Acknowledgements – My two muses;
Arthur W. Upfield: author, one-time jackaroo, stockman, drover and murder mystery writer. His knowledge of the indigenous people of Australia and his skill in portraying that great continent in all of its wild beauty is the inspiration for this little tale. It is thanks to his unsurpassed stories that Gertie and all of her little foibles came into being.
Major Les Hiddins AM, ARA (Retired): Vietnam veteran, botanist, author, survival expert and the original Bush Tucker Man. His astonishing expertise, scrupulous honesty and big grin has made him one of my all-time heroes. Thanks to him, Eliot has his bush skills and Hardison has Bernadette and Oggie.
I have never been to Australia, so all mistakes are entirely mine.
"Eat your broccoli, 'Lizbeth Grace!" Eliot grumbled, "or no pavlova, okay?"
Six-year-old Elizabeth Grace Ford glared at Eliot Spencer, her guardian, bestest friend in the whole world and the man who insisted she eat her greens.
"Awwww, Eliot –"
"Don't you 'aw Eliot' me, young lady!" Eliot scowled at Lizzie from his seat across the table in Leverage International HQ, "You've eaten broccoli since you got teeth to chew it with, an' you've always loved it, so –"
"But I don't like it now," Lizzie whined, and drew her brows down in a fair facsimile of Eliot's frown.
"Eat your broccoli, dear," Sophie soothed as she worked her way through her plateful of broccoli gratin and pork escalopes with lemon, parmesan and thyme crust, one of Mikey Gonzalez's excellent signature dishes. "It won't kill you, and you love cheese, so don't irritate Eliot. You know how he gets," she added, and forked another bite of the tender pork into her mouth.
Mikey Gonzalez, one of the three excellent chefs at the Bridgeport Brewpub, had excelled himself, she decided. The pork was fantastic.
Lizzie glared at her mother, who ignored her, and switched her gaze to Nate, who drew his mouth down in dismay.
"Oh, don't put me in the middle of this," he muttered, and took a sip of his soda.
"But Daddy –"
"Hey, baby-girl, I'll eat it for ya if you like," Hardison interjected. He was sitting beside Lizzie and was on the point of shovelling Lizzie's portion of broccoli onto his plate when he caught the death-glare Eliot Spencer was sending his way. He raised his eyebrows. "What?"
"You do anything of the sort, Hardison, an' I will stab you with your own fork!" Eliot growled.
"But I like broccoli!" Hardison said, mystified.
"I don't," Parker muttered, shoving her portion around her plate, eating the cheese sauce and nothing else. The pork was sort-of-okay though. She preferred Fluffy Pops.
"Okay," Hardison said, "I can eat yours too."
Eliot's blue eyes began to spark in annoyance.
"Have you got a parasite or somethin', Hardison? Huh? A tapeworm?"
Hardison was revolted by the very idea, but tried his best to maintain his dignity.
"Hey, man! My Nana, she don't abide waste, El! An' this is great chow, so … it makes sense!"
And so the argument went on, the pros and cons of eating broccoli being bandied about the table as Lizzie surreptitiously shoved her serving of greens to the side of her plate and then tucked into the pork.
This is what she loved … her family around her, bickering and laughing, joking and eating, all over an impromptu homecoming dinner after a long trip.
The team was newly-home from Qatar. Just a few hours earlier they had wandered out of Portland International Airport, tired, grouchy and jet-lagged. However, they were all financially even better off, they had helped their client, a woman fired from a prestigious art dealership after discovering illicit artefact-smuggling from Iran, and now they were having a celebratory meal before going to their beds for a well-deserved rest. They would leave heading off to their respective homes until the next day.
Lizzie studied Eliot. She thought he looked tired, but she knew it was because he really didn't like flying, and he never slept during the journey. She, however, felt as bright as a new pin. She slept like a log on aeroplanes.
Eliot was also beginning to sputter, which Lizzie thought was hilarious. Hardison knew exactly which buttons to push to send Eliot into an incipient rage, and the Oklahoman was well on his way to a spectacular fit of pique, Lizzie knew.
Things were beginning to get delightfully noisy when Lizzie heard something 'ping' under the arguing. It was a telephone ringing. Eliot stopped in mid-rant.
"Whose 'phone is that?" Nate asked.
Eliot's face was suddenly wary.
