Team Leverage spent their last week at Wapanjara in a variety of ways.
Hardison was, perhaps, the busiest of them, with Charlie as a willing assistant and Parker helping out with the high stuff. The beginnings of the new, highly-sophisticated security system was installed, and it meant a lot of gesticulating, muttering and yelling, with Charlie not understanding much of it and Parker telling him it didn't matter because nobody really understood what Hardison was talking about.
The biggest job was the installation of a WiFi-enabled tower discreetly built behind the cattle yards, and with connection to a satellite and a bunch of smart-phones, it meant Wapanjara had high-end communications, which would be made even better by the eventual installation of a number of repeater towers throughout Wapanjara and Alinjirri.
The difficult part of it was teaching Soapy how to use a smart phone. Jo, Effie and Mei picked it up fairly quickly, but somehow Soapy struggled. For a man who had been in the army and used some of the most complex and sophisticated equipment in the world, the simple smart-phone defeated him.
Hardison's teaching method was just too much for the old pastoralist.
"Look … see … all you do is press your finger against this spot … here … at the back, and hold it for a few seconds, and that unlocks the phone by accessing the security logarithms using a fingerprint identification system. Then you can use it!"
Hardison looked at Soapy expectantly, holding out the phone.
Soapy stared at the 'phone as though it had two heads and then he took it gingerly.
"How?" he said, mystified.
"Um … well … you press whichever app you want." Hardison replied with an encouraging smile.
Soapy glared at the 'phone and tried touching the place on the back with his finger. Nothing happened. He pressed it again. Nothing. Frustrated, he pressed it several times in quick succession, and Hardison held up a hand.
"Whoa, whoa there!" he blurted, "don't keep pressing it, Soapy! You'll confuse it!"
"Confuse it?" Soapy said, frustrated and bewildered. "How the bloody hell do you confuse a 'phone?"
Hardison turned the thing over and showed Soapy the place where he was supposed to activate the 'phone.
"It's a computer, right? If you keep pressing the button, the same message keeps getting sent and it tries to keep up, y'see, so it slows up and even freezes. Soooo … all you do is press and hold, and then wait. Okay?" he explained, an edge beginning to sound in his voice.
Soapy stared at Hardison.
"So why didn't it just switch on the first time?"
Hardison pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath and continued.
"Because, Soapy, you didn't press long enough."
"So how long is long enough?" Soapy was becoming even more bewildered. "I mean … two seconds? Three? And then what?"
Hardison bit his lip and kept his temper under control.
"You wait for it to boot up," he said patiently.
Soapy's eyebrows went to his hairline.
"You want me to kick it?"
Hardison sent his gaze heavenwards and he gritted his teeth.
"Why me? Just … why me?"
"It's easy, Grandpa Soapy!" Lizzie interrupted as she called in past Soapy's office to tell both men that lunch was ready. "Here … I'll show you …" She brought out her own cell 'phone, switched it off and then did the same to Soapy's. "Alec … you're too futzy," she said with an impatient sigh, and handed Soapy's 'phone back to him. "Now," she said, "you do what I do." And with infinite patience, she slowly took Soapy through the intricacies of smart-phone usage.
Hardison sat back and watched his seven-year-old god-daughter teach her grandfather how to use a cell 'phone, easily and with great care, and by the time Effie yelled and banged the triangle for lunch, Soapy was exploring a weather app he could use to plan his workdays. Hardison shook his head. Outsmarted by a seven-year-old. And he had no doubt at all that Kip would have done exactly the same.
Watching Soapy chortle with delight as he and Lizzie agreed to play a game of virtual checkers after lunch, Hardison knew he was defeated and quietly worked his way out of the office, and headed to the veranda to be consoled by Effie's wonderful food.
It was after dinner that evening when Soapy clapped his hands together gleefully as everyone settled down on the comfortable seats dotted around the veranda.
"Alright, people! Family confab!" he said, his lugubrious face breaking into a grin and placing a thick folder on the table. "Jo and I … we've been thinking, and … and we need your input."
Nate helped himself to coffee from Effie's big old coffee pot and sat down at the table, his curiosity piqued.
"Thinking about what?" he asked, eyeing the folder.
Jo leaned forward from her seat and began to pull papers and what looked like floor plans from the folder, spreading them out before her.
"What's all this about?" Hardison asked, intrigued, and he wandered over to stand by Parker who was sprawled over one of the deep, comfortable old chairs.
"It's this place," Jo answered, waving a hand at the house, "it's too small. We need to expand a bit … we need room for our family. It's growing, y'see," she added with a happy smile, her green eyes warm in the soft light.
"We got the Princess and our babbies now, and this is their home too," Effie rumbled as she relaxed in her chair next to Eliot, sipping her tea. "And then there's you buggers," she added with what was almost affection in her voice. "You can't keep sleeping in bloody tents, can you?"
"I don't mind!" Parker piped up. "I like sleeping on Bernadette's roof!"
"You like sleepin' anywhere high up, babe, let's be honest," Hardison murmured, and Parker gave him a cheery grin.
Lizzie's eyes widened so much the starlight reflected in the depths of her gaze.
"Does … does that mean we get our own rooms?" she gasped. "Can I have my own room, Grandpa Soapy? Can I? Please?"
Soapy, tickled at the joy in his grand-daughter's face, nodded.
"I think that can be arranged, sweetheart," he replied with alacrity. "One of your very own, and you can decorate it however you like."
Lizzie clutched Eliot's hand where it lay on the arm of his recliner, and the hitter winced at the fierceness of her grip even as he smiled to himself at her excitement.
"Bookcases!" she breathed, almost unable to speak, "can I have bookcases?" she asked. "… and … and Daddy, can I have a telescope so I can look at the stars? Maybe from Santa? I love the stars here … and Eliot can show me all the different things to look at in the sky and can I have a desk so I can do my writing and a tablet so I can do school stuff with Kip and –"
"Hey now, 'Lizbeth Grace!" Eliot placed his spare hand over Lizzie's and did his best to put the brakes on her flow of ideas. "Let's wait an' see what the plans are, okay? And if you do get your own room, it won't be a big one because there isn't that much space to expand, so hold your horses there, Tex!"
Lizzie giggled, and letting go of Eliot she stumbled excitedly around her father and flung herself at Soapy in an all-enveloping hug.
"Thank you, Grandpa Soapy!" she whispered, and Soapy kissed the top of her head.
"You're welcome, my girl. And I think we can maybe manage at least one bookcase."
