Now, I'm going to let Mike introduce himself and his partner:
"Um, yeah, so, hi! I'm Mike. This is my partner, best friend, pretty much everything, Joe. Christ, I feel like I'm doing some weird computer dating service or something. My favorite movie is PulpFiction, I like long runs in the park as long as there are good sight-lines and my favorite weapon is machete. We're assassins and really, that seems weird to say out loud."
"I'm Joe. Mike's my lover. Has been since just after Senior Prom. We're cute. We're dangerous. And we're helping out a bunch of thieves in this caper and that's just plain against our usual MO. Mike's a hopeless romantic, and I know him better than anyone. So, just go and read something and we'll let you know when the books come out."
"Hopefully, we'll get a real publisher."
"Stop muttering. Oh, and if you spot Mike's stalker? Don't worry. He's a Russian assassin we picked up when we were dealing with a certain spell problem."
"You had to bring spells into this. His name is Kostya and he's more like a guardian stalker than a dangerous one, so just... don't piss him off. Well, talk to you later. Bye."
"Well, if this were a few years ago, I'd recommend Harry, but considering, I think Mike and Joe would be our best bet for assassins who'd be willing to fake a job," Eliot said after a moment of thought. Eliot Spencer was the only member of the Leverage team who'd ever had any meaningful connection to for-hire killers. He played the edge between the thieving and mercenary worlds.
"Who the hell are Mike and Joe?" Alec asked.
"They're a team. One of the best." Eliot shrugged. "I wouldn't cross them."
"They gonna be trustworthy on this?" Nathan Ford asked. Nate was a former insurance investigator. He was the general planner of the team and the one white hat in a group of criminals.
"Okay, so Eliot, you'll contact our assassins and explain things to them. Sophie, tell our target that you've found some assassins for him," Nathan said rubbing his hands together.
"Uh, what if they don't agree to help us?" Alec asked.
"Yeah, the guy knows Eliot and Alec doesn't have a clue how to use guns and lets face it, no one will believe me as an assassin," Parker said as she fidgeted in her chair. The team watched her for a moment to see if she would add anything before turning their attention back to the retrieval specialist.
"Trust me, I explain what's going on and they'll want to be involved," Eliot replied.
"How can you be so sure?"
"There's kids involved. Harry had a habit of killing people who put hits out on kids. So do The Boys."
"Huh. Assassins with morals. And I thought I'd seen everything," Alec scoffed.
Eliot glared at him. "Shut up."
"Dude, get some new comebacks."
"Okay! So, Eliot how long until you can contact them?" Nate interrupted.
"Knowing them, as soon as we get out of this meeting. They are pretty much available 24/7. Mike's a night owl who'll probably be working on a new gadget or bomb."
"Bomb? Wait a minute, no one said anything about a bomb," Alec protested.
"Don't worry. He sells the designs to defense companies." The retrieval expert paused. "Usually."
"Contact them." With that the meeting broke up.
Eliot dialed from memory. "Speak up. If you've got this number, you know who this is," a cheerful voice on the other end of the phone answered.
"Depends, if this is the cutie with the shoulder length hair that can take down a roomful of Russian mobsters without breaking a sweat, sure."
"Don't let your boy hear you talking like that. I have something for you."
"Eh, he's out getting food."
"Little late, ain't it?"
"For us, not really. What's up?" Mike asked. Eliot had never asked for his last name and the assassin had never offered it. He'd just offered a cell number and a promise to listen.
"I got a job for ya."
"Something you can't handle?"
"Need some unknown quantities."
"Your game's not our usual business."
"I need you because of your business."
There was silence for a moment. "Where are you?"
"Chicago, haven't been there in a while. I'm gonna put you on speaker phone. I'm kind of in the middle of a very delicate situation."
Eliot waited for the phone to switch.
"Okay, so talk to me."
Eliot started to explain the situation to Mike. In the middle of the story he heard a door open.
"Your creepy shadow is out there. I think he's planning to invite himself to dinner."
Eliot recognized Joe's muffled voice.
"He's not creepy. Well, not as creepy as you think he is. He's nice. Anyway, we've got a Chicago gig. Come over here and hold this wire. Keep going, cutie."
"Shut up and let him talk. Go ahead, man."
Eliot rolled his eyes. It was a good thing they had the rep they had.
"We have a family who got into some trouble with a real bastard. We took their case and are trying to help them out. We've gotten close to the guy and found out he wants to put out a hit on the family's kids. We figured that we could say we hired some assassins for him, but he's gonna wanna meet 'em and he knows me. None of the other members of the team are assassin material."
"Kids. Fine, we'll be there. How soon do you need us there?"
"What are my options?"
The two conferred in low voices. "Delivery in a day. If we fly it's a couple hours. If we drive, half a day." Mike's voice came through more clearly. "If you need us right now, it's a one hour flight plus getting through security. If you want us to come equipped, it'll be closer to twenty-four hours."
can drive in shifts."
"You'll get cranky if we drive in shifts. You're too tall."
"It's kids. I can deal."
"Sophie can't tell Martz that we have assassins for him until tomorrow afternoon. We can tell him that we can have you here by Friday, that way you have three days to get up here and set up."
"Give me an address and we'll see you tomorrow. Wait, team? Who else is on this? I thought you worked alone?"
"You just picked up on the team thing?" Joe asked amused. "Hey are you with that new consulting company I've been hearing rumors about?"
"Yeah. Leverage is the name."
"So you're working with Alec Hardison, Sophie Devereaux, Parker, and Nathan Ford, right?" Joe stated.
"Dude, you're working with Parker?" Mike asked.
"Yeah. She's not bad."
"Yeah, but she's not bad."
"If there weren't kids involved, I'd have to rethink this."
"No you wouldn't," Mike's partner said with a laugh. "You've wanted to work with Parker and I want to meet Hardison face to face."
"I have not wanted to work with Parker. I just admired her pyrotechnics once. Okay, I'm done with this. We'll see you tomorrow, cutie."
"You keep calling him..." The phone shut off.
Eliot shook his head. "They'll be here tomorrow. Anyone mind if they crash here?"
"I think it would be better if we get them a hotel room. Martz might demand to meet them at the place they are staying. That tends to be his routine when meeting thieves," Sophie broke in.
"They won't meet him at a hotel room. They'll arrange the meet outside."
"You'll just have to find a way to convince him," Nate said to Sophie.
"Fine, I'm sure I can convince him," Sophie said sitting back in her seat and giving a little wiggle that had most of the people in the room looking away and clearing their throats. Parker just stared at her with slitted eyes.
"Okay, so I'll make arrangements at a hotel for them. A fairly high class place, but not too high."
The explosion was small and well contained. The office went up in flames, neatly framing the dead man inside for a series of similar arson experiments. The man who'd done the arson was also dead. It was a nice two for one job. Joe sat back, smiling as he arranged for the money transfers. Mike hummed along with the CD in the Charger as he pointed their nose toward Chicago. It wasn't often they got to kill the person who'd hired them in the first place. And the abusive fucker really did need to be dead.
"So what do we know about Eliot's merry band of misfits?" Mike asked.
Joe took a sip of his latte and closed down his computer.
"You know all about Eliot. Alec Hardison, wiz kid with computers. Better than me actually. I've used his help on a couple of jobs, never met him in person though. Grew up in a foster home, seems to have been only one and a good one at that. Was rarely ever caught. The biggest bust was made by Nathan Ford. Sophie Devereaux, con-woman and want to be actress. Can't find much on her childhood. Probably a name change in there. She went straight for a while after being caught by Ford. Parker. Thief and crazy person. Her house exploded when she was a kid. Parents were both killed and she was placed in foster care. She bounced around, then took off. Seems to have a severe case of crazy. Ford also caught her, multiple times."
"And what about Ford?"
"Insurance investigator. Best one for the company until his son got sick and the company refused to pay for the treatment. After that, he went on a bender. Wife left him. Word is he got hired to do a job and it went south and that's why he started up Leverage."
"Bastards. We're self-insured right?"
"We are. What covers?"
"Let's just stick with Mike and Joe. Eliot might know our real names. I think he met Harry."
"Is there anyone Harry hasn't met? And if he did meet Harry, why were we never introduced?"
"He's cute and you're a slut. Did Kostya say why he was here anyway?"
Mike flipped Joe off. "Nothing like we're under attack right? I do not want to be dealing with anything weird right now."
"No, we're clear. I'll book some rooms. Smith and Jones."
"Brown. Smith and Brown."
"You're Brown. I'm Smith. Jones and Wesson?" Joe teased.
"That would be so wrong. Winchester and Colt?"
Joe laughed. "We'll use that when we're introduced to the team. See if Eliot can keep a straight face."
Eliot was making tea in the kitchen when Mike and Joe arrived.
"Yo, Eliot! Your killer friends are here,"Alec yelled from the conference room.
Eliot sighed and grabbed his mug before heading into the room. "You might want to watch what you say, Hardison. You think I can kill you quick, these two are better than me," he said taking a seat. He took a sip of his tea to hide his smile as Alec glanced over at the two men seated next to him and tried to move further away without attracting attention.
"Eliot. How have you been, cutie?" Mike asked with a smile.
"Cutie?" Alec sputtered. "Dude, he calls you-" his laughter cut off by the glare from both Mike and Eliot. "Um, I think I'll go find Nate."
Once the hacker was out of the room, Mike prompted. "So?"
"Nate'll do the briefing. I'm fine."
"Not working alone though, I see."
"I still work alone. Sometimes I don't. It's not like I'm attached at the hip like some people. You sure you two aren't Siamese twins?"
"Aren't you going to offer us something to drink?" Joe asked. "I mean, just because we drove straight through the night after finishing a job just to help you out."
Mike elbowed his partner. "Anyone asks, he's Colt. I'm Winchester."
