Hardison, now that the entire team was on board with the trip to Wapanjara, decided the easiest thing was to charter a private jet. It meant that they could catch up on their rest in comfort, especially as they were travelling halfway around the world. Again.
He was also worried about Eliot. He knew the man was fretting about these people whom it was obvious he loved deeply, and he was still worn out from the Qatar job. Although he hadn't got into much of anything violent during their time in Doha, he had worked a substantial part of the grift involved and had very little sleep, unlike the rest of the team.
Hopefully the jet, with all of its comforts and space, would allow him some respite.
The hacker had already sent Bernadette and Oggie ahead of them, and they would be awaiting the team when they arrived at Tennant Creek airport. Hardison was secretly looking forward to working with them, he had to admit.
He sighed. He didn't like bugs, and he hated snakes. Crocodiles … big, scaly, toothy bastards, and he didn't even want to think about bull sharks. But … for Eliot, he decided, he would deal with it. But if he got bit by anything, the hitter would owe him big time.
It was mid-afternoon and Team Leverage was back in the air, less than twenty-four hours after landing in Portland, thinking they could relax and rest after a difficult job.
The big Gulfstream G650 climbed quickly to 40,000 feet and levelled out. The pilots held steady, and Eliot, even though flying wasn't his favourite pastime, unbuckled his safety belt and pressed a button to lay the large seat flat. He had already pulled off his boots, and he laid his head back and closed his eyes. He had every intention of trying to sleep his way to Australia, only waking up while the 'plane refuelled in Tokyo and then went through immigration and customs in Darwin before continuing to Tennant Creek.
But then he realised someone was watching him, and he pried open one eye. Lizzie was curling up in the seat beside him and studying him with such intensity that he frowned.
"What're you doing, Eliot?" she asked, yawning.
Eliot shut his eye.
"Tryin' to get some sleep here, darlin'," he murmured, amused.
"But you don't like sleeping on 'planes," she mumbled wearily, already half-asleep.
He heard Lizzie shuffling about and a hand flung itself over the seat arm and rested on his chest. The hand patted him clumsily. Eliot smiled. Lizzie had patted him since she was a baby, a way for her to satisfy herself that Eliot was okay. She knew deep down that he was stressed and worried about his Australian family, and Eliot was thankful for her care. He heard her snuffle.
"Go to sleep, 'Lizbeth Grace. We got a long trip, an' I'm tired."
Lizzie's only answer was a soft snorkle. She was out for the count. Her fingers twitched as they rested over his heart.
Eliot took a calming, deep breath, knowing his best girl was safe, and then he settled comfortably into his chair, and allowed himself to drift.
Ten minutes later Sophie wandered past with a couple of blankets and covered her daughter and her protector as they both slept soundly. She smiled. Trust Lizzie to get Eliot to rest. Shaking her head indulgently, she headed back to her team.
Tennant Creek airport was mainly used for internal flights from Darwin and Alice Springs, but could easily accommodate the Gulfstream on the longer of its two runways.
It was spring here in the remote Barkly region. Eliot had tried to explain to Lizzie about the difference in seasons between Portland and Wapanjara, but she was just delighted to find that Christmas Day in Australia was bang in the middle of summer and a barbeque was a great way to have a seasonal meal.
When Team Leverage collected their luggage and wandered out to the entrance to the airport, Hardison spotted a young man holding up a sign, 'LEVERAGE INTERNATIONAL INC.' He grinned.
"That's our ride, people!" he said to Nate, who blinked at him tiredly. How the hell Hardison could be so cheerful after two days on an aeroplane, he had no idea. And now there was more sitting down and being jolted about to go, if Eliot's description of the road to Wapanjara Station was accurate. He narrowed his eyes. Hardison was looking 'waaaay too smug if the white smile and merry dark gaze were anything to go by.
As the young man grinned, said 'G'day' and led them outside, Lizzie gasped with delight.