"Soapy … Jo … are you sure?" Sophie asked, a little doubtful. "I mean … we live in Portland and wouldn't that be a waste of space –"
"Nah," Jo interrupted, contentment on her lean face. "We've needed more space for a while now. Eliot's room used to be our guest room, and although we don't tend to get many visitors, it would help if we had a bigger house. Look …" She spread a floor plan out on the table for everyone to see. " … we can add on four bedrooms if we expand here –" she indicated the northern side of the house, "- lengthen the corridor, and extend the veranda right along the west side of the extension. Gertie would lose a bit of her paddock, but she would still have plenty of room and she could even sit out of the sun under the veranda. The only drawback is that she couldn't reach Eliot's window. But … if we put doors from each bedroom leading onto the veranda, she could still annoy you at three in the morning!"
Eliot snorted, but nodded.
"She'll deal with it. But you got to think about bathrooms, darlin'. One bathroom ain't enough, not with these nutcases."
Jo's face was a picture of smugness.
"It's not an ideal solution, but we can put what I think you yanks call 'Jack and Jill' bathrooms between several of the rooms and enlarge the main one a little. So … thoughts, anyone?"
Over the next hour plans were pored over and discussed, pros and cons pondered and a multitude of sketches – mostly done by Lizzie – designed, added-to and then discarded.
There was a minor argument while they were discussing ideas about extending Effie's kitchen and updating some of her equipment. While Eliot's idea of giving Effie a walk-in freezer so that Soapy wouldn't have to haul half a lamb from the outside freezer up Effie's steep kitchen steps was broadly welcomed, Hardison put his life in peril when he suggested Effie get a microwave.
"A what?" Effie growled, muddy eyes narrowing.
Hardison compounded his error by trying to describe to Effie exactly what a microwave was.
"I mean, Eff, you could reheat stuff, and, y'know, save lots of time 'cause you could -"
"I know what it does, you young bludger!" Effie hissed threateningly, "and you'll put one of those radioactive bastards in my kitchen over my dead body!"
Hardison's brow furrowed earnestly, and he tried to put Effie's mind at rest.
"But it's not radioactive, seriously! It's perfectly safe an' –"
"Bloody thing! Leaking zappy rays all over my ruddy food? Not bleedin' likely, you cheeky blighter!" Effie exploded, and she pointed a stubby finger accusingly in Hardison's direction. "I cook good, wholesome fresh food, sunbeam, and I won't have it poisoned by some infernal blasted machine! Y'hear me?" Effie ranted, eyes sparking with ire.
Hardison was mystified. What was wrong with a bit of 21st century modernisation? Didn't Effie realise how much easier it would make her life?
"But Eff –" he began, and Eliot's voice drifted laconically through the air.
"I'd stop now, Hardison, if you want to make it through the next five minutes an' still keep your fingers."
Hardison frowned, genuinely confused.
"But I don't see the problem, El! I mean, I bought one for Nana an' she loved it!" he insisted, still mystified at Effie's objections.
"Yeah … but have you ever seen Nana actually use the thing? Last time I looked it still had the cardboard wrappin' over the turntable."
Eliot had a quiet, happy relationship with Hardison's Nana – he helped her cook, washed the dishes and kept his mouth shut. She called him 'young man' and Eliot called her 'Ma'am' and they were content, and he learned a lot about soul food. Nana's baked beans with maple-glazed bacon were to die for.
Hardison was about to gush about Nana's use of her beautiful industrial-sized microwave until he remembered his last visit, just before the Qatar job. The microwave had pride of place in Nana's homely kitchen, all gleaming stainless steel and blinking lights, and Nana never failed to tell Hardison how amazing it was. But still, she was bending over her huge old gas stove reheating her heavenly chicken soup in a big pot because she knew her boy and his team loved the stuff.
"She hates it," Parker stated matter-of-factly, and then blew a loud raspberry to seal the statement.
"W-what?" Hardison blustered. "No, no she don't –"
"Yep," Parker continued. "Hate. Hate-hate-hate. With a capital H."
"Dammit!" he whispered, and Effie chuckled nastily.
"See? Your Nana is a lady after my own heart," she crowed, and then she jabbed a finger at Hardison. "No micro-buggering thing in my kitchen! Y'hear?"
Hardison sighed, knowing defeat when he saw it.
"I hear you." Then he brightened as another idea hit him. "But what about –"
"You leave my kitchen alone, you young whipper-snapper!" Effie snorted, and her eyes narrowed. "Touch anything in my kitchen, my lad, and I'll tell your Nana! And I'm pretty bloody sure she'll have your bum in a sling before you can say 'see you in bleedin' Hell!'"
Hardison looked crushed. He nodded his head, crestfallen.
Yes'm," he murmured, and settled himself into the chair beside Parker, who stared at the hacker.
"You didn't know?" she asked incredulously. Seeing Hardison's gloomy expression she relented and patted him on the arm. "Never mind," she added. "Nana thinks it looks pretty."
Effie relented a little, and her muddy eyes softened.
"Tell you what, sunbeam – I always fancied a rotisserie. My sister Vi has one - God rot her misbegotten old soul when she finally pops her clogs," she said viciously, " – and I always thought it would be a bloody joy to whack a couple of chooks on the rotisserie. It would be a bit different, hey?"
Hardison brightened a little. A rotisserie would work.
"Nothing too fancy, mind!" Effie continued, pointing again at Hardison. "No bleeping or … or … digi-whatsits or flashy-blinky lights! I just want to switch it on and all it does is go around and around, laddie. Understand?"
"Keep it simple, stupid!" Parker interjected, and she gave Hardison her sweetest smile. "And if Effie likes it, maybe you could get one for Nana!"
Maybe Nana would enjoy a rotisserie, Hardison thought. What his Nana could do with a rotisserie chicken had to be eaten to be believed.
"I'll find a few on-line an' you can choose," Hardison said, "an' when we're all back for Christmas, you an' me, we're gonna go pick the one you want. My treat. We could have a trip to Alice Springs, maybe? All of us?"
Lizzie's sudden yell of delight at the idea of a trip to Alice just about deafened Eliot, but he had to smile as she babbled on about the kangaroo sanctuary Parker had told her about where she could bottle-feed an orphan joey.
Effie thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. A trip to Alice Springs might just be a hoot, she thought.
And as plans were made to change Wapanjara to accommodate its growing family, the fireflies flared pallid light and the scent of roses filled the cool night air, and Eliot's heart ached because he would soon be leaving this place he called home.
Onslow Dawson called Eliot on his cell 'phone the next morning.
