LEVERAGE INTERNATIONAL HQ, PORTLAND, OREGON, USA – 10 days before Christmas
"SHE'S WHAT?" Eliot yelled as he stood in his office at Leverage HQ, his cell 'phone held to one ear.
Lizzie, busily packing her suitcase in the main office, was so startled by Eliot's bellow she dropped Cec on his head. Picking up the plushy kangaroo toy, she hugged him in apology and peered at Eliot through the open door of his office.
"How the hell did that happen?" the hitter continued angrily, running fingers through his hair and making it stand up in long tufts. His brows were drawn down in a fearsome scowl, and, Lizzie thought, he looked absolutely furious.
"Wassup, baby-girl?" Hardison asked Lizzie as he wandered out of his room, alerted by Eliot's verbal explosion.
Eliot's head snapped up as he heard Hardison's comment, and he stalked to his door and slammed it shut.
"I think Eliot's upset about something!" Lizzie hissed, trying to be quiet.
Hardison cocked an eyebrow and crossed his arms.
"Yeah, well … what's new?" he said, and was about to return to doing his own packing when Sophie emerged from behind the kitchen island, cup of green tea in hand.
"What on earth is he irate about now?" she sighed, taking a sip of her tea.
"No idea." He watched as Eliot, one hand on his hip as he ranted at whoever-it-was on the other end of the line, began to pace up and down in front of his desk. Now that was new. Eliot never paced. "Man, is he pissed," he added a little superfluously.
Eliot had dropped his voice so that they now only heard a word or two now and again … words like 'Dammit, Jo!' and 'how the hell?' and 'she ain't fit enough!', all of which rang alarm bells in the other members of his team.
They continued to watch through the line of windows of Eliot's office, and by the time the telephone conversation had finished and Eliot sat on the edge of his desk doing his best to calm down, Nate and Parker had joined Sophie, Hardison and Lizzie in the main office.
Eliot wiped a hand down his face, composed himself to the best of his ability, and sighed.
"Shit!" he rasped. Oh well. He would have to face them, and he knew Hardison for one would make his life hell. This was not going to be pretty.
He took a deep breath, opened the door and headed out of his office to deal with the fall-out from his telephone call.
The wide, toothy grin on Hardison's face made Eliot want to shatter every one of his perfect white teeth and jam them down his wise-ass neck, followed by breaking every single damn bone in Hardison's friggin' body.
"You … you're joshin' us, right?" Hardison said with a sense of awe in his voice. "It's a joke, Eliot. Seriously. Jo's just messin' with you!"
Eliot, standing in front of his team and clenching and unclenching his fists, curled his lip.
"Dammit, Hardison!" he rasped, and Lizzie's eyes widened a little at the helpless ire in her guardian and best friend. "No … no, Jo ain't messin' with me."
Nate raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.
"Well … now there's a surprise!" he said with a touch of humour in his voice. He turned and looked at Sophie, who sat beside him on the couch, her cup of tea now forgotten. "Isn't it a surprise, Sophie?"
Sophie, looking a little bemused, nodded slowly.
"Yes … yes it is. It's … not what I expected."
Parker was sitting cross-legged on one of the chairs, obviously somewhat puzzled. She opened her mouth, on the point of asking a question, but Lizzie, who had taken Eliot's rather hesitant and only-partly-explained news with a little confusion, suddenly realised the implications.
"You mean … you mean Gertie's going to have a baby?"
"Yeah … that's about it," he grumbled unhappily.
Hardison's grin impossibly grew even wider.
"Oh, man!" he crowed, delighted. "Eliot's gonna be a grandpappy!"
Eliot's fists began to lift, knuckles white with tension.
"I swear to God, Hardison, I'm gonna –"
"But how?" Parker asked, her face screwed up in confusion. "Gertie's the only camel at Wapanjara! I mean … there're no boy camels, and Charlie told me there hadn't been any other camels living in the area for decades!"
