We tell Eliot Spencer that we're there for the real story, from the mouth of someone who was in the heart of the storm. We want to hear the tale from someone who came into kissing distance of danger and managed to walk away with all limbs intact.
"You want a story about sharks? You want to vicariously experience real danger?" Spencer glares at us. Maybe when he was a kid those eyes might have been termed baby blue, but on this man, they simmer with real history, real pain. "Kid, you're barking up the wrong tree. I'm just a man who's seen some stuff. You want real danger, you talk to the villain of the piece."
A shark? Spencer wants us to interview an actual shark?
"Aw, hell, not one of the dead ones. But I know some live ones. I can introduce you to one." Then the ever-present danger filters from Spencer's face; his stern mask cracks into a grin that wouldn't look out of place on a dad at a wedding."Although in polite society we call 'em lawyers."
The pun is painful, but both of Spencer's companions have clear expressions: if we don't smile at his joke, Spencer could rip us in two with his bare hands.
— It Takes a Thief… to Catch a Shark?: or, how I learned to stop worrying and let the bad guys be the good guys, Newsweek, 2017.
It's not like Hardison had any illusions about his lifestyle. Even living on the Internet pre: George R.R. Martin-era, you still knew that when you played the Game of Thrones you won or you died, and hacking was all about showing who could digitally prove they were the King of the Whole Damned World.
It was like when he got his first computer. Nana hadn't wanted him to have one, but as she always said, before Hardison had a gift with technology, he had a gift with words. It wasn't long, post-persuasion, before he encountered his first QWERTY keyboard. It was a dusty clunky beige piece of kit that Bella and Jax fished out of a dumpster, and Nana bleached it seven times before letting Hardison near it. Hardison spread his fingers over the keys and he knew: this was the surefire path for a dance with the devil. A certain amount of indifference to one's future demise was a key starting point for any criminal who wanted to be at the top of their field.
Hardison was the best at what he did. He kept his skills sharp. He worked hard to stay on top. But the wheel always turned. Someone was always going to be faster than him at something, savvier with a better programming language, quicker to get hold of some new piece of kit that would make today's peak technology look like someone had tied a snail onto a treadmill. Hardison was the King of his trade, but he would be toppled from his throne at some point. Hardison was okay with that. He'd accepted death as the one roll on his D20. He was a criminal, and that's what lawbreakers did - you played the game and quit early, or you played the game until the wheels fell off.
When Hardison pictured his death, he'd imagined several variations. Death by cop. Thrown into the darkest hole Guantanamo Bay possessed. Heart attack from a lifetime diet of hot pockets and orange-colored chemicals.
Something dark fell past his window. Hardison was one lost semicolon away from figuring out the problem in his new algorithm; he was reluctant to disturb himself. It was a ping from one of his social media bots, constantly scouring the internet for various key phrases, that drew him from the eternal mission to search-and-destroy-errant-punctuation, and he pushed his laptop away in horror and ran to the window, staring out into Portland's dismal weather with a slack jaw.
"Eliot!" Hardison yelled. "Eliot, get Parker and get down here, now!"
The things is, Hardison hadn't considered adding death by weather-inflicted man-eating-shark to the list of things that would probably kill him.
Apparently he should have.
The first time I was knowingly — for a given definition of knowingly — affected by Leverage Consulting, it wasn't headed up by its former mastermind, nor its current one: for the mission to discredit Monica Hunter, Leverage Consulting was temporarily headed by dramatic actor Sophie Devereaux. So I am pleased to finally get to meet the woman behind a thousand accents.
"I'm pleased to meet you too," Devereaux says, crossing long shapely legs and demurely smiling at me. She's impeccably made up with waves of rich oak-colored hair spilling over her shoulders. I've seen a thousand variations of her from photograph archives all over the world: a countess in Europe, an art dealer in Australia, a dignitary in Japan. "Gosh," Devereaux says, in a breathy British accent that I still to this day don't know is her real voice or not, when I show her some of the photos I've been accumulating of her, "look at the skin on me then."
She pauses and pulls out another photo in my pile — Devereaux in a glamorous glittering thigh-length dress and heels, a spray of blood on one cheek, and what looks like a railroad spike in one hand.
"That was taken on my honeymoon," Devereaux recalls, fondly smiling, referring to her marriage to Leverage Consulting's Nathan "Nate" Ford. The two met a decade before Leverage Consulting ever formed; Ford was an insurance agent and Devereaux the art thief he infamously chased across Europe. Their romance is the kind of sexy adventures I'm used to from afternoon movies and European art. "Not many people can say their honeymoon was cut short by sharks, I suppose."
The sharkpocalypse happened during her honeymoon? I thought that was unlucky and tell her so.
"Well, it wasn't bad luck, so much as that Nate and I had a nine-month honeymoon," Devereaux laughs. "And at least it means I can cross seeing Eliot punch a shark off my bingo card."
I ask her to explain what she means by bingo card.
"[Alec] Hardison made them," Devereaux laughs. "We each get a square of 25 types of scenarios where Eliot [Spencer] could get inexplicably violent. Him getting to punch a shark helped me get a line."
— "Cracking the Seal on the Department of Mysteries: Who is Leverage Consulting and Why Have We Not Noticed Them Saving The World Every Week?" J. Donlon, KGW-Global Dot Net, Winter 2017
"Do you think I could put a harness on one?" Parker asked, leaning up against the window, tracking a baby shark spinning down through the air to land open-mouthed on a fire hydrant.
"Those won't hold," Hardison said, sealing up another hard drive into a ziplock bag and sliding it into his go bag. "Babe, the windows aren't gonna hold. One more direct hit and they'll shatter like Eliot's nerves at a Sophie Devereaux one-woman play." He turned his gaze to where Eliot was busy looping weapons into some sort of jury-rigged tool belt. "How many grenades are even in our apartment right at this moment?" Another thought struck him. "How many have been here and for how long?" he amended.
"He always rambles when he thinks the apocalypse is beckoning," Eliot sighed. "How many times have we saved the world by now?"
"Seven," Parker said. "Eight if you include the nuclear launch codes we stole by accident last summer."
"We had kids in this building for the Play-Doh thing last year," Hardison said, trying his best not to shriek. "Were the grenades in here then?"
"Shut up and pack, you big baby," Eliot grunted. "We move out in five."