Hey, Eliot, he said cheerily. I thought about it. This 'team' thing.
"And?" Eliot rasped as he held up a finger to stop Hardison in his tracks. The hacker was standing at the top of the veranda steps with a stock whip curled over one shoulder. Against his better judgement, Eliot had promised to attempt to teach Hardison how to use a whip.
Onslow seemed amused and a little surprised at himself.
Yeah, mate. I think I'll give this team thing a bit of a go. Eliot heard the man take a deep breath before continuing, as if trying to convince himself he was doing the right thing. It seems to suit you well enough even though you're a bad-tempered, impatient short-arse with the attitude of a frustrated T-Rex.
Eliot opened his mouth to growl something rude, but Onslow chuckled.
As I said before, it depends on the rest of the team, but if you get the right people I'm in. Just for a couple of jobs to see how it goes, but … it sounds a bit of fun if nothing else.
Eliot grunted a reply, pleased that the man was willing to take a chance. Onslow Dawson would be a good start to the new team. But he had something else to think about, and he hoped Onslow could help.
"That's cool, man. Listen … Onslow … I got a favour to ask."
He almost felt Onslow's guard go up.
How can I help? Onslow's reply was immediate, and for that Eliot was grateful as he turned back into the cool of the hall and out of the range of Hardison's keen hearing.
"Tomas Ponomarenko," Eliot said, keeping it simple.
He heard Onslow's sharp intake of breath.
The Confessor? Bloody hell, Eliot! What do you want with that creepy bugger?
"I need an idea of where he is, Onslow. And before you ask, yeah, there's a damn good reason why I need to know. I'm thinkin' he's in Europe for a little while. And Onslow … if you hear who he might be working for, that would be great. But don't go lookin', man. I don't want you on that bastard's radar. I just want to know what's being said on the grapevine, okay?"
He sensed Onslow thinking about Eliot's request, and the reply was exactly what he wanted to hear.
No probs, mate. I'll keep my ears to the wind and get back to you. I'm heading to Paris next week for a job, so if you think he's around I'll see what's being said.
Eliot kept his sigh of relief to himself, and nodded.
"Thanks, man. With me being laid up for now, I can't keep tabs on the rumours. I'll speak to you soon, and give Tom a call. He'll be pleased to hear you're gonna give the team a chance."
Ringing off, Eliot felt better … more in control of the situation. Onslow Dawson was one of the best in his field, and if he couldn't find out what Ponomarenko was up to, no-one else – including Eliot himself – could do so.
Tucking his 'phone back in his pocket, he emerged back onto the veranda to see Hardison still waiting at the top of the veranda steps. For once, Hardison was silent. He knew better than to press Eliot on matters like this.
"C'mon," Eliot said gruffly, and gestured at his friend. "Let's go see how bad you are at using a whip. Heaven help me," he added under his breath.
"OW!" Hardison yelped as for the third time the cracker on the end of the seven-feet-long stock whip touched him on the ear, and Eliot had to hurriedly duck out of the way.
"Dammit, Hardison! What did I tell ya! Look … just … just hold it straight in front of you an' bring it back over your head! Then … no, dammit! Over your head, not round by your shoulder – shit!" It was Eliot's turn to yelp as the cracker caught his arm.
"Sorry, man …" Hardison muttered, frustrated beyond belief, and once more tried his best to hold the handle of the kangaroo-hide whip the way Eliot had showed him. "So … line it up like a fishin' rod … an' back over the head … an' forward like casting a line …" he talked himself through the process and tried again. After all, he was a fiend when it came to virtual fishing.
He was rewarded with a sad little pfft of noise as the whip flailed about like a limp piece of string.
Eliot eyeballed Hardison as he shook out his own whip, gave it a flick and brought it forward in an elegant swirl, lifted it over his head and snapped it forward. The crack was deafening. Hardison's jaw dropped.
"See?" Eliot grouched. "It ain't so damn hard!"
Hardison's jaw set. He could do this.
Wriggling his shoulders and cricking his neck, his eyes narrowed and he gripped the handle of the whip just the way Eliot had shown him. There was no way Alec Hardison, master of the algorithm and wizard of the keyboard, was going to be beaten by a punk-ass piece of frikkin' kangaroo hide.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and focussed on the row of tins Eliot had set up several yards away for Hardison to apparently whup into submission. They sat there, taunting him in their tinny, smug little way.
Eliot took a few steps to the side and folded his arms, his whip now curled over his shoulder. There was no way he was going to get in the way of an idiot with a stock whip.
Hardison flicked his whip forward in a straight line, channelled his inner Indiana Jones and went for it.
This time he knew he had done it. He felt more than heard the thrum of the whip as it rippled forwards, the sound ripping through the afternoon heat and clipping the tin on the far right of the little row in front of him, sending the tin dancing through the air, the sharp crack crisp and oh so right as the whip did as it was told for once.
"WOO-HOO!" he yipped, and did a Hardison happy-dance, the whip now lax by his side and joining in the dance as Hardison flailed. "I da MAN!" he crowed, and beamed at Eliot.
Eliot did not beam back. Silently unfurling his own whip, he took a step forward and waved Hardison out of the way. His face settled into the zen-like place that Hardison had last seen when the man had faced Khenbish Hadan, and then, with barely a flick of his wrist, Eliot sent the whip into an arcing, cracking snake until it struck the next tin with such force it 'pinged' loudly and flew nearly six feet into the air. But before it hit the ground, the remaining tins were sent after it, glittering in the sunlight as Eliot wove the whip around his body, the cracks echoing through the trees and the sheer grace and beauty of it making Hardison hold his breath in wonder.
Even as the tins bounced and rattled as they fell onto the dusty yard, Hardison was taken back to the night he and Eliot had first worked together, and the hitter had taken out four men and left them unconscious before a compromised Hardison's bag had hit the floor.
As the last tin skipped and stilled, Eliot flicked the whip to one side and gave Hardison the Look … the raised eyebrows and that shit-eating half-smile that meant Eliot had just shown everyone and their grandma what he could do and just how friggin' good he was at his job.
"Smart-ass," Hardison said.
Eliot grinned nastily.
"I am One with the Force," he quipped. He pointed at the tins. "Set 'em up, Padawan. Practice you must."
As Eliot curled his whip and draped it over his good shoulder, Hardison retrieved the tins, setting them once again in a neat row, muttering to himself as he did so.
"An' you ain't no Yoda … Padawan my ass … frikkin' no way Jose …"
And Eliot watched and smiled and felt better than he had in a long time.
