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The Room Where It Happens

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I.

“Why do you think Sophie’s so bad at acting on stage?” Parker asked Alec, after they had to watch Sophie on that awful movie set they stole. “Do you think it’s stage fright?”

“Nah, that’s not stage fright. I know it when I see it, and she ain’t got it.”

Parker folded herself cross-legged on the windowsill in a way that really shouldn’t be physically possible. “What do you think it is, then?”

Alec had to think about it a little, looking away from Parker so he didn’t get distracted by trying to figure out her M.C. Escher leg-folding routine. “I think she likes it better when the audience doesn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. When she’s in a play, everyone knows it’s a set and props and costumes. It’s all there for their entertainment and they know it. When Sophie does her thing, no one knows that girl flying through the air’s just hanging on wires.”

“We’re the ones behind the scenes,” Parker said. There was a soft smile on her face, nothing like the bright fierce ones she made when she was about to jump off something way too high. “We’re the ones rigging up the wires and making the props.”

“Yeah,” Alec said. “Sophie likes it that way. And so do I.”
 

II.

Alec liked violin all right when he was just one among many. But the director noticed his playing, told him it was beautiful, and wheedled him into doing a solo. He practiced it until he knew it backwards and forwards, but when he stepped out in front of the orchestra to play his solo, the stares of the audience hit him like hammers and his bow went everywhere. He didn’t stay with the orchestra long after that.

In high school he had a crush on one of the theater kids, and he realized he could get close to him without being on stage if he joined the stage crew. He never got up the courage to flirt with the guy, but by his junior year he was stage manager for all the school plays, and he figured out real fast that any actor was replaceable, but without him, the whole show would fall apart.

He figured out which props they needed and how they were going to get made. He was the one who decided if they were putting way too much time and effort into a set that was never going to go up in time. When he watched the show from behind the curtain, he saw his fingerprints everywhere, from the costumes to the lights to the elegant dance of all the set pieces getting on and off the stage between scenes.

Of course, after his junior year, Alec had to quit, because he rigged up his own fog machine for Macbeth and when he brought it to school a teacher thought it was a weapon and called the police. Sometimes Alec thought about how his life might have gone if that hadn’t happened. Well, probably the police would have done something sooner or later to make him lose his last shred of respect for authority, and he would have ended up with Leverage anyway, where he belonged.


III.

Once for a job, Eliot and Alec had to wait at a skate park for the mark’s son to show up. When they got there only the younger kids were around, thirteen year olds in oversized beanies like Eliot’s. They tumbled around the half-pipes like pinballs.

One of the kids, a mixed-race boy smaller and clumsier than the others, accidentally jostled a bigger white kid at the top of the half-pipe. When the bigger kid got his footing again, he started screaming at the younger kid and shoving him around while the others looked on and laughed. Alec and Eliot exchanged a brief look and ran over.

“Whoa, whoa, break it up,” Alec shouted as they came close. The kids all jumped apart, knowing they’d been caught out. Eliot checked the scrawny kid for injuries, murmuring something to him that Alec couldn’t hear. “The hell you pushing around that kid, for, huh?” he said to the bully. “And the rest of you? Do y’all just stand around and laugh every time someone gets beat up? What about when it’s your turn? Y’all expect anyone to stand up for you, with that kind of attitude?”

Most of the kids had the grace to look embarrassed. But not the tough white boy. “He fucking pushed me,” he spat, his face still red.

“Nah, I was watching. He tripped in your general direction. Next time that happens, instead of beating the guy up, you teach him how to skate better so it doesn’t happen again. That’s what a normal, well-adjusted person would do. What’s your name, kid?”

“Kevin,” the kid mumbled.

Well, that brought back memories. “Kevin who?”

“Kevin McIntyre.”

“Well, I’ll be watching you, Kevin McIntyre. Remember what I said.” Alec looked over his shoulder at Eliot. He met Alec’s eye, gave the scrawny kid a gentle clap on the shoulder, and followed him back to the bench to keep an eye on the park.

“What did you tell him?” Eliot said.

“Told him to treat other kids like human beings and I’d be watching him,” Alec said. Eliot huffed a silent laugh. “What did you tell yours?”

Eliot smirked. “Told him how to take down that bully next time he tries anything. Gave him some moves to practice.”

“Nice,” Alec said. “But it won’t stop the bullying.”

“Yeah. But it gives the kid some self-respect.”

“Plenty of ways to get self-respect.”

Eliot watched him sideways with a slanted smile on his face. “Yeah, Hardison. I know.”


IV.

Alec’s tormentor in high school was also named Kevin. He was black, not white, but the story was the same. Alec was tall, sure, but skinny as a broom, as his Nana liked to say. Kevin saw from Alec’s clothes how poor he was, and stole the quarters he brought to school so he could have a soda with his free lunch, knowing how little he could afford it.

But by the time Kevin started bullying Alec, he had already become two people. In front of other people, he was an awkward nerd who often wanted to smile but rarely let one grow past his eyes. He was loved by the teachers who managed to keep him interested and lamented by teachers who saw nothing but his fidgety boredom. He had friends in drama and his AP classes, and he had Kevin, and all the kids who stood by and laughed at whatever Kevin did to him.

