|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~1 - The Client Meeting~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Please, Mr. Ford,” the woman begged, “It’s been three months, we have nowhere else to turn.” She finished, tears running slowly down her pale white cheeks. Her frizzy brown hair hung limp around her slim face. Her hazel eyes were almost grey and appeared as if they’d sunk into the sockets. Her clothes hung loosely off her slight frame; all in all, she looked like a walking ghost.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Stevens,” Nate began, “I’m just not sure what we can do that the police haven’t already done.”
“They did nothing!” She said fiercely, a fire burning briefly in her eyes before the pain returned. “I know we’ve had problems at home,” she snuck a look towards her husband as his hand quickly shot out to cover hers, “but that doesn’t excuse them ignoring us.”
Nate shook his head before continuing.
“Regardless of the situation at home, in cases like this, they’ll still do everything they can.”
“Let’s go,” the man said defiantly, taking his wife’s hand and starting to pull her out of her seat. These were the first words he’d uttered in their thirty minute conversation. In stark contrast to his wife, he was a large man who looked like he’d never missed a meal in his life. His green eyes were cold and hard and trained untrustingly on Nate.
“They said she probably ran away,” she pleaded, shaking off her husband’s hand “She’s six years old, tell me Mr. Ford, what six year old knows enough about the world to run away and not get found?”
“They must have had a reason to think that,” he replied, “Was any of her stuff missing?”
“Just a teddy,” a sob caught in her throat as she answered.
Nate took a deep breath and looked down at the pictures in the file in front of him. The little girl was small for her age, flowing blond hair cascading down her back, a smile on her face, peaceful, innocent, exactly as she should be at that age, but it was a lie. Even in a photo, Nate could see the way she covered her right arm, trying to make it look natural, but obviously hiding something. A thin red line lurked above her left eye, the last remnants of a healing cut.
Nate closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Just the happy smiling face in the pictures was enough to start the cascade of images playing in his mind; Sam at the same age playing baseball in the summer; hockey in the winter; building a fort in the backyard or sleeping with his bear tight in his grip. Then they suddenly changed, Nate was sitting in the hospital, watching his son being taken away from him, powerless to stop it. Mrs. Stevens reminded him of Maggie, disbelieving, desperate, and scared. He’d give anything to be able to help them, to give them hope, but he knew better than most, that false hope was not better than no hope at all, because at some point, it would be taken away and the pain would return, magnified.
He opened his eyes and looked up at the heartbroken woman, gathering every ounce of strength he had, knowing it was better, kinder, to turn them away than promise something he couldn’t do.
“Of course we’ll try.”
He turned quickly, the soft southern drawl startling him. His surprise almost immediately turned to annoyance. They couldn’t help and Eliot had just done the one thing he’d been trying to avoid. He couldn’t help but wonder what the hell he was doing there anyway. They weren’t working on a case and the rest of the team were off and away somewhere, he took client meetings alone these days, Eliot should have known better than to interfere.
Before Nate could counter, the woman was out of her seat, hugging the big, burly hitter, an embrace which, to Nate’s surprise, he returned, with a look of fury directed towards the woman’s husband.
“We’ll have a look,” he conceded, “but please be prepared; I doubt we’ll find anything.”
“Anything you can do would be greatly appreciated,” she replied, still holding tightly to the hitter.
“Eliot, call the team in,” Nate passed him the file, a wary look on his face, which did not go unnoticed by the younger man. “Let’s get to work.”
Eliot shot a quiet smile to the woman and turned to leave.
Nate turned back to the couple, not surprised that the man, under the hitter’s icy stare, had fallen silent and dropped his eyes back to the coffee he’d been cradling.
“I’ll call you if we find anything,” he said.
“Thank you Mr. Ford,” she replied, hugging him tightly.
“Let’s go, Michelle,” her husband suddenly moved, grabbing his wife by the arm and leading her out of the bar.
It wasn’t hard to figure out the problems at home she’d mentioned. She was obviously scared of her husband; she never met his eye and visibly flinched when he touched her. More than likely, he took his rage out not only on his wife, but on their daughter as well. This case was impossible; he knew it, if only he could figure out why Eliot accepted it. They knew so little about the hitter’s past, but something about this one must have hit a nerve.
Nate took a deep breath and headed to the apartment above the bar, ready to start the fruitless search for a missing six-year-old girl.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~2 - The Briefing~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Eliot couldn’t sit still as he waited for the team. He sat at Nate’s table, looking through the file, hunting for any little clue that the police could have missed. He paced the room, his mind working overtime. He sat down at the computer, wanting to start the research but not knowing where to begin, he wished he’d paid more attention when Hardison had tried to show him what he did, but he had no clue, so he paced again, then went back to the file and started the cycle all over again.
The image of the little girl, Cindy, was burnt into his brain. He shook his head as if trying to remove it; to erase it; to not let it morph into his own past.
‘It’s just another case,’ he told himself, knowing deep down that there was no way this wouldn’t get personal and just hoping he could keep it professional, at least in front of the team. Nate was pissed at him, he knew that. He’d never gotten involved in client meetings before, that was Nate’s role and the mastermind was not pleased he’d jumped in and accepted this case. It wasn’t their regular kind of case, they shouldn’t be on it, but if the team wouldn’t help, he’d do it himself. After all, that was his job.
He wished the team would hurry up and arrive so they could get started.
Nate sat quietly in the kitchen, nursing a cup of coffee, desperately wishing it was Irish. He’d used alcohol for so long to numb the pain, to try to forget. He’d shied away from cases involving kids since getting sober. Anything that would remind him of his son, of his own past, anything that might get personal was discarded, but thanks to Eliot, he didn’t have that luxury anymore. This was going to be a hard one, as much as he knew they probably couldn’t do anything, the more he looked at the pictures in the file, the more he wanted to find that kid.
But more than anything he wanted to understand his friend and colleague; why was Eliot so insistent on taking this case? And where was his normally calm, cool, collected exterior? There was something there, something personal for Eliot as well. Nate just hoped they could both put it aside and stay focused on the case.
He didn’t have time to dwell on the thought as his apartment door swung open and an exasperated Sophie appeared, talking to a confused Parker.
“Because the shoes are amazing Parker,”
“But you can’t run in them, you can’t sneak in them, I couldn’t climb through an air vent in them or jump off a building in them, so why are they amazing?”
“Because they’re pretty!” Sophie replied with a frustrated sigh before turning to Eliot, “Can you please explain?”
“Why would I know about shoes?” He queried.
“Well, better you than Nate!” she replied with a smile in his direction.
“Where’s Hardison?” Eliot asked, ignoring Sophie’s comment and subsequent puzzled look.
“Right here,” the hacker said, strolling in behind the still confused Parker who was still looking quizzically at Sophie’s shoes.
“Took your time didn’t you?!” The hitter growled in the hacker’s direction.
“Okay sparky,” Hardison replied with a nervous giggle, “no more super happy power go for you.”
Eliot’s entire body twitched as he continued to stare and almost growl at Hardison. He wanted to hit out, to yell, to make everyone understand what was at stake, but he knew better. They didn’t know his past; they didn’t know about Lexie and what they’d been through. He had to make sure they’d never know, he had to find enough control to stop himself showing how personal this case was going to be. He’d been running and hiding for almost twenty years. He couldn’t risk anyone, even his colleagues figuring out the truth.
“Alright, settle down guys, c’mon,” Nate interjected, turning the attention away from the hitter to the file on the coffee table as everyone took a seat.
“We don’t have much,” he began, his gaze falling on Eliot, “I’m not even sure this is something we can or should be getting involved in,”
Eliot looked away from Nate’s gaze, knowing he’d jumped in and given the family hope where Nate saw none, but they had to try.
“Cindy Stevens, six-years-old, reported missing from her family home just over three months ago.” Nate started, passing the photo around the team,
“Nice house,” Hardison interrupted with a laugh as he checked out the pictures of the spacious and falling apart farmhouse the family called home. “We sure she isn’t hiding out in the some secret room?” He laughed.
“We’re sure,” Nate added, “an amber alert went up within an hour of the report but the family can’t say when she actually went missing. It was reported at 10am on the Sunday morning, but they hadn’t seen her since 6pm on the Saturday night when she was sent to bed.”
“How can you not check on a child for 16hours?” Sophie interjected,
“Mrs. Stevens was admitted to the emergency room at the local hospital at 7.30pm on the Saturday with cuts, bruises, a broken rib and possible concussion, the dad apparently stayed at home with the kid.”
“How’d she get hurt?” Sophie enquired.
“Official story is she fell,” Nate answered, “but basic body language, she was terrified of her husband.”
“Do we think he did something to the kid?” Hardison added.
“No,” Eliot replied quietly, all eyes turning in surprise to the hitter as he stared at the table and continued, “he was probably passed out drunk, only way she escaped long enough to get some help, plus his body language wasn’t defensive, he wasn’t hiding something, he wasn’t worried we’d find out anything, he doesn’t know what happened.”
“We’ll look into the father,” Nate added, a wary eye on Eliot, making a mental note to have a chat with him before sending them out on this one. “Police report says there were signs of a struggle in the little girl’s room and the father had blood on his shoes but a DNA test was apparently inconclusive.”
“Several different samples including his, the wife’s and the kid’s,” Hardison stated, checking the results in the file, “but there were some really old stains so they couldn’t place a timescale on how old the kid’s blood was.”
“They aren’t using the blood as official evidence,” Nate continued, “but they’ve interviewed the father four times, so I suspect they still think he killed her and that’s why they aren’t chasing this as hard as they would normally for a kidnapping. Officially, the local cops are saying she probably ran away.”
“Based on what?” Hardison asked incredulously.
“Based on social services reports of abuse at home and the only thing missing was a teddy bear. Officially, police are saying she was probably scared when the fight broke out at home, saw her mom getting beat up, thought she was next and tried to run. That was the last update the parents got and that was nearly three weeks ago. Since then, all they get is a deputy who says the investigation is still ongoing.”
“Do they have any reasoning on how a six-year-old would cope in the world on her own? Someone must be looking out for her or has already killed her.” Sophie asked.
“Nothing in the official reports, but I guess when we ask them, they’ll say she’s either been taken in by some neighbors or other locals who are trying to protect her from her father or they’ll stick to the-father-killed-her theory.”
“I have a question,” Parker interjected, raising her hand in that schoolgirl way she did. “Why are we looking at this? It’s not our kinda case right? No bad guy we can identify and take down, no payday?”
“As much as I hate to agree, Nate, Parker’s right on this one,” Sophie said reluctantly. “What can we do that the police haven’t done?”
“I don’t know,” Nate conceded, throwing a glance at Eliot who was still finding the coffee table very interesting, “but let’s see what we can turn up. Hardison, get on the net, any similar cases in the area, go back as far as you can. If this was a kidnapping maybe it’s happened before. If you turn anything up, we’ll go in as FBI, start asking questions.”
“I’ll check out the local bars, see if the police missed any witnesses.” Eliot added, getting up, ready to go to work.
“Not yet Eliot, just hang back for now.” Nate replied.
Eliot’s hands curled into fists, Nate knew the man well enough to know that he was fighting to remain in control; the struggle was evident when he spoke again.
