Waking up to a sore head in an unfamiliar place wasn’t a totally new experience for Nate, but it had been a while. Blinking in the darkness, he tried to reach out a hand only to find it restrained. Okay, that part was pretty new.
“Sophie?” he whispered, and he wasn’t sure if he was relieved or more worried when a muffled groan came from behind him.
“Nate?” she whispered back a moment later. “What do you remember?”
“We were checking into the hotel,” he said slowly, “and…we got on the elevator?”
“That’s as far as I can recall,” she whispered.
“I’m assuming you’re also tied up,” Nate said, starting to regain some mental acuity. “Unless we’ve been kidnapped by the least capable kidnappers of all time.”
“I am, and I will say, this is not the sort of tied-up-in-a-hotel-room I was hoping for from this trip!”
If she had enough energy to be making innuendos, Nate felt confident that he could cross “Worry About Sophie” off his “Things To Do When You’ve Been Kidnapped” checklist.
“What do you think they want with us?” Sophie wondered aloud. “I didn’t think we were here to do anything very illegal, unless you had a day trip planned you hadn’t mentioned yet.”
“No, I was pretty serious about the whole romantic getaway thing,” Nate said, trying to shift around to see her. His eyes were adjusting, turning the darkness into a faded rendering of the room, which looked to be in the same hotel they’d checked into. “Is there a clock anywhere?”
“They’ve unplugged it,” Sophie said, “and I can’t seem to check my watch at the moment.”
Nate couldn’t help a chuckle. Nothing like a good kidnapping to remind you why you love your wife, he thought to himself.
“We might as well just relax and see what they want with us,” he said. “I don’t think I’m limber enough to get out of these knots. Do you have one on your ankle as well, or is that a service they only offer the men?”
“Sorry to disappoint, but they’re not sexist enough to disregard me completely. And I’m impressed,” Sophie replied, “not many people think to use silk these days, it’s a refreshing change from handcuffs and much less pickable. More comfortable, too. How hospitable of them.”
“Do you still have your lockpicks?” Nate knew she was rarely without a set, in one form or another.
“Darling,” Sophie laughed, “is the Pope Catholic?”
So Nate settled back against the surprisingly soft hotel mattress, knowing that Sophie was there in the darkness with him and it was only a matter of time until things started to change. And once things started to change, he could always steer events in their favor.
“Me? No. Hell no. I am not taking on the sole responsibility for coming up with a trip we can all enjoy, that is a joint venture and you two aren’t getting out of it!”
“Not getting out of what?” Parker asked, jumping over the back of the couch to plop her head in Eliot’s lap. “Because I’m pretty sure I can get out of anything.”
“Not this, babe!” Hardison pointed at her. “Ain’t no one getting out of this! I will not be the, the pack mule for this team! Carrying all y’all’s dead weight-”
Parker tuned him out, looking up into Eliot’s face and raising her eyebrows interrogatively.
“It’s our anniversary,” Eliot said, under his breath. Hardison was picking up steam, but it was nothing they hadn’t heard before.
“What? I thought that was last month,” Parker said.
“That was your anniversary with him, Parker,” Eliot said.
“Oh,” Parker said. “Right.”
“This is our anniversary, the three of us, and he wants us to go on a trip of some kind,” Eliot said. “But he doesn’t want to plan it.”
“That’s not what I said!” Hardison proclaimed, swinging around to face them, somehow having kept tabs on their conversation even as he ranted. “I said that we should all be involved in the planning, because last time I planned a trip, Parker called it boring-”
Parker popped upright, her honor impugned. “There weren’t any high buildings! And we didn’t do any crime! What was I supposed to do all day?”
“Lay in the sun! Swim with the dolphins! Learn how to hula!” Hardison ticked each activity off on his fingers. “There were tons of things to do!”
“You liked the volcano,” Eliot reminded Parker in a low voice.
“The volcano was pretty cool. Would’ve been cooler if it erupted, though.”
“That’s… definitely not true, but I don’t… there’s not enough time to go into that,” Hardison said.
“It was a good vacation,” Eliot said. “Right, Parker?”
“Yes,” she agreed obediently.
“All I’m saying,” Hardison said, leaning his hands on the back of the couch, “is that this time, we should all discuss what we want to do.”
“That’s fair,” Eliot said. “No one’s arguing with that. But you know what we should do right now?”
“What?” Parker asked.
“Get something to eat.”
“Man, it’s nearly two in the morning! Nothing’s open!”
Eliot laughed. “You and I both know that’s not true. Remember that little Chinese food place on South Oak Street? The one we went to after the job in Santa Monica? There was that fried lo mein-”
“They had those sugar buns!” Parker exclaimed. “I ate like twenty of those little squishy guys.”
“Yeah,” Hardison said, already at one of the laptops strewn about their apartment. “No shit, it’s open until three a.m.”
“You’re not the only smart person in this apartment,” Eliot informed the hacker as he scooped up his coat. “Put on a jacket, Parker, you’re gonna freeze to death.”
Parker was halfway to the door, but she grabbed a coat from a hook in deference to Eliot’s tone. “The cold would have to catch me first!” she called over her shoulder. “First one to the car gets to drive!”
Eliot and Hardison looked at each other for half a second before both starting to run for the door.
“Finally!” he called out jovially. “I’ve had to take a leak for at least an hour! Gonna come let me up?”
The man who had entered the hotel room wasn’t exactly what Nate had been picturing when it came to their captors. He was young, 24 on the outside, dark-skinned, and nervous.
“I cannot untie your hands,” he said, his voice shaking just a little. “I’m sorry.”
“What, you gonna unzip and point for me?” Nate asked. He could hear Sophie’s exasperated sigh from somewhere behind him. The young man swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
“If I must,” he said.
“Jesus,” Nate said. “There’s no way you’re in charge of this thing. You’re not even on the totem pole. I doubt you’re being paid enough to deal with this. Is this your first crime?”
The young man’s eyes widened at this. Nate shook his head.
“I know you speak English, am I going too fast?”
A negative head shake.
“Alright. This your first kidnapping, kid? You’re not really equipped for this, are you.”
The young man was standing very still, his hands flexing nervously. Nate sighed.
“Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name?”
“Fine. What should we call you? Got a nickname?”
