Buried Deep Inside
Epilog to: The Underground Job
"You know what Eliot? You need to develop a thicker skin. You can't go on saving every kid you come across." Nate casually mentioned as they headed back to the car.
Eliot looked at Nathan and frowned.
"One kid. And he's not a kid. And I'm not trying to save him. Never mind." Eliot lengthened his stride.
Nate wasn't phased and kept up easily. "That other kid, too, that one in Boston, the one with the broken arm. And all the kids from that village in Africa. Kids are your soft spot, Eliot. I'm just saying, you need to be aware of that."
"So what?" Eliot grumbled as he pulled open the car door.
"You can't get emotional about a kid, Eliot."
Eliot gaped for a moment. "Ain't that the pot calling the kettle black?"
Nathan got in behind the wheel and slammed the door shut. Eliot got in the back and slammed the door shut.
"Hey, is that a black reference? Cuz, you know, I can take offence." Hardison chided over the com line.
"It's not!" Eliot sputtered to a stop. "You know, fine! El muerto se rie del degollado."
Parker's voice came over the com. "The dead man laughs at the man with a slit throat. Your metaphors are as creepy as Nate's, Eliot."
Silence reigned in the car. Sophie got in the front seat. "This is awkward. You know, if you two are having issues, you need to talk them out."
"I'm good." Nate said and started the engine.
"Me too." Eliot shot back.
They made a pit stop about an hour into the drive. Hardison filled the car and the van with fuel and everyone went onto the mini-mart for snack, drinks, relieve themselves and stretch their legs.
Eliot approached the car from the back, opting to stretch his legs first and hit the head last, carrying a bottle of water and package of animal crackers.
"Come on Parker, trade places with Eliot. It's agonizing riding in a car with them." Sophie whined.
"I don't want to ride with Nate when he's mad at Eliot. Why don't you trade places with Hardison?" Parker shook her head.
"Uh uh, no. No way. I am not riding with the two of them. When Eliot's in a snit he kicks the back of my seat. No." Hardison jumped in.
"Why don't we let Eliot and Nate drive the van? Then the three of us can go in the car?" Parker's face lit up with a smile.
"Last time Eliot got the behind the wheel of my van he dented the hell out of the fender." Hardison said.
"He was saving your life. That should count for something. Come on." Sophie actually looked happy about the idea.
"You know what?" Eliot tossed his cookies at Hardison, who fumbled the catch.
"How 'bout I find my own way home?" He turned on his heel and headed out toward the road.
"Eliot!" Sophie called after him. "Eliot!"
"What just happened?" Nate came up from the other side of the car. They each looked down and away. "Hardison?" Nate growled and Alec folded.
"We were just talking about seating for the next leg of the trip and Eliot, kinda took offence that no one wanted to ride with him."
Nate shook his head and looked across the lot. Eliot was half way up the block, his thumb out. "Get in the car."
"All of us? Or …" Hardison and Parker exchanged a look of confusion.
"You and Hardison in the van, me and Sophie in the car." Nate's tone was that over-patient voice that said dad was about to turn the car around.
"What about Eliot?" Sophie was the only one brave enough to ask.
"He's a big boy, he'll find his own way home."
Sophie pressed her lips together and looked at Hardison who shrugged.
"Now, people!" Nate barked and they all scattered.
It was two hours before they made another stop. The ride had started out pleasant enough with Sophie and Nate making small talk about the recent Cairo Art Heist and wondered why the thieves had only taken the one painting. But the last hour, Sophie gave up trying to hold a conversation as Nate's attention was divided between the road and checking ever car that passed to see if Eliot had hitched a ride.
He pulled into a rest stop just off the highway, the van behind him following in to the next spot over.
"Do we drive through the night? Or find a hotel?" Nate asked as he leaned against the hood of the car.
"I'm good either way." Hardison voted.
"I don't have a problem being up all night." Parker added.
Sophie shrugged. "I'd like a hotel," she scrunched up her nose, "but I'm not sure I want to stay out here. We're what, nine hours from home? I can sleep in the car." She paused. "Oh, we could head east and go to New York. That's closer, yes?"
"Not any more." Hardison shook his head. "We shoulda picked up the 80 before heading North if we was going to New York. Now, probably be faster just to go on home. Now that it's dark, traffic will be lightening up."
"Fine, we head on home."
"Anybody heard from Eliot?" Hardison asked.
"No." Nate said and walked off toward the bathrooms. Hardison followed behind.
Parker and Sophie exchanged looks. "Everything okay in your car?"