All too soon, it was Team Leverage's last day at Wapanjara. The following morning, they would head for Tennant Creek and thence to Portland, back to work and a bustling city full of light and noise and people.
Lizzie moped. She wandered around the homestead that morning, emitting explosive sighs and hugging Gertie, who wandered after her squeaking pitifully. Even as she retrieved Sparky's grooming kit and spent some time brushing non-existent knots out of his short mane, she gave him weepy kisses. Sparky nibbled gently at her fingers and sympathised, and Gertie gave the little girl gentle camel-kisses and wiffled at her curly hair, turning it into camel-licked strings.
Sophie, finishing their packing in Oggie's big tent, watched her daughter through the open flap and elbowed Nate as he fastened and locked his suitcase.
"Look at her!" she whispered as Lizzie finished brushing her beloved colt and cleaned the brushes. Lizzie put everything away into her grooming kit, and flung her arms around Sparky's neck, burrowing her face into his fluffy hide. Dottie licked her son and then gave Lizzie a few licks as well, worried about the little girl's sadness. It was all very pathetic. "She's going to have a bad few days, Nate, and there's nothing we can do about it. We'll just have to let her work through it, I think," Sophie added, feeling for Lizzie.
Nate heaved the suitcase off the bed and sighed.
"She'll cope," he said, and Sophie caught the wistfulness in her husband's tone, "and we'll be back in a couple of months, Soph. It isn't forever."
Sophie leaned over and kissed Nate on the cheek.
"I know," she murmured sweetly. "But she's feeling the wrench, bless her. Since she's been here – Chong and Hadan aside – she's been more settled than ever before. Her reading's improved, and even her maths is better." Sophie sighed. "She's been through a lot, Nate. She … we … nearly lost Eliot. And I'm damned sure that if Lizzie hadn't been here he would have died. I never realised until now how much she helps him live. How much she helps all of us focus."
Nate watched Lizzie koosh Gertie down and then wrap herself around Gertie's long, powerful neck, snuggling into the animal's huge head.
"One thing's for sure," he said.
Sophie raised an enquiring eyebrow.
"And that is?"
"She's going in the tub before dinner tonight. The camel-stink is going to be fearsome." Nate said, amused and not a little sad. He was going to miss Wapanjara like crazy.
Sophie poked him in the arm, and then laced her fingers through his.
"C'mon. We're done here. Lizzie's okay for now, so how about a walk down to the billabong? We could take our cozzies and go for a swim."
"How about we go for a swim and not take our cozzies?" he said with a sly smile.
"Oooh, you old romantic," Sophie replied smoothly. We've got an hour or two before lunch." She leaned over and kissed him deeply, her dark eyes luminous and sparkling with hidden passion. "Let's go work up an appetite."
"Yeah," Nate said, his voice now deep with desire. "Let's."
And wandering from the tent they headed slowly down the track to the South paddock gate, hand in hand, and the soft tendrils of the light breeze ruffled Nate's curls, and the sound of the magpies fluting in the trees followed them as they disappeared into the dappled shade.
Parker was having a deep, meaningful discussion about her time at Wapanjara. She was sitting on the edge of the huge concrete drinking trough in the West paddock, and peering through the fence at her companion as she sighed, feeling very out of sorts. She hated feeling like this. It made her a little disconcerted and ill at ease.
"I mean, I want to go back to Portland - I think - but I want to stay here too," she rambled, resting her chin on one of the heavy wooden slats of the fence. "I miss Portland a little bit … there are museums with lots of shiny things and stuff I can steal … but here …" she thought about how to express this strange feeling in her stomach that was all warm and oddly fuzzy.
Kevin, dozing on the other side of the fence and not in the least interested, flicked a disdainful ear and began to snooze.
"I don't know. It's weird. And kinda cool. And nobody looks at me funny if I say something I'm not supposed to, and it's like … it's like … it's like I belong. I don't belong anywhere. At least … I've never felt as though I do. Unless it's with the team. I know I belong with the team." She let out a snorky giggle, which made Kevin open one eye and glare at her. "I can breathe here. It's not all full of people pressing in on me, and nobody minds if I sit on the roof or the tower, and … and … it's just … well … nice."
Kevin closed his eye and rested one hind foot, hipshot, and ignored this prattling human who was disturbing his beauty sleep. His sparse tail flicked in irritation.
Parker smiled happily to herself.
"And I get hugs!" she added affectionately.
Kevin's final comment was a loud, lingering fart.
Parker grimaced and glared at the old appaloosa.
"What do you know?" she snapped. "You're just a horse-clown!"
But she didn't move and neither did Kevin, and the pair of them languished in the heat and the sun and the balmy breeze, and both of them were content.
Lizzie wandered back to the homestead and slowly clumped up the veranda steps to join Eliot, who was stretched out on his recliner. He appeared to be asleep, but as Lizzie passed his outstretched feet, his voice crept out from beneath the stockman's hat covering his face.
"Are you okay, darlin'?" he asked, soft concern in every word.
Lizzie hesitated and the turned around and made for the chair next to Eliot. She flung herself down into the comfortable seat with a noisy, expressive sigh.
"Yeah … I guess," she said sadly. She let out a soft huff of misery. "Eliot …"
Eliot realised he wasn't going to get the rest he wanted before the long trip back to Portland, so he sat up in his chair, removed his hat and settled back to listen to whatever Lizzie had to say.
"I don't want to go back to Portland!" she blurted finally, and her bottom lip stuck out. "I want to stay here!"
Eliot, understanding but somewhat amused, took her complaint very seriously.
"I know, 'Lizbeth Grace … I know. I felt like that the first time I had to leave here. It was hard. Really hard." He reached out and took Lizzie's hand in his. "But think about it, sweetheart … if I hadn't left, then I wouldn't have joined the team. And if there had been no team, then your Momma an' Daddy probably wouldn't have got together an' had you. Then where would you be? Huh?"
Lizzie conceded that Eliot had a point, but she still felt bad. What was Effie going to do without her, and how were Grandpa Soapy and Grandma Jo going to cope? And as for Charlie and Kip … she would miss them so much, and she couldn't imagine not having Kip with her every day.
"But you know what?" Eliot continued, his voice dropping to the gruff rumble he reserved for children and animals.
Lizzie looked up at him with tear-filled eyes.
"What?" she whispered disconsolately.
"There's a really bright side to leavin', 'Lizbeth Grace. I promise." Eliot said warmly. "Can you guess what it is?"
Lizzie couldn't possibly think of anything that could be good about leaving her family and the place where her heart lay.
