Chapter 1: The Beginning: Jo
It all began the day she saved the life of a man she'd never met.
She did know him, as much as she knew any of the people who walked down the street past her usual spots. She'd seen him running in the nearby park, too, when she went to use the restrooms. Not every day and not at regular times, but often enough so she began remembering him out of all the other passersby.
The most frequent thing he did was visit the building a few blocks down, but sometimes he'd come out the front when she hadn't seen him go in, or he'd use the rear entrance while she was checking the dumpsters behind the Chinese restaurant, but she wouldn't see him leave.
That was part of why she'd remembered him in the first place—everyone else had a schedule, a routine, and they eventually became part of the landscape. But he didn't. His randomness was another kind of pattern, and it set him apart. Made him distinctive.
The other reason why she'd noticed him went beyond the obvious. She supposed a lot of women would call him good-looking, with those shoulders, and that hair—even the grim set of his features was somehow attractive—but it was the way he moved that caught her attention. He walked without fear.
Caution, maybe—she would bet he made note of everyone and everything around him at all times, just like she did—but it was clear that he would never allow fear to paralyze him past the point of action. Hewouldn't cower or scuttle away like a damaged coward at the first sign of trouble. . .
She didn't know how she knew this about him. And maybe she didn't—maybe he was just an arrogant dock worker with a bad temper and an uptown girlfriend. She'd seen him with an athletic blonde once or twice, and more often with a dark-haired woman who seemed to have multiple personality disorder—or at the very least multiple wardrobes.
But she didn't think either woman was his lover, or even wanted to be. And she didn't think he got all those bruises and scraped knuckles down at the docks, either. She figured that one of these days, she'd discover for sure what he did and maybe even why.
And then . . . well, nothing would change, not for her, not for him. How could it? He was just some random guy with a life and a job and a purpose, and she . . . she only had one-and-a-half out of three. Maybe.
But she'd still wanted to know, and that was a change all by itself. A spark of curiosity, of her former self, that hadn't been there since . . . well, it didn't matter how long it had been since something had mattered to her, even something this small. She often wondered if that spark would die if she ever learned more about him—or if she could keep it going . . .
And one afternoon, two days after she'd seen him on the street arguing with the blonde, who must be a close relative to irritate him that much, she had her chance to find out.
She'd made her usual rounds of the neighborhood and was hunkered down in one of her safe places—a dark, forgotten courtyard separating the blind sides of two apartment buildings and an office block. She had just started to sort through her finds, when she heard footsteps pounding down one of the three alleys that intersected at the wider, paved area. Visitors meant trouble, even in the daytime, and she shoved herself back into the debris lining the long wall.
It was him, looking fierce and determined as he scanned the area. Everything about him signaled danger—not for her, not from him, but trouble was trouble. The part of her that had kept her alive all this time screamed at her to stay hidden, stay part of the garbage until she could escape.
But for once something overrode the fear, and she was on her feet before making a conscious decision to stand. She reached down and picked up the baseball bat she'd pulled out of someone's trash—it had split down the length, but it still had weight and heft.
She knew he saw her, but he kept his attention focused on the way he'd come, and pretty soon shouts and more footsteps echoed around them. Five men, dressed in suits and ties, appeared at the mouth of the alley and fanned out. None of them looked at her and she froze in place to keep it that way.
"Give it up, Spencer," said the one in the middle. "Tell us what we want to know and we'll let you walk away."
He—Spencer—made a scoffing sound, but didn't say anything. He changed his stance a little, but seemed almost relaxed.
"We can do this the hard way or the easy way," said the man.
"There ain't no easy way," said Spencer in a soft, gravelly voice that belonged farther south.
"Fair enough." And three of the men charged him.
It was like . . . a dance. Spencer led—dodging, weaving, a kick here, a punch there, all in time to some rhythm that only he seemed to hear. They landed a few on him, but he shook it off and took his dance partners out, cracking two skulls together and dropping the third with a punch to the stomach that lifted the man off his feet before dropping him to the pavement.
Another suit stepped in, a big guy who moved almost as well as Spencer. The man who had spoken, the leader, stayed back.
She didn't want to move—didn't want to miss seeing the next round, to be honest—but she edged her way down the wall. When she thought she might be in the leader's blind spot, she stepped away from the wall. Slowly, softly, she made her way to the alley behind him, still clutching the bat, still not knowing exactly why. If she'd wanted to escape, she could have followed the wall all the way down to the street. But something about the remaining man worried her, something in the way he stood and watched . . .
There was a final grunt and a thud of meat hitting concrete. She glanced at Spencer, who straightened, his hair loose and wild in his face. "Next," he said.
"The hell with this," said the man and pulled a gun.
She went still and held her breath.
"How many bounties are on your head, now, Spencer? I'm going to auction off your corpse and retire. After we find Mr. Wharton's property. And who's going to protect the others when you're gone?"
Spencer's expression changed, and she was glad it had nothing to do with her. Except . . . she raised the bat, shouldered it. She moved closer, as silently as she could.
Spencer's eyes didn't betray her by so much as a flicker, but he rubbed his elbow. She nodded.
"You think my team can't protect themselves?" said Spencer, as she shifted to the right.
"They can't bother Mr. Wharton if they're on the run." The man shrugged. "We tracked you down, so the rest should be easy. Maybe Ford will give up the goods if we start mailing him little pieces of Devereaux."
Spencer growled, a sound of deadly promise that hit her right in the pit of her stomach.
The man backed up a step, then stopped. "Good-bye, Spencer." His finger tightened on the trigger.
She swung with all her strength.
The gun fired.
The impact threatened to tear the bat out of her hands, but she kept hold. The man screamed and grabbed his shattered elbow, and she swung again, knocking the gun out of his nerveless fingers. She readied the bat again. He'd shot Spencer, threatened his friends, and she had nothing to lose.
Idly wondering whether Devereaux was the blonde or the brunette, she brought the bat down on his unprotected head, intending to split both in half—
A hand gripped the bat, halting it in midair.
"Allow me," said Spencer, pulling the bat gently but firmly away. Using the side of his hand, he laid the moaning man out with a blow to the neck. Then he looked at her.
She knew what he saw: the doughy face, hidden by hair the color of filth. The shapeless, hunched body covered by layers of dirty clothes. God only knew what he smelled.
But he held out his hand like none of it mattered. "Thanks," he said. "Name's Eliot. Eliot Spencer."
She reached out and his warm, calloused fingers closed over hers. It had been a long time since she'd touched another human being. It had been almost that long since she'd spoken, and her voice came out a low and rusty croak. "Jo."
"Jo," he said. "I owe you." He looked serious, as if it was more than just another way of saying thank you, and waited until she nodded. He let go and looked around. He strode to the gun and picked it up. "I have to take the bat, too" he said. "Fingerprints."
She nodded again and watched as he went through the pockets of each man and took their wallets.
"Are you going to run?" she asked, her voice getting stronger.
"Me?" He grinned, showing teeth. "Not hardly."
He wasn't leaving. And he owed her. She thought harder than she'd thought in a long time.
" . . . you should get out of here for a while. I don't think they saw you, but . . . "
"You owe me," she said.
He stopped what he was doing. "Yes, I do. You need a place to stay? Something to eat, maybe?" He pulled out some cash from one of the wallets and held it out. "This ain't charity. You earned at least half of—"
She shook her head. "No. I want . . . " Her courage failed. "I need . . . "
He waited, glancing away only when one of the men let out a groan.
She forced it out. "Teach me to fight."
"You mean self-defense? Sure. I can get you a new bat, teach you a couple of moves—"
"No," she said. "Teach me to fight—like you."
He blew out a breath and shook his head. "Right." He waved at the bodies "You can see what that'll get you."
She smiled, careless of showing her lack of dental care, and nodded. "Clarity."
He frowned and looked her over again, this time with an assessing eye. "You drink? Do drugs?"
She shook her head.
The groaning man rolled over.
Spencer stood up. "Time to go." He looked over the area one last time and headed down the far alley. "You coming?" he asked over his shoulder.
She took a deep breath and followed.
The greatly talented Kiwijellyjam did a gorgeous sketch of Jo that fits this chapter so well:
Chapter 2: The Decision: Eliot
Eliot slowed down for the third time as Jo—and he was sure now it was Jo and not Joe—lagged behind.
She was light on her feet for a woman of her apparent bulk, and anyone who had the strength to break someone's elbow with one swing of a damaged Louisville slugger shouldn't have any problem keeping up with his casual amble. Which meant there was some other reason she was dragging her feet.
If she'd changed her mind, he wouldn't complain— this was the worst possible time to take on a student. The current job wasn't going quite to spec—at least, he hoped it wasn't part of Nate's master plan to have his hitter get shot in some back alley. Wharton was proving to be a relentless hardass, even if his goons were tie-wearing idiots who monologued first and shot too late.
He didn't even know what exactly Jo wanted from him. She couldn't be serious; it would take a lifetime—Eliot Spencer's lifetime, to be specific—to learn to fight like him. It was tough to tell her age underneath the dirt and grimy layers, but he was betting she was too old to start. And anyone with any fire left in them wouldn't be living like she did.
But . . . she was quiet on her feet and alert enough to follow the directions he'd sent her . . . and there was something about the way she'd said clarity, like he'd know just what she meant . . .
He looked back and caught her expression as she passed the open door of an Italian restaurant, moving through the scent of wood—fired ovens. The last time he'd seen longing that intense, he'd had to stop Parker from lifting the Dresden Green Diamond in the middle of a job.
Jo stopped short as a couple cut her off to go inside, their faces turning away as though she didn't exist in their world, or shouldn't. He saw resignation on her face as she wiped her hand down her dirty jacket. She glanced at him, met his eyes, and her entire face went blank and empty. She stuck her hands in her pockets and moved on.
Well, hell. He ought to be hit with the damned bat.
There was a hot dog vendor down the street. He joined the short line and she waited for him against the nearby building, back to the wall, eyes flicking over people and cars. He'd seen ex-cons fresh out of prison who were less cautious about their surroundings.
Then again, it wasn't like he didn't assess his immediate area for potential threats. He was more subtle about it, maybe, but that was just training. The habit was ingrained, from years of necessity. He'd bet hers was, too.
He traded some of the cash he'd liberated for a bag of food and a couple of drinks. He walked up to Jo and handed her a bottle of water. "How 'bout a picnic?"
Her eyes went to the bag and she nodded.
"Wanna walk with me this time? You're givin' me a complex." He kept his voice friendly, but firm.
She studied him for a second, then nodded again.
Jo stayed at his side all the way to the park, even when he stepped up the pace, just to see. She wasn't out of breath, either, when they reached an empty table under a tree. They sat across from each other—she took the downwind side, which was a very good thing, he couldn't lie— and he set a foil-wrapped package in front of her. He opened a bag of organic veggie chips for something to do while she ate.
She unwrapped the hot dog carefully, reverently, her entire attention on the food in front of her. If he hadn't had some idea how hungry she was, he would have figured it out from the way her hands shook as she picked up the dog, keeping the foil between it and her dirty fingers. Figuring she'd bolt it down in three bites, he reached into the bag for another one so she wouldn't have to ask.
But she surprised him. She took a small bite and chewed, eyes half-closed. When that was gone, she took another bite, a little larger this time. She ate half of it that way, while he watched. Slowly, carefully.
So she had self-control . . . interesting.
"You got a place to stay?" he asked, popping a purple chip into his mouth.
She nodded, mouth full, not looking him in the face.
She swallowed. "Shelters are full right now," she said in her hoarse voice. "It's not that cold."
"It will be soon." But he figured she knew that—there was nothing like living outdoors for couple years to make you truly understand that Mother Nature was a homicidal psychopath.
He let it be. For now.
She finished the hot dog and he pushed the second one to her. She touched the foil, stopped, took a breath, and pulled back. "Thanks," she said. "Maybe later."
"Go ahead and eat it now," he said. "There are two more in the bag if you want 'em."
"You aren't hungry?" She didn't wait for his answer to start unwrapping.
He held up the bag of chips, not wanting to tell her that nothing short of starvation would make him eat a generic hot dog. "Can I ask you a couple things?"
"What exactly do you want me to teach you?"
She blinked. "Everything," she said, like it was obvious.
He waited, but there didn't seem to be any more coming. "Can you be more specific?"
She set her food aside and folded her grubby hands in front of her. For the first time, she met his gaze square on. In the dim alley, her eyes had looked as muddy as the rest of her, but they were actually a clear, sharp green. "I want to learn how to fight, Mr. Spencer."
A small smile appeared and was gone. "Because it's time."
When she didn't say anything else, he shook his head. "You know that ten-minute demo back there ain't exactly the norm, right?" It was for him, but that wasn't the point. "Most people are better off just learning some self-defense—" she shook her head and his frustration spilled over. "Well, what do you think learning to smack people down is gonna give you?"
She leaned forward and damned if there wasn't a sparkle in her eyes. "Balance. Control. Confidence. Precision. Purpose. I want to do what you do, Mr. Spencer."
He gave her his best stare, the one that could even settle Parker down. "You don't know a thing about what I do," he said. "For all you know I'm a stone-cold killer, and those are the good guys lyin' on the ground back there."
She shook her head again. "I'll tell you what I know," she said. "You're part of a team, and you care enough about one of them to want to rip out the throat of the guy who threatened to chop her into little pieces. That threat makes him the bad guy." She took a sip of water. "And as angry as you were, you stopped me from smashing in his skull. That makes you the good guy."
He grunted, but she wasn't finished.
"I also know that the first thing you did after we left was to call someone named Nate and tell him to bring Sophie in, just in case. The call didn't take too long, so Nate didn't argue, but he did ask if you were okay at least twice. So you may be a stone-cold killer and you're probably the muscle of your group, but you mean something to them and vice versa." She coughed and took another drink, obviously not used to talking so much. She tilted the bottle. "And you feed hungry bag ladies."
He grunted again. "You caught me on a good day."
"Right. I've seen you outside your building with that dark-haired woman, the one who likes to play dress-up. You're like the secret service around her. You even seem protective of the blonde, and she annoys the cra—"
He grabbed her arm and she went still. "You been following me?" And he hadn't noticed?
"No," she said, eyes wary. "I didn't have to."
"Explain that," he said, keeping his hold. Her forearm was surprisingly solid under his fingers.
"That building is on my route," she said. "This park, too. Our paths have been crossing for almost a year."
"No," he said, tightening his grip. "I would have noticed you." Was she a plant? Had he been herded down that alley? Maybe not all of Wharton's people were idiots.
She pressed her lips together, but didn't show any other sign that she felt his fingers digging into her. "Mr. Spencer, how many street people did you see yesterday? Say, within four blocks of your building?" she added.
"Seven," he said, automatically.
He frowned. "I think . . . yeah—across the street when I came out of the office."
She moved her arm a little and he let her pull free. "But I was also there when you went in through the back." She produced a neon orange poncho out of her jacket pocket and put on a sweat-stained baseball cap she'd pulled out of her back pocket. "My grocery shopping outfit," she said.
"You were the one dumpster diving," he said. "Son of a—"
"It's no big deal," she said.
"I should know when people are watching me."
"You do know," she said. "I showed up on your radar, along with everyone else. But since I'm not a threat or in your way, there was no reason for you to remember me."
"Man." He shook his head. She was right, but he still felt criminally negligent for not recognizing the possible security problem. "Hardison is never gonna let me live this down," he muttered.
"I won't tell if you don't," she said, finishing her water. It seemed to have helped her voice, which was settling into a pleasant alto. She spoke well, too, better than he did when he wasn't bothering to try.
"Yeah," he said. He wasn't sure he was going to mention Jo to the team at all, except in passing. Something else occurred to him. "You had any training?"
"I took kick-boxing classes off and on for a couple years, but after the. . . " She looked at her hands. "I, ah, couldn't keep it up."
"So, where'd you learn to swing a bat like that?"
"College softball." Her small smile appeared again. "Made it to the playoffs my senior year."
He couldn't tell if she was joking or not, so he let it slide. "One last question."
"What did you mean when you said clarity?"
She met his eyes again. "You may not believe this, but I have more important things to do than people-watch all day—most of them are just part of the landscape. But there was something about you that caught my attention—I thought I just envied your confidence, your readiness, but it's more than that. It was like I recognized you, because somewhere deep down, we're alike." She snorted softly. "I know that's the last thing you'd want to hear from the crazy homeless lady, but just because it's creepy and embarrassing doesn't mean it's a lie."
Her gaze held him, willed him to understand. "I wouldn't ever have bothered you—it was just something to think about. But when I saw you fight today, the way you moved, the decisions you made, the way it all came together—everything snapped into place for me. I can't explain it better than that. And when I made my own decision and that bat came down . . . it's not bloodlust, Mr. Spencer, if that's what you're worried about. It's . . ." Her brow furrowed under the cap. "I found . . .a center. A direction." She took a breath. "I haven't had either in a very long time."
He looked at her, then, really looked for the first time. He'd thought she didn't have any fire, but as he looked past the smeared filth and the face puffy and shadowed from bad food and worse living conditions . . .
"So," she said, after a long pause. "You say you owe me. But if this is asking too much, I'll understand."
. . . he could see . . .
"I'll even move on, if you want."
. . . something he maybe did recognize . . .
She nailed him with a good imitation of his own stare. "So are you going to teach me, or not?"
There it was. He offered a small smile of his own. "I think I might."
"Yeah?" She grinned back, a real, honest-to-God smile that transformed her face into something better than beauty—if he'd been a poet, he might have called it pure hope.
"I'm gonna take you to see a friend of mine in a little bit. But first things first."
The smile was dropped for a more serious expression. "What?"
"No offense . . . but we need to clean you up a little."
She snorted. "Just a little?" She rewrapped the leftover hot dog, handed it to him to stow in the bag, and swung her legs out of the bench seat. "Lay on, MacDuff," she said, gathering up their trash.
He shook his head. "Softball and Shakespeare?"
She headed for the nearby trash can. "Everyone comes from somewhere, Mr. Spencer."
He couldn't argue with that.
Chapter 3: The Gym: Jo
An hour later, Jo was under her first hot shower in six months—her first one, period, in four—and was considering staying there until she drained the motel water tank, if that was possible.
She'd already emptied three complimentary bottles of shampoo, used up one whole hotel-sized bar of soap, and ruined a formerly white washcloth. There was probably no point in trying the conditioner, but it was an excuse to let the hot spray pound her back and wonder what the hell had just happened.
She'd tried to kill a man—a bad guy, but still—and babbled her crazy fantasy to an almost complete stranger, who probably knew three ways to kill someone with a paperclip. A man who was right now at a laundromat trying to get her clothes clean—supposing they didn't dissolve when the detergent hit them. Who might actually have agreed to help her become . . . well, to become. To fight. To fight back.
She'd moved way out of her comfort zone, for damn sure.
Her mind buzzed, suddenly overwhelmed with anticipation and anxiety. What if she fell flat on her face? What if she was wasting Spencer's time, abusing his generosity? What if she was actually delusional and this was just another pretty dream before the nightmares began again?
She could leave, slip out before he returned, choose another patch of the city—even if Spencer looked for her, which wasn't very likely, he'd have a tough time tracking her down . . .
She covered her face with her hands, scrubbing with rough palms until the dizziness passed. "You wanted to wake up," she told herself fiercely under the sound of the water. "Don't you dare screw it up now."
It might harder to walk toward something that it was to walk away, but she was done with the easy way out.
She rinsed her hair one last time, shut off the water, and reached for the stack of towels. The largest barely wrapped around her torso. Street living was tough, but not body-building tough, and she'd never been a small woman anyway. But that might not be a bad thing—it wasn't like she was hoping to launch a modeling career.
Spencer had picked up a courtesy hygiene pack from the front desk, but she hadn't wanted to touch the toothbrush until the rest of her was clean. She'd considered using the razor, but figured it would be more trouble than it was worth to keep unclogging the cheap blade. Deodorant was luxury enough—she'd indulge in optional grooming later. Right now, she was going to scour her teeth until the enamel squeaked and then see how long she could keep the contents of the tiny Listerine bottle in her mouth before it burned a hole through her tongue.
Forty seconds into the experiment, Spencer knocked. "You still in there?"
She spat green into the sink and coughed. "Yeah."
"Clothes are outside the door."
She waited until she heard him switch on the TV, unlocked the door, and opened it a few inches. The pile of clothing was there, but she hesitated.
An amused voice spoke over the sound of a football game. "Training don't start until you get dressed. Scout's honor."
She grabbed the pile and shut the door, shaking her head. No use being embarrassed now—the man had seen what passed for her underwear . . . and, she discovered, replaced it with a sports bra and a three-pack of bottoms, still in the plastic. There was a new tee-shirt, too. She had no idea how he knew her size—she didn't even know for sure anymore.
But everything fit, if a little closer than she was used to. At least she still had her old jeans and the least shredded of her oversized shirts, which now smelled of nothing worse than fabric softener. She wrapped the shirt around her, uncomfortable seeing a woman in the mirror. Grabbing the comb, she opened the door and padded into the other room.
He glanced up from the game. "Some of it fell apart in the washer," he said. "Hope you don't mind."
She shook her head and winced as she worked out a tangle. "I wasn't attached." She tried a smile. "Thanks for the new stuff. Thanks for the shower. It's been a while."
"Shelters have showers," he said, giving her a look.
"Most of the time you have to live at one to get bathroom privileges. The homeless population of this city has more than tripled over the last two years. There aren't enough free beds to keep up with the demand." She caught his look. "What? Newspapers aren't just for insulation, y'know."
His lips twitched. "You could get yourself on a waiting list."
She yanked too hard at the last tangle and hissed. "And knock some kid out of a bed? Make a family choose between shelter and staying together? Families are forced apart often enough—it's not going to happen again because of something I did."
"Again?" he said.
She blew out a breath, wondering if she could risk reminding him that he was the one who owed her. Except it was already the other way around and she knew it.
But he was shaking his head. "Never mind. None of my business."
"That ever stop you?" she asked, before she thought.
"Yeah," he said, saying it so she believed him. "I understand secrets. I've just been around nosy people a little too long." He tossed her a pack of socks and pointed to a pair of Keds on the low bureau. "Those may be big on you, but they'll do for now. Put 'em on and let's go."
After Jo had seen how immaculate Spencer kept his car, she'd been doubly glad the motel had been within walking distance from the park. She wouldn't want to be the one responsible for destroying the upholstery.
They pulled up in front of a low building and got out. "Don't forget your bag," he said.
She grabbed the small duffel that held her new toothbrush, the leftover hot dogs, and a couple other things, and glanced up at the sign. "The Gym?"
"Kinda says it all, don't it?"
They went in, and she saw that it did.
The place seemed to be divided into two sections, with the front desk on the dividing line. The immediate right half was dedicated to weight lifting, free weights and machines; though Jo thought she heard the hum of a treadmill and the rhythm of an elliptical from that direction. The left half was an open space holding two practice rings, various punching bags, and other sparring equipment.
The air was full of clanks and grunts and the pounding of feet and the place smelled like Murphy's Oil soap, old socks, and hard work. It felt . . . familiar. Homey.
Behind the desk, an enormous man was helping a woman in street clothes. ". . . and the aerobic machines are along the far back wall past the weights," he said, in a deep baritone. "Locker rooms are straight back. If you want to keep one here, put a lock on it and give us the number." He handed her a membership card and she left, smiling at Jo as she passed.
Jo blinked and smiled back just a moment too late, but Spencer was moving to the desk. "Hey, Ron," he said.
"Eliot! What's up, man?"
"This is Jo."
Ron smiled. "Nice to meet you, Jo. Need a gym membership?"
"She needs a job," said Eliot. "You still need a cleaning crew?"
"Yeah." He looked at Jo and grinned. "The hours are lousy and I can't pay much," he said. "But you get a staff membership. Still interested?"
She glanced at Spencer and nodded.
"That's good enough for me. Welcome aboard." He offered a huge hand and she shook it.
"Thanks," she said.
"She also needs a place to stay. You still have that room off studio three?"
"Sure," said Ron, frowning. "It's not much," he told Jo, "but it's yours if you want it."
"I'm gonna go change," said Spencer. "I'll meet you back there."
Ron led Jo past the boxing rings to a row of doors with numbers painted on them. He ushered her thorough door number three into one good sized room with a high ceiling and mats covering the floor. Jo followed him in and around the edge of the room to another door on the adjacent wall. Ron opened it and switched on the light.
"We've been using it as storage," he said, as she looked around at the cardboard boxes. "But we can move them out if you need more room. Cot's over there. Sheets are clean, but you might want to get a new pillow. Maybe a sleeping bag—the heat gets turned down at night."
She put the duffel on the cot and smiled. "I don't mind the cold."
"That's good. There's a bathroom through there," he added. "Just a toilet and a sink, but you can use the showers in the locker room. I'd appreciate you keeping an eye on things while we're closed."
She nodded and looked up at him—she was tall, but he dwarfed her. "Are you sure you want a complete stranger living here? I could be . . ." a stone-cold killer " . . . an axe murderer or something."
Ron shook his head. "Any friend of Eliot's is okay by me. He and his team helped me out a while back with a problem I was having—they're good people. Crazy, some of them, but good people. And then Eliot came back and helped me out with a couple other things. And now it looks like he found me a cleaning crew and a night watchma—uh, person. I owe him big."
"So do I," she said.
"No you don't," said Spencer from the doorway. He'd scraped some of his hair back into a high pigtail and was wearing a grey tee and a pair of loose pants. "Hey, Ron, loan her a pair of sweats, would you?"
"Sure." Ron eyed Jo and opened a box. "These should fit." He tossed her a pair of white sweatpants with The Gym in black letters down one leg. "I'll get the paperwork ready and the list of stuff that needs doing around here. You have your ID on you? I need to make a copy."
"She got mugged a couple days ago," said Spencer, before Jo could say anything. "I'm gonna drive her to the DMV tomorrow morning."
"Tough break," said Ron, easily. "Tomorrow will be fine. You need some help moving your stuff in?"
"I don't have a lot," she said. "But thanks."
"Sure." He waved and loped off.
"Put those on and we'll start. Oh, and here," he tossed her a hair elastic.
"Thanks. Can I ask you a question? Three questions?"
"Shoot." He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe.
"Aren't you supposed to be tracking down this Wharton guy?"
"As we speak," he said. "Don't sweat it."
"Are you su—"
"Yeah," he said, impatience creeping into his tone. "I'm sure."
She didn't think he was, but she dropped it. "Why are you doing all this for me?"
He shrugged. "I owe you."
"Not this much, you don't."
"I ain't arguing over how much my life's worth," he said, impatience showing again. "Or yours. Next question."
"Uh . . .the DMV?"
"I ain't prying," he said. "But if you need a new driver's license, I know someone who can get you a new one in any name you say."
She thought about that and about taking chances. Then she slid her hand into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out her old license. She held it out. "I'd kind of like to change this to my maiden name," she said. "It's Dermott. Two t's"
"Dermott," he said. "Done. Now quit wasting time."
Ten minutes later, she was stretching and learning how to stand to optimize her center of gravity, and twenty after that, she hit the mats for the first, but not last, time. At the end of an hour, she knew she wasn't hitting them half as hard, though that was bad enough.
She only made the mistake of dodging once—she noticed that he was lowering his head a little just before he came at her, and managed to whirl out of his reach, just to get her feet swept out from under her. She hit the mat on her bottom and bounced.
"Don't run before you can walk," he said, but not like he was angry. He started coming at her a little faster after that, and in a couple different ways.
And he stopped lowering his head.
Jo lost count of the times she'd been sent flying, but it didn't matter, because she thought she was starting to get it. She relaxed into the next fall, rolled with the impact, and got to her feet in one quick movement, waiting to rub her side until she was facing him.
"It's always gonna hurt some," said Spencer, who wasn't even winded. "But you can minimize the damage and maximize recovery."
Jo nodded and assumed tadasama, the mountain position, determined to make it more difficult for him this time.
He shook his head. "We're done. Stretch it out. Next lesson is tomorrow morning, bright and early. If you still want to do this?"
"Yes," she said. "I do."
"All right then," he said, after a pause. "Six o'clock, right here." He turned to go.
"Hey," she said. "How many ways can you kill someone with a paperclip?"
He stopped. "You angry at an accountant or something?"
"No. Just curious."
"Four," he said, his tone serious. "But I'm not showing you anything like that until you learn how to fall and how to get hit."
"I can take a punch," she said, before she thought. Damn it, she was really going to have to remember to do that the other way around. She braced herself for questions.
But he just looked thoughtful. "I guess we'll see tomorrow."
She watched him walk away. "Tomorrow is going to hurt," she said to herself, dropping to the mat and stretching out her legs. "A lot."
But she couldn't stop grinning, even when her sore muscles screamed at her and Ron came back with her new list of cleaning duties.
Chapter 4: The Plan: Eliot
Eliot stopped off at the desk and waited until Ron returned from demonstrating a military press. "You all done?" asked Ron.
"Looked like Jo was getting the worst of it." Eliot frowned and Ron hitched a thumb at the state-of-the-art security monitor, left over from the job Leverage Consulting had done on his behalf. "Thanks to you guys, it's easy to keep an eye on things around here."
Eliot shrugged. "She's going to be sore for a while."
"You want me to go easy on her for a couple days?" Ron patted the cleaning schedule and instructions, which filled a binder.
"No. I want you to fit her for full body shields—she's gonna be Mark Tagiter's new target." Jo was going to learn self-defense first, like it or not, and working as a training dummy for a champion mixed-martial artist should do the trick.
"You trying to scare her off?"
"She'll scare or get better." And in a safer environment than he'd had. "Hey, give her an advance on her paycheck, will you? Use this," he handed over the rest of the goons' cash.
Ron took the money. "You're the boss."
"Don't mention that to Jo. She might think I gave her the job out of charity or something."
"Perish the thought," said Ron, grinning.
"I don't do charity," said Eliot. "I just—"
"—offer some people second chances," finished Ron. "Don't worry. Your reputation's safe with me."
Eliot gave him a look. "She'll work for her keep like everyone else around here, or she's gone."
"Gotcha." Ron picked up the bound list of Jo's new responsibilities and headed to the studios.
Eliot walked to his car. It was way too early to tell if she'd stick, but he knew a little more about her now. She knew how to listen to instructions and she learned fast—not only did she catch his deliberate telegraph, but she'd tried to take advantage of it. The paperclip thing was weird, but not even close to the stuff Parker came up with.
He wished he knew more about what was motivating her, but he could wait it out. Might be a moot point by the end of the next training session, anyway. But at least she'd have a job and a roof over her head.
He pulled out his cell phone and hit a button. "Hardison, I need a favor."
"Man, Eliot, where you been?"
"What happened?" Eliot yanked open his car door and jumped inside, ready to move. If Wharton had snatched Sophie while he was off playing sensei, he'd—
"Well . . . nothing, yet. But you know we're in the middle of a job here, and I'm assuming you remember being attacked this morning? Not a good time to disappear, man."
Eliot relaxed into irritation. "I told you I was going to The Gym."
"You did? Oh, right. Well, next time text me or something—"
"—'Cause I got other things to do than be your secre—"
"You remember that witness I asked about earlier? Josephine Martens?" He hadn't lied to Jo about not prying, but he wasn't big on blind trust, either. And it wasn't like he pulled a Parker—her ID had fallen out of her pocket at the laundromat.
"Uh-huh. Like I said, no record of her being connected to Wharton through business or pleasure. You want me to dig deeper?"
"No, I want you to fix up a new driver's license for her. This state, same picture, different name. Dermott. Two t's. Can you get it done by tomorrow morning?"
"You know I can. Do I get to ask why?"
"No." He smirked and turned the ignition.
"Man, you suck." There was a pause and muffled voices. "Nate says to get back here soon as you can."
"On my way." Eliot snapped his phone shut and drove off.
Everyone was already in front of the big screen by the time Eliot arrived. Nate and Sophie were sitting in their usual places, close, but not too close. Parker was sitting with her legs over the arm of chair, eating a bowl of cereal. Hardison was hunched over his latest laptop, an orange soda within reach.
"So, who's this Josephine Martens?" asked Sophie, before Eliot had a chance to sit. "And what was she doing in that alley?"
Eliot glared at Hardison, who shrugged and flinched at the same time. "Hey, you didn't tell me she was a secret."
"Eliot's got a girlfriend," sang Parker.
"What Eliot has is a witness," said Nate. "I assume she won't be a problem?"
"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Eliot, dropping into a seat. "I don't think Wharton's men saw her, but I put her in a safe place for a couple days, just in case."
Nate nodded. "Can she help us?"
"I don't know. Maybe. She heard Wharton's man make some threats." He and Nate exchanged glances. "And saw him try to shoot me."
"Yeah, how'd you get out of that one?" asked Hardison, taking a swig of his soda. "You bulletproof now?"
"Faster than a locomotive," said Parker, in a low announcer's voice. "Able to dodge bullets with a single bound." She grinned at Eliot and stuck a spoonful of Lucky Charms in her mouth.
"It's 'leap tall buildings in a single bound'," said Hardison, glancing at the thief, "but that was pretty good."
Eliot shrugged. "He missed." Telling them the entire story would . . . complicate things. He'd always kept his private life private, and since Hardison had cleared Jo, there wasn't any need to share. "But he called me, Nate, and Sophie by name. Don't know about Parker or Hardison, but the rest of us are blown."
Hardison hit some keys and rows of headshots appeared on the screen. "Which one is he?"
"That one. With the fancy haircut."
"The man does love his hair gel," said Hardison, bringing up candid shots and documents on the screen. "Derick Reuter. Corporate Troubleshooter, MBA, former playground bully . . . Huh. He's got stock in the company . . . a lot of stock. Wharton's still got controlling interest, but it looks like Reuter's moving in through proxies."
"You know, he told his guys he wanted us to stop bothering Wharton," said Eliot, thinking back. "But he focused on getting the information in those files Parker stole. And he kept asking what we had on Wharton . . ."
"So perhaps he's moving independently," said Sophie. "Maybe he didn't tell Wharton who we are?"
"Maybe . . ." said Nate. "Anything else interesting about him?"
"He's got a broken elbow," said Eliot, with a small smile. "And I'm guessing a concussion."
"Good," said Nate in a voice that made everyone but Eliot blink at him. Sophie raised an eyebrow, but Nate just raised his back at her with his patented expression of innocence.
She shook her head and went back to the screen. "Hey—isn't Reuter the maiden name of one of Wharton's wives?"
"I'm on it . . . yeah." Another photo popped up. "Ex-wife number two: Elizabeth Stockton Reuter Wharton of the old-money Stocktons, briefly of the nouveau money Reuters, and even more briefly of the evil empire money Whartons. And, surprise, the lady had a whole lot less money once Wharton's lawyers were through with her."
"A bouncing baby boy from her first marriage. Aw, and look: she named him Derick."
"So Reuter is out for revenge," said Nate, with that special pause that meant he was assembling all the pieces.
"So are we."
"No, Parker," said Sophie. "We're out for justice. For our client. Well . . . mostly."
"So, do we help Wharton or Reuter?" asked Eliot.
Nate narrowed his eyes. "Wharton, I think."
Sophie smiled at him and batted her lashes. "Always the white knight."
"But what if he does know who you are?" asked Parker, letting her spoon clatter into her empty bowl. "Who we are?"
"That shouldn't matter," said Nate. "We can play it either way. In fact, it might be easier to convince him if he does. The question is, should we go in honest, or let Reuter spill the beans?" He paused, brow furrowed. "Eh, we can decide that later." He grinned and clapped his hands. "Okay, gang. Let's go steal a hostile takeover."
As he and Sophie started to discuss the details and Parker wandered off to the kitchen for more cereal, Hardison nudged Eliot. "Here."
Eliot took Jo's new driver's license and looked it over. "When did you have the time to do this?"
"It's called multitasking. You should try it sometime."
"Multitasking is for weapons and kitchen tools, not brains."
"Not your brain, maybe. My superior geek-brain was made for it, baby." He flashed a cocky grin. "That's backed by her old records, so it'll stand up anywhere. Her name change is legal, too."
Eliot put the card in his pocket and clapped the younger man on the shoulder. "Thanks, Hardison."
"You're welcome. You gonna let me know what's going on, now?"
Hardison pouted. "Man, you still suck."
Eliot smirked and sat back to listen to Nate and Sophie flirt over the fine points. "Hey, Nate—this shindig going down tomorrow?"
"First thing tomorrow," said the mastermind. "Stock Market opens at 9:30. We need to be in place at 9:31." He turned his attention back to Sophie, who was quizzing him about wardrobe options.
Looked like Jo's next training session would have to be even earlier than planned. Good thing he didn't need much sleep.
Hopefully Jo didn't either. It was possible she'd been hyped on adrenaline today—if so, she was in for a crash. Eliot was looking forward to seeing how she'd react to an unexpected wake-up call after the beating she'd taken this afternoon, plus her first late shift scrubbing down the showers.
He frowned. Maybe she'd even let something slip about how—and why—she'd learned to take a punch.
Chapter 5: The Goal: Jo
Jo couldn't get comfortable.
It wasn't just that she felt like one big, tired bruise, or that she'd been cleaning pretty much non-stop for the past four hours. The day labor she did a few times a month, mostly loading and unloading trucks in the warehouse district, was a lot tougher than, say, sanitizing a couple of locker rooms and scouring a dozen toilets, or even shoving an ancient floor-scrubber around. Her muscles had been used, but not overused.
It wasn't adrenaline, either—she'd run out of that a while back. And it wasn't the cot's fault—she'd slept on a lot worse not twelve hours ago.
Maybe the small room was too quiet, or even too dark—it was seldom completely dark on the streets, what with signs and streetlamps and security lights—but turning on the overhead bulb hadn't helped. She guessed it didn't matter why, if the results were the same . . . she just didn't feel safe. The irony wasn't lost on her, but that didn't help, either.
At least she was warm. Staring at a ceiling that seemed to be getting closer all the time, but warm. Hoping to be ready whenever Spencer arrived, she'd put on a set of Gym-logoed sweats—a staff freebie—and her sports bra, freshly washed and still warm from the gym dryer. She'd stuck her socks in there for a couple of minutes, too, unable to resist. Ron had said she could toss her own laundry into the loads of towels that needed to be done at least every other day, and she'd taken him at his word. It would sure help stretch her small wardrobe, especially if she was going to be sweating and scrubbing every day.
Tomorrow, maybe she'd go buy a couple more bras and a pair of decent—if cheap—athletic shoes, but that's all she needed, and as far as she would allow herself to spend her advance on anything she couldn't eat. Food—fresh, healthy food—was expensive. She'd have to ask Ron if she could store some things in the staff fridge . . .
But right now, she needed to get some sleep. Spencer had said "bright and early" and she knew he meant it. The Gym opened at five, but she wouldn't put it past him to get the key from Ron and come in an hour or two early.
She got up and stepped out into the studio. A faint light came from the high windows and her eyes, accustomed to dim light, adjusted easily. In the far corner, she spied the waist-high stack of folded mats she'd helped Ron move from Studio Two. An idea hit her tired brain and she padded over.
After a few minutes and a couple of trips, she'd reassembled the stack halfway down the wall, with one behind the rest for a mattress. Yawning, she lay down, satisfied that she would be at least temporarily hidden from anyone who came in. She could see the comforting glow of the exit sign above the emergency door without moving her head, and the sunrise would come through the windows and hit her in the face . . . unless Spencer showed up to do the honors first.
She smiled, and her eyes drifted shut by themselves . . .
Jo awoke suddenly and completely. After three wild heartbeats, she knew where she was, and why, but not what had disturbed her.
A glance at the high window showed the faintest pink light. Maybe that was it—
An echoing crash took her breath and she flattened. A door, maybe, flung open against the concrete wall.
"Dammit! Just dammit!"
Spencer's voice. She scrambled to her feet, ignoring her protesting muscles.
He stomped from the back room to the studio door, and even in the dimness she could see his clenched fists. Her knees tried to drop her down. She'd heard that kind of angry before, she was an expert, and the only thing to do was duck and cover until he left—
He whirled around, dropping into a low crouch, then reached back and flipped on the lights. "Jo?"
She squinted, shaded her eyes with a hand. "Is this the bright part of early?" Her voice shook.
He walked toward her, thunderous expression fading. "You're still here."
She forced herself to stay put. "Sure. You didn't tell me which part of the gym we'd be—" A thought struck her. "Wait—did you think I'd run off?"
"People do," he said. "Guess I was wrong." He eyed her makeshift shelter. "You slept out here?"
"The cot was too comfortable." She grimaced. "And I might be a little claustrophobic."
He frowned, but not, she thought, at her. "You ready?"
She pulled her low ponytail tight. "Think so."
Before she had her arms down, he'd grabbed her, hauled her over the mats, and sent her flying.
She ducked, tucked, rolled, and came up in the same motion. "Good morning . . . . to you, too," she said, catching her breath.
He grunted, but a smile might have flashed across his face before he got down to business.
Jo collapsed on the mat and started to do the stretching she hadn't had the chance to do before. Spencer left her to it without a word.
She'd kept her feet. Only once, but she'd done it without thinking—twisting out of his hold, leaping over the expected leg sweep, and backing up out of immediate range.
She thought Spencer would growl at her for trying to skip ahead in the lesson plan, but he'd only said, "Again," and launched another pass while she was still half-focused on what she'd just done.
She'd bounced twice and had the wind knocked out of her. As she lay there, gasping, he'd come into view with folded arms and an exasperated expression.
"It ain't over 'til it's over. And no one's gonna wait for you to pat yourself on the back."
Words to live by.
Jo grabbed her feet and tried to touch her nose to her knees, but didn't make it before her lower back told her to knock it off. Maybe she'd take a yoga class, get her flexibility back.
With a quick glance at the door, she slid her feet as far apart as possible and tried to do a straddle roll, her specialty as a kid taking gymnastics at the Y. After three false starts, she slowly tumbled all the way over and blew her hair out of her face—only to see Spencer standing in front of her with, at first glance, his body double, apart from the blond buzzcut.
"Jo," said Spencer, "this is Mike Tagiter—what he don't know about mixed martial arts ain't worth knowing. Mike, this is Jo Dermott."
Telling herself that it was a good thing that dying of embarrassment wasn't actually lethal, she got to her feet. "Mr. Tagiter"
Tagiter shook her hand with a grip made out of concrete. "Hiya. Call me Mike."
"Mike." He was more cheerful than Spencer, she thought, but they had the same confidence.
"As of today, Jo's gonna be your new punching bag. I want her to learn to block everything you can throw at her."
"Everything?" Mike grinned at her, showing off two gold teeth and a missing incisor. "You sure?"
Jo nodded. "I'm sure," she said. "And I appreciate it."
Mike raised his eyebrows. "First time I ever heard that," he said. "Ten-thirty work for ya?"
"Sure." She'd have to hustle to get her morning list done, but she'd manage.
"Good. See ya in the ring." He sauntered out.
"If you can still move after Mike's done with you, try Damien's class this afternoon. It's for beginners, so it shouldn't give you too much trouble."
"Tai Chi. Good for balance." He smirked. "Might help you with your somersaults, too."
"Great. Thanks." She cleared her throat. "Okay. I assume Mike's in charge of teaching me how to get hit, so what's next? More flying lessons? Paperclip method number one?"
"We're done," he said. "I got somewhere else to be."
"Oh." Done. She'd known he would eventually admit he had better things to do, but this had to be some kind of record. "Okay."
"I almost forgot. Here." He gave her a card. Her new driver's license.
"Thanks." Josephine Dermott. An old name for a new life. She rubbed her thumb over the photo, which was old, too—she looked young and happy and carefree, which only proved that cameras could lie. "Thanks for everything you've done for me," she added. "I promise I won't waste the opportunity." She stuck out her hand.
He looked at it. "You think I'm leaving for good?"
"People do," she said, trying for a smile. "And you've done a lot more than—"
"I ain't bailing on you," he said, rolling his eyes. "The team's on a job. It'll only take a couple days, maybe less."
"Oh. Guess I was wrong." She took a deep breath, trying not to show how relieved she was. "Um . . .Wharton?" she asked, not really expecting an answer.
"Yeah," he said. "He and Reuter are going down."
"Is Reuter's the guy I . . . ?" She mimed a swing.
"He's the guy."
"Oh. Well, break a leg. Someone else's," she added, walking him to the studio door.
"Might not have to this time. I'm just supposed to stand around and look menacing."
She snorted. "Good luck with that," she said, and was rewarded with a brief smile. He nodded and started to push the door open.
"Hey," she said, curiosity striking. "Can I ask you something?"
He sighed. "You ain't ready for paperclips yet. I'll let you know."
"I'm looking forward to it. But I was wondering: does it have an actual name, what you do? A job title or something?"
He shrugged. "Most people would call me a hitter." He paused. "But I call myself a Retrieval Specialist."
"Retrieval Specialist." She stared at him.
"Something wrong with that? Jo?"
"Huh?" She shook her head. "No, nothing. I like it. Bet you have some stories."
"A few," he said. "I'll tell 'em to you, sometime." He raised an eyebrow. "If you'll tell me some of yours."
She tried for a casual shrug. "Not much to tell." She glanced up at the clock. "I'd better get to work, too—Ron wants to get my paperwork done, and show me how to set up for classes. See you when you get back." She headed for the back room to get her Keds, making a mental note to ask Ron where she could get some cheap cross-trainers.
"Hey!" Spencer said, stopping her in her tracks. "You gonna keep sleeping on the floor?"
She blew out a breath and turned to face him. "Just call me paranoid, but I can't fit through the bathroom window. I'll get used to a real bed, eventually," she added. When she knew for sure that she wouldn't be going back to the streets—just call her paranoid . . .
"Until then, you need a sleeping bag."
"I'm fine. It's not—"
"It's not a negotiation—it's a compromise."
"I don't need—"
She sighed. "Fine. But I'll pay for it myself."
"Damn right, you will."
"What kind of compromise is that?"
"My kind." And he was gone.
"Bully," she said. And then, "Retrieval Specialist."
That was it. That was the goal—the first goal.
Lost in thought, she walked out of the studio to the desk.
"Hey, Jo," said Ron. "You forget something?"
She blinked at him and held out her license.
He took it and grinned. "Thanks. But I was talking about the dress code, such as it is." He pointed and she followed his finger. "It's a cute look on you, but I'd like to keep OSHA off my ass."