"Five? Five what? Seconds? Minutes? Hours?" Hardison glared and opened his snack drawer, wondering how many twizzlers he could fit into the empty front pocket of his rucksack. Eliot leaned over and slammed in close, pushing a white block of SOS Emergency Rations into his hands. "What the hell is this?"
"Dinner," Eliot said. "Unless you prefer shark kebabs."
"You think you're a comedian and you're not," Hardison said, glaring at Eliot while also shoving the block of Emergency Rations into his rucksack, because sharks were falling from the sky and it was petty to argue too much.
"You keep saying things to me which I should be saying to you," Eliot said.
Hardison opened his mouth to complain, but a beeping sound filled the air instead of his whining. He snapped his mouth shut irritably, but then realized what the sound meant. He dropped his bag on the floor, some of the contents spilling as he flew to his laptop, fingers already outstretched for the keys.
"Dude, c'mon, I don't have time to pick up after you," Eliot said, bending and picking up after Hardison regardless, which really was just one of those beautiful examples of their whole relationship, and one Hardison would have taken more notice of, if he wasn't too busy panicking. "Hardison, seriously, this isn't a time to be getting a new high score on Candy Farm, or whatever weird-ass nerdy thing it is that you're into—"
"You're the one with a Farmville farm," Hardison said, distracted as he poked furiously at the moving images on his laptop screen. "Why am I always right?"
"You're really not," Eliot said, but came over to grip the back of Hardison's chair and peer over his shoulder. "What are you talking about?" He squinted. "Is that what I think it is?"
"I don't know what you think it is," Hardison said, "but if you're thinking oh crap or anything along those lines, then…" He glanced up at Eliot, all humor gone. "Yeah. Yeah, it is what you think it is."
Eliot's expression subtly shifted from pissed to extra-pissed and he pulled out both his phone and his emergency phone; he tossed one to Hardison. "Let's get the gang back together."
"Who are you calling?" Hardison asked.
"Everybody," Eliot said.
Colonel Michael Vance, United States Army Special Operations officer, was formerly Eliot Spencer's CO during Spencer's time in Special Ops.
"No comment," the stoically good-looking colonel says to most of our questions. Can he tell us anything?
"Of course Spencer and his team were able to save the world from man-eating sharks," Vance tells us. "Any one of my guys is scarier than a waterspout teeming with sharks."
The sharkpocalypse was hardly going to be just one waterspout.
"Sharkpocalypse? Is that seriously the crap name they're using for it?" Vance barks a gruff laugh. "Wow. Sharkpocalypse. I guess it's just as bad as the term they were using in LA and New York. Sharknado. Sounds like someone sneezed on a scrabble board."
We show him the Sharknato art that spread around our office like wildfire when the term was coined, earning us another laugh from Vance.
"Sharkpocalypse," Vance sighs. "It's a damn crazy name. But that describes the whole thing. Damn crazy. We damn crazily near destroyed the whole planet. If it hadn't been for Spencer and his people…" He shudders.
We prompted him to finish his sentence.
"You say sharkpocalypse," Vance says, and his hands tremble for a moment before he balls them into fists and glares until we make eye contact with him, an act almost as frightening as being out in a sharknado. "I say something scarier still. Three words."
Our mouths are dry. We're not sure we want to ask what those words are. Our fear seems to delight Colonel Vance; his handsome mouth curls up at the edges into a haunting smirk. His answer gives us nightmares for weeks afterwards.
"Extinction-level event," Vince says, heavily.
— It Takes a Thief… to Catch a Shark?: or, how I learned to stop worrying and let the bad guys be the good guys, Newsweek, 2017.
There's this fantasy that Hardison had as a kid — one he tried to recreate once with a couple of dancers and a Zorb in a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons and an analog handheld camcorder with no tape because he knew what having your face on camera meant — where he would be the world's first black Indiana Jones.
He found out some things very quickly when he tried to pretend to be the whip-cracking archeologist: the whip caused him problems when he tried to use it, because good hand-eye co-ordination with a console and a TV screen didn't translate to good hand-eye-whip co-ordination; he looked damn good in a hat; and Zorbs were pretty good to jam into doorways when security came after you.
While Hardison thought a Zorb might be good now to get over the water, he didn't think it would fare very well against the sharks currently inhabiting said water.
There was something he didn't learn in his hotel room, but rather out in Turner Creek: posing in a fedora might be fun, but running away from bad guys? Not so much. And Indiana Jones did a hell of a lot of running away from bad guys in his career. Eliot might make an incredible Indiana Jones, but Hardison is never going to tell him that. Never.
Well. Hardison might now have plans to surreptitiously get the man into a brown leather jacket. And if a fedora just so happened to find its way into Eliot's possession, well. It was just a sneaky method of forcing a colleague into cosplay. The fact that Eliot's shoulders in a leather jacket would look damn good was just a bonus.
Hardison's cheeks heated. It wasn't the time to be distracted by things like that. Although, maybe it was. Because they were just one bad move away from being eaten by sharks raining from the sky, and they were using cars as stepping stones. It was like actually getting to live a Mario level; Hardison hummed the song that accompanied Mario's flying fish and Eliot got the reference and gave him the stink-eye. Hardison was immune to it though: Eliot's stink-eye was identical to Eliot's resting bitch face, and Hardison had seen too much of that to be affected by it.
"How much farther?" Parker asked, looking way too comfortable with a battery-powered chainsaw for anyone's comfort. She had blood on her, none of it hers. She looked like an avenging angel. If Hardison wasn't already in love with her, he'd— Well, he'd probably assume Eliot and Parker were together, to be honest. The way they both moved through the shark storm was balletic, hypnotic; Hardison stumbled through like a deer learning to walk for the first time.
A kid in the orphanage used to call him Bambi: the nuns picked up on it. Hardison knew how he looked back then — all big brown eyes and long, awkward limbs. It was not the worst nickname he'd ever been given. Besides, it was amusing now to think about all of his bullies out there, trying to survive the sharks without an Eliot or a Parker to get them through. Karma was beautiful.
"Vance has a plane set up for us at the airport," Eliot said. "Just gotta get over the slough and we're home free." He punctuated the free with a swing of a crowbar against the head of an incoming shark; he bared his teeth at the animal as it fell into the water with a splash.
"A plane," Hardison said. "He wants us to fly? Through a sky full of man-eating sharks?"
