The single, bare, low-wattage bulb flickered dimly in its socket, the weak light glinting faintly off of the metal bars of the cells. The only sounds in the middle of the night were the buzz of electricity arcing inside the walls behind the ancient fuse box, the gentle snores of the inmates, and the footsteps of the night guard as he made his rounds. Then, there was the sound of running water. It seemed to be coming from the cell at the very end. As he drew closer, he saw a small pool of water running under the bars of the cell. That could mean a broken pipe, a clogged sink or toilet, or any number of things. He couldn't leave it, or the whole place would be flooded by morning.
Turning on his pen light, he shone it around the cell, but it was too dark to see where the water was coming from. Gentle snores told him the occupants of the cell were asleep. He retrieved his keys from his pocket and unlocked the door, shining his light at the sink as he went. Just as he stepped up to the sink, he realized it was not the source of the leak, as it, and everything around it, was dry. As he started to turn back around, something large and heavy hit him over the head, and he crumbled to the floor, unconscious.
The occupant of the cell quickly stripped him, exchanged clothes with him, and dragged him to the cot, holding a pillow over the man's face until he was sure he had stopped breathing. Moving soundlessly, he unlocked the door, slipped through, and locked it again behind him. The guard wouldn't be found until morning, and with any luck, he'd be long gone by then.
He put his visor down, so that if he ran into anyone, they would simply think he was the night guard on patrol. When he gained the freedom of the deserted street, he withdrew a mobile telephone from his pocket, touched a button, and watched in mild amusement while a car pulled around the corner and stopped right in front of him. It was painted to look like a taxi, so that it would draw no undue attention. He climbed in and the car sped off into the night.
Eliot was sitting in the bar, feeling worse by the minute. He had patched himself up, with the help of Parker, and was trying to be social. He had felt better earlier, but was now deciding that that was simply the rush of adrenaline after a successful job. Now, his head was pounding, and one eye was almost swollen shut, not to mention that he could barely move his bad shoulder. He suspected, from the kind of headache that he had, and the intermittent waves of nausea washing over him, that he had a concussion.
He was also supposed to have a date. A friend of his was in town for a short time, passing through on her way back to DC, and he had asked her to dinner to catch up. He had considered cancelling, but she was almost definitely already on her way. Besides, Eliot figured spending some time with her might take his mind off of his injuries.
Just as he had that thought, Parker and Hardison thudded into the booth—Parker next to him—and he gritted his teeth as a wave of pain shot through him. The two newcomers had been chattering jovially, and he was listening quietly, when Hardison looked at him. Really looked at him. The bandaged hand. The hood pulled up over his head. The busted lip and overall rough look of him.
"Hey man, you really should've let us get you to a doctor," Hardison said.
Eliot started to shake his head, and stopped when it hurt. "I hired a nurse."
"That ah boy," Parker said, punching him on the shoulder. Eliot flinched. "A little chicken noodle soup." She punched him again. "A little grandmotherly love"
"Stop," Eliot said to Parker firmly. Grandmotherly love? If she only knew.
At that moment, his friend, a tall, sexy blonde, walked into the bar and, spotting him, made her way up to their table. He rose to meet her. Turning back to Hardison, he said, "This is Nurse Gail."
Hardison's mouth fell open slightly, and Eliot felt the eyes of both Parker and Hardison on them as he escorted his friend out, while she supported him. Just as they reached the door, Eliot heard Hardison say, "I don't think she's registered." Eliot made a mental note to have a talk with the younger man later, about what you don't say about his friends when there's a chance they could overhear.
When they gained the relative privacy of the street, Gail stopped and looked at him at arm's length. "I didn't know this was more than a social call, Eliot. What happened?"
"Just had to deal with some Russians for a case I was working on. I'll live."
"Are you sure?"
Eliot smiled at that. "Well, under your care, I'm pretty sure I'll pull through."
"If we do things my way, I'm pretty sure you will, too."
TWO DAYS LATER…
Nate paced back and forth in front of the screens in the meeting area of his apartment, waiting for the others to arrive. One by one, they did so, until all of them were in attendance except for Eliot. He couldn't possibly still be with his date from the other night, could he? Nate immediately dismissed the idea as foolish. Touching his earbud, he said, "Eliot? Where are you?"
No answer. Not even static.
Seeing the look on the Mastermind's face, Hardison immediately pulled up the tracking feature he had built into the earbuds and searched for Eliot's earbud.
That was odd. If the earbud was turned off, it was still GPS trackable. If it was damaged, it would show up offline. But it shouldn't just not show up at all. It was as though the man had dropped off the face of the earth. An uneasy feeling swept over Hardison as he considered the implications of that.
"Hardison," Nate said, pulling him out of his thoughts and back to reality. "I need all the information you can find for me on the woman Eliot left the bar with two nights ago. Does anyone even know her name?"
"Eliot introduced her as Nurse Gail," Parker said. At Nate's tilted head and confused look, she spoke again. "Hardison told him he should've let us get him to a hospital, and he said he had hired a nurse. I was expecting an older woman. When she walked in, Eliot introduced her as Nurse Gail."