"Oh, for pity's sake," she said, staring at her shoeless feet. "I'll be right back."
"Take your time," he said, chuckling. "But hurry up."
"Good advice," she said, over her shoulder.
Words to live by, in fact.
And for the first time in a long while, she allowed herself to plan.
Chapter 6: The Wharton Job: Eliot
Geoffrey Wharton's irritation came through the receiver loud and clear. "What do you mean they have an appointment? I've never heard of them—or their firm."
Eliot smirked. Looked like Reuter hadn't told his step-daddy about the team after all.
"Well, sir," said his executive assistant, holding the phone a little further away from her ear, "it has your confirmation code on it. You apparently entered it yesterday evening, from your Blackberry."
"Last night?" There was a long pause. "Well . . . send them in."
"That'll teach him to order the six—martini appetizer at the yacht club," said Hardison through Eliot's earpiece. "And to use the name of his latest arm candy for a password. I'm talking 'candy' spelled with a K and an I, by the way."
"Yes, sir," said the secretary. She hung up and stood. "Please follow me." She led them to a set of brass-studded double doors and opened one, standing aside as Sophie and Nate entered.
Eliot gave her a slow smile as he went through, because you never knew. She blinked, offered a flustered smile of her own, and closed the door behind him.
The room was long, expensive, and tasteful, lit by floor to ceiling windows showing a spectacular view. A desk, equally opulent and tasteful, took up one end and they headed for it, Nate in the lead.
Wharton, the very picture of a successful, smug CEO of a certain age, finished signing something, put his pen down and stood, keeping his eyes on his paperwork until the last moment. He moved around to the side of his desk and waited, his smile polite and meaningless. But Nate had stopped just out of reach and when he offered his hand, Wharton was forced to take the extra step to meet him.
"Mr. Ford, Ms. Devereaux," said Wharton, shaking Nate's hand and lingering over Sophie's. "What can I do for Leverage Consulting and Associates?" He eyed Eliot, who had stationed himself slightly behind the others in the classic bodyguard stance.
"Better to ask what we can do for each other," said Nate, who was dressed as himself only more so: tailored suit, tie sporting a knot that was probably a secret symbol of his net worth, a shirt in some weird color that made him look like giving a damn was for other people—and for once, Sophie hadn't let him slick his hair back like a used car salesman. "You have something that we want, and we have something that you're going to need."
"My VPs usually take care of hiring consultants," said Wharton, gesturing to the chairs in front of the desk and moving to his own. He wanted to dismiss them, Eliot thought, but Nate looked too important to snub. And Sophie . . . no man—or woman—with a pulse was going to snub Sophie, who was playing the role she'd studied and rehearsed for more than thirteen years—the Incomparable Ms. Devereaux. The dark red dress that showed enough and promised more didn't hurt.
And then there was Eliot, dressed in a cashmere turtleneck—which Sophie had promised wouldn't itch and hadn't so far—and expensive jacket, hair bound out of the way, silent, watchful, dangerous. Wharton tried to ignore him, but wasn't having an easy time of it, even when Sophie crossed her legs.
"If you'd give me an idea of what kind of services you provide," he said. "I'll refer to you to the right person."
Nate leaned back in his chair as though this were his office. "Well, Mr. Wharton," he said. "We provide . . . leverage. You see, corporations like yours have all the money, all the power, and they use it to make people go away. Like the Robinson family.
"You purchased their small, moderately successful manufacturing company at a rock-bottom price, promising them control, a large budget with which to expand, and complete retention of their staff—it was the only way they would agree to your terms. Instead, you denied Harold Robinson an executive position, shut down the company, fired everyone without warning, and sold off the assets piece by piece to your other companies for a tax write-off.
"And they," said Nate, spreading his hands, "came to us."
Wharton offered a condescending smile. "I think you'll find that the Robinsons have no legal recourse. And you won't find any evidence of shady business dealings at this corporation."
"I think you'll find that we don't limit our assistance to legal recourses—and we have found evidence, of some very shady dealings indeed." Nate shook his head. "Keeping hard copies is always risky—or did Enron teach us nothing?"
Wharton reddened. "Just who do you think you are?"
"We're thieves, Mr. Wharton," said Sophie in a voice like warm, liquid silk. "Very, very good thieves."
"Those files that went missing last week from your records room?" said Nate. "We took them."
"Missing files?" said Wharton. "What missing files?"
"You don't know? That's interesting."
Wharton hit a button on his desk phone. "Andrea, are there files missing from our records room?"
"Yes, sir, from the safe room. Janice reported it to me Tuesday. I informed Mr. Reuter and he said he'd take care of it."
Looked like Reuter hadn't told his step-daddy anything.
"Thank you, Andrea." He shook his head. "So, you're sitting there, telling me that you stole confidential files from a secure room—"
"Not entirely secure, Mr. Wharton," said Sophie. She leaned to one side to pick up her brief case, incidentally revealing a good deal of leg. "A goodwill gesture," she said, pulling out several folders and offering them to him.
He tore his gaze from her legs and grabbed the files. "I could have you arrested for this."
"You could try," said Nate. "But you won't. Take a look."
"I know what they are."
"You think you do. You think those are the only real evidence of what you did to the Robinsons. And you're right—it's in there. But that's not all we found."
"Are you aware that someone has been buying stock in your corporation, Mr. Wharton?" said Sophie. "A lot of stock. And it's getting easier for him to do so—have you checked the Exchange this morning?"
Wharton frowned, swiveled to his computer and clicked the mouse a few times. "What the—?"
"Whoop—there it is," said Hardison.
"As of ten minutes ago, the value of Wharton Enterprises took a steep nosedive," said Sophie in a tone of gentle concern. "Your shareholders have started to sell—and a certain someone is continuing to buy. You're in real danger of losing your controlling interest."
"Not to mention his shirt," said Hardison. "And all of those ugly-ass ties. And his beachfront condo in the Bahamas, that shiny midlife-crisis sitting in his parking space, and, I'm guessing sweet, little Kandi, too."
"So sad," said Parker, her voice echoing oddly. "Ouch. They should really inspect the rivets up here."
"Unless you'd like to make a deal," said Neal.
"No offense," said Wharton, "But why would I want to make a deal with you?"
"Because," said Nate, "This particular hostile is siphoning funds from your companies in order to finance his takeover. As it stands, you no longer have the funds necessary to stop him. It's all in the top file, there. "
"What?" Wharton scrabbled open the top folder and began to read. "This . . . this isn't possible!"
"I'm afraid it is."
"You!" Wharton leapt up, but Eliot moved between Nate and Sophie and glared at him until he sank back down. "Is this your doing?"
"Not this time, no," said Nate. "Vengeance is fine and dandy, but our clients asked for reparations. Getting rid of you wouldn't bring us any closer to that aim. No, Mr. Wharton, we're actually here to help you . . . if you agree to our conditions."
"Are you serious?"
"You might want to look over that second file before you decide."
Wharton snorted, but picked it up and started scanning the contents. His face darkened until Eliot was almost sure he was going to have a stroke. That wasn't part of the plan, though it would probably look like poetic justice to Catherine Robinson—her husband was still recovering from his.
But right before he popped, Wharton tossed the file on the desk. "What do you want?"
Sophie flowed to her feet, contract in hand. She leaned over the desk and placed the papers in front of him.
Eliot didn't know what Wharton's view was like—though he could guess from the man's dazed expression—but this side was somewhat distracting, even for him. As for Nate . . . Eliot tried to keep a straight face as the mastermind lost his place in the conversation.
Hardison coughed, "You're going to compens—"
"You're going to compensate the Robinson family the rest of the full market value of their company on the date that they signed it away to you." Nate continued, voice smoothing out as Sophie resumed her seat. "You're going to find a job, comparable in status and salary, for each of Robinson's 237 former employees or a severance package equivalent to their years of employment there." Nate tilted his head. "We'd like a formal apology, in writing, for your lapse in ethical judgment, but under the circumstances, we thought we'd better not throw stones."
Wharton frowned. "I suppose I could free up some positions in one of the smaller—"
"No," said Sophie. "You aren't firing anyone else to make room. That's non-negotiable. Our clients insisted."
"You want me to create over two hundred jobs? In this economy?"
"It's a bad time to be unemployed and broke, Mr. Wharton," she said. "I do hope you won't have to experience it firsthand."
"And think of the good will," added Nate. "When the story hits the media, the value of your stock is going to soar."
Wharton's frown deepened. He picked up his pen and fiddled with it. He picked up the contract and started to read.
"Parker?" said Hardison. "How you doing?"
"I hate hard copies," said Hardison. "They're messy and they take too much time."
"They're boring," said Parker, "But not as boring as staying behind on a job."
"Staying behind isn't that bad. You could eat cereal and keep me company."
Eliot tried not to roll his eyes.
"We're out of cereal."
Hardison cleared his throat. "So, what about you keeping me—"
"Shh! I'm here," she whispered. "So's he."
Wharton tapped his pen twice on the contract. "Fine," he said. "But I want the name of the bastard who's doing this to me."
Sophie produced another folder. "It's not proof positive, but the circumstantial evidence is, well, substantial. We're sure you'll want to conduct your own investigation."
Five minutes later, Wharton was on the phone. "Get Reuter in here. Right now. And I want to talk to Jackson in Accounting."
"There he goes," said Parker. A pause. "I'm in." The echo was gone from her voice. "Let's see . . .there's the cabinet—hello, lock . . .goodbye, lock."
Wharton finished giving orders to Jackson and turned back to the contract. "I won't sign anything without my lawyer's okay."
The alphabet song hummed in Eliot's ear.
"I sincerely doubt that," said Nate. "Even corporate lawyers are officers of the court. But if you don't want to sign, we can go back to plan A."
"Parker,"said Hardison, "what are you—"
"Don't mess me up . . . L-M-N-O-P . . . Q-R-S . . . next drawer . . ."
"What's plan A?"
"B-C-D . . .no wait, that's not right . . "
Sophie shook her head. "Not half as civilized as this one, I'm afraid." She looked back at Eliot, who smiled with all his teeth.
Wharton flinched. "Are you threatening me?"
"Are you done now?"
"Almost . . ." She started the song over, but not for long. "And F. Done. And locked. I'm out of here."
"We're giving you a choice," said Nate. "Sign right now, or we walk. For now."
"Roger that," said Hardison. "Return to base, Parker."
"But we're out of cereal."
"No more free samples," said Sophie. "You can deal with the collapse of your business on your own time." She uncrossed her legs and picked up her briefcase.
"Buy some on your way."
"I don't buy cereal. Cereal happens."
"Wait!" said Wharton. He scribbled his name. Sophie inspected his signature, had him initial two places and date it, and tucked it into her case, just as the door opened.
Derick Reuter walked in, plastered arm in a sling. "You wanted to see me, Mr. Wharton?" He reached the desk, turned, and did a double take. "What the hell is this?"
"How's the elbow?" asked Nate. "Looks painful."
Reuter pointed with his left hand.
"That's the man who broke it!"
"No," said Eliot. "I'm the man you tried to shoot for not giving up the goods on your boss." He saw Sophie move her head and knew she was asking herself the question Reuter had missed.
"Is that what you told him? Is that what they told you?" Reuter shook his head. "Do you have any idea who these people are?"
"Nathan Ford and Sophie Devereaux," said Wharton. "I understand that they're the best in their fields." He smiled at Sophie.
"Thank you," she said.
"Don't forget Eliot Spencer," said Reuter. "He's wanted in at least eight countries for who knows what."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Spencer," said Wharton.
Reuter raised his voice. "What's going on?"
"A business deal," said Nate. "Well, more of a partnership."
"Mr. Ford and his associates are going to help me save the corporation," said Wharton.
Reuter froze, then forced a chuckle. "Me? And what am I supposed to have done?"
Wharton pointed at the stack of files. "Pick one, you ungrateful, disloyal son of a—"
"My mother is what you made her," said Reuter, his voice going cold. "And you are the last person who should talk about loyalty."
"Jackson is confiscating your computer and every piece of paper in your office," said Wharton. "If any discrepancies are there, he'll find them."
"I'm sure he will," said Nate. "You'd be surprised how many people leave incriminating evidence around for anyone to pick up."
Reuter narrowed his eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"What's life without a little mystery?" Nate got up. "But I don't like to get in the middle of family squabbles. Mr. Wharton, you'll be hearing from us."
Sophie smiled and followed him out of the room. Eliot brought up the rear, keeping an eye on the men, who were glaring at each other.
The door shut behind them. The assistant smiled at Eliot as they passed her desk. He dropped her a wink.
Two security-types nodded to them as they walked down the hall to the elevator. Just as Nate hit the button, they heard shouting.
" Ford! Ford! What—no, get off me! Watch the arm!"
Eliot whipped around to see Reuter breaking free and heading for them. Eliot moved in front of the others, but the security men caught up just in time.
"Ford!" said Reuter. ""Why are you doing this to me? He took my mother's money and when it was gone, he threw us out. I was just returning the favor. You should be helping me."
Nate looked at him for a calm moment. "If you'd come to me, I might have considered it." He stepped up close and spoke quietly. "But you lost all my sympathy when you threatened one of my people and tried to kill another one." He smiled. "As I told your stepfather, I have no problem with vengeance for its own sake. So count yourself very, very lucky that this is all I'm doing to you."
Nate moved back and Eliot took his place. "I see you again," he growled, "I'll start with the other arm."
The elevator opened. Eliot and Nate joined Sophie.
"This isn't over," said Reuter, just as the doors closed.
"Why do they always say that?" asked Hardison.
"'Cause it's true," said Eliot.
They walked out of the building in companionable silence.
"That worked well," said Sophie.
"Yep," said Nate. "Now all we have to do is transfer the funds to our intermediary, who will make Reuter an offer he won't refuse—"
"Done," said Hardison. "Catherin Robinson says hello, by the way."
"And fulfill our part of the contract in a way Wharton isn't going to believe." said Sophie. "She's going to make a great CEO."
"I'm planning to install extra cameras in the boardroom, just to record the look on his face," said Hardison. "Get that multiple angle effect and everything."
Eliot smirked. "I'll make the popcorn."
"See? Honesty can be the best policy," said Nate. "Up to a point," he added.
"Mmm." said Sophie, smiling up at him. "Maybe we should explore that option."
Nate raised his eyebrows. "Maybe we should,' he said, guiding her to his car with a hand at the small of her back. "Up to a point."
Eliot gave a low whistle. Sophie might be at her smoldering best, but Nate was at his most Nathan Ford. "I'd give it even odds."
"It's still a sucker bet," said Hardison. "You coming in?"
"Yeah, maybe. Why?" He got in his car.
"Think you can pick up some Lucky Charms?"
"You kidding me?"
"What, you think maybe Cinnamon Toast Crunch?"
"Man, keep me out of your strange little courtship rituals." An idea struck him and he pulled out his phone "What's Wharton's office number?"
Hardison reeled it off. "Why?"
Eliot grinned to himself "Listen and learn." He should probably go back to The Gym and see how Jo was doing with Mike, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Jo would be fine on her own.
He put the phone to his other ear. "Yes, Andrea, this is Eliot Spencer—from Leverage Consulting? No, I don't need to speak to Mr. Wharton—I wanted to ask you a question, if you wouldn't mind." He chuckled and emphasized his natural drawl. "Yes, you. Well, now, I appreciate that. Are you free for lunch?" He chuckled again. "Yeah, that was the question. But I could think up a few more, if you want. Oh, really? I might just take you up on that. The lobby at one? See you then, darlin'."
He snapped the phone shut and smiled. "Now that's a courtship ritual, son."
"Are you kidding me? Man, you suck."
Chapter 7: The Talk: Jo
Mention of domestic violence.
Jo dropped the hand targets, pulled her headgear off, and spat her mouth guard out into her hand. "Whew," she said. "Now I know how a tenderized steak feels."
Mike grinned. "Ya caught most of 'em."
"Yeah, with my ribs." She stuck the guard in her pocket, sat down, and slid under the lower rope to the floor, hitting harder than she'd wanted. "Oh, my God, ow."
Mike climbed through the ropes and dropped beside her. "Ya gotta learn to keep your arms lower. But ya did good for a first-timer."
"Thanks." She removed her chest protector and leaned against the side of the ring platform to undo her leg guards.
"So, ya still up for this?"
"If you don't mind. I learned a lot."
"Seems like ya knew some already. Kickboxing?"
"Not much. I did a couple of six-week courses a couple years ago, before . . . before I moved here. The instructor wasn't interested in aerobic workouts—he taught the real thing. He let us spar a little."
"It shows—ya don't flinch away much. Except one place." He tapped his left cheek. "No one likes getting hit in the face, but I couldn't get near this side—that's not so bad, maybe, but ya left yerself wide open everywhere else."
"Yeah," she said, looking down. "I broke my cheekbone a while back." And her nose, and a couple fingers. And the camel's back. . .
"That would do it—but if ya wanna go further, ya gotta get over the pain."
She nodded. "Good philosophy."
He grinned. "Guess so."
A high pitched yell shattered the air, and a small body came hurtling across the gym.
Mike turned and roared, "What have I told you about bothering me, kid!" He drew his fist back as the boy skidded to a stop in front of him.
Faster than thought, Jo leapt between them, and planted a foot in Mike's stomach, knocking him back against the platform. She dropped into the stance Spencer had drilled into her and waited for Mike to kill her.
He recovered, took a step, and stopped, his expression confused—which confused her.
"What the hell, Jo?" he said in a soft, calm voice.
"Daddy?" The little boy ran around her and clutched Mike's legs. Big eyes stared up at her. He was scared of her.
"I—I'm sorry . . ."
"No, Mike's sorry," said a female voice next to her. Jo jerked her head around to see a petite, dark haired woman. "It's okay, Cody," she said, smiling. "The nice lady didn't know Daddy was just playing, and she wanted to keep you safe. She didn't know that Daddy's sense of humor is stunted."
"Oh," said Cody, still hanging onto Mike. "What's stunted?"
"Yer stunted, short stuff," said Mike, picking him up, flipping him upside down, and setting the giggling boy gently down. "Cody, this is Jo."
"Daddy doesn't hit me," said Cody. "Ever."
"I know," said Jo, her heart sinking. "I really do," she told Mike. "I wasn't thinking—"
"Please don't worry," said the woman. "I'm glad there's someone around willing to protect children from guys who look like my husband."
"Ha, ha," said Mike. "It's okay, Jo. My fault. I guess Cody and me play kinda rough—I forget what it looks like."
"He nearly gave my aunt a heart attack doing the same thing. I'm Maya, by the way. Are you Mike's new sparring partner?"
Mike grinned. "She is now—I haven't been suckered like that since Cincinnati."
Jo tried to smile back.
"You guys here to take me to lunch?"
"We are," said Maya. "If you can shower and change in five minutes. Want to come with us, Jo?"
"It'll be fun," said Mike. "We're gonna have burgers and milkshakes, right kiddo?"
The friendly offer relaxed Jo like no reassurances would have. "Thanks, but if I don't do some stretching right now, I won't be able to move during my class this afternoon."
"Ya sure? Okay—five minutes, guys. See ya Thursday morning, Jo." He loped off.
Jo felt a tug at her sweatpants. "Are you a fighter, too?" asked Cody.
"I'm trying to be," she said. "I still have to work on my control."
"You're gonna be good—that was a great kick."
Maya snorted and Jo grinned. "Thanks, Cody."
"See ya," he yelled, and took off for the desk, where Ron scooped him up and put him on one broad shoulder. He looked over at Jo and mouthed, You okay?
She nodded and watched as he stood and walked around so Cody could try to touch the ceiling.
Maya spoke quietly. "You didn't do anything wrong. You know that, right?"
"Sort of," said Jo. "But thanks."
"I don't just mean with Cody."
"Neither do I." Jo smiled at the other woman and went to wash the aches away with hot water.
She was only partially successful.
And she wasn't surprised to see Spencer waiting for her outside Studio Two when Tai Chi was over. "Mike called you?"
"Yeah. And Ron just showed me the security footage." He looked at her. "You wanna tell me about it?"
"You gonna tell me about it?"
"Get changed," he said. "We'll take a walk."
She put on her jeans, decided the rest was fine, and went towards the front door. Ron and Spencer were talking, but broke it off when they saw her. "I'll be back in time to start my shift," she said, wondering if he would tell her not to come back—though he'd had all afternoon to throw her out, if he'd wanted to.
"Take your time," said Ron. "The bathrooms can wait."
She and Spencer walked down the street. "You hungry?"
"I guess," she said. "Thirsty more than anything."
They went into the gourmet sandwich shop on the corner, placed their orders, received their drinks, and took a table along the back wall. Both of them automatically angled their chairs so they could see the front door.
"So," said Spencer.
"So," said Jo. She drank some iced tea. "I know this seems strange coming from someone who's been going around asking men to beat her up, but, yes, my husband hit me."
"As long as you know the difference between him and us," he said.
"I do." She blew out a breath. "Mike said he understood, but still. . ."
"You were protecting a kid," he said. "That makes you the good guy."
"Yeah, well. . ." Their number was called, and she went to get their food.
Spencer picked up half of his roast beef sandwich and looked at her vegetarian special. "You need more protein." He swapped his remaining half for one of hers.
"Thanks, Dad," she said, rolling her eyes.
He smiled. "You were saying?"
"He hit me. When he . . . went too far, I left him. End of story." She bit into her sandwich.
"Sure it is," said Spencer. "You hiding from him? 'Cause if he's after you, we can do a lot better than that."
She shook her head and swallowed with effort. "He's dead. Car crash. Made me a widow before I could divorce him." She set her sandwich down.
"So you ain't training as a hitter because of him."
"I prefer Retrieval Specialist."
She shrugged. "Maybe I have something to retrieve."
"You know—dignity, self-worth, inner- and outer-strength, a certain level of hygiene . . ."
He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "You know," he said. "In my line of work, I've met some of the world best liars. You ain't one of 'em."
"Can we pretend that I am?"
"We could," he said. "But I hear talking about things can help."
"You talk much about the past, Spencer?"
"Jo," he said, putting down what was left of his sandwich, "you don't really wanna be like me, with all the secrets turning to rage in my gut. It may make me a good fighter, but I wouldn't wish it on anyone."
She didn't look at him. Couldn't. Because then she'd tell him everything, and he'd go out and do the job. And part of her really wanted to hand the whole thing over to him, because Spencer wouldn't fail. And she'd already failed, more times than she could count . . .
But that was why it was so important that she be the one to do it.
And she wasn't ready.
"I can't," she said. "I will—I swear I will. But not yet."
He sat for a moment. "All right. But if it gets to be too much, make sure it's a controlled explosion—not everyone's as tough as Mike."
"Yes, sir." She drank half her iced tea and poked at her sandwich. "I thought you were on a job."
"We are. Reuter's arm looks pretty bad, in case you wondered."
"That's a shame."
"Yeah, ain't it? But my part's pretty much done, so unless I'm called in, I'll see you—"
"Bright and early tomorrow morning."
"And, since you kicked a martial arts champion in the bread basket and survived, you can start trying to smack me around."
"Can I use a baseball bat?"
"No. But if you can land two in a row, I'll let you use this." He took something out of his pocket and flipped it to her.
She knew what it was before she caught it, and her mood finally lifted.
Chapter 8: The First Method: Jo
It took five days for Jo to earn her first paperclip trick.
In that time, she'd managed to throw Spencer, kick him, and even wallop him with a semi-unethical move that she admitted Mike had taught her on the sly—but never twice in a row.
Finally, during a rare afternoon bout, she tried Mike's move followed immediately by a leg sweep—the same kind Spencer had used on her once or twice—and he landed on his back hard enough to visibly jar.
Before he could get up, she leaned over him and said, "It ain't over 'til it's over," and danced out of the way as he made a grab for her ankles.
He sat up and caught the paperclip she tossed him. Looking at her grin, he wondered what the hell he thought he was about to do. Fighting was one thing—anyone could teach her that. Mike was. But this was different. "You planning on killing someone?"
"No," she said, losing the grin. "Being prepared is one thing . . . I can imagine defending myself or—or someone else to the death. But planning is just another word for murder."
He studied her. "Fine," he said. "Pay attention—this ain't something I can show you all the way through."
Afterward, she walked to the back room to toss out the remains of the wire, saying, "This is about speed and accuracy, right? Could I practice with a potato?"
"Sure, I guess." He followed her and leaned against the doorframe. "Potatoes have more density, but that shouldn't—Jo."
She came out of the bathroom. "What?"
"Where's your sleeping bag?"
"Um." She looked around. "I tried the couch in the staff room last night. I probably stowed it in there."
"Jo, if you ever tell a lie so I actually believe what you say, I'll show you the other methods on the three people of your choice and offer to be your practice dummy."
"There's no wind chill and no weather in here. I don't need one—it's an unnecessary expense."
"Put your shoes on."
"We're going to go get you a damn sleeping bag."
Five minutes later, he started the ignition. "You're as stubborn as Parker," he muttered.
He blinked. "What do you mean—oh. Right." Why had he assumed she knew Parker? "She's the best thief you'll never see."
"The blonde or the brunette?"
Maybe that was why—she already knew bit and pieces. "Blonde. Twenty pounds of crazy in a five-pound bag."
"You have no idea."
As they drove along, he wondered at the level of trust he was giving someone he'd only known for a week. It had only taken him a couple hours to consider her a responsibility instead of a debt . . . which he guessed wasn't too strange, considering. But without thinking about it, the lines he'd long since drawn to separate the team from everything else had started to blur when it came to Jo.
He didn't know how he felt about that. She wasn't a teammate, or a colleague—though she might be, if she kept up the training. He thought she would; she was moving toward something as hard and fast as she could and that, well . . .dammit, it concerned him that he didn't know what it was. Yet.
"You're scowling. And tailgating. That poor woman ahead of us probably thinks you're going to run her off the road."
He eased off the pedal. "The store's going to close soon."
"Whose fault is that? You're the one who came in late and then decided I couldn't live without something I don't really need."
"Varying workout times is good for you—keeps your body guessing. Besides, I had a lunch date."
Out of the corner of his eye, she saw her frown. "You picked up another bag lady?"
"An executive assistant."
"Hmmph." She folded her arms. "Hot dogs in the park?"
He glanced at her, almost positive she was putting him on. "Italian bistro."
"Oh, well that's all right then. I worry about the quality of the women with whom you associate," she said in a prim voice.
He snorted. "Glad you approve."
"I approve of the restaurant," she said, grinning. "I haven't had Italian in a long time."
"The bistro does this garlic linguine with infused oil and basil," he said, pulling into a parking place next to the Army Surplus store.
"I'd settle for microwave lasagna," she said.
He almost told her off, but remembered in time where she'd been doing her 'grocery shopping' before they'd met. Frozen lasagna had to be a couple steps up.
She hopped out and waited for him on the sidewalk. "Wait—you ordered long pasta with garlic on a date? That's a complete mood killer."
"Not if the lady ordered it first."
"Please. She's either the most confident woman ever, or she didn't think it was a date. Was there kissing?"
He yanked open the door. "I ain't talking to you about this."
"Come on. I hear talking about things can help."
He ignored her and threaded his way to the camping equipment. When he got there, he realized Jo hadn't followed him. He found her near the front, looking at a display case.
"What's that?" she asked the clerk, who pulled out a black cylinder and handed it to her.
"It's a retractable riot baton," he said. "Hit the button there."
Jo pressed the release with her thumb, and 26 inches of telescoped steel shot out of the handle. "Hey, now," she said and took a practice swing.
"Look out," said Eliot.
"Sorry. What do you think?" she said.
"I think it's not a sleeping bag."
"Spencer," she said, holding it out. "What do you think?"
He took it, looked it over. "If you're going to get a baton, go with the Ferguson. More tensile strength, less likely to bend on impact. Na—a friend of mine carries one." He'd given it to Nate for his last birthday, after his old one had jammed at exactly the wrong time, forcing Hardison to shatter his laptop over the head of a disgraced consigliere trying to cut off Nate's oxygen supply. Hardison still wouldn't shut up about it.
The clerk reached into the case and brought out a Ferguson. Jo tried it out. "It has a better balance to it," she said. "How much?"
"Twenty-seven fifty, and I'll need to see your military or law enforcement ID."
She sighed, compressed the baton, and set it on the counter with a rueful grin. "Don't have it with me."
"Come back when you do," said the clerk cheerfully.
She smiled and moved away.
When they were out of earshot, Eliot said, "If you want, I'll buy it for you with my ID. You can't practice where anyone can see you, and it would be better if you didn't get caught carrying it around, but it's not a bad thing to have handy."
"You have ID for—never mind. Dumb question." Jo shook her head. "Thanks, but I can't afford it."
"Didn't you get paid this week?" He knew she had, and he also knew she'd tried to pay back the 'advance' Ron had given her. He'd told her it was a bonus for doing weight machine maintenance.
She nodded. "And I deposited it in my new checking account," she said. "But I'm trying to save enough to put down a deposit on an apartment. Living at work is convenient, but I can't see doing it aft—for the rest of my life."
Eliot frowned—though he guessed he couldn't argue and didn't know why he wanted to—and followed her to the sleeping bags. She poked them, prodded them, worked the zippers, and then chose one so cheap that the material was already beginning to shred at the seams.
Eliot sighed. "The zipper on this one isn't going to hold up. It isn't even gonna stay on."
She shrugged. "I wasn't planning on zipping it anyway."
"Jo, what—" He stopped, figuring it out just before she spoke.
"Looks like I'm a little more claustrophobic than I thought" She fiddled with the zipper pull. "But I need to start getting over it, so . . . " The pull came off in her hand and she reattached it.
He sighed. "How about a compromise?"
"Your kind? Because that's why I'm here in the first place."
He shot her a look. "How about one of those thermal fleece blankets? They're only six bucks, so if you want the baton, too . . . "
She thought about it. "I'll take the blanket if I have to—"
"—but the baton is still going to have to wait." She picked up a bright red blanket roll and headed for the register.
"What kind of compromise is that?"
She grinned over her shoulder at him. "Mine."
Eliot dropped Jo off at The Gym and went grocery shopping.
He felt like cooking and didn't feel like being alone, so he bought the ingredients for potato soup and went to see if Nate felt like company.
Nate had company, but didn't seem to mind more. He was going over some documents and making notes, sitting closer to Sophie than he had before the Wharton job, but still not paying her overt attention. She kept her eyes on her magazine, but was flipping the pages a little faster than usual.
Eliot had figured those two had played their unending game to another draw, and Hardison had agreed. They hadn't asked Parker what she thought, in case she told them.
Hardison was in a corner, fingers flying over a keyboard, eyes glued to the big screen, where an elf was battling what looked like a giant toad—Eliot wasn't sure which one the hacker was supposed to be and didn't much care.
Parker was nowhere to be seen, which didn't mean anything.
Eliot got to work in the kitchen, peeling and chopping vegetables, frying bacon, defrosting some of the homemade chicken stock he'd stashed in the freezer.
He put the potatoes, carrots, and celery to boil in the stock and started to slice up the onion.
A hand stuck a potato in his face. "You forgot one," said Parker.
"Parker," he said through his teeth. "I'm using a very sharp knife."
"I know. You forgot to use it on this."
"I bought too many," he lied, knowing that he'd only set that one aside so he could toss it to Jo tomorrow morning for paperclip practice. "It'll keep."
"Oh." She set the potato on the counter and stuck her head between him and the steaming pot. "Is it soup yet?"
"Not yet. I'll let you know."
"Okay." She disappeared.
Sophie came into the kitchen. "Smells good already," she said. "Need help?"
He handed her a carrot stick. "Keep Parker out of my way before I cut off a finger."
"Yours or hers?" She perched on a wooden stool and watched him.
"Don't tempt me." He finished with the onion and turned the bacon. "Can I ask you something?"
"If a guy goes out with a woman for their second lunch date, and she orders, say, linguine in garlic oil . . .
"Oh, there's a mood killer," she said, rolling her eyes. "Unless she's super confident, no woman would order garlic or long pasta on a date. That didn't happen to you?"
"Guy at The Gym," he said. "He thought maybe she didn't think it was a date, even though she called him."
"She doesn't. Trust me." She nibble on her carrot and watched him remove the bacon from the pan. "You've been spending a lot of time at The Gym lately. How's Ron Schulte doing?"
"He's fine. Business is good—he hired another trainer, an aerobics instructor, even has someone to do cleaning and odd jobs." He speared a chunk of boiled potato on the point of his knife, tested it, then carried the pot to the sink.
"Good, good. I liked him. I'm glad you decided to invest in the business."
"So'm I." He found the colander he'd brought from home, balanced it on top of a measuring cup he'd also brought from home, and began to pour out the steaming contents of the pot, careful to get the stock in the cup.
"Was there kissing after this lunch?"
"No—maybe—yaaahh!" Eliot dropped the empty pot on the counter and examined his burn. "How would I know?"
Sophie shrugged and stood. "You might tell your friend that a woman scared of losing her job might consider making friends with someone who is friendly with the new CEO. Even if her heart isn't in it." She smiled, bit off a piece of carrot and glided out.
Eliot took a deep breath. "Dammit, Hardison!"
I'm not sure if this is an appropriate place to thank people for reading (I know OCs are a risk) and for the unexpected kudos, but I'm doing it anyway—thank you!
Chapter 9: The Memory: Jo
Warning: Possible trigger for mentions of Domestic Abuse and violence against women.
(and before you ask, this is realistic, but not autobiographical)
Jo was eating lunch and addressing an envelope when Ron came into the staff room.
"Smells good," he said. "What is it?"
She slipped the envelope under an equipment catalog. "Potato soup. Spencer came in the day before yesterday with a big container of it. Want some?"
"Sure." He grabbed one of the mismatched bowls from the cabinet and Jo took the soup out of the fridge. "Nuke it for 90 seconds, unless you like lava," she said. "I learned that one the hard way.
"Thanks for the warning."
She watched him push the microwave buttons with his large fingers. He was one of three men she'd met who were big enough to make her feel small. Her dad had been another one. Her husband had been the third, though he'd also tried to make her smaller in any other way he could.
But Jo didn't think Ron would do that—her instincts with men had completely failed at least once, but she was almost certain. The way he treated the other women at the gym, staff and members, the way he let Cody climb all over him like a jungle gym . . . he was just a genuinely nice guy. She hadn't met one of those in a while—Spencer was a lot of things, but nice wasn't one of them.
"So," he said, sitting at the table. "Eliot's cooking for you now?"
"He thinks I need more protein," she said. "Which doesn't explain why he gave me a big vat of carbohydrates. He must be thinking of the bacon. Dairy's protein, too, right? Or is it all just cholesterol?"
"Who cares?" he said, trying a spoonful. "This is amazing."
"The man can cook," she said. "He says he does it to keep up his knife skills, but I think that's just an excuse."
"How long have you two been together?"
She started to answer, then realized what he meant. "What?" she spluttered. "Spencer and—no. No, that would be . . . weird. Besides, he's seeing someone—or thinks he is."
"And if he wasn't?"
"Nope." She didn't have to think about it. "I never thought about him that way. He's sort of . . . half sensei and half overbearing big brother."
He nodded and poked his spoon into his bowl a few times. "So if I ask you to have dinner with me, I won't have to enter the Witness Protection Program?"
She snorted. "I doubt it. Of course, you're my boss, so that might also be a little weird."
"Actually, I'm only part-owner of this place. You were hired by my silent partner."
"Oh." Her eyes widened. "Oh. That sneaky son-of-a . . ."
"Wait a minute—did I say it was Eliot?"
"You didn't have to. Just wait until I see him again. . ."
"Would you have accepted the job or the room if you'd known?"
"Maybe the job." Jo knew she'd had just enough pride left to keep her from accepting more.
"Then I'm glad you didn't. And he wasn't offering you charity—just a chance. Which you took."
"Now, about that dinner."
She stared. "You were serious?"
"Why wouldn't I be serious?"
Where should she start? "Ron . . . how much do you know about me?"
"Some. Enough." His kind brown eyes crinkled at the corners. "I know that you hit a bad patch and you're trying to climb out of it. I know you're a fighter and a hard worker and a good friend. You'll protect a kid you don't know without thinking twice, and a couple of men I respect a lot respect you. And I know you look cute in sweats and sock feet."
"Wow. Cute, huh?" Jo wanted to put her head down and laugh and cry and God knows what else. This wasn't supposed to happen—she didn't date. She couldn't date. People like her didn't go out with nice men with broad shoulders who were good with kids—people like her didn't even get asked—they made sure they weren't asked.
This wasn't for her . . . no matter how much she might wish it was . . .
"Look," he said. "Don't be afraid of saying no. It's dinner, not a proposal. And it's not a job requirement—if I tried to pull anything like that, Eliot would bury me deep and I'd deserve it. I'm a big boy," he added. "I can take rejection." He sniffed and stuck out his lower lip. "I'll be disappointed, sure. And hurt. And I'll probably never ask a woman out ever again, but don't let that change your mind. . . "
She laughed, probably like he'd intended. "You're a nice guy, Ron—"
He covered his eyes "Ouch."
She pulled his hand away from his face. "And if you do ask me to dinner, I'll say yes, even though I'm not sure it's a good idea. So could you maybe—maybe not ask for a while? At least until I get my own place? I'm not . . . I'm not in the right frame of mind just now. I think I could be, but I need to work through some stuff first." She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. "This isn't a brush off. Once I move, and get . . . settled—and if you still want to—I'd really like it if you'd ask me again."
He squeezed back. "I can do that. As long as you aren't pining for Spencer like every other woman around here." He shook his head and folded his arms. "I just don't understand it."
She snorted and got up to wash her bowl. "Neither do I. I mean, so what if he's good-looking and has a seriously hot body—not to mention all that gorgeous hair. And so what if he's brooding and dangerous and walks like he could take on the world? And has that husky, growly drawl . . . " She turned around and frowned. "You know, I think I'm talking myself into it."
"So glad I could help."
On impulse, she stepped over and kissed his cheek. "You're not so bad, yourself, mister," she whispered.
He grinned. "Hey, now—no public displays of affection in the workplace."
"You're not the boss of me," she said, taking his empty bowl.
"Knew I should have kept my mouth shut." He stood and stretched. "Thanks for the soup."
"Anytime." She couldn't help smiling as she washed the dishes. Okay, so it probably wasn't ever going to happen, but it was nice to think—just for a second or two—that it might. It made her feel . . . normal. She'd forgotten how strange and wonderful normal was. . .
"Jo, you know where Ron is?" asked Damien from the doorway, his voice terse and angry.
"He just left. What's wrong?"
She stiffened. "What now?"
"She's got a shiner and bruises on her wrist. She says she's okay to do her classes, but . . ." He walked away and Jo followed. They found Ron replacing notices on the message board.
Ron heard Damien out, his face grim. "I'll talk to her, but so far, but if she doesn't want to leave him and she won't press charges, there's nothing we can do but document it."
Damien ran a hand through his hair. "Why is she staying with this guy?"
"Because it's easier than leaving," said Jo, quietly. "It's like brainwashing. Right now, she's being taught that everything he does or does do is her fault—and even if she isn't that far gone, she doesn't want her family and friends to know she's made a mistake. He's isolating her from anyone who might notice what he's doing, or care." She scrubbed at her face with both hands. "We're actually lucky she's still strong enough to come to work—and that he's dumb enough to leave proof." She shuddered at dark memories.
Damien stared at her in shock and Ron—gentle Ron—looked capable of murder. "Go write it down in the notebook and let her do her classes if she wants to. I want someone with her at all times, whether she likes it or not, and someone keeping an eye on him."
"I'll spread the word. He'll be here tonight—he always comes in to lift after her afternoon classes—he makes her watch him."
"This guy's a member?" asked Jo. "What's his name?"
"Jack Tamerlin" said Ron. "Unfortunately, he hasn't done anything against the rules. So if I drop him—"
"He'll blame her." Jo shook her head. "Could you point him out to me when he comes in?"
"Sure." Damien looked as though he wanted to say something, but didn't know how. He grimaced and left.
"There's got to be something we can do for the poor kid," said Ron, rubbing the back of his neck. "Maybe Eliot . . . ?"
"Spencer's out of town—he'll be back next week sometime. But you were right—there's nothing anyone can do if she won't leave." She sighed, rubbing her arms against an inner chill. "Not until he crosses that final line . . . and even then, sometimes it's too late."
"You sound like you know all this . . ."
"First hand," she said, not looking at him. "My husband."
She heard him breathe out. "Ex?"
"Good." He pulled her back against his warmth for a moment and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "I hope it hurt." He slid his hands down her arms and went after Damien.
She went back to the staff room and picked up the envelope. "It did," she said out loud. "It did."
Chloe ended up cancelling her afternoon classes, so it took Jo almost a week to finally see Jack Tamerlin up close—but she'd been documenting his handiwork nearly every day.
Chloe had taken to wearing long sleeved leotards and tights—overwarm outfits that made her heavy makeup run from the bruises she'd tried to conceal. Her perky act was wearing thin, and she avoided everyone but her students.
Jo found herself at a constant simmer, unable to concentrate on anything for long. Mike finally stopped telling her that she was losing her control in the ring and hammered her flat, twice, by way of demonstration.
"S'okay to be angry," he said, helping her up the second time. "Take Eliot—he's got one hell of a temper. But he uses it to focus."
So she focused on thinking of a way to help Chloe—to get her to leave and to get her out safe. Chloe had to make the decision . . . but there might be a way to convince her. And a way to keep Jack away from her for good—or at least a good long time.
The last part was easier to figure out. The first part . . . there was a way, maybe, if Jo could bring herself to do it . . . physical risk was one thing, but this was another. . .
She watched Chloe drag herself out of her class and sag against the wall for a moment.
Jo kicked herself for being a selfish coward. What was she doing all this for in the first place, if not to finally stand up and fight? And if that meant tearing old wounds wide open, so be it.
Chloe caught sight of Jo, straightened up, and walked away.
Jo went to find Ron. After some arguments on both sides, they went to find Mike, who was just leaving.
He heard them out. "Ya sure?" he asked Jo.
"I'm sure," she lied. She was committed, but anything could happen. "It's not like I'll be alone."
"When is this going down?"
"Depends. Probably tomorrow."
"All right," said Mike. "I'm in."
"You don't have to—"
"Yeah, I do." He pulled out his phone. "I'll call Maya."
"Are you really sure?" asked Ron.
"If you can come up with something else, fine," said Jo. "But we can't predict what Chloe's going to do."
"I'd feel better if Eliot were here."
"Yeah, but we can't wait. If she quits—"
"We'll lose her." Ron sighed. "I get it, but I still don't like it."
Mike held out his phone to Jo. "Maya wants to talk to you."
Jo took it. "Hi."
"Bring her over here if you need to," said Maya.
"De nada. What are you going to say?"
"Nothing fancy," said Jo. "I'm just going to tell her a story."
Late the next afternoon, Damien was spotting Jack as he benched a fair amount of weight. The trainer looked as if he'd like to drop the barbell across the man's neck.
Jo, who had watched Chloe try to do her last class with what was probably a cracked rib, was lubing the leg press near where Chloe was watching her boyfriend. The press didn't really need it, but she wanted to stay close.
Jack, she thought, was a smug-faced, over-pumped idiot. And he was a grunter, too, making sure that everyone in the gym knew what a strong man he was by making deafening sounds of strain whenever he raised the weights.
Finally, with one last announcement, Jack racked the weight and sat up. Chloe shot up, wincing, and handed him a towel. He wiped his face and chest off and tossed it at her. It fell short and she bent over to pick it up with a small sound of pain.
Jack slapped her rear and grinned. "Better watch your diet, chunkybutt," he said, loudly enough to carry. "You're looking a little saggy, there."
Jo rose to her feet. "What did you just say to her?"
Jack glanced at her. "Mind your own business."
"No." Jo turned her back on him and spoke to Chloe. "Are you going to let him talk to you that way?"
Chloe's eyes met Jo's and flickered away. She didn't say anything.
"Are you going to keep letting him hit you?"
"Hey! I said mind your own business!" A hand clamped down on Jo's shoulder, but she twisted free without looking.
"Because I'm going to tell you how this is going to go," Jo continued, in a calm voice that seemed to be coming from someone else.
"Please," said Chloe in a low voice. "I don't—"
The hand came down again, and tried to swing her around "Bitch, I said—hey! Get off me!"
"Shut up and let the lady talk," said Damien.
Jo kept speaking, as if nothing had happened. "Is he still apologizing? Ice packs, flowers, jewelry, excuses for his bad temper? It's already your fault, though isn't it? For making him crazy—crazy in love. Enjoy that while it lasts, because once he gets rid of all your friends—especially the ones he calls stuck-up because they know he's no good—and makes you too ashamed to go to your family, he won't need to be so careful."
Chloe tried to dart around Jo, but Jo moved with her. Not touching her, but blocking her from seeing Jack, who was yelling for someone to help him—but not, Jo thought, for someone to call the police.
"Shut up or I'll break your arms," said Damien, his voice vicious. Jack yelled once more, let out a yelp that stopped Chloe in her tracks, and fell silent.
"And once he stops apologizing, you're really going to have to work at guessing what you did to make him punch you in the kidneys or break your wrist so you won't ever do it again. But you'll never figure it out—you'll never learn how to keep him from losing his temper, because it has nothing to do with you. He gives you all the blame and all the pain, so he gets to feel better. That's how it works."
Chloe half turned, but Ron was there. "Listen, Chloe," he said, roughly. "Just listen."
"And maybe at some point you'll finally think that there's nothing left to lose," said Jo. "And you're really going to leave this time, you mean it—but then. . . then you find out you're pregnant."
Chloe's eyes went still, and lifted to Jo's face. Her hand went to her stomach.
"And where are you going to go after that? He's made sure you don't have anyone else but him."
Jo kept her eyes on the young woman, blocking out everything else, even Ron—especially Ron.
"And he's nicer to you, maybe—you're going to the doctor a lot, and doctors notice things. And you let yourself hope that he's changed. Because he really loves you, even though he doesn't say it anymore. Even though he stays away almost every night and tells you that he finds your body disgusting—once the baby comes, he'll change, right? You'll have the happy family you've always wanted. And then the baby comes, so perfect and beautiful, and so very, very fragile, and you just know everything will work out.
