Parker’s on the roof when her phone buzzes. Not on a job, just, well, scouting.
Some people do crosswords.
The call’s from an unknown number, and she scowls at the screen. Strangers are not supposed to have this number. She answers it anyway, mostly out of curiosity. She can always drop the phone off the roof if she needs to. Twenty or so floors down it’d be comprehensively destroyed.
There’s a pause. Then, “Parker?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Josie. Um. From Boston?”
Parker blinks. “Hi, Josie,” she says. It’s almost midnight here. Almost 3 AM on the East Coast. “What do you need?”
Parker hears the kid take a shaky breath, and then she blurts it out all at once. “A friend just called me and she just got away from this camp out by Seattle someplace? And there’s a bunch of kids and she says it’s real sketchy and she’s at a gas station somewhere but she doesn’t know what to do and they’re gonna find her and—“ Josie pauses. Another shaky breath. “She’s…they sent her there instead of juvie, but she’s a good kid, she’s got nobody to call and I don’t know anybody out there.” Another pause. “‘Cept you.”
Parker stares north, as though she could see all the way to the Canadian border. This isn’t a job. Isn’t worth waking anyone up for. It’s a favor for a friend. She can be there and back before morning.
“What? Oh. Yeah, I can go get her, where is she?”
It took her half an hour to get here, rooftops and back alleys and disarming security systems. She makes it to her warehouse in ten minutes. Not worth waking Hardison up. He’d just slow her down asking questions.
The car she has there is boring, black, nondescript. All paperwork in order, she double checks the registration and the drivers license in the glove box, opens the safe for the credit cards that go along with that ID, checks the go bag in the trunk, all the essentials are there.
Half an hour from when she hung up with Josie she’s racing up I-5 in the dark, her phone showing Hardison’s extremely sensitive police scanner so she can slow down anytime there’s cops nearby.
Deming, Washington is a nowhere kind of place. The kind of town that’d have one school where everyone had known each other since they were born and wouldn’t know what to do with the new kid. The kind of school too small to disappear in, the kind of kids who’d try to make friends and then pull away horrified when you said something wrong.
The kind of town Parker wouldn’t even drive through if she didn’t have to.
The gas station’s just at the entrance to the town, dark except for the lights by the pumps, deserted and silent. Parker pulls in like she’s getting gas—and fills up the tank since she might as well. Looks around, careful, and it actually takes a second glance for her to see the girl, huddled in the shadows by the entrance to the convenience store. Well done, kid.
She walks over, while the pump runs. The kid scrambles to her feet when she sees Parker coming, back against the wall. Scrawny, maybe fifteen, in a jacket that’s too big for her, a wool hat pulled down to her eyes. Dirty, exhausted, scared, and furious pulled over top of everything.
Parker stops, far enough she couldn’t reach out and grab the kid without giving her a second to react. “I’m Parker,” she says, and the kid stops looking for a way out and looks at her. “You must be Josie’s friend.”
The girl shrugs, shoves her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “Mady,” she says, staring at Parker’s feet. “I just need to get to Seattle, she should’t’ve bothered you.”
“You got a place to stay there?” Parker asks.
Mady shrugs. “Some people I wanna see,” she says. “Then I’m coming back.” She glances up, meets Parker’s eyes for just a second. “’S not just me needs out,” she mumbles, looking away toward the mountains, hulking over them in the moonlight.
Parker looks around. This isn’t a good place to talk. Too open, too obvious, too exposed. “Come on,” she says, walking over to the car. She unhooks the gas pump, waits for Mady to get in before sliding behind the wheel. Leans over to open the glove box—Mady flinches away, and Parker’s jaw clenches tighter. She pulls out a box of energy bars. Grabs one for herself and hands the box to Mady. She unwraps hers and takes a bite, and only then does the kid tear open sthe wrapper and practically inhale the thing.
Parker starts the car, drives down the highway, thinking. “Who’s in Seattle?” she asks.
She can feel Mady’s eyes on her, but Parker just watches the road. “Josie said you weren’t a cop,” the kid says, skeptically. “She said you were okay.”
Parker shrugs. “Not a cop,” she agrees. “I can help you get your friends out.”
More skeptical silence. “Josie said you got her out.”
Parker shrugs. “Helped, maybe,” she says. She waits through two miles on the odometer before asking again. “Who’s in Seattle?”
Mady takes a deep breath and lets it hiss out through her teeth. “Dunno. Figured I could get some cash together, boost a car, come back for the rest of them.”
It’s a phenomenally stupid plan, if it even counts as a plan. Parker almost tells her that. Swallows it instead. “How many kids’re up there?”
“Eight, right now,” Mady says. Her eyes keep shifting to the box of energy bars.
Parker dumps the box in her lap. “Eat.”
Mady’s eyebrows go up, but she eats.