There, sitting majestically in the roomy parking lot, were Bernadette and Oggie.
Hardison gave the young man a tip after the lad dropped a set of keys into the hacker's palm, and then danced forward and flung himself on Bernadette's gleaming black hood.
"Hello baby!" he crooned, and patted her sleek paintwork. "How's my girl?"
Bernadette looked like a huge pick-up truck which had been designed by paranoid ex-military types who thought the zombie apocalypse was upon them. There was nothing rounded or ergonomic about Bernadette. She was big, angular and covered in grilles and winches and compartments tucked into every nook and cranny. She had a heavyweight roof rack and what looked like a built-in collapsible tent on the rear. Two spare all-terrain tires sat at the back, and her dual cab would take all of them reasonably comfortably.
All in all, Eliot thought as he took his first look at the vehicle, she was one bad-ass piece of shit. He had known about her, of course, and was party to Hardison's detailed requirements for her build, but hell … she was somethin' to behold.
Her sidekick, Oggie, was attached to her tow-bar, and was painted the same shade of black. To call Oggie a trailer would have been an insult. Built along the same lines as Bernadette's thuggish design, Oggie was a whole lot of attitude stuffed into a rectangular box-shape which contained a fully functional kitchen and a huge fold-down tent. He carried emergency supplies, a military-standard first-aid kit, a refrigerator … the works. Hardison had also modified Oggie to be his geek-mobile, with state-of-the-art hardware and advanced – and probably purloined from the NSA – computer systems.
"Hmmm …" Nate said, studying the brutal-looking vehicles. "They're not exactly inconspicuous, Hardison. 'Way to go on the 'we're trying to meld into the background' plan, huh."
Hardison waved a dismissive hand.
"Well, now we're 'international', we needed somethin' that can take us anyplace. So," he gestured at Bernadette and Oggie, "that's what we've got."
"Dibs I sleep in Bernadette's tent!" Parker squeaked, delighted.
"You got it, babe!" Hardison said smugly.
"Can I get in, Alec? Please?" Lizzie said breathlessly, overwhelmed by Bernadette's sheer bulk.
"Why, sure you can, baby-girl," he replied, and opening the door to the rear seats he helped her clamber in. She bounced down on the leather seat and a Cheshire cat grin widened on her face.
Sophie had to smile at her daughter's delight. However, they had more travelling to do.
"Can we please get going? I'm tired and we have a long way to go, so …"
Hardison's grin widened even further.
"Your wish is my command, my lady," he purred, and with Nate and Eliot's help, stowed their luggage in one of Oggie's numerous bins and they were ready.
"Before we leave town, there's a couple of places I gotta go," Eliot said as he clambered into the front passenger seat. Nate, Sophie, Parker and Lizzie crammed themselves into the rear seats. It was snug, but they would manage well enough. "An' Hardison …" Eliot rasped as he glared at the hacker. "Remember you drive on the other side of the road, okay?"
Hardison looked affronted.
"Yeah, Eliot, I know, I know! I've done this before," he added, inserting the key and turning on Bernadette's V8 engine. The big vehicle rumbled to herself, purring like a mechanical panther. Hardison hummed happily. "C'mon gorgeous … let's show Mr Punchy what you can do." And easing into gear, Hardison drove Bernadette and Oggie out of the parking lot and onto the road towards the centre of Tennant Creek.
"DAMMIT, HARDISON!" Eliot yelled and clutched his safety belt.
"Oops … sorry …"
And Bernadette swerved back onto the left-hand side of the road.
A few minutes later, they found themselves at one of a row of small lock-up garages at the rear of the airport.
"Why –" Hardison began.
Eliot unbuckled his belt, opened the door and slid out.
"Back in a sec," he said.
Fishing a set of keys out of his pocket, Eliot unlocked the garage and disappeared inside, only to appear five minutes later pushing an old Ducati motorbike and wearing a helmet. Locking the door, he sat astride the bike and turned the ignition key, the engine growling into life.
