Author's note: The star in question actually came into existence on the Cherokee Nation flag in 1989, but I've taken the idea and run with it, even though it did not exist when Eliot was thirteen. Call it artistic licence. Also, in this story, Aimee never existed.
Warning: There is the (non-violent) death of a minor animal character.
For Whimseyrhodes, who wanted to know more about Eliot's Cherokee blanket.
The day Eliot's Momma told him she was dying, she gave him a gift.
Eliot, thirteen years old and with the blue eyes he had inherited from his Momma wide and shocked and filled with unshed tears, sat on a chair in their big old kitchen and began to shake.
I'm dyin', Eliot, she had said. Pancreatic cancer. I'm too young really, she had continued, it's usually one for older people, but … the doctors say they can give me a few more months maybe 'cause … and she had launched into explanations Eliot didn't understand or even hear, because his Momma was dyin' and he was thirteen years old and he was powerless to save her.
His Momma gazed at him, her thick, brown hair curling on her shoulders and her own gold-flecked blue eyes full of compassion and tears, and Eliot would remember her eyes for the rest of his life, long after he had lost the memory of his mother's voice and the feel of her hands on his face as she thumbed away stray tears.
His Daddy wasn't there. He was at the store, as always, and he already knew his wife would be gone within the year. Sissie also knew. Momma had told Eliot's older sibling that morning, before she went to work. Sissie had nodded silently, kissed Momma on the cheek and gone to work. They would need the money, Sissie had said, for the medical bills.
But then Eliot's Momma smiled, and the sunlight in her gaze warmed him as she stood up, a slight waxy tinge to her skin that Eliot had not noticed before, the only indication that she was ill.
"I got something for you," she said, Eliot watching her numbly and unable to speak. She walked over to the window and lifted the padded seat, her favourite place to sit as she watched the endless seasons come and go. She rummaged about for a few moments and with a murmur of satisfaction she lifted out a large, brown-paper-wrapped package and headed back to her seat in front of Eliot. She held out the package. "Here," she continued, "I always thought I'd keep this for the girl you married, but I'm not goin' to meet her now, so … this is for you."
Eliot silently took the package, not knowing what else to do. He stared at the parcel as it rested on his bony knees, his lap not being enough as yet to hold it safely, so he hung onto whatever-it-was with his left hand while untying the baler twine holding it together with his right.
It was a blanket. A warm, wool blanket in the colours of early autumn, the mellow reds of berries and the rich, earthy greens and browns of the land he loved, balanced by a creamy gold, so like the milk of his Grandfather's old Jersey cow, rich and thick and oh-so-good.
"I … I don't understand …" Eliot muttered, the words wrenching themselves from his hollow, shattered chest, and his Momma smiled, her eyes crinkling into the smile she kept just for him … a half-hitch of her lips and full of love for her sturdy, hurting son who would soon face the world without her.
"It's your great-grandmother's blanket. You know she was full-blood Cherokee, Eliot, right?"
Eliot jerked his head in a nod. His Momma was Wolf Clan, inherited through her father … his Grandfather, whom Eliot adored and who was his anchor in a world that was sometimes difficult for the boy. He was secretly proud of his Cherokee ancestry, although his Daddy snorted with derision every time Eliot asked Grandfather about the Thunderers or the Nunnehi, the ancient travellers who befriended the Cherokee. Eliot had even secretly learned the Stomp Dance from Grandfather, in a clearing in the wood by old man Jasper's place where his father had forbidden him to go, because old man Jasper was a mean hand with a shotgun and he didn't like trespassers.
Putting aside the paper, Eliot carefully unfolded the old blanket a little, seeing the black symbols in the centre. He didn't know what they meant, but he knew they were important.
He shook out the blanket fully, lips clenched tight because he sure as hell wasn't going to cry, dammit, as his Daddy would notice the red-rimmed eyes and puffy eyelids. He wouldn't say anything but Eliot would feel the unspoken disappointment in the man's visage, and once more Eliot would know he had somehow let his father down.
The blanket was warm and soft under his hands, and even through watery eyes he twitched a smile, spreading it over his knees and pulling it up against his chest, and his Momma chuckled, pleased to see the way the old blanket touched her son's hidden Cherokee wolves, the ones he didn't know lay deep within him. He smoothed the stitched edges and ran his fingers over the berry-red square in the centre, the black lines of the ancient symbols shimmering strangely in the shaded kitchen light. He didn't know, not then, that the tears he could not stop from falling made the design in the old blanket move and shift, alive and full of the songs of his people.
"You like it?" his Momma asked, worrying in case he scorned her gift. But even as she thought he might, she chastised herself. Her boy, her Eliot, treasured his heritage despite her husband's dislike of her family's pride in their people.
"Y … yeah …" Eliot stuttered, and his Momma reached out and clasped both of his hands in hers. For a moment Eliot realised her hands were bonier than he remembered, and he blamed himself for being too dumb to notice she was sick.
"Your great-grandma made this," she said softly, holding his hands tightly and feeling the living strength in this boy she would never see grow to manhood. "She made it for her marriage bed, when she married your great-grandpa Henry. Then she gave it to her daughter – my aluli – and then in time it came to me."
Eliot frowned, studying the deep green border.
"But … this should be Sissie's –" he began, but Momma shook her head.
"Sissie doesn't want it. Listen, Eliot … the blood of our people doesn't run strong in her … she's like your Daddy, an' that's okay. She'll probably marry Richie one day, and have her kids and maybe she and Richie will take over the store when your Dad decides to retire."