Eliot nodded solemnly. "Of course. Would you like something to drink? Kitchen's over there."
"Get me a coffee," Joe said nudging Mike with his elbow.
"Get it yourself."
"You call him 'cutie'," Joe pointed out. "As you've told me repeatedly over the years, I'm a jealous bastard. I want to talk to him."
Mike rolled his eyes. "If he bothers you, just aim for the left knee."
Mike smiled sweetly at Joe and went to get two cups of coffee.
Joe looked Eliot dead in the eye. "We've had a rough three years," he said quietly. "I don't want any problems."
Eliot nodded. "Don't worry. It's not like he'd ever step out on you. Believe me. I tried."
"Oh, I believe you tried. You'd be an idiot if you didn't."
Mike came back with coffee and a tail of a nervous hacker, a possibly autistic thief, and a former white hat. He stopped in front of Joe. "Do I have to pour coffee in your lap?" he asked mildly.
"I didn't threaten him. Honest."
Mike gave him a warning glance before sitting down. Parker and Alec took their seats. Nathan paced the room.
"Guys this is Mike Winchester and Joe Colt."
Nate gave them a quick glance before smirking. The boys' impression of Ford rose a few notches.
"Mike, Joe, this is Alec Hardison, Parker, and Nathan Ford. Sophie is with the target, she'll be here in a few hours."
"Nice to meet you. The explosion in Wichita was incredible, Parker," Mike enthused. "We need to talk later."
"You like bombs!"
"I do. So, cutie gave me the short version. Someone want to fill us in with the expanded one?" The blond assassin looked at Ford.
"The mark's name is Samuel Martz. He's a loan shark masquerading as a mortgage broker. He's gotten the Carson family into a debt that's way over their heads and he's been threatening them. The Carson's have put in a report of predatory lending with the Attorney General's office and he's under investigation. He wants to have the Carson's kids, Jenny and Madison killed so they'll back off."
"You sure you don't want us to just kill him?" Mike asked bluntly. "That would be easier."
"I'm sure it would, but we don't work that way. We want to get the family back their money and we want him to pay. This is what we do."
Mike and Joe looked at each other. "Okay, we'll play it your way."
"Good. Sophie will let us know when Martz wants to meet. Eliot made you some hotel reservations at the Marriott."
"You didn't have to do that. Joe makes arrangements all the time." Mike patted Eliot's wrist. "Still, it was sweet of you, cutie."
"Which Marriott?" Joe got the directions. "And we'll set up the meet. Unless you have some wire requirements or something."
"I told her outdoors. There's a good park. Flat runs in three directions. Easy jumps on the rest."
"Damn. Word gets around doesn't it?" Mike grinned. "We have gossip to catch up on, I think. Did you really take down Constantino last year?"
"We'll talk over dinner when this is done."
Joe tugged Mike to his feet and they made their way out of the office.
"You think they can really pull this off?" Nathan asked, looking after them.
"But seriously, man, 'cutie'? How in the Hell does he get away with that?" Alec asked.
"He's an awesome kisser."
"Dude. You did not just say that."
"What's wrong, Hardison? Can't stand the heat?" Eliot smirked. If Alec hadn't figured out Eliot's preference was just for sex in general, he was blind.
"I'm just wondering how you are still alive, cuz I don't think his boy would take that kindly."
Eliot shrugged. "They were off and on early in their relationship. It was during one of the off times. Mike was tryin' to make Joe jealous. It worked."
"Is that how you found out they were better than you are?"
Eliot shook his head. "Nah. They were just together the next day." He shrugged. "We sparred a few times."
he really like bombs?"
"He designs them. Lots of things to tell the truth. I figure one of these days he'll start selling his designs and retire."
"Well, I like him," Parker said with a grin. "Anyone who knows my work is a person I can like."
The rest of the team exchanged glances and decided to ignore Parker.
"Okay, so now we just wait for Sophie. Hardison, I need you to set up comms for Mike and Joe. Eliot... do what ever it was you were doing," Nate said as he drifted out of the room.
"You think he's hitting the bottle again?" Alec asked.
"It's a case with kids. What do you think?" Eliot responded.
The boys finished securing the hotel room. Joe settled on one of the queen beds.
say we kill the bastard after they're done with him anyway."
Joe shrugged. "We have time. How do you want to play it for the meet?"
"We need more from the contact on this one. He'll be expecting shades at least. One or two?"
"You take the meet. I'll cover you. He tries anything, we kill him. You have a hoodie somewhere?"
"Yeah. Baseball cap too. I'll look like the freaking unibomber."
"Not going to shave?" Joe raised his brows. He smirked. "Just don't give me beard burn again."
"I'll show you beard-burn." Mike pounced on his lover, knocking him back onto the bed. Joe laughed and pulled him down for a kiss.
Sophie wandered into the office and sat down in her chair. Eliot glanced over at her and then turned his attention more fully. He raised an eyebrow at her.
She sighed. "That man needs to have his hands cut off. I've never been groped so much in my life."
Eliot growled. "You want me to take him down now? It'll screw with Nate's plan, but.." his offer trailed off.
She gave him a slight smile. "No, it will be so much more satisfying when he realizes that we've taken all his money and he's in jail. I'm sure you have some contacts in what ever hell hole he'll end up in?"
"Oh I'm sure, darlin'."
"Excellent." They grinned at each other as Nathan and the rest of the team entered the room.
"What do you got, Sophie?" Ford asked.
"He's agreed to the outdoor meet in three days. I have the tracker placed in his car. Do we have assassins or not?"
"They're here. They've agreed to it."
how much are we paying them?"
"Dinner, so far. Hotel room." Eliot shrugged. The team looked at him. "What? It's kids. They might just kill him when we're done with him."
"Uh, I thought we explained that we don't do that kind of thing," Nate protested.
Eliot smirked. "They do their own thing. They'll help us get the family's money back, but after that they'll probably make their own punishment."
"Well, I for one ain't gonna complain too hard if he ends up biting the dust. I found some extra info on him. This ain't the first family he's done this to, and these ain't the first kids he's put hits out on," Alec said, cuing up the monitors.
"This is the Black family. Their little girl was murdered after they filed a complaint. The Sameka kids were beaten. They dropped their complaint. There are three more families too. This guy's a serious jerk."
Nate considered the information. "We need to see if there are any records of him hiring people. Email, hard copies, checks, anything. Follow the money. Find out who did the actual attacks. And why he didn't call them this time."
"The other kids were beaten. The first ones were just roughed up. But it's escalating."
"I'll talk to Mike and Joe, they might have some contacts that know this guy," Eliot offered.
"I'll do some more research and see if I can figure out why he decided to kill both kids," Alec said, already typing on his computer.
"If Sophie can get him out of his office I can break in, see what files he has," Parker said, for once serious.
"Eliot, Alec get at it," Nate replied. "Parker, wait on that thought. I want some more information before we have anything else to do with him."
"Sure, cutie. I'll get Joe on it when he wakes up. See you at one? The meet's in two day's right?"
"Right," Eliot confirmed. "One it is."
"See you then." Mike hung up. He settled down with his laptop again. He finished proofing the page, then shut down. Joe looked up at him, his hazel eyes still sleepy.
"What am I doing?"
"Researching to find out who the target hired to kill the last kid and what happened to him."
"At a guess? We did. Who was the last kid killed?"
"Name was Black. Maria Black. She was fourteen. She was murdered in what appeared to be a drug war, but her parents withdrew their testimony. She's got a brother named Jesus."
"Got it. Get some sleep. We need to rig up some better security tomorrow. And plan how we're going to kill this guy so they don't know we did it."
"I have some ideas." Mike's smile was lupine. Joe kissed the smile away, then got up to pee.
The team plus two took seats around the table.
"Okay, so what did you find out," Nate asked, taking a sip of coffee.
"We can tell you that the piece of slime that Martz hired before is dead. He had a car accident. Car went over a cliff, he was killed instantly. He was also Martz's brother-in-law. Martz's sister is serving 25 to 50 for aggravated assault on some kids," Joe rattled off.
"Okay, so why did he go straight for killing the kids in this case?"
"Because the kids have fought off two attacks already." Joe spun a flash drive toward Hardison. "The cops have taken down at least two of the gang-bangers he was stupid enough to hire. He wanted it to look like a drug crime. The way Black's murder did. Kids did well. You'll have to watch for them in a few years, Spencer." Joe smirked.
Eliot sipped his tea.
"So he's getting desperate and he thinks gang-bangers are pros," Mike summarized. "You mentioned he's got ties into your game?"
"He knows of most people. He knows how to hire thieves with no problems. Killers, that's different."
"Obviously." Joe rolled his eyes. "Where's the meet and what have you told him?"
"I told him that you would be here in three days and that you would only meet outside. I didn't give him too many details and he really didn't want any. He did ask if you had any problems with taking out children. I told him that you were fine with it and that you'd done it many times. He seemed thrilled," Sophie said, the disgust obvious in her voice.
"Good. When you talk to him next tell him that I'll be the one meeting him and that I want half of the money ahead of time. Also tell him that if he wants I can take out the wife for free," Mike said.
The team frowned at him. "Any one slimy enough to want to kill some kids are the type that want to do as much damage as possible." His attention turned back to Sophie. "Also ask him how he wants them taken out. DC sniper type, or child rapist type. If he wants the latter let him know that it won't be a problem. That I like kids of any type. Let's see just how sick this bastard is."
Mike shrugged. "It's just talk. You're the con-artists. We'll sell the kill. You sell the deal. What's your plan beyond this part?"
"You sure you can do child rapist?" Nate pressed.
Joe snorted. "Don't worry about us. But we do need to know the rest of the plan. You're not soaking him for the killing. Are you trying to get his accounts or what? And do you have arrangements for making the family disappear for awhile until he's gone?"
"We have a safe-house for them."
