So, this is it - probably my last story here. I will write The Brown Dutch Job, more short stories, and very likely The Emerald Island Job, but they won't be published here or on A03, so I paste here the the important note from the first chapter:

I might be forced to remove my stories from this site, and A03 permanently, because I will use them in my new original fiction.

I don't know when, and I have no means to send a warning before it happens. If any of you want to stay in touch, or have these stories as Word docs or PDFs, contact me at valaraucoramainen AT yahoo DOTCOM, or valwenel AT gmail DOTCOM and put LEVERAGE in subject line. I will continue to write Leverage stories in this series, but email will be the only way to get them. I will collect your emails and in the future make a newsletter, and send stories to all of you in one go. Those new stories won't be published anywhere else - only you will get them.

Send that mail right away - this is the last call.


Chapter 4

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Once again – a headache with a hangover. Nate was sick and tired of being sick and tired for no logical reason. He didn't even drink that much last night. It must've been some virus.

Or you're getting old, nagged an old-man's shaky voice in his mind. It sounded awfully like his father's voice.

The first thing he did after waking up and climbing down from his bedroom was to lower all the shutters, creating a comfy half-darkness that didn't hurt his eyes.

The second thing he did was make coffee.

He enjoyed his first cup with closed eyes, holding the warmth between his palms, listening to the rejuvenating silence. Early mornings weren't so bad when you were alone and at peace.

Then the front door slammed, and Hardison strode into the room carrying two laptop bags.

"Morning, Nate. Morning, George."

"M'rnin'."

"Ah, aren't we a ray of sunshine today?" Hardison passed by him, giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder – a pat that vibrated through the every bone in his skull and settled in his eye sockets. Hardison was already clicking the remote, putting the morning news on one screen, some greyish recording on another other, and unexplainably, an aerobics class from some obscure morning show on the last four.

The speaker on the TV rumbled about the Middle East crisis, cheerful pop music followed jumping women in pink, and as a final blow, Hardison went to the other wall and raised all shutters he had lowered just five minutes ago.

Hardison stretched out his arms and took a long, deep breath. "That's better! You have to feel some sun on your face if you want your day to start well."

"You haven't slept at all, have you?"

"Of course not. I'm fueled with Orange soda, sugar and artificial colors. I'm an Orange man! Fear me."

"I do." Nate sighed. "What have you got?"

"Hacking the bank's security systems in the blink of an eye works only in movies, and maybe in TV shows of dubious quality – especially those who made a mistake and made their heroes too damn strong and invincible. Florence told me about it – the majority of modern shows are filled with Mary Sues who not only-"

"For fucks sake, Hardison."

"Methinks there is a more polite way to say: show me whatcha got."

Nate tightened his grip around the cup and counted to ten.

"Okay, okay, no need for fuming." Hardison opened his bags and took two laptops out before putting them on the working desk. "Let me just connect these two with my computer here, boot everything up, and I'll show you."

Hardison got busy humming along with the music from the screens, until Nate decided that the world of permanent squinting wasn't an option. After all, this was still his apartment. He got up and joined Hardison – and his remote – at the working table and first the aerobics died, then the Middle East, and finally, Hardison fell into sulking silence.

Daylight was bearable now, so he didn't go to the windows to kill the sun.

"Now pay attention," Hardison said. He took the remote and pulled up footage from the camera above the Wellford & Sons' front door. The camera was round, fish-eye style, so it showed a good part of the street in front of the barrel shop next door.

"They had a few nasty traps in their security, that's why it took me so long," Hardison said. "But after I was in, the rest was easy. This is a minute before our missing man – dark haired, bearded, Toyota-Camry-driving missing man – parks in front and goes into the barrel shop."

Nate waited, studying the angles and coverage of the recording. It covered a wide circle, and everything around the barrel shop, though murky and pixelated, was visible.

When the missing man finally got out of the car, there was nothing special to see. He locked the door, made several steps to the shop, and entered. End of story.

"Nate?"

He raised his gaze to Hardison. The hacker watched him calmly now, with no further trace of that annoying good mood.

"I didn't spend the entire night just hacking the bank. I worked on something else, equally important."

"Let me see."

Hardison focused back on his laptop and the missing man disappeared, while a dark mess replaced him.

