"Would you like something to drink?"
"Just some water, no straw, no lemon," she said to the waiter. "Thanks." The smile she flashed the young man made him blush. This was going to be an interesting interview.
Eliot was sitting in his favorite armchair in Nate's apartment. The insurance man's glance also showed that he was reading one of Nate's journals and drinking tea, which meant there was hot coffee waiting for him in the kitchen. He continued on to the kitchen and poured himself a coffee. Sophie joined him, reaching for her favorite mug. "So, she was nice."
"No, Sophie. She's too young."
"Nate, you need to get out."
Sophie rolled her eyes and went to talk to her partner in Nate-nagging. Eliot let her settle on his lap with a raised brow. He glanced over at Nate. His lips quirked into a question and Nate shrugged. Eliot was easy to work with. He always presented good arguments when he didn't want to follow orders. He was also easy to share space with. He didn't disrupt Nate's thoughts with chatter. He didn't leave glasses on the coffeetable or sneakers by the stairs to trip him. Besides, Eliot cooked. Now, if Sophie could understand that being quiet was nice sometimes and that he didn't want to go looking for a new suit to cheer himself up, he might be able to deal with her in his space without being distracted. When Nate looked back Parker was on the arm of Eliot's chair and all three thieves were looking at something in the journal. "No," Parker said finally, "it couldn't have been done that way. They're grasping at straws."
"Well, you could go through the front door, I suppose," Sophie said uncertainly.
Eliot frowned. "But you couldn't get out that way. The alarms would go off as soon as you got into the area."
Nate cleared his throat. "No outside jobs."
Parker rolled her eyes. "It's not a job."
"It's a thought problem." Sophie stood up gracefully. She settled on the couch with Parker next to her.
Hardison was scowling when he came in, laptop in hand. "Man, you do not want to know how many hours I have spent on this."
"Just run it." Hardison took the orange soda that was waiting for him on the coffee table and sat down next to Parker.
"This is our client Honeysuckle Jones. She's 20. Majoring in Agricultural Engineering at Idaho University. And she may as well be a ghost. She has a facebook page and some scattered email trails. She has a bank account and a part time job at the local grocery store that direct deposits into the account. She approached us on behalf of Good Earth Commune."
Eliot coughed up a mouthful of tea.
Hardison continued when no comment was forthcoming. "The Good Earth Commune was started in the late seventies by a handful of hippies and a bunch of money from a retired oil man from Texas named Butch. They have a static website with hours for their shop and honor stands."
"Honor stands?" Sophie interrupted.
"Don't ask me," Hardison grumbled.
"Roadside stand with a box for you to put your money in when you want to buy something. Like honey or a birdhouse or whatever. Some places lock them, some places don't." Eliot just shrugged when the team looked at him. "The Amish do it."
"What else do you have for us?"
"Honeysuckle's right. The land developer does plan to put up more housing. He also wants to clean out the subdivision that's there to make way for a shiny little lifestyle center with a walking distance grocery store and shops. He's calling it a village, but it's a mall with apartments and a suburb within walking distance. He even wants to move the schools. His name is Samuel Holstein. He's known for big risks and he's a local man. I've also got a host of complaints against the commune. All of them have been found to be without merit, except for one pot possession charge."
Eliot snorted. "Only one?"
"Yeah. The child abuse charges were found to be groundless. The truancy reports are also groundless. The whole place seems to be home-schooled until high school when I finally start finding traces of the kids. Looks like Honeysuckle is the third of four. The oldest two got GED's and went off the grid after two years at the local high school. I don't know if they went back to the commune or if they ended up in scooping ice cream at the local ice cream shop. There is pressure being put on the zoning commission to rezone them, but it's been stalled there for a few months. Looks like they've got another hearing coming up in one month." Hardison fidgeted. "I do have one thing that's not happy news." The picture of a muscular sheriff with dark glasses, gray hair, and a hand on his gun flashed onto the screen. "This is Sheriff Bowman. He has a hate on for the commune and anyone associated with it. He's in Holstein's pocket and seems to be the power in the town. He's been dropping charges and releasing anyone who's attacked the members of the commune. He's not investigating the property damage and theft charges that the commune has been trying to press."
"So he's a bad man," Parker summarized, "and the hippies don't fight back the right way."