"You going to fake up some prints for us?" Mike asked.
"Prints of what?" Hardison frowned.
"The kids dead of course," Joe answered. "I'll provide the police pics. You shop in their faces. We need proof to return to him. A lock of hair with blood on it and a picture. Or you can fake up a police report and autopsy for him. If you think he'd get off on it."
"This is a lot of trouble to just get him out of the way and get some cash for the family. You could just plant a shitload of kiddie porn on his computer and call the cops. Get him out of circulation and let Alec there hack him," Mike pointed out. "I'm assuming the payment is the money you're planning to give the family. Think he's going to stiff us for it?"
"It's a possibility," Nate said, not answering the questions about their methods. "He's known for stiffing some of his contractors and then calling the cops on them with anonymous tips to the police."
"Oh lovely. Okay, yeah you'll definitely have to play up the crazy child molester than. Any assassin worth their salt would have checked up on him and they'd find that out and they would steer clear of him. But someone who likes to screw with kids would jump at a chance of getting paid to do it," Joe commented.
"Seriously, though, you want him ruined too?" Mike pressed.
"Yes, we're going to ruin him," Nate said firmly. "We're going to get his money. We're going to shut him down and send him to jail."
"You want to frame him for murder? Or do you want to get him on conspiracy?" Joe frowned. "We're not exactly planning to testify."
"I still say kill him."
"It's too easy on him," Eliot said finally. "He goes to jail with a baby-killer or a baby-raper reputation, maybe he comes close to getting paid back. He goes to jail without leaving his company around to ruin more people and the folks he's ripped off get paid back."
Mike sat back, almost sulking. "Right, cutie. You going to spread the word or what?"
Eliot nodded. That cheered the assassins up.
"What else are you running on him? You've gotten him assassins, but what else? Real estate deal of the century?" Joe pressed.
"We've come to him with some property that we thought he might be interested in, and Mr. and Mrs. Drake," Nate nodded at Alec and Parker, "are thrilled to sell."
"How'd you get him to bite?"
Alec typed a bit on his laptop and maps came up on the screen. "There's a nice big pocket of natural gas under that property. What he doesn't know is that the land Federal Property."
"We sell to him, he moves in with drilling equipment, they arrest him and the agent in charge of the investigation gets a nice package of information about his attempt to hire people to kill the kids," Nate said with smirk. "Don't worry, we'll make sure we don't have any shots of your faces and your voices will be recorded over with a program Alec has."
"I can make you sound like two women if I wanted to," Alec grinned.
Joe smirked. "Federal property. Any native tribes in the area to piss off on top of the feds? And no shots of me at all. My height's distinctive."
"No tribes that we know of. Although we could probably get someone to set up a protest fairly quickly to get federal attention if we need it."
Mike snorted. "I've got a professional protester on speed dial. He'd go after someone drilling on a preserve in a heartbeat. Take your shots. I'll keep myself disguised. Please tell me I get to wing the son-of-a-bitch."
"Can I talk to you about your voice program later? The one I've got is low-powered." Joe spoke directly to Alec. The hacker blinked. "Come on Hardison, you've been trading code with me for years."
"No I haven't!"
"The Hell you haven't. That sweet program that's protecting my servers is your work. Not to mention that spectacular crack for the Richmond building blueprints."
Alec stared at him in shock. "Dude, you can't be... you're... no way dude."
Joe grinned. "Yup."
Mike looked over at Eliot. "This kid's supposed to be a computer genius?"
"But I never said he was a genius in anything else."
Alec glared at Eliot. "Just for that I'm gonna screw with your DVR."
"Oooooo, I'm so scared."
"Don't worry. I'll fix whatever he does," Joe promised. "So, you're going to get the money for the property. Give the feds the tip off that he's drilling. Drop the information about him roughing up and trying to kill kids to the FBI. And while this is happening, we're pulling Jenny and Madison out of school to a nice, secure location. And, if I get Nate something shiny or expensively intoxicating, Mike gets to shoot him somewhere non-vital."
"No shooting." Nate was very firm on that point.
"Just a little shooting?" Mike held his index finger and thumb apart about and inch. He gave Nate his best puppy-dog eyes. "Just to freak him out into paying us off?"
"Stick in the mud. Oh, did you give him a name?" Mike looked at Sophie.
"No. I wasn't sure what names you'd prefer."
The assassins looked at each other. "Russian or Irish?" Joe asked.
"Depends. You seen our shadow?"
"Your shadow. Irish it is. Who do we want to hang this frame on?"
"Well, we could go with the old standby."
"He's already got the rep."
"That's what I thought."
"Boys," Nate broke in. "Share for the rest of the group."
"We're going with Patrick Calhoun. He's a crazy bedbug who will take any job he's offered. He never stays in one place or tells anyone where he's going. He also happens to be blond and about Mike's height. If Martz does any checking he'll get the right word back on the rep."
"You haven't taken him out yet?" Eliot asked.
"We're hunting him down. He's slippery though."
"What was that about a shadow?" Sophie asked.
"Mike has a Russian stalker," Joe answered.
"He's not a stalker. He's a friend and he's helped us out a time or two," Mike argued.
"He's a stalker who shows up out of no where and invites himself to dinner. He'd also love to bump me off so he has a chance at Mike."
Mike rolled his eyes. "Any way, we have three days to get everything put together. What safe house do you have picked out?"
"A safe house that you will have plausible deniability about," Eliot stated. "It's secure."
"How secure?" Joe frowned. "We're not a threat. We don't do body-guard work anymore, but we have."
Eliot shook his head. "The less we talk about it, the more secure it is."
"Apartment or house."
Mike nodded. "Fine. Whatever. You want to be cooped up with two tweens and long hair, that's your problem. I was thinking of protecting your pride, but forget it."
"Says the man who let a pair of teenage girls talk him into nail polish," Joe teased.
"They were wearing purple antebellum dresses. I now have pictures with which to embarrass them. I came out with the better part of the deal." Mike turned his attention back to Nate. "We'll need a van that we can ditch somewhere and someone needs to talk to the girls. I assume the family's being watched? We can snatch them cold, if you think it's necessary. I'd warn the parents somehow though."
"We can let them know. They trust us," Nate said. "Okay, that's all for now. I don't know about the rest of you, but I could do with some food."
Mike and Joe looked at Nathan for a moment before looking over at Eliot.
Eliot shrugged. "Just go with it. He likes to hold the cards close."
"Okay. So where is dinner going to be?" Mike asked. He decided that it was best to play along at the moment.
"There's this great little Italian restaurant not far from here. We helped out the family a little while back," Sophie said.
"We'll follow you over," Joe said, smiling.
"You have the Charger here?" Eliot perked up.
"And she is running so very sweetly. I tweaked the engine. Oh, I have the greatest junk-yard in the world for you." Mike fished in his wallet for the card. "The owner rocks. He puts his inventory on-line and he'll ship pretty much anywhere. So, Parker, about Wichita, what sort of delay did you use to chain the explosions?"
The two were off on a spirited discussion that the rest of the room didn't even bother to pay attention to. "You can ride with me," Sophie offered. Joe smiled sweetly at her.
"I'd be honored." He stood up and offered her his arm. "How did someone as classy as you are, end up with this group of rabble?"
Eliot shook his head. "I'll ride with Mike and Parker, then." He herded the two out the door.
Joe sat back from the table. The meal had been as good as promised. He glanced over at Mike and rolled his eyes. He and Parker had spent the whole dinner discussing various explosives and timing devices. Mike was going to be bouncing off the walls tonight wanting to get supplies to try out some of Parker's ideas.
He looked over at Eliot. Eliot was clearly trying hard not to break into laughter at the look on Alec's face. Alec looked like he wanted to get as far from the explosive duo as possible.
Nate and Sophie had spent the entire dinner trying not to flirt with each other, but not succeeding. Joe had to admit that they made a cute couple. Especially with the ready made family that they'd put together.
Joe knocked his foot against Mike's. His partner glanced over. Joe looked at Nate and Sophie who were so *not* flirting that it couldn't be construed as anything but flirting. Mike gave him a quick grin and a short nod. Yeah, they were going to be a cute couple when they finally got around to it. "So why didn't I get invited to the wedding?" Eliot asked. He tipped his beer back and took a slug.
Mike rolled his eyes. "I told you. We're going to have to do a third ceremony for all the people like him."
"We didn't get a say in the guest list."
"You're married?" Parker frowned.
Mike showed her his ring.
"Did you get married in California before the whole vote thing?"
"It's not legal in the States yet," Joe explained to her. "We got married in Spain. Now, what's this I heard about the Butcher of Kiev?"
"Eliot killed him with an appetizer," Alec said, taking a swig of his orange soda.
"An appetizer?" Joe and Mike asked simultaneously.
"He's not dead. His body wasn't found so he's still alive," Eliot protested.
"Still, an appetizer?" Mike prodded for more information.
"We were fighting, he had me down and the only thing in reach was a stuffed mushroom with lemon juice. I shoved it in his eyes."
Joe winced. "Ouch. That had to sting."
"You have the recipe for this appetizer?"
"I know that neither of you can cook."
"That's a vicious lie. I can make, um, soup," Joe protested.
"Cans and frozen foods do not count."
"That's what wonderful places like this are for," Mike said, lifting his chin. "Oh, and cutie, you are never living down the appetizers. It's going into the gossip stream."
"Now, really, why do you let him get away with calling you that?" Alec pressed again.
"Because we didn't exactly exchange names when we first met." Mike's eyes twinkled. "He was being a gentleman."
Eliot smiled and shrugged. "We kept running into each other after that. He was after the owner of the merchandise I was after. Finally exchanged names after the job."
"So, what did you call him?" The hacker seemed to be relaxing as the conversation drifted away from bombs.
"So you knew what he does?" Alec asked.
