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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Magic Job (1/7)

December 21st, 2016 (09:44 am)
cynical

feeling: cynical

Title: The Magic Job

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: I know nothing about magic or Wiccan practices, so I apologize now if this is a bad representation of that belief system. My prompt for hc_bingo was magical trouble, so I was using what little I knew for plot advancement.

Summary: The magic was absolutely, probably no big deal.

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN




-o-

“So,” Nate said, sitting back. He was erect on the couch, one leg crossed on his knee, which he bounced just slightly. Intent, he nodded at the screen with something akin to anticipation. Not akin to anticipation; it was anticipation. The only thing Nate wanted more than another drink was another job, and this one looked perfect. “Run it.”

Hardison obliged, pointing his remote at the screen and pressing a button. “Claudia Sanderson,” he said, starting a leisurely walk around the living room of what was supposed to be Nate’s apartment. That had been one of the few plans Nate had made that didn’t pan out, and more than a year after the fact, he was more okay with that fact that he let on. Hardison postured grandly, as was his custom. “A prime example of American success. Born and raised in Hawthorne, Massachussetts, she had an unremarkable family and an unremarkable childhood. She was a cheerleader for basketball and football, graduated in the middle of her class, worked at Dairy Queen. Dated one of the local boys but, like the rest of her life, it never came to anything. That all changed when she got accepted into Harvard.”

Sophie raised her eyebrows. “That’s a bit unexpected.”

“She didn’t have the GPA for it,” Eliot noted. “The big schools love to take on a few hard cases, but if she doesn’t have the academic background….”

Hardison pressed another button. “However she got in, she certainly proved herself worthy,” he explained. “Top of her class, honors society, active on campus. The girl hit her stride or something. Graduated with job offers pouring in from around the country.”

“That’s convenient,” Parker said, brows slightly furrowed.

“And strange,” Hardison said. “Because she ended up right back in Hawthorne. Opened a hair salon of all things, and somehow became the wealthiest person in town. Ran for mayor last year and won.”

“So what went wrong?” Sophie said.

“For her? Nothing,” Hardison said. “But for Hawthorne? Everything. When she got elected, businesses started going bankrupt, scandals rocked the town. People died of unknown causes, and taxes went up and up and up but none of the projects ever got done.”

“So why did people keep voting for them?” Eliot asked. “I mean, road expansions, school renovations -- those had to be bond issues.”

“They were,” Hardison said. “And they passed. Every single time. With room to spare.”

“Well, there’s being popular, and there’s being lucky,” Sophie remarked.

“And there’s being crooked,” Nate commented, chewing his lip. “Hardison, bring up her records as mayor again.”

Hardison clicked a button, and the papers showed up on screen again. “Her budget always balances; her motions always pass; it’s perfect,” Nate said. “Too perfect.”

“You think she paid someone off?” Eliot asked.

“Or doctored the books,” Sophie mused.

“Or magic,” Parker suggested.

Eliot glared at her; Sophie cocked her head.

“What?” Parker said. She pointed at the screen. “That looks like magic!”

“Maybe it’s all three,” Nate said, nodding to himself as he gathered his thoughts, the vestiges of an idea starting to percolate just enough. He smiled a little, not even trying to hide it. This, after all, was who he was meant to be. This was who they were meant to be. “There’s just one way to find out.”

-o-

Parker called it magic; Sophie called it a form of art. Hardison saw it as working the system, and Eliot was inclined to think of it as the worst of human nature.

Nate, for his part, saw it as a little of it all. Embezzlement of the most obvious and basest variety, done up against a small town that didn’t seem to know any better. She was driving good people out of business, and running working families into the ground.

It was never a question of pride, success or even power. It was the abuse of any and all of those. Nate knew first hand what it felt like to be up against an immovable rock, and he took pleasure now in being the leverage needed to move it. That was always the end game, but getting there was never quite so simple. No, when you worked against people with pride, success and even power, you had to analyze their strengths and weaknesses in order to overcome them.

Ultimately, magic, art, the system, human nature: Nate didn’t care how. The how was always incidental in their line of work. No, the only thing that mattered to him was that it stopped.

The trick, of course, was to always find the hook. That was what con artists did, and it was at the heart of what made his team the most successful around. They always found that hook, and they knew how to exploit it ruthlessly.

In this, they became all things to all people. It was context, perspective. You just had to fit the part. For all the complicated plans he had made in his career, Nate knew it all boiled down to simple cause and effect.

That was how they had ended up as a magic act. That was how they’d forged miracles. That was how they’d ended up on mountaintops and in stolen hospitals. It was how they took over baseball teams and absconded with movie sets.

Find the hook; set it.

Wait for the bite.

And pull.

By any means necessary.

-o-

“Wait,” Nate said, looking around in confusion. “This is it?”

He was good at not having much in the way of expectations, and he was exceptional good at taking surprises in stride. There was no amount of criminal activity that actually surprised him anymore, and he’d learned to accept the strange and tawdry as part of the job.

But this?

“There’s not a single hair care product here!” Sophie said, sounding somewhat distressed.

“And the stuff out front looks like it hasn’t been touched in months,” Eliot said, poking around the dust-covered shelves in the mark’s back room.

“So if this isn’t hair care stuff,” Parker said, poking at a jar of something on the shelves. “Then what is it?”

