Nate had an immense amount of fun watching two types of worry surrounding him, filling Lucille with a cloud of unease. Hardison’s worry was evident in his swirling around Parker while Sophie prepared her for her role. The hacker was all gentle nudges, encouraging sounds, and smiles. Eliot’s worry had hard edges and glooming darkness; he withdrew, crossed his arms and melted into Lucille’s wall.
Sophie was too busy to express her own worries. Usually, it wouldn’t take long to make Parker into a dazzling beauty, but today it seemed hopeless. Microwaving a corpse into life would have had a better prognosis.
“Open the damn windows,” Eliot said when Parker coughed. Hardison was finely tuned to her, so it triggered his coughing, too.
“What’s the point?” Nate asked from the driver’s seat. He sat sideways so he could monitor their preparations. “We’re all infected, and the number of viruses in the air won’t make it any worse.”
And he really couldn’t imagine that ‘worse’. Every single muscle in his body ached; his head pulsated with pain, and breathing was gruesome effort.
Parker looked exactly as he felt, in spite of Sophie’s attempts with make-up. Powder did cover the thief’s waxy pale face, but her eyes shone with fever.
Rainy, cold afternoon helped in turning her hair into lifeless straw. Sophie gave up on locks and instead drew all that mess into a classy bun with loose whips around the thief’s face. It worked. She put Parker in a small black dress to put an accent on the fragile beauty, and used her fatigue to work for them. Smoky grey around her eyes was the last touch, and they were set.
“Just keep in mind to turn your entire body towards the things you watch,” Hardison said when Parker left the van. Her brooch had a camera.
Crescent Casting Agency building had no blueprints anywhere on the web, and Hardison had no idea where Ann’s photos might’ve been deposited. That added to his frustration, helped and fed by Eliot’s occasional grumbling about unneeded risks and recklessness.
“Standard cameras above the entrance,” Parker said. Nate moved to the back of the van to watch the feed on Hardison’s monitor.
They followed her progress into a spacious lobby, full of lights and people. Hardison worked on his other laptop, making a blueprint of what he saw.
“I thought someone would stop me, but there are too many women here. I passed the reception desk.”
Her camera showed them a busy scene; not only there were dozens of women, but also many delivery services and workers with all kinds of packages.
“They are preparing for something, Parker,” Nate said. “Find out what.”
“And if you can, leave the main building,” Eliot said from behind them. The hitter didn’t leave his dark corner, but he watched the feed with them. “I want to see those two warehouses behind it. This building is probably just for show. It’s possible they keep all important things there, hidden from clients and public.”
She paced the ground floor until Hardison had all doors accounted for.
The first story was trickier to get to, but she followed a small group of giggling women, unnoticed.
“Manners will be on the third floor,” Nate said. “Can you find a staircase and go directly up?”
“Deliveries are going through this building to the back. I’ll try to follow- wait, all of you. I can’t go to both the warehouses and to Manners’ office! Decide what you want… and better, let me do my job – I’m following the ventilation shafts and mapping them.”
The grumble in the thief’s voice was unmistakable, so all of them shut up and let her work in peace.
Hardison jotted down everything he saw in fifteen minutes of Parker’s wandering around.
“Parker, stop!” Sophie said at one point. The thief froze. “Turn around and look at that big package that’s been driven on your right…”
The camera jumped and the screen twirled; Nate had to squint to focus his aching eyes.
The package had one green snowflake on it.
“That’s it,” Sophie whispered. “It’s Frozen Delight Inc. They are the biggest provider of ice sculptures in Portland. Manners is preparing a huge party. That’s our way in.”
Nate studied the green snowflake. “How could you know? We’ve been in Portland only a week-“
“I was researching eventual prompts for my first play. A scene full of ice sculptures would look magnificent, don’t you think? But they are expensive – every sculpture is delivered in a fridge built exclusively for that shape. The sculptures are unique; each and every one is crafted and carved, not molded.”
“Well, I’ve seen eight of those packages up to now,” Parker said. “They were all heading to the back, to the warehouses-“
“And what did I say?” Eliot said. “Follow the packages. If we see what they are doing there, you won’t have to meet Manners at all.”
“Yeah, I’m with you on it,” Hardison quickly added. “Leave the third floor and go back.”