Alone, at his computer, Alec was someone else. He was hyper-focused, driven to work for hours on end the way he never did for school. He moderated three different forums and had legions of online fans. While the Alec in the hallways took his beatings and glared at everyone who looked on and laughed, the Alec behind the scenes flooded the school office and all the counselors with anonymous complaints about Kevin – things he’d done to Alec, or things he’d seen him do to other kids. He didn’t stop until the vice principal forced Kevin to spend lunch and recess in a classroom alone until he learned to behave himself with other kids.

Once he was out of the picture, other Kevins came along. But Alec could take his punches and hold his head up high, because his weakness was just a stage act. When the lights went down and the other Alec took over, it wouldn’t be the same play anymore.


V.

After the total embarrassment that was the job with the diamonds, Alec went to Sophie and said, “Can you teach me how to grift better? Like you do with Parker?”

“Why?” Sophie asked, eyebrows raised.

“Oh, come on. The Iceman? I was pathetic and you know it.”

“You don’t need to be able to grift to be important to us, Hardison.”

“I know. It’s just…” Alec took a moment to breathe. It was never any use talking to Sophie when you were all worked up. She just focused all her energy on how you were feeling instead of what you had to say. “I stay behind in Lucille half the time, or I sneak into the server room and work from there. And that’s cool. But sometimes y’all need me out there, and you and Nate can grift, and Parker and Eliot do their thing, and what am I good for?”

“You’re already learning,” Sophie said. “Just like Parker’s learning, and Eliot too, in his own way. But it’s different for you. When you’re in the van, or the server room, you’re in complete control. Nothing happens in that space without your command. But the way the rest of us operate, planning and grifting and stealing and fighting, it’s never like that. There’s always some factor you can’t anticipate. You’ll be a better grifter – better at your job all around – if you remember that not everything can be monitored and accounted for.”

Alec let his hand move deeper in his pocket and squeeze around his phone. He had special vibration patterns set for when his algorithms monitoring the rest of the team picked up that they were in danger. A circling buzz like an angry bee for Nate. A patter of quick beats followed by a long descending vibration for Parker. A slow steady pulse like a heartbeat for Eliot. The phone was still. He didn’t need to check it, whatever Sophie said. He just liked to know.


VI.

Alec’s second big job, after he paid for Nana’s medical bills, was with another sophomore at MIT. His program caught Feng’s program also trying to get final grades early. He dropped out after that semester, but he tracked her down, and found she wasn’t as smart as he was, but plenty more ruthless, and hot. They took all the money MIT had invested in private prisons and moved it to their own offshore accounts, and had a marathon of hungry sex to celebrate. Alec had never felt more free. There didn’t have to be two of him anymore, now that he’d dropped out of college. There was just the secret Alec, the one who held all the strings.

Feng didn’t want to stop there, though. She kept pushing. There was plenty more money in the MIT endowment that wasn’t invested in prisons, after all. Alec hesitated. He didn’t have specific metrics to point to, but he felt the shape of it in his data monitoring: the system was closing in on them. He ran himself ragged trying to get Feng to back off, but she wouldn’t listen. Then he cut himself off from her and went his own way. Less to worry about. Now it was just him and his laptop, in the dark secret rooms where he wielded his power.

In the end, Feng did get caught, but she got off easy because her parents were high up in the Chinese embassy. She returned all the money she stole, and she was living back in Xi’an now, married with a kid. Alec looks at his life and hers and doesn’t regret a thing, not for her sake or for his.


VII.

Then there was the job where Parker stole a Stradivarius. Of course, she’d stolen it from someone it didn’t belong to, and they passed it on to its rightful owner, but in the meantime, she brought it to Alec’s apartment.

She came in through the door for once, instead of her usual window entrance, cradling the violin case in her arms like a baby. Eliot was already there, sharing beers with Alec, the TV blaring color in the background. When Parker came in, she turned the TV off and put the case down in Alec’s lap.

“Parker, you brought this here?” Alec said. “Why? That thing is worth millions.”

“I want to hear you play it,” Parker said. “Like when you played Scheherazade. But without the hypnosis.”

He was not going to do this. This was such a bad idea. But he opened the case and picked up the Stradivarius and its bow, just to feel them in his hands.

“You play really well,” Eliot said.

“Beautiful,” Parker said, watching him.

Alec brought the violin up to his chin, against his own better judgment. His muscles seized up with that old stage fright, an invisible spotlight pinning him like a beetle to a card.

He looked at Eliot and Parker. Eliot leaned toward him on the sofa, his face soft in a way it almost never was. Parker was crouched frog-like on the coffee table, fixed on him, deep eye contact. Alec was pretty sure they were holding their breaths, and those two never forgot to breathe. Their eyes were bright and roved from his eyes to his lips to his hands on the violin, like maybe they were planning to eat him alive once he was done playing, and that was one hell of an incentive, but it wasn’t enough to unfreeze him.

No. What made him finally touch the bow to the string was the healing bruise on his collarbone, a hit he took for Alec, and the faint rope burns on Parker’s hands, which she got when she escaped just on time at Alec’s warning. He wasn’t in the spotlight. There was no audience. They were playing with props backstage, the three of them behind the scenes together.

Alec kept his eyes on them until the last note sighed from the violin.