Lizzie suddenly blinked, clicked into gear, shrieked with delight and flung her seven-year-old frame at Eliot, who let out an 'oof!' as she hit his midsection and wrapped her arms around his waist. He had to relax his fists to catch hold of her and he could feel more than hear the babble of questions being yelled at his stomach. He gently pried Lizzie off, but she didn't stop.
" – and when is she going to have the baby? Will we be home when she has it? Will I be able to watch? Can I help? Oh, oh, and do camels have babies the same way as horses? Eliot, can I –"
Eliot looked at his friends and was faced with a row of grinning faces, all enjoying the hell out of watching a hitter who was far, far outside his comfort zone and being questioned breathlessly by the little girl he loved and for whom he would give his life.
He finally let out a groaned sigh. Dammit.
"If you're quiet, 'Lizbeth Grace, I'll tell you what Jo told me, okay?"
Lizzie's eyes became even rounder as Eliot settled on a kitchen stool and she flopped down at his feet, head propped on her hands, eager to hear what Eliot had to say.
"She, uh …" he began, not really knowing where to start, "well, camels carry their calves about fifteen months, so …"
"Good Lord!" Sophie was quickly doing the maths, "you mean she was pregnant when we had all of that hoo-hah with Hadan*?"
Eliot rolled a shoulder, discomfited.
"Seems about right. Well … Soapy thought she was lookin' a little fat and put it down to good food and not enough exercise, but when he looked … um … underneath … " Eliot made a vague gesture that looked as though he was trying to cup a football, "she, ah … she's bagged up."
Lizzie twisted around and nodded knowingly.
"That means her udder's all big and her titties are swollen," she said sagely.
"Titties?" Sophie asked, faintly horrified.
Lizzie gave out a noisy sigh because her family obviously knew nothing about the reproductive processes of animals. "Yes, Mama, that's where the baby's milk comes from. And her bum-hole gets all floppy and baggy so that the baby has room to get out when it's born."
"Bum-hole?" Sophie questioned the room in general, completely out of her depth.
Nate raised questioning eyebrows at Eliot, who glared back and hitched an expressive eyebrow of his own.
"Don't even think about it, Nate," he rumbled. "Nothin' to do with me."
Lizzie stared at her family in disbelief.
"What? Didn't you know that? Jacko told me all about it when the foals were born."
Nate knew then that Jacko Smith, boss stockman of Wapanjara Cattle Station, was a dead man.
Eliot, doing his best to ignore Lizzie's snort of disgust at her family's obvious lack of understanding of animal births, shifted uncomfortably before continuing.
"She's due any week now. Charlie thinks maybe Christmas."
"Christmas?" Lizzie whooped, jiggling on the spot. "D'you think she'll have the baby when we're home?"
Eliot nodded, still obviously dumbfounded by the news.
"But … but how?" Parker asked again, her face in an intense frown.
The hitter scratched his head thoughtfully.
"Over a year ago Charlie and the crew were in the north paddock on a muster an' took Gertie with 'em to carry supplies. Sometime during the night she wandered off, but she was back by mornin' an' Charlie didn't think anythin' of it at the time. It wasn't until Soapy checked her a couple of days ago an' found she was in the, ah … the family way that Jacko said he'd found what was left of an ol' wild bull camel by the fence in the north paddock, all chewed up by dingoes. The critter managed to snap a few wires and got through into the good grass. So … it stands to reason the bull was the daddy." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm the roiling in his guts. When he got back to Wapanjara he and Gertie were going to have a long, long talk.
"Well now …" Sophie put her tea cup on the side table and doing her best to get over her daughter's somewhat graphic description of diagnosing camel pregnancies, smiled a little too brightly at Eliot, "I think congratulations are in order!"
Parker squeaked with delight.
"A Christmas baby!" She flailed her arms for a second before continuing. "D'you think Santa will know?"
A groan of frustration rang through the room from everyone but Lizzie, who let out a 'meep!' of excitement, and she shuffled over to sit next to Parker, whose own elfin features were alight with wonder.
