(A/N - It's finally here, and I have good news: A lot of the writing is already done on chapter 25, as this is the climax and I've been working on it previously.
Thanks as always to my loyal and supportive readers! You have no idea how much it means to me that you are out there and care about my work. Specifically, Stella and gibbsrossi, thanks for telling me you're enjoying this tale. Sphinx, I NEVER tire of being told I'm doing my job well, especially the wonderful way you tell it! NeverTrustAPirate1, welcome and thank you for joining our journey here, and I hope you managed to make sense out of my explanation of how Nate and Eliot have gotten back in synch as to timeline.
Niecie, of course I have to thank you again for your proofreading services. By the way, folks, any spelling, grammatical, etc. errors that remain in these chapters is totally me, not my proofer!)
"Please don't die."
It was an entirely reasonable request, and one it was reasonable to make to man with as many injuries as Nate had suffered. Even more reasonable was the team's request, through Parker, that Nate follow medical orders and stay in bed or even go back to the hospital.
So why was he sitting here contemplating not whether he was going to rush off into a dangerous situation, but how to do so without being stopped by the doctor who was trying to keep him alive?
'That's easy – because Eliot's life is at stake. And like that wasn't more than enough reason, it got that way because he was trying to save my life. Now I just have to make sure these two don't get suspicious and try to keep me from going.'
Nate glanced nonchalantly at the door to make sure neither Jorheed nor Doc was looking his way, then surreptitiously unplugged the phone cord from the back of the base and tucked it under the base, so the disconnection wasn't immediately obvious to the casual glance. Even though he had told Parker that he would do this very thing, he was sure Sophie would try the call anyway, on the off chance that he forgot.
Most of the shot of whiskey Nate had poured earlier was still in the glass. He gulped it down and poured another. It was temporary, but it gave him at least the sense of a little extra energy, enough for him to get up and walk to the door. He held on to the doorframe, deliberately looking half out of it, and gave his two new friends a weak smile when they glanced up at him in alarm.
"Parker's on her way over," he told them, not specifying precisely where she was coming. "She'd probably come in the back way if you have one?" He made the deceptively truthful statement a casual question and raised an eyebrow, and then took another swallow of whiskey.
"Sure," Jorheed came over to take Nate's arm and nudge him back toward the back room and the bed. "That door," he pointed at a third door out of the office as they crossed it, "goes to the back hallway and a door to the alley at the end. How long you figure it'll take her to get here?"
"I really don't know." Nate let the youngster take more of his weight than was absolutely necessary. "But Parker moves fast, and I know she won't waste a moment in a situation like this one."
Jorheed stopped suddenly and gave Nate a worried look. "What are your other friends doing about… Eliot?"
"I don't know," Nate didn't hide his worry. He noticed Jorheed giving the whiskey remaining in the glass a disapproving look, and quickly gulped it down. "Remember, I could only hear what Parker was saying and she was focusing on me at the moment. But Sophie and Hardison have a location on him, and…"
"How?" Jorheed interrupted. He also took the empty glass from Nate and reached over to set it on the desk beside the bottle. He stayed between Nate and the desk, the mastermind noted.
"Um, what?" Nate raised his eyebrows.
"How do they have a location on him?" His look of concern suggested to Nate that Jorheed was still wondering just what he'd gotten himself into when he stopped to take pity on a homeless man on the point of collapse.
"Oh, well, that's Hardison's doing. He's the ultimate geek and he's always tracking people and things when we need it. He could probably make a computer give you a foot rub if he decided to try."
"You know, Nate, I'm gonna have to hear a lot more about you and these friends of yours. This whole thing is …" He shook his head.
Nate snorted softly.
'You have no idea.'
"We're not quite your normal group, that's for sure," he agreed. He took a deep breath and released it in a heavy sigh.
"Shit, man, I better get you back to bed before Doc peels both our hides." Jorheed helped him into the back room and watched him get settled.
"You rest now, 'kay? I'll be out in the clinic with Doc if you need anything. And I'll come check on you in a little while. I don't work at the shelter till this afternoon."
"Thanks, Jorheed. I seriously appreciate everything you've done for me. I don't know that I would have survived all this if it weren't for you."
"Well, at least the worst is over for you. I'll be praying for your friend Eliot to get rescued, too."
"Thanks for that, too. We… he needs every prayer you can send up."
'I need your prayers, too, but how can I tell you that without making you suspicious? I hope I survive whatever happens after I sneak out of here, so I can apologize for tricking you.'
Another good thing about his cover as a homeless man was that Doc and Jorheed had been careful to put everything Nate had been wearing or carrying where he could see it from the bed (except for the whiskey, and the lousy taste of the bottle Doc had brought him was familiar, so that was doubtless at hand if he demanded it) – the desk chair held his extra threadbare shirts and jackets, his boots and a ball cap – Jorheed must have remembered he'd had one before, and replaced it for him out of donated clothing. He also noticed that under the chair was a worn but perfectly usable duffle-bag.
