“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“The guy in the bar told us this is where they’d make contact.”
James peered into the dark alleyway and moved cautiously down it. His brother Nathan followed, looking behind them.
“I know that’s what he told us,” Nathan said. “I’m just wondering if ‘go to this pitch black alley and you’ll meet the A-Team’ is code for ‘you bumpkins go wait in the dark and I’ll be along later with some friends to beat the crap out of you and steal all your money’.”
“Who are you calling a bumpkin?”
James tripped on something and Nathan grabbed his arm to stop him falling. A horrible smell of rotting vegetables wafted up at the brothers. Noises came from the stinking depths of the alley.
“Is someone there?” James called. No answer came. Nathan still clung to his arm and was probably one scary noise away from holding his hand. James wasn’t sure he’d mind. “Probably just a cat.”
“Or rats, or raccoons, or a rabid dog, or a coyote, or a mountain lion.” Nathan ran out of possible wildlife that might be infesting the alleyway, at least some of it unlikely in the middle of LA.
“As long as it’s not snakes, I can live with it.”
“It could be snakes. The sharp-tailed snake, or the California king snake, or the gopher snake, though that’s not active at night much.”
“Shut up about snakes. How do you know so much about snakes anyway?”
Nathan shrugged. “I read stuff.”
He read anything and everything, James knew. His little brother, the bookworm. They were deep in the dark alley now. No lights came from the buildings on either side, and only the full moon allowed them to see anything at all.
“So what now?” Nathan asked. James shrugged this time.
They waited. After about ten minutes Nathan handed James half of a rather soft candy bar, and they stood in nervous silence eating the chocolate.
James and Nathan Kerry waited for the A-Team.
They waited all night. Nobody came. No A-Team came to make contact. Nobody from the bar came to beat them up and steal their money. James began to question if they were going about this in the right way, but they didn’t know what else to do.
They’d hung around bars where war vets gathered, usually the youngest men in there by far, James barely thirty and Nathan three years younger. But they’d thought they were making progress last night. A man they’d asked about the A-Team said he might be able to contact them, but of course the team were fugitives, so they had to be cautious. Go to this particular alleyway, at 2am…
Now they sat in a nearby diner, the smell of that alley still clinging to their clothes and gloomily gave their breakfast orders to a waiter who, in James’s opinion, was smiling far too much for this time of the morning.
“Well, that was a bust,” Nathan said. He sighed. “I guess we try again tonight. Maybe see if we can find that guy again.”
“I guess,” James said. “But we’ve been here a week now, and I don’t like being away from the farm so long. It’s not fair on the help. If Henderson comes looking for trouble again, we should be there.”
“You could go home,” Nathan suggested. “I’ll stay and see if I can find the A-Team.”
James snorted. “Yeah, that’ll work. You’re a country bumpkin and a science nerd. You’ll do great messing with the LA underworld.”
“And you’re a country bumpkin turned real estate agent.”
He broke off as the waiter brought back their orders and topped up their coffee.
“So what now?” Nathan asked as they ate their breakfasts.
“Maybe we should contact that reporter who writes all the stories about them -Amy Allen – see if she can put us in touch.”
“Yeah, because I’m sure the Army has never tried that.”
James sighed. “Yeah, the Army. I still wonder if we should be messing with this at all. They’re fugitives from the military. War criminals.”
“Does that matter?” Nathan said.
“It would have mattered to Mom and Dad. Especially Dad.”
“Yeah, well, Mom and Dad aren’t here,” Nathan said. “If they were, we wouldn’t be here looking for the…” His voice dropped lower, “the A-Team, would we? And it’s not like they massacred a village or something. They robbed a bank. And they said they did that under orders.”
“Well they would say that.”
Nathan just shrugged and went on eating. James had read all he could find about the whole A-Team case, and still couldn’t decide if the men were guilty or not of the crime the Army accused them of. But they seemed to be good guys, if the stories Amy Allen wrote about them were anything to go by. Even if they’d done something wrong in the past, now they helped people out. James had decided he could live with that.
Their father might have disapproved. A man of rigid moral character, who’d left the military with a spotless record of honourable service. But like Nathan said, with so much pain still in his voice, Dad and Mom weren’t here.
They finished their breakfast agreeing to head back to their motel to get some rest and consider the next move. Nathan went to the bathroom, while James took out his wallet to pay the check.
He frowned at the check. The breakfasts were itemised, the total bill at the bottom, and something else. James stared. An address. For a moment he looked around the diner, wild eyed, then hurried to the counter to speak to the manager.
“Excuse me, but where’s the guy who waited on us? Tall, blond guy.”
The manager scowled. “That’s what I’d like to know. You call the agency for someone to cover an eight-hour shift and he slips off after two.”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I? You ready to settle that?”
