The shotgun barrels looked huge, wide as train tunnels. Face couldn’t possibly draw before Jeb fired.
“Dad,” Eric called. “Don’t do anything dumb. He can’t go to the cops, he’s a fugitive. I’ve explained to him. He was just about to leave.”
Face glanced back at him, saw the pleading look in his eyes, pleading with Face to just go.
“That’s right,” Face said, turning back to Jeb. “Eric explained the situation. I understand, and I really need to go now.”
“Our secret’s safe with you, right, Mr Peck?”
“Peck?” Jeb said. “So, you’re a liar and a burglar?”
“Yes.” Face started to edge away from the door, towards Jeb. “I’m a criminal and nobody would listen to me if I did report you. So how about I just get out of here and we all forget this ever happened?” He tried the smile, the weapon that got him out of most kinds of trouble.
Not this time.
“No, I can’t risk –”
Face didn’t let Jeb finish, he’d heard quite enough. Rushing at the man, he shoved the shotgun up to point at the ceiling. Jeb’s finger must have jerked on the triggers and both barrels fired.
Unspeakable noise, like a bomb going off. Plaster rained down on them both. Eric started yelling. Somewhere else in the house, Emily screamed. Face, deafened by the blast and half-blinded by plaster, choking on it, ran. He took the narrow steps from the attic in two big jumps.
Down, like that ton of bricks. At one point he passed a ghostly shape, Emily. She screamed again and ran back into the bedroom. Down. Down. The shotgun roared again and Face ducked, missed his footing on the last step onto a landing and fell. A window he had just passed shattered. Somehow, he righted himself as he rolled from the landing onto the stairs, kept running.
Down. Down. Down.
Last flight. He hit the ground floor and dithered for a second, not sure whether to run straight at the front door and try to break it down. But if he did and failed, he’d have to come back up the passage to the kitchen door, and Jeb might catch up before he made it.
He made the choice. Kitchen. And that flimsy door he’d already unlocked. Jeb’s feet clattered down the stairs as Face ran into the kitchen and hurtled out of the door, sending it smashing back against the wall.
Make for the trees. Can’t spot you in the trees. Get past there, then use the darkness in that field, find cover, a drainage ditch anything.
Shit! Pain stung his leg at the same moment he heard the shotgun blast. He stumbled a moment, but kept his feet. Keep moving. That was a couple of balls of shot, nothing more. Move. Move. Move.
He moved. Ran and eventually crawled, using the long grass as cover, heard Jeb crashing about. Heard Emily yelling from the house. And another voice, faintly, Eric calling from his window.
“Dad! Dad! Dad!”
Calling for his jailer. Face kept going, commando crawled fast through the grass as the sounds faded behind him, as he left his pursuer behind. Perhaps Jeb thought he’d stayed in the trees, taking cover there, perhaps even climbing one. Face had felt the temptation to do so when he’d passed them, but had resisted the monkey brain instinct to climb out of danger. That wasn’t a lion after him. Lions didn’t carry double-barrelled shotguns.
No, he had to make it to the car. Put some distance between him and that madhouse. Eric thought he avoided the madhouse by having his parents lock him in the attic. He couldn’t see that just turned his own home into the very thing he wanted to escape.
And when Face got to the car, what then? Did he go back to LA? Did he go away and try to forget this happened? Or did he go to the sheriff?
Eric actually said himself he wanted it this way. Since when was it Face’s job to decide what was best for other people? Weird situation for sure, but the world had many weird situations. And if Face went to the sheriff, well, how soon before Eric was free and Face was the one locked up?
Jeb’s voice, distant, heard as the wind shifted, yelling. Face froze for a moment, but then went on, grass and dirt joining the oil and sweat ruining his clothes. His mind still nagged him.
It’s not right. He may say it’s his idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best idea. His parents shouldn’t have gone along with it. They might say they’re doing it for him, but Face didn’t believe that they didn’t have at least some of that small town shame that they had a crazy son. That they didn’t find this more… socially acceptable than having to admit their son was in prison or a mental hospital. Eric gave them a way to avoid that and they took it.
They should have insisted it was wrong, should have insisted he got treatment, even if it did have to be in a hospital. If someone is ill – and coming up with an idea like “lock me in the attic!” is a good indicator they are – then you should get them medical help, not just… just feed their disease.
And playing along with Murdock is different how? Playing along with his delusion of the week isn’t feeding his disease?
No, there is a difference. Murdock is getting treatment. Face stopped for a moment, looked back towards the house, couldn’t see it in the dark.
It’s not right. If Eric had treatment, maybe he could get better, live a normal life. That’s not going to happen while he’s locked in there. He’ll end up worse. His madness will just burrow deeper and deeper. Maybe it’s already too late. What if Face brought the sheriff, they took him to hospital, and he never got out? He spent the rest of his life in a place he already knows he hates?
How long ago had Eric been in hospital though? It could be a long time back, and maybe a bad hospital. There were better places now, better treatments. He might not even need to stay long. With the right drugs, he could be an outpatient.