At least this time he didn't have to make-do on the clothing before sneaking out. He waited for a few minutes in case Jorheed still had enough suspicion to check that he was staying put. Then he eased off of the bed and made it across to his clothes without staggering. He put on a couple of the extra shirts and layered over them a jacket that had been under the one with the big pockets. He didn't want to be recognized by that coat, especially since it was two-toned and rather noticeable. This jacket was dark colored as well as less bulky. Being able to move well had replaced staying warm as a priority, so he left the rest of the used clothing and jackets along with the offered duffle bag.
There was a notepad on the desk and a jar cluttered with pens and a couple of old pencils. Nate quickly wrote a short note:
I'm sorry about sneaking out but I know you're both too responsible to let me leave in my condition. I have to help Eliot. If I don't make it, know that you have my eternal gratitude for being true Good Samaritans.
He started to sign it simply 'Nate', but felt like he owed them something more of himself than anonymity, so as an apology he signed it more properly – 'Nathan Ford'.
Nate peeked out into the office and couldn't see either of his caretakers, so he carefully moved out and over to the office desk. Nate slipped the note most of the way under the phone, so it wouldn't be glaringly obvious, but should catch attention fairly quickly. A thought struck him, and he slid the top drawer open and found the usual assortment of paperclips and other cast-off junk. He scooped up a small assortment of long, small metallic objects, including two different sizes of paperclips, and dropped them into his pocket. Then he picked up the whiskey bottle and moved carefully around the desk, keeping his eye out the door to the clinic proper. He finally spotted Jorheed and Doc leaning against a small counter, talking. The angle was good for a slow movement to not attract their attention, so he took the chance and crossed to the third door.
Once he was in the back hallway, Nate paused to assess his strength. He was definitely shaky, but he felt he could make the few blocks to the warehouse of this de Theil man without collapsing. At least he hoped so. He took a couple of long swallows from the whiskey bottle, relishing the burn of the alcohol as it went down his throat. He looked seriously at the bottle.
'Better not have the temptation,' he decided. 'I'd probably get more harm than good from any more.' He set the bottle on the floor and made for the back door.
He kept to the alleys as he followed, approximately, the directions Jorheed and Doc had come up with. This brought him close to the back of the warehouse he wanted. He observed it from the alley entrance across the side street. Soon he saw a large, rather homely, muscular-looking man prowl around the front corner of the building and come along the side. Nate drew back a little way and crouched behind a set of concrete steps that led up to a padlocked door. From this hiding spot he saw the muscular man reach the opposite corner and slowly scan the side street with a sullen scowl.
Normal procedure would be for Eliot, or in his absence Parker or Nate, to quietly take out this obvious outside guard, but that sort of thing wasn't possible now. At least his patrol suggested video surveillance might not be in use. Nate stayed put and watched the man lumber on down the opposite alley, his head swinging from side to side but not, Nate noted, upward toward the second and third stories of the building. Too bad climbing was out in his condition, but it was nice to know that when Parker got here she should have an easy time getting in.
When the patrolling guard eventually turned the far corner, Nate moved carefully across the street. He would have preferred to study the guard on his rounds for a longer time, but he didn't know how bad Eliot's situation might be, and he didn't know how long he could keep on his feet, himself. If he was going to accomplish anything for Eliot's benefit, he couldn't waste any time.
From the mouth of the alley he noted that there were three doors in the back wall, doubtless to different sections of the warehouse. He looked carefully up and down the back wall of the warehouse, as well as the back of the building behind it, but couldn't see anything that, from Hardison's coaching, looked likely to be a concealed video camera. Without the hacker's scanning equipment he couldn't be sure, but he would just have to take the chance that he might be observed entering the building.
The first door was padlocked on the outside and looked like it hadn't been used in a long time. Nate passed this one for now and went on to the one near the center of the back wall of the warehouse. This looked more recently used, and had a pair of locks, one above and one below the door handle. This was good, since a deadbolt in addition to these two locks seemed unlikely.
Nate dug into his pocket and pulled out the assortment he'd swiped out of Doc's desk drawer. Parker had declared him her 'prize pupil' when trying to teach the rest of the team to pick locks, and they had discussed at some length the possible ways to manufacture a lock-pick with available materials. Nate blessed the little blonde thief as he fiddled with the locks.
He hadn't had much success when he had to interrupt his efforts to retreat to the far end of the alley, the direction the guard had taken, and take cover for what he hoped would be a fairly regular pass of his patrol. He found that instead of another side street, this end of the warehouse was separated by a narrow passage from another one beside it. Looking cautiously down the passage, he could see the street on which both fronted, but no sign of the guard or anyone else. The building behind had a parking lot between it and its next neighbor, and while this was encircled by a chain-link fence, it was set away from the building to allow access by trucks to loading docks on that side of the fence. Nate retreated behind the first of these and knelt so he could lean out behind a patch of weeds and watch the corner of the warehouse and the narrow passage to the fronting street.