"I didn't know his name, but I knew he was one of Harry's boys. That meant he was a killer."
Alec turned to Joe.
"And where were you during all of this?"
"He was home sick with pneumonia. Harry decided he wanted to see how I would handle a solo job."
"And how was it?"
Mike shrugged. "I got the job done."
Alec just looked at him, brows raised, chin down.
"Sarcasm like that is an art-form. It was messy, but the job got done. If someone hadn't kept interrupting my plans, I would have been done sooner. I couldn't use something incendiary because I don't do collateral damage willingly." Mike smirked. "I did finally find someone Joe wouldn't scare away."
"Only because we were in different countries," Eliot assured Joe. "It wasn't until later I actually got to see the mysterious partner here."
"So the only reason you didn't blow up my merchandise?"
"Was because I couldn't harm a pretty face like yours. Or a nice ass like that. It would have been cruel." Mike shrugged.
"What did you do?"
"Cut his head off."
Alec gulped and sat back. Mike batted his lashes and gave the hacker his sweetest smile. "Don't worry. Joe likes you," he said with saccharine sweetness. "And how did you meet Eliot?"
"Um, we got hired to do a job and then the guy cheated us out of our money so we got revenge."
Mike looked over at Eliot with a grin. "He's still alive?"
"Yeah, in federal prison, but he's still alive. He was charged under the Patriot act. He ain't gettin' out any time soon."
"Nice," Joe said, impressed.
"Yeah, and we got our money. Lots and lots of money," Parker said dreamily. She jerked back to reality. "And I got a plant."
"I don't think I've ever actually lived in one place long enough to get a plant. That's sweet." Mike nodded. "Oh, wait. I think I had an air fern for awhile."
"It was silk."
"I couldn't kill it by forgetting to water it."
"So, now that we've obliterated the topic of conversation, I think Joe and I should head back to the hotel. Can I convince you to come with, cutie?"
Eliot looked at Mike as if he were insane. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"You did threaten him. I knew it!"
"I didn't threaten him. I swear."
"He didn't threaten me, exactly. But you two just came off a job."
"True. Still. You're sure?"
"Alright then. We'll see you on Friday morning."
"You may as well come to the office tomorrow. We'll see what sort of equipment you need."
The two assassins nodded. They left with a cheerful smile and a few bills folded under Joe's wine glass.
Nathan looked at the money. "I thought you explained to them that we'd pick up the bill?"
Eliot shrugged. "They don't like feeling like they owe anyone. If I know them, they'll pick up the hotel tab too."
"Okay, so we'll meet back at the office tomorrow. Have a good evening." Nate stood up and headed out.
Sophie turned towards Eliot. "I must say, you have excellent taste. They are quite lovely. Though I must say I would have expected you to be able to pick one that doesn't have a psychotic boyfriend."
"Mike's just as bad, he's just better at hiding it."
"How long have they been together?" She asked.
"From what I can tell? Forever. Permanently, I think since they graduated high school." Eliot shrugged. "Night."
Mike studied the terrain map. "I want to run it, but I think the best sight-line for you will be in the trees here. There's still enough leaves on them. Do you have the photos from Martz' room?"
"You want to creep him out."
"He's bringing the first payment in a black backpack. I want him to have something to take back with him."
"We could ask someone to break in. I mean they are thieves."
"Nah. We just need to creep him out. We get a replica of something in his bedroom and something in his living room. Make him know we can get to him."
Joe nodded. "I'll get the bag and things. I'll find the van."
"I'll get the target and the run. Meet you at noon at the Leverage office?"
"Noon. You need the car?"
"No. I want to walk it." Mike pulled on a University of Chicago sweatshirt. Joe laughed.
"Think I can convince Mom I've applied?"
"No chance in Hell. You hate the winters this far north."
"Well, I can't convince you to take your shirt off in the winter. We are so buying an island to retire on."
His partner just nodded. He gave Mike a kiss and left. Mike put on his sneakers, then secured the room before leaving.
"Forgot to shave? Joe have you that busy?" Eliot teased. Mike grinned at him, but didn't answer.
"First, earpieces. They use jawbone conduction. They'll link you to the rest of the team." Hardison offered them up like mints. Mike examined his for a long moment. He slipped it into his ear.
"Better than bluetooth, that's for sure."
"But the slug makes you look so preppy." Mike rolled his eyes at that. "Especially with the college shirt."
"Oh shut up. What does the family know?"
"That we're going to kidnap the kids and their mother. Nothing on how or when. We're pretty sure that he's got them under surviellence. Low-tech, but we can't keep having Eliot knock them out."
"So we pay them better than he does." Mike shrugged. "Or, we report them to the cops as taking pictures of little girls. If they can arrest a teenager for sending pictures of herself to her boyfriend, why not someone who deserves it? We'll get rid of them. Then, we'll snag the girls and drop them off at the hotel room Eliot got for us."
"You aren't staying there?"
"Nope. We made arrangements before we found out you'd made them. Here's a key though. Seems like a good alternate meeting place."
"How are you going to do the grab?" Nate asked.
"Carefully. I won't hurt them unless they fight back. Even then, I'll make sure it's just bruises."
"You will not hurt them at all," he snapped.
Mike looked at him blandly. "Then I'll drug them instead. I'd like to use Special K, but it's not fast enough. It's less dangerous. We'll use Thorazine."
don't like that much better."
"Listen, Ford, this is a kidnapping not a bake sale. You want me not to hurt them, it's drugs. They've already beaten off gang-bangers. They're not going to be taken in by a sweet word and a little bit of candy. You leave the snatch to my planning and they won't get hurt. You interfere and Martz catches on."
"How are you planning to drug them?"
"Wheelchair and a puppy. They can keep the dog," Joe answered. "Or you guys can find it a home. Get permission from their mother. Tell her we either drug them or we force them into the van physically. I don't want a gun around kids who aren't trained for it."
"Plan on drugging them. It's safer. You'll need a van, wheelchair, and a dog. Do you have a source for the drugs?"
"I'll take care of our end, Mr. Ford. You take care of yours."
Nate frowned. "There's no reason for you to take on the extra costs."
"We'll get the stuff and we'll get rid of it. Our risk, not yours. We live further off the grid than you do." Joe gestured to the office. "Think of it as parallel operations."
"Boys, do we really need to argue about this kind of thing? We're all on the same side. Nate, I'm sure Mike and Joe know what they are doing. Boys, Nate has a lot of practice with these sorts of cons. We all do things differently but I know that we can work together just fine," Sophie interrupted. She walked around the table and placed a hand on Nate and Joe's shoulders. "Now, kiss and make up," she said with a smirk.
Nathan's head whipped around and he stared at her. "Um." Joe raised a challenging eyebrow.
"It's just a figure of speech, Nate." She gave him a sly grin and a wink before heading to her office.
Nathan turned his attention back to the assassins. "I apologize for questioning you on your methods. You have more practice at this sort of thing."
"It's okay. I know you are used to running the whole operation. We'll just have to learn to compromise," Joe replied. Mike snorted. Joe shot his partner a glare. "How much did you tell Martz for the kill?"
"Two hundred thousand."
Nate sat down. He sipped his soda. Mike and Joe stared at him.
"You know, if this were us you were hiring, we wouldn't even look at the job," Mike told him. "Calhoun would do it though, so it's not an issue."
Joe sipped his coffee. "What other tech are you planning to plant on the man? Do you have anything on his apartment?"
"We have everything on his apartment." Alec turned the screens on again. "I hacked into his security system. The man is paranoid. He's got cameras in every room. They're cheap though. Little wifi nanny-cams."
"Tap on his phone?"
"Of course, brother. I know what I'm doing. He's also got a safe in his office and a stash under his bed."
"Lines of sight from outside?" Joe prompted.
Mike answered. "Three buildings with good access. Rather take the shot outside though."
"No shooting. It took Sophie an hour of talking to get him to come around to meeting you in the park."
"That paranoid, or is there really someone besides us out to get him?"
Nate relaxed a little at the "us" in the question. "We're the only criminal group after him. Except for the gangs he's turned on, the mobster he defrauded, the Attorney General of the state, and possibly the cops, but nothing we've actually heard about."
"So, no quality enemies then."
"Not one who really gives a damn about him, except maybe the Attorney General, who's more interested in the paperwork."
"Eh, Attorney Generals are always a pain in the ass. I'm sure we can make something for them. Right, Alec?" Joe prompted.
"Of course." The hacker looked offended.
Joe grinned at him. "I'm looking forward to seeing you work."
Hardison gave him a smile. "I'm the best."
"Is there anything else we need to know?"
Nate considered that for a moment. "I'll let the parents know that you'll be taking their daughters."
"Tell them I'll pick the mother up from her office. There's no one watching her right? She and Eliot can take care of the girls while they're out."
"No, there's no one watching the parents. Just the kids."
"Arrogant and cheap," Nate replied. "Good for us, bad for him."
"Say, cutie, is there someplace we can spar?"
"Sure. I know a place. Should be quiet right now."
"Good. And it better not be an abandoned warehouse."
Eliot smirked in answer to that. "It's not abandoned."
Mike's brows rose. "You're kidding."
"Well, then, let's hit it. I've got energy to burn."
Hardison debated for about half-a-second before saying, "Can I watch?"
The assassins looked at each other. Joe cocked his head to the side. Mike shrugged. "Sure," Joe said. "No cameras. No recording devices. And bring your own drinks."
"And popcorn." Parker said. She smiled brightly. "I wasn't going to ask."
Joe laughed. "Oh, are you going to invite everyone?"
"No, I was just going to follow you."
"Why couldn't you have dated someone like her when we were in high school?" Mike demanded. "We could have talked about mechanics while waiting for you to stop flirting with cheerleaders."
"Because girls like her don't date boys like me. They date boys like you."
"Okay, they date straight boys that have your personality. You and Sophie coming too?"