“Why? She’s out there Nate, we gotta find her.”
“Let’s see what we can turn up before we go in guns blazing okay.”
“Not okay,” he replied, his voice rising to match his exploding temper, “I’m going now!” He turned to leave once more and Nate knew better than to stop him.
“Fine,” Nate gave in, his chat with Eliot was going to have to wait a little while longer, “it’s a couple of hours drive away, everyone go pack a bag, and we’ll meet back here in half an hour. Hardison,” he turned to the already hard at work hacker, “book us a hotel will you.”
“Already on it,” he replied, not looking up from the screen. “We’re booked into a hotel just outside town, only one around there with wireless, oh god help me, I’m gonna hate this place!”
“Fine, let’s get moving.” Nate replied
Eliot, Sophie and Parker all moved for the door, going home to grab their travel bags. Nate headed upstairs to do the same, but turned back when Hardison didn’t move.
“You need to go pack you know,”
“No, it’s cool, just bring the black bag in the back of your closet, I’m all set.” He replied without looking up.
Nate could do little but chuckle; of course Hardison had clothes here that Nate knew nothing about, just another day in the life of the Leverage team.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~3 - The Hotel~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“We can’t stay here!” Sophie exclaimed as they pulled into the hotel parking lot, “it’s, it’s, it’s...”
“The only place with five rooms and internet access.” Hardison jumped in, “if you want me to finish the research I need to be able to get online! I’ve been stuck in this car for three hours and spent most of that time trying to hijack some internet rather than getting on with the damn research.”
“Can’t you do something with satellites; you’ve done that before haven’t you?” She pleaded, obviously desperate not to stay in the tiny, rundown, out-of-the-way hotel.
“It’s just a bed, Sophie,” Eliot interjected, not bothering to hide the annoyance in his voice. “It’s somewhere to sleep when we’re not busy trying to find a six-year-old kid who is probably huddled in a basement somewhere.”
Nate looked at Sophie and quickly shook his head, telling her not to bother. They’d been in the car for three hours and Eliot’s mood was getting worse with each passing second. He’d taken the car keys and jumped in the driver’s seat before Nate could argue. He’d refused to stop the whole way there, kept telling Parker to shut up when she said anything slightly annoying, which was pretty much everything that came out of her mouth and he’d cut into traffic more times than Nate could keep count of. He was actually surprised they’d gotten there in one piece.
Now they’d arrived, he just wanted to escape the car and Eliot’s mood for five minutes, which meant no searching for anywhere else to stay. He just needed a few minutes of peace before diving head-first into a hopeless situation.
“I’ll check us in,” Nate piped up, jumping from the car as soon as it stopped and heading to the reception.
The hotel wasn’t large, just about twenty rooms over two stories. The white paint was falling off and the doors and the windows looked like they hadn’t seen any water since the place was opened. Inside the reception was no better. A single sofa that had seen better days, seventies brown wallpaper peeling from the walls and a large man tending the desk who looked like he hadn’t seen a bath in several days, maybe even weeks.
“Can I ‘elp you?” He said his accent thick and almost difficult to understand.
“Yeah, we booked five rooms.” Nate answered.
“What’s the name?”
“Smith, Matt Smith.”
“Well Mr. Smith, rooms 4, 6, 7, 9 and 10, here’s your keys,” he said handing the large silver keys to Nate, “You paid for a week, if you wanna stay longer just let me know, need to pay in advance.”
“Sure, no problem,” he replied grabbing the keys and heading back out to join the team.
“Okay guys,” he said, handing out the keys making sure to put Eliot in room 7, safe in the middle of the team in case he had any ideas of sneaking out without them, “take ten minutes or so to get settled, clean up, then we’ll have a look at what Hardison has come up with so far.”
Eliot surveyed the small room. Unlike Sophie he didn’t need his creature comforts; he’d stayed in a lot worse. He wasn’t gonna bitch and moan about a little room that could use a coat of paint, and possibly a vacuuming. They were not here to be comfortable; they were here to find Cindy.
He dropped his bag and turned to leave again, planning to go take a drive into the town to check things out. He could get the research info later; he just had to be out doing something. But as he went to leave, he found his path was blocked by Nate, standing immobile in the doorway, his expression unreadable, even for the experienced hitter.
“What’s going on?” He asked
“We’re here to find a kid,” Eliot replied, trying and failing to match Nate’s even tone.
“What’s going on with you?”
“That’s bull and you know that I know it, I’m not letting you anywhere near this case unless you come clean.” Nate said his voice hard. He knew Eliot would not respond to a gentle and concerned approach. The only way to get through to the hitter was strength and resolve, so, even though Eliot could knock him unconscious with one punch, he was standing up to the hitter and holding his ground. “Tell me what makes this case personal, it won’t go any further, but I need to know your head is going to be in this.”
“Seriously, Nate,” Eliot replied, voice dropping to barely a whisper as he tried desperately to control the rage coursing through his veins, “Back off! My past is exactly that, mine and past, it’s nothing to do with anyone and its history, done, finished, as in not an issue anymore!”
Nate knew he had to tread carefully, pushing the hitter too hard could be worse than just letting him be. He took punishment all the time, but that was just physical, Nate knew he never let it get to him, never let it get inside his head. He had control and it was a control he knew the hitter fought to maintain, pushing too hard could break the control and Eliot was far too dangerous when he didn’t care about consequences.
“Eliot,” Nate softened his approach, “when I looked at those pictures this morning, I immediately saw my son.” He stopped for a second as an image of Sam appeared in his mind again. He shook his head to get rid of it and focus on his current goal. “I know when something is personal,” he continued as he walked slowly into the room, “I know when you look at those pictures you see someone from your past, I need to know who and what happened to make sure it won’t be an issue.” He took a deep breath and turned to face Eliot, “or I’ll pull the team out now. I won’t put them in danger if your head is not fully in this.”
Eliot’s mind was whirring. Part of him wanted to hit out at Nate, wanted to know what he thought gave him the right to invade Eliot’s privacy. They didn’t talk about anyone’s past, why was he pushing it now? Another part of him knew Nate was right, if he couldn’t keep it together, he could endanger the team and they were the only family he had anymore. He toyed with the idea of an outright lie, telling parts of the truth or just letting them go and doing this himself.
“I had a friend who was kidnapped at the same age,” he started, looking Nate straight in the eye, hoping the mastermind wouldn’t realize he wasn’t being quite truthful, “no-one bothered to really look very hard, similar situation at home to these guys.”
“Did they find him?” Nate asked,
“That must have been hard,”
“So you gotta keep talking to me through this,” Nate continued, “I need to know where your head is at, keep you in the game.”
“It’s not a game, Nate,” Eliot said fiercely. “A kid’s life is at stake.”
“I know, Eliot,” he replied, “We’ll do what we can, but I’m not sure we can do much. Just promise me you won’t go off on your own. Run things past me before you do anything. We can’t do this if I’m worried about what you’re going to do.”
“Fine,” Eliot conceded, more to end the conversation than because he actually planned to do it.
“And after this one, I think you should take some time off, recharge.”
“I don’t need to recharge, I’m fine.”
“We all need time off every now and then; we’ve been working almost nonstop for about a year now. Just take a few weeks, we all can, you can go see your family.” Nate finished, hoping Eliot would see it as a good idea because Nate was not planning on taking any more jobs until he knew his team were 100%.
“I don’t have any family!” Eliot replied and then mentally kicked himself. That was too much information and differed from the back-story he’d built when he became Eliot Spencer. This case was already getting to him. It was a story he’d been telling for twenty years and only now was he struggling to keep it straight.
“I thought you had a nephew?” Nate asked puzzled.
“Aimee’s sister’s kid, haven’t seen him in years.” Eliot covered.
“Well, go visit Aimee or something. We are taking a break after this one, end of discussion.” Nate finished with a puzzled look at the hitter. There was a lot more to this story that Eliot was letting on and Nate had to find out. “Let’s go see what Hardison has turned up.”
“So,” Hardison began, “Cindy Stevens, born to Michelle and Michael Stevens on June 20 2003 at the local hospital. They were married right outta high school and have an older son, Pete, who is fifteen.”
“That’s a big age gap, was she an accident?” Sophie asked.
“I guess both probably were,” Hardison continued, “Michelle was 18 when she had the older one, musta gotten pregnant in high school and was forced to marry the father. There are hospital reports for Michelle going back to when she was first pregnant, up to and including one just last week, same thing for both kids: broken arms, cuts, bruising, burns, concussions, the list goes on and on.
“How come there was none of the older kid’s blood on the father?” Parker asked, “I mean, mom, dad and Cindy’s blood was there, why not Pete’s?”
“Dunno actually,” Hardison answered, “although there are fewer hospital visits for him in the last few months, maybe he figured out how to get outta the firing line.”
“Any hospital records on the father?” Eliot piped up.
“Dunno, didn’t check, gimme a minute,” Hardison replied, his fingers flying over the keys, pulling up the necessary information. “Erm yeah, same night as the one for the older kid, dad had a broken nose and concussion from a fall apparently.”
“Kid grew up,” Eliot replied, “learned how to fight back; dad probably doesn’t pick on him much anymore.”
“Then why didn’t he protect his mum and sister?” Sophie asked.
“He’s fifteen,” Nate jumped in before Eliot had a chance to answer, “There is only so much a kid can do.”
“Other than the domestics, there is not much to tell about the Stevens. They own the house and land, passed down from his family, used to be a pretty good farm, but last ten years it’s fallen into disrepair. They sold all the livestock and only have a few crops growing. She works as an assistant in the local school and they are barely making ends meet.”
“Could he have sold the kid for money?” Parker asked.
“If he did, he’s really smart, no unusual transactions, no funds coming into the account, nothing to suggest he just got a payday.” Hardison replied.
“He didn’t do anything!” Eliot added, exasperated, pacing back and forward in front of the small window, “We’re wasting time looking at the family. They didn’t do this, what about local history, any similar cases?”
“Sort of,” Hardison replied, turning back to the computer screen, “a kid in the same town three years ago, similar age, and similar family story. Another a few towns away just over a year ago, all in all nearly ten kids over an eight year period within a two hour drive of here, all with the same issues at home, none of them solved.”
“Any common factors?” Nate asked.
“Nothing I can see. All had social services visits, but all had different case workers, although outta the same office. All went to different schools, different doctors, and their ages ranged from three to seven, total mix of boys and girls, in all cases the father was the main suspect.”
“It’s someone in the social service office, it has to be.” Eliot said quietly. “It’s someone who knows enough about their home lives to know the police will have another suspect who looks real good and won’t push anything else too hard.”
“Sounds plausible, but we have no proof yet,” Nate replied. “Okay, here’s the plan, Sophie, you and Hardison are FBI, start with the police, get inside the investigation, mention the other cases, see if they’ve looked at that angle. Parker, I want you inside the social services, copy the case files for all the missing kids, see if we can find anything on them not in the reports Hardison got. Case workers like to write their notes and observations but never type them up.”
“What about me?” Eliot asked.
“You and I will start with the older kid and do some digging around town,” he replied. “Okay guys, let’s get moving.”
