RATING: PG-13 (for language)
WORD COUNT: 11,000
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Written for leverageland's Secret Agent Challenge.
Hardison drained the last of his orange soda, tossed the empty bottle in the general direction of the box that doubled for a trashcan in the van, and sighed theatrically for Nate’s benefit.
“Problem?” Nate asked without looking up from the sudoku he’d been working on for the last twenty minutes.
“Yeah, man, I’m bored. I’ve had dentist appointments more exciting than this.”
“When you’re older you’ll learn to appreciate the luxury of boredom.”
“What, old like you, you mean?”
It was a halfhearted jibe and Nate didn’t dignify it with a response. Hardison checked the monitors—which confirmed that there was still nothing interesting happening—sighed loudly again, and went back to playing Plants vs. Zombies.
This job was so easy it barely even qualified as a job. So easy it was downright embarrassing. All they had to do was break into some rich-ass real estate developer’s pad, steal back some kind of Native American artifact the dude “discovered” on one of his building sites, and return it to the tribe. Easy as his nana’s chocolate icebox pie.
It was the kind of thing Parker could have done by herself. Blindfolded. With both her hands tied behind her back (which is how is she initially proposed doing it). But noooo, Nate said they’d taken the job as a team, so they were doing the job as a team. Minus Sophie, who was off at some yoga retreat in Ojai. Why that got her an excused absence while the rest of them had to sit around watching Parker do all the work had not been made clear to Hardison, and was yet another reason he was feeling pissy.
He was elite in his field, goddammit. This elementary shit was a waste of his considerable talents. He could have been at home running his Goblin Death Knight through Firelands instead of freezing his buns off in the van with Nate’s cheap-ass cologne giving him a headache.
He opened his third bottle of soda, took a swig, and nearly choked on it when he glanced back at the monitors. “Heads up, people, we’ve got company.”
Nate looked up from his sudoku. “What?”
“How?” Parker’s voice came over over the comms as clearly as if she were standing next to him.
And was followed immediately by Eliot’s: “Where?”
“Back door,” Hardison said, studying the security feeds he’d hacked into. Two figures were approaching the back of the house. They were moving cautiously and keeping to the shadows as much as possible, in a way that could only be describing as skulking. “I’ve got two of ’em, a man and a woman.”
Nate leaned forward for a better look. “Who are they?”
Hardison shrugged. “They’re dressed like feds.”
Nate frowned and shook his head slowly. “Feds don’t sneak around in the middle of the night like ... well, like us. Parker, you better wrap it up.”
“Working on it,” was her clipped response.
“They’re splitting up,” Hardison said when the two figures entered the house. “The woman’s moving towards the study, but it looks like the dude’s about to be coming your way, Eliot.”
Okay, so maybe it was a good thing Parker wasn’t doing this job alone, after all.
Eliot was actually kind of relieved that things were starting to heat up. He hated standing around scratching his ass while Parker did all the work, even though that’s the way jobs seemed to go a lot of the time. If he was going to take time out of his schedule to do a job, he wanted to at least feel like he was making a valuable contribution.
He ducked around a corner and plastered himself to the wall, waiting for the sound of approaching footsteps to catch up to his position. As the dark figure of a man drew up beside him, Eliot stepped silently out of the shadows and slammed an elbow into the back of guy’s head, dropping him like a bag of playground sand.
Damn, Eliot thought, that was way too easy. The poor bastard hadn’t even seen it coming. Where was the fun in that?
He knelt beside the now-unconscious man and flipped him over. Hardison was right, the guy was dressed like a fed … and he was packing a SIG P229. Eliot ejected the magazine and tossed it before reaching into the man’s inside jacket pocket and coming up with a badge. “Shit,” he said.
“What?” Hardison asked over comms.
“I just punched a fed,” Eliot said through gritted teeth. “Secret goddamn Service.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he heard Nate say. “What would the Secret Service be doing here?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t like it. These guys are no joke.” Eliot rifled through the rest of the guy’s pockets and came up with a cell phone, a pair of purple latex gloves, an anti-static bag, and some weird-ass antique-looking metal box, which he pocketed so Hardison could play with it later. “What’s the twenty on his partner?”
