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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Quitting Job (1/5)

November 19th, 2016 (07:18 pm)
grumpy

feeling: grumpy

Title: The Quitting Job


Disclaimer: I do not own Leverage.


A/N: Pre-series, during series, post series. Fills my humiliatio square for hc_bingo. No beta, so beware of mistakes.


Summary: Nate’s chased all of them, at some point or another. Eliot is not an exception to that rule.


PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE





-o-


The first time Nate meets Eliot Spencer, he’s chasing a case of insurance fraud in Mexico. While he’s fairly certain IYS’ client burned his own house down via various drug cartel affiliations, he still needs to substantiate his case to denied the claim. This is going well until the client is attacked by two different drug cartels at the same time.


While Nate’s inside.


This is disconcerting for Nate, who has more experience with white collar crimes than the rest. Still, he’s good under pressure, and he’s more than happy to overlook the questionable legalities of his client’s weapons cache as they hunker down and prepare for the worst.


The worst, as it turns out, is a single man with close cropped hair and a hand gun. When he breaks in, Nate thinks he might be law enforcement or military.


But then he shoots Nate’s client between the eyes while his wife screams in horror.


The man takes care of that by putting a bullet between her eyes, too.


By this time, Nate has his gun up and raised, ready to defend himself.


The man turns the gun on Nate, and they both hesitate.


It’s telling, Nate reflects later, that the man doesn’t take a shot.


Nate did.


The man is already gone, though, and the place is raided by cops no more than two seconds later. Afterward, Nate finds all the evidence he needs to deny the claim, and there’s more evidence to suggest that the client was an active player in the cartel, too. His death is not a loss, and the impeccably timed drug clash must have been leaked to someone since the cops showed up right away.


Coincidence, maybe. Incidental, most definitely.


But Nate still hears the gunshot that was never taken, and for once, it seems like a mystery worth tackling.


-o-


Nate follows the trail of a man in Mexico, who turns out to be a man in Belize and a man in Honduras. Then he’s a man in the Congo and a man in Nigeria. He’s even a man in Saudi Arabia and a man in Russia. Nate tracks him all over the world, where he’s tied to acts of violence and suspicious murders that simply cannot be proven.


He gets lucky when a friend of his in the military IDs the man as former special forces.


“It always riled me that we weren’t able to keep him.”


“So he’s American?”


“Eliot Spencer?” the official says. “Tried and true. He killed for us without even flinching.”


“So what happened?” Nate wonders.


The official shrugs. “He killed for us,” he says. “You ask a man to pull a trigger too many times, and the main casualty is him. You can’t turn men into killers and expect them to keep a conscience. Not men like Eliot Spencer.”


“Is he wanted?” Nate asks.


“By us? No,” the official says. “By a dozen or so other countries, sure. You could make a pretty penny on his head.”


“If he’s gone private, then why don’t you pull him in?” Nate wonders.


“We’re too smart to try,” the official notes, shaking his head. “Whatever business you have with Spencer, just be happy if you get out alive. And pray to God you never have to do business with him again.”


-o-


Nate’s not scared off by the direness of the warning, but he’s not a bounty hunter, and he has other cases to work. Someone has robbed the Louvre, and someone’s stolen intellectual data from a Fortune 500 company. And Sophie Devereaux is pretending to be a princess in Romania.


Again.


Nate doesn’t pursue cases for fun, after all.


No, Nate takes cases to win.


-o-


Then someone hijacks a truck of valuables insured by IYS on a highway in Prague. It’s billions of dollars worth of art and other personal effects.


Nate doesn’t quite suspect fraud, but he suspects that finding the stolen van is easier than writing a check.


When he finds the van in an abandoned warehouse, the back door is still open. He rounds the corner, gun raised, ready for anything.


Eliot Spencer is in the back, sitting on a crate, sifting through an open box.


He looks back at Nate, sees the gun, and looks diffidently back at the crate.

“Come out,” Nate orders. “With your hands up.”


“You don’t want to do that, man,” Spencer says.


His voice is younger than Nate expects, heavy with a twang. “This is stolen property,” Nate says, holding the gun steady.


Spencer doesn’t flinch. “You have no idea,” he says, breaking open another crate. “Millions of dollars worth of merchandise, and most of it has been bought through black market associates.”


“So, what?” Nate asks, adjusting his finger a little tighter on the trigger. “You’re going to reappropriate it?”


Spencer shrugs. “Most of it isn’t my concern.”


Nate scrunches his face up. “You stole the truck--”


Spencer pulls out a stack of papers from the crate, tucking them in his jacket before he gets to his feet. He’s well built but not an overly imposing figure. He saunters to the edge of the truck, jumping down, Nate’s gun following him the whole way.


“The police--”


“Are not coming,” Spencer says. “Insurance guy, right? This goes better if you don’t involve the police. Less time, less paperwork, and your company isn’t paying anything to anybody. That’s why you’re here, right?”


Nate nods to Spencer’s jacket. “What did you take?”


“Like I said,” Spencer says. “Stolen merchandise. The person I work for is highly motivated for its return.”


Nate shakes his head. “I can’t let you do that.”


