AN: Huge thanks to rianna34 for all the editing! Thanks as well to the rest of you that have encouraged me to write another story. Please review, it makes my day!
George W. Ryder was an historical person. He became somewhat notorious for skimming money from the Cripple's Welfare Society. A very brief article was printed in the New York Times April 20, 1918. I used this event as inspiration for this story but of course it is in the leverage timeline and not in 1918.
This story follows my stories: Monster, Wolf Moon, Malédiction du Loupgarou, and Cursed.
Normal or Not
The pavement was still wet from an early morning rain. The smell of the compost bins on the old loading dock and the trash dumpsters on the other side of the alley had overpowered the fresh scent of the rain. Robert wrinkled his nose at the smell as he lifted the lid on one of the compost bins. As Robert turned to pick up the bucket of vegetable scraps, he noticed a thin fluffy tail curled around the corner of the compost bin.
After dumping the scraps in the bin Robert crouched down to get a better look at the cat. When Robert leaned around the corner of the bin, he realized that it was the mutilated remains of a small tabby cat. "Oh, Dios mio!" Moving quickly away from the dead cat Robert took a moment to collect himself. He'd always been an animal lover and what had been done to the cat made him sick. For a moment he thought about telling his bosses about it, but Mr. Eliot and Mr. Hardison were very busy men. After a moment Robert went to the supply closet and got a set of disposable rubber gloves and an old plastic bag. While he had decided not to tell anyone about the poor cat, he didn't want to just leave it there, especially since some of the other staff occasionally took their breaks out behind the brew pub.
. ͽϿ Ѻ Ͼͼ .
Parker, Hardison, and Eliot were gathered around the jumbo screen.
"So how do we hook this guy?" Eliot stared at the smug looking face of George W. Ryder. The team's newest mark.
Ryder had apparently been skimming from the charity that he was raising funds for. Ortho Pro had a marvelous advertising campaign that featured wounded vets and small children receiving prosthetic legs or arms that were created and donated through the charitable branch of Ortho Pro. Several people that had contributed to the charity had been informed later that there was no record of their donations.
"How 'bout a variation of the white van speakers?" Hardison tapped his pencil on the edge of his keyboard while he too stared at the image of their mark.
"Oh! Oh! I got it!" Parker's whole countenance absolutely vibrated with excitement.
"Care to share?" Eliot rolled his eyes. Parker often got so caught up in playing out scenarios in her mind that she forgot that the rest of them couldn't follow along. Sometimes it struck Eliot as cute but most of the time it just annoyed him.
A sly grin crossed Parker's face. "A Money Box Scam with a Spanish Prisoner twist!"
"Wait, wait, you are talking money laundering, right?" Hardison looked back and forth between Parker and Ryder's picture. After tapping his chin with his pencil a few times, he smiled. "You know mama I think that just might work."
"Okay you're the hook" Eliot pointed at Parker. "and you're the launderer." Eliot pointed at Hardison. Eliot looked back to Parker. "Where do you want me? Or am I out of sight on this one." Eliot knew his grifting skills had really improved over the years, but he still enjoyed it when a con didn't put him in the limelight. The shadows were where he had operated most of his life at this point, and there was a comfort in being the team's unseen safety net.
Parker's smile was calculating as she fitted the last of her plan together. "You're with me Sparky."
. ͽϿ Ѻ Ͼͼ .
New York was a place they had all been many times and it didn't hold the same fascination for them as it did for most tourists. Eliot still maintained a safe house in New York and after schlepping in the last of the equipment that Hardison wanted from the van Eliot flopped down on the slightly dusty sofa with a sigh.
"Found the throwing knives that you hid behind the couch." Parker's disembodied voice came from somewhere above.
"Did you put them back?" Eliot looked around but hadn't spotted her yet.
"Mostly?" Eliot growled. "Parker you better put all of them back." Finally, Eliot spotted Parker wedged between the edge of the loft's floor and a wall that stuck out to form part of the kitchen below.
Parker pulled her knees in and dropped to the kitchen counter below before hopping to the floor on the main level. "Did you know that your vents are welded shut?" Parker flopped onto the sofa next to Eliot.
"Yes. I did that on purpose to stop people like you from getting in here." Eliot quirked a smile at Parker.
"Too late now bruh we already in." Hardison called from the dining room table.
Eliot got up and headed into the kitchen. After opening and closing a few cupboards and adjusting the temperature on the refrigerator Eliot grabbed up a wallet with an ID that matched the name on this address. "I'll be back in a bit. I've got my earbud in. Did you want me to take one of these?" Eliot wagged a burner phone in Hardison's direction.
"Sure." Hardison sounded fairly distracted and was typing furiously on his laptop.
. ͽϿ Ѻ Ͼͼ .