Nate waited impatiently. Finally the young man choked out, “I don’t think this is how things are supposed to go.”
“Things rarely go according to plan when he’s around,” Sophie said in one of her more believable American accents from wherever she was. “Would you mind helping me sit up? I’m afraid this bedspread has made an absolute mess of my hair, and my arm’s beginning to cramp.”
The young man moved to help her, obeying Sophie as he had been unable or unwilling to help Nate. A sign of a strong female presence in his life? Perhaps a negative male figure, as well. Nate filed it away for later thought.
“Thank you,” Sophie said, still out of Nate’s sight. “Please, call me Ivette. What should I call you?”
“They call me Costa here,” the young man said, evasive in a way that Nate would find extremely commendable but for the circumstances.
“Thank you, then, Costa,” Ivette-Sophie said. “I know he’s kind of a lot, but would you mind setting my husband upright as well? Don’t mind him, he gets cranky when his blood sugar gets low.”
Hands seized him from behind, and Nate found himself suddenly upright on the bed, his legs stretched across the cheap bedspread.
“Thank you,” he said. “I really do have to use the facilities, though.”
The look on Costa’s face brought a tiny spark of joy into Nate’s wizened old heart.
But Eliot knew they’d been planning a trip for one of their anniversaries, and he hadn’t heard from either of them. Suspicious.
He shot off a text to the last number he could recall Sophie using, then one to Nate for good measure, using one of their tried-and-true codes, then attempted to put it out of his mind.
After half an hour of cleaning up the trail of destruction Parker tended to leave in the kitchen, he frowned, then texted Maggie, on the off chance she’d heard something he hadn’t. He knew that Sophie and Maggie had struck up a real friendship, and they texted about things sometimes; couldn’t hurt.
He looked at the clock, shrugged, and went to bed, shoving his way into the pile of limbs, and turned his brain off. Military training teaches you to sleep anywhere; it was especially easy with Hardison’s quiet snoring and Parker’s arm across his chest.
It wasn’t until he awoke six hours later to nothing from Sophie or Nate, and a message from Maggie that she hadn’t heard anything from them for two days, that Eliot started to actually worry.
First he asked Hardison to try pinging the cells they’d last been using; both were turned off, which either meant they’d switched phones again, or something had happened. Since they normally let the team know when they were on new numbers, this sent alarm bells ringing in all three heads.
Hardison was working frantically on back-tracing their last known location and checking it against their plans while Eliot called Maggie.
“Is something wrong?” came the worried voice on the other end of the line. “Please be honest with me, I can handle it.”
Eliot bit his lip. “Maybe,” he said. “We’re looking into it right now.”
Maggie exhaled gustily. “Would you keep me in the loop? I know that there might be… hijinks involved with this. But I care about them too, and if there’s anything I can do to help…”
Eliot’s mouth tugged upward at the use of the word “hijinks” to describe their usual activities. “Yeah, Maggie, I’ll keep you posted.”
He hung up and went back to where Hardison was typing frantically, Parker sitting on the table next to him shoveling some kind of neon cereal into her mouth.
“As far as I can tell, they last got on a plane in Paris, then…. fwoosh,” Hardison said, not looking up. “The plane arrived safely, but there’s no record of them actually disembarking in Malaika. This looks like a shoddy cover-up to me.”
Through a mouthful of cereal, Parker added, “If we were gonna make someone disappear, we wouldn’t forget to get rid of their boarding passes. This is sloppy work.”
“You got some milk- uh-huh, right there,” Eliot said to her. “Yeah, that sounds like someone forgot some loose ends. What were they doing in Malaika, though? That’s a hotbed of some weird stuff.”
“Weird? Weird how? Your weird, my weird, what weird?” Hardison asked. “I’ve never even heard of Malaika until now.”
“Yeah, you wouldn’t have, they don’t do a lot of international banking,” Eliot said. “It’s almost entirely cash-run, which means it’s popular with all kinds of people with a lot of cash and no way to explain it.”
Parker had perked up considerably at the mention of hard currency. “Sounds like my kinda place!”
Eliot rolled his eyes fondly at the thief. “Well, looks like you’re gonna get a chance to find out how true that is,” he said. “Maggie hasn’t heard from them in two days, and she said that Sophie had been practically talking her ear off for a week before that. So something is definitely up.”
“Yes! Alright, Hardison, book us some plane tickets. Let’s go steal us…” Parker paused. “Wait. Are we planning to steal anything?”
“Depends on if checking in on some friends who may or may not have been caught up in something counts as stealing.”
“Well, what do we think happened?”
Hardison’s hand went up. “For my money, I’m guessing kidnapping.”
Parker shook her head. “Kidnapping implies ransom. We would’ve heard something by now, if it was a kidnapping. Nate would’ve sent a message somehow, in the demand or whatever. We’ve got nothing but radio silence.”
“I stand by what I said, I think they’re tied up somewhere,” Hardison said. Eliot shook his head.
“I know some of the guys who pass through Malaika,” he said. “I’m not loving the optics on this.”
“Do you think they’re actually hurt?” Parker asked, as though the thought hadn’t occurred to her.
“It’s a possibility,” he said. “Can’t rule it out. Although if they were planning something, I would’ve thought Nate would clue us in.”
“He’s not always great about knowing when he’ll need backup,” Hardison said. “Man’s got a head that rivals Saturn sometimes.”
“Well, I’m thinking we ought to go check on them,” Parker said. “And if we’ve got time, I could go for a little sightseeing.”
“When we went to Rome, you said you hated sightseeing,” Hardison said, already pulling up an airline booking site. “Even though I specifically picked there because you said the art was amazing.”
“The art there is amazingly expensive,” Parker replied. “Sightseeing is only fun when it’s an excuse to case the joint, and you never wanna go in the ducts with me.”
“Excuse me for having dust allergies,” Hardison sniffed. “What kinda sightseeing do you wanna do in Malaika, anyway? It’s like the size of a postage stamp. The only interesting thing there is the beach, and you hate the beach.”
“Yeah, but Eliot said it’s full of cash,” Parker said, in the tone of someone describing heaven. “I bet there’s lots of different types of currency, maybe some stuff that’s off the market these days-”
Eliot looked up from his phone and interrupted, “Hey, book four tickets.”
