“I already have international buyers, so, that’s not an issue.” Moreau slowly, leisurely, takes another sip of his whisky. “What else you got?”
It’s been over a minute now; Hardison has to be running out of air. He can’t show weakness. The slightest twitch in Hardison’s direction, the barest hint of what he really wants – to jump in the pool, to break the chair with his bare hands – and they’ll both be dead. He takes a breath, careful not to break eye contact, and plays his hand.
“It’s a killbox,” Eliot says. “There’s too much space between here and there.” He looks at Nate, then at the Italian. “Are you sure that you can actually take down Moreau?”
“Absolutely,” she whispers.
There is a gun on the floor. Eliot picks it up.
“Eliot,” Nate says, “listen–”
“Get her out of here,” Eliot says, and starts shooting.
It’s not going to be the last time he picks up a gun, he knows. In fact, this is likely to be the first of many times. But at least this once, he can say it’s to protect the team.
He draws fire. Moreau’s men keep shooting at him, the cardboard boxes full of who-knows-what disintegrating around him. They pause, reload.
Nate and the Italian are clear.
Eliot is out of bullets.
He knows what he has to do.
He puts his hands up over the top of the box. There’s a simultaneous chorus of clicks as each of their guns cock, but they do not fire. He stands.
“You know what Moreau really wants,” he says. “Do you want to answer to him when he finds out you killed me?”
“Who are you?” Moreau yells.
Nate chuckles. “You know how it feels like you’ve been poked with a stick? You know, over these last six months or so? I’m that stick.”
Moreau glares at him, pulling out a gun and pointing it in Nate’s impassive face. “I’ll find out, you know. I still have money, connections, I will find. You.” Suddenly he calms, as if he were never angry, though the hand holding the gun does not waver. “Then again, I suppose it’s not a total loss.” He smirks. “Consider the bomb a severance gift, from my team to yours.”
Moreau jerks his head in the direction of the plane. Eliot is there, in the window, staring straight ahead. He doesn’t even look at Nate. Before Nate can react, Moreau aims his gun and fires – too wide to hit Nate. The Italian goes down – Moreau turns towards the tarmac – Nate makes his choice. He takes his jacket off and holds it to her bleeding shoulder, and lets the plane take off to San Lorenzo.
“I told you that the white hat didn’t suit you,” Moreau says, taking a seat next to Eliot. “Though I appreciate your restraint in handling my team. But the hair…” He reaches up, runs a hand through it. Eliot doesn’t flinch. “We can keep the hair.”
It takes two weeks after Moreau escapes – after Eliot leaves – for Parker to come out of her warehouse, quiet and subdued. She isn’t really good at faces, not like Sophie, but Eliot had looked scared when he told them about Moreau. Looking back on it, he’d been all jumpy even before that, especially right before he and Hardison went to get the information about Ram’s Horn. I make it a priority to know where Damien Moreau is at all times, so we can avoid him. It doesn’t make sense, she thinks, for him to leave them for someone he was scared of. Unless he wasn’t scared. The problem with not being good at faces is when stuff like this happens, making her feel like she’s just jumped off a roof without a line.
For a month, Hardison alternates between furious hacking sessions and furious conversations with Sophie, one minute darkly pointing out that Eliot left him in the pool so it’s no surprise that he left the rest of them, too, the next minute apologizing, “I’m sorry, I just, how could he do that to us, man?”
“I don’t know,” Sophie says, over and over again. She’s supposed to be the one who can read people, but nothing – nothing – about Eliot ever made her think that he would willingly go with Damien Moreau. In her mind, she keeps replaying their conversation in the park, exactly how he looked when he said, “So please, don’t ask me,” and tries to make it fit with him leaving them. She can’t.
Nate broods (and drinks, though no one says anything to try to stop him) until he emerges from his bedroom one afternoon, knocks on Sophie’s door, and tells her that they’re seeing a client today.
It’s the Italian. Her left arm is in a sling, but she’s lost none of her cool, calculating manner.
Sophie is a professional, so her eyes do not so much as widen in surprise. She does, however, look at Nate, who’s studiously ignoring both her and the Italian in favor of his drink.
“I realized I never really thanked you,” the Italian starts, “for saving my life.”
“Eh, I figure we’re even,” Nate says, shrugging. “Moreau’s being investigated for all your crimes in at least six countries, you’ve kept up my immunity, we’re good.”
Something in her gaze softens. “Still, it was more than I deserved, and I am thankful.”
“Well, you’re welcome,” Nate says. “But I know that’s not why you’re here.”
The Italian raises her eyebrows. “That is true. The job is not done.”
“The job is done,” Nate says. “We got Moreau, as best as we can. He can’t leave San Lorenzo without getting picked up by Interpol or assassinated by angry North Koreans. Hey, we even both found out that we both had his men on our teams! We’re done.”
“He is licking his wounds,” the Italian says, “but he will come back. He has assets in San Lorenzo he can draw on, and now he knows you. He will be angry. He will want revenge. I’m not telling you this as an extortioner; I keep my word, Mr. Ford, and your immunity is safe. I am asking you, as a favor to a friend, to help me take down Moreau for good.” She looks him directly in the eye. “If not for me, then for your own safety, and the safety of your team. Help me finish off Moreau before he strikes back at you.”
Sophie looks at Nate, who’s looking at the Italian with an unfathomable expression. He takes another sip of his drink.
“You said on the phone that you had information,” Nate says at last. “Okay, what kind of information?”
The Italian visibly relaxes; she had not thought Nate would say yes. She reaches into her purse with her good hand and pulls out a flash drive. “Surveillance. Bank records. Files on his associates and those in his organization. Everything we know about what Damien Moreau has done since he escaped to San Lorenzo.”
Nate stands up, swiping the flash drive with him. “Great! We’ll keep in touch.”
Nate hands off the flashdrive to Hardison, who starts combing through it when he would ordinarily be researching new clients or hacking into the NSA for fun. It takes him about a week to go through all of it, carefully reading financial statements, uploading the blueprints onto his own computers, looking through phone records. He saves the surveillance footage for last, telling himself that it will take the longest and knowing that it’s a lie – Moreau is careful about covering his tracks, and there’s very little camera footage of him.
“Is that Eliot?” Parker asks, coming in to sit next to him on the couch as he goes through another hour of footage. Sophie’s in the kitchen, trying and failing to make something edible.
“Yeah,” Hardison says quietly. It’s a CCTV recording, the camera overlooking what appears to be a private dock. Moreau and his men, Eliot included, are in frame for fewer than thirty seconds, but Hardison keeps rewinding it as if it’s going to be different the next time around.
“He has a gun,” Parker says, pointing at the obvious weight at Eliot’s hip. “No, two guns.”
“Where’s the second one?”
She gestures to his ankle. “He’s walking heavy on that leg, I can tell.” She frowns. “Eliot doesn’t like guns.”
“No, he doesn’t– didn’t.”
“So why does he have them?”
Hardison sighs. “I don’t know, Parker,” he says. “Maybe we didn’t know him as much as we thought we did.”
Parker frowns at the screen like it’s a puzzle she’s trying to solve. “But it seemed real,” she says, stubbornly. “He was scared.”
“Oh yeah,” Hardison says, “he was so damn scared, he left me in a pool.”
“You told me they all started pointing guns at you. At Eliot. Maybe they were going to shoot him if he jumped in after you. And at the warehouse. Maybe they were going to shoot him if he didn’t go with them, that’s why he told Nate to go with the Italian and leave him.”
“That’s a lot of ‘maybe,’ Parker.”
“Actually,” Nate says, emerging from the top of the stairs. Evidently he has been listening. “I think that makes a lot of sense.”
“What?” Sophie asks, emerging from the kitchen. Her hair is disheveled and she smells faintly of smoke.
“You serious?” Hardison says. “This guy swans off with Moreau, leaves all his goons alive in a space you said was a kill box, doesn’t talk to us for however many–”
“Ah, but that’s exactly it!” Nate interrupts. “Have you noticed it yet?” He pauses, letting the team think for a moment. “It’s been two months.”
Hardison still looks suspicious, but Parker looks thoughtful. “And we’re not dead yet,” she says.
“We’re not dead yet!” Nate says. “Isn’t that a little weird? I mean, come on, it’s Moreau, this is a guy who stood on a tarmac and said he was going to find out who we are, like some kind of comic book villain, and yet,” he holds his hands up, gesturing to the room at large, “nothing. Nothing for two whole months.”
“So, what, Eliot hasn’t told him where we live yet? Great, give the man a cookie,” Hardison says.
“Hey, I’m not saying we throw the guy a parade just yet,” Nate says, “but come on. Eliot was, what, Moreau’s enforcer? And now everyone’s gone radio silent all of a sudden?”
“If – and this is a big 'if'–” Sophie says, “if Eliot hasn’t told Moreau where we are in order to protect us, why wouldn’t he tell us? Why hasn’t he come back?”
“He knew that wasn’t the end of it.”
“What?” Sophie asks.
“Look, when we were in the warehouse, he asked, ‘Are you sure you can actually take down Moreau?’ And the Italian told him she could. But she hasn’t, has she? Eliot told us, in the park, that we were out of our league – he had to have known Moreau would have a back-up plan. So he made his own backup plan.”
“He traded himself for us,” says Sophie, horror slowly dawning on her face.
“Moreau said that the Ram’s Horn was a severance gift,” Nate says. “Eliot must have already committed to working for him – this was his payment.”
“He was protecting us,” says Parker. “That’s his job.”
“Then…” Hardison looks from Nate to the screen and back again. “Moreau’s had him for two months. He’s had to– we let him–”
“Oh, my God,” Sophie says faintly.
“We have to get him back,” Parker says. “They made him go with them; they’re making him use guns.”
“I know,” Nate says, and for once, he doesn’t look drunk; he is clearly painfully sober. “But we need to plan. Moreau’s been safe in his extradition haven – he’s probably spent this time trying to figure out who we are and how we ruined his plans. But we have information on him, too,” he says, gesturing at the screens. “We know what he wants.”
“Eliot,” says Sophie, still shaken. “He was willing to give up Ram’s Horn for him.”
“We know what he wants,” Nate says, “and that means we know his weakness.” He claps his hands together. “Let’s go steal an Eliot.”
“San Lorenzo,” Hardison says. “British colony up until 1969, so the official language is still English. And it’s tiny – less than thirty thousand people on an island that’s only a couple hundred square miles. Moreau’s assets in Europe and America have been seized, but that doesn’t count any of his assets in San Lorenzo.”
“Assets?” Nate says.
“Gold, jewels, lot of guns, big fancy house – we took out most of his international business, but he’s still got enough to buy this entire country five times over.”
“Last time we caught him on his blind side,” Nate says. “He wasn’t expecting us and he still almost killed us. This time we need to be smarter than him. Now, we can guess that Eliot hasn’t told him who or where we are, so anything that Moreau knows about us, he knows from the moles in the Italian’s organization, from his contacts with other criminals – if they’re still talking to him – and from what he’s seen himself.”
“So he won’t know me,” says Sophie, “or Parker. And he won’t expect us to come for Eliot.”
“You’re right,” Nate says. “He thinks of us as a threat to his power, a nuisance to be taken care of. We took down his business, we’ll want to finish the job.”
“Then that’s what we’ll give him,” Sophie says. “He wants to think we’re a bunch of thieves, then that’s what we’ll be. Who else is involved?”
“Edwin Ribera,” Hardison says, clicking to the next slide on the screen. “President of San Lorenzo, all thanks to Moreau footing his bill. Moreau owns the TV stations, he owns the newspapers, man, he’s got half of Parliament on his payroll. Ribera just won his second term in office in a landslide because of him, and he is definitely going to want to keep Moreau safe. If we want to get at Moreau, we have to also take down Ribera.”
“Hmmm,” says Sophie. “We could do a Moroccan Bazaar.”
Parker frowns. “Mmm, the Moroccan Bazaar needs a horse. Or a camel. Can we get a camel?”
“What about the Los Angeles Diamond Mine?”
“Doesn’t that have the payoff on a boat?”
“Guys, guys, we can’t pull out stuff that everyone knows,” says Nate. “I mean, come on, this is Damien Moreau, the banker of all the organized crime in the Western Hemisphere, we cannot pull out something he’s seen before.”
“So we pull out something he hasn’t seen before,” Sophie says. “Something no one else has done.”
“And focus on Ribera,” Parker adds. “Ribera’s not going to know us.”