Hardison made a face, tipping a bowl on the table and wrinkling his nose. “Please, someone tell me that’s not shampoo.”

Nate looked at it, unsettlingly perplexed. He’d known that her salon was a sham -- a small town salon would hardly be a lucrative business, and it couldn’t justify the millions she kept accruing into her account -- but he’d expected it to not look quite so much like a sham. The front of the store was dingy and empty on a Saturday afternoon, which should have been one of its busiest days. There wasn’t even a pretense that it was a functioning business, and the cash register had exactly $2.74 in the till.

Sophie gasped audibly, pushing the bowl Hardison was inspecting away. “That’s definitely not shampoo,” she said. She looked at Nate, wide eyed. “It’s blood.”

“What?” Parker asked as Hardison hastily let it plunk back down to the table, a few red droplets spraying out.

Eliot crossed over, dabbing it with his finger. “Not fresh,” he said, lifting his finger closer to his nose with a sniff. “Hard to tell for sure, but I’d say there’s a good chance it’s not human.”

“And you can tell that how?” Hardison asked incredulously.

Eliot nodded to a shelf on the far wall. “Animal bones, pelts,” he said. “She’s got a collection.”

Nate looked at the bones, and he looked at the blood. Then he stepped closer to the row of books on the wall behind him.

“That’s not a collection, that’s sick,” Sophie said. “I think we need to leave.”

“And maybe we make a pelt out of her,” Parker noted with a scowl.

Nate picked up a book, running his fingers along the worn leather binding. The pages were aged and old with handwritten scrawl on the pages.

“A pelt won’t pay this town back,” Nate murmured, turning the pages and skimming the contents.

“This woman is sick, man,” Hardison said. “Or are you not seeing the freak show back here?”

“No, I see it,” Nate said. “But you’re forgetting the big picture.”

“That’s all well and good,” Sophie said. “But how do you con a woman like this? What possible leverage can we find with her?”

Nate smirked, closing the book again and looking at the title. “She’s paying someone off, and she’s doctoring the books.”

“Right,” Parker said. “We already found evidence a mile wide of her paper trail.”

“She’s not even subtle,” Hardison said. “She’s paid off contractors, government officials, you name it, and she’s forged personal and city data ever since she got back to town.”

“More than enough to call the cops,” Eliot said. He inclined his head. “Tip them off to this place, we can probably get animal cruelty charges, too.”

“Yeah, yeah, but look what she’s done to this town. It’s doctoring the books, it’s paying people off, but it’s even more than that,” he said, holding up the cover. “It is magic.”

The others stared, reading the title in archaic printed letters: Ancient Spells.

Nate tilted his head as the pieces started to come together in his head. “And we can give these people their money and their town, but if we don’t go after her, if we don’t her down on her terms, then they’re going to live in fear.”

“Because magic is real?” Parker asked, hopefully.

Nate put the book back, rubbing his hands together. “For this job?” he said. “It definitely is.”

-o-

Hawthorne wasn’t too far from Boston, but the commute was long enough to make staying local a necessary convenience. Nate had taken the precaution of requesting a motel a few towns over, and Hardison had thrown a little extra money at the operation to secure not just a couple of rooms but an entire secure floor, just for their own purposes.

It had seemed a little extravagant at the time, but Hardison had showed him the rates.

Plus, there was something to be said for privacy.

Especially on a case like this one.

“She’s a witch!” Hardison said, all but throwing his hands up in the air. “You want to chase criminals, CEOs, the Russian mob -- sure, but a witch?” He shook his head emphatically. “Ain’t no way you’re going to get me near a witch.”

“Technically,” Nate said. “She’s a Wiccan.”

Hardison screwed his face up. “And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“I’m just saying that the witch thing isn’t the problem,” Nate said. “It’s her apparent occult ties.”

“Apparent?” Hardison asked.

“That would explain the blood and bones,” Eliot said.

“Is there any evidence of a local coven, though?” Sophie pressed.

“Uh, hello!” Hardison said, waving dramatically. “WITCH!”

Nate rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t really what she is,” he said. “We just care about the money she’s stealing and funneling through her stop for her own personal gain. The whole witch/Wiccan/occult thing is just the way she leverages her power.”

“Her means to an end,” Sophie nodded.

Parker quirked her eyebrows. “I still can’t believe she’s really using magic.”

Hardison half flailed, throwing his arms wide. “No one else is bothered by this?” he implored. “No one?!”

“I’m not thrilled, of course, because I don’t like blood,” Sophie said. “But grifters, we’re all things to all people. Any biases will only hurt my chances in the end.”

“Besides,” Eliot said, arms crossed over his chest. “No belief system makes someone inherently good or bad. It’s what they do with it.”

“She’s sacrificing animals and doing, I don’t know, blood rituals,” Hardison said. “Way I was raised, you don’t mess with that. You don’t.”

“Maybe they’re not really dead,” Parker posited. “Because magic.”

“Uh, yeah, no, they’re dead,” Nate said. “And magic’s not real.”

“So you don’t mind that we’re going up against the powers of darkness and evil?” Hardison asked.

Nate shrugged. “Eh.”

“For the record, I have known some very nice Wiccans,” Eliot said. He grinned salaciously. “Most of them don’t practice any dark arts or whatever. Now, other arts in the dark, well, that’s a different story.”