And that way their blonde wouldn’t have to meet the man probably responsible for murdering two other blondes. Nate wondered if this cold, flu, whatever it was, was responsible for their unified fretting. Parker had her share of dangerous encounters before, and nobody panicked. Yet, nobody felt this shitty in this particular way before. Even Eliot moved slowly, reminding him of his recovery days back in Boston. Catching a bullet and almost bleeding to death hadn’t, however, put the hitter onto high protective alert, though he’d been aware he might not be an effective back up. One small virus did that now.
Parker ignored their whining. Her camera turned to a wall mirror, so all of them could see her frown and a tongue stuck out as a reply to their obstructions.
“My, my, isn’t it a charming sight?”
A male voice, unmistakably British, said from the left. She jumped up and turned around to glance at Danny Manners standing at the open door of his office. Silvery grey suit, steely blue eyes, and smile with hard edges in it.
“It’s perfect, Parker!” Sophie quickly said. “He wouldn’t think you are suspicious; cops don’t make grimaces at themselves. Just be natural.”
Nate thought that ‘be natural’ was the worst piece of advice one could say to Parker, but said nothing.
“You are Danny Manners?” Parker blurted out. “I’m here to see you. I want you to represent me.”
“All future clients are supposed to be stopped at the lobby. You have to make an appointment.” He eyed her from head to toe. Slowly.
Nate heard Hardison gritting his teeth. Eliot moved forward and Sophie made room for him.
“That man is dangerous, Parker,” the hitter said. “He ain’t like that hockey player you flirted with. This one is the real deal. Look how he stands; he is well built but moves with ease. He looks like he is able to move that fridge with one hand – don’t push your luck and don’t-“ his words ended in a grunt when Sophie elbowed his ribs.
“Don’t let him spook you, dear,” the grifter purred; Nate was certain she meant Eliot, but it would work for both of men. “Just imagine him with your Bunny on his head.”
Parker’s snort-chuckle was mirrored on Manners’ face. He raised his eyebrows in surprise and smiled.
“I don’t wait for appointments,” Parker said. “I aim for the head.”
In more ways than one. Nate hoped Manners didn’t read that from her smile.
“My name and my contact,” Parker offered her card. “You just got yourself a new client, Mr. Manners.”
He took the card and glanced at it, then locked his eyes on hers.
Nate knew what he saw; Parker’s camera didn’t move a millimeter. She didn’t breathe, didn’t move, and her eyes were wide open, returning his gaze squarely. No backing, no hesitation.
For three seconds, nobody in Lucille breathed.
“I guess I have a new client, then,” Manners finally said. “I like your attitude.”
“And what now?” she said.
“No, Parker, don’t ask him- just leave, you did what you wanted-“
Manners took a step closer to her. She didn’t move. “I’m too busy for signing contracts for now. We have a big celebration this night, a masquerade ball. Come tonight – and surprise me with your outfit.”
“Cough on the bastard,” Hardison growled.
“It will be my pleasure,” she said.
The camera twirled when she turned around to leave, and all four of them covered their eyes for a second. Good thing Lucille was parked, so no other movement added to this wobbliness.
They followed her path down the stairs.
“Don’t forget to leave your phone in some plant in the lobby,” Hardison added when she reached the ground floor.
She passed by more packages, more women and workers, and stood by a giant hibiscus tree to correct her stockings.
“The eagle is planted,” she said.
“That’ the sweetest nonsense I’ve ever heard,” Hardison said. “And now, leave, leave, leave that place. I have everything I need now.”
“That woman looks familiar,” Randall Coddington said to his partner. They sat in the surveillance car and observed the front gate of Crescent Casting Agency.
Ann Lisa sank deeper in her seat. “Which woman? I see five.” Her reply was gruff, completely in tone with her behavior that entire day.
“The blonde in a black dress. She came from… aaand, she is gone.” He caught only a profile of a lithe woman, a glimpse out of the corner of his eye, and before he could turn and look directly at her, she had disappeared around the corner.
“Someone you know?”
“I’m not sure – but I hope not. She probably only reminded me of someone…”
He hated the hesitation seeping into his voice. Ann caught it and looked at him.