"This is original footage I worked with," Hardison said. "I wanted to see if there was anything suspicious around the shop during the night, hence all the black – and it took me several hours until I managed to clear this into…this." He pressed a key, and black and grey shadows turned pale green. "I ran this through numerous enhancing programs, and this is the best I got. Kinda like night-vision recording. You won't see many details, but it's enough to recognize people."

In complete silence, they watched Eliot approaching the two McTavishes smoking outside the shop. One more came out, and in a mess of lags, freezing and white noise, they watched a fight.

Nate wasn't sure it could be called a fight at all, at least not until Sophie arrived.

Hardison stopped the recording when the Challenger left the street.

"And?" the hacker asked.

"What and? You saw what I saw. No need to ponder upon it."

"Are you serious? Tell me, our fearless leader, what do you think would have happened there if Sophie didn't show up?"

"Eliot would have an entire set of bruises more than he has now. Don't make drama where there is none, Hardison. He wasn't going there to get killed. He isn't the suicidal type. If Sophie didn't show up, he would've fought back. Maybe a little later, but he would. And you know it too."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because we both know him, but you allow your fears and worry to play the worst case scenarios in your head. I think without emotional engagement. That's the difference."

"Yeah, Nate is right," said Parker.

They both turned to the thief who was using her squirt gun to water George, on the opposite side of the front door. Nate blinked, half surprised with his own surprise.

"And you know that, how?" Hardison asked.

"Because if he got himself killed, who would take care of us? He is ours. He knows that. Am I right, George?"

Both him and Hardison, Nate noticed, looked at George as if expecting him to nod, and Nate shook his head.

"Okay, enough of this. You two, find something to do – quietly, no aerobics, please – while I watch our missing man again. Hardison, put him back on the screen. Find a good place in the recording, where he is clear, and freeze it. Eh, one more thing… put up the image of all of them surrounding Eliot amidst the fallen barrels. The one where Sophie commented how they weren't being hostile."

"Okay, both coming up. What's the plan for today?"

Nate turned his wrist and checked his watch. "I'll go to the barrel shop in… ten minutes. I want to talk again with Peter and his family. After that, we'll see."

Maybe he should change his tactics and just try to survive day by day? The man in the mirror didn't look thrilled with that idea, so Eliot carefully tapped a new bruise on his cheek bone with a towel, and stopped looking at himself. Looking into his own eyes had always been disturbing. This morning especially.

Looking around him was even worse. Sophie's bathroom, a luxurious and pale pink sparkling place, was filled with hundreds of small, smaller, and tiny as fuck bottles. It took him twelve minutes to locate and recognize soap; after that he was pretty much too discouraged to try to find anything that a man would normally use.

"Are you done yet?" she called from the kitchen, impatiently, as if she didn't spend at least one hour in here herself.

"Yeah, coming out."

"You have new clothes hanging on the door knob."

He opened the door and fetched them. The dark shirt and trousers weren't Nate's. They fit perfectly.

"Why do you have my clothes in your apartment?" he asked when he joined her. She was ready to go, putting breakfast plates in the dishwasher.

"I have several sets of all the Team's clothes. Emergency thing. You of all people should understand that."

He just stood there and watching her putting on her coat. Since he had woken up on that couch, the morning had been filled with her chatting. She hadn't given him a chance to say anything about last night.

"Sophie, look…"

"No. We aren't discussing that. Fetch your jacket, we're leaving."

"So you can wait until I'm relaxed, and then attack when I'm not prepar-"

She stopped fumbling for the keys in her purse and looked at him with dark, keen eyes. "You want me to say something, Eliot?" Her question was tricky; her voice deep and soft. She stepped closer to him and he fought the urge to step back. Her eyes darkened even more. "Okay," she whispered, still holding his gaze. "You will never know peace, Eliot Spencer, until…" Her voice faded and a smile broke through the darkness in her eyes. "Now insert some deep motivational crap while you drive, okay sweetie?"

She pushed the jacket into his hands and nudged him through the door.

In fact, he did just that in the short fifteen minute drive to Nate's apartment, and he could bet she was aware of it. She hadn't said a single word, just letting him think.

He stopped on the nineteenth possible ending of that sentence when he parked in front of McRory's and turned the engine off.

"Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome." It was said lightly, but no cheerful smile followed the words.

