So here's the deal; one of my New Year's resolutions. To actually finish the stories I have started and write the stories I keep talking about. To start the year off right, here is the next chapter of The Ring Job then I must work on the sequel to Blind Trust. Please keep an eye on my bio/profile for news on what I am working on.
Sterling walked into the hotel room, aware of Nate behind him. Hanging the garment bag in the closet, he set his suitcase on the floor and pulled off his backpack with a sigh. "Shared rooms, Nate?" He asked the man behind him.
"Be glad you're not in with Eliot and Hardison." Nate hung his own bag up. "We were lucky to get three rooms in the same hotel, much less the same floor." He neglected to mention that it was thanks to Hardison's electronic manipulation that they managed to do that. By the look Sterling gave him he wasn't fooled. "What were you and Parker doing anyway?"
"What? On the plane? Playing chess."
"Yeah. She's not bad. Won't ever be a master but ..." He pulled open a drawer restlessly then closed it, reaching down to pick up his suitcase and set it on the dresser. "So what's the plan?"
There was no answer and he finally turned to look at the other man. Nate was at the window, staring out over the city. After a moment he smiled.
"Remember the first time a case brought us to Paris?"
He saw Nate's answering smile in the reflection of the window. "I remember you were an arrogant little snot."
"With good reason." Sterling shot back.
Nate grimaced, unable to argue with that. It had been widely rumored that Henderson, the chairman at the time, had hired Sterling as a favor for a friend and when Nate had been called into Henderson's office and told that they'd be working together, his response hadn't been good.
Nate glared at Henderson's back, hoping to convey his dislike of this assignment without actually coming out and saying it. The older man's expression when he turned, a drink in each hand, said he knew exactly what Nate was thinking.
"I know what people are saying." He handed Nate a glass. "And they should know better." Loosening his jacket, he sat on the corner of his desk. "I have never hired anyone just as a favor for a friend." He pointed a finger at Nate. "You should know better."
"What qualifications does he have?"
"Same qualifications you had when I hired you. Maybe a few more." Henderson grinned at the look that got him. "Yes. Fletcher asked me if I could give him a chance. I met the man, talked with him, and was impressed. He's sharp. Picks things up quickly. Has a great deal of practical experience. And I want you to show him the ropes."
"Because you could use the experience of working with another investigator. And you are one of our best investigators. I want him to learn from you." Henderson rose, walking over to face him. "Look, you know artwork. He knows jewelry. I mean he really knows jewelry. One of the reasons I hired him is because he's already saved the company a great deal of money." He waved off Nate's curious look. "Long story. Maybe he'll tell it to you." He smirked at the sour look Nate gave him.
"Has he had any training?" Nate persisted.
"He's working on a bachelor's degree in criminal justice." Henderson walked over to sit in one of the comfortable chairs to one side, gesturing for Nate to take another. "Like I said before, he's bright. Speaks five languages very well and is passable in several more. He's done a great deal of traveling. Worked freelance doing a variety of different jobs. Picked up classes here and there on several different subjects." He grinned. "A very eclectic life."
Nate glanced around the office, frowning. "And you think he'll fit into the corporate world?" he said doubtfully.
Henderson laughed, slapping his leg. "The man's a chameleon." He eyed his companion. "Much like you. When you meet him," he nodded toward the outer room. "I'll bet he'll be speaking with a Cockney accent. He looks and acts rough around the edges but put him in a tux and the right place and you'd think he was to the manor born. He can be an English lowlife or upper-class. An Irishman or a Russian. Even an American. When I first saw him he was riding a motorcycle and looking like a thug. Two hours later he was perfectly presentable, in a suit and escorting Fletcher's daughter to a formal dance."
"Oh?" Nate's eyebrows arched.
"Yes, that's why Fletcher's interested in him," Henderson said dryly. He hesitated then shrugged. "One reason. He likes the young man. Thoroughly approves of him. Surprising for a father, especially one that knows his daughter is sleeping with the young man in question but there it is. Jim started taking criminal justice classes seriously a couple years ago and when he started checking out careers, Fletcher steered him this way and asked me on the QT to consider him. He's already transferred to a school here. I want him working with you." He gave Nate a sharp look. "You both can use the experience."