“Mmm, we can focus on Ribera,” Sophie muses, “but we’ll need to keep Moreau in our radar. Keep him distracted, off-balance, not let him get to Ribera long enough to realize what we’re doing. So we’ll have to go after Moreau sooner or later anyway.”
“One problem with that,” Nate says. “Hardison?”
Hardison hesitates. “Nate–”
“I know,” Nate says. “But we have to.”
Hardison draws a shaky breath. “Okay.” He clicks his prompter for the next slide. “Eliot Spencer. That’s the problem.” Grainy footage of Eliot stares back at them: a surveillance photo of him carrying luggage as Moreau steps off the tarmac; a single shot from behind as he enters the villa; a hacked CCTV feed of one of Moreau’s business partners meeting with Moreau, Eliot standing behind him. “He knows what we look like–what we all look like. And he might not have told Moreau anything, but unless we want Moreau to suspect he’s working with us, we can’t let him in on the con.”
“But we can’t–” Sophie stammers. “We can’t let him think– he’ll think he’s alone, that we abandoned him–”
“We have to,” Nate says. “All of the Italian’s intel says that Eliot’s Moreau’s right-hand guy right now. It will be obvious if he lets us waltz in. If Moreau so much as suspects Eliot of working with us, he might kill him for it. We can’t just con Moreau; we need to con Eliot, too.”
“So we need a hitter,” Parker says. “Someone Moreau won’t know, and Eliot wouldn’t suspect.”
Quinn is not having a good day. Work as an extraction expert and hired gun is always risky, especially when your bosses are Sicilian mafia, but being handcuffed and threatened with guns is never fun, and always a little boring. The whole “being hung from the ceiling by your wrists and punched” thing is frankly uninspired, though it has served its purpose of making all the blood rush out of his hands, making it that much harder to move them. He’s wondering how difficult it would be to fight these guys with a broken thumb and what might be a cracked rib when someone walks into the warehouse. The boss?
The men all turn their guns away towards the figure.
Okay, not the boss.
“Gentlemen." It’s a woman, speaking completely unaccented Italian.
“Who the fuck are you?” says one of the men with a heavy Sicilian accent.
“You know who I am,” she says. One of her arms is in a sling; her other hand holds a gun with calm precision. “I have spoken to Romolo. Your services for this assignment are no longer required.”
“Romolo?” says another guy, the one who Quinn is pretty sure is the leader of this particular operation. “What does Romolo want with this American asshole?” Quinn bristles a bit at that, but stops trying to dislocate his own fingers and stops to listen.
“He doesn’t want him,” the woman says. “I do.”
The woman steps into the light. She’s really hot – Quinn can take the time to appreciate a lady no matter where he is – and whoever she is, she must be important, because Ringleader Guy backs down. “Forgive me, Signora,” he says, “I didn't mean to question you.”
“Of course not,” she says. “Now, please, take him down and bring him to me.”
The men immediately unhook Quinn from where he’s hanging from the ceiling, and drag him after the woman, throwing him in the back of a limousine with– Nathan Ford?
“What the fuck,” Quinn says, which is all his brain is capable of producing.
“Yeah, sorry for the drama,” Ford says blithely, as if Quinn isn’t still handcuffed on the floor of a limo. “We thought about just going in and stealing you, but this way was faster and easier.”
The rest of Ford’s gang is in the limo, surrounding him. If they all go attack him at once, he’s not going to be able to get out of the cuffs and out of the moving car fast enough. He puts up his cuffed hands in surrender. “Look, if you’re here to settle the thing in California–”
“Oh, no,” Ford says. “We have a proposition for you.”
The blonde one – Parker – rummages through her pockets before pulling out a slim case. “Gimme your hands.” It takes him a second to realize that she’s holding a set of lockpicks.
“I can do it,” says Quinn.
“Yeah, but I’m faster,” says Parker, and has his hands in her surprisingly-strong grip before he can say anything else.
Quinn is feeling a little out of his element. “What kind of proposition?” he asks. It’s just one of the many, many questions he has, but it’s a start.
“We need a hitter,” Ford says. “For a retrieval. Six figures when the job is done.”
“Well, I am in the market for alternative employment,” Quinn says. The cuffs give way, and he pushes them off, rubbing his wrists and shaking the circulation back into his hands. “But I thought Spencer was your retrieval guy.”
“Eliot is who we’re retrieving.”
Quinn pauses. Of all people, Spencer is the one he thought least likely to get himself into trouble, if only because of his fighting skill and complete inability to know when to tap out. Whoever took him must be a big deal, or at least have some serious firepower.
“So Spencer would owe me a favor,” he says thoughtfully. “Not too bad. So, who are we rescuing the fair maiden from?”
“Damien Moreau,” Ford says, and Quinn realizes why the job comes with six figures.
SAN LORENZO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
It’s summer in the Mediterranean, and the air is unbearably humid. Sophie, however, looks perfectly comfortable in a loosely flowing sundress and broad-brimmed hat as she walks down the steps of the airplane and down onto the tarmac. Parker is just behind her, wrangling luggage from the overhead compartment. She presses a hand to her ear and murmurs, “Has everyone arrived?”
Inside the airport, Hardison and Nate are waiting at the baggage claim, Quinn standing by in order to catch their luggage as it comes around the conveyor belt.
“What?” Quinn asks, a little too loudly. Some of the tourists turn to look at him.
“Man, the mic can pick up on your voice without you talking so loud,” says Hardison, deliberately quiet. “Some of us also have ears and, you know, eardrums we’d like to keep.”
“Sorry,” says Quinn. “How in the hell do any of you get anything done with four voices in your head?”
“You get used to it,” says Parker.
“Well, you’ll have to get over it,” Nate says. “Now, Sophie, as soon as you get everything, you take Parker back to the hotel with you. We’ll meet you there after our appointment with Moreau.”
“Our what?” Hardison says, too loudly.
“Wow,” Quinn says, shaking his head, “I get what you mean about being loud.”
Hardison lowers his voice again. “Nate, last time we met up with Moreau, he threw me in a pool. And that was when he thought I was a middleman. Now he knows who we are! Or some of us, anyway.”
“He knows our reputations,” says Nate. “Not us.”
“So we’re going to, what, walk straight into the lion’s den?”
“Exactly,” Nate says. “And we’re going to poke the lion with a stick.”
Moreau’s villa is, at first glance, exactly the kind of place a banker would live. The stone walls surrounding it are high and covered with ivy, carefully covering what Hardison knows is several layers of sensors and alarms that will trigger should someone try to scale it. Inside are well-kept gardens and pools with overflowing fountains. The grounds are regularly patrolled both by Moreau’s hired muscle and his usual coterie of models. The villa itself is also deceptively large: it’s less a vacation home and more of a complex, built like a maze, with multiple rooms to house his staff and to confound anyone who tries to enter.
At the gates, Nate casually requests entry, and the doors open and close behind them with an ominous sense of finality. A swimsuit-clad woman leads them to an empty inner courtyard, shaded from the Mediterranean sun with an overarching stone canopy but open on all sides, with pillars rather than walls. The place seems to be designed so the whole area feels painfully exposed, with few places to hide. Moreau arrives a few minutes later, dressed in a light suit, flanked by several of his bodyguards.
“Mr. Ford, I’m surprised to see you here,” Moreau says, with no surprise in his voice whatsoever. “What brings you to San Lorenzo?”
“Oh, you know,” Nate says, casually looking around the room, letting his gaze slide over Eliot without lingering, “the beaches, the weather, the tax havens.”
Moreau chuckles. “I think you’ll find this place isn’t so hospitable to… newcomers.”
“Eh, that’s okay,” Nate says. “We’re not planning on staying long.”
“Oh, what a shame,” says Moreau. “So you’re here for business, or pleasure?”
“Oh, both,” Nate says cheerfully. “Isn’t theft always a little of both?”
Moreau stiffens slightly, then visibly forces himself to relax. “Mr. Ford,” he says, “I don’t appreciate people who take things that don’t belong to them. Eliot, for example.” He snaps his fingers. “Come here.”
Eliot leaves the guard formation and walks forward, until he is precisely two steps behind Moreau’s right shoulder. Moreau gestures him forward with two fingers, and Eliot hesitates just a moment before taking another three steps, standing at parade rest with his hands crossed behind him.
Closer up, Nate can see what they couldn’t from surveillance footage alone. Eliot’s changed. He’s lost some weight, making his face subtly sharper, more angular. With his hair pulled back and the slight slump to his shoulders, he looks smaller, somehow. There’s marks on him, too: dark circles under his eyes, like he hasn’t been sleeping well; marks across his knuckles and around one of his wrists; a few bruises at the pulse points on his neck.
He’s not defiant. He doesn’t look angry, or scared, or even sad. He just looks… resigned. There’s no fight in him at all. But the worst part is the gun, in a holster at his hip, with his hand resting on the grip like he could draw it at any moment.
“You undid so much hard work,” Moreau says. “I’ve had to put in months to get him right again.” He puts his hand on Eliot’s shoulder approvingly. “Though I'm sure you enjoyed making him play white hat just as much as I enjoyed stripping it all down.” His hand goes to the back of Eliot’s neck and stops, squeezes. Eliot doesn’t move, he doesn’t even flinch, but his eyes close when Moreau’s hand slides up and grips the hair at the base of his ponytail.
“Though you needn’t worry that he’s talked about you,” Moreau adds. “Eliot’s always been a professional–that’s why I hired him, after all. And loyal.”
“He wasn’t loyal to me.”
“Well,” Moreau says, and the hand in Eliot’s hair lowers, carrying Eliot with it, until Eliot is on his knees, his head tilted back. “Loyal to the right people, anyway.”
Nate’s always been good at poker, but it takes considerable effort for him not to shudder in disgust. “Well, don’t worry,” he says. “There’s no room on my team for people who betray me. And besides, I’ve already found a replacement.” He jerks his head in Quinn’s direction.
Eliot’s face twists.
“Anyway,” Nate says, as if the conversation has merely gone off on a tangent, “just wanted to let you know we’d be in the neighborhood. As a courtesy.”
“I assume you’ll want me to repay that courtesy by not killing you?” Moreau asks, and his grip on Eliot’s hair visibly tightens.
“Yeah, I’d appreciate it.” Nate shrugs. “Of course, I can sweeten the deal for you: you don’t kill me, and I don’t release this dead man’s switch broadcasting your exact location. Who was it we set it for, was it Mossad?” He turns to Hardison, but turns back before Hardison can answer. “Yeah, can’t remember. Might have been Mossad, might have been the North Koreans. Either way, you kill us, you get a bunch of very angry people on your doorstep.”
Moreau lets go of Eliot’s hair to hold his hands up in mock surrender. “Alright, alright, Mr. Ford,” he says. “I’ll repay your courtesy. Just refrain from meddling in my business, yes?”
“Eh, sure,” Nate says. “Glad we had this chat.” He gives a lazy wave and saunters out of the courtyard, Hardison and Quinn behind him. Only Hardison steals a quick look back and immediately regrets it. Eliot is still there, on his knees on the smooth flagstones, staring at them with a broken, hungry look that follows Hardison even as he turns back and walks back through the gates.
The thing is, Eliot expected this. Or at least, he’d told himself that he would. It was his own fault, honestly. Of course they don’t trust him; why would they? To them, he lied for six months about his past with Moreau, then lied again about what, exactly, he’d traded for the Ram’s Horn. He’d left Hardison to drown instead of jumping in to save him; he’d left without explaining himself or saying goodbye. He’d given up the one good thing he ever had, and this is his just reward.
“Get up, Eliot.” Moreau sounds a little smug. When Eliot used to work for him, he’d pulled the kneeling trick before, usually to demonstrate the loyalty and obedience of his men, sometimes just to show off his power. I make grown men kneel for me. Try to cross me, and you’ll find out how. But here, it had been entirely ego, rubbing the fact that he owned Eliot in Nate’s face. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like, sinking to the floor with Moreau’s hand at the back of his neck.
“Chapman,” Morea says as Eliot stands. “I want you and two others to keep an eye on them. Find out where they’re staying and why they are here. Not you, Eliot. I want you... undistracted.”
Eliot nods and moves to return to formation. Chapman is grinning. He’s still angry that Moreau demoted him in favor of Eliot, and this chance to get back at him is probably too good to pass up.