There was a pause. “Uh ...”
Eliot scowled. “Dammit, Hardison!”
“Look, man, it ain’t my fault this guy has so many blind spots in his security system. Last I saw she was in the study, but there’s no cameras at all in the dining room or the kitchen. Dude should ask for his money back.”
Okay, so if she’d gone into the kitchen then she could come out through the back hallway, which would lead her right to—
Eliot whipped his head around just in time to get kicked in the face. His vision blurred momentarily, but he managed to launch himself at his opponent, closing the distance between them. He narrowly avoided a knee aimed at his groin as his hand closed around the gun on her hip. She tried to twist away but he managed to jerk her sidearm out of the holster and toss it safely out of reach.
The agent repaid him with an elbow to the jaw and another to the gut. Before she could hit him again he punched her hard enough to send her reeling away from him.
Great, he thought, now I’ve punched two feds.
She staggered against the wall, one of her hands shooting out to brace herself. Too late, Eliot noticed her other hand reaching into her jacket pocket.
As he tucked into a desperate roll he could feel all the hair on his arms stand on end. There was a crackle of electricity accompanied by a blinding flash.
Fuck, Eliot thought, just before losing consciousness. I’ll bet this is what it feels like to get struck by lightning.
Parker stared disdainfully at the contents of the private display room she’d just broken into. This job sucks, she thought, but was careful not to say out loud. She was getting much better about distinguishing between private thoughts and public thoughts, and felt a moment of pride for her restraint.
This Roffman guy they were hitting was some kind of a collector, all right, but he was the stupid kind. Most of his precious collection was just sentimental crap, as far as Parker could tell, hardly even worth stealing—sports and movie memorabilia, a few antiques and some chintzy-looking jewelry. Which was maybe just as well for him, because the place was about as secure as a 24-hour drive-thru.
There was a bunch of Native American stuff, but it was easy to spot the knife she was supposed to be looking for. Nate and Eliot had tried to explain it to her, but she still didn’t understand why anyone would care about some old piece of crap that wasn’t worth any money. It was just some dull-looking stone knife with a few mangy old feathers tied onto it. If you couldn’t sell it and you couldn’t even cut anything with it then what use was it?
“Parker, hurry up,” Nate’s voice barked in her earbud.
“All right,” she muttered irritably. She hated it when he raised his voice over comms. It was like being yelled at by someone living inside her head.
She crammed the knife into her satchel and was just about to make her exit when a diamond and garnet ring caught her eye. It was pretty enough, but pretty wasn’t usually enough to attract her attention. It didn’t even look like it was worth much, maybe ten thousand at most, but she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of it for some reason.
She could hear Nate calling Eliot’s name over comms and not getting an answer, which was probably bad, but still she continued to stand there, mesmerized by the ring. It was only when she heard Nate shout, “Parker, Eliot’s down. Get out now!” that she finally snapped out of it.
“I’m going!” she hissed back, throwing the satchel over her shoulder. But just before she hoisted herself out the window, she plucked the garnet ring from its velvet case and stuffed it in her pocket.
Pain sliced through his head. He groaned and tried to will himself back into unconsciousness.
“Eliot, wake up.” That was Parker’s voice, somewhere close. Too close.
He managed to open one eye a crack and found himself nose-to-nose with Parker.
“Jesus!” Eliot flinched away, causing a fresh wave of agony to radiate through his brain. “Ow! Dammit!”
Parker moved away and Hardison’s face came into view, grinning. “Ah, there’s the Eliot the we know and love. Welcome back, man.”
If there was one thing Eliot hated it was having people staring down at him, so despite the outrageous pain in his head he levered himself up into a sitting position. Somehow, he’d ended up back in the van. “What the hell happened?” he asked, rubbing his head.
“We were hoping you could tell us,” Nate said, offering him a bottle of water.
Eliot nodded his thanks and gulped down half the bottle. The water helped wash away some of the metallic taste in his mouth. It also helped clear his mind a little. Not enough to make sense of anything, though. “I was fighting that female agent and she pointed this weird-looking gun at me and ... I dunno, it felt kinda like being electrocuted.”