"Of course he will!" she said, "Santa knows everything!"
Parker's passion for Christmas was only outweighed by Lizzie's, and the pair of them usually planned the festivities with almost military precision. But this year, for the first time, they were all heading for Wapanjara, the lonely cattle station in Australia's remote Northern Territory, a place which they all now regarded as home.
Parker had been disappointed initially when she discovered Christmas in Australia was during the intense heat of midsummer, but her sadness at not having snow in which to frolic and which she could use to bombard a snarly Eliot with snowballs was averted when she discovered that they would be having a celebratory barbecue by the great billabong in the South Paddock.
And now, to add to the festivities, there would be a new baby for them all to spoil.
Nate grinned at Eliot, whose face had settled into woe-filled worry.
"C'mon man," he said as he settled back on the couch and stretched, "It'll be fine, you'll see! And then you'll have two camels instead of one!"
Eliot let out a soft grunt of annoyance and his brow furrowed.
"It ain't as easy as that, Nate!" he rasped and glared at the team, his Oklahoma accent becoming stronger by the second. "Gertie's never been a momma –"
"You can tell because her titties are like little buttons," Lizzie said by way of explanation, blithely unaware of Sophie's cringe of discomfort.
" – and," Eliot continued, trying hard to ignore Lizzie's explanation and mentally deciding he was going to visit some extreme Eliot Spencer retribution on Jacko, "she's older … it could kill her havin' the baby! Or … or she could get damaged inside, or the baby could come the wrong way or –"
"I'm an older mother," Sophie interjected, her brown eyes dangerously calm. "I think the phrase was 'elderly primigravida', if I remember correctly," she added acidly. "But it worked out just perfectly if you remember, Eliot!"
Eliot remembered alright. Sophie going into labour in Lucille during a thunderstorm and Eliot delivering a squalling Lizzie in the middle of a traffic jam, while the rest of the team had a collective panic attack. It had been the most terrifying moment of his life. Being tortured by an Iraqi warlord somewhere on the outskirts of Mosul had been nothing compared to that.
"Yeah, well, you had high blood pressure an' a high chance of eclampsia an' … an' …" he began to bluster as he contemplated a technically very-middle-aged camel having her first calf and all of the accompanying issues that went with it. "Gertie … she's not done this before an' … hell, she might not even deal with bein' a momma camel an' –"
Hardison let out a huffy sound, shaking his head.
"She's been lookin' out for your sorry ass for years, El, so a baby camel ain't gonna be any kind of problem!" he scoffed, and Eliot grumbled helplessly.
"Well, she … " the hitter continued unhappily, " … she's not showing too much, Jo says, an' she thinks the baby's gonna be small." His face was so uncharacteristically woebegone the entire team could see how stressed he was about the idea of his beloved Gertie being in any kind of danger. "It might not even be strong enough to stand, or … or it could have brain damage or … or … " Eliot finally ran out of steam as he contemplated absolutely everything he could think of that could possibly go wrong. For a man who wasn't frightened of anything or anyone and would protect his family with his life, Lizzie knew that children and animals were his Achilles heel, and Gertie had saved his life more than once. The little girl scrambled towards her best friend and she gave him one of her all-encompassing hugs, standing behind him and resting her head in the hollow of his neck.
"But we'll be there, Eliot," she whispered, "and we'll all help, and I know Gertie will be a really, really good Mama. Grandpa Soapy and Grandma Jo and Charlie will know what to do if something goes wrong, and Kip and me … we'll help too. I promise!"
She could feel the rigid muscles in the hitter's frame under the shirt layers, and she could sense the tiniest of tremors underlying the tension. Eliot leaned his head on his god-daughter's and sighed.