Spencer studies him, his mouth widening into a patronizing -- almost pitying -- smile. “You can’t stop me.”


“I have the gun,” Nate says, jerking it a little higher with a sneer.


Spencer doesn’t even look at it. Instead, he steps forward until his chest is almost touching the muzzle. “And if you put it away now, I won’t be tempted to use it on you,” he says darkly.


Nate can’t help it; he flinches. The conversational tone, the aw-shucks demeanor. The most threatening thing is how non-threatening he presents himself.


Spencer inclines his head. “Take the truck,” he says, as if he’s doing Nate a favor. “Avoid the payout. Live to go home again. You do your job. I do mine.”


Nate looks at Spencer.


He looks at the truck.


Finally, he drops his aim.


This man is doing him a favor. Nate doesn’t like to admit it when he’s been flat out out-maneuvered. Nate’s been treating him like a grifter or a thief, and that’s not exactly what he is. An assassin would have killed him by now; a hitter would make conversation. Which means Nate needs to regroup and come up with a more effective plan of attack.


Assuming, of course, he doesn’t die here.


Spencer smiles again. “There you go,” he says on his way out. He winks, slinging his bag over his shoulder as he strolls out the door. “Good choice.”


Nate watches him go, not daring to move yet, and hopes to hell he’s right.


Next time, he promises himself.


Next time he won’t make a good choice, he’ll make a better choice.


And Eliot Spencer will change his tune.


Next time.


-o-


Of course, the next time he sees Eliot Spencer it’s on surveillance footage, stealing a damn airplane from a client, and this time he doesn’t give it back. Nate has a good place to start, though, considering he knows Eliot’s name and a few of his past affiliations. It’s a bit of a tangled mess to track him, through different jobs and associates, just enough to figure out that most people who meet Eliot Spencer on the job, don’t walk away alive.


Nate’s a serious, serious exception to that rule.


This should probably be clue one to stop pursuing this case and write the damn check already.


But Nate’s not good at quitting.


Nate’s not good at it at all.


-o-


He tracks Eliot across a few continents, but gets a solid lead in Morocco. He follows a trail of carnage through the city before catching up with Spencer at a private hangar outside the city.


This time, his aim doesn’t slip.


“The police really are on their way this time,” he announces.


Spencer looks back at him, more annoyed than surprised. “Why the hell are you even here?”


Nate steps closer. “The airplane,” he says.


Spencer rolls his eyes. “That’s a couple million, tops,” he says. “You chased me all over Europe and Africa for that?”


Nate shrugs. “The principle of the thing.”


Spencer sets his mouth grimly, the good old boy attitude gone now. “You should take the loss on this one.”


“I don’t like quitting,” Nate tells him.


Spencer nods, almost appearing apologetic. “I never said quit,” he tells Nate, voice heavier now. “I believe my exact word was loss.”


Before Nate can see what’s happening, he’s been disarmed and he’s on the ground, staring up at the ceiling while gasping for breath. Spencer has his arm wrenched up, holding the torque so Nate can’t move.


“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he says, voice low as the sirens start up in the distance.


Nate blinks, and Spencer grimaces.


Then everything goes dark.


-o-


He wakes up when the cops get there with a throbbing headache. The evidence is gone, and Spencer is nowhere to be seen.


Nate calls his wife and tells her he won’t be home just yet.


He still has a job to do.


-o-


The bruise on his face is entirely superficial, but Nate looks at it in the mirror every morning until it’s faded green and yellow. That’s his inspiration, he decides.


He’s going to find his client’s valuables. He’s going to spare IYS a massive payout.


Mostly, though, he’s going to catch Eliot Spencer.


By any means possible.


-o-


He goes from Morocco to Southern France. A few pieces from the shipment show up there, but no one on the ground recognizes Spencer. He takes a lead to Italy, and when he flashes Spencer’s picture there, no one wants to talk to him at all.


A few sources on the ground in Moscow tell him to leave this one alone. Sergei, who has always been helpful, flat out tells him that it’s better to take the loss on this one. A fence in Serbia shows Nate a few scars from the time he once tried to get something over on Eliot Spencer.


By this time, Nate has recovered a quarter of the pieces, which isn’t so bad. His boss tells him that the company will be happy with that much, but Nate’s not done yet.


Not when his face is still sore and Eliot Spencer is a free man.


-o-


It is impossible not to notice that the trail may be obscure but it’s well cleared. Every heavy hitter Nate’s had to worry about in the past seems to be out of commission for the time being. Broken arms, facial reconstruction, dental work. One guy’s in a coma. A few just don’t exist anymore.


This makes his job somewhat easier, although he’s not sure what to make of it. If Spencer is hawking the pieces, why would he bother with the local muscle? More than that, who is financing all of this? Spencer is moving fast, dropping pieces as he goes, which means he’s had this planned out. But the disparity between the buyers is noteworthy. Mid-tier criminals and high brow clients. This isn’t straight up theft, and Nate’s starting to suspect that his client had a lot more than he let on in that shipment.


This knowledge would be enough to invalidate the claim right then and there.


Which is why Nate conveniently keeps that information to himself.