“I want you to work with, hmmm, Andrei and Baez,” Moreau adds. “I want a new patrol formation and upgrades to the security tech in two days, based on your knowledge of Ford’s crew. If they’re here to steal anything of mine, I want them off this island. In body bags, if necessary. I haven’t forgotten our deal, but my kindness doesn’t extend to thieves. Understood?”
Eliot nods. “Clear.”
He recognizes a dismissal in Moreau’s words, and he turns and walks back inside the villa. Chapman comes up behind him.
“Bet you weren’t expecting that,” he says, too casually.
“Just saying, must have been a bit of shock, seeing your old team again.” When Eliot doesn’t respond, he keeps going. “It’s been, what, almost two months?”
“Two and a half,” Eliot says.
“Not that you’ve been counting.” Chapman knows he’s hit a sore spot and keeps going. “Can’t imagine what the boss will do to them if they interfere with his business here.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Eliot says, which is the truth. He doesn’t want to imagine what could happen to the team if Moreau catches them. “Maybe you should go check on that. Like how the boss told you to.”
“Like how he told you to up the security?” Chapman grins. “It had better be good. If anything, you should be better at coming up with ways to prevent them from breaking in. But then, maybe you did go soft, spending all that time with a bunch of–”
Eliot punches Chapman hard in the diaphragm, knocking the wind out of him, but Chapman snaps back with a left hook that catches him hard on his cheekbone. Eliot backs up, out of range, trying to calm down. It’s not the first time Chapman has done this. It’s not even just Chapman. Every one of Moreau’s men hates him, either because they think he doesn’t deserve to be head of security or because they resent how close he seems to be to Moreau. Like the teacher’s pet on the schoolhouse playground, Eliot’s gotten used to the cracks about his loyalty, Moreau’s favoritism, his reported dislike of guns.
It’s been wearing on him for months, but only now – when he’s seen Nate, seen Hardison, there in front of him, without being allowed to speak, not even to apologize or explain himself, knowing that they’ve witnessed the level of control Moreau has over him, knowing that they’ve already replaced him – only now does it hurt enough that he feels the urge to lash out.
And now Chapman knows it, too.
“Anyway,” Chapman wheezes, and Eliot knows he hit him hard, “I’d better start doing my work. And if I run into any of your friends, I’ll let them know you said hi.” He walks off, a little slower than he normally would. Eliot doesn’t even feel triumphant at that; he knows that Chapman will be back, and probably with something new to needle him with.
He keeps walking into the villa, through the maze of rooms and hallways, until he comes to his own. It’s small, in the part of the house that acts as a kind of barracks for Moreau’s security. He closes the door behind him, which only marginally helps him feel safer – being surrounded by people who definitely don’t have his back doesn’t make it easy to put his guard down, not even to sleep. He sits on the single bed and buries his head in his hands, breathing hard.
The team is here. They’re okay – or at least, some of them are, he didn’t see Sophie or Parker. They are fine without him. They are safe without him. That’s all he should care about. That’s all he can hope for.
He sits there for several long minutes, breathing in and out, until Baez knocks on his door and tells him that they need him to go over the security.
“He what?” Back in the adjoining pair of suites the team is using as a base, Sophie is pacing the room, looking murderous. Parker is perched on one of the beds, looking equally anxious.
“It was sick, man,” says Hardison, typing code furiously into his computer. “Like Eliot was his prize poodle or whatever. Doing tricks and stuff.”
“Moreau’s known for being that kind of sadist,” says Quinn. “He likes showing off his things.”
“Eliot isn’t a thing,” says Sophie.
“He is to Moreau.”
“He did it to rattle us,” Nate says, “and if we don’t all calm down, then he will, okay? We can’t let him throw us off.”
Sophie sinks heavily into a desk chair. “Okay, then, what’s our angle?”
“Well, we know Moreau likes to show off,” Nate says. “And he likes control.”
“So we take his stuff,” Parker says. “Make him feel off-balance.”
“And detach him from Ribera,” Sophie says. “We can’t have them supporting and protecting each other.”
Nate and Sophie look at each other. “The Castleman Two-Step,” they say at once.
“The what?” Quinn asks.
The rest of the team nods as if they know exactly what that means, which is ridiculous, because Quinn has never heard of the Castleman Two-Step con before, and he knows a lot of them.
“We split them up,” Nate explains. “Get them to start thinking the other is about to rat them out. Sophie, I want you on Ribera. We want him to drop Moreau like a hot potato, but start slow. Just plant the seeds of distrust for now. Lean on the Interpol charges, see if that scares him.”
“Moreau is going to be following us,” Quinn points out. “He’ll be looking for us to try something, especially after we showed up and told him so.”
“I know. That’s why I want you, Parker, and Hardison to keep him distracted. Break in and do whatever you think will be the most irritating to him, something that will strike at the heart of his ego. Force him to focus on ramping up his security and protecting his assets. If he’s busy trying to fend us off, he won’t be thinking about Ribera.”
Parker perks up a little at that. “Ooh, I have plans for the gold bars.”
“Start slow,” Nate repeats. “If we give the game away too early, they’re going to run to each other for security. We want distraction first.”
“What if we run into Eliot?” Hardison asks. “I mean, he’s head of security now.”
“You need to treat him like you would anyone else. That’s what we hired Quinn for.”
Hardison sighs. “I guess.”
Nate claps his hands. “Okay, Sophie, let’s get you started on Ribera. Parker… raise hell.”
SAN LORENZO PARLIAMENT
Edwin Ribera hates being president.
Or at least, while he likes the power and prestige of being president, the duties aren’t nearly as interesting. He has already had to field calls from three of his ministers about the state of the country. The state of the country! Bah. It’s not even his country, as Moreau likes to remind him. He finishes signing yet another change to the banking laws and leans back in his chair. Being president is such hard work.
He glances at the clock. Almost eleven thirty. He decides to end work early for the morning, go out to lunch and take a nice long break, then go back to Parliament in the afternoon, if he really must.
He is out the door of his office and halfway down the hall when one of his aides, Silvia, rushes to him.
“Mr. President,” she says, “have you seen this?”
She holds out her smartphone to show him a video.
It’s what appears to be a news broadcast, with a blonde woman talking to a reporter.
“Oh, yes, it’s absolutely outrageous,” the blonde woman is saying. She’s American, or possibly Canadian.
“You are absolutely sure that dogs are being made to fight on the grounds of the presidential palace?” the reporter asks.
The woman nods. “Yup, even,” she reaches down and picks up a pitbull puppy, “ones as young as this one right here.”
The reporter makes sad clucking noises.
“What?” Ribera says. “I have never done such a thing!”
“Even if it’s not true, it’s all over the internet,” Silvia says. “Mr. President, I think we ought to do damage control.”
“Pfff, damage control. I’ve never needed to do so before,” Ribera says, which is the truth. He’s always had Moreau to control the stories in the press and on the news, if anything went so far as to make it to journalists in the first place. “Why should I now?”
“But Mr. President,” Silvia says more firmly, “didn’t you already hire a publicist?”
She nods over his shoulder. Up the hallway behind him is a tall woman in a brightly-colored wrap. He assumes she is from San Lorenzo: she has the same dark coloring, the particular grace, and she is undeniably beautiful. She smiles at him, and immediately it’s like the sunlight brightens just a little, only for her.
“Mr. President,” she says, and his suspicions about her nationality are confirmed: she has the same lilting accent. “Rebecca Ibanez. This is all dreadful business, but I think we can work well together.”
“I don’t– I don’t believe I need a publicist, Ms. Ibanez,” he says, trying to remember that he does, in fact, have a job to do, and that doesn’t involve looking at beautiful women. “As I told Silvia–”
“Mm, yes,” she says, smiling. “Your command of the media is impeccable.” This stops him for a moment: he’s never stated publicly the extent of his – well, Moreau’s – control of the press, and that knowledge is limited to a few of his top ministers. There is no way for her to know it, and yet she did. “But look again, Mr. President.” She points to Silvia’s phone. “This is the internet. It’s an entirely new frontier. And the majority of people these days get their news from the internet. If you want to nip this scandal in the bud, you need someone to be constantly on top of it, who knows how to speak its language.” She offers her hand. “Now, is it better for us to meet this afternoon, or tomorrow morning?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Ribera says, a bit dazed. Then he realizes what he just said. “Wait, I mean–”
But she’s already walking away. “Tomorrow, then, Mr. President!”
He’s too embarrassed now to tell her that he doesn’t want to meet with her at all, especially after he already agreed. And anyway, she’s very attractive. If nothing else he’ll get to see her again.
“He’s hooked,” Sophie says into the earbud.
“That was cool,” says Parker. Back at the hotel, she’s going over her gear for her part of the con. She just worked out a new rig, but she likely won’t be using it here–all the houses are too low for long climbs, and the wall around Moreau’s villa is barely twenty feet, hardly enough for her to need to break out the rig at all.
“It’s called a hard ask,” Sophie says. “You ask them for something specific, instead of something vague like ‘would you like to meet up sometime?’. But it’s easy to turn down something specific, so you build in two specific answers, both of which is what you want. If ‘no’ isn’t even an option, it’s much harder to turn down.”
“Excellent work, Sophie,” Nate says. “And Hardison, good job on the scandal.”
“Hey,” Hardison says, “the internet loves dogs. Only thing worse than that would have been something with cats.”
Quinn holds up a large box. “Do we need this?”
Hardison peers at it. “Nah, we can leave that here.”
Parker comes out of her room in the suite, carrying her backpack and dressed in a light-colored tank top and running shorts. “Let’s go.”
“These things are weird,” Quinn says plaintively. He’s halfway up the stone wall, clinging to the old stones and ivy, and he’s still complaining about the earbuds.
“Look, man,” Hardison says from his van. He’s spoofed the sensors in what limited ways he can from outside the walls to make Quinn and Parker’s climb undetected, but it won’t last for very long. He still hasn’t replaced Lucille II, and he wouldn’t be able to bring a van across the Atlantic Ocean anyway, so he’s made do with a rental car that lacks most of the equipment he’d need. “If you don’t like the earbuds, by all means, make your own damn mic. I mean, I’m the only one who makes the damn things, by hand, but feel free. And not once do I get a–”
“Thanks, Hardison,” Parker says. “I’m in.” She’s scaled the wall already and is now on the other side of it near the control panel. She takes out a drive and plugs it into an empty slot in the panel.
“No one says ‘I’m in’ like that,” Quinn complains. He drops heavily to the ground, and Hardison is glad he got control of the motion sensors.
“They do in movies,” says Parker.
Hardison types a few lines of code. The camera placement and feeds are now in his control, and he still has the blueprints and other useful things. “Okay, I’ve got their security feed. Jeez, Moreau even has security cameras in his bedroom, how does he do anything knowing people can see him, does he not care at all about his own privacy–”
“Hardison,” says Quinn.
“Oh, right. Y’all are good to go.”
Parker takes off, Quinn trailing behind her. Ordinarily Parker does not work with an escort – and even if Quinn hadn’t been told that, it would have been obvious given how fast she is, not trying to keep pace with him – but Nate's required it, in case Moreau’s security is higher than expected.
Parker carefully weaves around the villa, Quinn in tow, until she finds a window.
“Okay, Parker, there’s motion detectors on the window,” Hardison says, examining the specs. “Gimme a second to disable them… okay, go.”
Quinn follows Parker through the window into the room, closing it carefully behind him, and then out into the hallway. Hardison gives them directions as they walk, telling them where to turn left or right, until they’re outside what Hardison says is supposed to be Moreau’s office.
“Okay, Parker, Quinn, you want to be careful and make sure he’s not in.”
Parker sticks what looks like a small wire underneath the door and slowly waves it around. It’s a fiber-optic camera, one of Hardison’s new toys.
“See anything?” she whispers.
“Nope,” Hardison says. “You’re clear.”
Parker tries the knob – locked, though her lockpicks make short work of it – and lets herself and Quinn in. Then she closes the door and locks it behind her.
The room is decently large. It’s at the center of the villa, surrounded by other rooms, so there are no windows; better for security. The room contains contains a short coffee table surrounded by a couch and chairs, a desk and matching chair, and several lamps. The floors are hardwood, covered by Persian rugs. What walls are bare of bookshelves are hung with paintings: Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge.
“Walls have stuff on them,” Parker says. “Means he’s hiding something behind them.”
Quinn shrugs. “Can’t argue with that logic. So what are we stealing?”
“You’re not stealing anything yet.” That’s Nate, back in the hotel room. “Look, Parker, you have to hold off. Do anything you want, but make it subtle. And do not take anything.”