A skittering in the grass, some small animal, startled Face for a moment before he moved on again. Silence now from behind, no voices, no sound of movement.
What if Eric is violent though? He said he scared some people when he was out. Did stuff. What if it was worse than that?
And I’m not his doctor. I can’t judge that.
Speaking of judging… Jeb and Emily. They’d go to jail for this. Well, maybe a good lawyer would keep Emily from going to jail, but not Jeb. And he shouldn’t go to jail? Stabbing pain in Face’s leg reminded him that Jeb had just tried to kill him. But still, people tried to kill Face on a regular basis, he could let that pass.
Anyway, Face was a strange man in Jeb’s house. A known criminal who broke in. Face smiled, wry and resigned. Probably get off with a warning even if he had blown me away. So forget that. But locking his son in the attic? That was a whole other thing.
At last, Face reached the fence between the field and the road. He climbed over that, trudged a hundred yards uphill to the Corvette, ghostly white in the moonlight. Thanking heaven he hadn’t lost his car keys, he opened the door and collapsed into the driver’s seat. His watch told him it was one-thirty. Hannibal’s Halloween party was an all-nighter. Face could be back to LA, in an hour, walk in there and not get a second glance, the state he was in now.
Face put his head in his hands. He couldn’t stay here all night. He had to make a choice. Eric preferred to be at home, rather than the hospital, did Face have the right to make the judgement that he was wrong? He looked up. Yeah. He did. Because Face wasn’t crazy. Eric was. He couldn’t judge what was best for himself. That’s part of the whole definition of crazy after all.
And one question lurked in the back of Face’s mind, the decisive one. The answer to that one would tell him what he had to do. He spoke it aloud into the darkness.
“What if that was Murdock?”
What if the team came up with some dumb idea to keep Murdock chained up, because they all decided they could give him a more comfortable life than the VA could? And what if someone happened by and found out about it? Would he want them to get Murdock the hell out of there, even if he claimed he didn’t want to go?
Sometimes you had to rely on the people on the outside. Maybe they didn’t have all the details, but they had the distance, the big picture, enough to look at it and decide. Decide: this is wrong.
Face sat up straight in his seat and put the Corvette in gear. He turned to drive back into town.
“Mr Frey, I’m sure you have this all wrong.”
The sheriff, Matheson, glanced at Face from the driver’s seat of his car. Face was now Lance Frey, an ID he’d been carrying in the glove box of the Corvette. He’d hidden the car, too flashy, too noticeable, walked the last mile into town and rousted the Sheriff from his bed. Now they were in Matheson’s car and driving out to the Rushbrook’s place. Face hadn’t attempted to clean himself up, since the dirt and plaster dust covering his face and hair helped obscure his identity quite nicely.
“I know Jeb and Emily Rushbrook, they’re respectable people. And last I heard their boy was living in Pittsburgh.”
“Yeah, well he’s home. Believe me, he’s home.”
“What you’re suggesting, it’s ridiculous. I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” Matheson gave Face a narrow look. “You sure you haven’t been drinking? You look like you’ve been to a Halloween party. It that some sort of costume you’re wearing? You meant to be a zombie?”
“Party!” Face gave a bitter laugh. “That’s where I should be! That’s where I was heading!” The reaction to it all started to hit him and his anger surged. “Should have kept on going!”
“Yeah, maybe you should.”
“What?” Face looked up, confused as the car slowed, pulled in to the side of the road. He looked back at Matheson, who turned off the engine, put on the parking brake. Then he turned to Face, pointing his gun.
“You really should have kept on going, Mr Peck.”
“Oh for crying out loud!”
It came back to Face then, something Eric said, about the time he’d escaped, before they started using the shackle. “When I was brought back,” he’d said. Who the hell do you think brought him back, dummy?
“Jeb and Emily are good people, Mr Peck. They’re just trying to do the best thing for their boy. It’s better that he’s home, with his family than in the state hospital, or in prison.”
“Better for who exactly?”
“We don’t need outsiders coming into our town and telling us what’s right and wrong. Especially not thieves and liars.”
“I hate small towns,” Face moaned. “You know, if you turn me over to the military I’ll just pass this story along to them.”
“I do believe your wanted status is ‘dead or alive’.”
Face went still. He wore his gun under his jacket, but had no chance of reaching it before the Sheriff could shoot him.
“You’re going to shoot me, here in your car? Make an awful mess.”
“Needs cleaned any –”
Same trick twice, Face thought. He attacked even while Matheson was speaking, going for the gun, faster than the man could deal with, trying to get the gun away from him. And like before, it went off, blasting a hole in the windshield. A revolver, so Face had a second while he got it cocked again.
He swung. Hard to get much momentum in the confined space, but still the blow to his jaw knocked Matheson back in his seat. His arm fell, he dropped his gun. Damn, it went down the side of his seat, out of sight.
Face had no time to try to find it. He reached for the passenger door, and fell out onto the road. Scrambling away, he unzipped his jacket to get at his own pistol, got to his feet and ran. Off the road, onto to the grass verge, and then he stumbled as the ground fell away beneath his feet.
