“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” Joe delivered the famous last call words from the stage as he snapped off the spotlights. “It’s motel thirty.” Joe turned to check the soundboard, and froze, rooted to his own darkened stage, as one of his patrons was kidnapped before his eyes.
The man was a stranger, with a sharp tongue, and a sharper thirst, a professional drinker out on amateur night. Their conversation had made the time pass as St. Patrick’s Day wound down without any sign of Methos. Now the same man was being removed at gunpoint from a stool at Joe’s own bar and marched out the back.
It was a slick job; not even the bartender noticed the two men with concealed weapons and the frozen look of acceptance on the victim’s face. Joe noticed. He knew that feeling. He knew where that march usually ended up. But he couldn’t interfere in a roomful of partying patrons, on the tail end of St. Patrick’s Day of all nights.
Joe’s hand hovered over his phone, then retreated as he put all his effort into getting through the thinning bar crowd as soon as possible. He grabbed the jacket with the hideout gun and his car keys and headed out the service entrance, only a minute behind the abductors. He could call for help on the way, either Methos or the police, depending on how the situation panned out.
Joe had serious personal issues with kidnapping. He’d been the victim twice. No, three humiliating times--it was not the kind of Irish luck he aspired to, nor wished on others, even a stranger. And he was not going to stand by while someone from under his own roof, who had accepted his drink and hospitality, was forcibly taken away.
Joe checked the slide on his gun and shouldered the back door open. Almost immediately he realized his mistake. The ramp light was out, and the door stopped short of its usual wide swing. Before he could fully clear the entryway, the heavy emergency door was shoved back at him with too much force and speed for him to avoid. It clipped his hip and left prosthetic, and sent him headlong into the metal pipe railing, where he half-clocked himself above the ear.
He grabbed the rail, determined not to go down, and his gun went skittering down the ramp. Dragging his feet back to vertical, he was still seeing stars when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t struggle. You’ll only get hurt,” his assailant said in a cultured and reasonable voice that reeked of east coast ivy.
Joe was not feeling at all reasonable. “Define ‘hurt’,” he asked, and without waiting for an answer he pivoted on the rail and sent an elbow backward, taking a small triumph in the sound of the dull crunch of a flattening nose. This time, Joe wasn’t going down without a fight.
“Coals to Newcastle, Amanda?” Methos glimpsed her in the rear-view mirror waving a bottle-sized gift box with a green bow. He shared a smile with MacLeod in the passenger seat of his rental SUV. Methos had picked the two of them up at the Seacouver airport to surprise Joe on St. Patrick’s Day. Amanda claimed the back seat to unpack her gift and quick-change out of her travel clothing to ready for the reunion. “I’m fairly sure Joe has a bottle or two laid in for Lá Fhéile Pádraig.”
“Not aged this well,” Amanda declared with confidence.
“Or with quite the checkered history?” MacLeod inquired dubiously. “Redbreast or Green Spot?”
Amanda sniffed. “Would I bother for an overpriced bottle from a soulless multinational distillery?”
“Yes, but not for Joe,” Methos observed impartially.
“Good point,” MacLeod agreed. “The Wild Geese Irish Soldiers and Heroes?” he guessed again, giving Methos a sidelong look.
“Only if you want Joe to keel over in mortification,” Methos snorted in mock disgust. “Writer’s Tears,” he countered. “At least it comes from a pot still.”
“Blended. Speaking of mortification,” it was MacLeod’s turn to scoff. “Am I then at least right in assuming it isn’t a little something available from the Dublin duty-free?”
“As if,” Amanda said. “If I wish to evade taxes, I do it the old fashioned way.”
“Smuggling never truly goes out of fashion,” MacLeod agreed cautiously. It was an old Scots tradition, after all.
“Passing mere contraband off on a high holy day would be tacky, MacLeod,” Methos perversely took Amanda’s side. “I’m sure she went to great lengths to steal a perfectly rare Irish water of life just for Joe.”
“Thank you, Methos. That’s very kind of you to say,” Amanda purred. “I met a monk from Tintagel who had no proper appreciation for...”
“...Wait...wait...I know that limerick...” MacLeod interrupted, earning himself a token thwack. “Does it end with ‘bent dangle?’”
“Careful, MacLeod, or we’ll find out,” Methos cautioned.
“And this would be a problem for you because...?” MacLeod waggled his eyebrows outrageously. Amanda’s laughter from the back seat would have made Methos blush, if he hadn’t gotten over such foibles long before limericks were invented. Methos noted with a quick glance in the rearview mirror that at least one bright green garter was accessorizing her basic black stretch cat suit. “Fetching. But aren’t those your work clothes?”
“Joe once said he liked the styling. I thought he’d like the chance to examine the stitching up close,” Amanda said, a wicked gleam in her eye belying her innocent tone. “Do you think Joe will be happy to see me?”
“Joe is always happy to see you,” Methos observed. “He has a stunted sense of self-preservation.”
“All too true,” MacLeod agreed wryly, managing to mostly duck another reprising thwack from the back seat. Privately, Methos was pleased to see both in a teasing and angst-free mood. That would be a greater gift to Joe than all the pure pot still single malts left in Ireland. But Amanda had piqued his curiosity. Aged, rare, native Irish -- “You didn’t happen to find a little something from Nun’s Island?”
“Not the Persse’s Galway. I bought the last known intact bottle years ago,” MacLeod protested. “And I’ve never been a monk anywhere near Wales,” he added without the tiniest touch of suspicion. “Besides,” he added definitively, “Connor and I finished it. Every drop.”
Amanda gave Methos a measured look. “You heard Duncan. It couldn’t possibly be Persse’s Galway. Besides, it’s no fun to steal something from Duncan that he’d give away for free, if the situation warranted,” Amanda pointed out with cool disdain.