"But he doesn't like the baby at all. Babies cry and stink and take up all the time that used to be his. And you'll find yourself taking whatever punishment he throws your way, deliberately making him angry just so he won't look over at the crib. And you'll never, ever leave them alone together.
"But one day, nothing you do will work. He'll come after your son, and you'll step between them, and even with a broken nose and cheekbone, you won't move, because this is your stand. And you'll start hitting back. You'll drive him back, away from your baby, your precious boy, and you'll break your fingers doing it, but he'll goes down. You'll call 911 and tell the police you'll press charges.
"And you tell yourself that you've finally done it—it's over. But it's not, because as worthless as you are, you're still his. And he'll bide his time with phone calls and drive-bys, and spreading lies and rumors about you. And one day, he'll work himself up, break in, and beat you unconscious. Because no one has ever told him no, and who are you to think you could?
"But he's drunk, because he's always drunk, and he tries to pass a semi-trailer on a slick road."
Jo stared at Chloe, but saw only the memories. "And your whole life ends right there. Before you even wake up on the floor, before you realize he took your baby with him . . . And you wonder why the officers who came to tell you about the accident are so nice, why they're calling you an ambulance instead of locking you away—because you know it's all your fault that your baby is dead, that your precious son has been taken away from you.
"And you'll be right."
Her voice rose, and she struggled to keep from screaming. "You'll be right, Chloe—it will be your fault, because you didn't stop it the very first time he told you that you weren't good enough. You didn't stop it the first time he hit you, and you aren't stopping him now.
"Stop him, Chloe," she said, hugging herself with shaking arms. "Please stop him before you lose everything. Because you will. I promise you, you will."
Chloe buried her face in her hands. Jo wrapped her arms around the sobbing girl . "Say the word, Chloe, and we'll help you. Let us help you."
"Chloe!" yelled Jack. "The bitch is lying—I love you, baby. I swear it! Chloe, don't you dare!"
Chloe nodded against Jo's sweatshirt and looked up at her. "Help me," she said.
And together they walked to the desk to call the police.
Later, as Jack was led by in handcuffs, glaring at Jo, Ron said, "I can do the night shift for a while, if you want."
"That's okay," she said, feeling drained. "I kind of wish the alarm system wasn't broken, but I'll be fine."
"They'll be here next week." He cleared his throat. "You okay?"
She blew out a breath. "Ask me later."
He nodded. "Said I would."
An officer stopped by the desk. "We need to ask you some questions, Ms. Dermott."
Jo nodded. "How long will he stay in jail?"
The officer frowned. "That will depend on whether Ms. Frahm decides to press charges."
"Even if she does, could he still make bail?" asked Ron.
"I really can't say," said the officer, but her expression did.
"Oh. Then I guess all we can do is wait," said Jo.
And get ready.
Chapter 10: The Trap: Eliot
Trigger Warning: Violence against women
If you would prefer to skip over the portion in question, you might want to stop at the first section break and then run a cntrl—F for the word cut.
It was already late evening by the time Eliot walked out of the airport terminal. He checked his messages out of habit, the first time he'd turned on his phone since they'd left for Arizona. It seemed a lot longer than a week.
The job had been an over-long, over-complicated hairball for everyone. Sophie had had six character changes—two on the fly— Parker had stolen and planted the same pearl necklace a record nine times because the target kept changing; Hardison had pretty much been awake the entire week monitoring everything; and Nate had been holding onto sobriety with ragged fingernails.
So aside from the usual, Eliot had been the dresser, the cabbie, the caffeine supplier, and the AA counselor on this one—by the end, he hadn't just wanted to take it out on the bad guy, he'd come close to decking the client out of sheer frustration. Especially when it turned out the guy'd been interfering with every single move the team made because he wanted to help.
And then the flight back had been delayed at both ends—an hour up front and over forty minutes of circling before they was allowed to land—and if Eliot found out that Parker, who had vanished from her seat twenty minutes in, had something to do with that, there would be trouble.
All he wanted to do was go home and watch game highlights on ESPN with a cold beer or three.
Five messages. One from Andrea, which he skipped. He didn't know why she kept calling after he'd turned down her last few lunch invitations—for someone who apparently wasn't that into him, she was having a hard time letting go.
Four from Ron. He listened to the first one, and chuckled.
Eliot had found it difficult to convince Ron that he wasn't interested in Jo, that the idea was just . . . wrong. It wasn't that he didn't think she was good-looking, because she was—even in the sweats she usually wore, it was obvious she had a good, strong body. And of course, he didn't teach the lethal secrets of office supplies to just anyone. But she was more like an apprentice . . . or maybe a colleague who ranked somewhere between Sophie and Parker on the maintenance\irritation scale.
So he'd told Ron to go ahead with his blessing and a threat about minding his manners that was only half serious. Eliot figured Jo would say no the first time, for one reason or another, but it sounded like she'd said yes on a time delay. Maybe that meant she was planning to stick around?
The next message changed his smile to a frown. The one after that had him giving a low whistle. And the last one—
He sprinted to the parking lot, punching in Ron's cell number as he went.
Eliot let himself in the side door of The Gym, glancing at the deactivated alarm keypad. He moved silently through the building, past the weight machines, the desk, the sparring rings. . .
Someone was up ahead, leaning against the wall. Short blonde hair glinted as the head turned. Eliot relaxed. "Mike. Anything happened yet?"
"Hiya, Eliot. Not much—just like last night. Tamerlin made bail yesterday, but he didn't show."
"You think he will?"
"Jo does. She says guys like him—"
Glass shattered somewhere nearby. "C'mon," whispered Mike, and jogged down the hall.
Up ahead, light streamed from the window of Studio Three, like a beacon in the dark. Mike knocked on the wired glass twice as he passed and picked up speed.
Eliot kept up, guessing where they were headed. Sure enough, Mike stopped in front of Ron's office. They slipped inside.
Ron was sitting at the table that served him as a desk, staring at a monitor. He glanced up at Eliot. "Is he here?" The usual good humor was gone from his voice.
"Just broke in," said Mike. "Camera working?"
"Yeah." He pointed to the screen and Eliot went to take a look, Mike going around to Ron's other side.
Jo, wearing a pair of white Gym sweats and work gloves, walked across the room. She stopped in the center, and turned her head, her face registering surprise.
A man appeared at the bottom of the screen as he walked under the camera.
Ron clicked the link for the audio feed.
"What are you doing here?" said Jo, backing up.
"I'm going to teach you a lesson, bitch."
He rushed her and she dodged at the last second, moving past him, making him swing around.
"Get his face?" asked Mike.
"Not—wait, there," said Ron, as Jo led the guy around again so he faced the camera. "That should do it."
"That Tamerlin?" asked Eliot. The man was built like a bear from the waist up.
"That's him," said Ron.
"So why are we in here, instead of in there?"
"Good question," said Mike.
"Because this is Jo's show," said Ron, not sounding too happy about it.
Eliot watched Jo retreat in large circles, letting Tamerlin swipe at her, but never quite connect. He was all power moves, while she was grace and speed.
"Someone's been neglecting his leg work," he said.
"Mmm-hmm," said Mike. "Watch it, hon," he muttered, as she let Tamerlin get too close.
He caught her arm and almost yanked her off her feet. She broke the hold, but instead of following through, she backed off, making a panicked sound.
"What's she doing?" said Eliot.
"Making it look good," said Ron, his voice like grim death.
Jo was moving slower now, and Tamerlin backhanded her across the face, knocking her to her knees. She cowered under a rain of blows, and fell over, curling up against a kick, her back to the camera—providing a perfect view of Tamerlin's expression.
"This is insane," said Eliot.
Mike muttered something under his breath.
"She knows what she's doing," said Ron.
"Then why ain't she doing it?" asked Eliot.
"Where's Chloe?" asked Tamerlin.
"I don't know."
His foot lashed out. "Where is she?"
"I don't know!" Jo's wail hurt Eliot ears, or maybe someplace deeper. Ron's hands curled into fists. Mike swore under his breath.
"This ain't right," said Eliot.
Ron didn't look away from the screen. "You taught her to be you," he said. "She's being you."
There was no blame in his voice, but Eliot bristled anyway. "I woulda come up with something a little less—"
"Then you should have been here," Ron growled at him. "And what kind of thing were you doing wherever the hell you were?"
Eliot clamped down on something he knew he'd regret saying . . .and his memory flashed to a job where he'd let a couple of punks beat him down so he'd have to be sent to a certain hospital—fake wounds wouldn't have done it. Parker hadn't talked to him for a week, and Sophie hadn't talked to Nate for two. Hardison hadn't cracked a smile or made a single wiseass remark for the rest of the job, which was somehow worse. They didn't seem to understand that doing whatever it took was part of the—
"Dammit," he said. "Just—dammit."
Tamerlin's low laugh caught their attention. On screen, he reached into his back pocket and brought out something. Even before he hit the button, Eliot knew what it was.
"Knife," said Mike, straightening up.
"Riot baton," said Eliot, as the steel rods clicked into place.
"That's it. She's done."
Ron grabbed Mike with a long arm. "She has to say the word."
"Are ya kidding me?"
"She has to say the word. We agreed."
"I didn't," said Eliot.
"It's her show," Ron said through his teeth. "You're not going to screw it up."
"Tell me where she is." Metal whistled through the air.
"Don't make me go through you, Ron" said Eliot, in a voice he almost didn't recognize as his.
Tamerlin raised the baton a third time and Jo shrieked, "I'll tell! I'll tell you! Just don't hurt me anymore!"
Ron slapped at the mouse and shot to his feet, sending his chair crashing to the wall. "Go!" he roared.
Eliot took off for the studio, Mike pounding behind him. He ripped the door open. "Do it and die," he said in that same voice.
Tamerlin looked up and froze, weapon held high.
Jo slowly rolled up to her knees. "Cu—cut?" she asked in a hoarse voice that reminded Eliot of the first time she'd spoken to him.
"We got it," said Mike.
"Good." She got to her feet, slowly, carefully. Just like she had in the alley . . .
Tamerlin's arm sagged. "What the fu—"
Jo kicked him full in the stomach, sending him stumbling back.
"I know how that feels," said Mike, grinning.
Ron pushed past them, but Eliot grabbed him.
"No," he said. "She's earned it."
"Shouldn't we get that thing away from him first?" asked Mike.
But Jo had moved close before Tamerlin could get his breath. She grabbed the baton with both hands, twisted it from his grip and flung it away.
"Never mind," said Mike. "Yeeouch, that's gotta hurt," she said, watching Jo's next move.
"It does," said Eliot. Now that Jo was in control—though he knew she'd argue that she always had been—he analyzed the fight. Even hurt—she was favoring her right side—she was good. It helped that most of her opponent's muscles were for show and that he wasn't used to women who fought back. But objectively . . .
Tamerlin howled and came at her. She stepped in and did something that made Ron whistle and Tamerlin fall to his knees.
"I taught her that one," said Eliot.
"I know," said Mike, giving him a sour look.
Eliot smirked. "Payback's a bitch."
"Wrap it up, Jo," said Ron. "Cops are on their way."
She glanced over and Tamerlin leapt. She pulled up her knees, let his momentum bring them both over, and shoved hard with her legs, sending him flying over her head. "Make it look good," she called.
Ron hauled Tamerlin to his feet. "Don't worry," he said, and planted a haymaker to the shorter man's jaw. Tamerlin went down and stayed there. Ron stepped over him and went to help Jo, who was sitting up, or trying to.
Eliot walked up to her, shaking his head. "What the hell, Jo?" he said.
"Hey, Spencer." She offered him a tired smile. "Welcome back. You need to go now."
"Take the emergency exit," said Ron. "I'll call you."
Eliot gave Jo a look. "We need to talk," he told her.
"Yes, we do," she said, as the faint, high-pitched whine of a siren reached them. "But not now. Go let them in," she told Ron.
"No." He slipped her gloves from her hands and tried to pull up her sweatshirt.
She slapped at his hand. "Yes. Mike—"
"We're gone. C'mon, Eliot, I'll fill you in."
With a last glance over the scene, Eliot left.
He'd parked a block away, like Ron had suggested, and by the time they reached his car, there were multiple sirens. They got in and Eliot drove away.
"That was . . . the second most difficult thing I ever had to watch," said Mike. He didn't offer to share the first.
"It made my top ten," said Eliot. "What the hell were you all thinking?"
"We were thinking that the sentences for domestic assault around here are pathetic," said Mike in a flat voice. "Especially when the rat bastard is a first timer and wasn't caught in the act. Maya's got Chloe stashed in one of her safehouses, but that's just temporary—and ya know restraining orders aren't worth squat. But now, we have him for busting in, assault— maybe attempted murder. All on camera."
"And," Mike interrupted. "We were thinking Jo was going to do it with us or without us. And without wasn't gonna happen."
Eliot sighed. "All right. But it didn't occur to anyone that he might bring a weapon along?"
Mike paused. "I think Jo knew," he said. "Don't know how."
Eliot thought about it. He'd never seen Jo wear gloves to lift something—she always said her calluses would protect her. . . "I think —"
His phone vibrated. "Yeah. Hey Ron," he said, assuming the cops were listening. "Almost—my flight was delayed. What's up? When?" He let Ron tell him what he knew. "How bad is she?" he asked, and listened to the answer. "Which hospital? I'll meet you there." He closed the phone. "Want me to drop you off?" he asked Mike.
"Yeah. I need to tell Maya what happened so she can tell Chloe . . . and I think I need to watch Cody sleeping for a while."
Eliot glanced at him. "Yeah," he said.
Chapter 11: The Doubts: Jo
Jo hated hospitals. She'd told too many transparent lies—or shameful truths—in too many of them. Been pitied in too many of them.
This time was different: she could look every single person in the eye, and lied only by omission—but she'd still been stripped down, photographed, interviewed, poked, prodded, bandaged, medicated, and finally left to sit on the side of a hospital bed in a thin cotton gown wondering what was next.
She was tired and hurting and wanted to go home—or someplace that felt like it—and turn off the instant replay loop in her brain for a while.
She wondered if Spencer ever felt like this after a job.
Someone knocked on the door and opened it a few inches. "You decent?" said Spencer's voice.
She looked at her hospital gown. "I have no idea."
He came in. "How're you feeling?"
She went for the simple answer. "Like I was smacked around by an angry gorilla."
"Sounds about right. You're gonna have a nasty bruise on your jaw."
"Yeah." She touched her face and winced. "I could have timed that better."
"I know." He snagged the plastic visitor's chair, turned it around, and sat with his arms folded on the backrest. "So, what's the story?"
"I was shifting mats in the studio, Ron was down the hall trying to reboot the security cameras—they've been up and down all week. Chloe's boyfriend broke in and tried to beat her hiding place out of me. Ron heard me screaming, ran in and knocked my attacker out, then called the cops. Camera caught most of the attack, but the system rebooted just before Ron arrived."
He shook his head. "And here I thought you couldn't lie."
"I didn't have to. Everything I said was true—I just didn't say everything."
She nodded. "It wasn't entrapment, either; we gave him the opportunity—he didn't have to take it."
"But you knew he would."
"The odds were better than good."
"And you knew he'd have a weapon." He narrowed his eyes. "You even knew which one."
She blinked at his tone. "How did you . . .?"
"Ron's reaction—he wasn't surprised. And I've never seen you use gloves before. Fingerprints or protection? "
Jo started to feel defensive. "A little of both. They were Ron's idea."
"So how'd you get Tamerlin to bring it along?"
"Ron and I cleared out the rest of his arsenal while Chloe packed her stuff, about an hour after his arrest."
He didn't say anything.
"We figured if we didn't leave him something we knew about, he might go shopping for something we didn't."
He still didn't say anything.
"And I knew I could handle the baton better than knives or guns."
He closed his eyes and snorted. "Yeah, you handled it real good."
She glared at him. "Hey—he's going down for assault with an illegal weapon."
He glared back. "And you've got stripes."
She started to shrug and decided not to try it without more meds. "It's always going to hurt some," she said. "But you can minimize impact and maximize recovery." She frowned. "Now, who told me that?"
"Funny," he said, scowling. "That's real funny. Why didn't you say the word the minute he pulled it, Jo? He had a weapon, he threatened you with it—that was enough to charge him. The few extra months of jail time he'll get for using it isn't worth what you got for letting him. Why'd you go too far?"
"I wanted him to get the max—"
"I thought it would strengthen Chloe's case—"
"I froze, okay?" She tried to fold her arms but it hurt too much. "I froze. He raised that damned thing and . . . and some memories got in the way."
He nodded. "They'll do that." He paused, and his voice softened. "You can't afford to let memories mess with you, Jo. If you can't do it for you, do it for the rest of us. Ron held Mike and me back because he thought you were in control, and it half killed him to do it. If he ever found out you weren't—"
"Don't tell him." Her eyes prickled with shocked tears. "I didn't think . . . " She drew in a ragged breath.
He leaned over and grabbed a tissue from the box on the end table. He handed it over and waited as she pinched the bridge of her nose to stop the tears. She didn't have the right to break down over another mistake. "Thanks," she said, when she could.
"You've had a tough day." He changed the subject. "You okay with testifying?"
She sniffed and regrouped. "I think so. It won't be perjury unless they ask the right questions—or the wrong ones. He'll probably plead, anyway, unless he gets stubborn—but he'll still do some real time." She sniffed again, mopped up, and held up the wet tissue.
He offered her the wastebasket. "Think Tamerlin'll accuse you of assault?"
"He won't have any proof—I didn't leave marks. Besides," she managed a short laugh, "can you see that kind of guy admitting a woman beat him up?"
Spencer's lips twitched. "Not hardly." He sighed. "Looks like you have it most of it figured out."
"Have I earned another paperclip trick?"
"If you promise not to get yourself mangled again."
"I'll try," she said, meaning it. "But it's not completely up to me."
"At least you learned that." He grimaced. "And you'll have to slow down for a while until you heal up. Maybe we should concentrate on the retrieving for a while instead of the hitting. Not that they aren't pretty much the same thing most of the time . . . "
That was an opening, if anything was. She took a deep breath. "Actually, there's something I want to ask you abou—"
Another knock. "Are you decent?" asked Ron.
She did a mental shrug. "Not often," she said.
"That's good to know." He came in and nodded to Spencer. "Here, Jo, I brought you some clothes. Police said you'd need them."
"Bless you. They stole mine. When can I get out of here?"
"You'll probably have to stay for observation," said Ron. "And you can't stay at The Gym tonight anyway."
"Why? I'm fine!" She tried to stand up, but her entire body had stiffened and her legs wouldn't work right. Spencer caught her, but the chair was in the way, and he had to grab her bruised upper arms. She yelped.
"Little help, here?"
"Move," said Ron. He scooped Jo up as if she weighed nothing, careful to avoid her right side, and set her back on the bed. Lie down," he said.
"You aren't the boss of me," she said.
"I am," said Spencer. "Lie down, Jo, or I'll push you over with my little finger."
"The bed's turned the wrong way," she said, annoyed with herself for whining. "I can't stay here," she said. "The ceiling's too low and there's only one door and I'm not lying down with my back to it. And this mattress is too soft, anyway. I want to leave. Now."
Ron and Spencer exchanged glances, and she realized that Ron must already know about her odd sleeping habits, maybe even about her claustrophobia. Didn't anything scare that man off?
"Your place or mine?" asked Ron.
"Mine," said Spencer. "I've got medical training—"
"So do I—"
"I can buy—"
"—and no ulterior motive."
"There's that," said Ron. He shrugged. "I'll go find a nurse who knows where the doctors are hiding." He bent, kissed Jo's cheek, and left.
Jo felt her face heat. Spencer looked amused. "He's a good man," he said. "You could do worse."
"And he could do better. Please don't tell him that, either." She cleared her throat. "Does your place have high ceilings?"
He nodded. "There's a couple of escape routes in every room and a lumpy couch," he said. "Plus an alarm system and a bodyguard." He tapped his thumb on his chest.
She smiled at that. "Sold. Go help Ron interrogate the nurses so I can get dressed."
"You can't get dressed by yourself."
"Then go save one of the nurses from Ron so she'll come in here and help me."
"There's nothing under there I haven't seen before."
"Then you don't need to see it again." She looked around. "I'm sure I have a paperclip around here somewhere—don't make me use it."
He smirked. "You couldn't use it to put two pieces of paper together right now and you know it."
He was right, and all at once she felt too drained to keep up their usual banter. "Spencer—"
He put the chair back in its place. "I'm goin'. Holler if you need me."
Dressing was a pain in the . . . everything. For some reason the accidental snap of sports bra elastic hurt less than raising her feet to put on her socks, and putting on her shirt hurt worse than anything. But she managed without hollering, which seemed like a bigger victory at the moment than sending Jack Tamerlin to prison. The very last thing in the world she needed was Spencer and Ron charging in to pull up her pants.
The enormity of knowing neither of them wouldn't think twice about doing just that wasn't lost on her. They'd never let her forget it—or Spencer wouldn't—but they'd do it.
She hadn't counted on making friends like these —her real life wasn't supposed to start this soon. All of this was supposed to be temporary. . .but it didn't feel like it.
Maybe it didn't have to be.
But she didn't see how, unless she let go . . .and she couldn't do that.
Daylight woke Jo out of strange dreams. She squinted into the brilliant patch of sun covering her face and tried to roll over.
She made a choking sound, jerked back, and tried to remain absolutely still until the fire in her side died down. She was on a couch . . .lumpy leather . . . Spencer's apartment?
She slid her legs over the side and levered herself upright, moving her blanket—an oddly childish, fleecy thing with horse heads on it—out of the way. She raked her hair back and wished she hadn't lifted her arm.
"Water," said Spencer from close by. A glass appeared in front of her and she took it. "Painkillers." A hand held out two pills.
"What are they?" Her head already felt full of fuzz, and she didn't remember anything after leaving the hospital.
"Tylenol with codeine," he said. "Take 'em."
"Thanks," she said, after the meds went down. "Interesting blanket."
"Christmas present from Parker. She thinks horses are vicious killers and The Godfather is a slapstick comedy, so I wasn't sure how to take it. But it's warm."
Jo decided it was too early in the morning to make sense of that. "What time is it?"
"Four in the afternoon. You've been out since we left the parking lot. It's a good thing Ron came along to help."
He nodded. "Carried you up three flights of stairs."
"Three? Hope he has a chiropractor."
"Don't worry. You kissed it better."
She blinked. "I . . . what?"
"When he tried to put you on the couch, you held on and kissed him good." He grinned. "You also told him he'd be a great daddy."
"Oh, God." In vicodin veritas. She buried her face in her hands. "Could you give me the rest of those pills, please? All of them."
"Sorry, darlin'," he said, dropping into the easy chair opposite. "You're just gonna have to suck it up and admit you like the big guy."
"I do like him. That's the point."
He frowned. "Is this a woman thing? 'Cause I don't get it."
"He needs someone . . . normal. Without all this baggage."
"No such person. And Ron's strong enough to let you be yourself, do what you need to do. Proved it last night."
"But he doesn't know who I am—or what I've done."
"Tell him. If you think he's gonna look down on you for living on the street—"
"That's not it. Look—it's complicated. And I really don't want to deal with it right this very minute now, okay? Please?" Her hand shook a little, making the water in her glass shiver.
He studied her. "You hungry?"
"I don't—" Her stomach grumbled and she gave up. "Yes."
He got up. "Kitchen's this way." He left through the door to the right.
She tossed aside the blanket, stood very slowly, and followed with her glass. Spencer stood at an island over a cutting board, ingredients lined up around him. A pot of water simmered on the gas stove behind him. "Do you moonlight as an Iron Chef?"
"It's my secret dream." His voice was so dry she couldn't tell if he was joking. "Have a seat."
She sat, yelped, and got up to turn the chair so she wouldn't put pressure on the wrong side. He put down his knife and came over to pull up the side of her shirt.
"I'm okay," she said. He raised her arm and she hissed.
"Sure you are." He prodded a little with clinical hands. "You ain't leaking. I'll change your bandages later." He went back to the cutting board.
"What are we having?"
"Garlic linguine. I think I figured out the bistro recipe." He rolled up a handful of basil and started slicing it. "And we wouldn't want Ron thinking this is a date." He finished slicing and started chopping.
"Spencer. . . you ever do something wrong for the right reasons?"
He chuckled. "All the damn time. Gets to be a habit after a while."
"No, I mean . . .something wrong. . . Like . . .like abandoning someone you love, because you think they'll hurt even worse if you stay."
"Yeah," he said, after a long pause. "Once or twice."
"How do you fix something like that?"
He muttered something that sounded like, "Steal their horse back." Then louder, "I guess it depends on whether they can forgive you. You asking for a reason?"
"Mmmf. You like mushrooms?"
"Sure." He tossed her one and she bit into one side, like Alice in Wonderland. "Tell me one of your retrieval stories, Spencer."
"You first." He broke apart a head of garlic. "Start with the one you told Chloe."
"Ron told you about that?"
"He mentioned the highlights." He smacked a couple of garlic cloves with the flat of his knife. "Any of it true?"
"Everything I told her was true."
"But you didn't tell her everything." He peeled the cloves and started mincing.
"No. There wasn't any point."
"You gonna fill in the details?"
"Not on an empty stomach." She caught his expression. "It's been two years, Spencer. Maybe. . . maybe it would be best to let it be?"
"Think you can do that?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I used to be pretty good at it."
"I have a feeling those days are probably over." He turned the flame on under a skillet and reached for the olive oil. "Let me know if I can help."
She thought he was probably right. "I will."
He sauteed the mushrooms and garlic, doing that tossing thing that professional chefs did.
"If I tried that," she said, "dinner would be all over the floor."
"It's all in the wrist." He moved the skillet off the heat and turned off the burner. "What will you do if you have to let it go?"
She didn't have to ask him what he meant—or think of the answer. "Find something else to fight for. I'm not going back to where I was. Or what I was. I'd fight for that."
His eyes met hers. "Good." He took a knife from the magnetic rack and held it out. "No sense in wasting time."
She stood up and took it, moving next to him.
"Okay, this ain't a paperclip, so be careful. Now watch: hold a knife like this, it cuts through an onion. That's right. Hold it like this, it cuts through . . ."
Chapter 12: The Grab: Eliot
It had taken some effort to convince Jo that the quickest way to get back to the gym was to stay out of The Gym.
"When it comes to recovery time, if you have it, you take it," said Eliot, as patiently as he could. "You have it—you're taking it."
"A week?" she asked for the fourth time. "A whole week?"
"You're damn lucky it isn't three," said Eliot. "Tamerlin beat you pretty bad, Jo, and that baton of his bit deep in two places. No organ damage, but it's bad enough."
"What about work?" She pointed at him. "I'm not accepting a paycheck from you for doing nothing."
"You can stay on the desk for a couple hours a day—I'll drive you there now, if you want. But go near anything but the women's locker room and you won't be allowed back for a month. Ron agrees with me," he added. "And you know he'll keep a close eye on you."
She balled her fists, pacing in front of the fireplace. "Spencer, I don't have the time to—"
"Save it. Unless you wanna tell me what's so important you're willing to do yourself permanent damage?"
For a solid three seconds, he hadn't been sure if she was going to tell him or tell him off . . . but she'd only stomped away to the bathroom, coming out a little later wearing a collared Gym shirt and jeans, instead of sweats. The outfit, Eliot knew, was a silent acceptance of his terms.
And it wasn't as if those terms meant lying on the couch and watching daytime TV. He drilled her on knives, both defensive and offensive. He taught her two more paperclip tricks and bought a sack of potatoes and a bag of baby carrots so she could practice. He asked Damien to modify a couple of easy stretching routines for her, so she could work out some muscle soreness and get rid of a little excess energy. He even taught her to cook risotto, which took time and concentration.
But by the fourth day, it was obvious she was ready to climb the walls.
So he brought home a gun.
Jo was finishing a sequence in what she called Tai Chi Lite, when he came in and tossed his old leather satchel on the easy chair. She turned her palms down, lowered her arms slowly to her sides, then looked at him. "What's up?"
"Something new," he said, holding up the .45.
"I don't want to shoot anyone," she said.
"Says the woman who's mangled every spud in the kitchen."
"That's different." She didn't say why. "I've never seen you with a gun."
"I don't use 'em unless I have to—they're . . . limited. But I'm not going to teach you to shoot this—I'm going to teach you how to not get shot with it." He took off his jacket. "You can't always count on sneaking behind people."
Her shoulders relaxed. "Or having a bat handy."
"Exactly," he said, taking a hip holster and a shoulder holster out of the satchel. "The best way to not get shot is to keep the guy—"
"—from getting hold of his—or her—gun in the first place." He adjusted the straps to his liking and put his jacket back on. "Close your eyes."
She did. "Okay, where is it?" He walked the length of the room and back.
Her eyes darted. "Hip? The jacket isn't hanging right on that side."
"Good. And once you know where it is, and what it looks like when I'm going for it—" He moved his hand and she stepped up and grabbed his wrist. "There you go. Except you'll want to follow through on that—and then get the gun away from him if you can."
They played hide and seek with the gun for a few minutes. The last time, he shoved the gun in his back waistband. "Okay."
She frowned. "Not hip, not armpit. I think . . . at your back, or you dropped it."
He slid his hand under his jacket and back to reach the grip. "And you never want to assume he—
"—they dropped it. There are lots of ways to tell if someone's carryin'. The way they walk, the clothes they have on, attitude, whatever. But when in doubt, they're armed."
"Words to live by," she said.
"Hope so. If he—they do manage to get their hands on their gun, there's pretty much two ways to go. Dive behind something or get in close before they can aim. Here," he held out the gun.
She didn't take it.
"There's no such thing—"
"As an unloaded gun. I know. But this one is. Plus, if you'll notice, the trigger's missing." He smiled. "I'm not risking my security deposit for this. Now, draw it from your hip and aim it at me." He moved as she did, grabbed her wrist before she brought up her other hand, and yanked it to one side so she was aiming at the fireplace.
"Sorry. Again." He pulled her arm up—more gently that he normally would—so the gun pointed at the ceiling. "Basically, keep this end of the gun away from you—and anyone on your side." He let go and moved back.
"Why are you doing all this?" she asked, her green eyes meeting his.
"Because the next time—"
"You know what I mean." She shook her head. "Why are you doing all this for me?"
"And don't tell me it's because I saved your life. Because, trust me, we're even."
He raised his eyebrows. "Can I talk now?"
She gestured with the gun. "Go ahead."
He folded his arms. "I could tell you it's because I like your determination, and because you're a damn quick study and a solid, instinctive fighter. With some practice, a few more skills, you could probably compete at Mike's level if you wanted. Maybe even give me a run for my money."
"You really thi—"
"Or I could say that I liked the way you stepped in for Chloe because it was the right thing to do. And that you're important to a couple of good people I happen to know."
He held up a hand. "But I think I'm gonna say that in my line of work, you don't make many friends. And I'd like to keep the few I've got."
"Oh." She blinked a few times and he waited for what she might say next. "What if they manage to draw and aim before you get close?" She pointed the gun at him.
He smiled to himself and shrugged. "Depends. If they're good guys, they might hesitate before they shoot, which means you could do this." He stepped up and twisted the gun out of her hands in a practiced motion, ejecting the empty magazine. "But you'd better be sure about it. And don't forget to clear the chamber. Ever."
She rubbed her hand. "And what if they're bad guys? Or you can't tell?"
"Stand still and give them what they want. And hope the cavalry brings baseball bats."
Eliot walked into The Gym two weeks and a job later, wondering why he'd just wasted a whole hour of his life breaking off a relationship that hadn't actually started.
At least he knew his garlic linguine recipe was close. Maybe a touch less basil. . .
Ron was on the phone, but covered the mouthpiece and pointed. "Heavy bag," he said.
Eliot found Mike holding the bag so Jo could deliver one of her signature kicks. She stepped in and gave the bag an upward thrust with the heel of her hand that would have broken its nose if it had owned one. She relaxed and rubbed her side.
"Good work," said Mike. "But that's it for today. Hiya, Eliot."
Jo turned. "Hey," she said, grinning. "I'm back."
"Almost," said Mike. "Another week of this and I'll start mopping the ring with ya."
She snorted. "You can try."
He tossed a towel at her. "Maya wants to talk to you about something. Can she drop by on her way home with Cody?"
"I'll be here. How was lunch?" she asked Eliot.
"Food was good." He studied her. He hadn't seen Jo for almost a week—she'd moved back into The Gym two days before he'd left on the job. "What's got you so excited?"
"Couple of things." Her eyes sparkled. "I was going to tell you when you called last night, but thought I'd better wait. You sounded . . . grumpy."
"Yeah," he growled. "I'm never flying with Hardison and Parker again. One or the other if I have to—but not both."
"I've got to hear this one."
"You first," he said. "Start with what's got you bouncin' like a puppy."
She laughed and wiped at her face and neck. "Walk me to the mailbox," she said, pitching the towel into the laundry bin. "I'd change," she added. "But I have a class soon anyway."
"I've seen you worse," he said.
"I guess you have." She walked to the desk, redoing her ponytail so it was high on her head. It looked to Eliot like she'd regained almost her full range of motion. "Hey, Ron," she said. "Did you find a stamp?"
"Yep." He held up an envelope. "You tell him yet?"
To Eliot's surprise, she moved behind Ron and slipped her hands down over his shoulders before taking the envelope. "I'm about to." She kissed his nose and let go.
"Way to go, boss!" Damien gave a thumbs-up as he passed.
Ron smirked. "You're ruining my reputation around here."
"You're welcome. We're going down the street to mail this."
"Grab my jacket," said Ron. "It's windy and you're damp."
"You aren't the boss of me." But she smiled and went to the staff room.
Eliot raised his eyebrows at Ron. "Do I need to stop leaving town?"
"Don't worry—it's all good this time." His expression changed. "Or it could be." He lowered his voice. "Listen, I don't know if she'll ask, so I will—I think she's going to need your kind of help."
"Your team's kind." His eyes slid past Eliot. "You look like a kid playing dress up."
"No kidding." Jo flapped the arms of the enormous jacket and dropped the envelope. "Whoops."
Eliot picked it up and handed it over, noticing a Pennsylvania address.
She pulled up the jacket sleeves and stuffed the letter in her pocket. "Ready?"
He held open the door in answer and they stepped outside. The wind blew Eliot's hair around and he let it. "So," he said. "You talked to Ron."
"I talked to Ron. I didn't mean to, but . . . I asked him to look over some apartment listings for me, because as convenient as it is, I can't live at work. And he asked me why not."
She cleared her throat. "I knew he was joking but . . . I told him. It just came out. And then everything came out—almost my whole life story. And when I finally stopped talking, I thought . . . well, I thought that was it, I'd finally scared him off. But it turns out he . . ." She swallowed and blinked hard. "He believes in me."
He nodded. "People do." He gave her a look. "You gonna tell me now?" he asked.
She returned his look. "Spencer, if you don't want to wait for this stuff, try to be in town when I have my emotional breakthroughs. Or at least leave your phone on."
He grunted and she rolled her eyes. "Okay, first, I did find an apartment. One bedroom, utilities included, close to work, actually affordable."
"And three escape routes." She grinned. "No furniture yet, so I can get lumpy couch or a mat or newspapers or something."
"No alarm system?"
"That's your housewarming present—and no arguments," he said. "Bodyguard? Tall one, maybe?"
She elbowed him. "No. And before you ask, dad, Ron doesn't live in the building, though he does live down the block. I'm moving in this weekend."
Eliot picked up an odd sound and looked behind him. Nothing. "That should take about five minutes."
"True. But having my own place means I can put a return address on this." She touched the envelope.
"What is it?" he asked automatically. Something was off . . . He scanned the area.
Jo didn't seem to notice. "A letter to a friend. At least, I hope she is. I've been writing to her every month for two years, but this is the first time I've given her a way to write back, and the first time I've asked her to. It's time, Spencer."
They stopped in front of the mailbox and she pushed the letter through the slot. "There. Can't take it back now."
"Time for what?" What was bugging him? He didn't see anything . . . maybe he was still on high alert from the job. That happened sometimes.
Jo's serious tone pulled his attention back to her. "Time to see if I can fix one of my biggest mistakes." Her face showed excitement and worry and determination. "I'm going to do it, Spencer. I'm going to find my s—" Her head whipped around. "What—"
A van screeched to a halt next to them, one wheel bumping over the curb. The back doors flew open.
Four men, four guns—all out and aimed.
"Spencer," said Reuter, arm still in a sling. "Andrea says hello."
He felt Jo go still—and for a split second thought she'd frozen like she had with Tamerlin.
Then she turned to him and opened her eyes wide. "What's going on?" she said in a voice that was half scared, half suspicious, and a little higher than normal. "And who's Andrea?"
He almost smiled. The woman couldn't lie, but she wasn't a bad actress—kind of the opposite of Sophie. "Nobody special, darlin'." He slipped his hand into his jacket.
"Don't move—or your girlfriend here gets another hole in her head."
"Eliot. . ." She shrank back and looked at him, her right hand nervously rubbing her left elbow. She raised her eyebrows.
He gave her a slight nod and held up his hands. "I'm just getting my glasses. Don't want 'em broken." He dug in his shirt pocket and brought out his wire rims. "Don't worry, Josie, no one's getting hurt today."
She bit her lip and nodded.
"That's right, Josie," said Reuter, his teeth bared. "Everything will be fine. Unless you decide to call the cops. But you wouldn't want her to do that, either, would you Spencer?"
"No, I wouldn't." Eliot took her hand and folded it around his glasses . . . and his earbud. "She won't call 'em. Will you, darlin'?"
"No, Eliot," she said, eyes glinting. "I won't call the cops." She opened her eyes wide again. "You won't hurt him?"
"I'll take care of him, don't you worry," said Reuter. "Your boyfriend's worth his weight in gold to me."
"It's okay, Josie," said Eliot. He offered her a small smile. "Go do what you do best. I'll be fine." He kissed her cheek and got into the van.
One of the men pulled the doors shut and the van jolted off the curb.
Eliot caught his balance—and something slammed into the back of his head.
If it even needs saying: please don't test any of Eliot's firearm tricks at home or anywhere else. If you do, I'm not responsible for damages to people, places, or things.
To be blunt, he's Eliot living in the Leverageverse—and we're not and we don't.
Chapter 13: The Team: Jo
I took a small, blue liberty with the earbuds—but it's a logical liberty, I think.
Jo repeated the license plate number under her breath until the van took a screeching turn the next street down. She stuffed Spencer's wire rims in a pocket and looked at the other thing he'd given her.
It looked like the world's smallest hearing aid. Spencer might wear reading glasses, but she was ninety-nine percent certain he didn't have hearing problems. So . . .
She stuck it in her ear. "Hello?" she said. "Hello?"
Nothing. She took it out and examined it. There was a tiny blue tab sticking up on one side, so she pressed it and tried again. "Hello? Is anyone there?"
No one seemed to be. Or maybe they couldn't hear her— Spencer hadn't passed her a tiny microphone. Or this thing really was the world's smallest hearing aid and that's why she'd never seen him wearing it. That was a lot more probable than this ultra-tech communicator stuff.
And she was wasting time. She started to run toward The Gym. She knew where Spencer worked, she'd get herself there and bang on the door until they—
"Eliot—what's up, man?"
She stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk and covered her ear. "Hello?" she said, ignoring the stares from passersby. "Can you hear me? Hello?"
"Who is this?" The man's voice was as clear as if he was standing next to her.
"My name's Jo. I'm—"
"Well, now, Jo, you need to change your frequency ASAP. This is a private signal, and unless you want the FCC to come down on you with, like, a ton of fines—"
"No, listen!" she said, starting to run again. "Spencer's gone. Reuter took him right off the street. "
There was a pause. A different man spoke, sounding older and far more serious. "Who are you?"
"Jo. Jo Dermott."
The first voice came back. "Josephine Dermott? With two t's? Used to be Josephine Marten?"
"That's me." She blew through the doors of The Gym and skidded into the empty staff room. "Are you Spencer's ID guy?"
"His ID guy? Well . . . well, yeah, I guess I am. I mean, that's not all that I am, but . . ."
"Then I need to thank you for my new name and license, but first I need to talk to . . ." She went blank.
Hardison and Parker weren't in charge, she knew that, and though Eliot had told her a few stories about the team— and let a couple things drop here and there— he hadn't named anyone else . . .
But Reuter had. He'd threatened to hurt someone named . . . Devereaux. In order to get to—
"Ford!" she said. "I need to talk to Ford."
"I'm here," said the second voice. "You're using Eliot's earbud?"
"He passed it to me with his glasses, right before he got into the van with Reuter." And told her to 'do what she did best,' whatever that meant.
"That don't sound like Eliot," said the first voice.
"It does when there are four men pointing guns at us on a busy street." God, she hated guns. "The van's a Chevy. White. I got the plate." She rattled off the number. "Get it to Hardison, please. Spencer said he's the best."
"Eliot said that?" asked the first voice in surprise.
"Yeah, he did." She guessed it made sense that Eliot's ID guy was also his superhacker. "But he's still never flying with you or Parker again."
Silence. "I guess she does know Eliot," said a voice in the background.
"But does Eliot know her?"
"C'mon, Nate," said Hardison. "She's Eliot's witness. From the beat down in the alley? Eliot had me give her some new ID. I checked her and she's clean. No record, no connections to Wharton Enterprises."
"Uh—huh," said Ford. "And did you check to see if she's connected to Reuter?"
"Oh, I connected with him," said Jo. "I'm the one who broke his elbow."
A faint, accented, female voice said, "So that's what happened . . ."
"No," said Ford. "That's what she says happened."
"Jo?" Ron appeared in the doorway. "What's going on?"
"Spencer's been kidnapped," she said. "And his team doesn't know me from Eve." She pointed to her ear and then realized how crazy she sounded.
"Mr. Ford?" said Ron, as if talking into thin air was perfectly normal.
Jo nodded and pointed at Ron.
"This is Ron Schulte. Your people helped me out a while back?"
"I remember, Mr. Schulte."
"Jo's one of my employees and a friend of Eliot's. If she says he's been taken, you can believe her. If you need more, I can tell you they left together fifteen minutes ago—she's back, he's not."
Jo's worry and impatience boiled over. "I don't want to be rude, Mr. Ford. But Reuter said Spencer was worth a lot of money —and the last time he said that, he was planning to auction his corpse on eBay. So, trust me or don't, but do something!"
There was a shorter silence.
"Fair enough," said Ford. "You're at The Gym? Stay put, we'll—"
"No. I'll come to you. Hardison can look up my life story while you're waiting. I'll be there as soon as I can. Uh, goodbye."
Just before she pulled the communicator from her ear, she heard Hardison ask, "How does she know where we—"
She hit the blue switch. If they wanted to ask her anything else, they could do it face-to-face.
"Ron," she said, turning around. "Can you—"
He was standing by the door holding his keys. "Let's go. Explain on the way."
A young black man, wearing a worried expression that didn't sit well on his handsome features, met them at the top of the stairs. He nodded to Ron. "Mr. Schulte," he said in a voice she recognized. He turned to Jo. "You're Ms. Dermott?"
"Hardison?" asked Jo.
He nodded. "The one and only."
"Then I'm sure you know who I am. And everything else about me."
He rubbed the back of his neck almost sheepishly. "Yeah, mostly. Until you fell off the grid after your hus—after the accident. I'm sorry for your loss," he added, ushering them further inside
"So am I," she murmured, looking around. Jo had been expecting a hi-tech office, but except for the multi-paneled screen on one wall, the Leverage command center looked more like someone's living room—complete with a badly painted portrait of someone's grandfather.
Eliot's brunette was standing at the far end, glaring up at a tall man with curly hair, who frowned back.
"I don't care about that right now, Nate. And neither should you," she said in an angry English accent. "If she can help us find Eliot—"
"I hope I can," said Jo.
They both turned to look at her. "Ms. Dermott?" said the woman, crossing the room. She was even more beautiful at close range, making Jo aware of her none-too clean workout clothes and oversized jacket.
"Jo." Jo took her offered hand, feeling like an outsized truck carrying a wide load. "Are you Ms. Devereaux?"
"Call me Sophie." Her grip was surprisingly firm, and her eyes moved over Jo's face in quick assessment. "How did you break Reuter's arm?"
"I snuck up behind him with a baseball bat."
The dark eyes widened. "Ah." She moved to Ron in a graceful motion. "Mr. Schulte."
Jo told herself not to time their handshake. She looked away, and saw the tall man watching her. No, studying her.
She raised an eyebrow and returned the favor. He had some Irish in there, as her father would have said; in a couple of decades, he was going to look exactly like the man in the portrait. And it wouldn't do to underestimate him—she could see the wheels turning behind the deceptively mild blue eyes.
"Mr. Ford," she said, "I know I tripped all your alarms, and I'm sorry. I should have asked Ron to contact you, but I was too worried to wait." She fished the earbud out of a pocket and held it up. "I'm pretty sure his glasses were only an excuse to pass me this. So Parker can keep them if she wants to."
"How did you know?" said a suspicious female voice behind her.
Jo didn't move. "Because Spencer said you were the best thief I'd never see."
"Eliot said that?" Spencer's athletic blonde was suddenly in front of Jo. Except for the furrow between her narrowed eyes, her face was expressionless.
"Yeah, he did."
"What's Eliot to you?" asked Parker.
"He's my teacher and my friend," said Jo, not quite knowing why she was speaking to this grown woman as she would a child.
The furrow grew a little deeper. "What's he teaching you?" She gave Jo a once over. "How to cook?"
"He taught me how to make risotto once, but mostly he's teaching me to fight."
Parker made a sound of disbelief or indifference, moved to the couch and dropped next to Hardison, who was typing something into a laptop.
Jo held the earbud out to Ford. "I don't know why he didn't just drop this and step on it," she said. "I thought he wanted me to use it, but I guess I was wrong."
"Nate," said Sophie, who had let go of Ron after four seconds, not that Jo was counting. Her voice held a warning.
Ford nodded slowly, and took the earbud. "I'm, ah, sorry for the skepticism, Ms. Dermott."
"Jo. But Eliot didn't mention that you were the one who . . ."
"Who hit Reuter?" Jo shrugged, not caring. "He probably didn't want to complicate things."
"Or he wants us to think he's bulletproof," said Hardison, without looking up from his laptop.
"He isn't," said Jo, holding a wave of anxiety back with effort.
