Hardison looked up when the door to his little tech cave opened and Eliot walked in without a greeting. He stalked over to the corner with the large potted plant and sat down on the floor behind it, the plant obscuring most of him from view.
Hardison grinned. "Hiding from Parker? What is she doing now?"
Eliot's only answer was a grunt that Hardison chose to interpret as general annoyance.
For a few moments, they worked in silence. Then he could hear Parker's approach through the closed door. With every step came the distinct jingle-jangle of tiny bells and loud, off-key singing.
"Deck the halls with lots of money, fa-la-la-la-la la-la-la-la."
Suddenly the Eliot situation was starting to make sense.
The door burst open a second time in as many minutes and Parker stuck her head in, her festive headband jingling loudly. "Is Eliot hiding in here?" she asked, her eyes already tracking towards the plant in the corner.
"Couldn't say," Hardison said.
"Uh-huh." Parker turned back towards the plant. "Eliot, you need to help me."
"Pleeeeeeease?" Parker bounced into the room, bringing with her more jingling and the smell of gingerbread and chocolate. "We need to decorate!"
Eliot emerged from behind the plant, a disgruntled look on his face. "It's barely December."
"Exactly! It's December. And that makes it Christmas Time! We need to make everything festive and shiny!" She frowned. "This place doesn't feel like home yet."
Eliot sighed. "Parker, I'm trying to write down this week's food plan. I can help you after I'm done, but first I need to finish this and have my grocery list together. You know what a picky eater Hardison is–"
"Hey!" Hardison protested loudly.
"–we'll end up with at least one meal he won't even touch if you keep distracting me," Eliot continued as if Hardison hadn't spoken.
Hardison cleared his throat. "I am not a picky eater."
Eliot and Parker exchanged a look. "You are," they said simultaneously.
"When we're eating out, you always have like a whole pile of food left on the plate because you picked it all off the rest of the food," Parker said.
"What? No, I don't. My plate's always clean."
"Yeah, because Parker and I eat it."
"Lies," Hardison declared. "Now, can you two keep arguing somewhere else, because I really need to update our new aliases. Plus I'm still sorting out which of our old aliases are still good to use and which ones are completely burned. Plus I want to establish our hold on this fine town and have started compiling a list of all the players in town and the East Coast in general, both big and small, that we might like to keep an eye on for one reason or another. Our reputation on the shady side of things is still good, though, meaning nobody suspects us of trying to do good, so we shouldn't have too many proble--"
The trill of his cell phone interrupted him. Delighted, Hardison picked up the phone. "Nana! I was going to call you tonight. The leftovers from Thanksgiving were delicious - even Eliot said so. And Parker--what? "
At the change of tone, Eliot and Parker, who'd been tussling with a piece of jewelry that Parker was trying to drape over Eliot's head, stopped struggling with each other and looked towards Hardison.
"Yeah, no, we can do that. We'll be right there. Yeah, okay, see you then, Nana." Hardison ended the call and looked up. "Nana needs help."
"I'll get the truck."
"I'll grab our gear." Parker watched Eliot head out the door with a touch to Hardison's shoulder. She darted in with a quick kiss to Hardison's cheek and then followed Eliot, leaving Hardison to grab his computer gear.
Hardison, in the middle seat so he could use most of the dashboard for all of his gadgets, shrugged. "She didn't say much. Only that Taneesha was arrested this morning and that she needed help."
Parker's brow furrowed. "But Taneesha is not a criminal."
"Damn straight she's not," Hardison agreed, typing furiously. "All of Nana's kids end up being upstanding citizens, no matter how they started out."
"Except you," Parker pointed out.
Hardison snorted. "We're the good guys, baby. I don't count. I'm the one statistical anomaly, and if you're going by criminal potential I'm--"
Eliot snapped his fingers. "Focus, Hardison. What did they arrest her for?"
"Yeah, hang on." Hardison focused back on his typing for a moment. "Drugs. Man, this is bullshit. Taneesha wouldn't touch drugs. Ever."
Eliot and Parker exchanged a glance over Hardison's head. Eliot tilted his head towards Hardison and Parker nodded. She scooted closer to Hardison and cuddled into his side. "We know," she said softly. "We met Taneesha last week, remember? Nana told us about her family. Her blood family, I mean."
For the next few miles, a depressed silence reigned. Close to the airport, Parker started fidgeting.
Hardison sighed and let go of Parker. "Okay, Mama, what's the plan?"
"We need more info," Parker decided. "We're sure Taneesha isn't involved in anything shady, so she's likely someone's scapegoat, or she was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. We need to figure out which. Hardison, do we have any aliases that are lawyers?"
"Yes, but none that are barred in Illinois. I'm working on it, but so far we can only cover about half the states. I could push it through, but it wouldn't be my best work and it would probably burn the ID we use for it."
"No problem," Eliot injected. "I got a friend in town; she's a lawyer."
"Okay, so we outsource that bit. Call your friend before we board the plane, ask her to be ready to talk to the cops and Taneesha for us. I want this in motion by the time we land. Hardison, find out everything you can. Eliot, you're on Nana duty when we get there. She's gonna be upset, so she'll need comfort food."
Eliot rolled his eyes, but he didn't protest.
Nana's kitchen, on the other hand, was far too cluttered and busy for Eliot's taste. He itched to replace the old stove with a new model and to get a bigger fridge, but Nana had cuffed him on the ear the last time he'd suggested some improvements for her kitchen.
While Hardison was in the foyer hugging his pseudo-grandmother, Eliot headed straight for the kitchen and the pot of stew he could smell.
"You leave that stew alone, you hear me?" Nana called, quickly coming after him. She pulled Hardison and Parker into the kitchen with her.
"Yes, ma'am," Eliot replied even as he started chopping the carrots out on the board.
Nana sighed and sat down at the table, Hardison and Parker on either side.
"Now, I don't want you three to get into any trouble, but I know you help people out of a tricky spot every now and again, and Taneesha is a good girl. What they're saying about her…" Nana shook her head.
"Don't worry, Nana. We'll take care of it."
Parker nodded. "Eliot has a friend in town, a lawyer. She's going to get Taneesha released today. And then we'll figure out who's behind all this and make sure that they pay."
They relocated to the kitchen, Hardison with his laptop in front of him and Parker and Eliot at the sink, cleaning up from the day's supper.
"Taneesha was arrested at the airport with enough drugs in her bag to make all the cops' hearts beat faster. I checked the airport security feeds to figure out at what point the drugs went into her bag. I didn't find anything in the public areas – nobody messed with her bag from the point that Taneesha entered the airport to the point where she handed her luggage over for the flight."
Hardison turned the laptop around to face Eliot and Parker. "So I checked all the internal cameras, you know, loading docks, staff-only hallways, baggage handling. And bingo! So this guy--" Hardison reached around the screen and tapped the space bar, making the video on screen freeze. "--is their inside man. He took the bag into that little closet in the back there – no cameras in there – and then came back out with it six minutes later. That is the only time the bag is not on camera, and since I didn't see anyone put anything in there, it has to have happened during those six minutes."
Parker raised a hand. "If someone is using Taneesha to transport drugs and they have an inside man, then why was she caught?"
"The city has a drug problem that's getting worse. Random searches?" Eliot guessed.
Hardison nodded. "There's a new police commissioner. In the last four weeks he's ordered seven last minute searches of various outbound and inbound planes. They've arrested a total of eleven people who all deny any knowledge of drugs in their luggage."
"Yeah, well, of course they say that."
"True," Hardison agreed, "but none of these people actually had the drugs on their person; all of them were arrested after a K9 unit searched the plane and discovered drugs in the luggage."
"By now even the cops should have realized that the problem is at the airport, not with the random travelers."
Eliot and Hardison exchanged a look. "Should have, maybe. But they didn't. Three people are out on bail and waiting for their trials, the rest are currently in jail."
Parker set down the last dish. "Okay, what did you find out about the guy from the airport?"
Hardison grinned. "Thought you'd never ask. His name is Paul Exter, he's twenty-four and has a total of seven arrests to his name, most of them drug related."
"Coincidence, I'm sure," Eliot drawled. "Did you find out whose payroll he's on? Because this airport job is probably not his main line of income."
"Nothing specific - not like he's gonna file taxes for his drug running side-job - but his last four arrests, a guy named Edward Cone bailed him out. And Edward Cone is a lawyer who is definitely out of poor Paulie's price range. So I took a peek at Mr Cone's company, hacked into their client lists. Turns out that one of Edward Cone's clients is Gabriel Garcia Velasquez who is kind of a big fish on the local drug scene."
