“C’mon, Eliot, don’t be like that!” Hardison whined as if Eliot were ruining his fun. And he probably would find it fun, an entire evening to needle Eliot with his geek speak, no escape possible.
“I said, ‘no.’” Arms crossed this time, eyes straight forward. As if a firm response had ever swayed his team members’ opinions.
“Is it because you’re uncomfortable goin’ with a guy?” That was Parker, mouth full, never worried about manners or afraid to be blunt.
“What? No! It’s not-” He spluttered in defense but was cut off by an indignant Hardison.
“Oh, so it’s just me you don’t like? Or Nate? What’s wrong with us, huh? Is it ‘cause-”
“Dammit, Hardison! It’s-it’s ‘cause I got some weird sort of familial feeling for you guys! I ain’t gonna take either of ya as my date somewhere… That’d go for the girls, too.”
“Well, you’re going to have to get over it, sweetie. This con requires that you take one of our male team members on a date.” Sophie took over trying to persuade him.
“Why’s it gotta be me, huh? Why can’t Nate and Hardison do it?”
Parker guffawed and choked on the cereal she’d been enthusiastically masticating, as if she had tried to both snort and laugh in disbelief.
“Oh no, that wouldn’t work at all! Nate and Hardison obviously have a father-son vibe between them. No, the two of them would be too obviously fake.” Sophie dismissed his suggestion with softly-voiced words and a wave of her hand.
“And me with one of them wouldn’t be?” Eliot’s incredulity was about to reach explosive proportions.
“No. I’ll find my own date for this damn thing.”
Silence fell as the team tried to imagine Eliot picking up a guy. To take to a formal dress gala. Tried to imagine what kind of guy Eliot might bring with him.
Eliot didn’t give them time to recover. Seizing his momentary advantage, he walked out, snagging an extra earbud and their tickets to the gala on the way.
Hardison gaped after him. “Did he just…?”
“Are we going after him?”
Nate pondered for a moment, “I think…no. Eliot’s never let us down on the job before, we’ll let him find someone he’s comfortable working with on this one. Just in case, though, Hardison, I want you on standby. Ready to go to the gala at a moment’s notice if need be. Sophie, help him out with that. Parker-”
“I’ll go steal a pumpkin!” she leapt out of her seat and cried out excitedly.
“What?” Nate’s brow momentarily crinkled in confusion before he set it aside and moved on. “No. Parker, you’ll be there as a waiter, so you can slip away at Eliot’s distraction and take a look at Mr. Howard’s office. Everyone understand? Good. Let’s go steal a charity!”
After his usual dramatic exit, Sophie and Hardison turned to look at Parker.
“Parker, sweetie, why did you think Nate would want you to steal a pumpkin?”
“Yeah, girl, what was that about?”
“Silly! Everyone knows you can’t go to a ball without a magic pumpkin carriage. But we need a fairy godmother to turn the pumpkin into a carriage, first. Nate didn’t want me to steal a pumpkin, though, and he didn’t mention anything about a fairy godmother. Does he think Eliot’s already got one? Does he-”
“I’m sure Eliot will be fine, Parker,” Sophie soothed. “And anyway, it’s not exactly a ball. Although let’s make sure the next one isn’t men only, I have a new dress I’ve just been dying to try out. Gotta go, lots to do to get ready!” A graceful move sweeping her purse up to her shoulder, the click of her heels, and she was out the door.
Parker whipped around to face Hardison. “Do you think we did it?” she whispered.
Hardison shrugged. “I found us a case that Eliot needs to date a guy for. I even made sure he’s in town, too. I don’t know what more we could’ve done except lock the two of them in a closet together and hope they don’t kill us when they make it out of there.”
“That’s ok, locking them up together is Plan M. This is only Plan F.”
“What? What were your other plans? Wait – Plan M? It’s not like one on Nate’s Plan Ms, is it? I don’t die, right? Right, Parker? Parker?!”
