Eliot watched from the bar as Parker ushered their newest client into the Brew Pub and over to a secluded booth in the corner. She looked up and briefly made eye contact with Eliot. He nodded and poured their drinks, taking the tray over to the corner booth. He sat down next to Parker and gave their client an encouraging smile.
"Hi. You're Mindy, right? I'm Eliot."
Mindy nodded, giving him a weak but grateful smile when he pushed one of the coffee mugs over to her. Parker grabbed her hot chocolate without any prompting from him, leaving Eliot to pour some cream into his own coffee. Mindy seemed to need a few moments to gather herself, so Eliot took his time.
It had been strange, adjusting to having only three people on the team. It wasn't always easy, but they managed. Some jobs required at least four people, and they'd started to reach out, hire old friends - or enemies - for the odd job or because they needed an unknown face. But most of the jobs they did with only the three of them, bringing them even closer together than they had been before Nate and Sophie left.
"So," Parker said eagerly, tamping it down when Eliot shot her a look. She cleared her throat and continued, her tone a little more appropriate. "You have a problem."
Mindy nodded, cradling her coffee mug in her hands. She had long, auburn hair, big hazel-colored eyes and a wide mouth that looked like it was made for smiling. At any other time, Eliot would have found her very attractive. But Mindy was pale, her hair looked like she hadn't brushed it in days and her eyes were bloodshot and tired.
"It's my husband," she said. "Well, I think it is. I-I can't prove anything. But he's the only one who would have motive."
Eliot frowned. Hardison, who had done the preliminary work on the case, had said something about the soon-to-be ex-husband being after the wife's money, but this sounded like a little more than that. "Mindy, I'm feeling a little out of the loop here. Why don't you start at the top?"
"Right, sorry," Mindy said, taking a sip of her coffee. "When I was a teenager, my grandfather died and left me all of his money. It's in a trust fund. I get a monthly stipend, but I won't be able to access the accounts until I'm thirty - my birthday is in two months."
"How much money are we talking here?"
Mindy shrugged. "About twenty million."
Eliot managed to suppress his impressed whistle, but Parker didn't - if she even tried.
"Wow, that's a lot of money. No wonder your husband's trying to kill you while you're still married - he wouldn't get a dime after the divorce."
Eliot jammed his elbow into Parker's side and gave Mindy an apologetic smile. "Sorry. What my associate was trying to say is that we see this sort of thing a lot, sadly. Whenever large sums of money are at stake, the perpetrators are usually close to the potential victim rather than being strangers." He shot Parker a warning look and then turned back to Mindy. "Tell us about your husband."
"Cliff is… we met three years ago at a charity function, got married two years ago. I was pretty sure he didn't marry me for my money - I don't have any access to the money yet and he had his own fortune. But he made some bad investments. He lost his company a few months ago and that's when things started to go bad between us. Cliff, he… he changed. I know it wasn't an easy time for him, but no matter what I did, it didn't get better. He was irritable and unnecessarily cruel. So I told him to get his act together or move out." Mindy wiped away a tear that rolled down her cheek. "He tried, for a bit, but there was so much hidden hatred in him - it's like he wasn't the same person any more. I told him to move out and contacted my lawyer to start the divorce proceedings."
"And that's when the attempts on your life started?" Eliot asked.
"Honestly? I wasn't even sure that anyone was trying to kill me," Mindy said. "At first it was just weird stuff. Like, things in the house were suddenly in the wrong place, like someone had moved them around. Cliff still had a key, so I figured he was just taking his frustrations out on me by trying to freak me out. One morning I woke up and one of the walls in my living room was vandalized. Someone had written Cliff's name all over the wall, hundreds of times. The police questioned Cliff, but it didn't go anywhere. I honestly kind of agree with Cliff in this case - why would he break in and write his own name all over my wall? Cliff might not be the guy I married any more, but he's not stupid. He wouldn't sign his own name on a break-in like that."
"Were there any other incidents? Something that changed your mind about the situation?"
Mindy nodded. "I have a housekeeper. Her name is Anita and she was attacked in my house two weeks ago. She just got out of the hospital yesterday."
"What happened to her?"
"She was stabbed," Mindy said, reaching for her coffee cup with shaking hands. Instead of taking a drink, however, she simply wrapped her hands around the mug and held on. "She was alone in the house, cleaning my bedroom when someone stabbed her from behind. Anita couldn't tell the police much, but they think that whoever it was got in through the patio doors and mistook Anita for me. She's about the same height and weight. Her hair is a little shorter, but it's the same color and she had it up in a bun, so it's possible that whoever it was mistook her for me."
"And you think it was your husband because…?"
"Nobody else has a motive." Mindy shrugged. "He's the only one who would benefit from my death."
"Have you considered changing your will?"
Mindy froze for a moment, then her shoulders slumped. "I would, but… my husband has been trying to get me declared mentally unfit. You see, all of the weird things that happened over the last few months, I've always called the police and reported it, and I told them I suspected Cliff. But a lot of the time, there wasn't really anything - what do they call it? - substantial to make a case against him. And now Cliff is using it as proof that I'm unstable and imagining things. I lead a very isolated life. Apart from a few charity events every year, I hardly ever go out. The only people I have regular contact with are Cliff, Anita and the mailman. Possibly my lawyer. There isn't anyone who can help me proof that I'm not unstable. But either way it'll discredit me and put me in a worse position once our divorce case goes before a judge."
"So you need us to prove that your husband is trying to kill you - or at least that he's trying to get you out of the way to get access to your money?"
Mindy nodded. "Exactly. I can't go to the police with this - at this point they probably flip a coin to decide who has to come to listen to another one of my stories when I call them. Do you know the story, The Boy Who Cried Wolf? Only, I'm not lying. I'm not imagining the flickering lights or the messages written on my bathroom mirror or the--"
"Like the living room wall - one morning I woke up and after my shower, I could see Cliff's name written all over the bathroom mirror." Mindy pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and sighed. "I just want it to end. I don't even care anymore that Cliff's after my money. I just want to know who's doing this and I want them to stop. I want to fall asleep at night without having to dread waking up and finding something horrible in the morning." She looked at Eliot, then at Parker. "Will you help me?"
