He meets Parker first.
He’s Damien’s Chief of Security by then, has been for a year. It’s good work, steady work, fills up his bank account real nice. He gets to see the world, meet interesting people. It’s-
There is, Eliot remembers dimly, a time where he would not have done this. Damien is charming, he can be so sweet, but he is not a good man and Eliot is killing people for him. Good people, bad people, sometimes both. And it is all for money, for power, it is all for Damien, who makes little secret of having no higher ambitions than his hedonism.
Eliot is the best in his field, so his hands never shake when he wields a knife or a gun, when he kills or maims or hurts the people he is paid to kill or maim or hurt. But sometimes he idly thinks about flipping that knife around, turning it against his ribs and scraping around to check if there is even anything left inside. Sometimes he starts tasting blood and all the booze and all the women in the world don’t distract from the iron taste.
At least it isn’t a warzone. Eliot is so sick of warzones. He’d lost the last shreds of his soul out there in the smoldering ruins of some country he hadn’t known the name of, to the tune of blasting round after round to where his superior pointed out the target, to lying in wait to sniper enemies of rank until all their faces blurred together, to scraping off labels from helicopters and telling each other that whatever they hit couldn’t have been civilians. Working for Damien meant working for money, but money was more honest than the flag had ever been to him.
Working for Damien means always something new. Today, that is the slip of a blonde woman perched on a chair in Damien’s office. Eliot notices her immediately, simply because she is so at odds with the tastefully decadent design of the place, clashing hilariously with the sleek suits Damien favours and also makes all his employees wear. She’s dressed in all black, like a cat-burglar. Eliot is mostly sure she’s wearing a climbing harness. She came alone and from the looks of it without weapons, and she is probably the least nervous person to ever sit in that uncomfortable red-upholstered chair.
“Eliot!” Damien smiles, eyes crinkling, when he comes through the door with a polite nod. “There you are! Meet Parker, the greatest thief in the world.” He gestures grandly to the woman, who waves politely. Eliot nods at her, too.
“Parker, this is Eliot,” Damien introduces him, making his way around the table. “My most capable operative.”
Damien just lays his hand on Eliot’s upper arm, a companionable pat, and Eliot can’t help the rush in his stomach. The most capable operative. Most trusted, most useful. This is what Damien does, what makes him so dangerous, so successful. He makes you feel like you are the only thing in the world. Like he sees you. Even knowing does not help. Eliot has seen men who had known Damien to be their enemy, people who must have known he would kill them either way, eat out of his palm. Sometimes, he thinks he must be one of them, but right now all that matters is Damien’s hand on his arm and keeping his face blank.
The woman — Parker — gives him a critical once-over, then nods, her ponytail flipping up and down. She’s pretty. A little younger than him, he’d wager. “He’ll do.”
Damien looks satisfied with that assessment. “Wonderful. Eliot, you will be accompanying Parker here to Dubai, where she will be picking up a certain valuable item for me. You’ll make sure she and the item make it safely back home.”
Parker grins at him and bounces out of the room with little fanfare, only turning around to wag her finger and tell him to be on time for their flight in five hours. He, too, leaves quickly to go pack his things. A contact in Dubai will be providing his arsenal, because even on a private flight there are protocols to check for contraband, and there is no use in bribing several Dubai airport employees, lugging five kilogram of weaponry around, and then likely still having to get any specialized equipment locally anyway. Depending on the situation, Eliot knows where to get a sniper rifle, plastic explosives or a cannon launcher in almost any city but he sure as hell isn’t stuffing shit like that into his luggage.
That only leaves his other things: A few changes of clothing in cat-burglar black, a suit and workout clothes, some toiletries, a few odds and ends. Despite the ridiculous amounts in his bank account, Eliot doesn’t have a lot of stuff . He leaves behind the souvenirs Damien had gotten him on a whim, the stupidly patterned ties and jewelry and that ostentatious three-piece he’d forced him into when they had gone to the opera in Venice. Eliot won’t need that stuff in Dubai.
When he meets Parker at the private airfield, she carelessly swings a black duffle bag around, which means she has also packed light and sent her equipment ahead. That’s good, because otherwise he just knows he’d get stuck carrying her shit, too, and all those glass-cutters and thief-gear would have probably been heavy as hell.
The engines whirr, blasting dust across the field. Parker bounces ahead with nary a glance, up the stairs and into Damien’s least conspicuous private jet. Eliot turns to follow, when Damien, who had accompanied him to take-off but will not be boarding, halts him with a mild touch to his shoulder. Eliot freezes.
Damien is a bit taller than Eliot, so he needs to lean down a little for his mouth to be level with Eliot’s ear. His breath hits Eliot’s nape, makes him shiver. “Keep an eye on her, Eliot,” he instructs, audible over the engine roar. “And make sure the package arrives safely.” It’s a warning, devoid of the humor Damien usually takes care to infuse his every word with, and cold. Eliot manages a stiff nod.