Or die, Eliot thought, for he knew his Daddy wouldn't let go of the store unless he had to. Even then, he also knew, his father intended Eliot to run the store after him, and Eliot felt in his heart that he could never, ever, let that happen. Steady-Eddie Richie Bannister would be a far better storekeeper if he took the plunge and finally asked Sissie to marry him.
But his attention was taken by something stitched into one of the corners of the blanket … a small, seven-pointed black star. He rubbed it gently with his thumb, and he realised it had obviously been embroidered onto the blanket at a far later date.
"What … what's the star for?" he asked, his voice rasping with hurt, and he raised his eyes to see his Momma staring at the star.
"Your grandmother sewed that onto the blanket," she whispered, and he could see the longing in her. "She had heard the stories of the Trail of Tears all her life, and just before she died she put the star on the blanket. It's got seven points … see? For the seven clans of the The People … Tsalagihi Ayili … and it's black because … because of the Trail of Tears," she ended with a sigh.
Eliot knew about the Trail of Tears. Grandfather had told him the stories of dispossession and death marches, when the Cherokee nation, along with others, had been forced from their lands because of the white man's need for gold and land. 1838 had seemed a long, long time ago to the seven-year-old boy listening at his Grandfather's knee, but there was no denying the sorrow in the old man's eyes as though it had been yesterday. Eliot discovered later that three of his ancestors had died on the march westwards into the setting sun, dead of starvation and disease.
As he sat in the kitchen of the old house his paternal grandfather had built and held the hands of his dying mother, Eliot Spencer knew then that he wouldn't stay. He would not stay and run his father's store, and he would not stay any longer than he had to in a house that held the sorrow of his life.
And his mother saw the longing in his soul and the way he clung to the blanket, and she knew he would survive this, because he was stubborn like his father and the blood of her people ran through him. Eliot Spencer, the great-grandson of Cecilia Rider of the Aniwaya, would thrive and be a good and decent man.
The blanket of the Wolf Clan became the only anchor in Eliot's life.
On the night his Momma died, quietly and without any fuss, Eliot sat beside her and held her cooling hand. Then he brought out the blanket from beneath her hospital bed and covered her with it, the corner carrying the black star, the sorrow of the Cherokee, covering her wasted face. Then he silently went to tell his father, still working at the store, that his wife was dead.
On the day of her funeral, as he stood beside his father and Grandfather and listened to the droning words of the pastor, he stood tall and straight and unbending, his face impassive and dry-eyed.
It was only when he returned to his room and locked the door that he sat on his bed, wrapped himself in his blanket and wept until he could no longer sit upright, and he curled into a ball on the bed and hid his face from the world. No-one came near him.
A year later, when his beloved Grandfather died of a broken heart, Eliot was sure, the blanket once again covered the face of a man who had died inside when his daughter had wasted away before him, the cancer devouring her like the Kalona Ayeliski who robbed the dying of their hearts. Eliot sat beside him in the small cabin the old man had called home all his life, and laid a hand on the lifeless chest. His other hand covered the medicine pouch Grandfather had given him on the day of his mother's funeral … the pouch that held the wolf's tooth of his ancestor and which no-one else knew about. It was his alone, and it was one of his most treasured possessions. The other was his great-grandmother's blanket.
The day after Eliot Spencer turned eighteen years old, he left home. With his father's anger ringing in his ears and Sissie's blessing in his heart, he finished his packing in his room. His life was the Army's now, whatever that might bring, but as he finished stuffing the last of his belongings into the backpack, he smiled to himself and ran fingers through his thick dark hair. Tomorrow the army would take that as well, shaved so short it would be nothing but bristles, but right now it made him think of his Momma.
Sitting on the bed, he ran his hand over the old blanket, heavy and warm as it lay over his comforter, and the warm golds and reds and greens eased his heart. The black star was then under his fingers, and he traced the outline, thinking of those who had gone and how he missed them. Both his mother and grandfather would be proud that he would be serving his country, he thought.
His reverie was disturbed by the honk of a horn from outside. Sissie was waiting in his old truck, ready to drive him to the bus station. Standing up and slinging the backpack over one shoulder, he took one more look at his room, and it was then he remembered something. He gently pulled out his medicine pouch from where it lay over his heart, and slid it from around his neck. Carefully wrapping around the leather cord, he reverently tucked it into his sock drawer to await his return. He had no idea when that would be, but he knew Sissie would keep an eye on his belongings.
What the army would make of him, he had no idea, but he felt he could do something worthwhile with his life. He wasn't the biggest recruit they had ever seen, he was sure, but he could handle himself and he was steady-headed … thoughtful and not prone to panic, just as Grandfather had taught him.
He took a deep breath, and turned and left his old life behind, and his room echoed with the silence of his leaving.
Eliot had been right. The army took Eliot Spencer, trained him, moulded him, and made of him what they could. He filled out, his shoulders broadened and he became solid muscle and bone, and he took to army life as though born to it.
His instructors found he had a sharp eye and the steadiest of nerves, coupled with a dexterity and tenacity they had only rarely seen before. He absorbed information and physical training like a sponge, and within two years he was seconded to special ops, battling his way through Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq. He was in his early twenties when he became the commander of his own small team of specialists, and his steady blue eyes and quick intellect won them over as surely as he destroyed war lords and terrorists with deadly calm and equally deadly intent, and he and his team saved as many lives as they could.