“An unpleasant memory from Boston,” he said. “The woman in question, young blonde just like this passing one was, wanted to kill me. I saw her only once, and my, I surely hope I won’t see her ever again. Lunatic. When I was in hospital, she filled my food with laxatives.”
Simply stirring up the memory brought back his old tic; his left eyelid twitched. His therapist had worked on that for two months before he was able to control it.
Ann Lisa watched him with interest, but he wasn’t willing to share more. Yet, it was the first time since they parked here that Ann Lisa forgot to keep her face in the shadows.
“I didn’t know you were shot in Boston,” she said.
“I wasn’t.” His short reply wasn’t exactly inviting more questions, and she got the message.
She turned her hand and took a look at her watch. “We are done here soon. How many more days of this useless surveillance before everyone admits we’ve hit a cold trail? We didn’t find any connection with these murders.”
“Yet,” he said. For months he had admired her perseverance, watching her every day in action. She pushed, never letting go, never leaving a case until there was nothing left to do. It wasn’t like her to give up so easily. “We’ve only been on it a few days.”
She coughed and wiped her nose.
“You know what?” he said. “You go home and take something for that cold. I’ll wait for Paulo and Justin and brief them in. They will be here tonight during that party; if our luck holds and they find us some better leads, we might end this tomorrow.”
“I do feel lousy,” she said. Maybe it was only that – maybe all his suspicions about her strange behavior were stupid. Nobody could behave normal when sick.
But when she glanced back at the building, her face fell.
Maybe the shadows put that haunted look in her eyes. Or maybe he just caught a glaze of fever.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll go, if it’s alright with you.” For a moment, she sounded like Ann Lisa, and not this strange new person.
He watched her leaving, studied her shielding her face, and tried to say to himself it was only because she was a cop on surveillance duty. Nothing more. No other reasons to hide.
If Eliot Spencer knew anything, it was the distinction between soldier and warrior. He could smell it from only posture or from a glint in someone’s eye – and he was never wrong.
This Manners dude was the nastiest kind. His smile was open and broad, charming as hell. I’m a good neighbor, you can trust me. The type of a man you would ask for help without thinking, because you saw many like him in local pubs. A hard-working man with a heart of gold.
He would put a bullet in Parker’s head with the same broad, warm smile, and his eyes wouldn’t change.
Eliot knew Nate could feel that darkness in their mark; probably Sophie, too. But Hardison and Parker couldn’t. It wasn’t their world.
It wasn’t clever to think about that while feeling shitty and beaten to a pulp. Everybody usually listened to his warnings, even Nate, but not when they sounded like whining wrapped in nagging and dipped into irritating sniffling.
They had a job to do. How things were going, that wasn’t going to happen.
They returned to the office and dragged themselves inside. All of them needed more soup, but he couldn’t go to the kitchen in this state, spreading viruses onto food and staff. He made an order and tried to evade Sophie who ran around, fueled with her own fever, with a thermometer in her hand. He growled her away twice before she had a chance to go near his ear with that thing.
Hardison already had 102. That didn’t stop his typing. God only knew how he managed to hit the right keys, wrapped in a blanket, shivering and cursing under his breath.
Nate didn’t seem to be sick at all, but only because they got used seeing him half dead with his hangovers.
Only Parker didn’t have fever yet.
“We have two options,” Nate said when Sophie finally collapsed into the chair.
Nobody seemed to be eager to hear them.
“We have a mark to take down. And we have a client who needs helping. Right now, it isn’t just one job. We can’t pull it off. Bringing Manners down, tonight on that masquerade ball, is too much for us. It would take all five of us, in good shape, and a complicated con.”
Right now, even moving from one chair to another sounded complicated. Eliot wasn’t sure what he hated the most: the fact that Nate was right, or the fact he had to acknowledge his own limitations.
“Branlhmrve,” said Sophie. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I believe we should let Parker cough on him. Let nature do her job. In five days, we’ll be okay – and he will be in the middle of this nasty flu. Easy target.”
“Right.” Nate sighed. “But Ann Lisa needs those photos before the cops find a connection. If we can concentrate on that part alone, it will give us leeway. She would be safe and we’ll have enough time to prepare for Manners.”
“I made blueprints of the building,” Hardison said. “Most of it. Only a few blind spots.”
“And I have complete ventilation plan in my head,” Parker finished.