Hardison turned the laptop back around and started typing. "Now, Velasquez is on a lot of people's Christmas list in terms of who they want wrapped up underneath the tree. He's being investigated by everyone for everything – I'm not even exaggerating. The IRS has put out feelers into his semi-legit businesses in town. Health & Safety is after those as well. The cops are investigating several things at once – drugs, of course, but also extortion and, I don't know, man. So many things. The FBI and DEA have talked about starting a task force to investigate his drug operation, but there are some coordination problems because of Velasquez' connection to New York. But the DEA especially wants Velasquez behind bars because he's not only selling drugs, he's creating new ones, too."
"Anyway, this is Velasquez with Diego Montoya," Hardison said, showing a picture of two dark-haired men with the same thin mostache and slicked back hair. But where one – Velasquez – was older and heavyset, the other – Montoya – was young and built like an oak tree.
Parker grinned. "Come on, Eliot, you know the movie. You killed my father, prepare to die!"
"Ha ha." Eliot turned to Hardison. "No, really. Who is he?"
"He is the son of Domingo Montoya, Mexico native still living in Mexico City. He sent little Diego off to Big City USA to establish their cartel on the East Coast. Pretty successfully, too, at least according to NYPD and FBI files."
"So Velasquez is working with Montoya?"
Hardison shrugged. "More like working for – to me it looks like Montoya invested heavily to get Velasquez established here in Chicago. I'm guessing he's trying to make Daddy proud by expanding his operation. Velasquez is like his lieutenant. He operates largely on his own, but he travels to New York at least once a week to report and receive new orders. I'm going to expand my research to Montoya and New York in general, but for now I can tell you that the DEA suspects Montoya gets his drugs delivered by boat. Part of the shipments continues to Chicago via the airport – they probably used to be able to ship larger crates until the new Commissioner took over, so now they're using patsies picked directly at the airport. Nobody is happy about it since it slows down operations."
"Wait, hang on." Eliot held up a hand. "Taneesha was arrested trying to leave Chicago. But if they're getting shipments from New York, how does that work?"
Hardison nodded. "You're right. Usually that's how it would go. But remember how I mentioned that Velasquez is creating new drugs?"
The other two nodded.
"Now, the DEA suspects that Velasquez has created the new designer drug that's been found at several high-end clubs in New York. The base is heroin, but it's cut with who knows what. This isn't the stuff you can buy at a random street corner – it's very expensive and very exclusive. Demand is high among New York's rich elite but supply is …" Hardison made a so-so gesture. "I hacked Velasquez' personal emails and it sounds like he's using his control of the recipe against Montoya to get a bigger piece of the pie. The stuff is produced in Chicago exclusively, and Montoya is not happy about it. But it also means Velasquez needs to ship drugs both ways and it's creating weak points." Hardison looked up. "But for now the important part is that Velasquez has a flight booked for the end of the week."
"Okay, so we want Velasquez, but if we can take out Montoya at the same time, that'd be cool."
"We're talking about a cartel here, Parker. That's about a shoe size bigger than our feet," Eliot cautioned.
"Pah." Parker sniffed. "So we're working this one barefoot."
"I'm not saying we shouldn't get involved--"
"Can't anyway, we have to help," Hardison interrupted, upset at the mere thought of not helping. "It's my Nana."
"--I'm just saying we need to be careful. Make sure we consider all angles."
Parker nodded. "We will. I already have, like, six plans in the works. So let's go steal us a… drug cartel? Can we steal one of those? I always wanted one."
Hardison nearly choked on his unexpected laughter as Eliot groaned.
"All right, all right. So we're not stealing the whole cartel. Just one little drug smuggling side arm of it." Parker shrugged and held out her hand. "For Nana?"
Hardison put his hand on Parker's. "For Nana."
Eliot sighed, not really reluctant to help Nana, but a little wary to be taking on a cartel with only three people. Still, they'd taken on quite a few heavy hitters before. He put his hand on top of Hardison's and squeezed. "For Nana."
Harold Finch hummed, his typing carrying on uninterrupted.
Reese shrugged and turned back to the picture. He studied it intently, committing the details of the face to his memory. Pale, long blonde hair, blue eyes. Early thirties, possibly younger. A somewhat forced smile. A pastel-colored shirt with the white collar of a blouse sticking out. "She looks… normal."
"As far as I can tell, she is." Finch finally stopped typing and looked at Reese. "Alice White, twenty-nine, bookkeeper."
Reese quirked his lip in the mockery of a smile. "How quaint."
"Isn't it just?" Finch allowed himself a small smile in return but quickly turned serious again. "Like I said, completely normal. She studied library sciences in her hometown of Boston, then moved to LA. She worked in a small bookshop for a few years before moving on to work for several private collectors and companies, organizing their libraries. Then she moved back to Boston for a few years before relocating to the West Coast again, this time to Portland, Oregon. As far as I can tell, she still lives there."
At that, Reese raised an eyebrow. "Are we taking outside calls now, Harold? Do I need to pack a bag?"
"Mr. Reese, you know very well that the machine concentrates its efforts on New York City, with only the occasional outlier where one of a very specific set of people is concerned." Finch tapped a few keys and Reese's phone vibrated in his pocket. "Ms White will arrive in New York City in two and a half hours. I've found her hotel registration, so I suggest you pay her hotel room a visit, get the lay of the land…"
Reese grinned. "…plant a few bugs?"
Finch smiled. "Precisely."
"Should I pick up an early dinner while I'm out?"
"I'm in the mood for Chinese, Mr. Reese."
"I'll get it on the way back."
From underneath the table Bear, the Belgian Malinois who had up until now been dozing, woke up at the mention of food and gave a quiet whuff.
"That, and a bone," Reese amended.
Parker smiled. "I like Alice White."
"Parker, for the last time: you are Alice White!"
Parker rolled her eyes. "I know that, Dummy! Why do you think she's not a vegetarian anymore?"
"All right, all right," Hardison interrupted them. "Focus. Little Paulie just took a walk with your bag, Parker. You're good to board the plane."
Parker, sitting in the airport waiting area, got up and headed for the counters.
"Eliot, the bag is back in rotation."
Eliot threw the rest of the bagel he was eating in the employee break room into the trash and headed out the door. He was wearing a ground crew uniform, complete with high-vis jacket. It took him all of five seconds to find and check Parker's bag.
"Like we suspected," he confirmed for the other two. "Congratulations, Parker, you're technically in possession of roughly two kilos of heroin."
Parker smiled at the flight attendant who gave her her boarding pass. "All right, boys," she said once she was out of earshot. "Let's steal those drugs."
Hardison drained the last of his coffee and let a generous tip on the table as he closed his laptop and slid it into his bag. It was the least he could do after blocking a table for an hour. "Eliot, I'm meeting you at the gate."
Eliot didn't reply, but ten minutes later he met Hardison at the gate for the flight to New York City, having switched the work clothes for jeans and a sweater.
"That him?" Eliot asked from the seat beside him, referring to the small picture open in the top left corner.
"Yup." Hardison leaned back in his seat. "That's Paulie's colleague on the New York end, Ernesto Castillo. He's on his break right now." He tapped a few keys and a grainy video popped up showing a generic break room. Eliot wouldn't have recognized him as the guy from the photo if not for the large snake tattoo on his neck. "Unfortunately he's not going to finish today's shift. Airport cops should be picking him up any--"
On camera, two uniformed security guards entered the breakroom and headed straight for Ernesto. He was marched out under the curious stares of his coworkers.
"Turns out Ernesto has an outstanding warrant in North Carolina."
Hardison grinned. "Just doing my civic duty, baby."
"I still don't like the fact that we're dangling Parker as bait."
Over the comms, Parker scoffed. "I volunteered. Besides, these guys won't know what hit them."
Eliot crossed his arms, still uneasy. He silently vowed to make sure Parker was safe at all times.
Reese too one last look around the room and then hit a button on his cell phone, activating the small bug he'd placed in the light fixture. "Done, Finch."
"And you're coming through loud and clear," Finch confirmed for him. "I've called ahead at the Shanghai Palace. Our order will be ready by the time you're there."
Reese headed out of the hotel. He didn't bother to get a cab for the three blocks to the restaurant. Instead, he set a brisk pace and dodged around tourists and locals alike. "So, tell me about Alice White. Any idea yet why we got her number?"
"Nothing specific," Finch said, "but I don't believe she is our perpetrator. No criminal record, no outstanding warrants or any contact with the police that I can see. She seems to be an exemplary citizen. Even served jury duty a few years ago and was promoted to jury foreman when the previous one was arrested for theft."
"An exemplary citizen, huh?" Reese snorted. "In my experience, there's no such thing."
"Hmm, quite right," Finch agreed. "She did file her taxes late three years ago and had to pay a fine."
"A criminal mastermind in the making," Reese said dryly.