"Yes, I'm not sure if he's mad at himself for criticizing Eliot, or if he's mad at Eliot for taking it so personal, but either way, he'll get over it."
"Okay. Every time we stop Hardison tries the ear buds, but Eliot's not answering."
"I don't know what it is about men. They fight like little girls."
"I know," Parker nodded as they headed off to the ladies room, "I don't understand them at all sometimes."
"What can I say, Parker, men are complicated."
Nate got back to the car first and leaning against the car he pulled out his cell phone and hit the speed dial. It went straight to voice mail. "Eliot, call me."
He could text a message and Eliot would respond no matter what, but it wasn't an emergency, and he more than understood the need for space once in awhile.
Eliot's phone rang. Squirming a little on the seat he pulled the device from his front pocket, and seeing who it was he it the ignore button sending it straight to voice mail and dropped the phone in his shirt pocket.
"Girl trouble?" The big rig driver asked.
"Trust me, not talking to her, isn't gonna make the problem go away."
Eliot blinked then caught up. "No, not my girl. My…" he shrugged, "boss, I guess. Thought he was a friend, but I don't know."
The driver gave Eliot a long look then turned his attention back to the road. "So, what happened?"
Eliot stared out at the dark road ahead of them and settled into the well sprung seat. He'd stuck his thumb out and less than a mile from the gas station he'd been picked up by Denny Johnson, a mid-haul trucker headed for Boston, then on to Maine.
"We started out as just working together. One job only. But it worked out for awhile, and I kinda thought we'd passed just being employer/employee and started to kinda become friends." Eliot shook his head, surprised at himself for unloading like this on a stranger. Sometimes strangers were the only people he could talk to. "Guess I was wrong."
Eliot looked over at Denny. The man looked to be about the same ages as Nate, give or take, but there the similarity ended. Denny was big, thick and from the looks of him ate too much fried food, didn't get much exercise and had never passed up on the offer of a beer.
Eliot shook his head and look out the window. "I don't know, man." He'd gotten comfortable with Denny over the last couple of hours driving as the sun went down while they talked about things like football and the weather.
Denny respected the silence for a few minutes, the only sound in the truck the sound of wheels on pavement. "I used to drive with my Dad." Denny settled into the seat. "He was getting older, the economy started to tank, any way, one thing led to another and I had to start driving alone."
Eliot nodded, not quite sure about the change in topic or where the conversation was going, but glad it wasn't him doing the talking any more.
"Driving a rig, sixteen hours a day up here, you know, close quarters. You learn to get along, you know?"
Eliot nodded. "Or strangle each other."
Denny laughed. "For sure. But you know, we were still people, still had real life problems." Denny chuckled again. "Hell, still do. Crazy ol' man's been retired more'n a year and he's still trying to run my life."
"Maybe he wasn't quite ready to retire?"
"Yeah," Denny's sigh was resigned. "Anyway, I learned over time, that when ever he'd bite my head off it wasn't usually about me at all. Oh sure, I'd done something, but usually, it was him. I'd done something that reminded him of himself, or something he'd done as a kid, whatever. So I'm just saying, maybe if you and your boss friend got problems, maybe it's more that what you did makes him remember something he rather he didn't."
Eliot thought about Denny's words. "Yeah, maybe."
"Anyway, just saying." Denny stretched as much as the confines of his part of the cab allowed.
"You know, you want me to drive? You can get some sleep."
Denny looked over. "You know how to drive a big rig?"
"Sure, drove one in the gulf."
"Down in Texas?" Denny guessed at Eliot's accent.
Eliot shifted. "Kuwait."
"Oh, uh, oh." Denny nodded. "Thanks man." Danny gave that awkward nod that acknowledged he was grateful for what service men did. Eliot didn't have the heart to tell him what he'd been doing wasn't the kind of work the servicemen usually did for their country.
Denny drove on for about a half hour before he found a good wide spot in the road and pulled over. Denny climbed into the back while Eliot came around the front of the rig.
Eliot climbed up into the cab and settled into the seat. He checked his mirrors then looked back into the rear compartment where Denny was pulling off his boots. "Now, is it the pedal on the left or the right that's the clutch?"
Denny looked up, eyes wide, then caught the smile on Eliot's face.
"I'm trusting you man, don't get lost."
Eliot grinned. "Right. Baton Rouge, here we come."
"Boston." Denny shook his head. "You're insane, you know?"
Eliot grinned again, turned on his blinker and smoothly moved back onto the highway.
Seven hours later Eliot pulled over into a truck stop just outside Boston. He rapped on the wall to the cab. "Denny. Dude!"
