The biscuits were a little dry, Sophie thought as she took a bite. She washed it down with her tea—there really was nothing like London tea—and gazed out at the misty morning beyond her canopied café table.
Before she fell deeper into a speculative mood, her phone gave off a distinctive ringtone she immediately identified as Tara's. In the past few months she'd received enough calls from her team to warrant each of them getting a personalized ringtone so Sophie had some warning before she blindly picked up, which she did sometime, or a bit more time to think about whether or not she should answer if it took her awhile to fish it out of her purse to view the caller ID.
Having nothing better to do at the moment, Sophie picked up. "Hello, Tara," she said.
"Hey, Soph," Tara said. "What's new?"
"Dry biscuits," Sophie said.
"You should put some gravy on it," Tara said. "Oh, wait, you mean cookie. Isn't it weird how Brits use so many words that actually mean something else?"
"I'll have you know that we were using these words before America was a dot on the map," Sophie said. "And biscuit is a far more dignified word than cookie, which connotates with something inconsequential or risqué."
"You and your words," Tara said.
"I'm a grifter. I know words."
"I know you're a grifter, and I also know that sometimes actions speak louder than words."
Sophie sniffed and took another sip of tea. "Volume isn't everything."
Anyone overhearing their conversation might think they were rivals antagonizing each other. While that may be half of it, the other half was simply that this was how they communicated: two grifters, too keen to try grifting each other, above small talk, who provoked each other with banter as a form of affection.
"To each their own," Tara said. Sophie's ears pricked. Tara rarely conceded so easily. There must be something else on her mind.
"So, what's going on then?" she said. "Giving me my weekly update a little early?"
"You could say that." Sophie heard a little shuffling around as Tara was probably walking around her hotel room, either earnestly doing some kind of task, or mindlessly busying her hands as she processed something. Sophie crossed her legs at the ankles and leaned back, ready for a story.
"What's going on?" she asked.
Tara huffed into the phone. "So, we got this new mark, and he's a psychic. He's got his own TV spots and everything."
"Ohh!" Sophie said. "Oh, this should be fun. I'm thinking you could go in as a lovelorn client who takes down his defenses. Get in some neuro-linguistic manipulation to set him up for failure at his next show."
"Yeah, no, we're thinking I'll play some hippy-dippy medium type who takes his clients and convinces him she's actually psychic."
"Hmm," Sophie said. "It's crude, but it could work."
"Wow, thanks for the approval. Listen, Sophie, that's not why I called. Something happened and I'm still trying to figure it out."
There was the slightest bit of tenseness in Tara's voice. Sophie sat up a little straighter. "Is everyone alright?"
"Yes, we're all fine." She paused. "That is, I think we're all fine."
"Tara…" Sophie's voice was warning.
"Okay, let me get to it. Nate and Parker went in to observe his show and figure out his tricks. I was in the van with Hardison and we were watching. Nate made some crack at the guy—"
"Of course he did," Sophie muttered.
"What?" Tara paused her story.
"He made a joke out of it and Rand—that's the guy's name—BSed that Nate was closed off to the spirits or something. And then he started reading Parker."
"He read Parker?" Sophie said. "I can't even read Parker."
Tara decided not to make another jab at Sophie's overconfidence in her prowess. "Yeah, so he dug up a story about her little brother and how he died."
Sophie sat up all the way. Her pulse accelerated as she pictured Parker's face when someone exposed something she'd never mentioned to anyone. Sophie didn't pretend that the team had earned Parker's trust fully, completely, and with abandon, but she knew just enough to figure Parker was closer to them than she'd been with almost anyone in her life. She never mentioned anything about her family before the team. To have something like this pulled out of her—subversively, involuntarily, without her saying a word—in front of a live TV audience—Sophie couldn't imagine how this would affect her.
"What happened?" she breathed.
"She thought he was really psychic. She ran out of the building before he finished. She seemed really upset about it, like I've never seen her get emotional, and when we went back to Nate's place we could all tell she'd been crying—"
"Wait." Sophie waved a hand, not even thinking that Tara couldn't see it. "When you went back to the apartment, she was there?"
Tara paused as if confused. "Yeah?"
"She was already there when you got there?"
"Yeah, she was."
Sophie leaned back again in her chair. Her tea was getting cold, but she didn't find it in herself to care.
"Is that a big deal?" Tara asked.
"The last time a mark upset Parker, she jumped out a window and vanished for almost an hour in the middle of the job," Sophie said.
"Okay," Tara said. "I can see how it's a big deal."
"That was a year ago," Sophie said.
"So she's changed."
"So it seems."
Sophie tried to sort out her emotions. She felt an intense and bitter anger towards the man who had managed to upset Parker. Parker was unpredictable; the only thing they could consistently surmise was that she either hid her emotions exceptionally well or truly did not experience them on the same level that the others did. The fact that someone had upset her enough to send her sprinting out when everyone could see it was remarkable and evil. Sophie hoped they had something dastardly planned for the man.