"Nuh-uh," she replied, heartbroken.
"The bright side, darlin', is if you leave, you get to come home. As often as you want. And every time you do, it feels even more precious … even more sweet an' good and full of everything that means the most to you. An' we'll be comin' home in a couple of months for Christmas and New Year. You know that."
Lizzie grasped her medicine pouch where it lay under her shirt and over her heart, and she knew Eliot was right. It did hurt to leave, but then there would be so much to look forward to. Christmas at Wapanjara. She couldn't think of anything better.
But as she felt the objects in her pouch she remembered something, and her eyes widened.
"Wait here, Eliot! I'll be back in a minute!" she cried, and jumping up from her chair she disappeared into the house only to reappear a few minutes later, Eliot waiting patiently as only a wolf could.
Reaching out a hand, Lizzie caught Eliot's fingers and tugged him to his feet, careful not to pull too hard because he was still a bit sore.
"C'mon!" she said eagerly. "We have to go to the tree stump! I've got something for you!"
Eliot, puzzled but willing to play along, allowed himself to be guided along the veranda and down the steps, and off the pair of them headed in the sunlight, Gertie following behind, along the track to the old tree stump.
The sun was reaching its zenith when Eliot settled his aching body onto the old stump beside the track. Lizzie fussed over him for a second or two, making sure he was comfortable and that his wounds weren't bothering him. Gertie did as she always did – she settled down, folding her legs beneath her like a giant, smelly cat, and burped up her cud, happy to sit beside her humans and relax.
The magpies let out a whirring chunter of noise as they flitted through the almond trees, their black-and-white livery stark in the midday light. An old goanna thought twice about wandering past the camel and the two humans sitting on the stump, and ambled off through the undergrowth, gulping in irritation.
Eliot took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of eucalyptus and jasmine, and he closed his eyes for a moment against the sudden glare of the sun through the trees. This was one of his favourite places. Here he had met Gertie, and it was here he had regained his balance as he healed from the knife wound which had almost killed him all those years ago.
But he frowned for a moment as he remembered Lizzie's tears and anger as she accused him of lying to her, and for a second or two his heart skipped a beat.
Lizzie saw the shadow pass over his features and sat beside him, and she gave his biceps a hug.
"I'm so sorry I yelled at you," she whispered.
"I deserved it, 'Lizbeth Grace. There's nothin' to apologise for," he replied, regret in every word.
Lizzie knew there was, but she wisely decided not to pursue the matter. She had something else to do.
"Eliot – I have a thing for you," she said, and stood up, digging about in her jeans pocket. Pulling out whatever-it-was, she reached out to drop it in Eliot's outstretched palm.
There, small and shiny in the light, lay Lizzie's baby tooth.
Eliot gazed at it and then glanced at Lizzie, a little puzzled.
Lizzie looked back at her guardian expectantly.
"It's for you," she said. "For your pouch."
"For my – " Eliot began, and then his voice hitched as the he began to comprehend Lizzie's gift.
"Ya-huh," she continued, and gestured shyly at the tooth. "It's a part of me. You look after me and protect me, and you're my best friend." Her eyes were warm and clear, and Eliot saw the love for him in this child he cherished with everything he had. "But you nearly died keeping us all safe, Eliot, and it made you all wibbly and you got sad because of Mooch and your team." She paused and thought about how to say the next bit. "I … I think you get wibbly sometimes because you think you're not good enough for us to love. But that's not true. Because we love you a lot. Mama and Daddy and Alec and Parker. And you have Grandma and Grandpa and Effie and … and Gertie loves you too. And Charlie and Kip. Lots of people love you. So … I wanted to give you something to tell you that I love you, because you're my bestest friend. My wolf."
And as Eliot fought back tears, Lizzie stood behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, her head resting in the hollow of his neck.
"To my dying day, my Eliot," came the words that he never thought to hear. "To my dying day."
And as the child held her wolf in her arms and told him he was loved, he slipped the tooth into his pouch and laid it back over his scarred heart.
That evening, as dinner was eaten on the veranda and the moon shone clear and bright in the night sky, conversation was low but warm with laughter.
The food was fabulous. Effie and Eliot had excelled themselves, and with Mei and Lizzie pitching in to help, the courses kept coming until everyone was stuffed and stupefied, languishing on the veranda sipping tea and too full to say very much.
After clearing away and washing the dishes, Nate and Hardison joined their family, Nate slumping beside his wife on the swing seat. Sophie leaned back and gathered Nate to her, and he settled against the woman he loved with his head under her chin, stretching his length along the seat. Sophie hummed contentedly. This time at Wapanjara had finally given the two of them a break, allowing them to relax and enjoy each other's company again, even after dealing with Chong's demise and the threat of Tomas Ponomarenko.
Hardison lifted a lamington from the plate on the table as Mei wandered out of the house with Jamie and Rose in her arms.
Jo sat next to Soapy and gestured at the young woman, who deposited young Jamie in her grasp. The little boy gazed up at Jo and gave her the beginnings of a smile, which delighted her. Soapy leaned over and chucked the infant's nose, and Jamie emitted a tiny squeak of pleasure.
Smiling at Mei as she sat down in her comfortable chair and cradled her daughter, Hardison finished his lamington and nodded to himself.
It was time.
He glanced at Effie, who gave him the minutest of nods.
"It's in my bitso drawer, laddie. All ready to go," Effie whispered.
Hardison grinned and wandered into Effie's cavernous kitchen. Retrieving what he was looking for, he emerged through the door and onto the veranda, making his way over to Mei where she sat snuggling with Rose.
The young mother looked up to see Alec Hardison standing in front of her holding out a folder which obviously contained some kind of paperwork. A puzzled frown creased her brow as she handed Rose to Soapy so that she could take the folder.
"This is for you and the babies," Hardison said, and he sat down beside Parker. All eyes turned to Mei as she opened the folder and took out a sheaf of papers.
She studied them carefully, but her English wasn't quite up to understanding the content, so she turned to Hardison, offering him the paperwork.
"Can you tell me what this is, Alec?" she said, confused and a little afraid, although she tried not to show it.
Hardison reached out and used a long finger to tap the official-looking certificate on the top.
"Remember when you said you wanted you and the babies to be Australian?"
Mei suddenly began to grasp what Hardison was saying and she nodded, eyes huge with hope.
