"I wasn't even looking for jobs in Portland," Bobby said, checking to make sure his charging cords were all secure in the flap of his carry-on case as they pulled up to the airport drop-off zone. "I'm still not sure it's not a scam."
"Lot of effort to go to for a scam," his sister pointed out, deftly swerving the car across three lanes to try and get a good spot at the curb.
"I mean I guess even if it is a scam they paid for my flight out to Portland. I hear it's a nice town."
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "And I'm well aware you hate New York."
"I don't hate New York. I just hate living in your basement like a loser who can't get a job."
She straightened the collar of his polo shirt, unnecessarily, then popped it, also very unnecessarily. "Sweetie...you can't get a job, and you are a loser."
He stuck his tongue out at her as he fixed his collar. "I'll have you know I'm being considered very seriously for a position with Leverage International. Whatever the hell it is Leverage International does."
"You run the most obscure conspiracy theory website I have literally ever heard of," she said.
"It's mostly a joke."
"Mmhm, loser," she agreed skeptically, as he got out of the car. "Fly safe, Bobby. Knock 'em dead. And if it is a scam and you end up stranded in Portland...don't call me."
Bobby sighed, patted his pocket to make sure his phone was still in it, and nodded. "See you in a few days. Or never! I might get lucky."
He had actually done his homework for the interview, and he wasn't entirely clueless about Leverage International. He wasn't fully certain what they did -- they seemed to be consultants of some kind, but sometimes they looked from the outside like a holding company for other interests. Most of the business interests were food related, but most of the consulting seemed legal. It was a puzzle, something Bobby was looking forward to asking about, given they wanted him to help them with branding and marketing research. Out of work Library Science grads couldn't be choosers.
He had assumed he'd need to catch a cab to their business office, but when he reached the baggage claim, there was a tall, rail-thin man in actual livery waiting for him with a tablet that read ROBERT DISMAS - LEVERAGE INTERNATIONAL on it.
"You're waiting for me, I think," Bobby said, and the man gave him a curt nod.
"You have luggage?" he asked.
"Just my bag -- no, that's fine, it's not heavy," Bobby added, as the man reached for it. The man held up his hands, shrugged, and jerked his head towards the exits.
"I didn't realize you'd be waiting for me," Bobby continued, trotting after him. "Nice of Leverage to send someone."
"They a full service service," the man said. Bobby couldn't quite place his accent -- southern? English?
"Do you work for the company?"
"Somethin' like that," the man agreed, holding the back door for him. Bobby climbed in, did up his belt, and leaned forward.
"So you're a full-time driver? What's that like?" he asked. The man gave him a look in the rearview mirror.
"S'aright I guess. You meet a lotta people."
"Really? What's your best story?" Bobby asked, and felt pleased when the man finally smiled.
The car eventually stopped at what looked like a multi-storey warehouse, with a gastropub in the ground floor. Bobby double-checked the address on his phone.
"It doesn't list a suite number," he said, concerned.
"That's cool, just tell the waitress you're here for Leverage, she hook you up," the man told him. "Hey, good to talk to you, pal."
"You too," Bobby replied, offering him a tip. (Was $5 too much? Not enough?)
"Ah, I can't accept tips," the man said, but he eyed it.
"Company policy, I gotcha," Bobby said, and "dropped" the cash "accidentally" on the back seat. "Thanks for the ride, man."
Inside, a young woman in a waitstaff apron nodded when he said he was there for Leverage, then gave him an oddly sympathetic look that worried him greatly. She seated him in a nice corner booth, away from the noise near the bar. He fiddled nervously with his phone while he waited.
It wasn't long before a small blonde woman in a severe suit, hair pulled back in an equally severe ponytail, slid into the booth across from him.
"Mr. Dismas?" she asked.
"That's me," he said with a smile. "You must be from Leverage."
"Parker," she said, taking his outstretched hand. She had a grip like steel. "I'm one of three interviews you'll have today."
"Looking forward to it," he said.
"Really?" she asked, cocking her head. Bobby felt faintly judged for about two seconds before she leaned in close and said, "Because I totally hate these. Interviews, right? But the guys said I had to," she added, rolling her eyes.
"I guess you're not HR," he said, and she laughed once, sharp.
"Like we have an HR," she said merrily.
"Then who does your payroll and hiring?"
She hesitated. "That's a good question, actually. We, uh, we're...informal?" she tried. "Wait, I'm supposed to be asking you the questions, right?"