Parker pouts. “Not even one diamond?”
“No,” Hardison and Nate say together.
“Oh, fine.” Parker starts at the desk, rearranging all of Moreau’s expensive fountain pens, muttering under her breath about how it would only be a little diamond and Moreau would barely notice it. Quinn follows her lead, taking books off of the shelves and putting them back out of order. Within fifteen minutes, they’ve rearranged all of Moreau’s desk including his paperwork, tipped all of the paintings off center, and unscrewed all of the lightbulbs in the lamps.
“Okay,” Nate says, once they’ve finished. “Everyone, let’s back back to the hotel and regroup.”
Parker and Quinn exit the office and carefully relock it, then go back the way they came. There’s a group of men coming down the hall; Quinn tugs Parker down a side hallway.
“Hardison?” Quinn says. “We need another exit.”
“Uh, okay,” Hardison says. “Uh, there’s a skylight if you go down the hall you’re in and to the left. The panels are designed to open up in the summer for more air, I can crack it–”
Quinn and Parker run for the room with the skylight. Quinn looks up. The ceilings in this building are high, like many in hot climates, to be cooler and more spacious. Parker could get out if she stood on his shoulders, but–
“I didn’t bring my rigging,” Parker says, voicing what he was thinking. “I can’t pull Quinn up with me.”
“You don’t have to,” Quinn says. “You get out and I’ll find another exit.”
“Or you could both use the same exit–”
An alarm goes off.
“Guess Moreau got back to his office,” Hardison says.
“We don’t have time for this,” Quinn says. “I’ll get out, but you need to go.”
He bends down and offers his hands for Parker to step on, as if she was being lifted onto a horse. Parker climbs up him like a monkey, stopping with her knees on his shoulders. The glass panel pops open, with enough room for Parker to fit. She lifts herself up until she is standing on his shoulders – Quinn doesn’t so much as breathe in case it throws her off balance – and jumps. Her hands catch on the edge of the open skylight, and she pulls herself through the gap.
“Okay, I’m good,” she says. “Quinn, get out of there.”
Quinn turns and runs. There is something useful about the earbuds, he realizes: it’s nice to know that there’s someone else on the outside who can tell him where to go. He’s always preferred working alone over working in teams, but even he has to admit that this is more efficient.
Hardison tells him there’s another room with a window to his left. He runs down the hallway and skids to a stop.
Eliot Spencer is running up the hallway towards him.
Quinn makes a stupid mistake: he stops and looks at Eliot, instead of trying to get through the door.
Eliot stops in front of him. The alarm is still blaring, but Eliot… Eliot isn’t moving. He’s not attacking, just standing there. “Quinn.” Eliot looks at the other man warily.
“Hey, Spencer,” says Quinn. Of all the people in this whole goddamn complex. He laughs, but it’s unconvincing even to his own ears.
“Why are you here?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“If you’re here, then so is Parker. And probably Hardison.”
“Well, I can’t tell you that either.” Quinn looks away. “But I can tell you that, if they were here, I’d be here to provide security for them. That’s my job.”
From the look on Eliot’s face, he heard the unspoken not yours. Quinn almost thinks about walking that back, of apologizing somehow, but it’s part of the con. It has to be part of the con.
“Well, I can’t let you go past me.”
“I’m not asking you to,” Quinn says.
Eliot does drop into a fighting stance now, his hands up, knees bent. He does not reach for the gun at his hip. He makes a beckoning motion with his right hand.
“If you’re going to get them out of here safely,” Eliot says, “you’re going to have to go through me.”
“Listen.” Eliot finds his gaze and holds it with his own. “You need to go through me. If you want to protect them.”
Quinn drops into his own stance, understanding now. With a cry, he lunges at Eliot, landing two punches to his solar plexus and ducking a swing at his head. He hooks a foot around Eliot’s ankle and pulls, yanking him off balance. As he pulls, he guides Eliot’s fall with his hands, throwing him to the floor. Eliot falls hard, visibly winded, and Quinn backs up warily. Wheezing, Eliot stands up again. Of course he won’t go down, Quinn thinks. Not even when it would be the smart thing to do.
They trade more punches – Quinn aiming repeatedly for the diaphragm, making it harder and harder for Eliot to breathe – until Eliot gets a solid punch to his jaw and, without thinking, Quinn lashes back with an uppercut.
Eliot staggers backwards, stunned. The punch was a good one, very clean. Quinn moves behind Eliot and catches him, wrapping one arm around his neck and applying pressure to the two veins on either side of his throat.
“I’m sorry, man,” he says quietly, “but I can’t have you following me.”
Eliot struggles, but his grip is weakening. He scrabbles at Quinn’s arms, then goes limp. Quinn puts him gently on the floor, then looks at him carefully. Blood chokes can be dangerous, but he’s pretty sure he didn’t do anything serious, like collapse an artery. But Eliot will be out for a little while, enough time for him to get away.
He drags Eliot back and sits him gently off against the hallway wall, out of sight of the security cameras. Then he reaches into his pocket, fiddling with something in there.
Then he stands up, dusts his hands off, and breaks down the door.
It’s a bathroom, though the logic of having a bathroom with such large windows in it is beyond him. Quinn decides to ignore finesse, instead breaking through the glass and rolling, running as soon as he gets on the ground. He bolts for the wall, avoiding the sudden hail of gunfire in his direction, and climbs up and over the gate in record time.
The car is there, Hardison in the driver’s seat, Parker holding the door open for him. “Get in!”
Quinn runs for the open door, the car taking off before Parker can even close it behind him. She lets out a whoop. “Wheee! That was fun.”
“You have a weird definition of ‘fun,’” Quinn says.
When Moreau is angry, most of the time he does not yell. In fact, he won’t raise his voice beyond average speaking volume if he can help it. Instead, he lines up his security team outside in one of the gardens, and has a talk.
First he dresses down the guards on duty for not realizing the break-in sooner. Then the snipers for missing Quinn as he ran out. Then Chapman for not keeping a better eye on them. But none of them are the real target of his ire, and the whole team knows it. That’s Eliot.
“I believe I told you yesterday to increase security, Eliot,” he says, deadly calm.
Eliot doesn’t say anything. It’s not really a question.
“And still, three people broke in. In broad daylight, in front of my entire security team. Three. People.”
Eliot still says nothing. He doesn’t point out that nothing was taken, because he knows that, for Moreau, it’s the principle of the thing. Someone came onto his property and interfered with his things, and to Moreau, that is a deep violation.
“I suppose you did your best,” Moreau continues. “It really hasn’t been so long since you saw them, has it? It’s understandable that your thoughts might stray.”
He reaches out and lifts Eliot’s chin up with two fingers. There’s a dark bruise on his jaw where Quinn punched him in the face.
“Who did that?” Moreau asks.
“Their hitter,” Eliot replies. His voice is deliberately devoid of emotion. “I tried to stop him, but he knocked me out.”
Moreau tilts his face at different angles, examining the bruise. “Well,” he says at last, “I suppose you’re not invincible. And you did well to try and stop him. I’m sure that must have been… difficult.”
Eliot knows what Moreau wants him to say. “Not that much.”
Eliot can tell from Moreau’s expression that he doesn’t quite believe him, but he frowns, as if conceding the point. Then his face returns to the same dangerous serenity as before.
“On your knees, Eliot.”
Eliot knows what’s coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier. If there’s anything he’s learned about Moreau, in the years he’s worked for him, is that it’s always better to give him what he wants sooner rather than later. He drops down to his knees, his face still tilted up.
He falls forward until he’s prostrating himself in front of Moreau, his face on the ground. He feels Moreau’s patent leather loafer on the back of his neck–not so hard to cut off his air, or to even hurt, but enough that he feels its presence. Which is, of course, the point.
“I understand that this is a difficult task for you,” Moreau says, as casually as if they were sitting across from each other at Moreau’s desk. “And I am proud of you for trying to stop them anyway. This is to remind you of what today reminded your team. Who do you belong to, Eliot?”
Of course, in reality, the team has replaced him – Quinn is proof of that – and his agreement with Moreau included the stipulation that he never leave again, not even to go solo. There is no way for him to leave, and nowhere for him to go back to if he did. But still, for a long moment, Eliot stupidly, nonsensically, thinks the team.
The pressure on the back of his neck increases. “I said, who do you belong to?”
Eliot takes a shuddering breath. “You. Sir,” he adds.
The pressure eases. A hand appears in his line of vision, and Eliot takes it. Damien helps him stand back up.
Back the hotel, Quinn picks bits of glass out of his hair and clothes while the rest of the team debriefs.
“Okay, so we’ve got Ribera hooked,” Nate says. “That means Sophie can start the second stage of the con. What about you guys?”
“Check this out,” Hardison says. “Quinn put one of my little bugs in Eliot’s belt buckle. Least likely place you look, something you wear every day without changing much, and the metal even helps the signal. Nice.” Hardison gives Quinn a fist-bump.
The original plan had been to put the bug in Moreau’s office, but Nate had called off that part of the plan on the grounds that Moreau would immediately check for bugs once he realized his office had been compromised. But Quinn had still taken the bug with him, just in case, and had attached it to Eliot’s belt while Eliot was unconscious.
“Moreau’s pissed,” Hardison says. “And we got his tantrum on audio and visual.”
He clicks on a video file that pulls up a somewhat blurry camera recording. He turns and faces the screen towards the others in the room. On the video, Moreau is speaking with barely-concealed rage to someone several feet away from Eliot. “Three. People. There should be three dead bodies here. And instead I have a broken window and wasted ammunition, because all of you saw a man running from my house and missed him. Of course, if I kill you, that’s three dead bodies. It’s what you deserve–”
“It’s just a lot of this,” Hardison says, hitting the mute button. “There’s way too much recorded for me to listen to on my own, not to mention all the white noise from Eliot just adjusting the buckle or walking around. I’ve set up an algorithm to listen for Moreau’s voice, pick up particular words and pull them out for me to look at later. Or we can turn on the recording and listen in real time, if we want.”
“And did you get anything useful out of it?”
“I’m so glad you asked,” Hardison says. “Watch this.” He pulls up a different file, this time an audio file, and hits “play.”
“What an idiot!” says Moreau’s voice. “He deserves what is coming to him!”
Nate blinks. “Did Moreau actually say this?”
Hardison grins. “Well, he said those words. And, uh, syllables. Not necessarily in that order. But the guy isn’t very nice to people, especially when he’s angry, so I didn’t need to change most of it. Swap around a couple of words aaaaand…” He made a flourishing hand gesture at the screen. “I can make him say anything I want.”
He pulls up another audio file. This one is a little choppier, more obviously cobbled-together. “I like BIG butts and I canNOT lie!” it says.
Nate claps him on the back. “Excellent work, Hardison.”
Hardison looks shocked. “Did– did I hear someone actually give me credit for my work? I would just like to register my astonishment and, and honor at this opportunity. I’d, I’d like to thank the Academy, my friends and family, who have all helped me to where I am today–”
Nate’s not in the room. Hardison looks around.
Quinn stands up. “Maybe this is why no one gives you credit, Hardison,” he says, and pats Hardison on the shoulder, just a little bit heavier than comfortable.
Hardison looks affronted, then turns back to his keyboard. “Wonder if I can do the whole verse,” he mutters to himself.
The next morning, President Ribera wears his best suit to greet Ms. Ibanez when she arrives. She is dressed in another elegant wrap, which, Ribera notices, accentuates her curves. This time, she has brought a colleague: a tall black man in a suit, carrying a laptop bag.
“Are you ready to get started?” she says, holding out her hand for him to shake again.
“Uh, yes,” he says, again feeling a bit dazed. “But, Ms. Ibanez, is this really necessary? My administration has weathered scandals before.”
“Your approval ratings have dropped fifty-seven points in twenty-four hours,” she says abruptly. She shrugs, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “People like puppies, mister president.”
“And it’s on the internet,” says her colleague. Unlike Ms. Ibanez, his accent isn’t that of a native; it sounds more British than anything. “You know, more people get their news from the internet than from television or radio. And everything moves faster. Look, you’re already a meme.” He pulls out a tablet computer and holds it up: there’s an unflattering photo of Ribera at one of his speeches, with the line, “Jasper! Horace!” at the top and, “Bring me those puppies!” at the bottom.
There’s a noise in the corner of the office – Silvia is covering her mouth and coughing. Very hard, too: there are tears at the corner of her eyes.