"Mine," he said quietly, and standing up and pushing his chair back, he limped into his office and disconnected a small burner 'phone from its charger.
"Must be family," Parker stage-whispered.
They all knew Eliot now had a fragile but pleasant relationship with his folks back in Oklahoma, and he used the cell 'phone as a contact for his sister. He normally left it in the office when he was working abroad, and hadn't checked the 'phone since arriving home. They all looked at one another.
Hardison realised he had never actually heard Eliot's little private 'phone ring before. It must be serious, he thought.
They saw Eliot through the row of windows separating the room from the main office, lifting the 'phone and answering it. He looked worried.
"Yeah?" they heard him say, and then he paused, obviously listening to whoever was calling him. "Oh hey there, Jo!" They could hear the sudden warmth in his voice. "How are ya, darlin'?"
"Who the hell's Joe?" Nate hissed sotto voce.
The only Joe the team knew was Joe Bartulis, the ex-marine who was one of the Brewpub's chefs. But Joe wouldn't be using Eliot's private number.
"And I want to know why he's callin' this Joe 'darlin'!" Hardison said, quirking a smile.
But all thoughts of the identity of the caller faded as Eliot sagged against his desk as though the breath had been knocked out of him.
"Oh Jesus," he said, grief in every syllable. "When?" He ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair, making unruly tufts appear. He had left his 'long hair' phase behind several years before, and even though it wasn't really short, it was still thick and curled around his ears.
"Did somebody die?" Parker asked loudly, and was shushed by Sophie, who desperately wanted to hear what Eliot would say.
"Jo … Jo, don't worry. I'm on my way. I'll be home as soon as I can," Eliot muttered, and everyone, even Lizzie who was concerned suddenly at the pain in Eliot's voice, wondered just what the hell was going on.
Eliot listened to the unknown caller, and then managed a soft smile.
"I'll see you soon, sweetheart. I promise." And ringing off, he turned and sat on the edge of his desk, wiping a hand over his stricken features. The team waited, holding their collective breaths as Eliot gathered his wits about him and stood up. He took a deep, deep breath and walked out of his office and back to the team, still clutching the cell 'phone.
Nate chewed his lip for a moment before asking the question to which everybody wanted to know the answer.
"Is, ah … is everything okay, Eliot?"
The hitter slumped down in his chair and put the 'phone on the table, staring at it. He then turned bleak eyes on Nate.
"No," he said. "No. It's not." He turned to Hardison. "I need you to get me on a 'plane, Alec. Soon as you can. I gotta go home."
The young hacker studied his best friend and nodded, worried. Eliot never called him Alec. Whatever was going on with Eliot Spencer was frikkin' frightening.
"Okay, El …" he reached for his tablet. "One flight to Will Rogers Airport comin' up –"
"No," Eliot said. "Not Oklahoma." He took a deep breath before continuing. "Australia. Darwin, Australia."
Well, thought Nate. That was unexpected.
"Australia?" Hardison blinked in confusion. "You … you want to go to Australia?"
Eliot's temper, already shredded with grief, wasn't about to improve.
"Yeah, Hardison – Australia. You know the place … great big funny-lookin' bit of land full of snakes an' kangaroos an' Australians. That Australia. Okay? An' I have to be there like yesterday."
Hardison suddenly noticed the strain in Eliot's voice … and something else. Deep, deep worry. Eliot Spencer was nervous. He was worried to death about what he would find when he got to wherever-it-was in friggin' Australia.
"Yeah, El … sure," he replied quietly, "I'll get you onto the best flight I can, bro. I promise."
Eliot sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm himself.
"Eliot?" a small voice said, and the hitter suddenly realised Lizzie was watching him slowly going to pieces. "Are you alright?"
Eliot swallowed his anger and gave Lizzie his Lizzie-smile … a half-hitch of his lips that made the laughter lines around his eyes crinkle.
"I'm sorry, 'Lizbeth Grace. Didn't mean to upset ya, but … I just got some bad news, okay?"
Lizzie gazed up at Eliot and nodded, her dark eyes concerned.
Sophie ran her hand over Lizzie's curls, reassuring her. Lizzie adored Eliot, and was sensitive to his feelings … which meant she probably understood the enigmatic man more than any of them.
"What can we do, Eliot? Is there anything –"
Eliot shook his head, and it was obvious to all of them that he was completely off-balance.