Bobby spread his hands. "I like to think of interviews as a two-way conversation."
"Ooh, you're good," she said.
"I try my best." This was definitely shaping up to be the weirdest interview he'd ever had, including the dude who tried to get his Facebook password to investigate his friends list. (Weirder, but less illegal maybe?)
"Okay," she said, pressing her fingers into the wood of the table, as if she were nervous. She started to recite something clearly learned by memory and written by someone else. "Leverage is a specialist agency providing services for its clients pro-bono on an alternate revenue stream, which means our hours and our pay are both irregular."
"Is this like a commission sales setup?" Bobby asked, starting to smell a rat.
Parker bit her lip.
"Or...profit-sharing?" he asked.
"Yes! That! We have a very high profit margin! You will share it!"
"Okay," he agreed, because it seemed less like an information point and more like a command.
"We provide services for people when the law fails them," she continued. "How comfortable are you with crime?"
"Like...committing it personally?" he asked.
"Oh my god, woman," someone said, and Bobby looked up to find the driver from earlier, now dressed in skinny jeans and a shirt that read I MAKE MY OWN SHORTCUTS with a portal gun on it. His accent had changed completely. "I leave you alone for two minutes."
"I was doing great! I was doing great, right Robert?" she asked him.
"Um, yes. Bobby's fine, by the way," Bobby said.
"See? He wants me to call him Bobby," she said.
"Weren't you my driver?" Bobby asked the driver.
"I was your first interview," the man replied. "Alec Hardison," he added. "You did okay. The tip was a nice touch."
"Thanks," Bobby said faintly.
"Scoot," Hardison told Parker, who slid over, a little sulkily. "Now, what Parker means when she wants to know how comfortable you are with crime is really a matter of relativistic morals. How would you describe yourself in D&D terms?"
"Chaotic...good?" Bobby tried. Hardison smiled.
"Cool, cool. So, let's be a little more organized about this -- "
"No fun," Parker grumbled.
" -- and do an actual interview. Tell us a little about yourself and your qualifications."
Bobby launched into the laundry list, education and internships and the one short-term job he'd had since grad school, and what he'd been doing since. The interview seemed like it was turning out okay now that Hardison was there to add a little structure, though Parker continued to ask him questions that were just off-the-wall enough that he couldn't quite give a canned answer. It was sort of fun, really.
Until Hardison checked his phone briefly and said, "Do you also run the Renaissance Man conspiracy website?"
Bobby felt his face heat. "You, uh, you found that?"
Hardison looked up at him. "Yes. Yes I did find that. You didn't mask your whois when you registered the domain name."
"I knew I should've gone with Wordpress," Bobby said ruefully. "It's just their design code -- "
"Oh believe me, I know," Hardison said, making a face.
"And the site kept getting DDOSed until I started coding it myself anyway."
"Imagine that," Hardison said.
"It's a joke, really. Mostly," Bobby continued. "I mean I'm not a nutcase or anything, I'm capable of discerning reality from fantasy."
"Where'd you come up with all this?" Parker asked.
"Oh, I'm -- kind of a baseball nerd," Bobby said nervously. "I like the statistics. I don't, I don't like pro ball, it's too..." he mimed someone flexing, growling. "I like the minor leagues. A couple of years ago one of the triple-A teams, the Beavers? They were about to move, it was all over baseball news."
"Oh yeah, I...remember that," Parker said, looking at Hardison.
"Anyway I pulled up all the stats on the team and there was this one guy, he only played like two games, Roy Chappel. It's like he came out of nowhere and he went back to nowhere. So the original research was, who is this Roy Chappel guy? He did an ad for a Japanese energy drink, I found that on YouTube. After he played for the Beavers they named a reuben sandwich after him at a sports bar. I found some other stats but nothing consistent, nothing that looked...." Bobby sighed. "Real. Comparatively. I thought he looked like a ghost, it was this weird little mystery. Then this country music singer, Kenneth Crane, had a surprise hit and he looks, I swear, they look exactly alike -- and I only got the one image before he was scrubbed completely from the internet, so after that I started kind of...looking. I found this random hockey player. Also there's a fatwa, though that's probably not -- I'm sorry, this is way too much information, it's just a weird hobby," he finished, flustered.
"That's your hobby?" Hardison asked.
"Well, I mean, that and heist movies," Bobby said.
Hardison and Parker exchanged a look.
