinkly look that she'd figured out meant he was seeing something that wasn't there—something he liked. "I think we all can."
When Parker turned that over in her mind, she couldn't find anything in it that felt untrue.
* * *
Stop me if you've heard this one: a hitter, a hacker, and a thief run a brewpub, take down bad guys to help good guys, and promise to change together, for better or worse, till their dying days.