"We'll fly above the shark-clouds, dummy," Parker said.
"Honey-bear, I don't think you quite get the concept of the waterspouts—" Hardison started.
"I don't have to understand it," Parker said, looking across at him like he's still being a grade-A moron. "I have you."
"Woman's got a point," Eliot said.
"Several," Parker said gleefully, holding out her jacket to show an array of pointy weapons.
Amy Palavi , daughter of tycoon CEO Rohan Palavi of Palavi International, worked for Spencer, Parker and Hardison in their brew pub in Portland, Oregon for two years while she self-funded a BFA in Art Practices at Portland State. She's a bright and beautiful up-and-comer in the graphic illustration world, and she's friendly and welcoming when it comes to questions about the time she spent with the Leverage Consulting team.
When I mentioned the large number of lawsuits that are accumulating for the five members of Leverage Consulting, her expression soured.
"Even though my father would advise me not to, I'll tell you something for nothing," Palavi said. "For the last year I've seen them work miracles for people. Actual miracles. And this time they saved the whole world. So you're telling me they're criminals? If this is what breaking the law looks like, open all the prisons. Blow the gates wide open. If they're criminals, then criminals must mean hero in your vocabulary. Sign me right up."
— "Cracking the Seal on the Department of Mysteries: Who is Leverage Consulting and Why Have We Not Noticed Them Saving The World Every Week?" J. Donlon, KGW-Global Dot Net, Winter 2017
Nate looked weary already to Hardison's eye. But at least both he and Sophie had all their limbs. Hardison grabbed them both in weary hugs before starting the presentation, grateful that Vance had found them a strong enough building to protect them from sharks while they could plan their next steps.
"Last time, Reagan's Strategy Defense Initiative satellite was used to disrupt the cluster of sharknadoes before they could become a sharknicane," Hardison explained, bringing up images of the previous shark-related storm incident, and the satellite involved in stopping the disaster. "A similar process is being discussed and implemented over the following week. It's going to be successful."
"Okay," Sophie said slowly, looking between Parker, Hardison and Eliot. "I'll play. Why did you make us fly through a shark storm to meet you here if the governments are doing their job for once and destroying the sharks?"
"They wouldn't have risked us like that unless they needed us," Nate said. "Something's bad about how they're doing it. Nukes?"
Sophie straightened on her seat. "We're gonna be dealing with fallout?"
"Perhaps worse," Hardison said, grimly. "We need to get in there and convince them to deploy it our way. Or the world is going to be gone. And I'm not being melodramatic."
"He's really not," Eliot said softly, putting a reassuring hand on Hardison's shoulder.
Nate looked between the three of them, Eliot and Parker bookending Hardison, and just nodded, not needing anything else. "So what do you need?"
Parker grinned like she'd been taking lessons from the flying sharks. "We need to steal the whole damn saving-the-world operation."
Eric Hamilton was in the control room during the whole incident. He laughs when he recalls how long the Leverage team had been among them.
"Three days we worked," Hamilton says, "until anyone even slightly noticed something was amiss. Everything seemed so logical that it didn't make any sense to question things."
It was logical for five people to inexplicably pop up from nowhere and start saving the world?
"Well, it didn't make much sense that our bosses skipped over the undefeatable sharks in our morning briefing," Hamilton admits. "But as soon as we saw the footage of them, and saw the data sets, it didn't make any sense not to work full force. Whomever they were, they had the legitimacy of truth on their side."
So how did you find out that they weren't officially sanctioned to be there?
"We heard on the fourth day that these five people who had been so smoothly helping us for days, and had been so nice, were actually con artists," Hamilton says. "We'd heard of the Department of Mysteries, of course, but we thought they were just rumors, y'know? The kind of tale you tell at the staff non-denominational winter party and you're slouching off around the punch bowl trying desperately not to admit you don't know how to Nae-Nae or Gangnam Style. The Department of Mysteries. They show up when you need them and disappear when you don't. Just like Nanny McPhee." He shrugs. "Then it didn't matter - the rumor flew around but they came straight back to work a few hours later like nothing had happened."
Hamilton worked a few cubicles down from Alec Hardison himself. Does he remember anything in particular about the genius who saved the world?
"He smelled like processed foods," Hamilton recalls. "And he liked to hum the imperial death march when things were going badly."
— It Takes a Thief… to Catch a Shark?: or, how I learned to stop worrying and let the bad guys be the good guys, Newsweek, 2017.
"I grifted the essentials," Sophie announced, looking around the large room and the buzz of activity. The con was going smoothly so far; the five of them had been there for nearly three days, and no one had questioned anything yet.
Hardison thought by essentials that she meant more equipment for the programming, until his fingers honest-to-goodness twitched of their own accord and curved automatically around the neck of an Orange Squeeze bottle before his brain even recognized the logo.
"My precious," he cooed.
"Is it normal to be jealous of inanimate objects sometimes?" Parker asked Sophie, as Hardison downed half the bottle of orange and possessively heaped the gummi frogs into a pyramid by the side of his keyboard.
"Perfectly normal," Sophie assured her.
It took a full bottle of the soda and another one opened before Hardison's brain kicked in to its more social polite setting.
"Don't tell me you braved the local 7-11 in this weather," Hardison said, gesturing at a shark-blood splattered window.
"I tried the commissary but that's all pre-packaged food of the wrong kind, no E numbers in sight," Sophie said. "But some of the nerds in the corner were stockpiling them."
"You're going to have to be specific," Hardison said. "We're kind of in a room full of nerds. That's why this thing is going to work."
"It is?" Sophie said. And then shook herself. "I don't mean to sound so doubtful."
"Woman," Hardison said, typing methodically, almost automatically at this point, "sharks are raining from the sky. Doubt is just fine and dandy."
"Who says dandy in this day and age?" Parker asked.
"I do," Hardison said.
"How's it going?" Sophie asked.
"Ask me in four days," Hardison said.
"I will do if I can," Sophie said, "but the committee's meeting." Her face creased into a wrinkle, which just deepened at the sound of gunfire from the roof — another shark spout hitting the facility.
"He's really going to do it then," Parker said, sounding haunted. Hardison took a break from typing to reach over and squeeze her hand. She sent him a watery smile in return.
"We need to," Sophie said. "We all decided coming in that it was what had to be done."