Ford's expression softened. "We'll find him." He turned to Hardison. "Okay, what do we know?"
"The van's registered to Greenbriar Inc., a Wharton subsidiary, surprise, surprise. It was the last company that Wharton bought, but he didn't finish taking it apart before we gave him his early retirement." A map of the city appeared on the wall screen with some scattered flags. "Still a couple of warehouses around, and an office building. All with minimum staff, mostly maintenance."
"Unless Reuter just borrowed the van," said Ford. "Can you track it?"
Hardison shook his head. "No GPS—and I'll have to be on-site to hook into the security feeds."
"Jo, can you think of anything else Reuter said or did?"
Jo frowned. "He made threats, told me Spencer was worth his weight in gold . . . The only other thing he said was, Andrea says hello. Like he was scoring points."
"Who's Andrea?" asked Ford.
"Spencer said she was no one special."
"Wait," said Hardison. The screen showed the image of a slim woman in business dress walking out of a building. "Andrea Simmons. Wharton's ex-executive assistant. You know, the one Eliot took out for all those lunches—"
"Garlic linguine," said Jo and Sophie at the same time.
Hardison glanced at them in surprise. "Garlic and long pasta on a date? I have to say, I'm surprised Eliot didn't know better." His fingers slowed down. "But you know, that makes sense—"
"Hardison," said Ford. "Focus."
"No, I mean it actually makes sense. Because according to her phone records, while she's been leaving thirty-second messages on Eliot's voice mail a couple times a week, she's been saving most of her conversation for Reuter—they're talking at least five times a day. Nice, long calls, too. Her last call to him was at 1pm this afternoon—that was a short one, though. Less than ten minutes."
"Spencer had lunch with her today," said Jo, exchanging looks with Sophie. "He said it was the last time."
"Is she still working for Wharton Enterprises?" asked Nate.
"Yeah," said Hardison. "But not in the Executive offices. She got bumped down when Wharton left. She's not quite steno pool, but . . ."
"But enough to make her angry," said Sophie.
Jo straightened up. "Can you get me the address?" she said.
"Sure." Hardison did a sort of double take between Jo and Nate. "I mean, um, why?"
"I'm going to pay Ms. Simmons a little visit and see if she knows where her boyfriends are." She didn't know what her face looked like, but Sophie's eyes widened again, and Parker sat up and looked interested.
"Ah, no," said Ford. "No, I'm afraid we can't allow that. You've been very helpful, Ms. Dermott—Jo," he said, taking her by the arm. "But Eliot is our responsibility, and we can't allow you to put yourself in harm's way." He tried to usher her to the door, but after a few inadvertent steps, Jo dug in her heels.
"The hell. Eliot is my responsibility. He was kidnapped right in front of me."
Ford ignored her. "Thank you for your help, too, Mr. Schulte. We'll take it from here and keep you informed."
Without thinking, Jo twisted out of his grip, moved in close, and looked him right in the eyes. "You know what that psychopath threatened to do to your Sophie. If you think I'm going to sit on my thumbs while he starts a bidding war over the man who saved my life, or decides to sell him off piece by piece . . ."
Ford held his ground. "Mr. Schulte?"
"You can't stop her, Mr. Ford," said Ron. "She'll do this with you or without you. Personally,I'd prefer with. Please, let her help."
"Nate," said Sophie. "I think we—"
Ford shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said, with every indication of sincerity. "I really am. But this is going to be a dangerous business, for us and for Eliot. And you're . . . an unknown."
Jo's frustration rose in a mind-buzzing wave . . . then fell. Her breath hitched in her throat.
"If you need character references," said Ron, "I've got a list, including a young woman who can sleep tonight because her boyfriend isn't around to break the rest of her ribs. And if you want to know if she can fight," he held up a flash drive, "consider this her audition."
"Ron," said Jo, "I appreciate it, but he's right—I'm not part of this team. I can't fight like Spencer, and I won't risk his life pretending I can." She turned to Ford. "I can't promise to stop looking for him, but I won't get in your way. Just . . . let me know if you find him."
"Jo," said Ron, but she touched his arm and shook her head.
"It was . . . interesting meeting all of you. I'm sorry it wasn't under better circumstances."
"Nate," said Sophie.
"Hardison," said Ford, though he was looking at Jo. "Who's offering the most for Eliot right now?"
"That would be former Croatian General Lovrenc Crnosija, "said Hardison, without hesitation. "Close second is Shabeeha Idrisi—Pakistan. Third is . . . the Butcher of Kiev—damn, guess that hors d'œuvre didn't kill him after all." He looked up to see all eyes on him. "What? Come on, you know I keep tabs on this stuff for y'all."
"You do? How much am I worth?"
"Uh . . . well, that depends . . ."
"Am I worth more than Eliot?"
"It's not a contest, Parker," said Sophie.
"Do they want him dead or alive?" asked Ford, his eyes still on Jo.
"All definitely alive. And none of them have local ties—they'll have to travel to pick him up."
"Is there anything out there that says Reuter has made contact with anyone at all?"
"Not even a tweet. He probably wants to make sure Eliot's secure before he advertises." The hacker's voice went grim and hard. "Don't worry, Nate—I won't miss it."
"Then maybe we do have a little time," said Ford. He took the flash drive from Ron and tossed it to Hardison. "Play it."
Chapter 14: The Mistake: Eliot
Eliot wanted a glass of water, an ice bag, and five minutes alone with the guy who'd knocked him out. But he didn't let any of it show, even though he was pretty sure no one was watching.
He'd come to about half an hour ago, tied to an office chair like something out of a B-movie. But whoever had secured him had known what they were doing; his thumbs and wrists were bound together with what felt like thick plastic ties and attached to the metal upright that connected the back to the seat. His feet were each fixed to a different horizontal chair leg—he could feel the wheel casings through the bottoms of his boots.
Eliot could slip most cuffs without thinking about it, and even duct tape could be loosened with enough sweat and time . . . but even if he managed to snap the ties or break up this chair—and they'd made close to damn sure he couldn't—he'd still be in a bad way.
And then there was the concussion. He didn't think it was too bad—though all he had to test his vision was a wall and a door. Plus his hair was hanging in his eyes. He tried to shake it back, but the strands didn't cooperate and the movement made his head throb.
He heard a series of beeps and a click. The door opened, and Reuter came in, followed by two of the men from the van.
Eliot focused on Reuter. It was a mild concussion—he could only see one of the son of a bitch.
"Good," said Reuter, "you're awake." He kicked Eliot's chair, sending it spinning to face a desk holding a computer and a video camera on a small tripod. Reuter sat down and awkwardly reached for the mouse with his left hand. "Move him to the right. His right. Good. Get his hair out of his face."
A rough hand scraped Eliot's hair back and a copy of the morning newspaper was propped up in his lap.
"Lift your head." Reuter looked over the monitor at Eliot. "Lift your head and look at the camera." He frowned and made a gesture.
A hand twisted a handful of Eliot's hair and yanked him into position.
Reuter glanced at the screen and nodded. "You might want to cooperate, Spencer. Live, streaming video should provide enough proof for potential buyers—but I'll have no problem sending out large samples of your DNA to anyone who expresses interest."
Eliot remained silent. An auction—that would slow things down a little. And it turned him into a valuable commodity, worth a certain level of care. At minimum, they'd keep him alive and unbroken—most of the people who'd be interested in buying him were DIYers.
Reuter stood. "Sit tight, Spencer. Once the initial bids come in, you can stretch your legs."
They all walked out, the door beeping twice. Eliot would have left at least one man, if he'd been running things, but he had to admit, there wasn't much chance of escape. He didn't even have a paperclip on him.
He suppressed a smile. Jo would never let him live that down.
Eliot didn't doubt that she'd already contacted the team, one way or another. He hoped his earbud would be taken as a sign of trust—Nate would be suspicious, anyway, but Hardison and Sophie could talk him around. Parker . . . he didn't know how Parker would take Jo, or vice versa. They were both damaged, but in different ways.
The team would keep Jo in check, make sure she didn't half kill herself to get to him—and she knew she would, without hesitation. There was no way she wouldn't take his kidnapping personally, and she might make it pretty far on her own. But she just wasn't ready to solo, not yet—she needed more practice, more experience. She needed the team.
But the team could use her, too. She'd do her best for them, if they gave her a chance, and Jo's best was pretty damn good.
He closed his eyes and tried to shift into the least uncomfortable position. Might as well catch some sleep.
Reuter had already made two major mistakes.
All Eliot had to do now was wait.
Chapter 15: The Audition: Jo
Hardison plugged the flash drive into his laptop.
Jo turned to Ron. "What is it?"
"Recordings from the security feed. Mike thought you might want to see your progress so far. We were going to jazz it up for a housewarming gift." He smiled. "Sort of a Jo's Greatest Hits kind of thing."
"Can I take your jacket?" murmured Sophie.
"I may not be staying," said Jo, but she shrugged it off anyway, with the fleeting hope that her deodorant was keeping up. She pulled her tee-shirt down, aware that she was the largest woman in the room.
It didn't help that on-screen, Spencer was tossing her across the room like a rag doll. She winced as she watched—and heard—herself bouncing, slamming, and skidding across the mat.
"Ouch," said Hardison.
"That was Jo's first day," said Ron. "She hit the mat at least thrity times—and she always got back up."
Next came was a montage of clips, some with Spencer, some with Mike. Jo watched herself get better and better at taking hits, until finally she started dishing it out.
"This is one of my favorites," said Ron, as she dumped Mike on his rear for the first time, with a move Spencer had taught her specifically for the purpose. "And this one coming up is Mike's."
She expected to see herself nailing Spencer with one of Mike's gray-area ring tricks, but instead saw her instant, violent reaction to Mike's mock threat against Cody. She tensed as she watched her friend staggering from the unexpected attack.
"Pause it. Who's the boy?" asked Ford.
"Mike's son," said Jo, her stomach sinking. The clip made her look unpredictable, irrational. "It was a misunderstanding."
"You were protecting him from his father?" Parker's question didn't hold the sneer Jo had been expecting.
"Mike and Cody play rough sometimes," said Ron. "Jo had just met Mike and didn't know Cody at all."
"Mike as in Mike Tagiter?" asked Hardison, eyes wide. "Because damn. That man could prob'ly kick Eliot's ass three out of five. And she just knocked him back."
"Two out of five," said Jo, through a dry throat. "Mike tends to follow ring rules—most of the time. Spencer doesn't."
Ford didn't say anything more, just motioned for Hardison to continue.
To Jo's relief, the clips switched to some of her best work against Spencer. She even managed a small smile at the unexpected moves that had finally bounced him twice in a row. Hardison actually clapped, and Parker made a sound that could have been a giggle.
And then she was walking across the mats, wearing work gloves . . .
"Shh. Don't worry." He slipped his hand over hers.
Jo watched herself retreat from Jack Tamerlin, wincing as he caught her across the face, gasping with Sophie at the sound of the riot stick snapping to full length. She closed her eyes, but couldn't block her screams, her begging screams, the remembered code phrase—and Spencer growling, "Do it and die."
Nate cleared his throat in the sudden silence. "I'm not sure how this is, ah . . . "
"Wait for it," said Ron, in a grim voice. "Watch," he said, more softly, lacing his fingers with Jo's. "It's okay."
Jo took in a deep breath and raised her eyes just as her hoarse voice croaked, "Cu—cut?"
"We got it," said Mike's voice.
Tamerlin spoke. "What the fu—"
And then . . . she almost couldn't believe that was her. She hadn't heard the commentary of the others at the time and it didn't really register now. She was too busy watching herself move, attack, dodge. She looked . . . she almost looked like Spencer. Not always . . . but it was there in places, that efficient grace . . .
And then Ron came into frame and felled Tamerlin with one punch, as she dropped to the floor, blood streaking her white sweatshirt.
"Damn," Hardison said again, giving it more than one syllable.
"That's enough," said Ford in a voice Jo couldn't interpret. "It was a set up?"
"Yes, sir," said Ron. "That's Jack Tamerlin—he's in jail now on attempted murder charges."
"What? Oh, um, yeah. About a month ago. I told you about that—guy broke into the Gym and assaulted one Josephine Dermott with an illegal weapon. You said—"
"Never mind what I said. This was your idea?" he asked Jo.
"Yes," said Ron.
"How did you get this?" she asked him. "You were supposed to reboot the system."
"I did. After I sent this last part directly to the flash. Thought it might come in handy."
Jo shook her head. "It's incriminating, Ron."
"And useful. These guys taught me that."
"What did he do?" asked Parker.
"He was beating his girlfriend to death," said Jo, bringing up her chin. "Slowly."
Parker nodded without comment.
Jo noticed that Sophie was missing, but before she could say anything, Ron was pulling up her tee-shirt and turning her around to show her healing stripes. "She did this to save a woman she barely knew," he said. "No second thoughts. What do you think she'd do for a friend?"
Jo cleared her throat, stepped away, and made sure everything was covered. "Did I pass my audition, Mr. Ford?" she asked.
Ford considered her again with those blue eyes. "No," he said.
Parker stared at him, that wrinkle between her eyes again.
"What?" said Hardison. He waved a hand at the screen. "But . . .but . . . "
Ford pointed. "That was your resume. Getting Eliot's location out of Andrea Simmons is your audition."
Jo felt her legs go, and let herself lean into Ron for a moment. He grinned down at her. "Told you," he said.
"You follow my orders. You don't improvise."
Jo nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Ford."
Sophie reappeared at her side. "This should fit you," she said. "The waistband is loose on me."
"Um, what?" asked Jo, looking at the skirt Sophie was holding.
"Well, you can't wear that," said Sophie.
Jo looked down at her sweatpants, not sure whether to be insulted or not. "Oh, right," she said. "Gym logo."
"Well, that, too," said Sophie, with a delicate grimace. "Go try it on."
"That's my cue to get back to work," said Ron. He put a hand on Jo's shoulder. "Bring Eliot back, Jo—the bills are piling up. Take care of her, Mr. Ford," he added. "She doesn't like to, so you do it for her."
Ford nodded. "We'll try, Mr. Schulte."
"Hey," said Hardison, holding up the drive. "Can I keep this? 'Cause I might want to replay parts of it over and over."
"Go ahead. I've got the original." He winked and walked to the door.
"Wait!" Jo followed and grabbed him in a spontaneous hug. "I can't thank you . . . "
"Then don't." He bent to look right into her eyes. "Just make sure to come back. In one piece."
She tried to tell him how grateful she was for everything—for him—but all that came out was, "You aren't the boss of me."
"I'm counting on that," he said, straightening. "I'll keep the home fires burning."
"Could you degunk the third elliptical instead? And the big mirror in the men's locker room is loose."
He sighed and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Will do. Stay safe."
"I'll do what I can."
"I know. Stay safe anyway." And he was gone.
She walked back to find everyone looking at her. "What?"
Sophie raised her eyebrows. "Degunk the . . ?"
"Day job," she said, looking at the skirt Sophie was holding. "You know . . . pencil skirts really aren't . . . me."
Sophie looked at it. "That isn't a pencil skirt."
"It will be if I wear it. Mr. Ford? Do you have any sweatpants I can borrow?"
His lips twitched. "I think so. But if you're going to wear my clothes, you should probably call me Nate."
Jo nodded. "Nate."
"Sophie, my workout clothes are in the third drawer down ." He waited until Sophie sighed and went away again. "Do we have a spare earbud?"
"Several." Hardison got up and went to the sideboard in the corner. "I tell you, I wouldn't have stuck Eliot's in my ear for anything—that's just nasty."
"A little dirt doesn't bother me," said Jo, taking the new earbud. "Actually, can I have his back—just for luck?"
"Uh, sure." He handed it over.
"Jo?" called Sophie.
"Coming!" She went up the stairs. "Does Nate have a jacket? I need pockets."
"I'll see what I can do!"
Behind her, she heard Parker say, "Play it again. The part with the kid."
"Yeah," said Hardison. "That's kind of what sold me, too—even before the big finale."
Ford made a noise that might have been thoughtful agreement.
Jo raised her eyebrows. Well, who knew?
Hardison had offered to make Jo another license, but Sophie volunteered to drive anyway. Jo was relieved—it had been years since she'd been behind the wheel.
It was a quiet ride at first. Jo didn't think the other woman had quite forgiven her for choosing a pair of black sweatpants and one of Spencer's forgotten denim jackets instead of something a little more fashionable and restricting. "You and Parker. And Eliot," Sophie had muttered.
But she was the one who finally broke the silence. "You aren't in love with him, are you?"
Jo gratefully set aside her worries about her upcoming audition. "Who? Spencer? No. He's one of the most important people in my life, but . . . it just didn't happen."
"That's . . . odd. I mean, he's so . . .," Sophie made a gesture with a free hand. "Eliot."
"I know." Jo thought about it. "It is weird, isn't it? I probably should be—aren't you supposed to fall in love with the man who changed your entire life, just because you asked?"
"Mmmm," said Sophie, making a turn."Maybe it's because you asked him. If he'd just waltzed into your life one day and turned everything you thought you knew completely upside down without much as a by-your-leave-and then refused to take any responsibility for it . . ." She cleared her throat. "So . . . you and Ron, then?"
Jo blinked. "Um. Maybe. He's kind and honest—"
"And hot. Tall, dark, and shoulders to die for . . ."
"Uh, yeah," said Jo, thankful they hadn't turned their earbuds on yet. "And . . . well, I've told him things I've never told anyone, and he hasn't run away yet. He seems okay with who I am."
"But you're afraid he doesn't really know the real you . . ."
"Yeah," said Jo, with a sigh.
"Yeah," echoed Sophie.
"How about you, Parker?" asked Jo. "You have man troubles?"
"No," said Parker. "At least, I don't think so."
Sophie clutched the wheel. "Parker!"
"Don't worry. My earbud's off."
"It's not that," she said, though Jo thought that was part of it. "You almost gave me a heart attack!" Sophie glanced at Jo. "How did you know she was back there?"
Jo shrugged. "Because nobody was supposed to be."
Sophie muttered to herself and remained tightlipped until they walked into Wharton Enterprises.
"Sophie Devereaux," she told the security guard at the front desk, "Josephine Dermott, and Alice White. We're here for a meeting with Mrs. Robinson."
The guard tapped something into his computer and smiled at Sophie. "May I escort you?" he asked. "It wouldn't be any trouble."
"You're sweet. But I know the way." She glided away toward the elevators, the others in her wake.
Jo glanced at Alice White Parker. "Do men always—"
The moment the elevator doors closed, Sophie and Parker put a finger to their left ears. Jo did the same, finding the little switch by feel.
"Hello, ladies," said Hardison.
"Fifth floor, Hardison," said Sophie.
The doors opened into a corridor, and Sophie strode directly to a glass-walled meeting room near the end of the hall, walking right in like she owned the place.
Andrea Simmons was sitting at the foot of the oblong table, pad and pen ready. She looked up with a bright smile, which froze in shock. "Ms. Devereaux? What are you—I wasn't expecting you."
"I know." Sophie sat at the head of the table, and Jo took up a position halfway between them. Parker sauntered behind Andrea to study a painting.
"Um, I was told I was needed at an important meeting," she said, glancing at Jo, who kept her narrowed on the other woman, not bothering to hide her anger.
"You are, Ms. Simmons," said Sophie, in a pleasant voice. "I'm here to discuss your continued employment. Or not."
"Looked like you sucked up to the wrong person," said Parker, making Andrea jump. She was looking at a set of controls by the glass wall.
"My—what? What is this all about?"
"This is about my associate. Eliot Spencer. Remember him?"
Andrea frowned, but Jo saw her swallow twice before she spoke. "I suppose so. He was with you when you came to Mr. Wharton's office."
"And he was with you a few hours ago at the little Italian place down the road," said Sophie. "After which, you phoned Derick Reuter, who kidnapped him."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Your boyfriend kidnapped Eliot Spencer," said Sophie. "And you're going to tell me where he's being held, or you will be blacklisted with every corporation, company, and corner store in the United States. And the United Kingdom, if I can arrange it." She smiled. "And I believe I can."
Andrea tried wide-eyed surprise, but it had too much nervousness it in to be convincing. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I see. Where is Derick Reuter right now?"
"Ask her about her watch—our boy bought it with a company card."
"Mr. Reuter? How should I know? I haven't seen him since—"
"Since he gave you that watch?" said Sophie, tilting her head as she listened to the voice in her ear. "Such a lovely inscription: To the woman behind the man. Very romantic. Anatomically implausible, perhaps, but—"
Andrea paled. "That's—that's none of your business."
"I'm afraid you're wrong," said Sophie, a hint of steel entering her calm tones. "Your entire life became fair game the minute you betrayed a man who did nothing to you except buy you pasta and listen to you blather on about your job. Tell me," she said, "did you decide to screw him over before or after your first date?
"They weren't dates," said Andrea, turning red. "Eliot Spencer ruined everything."
"So did I," said Sophie. "So did Nathan Ford."
"He's a criminal, a thug." She crossed her arms and put her nose in the air. "He broke Derick's arm."
"No," said Jo through her teeth. "I did that." She looked at Sophie. "My turn."
"Jo," said Nate. "I don't think—"
Jo moved toward Andrea, who looked like a rabbit facing a snake. "Parker, some privacy, please."
The glass wall frosted over.
Jo swiveled Andrea's chair around and put a hand on each armrest, leaning close. "I'm going to assume you don't know much about the kind of guy your boyfriend really is," she said. "So let me help you out: when I first met Derick Reuter, he was going to shoot an unarmed man in a back alley."
She ignored Parker's snort. Spencer had been unarmed. Technically.
"That was right after he threatened to cut Ms. Devereaux here into little pieces and mail them to Mr. Ford because he wanted information on how to get rid of his boss."
She ignored Sophie's soft gasp and Nate's curse.
"And now he's going to auction a human being to some very bad people who will most likely torture him to death—just because Reuter thinks he's owed something for nothing." She stared into the other woman's shocked eyes. "Can you really sit there and protect someone like that?"
Andrea swallowed. "Geoffrey Wharton abandoned him and his mother when he was eight years old. He left Derick with an alcoholic. Was that right?"
Jo stared at her.
"Wharton was Reuter's stepfather," said Hardison. "Swiped Mom's money and left for younger, richer pastures."
"No," said Jo, feeling sick. "No, I think he got a raw deal. Children shouldn't be abandoned. Ever." She looked away.
"See?" said Andrea, talking fast. "Derick was just looking for a little justice! Taking what should have been his all along!"
"Yeah," said Jo. "Sure. Only . . . "
"How did Reuter get his job with this company?"
Andrea opened her mouth, then closed it.
"I'm going to guess that his stepfather hired him personally. It was a high position, too, am I right? A position of trust?"
Andrea didn't speak.
"So now his childhood sounds kind of like an excuse to take whatever he wants, doesn't it?"
Andrea was shaking her head, but the expression on her face was uneasy.
"And, you know, I have to wonder how many other people your boyfriend has chased down dark alleys because they got in his way? And how many of those people do you think had friends standing by with baseball bats?"
Jo grabbed the chair again and leaned close to Andrea's ear. "I don't know if you've ever asked yourself what his body count is, or if you just don't give a damn," she whispered. "But I do know that if you don't tell me where Spencer and your boyfriend are right now, you're going to wish you had."
"You don't scare me."
Jo took this for the lie it was. "I should. You know all the things Reuter told you about Spencer? Well, Spencer taught me everything I know. Parker? Can you find me a couple of paperclips?"
"I don't know where they are," said Andrea. Her eyes widened as Parker slapped a paper clip into Jo's hand.
Jo unbent the wire. "That's too bad."
"Jo . . ." said Nate again.
Andrea shrank back. "What is that for?"
Jo told her. In loving detail.
Andrea went white. "You . . . you couldn't . . ."
Andrea mumbled something.
Andrea spoke up.
"Got it . . . that's the Greenbriar office building all right."
"I don't know . . .Wait! I really don't! But he said he was using the clean rooms—because of the electronic locks."
"Bingo!" said Hardison.
"Well, we're going to have to talk about what improvising means" said Nate. "But,uh. . .good job."
Jo swiveled the chair back around.
"Thank you, Ms. Simmons," said Sophie, who was standing next to an older woman in business dress. "And thank you, Mrs. Robinson."
"Please, it's Catherine." The woman clasped Sophie's hand. "I know you're in a hurry, so I'll take care of Andrea's farewell party. Could you please tell the security men waiting outside to come in as you leave? And please give Mr. Spencer my best."
"Of course, Catherine."
The older woman nodded to Jo and Parker, who followed Sophie down the hall, leaving Andrea to her fate.
"I'm sorry if I stepped on your toes, back there," said Jo.
Sophie made a pretty movement with her shoulders. "Well . . . it would have been nice to know we were playing Bad Cop, Psycho Cop—but it did save some work."
"Uh, Jo . . . you weren't really gonna use those things, were you?" A triple beep sounded. "Whoops, don't answer 'til I get this . . ."
"So, were you?" asked Parker, as the elevator doors closed.
Jo bared her teeth in a smile. "I did."
"Oh, my God," said Hardison, all humor gone. "Sophie, your phone."
Sophie fumbled it out. "No," she whispered as Jo and Parker crowded around to see a still figure tied to a chair. "He's not . . . "
Spencer moved his head.
Sophie dug her fingernails into Jo's arm and Jo remembered how to breathe. Parker wrapped her arms around herself and slumped in a corner.
"It's a live feed." Hardison sounded as emotionless as one of his computers. "Bidding starts in half an hour."
"Meet us at Greenbriar," said Nate. "Our time just ran out."
Chapter 16: El Despierto: Eliot
I enlisted the assistance of a friend who is cradle-fluent in Spanish (Weil ich nicht bin, sagte den Deutsch-Amerikanischen Verfasser), but she isn't from Chile—so if you are, and I screwed something up, please send me a heads-up and I will make corrections!
If you aren't fluent in Spanish, it might be more fun if you didn't translate anything for, oh, a chapter and a half.
Eliot woke up. He knew where he was, he knew why, and he knew he was being watched.
He did an inventory: stiff neck, headache still squeezing his temples . . . knees complaining about being locked into position—he didn't know how long he'd been asleep, but even an hour would do it. And he could use a bathroom.
But the absence of pain was a bigger problem—he couldn't feel his hands.
Four beeps and a click. Reuter was back.
He walked without a word to the computer. A minute or so later, the green light faded on the camera, and he leaned back in his chair, looking smug.
"Fifteen bids, nine countries," he said. The final round belongs to Lovrenc Crnosija, Shabeeha Idrisi, Alejandro Mateo, Galo Van Niekerk, and Ivan. . . Misnyeek."
His pronunciation was off, but Eliot knew who he meant. Looked like the damn appetizer hadn't worked.
"Egypt—by way of Croatia, I understand—Pakistan, Chile, South Africa, and the Ukraine. You do get around."
Eliot frowned. He couldn't argue, but . . .
"What the matter, Spencer? Worried?" Reuter laughed. "Only one asked for independent confirmation. He's sending someone for a private viewing—and paying a nice bonus for the privilege. Should be here within the hour. Once he's satisfied you're the real deal, the fun begins."
Fun. Eliot's stomach tightened and he forced himself to relax.
"Take him to the back room and let him . . . freshen up for our visitor," said Reuter. "And make no mistake, Spencer—the buyers will accept a certain amount of damage. And if it comes down to it, you're still worth a fair chunk of change dead."
One of the men cut Eliot from the chair, leaving his hands bound, while two others stood with their guns at the ready, one at a distance, the other with the barrel pressed against the back of Eliot's head. They hauled him up and dragged him to the restroom across the hall, standing him up in front of a urinal.
Eliot looked down, then glanced at the men with a raised eyebrow. "Who's gonna do the honors?"
The first guy sneered at him and gestured to the others, who took careful aim from two different positions, before he took out his switchblade and freed Eliot's hands.
Eliot ignored the impatience of his guards and clumsily worked at his white thumbs with numb fingers until the blood came back and both hands felt like they were on fire. That was just fine with him—fire was better than ice.
Once that was done, he took care of business and held up his hands. "You want me to wash these before you tie 'em up again?"
On the way to the sink, one of his knees gave, and he fell heavily against the knife man, who shoved him against the porcelain. He shoved his sleeves back, washed with soap and warm water, and splashed his face, fingercombing his hair back. He dried his hands under the wall heater, flexing his fingers as much as possible.
Then he put his hands behind his back, making no comment as his wrists were secured, and his thumbs bound again
He was led back and reattached to his chair.
"Good boy, Spencer," said Reuter, with an amused smile.
Eliot filed away the insult without a word and did an inventory: neck better, headache no worse. One knee complaining about hitting the tile. Hands painful, but present.
But the absence of shirt elastic was a bigger problem—if he didn't keep his wrist bent at that odd angle, he might drop the switchblade out of his sleeve.
The possible identity of the representative, kept Eliot thinking and calculating until he heard the familiar quadruple beep.
"My brother is very interested, Señor Reuter," said a heavily accented voice. "It is business, but also personal, you understand?"
"I certainly do, Ms. Mateo."
Eliot heard the tapping of heels on the floor, but he was facing the wrong way to see anything without craning his neck—and he wasn't giving anyone the satisfaction.
"Sus cremalleras están abiertas, señores," said the woman. When none of them reacted, she sighed and said. "I am to identify and inspect the merchandise, gentlemen."
"Of course," said Reuter.
Eliot studied the woman who came into view. Her regal posture made her look taller than she was, and her hair helped, swept up as it was in a style with one long lock free at a temple. Her severely styled suit matched her expression—all business—but she was still smolderingly beautiful.
He kept his face still with effort, though he wanted to curse out loud. He would have expected the Butcher of Kiev in drag—would have welcomed him—before this woman.
She tossed her purse onto the desk and stalked up to the chair. "Do you remember me, Eliot Spencer?" She said his name as though he were something nasty on the bottom of someone else's shoe.
Eliot locked down his emotions and readied himself for whatever might happen. "Looking good, Amalita," he said. "What brings you to town?"
She hauled back and slapped him across the face. "¡Esto está para asustarnos a la muerte!"
Reuter grinned, and one of the men snickered.
"¿Puede usted luchar?" she spat. "¿Puede usted moverse? ¿Puede usted liberarse?"
He put all thoughts of the switchblade out of his mind and chuckled. "I would never argue with a lady," he said. "How is your sister?"
"You—" she lifted her hand again, fingernails ready to scratch.
Reuter took her by the arm and pulled her back. "I wouldn't argue with a lady, either, but I'm afraid I can't allow you to damage the goods."
"He should turn on the webcam for this," murmured one of the guards.
She glared at Reuter, then nodded. "Perdóneme, por favor. I am . . . not myself." She drew in a breath. "But I am permitted to speak, yes? I can tell this . . . muchacho travieso what I think of him?"
"By all means."
"Gracias." She turned on Eliot. "Éste es el esquema de rescate, Eliot Spencer. Escuche cuidadosamente . . . " She ranted for a long while, pacing and raging as he watched. When she finally stopped, panting a little, he wanted to applaud, even though he knew it was a bad idea.
She pulled her dignity around her like a shield. "If it were up to me, you would never leave this country. Do you understand me?"
Eliot met her dark eyes. "Yeah. Entiendo."
She whipped out a cell. "Alejandro? Sí. Es él. ¿Usted necesita más?" She listened and looked at Reuter. "My brother is satisfied. I believe I will take a drive. I have no desire to see this man again, unless I must. My brother will call me when it is done."
"One of my men will escort you to your car, Ms. Mateo," said Reuter, his voice full of admiration and charm. "And if I might be so bold, would you be free for a drink later, regardless of the outcome?"
She raised an eyebrow. "If my brother wins, I will need to leave immediately. If not . . . " She smiled a wicked little smile. "Cuando los cerdos vuelan—who knows?" She took her bag and strode to the door, which was held open by the man who didn't know he wasn't carrying a knife.
She turned around. "Oh, one more thing, Eliot Spencer. Josefina dice decirle que ella trajo sujetapapeles. You may think on that, mi amigo." She made a disgusted sound, spun on her heel, and was gone, followed by the bladeless thug.
Reuter shook his head. "I should have turned on the camera." He glanced at Eliot. "What's the sister like?"
Eliot closed his eyes. "No hay palabras."
"All right," said Reuter, after a pause. "Let's do this."
Chapter 17: The Wind Up: Jo
Spencer was breathing. Of course he was. He was alive. Of course he was.
That had been Jo's mantra on the harrowing ride to the Greenbriar building, Parker hanging over the back seat, hissing at her to keep the damn phone steady, Sophie driving like a bat out of hell.
The mantra was echoed by the others, as if it was obvious, a given—but no one had been sure . . . not entirely . . . not even Nate, who sounded like he was trying to make it true by sheer force of will.
And then Spencer's head had moved again against the back of the chair, his eyes opening for a moment before fluttering closed—and everyone had shouted in relief except Sophie, who had almost wrecked the car trying to grab the phone.
"What kind of man falls asleep in the middle of his own abduction?" Hardison had yelled, before apologizing for deafening everyone.
And then they'd all gone to work.
Literally, in Jo's case. She untangled the cord of the floor scrubber, keeping an eye on the elevators from beneath her painter's cap. She tugged at the baggy uniform shirt she'd also found in the janitor's closet, not caring that the previous owner apparently hadn't washed it in a while—she'd worn worse, and the stains and odor of disinfectant probably added to the disguise.
Parker exhaled loudly from wherever she'd gone after unlocking the closet for Jo. "Ventilation for the main room is dedicated, with a diffuser and a filtering element. No visual."
"Don't worry about it," said Nate. "Once Hardison's bug is in place, Eliot can help us."
"Bug? I don't make bugs," said Hardison, an edge to his usual banter. "I create handcrafted pieces of elegant surveillance equipment—that's what I make."'
"I'm sure it's very pretty, Hardison," said Sophie, with a different edge—she'd finally been forced to admit that she couldn't pull together a quick disguise that would fool Reuter, and her frustration was palpable. "But is it simple enough for her to operate—"
And then Jo heard the familiar low drawl: "Looking good, Amalita. What brings you to town?"
Spencer was alive.
There was a loud crack. "¡Esto está para asustarnos a la muerte!"
"That's . . . a novel approach," said Sophie.
"Did she—did she just hit him?" asked Hardison.
Parker giggled. Jo felt like joining in out of sheer relief, but she wasn't sure she'd be able to stop.
"Bug's working," said Nate, over a torrent of Spanish. "And it looks like she's getting away with it. Eliot just agreed that he can fight. . .and get free."
"Okay, I'm impressed," said Sophie. "But I still think we could have given her an earpiece, and one for Eliot. It sounds like she wouldn't have trouble getting close enough."
"Yeah," said Hardison. "She could just slap it right in . . ."
"Too risky," said Nate. "The bug can be explained as an effort to get an edge over the competition, but an earbud . . . no way."
"Do we have to wait?" asked Parker. "Eliot knows we're here and the digital lock is a joke. I could get Jo in, and she could—"
"I could get us shot," said Jo, losing all desire to laugh. "There are at least three, maybe four men up there, all armed." She yanked at the cord. "The most I've ever fought at one time is two unarmed men, who weren't trying to kill me and didn't have a hostage tied to a chair—and there's a reason Ron didn't show you that clip." She freed another snarl. "Spencer might be able to juggle more than two gunmen—"
"He can," chorused everyone.
"I know that!" Jo lowered her voice. "But it's going to take more than anger and adrenaline to turn me into Wonder Woman."
Parker snorted. "Usually works for me."
"So we stick with the plan," said Nate, after a pause. "Jo . . .you going to be okay?"
"Yes," she said. "I won't let you down—I won't let Spencer down." Not again. "I just wish . . . if I were as good as Spencer, he'd be home watching the game right now." Because he wouldn't have been taken in the first place . . .
"Well, you did find a Spanish-speaker willing to walk into a room of armed men at a moment's notice," said Sophie, resentment apparently forgotten. "I'm not sure even Eliot could have done that."
"Yeah, well, he's probably going to rip me a new one for bringing her into thi—"
The elevator doors opened and two people stepped out
The woman swept past her on high heels without a glance or a word. But the man—the big one Spencer had fought in the alley—stopped short. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"The floors, as soon as I can get this cord fixed," she said, hoping that she looked and sounded different enough from 'Josie' to pass. She cracked her gum. "Got the whole building to do."
"Not today you don't," he said, then glanced at the woman, who had almost reached the front doors.
"But it's on the schedule." She put her hands on her hips. "Who are you?"
"I'm running security tonight. And the schedule's been changed."
"Señor," called an impatient voice. "Are you going to take me to my car or keep talking to your little friend?"
He pointed at Jo. "Wait right here." He jogged to the door.
"What do I do?" asked Jo.
"Can you take him down?"
She watched him lope away. He had weight and reach on her—plus, she assumed, a gun. "Yeah," she said. "I think so."
"Do it. The auction's starting up. Reuter's going to be too distracted to notice. If he does, you can pick off the others when they come to check."
"He's going to be distracted?" muttered Hardison. "Hey, Nate—it's showtime. I'm gonna need some numbers."
"Right. Sophie, take over."
Jo stuck the plug in the wall socket, turned on the floor scrubber, opened the jets on full, and started moving toward the entrance. She noticed that the machine did a pretty good job, despite the extra solution she was sloshing around. Maybe she'd ask Ron to get one for The Gym—
"Ms. Mateo just drove off," said Sophie. "Your target is coming back. He won't want to complicate things by killing you, at least not straightaway—so you'll have some time."
"Right." Jo kept cleaning, keeping her eyes lowered until a pair of shoes came into view.
"Shut it off," he said.
She let go of the handlebars. "Listen, I got a job to do. My boss said—"
"He's wrong. We told Security that no one was allowed in this building for the rest of the week."
Jo frowned. Definitely a shoulder holster. "You sure?" she asked. "'Cause nobody told us."
"I'm sure. You need to clear out." He loomed over her, using his height to intimidate.
She looked away and shrugged. "Fine. As long as you initial my sheet so the boss knows I showed."
"Whatever gets it done," he said.
"Follow me." She turned the machine around and he jumped back, skidding a little on the slick floor. "Sorry. It's easier to push if it's on."
They reached the outlet, and she stopped and shut off the scrubber. "Would you look at that? The reservoir's leaking—there's stuff all over the place."
"Leave it." He sighed and looked at his watch. "Can we hurry this up?"
"Good idea." She rammed the machine into his legs. He stumbled and his feet slipped in a soapy puddle, sending him off balance. She jumped on his back, sending them both crashing to the floor, then punched him on the back of the head with a fistful of collapsed riot baton. His forehead smacked the tile.
Jo didn't know if he was completely out, but he wasn't struggling or going for his gun. She got his arms behind his back. "Parker, do you have—"
A hand appeared, offering a roll of duct tape. "Thanks," she said, taking it and pulling at the end with her teeth. "I knew you would."
"How do you always know when she's—" Sophie stopped herself. "Never mind."
Parker frowned. "I'm not your secretary," she said. "Pick up your own supplies. And don't forget his mouth."
Jo just nodded, taping his arms together up to the elbow before rolling him over and discovering that he was, in fact, unconscious. "Remind me to thank Nate for loaning me his baton," she said, slapping a piece of tape over the thug's mouth before starting on his legs. "Worked like a charm."
"Eliot wouldn't have needed one," said Parker.
"Nope," said Jo. "But he taught me to use whatever advantage I can find." She stood. "Heads or tails?"
Parker narrowed her eyes, but took the thug's feet. They dragged him into the janitor's closet and propped him in a corner.
"Friends help you move—good friends help you move bodies," said Jo, not bothering to wait for a reply. "You coming?"
"I'll take the high road," said Parker, sounding smug as she climbed the metal shelving to the ceiling vent. "I don't mop."
"Fair enough," said Jo. "I don't dust air ducts with my stomach."
"You wouldn't fit up here anyway."
"Children," said Sophie. "Play nice. You can sort out the pecking order later."
Parker snorted and started to unscrew the vent cover.
Jo knew better, but she couldn't resist. "Hey, Parker?"
Jo waited until the blonde looked at her. "You know how Spencer says you're twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag?"
"So, how much crazy do you think I can hold?" Jo smiled at her and went out into the corridor.
Sophie cleared her throat, but didn't say anything. Nate and Hardison had apparently taken out their earbuds, but Jo could hear them muttering in the background.
"One down," Jo said, unplugging the scrubber and sticking the roll of tape over a handlebar. "Wonder if the rest are in the room with—"
"Shhh, listen," said Sophie.
"It took four guns to take me," said Spencer, through the bug. "Your driver gonna come back with the big guy to help with the delivery?"
"Shut up," explained a bored male voice.
"All of you shut up," said Reuter. "I'm trying to concentrate here."
"Okay, so there's three up there now, including Reuter," said Jo. "Can you see the driver outside somewhere?"
"As a matter of fact—" said Sophie.
"Hey!" A man appeared at the entrance and hurried toward Jo. His feet skidded a little. "What are you doing here?"
Jo held the baton handle behind her and pressed the release. "The floors, as soon as I can get this mess cleaned up," she said, cracking her gum. "Got the whole building to do."
Anger and adrenaline—who knew?
Twenty minutes later, Jo was down the hall from the clean room, rubbing her funny bone. "Damn it," she whispered, wiping cleaning solution out of her ear with the tail of the uniform shirt. "Stop laughing, Parker."
"Jo's greatest hits," said the thief and lost it again.
"Parker, please," said Sophie. "Is the auction over?"
"It's over," said Nate, satisfaction in his voice.
"Who won?" asked Parker, her giggles tapering off.
"Who do you think, baby?" said Hardison. "Damn, I'm good."
"How's the transfer coming?" asked Nate.
"Reuter should be getting the half-payment confirmation in a couple minute. The rest is due upon receipt of the goods."
"Good," said Nate. "Call your sister, Alejandro."
"Wait— so, how much is Eliot worth?" asked Parker
Hardison told her.
There was a reverent silence.
"You people have access to that kind of money?" asked Jo.
Hardison chuckled. "We didn't use our money."
Chapter 18: The Rescue: Eliot
"All right," said Reuter, after a pause. "Let's do this."
Eliot agreed. The switchblade dropped into his palm.
His chair had been shoved backwards when he'd been attacked by a hundred and ten pounds of mujer dramática, and no one had bothered to move it forward—or to take up their old positions behind him. He coughed into his shoulder to cover the noise and managed to flick open the blade without losing a finger or dropping it.
He'd been able to force a little slack when they'd retied him—being conscious was helpful—and managed to saw through the band connecting his thumbs without more than a nick or two. Same with his wrists.
So far so good.
His hands tingled with renewed circulation and he worked them as he considered his feet.
Plastic restraints had been pulled tight around each ankle, with other bands connecting those to slots in the metal chair legs. A third set went over the toes of his boots, keeping his feet firmly in place. Cutting the second bands would do it . . .
He glanced at the desk—the bug was barely visible, but only because he knew it was there. Two birds with one stone.
"It took four guns to take me," he said to his guards. "Your driver gonna come back with the big guy to help with the delivery?"
"Shut up," said the thick-necked guy on Eliot's right.
"All of you shut up," said Reuter, stabbing at the keyboard with his left forefinger. "I'm trying to concentrate here."
"Where is Jim?" asked the blond thug, keeping his voice down.
Thick-neck rolled his eyes. "Probably trying to make time with the hot mamacita —or having a smoke with Eddie. Who knows?"
Eliot had an idea, but he didn't bother to share. And unfortunately, neither man took the hint and went looking.
He growled under his breath and told himself to be patient. At least the team had some intel now.
Half an hour later, Reuter clicked the mouse one last time and leaned back with a smile. "Alejandro Mateo just bought you for an obscene amount of money. I can only imagine why he thinks you're worth that much." He raised an eyebrow.
Eliot didn't react.
Reuter shrugged. "I guess it doesn't matter—this many zeroes cancel out a lot of curiosity." He smiled. "Ms. Mateo should be here soon to pick you up. I'm a little disappointed I won't be taking her out for that drink."
"Her husband would break you in half," said Eliot, hoping someone was listening carefully. "Like all her other diversions."
"Oh?" Reuters smiled widened. "The lady likes to play?"
"She's easily distracted." If she was listening in, he'd earned another slap.
Reuter turned back to the computer and tapped a few keys. The blonde thug shifted from foot to foot and Thick-neck yawned.
Eliot became aware of a low hum outside the door, gradually growing louder. It sounded like a vacuum cleaner, or a low-powered leaf-blower.
Reuter looked up from the computer screen. "What is that?"
A woman screamed.
Reuter jumped up and both guards went on alert, Thick-neck stepped closer to Eliot and Blondie pulled his gun, glanced at Reuter and opened the door—only to be shoved aside by an irate Ms. Mateo, who was ranting in Spanish. Eliot raised his eyebrows, hearing some phrases most ladies wouldn't admit they knew—and a few he didn't know.
"Ms. Mateo? What's wrong?" asked Reuter.
"That—that janitor person and her estúpida machine—look at my zapatos, my shoes!" She looked behind her and raised a shapely calf. "They are ruined!"
Three pairs of eyes went to her damp footwear—and her legs. Eliot leaned over and cut his left foot free, resuming his bound position just as Thick-neck gave him a sharp look.
Reuter's expression darkened. "Andrea was supposed to make sure the building was clear!"
Ms. Mateo waved a hand. "Your men are taking care of it."
"Check it out," Reuter told Blondie.
Blondie left. A few seconds later, the noise cut off.
Ms. Mateo smiled and walked close to Eliot. "Consiga listo, Eliot Spencer."
"You, too." He lunged at her, grabbing her arm with his left and slamming Thick-neck in the throat with his right, followed by a punch to the solar plexus.
Spinning her around, he dropped into the chair with his hostage and sent them sailing back against the wall. He absorbed the impact, shot an arm around her waist and brought the blade under her chin. "Stay," he ordered Reuter.
Reuter stopped in his tracks, gun in hand.
Thick-neck gurgled. He had his gun out, too, but it was braced uselessly against his knee as he bent over and wheezed.
Reuter snarled across the desk. "You son of a—"
"Don't put all the blame on me or my mama, son," said Eliot. "You're the one making mistakes right and left." He took his hostage by the throat with his free hand. "Easy, Amalita," he said, leaning down to slice through his last restraint.