“Ooh, who’s coming along?” Parker asked. “Is it someone I like?”
“Babe, you don’t like anybody,” Hardison said.
“Hey, I like you!” Parker protested. “Both of you, even.”
“Aw, thanks,” Eliot said. “It’s for Maggie.”
“What? Why’s Maggie coming?”
“Because she’s pretty much the only person we trust who’s not on a Wanted list somewhere in the world, and I have the feeling that’s gonna come in handy,” Eliot replied.
“Alright then. But warn me next time you’re gonna invite someone along! Don’t forget who’s the mastermind these days,” Parker said. Eliot leaned in to smack a kiss on her cheek. She grinned unwillingly while wiping it off.
“You’re a great mastermind, and much prettier than our last one,” he said, turning on his Patented Eliot Charm. “But from what I remember, Malaika is pretty different from what you’re used to. I might need to take point on this one a little.”
“Fine,” she said. “But don’t try to take away my title!”
“I would never,” he said.
Hardison turned around. “Four tickets to Malaika, done. Go get your shit together, fam. We’ve got a plane to catch.”
Parker ran off to gather whatever she deemed necessary for the trip. Eliot looked at the hacker.
“When does our flight actually leave?”
“Well, we have to get a connection, so our flight to Berlin leaves in…. six hours. We’re meeting Maggie there, I’ll email the flight details to her.”
“Plenty of time. Thanks, man.” Eliot dropped a kiss on Hardison’s head before striding out the front door.
“How,” Hardison asked the empty air rhetorically as he started to clean off the table, “did I end up shacking up with two of the most mysterious weirdos on the face of this planet? And I mean, when I’m calling someone weird, that’s saying something.” He shook his head. “The things I do for love, man.”
“I mean, we had our luggage with us when we checked in,” he was saying again to a bored Sophie. “I distinctly recall having it on the elevator! I don’t see why I can’t have a change of clothes, that’s all I’m saying! It’s only polite!”
“They’re holding us captive, Nate,” Sophie said patiently. “I don’t think they’re overly concerned with social niceties at this point.”
“I would kill for a shower,” Nate said, falling back against the bed, the silk length tied between his arms pinned beneath him. “Or just the chance to lie down all the way. I never appreciated my arms so much until I lost them.”
“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Sophie chided him. “You’ve still got them, they’re still attached.”
“Doesn’t feel like it!” Nate said. Sophie rolled her eyes.
“Would you like me to turn the television back on?”
“Would you?” he asked pathetically.
“Sure,” she said. “So long as I get to pick the channel.”
“No more soaps!” Nate said. “For the love of all that’s holy, no more soaps.”
“So dramatic,” Sophie sighed as she fumbled for the remote. She couldn’t quite get her hands past her sides, but she had better control of her body than he did, and managed to get the remote situated more or less correctly. Eventually, the TV came to life, and she carefully started channel surfing.
“How long do you think before the team comes to fetch us?” she asked as she flipped past commercial after commercial.
“Knowing them, not long,” Nate said. “That’s if they’re not already on their way.”
“Did you tell them where we were going?”
“No, I don’t think so. But Hardison’ll be able to find us, he’s the one who crafted those aliases in the first place. And Maggie will definitely notice that you stopped texting her. What is it that you two talk about all day?”
The sports channels seemed endless. “You don’t want to know,” Sophie said, with a sideways look that told Nate that he really, in fact, did not want to know in the least, because it was probably him, and they were terrifying when they teamed up.
“Anyway,” Sophie went on. “I bet that Sterling will notice you’re missing as well.”
“Sterling and I don’t text,” Nate protested.
“You think I don’t notice who you’re playing in Words With Friends?” Sophie said archly. “His username is SuperiorSilver, it’s practically what his name means. You couldn’t be more obvious if you tried.”
Nate huffed and didn’t deny it. “Oh, wait, is that Rear Window?”
“Fine, but I have next,” Sophie said. Nate nodded absently.
Costa came in an hour later with their dinner, shocked by how relaxed they were.
“You know, I was really not expecting things to go like… this,” he said, taking in the tableau: Nate sitting up on the bed, avidly watching the movie, while Sophie napped, deeply asleep on her own mattress.
“What, expecting more tears? Some cowering, maybe? Sorry to disappoint,” Nate said. “Shh, hang on, this is a good bit.”
The movie flickered onscreen as Costa wheeled the room-service tray over to the table.
“Planning to feed us by hand again? This has to be getting old for you,” Nate said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite part of the job, no,” Costa said. “But needs must.”
“They must be paying you a hell of a lot to be dealing with this,” Nate said. “You’re no hardened criminal, you look like you should be in college talking about Nietzsche and complaining about the dining hall food, not spoon feeding a couple of kidnapped tourists in some chintzy hotel in Malaika.”
“There are many places I’d rather be,” Costa said, neatly avoiding the implied question. He was infuriatingly good at that, as it turned out. “But life has brought me here. Would you prefer the steak or the burger?”
“I’d prefer the steak, but my wife would kill me if I left her with the burger.”
“Burger it is, then.”
Both men sighed, resigned to their fate.
This time, though, because of various factors which Eliot had kind of tuned out, if he was being honest, they’d ended up with Eliot and Hardison in First Class and Parker in Coach. When she complained, the men pointed out that she could sleep upside-down, and liked cramped spaces. She’d only huffed.
“Yes, thank you, I would like another orange soda,” Hardison said to the flight attendant. Eliot winked at her past his partner’s head; she blushed and turned away.
“What are you working on?” he asked, to distract the hacker from his habitual flirting. It just happened sometimes.
“What, you thought our covers just appeared out of thin air, like the I.D. fairy was just leavin’em under your pillow?” Hardison accepted the soda from the attendant with a grin; Eliot didn’t look at her again. “I make spares when I’ve got the time. Right now, I got nothing but.”
Looking at the screen, Eliot noticed the name Hardison had given him. “Do I really look like a Barney to you?” Outrage quivered in every syllable.
Hardison laughed. “I was doing a How I Met Your Mother thing, actually, but hey, I bet you’d look great as a purple dinosaur.”
“How I Met Your Mother? The one with the ‘legen- wait for it?’ thing you tried to make happen?”