“You mean she Tased you?” Hardison said, choking back laughter.
Eliot glared at him. “I’ve been Tased plenty of times before and believe me, a Taser feels like a paper cut compared to whatever the hell this was. How’d I get here, anyway?”
“We carried your ass is how,” said Hardison. “And lemme tell you, man, you are not made of feathers.”
“What happened to the Secret Service? Shouldn’t I be in custody right now?”
“Yeah, funny thing,” Nate said. “They just left you there. But not before poking around the display room for about ten minutes and then erasing all the security footage. Pretty strange behavior for the Secret Service, eh?”
“So we’re thinking maybe those agents were not so much with the real,” Hardison said.
“Looked real enough to me,” Eliot said, rubbing his aching jaw. “That reminds me—” He pulled the antique gizmo out of his pocket and tossed it to Hardison. “I took that off the first agent, maybe you can figure out what it is.”
Hardison was so completely baffled by the piece of tech Eliot had lifted off the Secret Service agent that he stayed up all night tinkering with it. Eight hours later he still wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but he was pretty sure he was in love with it.
At first he’d thought it was some kind of smart phone decked out with a sweet steampunk mod. Except that the internal components were legitimately old—like almost a hundred years old. Which made zero sense because this kind of two-way video technology did not exist back then. Hell, televisions barely even existed back then.
He hadn’t been able to get it to work either. He figured the thing probably got fried along with Eliot, but he was determined to fix it, even if he had to take the whole damn thing apart and put it back together piece by piece. Which was exactly what he was doing.
Nate wandered over and raised an eyebrow at the pieces of metal and bits of wiring strewn across his desk. “You still playing with that piece of junk?”
Hardison circled his arms protectively around his precious new toy. “You did not just just call this thing a piece of junk.”
“Well, what is it, then?”
“My current theory is that it’s some kind of antique radio-frequency videophone. I’m telling you, man, I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve seen shit the CEO of Samsung can only dream about. Whatever this thing is, it’s a damn work of art.”
“Can’t you just, I don’t know, hack into it or something?” Nate waved his hand vaguely, like it was that simple.
Hardison sighed the beleaguered sigh of a virtuoso surrounded by dilettantes. “Hacking is something you do to a computer chip or a network. It wasn’t even possible until the 1960s and as far as I can tell this device was built sometime in the 1930s. It shouldn’t even exist, much less work. I mean, sure, theoretically, everything you needed to make something like this was available back then, but no one had figured it out how to do it yet.”
“Uh huh,” Nate said distractedly. He wrinkled his brow and glanced around the room. “Where’s Parker?”
“No idea.” Although now that Hardison thought about it, it was kind of weird that she wasn’t there yet.
“Well, call her, would you?” Nate grumbled. “Tell her to get her ass over here.”
Parker stood outside a Starbucks on Massachusetts Avenue, watching the people go in and out. It was oddly mesmerizing, like watching a trail of ants gathering food. The ants went in empty handed and came out a few minutes later clutching their white paper cups. Empty ants, full ants. Empty ants, full ants.
It took her almost 23 seconds to realize the music she’d been hearing was actually coming from the phone in her pocket. She considered ignoring it, then changed her mind when she saw the caller’s name on the display.
“What’s up?” she said cheerfully into the phone.
“Where are you?” Hardison asked.
Parker insinuated herself into the stream of empty ants and followed them inside the Starbucks. “I’m out. You know, doing stuff. Why?”
“Nate wants you here, like ten minutes ago.”
“Yeah, I don’t think he cares.”
“Tell him to go fuck himself.” She hung up on the sputtering noises Hardison was making and tossed the phone in the trashcan by the door.
The girl making the drinks set a cup down on the counter. “Venti caramel macchiato,” she called out.
Parker wasn’t sure exactly what that was, but it sounded yummy. She bypassed the rest of the ants and picked up the drink. The name “Greg” was scrawled on the cup in wax pencil.
“Excuse me, that’s my drink,” said a guy in a shiny suit with a Bluetooth in his ear. He was wearing mirrored wraparound sunglasses and way too much cologne.
Parker stared at him. “You look like a tool.”
“Listen, lady, just give me my coffee.”