"We'll take the case," Parker said. She leaned forward. "Eliot's going to make sure nothing happens to you today while I'm going to check out your house." She smiled and slipped out of the booth, heading our the front door.
Mindy looked after her, her eyebrows drawn together. "Won't she need my keys?"
Over the comms, Eliot could hear Parker's bark of laughter at the suggestion. He ignored it and smiled at Mindy. "She'll be fine. Now, I don't think you should stay at your house tonight - at least not alone. Let's get you set up somewhere more secure."
"Hey, Hardison? I've got Mindy's mail," she said. "One postcard and a bunch of junk mail, plus a letter from someone named Pryce. I'm sending you the names," she added, snapping several pictures of the envelopes with her cell phone.
"Got it, babe," Hardison said into her ear. "I'm going to check them out and run them across the contacts in Mindy's online address book."
Parker frowned. "Should we be hacking into our client's computer? I mean, we can just ask her."
"Pfft," Hardison said. "People don't tell you anything unless they have to. If any one of these people is shady but Mindy trusts them, she's not gonna give us anything. The only way to get the real info is to get it our way. Besides, it only took me like, twenty seconds to crack her email password. Name of her first pet? Really? People should be more security conscious, that's all I'm saying. You know what--"
Parker shrugged and tuned Hardison out, leaving him rambling on about password security while she broke into Mindy's house.
The interior was… nice. Very bland, with lots of white, beige and gray colors with a few gold accents. The furniture looked like antiques at first glance, but - Parker ran a testing hand over the bureau in the living room and then flicked her tongue over the brass ornaments attached to it - they were all fakes. One of the walls in the living room was slightly brighter than the others. Presumably that was the wall that had been vandalized. Parker got a little closer, but couldn't find any clues about what had happened.
"Hey, are you in the house already?"
"Obviously." Parker snorted. "No deadbolt, and she still had the factory code on the alarm." Parker hesitated for a split second. "What a noob," she added.
"A+ on the new vocabulary, Parker." Hardison chuckled.
"Oh, so I did it right?"
"Perfect," Hardison assured her. "Listen, I just found the blueprints of this house and it looks like there are a few more rooms than I'd estimated from the pictures on Mindy's computer. You don't have enough cameras to cover them all, so focus on the access points and the rooms that Mindy mentioned. I doubt this guy is gonna vandalize her guest bedroom."
"Okay," Parker agreed. She dug into her backpack and took out the box of small cameras Hardison had given her. She knew from experience that they were magnetic, so they'd stick to any metal object. She placed one on the living room lamp and then used a piece of double-sided tape to stick one on the stairway to cover the front door. Going from room to room, Parker checked for anything suspicious and then placed a camera where it was needed.
"I'm done," Parker said, looking up at the last camera she'd placed. She waved. "Can you see me?"
"Yup," Hardison said. "I'm waving back, by the way."
"Cool," Parker said, flashing a smile at the camera. "Did Eliot take Mindy to the safe house?"
"Not yet. Mindy wanted to stop by the office of one of her local charities, the Stop Cancer Foundation. They've been having this fundraiser event with some of the local schools over the last month - you know, sponsored walks, bake sales, schoolchildren fighting cancer, that sort of thing - and they're receiving the check today."
Parker left the house, locking up after herself. She listened to the clicking on the computer keys as Hardison worked.
Hardison whistled. "Wow, these kids got close to fifteen grand. That's not bad at all."
"What's it got to do with Mindy?"
"She promised to double whatever they managed to collect," Hardison said. "But don't worry. Eliot is with her - he's not going to let anything happen to her."
"I know that."
"Did you put a camera in the garage?"
"No, I was all out before I got there. I put one in the kitchen though, so you should have a view of the connecting door."
"But did you check the garage?"
"I… didn't?" Parker stopped walking and looked back at the house. "It's just a garage. There won't even be a car in it because Mindy's car is in our parking lot."
"Uh-huh. I said all the access points, right? Didn't I say that? I said that."
Parker sighed. "Fine. I'm going back to look in the garage. But I don't have another camera, so it's pointless." She turned and walked back, grumbling under her breath.
"You know I can hear you, right?" Hardison asked.
"Yeah, I know you can hear me. You're supposed to hear me," Parker said. "You'd better hope I find something. Because if I went back for nothing, you owe me a chocolate ice cream surprise with extra whipped cream."
"And a cherry on top."
"Exactly." Parker picked the lock on the garage and pushed up the door. "Uh, Hardison?"
"Do I owe you an ice cream?"
"I think I might owe you an ice cream," Parker said.
"Well," Parker said, taking a careful step into the garage. In the middle of the empty space, Mindy's husband Cliff lay face-down in a pool of blood. "The good news is that Cliff isn't trying to kill Mindy."
"How does that translate to you owing me an ice cream?"
Parker snapped a picture of the scene with her phone and sent it over to Hardison. She heard the bing when his phone received the picture.
"Oh-okay," Hardison said after a second. "So this is a problem."
"Call Eliot. Doesn't look like Cliff has been dead for longer than a few hours, so Mindy couldn't have done it. Eliot might have to be her alibi, so you need to make sure his alias is up to a police investigation. If what she said is true, the police will look at Mindy first."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I'm going to check out Cliff's place before the cops get there."
"Somebody's definitely been screwing with Mindy, so it's not just in her mind," Hardison said. He clicked the remote in his hand and a bunch of police reports flew up onto the three screens along the far wall of the back room. "Police reports including pictures - nothing really life-threatening, though. It's mostly annoying small-time stuff. Until someone stabbed the housekeeper in the back and almost killed her."
"And now someone's stabbed the husband in the back and actually killed him," Parker said.
"Yeah, but that doesn't make sense," Eliot said. "If the husband isn't the one who left the original messages, then what's the motive here?"
"I don't know, man." Hardison shrugged. "Maybe someone wants to buy the house and needed them to move out."
Parker shook her head. "Nah. It's a nice enough house, but there were lots of better ones in the same neighborhood. Plus, the house is old. Like, 1920s old. Doesn't make sense that someone would want that house in particular when the direct neighbors have newer, more modern houses. Cheaper in repairs and general upkeep, better security measures, better heat retention, better--" She broke off, looking from Eliot to Hardison and back. "What? Why are you looking at me like that."
