A short story that fits before the start of the A-Team story The Wrong Side
“Okay, Kahil,” Hannibal said. “The short obstacle course was a piece of cake for you. This should be more of a challenge.”
“Looking forward to it, Colonel.” Jahni rested a hand on Murdock’s shoulder to balance himself on one leg for a quad stretch, wobbling when Murdock moved away, completing his own warm up.
Hannibal, sitting on a dirt bike, its engine idling, looked away down the path that led onto the assault course. “That rain last night has given us plenty of mud, so I want the pair of you good and dirty by the end.”
“Well, I was looking forward to it.” Jahni grimaced. “Can’t I test the skid pan or shooting range instead?”
“Oh, hush,” Murdock said. “You saw plenty of mud doing Selection. You tell me about it often enough.”
“Murdock will show you the route. This isn’t a race because…” Hannibal snorted. “Well obviously.”
“What if I promised not to beat the youngster by too much?” Murdock said, grinning. Jahni raised a hand to give him a playful shove, but decided against it, contenting himself with an eye-roll instead.
Hannibal revved his bike. “I’ll see you at the other end,” he called over the noise of the engine, and roared away. Jahni and Murdock ran. A nice straight run at first, on firm, even ground, just to get warmed up.
“Easy stuff first,” Murdock said. “Here we go.” They started with tyres laid flat on the ground, easy as long as you didn’t end up flat on your face. Neither of them did. A narrow plank over a stream next, barely as wide as a man’s foot, to test balance. Again easy. They jogged on along the path to the next hazard. Another stream, but no bridge this time, forcing them to wade through the shallow water. It only came up to their knees, but was heavy with silt and the mud clung to their pants and filled their boots when they climbed out the other side.
“Why aren’t Face and BA joining us?” Jahni asked, as they squelched on. “Are their feet still too bad?”
“Ah, yes, kinda that.”
They approached a patch of trees thicker than most of the sparse vegetation on the centre’s property. Under their shade the air cooled, the bright afternoon sunshine cut off. A narrow, uneven path, slippery after the night’s rain, wound between the trees.
“Kinda that,” Murdock repeated. “Also – down!”
He tackled Jahni, dragging him to the ground, then rolled off him and lay flat as a burst of automatic fire rattled from their left. Heart suddenly pounding, Jahni instinctively reached for his sidearm – which wasn’t there – and then saw Murdock’s grin.
“Also, because they’re going to be ambushing us here and there,” Murdock said.
“Ambush? Nobody said anything about ambushes!”
“Ambushes don’t work if you send out invitations ahead of time.” Another burst of gunfire made them flinch down again. Bushes and trees on the other side of the track shattered.
“They’re using live ammo!”
“Well, yeah. What are we, Boy Scouts? Don’t worry, they’re really good at missing. Hey, consider yourself lucky I’m taking you round the course.” He grinned manically. “If I was ambushing you it would be from above.” The distinctive sound of BA’s giggle came from some place in the trees and then the roar of what sounded like a motorcycle. “Okay, let’s go,” Murdock said and they scrambled up, both covered in mud.
And Jahni suspected that was just the start.
He was right. They’d finished the easy part of the course, and it became as challenging as any assault course Jahni had run before. Plenty of climbing and swinging – his hands were soon raw from rope burns. And even more mud. The team must have had a small excavator up here to dig out several new streams.
One of the larger streams had ductwork tubes laid in it to crawl through. Some were buried deep enough to be filled to the top with water, forcing Jahni to duck his head and go through several yards blind, using a knotted rope to guide him in the right direction. He broke the surface pulling in a big grateful gasp. Murdock, who’d gone through first, waited for him on the bank and Jahni scrambled up to join him, slipping and sliding all the way.
“Nice swim?” Murdock asked with a grin. Jahni shot him a dirty look. “Good. Zip line next. Help you dry off. Of course, you’ve got to climb up to it first.”
Murdock led the way, as they jogged on, water spraying from their clothes and hair, to a tall tree with iron rungs driven into its trunk.