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~4 - Pete~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Both men were silent as they drove through the small town. This place reminded Eliot of home, a once thriving farming community, now rundown and falling apart in the wake of big corporations. There was no mall, no Wal-Mart, no Starbucks and only one school and medical center.
“We’ll start with the house, then the neighbors, school, bar and end with the hospital,” Nate stated, making sure to lay the plan out for Eliot so there could be no misunderstanding, no running off and doing his own thing.
“Fine,” was all Eliot answered as they pulled up to the farmhouse.
If possible, it looked even worse than the pictures. The porch looked like a slight breeze would tear it clean off, the white paint was more grey than white and had almost all peeled away and to top off the creepiness, several broken windows had been boarded up rather than fixed.
Eliot breathed deeply, trying to subdue the images in his mind. This could have been his childhood home, a place he’d done everything in his power to forget for over twenty years, but now, the memories he’d suppressed overtook him, Lexie playing on his swing made out of an old tyre, laughing and joking with him, happy and smiling, or playing catch in the field by the side of the house. But there were other memories as well. Running and hiding after accidentally breaking a window; being kicked down the front steps or thrown against the tree where his swing resided, just for laughing too loudly or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the last images were the worst, his momma crying after Lexie went missing and the sight of her lying cold and alone in the bathroom while his daddy slept off another bender.
The memories invaded his mind with such a force, he fought to keep them inside, a single almost inaudible groan was all that managed to escape. He did not only remember the fear and pain of being that kid, he felt it all again.
“You gonna be okay?” Nate asked with a concerned look.
“Fine,” he replied, getting out of the car and heading towards to house.
“Check out the area, see if you can find out how someone got into the house. The kid’s room is the second floor, end window,” Nate added, pointed out the little girl’s room.
It didn’t escape Nate’s notice that ‘Fine’ was the only word Eliot had uttered since leaving the hotel. He also knew that the young hitter was anything but fine, but he trusted him to be professional and left him to the search as he headed inside.
Eliot stalked around outside, searching for the easiest access to the second floor bedroom that Cindy had slept in. The house’s state of disrepair made it impossible to climb to her room without a ladder and there was no way they’d be able to leave the same way if they went in like that. More than likely, they used a door. He turned his attention away from the house for a minute and walked around the surrounding area.
‘They had to watch and wait,’ he thought, ‘they must have found some cover and waited for the right time to snatch her.’
He searched for where he would have hidden and quickly found the best hiding place. Covered with bushes, easy to lay in wait, a short walk through a field to an adjacent road, no need to bring a car too close to the property and arouse suspicion, a perfect view of the front door, Cindy’s bedroom and a slightly obstructed view of the back door. If this had been Eliot’s job, this is where he would have hidden.
He carefully picked it apart, looking for foot prints, cigarette butts, anything that an amateur might leave behind but was dismayed to find nothing.
“They either weren’t amateur enough to leave a trace or were so amateur they didn’t find the right hiding spot or it’s been three months and any evidence is gone!”
“Hey, who’re you?”
Eliot turned, slightly startled and more than a little surprised someone could sneak up on him. He couldn’t remember the last time that happened. His muscles tensed, ready to defend himself, but relaxed at the sight of a scrawny teenage boy appearing from the field beside him.
“Friend of the family,” he answered vaguely, not taking his eyes off the kid.
“Well I’m family and I don’t know you so you’re not a friend, who are you?” He answered fiercely, slowly moving his feet, planting them firmly, and squaring up, ready to fight. His messy black hair stood out like a crow’s nest and was in stark contrast to his pale skin. The bandana tied around his forehead did little to hide the cut and rapidly forming bruise above his eye.
“You must be Pete?” he asked.
“You still ain’t answered the question Mister, who are you?”
“I’m Eliot, your mom and dad came to ask for our help to find your sister.”
“There are more of you?”
“Yeah, why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“Why would you come to help us, you with the police or FBI or something?”
“No, we’re not the police, we’re nothing official.”
“So why are you here?”
“We help people who have nowhere else to turn.”
“Police say dad killed her.”
“Is that what you think?”
“If he did I’ll kill him!” He answered with a growl, his hands curling into fists.
“I get it, Pete”, Eliot replied calmly, “just tell me what you remember.”
“Nothing,” he said quietly, finally shuffling his feet together, relaxing slightly out of the fighting stance, but still ready to go if he needed to, “I wasn’t home, I should’ve been home!” He finished.
“You couldn’t have known this was going to happen,” Eliot tried to comfort him, knowing the words were useless; they’d never be anything more than words.
“It’s my job to protect her,” he looked up at Eliot with tear filled eyes, “I usually take the punishment, so she doesn’t have to.”
Eliot’s breath caught in his throat. This kid was him, twenty years ago, living the same life, dealing with the same issues, doing the same things he did, for the same reasons. Eliot looked at him, standing strongly, holding his ground, trying to be a man and protect his family and was lost for words. He’d never gotten over his past, he’d never moved on; never let it go, so how could he help this kid do the same?
“I get it, kid,” he said quietly, “more than you know, but you can’t blame yourself.” The words sounded hollow, even to Eliot’s ears.
“I know he did it, I just want to kill him,” he raged, the tears quickly dispersing, a fire replacing them.
“You want to help?” Eliot asked, “then help me find her.”
“Why are you so sure he didn’t do it?”
“I’ve met his type before, I’ve dealt with his type before,” Eliot started, trying to avoid the kid’s piercing green eyes, “he ain’t a killer.”
“What the hell would you know?” Pete yelled at him.
“Just trust me kid, this is my job.”
“Your job?” he said, a note of distain rising in his voice, “the doctors, the social workers, the police, it’s everyone’s job to find my sister, to tell me it ain’t my fault, to tell me that he isn’t that bad, but whose job was it to protect us, mine.”
“I’m none of those things,” Eliot said quietly, talking a step forward, reaching out a hand in a feeble attempt to comfort the broken boy in front of him. “I’m a retrieval specialist. I spend my life dealing with thieves and liars and your dad may be a lot of things, but he wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t know what happened.”
The simple touch, a little gesture did nothing but enrage the young boy further.
“Get your hands off me,” he growled, shrugging off the hitter’s hand and reaching out to push him away, “you have no idea what it’s like to be me,” he continued, advancing on Eliot, seemingly not caring that the stranger was much larger and stronger than he was, “You don’t know what it’s like to be pushed around and told you’re nothing,” he pushed Eliot again. “People have come before, they’ve said they can help and done nothing,” the anger in his voice was rising steadily, “he’s charmed every single one of them til they went and left us here. I know he did it and they don’t care,” he yelled, pushing Eliot again.
Eliot was trying to stay calm, trying to remind himself that this wasn’t someone he could fight, this was a fifteen year old kid who was hurting, but he knew his control was finite and it was rapidly running out.
“Mr. Retrieval Specialist, what makes you think you’re better than me, that you know more than me? I may be just a kid, but I live this every day. Don’t come down here with your fancy car and your pretty boy attitude and tell me I’m being stupid, who the hell do you think you are?” he finished, pushing Eliot once more.
“I used to be you,” Eliot said quietly, fighting the urge to push him back.
The words were spoken so quietly Pete was sure he’d misheard.
“What?” he asked just as quietly.
Eliot took a deep breath before looking Pete square in the eye and repeating himself.
“I used to be you, Pete,” he said a little louder.
Pete looked at him with wide eyes, an expression of wonder on his face.
“How?” he asked quietly.
“I was you, about twenty years ago.” Eliot started with a sigh, “I had a sister, she went missing,” he explained, stumbling slightly over the words he’d never spoken aloud, “the cops assumed my dad did something to her so didn’t look too hard,” he continued, “he was a drunk, just like yours, couldn’t keep a job, married to a girl he got pregnant in high school and spent all his time telling us we ruined his life.”
Pete looked at Eliot in shock, unable to believe this strong, long-haired stranger really did know what he’d been through.
“The night that Cindy disappeared your mom was admitted to the hospital, if she’s anything like my mom she only escaped because he was passed out drunk and if that’s the case, there is no way he would have had time to kill her and get rid of all the evidence.”
“Shit! Did you ever find her?”
“No, but I’ve never stopped looking.”
Tears filled Pete’s eyes once more as he looked away from Eliot and began kicking a rock at his feet. He wanted to trust the man in front of him, wanted to believe that he could help. After all, he’d been here before, but the doubts were niggling in the back of his mind. If he couldn’t find his own sister, how could he help now? On the other hand, no-one else even cared, so what did he have to lose? But trust was not something that came easily to the bruised and battered boy.
“What makes you think you can find my sister?”
“We’re good at what we do, we’ll find out what happened, we’re already chasing down a few leads.” Eliot finished, his voice rising again, the professional taking over once more, “now you gonna help?”
“What can I do?”
“You got any good hiding places around here?”
“You’re standing in it.”
“Nowhere else you can hide where you get a good view of the house but not be seen?”
“Round the back, near the barn, but you wouldn’t see much of the front of the house.”
“Can you show me?”
They walked quietly to examine the other hiding place, but just like the first, no evidence anyone had been there.
“So what now?” Pete asked.
“We’ll keep asking questions, see if we can find anything the police missed.”
“Can I come with you?”
“That’s not a good idea.” Eliot said cautiously.
“But I want to help,” he said defiantly, “she’s my sister, I need to help find her.”
“I know you do,” Eliot replied quietly, “but what we do is not always safe or legal, you need to let us do what we do.”
“It was my job to protect her; I need to help find her.”
Eliot took a deep breath before continuing, “I was just like you, thought it was my job to protect my sister and just like you I feel like I failed, but bringing you into my world is not safe. You need to be here for Cindy if we find her.”
“Promise me you’ll find her.”
“I promise we’ll do everything we can.”
“That’s just a fancy way of saying no.”
“I want to find your sister, gives me hope that maybe mine is still out there somewhere and maybe one day I’ll find her, but I won’t lie to you, I won’t promise you something I can’t absolutely deliver, but I will do everything I can to find her.”
He rested his hand on the boys shoulder and was not surprised to feel his muscles tense under the slight touch, but was please that he didn’t push him away this time. He could tell that Pete wasn’t used to a touch of comfort and Eliot wished he could do something more to help, but that wasn’t his job here. They’d find the girl, and then he’d deal with the dad.
“So the house is a dead end,” Nate said as he arrived back at the car. “Nothing missing but the teddy bear, the place is a mess; it would take a miracle to find any evidence in there!” He concluded with a sigh, “What about you, find anything? Possible entry point?” he asked, turning to Eliot.
“Found a pretty good hiding place to watch the house and see the kid’s room, but no signs anyone was there.”
“Well it’s been three months; we can’t expect to find much physical evidence.”
“I met the other kid; he thinks his dad did it.”
“And you’re still sure he didn’t?”
“I told you, he may not be a nice guy, he may beat the shit outta his family, but he’s not a killer, I’ve known killers, I’ve killed, this guy is not them.”
“Not even in a rage?”
“That’s when most people kill, but they feel remorse or guilt afterwards, eats them up to the point they confess or do something stupid. This guy didn’t do it. Trust me Nate, he didn’t kill her.”
“Okay,” Nate replied, “let’s get moving, I want to talk to as many people as possible before we check in with the others.”