"We're gonna be famous, baby girl," Hardison said, trying to smile at Parker, but she wasn't fooled. Revealing their identities was going to blow their worlds more open than a sky full of man-eating sharks.
A lot of people thought that Leverage Consulting coming into the limelight and expecting not to be instantly thrown in prison was just an ostentatious display of cockiness.
"No, it wasn't melodrama," KGW anchor Joe Donlon says, shaking his head firmly. "It was a deliberate move, because they knew without them, we had no choice. They sacrificed their freedom for the good of all of us. And that's when I knew I had to go live with all I'd gathered over the years. These people were heroes."
Donlon is referencing the moment when Leverage Consulting walked straight into Quantico with their plan on how to permanently stop the man-eating-shark-infested meteorological phenomena that have been plaguing the planet since 2015.
"No one knew who they were," FBI Director James Comey admitted in a candid television interview after the crisis was over. He backtracked faster than a presidential candidate at a live debate on sensing the room is entirely against them. "We had a file on them, obviously. We'd tracked their movements, we knew their operating model. Interpol named them the Department of Mysteries mostly because of the diverse range of crimes the group carried out - the inciting incidents, what caused this team to embark on its Robin Hood-esque missions, how they found the people to help - were a puzzle. It was a mystery. What wasn't a mystery were the cost-effort equations my finance people did. At the end of the day, Leverage Consulting weren't high enough a priority to warrant the millions of US dollars necessary to track them down."
After his stint as FBI director had ended, Comey ended up admitting to an undercover reporter at a bar, "We didn't have a damn clue. They worked with our people for three days straight without us noticing anything remiss, and then the damnedest thing happened. They walked right into a crisis briefing with the President, and these five people were just sitting there at the head of the table — they got past FBI, NCIS, CIA, BAU, Secret Service, the whole shebang. It was embarrassing that they got past all our best security without even tripping a single alarm."
— The Man who Took the Mystery out of the Department of Mysteries, News Weekly 2017.
"Who the hell are these people?" a guy in front in a dark suit demanded. "Get them out of here."
"Uh," one of the technicians said, because Hardison had pushed a tablet at him upon coming in the room, knowing the guy in charge of the switches should be convinced first, or the whole briefing would go down, "with respect, sir— I think you should stop and take a look at these readings—"
"We'll take them through it," Nate said.
"Arrest them," the guy yelled, and then it was bedlam and Eliot doing his thing, punching people instead of sharks this time. Hardison just left them to it while the technician on Hardison's side helped him hook the tablet to the big screens. He did look up just in time to see one of the best moments ever: the expression on the secret service guys when they realized Parker had stolen all their weapons was a memory Hardison was going to treasure for forever. Or at least, until he got thrown into the darkest hole Guantanamo Bay had to offer. Hardison had hacked into their systems; they had a lot of dank darkness to offer.
It was easier if Hardison pretended that it wasn't actually the freaking President sitting at the head of the table. He was just presenting the facts to the team, that's all — his team was just slightly more awesome today than it normally was. Only slightly. Parker and Eliot were hard to beat.
"How did they get in here?" the first man yelled.
"Are you always so mouthy to people who have weapons trained on you?" Eliot snarled.
"My name's Nathan Ford," Nate began. "And we're here to steal you temporarily. We don't want anyone to be hurt, but that doesn't mean we won't hurt you. But if you listen for five minutes, I swear, we'll be—"
"But how did you even get in, this place is locked down tighter than a drum," the first man hissed, apparently uncaring that Eliot had a gun trained at his forehead.
"Hell, man, we've been here three days already, your security hasn't hiccupped even a little," Hardison said. "Maybe when sharks have stopped eating, I don't know, anyone they can get their human-chomping teeth onto, we can look into that. For now, we've got bigger problems."
"And right now, we're the only people in the world who even know you've got a problem," Nate said.
"And we have the skill sets to fix it," Sophie said. "If you let us."
"And it's not like we could just knock on your front door and ask for a cup of coffee and a chat," Eliot said.
"Why not?" the President asked, his voice kind and measured, even if his eyes clearly said oh man and I thought sharks were the worst of it, why did I want this job again?
"We're kind of criminals," Parker said.
A lot of mouths dropped open. But then someone spoke again, regardless of the fact that Parker had all the weapons and looked eternally jumpy.
"Holy crap," one of the men in uniform yelled. "Sir, it's them. It's the Department of Mysteries."
KGW anchor Joe Donlon is majorly credited with breaking the full story of Leverage Consulting in a full-length written exposé for KGW-Global Dot Net: "Cracking the Seal on the Department of Mysteries: Who is Leverage Consulting and Why Have We Not Noticed Them Saving The World Every Week?" The piece has won a gauntlet of awards since being published. The question unanswered at the time still interests readers now: How was he able to pull together such a comprehensive amount of information about the team in such a short space of time when no one else could muster the barest of sentences about them?
"I already had it, if you believe it," Donlon says, chuckling good-naturedly. "Although as we've had four major shark storms over the past two years, I think this is a world where I'm willing to believe a lot."
Donlon clearly had a head start, then. When exactly did he start his investigations?
"After Monica Hunter's discreditation live on air [August, 2009, referring to an exposé by Donlon of fellow TV journalist Monica Hunter's sketchy journalistic practices], the network gave me her time slot. It seemed too good to be true," Donlon recalls. "I'm naturally suspicious, that's what got me into journalism in the first place - relentless curiosity and relentless skepticism. So when [Hunter] was discredited, I had to look further into it."
Donlon recalls that he scraped together all the internal security footage of the last two weeks of Monica's time in the studio, but nearly gave up after six months of zero leads.
"It wasn't zero leads," Donlon interrupts, looking frustrated. "I had tons of leads. But as soon as something looked fruitful, wham. It just disappeared. I soon realized that it was my online investigation that was being sucked up into nothingness. Every time I found even a single line of text that looked interesting on an obscure forum, the whole site would vanish, from the internet, from all the search engines, bam. Gone. Like it never existed."
It's more than likely that Alec Hardison was the mastermind of the online vacuum that accompanied Leverage Consulting wherever they went.
"After everything I had vanished, I knew I had to be careful with what I had," Donlon said. "I had to go old-school."
Donlon kept investigating, keeping as much of his sources and research "offline" as possible. He wrote most of his award-winning exposé on a laptop too old to connect to the internet. His first draft was saved to a floppy disk.