-o-


The lead in Germany is the most perplexing. An arms dealer with a broken leg reluctantly confirms that he closed a deal with Spencer just last week at a little restaurant in the heart of the city. When Nate shows Spencer’s picture there, the girl behind the counter nods.


“I saw him,” she confirms.


“Were you buying or selling?”


The girl cocks his head. “I am a waitress.”


Nate chuckles. “But Spencer’s not a patron,” he says.


The girl shuffles his feet with a sigh.


“I’m not after the middle man here,” Nate explains. “I just want what he had to sell, and I want him along with it.”


The girl shakes her head. “He came to see the boss last week,” she says. “Very late, after closing. I was going to stay and help clean up, but he asked me to leave. When I came back in the morning, Eliot was still there. He helped with the breakfast crowd.”


Nate frowns, glancing at the picture to make sure he had the right one. “Eliot?”


She nods again. “He stayed until lunch,” she says. “Then I never saw him again.”


Nate buys a loaf of bread and thanks her, pocketing the picture thoughtfully.


-o-


He tries to talk to the girl’s boss, but he’s not around. Three days later, he learns the man is gone, packed up and moved with no forwarding address. It’s a lead he might pursue, but he’s far enough behind Spencer as it is. If he wants to be home for his anniversary, he’s going to have to move.


-o-


Unexpectedly, a large portion of his client’s inventory shows up in a nowhere country called San Lorenzo. Nate knows he could recover it and be lauded back at the office in LA, but he’s got surveillance footage of Spencer in Hong Kong dated just two days earlier.


Needless to say, Nate phones in a tip to Sterling -- he can always throw that guy a bone -- and buys tickets to Hong Kong.


-o-


This is where he gets lucky -- really lucky. Part of every chase is luck, and Nate’s man enough to admit that. It takes skill, however, to be around long enough to get lucky. Most of his lesser compatriots quit before things finally break in their direction.


Not Nate, though. No one can ever say Nate Ford has failed.


At least, not for a lack of trying.


In Hong Kong, he doesn’t find Eliot Spencer, but he does find the next best thing.


Another man who would like to kill him.


-o-


“He’s a son of a bitch, that’s what he is,” the man seethes. This man is a criminal of the worst kind, which would normally make Nate a little reluctant to trust him, but the enemy of your enemy...is a damn good informant. “We had a deal, you know? And I was ready to pay him very good money for his merchandise.”


The merchandise doesn’t belong to either one of them, really, but Nate’s not about to start splitting hairs now.


“But Eliot? Eliot walks in here and says the terms have changed,” the man says, spitting vitriol now. Like, literally spitting. Nate has to force himself not to take a step back. “When I questioned his sudden change, he shot the place up. I had a crew of 8. Now it’s just me and my cousin, and he’s in the hospital, man. I got lucky because I only took a slug in my arm.”


This seems plausible, given how angry the man is and the sling on his arm. Nate wonders what terms exactly changed. He also wonders, somewhat absently, who actually escalated the aggression. In all the time he’s chased Eliot, his choice of violence has been extreme yet rarely without reason. There’s a method to it all, even if it’s not a method Nate can entirely see. Spencer’s not a psychopath, killing people at will. And he’s not even a hot head, giving in to heated emotions on the spur of the moment. There’s got to be a reason some people are beaten and others are put in the ground.


A reason that others escape entirely unscathed.


Maybe Nate will ask him.


When he brings Spencer to justice.


Finally, Nate nods. Then he pulls out a wad of cash from his pocket and holds it out to the man. “Here,” he says. “This should cover your troubles.”


The man eyes it, then looks at Nate suspiciously. “What’s that for?”


“Medical bills, hiring new guys,” Nate says. He shrugs. “Whatever you want.”


“And what do you want for it in return?” the man asks skeptically.


“Good will, safe passage,” Nate says. “And everyone else in town who would buy the shipment if you didn’t.”


The man looks at Nate.


He looks at the money.


After a long moment, he reaches out, taking it with his good hand and shoving it in his pocket. “Yeah,” he says. “I might be able to help you with that.”


-o-


Fortunately, it’s a short list, and Nate knows with a few calls he can narrow it down even further. Given that Spencer’s deal here fell through just two days ago, he knows that another buyer will have to be lined up immediately to keep Spencer on the move.


And Spencer will be on the move. He’s too smart to sit still, especially when he’s carrying hot items.


On his way out, Nate calls the cops and alerts them to this address. The man, after all, is a criminal and is no longer a necessary evil in the world. The stack of bills in his pocket has been tagged as part of the missing insurance claim he’s tracking down. He recovered it last week but the paperwork hasn’t gone through.


There’s no reason not to kill two birds with one stone.


For now, though, Nate has more important things to think about.


-o-


After chasing Eliot Spencer around the world for the better part of two months, it’s hard to call the plan simple. Nate’s employed every resource he has tracking this man, and it’s been one hell of a ride. Spencer’s good, Nate will give him that, but Nate’s better.