"Didn't know you wanted to be a realtor when you grew up, Parker," Eliot said.
Parker narrowed her eyes. "It all factors into things when you want to break in somewhere. You can't use the same methods on a house from the 1940s as you would use on a house built in this decade."
"Okay, so - Mindy," Hardison said, getting them back on track. "What are we gonna do?"
"Find out who's behind everything," Parker said.
"You mean solve her husband's murder?"
"Yeah." Parker shrugged. "You told the cops you're the PI Mindy hired to find out who's behind this, right? So it wouldn't be too weird if you started asking questions, poked your nose in into the case."
"I guess," Eliot said.
"And if they don't let you play in their sandbox, well, nobody's seen Hardison's face yet. He can be Agent Thomas."
"All right," Eliot said slowly. "But this isn't our usual type of case, so everyone be extra careful. Who knows what we're dealing with here."
"Don't worry." Parker patted Eliot's back. "I won't let anyone hurt you."
"Very funny, Parker. Very funny." Eliot rolled his eyes and shrugged off her hand. "I'm going home."
The sound of Parker and Hardison's laugher followed him all the way to the back door.
"Man," Hardison said, "you've got to stop taking out your ear bud all the time. Mindy just got a call from an FBI Agent named Plant asking to talk to her. She agreed to meet him in the hotel lobby."
"I'm heading over there now," Eliot said. "And I'll take my ear bud out whenever I damn well please. I don't need you to listen to me work out, Hardison."
"It's not like I don't know you're at the gym - the one on Lancaster, with the better training mats," he added a bit smugly.
Eliot rolled his eyes and hung up without another work. He raced through a shower, ignoring the fact that half a decade ago, Hardison's invasive surveillance of the team would have made his skin crawl. Back then, he would have had a not-so-friendly word with Hardison, punctuated with a fist to the face. These days, all it got out of Eliot was an eye roll and a half-fond smile.
Eliot arrived at the hotel just as Mindy stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby. Hardison owned the top floor of the hotel, making it a convenient safe house that didn't look like a safe house. Their clients usually assumed they'd just rented the room for however long it took to take care of the problem.
Before Eliot could head over and greet Mindy, two guys in cheap suits found her. Something about the way they walked set off all kinds of alarm bells in Eliot's head. He ambled closer, leaning against a pillar near the elevators where Mindy and the two men stood. He turned his back on them, watching the proceedings in the mirror that hung behind the reception desk and spanned nearly the entire length of the lobby.
"Hi," the shorter of the two men said, a wide smile on his face. "I'm Agent Paige, this is my partner Agent Plant. We're here to talk to you about your husband."
"We're very sorry for your loss," the taller one added solemnly. "But we really need to talk to you about… our case."
Eliot frowned. The badges the two flashed looked real at first glance, but at the distance he couldn't really be sure. "Hey, Hardison," Eliot said quietly, looking down at his phone. "Can you turn on the microphone in Mindy's cell? I want to listen to their conversation."
"Sure, I can do that. I can get you her text history and her facebook feed, too."
"Just the audio," Eliot said, watching as Mindy and the two men made their way to the bar-and-restaurant area of the hotel. He waited another minute, idly listening to Mindy and the taller agent - Plant - make small talk while the shorter one - Paige - steered them to the best spot in the restaurant. There was a crowd of people eating their breakfast, but a good half of the tables were still unoccupied. The table Paige picked had the best strategic advantage of all the available tables.
Something was definitely up, Eliot decided, slowly making his way into the restaurant. He swiped a newspaper from a stack in the lobby and wandered into the restaurant, taking a seat near the exit. He deliberately sat with his back to the room, ignoring the way it made his stomach uneasy. He could still keep an eye on what was going on by way of a polished silver coffee pot the waiter sat down on his table.
Paige and Plant were good, but Eliot knew criminals. Between the guys' postures, the non-regulation haircuts and the heat they were packing, there was no way they in town on any official business. Whoever they were, the two guys certainly weren't FBI agents.
Eliot listened to the interview over his ear bud and then slipped out of the restaurant when the two fake agents started their goodbyes. He walked out of the front entrance and down to the parking lot, keeping his pace slow enough that he wasn't too far ahead of the two fake FBI agents. He unfolded his newspaper and leaned against the waist-high wall surrounding the parking lot. A minute later, Paige and Plant exited the building and got into a classic Impala.
Eliot gave Hardison the make and model of the car. "Iowa plates, DYO58R," he added.
"Got it," Hardison said. "No luck. Plates are registered to a Cecilia Groves, 78 years old, drives a baby blue Ford station wagon built in 1984."
"Fake FBI agents in a muscle car with stolen plates?" Eliot tossed the newspaper into the nearest trashcan and headed back towards the hotel. "We've got trouble."
Hardison nodded. "Yeah," he said, his expression uncommonly grave. "About that."
"Did you figure out who they are?"
"You could say that," Hardison said. "I hacked into the surveillance cameras at the hotel and ran their faces through my facial recognition program. I also crosschecked with every police and federal database I have access to - which is all of them - and came up with this." He pointed to the three screens mounted on the opposite wall. At the push of a button, two profiles were thrown up.
"Sam and Dean Winchester," Eliot read. He skimmed the page, then turned to look at Hardison. "Is this for real?"
Hardison nodded. "But it's not all bad news."
"We got two crazy ax murderers in on this somehow and it's not all bad news?"
Parker shrugged. "Hardison says the FBI file makes no sense."
"Because it doesn't," Hardison said. "There are inconsistencies. Like, the older one's supposed to have killed all these woman in St. Louis, but there are witness reports that put the brothers a few hundred miles away at the time of the first murders."
"There's also the fact that they've been declared dead multiple times but are still running around," Parker said.
"No," Hardison countered. "That doesn't count. That just shows that they're smarter than the FBI and faked their deaths. I'm talking about real inconsistencies in the case."
"Okay, great, so they're not quite as criminal as the FBI suspects," Eliot said. "How is this good news?"