A ditch. Great, go with it. He fell down into the ditch, his feet splashing into water at the bottom. Fine. Some green slime would put the finishing touch to his Halloween ensemble.
Move or keep still? Water splashing would be a giveaway. But to stay in the same spot he jumped down into would be dumb. The Sheriff, who Face could hear running on the road now, could just start firing blind. Face would have to be unlucky to actually be hit, but he wasn’t trusting his luck this night.
Move which way? He hadn’t a clue which direction his car lay in, doubted he’d figure that out until daylight. Never mind. He reached down, wincing in disgust at he grabbed at slimy and wriggling things, but came out with a handful of stones. He lobbed one over-arm along the ditch and the splash sent Matheson’s footsteps hurrying in that direction. A couple more stones that way, then Face started moving in the other direction, going slow, fearing the noise if he fell. He still held his gun, but shooting the Sheriff really wasn’t an option and he knew it.
Just get away, escape, find the car, and get back to LA. Go back and get help from the only people you can actually trust.
The A-Team van moved slowly up the narrow track that led from the road to the Rushbrook’s farmhouse. It drove around the house to stop outside the kitchen door.
Face stepped out first. Limping a little, he headed straight for the kitchen door. Hannibal’s voice stopped him before he reached it.
“Slow down there, Face. Let’s be careful.”
Face looked back as the other three member of the team came up behind him. Hannibal and Murdock both looked tired, since Face had woken them when they’d only barely gone to bed after the party.
After he babbled out his story, they patched him up, cleaned up him, gave him food, and made him tell the story again, slower this time. Then they had all gone to fetch BA and the van and headed out here.
The low afternoon sun cast long shadows of trees against the house and Face looked at the place and knew suddenly that they were too late.
Once again, he picked the lock on the kitchen door and stepped inside.
Empty. The room that had been a warm, welcoming, living space yesterday stood stripped of everything but the two tables. Murdock walked past Face and opened a few cupboard doors at random. Empty. Cleaned out.
“Let’s check the attic,” Hannibal said.
They climbed the stairs, cautious, ready for a trap, but reached the top floor without incident. The sturdy door with its serious locks stood open. Eric’s room was bare. The furniture remained, but the bed was stripped. The TV, the telescope, the books, all gone. Face walked over to the bracket in the floor, the one the shackle had been attached to. Hannibal followed him, bent down and pulled on it.
“Solid,” he said. Bolts sunk into the floorboards, probably into a joist, held the bracket in place. Face looked over to see BA looking up at the ceiling of the corridor outside the room, the damaged plaster, shot embedded in it. They’d seen more evidence of shotgun damage on the way up here, including the broken window.
“Fast work,” Hannibal said. “Kind of thing you’d need a bunch of helping hands for.”
Face nodded, depressed. “Yeah, whole townful of helping hands.”
“Do we go talk to that sheriff?” BA asked. “I got a coupla things I’d like to say to him.”
“Not in daylight,” Hannibal said. “And we’d better reconnoitre the place first. He could have the MPs in for backup, in case we show up. But yeah, I think I’d like to drop in on him tonight, have a little chat.” He smiled a grim and evil smile.
Murdock was wandering around the attic room, looking at the bars on the windows, looking at the tiny bathroom setup.
“Bet if we went into town and asked, people would say these folks moved out years ago.” Murdock said. “Ooh, maybe they did… It was Halloween after all. Maybe they weren’t even here, Face. Maybe they were ghosts.”
“Fool,” BA muttered.
“Tell that to my leg,” Face said, still feeling the pain of the pieces of shot that Hannibal had tweezered out of there this morning. “Not to mention my clothes.”
“No,” Hannibal said, looking down again at the bracket in the floor. “No, it went down just as Face says it did.” They all fell silent for a while, and then Hannibal spoke again. “You did the right thing, Face.”
“Yeah. Not your fault it didn’t work out,” BA said. “Colonel’s right. You did the right thing.” He turned to head out of the room and Hannibal followed. Face and Murdock remained.
“Murdock?” Face asked. “Did I do the right thing? I mean, in the end, they just wanted to stay together. Is that so terrible?”
Murdock looked around. “Comfy room. Three meals a day. Nice.”
He walked to the window and pulled at the bars, which didn’t give at all. He turned to Face.
“But you did the right thing.” He walked out of the room then, leaving Face alone. Not alone, he realised a moment later, as the smell of tobacco smoke made him look around to see Hannibal in the doorway.
Face gave a weak smile. Here, in the sunlight that streamed from the window, it all seemed unreal. A dream. He walked to the window. Even the blind was gone.
“Maybe Murdock’s right.” Face said. “Maybe they were ghosts.”
Hannibal came into the room and stood by Face at the window. He took out his cigar and breathed out a wraith of smoke.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts. They’re just something we tell stories about on Halloween, something to distract us from the really frightening things in the world.” He gazed out of the window. “He was real. And he’s still a prisoner. Somewhere.”