Nate sighed as the monosyllabic responses resumed and he knew this was going to be a long afternoon.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~5 - Mr. Michaels ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Well that was a complete waste of time!” Eliot moaned as he got back into the car and slammed the door, “I told you we should have just skipped the neighbors and the school and gone straight to the bar. No-one was going to tell us anything we didn’t already know!”
“And you expect the bar to be any different?” Nate asked quietly, trying not to antagonize Eliot, but wishing he’d get out of this mood he was stuck in.
“You wanna know about a guy like this,” Eliot answered as he turned to Nate, “you ask the drinking buddies and bar staff.”
“Fine, let’s get moving.” Nate replied, wishing more and more he hadn’t allowed Eliot to take this case.
They rode the short distance to the bar in silence. Nate felt for his colleague and friend and just wished he knew how to help.
Every head turned as the two strangers walked into the local bar. They weren’t used to new people around here. Eliot, with his long hair, jeans and cowboy boots, fit in no problem, but in his suit, Nate stood out like a sore thumb. All eyes watched them as they walked to the bar.
“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked with a flirtatious smile.
Eliot looked her up and down. On any other day he’d turn on the charm, smile and be more than happy to do whatever was necessary to get the information from her, but today was different. There was too much going on for a break, for a time out, to have some fun on the job. Today, the life of a little girl was at stake, which meant that playful and fun Eliot went out the window.
“We’re looking for some information?” he said quietly.
“Sorry buddy,” she replied, the smile quickly dropped, “nothing here for you.”
“We’re looking for information on the Stevens,” he added, loud enough for the eagerly listening patrons to overhear.
“If you’re a reporter you’re wasting your time, nothing to tell here.”
“I’m not a reporter and I’m not with social services, just a friend, trying to help.”
“Well they don’t deserve any help!” a voice added from behind them.
“Yeah, if he didn’t kill her, she’s better off wherever she is!” another chimed in.
The patrons all started talking over each other, eager to tell the strangers what they knew, how they’d known what was happening, how they’d tried to help. All but one, who was sitting quiet and alone at the end of the bar, drinking his beer and starting, unseeingly, straight ahead, not batting an eyelid at the commotion around him.
“Hey,” Nate said, “can I buy you a drink?”
“If you want, but I got nothin’ for you,” he replied.
“Something tells me you know more that you’re letting on,” Nate answered as he ordered a drink, “I’m guessing you’re Mr. Michaels?”
“How the hell do you know my name?” he turned to look at Nate in surprise.
“You got a look,” Nate said quietly, “It’s a very distinctive look that says you lost a kid. He was called Stuart, right? Just about three years ago? Police blamed you?”
“How do you know all that?”
“It’s what I do,” Nate answered with a slight shrug. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“What’s the point now?” he asked. “My son is gone, and I’ll never get him back now.”
“Maybe now, but if the same people who took Cindy Stevens took your son, maybe we can find out what happened.”
“I didn’t hit my kid.”
“Why did the police think you did?”
“Stuart was aggressive; he was always running into things, falling down, fighting with people. There was no controlling him. More than once he went flying into his mom or me, knocked us down with such a force we ended up with cuts and bruising. Julie had to go to the hospital once for a broken rib after he threw a skateboard at her, she had a black eye and other cuts and bruises, and they blamed me.”
“Did they never diagnose him with ADHD or something?”
“He was always sweet as pie when he was in the hospital, usually because they were fussing over him.”
“So, they assumed it was your fault and didn’t look into it any further.”
“Tell me what happened before he disappeared.”
“He jumped outta the tree in our backyard right on top of Julie. She’s only a tiny little thing, and she fell and hit her head, got a concussion and he broke his arm. Some on-call doc called social services; they were nosing around for a few weeks, then he disappeared.”
“Do you remember anyone hanging around in the few weeks or months before that?”
“We’re a small town, not a lot of outsiders, only new person in town was that doc, but she was only covering in the hospital for a few weeks and was gone before Stuart was taken.”
“Did the police look at her?”
“I dunno, I doubt it, they were sure I’d killed him, just didn’t have any evidence to make it stick!”
“Did you notice anything unusual before the Stevens kidnapping?”
“I’m a drunk, I get up, come here, drink till closing, go home and drink till I pass out, get up the next day and do it over again. I don’t notice nothing!”
“Thanks for your time, Mr. Michaels,” Nate said as he rose from his seat, throwing a few bills on the bar for their drinks and turning to leave.
“Do you really think the same person who took my son took Cindy as well?” he asked, the hope in his voice evident even through the drunken slur.
“I don’t know yet, but it’s a possibility,” Nate replied with a smile. He motioned to Eliot and the pair left.
“Well, you were right,” Eliot said, “Waste of time, they all said the same thing, nice guy in school, captain of the football team, lost his scholarship and was forced to marry the head cheerleader when he got her pregnant, beat up on her even then and never changed. They all think he did it.” Eliot continued with a sigh, “Maybe you and the police were right all along!” he finished.
‘Maybe I’m just too close to this one?’ he thought as they walked back to the car.
“Maybe,” Nate said quietly, not wanting to get Eliot’s hopes up but there was something about Mr. Michaels’ story. He seemed much more like a man in pain than an abusive parent.
“Who were you talking to?” Eliot asked.
“The father of the first victim.”
“What did he have to say?”
“Same as the Stevens, he didn’t do it.”
“Did you believe him?”
“I think so, need to check something out first.”
Nate pulled out his phone and dialed Hardison, it was just a hunch, but one worth playing through.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~6 - Tracey Clark ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Sophie, what’d you get outta the cops?” Nate asked
“Not much, they investigated the similarities with the kidnapping three years ago but no matching suspects, nothing similar in the kid’s routine or the family, only link is the trouble at home. They didn’t know anything about similar cases around the state.”
“Parker, what about the social services?”
“Got copies of all the files, you know it’s amazing you can walk in there, look like you belong and no-one bats an eyelid!”
“Parker, anything useful in the files?”
“Abuse reports all came from different hospitals and different doctors, some had no official reporter noted but the handwritten notes all had the same initials: TC.”
“Hardison, you get into the Michaels kids’ records yet?”
“Yeah, dad’s story sounds plausible, all the kids’ injuries are consistent with the stories provided at the times, but there are so many hospital visits, most likely cause is abuse.”
“The last doctor that treated them before social services got involved, what was the name?”
“Parker, is there a reported in the Michaels’ social services file?”
“No, one of the anonymous ones, but it has the TC notation.”
“TC... Tracey Clark... Hardison, do some digging, I want to know everything, who she is, where she’s from, where she lives, what kind of toothpaste she uses.”
“On it,” he replied, his fingers flying over the keys with unnatural speed as the others looked on. “It won’t go any faster with you guys staring at me.”
“Right, Eliot, Parker, go get some pizza or something.”
“Cool,” Parker replied jumping up from the sofa, “you think I can get PB & J on a pizza?”
“That’s just wrong on so many levels, Parker,” Eliot replied as he followed her from the room.
“Sophie,” Nate started, “Can I have a word?” he finished, gesturing for her to follow him.
“Sure,” she said, following him to his room.
“I’m worried about this one,” he confided.
“Why? It looks like the doc did it,” she said nonchalantly.
“Yeah, but how do we catch her? I honestly can’t think of a plan that doesn’t involve getting another kid kidnapped!” Nate replied, sitting on the edge of his bed, his head dropping into his hands, images of Sam once more running through his mind.
“Urgh, I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” Sophie said quietly.
“There was a reason I didn’t want to take this case, it’s just not what we do!”
“Then why take it?”
“Eliot took it before I could say no.”
“He says he had a ‘friend’ kidnapped. Watching him with the Stevens’ son today, I think it’s more likely a little sister or something like that. We know so little about him, about his past; I don’t think he can be objective.”
“So, we need to come up with a plan that doesn’t require Eliot hitting anyone, if possible?”
“Right, and we need to find a way to do it without any more kids getting hurt and we need to figure out what she’s actually doing with these kids.”
“So, we need to do the impossible,” Sophie finished, sitting down beside Nate, wondering how the hell they were going to solve this one, but quietly pleased that Nate had finally shared a concern with her. It was so unlike him to show weakness, to show he wasn’t in control, although part of Sophie was worried about it, she was glad he’d finally opened up a little to her.
“Hey guys,” Hardison’s voice broke the comfortable silence as his head appeared around the door, “so I got something on the doc.”
“We’ll be right there,” Nate replied and turned to Sophie as Hardison disappeared again, “so should I get Hardison to do some digging on Eliot or just leave it and trust him?”
“I really don’t know, Nate,” Sophie replied with a frown, “I want to trust him, but I want to trust him to tell us what’s going on. He might never trust us again if you have Hardison dig into his past. At the same time, his past could jeopardize this job.”
“I wish I knew what to do. I’m always the man with the plan, this time, I just don’t know.”
“We can sleep on it and deal with it tomorrow,” she finished with a smile, almost instantly putting Nate at ease.
“Guys, pizza’s here!” Parker yelled at them from the hall, breaking the momentary peace they had found. It was time to get back to work.
“Just try it,” Parker said with a smile, shoving the slice of pizza in Hardison’s face.
“It’s disguising, how can you eat that?” he replied, a look of revulsion on his face.
“It’s amazing, they go so well together!”
“It’s banana and tuna, Parker. They should be nowhere near each other!” Eliot growled at her.
“You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it!” she replied with the customary Parker pout.
“No, I’m really not!” he said with a derisive laugh as he shook his head and tucked into his meat feast.
“Just tell me you got something more than smothered in meat or erm,” Nate started, glancing at Parker, thinking how to delicately describe her insane pizza topping, “unusual toppings?”
“Yeah, we got boring plain cheese and a ham and pineapple,” she replied between bites.
“Great,” Nate replied, “Hardison, what’d you find out?”
“So Tracey Clark doesn’t exist!” he started.
“What do you mean?” Sophie asked.
“Tracey Clark, born December 3rd 1971, died October 5th 1976, yet someone is using her name and social security number. Whoever it was did a pretty good job of faking it. On the surface, everything is fine. You gotta look hard to find the death certificate.”
“How’d she die? We sure it isn’t a paperwork error?” Nate queried,
“We’re sure; she died in a car accident. Dad was driving, Mom and daughter killed at the scene, father was the only survivor, lots of big newspaper articles on it and everything, it’s not a clerical error.”
“So, who is this woman?” Parker said with a puzzled frown.
“I have no idea,” Hardison replied.
“Well, what do we know about her other than she’s a fake?” Eliot enquired.
“That’s the thing; Tracey Clark has a twenty four year old death certificate but somehow has still been living her life during that entire time. We got school records, college records, med school records, Facebook, etc etc. She and her dad moved to Texas from Ohio in June of 1977.”
“What else do we know about him?” Nate asked as he stared out the window.
“He was an Emergency room doctor in Ohio, left a pretty good practice to move to Texas to be an on-call doctor for rural hospitals, just like Tracey. She was living the high life in Chicago ‘til she gave it up ten years ago and came here to do the same thing. Dad gave up practicing and moved out here with Tracey about five years ago”
“So, this guy has a daughter, she dies, but somehow is still living?” Eliot interjects.