Nate rolled his eyes.

Hardison did not look amused.

“I once impersonated a high ranking official of a rare religious sect in Slovenia,” Sophie said. “Strange incantations. Fantastic stores of ancient gold.”

“Ooh!” Parker said. “You did magic.”

“Magic’s not real,” Nate said again.

“And you all? Are going to hell,” Hardison said. “This is worse than impersonating a damn miracle.”

“Oh, that one worked out fine,” Nate said.

“Not for your eternal souls!” Hardison returned.

Nate made another noncommittal shrug. “Then the world is better off if we stop her,” he reasoned.

Hardison closed his mouth, his jaw working.

Nate took the silent acquiescence for what it was. “So,” he said, smiling again. “Let’s go steal us some magic.”

Hardison glared at him. “That’s not funny, man.”

Eliot chuckled. “It’s a little funny.”

Nate grinned at his team. “Trust me,” he said. “The magic is absolutely no big deal.”

-o-

Probably, Nate amended to himself later, after the con was underway.

The magic was absolutely, probably no big deal.

This was after he met the mark, talked to her, saw her in action. This was after he realized how blatant her missteps were and how she’d still never been brought to justice. This was after he saw how much she believed in what she did.

This was after he saw how good she was.

But not at being a criminal.

No, she was a terrible criminal who never should have made it this far. She didn’t lie well, and she didn’t cover her tracks at all. There was something strange about it. How she could be so plainly obvious and blatantly stupid and still be completely and unequivocally successful.

Strange, but not magical.

Probably not magical, Nate amended, although he assured himself that either way it was all still incidental.

Probably.

-o-

Truthfully, even with that amendment, Nate figured that magic was actually the least of his problems. After all, he had to run an elaborate con with only five people in a small town where blending in was basically impossible. One small screw up, and they’d tip off the mark, and the whole thing would fall apart and they’d have no alternative measures to take a run at her.

It was also one of their more preposterous scams. In a lot of ways, going after big time CEOs was much easier than small time nobodies. The CEOs, they may have had security and experience on their side, but they were so used to shady dealings that another little offer just seemed like part of the game.

Making a similar offer to a small town con artist was a trickier proposition. After all, trying to convince a mark that their small town was now the interest of a multi-million dollar investment took a little bit of work.

Fortunately, Nate had Sophie Devereaux.

“Ms. Sanderson,” Sophie drawled in an impeccable southern twang. “One of our stores is the gift that just keeps giving. We can get it built within three months, and once it’s operational? You can funnel every local service you want through it. I mean, it is a legitimate marketplace for groceries, gardening, housegoods, toys, clothes. We throw in an auto shop, an optical center -- we even have banking on hand.”

Claudia Sanderson narrowed her eyes, not fully taking in the implication.

Nate leaned in, clearing his throat. “It’s convenient for people in town, but trust me when I say, it’s more convenient for you,” he said. “See, the paperwork, it’s a mess.”

“I don’t see how that’s more convenient,” Sanderson said.

“Well, it is a miracle the things that get lost in it!” Sophie said enthusiastically. “And with profit margins that high, no one blinks an eye if you come in a little high or a little low.” She leaned forward with an overplayed wink. “If you know what I mean.”

Sanderson knitted her brows. “I don’t know what you mean, I’m afraid.”

“Money laundering,” Nate blurted, because he was betting the mark wasn’t more noble than he was giving her credit for. Just more stupid. “You can use it to hide your funds in the ebb and flow. How and why, that’s up to you. Run it clean, run it dirty; either way, you stand to make a killing.”

Her face brightened almost comically. “Really?”

Nate could see Sophie physically brace herself. It was remarkable that the mark had to be so dense as to make Sophie flinch in character. She recovered though, with a wide saccharin smile as she inclined her head suggestively. “Don’t take our word for it,” she soothed. “See for yourself.”

-o-

With any other mark, Nate might have been nervous. He was, after all, trying to convince Sanderson that an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of nowhere could be transformed into a thriving box store in less than six months. No matter how he framed it, that was a hard sell.

Claudia Sanderson was the strangest mark ever.

She followed them in absolute credulity. She listened intently to every word Eliot said as he played the part of the construction foreman. She chewed her lip hopefully when Hardison projected outlandish sales figures as the accountant. And when Sophie, as the business executive, made the final pitch, Sanderson was wide eyed with wonder.

“It needs work, as you can see,” Sophie said with a grand gesture. “And that kind of work, it requires a serious investment.”

Sanderson nodded slowly.

Sophie pushed harder. “But if you front us the money, we can guarantee that you will earn dividends in full,” she said emphatically. “Probably in the first month.”

“And you can guarantee that?” Sanderson asked.

“If you get us the funds, then yes,” Sophie said.

“How much?” Sanderson asked.

Sophie exchanged a look with Nate. As the lawyer in the con, he stepped forward. “500,000,” he said, playing the number carefully. They’d assessed Sanderson’s worth; she’d have to pull from the funds she’d already embezzled, making her accounts and her position vulnerable. It was a gamble, though. 500,000 dollars was enough to raise eyebrows. “Now, I know that seems steep--”

“And when?” Sanderson asked, almost without hearing him. “When do you need it?”

“The 500,000?” Nate asked.