"He was joking, Parker. She wasn't really a nurse."
"I don't know. They walked out together like they were old friends, and she was looking him over on the sidewalk outside."
Leave it to Parker to be the perceptive one of the bunch.
"Probably agreeing on pricing and services," Hardison said.
"Name's worth checking into, though," Nate replied.
Hardison was seated at the dining table in Nate's apartment, still searching any available source he could find for any sign of Eliot or the woman he left the bar with. He was so engrossed in what he was doing that he jumped when Nate laid a hand on his shoulder.
"No." Hardison shook his head. "Nothing. There are dozens or maybe hundreds of military nurses with some variation of Gail in their first or middle name, but none whose pictures match the woman who walked into the bar and out with Eliot. Of course, Eliot isn't exactly forthcoming about his friends, and she may not even be a nurse."
"As for Eliot, none of the contact numbers I have for him work, he isn't answering his phone and he's turned off the GPS tracking. He's in the wind, man"
Sophie and Nate exchanged glances and the uneasiness flashed like lightning between them.
"Let's start at Eliot's house," Nate said.
"Okay. I assume you know where it is?" Hardison asked.
"Eliot wasn't exactly forthcoming about that, either."
"You mean, we don't have an address at all, not even in the fake employment paperwork?" asked Sophie.
"Well, he's given us several addresses. I don't know if any of them are legitimate." Hardison answered, thinking hard.
"What do we have to lose?"
When all was said and done, they came up with four possible addresses. The team piled into Lucille, prepared to drive to each one, until they found their friend. The first was an old wooden storage building/barn type structure, weathered with age, with windows covered with dirt and grime. Nate used an old towel to rub a peephole through the dust and grime. All he saw was a row of what appeared to be classic cars, covered with cloth and a thin layer of dust, and taking up every square inch of space inside the building. There was no way this could be the right place.
The second address was a vacant lot. There were two narrow trails worn into the grass, evenly spaced, and a large square of space where the tall grass was bent over. Nate tilted his head sideways and looked at it, as though trying to figure out where this piece fit into the rest of the puzzle. There was absolutely nowhere to store anything, nor was there any sort of shelter.
The third address was not even GPS trackable, and the team was forced to use a compass to find the location ("old school," as Hardison would call it), of a cave that was worn in the side of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, and at the top of a surprisingly steep mountain trail. Breathing heavily as they walked up on it, Nate shone a flashlight inside, wondering as he did so, what these places had to do with their friend, if indeed, they weren't simply random coordinates he had used as addresses to serve his purpose at the time. Nate's gut told him that Eliot wouldn't use random coordinates, (at least, not like this) and in his experience, Eliot had a purpose for everything he did. The object now was to figure out what the purpose was for this, and when he did that, Nate couldn't help but feel he would understand some things about his friend that he didn't understand currently, though he was forced to wonder if his ignorance truly was bliss, under the circumstances.
"Nate, you should have let me look these places up on satellite imagery," Hardison said, panting slightly as he brought up the rear.
"That wouldn't have told us which one he was using, if he is using any of them," Parker said quietly. She took a water bottle out of her pocket, unscrewed the lid, and took a long drink.
"Well, he keeps his secrets well, doesn't he?" Sophie mused.
The fourth and final address was an apartment building on the edge of the old part of the city. The apartments were above a popular tack shop that sat on the ground floor. The building was well kept and clean, though the architectural style was a clear sign of the building's age. Nate wasn't sure what to do. He was pretty sure that Eliot, if he were home, wouldn't appreciate them barging in uninvited, and he was even more sure that the man wouldn't like the fact that they tracked him down. They didn't know for sure which apartment was Eliot's and the last thing they needed was to be arrested or shot for breaking and entering into the wrong apartment. He walked into the tack shop, thinking hard.
"Can I help you?" asked a cheerful voice. Nate looked up to see an attractive red head about Eliot's age, dressed in a denim mini skirt, a checkered shirt, and cowboy boots studying him from beside the rack of flannel shirts she had paused in straightening.
Nate just stared at her for a moment, then he recovered himself and found his voice. "Do you live here?"
"In the shop?" She asked, amused.
"Well, no, in one of the apartments above the shop," he answered.
"Yes. Are you looking for Doctor Abernathy?"
"Yes, we are, but how did you know that?"
"He said a small group of people might come in looking for him. Asked me to give you this."
She handed him an envelope and turned back to the jeans she was now folding or re-folding and placing on shelves.
"Which apartment does Doctor Abernathy live in?"
"He said to tell you that everything you need to know is in that envelope."
Knowing they had all of the information they would get from the shop-keeper, Nate headed back to Lucille, with the rest of the team. When the doors closed, they all spoke at once. Nate let out a shrill whistle and they all fell silent.
"Here," he said, handing the envelope to Parker. "It has your name on it."
Parker took the envelope from the mastermind, slipped her finger under the flap on the top, and opened it. She turned the paper over in her hands, for a moment, not really seeing it, but trying to figure out why Eliot would have addressed the letter to her. Very slowly, she unfolded the letter, and began to read silently.