He was rewarded by the appearance of the lumbering guard pretty close to when he expected him. The man scanned the parking lot and the small road that ran directly opposite the direction of the passage, including the loading docks, then turned and started down the passage. Nate let him get several yards along it before he struggled to his feet again, pausing to try to catch his breath.
'Great, I'm having trouble breathing. Damn fool to be here, but I didn't really have a choice. Don't.'
He stumbled and almost fell twice getting back to the door, but he made it and continued picking at the upper lock. He could feel he almost had it teased open when he realized the guard must be very nearly due to re-enter the alley. Just when he feared he would have to give it up for the moment, it clicked. Jubilation gave him a burst of energy in his retreat and, after he turned the corner onto the little road, he peeked back into the alley and was rewarded by actually having to wait several seconds before the guard made his appearance.
Nate returned to his previous hiding spot and let himself lean against the loading dock to rest for a moment. The boost he'd gotten from the whiskey was fading fast and he was beginning to feel a little fuzzy. When he checked, he found the guard was already half-way along the passage. His sense of timing was being thrown off by the dizziness that was hovering over him. He fought it off and determinedly returned to work on the second lock.
Since the locks were identical, he at least knew better how to work this one. It actually surrendered to him well before he would have had to retreat again. He had time to ease the door open and listen to the silence within before he slid into the dimly-lit room beyond. He waited for his eyes to adjust before he stepped away from the door.
'Better not lock it. It didn't look like Sasquatch out there was checking the doors and we may need to get out in a hurry.'
The largish room was filled with old pallets and boxes and scattered torn paper and sheet plastic. Obviously this was where things were dumped after goods were unpacked.
'Okay, I'm in and it doesn't seem like I've been detected. Now to find Eliot and this de Theil guy.'
Nate was surprised to not run into any inside guards as he slowly prowled. It was the distant sound of voices that finally led him to the main warehouse floor. He stood in shadows and scanned the area. The first thing he noticed was a large overhead-type door in the same wall, off to his right, with a platform that had a small crane on it.
'Must be another main storage area other side of this wall,' he reasoned, looking at the brick side of the hallway he had just come down.
Voices spoke again, echoing in the open space, and Nate edged forward to see further across the room. Toward the far end three men were standing together laughing and apparently making jokes, although at this distance their words weren't clear. Then another man, beyond the trio, looked up from a newspaper he was reading and called something to them. One moved off to Nate's left, out of sight, and the other two watched him silently.
The man with the newspaper returned to it. He was seated on a plush sofa with an elaborate coffee table in front of him on which stood a cut-glass decanter and glass and a cigar in a fancy ashtray. A side table bore an equally elaborate lamp, which provided light for the man to read by. It looked as if he had set himself up a comfortable little living space in the midst of the utilitarian space. It didn't have anything like the quirky personal feel of Parker's similarly placed home environment; it just looked like a display of complete disregard of anything but the owner's immediate comfort.
Nate edged further into the room, seeking to discover what the man – it had to be the de Theil who Parker had said was in charge of this crew – had sent one of his lackeys to do.
That lackey was bent over something beside a steel pole that appeared to be one of the main support columns of the building. He shifted and Nate saw …
'Eliot! Looks like he's unconscious.'
Eliot's state of consciousness was apparently what the thug had been told to check, because he grabbed a handful of the hitter's hair and twisted to bring Eliot's face up where he could examine it. The move also allowed Nate a good view of the blood and bruising visible even at this distance. Eliot's eyes were swollen; one looked like it was probably swollen shut. Actually, most of his face appeared to be swollen, and Nate hated to think what the rest of him looked like. There was enough blood soaking his shirt to be all too suggestive.
Nate realized that the reason the unconscious hitter was sitting upright was because his arms were pulled harshly behind him and around the pole.
'Tied there, no doubt. I wonder if they have any idea what he can do to any bonds that aren't good and solid.
'I'm going to have to try to get over behind him without being seen. And watch for more thugs. Surely this guy has more than four? Then again, I guess he's probably not in Damien Moreau's class, considering where he's hanging out. More of a wannabe.'
He made his way carefully along jumbled aisles of what seemed far more like clutter than merchandise. He was close enough to hear trivial talk among the thugs when he came to a packing case with a bull's eye painted on it. More importantly, a throwing knife was stuck in the dead center of the target. He pulled it free and slipped it into his pocket on the theory that it was the sort of thing that was likely to come in handy.
To be continued
(A/N - And now at last our little song is reaching its crescendo! The question is, is this coda for Nate and/or Eliot? - Sorry, I rewatched Scheherazade last night and come from an orchestra family.)