Sophie swooped in. “As soon as you can get it, dear,” she said. “Mr. Jonas, our foreman, can get all the tools together and start building by next week, if you want. It’s entirely up to you.”

At this, Sanderson thought, but not about the price point. No, of all things, Sanderson was thinking about the timeline.

Finally, she took a breath and nodded. “500,000 dollars,” she agreed.

Sophie brought her hands together with a smile.

“In three days,” Sanderson concluded unflinchingly.

“Oh,” Sophie said, barely veiling her surprise. “That will force us to delay another week--”

“Three days,” Sanderson said with finality. “Or you can look for another investor.”

Nate stepped forward, reaching out his hand. “Three days it is,” he said with a perfunctory smile. Sanderson shook it, head tilted as Nate beamed. “Three days and we’ll make all your plans come true.”

Sanderson smiled back. “I certainly hope so.”

-o-

They watched her go in silence. Once she had backed away, Sophie smiled and waved one last time, half laughing as she said, “What on earth was that about?”

Nate smiled and waved, too, as Sanderson pulled out of the parking lot. “I have no idea.”

“Maybe she wants to do some background checks,” Eliot said, making no effort to smile or wave at all.

“That would be the smart thing,” Nate said.

“Which is why it doesn’t make any sense at all,” Sophie said, turning to face them. “Honestly, there’s no reasonable way that she’s made it this far without getting caught.”

“She wouldn’t be able to crack our cover stories, even if she were any good,” Hardison said. “Almost seems like a waste, all that time and effort…”

“She has access to her money, right?” Nate asked, ignoring Hardison.

Hardison shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “The woman hasn’t exactly been sneaky. I can tell you a dozen different ways to stash stolen money, and she hasn’t used one of them. She could have it all transferred over to the public funds account within fives minutes with her smartphone.”


“So if she’s not running security, and she’s not getting the money, what is she doing?” Eliot asked.

Nate sighed. “One way to find out,” he said. He reached up, adjusting his earbud just a little. “Hear that, Parker? You’re up.”

-o-

Parker was conveniently stationed at City Hall as a short term intern from the local community college. Nate had counted on that position to give them a way to track Sanderson and increase their access to her accounts through Parker’s thieving skills.

He hadn’t counted on Sanderson telling her all the passwords to every account and essentially asking Parker to be her personal assistant without even double checking her qualifications for, well, anything.

Honestly, between Parker and Sanderson, Parker seemed like a more believable mayor -- and that was saying something.

“Oh, Ms. Sanderson!” Parker said with the affected voice she’d been working on with Sophie. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

Sophie smiled a little to herself, obviously proud.

Nate sat back, thoughtful. He was crammed into the back of Hardison’s van, staring at Hardison’s remote access to Sanderson’s computer. Sophie was perched on a chair next to him.

“Clear my schedule,” Sanderson replied, her voice just slightly muted over the comms.

Hardison tapped a few files, bringing up her calendar. There were a mess of meetings on there.

“For this afternoon?” Parker asked. “You have that meeting with sanitation--”

“For the next three days,” Sanderson said, even more curt than before.

“But tomorrow is the fundraiser for local boys and girls--”

“Three days,” Sanderson said again.

“Oh,” Parker said again, and Nate can almost see her perfected look of sheer innocence and competence.

“It’s business,” Sanderson said. Then her voice got softer. “Off the books, if you know what I mean.”

Sophie almost laughed and cried in the same incredulous breath.

“Subtle, she is not,” Hardison commented.

“It’s like she believes in her own invincibility,” Sophie said. “I’ve never met someone who grifts so utterly poorly.”

“She’s gone,” Parker reported over the line. “She didn’t say where.”

Nate leaned forward again, chewing his lip. “That’s okay,” he said, tilting his head once more. “Eliot?”

Eliot grunted over the comms. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, clearly already on the move. “I’m already on it.”

-o-

They were perfect, his team. So perfect that Nate almost didn’t need to give directions.

He liked giving directions, though.

He was a control freak like that.

“She’s going to the salon,” Eliot reported several minutes later, his voice low. “Didn’t even turn the lights on -- must be going straight to the back.”

“Right,” Nate said. “Hardison, do we still have a feed in there?”

“Audio only,” Hardison said.

Sophie chuffed. “Maybe she’ll talk to herself.”

“Want me to go in after her?” Eliot asked.

Nate sighed, shaking his head. “No, we can’t risk tipping her off.”

“Like she’d notice,” Hardison said.

“We’ve got her on the hook, we can’t blow it now,” Nate said. “Just because she’s stupid doesn’t mean we should be. Eliot, poke around. See what you can find.”

“Copy that,” Eliot half growled.

“There’s nothing, Nate,” Sophie said. “She doesn’t keep the money or her accounts there.”

“Maybe we missed something,” Hardison said.

Sophie gave him a look. “She’s the worst criminal in the world,” she said. “Somehow I’m skeptical.”

“Maybe the girl just needs some quiet time,” Hardison argued.

Nate frowned. “There is something there, though,” he said.

“Right, her disgusting little blood and guts collection,” Hardison said. “And those creepy-ass books.”

“Her spellwork,” Sophie said. “You think--?”

Nate shrugged. “Hard to say,” he said. “But this is where she went.”

Hardison shook his head. “Uh uh, hell no,” he said. “I am not going to sit here while crazy girl does her hocus pocus.”