"Well," Hardison continued, "this bit of paper says your name is now Mei Munro, and the babies are James and Rose Munro, natural-born Australians, born here at Wapanjara Station. These other papers –" he tugged out two more sheets , " – are their birth certificates. And here," he held up yet another document, " is the official adoption certificate making you the daughter of Theodore Alphonse Munro Junior and his wife Josephine Maria Munro, née Mulvaney, both resident at Wapanjara Cattle Station in the Northern Territory, Australia."
Mei took a hiccupping breath, her eyes shining with unshed tears.
"I am … I am Australian? Really? And I can stay? My children and I can stay here forever?"
Soapy reached out with one hand and rested it on Mei's … his daughter's … shoulder and squeezed.
"You're home, sweetheart. This is your home. Always. You and the twins belong here, my girl. And you don't ever need to be frightened again."
Mei's hands began to shake.
"Oh … oh, Papa Soapy … my Papa and Mama, and my Effie … I … I don't know what to say …" she stammered, and she knuckled away tears.
Hardison took the paperwork from her so that she didn't get it damp and put everything away in the folder, handing it to the young woman who murmured silent, sobbing 'thank you's' under her breath.
"There's only one thing I didn't do, but I can change it if you want," Hardison continued, his voice gentle and kind. "Rose and Jamie's birth certificates … I, ah … I left the place for the father's name blank. It means they won't know who he is unless you want to me to put it in, or you can tell them later if you want to."
Mei's brows drew down and she shook her head vehemently.
"No! No, there will be no name! Chong has no place in my children's lives! Maybe when they're older I will try and explain, but … but now they have a grandfather and grandmother and Effie. And all of you. They have a big family who loves them!"
"Good for you, princess," Effie growled from her place beside Eliot. "That bastard!" she added, her lip curling in disdain. She patted Eliot's hand. "You did the right thing, Yank, ending that shitty little oik."
Eliot, ever practical, knew he had had no choice and the world was better for it.
And so on this last night of their family being together, at least for a while, everybody celebrated new beginnings … a new venture, new life and a new and growing family.
The day Team Leverage left Wapanjara dawned misty and cool, as though the very land itself was sad about their going. Dampness dripped from the trees and the little mopoke complained bitterly about it as he ruffled his wet feathers in the undergrowth.
Breakfast was a quiet affair, and Effie was in a foul mood, which didn't help to alleviate Lizzie's unhappiness about leaving her home.
The little girl hadn't slept well and she had been awake at dawn, trudging over to Gertie's paddock to say goodbye to her friend and to give Sparky a last grooming before she left. She wouldn't see him again for a while, and she was going to miss watching him grow up a little. His foal fluff was falling out, and as Charlie had told her, he was turning a dark grey underneath. When she returned, she thought, Sparky would be a completely different colour.
Eliot had joined her, moving stiffly in the damp weather, and he told Gertie to be good and behave for Charlie, and to look after Sparky. Gertie gave them both slurpy camel-kisses, and honked sadly as they walked back to the house to eat, Lizzie grasping Eliot's hand like a lifeline.
Parker was already on the veranda, picking at her sausages and waffles, and Effie poked her in the shoulder.
"Bloody well eat up, Missy! You've a long trip ahead of you and you need the energy, y'hear me? And I'm not wasting my time making food just so that you drongos can turn your ruddy noses up at it!"
Parker sighed noisily, and ate a sausage.
"Not hungry," she grumbled, but she lifted her fork and half-heartedly began on the waffles.
Charlie and Kip arrived just after Nate, Sophie and Hardison sat down to eat.
Lizzie brightened when she saw Kip, but she was alarmed to see that his eyes were swollen with tears, and she slipped from her chair and gave the little boy a hug. It hadn't occurred to her until now that Kip had already lost his mother, and now some of his family were leaving too. Christmas seemed a lifetime away.
"We'll be back soon!" Lizzie whispered, and Kip nodded shakily, trying to work his way through another loss, especially Lizzie, who was his best friend.
"You promise?" he asked, and smiled when he saw Lizzie's vigorous nod.
"I promise!" she reassured him, and the two of them clung to each other for long moments. Letting go of her friend, Lizzie tried hard to stop her own tears and gulped noisily. "Can I ask you something?" she said finally.
Kip tried a smile and smeared tears over his cheeks as he wiped them away with the heel of his hand.
"Yeah, no worries!" he replied and waited expectantly.
"Can you look after Sparky for me?" Lizzie said hopefully. "I mean, I know Grandpa and your dad will make sure he's okay and all that, but he really, really loves being brushed, and he's learning to pick up his feet and he likes scratchies under his chin, and they don't have time to do everything. Would you mind? His kit's hanging in the tack room."
Kip grinned through his tears and his head bobbled, his blond-dark hair a waving tangle of curls.
"Oh, sure I can!" he said enthusiastically, happy to be able to look after the colt. "Batu and I … we'll make sure he's bonzer, I promise!"
The two children, happier now, sat at the table and smiled at Effie, who scowled back affectionately. She placed plates of waffles in front of both of them and helped scatter fruit and syrup over the sweet treats.
Charlie sat beside his son and ruffled Kip's curls.
"I'll ride the Ducati back to Tennant Creek for you, Eliot. You're not fit yet, mate. Then I can drive Bernadette home. She'll do fine in the barn until you come home in December."
Much to Soapy's delight, it had been decided to leave Bernadette and Oggie at Wapanjara. Bernadette was more reliable than Soapy and Jo's battered old ute, and with plans afoot for both Wapanjara and Alinjirri, Eliot wanted his people safe and in a trustworthy vehicle. Hardison had every expectation of Bernadette being polished to within an inch of her life.
"Are you sure about this?" Soapy asked as he sat down beside Jo and poured tea for both of them. "Leaving Bernadette, I mean?"
Hardison nodded and attacked his scrambled eggs. Effie had put cheddar and herbs along with a tang of chili in them because she knew Hardison loved his scrambled eggs made to his Nana's recipe.
"Yeah, no worries!" he replied, and nudged Lizzie with his elbow. "We got Lucille back in Portland, huh?"
"Lucille?" Jo asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
"Oh yes, Grandma," Lizzie explained, "Lucille's our van! She's really clever! She has lots of special stuff in her that helps Alec catch the bad guys, and she's comfy and Mama has a special chair to sit on, and there's a couch and I was born in her and –"
Jo's mouth quirked with amusement.
"Yes, so I heard!" she said. "Eliot told us long ago. She must be very special!"