There’s a turnoff, into the woods, and Parker slows down, pulls off the highway, stops once they’re hidden by the trees. Mady stares at her, mouth full.
“Why?” Parker asks. “Why do you want to go back for them?”
Mady glares, swallows. “They’re my friends,” she says.
“So?” Parker says.
Mady looks at her like she’s stupid, or crazy, or both. “So,” she says, sing-song. “Friends don’t let friends get stuck with assholes.”
Parker’s fingers drum on the steering wheel. This is starting to sound less like a favor and more like a job. Just not enough like a job for Nate to be interested, not enough to wake anybody up at 3:00 in the morning, not when she’s right here and it’s nothing more than transportation, really.
She sighs. “Okay,” she says. “How far’s the camp?”
Mady shrugs. “About 20 miles,” she says.
Parker raises an eyebrow.
“I hitched partway,” Mady says. “Anyway we’re all used to hiking.”
Parker sighs. So much for being back by morning. Nate’s going to kill her.
“Okay,” she says, turning around. “Let’s go.”
Mady directs her down one side road after another until they get to a dirt road and finally a sign for the North Cascades Outdoor Academy. Parker drives past the entrance, up the road a mile, turns around and drives back. She parks the car on the exit road. There’s no real way to hide, so she’ll just have to hope nobody comes by.
“Wait here,” she says.
“But—“ Mady starts.
“I’m going to check it out first. Wait here.”
The kid glares at her, but finally sits back in her seat, arms crossed.
Parker makes her way through the woods, careful and quiet. This is Eliot’s kind of place, not hers. But when she sees a couple cabins she scrambles up a tree for a clearer view—and that’s better. Up here she’ll see anyone before they see her, and there’s nothing underfoot to slide or snap, trip her up or give away her position.
She doesn’t see any obvious security. It’s possible there isn’t any, this far out, but Parker doubts that. She’s proven right in the worst possible way when an alarm sounds, piercing in the quiet night, and lights come on, and Parker’s scrambling down fast but she catches a glimpse of Mady’s jacket. Dammit.
Mady gets to the car just after Parker does, breathing hard.
“Get in!” Parker hisses, and Mady gives her a dark look before wrenching the door open. Parker drives fast until they hit the paved road, then goes just over the speed limit all the way back to town and out toward the highway.
“Hey,” Mady says, as they pass the gas station where Parker picked her up. “Let me out, if you’re leaving, I still gotta get my friends.”
Parker looks at her. “How exactly were you going to do that?” she asks. “You just set off the alarms trying to case the place, you’re going to need a better plan then that.”
Mady glares at her. “At least I’m not giving up,” she says, looking away.
Parker sighs. “I’m not giving up, I’m getting us out of here so we don’t get caught. There’s a difference.”
“You’re going back?”
“Sure,” Parker looks at Mady, who’s suspicious as hell. “But next time you gotta actually do what I tell you.”
Mady just glares straight ahead. Parker sighs, and fishes out her earbud.
Hardison’s phone only rings at ridiculous hours for five people: his crew, and his Nana. This ringtone is Parker’s, so he doesn’t worry too much. Of all of them, she’s definitely the most likely to forget that normal people aren’t awake at 4 AM and call just for a favor.
“Hey, girl,” he says, trying to wake up. “What’s happening?”
“I need you to hack a security system,” Parker says, and now he’s sitting up straight and definitely awake, because that’s her business voice.
“Where are you?” he asks, while he fishes for his earbud and his laptop.
“Uh,” Parker starts, and she doesn’t need to finish the sentence becuase he’s pulled up her tracker and—
“Why are you practically in Canada?” he asks.
“You remember Josie?”
No, Hardison does not remember Josie, who the hell is— ah, hell. “From the job with the car dealer?” he asks, hoping he’s wrong.
“Yeah,” Parker takes a breath. “She’s got a friend, got stuck in some kinda camp…thing, she ran away, but there’s kids back there and we need to get them out.”
“Babe, I think I’m gonna need the long version.”
He hears her talking to someone else, a little muffled, watches the tracker make its way down the highway toward Bellingham.
“Okay,” Parker says. “Place is supposed to be a camp for troubled kids, some kinda outdoor therapy…thing. Except evil. Mady got out, but there’s—there’s 8 other kids there still and we need to get them too.”
“Do they even have a security system that far out in the woods?” he asks
“Yes,” Parker snaps. “Mady found it for me.”
And boy does that sound like not a fun time. Hardison sighs. “Okay, I’m gonna call Nate,” he says, “This sounds—“
“No,” Parker says, “It’s not—it’s just some kids, he won’t think it’s worth our time, just get the security for me and I’ll get the kids.”
“Hardison, please. Don’t tell Nate.”
He sighs. “Alright,” he says. “What’s the name of the place?”
She gives him name and GPS coordinates both, probably just to show off.