“You suck. It totally worked.”
“You gotta have your own stuff, man, you can’t get catchphrases from TV shows. I mean, you say stuff all the time that’s funnier than that show.”
“Ah, shit. I was all set to get mad at you and then you went all soft on me.” Hardison bumped his shoulder into Eliot’s.
Eliot scowled. “I’m not tryna get sappy, it’s just true. You got, y’know, all your own stuff. You don’t need to copy some show.”
Hardison just grinned and turned back to his screen, starting an ID for Parker under the name “Robin.” Eliot leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes and willing himself to fall asleep. He was stressed- not knowing what was going on with Nate and Sophie made him feel like he was walking on tenterhooks.
After a few minutes, Hardison started humming something he couldn’t quite place. Eliot let the sound wash over him, its familiarity giving him just enough ground to drift off.
Eliot figured he’d need all the sleep he could get before the rubber really hit the road in Malaika.
“I know,” Nate replied. “I’ve been here too.”
“Don’t you have a plan to get us out? I thought we’d be gone in twenty minutes, not forty-eight hours.”
“I’ve got nothing, Soph,” Nate said. “Costa’s like a wall of ice. There’s nothing there to grab. He’s in uniform, nothing stands out, no accessories, no tattoos, standard men’s haircut… He doesn’t drop anything in conversation, either, and God knows I’ve been trying to draw him out. I don’t have anything to go on here.”
The frustration must have been clear in his tone, because he could see Sophie biting back whatever clever, sharp thing she’d been about to say. She sighed.
“But the cavalry's coming, you think?”
“By now? Over forty-eight hours, knowing we’re traveling, and no check-in? Frankly, I’ve been expecting Eliot to smash that door in for the past ten hours.”
“Or Parker to rappel in through the window and toss a rig at us.” Sophie sighed. “And we still don’t know why they have us.”
“I’ve been asking, you’ve been working your little verbal voodoo, and still, nothing,” Nate agreed. “If he wasn’t holding us hostage, I’d try to recruit him.”
“Makes me wonder if he comes from a broken home,” Sophie mused aloud. “Children who’ve had words turned against them by trusted figures can be frightfully good at stonewalling. And it can be easy to convince them to be loyal, since they crave that feeling of security and belonging.”
“That tracks,” Nate said, thinking back to how Costa had shown himself to be more responsive to Sophie than himself. “Lemme see what I can do with that.”
“It’s a pity,” Sophie sighed, flopping over on her bed. “I want to like him. He’s really quite clever.”
“Like I said, if things were different, I’d be trying to recruit him.” Nate frowned. “Maybe I’ll ask Eliot to go easy on him.”
“Let’s just find out what’s happening and go home,” Sophie replied. “You promised me beaches and easy marks. This has been a terrible vacation.”
“But not our worst?” Nate asked, trying for a grin.
“Well,” Sophie said. “Neither of us has been shot yet. So that’s something.”
“Thanks for bringing me along,” she said, giving them each a hug at the terminal. “I’ve been worried sick since Sophie stopped texting me back.”
“You look tired,” Parker said bluntly. “You should get more sleep.”
“I should,” Maggie agreed with a thin smile. She was as used to the thief’s ways as anyone who didn’t live with her could be.
“It’s good to see you,” Hardison said, giving her a pat on the back.
“Wish it were under better circumstances,” she agreed. “Do you know what possessed Nate and Sophie to go to Malaika in the first place? I heard it’s supposed to be full of criminals!”
The team glanced at each other.
“Yeah,” Eliot agreed. “That’s… probably got something to do with it.”
The screens flashed that their flight was boarding soon.
“I got us all sitting together,” Hardison said. “We need to have a plan by the time we land.”
Parker nodded decisively. “I have a couple ideas.”
Maggie looked at each of them in turn, and a ghost of a smile crossed her face. From beside her, Hardison wrapped a long arm around her shoulders, giving her a squeeze.
“We got this, Maggie. The cavalry’s on its way.”
“Everything all right, Costa?” he asked with forced good cheer. Sophie rolled her eyes at him from behind Costa’s back.
“It’s very busy right now,” the young man replied. “Would you like soup or the sandwich?”
“Sandwich. What’s the rush? Anything fun?”
“No. The boss is coming for a visit, and all the managers are yelling. Mustard or no?”
“Yes mustard. Why’s the boss coming?”
Costa shrugged as Nate chewed, his ability to weasel out info hampered by his need for food. “I don’t know anything. I just go where they tell me, do what they tell me.”
Nate swallowed, the ham sliding unpleasantly down his throat. “Hey, anything I can do to make your life easier, you just say the word.”
Their eye contact shimmered with the shared knowledge that Costa’s life would be far easier if he wasn’t in charge of two Americans (well, Ivette and Phil were Americans, at least) who were tied up in a shabby hotel room. But letting them go would certainly create far more complications than it would resolve.
Costa looked away first. “Eat fast.”
Nate took another bite in answer.
“It’s better than your plan!”
“I haven’t suggested a plan yet.”
“Parker, please leave him alone,” Eliot said. “He’s right, though. Getting any of the rest of us kidnapped is a terrible idea.”
“I know, but do any of you have a better idea?” she asked, staring at them each aggressively. “That’s what I thought.”
“It’s not a great plan,” Maggie agreed. “But I want to do it.”
“Maggie, no offense, you’re a wonderful person and you scare me more than a little,” Hardison said. “But you have the least skills out of any of us. Sending you in there alone to see if you get kidnapped is like sending a bunny out into a forest full of hunters and traps and…. bears. It’s a bad idea.”
“I know I have the least useful skills,” Maggie said patiently. “That’s why you should send me in alone. I’m a white American lady traveling alone. I’m the perfect bait.”
“You shouldn’t say that so calmly,” Eliot said. “It’s not a good thing.”
“Listen, you guys don’t actually need me to rescue Nate and Sophie. You do things like this all the time. If I’m kidnapped or whatever, I know you all have my back. If any of you go in and get grabbed, it might throw the whole thing off balance.”
Hardison threw up a hand. “Tell me you’re not hearing this!”
Eliot’s mouth thinned. “She makes a good point, dammit.”