"Mistakes?" said Reuter, his gun unsteady in his left hand.
Eliot put both feet on the floor and held up the switchblade. "Well, letting me visit the little boys' room wasn't too bright. Or letting Ms. Mateo here get within arm's reach." He slid his arm across to put the blade behind her left ear. "And you got greedy. If you'd stuck to the highest bounty, I'd be on my way to Cairo, and you wouldn't be in for a world of hurt."
Reuter snorted. "From you?"
"Not just me." Eliot smiled. "You've got Mateo's money—he's not gonna be happy with you for letting me escape."
"Escape? It's five against one, Spencer."
"The odds are a little better than that," said Eliot.
"Oh, yeah? Who's on your side, Spencer? Ford and Devereaux? Please, they're long gone. I've done my homework. You've always worked alone—no partners, no permanent teams. No one gives a damn about you, Spencer."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that."
Something heavy hit the door, rattling it on its hinges. Reuter flinched and stepped back, his gaze darting around the room as if just now realizing his men hadn't returned.
"N—no, please!" cried a woman's voice. "I'll leave—I won't tell anyone! Just don't hurt me again."
The woman in Eliot's arms made a sound and he gave her a little shake. "No te preocupes," he said, making his voice hard. "Usted va detrás del escritorio."
"Don't worry, Ms. Mateo," said Reuter. "I'm a very good shot, even with my off hand."
Eliot swiveled the chair a little and yanked her up. "How about now?"
"No! No, please. Don't shoot. My brother wants him alive!"
Reuter cocked his head and lowered the gun a little. "Under the circumstances, I'm sure your brother would accept a small discount in exchange for a couple of non-lethal holes."
She tensed. "He won't have to," she said, and sank her teeth into Eliot's bicep.
He pulled back with a yell that turned into a grunt as she drove an elbow into his gut and stumbled away, crashing into Thick-neck, sending him to the ground and his gun clattering away. She picked herself up and fled around the desk.
Eliot leapt to his feet, just as Reuter fired. He ducked in reflex, but the shot had gone wide, thudding into the wall.
Reuter grinned. "Déjà vu, Spencer."
"Yeah, you missed the first time, too."
"That was a warning shot," said Reuter, through his teeth. "Sit down."
The door lock beeped four times, and the door clicked open. Jo stumbled in as if she'd been pushed, looking behind her.
Reuter relaxed. "I knew you were bluffing. Anything else you want to share?"
"Yeah." Eliot smiled. "You don't know me as well as you think you do."
"Really?" asked Reuter, raising his eyebrows. "What makes you say th—?"
"Drop it," said Jo. "Now." She held Blondie's gun with both hands, aiming at Reuter's central mass. Eliot didn't know if she could hit the broad side of a barn, much less a human target, but she looked as if she could—and would.
"I'm not a loner anymore," said Eliot, rising to his feet. "And I've never been to Chile."
"That's okay," said Maya, as Reuter half-turned, his eyes widening in shock. "Neither have I."
"Drop it!" Jo barked, moving closer.
Eliot saw the other man's expression contort with rage, and leapt as Reuter pivoted to aim the gun at Jo, knowing he was going to be too late . . .
"No!" Maya grabbed Reuter's arm and hung on as he tried to shake free. Eliot launched himself over the desk just as the enraged man threw her to the floor and swung back, firing a wild shot—
Eliot hit him full-on like a ton of bricks.
Reuter cushioned his fall, and Eliot sat up on the other man's chest, lifted him by a fistful of shirt and punched him full in the face. It felt good, so he did it again. He drew back once more, meaning to put this dog down—
"Eliot!" hollered a familiar voice. Two familiar voices. "Eliot!"
He looked over to see Maya kneeling beside Jo, who was sprawled on the floor, gasping for breath.
Parker stood above them, fists and face clenched. "She shoved me out of the way," she said, staring at him. "The last shot. . . How did she even know I was there?"
"Because . . .you weren't . . . supposed to be . . . " whispered a weak voice.
Eliot dropped the unconscious Reuter and was at Jo's side in a heartbeat. "Where's she hit?"
"I don't know," said Maya. "There's no—I don't see any—"
"Jo?" Eliot tore open her baggy, stained shirt, sending buttons flying. He stared. "What the hell, Jo?"
Maya clapped her hand to her mouth. Parker said a very bad word.
"You're—you're wearing a vest?"
Jo took a shallow breath, and another. "Of . . . course . . . I am . . ." she whispered. "I'm not the one . . . who's bulletproof . . . around here." Her hand went to her side. "Hurts."
"I'll bet. You'll have a hell of a bruise." Eliot ran his hands over the area, found the hole, pulled out the flattened bullet. He helped her sit up. "Here. A souvenir,"
"Trade you," she said, and held out an earbud. "Mine got wet—it quit sending. And I think you took out the bug."
He took it, turned it on, and stuck it in his ear.
"Parker? Jo? What's going on?" shouted Nate. "Parker!"
"We're fine. We're all fine." said Eliot. He heard Sophie let out a single sob, and Hardison mutter something that sounded like Amen.
Nate said, "Come here," probably to Sophie, and then, "Time for Stage Three. Need any help?"
Eliot started to ask a question, but found himself tackled by a double armful of thief. After a brief hesitation, he patted her back. "It's okay, Parker. We won."
She sniffed once into his shoulder, then stiffened and stepped away. Her face was impassive.
"Come on, Parker," said Maya. "Show me where the bodies are hidden."
Parker nodded. "Coming?" she asked Jo.
Jo chuckled and winced. "I'm going to sit here on the low road for a minute."
Parker nodded and left. Maya followed.
Jo blew out a breath and held out a hand. He took it and hauled her to her feet. She made a strangled sound.
"No. Just sore." She shrugged off the remains of the shirt and pulled off the vest. "Now are you sorry you didn't let me bash Reuter's head in?"
"Seemed like the right decision at the time." He lifted her tee-shirt. "There's your bruise." It was already blossoming.
She touched it. "Matches the one on my tailbone. And my elbow. I'm sure Parker will tell you all about—"
"Hey." He gripped her shoulder and waited until she met his eyes. "Thank you. For me and for Parker."
She nodded. "You'd do the same."
"Yeah." He grinned and let go. "Except I wouldn't get shot."
She snorted. "I'll work on that."
He pointed at her. "And I wouldn't have involved a civilian. Not in something like this."
"Seemed like the right decision at the time." She sighed. "Can we talk about that after we take care of these guys?"
"All right." He looked over at Thick-neck and Reuter. "What's Stage Three?"
Jo's expression went evil. "Poetic justice," she said.
Jo brought Spencer up to speed as he hauled Reuter up into the office chair and she cocooned the unconscious man with duct tape from neck to lap. She glossed over a couple of things, like her second so-called fight—which she'd won, or near enough. There wasn't any need to go into details.
Besides, why spoil Parker's fun?
Jo blew out a breath. She was still amazed that the thief hadn't been hit by that wild shot—it had all happened so fast. Jo tore off a long piece of tape and stuck it over Reuter's mouth, pulling the ends tight around his head.
"There. I hope half his hair comes off with it."
"That's the least of his problems. How's the side?" said Spencer, propping himself against the desk. "Bullets kick like mules, even through Kevlar."
"No kidding." She shrugged. "It'll be fine—I've had worse. You?"
"Headache. And a couple of busted knuckles." He smirked. "Worth it, though."
Maya and Parker came in, dragging Jo's first victim—awake now and trying to struggle—between them, followed by Hardison, who had the driver and the blonde by the back of their collars. He dropped them the moment he came through the door. "It's good to see you, man."
Spencer took his extended hand. "You, too." He clapped Hardison on the shoulder. "Thanks, Alec."
"Anytime." Hardison glanced behind him. "Where do you want these guys?"
"Pile 'em up over there."
Once Reuter's men were all against the wall, Hardison held up a batch of plastic strips. "Computer cord ties," he said. "Tape's good, but these are better." He passed a handful to Parker. "And this is for you," he said, walking over to Jo and giving her a new earbud.
"Thanks," she said, puzzled, "but the job's done. I won't need it."
"Keep it for emergencies."
She was tempted, but . . . "I'm sure Nate won't want me listening in on your activities."
"You can't—it's got its own frequency," he said quietly. "You call, I'm there. I owe you, for Parker."
His expression was serious. "Yes. I do." He raised his voice. "Just quit sticking your ears in puddles, awright?"
"Puddles?" asked Spencer. "What puddles?"
Parker started to giggle.
Jo rolled her eyes and put the earbud in her pocket.
Maya put her hands to her lower back and stretched. "Friends help you move," she said. "Good friends—"
"I heard that one," said Parker, pulling a strip tight around the big guy's ankle and the blond guy's wrist. It looked like she was trying to make a sculpture. "It's not accurate. I'd say ninety-five percent of the time, helping someone move bodies is a sign of mutual self-interest, not friendship."
Maya blinked. "Well, you've got me there," she said.
"Actually," said Jo, "the best kind of friend does what you just did." She shook her head at Maya. "I still can't believe you waltzed right in and conned a roomful of bad guys."
"I can't believe you asked her," said Spencer. "It's not that I don't appreciate it, Maya —God knows I do—but it was too risky. You've got family to think about—a kid."
"A kid who would have missed his Uncle Eliot very much," said Maya.
"Uncle Eliot?" asked Hardison, who appeared to be searching for his handcrafted piece of surveillance equipment. "That's so sweet . . ."
"And all Jo asked for was a few sentences en español—I volunteered the rest. You're important to us, Eliot Spencer. So's Jo."
Which didn't make Jo feel any less guilty about it. If that bullet had hit Maya . . . what would she have told Mike? She wouldn't even be able to face Cody. . .
Maya elbowed Jo. "Stop it," she said. "I know that look—don't waste energy worrying about something that didn't happen. And if it had, it would have been on him," she said, pointing at Reuter. "Not you."
"Still," said Spencer, after giving the hacker a warning glare. "What if one of these guys knew Spanish? What if I didn't?"
"Mr. Ford had a Plan B—I was supposed to plant the bug and let you know it was there. And I know you understand the language—remember when I lost my temper with that idiot referee at Mike's last pay-per-view?" Maya turned to Jo. "Eliot was laughing so hard he almost let security drag me out."
Spencer grinned. "You have quite a way with words, Amalita." He went and gave her a hug. "Thank you. I wouldn't have allowed it and I don't know how to talked Mike into it, but thank you."
Maya hugged him back and chuckled. "Please. I'm tougher than you he-men think. And Mike was jealous—he offered to play Alejandro." She wrinkled her brow. "How did you know to call me Amalita?"
He shrugged. "Hardison has fake bounties on all of us, with full backstories, just in case. I memorized mine."
"Just one of the many invaluable services I provide." Hardison poked at the pieces of broken bug scattered on the desk. "Like fixing the stuff you people break."
Spencer ignored him. "Alejandro Mateo's sister's name is Amalita. Well," Spencer added, rubbing his chin. "One of his sisters. Hardison decided to make the grudge personal."
"You mean I made it realistic," said Hardison.
"I never mix business with pleasure."
"Yeah, well, this time the pleasure was business." He frowned. "Or was it the other way around? I mean, what you did to that poor imaginary girl was cold."
"What's my fake bounty?" asked Parker, hopping over the pile of interconnected thugs.
"Yours is an ongoing project" said Hardison. "See, I have to use somewhere you haven't been and something you haven't actually stolen—which is becoming increasingly difficult, by the way. Revising your scenario is, like, third on my weekly to-do list." He chuckled. "I even made something up about some Indianapolis CEO's jewelry, and damned if you didn't show up with that bracelet—you remember?"
"The ruby one?"
He frowned. "Emerald."
"Oh, right. The ruby one was from—"
"Girl . . . just make one city off limits. One little town. That's all I'm asking."
Parker cocked her head. "I've never been to Paducah." She frowned. "No, wait . . ."
Jo nudged Maya, who looked both fascinated and confused. "Mike said you wanted to talk to me about something?"
"Hmmm? Oh, yes. I have a job for you, if you want."
"A job? Or a . . ." Jo gestured around the room, ". . . job—job?"
Maya grimaced. "Plenty of both at the shelters. Think you might be interested?"
"Absolutely—but, well . . . I have something I need to take care of first. A personal job." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Spencer turn his head to look at her. "I can't make any major decisions until it's done." One way or another.
Maya nodded. "I understand. Let Mike and I know if we can help."
"I mean it, Jo." She glanced at her watch. "I'd better get home. It's way past Cody's bedtime, and I'll bet he and Mike are both bouncing off the walls."
"You'll remember my autographed photo?" said Hardison. "Ask him to write something nice about me. It's A-L-E-C H-A-R-D-I-S-O-N."
She grinned at him. "I'll remember." She squeezed Jo's hands. "When you call Ron, tell him about the vest before you tell him about the shooting."
"Good idea. Thanks, Maya. Give Cody a goodnight kiss for me."
"Will do. Adiós." Maya tapped away.
"I'm bored," said Parker. "Can't we throw a bucket of water on him or something?"
As if on cue, Reuter groaned though the tape. His eyes opened, widened, and stared wildly around. The groans changed to sounds of outrage.
"Good." Spencer kicked the chair, spinning it to face him. "You're awake."
Reuter tried to thrash, but couldn't do more than rock the chair.
"You might want to cooperate, Derick. We have plans in motion, but I have no problem with breaking every bone in your body, starting with your good arm—just like I promised."
Jo held out Nate's baton. Spencer took it without looking and pressed the release.
Reuter fell silent, except for his harsh breaths.
"Let me tell you what's going down. About this time tomorrow, four very powerful people are going to show up, expecting to see me in the hot seat."
"Lovrenc Crnosija, Galo Van Niekerk, Shabeeha Idrisi, and Ivan Myasnēk," said Hardison, folding his arms. "And in case you were wondering, Myasnēk means butcher. He's got a cleaver and everything."
"All four think they had the winning bid in your little auction, and all of them made the half-payment to your account in the Caymans." Spencer smiled with all his teeth. "You may not think I'm worth that much, but I know they won't think you are."
The chair started to rock again.
"And not one of them is going to give a damn about extenuating circumstances," added Hardison.
"But don't worry," said Parker moving to Spencer's other side. "Maybe they'll start killing each other over who gets to kill you."
"Too bad you told security and maintenance to clear out for a week," said Jo.
Reuter started to scream through the tape.
Spencer tossed the baton back to Jo and raised his eyebrows. "You're right, that is poetic"
They walked out of Greenbriar. "It's dark," said Jo.
"It's late," said Hardison. "We put in a full-day's work today. 'Course, some of us put in two. Running multiple auctions and communications as six different people—all while manipulating the bidding? Damn, I'm good."
"I've seen you do that before," said Parker.
"What? Okay, yeah, on eBay, maybe. This—this was totally different. Multitasking magni-fique, baby."
"Nate helped you with the math, right?"
"Naw. Well . . . well, maybe a little bit. The style was all mine, though."
Jo patted his shoulder. "You rock, Hardison."
Two figures appeared out of the gloom. One of them made a beeline for Spencer.
Sophie, her tear-streaked face shining in the moonlight, threw her arms around him in a shaky hug. He hugged her back, murmuring something that made her choke out a laugh. She drew back, and poked him with a finger. "Don't ever put us through something like this again, understand?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'll do my best."
Sophie turned to Jo and gave her a hug as well. "Thank you," she whispered. "I couldn't have borne losing one, much less two."
"Your vest saved the day," said Jo, handing it to her.
Sophie clutched it and shook her head. "We owe you."
"You really don't—"
"Yes, we do." She turned to Nate. "Don't we?"
Nate stepped closer and rubbed his chin. "Looks like."
Jo sighed and passed him the baton. "Thanks for the loan. I didn't do anything. I just—"
"You just told us Eliot was kidnapped in the first place, got the location out of garlic breath and scared the bejeesus out of her, found someone to play a con that Sophie couldn't do, knocked three men unconscious—well, two-and-a-half—and kept me from getting shot," said Parker. "We owe you. Suck it up."
Jo had to laugh. "Okay. Fine. You owe me. I can't imagine why or when I'd ever collect, but—"
"What about that personal job of yours?" asked Spencer.
Crap. She didn't mind telling him—she wanted to tell him, but only as a consultant. If she unloaded her problems on his team . . . well, they'd probably all walk away, but . . . "Um, it's not really that big a deal," she lied.
"Then why is Ron worried?"
"He told you?"
"Not what it was—just that you'd need us." He touched her arm. "You were gonna tell me about it when I got snatched, right? This way, you only have to tell it once."
Jo shook her head. "You won't want to help," she said. "Not when you know what I did."
"Let us be the judge of that," said Nate.
"We've heard it all," said Sophie. "And done most of it ourselves."
"I . . . okay. But not tonight. Can I make an appointment or something?"
"Tomorrow morning," said Nate.
"Late tomorrow morning," said Hardison.
Jo nodded, not sure if she felt anxious or relieved. Probably both.
They started to walk to the van.
"I'll drive you home," said Sophie.
"Um—I'm kind of between homes right now. Moving this weekend, actually, but—"
"You can stay at my place," said Spencer. "Couch is as uncomfortable as ever."
"Thanks, but . . . can I borrow your phone?"
"Of course," said Sophie.
Jo tapped out one of the three phone numbers she knew by heart. "It's me. We got him back. In one piece. Me? I'm—I'm fine. Where are you? Really? Oh, right . . . Can you—I know it's late, but could you wait for me? It might take a while—I don't know where we are exactly . . . Oh. Thanks. Um, bye."
She ended the call and handed back the phone. "Could you drop me off at The Gym?"
Sophie nodded. "Anyone else need a ride?"
"Parker's with me," said Hardison in a tone that would accept no objections.
"Your van smells like cabbage," Parker said, but Jo saw her pleased expression, even in the dark.
"You know," said Spencer, as they walked. "Y'all coulda just won the auction and had Maya drive me away in her trunk. Less risk, less effort."
"Less payback," said Hardison.
"Less fun," said Parker.
"Less pain," said Jo. "Theirs, not ours," she added, as everyone looked at her.
"I told Reuter what would happen if he messed with us again," said Nate. "So did you."
"Some people can't be told," said Sophie. "You have to show them."
"I ain't arguing," said Spencer. "Just making an observation."
It was very late—or very early—when Sophie pulled to a stop in front of The Gym. Ron must have been watching from the front desk, because he had the door open by the time Jo shut the car door.
He opened his arms, and she walked right into them, burying her face in his warm chest.
She lifted her head slightly. "Could . . . Could I stay at your place tonight? I don't . . . I don't really want to be alone . . . but if you—"
"Shhh. You don't have to be." He let go of her, but only to lock the door before taking her hand. He didn't let go until they reached his apartment.
He let them in and tossed his keys down on a small table. "I'll take the couch," he said. "I did laundry this morning, so the bed actually has clean sheets—"
She only half listened, gathering her courage. She didn't know what was going to happen tomorrow, but she knew that even if Spencer's team turned away, Ron wouldn't. And she needed him to know . . . she needed to tell him . . .show him . . .
He turned to look at her, as if waiting for an answer to a question she hadn't heard. She moved close and went up on tiptoe, lifting her face to his. He met her halfway, with gentle enthusiasm.
He tasted like . . . home.
Then he slid his hands down to her waist, and she flinched.
"Sorry," he said, moving back. "I didn't mean to push—"
"No," she said. "I picked up a new bruise or two."
"Oh. Oh, good." He frowned. "I mean, not good, but . . ." He shook his head. "Never mind. Let me see the damage."
She stepped back. "Okay. But before you do . . ."
"I just want to say that I was wearing a vest."
He stared at her. "A vest?"
"You know. A . . . a bulletproof vest."
"A bullet—" He yanked up her shirt. "What the hell, Jo?" He strode out of the room.
Jo sighed. Garlic linguine and bullet bruises.
"I've just killed the mood, haven't I?" she asked, as he came back carrying a bottle of witch hazel and some gauze pads.
"Not possible," he said, pushing her towards the couch. "You've only delayed it for a while."
And just a little later, he proved it.
Did the best I could translating Мясник (butcher) into the phonetic equivalent in the Roman alphabet—it's amazing what I obsess over when I should be writing the actual story . . .
Chapter 20: The Confession: Eliot
Trigger Warning for Domestic Abuse.
Eliot let himself into Nate's apartment about twenty minutes after Sophie's call. He'd already been up for an hour, after allowing himself more than twice his usual amount of sleep, but it still felt too damn early to go back to work.
If it hadn't been for Jo's appointment, he might have been tempted to take a pass, at least for the morning—a man deserved a couple hours off after being kidnapped . . . nice thought, anyway.
Hardison was at the desktop workstation he'd set up under the portrait of Old Nate, the real Nate looking over his shoulder. Their backs were to him, giving off the distinct impression of conspiracy.
"Everything set at Greenbriar?"
Hardison nodded. "Webcam will tell us when they get there. Anonymous calls will go out to local law enforcement, the staties, FBI, and NSA."
"Not too quickly," said Nate. "I want to give them every chance to take out their frustrations on Reuter. And, I hope, each other."
"Doesn't matter if they get caught in the act or not. Ain't none of 'em entering this country legally—and three of 'em are on the watchlist." Hardison chuckled. "I do so love being a patriot."
"What's this about?" said Eliot, just to let them know he was there—he'd heard enough to get the gist.
Hardison jumped in his seat, but Nate looked back and gave him that innocent look of his. "It's about making sure your enemies have more pressing things to do than track you down," he said. "Hope you don't mind?"
Eliot shrugged. "Beats spending the evening behind a sniper scope."
Hardison swiveled his chair around, probably to say some wiseass thing, but lost his grin when he saw the long case slung over Eliot's shoulder. "Um, okay. Glad to help," he said, moving back to face the computer.
Eliot and Nate shared an amused glance.
"I thought we were meeting late," said Parker, appearing from the kitchen, full cereal bowl in hand. She hopped over the back of the couch without spilling and pulled a spoon out of her sleeve.
"Jo's meeting with us later," said Sophie, following her with a mug of coffee. She took a sip and sat in her usual spot. "We thought we'd get the preliminaries out of the way, figure out her problem, maybe get a head start on fixing it."
Eliot stowed his case in a corner and took the easy chair. "I don't know. Maybe we should wait for Jo to tell us her story first."
"We always investigate clients," said Nate.
"She's not a client. She's a friend of mine." He ran a hand through his hair, accidentally touching the tender spot on the back of his head, which didn't help his temper any.
"Willie and Amy Martin are friends of yours, too. We investigated them. This is no different."
"We already knew their situation, and we didn't go digging any deeper than that." He saw the others exchange glances, except for Parker, who was chasing marshmallow stars with her spoon. "We didn't, did we?" He looked at Hardison, who was heading for the couch with his laptop. "Did we?"
"Hey man, I—I was just following orders. Plus, you know, it's a hard habit to break . . ."
"We never know what's going to be important," said Nate. "It's better to be prepared."
"We keep all of it strictly confidential," said Sophie. "And we use it to help them, not hurt them. You know that, right? Eliot?"
"Yeah. . . yeah, I know. But it seems like . . . prying." He tried to explain. "It takes a lot for Jo to trust people— it'll mean something if she tells me herself. Tells us." He looked at everyone in turn. "Figured y'all might understand that."
No one said anything.
Parker swallowed and raised her hand. "What if Hardison only tells us the background stuff he found out yesterday? She knows he knows that much already."
"Right," said Hardison. "She expected it."
Eliot sighed. He knew his team, and he knew he couldn't stop them. "Fine. Go ahead."
"Okay." The wall screens flickered to life, showing records, articles. "Josephine Dermott. Born in Philadelphia. Father was a heavyweight back in the day. Won a title or two, used the prize money to buy his old training gym. Did pretty well."
"Wait a minute," said Eliot, despite himself. "Patrick Dermott?"
"You knew him?"
"I know of him. Good fighter, good trainer." That explained a lot about Jo.
"Mother died when Jo was ten. Graduated from St. Teresa's, went to Penn State on a full athletic scholarship."
"Softball," said Eliot. That explained a lot, too.
"Makes sense, don't it?" A yearbook shot flashed up, showing a young Jo swinging a bat, her expression of concentration familiar to Eliot. "Majored in English—lady got good grades, too. Her dad died her senior year. Somewhere in there, she met Douglas Franklin Martens, Jr. and married him right after graduation."
A newspaper wedding photo came up, showing Jo looking bright and lovely in a white gown, a handsome, tuxedoed man towering over her. He was as big as Ron, but not as dark. And there was something around his mouth and eyes that reminded Eliot of Reuter . . . and Jack Tamerlin. Of course, he knew exactly how they were alike, but he thought he might recognize it in complete strangers, now.
He was pretty sure Jo could.
"Handsome couple," said Sophie, but with a trace of doubt in her voice as she studied the image.
Hardison glanced at Eliot and his voice lost any trace of humor. "Emergency room visits start showing up about four months later. Different hospitals and clinics around the city. Not many at first, but, well . . ." He cleared his throat. "They stopped a year or so later, for about six months. She might have been using walk-in clinics under different names—"
"She was pregnant," growled Eliot. "He had to keep his hands to himself for a while."
Hardison grimaced. "That fits. Reid Patrick Martens was born in October." A birth record appeared, showing a tiny footprint. "The, uh . . . the emergency visits started up again in November."
"For Jo, or . . . or the baby?" asked Sophie, holding her mug close with both hands.
Parker put her cereal down and pulled her knees up to her chest.
Nate didn't say a word.
"Just—just her. The baby had the usual pediatrician visits, but no suspicious injuries were reported. "
"She was protecting him," Parker whispered.
"There's a police report late in January—Doug Martens was arrested for domestic assault. He—he hurt her pretty bad. No photos," he said, sounding okay with that. "The report says she hurt him, too. Broke his nose and a couple of his ribs. Gave him a serious concussion, too."
"She made her stand," said Eliot, echoing what Ron had told him.
"Good for her," said Sophie.
"Jo filed for divorce a few days later." Eliot didn't hear any relief in Hardison's voice—the hacker knew what was coming.
"A week later . . ." Hardison paused and glanced at Eliot. "Do you know about this? Because, man . . . it's not. . ."
"A week later," said Eliot. "Her husband got out on bail, broke into her house, beat her unconscious, and took the baby. He was drunk, the road was icy. He slid and hit a semi. Killed everyone in the car."
Articles came up on screen. The photo of the twisted, blackened wreck was easier to look at than the repeated image of the wide-eyed infant, one pudgy hand raised to the camera. A woman's hand was partial visible—Jo's hand, holding her son close.
"Oh, my God," said Nate, his face pale.
Obituaries popped up: Reid Martens, his father, and a woman barely out of her teens—the father's girlfriend. Eliot hadn't known that.
"I—I did a routine scan of the family's financials," said Hardison. "The day he made bail, Doug Martens bought three first class tickets to Morocco. One of them half-price."
Eliot hadn't know that either. "No extradition from Morocco."
"You don't think . . . he meant to kill her?" asked Sophie.
Nate shook his head, but not in answer. "He was drunk," he said quietly. "He meant to take her son away. Who knows what else he meant to do?"
Hardison touched a key, blanking the screens. "I didn't go much further. She moved into a hotel after the—the funerals. There are some court dates—probate stuff, I think. Jo sold her father's gym around that time. It was a quick sale—she lost on the deal. Some kind of civil hearing between her and her in-laws. After that, she. . .disappeared. She's been off the grid—and I mean totally off the grid—for almost two years. Until Eliot asked me to make her a new license."
Nate looked at Eliot. "You know where she's been?"
"I think so," he said. "But that part's hers to tell."
"That poor woman," said Sophie, wiping her eyes.
"So, he's dead?" asked Parker. "The husband?"
"Yeah," said Hardison, his face carved in stone. "He's dead and gone."
She stood and picked up her bowl. "Too bad," she said, walking away into the kitchen.
Jo knocked about ten o'clock, and Sophie ushered her in.
"Can I get you anything? Coffee? It's no trouble."
Jo shook her head. "I'm fine, thanks."
"Sit here," said Eliot, moving to the open space between Parker and Hardison. "How'd Ron take your new bruise?" If he hadn't been so furious at a dead man, he might have smiled at her blush.
"He gave me hell and witch hazel," she said, clearing her throat. "He also says that Sophie has a free membership for life, if she wants it."
Sophie smiled. "I'll stop by soon," she said.
"I'm surprised he's not with you," said Nate.
"He offered, but . . . I don't think he needs to hear the gristly details again." She raised her eyebrows. "But you all already know, don't you? Spencer knows most of it—Hardison probably knows the rest."
"We had a briefing," said Nate. "And we're . . . very sorry for your loss."
"I brought most of it on myself," she said. "But thank you."
Sophie made a sound of protest, but stopped after one syllable. Eliot didn't blame her—Jo didn't look as if she'd listen.
"Ah," said Nate. "But . . . we're still not clear about what you want us to do."
"Right," she said, twining her fingers together. Eliot noticed that they were shaking.
Eliot had never seen her so nervous, not when she'd asked him to teach her, not when she'd admitted that she'd panicked during her fight with Tamerlin—not even when she'd implied that she'd done something unforgiveable for the right reasons.
"I might as well come out with it. I hope you won't . . . please don't think I'm . . ." She closed her eyes, shook her head. "Sorry. This is hard."
"Take your time," said Sophie.
Parker frowned, but for once didn't argue.
"I think . . ." Jo looked over at Hardison. "Can I borrow that for a second?"
"Uh, sure." He carried his laptop over to her and leaned against Parker's armrest. Parker peered around him.
Jo touched the keys slowly. "The computers at the library have bigger keyboards," she murmured. She pulled her hands back and gazed at the screen, her expression changing into something that hurt to look at. Eliot heard Sophie's breath catch and Parker pull herself deeper into her corner of the couch, but he refused to look away from Jo's raw mix of grief, love, and despair—he thought maybe too many people already had.
Jo touched the screen with a fingertip. "I want you to help me find my son," she whispered.
Parked frowned and leaned forward again. "You want us to dig up his—"
"Parker!" shouted Sophie.
"No, not Reid," said Jo, with a tired smile. She passed the laptop to Hardison and pointed to the wall screen.
His eyes opened wide, but he hit a key.
An article appeared—"Local Family Supports the Arts"—along with the full photograph that had been cropped for the obituaries. Jo, smile strained, eyes smudged, held her baby in her lap with one hand as her husband loomed above . . . and an older child, maybe as old as seven, leaned on her other side, his hand on her shoulder, her other arm around his waist. Affectionate. Protective.
"I want you to help me find Dougie," she said. "I want my stepson back."
"Who took him?" asked Nate and Eliot together. Sophie was a close third.
Jo shook her head and said something so softly that Eliot couldn't hear it. But Parker sat bolt upright and stared at her.
"I said . . ." Jo pressed her lips together. She looked at Parker, and hunched in her seat, her arms wrapped around her stomach. "I said, nobody took him. I left him.
"I left him and I ran away."
Chapter 21: The Explanation: Jo
Nate cleared his throat, but Hardison beat him to it. "You want to explain that?" he said, setting down his laptop.
All Jo had was the truth. "I failed. I failed all the way down the line."
"Children shouldn't be abandoned. Not ever," said Parker. "That's what you told garlic breath." Hardison touched her shoulder and gave Jo a speaking look.
Jo shook her head, but couldn't speak through the lump in her throat. Ron had been so kind, so instantly accepting, she'd almost convinced herself that the team might. . . but one look at Parker's closed-off face, and she knew better.
Parker shrugged off Hardison's hand and slung herself over the back of the couch, brushing through Spencer's hair with her foot. "You were finally free of the monster and didn't want to raise his kid—is that it?"
"No," growled Spencer. "No, that ain't right. You said it yourself—Jo protected those kids. She wouldn't give one of 'em up without a fight."
"Parker," said Sophie. "I know this is a sensitive subject for you, but we need to listen to. . . Parker!"
The thief disappeared up the staircase.
"Let her go," said Jo. "I know how it looks."
Spencer knelt in front of her. "Jo," he said, covering her hands with one of his and holding on when she tried to pull away. "Jo, come on. What happened?"
"And not one of them is going to give a damn about extenuating circumstances," she whispered.
"Try us," he said. "Not one of us is a saint, here—not even Nate."
"Did you want to leave him behind?" asked Sophie in a gentle voice.
She shook her head. "No—God, no! I tried everything I could to get him back, but . . . it wasn't enough."
"Get him back?" said Hardison. "I thought you said no one took him. Where is he? Foster care?" The last two words condemned her.
"He's with Doug's parents—and they didn't have to take him. They're his closest relatives. He belongs to them."
"Let me guess," said Nate in a grim voice from his post behind Sophie. "Your husband's family has money?"
A mirthless laugh escaped her. "My husband's family is money. Old, cold money. I could tell you they hated me, but they didn't care enough to make the effort. They didn't even seem to like Reid—he wasn't the heir . . . just a s-spare. Dougie was always the important one. But he was different after visiting with them. Quiet, withdrawn. He always wanted to come h-home, even when he knew Doug was there."
"His father hit him?" Hardison's expression was as blank as Parker's had been.
"No," she met his eyes. "Never. I never left Dougie or Reid alone with him—and he never laid a finger on them. The first time he tried . . . "
"You beat him down and kicked him out," said Spencer.
She nodded, not taking her eyes off Hardison. After a moment, the hacker relaxed and his expression softened.
"How did they get Dougie away from you?" asked Spencer, as if he assumed there would have been a fight.
"I was about to go pick him up from school when my husband broke in. I woke up in the hospital, and the police told me three people had died . . . They had to sedate me . . . I don't remember much after that, but I woke up in restraints. I didn't know until a day or two later that Dougie hadn't been in the car. A police detective came to interview me—he told me my mother-in-law had picked him up from school. I was so relieved, so thankful that he was alive, I didn't care who had him."
"And when you got out," said Nate. "They wouldn't give him back."
"Another good guess." Jo rubbed her face with her hands. "I released myself early to go to the funeral—I didn't give a damn about Doug, but I was going to be there for Reid. I went to pick up Dougie afterward—my in-laws hadn't brought him to the church or the cemetery, but I didn't question that. It was difficult enough being there myself." She exhaled. "But when I got to the house with the other mourners, my mother-in-law wouldn't let me see him. She said I wasn't his legal guardian and that I wasn't fit to raise their . . . their only grandson."
She brushed her hand across her eyes. "She said a lot of things. But Dougie came running in . . . he's like Parker, always where he wants to be, rarely where you think he is . . . and he gave me this big hug, like I'd come to rescue him. I tried to take him with me, but the Martens have a good security team."
Spencer raised his eyebrows. "Security? In a private home?"
"You haven't seen their home. The men do other things, too, but they're there to do whatever the Martens need doing. Reuter wishes he'd hired those guys."
"They threw you out?" said Sophie.
Jo barked a laugh. "They threw me out real good—I drove home to call child services, a lawyer—somebody—but when I got there, all my clothes were on the front lawn and my keys didn't work."
Nate thumped a hand down on the back of Sophie's chair. "They owned the house." He spun on his heel and started to pace, his eyes on the ceiling.
"And I didn't have a clue. I'd signed a prenup, but Doug didn't have an estate to protect—it turned out we'd been living off his parents and the small income I got from Dad's gym. Doug's insurance money paid off most of his debts." She took a deep breath. "So I scraped up every cent I could and went looking for someone who could help us. I tried every lawyer in the phone book, but they all said I was just the stepmother. It didn't matter that I loved him or that I'd raised him for. . ." She felt her lips twist. "Two hundred dollars an hour for so-sorry. Over and over and over again."
"Is that why you sold your dad's place?" asked Spencer.
"Attorneys aren't cheap. Not the kind who can stand up against the Marten legal eagles. I finally found one to take the case, but the judge didn't even bother to listen. He said Dougie was too young to choose, that he was better off with the Martens—they had money, they were his family . . ." Her voice cracked. "I had nothing."
"So you gave up and walked away," said Spencer. "Just like that."
Jo glared at him without thinking. "Not just like that! I went to see the Martens again. I thought—I thought maybe if I let them know how much I loved Dougie—or if I begged enough— they'd let me see him every once in a while. They wouldn't take my calls, so I parked down the street and walked—the back gate was open. Dougie was outside, just sitting under a tree. . . He lit up when he saw me. . .he called me Mom, like he always did when Doug or my in-laws weren't around. We talked about Reid and how much we missed him. I told him he would always, always be my kid."
Jo felt the tears scald her cheeks, and she squeezed Spencer's hand, remembering how smaller, younger, grubbier fingers had felt in hers as they walked along together.
"We went up to the house, but security stopped us. They took him back inside, told me I'd be arrested for trespassing and attempted kidnapping—I wish I'd tried! Why didn't I try?"
Spencer took a breath, but Nate answered. "It's a good thing you didn't—how far would you have made it before they caught you?"
"Not far. But I should have tried." She pressed her lips together, hot tears scalding her cheeks.
Sophie placed a tissue box on the arm of Jo's chair. "Did they arrest you?"
Jo pulled a hand free to get a tissue. "No. Mrs. Martens came out and told me that I was a bad influence on Dougie, and that he would be . . . punished every time I tried to see him."
"Punished," said Hardison, folded his arms. "Wonder what they meant by that."
"They'd never hit him before—I'm as sure as I can be about that, or I would have reported them. But these were the same people who raised my husband, and I knew his ideas about discipline first hand. I couldn't risk it. So . . . I left. I knew it was the wrong thing to do. . ."
"But you did it for the right reasons," said Spencer.
"I thought so at the time . . . but maybe that was just another excuse."
"Jo," said Spencer. "You didn't fail your kids."
"You were the only one who didn't," said Sophie.
"I should have taken them both the minute Reid was born—the minute I knew I was pregnant—and run away as fast and far as we could. And don't tell me I'm wrong, because that would be a lie."
She looked up and met Nate's gaze. His expression slipped, and she recognized the pain she saw underneath. He nodded, but not without sympathy, as if he understood in a way the others couldn't.
"All right," said Spencer, after a long pause. "I won't. But that's not something we can fix. So let's concentrate on what we can." He stood and turned to face the others. "Agreed?"
"Not yet." said a voice from behind Jo. "Why do you want him back? Is it for you or for him?"
"No," said Jo. "It's a good question. I want him because I love him and I need to keep him safe and happy. And because I can't let him grow up to be another Derick Reuter or Jack Tamerlin—or his father."
"You should have thought of all that before. Way before."
"I know. I messed up."
"No you didn't," muttered Spencer.
"It's hardly her fault, Parker," said Sophie. "It's called brainwashing. Doug convinced Jo she was helpless and couldn't leave, and the Martens convinced her that she was helpless and couldn't stay."
"Courts didn't help any," said Hardison. "Seriously, Parker—she got legally screwed."
Parker looked doubtful.
"Will you help me do it right this time?" asked Jo. "Not because you think you owe me."
"I'll do it for him. Not for you."
Sophie sighed. "Parker—"
"That works for me," said Jo. "In fact, I'll go a step further. Will you be Dougie's advocate in all this?"
A wrinkle appeared between the thief's eyes. "What do you mean?"
"You tell me he's okay where he is, or that he's better off without me, and I'll walk away."
"Because I trust you to know, and I trust you to put Dougie first."
"You sure about this?" asked Spencer.
"I'm sure. Will you do it?"
Parker hesitated. "Yes."
Jo sank back in her seat, tired, drained—there was some of the relief she'd felt when she'd finally told Ron, but none of the energy. Spencer's team was going to help her—but she wasn't sure how they felt about it. Spencer and Sophie were on her side, thank God. Nate seemed pensive, Hardison sympathetic, she thought, but reserved . . . maybe for the same kind of personal reasons Parker obviously had. . . Parker, who had curled up on the couch again, while making it clear that Jo hadn't earned back any brownie points.
That was okay—Jo didn't need brownie points. She needed to know her son was safe.
"So where have you been for the past two years?" asked Hardison. "You didn't leave any traces."
"Up 'til a couple months ago, I was three blocks that way. That's how I knew where to find this place—I'd noticed Spencer going in and out."
Spencer, sitting a couch-length away from Parker, muttered something about a security breach.
"You lived at the Peabody Apartments?" asked Sophie, bringing her a mug of hot tea.
"Behind it." At the other woman's frown, she added, "Reuter's men chased Spencer through my bedroom—that's how we officially met." She warmed her hands and took a sip—chamomile.
Hardison got it first. "You were living on the street?"
"But why?" asked Sophie.
"Partly because I had no money and partly because I didn't want my in-laws to know where I'd gone. That might sound paranoid, but—"
Hardison snorted. "It ain't paranoia if," he said. "You know the rest." He smiled at her and Jo had to use her tissue again.
"And the other part?" asked Spencer.
"Penance," said Nate. "For failing." He grimaced. "I know a little something about that." Jo watched everyone exchange looks, but if Nate noticed, he ignored them. "So how'd you end up in this city? Chance?"
"Not exactly. I needed the postmark."
"That letter you mailed yesterday?" asked Spencer.
"And all the others—they needed to come from here. That's another reason I didn't want to show up on anyone's radar. The letters are supposed to be from Hannah's sister."
"The Martens' housekeeper. She loves Dougie—she helped take care of him when he was a baby. So the day after I was fired and evicted—"
"That's efficient," remarked Nate.
"—I tracked her down at the grocery store and I asked if I could send her letters to read to him. She didn't want to—she was afraid that the Martens would find out . . . but I wore her down. I write every month, no matter what. I don't even know if Dougie's seen any of them, but I had to do something."
"That's something," said Parker in a voice so quiet that Jo wasn't sure she'd heard it.
"Will she help us?" asked Nate.
"I don't know. Maybe. I'm hoping she'll write back this time."
"Why this time?"
"It's the first time she can," said Spencer. "Jo didn't have a return address until now."
"Post office boxes cost money," said Jo. "But there's another reason I'm hoping for a response. I told her I'm coming for a visit. Soon."
"Well, then," said Nate. "We'd better get to work."
Chapter 22: The Kid: Eliot
Eliot pulled up to the high fence surrounding the grounds of Wainswright Academy and got out of the Cadillac, adjusting his jacket and chauffeur's cap.
It hadn't been difficult to get him added to the Martens' security team—a slot had suddenly opened up when one of the men had been requested by name, and at a higher salary, to guard the body of a Hollywood celebutant.
The personal part of the request had been bogus, but the celebutant was real enough and, according to her longsuffering manager and the tell-all magazines, in definite need of protection, especially from a decided weakness for her own bodyguards.
"I'd take that job," Eliot had said, looking at the image of the barely dressed young lady hanging from the muscular arm of a guard who was obviously having trouble keeping his stoic expression.
"I hear you," Hardison had replied, muffling his headset microphone. He'd let go and tapped some keys. "I believe we have just the operative, sir. . . I don't think you'll have to worry about any indiscretions—don't ask, don't tell, if you understand me. We don't discriminate here at Sicherheit Security Services. Yes, sir, we'll take him off his present assignment A-SAP. Thank you, sir."
"Okay." Nate had looked up from the table across the hotel suite. "Offer the lucky winner the job and inform the Martens you have a ready replacement who happens to be an expert in evasive and tactical driving."
"What about their regular chauffeur?"
Nate had given Eliot a pleased smile. "He's going to be busy."
"My former father-in-law is a hypochondriac," Jo had added, making a final note from a phone book and handing the sheet to Sophie, who had been wearing another headset. "His primary physician's office is about to refer him to every specialist I can find in greater Philadelphia—and my mother-in-law won't let him go anywhere without her."
"And if they want me to drive?"
"Just sneeze," Jo had said. "Mr. Marten won't let you near him."
It had all worked exactly as planned—and now Eliot was wondering how he was supposed to find the right kid among the waiting rows. He turned so the camera button could scan the crowd. "You see him?" he asked.
"No . . . You might have to walk around to the main entrance," said Jo. "Unless someone notices—here she comes."
A teacher walked over. Are you here for a student?"
"Yes, ma'am." He showed her his badge and gave his name. "I'm here for Douglas Marten. I should be authorized to pick him up."
"Wait here, please." She pulled out a cell phone and walked back to the kids. After a moment, she nodded and shut the phone. She called out, and a boy detached himself from the others and trotted toward Eliot.
"Oh," said Jo, in a shaky voice. "Oh, he's grown so much. . . "
Eliot thought the kid was a little taller, but otherwise, he looked just like he had in the photograph—short and slender with nondescript hair somewhere between blond and brown. Nothing like Doug the Second—he probably took after his mother. He stopped well out of Eliot's reach and looked him over with cautious grey eyes.
Eliot approved. "You Douglas Marten?"
"I don't know you."
"I'm new—just started today." He took off his ID and held it out.
The kid gave it a good look from where he was. Smart. "What's the password?"
"That needs to be changed," said Jo, sounding more like herself. "It's the same one we used."
The kid relaxed and waved to the teacher, who waved back. The gate buzzed and let him through. "Can't be too careful, my Mo—my grandmother says."
"She's right." Eliot took his backpack—thing weighed a ton—and opened the back door of the car. "Buckle yourself in and we'll get this show on the road."
"Driving your grandparents to a doctor's appointment."
Dougie relaxed further.
Eliot shut the door, went around, and got in, dropping the backpack in the passenger's seat. "So, am I supposed to take you straight home, or what?"
"Just to the house. Didn't they tell you?"
"Sure, but the place is pretty much empty. I thought maybe—"
His other earpiece beeped. "Spencer here."
"Have you picked up the primary?"
"Yeah." Eliot glanced in the rearview mirror to see Dougie fastening his seatbelt. "We're leaving now."
"We'll expect you in twenty minutes. Call if there are any delays. Out."
"Out. They keep pretty good tabs on you."
"That must get a little old."
Dougie was quiet for a moment. "What's your name again?"
"David Spencer." He'd wanted to use a complete alias, since he wasn't exactly unknown in ex-military circles, but Jo thought a half-truth would be better than a full lie—and Parker, of all people, had backed her up. "You take the same route home every day?"
"That's not good—it's safer to mix it up a little. You up for that?"
"Good. Let's see if we can find ourselves a shortcut."
Fifteen minutes later, they pulled through the gates and started down the long driveway. "Oak Street was a good idea," said Eliot, glancing in the rearview.
The kid nodded. "Thanks."
"We'll try Elm tomorrow." Eliot heard a click.
"Did he just take off his—?"
"You just take off your seatbelt?"