“Go get some sleep,” he says, “I’ll let you know when I’ve got something.”
“Thanks,” Parker says.
“I got you, babe,” he says, hangs up, and calls Eliot.
It’s not breaking a promise: he only said he wouldn’t tell Nate.
Eliot sounds unreasonably awake for this time of not-even-morning.
“What?” he snaps. Still cranky, though.
“Parker’s got herself in some trouble,” Hardison says.
“Where?” Now he’s all serious.
“She’s in Bellingham right now, she’s okay but—“
“Why the hell is she up there?”
“You remember that kid from the car dealership job, in Boston?”
“Kid’s got a friend, friend’s in some trouble, kid called Parker, Parker drove up there in the middle of the night.”
“Dammit, Hardison,” Eliot says. “Okay, I’m getting in the car, tell me where I’m going.”
“Her tracker’s on your phone.”
“Alright,” Eliot says, goes quiet.
Hardison gets to work.
Bellingham is big enough to hide out, for now, close enough it won't take long to get back when they need to.
Parker pulls into a Motel 6 just off the highway and parks near the door. Mady jerks alert, looks around. “Why’re we stopping here?” she asks, suspicious.
“We're not going back till it's dark, may as well get some sleep till then.”
Mady scowls at the floor. “I got no money,” she says. “I didn't ask you to help.”
Parker looks at her, confused for a second until old memories surface. “You don't owe me or anything,” she says carefully, watching Mady’s reaction. “It's just—this is what we do.”
Mady shrugs, quick, keeps staring holes in the floor. “Whatever.”
Parker sighs. “Look, why don't you call Josie, she's probably worried about you.” She tosses the kid the phone. “I'm going to get us a room.”
She takes the keys with her, she can burn the phone if she has to, but she doesn't think she'll need that. Kid’s just scared.
The desk is staffed by one bleary-looking woman who barely looks at Parker while she checks her in. It's an advantage of having Hardison that she doesn't need to pay cash, cash attracts attention, credit cards are simpler, and Hardison keeps them clean and backstopped and she doesn't ever have to worry it'll get flagged somewhere.
When she gets back to the car, Mady’s still on the phone, and she's smiling a little bit, looking a little more relaxed.
“I gotta go,” she says, when Parker opens the door. “Thanks.”
She hands the phone back.
“Josie says you're cool,” she says, still a little dubious, “and that you'll be able to help.”
“We will,” Parker says. “Come on.”
The room is just like any other cheap hotel room, scratchy bedspreads and dim lights and scuffed paint. Mady sits on one of the beds. “What now?” She asks, looking around,
“Now we sleep,” Parker says. She sits on the other bed, starts pulling off her shoes. She could use a couple hours sleep herself, and the girl’s gonna be suspicious if Parker’s up and moving around. “Hardison’ll call when he's got something.”
Mady hisses as she pulls her boots off, pulls her socks off and pokes at a blister. “You want me to get the first aid kit from the car?” Parker asks.
Mady shakes her head. Climbs into bed. “It's fine.”
Parker makes a note to check after they wake up, and goes to sleep.
It's not Hardison in her earbud who wakes her up. It's Eliot.
“Parker.” Eliot’s using his on the job voice.
Parker sits up. The kid's still sleeping, so she keeps her voice low. “What?”
“I'm outside, what room are you in?”
Parker sighs. Dammit, Hardison.
“Wait there,” she says, “I'll come out.”
She scribbles a note on the hotel notepad just in case the kid wakes up, and slips out.
Eliot's leaning against the hood of his car, arms crossed.
“You wanna tell me what the hell’s going on?” he asks.
Parker sighs. “You didn’t have to come,” she says.
Eliot just stares at her.
“Josie’s friend got sent to a…camp,” she says. “For troubled youth.”
One of Eliot’s eyebrows goes up.
“She ran away, and she wants to get her friends out, and I’m helping.”
“Parker,” Eliot sighs. “You don’t even know this kid. How do you know the place is so bad?”
“They send kids here instead of juvie. I knew some kids who’d been to both, everyone says the camps are way worse.” She pauses to take a deep breath. “She made it 20 miles on her own, and I think she walked most of it.”
Eliot’s arms uncross, he leans forward a little. Ready to move.
“Yeah alright,” he says. “What’s the plan?”
“Depends what Hardison says about the security system.”
“They have that good of security way out in the woods?” Eliot asks.
“Motion sensors at least, I didn’t have time to scope out anything else because the kid tripped something.”
“Why’d you bring her along?”
“I didn’t, she just came anyway.”
Eliot scowls. More scowly than usual even.
“Come on,” Parker says, “Come inside.”
When they get in the kid’s awake, sitting up against the wall with her knees drawn up. She looks up when they come in, but doesn’t uncurl. Just watches them, with wide, dark eyes.