Overwhelmed by Amanda’s unique version of flawless logic, Methos could only nod and vow to himself to revisit his own private cellar in Andorra and count the bottles. Had he ever lived in Tintagel? That year going AWOL from Tacitus didn’t count. Did it? Monks had barely been invented.
It was just past midnight when Methos arrived at Joe’s Bar. The rain-washed parking lot gleamed under the halogen streetlights, less than half full and emptying fast as patrons headed home or uptown for one more round at the late-night clubs. Methos paused and settled his sword as he stepped out of his SUV, scanning the darker corners of the lot and the dim entrance to the alley. The rain had let up, but a low fog smoked along the cooling pavement.
MacLeod followed his gaze, and frowned. “Joe should have replaced that light over the loading dock.”
“He did. Maybe there was a surge. The electrics in that old building can’t handle the heavy duty stage amps.” Methos said, focusing on the dark profile of Joe’s Jeep, parked in it’s normal spot by the ramp. Nothing looked out of place. “I’ll check it tonight, while you’re regaling Joe with your latest adventures with Amanda.”
“You don’t want to hear about the Lost Lolo Treasure?” MacLeod sounded slightly wounded.
“My imagination runs wild. Let me guess. Found?” Methos countered dryly. “Film at eleven?”
“Maybe Joe can make popcorn, and we’ll make it a foursome,” Amanda speculated brightly as she linked their arms and marched them to the bar. MacLeod stumbled only a little bit at the concept, though he recovered bravely.
“I suspect it will take more than a mythical bottle from Nun’s Island to convince Joe to participate, but I’ll be happy to observe and record,” Methos offered helpfully.
“But never interfere!” Amanda agreed brightly. “It’s a date!”
MacLeod quickly ushered Amanda through the shamrock-bestrewn door before the plan devolved further, while Methos lingered to make one last scan of the parking lot. The cars were thinning, except for three people gathered at a dark van, apparently sharing a cell phone. “Twitter--the new opiate of the masses. What would Marx make of that?” Then, realizing that talking to himself in the present tense about a Victorian economic philosopher was probably a sign of old age, Methos jumped to catch the door before it closed.
The airport run had put Methos behind the holiday clock--he was clearly running on a serious beer deficit. No doubt there was a Celtic curse somewhere called down on those who approached midnight on St. Patrick’s Day with excess sobriety. If not, he would have to make one up. That should pry Joe loose from behind the bar and let them get down to some serious celebrating, before the beer brownies created mischief.
Except when Methos stepped inside to properly survey the bar, MacLeod and Amanda were cornering the backup bartender, and Joe Dawson was nowhere to be seen. The first words he heard out of the bartender’s mouth were, “You mean Joe’s not with you?”
“ ‘Joe’s?’ What kind of name for an Irish bar is ‘Joe’s?’” Eliot bounced on his toes, and peered hopefully into the foggy shadows around the bar.
“Looking for somebody to beat up?” Parker helpfully peered behind the van. “A lurker or five?” Her face fell when no candidates materialized.
Disappointed in his search for miscreants, Eliot focused on the bar. “And that sign is pink.”
“Hot jazzy pink,” Hardison declaimed. “That doesn’t count. It’s a blues bar. It gets 4 stars on the Underground Rhythmroad music scene app.”
“Nate wouldn’t be caught dead in a ferny bar with a pink sign on St. Patrick’s Day,” Eliot objected.
“Neither would the owner, Joe Dawson, according to his file,” Hardison held up his phone. “See? No ferns, but his Irish roots are as green as Nate’s. Except...whoa...” Hardison frowned as the screen flashed and the file evaporated. “Weird. Interpol files aren’t supposed to do that. Not unless I turn my Godzilla megaworm program loose to eat them. But it disappeared.”
“Just like Nate.” There was a furry, frustrated growl underlying Eliot’s words.
“We’ve checked every other bar with a name that contained a Mc’ or an O’ or a shamrock,” Parker tilted her head. “Maybe pink is Nate’s lucky color tonight.”
“We’ll have to rebook a new flight out of Seacouver if we don’t find Nate here.” Hardison observed, unexcited about the dull prospect of cracking airline security twice in one day.
“Or we leave him here to pickle,” Eliot growled. The Seacouver job had been a grind for them all, slow to develop, the sting blunted when one of the marks had evaded their net. A tip or a slip? Sophie had gone home and Nate had gone off grid before they could pinpoint which.
“Hey, I’m getting a weak signal,” Hardison brightened. “Inside. His transmitter must be on it’s last erg.”
“He probably drowned it in a glass of Jameson,” Eliot muttered.
“Then he would have swallowed it by now,” Parker pointed out neatly.
“Eeuw,” Hardison shuddered. “That’s not coming out of my tech budget.”
Eliot’s eyes narrowed as a dark, nondescript rental pulled into the parking lot, bucking the general outward flow of the crowd. “Is that a sword he’s putting into his...”
“...pocket?” Hardison finished helpfully. “Or is he just glad to see us? Come on, man, it’s probably an umbrella. We’re in the land of rain and coffee.” He glared at the overcast sky which promptly spit in his eye. “Swords are so Monty Python. Unless they’re ninjas. Are there ninjas in Seacouver?”
“Ninjas are always closer than you think,” Eliot warned darkly. “Look. There’s another blade.” Then he jumped and whirled, as he was thumped from behind. “Parker? Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Look!” Parker exclaimed. “Did you see? It was her! Wow, how did she get that to fit there? Can I get her autograph?” Eliot hadn’t seen this kind of gleam in her eye since she had discovered designer chocolate.
“Who?” He rolled his eyes as she thumped him again, and turned to scan the newcomers more closely.
“Amanda!” Parker punctuated her excitement with one more smack between the shoulderblades.
Eliot very slowly and deliberately turned and placed his hands on her shoulders, aiming her at Hardison. “Amanda who?” he asked, hoping her unbridled enthusiasm would encourage Hardison to translate.
“Amanda who?” Hardison repeated blankly.