Jahni craned his neck to look up at the tiny platform far above. “Oh, lovely.” But he smiled, thinking of Zaire and their escape from a crashed helicopter high in the jungle canopy. “You, me, and trees, eh, Murdock?”
“Balances it out.” Murdock gestured at Jahni to start his ascent first. “Last time we climbed down a tree that we didn’t climb up. This time it’s the other way around. ”
When he reached the platform, that frankly now looked even smaller, Jahni turned back to help Murdock onto it, and they manoeuvred carefully in the small space. Murdock felt surprisingly tense when Jahni took his arms, moving past him to one of the two zip lines. He couldn’t be scared of heights, surely? Unless he was only scared of them when he wasn’t in a plane.
“We’ll probably have to have safety harnesses for the clients,” Murdock said. “Because of insurance. But I’m sure you don’t want anything sissy like that.”
“Be a bit late to ask if I did.” Jahni grabbed the leather strap over one of the ropes, putting his hands through the loops on each end.
“BA’s tested this, so it’ll hold your weight.” Murdock’s reassuring words sounded hollow as Jahni looked down at the alarming mass of thorny bushes below them. They might cushion a fall, but they’d prick you to death instead. “And I gotta admit – this is my favourite.” He pushed off the platform with a howl, sending birds in the surrounding trees scattering noisily into the sky.
Jahni was only a second behind him, the leather dragging on his wrists when he took his bodyweight on the strap. But he forgot that in the exhilaration of the slide, yelling as loud as Murdock. The wind whipped his hair and clothes as he plummeted down the line and, too soon, his feet touched the ground running. He tried to pull up, but couldn’t manage to stop before he crashed into a couple of big gym mats set upright and roped to trees.
Murdock lay on the ground by the mats, panting. Jahni flopped down too, getting his breath back, panting from the climb and the adrenaline rush of the slide. He laughed when he saw the muddy, man-shaped smudge he’d left on the crash mat.
“Enjoy the ride?” Murdock asked.
“Can we go back and do it again?”
“I could do it all day. But Hannibal would have our butts.” He sat up. “Come on, soldier, break’s over, move it.”
“Have I mentioned that I outrank you now?” Jahni asked, sitting up.
“Seventeen times. I’ve been counting.”
“Oh… well in that case –” Another burst of gunfire shut him up and made them both drop flat on the ground again. “You’re really going to do that to the clients?”
“We might use blanks for them.”
“So, you reserve the live ammo for friends? I’m honoured.” He raised his head cautiously. Another burst made him duck it again.
“Just for friends who know how to keep their heads down.” Murdock looked around, getting his bearings. “Okay, follow me.”
“Where? Are we going to dig our way of here?”
“Just stay low.” Murdock began to commando crawl through the long grass and Jahni followed. Ah, so they had to crawl out of this one. Go from flying through the air like a bird to crawling on your belly like a lizard. They made like lizards until they reached the cover of the trees and stood, both now covered not only in mud, but in leaves and general forest floor debris.
Jahni tried to brush some of the mess off. “I want to go back to the desert. It’s cleaner.”
“Compared to how dirty we’ll be after the next part – we’re clean enough for church.”
Tunnels. Real ones, not just plastic ducts. Jahni didn’t fear them caving in, they were well constructed and shored up, but full of stinking, slimy mud, dark and at times low enough to force him onto his belly. The air was thick and choking – the whole thing deeply unpleasant even for a trained man. When he emerged into the light he was even more grateful than when he’d come up from under the water. He turned to haul Murdock out after him.
“That was just horrible,” Jahni said, panting, and trying to wipe mud from his face.
“Tell me about it,” Murdock muttered, pulling his arm away as he got his balance back. “It’s a Hannibal Special.”
“Murdock.” Murdock looked at him when he stopped. “If you get Faris over here, and he runs this course – don’t let him do that part.”
Murdock nodded. “Understood.” He shook his head and gulped a couple of times. He clearly hadn’t enjoyed it much either, also a man for wide open spaces. The desert for Faris, the sky for Murdock.