"Right," Nate confirmed. "So, what we have to do is steal the town out from under Holstein. That's easy enough. We need to get the zoning commission on our side." Nate paced as he drank his coffee.
Eliot cleared his throat. "Any of you all ever been on a farm before?"
"I saw some chicks once. They were cute."
Sophie made a politely disgusted face at the very thought. Nate quirked a grin. "Eliot will get us some accommodations and take the girls shopping for clothes that will fit in at the commune. I want to spend some time there. Honeysuckle said they'd be happy to have us work with them for a little while."
"I'll get an apartment. Come on, Parker, we'll get you outfitted. Sophie, I think you'll want to forget the salon today. It won't last."
Hardison blinked once, then twice at Parker's outfit. She wore beige overalls with hiking boots and a delicately embroidered shirt with an amethyst on a chain around her neck. It worked on her. Sophie was arguing with Eliot over whether she should wear boots or sandals. "The day I wear hiking boots with a skirt is the day I'll dye my hair black and get a tattoo," she snapped finally.
Eliot shook his head. "You want to ruin your shoes, be my guest. I ain't arguing. Just remember this is a farm, not a reenactment of one."
"I'm well aware of that." She settled her layered skirt and adjusted the scarf she was using as a belt.
Hardison looked down at the jeans and tee-shirt he was wearing. Their hitter had informed him that fringe was not a good idea, no matter what Sophie seemed to think, so his scarf was in the car. He glanced at their mastermind. Nate looked surprisingly comfortable in what looked like Eliot's cast-offs. The flannel was a bit big in the shoulders, but beyond that he looked like himself.
The Good Earth Commune wasn't as Ren-Faire as he'd expected. The front gate was wrought iron with their name above it. The gate was open and just inside was a round courtyard of booths. There was fabric, yarn, eggs, produce and candles from what he could see at first glance. Eliot was striding straight through the courtyard as if he knew exactly where he was headed. "What is that smell?" Sophie demanded.
"Fertilizer. Oh, and these are honor stands. See the boxes? That's where you drop your money in."
"Honeysuckle said to check in at the main house," Nate stated.
They let Eliot lead. "So," Hardison muttered to Nate, "girlfriend you think?"
"Maybe." Nate frowned at the back of Eliot's head.
Then, out of nowhere came a female teenager yelling "Sage!" She captured Eliot in a full-bodied hug that left Parker and Sophie stumbling over each other to stay out of the way.
"Didja miss me?" Eliot grinned at her. They were about the same height with the same color hair. Hardison would put money on them having the same eyes too.
Nate closed his eyes. "Oh, I'm thinking sister instead."
Eliot glanced over his shoulder with a bright grin. "Welcome to the Good Earth Commune. Let me introduce you to Pepper Jones. Honeysuckle's little sister."
"Hold that thought." She turned and bellowed. "MOM!"
"Come on, sprout. I need my ears."
"Yeah, cuz you're blind. I know." Pepper kept her arm around Eliot's waist. "You should come to our place first and meet the family. Then throw them to the wolves at the community house."
A slender woman with her hair in a long braid and a pair of homemade pants and a top more heavily embroidered than Sophie's came out of the second house down the street. She cocked her head to the side then gestured them toward her. When they were within reach, she pulled Eliot into a long hug. "I swear you're getting taller."
"No, you're shrinking," he informed his mother. "It's the lack of meat in your diet. Dad here?"
"He's looking after the cows this week. Now, did Pepper have a chance to tell you that she's decided to follow in your footsteps? Three belts in three different techniques already." His mother's eyes narrowed. Eliot looked unruffled at that and Hardison upped his bad-ass points. He could stare down his mother. "Come inside. Sit down. Pepper get some cider for everyone."
"Pep, soft-cider." The teen nodded. "Mom, these are Nate, Alec, Sophie, and Parker. Guys, this is my mom, Rose Jones."
"A pleasure." Sophie offered her hand for the firm shake.
"Hi," Alec said offering his own hand. "So he actually has a Mama I can threaten him with now."
"She doesn't have a phone," Eliot smirked at him.
Nate shook her hand briefly. Parker looked at her, head cocked to the side. "You have the same eyes. Except his are more blue."
