The team had grown complacent. Reckless. They were so sure that Eliot would always save them, always risk his own safety for theirs, that they didn't even bother with their usual precautions anymore.
He expected to get hurt sometimes-it came with the job. But he was supposed to be the last resort, the guy who came in when all the other strategies failed, not the first line of defense.
Lately though, hitting seemed to be his only role in the cons. He used to get more chances to play a character-a professor, a doctor, a businessman-and he liked that part. He was good at it. But there was no finesse in his work anymore. He just punched his way through security so the others could get in and do their work.
As a result, he was getting hurt a lot more often, and no one seemed to notice. Or maybe they just didn't care, as long as their own skins were saved.
This job wasn't going to involve any hitting, which made him glad at first, but then he realized that it meant he'd have no role in the con at all. Well, he was sitting in the van with Sophie and Hardison, keeping an eye on the warehouse to make sure the mark's men didn't leave, but that task certainly didn't require all three of them. Eliot wished he'd just taken the night off.
Nate and Parker were across town, breaking into the mark's office. Their occasional reports were the only thing keeping Eliot awake, so finally, he'd gotten out of the van to stretch his legs and get his blood moving again.
As he strode down the sidewalk, Parker gave another update, beginning yet another round of cutesy banter.
"OK, I'm through the first door and on my way to the office. This new codebreaker is really cool, Hardison!" she squealed.
"All for you, Parker. You just do your thing, girl."
With a snarl and an eye roll, Eliot had snatched the comm out of his ear and jammed it into his pocket. Moments later, he'd been knocked out by a jolt of electricity through his body.
That shouldn't have happened. He was usually always on high alert. Maybe he was getting complacent too, Eliot thought as he pulled futilely at the ropes holding him to the metal chair.
Sophie and Hardison probably didn't even realize he'd been captured, although that was probably a good thing, Eliot decided. Just his luck that the only teammates nearby were the ones who couldn't fight. Nate wasn't afraid to use a weapon and Parker could put the hurt on a person when she wanted to, but Hardison still couldn't throw a decent punch (despite Eliot's best efforts to teach him) and Sophie? She could break a nail. Once again, the saving was going to be all up to Eliot.
His left shoulder-the one that had been ripped through by a Serbian sniper bullet years earlier-was sore nearly all the time now, but today had been one of the rare days that it didn't hurt. Of course, that would be over as soon as he saw the opportunity to take a swing at one of the armed men guarding him.
At least Eliot had remembered to restock the cold packs in the van's first aid kit. He was going to need them later. He knew he could take out four guys, but it would take a toll on his body. The men paced and muttered softly to each other as Eliot watched them closely, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses and devising his fighting strategy while he slowly worked at the knots binding his wrists.
"Where is your boss?" Sophie's angry voice echoed off the metal walls of the warehouse and Eliot's heart sank.
The four men all pointed their weapons in her direction as she strode into the light.
"Who are you?" one demanded.
"I'm Annie Kroy, and this is my...associate," she said, gesturing to Hardison, who appeared at her side, cracking his knuckles for emphasis.
The gold chains around the hacker's neck told Eliot that he was playing the role of her bodyguard, which he usually found pretty funny-but that was only because Eliot was available to be the actual muscle if something went wrong.
"And what's going on here?" she asked, motioning toward Eliot. "What kind of operation is this? If this is how you do things..."
"You're not supposed to be in here," said the shortest man, who actually looked the most menacing of the bunch. He took a few steps toward them, still pointing his gun at Hardison, who stood up straight to emphasize his greater height.
"You didn't answer my question," Sophie said coldly. "Mr. Pulaski is supposed to be here. We had a deal."
"He didn't say anything to us about a deal. Or about you."
Hardison tsk-tsked. "Wow, that really sucks for you," he said with a chuckle. "You ain't gonna get paid."
Sophie gave him a nudge as though he shouldn't have said anything.
"What do you know about Mr. Pulaski's business?" said one of the other gunmen, who had been watching Eliot but was now directing all of his attention toward Hardison and Sophie. It was the perfect chance to strike, but Eliot still couldn't free his hands or feet. He growled under his breath in frustration.
"That's none of your concern," Sophie said. "I don't want to get involved with whatever you've got going on with your prisoner here. Just tell me where I can find your boss."
The men began to argue softly. Sophie was throwing them off-balance, shifting their focus away from her primary goal. It was what she did best, but Eliot still didn't know how she'd distract all four long enough to get them out of this mess.
Then Eliot noticed that while Hardison's hands were tucked under his crossed arms, he was holding his phone-and carefully pushing the buttons with his thumb.
The short man's phone rang and he answered it.