"I … I don't know, Soph … I gotta think …"
"But … but I thought your family lived in Oklahoma? And I thought this was your home?" Parker asked, confused.
"Not now, Parker, okay?" Hardison mumbled, busy searching through flights.
"No … no, I don't understand," she insisted. "We're your family and … and your folks're in Oklahoma. So … how can you have family in Australia? I don't get it –"
"Parker!" Hardison insisted quietly, "Leave it be, will ya?"
Parker's face scrunched up as it always did when things baffled her.
"PARKER!" Sophie and Hardison said in unison, and the little thief shut her mouth, looking hurt.
Eliot tugged his hair until it began to stick up, and he sighed.
"Guys … it's okay. I suppose it's about time I told you."
"Told us what?" Hardison said with a slight smile. "That you got a wife an' six kids in a condo at Bondi Beach?"
For some reason Hardison's flippancy broke the tension thrumming through Eliot, and his shoulders relaxed a fraction.
"No, you idiot," he replied, a little of his growl back in place. "No … these folks … they saved my life."
Lizzie's eyes widened as she remembered a story Eliot had told her the previous year when they were on vacation in Crete.
"Your good wolf!" she said excitedly, "when you got that scar on your side!"*
Eliot's gaze grew warm with memory.
"Yeah, darlin'. You got it." He looked at each member of his team, this other family which had grown to be a part of his life over the past decade. Okay. So. Here goes. "When I left Moreau, he wasn't too happy. Nobody left his world. But I did, an' he made me pay. I spent seven months avoidin' him, but then … but then some of his men cornered me in Darwin."
Lizzie's eyes grew round.
"They hurt you! They were really, really bad guys, huh!"
"Yeah." He didn't mention that he had left all four of Moreau's men bleeding in an alleyway. "I got away, but I was bleedin' and hurt bad. I patched myself up and got the hell outta Dodge. But I got sick … I nearly died. Soapy an' Jo … they saved my life. Took me in, put me back on my feet an' set me right."
Parker chewed the inside of her cheek as she absorbed Eliot's words. She frowned.
"I get that, Eliot. But why didn't you tell us?"
"Because it's private, Parker, okay?" Nate said waspishly. Parker really didn't understand the concept of privacy, although she could be as secretive as the rest of them.
"I know," she said tartly. "But –"
"Moreau found them," Eliot interrupted sharply. "Moreau found them and targeted them because of me. He sent Mason Coetzee to kill me."
Eliot heard a hitch of breath come from Sophie and Nate. They had heard of Coetzee.
"He held 'em hostage, hurt them and would have killed them, all because they took me in."
The silence around the table was profound. Even Lizzie had heard of Damien Moreau, although she wasn't aware of his history. All she knew was that he was one of her long list of 'bad guys' who hurt Eliot or who her family took down and made them pay for their 'bad guy-ness'.
"What happened, El?" Hardison asked softly.
"Coetzee … he didn't make it, and the Munros and their people are fine. But I swore on the day I left that nothin' … nothin' … would ever come back to hurt them because of me." He shrugged. "An' that's why I never told you."
Sophie suddenly leaned forward and squeezed Eliot's wrist.
"You go back, don't you? When you go and do your 'independent' jobs, you go back to them."
"Whenever I can. I go back to Wapanjara an' I work. It's a cattle station. I do fencing, work cattle … anything I can. I rest up, and I get to be just me for a little while. And because I go back now and again, my silence keeps them safe. But now …"
"What's gone wrong, Eliot? How can we help?" Sophie asked.
"A good friend … Charlie Jakkamarra, he's the station manager … he helped me back then. He's one of the best people I've ever known. He's like a brother, y'know? He got married the year after I left, an' he an' Alice … his wife, they got a little boy not that much younger than Lizzie." Eliot took a shaky breath full of emotion. "Alice … she, um … she was killed in a car wreck a few weeks ago. Charlie an' Kip – their boy – are okay, but Jo's been tryin' to get hold of me."
"Oh man …" Hardison whispered.
But Eliot wasn't finished, the words coming from him in a rush.
"At first, they thought it was an accident. But now the police think her brakes were compromised somehow. She's … was … active in tribal matters, and there's been rumours of somebody sniffing around Warumungu land. It's not just that, though …"
"There's more going wrong, isn't there?" Nate said.