There are a lot of options to consider once he figures out the new buyers. For example, he could tip the cops off to the whole deal and let law enforcement do the dirty work. The risk, of course, is that Spencer will get away in the melee, and given what he’s seen of Spencer’s work to date, that seems too likely to put on the table at all.


He also considers taking out the buyers in advance and putting himself in their place. There’d be a certain amount of drama with that, and it would be damn fun to see Spencer’s face when he realizes he’s been had. Of course, Spencer could probably kill him, even if Nate goes in armed, and he’s fairly certain that local law enforcement will refuse to let him play bait if he tries to make the sting through official channels.


No, the best way is much less complicated, much more Spencer. This is where Nate’s a genius, and everyone knows it. He’s not just able to see things that other people can’t, but he’s able to see things from someone else’s point of view. This isn’t Scout Finch’s version of justice, though. This is even more than creating a profile. This is about chasing someone and learning who they are. This is about picking up the clues to put together a picture that even the person themselves isn’t aware they’re leaving behind. When Nate chases someone, he becomes them. He catches them because he knows, in the simplest terms possible, what they’re going to do next.


As for Spencer, he’s not for flash and pomp. He prefers to keep things simple.


That means transit.


The weakest point of any exchange is transit. Hell, Nate knows this because Spencer nabbed a truck and a plane out from under him. If it’s true for Nate, then it’s true for Spencer, too. There’s no way Nate can overpower someone like Spencer, but he can out think him. Use Spencer’s own methodologies against him.


That’s the quickest way to success.


And the most gratifying.


-o-


During the whole chase, the hard part has been finding Spencer.


In the end, all Nate has to do is let Spencer come to him.


Since he’s identified the buyers, all he has to do is scope out their operation. Once he figures out the deal is in motion, he’s already parked in a safe location with an excellent vantage point. All he has to do is watch as Spencer gets out of the car and makes his way inside.


Nate chuckles to himself as he gets out of his car.


It’s almost too easy.


-o-


By the time the deal is done, Nate is already back in his car. He watches as Spencer gets inside and starts up the engine. He does a quick check around him to see if he’s being followed, and that’s all it takes.


Nate sees him start to flag, blinking his eyes for a moment as he stares at the steering wheel. He reaches for the window, but his coordination is already shot. Within a minute, Spencer is slumped over, unconscious behind the wheel without even getting the car out of park.


Knockout gas pushed in through the tailpipe. Odorless, tasteless and instantly effective. Honestly, it’s good Nate’s one of the good guys because he could be frightening if he wasn’t.


-o-


He has to give Spencer credit: the man at least made it interesting. In the end, this ends the way all of Nate’s cases do, though.


Success.


Opening the door to Spencer’s car, he puts a hand over his face and turns off the ignition. He undoes Spencer’s seat belt, dragging him free of the vehicle and laying him down a safe distance away from the car. Fortunately, this is a quiet street with very little traffic. Thank God for the paranoia of criminals. It could definitely work in Nate’s favor.


Hastily, he rolls Spencer on his back, promptly tying Spencer’s wrists and ankles together with a pair of zipties. Then he does it again, just to be safe.


After that, he turns Spencer on his side and checks his breathing and heart rate. The risk with this kind of thing is small, but he wants to bring Spencer to justice, not kill him. The chance of being tried for manslaughter does not appeal to him, and Nate doesn’t have time for any drawn out legal matters at this point in his career.


Fortunately, Spencer’s fine, and Nate proceeds to pop the trunk and search the rest of the car. Spencer is traveling light with few personal effects. It seems to be all business for him.


Nate grins, unpacking the remaining items that belong to his client. At this point, he’s recovered 90 percent of the assets, which is more than enough to close the book on this one for good.


As for the rest of Spencer’s inventory -- well, it’s enough to get him locked up with local authorities. He entertains the idea of collecting the bounty on Spencer’s head in various countries, but this isn’t about the money.


He pulls out his phone and smirks as he dials.


This is about the glory of coming out on top.


“It was a good run,” Nate says to Spencer’s prone form. “But it’s your turn to take the loss.”


-o-


With the cops on the way and his client’s assets recovered, Nate could just leave. It’d be easier, he knows, not to get involved. If he stays, he’ll have to be a cooperative witness and probably spend the better part of the day answering questions at the police station.


The thing is, Nate doesn’t just like to win.


He likes to make sure everyone knows he’s won.


Especially those people he’s beaten.


That’s why he’s the first thing Spencer sees when he comes to, blinking groggily on the side of the road. He squints up in confusion at Nate, and it takes him several seconds before his head is clear enough to put the pieces together.


It’s to his credit that he does put it together. Nate’s had to spell it out for lesser foes. Spencer’s good.


That makes beating him even better.


“Knockout gas?” Spencer asks, shifting on the ground and testing his restraints. He cranes his neck up to look Nate in the eyes. “In my car?”


Nate shrugs. “You like taking things in transit,” he says. “Stolen merchandise isn’t the only thing worth nabbing.”


Spencer grunts, straining a little harder against the restraints but he has no way to get enough leverage to do anything about them.


“This time, you’ll be here when the cops show up,” Nate tells him. “Game’s over, Spencer. I won.”