“The Amanda,” Parker declared definitively.
Hardison started to shrug, then recovered at Eliot’s murderous look. “Known associates of blues bar owners with jazzy hot pink signs, check.” He tapped his phone as they gathered around. “Oh.” He tapped again. “Uh oh.” He expanded the screen and held it up for Eliot. “That Amanda.”
“She’s a myth,” Eliot protested.
“She’s a legend,” Parker corrected.
“She’s as toxic as a dioxin sandwich on the search engines,” Hardison whistled, as he hastily redoubled the security on his phone. “Her Interpol file tripped more red flags than ours put together. And now --” he gave the phone a wounded look at it’s apparent betrayal, “-- Amanda’s file just evaporated, too. It even tried to pingback my ID. Sneaky. I will now pingback their pingback...and...nada.” Nettled, Hardison tapped a few more keys, then shrugged. “Weird.”
“Who are these guys?” Eliot wondered. “Hardison, you’d better stay with the van and crack those files. We want to know who we’re dealing with, here, Nate or no Nate. Parker, you’re with me.” He sighed as Parker started to bounce on her toes with glee. “And no autographs!”
MacLeod leaned over the bar, working up a good glower. “Where’s Joe?”
Methos gave the backup bartender credit, he made a good faith effort to protect his boss’s privacy, considering the opposition. But his resistance couldn’t last. He was a civilian to the Game, and didn’t have a Watcher vow backing him up. Joe swore off employing Watchers after Mike snitched on him during the Galati debacle. Joe had joked and called the policy a bonus life insurance benefit. Methos hadn’t laughed.
“We just wanted to give him a surprise,” MacLeod toned down the glower and turned on the accent and the charm when he realized Joe’s employee was leaning more toward instinctive protection of his boss than evasiveness. “He hasn’t had a lot of time for himself. The economy and all,” MacLeod played on the bartender’s sympathies.
Methos leaned back against the bar and enjoyed the performance. Bob already knew him as Adam, so his wholly undeserved reputation as a beer cadger wouldn’t speed results. It wasn’t worth the effort, not when MacLeod could soften Bob up and Amanda could bring in the heavy artillery.
“Bob...it’s Bob, right?” Amanda interjected, as MacLeod paused to reload his charm. Her voice was husky with innocent intimacy and concern. Almost innocent. “We just wanted to give Joe a very special present. Since we missed his birthday,” she added sadly.
Outgunned, Bob the bartender caved utterly. “Look, all that I know is after the last set, Joe was helping with the drink orders and cleanup, and he started talking with this guy at the end of the bar. He was sitting at your spot,” the bartender said, giving Methos a look that hinted his absence had somehow gotten Joe to consort with dubious strangers.
“Hey, Joe’s a big boy. He can talk to anyone he wants,” Methos protested. “Even people who steal my bar stool.”
“Yeah, but this guy was even more demanding than you are. See? His glass is still there. Guy wanted me to save it, even put that old coaster over it. God knows where it’s been.”
“Me? Demanding?” Methos asked, wounded by MacLeod’s clear laugh. “It’s called quality assurance. Mock me at your peril, Highlander.”
“I live for peril. Danger is my business,” MacLeod happily mocked, and sent him the hooded gaze that Joe had once described as toe-curling, even for him, and late one liquid and raucous night had stringently banned in his presence.
Amanda poked Metho in the side, startling him out of his zen state of appreciation. “Your toes curled, too?”
While MacLeod continued to question the bartender, he and Amanda moved down the bar and examined the leavings. A glass half filled with amber liquid. A coaster with the logo McRory’s, in Boston. Some writing scrawled around the border, a few numbers and a word.
“An address, maybe?” Amanda speculated, frowning. “206 Dust...Lane? Penmanship is a lost art these days.”
“Or he was rushed,” Methos observed. He stared into the amber depths of the glass. “Is that an onion? Who puts bar fruit in a 12 year old Jamesons?” he asked, sniffing the contents suspiciously.
“Not me!” Bob the bartender exclaimed, offended. “I’m a professional!”
“Please tell us exactly what happened?” MacLeod asked with a restrained patience that belied the growing tension Methos saw tightening his shoulders.
“Joe and this guy were going at it, back and forth, talking quiet, but intense, you know? I got the feeling Joe was a little leery of him, and he was putting back a few, the guy, not Joe, but Joe waved off the bouncer. Joe’s a good listener, you know?”
“We know,” MacLeod said quietly.
“Sometimes too good,” Methos added sotto voce. He felt Amanda squeeze his arm in agreement.
“While Joe was checking the stage after the band broke down, two guys came in with a business look, you know?” Bob the bartender continued, with a tone that implied that the business look was bad for business. “They didn’t want any drinks.”
“Always a sign of deviance and miscreance,” Methos chipped in.
“The drunk -- er -- patron,” Bob the bartender corrected himself, “Well, he waved and said hi to the two newcomers. He had that kind of fake smile that said he knew them, but didn’t really like them, you know? Said if anyone asked for him, he thought this wouldn’t take long. They left out the back.”
Methos surveyed his favorite bar seat again, and the floor underneath. There was nothing more interesting than a bar napkin and a peanut shell. He picked up the drink and and showed the offending fruit to Amanda. “That’s no cocktail onion.”
“I’ve seen a 5G earbud prototype like this. Very advanced. Very expensive,” Amanda said, then added with a whisper, “Can I have it when we’re done?”
“We’ll share,” Methos offered with a conspiring look.
“You still haven’t told us what happened to Joe,” MacLeod reminded the bartender, catching him trying to eavesdrop.
“Joe grabbed his coat and left. As he blew by the bar he said he’d be back as soon as he could, that someone needed a hand. That’s why I thought he was with you. He’s always haring off after getting phone calls, then showing up late with one of you.” The bartender reached down and started polishing a glass, giving Methos a defiant look.
“Your deductions are best kept between us,” Methos said in his mildest tone, returning his gaze without blinking.