Parker stuck out her tongue and licked all the way around the lid of the coffee cup. “Guess it’s my coffee now,” she said.
“Hey!” the man exclaimed, grabbing her arm. “You’re buying me a new one, bitch.”
Parker looked down at the fingers that were wrapped around her arm. Then she looked at the man, frowning. Her knee came up and hit him solidly in the groin. He let go of her arm and crumpled to the floor, whimpering and clutching his bruised balls.
No one else tried to stop her. She could still hear the guy groaning in agony as she walked away. Parker smiled and sipped her venti caramel macchiato. It was delicious.
Eliot settled back on the couch and propped his feet up on the coffee table, ignoring the scowl it earned him from Nate. His ears were still ringing from the jolt he’d gotten the night before so as far as he was concerned, he’d damn well earned the right to put his feet up on Nate’s furniture.
“What’d you find on our friends in the Secret Service?” Nate asked, turning his frown in Hardison’s direction.
They were going ahead and starting without Parker. Hardison had been vague about why she wasn’t there yet and Nate had seemed pissed about it, but Eliot couldn’t really be bothered to give much of a damn. As far as he was concerned, vague was pretty much Parker’s modus operandi and Nate was always pissed about something or other.
“They’re the real deal,” Hardison said, brandishing his remote control. A government-issued ID photo of the first agent Eliot had encountered flashed up on the screens beside a birth certificate and military service record. “I ran the name Eliot got off his badge. Peter Lattimer, born 1968 in Canton, Ohio. Graduated from the University of Michigan and served four years active duty in the Marines before joining the U.S. Secret Service.”
“What about the other one?” Eliot asked, frowning.
Hardison gestured at the monitors and the photo of Lattimer was replaced by one of the female agent. “Facial recognition came up with an Agent Myka Bering.”
Eliot leaned forward and studied at it. He’d been too busy getting kicked in the face get a good look at her last night. She didn’t look that tough in the picture, but he knew otherwise from first-hand experience.
“Now she is a bona fide hero,” Hardison said. “Y’all remember that dude who stole a set of plates from the Denver Mint three years ago?” At another click of his remote several newspaper articles appeared beside the photo of Bering.
Eliot didn’t need to look at the articles; he was all too familiar with the story. “Guy by the name of Leo Bock. The Secret Service managed to track him to the National Building. Bock opened fire, killing one agent, and escaped. He’s currently number seven on the FBI’s most wanted.”
Nate raised an eyebrow at him. “You seem to know an awful lot about it.”
“I turned down that job,” Eliot said flatly.
“Really? How come?” Nate asked.
Eliot’s eyes didn’t move from the picture of the dead agent up on the monitors. “’Cause I took the Pierson Aviation job instead.”
And if he hadn’t? If he’d been the one to get those plates out of the Mint instead of Bock? He was pretty damn sure that agent would be alive today.
Hardison cleared his throat. “Well, the agent who was killed was Bering’s partner. She was on the scene when it went down.”
Eliot could feel Nate’s eyes on him, trying to get a read on him, weighing his reaction to the information. Eliot stubbornly refused to give him one.
“After that she transferred to the Presidential Protective Division in D.C.,” Hardison continued. “Which also happened to be Lattimer’s detail. There was some kind of incident during a reception at the Natural History Museum a couple of years ago that they were both involved in. The details are pretty hazy, but Lattimer was suspended for two weeks, while Bering got a personal thank you from the president.”
Eliot felt his frown deepen as he stared at the screens. This right here? This was exactly why he didn’t like tangling with cops and feds. The whole reason he’d joined this crew was so he wouldn’t be working against the good guys anymore. And now they’d gone and messed with someone who’d saved the goddam president.
“Where are they assigned now?” Nate asked. He didn’t look any happier about any of this than Eliot was.
“Here’s where it gets a little hinky,” Hardison said. “After that incident at the museum they were taken off the president’s detail and ... basically disappeared. They’re no longer part of any command structure on record. At least not any records I can find.”
“So maybe they left the Secret Service,” Nate suggested.