All the way up the stairs and in Nate's corridor, he wondered why she hadn't let him speak. The answer to that riddle would have to wait, though; he had to put himself in order and concentrate on the job at hand.

Only Parker and Hardison welcomed them when they entered the apartment, both of them glued to Hardison's laptop.

"Where's Nate?" Sophie asked, heading for the kitchen. "Still asleep?"

"Working," Parker said. "Talking to the mark." She waved her hand toward the screens, where Nate stood with Peter McTavish and Noreen.

Eliot suppressed a curse. The shop's interior surveillance camera was positioned above Noreen's counter and it was a standard model for shops: low quality, but able to record an entire room. He didn't see any other customers inside. It could be a coincidence, of course… but it would be so easy for one of the brothers to flip the OPEN sign to CLOSED without Nate noticing it. He stood with his back turned to the entrance.

The stiffness of their posture revealed what was going on even before Hardison switched their earbuds to the channel that matched the screen, and they heard Peter McTavish say, "I'm afraid I can't let you do that."

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This time Nate didn't bother to bring his cane to the barrel shop, yet he kept the limp, just in case.

"Oh, you're back!" Noreen greeted him with smile. "You didn't collect your package for your lady the last time, because of that unhappy accident. I kept it in case you returned. Do you want it now?"

"You call what happened an unhappy accident?" he said. "I call it getting rid of a hacker who tried to access your security system. Didn't your father tell you what that was about?"

She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, and her smile faded into an uncertain grimace.

Nate leaned onto the counter with his elbows. "I wonder how long it will take for your father and brothers to-"

"Not as long as you think," said a voice behind him. Peter McTavish and Callum stood only three steps behind him. "Is this man bothering you, Noreen?"

"I'm not sure yet," she said. "He talked about the hacker and our security system."

Nate turned sideways, one elbow still on the counter. Now he could see them all.

"I was wondering why someone would hack into a simple shop. I guess there's nothing valuable here to steal. But who knows, maybe you have barrels full of…something."

"You are definitely bothering my daughter," Peter said. "I'm afraid I can't let you do that."

"What will you do? Call the Police?" Nate smirked. "I don't think so. You didn't call them to report a hacking attempt, did you?"

A moment of silence stretched. He continued to smile, waiting.

"Who are you and what do you want?"

"My name is Nate Ford, and I live nearby. And I'm here to see who would ask-"

"How do you know what that man did with his laptop?" It was Noreen who said that, and Nate's fake smile grew into the genuine one. "You were here in the shop when it happened," she continued. "Even if you asked him later, I doubt he would say that he was hacking."

"This is a surprise. And moments like this one are also the reason I love my job."

Two McTavishes took a step closer. The other three of them showed up at the arch to the workshop; one limping, one with his left arm in a sling, and one with a purple, closed eye.

"What is your job, Nate Ford?" Noreen asked.

Oh, how he enjoyed this part of the case, when tiny little threads started to unravel. He watched her eyes – warm black velvet – and he admired her skill. Spatial awareness, right. It was worth it to be wrong, because now he could follow all of his wrong presumptions and make them right. There was no abuse in this family. Her attentiveness was of his kind – a mastermind who had to be in control of everything.

"My job is the same as yours, my dear."

She stared at him, thinking.

He stared at her, thinking.

The rest of the family patiently waited for her cue.

That was the moment when the front door burst open, and one more family entered to join the fun.

Eliot stepped in first, Parker and Hardison followed behind him, one on his left and one on his right. Sophie entered last, slowly, and turned the key in the lock.

"I see." Noreen now smiled. "Dad?"

Peter moved. Before Nate could turn to glance at him, he felt a cold barrel on the side of his forehead.

Eliot tilted his head a millimeter to the left, assessing their positions, and Nate quickly raised his hand to stop him.

"Nobody move," he said. "Peter, you shoot."

"What?"

Nate risked a small movement of his head to see him out of the corner of his eye, over the barrel. "I said, shoot. Kill me. I promise, my people will just leave after that and we won't come after you. If you want to shoot, do it now."

No reaction. He didn't expect one.

"Okay," he continued. "I'll try to be more clear. If you shoot me now, I give you my word they will leave you alone. Only my death will allow you to finish what you started. Do it."