“So you’re gonna need at least a hidden knife. I would go for three, myself, but I don’t know how comfortable you are with things strapped-” Parker had already leaned in and was speaking quickly to Maggie, who looked a bit overwhelmed but also like she was setting her quick mind to the topic with a will.
“I think we’re outvoted, man,” Eliot said to Hardison. The hacker sighed.
“I don’t know how that happens when the numbers are even, but I could probably stop a car crash easier than I could stop Parker with that look on her face.”
Eliot just nodded, letting his hand rest on Hardison’s for a moment.
"Anyone else have a bunch of missed calls from Sterling?"
Eliot held up his phone in silent reply to Hardison's question.
"Jim Sterling? Why would he call you?" Maggie asked.
"He must know something's up, too," Parker said. "I wonder what tipped him off. Did any of you-"
"No, Parker," Eliot growled. "Not now, not ever."
She shrugged. "Fair enough. Hardison, you call him back, see if he's got anything we can use. Eliot, bags? Maggie, come on, let's get you ready. I have a harness that we can probably fit under a loose enough dress-"
"I'm not going to wear a harness, Parker."
"Are you sure? It's really comfy, I built it myself-"
Hardison had his phone to his ear, pulling his own carry-on, while Eliot manhandled the other three bags somehow.
"She's a force of nature," Hardison said.
"Yeah, a fucking hurricane," Eliot replied as they hurried to catch up with the ladies.
“Hello, yes, I’m returning a call I received from Jim Sterling? No, I’m not at liberty to reveal the reason for this call…”
Over the comms, he could hear Maggie giving her cheerful spiel to the desk clerk.
“Hi, I have a reservation? Well, my husband has a reservation. Well, he’s not my husband right now…. It’s very complicated.” Here she put her ringless hand on the counter. “His last name is Halliwell? Phillip Halliwell. He was supposed to check in two days ago? Yes, I know, I’m only supposed to be staying for part of the trip- like I said, it’s complicated…” Another charmingly embarrassed smile. “I can show you my I.D. if it would help? I haven’t changed my last name back yet- yes, my name is Wendy, Halliwell H-A-L-L-”
“I don’t think this is gonna work,” Eliot hissed, knowing his partners would hear him.
“Still waiting to hear your better plan,” Parker whispered back.
“Hey,” Hardison shushed. “I think this guy’s doing something hinky.”
Eliot wondered if he was imagining the tapping noises, or if Hardison really was typing loud enough for the comms to pick up.
“Ok, I can see his screen, and this is definitely the place. There’s an internal server network for this hotel that I can’t access remotely, but I can see this guy using it, and he’s got the reservation open. It matches the I.D.s that Nate and Sophie used for their flight out of Paris, so that was definitely the right track- there’s a weird code on their booking, I’ve never seen this before.”
Hardison lapsed from chatter into focused silence, as he did sometimes. “Guys. This is bad. It looks like they checked in… and never checked out.”
Maggie stumbled over whatever she was saying, and Eliot cursed silently.
“That means they’re probably still here. Hardison, have you got access to the security footage yet?”
“Not yet, but I’m about to send a couple emails that should get me a backdoor in. Hold tight.”
Maggie coughed slightly, yanking the team’s attention back to her.
“My room key? Yes, thank you. What’s the number, again?” she asked, slightly too loud. Eliot winced.
“1504, got it. Around the corner to the elevator… thank you so much for your help!”
Eliot and Parker watched from two different angles as Maggie called the elevator and stepped on, heading up to the 15th floor. The hotel had 21 stories, towering smooth and glossy above most of the surrounding buildings.
When the elevator opened back up, it was empty.
“What the hell happened?” Eliot demanded. “How did they get her out without any of us seeing it happen?”
“You better have a fix on that footage,” Parker said.
“Not yet! I need someone to open the email I sent so that I can get a hook into their server! Until then, I’m locked out!”
“Just activate the tracking chip in her phone!” Hardison snapped back. “You should be able to handle that!”
“Both of you, shut up and stop being dumb,” Parker ordered. “I’m going after her.”
“Parker, no,” the men said at nearly the same time.
“You can’t stop me,” she said. “I’m unstoppable.”
“What? Oh, no, this isn’t for you,” he replied. “I’m just thinking.”
“What about?” she asked.
“All sorts of things,” Costa said.
Behind her, Nate ready to cheerfully strangle him.
“Please,” Sophie whispered, looking up at their young captor. “I know we haven’t been acting the way you must have thought we would. But I thought this was a misunderstanding. I thought you would ask us for money or tell us to call our family back in the States for something, it’s been two days, what do you want with us-”
Costa’s eyes had gone wide; he was not prepared for Sophie-as-Ivette, at her very best.
“I know that Phil knows some very dangerous people, but I thought we’d paid off our debts, and normally there’s some kind of explanation, but we’ve been here for so long and I don’t even know why, Costa, please, just tell me- tell me what you know, please-”
Nate watched Sophie give a masterclass in slow-motion breakdowns, there on the hotel mattress she’d been tied to for the past two days, and wondered how much longer this would be going on. The rest of the team had to be on their way. He had to believe that.
Costa was looking at him with something akin to panic rising in his eyes, and Nate could have cheered, he was going to crack at last-
There was a knock on the door.
“Costa. Got something for you.”
It was the first new voice they’d heard the entire time. Nate wanted to call for help, wanted to do anything but sit there, quiet and still, while a shaken Costa went to answer the door, which was out of sight of the beds.
“That’s the problem. I only have her location from an overhead perspective. She could be on any floor.”
“That’s not a problem,” Parker said.
“Parker, are you gonna go down the outside? It’s still daylight out!”
“I can see that,” she said. “But I brought the cleaning rig, so I can finally test it out!”
“The cleaning rig,” Hardison said. “It’s a set of super lightweight tubes that you can assemble to look like a window cleaner’s platform, so if she needs quick cover to be on the side of a building-”
“That’s great, also has this been tested?”
“Not in the field….”
“Here we go!” Parker shouted. And indeed, there she went.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked, baffled by the sight of his ex-wife.
“I know I’m early,” Maggie said, “but I was trying to surprise you. I think you’re the one who surprised me, though. What’s going on, Phil?”
“I don’t know,” Nate replied, understanding immediately. “Ivette and I were really hoping Costa would finally enlighten us.”