Parker’s high-pitched shriek of delight as she watched Eliot and Quinn enter the gala together caused everyone to wince and Eliot to curse.
“Dammit Hardison! What the hell was that?”
“Uhhh…just some feedback from having an extra earbud on the system tonight. Lemme adjust some things here…” He took his earbud out and turned to Parker, “What are you still doing here? Get out there and waitress!”
Parked pulled a face of mock solemnity and saluted, “Yessir, Nate, sir!” Then she slipped her own earbud in her ear, slipped out of the van, and was soon mingled with the other wait staff inside.
Hardison shook his head at Parker’s antics and returned his earbud to his ear to hear Nate saying, “-everyone in place now? Ok, quick run-down for Quinn-”
“Oh, can I do this part?” Sophie interrupted. “Since I’m all dressed up and have nowhere to go.”
“Yes, why are you all dressed up tonight, Sophie? Never mind,” Nate sighed, “Go ahead.”
Eliot could only imagine the look Sophie had given Nate to get her way. Really, he did feel a bit sorry for her; this part of the con, at least, was a simple one that didn’t require a grifter, and she was excluded from the gala which was really much more her thing than his and Quinn’s. Still, “Guys, I already-”
“The Dunlin Initiative,” Sophie began. “Founded by Nathan Ingram in-”
Eliot huffed and shrugged at Quinn, who simply grinned back. The two paid minimal attention to Sophie’s briefing as they walked around the room, casing the place more thoroughly under the guise of searching for their assigned table. At one point, Quinn nudged Eliot and indicated another couple with a slight tilt of the head in their direction, interested eyebrow raised over the glint in his eye.
Eliot glanced over to see a tall man with short dark hair that was greying at the temples, clearly accompanying a shorter man wearing a three-piece suit and glasses, if the gentle, protective hand he kept at the other man’s back was any indication. Quinn might have been simply pointing out a couple he found endearing – Quinn could be an old romantic like that sometimes – if it hadn’t also been clear to Eliot that the taller man was carrying a gun.
“What is it, Eliot? Do you or Quinn have a question about tonight’s job?” Sophie asked.
“Nah, I tried to tell you guys I already brought Quinn up to speed. Bad form to send someone into a situation with no intel. No, Nate, there’s a guy here with a gun.”
“Did Mr. Howard bring in some extra security at the last minute?”
“I’ll check his accounts,” Hardison said.
But Quinn answered, “He’s the only one among the guests with a gun; I doubt he’s part of an extra security team.”
“Is he a problem, Eliot?”
“Hard to tell. He certainly could be a problem if he wanted to be; he’s CIA, or ex-CIA at the very least. But I doubt he’s here on official business. And if he’s former CIA, he could just be paranoid enough to take a gun with him everywhere he goes. We’ll keep an eye on him.”
“Ok. Parker, make your way in that direction, see if you can find out anything about our CIA friend.”
“Table four, be careful,” Quinn interrupted.
“Eliot and Quinn, stick to the plan for now.”
“Tell me why we’re here, Finch.”
Finch, as usual, deflected. “It’s rare that we get an evening without a number to work; I wanted to take advantage.”
“That explains why we’re not just hanging out at the library, but tell me why we’re here.” It was always risky to push with Finch – always likely that he’d simply clam up and not say a word – but John didn’t feel as though he were pushing for any deep, dark secrets here. Especially since Finch had asked him to come along; it seemed, in this case, as though Finch might be willing to share.
Harold twisted to look at John, that awkward full-body movement that John had come to find so endearing simply because it was uniquely Harold in his experience, his sharply intelligent eyes peering at John from behind thick-framed glasses appearing to evaluate whether John was worth his confidence. John tried not to appear too eager, as he always was to learn something new about Harold. Satisfied, Harold then twisted back to look about and assure himself that no one was paying any attention to their conversation.