The same glazed stares came from the both groups, and he laughed.

"But you can't," he said. "Because you're not murderers."

Parker cleared her throat. "Bathtub," she whispered.

"Dad, put the gun down," Noreen said. She wasn't smiling anymore when she looked at him. "I think it's time to tell us what you want. Why are you here?"

"I want you to leave. This is my block, and I don't want you here. Abort your action, and no Police will be involved, no one will come after you. Stay, and I will end you."

"Bathtub!"

"What bloody bathtub?" Noreen said.

"Exactly! Bloody bathtub!"

"Parker, stop whispering." Nate took a step aside, and when no one stopped him, went to the barrels and took one for himself. "Now sit and relax. No one is attacking anyone – we shall only talk."

A moment of hesitation, but after Noreen nodded, her people slowly spread around, sitting on barrels. Callum, however, didn't sit, he stayed by her counter. The Team followed Nate's lead and sat on their side of the shop - all except Eliot, of course. The hitter's stare was more hostile towards Nate than Peter's could have ever been – there were sentences and sentences in it. But Nate could come here alone – he knew there wasn't any danger.

"My Team also needs some explanations. One of them," he nodded at Sophie, "already found out that your bully acting wasn't genuine. You just played a role. You're not violent criminals, and you don't hurt-"

"Bathtub!"

Noreen frowned at Parker. "What's wrong with you?"

"We'll come to the bathtub part. Eliot, when you want to knock someone out of the equation, how long does it take?"

"One hit, sometimes two. Why?"

"When amateurs want to knock someone out, how long?"

"Three to five, and few boot kicks. Why?"

"If those three gentlemen over there wanted you down last night, why did they take so long? Because they were only fighting. It was a brawl, not an elimination."

"Speak for yourself," one of the three, the one with a sling, mumbled under his breath.

Eliot hid the grin.

"I had one more expert whom I didn't listen to," Nate went on. "Who told me what you were doing the first minute we heard about you. You were right, Parker. They are here after Wellford & Sons bank."

"Well, duh!"

"And I admire the mastermind behind it," he said smiling at Noreen. "The one who came up with the plan, who told them how to act to make sure everybody minded their own business, who chose the position, made this shop, and set everything in motion. You're a talent, my dear."

"You speak nonsense."

"We are not wired, you don't have to choose your words. And now we come to the bathtub part, but that is an explanation for my people – you'll see why." He turned to the Team. "I studied the picture of the missing man we got from the bank camera. And I studied the picture of the McTavishes here in the shop. Then I measured both. Sir, you with a purple eye, would you step forward? I'd like to introduce my Team to their missing, dark haired, bearded man."

Of course the guy didn't step forward, but he didn't have to.

"You see, the McTavish family doesn't exist. And when Eliot and Parker came here after we got a tip of a bearded man entering and never leaving the shop, they arrived right after the last one of you became a red-haired Scot. Parker, I think what you saw in the bathtub was only red hair dye."

"Possible," Noreen's lips drew up, in an involuntary smile.

"Only possible, black-eyed red-head? Do you know how many gingers with black eyes are in the world? And after the bank is robbed and you disappear, what else would people remember? Red-headed Scot bullies and their shy sister. I don't know who you really are, but I can bet you're the opposite of that in your real life. And you probably operate one state at the time, moving all over the country, state by state, each time with different appearances and new aliases."

"But you're not digging," Parker said before Noreen could respond. "So, what it is? The roof? It must be the roof; it's the only part I didn't have time to check. You're digging a hole in the wall – the first floor of a bank that size must be… control room. Yes, this building is from 1984, and modern bank security systems have to override one problem in construction. If it's model-"

"Enough, Parker. Let the lady and gentlemen think about my proposal."

Noreen shook her head. "That's not a proposal. That's an ultimatum."

"I stand corrected." Nate grinned, baring his teeth. "I give you one day to close everything and retreat. Tomorrow morning, this place will swarm with Police. Don't be here."

Noreen exchanged glances with Peter and Callum.

"I wouldn't try anything," Nate said. "We already stated you're not violent. Keep it that way. There are many states in front of you. Even if you try, it wouldn't end well. Eliot is so pissed off at me right now that he would tear all five of you apart."

A moment of silence fell while she thought.

"We'll discuss your offer," she finally said.