Nate now looked at him, and Eliot shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. “I’m functional. What do you have in mind?”
“A quick grab and go. Using the pre-party mess of preparations and lots of people.”
“You mean, smash and grab.” He exchanged a glance with Parker, who nodded.
“I saw a safe through the open door in his office,” Parker said. “No cameras on the staircase, and a good entrance point. The main ventilation pipe goes from the staircase through the hallway on the third floor, entering the offices.”
“You two are in better shape,” Nate said. “Can you do it?”
Parker got up. She was still in her dress; now she glanced around for her clothes. “I can do it alone.”
Yeah, right. Eliot didn’t feel like grinning, but he couldn’t stop an evil one. Like he would let her go – or any of them – near Manners without the hitter. Maybe after five bullets, not after one stupid virus.
And there they were, two hours after that fiasco, Parker shivering and he sporting a few new bruises. He was too drained to be angry at the thought they were beaten and forced to run home with their tails between their legs.
Maybe they could pull it off if Parker hadn’t sneezed in the vent. He could keep the security at bay long enough – heck, even getting pummeled was some sort of stalling – and they only needed a few more minutes.
It was strange how fever and full sinuses could mess up one’s speed and coordination. He had received one hit for every one he placed, and that score was unheard of.
“It was just a bit of bad luck.” Sophie’s voice emanated out from under the towel over her head. She had robbed the kitchen and put a solid amount of mint tea in hot water, inhaling the steam.
Parker let out a dull hrmpf from her chair. Nate had put her there when they finally arrived. He even wrapped her into a blanket, stopping his awkward tucking at her first glare.
“How blown are we?” Eliot asked.
“It’s hard to tell.” Nate shrugged from the work station. His attempts to sit upright were remarkable; beside him, Hardison was slouched in a bundle of blankets, resting his head on the table. “Parker wasn’t seen, maybe only as a blonde shadow in passing. You, on the other hand… five security guys saw your face. It will reduce your role in everything we do, when we finally start.”
“But we’re done for today?” Sophie sniffed from the towel. She raised her head to squint at them, then lowered it again.
“Yeah, we’re done.” Nate looked towards the door, eyeing the distance. “We should go home, all of us, and try to… well, get better. As soon as possible.”
Nobody moved. Eliot only imagined driving to his place – or even calling a taxi – and another wave of headache came with that thought. Sophie didn’t seem to be able to walk.
Hardison and Parker were in better position, just a few stairs apart from their apartment.
“While you were gone, I ordered more soup and tea,” Hardison mumbled. “And while we wait for it, I have an idea.”
“It’s a matter of mind over body,” Hardison proclaimed. “Come here.”
Eliot partially agreed. Hardison even looked a bit better since he got up, arranging the chairs from the restaurant in a semi-circle around big chair. A slightly manic glint in the hacker’s eye, however, was disturbing, promising all sorts of geeky nonsense. He would have trouble to endure that even in his best shape. Now, aching all over and irritated to the level of insanity, he was solidly worried about this idea.
“My mind aches, too,” Sophie said, not impressed at all. “If you want anything more demanding than-“
“No, no, not demanding at all! Just fun that will help us forget our sinuses pulsate filled with prickly alien worms eating our brain.”
“Euw.” She put the towel back on her head.
Hardison dragged a small coffee table into the middle.
“We are playing Monopoly,” he proclaimed.
Nate snorted. “Of all bad ideas you had, Hardison, this one is-“
“Parker’s never played Monopoly.”
Eliot crossed his arms and sank deeper in his chair, watching the battle on Nate’s face. It was fascinating. Nate stood caught in his attempt of standing up and leaving; he glanced at Parker and the small frown of concentration while she watched Hardison spreading the board on the table. That rare frown Eliot saw only once before, when she waited for Nate and Sophie to give her her Christmas present last year.
Eliot could bet the result of Nate’s inner struggle, but he was careful not to show his smirk.
Nate slowly sat back.
“You can leave, all of you,” Hardison said. “But it’s cold outside, wet, and probably raining, and here we have warmth, a game and warm beverages.”
That, actually, sounded great. And nothing could go wrong in an innocent game, right?
Except it could.
The first sign this would be an evening to remember was the strange color of the board.