Nate knew he could argue but he also knew it wouldn't do any good. In the end he managed to greet Sterling with his true feelings hidden. Or at least he thought he did.
Sterling had proven himself quickly, though Nate had almost blown it by coming very close to not listening to the man. But he had and they had managed to uncover a major insurance fraud. Since he was the senior investigator, he had gotten most of the credit but he'd made sure his report gave credit where it was due. Not that he wasn't tempted to claim all the credit – he was – but the knowledge that Henderson would know the truth kept him from doing so.
The fact that Sterling had taken a knife slash that was almost certainly meant for him helped.
Nate shook himself free from the memories and turned to look at the other man. Sterling was watching him thoughtfully, his eyes hooded.
"So what's the plan?" he repeated.
Nate flipped through the plans he'd developed. While they varied in several ways there were keys points that were close to the same.
"You and Eliot will go to the IYS office and ..."
Sterling was already shaking his head. "I work alone, Nate. You know that."
"Not in this, Sterling. Sterling!" His voice cracked, disrupting the other man's protests. "We do this our way. That's the agreement. Either follow it or we're gone."
Sterling's lips thinned and he looked away with a jerky motion. The muscles in his face worked.
"I seem to remember a cousin of Tess' working for the Houston branch of IYS. Colt Bishop, right?" Without waiting for an answer, he continued curtly. "Hardison's dummied up identification for him. Both of you will go to the offices today. Find out what you can, get what you can then Eliot will take over." He frowned thoughtfully, absently reaching up to pull on his lip. "I could take your place ..."
Sterling snorted. "Your English accent sucks. Even if it didn't there's a very good chance that someone from IYS will be there. Someone who knows me or you. Which would blow it all to hell."
Nate frowned. Those thoughts had occurred to him as well and he reluctantly discarded that idea. "So Eliot will go it alone. If anyone asks, you have the stomach flu or something along those lines." He hesitated. "He'll have to work inside alone, damn it."
Sterling shook his head. "I understand that you don't want Parker there anymore then you want me there and there's no reason for Sophie to go in … unless …" He paused, his eyes thoughtful. He'd started out speaking in clipped, almost angry tones now his voice softened. "Montgomery's met Sophie, right? In one of her other personas? So if they were to run into each other in Paris …"
"That would be a hell of a consequence." Nate pointed out.
"But not impossible." Sterling insisted, eyes dancing. For a moment it was like the old days, with them tossing ideas back and forth as they worked out an investigation. "And if Montgomery thinks anything of it … well, he'd probably figure she was interested in him enough to follow him to France. On the other hand …" He gestured vaguely toward the room next door. "Hardison could go in and make like the flight reservation was made months ago and the room reservation as well. Maybe …" He rocked back on his heels. "You do realize that Bastille Day is the next couple of days?"
Nate blinked. No, he hadn't realized that. How could he have missed it? "No wonder it was so difficult to get the rooms," he muttered then flushed slightly at the look the other man gave him. "That might work." He said reluctantly.
Sterling chuckled suddenly, startling Nate. "You never liked to admit that I can actually come up with workable plans. Never mind that before you quit my case record was as good as yours."
Nate's lips thinned. "It wouldn't have been if you weren't cutting corners and taking the easy way out to close cases!" he snapped.
Sterling jerked back, his face blanching. "The easy …damn it, Nate! I've never taken the easy way out where a case was concerned! And I've certainly never cut corners! Where the hell did you get that idea?"
Sterling looked honestly bewildered by Nate's accusations and the other man paused, frowning. Before either of them could say anything more there was a sharp knocking at the connecting door. Nate felt a surge of relief at the interruption and walked past Sterling to unlock the door and swing it open. Eliot walked through, his eyes darting between the two men.
"What?" he half-growled.
Sterling abruptly turned away and walked over to the sitting area, throwing himself into a chair and staring broodingly at the floor.