“What kind of spell could she do anyway?” Sophie asked.

“Not a spell,” Eliot said over the comms.

They all stopped.

“What?” Nate asked.

“She’s not doing a spell,” Eliot said again. “It’s a hex.”

“A -- what now?” Hardison asked.

“I found a box just outside the door -- she just dumped it today, according to the packing slip,” Eliot reported. “And it was from ‘Hex-A-Lot, Your Hexing Headquarters.’”

Sophie wrinkled her nose. “Surely, you’re making that up.”

“Couldn’t, even if I wanted to,” Eliot said. “She just opened a package of something called Wolf’s Bane. ‘Great for palliative medicines, herbal remedies, soul bonding solutions... and hexes.’”

Hardison’s eyes bugged, and Sophie raised her eyebrows.

Nate sat back, nodding. “Okay, then,” he said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

-o-

He waited until everyone got back before dealing with the issue at hand. Sure, comms were convenient, but he knew his team well enough to know that this was one they had to discuss in person.

Because:

“Hexes!” Hardison declared with wide eyed melodrama. “The woman is preparing hexes!?”

“It fits into her belief structure,” Sophie said.

“I found more boxes just like the one,” Eliot reported. “This ain’t her first rodeo.”

“So she’s experienced with hexes,” Hardison said. “I feel so much better.”

“I thought you kept telling me that magic wasn’t real?” Parker interjected.

Nate gathered a breath and shrugged coolly. “It’s not, which is why this isn’t that big of a deal,” Nate said.

“Still doesn’t answer the question why,” Sophie mused. “We’re posing as potential partners. There’d be no reason she’d want to wish us ill.”

“No, but people are creatures of habits. CEOs, politicians, witches -- it doesn’t matter,” Nate said. “Everyone has their fallbacks, their safety nets. And this one is hers.”

“When things get complicated, she protects herself with magic,” Sophie said.

“It would explain why she’s so willing to go with lucrative deals she doesn’t have any ability to guarantee,” Eliot said.

“That’s right,” Nate said. “She takes huge risks and trust her so-called magic to prop herself up.”

Parker’s face screwed up thoughtfully. “But if it’s so-called, why hasn’t she been caught yet?”

“So-called or not, no one else is bothered by the fact that some crazy woman is talking to animal bones and writing our names in blood?” Hardison asked.

“I told you,” Nate said, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice now. “It’s her coping mechanism. It’s probably nothing.”

Hardison stared at him, dumbfounded. “Probably?”

“Besides,” Nate said as calmly as he could. “She doesn’t have all the ingredients anyway.”

Hardison made a face. “How would you--”

“You hacked her email,” Nate said, nodding at the computer. “Look at the order she placed when she got to the salon.”

Hardison frowned, bringing it up so everyone could see.

“That is one freaky shopping list,” Eliot muttered.

“Wait, you can really buy that stuff?” Parker asked.

“And it’s all by five,” Sophie said. “She’s going after all of us.”

“Five new players -- she’s thorough in this much, even if in nothing else,” Nate explained. “She probably hexes everyone, just in case.”

“Just in case,” Hardison repeated. “She’s ordering raven’s beak. Five beaks off five ravens, man. Who does that?”

“These are all rushed ordered, but it’s still going to take three days for these shipments to get here,” Nate said.

“So we’ve got three days to keep the con in place,” Sophie said.

“Which is plenty of time to make sure her accounts are in order and to finalize our exit plan,” Nate agreed. “In fact, I think we can use it”

“You mean by running in the opposite direction and getting the hell out of this town?” Hardison muttered crossly, folding his arms petulantly over his chest.

Nate slowly grinned, shaking his head. “Not exactly.”

-o-

In a courtroom, justice was fair and measured. It was balanced and weighted with legal checks. That was its weakness.

In Nate’s framework, justice was poetic. It was balanced by the nature and intentions of the criminal his or herself. And that was its strength.

“She used magic to get ahead, so we use magic to take her down,” Nate explained to the others over breakfast the next day.

“But you keep saying it’s not real!” Parker groaned.

“It’s not,” Eliot said tiredly.

Sophie leaned in. “But she thinks it is,” she said with a knowing look at Nate. “And we can use that.”

“Man, I can hack anything. I hacked history for you all,” Hardison said. “But magic? Uh uh, no way.”

“You saying you can’t do it?” Nate asked, tilting his head.

Hardison laughed. “I see what you’re doing.”

“Because if you can’t do it,” Nate said, starting to shrug.

Hardison glared at him. “Fine, I will help,” he said. “But I’m not going anywhere near her weird, freaky mojo.”

Nate nodded in agreement. “Works for me,” he said. “Let’s start by reviewing her Internet orders again.”

-o-

It was the same con, really.

Just...better.

If the mark wanted three days to prepare herself.

Nate would take three days to let her.

And then sit back and watch as she buried herself.

-o-

As much fun as Nate had, it was still a job. Sophie grew bored with babysitting Sanderson, who grew more preposterous every time they met. Parker began to take her job as an intern quite seriously, and Nate found himself reminding her constantly that her position wasn’t real.

And that magic wasn’t real.

That one still came up a lot.