"I knew from my research that there were five people out there turning impossible situations into happy endings," Donlon says, a bemused smile on his face that he can't quite wipe off. "To my embarrassment, it took a year before I realized most of the case files I had were the work of the exact same team. These five people were taking out bad guys all over the planet, and not taking an ounce of credit for it. I could scarcely believe my eyes, but the evidence kept mounting up."
Donlon collected more cases for over four years, but never published the exposé.
"I couldn't risk it," Donlon admits. "You've heard the tale of the Shoemaker's Elves. These people were changing the world. One word from me that they couldn't hack away could have made them flee for good."
Wasn’t he worried about being charged with being an accessory to their myriad crimes?
"By the point in my research where I'd figured them out, I frankly didn't care," Donlon says. "Lock me up with them and throw away the key. They've saved hundreds and lives and if I can by proxy get even 0.1% of credit for it, hell, I'm proud. What a legacy to leave my kids."
Donlon was content to keep their secret, not willing to exchange the good things the team were doing, even if it made him famous - so why the change of mind?
"The five members of Leverage Consulting were masters of their games," Donlon says. "They could hide in plain view. The fact that they were caught… It wasn't an accident."
— The Man who Took the Mystery out of the Department of Mysteries, News Weekly 2017.
"As you're aware, all of the previous shark-infested storms have been inhabited by carcharodon carnivorus," Nate explained. "That species is the one coming down on the Americas and Australia. Europe and Asia, however, they're being hit by the carcharodon perderus."
"They look the same," one of the generals blurted, looking at the footage, and then — realizing he'd spoken out of turn in a room with weapons trained on him, he looked up at Parker and Eliot fearfully.
"Obviously in the wake of the sharknadoes, scientists all over the globe have been analyzing the more lethal species of sharks in the oceans," Nate explained loudly. "Hardison here has been compiling that research. Although carcharodon carnivorus have been the only sharks pulled up into the waterspouts so far, the severity of the storms have implied the sharknado phenomenon wasn't going to be confined to that one species. There was an unrecorded sharknado that hit Turkey last summer, made up of a combination of great white sharks and tiger sharks."
"Why didn't I hear about that?" the President asked, looking accusingly at a couple of his tablemates, both who looked guilty.
"Because hardly any of the sharks survived," Nate explained. "And in the testing that's been done, there's only two other species that scientists think could survive the turbulent forces involved in being picked up out of the sea and thrown onto land. Which… was when the multinational seed conglomerate company called Verdagra stepped in."
A muttering went around the room from a few of the military personnel.
"The two species that were thought to be dangerous were carcharodon perderus, and prionace mortem," Parker said, sliding in next to Nate and moving the presentation forward a slide. "This is prionace mortem, also known as the death shark."
"And I promise, it's not just an ugly name," Sophie said.
"But the death sharks are completely gone," Hardison said. "Verdagra created a genetically-modified virus. The death shark predated solely on one food source, the nephrops mortem, which fed solely on one kind of seaweed. Verdagra released a virus that took out that one kind of seaweed. Remove the food for one trophic level, and the predator that relies on that food source is gonna die out pretty soon, right? It was like dominoes. With the seaweed gone, the nephrops died. And with the nephrops dying, the death sharks started to die."
"And with that, an imminent downside," Eliot said.
"Very imminent," Hardison said. "The starving process caused the prionace mortem to panic, to spread out further in search of more sources of seaweed. Before the species was limited to the North Aegean Coast — but as they were dying, half of the population spread out. Which spooked some of the carcharodon perderus, causing them to shuffle out of their territory. Until then, the perderus and the carnivorus had never met, let alone shared the same ocean space."
"That was when the perderus and the carnivorus started to mate," Parker said. "In the last two years, marine biologists have started to see a number of new sharks in the water - a crossbreed of the two. The carcharodon indomitus. Or literally—" She reached over to click onto the next slide. "The undefeatable shark."
The whole room stared at the shark onscreen — a video footage with a Verdagra stamp of a shark in a tank that, in time-speeded footage, nosed open its tank, and killed a security guard, dragging it back into the tank, consuming him whole and then nosed its tank closed again.
Then Hardison showed it happening four other times. The shark was watching, memorizing the security guard schedule, and killing one, before returning to the tank and destroying all evidence.
"What the hell?" someone at the front breathed.
"They didn't even think to watch the footage until the fourth death," Hardison said. "So they changed the schedule. Changed the times. Put the guards — the ones who would stay — into thick protective gear, gave them weapons."
Two more videos. In the first: the shark smashing through a tank and killing four people. Prowling the empty room as the personnel wised up and locked the building down. The time signature ticked up. Five days. Six. The shark was perfectly fine out of water for that length of time. In the second: a team of four equipped with laser weaponry, coming in to find the shark dead on the floor. Except the shark was just playing dead, and it ripped apart three of the team before getting blasted to pieces by the fourth.
"Singularly, both carnivorus and perderus are deadly to humans," Hardison said. "But combined? Their offspring shows a level of near sentience."
"Look, the next rotation of the guard will be here in minutes, and then we're going to arrest the crap out of you," one guy says, probably a general from the number of medals on his uniform, "and that footage is frankly terrifying, but you're wasting valuable time. Do you realize? This is world saving time you are wasting with, what— petty vengeance? Did Verdagra fire you, or something? We've got three days maximum in which to stop a god-damned sharknicane, and we have a plan in which to do that, which we'd like to actually discuss—"
"Oh, it's not defeating the sharknicane that I'm even worried about," Hardison explained, holding his hands up. "You've got access to four satellites, four collision points, the sharknicanes are gonna be stopped whether we intercept the mission or not. It's how you're stopping them that's the problem."
"Show them the model," Parker said.
"I've been programming this for the past couple of years, feeding in from data from NASA, NSA, Interpol, FBI, every university across the planet with a marine biology department—" Hardison said, booting up the relevant program. "The yellow shows the four current burgeoning spots where sharknicanes are gonna form. The blue shows carnivorus, the red, perderus."
The two sharknicanes forming on the left of the screen, over the Americas, were blue; the two covering the right of the screen, red.
"The green is where four satellites are targeting where the epicenter of the storms are gonna be," Hardison explains. "I'll advance the program for the next seventeen hours for you."
The program showed a moving diagram - the clouds of sharks moving. Forming the sharknicanes. The green weapons hitting the yellow epicenters of the storm.
