“Any idea where Eliot is?” Nate Ford asked. “I want to get this meeting started.” He set his file folders back on the pub table and tapped them with his fingers.
“Nope,” Alec Hardison answered. His eyes focused on his phone, and his typing didn’t miss a beat.
“He was cleaning up the kitchen last I knew,” Sophie Devereaux offered. “He can be pretty fastidious about that. He probably lost track of time.”
“Eliot doesn’t lose track of time,” Parker contradicted.
Hardison stopped typing and put his head up. “She’s right, Nate. This ain’t like him.”
At that moment Eliot Spencer stormed in, wearing a green apron saying ‘John McRory’s Place’ and a fearsome scowl.
“What’s wrong, Eliot?” Nate asked, appearing unperturbed.
“I’ve had it!” Eliot growled as he threw himself into the seat next to Parker and across from Nate and Sophie. “That stinkin’ cat that’s been hanging out in the alley behind the pub has gotten into the garbage AGAIN! I’ve tried THREE different kinds of garbage cans and it’s STILL managing to get in!”
“We should catch it and take it to the pound,” Parker suggested.
“Can we discuss that later? We have a bunch of potential clients to vet,” Nate told them.
“That’s a good idea. We could take the cat to the nearest vet,” Parker said.
Hardison held up his phone. “Yeah, looks like there’s a veterinary clinic just up the street only a few blocks away. Much closer than the pound.”
“Focus, people!” Nate insisted.
Sophie intervened. “Nate, they’re going to be distracted until we take care of this, and it won’t take long. In fact, I’ll do it. Lady Charlotte Prentice was raised in a manor full of cats, after all. Easy peasy. I just need my shawl and a tin of caviar.” She rose regally from her seat.
“Caviar?” Nate asked. “Irish pubs don’t serve caviar.”
“That doesn’t mean there’s none on the premises,” Sophie replied. She went behind the bar and bent out of sight briefly. There were a couple of soft scraping sounds, then Sophie reappeared holding up a can.
Nate blinked in surprise as Sophie glided toward the door.
“You do realize that Duchess Lady Charlotte Whoever is a fictional persona, don’t you?” Eliot called out to her.
Sophie just gave him a sphinxlike smile and departed.
Hardison stared in disbelief. “Sophie’s going to try to grift a cat?”
Nate shrugged resignedly. “If anyone can do that, it’s her.”
Parker’s eyes had widened. “Wow, she’s really good.”
“If she succeeds, I’ll drive her in Lucille to the vet’s,” Hardison decided.
A shriek sounded through the back door.
“Uh, that ain’t good,” Hardison said.
Eliot rose to his feet.
A second shriek was closely followed by Sophie stomping her way in toward the team. She clutched a mangled length of fabric, and her thick dark hair was coming undone.
“Sophie!” Nate exclaimed.
“What happened?” Eliot asked.
“Ooh!” Sophie vented. “I was trying to be kind, and that horrid creature has ruined my silk shawl! And even worse, it scratched up my fifteen hundred dollar boots from Milan! I can’t believe it! These are going to be terribly difficult to replace!”
Nate tried very hard not to show his amusement.
Hardison didn’t. He laughed out loud and said, “Sophie Devereaux got bested by a cat! That is classic! Girl, you don’t need caviar!” He entered a command on his phone. Sophie started as a panel from the bar fell open and a bright green robot shaped somewhat like a beetle, with appendages like a Mars rover’s, trundled out. Hardison grinned. “You need Parker Two Thousand!”
Sophie glared at him.
Nate blinked. “You hid your robot inside the bar?”
“How is she going to catch the cat?” Parker wanted to know.
“Just you wait and see,” chuckled Hardison as the robot rolled away. “This baby has almost as many tricks as the real Parker, and I’ve made some awesome and expensive new upgrades!”
“Are those upgrades as expensive as Sophie’s wardrobe?” Nate asked.
Sophie turned her glare on Nate. “Speaking of expenses, just for that, you are going to be the one replacing my boots!” she grumbled. “Hardison, we need a pair of plane tickets to Milan for tomorrow! First class! And make sure they serve caviar!”
“Okay, I’ll get ‘em for you in a minute, Sophie. First we’ve got an alley cat to catch!” Hardison escorted Parker Two Thousand out the door.
The crew heard a few bleeps from the robot. Then there was a sudden loud crunch, and Hardison shouted, “No no no no no no! Argh!”
Hardison returned, cradling the robot. Its carapace was badly cracked, and Hardison held a broken wheel and a twisted antenna in his hand.
Eliot laughed. “Age of the geek, baby!”
Hardison gave him his darkest stare. “You shut up, Eliot. That dang cat was up on top of the fence, and it jumped all the way down right on top of her! I never designed her to be a feline trampoline!”
“Calm down, calm down,” Sophie placated. “You can fix it, can’t you, Hardison?”
Hardison still glowered. “Yeah, I can fix it, eventually.” He shook his head and sighed. “My Nana told me there’d be days like this, and when that happens, you restart and rebuild, and you learn, and you come back stronger!” He set the broken robot on the table and went to his secret cubbyhole in the bar and started rummaging for tools and parts.
Parker then nudged him aside. “It’s my turn!” she declared, and reached past his stash of electronics.
Hardison’s jaw dropped as she extracted a harness and climbing rope. “You have a secret panel behind my secret panel?”
“Well, yeah!” Parker chirped. “You didn’t know?”
Hardison looked at her half confounded, half admiring.