Eliot was not thrilled that Sanderson visited the site regularly, which mean he was expected to start doing actual work preparing a ragged building for an impossible restoration. He was even more annoyed that Hardison had to be with him throughout this process, because while he found some release in pointless physical work, he found being stuck side by side with Hardison for three days annoying.

Hardison chewed scenery effectively, though, and managed not to mention the word magic to the mark.

He made up for it by mentioning it to the rest of them as much as he possibly could.

That was fine, though. As a lawyer in this deal, Nate didn’t have much reason to hang around the business or the office. In fact, for once he was in line with Hardison and the magic was his primary concern. That was why whenever Sanderson wasn’t in her workshop, Nate was, studying her spells and looking over her inventory. He was impressed with the detail involved, and it was apparent she had practiced -- a lot.

This was important insight into who she was, and it confirmed his suspicions about her. She wasn’t very good at politics or business, but she prided herself in her would-be magical abilities. She was a witch in her own mind, first and foremost. Everything else was just incidental.

Which mean Nate could steal her money and take her power and it wouldn’t mean anything.

Not until he took her magic.

He had to admit, she was convincing.

Granted, she couldn’t convince Nate, but then, she didn’t have to.

She just had to believe enough for all of them.

-o-

He met her by accident there, on his way out. Caught red handed in the front of the shop, Nate fiddled with his hair and looked at himself vainly in the mirror.

“Is this place open for business?” he asked. “I could really use a trim.”

“Uh, no,” she said. She narrowed her eyes at him. “We have limited hours and we’re not accepting new clients.”

Nate gave it a look around. “Pretty exclusive, then.”

“Yeah,” she said curtly. “Now if you don’t mind…”

Nate held up his hands as he shuffled his way to the door. “Too bad,” he said. “I’ll bet you’re good with your hands.”

She shuffled him the rest of the way out. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she muttered, closing the door abruptly behind him.

He looked back on last moment.

She might be good, one way or another.

Nate just had to be better.

-o-

Three days, and the team was getting restless.

Nate, though, was running out of time.

He got back late the night before, tired and weary.

So of course, the entire team was there, wanting to talk.

“Tell me we’re good to go,” Eliot demanded. “Because I swear to God, if I have to spend another day cleaning out mouse droppings from that junk heap--”

Nate waved him wearily off. “We’re good, we’re good.”

Sophie sidled in next to him. “Says the man who hasn’t been on the site for two days now,” she sniped. “What have you been up to?”

“I told you, it’s about the magic,” Nate replied.

“Did you find out what happens when she hexes us?” Parker asked.

“Uh, bad luck, poor health, a turn of fate against us,” Nate said, shrugging absently. “The usual stuff.”

“The usual--” Hardison started. “Man, have you seen what happened to her other enemies?”

Nate started to shake his head, but Hardison had already pulled up the first picture on the screen.

“Her rival in the campaign,” he said. “A local farmer and grandfather. Served for 12 years and was loved by everyone. When Sanderson ran? He went bankrupt within two weeks and lost the election in the landslide. Afterward, his entire farm collapsed and he had to sell. To the city. The next year, it bounced back more profitable than ever.”

“And I’ll bet the city didn’t see a dime of the proceeds,” Eliot said.

“Case number two,” Hardison said with another picture. “This one? Was her personal assistant. Worked for nothing for a whole year. Then, one day, Sanderson fired her without cause. When she sued, the judge not only ruled in favor of Sanderson but declared that the assistant had violated privacy laws and owed Sanderson money. She had to give Sanderson the keys to her damn house, which had been in the family for five generations.”

“Ouch,” Sophie said. “That’s more than a little personal, isn’t it?”

“And it just goes on,” Hardison said. “Someone got skin cancer, another had their foot amputated in a freak snowmobile accident -- in July. Hell, even her own parents lost everything. They live in a damn halfway home now while Sanderson rents out their place on Airbnb.”

Nate wets his lips tiredly. “Is there a point to this?”

“Yeah,” Hardison said. “That for all this woman is bad at, she’s clearly good at something. We have all the traditional avenues covered, and we don’t have to sweat that. But magic? I just feel like we need a contingency here.”

They all looked at him in varying degrees of agreement. It wasn’t that Hardison had to be right, but it was that he wasn’t necessarily wrong.

It was that Nate actually agreed with him, too.

“I said you don’t have to worry about it,” he said again. “The magic will break Sanderson.”

“But what if it breaks us, too?” Sophie asked.

Nate drew a breath, looking at them each in turn. “It won’t.”

Parker narrowed her eyes at him. “And how can you guarantee that?”

This time, Nate couldn’t help but smile, just a little. Two long days, and he could -- he would -- promise them this. “That’s easy,” he said. “Magic.

-o-

Magic.

A lot of hard work.

But when the deal went down, they were, as always, on top of their game. Sophie grifted with the utmost diligence, and Hardison and Eliot worked seamlessly to sell the bit. Parker provided essential background at city hall, and Nate was the one who showed up just in time to hand her the pen as she signed her life away.

The whole time, Nate half held his breath, expecting something to go wrong. Something always went wrong, that was just the nature of the game. Covers were blown; expectations were altered. There was always a wrench in the works.

Always.

Except today.

Sanderson didn’t even read the documents, just smiled and handed the check. “And this will pay for itself?” she said. “And I’ll have access to the accounts?”

“Complete,” Nate said. “Once this operation is up and running, you can cycle your money through here, get it back clean as a whistle.”