“Yeah, right, no problem,” the bartender quickly agreed, nearly dropping the glass. “I like to stay out of Joe’s business, but it’s a little hard not to notice after a while. Joe looked like he meant business too. It’s a shame, really. Joe never even got around to enjoying his shift beer tonight, of all nights.”
“We need to find out who Joe was talking to,” MacLeod said, eyeing the leftover Jamesons bucket.
Methos shook his head. “Fingerprints? It will take too long.”
“Hey, what kind of bartender do you think I am? I wouldn’t let him skip without paying his tab.” Bob tossed a platinum card on the bar. “Nathan Ford.”
The three Immortals shared a blank look, MacLeod finally voicing for all three, “Never heard of him.”
Methos was already moving to check out the loading dock, while Amanda checked the office. She poked her head out after he passed the door, saying “He took a gun. And both safes seem intact. I’ll start a trace on Nathan Ford on Joe’s laptop.”
“Joe gave you his password?” Methos asked, amazed.
“Of course not,” Amanda returned, scandalized. “Joe would never do that. It took me ages to crack it. Joe’s sneaky.”
“Good for Joe. You realize I’m telling.”
Amanda nodded, no trace of amusement in her eyes. “If we find him tonight, I’ll tell him myself,” she promised.
Methos left Amanda to her considerable devices, hitting the rear safety door and peering out into the gloom of the alley. Experimentally, he flipped the switch for the loading dock floodlight.
Actinic light washed over the ramp as MacLeod came up on his shoulder. “The light wasn’t broken. It was switched off, deliberately. Joe’s car is still here. That’s not good.”
“And his gun is there.” Methos pointed to the base of the ramp. “And there’s a blood smear here on the rail.”
“Not good at all...” MacLeod knelt and studied the gritty alley surface, pocketing the gun after making sure no one was watching. “There are scuffs on the ramp, then drag marks. More blood,” he said sharply. He pointed left and followed until the marks disappeared. “A car or van, maybe? Not truck tires, but a wide wheel base.”
“Amount of blood?” Methos asked, coldly assessing the amount he’d found on the ramp. “I’ve got splashes, but no pools.”
“Some scattered drops, some smeared, in the dirt on both sides of the vehicle. Joe fought. He fought hard enough they overlooked the gun. But he’s alive.” MacLeod sounded confident. But then, MacLeod still had a tendency to coast on faith when evidence was lacking. He and Joe were oddly alike, that way.
Methos let the silence stretch, then nodded. “No cane. They wouldn’t take the cane and leave the gun if he were dead.”
“There’s that, then, too,” MacLeod took the theory as confirmation.
“There’s that,” Methos allowed. Even he preferred not to dwell on the alternative. He walked the perimeter one more time, looking carefully under the car and even into the dumpster. “No cell phone?”
If it were a quick draw, Methos and MacLeod would have drawn even, but Methos had Joe higher on his call list, under ‘BeerBFF.’ “It’s ringing...gone to voicemail.” Methos counted in Tibetan to rechannel his mounting anger until the beep sounded. “Hey, Joe, we’re missing you at the bar, give us a call, we’ll raise a hubbub!” he announced happily. “Slainte’ mha!”
“Hubbub?” Amanda asked skeptically from the door above.
Methos nodded as he completed his search of the alley. “From the old Irish war cry, abo’. Joe and I got in a fine argument about the ancient Dawson family war cry. He had inherited that modern monstrosity Toujours Prepice from the late Normans. I took the side of Daws abo’. We created quite a hubbub until five in the morning.”
“That’s our Joe, always propitious,” Amanda said, clearly dwelling on a memory she was not about to share with her companions.
“If Joe hears the message, he’ll know we’re on the warpath,” MacLeod’s teeth gleamed in a not-quite-smile. “Daws abo’! Up the Irish.”
“Up the Irish,” Methos seconded softly, catching MacLeod’s eye. Carefully, he lay his open hand on MacLeod’s tension drawn shoulder. “Mac. There’s something that Joe made me promise if a situation like this ever came up again.”
“You mean a situation like O’Rourke? You don’t have to tiptoe,” MacLeod said tightly, but he didn’t shrug Methos away.
“You know that can’t happen again. Ever.” Methos could feel MacLeod’s pulse racing under his hand.
MacLeod held himself stiffly silent for many heartbeats. “Then we’ll just have to get him back before it comes to that.” MacLeod began to pull away, then paused. “What did Joe make you promise?”
“That if he ever had the colossal stupidity to get abducted again, and you ever had the spectacularly moronic urge to give yourself up to save him, that I would shoot you both.” Methos patted his jacket pocket. “Which reminds me, I need more bullets.”
“Just how many do you think it would take?” MacLeod’s smile ghosted back.
“A clip each?” Methos guessed wildly. “Just to be on the safe side.”
“Safety first,” MacLeod agreed with enough irony to convince Methos that his learning curve was indeed rising.
“Not that I’d really shoot Joe, mind you,” Methos confided. “I fibbed to him about that. I’d just kill you twice. For the practice.”
“I’ll raid Joe’s arsenal,” Amanda chipped in cheerfully. “And I’ll pass you the ammunition if you need more.”
MacLeod blew her a kiss. “Fickle wench.”
“Deal.” Methos traded glances with Amanda. MacLeod had made no promises, but he was listening. “Now if we can only keep Joe from going off half-cocked...”
“Half-cocked is just not Joe’s style,” Amanda averred.
“And you would know this because?” MacLeod fished.
“A lady never tells,” Amanda said firmly. Then she glanced over her shoulder. “We have company, boys.”
“Did you know there are at least 7 known Amandas since 1920?” Parker came perilously close to burbling. “And a half-gypsy diamond cutter I know said she knows of at least one more that has a base in Toronto. There are portraits of Amanda that go back to the days of the three musketeers!”