“Who are you?” Costa asked, still holding onto the length of silk connecting Maggie’s wrists behind her back. “Why are you here?”
“I’m his ex-wife,” Maggie said, looking straight into Nate’s eyes. “Wendy Halliwell. I was supposed to meet him and Ivette here tomorrow, but I moved up my flights, so now I’m here. Who are you?”
He looked too shaken to answer, so Sophie took it upon herself to speak up. “That’s Costa. He’s the one who’s been with us for the past few days. He won’t tell us what’s going on, though.”
The look that Maggie was sharing with Sophie was loaded enough to break under its own weight, but the rest of the room was filled with a different sort of tension. As a matter of fact, Nate was getting extremely nervous about the look on Costa’s face.
“So have we been kidnapped? Is that what’s happening?” Maggie asked, and from the way her eyes flicked about, Nate was suddenly completely sure that she had an earpiece in. Several disparate thoughts slotted neatly together at once.
“Costa? What’s going on?” Sophie asked after a quick jerk of Nate’s head.
“I can’t- this is- you are all- this is too much!” the young man burst out suddenly. He released Maggie with a reflexive shove, which sent her over towards Sophie’s bed. She sat down quickly beside her friend.
Costa began pacing. The other three people in the room just watched, letting the silence build until Costa felt the urge to just fill it with something.
“I wasn’t told what I’d have to do!” he cried out. “I didn’t know I’d have to hold people hostage, and feed them, and help them- with all sorts of personal things! I didn’t sign up for this!”
He was still pacing, looking more focused, more frantic with every passing moment.
“I thought, you know, just a year with the family, just a year, that’s all you have to do, then they send you to the US, free and clear, all you have to do is the year,” he was saying, the syllables running into one another in his mouth. “But this! I mean, some crime, not so bad, just a little, no one gets hurt, happens every day- but this, this is bad, this is very bad, and I’m in the middle, I’m the fall man, they don’t care about me- I don’t want to take the fall if things go wrong!”
Nate and Sophie were sharing some complex looks, having a silent conversation while their erstwhile captor had some sort of meltdown. Maggie was following their conversation with the focus of the Wimbledon crowd.
Costa seemed to snap out of his inward-focused terror to see what was happening in front of him.
“And you! You two! Phil and Ivette? Who are you?”
They blinked at him. Nate’s mouth was open.
“None of this makes any sense! You cannot be tourists, you’re not- you’re too-” Costa looked like he was ready to scream or cry, on the knife’s edge of holding it together. “Tell me who you are!”
“It won’t help,” Sophie said gently.
“That doesn’t matter!” Costa’s chest was heaving. “Tell me the truth! I just want someone to tell me the truth!”
Nate and Sophie looked at each other again, then both at Maggie, then back to each other. Nate’s mouth opened.
“Moving down, “ Eliot replied.
“I’m in!” Hardison said suddenly. “The operations manager opened my email, oh, tsk tsk, that wasn’t very smart.”
“How is it that you can hack the Pentagon like it’s nothing,” Eliot asked as he ran down the stairs to the 15th floor, “but some shitty hotel in Malaika totally blocks you out?”
“It’s on its own server, totally isolated. No internet,” Hardison explained. “So unless you were planning on going to find the server room to get me hardline access, this was the fastest- oh hello, what have we here?”
“1532 is clear,” Parker said. “Well, it’s not clear. But it’s definitely not Maggie in there.”
“Alright,” Eliot said. “Moving down. Hardison, what did you find?”
“These servers are way stronger than they should be for a hotel. I mean crazy strong and fast. And what does a hotel need with totally isolated servers, anyway? Doesn’t that make the reservations harder? Something is way up.”
“What gave you that impression?” Eliot growled. “Here I was thinking this thing with Nate and Sophie was just a treasure hunt!”
“1432,” Parker interrupted them. “The curtains are drawn, I can’t hear anything inside.”
“Alright, I’m gonna go knock on the door.” Eliot was relieved to finally have something to do. “1432, 1432....”
“Oh, shit,” whispered Hardison. “Guys, I just googled the name of the guy who owns this hotel chain, and you’re not gonna believe what I found.”
“Hang on, Hardison,” Eliot said. He knocked on the door, once, then twice, then once again. Nothing fancy.
“I cannot believe this,” Costa was saying, over and over. “You? You did this?”
“Well, we had the rest of our team with us, but yes,” Nate said.
“Your team? How many people?”
“Five. Including us. Three more people.”
“Five people to take down Damien Moreau.” Costa shook his head again. “It doesn’t seem possible.”
There was a knock at the door- one, then two, then one. Nate felt the relief wash over him like a tidal wave.
“Come in!” Sophie called out. “Please!”
Costa looked at them. “What?”
“Come in!” Sophie called out.
“I’ve got them,” he gritted out. “Hardison, unlock 1432.”
“Hang on, I need to-”
“Dammit, Hardison, now!”
The light lit green, and Eliot slammed into the room.
There was a young man sitting in a chair, darkish olive skin, black hair, forgettably handsome, looking like he might be ready to pass out.
“Eliot!” Nate called when he rounded the corner. “You found us!”
“Of course I did,” Eliot replied. “Guys, they’re in here.”
“I’m coming in!” Parker replied.
“Who’s this?” Costa asked. He was overwhelmed.
“This is one of my crew. Eliot, this is Costa, he’s been keeping us- no, don’t hit him!”
Halfway into his swing, Eliot stopped. “Don’t hit him?”
Sophie shook her head. “He’s just doing his job. He doesn’t have any power here.”
“Alright, but he’s not leaving, either.” Eliot folded his arms and gave Costa his patented Glower. Costa looked ready to accept the loving arms of death if it would get him out of the tangled mess he was in.
The window suddenly fell in. Parker swung through the hole she’d created, unhooking the line from her rig.
“Nate! Sophie!” she cried out. “We found you!”
“Alright, less celebrating, more escaping,” Eliot said. “I’ve got some comms for you guys, hang on.”
“Not yet,” Nate said. “We need to finish this.”
“Finish what, being kidnapped and waiting for us to drop everything to come rescue you?”
“No. Well, yes,” Nate said.
“Listen to what’s going on,” Maggie said. “You don’t have the full picture yet.”