Nate scrambled out of the rear seat and into the front next to Hardison, and then Eliot eased the Ducati ahead of Bernadette. Waving a hand in a 'follow me' gesture, Eliot led his team out onto the Stuart Highway, and headed south into the land of big, open skies and endless, lonely vistas.
After another stop in Tennant Creek to pick up provisions, Eliot rode along the highway for a few miles and then slowed and turned onto a single-track asphalt road to the right.
"Jeez … this looks interesting," Hardison muttered as he manoeuvred Bernadette and Oggie onto the road and followed Eliot, who looked perfectly at home in this wilderness.
The landscape was one of Mitchell grass, mulga and strange, red-orange spiky mounds, and Lizzie opened the window so she could get a better view. It was a hot day, certainly into the eighties, but the warm, balmy breeze that wafted into the truck carried the scent of earth and eucalyptus, and Lizzie grinned with happiness. She was in Australia.
She pointed at the mounds and turned to her mother and Parker, who were peering past her at the view.
"Those are full of termites!" Lizzie said gleefully. "Thousands and thousands and thousands!"
Hardison glared at the mounds. They seemed to be everywhere. Did termites bite? He had no idea.
And he nearly ran into Eliot as the hitter slowed his bike to rattle over a cattle grid beside a sign which read 'Wapanjara Station'. The road instantly turned from asphalt to red dirt, but Eliot didn't seem to take any notice of the rough surface and picked up speed.
"What the hell is it with Eliot an' havin' to be in the back of nowhere?" Hardison grumbled, and then had to slow down again as Eliot gesticulated urgently to his right.
"Oh mama!" Hardison breathed. "Lizzie … kangaroos!"
And there, bounding alongside the fence of what they would later find out was the south paddock, were three kangaroos, moving effortlessly and easily keeping pace with Bernadette.
Lizzie yelled with delight. They were absolutely everything she had hoped they would be. She had, of course, seen pictures and programmes on television, but nothing … nothing … compared to seeing them in their natural habitat, as much a part of the landscape as the plants and trees and termite mounds.
Curly hair blowing in the draught, she pointed at the leader of the group, an enormous male, tail balancing his powerful body as each leap covered at least twenty-five feet of the uneven ground.
"That's a boomer!" She shouted over the noise of the wind.
"A what?" Parker bawled back, entranced. She thought she had never seen anything so wonderful.
"That's a big boy kangaroo!" Lizzie explained.
Sophie smiled to herself. Lizzie had always wanted to visit Australia, and when Eliot had mentioned the previous year that he had visited the country, she had been doing her research with surprising alacrity for a six-year-old. She loved reading – something she shared with Eliot – and Hardison had helped her do some searching on-line. And now Sophie saw all of that research come to fruition. Lizzie was in her element.
And for the rest of the drive to Wapanjara homestead, Lizzie stared out of the window, spotting a small group of emus as they trotted away from the noise of the vehicles. She saw a pair of dingoes slouching through the grass, which thrilled her beyond belief, and was even more delighted when another group of kangaroos bounded away into the bush, tails beautifully balanced as they moved.
For the rest of her long, adventurous life, Elizabeth Grace Ford never forgot this first drive to Wapanjara. It was everything she had hoped for and more, and it was then she knew in her heart that she would never settle for what others thought of as 'normal'.
Two hours into the drive along this uneven dirt road Hardison tooled Bernadette and Oggie up a small hill, a stand of stringybark trees adorning the top and dotted here and there with acacias.
The sun was beginning to set, and he saw Eliot pull the Ducati to the side of the road at the summit and stop. He got off the bike, put it up on its kick-bar and took off his helmet.
"Now what is he up to?" the hacker muttered, but nevertheless he brought Bernadette to a stop behind the Ducati, and the team eased themselves out of the big truck and stiffly went to stand beside Eliot.
The hitter looked at his friends and pointed.
"That's Wapanjara," he said.