"Oh, Sophie would hate to miss this," Eliot smirked. "Especially if you're going to show off." He went to find her. Nate looked after him, a small frown on his face. Soon enough they were at Eliot's favorite sparring place. It was a converted warehouse with several different types of terrain: sand, gravel, concrete, a small apartment, a multi-tiered group of shipping crates, and an area of pure mats.
"I'm impressed," Joe said looking the place over. Mike looked at him.
"So I should start looking at real estate listings, huh?"
"Oh yeah. Think of what Harry would have said about this."
Mike put on a deep, New England toned voice. "It's too expensive and too showy. If you want to fight in different terrains get off your asses and go there."
"Well yeah," Joe admitted, "but this is just too much fun."
The Leverage team settled in the clear area around the door. A large bowl of popcorn and a cooler full of soda and water joined them there. Eliot looked at Sophie. She raised a brow. He went to get one of the kitchen chairs from the apartment set up. Nate spoke up. "Eliot, wait. We've got a blanket in the car."
pants cost me two hundred dollars, Nate," Sophie protested.
"I want to see them fight in an enclosed setting."
"Huh. Seems like we're taking requests." Mike winked at his lover. "Start with sticks. Then do a couple two on ones?"
"Knife work with Eliot?" Joe countered. "Or take requests after our warm-up?"
"Two on one with knives."
Eliot shook his head. "As long as I ain't the one."
"Aw, sweetheart, we won't hurt you," Joe cooed. "It'll be fun."
"Rules of engagement, nothing broken. That means ribs too. Knife to first blood. Sticks to yield. Agreed."
"Agreed." Eliot nodded. "I'm just going to sit over there and watch. I haven't gotten to see you two together. I've only heard stories."
"Cool. You can watch my bag. Don't let anyone's fingers get cut." Mike pulled what looked like two sets of long drumsticks from the backpack before handing it to Eliot. The retrieval specialist shook his head at the "Watcher's Council: Guide, Train, Protect" patch on the back of it. He settled on the floor and got an orange soda from the cooler. Hardison looked at him in surprise.
"No drinking when I know what I'm going to be fighting," Eliot answered the unasked question. Nate sipped his beer with a smirk.
Mike and Joe chose a spot in the middle of the room, away from the mats so they wouldn't have to take off their shoes. Eliot appreciated that. It was a bitch to clean and repair mats. They stood watching each other for a long moment, then as if a switch had been thrown, they were in motion. The sticks twirled almost too quickly to see, but the steady clack of their impacts echoed through the room. The Leverage team seemed to straighten up as one. Eliot watched in surprise as Joe went down. "Yield." Mike offered a hand and they started again. After five bouts they were ready to move on.
"What *is* that, man?" Hardison demanded.
"Kali," Eliot offered. The two assassins grinned cheerfully as they put away their sticks and pulled out machetes.
"You need blades?"
Eliot shook his head. "Nah. Got my own." He went to the small apartment and pulled the machetes out from their cabinet. Mike inspected the blades and Eliot allowed it. The assassin nodded.
"You and Joe against me. I need the practice."
Joe smirked at Eliot. "Give no quarter. Don't let him breathe. Ready."
The blond nodded once. And they were off. It was surprisingly easy to fall into working with Joe. The man had a longer reach which he used to drive Mike right at Eliot's flashing knives. Mike met all four blades with a speed that would have been shocking if Eliot hadn't seen it before. Mike knocked Joe to the floor and went directly for Eliot. Mike was only an inch taller. Eliot was more muscled. It wasn't an even match even beyond those factors. Mike was just that good. Joe was on his feet. He crossed the ground in a few steps and Mike had to spin to stay out of his range. Eliot and Joe's knives clashed for an instant. Mike was starting to show the strain of keeping up with two opponents, but he wasn't stopping. This contest was for first blood. Eliot saw the decision cross Mike's face. Joe frowned and jumped to avoid the leg-sweep that was heading for his weak knee. Eliot took the moment to take a chance at a cut. He caught Mike's shirt, but not the skin underneath. It was damned close. Eliot nearly snarled. He brought his other arm up, but that knife was met with one of Mike's and the moment was gone. A firm foot caught Eliot in the sternum and pushed him away. He knew that it could have broken more than one rib if it had been delivered at full power. Joe got first blood a moment later with a light cut to Mike's cheek. The three men panted in breath for a moment.
Mike dabbed at his cheek with the back of his hand. Joe turned Mike's face up to check the damage. "You want a band-aid?"
"Nah, it'll be fine. So, I say we steal a soda and then you get to challenge Eliot in the kitchen."
"Oh, I don't think so. He took the Butcher down with an appetizer."
"You still can't prove that." Eliot moved past them. They passed the rest of the afternoon in practice bouts, even dragging Hardison and Parker in for a few of them. Sophie refused point blank and Nate was too busy calculating to join in.
The assassin sat on the bench. His baseball cap was pulled down to his shades. A beard obscured most of his features. The hooded sweatshirt he wore was a dingy grey. A black backpack sat at his feet. "Sit down already, Mr. Martz," the soft brogue greeted the loan shark. Martz's nostrils flared in annoyance. He took the invited seat. The man never took his hands out of his pockets. "You brought the money, didn't you, boy-o? Half now and I throw in the bitch for free. I go home and find out ya ha'en't been honest with me, I kill you instead. Fair deal."
"Listen, Patrick, I'm the boss in this arrangement. You do what I tell you."
"Obviously, ya aren't understandin' this yet. I'll do yer job. I'll enjoy it. But if ya cross me, or ya cheat me, I'll kill ya. Do we have an understandin', Mr. Martz?"
Martz felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The gravely Irish purr was starting to get to him. "The little girls, then the mother. I want her destroyed."
"Don't worry yourself so. You'll get yer ruined family. I'll meet you in one week here, Mr. Martz. Ya bring the rest of the money and you'll get yer proof."
"No, just pictures. Nothing physical. I've heard about what you consider proof."
"Have ya then? Glad to know you do your homework. And if you know that much, you know I've never missed a target."
"Do not take out the father."
"Need something from him, then? Alright. I'll stick to the little bitches. More interestin' that way. I assume my first half's all accounted for here?"
"Yes, every dollar. There's information on top."
"Good day to you, Mr. Martz." The assassin slung the backpack over his shoulder and strolled away from his employer. Martz looked at the backpack that was left, then picked it up. He assumed he could use it to put the rest of the payment in. It shifted in his hand. He wondered for a moment if there was something alive in it, but discarded the thought. He opened it. He glanced inside, then paled. He closed the bag and hurried back to his office sanctuary.
Joe took the scope away from his eye. He broke down his rifle and met Mike on the ground. He took the hat and sunglasses and stuffed them into the rifle bag. Mike changed his sweatshirt to a much more familiar one with a Green Day concert front that had been salvaged from a torn tee-shirt and ironed on with Stichwitchery. "God, I have got to trim this beard. It's driving me crazy."
"Go for the goatee. In case he's got cameras on you when you grab the girls."
Mike nodded. "Hotel, then the office. We'll take operating fees out of this bag. Let the family have the rest?"
"It's a plan. Then, we'll check in on Mr. Martz and see if he's calmed down or if he's discovered the present in his office."
The assassins dropped a box of donuts into the middle of the conference table. "Did you get the recording okay?" Mike asked. He'd neatly trimmed his beard and looked older than he had during their first meeting. He dropped into a chair. Joe settled down next to him, inter-lacing their fingers in an absently affectionate gesture. They still looked like college students, only now they seemed more like graduate students. Nate was sure that they were actually Eliot's age, but he still wanted to classify them with Alec and Parker.
Hardison nodded. "Audio and video." He was nervous. His fingers tapped on the table until Eliot pushed his hand flat.
"Play it back," Nate said. He sipped at his coffee. There was a healthy dose of Irish whiskey in it. The team watched Mike's meet. Eliot was frowning at the scene. Sophie shifted in her seat.
"Okay, that was creepy," Parker said. She eyed Mike and shifted her chair a little further away.
"Paddy's a creepy guy," Mike responded.
"What was in the backpack?" Sophie asked.
"A copy of the book that was on his kitchen table and a pillowcase that matches his sheets with two drops of stage blood on it," Joe answered.
"More than a drop," Mike chided. "But less than a pool. Enough to make him nervous. He should be. He shorted the take by three thousand dollars. Jerk. Oh, you should have audio in the house now too. He took the pack into his office." He spun a receiver across the table to the hacker. "There's the receiver. I wanted to get a tracker on him, but I don't know if there's anything he wears on a regular basis. His watch maybe." Mike shrugged.
"Your Irish is very convincing," Sophie said. "Where did you learn it?"
"When I was a teenager. Paddy tried to kill me." Mike shrugged. "He resigned the commission after I blew up his car."
"My stalkers don't try to kidnap me and have my children."
"One! I've had one stalker."
"Actually, you've had five." Nate watched his team in amusement. They were following the argument between the assassins with avid attention.
Joe frowned. "Five? No way."
"There was the cheerleader in high school. The one that left dead cats on the front step. The one that Buster trounced at the prom."
"No, that was the cheerleader."
Mike shook his head. "No, the cheerleader was a brunette and Buster said that the ho she took down at the prom was a real blonde."
"That would be two cheerleaders then. Huh. That's three."
"Nikova in Moscow and Taleran in Brussels."
"Taleran was not a stalker."
never saw her shrine to you."
"Boys," Nate interrupted. "To get back on track, when are you going to grab the girls?"
"Tomorrow," Joe said firmly. "I've gotten the surveillance pulled. They get an extra five-hundred to go to lunch and we get a window of three hours."
"We could just go pick them up."
"Can you assure me that there's no one else watching?" Mike riposted.
"No promises. We haven't seen it, but that doesn't mean it's not there."