“Great,” she said with dim enthusiasm. She looked around the warehouse. “So, um. That’s it?”

Nate did his best not to scoff. Weeks of preparation and planning. Flawless covers and intricate cons.

And she made it sound so reductively simple.

Still, he forged his most brilliant smile.

“We’ll start the real work next week, and you can check in to see our progress, naturally,” Nate said as he pocketed the check and clucked his tongue. “But yeah. That’s it.”

“Cool,” she said with a diffident shrug. “I’d say good luck….”

Nate chuckled. “We won’t need it.”

She laughed, too, something sinister in her tone. “Yeah,” she said as she turned to leave. “I think you will.”

He watched her go, brushing past Sophie without even a goodbye. As she exited the warehouse, Hardison and Eliot looked to Nate from where they were pretending to work nearby.

“That’s it?” Hardison asked, more than a little disbelieving.

“At least we don’t have to worry about her checking back on us right away,” Eliot murmured.

“We got the money,” Sophie said. “But what about her downfall.”

“Like I said,” Hardison reiterated with vigor. “That’s it?”

Nate smirked, patting the check tucked into his pocket. “Not exactly.”

-o-

Parker was already at city hall by the time Nate and the rest of the team got there, strolling up the front lawn just as Sanderson came running down the street. Nate recognized the spellbook in her hands.

“You,” she said, coming up to Nate. She shoved him with her hands full. “You.”

“Uh, well, yes,” Nate started, acting as innocent as possible.

“You tricked me,” she accused.

“The deal was exactly what we agreed on--”

“Not the deal,” she said, eyes flashing dark. She gestured with the book. “Do you know what you did?”

“Look, the papers are signed--”

She shoved him again. “I saw you there!” she exclaimed. “I saw you in my shop!”

“For a haircut!” Nate protested.

She shook her head, vehement. “I want the money back,” she said. “I want the money back now.”

“That’s not going to be possible--” Nate started.

Her eyes were wild, though, as she advanced on him even more. “It’s not just the money, is it?” she seethed. “I’ve stolen millions from this backwater town, but it’s not about that, not really.”

People were gathering now, looking on first in curiosity, and then with confusion.

“Because you can take money, and people will miss it, sure,” she said, voice pitching again. “But what destroys them -- what keeps them from even challenging how much you’ve stolen -- is when you take their fate into your hands and crush it.”

Nate stammered inarticulately.

She jammed her finger at him. “Criminals, they steal things, but me? I steal their good fortune; I rob them of their prosperity. I turn fate against them on the basest level,” she spat, poking her finger into his chest. “And once you’ve taken that from them, you can steal anything you want. I’ve stolen life’s savings; I’ve raided retirement funds; I’ve scalped public funds; I’ve taken homesteads and personal effects -- everything -- and I’ve gotten away with it because I took the most important thing first.”

Nate raised his eyebrows as the crowd gathered, murmuring against her as someone called for security.

She charged at him, fisting her hands into his shirt. Eliot tensed near them, but Nate kept perfectly in character. “You don’t know what you’ve done!” she screamed now. “You’ve taken something that can’t be cheated! You can keep the money, but let me out of the deal, let me out--”

“We can’t,” Sophie said, stepping in closer. “The town--”

“I’ll give you the town!” she replied hysterically. “I already stole it, anyway, and I’ll give it you, all of it. But we have to break the spell--”

There were gasps now, and the sound of footsteps gathering faster.

“The magic will change you!” she screamed again. “I’d trade all the money for the magic!”

Guards broke through the circle, wrestling Sanderson away. She fought, yelling the whole time, as they forced her down with her hands behind her back. She was still screaming, flailing as she cried.

“You don’t understand!” she yelled, craning her head back at Nate. “You have no idea what you’ve done!”

The crowd fluttered anxiously, following her exit until Nate and his team were alone.

Nate straightened his tie, grinning at them. She’d given them the money; she’d confessed. Sanderson was going down, and they had everything they needed to make it right. And Sanderson had done most of the hard work herself.

“See?” he said, tilting his head with a wink. “Magic.”

-o-

As they walked down the front steps of City Hall, Nate led the way. He was, as a matter of fact, feeling pretty smug about all this, and his team kept step even if they didn’t know quite why.

“How’d you know?” Sophie asked as they walked by the police cruiser where Sanderson was being shoved unceremoniously in the back.

Nate shrugged. He might as well milk it. Just for a moment longer.

“From her perspective, the whole thing was still an unqualified success,” Eliot joined in from two steps behind.

“The deal, sure,” Nate said, not slowing down. “But the deal was never going to be her downfall.”

“So if it’s not about the deal….,” Eliot began.

Parker skipped a step, clapping her hands in excitement. “The magic!”

“Wait,” Hardison said. “The probably-not-real magic?”

“It turns out if you switch out the ewe’s urine with cow saliva and sprinkle in garlic powder, you make your hex into a blessing,” Nate said nonchalantly, like this was just like any other part of the con.

“A blessing?” Sophie repeated.

“Or some kind of soul bonding, I don’t know,” Nate said with a diffident shrug. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t a hex, and she had no way of knowing that until after it was done. Until after we were done.”

“You took her safety net,” Eliot surmised.

“And she fell to pieces all on her own,” Sophie said, sounding somewhat impressed.