"I never said it was good news. Just not all bad," Hardison said, shrugging. "But Mindy is safe and we've got the house rigged with cameras. Whatever they have planned, they won't be able to do it without us stopping them. And once we have them on tape for breaking and entering or whatever, I can go in as Agent Thomas, expose the fake FBI agents as wanted killers and have the cops arrest them."
Eliot frowned, an uneasy feeling in his gut. "I don't like this."
"I don't like it either, but we don't have anything on these two that we can use. We don't even know where they're staying," Parker said. "We need to wait for them to make a move, and if they're even half as crooked as their file says, they will make a move soon." Parker grinned. "Just that this time? We'll be there to stop them."
Eliot sighed in resignation. "I still don't like it," he muttered.
Hardison shrugged. "Nothing else we can do right now, man."
Eliot pursed his lips. "I'm gonna head into the kitchen."
Parker bounced on the balls of her feet and followed him out of the room. "What are you going to make? Can I eat it? Can you make something with cereal in it?"
Parker, dressed in all black, had an open bag of pretzels in front of her, chewing loudly. Hardison played something on his computer, glancing up at the monitors every few seconds.
Stakeouts with Parker and Hardison were - to put it bluntly - annoying. After a while they got bored and impatient (Parker) or took it way too seriously and started talking like the cops in bad 80s movies (Hardison). But if anything was going to happen with the brothers, Eliot wanted to be nearby to be the first on the scene.
Three hours later, Hardison and Parker were in the middle of a heated poker game that Hardison was losing big time. He knew Parker was cheating, but he hadn't figured out how yet. Eliot shared a conspiratorial look with Parker when she caught him watching the game with a knowing smirk on his lips. It didn't take much longer for Hardison to throw his cards down in disgust while Parker uncovered three sixes and greedily raked in all the pretzels they were playing for. She stuffed two in her mouth, crushing them between her teeth with a loud crunching noise right next to Hardison's ear. Before Hardison could start complaining, one of the control lamps on Hardison's computer set up began to blink.
Like a switch had been flipped, Hardison forgot all about the poker game as he swiveled his chair around and concentrated on his work. "We have movement in the kitchen." He tapped a few keys and all of the monitors flipped to a shadowy view of Mindy's kitchen. Hardison hummed and hit another set of keys. One of the monitors switched into night-vision. The the green-hued picture let them see the two figures more clearly.
"It's the brothers," Eliot said.
"What are they doing? Damn it," Parker cursed. "I knew I should have put in some bugs, too."
The shorter brother - Dean - was waving a small object around the kitchen.
Parker frowned. "Is he looking for a safe?"
"Could be," Hardison said. "But what does he hope to find in the kitchen?"
"Doesn't matter anyway," Parker said. "Mindy's real jewelry is in a safe deposit box. All she has in the house are imitations and really cheaply-made stuff."
"Whatever they're doing, I don't like it," Eliot said. "I'm going in there."
"I'm coming with you."
"I don't think that's a good idea," Hardison said. "Or did you forget these two are killers? Armed and dangerous?"
Parker and Eliot exchanged a look. Parker shrugged. "I have Eliot."
"Armed," Hardison said slowly and intently, " and dangerous."
Eliot tilted his head to the side, studying the image of the two brothers. "I can take them," he said confidently.
Hardison threw his hands up in the air and turned back to the monitors. "Fine, go into the dark house with the two serial killers and get yourselves killed. See if I care."
Parker laughed and followed Eliot out of the van. They took a shortcut through the neighbors' backyards and Parker picked the lock to the patio doors.
"The brothers have gone upstairs," Hardison said through the comms. "They're in the bedroom."
Eliot let Parker take the lead on the stairs, following in her footsteps. Since she'd been in the house before, she knew the layout better than him. Once they'd reached the top, Eliot stopped Parker with a hand on her shoulder and pointed behind him. Eliot felt more than he saw Parker roll her eyes, but she obediently let him step in front of her. It was only a precaution. Eliot had trained Parker himself - he knew how good she was with her fists. She could take care of herself. But the two brothers were tall - the shorter one was taller than Eliot, but weighed in at about the same and the taller one had both height and weight on him. Eliot was sure he could take one if not both of them at the same time. Parker, though, would have a harder time making her hits count. She'd have to rely on speed and agility and hope to get in a lucky punch before one of them overpowered her. Eliot was determined not to let it come to that.
Up ahead in the bedroom, someone uttered a muted curse.
"Um, guys?" Hardison said over the comms, sounding a little freaked out. "Something's happening."
A loud crash from the bedroom made Eliot abandon all caution. "What's going on in there, Hardison?" he asked, stalking forward.
"I…I'm not really sure," Hardison said. "It looks like a fight, but I can't really see who the brothers are fighting."
Eliot stopped, throwing a glare over his shoulder when Parker bumped into him. "There's someone else in the house?"
"No, that's just it," Hardison said. "I literally can't see who they're fighting."
Eliot frowned. That made even less sense than another intruder.
"Maybe we should leave and call the police," Parker whispered. "Let them deal with this weird case."
Eliot was about to agree when someone inside the bedroom shouted "Sammy! Look out!" The shout was followed by two gun shots.
Eliot threw caution in the wind and pushed the bedroom door open, hitting the light switch as soon as he stepped into the room. His own eyes were used to rapid changes in brightness and adjusted far quicker to the sudden light than anyone else's.
Dean squeezed his eyes closed, squinting out of a small opening. "Son of a bitch," he cursed. He turned, bringing up his arm as he swung around.
Eliot side-stepped him and grabbed his wrist, forcing it - and with it the barrel of the custom Colt in Dean's hand - down towards the floor. Dean reacted faster than Eliot had expected and the two of them grappled. Dean also seemed to have a lot more experience than Eliot had expected - certainly more than even his criminal record had suggested - but Eliot was one of the best in the business. He hadn't earned that dubious honor for nothing.
In the end, though, it was Parker who inadvertently helped Eliot win the fight. While he was busy trying to gain the upper hand with Dean, Parker had launched herself at Sam. She was smart enough to realize she couldn't win a physical fight without a lot of luck and acted accordingly. The whine of the taser charging was the only warning Sam got before he fell down, twitching as his muscles reacted to the high voltage that the taser released.