Having made their way through the line and presented their tickets, John gently rested a hand a Harold’s back to guide him through the crowd and provide as much of a buffer as possible between Harold and the ignorant partygoers who might thoughtlessly bump into him and aggravate his old injuries. Just because Harold had lived with pain for years now didn’t mean he should suffer fools to cause him even more on those rare occasions when he did go out to socialize, John thought.
“Nathan and I…we knew many people affected by the AIDS crisis in the 80s. It was…terrifying…seeing so many people around us fall to the disease. It seemed almost every day a new named was added to the already heartbreakingly long list of victims. And there was nothing we could do about it.” Harold felt the pressure of John’s hand at his back deepen as John offered the comfort and reassurance of his steady presence.
“One of the first things we did after IFT really got going – started making enough money – was to set up the Dunlin Initiative, a charity to help those suffering with HIV or AIDS in any way we could; help pay for drugs or treatments, for lodging, for at-home care. It would have been silly to limit who could donate to our charity, but there was such a stigma on gay men in particular because of the AIDS crisis that we started a tradition. Once a year, we hosted an event for men only – a fundraiser, of course, but also something of a celebration. It’s…changed quite a bit since it passed out of our hands after our deaths,” Harold said as he gazed around, somewhat wide-eyed.
“How so?” John asked softly. He didn’t say anything to Harold yet, but felt they were being watched. Instead, as they had reached their table, he pulled out Harold’s chair for him and sat beside him, casually scanning the room as he did so.
“Well, it wasn’t as over-the-top or extravagant as anything you might have seen at a Pride event, but it was perhaps similar in idea – a safe space for gay men to celebrate their individuality and support each other. We saw a lot of…unique personalities. I wonder when it became such a good old boys club. What is it, Mr. Reese?”
There, John spotted their observers. The two men – one a six foot tall blond, the other a slightly shorter long-haired brunet, both well-trained to John’s eye – weren’t looking at them anymore, but John wasn’t fooled. He kept an eye on them as they made their way to their own table and sat down, pulling their chairs close enough together that their knees were probably touching underneath the table and leaning into each other to talk.
“Is whoever’s in charge now the type to hire extra muscle and hide it among the guests?” John asked even though he was certain they weren’t extra security. He didn’t make out any weapons on them, but they clearly weren’t to be messed with unless necessary. He hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. Not that he didn’t enjoy a good fight, but Finch had just wanted a nice night out to support his old charity, and John really wanted to give it to him.
“I don’t know,” Finch said, faintly alarmed at John’s question. “Thomas Miller, the man who inherited responsibility for this charity after Nathan and I died, passed away himself shortly thereafter – heart failure. I’m not familiar with Henry Howard, who runs it now, and the numbers have kept us so busy these past few years that I haven’t even been able to attend this annual event.”
It wasn’t so much that John felt the light, nimble fingers at his waist or in his pocket as it was that he sensed the invasion of his personal space. So when he snapped out his hand and got the wrist of a slim blond waitress who was holding his gun, he only said politely, “I’d like that back, please. And my wallet.” He glanced at Harold. “And his watch.”
Her bright face darkened in disappointment with each item she was made to hand back over, and she nearly stomped away after he released her.
“CIA guy made me, Nate. I only got a quick glimpse at his ID before he made me give his stuff back.”
“Did he hurt you, Parker?”
“Yes! I don’t like giving back stuff that I’ve stolen fair and square,” she pouted.
“Parker!” Eliot growled as Quinn looked on in amusement.
She huffed. “Noooo…he didn’t hurt me – physically! He made sure the safety was still on his gun when he took it back from me, and then he let me go and helped his friend put his watch back on.”
“He may have made us earlier, too, Nate. He was watching Quinn and I as we sat down at our table, just after we’d spotted him.”
“Does it look like he’s put you two and Parker together?” Sophie asked, concerned.
“Not yet. But he’s sharp, man. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Parker, what was the name on his ID?”
“On it. Everything I can find on one John Warren, coming right up.” The rest of the team heard the clack of keys in the background as he got to work. “Although, y’all do realize that if this guy is CIA-”
“He is,” Eliot interrupted, lowly.