"I know," he murmured, the words only Lizzie's to hear, "I know, 'Lizbeth Grace. It's just … she's had a tough life an' I don't want any more hassle for her is all." He sighed. "She almost died savin' me once. She got bit by a snake … a big one. A Mulga. We though she wouldn't make it, but she did. She's a tough ol' girl." He felt Lizzie's hand pat his chest where his medicine pouch lay, and her care made him smile. His reply was growly but soft. "Dammit! Y'know … that big moron would love a calf. I guess we'll just have to see how it all pans out, huh."
Lizzie let out a little squeal of delight.
"See?" she prattled, "that means we'll have to get the babbie a headcollar and a grooming kit just like Sparky's" – Sparky was Lizzie's birthday present from Eliot, a grey colt out of one of the Munros' best stock mares – "and … and … we'll have to think for a name for it and can Kip and I take Gertie and the babbie for walks, Eliot? So it can learn its manners and be gentle and –"
"Babbie?" Hardison queried, eyebrow raised.
"Yah-huh," Lizzie nodded, all business now that Eliot's worries had been dealt with as far as she was concerned. "Gertie's going to be an awesome Mama! And the babbie can grow up with Sparky and they can be best friends!"
She finally ran out of things to say, so she gazed around at her family expectantly, her arms still tight around Eliot's shoulders.
Hardison shook his head for a moment or two and then quirked a grin.
"You, baby-girl, have been spendin' 'way too much time with Effie," he quipped, referring to the fierce little cook who kept everyone at Wapanjara fed and loved in equal measure. Effie adored Lizzie.
The little girl gave her guardian and protector a squeezy hug, and then let him go so that she could do a little excited dance on the spot.
"I can't WAIT!" she exclaimed, brown eyes sparkling with delight, and dashed off to finish her packing.
"That girl gets weirder every day," Hardison murmured and shook his head.
Sophie finished her tea and pursed her lips.
"I should be offended by that, Hardison, because she's my – our - daughter," she said, reaching out to grasp Nate's hand, "but I have to agree with you." She made a soft 'tsk'-ing sound. "I blame Eliot," she added with satisfaction.
"Me?" he demanded, his worry for Gertie momentarily side-tracked as he bristled, muscles tense and blue eyes sparking. "What the hell did I do?"
"Oh, man, it's obvious!" Hardison broke in, brown gaze all a-twinkle. "It's this … this Australian thing! Y'know what she said to me yesterday? She told me she wanted a baby kangaroo as a pet."
"Well, yeah!" Parker was in total agreement. "Duh!"
"That's your fault, Parker!" Eliot griped, "you just had to mention –"
"What with the whole 'helmet' issue as well," Nate commented, enjoying Eliot's scowl as he mentioned Lizzie's refusal to wear a riding helmet when she was at Wapanjara, preferring her Akubra hat.
"I'll keep her safe, you know that!" Eliot retorted, voice hitching up a couple of notes as it always did when he was on the wrong end of his team's teasing. "Dammit, Nate! You know I'll –"
Hardison grinned, face alight with humour.
"Man, Eliot … sometimes you're so frikkin' easy!"
Eliot stood up, fists knotting at his sides and a snarl creasing his face.
"Dammit, Hardison! I swear to god –"
"Oh, c'mon, grandpa! Grow a pair!"
Parker beamed, eyes narrowed like a siamese cat, and gave Eliot a poke in the side as he simmered uselessly.
He glared at these people for whom he would give his life to keep them safe, and growled deep in his chest.
"Y'know what?" he rasped, waggling an accusatory finger at the delighted group before him, "You people … there's somethin' wrong with you!"
And he abruptly did an about-turn, headed into his office and slammed the door behind him.
"Well," Nate was disgracefully cheery as he looked around at his friends, "that went well!"
The next day, the last full day before Team Leverage flew to Darwin, Australia and thence to Tennant Creek and its small airport, found them dealing with a tense and worried Eliot Spencer and a very excited Elizabeth Grace Ford.
So they did the only thing they could think of. They sent Eliot off to a local mall with Lizzie to buy a few final Christmas presents the little girl wanted for her Australian family, especially for her good friend Kip, who was just a few months younger than Lizzie.