"Yeah … tainted water bores … cattle fallin' sick … and now Soapy's crew is beginning to leave and no-one else will work for them. This has only been goin' on for a couple of months, and until Alice's accident Soapy just thought it was drought problems with the cattle. But three days ago Soapy fell off the water tank housing. He'll be okay … a couple of cracked ribs an' bruises … but Charlie an' me, we replaced the frame last year. It was damn' near brand new."
Parker was watching Nate's face, and as she saw him digest everything Eliot was saying, a slow smile crept onto her elfin features.
"We're going to Australia!" she crowed.
"Wait … what?" Hardison said, bewildered.
"If you want us to," Nate said to Eliot. "We can help. If … everyone else is okay with that," he added, checking the members of Leverage International.
Sophie looked at Lizzie, whose face was alight with anticipation. She dearly wanted to see a kangaroo. And, the little girl knew, Eliot needed them.
"I'm in," she said, smiling at her daughter.
"Me too!" Parker cackled, and she fidgeted with delight. Who these people were in Australia who Eliot thought of as family, she dearly wanted to know. And if Eliot thought of them as family, then they must be special. She couldn't wait.
Hardison sat with his mouth open.
"Um …" he said.
"Well? Are you in?" Nate asked impatiently.
"Who? Me?" Hardison asked weakly.
"Yeah, Hardison. You." Nate frowned.
"Australia?" Hardison's eyes rounded in slight panic. "The continent entirely composed of things that bite, sting and kill-you-dead, Australia?"
"The same," Nate said.
Hardison put down his tablet and began to gesticulate.
"Have you ever heard of Latrodectus hasselti … the Redback Spider? Or … or Oxyuranus microlepidotus … the Taipan snake? Did you know Australia has the largest number of poisonous critters in. The. WORLD? And I won't even start on the crocodiles an' frikkin' sharks that swim in the rivers an' –"
"Soooo …" Nate said soothingly, "… that's why we take Bernadette and Oggie with us."
"What? But Nate … they've only just got here from Australia!"
"Wapanjara doesn't have good internet access," Eliot said, "an' the house won't take us all. We'll need 'em," he added, warming to the idea. "The place is a hundred miles from anywhere."
"So … that's decided," Nate said, satisfaction in every word. "We'll want your geeky crap, Hardison. C'mon, man … these people need us." He smiled. "They're family."
And Eliot, hurting and heart-sore, looked around at these nut-jobs who cared about him, and sighed.
"Thank you," he said.
Eliot couldn't sleep. He had a headache, and his right leg was sore, which only happened when he was exhausted. But he couldn't stop thinking about Charlie and Kip. The boy was the light of his parent's lives, and how the hell Charlie was coping without his beloved Alice, Eliot had no idea.
He had called Jo Munro and told her the team wanted to help, and she had been teary with relief. Eliot couldn't wait to see her. He missed his Australian family so badly his chest hurt.
He shifted painfully on the big couch, and took off his spectacles to rub his eyes. He had read the same paragraph in his book half-a-dozen times and still had no idea what it said.
He checked his watch. Three-thirty-five in the morning. Some of the tiredness was jet-lag, but mostly it was worry and stress.
The tiny, sleepy voice snapped him out of his reverie and he turned to see Lizzie, comforter and pillow in tow, standing looking at him.
"Hey, 'Lizbeth Grace, you should be in bed and sleepin', girl!" he said quietly so as not to wake the others.
Lizzie gave her favourite hitter her best smile.
"Did you know wombat poop is like a cube?" she said.
Well, there wasn't much he could say to that, Eliot decided.
"Lookin' forward to Australia, huh?" he asked.
Lizzie shuffled over to the couch and crawled next to Eliot, placing her pillow against his shoulder and snuggling in. Eliot pulled the comforter over her and shifted sideways a little. Lizzie was all elbows and he didn't want his ribs to suffer.
"So … what do you want to know?" he asked gently. Lizzie always knew when he was feeling down or sad, and also knew how to distract him by demanding stories.
Lizzie smiled up at Eliot as she settled down next to him.
"I want to know everything," she hummed.
So, in the early hours of the morning, as the light began to tinge the horizon outside, Eliot told his god-daughter and best girl all about Wapanjara.
To be continued …
* You can read about it in 'The Wolf'.