Sophie asked, “What are you going to do, Parker?”
“I’m going to sneak up on the cat from above! It won’t be expecting that. Once I catch it can I keep it?”
“No!” the others chorused.
“That’s okay,” Parker replied. “Woo-hoo! I get to jump off the building!” With that she scampered off.
The crew sat in silence for several minutes.
Parker’s loud “Gotcha!” then made them jump, but it was quickly followed by a staccato “Oop!” and a loud metallic crash.
Parker re-entered the brewpub carrying her rig.
“Parker, are you okay?” Hardison asked.
She grinned. “Sure. That was fun, and I almost got him! If my harness wasn’t broken, I’d go try it again. It turns out this unbreakable rope wasn’t so unbreakable after all. Maybe it is true that black cats are bad luck!” She deposited her gear on the floor under the table and sat down. “By the way, sorry, Eliot. You’re going to need some new garbage cans again.”
“Great,” Eliot deadpanned.
Nate turned to Eliot. “I suppose it’s your turn. What have you got hidden in the bar?”
Eliot smirked as he stood up. “Nothin’,” he said. He took off his chef’s apron and left.
A loud feline yowl erupted from outside, quickly followed by a strangely high-pitched scream and a familiar metallic crash.
Eliot returned with one leg of his trousers ripped, eight long parallel scratches down his calf underneath, and an enraged expression.
“Eliot!” Sophie cried.
“I’m all right,” Eliot said. “Just some superficial scratches. But if I ever get my hands on that vermin, it ain’t gonna be all right! Parker, you were right about the garbage cans. They do need to be replaced.”
“Is the little girl all right?” Hardison asked.
“What little girl?”
“The one outside who screamed just now. She sounded about nine years old?”
“There wasn’t any little girl.”
“There had to have been. It was a very distinctive sound,” Hardison chortled.
Eliot glared at him. “Shut up, Hardison! I’m gonna go get cleaned up.” Eliot headed for the back of the pub.
Hardison, Parker, and Sophie all looked expectantly at Nate.
“What?” he asked.
Sophie raised one eyebrow.
Nate rolled his eyes. “Fine. Let’s finish this. Hardison, get Lucille ready.” He picked up his hat from the tabletop, put it on his head, and headed for the alley.
“If he can catch that cat, I sure wanna know how he does it,” said Hardison.
The others nodded.
Eliot came back and sat beside Parker. “What’s happening?” he wanted to know.
“Nate’s trying to catch the cat,” Parker answered.
The silence stretched onward.
Finally Nate returned, calm but alone. Without a word he simply resumed his seat.
“You couldn’t catch the cat either, could you?” Sophie asked.
Nate opened the top file folder of his stack. “Now, about these clients –“ he began.
Parker leaned over and whispered to Sophie, “He doesn’t have his hat.”
Sophie looked. It was true. “Nate, what happened to your hat?” she asked.
“What hat?” Nate returned, his face expressionless.
“The ugly one you just lost out there, of course.”
“Hang on,” Hardison interrupted. “Have we, all of us, as consummate professionals, the best in the business, just been beaten by a cat?”
“Some of us almost literally,” Eliot quipped.
Hardison shook his head. “We haven’t been whipped this bad since we tackled the Steranko security system at the Wakefield building!”
“Like I said,” Nate put in, “Let’s talk about these clients. I think –“
The brewpub door opened, and the last person any of them expected to see that night walked in.
“Jack Hurley!” Nate said.
The rotund, sandy-haired man wearing a woven Mexican poncho beamed at him.
Then Peggy Milbank appeared, coming up alongside Hurley. The brunette caterer was beaming too. “Alice! Marge!” she called, the names she knew Parker and Sophie by. “Come see!”
The crew approached the couple. Peggy smiled apologetically at Nate. “I know your pub is closed at this hour, but we were hoping you could help us out.”
“What do you need?” Sophie asked.
Hurley lifted a corner of his poncho to reveal he was holding a small black kitten that snuggled warmly and happily against him. “Isn’t he cute?”
“We found him just now in the alley behind the pub!” Peggy added. “The poor thing was digging in the garbage! He saw us and came trotting right out to beg for food! He’s so sweet! He can’t be more than three months old. Listen! He started purring the moment Hurley picked him up!”
“Aww,” Parker managed. Both Peggy and Hurley missed the looks on the others’ faces.
“I’m going to adopt him,” Hurley continued.
Peggy nodded. “Between the two of us we’ll now have nine cats!”
“Wow,” said Sophie.
“Have you got any meat scraps or any extra milk we could give him?”
The crew turned to look at Eliot. “Sure!” he said. They had never seen a smile so forced. “There should be something in the kitchen!” He left very quickly.
Hurley handed the kitten to Peggy and pulled Nate aside. “Actually, our coming by tonight wasn’t a coincidence,” he murmured. “I wanted to surprise Peggy and see if you and Marge wanted to come on a double date with us. I got tickets to that fancy gala for the Monet exhibit opening at the art museum next weekend!”
“Um, Hurley…” Nate began.
Sophie perked up and joined them. “Monet? That sounds wonderful! Thanks, Hurley! Of course we’ll come!”
Meanwhile, Hardison had gone back to his robot repairs, and Peggy was still cooing over the little black kitten with Parker.
“So, what should his name be?” Peggy asked.
Parker thought for a moment, then said, “I have the perfect thing.”
“What?” Peggy looked at her quizzically.
Parker smiled. “Steranko.”