He went home to Oklahoma whenever he was back in the United States on leave.
Sissie would meet him at the bus station. At first she came alone, but then she brought Richie with her. They were married on Eliot's third visit home, and Eliot stood proudly in the church in full dress uniform, and was delighted to see his sister happy and deeply in love with the good, decent man she had chosen.
Eliot's father said nothing. He gave Sissie away, and managed a stilted speech at the reception, but he sat and drank for the rest of the evening and never spoke to Eliot.
That night Eliot returned to his room in his father's house, and took an almost-full bottle of Jack Daniels with him. He wrapped himself in his old blanket, lay on his bed and watched the stars out of his window, the warm colours of the blanket helping to take the chill out of his heart. He finished the bottle and allowed the alcohol to numb the pain of change. He was happy for Sissie, he really was. But now he would have to come home to his father's house and deal with the old man on his own.
It was midday when he awoke, hung-over and sour, and the black star on the blanket taunted him silently. Was this the way for Eliot Spencer of the Aniwaya to behave? Eliot snorted then winced as the headache pulsed through his head.
But when he wandered downstairs and found his father sitting in front of the television watching ice hockey, a bottle of rye beside him, Eliot scowled.
Not even looking at his son, the man took a sip of his drink before speaking.
"Got your drunken dumb-ass outta bed finally, huh," he declared, his lip curled in disdain.
Eliot turned on his heel, returned to his bedroom and packed everything of value he had into a suitcase. Without saying goodbye, he loaded up his truck, drove to Richie's folks and asked them to tell Sissie that his truck would be waiting for her at the bus station parking lot and the keys could be picked up at the desk. He signed the papers transferring the old vehicle over to his sister, and left Oklahoma behind forever.
As the years passed, Eliot fought his way through the Middle East, Africa and the Orient. He gained scars and lost his team to violence, and saved more lives. But there was a cost. His work with SOCOM* meant he became a loner, a secretive, silent man with a sniper's scope and a penchant for melting into the landscape. He killed whoever he was ordered to kill, and he told himself it was for the greater good. When he had a child in his crosshairs, a boy carrying a Kalashnikov and on the point of murdering a group of villagers because they had hidden an injured American soldier from the Taliban, he put a bullet through the boy's head and told himself it was the right thing to do. He learned not to feel.
But when he went back to the SOCOM base in Florida, back to his spartan off-base apartment with its dust motes and one armchair, he would order some take-out and dig out a bottle of Tennessee sippin' whiskey, and he would sit in his armchair wrapped in the old, warm blanket, and deal with the shaking.
There were women, of course. Nothing stable or even romantic. It was just scratching an itch for both of them, and then they would go their own separate ways. But he never brought a woman back to his apartment, because then she would be within his tight, ordered world and she would see how he lived and understand how empty his life was, apart from the army and the killing.
So he would smile and joke and call them 'darlin', and they were charmed by his blue eyes and soft Oklahoma lilt and thrilled by the hard lines of his body, and they never saw the bleakness in his soul … the bleakness only the blanket witnessed and which Eliot tried to ease on the long, dark nights when he watched the stars.
Leaving the army had been a wrench, but, Eliot concluded, it had been the right thing to do. The deadness inside, the numbness of his existence was becoming too normal and easy to stand, and he knew in his heart he had to try and leave it behind.
So he left the army, the only life he knew, and once again he didn't look back. He left his bare apartment and put his belongings in storage, bought an old Harley and became a nomad.
For a year he wandered, as lonely and as blighted as the albatross of legend, and became lost in mind and soul. Sometimes he slept in the desert, under the stars which wandered as much as he did. He would gaze into the light of a fire and drink a beer or two, and then he would lie sleeplessly under the old Cherokee blanket and try not to dream of murdered children and the dead faces of his team.
Once in a while, when the mood took him, he sang for his supper in a local bar. He found an old Fender T-bucket guitar which he nurtured and loved, and his clear, soulful voice would quieten even the rowdiest of places. So he would get his free meal and a bed if he was lucky. Music was the only thing which gave him pleasure, he discovered. It was the only means by which his soul thawed and hummed with any kind of peace. But it also let in the pain and the nightmares, so he only sang when he had to.
It was while he sang one night in an eatery just outside of Franklin, Massachusetts, that his life took yet another turn. As he left he was braced by half-a-dozen men, all of them big and every one of them out for blood. Eliot had stopped one of them harassing a waitress, and they took exception to his breaking of the man's fingers with nothing more than a twist of his strong, skilled hand and a smile on his face.
After propping his guitar gently against the wall, safe in its case, he had left every one of them in the dirt, bloody and broken. Eliot grinned mirthlessly at the groaning men, retrieved his Fender and headed towards the Harley.
There was a man waiting for him.
He was a tall man in his late thirties, handsome in a fierce, hawk-like way, and he wore a very expensive suit. He was also flanked by two men with neat hair, dark suits and bulges under their left armpit.
Eliot sighed in irritation and placed his guitar on the seat of the Harley, but the stranger raised a hand in a placatory manner and smiled at this stocky, stone-hard man with the wary blue eyes and the air of a cornered wolf.
"Hello, my friend," he said, and Eliot knew an Eastern European accent when he heard one. "My name is Damien Moreau. I want you to come and work for me."