And below them, spread out amongst the trees and bush, was a neat homestead, the glitter of water shining amid the gum trees, and behind it rose low, beautiful hills fading into an endless horizon.
"We're staying there? Really?" Lizzie asked, her brown eyes huge with astonishment.
Eliot grinned and crouched down beside her.
"Okay … now, there …" he pointed at the bigger of the two houses, "… that's where Soapy, Jo and Effie live. We'll put Bernadette there in the yard beside the house. And there …" his hand moved to a big building and a series of smaller ones surrounded by what looked like a patchwork of fences and gates. She could see a few animals … cows, she thought … standing resting in the shade. "That's the barn and the cattle yards," he said. "You don't go there unless someone grown-up goes with you, okay? And that house there …" he pointed at a neat bungalow about five hundred yards from the main house, "… that's where Charlie an' Alice –" he stopped himself just in time. "That's where Charlie an' Kip live. Charlie manages the station. You'll like him a lot. Kip's maybe seven months younger than you, 'Lizbeth Grace." Eliot smiled sadly. "I haven't seen them in almost two years."
As Lizzie stared at Wapanjara, Eliot straightened and looked at his friends.
"It's beautiful," Parker sighed. "Lots of trees to climb too," she added happily.
"Yeah … it's beautiful," Eliot agreed. "This is my true home. Wherever I am, I know I can come here and live out my life with no worries." He took a hitching breath. "This is where I'll die, an' this is where I'll be buried."
And turning away from them, he put his helmet on and clipped the chinstrap. Swinging himself onto the seat, he pushed the bike off its kick-stand and started the engine.
"You people comin' or what?" he asked. And pulling down his visor, he put the old bike into gear and set off slowly down the hill, taking his time now as though to absorb the timelessness of Wapanjara, as well as deal with what he had to face.
"Well, looks as though this is it," Nate said quietly. "Guys … when we stop, let's give Eliot a few moments, okay? Let him meet his folks … touch base. Then we can say Hi."
Parker, who was buzzing with excitement at the chance to meet these people who meant such a lot to Eliot, nodded reluctantly, but she swallowed her disappointment and agreed. Eliot needed a little space, she knew.
So they all piled back into Bernadette, and Hardison drove the huge truck down the long incline to Wapanjara, into the setting sun and the beauty of this stark and ancient land.
They were waiting for him on the veranda.
Soapy and Jo had heard the familiar rumble of the Ducati's engines, and rising from their seats in the shade, they stood and waited as Eliot halted the bike, put it on its stand and stepped off, unfastening his helmet and removing it.
"Happy now, old girl?" Soapy whispered softly. "Our boy's come home."
Jo looked up at her husband, his hair greyer than it used to be but the black eyes sparkling with happiness.
"Always, love … always."
And then she was darting down the steps to meet the American, still sprightly despite her nearly seventy years.
Eliot's face broke into a wide, happy grin and he opened his arms to gather her to his chest.
"Jo … we got here as soon as we could …" he whispered brokenly, and then he buried his face in her silver curls, still shot through with auburn. He felt her hiccupping sobs against his shirt.
"Oh Eliot … it's been terrible. I'm so glad you came …"
Eliot barely held back his own tears, but then he felt Soapy's hand on his arm and he let go of Jo and pulled the little pastoralist into his hug.
They stood comforting each other, until Bernadette and Oggie rumbled into the yard and pulled up under the gum trees beside the orchard.
Eliot reluctantly let go of the Munros and wiped his eyes with his jacket sleeve. He was damned if he was going to let Hardison take the piss out of him for what the hacker might think were tears. Which, of course, they weren't. At all.
Soapy winced as his sore ribs twinged, and Eliot saw the bruises on his left forearm below the rolled-up sleeve.
"You're okay, right? Jo? He's alright, isn't he?"
Jo, still a little weepy, patted Eliot's arm.
"He's fine. We'll tell you all about it after we've had some tea."