James slapped cash on the counter, and hurried into the bathroom, to find Nathan trying to wash some egg yolk out of his Daffy Duck t-shirt.
“Stop messing around and come on.” James held up the check with the address on it. He grinned. “The A-Team made contact.”
“Are you sure this is the right place?”
James checked again, looking at the address on the diner bill and the number above the door in front of them.
“Yes, it’s the right one.”
“But, it’s a beauty parlour.”
“Well, it’s the only lead we have.” James pushed open the door. A bell jangled above his head.
“And what do we do?” Nathan asked quietly, as they approached the reception desk. “Ask for the A-Team?”
“Of course not. We just… well, I guess we wait here to be contacted.”
“Wait? This isn’t a public library. They won’t let us sit here and read the magazines, you know.”
“I know.” A young woman in a pink smock that matched her lipstick came to the desk. James smiled his best salesman smile at her. “Hi. My brother here needs a haircut.”
“I do not!” Nathan protested, despite much evidence to the contrary.
“Well,” James said, “Maybe instead, you could have something waxed.”
Nathan paled. “Ah, yes, I could use a trim.”
“I can’t believe you got a manicure.”
“What, you never heard of men having manicures before,” James asked.
“Well, some men, yeah.” Nathan smirked.
“The same type of men who get facials, huh?”
They’d been there nearly two hours now. Both had fresh haircuts, had drunk several cups of coffee, and taken various other services offered here, to extend their stay. So far, no sign of the A-Team and the all-female staff and customers were starting to give them very strange looks.
When a man came in the back door, pushing a small laundry cart, James felt like an explorer in strange and alien lands meeting one of his own countrymen at last. He resisted the urge to accost the man and talk about football and cars in an effort to reassert the masculinity threatened by his fresh manicure.
“Morning, ladies,” the gnarled old laundryman said. “Got your towels for you.”
“What happened to Charlie?” One of the hairdressers asked, as she signed his clipboard.
“Day off,” the towel man said. He collected another cart, of dirty towels and headed for the back door again. On the way, he noticed the brothers for the first time. He chuckled.
“You fellas look as if you could use the services of a laundry too.”
James winced. After the night in the alley, they were a little rumpled. They should have gone back to the motel to change before coming over here, but they’d been too excited.
“Here,” the man said, digging a card out of his pocket. “Case you need it. Ask for Mr Lee.”
James took the card, with a nod, though he didn’t think they’d have the time to go messing around with laundries. He put it in his pocket.
“Don’t be late,” the laundryman called as the back door closed behind him.
“Late for what?” Nathan said, frowning at the cryptic instruction.
“I don’t know.” Then James thought of the waiter. He thought of the address written on the check. The message that had brought them here.
Slowly, almost afraid to look, afraid to be wrong, he took the card back out of his pocket. It was a perfectly ordinary business card, advertising Mr Lee’s laundry, with an address, a phone number, and opening times. But when James turned it over, he saw the handwritten note on the back.
“What,” Nathan said, seeing his smile. “What did I miss now?”
“We’ve got an appointment. Come on, let’s get out of here. We’re pretty enough.”
At three-fifteen on the dot, James and Nathan walked into Mr Lee’s laundry. A Chinese man sat behind the counter, reading the sports section of the LA Courier Express.
“Mr Lee?” James asked.
“I’m Mr Lee, yes. You have something to wash?” He frowned at the empty-handed brothers.
“No. We, um, were told to come here. A man gave us your card and –”
“We’re looking for the A-Team,” Nathan said. James scowled at him. “What? Look, we can’t keep screwing around; we don’t have the time.”
“Time,” Mr Lee said. “A man must always make time.”
“You see, he agrees with me. Sir, we’re trying to find the A-Team. Can you help us?”
“The A-Team? You think I know these men? These criminals? You are police officers, yes? Or G-men?”
“No!” James protested. “No, we’re not police officers, or FBI, or Army. We just need some help and we want to hire the A-Team.” Nathan was right. No time to screw around any more. Maybe this was another dead end, or maybe not. “My name is James Kerry, and this is my brother Nathan. We own a dairy farm in Montana. We inherited it about a year ago after our parents died in a car accident.”
Nathan snorted, but James ignored that, didn’t want to get into the argument about that now. If Henderson was responsible for the accident… Well, perhaps the A-Team could help them figure that out too.
“The business is a farm and dairy combined and we employ nearly thirty people. But a neighbouring cattle rancher wants to buy the property, and he’s not taking no for an answer. We think he’s intimidating our workers, sabotaging equipment. We think he even hijacked one of our trucks, destroyed the load, and threatened the driver.”
“I think you should go to the police,” Mr Lee said.