Working for Damien Moreau was easy at first. Eliot knew he was working on the wrong side of the law, but, he thought, he was weary of being alone and even wearier of being aimless. So, he put his Harley and his Fender in storage along with the rest of his meagre belongings, and the last thing to be packed away was his great-grandmother's Cherokee blanket.
For a moment, just before taping the box shut, he saw the black seven-pointed star and the terrible, mourning ache returned, mangling what was left of his heart, the loss and grief of his past almost swallowing him whole. Watching his mother die followed by the death of Grandfather hit him hard all over again, an almost physical blow. And then there was the loss of his entire team, killed by a boy not much younger than he was at the time. So much death, and so many lives wasted.
But Eliot shook off the feeling with annoyance. He had outgrown the blanket's meaning, he decided, and now he had a new life. Damien looked after his employees, and Eliot, even though all he did was guard Moreau and stand about looking tough, ate well, dressed well and had a small, neat apartment with more than a bed and an armchair in it.
Shouldering off the unease, he taped the box shut and stored it away with the others. And once again, he turned away and did not look back.
The first time he killed for Damien Moreau, Eliot hesitated. He looked at the man in front of him, a drug addict and dealer who had a penchant for young girls and a side-line in child trafficking. The man knelt in front of Eliot, begging for his life. He had managed to get on the wrong side of Moreau by inadvertently messing with the daughter of one of Moreau's clients, and Moreau, diligent and aware of the wrench this threw in his dealings with the addicted girl's father, told Eliot to dispose of the creature who had threatened a very lucrative deal, although Eliot didn't know what the transaction was about.
So Eliot watched as the wreck of a man babbled and wrung his hands, saying he would leave town and never return, if only Eliot didn't kill him. He stank of sweat and cheap cologne, and Eliot could see the sickness of the drugs and the warped soul of the man in the weeping eyes. Here was a man who dealt death and worse to innocents, and Eliot's eyes were ice and silence.
He broke the man's neck and walked away, leaving the twitching body to be dealt with by two of Moreau's lesser minions.
After that, as he progressed higher in Moreau's organisation, Eliot became a shadow. He was the ever-present figure in a dark suit standing quietly in a doorway or hovering discreetly at a party or ambassadorial reception, because Moreau moved in powerful circles. He rarely spoke, and he became an anonymous, deadly wraith who was mostly ignored by the people with whom Moreau dealt.
And he killed. He killed men and women with indiscriminate ease, because Moreau was clever, oh so clever, and he knew that somewhere beneath the bespoke suit and the quiet mien was a conscience, no matter how deeply buried it was in Eliot Spencer's cold soul. When he sent his assassin to dispose of an enemy, Moreau made sure the target deserved their end. And Eliot would melt into the shadows and emerge from nowhere with a knife or a gun or just his bare hands, and then there was blood and terror and unearthly silence.
And as always, Eliot turned and walked away, because now, finally, he was a rotten, evil thing, body and soul, and Moreau used him like the weapon he was.
The only balm to Eliot's world of hollow nothingness was the fact that Moreau was a man of culture. His deals were born and concluded in the cities at the heart of great civilizations, and Eliot, with time on his hands, would sit for hours in galleries gazing at a painting or ancient artefact, desperate for some kind of feeling that would sooth what was left of the eighteen-year-old who had set out to do good in the world. He read and learned and did his best to touch his shattered humanity, but in the end, he knew, he was nothing but a tool … a means to an end, and the death he brought made Damien Moreau even more powerful.
But sometimes his targets fought back, and he quickly learned to take care of himself. He found he could stitch up wounds and deal with infections, often retreating to his small, neat apartment to sweat it out and return to Moreau when he was able, calm and deadly and as untouchable as ever because Moreau, for all of his lethal power, didn't like sickness, and injuries were weakness and to be disdained.
So Eliot found contacts for medical supplies and would disappear for a week or two. Then Moreau would emerge from his sumptuous hotel suite one morning, and Eliot would be there, expressionless and as deadly as ever.
"Eliot!" he would say, "about time! I hope you enjoyed your vacation!" and Moreau would smile and rub his hands together at the prospect of what he would do that day … what rank, foetid corruption could he nurture and twist to his own ends.
And Eliot would nod and say nothing even as he felt the pull of broken bones and stitched wounds, and the lingering fever making his mouth as dry as the Namib Desert.
Once in a while he would return to his storage unit and check his belongings, running a finger over the handlebars of the Harley and picking out a tune on the old Fender. But the box on the top of the pile was never opened. Eliot knew if he did, the seven-pointed black star would bring back the memory of the sadness and despair in his Momma's eyes and then he would have to go somewhere lonely and blow his brains out because of what he had become.
It was the dog which finally changed Eliot Spencer.
He would later remember the night as the worse thing he ever did for Damien Moreau. That night he did not just end the person who had crossed Moreau … he systematically exterminated her entire family. The sound modifier on his Glock muffled the shots, but Eliot honestly didn't care. It was a job … his job, and he killed not only the family but their staff and a neighbour who heard a strange sound and called by to find out what it was. As Eliot stalked the huge house because he knew there was one more life to end, he heard a noise coming from one of the bedrooms.
He cocked his head and listened. It didn't sound human, so he made his way into the room. He sensed movement under the bed, but that was not what caught his eye.
In the corner of the room an elderly Labrador, rheumy-eyed and probably more than a little deaf, lay in his basket and gazed at Eliot, his old tail thumping and his tongue hanging in a happy pant. Creakily getting to his feet, the dog wandered over to Eliot and leaned against his leg looking for a scratch.