"You're just proving us all right. The sharknicanes are going to be wiped out," the general said, as the model showed the attacks being successful.
"The sharknicanes, sure," Hardison said, and advanced the program another hour onwards. Most of the red and blue onscreen is wiped out, but the rest…
Practically the whole room stared at the red and blue mixed areas, realization dawning quickly. "They're going to mix them," someone said. Hardison thought it was the vice president, but he wasn't sure.
"The indomitus are non-specific feeders," Parker said. "Not like the death shark. They adapt to whatever prey they can find. And if the surviving numbers breed…"
"Sentient sharks as far as the eye can see," Eliot said.
There was a debate. Of course there was a debate.
"But it wasn't about killing us," Devereaux says. "Thank goodness."
So if they weren't debating about killing or imprisoning the five strangers who had just magically turned up at a briefing with America's top brass and the POTUS himself… what was the debate about?
"Killing a sentient species," Devereaux says, her pretty face somber and sad. "Either we were going to kill off humanity if it all went wrong, or we were going to effectively destroy another species just for achieving the level of intelligence we already — apparently — have."
The sharks couldn't be that intelligent if they decided raining onto land was a good idea.
"The rain was causing major flooding by this point," Devereaux says; when she rolls her eyes, we feel five inches tall. "It was a terrifying briefing for all of us. But they sent us off to work immediately. Albeit, guarded." She smiles, wryly. "We knew it was worth it. If they arrested us or killed us afterwards, well — it's saving the world. There's only one person I know who would choose saving himself above saving the world."
That seems counterproductive to save your life if it meant not having a world to live on.
"Well, he's a sterling fellow that I don't attribute much to in the way of brains," Devereaux says darkly.
Hardison had been coding for twenty hours straight before the briefing, and another twenty hours after the President gave them a temporary pass to keep going; he didn't realize until he felt a pair of hands tug him away from the screen.
"I've gotta—" Hardison started.
"You've gotta sleep," Eliot said. "No arguments."
"But I'm the only—" Hardison tried.
Eliot gripped Hardison's shoulders and stared deeply into his eyes. "You're incredible. But we've only got one of you. And we need you on your game. You're coming with me and you're getting some goddamned sleep." He narrowed his eyes.
"I don't need to," Hardison said, "I'm good to keep going."
"Really?" Eliot said, and let go of one shoulder to grab at Hardison's hand, pulling one of them up between them — there was blood on Hardison's knuckles. Hardison blinked. Oh. Maybe he'd been gnawing at them. But this targeting system was so important and needed to be positioned exactly to stop the apocalypse. "What's better, seventy-two hours of you at half of your effort, or forty-eight hours of you at full strength?"
"Ugh," Hardison said. "Eliot used logic, it was super effective."
Eliot huffed. "Nate told me I'd have to tranq you." Hardison's eyes widened. "Relax, I didn't bring the needle he tried to give me."
Hardison sagged in relief.
"Come on," Eliot said. "I'm going crazy. I can't do the stuff you can. I can just… punch sharks. And stare at the guards who keep eyeballing us like we're gonna explode. But there is one useful thing I can do."
"Punching sharks is awesomely useful."
"It's fun, too, but that's behind the point." Eliot's mouth firmed into a line. "Let me take care of you, man. It's all I know how to do. Hell, it's all I ever want to do."
Hardison opened his mouth to respond but his throat was dry, so he nodded instead, and let Eliot tug him up from his seat. Parker was waiting for them and sandwiched into Hardison's other side, warily watching the guards staring at them their whole way down to the personal quarters on the basement level.
"You wouldn't have put a tranq dart in me, would you?" Hardison asked sleepily. He let Eliot tug his jacket off while Parker unlaced his boots.
"Nah," Eliot said, tugging the covers back. Parker snuggled in first and opened her arms; Hardison moved into them automatically, needing the familiar, and trying not to notice the taser in her hands or the wary eye she kept trained on the sullen guard at their doorway. "I'd never do that to you."
Hardison watched Eliot without speaking, needing something, and not quite knowing what it was; he still didn't know fully, but a weight lifted off his chest when Eliot toed off his boots and climbed into the bed with them. Hardison pressed his forehead into Eliot's back, between his shoulder blades, and curved his body into the reassuring warmth of Parker's arms.
"I meant what I said, I didn't bring a tranq to our talk," Eliot said.
"Thanks," Hardison said.
"I'd have punched you out, no need to waste drugs with a potentially apocalyptic future looming," Eliot said, and Hardison snorted an exhausted laugh into his back.
"I've got a name for all of this," Hardison said.
"Terror?" Parker suggested, finally raising her voice; she'd been silent a lot recently. Hardison kind of hated the few things she had said. "Hell on earth?"
"I'm thinking of calling it the sharkpocalypse," Hardison said.
Alec Hardison's IQ remains untested, but it's estimated to be in the high 190s.
"Clearly even someone with an average IQ, or even the high 160s, they couldn't have put that information together about the potential for the sentient sharks, not so quickly," Linda Johnson says. Johnson, a nurse from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center who encountered Leverage Consulting during a hijacked organ transplant transfer, brings up a photo of Joshua Spin, a smiling young man who wouldn't be alive without the team.
She thinks without the team, none of us would be alive today.
"You have to understand," Johnson enthuses. "To be able to access over eighty organization's data, across the globe, along with years of scientific research, mountains of blueprints and NASA databases… For one mind to do that? And to realize what no one else in the world did, that this sharknicane was going to spell certain doom for the entire planet? And he did it within five minutes of the first sharknado touching down in Portland? His IQ must be off the charts."
Hardison demurs when we confront him with this opinion. "Eliot saw it too. It was something I'd been keeping an eye on. Like a hobby."
Predicting shark-related apocalypses is his hobby?
"Predicting what life-endangering event Parker will try to take me abseiling in, that's my hobby," Hardison says. "The shark part, that was just icing on the cake. A big, chomping, man-eating cake with poison icing."
"That's three states over," Sophie said. Or pleaded, really. "Right through four of the densest waterspout target zones."
"We need them, Soph," Nate said. "They've got the only thing that can stop the breeding process for a while, give us the time we need to stop them for good."
"We don't need any of that right now. Hardison's got this sorted."
