What Else Would You Have Me Be?

Chapter 1

Dark spots clouded Alec's vision as he looked away from the screen and felt blindly for the phone.

"Nate?" His eyelids were more sandpaper than skin, but he tried to read the time off the corner of the screen through suddenly watering eyes. "What time is it?"

"Hey, Hardison. Ah. Just past seven. In the evening," Nate replied dryly, pushing Alec's awareness of his sore back and empty stomach to the forefront of his attention.

He'd been at it for eleven hours straight, then. That explained a lot.

"I just got back into town, wanted to check in, see if you'd gotten a chance to look into the case yet. Do you have enough to call everyone in tonight?" Nate was obviously trying hard not to press, and wanting very much to do just that. When Alec didn't respond, he continued. "I guess it's short notice. That's cool. It'll keep for a few days."

Alec wished he had a phone like Nana's, heavy plastic and metal that wouldn't break when he slammed the receiver down into the cradle. He needed to sleep, he needed time to think. But Nate sounded wired, and his enthusiasm was apparently just contagious enough to push Alec too his feet.

Nothing's changed, everything's fine, we're all the same people we were last month.

"Nah, man, let's do this," he stood, banishing the exhaustion from his voice, and glanced again at the computer, doing a quick inventory and surprising himself. "I've got all the high points and then some. Got enough that we could do a fair amount of damage from here."

Nate snorted, then paused. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. I can be there in twenty to set up." Rolling his shoulders, he caught sight of himself in the hallway mirror and wondered it was such a good idea.

But if he didn't go, all today's work would've been for nothing, and nothing would change. He needed a shower first, though. "Make that half an hour," he amended. "And order in some Chinese."


Alec kept his head down as he plugged his computer in and brought up the relevant files. Over on the couch, Sophie was cooing over something small and shiny that Parker was showing her. Eliot was in the kitchen, examining the takeout with a suspicious glare and evidently deciding against it. Nate waited for Alec's nod, and began.

"Alright, so I know it's been a few weeks, and I'm sure you're all a bit rusty." Sophie looked back balefully and handed what looked to be the Dresden Green diamond back to Parker. "But I'm sure you'll all rise to the occasion for this bastard."

Absently wondering if he needed to go look for recent gaps in the Smithsonian's, Alec brought up the first batch of files, and four pictures of the same man appeared across the screens.

He was fifty-two years old and probably hadn't stopped scowling for thirty of them. Heavy-set and clean-shaven, he kept his graying hair in a short military style that Eliot probably would've thought distinctive before not explaining why. The frown alone would've been enough to make anyone want to take the guy out.

"Who's he?" Parker cocked her head, frowning back at him, and finally, it was Alec's turn to be on. Never mind the fact that Eliot was barely watching from the kitchen.

"Sheriff John Arlington, of Maricopa County, Arizona," Alec began, keeping his eyes the screen. "He's got the reputation as being the most badass sheriff in the country. Among countless other cases of being the most evil bastard in the state, he heads up the county jail. Now. Keep in mind, I said jail."

He clicked ahead to the next series of images, all of the main building, he went on. "He doesn't just run the jail like a prison, he runs it like a prison in a country that also happens to be a third world fascist dictatorship." He clicked to the next slide, this time, an aerial shot of the grounds.

"Alright," Nate squinted, asking the question for the benefit of the others. "What're we looking at, here?"

"An entire city of 'em, patrolled from the outside by armed guards. Oh, and I should mention again, it's part of the jail." He pointed out the roof of main building again. "If Gitmo is the Hilton, this is the dodgy motor lodge out back behind the boarded-up truck stop. See here, they've got tents set up, and all this surrounding it is razor wire, and if you look close, here and here," he pointed, "Those are the security patrols around the outside."

Eliot seemed to be paying attention now, watching through his hair as he poured himself some coffee. Alec continued.

"Now, the most dangerous inmates are kept in the building itself, higher security and all that, but they're getting off easily. Most of the inmates are housed in the tents in an area where temperatures range from about a hundred and ten in the summer to forty in winter. When they're not out working the chain gangs- which I did not know still existed- they're regularly and deliberately humiliated as part of their rehabilitation."

"I don't think their philosophy goes in for rehabilitation," Nate corrected him. "They're a bit more into the punishment side of things."

"And that's fair enough. But it's a jail, not a prison, and this is where I point out that about a third of the inmates have yet to be convicted. Of anything"

"It looks like a concentration camp," Sophie gasped, shaking her head in disbelief. "Is that legal?"

"The court's still out on that- literally," Alec said, clicking ahead. "And Arlington's got enough lawyers and judges in his pocket to keep it that way for the next five centuries or so. But human rights violations are not why we're going after him, at least not directly."