Eliot smiled. His face felt stiff with the effort but he lowered the Glock and leaned over to give the animal a tentative rub of his ears, and the old dog rumbled happily with the pleasure of it. Before he knew what he was doing, Eliot was sitting on the floor, legs outstretched, and he laid the Glock on the carpet beside him, and the Labrador stumbled into Eliot's lap and sat down, his solid body leaning against Eliot's chest. He felt the warmth and the steady beat of the dog's aged heart, and a tongue swept his face from jaw to hairline, the canine happy for the contact and attention.
Whatever was under the bed suddenly made a break for it, and a teenage boy, spotty and shrieking with terror and all arms and legs, scrambled to the doorway, but Eliot lifted the Glock and the boy suddenly pitched forward as the bullet took him through the back, spraying blood against the opposite wall of the corridor outside.
The dog flinched at the action but did not seem too disturbed by the noise, and he turned to bury his head under Eliot's arm, pushing gently and nosing for attention.
"H … hey, buddy … Eliot whispered, and the dog's calming presence did something to the inhuman creature he had become. Placing the Glock back on the carpet, Eliot suddenly found himself wrapping his arms around the Labrador and the dog nuzzled at him, wanting more, and Eliot didn't care about the shedding hairs and the bad breath, and it was long minutes before he realised he had to leave.
Sighing, he stood up, gently pushing the dog off his lap, and he lifted the Glock. But what was he to do about the dog? He placed the heated barrel of the modifier against the old animal's forehead, but he hesitated as the beast's eyes narrowed with pleasure at the warmth and attention, and even as Eliot gently began to squeeze the trigger, he knew he couldn't do it.
Lifting the automatic away, he rumpled the dog's ears with his left hand.
"Okay, my friend. Want to come home with me?"
And as he said it, Eliot wondered what the hell he was going to do with a dog. But as he walked out of the room the animal followed him, keeping his nose tucked behind Eliot's knee, and Eliot realised the dog's sight wasn't very good. Through the house they went, both ignoring the crumpled bodies and great spattered gouts of blood, out of the side door and through the manicured garden and past the bodies of the neighbour and the family's elderly gardener. When Eliot reached his dusty, anonymous Dodge RAM, he carefully lifted the dog into the passenger seat. He unscrewed the modifier, now cool enough to handle, and then he removed the latex gloves he wore to keep the kill-site clean of his fingerprints, although he knew he was more or less untouchable. Here in Mexico the war on drugs and conflict between the rival cartels would swallow the extermination of this particular drug lord and his family with ease, and Moreau's money would smooth the way to burying any evidence left behind.
Eliot got into the driver's seat and patted the dog.
"C'mon, mutt," he said. "Let's go eat."
The dog licked his hand, settled down in the seat and went to sleep.
The dog stayed with Eliot in his tidy little apartment for five months. Eliot called him Jerry, and hired a dog walker who looked after Jerry if Eliot had to work. At night, Eliot didn't sit and gaze at the stars any more, but relaxed with a beer with Jerry beside him on the couch and watched football games on the television. He didn't speak much, but Jerry didn't mind and enjoyed the man's company.
Moreau sensed something different about Eliot, but couldn't put a finger on what had changed, because Eliot was the same silent, deadly man he had always been in Moreau's employ. There was a younger man making his way up the ranks of Moreau's employees … a South African called Chapman, a cocky sonofabitch who liked to try and taunt Eliot. One day Eliot grasped Chapman's shirt-front, silently smashed his face in and broke his jaw. Moreau smiled and gently scolded Eliot about disabling Chapman for weeks, but he was secretly reassured that the lethal weapon that was Eliot Spencer was as ruthless as ever.
But then Jerry became sick. His kidneys were failing, the veterinarian said, and Jerry lay in Eliot's arms as his end came, quiet and calm and surrounded by love, and Eliot wrapped Jerry in the old dog's blanket and carried his body to a quiet place Eliot knew. There Jerry was laid to rest with his favourite squeaky ball, and once again Eliot was alone.
The day after Eliot buried his dog, he went to his storage unit. For the first time in years he lifted down the box at the top of the pile and used his pocket knife to slice open the duct tape. There lay the Cherokee blanket, the black star stark and bold against the warm green wool. Eliot ran his hand over the soft texture, and before he could stop himself, he lifted it from the box and shook it out.
And there, in this metal container surrounded by the few possessions Eliot held dear, he caught again the faint scents of his childhood … the hint of autumn fires and earthy heat, and the sudden, elusive whiff of the lavender his mother loved so much and sprigs of which Eliot had hidden in the folds of the blanket to keep it fresh and free of bugs. He clutched the blanket to his chest and wept dry tears because of his blackened, wretched heart and because his Grandfather would have been ashamed of him.
Within the hour, he had made the decision to leave Moreau's employ.
"Leave, Eliot?" Moreau said, his brows furrowed with feigned puzzlement. "You can't leave." His words were mild and gently said, but the intent was deadly.
Eliot gazed steadily into Moreau's dark eyes and stood with his hands clasped in front of him and his feet apart, his stocky body ready for whatever came next.
"I can do whatever I want," he replied, his voice soft with the Oklahoma lilt Moreau hadn't heard for a long while. "An' there's nothin' you can do about it," he continued, his gaze settling on the four men ranged behind Moreau. One of them was Chapman, both eyes blackened and his jaw swollen.