"Nothing," Nate muttered. "Where's Hardison?"
"Making sure his equipment is all intact and powered up then he wants to check in with his contacts."
"Right. Hardison get you all the papers you need for Bishop?"
"Okay so you two are set ..." Nate turned back to Sterling then stopped at the sight of Parker now sitting in the chair next to the other man. They were glaring at each other; Parker holding out that toy lemur, Sterling gripping the lemur's head with a hand.
"That reminds me," Sterling said. "I need to shave."
"But he likes the beard," Parker protested, pulling the toy from the man's grip.
"Even so." He pushed himself to his feet, pulling off his jacket to drape it over the chair. "I recommend we head for the offices after lunch. Lunch Paris-time that is. Two, two-thirty." He walked over to his suitcase, opening it to pull out a toiletry kit.
"No call ahead?" Eliot asked.
"And warn them?" Sterling walked toward the bathroom, pausing at a rapid knocking at the door. Swinging it open, he stepped back hastily as Sophie hurried past him.
"Is Parker ... oh, there you are." The relief on Sophie's face was almost palpable. Behind her, Sterling rolled his eyes and vanished into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
Nate stared after him, frowning then shook his head. "Eliot, let Hardison know Sophie will need her Rose Tyler identification ... I'll explain later," he added at Sophie's questioning look. "Eliot, make sure ..." He paused at Eliot's slight grin.
"I'll handle it," he murmured.
"Right. Now Parker ..." Nate turned toward where the woman had been sitting.
She wasn't there.
"Oh damn!" Sophie whispered, eyes going wide and frantic.
Nate was about to echo her when Eliot cleared his throat. He looked at the younger man, who nodded toward the bathroom door, now slightly ajar.
"You're kidding me," Nate muttered. Stepping over, he pushed the door open.
"What?" Parker, now sitting cross-legged on the closed toilet seat, said, her hands fiddling with the toy lemur.
Sterling, scrapping the last of his beard off, met Nate's eyes in the mirror and grinned. "I'm shaving that lemur next."
"You are not!" Parker cradled the toy protectively, glowering at him.
Nate slowly took a step back then turned to walk back into the other room. Looking at Eliot, he mouthed 'How does she do that?' at him. Eliot only shrugged.
"Right. Sophie and I are going to walk over and take a look at the conference center." Grabbing a hat from his bag, he took Sophie's elbow and guided her toward the door. "You two listen to Eliot," he said curtly as they passed the bathroom.
"Yes, dad," Sterling said in a droll voice and Parker giggled.
Nate threw him a glare as he followed Sophie from the room.
After stopping at Sophie's room long enough for her to grab a scarf and a pair of sunglasses, the couple emerged from the hotel and turned toward the conference center several blocks away.
"Taxi?" he asked and she shook her head.
"It's not a bad walk and it's a pleasant day." She tied the scarf over her hair. "Hardison, can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear." The young man's voice came over the earbuds.
"Do you have a lock on where Montgomery is?"
"Yep. Locked onto the GPS unit in his phone. Looks like he is out of the city right now."
"Well, the conference doesn't start until two," Nate spoke up. "Hardison, who has earbuds at this time?"
"Just me, you two, and Eliot."
"Good. Keep it that way for now. And remake identification for Rose Tyler." He glanced at Sophie. "Sterling pointed out that it's Bastille Day the next couple days. Wouldn't be too surprising for Rose to fly over for it."
"No, I suppose not. A bit of a stretch but doable." Sophie slid her arm through Nate's and they became another couple enjoying the Paris scenery.
"Keeping those two locked down isn't going to be easy," Nate said at last.
"No, it's not," Sophie agreed.
Nate threw her a look. "I'd like it better if we could keep them apart. I don't like Parker hanging around Sterling so much."
"I'll tell you the same thing I told Hardison, Nate. Right now those two need each other. In a way they're keeping each other grounded. When this is over they'll be right back the way they were …" She hesitated. "Well, mostly. But right now they need each other, if only to keep themselves sane."
Nate looked at her oddly and she shook her head.