“This is Eliot,” Parker says. “He came to help.” She looks back at Eliot, daring him to disagree. “Eliot, meet Mady.”
“Hey there, Mady,” Eliot says, ignoring Parker and going over to sit on Parker’s bed, facing Mady.
Mady’s watching him carefully. “What’s your deal?” she asks, looking from Eliot to Parker. “Josie said you taught her how to boost a car, but then she said you were like Robin Hood or something.”
“I told—“ That’s as far as Parker gets before Eliot interrupts her.
“Somethin’ like that,” he says, and Parker can’t see his face but she think’s he’s probably smiling. “We help people get out of jams. Get bad guys when the cops won’t. Stuff like that.”
Parker did tell her last night. Something like that anyway. But Mady’s studying Eliot carefully. Like he’s someone she might trust.
Finally she nods.
“We’re gonna need your help,” Eliot says. Then, “Hardison?”
It takes a second for the earbud to recognize the signal and get Hardison on. But only a second. “Yeah, man, this place is weird,” Hardison says, “I dunno what kinda kids they got there but it’s locked down tighter than some prisons I’ve seen.”
Mady looks confused. Eliot pulls a spare earbud out of his pocket and hands it to her. “Say hi, Mady,” he says. “The geek on the line’s Hardison, he’s alright.”
“Uh. Hi?” Mady says.
“Hey there,” Hardison says, a little preoccupied. “You don’t happen to know if these guys’ve got, I dunno, a nuclear reactor hidden in there?”
“I don’t think so?” Mady says, “It’s just us, and the staff, and we’re gone half the time anyway on hikes and stuff.”
“Okay well there’s definitely something hinky going on, nobody spends this much on a security system for a couple kids.”
“Hardison, I don’t need to know why they have all that security, I need to know how to get through it to get the kids out.” Parker says, impatient.
“Yeah sure, that’s fine, I got it pegged, once y’all get up there I can spoof the cameras and turn off the motion detectors, I just—“
“Just motion sensors and cameras?” Parker asks.
“Far as I can tell, yeah,” Hardison says. “I mean they might have the windows wired, but that’s not connected to a computer and I think they’d notice if I just cut the power entirely.”
“There’s generators,” Mady says. “Power went out in a big storm a couple weeks ago, but they’ve got some kinda backup.”
“But you don’t know what they’re doing up there?” Hardison asks.
Mady shrugs, then gives a crooked half smile like she just realized Hardison couldn’t see that. “Fake military bullshit,” she says.
“Hell, Eliot did real military bullshit, that doesn’t sound so bad,” Hardison says.
Mady scowls at the carpet.
“Hardison,” Parker snaps. “We’re getting the kids out. They don’t want to be there, so we’re getting them out.”
“Yeah, alright,” Hardison sighs. “Well, you can head out anytime, I got you covered.”
“Okay, let’s go then,” Mady snaps.
“We have to wait till it’s dark,” Parker says. “No point in spoofing the cameras if they can see us out the windows.”
Mady glares at her.
“Parker’s right,” Eliot says. “A couple more hours shouldn’t make too much difference.”
“Fine,” Mady says. “But as soon as it’s dark.”
“Mady, we’re gonna get them out,” Eliot says, looking her in the eye. “I promise.”
The kid subsides at that. Eliot’s people-magic has never made sense, but right now Parker’s just glad it works.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
Mady winces as she slides her socks on. “Hang on,” Eliot says. “Can I see?”
Mady waves her foot in his direction. “Just blisters, god.”
“Sure. Parker, get the medkit.”
Eliot’s got her in the bathroom when Parker gets back, and he doesn’t let them leave until he’s taped up her feet to his satisfaction.
Hardison digs back into the background for North Cascades Outdoor Academy. On the surface it’s…okay, it’s a little weird. The whole website’s about how they take delinquents and turn them into well-behaved boy and girl scout types by—yelling at them a bunch? And making them hike around the woods completing “missions” and other bullshit. Hardison was, by some standards, a juvenile delinquent, and he’s damn sure throwing him out in the woods with a bunch of assholes yelling at him would’ve just made him more likely to break the law. Out of spite, if nothing else. And sure, there’s supposedly no cell service out there, and sure, the kids aren’t allowed access to computers, but any good hacker just sees that as a challenge. And Hardison is a very good hacker.
So even just the premise is a little weird.
But that doesn’t explain why the place is locked up like Fort Knox.
There’s nothing though, no paper trails, no shell corporations he can find, nada. Lots of money moving through, but given the fees these people charge (and seriously, they are in the wrong business, these guys are making bank) it’s nothing he can’t account for.
There’s no data on the kids, which is weird. Names, parents’ names, bank accounts, and that’s it.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a rehabilitation facility?” Hardison asks himself. No shrinks on the payroll, no teachers, no medics, just a bunch of guys whose backstopping was done by someone who clearly needs a different job. Ex-military, ex-cons, and hell, Hardison isn’t judgemental about ex-cons per se, but these are not the kind of people you want around kids.