Moreau studied him, curious now as to what had changed, and then he understood, a sly smile on his handsome face.
"Well now … I never thought your conscience would finally get the better of you, my friend. Not now. Not after all this time doing what you do."
"Things change, Damien. You'll soon find someone else to take my place … maybe Chapman there," he said, and the unspoken derision in his words made Chapman snarl painfully.
But Moreau would have none of it, and finally stepping close to Eliot he spoke quietly so only the American could hear his words.
"No-one leaves me, Eliot. No-one. Do you understand? You try and leave and you die, because I own you." He turned away, and was about to gesture to his men to take Eliot and make him pay for his insolence when an arm snaked around his neck and the sharp tip of a knife was inserted into his right nostril.
"Move and I slice your nose all the goddamn way to your eyebrows, Damien. You won't die but your good looks won't be so pretty any more," Eliot hissed in his ear, and Moreau froze. "I'm going to leave now, an' you make sure these assholes don't follow me, because, so help me, I'll kill every one of 'em and then I'll dice you into dog food. Let me go, an' I'll leave you alone, Damien. I won't come after you and take your head."
Moreau, despite his fear for his looks, thought about it, and then – very carefully – nodded. Chapman and his men tensed, but Moreau held up a hand which shook almost imperceptibly, and they remained still but ready to intervene if their boss wished it.
Eliot walked both of them backwards to the shadowed door, and within seconds he had melted into the darkness and was gone, but not before nicking the rim of Moreau's nostril just to remind him that Eliot Spencer could end him as though he was a cockroach crawling across the floor.
Moreau swore painfully as blood streamed down his face and dripped off his chin, ruining his best Armani suit.
Chapman, gazing into the shadows where Eliot had disappeared, pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to his boss, who glared at the South African with deadly malice.
"Find him," he swore softly, "and kill him. And then bring me his head to prove it." He smiled grimly, teeth red with his own blood. "There will be a nice, generous bonus for the man who kills him. Chapman? You're in charge. Go wherever you need to. Nobody leaves me!" he added under his breath, and grimaced as he pressed hard on his nose to stop the bleeding.
Chapman pursed his lips and then turned to his men.
"Go," he ordered, "Spencer won't have got too far."
But as Moreau's men searched, it was soon very obvious that Eliot Spencer had gone.
For a hunted man, Eliot didn't worry too much about it.
The first time he was found by Moreau's men he was in the Philippines, relaxing in a shack on a small, private beach. He was rediscovering his joy in cooking, something he had loved to do as a child with his mother guiding him, and had spent the morning at a local market, buying items he had no idea how to cook while also trying the local street food. Joy was new to Eliot Spencer, and at first he wasn't too sure how to deal with it, but the warmth and the quiet and the simple sense of being settled in him tentatively and tried to take root.
The three men were waiting for him on his return from the market. He dealt with them promptly and easily, although this time he left his targets alive, if somewhat damaged. He took their guns from them, emptied the clips and threw the weapons into the sea. He realised he didn't like guns. His last act was to break every bone in their hands.
Unhurriedly packing up his stuff, Eliot looked at his food purchases with a little regret. He hated wasting good food, and he could hear his father's voice in his head telling him it was an insult to his Momma's fine cooking to leave food uneaten. He lifted a couple of ripe mangoes and slipping one into his backpack, he wandered along the beach to the road, enjoying the rich, succulent flavour of the other as he chased the sticky juice dribbling over his fingers.
Twice more in the following months did Moreau's men track him down.
He was in Skagway, Alaska, staying in a comfortable tourist lodge and whiling away his time fishing for King salmon. He rose early in the morning and ate the delicious and plentiful breakfast prepared by the owner, and then spent his days on the banks of the Kenai, allowing his body and mind to slowly adjust to what, for Eliot, was beginning to approach normalcy.
Until one night, in a rough local bar which served a succulent medium-rare rib-eye steak, a fight started. Eliot was happy not to join in, until two men dressed like truckers braced him and a knife glittered in the shadows. The men ended up unconscious and broken-limbed amid the uproar, but Eliot calmly returned to his meal as the rest of the fight flowed around him, unnoticed and tucking into the best fried potatoes he had ever eaten.
He spent the next couple of months in Singapore.
Eliot, bored a little and needing the exercise but not the money, took a menial job manhandling boxes of fish at Jurong, the old fishing port on the fringes of Singapore's south-west. Here no-one asked questions and the merchants were glad of another pair of willing hands cheaply bought, so Eliot sweated and swore and worked long hours into the night. He ate whatever the other men ate and took his turn at cooking, and went home in the early hours of the morning to a single room he rented above a small family restaurant. He paid his rent on time, smiled and waved at the family's two young children and slept dreamlessly for the first time in years.
But this time, when Moreau's men came, there were consequences. Instead of laughing children shouting a greeting to him as they got ready for school, he found silence, blood and death. The father was in his kitchen, slumped over his oven, the stench of singed flesh rank in the air. The young mother was with her two children in the living room. Their throats had been cut.
When Moreau's men came from the shadows, Eliot fought with a rage and desperation he had never felt before, and this time his enemies paid the price. When he packed his belongings and left forty minutes later, he called at the local post office and sent a large well-sealed package to Damien Moreau. He knew that when Moreau opened the package to discover the rotting heads of his men, he would understand that Eliot Spencer avenged those he lost.