“Face keeps telling Hannibal that some of this stuff is too harsh. We’re not training our own private army… though that would be pretty cool.” He chuckled. “Wanna join?”
“Do I get to keep my rank?”
“Yes, but I get to be a two star general. Let’s go; we’re almost home.”
There were a couple more hazards, with more mud than the overnight rain could have produced in this generally parched place, making Jahni suspect someone had been out adding extra water early that morning, just for them. But at last they jogged towards the finish line where Hannibal stood beside his motorbike, smoking. Face and BA sat on quad bikes, with rifles on their backs. Face tossed a couple of plastic water bottles to Jahni and Murdock, who drank gratefully.
Hannibal looked at his watch. “You two didn’t exactly smash the course record.” He smirked. “Did you stop for a nap?”
“We were making a careful assessment.” Jahni summoned all the haughtiness that went with his new field officer rank. “Naturally we couldn’t rush.”
“And what’s your conclusion, Major?” Hannibal asked, his own expression serious, but his eyes twinkling.
“That you’re as crazy as I always suspected, Colonel.”
“Found it a little tough did, ya, kid?” He looked delighted.
“Well, for someone who’s done Selection -” Jahni stopped, frowning as the other four men joined in and chorused the end of that sentence. He folded his arms. “Fine, I’ll shut up then.”
“Good,” BA said. “It’s nearly dinner time and I’m tired of this jibber-jabber. Let’s go wash up.”
Hannibal looked at Murdock and Jahni, caked with dirt, leaves and twigs in their hair. With the mud drying on their faces they resembled Golems more than men. “That’s gonna take more than a lick and a promise for these two.”
“You do have the showers set up, don’t you?” Jahni said, nervously.
“Of course, but I think you two need a bit of a pre-wash treatment.” Hannibal bent and picked up something lying at his feet. A fire hose.
“No, wait!” Murdock ducked behind Jahni as Hannibal turned on the hose. Both men howled and clung onto each other to keep from falling while the water blasted them.
“Hannibal! I’ll get you for this!” Murdock yelled. “I’ll drop watermelons on your house in the middle of the night! I’ll airlift your car to the top of Mount Whitney!” But he gave way to laughter, infecting Jahni with the same hilarity after his initial outrage. Hannibal. He was crazy. And compared to most of the assault course, this was just fun.
Well, if the water had been a little warmer it would have been fun.
At last Hannibal turned it off and they stood there, dripping, facing the grins of the other three men. To be fair a lot of the mud was gone.
“Okay, now we hit the showers,” Murdock said, leading Jahni away. “Hot showers. I’ve got mud in places I didn’t know mud could reach. Dinner better be waiting for us!” he yelled back as the rest of the team roared off on their bikes.
It was waiting. Hannibal stood by a barbecue grill, and Face and BA lounged in garden chairs under big, cafe-style parasols, with coolers of beer and soda to hand.
“The kitchen isn’t set up, so we’re roughing it.” Hannibal tossed five huge steaks onto the grill.
Jahni’s idea of roughing it didn’t involve quite so much steak and beer in the evening sunshine but he could get used to it. He took a piece of bread from a plate Hannibal proffered and sat in one of the chairs. Face handed him a beer and he rested the cold bottle against his forearm for a moment and sighed.
“You okay?” Face said.
“I think I took about five layers of skin off in the shower.”
“It’s that damn soap.” Face scowled. Big slabs of evil-smelling carbolic soap had been the only type provided in the showers. “I think Hannibal considers it part of the challenge.”
“People aren’t coming here for a vacation.” Hannibal flipped over a steak. “If they want fancy soap they can go to a hotel.”
That didn’t sound like a joke. In fact, he flashed an annoyed look Face’s way. Were they having some disagreements about their new business venture? Jahni hoped not. They deserved to make a success of it. After what happened to them in Albania, maybe they needed to settle down to a quieter lifestyle.