"Hardison can stop this. But only temporarily. Then he'll have to do all this again next month. And the next month after that. You've seen the storm projections. Do you really think you can sit and watch him work himself to death, month after month?"
"All I'm saying is get this one over with—"
"And all we're saying," Eliot cut in, "is the world's already going through hell, and we have a chance to make this a one-time trip."
Hardison closed his eyes for a moment and regretted that once upon a time, he'd wished to have normal parents; the experience of hearing his parental figures arguing was disconcerting and unpleasant. He opened his eyes again a moment later. He didn't have any time to waste.
It was halfway through his current algorithm that he even noticed that the argument had ended and Sophie was watching him work; he caught a glimpse of her red lipstick in the reflection of a monitor. The world was ending and Sophie was wearing her fighting shade.
"Are they gone?" Hardison asked.
Sophie huffed a dramatic sigh. "Nice phrasing."
"I'm saving most of my brain for the tricky stuff," Hardison said. "You're lucky you're not getting grunts at this point."
"That's pretty much what Nate and Eliot's argument amounted to." Sophie laughed dryly. "Sure, let's go out into a world that's literally raining man-eating sharks, that's a bright idea."
Hardison didn't respond. Couldn't waste the brain space on worrying about Nate and Eliot. If he gave them even a second of worry, then the panic would claw and claw until it was the only thing in his brain.
"…is she asleep?" Sophie asked, after a long pause.
Hardison shrugged with his spare shoulder. He'd gotten used to Parker's weight against his back and the soft, reassuring rhythm of her breathing. "She guarded me while I slept." He didn't mention that Eliot had too. He still doesn't know how to process how he felt about that. Not fully. But it's not something to share with Sophie when he hasn't figured it out yet for himself. "Trust me, I've given her the lecture about orthopedic mattresses and what my bony spine's gonna do to her, but she was genuinely Parker-ish about her reasoning."
Hardison forced himself to say it again, even though it terrified him the first time. "Said she might not even notice the world was ending, if she died right here with us."
"How is that Parker-ish?"
"Because," Hardison said, "it's cute and it's creepy."
Two of the Leverage team left after five days into the process.
"They didn't run away," Parker says, her pretty doe eyes widening as if we'd just stabbed a puppy in front of her. "Sometimes we split up into groups to be awesome. It's a Leverage thing."
We asked her to describe her relationship with the two Leverage team members - founder Nathan Ford and hard man Eliot Spencer - who left mid-process to escort two ex-Verdagra scientists back to the compound at Quantico.
"They both have hair," Parker says, earnestly. "Nate's has a life of its own and Eliot's has a life of its own too. Really, their hair should have their own entries in the encyclopedia thingy Hardison showed me."
Does she mean the Wikipedia entry on the Leverage team that has been recorded as one of the longest articles on the entire site, with over a hundred contributors daily?
"Wikipedia?" Parker wrinkles her nose. "You should go to the doctors and get some medication for that."
His name was Eric, Hardison thought. He only remembered because Eric was a semi-decent programmer and was good at catching semi colons that sometimes escaped his searching.
Eric had been talking for ten minutes and Hardison tuned him out, more concerned with reprogramming the angles of the missile launchers to take the weight of the new virus capsules. Nate and Eliot were due back soon, too. Hardison was much too distracted to listen to someone rambling until near the end.
"Dude, they're saying you guys are the Department of Mysteries, that you broke into a top secret meeting with, like, the president and you're only here and not languishing in a dungeon because you're the reason we even know about the sentient sharks," Eric said, very quickly.
"You should learn to breathe," Hardison told him, "and yeah, that about sums it up."
Eric's hand went slack and he dropped his pile of papers. "But you guys have been here— for days."
"Yup," Hardison said.
"It's blowing my mind," Eric said. "And— wait, is your friend asleep?"
Hardison focused on Parker's body, still curled against his back. "Maybe."
"I repeat: blowing my mind."
"When are the missile launches happening?" Eric asked.
Hardison shrugged again, because saying in less than ten hours was enough to make him want to start screaming and never stop.
"Hubris?" There's something charming about Nathan Ford, even as he's condescending to you. "You're asking whether it was pride and ego that led to us revealing our identities to the President and to the entire United States military?" He rasps a laugh, before leaning forwards and making very sincere, earnest eye contact with us. "You're right in that we could have done it all without being noticed."
So he did convince his team to reveal their identities for the celebrity, for the kudos?
"Never," Ford says. Even though those around him casually call him Nate with a massive amount of warmth, he never extends the courtesy to us. "We'd all have been happier staying where we were, in the shadows."
That's not an answer.
"Patience, grasshopper." Ford looks amused by his own response, but capitulates quickly, like he's often talking to an audience unappreciative of his sense of humor. "We could have done it entirely in the shadows and the world would have been none the wiser. But therein lay the problem: the world."
They thought the world was a problem? Then why bother saving it?
"You misunderstand. The world was at stake. Until then, all our jobs had been on a small personal scale. We found miscreants who were unpunishable by the law and found a way to redress the imbalance of their actions."
Ford describes their criminal activity so legitimately that it's easy to understand how his work as a confidence artist has been so successful for so long; this modern-day Robin Hood is suave, charismatic and articulate. It's easy to forget he's talking about breaking the law.
"This was a world-affecting event," Ford continues. "The entire world. This wasn't an act of vengeance, or redressing a balance. This was the whole world. This was about the survival of an entire species. We didn't have the right to make that decision."
Some would say he had never had any right to make any of the decisions he had in his career with the Leverage team.
"That's an ethical debate for the courts," Ford says. "Which I still can't talk about. We're going to be tied up in the courts for decades. It's very sad." A roguish twinkle accompanies his sarcasm; the rumors are consistent and probably correct that Alec Hardison is running so much electronic and legal interference that by the time the juries come around to making a decision about the Leverage team's fates, they'll probably be a hundred years old apiece.
We tell Ford that he's being much too melodramatic for someone with such a righteous reason for revealing their identities, leading to them becoming internationally loved and renowned.
"Despite my modal methodologies, I'm still at heart a man with a core set of values. Life. Freedom. Safety. Justice." Ford ticks them off on his fingers. "But even with those fundamentals in place, I've more than my fair share of flaws. A flair for the dramatic is probably my least terrible bad habit."
And what's worse: his well-documented drinking?
"No," Ford laughs. "My hubris."
"If this goes wrong—" Hardison said, but he didn't let himself finish the sentence.