Huffing, Spencer flops on his back a little more. “It’s Eliot.”


Nate frowns.


“People call me Eliot,” he says again.


“You’re telling me that people are scared of a southern boy named Eliot?” Nate asks, one eyebrow cocked. “An assassin named Eliot?”


Spencer almost smiles. “It ain’t the name that’s scary,” he says. “And I’m not an assassin.”


“So you don’t go around killing people for money,” Nate presumes.


“Retrieval specialist,” Spencer clarifies for him.


“You just happen to retrieve dead bodies sometimes?” Nate asks.


Spencer actually reddens at that. Like Nate has well and truly embarrassed him. Not by besting him and laying him out on the ground. But by pointing out the very obvious fact that Eliot Spencer’s a trained killer for hire. “I don’t pick the jobs, man,” he says. “I don’t play judge and jury.”


“Just the executioner,” Nate says with a cool nod.


“We all do what we need to do for a paycheck, right?” Spencer asks, equally cool in return. “Isn’t that what you tell yourself by working for an insurance agency? That denies people’s claims on the most important things?”


“I get people their things back,” Nate points out.


“And you think I don’t?” Spencer replies.


Nate regards him carefully. “Who do you work for, then?” he asks.


Spencer chuckles, shaking his head. “If you think I’m going to roll over and tell you that, then you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”


“Oh, I think I know you well enough,” Nate says. “You started out as a soldier. One of the best we had. But when you had no place else to go, you went private. You stopped doing it for the greater good and focused on your good. And in everything, you let yourself believe that it’s okay as long as you’re following orders. That’s what they told you, right? In the army? That you just have to follow orders, and it’s okay. It’s not your fault. Trading one authority figure for another -- that’s nothing. Who needs to fight for your country when you can fight for a paycheck?”


The humor has faded from Spencer’s face. He shakes his head. “You don’t know anything about me.”


“I know you haven’t been home in years,” Nate tells him. “I know your father still runs a hardware store and that you haven’t been home since you joined the service at 18. I know you’re wanted in connection with dozens of crimes around the world, and those are just the ones with enough evidence to indict you. I know I could have sold you to countries for more than my client’s insurance claim. And I know those countries would string you up in front of a cheering crowd.”


Spencer doesn’t flinch.


Nate smiles mirthlessly. “I can still make a phone call to arrange that, if you like,” he says. “Myanmar sounds nice, don’t you think? Not a great place to live, maybe. But a good place to die painfully.”


“You do what you got to do,” Spencer replies.


Nate studies Spencer for a moment before the sound of sirens start to echo in the distance. Shaking his head, Nate gets to his feet, looking down at Spencer. “If it’s any consolation, you made it a challenge,” he says. “That doesn’t happen often.”


Spencer lifts his chin. “Same to you,” he says. “And good luck with the insurance thing.”


Nate tweaks his eyebrows. “Good luck with prison.”


He’s there to greet the cops, and he’s there as Spencer is dragged into the back of a cop car and taken away forcibly. In handcuffs.


The four hours he spends answering questions is inconvenient.


Inconvenient, but totally, one hundred percent worth it.


-o-


He catches the next flight home and treats himself to first class. The company will cover it after saving them millions. Nate’s got the best expense account of anyone in the office, and it’s not like he hasn’t earned it.


Settling back, he orders a drink.


Some days, he really loves his job.


-o-


It’s more or less a hero’s welcome. Sure, there’s no ticker-tape parade, but he gets a nice round of applause and a personal visit from Ian Blackpoole himself.


“Hell of a job, Nathan,” Ian says, holding out a drink for him.


Nate takes it. “Just doing my job.”


“Don’t think it goes unnoticed,” Ian tells him, lifting his own glass. “If there’s anything we can ever do for you…”


Nate smirks, taking a drink. “I’ll be sure to let you know.”


-o-


He takes off early and buys Maggie a dozen roses and a very expensive bottle of wine.


“You know, I don’t love you because you’re the best investigator IYS has,” she tells him as he undoes her dress.


“Yeah?” he asks, running hot kisses along the back of her neck.


She hums a little, letting her body mold into his. “Yeah,” she says, turning around to kiss him on the mouth.


He presses his hands down the exposed skin of her back, pulling her a little closer still.


Muffling a moan, she closes her eyes. “But I will say,” she says, voice thick and heavy as her fingers curl into his slicked back hair. “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”


-o-


The next morning, Nate sleeps late. By the time he gets up, Maggie is already gone, but she’s left a note with a big smiley face right by the bedside. He’s still pretty jet lagged, but now that he’s off the case, there’s no point in worrying about what time it is. As it is, all he wants to do is drink his coffee and read his paper and enjoy the fact that he’s home.


He starts his laptop out of habit, and lets it power up while he rustles in the cupboards for something to eat. He’s been gone weeks, but Maggie keeps his favorites stocked.


Grinning, Nate finds an energy bar, and he rips the wrapper off, consuming half of it in one bite. As his email starts up, he flips the paper open before turning his attention to the computer once more.


Most of the emails are from work, and most of them are completely unimportant. A few questions about paperwork; one idiot from down in accounting who seems to question his need to trek through every major city in Europe and Asia. Sterling sends him a congratulatory email that almost sounds sincere.