"So we'll stick with the original plan." Mike leaned back in his chair, fingers still intertwined with his lovers. It was a disconcertingly sweet gesture. Nate saw Sophie looking wistfully at their hands. One of the cell-phones in the room started to ring. It was a vaguely familiar song. "The Buffy Theme song? Seriously, stop messing with my phone!" Mike glanced at the ID on his phone and then flipped it open. "Watchers Council in absentia. Yes, he can ground you. No, I won't do your science homework. No, I don't care who you date as long as there's no statutory rape charges involved. What else can I do for you?" Joe reeled his lover closer to him. Mike tilted the phone out so that they both could listen.
Hardison smirked and fiddled with his computer to catch the signal.
"You're only 14. Okay, soon to be 15. You can't drive until the sheriff says. Oh, don't try pouting over the phone, it doesn't work on me. Try it on your guardian. So, that being said, just why were you looking for access to a backseat? Thought you were rebuilding your car?" Mike snorted in answer to something on the other end of the line. "So, how's your knife-work? Master move you up a level? Great!" Mike glanced around the room. "Well, we're consulting with Wolfram and Hart right now. We might be sending you a visiting expert. You'll like him. He's cute. Not as cute as Joe, but still cute." Joe put his arm around Mike's shoulders.
"He is cute," he confirmed to the nameless person on the other end of the phone. "You got any of the slayers or scoobies running around? He your boyfriend now? Yeah, yeah, I know you're involved in a steamy threesome."
"Ignore him. Got a question on the wheelchair technique, put him on okay? Hey, kiddo. You get the spin-slam worked out? You find gloves necessary? You getting back up better now? Ask Master about wrist-strengthening beyond push-ups. And see if he'll get you working on bo. I'll reinforce a bamboo bo with metal. Or you can get your girlfriends to do it." Mike and Joe exchanged a smirk. "Right. I believe you. Really, I do. Which one's taking you to Sadie Hawkins? Sure. We'll see how that works for you. Yeah, put the bad-girl back on. Yes, I'll email you tonight. Be good and don't go threatening anymore FBI agents? Good girl. You post that picture and the antebellum dress and parasol goes up on the school website. Love you too. Bye."
"Bye." Mike hung up. He paused.
"Eliot. Sit up straight and wave to the teenage girls of Arizona." Eliot pulled his glasses off and held a hand up for the camera phone. Mike sent the picture off. "Now, put the glasses back on so I can drool from afar and my husband won't notice." The retrieval expert shook his head. He put his glasses back on.
"And who was that?"
"Tuppence. She and her friends started a martial arts and self-defense group. They call themselves the Slayer School. Got little pins made up and everything. They'd love to have a new teacher to drool over. Joe and I aren't crush-worthy anymore." Mike waved away the conversation. "Where were we? Oh yeah, kidnapping. We'll move on the girls day after tomorrow. After school when they head out for their lessons. Do you think their parents gave them a heads up?"
"I have no idea," Nate said with a shrug. "We did get word to them."
"I'll have to assume they didn't." Mike nodded.
"We need to go pick up our puppy. We'll see you at the hotel room tomorrow, Eliot. You'll pick up the mother or do you want me to do it?" Joe asked.
"I'll have her there. Hardison will block the cameras so we can get them up to the room easily."
"They're my nieces if anyone asks. I'll expect their mother to back me up. Oh, and they can't keep the puppy. He's on loan." Joe draped his arm around Mike's shoulders and the smaller man tipped his head back for a moment. "We'll see you tomorrow."
The two assassins left the Leverage team to contemplate the rest of their plan.
"Creepy," Hardison said finally. "That was not like watching Sophie put on an act."
Nate had to agree. He looked at their retrieval specialist. Eliot was contemplating his tea with a poker face. The over-head lights glinted off of his glasses, obscuring his eyes. He was laughing at them, the ex-insurance man knew. That didn't change anything.
"Could you do that?" Parker asked Sophie. "Could you be that creepy?"
Sophie fiddled with her coffee cup. She shook her head finally. "No. I use sex to control people. Men, women, it doesn't matter, it's based on a form of seduction. That was pure intimidation."
"That wasn't Killer at his creepiest," Eliot stated. He stood up and left them there. Nate followed him. The rest of his team looked disquieted at the statement, but that was probably for the best. They were all guilty of thinking of the two men they were working with as thieves. Assassins were a breed apart. Eliot held the door of his office open with a foot. Nate closed it behind himself.
"Tell me?" Eliot sat down. He put his teacup on the desk. He carefully folded his glasses and placed them on the blotter. Nate sat down in the visitor's chair.
"He was seventeen. I was twenty-one. That was the first time we met. He was four inches shorter than he is today. He was delicate.
Eliot stared at the the pretty blond teenager over the pile of bodies. The hazel eyes were like pieces of tiger's eye set into one of his mother's china doll's face. He recognized the killing move that had taken out the man who'd been about to kill him. "You're one of Harry's boys."
"I am." The voice that accompanied those eyes was as flat and lifeless as a machine. Eliot pegged him as a pure psychopath in that moment. He made sure to keep his hands to the side and his posture unthreatening. "Are you here to kill the Russian?" the killer asked.
"No. I'm here to pick up some merchandise that doesn't belong to him."
The teen cocked his head to the side. He nodded once. His face was as flat as a mask. "Human or object?"
"Where is it kept?"
"Then I won't burn it down." It was closer to an offer of friendship than Eliot had expected. Mike turned to leave. He paused at the door and looked back. The hazel eyes were suddenly full of life and mischief. "See you around, cutie." He winked. He was gone before Eliot could reply.
"I met up with him three more times before he beheaded his target." Eliot's lips quirked up. "It was a little showy, but it sent the message to the organization. And they were looking for the Yakuza before the night was over. I took him out for coffee."
Hardison shut off the feed from the camera in Eliot's office. Parker was frowning. "I don't get it."
"You aren't a killer."
"Not to protect yourself?"
The thief sighed. She shook her head. "In the course of things or to save myself or someone else. Mostly." She shrugged.
Sophie tapped the table thoughtfully. "It's how he protects himself. The man we see is assured of his safety, but as a teenager in a dangerous situation he was not."
Hardison watched as Parker processed that. She leaned back in her seat. She sipped her soda. She nodded once and then headed for her office. The hacker looked at Sophie. "You really believe that? He's a professional killer."
She smiled suddenly. "So was Eliot, once. People change, Alec."
"He can't put on the creepiness."
The grifter was quiet. "More that he chooses not to," she said quietly. She left the hacker there.
Hardison put his headphones on and listened to the assassin's cell-phone call he'd recorded earlier.
"Mr. Martz," Sophie offered her hand in greeting.
Martz pulled her into a brief hug. "Andi, so good to see you again."
"I assume that your meeting went off without a hitch?"
"You found me the perfect guy. So, are the happy couple still willing to sell?"
"Oh, yes." Sophie was there as Andi Connors - a broker originally from California. She'd schooled her accent so that she sounded as if she was trying very hard to lose her California turns of phrase. It was harder than a straight accent, but Martz was charmed by it. "Did you meet about... that other matter?"
"Yes, of course." He handed her a white envelope. "Your commission."
She smiled at him. "Thank you." He offered his arm and she snuggled under it as he expected. She tucked the money into her purse. "Now, the Drakes are a little anxious to be on their way before their families find out that they've actually gotten married."
Martz laughed at that. "Off to start a new life in the islands. Sounds romantic. We'll get the papers signed tomorrow, if they can make it."
"Oh, I'm sure they'll make it."
"Let me buy you a cup of coffee, Andi." Martz's arm slipped around Sophie's waist. She smiled coyly at him.
"Did he wrinkle this jacket?" Sophie demanded of Parker when she got back to the office. The thief shook her head.
"No. It's got this smudge on it though. Looks like oil."
Sophie growled in frustration. She shook her head. "I'm going to let Eliot go after him, Nate be damned."
"What did I do?" Nate asked. He sipped from his coffee cup. She wasn't convinced that it was actually coffee.
"That man was groping me all afternoon. I'm going to let Eliot beat him."
"Well, that might be a little difficult. He's watching the girls and their mother right now. I'm sure we'll be able to get him roughed up by the FBI when they see the information on him ordering a hit on little girls." Nate smiled reassuringly and a little vaguely. His brain was obviously running about ten steps ahead of any of them. She sighed. She went to her office and put the cash into her private stash. She was a thief after all.
Hardison took the digital photos from the memory stick Joe offered him. "Watch and be amazed," he said, cracking his knuckles. He opened his graphics programs. He pulled the posture framing from a crime scene photo, the blood from a movie still, and the texturing from the sleeping girls. When he was done he swallowed hard. "Dead enough for you?"
"No, the angle on this one's head is too stiff. Think more rag-doll."
Hardison nodded and adjusted the picture. "Better. Now, let's do the mother. Simple cut on her throat, bind her hands in front. You'll want some bruising to show since she's been a witness to this."
The hacker got to work. When he was done, he half-believed that she was dead. There were details in the photo that he'd never have thought of on his own. The bruised wrists, the marks from a gag, the stains of fluids and red streaks from tears. It was sick. But Hardison was the best damned hacker in the world. At least that's what he told himself. There was no way he'd do a half-assed job. Their mark would never be able to tell these weren't real photos.
Joe nodded. "Looks like Patrick's work all right. Print out a copy of each and lose all the digital traces. You don't want this on your hard-drives."
"I hear you." Hardison looked away, sickened by the pictures he'd created. For the first time, he believed that Joe was more than a hitter or a hacker. The girls looked mutilated to barely recognizable forms. "You get rid of the van?"
"Sold it to a band. Dog's back with his owner. The wheelchair's been donated to the charity hospital downtown. No one's going to be able to find the rest of the stuff. This is what we do, Hardison."