"It won't," Sophie said. "And if it does—" She didn't finish that one, but it sounded okay in Hardison's head, because dying together really shouldn't sound as reassuring as it kinda did.
"Did Nate and Eliot really have to go up into space to help deploy the new virus capsules or—?" Parker said, and then stopped, looking at Sophie and Hardison expectantly.
"Or… what?" Hardison asked.
"I'm sorry, I thought we were playing that game where you only say half the sentence," Parker said. "We're not?"
"Only if the end of the sentence is scary," Sophie said.
"Oh." Parker tilted her head. "Well, the end of my sentence was going to be blah, blah, blah, Nate and Eliot really being helpful, or, are they just up there to have a good time?"
"I don't want to think about it," Sophie said, looking green.
"I'm guessing yes," Hardison said, and sighed, pushing away from the computer.
"You need a rest?" Parker said, instantly alert.
"Well, yes," Hardison said, "but also—" he signaled their perennial guards, "I'm done. Well. This is as done as this is ever gonna get." Sophie and Parker turned to his screen with wide eyes, as if the numbers and strings of random characters will suddenly start making sense to them. "Either this will deploy the missiles in the right pattern to avert the apocalypse, or it'll be as affective as sneezing into a wet tissue."
"You always have a beautiful way with words," Sophie sighed, as the news filtered through the room and the tension became palpable.
"Nana said I had a gift," Hardison said.
People always asked you things like: where were you when x happened? What were you doing? They would definitely do that for the sharkpocalypse. But Hardison was not going to be able to give a suave answer for this occasion. The world was saved and Hardison barely noticed the moment it happened, because he was too busy holding his breath. It felt like he didn't release it until Nate and Eliot came back into the room with some of the other pilots to a riot of noise.
"Welcome back," Parker breathed, throwing herself forwards and holding onto Eliot's neck, limpet tight. Hardison followed, not much better. Eliot would just have to deal with having two other human beings attached to him for a while.
Eliot, bless him, handled being wrapped by two other people as if they weren't really there. He turned to where Nate and Sophie were watching them with matching warm smiles. "So," Eliot said with a forced casualness, as if Parker wasn't petting at his hair, "what now?"
"I've been thinking," Parker said. "Couldn't we still have done all of this without having to show our faces?"
Hardison looked at her and shook his head. "Not really," he said. Parker tilted her head, waiting for an explanation. Hardison looked to Nate.
"The world was never going to come back to normal," Nate said, in as gentle a voice as he could manage. "Four sharknicanes ravaged the planet for seven days, Parker. We weren't ever going to be able to go back to what we were doing. Even though we stopped the sentient sharks from merging now, there's going to be a lot of work to stop it from ever being possible in the future. And too many people have died."
"It's just a different degree of apocalypse," Hardison said, the corners of his mouth turning down. "The world didn't end, but it has changed. Permanently."
"Then what are we going to do?" Parker asked. She gestured at Hardison and Eliot. "This is the only thing I know how to do."
Eliot looked more scared than when there'd been the potential of a world overrun by sentient undefeatable sharks.
"Whatever it is, Eliot and me are doing it too," Hardison said, and tried to ignore the shiver at how good it felt to see and feel Eliot visibly relax against him.
"Well, there's lots of people to save," Sophie said. "Lots of things people with our skills can do to help."
"And while hopefully the rich and the powerful will be just as flummoxed as us," Nate said, "there'll be some who'll try and take advantage of the situation, so we might need to break the law to save the day again." His eyes twinkled. "Alas."
"And thanks to you, Alec," Sophie said, knocking her hip companionably into Hardison's, "we have time to figure it out."
Hardison nodded and pretended valiantly that the warmth behind his eyes wasn't threatening tears. Nope. They were crying, not him. He coughed and ignored his eyes' allergic reaction to, uh, whatever it was in Quantico that made his eyes suddenly water.
"So, punchy fly boy," Hardison said. "How did it feel to shoot a sharknicane?"
Eliot eyeballed him for the name, but let it pass; they were all feeling pretty generous considering their continued survival. "Pretty damn amazing," Eliot said. His hands gripped tighter. "Feels much nicer coming home, though."
"Uh, sharks just destroyed, like, a tenth of the planet including our city," Hardison said. "What home?"
Eliot pulled back a little, but just enough so he could use his are you being stupid? expression, before pointing at him and Parker and rolling his eyes again.
Hardison's cheeks warmed. Nothing like some post-apocalypse-thwarting bonding to make his blood run hot.
So how did Hardison feel after the President personally pardoned them all?
"Incredible," Hardison enthuses, and he really looks bright about it; his model good looks light up when we mention it. "I really thought we were going to be shot. Or have to fake our deaths and go into hiding again."
"Actually, that's more Sophie's thing," Spencer interjects.
"I've faked my death before," Parker says.
Escaping bad guys?
Parker laughs. "Nah, I was just bored."
Does she get bored often?
"I used to before I met these guys, and then only occasionally," Parker says. "But since the sharkpocalypse? No way. I don't have time to be bored. We're setting up survival camps, we're rebuilding towns; busy, busy, busy."
No criminal activities now, then?
"Well, we wouldn't admit that on record," Eliot says.
The Leverage Consulting wikipedia entry occasionally gets updated with new cases, which mysteriously disappear.
"Not mysteriously," Hardison says. "I delete the new ones that are untrue personally."
So is he implying all the previous ones in the article are true? Even the crazy-sounding ones? Did they really steal an entire country?
"I plead the fifth," Hardison says, but all three of them are smiling at us smugly, so we're guessing it's true. Parker says something which sounds to us like, "Not the whole country," which backs up that assumption pretty soundly.
We ask them how they celebrated stopping the sharkpocalypse and gaining their legal freedom.
"Eliot made shark burgers," Parker says.
"I made jokes about man-eating sharks and being a man eating shark," Hardison says.
"We, uh," Eliot says, and then honest-to-goodness blushes when Hardison and Parker shuffle in closer to him with matching smiles, and we want to ask for confirmation about the other rumor about Leverage Consulting, and the kind of relationship the youngest three members have with each other, but none of us are brave enough to ask. "We talked a little about what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives," Eliot finishes, in a strangled sort of voice.
And what did they decide?
"That it doesn't matter," Hardison says, "but we're doing it together. And that's all that counts."