"Part of what I do is read people, Nate and I'm pretty good at it. Sterling's holding on by a thread. Those mood swings he's going through … half the time he's the smooth insurance investigator we've always knows. The other half … he's still that abused wild child. We can't tell which way he's going to jump but then neither can he."
They walked on for a few minutes, Nate mulling over what she was saying.
"They're two sides of the same coin, you know," Sophie said suddenly. "Parker and Sterling. Thief and thief-catcher. But for a twist of fate, Sterling could have become what Parker is. Instead he went the other way." There was a hint of admiration in her voice.
"Dislike him all you want, Nate, but you have to admire what he's accomplished. From that abused wild child living a bare existence in a Traveler caravan to the VIP of investigations for a world-wide insurance company. He couldn't have had much of an education. In fact I doubt he could even read and yet he managed to pass at least his O-levels. He had to have in order to go to college in America."
Nate nodded reluctantly, thinking back on those days of finding Sterling holed up, studying for one class or another. It had surprised him how much education seemed to matter to the younger man and there wasn't a time when he wasn't enrolled in at least one class somewhere. A part of him wondered idly if he was still taking classes.
"The first time I ran into him," Sophie mussed. "he was different then he is now. Easier to laugh. At me, at the situation. At himself. He even sent me flowers once, when I managed to outsmart him and get away with the goods." She smiled at the memory, a smile that slowly faded. "The last time I met him … before we met again in Kentucky … he was harder. Colder. More driven. At least now I understand why."
Nate made a noncommittal sound. "There's the conference center."
Sophie took a look. "Well. Doesn't look like they're letting people in. Must be some very big names."
"Yeah. Let's take a look around."
"Mademoiselle Depaul-Laurent?" Sterling straightened as the woman approached them.
Noella Depaul-Laurent, head of the Paris IYS offices, smiled in a decidedly frosty manner. "Mr. Sterling. How nice of you to visit us." Her English was letter-perfect with only a hint of accent.
Eliot hid a grin. It was obvious that the woman didn't appreciate the visit at all and her hostility cloaked in politeness didn't go unnoticed by Sterling. The other man smiled slightly, that snarky near-smirk that usually made Eliot want to hit him. Right now he agreed with it completely.
"Hardly a visit, Ms. Depaul-Laurent." His tone was as chilly as hers. "I'm here to take a look at how investigations are being run here."
"I ... see. Of course. I had heard but I'd expected some notification."
Sterling said nothing, just looked at her with that annoying smirk.
The woman took a deep breath then looked speculatively at Eliot. "And this is ..."
"Colt Bishop. My assistant for this trip."
"Of course. I assume you'd like to look over out current investigations. This way please." Turning on her heel she led them down the hall.
Sterling and Eliot exchanged glances, both seeing a sudden change in the woman's attitude and both wondering what had caused it.
A little over an hour later Sterling set down a file, nodding in reluctant approval. "Everything seems to be in order. Not that I doubted anything wouldn't be." His voice was bland and Ms. Depaul-Laurent gave him a sharp look. Sterling ignored her as he steepled his fingers, absently bouncing them off each other. "I'd like to see a more recent investigation. Maybe a current one?"
"Well, we have investigations all over France. I'm not sure ..." She began to run her hands over the files with a frown.
"Something in Paris, I think."
"How about this?" Eliot held out one of the files he'd been thumbing through.
Sterling threw him a sharp look, his eyes locking almost hungrily on the file. Eliot ignored him, keeping the woman's attention on him and away from Sterling, hoping that he regained his composure before she noticed.
Ms. Depaul-Laurent took the file almost reluctantly, forcing a smile. "This conference? Hardly an investigation …"
"But a chance for us to see how this office set up security for such an event," Sterling said. If his voice seemed rougher then before only Eliot had the knowledge to notice. "What is the conference?"
The woman frowned, eyes flicking between the two of them. "It's a conference on child abuse," she said finally. "The attendees are very involved in the cause."