Finally he starts looking through emails.
And that’s when he loses his appetite. Emails from parents concerned about their kids. Emails to parents promising miracles. Emails between staff talking about the kids as though they’re not even people. Plans for hiking trips and climbing and clearing brush around the camp. Food bills that don’t add up to enough for that many kids doing that much work. Emails that look like plans for kidnappings, except the parents are in on it.
And that’s when Parker calls.
“So what’s the plan?” she asks.
Hardison goes back to the electrical systems and alarms, the shit that doesn’t make him wonder if this is what Eliot feels like every day.
“I can loop the video, but I can’t guarantee they won’t notice the motion sensors are out.”
“Okay,” Parker says. “We’ll just have to move fast.”
“Kid knows how to sneak out of the barracks,” Eliot says. “So she oughta be able to sneak in.”
“You’re taking the girl?” Hardison asks, surprised.
“Sure,” Eliot says. “Kids don’t know us from a hole in the ground, they ain’t gonna follow us anywhere.”
Hardison thinks about the shit he’s been reading, grants the point. “Alright,” he says. “But y’all need to rush, they’ve got armed guards patrolling, looks like they make a circuit in a half an hour.”
“Not a problem,” Parker says.
They go quiet, thinking, and Hardison starts getting worried. He trusts them, he really does, but sitting in his apartment looking at computer screens hundreds of miles away from his people, it always gets to him.
“Alright,” Eliot says, finally. “Let’s wake up the kid and get moving.”
Mady jerks awake when Parker calls her name.
“Yeah, what, yeah—oh.” She scrubs her hands down her face.
“We need you to show us how the camp’s laid out,” Parker says. Doesn’t add that it wouldn’t be necessary if she’d just stayed in the car last time like she was supposed to.
She’s sketched out the basic layout from satellite images Hardison sent to her phone, but Mady adds in some details, shows them the quickest way in.
“I’m coming with you,” she says. Not a question.
“‘Course you are,” Eliot says. “But you gotta be ready to move fast, and you gotta do what we tell you. There’s no time for questions when we’re in the middle of this, and we know what we’re doing. You don’t. So if one of us tells you something, you listen, and you do it, and if something goes wrong you can punch me for it afterwards. Deal?”
Mady gives him a sardonic smile. “Yeah, alright.”
They get in the cars: Parker first, with Eliot following. Mady goes with him.
“Okay,” Parker says, putting the car in gear. “Let’s go steal a…bunch of kids?”
Hardison laughs in her ear. They’re ready.
It’s full dark when Parker turns down the dirt road, moving slow and careful. When they get near the camp she turns her lights out, tries to stay off the brake, stops when she thinks they’re close enough. Eliot drives past, turns around. Parker backs into the woods, leaves the keys in the ignition, doors unlocked. When she gets out she hears the lock click.
“You’re welcome,” Hardison says. “I get the need for speed, but c’mon babe, you don’t just leave a car asking to get stolen.”
“Hardison,” Parker hisses.
She walks up to meet Mady and Eliot. Parker leads the way, Eliot in back, Mady between them. When they get near the cleared area, Hardison comes on to tell them the motion sensors are down. Now Mady shoves past Parker, edges around the clearing toward the barracks. Parker grits her teeth, but the girl moves carefully, knows where she’s going, so Parker lets her lead. The staff quarters are between them and the kids, and Mady crouches low to skirt around, near the walls. Four fast steps through terrifying openness and they’re crouched in the shadows by the building steps.
Mady dashes up the steps and into the building. Parker’s counting seconds, antsy just sitting here, but she only gets to 30 before Mady comes back out, followed by seven kids. Wait.
Mady jumps down next to them. “Adam’s in solitary,” she says. “You have to get him.”
“Aw, hell,” Hardison says.
“Go,” Eliot says. “I got this.”
Mady hesitates, but nods. The kids follow, and they’re back into the woods before the noise starts.
Yelling, and searchlights, and Parker is torn. Only for a second though.
“Get to my car, go south,” she tells Mady. “Hardison’ll give you directions if you need ‘em.”
Again, half a second hesitation, and then a nod, and Mady’s racing for the cars with the kids behind her. Eight kids in a car, driver without a license, yeah, this is gonna go well.
“Eliot,” Parker calls. “Where are you?”
“Little busy, Parker,” he grits out.
“He’s by the staff building,” Hardison says, “I got him on the security cameras.”
Parker gets there in time to take down the last of the regular staff with her taser, and in time to see two of the armed guards heading for them, drawing weapons while they run.
Eliot bends down to where a kid’s leaning against the wall. “Take him,” he snaps, and turns toward the guards.