Eliot stepped out into the hum of lower Manhattan. The noise and the smell and the hurried energy was such a contrast to Portland. It was nearly overwhelming, but Eliot found it invigorating as well. Eliot stopped by Lucille 7.5 and pulled a couple of cloth shopping bags out of the back before relocking it and heading down Spring St. After a half block, he turned south was almost to Kenmare St when a taxi whizzed by causing a momentary breeze that brought with it a very familiar scent. Walking slowly to the next crosswalk he fiddled with a bracelet and after rummaging in a pocket pulled out a hair tie and started to pull his hair back into a tail. He knew he had waited long enough when he felt the lightest sensation from his back pocket.
"If you don't put my wallet back Parker, I won't be able to buy groceries to make you dinner with." Eliot turned a raised eyebrow at Parker.
"What did I do wrong?"
Eliot couldn't help his barely audible chuckle at Parker's question. He knew she didn't consider lifting his wallet wrong. She wanted to know what she had done to get caught. "You walked too close to the street. The traffic brought your scent to me."
"So if you weren't a wolfy you never would have noticed me?"
"Probably not. But you won't know if someone is a werewolf so always be careful okay." Eliot knew there was no point in telling her not to lift people's wallets. The best he could do was hope for caution. "Come on. Let's go pick up a few things."
After a few more blocks Eliot led them into a narrow brick building that looked like an old-fashioned corner store. There were stands out front that had a small assortment of fruits and flowers. Inside the store was cramped and didn't look like the layout had changed much since the late 1800s. There were cheeses in nets and garlic braids and onion braids hanging against the back wall and cartons of cigarettes stored on shelves above the cash register. Other dried goods and canned goods were stacked tightly on shelves that seemed to dominate the room. Parker took a second look at the register and Eliot nudged her with an elbow. Eliot whispered, "Stop casing the place." Before he turned to a balding man and loudly exclaimed "Giuseppe! So good to see you!"
The big man pulled Eliot into a quick hug, hammering at Eliot's back with a meaty fist. After giving Eliot a light shove away he surveyed Eliot and Parker for a moment. "Sebastian! It's good to see you too. Been a long time eh?" Turning a bright smile on Parker he wiped his hands on his apron before extending one in her direction. "And who is this charming creature?"
"I'm Parker. Just Parker." Parker gave Giuseppe's hand a very quick shake.
"Well Just Parker, what are you doing running around with Sebastian here? You are far too good for him I can tell. You should run away with me instead." Giuseppe gave her a wink and turned to Eliot. "So what brings you in at long last?"
"Had to make sure you were still in business and pick up a few supplies." Eliot and Giuseppe started talking cheeses and garlic and Parker wandered through the small confines of the store. In no time Eliot and Parker were back outside wandering farther into the old neighborhood that Eliot seemed to know so well.
"Sebastian huh?" Parker queried while her eyes assessed a woman's purse as they passed by.
Eliot grabbed Parkers hand in hopes of reminding her not to pick-pocket everyone they passed. "Yep at least in this part of town…Well most of New York really."
"It doesn't suit you." Parker felt the tug as Eliot moved a little faster and she turned away from the expensive watch a man was wearing.
"That's okay. Giuseppe back there is actually Stanley from Buffalo so I'm not the only one pretending to be someone else." Eliot continued to lead Parker farther into the neighborhood. Soon the sidewalks were clogged with springtime tourists. A man walking backwards while filming something with his cell phone bumped into Eliot. Eliot growled and shoulder checked the tourist away from him. Parker tugged his hand and held out a pair of sunglasses to him.
"Thanks Parker, but I don't think I'll need 'em." Eliot almost smiled when he saw Parker slip the sunglasses into a woman's purse as they passed. While he enjoyed not hiding his more wolfish aspects around the team, he had many years of controlling it in public, and a little annoyance with the tourists wasn't going to be the thing that pushed him past that control.
"So where are we going now?" Parker balanced for a moment on her toes to look over the crowd.
"There's a great little delicatessen on Mulberry that should have most of the things I still need and after that I need to stop by a butcher shop."
They crossed the street and wove their way between tourists. Eliot was keeping tabs on the crowd and the traffic, scanning for anything unusual. As he scanned for anything unusual happening in the buildings next to them, he noticed that Parker seemed distracted. Eliot focused on his pack bond with Parker and picked up a hum of happiness with a touch of worry. "What's wrong Parker?"
"Nothing." Parker tilted her face up to let the sunlight coming between the buildings shine on her for a moment.
Eliot decided not to press, and they continued walking. Before long they made it to the delicatessen and Eliot held the door open for Parker. Eliot went right to the counter and started placing an order with the woman behind the counter. Parker wandered around started looking for security measures.
When the woman behind the counter moved away to start filling his order Eliot turned his attention to Parker. He figured she was bored with the way she was randomly picking up items and putting them back haphazardly. She still looked distracted, but Eliot figured she would tell him what was up when she was ready.
A few minutes later they were headed back down the street on the way to the butcher shop. They hadn't made it a half a block when Eliot noticed that Parker wasn't next to him. With a sigh Eliot turned in a quick circle until he spotted her. Parker had her eyes closed and a look of delight on her face. Eliot looked at the storefront she had stopped in front of. It was an Italian bakery that seemed to be doing well if the foot traffic and the smell was anything to go by. Eliot walked back to Parker and fished out his wallet.