Despite himself, Eliot winced, reflecting that the woman's wording could have been better. Sterling, he was relieved to see, didn't react to the statement and only listened as she continued.
"They raise a great deal of money for various specific areas of abuse. This year's primary focus is child soldiers though several other areas will be covered." She sighed deeply. "There are so many …"
"Yes," Sterling murmured before raising his voice. "I think that will do. IYS is providing security for the conference, correct?"
"I saw something in there about an auction." Eliot cut in.
"Oh yes." Ms. Depaul-Laurent brightened. "There will be an auction of a donated necklace." She named the store and both men made appreciative noises. "And other items as well."
"Could we get a copy of that file?" Sterling asked, gesturing toward the file in question. "And we'll need passes to get in."
"And the attendee list please," Eliot added. He saw Sterling stiffen and hid a smirk. Nate had suggested the request to him privately, obviously suspecting that Sterling meant to try and get the list himself.
Ms. Depaul-Laurent frowned. "I'm not sure if ... the attendees are very private people. They would not be happy if their names were made public."
Eliot found himself exchanging a look with Sterling over that. What person wouldn't want it known that they actively support efforts to abolish child abuse? Ms. Depaul-Laurent seemed to guess their thoughts.
"They prefer their generosity to be secret. So they are not inundated with requests from everyone."
"Of course and as IYS employees, we are bound by the same confidentiality clauses you are," Sterling said blandly. "The copies? And the passes please?"
The woman's smile cracked slightly. "Of course." She rose. "This may take a few minutes. Please, help yourself to refreshments." She waved toward the discrete bar before walking out with the folder.
Eliot turned to Sterling then paused as the man gave him a narrow-eyed look and a slight shake of the head. Absently Sterling reached up to scratch an ear and Eliot suppressed a sigh. Rising he paced the room, looking at the artwork.
"Coffee?" Sterling asked and Eliot turned to see him by the coffee-maker, pouring himself a mug.
"Okay, guys." Hardison's voice came over the earbuds.
Sterling's hand tightened on the pot, barely managing to suppress a jerk of surprise. Eliot gave him a warning look and the other man took a deep, steadying breath before reaching for another mug.
"Searches are being done on both of you. Well, you, Sterling, and on Bishop."
Sterling passed Eliot the now full mug and picked his own back up. "Interesting," he murmured behind the cover of the mug. "Hope your modifications hold up."
Eliot gave him a black look and Hardison muttered into the earbuds, too low for them to make out the words. After a moment's reflective silence, Sterling flicked a look at him.
"Sorry," he muttered. "This entire situation ..." His voice trailed off.
"Right," Hardison said after a moment's silence. "The info's holding up."
Sterling sauntered toward the desk with its neat piles of files. Absently he began to shift them almost randomly and, after a moment of watching, Eliot hid a smile behind his raised cup, realizing that the other man had noticed Depaul-Laurent's prissy OCD behavior. Sterling flicked him a look, his lips curving in a slight smile.
"Here," he said, picking up one of the files he'd looked at earlier. "This might interest you."
Eliot gave him a narrow-eyed look as he slowly took it. He opened the file, his breath catching as he realized what it was about. Setting his mug down, he began to pace as he read.
He was just reaching the end when he heard Sterling clearing his throat. Alerted by the warning, he shut the file and returned it casually to the desk just as Depaul-Laurent walked back in. Her steps faltered slightly at the scattered files on her desk then she was offering a manila envelope, her smile tight.
Eliot moved quicker then he should to take the envelope before Sterling could. He heard the man's breath catch but ignored it.
"Of course." Her eyes slid between him and Sterling and he wondered what she had noticed and what she may be thinking. "The passes are inside."
"Thank you. And it was a pleasure to meet you," Sterling said pleasantly, already turning to leave.
"I will get a copy of the report?" the woman asked, hurrying to join them.
"Of course, as soon I have it written up. Again, thank you." Sterling opened the door, ushering Eliot out before following. "That was interesting," he murmured, glancing back to see the woman watching them as they walked down the street.
"Yeah." Once out of sight Eliot pulled out his earbud, gesturing for Sterling to do the same.