"Come on, kid," said Jo, sounding like the exasperated mother she was. "You know the rules . . ."
Eliot stopped the car right where it was. "Put it back on or get out and walk. You don't take off that belt until the car stops or I tell you to. It's a safety thing—get it?"
Dougie stared at him.
He heard another click.
"Thanks. My job is to keep you safe. Let me do it. Front or back?"
Eliot drove around to the garages and put the car in park. "Now you can go."
Dougie unfastened his belt and climbed out of the car. Eliot brought him his pack.
"Are you going to be my driver from now on?"
"Maybe," said Eliot, knowing that he would be, until Jo and Sophie ran out of medical specialists.
"Can I call you Spencer?"
"Call me anything you want. What should I call you?"
Dougie looked at him. "I don't know yet." He started climbing the stairs to the back entrance.
"I'll be washing the cars in a while," Eliot called. "If you want to watch." He'd never met a boy under the age of fifteen who could resist a water hose.
Dougie turned, flashed what might have been a smile, and disappeared into the house as two guards exited and walked up to Eliot.
"How'd it go," said Pullman, who'd been working for the Martens less than a year and seemed like an okay guy.
"No trouble. Am I on babysitting duty from now on?"
"You got a problem with that?" asked Higgert, who was the type that liked to remind everyone that he was the big dog.
"No. Just wondering why they need a tactical driver to go less than ten miles a day—something I should know?"
"Only that the Martens are protective of the kid. There was a kidnapping attempt a couple years ago."
"They catch the guy?"
Higgert gave Eliot a stony look. "We took care of it."
"Yeah, you're a tough guy," said Jo, echoing Spencer's thoughts. "You dragged away a woman with four broken fingers, a set of cracked ribs, and a broken cheekbone and tossed her into her car. Like to see you try it now."
"Show him around," said Higgert, "I'm going to patrol the perimeter."
"Right, boss." Pullman kept his face still, though there was a twinkle in his eyes.
"What's his deal?" asked Eliot.
"Ol' Triple-B? He's all right. Thinks he's guarding the White House, but Mrs. Marten thinks she's the First Lady, so that works out okay. Not that you don't give your all no matter what, but home situations are a different dynamic, right?"
"Can be." Any decent bodyguard would keep a certain distance from their client—but Eliot didn't need to worry about that.
"You get the grand tour yet?"
"I've only seen the library and the garage."
"Then follow me." They went back inside and Pullman helpfully pointed out all the cameras, waving at one or two. "Hi, Vince," he mouthed, and Eliot heard his earpiece beep.
"Get back to work, slackers."
"I'm taking the new guy around."
Eliot nodded to the camera. "Started this morning. Name's Spencer."
"Hey, Spencer," said a new voice. "Nice hair."
"Ignore him," said Pullman. "He's jealous."
"Not as jealous as Triple-B. Whoops, speak of the devil. Probably found some crabgrass." Another beep and Vince was gone.
"Why Triple-B?" asked Eliot.
"Big, bald badass. He thinks it stands for something else . . . don't worry, He can't hear you unless you're patched in. Just listen for the beep."
"Good to know," said Hardison, in Eliot's other ear.
Pullman showed him around downstairs. "Lots of antiques, lots of art," said Pullman. "There's a cutting-edge security system, and the police response time is good, but the Martens prefer to have people on site."
"Makes sense, if you can afford it." Eliot studied one of the paintings. Something bothered him about it, but he couldn't put his finger on it . . . He gave a mental shrug—it would come to him later. "So it's only the three of them and the four of us?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Marten and their grandson are the clients. There's also a housekeeper and an 'official' chauffeur who live in and a couple gardeners and cleaning staff who come in on a regular schedule. We pitch in where we can, just so we don't go crazy doing nothing."
"What's the kid like?"
"He's not spoiled like some rich kids I could mention. He's got to be lonely, though. No friends come over and he doesn't visit anyone, not since I've been here."
"Well, if he was almost kidnapped, maybe the grandparents are overprotective."
"I guess. They don't spend much time with him, though. Sunday dinner, school conferences, parading him in front of company, but not much else. I know it takes all kinds, but it seems a little cold to me. He's all they have—their son and other grandson were killed in a car crash a couple years ago. There are some cousins, but when they come over, it's full alert—they get along like a sack full of wet cats, and Mrs. Marten usually wants a show of force. Triple-B lives for that crap."
"I don't know anything about that," said Jo. "Mr. Marten might have a sister, but . . ."
"Hardison," said Nate.
"On it," said Hardison.
Pullman and Eliot went upstairs to the family wing. "Kid's bedroom is there," said Pullman, pointing at a door. "You never know if he's in there or not," he added. "He's always popping up when you thought he was somewhere else—kind of spooky, you know?"
"Yeah," said Eliot. "I know."
"He seems to know every camera angle, even right after we adjust them—I think he likes yanking Vince's chain. But I'll tell you one thing," Pullman added, his expression going serious. "The kid hates Higgert."
"That's my boy," said Jo.
"Don't know—according to Triple-B, he's the one who stopped the kidnapping attempt. Maybe the kid saw something that scared him—you know how those can go."
"He doesn't do anything—doesn't come near the man—but I've seen the way he looks at him . . . Sometimes, I'm not sure who I should be guarding from whom." He shook his head. "Anyway, control room is down near the kitchens. . ."
Eliot met Vince, who showed him around the security system, while Hardison made appreciative noises in Eliot's ear. "Newbie gets late shift," Vince said, with a grin. "Twenty-two hundred to oh-four hundred."
"Now, ain't that a shame?" said Hardison. "You won't have to knock anyone out to get access."
"Lucky break," said Nate. "Let's hope it holds."
"Come on," said Pullman. "I'll show you the best part about this place." They went through one door across the width of a back hallway, and into a kitchen.
It looked homey and welcoming and smelled even better. The person in charge of a kitchen like this didn't just care about food—they cared about feeding people. Eliot approved.
"Hey, Ms. Greer!"
"Told you boys to call me Hannah," said the woman behind the counter, stuffing a wad of paper into her pocket.
"My mother raised me right," said Pullman. "This is David Spencer, Gerry's replacement."
"Nice to meet you, ma'am."
"You look worried," said Pullman. "Everything okay?"
"It's nothing. My sister wrote me. . ."
"She got it," said Jo.
"Maybe, maybe not," she muttered.
"What does that mean?" demanded Jo.
"Don't mind me. Can I fix you two a snack?"
Pullman started to say something but held up a finger and pointed at his earpiece. "Gardeners are here—have to go."
"Thanks for the tour," said Eliot.
"No problem. Just be at the control room at twenty-one thirty—Vince will walk you through everything."
"I'll be there."
Pullman bussed the housekeeper on the cheek, and darted away when she slapped at him, disappearing through a side door.
She cleared her throat. "So, where do you hail from, Mr. Spencer?"
"All over, ma'am."
"Sounds like you have a little southern gentleman in you."
"I hope so, ma'am."
"Can I offer you some—"
"Hannah!" The kid skidded into the kitchen and grabbed hold of the housekeeper's ample form to stop himself. "Did it c—" He caught sight of Eliot and clammed up.
"Dougie, this is Mr. Spencer."
"I know. He drove me home today. He said I could help wash the cars."
Eliot couldn't help smiling—all kids were con artists. "I said you could watch," he said. "But if it's not against house rules, I'll put you to work." He looked at Hannah and raised his eyebrows. The kid did the same thing, and threw in puppy dog eyes.
She rolled her eyes, but smiled. "You finish your homework?"
She glanced at the clock. "You'd better be cleaned up and ready for your supper by the time your grandparents get home."
"I guarantee it," said Eliot. "But you better change into something you can get dirty."
Dougie looked stricken. "I don't think I have anything like that."
"I have that pair of pants you tore at the knee last month," she said. "They're in the laundry room in the blue basket. That sweatshirt with the bad cuff is in there—put that on, too."
Dougie sped off.
"Boy needs to be a boy," she muttered.
"Amen," said Hardison.
"Can I get you some iced tea, Mr. Spencer?"
"Yes, please, ma'am. Unsweetened, if you have it."
"Hmmph," she said, turning to the enormous refrigerator. "Got some Yankee in you, too."
She shrugged. "Can't help the way we're made."
Eliot heard a ladylike snort in what he was starting to think of as the Team Ear. "That's debatable" said Sophie. "Jo, I need your help with a little reconnaissance, please."
"Now? But—" She took a deep breath. "Right. Okay."
And that, thought Eliot, was the mark of a professional.
"I'll record everything for you," said Hardison. "You won't miss a thing."
"Thanks, Alec. Spencer . . . take good care of him."
"Ma'am," he said, as Hannah handed him a large glass of tea, fresh brewed, real mint. He enjoyed all of it—and half a refill—before Dougie came back.
"I put on my boots, too," he said, lifting a foot.
"Smart boy," said Hannah. "You listen to Mr. Spencer, you hear?"
Dougie nodded and raced away.
"Thank you for the tea, ma'am."
"Any time, Mr. Spencer. And it isn't ma'am, it's Hannah."
"Yes, ma'am." He grinned and followed Dougie.
"That's a good woman, there," said Hardison. "Reminds me of my Nana."
"She looks more like my great-aunt," said Eliot. "Twenty bucks says she's staying on for the boy."
"No bet," chorused Hardison and Nate.
Eliot got the cleaning supplies out of the garage, letting Dougie show him where to hook up the hose. He filled a bucket and set the kid to work on the windows while he shrugged off his jacket, revealing his empty shoulder holster. He had a 9-mil, but unless Higgert made a stink about it, it was staying in his room.
"You don't carry a gun?" asked Dougie.
"Not if I don't have to."
"Man carries a gun, he forgets he has other options." He turned on the nozzle and started spraying the tires.
"You fight with your hands?"
"My second favorite weapons," said Eliot. "Brain's first. Look out!"
The kid had sidestepped to look at him, and tripped over the bucket. Eliot caught him before he hit the ground and set him back on his feet. "You okay, Dougie?"
The kid stared up at him and nodded. He picked up the sponge and dabbed at the glass. "My Mom's the only one who calls me Dougie," he said quietly. "Besides Hannah."
"Haven't met your mom, yet," lied Eliot. "She live here?"
"Must be tough."
The kid didn't say anything, just soaped up the windows and the side mirrors. Something was bugging him, but he wasn't talking.
Eliot didn't push it. They worked silently around the Cadillac, Eliot handing Dougie the hose and soaping up the parts the kid couldn't reach. Once the car was rinsed off, Eliot handed the kid a towel and they started wiping the panels.
"Spencer," said Dougie. "Do you think—"
"Spencer!" Higgert charged out of the house. "Where's the boy? The Martens ETA is in ten minutes."
Eliot glanced around, but Dougie had vanished. "He went in a while ago, boss."
"Little sh—you see him, let me know." Higgert stomped back inside.
"You still here?" asked Eliot.
The boy walked around the far end of the car and handed him the towel. "I'd better go in now."
"Guess so. I appreciate the help—you worked hard." Eliot would have liked to see him goofing around a little more, but it was only the first day. He reminded himself that he was here for recon, not to form an emotional bond.
But there was one thing he needed to know. "Hey," he said. "Higgert ever raise a hand to you?"
Dougie shook his head. "He just yells."
"He ever does more, you come to me."
Dougie shrugged. "School starts at 8:30."
"Leave at 8?" At the boy's nod, he said. "Meet you in the kitchen."
"Okay . . . Thanks, Spencer."
"No problem, kid." He watched Dougie go inside. "You have enough, Parker?"
"No sweat. Cut the alarms to the south side at eleven."
"Right. There's something off about the artwork on the first floor—"
"I'll take a look."
He couldn't help himself. "What do you think about the kid?"
There was an uncharacteristic pause. "Eliot . . . how am I supposed to know if he's normal?"
"I don't think normal comes into it." Which was a very good thing. "You just have to find out if he'd be better off here, or with Jo." He already knew how he'd vote, but Jo hadn't put it in his hands.
"What does better off mean?"
"Hell, I don't know, Parker . . . but finding out if he's happy here might be a good start."
There was another pause. "You missed a spot."
"No, I didn't. Where? Parker? Parker!"
He shook his head. There was something wrong with her.
But he'd take her kind of wrong over whatever was wrong in this place any day.
Chapter 23: The Good: Jo
Jo had been on edge for three days, especially after Spencer left for the Martens.
If she'd been home, she would have beaten the hell out of the heavy bag at The Gym, nagged Mike into sparring, or just spent time with Ron. Here, she just ran herself ragged on the hotel treadmill, did endless Tai Chi, and tried not to snap at everyone.
She knew she was among experts—artists—and that information was essential and hers was outdated, that it would take time to develop a plan, and that patience was a virtue. It just didn't seem to be one of her virtues anymore.
Especially when she was back in the town that had been the setting of every one of her adult nightmares . . .
Spencer's interview with the Martens went about the way she expected. Douglas Marten, Senior—who looked so much like Doug Jo had trouble looking at him—was impressed by the qualifications of his new security man, but scared off by Spencer's theatrical coughing fit. He was using a wheelchair indoors now, too, though Jo still suspected that the only thing he was suffering from was Munchausen's Syndrome.
Madeleine Marten, expensively blond, chilly and as disapproving as she'd ever been of anything but her husband, disliked the length of Spencer's hair but supposed he'd do. Her voice put Jo's teeth on edge.
And then there was Higgert. . . his voice made her fists itch.
Jo had been unaware that she'd twisted a handful of paperclips to pieces until Hardison had pointed it out with a nervous chuckle. Sophie had gently pried the rest of them away from her. That was probably for the best, but it left Jo with nothing to do with her hands.
So she paced and muttered instead—until Spencer reached Wainswright Academy and Nate brought her chair closer to Hardison's array of towers and screens and told her in polite and sympathetic terms to sit down and shut up.
Jo's first glimpse of Dougie healed her heart and broke it all over again. She leaned forward in her seat, staring at the monitor. "Oh. Oh, he's grown so much." His hair had darkened a little, too, though she still didn't see much of his father in him.
As she watched, though, and listened, she thought he'd regressed in other ways. Dougie was so quiet now . . . He'd never been a rambunctious kid, but she hadn't seen him this still and watchful since she'd met him, a small boy trying so hard to disappear in a family where attention was usually unpleasant.
"Can't be too careful, my Mo—my grandmother says." He spoke diffidently, as if expecting Spencer to dismiss or ignore him.
It was all she could do to keep from hollering at Spencer to put his foot down and bring her son to her—and to hell with recon or intricate plans. Or staying out of jail or giving Dougie any kind of normal, stable life.
She sat on her hands and pressed her lips together, relaxing a little as she heard Dougie unbend a little in front of Spencer—and then tensing again when Hannah had as good as said it was a bad idea for Jo to come back . . . and when Dougie had tackled Hannah like he'd used to tackle Jo. She fought with her jealousy.
Hannah hadn't mentioned the letter to Dougie—was that just because Spencer and the other guard were there, or had she ever let him read them? Did he even know Jo was thinking about him?
She jumped as Hardison grabbed her knee. He pressed her foot flat on the carpet—she'd been so intent on what was happening on the screen, she hadn't realized she'd been jiggling her leg, making the whole table shake. She mouthed a sorry, and he gave her a brief smile before turning back to the monitors.
"We can't help the way we're made," said Hannah.
Sophie snorted. "That's debatable. Jo, I need your help with a little reconnaissance, please."
"Now? But—" She took a deep breath and let her frustration settle. "Right. Okay."
"I'll record everything for you," said Hardison. "You won't miss a thing."
"Thanks, Alec. Spencer, take good care of him."
"Ma'am," he said, though she didn't know if he was replying to her or thanking Hannah.
Sophie drove out of the hotel parking lot. "Where shall we start?"
Jo glanced at her. She'd been willing to play along, but enough was enough. "We can start with why you really pulled me out of there. It isn't to point out landmarks—Franklinsberg doesn't have that many and Hardison probably already programmed them into your GPS."
Sophie shot her a startled smile. "I don't know what you—"
"Yes you do. Except for Spencer, all of you are treating me like . . . I can understand it from Parker—I could have understood it from all of you, except you made me think you didn't hold my mistakes against me. But sometime between leaving Nate's place and arriving here, something changed."
"We're just in job-mode," said Sophie in a reasonable tone. "You'll get used to it."
"I've seen you in job-mode before, remember? Now tell me why you pulled me away from seeing my son for the first time in two years."
"All right," said Sophie, dropping the placating voice. "How long has it been since you've slept?"
"What? I don't know." She still hadn't broken the habit of sleeping in light cat naps—though she couldn't remember the last time she'd deliberately rested. "I don't need much sleep."
"Even Eliot needs some. Your bed hasn't been slept in at all."
"I don't sleep in beds much." Or in hotel rooms that were textbook illustrations of enclosed spaces. "I've been using the sofa in the suite."
"Hardison says he never actually sees you with your eyes closed."
"Maybe we've been sleeping at the same time."
"Jo, we've all compared notes—you've been down about four hours in three days and you never leave the suite except to run. We're not even sure you're eating."
"Parker hasn't used her bed, either." She was pretty sure the thief was sleeping in Hardison's bed when he wasn't, but that wouldn't win this argument. "And all she eats is Cinnamon Toast Crunch."
"Comparing yourself to Parker isn't as reassuring as you might think. Look, Jo, I'll admit we're all a bit . . . quirky in our routines, but you're the only one driving herself to everyone else's distraction."
"I'm just in job-mode," said Jo, feeling petty and mean and justified. "You'll get used to it."
Sophie shot her a glare. "We've seen you in job-mode before, remember? Jo . . . I'm not going to tell you you're too close to this one—we've all been there, and we all know that this kind of job is about as personal as it gets. Nate maybe better than the rest of us. But he also knows . . . most of the time . . . that personal can get in the way if you aren't careful. And he's ready to send you home."
Jo's stress flashed into rage. "You can tell Mr. Ford that I won't be chased away again and I'll be damned if I'm going to let anyone get between me and my son—" she stopped in mid-shout. "Oh."
"Yeah. Oh." Sophie's voice softened. "It's not that we don't sympathize—if we didn't, we wouldn't be here—but you're far too tense right now to be of much use to anyone."
"Spencer would tell me I'm letting the memories mess with me." Jo sighed and pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Accepted." Sophie smiled at her. "The hardest part is admitting you have a problem. The best part," she said, making a right, "is figuring out how to fix it." She stopped the car.
"Where—" Jo looked out of her window. "But—"
The plain white sign by the door looked exactly the same: Dermott's Gym.
She got out of the car and her feet took her inside.
It was the same. The sounds, the smells, the layout. Even the burly guy with the mustache and unlit cigar who glanced around from a sparring match in the near ring.
He ambled over and removed the cigar. "Can I help you ladi—" He blinked. "Jojo?"
"Hey, Marty," she said. "The place looks good," she tried to add, but was muffled by a rough bear hug and a loud smack on the cheek.
"Jojo! Damn, it's good to see you, kid! We were all worried sick when you disappeared like that—hey, guys! It's Jojo!"
A few of the coaches and fighters stopped what they were doing and waved or even came over to offer her handshakes or hugs—and to admire Sophie. "Marty's running things just like you and your old man," one of them said.
"It's the least I could do after you let me steal this place from you—I still feel bad about that."
"Don't," she said. "I wanted to sell to someone who loved it as much as Dad did."
"Well . . ." He squeezed her upper arm. "I'm sorry things didn't work out for you."
She nodded. "Thanks, Marty."
"You here to visit the little guy?"
"Something like that." She noticed that the fighters Marty had been watching were still looking her way. The taller fighter climbed through the ropes and dropped to the floor. "I think those two are waiting on you."
"Me?" He glanced over. "Nope. They're drop-ins. Said they were expecting someone."
The man walked toward them, taking off his headgear, but something clicked in Jo's mind even before he tossed it aside and grinned at her. "How—?"
"You know him?" asked Marty, but she'd already started moving.
Ron caught her in mid-leap and gave her a greeting that curled her toes.
"I guess so," she heard Marty say.
"Oh, my," said Sophie, sounding amused and smug.
"Put her down, big guy, it's my turn," called a familiar voice.
Jo looked over Ron's shoulder at the other fighter. "Maya would murder us both," she said.
"You have a dirty mind," said Mike. "I'm a fighter, not a lover—at least in the ring," he added, to loud laughter.
Ron let her feet touch the ground. "We brought your gear," he said, pointing to a duffel bag.
Jo shook her head. "How—?" she tried again.
"A little bird said you needed us." He looked past her and winked.
"Buckle up, buttercup," said Mike. "Let's see if you remember the basics."
"You fight now, Jojo?"
Jo felt a smile spread across her face. "Yeah, Marty. I fight now."
Jo felt like her old self again—or at least her old self after being kicked from one side of the ring to another for an hour or two. She'd managed to hold her own, though, and try out a couple of things that Spencer had suggested, one of which had brought applause from the gathered crowd and vows of revenge from Mike.
She slid out of the ring, feeling every single muscle she owned, and pulled off her gear.
"How's the bruise?" asked Ron.
She checked. It had spread a little, but the outer edges were already turning yellow. "Still tender, but not bad."
Mike sprang over the ropes and landed next to her. "Did I do that?"
"No. Bullet bruise." She winced—Maya obviously hadn't told him that part.
"Really?" He frowned. "If I'd known that, I would have aimed for that spot."
"You hit it often enough, thanks."
Jo looked at Sophie, who raised an eyebrow. "Feeling better now?"
Jo grinned. "I'd hug you, but I don't want to hurt your jacket."
"It's the thought that counts."
"Yes. Thank you. How did you know?"
"I'd like to say that I'm very good at putting myself in other people's shoes . . . but it was Eliot's idea. He said you needed to remember the good things, too—and that it would be easier with some of your own team around you."
Jo blinked. Her team?
Sophie's phone trilled and she smiled in apology and turned away.
"Well, Jojo," said Marty, chomping on his cold cigar. "Your dad would be proud of you."
She snorted. "Dad would be appalled—he didn't like women fighters."
"No, kiddo—he didn't like women fighting in the ring. He'd be proud of how you've bounced back—and you know he'd want you to fight as hard as you can." He engulfed her in another hug. "You come back any time, Jojo. Same for you two—you know," he pointed his cigar at Mike, "you get some practice and a couple of bouts under your belt, and you might make it as a professional someday."
"Gosh, thanks," said Mike as Jo bit her lip and turned away from Ron, who was shaking with silent laughter.
Sophie returned. "Nate wants us to come back now."
"Our car's out front,' said Mike. "We'll take Jo so she won't stink up your upholstery."
"Thanks a lot."
Sophie just nodded. "I'll meet you at the hotel. The rooms are under your name, Ron—across the hall from ours." She smiled at Marty. "It was lovely meeting you, Mr. Pacelli."
"And you, Miss Devereaux. Let me walk you to your car—it's late."
"Thank you." She smiled and took his offered arm.
Jo grinned at the latest display of Sophie magic. "You're staying?"
"I am," said Ron. "Someone's got to keep you from running yourself ragged—and everyone else has their hands full."
"I'm in, too," said Mike, picking up the bags. "Maya got to have all the fun last time—it's my turn."
Jo shook her head. "You'd do this for me?"
Mike passed her a bag. "You heard the lady—we're your team. Besides, I promised Hardison an autographed photo, and I don't like to disappoint a fan."
"You sure impressed Marty," said Jo, moving toward the door.
"Shut up," he said. "Or I'll make you explain to me why my wife never mentioned your little firearm mishap."
"You already know why," she said.
"Yeah—but this way, I get to give her a hard time and tell her that you spilled the beans."
Jo saw Ron and Mike into their respective rooms and grabbed a quick shower before going back into the suite.
Nate's expression was grave, Sophie's was puzzled, and Hardison's seemed carefully neutral.
"Sorry—I wanted to clean up. Is something wrong?"
"Hardison finished compiling the Martens' financial information," said Sophie. "And—"
"And it's a little confusing," said Nate. "Can we ask you a couple of questions?"
"Sure." Jo went to her usual place on the sofa. "Ask away."
Nate rubbed his chin. "Jo, if you do get Dougie back . . . how were you planning on taking care of him? Money-wise, I mean."
Jo thought over her plans. "It would be a little tight at first, maybe, but my rent is low, and the local public school is supposed to be good—Maya takes Cody there. Ron said I could rearrange my hours to Dougie's schedule, maybe teach a few self-defense classes for extra cash." She grimaced. "If we have to go on the run . . . same thing, different place. We'll make it work."
Nate kept his sharp gaze on Jo. "So you'd take Dougie right now, as-is? No. . . compensation from the Marten family?"
Jo stared at him, feeling all the tension return to her aching muscles. "Is that what—is that what you think? That I'm in this for the money?" She shook her head, unable to tell him how wrong he was. "I—if Dougie has a trust fund or something, we'll sock it away for college or vocational training—no, I'll hand it over to Hardison and he can invest it in something that I can't touch. You can be the trustee. There. Done."
"See?" said Sophie folding her arms and glaring at Nate.
Hardison followed suit. "Mmmm-hmmm."
Nate shrugged. "For the record," he told Jo, "I didn't really think you had mercenary motives. But I had to ask."
"What's going on?" asked Jo.
"The Martens," said Nate, "Appear to be the next thing to broke."
"What? That can't be right."
"Parker is going to check their safe, just in case, but it looks like they've emptied out pretty much every account and portfolio they had—most of their share of the family business is going to property taxes. No secret accounts in the Cayman's or Switzerland, no tax shelters—no nothing."
"They have the art collection and Mrs. Marten's jewelry," corrected Sophie, "But they won't sell that off unless they have to—it's all part of the appearance they're trying to keep up."
"So, what are they living on? How are they paying for their security people, their staff?"
"Well, see, Dougie doesn't have a trust fund," said Hardison. "He has the trust fund."
"The Martens aren't protecting their only grandchild," said Nate. "They're protecting their meal ticket."
Chapter 24: The Advocate: Eliot
Vince finally left Eliot alone in the control room after overexplaining every aspect of the security system—the man was almost as big a geek as Hardison.
It was too bad the hacker couldn't have listened in so Eliot wouldn't have had to pay attention, but he'd had to switch off his earbud so Vince wouldn't figure out the source of the 'weird feedback' he kept getting from Eliot's earpiece.
"Pullman comes in at oh-four hundred," said Vince. "'Nighty-night."
Eliot turned his earbud back on to hear Nate saying, "The Martens aren't protecting their only grandchild. They're protecting their meal ticket."
Before he could ask any questions—not that the blanks were hard to fill—a voice behind him said, "You were right about the artwork."
He whirled around. "Parker! You said eleven."
"I got bored." She handed him some cables and a folded piece of paper. "From Hardison. Paintings aren't usually my thing," she said "But I'm pretty sure most of the important ones on this floor are forgeries—some good, some not so much. And most of the stuff in the cases are reproduction knick-knacks. How'd you know?"
"I didn't," he said, working through Hardison's diagrammed instructions step by step. "But that yellow one bugged me—the girl with the dumb-looking dog. I saw the original somewhere else . . .France, maybe?"
"Luc Demorais's private collection," said Sophie. "At his home outside of Saint-Etienne."
"That's right," said Eliot, not bothering to ask her how she knew—she wouldn't ask him, either. "He bought it a couple of years ago . . . said he was happy to have it back home."
"Hold on," said Hardison. "Girl in Yellow with Dog by Fragonard . . . private sale between Madeleine Marten and Luc Demorais on . . . " He named the date. "Isn't that . . . "
"The week after Doug was arrested," said Jo. "You think his mother sold it to make his bail?"
"Maybe," said Eliot, a suspicion forming. "She would have had a lot left over."
"You know," said Jo, as if she'd read his mind. "I've always had a feeling Doug's parents gave him the money for the trip . . . he used our debit card to pay the airfare, and there's no way we had enough in that account."
"Three first class tickets to Morocco don't come cheap," said Eliot.
"Three?" asked Jo. "They didn't buy a ticket for Reid? That's what, a twelve hour flight?"
"Fifteen," said Sophie.
"And a half," added Parker.
"Unless you can get a direct flight," said Nate. "Which is nearly impossible right now."
"That's a long time to have a baby on your lap," said Jo, as if she was thinking of something else. "Even in first class."
"They bought the baby a ticket," said Hardison. Eliot heard him typing. "According to the airline, he was flying half-price. The other two were for Doug Marten, age 31 and Rochelle Murray, age 21.She's the girl who died in the crash."
"Hardison . . . " said Sophie.
"Wha—Oh, hey, Jo, I'm sorry."
"Doesn't matter now," said Jo, though Eliot thought it might. "But why wouldn't Dougie have a ticket? I thought Doug was on his way to pick up Dougie when they crashed . . ."
"We all did," said Sophie, sounding confused.
"Here's another question," said Eliot. "Didn't you say you were about to pick him up from school when Doug attacked you?"
"Yeah. It was about three o'clock."
"And the detective told you that Mrs. Marten picked him up."
"So, how did she know to do that?"
There was a pause.
"The police wouldn't have informed his mother about the accident first," said Nate.
"And when they came to tell you," said Sophie slowly, "you were unconscious, so you couldn't have told them Dougie was at school. . . and when you woke up, you thought he was with—with his father anyway . . ."
Jo cut to the chase. "So Doug's mother knew Dougie wasn't going. And maybe . . . maybe that Reid was . . ." Her voice cracked. "I wonder if she knew how he was going to keep me from picking up Dougie?"
"Jo?" Sophie's voice faded. "I'll fetch Ron . . ."
Eliot exhaled. If Ron was there, he had one less worry. Two less, if Mike had made it, but this wasn't the time to ask.
"But why?" asked Jo in a ragged voice. "Why would Doug leave Dougie behind if—"
"Jo?" said Ron's voice.
"I'm okay," said Jo, proving once and for all what a bad liar she was.
"Bullshit," said Ron. "Come here."
"He didn't leave Dougie behind," said Nate. "He left him in exchange."
Jo let out a muffled sound.
Eliot slammed the table with his fist and swore. "Dammit, the bastard sold his own son!"
"And the Martens bought control over his inheritance . . . " said Hardison. "Damn, that's . . . that's cold."
Sophie spat out a few choice words in Serbian, French, and cockney.
"Okay, okay, listen" said Nate. "Listen! This doesn't really change anything. This started out as a custody job, and it's still a custody job . . . but now it's for the trust fund, not Dougie."
"I told you I'm not in this for the money," growled Jo.
"No. But the Martens are. And without the money, they won't want Dougie anymore." He paused. "Parker, I need you to find any files or papers you can on the trust. Parker?"
Eliot turned, but Parker was gone. He checked the monitors and saw her stalking up the center of the main staircase. "Damn it, Parker—the cameras!"
"I'll fix the cameras," said Hardison. "You better catch her before she happens to someone."
Eliot charged up the back stairs and headed Parker off at the pass in the family wing. "What do you think you're doing," he said in a hard whisper, frisking her for forks or any other possible weaponry.
"I haven't checked the family jewels yet," she said, trying to push past him.
"Will you keep it down?" Her picks were in her pocket, but she wouldn't risk damaging them . . . he forced open her clenched fist. "What the hell?" He held up the paperclips. "What were you going to do with these?"
She told him in no uncertain terms, though she did lower her voice to match his.
Hardison—or maybe Ron—whistled.
Eliot stared at her. "That's—how do you even know about that?"
"Jo told garlic breath." Her blue eyes narrowed. "I thought you'd understand."
"I do, Parker, but this isn't the way." He caught her hands and held them. "If it was, I'd hold 'em down for you. But you heard Nate—we're going to take away their money. Their money, Parker."
She stopped trying to pull away. "Their money?" she whispered.
"Every dime, Parker," said Nate. "I swear."
"We won't leave them a pot to piss in," added Sophie.
Parker drew in a breath—then froze.
Eliot heard a doorknob turning behind him.
He hustled Parker to the nearest room and closed the door, just as Mrs. Marten opened hers.
"What," she said, stepping into the hall, "is going on out here? I heard voices."
"That was me, ma'am," said Eliot. "Reporting in. I saw a shadow or something on the monitors."
She frowned. "Well? What was it?"
"Probably nothing." He leveled his gaze at this selfish icicle of a woman who hadn't given a good goddamn what her son had done to his wife and children. "But for your own safety," he said, his voice dropping in register, "I'd go back inside. Right now."
She blinked and opened her mouth, maybe to protest his tone, but he kept his eyes on hers and she gathered her robe around her neck, stuck her nose in the air, and went back inside, shutting the door. He heard it lock and let a grin spread across his face.
"Parker?" He turned . . .and realized which doorway he'd shoved her through. "Parker, get out of there. That's Dougie's room."
"I know," said Parker, through his earbud. "But he's not here."
"What do you mean he's . . ."
"He's not in his bed . . . he's not in his bathroom . . ."
Great. First day of work and he'd lost the kid.
"Pullman said he likes to sneak out." Eliot headed for the control room at a jog. Maybe he could catch a glimpse of Dougie on playback—except Pullman had also said Dougie was a whiz at avoiding the camera.
"Oh," said Parker. "Found him. He's . . .he's in the closet."
"Was the door locked?" asked Nate, in a tone that expected it.
"No. He's got pillows and a blanket—it looks cozy. I think he did it himself."
"He's always felt safer in small spaces," whispered Jo.
Eliot dropped into the control room chair. "Well, get out of there and don't wake him—"
"Too late," said Parker. "Hi."
"Who are you?" said a young voice that didn't waste much time between asleep and awake.
"I'm Parker. Are you . . . you know . . . happy here?"
There was a long pause. "Why?"
"Because I need to know."
"Do you work for my grandparents?"
"Hell," said Parker,"no."
Hardison snorted and spluttered—must've been drinking one of his orange sodas.
"Hey, now," said Jo.
"Parker, language," muttered Sophie.
"I mean, no. No, I don't. I work for you. I'm your advocate."
"You mean, like a caseworker?" Dougie sounded less than impressed.
Considering how effective his last one must have been, Eliot didn't blame him.
"Sort of," said Parker. "Except I'll listen to you and I'm on your side and no one else's."
"So . . . are you happy?"
Silence. "What would you do if I wasn't?"
More silence. "How?"
"I don't know yet. Where do your grandparents keep their important papers? The stuff you aren't supposed to know about?"
"In the study," he said, without any hesitation. "It's on this floor on the other side of the house. There are some locked drawers in the desk and a safe behind the picture of the man in the blue suit. He's my great-grandfather."
"Thanks, that'll save some time."
"I don't know the combination and I think my grandmother has the keys to the desk."
"Don't worry about that. Go back to sleep—I'll close the door."
"Wait—I didn't answer your question."
Parker's voice was as gentle as Eliot had ever heard it. "Yeah. You did."
While they were waiting for Parker to finish up, Hardison tested a couple of frequencies while Eliot wore the earbud and earpiece—one of which made Eliot's molars buzz and his tongue go numb—but eventually found a solution to the feedback problem and signed off.
Eliot tossed aside the earpiece, and gave himself a half hour break on the earbud. He was tempted to leave it out for the rest of his shift, but too much was going on.
After he let Parker out, he had an uneventful couple of hours, which didn't bother him any.
About two am, someone whispered in his ear. "Spencer? Can you hear me?"
"Can you talk?"
"Yeah. Something wrong?"
"I don't know. . . it probably doesn't matter, but it's bugging me . . .and I'm pretty sure everyone else is asleep."
"Yes," she said, not rising to the bait. "And this isn't really the kind of thing I'd want to wake him up for . . . so I decided to risk Hardison's wrath and mess with his central command, here—I'm lucky he left the communications program open."
"All right," he said, glancing at the clock. "What's keeping you wide awake at this hour?"
"I'm not wide awake. If I was, maybe it would make sense." She sighed. "It's Doug taking Reid and—and selling Dougie. . . something's wrong with that . . ."
He barked a laugh. "What's right with it?"
"Well, yeah, but . . . look, Reid was a baby—babies take a lot of care, demand a lot of attention, they're loud and messy and expensive. Even if Doug brought the girl along as a sort of nanny-with-benefits, Reid would cramp his style . . . Dougie would be easier to care for, and he's the key to a fortune. What's wrong with this picture?"
Eliot frowned. "He took Reid to hurt you."
"See, that's what I thought . . . but taking Dougie would have hurt me just as much." She let out a sad chuckle. "Hell, it did. And Doug knew that. The only thing I ever asked him to do for me was sign the adoption papers."
"And I still don't understand why he wanted to leave the country in the first place. He wasn't exactly facing the death penalty—it was his first offence on a domestic violence charge. His lawyers would have worked out some kind of deal. Unless he knew he would be facing serious charges. Spencer . . ."
He sighed. Damn it. He knew she'd work it out eventually. "Yeah."
"In the back of my mind, I always knew that Doug might go too far one day and kill me—heat of the moment, accidentally on purpose. But when he broke in . . . that was planned. He deliberately tried to murder me." It wasn't quite a question.
He tried to keep his voice even. "I think he did his best." He waited for her reaction, wondering if he needed to call Ron.
But once again, she surprised him. "Okay . . .so he didn't take Reid to hurt me, because I was supposed to be dead."
"No . . . I guess he didn't."
"So . . . why did he take Reid?"
"I don't know. But I think you should run this by Nate. In the morning," he added.
"Really?" Her relief came through loud and clear. "You don't think I'm worrying over nothing?"
"No—I think it's something. Don't know what, but you're right—it ain't adding up."
"Thanks . . . now maybe my mind will let me sleep for a while." The last word slurred into a yawn. "I'd better get back before Ron misses me."
Eliot smiled. That answered that question. "Hey, Jo . . ."
"Don't protect Ron from this kind of stuff—you'll end up shutting him out. Most people can handle anything but that."
"I know. I won't . . . but I wanted to talk it over with you first. And honestly, I didn't think I could wake him up if I tried—if he can sleep through Mike's snores drilling through the walls . . ."
Eliot chuckled. "So Mike came along, too?" Good—it always made him uneasy when he couldn't physically check-in with the team, and having an experienced fighter close, just in case, seemed like a reasonable precaution this time out. He knew the others could protect themselves without him . . . more or less . . . and Jo and Ron weren't slouches, but Mike was almost as good as he thought he was—which made him almost as good as Eliot.
"Yep. Sophie said it was all your idea. I didn't know how much I needed to visit Dad's place again . . . and seeing 'my team'" she laughed a little. "Didn't notice I had one of those."
"It's never all bad, Jo," he said.
"No . . .not when you know you aren't alone." She paused. "And that's probably enough early-hour philosophy for today. 'Night, Spencer."
"Get some sleep."
"I'll try—it should work now. Thanks again. For everything." And she was gone.
"No problem," he said to the empty air. "That's what family is supposed to do."
Chapter 25: The Adoption: Jo
Jo slept longer that she thought she would, a combination of her very early morning talk with Spencer and sheer exhaustion . . . not to mention the safe, warm comfort of the large man sleeping against her back, one long arm keeping her close. For the first time in a long time, she had to force herself to get up and get moving.
But when she let herself into the suite, she was still only the second person to arrive.
"Want some cereal?" asked Parker, who was sitting cross-legged on the ottoman, eating out of a coffee mug.
"Sure," said Jo, taking the offer as a good sign. "What kind?"
"Hardison bought Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, and milk. There are some fortune cookies left over from last night, too. I like Dougie."
It was easier to switch mental gears with Parker if Jo kept herself in neutral. "Good." Jo filled a mug with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. She sat on the couch in what had become her spot, tossed a couple of squares in her mouth, and looked up to see Parker staring at her. "What? I like dry cereal."
Parker waved that away. "Aren't you going to ask me what I decided?"
"You've made the decision already?" Jo figured that last night's paperclip incident was a big clue, but she told herself not to jump the gun—not with Parker.
"I made one. He isn't staying with those people. He'll end up . . . blowing up that house or something. And that's a pretty big job for just one kid." She frowned. "But I don't know the best place for him, yet."
"Take your time," said Jo, ignoring the urge to state her case. "This is important."
"I know. I think I need to talk to Dougie again."
"Good idea. If you don't want me to listen in," she added, hoping Parker wouldn't care, "let me know and I'll take a walk or something."
Parker nodded. "Tonight."
A sleepy-eyed Hardison wandered in scratching his stomach under his tee-shirt. "Hey," he said. "Anyone else up?"
On cue, Nate emerged from his room, bright—eyed and clean shaven, and a casually elegant Sophie made her entrance from the hallway, coffee in hand. Their eyes met, and Jo thought she saw an actual electrical charge pass between them before they slid their masks into place and exchanged pleasant good mornings. But for that split second, it seemed impossible that friendship was all they shared.
When she'd asked, Spencer had said—with a longsuffering grimace—that Sophie and Nate already belonged to each other, but were too busy dancing around to figure it out. After watching them for the last few days, Jo had to agree. If their hotel rooms had been connected, each would be waiting for the other to open the door.
Nate clapped his hands together. "What did you find for us, Parker?"
"Everything—just where Dougie said they were." Parker tossed Hardison a palm-sized camera and opened the mini-fridge.
He plugged in the camera and accepted the bottle of orange soda she handed him. "Thanks." He twisted the cap off and took a couple of swallows while he played the keyboard with the other hand. "Okay—" he said. "A birth record for Douglas Franklin Marten the Third, a.k.a. Dougie . . . the Last Will and Testament of one Franklin Douglas Marten . . . and what looks like a whole lot of miscellaneous documents. It's gonna take some time to read through all this." He frowned. "Hey—who's been messing with the comms?"
"Sorry," said Jo. "I needed to talk to Spencer and I didn't want to wake you up."
"Well . . . I do appreciate that, but next time, leave me a sticky note or something." He shot her a smile.
"Anything we should know about?" asked Sophie.
"Spencer thought so." Jo looked at Nate. "It's about Doug and Reid." She explained her points without interruption, though everyone exchanged glances when she reached the part about Doug intending to murder her.
"Huh," said Nate, when she was finished. "You're right. It doesn't make sense."
"Speaking of oddities," said Hardison. "There's a copy of a Termination of Parental Rights in here. Signed by Elizabeth Samuels. Isn't that . . . yeah, that's Dougie's mother. Uh," he glanced at Jo, "his birth mother, I mean."
"What?" Jo got up and stared at the screen. "I thought she was dead." And it wouldn't have surprised her much if Doug had killed his first wife and his parents had helped hide the body. "When did they get divorced?"
"Uh . . . they didn't."
Jo reared back. "What?"
"Wait a minute . . . no marriage either."
"You mean they didn't get married in Pennsylvania," said Jo. "There are forty-nine other states."
Hardison shook his head as data streamed across his screen. "And they didn't get married in any of 'em—not to each other. She did marry a few years after Dougie was born . . . the record says that was her first. Don't know why she'd lie."
"And that's all Doug ever did," said Jo. "Start to finish."
"Okay . . ." said Nate, with a faraway look. "I think we need to hear Mrs. . . ?"
"Thompson," said Hardison, without looking around.
"Mrs. Thompson's version of events. What is DCF called here?"
"Child Welfare Services," said Jo, before Hardison could.
Nate nodded. "Sophie?"
"Sorry. Way too tired." She yawned and stretched, the spoon rattling in her empty mug. "Take Jo."
"Oh. Um, all right. Jo? Care to come along?"
No. Absolutely not. Not for any reason whatsoever. Jo opened her mouth to repeat this out loud . . . and saw Parker watching her. No, not watching—studying.
"Okay," she said, knowing she'd been manipulated, but not sure why.
"The Thompsons live in Allentown," Hardison reported. "She's an elementary school teacher . . . school gets out at three-thirty, should be home by four."
Jo wondered what kind of a school teacher would leave a baby in Doug Marten's care. Of course, to be fair, she'd left the same child in the care of Doug Marten's parents . . . but Jo didn't feel like being fair.
"Mr. Thompson has a nine-to-five job and a forty minutes commute—that gives you a nice window to catch her alone with her kids."
"She has kids?" asked Jo.
"Yeah. Two boys . . . or I guess . . ." he trailed off.
"Jo." Nate's expression was serious. "He'll always be yours, and you'll always be his. No matter what. Remember that."
She hoped he was right.
"Let's go," said Sophie.
"Now?" She wasn't ready. "Allentown's only an hour away—she won't be home for seven hours." Which probably wasn't going to be enough time for Jo to prepare.
"But the Tanger Outlet Center is two hours away," said Sophie, a gleam in her eye. "We are going shopping."
After several hours spent exploring almost every store, Jo began to suspect that Parker had no other motive for pushing her into this trip than to avoid power-shopping with Sophie. The woman was relentless.
"This isn't me," said Jo, looking in the mirror. The new jeans in a darker shade, yes. The tee-shirt a few shades darker than her eyes, okay. The close-fitting brown suede jacket . . . not so much. She tugged at the front, trying to give herself an inch more room. "This really isn't me."
"That's the point." Sophie pulled Jo's arms down to check the length of the sleeves. "You're creating a persona here—one that might want to live in sweatpants but doesn't actually have the opportunity to do so. There. Perfect. Take it off, please."
Jo slid off the jacket and handed it to Sophie. "Lunch now?"
"Makeup and hair."
"I don't wear makeup." She had once, but it had been years since she'd used it as a way to call attention to herself instead of a way to cover up the black eyes and hopelessness.
"I know you don't wear makeup, but a social worker would—it's part of her armor. She gets up every morning facing a long day of allegations and investigations and horrors and very little hope." Sophie's accent flattened out. "We need something between us and our never-ending case files, something that reminds me that I'm more than just a hamster on a wheel, that I'm as real as the people I try to help every single day—even if it's only taupe eyeshadow and tinted lip balm . . ." She sighed, and for a moment, she looked like someone else . . . someone else who looked like Sophie . . .
And then she smiled. "So, makeup."
Jo blinked at her. "Okay," she said. "Lead the way." She followed Sophie to the counter and watched her sign the twentieth credit slip of the day. Jo had tried to protest the first time, but had been overridden. This shopping trip was for a job. And jobs had special revenue sources—the details of which were not important.
What was important was that the team didn't stint when it came to necessities for a job, whether it was electronics for Hardison, harnesses for Parker, bandages for Eliot, or aspirin for Nate. Or the perfect outfit—right down to the unmentionables.
Jo had stood corrected—in fact, she'd been on her feet the entire time. It was almost a relief to sit in the chair at the Cosmetics Company and let the saleswoman dab things on her face with soft sponges, under Sophie's watchful eye. She closed her eyes and let them consult with each other.