“Seems like that,” Hardison answers
“Then who is she? Where did she come from?” Eliot demanded.
“I have no idea; I don’t even know where to start with this one.” Hardison replied.
“Hardison,” Nate said quietly, “can you run a search for girls around five years old who went missing between October of 1976 and probably summer of 1977?”
“You think he kidnapped her?” Sophie asked.
“Makes sense,” Nate replied. “Dad loses his kid, spends half his time patching up battered and broken kids, has enough one day and takes one of them out of the bad situation, moves them to a small town where no-one knows them and gives her his daughter’s identity. Could be what they’re doing with these other kids.”
“Got two girls the right age, Lucy Mitchell, went missing April 23rd 1977 in Ohio, two towns over from where John Clark lived, never found and Stacy Fletcher, missing since May 15th 1977, a little further away from John’s home, but still close enough to drive in a few hours.”
“Okay, I get him kidnapping a little girl to replace his daughter,” Parker started, “well, sort of anyway, but why is she now doing the same thing?”
“It’s a family business,” Eliot said quietly. “I bet if we look up missing kids with the same MO around where he practiced in Texas, we’ll find loads more cases.” He eyes focused on something out the window the others couldn’t see as he took a deep breath and continued, “I’m guessing they think they’re doing the right thing, taking good kids out of bad situations and finding them loving families who’ll take care of them but,” his voice suddenly turned from quiet and distant to the hardness the team were only used to hearing when he was squaring up for a fight, “they don’t think about the people they leave behind.”
“So, what do we do?” Sophie asked.
“What do you mean what do we do?” Eliot asked, “We find their records or something on them and stop it, get as many kids back as we can.”
“We need more info before we can do anything,” Nate added calmly.
“Well she stays with her dad when she’s not working but they got an office that was very cleverly hidden in a shell company, registered in our favorite tax haven. Officially it’s a medical consultancy that somehow seems to earn about a million dollars or so a year, but other than that and the address, I got nothing on it.”
“Parker, Eliot, head to that office tonight, see what you can find, we’ll go over it tomorrow,” Nate finished, leaving the room to avoid any further arguments. He knew there were decisions to make and they were not going to be easy. He had to think on his own for a while before facing Eliot again.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~7 - The Office ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The company office was located on the main street of a small town just an hours’ drive away. The small brown building was quiet and unassuming, fitting in perfectly in the middle of the shops, dentists’ offices, and cafes. The street was dark and empty. which actually made entering the building more tricky. There was no-one to hide behind, no-one to use for misdirection as Parker picked the lock, they just had to hope they got in and out before anyone called the police.
“This is a doctor’s office?” Parker asked disbelievingly as she looked around at the dark and damp room, “you’d be more likely to catch something than get cured here.”
“Somehow I don’t think they see patients here Parker,” Eliot answered her, trying to keep his temper in check. She’d talked incessantly the whole way there and he was about ready to kill her, or at least knock her out so he could get some peace.
“Still,” she replied, “I wouldn’t get treated here.”
“Let’s just look around, we need to see if we can get any evidence,” Eliot said, hoping to get out of there quickly, get back to the hotel and find a local gym he could break into. Killing a punching bag was preferably to killing Parker, for the moment anyway.
Parker being Parker, it didn’t take her long to find the safe hidden in a fake cupbaord in the office and she moaned slightly at how easy it was to crack.
“Hold on a second, Parker,” Eliot said, a hint of panic in his voice, “this is too easy,” he finished, looking around for the catch.
“They’re just two little townies, they probably think no-one will ever get onto them,” Parker replied, turning her attention back to the safe.
“Parker,” Eliot said impatiently, “let’s be sure, check for trip wires or something not right.”
“Fine,” she answered sulkily and began looking around the safe while Eliot checked the office again for anything they’d missed.
“Shit!” Parker swore quietly, Eliot was at her side in a second, “trip wire out the back of the safe into the cupboard at the end of the office, connected to a keypad.”
“Must be some sort of explosive, probably if you don’t enter the right code here before opening the safe it blows the contents.”
“So, how do we get at it?”
“Hardison,” they said at the same time as Eliot pulled out his phone and dialed the number.
“What the f...” the sleepy voice answered.
“Hardison, wake up, we need some help,” Eliot replied
“Couldn’t it wait ‘til, you know, morning?”
“No, now get out of bed and tell us you’ve given us something that can crack a 10-digit keypad?”
“Let me guess, connected to the safe?”
“Yeah, probably set something off inside if this isn’t deactivated before the safe is opened.”
“It’ll be a six-digit code, pretty standard home security, these guys ain’t too savvy.”
“Savvy enough not to leave their safe unprotected. Now just hurry up, what do we do?”
“You can’t crack the code with what you got on you, but if this is the basic home version, it’ll have a reset switch, a default code the manufacturer can use to reset it.”
“So, what’s the code?” Eliot asked, his impatience growing more and more each second.
“I need to hack the manufacturer’s database, is there any info on it?”
“No Hardison, they may be dumb, but they aren’t that dumb!”
“Wait a minute,” Parker interjected, “did you say six digits?”
“What was the date that the real Tracey Clark died?”
“He wouldn’t be that crazy Parker, it’s too easy,” Hardison replied.
“Yeah, he’s smart enough to have a device like this, but stupid enough to leave everything here easily accessible. It’s a hunch, if it’s wrong we can try something else, I’m sure we’ll get three tries before it locks us out or something,” she replied.
“Okay, erm... it was October 5th 1976,” Hardison said.
“So 100576,” Parker said as she entered the code, “Yah, a light turned green, I guess it worked.”
“Just be careful when you open the safe, just in case, okay?”
“We’ll be careful,” Eliot answered, “See you in the morning,” he finished as he hung up.
“Right, let’s get cracking!” Parker said with a grin, heading back to the safe, leaning in close, almost caressing it.
“Should I leave you two alone for a minute?” Eliot asked.
“Why?” Parker queried as Eliot rolled his eyes. She’d obviously missed the sarcasm.
“Can you just hurry up Parker, stop touching it like you want to date it or something.”
“Fine, fine,” she replied, “no-one appreciates the finesse,” she finished as the door swung open.
“Grab everything and let’s get out of here.”
“Shouldn’t we copy it? We don’t want them to know we’ve been here.”
“Do you see a photocopier around?” he asked, “plus we’ve been here too long, I’ll be shocked if someone hasn’t called the cops, let’s just move.”
“What’s going on?” she asked, “It’s not like you to be careless.”
“Nothing is going on, fine, let’s mess the place up so it looks like a robbery and we can set the explosives in the safe to trigger using the phone, so they won’t know anything was stolen.”
“Now that’s more like a plan,” she answered, as she went around and smashed the cupboards and scattered the useless papers around the office.
“Explosives are done, let’s get out of here.” Eliot said after a minute of messing around with the safe.
Back in the car they’d left around the corner, they drove for a few minutes before detonating the homemade bomb. It wasn’t big, just enough to blow out the safe and destroy anything inside, but they still heard it go up. Satisfied, they made their way back to the hotel, Parker clutching the brown leather journal in her hands.
“Well, what’d we get?” Eliot asked.
“Just looks like a ledger,” Parker replied, “names, dates and amounts.”
“What about those papers at the back?”
“Oh, I guess here’s our proof!”
“Hospital records and social services files on the kid that went missing and four other kids.”
“Get on the phone to Hardison, tell him the other kids’ names, and see if they are missing as well.”
“Its 2am Eliot, he’ll kill us if we wake him again, he can do it tomorrow.”
“Now Parker, he can do it now.”
“Fine, but if he wants to kill someone, I’m sending him in your direction!”
Eliot didn’t reply, he just put his foot down and kept driving. He had a bad feeling those kids were next.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~8 - The Plan ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Hey, what the hell....?” Hardison shouted as pieces of paper collided with his head.
“Wake up, Hardison,” Eliot snapped, “We’re all waiting on you!”
“Well, maybe I’d be more awake if someone hadn’t awoken me up last night,” he commented, “twice!”
“It’s important!” Eliot replied, “what did you find?”
Hardison turned to Nate who’d been sitting quietly, watching the exchange, trying to decide just how much to reveal to the hitter.
“The four names in the file have current social services files, all started in the last five months, none of them are missing yet,” Nate started.
“There are details in the files about the family that wouldn’t be in a medical or social services file,” Hardison picked up the thread, taking his cue from Nate, “where they work, what hours they do, what bars they drink in, when the house is normally empty and details on the houses as well, entry and exit points, where the kids’ bedrooms are etc.”
“Why can’t we give that to the police?” Sophie asked, “surely that would be enough to get them asking questions?”
“Not really,” Nate answered, “she can explain it away as keeping tabs on patients she was worried about. She’s a trusted and respected doctor, who didn’t actually treat all of the missing kids, so they’ll probably believe her.”
“So what do we do? How do we run a con on her to find the kid?” Parker questioned.
“Do we know what she’s doing with the kids?” Sophie added.
“The ledger,” Eliot interjected quietly, “names, dates and amounts right?” he looked at Hardison who nodded confirmation, “they sell the kids.”
“I did a search on some of the names, took most of the night because there are no locations, but of the five most recent ones I searched, all lost kids to illness or accident between one and two years before the dates in the ledger.”
“So they’re not only selling the kids, they’re selling them to families who’ve lost kids?” Sophie asked.
“They probably see themselves as the good guys,” Nate added, “taking kids out of bad situations and placing them with families who will love and protect them.”
“Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, kinda like us,” Parker piped in.
“Nothing like us!” Eliot said, practically shouting at them, “the homes these kids are from may not be perfect but it’s their home. Maybe some of the family don’t care about them, but what about the rest of them,” his voice was rising steadily now, “Cindy’s father may be a bastard who beats on her, but what about her mom or her brother, they just have to live with never knowing what happened to her?”
“Well,” Sophie started cautiously, “they had their chance to help and didn’t.”
“So that justifies kidnapping?” he replied,
“Well no,” she said quietly, “but I don’t see what we can do to help.”
“If we confront her, she’ll deny it,” Hardison commented, “and the ledger doesn’t say which kids went to which families.” He ran his fingers over the keys on his laptop, pulling up the original research. “The five cases I looked at last night match up roughly to five of the kidnappings in the last eight years, but we don’t know for sure.”
“They must have a list of which kids went to which families,” Eliot said, calming slightly as he leaned against the wall.
“Plus the dates in the ledger go back to the eighties,” Hardison added, flipping through it once more.
“How far back?” Eliot asked.
“Erm... 1982.” Hardison replied.
Eliot closed his eyes and took a moment to gather his thoughts, a moment which was not missed by the team, more specifically Nate who could only guess at what Eliot was thinking.
“Anyway,” Nate began, “I think our only play is the doc, if she thinks she’s doing this for the right reasons, we need to show her they aren’t always right.”
“How do we do that?” Parker asked.
“Well, she thinks she’s taking these kids out of bad situation and putting them into better ones, what if some of these kids end up worse off?”
“She probably doesn’t think about the family she leaves behind either.” Eliot added quietly.
“True, we could use that, she’s also probably scared at getting caught, I think blackmail is our best option here.”
“But you said the info here isn’t enough for the police, if we try to blackmail her with it, she’ll just explain it away.” Hardison said.