“We have, but they say there’s not enough evidence.”
“Plus they don’t like us,” Nathan said.
“Nate, stop being paranoid.”
“They don’t. We grew up there, Mr Lee, but both of us went off to college and have been working elsewhere. Some of the local people think we’re not proper locals any more.”
“Ah,” Mr Lee said. “They think you went off and got education and now you know better than they do.”
“That’s right,” Nathan said, nodding.
“Nathan, you do think you know better than they do,” James pointed out.
“Well, that’s as may be, but we could have just sold out. We could have laid off the workers and let Henderson have the place, but we didn’t, did we? We came home to keep the business going, keep those people in jobs, because that’s what Mom and Dad would have wanted!” His voice rose and he flushed.
“You said you only came home because it’s darker in Montana than in San Francisco.” James said, with a gently teasing tone.
Nathan shook his head, calming. He shrugged. “I say a lot of things.”
“Darker in Montana?” Mr Lee said. “You like darkness, Mr Kerry?”
“My brother likes to look at the stars,” James said.
Mr Lee smiled, showing rather bad teeth. “You come to right place to see stars. Go to Hollywood, see many stars there.”
Nathan laughed. “I’m sure. But he means I’m an astronomer.”
“Ah!” Mr Lee nodded. “Chinese people very famous astrologers.”
“Mr Lee,” James said, jumping in quick, before Nathan reacted to the word ‘astrologers’. “We know it’s expensive to hire the A-Team. But we have money, the life insurance from our parents’ accident. We were going to use it to upgrade the equipment in the dairy. But well, that’s not much use if we lose the business. So we’re prepared to use it to hire the A-Team.”
“Can you help us?” Nathan asked.
Mr Lee looked serious. “All I can do is tell you a place to go.” He tore a piece off his newspaper, took a stubby pencil from behind his ear, licked the point and started writing on the paper. “Go there tonight, at ten o’clock.”
“The A-Team will contact us there?” James asked.
“Perhaps. I cannot tell the future.” Mr Lee smiled at Nathan. “Perhaps it is in stars.”
“What time is it now?” Nathan asked.
“You have a watch.”
“You have a better watch.”
James sighed. “It’s ten thirty.” He nodded at Nathan’s wrist. “I’m sure Mickey agrees with me.”
“They’re not coming are they? Not with that cop sitting there. And he’s looking at us funny by the way.”
The cop in question sat in a police cruiser, watching the night time crowds on the boardwalk.
“Let’s walk up and down a bit,” James suggested. “Instead of loitering with intent.”
They strolled up the boardwalk a short distance. A small knot of people gathered ahead and when they got closer, James saw a man with a folding chair and a telescope on a tripod. A handwritten sign stood beside the chair.
‘The wonders of the universe. 50c.’
A teenage boy was looking through the telescope. The man in charge, a professorial looking man in his fifties, with suspiciously jet-black hair, heavy glasses and a pipe, spoke to the boy.
“See that circular dark patch, near the edge, top right. That’s the famous Sea of Tranquillity, where Apollo 11 landed.”
James heard Nathan click his tongue. Oh, not now, he thought.
“Actually,” Nathan said, “That’s the Sea of Storms you’re pointing him at. The Sea of Tranquillity is to the right of that and down a little.” The kid at the telescope looked up at him and Nathan bent down, looked through it and adjusted the focus. “There, try it now. See, it’s more irregular shaped, not as circular as the Sea of Storms.”
The kid looked through the telescope again. “Cool.”
“Ahem,” the telescope’s owner said. “And what do you know about it, young man?”
Nathan shrugged. “Picked up a few things here and there.”
Like a Master’s degree, James thought. As Nathan talked to the kid about the moon, and fielded questions from the small crowd, James’s attention wandered. He’d heard it all before, Nathan had gazed into the vast sky over their family farm in Montana since he was a little boy. When he grew up, he’d followed the stars to Berkley and been there ever since, studying, teaching… until the accident.
He sighed. Don’t think about that. Just think about the A-Team. They had to show up. They had to help. And astronomy lectures weren’t going to help.
“Nate,” he called. “Come on.” Nathan looked around as if recollecting that he wasn’t in a lecture theatre, and nodded to James. He smiled to the now very grumpy looking telescope owner and nodded at the instrument. “Nice glass.”
“You can never just leave it can you?” James said as they walked off.
“He was talking to a kid.”
“God forbid one kid got the Sea of Storms and the Sea of Tranquillity mixed up.”
“It’s the moon. It was my thesis. I can’t let it pass.”
They strolled on and then turned back to stroll the other way. Telescope man was packing up now. The small crowd had evaporated. The cop in the cruiser was still watching.
“What time is it?” Nathan asked.