Sam's muted groan and the thud as he hit the floor distracted Dean long enough for Eliot to land a solid punch to the solar plexus and a kick to the back. He had Dean in zip ties before he could recover. Across the room, Parker collected her taser and tied Sam's wrists together.
There was no sign of anyone else in the room, although a hand-shaped bruise was beginning to appear on the side of Sam's face and the bedside table near him was overturned. One of the drawers had opened and spilled an assortment of knick-knacks - lotion, reading glasses, a fake (probably) pearl necklace, a pen, a box of condoms. Other than that there was no sign of a struggle.
"Hardison," Eliot said. "Call the police and grab your blazer. Looks like FBI Agent Thomas just caught two impostors who turn out to be wanted criminals."
"Bad move," Dean said, flexing his arm muscles.
Eliot nudged him with his foot. "Stop that. The zip ties won't break - at least not until you're in police custody and no longer our problem."
Dean glared at him over his shoulder, then turned to look at his brother. "Hey, is my brother okay?"
"I just tasered him a little," Parker said. "It's fine."
"No," Dean said. "It's really not. Look," he said, giving Eliot a serious look, "I don't know who you two are, but you're not cops. Now, I'm pretty sure we didn't do anything to you personally, so how about you leave and everyone goes home happy?"
"We caught you breaking into our client's home," Parker said. "That's not nothing. That's wrong," she added, blatantly ignoring the fact that she'd done the very same thing just twenty-four hours earlier.
"You don't know what you're dealing with, okay?"
"Sam and Dean Winchester, wanted in at least eighteen states on multiple counts of murder, larceny, grave desecration - which, really? There's gotta be something wrong with you - and even a bank robbery. I think we know exactly who we're dealing with."
"Great, so you looked us up," Dean said flatly. "But I wasn't talking about us. I meant--"
The lights in the bedroom flickered once, twice, and then went out. Plunged into sudden darkness, Eliot blinked. The faint light coming in through the windows only let him see vague shapes. He saw Dean who had managed to get to his knees. Sam was still on the floor, with Parker standing next to him.
And--there was a forth shadow, right next to Parker.
"Parker, look out!"
Eliot reached into his pocket for his flashlight - he needed to see who he was aiming for - when Parker screamed. The blood nearly froze in Eliot's veins. Parker looked fear in the eye and laughed. She'd faced off against armed drug smugglers and thieves who didn't care who got in their way and she'd never once screamed like that. Parker got pale and jittery and desperate, but she didn't scream.
Eliot didn't hesitate. He launched himself at the big shadow of Parker and this new attacker. But when he reached the other side of the room, all he found was Parker, breathing harshly into his shoulder when he put his arms around her. The shirt under his hand was wet and Parker hissed when he put his hand back on the spot.
"They stabbed me," Parker said. "Whoever it was stabbed me."
Eliot dug his flashlight out of his pocket and switched it on. With Parker at his back, Eliot turned, surveying the entire room. There was no one besides him, Parker and the Winchester brothers.
"Where did he go?" Parker asked.
Eliot turned back to her, motioning for her to let him inspect the wound on her back. It was high on Parker's shoulder and it looked like the knife had been deflected by her shoulder blade. The cut was deep and bleeding heavily, but it wasn't life threatening as long as they got Parker stitched up and made sure it didn't get infected.
Suddenly Parker's eyes went wide.
At the same time, the flashlight in Eliot's hands flickered rapidly.
Eliot tensed, expecting a blow to the back.
Instead of a knife to the back, however, there was a loud bang.
The lights came back on and Eliot saw Dean Winchester, kneeling on the floor with his gun in his hand, still aimed behind Eliot. Eliot turned. There was nothing there.
"--at's it, I'm never letting you leave me in the van again. You can't just walk off in the middle of the night and leave me standing out here waiting for the cops to show. I don't even know what I's supposed to do here. Do I come in after you? Or are you just ignoring me? What the hell is going on? Damn, I wish Nate was here. Or Sophie. Someone with half a brain. Damn it, Eliot, Parker. Where are you?"
"We're here," Eliot said. "Hang on a second, Hardison."
Dean shuffled over to his brother, a wicked-looking knife in his hand, and cut the plastic zip tie on Sam's wrists. He lightly patted his brother's cheeks. "Hey! Sam! Sammy! Come on, wake up."
"What's going on?" Eliot asked.
"We need to get out of here, that's what's going on," Dean said. "I don't care who you are, but it's not safe here. We need to leave before that ghost comes back and stabs us all. And I think your girlfriend there needs a doctor."
"Ghost?" Eliot snorted. He might have underestimated Dean Winchester before, but he wouldn't make the same mistake twice. Eliot felt the sudden urge to punch the guy again.
"He's not lying," Parker said.
"I saw… something," Parker said, leaning back against the wall. "The second time, when the flashlight flickered. This guy appeared behind you. Appeared out of nowhere."
"It was dark, Parker," Eliot said.
"Yeah, and now it's not and there's no one here but us," Parker said. "I know what I saw. I saw a guy appear out of thin air, with a huge carving knife in his hand. He looked dead, okay? Like, six decades under the earth dead."
"More like seven and a half, if it's who we think it is," Dean cut in. "Look, this is all really fascinating, but if you could have your reality breakdown somewhere not haunted, that would be great. Also, Sam and I need to be going now." Dean gave him a sloppy salute. He helped his brother to his feet and smiled. "Been nice knowing you. See you never."
"You're coming with us," Parker said.
"Yeah, I don't think so, honey."
"Don't call me honey," Parker said, her voice like steel. "Your car is parked three streets over. I took out a few vital parts on the way here," she said, slipping a hand into her hoodie pocket and shaking it. Eliot could hear the sound of metal parts clinking together.
Dean cursed under his breath, then louder when they heard sirens approaching.
"You'll come with us if you don't want to spend the night - and possibly longer - in jail," Parker said.
Dean and Sam exchanged a look.
"Okay," Sam said. "We'll come with you."
"Great," Parker said. She tapped her ear. "Hardison? No time, just listen. Don't tell them about the Winchesters if you haven't already. Okay, good. Tell them you're working with Agents Plant and Paige and that you had a hunch and were staking out the house. You saw lights in the upstairs bedroom and called for backup, then went in anyway. You surprised a tall guy with a ski mask, you fought. He had a knife, you shot at him, grazed him, but he got away. Got that?"