“Are you alright, Silvia?” Ribera asks.
“Yes, Mr. President,” she says, calming herself down. “Just… choked there, for a bit.”
“So how do we do this?” Ribera asks. “Arrest the people who spread this rumor?”
“Oh, no, no,” says Ms. Ibanez, looking slightly scandalized. “Even if you could find them, the nature of the internet means it’s already spread. No, we need to individually find the images and take them down before they spread further.”
“And put out a counter-message,” the man says. “Just give us a couple of hours and we’ll have it all taken care of for you.”
Silvia directs them to an unused office where they can do their work.
For the next few hours, they do so, until they knock on his door again shortly after lunchtime.
“It’s done!” Ms. Ibanez says.
“It is?” Ribera asks. “That was… fast. I thought you said it might have already spread.”
“We caught it quickly,” her colleague says. “Wasn’t hard to find the websites they were hosted on, set up a phishing expedition, send in a Trojan firewall–”
Ribera holds up a hand. “I don’t need to know the specifics, I’m sure you did what you said you would.”
“Excellent!” says Ms. Ibanez. “Now, I hate to bring this up, but we never did discuss payment.”
“Oh,” says Ribera, and again he’s reminded that, contrary to Silvia’s belief, he never actually contacted these people. “Uh, yes. I suppose. Remind me of your going rate?”
The amount she names is just outside the reasonable range, plus double for her colleague’s work and with an extra fee for dealing with it so quickly.
“I– I don’t think I have that much to hand,” Ribera says.
“I’m sure we can set up some kind of payment plan,” she says. “Or a retainer. As a politician, I’m frankly surprised you don’t have a publicist already. We can discuss the details tomorrow?”
“Uh, yes,” Ribera says. “Tomorrow.”
“Excellent!” she says. “Well, I have to be off, but I’d love to keep chatting. Walk me to my car?”
Ribera does, still feeling a bit wonderstruck. Even Moreau wouldn’t be able to work this quickly, he thinks, the briefest of thoughts before he’s listening to her talk. He walks with her to the parking lot outside the Capitol building, and watches as she gets into a slim sportscar.
Her colleague, on the other hand, gets into the front passenger seat of a black van. He only looks for the briefest of moments–Rebecca Ibanez is that alluring–but for a moment he sees, quite clearly, the driver of the van.
It’s the blonde woman from the puppy video.
Cold realization creeps down his spine. He’s been tricked. Somehow – and he doesn’t yet know how – he’s been tricked. They probably created this whole crisis just to con him out of his money.
For a moment Ribera stands in the parking lot and considers phoning the secret police. But then he reconsiders: no, better to catch them tomorrow when they return for the payment, that he may catch them red-handed. And anyway, he needs more proof.
He turns and goes inside, yelling for Silvia.
“Yes, Mr. President?” she asks nervously.
“Check the credentials that woman gave us,” he says. “I want as much information on her as possible.”
“A Trojan firewall?” Sophie asks.
“You said to make something up!” Hardison says. “He’s not gonna know what I’m talking about! And besides, you’re acting like we actually did anything.”
“You didn’t actually do anything?” Quinn asks.
Hardison shakes his head. “Man, it’s, like, the number one rule of the internet: once it’s there, it’s never leaving. And anyway, I created this meme. It’s like my baby. I couldn’t destroy my baby.”
Parker frowns. “I thought that the number one rule of the internet was ‘if it exists’–”
“No!” Hardison covers his ears. “Nope, that’s not the number one rule, that’s like, the thirty-fourth rule, and I regret showing you that.”
“Okay, guys,” Nate says, “Ribera’s focused on getting Sophie her money. Parker, I want you and Quinn and Hardison to go to phase two.”
“And this time, you’re bringing the climbing gear,” Quinn says, pointing at Parker. “We cut it too close last time.”
“Should we even go back at all?” Hardison asks. “I mean, I get that we’re trying to keep Moreau occupied, but Quinn’s right, we cut it too close.”
“Look, if he’s angry, he’ll make bad decisions,” Nate says. “That’s what we’re counting on.”
“And if he takes those bad decisions out on Eliot?” Quinn asks. The team looks at him. “Hey, Moreau’s not known for being understanding. And Eliot works security for him. His job is to keep us out.”
“Look, guys, I get it, it’s hard. And I know we don’t want to think of Eliot as the mark, but at this stage, he is. And we have to treat him like any other mark.”
“But he’s not a mark,” Parker says. “He’s Eliot.”
“Not until the job is done,” says Nate.
“Then let’s wrap this up,” she says, grabbing her bag, “and get Eliot out of there.”
In many ways, it’s actually harder to break into a place at night than during the day. For example, where it might be perfectly normal for a car to park outside somewhere during the day, at night it becomes suspicious – more so if the headlights are on. Visibility is harder, and lights to see by can quickly become beacons for wary security. Everyone who might normally be out, for work or other purposes, are all together in one place.
And of course, there’s the fact that everyone expects thieves to break in at night, and so are especially on guard.
And yet, they’re breaking in tonight.
Parker is wearing her usual thieve’s costume, with Quinn dressed in matching black. Hardison turns the headlights off and pulls up to the gates, then takes out his laptop.
“Well,” Hardison says, “looks like they didn’t find my back door. Which means that we have a front door.”
“How long have you waited to use that?” says Quinn irritably.
Hardison ignores him. “Okay, so, it looks like they changed the rotation schedule,” he says, looking through the files on Moreau’s servers. “They do a lap every five minutes, not every ten. And they switch off for a shift every hour, instead of every three. Next one’s in five minutes.”
“Sensors on the wall?” Parker asks.
“Oh, they haven’t even changed their passwords,” Hardison says with glee. “I love it.”
On Hardison’s signal, they cross the wall, this time with the climbing gear. The hedges in Moreau’s garden provide extra cover from the security team, who walk right past them on their lap around the building. The window that Quinn broke is still there, and still broken.
“No additional security there,” Hardison says. “Go for it.”
The way through the villa is also easy enough, having been there once before. When they get to the office, however, the lock has been replaced with a keypad.
“Terrible,” Quinn mutters. “Doesn’t match the decor.”
“Parker,” Hardison says, “use the–”
“Yeah, I know,” says Parker, and plugs in Hardison’s brute-force cracker.
“So, what, we just wait here while it does its thing?” Quinn hisses.
“Hey,” says Hardison. “Could be worse. Could have letters. Twenty-six possible digits? Thing would take days.”
Eventually, the machine beeps to let them know that the password has been cracked: 20081207. Slowly and carefully, Parker opens the door. There’s no light coming out from under the door, but it pays to be cautious.
“Okay,” she says quietly. “Let’s do this.”
The safe, as it turns out, is behind the Monet.
When they’ve finished, Parker carefully replaces the frame and straightens it. Unless someone looks in the safe, they won’t know anyone was even there.
They get out through the still-broken window – Quinn by simply stepping through, Parker by doing a delicate handstand and back bend to stay clear of the sharp edges – and start to walk back towards the villa.
At the wall, Quinn starts the climb first, to be Parker’s counterweight. He’s almost to the top when Hardison swears.
“Shit. Parker, they’re coming around to do another sweep.”
She can see them off in the distance: two flashlights bobbing in the darkness. “Quinn,” she whispers. “Go faster!”
“I’m trying,” he says. He’s at the top of the wall, but needs to work his way back down. “Parker, start–”
“–climbing, yeah, I’m on it.”
Ignoring the rope line now, she starts to climb up the wall, focusing on speed instead of quiet. It’s going to make noise anyway, the vines and the scrabble of her shoes on the stone. The movement is going to catch their eyes, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. They’re going to spot her if they haven’t already.
She’s about halfway up when the two flashlights train themselves on her, close enough that she can see who’s holding them. It’s Eliot. He’s with some other guy with blond hair.
Hardison is swearing emphatically into the mic, but Parker is frozen on the wall. Eliot looks frozen, too: she can see his face, even in the darkness, and he looks… she doesn’t know what that expression means. But he isn’t going for his gun, which the blond guy is–
That’s enough to snap her back into focus. Two bullets hit the wall three inches from her head, pushing her to move faster. She gets to the top and considers the slack in the line, the fact that the walls are twenty feet high, and that she has about ten seconds before they open the gate and go after them.
And lands on Quinn, who crumples underneath her.
“Fuck!” Quinn shouts, but he doesn’t sound hurt, just annoyed. Good.
“Get in the damn car,” Hardison says, and starts the engine. Quinn and Parker scramble into the backseat, and Hardison drives away before they even have time to close the doors.
“That was too fucking close,” Quinn says. “What the fuck was that?”
“It was Eliot,” Parker says. “He saw me.”
“Again?” says Quinn. “God-fucking-damn it.”
“We can’t go back again,” Parker says. “It’s way too risky.”
“No shit,” says Quinn.
“Okay, then,” Nate says over the comms. “If it’s too risky, then we stop the heists and go for the next stage in the plan. Sophie, you’re up tomorrow.”
The next morning, the entire villa is in chaos. Moreau’s bevy of attractive women has, as a group, wisely decided to stay out of Moreau’s immediate sight, in order to avoid him taking out his rage on them. Eliot does not have that luxury. “I thought I told you,” Moreau hisses, “to increase security.”
“I did,” Eliot says, knowing that it’s pointless and arguing anyway. He hasn’t slept since he got up to do his sweep last night, since he and Chapman woke Moreau up to let him know what had happened, and this is at least the fourth time they’ve been over this particular point. Moreau doesn’t want Eliot to convince him; this is just compounding the inevitable punishment. Sleep deprivation is very effective for that. “I made a whole new patrol pattern, I bumped up shifts so that people got replaced sooner, I–”
“And it didn’t. Work.” Moreau gestures wildly at his vault, which has been emptied of several gold bars, a couple thousand American dollars in cash, and every one of Moreau’s jewels or setpieces that had an emerald in it.
Parker’s favorite color is green, Eliot thinks.
“I wonder if they know that you’re head of security,” Moreau muses aloud. “I mean, they have to know that any fuck ups are going to be attributed to you. Hell, they would be even if you weren’t my head of security. At this point, I have to wonder if this is actually what they want.”
It’s more likely that they’re doing it without considering the effect on him, but for a moment Eliot feels a surge of resentment at the team. Then he checks himself: of course they’re not going to think about him. He’s not part of the team; he’s the bad guy. He made that clear when he left them to join Moreau. This is what it’s like on the other side, and that’s entirely his fault.
“But really,” Moreau is saying, “I should have thought it wouldn’t matter who was trying to break in. I thought you were better than this, Eliot.”
“I’m sorry,” says Eliot. “Sir.”
Moreau sighs, getting to his feet. “Well, might as well cut out the middle man. If my assets aren’t safe here, let’s move them somewhere with security that won’t make cow eyes at every thief that comes in.”
It’s clearly meant to sting, but Eliot doesn’t really care, especially since it’s truer than Moreau realizes. Instead, he helps Moreau pack his remaining treasures into cases, then waits patiently as Moreau summons a few of the guys – Chapman, Marquez, Xiong, Davies – to help him carry the cases to the car.
They drive to the San Lorenzo National Bank in silence, but Eliot can feel the tension bubbling beneath Moreau’s cool exterior. At the bank, Moreau does not have to so much as show his ID – on arrival, one of the guards immediately takes him to his private vault.
The vault has been there since before Ribera took power, but with the new banking laws passed a couple of months ago, Moreau started to move more things there. It’s deep underground, new tech in old foundations, at the end of a long hallway lined with similar vaults. It’s as secure and well-maintained as any account in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands; even more so, because Moreau has the president (and through him, his treasury secretary) on speed dial. For that reason, he can use the bank like his own private Fort Knox, able to walk directly in and make deposits or withdrawals as he pleases.
Moreau types in the security code to the vault door and carefully supervises as Eliot and the others move his things into the vault. When it is all to his satisfaction, he locks the door again, and walks back up to the car with Eliot and the others behind him.
When they arrive back at the estate and are walking through the gardens towards the villa, the rest of the crew is there, out on the lawn. All of the security guys, even the ones that are supposed to be on duty. Eliot has a split second to realize what’s about to happen before Chapman and the others grab him and throw him bodily into the center of the uneven circle that has formed there.
Moreau looks at Chapman, his face expressionless.
“I am going to go inside to discuss matters with the bank manager,” he says. “I will be there for about twenty minutes to a half hour. I would appreciate it if you took this time to remind Spencer about the necessity of maintaining good security.”