“The Three Musketeers are fiction. You know, like in a book?” Eliot objected. “As is this mythical superthief of yours. No one person could steal the Stone of Scone and Louis the Sun King’s cock ring. Right off their mounts. As it were.”
“Amanda could,” Parker claimed stoutly. “They each secretly train a new Amanda to take over when they retire. That’s why there’s an unbroken line of Amandas that stretches back to...back to practically Columbus! Back to Shakespeare! She even stole a copy of Romeo and Juliet from the Queen’s censors! Don’t tell me he’s mythical too!”
Eliot wondered if he could get vision insurance for all the eyerolling Parker put him through. “As a matter of fact, there are rumors...”
“Rumors! Hah!” Parker scoffed. “All you have is rumors. I have Amanda!” She pointed dramatically at the slightly down-at-heels entrance to the bar. Parker practically danced up to the entrance, until Eliot dug in his heels and hauled her back with a firm “Shhh!”
“Sh.” Eliot waited until he had her full attention. “We are looking for Nate,” he said with carefully spaced words.
“Well...okay. Yeah.” Parker deflated for all of two seconds before reigniting. “Do you think maybe Amanda stole him?”
Eliot gave up, and gave in. “Why not? That explanation is as good as anything else we’ve come up with so far.”
“Well, okay, we’ll steal him back. Do you think that would look good on a job application?”
Eliot pulled up short. “What kind of job?”
“To become the next Amanda. Somebody has to do it, right?”
Eliot squeezed the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath, and, averting his eyes from the glaring (hot, jazzy) pink sign, pushed open the door. Compared to wrangling Parker, tackling a couple of guys carrying swords would be a piece of cake.
To his dismay, the bar was nearly empty, with a nervous looking bartender chivvying the last of the patrons and staff out the door. “Sorry, it’s last call!”
Eliot summoned up his friendly Samaritan smile. “We’re just here to pick up a friend,” he said. “We got a call he needed a ride. We’re his designated drivers.”
“Oh. Well. Take your pick,” the bartender said with a relieved grin, waving at the last of the crowd moving to the door.
Eliot checked the dance floor, the bathrooms, the tables. Then he checked under the tables. “No Nate,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
“No Nate,” Parker imitated in a gruff voice. “Anymore.” She pointed to the bar where a lone drink still stood unclaimed. “And no Amanda, either,” she added, “Unless the owner is hiding them in the back.”
Eliot hesitated. They were operating without a plan. Nate might be a royal pain in the ass to work with at times, but he was always a man with a plan.
“Why don’t I recon the back while you scare something up?” Parker asked helpfully, indicating the unsuspecting bartender.
Eliot smiled. It was nice to be on the same page again. “That’s a plan.”
Bob the bartender came blasting down the hallway between MacLeod and Methos, his keys jangling and coat trailing, pulling out his cell phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops. That guy back there is way out of line. ‘Dust’ this and ‘206’ that, and designated driver, my ass. He’s worse than you lot after a thunderstorm.”
“You’ve never called the police on us,” MacLeod temporized.
Bob, however, had apparently developed an immunity to his unnatural charms. “That’s because Joe never let me. The old softie.”
“I’ve heard Joe called a lot of things, but ‘old softie’ really doesn’t fit the bill,” Amanda murmured. Methos had to agree, though he suspected for radically different reasons.
“We don’t have time to waste playing friendly bouncer, MacLeod,” Methos loosened the hilt of his poniard. Firearms generally got the attention of even belligerent drunks, but Joe didn’t like gunfire in the bar. It attracted too much attention, and was hard on the ears. “Shall we show him the door and lock up?”
“Who is he, and what did he say he wanted, exactly?” MacLeod asked, unconsciously resettling his balance for a fight.
“Him! Short, dark and surly,” Bob said, pointing back down to the hallway entry, not quite filled by a less-than-tall silhouette of a man with a fighter’s stance. “He wants to see Joe, and he won’t take no for an answer.”
Methos dropped his hand from the poniard--the man appeared to be unarmed. “MacLeod? Shall we initiate a discussion? He was one of the three standing around that van out in front. Perhaps Joe is closer to home than we think.”
“It sounds too simple, but maybe we can at least talk him into volunteering the keys to the van.” MacLeod looked over at Amanda, managing to nonverbally communicate the request to get Bob safely out of their way.
Methos permanently filed away the memory of the masterful manipulations of MacLeod’s left brow.
“It’s too simple,” Amanda warned in an undertone as she waved Bob away toward the back. “It isn’t dim sum. They wouldn’t take Joe out the back and then come in the front looking for more from Column B.”
“The execution is certainly not up to your standards,” Methos agreed. He’d seen a lot of chicanery over the years. But criminal masterminds were rarer than honest thieves, in his experience. All too often, crime was exactly that simple.
Catching up with Bob, Amanda reached out and closed his phone before he could hit the 911 speed dial. “MacLeod and Adam will take care of your problem,” she said. “The boys here will 86 the annoyance and close up the bar while we’re waiting for Joe to return. Why don’t you go home, leave the cleanup to Adam?”
“Don’t you mean ‘us’?” Methos complained, faithful to Adam’s character. “But Amanda’s right. Your shift ended at midnight. You know I’ve locked up before. And Joe might run late.”
“There’s the receipts,” Bob stalled, though clearly tempted.
“Let’s go into the office and we’ll put them safely away together,” Amanda suggested. Deftly lifting the bar bag from his coat to make it a done deal, she shooed Methos and MacLeod off down the hall.
“Come on, MacLeod, this shouldn’t take long,” Methos said recklessly. Not so recklessly that he did not notice their target had remained patiently at the entryway, where he had a slight tactical advantage.
MacLeod had also taken a slow and studied measure of the man waiting motionlessly for them. “Have you ever heard the old saying about...”
“...Yes. If it was an old saying, I’ve heard it,” Methos shot back. “Shall we?”