The boy’s heavy, he’s leaning most of his weight on her, and Parker can see why when the searchlight finds them. Kid’s been beat up. She concentrates on moving as fast as they can toward the trees, waiting to hear gunfire—and what the hell, is keeping these kids really worth murder charges?
And then she hears Eliot’s voice.
“Dammit, Mady, what the hell are you doing?”
He’s close. Parker risks turning around.
Eliot and Mady are running towards her. The guards are both down, and Mady’s got a long, heavy branch in one hand. There’s blood on the end.
“Leave that,” Eliot snaps, and she drops the branch. “Come on.”
When he catches up to Parker he picks up the boy and slings him around his shoulders.
“Come on,” Eliot snarls again, and when they make the woods, the searchlight doesn’t follow.
“Where the hell is my car?” Parker asks, when they get to the road.
“It’s on the highway, heading for I-5,” Hardison says.
Eliot sets down the kid and opens the back door. “Go on, get in,” he says, then growls. “Dammit, Mady, what the hell?”
And then there’s a feedback screetch and static, and an unfamiliar voice. “Uh. Hello?”
“Who the hell are you?” Parker snaps.
Mady snaps around to look at her. “Are you talking to Peter?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” Parker says, looking back at Mady. “Am I talking to Peter?”
“Uh, yeah. I dunno where I’m going,” the boy says in her ear.
“Aw, hell,” Hardison says. “I’m gonna find you a place to pull over. Parker, Eliot, get moving.”
Eliot wrenches the driver side door open like he didn’t get enough punching people back at the camp.
“Get in,” he snaps.
They’re going 50 miles an hour before they even hit pavement.
“Now what?” Eliot asks, when they’re on the highway.
“What do you mean?” Parker asks.
“What’re you gonna do with eight kids?” Eliot snaps. “We gotta call child services, ideally before transporting a bunch of minors across state lines.”
“Parker, you can’t just kidnap a bunch of kids.”
“She didn’t kidnap anybody,” Mady snaps, shifting forward to lean between the front seats.
“Buckle your damn seatbelt,” Eliot says. “And I know that, and you know that, but the cops don’t know that.”
“Screw the cops. I’m not going back to my parents.”
Parker glares at Eliot. “See?”
“Um,” Adam says, quiet, but it shuts everyone up. “I do actually want to go back to my parents. They didn’t know this place ws so bad, I don’t think they’d’ve sent me if they knew.”
Eliot’s hands clench on the steering wheel. “Hardison, where’s the other car?”
“They pulled off at a gas station by the I-5, I’m sending directions.” The car’s navigation system comes to life, with a glowing dot a few miles away. “And uh, I can get everybody set up with plane tickets or foster placements if I know who’s going where.”
“Hardison!” Parker snaps. “We are not putting these kids in the system.”
“Don’t worry, babe,” he says, “I got it sorted, there’s some serious flaws in the security over at family services, but I been helping them out since we got here.”
“What do you mean, helping?” Eliot asks. “I ain’t seen you volunteering over there.”
“Nah, man, I got a very specific skillset, and they oughta do a lot more background on foster parents over there but they’re shortstaffed. I got more on these people than the state does. I’ll set y’all up with the best foster parents in Portland—in Oregon, hell, probably in the country.”
Parker scowls at the road. “I dunno, Hardison,” she says, glancing up to see Mady and Adam in the rearview mirror.
“Babe, you gotta trust me. Anyway, it’s not like I’m not gonna keep an eye on things.”
“There’s something else,” Eliot says. “Those security guys worked for the Mexican cartels.”
“And you know this how?” Hardison asks, but it’s more resigned than surprised.
“Tattoos.” Eliot snaps. “Something ain’t right up there.”
“Drug dealers?” Mady asks, scooting forward again.
“I said buckle your damn seatbelt,” Eliot snarls. “And yeah, drug dealers, arms dealers, whatever needs moving”
“Damn,” Mady says. “I knew they were assholes, I didn’t know they were actual criminals.”
Parker pokes at the navigation system, zooming out. “You guys were right up by the border there,” she says, thinking. “You ever go across?”
She sees Mady shake her head in the mirror.
“Ever drop stuff off?” Eliot asks. He glances over, and Parker raises an eyebrow.
“I mean…yeah?” Mady says. “For training, sometimes we had to find a spot and leave like, this metal box. They’d make us find it later, from a different spot. Orienteering, they said.”
“Yeah…” Parker says. “Not so much.”
“Probably had pros to make the actual crossing,” Eliot says. “They got sensors and cameras and who knows what on the border itself, you wouldn’t want kids tripping something by accident.”
“But the kids get it close enough it’s a quick run over and back,” Parker finishes. “It’s pretty smart. Anyone gets caught with the stuff it’s the kids, and nobody listens to kids.”
When she glances back to the mirror, Mady looks pissed.