"Yes, Mr. Pulaski, I'm glad you... but we have... OK, but... Yes, we'll be there. Yes, sir... OK, on our way." He clicked his phone shut and turned to the others. "He needs us at the office."
"What about them?" asked another man, waving his gun at Sophie, Hardison, and Eliot.
"I didn't get a chance to ask, but we can't just leave them here." The short man thought for a moment, then pointed at one of his compatriots. "You and me'll go to the office. You two stay here and watch them. I'll ask Mr. P. what he wants to do with them and then call you."
Two would be more manageable, Eliot thought, although he noticed Hardison's shoulders slump slightly as only two of the gunmen left the warehouse. He pulled at the ropes again, but the attempt made the chair scrape loudly against the concrete floor.
"Keep an eye on him too," the short man warned just before leaving.
When they were gone, Sophie directed an annoyed expression toward the remaining guards but didn't say anything. She sighed loudly, letting the silence grow more uncomfortable.
"So what's this about us not getting paid?" one of them finally asked.
"He doesn't know what he's talking about," Sophie said, with a glance at Hardison. "He's just a bodyguard."
The man lowered his weapon. "Tell us what you know," he said. "We can share information."
Sophie appeared to consider the offer.
"If there's a chance that he's scamming us, he could be scamming you too..." the man continued.
"I suppose it couldn't hurt... All right, we have a deal," Sophie said. "Come over here though-we don't need to share with the whole class." She shot a look in Eliot's direction.
As Hardison, Sophie, and the two guards moved away from him, Eliot struggled again to escape. The ropes dug painfully into his skin, but he couldn't get them loose enough to release his hands.
"The word on Pulaski is..." Sophie whispered. Her mark leaned in closer to hear her and she rested a delicate hand on his shoulder. Then in one swift motion, she pulled him toward her and bashed his forehead with hers and he dropped to the floor.
Before his partner could react, Hardison pulled his fist back and swung, making contact with the man's cheekbone. It wasn't a perfect hit, but Hardison remembered to follow through as Eliot had taught him, and his long reach sent the man spinning before he collapsed in a heap.
"Goddamn! That hurts!" Hardison cradled his hand, curling his body around it. "How do you do that?"
"Practice," Eliot replied dryly. "We gotta get out of here. There's a knife on my left ankle."
Sophie and Hardison jogged toward him and Sophie put a hand to the comm in her ear. "We've got Eliot ... Are you hurt?" she asked, directing her last comment to Eliot. He shook his head. "No, he's fine. We're on our way out."
Hardison slid his fingers into the side of Eliot's boot and slowly pulled out a throwing knife with a six-inch, serrated blade. He laughed incredulously.
"Holy shit, Eliot. You sat here, hogtied, and you had this meat cleaver on you the whole time?"
"Yeah, the irony is hilarous. Cut the ropes."
As Hardison sawed, Sophie spoke into her comm again. "He's fine, Parker, I promise..." She nodded to Eliot. "She's worried about you."
"I'm OK!" Eliot called out, loud enough to be heard through the others' earpieces. "My comm's just in my pocket, and Hardison is taking a long time getting me untied."
"Hey-my right hand is swelling up like a balloon, and this is a ridiculously sharp knife," Hardison groused. "Would you rather I risked slicing off a finger?"
"Mine or yours?"
"You know, I could just take this machete and leave your ass here-"
"Boys!" Sophie said sharply. "Our friends here could wake up at any moment. Can we bicker later?"
"Hey, what about Nate and Parker? Those guys were headed to Pulaski's office," Eliot noted.
"They were done before we came in here," Sophie said. "When you didn't respond to their report that they were out, we knew something was wrong."
"So Sophie came up with an act while I programmed the fake phone call using those recordings you and Parker stole the other day."
The ropes at Eliot's wrists finally fell away and he took the knife from Hardison to cut the bindings at his ankles.
"Eliot! Your wrists!" Sophie cried.
He inspected the bloody abrasions where the ropes had torn the skin. "If that's the worst of it, then I got off easy," he said with a shrug. "How about you? That was a serious hit. I'm impressed."
"You're not the only hitter on the team, you know," she replied, with a toss of her hair that revealed a reddening bruise on her forehead. "And it's not the first time I've done that."
Eliot made short work of the last ropes and he jumped up, bouncing on the balls of his feet, glad to be able to move again. When he glanced around to make sure they weren't leaving anything important, he saw Hardison wincing as he tried to move his hand, which did look bigger than normal. Maybe they were tougher than he'd given them credit for.
"Let's go," Eliot said, leading his teammates back out of the warehouse. "I've got some cold packs in the van, and you're gonna need 'em."