“Well,” Nate turned to look at Parker, “how about a visit from one of their ‘kids’ who’s not better off. That ought to shake her up a bit, she’ll start looking up the other kids they relocated to see if any of them have had hard times. The father will probably have the full list of kids somewhere. If we can get that and match it to this ledger we should have enough to go to the police.” Nate finished.
“But we’ll need a name to use; someone we know is on their list of missing kids.” Sophie said with a puzzled expression, “how are we going to find them?”
“Hardison,” Nate said, “can you do some more research on the first few names in the ledger, see if you can find us some possible kids who could have been matched with these families.”
“On it, but it’ll take a while.”
“Okay, Parker, you’ll be grifter on this one,” Nate started, dishing out the roles, “Sophie, be ready to go in as her lawyer in case she needs help with the role, Eliot, you watch the doctor, keep track of her movements.”
“What about you?” Eliot asked.
“I’m going to be a grieving father looking for a second chance, I’ll bug her office, make sure we don’t miss anything,” Nate said, “okay, let’s get to it guys!” he finished with a sigh, this case was getting too personal and he really, really wanted a drink
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~9 - Meeting the Doctor ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Nate sat in the car outside the hospital for what felt like hours. It had been years since he’d lost Sam, but it still hurt every day and walking back into one of these buildings made it hurt just that little bit more. Once again, he cursed Eliot for taking this job and cursed himself for allowing it to happen. At this point he wasn’t even sure what a successful outcome would be.
With a deep breath, he got out of the car and headed inside. He walked quickly, avoiding contact with everyone until he reached the reception.
“Hi there,” the pleasantly plump woman greeted him with a warm and friendly smile, “How can I help you today?”
“Erm,” Nate started, partly wishing he could turn and run away, feelings which he knew helped sell the story, “I’m looking for Dr. Clark, Tracey Clark?”
“Can I ask what it is regarding?” she replied.
“It’s a personal matter; I was advised she was working here this week?”
“I think she’s with a patient at the moment, but if you would like to wait I’ll page her for you, Mr..?”
“Ford, Nate Ford,” he replied easily, the truth was going to be his best asset in this one.
“Have a seat Mr. Ford and I’ll call her for you.”
“Thank you,” Nate replied with a forced smile, turning to look around the waiting room. He’d been here before, maybe a different hospital in a different town, but one blended into another. They were all as bad as each other, because Sam died in one of them.
He walked to the wall, taking deep breaths, keeping his head down and trying to stop his stomach from doing somersaults when a beautiful young doctor walked up to him.
“Mr. Ford?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, holding out his hand, “you must be Dr. Clark.”
“That’s right,” she answered with a smile, “how can I help you today?”
Nate was dumb struck for a moment. He’d expected her to be your average over-worked, under-paid ER doctor, and he wasn’t wrong. Her blond hair was haphazardly pulled back, with streaks falling down every now and then. Her azure eyes were tired, but that did not stop them piercing into the soul of anyone she turned them on. She was tall and slim and had an almost ethereal glow about her that made her seem like the angel some people probably thought she was.
“Is there somewhere more private we can speak?”
“I’m really very busy, Mr. Ford,” she said, turning as if to leave.
“Will Ryan sent me to you,” he said, pulling out the first name he could recall from the ledger, “he said you could help me,” he finished.
“And just what exactly did he tell you I could do?” She asked, turning to look at him more cautiously.
“He said you helped them after they lost their child,” Nate said in a very small voice, almost like he wanted to hide from the words.
“Please,” she said “my office is just down here.”
“Thank you,” Nate replied and followed her down the bustling corridor, filled with patients, mostly with cuts and bruises, very few looked gravely ill and Nate was thankful for that.
“Have a seat, Mr. Ford, and tell me what happened.”
“I’m sorry, do I really have to go into details?” he replied, the pain evident on his face.
“If you want my help, Mr. Ford, then I’m afraid so, I don’t help anyone unless I am satisfied it is the right thing to do,” she answered, with a comforting smile.
“I understand,” he replied quietly, “I just don’t like talking about it.”
“Maybe it’s too soon,” she said, “give it a little more time,” she reached over and patted his arm providing the well-practiced comfort of her trade. “When you can talk a little more freely about what happened, then maybe you’ll be ready to move on. Here, take my card and call me when you are ready.”
“It’s fine, Dr Clark,” Nate replied, forcing a smile. He got up and slowly walked around the office, stopping to look out the window at the dark and dank alleyway beyond. Carefully placing a camera on the window frame, he took a deep breath before continuing, “my son had leukaemia, none of the treatment worked, and he went downhill quickly.”
“When did he die?”
“Four years ago.”
“Any other children?”
“Did you and your wife try again?”
“We split up for a while after we lost Sam; it was a really hard time.”
“I understand,” she said with a smile, “what’s your situation at home now?”
“We reconciled last year and are better than ever together except we can’t have any more children.”
“What about adoption?”
“There are issues that won’t allow us to adopt.”
“If I’m going to help Mr Ford, I need to know every detail.”
Nate took another deep breath and turned from the window to face Tracey. The lump in his throat, the tears in his eyes and the pain in his face were not an act, talking about Sam still had this effect on him.
“I’m a recovering alcoholic.”
“Will that count against me?”
“How long have you been sober?”
“Just over a year.”
“It might be better to wait a little longer.”
“I would rather not wait,” Nate tried to smile once more, “I don’t want to be one of those really old dads whose kids are embarrassed by it.”
“I understand, but I don’t think I can help you just now, Mr. Ford.”
“Please,” he said, moving towards her, carefully placing a bug under her desk as he reached for her hands, almost begging for her to help.
“I really am sorry Mr. Ford, but the children we help come from bad backgrounds, have had difficult family lives and we take them out of those bad situations and give them a new life. We need to know that there will be no issues, and I would rather you’d been sober and your marriage back on track for a little longer before we place a child with you, but please,” she stood and headed to the door, leaving Nate little choice but to follow her, “you have my card, give me a call in a year or so and we’ll have another chat.”
“Thank you for your time Ms. Clark,” Nate replied quietly, a tinge of anger lacing his voice as he walked from the office.
Nate returned to his car and sat for the longest time, just breathing, trying to calm himself again. The point of the exercise had not been for her to agree to find him a child; it was to plant the bugs, which he’d done, but now all he really wanted was drink!
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~10 - The Bad Girl ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Remember Parker, less is more,” Sophie told her, “let the character do the work!”
“I know,” Parker said frowning, “you’ve told me a million times before.”
“You know the story, just like we practiced, okay?”
“Fine!” she replied, slightly annoyed.
She took a deep breath as she approached the building. Nothing used to bother her, she didn’t care about anyone and never had to deal with people, but now, life was different. She had a team she’d come to care about, more than she ever thought possible, and it seemed that the more cases they worked, the more often she had to deal with her past. But this one was different, pretending to be a kidnap victim with a hellish past filled with lies and drunks and abuse, there wasn’t much pretending required.
Her eyes darted from side to side and back again as she walked through the waiting area, heading to the reception. She fidgeted with her top and her hair and her watch as she waited for the receptionist to acknowledge her.
“How can I help you today?” the woman asked with a cheery smile that made Parker want to hit her, ‘no-one should be that cheery!’ she thought.
“I’m looking for Dr. Clark,” she said quickly, not meeting the woman’s eye.
“Can I ask what it is regarding?”
“A personal matter,” Nate prompted her through the earpiece and Parker repeated the nondescript phrase.
“She seems to have a lot of those today,” the woman replied, “please have a seat and I’ll see if I can find her for you Ms..?”
“Simons,” Parker answered.
“I’ll call her for you now, Ms. Simons.”
“Thanks,” Parker replied and took a seat in the uncomfortable red plastic chairs. Bouncing her leg and playing with her top, she looked every bit the abused and drug addicted runaway she was meant to be.
“Ms Simons?” Dr. Clark seemed to appear in front of her from nowhere causing Parker to jump.
“Wow!” Parker exclaimed, “you’d make a good thief!” she finished with a smile.
“Erm, thanks, I guess,” Tracey replied, “What can I do for you, Ms. Simons.”
“I need to speak to you in private,” Parker continued quietly.
“Good, Parker,” Nate said as Tracey looked Parker up and down, “just keep it going.”
“Yeah, great job Parker”, Sophie added, “See the way she’s looking at you, she really thinks you’re a junkie, probably one who wants to rob her.”
“Or she’s looking for a kid,” Hardison laughed.
Parker stifled a laugh at the idea as Tracey met her eye once more.
“I’m a little busy today; perhaps you can come back another time?” Tracey answered.
“Parker, tell her you need to speak to her today, but call her Stacey,” Nate said.
“But what if she’s the other one, Lucy?” Hardison asked.
“It’s a hunch but Stacey fits better, further from the father and closer to the date he left town, didn’t have to hide her as long,” Nate replied.
“No, Stacey, I need to speak with you today,” Parker said forcefully.
Tracey started slightly as Parker spoke but hid her discomfort quickly, just not quickly enough that Parker, or the team watching through the button cam, missed it; they all knew she’d hit the nail on the head.
“I’m sorry,” Tracey said, a little confused, “My name is Tracey, not Stacey and I really can’t help you.”
“Call her Stacey again, Parker,” Nate prompted her again, “tell her you’re just like her.”
“I think you can help, Stacey,” Parker said, no longer fidgeting but standing tall, invading Tracey’s personal space, forcing the issue, “see I’m just like you, I’m one of your dad’s ‘kids’.”
“Did you see that flinch when you mentioned her dad?” Nate questioned, “she’s probably trying to figure out if you’re for real. Stay in her face, she’ll crack in a minute.”
“Come through to my office,” she said, leading Parker to the same, small, dimly lit room that Nate had been in just an hour before.
“Just what do you mean you are one of my dad’s kids?” Tracey asked as soon as the door was closed.
“Exactly what I said,” Parker answered, fidgeting with her hair again as she took a seat, Tracey following her lead.
“Who are you?”
“My name was Alexandra Steel, before your dad kidnapped me and sold me.”
“What?” Eliot asked, speaking for the first time since the meeting that morning, “where did you get that name from?” he asked.
“Was the only kidnapping that fit for when the Simon’s got their little girl back,” Hardison replied casually, not knowing the turmoil now going through Eliot’s mind. He wanted to run into the hospital and rip the truth from the doctor with his bare hands. After all this time, he couldn’t believe a case was going to be the thing that finally helped him trace his sister.
Back inside the hospital, Tracey shook her head as if to start denying what Parker had just said, probably just the way her father had taught her to handle the family business, but Parker interrupted.
“Don’t bother denying it, Stacey, I know everything and I have proof!” she continued, saying the lines as Sophie feed them to her, “I know how you kidnap kids you assume are being abused, how you sell them to families who have lost kids and they are given the dead kid’s identity and then forgotten about!”
Tracey’s internal struggle played out on her face for the team to read easily, a fight going on between wanting to know more about what happened to this girl, what was so bad to have her end up here and wanting to deny all knowledge of her and what they’d done.
“Denial is not an option Stacey,” Parker said, producing a photocopy of the ledger they’d stolen, “as I said, we have proof.”