"Parker, can you get into Martz's bedroom?" Joe asked.
She snorted. "Of course. Don't be insulting."
"And you won't tell Nate about it?"
She studied Joe for a long moment. "Tell me what you want to do first?"
"Scare Martz. I want him to know that 'Patrick' can get to him anywhere." The assassin made the gesture for quotes as he spoke. She nodded once.
"As long as it doesn't interfere with Nate's plans. You might want to ask him."
Joe frowned. She knew that frown. It was the one she used to wear when she debated staying with the team.
"You get used to it."
"To trusting him. He's really good at making plans. They don't seem like they should work, but they do."
"If I talk to him and get his okay, you'll break into Martz's apartment and leave the photos on his bed? Spread out on the pillow?"
"Sure." She smiled brightly at him. "In and out in five."
"I should hope so. They tell me you're the best."
Hardison shook Martz's hand. He was impressed that he didn't spit on the bastard. He sat down next to Parker. "Andi?" Martz prompted.
"I have here the closing contracts. Mr. Martz has a bank draft for $1.5 million. These papers turn the property and all rights associated with it over to him." Sophie ran through the paperwork like a professional closer. He signed Drake's name so often that he was pretty sure his hand was going to cramp up. Parker stayed focused, signing her version of the Drake name over and over again. Martz handed over the check. Parker took it with glee and kissed it.
Martz laughed. "I know just how you feel, honey. It's beautiful isn't it?"
"Cash is prettier," she replied.
That got another laugh from the slime-ball. Hardison wrapped his arm around Parker's shoulders. She winked at him. "A pleasure doing business with you, kids. I wish you the best of luck." They shook hands and Hardison escorted Parker out of the office.
They continued to listen via the earpieces. "That went well," Sophie said.
"It did. I wish all my deals were that easy. Let me buy you a coffee, Andi."
"I have to file these before the end of the day," Sophie sounded disappointed. "Rain check?"
"Of course, sweetheart." Martz kissed her cheek. "Let me walk you to your car."
Parker mimed gagging and Hardison had to agree.
Nate studied the assassins. Mike was sprawled across his partner on the guest couch in Eliot's office. He was pointing out something in a document with petulant distaste. Eliot had his feet up on the desk and was reading. His hair was pulled back and he looked like a professor. He'd left the girls and their mother in the care of one of his contacts - a half-retired executive bodyguard. Nate felt his lips curl up into a smile. Eliot was starting to get the hang of being a member of a team. "Joe, you wanted to talk to me."
Mike scowled at him. "It's polite to ask if you can interrupt. He'll talk to you in a few minutes. We have to finish this."
"It can hold," Joe said. His eyes held a desperate yearning for freedom.
"That's what you've been saying for three weeks. Deadline is next week. You will sit right here and finish reading this proof right now or I'll ask Eliot if I can borrow his cuffs."
"Hey! Leave me out of this."
"Something you need to tell me about you and Eliot?"
Mike frowned. "Stop trying to distract me. I don't bitch when you make me read through budget stuff."
Eliot gestured toward Nate his guest chair and the bookshelf without moving from his position. "Chess match?" Nate offered. Eliot looked torn. He nodded. He marked his place and went to find the chess set that he kept in a lower cabinet. "The others are on the way back. Hardison's picking up lunch."
Nate ignored Eliot's eye roll. Eliot was the only one on the team who could actually cook a full meal from scratch. Nate's wife had usually handled dinner. He'd never really bothered to learn more than how to use frozen dinners and mixes. He filled his tumbler from the bottle of Jack Daniels he kept stashed in Eliot's cabinet. He and Eliot were nearly finished with their game when Mike let Joe move. He filed the papers away in the laptop case. Joe came over to kibitz on the game. "I'm beginning to see why Mike gets along with you. You play the same way."
"This will be over in a few minutes."
"I can see that." Joe shook his head. "And you call yourself a mastermind, Ford? If you lay off the sauce, maybe you'll see the way out."
Nate glared up at the young man. Joe grinned at him. Nate turned back to the board. It was mate in five, unless he turned the game around immediately. Eliot was an excellent opponent. Nate saw the opening and went for it. It was Eliot's turn to frown and study the board for a long moment. The game lasted a few minutes longer, until Eliot conceded. "Damn it, Joe, if you'd kept your mouth shut, he wouldn't have seen it."
Joe smirked. "I know. Thing is, I'm a jealous man and you're as close as Mike has to an ex for me to torture."
"Joe!" Mike protested.
"Well, he is. There's Eliot and, wait, let me think here. Yeah, that's pretty much it."
"Yeah, so sue me. I don't like flings. There's more to life than dating. So, Nate, we need Parker to put the photos in Martz's bedroom. Along with a date and time. It'd be even better if we can get it done while he's asleep."
"I bet Sophie can get him sleeping heavily. Slip him a Roofie while they have a celebratory drink. Parker leaves the message. He wakes up hung-over and knowing that his paranoid self managed to sleep through someone entering his room," Joe countered.
"No. I have no problem with Parker breaking in or you two playing mind games with him, but he knows her as Drake and if she gets caught or he gets a glimpse of her, it could unravel the whole deal."
"Fine." Mike answered. "We'll leave the pictures, the message and a few more drops of stage blood, just to fuck with him. Then, I'll pick up the final payment. If he shorted this one, I'll have words with him."
Nate nodded. That was reasonable. It would maintain the character and keep Martz off-balance enough that he wouldn't examine his land-deal too closely.
"Lunch is here!" Hardison called.
Eliot took the night-shift at the safe house. The girls looked up from their homework and waved. He nodded to them. They had been called in sick to school and the principal's office hadn't been surprised to hear that both of the girls had come down with the latest flu at the same time. The secretary had offered their mother her sympathy and arranged for their homework to be ready to pick up at the school every afternoon. Hardison had created doctor's notes to be delivered to the school as well, for the record.
"It's been quiet," Patterson told him. "See you tomorrow."
The assassin was sitting on the same bench as the first meeting. Martz sat down without being invited. He handed over the backpack. He noted that the other man hadn't returned his bag. That was fine. He didn't want any evidence in his possession. "Ya were a few short on the last payment, boy-o. I hope I don't find a trend."
"It's there. Just like we agreed."
"Remember, Mr. Martz, if you short me, you're dead. Do ya understand?"
"It's all there."
"A pleasure doin' business with ya, Mr. Martz." The assassin walked off. Martz watched him until he couldn't see him any longer. He took his hand out of his pocket, fingers uncurling from around the trigger of his gun. He wiped the sweat off of his brow. He needed to update his security immediately. Too bad he had no idea what the man actually looked like under his sunglasses.
Mike tossed the baseball cap and sunglasses into separate trashbins. He pulled the sweatshirt off and offered it to the teenage runaway who was watching him with drug-hollowed eyes. The teen took the sweatshirt with a pinched smile. "I never saw you, man," he said.
"You have a place to stay tonight?"
"I'm fine man."
"Watch your back, kid."
Mike met up with his partner a few more turns of the path further. Joe handed him his University of Chicago sweatshirt. Mike ran a hand through his hair to straighten it. He smirked at Joe. "You noticed the gun."
"Of course. He wasn't exactly subtle. I'm positive he shorted me." Mike's smile was gleeful. "That means a nice little mind-fuck warning to get his affairs in order. That will push him to get the drilling surveys set up. So let's go and pretend we're thieves again." They started walking, hand in hand.
"They are so freaking sweet," Joe said shaking his head. "I don't know what Eliot sees in them."
"Well, we adopted a town."
"Don't remind me."
"You love it there."
"It's nice to have a place where you don't have to pretend."
"Exactly. Eliot doesn't have to be anyone but himself with them. Like you and me."
"Bastard shorted us. Again," Mike said. He was slumped down in a conference room chair. Eliot was still at the safehouse with the girls and their mother. Parker and Alec were sitting next to each other. Sophie was with Martz.
"By how much?" the hacker asked.
"Fifty thousand total. That means I'm going to have to threaten him. So, you better work that in. I warned him twice. The third time will be a warning to get his affairs in order and a grace period. Six months is traditional."
Nate frowned. "That won't do."
Mike raised his brows. When he responded, it was with "Patrick's" voice, "It had better do, Mr. Ford. Is it the threat or the length of time you be disturbed by?"
"I've played longer games, but we need to get him to drill now, not later."
Joe laughed. "Then let Patrick frighten him. This one's a rabbit that'll jump. And there's no one who'd take a job on Calhoun. Not even us."
"Sophie will convince him to drill and let her help with the arrangements. I don't want him spooked."
"Sorry, Nate," the dark haired assassin told him. "You don't seem to understand. Reputation is everything. Image is everything. Even underground it's all razzle-dazzle. There's no way Martz gets away with this behavior. Calhoun wouldn't stand for it. Just put it into your plan and have another drink."
Nate glared at the men. "This is our game. Play it our way."
Joe didn't look impressed. Mike put his feet up on the conference room table. "Nate, sit down. Take a nice big gulp of whiskey and listen to me for a minute, okay?" he said. He put a hand on Joe's wrist and Joe turned his hand so they could lace their fingers together. "Now, when you look at us, you see a couple of kids who are as young as your hacker. You think of us as theives. That's not what we are. This is not what we do. We kill people. That's the bottom line. In our business there are certain rules. If a client doesn't pay up, you either get the money or you kill them. Those are your choices. If you don't live up to that and someone else finds out you're dead. Patrick doesn't threaten, he kills. We never need to threaten. Our agent takes care of that. That's why we pay ten percent." Mike frowned. He was obviously unused to explaining this, so Nate gave him the silence he needed to marshal his thoughts. "Okay, Hardison, I'm going to put it into geek and see if you can translate it. Basically, Joe and I are Sith. All the other assassins around are also Sith. Right now we're living pre-Episode 1 style." The hacker's eyes widened, then narrowed. He nodded.