“We shall,” MacLeod answered, a warrior’s unholy glee lighting his eyes, chasing away the shadows.
Dabbling in recklessness didn’t mean engaging in foolishness. “By all means,” Methos offered with an indulgent smile, bowing toward the waiting opponent, “After you. Watch out for a left hook. I think he favors that side.”
Hidden in the old building’s aging ductwork, Parker sighed as she watched in silent admiration. With effortless elán, Amanda conned the apparently sober and responsible bartender into leaving the bar take and abandoning his post. Deploying a professional and practised blend of flattery, humor and sheer force of personality, Amanda convinced the bartender that there was no place like home on the holidays. And she did it in under two minutes.
Parker held her breath, watching from a tiny slit in the duct, beside herself with jealousy and excitement.
Amanda had hesitated at the door to Joe’s office after she had secured the bar receipts in the safe and sent the bartender home, searching the cubicle for something out of place. Clearly she sensed that something was off, despite the care Parker had used in hiding her tracks.
There was a thump, and a splintery crash from the bar out front. Parker’s heart sped up, but Amanda didn’t even turn her head. Instead, she focused precisely upon Parker’s hiding place, and calmly inquired, “How are the new dust filters working? Joe replaced them last fall after I complained about my dry cleaning bill.”
Parker popped the loose duct joint and skinned out of the pipe, narrowly inspecting her outfit. “Very clean,” she reported. “Is he always this nice to us?”
“It depends on what you mean by ‘us’,” Amanda said, eyeing the lithe blonde critically.
“Amandas, of course. And Amandas in training?” she added hopefully.
“I was unaware I was recruiting this week,” Amanda tapped her chin speculatively. “Drop off your references, and we’ll talk. Say, in a year or two.”
“Wherever I am. If you can’t find me, you aren’t ready.”
“That’s fair,” Parker agreed. “What gave me away?”
“You left the safe dial on ‘zero.’ That’s not Joe’s preferred number.”
“Sixty-nine is his favorite number?” Parker asked blankly.
“Sh. Some secrets gentlemen never tell, and ladies share carefully. There are certain things it’s best the boys don’t know we know.”
“Know what?” Parker’s forehead wrinkled in concentration, trying to decode the statement according to their shared thieves code, rather missing the social point entirely.
“Oh, dear. I may need to assign you some remedial tutoring.” Amanda said with a quick look over her shoulder. A massive crash from the next room made her nod in satisfaction, and she turned back to Parker. “Now. To business. Where’s Joe?”
“Search me,” Parker offered, holding her hands open, empty. “Where’s Nate?”
“No idea. Who’s Nate?” Amanda countered.
“My team leader,” Parker answered honestly, if incompletely, out of professional respect. “Who’s Joe?”
Amanda considered the question seriously, also out of professional respect, but the answer was even more opaque, and peculiarly weighted with meaning Parker couldn’t decode. “In this bar, Joe is our honoured host. Anything beyond that, you’ll have to ask him.” Her turn. “Where is 206 Dust Lane?”
Parker’s hand shot to her ear. “206. Dust. Dust Lane or Dustmen?”
Amanda tipped her head with dawning understanding. “It might have been Dustmen. The cursive was abysmal. But the 206 are an exaggerated government conspiracy hoax. Like the Skull and Bones. Or the Watchers,” Amanda tested.
Parker’s face lit up. “The Watchers? I’ve heard they’re even richer than the Templars. And they’re loaded!”
“And what else do Watchers do, Parker?” Amanda asked patiently.
“They Watch? Oh, I see what you mean. They’re spies, then. For hire? Like the Dustmen sometimes hire out from the government? They have a reputation for fancy tats and cheap benefits. The Dustmen are more platinum parachutish and gold cufflinky.” Parker froze. “How do you know my name?”
“Who else could you be?” Amanda asked rhetorically. “Lovely work on the Damiano job, by the way. Though you need to remember the lichen growth rate next time.”
Parker nodded, filing the advice away for the future. “Factor in the rainfall variations. Right. Oh! That’s how you fooled Interpol in Venice and substituted the Rafael.”
Amanda beamed, clearly pleased. “Forget waiting for a year. Your reputation precedes you. Call me. Anytime. We’ll talk when being tethered to an earbud loses its charm, and you finish your apprenticeship with this...Nate.”
Parker’s thrill at being accepted lost inflation when Amanda’s words brought home the possibility of leaving the team. “I can’t do both?”
“Friends are vital,” Amanda said with sudden gravity. “But divided loyalties can destroy the strongest of us. I won’t force you to chose.”
Amanda clearly had more on her mind, as she toyed with an old football that inexplicably took up room on the overcrowded shelves behind the desk. “Your boss, Nate. Our friend, Joe. What do they have in common? Why take them both? Joe has tried to steer clear of government radar for decades.”
“How do you know the Dustmen have them?”
“Your friend Nate told us. He wrote it down on a bar coaster.”
Parker smacked her hand to the earbud. “Did you hear that? Eliot? You can stop fighting any time. Hardison? It’s getting all Dusty around here.” Silence. Long silence. “Eliot?” Longer silence. “Hardison?” There was no answer.
Methos gave MacLeod plenty of space to initiate diplomatic relations with the man waiting for them at the end of the hall. Still, he had to jump lively when MacLeod came tumbling back down the hall after extending his credentials. “Need a hand?” Methos needled.
MacLeod grinned and wiped a bead of blood away from his lip. He accepted Methos’ hand up and pulled him close. “Maybe I’ll need another hand later,” he whispered into Methos’ ear, just before nipping his earlobe. “You should have mentioned his right cross.”
“Ow! Ingrate. You should have seen it coming. A man my age should get more respect. What if I forgot to tell you to duck?”
“You never forget anything,” MacLeod observed shrewdly. “And you know I’ll always respect you in the morning.”
“You know I’m going to hold you to that,” Methos promised as he pushed MacLeod back down the hall. “Duck!”