“Understood,” Chapman says, grinning, and gestures to the others, who move in tighter.
Most of the time when Eliot fights, he fights smart. After thousands of hours of practicing, the moves themselves come so easily to him that he doesn’t need more than muscle memory. The rest of his brain can be used to analyze the weaknesses in his opponent’s stance or guard, to plan escapes, to make a distracting comment.
Sometimes, very rarely, there is nothing but the muscle memory, just fighting off each blow as it comes. Pure instinct, pure survival.
At the start of it, he is calm enough to fight smart. He stands up and puts his fists up, preparing to block. Chapman, right on cue, tries to get the first punch in. Eliot blocks, then grabs Chapman and pulls him along the path of the intended punch. Chapman, off-balance, is thrown by his own momentum past Eliot into the center of the circle, while Eliot, his counterbalance, is pushed outward. For a good thirty seconds, the confusion is enough to let him run fifteen, twenty yards across the open lawn. But hands – four, six – catch up to him too quickly, re-forming the circle around his new location. Just survival, now. He blocks fists as they appear in his line of vision, grabs a foot kicked in his direction and pulls to yank its owner off balance.
But the blows are too many, and come too fast, for him to effectively block all of them. An elbow to the jaw disorients him; a fist opens a cut above his right eye, making it harder to see. He feels another foot sweep his legs out from under him and he falls hard onto the grass. He throws his arms up to protect his head and curls up to protect his internal organs, gives up trying to lessen or control the violence, and focuses instead on absorbing the pain. Taking the punishment. That’s what he’s supposed to do.
It takes him a few minutes to realize that they’ve stopped. He hears, rather than sees, footprints on the grass, then a long shadow blocks out the harsh sunlight.
“I hope,” Moreau says, as coolly as if he is discussing the weather, “that you’ve learned something this time, Eliot.”
Eliot tries to take a breath, unsure of what to say. It comes out as a long, hard wheeze.
“Go get cleaned up. And Eliot, don’t disappoint me again,” Moreau says, and the cool shadow moves away, followed by the sound of the rest of the security team’s heavy footfalls, leaving him alone.
It takes Eliot a good fifteen minutes to pull himself off the ground. He takes stock of his injuries: mostly deep bruising and a persistent ringing in his left ear, a lot of blows to his lower back (his kidneys – he’ll probably be pissing blood tomorrow) and to his ribs, but nothing broken. Nothing that won’t heal. Maybe Moreau told them to go easy on him.
When he can walk, he goes back to his room and closes the door, lying back on the bed at a vain attempt at resting. Every breath hurts, but not too badly, which means his ribs probably aren’t broken. His mind wanders to the night before.
Parker was there.
It’s for a con – Eliot knows it’s for a con, even if he doesn’t know the specifics – but he replays the image of her face in his head anyway. He knows he shouldn’t think about the team like they’re still his (like he’s still theirs), but he can’t help but feel a sort of professional disappointment in Quinn. Quinn shouldn’t have gone over the wall first; he should have let Parker go and then gone over himself. She could have been killed. She would have been, if Chapman wasn’t such a bad shot with a handgun.
He wonders if this is maybe some sort of karmic punishment. He’d made the decision to join back up with Moreau with the knowledge that he’d never see the team again. It had been a hard decision, but he’d known he had to make it, and had made the choice freely. And it wasn’t easy to know they were there, but at least he could have been okay knowing that they were safe, as far from San Lorenzo as possible.
But instead they’re here, only a few miles away, and he hasn’t been able to say a single goddamn word to them, not even to tell them he’s sorry or to explain why he had to leave.
Though he guesses that explanations or apologies wouldn’t cut it, anyway. They got over him pretty quickly, which just confirms what he figured: that they guessed what he’d been trying to tell them all along, that they understand now how bad he is.
He lies there on the bed staring up at the tiny window set high in the wall opposite his bed. The small ray of sunlight moves higher and higher up the wall, until it’s gone completely, and Eliot lets the darkness swallow the room.
When Ms. Ibanez returns the next day, Ribera waits until the door is closed before speaking. “I thought you might like to know,” he says, “that I had my staff check your background and your records. And prior to the last two months or so, there is no record.”
Ms. Ibanez looks shocked, and Ribera knows he’s struck a weak point. She must not have suspected that he would check that far back, and knows she’s been exposed as a fraud.
“Mr. President–” she starts to stammer, but he speaks over her.
“No excuses, please,” he says. “All I want to know is who sent you.”
“Who sent you?” Ribera asks, pressing on. “Was it Flores, to get information on me? Constantin? Prison is too good for them, I’ll–”
In the hotel room, Nate presses a hand to his ear. “Okay, Sophie, new plan,” he says. “This is what I need you to tell him.”
“Excuse me,” she says. Ribera looks at her again, a little stunned. In one moment, it’s as if she’s become another person. Her accent, so native to San Lorenzo, is now a smooth British accent. Her body language changes subtly – instead of the calm, carefree lounge of yesterday, or the tightened, frightened posture of a few minutes ago, she is now sitting up straight and businesslike. And her eyes have hardened: they seem to look straight through him, searching for a weakness.
“Well,” she says. “You are right that I’m not a publicist. But you’re wrong about who I’m working for.” She reaches into her purse for her wallet and retrieves a slim blue card, then passes it to him across his desk.
It’s an Interpol identification card.
“You’re working… for Interpol?” Ribera asks, feeling a bit like the oxygen has been sucked out of the room.
“Well, yes,” she says, suddenly at ease. “I’d hoped you wouldn’t discover our ruse so quickly, but then, you’re not the usual person we surveill, are you, President Ribera?”
Moreau passes the card back to her in a daze.
“Why would Interpol be interested in me?” he says. “I mean, I haven’t–”
“Come off it,” she says. “We know you’re sheltering Damien Moreau, that’s why we’re here. He’s wanted in at least six countries, did you know that? Interpol countries, all of them. And all of them are desperate to get their hands on him, ever since his crimes were made public. It’s really more of a question of who gets him first. We’ve been working on this investigation for months.”
“I– I had no idea of his crimes,” Ribera stammers. “He– he’s threatened me, he’s–”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, come on,” she says, sounding annoyed. “We know he’s here and we know he assisted in your campaign. You two didn’t do much to cover your tracks, I’ll tell you that much. Now, of course, we can’t arrest a sitting member of the government,” she says, changing gears. “International recognition of sovereignty and all that. Nor can we extradite him to the United States, or Italy, or any of the other countries that are calling for his blood. San Lorenzo, after all, doesn’t recognize extradition treaties.” She examines her nails, looking bored. “But if Damien Moreau were to ever travel off this island… now, that would be a very different matter. He need not even travel willingly. The United States especially is willing to try extraordinary rendition if conventional means fail. And that would give us plenty of time to get information from him.”
“Information about what?” Ribera blusters.
“Oh, the kind of information we could use in our case against you,” she says coolly. “Moreau’s big, yes, but he’s small potatoes compared to you. Or at least, that’s what we’ll tell him when we’re interrogating him.”
“Moreau would never betray me,” he says, not caring that this contradicts his previous statements.
“Oh, wouldn’t he?” She smiles, but it doesn’t exactly reach her eyes. She reaches into her purse again, this time for a recording device. She presses play.
“What an idiot!” comes Moreau’s voice, tinny and slightly masked by white noise. “He deserves what is coming to him!” She hits fast forward, then presses play again. “Of all people! All of it, wasted!”
“It seems he’s unhappy with your current arrangement,” she says. “Not exactly loyal, but then, businessmen tend to gravitate to the highest bidder.”
“Where did you get this?”
“We have ears everywhere, Ribera,” she says. “This audio was pulled from an informant’s microphone a few days ago. It seems that Moreau is growing tired of your little arrangement.”
“What can I do?” Ribera asks, defeated.
“Well,” she says, looking thoughtful. “We need not start an international incident. They’re always so messy, and require so many lawyers and all that. We could let you go, so long as we had him. But we’d need to know that you weren’t conspiring with him. That you’d rescinded your protection, and repudiated all contact with him.”
“Repudi– no,” Ribera says. “He’ll just come after me.”
“You can do it slowly, so that he doesn’t notice your sudden lack of involvement,” she says. “But frankly, you’re the president. Surely you have the power to prevent him from retaliating against you, if you wanted.”
“I can’t,” Ribera says. “You don’t understand. He controls the media here; he makes bribes, he’s sponsored both of my elections. Without him, I’ll–” He stops, looking into the middle distance.
And Sophie knows she has him.
“The banks,” he says to himself. “I can rescind the new banking regulations. I can freeze his assets.” He looks at her with a wild look of desperation in his eyes. “Would that be enough?”
Sophie purses her lips. “I suppose,” she says. “It would certainly make our work at Interpol much easier, which would certainly be in your favor.”
“I’ll do it at once,” Ribera promises. He picks up his phone and dials. “Silvia!”
His assistant is there almost immediately. “Sir?”
“I need you to draft a new executive order, rescinding the one from last month,” he says. “And I need you to phone the Treasury Secretary and the chief of police.”
When Eliot is called to Moreau’s office, he knows that something has happened.
Moreau is seated at his desk. At first glance, he is only casually lounging in his chair, but closer up, Eliot can see the taut lines of his body, the stiff way he is holding himself, as if trying to keep himself from coming apart. “I just received a call from the bank.” Moreau’s voice is quiet, casual, but with an underlying tension that Eliot has only ever heard him use when he wants someone killed.
“Apparently,” Moreau says, his voice rising a fraction, “my assets have been frozen, on the personal orders of President Ribera. That means,” he says, rising from his seat, “that I have nothing.”
At his full height, Moreau is taller than Eliot. Most of the time he slouches, or lounges, in ways that mask that fact. Until he’s angry. Then Eliot remembers.
“Did you know?” His hand snaps out to slap Eliot across the face before he can react. “Is this one of your team’s little cons?”
“I don’t know,” Eliot says. “I don’t–”
“You know something,” Moreau says, pacing in front of him like a tiger. “You know their faces, you know their usual cons. Tell. Me.”
"I didn't tell them about you,” Eliot says. “I can't tell you about them."
“So professional,” Moreau sneers. “If you care so much about your reputation with them, maybe you should go back!” Moreau’s hand is in his hair and twisting. He shoves Eliot forward and Eliot lets him, even as the edge of the table knocks the wind out of him, even as his face is slammed onto its surface hard enough to bruise. “Of course, who would take someone that sold them out?” He slams him down again, and Eliot offers him only the slightest token of resistance. He deserves it, Eliot thinks. He shouldn’t fight it when his pain is only a fraction of what they must have felt, what they must still feel. Moreau hauls Eliot up by the hair, yanks backwards, lets him fall. Eliot stays there, on the ground. It’s where he belongs. They must hate him, Eliot thinks, because he would, in their position; he does.
Moreau is breathing hard. He’s not a physical fighter – that’s why he hired Eliot – and while he’s always eager to order other people to violence, he has trouble doing it on his own. He looms over Eliot for a few precious seconds, a towering fury, then he seems to deflate, almost. He goes to sit at the desk. Eliot doesn’t say anything. Neither does Moreau. Then: “Come here, Eliot,” he says.
It’s not a request. Eliot starts to get up, then reconsiders. He moves across the floor on his knees until he’s sitting in front of Damien. He knows Damien’s moods intimately by now, and he knows what Damien wants. It’s not the first time they’ve done this, after all. Damien’s hand goes to his hair again, but it’s gentle this time, soothing, a caress.
“As if I’d let you get away twice,” he says, almost absent-mindedly. He cups Eliot’s face with his other hand, holding his gaze. “No one else may want you,” Damien says, “but I do. You’re mine,” he says, and if Eliot shudders at that, let him think it’s with anticipation. “I won’t let you go again.”
Back in the hotel room, Hardison is watching the feed from the bug in Eliot’s belt. It's on a whim, really; the con is pretty close to done and there’s not much reason to keep the bug on. He realizes that he's made a mistake, that something has gone seriously wrong, about five seconds after he starts the live feed, when a hand blocks the view of the camera, but he can’t look away. The camera’s gaze moves dizzyingly quickly, sweeping a shot of the room, of Moreau’s face, of the back of Eliot’s hands, before it registers the table and is slammed down on it, heavy enough to crack the delicate tech and cut the feed.
“Oh my God,” Hardison says.
Afterwards, Moreau spends a good few minutes trying to read Eliot’s face. He used to do that a lot, when Eliot first worked for him. He used to say that Eliot was more honest with him in those moments, more open.