"Yes, mine have more brown in them so they're hazel. Like my mother's eyes. His father's got they crystal blue eyes."
"And the rest of us muddle along with mid-ranges of blue. Here's the cider. I really need to get back to slug detail or they're going to be really bloated. Don't you dare run away on me!" Pepper pointed at her brother. "I need a ride into town."
Eliot snapped something at her in what sounded like Latin.
She laughed. "And don't you forget it."
"Honeysuckle came to Nate and said you guys needed some help." Eliot spread his hands. "Here we are. We have an apartment in town, so we won't stress resources."
"Don't be silly. If you're working here, you eat here. There's plenty of room. Birdy's got a free guest room that will hold all of you." Rose's brows rose. "And it's got one Moroccan bed that should be big enough."
"Mom. Psycho-social boundaries are set about three steps back from where we're staying."
She rolled her eyes. "How did I manage to raise such a prude?" She shook her head. "I'm on my off-day. I'll take you to the common house. Then Sage can take you on a tour of the place. Don't be afraid to ask questions." The last seemed to be directed at Parker. She dropped into another language with Eliot for a few moments. Hardison took the time to sip at his damned good cider and look around the house. The house had no more than four rooms. The kitchen and living room were one space. There was what he assumed was a bathroom in the middle and two bedrooms. That must have been awkward when the kids reached puberty. "You will abide by the rules while you're here."
"Of course," Eliot scowled at the woman. "But I will not allow violence against me or mine to go unanswered. You know that too."
Rose shook her head. She reached up and tucked a strand of Eliot's hair behind his ear. "You can tell me anything."
"There are things I can't tell anyone."
"So stop taking government money." She shrugged. "Drink up and tell me about how you five met."
Eliot settled on the floor on a pillow. His mother did the same, easily tucking her bare feet under her thighs. "Nate and Sophie met about ten years ago over a painting. After his divorce they met up a few times. He's the insurance man I told you about. The good one, not the creep. Sophie's an actress. Alec is a computer genius. He met Nate over something missing that he could track. Parker is a mechanical genius. If you're still having trouble with the windmill, she might be able to help figure out why."
"Great. But how did you meet each other?"
"We were all hired for the same job. We ended up not walking away at the end of it."
Rose turned her eyes to Nate. Nate saluted with his glass and nodded. She studied all five of them for a long moment. "The thing you aren't telling me has to do with that life choice we don't discuss around your father."
She massaged her temples. "You're going to turn me grey if you keep this up. So what are you planning? Nothing illegal."
Nate gave her his charming the client smile. "We're going to create some positive PR and get the zoning committee to protect the commune."
"And you promise this will all be legal." She looked Nate dead in the eye. "I don't want to have to bail Sage out if the sheriff starts getting frisky again."
"Mom." Eliot put a hand on her wrist. "I trust Nate to not let things get out of hand." He grinned suddenly. "He kept me out of trouble for more than a year."
"Somehow I really do doubt that." She shook her head. "I'll make Birdy get it out of you. It's enough that we have a few more hands for the harvest. We can look after ourselves."
"But you don't need to. And no, I didn't know Honeysuckle had found Nate until after he agreed to take on the case."
"And how is she paying for this?"
"We have an alternative revenue source," Nate stated. "Now, tell me more about the community here. And more about this sheriff."
Rose tucked her arm into her son's. She led them down the central path of cobblestones to the spacious common house. It had red clapboard on the sides and looked vaguely like a one room schoolhouse. Sophie was beginning to understand why Eliot was pushing her to wear boots. These cobbles were going to be hell on her ankles. Surprisingly, the smell of manure was fading. Her nose was probably in shock. Eliot waved to people as they passed, looking perfectly relaxed. The door of the commons was braced open with built-in wooden doorstop. The windows were all open, letting the air circulate. It was still warm in the house. There were two large looms and several spinning wheels on the left side. There was a kitchen at the back of the house with a fireplace in the center of the room surrounded by a mound of pillows. A floor to ceiling bookshelf ran around the room. There was an eight year old pulling a book off one of the top shelves. Several more kids were flopped around the room with books and notebooks. Both of the looms were being worked. One of the spinning wheels was being used. Conversation swirled around them in at least ten different languages.