A chairleg went whizzing over MacLeod’s head, and he cheerfully dove back into the fray, tackling his opponent on the dance floor. Methos saw something small and oblong skitter across the boards after the impact. Curious, he skirted the melee, and located in the bar duff near the stage a twin implant to the one swimming in the whiskey bucket at the bar.
“Curioser and curiouser.” Methos wiped the earbud on his pants leg and gingerly inserted it in his ear. Immediately, he could clearly hear Amanda’s voice speaking with a younger, and apparently more volatile, if that was possible, version of herself. Pursing his lips to keep from revealing his eavesdrop on the line, Methos scanned the room for the third man.
A rhythmic thumping interrupted his concentration. Somehow MacLeod had insinuated himself into a headlock at the bar, where his assailant was using the polished bartop as a tympani. Methos grabbed MacLeod’s partner in vandalism by the collar and scruff of the neck and whirled him off into the snarl of tables and chairs in the center of the room. “Keep the mayhem away from the bar, MacLeod. Joe could use some new furniture, but the beer taps are sacred ground. Remember St. Paddy’s ire.”
“He’s got a lot of determination for that small stature,” MacLeod squared up as blue sparks danced over his forehead.
“That’s the nicest description of ‘berserker’ I’ve ever heard,” Methos complimented. “Now, go get him, tiger,” Methos encouraged. “Try not to inflict anything permanent, until we know who is behind the curtain.”
“Inflict on me or on him?” MacLeod asked.
“Dealer’s choice,” Methos said cheerily, as he sidestepped a small oncoming train that continued by to ram MacLeod in the midsection and pin him against the bar. “Not the bar!” Methos reminded sternly, bouncing them both off in the direction of a tippy table that Methos particularly disliked. It collapsed underneath their weight with a satisfying crash.
Methos straightened and tuned out the fight to follow a phrase in Amanda’s conversation. “Dustman. Dustmen.” Not Dust Lane at all. “Merda.” He went back to the bar, where the drink still waited, miraculously undisturbed in the assault on the bar. “206. Dustmen.” The wording was now clear under the smudging on the coaster. “Mac?”
“What? I’m a little busy here,” MacLeod squeaked out from the wrong side of a chokehold.
“Go easy on him. I think he may be on our side.”
Sitting in the driver’s seat of the van, Hardison smacked the side of his laptop, then petted it lightly, in apology. Eliot’s earbud had gone out again. “This is why Eliot can’t have nice things,” he muttered to himself. He’d also lost Parker’s feed when she moved into the owner’s office--apparently it was well shielded from listening devices. Suspicious, that.
There was a tangle of wires going to ancillary drives and boosters jumbled in his travel satchel, and a power cord that kept tangling with the gearshift. “I miss you, Lucille,” he said nostalgically. Travel wasn’t the same without her, and the rental van had no soul. Nor a virtual server or a satlink. He missed his fine-tuned search tools. Even Nate’s phone had been erased from his crude jury-rigged net.
“Next time I’m going to put the implant somewhere nearer and dearer to your heart, Nate,” Hardison threatened. “Or other dangly bits that don’t hang off your sleeve.”
“Ouch. That sounds painful. Have you experimented on yourself?” a strange and spooky voice said clearly in Hardison’s earbud.
“What? No! Who is this?” Hardison attacked his keyboard, but he was too close to the earbud transmissions to get distinct tracking feeds.
“You can call me Adam. Or Pale_Rider3000BP. That’s my online avatar. It amuses me.”
“Very funny. I’m Y0ur_W0rst_Nightmar3, online. Just wait until I get ahold of your root.” Hardison sent a chasing tracer down the line, but all he came up with was his own net. He was getting a very, very bad feeling about this.
“Speaking of painful, I like my root right where it is, thank you. Time for you to open up and come out of your shell, Mr. Hardison.”
Three slow, clinking taps on Hardison’s van window chilled him to the bone. The strange and spooky voice materialized as a grey shadow in the rainwashed gloom, holding a very shiny and very sharp knife. “That’s a big ass knife,” Hardison observed from the illusory safety of the van.
“Thank you for noticing, yes. It’s a poniard, actually. The hilt weighs a half a pound, and will shatter this window into very tiny pieces before you can start the engine and drive away.” The words reverberated eerily through both the bud and the glass. Two more taps. “Unlock the doors, Mr. Hardison. We need to talk.”
Hardison eyed the keys, then the big ass knife. At that moment, his phone jingled with the theme to Strangers in the Night. “Excuse me, I have to get this,” Hardison held up his hand.
“Seriously?” Adam asked.
Hardison stared at the cell -- the ringtone was for unlisted callers. A local number. “Hello?” he said tentatively, smiling brightly at his erstwhile guest with the long knife waiting out in the cold and damp. “Nate? It’s good to hear from you,” he said pleasantly, holding the mood for a second too long, before cracking. “Where the hell have you been?” he roared. Even the man with the poniard stepped back from the blast of indignation.
“No. No. NO. I won’t calm down. You vanish, and then Eliot and Parker disappear into the last rundown dump of an Irish bar in Seacouver...it’s like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn with shamrocks. I have a guy who calls himself Pale Rider tapping on my window with a broadsword, and you want me to calm down?”
“If you wanted a broadsword, you should have said so,” Adam obliged. The poniard disappeared, and the long, grey, unforgiving length of a hand and a half blade took it’s place.
Hardison sat as still as petrified wood, the phone glued to his ear, his eyes glued to the sword. Then slowly, and very carefully, he rolled down the window, inch by inch. Just as slowly, he unstuck the phone, and extended it out to the end of his reach.
“It’s for you.”
Adam plucked the phone away with his left hand. Hardison blinked, and the sword disappeared. “This is Adam. Nathan Ford, I presume? May I ask what you’re doing with Joe’s phone?” As he spoke, Adam smoothly stepped back, redrawing his poniard and used the tip of the blade to pop the lock on the van’s sliding door.