“It’s a good assault course,” he said, trying to ease that momentary tension. “I’d like to try it again, see how fast I can get round going full out.”
“Sure.” Hannibal looked at the sky. “I think we’ll get more rain tonight, so it will be even more, ah, fun, tomorrow.”
Jahni rubbed the side of his chest, agreeing about the rain. His ribs, long ago healed after stopping a bullet, ached in the damp. Rare at home, so little rain, but he noticed it when he was here.
“Anything you think is missing from it?” Hannibal asked.
“Oh, hail, snow.” Jahni grinned. “Maybe a mad Welsh NCO screaming contradictory orders right in your ear.”
“Well, we have an NCO.” Murdock waved a hand at BA. “And he’s always mad.” BA proved that point with his usual fierce scowl.
“Two outta three ain’t bad,” Face said. “Maybe he can learn a Welsh accent.”
“You know what I really want right now?” Murdock writhed in his chair, obviously still suffering the effects of that harsh soap. “To have someone rub cooling lotion all over me. Think we could offer that as part of the service?”
“Are you volunteering?” Hannibal asked. BA snorted, laughing into the soda he was drinking.
“That does sound nice,” Jahni agreed and when they grinned, added hastily, “Um, the lotion part, not Murdock rubbing it in.” He blushed and BA giggled.
“I think Kahil would prefer a different soldier,” Face said and Jahni almost choked on his bread. Face couldn’t mean… they wouldn’t talk about that, not in that teasing tone, even if they knew something, which they couldn’t possibly…
“Like a certain Australian lieutenant,” Face went on, and winked.
Oh, thank god – Karen! Boneless with relief, Jahni drank more beer to try to cover his confusion and cool the fierce blush that turned his skin from merely pink to bright red.
“You and Karen sneaked away together a few times while we were staying at Faris’ place,” Face said, with a speculative look.
“They make such an adorable couple,” Murdock cooed in an old lady voice.
“I thought you liked Karen, too,” Jahni said to Face, frowning.
“He’s too old for her.” Murdock smirked, but Face didn’t take the bait, just looked smug.
“She didn’t think so,” he said.
“Knock it off,” BA growled. “You embarrassing the kid.”
Though not keen on being called a ‘kid’, Jahni was grateful for BA’s intervention. This kind of banter about women unnerved him. True, he’d managed to spend some time with Karen while Faris had the A-Team staying at his home. He just wasn’t used to talking about it like this.
“It’s good to be here,” he said, keen to change the subject to something more comfortable. “You always make me feel at home.”
And yet it was so different from his home. Fewer rules and restrictions. A man could relax, be himself. He took another drink of the beer – something else he could do without attracting disapproval. It’s not that he wanted to spend his whole time drinking, but he’d like to drink a cold beer after a hard day’s work in the dust and sun, without being made to feel he was committing a sin.
“Mi casa es su casa,” Murdock said, and the others nodded.
“You’re always welcome, kid.” Hannibal carefully studied the steaks as he spoke. “We owe you and all the others. We never forget. Right, sit up to the table, guys. Food’s on.”
They pulled the chairs up to the trestle table. It wasn’t quite big enough for five grown men, and there was much inadvertent elbowing and many threats from BA. Yet even that was relaxing. Jahni’s tension eased with every minute that passed here in California. When the invitation had arrived to test out the facilities at the team’s new training centre, Madari had insisted that Jahni take his accumulated leave and go almost at once. Perhaps he thought Jahni needed a holiday. Perhaps he did.
He’d wanted to check on the team anyway. They’d started to recover when they left Qumar, but had still seemed fragile. Not in a way most people would notice, but Jahni had long experience at spotting carefully masked pain. This new business venture would surely help their confidence return. But what did it mean for the team? That they were no longer soldiers for hire? That those days were gone?
When the food was finished, Hannibal tossed all the plates and cutlery into a crate, cleared off the table and folded it away. The others watched him from their chairs. Surprised to see them leaving him to do all the work, Jahni made to get up to help, but Murdock put a hand on his arm and shook his head. Jahni didn’t argue, just sat back down.