He waved his hand at the next few slides, bringing up file names of various court actions. "He's under investigation for everything under the sun. Misuse of funds, abuse of prisoners, dodgy campaign donations, all sorts of fun. There are a ton of lawsuits pending against the guy, but he's still in office until the next election, and that's two years away. In the meantime, he's using some of his misappropriated funds- which so far could be as high as twelve million over the past ten years- to investigate political rivals," he gestured to Nate, handing him the floor as he clicked to a booking photo. "Which brings us to our client."

"Ah, yeah. Jeanine Santiago has been a model employee in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department for fifteen years now, but she made one mistake," Nate began, taking over the briefing. "She decided to run for Sheriff."

Out of the corner of his eye, Alec watched Eliot finally sit down next to Sophie, looking skeptical. "Nate, man. Rigging elections? You sure this is our sort of thing?"

"They are when someone's being framed for a crime she didn't commit, by people who have access to manipulate all the evidence."

"What are they saying she did, and what do we have that can fix it?" Sophie leaned forward to better examine Santiago's picture. "And for that matter, how did you find her?"

"I met yesterday with a woman named Sally Branson, who's been writing a truly astounding number of letters on Santiago's behalf, trying to clear her name. Arlington's lawyers have it sewn up that she won't be able to testify during the trial, though, and most of the mainstream press down there doesn't want to hear from her. Anyhow, ah. I'm getting ahead of myself." He sipped his drink and cleared his throat.

"Back in April, Branson was still finishing her sentence when there was a riot in the main building. Two inmates died, one from being crushed up against a wall in the main building, and one out in the camp, who was stabbed. I'm guessing you can see where this is going. Branson swears that Santiago had pulled the knife out so she could do something about the bleeding, trying to keep pressure on until the medics arrived, but…"

"Arlington and his cronies are saying she stabbed him," Parker finished. The gleam in her eye was creepily joyous enough that Alec was taken aback. They hadn't talked much since she'd explained that she'd lost her taste for pretzels before taking off on an inter-state burglary spree two weeks back. Alec had thought for a while, now, that maybe it had been for the best, but now he was starting to believe it. He wished she'd stop making stabbing motions so happily.

Eliot cut his disgusted glare from Parker back to Nate, and Alec stopped holding his breath when it remained focused, when it didn't shift his way. "How do you want to hit Arlington?"

Eliot hadn't actually looked at him head on all night, and Alec wished he wasn't feeling so relieved about it. But Nate, at least, was carrying on like just a few weeks hadn't changed everything.

"Well, he's bold, and won't back down when challenged. He's confident and has a lot of allies, especially in the right-wing camps. But it's politics, and he knows it. He'll have a healthy suspicious streak. It'll take a longer con, and obviously, he's not going to be winning any more elections when we're through with him, but no. That's not enough. I want him behind bars when we're done with him. Best way to do that is to rope him in, run him for a while, and make sure he's caught out with his pants down so egregiously that even his most die hard supporters would slam the door in his face."

"So how to we do that?"

Nate looked startled at the question, and blinked. "I'm thinking, we need a dead priest."


It was nearly midnight when the meeting breaking up. Alec had been doing a fairly good job of playing cool, but Sophie had figured out that something was definitely up. She'd held out longer than he would've guessed, though, but she'd merely been biding her time.

Waiting until the others were heading back into the kitchen gathering their things and dumping dirty dishes in the sink, she stepped close, ostensibly to hand back the printouts he'd made of the arrest reports.

"Did you sleep at all?" She smiled gently, almost apologetically. "I mean. Not that you're normally, well, you know, light on content, but this." Her smile found a bit more humor. "Nate said he only talked to Miss Branson last night."

"What can I say?" Alec shrugged. As long as he didn't grimace or grin, he wasn't admitting to anything. "I was on a roll. Lost track of time."

"Yes, well. There are rolls, and there are rolls." Glancing up to make sure the others sere still busy in the kitchen, she leaned in, her eyes darting in Parker's direction as she crossed towards the door. "I know that things have been… off, lately, and tonight's just proved that it'll take some time to find our feet again. But if something's bothering you, you can tell me. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, I know," Alec assured her, having absolutely no intention of taking her up on her offer. It wasn't that she was the last person he trusted to hear it. It was that she was probably the only one he did trust, this week, and he still remembered their first office. He knew how well trusting Sophie went.

He slid the laptop into his shoulder bag and grinned. "It's cool. I just wasn't in the mood for video games, I guess."

He wasn't lying. Not entirely.


There were still several hours before Nate was due to check in to fill him in on how the client meeting went, and Alec had nothing to do until he had the first details. Armed with a bottle of soda and a bag of popcorn, he logged in to Warcraft.

He was only five or ten minutes in when the heuristic crawlers he had running on JARVIS suddenly sent up four red flags and bounced them to his phone. Switching over to the other computer, they looked like the results of a glitch.

But he'd learned to be paranoid enough to do his job, and he dug for a while. Eventually, he found the source of the warning.