“But wait,” Parker said as they turned the corner toward the van. “Nate did magic?”

“I just changed her potion,” Nate said. “And I can’t be sure I did it right, but I just had to be sure she did it wrong.”

“As long as she believed it,” Sophie said.

“You got her to confess to all her crimes in public,” Parker said. She chuckled. “That is magic.”

Hardison drew them to a stop, hands up as he turned to face Nate. “Whoa, just -- let me get this straight,” he said. “We decided to take down a witch.”

“Most people don’t use that term,” Nate corrected.

Hardison didn’t acknowledge him. “The witch hexed us.”

“Tried to hex us,” Nate interjected.

“And you turned that hex into blessing? A soul bonding?” he asked, eyebrows up almost comically high. “And no one here thinks that’s a big deal?”

Nate frowned. “Would you have rather me let her hex us?”

“You could have just dumped it out,” Hardison said. “Why did you have to go messing with things you don’t understand?”

“You know it’s not real,” Nate reminded him.

“But it worked,” Parker said.

“Because we did our jobs,” Nate said with growing exasperation. “Honestly, guys, I would have thought you’d be more happy about this.”

Hardison didn’t back down, and Parker blinked big eyes at him. Eliot lifted his chin, waiting to see what came next, and Sophie back up from him by the merest of inches.

Nate let out a huff. “This is what we do,” he reminded them. “We use what the mark needs, what the mark uses, and we turn it against them. We take their weaknesses and use them as a way in. Magic was her weakness, and once we were able to convince her that the spell had failed, she did the rest. We didn’t just steal a government deal on this one; we stole a spell. This is us: we become all things to all people. The only thing that matters is what the mark believes. What we do, what we’ve always done -- none of that is real.”

Hardison crossed his arms over his chest, and Parker frowned. Eliot narrowed his eyes, and Sophie tilted her head.

“And magic?” he said. “That’s not real.”

Hardison looked less impressed.

“Probably,” Nate amended, arms out. “It’s probably not real.”

Eliot rolled his eyes, turning to the van. Parker followed, muttering under her breath, “That’s somewhat disappointing.”

Hardison shook his head. “If freaky things start happening, you and I -- we’re having words,” he said before climbing in after the others.

Sophie sighed, shrugging one shoulder. “So much for magic,” she said, voice silky as she nudged him with a sly smile. “Hm?”

Nate watched her climb into the van and he let his frown deepen.

“Come on!” he called after them. “Probably!”

-o-

After they cleared out the motel room and the warehouse, Nate divided the money out as best he could, setting aside the largest chunks for the people she’d stolen from before putting the rest back into the city’s coffers. The investigation into Sanderson had moved quickly, and state officials were quickly unfurling the worst of her offenses, taking temporary control over the jurisdiction to help things get back to normal.

Despite the fact that the job had been easy and an unqualified success, they were mad at him. They weren’t saying it, not in so many words, but Nate wasn’t a mastermind for no reason at all. Something had happened on this one that none of them could quite pinpoint, but it felt...different.

Hardison was quieter; Parker was quizzical. Eliot kept his distance.

That night, as they were cleaning up, Nate nudged Sophie as he nodded to the rest of the team.

“What did I do?” he asked.

She gave him a look.

“I mean, I saved the job. I took down Sanderson,” he said. “That’s what I do.”

“It’s not so much what,” she told him. “But how.”

“Any means possible,” Nate said. “And it’s not like I put anyone in any danger. This wasn’t like before. This wasn’t going too far or pushing too much.”

She drew a breath thoughtfully. “Maybe.”

Nate lifted his eyebrows. “Maybe?”

“Maybe,” she said again, refusing to be antagonized. “I guess it depends on whether or not you believe in magic.”

Nate rolled his eyes with a groan. “Come on, not you, too.”

“I’m just saying,” she protested. “Whether or not it’s real in actuality, magic has a power in all practicality.”

“Only the power people give to it,” Nate argued.

“That’s the point, though,” Sophie said. “That’s what we do. We empower the very ideas that people have and let that destroy them from the inside out. We call it a con or a job, but it is its own form of magic.”

“The spell Claudia Sanderson finished,” Nate said, eyes intent on her now. “It wasn’t real.”

“Probably,” she reminded him with a slight smile. “And the shadow of doubt is a ray of belief.”

Nate looked at his team again. They were farther apart than before, standing at stark angles and not quite making eye contact.

“Just ask yourself,” Sophie told him, leaning in. “Why you picked a real spell. Why didn’t you just alter the concoction so it wouldn’t do anything? She would have still believed it fell apart and pulled out. But that’s not what you did, is it?”

Sophie narrowed her gaze keenly on him.

“Magic only has power we give to it,” she said, getting to her feet. She tilted her head with a sardonic twist of her lips. “And you gave it more power than any of them ever expected.”

-o-

Nate didn’t sleep that night. He got up early instead, going out to buy donuts for the team, just because.

When he came back, they were all up already, sitting sheepishly around the table.

Hardison had made a coffee run; Parker had brought bananas. Eliot had made omelets, and Sophie inexplicably bought a box of cereal.

Nate put the donuts down, trying not to wince.

“Great minds, huh,” he chuckled.

No one laughed.

But damn it all if it wasn’t the most delicious breakfast he’d ever had.