“Please stop calling me that,” Tracey asked in barely more than a whisper.
“Why, it’s your name right?”
“It hasn’t been my name in a long time,” she looked up at Parker, but quickly averted her gaze from the obviously troubled young woman, “you said we have proof, who is we?”
“A friend I met in juvie,” she replied.
Tracey swallowed hard as she continued to stare at the desk. “Why were you in juvenile detention?”
“Stealing to get money for drugs,” Parker replied nonchalantly, “anything to get away from the crap at home!”
Tracey’s face suddenly turned chalk white and they all knew she’d hit a nerve.
“My friend is very good with computers, traced my real parents, did some digging and found your dad, then found you and your little ‘operation’ here.”
“What do you want?” Tracey asked.
“I want you and your daddy to know what you did to me!” Parker responded, getting out of her seat, walking around the desk and standing directly in front of Tracey, “I was fine until he dropped me in that hellhole!”
As she sat on the edge of the desk, berating Tracey for all her woes, Parker casually lifted the doctor’s phone, carefully, holding it behind her back, she placed another bug in it.
“No,” Tracey answered, looking up at Parker with tears in her eyes, “we only ever took kids we knew were being abused, we put them in good homes!”
“I went from a bad situation to a worse one!” Parker replied, “you drop these kids into better situations, but never bother to check on them again? How do you really know they are better off?”
“I, erm, uh...” was all Tracey could say, unable to articulate the horror train of thoughts now running through her head.
“Ask her if she ever gave a thought to the families left behind?” Eliot chimed in.
“Alexandra Steel’s mother died of alcohol poisoning about a year after she disappeared,” Hardison said, “father died in suspicious circumstances and her older brother, Edward, disappeared off the face of the earth, no-one has seen or heard from him in over twenty years.”
“Use the brother Parker,” Sophie told her. Outside, a single tear escaped Eliot’s eye as he listened to his life story being played out.
“I had a brother,” Parker told Tracey, “did you know that?”
“No,” she replied quietly.
“My mother drank herself to death, my father, alright he wasn’t that great to me, died the same night my brother disappeared.”
“Can’t your friend track him?”
“I’m trying, Parker, but this kid really did disappear,” Hardison added.
“No,” she answered, “your daddy robbed me of my family.”
“I’m sorry,” came the pained reply, “we thought we were helping.”
“Well you weren’t!” Parker said.
“Now, set the trap, Parker,” Sophie told her.
“There is a point to my little visit,” Parker began, “I want to get my life and my name back, but to do that, I need money for rehab.”
“I think a million dollars should do it.”
Tracey looked at this mysterious young girl in shock.
“That’s right, honey,” Hardison jested, “you can run but you can’t hide from me, I know all, I see all, Cayman Island accounts, child’s play!”
“We don’t have that,” she replied.
“I think you do, we have the ledger remember, we know how much each family paid for the kids.”
“But there are costs and we don’t keep the money for ourselves, we donate it to help abused kids.”
“Well, think of this as a donation to help this abused kid.”
“Don’t forget the records, Parker,” Nate reminded her.
“Oh, and I want a list of all the kids you and your daddy have taken and who got them,” she said as she turned to leave, “if you won’t make sure they are okay, we will.”
With those final words Parker left Tracey to absorb the shock of what had just happened. It didn’t take long before she decided what to do next.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~11 - The Phone Call ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Sitting in an anonymous blue Volkswagen around the corner, Hardison and Nate watched as Parker left the hospital and turned their attention to the laptop, which held the feed from the cameras Nate had placed earlier and the bug Parker just put in the phone. All they had to do now was wait and hope their assumption that she’d call her dad to get the files was right.
They didn’t have to wait long; just as Parker got to the car they heard the dial tone.
“Hey honey, how’s work?”
“It’s fine dad,” she answered, taking a deep breath to break the news to her father, “but we have a problem.”
“What’s wrong?” The calm and congenial doctor persona was dropped quickly, replaced by the business man.
“A woman came to see me today, she said she’s one of your kids,” she said quickly, hoping speed would make the words come easier.
“What do you mean ‘one of my kids’?” he asked.
“She says you took her when she was a kid and gave her to a family who were worse than her own.”
“Please tell me you didn’t tell her anything?”
“I didn’t have to, Daddy,” she almost cried as she spoke, her words getting more frantic by the second, “she had the ledger, she knew my name, she knew details she couldn’t possibly know.”
“Of course she knew your name, she came to see you at work,” he answered, puzzled.
“She knew my real name, she knew about Stacey!” Tracey practically yelled into the phone and was greeted by silence on the other end.
There was still no response.
“Daddy, are you there?”
“Yeah,” he answered quietly.
“I don’t regret my life, Daddy,” she said with a sigh, “you gave me a better life than I could ever have hoped for otherwise but...”
“Stacey, you have to ignore her, she can’t have proof,” he said, the grieving father gone as the business man returned once more.
“It’s more than just that, of course I’m worried about getting caught, but she said her life was worse after and she said things about her real family, it just makes me think, we never follow up, we never make sure they are okay, shouldn’t we be doing that?”
“No Stacey,” he replied, “these people come to us, they trust us, they pay us to help them, we take these kids from hellholes and give them to families who want them so much, they will pay every penny they have for them.”
“It doesn’t mean they won’t hurt them.”
“Look, honey,” he said, his voice now taking on the tone of one talking to a small child who didn’t understand, “the details she has can’t hurt us, we’ll move on from here, start fresh somewhere else if you are really worried.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child!” she shouted, “I’m not a little girl anymore, I want to know these kids are okay.”
“Alright honey,” he gave in, “go to the safe house, I’ll meet you there.”
“My shift ends in an hour,” she said, “I’ll see you then.”
“See you soon,” he replied, then quickly added, “What was the girl’s name?”
“When she came in, she said it was Simons, but then she said Alexandra Steel, why?”
“Nothing, I was just curious, I’ll see you in an hour, I love you, honey,” he finished.
“I know,” she answered, “I love you too.”
Tracey sat at her desk, head in her hands, hoping to god none of the other kids had ended up like the one who’d come to see her today, praying that most were lucky, just like she’d been.
She stood up with a sigh, rubbed her eyes and went back to work.
“Eliot,” Nate said, “keep tabs on the doctor, follow her every move.”
“Fine,” Eliot replied.
“Hardison, can you find this safe house? I want to bug it before they get there, if we can.”
“I’m looking but it must be registered under an alias.”
“Okay, let’s fall back to the hotel,” Nate finished, hoping Eliot could hold it together a little while longer. The use of Eliot’s favourite response when he was anything but fine hadn’t escaped Nate’s notice.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~12 - The Safe House ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The safe house really looked anything but safe. It was one of the dozens of big old remote and abandoned farmhouses in the area, but it was so neglected, it looked like one stiff breeze would blow it over, at least on the outside.
Inside, it had been fixed up, cleaned and decorated to look like a warm family home. Using a generator for heat and candles for light, the place had a very ‘Little House on the Prairie’ feel to it. As he placed the cameras, Hardison couldn’t help but shudder at the idea of living like that, with no electricity and worse still, no internet access!
Tracey was first to arrive, looking more harassed than when Nate first saw her in the middle of the busy ER and he was pleased, that meant they were getting to her. She headed inside quickly, eyes darting around, as if checking to ensure she was alone, not noticing the team, strategically hidden in the car just close enough to keep track of what was going on, but far enough away that they wouldn’t be spotted. She quickly set herself up in the den and proceeded to work on her laptop.
It was another thirty minutes before her father arrived. The sharp intake of breath from Eliot was missed by most of the team, but Nate snuck a look in his direction. The hitter, their hitter, their fighter, their rock, suddenly looked like a scared little boy who’d seen a ghost. For Nate, the pieces finally clicked into place, but he didn’t have time to dwell as an argument started inside and his attention was drawn back to the laptop sitting on the dashboard.
“I’ve looked at three of the kids we’ve ‘helped’ recently, look,” she said, turning her laptop to him, “Lucas White has been expelled from school for fighting, Stuart Michaels has been in and out of the hospital more times in the last three years than when he was here; he’s been diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication. Chances are, we were wrong about his family situation. And the latest little girl, Cindy Stevens, has runaway twice in three months and the family she left behind, the father has been worse than ever, both the mother and brother have been into the hospital several times!”
“I’m sure these are anomalies, they won’t all be like this,” her father replied quietly.
“It’s time to stop, Dad. No more, we can’t do this anymore. We don’t know what happens to these kids after they’re gone, it’s not right!
“Would you rather I’d left you at home with your so-called parents? Haven’t you had a better life than you would have had there?”
“Hopefully most of our kids are like me, but I can’t live with the idea that even one of them is like that girl who came to see me today.”
“How did you find all this information on these kids? We told them to keep low profiles.”
“Cause I planted it for you to find,” Hardison said with a smile, enjoying watching the scene unfold on the screen in front of him from the safety and comfort of their car, the results of his hard work coming to fruition.
“You know the skills we use to do background checks on our clients,” Tracey replied, “well they can be used to check up on anyone, do you have the files?”
“Here,” he said, handing her a USB drive, “start with the girl who came to see you.”
“I don’t need to, I saw what she’s like, and she’s a convicted junkie who is blackmailing us.”
“I looked into her after you called, so please, just indulge me please, honey,” he answered, smiling sweetly at her, brushing her hair back, the gesture of comfort he’d used since she was a child.
“Fine,” she said, inserting the drive into her PC.
“Hardison,” Nate said slowly, “tell me we when she searches she’ll find Parker and not the real Alexandra Steel?”
“Erm...” Hardison replied,
“Hardison?!” Nate moaned.
“What?” Hardison tried to defend the oversight, “I was too busy finding as many missing kids as I could and creating their bad stories, I didn’t think she’d check Parker out once she found the stories on the latest kids they’d taken and besides, creating a back story that old is difficult, it takes a lot more time than you gave me.”
“So,” Eliot started quietly, “when she pulls up information on Lexie, it’ll be real?”
“Who’s Lexie?” Parker, Sophie and Hardison asked in unison as they turned to look at him.
“Eliot,” Nate said, “we need to stick to the pl....bugger!” he finished as Eliot jumped from the carefully concealed car and sprinted into the house. “I guess we’re following him then,” Nate concluded.
Eliot wasted no time in covering the distance to the house, the others struggling to keep up with the much fitter hitter. He crashed through the door, into the den and had the older Dr. Clark against the wall, by the throat before either doctor even knew what had happened, causing Tracey to scream in surprise and shock.
Eliot’s life was all about control these days, holding onto something that could hurt and could kill if he let it. He knew that violence didn’t solve all his problems; he learned that the hard way, but right now, it felt good.
“You!” he spat the words out, “you stole my baby sister! You killed my mom! You ruined my life!”
“Please,” Tracey sobbed, “you’re hurting him.”
“I don’t care!” Eliot yelled, not even turning to look at her, “you have no idea what you did to me or my family, you destroyed us!”
“I saved her,” John managed to gasp out as Eliot’s grip continued to tighten.
“Saved her?” Eliot said incredulously, “that wasn’t your job, it was mine and I’ve spent the last twenty years feeling like I failed her, I couldn’t protect her, do you have any idea what that’s like? You had no right, she wasn’t your responsibility.”