The hitter complained, growled, argued for a bit and then saw Lizzie's bottom lip tremble because apparently she thought Eliot didn't want to help her choose a present for Kip, so with brows drawn down in a particularly fierce scowl, he relented, received a thankful kiss on the end of his nose from Lizzie, and the two friends headed off for the day.
Everyone else breathed a sigh of relief.
The last of the packing was done, Hardison finalised menus with Sam Setrakian, the head cook at the brewpub when Eliot wasn't there, and then they all settled down for coffee and cake before Lizzie and a no doubt bad-tempered Eliot returned from their errands.
It was late afternoon when Lizzie crashed through the door with a whoop, followed by Eliot, his arms full of parcels and looking decidedly tense.
Nate hitched an eyebrow as Lizzie began to flail her arms.
"Eliot hit a man with a cabbage!" she yelled, and turned to Eliot who was trying to set his burden down on the kitchen surface without dropping anything. "The man said lots of rude words to me and grabbed my arm and Eliot picked up a cabbage and biffed him with it!" She ran out of air, took a breath and continued. "Twice!" She grinned with delight.
"Yeah … well … the S.O.B. deserved it," Eliot grumbled, the tension obvious in his shoulders although his eyes were calm. Biffing bad guys, Lizzie often said, made Eliot feel better if he was in a bad mood.
"He did what?" Nate snapped, blue eyes wide with alarm, and he heard Sophie's breathing stutter.
Lizzie let out a dramatic sigh as she flung herself onto the couch beside her parents, not noticing Hardison's jaws clench in anger.
"I told you, Daddy, Eliot hit a man with a cabbage! Twice!"
"Who? What guy? And why did he lay a hand on my daughter?" Nate realised he was shaking.
"What the hell happened?" Hardison demanded even as Parker narrowed her eyes into a predatory glare and Sophie reached for her daughter.
"Sweetheart, are you alright?" she gasped and pulled Lizzie to her, checking her for injuries.
"Oh Mama, I'm fine!" Lizzie was impatient now, desperate to tell her family all about it, but Eliot beat her to it as he unpacked some fresh fruit he had bought for the journey.
"Some ass-hat decided to pick on his kid when we were at the deli." He pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. Shopping, even with Lizzie, gave him a headache. "I sent 'Lizbeth Grace to get a bag of persimmons while I picked up some figs, an' before I knew it she was tellin' this piece of shi – garbage to stop pushin' his little boy around." Eliot's upper lip curled in disgust. "He was shakin' the crap out of him for not keepin' up. The place was crawlin' with folks, an' not one of 'em made a move to help … dammit," he added quietly. If it was one thing Eliot Spencer could not abide it was cruelty to children. "Before I could deal with it, 'Lizbeth Grace was shoutin' at him to leave the kid alone – "
"He was hurting him, mama! The little boy was crying and asking him to stop and –" Lizzie's eyes suddenly filled with tears. "It was horrible!"
"Oh, my darling!" Sophie whispered, and wiped a stray tear from Lizzie's cheek, but the seven-year-old suddenly became fierce and proud and flapped a hand at Eliot.
"But Eliot made him stop, Mama! Didn't you, Eliot?"
Eliot was standing quietly in the kitchen area, eyes hot and angry.
"Yeah … yeah, darlin'. I stopped him." His voice was so soft he could barely be heard.
Lizzie was suddenly full of the moment, and she fixed her dark gaze on her parents.
"The man, he tried to hit Eliot and shouted nasty things at him, but Eliot just stood there and he caught the man's hand, Mama! He just caught it –" she made a grabbing gesture with her own small hands, as though snatching a butterfly out of the air, " – and stood there and the man, he tried and tried to get his hand free but Eliot wouldn't let him and the man yelled because Eliot's hand was so strong it was hurting him!"
"Go Eliot!" Hardison murmured under his breath and he heard Parker's hiss of approval.