“We should’ve burned the place down on our way out,” she snarls, glancing over at Adam, who mostly just looks shocked.
“Hardison?” Parker asks.
“Yeah, gimme a second… I don’t think we can manage arson remotely, but if I scrub out the kids’ names, we can send the DEA up there without getting heat on anybody who doesn’t deserve it. Make it look like the whole thing was just a front, no kids at all.”
“What’d he say?” Mady asks.
“He’s gonna make sure nobody can connect you guys to them, and then he’s gonna call the cops,” Parker says.
“Why the cops?” Mady looks about as skeptical as Parker is. “Cops don’t do shit.”
“You hear that, Hardison?” Parker asks.
“Yeah, I heard. But who else are you gonna call, Ghostbusters?”
“Hardison,” Eliot snaps. “What, you’re gonna call in an anonymous tip? You think they’re gonna believe you?”
“Come on Eliot, you think I can’t do better than that?” Hardison sounds affronted. “I can send them all kinds of documentation proving links to the cartels.”
“I thought you said you didn’t find anything in the records,” Eliot asks, but Parker’s got a sneaking suspicion she knows what Hardison’s talking about.
And yep, she’s right. “Nah, man, but I can manufacture some real convincing stuff, you won’t believe how much cops like email, all sorts of useful information, locations, IP addresses, everything written down right there…it’s gold.”
“What about the kids, though?” Parker asks. “If they’ve got paper records up there, the cops might find them, and the cartels definitely will, and they’re gonna be pissed.”
“Damn, I hate paper,” Hardison says. “Okay, lemme see what kinda pinter they have.”
“What?” Eliot snaps.
“If it’s an old HP you can upload a worm in the firmware and—“
“Set it on fire?” Parker jumps in before Hardison sets Eliot on fire out of pure frustration.
“Yeah, basically,” Hardison says, distracted. “Yeah, alright, that should do it.”
The navigation screen flickers and grainy security footage comes on. The kids lean forward. It looks like there’s a glow in one of the windows—and yeah, that’s fire, because pretty soon it catches the roof, and the building goes up.
“Okay, now it just looks like somebody torched the place, cops’ll love that, too,” Hardison says. “We good now?”
Mady’s grinning. “Yeah,” Parker says, “That oughta do it.”
“Now gimme the map back,” Eliot says. “We’re almost there.”
Parker sighs in relief when she sees her car, parked (badly) at a gas station on the side of the highway. Eliot pulls in beside it, and Parker hops out. Mady’s right behind her, launches herself at a girl who climbs out of the backseat.
They're jammed in there, 4 in the back, two piled into the front passenger seat. All safe though, apparently. Eliot climbs out and looks at the kids. Sighs.
“Okay, I can take 3 more over here, but y'all are gonna have to be cozy,” he says, all business. They redistribute everyone, so only Parker’s car is overfull, and only by one.
“Hardison, you better keep the cops off us,” Parker says.
“Not a problem,” he replies, and she slides behind the wheel.
It's a quiet ride back, through the night to Portland. They don't risk speeding, they're not on a deadline and it isn't worth it. Hardison stays quiet, as does Eliot. The kids are all asleep by the time they cross the state line.
“Bring ‘em to the brewpub,” Hardison says, as they get close. “I got space set up.”
The kids stir when the car stops, wake up the rest of the way when Parker opens her door and the light turns on.
Hardison is waiting at the door, shepherding everyone inside with friendly smiles and joking hellos. He squeezes Parker’s shoulder as she follows the kids in.
There's beds made up on the floor of the main room upstairs, the one Parker uses for training sometimes, with exposed ceiling beams and rigging she's set up. The kids mostly don't ask questions, just crawl under the covers.
The three of them go back downstairs. Hardison throws the kids’ photos up on the screens, names and faces, police records for a few, parents’ info for most.
“I dunno which ones wanna go back with their folks and which’ll need placements, but I made some guesses. Tentative meetings with a few families tomorrow or Thursday.”
Parker nods. The adrenaline’s starting to drain and her body's sending annoying reminders she's spent most of the last 48 hours awake. She heads for the kitchen to make coffee.
Eliot's already there, heating up tea water. She goes to find the coffee, but he catches her wrist.
“Parker,” he says, “get some sleep.”
“We gotta make sure they're safe,” Parker says.
“They're safe,” Eliot says. “I promise.”
He's staring at her. Parker drags her eyes up from the floor to meet his gaze. “I promise,” he repeats. Parker looks away. “Anyway we can't do anything till they wake up and we can figure out who's going where.”
He's right, of course. Eliot is annoying that way.
Hardison’s watching from the office. Eliot turns, sees him, smiles a little.
The teapot whistles. Eliot turns off the heat, pours the water into two cups. Hands Parker one of them. “Go on, give that guy a hug, get some sleep, we'll worry about the rest in the morning.”