An older man was in the kitchen chopping something sturdy like carrots. Bushels of fruit sat on the counter. "Sage, get over here, boy. We've got canning to finish."
"In a minute, Gus. Let me introduce my friends around."
Sophie bit the inside of her cheek. "Sage" did not fit Eliot in the least part. "Gus, leave the poor boy alone. He just got in," an older woman chided from her place behind the spinning wheel. Gus snorted. He pointed his knife at Eliot, then at a spot next to him. The retrieval expert grinned at him. His mother guided them around the room, introducing them to the people who were there, the kids who were doing homework, and pointed out several features Sophie hadn't noticed at first glance.
"This is the weather radio. If there's anything big going on, we get alerts so that we can secure the place. The media center is in the corner there. It's on restricted hours. It only runs after six and only for two hours, unless there's something special like a documentary we've picked up from the library. Games are on the shelves over there. We also have molds for candle-making and other craft supplies scattered around. If you're interested in learning how to spin or weave or anything else, there's probably someone here who can teach you. Oh, and everyone here does speak English, but we are doing a full-immersion in Russian for the kids right now, so the music tonight will be Russian and so will the television programming and most of the discussion. If you have trouble, Sage will interpret for you."
"Sophie speaks Russian too."
"Wonderful. I'll ask you to help out with the kids then."
"Of course," the grifter promised. She raised her brows at Eliot who was completely unrepentant.
"I'll leave you with Sage. I've got some things to do at the house. I'm on kitchen duty tonight."
"Sage is here," Gus called over, "you just let him take your shift."
"Gus, I am capable of cooking!"
"It's okay, Rose, we love you anyway," one of the kids said solemnly in Russian. Sophie couldn't help but laugh.
"I see how it is." Rose kissed Eliot's cheek. "Looks like Gus has work for you. Remember, you're welcome to stay here."
"We'll be fine at the apartment. Thanks."
The team was left alone with Eliot. "So, were you planning to tell me this was a family matter?"
"Nope." Eliot smirked at Nate. "I figure you're more than capable of dealing with it. Besides," Eliot shrugged, "it's better cover than we normally have. You're mine, you're welcome."
"And your mother thinks you're sleeping with us?"
"My mother would be overjoyed if I were sleeping with you four. She'd see it as proof of my sanity. Now, Birdy over there is one of the powerhouses that started this place. Butch was her second husband."
"Sage!" The woman who called was sitting near the kitchen in a rocking chair with a pile of mending next to her and a swollen pregnant belly. Her hair was piled on the top of her head. "Don't I even get a hello?" Eliot leaned down and kissed her sweetly and deeply. Parker watched with her head cocked to the side. She didn't seem to have a problem with it, which surprised Sophie. Sophie thought the younger woman would be more jealous. She seemed to consider Eliot part of her collection.
A man entered through the side door with a basket of green beans. He kissed Bridget on the cheek, then caught Eliot in a soft, lover's kiss. "Hi," he said after they broke apart. "It's going to be twins. I say Frick and Frack, but Bridget wants something more traditional."
"Boys or girls or one of each?"
"I'm assuming so," Bridget said.
"Hey, beans over here. Then Sage can get to work."
"Are you taking over cooking detail from your mom?" The man who was appearantly one of Eliot's lovers asked. He hadn't taken his hand off of Eliot's waist yet. Sophie could feel Nate's tension beside her. She frowned at him.
"Now, 'Sage', shouldn't you be introducing us?" she interrupted.
"Tam, Sophie, Nate, Alec, and Parker. They're here with me."
"Oh, your collective's back together!" Tam turned to look at Nate. "I'm glad you changed your mind."
Eliot put his hand over Tam's mouth. "Enough. No interferring. If you're capable of that." He dropped into what Sophie was pretty sure was Farsi for a moment. Tam nodded. "Come on, help clean veggies."
"Parker, you want to help?" The blonde nodded. She introduced herself to Tam with a quick handshake.
"Weren't you going to give us a tour?" Nate's voice was mild, but showing hints of steel. Tam's eyes narrowed.
"After you talk to Birdy." Eliot and Nate stared at each other for a long moment. Sophie wished, not for the first time, that she knew the whole story of how they'd met. Eliot herded Nate over to the old woman who was spinning. Parker followed Tam into the kitchen and was quite happily cleaning green beans under his direction. Alec pressed close to Sophie.