Then there’s a new message at the top.


Forwarded from Sterling.


Thought you might want to know, is all it says.


There’s a link to a translated paper from Hong Kong.


Nate’s stomach drops.


The headline reads: Prisoner Escapes En Route.


There’s a picture of Spencer’s mugshot, and an article that details the long list of crimes Spencer is wanted for and how he escaped from a armored police van guarded by three armed men without the driver even realizing something was wrong.


Nate puts his energy bar down and curses.


-o-


Thoughts of a leisurely day aside, Nate gets to work. He calls his assets in Hong Kong, who confirm the story with little added detail. When he presses to find out where Spencer might have gone, they all give him the same story.


He’s a ghost; he’s too damn good. As if it’s some consolation, Nate came closer than anyone else to bringing Spencer to justice, but this isn’t the first time he’s escaped. It probably won’t be the last.


There are no leads, no trails, nothing.


Eliot Spencer is gone.


-o-


When Maggie gets home, he’s still in his pajamas -- brooding.


She winces apologetically. “I heard,” she says. “I had hoped you wouldn’t take it this bad.”


“Bad?” he asks, scrubbing a hand over his scruffy face. “I haven’t gotten on a plane yet, so I think I’m actually pretty measured.”


She comes over to him, draping an arm around him. “This isn’t on you,” she says. “You caught him. You recovered all of the assets and saved IYS from a massive payout. It’s not your fault that the local police couldn’t keep a hold on him.”


“I chased him for months, Maggie,” he says, voice cutting on the words.


“You’ve chased other people longer,” she says.


“Sophie Devereaux doesn’t count,” Nate replies. “She doesn’t even know how to tell the truth. Every investigator has a Sophie Devereaux -- not an Eliot Spencer. And now the bastard’s just going to walk.”


“It’s hardly walking,” Maggie points out. “You cut his operation off at the knees. He’s going to have to burn through all his resources to lay low and it’ll be months before it’s safe enough for him to even begin getting back on the job again. You beat him, honey.”


He takes a deep breath and wishes he could believe her.


She hugs him a little closer. “I mean, you could go off after him again,” she says with a shrug. “And I know, without a doubt, you’d catch him again.”


He looks at her.


Her mouth widens into a smile. “But you don’t have anything to prove, not to me and not to anyone at the office--”


“Sterling--”


“Sterling is still upset because some hacker got the better of him in Iceland,” Maggie says with a roll of her eyes. “My point is, we all know you beat Eliot Spencer. Next time, he’ll know better than to cross your path.”


Nate nods, looking back down at the article, still open on his computer.


“Come on,” Maggie cajoles. “Let’s eat out.”


Nate nods absently before following her to the bedroom to get changed.


It’s a little gratifying to think about, actually.


Next time.


-o-


The next day, Nate decides the party’s over. He goes straight to Blackpoole’s office and asks for the biggest open case IYS has at the moment. Blackpoole regards him with a curious, knowing smile as he hands over the file.


“Looks like a new player, as best I can tell,” he says. “Young, female and very, very good.”


Nate flips it open and looks at a mugshot of a blonde girl with thick bangs and a ponytail. “Hello, Parker,” he muses. “Let’s see what you’re made of.”


-o-


It still bothers him that Eliot Spencer is out there, somewhere, but Parker is an apt distraction. Her ability to break in and get out is almost unparalleled, if only because she’s the craziest person he’s ever chased -- hands down. She jumps off buildings, climbs on moving cars -- all the exits that Nate used to deem too ridiculous are suddenly fair game with her. He tracks her with a pair of Picasso paintings lifted from a private collection, and even when he recovers the paintings, she gets away by jumping off a bridge.


Local police are saying she’s probably dead, and IYS wants him to lend a hand with Sterling’s hacker, so Nate returns the paintings and puts Parker’s name on his to-do list.


Right underneath Spencer’s.


-o-


Nate closes in on the hacker -- some kid barely out of middle school named Hardison -- but Sterling blows it at the last moment. In the end, they don’t have the evidence, and Hardison’s foster mom threatens to whip their asses with spoons if they come bother her family again. It’s Sterling’s problem, though -- and Sterling’s loss.

This is why Nate has the corner office and the wet bar.


And Sterling doesn’t.


-o-


Hardison isn’t his case, but he still makes Nate’s list, just a little below Parker.


He’s entertaining leads for all three when he picks up a trail on a massive heist in Germany again. The next six months completely preoccupy him, and even though he recovers the stolen jewels, she still makes off with a cache of paintings that leaves Nate seeing red.


He crosses off Spencer’s name, scribbling through Parker’s and Hardison’s while he’s at it. They’re all eclipsed by another name, which he writes in blocky, all caps so he won’t forget.


Sophie Devereaux.


As if he could ever possibly forget.


-o-


Life happens, as life is prone to happening. Maggie gets pregnant; his son is born. Sam takes his first steps and starts preschool and Nate chases Sophie Deveraux after a con in Brussels. Sam has his first day of kindergarten when Nate watches a security feed of a heist on an armored car, orchestrated by a single, unarmed man in broad daylight. He walks off with several hundred thousand in cash and a signed copy of an original Beatles record.