“Except that there’s still regular direct deposits showing up in both of their checking accounts from Uncle Sam. There’s also no separation or transfer paperwork, and no leave or disability applications either. And you know the government—”
“You can’t take a shit without filling out a mountain of paperwork,” Eliot supplied.
Hardison nodded. “Exactly. As far as I can tell, they’re ghosts.”
Nate leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I wasn’t aware the Secret Service had any black ops.”
“They don’t,” Eliot said. He was 95 percent sure he was right about that. If they did, he would have run into them before now, surely. And what the hell kind of black ops would the Secret Service be running anyway? It didn’t make sense.
“Keep digging,” Nate said. “I want to know what those two were doing at that house last night.”
Hardison shrugged. “Sure, man, but can I just ask—why? I mean, as far as I can tell we got away with it. If they were gonna come after us they wouldn’t have left Sleeping Beauty on the floor and booked their asses outta there.”
“I hate to agree with Hardison,” Eliot said, “but I kind of agree with Hardison. Whatever they’re up to, maybe we should just leave it alone.”
They were interrupted by a knock on the door.
“See, Nate, I told you Parker was just messing with you,” Hardison said, standing up to answer it.
Eliot was already on his feet. “Since when does Parker knock?” he hissed.
Hardison froze. He was only about two feet from the door when it burst open. There was an explosion of blinding, multi-colored lights, like someone had set off a full-scale fireworks display inside.
Goddammit, Eliot thought as he slipped into unconsciousness. Not again.
Nate woke up with a queasy stomach and a blinding headache. On the plus side, he was still alive and not in a federal holding cell. On the minus side, he seemed to be handcuffed to Hardison. They were still in his condo, sitting on his couch, and Eliot was on Nate’s other side with another pair of handcuffs all to himself. Nate could hear a pair of hushed voices coming from somewhere behind him, belonging to a man and a woman, but he couldn’t quite make out what they’re saying.
“Man, I was starting to think you were never gonna wake up,” Hardison whispered.
Eliot cocked his head in the direction of the kitchen. “Lattimer and Bering,” he said quietly.
“Any chance you can you get out of those cuffs?” Nate asked Eliot.
Eliot shrugged. “Sure, if I dislocate one of my thumbs.”
Nate frowned. “Let’s keep that on the back burner for now. I’m interested to find out what they want. Unless it looks like they’re about to kill us or arrest us, then—”
“Yeah, I got it,” Eliot said, tossing his hair out of his eyes.
“Oh, good, you’re all awake,” Bering said, coming around to stand in front of them. Lattimer was right behind her.
Nate did his best impression of a frightened burglary victim. “Look, I don’t keep much cash around the place but there’s $500 in a coffee can under the sink. Take it and all electronics you want, just don’t kill us.”
Lattimer snorted derisively. “You can drop the act, buddy. We know you’re professional thieves and we know you broke into Adam Roffman’s home last night.”
Bering put her hands on her hips and glared down at Nate. “The artifact you stole belongs to the U.S. government. Tell us where it is and this can all be over.”
“Just like that, eh?” Even if the government did have some sort of legitimate claim on the Wampaonag knife, Nate couldn’t imagine they would just take their toy and go, no questions asked. Assuming he still had the knife, which he didn’t.
Bering nodded. “It’s easier for everyone if we do this unofficially. I’m even willing to forget the little matter of assault on a federal agent.”
“I’m not,” Lattimer grumbled, directing a resentful look at Eliot. Eliot responded with a smirk that did little to improve their negotiating position.
Nate saw Bering shoot Lattimer a disapproving frown, which told him she was the alpha of this little operation. He filed the information away.
“Look,” Bering said, addressing Nate again. “You can either spend the next 10-20 years in federal prison—which is going to require a lot of tedious paperwork that we’d just assume skip—or you can just give us the ring and we’ll all pretend like none of this ever happened.”
“Ah, hang on,” Nate said, genuinely taken off guard. “What ring, exactly?”
Bering huffed irritably.“You seriously want to do this the hard way?”
“I say we start breaking fingers until they tell us where it is, starting with Fabio, here.” Lattimer jabbed his index finger into Eliot’s sternum.
“Who you calling Fabio?” Eliot growled, and based on the way the tendons were standing out in his neck, Nate estimated that Lattimer was about ten seconds away from being choked to death with his own handcuffs by a man with a broken thumb.