“The old Monopoly is boring. This is the Middle Earth edition. Three dices for speed, gold instead of money, and-“
“Wait.” Parker raised her hand. “What money?”
“Money you have at the beginning, and you earn more by buying-“
“Real money? Real gold?”
“I won’t play unless it’s real money on the table, Hardison.”
At that point, even Sophie leaned closer. Nate sat with his fingers tented, and his stare set firmly on the squirming hacker. Eliot seriously started to enjoy this.
“Okay. As far as I’m concerned, my part of it is real money. What you win, it’s yours.” He turned to the rest of them. “To make it more interesting for you, I brought this.” He raised his hand with a deck of cards in them. “Poker instead of a bank. Every player starts with only a small amount of money, and earns more through a combination of buying, renting and winning poker games. These are timed, just like chess moves. We don’t want your thinking to stall the Monopoly game. Fifteen seconds for each player.”
“Can we cheat?” Sophie asked. “I won’t play unless we are allowed to cheat.”
Hardison glared at her. Too late. Parker chuckled and grabbed the deck.
“Only one question, Hardison.” Nate’s tone was the most irritable one; gentle encouraging wrapped in a smirk, an equivalent of derisive tapping on Hardison’s head. He dosed it perfectly. He always did. “Who will lead the game and keep scores, deal cards, count money, note transactions, monitor cheating?”
“Hey! I play games online with dozens of players. I’m a multitasking beast. I can handle four sick people at the table. You’re not, quite, in my league, ladies and gentlemen.”
Evil glances flew across the table, in all directions.
Eliot put on his most benign smile. Challenge accepted.
“The principle is the same as in old Monopoly. You buy four houses in the Shire, and you can buy a Pub. Buy four orc lairs in Orthanc, and you can buy a Tower. We roll the dices in turns, and go around the board.”
Parker sat stupefied, staring at the false money, seemingly not paying any attention to Hardison’s words. Yet, Nate knew better.
Nate knew them all, and he withdrew a little, more observing them than really playing.
Situations like this one often reminded him of a thing he had almost forgotten during those years he worked with them – how different and unique their set of skills was. Now it seemed they were ready to wake up even the forgotten ones, when a challenge stirred them.
Flu helped. Maybe if they weren’t distraught and feeling this lousy, nobody would care about complicating this to the point where Hardison admitted he lost all control of the game.
Parker proclaimed, at the very beginning, that she liked elf tree houses, and started a race with everybody to get them.
After every round of rolling the dices, they played poker game, and false money started to pile in front of Eliot.
Yet, Hardison wasn’t letting them disturb him.
“Three penalty points to Eliot Spencer for indecent use of a decoy,” he said.
“What the hell is indecent use of – give back that money!”
Hardison put the three bills he snatched from his pile in the bank. “You distracted Parker by moving her money aside, and you checked her cards.”
“Nobody said anything about penalty points,” Sophie said. She took the hacker’s hot chocolate and poured it into her glass; Hardison eyed her as if trying to see what else she had done while doing that. He didn’t notice Parker taking the three Chance cards from his deck and hiding them.
Nate shuffled the poker deck while waiting on his turn to roll the dice.
“You, leave that deck alone,” Hardison said. “I deal – you only play.”
“Yes, of course,” he said. He waited, though, until Eliot leaned forward across the table, drawing Hardison’s attention to his token, in the shape of a tiny hobbit with a backpack. Eliot took it and lay it aside with no reason at all. It gave Nate enough time to snatch two aces from the deck before he returned it to Hardison’s side of the table.
Hardison glared at Eliot; Eliot smiled back. Parker blinked at Sophie; Sophie played with the dice. She couldn’t do anything with them, they all knew that, but Hardison tried to anticipate their every move.
Maybe, if instead of him, there was an octopus with three heads, he could control the game and, more importantly, the players.
It took fifteen minutes before Parker reluctantly gave up some of money that she’d earned in poker, and bought her first property. By that time Sophie had already spread as landlord all over the board. Eliot piled up the money, concentrating more on poker than on the board, and Nate moved at a snail’s pace.
Hardison’s hobbit then stepped onto Parker’s property, and Hardison told her she could collect rent from him. The light of revelation shone in her eyes, and Nate knew only a miracle could save Hardison from complete bankruptcy.