He only moves when Damien gives him a pointed little push and waves, affecting his usual mannerisms once more. “Good luck!” he drawls, as Eliot climbs the stairs, luggage in tow.
When they are all situated and twenty-thousand feet above ground, Parker, lounging on one of Damiens plush loveseats, raises an eyebrow at him. "Just so you know," she says, all edges, "I usually work alone. I like working alone." He sighs. Yeah, he usually works alone, too, these days. Or at least with people he can snap orders at. “Let’s go over the plan. I haven’t been briefed properly, yet,” he says.
Parker obliges, and spreads a bunch of blueprints all over the table, outlining a giant Dubai skyscraper, which houses the item in question on the 27th floor, safely kept by a Tanuki 300 Security system, a metal vault big enough to store a minivan, and three floors of guards in either direction. Makes sense, why Damien wanted him on the job. Parker says she can handle the vault-cracking and security-circumventing easily, but physical guards are a bigger problem.
At some point, she abandons the blueprints to pace around, and then discovers a fascination for the dumb stripper pole Damien had installed when he’d bought the plane. The man loved travelling with an entourage of beautiful, scantily-clad women, a constant party. It’s not all bad. Makes the atmosphere less grim over-all. Still an easily-exploited security hole. Or maybe a fly-trap for unwary enemies blinded by the obvious weakness.
Parker tests it out, spinning it a few times, before vaulting herself up on it. She’s fully clothed and there is obviously nothing intentionally titillating about the whole thing, just a thief doing a bit of gymnastics to keep from having to sit around so much, but it’s a nice view nonetheless. She’s skilled, and flexible. With a few perfunctory twirls she’s seated herself into a flawless cross-knee hold, hands interlaced beneath her head like being upside-down was relaxing for her. Maybe it is.
Parker does a lazy spin. “He didn’t even tell me what we are stealing,” Parker complains. He hasn’t told Eliot either, only that it was important. “Urgh, I wouldn’t even be here if the money wasn’t so good. That guy gives me the creeps. So much money, though.”
Perhaps that explains why Damien had asked him to keep an eye on Parker.
“By the way, Moreau sent over your file, Spencer,” she says conversationally, her head very slowly turning red as gravity rushes her blood down. This is news to him, and at odds with her behaviour. Anyone who has read his file should be rightly freaked out by some of his blood-soaked past. Most people were, even without the file, like they could smell it on him. Not Damien, though. That’s part of why Eliot sticks around. Not Parker, either.
Either she isn’t frightened because she’s got a similar career, or she is a really good actor, and neither bodes well.
She spins around on the pole, appearing relaxed. “With your skill, we could probably manage a smash-and-grab. The security system is set up to isolate the floors upon breach, lock all the doors. We go in through the window, you distract the guys on the floor, I crack the safe, we leave the same way and run for it.”
That would probably work. There are only about ten guards in rotation for that floor, most of them deployed on the surrounding floors to seal off any reasonable entrance. They could go in as window cleaners or something, bring parachutes. It’s a little out there, but not impossible. Only thing is, against ten guys with guns, if they are trained to shoot before asking questions, Eliot has no margin for error. He’d have to kill them all before they could even try to shoot.
From an objective point of view, that’s not impossible. A machine gun is arriving with his arsenal, and so are two gas masks and a couple poison grenades. It wouldn’t be too difficult at all. An involuntary grimace marrs Eliot's face, gone in a second. Ten people dead, for some random thing nobody had even told Eliot what it is. Ten guys just doing their job, probably. He should be used to it by now.
Parker whirls around until she is up-side again, still loosely hanging on that pole. It creaks as she leans forward, towards him. Oh, she must have seen his expression. Eliot quickly schools his face.
“Acceptable, ma’am,” he says. He can’t afford to have this independent contractor doubt him and report back to Damien about his unreliability.
Damien had given him everything, after he’d wandered out of the military lost and confused and with nothing to his name. There are so few places for something like him. He cannot afford being discarded. Something sickly like panic wells up in his stomach, as the woman’s eyes bore into him. She gives a thoughtful hum, scrutinizing him with a concentrated squint.
“Stop doing that,” she snaps. “Sorry,” he answers reflexively.
That doesn’t seem to please her. With a growl, she cartwheels off the pole and into his space. He barely catches himself before flinching back. Even his breathing has become flat, as quiet as he can manage it.
Then, with one outstretched finger, Parker pokes him harshly in his side.
“That’s what I mean! Stop being so tense.” Eliot whirls around to face her. “Wha-” It's out of his mouth before he can stop it, before he can remind himself that he’s just here to be muscle and questioning his temporary employer is bad form.
She pokes him again. This time he does flinch away, mostly instinct, and he’s half-way out his seat when she backs away with a satisfied grin. “Better,” she says, “now tell me what’s off with the smash-and-grab.”