Parker dropped down to sit at Sophie and Maggie’s feet. Eliot couldn’t figure out why for a second until he saw her pull out one of the knives she wore out on jobs and start sawing through the silk anchoring Sophie’s leg to the bed frame.
“Comms for you, and for you,” he gave them out.
“Mine fell out or something,” Maggie said. “I don’t know what happened to it.”
“Alright, then. Here’s a new one. Hardison, cut off Maggie’s old one?”
“Done,” the hacker said. “What’s up, Nate? Sophie? Y’all miss us?”
“A little less every day,” Nate fired back. “Where are you?”
“I’m hip-deep in the servers and going in deeper. This is some bad shit, man.”
“You have no idea. Costa, tell them.”
Costa started at Nate blankly. Nate sighed.
“Tell them about your bosses, Costa.”
“What? Yes. Alright. My boss’s name is Frederico Palagiya, and he was one of Damien Moreau’s lieutenants.”
“Yes. He did a lot of business through here. This hotel chain was owned by one of his shell companies. When he went down- when you took him down?”
“Yeah, that was us.” Eliot nodded.
Costa looked awed. “When you took him down, it was like- when a big tree falls in the forest, yes, the small trees all race to fill the space. Many new small trees replace the one big tree. Palagiya is one of those small trees.”
Parker finished freeing Sophie’s foot and moved up to start cutting through her other bindings. Maggie reluctantly let go of Sophie’s hand to allow this.
“So this guy Palagiya, what did he want with Sophie and Nate?”
“He has a standing order with a list of people,” Costa said. “If they try to stay at any of the hotels, under any name, the staff takes them in and notifies him, then waits for further instructions.”
“Is that what we’ve been waiting for?” Sophie asked, one hand freed. “Further instructions?”
Costa nodded. “Yes. And now we have them. I’m to clean you up and take you down to the ballroom at 7 p.m. I don’t know why.”
“I bet I do,” Eliot said. “I’ve seen this kind of thing before, with Moreau. You find someone who’s been a big nuisance to a lot of people, you don’t just take them out. You take them out in front of a lot of people, and there’s a whole thing with bidding-” He shook his head. “It’s gonna be ugly, and there’s gonna be a lot of people who hate you in that room. Hate all of us, probably.”
“Well, we weren’t exactly subtle in San Lorenzo,” Sophie said, giving Nate a sidelong glare.
“Thank you, Rebecca Ibanez,” Nate said back. She huffed.
“We need to go,” Eliot said, breaking in. “Hello? This guy’s boss is gonna have you killed, or worse, in like eight to ten hours. We need to get out of the country.”
Costa shook his head. “Palagiya has a lot of sway in the government. He brings a lot of people through Malaika, and he never kicks up a fuss about having cash. You won’t be able to leave.”
Nate gave the kid a grin, and it send an old familiar shiver down Eliot’s spine. “Costa,” he said. “You don’t have the first idea what we can do.”
“Got it!” Parker finished freeing Nate from his silken bonds. Immediately he swung his arms forward and bit back a pained groan.
“You’re cutting a real fine figure, there, Nate,” Eliot said. “Very scary.”
“Shut up,” Nate groused.
“Not as young as you used to be, I’m just saying.”
Costa looked around the room. “You are very strange people.”
Parker came over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey kid,” she said. “You have no idea.”
“You don’t know how convincing I can be,” Nate replied. “Now let’s go.”
Sophie and Maggie had already headed to the airport together, Sophie with a scarf and sunglasses, looking like an aging starlet, Maggie her “personal assistant.” Their flight was scheduled to leave in an hour. Nate and Costa were supposed to be getting on another plane in three hours, but Costa was a bit resistant.
“No one will believe I can grow such a moustache,” he said. “It’s foolish.”
“Not as foolish as trying to get out of here dressed like yourself,” he said. “Now come on. You were doing this because they promised to get you to America, right? Well, I’m gonna do it. You just have to trust that I can.”
“Yes, Phil, because our relationship is built on trust,” Costa said.
“See? Right there? You’re a natural, kid. You’re smart, you’re quick, you’re great at following directions, and you know when to get the hell outta Dodge. You’re gonna be fine. Now just hold still.”
Costa submitted to the spirit gum, while in Nate’s ear he could hear Sophie, whispering through the comms, “See? I knew you liked him. We ought to keep him, what do you think?”
“He’s not a puppy,” Nate replied. Costa was getting accustomed to Nate talking to people he couldn’t see or hear.
“I think Sophie’s right,” Maggie offered.
“You two teaming up is going to be the death of me,” he said. “Oh, no, that’s a bit crooked. Stay still!”
“If we’re the death of you, at least you know you’ll go to your grave smiling,” Sophie shot back. He snorted.
“What, the one that worked?”
“Uh, yeah. Shit. That one.”
“What about it?” The raised eyebrow was implicit in Parker’s tone.
“This one’s worse.”
“Well joke’s on you, because this isn’t even my plan. I talked about it with Nate, it’s mostly his plan.”
“That doesn’t make me more confident in it.”
“Have I ever steered you wrong?”
In concert, Eliot and Hardison replied, “Yes!”
“Sterling? My man, what’s up?”
“Hardison? What do you need? Did you find them?”
“Yes, and also I forgot to ask earlier, how did you know they were missing?”
“Riiight. Ok, I have an anonymous tip for you.”
“Hardison, I have your number saved in my phone.”
“Right, shit. Hang on, I’m gonna have to call you back.”
“I’m just checking out the laundry chutes,” she whispered back. “This place has an amazing setup, I’m beginning to think that it’s not for clothing at all!”
“We need you to lay the devices out in the ballroom first, before you go running off to find El Dorado in a laundry basket.”
She huffed. “Yeah, fine. It’s not as much fun when it’s not my plan.”
Eliot laughed at her fondly. “You’re a terror.”
“Good luck!” Sophie added.
“We’re not far behind you,” Hardison said. “Nearly done with my setup.”
“Good,” Nate said. “Costa and I are at the airport now. I’ll let you know before we take off.”
“You sure you’re ok with that guy alone?” Eliot asked.
“Yeah,” Nate said. “We’ve got an understanding.”