"There is nothing in her financials that would indicate she's involved in any criminal activity. Her Facebook account is private and only contains a handful of posts. Her Instagram is more active and she updates it regularly - she mostly uploads pictures of food and cats, although she doesn't have a pet herself. Her best friend, one Peggy Milbank, owns several cats though, and apparently Alice cat-sits occasionally."
"Adorable," Reese commented. Over the comms, he could hear the rhythmic clack of computer keys before Finch continued.
"If anything, Ms. White is too perfect. Maybe it's my experience of operating somewhat outside the law, but this lack of irregularities is bothering me."
Reese reached the restaurant but lingered outside. "What are you saying, Finch?"
"I'm saying that If I wanted to create a perfect alias that would stand up to scrutiny and appear perfectly ordinary, this is how I would do it. Someone like Alice White would be the result of my efforts." Finch cleared his throat. "Of course, perfectly ordinary people do exist, and there is nothing specific to suggest Ms. White isn't just that."
"I don't think anything will happen to her at the hotel, and the bug will let us know what she's up to and alert us when she's on the move. Once that happens you should keep a close eye on her."
"Agreed." With that, Reese stepped into the Shanghai Palace and picked up their order.
Her hotel room was on the small side, but she didn't expect to spend any time there. The boys had a suite several floors up and depending on the job, none of them would sleep until it was safe to do so.
She'd only just dropped her bag on her bed and taken out the two packages of drugs when her phone - her real phone, not Alice's phone - vibrated against her side. Unlike her cover phone, her real phone was a Hardison Special, tricked out with all kinds of extras and virtually unhackable unless someone got their hands on the actual phone. And even then, Hardison had assured her and Eliot, breaking the encryption would take hours if not days.
3 new messages
don't use your comm
we just got here and i did a routine scan
found a weird signal in a couple of rooms, yours included. you can use the surveillance check app on your phone to find the source
Humming to herself, Parker thumbed through the menus until she found the surveillance check app. She laughed softly - the icon for the app was a fly being squashed by an overly large cartoon hand.
Five minutes later, she sat down on the closed toilet lid and texted Hardison.
seems to be a bug in the light; nothing else. cant be sure how sensitive it is.
i HATE it
suddenly i have way too much to tell you guys
"Don't worry, Mama. You can talk as long as you're not in your room."
Parker frowned. i hate it so much she sent. And then an extra exclamation point for emphasis.
"Tell her the good news," Eliot said.
"The good news," Hardison said, "is that Montoya's guys definitely know that you're walking around with two bags of their finest drugs. They've already sent guys to the airport to bribe someone into handing over your details. I'm confident they'll find your hotel in no time. Especially since I made sure to leave them a breadcrumb trail that a blind guy could follow."
Parker stood up and started pacing in the small bathroom, suddenly feeling the need to move.
"You're good to go as long as you've got the cameras set up," Hardison said in her ear.
Parker grinned. She took the two miniature cameras out of her bag and put them on the counter before flushing the toilet and washing her hands. With the two cameras in hand, she exited the bathroom and looked around the room. One camera was placed on the small desk, overlooking the room and bathroom doors, and one was on the TV to cover the bed where her bag still sat.
With a wink to the camera on the TV, Parker shimmied out of her pantsuit and changed into a shimmery black top and a pair of slim black leggings under a knee-length floral pattern skirt. If she lost the skirt, she could transform from Alice to Parker within seconds.
Humming slightly, Parker stowed the two packets of drugs in her large purse, grabbed her coat and skipped out of the room, ready for a night on the town.
Reese bought a newspaper from a nearby vendor and leaned against the nearest wall, intently studying the headlines. He stayed where he was when Alice White walked past him, her eyes flitting from person to person and building to building with keen interest.
Trusting Finch to keep an eye on Alice using his access to the city's CCTV network, Reese lingered a few moments longer, scanning the crowd. Nothing stood out yet, but sooner or later a threat would make itself known.
Hardison laughed. "No bites, yet. But I can feel them circling."
"I hope they hurry," Parker muttered. "I'm freezing. Do you think it's too early to dangle the bait a little lower?"
"Maybe a little," Hardison said. "From the chatter I'm picking up on our main players' phones, they are not pleased with our man Ernesto getting himself nabbed at the airport. Specifically Montoya is not pleased with Velasquez for losing another shipment, especially one of his 'enhanced' ones, and Velasquez is not pleased with anything at all right now."
"Remember," Eliot said, "we're not really after the cartel. All we want is Velasquez. Everything else is nice, but not a requirement to get Taneesha cleared."
In the two second silence that followed, Eliot could vividly imagine Parker rolling her eyes.
"Anyway," Hardison continued, "Velasquez is looking to do some damage control. He's got a late meeting in Chicago today and he already had a ticket for the first flight to New York in the morning, but he's sitting on hot coals. In the meantime he's sent his right hand man Rodrigo Coates ahead to New York to handle this situation. His plane landed half an hour ago and I'm sure his boys will be on you in no time at all."
"Well, I'm right here, waiting."
This time it was Eliot who rolled his eyes. Parker was in the middle of the ice rink at Central Park, circling around others with an ease that made several people stop to look after her as she passed them.
"I'm keeping an eye on her."
On the ice, Parker spun around and met his eyes across the distance. She smiled, wild and free, and started spinning, her skirt flaring out around her.
Eliot took a sip of his hot chocolate and kept watch.
Reese wasn't startled to hear Finch's voice in his ear - he was too used to the slight rustling of Finch's shirt collar, the faint clacking of computer keys, the quietly drawn breath before Finch started speaking to be startled by it anymore. But Alice White was captivating. She was pretty, sure, but Reese had watched her skate for the last half hour and he was far more fascinated by the absolute control she seemed to have over her body.
There was a slight click on the line and then the background noises from his earbud changed from the quiet library and Finch's regular breathing to one of chaos and noise.
"It's not here," someone said. "She must have found it."
"Ah," Reese said. "That kind of movement." The noise cut out and Finch was back in his ear. "That accent - Spanish?"
"I've already fed the footage from the hotel lobby into my facial recognition software and sent stills to your phone."
Reese took his phone out and called up his recent messages. Finch had sent him three photos of young men in leather jackets. Two had visible tattoos and all of them had slicked back dark hair.
"So whatever it is they're looking for, it's likely that Alice has it in her possession right now," Reese said, eyes tracking Alice White's loops around the ice rink. "She's carrying a bag."
"Keep an eye on her. Maybe I can dispatch Detectives Carter and Fusco to take care of our--oh."
"Ms. White has updated her Instagram."
Reese checked his phone. The newest post on Alice White's instagram feed was a selfie of Alice grinning into the camera. It showed quite a bit of background to include the decorated trees and the other people enjoying the ice.
"It's geo-tagged," Finch said. In the background, his computer pinged. "And I just got a hit on the facial recognition software. Jesús Vagas, nineteen, previous arrests for assault and several drug-related charges."
Reese waited, letting his eyes drift over the crowd.
"I'm narrowing the search for the other two, but I can already tell you that Vagas has connections to Diego Montoya."
"A librarian and a drug lord?" Reese let out a low whistle. Montoya ran a local cartel, small-time compared to some but steadily expanding. "So what are we thinking, was she in the wrong place at the right time and took advantage of it?"
"Possibly," Finch said. "Or she was an unwilling accomplice. I'm going to start a search to see if I can find out more."
"Wait's over anyway," Eliot said. At the edges of the crowd around the ice rink, he could see Montoya's men studying the women in the crowd. "Let's go."
Parker jumped up and headed around the rink to the pre-selected path. Eliot moved to follow her at a quick pace, trying to get through the crowd so he could take a side path and arrive at the ambush point before Parker and the thugs following her did.
Then his gaze caught on a man at the edges of the crowd. He was tall with salt and pepper hair and wore a long dark coat. He was too far away to make out his features and he seemed to be preoccupied with his phone, muttering to himself. But Eliot was a professional – he recognized a fellow hitter if he saw one, even a government employed one.
"Hardison, is there a police op in Central Park right now? Or a federal one?"
"No," Hardison said. "That's one of the reasons we're doing this in the park."
"Check the surveillance. Tall guy, dark coat, black scarf, graying hair. Stands near the skate rental."
"Okay, I see him, but--"
"Check him. Be thorough."
"He just looks like some dude waiting for his daughter to get off the ice or something."
Eliot shook his head. "No. Run his face, Hardison."
While Hardison grumbled about unnecessary distractions, Eliot finally got through the worst of the crowd.
"Kneecaps, Mr. Reese," Finch gently reminded him. "Detective Carter has made several joked about needing donut pillows for her arrests ever since your encounter with Jimmy Two-Bit Hastings."
Reese huffed. "You miss one time…"
"You shot him in the--" Finch coughed. "--derriere."