Eliot hesitates, watching her closely. “The number of casualties is… high, for a robbery. Ma’am.”
“The ten guards on the twenty-seventh floor. I’d be shooting them, or throwing grenades. It would draw some long-term attention.”
Parker frowns now, like the idea of outright killing the guards hadn’t quite occurred to her.
“Huh,” she says. “I don’t usually kill people.” She considers that, going back to the blue-prints and looking at them like they’re a particularly stubborn lock she is trying to take apart. “But you’re right, to get in and out in that time-frame…”
She thinks, and thinks. Eliot keeps from fidgeting. “It’s still an option,” he says in the end. He has no desire to kill random security people for the hell of it, but he is supposed to have shed such inhibitions a long time ago. Parker frowns again, more pronounced.
“But you don’t want to,” she notes, like she knows it to be a fact. Eliot’s words get stuck in his throat.
“What’s the point of doing a crime if it's no fun to you?” Her tone is light but she sounds earnestly confused. Eliot doesn’t have an answer for that. It’s his job. It’s the only thing he is good at, good for, and if he spends too long thinking about long-term goals his brain only comes up with bullets meant for him finally hitting their target in some dinky sewer or shady alley.
Then, Parker tilts her head and a terrifying grin spreads over her face. “Hey Spencer,” she says, eyes sparkling, “why don’t we do something else entirely.”
They end up spending a week in Dubai. Parker teaches him how to climb vents, and Eliot shows Parker how to handle a taser. It’s fun. Parker is crazy, and unpredictable, and less tense around him than anyone else, which is a bit of a revelation. On day two, she starts calling him Eliot. On day three, she laughs and tells him, apropos of nothing, that he should consider growing out his hair. He’d be pretty, she says. It makes him blush more than it should.
Day three, it turns out she’s been eating nothing but cereal and chocolate covered strawberries she’d been swiping from a luxurious bakery three houses down, and Eliot dusts off one of the pristine pans he finds in their cupboards. There aren’t a lot of groceries and Eliot hasn’t really cooked in years, but he’d excelled in home-ec and he manages some half-way decent breakfast sandwiches. When he chops the tomatoes, he tries very hard not to think about what happened the last time he’d held a knife. That particular incident had involved five dead yakuza, a broken pinky and Damien’s displeasure at him for getting himself injured.
It’s still strange and not-bad to do normal stuff like chopping veggies. Grounding. He has that same strange not-bad feeling when Parker’s eyes light up after the first bite. She eats the whole thing with rapid attention and then she’d said “It’s good. Empty, a little sad, but delicious.”
Eliot has no idea how a food can taste empty, or sad, but he chalks it up to Parker being Parker. He also chalks up that fluttery feeling of her praise to maybe being into Parker, instead of examining the idea of being good and useful in non-violent activities. To be fair, Parker is very pretty, in an unhinged half-feral criminal kind of way.
Day four, they each have two cocktails in the sky-bar of their target building while casing the place, and spend the evening coming up with increasingly wild heist plans only loosely tethered in reality. By the second round of chocolate caramel popcorn, which Eliot only makes because Parker keeps whining at him and maybe because he doesn’t want this carefully unnamed feeling in his chest to go away, they note that a few of their ideas may be a little out there but that doesn’t mean they’re not doable.
Day six, they infiltrate by posing as maintenance workers, put some very illegal drugs in the sprinkler system, pull the fire alarm and just go right on up through the elevator shaft. It’s easy, almost too easy. Parker gets to taze one of the guards, who Eliot is guessing has a substance tolerance fuelled by some form of opioid addiction, and had kept struggling upright. They’re gonna get in, grab whatever it is they need to grab, and then depending on the item’s size they are either hooking it up to a pulley, jump out of the window into a getaway-van and get out fast, or they’ll put it in a duffle bag and exfiltrate as firefighters.
Then, they are in front of the safe, surrounded by peacefully unconscious, not-dead guards. It’s good they chose this route, not just because the lack of blood does something swooping and good to Eliot’s stomach, but because a cursory look at their credentials tells him these people are CIA.
Damien was setting him up to take out a room full of legitimate American agents. That does not bode well.
It’s probably not to get rid of him. Running from a scene like that would bring serious heat, but not much more than what Damien had handled before, especially if the government wanted to keep mum about their activities in the Emirates. Perhaps Damien had expected Eliot to blow the whole floor up on his way out, to cover his tracks. There are types of explosive that would pulverize all identifying evidence without causing structural damage. Perhaps in another life, he would have. It would tie him closer to Damien, in either case, and maybe that is what he was expecting. That Eliot would have to stick around under Damien’s aegis to avoid the heat.
As it is, Parker spins open the disproportionately large safe door, and they can finally gaze into the room-size metal box and onto what Damien had risked offending the US government for.
That is how they meet Hardison.