Eliot kept an eye on the brothers who were studying them openly. He heard Hardison's slightly confused but affirmative answer and opened the bedroom door. "Quickly now," he said. "Or we'll have to come up with a new story."
Parker headed out into the hallway, followed by Sam. Eliot didn't particularly like the thought of Dean Winchester at his back, but Dean made no move to follow his brother. Eliot sighed and walked out of the bedroom, keeping his head tilted so that he would catch any sudden movements Dean made.
Dean didn't try anything though. He pouted, but followed Eliot and the others out the patio doors and through the neighboring backyards back to the van.
Eliot shrugged. He hadn't seen any ghosts, but he also hadn't seen any flesh and blood intruders, and somebody had stabbed Parker.
Parker nodded. "I've seen it," she said. "I know you think I'm kind of crazy, but I also know you don't really think I'm insane. We're a team, right? So trust me."
"I trust you," Hardison said quickly. "I do! But… ghosts?"
"Did you see anything on the tapes?"
Hardison shook his head. "Just a shadow. When I went to switch to night-vision, everything went on the fritz. They cameras cut out around the same time the comms did."
"Ghosts can interfere with the signal," Sam said.
"Right," Hardison said. "You don't have a bad signal, there's just a ghost standing next to you."
"Look," Dean said, uncrossing his arms for the first time since they'd arrived at the Brew Pub an hour earlier. "If you don't believe us, then why are we still here? Believe it or not, we're not doing this for fun. We got work to do, and the longer you're having your existential crisis, the longer this sucker is out there stabbing people."
"Okay," Hardsion said. He nodded once, as if to himself, and stretched his arms. "Ghosts. I'm game. What do we do next? Find out who the ghost is, I mean, was? What's the procedure?"
Sam and Dean exchanged a look. "Uh," Sam said. "Well, we already have an idea who it might be."
"Who?" Parker asked.
"Albert Nesbit," Sam said. "He's the one who had the house built in the mid 1920s. He lived there with his wife Edith until 1938 when he discovered she was cheating on him with the gardener. He went crazy, stabbed the gardener, his wife and eventually himself."
Hardison, who had been typing on the computer as Sam talked, nodded. Up on the screens, news reports, police files and old photographs flashed past. "Sounds plausible. So how does the ghost thing work? Did he get stuck here or is it random or what?"
"Unfinished business, that sort of thing," Dean said.
"This setup is pretty cool," Sam said, running an appreciative hand along the edge of the nearest monitor. "Can you find out where Nesbit is buried?"
"Sure," Hardison said. "Why?"
"The grave desecrations," Eliot said. Suddenly he wished they'd never heard of the Winchesters.
Dean nodded. "Got it in one."
Hardison made a 'wrong answer' buzzer sound. "I still don't get it."
"Ghosts stay because of some kind of trauma, unfinished business, something that keeps them from moving on. Ghosts usually appear in places that are significant for them - where they lived or, more commonly, where they died - but their spirits are tethered to this world by their remains. So if you destroy the bones, you destroy the ghost," Sam said.
"And the quickest, easiest and most reliable way to get rid of the bastards is to salt and burn their bones," Dean added, smirking slightly.
Hardison gulped. "You wanna go to the cemetery and dig up some dude's bones to burn them? Now? It's the middle of the night!"
"Duh," Dean said. "People kind of frown at you if you show up at a grave with a shovel in broad daylight."
Hardison lost a bit of color, but he gamely returned to his search. Parker leaned forward, wincing when the movement pulled at her shoulder.
"What else?" she asked. "You were able to hold it off before. You shot it and it disappeared."
"Temporarily," Sam said. "The only way to get rid of it for real is to burn the bones." He took out his gun and placed it on the counter, sliding it over to Parker.
Parker looked at it, then shrugged. "It's a gun," she said. "It's a shiny one, but I don't know what you're trying to say with this."
Eliot reached over and grabbed the gun. "It's a Taurus PT92 with a custom grip. James Bond used one in License to Kill," he said. He ejected the clip. "This isn't regular ammo."
"We make it ourselves," Sam said. "There are a few things that will temporarily stop a ghost: iron and salt. We make our own rock salt rounds."
"It's easier to make shotgun shells, but pistols are easier to carry concealed, so…" Dean trailed off, making a 'what can you do' face.
"Arnold Nesbitt is buried in Pine Crest Cemetery," Hardison said. "But guys - how do you know it's this guy? I mean, Mindy has lived in that house for nearly ten years."
"Yeah," Sam said, "but the real trouble didn't start until the divorce was almost final. We're thinking that the breaking up of a marriage is this guy's trigger. He's dormant until something like this happens, and then he snaps. Look through the house's history - four other families lived there over the years. Three were happily married and moved out eventually. One couple in the early eighties turned up dead."
Hardison hummed and started another search. "Police later found out that the husband had cheated on the wife with the nanny and wow - the husband and wife are both dead and the nanny and a neighbor who'd been in the house were severely injured with a knife. The nanny got really lucky that nothing vital was injured and the neighbor, who just was in the wrong place at the wrong time, got out alive with minimal injuries. The witness - that's the neighbor - is described as 'hysterical' in the police report."
"They tend not to believe you when you start talking about ghosts," Dean said wryly.
"Okay, so we dig up some dead guy, set him on fire and then it's over?" Parker said. "Mindy can go home and we can close this case?"
Dean nodded. "Pretty much, yeah."
"No," Eliot said. He glared at Parker. "You're not going anywhere."
"But I like setting stuff on fire," Parker whined.
"Nuh-uh," Hardison said. "Don't look at me. I agree with Eliot."
Eliot looked at Dean. "I'm coming with you."
"If you have to," Dean said. "And gimme back the parts to my baby. I can't leave her in the suburbs all night."
"Don't need to," Parker said. "There's nothing wrong with your car."
Dean shot her a betrayed look. "You lied to us?"
"How adorable," Parker said. "Did you really think I was telling you the truth? Pfft, I'm a criminal."
Hardison cleared his throat.