"I was aiming at his leg. Besides, it was non-fatal." And Jimmy had deserved it for being such a pain in the ass. And for trying to steal Reese's favorite gun.
"It was unnecessary. And quite intentional."
"He was annoying me." Reese frowned, scanning the crowd again. What had drawn his--there. Broad shoulders, knit cap, coat pulled up to his ears. Something about the man's gait was familiar, but Reese couldn't quite place it. He straightened up a little, glancing towards Alice. She was on the move further into the park, Montoya's men following at a distance.
He hesitated, then headed after Alice. His little distraction could wait until later. For now, the number was what counted.
"I'm a little busy," Reese said, "but continue."
"I've been, well, dismantling her existence in the digital space. After her phone failed to clone, I've had to hack into her accounts individually. On the surface, it all looks very much above board, but underneath…"
"I don't think Alice White is a real person." Finch switched back to his primary laptop, his fingers flying over the keyboard. "On a whim, I ran facial recognition on everyone involved, including Alice White. And got a hit."
Finch stared at the picture from Boston, showing the woman posing as Alice White in all black, with her blonde hair partially hidden underneath a black cap. There were three others in the picture – two men and one woman – and all of them were known criminals.
"Parker AKA Alice White was on the plane together with two associates, Mr. Reese. One Alec Hardison, computer expert, and--"
He broke into a jog. Something about that guy set off all of his alarm bells. The way he'd assessed the crowd. The way he stood. CIA, most likely.
Eliot hated dealing with the CIA.
He ran a little faster.
"Eliot! Eliot, I found a picture of that guy you mentioned. He's bad news, I tell you. My search was throwing up all kinds of encrypted top secret stuff, so I took a back way in and the guy is--"
Hardison's message was lost as Eliot burst through the trees and reached the little bridge he and had picked for the next part of the plan.
He was late.
Parker, never helpless, was wrestling with two of the thugs. Two more were lying on the ground, with Parker's tazer in between them.
"That's my girl," Eliot muttered.
Tall Mystery Man in the dark coat was on Parker's other side, his back to Eliot, engaging three more of Montoya's thugs.
"I can barely hear you," Eliot said. He winced when a sudden burst of static sounded from his earbud. "Hardison? Fix the damn signal!"
Eliot hesitated for a second. If he interfered now, they might have to switch plans. He watched as another thug fell to the ground, groaning in pain. Eliot sighed. At this rate there weren't going to be enough thugs left for their plan.
Eliot threw himself into the fight, aiming for Mystery Man. Maybe he could distract the guy long enough to let Parker go on with the plan.
But the moment Eliot stepped into the light of the nearest street lamp, two thugs were on him.
It took less than five minutes for the last of the thugs to hit the ground. Eliot finally got close to Mystery Man and they came face to face.
Eliot hesitated. "I should have known."
The other man straightened. "Eliot Spencer."
Eliot inclined his head. "John--"
"I go by Reese these days."
Eliot nodded. "Didn't know there was a CIA op happening here."
Reese smiled. "There isn't."
Reese still held his gun, but Eliot was close enough to take it from him and they both knew it.
Their impasse was broken by the sound of an engine revving and Parker screaming.
Eliot whirled around. Some of Velasquez' men had recovered enough to get back to their feet. But it wasn't any of them that had Eliot cursing – it was the two other guys on a motorbike that pulled up. The passenger grabbed Parker and hung on tight as she struggled while the driver sped off.
"Damnit! Hardison, change of plans." Eliot hoped that Hardison had eyes on the bike because he was not going to catch them on foot and Parker's bag – the one with the tracker in it – was on the ground, its contents strewn across the path. He took great pleasure in putting all of the thugs back on the ground before he turned to Reese.
"Not a CIA op?"
Reese shook his head.
"Good, then you can get out of my way – and stay out!"
Eliot bent down to retrieve Parker's tazer and then cursed under his breath when he found her earbud sitting next to it. He tapped his own ear, relieved when he could finally hear Hardison mumbling on the other end. "Hardison! I've got the tracker. They've got Parker. See if you can find her."
"I think we need to regroup, Mr. Reese. There have been quite a few developments that require further discussion. Meet me at the restaurant with the excellent crème brûlée."
There was a slight click over the line and then silence. One look at this phone confirmed what Reese had already suspected: Finch had initiated a complete communications shutdown, something he only did when he was concerned about their security.
From the restaurant, he and Finch caught a cab towards Queens where they took the underground back to Manhattan. A privately hired limousine was waiting in the small car park of a bodega and Reese followed Finch inside without hesitation.
Finch held up a hand. "Just a few more minutes, Mr. Reese."
Reese sat back and let the scenery pass outside until the limousine stopped in front of a brownstone. The house was excellently maintained and looked exactly the same as every other house on this block.
The inside was decorated tastefully. Expensive, but not too expensive. Reese followed Finch through the foyer and through the living room into a smaller study.
"It's not the library," Finch said, looking at the two monitors, "but it'll do in a pinch – at least until I can make sure we have not been compromised."
Reese stepped up to one of the windows and peered outside, noting the placement of the garbage bins to the side of the house and the height of the fence. "I take it this is about Spencer and Alice White."
"Parker," Finch supplied, calling up several images on his tablet. "Alice White is an alias. It's a very good one – organic movements on social media, financial activity, everything. It's a very well-maintained cover ID. Perhaps a little too well."
Reese accepted the tablet when Finch handed it to him and started thumbing through the images. Alice White that evening, in her colorful skirt doing pirouettes on ice skates. The same woman, dressed in sneakers, black jeans, a yellow and black plaid shirt and a black cap. Another picture of her in a skin-tight blue dress and a high ponytail. Several pictures of her with a diverse group of people – an older dark-haired woman in elegant clothing, a tall black man in jeans and a hoodie, an older man in a rumpled suit, and Spencer.
"What do you know about her?"
"Parker – real name unknown. Actually, Parker might be her real name, but I can't say if it's first or last. She's a thief – world class. Has spent time in just about every country with something worth stealing, and in some prisons, too. But she never sticks around long – so far I haven't found a prison that could hold her for longer than a couple of days."
Reese flicked through the rest of the images on the tablet. It was a collection of images with a variety of people in it, sometimes including Parker, sometimes not. He recognized Spencer in several of them.
Finch stepped up to him and stopped the slideshow on one particular image, showing Parker, Spencer and the tall black man. "Parker's crew. A few years ago, several criminals banded together, combining their various talents. At that point, the gang included Sophie Devereaux, thief and con-woman, and a Nathan Ford who appeared to have led an honest life until he fell in with Devereaux and the rest. Apparently they made a fortune on their first job and kept going for the fun of it. Almost a year ago, Devereaux and Ford split off from the other three and Parker took over the lead." Finch took the tablet back and set it on the table. "From all accounts they are ruthless and don't care about collateral damage. If someone else is after the same thing, they'll run roughshod all over them." Finch frowned down at his tablet. "Except… it doesn't really make sense."
"For one thing, most criminals who had a run-in with this crew ended up in prison."
Reese shrugged. "That's just clever. Leave the clean-up to the cops while you make your getaway."
"Whatever the reason, it didn't make them very popular among their ilk."
Reese grinned. "I imagine not, but consider this, Harold: if you're the best, you don't need friends."
Finch nodded absently. "Still, something is off about this whole thing. Most of their marks have been very rich men--"
"They usually are," Reese cut in.
Finch gave him a look. "Very rich men – and a few women – who have been investigated by the police, or have at least done something worth investigating."
"You can't con an honest man." Reese shrugged. "You'll figure it out," he added confidently. He tapped the image of Parker and her two crew members. "I know Spencer, but who is the third guy?"
"I wonder…" Finch hummed. "You remember Spencer from your days in the Rangers? While he was doing special ops?"
Reese inclined his head. "Yeah, mostly. But once or twice after I joined them. Rumor had it that Spencer went into the private sector after he got out."
"Mercenary work." Finch wrinkled his nose. "That fits with my info that Eliot Spencer took up with Damien Moreau."
Reese raised an eyebrow. "Moreau? That's a bit of a surprise, I have to admit. It doesn't seem to fit with what I knew of Spencer." He shrugged. "Well, people change."
"In any case, considering Spencer's expertise and that of his accomplices, I didn't want to take the chance that you – or I – could be followed back to the library."
And the machine, Reese silently added. He nodded. He would have to go out and stock up on weapons--
"I took the liberty to pack for you. The bag should have been delivered already; check out the backdoor. "
Reese found a duffel bag on the back stoop, heavy enough to hold some serious weaponry. He unpacked guns upon guns, with a few flash grenades thrown in for variety. "Nice."