Tea, in Jo's opinion, would sort out the end of the world if required, although it might take a couple of teapots-worth.
"Bloody hell! That's a beast of a thing!" Soapy said admiringly as he studied Bernadette and Oggie.
"Yeah," Eliot agreed, "but don't tell Hardison. We'll never hear the last of it." He grinned ruefully at these two people who he loved dearly. "Want to meet them?" he added, as the rest of his team … his family … got out of the truck and waited, letting Eliot take the lead on the situation.
"Oh, yes please!" Jo said, and smiled brightly at the visitors.
Eliot waved at the rest of Team Leverage, and for the first time, Eliot's non-biological family were as one.
As Soapy shook hands and introduced himself, Jo studied these people who were so much a part of Eliot's life. She knew who they were, of course. Eliot spoke of them constantly when he was home, and she knew they meant the world to him, although she suspected he didn't tell them so.
There was a sadness in Nate Ford, she thought. She knew of the loss of his son, and his marriage to this beautiful, elegant, kind woman called Sophie Devereaux had probably been the saving of him. But his blue eyes were warm with pleasure as he was introduced and she knew instinctively she had done the right thing to call Eliot for help.
Now the fair-haired slip of a girl called Parker intrigued her. Eliot had tried his best to explain about Parker. There was a child-like quality about her … something that was slightly odd in that she didn't see the world as others saw it, but Jo also saw the intelligence, shrewdness and strength in the girl's eyes, and liked her immediately. He could see why Eliot regarded her as the little sister he never had.
Hardison. Here was a boy who carried his heart on his sleeve. He was … what was the word Eliot used? Geeky. Hardison was a nerd. Which meant, apparently, that he spent a lot of his time with computers, which were mysterious and unknown creatures to Jo. But she instantly loved his open heart and big smile, and she sensed the inherent gentleness in him.
Both he and Parker were good for Eliot, she knew. They tempered him … grounded him. And with the steadiness of the two older members of the team, she knew in her heart that he had done the right thing when he settled down to work with them.
And then … there was Lizzie.
"Well now," she said as she saw the little girl look up at her with brown eyes so like her mother's, "you must be Lizzie. Welcome to Wapanjara, Lizzie."
Lizzie studied Jo's extended hand and then shook it carefully. She had never shaken anyone's hand before. She looked into Jo's green eyes and smiled.
"We saw kangaroos!" she said with wonder in her voice.
"We have lots of those around here," she said, "and you'll probably see lots more things you've never seen before," she added, amused.
Lizzie was just about to tell Jo about all of the other animals and birds she had seen when suddenly the internal door to the house swung open and a small, white hairy dog shot out and took the veranda steps three at a time, quite a feat for its short, stumpy legs. Roaring its yelpy ferocious-sounding barks it jumped at Eliot, who bent down and gave the noisy thing some rough rubs, making the creature wriggle with pleasure.
"Easy, Buster!" he said, and the dog flopped down on its back in the dust, legs flailing as Eliot rubbed a pink, chubby stomach.
Lizzie was enchanted. She loved dogs and had always wanted one but their itinerant lifestyle didn't allow it.
But before she could make a move to go and say hello, a coarse voice came from the veranda.
"Well, Yank! It's about bloody time you came home! I heard your noisy bastard of a bike from a mile away, so I did, so why haven't you come and said hello? Hey?"
Eliot gazed up at the small, rotund old woman standing on the veranda, grey hair pulled back in a bun and muddy eyes sparking with something which could have been ire or amusement. Nate, looking at her with amazement, couldn't tell which.
"C'mon, you cheeky mongrel, aren't you going to introduce me?" she growled. "These poor buggers look as though they could do with tea and cake, so hurry up and get the intros over with, you bludger! I've got lamingtons waiting!"
Eliot winced at the language, and then sighed. Lizzie's precious ears would have to cope.
"Guys … meet Effie," he said.
To be continued ...