Four domestic flights to Boston had been booked on four different airlines, all within the past half hour. Four identities with clean criminal histories, none of which had any addresses or other information dating back more than five years. Shallow credit histories on each of the four names, and no connection between the four that he could find.

Individually, the identities were brilliant, even perfect. Taken as a whole, though, they were obviously a batch job, done by someone who didn't have half the skills that Alec himself had. He went through the usual sources and databanks, and after less than fifteen minutes, he found proof.

They were not nearly as perfect as they'd looked a moment ago. All four of them were based off birth certificates of children who'd died before they'd reached a week old.

After double and triple checking, it didn't take long to tie the names to outstanding felony warrants in three states and two extradition countries, but that wasn't the point.

The point was that they'd all used the same identity clearinghouse. The same clearinghouse Moreau's European business partners tended to use. And there had to be a reason for that.

For three hours, he went over every job they'd done in the past year, every single near-lead they'd had on Moreau that hadn't panned out, every move they'd made, meant to make, and everything he could randomly guess at, and still, he came up with nothing.

None of it was making any sense at all, until he went back to the original data, and realized that it had been staring him in the face the entire time. He went back to the birth certificates, and he found it. Bethesda General Hospital, in Washington DC.

He'd been trying not to think about DC for weeks, now, and apparently that had been a mistake.

DC had been insane.

Eliot had worked for Moreau. Hadn't told anyone until he'd been so far caught out that he hadn't had a choice. And as much as Alec understood that he'd been trying to protect the team, that he'd thought he'd been doing his job…

If it hadn't been for the fact that he'd noticed the steady stream of small bubbles coming out from the chair's support, if he hadn't managed to swivel around and get a decent seal on the gap, he would have drowned.

In retrospect, it was easy to predict what Moreau's most obvious choice for attack would have been. Alec had been cuffed to a chair, with wheels, on the edge of the deep end of the pool. It didn't take a genius to figure it out. But he'd been distracted by the guns. By the time the kick came, he'd been too startled to take a deep breath before hitting the water.

He hadn't seen it coming, because he'd been with Eliot. And Eliot was good at his job. Alec had trusted him.

Afterwards, in the park, he'd decided to move on, to forget about the panic that had set in when he was in the water. By the time he'd been dry again he'd even managed to acknowledge that Eliot's reasoning had been sound, given the circumstances. They'd had bigger fish to fry, anyhow.

The next day, they'd faked a man's death, gotten the details on the location of the world's largest EMP bomb, and discovered that they'd been screwed, it wasn't where Moreau had said it would be. The warehouse had been empty

It had taken some doing, but Alec had managed to get a fix on the location. He'd wound up deactivating the bomb. On a train. After jumping onto the train from a bridge.

That part was still fairly awesome, in retrospect.

Eliot and Nate had nearly taken out Moreau before he'd slipped away, and by the time he arrived with Sophie and Parker to find a recently rescued double agent being loaded into the ambulance, he'd been exhausted. They'd been on a flight to San Lorenzo thirty-six hours later. And they'd finished the job.

When it had been all said and done, he'd run his usual cleanup, checking police logs and security reports to make sure their activity hadn't been recorded, or that some detective somewhere wasn't nosing around their jobs, and he'd found nothing he hadn't been expecting. When Nate gave him the list of buildings that needed their security footage erased, he'd found nothing unusual.

It didn't matter that it only took three hours in front of his computer to stop the four strangers coming their way. What mattered was that he had to do it in the first place. Because he'd missed something.

After going over all his files two more times, Alec decided to look again in the morning with fresh eyes. His brain, though, wouldn't power down enough to sleep for more than half an hour at a time.

At some point, far too early in the morning to even be thinking about standing, he dragged himself out of bed. Pouring himself some coffee, he sat down in front of his computer and, out of habit, opened his news feeds. He wasn't really reading them when the idea hit him.

He headed over to the Washington Post's website, entered the date range, and began browsing through sports scores, news, accidents, and incidents. Nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary.

He almost missed it. Barely two paragraphs long, and buried in the news briefs. South side. Warehouse. Improperly stored had ignited and burned the warehouse to the ground, despite having cleared a safety inspection just four days prior. No injuries. No leads. No suspicion of arson.

With a knot coiling in his gut, Alec pulled up the text messages from JARVIS's auto-compiler and found what he'd been missing. The auction location's address matched the warehouse in the article.

Nate and Eliot, they'd been there.

Something much bigger than finding it empty had gone down.

And they were keeping secrets.

It was almost a relief when Nate's call came, just after eight in the morning. He'd found a new client, and there was a hell of a lot of research that needed to be done before the team could be briefed.

The distraction was what Alec needed. He was too angry to think clearly, too furious to sleep, and a dirty sheriff in Arizona was as good a scapegoat as anyone.

And if this was going to be his last job with the team, Alec wasn't going to half-ass it.


                  ~~~~~~~~ Back to Leverage ~~~~~~~~ Chapter 2



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