"I'm glad you approve," Finch said dryly. "Now, to answer your earlier question: the other man in Parker's crew is Alec Hardison, computer expert. He is an accomplished hacker and, in fact, one of the most dangerous men on this planet. To be perfectly honest, I'm not certain that I could keep him out our systems if he really tried getting in. I would notice, of course, and I'd make it as hard as possible, but it's likely that he would find a way to break my encryptions."
The communications shut-down suddenly made more sense to Reese. "So, he's a mini-you."
Finch pointedly ignored the comment.
Reese looked down at the bag of weapons and decided to do some maintenance. Finch, ever prepared, had included his gun cleaning kit in the bag.
"So… any idea what Parker, Spencer and Hardison are doing in New York?"
"I'm not sure. I've been trying to parse Spencer's movements for the last few years and it's been… challenging. He must be nearly as paranoid as you, Mr. Reese."
"Is he? What else do you know about him?"
"Born in Oklahoma, enlisted at eighteen, went on to do special ops. After he left the army, he fell in with Damien Moreau's crowd; he was the man's right hand in all things dirty and bloody. Had a falling out with Moreau – I can't find out over what. After that I have sporadic reports in various government databases – Chicago, Boston, LA – but anything else is classified at a much higher level than I can break on the fly. I'd need to invest more time, and right now I think we should be focusing on all three crew members. The other two are nearly as careful about security as Spencer. I'm sure Hardison has a hand in their online security. I've found at least two online newspaper reports from Portland that look to have been doctored in some way."
"What about the other two? Any more on their background?"
"Nothing much on Parker. There are some references to foster care, but I haven't been able to confirm that." Finch called up another file. "Hardison is much easier to track, at least his earlier years. He did grow up in foster care in Chicago. Discovered computers in high school. He is wanted in Iceland for theft and for computer crimes in other countries, but has never been arrested or detained."
"Hmm." Reese put his gun back together. "If Alice White is really Parker, then it follows that Parker is our number. And she was kidnapped earlier by those thugs who went rooting through her hotel room."
Finch made a contemplative sound. "That would make her the victim."
Reese shrugged. "Could be both. We've had criminals bite off more than they could chew before."
Reese and Finch exchanged a look, both thinking of Leo Tran and his bad luck both with women and employers.
"Well," Reese said, checking his watch. "I suppose we should talk to Spencer then. Back to work, Finch."
She was just starting to think that the cartels these days weren't what they used to be when the driver of the motorcycle took a sharp right and pulled into a parking garage. The two on the motorcycle handed her off to another crew that came with its own van. She was unceremoniously tossed in the back and glared at the closed door. There were no windows in the back, meaning she had no idea where she was going.
Parker sniffed. The van smelled like damp earth and sweat and she wrinkled her nose, wishing there were actual seats.
The van started and Parker quickly sat down before she was thrown off her feet. There was something wet underneath her bottom.
"Ugh." She shifted to the side, but only found more dampness. "Wonderful. Just great. I hope you appreciate what I'm doing." Parker frowned in the dark. "Um? Guys? Eliot? Hardison?" She reached up to tap her earbud, but only hit air. "Oh, great."
"What did you think I meant?" Eliot growled. "They grabbed her and drove off before she could plant the tracker. And her earbud fell out."
Hardison followed Eliot and got in his way before he could head into the bathroom. "And you couldn't follow?"
"They had a motorbike, Hardison!"
"And guns. And there was your CIA buddy to consider. So there's nothing you could have done," Hardison said, his voice softer, with no trace of accusation in it. "No reason for you to beat yourself up about it, right?"
Eliot glared, realizing he'd played right into Hardison's hands. Storming off to brood about Parker's kidnapping until it was time to rescue her seemed childish in the face of Hardison's logic. "They got Parker," he repeated.
"And it wasn't your fault." Hardison looked at him expectantly, waiting.
Eliot huffed and nodded minutely.
Hardison relaxed fractionally. "Okay. Good. So we're going with Plan G, and you're not disappearing to mistreat a punching bag for an hour. Glad we cleared that up."
Eliot shot him a look. "Can you trace her?"
Hardison grinned. "Can I trace her? Can I? Eliot, my man – you wound me, baby. Do I not plan ahead for everything?"
Hardison shrugged. "Sure. I've already got the software fired up."
Eliot lightly punched Hardison's shoulder. "Knew you were good for something."
Hardison rubbed his shoulder. "Yeah, yeah, now aren't you glad Parker and I tricked you?"
"I'm not gonna let you chip me like a dog!"
Hardison frowned. "Eliot, this is important, okay? We need to be able to find you if anything happens. It's just the three of us now."
Eliot narrowed his eyes, his arms crossed. "No!"
Hardison pitched forward, a syringe with a large needle pointed towards Eliot's biceps. Eliot caught him easily, keeping Hardison's wrist locked.
They struggled, caught in a wrestling grip with neither of them able to break free or achieve their objective. Hardison couldn't inject the small modified RFID chip into Eliot's biceps, but neither could Eliot let go of Hardison's wrist. Eliot could have broken out of the impasse, but it would have meant breaking Hardison's wrist. Instead he growled and tossed his hair back to glare at Hardison from three inches away.
Eliot intensified his glare, making sure to lower his voice. "Hardison, if you don't stop, I'll take that giant ass needle and shove it up your--"
A sharp sting in his thigh made Eliot look down. Parker grinned and sprang to her feet, dropping a syringe - smaller than Hardison's, but still large enough to make Eliot grit his teeth - on the floor.
"Hardison made me," she said, darting in to kiss Eliot's cheek. "Sorry, not sorry."
She bounced out of the room.
Eliot dropped Hardison's wrists and looked down at his ruined cargo pants. "Damnit, Hardison!"
"Shut up," Eliot grumbled.
Hardison's grin only widened. "Don't be like that. You know we're gonna get Parker back."
Eliot reached out to grab Hardison's shoulder as his smile dimmed at the memory of Parker's kidnapping. It didn't matter that Plans F, G and J were contingencies for just that possibility – neither of them liked it when one of them was in immediate danger.
The chime of Eliot's cell phone broke the silence. Eliot fished it out of his pocket. "Yeah?"
Eliot's eyes met Hardison as he heard the reply on the other end.
"Reese. Didn't think I'd be hearing from you."
From their brief encounter in the park Reese could tell that Spencer still exuded the energy of a powder keg, of building pressure just waiting to be released, but at the same time he seemed calmer, more settled. Reese had a few qualms about meeting on Spencer's turf, so to speak, but he had Finch in his ear and Carter and Fusco on standby.
Reese rode the elevator nearly to the top of the building, several floors above Alice White's cover room. Finch had already forwarded him the floor plan of Spencer's rooms. It was a nice suite, the kind that Finch would have booked for an op in or near the hotel.
From what Finch had dug up on their group of thugs from the park, it seemed like Spencer and his crew had been trying to rip off the cartel. Ambitious, but not too unreasonable considering some of their past marks.
Spencer opened the door and gestured him inside.
The electronics setup on the table in the middle of the room looked familiar in its composition. Four monitors were set up, with various programs running simultaneously. Reese recognized a facial recognition program and the photo it was currently running – his own.
Spencer grabbed a bottle of orange soda from the table and took a sip.
Reese raised his eyebrows. "Nice setup."
"Thanks," said a voice from behind him. It belonged to a young black man with short cropped dark hair. He was tall and wore black jeans and a dark blue sweater with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows. Alec Hardison, hacker. Reese would have figured that without Finch's intel. The man was fit, fitter perhaps than most people who spent all their time with computers, but he was not a fighter.
Any doubts Reese had had about coming here alone were put to rest. There didn't seem to be anyone else in the rooms apart from Spencer and Hardison, and while he wasn't sure he could win against Spencer without a lot of collateral damage occurring, Spencer couldn't exactly win against him without the same happening. And Spencer, unlike Reese, had someone in the room he would most likely want to keep safe. It might make him more dangerous, but also more predictable.
"John Reese," Hardison said. "Real name--"
Reese cleared his throat.
Hardison blinked. "Okay. Eliot, did you know you do that exact same thing when you want me to shut up? Creepy. " He shrugged and sat down at the tech station. "Well, I'm sure you know that you're ex-CIA. Ex-Rangers. Hmm, those are some sweet aliases." He let out an impressed whistle. "You must have a generous sugar daddy to be able to afford that apartment."
"I do," Reese drawled, not rising to the bait. "But we generally prefer the term 'employer'."
The man opened his mouth to reply, but Spencer set the bottle of soda down hard enough to rattle the table. "Hardison!"
Hardison put a reassuring hand on the nearest computer and glared at Spencer. "Right. So after Eliot ran into you earlier, I did some checking. Man in the Suit, ring any bells?"
"Man in the Suit?" Spencer echoed.