Hardison listened as Lizzie, now a little more cheery, told Jo about Lucille. He knew the old van's days were numbered. She had a hard life and was sometimes the target of bad people, and she had taken her lumps and bumps. She had been a couple of years old when Lizzie was born, and after nearly a decade she was showing her age, no matter that she was cared-for and maintained to the highest degree and her techy bits updated constantly. But Hardison loved her, and so did Lizzie, who was proud of being born in her, arriving into the world squalling and angry and cradled in Eliot's gentle hands. Never mind, he thought. The old girl's got life in her yet.
And Wapanjara and its family settled down to its last breakfast together for a while, and for an hour at least, they were happy.
"Well I think that's it," Nate said with a sigh as he put the last piece of luggage in one of Bernadette's roomy storage bins.
He could hear Parker yammering on to Jo and Soapy about how they should all come to Portland on vacation and then Effie could meet Hardison's Nana when she visited from Chicago. The young woman flung herself at Soapy, and then dragged Jo into the mix, and there was a soft snuffle of tears.
"C'mon, Parker," Charlie said and held out Soapy's old bike helmet. Parker was riding to Tennant Creek behind Charlie on the Ducati so that Bernadette's interior wouldn't be so cramped. "We gotta go."
Parker let go of Soapy and Jo, tried to hug Effie who successfully fought her off but accepted a kiss on a pudgy cheek, and then she crouched down to gather Kip to her chest.
"We'll be home for Christmas," she whispered conspiratorially. "And we'll bring presents."
Kip hugged her hard, and then had to let go as Parker stood up and took the helmet.
Hardison clattered down the veranda steps and held out something for Effie.
"Here," he said. "You can watch your cop show on this. An' even video-call us. You an' Soapy an' Jo."
Effie took the electronic tablet from the young hacker and gazed at it. Then she switched it on.
Hardison pointed at the rows of icons.
"See? I put Netflix on if for you, an' there are recipe sites, an' here," he touched one of the icons, "if you press this you can bring up the video-conferencing software." He pointed at a sticky-note attached to the cover. "Passwords. You'll need 'em. I'll call when we get back to the States. Let you know we made it safe and sound."
Effie, tickled to bits, looked up at the tall hacker.
"Well, look at that! My word! Look, Missus!" she added, flourishing the tablet at Jo.
"You can help Soapy and I get to grips with our new laptop then, Effie. I barely know how to switch the thing on!" Jo sighed, but smiled at the little cook's embracing of new technology – as long as it wasn't a microwave.
"I will help too!" Mei Munro pitched in, smiling up at Hardison. "I know how to use a computer!"
"See?" Hardison exclaimed, grinning. "You already got a nerd in the family. You don't need me!"
Mei frowned, puzzled.
"Nerd? What is 'nerd'?"
Soapy murmured something in Mandarin and Mei's face cleared. She grinned.
"I am a nerd!" she stated happily.
Hardison felt his chest warm with affection for these people he loved. Mei would never know that Hardison had located Mei's father, who turned out to be a hopeless drunkard and who had to be threatened into signing the adoption forms, essential as Mei was still under age. The threat of being reported to the Chinese authorities for selling his fifteen-year-old daughter as what amounted to being a concubine, was enough to change his mind. Child trafficking, especially in the sex trade, could carry a death sentence, which meant a firing squad. The man had been told by the mysterious men who had pinned him to his dingy table in his equally dingy room that the proof of his crimes was absolute.
Hardison was suddenly overwhelmed as Mei flung her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly.
"I am so happy!" she whispered, and Hardison felt his shirt dampen with her tears, and he couldn't do anything else but hug her back as a hand dropped onto his shoulder. Soapy stood beside him.
"Alec … I can't thank you enough for everything you've done for us – for our girl. Our daughter. And now we have our grandchildren too. You did that for us, lad. You gave Mei a family again, and for that we will never be able to repay you."
Hardison, eyes shining, pulled Jo and Soapy into the hug.
"It was a pleasure Soapy, m'man." He grinned. "Age of the geek, baby!"
Lizzie, in the meantime, was saying goodbye to Kip.
Tears over and done with for a minute or two, they were discussing keeping in touch.
" … and I can do video calls now," Lizzie was explaining, "and we can still do school stuff, can't we? Now your dad's got a laptop."
Kip nodded eagerly.
"That would be so cool!" he said excitedly, the pain of parting eased for the moment by the hope of being able to chat about camels and horses and all things Wapanjara. "I can take the laptop out to Gertie's paddock so you can see Sparky! And we can decide what we want to do at Christmas!"
Lizzie laughed, happy now that she not only had Kip to talk to but also the ability to see her Wapanjara family, human and animal, whenever she wanted. It would gentle the ache of separation.
The farewells were difficult. There were hugs and promises and more hugs. Effie batted away hands and kisses, and then poked and whacked arms and ribs. She swore and snivelled and wiped tears away from muddy eyes that leaked treacherously, and then she took a weepy Lizzie in her arms and held her so tight she was loath to let the child go.
Lizzie kissed Effie's pudgy cheeks, told her not to worry, and said she would be home again for Christmas. This was coupled with a request to help make a chocolate cake for Parker, because the little thief didn't like Christmas cake. She said the fruit made her teeth squeaky.
It was time to go.
Nate and Sophie lifted a sniffing Lizzie out of Effie's arms, and they had to gently ease her grasp away from the little cook's sleeve. Nate didn't know which one of them looked more distraught as his daughter wrapped her arms around her father's neck and sobbed.
Sophie whispered a heartfelt 'thank you' to Soapy and Jo and then she held Effie's hand for a moment and squeezed.
"C'mon people. It's only going to get harder if we linger," Nate said, and he couldn't stop his voice from breaking.
Parker swung onto the back of the Ducati behind Charlie and put on her helmet so that no-one would see her lip tremble.
Hardison eased into the driver's seat and Nate managed to unpeel Lizzie from his arms and put her in the rear seat.
Lizzie turned teary eyes to her father, and flapped a hand in Eliot's direction.
"Eliot! He -"
"He needs a moment, sweetheart," Sophie whispered softly, and clasped Lizzie's hand. "He has his goodbyes to make."
And Lizzie, suddenly understanding that leaving Wapanjara was the hardest for Eliot, nodded. She waved at Jo and Soapy, who waved back, Jo blowing a kiss to the little girl they loved.
Eliot had waited quietly until the goodbyes were done, but he was grateful when Nate and the rest of his team left him to say his own farewells. As Nate and Sophie clambered into Bernadette beside their daughter and closed the doors, he turned to Jo and Soapy.
"Well, boy," Jo said, sizing Eliot up, "you're healing. At last. I thought for a moment there we were going to lose you, you idiot."
Eliot reached out and pulled Jo into his arms and smiled, amused.