“Or at least he was,” Quinn confirmed.
“Whether he is or was CIA,” Hardison continued, “Whatever his ID brings up is probably as fake as ours and just as good, you dig me? I dunno what you expe- Oh, here we go: John Warren, asset manager. Does that guy look like an asset manager to you?” he asked, thinking of the feline way he’d seen the guy move on the camera.
Eliot and Quinn studied “John Warren” and soon found the man’s intense gaze directed back at them.
“Sure,” Eliot said, shrugging.
“Just not that kind of assets,” Quinn finished with a smirk.
Sophie, always curious about people and their relationships, asked, “What about the man with him? Do we know anything about him?”
“That’s the weird thing,” Hardison said. “Facial recognition isn’t finding anything on him. Like, at all.”
“Maybe he’s just not in the databases you’re searching?” Nate suggested.
“See, I thought of that. And I widened my search from government databases, criminal records, and social media accounts to look for any time his face has appeared on a camera that is in some way connected to the internet or backs up its database online – which is almost every camera nowadays. And I’ve got nothing. I mean, he should at least show up in the background of someone else’s tourist pictures or something, but there’s nothing. It’s like I’ve hit a wall. Either this guy has somehow avoided showing his face on camera for his entire life until now – which seems unlikely – or he’s got one hell of a hacker protecting him.”
“Mr. Reese, someone is looking into your John Warren identity. And trying to discover mine.” Harold glanced up from his phone to meet John’s eyes. “What do you-“
“Those two,” John interrupted, inclining his head toward the men he’d caught watching them earlier. “And the blonde thief. They’ve probably got someone on the outside, too; their hacker, at the very least.”
“Where?” Harold’s eyes finally landed on the pair John had indicated. “Oh, that’s Eliot Spencer! I don’t know the man with him, though… Oh, but the blonde pickpocket – I should have known!”
John frowned. “Eliot Spencer…the retrieval specialist? Used to be Damien Moreau’s right-hand man? How do you know him, Harold?”
“He made my list of potential employees, before I met you.” Noting that John didn’t seem pleased by that, he hurried on. “But it turned out he was already employed. He works with a Robin Hood-sort of group that takes down corporations or people otherwise untouchable by the law to get justice for those who have lost their livelihoods, their reputations, sometimes even their lives, to said corporations. They con them out of their ill-gotten gains and give it back to their victims, or trick them into revealing their misdeeds and shaming themselves publicly, or maneuver them into police custody. Not too different from us,” he realized.
“So they’re here on a job, made us, and are looking into a potential complication to their plan. But if they’re here-”
“Yes, I suspect something more than just the style of the annual men-only gala event has changed at Dunlin Initiative…”
John watched as, over at Eliot Spencer’s table, his partner started a commotion.
“Hey, you didn’t put any shellfish in this, did you? My partner’s deathly allergic to that stuff!”
Eliot coughed and wheezed and pretended to be unable to catch a breath as Quinn grabbed one of the passing waiters and interrogated him. Nate had given them to go-ahead to continue with the plan, but he was keeping an eye on the so-called John Warren and his mysterious partner. They looked like any other couple here, “John Warren’s” arm across the back of his partner’s chair, the two of them leaning in, heads nearly touching, as they spoke. But Eliot had caught the glances in his direction.
At this point, though, Quinn was keeping all eyes on them as he railed at the unfortunate waiter he’d caught. “Hey, did you hear me? We specifically requested that my partner’s plate be kept away from any seafood! He can’t even smell that stuff or he’ll get sick. What about the rest of you at the table? Any seafood on your plates? Hey man, I’m not done with you,” he said as the waiter tried to slip away.
“I’m out, guys,” Parker informed the team as she took advantage of the distraction they’d created.
“What kind of a place are you running here?” Quinn continued to rant.
Eliot gasped and hacked and watched “John Warren’s” eyes watch Parker. Watched his partner lean in to say something into his ear. Watched him nod, get up, and follow Parker out.