"This explains so much," the hacker stated. "In fact, I'm counting the fact that he even uses a computer a win at this point."
"Sophie?" a young girl asked, tugging at her skirt.
"Don't those hurt your feet?"
The three inch wedge sandals were probably the most exotic shoes the girl had ever seen. She didn't see any fashion magazines laying around. "My sandals? No, I'm used to them. Although the cobbles outside were a little difficult."
"But why would you wear anything that tall? Wouldn't it make twisting your ankle more likely?"
"I like the way they look."
The girl gave her a version of Eliot's "there is something wrong with you" look, but nodded. "Thanks."
"Birdy, this is Nate."
Birdy looked up from her work. "Sit down and talk to me." She nodded her head toward the chair next to her. "And don't think you're running away, Sage." Eliot settled on the floor by her feet. Nate took the indicated chair. She was a wiry woman with steel grey hair and brown eyes. Her gaze was sharp. "Honeysuckle told me she'd tracked down a Robin Hood to help us get rid of Holstein. I'm assuming she meant you since Sage doesn't like politics. Tell me what you're planning. Leave nothing out."
Nate blinked. "We're going to win over the zoning commission and put Holstein out of business."
"And how are you going to do that? This is a collective, Nate. We make our decisions together. Anything you're doing here beyond helping with the harvest will have to be approved."
"We're going to start a PR campaign. Sophie will be in charge of that. We'll also be documenting the vandalism and other problems you've been having. We'll get someone other than the sheriff involved."
"You won't get a prosecutor in this town. We've tried that."
Nate's felt his smile turn a little cruel. "That all depends on what you have on the prosecutor."
Birdy laughed at that. "And Sage calls you an honest man." She shook her head.
"Hardison will be filming the farm to update your website." Nate waited for her to say something about that. She simply added a bit more raw flax to her spinning. "And we'll want to set up some security."
"No violence. It's against our precepts." The old woman smiled down at Eliot. He batted his lashs at her. "Do you hear me?"
"No violence," Nate agreed. "I'd prefer to do this smoothly."
"Then you shouldn't have broken that mirror last year," Eliot muttered. Nate tapped his boot against the younger man's knee.
Birdy pinned Nate with her sharp eyes. "You're going to ruin Holstien and get rid of Sheriff Blowhard."
Nate couldn't stop the laughter. "Yes, Ma'am." He gave her a salute. She gave him a smile that made her look twenty years younger.
"Now, tell me what exactly you've gotten my favorite here tangled up in. I had hoped he'd gone straight."
"He'd be bored within a month," Nate answered. "In fact, maybe we could share information."
"I think I should take you on that tour now." Eliot's eyes darted between the two. "In fact, let's do that right now."
"Oh no, this is too good of an opportunity for me to get a straight answer as to what you've been doing. You go on and take care of the pretty dears in the middle of the room there. And remember, my guest room will accomidate the five of you."
"Thanks, Birdy. We've got an apartment for the moment. Nate, don't let her talk you into anything. She's dangerous."
"You, go away and let me interrogate Nate." Eliot abandoned Nate to coax Sophie and Alec to the other side of the common house. Alec was beginning to look a bit pained. Sophie had on her conning smile. She looked like an orchid in the midst of a daisy patch. "Now I know how you met Sage. I know that he respects you. And I know that you're a drunk, recovery or not, I really don't care. Tell me plainly, what you're here to do."
"Steal the town from Holstein."
She nodded once. "I'll help you with that, then. Those people out there are our neighbors. They come here for our festivals. Their children play with ours. We date. The violence and the attempts to drive us out are not from our neighbors. They're from the sheriff and from Holstein. We've been here longer than some of the members of the zoning committee have been alive. And Nate, be honest here. If you're running a scam, we won't care. Money doesn't mean anything to us, except as a way to get more land for the farm or trade for building supplies and equipment. We aren't living in the dark ages. We simply live as a community. We shop as a community. We share. We let the kids explore their world and learn according to their own pace. That doesn't mean we're backward or uncultured. Sage and Poppy were the ones who set the outside year rule in place. They demanded that every child who grew up here spend at least one year in the outside world before they are allowed to join the commune full time." She smiled. "And I'll be blunt. We have some things that must remain secret here. The pot use by some of our community being one of those things."