Standing in the luxurious surroundings of Changi airport, Eliot looked at what flights were leaving that day. He had enough money to last a lifetime, half-a-dozen passports hidden in his backpack, and he had plenty of destinations to choose from. But one in particular caught his eye.
Darwin. Darwin, Australia. Australia was a vast country, much of it sparsely populated. If he went to Australia, he could probably find somewhere very remote where he could think and plan and not endanger people simply by being around them. The image of the butchered family suddenly slid into his mind's eye and he shuddered. He could never put anyone in the way of Damien Moreau again. His mind made up, he headed to the flight desk to purchase a ticket.
But Darwin was almost the end of him, and it came about through sheer bad luck. Four of Moreau's men, heading to Bali, recognised him at Darwin airport and trapped him that evening in an alley behind the motel in which he had found himself.
The man who recognised him, an Austrian called Bergman, studied Eliot as he settled into a fighting stance and prepared to battle to the death. Eliot looked thinner, he thought … hard and scrawny, like a feral dog which had had to fight for every scrap of food. His hair was longer and scruffier, and he was dressed in worn jeans and heavy boots, a plaid shirt and Henley hanging loosely from his lean frame.
Eliot bared his teeth and smiled wolfishly.
"Come get me, you bastards!" he growled.
No more than five minutes later Eliot staggered from the alley, leaving four unconscious, battered men behind him. But his victory had come at a price as he did his best to control the bleeding from the nine-inch gash along his ribs. Moreau was winning.
It was Soapy and Jo Munro of Wapanjara Cattle Station in the Northern Territory of Australia who began Eliot's redemption**. They picked him up, wounded and sick and so, so weary of life, from the side of their lonely dirt road, took him home and healed him.
They fought for him just as fiercely as he battled Mason Coetzee and his men, Moreau's final effort to end Eliot Spencer. Soapy and Jo brought him into the light and made him face his past and look to his future. It was their love that allowed him to stand straight and proud, free and well and learning once more how to feel. He found a friend and a brother in Charlie Jakkamarra, the station manager, and was accepted by his family and the Warumungu tribe who made him. He found Effie McPhee, the Munros' little, ferocious cook who loved him like a son, and he found his unlikeliest ally in a huge feral camel he named Gertie, after his Momma's aunt who was all sass and heart.
On the day he left, he promised to return to Wapanjara, the only home he had, and to the people he loved. He had things to do and places to go, his own man at last.
Over the next few years, Eliot returned to Wapanjara time and time again. Even though he travelled the world, retrieving objects and people from unlikely and often very dangerous sources, it was Wapanjara and its people who anchored him and made him feel more human.
Without realising it, he began to make Soapy and Jo's spare room his own. Clothes started to appear in the chest of drawers beside the bed, and a spare pair of boots sat beside the coat stand on which hung Eliot's waterproof coat and the stockman's hat he bought on his second trip home. His old straw Stetson hung beside it, as did his stock whip.
On his third trip home, he visited his storage unit and brought back his old Fender T-bucket guitar, and he placed it on a guitar stand under the smaller window of what Jo now called 'Eliot's room'. From then onwards, the stockmen's barbecues always had music and songs to accompany the good food when 'The Yank' was home.
The room became homely and warm, always neat but very much Eliot's, and he slept quietly and usually well, only disturbed occasionally by bad dreams or with soft whispers of comfort from Jo if he came home sick or hurt after a retrieval had gone 'squirly', as he called it. Eliot had only failed in retrieving something once, and he had arrived home at Wapanjara on his old Ducati motorbike in the semi-darkness of a late summer evening. Soapy had caught him as he fell off the bike, and Charlie had helped the old pastoralist carry the battered American to his room. He muttered something about a monkey, and that was all they ever got out of him. But he healed and slept and stayed for a while, and that was good enough for his family.
But he was happy after a fashion, although something was still missing from his life. He just couldn't quite figure out what it was. He was still a loner, a dangerous man of shadows who was not to be crossed.
There was a time when he didn't return to Wapanjara for over a year, although he called when he could so that his people didn't worry about him. But to Jo's surprise one morning, she received a telephone call from the local post office at Tennant Creek. There was a package awaiting the Munros, she was told, next time they visited the town for supplies. The caller wanted to know if they had someone called 'Nat Bonney' staying with them, for the package was for him.
That made Jo laugh, and she told the caller yes, 'Nat Bonney' stayed with them, and she would pick the package up for him when she and Soapy were next in Tennant Creek.
The parcel, wrapped in brown paper and sealed with old baler-twine and duct tape, sat on Eliot's bed for nearly three weeks. The name and address was written on a label in Eliot's chicken-scratch hand, and Wapanjara settled down to wait for him to return. It was as though time held its breath. The magpies fluted in the almond stand and the brolgas danced their timeless dance in the South paddock billabong, and Effie fretted and grumped and baked endlessly. Soapy's eyes raised often to the stringybarks at the top of the hill, waiting for the familiar figure astride the old Ducati to appear, making its way down the incline and past the great, ancient gum tree which guarded the gate into the homestead. Gertie, sensing that something was about to happen, gurgled and squeaked and tried to push her head through Eliot's bedroom window to see if he was there.
Only Jo was content, sitting on the veranda and drinking endless cups of tea as she did her crosswords. She waited and pondered and ate Effie's delicious lamingtons, and smiled when late one afternoon, as the galahs and lorikeets flocked in to slake their thirst and the coolness began to drift in on the balmy western breeze, she heard the sound of a motorbike engine.