“CIA after Parker,” he whispered.
“Ok, wrap up your distraction now and go after her,” Nate ordered.
“Pretend you’ve just had something stuck in your throat this whole time,” Sophie said.
“Just breathe,” Quinn soothed. “Why haven’t you used your epi-pen?” He rubbed Eliot’s back and gave him a couple hard whacks, as though he didn’t know what else to do. “Just breathe.”
Eliot choked and pretended to swallow something that had dislodged from his throat.
“Good, now you can both walk out, and it’ll read as embarrassment after the scene you’ve just caused,” Sophie directed.
“I’m good,” Eliot assured everyone watching. “Just something stuck in the pipes. I’m gonna-” he waved his hand vaguely as he got up “-bathroom.” And he walked quickly out of the hall.
Quinn turned to the waiter he was still holding by one fist and released him abruptly. “Oh god, I’m so sorry! I was just so worried, I better-” He rushed after Eliot.
“Nicely done, Quinn,” Sophie praised.
“Uh, I got a message here, just popped up on my screen. It says, ‘My associate and I mean you no harm.’ And CIA-guy’s partner just looked right at one of the security cameras and waved at us.”
“Guys, we may have a problem here,” Parker said.
“What is it, Parker?”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Eliot and Quinn started running.
“Were those gunshots, Mr. Reese?”
John was amazed at how Finch could still be surprised and dismayed by the sound of gunshots – or any other violence, really – in his vicinity. But-
“Yeah. I think their little thief may have found some trouble,” he said as he rounded a corner to see her pressed up against the wall next to a door – a door with a few bullet holes in it.
“How many?” he asked, coming to a stop beside her.
To her credit, she knew what he meant. “Three,” she also held up her fingers to indicate.
“Ok. Stay low,” he cautioned, and threw open the door. Quickly sizing up the situation – three men, hurriedly stuffing wads of money into large black bags – he fired three rounds in quick succession, a man going down with a bullet to the knee each time. Gun still at the ready, he then entered the room and kicked each man’s weapon away from him.
“Stay down!” John ordered them. But the one closest to the door decided to take his chances and attempted to rush out, only to be met with a taser to the chest from the blonde. “Anyone else wanna risk it?” he gestured to the door. No one moved. “Didn’t think so.”
He knelt down and began to secure them. “And you said I wouldn’t need these zip-ties tonight, Harold. You see, it pays to be prepared,” he teased.
“Yes, Mr. Reese, you were right,” he heard in Harold’s long-suffering tone of voice. “This time. Now – you’re about to be attacked by Eliot Spencer. Don’t fight back. I’m communicating with his team leader as it seems we may share a common interest here.”
John only managed a disbelieving, “What?” before he felt a muscled arm tighten around his neck. “Sure, Finch,” he wheezed. “I’ll just…”
“Eliot, let him go,” Nate ordered.
“Let him go. He’s gonna work with us on this one. His associate has a plan to help us wrap this up tonight.”
“Ooh, so I will have time to shop while we’re here!” Sophie exclaimed excitedly.
Reluctantly, Eliot released “John Warren,” who stood and tapped his ear.
“Finch?” He nodded at whatever he heard from the other end.
Meanwhile, Quinn was checking that the injured men were still well-secured and behaving themselves. Parker was bringing rolls of cash to her face and smelling them with great, deep breaths, which only earned her an amused look from “John Warren,” as if that wasn’t the craziest thing he had to deal with. A point in his favor, Eliot supposed, although he wouldn’t admit it out loud any time soon.
“Please tell me the plan involves stealing all this money,” Parker demanded from behind a face full of cash.
“My boss spoofed a text from the leader of these guys to the man who hired them, Henry Howard, luring him down here. He also alerted a couple of cops we trust in NYPD, who are on their way to catch Howard at the scene of the crime, stealing money from the charity he’s running. In the meantime, however, there are already two more security teams on their way that we’ll have to deal with,” “John Warren” reported.