“In this game, Out of Jail Free cards are called Out of Thranduil’s Dungeon Free card,” Hardison said when Sophie drew The Dungeon card and returned her hobbit half a board backwards.
Parker checked her sleeve and grinned. When Hardison dealt the poker cards, she chose one of them and held it ready.
Tissues, scattered all around the table, were used both for their primary purpose – Hardison wiped his running nose after every second move – and for hiding stolen money, cards and poker chips. Sophie’s sticky fingers continually chipped at Eliot’s pile of money. Nate let her give him the half of it when he was running low. In return, he gave her his collection of four aces and four kings that he snatched from the deck in few shufflings.
Tea and hot chocolate didn’t help their coughing. They were getting worse rapidly, and that only cemented their determination in the game. He would enjoy watching them using their own weaknesses to force them forward, if only his head wouldn’t feel like it had been cleaved in half. Headache was unstoppable; and not only his.
Eliot and Sophie were bluffing each other at full speed, but Nate watched Parker. She stole Hardison’s hobbit, thought about it, then returned it at his spot without him noticing it. After that, she helped herself to some money from the bank, and studied the fields, clearly deciding what to buy next and why.
Fever struck hard when the next round of rolling the dice began, and Nate had no idea how long he could endure this. He balanced between having tremendous fun and wanting to crawl away and curl up in the corner, and he knew all of them felt the same. Hardison’s and Parker’s fever manifested in almost manic eagerness, it was as if their batteries were fueled by high temperatures. Eliot, on the other hand, burned inside, slower and slower with each move of his hobbit. Sophie mostly quietly whined, which was the best sign she felt better than any of them.
“The longest Monopoly game lasted seventy days,” Hardison said as if he read his mind. “But since Nate is losing miserably, and Parker has no idea what she is doing, we will very soon see who is in the lead.”
But what they saw, after Eliot put his hobbit on the same field as where Parker’s stood, was another altering of Hardison’s already stretched rules.
“Nobody puts his hobbit on the same field I want to buy!” Parker said. “I want your Tower, or you have to fight.”
Eliot had already bought four houses in Minas Tirith and he was one step from buying the Tower of Ecthelion. “No way, Parker – you have your elf houses, play with them.”
“Then it’s fight.”
“As you wish. I care not.”
“No, you can’t-“ Hardison took both hobbits as hostages, and put the dice down. “Stop! No fighting – and how would you fight, anyway? Clashing your hobbits against each other? Damn, that sounded wrong-“
Parker pulled out her hidden card and shoved it into Hardison’s face. “Out of Jail Free Card!”
“You’re not in jail, you can’t- what in fact do you think that card means?”
“You said it’s the most important one.”
“Maybe for you, but not really. Can I give you back your hobbits? Will you behave?”
At that point Eliot was already growling; a low, nasty sound.
A piercing sound cut through that low one; Sophie’s phone rang, stirring them all in one painful wave. Sounds hurt. She fished it out of her pocket, and frowned when she saw the caller. She put the call on speakerphone.
“Yes, Ann Lisa?”
“Sophie, I’m at Manners’ costume party.” Her voice sounded breathless, with a tinge of panic.
“Why? I told you we won’t go there tonight. That’s not clever.”
“They sped everything up and left me out – they know! I’ll do what I can while I’m-
“Wait, Ann Lisa, slow down. Who are they?”
“The police. I just saw my partner here at the party, dressed as Batman. You know what that means? They are now working without me, I’m shut out, they know I blew up that last action, and they are making a move. I have to get to those photos - it’s now or never!”
But it was too late. She cut the call.
Everybody agreed with Sophie’s comment.
“We have to get her out of there,” she said, still staring at the phone in her hand. “She’ll do something stupid.”
Yeah, they all knew what that meant; leaving the brewery with an average temperature of 102, without a plan, without proper recon, while they were barely able to walk. They were playing the game just to delay going home, so tiresome that travel would have been… and now they had to act.
Nate watched them all, thrown off game, trying to get it together and return to their normal world. It took much longer than usual.
Leverage Inc. had never before seen such slow movement, nor preparations executed with that little enthusiasm.
“Let’s steal ourselves…” Nate began and stopped. He blinked slowly before slumping his shoulders. “…bleh, never mind. Just go.”