"We need to speak with our partner," Parker said finally. Bobby's heart sank. When he got back to New York he'd definitely burn the site to the ground. There hadn't been any sightings recently anyway. God knew, the guy was probably writing dissertations on Italian Renaissance poetry or working as a vice president at a law firm or something now.
"Well, it's been a pleasure speaking to you," he said brightly, and shook their hands as they walked away. They didn't leave their business cards. Not a great sign.
"Can I get you anything?" the waitress asked, as they left.
"Is it too early for a beer?" he said, giving her a dry smile.
"Depends on the severity of your alcoholism, I suppose," she replied. He grinned.
"A water would be great," he said. "Thanks. Once they bounce me I'll have the beer."
"I'll keep it on ice for you," she agreed, and left him to his self-recrimination.
The water took a while, but eventually it was set down at the edge of the table. Bobby reached for it, looked up to thank the waitress, and saw chef's whites and a bandanna and a pair of grey eyes.
"Oh," he said, staring, open-mouthed.
"You know," the man said, sliding into the booth, "Hardison works really hard keeping me off the internet. But you just keep bringin' it up, man. It's not right."
"I'm very sorry," he said breathlessly. "I didn't realize, I thought it was just technical issues."
"You thought your website continually disappearing was a technical issue?"
Bobby swallowed. "I grew up on Livejournal, it went down a lot," he said. "Are you, uh, you are him, right? Roy Chappel?"
The man nodded.
"And Kenneth Crane?"
"Yeah, but the song wasn't mine. And Jacques Labert," he added. He wasn't smiling.
He was a lot bigger in person. In theory Bobby knew he'd been a great triple-A player and his nickname in the Otters had been Jack the Bear, for Christ's sake. It was just. He was really big. And he didn't look very happy.
"I'm very, very sorry," he said. "Very sorry. I didn't think you were like...a real person because...everything you do is just so weird! I'm sorry!" he added, aware he was insulting the man during his apology. "Did you, uh, did you -- oh God, did you fly me out here to kill me?"
"What? No!" the man looked bewildered. "We flew you out here to offer you a job!"
"I don't even know what you do!" Bobby said. Wailed, a little. Just a little.
The man pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered "Dammit, Hardison."
"I need a job! I want the job! I just don't know what I'd be doing and aside from my obsession with, well, you and your frankly insane existence, you don't know much about me! How do you know I'd be any good at what you want me to do?"
"Well, I mean, you found Jacques Labert," the man said. "And you were damn close to finding another one."
"Really?" Bobby asked eagerly. "Which one? It was the hostage negotiator, right? Or was it the sex therapist?"
The man's face crinkled up in a smile, all squinted eyes and even teeth. It shocked him for a second.
"There's literally no footage of you smiling," Bobby heard himself say. "It's a running joke with the, like, four people who visit my website that you're the angriest superman ever."
"You like findin' things out about people," the man said.
"Sure, I guess. Who doesn't?"
"Good at research."
"Well. It's kinda my degree," Bobby said, thoroughly confused that they seemed to be back on a job interview now.
"Leverage helps people when nobody else will. Sometimes we're not strictly speaking legal. Most times, really," the man admitted. "And we find ourselves in need of someone who can find those people and bring them in. Sometimes we might need someone who can find us a target to aim at. Or tell us about the target we're already aimed at. You think you could do that?"
Bobby fidgeted nervously. "I'm not like...a hacker. Or a con man."
The man flashed a smile at him again, briefly. "Yet. We provide on-job training."
"Then -- then sure, I guess, I could do that," Bobby said.
The man offered his hand, and Bobby took it. He found himself pulled across the table, inexorably, until the man's other hand gripped the back of his neck. He would have feared for his life, but it felt friendly, like you didn't really know him until he'd roughed you up a little.
"Take the website down," the man said in his ear, then released him. Bobby smoothed down his shirt, nodding.
"Yeah, absolutely. Of course. Hey, which one's your real name, anyhow?" he asked, realizing he still didn't know. "It's Jacques Labert, isn't it? That's the coolest one."
"Eliot," the man said. "Eliot Spencer."
"What do you do for Leverage International?"
"Mostly? I make the menus," Eliot said, gesturing at his chef's whites. "I'll have Hardison come set you up, then Parker'll wanna talk to you again. I'll see you in a few weeks, probably."
He got up and walked away, and Bobby was so worried about the "few weeks" that he had to yell "Oh my God, you cook too?" as Eliot walked into the kitchen, and he didn't get a reply.