Nate pauses the screen, zooming in.


“Well, I’ll be damned,” he mutters.


-o-


“Spencer?” Maggie asks when Sam’s in bed. “I thought you were chasing Sophie Devereaux again?”


“Yeah, but the trail’s cold, and this,” Nate says. “This is hot.”


Maggie looks at him quizzically. “You’re sure?”


“Yeah, I don’t forget a face,” Nate says. “I thought maybe he was out of the game, but this wasn’t a small thing.”


“So he’s just been careful,” Maggie says. “He’s someone who learns.”


“Well, if he had really learned, he wouldn’t have stolen a piece insured by IYS,” Nate says.


“The chase?” Maggie says.


Nate grins back at her. “Has just begun.”


-o-


He asks around, and the story’s different. Eliot -- that’s what everyone calls him, even his worst enemies -- is still vicious and skilled, but there’s no trail of bodies. A trail of hospital bills, maybe, but most of the people live to tell the tale.


This is part of a shifting profile as far as Eliot is concerned, suggesting that he’s working under different methods. And it’s a shifting game plan, too. He’d chased Eliot down for millions of dollars worth of merchandise. These current jobs are not petty theft by any means, but they’re not the big numbers Nate remembers.


In and out, one and done. That’s Eliot’s style now. He’s harder to track in this sense, because he works alone and the lower volume means whatever he fences is gone faster than Nate can usually track. Sometimes, of course, there’s a massacre in Eliot’s wake, but the bodies of criminals and mobsters doesn’t make anyone feel bad. Hell, when Eliot takes down the Butcher of Kiev, Nate’s almost on his side.


Almost.


Which is only good in horseshoes and hand grenades.


Not insurance claims.


-o-


When Nate finally comes face to face with Eliot, it’s actually a mistake. They’re both so startled by the encounter that, for a moment, they both just stare.


Eliot’s in tactical gear, and he’s holding a baseball.


A baseball signed by Babe Ruth and insured by IYS.


“Uh, you know I’m going to have to take that,” Nate finally says.


“Yeah, I know you’re going to try,” Eliot replies.


“This seems kind of low brow,” Nate tells him. “Last time I caught you, you were fencing millions.”


“Last time you caught me, I was out of police custody within two days,” Eliot reminds him.


“Some of us learn from our mistakes,” Nate says. He inclines his head. “Others, not so much.”


“Just depends on the lesson,” Eliot says.


“That why you’ve gone soft?” Nate says. “I’ve talked to a bunch of people who’d like you to pay for their hospital bills.”


“Better than their funerals,” Eliot points out.


“So you have gone soft?” Nate asks.


“No, I’ve gone self employed,” Eliot says.


“Tired of sharing the profits?”


“Tired of taking orders,” Eliot tells him.


Nate nods, considering this. Eliot looks different now, the hard lines of his face framed by longer hair and glasses. He looks like he could be a barista at a coffee shop, except for the fact that Nate’s pretty sure he could pound his head in if he wanted.


That’s not how Nate’s going to play this, though. “I should take you in,” he says.


Eliot makes a face. “No, you shouldn’t.”


“Any reason why not?” Nate asks.


“Because I don’t want to hit you,” Eliot tells him.


“And why’s that?” Nate asks.


“I kind of like you,” Eliot says. “I can count on one hand the number of people who have caught me on the job.”


“Is that a compliment?” Nate says ruefully.


“A reminder,” Eliot tells him, smiling settling in with a deadly seriousness in his eyes. “That I let you live.”


It’s a stalemate, and they both know it. Worse than that, Nate’s got nothing to hold him, because Nate may be smarter, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Eliot’s got him beat in any kind of combat.


And Nate hates to quit -- he really, really does -- but Sam has a soccer game next week, and Nate promised he’d be home.


“You like me, but you’re not letting me do my job,” Nate says instead.


“I like you,” Eliot says. “But I need to do mine.”


Nate rocks on his heels, letting out a heavy breath. “This whole liking thing,” he says. “It isn’t mutual.”


Eliot almost looks sorry.


Before he punches Nate out again.


-o-


This time, he goes home with a black eye and takes the loss. He’s able to prove the client used a faulty security system, and IYS still doesn’t have to write a check. Blackpoole is thrilled, but Nate can’t help but feel like it’s a letdown.


Like watching Sam dribble all the way up the field and miss two feet from the goal.


Close.


But not close enough.


-o-


He gets sidetracked by a series of high profile cases that turn out to be nothing but fraud. There’s no thrill of the chase, but Nate can’t deny that it feels good to stick it to people who really, really have it coming. Insurance fraud isn’t the most morally reprehensible crime Nate can think of, but the people who do it are never paragons of innocence.


It’s nice to remember, sometimes, who the bad guys really are in this world. Thieves, grifters, hackers, hitters -- they know who they are. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not. These people, though. So rich, so presumptive, so blinded by their own silver spoons -- these are the people he despises the most.


Of course, he also loves them.