"Are you asleep?" asked Sophie.
"Well, wake up." She dropped a bag full of cosmetics in Jo's lap. "We have an appointment at a spa down the road. A haircut for you and a pedi for me."
"Is the haircut for my persona?"
"No, the haircut's for you—my treat." Sophie led the way back to the car, and added the recent purchases to the already brimming trunk. "Eliot may be able to pull off that effortless windblown look with nothing more than a bottle of baby shampoo, but the rest of us need a little more help." She slammed the lid and went to the passenger side—it had been decided that Jo needed to get used to driving again.
"He conditions, too," said Jo, without thinking. "Twice a week."
"That's right—you stayed with him for a while." Sophie fastened her seatbelt.
"Only while I was recuperating." Jo started the car and backed carefully out of the space.
"How did Ron feel about that? Go left."
"Ron never had anything to worry about— we aren't and never will be a romantic triangle. Would Nate worry if you slept on Spencer's couch?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Sophie looked out the window. "And I'm not sure what it would mean if he did," she added, so quietly Jo barely heard her.
"Come on. When two people look at each other like you do . . ."
"But who are we looking at?" Sophie looked down at her hands. "I've been so many different people I'm not even sure which one I started out with . . . and he's still trying to come to terms with who he might become. . ." She shook her head. "Sorry . . . I didn't mean to dump on you. But Eliot and Hardison don't understand, and Parker's impossible . . ."
"I don't mind. But does it have to be so complicated? Maybe it's enough to find someone who accepts all of you. The good and the bad."
"Easy for you to say—you know who you are. And so does Ron."
"I didn't at first—I had to remember." Jo hesitated. "I had to stop hiding."
"Yeah . . ." Sophie grimaced. "I suppose that's really the only—oh! Turn here!"
Jo wrenched the wheel, sending the car bouncing into the parking lot of the spa.
And the moment was gone.
The Thompsons lived in a pretty neighborhood, full of the sounds of children playing, laughing, and crunching through the colored leaves that were starting to fall in earnest.
"That one," said Sophie, pointing to a nice brick two-story with a large yard. "Are you ready?"
"I think so," lied Jo, taking the keys out of the ignition and stuffing them into the pocket of her new jacket. Sophie sighed, pulled them out, handed Jo her new canvas tote, and passed back the key ring. Jo meekly slipped it into the inside pocket of the bag and got out of the car. They both turned on their earbuds, and Sophie adjusted her brooch, another elegant piece of Hardison's handcrafted surveillance equipment.
On the walk up to the porch, Jo saw Sophie's walk alter, her spine stiffen, her shoulders droop, and by the time she pressed the doorbell, she'd gone from sophisticated to overworked and underpaid. Even her outfit—the sale price of which had made Jo choke—now somehow suggested style on a very limited budget.
A woman opened the door, leaving the screen in place. She was petite, with hair that couldn't decide whether to be blonde or brown. Jo's fingernails cut into her palms. The resemblance was undeniable—this was Dougie's real mother . . . Not real, she reminded herself, birth. There was a difference—there was.
"Elizabeth Thompson?" said Sophie, her accent pure Philadelphia, "I'm Samantha Parkington from Child Welfare Services, and this is Emily Bennett. We have some questions we'd like to ask you."
Mrs. Thompson stiffened. "About my children?" she asked, her expression half worry, half warning.
Jo liked that, despite herself.
"Oh, no, your children aren't in any danger—and we aren't here for an assessment," said Sophie, with a reassuring smile. "Actually, we'd like to talk to you about Douglas Marten."
"I'm sorry, but I don't have a student named . . . " Her grey eyes widened. "Oh! Doug . . . from college?"
"You do know him?"
"I did—we haven't spoken since . . . well, for a very long time. Is this about . . . Is this about the adoption?"
Jo jaw dropped, but Sophie shot her a look through Samantha's façade and she managed to close it before Mrs. Thompson noticed.
"Mr. Marten left behind some personal papers," said Sophie. "And they led to you—"
"I'm sorry—left behind?"
"Mr. Marten died in a car crash a few years ago. You didn't know?"
"No! That's terrible . . . but . . . I'm afraid I still don't understand why you're here."
"Well, the Martens are understandably upset. Doug was their only child, and when they found out about the baby. . . well . . . they've challenged the legality of the adoption. But we wouldn't think of disturbing the child or his adoptive family without cause." Sophie gave her a sympathetic look. "We know this might be difficult for you to talk about, but we're hoping you might be able to help us straighten things out without resorting to legal action on either side."
Mrs. Thompson opened the door. "You'd better come in."
She led them to the living room and invited them to sit. Sophie declined the offer of something to drink, but Jo asked for some water—her mouth was dry and she needed something to keep her hands still. She looked around, at the piles of books and the scattered toys—so unlike the sterile perfection of the Marten mansion.
Dougie might have grown up here, if things had been different . . . but maybe things were different now . . . Jo felt dizzy. Was Parker watching?
"I thought the birth record was sealed,' said Elizabeth Thompson, handing Jo a glass and perching on the edge of a comfortable-looking chair that had a crocheted afghan tossed over the back.
"Yeah," said Hardison, sounding thoughtful. "You'd think so . . ."
"There was a court order," said Sophie. "The Martens have some influence. And money."
"Doug mentioned that once or twice," she said. "You know . . . he wasn't the nicest person, especially when he was drinking. But he was my guardian angel when I found out I was pregnant. It wasn't an easy time for me—I was working full time, taking classes . . ."
"Penn State?" asked Jo, not knowing why, except the campus seemed to have been Doug's personal hunting ground.
She nodded. "I was sick as a dog for most of my pregnancy—I lost my job. Doug helped me out with the rent, groceries. . . and helped me make the decision to give up the baby for adoption. He arranged the whole thing for me, brought me the paperwork and everything. He was there for the birth—well, not there, but in the hospital waiting room—and he even took the baby to the adoption agent, so I wouldn't have to, you know, actually hand him over . . ."
Jo blinked at her tone. It sounded as if she'd . . . cared.
"You never saw the agent?" asked Sophie, making a note.
"No. Doug was really sweet to do that for me. I'll always remember him for it."
"So will we," said Nate.
"But you did sign away your parental rights?" asked Jo, keeping her disappointment out of her voice with an effort. She'd hoped Doug had forged the signature.
The other woman nodded. "It wasn't an easy decision, but I was a different person then . . . I couldn't have raised a child, even if I'd had a husband. Doug offered, but I told him putting his name on the certificate was a big enough favor—I didn't have to track down my ex-boyfriend and get him to sign away his—"
"Your . . . your ex—boyfriend?" interrupted Sophie.
Mrs. Thompson's eyes widened and she brought a hand to her mouth. "Oh, no—is that the problem?"
Nate said a bad word in Jo's ear. She bit down on one of her own.
"I—I got nothing." said Hardison. "I'm . . . I'm speechless."
Sophie cleared her throat. "So . . . so Doug Marten isn't the father?"
Elizabeth Thompson blushed. "I . . . I don't know for sure," she said. "Like I said, I was a different person back then. But even a small chance is still a chance . . ."
"I see . . .What was your ex-boyfriend's name?"
"Jeffrey Carleton. I don't know where he is—he disappeared around the time I found out I was pregnant. I, uh . . . I think he found out about Doug."
"I'll bet he did," said Nate. "That clever son of a—"
"Thank you, Mrs. Thompson. We appreciate your time."
Two kids came running into the room, playing a very loud game of tag.
"Indoor voices, please!" said Elizabeth Thompson, with loving exasperation. "We'd like to hear ourselves think."
Jo didn't. She glanced at the children and caught her breath. The younger one looked almost exactly like Dougie. "Are these both yours?"
"Yes. This is Max and that's Aiden," she said.
"Such handsome young men," Sophie reached out to tousle the older boy's hair. He ducked away and rubbed his head. "Sorry—I couldn't resist."
Mrs. Thompson smiled. "Max, take your brother upstairs, please. Please. Thank you." She smiled as they chased each other away and then turned back to Sophie. "Will I have to testify or sign something? You know . . . I wouldn't want to take . . . him . . . from the only home he's known—or from the people who love him. . ."
"You may have to sign an affidavit, but I'm sure we can keep it discreet, if that's what you'd prefer."
Mrs. Thompson shook her head. "My husband knows already—we met in AA, and he's heard all my secrets. I haven't told the boys that they have a . . . a big brother out there, somewhere, but I always thought maybe we might all meet someday, if he ever wanted to find me." She fiddled with her wedding ring. "Please . . . maybe I don't deserve to know, but . . . is he safe? Happy?"
Sophie hesitated, and it was Jo who broke the silence. "Would you like to see a picture?"
"Jo . . ." said Nate.
Sophie frowned. "Emily, I don't think—"
"Just this once, Sam," said Jo, ignoring Sophie's raised eyebrows. She reached into her bag and pulled out a printout that Hardison had made from Spencer's camera feed—it showed Dougie in his sweatshirt and boots, holding a sponge. He wasn't smiling, but there was a hint of mischief in his expression.
Elizabeth Thompson took it. "Oh!" she said, putting her hand to her mouth again. "Oh, he looks just like Aiden!" She looked at the image for a full minute, before giving it back. "I've always wondered . . . sorry," she said, wiping a careless thumb under her eyes. "Whatever information you need, please just ask—I want to help."
"I can't imagine what else there could be," said Nate. "Secret twins? The lost heir of Scotland?"
"We appreciate that," said Sophie, standing. "But I think we have all we need for now."
Elizabeth shook hands with Sophie, then turned to Jo and clasped her fingers. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for letting me see him."
Jo nodded and squeezed her hand.
She walked to the car, digging out the keys. She looked at them and handed them to Sophie, who took them without comment.
It was some time and distance before Jo spoke. "Did we get enough?" she asked.
"A bit more than expected, I think. Are you all right?"
"I don't know yet." She closed her eyes, and didn't open them again until they arrived at the hotel.
Please note: I'm not fudging Pennsylvania custody law—Doug Marten is.
Chapter 26: The Stakes: Eliot
Eliot didn't think much about the stretch of silence for the rest of his shift in the control room; no one needed to work around the clock on this job—yet—so the whole team was probably asleep . . . with the possible exception of Parker, who never talked just to talk.
Vince arrived at four sharp and looked at the log, which included Eliot's visit to the family wing. He promptly brought up the recording—which, thanks to Hardison's magic, did show a fleeting, unrecognizable shadow along one edge, shortly followed by Eliot racing down the hall and opening a door or two. "Good response time," he said. "Why didn't you call it in?"
"Thought I'd assess the threat first—no need to call you all out of bed for nothing. Which is what it turned out to be."
"Is that why you look so pissed off?"
"Do I? Damn, no wonder Mrs. Marten looked so upset. She came out to see what was going on about . . . now." He pointed to the screen. "I told her to go back inside and stay there."
"Oops." Vince grinned. "I've never seen her back down before—you must have scared her half to death."
Good. "Yeah . . . maybe I should apologize."
"A word of advice—never show fear in front of that woman. You did the job she's paying you to do—and polite doesn't always get it done. Worst case scenario, she sends Triple-B after you—I wouldn't show fear in front of him, either.
Eliot smirked. "Not sure that's possible."
Vince snorted and turned it into a cough while he played back the shadow again. "Hey, think it was the kid?"
"Doubt it. You told me he liked to wander, so I checked his room first thing. He looked asleep to me."
Vince raised an eyebrow. "Where?"
Eliot raised his. "Closet."
"Mmmph." Vince didn't look surprised. "Well . . . it could be a digital ghost . . . I'll check back, maybe defrag, and see what happens."
"All right. Think I should tell someone about the kid's sleeping habits?"
Vince's lips tightened. "You can if you want . . . but it won't matter to anyone who could do anything." He sat in the chair and swiveled to look at the screen, his back to Eliot. "You've got some time before you take him to school, if you want to get your head down."
Eliot thought about pressing Vince for more info, but it seemed too soon. "Thanks." He headed for the staff quarters at the back of the house to stretch out for a couple hours . . . or until someone needed him.
No one did, and he woke up five minutes before his watch alarm would have sounded. Eliot thought about giving Hardison a wake-up call—even asleep, the hacker kept a receiver nearby—but he decided to grab a shower first.
He'd been warned that earbuds and water didn't mix—Parker's new favorite story was how Jo had proved it—so he stashed his in his shaving kit for the duration. Once he was back in his room and mostly dry and dressed, he reinserted the earbud and turned it on.
"Anyone there?" he asked, shoving in his shirttails.
The door swung open. "Good ears, Spencer," said Higgert, his eyes narrowing.
Eliot nodded, absorbing the surprise without showing it. "They come with the job."
"Right." The man folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe. "So what happened last night?"
"Thought I saw a shadow and went to take a look. Vince show you the recording?"
"I saw it. You didn't call for backup."
"No, sir, I didn't. Vince and Pullman warned me that the Martens' grandson likes to roam at night. If it was him, I thought I'd better catch him before he disappeared.
"No, sir—the boy was asleep."
"He wasn't faking?" There was a curl of suspicion in the question that Eliot didn't much like.
"No," he said, keeping his voice even.
Higgert's nostrils flared and he changed tactics. "Mrs. Marten said you ordered her back into her room."
Eliot looked him straight in the eye. "Our job is to protect her and her family, and you shouldn't apologize for it."
"Me apologize? You ordered a client to—"
"And you and I have both seen enough action to know that clients can be their own worst enemy in an emergency situation. That's why they hired you in the first place."
"Well, sure, but—"
"You're in charge when the chips are down, right?"
"Ah, right." His forehead creased in confusion, ruining his attempt at intimidation. "But the next time anything happens in the family wing, you call me ASAP."
"Good. You're driving the boy to school?"
"I'm on my way to grab some breakfast, see if he's ready."
"I'll walk you up."
Eliot gave a mental shrug—looked like Hardison could sleep in a little longer.
Dougie was eating breakfast at the kitchen table. He looked up, but the smile on his face died when he caught sight of the man behind Eliot. For a split second, Eliot was reminded of the way Parker had looked at Nicholas Obrovic when she'd stabbed him with a fork.
Without thinking, he moved between them. "You almost ready, kid?" he asked.
"It's still early, Mr. Spencer," said Hannah, who was kneading bread dough at the island countertop. "And I've got oatmeal on the stove, if you're hungry."
"Thank you, ma'am. I am."
"Coffee, Mr. Higgert?" There was a change in the housekeeper's manner, too, far more subtle than Dougie's, but noticeable.
"None for me, Hannah," he said, oblivious. "I was just making sure Spencer here didn't get lost."
"I'm sure he appreciates that." Hannah looked up at the ceiling as she put a full bowl in front of Eliot. "Milk?"
"No, thank you, ma'am."
Higgert looked at Dougie, but spoke to Eliot. "I'll be in the control room, helping Vince figure out your 'shadow.' Report there when you get back." He didn't wait for an answer.
"Triple-B," he muttered, earning a soft snicker from Dougie. "You're too young to know what that means," he said, earning another snicker, but no eye contact.
"You have a shadow, Mr. Spencer?" asked Hannah, bringing him a glass of orange juice.
"I saw something on the monitor last night. We aren't sure what it was."
"Probably just a problem with a camera lens," he added.
Dougie's spoon continued its journey to his mouth.
Eliot smiled to himself and started eating.
"You want more juice, Dougie?" asked Hannah.
"No thank you," he said, as if she was a complete stranger.
"Something bothering you?" asked Eliot.
Hannah looked as though she wanted to say something, but she glanced at Eliot and went back to her bread dough, her face troubled.
Fifteen minutes later, they headed to the car, Eliot carrying Dougie's backpack. "What's in this thing? It weighs more than you do."
"You studying rocks?"
The kid didn't crack a smile. "It's just books." He took the pack from Eliot, lugging it to the car himself and heaving it into the back seat before climbing in after it.
Right—the boy lied about as well as his mom. Eliot got in and started the car up. "Sure nothing's bothering you?"
They reached the end of the driveway. "You want to tell me about it?"
"Anything you tell me stays between us." And at least four other people—who didn't seem to have anything to say this morning. He stuck his pinkie in his team ear and made sure his earbud was on.
In the rearview, he saw Dougie frown. "No it won't. You work for them."
"Who?" he asked, as if he didn't know. "Higgert and your grandparents?"
"Because my job is to protect you—even from them."
"What say we try the Oak Street route this morning?"
Dougie shrugged and looked out the window, a worried frown on his face.
Eliot sighed in frustration. "A little help here?" he muttered. But no voices whispered advice in his ear.
That wasn't right. Jo should have been listening in, or at the very least Hardison should have been monitoring him by now. . .
He pulled up to the front of the school, got out, opened the back door and grabbed the backpack before Dougie could, taking his time walking around the car to give it as much of a once over as he could without unzipping it. There were books, but other things, too, folded cloth and a pair of shoes . . . he didn't think there were any weapons . . .
"You got gym today?"
Dougie shrugged and reached for his pack.
Eliot handed it over, but held on. "Look . . . I know it's been rough on you for a long time. You don't know who to trust, and you don't know me. But if you tell me what's going on, I'll listen."
"I can't," Dougie whispered.
"You got someone else to tell?"
"I'm going to be late."
"Someone who's on your side?"
Dougie stared at him, then gave a small nod.
"Good. Don't make any decisions until you talk to 'em." Eliot let go. "I'll pick you up at 3:30."
Dougie took a few steps, looked back once, then disappeared into the school.
"That went well," said Eliot, striding around the car and slinging himself into the driver's seat. He dug out his earbud, turned it off and on again, and stuck it back in his ear. "Hardison? Nate? Anyone? Dammit!"
It could be equipment failure . . . but less than a week ago, three of his worst enemies were in the States, expecting to find him. And just because they'd all been detained—or deported—didn't mean they liked him any better.
Or that they didn't leave some people behind to track him down . . .
He fired up the engine, cursing himself for leaving his cell phone with the team—he could have figured out a way to keep it hidden. The minute he was off school property, he put his foot down, heading for the hotel.
His earpiece beeped. "Spencer, report back ASAP," said Pullman. "One of the cousins I told you about just arrived. All hands on deck—Mrs. Marten asked for you specifically."
"On my way," said Eliot, disconnecting as he roared past the mansion. He felt like hell about stranding the kid, but Dougie wasn't in immediate danger—and without the team, or Jo, Eliot wouldn't be able to help him.
"Eliot? Eliot, you there? Send me a word, man."
"Hardison? What the hell is going on?"
"Man, you had us worried."
"I repeat—what the hell is going on?"
"Jo accidentally changed your frequency after you two had your talk. When you didn't check in, we thought. .. well, we thought a lot of things."
"You're all okay?"
"Yeah. We're all fine. I just figured out the problem—sorry, man."
There was another beep. "Spencer," said Pullman. "What's the hold up?"
Eliot wrenched the car around in a screeching U-turn, as other drivers hit their horns.
"Traffic," he said.
Eliot slipped into the living room and felt the tension like static electricity before a thunderstorm. Pullman was stationed at the other doorway, and Higgert loomed between the two Queen Anne sofas, like a referee.
Mrs. Marten, in silk blouse and pearls, faced off against a lady who looked far less elegant in denim dress and close-cropped hair—but who won hands down in desperate fury.
"But you can break the trust," she said.
Mrs. Marten smiled like a shark. "And why would we do that?"
"Because it's the right thing to do?"
"Our grandson is very dear to us, Olivia. He deserves the best."
"Olivia Marten," said Hardison. "She's the widow of Mr. Marten's brother."
"He does? Or you do? How much of that money has Doug run through for all those quacks and endless tests?"
"Those are legitimate medical expenses. My husband's health is very delicate—"
"That man is perfectly healthy, below the neck. If he really wants to find something wrong, he should try a psychiatrist! Meanwhile, there's a sick little girl who could actually benefit from that trust."
"Oh, yes, how is little Julia doing?"
"Hardison," asked Nate, his voice sharp.
"She's dying, Madeleine," said Olivia Marten, her eyes blazing. "Because her parents and I can't afford the only treatment that has a chance of helping her. I'm not asking for all the money—just enough to cover Julia's medical bills."
"Julia Marten . . . eighteen months old . . . she has something called Raley's Syndrome. It's, um, it's—"
"I know what it is," said Nate. "They tested Sam for it . . . the symptoms are similar . . . and very painful . . ."
"Well, I'd love to help" said Mrs. Marten, "but I'm afraid our hands are tied. Douglas is the first-born great-grandchild, and that's that."
Eliot heard his knuckles pop before he realized his hands had clenched into fists.
Olivia Marten gathered herself up. "You've always been a cold-hearted bitch, Madeleine. I'm not surprised your son turned out the way he did."
"There's no call for insults. Just because I can't help—"
"You mean won't help. I know how much you hate me, but I didn't actually believe you'd take it out on a harmless, helpless baby."
"Olivia," said Mrs. Marten, her eyes as flat and unaffected as any Eliot had ever seen in his line of work, "I don't care enough about you to hate you. This is a simple legal matter, nothing personal. The money is ours and will remain ours."
"That money belongs to your grandson."
"Tomato, tomahto." Her smile widened. "And I know how much you hate me, by the way—but I don't believe you would take that out on a harmless, helpless child."
Olivia Marten stood suddenly, and Higgert moved to block her. "Back off," she snapped. "I'm not the monster in this room."
Mrs. Marten laughed as if someone had told a joke too ridiculous for words.
Eliot let Olivia Marten pass him, turning to follow her just before Higgert signaled him. She stalked down the hallway, her legs so rigid it was a wonder she didn't put holes in the floors. With effort, he was able to hold the front door for her, and escorted her to the driveway.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said quietly, as she opened her car door. "About your granddaughter."
She swung around, taking a sharp breath—then stopped. "You're new," she said in a shaking voice.
"Yes, ma'am. Started yesterday."
"Then thank you." She slid into her seat, then looked up at him. "Do yourself a favor and leave before she contaminates you."
He shut the door. "I'll do my best," he said, watching her drive away. "Anything I need to know?" he said.
"Not yet. Nate and I going through the stuff Parker found, Ron and Mike are at Jo's dad's gym, Sophie and Jo are out shopping, Parker's asleep—"
"Sophie took Jo shopping?"
"Yeah, I know. But they're going to go see Dougie's birth mother this afternoon, so Sophie thought getting her out of the hotel was a good idea."
"Probably is. Why isn't Parker going?"
"Said she was too tired."
"Right. Where is she?"
"I'm here," she said through a yawn.
"Dougie needs to talk to you. Something's going on."
"Tonight," she said.
"I've got a better idea."
Eliot showed his badge to the teacher on duty and Dougie trudged to the gate as if he didn't really want to leave. He hesitated when he saw the limo, but he handed Eliot his backpack without argument and climbed into his seat.
"Riding in style today," said Eliot, putting the backpack at Dougie's feet.
Dougie buckled in. "Why?"
"Thought it might cheer you up." Eliot went around and got in. "New route—gonna try Walnut Avenue." He pulled out of the driveway.
"You'll see." Eliot turned, went a couple blocks and obeyed the stop sign, activating the clear privacy panel as he braked. The back door indicator flickered, and he drove on.
"Hi," said Parker, over the speaker. She'd refused to let the others listen in and no one argued—Sophie and Jo were on their way to interview Elizabeth Thompson, and Nate didn't want to miss that. He seemed very close to a plan . . . Eliot hoped.
"Are you kidnapping me?" The kid didn't seem too upset about it.
"I wish," she said. "But no. Just wanted to talk. Or listen, if you had something to say."
"Did you find the stuff you wanted?"
"Are you a spy? Or a private detective?"
She laughed. "No. I'm a thief."
"I have a thief for an advocate?"
Eliot saw Parker shrug. "Sometimes, bad guys are the only good guys you get."
After a long pause, Dougie said, "Well . . . I guess if good guys can be bad . . . then bad guys can be good."
"Are your good guys bad?" Parker sounded offhand, but Eliot knew she wasn't.
"Most of them," said Dougie. "Higgert is. My grandmother is. My dad . . .was."
Eliot's hands tightened on the wheel.
"What did Higgert do?" asked Parker."
"He yells at me and makes everyone watch me all the time. They don't let me do anything."
Eliot shook his head. The kid was telling the truth, but not all of it—that stuff didn't explain the pure hatred the boy had for the man.
"Spencer will let you do stuff. You can trust him—he's a good bad guy."
"Can I trust you?"
"Then do something for me." Eliot saw him bend and try to lift his pack. Parker helped him. "See these?" There was a rustle of paper.
"What are they?"
"Letters from my mom—she writes to Hannah, but they're for me. Hannah says there wasn't one this month, but . . . but there has to be. Can you steal it?"
"I think it's bad news, or Hannah would have given it to me. If my Mom's in trouble, I need to know."
"What if there isn't a letter?"
"Then something's really wrong. Mom wouldn't forget or be too busy." His voice rose. "She wouldn't."
"I believe you," said Parker. "But what if something is wrong?"
He touched his backpack. "I've been ready for her to come get me, but if she can't, I'll go find her."
Eliot exhaled. The kid had a go bag—and he'd probably had one for two years.
"Are you sure—" Eliot didn't know what Parker was going to ask, but she didn't get the chance.
"Yes." Dougie turned on her. "I'll always be her kid and she'll always be my mom. That's what she said—and she told me to hold on, that she'd come back as soon as she could. And she will."
Eliot recognized the desperation in the boy's voice, the need to believe, even after two years, that he hadn't been abandoned. He saw Parker's expression and knew she wanted to tell Dougie that he was right, that Jo had come back for him.
Hell, he was two seconds away from doing it himself.
Dougie wasn't finished. "She's the only one who ever really wanted me—she's the only one ever. Even my dad didn't—that's what he said right before he . . . he was going to hit me and maybe my brother, and Mom—she fought him. For us. And she won.
"They made her go away, and they said she didn't want me anymore, but they lied. They lied, but there's no letter and now Hannah won't tell me anything . . . " His thin shoulders started to shake.
"Okay," said Parker, her expression uneasy. "I'll find the letter."
Dougie took a few breaths, and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "And then will you help me find my mom? She needs me—I'm all she has."
Eliot's eyes' met Parker's in the review. He raised his eyebrows and she nodded.
"We'll help you."
Parker had made her decision.
Chapter 27: The Trust: Jo
Jo carried five shopping bags into the hotel, so lost in thought that she didn't realize she'd headed for the stairs until Sophie, similarly loaded down, stopped her and suggested that the elevators were a better choice.
Sophie bestowed a smile on the man who obligingly pressed the button for their floor and glanced at Jo. "Are you . . . ?" her voice trailed off, as if she wasn't sure how to finish.
"I don't know," said Jo, thinking of the two boys who were completely comfortable in their own home. And a third boy who had never been able to risk that.
Jo dumped the bags in Sophie's room and headed for the suite—she was far more interested in the latest recordings of Dougie than in clothes for people who didn't exist.
"Hardison? Do you—"
The hacker swiveled around and leapt out of his seat, holding out a hand like a traffic cop. "Whoa, now—you aren't allowed within three feet of this table until you promise you won't touch anything on it. I'm serious—even if it's on fire."
"What did I do?"
"You gave us all anxiety attacks, is what you did." He explained, to Jo's dawning horror.
"Oh, my God, I'm so sorry." She pressed her cold hands to her warm face. "I could have screwed up everything."
The hacker's expression softened. "Well . . . it would have been tricky. But I guess I don't mind the job security." He patted her shoulder. "But next time you want a secret electronic rendezvous in the middle of the night, let me in on it, okay? Nice haircut, by the way. Suits you."
"Thanks. I'd better apologize to Spencer. Through my earbud," she added.
"S'okay," Spencer said over the speakers. "I got to blow off some steam and lay some rubber. Considering the rest of the morning, that probably saved a couple lives."
Jo knew from his tone that he was only half kidding. "Something happened?"
"Where's Sophie?" asked Hardison. "I'm supposed to fill you in."
"I'll get her." Jo took two steps before the door opened.
"I hung everything up for you," Sophie said, giving Jo a pointed look. "You can get it later." She looked around. "Where's Nate?"
Hardison shrugged. "He got a phone call maybe half an hour ago, filled the ice bucket and took off."
"What?" Sophie's frowned. "Why?"
"No idea." He folded his arms defensively. "Hey, I was brain-deep in Pennsylvanialegalresearch dot com. Trust law is not my forte, and I didn't want to leave it up to Wikipedia. 'Sides, he told me not to worry about it—and he didn't use that voice that means I should—you know the one, right? So I didn't."
Sophie and Jo exchanged glances. Sophie still looked worried, but she sat down.
"I just got done telling Eliot about your interview with Elizabeth Thompson," he continued, sitting in his chair and hitting a few keys, "so now it's your turn. Olivia Marten, that's Mr. Marten's cousin-in-law, paid a visit to the mansion today. Turns out she's got a granddaughter—Julia . . ."
There was a pause after Hardison called up the latest medical report and Spencer added the final pithy details.
"Sophie," growled Jo. "Give me my damn paperclips back."
"Don't tempt me. How did Nate take it?" asked Sophie, her eyes going to the minibar.
"How do you think?" said Spencer. "Shades of the past."
"He only took the bucket, Sophie," said Hardison, in a gentle voice. "I checked."
Sophie nodded, exhaling. "So we have a deadline now."
"We have two," said Nate, from the doorway. "Get Eliot."
"I'm here—got patrol duty for a couple hours, in case someone tries to steal the hedges. What's going on?"
"It doesn't rain, but it pours." He looked behind him. "There was an incident." He moved out of the way to let Mike and Ron through.
"There certainly was," said Sophie, staring. "So that's what the ice was for."
"Yeah," said Mike, taking his hand out of the bucket and inspecting his swollen knuckles. "Nothing's broken," he said flexing his fingers.
Jo made a beeline for Ron, who held a towel full of ice to his face with a broken-knuckled hand. She reached up, and gently pulled it away to reveal the infant puff of a classic black eye.
"What?" demanded Spencer.
"We got warned off outside Dermott's Place this afternoon," said Ron, taking his towel back. "It's not as bad as it looks," he told Jo, wincing as the cold fabric touched his skin.
"Couldn't be," she said, taking both men by the arms and propelling them to the sofa.
"Warned off?" Spencer's voice was sharp.
"Yeah," said Mike. "Looks like someone found out Jo's back in town. Wanted us ta tell ya to get out of Franklinsburg. And don't even think about causing trouble for the Martens."
"How'd they know?" asked Jo.
"Someone at the gym, someone here at the hotel." Nate shrugged. "It wasn't exactly a secret."
"They aren't exactly keeping things a secret, either," said Spencer. "What did they look like?"
"There were three of them. Big bald guy was calling the shots," said Ron. "Maybe ex-military, but I doubt it—he was trying too hard."
Hardison brought up three ID photos. "See anyone you know?"
"That one." Mike pointed to the center image.
"Let me guess," said Spencer.
"Higgert," said Jo.
"The others weren't as clean cut," said Ron, squinting with his good eye.
"They look worse now," said Mike, with a satisfied smile. "Big guy decided ta send Jo what he called a visual warning."
"It worked," said Jo.
"Not hardly," said Mike, scoffing. "They only landed one each."
"There's a smart move," said Spencer. "Attacking a couple of guys coming out of a boxing gym."
"Yeah," said Ron. "Mike here broke a couple of important pieces off one of them—"
"And Ron knocked the other guy cold." They exchanged grins.
"Wasn't Pullman or Vince," said Spencer. "They looked fine an hour ago. Higgert must've hired local talent."
Mike snorted. "Talent, right."
"Please tell me one of you hurt Higgert," said Jo.
"Badly," added Sophie.
"Sorry," said Mike. "He didn't stick around once Ron here threw his dance partner into some trashcans—people started ta notice."
"Yeah, like your guy wasn't screaming at the top of his lungs."
"Dislocated shoulder's a bitch," said Mike.
"Those are Hardison's favorite targets," said Spencer. "He likes fighting the injured."
"Don't start with me, man," said Hardison, leaning back in his chair. "Everyone's got a niche."
"But why would they bother to send me a warning?" asked Jo. "I don't have any power—that they know about," she added, as Nate raised his eyebrows.
"Exactly," said Nate. "You're an unknown. They're probably worried you fell in with a band of criminals willing to upset their applecart. Check Higgert's finances," he added to Hardison.
The hacker's fingers flew over the keyboard.
"You think he's got a private arrangement going on?" asked Sophie.
"Mrs. Marten couldn't inspire his kind of loyalty," said Spencer, "but money might."
"Money did," said Hardison. "Looks like he's accepting tips from his employers—think he knows that's against company policy? He received a substantial deposit yesterday from Mrs. Marten's personal account. He withdrew a thousand this morning. I'm thinking that was for the so-called talent."
"Hope he paid 'em in advance," said Mike. "Ambulances ain't cheap."
Jo looked at Ron's eye again, feeling the familiar weight of guilt settle over her. "No one called the police?"
"Your cigar-chewing friend said he'd take care of it," said Mike. "He didn't like the idea of someone threatening Jojo's boys on his property."
"Marty offered me a job," said Ron. "He thinks Mike's moves are a little too fancy."
Mike rolled his eyes.
"If Higgert tried this once, he might try again," said Spencer, sounding pissed. "And Mrs. Marten would probably pay him a bonus if he made sure Jo never came back. We need a plan, Nate."
Nate scrubbed the back of his neck. "I'm aware of that."
"Eliot could just drive Dougie away tomorrow morning," said Hardison. "I can make up a couple of new identities, and Jo could take him across the country, maybe into Canada . . ."
Jo took Ron's hand. "I don't want Dougie to have to live like that," she said. Dougie needed a home . . . a real home.
"Being a fugitive ain't any kind of life for a kid," said Spencer.
"And it won't get the trust where it belongs or the Martens off Jo's back. No . . . we need to disinherit Dougie, and we need to do it quickly. Julia Marten doesn't have much time." Nate started pacing. "There are two ways to do this—through custody, or through the trust."
"Can Elizabeth Thompson help us?" asked Sophie.
"I don't know," said Nate. "She signed away her parental rights . . . of course, I doubt it was strictly legal . . . but untangling that would make a bigger mess. . . "
"Maybe not," said Jo, slowly. "Maybe she should have custody."
"What?" asked Hardison and Sophie.
"Come again?" said Nate.
"What the hell, Jo?" asked Spencer.
Jo's eyes were so dry they hurt. "She cares about him. And she could give him a whole family."
Ron squeezed her hand. "So can you," he said.
"It isn't the same—he has two little . . . little brothers he doesn't know about. And I'm sure she'd share the trust with Julia."
"Is that really the way you want to play it?" said Nate, in a gentle voice.
"Of course not! But if it's the only way . . ."
"Not the only way," said Sophie. "Just the easiest."
Jo couldn't answer. "It would solve everyone's problems."
"Except yours. And it isn't up to you anyway, is it? You put Parker in charge."
"Parker," said Jo "you agree with me, right? The Thompsons would be better for Dougie."
"Forget it," said the thief, appearing out of a corner that should have been empty. "No one gets custody but you."
"Damn straight," said Spencer.
Jo closed her eyes and swallowed, her throat clicking. "Why?" she asked, when she could.
"Because you're the one he wants," said Parker, as if it was that simple.
"Believe it, Jo," said Eliot. "The kid's ready to come looking for you."
Her eyes weren't dry anymore "But—"
"Don't," said Parker. She moved in front of Jo and folded her arms. "Do you want to be Dougie's mother?"
"More than anything—but he needs a safe, happy life."
Parker leaned close, meeting Jo's eyes with a blue stare that was impossible to break. "Then you'd better give him one." She straightened. "I'm going to go find that last letter of yours and tell Dougie you're here. Eliot?"
"Eleven o'clock, third window. And I mean eleven, this time."
"Parker . . ." said Nate, frowning. "Are you sure?"
"So am I," said Spencer. "Especially if we want him to stay put."
"Okay . . . but will he give us away? Not on purpose, but—"
"No," said Parker. "He kept Jo's letters secret for two years."
"It'll help if he knows Higgert's going down, too," Spencer added.
"We can arrange that," said Nate. "What else do we have?"
"What about Dougie's birth father? Jeffrey Carleton?" Hardison started typing. "Isn't it the father that's important, here?"
"We don't know for sure that he is the father," said Nate.
"Oh, come on—Doug Marten knew," said Sophie. "And Elizabeth Thompson did, too, no matter what she said."
"But Doug's name is one the birth certificate," said Jo. "Wouldn't it take a paternity test to change it?"
"I can change it," said Hardison. "Take me five minutes. Okay, an hour. Max."
"I'd be tempted," said Nate, "but copies of that certificate could be in a dozen places. And no," he told Parker, "we don't have time to track them all down."
She frowned and plopped down on the ottoman.
"Okay, say Carleton is the father." Nate continued to pace. "What's to say he'd want to help? He's not named as the father now—why would he bother to claim paternity, just to give it away?"
"And what if he's the type to blackmail the Martens?" asked Sophie. "Be a good living, staying away."
"I'd like to see him try to blackmail Mrs. Marten," said Eliot. "She'd cut him off at the knees and feed him his feet. Or have Higgert do it."
"So you're saying we need him to stay away?" asked Jo.
"That won't be a difficult," said Hardison, putting a document on the screen. "Jeffrey Carleton died right before Dougie was born . . . overdose."
There was a general silence.
"Well," said Nate. "At the risk of sounding callous, that's one less thing we need to worry about."
"Okay . . . If we can't prove Doug isn't Dougie's father, can we prove my former father-in-law isn't his grandfather?" asked Jo.
"DNA tests," said Sophie.
"That would do it," said Nate. "But we can't just steal samples . . . to legally change a vital record, the samples need to be obtained legally."
"And the Martens won't volunteer," said Spencer. "They're holding all the cards."
"I could—I mean, Samantha Parkington could petition the court."
"On what grounds?" Nate rubbed his chin. "Let's look at this from another angle. What do we know about the trust?"
"We know Franklin Douglas Marten didn't like his grandchildren much," said Hardison. "Skipping one generation is a common tax dodge—skipping two is personal. Looks like Olivia Marten's son wasn't much better than Doug when the trust was set up—he's got a juvie record."
"Are you telling us we have to rescue two kids now?"
"No, nothing like that—he's been clean since his record was sealed. Not even a parking ticket. I was just saying."
"Well don't," growled Spencer. "This thing is complicated enough."
"My bad, sorry. Anyway, the trust is very specific." Hardison picked up a sheaf of pages and passed it to Nate."The first-born great-grandchild is the sole beneficiary. The legal guardians can access the interest for basic needs at the discretion of the trustee until the beneficiary is twenty-five. The usual age is twenty-one, but I guess Great-grandpa Franklin didn't hold with giving a brand-new drinker access to millions."
"Millions?" said Ron. "You're trying to take millions of dollars away from your son?"
"Yeah." Jo frowned. "Does it matter?"
"I guess not," he said. "Sounds like that money's done enough damage already. Besides," he pulled her hand to his heart. "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou . . ."
Mike rolled his eyes. "Oh, brother. You gonna fall for that?"
"I'm thinking about it," she said, turning her attention back to the team.
Nate was reading something, an intent look on his face. He flipped back a page and stared at that. "Who's the trustee?"
"Ambrose Thwaite the Third," said Hardison. "Very senior partner of the very respectable firm of Thwaite and Brooksbank. He's responsible for the maintenance and release of all funds until the beneficiary turns twenty-five."
Nate went over to Hardison and pointed to something on the page. Hardison frowned, and took the papers back. "How responsible?" asked Nate.
A smile spread across the hacker's face. "Completely, legally, responsible."
"That's our in," said Nate. He clapped his hands together. "Let's go legally obtain a stolen trust fund."
And the planning began in earnest.
Chapter 28: The Marten Job: Eliot
The next morning, Eliot was in the kitchen by seven. He'd had his bare minimum of sleep last night, what with one thing and another—but he learned long ago that on the day a job went down, it was better for his aggravation levels to get up early and put the time to use than to force himself to rest.
Besides, he had a feeling Dougie would be an early riser, too.
A subdued Hannah poured him a cup of coffee and went back to cutting butter into a big bowl of flour. "Biscuits in half an hour, Mr. Spencer."
"You okay, Ms. Greer?"
She didn't answer for a moment. "Mr. Spencer . . . "
She poured milk into the bowl and picked up a wooden spoon. "You protect people."
He nodded, sipping from his cup. "I try."
"How do you know when you shouldn't?"
"Guess it depends," he said, thinking about it. "Maybe when shielding someone will hurt them worse than standing back?"
She pursed her lips and started mixing the contents of the bowl. "What if you can't tell?"
He lifted his shoulders. "Sometimes all you can do is be there to pick up the pieces."
Dougie came into the room and dumped his pack on the floor.
"Good morning, Dougie," said Hannah, in a quiet voice.
Dougie ignored her. "Morning, Spencer."
Hannah let out a shaky breath and walked out of the kitchen.
Eliot put down his coffee cup. "Congratulations—you just hurt someone who loves you."
Dougie's cheeks flushed, and he lifted his chin. "She said there wasn't a letter from my mother, but she lied. Parker found it."
"Cut her some slack, kid. She didn't want to get your hopes up."
"But Mom really is coming to get me," said Dougie in a loud whisper. "She really is!"
"Yeah, but Hannah doesn't know that—all she knows is that the last time your mother came here, both of you got hurt bad. Remember?"
Dougie didn't say anything.
"That woman loves you —she's the one who's taken care of you when your mom couldn't. And she didn't have to share any of those letters with you. If your grandparents ever found out, she could be in a lot of trouble. And you just thanked her by treating her like she doesn't matter."
"I didn't mean to—"
"But you did. Go apologize."
Dougie started to protest, but withered under Eliot's steady gaze. "Okay," he mumbled.
Hannah came back in, carrying an envelope.
Dougie dragged himself over to her. "Sorry, Hannah. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings." He sniffed once, twice, and then gave her a hug that staggered her back a step.
She leaned down and hugged him back. "I'm sorry, too, Dougie. I didn't have any right to keep this from you."
Dougie looked down at the letter. "You said there wasn't one."
"I know," she glanced at Eliot and lowered her voice—though not enough. "Your mom, she wants to visit. I thought . . . I thought if it didn't work out, you'd never have to know. That way you wouldn't be hurt. But I hurt you anyway and I'm sorry."
"That's all right. You didn't mean to." He paused and looked at Eliot, who nodded. "Hannah, mom always keeps her promises."
"Well . . . I hope she can keep this one."
"Ma'am?" said Eliot. "She can. And she will."
"She has," said Dougie, grabbing her again. "She's here! Hannah, Mom's here."
"Oh." Hannah's eyes went wide. "Oh! But—that's . . ." She stared at Eliot. "You're a friend of Dougie's mother?"
"One of many," said Eliot. "I'd appreciate it if you could keep that a secret for now. I'll tell you what I can later." He gave the back of Dougie's head a meaningful look and she nodded. "We might need your help."
"Thank you, Mr. Spencer. You'll have it."
Dougie let go. "I'm hungry. Are we having biscuits?"
She let out a little laugh. "We are, if I haven't ruined them." She blinked suspiciously shiny eyes. "You want juice?"
"Yes, please." He put the letter in his backpack and took his seat.
"You're both early this morning," said Hannah, setting a glass on the table and offering Eliot a refill.
"Thought we'd take the scenic route this morning," said Eliot. "But maybe we'll just use the extra time eating all the biscuits." He winked at Dougie.
Despite the temptations of honey and molasses and fresh apple butter, they left fifteen minutes early. Dougie's pack was as heavy as ever, but Eliot didn't comment.
Dougie waited until Eliot started the engine. "My mom is coming for me, Spencer. Parker let me talk to her—she stuck this thing in my ear and a guy said one secret midnight rondi—rondi—"
"Rendezvous," said Eliot, his lips twitching.
"Yeah, rendezvous, coming right up. And then Mom was there. Just for a while—she said it was a school night." His tone made his opinion of this clear.
"At least you know it was really her."
Eliot looked at the kid in the rearview. "Something bothering you?"
"I wanted Parker to take me to see her right away, but Mom said we had to wait."
"She's right. You leave now, your grandparents are going to send people to get you back. We have to make sure they don't."
"Soon. I promise." Very soon—but that was something Dougie didn't need to know right now. He chuckled. "Jo's as impatient as you are, trust me."
"You're really my Mom's friend?"
"I really am." And it was true—strange, but true.
"Then . . . do you know where she's been?"
Eliot glanced at Dougie. "She stayed away because she had to, kid—not because she wanted to."
Dougie waved that away. "I know that. But she wouldn't tell me where she was or what she's been doing. Parker wouldn't tell me either. They both looked . . . Is it—is it bad?"
Eliot took a deep breath. "It's not my place to tell you the specifics, but your mom had a really rough time for a while. It almost killed her to lose your brother and leave you—she thought it was all her fault—"
"We know that, but she didn't—still doesn't, sometimes. You ever feel guilty in your heart for something your brain knows you didn't do?"
"Yeah. I thought it was my fault my . . . my brother died . . . because if Dad had liked me more, maybe he would have taken me with him instead of Reid . . . but Hannah said it wasn't. She said some bad words, too, so I know she meant it."
Eliot bit back some bad words of his own. "Hannah was right. But your mom was alone for a long time—she didn't have anyone to tell her any different. Now she does."
"I thought . . . I thought she was afraid to come back."
"She was afraid for you, not for herself. Your mom always thinks of other people first. It's kind of a pain, sometimes."
Dougie smiled at that, but his brow furrowed. "But Higgert hurt her. She was already hurt, but he dragged her away and threw her down. . . what if he does it again?"
"Then he's in for a surprise. Your mom's been learning how to fight. And she's pretty good—she can hold her own against Higgert."
Eliot grinned. "Hey, the first time I met Jo, she saved my life."
"Yep." Eliot looked at his watch. He had a lot to do, but . . . what the hell. The kid deserved to know what kind of mother he had—and Jo wouldn't tell him.
"Wait a minute." He pulled over and got out, walking around to the curbside back wheel. He took out the switchblade he'd liberated from Reuter's goon—it was a decent knife, if not exactly a good luck charm—flicked it open, and plunged it into the tire.