But Lizzie wasn't finished.
"Then he grabbed my arm so Eliot, he … he shoved the man back and lifted a great big cabbage and hit him in the head! Twice!" she finished triumphantly, gesturing wildly.
"The little boy," Parker breathed quietly, "is … is he okay?"
"Yah-huh!" Lizzie began, but Eliot held up a hand to stop the oncoming prattle. Lizzie, unabashed, just grinned through unshed tears and allowed her parents fuss over her.
"The owner of the deli called the cops an' the moron was arrested. Assault on a minor, I guess, an – " Eliot began, but Lizzie couldn't stay quiet.
"Everyone clapped!" she sang gleefully, "and they told Eliot he was a hero 'cause the man was really big, and –"
Eliot winced at the comment. One thing he didn't like was drawing attention to himself, especially with Lizzie beside him and under his protective gaze.
"The kid … he'll be with Child Protective Services. He's safe at least," he continued, seeing Parker's hurt frown. She had severe issues with the fostering system. "Don't worry, Parker. I'll make sure he's alright, you know that." He glanced at Hardison. "I'll need the security footage wiped from the deli's system, Hardison. Can you make it go away? I don't want Lizzie on camera …"
Hardison nodded even as Eliot's unspoken worries were left trailing in thin air. He stood up and headed for his laptop. 'Tickle My Pickle' was Eliot's favourite deli, and Hardison knew it well.
"Got it, El. It's as good as done."
Eliot wearily ran fingers through his hair.
"Thanks, man. Soph … " Eliot made his way to the chair opposite the couch and slumped down. "… Soph, she's okay. I promise. You know nothin' … nobody … will ever hurt 'Lizbeth Grace. Not while I'm still breathing."
Quickly hugging her parents, Lizzie slid off the couch and flung herself at Eliot, arms around his neck and face beside his, rasping her cheek against his stubble.
"You were really brave!" she whispered in his ear, even as he let loose a deep, bear-like rumble in his chest.
"'Lizbeth Grace … don't you ever do that again, y'hear?" he whispered back so only she could hear the hint of … well, whatever it was, she realised he was worried for her. "You come get me. We've already talked about this –"
Lizzie blushed as she felt the pressure on her chest from the medicine pouch Eliot had helped her make months before. It contained - among other things - a tiny piece of quartz Eliot had given to her which was meant to remind her that she was to think before she acted*. Impetuous as always, she had thought the big, nasty man wouldn't touch her in front of so many people. She had been wrong, and once more Eliot had come to her rescue, as well as protecting the child the big brute had been abusing.
"I'm sorry, Eliot," she mumbled, and he felt her chest hitch. Damn. Her single tear streaked his cheek, and she leaned back to gaze at him. "I'm so sorry! But … but that little boy –"
Eliot gave her his Lizzie smile, the half-hitch of his lips that made his laughter lines crinkle, and he bipped her nose, which made her giggle.
"I know, sweetheart. But it's my job to take care of stuff like that. To keep you an' your momma an' daddy and Parker … even Hardison … " he heard an indignant "Hey!" from the back of the room, " … safe, okay? It's what I do."
Lizzie beamed and knew she was forgiven.
"You hit him with a cabbage!" she exclaimed, shining brown eyes alive with pride. Her Good Wolf was unstoppable.
Eliot allowed himself a shrug of nonchalance.
"Yeah … well … it was only a savoy. A drumhead cabbage would've broken his jaw."
Lizzie let out a throaty chortle, remembering Eliot crushing the big man's hand as he hefted a couple of cabbages before finding the one he wanted and then slamming it against the miscreant's head. The man went to his knees, only half-conscious, and an old lady and her family were taking care of the crying child, hugging him gently until his sobs lessened and stopped. As he heard the sirens Eliot had caught hold of Lizzie's hand and they had melted into the assembled crowd as people broke into rippling applause. The owner of the deli, a good friend, slipped both of them through the store-room and out into the alley.
