In the kerfuffle with the rest of the team pouring into the room and then trying to make contact with Flores, Parker hadn't given another thought to the book in her lap. Now, that it was over, she found herself absently opening and closing it, flipping pages in it before setting it down again. Once she realized, she immediately stopped and held the book out to Nate. He turned his head sideways and looked at her.
"You wanted me to find the book Eliot referenced in his letter. Here it is."
He reached out to take it, and she snatched it back at the last moment, opened it and looked at it. Nate couldn't read the look on her face.
"Parker?", he questioned.
She didn't appear to hear him. Unzipping an inner pocket in her jacket, she withdrew an envelope and smoothed it out on Eliot's desk. Looking over her shoulder, Nate saw that it was the envelope Eliot's letter to her and to the team had been in.
A moment later, she removed the letter, but instead of unfolding it, as he had expected she might, she tucked it back into the pocket it came out of and handed the envelope and the book to Nate.
"Eliot was injured when he left us this note"
"I know that when a person injures their hands, it can affect their ability to write. What I need to know is if you think Eliot's injuries would affect his handwriting this much, or in this way."
Nate compared the writing in the book to the writing on the envelope. She was right. It was similar, but not the same. Interesting. Without a word, he passed the two items over to Sophie.
"Another message?", she asked, after a moment.
"I don't know. One thing is certain, we need to go back to Eliot's apartment and talk to the lady who gave us this letter."
"Agreed, but what about Moreau?"
"I've been thinking about that. We don't have any way of knowing if Eliot's disappearance and Moreau's escape are related. We definitely need to go to ground, but we also need to find Nurse Gail, and Eliot, and we need to find out Moreau's whereabouts, which we won't be able to do without electronics. Once we go to ground, we are also effectively blind. Maybe it's better to try to stay a step ahead, or three."
"Are you kidding?"
"Do we have a choice?"
"No, I suppose not. So are we replacing Eliot before we go in?"
Nate motioned for everyone to lean in, and he held a whispered conversation with them for the next twenty minutes.
Parker didn't make a sound as she climbed the stairs in Eliot's apartment building. She didn't know which apartment was his, but worst case scenario, she would knock on a door and ask. She had looked for a directory downstairs, but if there was one, it wasn't where she could see it. She knew it was somewhere on the fourth floor, having overheard that much, one time, accidentally. Opening the door from the stairwell onto the fourth floor, she stopped to regroup, and see if there were any clues that might tell her where he lived. She wasn't sure what she expected to find. Staying as close to the shadows at the side of the wall as possible, she slipped down the hallway. She stopped for a moment at one door, listening hard, and then moved on to another. She had about decided to knock on the next door she came to, when she saw it. A welcome mat with a wolf on it. She nudged it with her foot, then leaned down and lifted it up, but as she expected, there was no key under it. No matter. It was the work of a moment to pick the lock.
Nate and Sophie were keeping the employees of the shop on the ground floor busy, and Hardison was in the van, ready to clear any security measures, or employ any of his other unique talents to support the mission. Just inside the doorway from the outside, stood a man in old, worn jeans and a clean white t-shirt, with a chambray button up over it, unbuttoned. Earphone cords ran down to disappear in the pocket of his jeans, and a hat with company logo on it covered his hair. He danced to music that was apparently coming through his earphones, as he pushed a wide broom around.
Both Nate and Sophie noticed him, and filed the information away for later. Nate thought there was something familiar about the man, though he was sure they had never met.
He turned his attention back to the matter at hand, when he heard the clerk say, "Hey, I remember you. You came in here looking for Doctor Abernathy. Where are your friends?"
Sophie said, "It's just us, today, I'm afraid. A friend of mine is throwing a party with a western theme, and last time I was here, I saw the most gorgeous leather boots I've ever seen, and the cutest little summer sweater. I want to try them on, and find something for him to wear, also."
With those words, she moved over toward the boots, forcing the salesperson to follow her.
Parker opened the door to Eliot's apartment and was shocked to see that it looked like no one had lived there in six months. Blinds were closed, furniture was all covered with furniture cloths, the air was stale and it was at least 80 degrees in there. There was nothing personal ANYWHERE. A small desk sat in one corner of the room, next to a window, and Parker moved instinctively to it, knowing that the drawers might contain the only personal items in the apartment.
Parker froze as she heard something moving in the next room. Walking on the balls of her feet, to make even less noise than she normally made, she edged toward the other room. Just as she reached the door, it burst open, hitting her in the face, while at the same time, something hit her hard from behind, but it was a glancing blow, as she was already falling, and she crumbled to the ground. At the edge of consciousness, she thought she heard a voice say, "Let's go—Donnally made it clear that we were not to be caught in Spencer's rooms," and then she saw two figures walk out of the door of Eliot's apartment.