After all, Nate’s chased the likes of Eliot Spencer and Sophie Devereaux. These criminals in comparison? They make his job so incredibly easy.


-o-


Nate loses the trail entirely when he’s promoted again. It’s a big to-do, and he uses his Christmas bonus to take Maggie and Sam to Hawaii for a week. They stay on the beach, and Nate takes them to all the best restaurants. He plays with Sam in the ocean and sits with Maggie in the lanai watching the sun set across the ocean.


It’s perfect, he thinks to himself. It’s absolutely perfect.


The next morning, he skims the paper and sees an article about a vintage guitar being stolen from a private collection in the Philippines. An in and out job with a handful of security men in the hospital. It has Eliot’s MO written all over it, but Nate knows the piece isn’t insured by IYS.


He can’t help but feel like somehow he’s missing out.


-o-


At Maggie’s request, he takes more domestic cases. He’s established enough to earn more than a few favors, and Blackpoole likes the idea of keeping him around as a special commodity to assuage the nerves of his most elite clients.


Besides, Sam’s growing up fast, Maggie reminds him, and he doesn’t want to miss it. He agrees because she’s right, naturally, but he follows the active cases he can’t go on anymore.


It’s impossible not to.


“This isn’t your case, Nate,” Sterling tells him dourly after he just narrowly misses Parker in Australia.


“Yeah, but I’ve chased Parker,” Nate says, trying to sound conversational and failing spectacularly.


Sterling grimaces. No one blamed him for not recovering the diamonds, but there was no standing ovation when he got back to the office after the two months down under. “You’re the one who took the office job,” he reminds Nate. “You quit.”


“I didn’t quit,” Nate replies immediately.


Sterling raises his eyebrows. “Scared you lost your touch?”


“I didn’t quit,” Nate says, more vigorously this time. “You know me. I don’t quit.”


“No,” Sterling muses with a smirk. “You just play backseat driver from your comfortable office with the wet bar.”


Nate narrows his eyes a bit. “I would have caught Parker.”


“And yet,” Sterling says. “She’s still at large after the first half dozen times you tracked her.”


“Hey, whatever you need to tell yourself.”


Sterling helps himself to another drink at Nate’s bar. He waggles his eyebrows. “Touche.”


-o-


Touche, Nate thinks as he lays awake in bed that night.


You quit.


He wiggles his toes, chewing his lip.


You quit..


His own protests sound feeble in his head. He turns his head, glancing at Maggie, who’s asleep next to him. He thinks about Sam sprawled out in his bed down the hall.


The problem is, Sterling’s wrong about a lot of things, but he’s right about that much. Nate did quit, in his own way. Parker’s his, just like Sophie Devereaux and Hardison and Eliot. He’s sitting in an office while the trail goes cold, and that’s not how it works.


That’s not how Nate works.


Once he starts something, he can’t stop.


Hell or high water, Nathan Ford finishes what he starts.


-o-


He’s up before Maggie the next morning, and he barely has time to ruffle Sam’s hair before he’s out the door and at the office. He spreads out all his files on his desk and pulls the newest ones that IYS has accumulate and starts to look for patterns.


A place to start.


Parker’s a no-go. After Australia, she’s in the wind, and a heist that big will keep her low to the ground for a bit -- several months, at the very least. Hardison is active again -- Nate figures the kid must have graduated from high school -- but most of his activities have him on the fed’s watchlist, not IYS’. There are some sightings that may be Sophie Devereaux, but they’re longshots at best, and Nate’s too anxious to spend his time on slim chances.


Which just leaves Eliot.


Honestly, most of his actions are not within Nate’s purview, but he’s hit a handful of IYS clients over the last few months. Nothing big, but nothing’s been recovered either. Interestingly enough, IYS hasn’t had to pay a single claim, though. Every client has been denied for a breach of contract in other areas. It’s not that Eliot’s playing Robin Hood and stealing from the rich to give to the poor or anything like that, but his victims are rarely blameless.


This bothers him the more he thinks about it. Nate’s good at seeing the big pictures; he’s damn good at profiling and anticipating a mark’s next move. He gets people, he knows what makes them tick and he knows how to deconstruct that to his own advantage.


But Eliot?


It’s not that he’s gone straight -- because he’s not -- but he’s developing a strange form of his own personal ethics. This isn’t uncommon with criminals, but Nate’s never seen it work in reverse this way. Most of the time, people start out with good intentions and compromise along the way. Eliot Spencer slid all the way down that scale and seems to be pushing his way back to the other direction. He still robs, cheat and steals, and he will pull the trigger if he has to -- a pair of bodyguards turned up dead in Rio just last month after one of Eliot’s heists -- but there’s no longer a string of carnage in his wake.


There are limited reasons why this would happen. After all, these shifting tactics mean less money and more risk, which is hardly a viable approach to any business. Either Eliot’s not as good as he used to be and he knows it -- or he’s just as good as he used to be and he knows it. He’s gone soft or worse--


He’s gotten a conscience.


Either way, Nate’s pretty sure that’s something he can use.


He studies the file and nods his head.


It’s definitely something he can use.