Eliot lets him. It doesn’t matter anymore. He can feel the time bomb in his brain ticking down, and knows that Moreau is going to be bored of him soon. The thrill of control can only last so long.
Eventually, Moreau stands up. He looks... disappointed, almost, as if he had been looking for something in Eliot’s face and didn’t find it. “I want you to gather the men,” he says briskly. “We’re going to take back my money.”
Eliot blinks. “Okay,” he says, reaching for his pants. “What kind of crew do you want?”
“Everyone,” Moreau says. “I want this done fast and clean. Get everyone up. I want everyone who’s not coming with us to prepare my yacht: we’re going to leave San Lorenzo until I can replace Ribera. It doesn’t matter why he’s turned against me, just that he has. I want to be in international waters by noon today, and I want this done now so he has no time to increase security.”
Eliot scrambles to do as he is bid, and though Chapman smirks when he sees the bruises around Eliot’s face and neck, he doesn’t argue with an order.
“We’re going to the bank, boys!” he says, walking down the halls and waking everyone up.
They’re ready in half an hour, carrying dynamite, crowbars, and guns. Chapman sends a team to prepare the yacht while the rest of them get into Moreau’s fleet of black cars and drive down to the bank.
They park their cars in the parking lot, then start to work on the bank. Andrei disables the alarm; Xiong and Baez pry open the door. Chapman’s the one who suggests the dynamite for the vault: the lock might be complicated, but hinges are not. The men set the fuses, then back up the stairs to move out of range of the blast. The blast is enough not just to open the door, but to knock it out of place: it falls forward and lands with a loud, hollow clang.
The vault is empty.
Everyone moves to sort through the debris. Maybe the rubble landed on the stuff, or something. But no: the vault has been cleared out of all assets. It is empty except for dust from the explosion.
“Uh, Damien?” Davies calls up the stairs. “Do we have the right vault?”
Moreau comes down the stairs and strides past his men, who, like the proverbial Red Sea, part in the face of his anger. He stands in the middle of the ruined vault, surveying the emptiness with rage.
“Where is it?” he shouts. “Where the fuck is my money?”
“Looking for something?”
It’s Nathan Ford. Ford, emerging from the shadows and coming down the stairs behind him. They were waiting for him. He knew. He watched.
“You–” Moreau splutters. “You–”
“Yeah, I think the word you’re looking for is ‘thief,’” Nate says helpfully.
“Where is it?”
“Look, I understand you’re upset, but it’s your own fault for not getting here first–” At Moreau’s signal, Chapman points his gun at Nate’s head. “Okay, okay. Let’s negotiate.”
“What did you do with it?” Moreau asks.
“Your money was only here for, oh, maybe ten minutes?” Ford says. “After you came and put it in, we came in and took it out. Your passwords were still good, since your assets didn’t get frozen until the next day, so you could still make withdrawals and deposits. So really, none of your assets were actually frozen since, well, there was nothing to freeze.”
Moreau’s face is almost unrecognizable, twisted with rage. “Who are you people?” he shouts. “What do you want?”
“I told you,” Nate says. “We’re the stick. As for what we want… well, I’m fine with just keeping all of it. I took your bank accounts, your international funds, and now I’ve taken everything else you had. You’ll never be able to do business again, especially not from the jail cell Ribera plans to put you into. But…” He plays his hand. “I’ll give it all back, if you give me one thing.” He looks, very deliberately, at Eliot.
“Nate–” Eliot says, and chokes on the word. “Nate,” he says again, “don’t–”
Nate keeps talking, as if Eliot hadn’t said a word. “Think about it, Moreau, leaving now with the cash or keeping just one guy. Your choice.”
Moreau starts to laugh, then looks again at Nate’s face, the laughter dying on his lips. “You planned this from the start.”
“Well, of course I did,” Nate says. “I’m a thief.”
Moreau looks thoughtful. “I thought you said you didn’t want him. Why change your mind?”
“Does it matter why?” Nate asks, chuckling a bit. He throws up his hands. “But I get it, if you’re not accepting my offer–” He turns to leave.
“No, no,” Moreau says. “He’s no longer useful to me. You ruined him, Ford. I thought perhaps I could restore him to what he was before, but…” He shrugs. “I was mistaken.” He turns and waves a dismissive hand. “Take him. I’ll even have some of my men help escort him, if he doesn’t go quietly.”
“Nate,” Eliot says again, more urgently. “Nate, what are you–”
“Excellent,” Nate says. “Pleasure doing business with you, Moreau. I’ll give the location to your men once Eliot is on my plane.”
“No,” Moreau says. “You give me the location now.”
“And let you keep your assets and him? Nah. You do it my way or the deal’s off.”
Moreau looks annoyed. “Fine. Chapman, Baez, please assist Mr. Ford.”
They leave the formation to grab Eliot by the arms, though it’s unnecessary: Eliot doesn’t struggle as he’s manhandled up the stairs and out to a waiting van. It’s the sort of van with seats arranged in the back to face each other, rather in parallel rows. Sophie, Hardison, and Parker are there already. Quinn gets out of the driver’s side as Nate gets into the front passenger seat.
“We’ll take it from here,” Quinn says, handing Chapman a slip of paper. “That’s for your boss.”
Quinn takes Eliot from them and shoves him in the back of the van, then closes up the back door and gets back in the driver’s seat.
As soon the car starts to drive off, Eliot’s control slips.
“If you guys are going to do anything,” he says quietly, “now would be the time.” He doesn’t know why Quinn is driving – if anyone’s going to take him down, it has to be Quinn – but maybe whatever they have planned for him isn’t that physical. Maybe they’ll just drop him out the back of the van.
Hardison smiles. “Okay, man.” Before Eliot can react, he reaches over and hugs him, followed by Sophie and then Parker, who’s grinning.
Eliot freezes up. He’d thought– but no, they wouldn’t be that cruel– God, please–
“We had to con you, too,” Sophie explains, correctly reading his shocked expression. “We couldn’t involve you at all, in case Moreau suspected you.”
It’s a testament to how long he’s been with Moreau that, for a long second, he still suspects it to be a con. Then, like gears shifting and then slotting into place, the whole plan makes sense to him.
And he is furious.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouts.
“‘Oh, hey, guys,’” Hardison says. “‘Thank you for saving me. I’m so glad that I got saved.’ There, now you try.”
“Damn it, Hardison! You’re just giving Moreau what he wants." Eliot is distantly aware that his reaction probably isn’t normal, but that feeling is utterly subsumed by the absolute dread that has overtaken him. “You can’t just– he’s gonna start over! He’s gonna take all his stuff and move to some other island and he’s gonna– he’s gonna come after you, he’s gonna come after the Italian, you can’t just let him get away!”
He’s breathing too quickly, he realizes, but he can’t make himself stop. This is what shock feels like, his brain supplies helpfully.
“Hey!” Nate says, looking back from his seat in front. Sophie waves a hand at him, as if she’s batting him away.
“Eliot,” she says firmly. “We did not just run a con to let Moreau go.”
As soon as Chapman and the others return, Moreau snatches the piece of paper from Chapman’s hand. As he reads it, he starts laughing, a manic kind of laughter that betrays his anger at being tricked. He hands the paper to Chapman, who reads the paper as well. Look in the trunks of your cars.
The assets are, indeed, in the trunks of the cars Moreau brought with him. Had he simply gotten up and driven away, he would have gotten to keep his assets and Eliot. Oh, well. He will just have to be content with the assets.
He’s driven no more than twenty feet out of the bank parking lot when he finds himself surrounded by the blare of police sirens and the blinding flashes of emergency lights. More than a dozen armed policemen have surrounded them on all sides, blocking every street exit with their squad cars and with guns trained on him and his men.
The chief of police steps out of his car and walks toward the car Moreau is driving.
“What is this?” he says in outrage.
“Well,” says the chief of police, “it would appear that we’ve caught the thieves.”
“What?” Moreau shouts, even as he puts his hands up in surrender. “This is my money! I did not steal anything!”
“Your assets are officially frozen,” the chief of police reminds him. “Technically, this isn’t your money at all.”
“But I didn’t steal anything!” Moreau insists.
“Indeed. That’s why it’s all the in trucks of cars you and your… employees are driving.” He turns and calls out to the rest of his men. “Take them all to the Tombs.”
“You can’t do this to me!” Moreau shouts, even as he is dragged from the car. “President Ribera will hear about this!”
The chief of police smirks. “Who do you think signed the arrest warrant?”
“Ribera thought that having the possibility of Moreau undergoing extraordinary rendition was too big of a risk,” Nate explains. “So he signed an arrest warrant for him – he’s going to stick him in the Tombs, make it impossible for the U.S. or anyone else to get him out.”
“He’s not getting out,” Hardison says, with a hard undertone that seems wrong, coming out of his mouth.
“But Ribera’s working with him,” Eliot says. “What if he changes his mind? And– you’re not letting him get away, are you?”
“No,” Nate says. “But the Italian has plans for him. Apparently the roads in the mountains aren’t very well-kept: pretty dangerous to drive on.” He shrugs. “Luckily, the constitution calls for a new election in the event of the death or disappearance of a sitting president.”
Eliot hears a rush in his ears, feels the edges of his vision going black. He grips the edge of the seat with both hands, trying to breathe.
Then Parker’s hand is on his chest, and ordinarily it wouldn’t do much but now it’s the most grounding thing he has. He focuses on her hand, the warmth of her palm resting over his heart, instead of the fact that the world he’s been in for the past few months is falling down around his ears.
Moreau is gone. Ribera will be gone.
“So, what’s happening to me?” Eliot asks.
Sophie frowns. “Well, honestly. We’re taking you home.”
Eliot hasn’t even considered the idea of home in over two months. But Parker’s smiling at him, in a way she rarely does, and Hardison’s got his arm around his shoulders, and Nate and Sophie are sharing a triumphant look.
He’s going home.
“And I got to keep stuff!” Parker says excitedly. It’s clear she’s been holding that back for a while.
“I better be getting some of that,” Quinn says. “Since I was there with you, both times.”
“Well, I’m keeping these.” Parker pulls out a gaudy emerald-and-diamond tiara and several gold bars. “They’re pretty.”
“You’re getting six figures, man,” Hardison says. “We’re doing this commission.”
Almost without thinking about it, Eliot takes the gun at his hip out of its holster. He ejects the clip, kicking the two pieces away so they slide to the end of the cab, far out of reach. Then he does the same for the gun at his ankle, tucked under his pant leg. He won't need them anymore.
For someone who allegedly only sleeps ninety minutes a night, Eliot sleeps a lot on the way back.
He’s awake for the two and a half hour flight from San Lorenzo to Rome, sitting in his seat mostly in silence, staring out the window, taking in the sight of the sunrise over the Mediterranean.
On the equally short flight from Rome to London he takes short naps, sleeping in fits and starts. Each time he wakes up, he’ll startle for a moment, unsure of where he is, then look at each of them in turn, as if checking to make sure they’re still there.
On the trans-Atlantic flight out of Heathrow, Eliot is asleep before the flight attendants have even started their usual safety guide. He’s sitting between Parker and Hardison, this time: Hardison with his laptop in airplane mode, Parker amusing herself by plotting various means to rob Sotheby’s in her head. She thinks she’s gotten it down to half an hour – assuming she’d get the safe open in fewer than two minutes – when she feels a warm, heavy weight on her shoulder.
It’s Eliot. He must be really tired, because her shoulder is too bony to be comfortable, and ordinarily he would wake up if he changed positions like this, especially if it involved touching someone. She shoots a panicked look in Hardison’s direction.
Hardison smiles. Let the man rest, he mouths.
Parker shoots another frantic look at Hardison – okay, but I don’t know if I can – then looks down at Eliot. Okay. Holding still. She knows how to do that. She’s done it before, for hours, when casing a bank’s ventilation shafts or avoiding a motion sensor in a vault.
Very carefully, she relaxes her muscles (Eliot’s head slips a little lower) and goes back to thinking about Sotheby’s. If she can get from the safe to the supply closet in under five minutes…
They stay like that, quiet and still, until they start to touch down at Logan. Then, very carefully, Parker moves her shoulder out from under Eliot, and lets him wake up on his own.
Quinn says goodbye to them at the airport, content to know that his six figures are on their way to his bank account.
The rest of the team goes back to McRory’s. At the door at the top of the stairs, Eliot stops.