Bering strode over to stand in front of Eliot and fixed him with a stern glare. “You,” she said shortly. “You got a problem with that?”
Eliot immediately lowered his eyes to the floor. “No, ma’am,” he mumbled.
It was a bit unnerving to see Eliot so easily cowed. Nate suspected it had something to do with Bering’s partner getting killed over that job Eliot had turned down; he just hoped Eliot’s misplaced guilt didn’t end up biting them in the ass.
Hardison glanced tensely at Nate, then back at Bering and Lattimer. “Hey, um, for real, y’all. We don’t know nothing about any ring. All we was there for was some stupid-ass stone knife with these, like, grody feathers and shit tied to it.”
Nate saw Lattimer and Bering exchange a look and decided maybe Hardison had the right idea. At this point a little truth might be their best option. He cleared his throat and endeavored to project as much honesty as he could muster. “Let’s say—hypothetically of course—that we are the thieves you say we are.”
Bering raised her eyebrows expectantly. “Hypothetically?”
Nate nodded. “If we broke into this guy Roffman’s house last night—and I’m not saying we did, you understand—but if we did, it was only to retrieve a Wampanoag ceremonial knife, which I already handed over to its rightful owners, the tribal elders, first thing this morning. We don’t know anything about any ring.”
Hardison enthusiastically nodded his agreement.
Bering crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at Nate.“You expect me to believe that you broke into Adam Roffman’s house and didn’t steal the garnet and diamond ring that just happened to go missing from his collection the very same night? Not buying it.”
“Yeah, ah, this ring,” Nate said. “Was it by any chance in the upstairs display room with the rest of his collection?”
“That’s right,” Bering said.
“Parker,” Nate, Eliot and Hardison all said in unison.
“What’s a Parker?” Lattimer asked.
“She’s our colleague,” Nate said. “She’s the one who does most of the actual, you know, stealing. Hypothetically, that is. It’s possible she may have ... accidentally picked up this ring you’re looking for.”
“So where is she?” Bering asked.
Nate shrugged vaguely. “Well, that’s the question isn’t it? I mean, Parker ... she’s unpredictable. If she doesn’t want to be found, you’re not going to find her.”
“I can tell you from first-hand experience that that is a true statement,” Hardison chimed in.
“I’ll make you a deal, though,” Nate said. “You let us go, we’ll track down Parker for you and get her to give you this ring you’re looking for.”
Bering snorted. “Yeah, right. Do we look like suckers to you?”
Agent Lattimer pulled her a little aside and said, in a whisper just loud enough for Nate to make out, “I think we should do it, Myka.”
“Pete, they’re professional con men!” she hissed at him.
“I know, but ... I think we should trust them.”
“Is this one of your vibes?”
“Yeah, it is.”
Bering pressed her lips together and stared at him for another beat. Then, to Nate’s utter surprise, she relented. “Fine, but when this blows up our faces I’m saying I told you so. And you’re the one who has to explain it to Artie.” She turned back to Nate and pointed a finger at him sternly. “We’re not letting any of you out of our sight, not even for a second. And if I think you’re even considering double-crossing us, we’re throwing all of you in the federal penitentiary. Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” Nate said.
Hardison threw an uneasy glance over his shoulder. “Hey, man, you mind giving me a little space here?”
Nate and Eliot were still handcuffed over on the couch under Agent Bering’s watchful eye while Lattimer babysat Hardison at the computer. Which apparently meant hovering behind him, looking over his shoulder, and watching everything he did, all of which was making Hardison seriously edgy. Not that he’d rather be handcuffed. Just that he wasn’t exactly comfortable hacking into the GPS on Parker’s phone with a fed breathing down his neck.
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do mind,” Lattimer replied sharply.
“That’s cool,” Hardison said. If asking nicely wasn’t going to work, he’d just have to try a little conversational distraction. “So, uh, how’d you find us, anyway?”
“You took my Farnsworth. It’s got some kind of tracker thingy in it.” Lattimer waved his hand vaguely, like people do when they have no idea what they’re talking about. So obviously not much a tech guy, then.