He motioned for Dougie to roll down the window. "Look at that—we got a flat tire. We can talk while I fix it." He grinned at Dougie's expression and went to call it in.
Ten minutes later, he was loosening lug nuts and telling the rapt boy the story—slightly edited—of how his mother had almost hit a home run with a murderer's head and ended up training with a couple of the best fighters in the world, if Eliot did say so himself.
He mentioned Ron along the way, but left the details alone. Dougie might not take kindly to sharing Jo right away and it wasn't Eliot's place to interfere any more than he had already.
"And then Mom saved up enough to hire your team to help her?"
"No, sir—we aren't getting paid a cent."
"Then why? Grandma says no one does anything without expecting payment."
"Your grandma . . . never mind. Helping you and your mom is the right thing to do, and you don't charge for doing the right thing—well, we don't, anyway. Plus, your mom has a way of earning respect. She sure got my team's attention."
Dougie was practically hanging out of the window. "How?"
"I dunno, kid," said Eliot, with a show of reluctance. "You're mom's gonna kill me as it is."
"Well . . . we were walking down the street to mail that last letter . . ."
A car pulled up behind near the end of the story—again, slightly edited—and the tire change. Eliot stopped midsentence and made Dougie roll up the window. He stood with the wrench in one hand, only relaxing when Pullman got out.
"Need some help?"
"Got some." Eliot knocked on the window, which rolled down to show Dougie sporting a smear of grime on one cheek. He grinned and waved at Pullman, who blinked and smiled back.
"Looks like you do." He looked at his watch. "Come on, Young Master Marten—I'll give you a lift the rest of the way."
"Please can I stay? Spencer's teaching me how to change a tire."
Pullman frowned. "You'll be late for school—"
"We're almost done," said Spencer, squatting down. "I'll take responsibility with Higgert." He held up a hand and Dougie handed him the final lug nut.
"I guess I could tell him I didn't find you until you were already on your way," said Pullman. "Hey, don't fall out the window, kid."
"I won't. Thanks, Pullman."
"Yeah, well, changing tires is one of the three things a guy needs to know how to do that you're old enough to learn."
"What are the other two?"
"Unstopping a toilet and . . . well, maybe you're still a little young for the other one."
"Done." Spencer stood. "Thanks, man."
"Don't mention it. Especially to Higgert. He's in a foul mood today. See you back at the ranch." He waved and walked to his car.
Eliot put the wrench and the jack back in the trunk and tossed in the flat. "Where were we?" he asked, taking his place behind the wheel.
"Mom was pretending she was a hostage."
"Right. Well, see, she had the blonde guy's gun . . ."
The story ended just as they reached the school. The other students were just filing in, and Dougie, having been warned to keep the story and his mother's arrival to himself, charged up the front steps. He looked back and waved.
Eliot lifted a hand, and got back in the car. He turned his earbud on. "Anyone there?"
"Yeah," said Nate, sounding distracted. Eliot heard papers rustling. "What's up?"
"You know that part of the plan where I take out the guards?"
"I've been thinking . . . I'll give Higgert a permanent concussion if you want, but I can't just knock out the others. I mean, I can, but it doesn't feel right. They're both good guys, just doing their jobs."
"Eliot, everyone you've ever fought were just doing their—"
"Okay, yeah—but I know these guys. They only put up with Higgert 'cause he's in charge. And they've been decent to the kid."
There was a pause. "All right. We'll think of something."
"Already have." He outlined his idea.
"You sure it'll work? Everything's set for this afternoon."
"Think so. If Hardison helps."
"I'll ask. Hey, Hardison, you have time to help Eliot with something?"
"Sure," said Hardison, his voice getting louder. His chair squeaked. "What miracle am I performing today?"
"You're gonna give me a well-deserved promotion," said Eliot.
That afternoon, Eliot opened the front door and let Nate in.
"He should be right behind me," said Nate. "Any problems?"
"The chauffeur is going to drop off Dougie and Hannah promised to keep him in the kitchen. Parker said she'd be around, but don't ask me what that means."
"And your Sicherheit friends?"
Before Eliot could answer, the doorbell rang. He let in an older man with neat beard, steel-rimmed glasses, and understated gold cufflinks.
Nate stepped forward. "Mr. Thwaite? Nathan Goodwin. Thank you for agreeing to meet here—and at such short notice. Mr. Marten simply isn't up to leaving the house and Mrs. Marten doesn't want to leave him, even for such an important matter."
"I understand." Ambrose Thwaite offered a brief, professional smile. "I'll admit, I'm curious, Mr. Goodwin. You didn't tell me much over the phone."
"Mrs. Marten is waiting in the living room," said Nate, gesturing. When Thwaite passed him, he took his briefcase from Eliot and kept pace slightly behind, looking for all the world as if he'd arrived with the other man.
Eliot followed and took up his station by the archway. Higgert was standing in his usual central location and Pullman was behind Nate. Vince, Eliot knew, was in the control room, watching.
Mrs. Marten, wearing a silk dress and a gracious smile that didn't reach her eyes, held out a hand. "Ambrose."
"Madeleine. How is Doug?"
She looked startled. "As well as can be expected—he's resting right now. He was supposed to have a doctor's appointment today, but of course we cancelled for this meeting." She looked at Nate and sat down. "Mr. Goodwin seemed to think it was urgent that we see you."
Nate smiled, taking the single chair at the end of the coffee table. "I believe it is." He opened his briefcase."
"Well," said Thwaite, sitting on the other Queen Anne. "What questions do you have?"
"I'm sorry?" asked Mrs. Marten. "I thought you had questions for me. When your Mr. Goodwin called me, he said—"
"Mr. Goodwin isn't mine—I thought he was calling for you."
They both looked at Nate.
"Yes, well, I do apologize for the subterfuge. But as I have important information for both of you about the Frederick D. Marten Trust, I thought it would be best if we were all on the same page, so to speak."
"But who are you?" asked Mrs. Marten.
"Hmm? Me? I'm a fraud investigator."
"Fraud?" Thwaite frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Someone's playing fast and loose with the stipulations of the Marten trust. And since you're the one legally responsible, Mr. Thwaite, you'll be going down with them."
"What?" Irritation and impatience colored the executive's voice. "What are you talking about? Who are you talking about?"
"Doug and Madeleine Marten are defrauding the trust," said Nate. "And since you haven't protected the trust assets for the beneficiary, you sir, stand to lose a lot more than your reputation."
"This is outrageous!" Mrs. Marten glared at him. "I won't stand for this in my own home. See this person out."
Eliot tensed, but Pullman was suddenly blocking Higgert's path.
"What's this?" growled Higgert.
"Just following orders," said Pullman.
"Orders? Whose orders?"
"Company orders," said Eliot. "We don't like moonlighters. Especially moonlighters who assault private citizens to threaten another one. You best stand down, unless you want your severance package right now."
Higgert's face turned a mottled red, but he backed off.
"You might want to stay for this, Mr. Higgert," said Nate, "since you seem to have a vested interest."
Mrs. Marten made a scoffing sound. "I'll just call the police, then."
Nate gave her his guileless look. "You do that, Mrs. Marten. I'm sure they'll be very interested in why you paid Mr. Higgert a considerable amount of money to beat up the friends of your former daughter-in-law."
Mrs. Marten repeated the sound, but didn't move.
"Good," said Nate. "Back to the original topic."
Ambrose Thwaite cleared his throat. "I assume you have proof of fraud?"
Nate tossed a folder onto the coffee table. "You approved that these funds be released for the support of Douglas F. Marten and his grandparents?"
Thwaite opened the folder and gave Nate a startled look over his glasses. "Where did you get this?"
"That's not important. Did you approve these funds?"
"I believe so—food, mortgage, transportation, medical expenses, educational expenses, security. There's certainly nothing here I would have refused." He closed the folder. "If you're saying that these expenses aren't reasonable, you have no idea how the rich live."
"On the contrary," said Nate. "I wouldn't dream of calling these expenses unreasonable, not even the remarkable number of medical bills. Crazy, maybe . . . oh, sorry, Mrs. Marten—eccentric. But, no, we're not challenging the expenses."
"We're challenging the release of those funds in the first place. Douglas F. Marten isn't the legal beneficiary of the Trust. He isn't Franklin Marten's great-grandchild."
Thwaite blinked. "I'm sorry?"
Mrs. Marten went very still. Eliot couldn't tell if she was surprised or not, but he knew she wouldn't go down without a fight.
"Franklin Marten left his money to a great-grandchild," said Nate. "His grandson, Doug Marten, Jr., found one. Not made one, found one—took one, in fact. And then abandoned the child when he didn't need him anymore—when his own son was born. Reid Marten would have been the legal beneficiary. . . if his father hadn't killed him while trying to escape the country."
Mrs. Marten spoke precisely, coldly. "My son's name is on Douglas' birth certificate. Perhaps you are unaware that in this state—"
"Ah—but it doesn't matter what the state says—it matters what the trust says." Nate handed Thwaite a thick document. "I've marked all the sections—Franklin Marten was very specific. "A great-grandchild of my blood. Not of my name. Of my blood."
Thwaite paged through.
"That's just archaic language," snapped Mrs. Marten.
"Not in this age of DNA tests." Nate turned to Thwaite. "Which I suggest you order immediately as trustee, before the media frenzy starts."
"The media?" Thwaite's lips twitched. "I think you overestimate the public's interest in these—"
"Are you kidding? Wait until word gets out that the real beneficiary is a little baby girl who's dying because her parents can't afford the only treatment that might save her. Mr. Thwaite, the public won't just be interested—they'll be burning you in effigy."
Mrs. Marten's eyes narrowed. "I should have known," she growled under her breath.
"Dying? I don't understand—"
"Julia Felice Marten." Nate reached into his briefcase and held out a photo. "Granddaughter of Olivia and Frank Marten, Jr. She has Raley's Syndrome." He dropped the photo on top of the file. "Do you know what the symptoms of Raley's are?"
"I . . ." Thwaite slowly took the photo, looked at it. "No."
Nate told him.
Thwaite went ashen. "I don't need the tests. I can split the trust at my—"
"No!" said Mrs. Marten. "Douglas is my grandson. This is . . . slander."
"I agree with Mrs. Marten," said Nate. "Not about the slander part, of course, but it is our opinion that only the true beneficiary should, ah, benefit."
Thwaite looked at Nate for a long moment, then nodded. "Madeleine, will you agree to a DNA test between your husband and your grandson?"
"Absolutely not. Burden of proof is on them."
"That's not entirely true," said Nate. "But Julia Marten's parents have already agreed to provide DNA to compare to either her father or to Mrs. Marten's husband." He passed Thwaite a document.
Ambrose Thwaite nodded. "So all we need is a sample from your husband and grandson."
"No. Ambrose, you can't be serious—"
"I am. And I will freeze all funds until I get a court order."
"Then get one. I will not be party to this. . .invasion of privacy."
"Mr. Thwaite, in the event that Douglas is not a member of the Marten family, will you sue to get the funds back?
"That is a distinct possibility. This is my reputation on the line. And my error in not insisting on a paternity test in the first place."
"And, if you don't mind me asking, how much would reparations come to?"
Thwaite paged through the folder and named a figure. "That's only for the time Douglas was in custody of his—of Mr. and Mrs. Marten."
Mrs. Marten went still again.
"That's a lot of money . . . and then there are all those medical bills you have coming in from the chiropractors, acupuncturists, colonic irrigators, and all the other doctors your husband has seen this past month. Do you have enough to cover all that, Mrs. Marten?"
"What do you want?" she said.
"I want you and your husband to give up all claims to Douglas F. Marten the Third. If you do that, perhaps Mr. Thwaite might be persuaded to reconsider litigation."
Thwaite gave him a sharp look.
"After all," continued Nate, "it might be possible that you didn't know your son sold you the wrong child in exchange for three tickets to Morocco."
She had pressed her lips together so tightly that a white ring had appeared around her mouth, and released them only long enough to force a sentence between her teeth. "I wanted to keep my grandson safe."
"You had two grandsons, Mrs. Marten," said Nate in a voice Eliot had only heard once or twice since they'd started working together. "Why didn't you keep them both safe?"
"I didn't know that wretched little bastard was the wrong one until after the funeral—" Her mouth snapped shut again.
"Damn," said Hardison in Eliot's ear. He'd been uncharacteristically silent until now—Jo must have left with Ron and Mike already. "Bitch knew the whole time."
Eliot saw Higgert slip out and motioned Pullman to follow.
"Mr. Goodwin," said Thwaite, studying Madeleine Marten as if she were a particularly nasty insect. "I think I will make that offer."
Eliot heard a double beep on his way to the front door. "Triple-B went straight to the garage," said Vince. "Pullman's in the kitchen, in case he comes back."
"Good. There's a CWS worker coming in soon. Let her in."
"Will do, boss. She's walking up the front steps now. Wow—if I tell her I'm an orphan, think she'll take me, too?"
Eliot snorted. "Down boy." He opened the door for Sophie, who followed him to the living room and announced herself as Samantha Parkington.
"Are we done here?" asked Mrs. Marten, after her signature was witnessed and notarized.
"Yes. You're finished," said Nate.
Mrs. Martin stood and walked out of the room without another word.
"You should have let Jo see Dougie," said Eliot, as she passed him. "That's all she wanted."
She fixed him with her dead, reptilian stare. "My son should have made sure she was dead," she said in a flat voice. "That's all he had to do."
She moved, but he grabbed her arm and leaned close, fixing her with a stare of his own. "If anything happens to Jo, Dougie or anyone they care about, I guarantee you'll live just long enough to regret it. Same goes for Olivia Marten's family."
"Are you threatening me?" Her amusement sounded strained.
He bared his teeth. "Simple promise. You mind your manners and your own business from now on—because it'll be a pleasure to put you out of everyone's misery."
Their eyes met for a long moment . . . and she was the first to look away. He let go and she climbed the stairs, looking every second of her age.
Eliot returned his attention to the living room.
"Mr. Goodwin," Thwaite was saying. "What will happen to the boy now? He's an innocent victim in all this, and I feel that it's partially my fault."
"Don't worry about Douglas, Mr. Thwaite," said Sophie. "We have a wonderful foster mother waiting for him. She'll give him a loving home where he is very much wanted."
"Good, good." The steel-rimmed gaze turned speculative. "With a view toward adoption, I suppose?"
"That would be the ideal outcome."
"Ah." Ambrose Thwaite's eyes crinkled at the corners. "I don't suppose her initials are J.D.M.?"
"You surprise me, Mr. Thwaite," said Nate.
"Me, too," said Hardison.
"I grew up with Pat Dermott, Mr. Goodwin. I was sorry when the legal system let his daughter down, but my hands were tied. Thank you for untying them." He held out a hand and they shook. "I'll release the funds for Julia Marten's treatment immediately."
Nate gave him a card. "Here's Olivia Marten's number—her son and his family are living with her."
"Are you sure you don't want to help me break the news?"
Nate looked tempted. "No . . . it was your decision. Besides, we have a son to reunite with his mother."
"Fair enough. Ms. Parkington, a pleasure." Thwaite nodded to Eliot and left.
"Now that was class. Why can't all our marks be like that?"
"Luck of the draw," said Nate. "Ms. Parkington. Mr. Spencer." He smiled and picked up his briefcase. "I'll see you at the hotel."
"That went really well," said Sophie, emerging from her role for a moment.
"What if Mrs. Marten hadn't known about Dougie?" asked Eliot. "What if she'd agreed to the test? We still don't know for sure if Carleton's his father."
"Then we'd have gone to Plan B." Sophie rummaged in her bag and brought out a plastic envelope.
"A hair from Max Thompson—Dougie's half brother. Just in case someone insisted on getting a sample from his birth mother."
"They use saliva for DNA tests, not hair."
"We weren't going to switch the samples—we were going to submit our own test to the lab and switch the results. Much simpler."
"Parker already got a sample from Mr. Marten," said Hardison. "Gave it to me this morning."
"Do I want to know how—"
"Right. C'mon." Eliot led the way to the kitchen.
Pullman and Dougie were sitting at the table and Vince was leaning against the wall. All three were eating freshly-baked oatmeal cookies. Hannah looked up from wiping the counters.
"Higgert took off in his own car about ten minutes ago," said Pullman.
Vince swallowed and reeled off the license plate number.
"Got it," said Hardison.
"Thanks for the assist," said Eliot. "Enjoy your new job assignments—but not too much." Hardison had given them a choice of the best assignments Sicherheit Security had available—Vince especially was going to be in geek heaven.
"Sir, yes, sir," they said, grinning.
"Las Vegas, here we come," said Vince. "Casinos and chorus girls."
Sophie cleared her throat.
"Or I could just stay here," said the tech, blinking at her. "Maybe start a career in social services."
"Ignore him, miss," said Pullman. "Will you marry me?"
"Boys," said Hannah, her tone curt. Eliot looked at her, but her expression was neutral.
Sophie smiled, but kept her gaze on the boy. "Dougie, I'm Samantha Parkington," she said. "I'm your caseworker from Child Welfare Services. Do you know why I'm here?"
Dougie nodded. "I'm ready," he said, slipping off his chair and going over to his backpack.
"Is that all you're taking?" she asked.
He nodded. "Hannah helped me pack."
"You want we should stick around the kid for a while?" asked Vince. "Just until Higgert's contained?"
"Off the books," said Pullman.
"I appreciate the offer," said Eliot. "But it's covered."
"All right. You know where to find us," said Pullman. "See you around kid." He held out his hand for a high five.
"Vince won't," said Dougie, smiling.
"You ever need someone for covert work, this kid's your man. He's invisible." Vince saluted him, then reached out and tousled his hair. "C'mon, Pullman, I'll help you take down your Jessica Simpson posters."
"Gosh, thanks. Need some help with your Twilight calendar?"
The two bantered their way out.
"Well," said Hannah, before she was suddenly hugging a double armful of small boy.
"I don't want to leave you, Hannah!"
"You aren't leaving me yet," she said to the top of his head. "I'm coming with you to see your mom."
"You are?" Dougie's face showed relief.
"You are?" said Sophie. "I mean, you're more than welcome, of course, but—"
"Good," said the housekeeper. "I'll get my coat. Put your jacket on, Dougie."
"Your duffel is in the corner, there, Mr. Spencer. I washed your laundry and repacked it—don't give me that look, I didn't pry into any secret compartments or disturb your shaving gear."
"No, Ma'am. Thank you, ma'am."
"And have a cookie, Ms. Parkington," she said over her shoulder as she bustled out. "You're too thin."
"Yes, ma'am," said Sophie, with a bewildered look.
Eliot and Dougie looked at each other and snickered.
"Wonder if Nana knows she has a twin," said Hardison. "Bring me some of those cookies, will you?"
Jo knew how to wait—it seemed like she'd been waiting far longer than two years. Most of it in a passive state . . . but recently, not so much.
A lot had happened since she'd obeyed an expected impulse and picked up a baseball bat to save a stranger. What a difference a couple of months could make . . . what had she asked Spencer for, over those hot dogs?
Balance. Control. Confidence. Precision. Purpose.
She was working on the precision, and she suspected that she might have traded some of her apathy-fueled control for a better kind. And her confidence was building, piece by piece.
Her purpose, she knew, had always been there. But Spencer had helped her break the holding pattern of fear and hopelessness. He'd showed her, over and over, that she was worth saving.
He was the best friend she'd ever had.
Well . . . one of two. She glanced at Ron, leaning against a tree and fiddling with an orange leaf he'd picked up from the ground. She owed her balance to him—just knowing there was a genuinely good man in the world made up for a lot. That he loved her—that he made her believe it—was something she would never take for granted.
She thought that Dougie would accept Ron—maybe not right away, but eventually. Ron had let her know that Dougie came first right now, and that he would wait. It had taken time for her to learn to trust Ron—they had to give Dougie, who had never had a consistent, decent male figure in his life, even more time. It would happen. She knew it would—she knew.
She glanced up at the road, where Mike, speaking of good friends, was acting as look out. He was still looking.
Jo knew how to wait—but that didn't mean she liked it. "Hardison?" She started to pace, despite herself. "Are you sure nothing went wrong?"
"I'm sure," said Hardison. "They're all on their way. In fact—"
"Did I miss it?" asked Nate. "Has it happened yet?"
Hardison sighed. "As I was saying—"
"They're here," said Mike, jogging back to Jo as Sophie's car pulled up behind his rental. "You guys getting this?" he asked, tapping his ear.
"Unless the this you're talking about is Jo's arm, then no," said Hardison. "Security cameras don't grow on trees, people. If you and Ron don't aim your camera buttons at it, we can't see it."
"Couldn't you have rigged some kind of wireless thing to put in the trees?"
There was a pause. "That—you just—it's not that. . . you—you just aim those cameras and let me take care of the technical stuff, a'right?"
Mike smirked, Ron chuckled, and even Jo managed a smile.
The passenger door opened and Spencer got out.
Jo reached out and grabbed Ron's arm. Her heart pounded. She'd waited and worked for this moment, but imagining it had been beyond her.
Ron put his large, warm hand on the back of her neck where all the tension had gathered. "You'll do fine," he whispered. "Don't worry."
She kept her eyes on the car. "You're not the boss of me," she said, leaning into him.
"I love you, too," he said, a smile in his voice. "Go get him."
But she couldn't move.
Spencer opened the back door. Dougie climbed out, dragging an overstuffed backpack with him. To Jo's surprise, Hannah Greer walked around the car and stood next to him, a hand on his shoulder.
Dougie looked around, and caught sight of Jo. For a split second, she thought he would back up a step. Maybe he would tell her it was too late, he wanted to stay with Hannah, who'd been there for him while Jo was still hiding from herself. . .
"Mom!" Dougie dropped the backpack and started running.
She managed two steps before she fell to her knees in the soft grass and held out her arms.
Dougie plowed into her, his skinny arms clamping around her neck. Jo didn't care—she could still breathe enough to smell chocolate-chip cookies and laundry detergent and her son. She closed her eyes. "I missed you," she whispered. "I missed you every day."
"Me, too." He pulled back just enough so she could see the bright eyes in his serious face. "Hannah gave me all your letters—even the last one. I read them over and over."
"Hannah's a good friend." Jo looked up to see the housekeeper standing between Spencer and Sophie, looking pleased and sad at the same time. Jo mouthed the words thank you, and Hannah nodded, accepting a tissue from Sophie, who was smiling through her own tears.
"She's the best. But I'm your kid and you're my mom. That's what you wrote, right? Every time."
"Right. You're mine, I'm yours. That doesn't change. Ever."
He strangled her with another hug and she still didn't care, until a voice said, "Hey, kid, you might want to let up a little—she's turning blue."
"Oh." Dougie pulled back. "Are you Mom's friends or Spencer's?"
"Both. I'm Mike. The big guy here is Ron."
Dougie looked up—and up—at Ron. "You own the gym where Mom works."
"I own half of it." He held out a hand and after a brief hesitation, Dougie took it. "It's nice to meet you."
Dougie squinted at Mike. "You helped teach Mom how to fight?"
"Still am. I show her the really cool stuff and Eliot teaches her the rest."
Dougie's nose wrinkled. "Who's Eliot?"
"Eliot is Spencer's real first name," said Jo. "He used David because he was working undercover."
"Oh," said Dougie, apparently fine with that. "Is it okay if I keep calling him Spencer? He doesn't look like an Eliot."
"You get used to that," remarked Nate.
"Or else," added Hardison.
"You can ask him. " She let Dougie help her stand and walked hand in hand with him over to the car.
As Dougie received permission to call Spencer anything he wanted to as long as it was polite, Jo turned to Hannah.
"Thank you so much for everything, Ms. Greer. For sharing my letters and taking such good care of him."
Hannah wiped at her eyes. "Anybody would have done that."
"No they wouldn't," said Jo. "You made him feel loved in that house. You made him feel wanted when no one else did."
"So did you, Ms. Josephine. You never forgot him."
"I'm just Jo."
"And I'm just Hannah."
They glanced down at the boy hanging onto both of them and smiled at each other.
"I'll take good care of our boy," said Jo. "Maybe you could visit sometimes?" She didn't bother to say that it would be a cold day in hell before she brought Dougie back to Franklinsburg.
"I think I can do one better," said Hannah. "My sister—my actual sister—has been after me to move up and help her with her restaurant. And nothing's keeping me with the Martens anymore."
Dougie tugged on Hannah's sweater. "You're coming with us?"
"Not with," said Hannah. "But soon after and nearby."
"Does that mean you're not gonna give me your pecan pie recipe?" asked Spencer, sounding grumpy.
She laughed. "Tell you what—you stop by the restaurant whenever you want and I'll find you a slice."
"Hmmph. I'll hold you to that."
"Me, too!" shouted Dougie.
She smoothed back his hair. "You, too, honey."
"I hate to interrupt, but you all are gonna have company right now, if not sooner." The roar of an engine and the squeal of abused brakes proved him right.
"A hummer?" asked Mike. "Is he kidding?"
"Hannah, get in the car," said Spencer.
Hannah opened the passenger door. "Should I call the police?"
"No," said voices from all directions.
She nodded, then stiffened. "Where's Dougie?"
"Damn. We'll find him. Get in." Eliot slammed Hannah's door. "Let's find some room to move," he told Jo.
Jo nodded and looked around as she backed further into the clearing. Dougie was nowhere to be seen. "Parker!" she hollered.
"Parker?" echoed Sophie. "She's not—"
"Got him," said Parker in Jo's ear.
"Get him out of here," said Jo.
"But, Mo—om," said Dougie, through Parker's earbud.
"We want to watch," said Parker.
"Parker, please," said Jo, as four men got out of the hummer. "This could get rough. They could have guns."
"That's good, but Dougie doesn't need to see any more violence." And it was going to get violent, Jo decided, as Sophie blocked Higgert's path and he shoved her out of his way.
"Dougie needs to know he's safe—and that you are, too. He needs to know you can fight this guy and win. So show him."
Higgert stopped about ten feet away, his thugs spread out on either side, facing Jo's group.
"Red Rover, Red Rover," Mike said under his breath.
Jo took a quick inventory. One had a baseball bat, and another had a tire iron. The remaining thug, who was almost as tall as Ron and as broad as Higgert, didn't look like he was packing anything but his fists, which was probably enough. Higgert had a shoulder harness, left side, but it didn't—
"I knew you were behind this, Miz Marten," said Higgert. "No one else would take that kid for free."
"If that were true, Jo would be standing here all alone," said Mike. "And she'd still kick your ass."
Higgert ignored that. "You ruined a sweet deal for me, you and your pals, here. I'm going to take it out of your hide—and theirs."
"You can try," she said, wondering why she had ever been afraid of this man. He was just one more bully—and she'd had her fill of bullies.
Higgert ignored that, too. "Looks like you're doing a little moonlighting yourself, Spencer. How's that gonna look to the company?"
"Better than you do right now," said Spencer. "Doesn't matter—you're through."
"I gave twenty years to Sicherheit —I'm one of the best operatives you've got!"
"Yeah? Then how come you didn't figure out why we came out here, instead of meeting in town?"
He shrugged. "You're taking the kid and running."
"Sorry," said Jo. "We're beating you down and walking away."
"Big talk." Higgert grinned. "Good thing I brought reinforcements."
"You didn't bring enough," growled Spencer.
"Hey guys," said Ron. "Enough with the clever banter. Our guests are getting bored."
"Got that right," said the big thug. He glanced at Higgert. "You want we should do this?"
"Yeah. Teach them a lesson."
"You're mine," said Spencer.
"Fine by me," said the big thug, and rushed him. The other two came at Mike and Ron.
Jo focused on Higgert. "You're just like my in-laws—outsourcing your dirty work."
"Now, honey," he said, shaking his head. "You know that's not true."
"Smacking around an injured, grieving woman might be dirty, but it isn't work." She glanced past him and bared her teeth. "Try me now."
"Glad to." He reached for his gun, and frowned.
"Looking for this?" called Sophie. She held up a gun in one hand and an empty magazine in another. She tossed the magazine to one side, cleared the chamber, and let a handful of bullets fall to the ground. "Let's have a fair fight this time 'round, all right?"
"What's fair got to do with it?" Higgert reached into his back pocket, and brought around a riot baton, thumbing the release as he did so.
"Déjà vu," Jo muttered, and moved in.
He brought the baton down, but she ducked the blow then lunged and grabbed hold, twisting the weapon out of his hands and flinging it away before dodging a vicious backhand that just grazed her cheek. She hopped back and tried a kick, following up with a thrust to his nose with the heel of her hand, but he moved at the last second and she rammed him in the mouth instead. His head snapped back and he landed hard on his rear.
"Bitch," he mumbled, wiping blood from his mouth. He lumbered to his feet and they circled each other.
"My son has been afraid all of his life," she said, "because of people like you. But that's going to end—right here, right now."
Higgert leapt for her, and she side-stepped, helping his along with a kick to his rear. He stumbled and she kicked him again. He fell and she was on him, grinding a knee into his back and forcing one arm up and around. He thrashed a little, but she forced his arm up further and he screamed, letting out a stream of foul language.
She punched the back of his head. "My son can hear you," she said. "Hell, I can hear you." And she punched him as hard as she could. He went limp.
"Damn, girl!" said Hardison. "That's going on your Greatest Hits."
Ron was standing at her side, holding a baseball bat and a fresh bruise on his cheek. "Nice work," he said.
"Did you see that, Parker! Mom beat him!"
"See? I told you."
Mike came up, twirling a crowbar and looking cheerful despite a split lip. "Local talent," he said, shaking his head.
A loud grunt had them turning around just in time to see the big thug go down and Spencer smooth his hair back. "Y'all done yet?
Jo put her hands on her hips. "What, you have a date with another executive secretary?" He heard Hardison chuckle and smiled. "Hey, Sophie? You still have my paperclips?"
"In my bag." After a moment, she walked over and handed Jo a few.
"Jo," said Spencer. "What are you gonna do?"
"A new trick," she said, straightening a clip. "Well, more like a craft project." She wrapped the wire around the base of Higgert's thumbs as tightly as she could and twisted the ends together. She did his little fingers as well and stood. "I have got to remember to start bringing restraints along."
"We're not finished," said Spencer. He went over to the big thug, who was just sitting up.
The Thug looked around the clearing and then up at Spencer. He flinched back and held up a hand. "Wait a minute—nothing personal, guys, just business. Higgert offered us $500 a piece to come rough you up. That's double the usual."
Jo wondered who else had suffered on Mrs. Marten's say so. At least that wouldn't be happening again anytime soon. Maybe she'd ask Marty to keep an eye on things for her . . .
"He pay you in advance?" asked Spencer.
"Nah. But he's always been good for it."
"Not anymore. He's broke."
"He is?" asked Jo.
"He is," said Hardison, sounding smug. "I got his accounts and Sophie got his wallet."
"Yeah," said Spencer. "Looks like he was gonna let you take all the punishment for nothing."
"Well, now," said the thug, narrowing his eyes. "That's personal."
"Thought you might see it that way. Sophie?" He caught a wallet and opened it, selecting three bills. "If y'all would wait until we've cleared out before teaching him a lesson, we'd appreciate it."
The thug reached out and took the money. "I guess we could do that, seeing as you asked so nicely." He looked around. "Might take a little time for the others to wake up anyway."
"Yeah, sorry about that," said Mike, looking anything but.
"Let's find Dougie and Parker," said Spencer. "Anyone see where they went?"
Jo grinned and pointed up.
"Can you get us down now?" asked Dougie from his branch. "We're out of cookies."
"Parker!" Hardison sounded upset. "Were those my cookies?"
"Didn't see your name on them," she said and threw herself out of the tree.
"Incoming!" hollered Spencer and lunged. He was too late.
Jo covered her mouth.
"Oh, no!" said Sophie.
"What. Just. Happened?" wheezed Mike from his flattened position under the blonde thief.
"You caught me," she said and rolled off.
"Oh. Okay." He lay there a moment, struggling for breath. "Don't. Tell. Maya."
"Do I have to jump, too?" asked Dougie.
Ron lifted up his arms. "Not if you don't want to."
Dougie thought about it, then dropped the short distance.
Ron lowered him to the ground. "Express Delivery," he said.
Dougie eyed him. "Parker says you want to marry Mom and I shouldn't fight it because you'll be a real dad—like Mom's a real mom. She says you're one of the good good guys."
"Parker!" said Sophie.
"What?" Parker stepped over Mike on her way to Hannah, who had ventured out of the car. "Did you bring any more cookies?"
Ron squatted down to look Dougie in the eye. "I won't lie to you. I love your mother and I do want to join your family. But nothing has to happen now—you don't know anything about me, and you've got a lot of other things to deal with. So what do you say you and I get to know each other first, and then we can decide?"
Dougie nodded slowly. "Parker says you make Mom happy."
"So do you. Let's keep working on that."
"Okay." Dougie offered him a small smile.
"If you two are through arranging my life for me," said Jo, not minding a bit, "can we go now?"
Dougie ran over. "You beat him, Mom! You won!"
Jo put a hand on his shoulder and looked around at her friends. "Yeah," she said. "I did."
Chapter 30: The Rest: Eliot
Eliot ran through downtown Franklinsburg and along the river, enjoying the early morning alone time with no voices in his ears and no ulterior motive but to stretch his legs and let his mind unwind.
Not every job knotted him up like this, but some did, even the ones that hadn't been particularly dangerous or taken a sudden nose dive. He hadn't taken a job this personally since he'd helped rescue a horse for a family he'd once hoped could be his. He'd walked away from them again, for pretty much the same reasons he had before.
Plus, his definition of family had changed.
He wondered if Jo was going to find something else to fight for, now that she'd found her family. He thought she might. Once you knew you could make a difference, it was hard to stop.
He headed back to the hotel.
After taking a shower and putting on clothes that weren't in the Sicherheit dress code, he let himself into the suite. He found Nate reading a newspaper over coffee, Hardison rummaging in the minifridge, and Jo coming out of one of the bedrooms.
"Morning," she said, shutting the door behind her. She went to the 'fridge and pulled out a diet Pepsi.
Eliot poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the minibar. "Where is everyone?"
"Sophie came in here twenty minutes ago and took all the pens, a ream of paper, and the spare laptop," said Nate. "Anything else happened before coffee."
"Ron and Mike dropped in to see if you and Jo wanted to go to Dermott's for a tag team brawl," said Hardison. "But you'd already left, and Jo . . ."
"Decided to use the treadmill in the hotel gym," she said, not needing to add that she wanted to stay close for Dougie's sake.
The hacker shook his head. "I don't know how you people can run in straight lines before 8am, much less beat on each other."
"It's a gift," said Eliot. "The kid still asleep?"
Her smile glowed with affection. "Out like a light. We stayed up a long time talking last night."
Nate took a swallow of coffee. "I don't suppose anyone knows where Parker is?"
Eliot did, more or less, but he didn't want to spoil the surprise. It wasn't often he and the thief worked a side job together, but this one had been a pleasure.
"She headed out last night, late." Hardison shrugged. "Said she had business."
"Business?" Nate put down his cup. "What business?"
"Nothing that's gonna cause trouble," said Eliot. "For us," he added.
Nate gave him a look. "I'm going to need some details, here."
Before Eliot could answer, Parker appeared in the doorway. "I had to see a couple of people. Here," she said, tossing Jo a bulging, oversized, padded envelope.
Jo shot Parker a wary look, and looked inside. Her jaw dropped. "Where did all this come from?"
"Mrs. Marten had some jewelry that wasn't costume—her pearls were vintage Mikimoto—and Mr. Marten had some old coins in the safe and a couple of first editions in the library. There was a Canaletto in the dining room that hadn't been switched out yet . . . and a few other odds and ends, too."
Nate looked at Eliot, eyebrows raised.
"Wiped 'em out," said Eliot, smiling over his cup. "Everything we could find."
"Good," said Nate.
Jo opened her mouth, closed it, and held the envelope out. "Hardison?"
He took it with a big grin. "One college fund coming up."
"You'll never touch a cent of it."
"Thank you." Jo went to the thief and stood just inside a normal person's comfort zone. "Thanks, Parker."
"I didn't do it for you." But Parker was smiling.
They looked at each other, these two women who shouldn't have understood each other at all, and Jo leaned close to Parker's ear and whispered something that Eliot couldn't catch. They both nodded and Parker walked away, still smiling.
Sophie came into the suite and did a double take as the thief passed her. "Is something wrong with Parker?"
Eliot snorted and ducked as Jo swatted at him.
Sophie shook her head and went to talk to Hardison.
Eliot nudged Jo with an elbow. "What was that all about?" he asked in a low voice.
"You and Parker."
"Oh. I told her that the advocate job was for life."
He wondered if that was for Dougie's sake or for Parker's. Knowing Jo, it was for both.
Sophie finished with Hardison and looked up. "Jo, when you have a minute, could you please help me with the paperwork for the adoption? I'm buried in ICPC requirements alone."
Eliot frowned. "IC . . . ?"
"Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children," said Sophie. "It's all strictly regulated now, so people can't do what we're going to do anyway."
"Shortsighted of them," said Nate, straight faced.
"Mmm, I know. I'm just finishing up my—I mean, Samantha Parkington's recommendation. It's glowing, but not too glowing. Mr. Thwaite said he'd fax his over this afternoon . . . but we still need to work out the homestudy report: your personal background, motivation, parenting style—come on, it won't fill itself out," she said, making shooing motions. "You, too Nate—you'll know what answers will work best. There's family environment, employment, significant others . . . " her voice continued as she walked out, assuming the others would follow.
Jo raised her eyebrows. "Breaking the law is hard work."
"You don't know the half of it," said Nate, with feeling.
She grinned. "Sophie won't like it if you scare me straight before the paperwork is done."
He chuckled and offered her an arm. She took it and they walked out together.
Eliot and Hardison exchanged amused looks. "Looks like your part's done," said the hacker. "You driving back today?"
"No, I'm helping Hannah move. Pullman's with her now, but he's leaving this afternoon."
"You expecting trouble?"
"Always. But I'd help anyway—she's good people. You in?"
"Yeah, sure. I can't do anything until Sophie finishes up, anyway. " He patted Dougie's college fund. "Let me just finish checking something while I'm thinking about it." The NYSE scrolled down and Hardison made humming noises under his breath. "That should do it," he said to himself. "It's all about the diversification, baby."
"So Dougie's set?" asked Eliot.
Hardison smiled. "By the time I'm through, he's gonna be able to buy Harvard." He closed down the window. "It's kind of different, isn't it—having a client like us."
"Jo's not a criminal. She can't even lie."
"You know that's not what I meant. She came at it from the other side, maybe . . . but she's one of us where it counts. Know what I'm saying? Be nice if she stuck around." Hardison gave him a serious look. "Be nice if you let her."
Eliot returned the look. "You ready?"
"Yeah. Think Hannah will pay us in cookies? Not that I need paying or anything, but maybe out of the goodness of her heart?"
Eliot frowned. "I think she said something about peach cobbler."
"Real peach cobbler? With real peaches? My nana used make—with cinnamon and all that?" Hardison jumped up. "What are we waiting for?"
Eliot pulled up his truck in front of The Gym. It'd become a habit over the past year, checking in after coming back from a job.
He knew habits like this could be dangerous . . . but maybe less dangerous than being alone. The team had taught him that, even before Jo had come along and proved it.
It was good to know that someone—several someones—cared if he came back in one piece.
And he was doing a little more than just keeping in touch. He sparred with Jo a couple times a week and played target for her self-defense classes when he could, either at The Gym or at one of Maya's shelters. And once or twice a month, he'd pick up Dougie from school and take him to Greer's Family Restaurant for a slice of pecan pie and hugs from the head cook.
It was way too late for that today—probably past Dougie's bedtime—but Ron was still on desk.
"Hey, Eliot," he said, with a welcoming smile. "When did you get back?"
"About two hours later than I should have. I still feel like I'm circling up there." At least Parker and Hardison hadn't been on his flight—for some reason, they'd grabbed the first plane home the minute the job was done.
Ron nodded. "I'm about to leave—are you here for a workout, or would you like to go check on Dougie with me? He'd love to see you. Jo, too, if she's back."
"Sure." Something in the other man's tone caught Eliot's attention. "Jo's on a job?" She'd become a retrieval specialist after all, in her own way—helping victims of abuse escape their bad situations. Mostly, she worked at the shelters, talking about her own experiences and encouraging people to discover options they didn't know they had. She was good at convincing people that they were worth saving.
But sometimes, it got messy.
"Yeah. Four kids under ten and both sides of the family defending the abuser—literally. Jo's been sleeping on the couch with the panic button in her hand for the past two nights. But it should be over one way or another tonight."
Eliot shook his head. "You're a strong man, Ron."
He shrugged. "This is who she is—she's doing what she needs to do. And she's never alone, or careless. She plans these things down to the last detail—I think she consulted Nate about this one."
Eliot raised his eyebrows. He knew Hardison sometimes helped out with surveillance, but he didn't know Nate was taking an interest.
"How's Dougie handling it?" he asked.
"I know he's scared, because he told me—it's a big deal that he knows it's safe to talk about how he feels. He still goes to ground—we've worked out ways for him to tell us where he is without leaving notes. For me, mostly, since Jo has that weird radar of hers."
"Kids and thieves," said Eliot. The team would pay good money to know how she did that. Sophie suspected that Parker was paying Jo not to teach them.
Ron nodded. "But I think Dougie understands—he told me the other day that it's not just important to her, it's important, period. Besides, he knows he comes first with Jo, no matter what. She hasn't missed one of his school conferences or games yet."
"Bet you haven't, either." It hadn't taken long for Dougie to warm up to Ron, who made sure the kid knew that he was liked for himself, not just because of Jo.
"Nope," said Ron, cheerfully. "The Gym Rats are playing this Saturday morning, if you want to help cheer. Dougie's pitching the second half."
"I'll be there. And I'll tell the others." He waited until Ron gave last minute instructions to Damien and they walked out together. "Your place or hers?"
"Ours," said Ron. "Want to be best man?"
Eliot stopped in his tracks. "Yeah?"
A smile bloomed across Ron's face. "Yeah."
"That's great, man!" He clapped the taller man on the shoulder. "How'd you get her to say yes?"
"Dougie asked her for me." He started laughing. "With these great, big, puppy dog eyes and my grandmother's ring."
Eliot grinned. "You brought out the big guns."
"Yes, sir. And it worked, once she stopped crying."
"Well, I'd be honored to stand up with you."
"Good—'cause you'd make one ugly bridesmaid."
Ron let them into the apartment and reset the alarm. The first thing Eliot noticed was that the place looked and felt like a real home, from the comfortable furniture and warm colors to the Disney videos on the coffee table.
The second was Parker.
"Shhh," she said, clicking her stopwatch and setting aside her newest practice lock. "They're all asleep. Jo, too."
"How is she?"
"Beat. Tired beat," she added. "Not beaten beat. Well, a little bit, maybe."
Ron nodded. "Excuse m—I'm going to go check on everyone."
Eliot sat down in the easy chair across from the couch. "This why you took the redeye last night?"
"Dougie called me. Jo had a tough job going down today, and he didn't want her to worry about him. Ron had to work, Mike was with Jo, and Maya had to facilitate stuff, so here I am."
"You watched Cody, too?"
"Sure. We watched Peter Pan and had Chinese for dinner. I taught them how to use chopsticks."
Eliot was impressed. "Parker, that's almost nor—"
"And how to pick a Rabson lock in under forty-five seconds. Ninety for Cody."
She blinked at him. "He's still pretty young. I don't think his motor skills have—"
"That's not what I—"
"I'm Dougie's advocate." she said, as if it was the obvious answer. "For life."
"Yeah, I get that, but—"
"Eliot," she said patiently, "he needs to know that being different isn't so different." She titled her head. "All kids need to know that." She checked her watch, stood, and grabbed her jacket. "I'm meeting Hardison at Hannah's for cake. Want to come? She's experimenting with a new one—it has orange soda in it."
"Thanks, but I think I'll stick around. But tell Hannah I'll be in for lunch tomorrow, would you?"
She nodded, tapped the security keypad, and was out the door before it reset.
Ron was back in time to hear the beep. "Parker left?"
"Yeah. You gave her the code for the alarm?"
Ron gave him a look. "You think it would've made a difference if we hadn't?"
Eliot rubbed his chin. "Guess not. You let her watch the kids by herself?"
"She'd lose an arm before letting something happen to those kids. Besides, she's teaching them manual dexterity, problem solving, a profitable trade . . . and we pay her in Cinnamon Toast Crunch. What's not to like?"
"Keeping Dougie from breaking into other people's apartments and jumping off buildings?"
"Welcome to parenting. Hey— remember how you asked me how a claustrophobe could live with an agoraphobe? You have to see this."
He followed Ron past Dougie's room, where Cody was snoring in his Spider Man sleeping bag next to the empty twin bed.
The other bedroom was nearly full of queen-sized bed, also empty. The closet door had been folded back, and sneakers and slippers and boots had been shoved to one side to make room for mother and son, who were fast asleep.
Dougie leaned against Jo's side, her arm holding him close, and she'd stuffed a sweatshirt between her head and the wall. Ron turned on a bedside lamp and Eliot saw that the shadow on her jaw was a new bruise and the knuckles of her free hand were scraped up. But the expression on her face was peaceful.
An electronic trill broke the mood. Ron took out his cell, shutting off the ring. "Damien," he muttered, and walked into the hall.
Jo stirred and opened her eyes. "Spencer?"
"Hey. How was the job?"
"Same old. How was yours?"
"Not same old. But we got 'em out."
"That's what counts."
"Mmm. I'm getting married."
"I know. About time."
"He tricked me." She smiled. "You gonna be our best man?"
"Good. Didn't want you to give me away." She yawned again. "Sorry. See you tomorrow?" She closed her eyes.
"Yeah. Bright and early. I can see you've been slacking off since I've been gone."
She stuck out her tongue without bothering to open her eyes.
"Hey. Hey, Jo. Want me to put the kid to bed? You'll be hurting tomorrow if you stay like that."
She tightened her hold on Dougie. "No. We're good. Still kick your butt. 'Night." And she was out again.
He took the quilt off the bed and tucked it around both of them, substituted a pillow for Jo's sweatshirt, and went to turn off the lamp.
"Thanks, Eliot," mumbled Jo. "For everything."
He looked at them, the latest additions to his unlikely, makeshift family, and smiled.
"We're even," he said, and turned out the light.