“Eliot,” Nate said, cautiously approaching him now that the team had caught up. Having heard the end of Eliot’s and the good doctor’s exchange, he knew his suspicions about Eliot’s motives in this case were right, “you were just a kid yourself; it wasn’t your job to protect her, you didn’t fail her.”
“I should have been there, I should have stopped it,” Eliot responded a little quieter, “I should have stopped him,” he finished, banging the elder doctor off the wall once more.
“Eliot,” Sophie stepped up, “you once told me that you couldn’t control the violence, what you had to control was inside,” he turned to look at her, remembering the conversation just a few short months ago, “you need to control that just now,” Sophie continued, “we can work this out, we have the records,” she gestured to the computer, “we can find Lexie and we have enough to put him away for what he’s done.”
“He needs to suffer,” Eliot replied.
“He does,” she said quietly, daring to move a little closer, resting her hand gently on his arm, “but if you hurt him, you know that will stay with you forever.”
“I’ve killed before.”
“I know, but I’m guessing you can still see their faces right?” she continued, “you always wish there was another way, a better way, a peaceful way to resolve problems, let us do that now.”
“Alexandra Stevens, now known as Lucy Simons, living in Portland, Oregon,” Tracey spoke again quietly, “she’s right here,” she said looking from Eliot to the computer, “she’s married with two kids.”
Eliot dropped John Clark, who crumpled into a ball on the floor, and darted to the computer and read for himself.
“That’s really her?” he whispered.
“Yeah,” she answered
“How can you be sure?”
“Here,” she pulled out the photocopy of the ledger Parker had given her, “we made a note of the adopting couple...”
“Purchasing couple you mean!” Eliot snapped.
“Along with a control number in this book, this matched up to a control number in another book which we transferred into a database last year, the second book stored the original records for each child along with the new social security number, from there it’s easy to trace people, see” she began to demonstrate, “from the social security number I get her employment details, she’s a doctor, specialising in abuse victims, her work has an address and phone number listed.
“Lexie,” he whispered again, reaching out a shaking hand to touch the screen and his baby sister whom he hadn’t seen in over twenty years.
“I’m sorry,” Tracey said and flinched as Eliot turned to face her, the rage and hatred back in his eyes, “I really am sorry, we thought we were helping people, like he helped me,” she finished.
“I’m sure you helped some of these kids, but there are others who will have ended up worse off, or never gotten over being kidnapped,” Nate said, “and you forgot all about the families you took them from, what about your family, have you never wondered about them?”
“A few times,” she answered, scuffing her feet together, “but then I remember what my dad was like and I put it out of my mind.”
“William Fletcher, died in a car accident three years after his daughter went missing, report says it was a DUI,” Hardison piped up, “Susan Fletcher left him six months after the kidnapping and started a support group for parents of missing kids, she still lives in the same house and hasn’t stopped searching for her daughter.”
Tracey gave a sob at hearing what had become of her family.
“What do you want?” John Clark had finally recovered his voice after being half strangled by Eliot, “Money? Your sister back?” he said turning to Eliot but backing away slightly as the hitter turned his wrath back on the doctor. “You’re conmen; you came here with a fake story and tried to extort money from my daughter!”
“And you kidnap and sell kids, what’s your point?” Parker asked.
“You think we’re not careful? We tape all our client meetings,” he turned to Nate, “we have you on video trying to buy a child Mr. Ford,” then to Parker, “and you, trying to blackmail us.”
“Your point being?” Hardison questioned.
“You take the information on where his sister is,” he gestured to Eliot, “then leave me and my daughter alone. Expose us and we’ll expose you.”
“No, here’s how it’s going to work,” Nate replied, “you are going to prison for the kidnap of Stacey Fletcher, we will take your records, track down all the missing kids and give their families some piece of mind.”
“What about me?” Tracey asked. “Are you going to turn me in, I’m just as guilty as he is.”
“Nate looked around at the team, each of them shaking their heads in turn, before finally landing on Eliot, who had gone back to staring at the computer screen.
“Eliot,” Nate prompted “are you okay letting Tracey go?”
Eliot looked from Nate, to Tracey, to the computer and back to Tracey.
“As long as this family business is out of business!”
“I promise,” she replied with a grateful smile.
“I know what we’ve been doing isn’t legal, but we thought we were doing it for the right reasons, we honestly thought we were helping people,” she suddenly found the floor very interesting again, “he’s my dad, he brought me up, he took me from hell and loved me,” she looked up at Nate, “do you have to turn him in?” she asked, not daring to look at Eliot.
“It’s either that or I let Eliot kill him, it’s your choice.” Nate replied as Eliot’s hands balled into fists,
“Who the hell do you people think you are?” John said, almost laughing, “we are respectable doctors, you cannot come in here, accuse us of harming children when all we’ve ever done is help them and expect us to just go along with whatever you say.”
In an instant, John found himself pinned against the wall once more.
“You will do exactly what we tell you to do or I will snap your neck!” Eliot threatened through gritted teeth.
“Fine,” he replied, “What jury will convict me anyway?” he laughed.
“We’ll make sure of that,” Eliot replied with a derisive laugh, “don’t you worry about that, plus, if your ‘daughter’ testifies against you, that should be the final nail in your coffin.”
“Please, you can’t ask me to do that.”
“You will, unless you want to join him in prison,” Eliot said, fixing her with an icy stare, causing her to find the ground interesting once more.
“This will never hold up,” John fought back once more.
“Dad, please stop,” Tracey pleaded, “It’s over.”
“But....” he replied, tears filling his eyes as he looked at his daughter, “Tracey please?”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” she replied, “but I think it’s time to let Tracey go, Stacey needs her life back,” she finished, tears slowly rolling down her cheeks.
“No,” he answered quietly, before falling to the floor once more, suddenly looking like the old, frail man he now was.
“Hardison, grab the laptop with the files,” Nate told the hacker before turning to Tracey, “where are the video files?”
“On here, with copies on his laptop,” she said pointing to her father’s discarded bag.
Eliot picked the bag up and threw it at the wall, glad to finally have an outlet, albeit a small one, for the rage and hatred bubbling inside him.
“I guess that’s destroyed then,” Sophie said smiling.
“No more copies?” Nate asked.
“No,” Tracey replied.
“Alright, I think we’re done here,” Nate said, rubbing his hands together, “Hardison, Sophie, I think you have a kidnapper to take to prison.”
“Erm...” Hardison started, “the original plan was to turn both of them in for the Cindy Stevens kidnapping, how do we do this if we want to keep her out of it?”
“You need to go into a police station and tell them you were kidnapped,” Nate said to Tracey, “can you do that?”
“I guess so,” she replied.
“What about the Stevens girl?” Parker asked, “how do we explain where she was?”
“Well, we’re going giving her back, if the mom agrees to leave the dad and move out of town, she won’t have to explain it if she goes far enough,” Nate explained, “in fact, we’ll use their money,” he said pointing to Tracey and John, “to pay for the relocation and give them some starting money while they get on their feet.”
“And all the other kids?” Tracey asked.
“We’ll look at each one individually, make decisions from there,” Nate replied. “Right, let’s get moving,” he finished and started for the door, glad this case was nearly over.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~13 - Cindy Stevens ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Mommy!” Cindy yelled as she ran into her mother’s waiting arms.
“Oh, Cindy, I missed you so much, sweetheart.” Michelle cried as she engulfed the child in her arms like she never wanted to let her go.
“Alan and Leigh told me you had to go away and couldn’t come back.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” Michelle said quietly, “but they were wrong, I’m here now and I’m never leaving you again.”
“Where’s Daddy?” she whispered, looking fearful.
“Daddy had to go away and he won’t be coming back. I won’t ever let him hurt you again baby.”
“I love you, Mommy,” Cindy said with a smile, flinging herself once more into her mother’s arms.
Pete stood behind his mother watching the exchange, glad to have his baby sister back. He looked over at Eliot, the long-haired stranger who’d been the first person to keep a promise to him.
Eliot looked at him briefly, gave a little nod and turned away once more, glad he had found his happy ending, but he couldn’t stop thinking of his own sister and trying to figure out what he should do now.
“Mrs Stevens,” Nate interrupted the happy reunion, “as we discussed, here is some start up cash, a change of identity for you and the kids and plane tickets to get you out of here. You should be safe, but if you need anything, please call us.”
“I really don’t know how to thank you, Mr. Ford,” she looked at him with a tear-streaked face.
“Just take care of them Mrs. Stevens,” he answered with a smile, “that’s all I ask,” he finished and turned to head back to the car and his waiting team.
“So what now?” Hardison asked.
“I think we all need some time off,” he replied, sneaking a glance at Eliot, “I’ll track down the rest of the kids and decide what to do about them; I’ll give you a call when I get back to Boston?”
“Sounds great,” Eliot replied, looking happier than he had since they started the case.
“What am I going to do with time off?” Parker asked.
“Relax,” Hardison replied.
“But I can’t steal anymore,” she said looking puzzled, “how am I supposed to relax?”
“Go shopping,” Sophie replied, “that’s what I’m going to do, hmmm... shopping in Paris, heaven.”
“I don’t like shopping,” Parker said.
“We’ll teach you,” Sophie said with a laugh at the younger woman.
“So,” Nate said, “we’ll drive back to Boston together, and then split for a few weeks.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Hardison answered, “but can someone else drive back, no offence mate,” he continued looking at Eliot, “but I’d like to get there in one piece.”
“Hey, there is nothing wrong with my driving!” Eliot answered.
“I’ll drive,” Nate said, “if you guys will stop bickering like children.
“Fine,” they both replied, getting into the car.
Eliot looked back at the farmhouse and happy family once more, and with a sigh, he knew what he had to do now.
|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~14 - Lexie ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
It was a typical evening in Portland. The rain was bouncing off the ground and there was no end in sight. But for Eliot Spencer, retrieval expert extraordinaire, this was no typical night.
Twenty-three years ago, when he was only thirteen, his six-year old little sister was kidnapped from their home and never heard from again, until tonight.
Eliot was sitting outside the house she now shared with her husband and two kids, his niece and nephew.
He never normally walked blindly into any situation, but after arriving back in Boston after their last case, he’d taken his bag and headed straight to the airport, gotten on a plane and came here without a moment’s thought. But now that he was here, he didn’t know what to say.
‘Hi there, remember me, the brother you had before you were kidnapped twenty-three years ago?’
Or how about,
‘Hi, I’m your long-lost brother that let your dad beat you up till you got kidnapped and then I killed him?’
So now here he was, sitting outside her house. He’d watched her help the kids with their homework and she was now settling down for dinner. She looked happy and content, and sitting alone in his car he couldn’t decide why he’d wanted to see her so badly.
To give himself piece of mind, that she was okay, that what had happened to her really had been for the best?
Or was it to beg for forgiveness for not protecting her from their father or for letting her get kidnapped?
He wondered how much she even remembered, would she know him, would she remember him? Would she hug a brother she’d missed or slap a man who’d let her go?
Eliot Spencer was not a person who was used to being unsure or indecisive, he knew what to do and when to do it in almost every situation, but this time, he was lost.
So he sat alone, outside her house, just watching, for now.