Then the room started to swim, and as the darkness rose up to meet her, Hardison's face flitted across her mind's eye, and she had the fleeting thought that she should call for help.
"Help," she said, and inside her mind she was yelling, but in reality, she was surprised to find that her voice was little more than a whisper. After that, she gave in to the darkness and the disorientation.
Some time later, Parker woke up, disoriented for a moment because she did not recognize her surroundings. She struggled to sit up and heard a familiar voice. "Easy Parker."
Nate moved over and sat down in a chair that had been placed next to where Parker was lying on his sofa.
"How are you feeling?"
"What happened? We couldn't hear much over the coms—just a crash, voices in the background, and when you whispered help."
"There were two people in Eliot's apartment when I got there. I heard them in the bedroom when I was in the main living area. They opened the door just as I was passing by it, and someone hit me from behind, too." She rubbed at the back of her head, wincing when it hurt.
"Did they say anything that might tell us what they were doing there?"
"Not unless you know anyone named Donnally."
Nate shook his head. The name wasn't familiar.
"One of Moreau's men?" Sophie surmised.
"I don't think so," Parker said. "They said Donnally had made it clear that they weren't to be caught in Spencer's rooms."
"Which means it was someone who knew that Doctor Abernathy was an alias," Sophie said.
"And if it wasn't Moreau, then we have another party at play as well."
Suddenly, the final pieces of some giant cosmic puzzle clicked into place in Parker's mind and she knew she would have to tread carefully to both guide the team and remain true to what Eliot had asked of her.
"Nate, do you remember the janitor guy in the hallway outside of the store on the bottom floor of Eliot's building? Did anyone else get a funny feeling about him?"
"I did," Sophie said. "Then I let it go because he disappeared and nothing bad happened down there. Are you saying he was one of the men who attacked you?"
Parker hesitated, then shook her head. "I'll admit, I was only semi conscious when I saw them, so I can't say for sure, but I don't think so. Neither of them moved the same way."
They all fell silent and sat pondering what they knew. The only noise was the tapping of Hardison's fingers, busy at his keyboard, searching any records he could find for a Donnally, and also for any security footage from security cameras in the vicinity of the building. Facial recognition would help a lot, but they had to have pictures to use it.
Finally, Parker had her thoughts in order, and she broke the silence. "This is only a thought, and I could be completely off base, but…"
She broke off, and Nate turned his head sideways and looked at her expectantly.
She continued. "What if all of this is an elaborate set up." Nate looked at her sideways and started to protest, and she said, "Hear me out."
He fell silent, and she continued.
"What if the writing in that book we found was different from the letter because Eliot didn't actually write the letter? What if someone only wanted us to think that he wrote the letter?"
"Then that means…" Nate broke off, considering the implications.
"That means that nothing else is as it seems either," Sophie said.
"Wait, Eliot had to have written that letter, didn't he? I mean how would anyone else have known about the network of friends he was using as security for us?" Hardison added.
"Unless that's what they wanted us to think, and the network works for whomever is doing this," Nate said.
"The network is there, and as far as I can tell, neutral in all of this, which, incidentally, neither proves nor disproves my theory."
"How do you know that?" Nate asked, and Parker shot him a look that told him he probably didn't want to know the answer to that.
"Nate, there are things in that letter that Eliot specifically asked me not to share with the team. Until I know for sure that he didn't write the letter, I have to assume he did, and I will not betray the confidence he asked of me. Going down this path may take me to part of it."
Nate studied her for a long moment, but he knew better than to engage in a staring contest with Parker.
"What if someone else did write that letter, and by not telling us what it says, you put Eliot in more danger than he's already in?"
"What if he did write it, and decides not to speak to or trust me again because I told something he asked me not to tell? I don't think I can live with that." She turned away, struggling to get herself back under control. Sophie nudged Nate and he changed the subject.
"Let's discuss what we do know. Fact One: Eliot and his lady friend, Nurse Gail, left the bar together two nights ago. Fact Two: We traced him here and received a letter from Doctor Abernathy, which means that most of the people he interacts with here don't know his real name. Fact Three: We found his actual apartment and it didn't look like anyone had touched the place in the last six months. In my mind, that indicates that he knew he would be away for awhile, and left by choice," Hardison said.
"Or was preparing to leave by choice when he was taken," Sophie added.
"Fact Four: The network of protection exists and works, as far as we know, but we don't know whether Eliot set it up or someone wants us to believe that he did." Parker added.
"Fact Five: This is not getting us any closer to knowing what actually happened. It would help if we had some more clues."
"Why don't we keep digging and look for anything else Eliot might have left, including a sign to let us know whether it was he who wrote the letter or someone else, either at his request or against his will?" Parker said, and they knew that was what they would have to do.