Eventually Hannibal took his own chair and the tall tales started. Tales about cabbage canons and helicopters in a trunk, and MPs thwarted and left in the dust. Jahni had heard many of them before, but he still laughed, as they acquired new twists and embellishments in the telling. The team encouraged him to tell his own tales too, of course, and he tried to make those as funny, but feared he could never match theirs.
But the talk grew more serious as the darkness gathered. Moths fluttered around the lights and they spoke about Army life, its challenges and absurdities. And eventually about combat, the legacy it left on a man’s mind and how he dealt with that.
But were they only talking about war? Or also about Albania, and the trauma that had left? The pain he still saw in them – physical and mental? Concealed yet revealed in a dozen small ways – he’d noticed how Murdock still drew away from being touched.
“War’s changing,” Murdock said, bringing Jahni out of his musing. “Some soldiers don’t even see the enemy. Lots of button pushing.”
“Not for you though, kid?” Hannibal looked at Jahni. “Still get up close and personal in your job.”
“Yes, sir.” Close enough to see the light go out when the enemy died. Close enough to smell his fear and for him to smell yours. That blood-singing, ecstatic fear of battle. He still fought the same way as these men had. Were they telling him their stories to pass on their experience to him, a man whose life they’d touched and changed?
The team hadn’t only brought him here to have a serving soldier test out their equipment. They’d brought him here to go on learning from them about methods and values. His chest swelled with pride to think that they considered him worthy of their wisdom, yet at the same time the burden on his shoulders increased. The team had expectations of him. They thought of him as a man who could make a difference in the world.
They were smiling again now, talking about Spain, the plane hijacking they ended before being arrested by Stockwell.
“I hope you’ve made a careful study of that plan,” Murdock said to Jahni, “in case you ever need to use it.”
“It was a work of genius, even if I say so myself.” Hannibal’s voice was tinged with more than a hint of smugness.
“Naturally the Smith-Santana Barcelona Solution is in my unit’s operations manual,” Jahni said, deadpan. “I’m sure we’ll try it one day.”
“What’s this ‘Smith-Santana’ stuff?” Murdock looked mortally offended. He affected an English accent. “My role was crucial, old chap. Pin-point timing. Staying cool under pressure. Communicating telepathically with the Spanish pilot.”
“Tele-what?” BA, who looked like he’d been dozing, sat up.
Murdock swept his hands back and forth around his head, wiggling his fingers. “Go along. I know what I’m doing. Zero is a good power setting. Go along.”
Hannibal and Face roared with laughter, while BA just grumbled “fool” and went back to dozing. Jahni smiled and sipped his beer again. So different than home and yet like a home. America. It had been a fantasy of his when he was a child. In America you could be who you wanted to be. Of course, back then, he’d wanted to be a super-hero. Now with the pressures of being expected to be at least a hero, he thought more and more about America, or Europe. Places they left you alone to be yourself.
It was fantasy though. He had his duty. He couldn’t run from that. Not and retain his honour. Not and be the kind of man that the team thought he was. They wanted him to fulfil his potential, not waste it to run away to an easier life.
Perhaps one day. Somewhere it rains in the afternoons. Somewhere else and him.
His ribs ached again and he rubbed them. The ache would ease back at home. He glanced around at the obstacle course, barely visible now, the moon and the lights from their little oasis making metal parts glint.
“Who’s run that the fastest?” he asked, nodding at the course. “Anyone I know?”
“Actually, yes,” Murdock said. “Abid Hassan.”
Jahni scowled. The SEAL who’d come with them to Albania? Can’t have the SEALs thinking they were better than the SAS. Or the Turks thinking they were better than the Arabs for that matter.
“Tomorrow morning, first thing. I’m going to set the best time.” Jahni chugged the last of the beer he held, and picked up a soda instead. He settled back in his chair, popping the soda can. ” Did I ever tell you the story of the exploding goat?”