Elizabeth tossed her jacket over the back of the kitchen chair and sank down onto the cushioned seat just as Hobbs put a plate in front of her. The smell of roasted tomatoes, garlic, chilli and eggs wafted up from it and made her stomach growl. "What is it?"
"Best cure for a hangover. My brother Mateo swears by it." His own chair squeaked against the floor when Luke sat on it. It felt solid enough to hold his weight but all it'd take was one leg to break and he'd find himself flat on his back with a sore ass and bruised ego. "Works for nausea too."
Hobbs had a brother? That was an interesting little fact, although it wasn't worth much in the long run. Elizabeth couldn't say she was surprised however. The way he acted suggested he'd grown up with siblings. He shrugged things off faster than expected and knew exactly which buttons to push when it came to herself, Deckard and Owen. "Huh."
"Food's ready so dig in. After this, we'll walk into town and have a look around."
There was no need to tell her twice. Elizabeth snatched up a fork and got to eating, keeping her eyes on the plate the entire time. Not once did she look up at Hobbs or make any effort to acknowledge his presence. Elizabeth had felt awkward enough looking past the shower curtain to check that Hobbs hadn't slipped into the bathroom without her knowing, and her subsequent tiptoeing out into the corridor only to discover Luke had moved both their suitcases into the bedroom rendered her an uncomfortable fool. She just wanted to get the first day over and done with, and move on to focusing on how they were going to find (and catch) the target.
"You still haven't said who this guy is."
"Doesn't matter." He'd told Toretto how it worked all those years ago. It was nothing personal, he was just there for two assholes whose names had hit his desk. "It's only a job. No need to get more involved than necessary."
"I'm not trying to get overly involved. I want to know what I'm up against."
"Just follow my lead and you'll be good."
Good? Maybe Hobbs had forgotten what was written in her file, but nowhere did it mention military or police experience. Her instincts would hopefully kick in when the time came to bullshit her way out of a bad situation and yet she had no intention of relying on them. Being unprepared begot errors while errors begot injuries.
"Oh come on, you know that crap never works." She passive-aggressively lifted her plate and took it to the sink, rinsed it and stacked it in the dishwasher. The dishwasher door was promptly kneed shut before Elizabeth turned to face him. "There's no use in me being here if I don't know anything. All it takes is one wrong word and the whole thing falls apart."
"And what if you freeze because you know what they've done? Say the target's got a gun and we're chasing them. We have no backup. There's no trained soldiers coming to our rescue. If you shut down, I'm dead."
"For fuck's sake." She curled her fingers around the handle of the dishwasher and gripped it tight. "The only things I'm good at are talking and running. If I can get a foot in the door with the target, that would make things easier, wouldn't it?"
"Answer me this: what happens if you get too close?"
"I stole millions of dollars without the hierarchy ever knowing, shifted money around day after day and they never thought twice about what I was doing behind that desk." Elizabeth clenched her fists. Of course they were back to this. Was it the Russian thing, the mob thing, or her surname? If Hobbs so much as said a word about 'trust', she really was going to lose her temper. "So are you afraid I'll betray you or do you think I'm just a stupid civilian?"
Jesus. Luke shook his head in disbelief and turned to stare out the kitchen window. Shaw really was oblivious as to how the past sounded coming from her mouth. She was standing there, stating in no uncertain terms that she'd been hired to do a job and chose to betray her bosses, stole money from her company and actively embezzled from criminals who had no qualms about killing people. It was like slapping a post-it note on her forehead that read 'Village Idiot'. "Every time you open your mouth, you dig yourself a deeper hole. You realise that, right?"
"Then why don't you tell me what the problem is, Hobbs? Is it because I'm a terrorist? A woman? Are you worried I'm going to sneak in and go all Lizzie Borden on you?"
"The problem is I don't want to be responsible for your goddamn death, Elizabeth."
Wait. That was it? All this bullshit was because he didn't want to be held accountable? God, here she was thinking it was something serious. No one was going to kill her. They only had to spend fourteen days in this sleepy town in The Middle of Nowhere, Nevada, and arrest someone. It wasn't as if the town were some criminal hub where people actively concealed Uzis under their jackets.
"Wow." Elizabeth pushed off the dishwasher and took his empty plate and cutlery, rinsed it and left it in the sink. She had to do something, anything, to take her mind off the fact he'd just used her name, and that her death had even crossed his mind. "I thought I had issues."
"This whole thing's a joke to you, isn't it?"
Yes and no. The idea that he cared was funny. Hobbs didn't seem like the kind of Fed to lose sleep over anything. "You put me in a prison with monsters and now you're worried about accountability? Maybe you should've thought about the risks before agreeing to this whole charade."
"Alright. Get your jacket and let's go."