But even as Sophie and Nate fussed over their fearless daughter, Eliot had to stand up and retreat to his kitchen to begin unpacking wrapped gifts and the bag of fruit he had bought.
Leaning over the bag he suddenly had to grip the edge of the quartz surface and his knuckles whitened with tension.
He saw again the snarling, furious man fiercely grip Lizzie's elbow and his best girl's face scrunch up with pain. His heart skipped a beat and the rage began again, swamping him, flooding through him like a tsunami, and he had to physically steady himself.
Almost, he thought. I almost killed him. I wanted to kill the bastard. All because he had taken his eyes off Lizzie for mere seconds, and he berated himself for the momentary lapse of judgement. Only months previously, the team had been threatened by a man called Tomas Ponomarenko … The Confessor, known for his uncanny skills at extracting information from his victims. And he knew about Lizzie. Eliot had been so worried about Gertie he had dropped his guard for less than a minute. Now it felt like a lifetime. And the child he had sworn to protect had immediately walked straight into danger.
Eliot swore silently. It wouldn't happen again. It would never happen again. He was glad that they were all returning to Wapanjara for a couple of months. There, he knew, Lizzie would be safe.
Gathering his wits about him, he straightened, took a few deep breaths to calm his pounding heart, and set about making sure their trip to Australia went as smoothly as possible.
The flight to Australia was uneventful, more or less. There was a lot of sleeping, eating and cheerful arguing as Parker tended to cheat at Go Fish! The now-familiar big Gulfstream G650 jet meant that everyone had room to spread out and do their own thing, which in Lizzie's case was bugging each and every one of them about what they would do over the festive period.
" – and I'm going to go riding on Narra with Charlie and Kip and Grandpa Soapy said I could help him catch yabbies – I know how to do that, y'know, 'cause he showed me – and … and … Effie said I could help make a Christmas cake and Charlie, he said he'd help me teach Sparky to walk on a lead rope and –" she babbled, patting Eliot absently on the arm as she told him all about her plans.
" – and why don't you go take a nap an' leave me be!" Eliot grumbled as he stretched out in his seat, spectacles on and doing his best to read a field manual of camel diseases, a book he fervently wished he hadn't begun to read. It was slowly but surely freaking him out. But there was a chapter on camel reproduction and calving difficulties, so he was determined to get through it, no matter that it worried the crap out of him.
Lizzie peered over his shoulder and gasped as she saw a picture of a veterinarian with her arm inserted in a camel's 'bum-hole' up to her armpit. The camel did not appear to be impressed.
"Are you going to do that to Gertie?" she asked, somewhat horrified.
Eliot snapped the book shut and glared at the child.
"Dammit, 'Lizbeth Grace!" he railed, and then his eyes softened. "I hope not," he continued, and taking off his spectacles, he rubbed his eyes which felt gritty from too much studying.
Lizzie moved her patting to his chest, and thought about it.
"You won't have to, Eliot, because Gertie's going to be fine, I know it!" she said with such confidence that Eliot had to smile.
"You do, huh?"
Lizzie nodded firmly.
"Yah-huh. Anyway, Grandma Jo knows all about having babbies so she'll be able to help if Gertie's babbie gets stuck."
And Eliot realised that the seven-year-old was right. There was a wealth of experience at Wapanjara, from Charlie to the crew to Soapy and Jo, so even if Gertie did get into difficulties, and barring something completely unforseen, there was a good chance that she and her calf would survive. He threw the book onto the low, built-in table next to him and folding the legs on his spectacles he slid them into the breast pocket of his flannel shirt.
"Okay, okay … I got it." He made a gesture that was somewhere in between a wave and a shrug. "She's gonna have this baby whether I worry about it or not, so I suppose it'd be better if I stopped losin' sleep over it, huh."
Lizzie yawned and stretched out in the seat to Eliot's left and flung her arms and legs into an uncoordinated sprawl. Within seconds she was sound asleep, one hand resting on Eliot's arm.