"But we're strictly on the side of the good guys now," Parker quickly added. "We're saving puppies and people and stopping bad guys. Yup, white knights, all of us."
Eliot rolled his eyes. For such a good criminal, Parker was a lousy liar.
"Right," Dean said. His face clearly reflected his current opinion of Parker. He turned to Eliot. "Well, hurry it up if you're coming," he said, jerking his head towards the door. "We don't got all night."
Eliot was glad - ghosts weren't on the short list of things he'd expected the case to be about. Hell, ghosts hadn't even been on the long list. They weren't on any list because they shouldn't even exist. But Parker said she'd seen it, and after six years of working together, Eliot had come to trust Parker like he trusted only very few people. If she said they were dealing with ghosts, Eliot could accept that until he had proof one way or the other.
Eliot pulled up at the cemetery behind the Impala and joined the brothers at the trunk which seemed to host a veritable arsenal of weapons. Eliot had his knife and his fists - on most days that was all the weapons he needed. Ghosts, however, required something a little more pro-active, if the Winchesters were to be believed.
Sam handed Eliot a shotgun.
"I thought handguns were easier to conceal," he said, accepting the extra ammunition Sam handed over next.
"Dude," Dean said. "It's three am on a Thursday. Anyone who's in the cemetery at this time of night isn't going to mention it."
Armed with a heavy-duty flashlight, a shovel and the shotgun, Eliot followed the brothers down the rows of headstones until they found plot 258.
They took turns digging, two guys in the hole with shovels while the third was on guard duty.
Eliot stood in the loose earth, Dean at his side. They'd dug down deep enough that they had to be almost at the coffin. A sudden gust of wind made Eliot look up. For a split second, he saw someone stand behind Sam, but the figure disappeared before he could be sure he'd seen anything at all. Eliot was about to shake it off - or maybe call a warning to Sam - when the figure came back, appearing out of thin air.
It was a man, almost as tall as Sam. Half his face was obscured in the shadows behind Sam, but what Eliot could see was a pale, unhealthy gray-blue color, the flesh rotten and mottled. Bits of his face had fallen off and there were gaping holes where the bones underneath were visible. The man's - the ghost's - clothes were in tatters, dirty and stained, with rips and tears in the material.
Eliot took all of this in in the split second before the ghost acted and tossed Sam aside like a rag doll. Eliot reacted on instinct. He dropped the shovel and grabbed the shotgun, firing a round of rock salt directly into the ghost's chest. The ghost winked out of existence, disappearing like he'd never been there in the first place.
Beside him, Dean screamed "Sam!" and scrambled out of the hole.
Eliot glanced around. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Dean check his brother. "How is he?"
"Knocked out," Dean said. "We need to keep digging. Being this close to their remains gives these suckers added strength, so he'll be back soon. Plus, he knows what we're trying to do, so he's definitely gonna try and stop us."
"Great," Eliot said. He put the shotgun down, positioning it at the edge of the grave so that he'd only have to grab and aim it. He and Dean worked quickly, digging down until they hit wood. The coffin was old and half-rotten and the wood gave easily when Dean pounded down on it with his shovel. The bones inside didn't look like anything special - for bones that kept a ghost tethered to this world, Eliot had expected something a little more sinister.
Eliot's heart skipped a beat when Dean suddenly dropped his shovel and raised his gun. But it only took a moment to realize Dean wasn't aiming at Eliot but behind him. Eliot ducked down, raising his arms to protect his head. Dean fired and then nudged Eliot.
"Quick," he said. "Out of the hole."
Eliot climbed out of the grave, exchanging his shovel for the shotgun. Dean dug through the duffel bag he'd set down near the headstone earlier and came up with a bottle of lighter fluid and a container of salt. He shook out a healthy amount of salt and squirted nearly the entire bottle onto the bones before reaching into his pocket for the lighter.
Eliot suddenly felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He whirled around and came face to face with Nesbit's ghost. He was too close for the shotgun to be of any use, so Eliot did what had become nearly instinctive for him: he drew back his arm and threw a punch. He hadn't counted on the fact that ghosts had no corporeal form. His fist went right through the half-rotten face of the ghost without any resistance. Eliot stumbled, nearly losing his footing. The only thing that kept him upright was a cold hand on his throat, squeezing with an iron grip.
He couldn't touch the ghost, but the ghost could touch him. It's an unfair world, Eliot thought, cursing the fact that he had no way of getting the shotgun up to get rid of the ghost.
But as sudden as the ghost had appeared, he disappeared. Not like he had before, though. This time, his non-corporeal form went up in flames, screaming and shrieking.
Eliot turned around and found Dean at the side of the grave, flipping his lighter shut. Flames licked out of the hole in the ground.
"Thanks," Eliot rasped, his voice a little raw after being choked.
"Don't mention it," Dean said.
A few feet away, Sam moaned and sat up, holding his head. "What happened?"
"We burned him" Dean said.
"So that's it?" Eliot asked. "It's over?"
"It's over," Dean confirmed. "But you don't get to go home just yet." He picked up Eliot's shovel and pushed it into his hands. "Now, we get to fill up this hole again."
Eliot groaned. "Tell me you're kidding."
"I wish I was," Dean said sincerely. "But if the cops aren't on the way yet and we have the time to spare, we fill it back in and hope nobody asks any awkward questions. In case you hadn't noticed, we kind of have the entire FBI on our asses."
Eliot nodded and started digging. "Maybe Hardison can do something about that. You know, now that we're relatively sure you're not serial killers."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Gee, thanks. Don't hurt yourselves."
Eliot laughed. Hardison might not be able to make the case against the Winchesters disappear overnight, but there were a few things Leverage Inc. could do for the brothers.
"How's your shoulder?" Eliot asked. He made a gesture for Parker to let him see the wound.
"It's fine," Parker said. She turned her head to the side and pulled on the large sweater she was wearing. Eliot suspected it was one of Hardison's - he couldn't see Parker buying - or stealing - anything with the Matrix code on it in neon green, not even on a whim. "It pulls a little when I move my arm, but it's not too bad."
Eliot carefully peeled off the bandage and inspected the wound. "Looks clean," he said.