Eliot was home. Their boy was home, and by the look of him he was well and unharmed. When he brought the Ducati to a halt in front of the veranda and put it up on its stand, Jo and Soapy clattered down the veranda steps, and before he could take off his helmet they embraced him and held him so tight he could hardly breathe.
As they sat at the veranda table that night, as the fireflies drifted in the dark and the mopoke muttered in the trees, Jo studied him. His eyes were clearer than she had ever seen, and he smiled and laughed easily, the crinkle at the corner of his eyes showing her how settled and at ease he was.
"So," she said finally as Eliot finished the pecan pie Effie had made for him to his Momma's recipe, "what have you been up to, son?" she asked. "Something's changed."
Eliot cocked an eyebrow at Jo. She knew him better than anyone, so it stood to reason that she knew something was different about him. He dabbed crumbs from his lips with a napkin and took a sip of his beer. Soapy and Effie watched silently, letting him take his time, but Jo was impatient.
"I've been doin' some different kinds of jobs," he said finally.
"What kinds of -" he started, but Eliot, amused, held up a hand to reassure the pastoralist.
"Not the kind you think," Eliot replied, and he studied these people who cared so much about him. "I, uh … I've been workin' with some people … like … like a team. Well, not quite a team, not just yet, but … maybe …" his voice trailed off, and he seemed to need time to sort out the implications in his head.
"A team?" Effie rumbled, "what sort of bloody team?"
Eliot smiled softly, as though he didn't quite believe he was doing such a thing.
"There's four of 'em," he continued, "four friggin' lunatics, but … but we do stuff … we … we help people," he added in a rush. "People who ain't got no place else to go. People who need people like us to make it right … get the bad guys an' maybe help 'em get back on their feet. And I gotta say … it feels … weird. It … it feels right."
Jo and Soapy looked at each other. Well, this was new.
"So … who are these people? This team?" Jo asked, curious beyond belief and hoping against hope that Eliot had found his balance.
So, Eliot took a deep breath and told them about Nate Ford, ex-insurance agent, grieving father and prone to drunkenness, and he told them about the man's intellect, the mastermind who could think on his feet and find ways to help the desperate people who contacted them. He told them about Sophie Devereaux, the worst actress he had ever seen and the most gifted grifter he had ever met. There was a young man too, a genius when it came to computer wizardry. He drove Eliot mad, apparently, and was something called a 'nerd', but Eliot tolerated him – just – because the boy, whose name was Alec Hardison, watched their backs and could hack into anything. The girl though … she confused Eliot. He didn't know what to make of her, but she was the best thief he had ever dealt with. As Eliot described her, Jo wondered if this Parker was on the autistic spectrum, but that didn't matter. Eliot grumbled about her poor eating habits and her lack of understanding how to deal with people, but boy could she break into anything! She also had a thing about bunnies.
It all sounded very unstable and utterly illegal, but she saw the light in Eliot's eyes and the way he spoke about the people they helped … he had changed, and for the better.
Eliot finally stood and yawned. He was exhausted, having flown all the way from the States, but he glanced at Jo. She smiled back, amused.
"Your package is on your bed, boy. Go open it while Effie and I make some hot chocolate."
"Thanks, Jo," he said, and leaning over, he kissed her on the top of her head. Jo patted his cheek, and then Eliot wandered into the house, along the corridor into his room.
The package sat on the old comforter on Eliot's bed. The brown paper gleamed dully in the light of his bedside lamp, and Eliot reached into his pocket to bring out his Swiss Army knife. Sitting on the bed and lifting the package onto his lap, he neatly cut the duct tape and then carefully untied the old length of baler-twine, and lifted out his great-grandmother's Cherokee blanket.
He ran callused fingers over the greens and reds, and the warmth of the century-old wool equalled the warmth in his heart. He looked up as Jo knocked on his door and entered, a large mug of hot chocolate redolent with vanilla in her hand. She studied the man sitting on the bed with an old but very beautiful blanket on his lap, and not saying anything, she left the mug on his nightstand. She tucked a stray lock of hair back from his forehead.
"Sleep tight, laddie," she murmured. "It's good to have you back."
As the door closed behind her, Eliot sighed. There was a huge old armchair beside the big window in his room, so he shook out the blanket, draped it over his shoulders and opened his window. Settling into the chair, he reached over the sill and there was Gertie, her velvet nose mumbling at his fingers and her soft squeaks welcoming him back to Wapanjara.
He lifted the mug of hot chocolate and took a sip, the heat and sweetness warming his chest. He gazed through the window at the blue-black night, the sky full of the drift of countless stars, and his free hand reached for the black star on the corner of the blanket.
He had walked his own Trail of Tears, he knew. Most of the evil of his life had been his own doing and the star would ever remind him of that, and he knew he would never be free of it. But now … now he could at least try to make it right. He could do his best to balance the red in the ledger of his life, and this new 'team' he had become a part of might just help him do that. Now he could feed the good wolf in his chest, and not hear the howl of the bad wolf that had ruled his life for so long.
He sighed and took another sip of his drink. Tightening the old blanket around him, he gazed at the stars and caught the scent of jasmine and roses from Jo's little garden.
"Well, Momma," he whispered, and his heart swelled with love. "I'm home."
* SOCOM – Special Operations Command
** Told in Gertie - Part One