"It's what the newspapers call him – although newspapers is maybe too broad a term. Conspiracy blogs, kooky websites about New York's Weird and Wonderful, and – the best of all – NYPD reports."
"Hardison!" Spencer gave his partner an exasperated look. "None of this tells me anything!"
"He's like a vigilante, a tall guy in a suit who is all over this city, kneecapping gang bangers and doing the cops' jobs better than they are. The cops don't really know who he is, but my facial recognition software identified him from several surveillance camera shots in police records, and, well, you can see his service photo for yourself, if you want."
Reese could indeed see his own service photo staring back at him from Hardison's laptop. Impressive, considering he'd thought the only way to get this file was to find the physical file in the archives at his old boot camp.
"You are the Man in the Suit," Hardison said to him. "Unless you have a twin." There was a pause. "Which you don't; I checked."
"So, Reese, vigilantism - is that a step up from CIA, or down?"
"I'll let you know when I find out," Reese said, his tone flat. He looked at Hardison. "You work fast."
Hardison grinned. "Well, to be fair, I did do a lot of my research before we actually arrived here. Figured I'd better be acquainted with anyone, uh, important working in this town, on either side of the law."
In Reese's ear, Finch grumbled under his breath. "I have to say, Mr. Reese, none of this is making me very eager to offer our assistance to these two, even if Parker's number came up."
Reese could only agree. Why lead with the Man in the Suit business unless you were going to use it? Time to push back a little. "You do realize I have several friends among New York's finest, right? And my--" Reese cleared his throat to make his amusement a little less obvious. "--sugar daddy will not hesitate to tip the cops off about two - well, three - wanted criminals visiting the city."
Spencer and Hardison exchanged a look.
"Man," Hardison said. He started typing quickly. "I don't think he knows."
For a second Reese tensed, expecting the worst kind of trump up Hardison's sleeve, but the man's demeanor didn't point at ruthless blackmail. More like amusement.
"I'm confused," Finch said in his ear.
"Knows what?" Reese questioned.
Spencer sighed as Hardison grinned broadly. "That we're the good guys, man. Look, just by glancing at the sprung traps your - what is the guy's name anyway?"
Reese smiled thinly.
"Yeah, whatever. I could find out if I wanted to," Hardison said with a hint of a pout. "Anyway, most of the stuff your guy looked up is all the stuff we doctored. And you can't really judge a crew by its darknet reputation, man. Ninety per cent of those sites were set up by people who got ripped off by us."
Hardison frowned at Spencer. Then he turned back to Reese. "Oh, they were bad guys, okay? Like, they were bad people. Morally objectionable. Filthy rich, though. We helped them relieve some of that burden, make sure they went to jail to, you know, work on those morals. And along the way we made sure that all the people they'd stepped on to get where they were got a nice chunk of the profits. It's a pretty sweet set-up."
"That's... good?" Reese said, more as a prompt for Finch than anything else.
Finch sighed. "I'm good, Mr. Reese, but there is only so much I can accomplish in a scant few hours. There is a mass of information to process and verify. Most of my sources are either police reports - but considering what our own police reports say, or don't say, I wouldn't put too much stock in them - or internet sources. I don't believe I have to educate you about the veracity of internet sources. Most of the accounts I found on the darknet do indeed seem to originate by people currently serving a jail sentence or by someone who was hired by one such person."
"It is. We might be thieves, but we're good ones. You know, Robin Hood and all that."
Reese gave Hardison a dubious look and then slid his gaze over to Spencer. He raised an eyebrow.
Spencer shrugged. "It's true."
"Suppose it is," Finch said over the comms, "then our theory that they were working with the cartel or in rivalry with it is likely false."
"Then what brings you to New York? Last thing I knew, you were on the West Coast."
Spencer shrugged. "Got a little too hot in Portland. You can read all about it in our Interpol files."
Reese felt strangely proud that Spencer simply assumed Finch would be able to access those files.
"But mostly we're here for my Nana," Hardison said. "One of her foster kids is in trouble, and it's the fault of Gabriel Garcia Velasquez. He's moving to expand his relationship with the local cartel – Montoya's, to be exact."
Reese made a thoughtful noise. Finch took that as his prompt. "I'm still unpacking the info, but what they're saying might just be true. The Interpol file would certainly explain why the crew relocated further East - Philadelphia, unless the apartment block rented by one of their new aliases is a decoy. It would also explain why a certain collection of files were stolen and then published - or partially published - on several websites. That file has made life very difficult for several very rich men"
"Well," Reese finally said, "helping is what we do."
"Funny. It's what we do, too. "Spencer grinned. "Doesn't hurt that we can help you bring down Montoya though."
"It doesn't." Reese checked his watch. "Nearly time for breakfast. I know an excellent diner not far from here."
Hardison looked like he was about to protest – so much like Finch, barely able to part with his computers – when Spencer stood. "I could eat."
The only not broken piece of furniture in the room was her own chair, one that Montoya's men had brought in with her and handcuffed her to.
Parker shivered and pulled her coat tighter around herself.
She wanted to do something. Wanted to slip outside this room – it would take all of four seconds to crack the lock with the lockpick-shaped hairpins in her ponytail – and explore the warehouse. She could gather evidence and have it all dropped off at the nearest police station in an hour.
But sometimes being the mastermind meant sitting back and letting your team do the job.
Parker hadn't always been able to do that, to sit back and do nothing. Especially not when it was her life on the line – her life or her paycheck. It had taken her a really long time to open up to her team and longer still to trust them completely, and so far they hadn't let her down. That had been new, too – having a family who cared not because they were complicit if she was caught or dependent on her doing her job to collect the payment, but because they liked her. Because they wanted her around and weren't ashamed to be seen with her.
Parker sighed, wishing she could be back home on the couch with Hardison and Eliot on either side of her, fighting over the popcorn bowl and arguing about Die Hard being a Christmas movie. [Eliot said yes: it was set at Christmas and they always showed it on TV around Christmas, so obviously it was a Christmas movie. Hardison said no: just because it was set at Christmas didn't make it a Christmas movie, a sarcastic "ho, ho, ho" couldn't replace true Christmas spirit and terrorists and lone-gunman-type cops were not representative of Christmas. Parker didn't care: she'd watch Home Alone and Miracle on 34th Street and Die Hard and The Long Kiss Goodnight and a bunch of other movies, just as long as she could watch them with Hardison and Eliot bickering over popcorn.]
Jumping up, Parker moved towards the window and peered outside. Through the jagged edges of a broken window she could see part of the street below, illuminated by several street lights. There was no movement outside apart from the flurries of snow that were dancing on the wind.
She trusted her team. They'd come for her when they were ready.
Until then, she jumped on the spot to keep warm and watched the snow, waiting.
Hardison had brought his laptop to the diner – something Harold would never do if he was going out to eat; Harold had strict rules about food and drink near his equipment – and alternated between eating and talking, casually displaying his competence in his chosen field by hacking both the NYPD and the New York office of the FBI from his laptop.
Spencer was mostly silent, but extremely alert. They'd both automatically headed towards the one booth in the diner that offered them a wall at their back and a clear view of both exits and Spencer had conceded the silent fight over who got to sit where. Reese appreciated the gesture.
He didn't quite appreciate the implied threats of exposure sprinkled into the conversation as Hardison explained how their crew operated, but Reese had used the threat of mutually assured destruction himself and he couldn't deny it was effective. He didn't want to spend any more time in prison than he already had, and clearly neither did this crew.
Finch had been feeding him information on a near-constant basis, digging up more and more evidence to support their claim of being the 'good' guys. He'd made several calls to the people caught in the crew's jobs and heard much of the same things. When he posed as law enforcement, nobody remembered anything and nobody knew anything. If he pretended to be in trouble and asked if the rumors were true that Parker, Spencer and Hardison could help, people were cautious but affirmative.
"I am mostly relieved that they don't seem to know about the machine," Finch said. "They seem to believe we're – that is, you are – nothing but a vigilante, with me to finance your operation. I think we should encourage that. Besides, making sure an innocent woman is released from prison is a worthy cause. We can hardly claim that our methods are always within the law – quite the opposite, really, as Detective Carter is very fond to remind us. And if this con can lead to bringing Montoya and his men to justice before they can disband or relocate their operation, then I don't think we can afford to stay out of it."
And it would probably get Detective Carter – who was very concerned with legalities and her involvement as a cop in his and Finch's very criminal endeavor – off their backs for a while.
"I'm in," Reese said. "But tell me this: how are three guys going to take down a cartel?"
Hardison and Spencer exchanged a look, smirking slightly. "Easy," Hardison said. "You just have to play to your strengths. Use the resources you have at your disposal." He inclined his head. "Maybe call a friend for some help."
By the time they left the diner, snow had started falling and they had refined the crew's original plan.