“Uh,” he says. “I don’t know if my apartment is still there, I haven’t paid rent in–”
Parker grabs him by the arm in a surprisingly gentle grip. “Nate has a guest room,” she reminds him.
“You’re staying here,” Nate says.
“We’re all staying here,” Hardison says, as if daring Nate to contradict him. Nate doesn’t.
In a daze, Eliot lets Parker lead him to the guest bedroom, the one behind the wall he knocked out when they first moved in. It seems like a lifetime ago. He closes the door behind him and sits on the bed, trying to take everything in.
Outside, the team tries to organize the rest of the sleeping arrangements. “I’ll take the couch,” Nate says. “Sophie and Parker can have the master bedroom, Hardison can have the second guest room upstairs.”
“Or I can take the couch,” Hardison says. “It’s not like I’m not awake at 3 AM.”
“Or,” Sophie says, “we can take the master bedroom, Nate, and Parker and Hardison can decide between them who gets the guest room and the couch.”
For once, Nate looks genuinely surprised. “What?”
Sophie smiles. For once, she looks a little uncertain, almost shy. “Oh, come on. Like you haven’t been waiting for me to ask.”
Nate tries and fails to look less surprised. “It was more, I was waiting for the right time to ask you,” he says at last. “You just... beat me to it.”
“Don’t I always?”
“Maybe, but I always catch up.” Sophie’s moved closer to Nate, her hand on his chest, looking up into his eyes. She can’t stop smiling. Neither can he. It’s like they’re the only two people in the room.
“Aw, hell no,” says Hardison. “You two can go do your romance thing upstairs.” He waves them up the spiral staircase like he’s trying to shoo birds off of a windowsill. They spring apart like they’ve been burned.
“Right, right,” Nate says awkwardly.
“Right, we’ll, just, um–”
“Upstairs,” Hardison says, pointing up. “I don’t mind it, just don’t let me hear it!” He waits until the door upstairs slams shut before muttering to himself. “Jeez. It’s like my nana getting it on.”
“What about our romance thing?” Parker asks.
Now it’s Hardison’s turn to look surprised. “Our what?”
“With the pretzels.”
“Oh,” Hardison says. “I thought– since we didn’t, uh, do anything about it, after the bomb blew up, that you’d, uh, changed your mind.”
“Oh,” says Parker. “No. I just… got distracted. With the Eliot thing.”
They’re staring at each other.
“Uh,” Hardison says, “should I–”
“No,” Parker says. “I mean, yes. I mean, I can do it.”
Hardison sometimes forgets how much taller he is than Parker, but now, bending down to meet her kiss, he remembers.
Eliot doesn’t leave the room for a week.
He does get up on occasion, presumably, but it’s always at odd hours, when all of them, even Hardison, are asleep. Only the appearance of an extra bowl in the sink or a granola bar wrapper in the trash is proof that he’s even eating. The rest of the time, he sleeps, which is unusual in and of itself.
By day five, Hardison is about ready to break the door down.
“It’s not normal!” he insists. “Normal people don’t sleep that much! Guy’s gotta eat, and, and pee, and stuff.”
“Think of it like he’s on bedrest,” Sophie points out. “He’s not just injured physically, he went through trauma. He’ll come out when he’s ready.”
When he does come out, he’s uncharacteristically quiet. The team, having been given strict instructions by Sophie, don’t acknowledge it too obviously. Instead, they move around him: Hardison tinkering with some tech he’s working on, Nate going through lists of potential new marks, Sophie actually successfully managing to make something that the others find edible. Parker just lurks.
After another day or two, Eliot starts talking again.
“What are you eating?” he asks Parker.
Parker looks down at her food. “Cereal. But with more marshmallows. Because they don’t put enough marshmallows in.”
Hardison, working on the couch, visibly relaxes. Bickering means they’re going back to normal.
“You’re going to get scurvy,” Eliot says.
“Who do you know who’s gotten scurvy?” asks Hardison.
“Buddy of mine in Mongolia, 2007,” Eliot retorts. He turns back to Parker. “You need something with vitamin C. Eat an orange or something.”
“I drink orange soda,” Parker says blithely. “That has orange in it.”
Eliot looks disgusted. “It does not– you know what, I’m making some real food.”
He gets up and walks to the kitchen, rummaging through the fridge for ingredients, pulling out cutting boards and his collection of knives. He closes one of the drawers carelessly and bumps his forearm against the countertop. “Fuck.”
There’s a sound of footsteps on the spiral staircase: Nate coming down from his bedroom upstairs, wearing the same shirt he wore the night before.
“You okay?” he asks.
“I’m fine,” Eliot says.
“Doesn’t look like it.” Nate nods at Eliot’s arms, pointing out the deep purple swelling on both of them.
“Bruises,” Eliot says. “Not breaks.”
“Maybe we should see if Mass General agrees,” Nate says.
“I’m fine,” Eliot says. He starts slicing a bell pepper as if to prove how okay he is.
“Eliot.” Eliot wonders if that’s the voice Nate used to use on Sam. “You really should get that checked out.” He looks pointedly at his chest. “Ribs, too.”
Eliot doesn’t think to question how Nate knows about that. He’s the most observant person Eliot’s ever met. And he knows better than to argue. “Yeah. Yeah, okay,” Eliot says, and goes back to cutting the peppers.
For another week or two, everything hovers at a tentative normal, aside from Nate and Sophie occasionally going off on dates or spending a lot of time in the master bedroom with the door locked, and Hardison and Parker awkwardly testing out their new relationship: Parker sitting closer to Hardison on the couch than usual, Hardison kissing her on the cheek or the forehead every so often.
Eliot starts looking for a new apartment – his landlord wasn't happy about all the unpaid rent, and Eliot needs to pay him off for the three months of storage for his stuff, too – and cooks and tries to not feel like he’s horribly out of place.
“So the one thing I don’t get,” Eliot says, on a night when Nate and Sophie are out at some exhibit at the MFA, “is how you got Ribera to flip.”
“We convinced Ribera that Moreau was going to flip on him,” Parker explains. “Make them both think the other’s going to betray him, so they’ll actually betray each other.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“We recorded Moreau’s voice using a bug,” says Hardison. “Modulate the voice a little, edit a bit, and boom! Moreau says whatever we want him to.”
“Damn, I swept that place for bugs every night,” Eliot says. “Where–” He looks at Hardison, who has suddenly gone still. And then he knows. “The bug was on me, wasn’t it?”
Hardison nods stiffly.
“That’s how you knew the code combination to the vault,” Eliot says slowly. “Because I was there when Moreau put it in.”
Hardison nods again. “Yeah.”
“Belt buckle. Wasn’t something you’d change every day or look at too closely.”
Eliot breathes a little harder, trying to stay calm. “How– how long?”
Hardison isn’t looking at him. “First break in. When Quinn knocked you out.”
First break in.
Which means they were recording everything in the last three days, at least.
There’s a rushing noise in his ears, like putting a shell to his ear to hear the ocean. Eliot breathes deep again.
“How much did you hear?”
He has a sudden, wild hope that maybe they didn’t hear anything. That Hardison only recorded the not-so-bad bits, that they don’t know just how deep Moreau’s hold on him went.
“I didn't listen to all of it!” Hardison says, holding up his hands placatingly. “There was too much to go through. But I did– I heard–”
“Damn it, Hardison, just tell me–”
“The night before we finished the con. After we froze his accounts. That’s what I heard.”
So, the worst part, then.
“Hear what?” Parker asks. “What did you hear?”
Hardison looks nervously from Parker to Eliot and back again. “Not for me to say.”
“Moreau fucking me, Parker,” Eliot snaps. “That’s what he heard.” Eliot’s not sure what emotions he’s supposed to be feeling – betrayal, maybe, or embarrassment – but he knows that what he does feel is anger. “So you know now,” he says. “You know what kind of person I am.”
“What?” Parker says. “The kind of person you are?”
“The kind of guy who’d do that,” Eliot says.
“I left the team," Eliot says, trying to get her to understand. “I left the team to join Moreau. You think I didn’t know he’d want me to use guns, or hurt people for him, or, or keep you out if you came to take him down?”
“You didn’t have a choice–”
“Damn it, Parker, of course I had a choice. Nobody put a gun to my head and made me. I could've said no, I could've, I dunno, gunned 'em all down before they could escape. You think Moreau wanted me because he needed a new security guy? He had fifty of them. He had Chapman. He didn’t want me for that. He wanted me back because of– of what I am. What we had. I knew that going in, I banked on that.” Eliot knows he’s probably talking too much, but he barrels forward regardless. “And I, I let him do that stuff to me, because no one else– it felt good, sometimes. And it sucked but it was better than nothing. How damn pathetic is that?” His breath is coming in hitching gasps, and his eyes are a little unfocused, not really looking at either of them. “I would’ve been fine, okay? I was just gonna ride it out until Moreau got bored and killed me.”
“We couldn’t let that happen,” Hardison says. “You’re too important for that.”
“No, I’m not!” Eliot shouts. “You don’t know what I’ve done. You should’ve just put a damn bomb in that house and blown the whole thing up, instead of almost getting yourselves killed trying to save me. I’m not– I’m not worth that.”
He’s so damn tired. Of course they don’t understand, why would they? They’re thieves. Of course they’d try to steal him, instead of finishing Moreau and his whole organization off for good. Putting him down along with Moreau would have been the hard but necessary thing, and none of them – not even Nate – know what it’s like to have to do that.
There’s a delicate pressure around his ribs: it’s Parker, who’s snuck behind him without him noticing and started hugging him. He goes very still. He doesn’t want her to touch him when he knows he doesn’t deserve it, but he can’t bring himself to get out of her hold.
“Should’ve just let me go,” he says helplessly.
“No way, man,” Hardison says, and now he’s hugging him, too.
“Never,” Parker says.
"The stuff you did–" Hardison starts to say, then stops. "Before us," he starts again, "that's on you. All of the stuff we did, that's on us. But this? Wasn't your fault. You were protecting us."
"Last time I checked, that's your job," Parker adds.
The last time he felt this close to crying was three months ago, in the park. Eliot feels a weird sense of deja vu. He blinks hard, draws in a stuttering breath.
“Don’t– don’t tell Nate and Sophie,” he says. “I don’t want–”
“It’s okay,” Hardison says. “I get it. I wasn’t planning on telling anyone, honestly. Hand to God, it just slipped out.”
“Okay,” Eliot says, and tries to breathe. “Okay.”
“Are you–” Hardison stops himself mid-sentence. “No. Stupid question. You’ve obviously not okay.”
“I’m fine, Hardison,” Eliot says. It sounds unconvincing even to his ears, a parody of his usual growl.
“Do you want to take a nap?” Parker asks. She lets go of him to move where he can see her. “Naps are nice.”
“Yeah,” Eliot says, “I’ll just–”
“No, I mean with us,” Parker says. “Like hugging, but asleep.”
“Girl, I think that might be a little much,” Hardison says.
“What? We’ll fit.” She’s going to be stubborn about it, Eliot can tell.
What Eliot wants to say is god yes please I need it. What Eliot should say is no, I’m okay, just let me be fucked up by myself instead of taking you with me. But instead, he says, “It’s fine. I don’t– I don’t mind.”
“We’re having a slumber party,” Parker says firmly. “Hardison, you should make popcorn.”
“We’re going to eat popcorn and take a nap?”
“We are not eating popcorn on my bed, Parker.”
“Are you literally kicking us out of your bed for eating crackers?”
“Not funny, Hardison. You don’t have to sleep with all the little bits.”
“Fine,” Parker grumbles. “Just the nap, then.”
She grabs his arm and practically drags him to the bedroom, then sends Hardison up to get pajamas for both of them. Even though Eliot has seen her change hundreds of times, for cons, it feels different this time, even though it’s definitely not sexual. Her pajamas have bunnies on them, for fuck’s sake.
On the bed they fall into a position with Eliot between them, Parker on one side and Hardison on the other.
“Any requests for non-awkward nap cuddling?” Hardison asks.
Eliot’s about to snap something about just letting him sleep, damn it, but then he pauses. “Don’t touch my hair, okay?” he says. “I don’t– just don’t do that and we’re good.”
“Okay,” Hardison says agreeably, and reaches over Eliot to hold hands with Parker.
“Shhhh,” she says. “Sleeping.”
When Nate and Sophie come back, the three of them are still there: Parker curled up in a fetal position, Hardison sprawled within his third of the bed, and Eliot between them.