"So, that's it." Nate got up, and waved to the Team to leave. Sophie went out first; Hardison and Parker followed her. Eliot waited for him.

"Wait," Noreen said when he was two steps from the exit. She reached under the desk and Eliot tensed, coiling like a spring – but she simply threw a package wrapped in plain white paper at him. "A few barrels for the road," she said. "As a parting gift."

"I have one too," Nate said. "The Toyota Camry is a good car, but you should start using some other models from now on."

Her smile followed him as he stepped out. He flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED, and shut the door.

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"…and about my idea you didn't want to hear the last time, I know how to turn this Eliot into the old Eliot…"

"Not now, Hardison." Nate folded his newspaper and took his cup. Mornings with Hardison had apparently became a thing. What a joy.

When Sophie showed up at the door – Parker and Eliot still aren't here, thank god – he thought that would divert Hardison's attention off of him, but it took one look at her face to know he wasn't that lucky.

"Do you know what Mike told me?" she asked sweetly. "Wellford & Sons was robbed last night."

"Oh, what a surprise."

"Since you became a… oh, right. You have us. But I wouldn't expect you to allow, or even encourage, a robbery. You practically told them to go for it now before you made your move. And you gave them the whole day. Why?"

"I like them. The world needs more nonviolent criminals."

They both stared at him.

"That came out wrong. It's early morning, people. What I meant…"

"We know what you meant," Hardison said. "We just can't believe it. Are you sure-" His phone rang and he fished it out of his pockets. "Yes, Parker. You're doing what? No, momma, don't, I don't think it's a good idea- Don't hang- Parker!"

He lowered his phone and squinted. "She said she and Eliot are gonna be here in five minutes – she's with him because she got an idea how to make this all right."

The blood in Nate's veins made a krck-krck sound, as if slowly freezing. Sophie scrunched up her nose.

"Call Eliot?" Hardison suggested.

"Nah, it's probably too late. Whatever it is, he'll survive." Nate got up to pour more coffee. "Besides, our bank-robbers… if they didn't rob this bank, they would have stayed in Massachusetts and tried another one, maybe nearby. This way they're happy, we're happy, McRory's people are happy – the bank not so much but they have insurance - and we can move on and think about real jobs. I got a phone call from Portland, from a new client – a woman will meet us. It's something about gold and her grandma's necklace."

"Which brings us back to my idea," Hardison said. "I know how to make Eliot his old, twitchy, annoyed self. I'll drive him crazy."

"That will surely work," Nate agreed wholeheartedly. "You drive me crazy without even trying. But what exactly you have in mind?"

"I'll be obnoxious."

Silence.

"That's a plan? That's daily routine."

Hardison spread out his arms. "I'll raise my obnoxiousness to an entirely new level, never before seen. He'll crawl out of his skin, hate me, try to kill me – and he'll be so occupied with my bullshit that he won't have time to be the silent, polite and closed off creep we have now."

A sound of heavy stomping came from the corridor, followed by hysterical female laughter.

"Uh-oh."

The door opened and Eliot rushed in, carrying Parker over his left shoulder.

Nate had never seen his hitter with bewildered eyes, with this combination of aghast annoyance and amusement. It seemed that Parker's laughter already did the 'crawling out of his skin' part.

"What has she done?" Sophie whispered.

Eliot sat Parker on the floor. "I decided to walk to here," he started. "She showed up and…She walked twenty feet behind me and…" and he stopped, raised both his arms in the air in bewilderment, then threw himself in the chair.

Still, his face was lit with inward laughter as he shook his head.

Parker pulled her phone out of her pocket and raised it up.

"Parker, don't!" Eliot growled – and all three of them breathlessly watched, like so many times before, that helpless anger surrendering to the laugh.

"I walked behind him," she said with her eyes gleaming like two crazy diamonds. "And I knew what he needed to feel better."

"Don't, or I swear to you, I'll snap that thing and-"

With the devil's cackle, Parker pressed a button, and The Eye of the Tiger music from Rocky filled the office.

Nate took his coffee and retreated to the dining table, enjoying the chaos of laughter, screams, music, and squirt guns that ensued.

Still, he wasn't the only one watching it with a smile. He raised his cup to salute George, and the tree politely nodded back.

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- THE END -