She slipped out of her handcuffs again – she'd had to put them back on when Montoya's men had come to question her about the drugs – and moved towards the door. The three glass panels in the door had been painted black, so Parker used a shard of glass to scrape off enough paint to make a spy hole.
She couldn't see far into the warehouse – too many boxes were in the way – so Parker reached into her hair and pulled out two oddly-shaped hairpins: her miniature lockpicks.
She made short work of the office lock and crept past the stacks of crates and boxes – some filled with legitimate import/export goods, others filled to the brim with drugs – towards the other end of the warehouse.
Men were milling around the other side of the warehouse, pulling crates through a large doorway that opened right onto the river where a small freighter – one of Montoya's – was docked. Velasquez' man Coates was there with one of Montoya's upper henchmen, overseeing the unloading process with a deep frown on his face.
Parker chuckled quietly to herself. Coates and everyone else in the warehouse would soon have more than enough reason to frown.
"Come on, Hardison," he muttered, more to himself than Hardison.
Next to him, Reese shifted in his seat. "It's nearly time."
Eliot checked his watch again. "All right, let's go."
He adjusted the knot of his tie – ties always made him feel like he was choking – and tried to call up the appropriate expression for this strange mix of speech, pep-talk and last-minute briefing.
"I know this entire operation was put together a little haphazardly – and believe me, I will find out what pencil-pusher is responsible for nearly making sure nobody even knew about this raid, be they NYPD, FBI or Coast Guard, because that is not how cooperation is supposed to work – but for now let's focus on our target. You all know the man who's been moving drugs in and out of this town, poisoning whole neighborhoods and destroying families."
Several officers shared glances and nodded, their expressions serious.
"Diego Montoya. You've all seen his picture. You know the stakes. We got a hot tip that he would personally oversee the delivery of his next shipment, so we gotta be quick and we gotta be thorough. Montoya is a slick one – if he gets the chance to escape, he will take it."
"Coast Guard." Hardison looked to the group of men and women in Coast Guard uniforms. "Montoya uses freight ships to move his product from Mexico up the coast. He switches boats and crews and schedules, so he's slipped through our fingers again and again. This time we'll nail him – you cover the docks from the river. Seize the freighter and whatever and whoever you find on it. Make sure nobody gets away over the water."
Hardison turned to the NYPD, represented by several detectives and SWAT officers. "SWAT teams – you cover the other three sides of the warehouse. Cast a net and make it airtight – I don't want anyone getting away."
The SWAT officers in the room nodded, standing up straight enough that it almost made Hardison's spine hurt.
"FBI and DEA – you're going in. I don't have to tell you how it goes. Wear your vests, watch each other's backs – let's do this!" With that, he clapped his hands and the entire room burst into motion. People helped strap each other into their bullet-resistant vests, checked their weapons and then poured out of the underground parking garage and into the waiting vans. The Coast Guard group headed down the street to the river where their boats were moored.
Hardison stepped back and observed the activity.
A dark-haired young man in an FBI jacket stepped up to him, hand extended. "Agent Thomas! Great to see you again!"
"McSweeten, my man!" Hardison laughed as he shook the FBI agent's hand. "I am impressed with how quickly you cleared up that paperwork mishap before this entire op went FUBAR. Very impressed – gonna mention it in my report for sure."
McSweeten blushed and ran a hand through his hair. "Just doing my job; you know how it is." He peered around. "Agent Hagen not with you?"
Hardison suppressed a wince. McSweeten's crush on Parker – who he knew as Agent Hagen from the FBI – was a constant thorn in his side. It had helped them out on multiple occasions though, so he simply shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, I know she was looking forward to seeing you, but--" Hardison glanced around and stepped a little closer to McSweeten. "We're actually investigating a leak in the Coast Guard. All those shipments Montoya gets – we're thinking someone's been intentionally avoiding his ships in their random searches, you know?"
"Oh." McSweeten looked around as if he could spot the traitor. "So she's...?"
"Undercover, but..." Hardison gave him a look and mimed zipping his lips.
"Of course! Not a word from me."
"Good man." Hardison slapped his back. "Now, let's get this show on the road."
Parker waited out the first wave of FBI agents under the rafters, hidden from view by the large steel beams holding up the ceiling. While several units searched the warehouse, others marched the arrested drug dealers outside to the waiting police vans.
She could see Hardison from her perch above the action, directing agents and coordinating with the Coast Guard who had entered the dealer's boat. She watched as he finally wandered deeper into the warehouse, stepping away from everyone else.
She grinned when he looked up, clearly expecting to see her somewhere high up.
Smiling, Parker dropped down to the little maintenance platform below her and slid down the metal ladder, jumping the last few feet.
Hardison caught her in a hug the moment her feet touched the ground, pressing his lips to her forehead. "You're ice cold."
"I'm fine," she said.
He gently touched her cheek where a bruise was blooming. "They hurt you."
"I'm fine," Parker repeated. "Eliot?"
"He's fine. With a new friend we've made." When Parker raised an inquisitive eyebrow, he shrugged. "Remember that vigilante I mentioned when I did research about the local players?"
Hardison nodded. "Eliot knew him from his military days. Not very well, but well enough to recognize him."
Hardison unzipped his jacket, revealing an FBI vest over a basic black suit. He handed his jacket – blue, with FBI stamped on the back in large yellow letters – to Parker and offered her an earbud.
She took both with a smile and popped the earbud in before putting on the jacket.
"You go ahead," he said. "I'm parked right around the corner." He reached into his suit pocket and frowned when his fingers encountered nothing but lint.
Grinning, Parker dangled his car keys in front of him for a moment before she took off, moving through the mass of police, FBI and Coast Guard without anyone giving her a second glance.
"Agent Thomas!" McSweeten turned to the other three standing with him. "This man and his partner are legends in the FBI."
Hardison suppressed a snort. "Nah, if anyone's a legend, it's you. Youngest head of an organized crime task force in fifty years," he added to the other three. What he didn't add was that the arrest that had landed McSweeten that particular job had been a byproduct of one of their cons. "McSweeten and Taggert were taking down drug dealers before Montoya was old enough to vote."
McSweeten blushed again.
"Speaking off – where is Taggert? Don't tell me he retired already?"
"Yeah, well. I learned a lot from you a-and Agent Hagen. And Agent Taggert is fine. But after that thing with the ferret, his foot was never quite the same, so he doesn't take as many field assignments. He's currently leading a multi-agency conference on organized crime," McSweeten said, puffing his chest out a little.
"Oh yeah, I remember the ferret. That was right around the time we took down that, uh, what was he called again? Mackerel?"
McSweeten scratched his chin. "Blowfish, I thought. Agent Hagen--"
"Speaking of," Hardison injected before McSweeten started rhapsodizing about Parker again. "I heard from my partner about that, uh, thing we talked about earlier?" He raised an eyebrow at McSweeten.
"Oh, right! So you have to...?"
"Go, yes. Can you wrap this thing here up? I'm gonna email you my report about the other thing later."
"Sure, yeah. And tell Agent Hagen hi from me." McSweeten shook his hand a little more enthusiastically than Hardison would have liked, but he smiled anyway.
"Will do, Todd, will do."
Whistling, Hardison sauntered out of the warehouse, waving at a few passing officers as he ducked under the police tape and got into his car.
They got on the cart, Eliot in the driver's seat, heading out onto the runway.
"Is this how your jobs usually go?" Reese asked as they unloaded suitcase after suitcase and bag after bag.
Eliot shrugged. "Some, yeah."
"It's a lot less... confrontational than my usual approach."
"Don't worry; we have enough confrontation to keep me in good practice." He heaved a particularly heavy piece of luggage into the back of the cart. "But I've come to the realization that there are different ways of taking someone down. Sure, I could've gone down to the docks and put every single guy in Montoya's organization into the nearest intensive care unit. But that wouldn't help Taneesha." He smirked. "The trick is to hit them where it hurts."
"I can appreciate that." Reese dropped the last bag onto the cart and swung himself back into the passenger seat.
Eliot steered the cart towards the main airport buildings, lazily waving a greeting at the guys in the luggage sorting area. He and Reese quickly unloaded the various pieces of luggage, Eliot heaving them out of the cart and Reese heaving them up onto the conveyor belt. Without anyone noticing, Eliot set a soft-shell suitcase aside and opened it, stuffing two plastic packages inside before quickly zipping it again.
When the last bag was unloaded, Reese slapped his shoulder. "Coffee?"
Eliot tugged his scarf closer around his neck. "Yeah." He wouldn't say no to a hot drink, but the real draw was getting eyes on part two of their plan.
They headed further into the building, shedding their steel-gray overalls and reflective vests in the nearest locker room. Reese inspected the employee ID Eliot handed him to pin to his blazer.