"No. You think I'm going to be killed if I get close to the target but you won't tell me anything that would allow me to prepare so I don't get killed, and frankly, there's no guarantee he won't kill you either. A bloke like you stands out in a town like this. You go out there and you might as well wave your arms around and shout 'look at me, I'm a Fed!'."
"Are you done?"
". . . Yes. At least buy yourself a stupid hat so you look like a tourist."
"You really are insufferable, you know that?" Luke said. He made his way out of the kitchen, grabbing her jacket off the chair, and tucked his wallet into his pants pocket. Dressed down in a loose blue shirt, cargos and boots, Hobbs was still struggling to get his game face on. Like Shaw said, he stood out. He could deny it all he wanted but odds were good people would stare at him like a bear in a zoo once they reached the strip mall.
"Mm-hmm. And you're tense."
"I'll walk it off."
"You'd better. If this guy starts shooting, I'll be using you as a human shield."
Wow. That was great to know. What a real vote of confidence for their chances of survival. Nice to know his partner had his back (if he could even call her that). Fortunately the asshole they were after seemed to prefer hand to hand combat, but that was no guarantee he wouldn't pull out a gun if cornered.
She followed him step for step, keeping pace with Hobbs once he exited the kitchen, and locked the front door behind her. The air had warmed as the sun continued towards its peak, heating the pavement beneath their feet and dropping the humidity to below ten percent. From the house to the shops, it was only a fifteen minute walk or so. Hobbs' pace increased slightly, leaving her sweating a little more than expected, and the tension visibly drained from his body.
"Ho—" Shit. What was his new name again? It started with D, didn't it, or L? Ugh! She'd been planning on writing it on the palm of her hand but it'd slipped her mind after sitting down to brunch. "Honey, you wanna slow down a bit?" Elizabeth asked. He was still carrying her jacket in his right hand with three twenty-dollar bills stashed in the pocket. "Please?"
"I'm not slowing down."
"Well I just spotted one of those hats and we both need one."
"What, you afraid of a little sunburn?" Luke stopped to face Elizabeth, resting his hands on his hips. The drug store behind them had a small rack outside with baseball caps stacked on it. Some read 'I heart NV' while the rest were plain-coloured and lacked any kind of design. "We can get them on the way back."
"No." She pulled her jacket from his grip and tied it around her waist. "I wouldn't mind an opportunity to gather information. Getting friendly with shopkeepers allows you be privy to gossip."
Shaw had a point. If they didn't start making small talk with the locals now, they'd look less like a couple who were interested in starting a family and more like outsiders to be wary of. "Fine, but pick an accent first."
"I thought we agreed I was going to use my—"
Both stepped aside as a group of teenagers passed them, taking up most of the pavement. Luke glanced at the three kids but said nothing. Once they were out of earshot, he cocked his head towards the drug store and lifted two of the cliché 'I heart' hats off the rack. "You're sounding more Russian than normal."
"Shit," Elizabeth mumbled. She'd been trying to keep it stable but if even Hobbs could hear the difference then the anxiety that'd wracked her on the plane really had taken effect.
"Don't worry, we'll just change the story."
Right. They were meant to adapt instead of being stagnant. Beth followed Luke inside the shop and smiled at the old man seated behind the counter, noting the four aisles that divided the store as well as the TV showing live security feeds positioned behind the man.
"Just the hats then? That'll be seven dollars." The old man had an underlying accent that Luke couldn't place. "You'll be needing them this week. They said the heat might push into the hundreds."
"I don't mean to be rude but when did you leave Yugoslavia?" Elizabeth spoke up, pulling a twenty from her pocket. She fetched a tube of sunscreen and bottle of water and placed them on the counter next to the hats. "Or Bosnia?"
"You have an ear for accents! I left Yugoslavia in the seventies, long before the war happened." The old man smiled but his tone was tinged with sadness. "Three dollars for the water and five for the sunblock . . . That's fifteen in total, thank you."
"I can pay for the—"
She waved Luke off and handed over the cash, pocketing the change and receipt a moment later.
"So are you moving here or passing through on the way to Vegas?" He leaned forward on the counter, almost conspiratorially. "You know, they might have all the casinos and lights but they don't have us."
"We just bought a house, actually, up on Holloway." Luke took the two hats and sunscreen, leaving Beth to carry her water. "Natalie and I — we're thinking about starting a family, and I just got transferred here through my work."
"Then I wish you all the best. I hope you both have a lovely day."
"How'd you know he was from Yugoslavia?" Luke asked once they were outside. He juggled the hats, sunscreen and bottled water as Elizabeth pulled her baseball cap on and adjusted it, looking more like a tourist who should've been walking around wearing knee-high white socks and carrying a camera with every passing moment. "You both sound similar to me."
"Spend enough time around Eastern Europeans and you'll hear the differences." For a moment, she'd thought Hobbs would ask what war the old man had been referring to, but given Luke was a few years her senior, surely even he would remember the genocide. It wasn't as if it were something that had been swept under the rug and ignored by the world. "We don't all speak like Ivan Drago."