Nate appeared carrying a blanket and a coffee. Draping the blanket over his snoring daughter he handed Eliot the coffee, who took it gratefully. Nate dropped into the seat opposite, leaned forward and studied Eliot for a moment or two before speaking, his voice low so as not to wake his slumbering daughter.
"Eliot … this man you cabbaged …"
Eliot sipped the hot beverage and then frowned thoughtfully at Nate for a second or two before answering.
"He was nothin', Nate. Just a nasty bastard beatin' on his kid – which he'll never do again, that I promise. There was nothing to indicate he had anythin' to do with Ponomarenko. Believe me … I'd know," Eliot added as he saw Nate's face settle into faint doubt.
Nate thought the situation through for a moment and nodded.
"Yeah. I'm sure." Eliot took another sip of his coffee and settled a little more into his seat. He had every intention of catching some shut-eye during the long flight. "She's safe, Nate. I won't let anyone hurt her. They go through me first, you know that."
Nate wiped a hand over his worried features and sighed. He knew Eliot would die keeping his daughter safe.
"I know, Eliot … I know. Maybe we can take a break from worrying about Ponomarenko while we're at Wapanjara. Look … get some sleep. Soph and I are going to take a nap."
So Eliot settled down and began to doze as the big jet left wispy trails in the star-filled night sky, heading onwards to love and laughter and the heart's-ease of a place called Wapanjara.
The last stretch of the flight, from Darwin to Tennant Creek, was Lizzie's favourite part. She peered out of a window and gave a running commentary of what she could see far below. For almost three hours she told anyone who was listening about the glint of water in the sub-tropical landscape and the far run of rivers meandering to the shallow, winking blue of the distant Timor Sea.
As the land changed she gazed with wonder at the rich browns and oranges of the edge of the great Tanami Desert, the colours draped over the land in drifts, folding into ancient creases and dotted here and there with the faded green of mulga and stringybark.
Eliot found he had to sit beside her as she watched the world outside the window, thousands of feet below her, an ever-changing vista that mesmerised her. Eliot answered her questions and pointed out places that he would take her one day. Lizzie was so excited she was jiggling.
As the jet dropped down, down towards the approach to Tennant Creek Lizzie was almost incoherent with anticipation. She sat between her parents and grasped their fingers, and closed her eyes as she waited for the tell-tale bumpety-bump of the jet as it slowed and taxied to the end of one of the two runways of Tennant Creek's small airport. Even as the jet slowed and halted, Lizzie quickly unfastened her seatbelt, jammed her Akubra hat onto her curls and peered eagerly through the window by the door.
"GRANDMA!" she yelled, "GRANDPA SOAPY!" and as the smiling flight attendant finished lowering the steps she was off, skipping down onto the asphalt to race as fast as she could towards the two figures waiting just inside the hangar, both of them waving madly.
"Our girl's home," Soapy Munro murmured as he saw the little figure, arms flailing like crazy and shrieking like a banshee, run towards them in the heat of an early evening sunset.
She piled into Soapy's arms and he lifted her off her feet, grinning as she kissed him hard. Then she twisted in his grasp and held her arms out to Jo, who was pulled close so that all three of them clung to each other, Lizzie showering her adoptive grandparents with sloppy kisses.
"Grandma!" she finally managed to say as Jo studied the little girl in Soapy's arms. "You'll never guess what!"
Jo tucked a curl behind Lizzie's ears and kept an eye on the rest of her family as they made their way down the steps, stretching cramped limbs and rubbing tired eyes.
"Yes, my girl, what is it?" she said even as her voice broke. Their family was home.
Lizzie gave her a gappy grin, showing a tooth beginning to fill a space at the front and then hugged Soapy gleefully before answering.
"Eliot," she gasped, "hit a bad guy with a cabbage!"
To be continued …
* To find out about Hadan and Lizzie's medicine pouch, read 'Gertie - The Outback Job'.