Nate nodded. "I never thought you were stupid. And I will not allow anything harmful to the community to be spread around." He studied her. "And you'll be going to the zoning commission as the spokesperson?"
"Yes. And I'll take Gus and Bridget if she's not given birth yet. And I think I'll take Shiloh. Sage should be able to get some of the housewives around here to help out." She winked at Nate. "All he has to do is smile. He reminds me of my Spencer. My first husband. He was a soldier. I was a nurse. It was all very romantic. He introduced me to Butch after we found out he was going to die. He wanted me to be happy." Her smile was gentle. "I miss them both. This commune is part of their legacy. I won't see it die."
He nodded solemnly. "I won't let that happen. Now, I'm going to get that tour and make some plans."
Eliot settled Sophie and Alec in the eating area. "Now, I'd ask if y'all wanted to help in the kitchen, but we know that ain't going to happen. So what do you think?"
"I think I'll by dying my hair black and getting a tattoo."
"An orchid would suit you, I think."
Alec shook his head. "I'm shocked you actually can turn on a computer."
"There's internet available at the apartment." Eliot soothed the hacker automatically. "As soon as Nate finishes getting blackmail material from Birdy, I'll show you the rest of the place. Feel free to pick up a book or whatever. There's some puzzles in the games area. Unless you want to clean carrots or something?" He raised his brows.
Sophie shook her head. "No. Are we eating here tonight?"
"You don't have to. I'll be doing pasta." He shrugged. "That's what Mom would have been doing anyway."
"You grew up here? Seriously? How the Hell did you end up as, you know, you?"
Eliot paused. "There are always reasons," he said quietly. "And I had a Buddah moment when I was ten. I wanted to learn how to protect. Birdy talked Mom down when she wanted to forbid it. Then, I had to convince her that it was more than just a passing fad. She doesn't know about some things. She does know about Croatia. And Birdy patched me up after Myanmar. She was an army nurse. She's a little more practical than Mom." He shrugged. "That's why I retrieve. Besides, I only kill folks who need it."
Sophie cocked her head to the side. "To control yourself, not your world. That's what you told me."
"And that's true. Why I need to control myself is something my parents never need to know about."
"So, tell us about Bridget and Tam instead." She leaned forward.
Alec grinned. "Are they yours?"
"Nah. I can't have kids. I crashed with them after we split up the second time."
"You came back here?" Sophie blinked.
"Of course. Why wouldn't I? It's not like Hardison could track me here." Eliot shrugged.
"So you are sleeping with both of them?" Alec pressed. "Seriously?"
The retriever blinked. "Yes?" It was as if that were odd. He caught a motion out of the corner of his eye and turned toward the kitchen. Gus caught Parker's arm before she could stab Tam, who'd obviously tried to put the moves on the blonde.
"No stabbing," Gus said firmly. His voice was firm. He set the knife on the counter. "Tam, apologize."
"I'm sorry for overstepping your boundaries. I wasn't thinking."
Parker blinked. "Okay."
"Damn. That man is fast," Alec said.
"Sage, get over here and corral your boy."
"You want to help out? There's plenty to do. Or, if Nate's done we'll take that tour."
"You go on. Alec and I will just observe for now." Sophie sent Eliot off with a sweet smile. She was up to something.
Nate joined Sophie and Alec at the table. His eyes were bright. "Birdy has agreed to help us with the documentary and with the housing committee. And I know the story behind Eliot's name."
"Spill it, man," Alec begged.
Nate shook his head. He was saving that for something special. "Have you found anything interesting?"
Sophie smiled at him and his stomach fluttered. That was her dangerous "helpful" smile. "The children adore Eliot and I believe that he and Gus were discussing disarm techniques. And the twins aren't his."
Alec snorted. "You saw Parker trying to kill his boyfriend right?"
"Well, they don't seem to have any trouble with that. Look at them."
Tam was working shoulder to shoulder with Parker and monitoring her packing of the green beans he'd brought in. Eliot was joking with the older man about something in a language Nate didn't speak. He was pretty sure it was Serbian.
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