“You mean we don’t get to keep the money?”
“No,” Nate said. “Howard needs to be caught with it. But you may get the chance to tase a few more guys.”
“Don’t encourage her, man!” Eliot thought Parker was already a bit too trigger-happy with the thing. She didn’t look too pleased at having to leave behind all the cash but grudgingly set it down to pull out her taser again.
“Guys, it looks like the security teams will be coming at you from both ends of the hallway,” Hardison said. “You’ve got less than a minute before they reach you.”
“We could bottleneck them in the doorway here, take ‘em out as they come through,” Quinn suggested.
“It’s not a bad option,” Eliot agreed. “But if we face them in the hallway, they may be more reluctant to use their guns, to avoid shooting the team coming from the other direction.”
“I like that plan. If things go badly, we can fall back into this room and bottleneck them as they come after us,” “John Warren” added, “Or barricade the door until our cop friends arrive.”
The fight was short, when it arrived in the form of eight burly, black-clad “security guards.” Parker had maneuvered things at the last minute so that Eliot and Quinn were covering one end of the hallway together while she and John took the other. Eliot made to complain, clearly disliking leaving a teammate to anyone’s protection but his own (John couldn’t fault him for that), but the security teams were closing in and everyone swung into action.
The security teams opened fire as soon as they came in sight, but their combined team had anticipated that and they were ducking even before the bullets flew – Eliot and Quinn shoulder-to-shoulder, John doing his best to cover Parker. A few pained cries indicated injuries from friendly fire on the part of the security team, but they were granted no quarter.
Eliot and Quinn surged upward in unison, tripping one of the security guards on their way. They became a painful flurry of kicks and punches, offering the guards no chance to make an offensive attack, let alone to use their guns.
John, while still crouched and covering Parker, took the opportunity to shoot a couple kneecaps that happened to be at eye level. Then he was a hurricane of motion, countering strikes and keeping any one of them from bringing a weapon to bear on a viable target.
Parker darted here and there, gleefully tasing anyone who remained still long enough for her to catch. In short order, all eight security guards were down and unconscious.
When it was all over, Henry Howard tricked and locked into the room with the unconscious guards he’d hired and the money they were supposed to steal, Harold strolled up with Detectives Carter and Fusco.
“Present for you,” John drawled, nodding toward the room.
“Gee, thanks, Wonderboy,” Fusco said, “So thoughtful of you.”
“Your friends didn’t stick around?” Carter asked.
“What friends?” John was all wide-eyed innocence.
Carter just shook her head. “Get out of here!” she ordered, fondly.
“Are you alright, Mr. Reese?” Harold asked as they walked away, John matching his long-legged gait to Harold’s slower, limping pace.
“Well, no bullet holes this time, Harold, but I could’ve done without being nearly choked to death.”
“Yes, I am sorry about that. But I was afraid the situation would escalate out of control if you two were allowed to ‘duke it out,’ so to speak.”
“Hm. You’ll think of a way to make it up to me.” There was a glint in John’s eye that indicated he already had some ideas.
“You know, Eliot, when you asked me to be your date to this thing, I imagined a simple evening fighting off boredom. I don’t know why I thought anything involving you or your team would be simple or boring.”
“You sayin’ I owe you another date, Quinn?”
“I’m saying it was better than I expected.”
“Oh yeah?” Eliot grinned.
Eliot stepped into Quinn’s space, hands going to his belt loops as Quinn’s framed his face, but their kiss was interrupted by Parker’s delighted squeal.
“Yes! I did it!” She even jumped for joy.
“I got you guys together!”
“Uh, Parker, we’ve been together for months.”
“Pfft! Suuuuure!” she scoffed.
“No, really, Parker.”
But Parker was already skipping away, all right in her world now that she knew Quinn was officially part of their little family.
“Well, you’re stuck with us now,” Eliot said to Quinn.
“Good," he said, pleased. "Let’s get outta here.”