“Let me just take this time to point out,” Hardison said over his shoulder, “That any aforementioned comments I may have made about ninjas should be construed as wholly positive and judgement-free.”
“I perceive you lead a very active fantasy life.” Adam stepped in out of the persistent drizzle, and shut the door with a quick snap of the wrist, just hard enough to make a firm point about Hardison’s lapse of hospitality. Still, he held the phone to the ear with the bud, so Hardison could hear the exchange with Nate.
Suddenly the noise rate doubled. Parker was back online, in the middle of what sounded like the mother of all bar fights. Judging from her comments, she was cheering somebody on. Hardison hoped it was Eliot.
“Talk to us, Mr. Ford,” Adam-the-probable-ninja asked cordially.
“I pickpocketed Joe’s phone when we were being driven away from the bar. They took mine,” Hardison heard Nate admit. Freely admit. To a stranger. Or a strange ninja. Strange days.
“Was Joe unconscious or dead?” Adam asked, exploring logical outcomes in a tone so neutral and devoid of emotion Hardison held his breath.
“He was out cold. Cut on the head, smell of chloroform, six of one. I think he’s come around now, but I can’t get to him.”
“Maybe Joe will find a way to get to you.”
“They’re holding him on some sort of balcony. Tell Hardison, I’m sending some photos. Nice phone, by the way. Business writeoff? There’s an investment logo on the side. International Asset Corporation.”
Hardison got busy tracing Nate’s keywords. Tapping the cell transmission, he texted Nate the corporation particulars. “Dawson is listed in the corporate tree in tiny print, as ‘sales representative.’” Their bar owner was moonlighting.
“Joe likes to keep busy,” Adam said noncommittally. “You left a clue. In the bar. Care to elaborate about the Dustmen?”
“Dustmen? Never heard of them,” Nate said quickly. “Must be a bad connection. There’s no such cabal of intelligence gathering power brokers with extra-legal powers.”
“It sounds highly unlikely, when you put it like that,” Adam said dryly. “I’ll forego writing my congressman, then.”
“Looks like we’re all on the same page, yes,” Nate confirmed.
“Aw, not the Men In Armani again,” Hardison groaned, feeling about ten pages back. “I swear, they keep this up, their fraternity 206 files are going to look like Godzilla flame broiled them for lunch and had indigestion.” He turned back to his keyboard and shared the phone download, bringing up the photos one by one on his laptop.
Then he attacked points of intersection between International Asset and Section 206. There wasn’t much to go on. The asset corporation seemed to acquire everything from server farms to funeral parlors. But it didn’t even have a rating on Motley Fool. Speaking of international cabals.
“What do the-Dustpeople-who-shall-not-be-named want?” Adam asked. Hardison could feel his cold eyes watching his every keystroke.
“From me? Hardison’s Godzilla, of course.” Nate sounded unperturbed by the threat.
Hardison bounced in his seat. “Nope. No. Not going to happen. It’s on a dead man switch. We disappear, Godzilla walks the earth, and every file the 206 section ever touched gets flamed.”
Adam studied Hardison with a new respect, and a certain feral greed. “Later, we’ll talk code. Your place, or mine?”
Hardison was about to place a firm boundary on making dates with tall, dark strangers-with-swords, when there was another tap on the car window. This time, four shadows loomed out of the darkness. “What now? Musketeers?”
“Hi, Hardison,” Parker beamed. Miss us?”
The fight was over. Finally.
“Ow,” Eliot allowed, as he rolled off the unconscious body of his fiendishly resilient opponent, fighting to catch his breath. “Who are you, and what kind of vitamins do you take?” he asked the body. Rhetorically.
“Flintstones. I bought them for him for his birthday,” answered a cheerful voice from the back hallway. Parker stood next to the speaker, beside herself with glee, and waved.
So this...was Parker’s Amanda. She was far more disturbingly attractive up close than from across the parking lot. “Is Duncan dead?” she asked, totally derailing his ambitious train of thought.
“What? Dead? No,” Eliot came to his feet, wobbling only a little, and reset for battle. “I don’t think so,” he emended.
“Eliot, this is Amanda,” Parker said in happy introduction.
“The myth?” he asked skeptically.
“The Legendary!” she corrected. “Amanda, this is Eliot. His legend needs work.”
“I think she means ‘it’s a work in progress,’” Eliot amended, nettled.
“Aren’t we all?” Amanda agreed. “Oh, by the way, speaking of legends, if Duncan isn’t dead, I’d suggest moving a few feet to the left. Duncan is notoriously competitive. He hates to lose. Even when the match is just to blow off steam.”
“Steam?” Eliot objected with a healthy dose of moral outrage. “I do not fight to vent steam.” He ignored Parker’s blatant giggle.
“Don’t be a spoilsport, Amanda,” Eliot looked down at his vanquished opponent. Bright brown eyes twinkled back. A kick sweep caught him at the ankles, and he had to tumble and roll to avoid being locked in another grapple.
The fight was on. Again.
“Oh, by the way, Nate called,” Parker sang out over the sound of shattering chair legs, her hand cupped to her ear to listen. “Are you getting this, Eliot?”
Eliot backed up out of reach, and dug a finger in his ear. “No. Lost it.”
“Nathan Ford called on Joe’s phone,” Amanda added in a lower, but more urgent tone, addressing Eliot’s opponent. “He’s alive, MacLeod. A CIA faction has them both. I think they need our help.”
Eliot ‘s opponent shed his playful mood like a skin. He seemed to grow and harden into a more wary and battleworn warrior, without moving a step. “Game over?” he asked, keeping the disappointment out of his voice.
“New game begun. It seems we may share the same enemy.”
“Parley?” Eliot offered, still on his guard.
“Truce. On my word.”
“Done.” Eliot held out his hand. It was gripped warmly and firmly. “Eliot Spencer.”
“Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.”
“You’re kidding, right?”