Sterling did so. "What?"
"That file ..."
"Consider it compensation. Or maybe a thank you. For helping." He turned away abruptly, seemingly embarrassed. "Undoubtedly Nate will think of some nefarious reason for me handing you that file."
Eliot's lips thinned at that. "I'd prefer he didn't know about it."
Sterling turned back to look at him, surprise on his face. He thought about it then slowly nodded. "All right. It's your business. It's ..." He looked back at the IYS offices, his voice turning thoughtful. "It's pretty much a dead case anyway. At least I thought it was."
"Leave it," Eliot said shortly.
Sterling chewed on his cheek for a moment then sighed. "All right. It's not a case I'm involved with anyway. Though I wonder why ..." He caught the look on Eliot's face and threw up his hands. "It's all yours. Just ... if you can, send me enough so I can officially close the damn thing."
Eliot thought about it then grunted. "Okay, I can do that." He started to replace the earbud but paused at Sterling's gesture toward the envelope.
"Is there a map of the conference center in there?"
Eliot's eyes narrowed and Sterling suppressed a sigh.
"Look, I could have not said a thing and just gotten it off the internet but no. I'm asking you for it. That should count for something. I ..." He hesitated. "I have an idea."
Eliot hesitated before finally reaching into the envelope and pulling out the glossy brochure for the convention center. This was a special one obviously made for the conference.
Sterling took it and stepped to one side, out of foot traffic, to look it over. Finally he grunted. "Just what I thought. Here."
Eliot stepped next to him, following the other man's gestures.
"Here's the conference area. Quite a space too. But here is the secured area, off to one side. That's where most of the security will be, because of the valuables."
"And?" Eliot pressed.
Sterling gave him a look. "And one of the things I do is test any security IYS is involved with. So while you're dealing with the conference, I can test security."
Eliot sucked in his breath but before he could say anything, Sterling hurriedly continued.
"Look. The two areas are about as separate as you can get them. The convention is happening here. This area is pretty much sealed off. I doubt many attendees will be there. You have the agenda?"
Eliot opened the envelope, searching for the agenda. Finally he found it, glancing at Sterling.
"What am I looking for?"
"Does it say what hours this area, the display area, will be open?"
"Okay." Eliot scanned the agenda. "Huh. They have some pretty interesting panels here. Here it is. There's the grand unveiling tonight and then set times that the room will be open for people to look at the items. The auction will be on Thursday."
"Okay, good. So I go with you ... Hear me out before you shoot it down. I go with you this afternoon. Evening. Whatever. We meet with the person in charge. You'll be doing the conference as your first solo assignment … God! I hope no one ever mentions this to Colt … and I'll take over testing the security for the valuables. Parker can help me, which will keep both of us occupied."
"And give you a chance to see how she operates in real time." Eliot pointed out.
Sterling shrugged. "Two-way street, Spencer. She'll see how I operate. One-on-one."
"True enough." Eliot took the map, studying it intently.
"We'll stay out of the main conference," Sterling said. "Well, I'll do my best to keep her out of there, which is the best any of us can do." He waited impatiently, watching Eliot as he looked over the map and agenda. "Look, what do I have to do to convince you?" he finally burst out.
Eliot eyed him for a long moment. "Give me your word," he said bluntly.
Sterling looked at him in surprise, rocking back on his heels. "I … I got the impression none of you thought me capable of keeping my word," he said with a touch of his old snarkiness in his voice.
"Your son says you keep your word. Your promises.'
Sterling went still at Eliot's words, his breathing ragged. "I … Tommy?" He swallowed hard, the self that Eliot knew coming down over his face like a mask. "I do keep my word. I always have … well, given time anyway … no matter what Nate thinks or what he may have told you. So fine. I give my word that I won't go into the main part of the conference tomorrow." He hesitated. "I can't make that promise for Parker, of course, but I'll do my best to keep her out of it." He looked at Eliot almost defiantly.
Eliot only nodded curtly. "I can't say Nate will agree but we can present the option to him. Come on. There's a cab."