"Here." He handed Parker thirty bucks. "Get six cannolis and whatever you want for the walk back."
Eliot made it in and out of the butcher shop before Parker was done making her selections in the bakery. Eliot had waited several minutes by the time that Parker came out with two large paper bags.
"What on earth did you get?" Eliot took a deep breath and inhaled the scents coming from Parker's bags.
"Things." Parker frowned at him and moved the bags to her side as far from him as she could get.
"Cannoli, biscotti, zeppolis, and… Is that tiramisu?" Eliot's stomach grumbled at the delicious scents coming from Parker's bag. Parker must have parted with some of her own money to buy all that. Then again, he should probably check his wallet for a missing card.
"No fair using wolfy superpowers!" Parker gave him a sharp look. After rummaging in her bag for a moment Parker pulled out a biscotti for each of them.
They walked almost a block in silence or mostly silence since Parker continued to make forays into her paper bags. After Parker's third ambiguous glace at him Eliot checked their bond again. Still the hum of happiness but the worry was pushing its way to the fore. "So why did you decide to come with me?"
Parker glanced at him and swallowed a mouthful of cookie. "Should I have stayed at the apartment?"
"No. I'm glad you came. It was… you made it more fun than if I had gone by myself." The corner of Eliot's mouth quirked in a half smile. "So why did you decide to come with me?"
"Isn't this what normal people do? Go to the stores and walk around?" Parker fished another treat out of her paper bag.
Eliot shook his head at the amount stuff Parker had in that bag. They walked a little farther while he thought about what she had said. "Parker, why are you worried about what normal people do? You know I like you just the way you are and Hardison loves you. That man is absolutely crazy about you and he wouldn't want you to change."
"I don't know. I just… Well Nate was kinda a normal person before he led our team and that seemed to help. He knew things, all kinds of things. I've never really been normal. People started calling me crazy and I played off of that. I used it even though it wasn't real. But I've never really been normal either. There's something about me that's just…different."
There was so much there that Eliot thought needed to be addressed but Eliot let his wolf instinct lead the way. "So did a shopping trip change anything?"
"I don't know. I…" Parker put a half-eaten sfogliatella back in the bag.
Eliot could smell her unease and her body language was telling him that it had something to do with him. "Was this about the shopping trip or about me?"
"Well, it seems like you could have been a normal person maybe. Other than the hitting people and the wolfy thing." Parker took a deep breath and considered what she was trying to say. "Nobody would ever know you weren't a regular guy and I wanted to see if I could learn how to be normal too."
"Parker there is no such thing as really normal. Everybody, Everybody Parker, is hiding something or is some kind of weird in their own way. I don't know what put it into your head that being 'normal' would help you lead this team, but you can get rid of that idea right the hell now." The last few words were spoken with a growl and Eliot took a breath to get a hold of his anger. "I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you. I just don't want you to try to make yourself into less than what you are. You are brilliant, when you want to be, and kind, and funny. You just be you okay." Eliot put a rough hand on her soft cheek for just a moment.
Parker hoisted her bags and resettled them. "Thanks."
. ͽϿ Ѻ Ͼͼ .
After dinner Eliot was loading the dish washer and keeping tabs on the team. Parker had made her way to the loft above the kitchen and things had been suspiciously quiet long enough that Eliot was considering going up there himself. Hardison had been deeply immersed in his computer when they had gotten back from the shopping trip and not even food had really pulled him out of his digital world. Eliot figured that Hardison would be tied up in his work till late into the night. The hum of the dishwasher running was quickly tuned out and Eliot began washing his knives by hand. A movement to his left caught his attention and he realized it was Hardison getting an orange soda from the fridge.
"Hey man. Dinner was good. Didn't Parker say something earlier about dessert too?" Hardison looked around the kitchen as if expecting a dessert to appear from nowhere.
"She did. But I'm pretty sure she ate yours." Eliot chuckled and set the last of the knives in the drainer. "Don't worry I got you covered." He lifted the lid on the bread box and pulled out two cannolis. Setting each one on a dessert plate he carried them over to the kitchen table. Hardison dutifully followed and they settled in at opposite ends of the table.
"Parker seem distracted to you?" Hardison closed his eyes in enjoyment for a moment as he bit into the cannoli.
"Yah, we had a talk on the way back. She's got it into her head that being 'normal' would give'r some kind of advantage for running this crew." Eliot heard a slight sound from the loft above and figured Parker was listening in. Good.
"I find out who gave her that idea and I might have ta do somethin' or have you do something." Hardison grumbled. "Doesn't she see how smooth things have been runnin'? She doesn't need to change anything."
Eliot suddenly felt a burst of emotions from the pack bonds. LoveContentmentWonder as Hardison thought about Parker. "You've got it so bad." Eliot smirked and finished off his cannoli.
"Yes I do. And you just jealous!" Hardison smiled hugely and finished off his cannoli.