“Maggie and Sophie won’t stop whispering,” Parker said. “It’s kind of creeping me out.”
“When you’re creeped out, Parker, that’s when I know I should be worried,” Nate said. “My wives teaming up? It’s like a nightmare.”
“Isn’t one of them your ex-wife?” Eliot asked.
“Yeah. Dammit. Ok, time to go through security. Good luck, team.”
“I make my own luck,” Parker replied.
“Parker said the detonators are all set in the ballroom.”
“Good, there’s only a couple hours until the event. I looked at the bookings for this place, and it’s like a Who’s Who of people who hate us. I’m ready to leave the country. Hell, I’m ready to get off the continent.”
“If this works, we’ll have a lot less to worry about.”
“Oh, it’ll work. I’ve laid a bunch of traps in the servers, too. There’s so many layers to ‘em that it would make onions cry.”
“If we weren’t on the same side, I’d run for the hills at the look on your face,” Eliot said with a grin. “It’s terrifying.”
“Speaking of terrifying,” Hardison replied. “Where’s Parker?”
“The laundry chutes are for money!” came her gleeful voice. “I didn’t think that money laundering was an actual thing!”
“That’s not how it works at all!” Eliot said.
At the same time Hardison asked, “How much? Denominations?”
Eliot glared at him. “Really?”
Hardison shrugged. “It’s good to know about each other’s interests.”
“I really did find El Dorado,” Parker breathed reverently over the comms.
“I wasn’t being literal before,” Eliot said, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Make room in your bags for souvenirs, boys!”
“Jesus,” Eliot sighed. “Just buy a suitcase and check it.”
“Ooh, good idea! I knew I kept you around for a reason.”
“What?” Eliot asked defensively at Hardison’s smirk. “I don’t wanna toss my clothes, I like my clothes.”
“Sure, babe,” Hardison said.
“Do you think they’ll notice when we don’t check out?” Parker asked.
“I think they noticed when we came out with a lot more luggage than we went in with,” Eliot ground out. He was in charge of two large suitcases, and they were not light. “But they’ll be distracted soon enough.”
“Our cab should be here any second,” Hardison said, looking at his smartphone.
Eliot scowled. “You got to hack a fancy server, and Parker’s got half the GDP of Malaika in these bags, and I didn’t even get to punch anybody.”
“Aw, I’m sorry!” Parker said. “Want me to find someone for you to hit?”
Eliot rolled his eyes. “No.”
Their cab rolled up and Eliot went to heave the luggage in.
A voice behind him said, “Eliot? Eliot Spencer?”
Turning, Eliot came face to face with someone from his past. The part he’d prefer not to revisit, thanks.
“Oh look!” Parker said. “Someone for you to punch!”
“So that’s a cumulative 14 counts of murder, 23 counts of attempted murder, 45 counts of endangered-animal trafficking, 79 counts of drug trafficking…”
Sterling’s gleeful tally went on, finishing with, “so this is the arrest of the century, and you’re all in the clear. Now I have to buy you all lunch sometime or something. Have a safe flight, and try not to commit any crimes in my jurisdiction. Oh wait, that’s most of the planet. See you around!”
They looked at each other. Costa looked faint.
“So that’s it? All those men were arrested?”
“Interpol takes things very seriously when you call in a bomb threat,” Hardison said. “Especially when you tell them it’s because they did unspeakable things and you’re getting revenge.”
“You’re very frightening,” Costa muttered.
“Thank you for coming to help us,” Sophie said, holding out an arm to her friend.
“Of course! I don’t know how much of a help I was, but I couldn’t sit by, knowing that something was wrong,” Maggie said, leaning into the hug.
Behind her, Nate reached out and joined the hug too. It felt surprisingly… natural.
“You are a wonderful friend,” Sophie said with conviction.
“And a great ex-wife,” Nate said, his chin on her shoulder.
“I think this is weird,” Maggie said.
“Only if we let it be,” Sophie replied. She pulled back, and Nate let go too. “Come visit us, the next chance you get. Paris is incredible this time of year. Any time of year, really.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, looking at Nate. He shrugged.
“Any time you want,” he said. “I know better than to argue with the two women in the world who I know for a fact are smarter than me.”
“I think that’s for Nate and Sophie to work out,” Eliot replied. “No, Parker, you can’t have one of each, there’s too many varieties to finish before we have to get on our flight.”
“We can’t do that! He’s such a nice boy.”
“By what possible metric-”
“And I was thinking, perhaps we could… take him under our wings, a bit. You know, it was so good for you to have someone to work on.”
“And what will you do?”
"I’ll teach him to act, of course! He's got wonderful potential, just delicious promise. Even you could barely read him!"
"I was under maybe a little bit of stress. And also, he was holding us captive, in case you've already forgotten."
"It was hardly his idea! He was desperate, and you know what desperation can do to people. What he needs is a good father figure in his life."
Nate nearly choked on absolutely nothing. "And you think that figure should be me? I'm sorry, have you met me?"
Sophie waved a dismissive hand, letting her diamond flash in the light. "Once or twice. I'm telling you, he would be a wonderful protege!"
"We already have three of those, Soph."
"They're not proteges, they were already good at crime before you ever met them. Costa, now, he's unformed. He's ripe to be molded by experienced hands. Think of all the great things he could do with both of us training him!"
"You are the scariest woman I have ever met."
“That’s a yes. Costa! We have something we’d like to discuss with you…”
“Excuse me, what?"
“It was perfect!”
“Which part?” Eliot asked ironically. “The bit where you almost got shot, or the part where Sophie and Nate almost fell off the building?”
"Okay, yeah, those parts weren’t great. But other than that, it was great! Lots of our friends were there, it had high stakes, I got to try out my new rig, plus all that cash! It was so romantic."
"I... can't process this. Hold me." Hardison flung himself bodily into Eliot, who caught him at the expense of his donut.
Hardly missing a beat, Parker scooped up the dropped donut, handing Eliot her sugar-frosted monstrosity to replace the one she was now eating from the floor. “I’m just saying, I think we could incorporate elements of this trip into our future vacations and things. It really spiced things up for me.”
"Babe, I can't arrange for Nate and Sophie to get kidnapped every time we want to go on a romantic vacation."
"That's fine. What about Sterling? Could we have him kidnapped?"