“You mean that antique video-phone thing?” Hardison asked. “That’s what it’s called?”
“Yeah, it’s named after the guy who invented it.”
Hardison turned around and gave him an open-mouthed stare, Parker’s GPS momentarily forgotten. “Are you shitting me? Philo Farnsworth? The inventor of the damn television? You’re shitting me!”
Lattimer grinned. “I am not shitting you. Which reminds me, I want it back. What’d you do with it, anyway?”
Hardison slid a guilty look over at the desk where the Farnsworth was lying in a hojillion tiny pieces.
“Dude! You totally killed it!”
“No, man, I was trying to fix it!” While Lattimer was distracted by the remnants of his Farnsworth, Hardison surreptitiously palmed three earbuds.
“It wasn’t broken!” Lattimer said. “It’s got a remote override in case it ever falls into the wrong hands.” He wheeled on Hardison with a murderous look.
“I can put it back together for you, good as new,” Hardison said. “I swear, man!”
“First we need to find this Parker person,” Bering reminded them. “Any luck yet?”
“Yeah,” Hardison said, peering at the map he’d pulled up. “According to this she’s at ... Huh. A Starbucks in the Back Bay.” That was ... kind of weird. He shot a quizzical a look at Nate and Eliot.
“What the hell’s she doing there?” Eliot said.
Nate shrugged. “Guess we’d better go find out.” He looked up at Bering expectantly. “Assuming you still want us to, that is.”
“No funny business,” Bering warned as she uncuffed Eliot and Nate.
“We can take our van,” Nate offered magnanimously.
Eliot stared skeptically out the window, at the front of the building Hardison had brought them to. “Starbucks?” he said. “Seriously? You sure about this?” He’d never even known Parker to drink coffee, much less go somewhere like Starbucks. Hardison went to Starbucks. Nate went to Starbucks. Sophie went to Starbucks. Even Eliot went to Starbuck on occasion when there wasn’t a non-chain alternative nearby. Parker? Did not go to Starbucks as far as he knew.
“That’s what the GPS says,” Hardison said defensively. “The map don’t lie.”
Eliot could think of plenty of times one of Hardison’s maps had lied, but he bit back his retort. Now was probably not the best time to give the kid grief about it.
Bering turned around in the front seat and looked at them tensely. “There’s something you should probably know before we go in there.”
Eliot braced himself. He’d known there was something off about this whole thing from the start and now they were finally going to find out what it was. This ought to be good.
“This ring we’re looking for used to belong to Gypsy Rose Lee.” Bering paused. Oddly, she almost looked embarrassed. No, she was definitely embarrassed, Eliot decided. Interesting.
“The stripper,” Lattimer added.
Nate huffed impatiently. “Yeah, I know who she is.”
“The ring has these special properties,” Bering continued uneasily. “It can sort of ... make people do things. Things that are out of character.”
“Like what sort of things?” Eliot asked. This whole situation was starting to get seriously fucking weird.
“Like taking off all your clothes and dancing around in a roomful of pervy old men,” Lattimer said. “Just, you know, for instance.” He shrugged sheepishly like it was just one of those things that happened sometimes.
Hardison stared at him like he’d just grown a second head. “I’m sorry, what now?”
Nate frowned uncertainly. “You’re pulling our chains now, right? That’s what’s happening?”
“Believe me, I know how crazy it sounds, but it’s true,” Lattimer said. “That’s why we need to get that ring. It’s dangerous.”
Bering nodded in agreement. “There are certain things, powerful things, that shouldn’t be out in the world. It’s our job to make sure they’re somewhere safe, somewhere they won’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Eliot couldn’t figure out how she’d even managed to keep a straight face while she was saying all that, but she looked for all the world like she was telling the truth. In fact, she looked dead serious.
“Hold up,” Hardison said, shaking his head incredulously. “Are we actually talking about magic right now? Like ... magic?”
“Don’t think of it as magic,” Bering said carefully. “It’s easier if you think of it as science we don’t understand yet.”