"So, what you're saying is that the competition is cut throat even though you're still out of the public eye. And when you say cut-throat you really mean it. Like dead. And you're aiming to be the two."
Nate cocked his head to the side. "The two?"
"There can only be two, no more, no less. This is the way of the Dark Side," Alec stated. "Though, I have a feeling you ain't out there killing off the competition?"
Joe snorted. "The competition can kill itself off for us. We only actively hunt bastards who kill kids or come after us. But we don't make mistakes and not making this threat will be a mistake. Besides, the son-of-a-bitch had a gun pointed at Mike today. I don't like that sort of thing."
"Nate," Mike interjected, voice soft with Eliot's accent not his own, "I ain't Eliot. I ain't gonna do what you tell me, boss." He went back to his normal East Coast speech. "That's where your plan keeps failing. You keep trying to put us in the Retriever box and that's not where we go."
sipped his whiskey and thought.
Alec tugged on Parker's arm, "I'm going to set up a showing of Star Wars in my office, if you want to come," the hacker offered the two assassins.
"No thanks. We're good here," Joe answered him. The two men didn't leave. They barely moved. It was nice to have someone besides Eliot who was able to be in the same room without having to talk to him or keep his attention. It was finally that predator-stillness that made his decision.
"Give Sophie three days to work on him and get the plans in motion. Then, make your threat. Give him three months, not six." Nate nodded. "He will jump, but I want him to have a clear idea on which direction he should go. I don't want him disappearing on us. We'll get a portion of his free capital tied up in the drilling." He drifted off into silence and the two young men didn't push him for anything more.
Instead, Mike looked at his lover. "Popcorn and Han Solo or water-tag in the park?"
old tag in the park."
for me. Winner picks dinner."
"Andi, are you sure about this? This is a little different than real estate."
"Sam," Sophie said with a coy smile. "I want to be involved. We work so well together."
"That wasn't what I meant. You don't have to make the arrangements. I can get any secretary to do that."
She shook her head. "I want this to be our deal. Something special that we can look back on and say, 'we did that!' when everyone else is stumbling over themselves to get a piece of the action."
Martz topped off her wine. "Then let me offer a toast. To a long and happy partnership."
They clinked glasses. She took a sip. "Sam," she said leaning forward, "I'd really love to take this to the next level, but I want to do it on the day that drill hits the ground. A perfect celebration. A little champagne and you and me together. What do you think?"
He laughed. He lifted his glass in salute. "I'd love to. The sooner the better."
Martz was enjoying his evening walk back from the restaurant. He was alert to his surroundings, but part of his mind was on Andi's sweet curves and sexy smile. That woman was hot. "Sammy-boy," an unfortunately familiar voice said from just behind his right shoulder. He stiffened. "Don't bother goin' for yer gun, Mr. Martz," the assassin told him. "I'm faster. Now, ya shorted me twice. I figured you'd be smart enough not t' lie to me."
"I didn't lie to you." Martz continued to walk. He hoped someone would see the oddity and help him.
"Ya shorted me fifty t'ousand dollars, Sammy. I don't take kindly to it."
The man didn't speak for another block. "At least ya didn't lie t' me again. Get yer affairs in order, boy-o. You've got three months t' live."
Martz felt a drip of sweat run down his back. He'd never walk in public again. That was damn sure. When he looked over his shoulder, there was no one there.
"You are one creepy bastard," Hardison informed Mike. Mike winked at him with a broad grin. He'd shaved off the beard and was dressed in a ratty tee-shirt and jeans. His lover was on the phone making some sort of real estate arrangements.
tell me, Alec, what do you think of Joe, now that you've met him."
"He's creepy too, but in a different way. Still, you two have good taste in movies."
"Thanks." Mike seemed genuinely pleased by that. "I'll go collect my husband's wallet and get dinner. Everyone should be back right?"
"Yep. In fact, I think they're in the car on the way back right now. I dropped the evidence to the attorney general last night. By tomorrow he should be charged and out of our hair. Oh, and he forgave all the loans. Every single one of them." Hardison felt his own smile grow.
"And whatever he had left?"
"Is not going to do him any good."
"Good. Good." The blond assassin bounced over to his lover. He tugged on his arm. "Food money?" Joe pulled out his wallet and handed over several bills. Mike kissed him on the cheek and left the office. Hardison shook his head. Freaks. They were all freaks.
Hardison stared at the polycom. No one had the conference room number. He answered it anyway. "Hello?"
"Tell Michael t' get on the line. We have something t' discuss." The voice on the other end of the line was a gravely Irish burr. He glanced at the two assassins who had gone as still as a cat before a pounce, or Eliot before his anger exploded.
"I'm here, Paddy," Mike said. His voice was a flat monotone.
"Now, Mickey, I've heard a rumor that I took a job in Chicago."
The voice, Patrick Calhoun it seemed, laughed. "And what job did I take then?"
"A loan shark was wanting to kill a couple of teenagers. We set him up instead. Bastard shorted the payment."
"And how much did I get for this job?"
The mild amusement in the man's tone seemed to make Mike focus even more intently, as if the voice could come through the phone as a threat. Joe had his laptop out and was frantically typing to trace the call. "Only 150. Like I said, he shorted the payment."
Calhoun chuckled again. "Well, then, I'll only take 75. As a consideration, y' understand."
"Licensing for your name, you mean? That sounds reasonable." Mike's voice was surprisingly dead. The team had gotten used to the mischievous humor the boys used to deal with the world. This though? This made him seem to be a psychopath.
"And you'll let me know before you take anymore jobs in my name, won't you, boy-o. I'd hate t' ha'e to punish y' for becoming too ambitious."
"Maybe I'm looking forward to the challenge."
"Oh, to be sure, I'm still checking my car every day. Quite the talent y' have. But if I do start huntin' y', it won't be bombs I'm usin'. I'll make y' scream, first."
Joe's lip curled into a snarl. Mike didn't react to the statement physically. "You wouldn't be you if you didn't. Again, I look forward to the challenge. How is the insane child-murdering gig going?"
"I'd be careful, Mickey, plenty of folks out there to be throwing stones at you and your boy." The edge of warning made Parker squirm.
The assassin didn't seem bothered by it. "Well, Paddy, the thing is, most of those folks might castigate me, but they'll castrate you. If they catch you, that is."
"Someday, boy-o..." There was a soft cough. Eliot sat up and leaned toward the phone. He frowned at the sound. Hardison wondered if he could identify the gunshots over the phone the way he could from a video.
"Don't worry about paying. Happy Birthday, Misha."
The phone went to dial tone. Nate turned the polycom off. Mike was staring at the phone. Joe was staring at the phone. After a moment of silence, Joe spoke, "Stalker. S-t-a-l-k-e-r. He is a stalker!"
"No, he's not! It was very sweet of him to take out Paddy. Heck, he broke Heitkamp's legs for *you* as a birthday present." It was good to hear the emotion back in Mike's voice.
The team looked back and forth between the partners as if it were a tennis match.
"Mikey, the only reason he did that is because Heitkamp was bothering you and I was too busy to do it."
"If I'd wanted him knee-capped, I could have done it without either of you. You realize that, right?" Mike raised his brows. "He did it for you because you wanted him to. He is not your competition. I thought we hashed this out during the whole post-Spain coming out to the Moms era? You know, when he thought I was being battered?"
"Uh, boys?" Nate said with a smile. "What just happened?"
"Last loose end just got tied up. Patrick Calhoun's dead," Joe answered. "If our *friend*," he stressed the word for his lover, "is smart, he's just hung the frame around Martz's head."
Mike grinned at Eliot. They were safely in Eliot's office with the door closed. He spoke in quiet Serbian. Eliot was probably the only team-member who spoke it. "I programmed the address into your phone. The sheriff's a good guy. So's his wife. They're heading the, um, Watcher's Council. Don't even say it. The kids named us all after a few too many episodes of Buffy. Angie is the one who'll handle setting up the school gym for lessons. They mayor's on our side. You're up on the school website. Don't worry, it's encrypted for members of the school only. You're under the Angel Investigations area. That means you're allied, but you aren't going to get three a.m. calls from the kids if they're in trouble. That's reserved for Watchers only." Mike winked. "Means you're an angel. Sort of goes with the hair."
Eliot rolled his eyes. "Got it. Meet the schoolmarm for scheduling and introductions. Give them the codes and then teach whatever I think they'll learn. Don't worry. Kids can't be any harder than horses."
Mike paused. "I would really like to say, 'you can ride me anytime, cowboy,' but I think Joe would have a problem with it and try to kill you." He shook his head. "Anyhow, give me a call sometime, cutie. And watch your back. Being guard-dog to this crew will wear you down." Mike looked at his partner who was scanning the street outside the building with the binoculars that Eliot kept on his hutch. "Hey, lover, mind if I give cutie a kiss?"
Joe grinned. "Nope. Since I know you're coming home with me."
The other men blinked at him. "Okay. That was not the reaction I expected, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth." Mike lunged forward and caught Eliot in the same fiery kiss that he'd used the first time he'd kissed the thief. Eliot licked his lips and stared after the two assassins. Mike waved cheerfully at him.
"Holy crap!" Hardison exclaimed from his own office.
"Hardison! Get the camera out of my office!" Eliot snapped back.
"Do you know who killed Calhoun?" Nate asked quietly.
"That's not an answer."
Eliot gave him his sweetest, "aren't I cute" smile, and shrugged again.
Nate let it go. "So, are you really going to teach some kids to become better assassins?"
"No, I'm going to teach some kids how to beat up on people bigger than they are." Eliot grinned. "Besides, I want to see what sort of kids they've adopted." Eliot hitched his bag higher on his shoulder and walked out. Nate's eye was caught by the new patch on it: "Leverage Consulting, We Help the Helpless."
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