She also felt something else and was having trouble placing it. She kept picturing Parker's face, what it must have looked like, and the image of the rest of the team walking in on her already sitting in the office, with clues of tears on her face. She hadn't run away to avoid them all. She hadn't hidden in a closet or jumped out a window without even looking at what she was jumping into. She'd run to a place where she knew they would all be. And when they got there she stayed, and as Sophie half-listened to the rest of Tara's story, it sounded like she had even talked with them, confirmed what the psychic had read, and did not flee when the tears threatened to come back.
"So, what's it all mean?" Tara asked. She was as good at reading people as Sophie, but as they'd confirmed earlier, reading Parker was next-to-impossible. Tara had known Parker for a few months; Sophie had for almost two years. A grifter may be able to learn everything about an average person in an hour with a few key words and motions, but Parker was obviously far from average.
On the other end, Sophie wasn't sure how much of Parker she was willing to give up to Tara. As much as she trusted her to assist the others in her absence, it was still her team, and whether or not she ever immersed herself into it again, it would always be hers. They would always be hers.
"I don't know, Tara," Sophie said. "But keep an eye on her for me, please?"
"I don't think you have to worry about that," Tara said. "It was—watching them, and the way they all rallied around her—you know Eliot better than I do, but I've been around him long enough that I've heard the way he talks about himself, and how he's not a murderer and his job is retrieval and protection, yada yada. But he seemed ready to kill this guy for Parker. And Nate, I don't think I've ever seen him so calm and careful with another person. He talked gently like Parker was a kid but was totally not patronizing."
"I know, right? And you should have seen Hardison's face. He seemed more willing than anyone to jump and do whatever she was going to ask them to. He looked ready to raise hell, but he was just as gentle and caring as anyone can be."
Sophie found herself blinking back some errant moisture in her eyes. Tara's words vividly brought back images of the team, the people she knew so well. She wished she'd been there with them, to help comfort Parker and to see the way the others cared for her.
"And she didn't run away from it?" Sophie asked. Her voice caught and she quickly cleared her throat. Tara wisely pretended not to hear it. "She didn't run when they, when they tried to help her?"
"No. She stayed there. She didn't even get up or walk to the other side of the room." Tara paused. "You know, she's a less aloof than you made her out to be. She seems close to them. Like she likes them."
"I know she does." Sophie took a sip of her now rather disgustingly lukewarm tea. "She just doesn't know how to show it."
"She misses you," Tara said.
Sophie really wished she hadn't said that.
"She shows more than I think she knows she's showing."
She's changing, Sophie thought. She's growing. She wished she was there watching this. She'd seen seeds of it becoming minutely more apparent as the months went on. Now it seemed to be breaking the surface ever so slightly, and Sophie felt the bitter regret of a mother missing her child's first steps. An odd analogy, but it fit. Parker was her thief.
"They're going to take care of her," Tara said. "They know how. You'd think they wouldn't know how. Like she won't let them know how."
Sophie put down the rest of her tea, a lost cause. "Thank you for telling me, Tara."
"No problem." There was another quiet pause. Tara wasn't moving around anymore and Sophie was leaning her arms on the table, elbow jabbing uncomfortably on the cold glass as her hand pressed the phone to her ear.
"And, thank you for being there," Sophie added, "when I can't."
Tara was at a rare loss for words. Sophie seldom expressed gratitude so earnestly; she walked around with somewhat of an air of entitlement, mostly because she could grift whatever she wanted out of people. But here was something she couldn't do, or was choosing not to, and out of everyone in the world she knew—and Sophie knew a lot of people in the world—she'd trusted Tara to watch over her team. Yeah, she'd made excuses about other people being busy, but Tara could see through that. She was a grifter after all, and though Sophie loved to remind her that she was younger and more inexperienced, Tara knew that Sophie respected and trusted her talent and skill.
"Sure," she said finally. "Anything for you, Soph."
There was something left unsaid. Tara made sure in their phone conversations that she was enjoying what she did, and was very laid back about it, never indicating that she expected an end date anytime soon, but leaving it open for Sophie. Sophie never gave one. As the months went on Tara became antsy, wanting to know if Sophie would leave this as a permanent gig for her. It was fun, yes, and the team was skilled and great to work with, but at heart Tara was a loner, preferring to be her own boss and pick her own marks.
Besides, Sophie couldn't run forever. And as much as she'd deny it, Tara knew that's what she was doing. The same time she spoke of Parker running at the sight of emotion or caring, Sophie was scared too, scared of the changes that kept coming her way, the feelings she couldn't name, the caring of the people she worked with. She thought leaving them behind was going to help somehow, even as she noted Parker's lack of running as some kind of milestone to success.
Tara gave a silent sigh when Sophie offered nothing. "Well, I should probably get going," she said. "Anything you want me to tell them?"
Sophie gazed into the deepening fog and the sunset beyond.
"Just tell Parker I said hi," Sophie said. "I might not be able to get their calls for a bit. I'm going to be moving around."
Excuses. "Will do." Before she hung up Tara thought of one more thing. "So about Parker. She didn't run away this time. Do you think it's her new normal? Like is she going to stay open or do you think she'll clam up in time?"
Sophie allowed herself a small laugh. "There's nothing normal with Parker. But you know, I'm not sure that's what matters." She looked into her cold mug, thinking of her team and the impression they'd made on her life that would not go away.
"She has something to run to now," Sophie said.