"Nah. I wouldn't do that to you, now would I? I ain't easy to kill." He dropped his head and nuzzled Jo's silver-auburn locks, and then kissed the top of her head. "Thank you," he murmured. "For savin' me. Again."
"You wouldn't have got hurt if it wasn't for us, Eliot," Soapy muttered, ashamed. "It was our fault you and Alec were –"
"No!" Eliot said vehemently, "No, don't you go there, Soapy! Don't you dare! Y'hear me? You people … you're mine. My family. And I protect what's mine. You an' those fools –" he gestured at Bernadette and the people within "- are all I got, an' I'm a selfish sonofabitch. So if anyone tries to hurt my folks … then it's worth takin' a bullet or two."
Jo wrapped her arms around Eliot and he reached out and caught Soapy and Effie, pulling them to him and holding them so tightly he could feel their hearts beating.
And as they stood together in the sun, listening to Mei crooning to her children in her new home, Eliot felt the pull of the outback and he heard the fluting call of the magpies, and he knew he could not stay away for long.
"I'll be home soon," he whispered. "We'll be home soon. And I'll cook!" he added, with a smile.
Easing himself from their arms, he gave Effie a smacking kiss on the forehead. She shrieked, bellowed at him and called him a boofhead, and then Eliot turned and walked to Bernadette. Opening the passenger door, he looked back and grinned.
"See y'all!" he called out.
And then he was gone, Bernadette rumbling up the incline and past the stringybarks, heading towards civilization and a flight to Portland.
The three of them stood and watched the big vehicle disappear into the distant heat haze, and Effie sighed and dabbled at her teary eyes.
"Righto, Missus," she croaked. "How's about some bloody lunch?"
There were more farewells at Tennant Creek airport.
Charlie stood with them for a few moments as their luggage was loaded into the big Gulfstream G650. He eyed the chartered jet, and grinned.
"That's the way to travel, hey?" he teased, and Eliot had to agree.
"I was thinkin' …" Eliot pondered as the rest of his team waved goodbye as they made their way into the aircraft. "Alinjirri … maybe … maybe we could use a runway. Get a small 'plane. It'd make gettin' about a bit easier. Onslow has a pilot's license."
Charlie thought about it and nodded.
"Why not? Or a chopper. Or both," he added cheekily.
Eliot snorted, eyes crinkling with humour.
But both men suddenly stilled as they looked at one another. Charlie shuffled his feet, a little discomfited.
"Eliot … kukkaji … thanks. Thanks for being here. Thanks for making it right so my girl can walk the Dreaming." His dark gaze was suddenly misted with memory and loss. "I miss her. I bloody miss her and it'll never be right, but … but at least she can rest and I know she's home and … and … just … thank you."
Eliot straightened as much as his nearly-healed wounds would allow, and reached out a hand.
"It was an honour, brother. She'll rest in my heart. Always," he answered softly.
And as Charlie grasped Eliot's hand and the two men clasped forearms, a breeze ruffled Charlie's curls.
Thank you, kukkaji, for taking care of my Charlie and looking after Kip. I can go now, my brother …
And as Alice's voice echoed in his heart, Eliot heard her throaty laugh whisper in the air and her voice drifted away to nothingness.
The two men stood quietly together, bound together in love and grief, and then they parted, lines of sadness on their faces. But at least Alice was avenged, and she was at peace.
Charlie rested a hand on his chest, where the marks of his tribe lay.
"Be seeing you, Eliot Spencer of the Aniwaya."
Eliot solemnly laid his own hand over the medicine pouch protecting his heart.
"I'll be home soon, Charlie Jakkamarra of the Warumungu. Take care of yourself, kukkaji."
And they parted, these two unlikely brothers, Charlie heading home to his son and family, and Eliot turning away to join his team and the little girl he loved and guarded with all of his being.
But when he was a few yards away from the steps leading to the luxurious interior of the Gulfstream, Eliot's 'cell phone rang.
Onslow. It had to be Onslow.
"Yeah?" he said, putting the 'phone to his ear.
It wasn't Onslow Dawson.
"Eliot! How good it is to hear your voice!" Tomas Ponomarenko said. "I hope you're well?"
Eliot swore silently as he stood on the tarmac, the heat making the air shimmer.
"Tomas. I can't say I feel the same," Eliot said calmly, cursing inwardly. Just how the hell had Ponomarenko got his telephone number? He would be having words with Hardison, for sure. "I'm doin' great. How's it hangin'?" he asked. "Oh … forgot … sorry, man … there's nothin' left to hang, now is there?"
For a moment Ponomarenko didn't answer. The injuries he had incurred at Eliot's hand were substantial and prohibitive when it came to intimacy. His voice was cautious and a little on edge, but the smooth charm was still intact when he finally spoke.
"I'm just calling to say that my assignment here in Venice will be extended for a little while, as per my employer's instructions, so you can inform Mister Dawson that his enquiries are superfluous. I'll be more than happy to keep you in the loop, my friend."
Eliot gritted his teeth and did his best to keep calm as he spoke.
"Why don't we just meet up as soon as you've finished the job, Tomas? Huh? Then we can discuss whatever the hell is bothering you. How does that sound?"
"Oh, no, Eliot, that would never do!" Ponomarenko chided gently. "My employer would never allow that. But we will meet, Eliot. At a time and a place I will choose."
Eliot thought about it before he answered.
"So … why call me? You know where I am. I'm ready when you and whoever's employing you is ready. Bring it on!"
"Oh, I will … I will," The Confessor replied lightly, and this time there was amusement in his voice. "So … to business. I will come for you when I'm ready. When we meet, you and I will be having a discussion and you will be forthcoming when I ask you about the subject matter. And then we'll have some fun, perhaps. Well … you might not find it fun, but … there's always a down side, isn't there?"
Eliot grinned then. This kind of threat he could deal with.
"We'll see how it all goes down, Tomas. That I promise. Anyway … gotta go. Places to go, people to see. Be seein' ya."
And before Ponomarenko could answer Eliot abruptly ended the call. Taking the sim card out, he dropped it onto the hot tarmac and ground it to pieces with the heel of his boot.
He stared at the shattered pieces for a moment, and then he pushed the 'phone back into his pocket, and walking up the steps into the jet, he returned to the warmth and love of his family.
Author's note: Many, many thanks for your support and lovely comments about this long, fluffy tale! It has been over a year in the writing, and I've enjoyed every minute of it! Soapy, Jo, Charlie and, of course, Gertie, will return in the next story – 'Comin' Home.'