Denny opened the door. He'd started getting up when he felt the rig pull off the highway. "I didn't expect you do drive straight through."
"It was okay. I had a lot on my mind. Thinking did me good."
"Least I can do is buy you breakfast."
Denny did – it was pretty good for truck stop fare, and Eliot called a cab. "It's been nice meeting you, Denny."
"You too, Eliot. Take care of yourself." They shook hands. "You ever need a job, you look me up." Denny gave Eliot a card.
"Thanks, man. I will." He tucked the card in his shirt pocket. "He pulled out an old card from their days in LA. The office was gone, but Eliot knew Hardison still monitored the voice mail. "And if you ever need anything, you call me."
He took the cab from the truck stop into Boston proper. The cab dropped him off three blocks from the bar. Old habits. Walking in gave him a chance to not only check out the neighborhood but to stretch his legs and clear his head after the long night in the truck.
Nate's car was parked in its spot behind the building and Eliot used his key to open the back and headed into the bar. Just as he thought, Nate was behind the bar.
"I'm guessing you didn't make coffee."
"Uh, no." Nate poured a tall whiskey. "You want …" he waved a hand behind the bar, "something."
Eliot pressed his lips together and thought it over, then shook his head. "No, man, I'm good." He came and sat on a barstool. "Look, I spent last night thinking."
Nate stopped, the drink halfway to his lips. When Eliot talked serious, it was best to listen.
"You been riding me pretty hard lately. Telling me not to let kids affect me. Bringing up Cory and Randy and the African kids. And I got to realize this ain't about me." He held up a hand when Nate started to protest. "You made it seem like you were all worried I was going soft, that I had a soft spot for kids, like it was a weakness."
Nate tossed back the shot and slammed the glass down on the bar. "What's it about then, huh, Eliot?" He didn't like it when they analyzed him, and it showed.
Eliot went on, his voice soft and calm despite Nate's outburst. "I started looking at this like Nate Ford. He's all worried that Eliot's gonna get all messed up and loose focus cuz something's going to go wrong with one of these kids he's getting invested in." Eliot watched as Nate poured another whiskey.
"Thing is, I been doing this a long time." Eliot paused. "Longer than you, son."
Nate snorted derisively.
"Anyway, so I got to thinking. I'm not gonna fall apart and become a nasty drunk if something goes wrong with a kid. Something goes wrong with kids every damn day, ain't nothing I can do about it. So why is Nate busting my chops over it?"
Nate waved a hand. "Do tell."
"You know what Nate? You can be a sanctimonious, smug, son of a bitch, but you're smart. Damn smart. You can out-think a hell of a lot of people. And I think for half a second maybe you saw a little bit of me in you."
Nate's expression showed that he didn't think Eliot was quite as smart as he thought he was.
Eliot kept on going. "The thing is, you weren't worried I'd end up like you. You're going to end up like me."
Nate leaned back against the back of the bar and crossed his arms over his chest, biting back every angry word he could think of and letting Eliot continue.
"I'm here to tell you, son, you ain't me. And you ain't never gonna be. Trust me."
Nate looked around, anywhere but at Eliot, his mind working overtime.
"I know you don't want Hardison to become hardened and bitter, like you. That's why you told him he could never run his own crew. You're proud of that. You don't want him to be like you. Well I feel the same way. Much as I grumble, I don't want you … or anyone, to end up doing the stuff I've done. The stuff I do."
Eliot tapped the bar with his finger. "Cut yourself a break. You ain't me. And while you might be a know-it-all, you can't do what I do. You just ain't got it inside you." Eliot pointed to his heart. "You're still too good. In here." Eliot paused, hoping Nate would look at him, but when he didn't he went on. "So stop riding me, okay? I got my end under control." Eliot picked up the drink on the bar and tossed it back, then threw the empty glass back, hard, harder than was necessary making Nate gasp when it hit his chest and fumbled to keep it from hitting the ground. "That's for the village-people construction dude crack."
Nate smiled. "Fair enough." Finally, he looked up and met Eliot's eye. There was compassion there, and something else.
"I'm taking the day. I'm going to go home, get some sleep and then go… do something with what ever is left of the day. I'll come in tomorrow."
"Okay, that's good. I told everyone else to do the same."
Eliot pushed off the bar stool and headed for the back door again. "Get some sleep, Nate. We'll save someone else tomorrow."
Nate nodded to Eliot as the younger man let himself out. He came out from behind the bar and locked the back door again before heading for the stairs. "But I can't save you, Eliot, can I? And no one, not even you, can save me."