"She'll be fine," Dean said from where he was looking over Eliot's shoulder. "There's no muscle or bone damage and no signs of infection. Quit babying her."
Eliot shot him a glare and Dean backed off, hands raised in a mock defensive gesture. He turned back to Parker. "How's the pain?"
"Not even worth mentioning," Parker said.
"Uh-huh," Eliot said, ignoring the obvious lie. Parker knew her own limits.
Hardison wandered in just after Parker had a brand new bandage on her shoulder. He had his laptop cradled in his arms, awkwardly typing with one hand as he walked.
"Oh, you're back," he said. "That's good. I made sure none of the fingerprints the police collected were connected to any of us, and I deleted the security footage from the hotel where you talked to Mindy. I used that to identify you, so I figured it'd be good if it disappeared from public record. Did you go and talk to any of the detectives or anyone else involved in the case?"
"Uh, we talked to the lead detective and the housekeeper," Sam said. "We can't just go around digging up random graves. There is an investigative process that happens before that," he added dryly.
"Hmm," Hardison hummed. "Where?"
"Where did you talk to them?"
"We went to the housekeeper's home - she just got out of the hospital," Dean said.
"And we caught the detective at the husband's murder scene," Sam added.
"Good. No surveillance at either of those places," Hardison said. He looked up at the brothers. "Congratulations, you were officially never in Portland."
"Yeah, well, you can't hack people's brains," Dean said gruffly. "The detective saw us, the housekeeper saw us, the chick whose husband got ganked saw us. We're booking it out of town as soon as Princess Sammy over there has said goodbye to his new friends."
"Don't mind Dean," Sam said, shooting a pissed off look in his brother's direction. "He traded in his manners for piece of pie when he was five and never got them back."
Eliot didn't much care for politeness. The team each had their own dark pasts - he more so than the other two - that could come back to haunt them. They didn't need the kind of friends who could add to that in the way the Winchesters could. But at the same time, knowing the Winchesters could know in handy. Eliot still wasn't sure about the whole ghost issue. He'd seen it, sure, but he still couldn't quite wrap his mind around what he'd seen. Eliot figured that it would take all the meditation sessions for the rest of the week at least, possibly longer, until he could come to terms with the fact that ghosts existed. From what little Dean had said when they were filling Nesbit's grave back in, ghosts were just the tip of the iceberg.
Eliot looked at Hardison, who'd put down the computer but was still typing on it. With Hardison trawling the net, they'd soon get an update on what was and wasn't real in the world. Eliot wasn't sure he really wanted to know - in fact, he was pretty sure he didn't - but at the same time he was also aware that he probably needed to know if he wanted to continue keeping Parker and Hardison safe and out of trouble.
Sam shook Eliot's hand while Dean stood near the door, his duffel bag over his shoulder and ready to go. He rolled his eyes when Sam gave Hardison his cell phone number and told Parker to take care of herself.
The Winchesters let themselves out the back door and a few moments later, Eliot could hear the Impala's engine start up. Not the most inconspicuous car, but then again, the Winchesters weren't the most inconspicuous people either.
Once the engine noise had faded into the night and quiet had returned to the Brew Pub's back room, Eliot turned and looked at his team mates. Parker was looking straight back at him while Hardison was still focused on his laptop.
"Soooo," Parker said, performing an impromptu drum solo with her fingers on the counter top in front of her. "Ghosts. What do we think about that?"
Eliot shook his head. "We're not Hunters," he said. Hunters - that's what Sam and Dean called it. To Eliot it had sounded more like police work than hunting, but what did he know? "We stick to what we know. Keep doing our work."
"And if another client of ours has a ghost problem?" Parker asked.
"Then we have the Winchesters' number," Eliot said.
Parker nodded. "We're not telling Nate or Sophie," she added after a beat of silence.
"We're not telling anyone, not unless we absolutely have to," Eliot agreed. He looked at Hardison. "Is he gonna stop any time soon?"
Parker laughed. "Not until he has researched everything there is on ghosts. Expect a PowerPoint presentation at some point in the next few days."
"Fantastic." Eliot sighed. "I'm gonna make us breakfast. Make sure he doesn't get in too deep."
Eliot took his time preparing breakfast for the three of them, using the moments of peace and quiet to center himself. When he brought the tray of food into the back room, he could hear Hardison's excited voice, rambling on about women in white. Through the glass he could see Parker nodding, clearly bored but trying not to show it.
Eliot paused for a moment, looking at his two team mates. This case had turned from being sort of their kind of case into something that wasn't their type of case at all and from there it had gone straight to hell. Literally. Life had been hard enough when all they'd had to worry about were the cops and their marks. Adding in ghosts and God knew what else? Eliot didn't like it.
Parker rolled her eyes and caught sight of him, her eyes lighting up at the prospect of food and - more likely - someone else to be the focus of Hardison's attention for a while. Eliot pushed the doors open and set down his tray, making quick work of supplying everyone with a full plate of food. Hardison shoveled his savory crêpe into his mouth while scrolling through something on the computer - Eliot doubted he was paying any attention at all to the food. Parker, on the other hand, gave him a thumbs up after the first few bites of her own sweet crêpe, nodding and making appreciative noises as she ate.
Eliot took a bite of his own breakfast and leaned back a little. Between the three of them, they'd mastered a few crises without calling in the big guns (AKA Nate and Sophie). They'd managed to get out of a few bad situations and they'd always had each other's backs, their different approaches and methods combining to make them nearly unstoppable. Why should the existence of ghosts make a difference? They were Leverage Inc. Pulling off the impossible was what they did. Ghosts or no ghosts, that wouldn't change, Eliot was sure of it.
Eliot nodded to himself, letting the subject rest for now. He would enjoy breakfast with his team, work out for a little and then join the other two in the hunt for a new case.
Parker nudged his shin with her foot and gave him a mischievous smile. Then she started humming the Ghostbusters theme song. Eliot rolled his eyes, watching Hardison nod along with the music for a few beats before his brain caught up to what he was hearing.
"Really?" Hardison said, his voice almost an octave higher than normal. "Really?"
When Parker dissolved into laughter and Hardison refused to join in even as his lips twitched upward, Eliot put down his fork and allowed himself a small smile.
Yeah, they'd be just fine.