Eliot didn’t say anything. As far as he could tell, either Bering and Lattimer were telling truth or they were completely batshit crazy. Either way, playing along was probably their best bet right now. The thing was, though, they didn’t seem crazy. Truth be told, Eliot had seen some weird shit in his life, some of which he couldn’t even begin to explain. Enough that he was almost willing to believe there might be some truth to what Bering and Lattimer were saying. Almost. Maybe.
“So wait,” Hardison said. “You’re saying this ring Parker has ... it’s going to turn her into a stripper?” He sounded almost as hopeful as he was skeptical and Eliot had to quash the urge to cuff him on the back of the head.
Bering shook her head slowly. “Not necessarily. It lowers inhibitions, kind of like alcohol, but stronger, and without the corresponding impairment of mental and physical function. Basically all the social graces that allow us to live together in a civilized society kind of go out the window.”
Eliot tried to imagine Parker without any inhibitions. Or with fewer inhibitions than normal, which wasn’t a damn lot to begin with. The picture he came up with was not good. Not good at all.
“Oh, man, we are so totally fucked,” Hardison said, shaking his head.
Nate was in no way buying into this magic ring nonsense Bering and Lattimer were trying to sell them. He hadn’t yet figured out what game they were running, but they were definitely running something.
Although ... his mind did keep going back to Hardison’s phone call to Parker this morning and wondering if ... no, that was patently ridiculous. Something fishy was up with these Secret Service agents, and something else entirely unrelated was going on with Parker. Obviously. And the important thing was that Nate needed to make sure his team got to Parker before Bering and Lattimer did.
So he casually suggested that they send Eliot and Hardison into the Starbucks alone to look for Parker, since they were the least likely to spook her. If she was in there, he pointed out, they could convince her to come out. Or, he thought to himself, they could warn her about the situation, get her to give up the ring, and help her make a clean getaway.
Unfortunately, Agent Bering was no fool so she sent Lattimer in first to keep an eye on the other two. She stayed outside with Nate, keeping one wary eye on him and another on the door of the coffee shop, while Hardison and Eliot went inside in search of Parker.
And as it turned out, it was all for nothing anyway, because Parker wasn’t there.
Hardison came out waving Parker’s cell phone, followed closely by Eliot and Lattimer. “Found it in the trash,” he said. “Along with a dirty diaper. A diaper, man! What kind of person throws away a dirty diaper in a restaurant?”
“Starbucks ain’t a restaurant,” Eliot pointed out.
Hardison shot a glare at Eliot. “Next time I get to sweet-talk the hot tattooed barista chick, is all I’m saying.”
“She was pretty hot,” Lattimer agreed, grinning like a frat boy.
“Got her number, too.” Eliot waved a slip of paper mockingly in Hardison’s face before tucking it into his pocket.
“Focus,” Nate growled.
“Before she gave me her phone number,” Eliot said smugly, “the barista told me there was a blond woman in earlier who stole some guy’s drink and then kicked him in the ’nads when he tried to complain about it.”
Nate shook his head, smiling slightly. “Sounds like our Parker.”
“Now what?” Bering asked.
“Now we have to figure out where she was heading when she left here.” Nate rubbed his cheek absently while his mind leapt ahead, running through a list of possible scenarios.
“Okay,” Lattimer said. “Well, what does she like to do in her free time? What are her interests?”
There was a long pause.
“She likes money,” Hardison said finally.
“And she likes stealing stuff,” Eliot added.
Lattimer sighed and threw his hands up. “That’s just great. That narrows it down to more or less everywhere and everything in the entire city.”
“No, no, we’re going about this all wrong,” Nate said, shaking his head. “Instead of trying to guess where she was going, we should be asking ourselves what she was doing here in the first place.”
They all looked around, trying to imagine what would bring Parker into this part of town. And then Nate spied a banner suspended across the street and had his epiphany. It was so obvious he could have kicked himself for not thinking of it sooner.
Just a few blocks away from them was the Hynes Convention Center, which just happened to be hosting the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money. An entire convention center filled with money—rare and valuable money. And there was one particular specimen at this convention that was rarer and more valuable than all the rest.
Eliot’s gaze had followed Nate’s to the banner. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he asked.
“Yup,” Nate said. “Let’s go stop Parker from stealing the most valuable coin in the world.”