"Hardison dabbles." Eliot shrugged. "Man needs better hobbies," he grumbled, but without heat. Hardison's little hobbies had saved their bacon a few times, so Eliot wasn't going to complain about his habit of stockpiling various uniforms and ID templates – even if he had drawn the line at dressing up in some kind of Star Wars outfit that Hardison had actually hand-sewn.
It took a few minutes to navigate the seemingly endless hallways of the airport, but eventually Eliot and Reese emerged from a door marked "Staff Only" into the public area of the airport. Eliot grabbed a laptop bag and a briefcase from a nearby trolley, handing the briefcase to Reese as they fell into step with each other, looking like a pair of businessmen traveling for work.
The baggage claim area was busy with crowds of people.
"Anything happening behind the scenes yet?" Reese asked.
Eliot smiled. Reese was very careful not to reveal the name of his partner, but he was confident that Hardison could dig it up if he wanted to.
A high pitched noise in his earbud followed by a crackling sound made Eliot wince. Then an unfamiliar voice was in his ear: Reese's partner.
"Mr. Spencer, I've taken the liberty to tap into your frequencies. I thought you might like a front row seat, so to speak."
The voice was measured, even, and the man spoke very clearly and crisply.
Eliot didn't move when the man's clear voice was replaced by the airport security feeds. Distantly he could hear an alarm sound over the comms, somewhere in the bowels of the airport. The siren sounds didn't make it into the public areas, of course – no reason to cause a panic.
"Three o'clock," Reese said.
Eliot looked to the right. A door along the wall opened and six security guards stepped out. They moved forward and the crowds instinctively parted for them.
They stopped near the baggage carousel and formed a loose circle around Velasquez who was not-so-patiently waiting for his bag to come out.
"Gabriel Garcia Velasquez?"
Velasquez paled and dabbed his forehead with the handkerchief he was holding. "Yes? Is there a problem here?"
"You're going to have to come with us, sir."
"But-but I--" Velasquez looked from the security team leader to the others and beyond to the crowd of onlookers who were suddenly very interested now that it was clear security wasn't there for them.
As the security team escorted Velasquez to one of the airport holding cells, Reese's partner came back on the line.
"The NYPD is already informed and on their way to pick up Velasquez. The operation at the docks went off without a hitch, even though Montoya wasn't at the site."
"They'll get him," Reese said.
"They will," Reese's partner confirmed. "I took the liberty of recording several conversations Montoya had with Velasquez and other members of his organization. They will be found among the evidence gathered at the docks today. I'm sure the police will assume one of Montoya's underlings took the recordings as insurance against his employer."
Eliot was impressed - that was the sort of thing Hardison would do. "Nice job."
"Thank you, Mr. Spencer."
Spencer laughed but didn't make any promises, not that Reese had really expected him to. Out on the street a stretch limo pulled up in front of him. A chauffeur got out and opened the door, giving Reese an expectant look.
Reese nodded his thanks at the man and got into the back, pouring himself a measure of the expensive whiskey stocked in the on-board bar. "Harold, you spoil me."
"Think of it as employee retention."
Reese laughed. "Don't worry. It was fun working with Spencer, but generally I prefer a more straightforward approach."
"I'm well aware of your preference for a straightforward approach. It's the reason I spend several hours a week editing social media and independent news reports featuring the Man in the Suit."
Reese smirked. "Just keeping you on your toes, Harold."
"Now, do you think we did it? Is Parker off the hook?"
"We'll know in the morning," Finch said, and Reese nodded. They would indeed know – either her number would come up again, or they'd get a new number. "But considering that all major players are currently in custody or wanted by the police, and that Alice White is not in fact Parker's real identity, she should be quite safe."
Reese looked out of the window, catching sight of a food vendor on a street corner. "Hey, Finch?"
"What do you think of Mexican for lunch?"
"I could be convinced," Finch said. "Are you bringing it back to the library or do you want me to meet you somewhere?"
Reese smiled. "I'll pick it up on the way."
"I'm looking forward to it."
She kissed his cheek and clung to him. "Hi, Eliot. Hardison stopped at a bakery for food."
Eliot raised an eyebrow at Hardison.
"What?" Hardison projected innocence. "They hadn't fed her. She was starving."
"And you let her have a box of donuts?" Eliot sighed. "You couldn't have gotten her a cream cheese bagel?"
"Bagels are boring," Parker declared. She bounced a little, making Eliot stumble.
He closed his eyes for a second. Parker on a sugar rush always managed to raise his blood pressure. "Why do I do this to myself?" he muttered.
"Because you love us." Parker grinned and nipped at his ear, making Eliot drop her. Laughing, she darted behind Hardison, using him as a human shield.
"Oh no, leave me out of this," Hardison cried. "I want no part in this. Besides, our plane is boarding. Let's go home."
Parker peered around Hardison with her best innocent expression on her face. The bruise on her cheek was almost painful to look up, but Eliot didn't let it change his expression. He'd been through this with Hardison – nothing he could have done differently. And Parker was here, safe and sound. And giggling.
"You're not foolin' me," Eliot told her, but he was smiling.
"Come on," Parker said. She grabbed Hardison's arm and then looped her other arm through Eliot's. "Home!"
Eliot met Hardison's eyes over the top of Parker's head. Hardison gave him an apologetic look and Eliot rolled his eyes, aware he would have caved too and gotten Parker the damn donuts.
"Home, home, home," Parker chanted as they moved through the crowd to their gate.
Parker stood at the sideboard with a plate of cookies in her hand, talking to Taneesha and Holly, one of Hardison's other foster sisters. In the three weeks since their New York job, the bruise on her face (and others they hadn't known about until later) had changed colors and slowly faded.
Eliot pushed the thought of Parker, alone and hurting, from his mind. He leaned against the nearest wall and observed the scene. People of all ages were crammed into the living room, some groups spilling out into the attached dining room. Red, green and gold were the dominant colors as all of Nana's foster kids – or former foster kids – wore hand-knit sweaters in Christmas colors. Parker fit right into the crowd; her red dress was trimmed with (fake) white fur and her headband had twinkling snowmen attached to it. Eliot, wearing black jeans and a blue sweater, obviously hadn't gotten the dress code memo.
The entire living room was decorated to the nines, with glittery garlands and strings of popcorn and light-up ornaments in the windows. The centerpiece was the large Christmas tree next to the mantle. The top was adorned with a golden star and Eliot caught the suspicious glint of precious jewels among the ornaments. Parker's handiwork, no doubt.
Across the room, Parker's eyes met his and she grinned, waving a cookie at him in invitation.
Smiling, Eliot pushed off the wall and headed towards Parker, taking the offered cookie. Cranberry-walnut. Nice crunch, not too sweet. "Good cookies."
Parker shoved another one into her mouth. "Nana made them," she mumbled, spewing a few crumbs.
Eliot rolled his eyes.
Hardison separated from the pack of teenagers and joined them, throwing his arms over both their shoulders. He watched as Taneesha and Holly laughed and joked with each other. "We did good," he said.
"We did," Parker agreed. "And all in time for Christmas."
Hardison's arms tightened around them for a moment. "Merry Christmas, guys."
Finch half-turned in his seat. "I would point out that you're here, on Christmas Day, Mr. Reese, but it seems quite redundant."
They grinned at each other.
"If you must know," Finch said, "since things are going a little slowly right now, I'm doing some database maintenance."
"I'm pretty sure the machine wanted you to take the day, Harold. Not fill it with different work."
Finch didn't answer. Instead he handed Reese a tablet. On it, an email was open. It showed a picture of Spencer, Hardison and Parker with two black women, one young with a big smile on her face, the other old with steel-gray hair and a joyful expression on her face. All of them – except Spencer – were wearing Christmas colors.
"Their--" He almost said number. "--client?"
"Nice." And it was. Reese always enjoyed a happy ending, seldom though it happened. "You'll keep an eye on them?"
Finch had, indeed, been keeping an eye on them and the case. Reese had found newspaper articles on the inter-agency raid, Montoya's subsequent arrest and even a shakedown at the Coast Guard that neither Spencer not Hardison had mentioned was part of their plan.
Reese turned towards the window, watching as thick snowflakes drifted towards the street. "Will you be here all day?" he asked, watching Finch's reflection in the window.
"Mmh, yes." Finch looked up. "Unless you have a better offer?"
"There is a special showing of It's a Wonderful Life that I thought you might enjoy."
Finch hesitated, fingers hovering over the keyboard. "Give me five minutes to automate the process."
Reese smiled. "We'll wait for you outside." He headed towards the stairs, giving a sharp whistle when he reached it. Bear scrambled to his feet and bounded down the stairs, tail wagging.
Finch looked at him.
Finch smiled. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Reese."