"Happy now you got your hat?"
"Mm-hmm." She left him holding his own hat and the water while she massaged sunscreen into her face and neck. "Call it a souvenir."
"So we can keep walking then? No more pitstops?"
Elizabeth did a half-assed bow and gestured down the street. "Lead the way."
". . . Did you really call me 'honey' before?" he asked, picking up the pace again. He hadn't hesitated to respond to her attempt to get his attention but it had forced him to process just how strange the word sounded coming from her mouth. "I thought you'd be sticking to first names."
"We're a couple, aren't we? Besides, you called me it on the plane."
He shrugged as if to say 'fair enough' and kept by her side, instinctively walking closest go to the road. Luke hadn't lied when he'd said he didn't want her death on his conscience. If something happened to her, he wasn't sure how he'd react beyond calling for immediate medical attention. "Nah, that's not it . . . Wait. You didn't forget my fake name, did you?"
"Oh shut up." Elizabeth grabbed his hand, interlacing her fingers with his. If he picked a fight in the street, however small, she would probably find herself wanting to crawl under the nearest rock. Emotions like anger were best expressed behind closed doors, not in public. "You're the one who wanted to go out."
True. They needed to know what they were up against, what the playing field looked like. So far, it was just a small town like any other. Some shop windows bore signs that read 'for rent' or 'business for sale' while occasionally small alleys divided buildings. Every single one was open to the street and blocked with a chain link fence or dumpster at the other end. The roads, while well-maintained, weren't without the occasional pothole, and there were more than a few cracks in the pavement.
"It's James." He glanced down at their linked hands and chose not to say anything. Despite the slight sweatiness of their palms, Luke saw no need to break away just yet. "My fake name? C'mon, it's only been a day."
Right. So it wasn't Daniel. She could strike that one off her mental list then. "I'll write it down later."
"You know, I thought this place would be—"
"More like The Hills Have Eyes? Don't count your wolves early. We still have to find the target. For all we know," Elizabeth said, looking around the street as people passed them with no more than a glance in their direction, "he's got friends with him."
"According to the recon team, he's alone."
"What else did the recon team say?"
"They said you're an unrelenting pain in my ass."
"In that case, cut the bullshit and tell me who the target is. We could cover this town twice as fast if I knew who I was looking for."
"You could tip them off too."
"So could you." Once again they'd circled around to this argument, and just as they reached a grocer and fruit and vegetable market, Luke turned them around. She hadn't paid any attention whatsoever to the surrounding shops, Beth realised. Despite looking right at them, the details had somehow gone completely unnoticed by her. A hairdresser was behind them, a second-hand book store on the other side of the street. Up ahead, across the street and tucked into the corner, lay a park with a playground beneath a shade cloth; the grass was beginning to yellow. "In which case it doesn't matter how much I know."
"I meant what I said."
"Worst case scenario is we both die which means you won't have the opportunity to carry that burden on your shoulders. Quit giving me the run-around. It's starting to get old."
Fine, Luke relented. He'd known keeping her in the dark might have done more harm than good but it'd been a chance Hobbs was willing to take. Now the cat was tearing its way out of the bag. "He's former Delta Force turned CIA Field Operations Officer. Something happened and he went rogue. God's Eye tracked him here."
Well that hadn't been so hard, had it? That description alone made the target sound more than a little scary but Elizabeth wouldn't let that get in the way. She looked Owen and Deckard in the eyes and told them to sod off all the time, didn't she? What was one ex-member of Delta Force then compared to her brothers?
"See? Nothing bad happened. You can relax. I'm still alive."
"Haha. Very funny. Any chance you can let go of my hand now?"
Right. It was starting to get a little uncomfortable keeping her arm bent at the elbow. "Only if you kiss me."
"Now? I thought we were going to work our way up to that."
"I'm kidding." Elizabeth released her grip on him and wiped her hand on her pants. "We'll have plenty of time for that next week when we really sell it. The target lives in our street, don't they?"
"Yep." Just a couple houses up and on the other side. "What are you thinking?"
"Have a barbeque. Get friendly with the neighbours." Two weeks wasn't much time yet the faster they ingratiated themselves, the faster they could start collating and comparing information. Provided they weren't too aggressive with questions and Hobbs didn't treat it like an interrogation, getting to know the target's movements would be as simple as asking 'So what about that shady guy who lives down the street? What's he like?'. "If you're up for it."
"Woman, you're talking to the three time Hobbs Family cook-off champion. I can handle a barbeque."
"Alright. Now can we get out of this heat? Please?"
"Okay, honey." Luke leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, smiling all the while. She went rigid against him once more, like he'd jammed a taser into her spine, then seemed to shake it off and get herself together. There was no chance in hell she'd seen that coming. "Let's go home and get some eyes on this sumbitch."