Hardison watches her as she walks toward him, then puts an arm around her shoulders and leads her up to bed.
Parker wakes up before Hardison does. It's early still, the sun just spilling light in through the window.
She slips downstairs, quietly. Eliot’s in the office, asleep setting up with his back against the door. Parker smiles.
She makes coffee, gets two cups, sits down next to Eliot. He opens his eyes, rolls his neck, smiles at her. The real kind, the kind that makes his eyes crinkle at the corners. He picks up his mug, breathes in the steam. “Thanks, Parker,” he says.
“Thought you said they were safe,” Parker says.
“They are. I made sure.” Eliot sips at his coffee. Parker settles down next to him, drinks hers while they wait for Hardison.
He comes down while they're finishing, looks around for a second before he finds them. Eliot gets up and heads for the kitchen, grumbling something about how he's gotta feed a damn army and he's raiding the brewpub for eggs because nobody fucking gets groceries around here.
The smell of eggs and bacon and pancakes is enough to bring the kids down, all in a clump with Mady leading. Adam’s the last one down, still limping, leaning on…Parker doesn't remember the names.
They look skittish. “Come on,” Parker says, leads them into the brewpub. It won't open for a few hours still, no use being cramped in the office when they've got a whole restaurant.
Mady sits down next to her, along with a couple other girls.
“What happens now?” She asks, fiddling with a loose thread in her sleeve.
“Depends on you guys,” Parker says. All three girls stare at her.
She's saved trying to explain when Hardison pulls up a chair. “Y’all can go back to your parents if you want, or I can find you a place here.”
“Foster parents?” Mady asks, skeptical.
Hardison smiles. “Not just any foster parents,” he says. “Y'all are gonna win the foster parent lottery.”
Mady still looks skeptical.
Eliot comes out then with plates, hands them around with smiles, pulls a chair over to sit next to Parker, backwards, arms draped over the back.
Mady glances between the three of them, looks down at her plate.
“I’d be fine on my own,” she says, stabbing her fork into the bacon so hard it shatters.
“Sure,” Eliot says, “I bet you would, but it’s nice to have a team backing you up.” He glances over. “Right, Parker?”
Parker’s startled, tries to hide it. Why’s he bringing her into this? She’d been right with Mady at that age, living on the streets and starting to work with Archie. How’s she supposed to tell the kid she’s gotta go stay with some family she doesn’t even know?
They’re all looking at her now, too.
Parker glances over at Hardison and Eliot. Looks over at the other table of kids, bent over their plates. “Yeah,” she says, “I mean, it’d’ve been way harder to get you guys if it’d been just me.”
Mady shrugs. “Yeah but that’s you guys.”
“We’re not gonna disappear just because you’ll be with families,” Eliot says. Mady looks up at him, sharp and questioning.
“Yeah,” Hardison chimes in. “You’re stuck with us, you know.”
“They’re very persistent,” Parker adds.
Mady pokes at her food some more. Eliot gets up and disappears into the back, comes out with the paper job application he insisted Hardison make because no, Hardison, not everyone has internet access.
“Always need dishwashers,” he says.
Mady picks up the form, looks from it to Eliot to Hardison to Parker.
“You got a pen?” she asks, finally. Hardison grins.
They’ve just herded everyone back into the office to sort out placements and transportation when Nate walks in, Sophie half a step behind him.
“So,” Nate says. “What’ve we got here?”
He’s grinning. No, smirking. Sophie, on the other hand, Sophie is smiling.
Hardison looks just as surprised as Parker is, so he didn’t tell. Eliot doesn’t look surprised, exactly, but Parker doesn’t think he’d have said anything.
“Oh, this?” Hardison starts, “This is just a, uh, kids group…”
“Hardison,” Nate says, and Hardison shuts up.
“Look, it’s not a job, okay?” Parker says, walking up to Nate and continuing, pulling them away from the group. “Josie called me, told me a friend needed help, so…we helped.”
Nate looks over to where Hardison and Eliot are talking to the kids. “You know the FBI investigates arson on public land,” he says, straight-faced. “Could get messy, if their cyber-crime people get involved.”
Parker freezes. “How did you know?” she asks.
Nate doesn’t answer, just says, “I called your friend McSweeten, told him you guys’d been working the case. He’s expecting to receive documentation from Hardison, any time now.”
Parker looks over. Hardison’s making a show out of presenting families to the kids. Sophie’s making tea. Eliot’s watching Parker and Nate.
“You never said anything,” Parker says.
Nate smiles. “Looked like you had it under control,” he says, and walks away.
Eliot’s still watching. Parker walks over to him. “He knew,” she says. Eliot just shrugs.
Mady’s giving them funny looks. She sighs, comes over and hands the job application to Eliot. He looks it over carefully. “Okay,” he says. “You can start next week.”